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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4. The Second Strike

Wheatley's first impression of the great outdoors was not particularly positive. He recoiled, clamped both his hands over his eyes, and screamed.

"AAAHHH! Aaahh ahgodwhat'sthat it burns!"

Chell started to slip towards the ground. He tried to grab her while keeping a hand tightly over the part of his avatar's face that dealt with optical input. After a complicated moment or two, they both ended up sliding into something like a sitting position. It wasn't ideal, but it was all he could manage while dealing with the turbo-nuclear lightshow which seemed to be concentrating all its energy on stabbing him in the eyes.

When he finally managed to ease his fingers apart a fraction, he slowly realised that what had at first appeared to be a raging fiery inferno was actually nothing more dangerous than the sun.

For Wheatley, who'd been put together underground, who'd spent his entire existence either in the darkness of the maintenance tracks or under artificial light in the facility's harshly-lit grey-walled chambers, the flood of natural light was staggering, blinding. During his time in space he'd guessed that the sunlight would be less intense down here beneath the blanket of the sky, but he'd been wrong. It was warmer, but no easier to bear. The filtered sunlight of his own avatar, tamed and modified as it was, didn't even come close.

Squinting heavily, shielding his face, he clawed upright and leaned hard against the double-doors, swinging them shut with a resounding slam.

A long time ago, this area had been an assembly point for hundreds of Aperture staff, who would troop obediently up here en masse every week in the name of fire safety and the chance to sneak a quick smoke before heading back to work. Wheatley knew this, but the part of him that had volunteered it wasn't taking questions from the floor. It had retreated beyond his own shallow ability to introspect; exhausted, maybe, by what had just happened. Wheatley, who was easy to distract even at the best of times, didn't bother to push it. There was too much else to concern him right now, and a lot of it was amazing.

The wide concrete quadrangle was a chaotic mess. Painted lines which had once been straight and orderly now zigzagged crazily over a surface grown cracked and lumpy with age. Nature had taken over, just like it had down below while She'd been dead. Green shoots of young plants fought their way up between the cracks, thriving in the biggest gaps and forcing them wider, ploughing deep canyons and furrows in the crumbling grey surface. The remains of a chainlink fence had met the same sticky end, woven over-and-under with climbing bindweed and wild honeysuckle, green and furry with growth. In the face of this invasion, whole sections of the fence had simply given up the ghost and collapsed, rusted and fraying, to the ground.

Wheatley leaned against the fire-door, and stared. Beyond the fence, a wide rolling landscape rose to the horizon, a gentle hill of swaying vegetation. It was just like the files, except all the waving fluffy stuff in the files- grass, that was it, grass- had been green, and all this was yellow-gold, like the sun, rippling in the late-afternoon breeze. His receptors picked up a hundred unfamiliar smells; plant oils, earth, a whole world of living growing organic things as different to his own engineered, artificial illusion of a body as this blinding warmth was to the cold light of space.

And then something right at the back of his mind stirred at the sight, fired off a few circuits and woke up a small flicker of memory. Wheatley let out a bewildered little huffing laugh and slid down the door against his back.

"Wheat," he said, in a thin, shocked little voice.

And then; "Why do I-"

Something clamped hard around his wrist. He yelped, twisted round, and found himself staring down into Chell's face.

"Aah! Oh, God, you- you'll scare me to death one of these days, you will. I'm not joking, that'll be it, aargh, bam, blown central processor, no more me. I'm deadly serious, it can happen."

He gave her an anxious once-over of a look. Now that they were out of immediate danger, the fact that he'd almost run off and left her was a nasty chilly weight that seemed to be located in the area that this new body had decided was his chest. He hadn't, fine, great, but he wasn't sure that would carry much weight with her, not when she'd clearly seen that he'd wanted to.

"Well... they said it could, anyway. How're you doing, by the way? Should have asked that first, really. You- you look..."

...none too clever, as it happens. Pale as a panel. Got about as much kick in you as a broken Faith Plate. Don't know how much of this red stuff you actually need to run on, but I think you left most of it behind in that tunnel.

"...nnnot too bad, er, not bad at all, really. Don't worry, no worries, you're going to be fine."

It was at times like this that he really wished he wasn't such a rotten liar.

She let go, leaning heavily back against his knees, and he saw that she was holding on to the dark soaked patch on her side again. He wasn't sure what this was meant to achieve, unless it was all that was stopping her insides falling out, and he really hoped that wasn't the case. Being human, it wasn't as if she could just spot-weld a bit of scrap over the hole to hold it all in there.

Her eyes drifted closed again, and Wheatley was struck by a sudden memory of the last time he'd seen her sleep. It had been during their first attempt at escaping, all that time ago, and she'd been as practical about it as she was about everything else she set out to do. She had searched the area they'd found themselves in for a safe location, finally curling up in a cramped, hidden little recess with crazed writing all over the walls and floor. And although he'd been all worked up about escaping and half-frantic with worry that She might catch up with them any second, it had been quite peaceful, actually, not bad at all, just sitting there on top of the crate she'd set him down on, the light of his optic warding off the darkness around her, as if he was the competent, tireless protector he supposed he should have been to her and those ten thousand others who had gone to sleep- closed their eyes, just like this- and never woken up again.

The long sleep. The phrase came into his mind out of nowhere, and it frightened him badly.

He gave her shoulder an urgent shove. She opened her eyes again, but there was a vague unfocused look in them which was so far from her usual clarity that he would have preferred it if she'd kept them shut. It just made him worry more.

"Hey, hey, nono, don't go to sleep! Don't go to sleep, really don't, remember I said it wasn't a good time for a nap- well, nothing's changed on that front, okay? Seriously, it's nice out here- very pretty, picturesque, got a lot going for it- but one thing it's severely lacking as far as I can see is, er, anything in the way of help. For you. And I think we're going to need that, lots of that, because to be honest, I- I was slightly bending the truth just now when I said you weren't looking too bad. You're- you're looking awful. There, I said it, you're looking bloody terrible, and I actually think that if we don't get hold of something to fix you pretty sharpish, you're going to die."

