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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2. The Rescue

The bakery was tiny, warm, and homely. Early-morning sunlight streamed in from the window and fell in bright slanting bars across the colourful rag-rugs hanging from the old, plastered walls. Copper tins and moulds sat stacked neatly on shelving behind the scarred old wooden table, which functioned as a counter and- judging by its current floury state- a breadmaking surface. On the windowsill, a battered old digital radio set played to itself, a quiet, melancholy tune wavering in and out beneath a gentle pall of static.

There was a sagging couch full of cushions across the room, next to a low doorway that led down two steps to an even tinier kitchen. The general effect was very much like the front room of somebody's house- unsurprising, given that this was exactly what it was.

The front door was nudged open, ringing a jangly carillon from a string of bells tied to the inside. Shouldering his way into the room backwards, protecting a heavy crate in his sunburned arms, came a tall, powerful, grizzle-haired man of about fifty. His name was Aaron Halifax, and something about his lined, no-nonsense face and craggy brows suggested that here was a man it was better to have as a friend than an enemy.

He rested the crate on the edge of the table. "Anyone up?"

As the proprietor of the tiny bakery jogged up the couple of steps from the kitchen to meet him, he grinned at her and delivered the same old line he delivered every Monday and Thursday morning- along with the crate- without fail.

"Something sure smells good in here."

Chell returned her part of the ritual- a smile and a covered crate of her own, tugged out from under the table. She liked Aaron a great deal. He had been her reliable friend and business associate for the greater part of the last four years, despite the fact that his business dwarfed (and to some extent, overlapped) her own.

"So that's… a dozen wholegrain, dozen white, dozen mixed," he said, peeking under the cover. "That's my girl. Gonna need some extra for Thursday, that okay? You helping out on Foxglove today?"

Chell nodded. She was floury to the elbows and there were white streaks in her pulled-back hair, the strands at the front gently frizzled from the oven. She started to unpack Aaron's crate, stacking sacks of flour and grain methodically on the tabletop, making space for a smaller assortment of groceries, vegetables, a bag of apples, bacon in greaseproof paper, a punnet of blueberries which she paused to investigate appreciatively.

"Thought you'd like 'em," said Aaron, grinning. "You know, my mom used to make one hell of a blueberry cake round this time of year. You ever thought of branching out?"

A quick shadow chased across Chell's face, a momentary darkness like a starling flicking across a sunny window. She pushed the blueberries aside, her mouth tightening a little. Aaron, busy navigating the narrow doorway with her covered crate balanced on his knee, didn't notice.

"Well, I better get hoofin'. Store won't open itself. See you later, Mystery Girl. Hey," he added, pausing, "you see that shooting star this morning? Came right down over the northeast fields just before dawn. Coulda knocked a vort's eye out- brightest thing you ever saw. Good omen, huh?"

Having successfully juggled door, bread, and crate, he let himself out in a jangle of bells, whistling as he went.

Chell stood still in her sunlit front room, her hands spread carefully amid the groceries on the floury tabletop. The radio was still playing on the windowsill; a classics station sending its signal all the way out from New Detroit on the rebuilt networks. Signal around here was poor, and the music tuned in and out under the ever-present snowy crackle, but she liked this song, which had probably been old by the time she'd been born- however long ago that had been.

It was strange, how one little word could bring it all back, could destabilise months, years of peace. Chell wasn't new to it by any means, that familiar sharp inward stab that struck at the oddest times, set off by the most trivial things- her reflection in a glass window, a glimpse of white tiles, the whiff of electricity from a generator- bringing her heart into her mouth and a rising, cold, galvanising feeling into her limbs, a feeling that she could only describe as conservation of energy. Hang on to what you've got, her well-trained brain told her body, hang on to that rest and that last meal, to your good health and your unbroken bones and your fresh senses, because- as of now- they're all you've got to work with.

To survive.

She was better, much better, than she'd been. In those first few weeks after her escape, she'd been in a state of constant, hair-trigger alert, every nerve stuck permanently on edge. It had been months before she'd stopped reacting violently to every sudden movement at the corner of her eye, months before she'd been able to look at anything metal or mechanical without feeling sick to her stomach. It had been worse, she knew, because she'd tried to ignore it. She'd steamrollered over the shock and the trauma while refusing to believe that she was doing anything other than what she always did, surviving, and if she'd been less lucky or stumbled across people less understanding, she probably would have had a complete and irrevocable nervous breakdown.

These days, she knew better. Whenever she felt that quick icy stab, she stepped back and studied her feelings, figured out exactly what had caused it and why it was irrational. In short, she did exactly what would have got her killed, Back There. It didn't stop it happening altogether, but it helped.

In this case, that one word had been enough. 'Northeast.' Chell hadn't seen the shooting star for herself- had been fast asleep in her own peculiar little bedroom at the time, dreaming restlessly about something she couldn't quite remember. She hadn't seen it, but she would still have been a hell of a lot happier if Aaron had said it had fallen to, say, the southwest, or the north, or straight smack in the middle of Main Street, or any damn direction on Earth for that matter, anywhere except the northeast.

It had been the northeast she'd walked out of, four years ago, a dusty footsore wanderer with blood on her face and shell-shocked wonder in her eyes, a pair of weird white boots slung over her shoulder and a beaten-up orange jumpsuit knotted around her waist. Not much to work with, but a person could go a long way in four years. Particularly if they had the fear of God behind them.

Well, maybe not quite God, but close.

Her friends knew enough about her; Aaron Halifax might fondly call her 'mystery girl,' but neither he nor anyone else had ever pried into her past, nor had she ever had the impression that anyone was particularly eager to try. In some ways, this wasn't surprising. A few decades ago- within living memory, still, for old-timers like her neighbour Lars Jenswold, who'd been a little boy in the days of the Rule and the Resistance- the world had been full of people like her. Lone wanderers with no pasts, people who just turned up one day and who weren't disposed to answer questions. Chell got the impression that an attitude originally born out of necessity had been preserved by the next generation as a kind of common courtesy.

