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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6. The Tower

Wheatley was lost.

He'd stopped running fairly quickly, as it had dawned on him that he didn't actually have any destination in mind, other than simply away. Unfortunately, by that time he'd already been out of sight of anything which might have given him a clue about where he was. There was a tallish sort of brambly hedge to his right, and the road at his feet seemed to be leading directly out of town and into the fields beyond. It was small, and rutted, and if the neat white-painted sign nailed to the side of the barn to his left was to be believed, someone with lots of optimism to spare had come along at some point and named it Hope Street.

The barn looked slightly familiar. It was tall and red-timbered, a little like the one near the Eaden sign, except he didn't remember the goods elevator running nearly the height of the structure, trailed with creepers, or the cavernous set of doors in its long red-timbered side. It took him a while to realise that it was in fact the same barn- he was simply looking at it from the other side.

He wandered a little way into the field behind the barn, kicking gloomily at things- it wasn't bad, kicking things, once you got the hang of it, he could sort of see why humans liked doing it so much.

"Brilliant, that was. Absolutely brilliant. Why don't you try opening your stupid great big gob a bit wider next time? Might be able to fit the other foot in it. Because obviously, there's nothing she wants to hear more than me comparing her to the mad cow that tried to kill her a bunch of times, that is obviously going to go down like a weighted storage cube, that is, really going to make her feel better about having me hanging around. Rrrgh."

He snarled, smacked himself on the forehead, and flopped miserably against the big, contoured lump of metal at his back.

"I don't even know why I got so worked up. It's her not saying anything, that's what it is. Just standing there, in silence- yeah, maybe saying the odd word, throwing the occasional couple of syllables out there, but for the most part letting me do all the shouting so she can stay all calm and hang on to her precious... being all perfectly justified and having the moral high ground. Silently. Manipulative, is the word for that. Practically Machiavellian, and I do not use that word lightly."

Wheatley sagged. "Oh, God... that's all bollocks, isn't it? It's not her fault at all. Wish it was, though. I'd feel a lot better, for a start."

He looked down at the thing he was leaning against- a chunk of half-rounded, riveted metal, dark and discoloured, like the shell of some giant prehistoric snail. From its highest point, a thick length of steel rebar climbed upwards, strung with wires.

Absently, Wheatley glanced up- and did a double-take, starting backwards, mouth hanging open.

"Oh, what? What's one of those?"

Above him, rooted there like some strange species of extraterrestrial tree, a three-legged structure towered into the sky. It was taller than the barn- taller than the town hall, or anything else in the town, come to that- a looming, elongated pyramid of criss-crossing metal girders at least thirty feet high.

The whole structure was festooned with cables and wires of all colours, strapped to the metal beams in drooping bunches of rainbow spaghetti. In addition, each welded strut was dotted from top to bottom with dozens of things which looked like nothing so much as pale plate-shaped mushrooms, but on closer inspection turned out to be satellite dishes. All shapes and sizes, white, pale grey, paint-streaked, stencilled- they stuck out from the structure at every possible angle, clustered in random configurations as if they'd just happened to sprout there.

The three places where the structure met the ground were encased in three strange seashell-like blocks of verdigrised, contoured metal, giving them the appearance of massive hooves. Wheatley craned his neck on one side, trying to read the letters which, spray-painted and very slightly askew, ran up the side of the hoof he'd been leaning on.

"EV…OLG… XOF." He gave the letters a baffled blink. "Evolgxof?"

"Foxglove," said somebody, over his head.

"Ohh, right," said Wheatley, craning his neck the other way. "Oh, that makes much more sense, that does. Foxglove. I- aah! Who- oh, there you are, up there! Had me worried for a second there. Hallo!"

"Hi," called the human, who was leaning off the side of the structure about ten feet above the ground. He was attached to one of the horizontal girders with a climbing clip, and his freckly, good-humoured face was mostly obscured by something that looked like an antiquated riot police helmet, but was probably a safety mask. He pushed it up and waved the clunky old welder in his gloved hand cheerfully in Wheatley's direction.

"You must be the guy Mart Otten was talking about. How's Chell?"

Wheatley winced. 'Furious', although technically correct, was probably not what this mountaineering human wanted to hear.

He raised his voice. "Fine, fine, she's fine, er, got a bit of a hole in her, long story, but, you know, got it stitched up with a bit of string, no harm done! Well, harm done, obviously, but not actual, lasting damage, is what I mean. Physically. No lasting physical damage done."

"Glad to hear it... I think." The human scratched the back of his head dubiously with his free glove, then grinned. "Garret Rickey."

"What? Oh! Right, that's your name. Did not know what you were on about there." Wheatley folded his arms and leaned casually back on the nearest hoof. "Wheatley, by the way. My name, I mean. Interesting sort of contraption, this, isn't it? Very… advanced-looking. Very Sciencey. I know a fair amount about this sort of thing, you see, quite knowledgeable about, um, machines, machinery, computers… your own work, is it?"

