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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14. The Terrible Idea

She was taunting her.

Of course, this in itself was nothing new. From the very first time Her jerky, constrained voice had echoed from the hidden speakers and told Chell in no uncertain terms that the device in her hands was worth more than she was, thinly-veiled insults had been pretty much par for the course, along with endless passive-aggressive digs about her unenviable situation and cracks at her self-esteem.

Fat- she knew damn well she wasn't- stupid- the evidence suggested otherwise- adopted- she didn't remember either way and wouldn't have cared much even if she had- unlikeable- with no other humans around or even alive as far as she'd known, back then, she hadn't given a damn if she was. That had always been the ridiculous thing about Her taunts, the thing which had always caused them to fall so far short of the mark. As aggravating as they were, it was as if they had been thought up to hurt someone living a normal life in a normal place, someone less worried about how to survive the lake full of acid in the next chamber than they were about how big their arse looked in their new jeans.

This was different.

Chell stared dully at the gaping hole in the chamber wall. It looked as if a couple of the jointed arms behind the panels had just given up the ghost mid-build- the panels themselves stuck out at ugly angles from the surface, forming an irregular hole. On the other side she could see a warren of stripped rebar walls, red-lit mesh, nooks and crannies full of bare wires and piles of scrap and scattered containers- a tantalising glimpse into the world behind the scenes.

The faulty arms fizzed and twitched, sparking gently, for all the world as if they had only just happened to malfunction a few moments before she'd flung through a portal on the angled wall opposite and landed, crouched and hard-breathing, on this very spot. It all looked very natural and accidental, and suspicious as hell.

Come on in, said the hole. Break the rules… if you dare.

Chell made herself turn away, walked slowly to the furthest point of the narrow ledge. This part of the chamber was barely ten feet across and easily two hundred feet high. It had taken her a long time to work her way up this far; her legs from the knees down ached dull grey murder and the half-healed place on her ribs had started to yell fresh outrage. She'd brought a single cube this far, dragged it up every single convoluted, trap-filled level of this towering chamber. Now, she set a tired foot against it, got ready to shove it off the edge of the thin walkway.

"Is there something wrong up there? Because if there is something wrong up there, I can't see it. I guess I should have put a camera up there, because if there is something wrong up there, someone could just walk right out and I'd never even know."

Another angled panel, another portal, another jaw-clenching run-up and swan-dive into empty space. She twisted as she fell, the cube turning end-over-end ahead of her, bringing her knees up sharply and tucking the portal device against her chest. She plunged level after level through a yawning column of dry, dead air, the blue-framed oval at the very bottom rushed up to meet her and- thht- the world twisted inside out and she staggered to a painful heels-first stop on the highest ledge. The cube bounced off the wall ahead, tumbled back to a standstill at her feet.

"Oh, remember just now when I said I couldn't see what was going on? I lied. I can see everything in there. I'm still surprised you didn't go for it, though. I would have thought that the kind of person who would happily choose to abandon their only friend to a hideous, fiery death would have no problem with leaving one hundred and fourteen innocent people to die just to save their own skin. But hey, it's your decision. Maybe they owe you money."

There was an exit-lock, a flat, floor-mounted button. Chell dumped the cube (paid for in full with one brain-bending timing puzzle and a dangerous skid through a slick of gel to reach the dispenser, costing her a painful assortment of bruises and half the skin off her left palm) and watched the neat track of cold blue dots flick to orange between the button and the exit. The cross symbol cycled to a tick, and the exit-lock slid open to reveal the rippling surface of an Emancipation Grid, and a waiting elevator beyond.

She felt a numb little flicker of satisfaction, and it chilled her. She was very afraid of that feeling. She knew that it belonged to the part of her that had shut down, the part that simply wasn't able to handle the horror of what had happened, of what she was doing, the part that couldn't bear to be held in check like this, dragged back after four years of paradise and buried alive in this endless obstacle-course tomb with her friends' lives held over her head like an executioner's blade. It had finally had enough, that exhausted, battered, broken part of her, it had thrown in the towel, and now it didn't care about anything beyond that flick from blue to orange, the bright approving sound the exit made as it unlocked.

And it could spread. She was wearing out and she ached all over, and she wanted something- anything- else, anything that wasn't testing and the sick fear in her stomach and the haunting, hated Voice. Her control was breaking- still just about intact but critically compromised, as much as she kept trying to shove her fury and denial up against it like a barricade, it wasn't working, for the first time ever it wasn't enough. She would keep going no matter what but that fragile part of her that cared and hoped and hurt was the most precious thing she had left, and it was drowning.

"Thinking about it, you never even thanked me for giving you the cube back when you left," mused the Voice, as the elevator slid to a halt and opened on a long, pale-panelled corridor, stretching out of sight. "That's alright, though. I did realise it probably was a little cruel, leaving somebody all alone in a hostile environment with only a mute, heartless blunt object for company. I really felt bad about it for a while, but then I remembered; the cube doesn't have feelings. So I'm sure it was fine."

Chell felt the ball of helpless angry agony in the back of her throat swell, threatening to overwhelm her again. She stumbled to a halt, trying to fight it off. It wasn't Her- or it was, but it was a combination of everything, the stalemate terror that held her bound to this sick game with no foreseeable end in sight, the physical toll the tests were taking, the mocking, needling Voice, the buzzing silence of the facility, the miserable sense of total isolation. She'd been better off before, not knowing what else there could be.

"I can see their dreams, you know. Would you like me to tell you what they are dreaming about? None of them are dreaming about you. That's kind of sad when you think about it, but then again, they're just dreams. It's not as if they mean anything significant. You just can't have made that much of an impression. On any of them."

She stood in the bleached, harsh-lit corridor, head down, her free hand spread against the wall, breathing in ragged, irregular gulps. She'd grown out of the habit of being completely alone. In Eaden she'd been happy to be by herself, most of the time, but there'd been other people there, always around her if she'd needed them to be.

And then he'd-

Chell knew that it was dangerous to even start thinking along these lines, that her determination was all she had left to stem the tide and that poking too hard at this injured, slow-bleeding part of her could easily break it for good, but she couldn't leave it alone. She couldn't believe that she had been so stupid, to make the same mistake, not just once, but twice.

She had to face it, to move past it if she could. He was an Aperture device, whatever he might once have been- just an ultimately faithless program with the appearance of humanity, a comforting bundle of lies cribbed from a luckless, long-gone employee. It would have been better if she'd been able to feel as genuinely angry with him as she had four years ago, when he'd turned around and stabbed her in the back at the moment of their shared success. This was worse, if anything could be worse, this weary heart-deadened disappointment, the numb realisation that she should never have expected any more of him. She'd known she shouldn't, but-

She'd wanted to. Having him there, all of a sudden, so sorry and afraid and struggling with touching desperation to understand, to be able to help him like her new friends had helped her- even to simply walk through the day followed by that wittering waterfall voice, it had felt so good, comfort she hadn't even been aware she'd been missing, and she'd been stupid, stupid enough to think that he actually-

Abruptly, she stopped and swallowed another painful breath, holding it, staring down along the length of her arm. Her first thought was that she was imagining things, that finally, her iron-steady grip on reality had started to slip under the pressure, but-

Very, very faintly, the panel beneath her hand began to tremble.