This had always suited her just fine. She understoodall too well- that human beings had a terrible knack of being curious about exactly the wrong things, and the thought of any of her new friends getting curious and stumbling into the death-trap in the northeast was enough to chill her to the bone, even right in the middle of this warm, sunny front room. The idea of being responsible for sending anybody else down into that hell was every bit as bad as the idea of being dragged back into it herself.

Across the room, the radio's single flickery amber signal light stuttered to red- once, twice. The song faltered, faded, interrupted by a short, unusually fierce burst of static.

Disturbed from her uneasy thoughts, Chell lifted her head fast and stared at the old radio, which had never behaved like this in the three years since she'd traded it from Aaron's store. She watched the signal light tremble like a trapped cricket, on, off, on- the sweet old song came through strong and clear for a single moment, and then another burst of static obliterated it for good.

She rounded the table, stepping over Aaron's crate, and crossed the room, reaching for the radio's controls, a row of buttons tucked beneath the scratched-up old LCD screen that usually displayed the name of the station. It was showing nothing but nonsense now, a string of random numbers which flickered and changed by the second.

zzrrzzwwrrrzzchhh

BEEEEP.

The sound was clean and clear, and quite loud. Chell's hand, which had almost been at the controls, snatched itself back. She stood quite still, her arm crossed protectively across her chest, as the radio began to speak.

"-now? You want me to- do it now? Okay, okay, keep your wig on. I'm doing it, I'm starting, right now. Any minute now, just polishing the- the basic framework what I'm going to say, here, just making sure I've got all my points lined up, as it were- what are you doing? No, I'm just-aaaAAAAAHH!"

A bit of staticky hard-breathing.

"You- you didn't have to do that! I was doing it! I probably needed that for something! Oh, you have definite anger management problems, you have. Definite issues there. I'm just saying, you might want to look at that- NOnono right I'm doing it now."

Pause.

"So... er... hello! Hi. Hi there, umm... so! Apparently, the signal on my- my thingie, beacon sort of thingie up there somewhere- long story- is sending this out over a pretty wide area, so, so, um, if you're listening to this- which I really, really hope you are, because otherwise this is all a bit pointless, isn't it, I might as well be talking to myself. In a room, by myself, talking. Just to myself, nobody listening, just me. Hoping that's not the case. Right... where was I? Yeah, if you are listening, there's no point in me telling you who this is, because you'll know, right off the bat."

An edgy sort of silence. Chell hadn't moved much, except to lower her arm a little. A very keen-eyed observer might have noticed that the pulse had quickened in her neck, thrown into greater relief by the tightening of her jaw.

"It's Wheatley, by the way. Just on the offchance that you don't remember, that you've sustained some kind of major head injury... again... and lost your memory completely- again, hoping that's not the case. Oh, wait, though- thinking about it, if that is the case, if you have completely lost your memory and don't have the faintest clue who I am or what I'm talking about, all you've got to know is, I'm sort of an old friend. Your- your best friend, really. Best friend, we go way back, way back, and you're going to want to help me out, because, well, you know, that's what friends do. Umm... getting back to the point, though, if you haven't lost your memory you're going to know, obviously, that all that, that 'best friend' business, was complete bollocks. Sorry about that. Although, you have to admit, it was worth a try. Bit desperate, here, actually."

A nervous laugh. "Thing is- get ready for a shocker- I'm not in space any more. Not in space any more, was until a little while ago, now am not. Now, er, if you are listening and you haven't lost your memory, you're going to know where I am now. Not going to go into it, it's pretty obvious, just think of the- the first place that'll occur to you, right? Yes! That's it! You've got it. That's where I am. And- this is the crux of the matter, as it were, really getting down to business now- I was sort of... sort of hoping you might come and... and get me out of here."

The voice scrambled on, falling over itself in its urgency. "Now, I know what you're thinking- why, right? Why should I? Why should I risk my life for that total little bastard who tried to murder me back when I was trying to escape before? And, you know... that is a really good question. So good, in fact, that I can't actually think of a good answer at this point in time. I'm working on it! I'm definitely working on that one, probably going to have a really good answer for you in just a tick. I mean... not going to lie, if you do come back you're probably going to get killed. Statistically, I mean, the odds are very much ten to one against you not getting killed, if you come back. I mean, bloody hell, I know I wouldn't if I were you. Haha, no, not a chance, if I were you I'd just turn whatever it is you're listening to me off right now and walk away. But don't actually do that!"

The voice hitched up another panicked notch.

"Please don't do that, please do not do that, I don't know why I even suggested that. In fact, I'd really would seriously appreciate it if you disregarded all that, pretty much everything I said there, threw it all out of the window, and came and got me anyway. Still can't think of much of a reason why you should, if I'm honest, that is still very much a work in progress. If it's- if it's any help, I never actually wanted any of that to happen, all that stuff... I mean, I wish we'd just stuck with our original plan- remember? Remember that? Turn off Her neurotoxin, disable all Her turrets, and get Her to let us go. Now, that was a good plan. We'd've both got out, then, together, me and you. Partners in crime. Holmes and Watson. Two Musketeers. Wheatley and- I'm rambling, I'm rambling, sorry about that, I think the- the last thing She did to me short-circuited something in here, I keep getting this urge to keep going on and on about things that happened in the past. Right... aaand I think I'm just about out of time, actually, the thingy's going to go out of range in a mo, won't be back for another twenty-four hours, apparently, give or take. So... yes. Quick summary, just in case you lost the thread a bit there..."

Wheatley's voice dropped, beginning to fizz at the edges with static, low and and almost, almost hopeless.

"Just- please come and get me. Please. I am quite literally begging you. On my knees. Figure of speech, obviously, if I had knees, I'd be on them. I don't care what you do with me afterwards, deactivate me, use me as a paperweight, use me as a football- I don't mind! Just, please, please don't leave me here with Her. And- and- oh, God! I forgot! I forgot, I can't believe I forgot- look, okay, here goes, umm, know it doesn't really matter now, but I'm honestly, honestly, truly, ssrrwvvrchhwrzzzhhh

BEEEEP.