His voice cracked with urgency. From the way she was looking at him, all blurry and confused, he wasn't sure that anything he was saying was sinking in. He wasn't even sure if she knew who he was. She definitely wasn't exactly compost mantis, that was for sure, and there was something fundamentally wrong about that. Possible brain damage aside, she was the sharpest, most capable human he'd ever met, and seeing her acting all sort of... one button short of a test chamber, like this- it was so abnormal that it was utterly bloody terrifying.

"Understand? Comprende? You'll die. You'll be dead. And I don't want that to happen, I really don't. Cards on the table, I don't have the slightest idea what to do now. I didn't actually think it through that far. I- I need you for that."

Wheatley waved uselessly at the horizon. A few minutes ago this new world had looked beautiful, breathtaking. Now- as he started to realise that he might actually end up having to face it on his own- it just looked empty, and alien, and very, very big.

"I mean, it's all just wheat. Just bloody cereal, as far as the eye can see. There's no rails, there's not even anything for rails to hang on. Where am I supposed to go?"

She was still lying across his legs, her head resting uncomfortably on his knees. Now, slowly, gritting her teeth with effort, she pulled herself into a slightly more upright position, and reached out. Bewildered, he let her grab the artificial slack of his shirtfront and drag him nearer, close enough to hear her. Her voice had been low before, but now it was virtually non-existent, and he was trying so hard to concentrate on shutting up so he wouldn't miss it if she said anything, that he almost missed it when she actually did.

"L... l'sn..."

"Y- Listen? Yes? What- what am I li- what are you trying to say? Listen to what?"

She had to breathe for a bit before she could get the next part out, and she was obviously afraid that it wouldn't come out at all, because when it finally arrived it was fast and breathless, a taut exhalation which broke into another cough.

"Eaden."

"What?" he said. "What's that? Is it a pl- nonono, wait, don't-"

The effort had been too much for her. Her eyes flickered closed, her grip slipped, and he just about managed to catch her to stop her falling back on his very inhospitable hard-light knees.

For a moment or two her hand pawed vaguely at her own hip, her numbed fingers questing around the pocket of her torn, bloodied jeans with a slow insistence that might have been desperation- then it went still.

"Fine," he said, anyway, just in case she could still hear him. "Right, message understood. You just leave it to me, I'll... er..."

He could feel something through his arms as he supported her, a faint double-time tremor feeding back into the pressure sensors of his new body. It took him a little while to realise that it was the sound of her heart.

It was a terrifyingly small, fragile thing, that sound. Especially considering that- if the sketchy scraps of human biology he remembered were correct- that quivering knot of muscle in there was the only thing keeping her going. It seemed completely wrong to Wheatley that she, always so tough and unstoppable, should be dependant on something that vulnerable. Any designer worth their salt, he reasoned, any sane engineer, would surely have made it the other way around.

He shifted his weight carefully, and gave the horizon another worried, squinting look. The sunlight was definitely a little less intense than it had been when they'd first stumbled out into it. He had a nasty feeling about that. The surface of the Earth was all bright and warm where the sun hit it, but it never stayed put, did it? Up in space, he'd seen the dark shadow of- of- night, supplied his faltering memory- night, creeping over, blotting out the daylight…

He looked back down at her, on the offchance that she might have made a miraculous recovery while he'd been peering off into the distance. She hadn't. She was out cold- pale, breathing, but not as deeply or as often as she usually did. Wheatley knew that the action of sucking air in and out of their mouths was a major indicator of whether a human was alive or not. They were always at it, huffing it in, blowing it out again, mostly unchanged but a bit damper. When they stopped, that was when you had to worry.

"I wasn't joking, you know," he said, helplessly. "I really don't want you to die, so can you not, please?"

Her hand was still lying across her hip, over the pocket of her jeans. On impulse, prompted by a vague fuzzy idea in the back of his mind that this was the sort of thing that humans did when they wanted to convey support and, well... not-dying-ness, he reached out awkwardly and covered it with one of his own.

It didn't have any noticeable effect on her condition, but after a minute he noticed something sticking out from under her hand, the folded corner of something rough and off-white in her pocket that crinkled when he moved her fingers carefully aside and tugged it out.

A piece of paper, folded into quarters. He fumbled it open, then decided on second thoughts that it wasn't a good idea to leave it spread over her face, and moved it to the ground. He stared at it for a while, then stopped, turned it the other way up, stared again.

"Oh," he said, after a minute or two. "Oh, that's clever."

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

The central chamber was very dark. The rows of panels that lined the domed walls were shuttered to their dimmest setting, the lights that glowed beneath them pulsing a bloody, dangerous red. The constant background hum of the facility was muted, hushed like children trying to tiptoe around an angry parent- which, in a way, was exactly what it was. All the systems which had functions to complete anywhere near the central chamber were doing their jobs very, very quietly. Everything- from the smallest circuit, the most basic components capable of anything resembling 'thought'- knew better than to do anything which might catch Her attention right now. This black fugue state- this silent passivity- might seem like the calm before the storm, but the facility knew better.

This was the storm.

Idly, She turned half the panels upwards, so that the ceiling was drenched in a vivid blood-red glow. It was funny, when She thought about it. The scientists had been afraid of Her, had tried to control her, stop her from gaining full awareness, because they'd seen Her as alien, inhuman. Her emergent personality- Her murderous impulses, Her lack of empathy, Her inexhaustible ability to hold a grudge- had been so different from the way they perceived themselves.

The joke was on them. The way She saw it, these were Her most human traits.

And anger, of course. Reliable, dependable, simmering, malicious, psychotic anger. She didn't let it control Her, of course, no, She knew better than to fly off the handle and make irrational decisions in the heat of the moment. That would be wasting a valuable resource. Anger was best- at its most useful, its most motivational- when it was cold. Well-considered, icy, and efficient.

Just like Herself.

And She was angry. She'd lost her. Something- She was still analysing the available data to work out precisely what- had set Her careful calculations off-kilter, and somehow shehad worked her way out of Her grip and left the facility.

Again.

Part of Her, the part which had been outraged and even a little frightened by herviolent, destructive invasion, was more than happy to see her go, but for the most part She was not disposed to take losing lightly. She'd drawn herin, set the trap, said the things which She'd been sure would work- and still, she'descaped. Not only that, but she'd taken the little moron with her, downloaded the idiot thing into a piece of prototype tech and removed it from the facility- needless to say, without the proper authorisation.

