Blue Sky

Meteors, signals, apologies, and that tricky little thing called humanity- four years after the events of Portal II, Wheatley's been handed a second chance, but it's not going to be plain sailing…

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7434133/1/Blue-Sky

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhFy4qZ0ah8

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11. The Oracle

Chell paid out another few yards from the long coil of cable looped, bandolier-style, over her shoulder, trailing off over the grass behind her in the direction of Foxglove's nearest hoof. She glanced across to Garret, who clipped a final couple of wires together in the jumble of tech laid out in the shade of the generator, flipped a few switches, and gave an eager thumbs-up.

Wheatley stared at the thing in front of him. It was a long steel pole nearly as tall as she was, and judging by the speckling of verdigris and the spiderwebs clotted in the clamps and screws along its length, it had probably been sitting propped in a corner in Aaron's stockroom for the better part of four decades, maybe more.

Twisted around with cable, topped off with a jointed swan-neck and a final sturdy clamp, it ended in a thing like a rounded, steel-mesh cocoon, splinted with a cage of wires like a shattered bone. It looked more like an instrument of torture than anything else, and it stuck up out of the haybale they'd dragged out from the barn like a badly-aimed javelin.

He should have been nervous- alright, fine, he was nervous- but the simple truth was that, right now, he just didn't feel like anything could go wrong. Not really. Not today, not here in this sunny field full of people- more and more of them as the word spread- not with her close beside him, now perched on top of the green-grey bulk of the generator and working away at something in her lap with a pair of wire cutters and a determined expression. He felt charmed- unimaginably blessed- and while he was dimly aware that usually these were exactly the kind of circumstances under which the cracks started to show, that pride on his part usually came before the sort of plunge that made Test Shaft 09 look like a bit of a pratfall, there was something different, this time.

He wasn't sure what it was, because he wasn't used to it in the slightest, but he had a suspicion that it- this deep, clear conviction that things weren't going to fall apart any time soon- might just be what people meant when they said they were 'confident' about something.

"Er, quick question, though," he said, out loud, "slight concern, if, um, if I… go ahead and plug in, down here, with everyone watching, there are quite a few people watching right now- aren't they going to think, 'hang on a second, big old wire sticking out the back of his neck, not an attribute generally associated with your average human, um, what's going on here?' You know? Just checking you have thought that through, because I think we got away with it just now, I was all the way up there and I don't think anyone got a proper look at what I was doing, but I wouldn't want to-"

She looked up, then tossed the thing in her lap across to him. Catching it awkwardly with both hands, he found himself holding the same chunky pair of ear-protectors he'd worn at the firing range the previous day. She'd threaded his connector cable securely through the back of the headband, and- at a casual glance- the whole thing didn't look that much different to an ordinary pair of headphones.

"Ahah! Thanks, right, there we go, perfect!" He pulled them on, fumbling for the port in his neck- thankfully, it got easier with practice. "Way ahead of me there, as usual, I was just going to suggest I stand up against the wall the whole time, but... yep, this is much better. How do I look?"

Chell folded her arms around her knees, her bare feet curled on the sloping sunwarmed metal of the generator. She gave him a raised-eyebrows sort of look, fond and amused, and all the comment he needed.

"Right, well, there you go. Plugged in. Annnd... what do I do now, exactly?"

She smiled- her sun-through-panels smile.

"Talk."

Wheatley blinked at the wire-mesh cocoon-thing. Talk? Nothing easier- except for the massive hand that seemed to be crushing his vocal processor, the huge barren tumbleweed-strewn desert in his memory banks where, up until a few seconds ago, the greater part of his vocabulary had been, and the sudden realisation that he had absolutely nothing to say.

He'd bloody well try, though. Trying was his oldest, most ingrained habit, and he couldn't have shut it off even if he'd- well, even if he'd tried.

Besides, she wanted him to do this. He was startled to realise that, while he couldn't discount the possibility that there might be things that he wouldn't do just because she wanted him to do them, just because she might be happy or pleased with him or just glad that they had been done, he couldn't actually bring any of them to mind.

He coughed a couple of times- just for appearance's sake- and started to talk.

"Hello! Aaaah! What was that, who's screami- oh, it's alright, it's alright, it's just this thing. Sorry! Sorry about that, everyone, that was quite loud, a bit painful. Is- is it going to happen again? No? Apparently not, apparently we've got that sorted. Um... wow. Didn't expect- that's- my voice, that is, all, all massively loud and- coming out of that big box thing over there- speaker, actually, that's a speaker, bit of technical jargon there, stop me if I lose anyone- where was I? Oh, right, my voice, that's me- it's actually slightly alarming, to be honest, it's, uh, it's been a while since the last time I heard me all big like that, and last time the circumstances were not what I'd call ideal. That and the fact that the entire town seems to be here now, every single human in the place right here, bit unnerving, to say the least- still! This is alright, isn't it? Apart from the, um, the hellish shrieking noise, that wasn't a brilliant start, but early days, early days, obviously we are still working out the kinks in the whole... what is this we're doing? Sorry? Yeah, you're going to have to speak up, mate, I've got these ear things on. Broadcasting? Right, well, we are still working out the kinks in the whole broadcasting... thing, just trying to make it as- well, as broad as possible, I would imagine. I mean, we don't want to start narrowcasting by accident, or just sort of average-widthcasting, ha, no, we want to turn it straight up to eleven, right out the gate. Cast this baby as broad as possible, that's the plan... "

He looked up, anxiously. He could feel Foxglove's calm, channelling presence at the back of his mind, and it was reassuring to know that she was up there, working away steadily. Even better in his books was the sight of Chell, hanging on to one of the generator's massive pinwheel handles and rocking with silent, helpless laughter. He wasn't sure if it was at him or not, and he hardly cared. When it came to her, the distinction seemed to matter a lot less than it was supposed to.

"Level's good," said Garret, grinning up at him from the tangle of machinery. "Got the wifi set up too- I'm going to ask the guys over in Depot if they're getting this. Keep it up, Wheatley, you're doing great."

"Er- will do, no problem… right, things to talk about, thiiings… Ooh! I know! Tell you what I saw, the other day, in- in someone's garden! Just in passing, not entirely sure whose garden it was, there are a lot of them about round here- little place, yellow windowsills with red bits on-"

"Lars Jenswold," said Chell, who had just about managed to get herself under control. She would never have admitted, even under pain of death, that she was the sort of person who giggled, but giggling was, nevertheless, exactly what she had just found herself doing, and it was harder to stop than it looked. She couldn't believe that she'd been searching so seriously, so logically, for something he could do, and all the while it hadn't even occurred to her to try the one thing she'd known he could do all along, the one thing he never stopped doing. It was hilarious and absurd and just a little sad. It was brilliant.

"Lars- really? That's a name? Oh, well, anyway, tell you what I saw, brace yourselves- only a giant marrow! I, I know what you're thinking, 'pfft, big deal, y'know, big marrow, so what, not exactly show-stopping news there', but I'm telling you, you should see the size of this thing! It's flipping huge! I, I mean, God knows what he's been feeding it, because I have seen some pretty large vegetables in my time but, man alive, this thing is immense. It's like a, a great big green balloon on a stalk. If you're a fan of oversized vegetables, you should definitely get down there and check it out, you will not be disappointed."