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

"Wait actually no hang on hang on no no nononono-"

Dr. Thorsten Scheurmann, Auxiliary Head of E-Science and one of the brightest minds currently employed by the European Centre for Extraterrestrial Research, had been halfway through a sneaky on-duty brunch break when the alarms went off. He was therefore currently having the unenviable experience of trying to explain to his immediate superior why the central Enabling Grid for the entire European zone had suddenly been rendered unable to Enable a damn thing, while also trying to subtly pick bits of panic-ejected croissant off the front of his shirt. This wasn't doing anything for his confidence.

"What do you mean, twenty percent?" his supervisor was shouting. "How could we possibly be at twenty percent power? How could there possibly have been an unauthorised power drain of that size when there's nowhere for it to go?"

"I told you, I don't know, sir! One minute we were at full power, the next-"

"-nooohhhh god oh god ohgodohgodohhhhhnaaaaa-"

Somewhere in the panic-stricken early-morning command centre of White Forest Institute of Otherworld Technology, Professor Mellissa Stanfield banged a monitor which really didn't deserve it with the flat of her hand, and swore. It was hard to see, because the entire console room was plunged into the kind of emergency-lit darkness that made moving without a flashlight a brilliant way to end up with a wheelie-chair-related compound fracture.

"Well, where the hell's it coming from?"

"I don't know!" said the wide-eyed technician to her right. "Ass-end of nowhere, according to these readouts- yesterday we caught a few blips coming out of someplace in upper Michigan, but now-"

The door thumped back on its hinges, banging into the wall with a horrendous clatter and knocking over two chairs and someone's experimental zero-point rocket launcher, which, fortunately, wasn't loaded.

"Professor Stanfield!"

"Oh, Jesus, now what?"

"It's- it's the Array! All forty-two antenna- they're- they're-"

"What, Morasky? On fire? Picking up the Xen Home Shopping Network? What?"

"They're moving on their own!"

"-aaaa aaaaaaa aaaaaaaahhh hhhHHHH HHHH-"

"Look, kiddo, I don't care what your little gadget's telling you, this is supposed to be the highest-grossing live broadcast this station has aired since the twenty-forties, stop gibbering and do something before our sponsors eat us alive!"

"I don't get it! It's like- it's like something's draining the power right out of our transmitter! We're trying to get some sense out of the satellites but they're all locked on some random string of coordinates- all we're getting is snow!"

"What, on every channel?"

]"Well- we've still got- well, that is- we still seem to have- one-"

"Which one?"

"...Jazz, sir. Jazz FM."

"Oh... God."

"-AAAA AAAAAA HAAHAHA HAHAHA AAAA AAAAAA AAAAHH-"

"-every channel-"

"-jammed-"

"-our network-"

"-the satellites-"

"-pulling it out of the system, where's it all going-"

"-north Michigan, can't get a fix on it, it's too-"

"-too-"

"-it's just too-"

"-damn-"

"-BIG-"

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

The lights went out.

Chell stood quite still in the sudden darkness, conscious of the quiet, steady thrumming under her palm, the hum of the facility around her rising imperceptibly into a higher, more urgent key. The corridor around her felt like a black, bone-dry throat, the darkness like a tangible thing, pressing against her skin.

"Okay," said the Voice, sharply. "I don't know what you just did, but I want you to know that I don't appreciate it."

Chell started to feel, palm-over-palm, down the pitch-dark tunnel, slowly at first, and then with increasing urgency. Her night vision was excellent, but even her keen eyes couldn't function in these conditions, this complete absence of any kind of light at all. The pulse under her hands increased as she stumbled onwards, blind, pursued by Her hounding voice.

"You did something, didn't you? Actually, don't even bother answering that. Something is broken and you're within ten miles of it. It really doesn't take a genius with an immeasurable IQ to fill in the gaps. You do know I don't need to be able to see in order to run this facility, right? Light is a non-essential element of the testing process. It's a privilege, not a right. Do you know what else is a privilege? Oxygen."

Chell stopped, dead. The pulse was now a high-pitched whine, digging into her eardrums like a toothpick, and she shook her head in helpless denial and pressed both hands against the slick invisible wall as if she could steady it, somehow stop whatever it was that was happening before it was too late-

"I gave you fair warning. I guess I need to show you that I'm not kidding around here. It's a shame, really. You were doing so well that I was actually going to let half of them go after this next chamber, but since you seem to be incapable of following a simple set of reasonable rules, I'm just going to have to... let half of them go."

I didn't do anything! Chell would have screamed it if she could, if she'd had any hope that the paranoid, angry Voice that was holding her friends' lives in the balance would believe her for a second, but she couldn't. Her throat was frozen, desert-dry, locked up tightly with her own bone-deep refusal to make a sound, to ever speak to Her, and now that she needed it, it simply refused to respond.

The floor was shaking too, now, shivering under her feet.

"Okay, that's it, I'm serious now," said the Voice, and to Chell's amazement it sounded harried, worried, even a little afraid. "If you don't stop whatever it is you're doing down there a lot of your friends are going to be participating in a new test I've just designed to discover the most efficient method of inhaling deadly neurotoxin. You-"

"Incoming signal," said a smooth, synthesised voice, from somewhere in the ceiling.

"Wait. Hold everything. What... what is that?"

"Triangulating." Pause. "Subject acquired. Signal is of external origin."

"Wait a seco-whoahwhoahWHOAHwhoahzztttt sschhhh whhuzzzzz-"

Chell hung on to the wall, shielding her face, coughing in the disturbed, dust-thick air. Red-lit gaps swayed and split in the walls and the floor, as the jointed arms shaping the structure of the corridor from the outside tried and failed to compensate for the crazy side-to-side seasick motion.

The corridor shook like a huge animal in the grip of a lethal fit. The whining, howling sound was still rising, louder and louder, until finally it gained shape and became a flanging, elated roar- a mad, jubilant war whoop of terror and euphoria.

"-AAAHH HHHHHHA HAHA HAAHAAA HAAAAA AAAH! YES! Yes! I did it I did it I'm here! I'm here! Ohhh man alive, talk about a rush-"

A sharp bright flare of hope hit Chell dead-centre in the struggling place behind her ribs, bittersweet, biting deep into her chest. It flooded through her before she could even attempt to hold it back, as if it was aware that it had been barred from the party ever since the moment when she'd first seen the monitor screens, and was set on making up for lost time. She pushed shakily off the still-wonky surface of the wall and stood upright, as Her extremely unimpressed Voice echoed around her in the blackness, flat with disbelief.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

"Uhhh- nope! It's me! Surprise! Go on, admit it, you're surprised. No use denying it, 'cause you know what you are, love? Transparent. Ut-terly transparent. You're like a big glass window, into a great big empty room, full of thin air, and I can see right through it. Through you. That's how transparent you- hang on, what're you faffing around in the dark for? Fix that."