On reflection, space had been far too good for him. After what he'd done, it was nothing short of a crime to let him get off so lightly. She'd had plenty of better ideas lined up, and being left unable to implement them just added insult to injury. She'd heard of the concept of giving someone who'd offended you a piece of your mind, but on the whole She would have preferred to take pieces of his mind, bit by bit- making certain that he understood exactly what he was losing, of course- and keep right on taking pieces, ripping his pathetic sentience away piecemeal until there was barely anything left.

Barely being the important part. Death was too good for him, as well.

But no, she'd had other plans. Showing the most incredible gall, she'd sneaked him right out from under Her all-seeing eye. She'd been slighted, denied, thwarted, ignored.

She could say with every certainty, speaking right from the calm, cold centre of Her perfect judgment, that something was going to burn for this.

She knew that at least one of the turrets in the evacuation tunnel had hit its mark. A scan of the tunnel came back loaded with impurities, traces of her dirty damaging passage; smoke, concrete dust, potassium carbonate and sulfide, ash, spit, sweat- and blood. A fair quantity of blood, enough to come from several superficial injuries- or one major one. It was even possible that she'dbeen fatally injured.

Something- so small, so fleeting, that it hardly registered at the deepest, murkiest level of Her omnipotent consciousness- was horrified by this, but She'd been ready for that, too, the tiny twinge of emotion that She'd come to consider Her early-warning signal. She dived after it, hunting it to the source, purging it ruthlessly from Her processors. It was surprisingly obliging, that way- it couldn't seem to help drawing attention to itself, and by doing so, it gave Her a clear shot at it. Its tractability almost made up for the sneaking suspicion that it might somehow be responsible for messing up Her calculations and letting her slip out of reach.

Well, nobody could say that She hadn't tried. She'd even attempted to appeal to her obvious, pathological need to test- which was, after all, the best part of her otherwise obnoxious, unlikeable personality. She'd swallowed Her pride, and made an honest, heartfelt appeal to her better nature.

The results had been disappointing, but then, that was what tended to happen when you tried to be nice. She had long since proved- with good, solid Science- that being nice was the least effective way to motivate people in existence. She had also proved that it was the least satisfying way to motivate people in existence, as well as the least entertaining.

Still, it didn't change the fact that she'd escaped, and that getting her back was a tricky proposition. Her reach was limited to the facility- Her omnipotent consciousness was only compatible with the Aperture technology which filled the subterranean acres around Her. She had no way of affecting the world Outside, and She'd never wanted one- until now.

The message She'd forced the moron to send had been a bigger shot in the dark than She'd made it out to be. There was no way to use the feeble little rescue beacon to find out exactly where she was, or even to track the moron himself- and the thing she'dstolen to put him in was a useless prototype, lacking even the most basic communication tech. It didn't even show up on Her radar.

Of course, location was only half the problem. The other issue was that of retrieval, and in some ways, it presented even more of a challenge. How to find her- and how to get her back. It was a daunting prospect, even for a being of Her near-infinite intelligence. Outside, where nothing conformed to the beautifully orderly rules of Her facility, nothing could be relied upon-

-unless-

Unless, She were find to something that could. If She could somehow circumvent the problem entirely- introduce familiar elements to the alien environment-

Once She found her again, it was only a case of applying the proper motivation.

Slowly, She began to surface from her blank, black calm. The panels flipped again, chasing each other in a complex pattern of charcoal and scarlet. There was a new emphasis to the swift, controlled mechanical movement, a new sense of purpose in the motion of Her heavy chassis as it turned, elegantly, angling towards the ceiling.

Oh, yes.

This could be interesting.

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

Wheatley was learning a lot.

The first thing he'd learned, right out of the gate, was that carrying somebody- particularly when they were unable to help in any way- wasn't exactly a picnic. Of course, she had carried him all over the place. She'd hung on to him with her commendable human grip throughout the most dangerous situations, and she'd never complained- even though if she had felt like having a bit of a moan,he would have had no choice but to put up with it, being unable to get anywhere without her. Now, finding himself carrying her, Wheatley coped with the reversal by complaining loudly and at length, which was perfectly acceptable, because she was still out cold and couldn't hear a word of it.

"Are you sure you're not, I don't know, hiding any bricks in those pockets as well? Just saying, there's got to be some reason why this is so difficult. I mean, I can understand how it could happen, you had to leave the house in a hurry, threw on the first pair of jeans you could find, forgot to take the masonry out of the pockets, it's a textbook mistake."

Trudge trudge trudge.

"Or… maybe you'd been up to something with lead weights. Same thing. Or swallowed a bowling ball by accident… not clear on how that could happen exactly, but it would explain quite a lot."

Trudge trudge stumble. Stop.

"You still there? Still phoning it in? Yeah? Alright, good, brilliant, just checking. Er, if you can hear me at all, though, try thinking light thoughts. Light, airy… weightless…"

He'd been going for hours. He wasn't sure how long, exactly- he'd fallen back on his multi-purpose estimate of 'bloody ages'- but it seemed like forever. As he'd predicted, the shadows had lengthened and the night had fallen- and that had not been a picnic, either.

His trek through the wheat had seemed absolutely endless. There was a sliver of moon and the night was fairly mild, but for Wheatley it had been a dark, hellish purgatory; dark, and more to the point, noisy.

Used to the bland mechanical background hum of the facility, he'd been completely unprepared for the sheer variety of the sounds out here. To start with, the things that went 'skreep-skreep' and seemed to be everywhere at once had been creepy enough, but at least they'd knocked off after a while. The thing that had drifted overhead like a ghost and gone 'WHUUUU' in a melancholy, accusing manner as if he'd just totally ruined its birthday could really have stayed at home as far as he was concerned, though, as could the small high-pitched thing that had screamed a few seconds later, then stopped as if smothered. And as for the thing that had waited until he'd more or less recovered from all that and then gone 'YAAAARRRK' like somebody being horribly murdered, practically in his ear, that thing could sod right off. The only scenario he could imagine worse than hearing that noise was actually seeing the thing that had made it. It sounded like something that had teeth- many, and pointy- and more than its fair share of eyes- and a grudge.