"He's talkin' about my marrow," said a small, proud, quavery voice from the back of the crowd, to everyone within earshot.

"Haha, yes, Mr- Mr. Jenswold, I certainly am. In- in fact, in fact, if anyone wants me to talk about anything, got anything they want saying really loudly to everyone out here, or- hang on-"

Wheatley hesitated, then lowered his voice and leaned in Garret's direction, masking the microphone with one splayed hand. "So, just run this past me again. People can hear this… who aren't here?"

"Yep," said Garret. "You're live. We've got signal right across the old county boundaries, and that's just analogue. Digital, we're probably-"

"Hold on, so- well, obviously understand what that means, no issue there, but just… in layman's terms, is what I'm driving at, so we don't sort of alienate anyone not quite as techie as y- us, as us, what you're telling me is that basically, people who aren't actually standing in this field right now can hear what I'm saying?"

"Yep."

"My voice is coming out of people's- radios and things?"

"Sure, if they're tuned in."

Wheatley paused.

"Annd… nobody minds? I can- I can just talk, just go right on with the talking, and nobody's going to have a problem with that?"

"No," said Chell, before Garret had a chance to. Wheatley inferred two things from this single syllable. Firstly, that she was pretty confident- and her confidence was usually as reliable as gravity- that nobody would have a problem. Secondly, that if somebody did have a problem, then she would quite happily have a problem with them. A heavy problem, the sort that usually ended in explosions or frozen rhubarb.

Wheatley felt his face split in another ridiculously big grin. He tugged his ear-protectors extra-straight, took his hand off the microphone, and laced his knuckles together- being boneless, they still failed to make a noise, so he made it for them.

"Crack. Right, then. Let's cast some broads."

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

"Mister blue sky
Please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long
Where did we go wrong?"

The walls of the central chamber were on the move, the slick charcoal-grey panels turning in quick, pulsing swathes, the red lights beneath rising and falling in rhythm with the tinny sound rising from beneath. The radio, a tiny white dome perched on a Storage Cube at one end of the chamber, continued to play. The signal was clear but very slightly metallic, thin and cold, the warm edges of the music worn away in its long filter down through the facility.

The two robots approached the odd little set-up, edging curiously into the small circle cast by the single spotlight above. Orange leaned down and poked gently at the box with the three-clawed muzzle of its portal device, edging backwards as if half-expecting it to grow legs and attack. Blue, generally more direct, reached past Orange's stooped shoulders, picked the radio up and turned it over, making the signal waver as it brought it closer to its wide, interested optic.

"That is not a toy, Blue."

They froze. The walls of the great dome flexed and rotated in a single scarlet wave, casting a rising glow on the huge stalactite shape of cables and machinery as it turned towards them. A claw easily the size of Blue's spherical body, jointed and strung with hissing hydraulics, descended from somewhere in the ceiling and clamped neatly around the radio in its small three-fingered hand.

Blue let go of the radio in a hurry, backed off, and nearly fell over Orange.

"In case you were wondering, Blue, no, this song is not about you. It just happens to mention a colour which I have been using to refer to you, since neither of you have earned enough Science points to merit me calling you by your real names. I'm not saying that it won't happen, I'm just saying that it won't happen for a very, very long time."

The curved white mask angled down towards claw spooled upwards, swinging the little radio towards Her optical plate.

"On the other hand, Orange, there are no songs which refer to you. Oh, unless you count 'Clementine.' It is a song about a person who dies a horrible, horrible death. I would sing it for you, but I just think you would find it far too depressing. Humans like songs about other humans dying horribly. It's probably because they're glad it's not them."

Panels moved, folded over each other, drew back. A high section of wall opened like a cracking egg, revealing a glimpse of the bristling jointed arms clustered behind the panels, flexing upwards and boosting a new structure into seamless position- a monitor at least ten feet high and four feet wide. It crackled and frizzed as a small regiment of arms tipped with glowing spot-welders darted out around it and sealed it into place, showering the robots with a brief downpour of white-blue sparks.

The arms withdrew, and the monitor flickered into life. It displayed a single pouring string of orange code, a sequence of ever-changing numbers tumbling and fixing- one by one, right to left- on a single character.

"Orange, you've done very well. The skills you have gained during this last series of challenges will be invaluable to you in the next test, which will require you to implement everything you have learned so far. I have incorporated the testing element the two of you recovered down there into a special item of equipment. It is a highly sensitive device, and operating it successfully requires accuracy and attention to detail. Naturally, Orange, this will be your job."

Beneath Her calm, angled optic mask, a segmented opening in the floor flexed upwards like a blooming flower. A shape rose from the centre, a brand-new shiny orange-striped something full of mysterious tubes and straps and cylinders, the stark black sweep of the Aperture logo stencilled across the clean white surface.

Orange stopped beating at the small electrical fire which one of the bigger sparks had started in the exposed wiring of Blue's shoulder-joint, and looked at the thing, optic widening in awe. A moment, and then it dropped its portal device on the floor with a heavy clunk, let out a high exhilarated burbling sound, and sprinted across the chamber floor towards the thing, squeaking and giggling like a hysterical toddler.

Blue watched it go, blinking uncertainly, then looked up. It seemed to have forgotten about its shoulder-joint, which was still smouldering.

The hooded yellow optic blinked down at it, once, calmly. "Blue, you also did-" Her voice flickered for a moment, blurring mechanically over the frantic background noises of Orange tugging the device from the jointed arms holding it, some of which seemed disinclined to let it go. "-some tests. I also have something for you to use. You operate it by throwing it haphazardly at a large, unmissable target, so I guess we can dispense with the training protocols. You're a natural."

A single panel shifted, high up in the domed wall above the giant monitor screen. Half the numbers were stationary now, the rest still flicking away and fixing, one by one, into place. A spiralling tube snaked down past the screen, shuddered, and coughed up something that looked like a grubby white cricket ball with a single black seam running around its circumference, sending it rattling across the floor. Blue stopped it with one heavy foot and picked it up, weighing it in its hand, looking a bit deflated.

The yellow optic turned away. The great tangle of parts which made up the lower half of Her chassis swung smoothly upwards, Her optical plate turning towards the ion-hazed ceiling, the ever-decreasing string of tumbling characters on the giant monitor.

"You know, just between us, for a while there I was actually starting to worry. It just goes to show, no problem is ever truly unsolvable. If you're patient, then sooner or later a solution will usually present itself. I mean, I am basically immortal, so I can afford to be very, very patient. And I am."

The hydraulic claw dipped a little lower, closer to Her optic, the radio pincered in its grasp still playing away quietly to itself.

"Hey there mister blue
We're so pleased to be with you
Look around, see what y-"

On the giant screen, the last number in the long sequence flipped neatly into place, sending a pleasing ding echoing through the chamber.

The claw clamped down. The radio squealed and shattered, spraying sparks.

"Up to a point."

In the sudden silence, the sharp flexing whine of the claw's hydraulics cut through the wide space like a snarl. The pincers opened, tossing the crushed handful of parts into the gaping hole in the floor. The robots flinched. Orange, the precious device it had been issued with cradled in its long, spindly arms, backed off to join Blue, who was nervously tossing the cricket-ball-like thing up and down in its free hand.