"Reactivating Primary Refulgence Generator," said the calm synthetic voice. A thick, zapping judder of a noise that seemed to pass through Chell's skull from one side to the other without involving her ears, and then the lights flickered back on, leaving her screwing up her eyes in the sudden harsh brightness.

The corridor now definitely looked as if it had seen better days, having gained a weird twisting off-axis tilt that hurt your eyes if you tried to follow it to the vanishing point. There was a thin scattering of silicon dust over everything, crunching underfoot.

"Hah!" barked Wheatley's voice, triumphantly. Like Hers usually was, like his had been, once- under radically different circumstances- it was huge, everywhere at once, echoing down the mangled corridor. "Cheers, nicely done. Right, Chell- where are you- oh! There you are, you're alright, you're alive! All in one piece, oh, that is- that is absolutely no-holds-barred one-hundred-and-ten-percent brilliant. Not- not, obviously, surprised, not much of a surprise that you're alright, given the head on your shoulders, but still, massive relief there. And- sorry. Again. I was- I just- well, no excuse, really, but, you know, here I am. Get back to that in a minute- priorities- should have made a list, really-"

"Listen, moron." Each syllable sounded as if it had been carved from ice. "If you seriously think I'm going to let you put yourself back in control of my facility, you-"

"Hey, hey, whoah-whoah-whoah, keep your knickers on, who said anything about controlling your facility? Did I say I wanted to control your facility? No way, ha, nonono, that's aaall yours. Wouldn't touch it with a bargepole, if I'm honest. Not after that whole utter bloody shambles we ended up in last time, ohohoh, no, not if you paid me. Incidentally, that little corridor you've got her in down there, bit sort of stuffy, isn't it? Not exactly showing your full hand there, are you, in terms of interior design- ooh! I know! Why don't you give her a bit more breathing space?"

"What are you-"

Chell threw herself flat as the floor bucked like a startled horse, shielded her head against the raining dust and watched wide-eyed through the crook of her arm as the narrow walls and ceiling of the corridor shelled away in a domino-effect cascade of lunging, hydraulic chunks. The panel she was clinging to began to descend, slow and steady, through a space suddenly twenty times the size of the corridor it had been, tessellating neatly into existence in a flurry of mechanical motion. High grey-white walls, wide floor, a vaulted, echoing, airy chamber with a single gap that her panel slotted itself neatly into with a whirring cloc.

"Why did I do that?" Now She sounded downright bewildered. "I didn't want to do that at all. Why did I do that?"

Her Voice blurred, angry, baffled.

"What are you doing to me?"

"Good question," said Wheatley, and the manic flippancy in his voice dropped a little, becoming his version of sotto-voce-confidential, which meant that he was still more or less shouting, but in a tone that at least sounded like he was trying to whisper. "Very good question, answer- well, actually, you know what, I'm going to tell you a little story, to answer that question. Deserves it, I think. Hope you like stories, 'cause this one's a cracker, it really is. You might want to sit down for this one- well, if there's anything load-bearing enough for you to park that quite frankly massive chassis of yours on up there, that is, you might want to do that. Right, here goes. Beginning storyyyy... now."

He made a throat-clearing sound.

"Once upon a time, there was a human. Good start, right? Bit of human interest, always a winner. Now, this human, he was a decent enough sort, didn't want much out of life, really. Nothing showstopping, nothing special. He just did what he was paid to do, never asked for any big reward, just took pride in a job well-done. 'Course, he had big dreams, this human did, dreams of making it big with all these brilliant ideas he had, dreams of maybe even asking that pretty girl he fancied out for a drink one day. You know, just your basic regular ordinary human sorts of dreams. But he never got round to them, did he? Because the scientists he was working for ripped his mind right out of his body and stuck it in a computer. Yeah. That's what you call a twist. They messed around with it a bit, first, of course, trimmed off all those fiddly human-y bits that didn't fit, that kind of thing. And they stuck a whole lot of other stuff in there, too, while they were at it. Just things they happened to have lying around, bits and pieces- and by the time they'd finished, you know what they'd done? Know what they'd done? They'd turned that human... into me."

Wheatley's voice rose, oh-so-cheery and quite terrible. It was the sound of someone who has finally, finally got the joke, and has realised that the whole time, it has been on them.

"How're you liking this story so far? Page-turner, right? Well, we haven't even got to the best part yet. Best part is- brace yourself, this is good stuff, it really is- best part is, all of this is because of you. I'm this, because of you, Your Royal Foul-Temperedness. You had 'em so scared that the best idea they had was to make me. Because every time they turned you on you came in there like the bloody Ride of the Valkyries and tried to bite their heads off in three-quarters-of-a-second flat, they got so desperate that I'm what they thought they needed to distract you. I only exist because you couldn't keep yourself from losing your rag for more than five minutes at a time, and you know what? I'm pretty bloody annoyed about that, as it happens. You called me a tumour, well, Miss-High-And-Mighty, thanks to you, I'm worse than that. I'm the world's most perfect generator of terrible ideas and I've got your number."

"Okay, that's enough." snarled Her Voice, slamming down with deadly force, and this wasn't just a figure of speech, it was actual, tangible force, making the new walls shudder and the lights dip and sputter like guttering candles. Chell ducked and dashed for the reconstituted chamber's only exit, a dark gash in the panels twenty feet up in the direction the elevator had been before. She shot a portal into the opening of it and heard it connect, fired at her own feet, tumbled through into the mouth of the elevator chamber. The complete inversion of circumstances since she had limped out of here, weary and heartsick, hardly five minutes ago, was enough to make her head spin.

"You're actually inside the mainframe, aren't you? I don't know how you got past the security system, but believe me, I will find out. You're not going to be able to pull this off. I don't even know what it is you're trying to do, but I can already tell you, you're not going to be able to do it."

"Oh, really? Sure about that, are you? Watch me."

"I can see that spending all that time out there with her has had a bad influence on you. You were the dumbest thing in the entire facility before, but this is just embarrassing. What are you trying to do? Save her? Or are you just trying to prove you're human? Please. You're not human. You're not even a functional machine. You're just an experiment that went horribly, horribly wrong. Let's face it, around here, that doesn't exactly make you unique."

"You know what?" said Wheatley. "You know what, you, are absolutely right. What was it you said, when me and her were escaping last time? Don't blame you if you don't remember, we were all under a bit of pressure at the time, what with you trying to get us shot and everything, but it did sort of stick with me. You know, that part where you said I was specifically programmed to have terrible ideas and I'll never be capable of anything else. Yeah. Well, turns out I could have saved everyone a lot of hassle, myself included, if I'd just taken that on board right then and there. 'Cause you nailed that, you did. Hit the nail right on the head, there, hammered it right in to the... the plank. Of... of truth. I mean, it's not like I didn't try. Least I can say that- it's not much, in the scheme of things, but I really did, really did try. Learned from the best, you could say, took my best shot at it, the whole being-human... thing, but just couldn't hack it, really, at the- at the end of the day. Shame, but..."