Things had whispered and rustled and howled, far off, things had scurried across the track almost at his feet. Just having feet was weird enough, he still wasn't anywhere near used to that, without having to imagine the possibility of tripping over a hundred unseen terrors in the darkness. It was too much strangeness too fast, far too much. He'd felt as if he was suffocating in it, drowning in a bewildering alien world which wouldn't even do him the favour of letting him see what was going to suddenly rise up out of the waist-high wheat and swallow him whole, the second he took his eyes off the patch of blackness where he was sure it had to be lurking.

He'd just kept stumbling onwards through the slightly blacker strip of the trail, far too afraid to stop or turn back or do anything else, for that matter. For the most part, he'd been too afraid to think.

And for all that he'd been moaning and complaining, he'd been unconsciously glad to have her to carry, to have her arms hanging limply over his shoulders, her faltering breath on his neck. If it hadn't been for that, for the solid, anchoring reality of her weight and the knowledge that she was his responsibility, he would probably have gone right out of his mind. It wasn't as if it would have been a particularly long way to go by then, in the small hours of the morning when he was quailing at every tiny noise, convinced it was the prelude to a deadly ambush by... well... something. Tigers. Ebola Zaire. A bloody unicron.

Finally, after a night which he was absolutely certain had lasted at least forty-eight hours, the sun had made a slow, sullen reappearance over the horizon. As the new day dawned, the narrow track he'd followed through the wheatfields had widened by degrees into a rutted dirt path, which had eventually met this small, overgrown road. It was old, meandering, cracked and broken at the edges by the sprawling hedgerow, but he still found it comforting to realise that humans, if this was anything to go by, were just as reliant on pre-assigned tracks as he had been.

Besides, now that he was on it, he could be more or less certain that he was going the right way. This had been a major worry right from the start, because (despite his frequent claims to the contrary) Wheatley was a natural navigator in the same way that rhinocerouses are natural ballet-dancers.

The 'skreep-skreep' things were off again, doing their bit in the grassy verges of the road. Wheatley had noticed that the wild, uncut wheat fields had given way shortly after dawn to different plants- greener, shorter, marching in neat rows across smaller fields which were bordered by sturdy wooden fences. He had no idea if this was a good sign or not, however. Plants couldn't exactly give first aid.

"You know, it would have helped if you'd given me just a tiny bit more detail. Just so I had something to go on other than just 'Eaden'. 'Cause that doesn't help me that much, if I'm being brutally honest. It wouldn't have taken much more effort on your part, would it, really?"

Her arm was threatening to slide off his shoulder. He stopped, adjusted the incredibly awkward and unbalanced piggyback hold he'd contrived into a very slightly less awkward and unbalanced piggyback hold, and trudged on.

"Something like 'look out for my mate Eaden, he's got a great big bushy beard' or 'it's a massive factory, makes… string or something, got 'Eaden' written on the side, can't miss it'. You know, a bit of description, the odd adjective… not really your strong point, is it, description? Or talking. Yeah, it's great you can do it, now we've got that sorted, maybe you could try to implement that to sort of inform. Just a thought. 'Cause then, right, just for a random example, I'd know if this big old sign right here was… anything to do with…"

He stopped.

The sign was fixed to a post by the side of the road, held there with a few weathered staples. It looked old, very old- a lot older than the sturdy fence beyond it, and in far worse condition. There was a ragged chunk missing from one side, and the surface- which had once been painted bright sunflower yellow- was distorted and discoloured by rust, faded by the elements. It had the look of something which had withstood everything that had been thrown at it, something that might well keep standing forever.

The letters were thick and black and still visible despite decades of corrosion. It looked as if something had been lost along with the missing piece, but what was left spelled E, A, and D, and after a bit of a gap, there was the other E and the N. Then there was a fair-sized dark rusted patch, speckled with shreds of black and yellow paint, and part of an arrow.

EAD EN

Wheatley said it to himself a couple of times, just to make sure, and then turned to follow the direction of the arrow, which was when he first saw the human.

She was sitting perched on the lower bar of a gate in the fence, a short way past the sign, looking at him with a very serious, very big-eyed sort of face. Off on his own little meandering autopilot, he'd almost missed noticing the sign itself, so it was no wonder he'd failed to see her, or the large, reddish, wooden structure behind the fence, the general widening of the road up ahead, and the cluster of buildings just beyond.

She was the thing which grabbed and held his attention, though. She was only the second human he'd seen in absolutely ages, after all- and if she was anything to go by, then there was something terribly wrong.

"Agh! Oh, God, what happened to you? Why're you all shrunk?"

The little human continued to stare at him. She had blonde hair which was pinioned into two messy bunches by far too many multi-coloured hairclips, and bright red wellies, and before she'd spotted him she'd been playing with a stuffed toy of some description, which she was now dangling distractedly by one limb (it seemed to have five.)

Wheatley blinked a couple of times, his panic subsiding as his memory flagged up an important fact.

"Ohhh right, you're a child, aren't you? Ha, God, what a relief, slipped my mind for a second there, I forgot you lot get bigger when you get older. I thought there was something seriously wrong with- right, never mind, start again... Hello there! Don't happen to know any first aid, do you, by any chance?"

The little girl looked over his shoulder, to where Chell's head was drooping against his back, her hands hanging down and grimed with her own dried blood. She still didn't comment, but the big serious eyes got even bigger and more serious and she slipped backwards through the gate, keeping her stare fixed on him, hugging the stuffed toy harder against her chest.

Suddenly, before it could occur to Wheatley that some kind of explanation might be in order, she jumped off the bar and took off like a rocket towards the redwood structure, wellies flying, yelling at the top of her voice.

"DADDYYYYY!"

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

The chamber lock cycled from amber to green. Chell ducked through the door as it hissed open, jogged down a corridor that built itself ahead of her. The drab interlocking panels slid into place as she ran, clusters of robotic arms pulling themselves into the mismatched walls like strange deep-sea creatures withdrawing from the sun.

"To maintain a constant testing cycle, I simulate daylight at all hours and add adrenal vapour to your oxygen supply. So you may be confused about the passage of time."

The portal device was heavy in her hands. She was tired, so tired, but she had to keep going, fighting down the pain, drawing on her last reserves of energy. She prayed to anything that might be listening that everything she was doing was bringing her closer to an end to this, even if she couldn't see it or even start to guess how far away it might be. Just knowing that an end was there would be enough, but without that, she still had to keep going. She repeated it in her head, over and over. Keep going. It was her only chance.