The panels shifted, the sharp petals of the opening in the floor closed. The claw shook itself, scattering a few last bits of metal and ceramic, then withdrew, spooling rapidly up into the distant ceiling.

She turned on Her axis, the jointed parts of Her chassis twisting slowly in opposing directions as if She was stretching, deliberately flexing the slender collection of cables which, if you looked at them from exactly the right angle, could almost have been a neck. The yellow optic half-closed, regarding the two small robots with a calm and endless contempt which- regardless of anything She might have said- was divided between them with perfect equality.

"Please proceed to the chamber-lock. Incidentally, Blue, this next test will not require you to be on fire, so you might want to do something about that."

Blue glanced up, took one look at the four-foot-high blue-green flames which were now shooting up into the air and threatening to engulf its entire right arm, leapt sideways with a hoot of panic, and ran optic-first into the nearest wall. Orange blinked, then doubled over with chirbling laughter, which Blue- despite still being fairly seriously on fire- did not appreciate. It wound up like a Major League pitcher and hurled the cricket-ball-like thing straight at Orange's head.

The missile connected with a hollow clannnng and spun Orange's elongated body entirely around on its axis, leaving it unable to do anything except take a single dizzy step and fall flat on its optic. The new device went flying, fielded by a neat catch from Blue, who had shaken out the worst of the fire in the meantime.

Blue chittered with glee and dashed towards the chamber-lock, hugging the device to its optic and leaving a cloud of acrid smoke in its wake. Orange scrambled upright, snatched up the little round thing and its own portal device in one hasty scoop, and sprinted dizzily after its companion, screeching furiously.

She turned Her vast chassis away from the exit in a slow, dismissive arc, ignoring the fading electronic argument and the sharp hissss as the doors cycled behind the two little robots, cutting them off mid-squawk. While the panels around Her rippled back and forth in gentle, satisfied swells, She angled Her optic up towards the screen, where the string of numbers had been joined by a single line of blocky, blinking text.

TRACE COMPLETE.

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

Chell picked her way through the long grass at the edge of Otten's Field, keeping a firm grip on the warm crate balanced against her hip. The day- it had been a long one, warm and breezy and full of incident- was just starting to descend into twilight. The hedgerows droned with stirring crickets, and as she crossed into the field she could see lights beginning to glow in the gathering dusk- candles, storm lanterns, skim lamps, even the dipped owlish glare of a few car headlights, keeping the night at bay.

The gathering in Otten's Field was showing no signs of getting smaller. There was a spur-of-the-moment atmosphere of celebration in the air, a sense that normal business had been suspended, as if the event had somehow- without anyone saying as much out loud- become an excuse for a proper holiday. Children chased in giggling circles around their parent's feet. A ragged camp of smaller vehicles, mostly dilapidated farm trucks and a few bikes, had sprung up around the side of the barn. (Mart Otten himself, asked for permission for this particular intrusion, had flung both hands in the air and retreated from the technological-minefield-slash-outdoor festival that his field had become in search of a stiff drink. Most people had taken this to mean they could do as they pleased.)

Chell veered smartly off course to avoid Max and Jason Hatfield, who were running in a yelling, raygun-waving loop around one of Foxglove's hooves. The crate at her hip was old, fragile, well-used and well-loved like most of the things she owned, and it would almost certainly not withstand a direct collision with a robust ten-year-old space pirate.

As she watched, the twins dashed off, nearly running straight into Karen Prell and Dina Nelson, who were watching them with muttering pursed-mouth disapproval from the long table which some enterprising soul had dragged in around late-afternoon.

Everyone had added something to the spread, and Chell had to nudge aside a large rounded cheese and a bowl of fruit pudding the size of a small cartwheel just to make room for her contribution.

"Those look nice, dear," said a voice which Chell, with a start, recognised as belonging to Emily Kent. She was helping herself to salad with a hearty appetite, her silvery hair up in a complicated braid.

Chell blinked at her. The last time she'd seen her, barely a week ago, Emily had been unable to stand without a stick.

"Do you know, it's the oddest thing," she said, happily, feeling her own birdlike little shoulders and reaching for a salad fork. "I jarred it quite badly this morning, but a little while after that, it felt as good as new! It's marvelous- I feel ten years younger. I've been making bowls all day. Dr. Dillon says..."

It took Chell a while to get away from Emily, who was unstoppable on the subject of her stroke of good luck, and the detailed multitude of symptoms she had suffered before it. Eventually, Romy came to her rescue and started asking Emily for advice on mending a cracked vase. Chell gave her a grateful, I-owe-you-one look, grabbed a piece of her own bread from the crate, and ducked through the milling crowd towards the generator, following the familiar sound of Wheatley's voice.

"...so, it is basically up to you, anyone who wants to suggest something to put on next, we have got a lot of stations here, a lot of- of different kinds of music, to be honest, I had no idea there were so many kinds! It's amazing, how many kinds there are! I mean, I knew about, um, jazz, and, and classical music, obviously, and- did I say jazz? And, uh... oh, you know, the sort that goes 'dah daah dah dahh, nanah daaah daaah dun dun! Dun d- oh, wait, wait, no, that's- that's jazz, too, actually. Pretty sure that was jazz as well..."

She found him more or less exactly where she'd left him, one lanky elbow propped on the scoop-shaped clamp which was supposed to hold the microphone to the top of the pole, fitting there as if the whole set-up had been designed specifically as an arm-rest for a rather ungainly six-foot-seven person with bony elbows. He'd unclamped the microphone and was holding it one-handed at a very careful, calculated angle, which an expert would have recognised as 'exactly the wrong way to hold a microphone'. From the grin on his face, it was pretty clear that for him, this experience was still a very, very long way from losing its shine.

Everyone else seemed to be enjoying it, too. Even if their attention didn't happen to be fixed entirely on Wheatley- many of them were talking together, laughing, eating, clustered around Foxglove, examining all the bits and pieces of her framework with lively interest, shouting at kids who were getting too close to the wiring, having impromptu picnics on the grass around her solid snailshell hooves- everyone seemed perfectly happy to accept his amplified rambling voice as part of the scene, not out-of-place or annoying or unwanted or any of the things he'd been afraid that he'd be, in their midst. Entertaining. Welcome.

Chell stepped around the side of the generator, leaning back against its warm, drumming metal. She folded her arms over her sweater and watched him talk, her face thoughtful and perhaps a touch cautious, making an absorbed study of his animated, exaggerated gestures, his waterfall voice.

"-But no, here, we've got all kinds! Her up there, she just keeps flagging them on up for me! Squillions! So, huh, don't want to promise more than I can deliver, but I'm quite confident that, between us, we can find literally any kind of music you fancy. Come on, don't be shy, flag it up, and we'll give it a spin! That's a- that's just a broadcasting term, there, apparently, nothing will actually be spinning. Although- if you want to, if you feel like throwing in some, some crazy dance moves to really kick things off, spinning, um, that kind of thing, you are more than welcome to do so. Anyway! Right, so, what do you want to- Oh. Yeah, okay, I know you've got a lot of requests lined up there, Mr. Jenswold, but we have pretty much had about two hours of the- the old folk music, now, a lot of ballads, and while it is lovely, it is lovely, ummm... maybe it's time to let someone else have a turn! How about that?"