"Well, she's kind of everyone's," said Garret. He stowed the welder away in a makeshift holster hanging from one of the supports, and patted the girder above his head, fondly. "We've been working on her for 'bout three years now, all told."

"Three years? Blimey. What took that long? I mean- I'm not being rude or anything, it's very impressive, but, er..."

"Soon as I get her working, you'll find out." Garret grinned again. He had a lot of sun-bleached curly hair and the kind of upper-body build that suggested he arm-wrestled cougars in his spare time. "She's going to put Eaden on the map."

Wheatley nodded, in what he calculated to be an astute, impressive sort of manner. "Oh, it draws maps as well, does it? Funny, because to me, it looked more like some sort of communications set-up, what with all those dish things all over it and everything, and the big antenna on top. Fine, though, I can see now, obviously- maps happen to be something else I am a bit of a legend at, by the way. Reading maps, following maps, that whole area of map comprehension and interpretation is my particular speciality within the… map sciences."

"That so?" Garret, who had been hanging back from his clip and listening with a slightly bemused air to most of this, began to get a look which a person inclined to be suspicious might have called a little bit sly. "Well, it's great to get to talk to someone knows as much as I do about the technical side of a job like this."

"Yes, I-"

"Between you and me, most folk round here are pretty handy with a hammer, but when it comes to how to spot-weld an RSJ or splice your basic belkin-patch cable, you might as well be speaking flux-shift for all they know 'bout it."

"Er-"

"Most of them wouldn't even know the difference between an in-line LNB signal amp and a tri-ax optical MDU."

"Right," said Wheatley, whose eyes were making panicky little darts as if they wanted to escape from his head and, by doing so, the situation. "Haha. 'Cause what sort of, of moron wouldn't know that?"

"By the way." Garret unlooped a thick coil of loose wires from the end of the girder he'd been working on, sorting through them as he talked. "I better get these hooked up before I fit the rest of this panel back on. Can you pass me a three-eighths crimper? Should be in the tool-box there- looks like we might be able to reach, if I lean back some."

Wheatley looked down at Garret's tool-box, a large, battered metal trunk sitting with its lid open on the grass.

"Oh," he said, weakly. "That's quite intense."

Garret's tool-box had what looked at first glance to be at least four hundred roller-bearing drawers, assorted compartments, and more tools than anyone should reasonably need for anything, ever. Inanimate as it was, Wheatley couldn't shake the definite impression that it was smirking at him.

"Umm, absolutely! Not a problem!"

"She's mostly scrap, of course," continued Garret, plaiting wires expertly together and pretending not to hear the mildly frantic metal clattering noises from below. "Stuff from Aaron's stockroom- you met Aaron?"

"Er, twice! Briefly. Here you go."

"Thanks, but those're slip-joint pliers."

"Oh. Well, er, easy mistake to make, think you'll find, they do look very similar, slip-joint pliers and... and what you said the first time- give me a moment-"

"Sure, take your time. Anyway, that place is a goldmine. We weren't getting anywhere 'til I had the idea of looking though all that scrap he keeps lying around in there. As it is, I still had to write the software to get all these different systems to talk to each other from scratch, let alone the dish relays themselves-"

"-Ahah! Got it, got it, there you go."

"Uh, well, that's a Robertson screwdriver. Have a look in the fourth drawer down. So at first we were only trying to get a better radio signal in here, fit up a more reliable way of communicating with the bigger towns we trade with, that kinda thing."

"How about this?"

"Yeah, no... closer, though, kind of. That's a hammer. And signal's always been kind of patchy around here. There's just a lot of natural interference for some reason, so you need a good strong transmitter to start with. But then I got thinking, since the Ottens don't mind this thing in their field, why not go for something a little more ambitious?"

"This?"

"That'd be my sandwich," said Garret, kindly, taking it anyway. "I guess it is time for a break. I'll come on down."

He stuck the sandwich in his mouth, unclipped himself, and slid through the nets of wiring and steel mesh to the lowest horizontal strut, then swung down and dropped to the ground in a single agile movement.

"So, er, just to clarify," said Wheatley, who wanted to steer the conversation far away from the subject of tools and technical knowhow, "what does it- she, sorry- what does she actually do?"

The young man looked up at the apex of the mast above him. There was a devout enthusiasm in his face, so strong that it was very nearly love.

"When she's fired up," he said, dreamily, "the whole structure's gonna act as a base station, getting us signal clear across the tri-state area, maybe even further. We'll get wireless digital signal processing and data transmission as high as two g-bits per second. We'll have long-distance capability that'll put the vorts to shame. Radio, of course, and phone, internet, all the public news broadcasts, independent channels- you name it. No more shifting around trying to find a good signal halfway across town- if it all works out, we'll be able to send and receive anything just as well as those hotshots over in New Detroit. Maybe even better."

What was it with humans and getting completely obsessed with things? Wheatley supposed that it was what allowed them to get so much done, to think up things like inventing other life-forms to do things for them, or hopping in little metal tubes and blasting off into space just for the hell of it, or cutting atoms up into tiny bits just to see what happened.