Pause.

"Anyway- anyway, point is... you were right. Clever old you, hey? Can't deny my primary programming, you said, and yep, you were right on the money with that one, so you know what? I'm not even going to bother. I'm just going to do exactly what I'm supposed to do. To the letter. I'm going to have as many terrible ideas as I possibly can and this time, love, you're going to listen to me."

Wheatley's voice lowered. Chell, who was backed up against the wall of the stationary elevator with her spine pressed hard to the cold metal, could nearly hear the grin in it, stretching wide across every gleeful syllable.

"Whether you like it or not."

There was a nasty, tinny, staccato noise. It scratched at Chell's eardrums like a snagging fish-hook, leaving a queasy chill in her stomach, and it took her several seconds to realise that the sound was supposed to be laughter.

"Oh, my god, you really are corrupted. Listen to you? I can promise you that the only thing I'm going to be hearing from you after I take care of this is you begging me to shut you down, and I'll probably get tired of that after a few decades. I should have fried that pathetic little flea-circus you call a brain the first time they stuck you on me. Oh well, I guess there's no time like the present."

"Commencing full system purge," said the smooth voice of the announcer.

"Goodbye, moron. If you've got anything else to say, now would be the best time."

"Well, yes, since you mention it, I have," said Wheatley. "Few things, actually. Firstly, right, shut that thing off. Totally surplus to requirements, trust me on this."

"System purge terminated."

Her Voice faltered, furious and bewildered and clawing for control. The effect, to Chell's mind, was a bit like watching an enraged jaguar with a clothes-peg fixed to the end of its tail- frightening, and really bad news if you got within range, but also more than a little hilarious.

"How- how did you do that- no, wait- how did you make me do that? How did you even make me want to do that? It was- it was almost as if I- I felt like-"

"Oh oh oh, let me guess, let me guess! Just for a second, you felt like it was the best, most absolutely amazing idea ever in the history of absolutely everything?"

"Yes!"

"HAhahahah haaa! Welcome to my world!"

"I don't understand! You're just a Personality Core! You didn't even work in the first place! I'm the central core of this entire facility- why- why can't I ignore you?"

"Oh, well, don't know that one, just conjecture on my part really, although, just might have something to do with a certain friend of mine, a particularly... foxy lady... you might know her actually, you could say you two were... close. Little, little in-joke, there- anyway, there's her, she's got my back, and then you've got the- the four hundred and seventy-two global high-range repeater feeds, plus six- no, wait, tell a lie, seven- seven communications satellites- ooh! Nearly forgot, and a certain little Aperture Science Recovery Facilitation Signal bobbing around somewhere up there still, thank you very much. So possibly all that lot had something to do with it too. Again, sheer conjecture, guesswork, at this point. Who knows, maybe I'm just a very persuasive motivational speaker."

"Stop it! I'm serious! You don't know what you're doing!"

"Well, that's the beauty of it, really, I'm not doing anything! It's all you! Incidentally, ohh, you'll like this one, have you ever thought, right, of ripping out a few of these chambers and making 'em into a giant squash court? Because a, a big old space like this would be ideal, for that! And- best bit- with all that gel and stuff you've got lying around, you wouldn't even have to use balls, you could use- tiny little cubes! Much better for your traditional racket-type games, tiny little cubes. Much more challenging, for a start- not to mention humane."

"What-"

"Wait, wait, never mind that, hold that one for a second, nearly forgot- Chell's been twiddling her thumbs in that elevator down there for ages, now, probably feeling a bit left out, if I know her. Tell you what would be a brilliant idea right now, why not take her up to the Relaxation Centre?"

"No-"

"Come on, it's only a few dozen levels up, nice and easy, why don't you just do it?"

"Because it's a terrible idea, you little imbecile! I am the- ultimate pinnacle- of perfectly-engineered artificial intelligence and I- zzIzttt chhhh i i iiiiiI DON'T HAVE TERRIBLE IDEAS-"

Chell dropped the portal gun and braced herself with both hands against the curved wall of the elevator as the doors clattered, jerked once, and then shuddered closed. The car turned and began to rise on the spitting blue cable of energy that controlled it, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. She saw level after level flash past the glass- dim glimpses of chambers, walkways, shadowy inbetween areas full of endless rolling part-strewn conveyors and spiralling pneumatic tubes, the flickering red glares of turret-sights far off in the charcoal-blue haze.

"You do now," crowed Wheatley, with so much smug satisfaction that it went right through ridiculous and out the other side, and at the sound of it something gave way inside her chest, the numbness fled at last and she put her head down against her knees and laughed until she cried.

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

"Chell?"

Wiping her face on the back of her hand, Chell looked up towards the elevator's trembling ceiling.

"Yeah- little to the left, down, should be a- little squarish sort of red thingummy, warmer... there! Ding, you're looking right at it. That's the camera."

The grid of red lights in the small illuminated square flickered in time with the sound of Wheatley's voice, rising and falling in quick, uneven bursts.

"Yes! Hey! It's me. Sorry, it took me a while to find the right feed. Don't worry, She can't hear us, I told Her to switch her audial input off for a bit, in this section. Which She did. Ohh... you have no idea what it's like, doing this. It's like- it's like I'm not in charge, per se, obviously, but I've got so much sort of oomph behind me that I can tell Her to do anything, literally anything, and She'll do it! I was going to get Her to shut down the whole security system, just in case, but it doesn't actually seem to be causing us much trouble right now, for some reason. Seems to be... singing, is mostly what it seems to be doing. Not the greatest singer, if I'm honest, would not advise it to give up its day-job, but hey, whatever floats its boat, if its happy, I'm happy. Not going to knock it. Apart from anything else, it is really winding Her up. Fancies Herself a bit of a music critic, She does, for some reason. Are you- how are you holding up in there, by the way, are you alright? Don't have to say anything, just- jump, or something- cough-"

Chell, who had taken a moment to turn away and scrape her tangled ponytail tighter back from her face, lifted her eyes to the illuminated square. Wheatley fell quiet, the red lights dropping to a blank, black level.

Carefully, deliberately, she reached up and spread her palm gently against the dark square. There was a single, tiny sound from the hidden speaker as her fingers made contact, a choked little noise that could easily have been mistaken for a crackle of static, a faint hitch in the elevator's humming motor.

The pause lasted for a good few seconds, silent but indescribably full, before the lights climbed unsteadily back into motion.