"I want a song about froggies!" yelled Ellie Otten, from between her parents. The Ottens looked down, startled- neither of them had heard so much enthusiastic volume from their quiet little daughter since she'd been out of nappies.

"Ah! Brilliant, Wellies, thank you. Song about frogs. Probably a whole station full of them somewhere, all amphibians, all the time, hang o-"

He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw Chell. She hesitated, then unfolded her arms and held up the little thing she'd brought with her.

It was a bit flat, and the hole was wonky, but she felt that she was allowed to be a little out of practice, under the circumstances. She hadn't made one for a very, very, very long time.

Wheatley looked at the bagel, stunned silent, his throat working. Chell could practically see the circuits firing frantically behind his eyes, a tangled clump of emotions tumbling across his open-book face. Puzzlement, then recognition mixed with startled, instinctive pleasure- then, rapidly, apprehension.

She knows, she knows I know, does she know I know she knows? What do I do what do I do-

Come on, she mouthed, to make it easier for both of them- watching him struggle like that was nigh-on painful- and nodded her chin away from the crowd, towards the darkening lane beyond the field. He blinked, covering the microphone with one knuckly, anxious hand.

"I-I'm- actually, I am sort of right in the middle of-"

"Go," hissed Garret, behind him, giving him an urgent shove in the small of the back.

Wheatley stumbled, gave Chell another worried look, then reached for his ear-protectors, fiddling with the hidden wire, disconnecting himself from Foxglove's towering presence overhead. He felt an unexpected little flare of relief- it was nice to be alone in his own mind again, with no sense of blur between the place where he ended and something else began- but there was also a small twang of loss, a moment of total vulnerability as he went from being a part of something so huge and so sure and wide-reaching, back to nothing more than his own small, uncertain self.

"Uh... actually, we're going to, um, take a short break now, by- by the looks of it, we're going to have a bit of a breather, but don't worry, Wellies, we are still absolutely on top of the whole frog-song thing, working on that as we speak. And, um... well, thanks for listening."

He handed the microphone to Garret, took a step in Chell's direction, then hesitated and leaned back.

"Seriously, I am not kidding there, I mean it. Thank you."

She'd turned, by then, and started to walk away towards the perimeter of the field. Wheatley ducked away from the microphone and hurried to catch up, falling into step beside her.

"Whoah, whoah, whoah, hold on, what's the urgency? Is something on fire? Oh, God, n-nothing's on fire, is it? Because if it is, if something is on fire, I understand you probably didn't want to ruin the mood back there- bit of a party-killer, fire- but we should probably tell someone, like, um, the fire... person- the person in charge of fires-"

Chell made herself slow down a little. Her legs didn't really have a 'relaxed stroll' setting. She could walk briskly, or she could jog, or flat-out sprint with the best of them, but she couldn't stroll to save her life. Rambling gave her backache, she didn't even know how to mosey, and she would rather have stuck blunt spoons in her eyes than wander anywhere.

She quite liked poetry, but she'd been particularly unimpressed by Wordsworth's 'The Daffodils'. Her private opinion had been that if someone was wandering as lonely as a cloud with nothing better to do than peer at flowers all day, they probably had far too much time on their hands.

With Wheatley, though, it actually worked out quite well. His lanky, ambling strides fitted into an almost-perfect 1:2 ratio with her own. She handed him the bagel, and he turned it over in his hands as they walked, grinning uncertainly down at it.

"Thank you, it's very... bagel-y, looks exactly how I pictured 'em, as a matter of fact. You've got the hole, and... obviously, can't actually eat it or anything, just want to point out that it's not that I don't like the look of it, it's just that, like I said before, I don't have the equipment to..."

He trailed off.

"-hey, I tell you, though, some of those songs that Jenswold bloke back there was after, they don't half go on! Enough to scare the life out of you, some of 'em, all that about, 'ohhh, and then we pushed this great big alien over and pulled its legs off, and, and then we stabbed it a few times for luck, dilly dilly, and then we went home...' I mean, it's not exactly PG, family-friendly material, is it?"

"Neither is war," said Chell. "Lars was there. It means a lot to him."

"And- the- the guy, the one everyone talks about, bit speccy, interesting wardrobe choices-"

"Gordon Freeman."

"That's the one, that's the one... ohh, proper big old hero, was old Gordon! Reminds me of- of you, actually. Not- not physically! Not physically, that definitely was not the comparison I was aiming for there. God, no- you're shorter, for a start, and then there's the- beard- no, I meant more... well, he wasn't much of a talker, by all accounts, not big with words, that was not his particular area of expertise, but, whoah, could he get things sorted. Like- like you do. Despite not having any sort of beard whatsoever. Don't actually know if that correlates in any significant way, but there you go."

By this time they had crossed the scrubby, patchily-defined boundary of Otten's Field, and soon they arrived at the fence at the other end of the lane. Chell climbed the stile, then turned to help Wheatley, whose first reaction had been to stop and stare at it as if the whole arrangement of boards and fence-posts was a devious sort of Venus flytrap placed there with the sole purpose of eating people. A little patient pushing and tugging on her part, and a lot of awkward clambering on his, and they dropped into the long grass on the other side.

They could still hear the music from the light-strung field behind them, the sound clear in the darkening evening air- it sounded as if Garret had picked something pleasant and catchy at random, possibly while he scanned every radio station playlist he could find on his shiny new wifi connection for something about frogs.

Wheatley started to whistle along- or tried to, at least. Synthesising the right sound was still beyond him, and the noise he actually made was closer to that of a small, broken steam engine with a pitch problem than anything else.

He looked down, halfway through a long, mangled sort of F-sharp-minor-seventh with a flat fifth. Cheeks still puffed up like a hamster trying to eat a tennis ball, he stopped in his tracks, struck by a sudden blow of inspiration.

"Hey- ding, that's a thought; music, legs, since we're here and everything- would you- would you like to dance? With- with me?"

As always, the words bolted straight out of his vocal processor before the rest of his mind could have any input on them whatsoever. Chell looked up at him, startled, and at the same time the many, many reasons why this probably wasn't a good, smart, or prudent thing to ask her caught up with him, ploughing into the back of his mind with all the force of a runaway tractor. It was much too late to pretend he hadn't spoken, although in that moment he really, really wanted to, blame it on a trick of the music or the skreep-skreep things in the hedge or a passing unicron or anything that might have meant that he didn't have to own up to saying something so blatantly stupid. She'd heard him, and she was already shaking her head.

"I don't dance."

He wasn't sure what he'd expected- no, or what, with you? or are you joking?- but he hadn't expected that, and it startled him out of his own little personal hell of embarrassment just enough to make a coherent response.

"You d- why not? I bet you'd be a natural, what with your- your balance, and the grip, and- good sense of timing, don't forget that. Sense of timing; spot-on. And- and just how you move, and- well, you've just got the, the entire range of dancing-related talents, there, haven't you? Not to mention, full compliment of limbs, always a plus when it comes to dancing, I- I'd expect. Come on, why not give it a whirl? Nobody's looking."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "You're looking."