The little green light flickered a little, went steady. Once again, quiet, static-muffled music filled the warm, bread-scented air of the bakery. Chell leaned on the counter, sucking in great calming breaths, marshalling her thoughts.

It didn't take her too long. Chell's nature was one of sharp, clear definitions, the interlocking parts of her mind firmly and neatly compartmentalised, with little room for overlap. Her strong, highly adaptable sense of logic and the unnatural freedom it gave her to reorganise her priorities had kept her alive in situations which would have killed a less practical woman.

She switched the radio set off, listened to the silence for a moment or two, then turned and headed out of the room. Outwardly, her face still retained more or less the same calm expression it had had before the radio had started to speak, but there was still that tight set to her jaw, that fast running beat in her throat. She looked older than she had, somehow- older, and a hell of a lot harder.

There was a cupboard in the kitchen- barely more than a sectioned-off little alcove by the chimneybreast, with a cleverly-fitted door of painted pine. She pulled it open, ducked inside, and came out with her hair full of cobwebs and a sturdy-looking serge rucksack in her hands.

Another attribute that marked Chell out from the ordinary was her unusual personal definition of 'hope.' For most people, 'hope' was a fluffy, poorly-defined thing, a vague wish that things would go how they wanted. For Chell, on the other hand, there was nothing vague about it. She'd had too much hope taken from her, crushed, sliced, diced, jumped up and down on and returned in handy compressed cube format, to put any store in that kind of helpless wistfulness. When she hoped for something, she tended to focus all her will- her frightening, one-track, cast-iron will- on making damn sure she could make it reality.

She'd hoped that she'd never, ever have to set foot in That Place again. For four years, it had seemed that her hope had come true. Still, a part of her- that same frightened, damaged part which stabbed at her from time to time whenever she heard an alarm tone, or saw exposed wiring spilling from the back of a machine- didn't believe it. Couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that she'd made it out and that nothing would ever come after her to shatter her new, safe, hard-won life and drag her back in to that nightmare for good. Just the hope wasn't enough for her, so she'd backed it up with a good, solid plan, and the proof was heavy in her arms as she jogged back up the steps into the front room and upended it on the couch.

Flashlight, batteries, compass, first-aid kit. Painkillers, dust mask, a bright wrapped tube of red chalk. A penknife, matches, boxer's tape, a short crowbar on a climber's clip, and another, larger cloth wrap containing several odd, lumpy objects. Everything double-wrapped in plastic, sealed in a watertight bag.

Chell looked hard at the jumble of objects for a moment or two, checked inside the cloth wrap, laying its contents out on the worn linen throw, then repacked everything else carefully in the rucksack. Pulling out a wide wooden drawer beneath the table, she leafed through a few sheets of paper before finding the one she was looking for, a big rough-edged square of butcher paper which she folded into quarters and tucked into the pocket of her old jeans, wedging it as deeply and securely as it would go.

This done, she slung the rucksack over one arm to test its weight, then left the room again, heading upstairs.

Behind her, the half-dozen lumpy things she'd taken from the cloth wrap lay in a rough row, quite innocuous in the sunbeam slanting across the couch. From a distance, they looked a bit like blocks of dough.

Hope was all very well. Chell believed in insurance.

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

"That was pathetic."

The Voice filled the small, dark chamber.

"I know that was the point, but I thought I'd just clarify it for you anyway. In fact, just in case you weren't paying attention, I'll clarify it for you again. That was pathetic."

Silence.

"Since you're actually not talking for a change, I'm going to assume that you agree with me. Seriously, even if she is still in range, do you really think she'll come back to try and save you based on that uninspired stream of gibberish that fell out of your mouth just now? You know, you might just be the ideal candidate for a job which I've just invented. Demotivational speaker. You could go around giving seminars to people who have ambitions, and inspire them to give up before they've even started. On the positive side, if she had been already on her way to rescue you when she heard that, at least you've saved her a trip."

"I should have told her," mumbled Wheatley. The tangle of arms and cables that held him suspended off the floor swayed slightly as he scraped his functioning optical lid open. Some of them were still ported into the connectors in his battered shell, but the numbing jolts of carefully-coded synthetic pain had, for the moment, stopped. "I should have told her, why didn't I tell her? 'I'm sorry.' That's all it would've taken. 'I'm sorry.' Rehearsed it enough times, hundreds of times, bloody hundreds-"

He twitched. Sparks scattered across the grimy floor.

"Why didn't I just say it?"

"Because you're a moron."

The cracked blue lens which accounted for most of the light in the chamber flared, weakly.

"I'm not a moron."

"Yes, you are. I wouldn't feel too bad about it, though- it's in your programming. You're incapable of being anything else. On the other hand, there's nothing in your programming about completely betraying people who were relying on you to help them. That's all your own work, and you should feel terrible about that."

"I'm not falling for that," said Wheatley, without much conviction. "I can see right through your sneaky little mind games, lady. You're just saying that to make me feel rotten. You- you are just saying that, right?"

A longer silence.

"Er. Hello?"

"Sorry. I was just running the numbers on whether she'll come back to save you or not, and I have to admit, they're not quite as bad as I thought. In fact, they're almost- oh, wait, my mistake. I forgot to put this decimal point back in. Let me just do that."

A quiet, cheerful little boop.

"Oh. I was right the first time. It's hopeless. I'll just have to think of something else. You know, I guess most people would say that your total failure to convince her to come and rescue you is enough of a punishment in itself."

"They would, yeah," said Wheatley, hopefully. "Yep, that's me good and punished, they'd be thinking... does, er, does this happen to be the theory you're leaning towards yourself, by any chance, or...?"

Her laugh was distant thunder.

"What do you think?"

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

The perfect lake basked in the late-morning sun. The only remaining traces of the dramatic scene before dawn were the scars of the backwash on the banks, and a certain slightly charred look to the foliage of the overhanging trees, as if someone had had a particularly enthusiastic barbecue just underneath, and neglected to read up on their Woodland Fire Safety beforehand.