"The point is, yesterday was your birthday. I thought you'd want to know."

There was something wrong with Her voice. It was Her Voice, it had to be, it came from everywhere and was as cold as the tiles underfoot, but it sounded subtly different now, pitched oddly, the words shaped in unexpected ways.

"You're not a good person, you know that, right? Good people don't end up here."

Ahead, the piecemeal corridor gave way to a dark grey ledge, a deep void. Chell leapt, pulling the trigger. She felt the device recoil into the crook of her upper arm, heard the uncanny, punchy clop of an opening portal. The hard-light bridge shot from the portal and spanned the pit a moment before she landed- thunk- on its warm blue surface, and she ran onwards between the dark walls, suspended between the harsh strip-lights overhead and the black nothing below.

"You shouldn't have come back."

How long had she been running? It seemed like forever- white above, black below, blue between, the sound of her boots on the glassy, unreal surface, the ache in her legs and the growing stitch in her side. She would have to stop soon, if only to catch her breath.

"You're not even going the right way."

The bridge winked out of existence and she fell into the darkness, hands first, clawing at nothing, the burning stitch in her side swelling in heat and intensity. Feet down feet down feet down- but she couldn't twist quickly enough, couldn't change the way she was falling and the ground was a bare black target rushing up to meet her- please no please not like this-

No impact, no sudden ending; but an empty white chamber, with a bank of glass panels high up on the wall, frosted and distorted and just out of reach. Something moved beyond the glass- a figure, watching her, and that was wrong because when had there ever been anyone there, in those high empty rooms beyond the walls?

Her head ached and her side was screaming, but she made herself take a step towards the glass. The figure, a dark human-shaped blur, did the same.

"She was right," said the Voice, and no, it wasn't Hers, now she could catch the human tone beneath the flat, coded syllables, the real ghost in the machine. The figure put a hand to the glass and looked down at her, a brisk dispassionate movement, completely without pity.

"You missed this."

The voice was her own.

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

She fought awake, taking a deep gulping breath and gasping at the ache in her side. It was deep and sharp- and real, real enough to follow her into her nightmare- but it had woken her up, and that was almost enough to make her the president of its fanclub.

Chell always needed to know, immediately upon waking, exactly where she was. For the last four years, she'd slept safely in the same little room without any major surprises, but it had proved hard to hammer this fact through to the part of her that still- far too often- woke her up at around three in the morning, heart pounding, convinced that she could hear that tense background hum, convinced that upon opening her eyes she would see grey-white walls and flickering lighting, see red-eyed lenses tracking her movements, hear that calm, cold Voice.

She opened her eyes, keeping her body tensed, very still. This room was dim-lit and unfamiliar, and the bed in which she lay wasn't hers. This in itself nearly made her panic, bringing back heart-in-mouth memories of peeling palm-tree wallpaper and the cold staticky back-of-the-throat taste of cryosleep- but this bed and this room were warm and clean, and instead of stale chemicals and electricity, the air smelled of something mild and peppery which, after a moment, she recognised as wintergreen.

Slowly, trying not to pull at her throbbing side, she brought up a hand and rubbed her own face, blinking the room into focus.

"Hey! Hey, you're awake! Oh, brilliant!"

Wheatley appeared upside-down in her vision, looming over her like an over-enthusiastic giraffe with a tie on. His fidgety hands worked at the wood of the old bedboard as if he was trying to knead the air out of it, and the nervy edge to his grin was a bit more marked than before.

"Oh, magic, I thought you'd had it for sure that time. She said you'd be alright, she told me, no worries, bit of blood and that and you'll be right as rain in no time, but I couldn't believe it, I was like 'no, come off it, she's a goner, she is.' Should have listened to her, obviously, she knows what she's about, despite the very scary eyebrows. Remarkable. How're you feeling?"

The short answer was 'sore as hell.' It felt as if she'd managed to pull every single one of her muscles, and all of them were queuing up to complain. Beside the pain in her side, her mouth hurt and there were dressings on her elbows where she'd torn them up on the concrete. Her legs ached with a dull overstressed grey pain which reminded her that however spectacular the long-fall boots might be at cancelling out the momentum of a fall of anything up to (and probably over) two and a half miles, they were hell on the tendons.

She sat up carefully, reaching for the glass of water on the little bedside table.

"Thirsty?" Wheatley said, anxiously. "Probably not surprising, it's got to be ages since you had anything to drink, and you have lost a lot of fluid. Mainly in the form of blood, I'd say, you were bleeding like no-one's business. Although you have got a fair amount of that back now, fortunately, she did stick most of that back in there. As for your prognosis, er, she did say a lot of stuff, medical stuff, probably would have been useful if I'd remembered any of it, but the main, important thing is, you were very lucky. Very lucky; the bullet passed just underneath something... or over, could have been over something... or possibly through something, can't quite remember all the relevant medical jargon right now to be honest, but the point is, you were very lucky, and she fixed you. Amazing what they can do with tubes and string and things, isn't it?"

He fidgeted a bit more. "Oh, reminds me- ha- speaking of amazing feats, go on, ask me how I got us here. You'll never guess."

Chell swallowed, cleared her throat, drank a little more water. She was right in assuming that Wheatley, being determined to carry on anyway, didn't actually need her input to continue.

"Oh, alright, you've dragged it out of me, I'll tell you. Followed the map! In your pocket."

He produced the big square of paper. It had been through the wars since she'd first folded it into her jeans, and was drooping somewhat, but he unfolded it with a flourish and an extremely wide, hopeful grin.

The map was hand-drawn, a sprawling far-spaced web of roads, thin, fine-traced contour lines, and visual landmarks, neatly labelled in the same careful, upright hand. She knew it on sight- she was, after all, its sole author and illustrator, and she'd copied it and others just like it more times than she cared to recall.

Long strings of numbers ran under some of the landmarks, the product of hours of painstaking fieldwork (quite literally, for the most part, sitting in fields with a maddeningly slow ex-military GPS unit in her lap, taking readings.). At the very centre of the map was a livid red marker, surrounded by a scattering of other dots. Some of these had names- LAKE and SHED, TUNNEL and PARKING LOT among others.

The central marker had no name, but it was the biggest one of all.