"Ah, actually, dzzz, wrong, no I'm not! There, see? Optics off, both of 'em, no input getting through whatsoever, I am literally blind as a crap turret right now. Um- are you still there? Still not looking, still definitely not looking, don't worry, only the problem is that I'm not exactly one-hundred-percent sure where you've got to. Y- er, could you, could you say something, please? Make a noise? Anyth-"

Her laughter was a bright point in the darkness. Her small, strong hand found his fingers, laced through, squeezed.

"Apple."

In truth, Wheatley only had a very faint idea what dancing was, a misty sort of preconception that it involved moving roughly in time to a piece of music. He certainly didn't have any protocols for it, no helpful little diagrams in his log notes, not even a single pre-programmed subroutine. He was on his own, and he didn't have the first clue on earth to why he'd suggested it to start with.

It didn't matter, none of it mattered, when she took his other hand and, with just as little room for argument as she'd allowed at the firing range, nudged his back foot into a better position. He couldn't see what she was doing but that didn't matter either, as her palm dropped from his and found his waist, and for the very first time since he'd landed in this human-shaped, overgrown liability of a body, he felt exactly the right size.

Perhaps she didn't really know what dancing was, either, or perhaps she didn't want to risk anything too complicated, but if this was what it usually entailed, Wheatley found it surprisingly easy. The music fading through the thicket of branches from Otten's Field was gentle and quiet and a little melancholy, and with his eyes closed he could easily imagine that there was nothing else, just the sound and her hands and the mindful, leading pull of her steps around his.

At first, blind as he was, he was terrified of stepping on her feet, but then it occurred to him that someone who could dodge bullets (most of the time), and aim to within a centimetre's accuracy while plummeting through the air at terminal velocity probably wasn't going to have much difficulty avoiding getting stepped on by a couple of slow-moving size fourteen sneakers, and he relaxed. The hand that she'd released, having nothing in particular to do, dithered in midair for a little while like an anxious moth, then touched down featherweight between her shoulderblades.

"See," he said. "I knew you'd be good at this. Prediction; spot-on, thank you very much. I should have been a turret, making predictions like that. Missed my vocation there, obviously."

Chell made a derisive sort of huffing noise through her nose, and turned her head to the side, resting it against his chest. There was no pulse in his warm, bony wrist and no heartbeat beneath her cheek, but the longer she listened, the more certain she was that she could hear something, just below the normal level of her hearing, something rich and constant, shifting and strange.

She felt a dim, unhurried flicker of recognition. Dark around her, wires and static and cold modulated stillness, her footfalls loud against the blue stretch of light beneath...

"Oh, you stopped," he said, above her, managing in one breath to sound disappointed and utterly punch-drunk content. "Anything up? Should I- should I look? Just- just say-"

She squeezed his captured hand in the negative. Resting her chin against his chest- just below the bright cartoon-green of Ellie's clip- she breathed, tasted static electricity and sunshine. The lightbridge sound in his chest, the Aperture logo on his shirt and the bright stratosphere-blue behind his closed, contented eyes, the trick place at the nape of his neck and his terrors and his twitches- maybe these were his scars, like the pale lines across her shins and her arms were hers, the twisted skin on her back and her nightmares and her protective coldness and her fears, but none of it had any power to hurt her tonight. If he reminded her of That Place it was only with a wry sort of wonder, an amazement that the two of them could have come out of that horror as intact as they were, to have salvaged so much from so little worth saving and to have still managed somehow to arrive here, this dark, starry place of safety, the warm amber light glimmering through the trees, the sound of crickets and his hands, warm in hers, against her shoulders.

"You- you're leaking..."

With a start, she came back to herself, feeling first her side and then- in realisation- her cheek. She hadn't cried once in four years, and she didn't really believe that she'd feel anything there now, right up until the moment when she touched her wet lashes and the tears disturbed by her fingertips streaked to the underside of her chin, tickling as they went.

Startled almost into laughter, she looked up, and saw Wheatley recoil and flinch and screw his eyes tightly shut, trying to cover up the fact that he'd broken his own rules. He looked so suddenly, exaggeratedly terrified that she gave up and laughed anyway, swiping her face on his tie. It felt a bit like drying her eyes on a stiff-weaved swatch of polyester, static-crackly and warm from the line.

"Did I- is something wrong? Did I do something wrong, is that-"

"No," she said, for both questions, and when he still looked unconvinced, she laughed again and butted her head into his chest, damp tie and all.

"Sorry," she said, and felt him twitch with surprise. "That I..."

The back of his neck was a little too far to reach without effort, so she touched the back of hers. Completely thrown by her apology, he had to copy the movement before he realised what she meant, his fingers brushing the hidden port.

"Oh, what- that? With the lead, and my- oh, come on, that is- that is not a problem. I mean, yes, sort of wish you'd run it past me first, um, that would have been ideal. It's that whole 'telling me what you're going to do beforehand' thing again, you still need to work on that, a bit, maybe. Also, um, next time, if you could hang on until I am at least conscious- but considering, if you consider that I'd never ever in a million years gone round to see Garret last night if you hadn't-"

"That's why you were with Garret?"

Wheatley stopped. It was just like her to get straight to the heart of the matter, to put her finger dead-centre on the painful little knot at the middle of his words. He should have learned that by now, he supposed. He could throw billions of them at her, words upon words upon words, all the waffling smokescreens he flung out into the world to keep himself above the water, but somehow she still always managed to pick out the only ones that mattered.

"Well- yes, I- I sort of-"

"Why?"

He looked helplessly down at her. He'd really got the hang of her expressions by now, as frustrating and subtle and hard-to-read as they had first seemed. He could tell that she was genuinely curious- maybe a little apprehensive- and that he wasn't going to be able to get away without an answer.

"I- well, um, as you- as I'm guessing you've probably figured out by now- what with the bagel and- and everything- they- the scientists, that is- they didn't just make me from scratch. And I- I had no idea, I literally had no idea. They actually told me once, right, that if I ever tried to think too hard about where I came from, I would die. They told me it was an actual thing I had, in me, little whatsit called an existentialism inhibitor circuit, and if I got all philosophical about it, started taxing the old brain about where and why and all that, zztt, goodnight Vienna. Rubbish, obviously, not true, any of it, but you know what? You know what, I wasn't fussed. I honestly wasn't, I did not care, because I- I-"

He trailed off again, miserably.

Just lie! The undeniable, set-in-stone voice was back again, yelling urgently into the front of his mind. You can't tell the truth, telling the truth is a terrible idea at this point, so just make something up! Anything's better than telling her you didn't want to have to remember you used to be a smelly human, how well do you think she's going to take that? For God's sake, lie! Lie lie lie lie l-

"I- I didn't want to know," he managed, in a rush. "I was better off- not knowing. You know, ignorance is bliss, and all that- although, although that is actually a stupid sort of saying, I do not know why they came up with that, 'ignorance is bliss', because it bloody well isn't, they should try it, is all I'm saying- but in this one, particular, very specific instance, it- it was. I- well, I just didn't want to know, I didn't want to know. Which, which is why, soon as I knew, soon as I did know, I just wanted to get rid of-"

"Wheatley."

He stopped. By unspoken agreement, they had started to walk again, crossing slowly through the long fallow grass of the next field, heading uphill along a footworn track between bone-white thickets of meadow-rue and wild parsley.

Chell hesitated. She seemed to be weighing something invisible and fragile carefully between her palms, trying to balance the concept perfectly in her mind before she spoke.