Chell stood on the bank at its highest point, looking down into the clear, mirrorlike water. Despite its clarity, you couldn't see the bottom- the reflections of the trees got in the way, and it was impossible to tell exactly how deep it was. There were many ways into That Place- she knew there were probably many more than she'd discovered yet- but she'd seen at first glance that something had happened here. If this was the way he'd been pulled in, then there was a slender chance that it might take her straight to him. When you were dealing with Her, every little bit of extra luck helped.

Hefting the rucksack higher on her back, she pulled a leaf from a dangling branch of silver maple and let it go, following it with her eyes as it slip-slid gently through the air and landed on the water's surface. It floated for a moment, spreading ripples-

-then vanished. Her quick eye tracked it downwards for a second, a bright streak of green, dwindling, gone.

She adjusted her rucksack again and bent to slip a loosening finger into the back of one of the sleek black-and-white boots strapped to her feet. There was something horribly natural about the sensation of being held up on perpetual tiptoe, her heels supported on long, curved metal braces. She didn't at all like how comfortable the boots felt to her, or how quickly she'd relearned the knack of jogging along almost en pointe, letting the braces absorb every jolt and tremor.

It was a beautiful day. For a moment- and a moment only- she turned her face up to the sky, fixing the exact shade of blue in her mind's eye, the breeze, the scent of earth and grass, the warmth of the sun on her skin.

She didn't linger too long. That would have felt too much like saying goodbye.

Chell stepped up to the brink, took a deep, deep breath, swung up her arms, and dived.

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

The freezing lakewater hit her like a punch to the stomach. She knifed down into the lake, the air trapped in her clothes and hair streaming off her in silvery ribbons.

Almost immediately, as her own momentum from the dive was spent, she felt something else taking over. A wicked undertow far too powerful to be anything churned up by chance, a deadly suction rolling the springfed lakewater in a constant dragging turnover beneath the deceptive calm of the surface. It grabbed Chell's body like a toy caught in a vacuum hose, sucking her straight down towards the murky lakebed.

Rolling feet-first into the dive, she opened her eyes and found herself looking straight down into a gaping black void, the mouth of a tube easily six feet across. The single shaken water-blurred glance she got across the rest of the lakebed as she was sucked towards it showed her dozens more, a huge regular grid of hungry black holes spanning the whole bottom, which was clean and lifeless as an asphalt road.

She crossed her arms over her chest, and braced as well as she could. The dark mouth hurled up to meet her, and then she was inside, blind, deaf, her ears popping and clanging and her stomach turning inside out as she was sucked downwards. Ordinary directions quickly stopped making any sense at all, as with the hurtling body of water around her she was yanked left, right, side-to-side again and again, the pipe twisting and turning, navigating an unseen course hundreds of feet down towards an unknown destination.

A sudden flush of colder water smacked into her from the side, throwing her against the slick wall of the tube. She guessed- rightly- that she'd just been swept past an intersection, her pipe merging with another. The blackness around her was absolute, the churning water pressing in on her and forcing burning fingers down into her nose and throat. She could feel the danger signals beginning; her lungs starting to grow heavy in her chest, the gathering pressure in her temples. She was running out of time.

She strained her ears and realised there was a slight variation in the pounding crush of current up ahead. Something was a little different up there, the bewildering din was a little lighter, less resonating- and now, she could make out that the blackness was no longer perfectly black, there was light somewhere and she could just make out the white uppers of her boots-

Air, she needed air, her body's urge to take a breath was becoming a yammering desperate demand, and it was all she could do not to give it to it and breathe her first lungful of water. There was a hammering pulsing behind her eyes and her chest felt stuffed with hot rocks. The blackness gave way to a dull greyish light and she twisted, desperately, her hands swiping the sides of the tube- and hit something hard with stunning force.

By sheer luck, Chell struck the filter grate feet-first, the boots doing their job even underwater, absorbing the shock and saving her from being knocked out completely- which would, under the circumstances, have been fatal. The jolt smacked the remaining oxygen out of her lungs, a tiny string of bubbles whirling from her mouth and away through the grate. The current pinned her to it like a bug on a corkboard, and her hammering hands did nothing but send muffled vibrations through the tempered glass sides. Fumbling, dizzy, she scrabbled at her belt. The climber's clip- usually simplicity itself to unhook- seemed like an unsolvable alien puzzle, but it finally gave.

Black starbursts were beginning to cluster and pop softly at the edges of her vision. Chell bit her tongue to keep awake, tasted blood, braced herself against the grate, screamed a silent airless scream, and swung her crowbar at the glass.

CRRSSHHH.

An explosive fountain of water and broken glass flooded out of the pipe and out into a rush of dry, dusty air. Chell fell with it, flailing, landing bodily on a catwalk ten feet down. Coughing and retching, she rolled out of the battering stream as it continued to gush down out of the shattered pipe, then twisted face-down and vomited a hell of a lot of lakewater through the steel mesh.

Gasping, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she rolled over and stared up into a murky infinity of winding, water-filled glass tubes. The one she'd fallen from snaked up some hundred feet past the point where she'd broken it, before vanishing into the gloom, and beyond the fractured cataract of water she could just about make out a line of thick, stencilled letters running lengthways up the glass.

COOLANT PIPE G-0052

She pulled herself up on the catwalk's metal rail, shaking her wet hair from her face, breathing hard- partly to get her breath back, partly just to reassure herself that she still could. The air smelled of fried dust, the dangerous, back-of-the-teeth smell of ozone. There was a faint background hum, ever-present, low and droning and enough to tell anyone with half an ear that this place was far from dead, as much as it might look it. She would have known it anyway, known it in her gut even if she'd been struck stone deaf by the ride- the facility was still very much alive, and that meant, somewhere at the heart of it- at the very centre of the web- so was She.