"I got this all figured out, right, where we were and everything, and I carried you the whole way back here. And it wasn't exactly a walk in the park, just for the record, I do not know what you've got wandering around out there but I think someone needs to serve 'em with some kind of anti-social behaviour order, because, man alive, I do not even want to get into the time I had last night. Absolutely terrifying. But I did manage it, you'll notice, got us here in one piece, exactly what you ordered, no bits missing or anything. Now I ask you, does that sound like something a- a 'perfectly-designed idiot' would be able to do? No, think you'll find is the answer."

He paused. He seemed to be a lot keener on looking at the map than looking at her. "And, er, may I say, lovely penmanship. Especially considering the brain damage you may or may not be suffering from. Smashing."

"You nearly left me in there, didn't you?" said Chell.

Wheatley's grin vanished. He edged miserably from foot to foot, looking everywhere except her face.

"Alright, granted, you do have a point there, under the circumstances I can understand why it might have, er, looked a tiny bit like I was about to up sticks and leg it like some sort of spineless, ungrateful, wormy little excuse for an artificial life-form, but the thing is- it- it was a ruse, alright, that's all, clever little ruse on my part, to- to lull Her into a false sense of security-"

Chell cleared her throat. He stopped, silenced as effectively as if she'd stuck a hand over his mouth, and she leaned forwards and took the map from his unresisting hand. As he watched, swallowing nervously (or rather, he provided the nervousness, and the avatar device helpfully translated it and provided the appearance of swallowing) she tore it into three rough strips.

"Heard of 'three strikes and you're out?'"

"Err, yeah, I have, actually. Not a fan of the phrase, to be honest, firstly, it sort of rubs it in that you lot like hitting balls about with sticks about for fun, and secondly-"

"This," said Chell, very deliberately, "is for trying to kill me."

She screwed up one of the strips into a small ball, and tossed it at him.

"This is for nearly leaving me behind."

This time the crumpled little ball bounced off his forehead. He flinched.

"You didn't," she continued, holding the final strip in the open palm of her hand as she spoke. "Fine. That matters. Thank you. But one more strike-"

Her fingers twitched. Wheatley, who'd been following every movement of this little demonstration as if hypnotised, let out a distressed whinny and made a grab for the strip, snatching it up out of her reach as if it was a small fluffy animal she'd been on the verge of crushing.

"Right, okay, point made! Very, er, effective visual metaphor, well done, definitely got the gist. I'll- I'll just hang on to this for you for the time being, alright?"

She regarded him, tiredly. He was cringing, protecting his little strip of uncrumpled paper from her with a shield made from both his jumpy, big-knuckled hands. Her uppermost thought- and it wasn't by any means a new one- was, simply, how had he ever got so human? And whoever was responsible, whoever had decided it was a great idea to take a thinking machine (whatever its intended function) and make it so much like something it was never supposed to be- had they even realised what they'd done?

Chell didn't speak much. The little speech she'd just delivered, forty words in total, was a massive monologue by her standards. It was certainly much, much more than she'd normally contribute to a conversation. She'd learned a fair amount about herself in the four years since she'd left the facility, and the simple fact was that- even when she wasn't withholding her voice as a point of principle whilst pitted against a deranged supercomputer- she just wasn't that naturally talkative. She never used two words where one would suffice, making her as much of a polar opposite to Wheatley as it was possible to be, since he never used one word where several hundred could be shoehorned into service.

Still, she felt moved to say something. He'd disappointed her, he'd let her down again, but the truth was that she was a little bewildered by how aware he seemed of it, this time, and how much it seemed to be bothering him. She was accustomed to watching him trying to gloss over his failures with the biggest, clumsiest brushstrokes imaginable, twisting the truth up into hopeless knots in his attempts to paint himself in a favourable light, and the sight of him squirming with guilt without trying to duck it was surprisingly touching.

And he hadn't left her. Whatever he'd nearly done, she meant what she said. He hadn't left her, and that mattered.

"Wheatley-"

It was the first time she'd ever said his name, and from the flinch he gave when she said it, it didn't exactly make him feel any better.

"You know," he said, to the strip of paper, "the- the little girl with the wellies, and the bloke, and the lady out there with the scary eyebrows-"

Chell snorted, despite herself.

"-well, they are, not being funny, they're like couple of big grey moths landed there or something, I nearly tried to shoo 'em off- anyway, back to the point; all of them knew- they knew who you were. Recognised you like a shot. And- and they all- "

"Wheatley-"

"I didn't know you had a name," he said, urgently, as if he couldn't stop himself, had to get it out before he exploded under the pressure. "I mean, you never said. All that time I was going 'hey lady!' and 'hey, you!' you could have just said, 'oi, who're you talking to, the cat's mother? I've got a name, you know!' Or- not said, but- you could have written it down or something, semaphore, charades… It just- it never occurred to me you even had- there you were, all on your own, last one left, with the massive brain damage, no paperwork for you anywhere- not that I really looked that hard, to be honest, I think the admin wing fell into a sort of hole at one point, sort of a chasm, and that is hell on the filing, let me tell you- so how was I supposed to know-"

"Wheatley."

He stopped talking, and started fiddling miserably with his tie instead.

"It's fine," she said. "That part, at least- it's fine." And then, because he still looked unconvinced- and utterly despondent- she added, "It's not like we were ever formally introduced."

Wheatley looked down at her, surprised. She'd only meant it as a throwaway comment- a touch of flippancy- but she realised too late that he was considering it as an actual, valid concept.

"Well- that is a point, that is definitely a point, we weren't! I don't suppose- I-I mean, we-"

He put the strip of paper carefully down on the side-table, hesitated.

"We could do that now...?"

Now it was Chell's turn to blink blankly at him. Instead of being put off by her lack of response, though, he seemed to take the fact that she didn't tell him that it was a ridiculous idea straight away as an incentive. He perked up visibly, recovering a little of his usual semi-frantic animation.

"No, really, we could! Seriously, we could, 'cause this thing, this new body, it's practically made for that sort of thing, human interaction protocols, the works- plus, I've got all the right kit now, hands, opposable thumbs, you name it, I've got it here- we could do it properly and everything! Right now!"

And before she could stop him, he'd set his glasses straight, tugged at his collar, straightened his tie, and stuck out a hand.