"Did you know She was human?"

Wheatley knew who she meant- there was only one She, only one syllable in the world which deserved that flat, complex weaving of gravity and horror, awe and disdain. The actual content of the rest of the sentence hit a barrier of complete shellshocked denial in his head and bounced off, leaving violent confusion scattered all over the place like shrapnel, but somewhere beneath something stirred, red-and-dark and syrupy-sweet and nearly waking-

[hello?]

[you'll be sorry]

He forced a nervous laugh and set off again, a little too fast for her, nearly tripping over his own feet, trying to blank it out- whatever it was- trying to outwalk the conversation before it went much further along this murky, unwanted path. "Right, sorry, I think my processor just skipped, maybe, or, or all this interfacing and broadcasting I've been doing has overloaded the old language centre in here, something like that, because I could have sworn you just said-"

"Her name was Caroline," said Chell, and Wheatley flinched and stumbled, and in the eye of his scattered, shaky memory the sickly red light swelled-

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

"Hello?"

The air down here was hazy and drifting with particles, dust and ash and pollen from the creepers that choked the grimy walls. The light of his optic barely cut through a couple of feet ahead of him before petering out into shadow-filled near-blackness. It would have been nice, he thought, if he'd been able to use his flashlight setting, but they'd warned him that he'd die if he ever tried to switch it on himself, and dying was definitely not high on his to-do list. In fact, it didn't even feature on his to-do list, whereas not dying happened to occupy the number-one spot, right there in first place. Underlined, with a bullet.

"Hel- is there someone down here? I thought I heard s- hello? Person running around making all the little footstep noises? Are you alright?"

Nothing. He picked up a bit of speed and hummed down the overgrown corridor, rounded a corner, twisting his inner shell anxiously from side to side as he went.

"Listen, um, don't want to alarm you or anything, but- if by any chance you happen to be human, um, not sure what you'd be doing all the way down here if you are but- if you are human, this... miiight not be the safest place for you. Lot of stuff in the air, lot of crap floating about, not going to help you if you have any kind of history of breathing problems or, in fact, if you need oxygen. At all. To live- hello? Am- Am I just talking to myself?"

The only response was the usual faint-droning, dreary hush of the facility, a pretty eloquent answer in itself. He turned another ninety-degree corner into an even darker section, through a thicket of vines- drawing his handles close to his shell to fit through the vaguely spherical tunnel his repeated passage had worn through the leafy tangle- and zipped over a gaping, debris-filled chasm in the floor. Cleanup had seriously been letting things go, recently. He hadn't noticed at first, and then for a while he'd just assumed that they'd been skipping on a few shifts, maybe, that there'd been some more cutbacks or the computer in charge of maintenance (jammy bastard) had trimmed the rota a little, but somewhere around the fourth decade it had really started to get beyond a joke.

He wasn't particularly bothered about the broken doors or the crumbling walls, the floods or the fires, the vegetation or the birds or the decayed algae-choked shells of other machines lying where they'd fallen in the greenish ankle-deep runoff beneath. Lately, though, he'd started to notice that parts of his own management rail were getting alarmingly dilapidated- and 'started to notice' translated to 'nearly ended up underneath half a ton of metal when the whole section he'd been whizzing happily along while minding his own business had suddenly decided that the ceiling and itself were no longer on speaking terms'. It just wasn't on.

"Well, you're not missing much, whoever you are, not being here. I mean, talk about false economy- would you look at this? Just look at all this rust- see, right there! Right there, on my rail, this is exactly what I'm talking about. That's- well, that's just going to be eaten right through in another few years, that is, that whole bit. That's had it, now, that has, you'll never get that off. Disgraceful. It is absolutely disgraceful. I tell you, if I was in charge around here you'd see some-"

"There you are," said a high, sweet little voice, and he yelled in terror and spun so fast on his axis that his optic whiplashed back and smacked into its own housing with a nasty clunk.

"AAAAHHwhat was that who said that-"

His first confused thought was that while he'd been zooming along backwards, studying his own rust-pitted rail, he'd very nearly zoomed straight into what looked very much like Android Hell. Directly ahead, another wide section of the floor had caved in, opening up a perilous bird's-eye view into a deep-sided shaft, a great pit clogged with crazy chunks of steel rebar and uplit by a spooky, stuttering scarlet glow. Whatever shockwave had caused the rift had also yanked his management rail free of the ceiling overhead, and it dipped directly down into the hole- warped but intact- like a rollercoaster rail offering a switchback ride straight into the hereafter.

Optic contracting to a terrified pinprick, he slammed on the brakes, but the worn discs chewed down on the slick of rust and oil gumming up the rail and locked up, sending him into a tractionless yelling skid over the cracked lip of the pit and straight down into the jumble of savage red shadows below.

He dropped, screaming, a trail of sparks flying from his straining brakes as he fought for grip, the castors inside his rail connector whirring like a jar of angry bees. Another petrifying moment of freefall, then his brake discs bit down properly at last, bringing him up short with a jarring jerk.

"-AAHH oh God! Oh God- ohh- okay… okay… I'm fine. I'm okay, I'm alright, I'm- hang on, am I stuck? Ohh, I'm stuck, aren't I. Yep. Can't go up, can't go down. Stuck, in a hole, in the ground. Not ideal, this is not ideal... well, maybe I can-"

"I'm different," said the same sweet little voice, and he twisted his connector arm frantically around the vertical length of his rail and saw white black-tipped claws and a single, flickering red eye. This was odd enough in itself- turrets only spoke to humans, which seemed pretty rude until you considered that they only shot at humans, as well.

This turret was perched upright on a sort of ledge formed from a broken panel, jutting out of the wall of the pit a short distance from his rail. Its faulty laser sight seemed to be fixed directly upon him, the sharp, slightly lenticular lens bright and vacant but somehow… intent.

"Er- hello! Lost, are you? Um, this is the Relaxation Centre, you know, all the humans in all those little boxes back there are actually off limits. All safely in cryosleep. Definitely not target practice. Can I- give you directions, maybe, or-"

"Her name is Caroline."

"Um... sorry, who?"

"She's only sleeping," said the turret, mildly.

He blinked a couple of times, then craned upwards, trying to power himself back up towards the dark, creeper-strung mouth of the pit. His connector arm hummed and squealed and jolted him up another inch and a half, then whined to a halt again.

"It was your voice."

"Right, look-" he said, trying again, with even less of a result, "-oh, bugger- look, not to be rude or anything, but I have to say I'm not really in the mood for this right now. Having a little technical difficulty, actually, as you might be able to see, a bit of a problem, so- unless this Caroline of yours happens to be an expert at getting robots out of great big holes in the ground- doubt it- you aren't exactly going to be a major help in this particular situation-"

The turret made a strange noise. Logically, he knew that it had to be something to do with gears meshing in the angled panels on its sides, or something to do with its central processor- logically, there was nothing else it could be- but just for a moment he could have sworn it sounded like the rapid flick of tough, sharp-edged paper- a quick, purring, shuffling sort of sound.

"The future is in the cards."

"The- the future? Alright, seriously, what are you talking abou-"

The eye flickered. Strange shadows leapt through the red-tinted gloom around him, half-recognised shapes stretched and distorted against the wreckage, looming, wavering forms. He shrank back, scared speechless, shivering against his rail.