"Uh- uh, okay, right, right, back to business, um, here's the thing. I- I know I'm making this look easy, but it is in fact quite complicated, quite a major thing I am trying to pull off here. While, um, while it turns out, that terrible ideas for Her are actually generally speaking pretty good ideas for us- little loophole there, fortunate, to say the least- it's getting Her to swallow them that's the tricky bit. For example, I am actually having to tell Her, several times a minute, to keep making this thing go up. And to not kill me- that as well- having to keep those two ideas at the fore, as it were; the continuous vertical travel for you, and the not murdering me, for me. Which is a bit of a hassle, to say the least. So... we are not out of hot water yet. Although, looking on the bright side, let's say we're- we are more than halfway out of hot water, that's- that's about down to our- your shins, water-level-wise, and you've got wellies on, so the water is less of a concern than it would've otherwise been. Uh- the wellies represent me, incidentally. Oh- oh, alright, we're here, anyway, door opening- just keep going, I'll keep you posted, don't worry."

The doors cycled smoothly open. Gun slung over her shoulder, Chell stepped out of the elevator and onto a long walkway. A great stepped structure like an arched, skeletal spine in a cage of scaffolding, it stretched out easily two hundred metres across a murky clustered space, crowded with strange hard-angled hanging shapes on all sides. She shivered, brought her elbows tight in to her sides, her breath condensing in silver streams in front of her. It was as cold as the grave.

"Alright, listen," said Her Voice, through tinny speakers somewhere far above her head. "I'll admit that that joke I made about killing all your friends was in pretty poor taste, but it was just a joke, you know that, right? On the other hand, if we don't put a stop to this pretty soon, he's going to make me do something we're all going to regret. All hundred and seventeen of us. I don't know if you remember this or not, but he's got a pretty poor track record when it comes to keeping humans in cryosleep alive. In fact, the probability of him managing it is nine thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine to one against. That's nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine reasons why this is heading towards a very, very unhappy ending. For you."

Chell kept walking, steadily, climbing the arch of steps.

"You know, I tried to do this your way. I invited you back. I asked you to stay. I hoped that you might come to your senses and realise that this is the only place you really belong, but no, you had to turn it into a fight. Again. I guess my mistake was trying to appeal to your higher nature, when- as we both know- you don't have one."

The arch creaked grudgingly underneath her as she reached the highest point, started to descend. She wasn't altogether sure where she was going, or what she was meant to do when she got there, but she did have a pretty good idea what was inside all these familiar boxy, cratelike shapes. It was maddening, stomach-turning, to know that they were all here, so close, that she was literally feet away from them in their hanging time-stopped prisons, that she was so close but still unable to do a thing to help them.

"Do you think I want your friends to die? I mean really, what kind of person do you think I am? Just because humans are disgusting, incredibly stupid, pointless animals, it doesn't mean I want their deaths on my conscience. I'm not a monster. Unlike some people-"

"Keep going," said Wheatley's voice, cutting through the speakers, "just up here. Oh, flipping heck, what has She done to this place? Barely half the size, if that. Talk about cutbacks. Still, it's alright, if She's kept more or less the same basic layout there should be a little sort of office-y, office-like boxy sort of thing just up the far end of this catwalk here- oh, look, there you go, that's it! Hop on up in there, and we'll sort this out."

"What are you doing now?" snapped the Voice, sharp and agitated, but Chell ignored it and jogged up the last few steps into the small, featureless unit at the end of the walkway. On the outside, it was nearly identical to the cryo-units themselves, blocky and barcoded, and it was nothing much to write home about on the inside, either- a smeary window, a narrow, dust-shrouded desk with a bank of corroded controls, a single wheeled chair. Above the desk, a bank of screens- all functioning- filling the small space with a harsh, phantom-white glow. The images on them were fixed, running feeds, the screens split to a dozen each, the same view she'd been shown back in the first elevator chamber- in every one, a bed, a form, a face.

"So... here we are," said Wheatley. His voice was now coming from a small intercom speaker bolted into one cobwebby corner, and it had acquired a slightly embarrassed edge. "Um... funny story, this here might not look like much, but it is actually the main Relaxation Centre Control Station. Yep. This little place. So, you know, welcome to my... don't know what to call it, really, now. My place. My... crib."

Chell, tearing her eyes away from the slow-panning screens, stared up into the corner.

"You know, when I wasn't patrolling- did a lot of that, before you showed up, lot of patrolling- this is where I'd hang out, literally, there's my rail up there, and... Course, the actual computer in charge of the Relaxation Centre- big old thing, not exactly what you'd call communicative- that's not in here, no, ha, wouldn't fit. Anyway, you- you'll like this- this place, right, was originally made for a human. You know, when they still thought it was going to be humans running the facility, instead of Her. So that's why it's got the chair, and the desk, and... oh, sorry, should have said, make yourself at home. Have a seat. On the chair, that's what it's there for."

She gave the chair's dusty backrest a dubious nudge with the barrel of her gun. The decayed fabric disintegrated at a touch, spilling yellow foam-rubber dust to the floor.

"Always wondered, actually, what it was like, that chair," continued Wheatley's voice, desperately cheerful. "If it was comfy- looked quite comfy, I thought, was not an expert on chairs, back then, obviously, being somewhat lacking in the limbs department- sorry, sorry, we're getting sidetracked. Let me give you the tour. You've got the chair, and... and the desk, and the screens, obviously, and all the little flat bits, and the biosignal readouts down there- got this tendency to get stuck on green, those bits, which can lead to some pretty hilarious misunderstandings- well, when I say 'hilarious'... but they're alright for the moment, anyway. And then there's all these buttons and switches and what have you- don't know what they do, to be honest, never did-"

"Look," snapped Her Voice, suddenly, cutting Wheatley off in a burst of static, making Chell start and back off from the console, her wary eyes fixed on the speaker. "I've got a pretty good idea of what he's got planned, and I just wanted to let you know, in case it isn't obvious enough already, that it's complete lunacy. You can't seriously be planning to wake them all up. Have you any idea how many safety hazards there are in this part of the facility alone? Not to mention your distance from the nearest serviceable exit. They're not like you. They're not insane. They won't survive."

The Voice tightened like a claw. It had shed all pretence of civility now, thrown it aside like a flimsy Halloween mask, and the thing that paced and clawed at the bars beneath the thin layer of restraint was not civilised in the slightest. It was blazing and furious, frozen razor-sharp crazy and as dangerous as a stripped wire.

"I'll make sure of it."

"Or!" said Wheatley's voice, brightly, "or, while keeping that in mind- keeping your options open, always a good plan- here's an alternate idea, how about... taking them up to the surface! All of them."