Chell shouldered her sodden rucksack, picked a direction, and started jogging. She'd been half-drowned and cheated death by the narrowest of narrow margins, the bright surface-world already seemed like an unreal dream, and every echoing step was taking her further into Hell, but she could still feel herself beginning to smile a very small, very grim smile.

She was in.

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

"Actually... why do we have to leave right now?"

The act of recalling the emergency lift was such a minuscule expenditure of effort for his new, godlike body that he hardly felt it at all. On his command, it slowed, stopped, then started to descend towards the chamber floor.

On some insignificant, barely-aware level, he registered the look on her face, the growing shock and hurt and horror written in her eyes, but she was so far away and so, so tiny, and what did her little human thoughts and feelings matter to him, anyway? He was everything, now, everything, the entire facility his to control, and he could feel every inch of it, every chamber and catwalk, every machine and panel and subroutine and circuit, all HIS HIS HIS-

He tried to tell her how good it felt, how brilliant it was to be the one in charge for a change, not just some little thing to be ignored and kicked around, something that had to ask, beg and plead for its advice to be taken, if it was ever taken at all. He tried to get it across to her, the glorious freedom of being able to make anything, absolutely anything he wanted happen in the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, the relay of a microprocessor. Real power, real autonomy, and endless, endless opportunity.

And when she didn't even try to be happy for his success, when all he saw in her stupid little organic face was an unfamiliar blazing anger- and something else, a hardening sort of determined look which wasn't so unfamiliar and which, under the circumstances, he didn't like at all- well, he started to get annoyed.

She couldn't be happy for him, could she? She didn't care that he'd been waiting and hoping and longing for something like this to happen for so, so long, that this, right here and now, was the best, brightest moment in his long, dull, pathetically pointless little artificial life. She didn't care that in this amazing body he finally had a chance to Make A Difference, to finally prove once and for all that he wasn't a waste of circuitboards, he wasn't a failure, oh no, far from it, with all his fantastic ideas he'd be so much better in charge of this place than crazy-mad-bonkers downright murderous Her. No. Little Miss In-Such-A-Flaming-Hurry didn't care about any of that. All she cared about was her own selfish, fleshy skin.

And then She'd made him even angrier, and with his limited cognitive processes still flooding themselves out into the unimaginably vast terabytes of new capacity he'd been angrier than he'd ever been before, ever, so, so angry that his one perfect moment in the limelight was being spoiled by Her taunts and the clear accusation in her burning, silent stare. And he'd put Her in a potato and punched Her- punched both of them- down into the abyss below the facility, and only then, only in that very last moment did a fleeting flicker of submerged thought go what have I done I never wanted-

But it was too little too late and he was so big and important now and there was so much to do, so much he could do without her hanging around, slowing him down, getting in the way of what he really wanted to do and there was a thought, wouldn't it be a good idea to rig up some tests? Nothing fancy, just a few buttons, the odd cube, a few simple tests to really get the hang of how the place worked, and why shouldn't he now that he was in control of it and hhhHe was in control of everything and He sort of really, really wanted to test. He had a vague feeling that He'd had other priorities not that long ago but they didn't matter now, nothing mattered because He was in control and He could test and everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be just fine.

And maybe there was a tiny, tiny voice that was saying otherwise but He didn't have to listen. Nobody else had listened, nobody had ever, ever listened to daft, insignificant old Wheatley, and now they could all bloody well see how they liked it…

she listened she listened she listened, screamed the tiny little voice, and it hurt the circuits he had instead of lungs and the vocal processor he had instead of a throat to scream that hard, but he had to, he had to get through to the Him that had done all those terrible things and get him to stop. And okay it didn't make a lot of sense but he had to try, because maybe if he shouted hard enough He'd hear himself this time, and it hadn't worked all the other times but maybe, maybe this time it would-

And then it was cold and dark and the connectors buried inside his ports sparked and cracked and shocked him back to the present. He was himself again, tiny and helpless and hurting in every part of the carefully-assembled artificial nervous system that he really, really wished he didn't have, and generally, in the scheme of things, just not having a good day.

"Good news," said Her Voice. "I thought that the three-minute cycle of memory files you're currently experiencing for the sixty-eighth time might be getting a little dull, so I had a look round and, guess what? It turns out my system backed up everything you did when you were trying to run the facility and failing. That means that we have a complete data record of every single bad decision you made. I'm going to compile a highlights reel. You'll still be reliving it over and over again forever, but the editing will be better and I might add some music. Then again, maybe closed-captioning in a nice, big font would be more appropriate for your level of-"

She was interrupted by an alarm tone. It was a high urgent wail, accompanied by a tinny recording that sounded like it had been made by a harassed Fifties-era radio announcer with his head in a sock.

"Warning. Unidentified pressure loss in primary coolant system. System currently at eighty-five percent efficiency."

"That's strange." She said. "I know I fixed the whole issue with the blockage and the herd of drowned deer months ago, so it can't be that. Oh well. Since it seems to be up to me to deal with all the useless carcasses left lying around this facility, I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere. That was a joke, by the way- I thought I should point that out, because not only are you incapable of doing anything by yourself, you're also not smart enough to understand the concept of sarcasm."

"Coolant system currently at seventy-five percent efficiency," said the harried, sock-over-head radio announcer voice, above the alarm.

"Speaking of useless carcasses left lying around the facility, I'm putting you in charge of monitoring this chamber while I'm gone. Maybe you could pretend it was a facility of your own, and that you were the kind of person who could run a facility of their own without completely destroying it through gross incompetence. Have fun."

The single glaring uplight fixed on Wheatley's blackened shell faded down to a dull underfloor gleam. The tangle of wires and connector arms holding him in place relaxed a fraction, and the atmosphere in the small, dark chamber cooled a notch, from 'downright malevolent' to merely 'cold and depressing.' The change was subtle, but still enough to suggest that- for the moment, anyway- the deadly laser-point of Her attention had moved elsewhere.

In its absence, the silence was deafening.

"Oh, yeah?" said Wheatley, shakily, after a silence of about five or six minutes. "Yeah, and, and, maybe you could pretend that you weren't a-a total cow."