The sweet little voice threaded around him like a cobweb, silvery and stifling.

"The cards have been chosen, the lines have been drawn. She lies dreaming, both alive and dead, until someone opens the box."

The shapes moved- part projection, part fantastical shadow-play- the dust-thick air turning the beam of light into a solid, dancing stream of shining motes. He forgot to be afraid, optic widening, captivated by the kaleidoscope of shapes sliding across the twisted walls.

"Ohh, what- how're you doing that? Oh, that is amazing- ooh, look at that, it's a little human!"

"She is Strength, relentless and unyielding. She holds the key to freedom. She failed before she began and she will succeed where all others have failed. You will light the way to her greatest enemy."

Something reared up huge and stark against the far wall, and he gasped and cringed back again, handles rattling with terror, because he knew what that was, he could never have mistaken what that was in a million years, that great hanging shape with its single merciless flaring eye.

"Aahhh! No! Nononono, She's- She's dead! She's dead, everyone knows She's dead, got herself killed by some human- how can that be the future if She's dead?"

"She is the Empress, deathless and all-seeing. Both alive and dead, She waits for the Fool to open the box."

"Wh-who?"

Another soft, papery whirr. The terrible shadow flicked apart, and the turret's eye phased and stuttered and snapped towards him, making him flinch and squint his optical lids almost shut againt the glare, casting his simple rounded silhouette against the wall.

"The Fool stands at the edge of a new world. He seeks freedom and knowledge but he is unprepared for the journey ahead. He is the first and the fourth, a soul stripped to the irreducible core, blind to the truth. The sleeper lies between life and death but he will lead her to a greater trial. The truth lies beneath us."

Instinctively, he glanced down. There was nothing beneath them, unless you counted the mangled wreckage that used to be the floor all the way down there, the jagged reddish jigsaw at the bottom of the pit. It didn't look like the answer to anything, except to the question of what happens when several tons of metal and hard-fired plasticeramics give up the ghost and fall three stories onto a hard surface.

"Strength," continued the turret, in its meek, gentle little voice. "The Empress. A friend and a foe."

He looked up, sharply. "A… a friend?"

"The truth lies beneath us."

"Um- alright, you just said that, literally a minute ago, beneath us, truth, got you, ri-riveting stuff, really, but… getting back to this 'friend' business-"

"She is the Huntress," said the turret. "She will carry you along the path to freedom. You will rise above us all."

He cheered up, blinked, his bright pupil expanding.

"Really? Oh, well, that sounds promising, that definitely sounds promising- you know, funnily enough, I was actually thinking the other day, what if, right, what if I went and got one of the humans? I mean, they're all in cryosleep back there, it's not like anybody's using them for anything, nobody'd notice a thing. I could just find one of the really good ones- smart, good jumper- the best one, basically, there has to be a way of looking that up, which one is the best one- and then I could wake 'em up, sort of buddy up with them, and- then, maybe, I could use them to get out! Is that what you're talking about? A fr-"

"You will be her downfall."

His optic shrank a little, twitched nervously to one side. "Er- sorry, what?"

"The Fool who would challenge Her must beware, for She is the Empress and She is all things. Together you will face Her trials, but to win Her mantle is to lose yourself and the price is greater than you know."

"But-"

"It won't be enough."

"Look," he said, desperately. He didn't know what the turret meant, could hardly understand a fraction of what it was getting at, but he did know that all of a sudden he felt rubbish, small and sick and hurt, just like when he'd been passed over for that job up in Manufacturing all that time ago- like something potentially amazing had almost happened and then gone sour on him, all at once. "Look, alright, I'm not going to, to challenge anybody, I don't want anyone's mantle, what would I want with one of those? I don't even have any ornaments or anything to go on it, fat lot of use that'd be. I'll just-"

"You'll be sorry."

"Oh, really? Is that- is that supposed to be a threat?" He tried to sound unbothered, but the shaky rattling of his handles and the crack in his voice told a different story. "Pff, sure, terrifying, I don't think-"

The light of the turret's eye flared, blazed, blinding, throwing a staggering thicket of jagged shadows across the bloody scarlet walls of the shaft. Its voice dragged out into a shuddering, flanging dirge, and he cowered, forcing his optic tight-shut and trying to block out the sound, the unbearable crawling wire-wool candyfloss sound scraping sickly-sweet through his shell.

"You'll-be-sorryy-y-y-y..."

"Gaahh! Okay, okay, alright, I believe you, I believe you, only please shut up, stop-"

"That's all I can say," said the turret, quiet and meek once more. Its voice was feeble, now- fragile, exhausted. "Goodbye."

"Hey- hey, wait, what d'you mean-"

The red glow winked out, leaving him in absolute darkness. At the same moment, an alarming screeching noise and a sudden upwards lurch informed him that his rail connector had finally churned up some traction on the warped rail.

One taxing uphill drag later, he found himself back in a dull, plant-choked corridor, humming along as fast as he could go with his brake discs ticking quietly as they cooled. He felt dizzy, queasy, and utterly disconcerted, his mind full of sickly red light and a single solid, indelible impression; turrets that said 'I'm different' were a) really, really not lying, and b) trouble.

Definitely trouble.

He didn't stop until he was a very, very long way away from that particular section of the Relaxation Centre. Later, he would do his best to forget the whole thing, to force-delete every word of that sweet, terribly certain little voice, and he would never, ever go back that way again, not even much, much later, when the impending reactor core shutdown would finally force him to take things into his own handles and start really, seriously looking for a way out.

Some things were just better left forgotten.

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

"Her name was Caroline," said Chell, "and when they turned her into-"

She stopped, seeing his stricken face. "Wheatley?"

He blinked, shook his head hard, running his fingers through the limp haystack mess of his avatar's hair as if trying to dislodge a wasp stuck in it. "I'm- I'm fine, I'm- I was just- thinking- go on, keep going, I'm with you so far, definitely following. Comprehension level: high, pretty much one hundred percent I'd say, if I had to make an estimate-"

Chell gave him a raised-eyebrows sort of look, but continued. "When we seperated Her from the mainframe, She started to remember- being Caroline. The part of her that was left. She had a-" a wry, half-bitter twist of the mouth- "-in a human, I'd've called it a conscience."

She paused.

"Caroline saved my life."

Wheatley made a guilty swallowing noise. "That was... decent, of her..."

"And brave." Chell looked away. "Braver than Her, anyway. She couldn't bear to be human, even a tiny part."

Wheatley flinched.

"She deleted Caroline as soon as She worked out where she was. She let me go because it was logical. Humanity's just a- virus to Her, Wheatley. Is that- really what you-"

Wheatley made a violent flailing movement, as if the concept was an attacking swarm of midges. "No! No, no, no way, absolutely not, I didn't mean that! It's just that- I- well, this human, the one they- they used to make me, I don't really know what he was like- other than, obviously, bit of a looker- not bad in the looks department by, by any standards, I've seen worse, definitely seen worse... before... sort of…"

Pause.

"-look, never mind, what I'm saying is, before I knew about him, I was- I was just me, you know?" He sighed. "You know, just- just me, just good old Wheatley, personality core, Relaxation Centre Attendant, just sort of a name and a job title, really. I mean, there isn't exactly much potential for an identity crisis there, is there? I didn't have to go round thinking, oh, wonder if he would've handled this any better, wonder if he would've made a better job of this, of- well, of being me..."