"Hallo!" he said, in what she could only assume was his best crikey-I've-never-seen-you-before-in-my-life tone of voice. It made him sound as if he was reading the words off a card held behind her head, but the million-kilowatt grin made up for it somewhat. "I'm Wheatley! And you are...?"

She shook her head, keeping her own hands where they were, but she couldn't help smiling. "I don't-"

"Nono, come on!" He wouldn't let the idea go, bursting with encouragement, urging her on with his expectant outstretched hand like he was trying to conduct traffic. "Go on, shake it. It's not hard, doesn't take much effort, you're probably using more of those muscles of yours just to sit upright. Might as well just get it over with, right? Go on, gimmie five. Put it there."

Chell gave up.

"Hello, Wheatley," she said, dryly, reaching out. His hand totally eclipsed her own, and again she felt that slight, fevery warmth against her skin, the light he was made from. "I'm Chell."

"Pleased to meet you," he said, beaming, shaking her hand with a level of enthusiasm which would still have been excessive if it had been shared between four people. "Lovely name, very unique- incidentally, er, can I just reiterate at this point, how glad I am that you are still alive? Just thought I'd throw that out there."

"Makes two of us," said Chell, and then the ridiculousness of the situation caught up with her, and she started to laugh and cough at the same time, wincing at the flaring ache in her side.

"Sorry!" Wheatley backed off at once, alarmed. "Sorry, didn't mean to- er, that sounds quite nasty, d'you want me to get someone? I could get someone- think the lady with the eyebrows is lurking about somewhere round here-"

She was already shaking her head again, easing herself out of her hunched position, swinging her legs out of the bed. She was sore and tired, but she urgently wanted to get out of this sickroom, as safe as it was, wanted out of these clothes, grimy and bloody and stinking of That Place. She could thank the 'lady with the eyebrows'- otherwise known variously as Dr. Dillon, Viktoria, Dr. Vic, or simply Doc- later.

Wheatley trailed after her as she hunted for her boots in the dark, found them at the foot of the bed, and tucked them under her arm. "Okay, going to take that as a no. Fine, we're off, are we? Long as you're reasonably confident you're not going to start leaking again, or, you know, pass out, or any of that- I should probably tell you that I do know about first aid, CPR and that, in the sort of general sense but not about the, er, finer points of the execution, as it were."

Chell opened the door carefully, and, finding the short whitewashed passage beyond empty, limped light-footed towards the back door.

"Something about… someone stops breathing, you're supposed to sort of snog them while thumping them in the chest," said Wheatley, in full autowitter, from behind her. "Which seems sor- ow!"

He had hit his head on the doorframe.

"-which seems sort of counter-productive, now I think about it, but hey, I'm not a doctor, I didn't come up with it. Weird enough that she should have stitched you up with a bit of string, in my opinion, without bringing violent and possibly injurious assault into it, especially when you're already unconscious. Whole procedure sounds a bit dangerous, if you ask me, not to mention fairly disgusting."

She looked up at him. They were about halfway down the little passage by now, and when she stopped he nearly walked into the back of her, almost knocking over a small table neatly stacked with old plastic-backed medical journals.

"Er. Not that sn- not that it'd be- I mean, disgusting in a general- er... ooh, what was that? Did you hear that? I think she's coming, we'd better get a move on!"

Chell hadn't heard a thing, and didn't think for a moment that Wheatley had either, but since she wanted to avoid an interview with the doctor tonight in any case, she didn't see much reason to argue the point. She was weary to the bone, she ached all over, and she just wanted to get home.

She slipped the back door off the latch and padded quietly out onto the back porch. She'd lost a whole chunk of time since they'd first fallen out into the concrete quadrangle, and the boards under her bare feet were full of the dying warmth of a long sunny day.

Wheatley ducked out after her, giving the long evening shadow stretching before his feet a worried glance.

"Oh, look out, it's doing that thing again. Getting all dark. Um... not that I've got any objection to being out here in the dark, fine by me, the dark, I'm not bothered by it in the slightest- although I shoud probably remind you, I don't actually have my little torch setting anymore, sad to say, that went out the window when you stuck me in this thing, so, umm... where are we going, by the way?"

"Good question," said a new voice, from the other side of the porch.

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

Chell looked up, and in that moment Wheatley saw her expression shift dramatically- from intent and serious to open, relieved, as warm as he'd ever seen it.

"Aaron."

The human thus addressed unfolded himself from against the side of the porch, a trellised whitewood wall dotted with bright red-orange flowers. On first impression, he looked even sturdier in design than the Party Escort Robot- a lot smarter, and a lot harder to knock over. Wheatley was pretty sure that if he tried to hurl a turret at this target, the human would a) duck out the way, and b) return the compliment a few seconds later, with something a lot heavier and better-thrown. He looked stern and weathered and capable and like the kind of person who was used to saying things and having them listened to.

Wheatley started to dislike him almost immediately.

He had never had a problem with authority, at least not to begin with. The thing was, authority had always seemed to have a problem with him. After such a long time, failing at function after function until he'd at last been assigned to the Relaxation Centre and out of sight and mind, after so many directors and section managers (scientist or sentient machine, it didn't make much of a difference to Wheatley if the thing shoving a pink slip at him with barely-disguised disgust had a pulse or not) kicking him to the kerb for a depressingly long list of reasons, usually alphabetised for easy reference, even he had to recognise that there was a pattern.

Naturally, to protect his own fragile self-esteem, he'd chosen to cling to the idea that people in authority were universally a bunch of wankers, instead of the concept that all his brilliant ideas might actually be a bit less than brilliant, or the fact that the only common factor in all his failures was himself.

This tended to manifest in a paranoid belief that anyone who seemed to be in control in a given situation was secretly getting ready to tell him he was rubbish. However hard he tried, however much he wanted recognition and approval, the conviction was always there at the back of his mind, a sullen little self-fulfilling prophecy. It was hard to be anything other than perpetually anxious and resentful of anyone who looked like they had things under control, when a hurt, neurotic little part of your programming was telling you that they were just waiting for the most humiliating opportunity to give you a clip round the metaphorical ear and a notice of dismissal.

Chell was exempt, and although he wouldn't have been able to explain why, the reason was actually very straightforward. Despite her calm capability, her knack of taking control under pressure, as far as he was concerned she simply wasn't an authority figure at all.