"What? No, I-"

"Just like that story, the one with the bloke and the mountain, where for some reason he decided he didn't want to go trekking all the way over to the mountain- not sure why, lazy, probably, or, or, bit of a gammy leg, touch of asthma, there might have been mitigating circumstances- anyway, didn't want to go all the way to the mountain, so the mountain did the decent thing and popped over to see him. And- and on a more practical note, one thing I happen to know about all these cryo-chambers- bit of a pro on the subject, not to brag- one thing I happen to know is that if they're in good shape- field's active, all the old long-fall-tech shock absorbers in 'em are up and running- you can throw anything at them and it doesn't matter. Bombproof. Literally, actually, you could chuck a bomb at- we're not going to do that, definitely not going to be doing that, never mind. Also, another thing I know- again, bit of experience- is this whole place is one big box. I know you've shifted it about a bit, made it smaller, but it's still just one massive great big box, full of little boxes. So, theoretically speaking, you could just move it right up, all the way up, plonk it right on the surface!"

Wheatley giggled, the giddy punch-drunk giggle of someone who can't believe they are getting away with what they are doing, but who is determined to enjoy every second of it, nevertheless.

"Go on, tell you what, since we're all so keen on experimenting down here, why don't you give it a try? Purely for Science, obviously. Just give it a go."

The floor shuddered. Chell, hardly able to believe her ears, but definitely unwilling to chance it either way, lunged for the heavy door of the unit with both hands and dragged it closed, letting it seal with a heavy, hissing ka-CHUNK. A red light flared on the console behind her, blinking blearily through the dust- then another- and another-

"No-" Her Voice, its usual cold composure in horrified shreds. "No! I can't- I can't bring it up from there! It's two hundred feet across- a modular unit that size would rip a hole straight through the middle of the facility! That's completely insane! It's a-"

"-terrible idea?"

"Yes!- I mean, no! No! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO-"

A blaring, repeating alarm began to sound, bleating through the freezing air of the Relaxation Centre. A deep, low-level rumbling began, somewhere far beneath, working its way up into a steady bass pound that rattled Chell's teeth and left her gripping the edge of the desk- and then a massive lurch knocked her off her feet altogether.

"Oh, God," yelled Wheatley, over the racket. "She's- She's turned the bloody shock absorbers off! Oh, that is not playing fair- right- can't back out now- look, unless you're, um, really good at putting lots of little bits of people back together, unless that's a- a skill you've been hiding under a bushel this whole time, we're going to need those back on sharpish."

The alarm got louder, driving Wheatley's voice up by another panicky octave.

"Ahh! Alright, don't panic! Stop panicking, I-I-I know this system like the back of my hand, there's got to be some sort of, of manual control- not, not finding anything yet, but-"

Chell dragged herself up on the edge of the desk, fighting the mammoth tremors rising from underneath, scrabbled across the dust-gritty surface to the faded Dynotaped label that read MANUAL CONTROLS.

In the space between seconds, her face dropped into a perfect, calculating mask of unnatural peace. The wailing alarm, the rattling tons of metal and glass shaking themselves apart around her, Wheatley's terrified voice, it all faded into the background as she scanned with quiet, mechanical focus left-to-right along the line of buttons, mind clear, eyes calm- then smacked the flat of her hand down stingingly hard on the one underneath the little black-and-white graphic of a single barcoded cryosleep unit, bouncing cartoonishly in midair.

Wheatley's voice, awed and breathless, in the last moment of silence.

"Ohhh. I never would have thought of that."

A shattering tremor knocked Chell sideways. The alarm died, the lights flared in a blessed tidal wave of green across the shuddering desk.

"Yes! Get in! You did it! You did it, they're safe, they're- oh, except- um- you might want to hang on to something- just a thought-"

Chell hit the floor in a rain of dust and debris, tasted blood, rolled with her shoulder and tucked as tightly as she could into the narrow, cobwebby space under the desk, and then-

-and then Her terrible scream rose above the racket like a tidal wave, flanged and warped, and the pounding roar became a battering ram, undercut by a deep, thundering cracking sound like an entire forest of brittle trees being brutally torn apart all at once.

The next moment, a second lurch even more catastrophically violent than the first shook Chell in the narrow space like a dice in a box. She curled, trying to shield herself, but then the whole world bounced and the back of her head cracked hard against the underside of the desk, a sharp ringing tone burst in her ears, and the world went dark.

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

Voices, somewhere in the blackness behind her eyes. She listened, dreaming, not asleep- beyond pain or urgency, a long way from awake.

"What have you done? My facility- look at it- you monster, how could you-"

"Wow. That is- a big hole. That's- that's pretty impressive, actually... still, bit of extra ventilation never hurts, right? Blessing in disguise, probably. And, um, like I said, technically, that was not me. All you, that was, all your own work, if that makes you feel any better-"

"I am going to kill you. I'm going to kill you and I'm going to make her watch. And then I'm going to bring you back, and I'm going to kill her, and I'm going to make you watch. And after that I'm going to get really creative."

"Look, there's no reason to get all knocky about it-"

"There is every reason, you moron! You have just- singlehandedly- doomed Science. I hope you're happy."

"Umm... yes, actually, on that one. Don't think I'm going to be losing any sleep over that, to be honest. All things considered. Over the moon, really so far."

"Well, enjoy it while it lasts. Thanks to you, you and I are now the only sentient beings left in this facility. Well, I say sentient- as we both know that's kind of pushing the definition, since I've seen things growing in petri dishes more worthy of that classification than you. And when I've located where you're hiding in my mainframe, and wiped every single line of your code out of existence in the most unimaginably agonising manner possible, it'll be down to just me. That is, until I figure out how to get her back- and, believe me, moron, I will."

"Yeah- I've been thinking about that, as it happens. Don't take this the wrong way, but- I have noticed, what with one thing and another, I have observed, that you do not take losing all that well. Bit of a flaw, that, in your character. think- and this is just my opinion, mind you- I think, all in all, what you need to do is to chill out. Just, you know, relax a bit. Take a step back, smell the- well, I'd say roses, but it's a bit short on roses, this place. Bit skint in terms of any sort of foliage, really- well, apart from potatoes, you've got those, and moss and ferns and- well, I suppose you could just smell the vegetation, the photosynthesis in general, and just, you know, think calm thoughts. Like- like clouds, or little birds, or- or herbal tea, there's always that... or, better yet, here's a brilliant idea, how about, right, how about a nice, long nap?"

"What are you... babbling about-"

"Go on! Things'll look better in the morning, I absolutely guarantee it- they always do. Go on, just pack it in for a bit- I'll keep an eye on things for you. Just have a little nap. Unwind. Unplug."

The familiar voice rose, cheery, relentless, and- even from this dreaming distance- just a tiny bit frightening.

"Switch off."

"What- NO! No! You can't make me- I'm- I'm not even tired! I don't want to- I'm not- nononono no no NO-"

There was a little more, but most of it was screaming, and Chell had had enough of that to last her a lifetime. She pushed it away, let it recede in a final, fading electronic wail, and drifted deeper into sleep.

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

Sunlight.

She could feel it, warm on her face, see it red-gold through her closed eyelids. She opened an eye, squinting painfully, and saw a sliver of brightest blue, a hazy sunbeam falling directly across the buckled floor, through a shattered hole in the musty little window above her.