A pause.

"Yeah, I'm going to admit that… wasn't the best comeback, not the best. Haven't… got a lot to work with here, really."

He sighed. It was a very long, very heavy sigh, and it was a bit too much for his overworked vocal processor, which flanged a little.

"So… continuing in that particular vein, what have I got to work with? I've got a… well, I've got... I've got a... well, I can see! Sort of. And hear, I can hear, still got my hearing, excellent- and… er… not that much else, to be honest. But that's a start! That's definitely a start, if I'm going to get out of here, sight and hearing are definitely going to be in the top ten of useful skills to have. Top five, even, I'd say. The ability to move, too, that's another biggie, shame I don't have that, but… but I…"

Another deep sigh.

"I… don't really know who I'm kidding, to be honest. I'm- I'm never getting out of here, am I?"

He twitched a couple of times, then fell still. After a little while, since nothing in the dark little chamber seemed about to respond one way or the other, he answered himself.

"I'm never getting out of here."

At which precise and timely interval, the wall exploded.

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

Chell's habitual method of reasoning was nothing if not linear. Encountering a problem, she automatically reduced it to the smallest number of components, removing all non-essential detail- the better to understand what the problem actually was, stripped of all the set-dressing. In this case, the problem had been the blank, paneled wall across her path. The coolant pipe- the one she'd been following down a small eternity of dark, narrow catwalks- carried on some fifteen feet over her head, through the wall.

The choice, therefore, had been simple- jog all that long way back in the dark to the last intersection, or do something about the wall. She might not have a portal gun to help her now, but by the time she'd finished her business with the first of the lumpy little packages and the bits of wire and the sulphury handmade match, and retired to a safe distance to watch the wall erupt in a brief roar of debris and dirty flame, she felt the real satisfaction of an aperture well-made.

Apparently, Her guarantee that all equipment would remain functional up to four thousand degrees Kelvin didn't extend to the architecture. The explosion partially destroyed two panels and knocked the rest in the blast radius into all sorts of fantastic angles, leaving a fair-sized hole for her to clamber through.

She found herself in a small, dark chamber. A first sweep showed her a great quantity of disturbed dust and smoke in the air, a lot of debris- and movement; something that twitched and sparked under the beam of her flashlight, and she started back, her free hand making a grab for the crowbar on her belt-

"Uhhh. What…what just haaAAAHHH! I'M BLIND! I'M- oh, it's just a light. Panic over."

Chell lowered the crowbar.

"Although- although it could actually be my eye, my eye could be on the blink- ooh, pun not intended but quite clever, though, store that away- hello? Is there someone there? If there is someone there, and it's not just me malfunctioning, can you- can you not shine that right in my face, please? It's not helpful, in fact it actually hurts, quite a lot, so I'd appreciate it if you'd leave it out-"

Click.

"Thanks, that's much better," said Wheatley, distractedly. The repercussions of the explosion had knocked him loose on one side, leaving him dangling sideways from the remaining connector arms like the last ball in a very shabby Newton's cradle. His cracked, sooty optic, which had dwindled to a pale pinpoint in the glare of the flashlight, expanded and blinked in her direction.

"Hey… hey, come here! Hey, come a bit closer- it's not- is it? It's-"

The lens widened, flared- for a moment- brightest stratosphere blue. Chell was backlit by it, her shadow black and huge on the broken wall.

"It's you!"

Relief, delight, disbelief, amazement; words were inadequate to express the quantity of each that Wheatley managed to pack into those two syllables. His optic scraped a whole loopy three-sixty turn in celebration and he laughed, uncontrollably, his voice tumbling out helter-skelter with shock-induced shakiness.

"It's you! It's you, you came back! You actually- oh, you have no idea how glad I am to see you right now. Oh, I can't believe it. This can not be happening, this- oh- hang about, maybe it's not."

His pupil shrank in sudden terror.

"Oh, God- look, can you sort of give me a bit of a poke, or… hit me or something- gently, though, not too hard!- just to prove, for absolute certain, that I'm not just seeing things? Because I have been seeing all sorts of weird things recently- stress, I think it's stress, and Her messing about with my insides, that could also be a factor-"

Chell, who had been studying the tangle of mechanics disappearing into Wheatley's upper port, chose this moment to grab him in the crook of one arm, get a good grip on the connectors with her free hand, and give the entire mess of mechanical knotwork a tremendous yank. There was a vicious frizzing sound, a lot of sparks, and an agonised yell.

"GAAAHHH! Gently, I said gently- oh, look at that, I'm free, well done!"

"Impressive manual override you did on that wall there, by the way," he continued, as Chell shook out her spark-numbed hand and started to unbuckle her rucksack. "Very nice work, first-rate. Had no idea you were such a techie. Ohh… man alive, are you a sight for sore eyes. I still can not believe..."

He trailed off. Something seemed to be pressing on his mind- his optic turned floorwards, squinted, peered up sideways at her, managing to convey an incredible amount of guilt for something that was basically just a metal sphere with an eye in it.

"Can I just say, before we go any further, that I'm... I'm really sorry. For everything. I'm sorry I was such a, a monster, I'm sorry I was so demanding and pushy and... er, well, murderous. To you. I was wrong, you were right, I never should have tried to run the place by myself, and I... well, I'm just..."

He paused, searched for a better, sharper, smoother, more convincing way of putting it. Gave up.

"...sorry."

Chell left off on the rucksack's thick canvas straps and stared down at him, kneeling on the grimy panelled floor.

She hadn't been looking forward to seeing the little personality core again, not after their last parting, after everything that had happened. She'd expected to be angry- and she was, to a degree that surprised her- four years of healing had done very little to dull the burning sense of outrage and hurt she'd feltthe total injustice of the way he'd treated her.