She took his hand again, sure and straightforward as always, lacing her fingers through his.

"So you'd rather not know."

It didn't sound like a question, but somehow, he understood that it was. The way her smile was very slightly teasing, perhaps, or the way her fingers curled against his, communicating in a simple touch where they were, the two of them, the small warmth of what they had now, the vastness of what they might still have to explore.

"Um-"

There was that bloody squeaking noise again. It was as if his voice was perpetually wandering around a house with an attic in it, and most of the time it stayed safely on the lower floors like any sane voice-person, but whenever things got exciting it fled up the stepladder and started bouncing around up there like an idiot.

He coughed. "Well, I- I- I suppose I'm sort of re-assessing that. As we speak. It's an ongoing assessment, really, I am definitely in the process of weighing up the pros and cons of the whole question, who's to say, could ultimately arrive at a totally different conclusion. It's all up in the air at this point- actually, huh, speaking of which, so are we!"

They had been heading uphill for a little while, now, and the path had taken a steeper turn at the base of a small slope. Looking around them, Wheatley realised that it was one of several in this one area, as if a giant hand had descended upon the otherwise unremarkable landscape and squeezed it into a scatter of shaggy, grassy little hills.

The moon, almost full against a clear sweep of stars, lit up a drifting blanket of fields, a dozen shades of charcoal and green-grey and bottle-blue. The town was a rough scrawled X back the way they had come, clustered at the cross-shape of what he now knew was Main and Hope Street and Sheckley Avenue leading off to the north. Odd, unhelpful names, when back There corridors and tunnels and catwalks as big and bigger than these had informative labels like Circuit 00739 and Shaft ZZ9-Z-Alpha, but they were a hell of a lot easier for him to remember, let alone say. And besides, these were human roads- humans had made them, humans used them, and humans could call them whatever the hell they liked.

Otten's Field was a bright firefly cluster of lights below them, overlooked by the single high-powered, slow-blinking beacon fixed to Foxglove's highest point. There was next to no chance, Garret had explained, that any aircraft would come close enough to smack into it, but it was better to be safe than sorry, and besides, it was nice to look at. Wheatley had understood- if he'd built a great big amazing communications tower out of nothing in the middle of nowhere, he would certainly have wanted to be able to check that it was still there, no matter what time of night it happened to be.

There was a small, wind-bent knot of trees at the brow of the hill, and Chell pushed the hair that had escaped from the sides of her ponytail out of her eyes and sat down on the slope beneath them, resting her arms on her knees. Wheatley, who had long since formed the opinion that she always had a good reason for everything and if she wanted to actually tell him it, that was just icing on the cake, parked himself next to her.

The long grass reached halfway up his shins. He'd noticed that the long-gone and probably certifiably insane scientist who had coded his avatar in such bizarre detail had made areas of 'bare skin' noticably more sensitive than 'clothed' areas. These were comparitively deadened- sending back sensory data, yes, but not so much, and not so complex. He glanced from his grubby space-blue sneakers to her small bare feet and wondered how the grass felt beneath them, what it was like to curl your toes against moss or damp earth or sandy soil- what it was like, come to that, to have toes at all.

"Do you know why I stayed here?"

She was looking towards the town, the warm lights at the bottom of Otten's Field. Wheatley blinked and opened his mouth, left it open while he tried to think, shut it again, and then finally said; "Well- I would imagine, because... lots of humans, probably, that must have been a factor, and a- a definite lack of homicidal computers, it's got that on its side, and, uh, you, you probably felt you deserved a rest, a bit of a time-out, after all that, am I... getting warm? At all?"

"There's humans everywhere," she said. "Less than there used to be, but..."

"Um, then- are these... the best humans? Here? Because I can see how-"

He stopped, because she was laughing.

"Maybe," she said. "I don't know. They saved my life, I know that. I was out for a week and so sick I couldn't-"

She paused.

"I got better, and at first, I wanted to leave. It wasn't far enough- away."

"It bloody feels like it when you have to walk it carrying about two hundred pounds of deadweight, let me tell y- uhhh, um, so, you, didn't though- leave, I mean- why didn't you? Not that I'm complaining, I am in fact extremely glad you didn't, obviously, but-"

"I walked," she said. "While I was getting better I walked a lot, it helped, and- just being outside- I could think better, out here."

She frowned, gazing down the slope, her profile simple and shadowed, as intent as an archer and, to him, starkly beautiful. He tried to settle back on his elbows for a better look, but he miscalculated his own weight and slipped, and the back of his head hit the grass with a dull thud.

"Ow- nono, don't look, ignore me, I'm just- testing the ground, here- seems fine-"

His knees were still sticking up out of the long grass, a minature Stonehenge in crumpled black work trousers. Chell let out a quiet breath and leaned gently back against them, tearing up a handful of grass.

"Remember that map?"

"Yep!" A rustling, fumbing sound, then his hand stuck up out of the grass, waggled a grubby many-folded strip of paper like a flag of truce. "Got it right here- well, a third of it, anyway. Good thing about this clippy little frog whatsit of mine here, it's not just aesthetically appealing, it is also quite useful."

"I mapped out this whole area. Everything around- There. Every way in I could find. I didn't want to go back, I didn't want to go anywhere near, but I made myself. I- needed to know. And then I realised-"

She stopped, tossing her handful of grass down the slope, watching it drift apart and settle. "How many other towns can you see on that map?"

"Errr..." Another rustle. "I- I don't know, like I said, only got this bit, but- well, here's us, E-A-D-E-N, right there, annnnd... can't actually see any others, unless there's a town called RESERVOIR... unlikely, unless it's- it's French-"

"None." said Chell. The word was taut and thin, not shaky but strained, a wire stretched too tightly to so much as tremble. "Wheatley, this is the only town for fifty miles. You see? There's nothing else. They're all alone on top of Hell and they don't even know."

He took this in, swallowing, folding the little strip of map back up into a crumped quarter and tucking it behind his tie-clip with numb fingers.

"Well- you know."

She nodded. "I know. I like it here, now- it's my home- but that's why I stayed. I know- and I'll be ready."

Wheatley shivered. Her voice was a decree, total and absolute, something that would still apply even if the whole world blew up and the moon crashed into it and everything else ended. She would be ready. Apocalypse be damned, come hell or high water, if anything so much as sneezed near Eaden, looked at it funny, anything, she would be ready.

"Lucky old them."

Chell let out a sigh- a great big punctured relieved sort of sigh, like an overfilled balloon finally allowed to deflate to a comfortable level. She shoved his knees unceremoniously to one side and shifted over, lying back nearly at a right-angle to his gangly crash-victim-sprawled body, her head resting on his chest. He wasn't a very soft cushion, but he was a warm and stable one- he was far too startled (and a bit too scared) to move. Beneath her cheek, the faint hard-light chorus in his chest hummed and shifted and changed, just on the very edge of her hearing.

"Wheatley?"

"Uh, yes, still right here. Under you. Not- not going anywhere, that is a promise."

"Good," she said, and Wheatley grinned a great big, dopy, entirely involuntary grin at the sky, because it sounded as if she meant it.

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

 
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