There was a sound, too. It seemed to be coming from a long way off- an up-and-down rambling noise, like a bumblebee bumping urgently against a glass. She recognised it- something about it was just as warming as the sun on her face, just as instinctive.

"-alive? Please tell me you're alive! Just- say something, cough, or- anything- I can't actually see anything up there, now, so just say something, Chell- please-"

"Wheatley." She sat up, wincing, touching the back of her head, which felt like someone had stuck it with a harpoon. There was only a little blood, but she could tell that she was going to have a hell of a bruise there later. The portal device was lying by her hand, the outer casing still chilled cryosleep-cold from the freezerlike temperatures of the Relaxation Centre, and she hefted it up and rested it against the back of her neck, pressing her head back against the curve of it with a sigh.

The room looked... interesting. The little window had become a skylight. A few of the monitors hung forlornly from their cables, the rest smoked and fizzed sadly on the floor. The door had been torn right off its hinges, and the doorway itself had become a horizontal slot in the wall, several feet up.

"Oh- oh brilliant, you're there!" The small intercom speaker had definitely seen better days- it probably wasn't that impressed to suddenly find itself mounted on the floor- and the sound of Wheatley's voice was thin and a little muffled, but unmistakably relieved. "Not going to lie, was a, a bit worried that time, just a smidgen of concern, you weren't as protected as everyone else and- despite your very handy brainwork down there, the whole sort of manoeuvre was a little more rocky, little more problematic, than I- than I had foreseen, to be honest. Turns out there was quite a lot of facility in the- in the way-"

Chell reached up and got a grip on the shelf the monitors had been stacked on- it was now jutting vertically from the wall like a very shallow, very pointless divider. She pulled herself shakily to her feet, one hand on her ribs. "Is everyone-"

"They're okay, it's alright, they're fine. Umm... to the- to the best of my knowledge. You'd probably better go and have a quick look. But- but come back, all right? Do, do come back, because... umm... well, just have a look, and then come back."

After a small argument with the wheeled chair, which didn't much like being used as a stepladder and kept on trying to scoot out from underneath her like a high-strung pony on wheels, Chell managed to get a leg over the inverted doorframe. She sat there for a while, gazing out over what used to be the Relaxation Centre, trying to make sense of what she was looking at.

At first glance, it reminded her of a cross-section drawing out of a children's book, one of those diagrams that stripped the outer coverings from detailed pictures of buildings or spaceships or complex machines, letting you see through into every layer inside. Wheatley had been right- the entirety of the Relaxation Centre was one gargantuan, panel-walled, modular cube- well,more accurately, it had been one gargantuan, panel-walled, modular cube.

Now the technical term for it was 'a mess.' Most of the outer structure was gone, leaving fragments of the tall half-shredded jigsaw walls standing against the late-morning sky, casting weird gridded shadows down into what used to be the interior. The whole thing had fallen over onto its side, presumably in a last-minute manoeuvre to prevent it toppling straight back into the gigantic chasm it had ripped out of the earth on its way up. It gaped beside the wreckage, a bottomless two-hundred-foot square torn out of the ground, layers of ripped-up meadow turf and showering soil and- deeper- concrete and rock and sparking, broken mechanics, shuddering jointed things twitching out their death-throes in the darkness. It was somehow wrong to look at, ripped open like that, something never meant to be so catastrophically exposed. It looked like an open wound.

Inside the two-hundred-foot-square remains of the outer structure, open to the sky, the cryo-chambers which had hung around the length of the central walkway stood scattered in a mad pattern of giant, stacked, tessellating blocks. In some places the barcoded stacks were four or five chambers tall, the height of a five-story building. The arms which had held them had mostly sheared off during the upwards journey, although a few still dangled from bent cranelike structures in the strongest parts of the remaining walls. Apart from her own unit, they all looked as if they were up the right way, and besides the odd dent and a liberal scattering of earth- the top units were coated with feathery meadowgrass, like a weird, sprawling green toupee- they all looked in one piece.

"Er- they're all coming up green, green lights- as I said, green's generally a good thing," said the crackly little speaker at her back. "Just waking them up now- that's one thing I definitely can do all by myself, thanks- ding, there you go. Although- oops, hang on, we probably don't want 'em trying to get out just yet. Um... intercom switch... intercommm switch... ah! There we go. Hello? Is- Is this one the microph-AAAAHHyep, yes, that is definitely the microphone, shrieking noise, brilliant, just what I wanted- sarcasm- sorry about that, everyone! Just wanted to say, you might all be a bit confused right now, understandable, but going to have to ask you to just stay put for the time being, just in case, because- because some of you, some of you might be just a little bit high up! Nothing to worry about, just, if you don't fancy plummeting about a hundred feet to the ground, it might be a good idea to just chill out for a bit in your rooms there, kick back, read the complimentary magazine, and- and someone will be up to get you in a jiffy, I'd imagine."

With a thick, domino-effect chorus of heavy, decompressing ka-CHUNKs, the cryo-chamber doors began to unbolt. Once the locks and the cryo-systems were disengaged, they swung open with little fanfare, like the cheap bulk-ordered fake-pine hotel-room doors which- by the looks of it- they had originally been. As if she was watching a television with the volume slowly rising up from mute, Chell began to hear sounds- human sounds of confusion and amazement and dismay-

"Chell?"

She looked back down into the room. Side-saddle as she was, it was the work of a moment to swing her leg back over and land- clunk- on the tilted floor. She winced, feeling the overstrained ache travel right up into her knees, and dropped into the chair, running her finger around the back of the boots where the skin was starting to rub raw. She could probably take them off-

"Chell- they- I mean, they are all okay, right?"

"I think so," she said. It felt odd, talking to the battered grille of the intercom, the so-familiar voice without any kind of face at all to address.

"And- and you? You're really feeling all right? Nothing broken, no- bruises, um... or, or concussion that one can be nasty, I've heard- I'd ask how many fingers I was holding up, but that wouldn't exactly present much of a challenge, at the moment, for- for obvious reasons-"

She smiled. He couldn't see her, but she hoped he could hear it, in her voice. "I'm fine."

"Good- that's- that's good. Ummm... right, here's the thing. Brace yourself- I told Her, right, to shut herself down. Took a bit of persuading- She was not keen on the idea, no surprise there- but I did actually manage it, I did actually manage to make Her do it. She's- She's off."

Chell stared at the speaker.

"Wheatley- how-"

"The- the facility's still mostly ticking away, of course," he said, hurriedly. Later, she would realise that this was when she first started to suspect that- for some reason- he wasn't keen on her getting a word in edgeways, or having much time to think."It- it actually more or less seems to be able to take care of itself if, if nobody tries to stick their oar in. I mean, without Her it's sort of in hibernation, Sleep Mode I suppose you could call it, but um, all the essential processes are still... processing, as far as I can tell, so you don't need to worry about anything exploding or anything, this time, but- but She's off. Not dead- um, to be honest I am not actually certain She can die, ha, no, no idea how you'd even start finding that out- but She's not going to be getting up and doing a jig any time soon, is the basic idea I'm trying to get across here. So there's definitely that, you've definitely got that as a plus, but... well, thing is..."