And yet…

She still had no memory of her life- if she'd had one- before. There were certain things which suggested to her that she'd had a life, once- knowledge and understanding, learned skills, things her muscles remembered, facts she knew, ideas that struck chords in her mind- but not a memory of her own. She could run fast and shoot straight and juggle spatial logistics like lightning, but she didn't know where she'd lived. She remembered how drive a truck and how to make bread dough rise, but not her parent's faces. She knew where Australia was on a map and who the Wright Brothers were, but not her own last name.

She'd been awake- aware- for such a short time, only for that hellish first struggle, those hours of testing and fighting her way through the facility to try to get out, always to get out, and if that meant going through Her, then so be it. Chell had no remorse. If she'd tried to kill the murderous A.I, it had been out of nothing but self-defence. She supposed that others, nobler in the mind and more ethical than herself, would have argued that She had self-awareness and a mind of her own, that killing Her was no better than murder, and would have stayed their hand in the name of human mercy and compassion.

And those fine, high-minded, ethical people, without a shadow of a doubt, would have got their stupid heads splattered all over the facility.

Chell was made of sterner stuff. She'd fought hard and survived everything thrown at her, she'd endured, she'd killed Her and she'd come so close, so close, to being free-

Then- nothing. Scattered recollections, dim, sedated dreams, the long, long sleep, and then-

He'd been the first friendly voice she'd known in the entirety of her short, painful span of experience. He'd been the only thing she'd known which hadn't been merely an extension of Her, guided by Her psychotic will. And while his motives had been fairly transparent from the start- he'd wanted out just as badly as her, and saw her as a mobile, agile, button-pushing means to an end- just the fact that he did share her goal had been enough to draw them closer together.

Her partner in adversity, after so long with only Her hateful voice for company, his endless wittering had been a welcome relief. His capacity for talking utter nonsense would have driven most people around the bend, but Chell hadn't minded. His voice had helped her to think, calmed her, grounded her worse fears. Hard to feel quite so terrified, hard to feel quite so close to death, when you were always listening with half an ear to the rambling white noise of a radio constantly tuned to Twit FM.

She'd followed him through hell and back, she'd risked her life on his say-so- his advice might have been of dodgy merit but it had been all she'd had. And maybe it had been because she'd been so starved of friendly human contact, and he'd seemed so human, for all his flaws as much like a real person as a talking metal eyeball could possibly be, but for whatever reason, after a while she'd found herself doing something even more foolhardy than taking his advice.

She'd liked him.

She'd liked him and that had made it so much worse. She had taught her what it was like to be threatened by an enemy, but Wheatley had taught her how it felt to be betrayed by a friend.

Yes, she'd expected to feel angry. She hadn't expected the pity, the sharp startled pang in her gut at his sorry state, the soot and scratches and the dented, levered-apart look of his shell, the crack in his optic and the frayed wires in his sides. It brought her straight back to the first difficult weeks and months after her escape; how despite the safety and peace of the place she'd found for herself she'd gone back and forth constantly from anger to something approaching grief. She'd mourned him- there was no better word- mourned him like the loss of a friend, and of all her nightmares the one which packed the most punch hadn't been of death or testing (and those were bad enough, and frequent enough) it had been of those last few moments when he'd seemed himself again, begging her to hold on, the howl of the vacuum around them and his handles being dragged unstoppably out of her grip.

And the very last thing she'd expected at the sight of him was the painful little lift she'd felt, the small, confused part of her that was glad to see him. Most of her only wished that he had a proper face for the purposes of punching, but apparently, one bewildered little part of her mind hadn't got the memo. It had missed him, this little robot who'd once devoted his entire (debatable) capacity for reason towards trying to murder her. Why? And, more to the point, why give him another chance?

Then again, if she didn't believe in second chances, just what in the hell was she doing here? She'd dropped everything, walked out of the new life she'd spent four years building, just for the sake of this small, mouthy metal ball. In Chell's mind this was not a purely altruistic action- she'd simply been unable to stomach the thought of ignoring his pleading in cold blood, of leaving him there at Her mercy, never mind what he'd done and tried to do. Yes, it was logical, yes, it was probably no more than he deserved, but in the heat of the moment Chell had barely even considered it as an option. It felt far too much like something She would have done.

No. There had to be something worth saving. Chell would have been the first to admit that sometimes she erred on the side of cold practicality- she owed her life to it- but if she was going to die down here, and she was under no illusions about this being more than likely, she'd rather die trying to rescue an ally than an enemy.

He shrank a little under her gaze, his pupil dwindling and sliding sideways, distinctly leery of meeting hers.

"Yeah, you're right," he said, hastily, although she hadn't so much as blinked, "you're right, probably not the moment for this right now, we should probably just focus on escaping, and we can save the, uh, in-depth recriminations for a bit down the track when we've got some breathing space. Assuming both of us survive. Sounds like a plan. I just... wanted to say it, you know? Just wanted to say that I was sorry, and-"

"Prove it."

"-that I... I..."

Wheatley trailed off again, this time out of sheer shock. It was his turn to be speechless for a change, too astonished to do anything more than meet her grim, clear gaze. Her voice had been low but perfectly distinct, and it was plain from her expression that she wasn't about to repeat herself. She knew he'd heard. Her very look defied him to say any more, to ask for clarification, bargain, explain. As far as she was concerned, the subject was closed, no more needed to be said, and no more would be welcome. He'd offered his apology, and she'd set her terms; it was as simple as that.

Prove it.

She'd never spoken, never said a single word- down here. Here, where nothing else was under her control, not even the ground she stood on,where everything was demanded of her, her voice was the only thing she could always withhold. Even two short words felt like a jinx, a bad mistake, but she'd never had much truck with superstition anyway, and if he was coming with her this time she meant to make sure as hell he understood her terms.

Wheatley, for once in his life, took the hint.

There was a gentle clank as she set his battered shell down on the chamber floor. So far, so lucky, but if they really were unobserved for the moment- and Chell knew not to take anything so unlikely for granted- it was only a matter of time. Working quickly, she threaded the tough straps at the back of her rucksack through his handles, fixing him there like an extra carryall at the level of her shoulderblades.