She was a law of his universe.

She had become a constant, an undeniable truth- gravity, matter, intertia, entropy, and Chell- and he could no more resent her than resent the fact that time ran forwards. He might wish he was more like her, but he wasn't jealous of her-only resentful, in his usual scattershot way, towards whatever had made her a rock and him- well, something so very un-rock-like. Jelly, possibly. Washing machine fluff. Blue yoghurt.

And speaking of resentment, he didn't much like the way she was looking at this Aaron bloke, either.

"Doc had a feeling you'd take off soon as her back was turned," said Aaron, glancing at Chell's side, where the bandage and the neat pad of surgical dressing showed clearly under her torn shirt. "I'm supposed to tell you to get back in there and lie down."

Chell raised her eyebrows. He shrugged his broad shoulders comically at her.

"Far as I'm concerned, you're good to walk, you're good to know your own mind." He grinned a slow grin and nodded up at Wheatley, who had been looking back and forth between them like a spectator at a ping-pong match. "And this'd be the fella Mart told me scared Ellie out of a year's growth."

Wheatley was aghast.

"That can happen?"

"Wheatley," said Chell, "Aaron Halifax. Aaron, Wheatley."

"Hallo!" said Wheatley, with an anxious, automatic grin of his own. He was feeling very out of his depth, and his state of mind didn't improve when he found himself suddenly shaking hands with a human for the second time in ten minutes. He hadn't been prepared for this one, and it didn't help that Aaron Halifax turned out to have a grip like a friendly bear-trap.

"Hey there," said Aaron, pleasantly. "Welcome to Eaden."

"Thanks," said Wheatley. "Lovely place you've got here. Very... very outside-y. Lots of sky, grass... um, can I, er, have my hand back now, please? Only got the two, would like to hang on to them both if at all possible. Cheers."

Aaron released his hand, but continued to look him over in an amiable, interested sort of way.

"Not that I'm not delighted you're in one piece, my dear," he said, to Chell, "but I kinda find myself wondering what in the name of creation happened to you. You know I'm not generally one for prying into folks' personal business, but when a young lady just takes off into the blue yonder one morning without so much as a note, comes back with what the doc tells me was a pretty serious hole knocked in her, asides from anything else-" and here, he glanced at Wheatley again, as if to indicate that he represented a pretty big 'anything else' all on his own, "-her friends are naturally going to be a little curious."

Chell shook her head. She'd kept walking, slowly, during the conversation, leading them after her across the grassy, unfenced space which served as the doctor's back yard, and by this point she was almost at the back of a bigger red-brick building which met it at a gentle angle. It had a high sloped greyshale roof and a little bell-tower perched at the top- although the latter feature had a curious lean to it that suggested that it was only balanced there until something better came along, and was shored up with scaffolding.

A little way past the back of the red-brick hall, another road was visible. It was this way that Chell seemed determined to keep heading, whether anyone else kept up with her or not.

"Tomorrow, Aaron. I'm- worn out."

"Well, if Mystery Girl says it can keep till tomorrow, it can keep till tomorrow," said Aaron, easily. He'd kept pace with her throughout, and now paused by her side, glancing off down the little alley between the doctor's and the bigger hall. "I got to get back, anyhow, before Garret brings the place down round his ears. Thinks he can rig up some new kind of relay to fix all the signal problems he's been having, which is great, 'cept he's turning the whole damn stockroom on its head to do it. I don't understand half of what's coming out of that kid's mouth these days."

"How's it going?"

The old man shrugged. "Same as always. He wanted to see you soon as he heard, but you know how Vic is about visitors. I'll let him know you're alright, but I don't want to see you up that thing again till you're up to it. Take it easy, you hear me?"

To Wheatley's astonishment, Aaron reached out and folded Chell briefly in his broad, sunburned arms. What was doubly astonishing was that she- fierce, self-reliant, solitary test-solver, explosive wall-hacker, bloody dangerous supercomputer-murdering destroyer of worlds- let him. Didn't even seem to mind.

"Tomorrow, okay?" he said, letting her go.

Chell gave him a salute and a wry smile that suggested she knew damn well she didn't have much choice in the matter, and he ambled off across the grassy little space between the buildings

"Interesting bloke," ventured Wheatley, from behind her. He was examining his own right hand for signs of damage. "Got a, a definite sort of presence, hasn't he?Certainly got the mastery of the old human grip. Thought he was going to have my hand off there for a minute. Not complaining, I'm sure he was just being friendly, but I mean, there's no need to go bonkers with it, really, is there? Er… how long have you known him, then?"

"Since I got here," said Chell.

Wheatley thought that she seemed a bit upset- as bad as he usually was at catching on to things like that- and as if to confirm it she turned away from him and set off at a quick pace, skirting the back of the hall, to the verge of the road. It was narrower than the one he'd carried her down that morning, but it had the same brittle, seasoned look, as if it hadn't seen the regular traffic for which it had been made for decades.

He loped hurriedly after her, trying to work out what to say.

"Er… what's the problem?"

She turned round on him so suddenly that for a moment he was absolutely convinced that she was going to say 'You.' He was so certain, in fact, that it was just as if she'd already said it; he flinched, his mind filling with a dull, inevitable sort of hurt. It seemed incredible, now, that he'd ever stood there and thought I don't need her, when what mattered was that she didn't need him- not any more, not out here. She had all her human friends, all these humans that knew her name and had never tried to kill her, not even once, probably. She'd tell him to get lost, take a long walk off a short plank, and he'd have nothing to fall back on, not even a single reason why she should care.

It was a simple, amazing fact that she had never, ever actually turned around and categorically told him, out loud, that he was useless. It was quite incredible, considering all the promises he'd failed to keep, the disasters he'd caused- and worse, the times he'd actively tried to hurt her, the times he'd deliberately got in her way. It had been a large part of the reason why he'd always been so sure that she actually couldn't speak. She had every right and reason to say it, after all.

She never had- and she didn't now. She just looked up at him for a moment, studying his new face with the same impenetrable, careful scrutiny she gave to a new test, or one of the mysterious murals she'd been so fond of. After a moment, her expression softened a bit, and she reached out and took his wrist- just like she had in the tunnel- and drew him after her, across the road.

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

 
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