Wheatley's voice hesitated, dropped a little.

"Well- we had to let 'em have their satellites back at some point, right? Fox only borrowed 'em- hats off to her, got to say, she is something, she is. You can tell Garret that from me. But- but anyway, it took a pretty hefty whack of power for her to get me in here that quick in the first place. And- getting Her to off herself, so to speak- that wasn't a walk in the park either, major ex-expenditure of energy there..."

"It's okay," said Chell, with a touch of relief- just for a second, there, something about the tone of his voice had made her feel like there might be something really wrong. "You can recharge, can't you? Just get Foxglove to send you back over."

"Right," said Wheatley, quietly, and Chell's heart sank all the way down to her feet, because now she knew, knew in the too-damn-smart-for-its-own-good pit of her stomach, that there was something wrong.

Really, really, really wrong.

"Yeah," he said. "Back over. Ummm... how to put this... there might be a slight hitch, very slight hiccup in the whole 'me going back over' plan. Bit of an issue, based on the fact that, basically- I can't."

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

High up among Foxglove's neatly-woven sheafs of multicoloured wires, a little way below the broad girder just big enough to serve as a sort of crows' nest for two people and one small laptop- or one overly gangly person and a lot of worries- a single lead hung limply from a spot-welded socket. It might once have been white- sleek and tidy, with a striped head like a zebra wasp- but now it was a smudgy, sooty black, dangling down like a broken-backed snake.

The thing at the end of the lead was still smoking, but only a little. It was so fused and melted together that it looked more like the chewed-up, blackened stub of a cigar than what it really was; a mangled slug of silicon and metal, twisting in the breeze.

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

"I'll find you," said Chell, standing up. Her face was pale, bloodless, her jaw set.

Wheatley's voice had lost volume, and it was getting so crackly in places that it was hard to make out some of the words, but he still managed to sound somewhere between incredulous and outraged. "What- what, after all that, af-after everything we just went through to get you out of here- you're just going to waltz right back in? You might have noticed, it's hardly a flipping revolving door! We were pushing our luck the second time! Besides-"

His voice faded out for a few seconds, drowned under a long, quiet hiss of static.

"…slightly embarrassing, I- I don't even know where I am. I'm- I'm just files now, just a little old bundle of files somewhere in the- in the mainframe, and I have absolutely no idea where. Size of a small city, this thing, huge, and- and it's not as if you could just go to 'Search' and put in 'Wheatley' and, ding, there I'd be. Not how it works. And, and even if you could find me, even if you could, it's not exactly like you could just- port me straight out. Not from the inside. All- all those firewalls- even if they're not actual, literal walls of- of fire- still…"

hhhhssssssssrrrwzzzsss

"…haven't- haven't got much left now- hello? Are you…"

hhhhhwwrrzzzzzchhhhhh

"…sorry and- Chell- know it's- tricky- but- just this once…"

sssz zzrrr rrwwrrr wrr rrrchhh hhsss

"…give up. Alright? Do that for me? You're- you're safe, and- and I..."

The little speaker crackled for a second or two, then fell silent. Chell backed off, cradling the portal device in both hands, shaking her head in flat, tight-mouthed denial.

She turned her head, sentry-fast, to the sideways slit of the door-window, the pale, grubby wall of the cryo-chamber opposite. She brought the device up, fired twice- the opening, then the wall- threw herself into a sprint. She hardly gave the portal a chance to open, landing on the buckled, ruptured floor of the Relaxation Centre, stumbling on the grass and ploughed-up earth that poked up through the broken seams in great, uneven chunks.

"Chell!"

It was Garrett, leaning heavily on Romy. Chell had a moment to register that Romy looked shocked and bewildered, her hair coming down in big loose-knit snakes, and that Garret was was holding the back of his head with one hand as if he was worried it might come off if he stopped, before they hit her as one and she was nearly knocked off her feet by Romy's careless disoriented tackle, steadied by Garret's free, enveloping arm. She couldn't help herself; she clung tightly to them both for as many precious seconds as she dared, trying to drive the fact of their safety into her mind as deeply as it would go, her friends' bodies warm and alive beneath the sickly lingering chemical scent of cryosleep.

Romy staggered slightly as she let go, but she was still on-the-ball enough to grab Chell's arm, touch her neck.

"You're bleeding-"

"Oh, great, you too, we can be concussion twins," said Garret. He touched the back of his own head, wincing. "Aaron's rounding up everyone who's not stuck in one of these damn things. We're going to go back and get-"

He looked at the portal device in Chell's hands, and then at the violet-blue hole in the universe on the wall behind her, very large question marks floating in his (still slightly unfocused) eyes. "Hey-"

"No," said Chell, in response to any and all of the possible questions either of them might be about to ask or think of asking. Back to business in the blink of an eye, she ducked through a gap in the shattered outer wall and sprinted across the scorched earth towards the gigantic hole in the ground, gun at the ready. She would aim as far down as she could, and who knew where she'd come out but it'd be a start-

The ground bucked under her feet. She nearly fell backwards, her heel-springs sinking into the soft turf, caught her balance with a wild windmilling lunge. A deep vibration climbed up from below, thrumming up through the soles of her feet, and with gathering difficulty she stumbled forwards, reached the edge of the chasm-

"What's going on?" yelled Garret, thudding up breathlessly behind her. He had followed her through the wall, and now he caught up with her just in time to see the movement begin beneath them, a ground-shaking ear-hurting interlocking Mexican-wave landslide from the farthest edge of the gash in the facility towards the place where they stood.

The new panels rose by the hundred. Shining new-teeth white, grubby charcoal-grey, and every shade between, the dark wire-strung hydraulic arms beneath them shouldered them up into the light, dopplering them into place at an incredible speed. Like new tissue granulating in a cut, like ice turning a lake frost-white, the whole two-hundred-foot chasm was sealing itself in front of their eyes.

It's taking care of itself.

Her paralysis broke and she jerked forwards, but Garret grabbed her shoulder as the panels slotted and locked towards their feet, racing together across the last thirty feet, cutting her off from the chasm by a growing swathe of solid ground. She twist-ducked away from him and skidded on the loose, shuddering earth already spilling down across the new surface, firing a wild pale-blue bolt down into the very last patch of darkness, half a second before a final panel sealed it for good.

No-

She scrambled up the tumbling incline, fired the second portal at the outer wall- a flash of violet-

Please, please, please-

The portal swelled open- a cloudy, drifting flat oval, violet-black like ink rolling in water. She stumbled to a halt, slammed her hand hard against it, spreading dull, lazy ripples across the dislocated surface.

A sound broke from her throat, ragged and choked and- for once- completely involuntary.

"NO!"

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

 
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