Wheatley managed to stay quiet throughout, his optic working anxiously back and forth, darting into the corners of the room as she stood up and tested the new weight at her back.

"Right, well… good job! Nicely done. Granted, I can't actually see anything in front of us, not going to be much use there, but if you want to know what's happening behind you, I'm your man. Core. I'm your core. Now... I'm sure you've got this figured out already, but just in case you need a reminder, we should probably get going, sharpish. Just in case- and this is a remote, remote possibility, okay?- just in case She comes back."

Chell just shook her head and set off back the way she had come, picking her way across the rubble, her boots clunking gently on the grimy floor. In her view the possibility of their being discovered was far, far bigger than merely remote, but it was much easier to keep doing, anyway. Pressing onwards towards the ultimate goal of getting out of the facility alive was the only thing that could stop her from thinking too much about their situation, and she fell gratefully back into the habit of near-absolute focus on the matter in hand.

She also soon found herself slipping back into the habit of keeping half an ear on the wittering voice at her back. Wheatley was clearly still quite badly thrown, either by her ultimatum or just by the fact that she had spoken to him at all. He gabbled on, painfully unsure, an unsteady, out-of-kilter note to his voice as he tried far too hard to sound casual.

"Okay, She's moved things about a bit since I was down here last, but I think I still know where we are. The coolant pipe network runs right by the old R&D facility. It's all offices in there, boardrooms and that. If we can get in there, I'm fairly sure that She won't be able to see us, and who knows, there might be something in there we could use! So, er, with that in mind, we want to go... left, here."

Chell hesitated at the junction. The catwalk was so high up that there was nothing visible beneath but a murky grey-blue haze, and the air tasted slightly salty in her mouth, buzzing with power from some vast, distant electrical field. The low, ever-present humming made her ears ache and set the hairs on the back of her neck standing to attention.

"Yeah- just here," said the small, jittery voice between her shoulderblades. She felt him jerk, involuntarily- in the four-year interval, she'd almost forgotten about his small, damaged nervous twitch. "Left. Hand you write with, right, well, it's the other one. Oh, unless you're left-handed- in which case, it is the hand you write with. Whichever- that's the way you want to go."

Deciding that it didn't make much odds one way or another, Chell took the left-hand fork.

In that respect, nothing had changed. His advice might be mostly unhelpful and she could certainly take it with a pinch of salt- and a huge side-salad of suspicion- but she couldn't just ignore it outright. He knew this place. Her own keen intuition had saved her more times than she cared to count, but where she had common sense and logic, he had… well… sometimes knowing when to go left. It wasn't much, but as before, it was better than nothing.

She heard him make a sound like a shaky little laugh. "Brings back memories, this. You and me, running around down here, me being all like 'Go left!' and you doing it… I sort of, sort of missed it, you know? Not much of that going on in space. Not much of anything going on, to be honest."

He paused.

"I mean, I'm not suggesting you missed it. This, I mean. Running around, carrying me- which you do like a champion, by the way- I don't suppose you missed this at all, right? I just mean- well- it's our little thing, this, isn't it? Our little strategy. I got your six, you got my- er- well, me, you've got me. Foolproof. Can't go wrong."

There was a sudden, distant noise. The catwalk trembled; the sound of grating metal resonated above and around them like the clearing of an immense throat. Chell froze; at her back, Wheatley's twitchy blue pupil shrank to a pinpoint.

"Ah. I think- I think She- it's probably nothing, maybe go a bit quicker-"

The catwalk lurched. Chell stumbled and almost fell, grabbing for the rails, losing her grip on the flashlight. It fell into the chasm below, a dwindling end-over-end speck of light, engulfed by a rising, flickering fluorescent glow.

The lights were coming back on.

Wheatley yelped, craning the bearings in his inner shell in a wholly useless attempt to see around Chell's back.

"Never mind, never mind, change of plan- RUUUN!"

Chell didn't need to be told. She sprinted down the catwalk, the springs on her boots clanging off the metal, arms pumping, jaw set. The distant walls rippled as she passed, drawing closer, the noise rising, filling the stale air with the sounds of machinery in pain. Behind her, Wheatley was yelling warning or encouragement or both; it was hard to tell because his voice hitched every time her foot slammed down, making him sound like he had a bad case of hiccups.

"I can't actually see where we're going! This could be a problem- right go right go right-"

Chell amended her path at the last moment, glanced off the railings, kept going. Ahead, a great long straight section stretched into the distance, disappearing into the harsh white glare of the newly-awakened lights.

"I don't think I can do this if I can't see where we're going! Listen, how good are you at running backwards?"

The catwalk gave another violent lurch. To Chell, it felt horribly as if something vital at one or both ends of the structure was being pulled out of its foundations by the creeping, crushing movement of the walls. There was nothing she could do about it, whether it was or not- her only focus was the end of this walkway, where she could just about make out an unmoving grey pillarlike structure, and a dark-smudged shape which could be a door.

"I don't want to alarm you," Wheatley was saying, framing every word very loudly and distinctly to compensate for his vocal processor being tossed around like a mojito in a cocktail shaker, "but I think She might be on to us."

The walls were still advancing at a terrifying rate, heralded by the thick heavy clankclankclank of moving panels. Putting on an extra burst of speed for the last hundred feet, Chell skidded to a halt at the door. The dark smudging she'd seen from a distance was graffiti, the sight so familiar after four years that it hurt, shaky faded black-splattered words scrawled who-knew-how-long-ago by her anonymous, advice-giving, secret-signing, long-departed friend.

IN HERE!

She tried the handle. It was open.

"What are you waiting for?" screamed Wheatley, as the walls thundered closer. The massive coolant chamber was no longer massive. It was hardly the size of Her chamber now, and narrowing fast, folding in around the central structure like a closing fist. "Get inside! Get inside!"

Too easy, said the little warning voice in the front of Chell's mind. Still, as always in this Godforsaken place, she didn't exactly have much choice. She threw open the door, paused just long enough to take in grey flooring and pale, painted walls, and threw herself inside, slamming it behind her.

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

 
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