True, he sort of knew what it was like, to really, honestly want something so badly that you ended up doing desperate, crazy things you'd never normally dream of just to try and get your hands on it. After all, he'd been so hell-bent on escaping the facility in the end that he'd shaken off decades of protocol-driven inertia and gone looking for the deep-sleeping, slightly brain-damaged, button-pushing-fingers-possessing means to make it happen. Since then he'd done all sorts of bonkers things he'd been too scared to even think of, before- but it would have been nice to say that he'd been motivated by something a bit more noble and enterprising than absolute terror of what would have happened if he hadn't done them.

It was a problem that humans didn't really seem to have. They just did things. Nobody was standing over Garret Rickey and telling him that if he didn't build this giant insane tower of his and get it working by such-and-such a time they'd chuck him into an incinerator.

Choice, that was the thing. Choice made all the difference. Ask a machine 'why?' and they'd go, 'Because I'm programmed to.' An Aperture machine would probably add 'and She'll turn me into thirty pounds of wire wool if I don't'.

Ask a human 'why?', on the other hand, and they always got a loony sort of look on their face, and went, 'why not?'

Garret, meanwhile, had pulled out a grubby little memo recorder, and was making rapid notes on the glowing touchscreen with his thumbs, sandwich stuck in his mouth again for safe-keeping, still gazing up at the structure towering over his head. He seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was there, which- given the rather daunting experience with the tool-box- suited Wheatley just fine.

"I'll just leave you to it, then," he said, stepping carefully backwards. "Can see you two need some, er, alone time. Keep up the good work."

"Nice meeting you," said Garret, distractedly and a bit muffledly, around the sandwich. "Come back and help sometime, we always need more hands."

"Right!" called Wheatley, who was halfway across the field by now. Walking backwards took a fair amount of co-ordination- more than he was really comfortable with- but he was anxious to get out of shouting range before Garret snapped out of his contemplative state and asked him to identify any more incomprehensible pieces of equipment. "Will do."

He made it to the corner of the barn, turned, and nearly walked straight into Chell.

She stopped dead in her tracks, as did he. An extremely awkward moment passed, followed by several more slightly less awkward moments, followed by Wheatley finding his tongue.

"Hallo," he said. This seemed a safe enough bet. "You… alright?"

She nodded, looked past him to the end of the field, where Garret was now busy unbolting a panel from one of Foxglove's massive hooves.

"Had the speech?"

"Ha, yep, chapter and verse. The whole sales pitch." He coughed. "Obviously I pretty much knew what she- the tower, that is, by the way, she's a her- pretty much knew what she was about soon as I saw her, didn't take me long to sort of get a handle on the project, as it were, so I was able to, um, advise him on a couple of points. Glad to help out, you know me, always glad to be… generally helpful… look, I'm sorry I said that, back there, I didn't mean it, honestly, it just sort of slipped out."

He forced himself to hold eye contact- something which did not come naturally; it was his ingrained instinct to glance somewhere new every couple of seconds, and her serious grey gaze was hard for him to bear. He tried desperately to fathom her impassive human expression, trying to judge if anything he was saying was hitting the right note, or if he should just start running again to be on the safe side.

"You're not anything like Her, honestly, honestly you're nothing like Her at all. And I'm not- I'm not just saying that because it might make you less hacked off with me- although, although, got to admit, cards on the table, that is a factor, it is up there, in my- reasoning- but doesn't alter the fact that it is actually true, you're about as much like Her as- I- I mean, apart from the fact that you're both female, um, both of the female persuasion, and you are both quite good at murdering things- which is fine! Which is fine, because, um, important, vital difference, you only kill things when you have to, I have noticed, it's not like it's your hobby. Again, sorry, the point is, even when you were trying to murder things, you weren't anything like Her. Annnd... still are not. Obviously."

Chell didn't say anything at first. She looked down, feeling the neat patch of gauze on her left elbow.

"I had to make Aaron he went looking- if anyone did- it's..." She swallowed. Her voice was even lower than usual and not entirely steady, but quite clear. "It's my worst fear."

Wheatley let out an incredulous huff of laughter. "Your worst- sorry, at the risk of getting into another row, which I'm not looking for, believe me- but seriously, come off it, you? You're not afraid of anything!"

She looked up, sharply. She might have suspected mockery, or even flattery, but Wheatley hadn't intended either- hadn't intended anything, other than a plain, admiring statement of fact- and it showed. Her expression faltered, and she shook her head.

"Not true."

"Yeah, right, fine. Push the other one, it opens the door." He started to laugh again, got a better look at her face, and became immediately sober.

"Oh. You're doing that... 'being really serious' thing again."

"These are good people, Wheatley. My-" She stopped, her lips compressed and white, jaw set, as if she was in pain. "My friends. If one of them- if any of them ended up- in there- it'd be my fault-"

"Hey!" He was alarmed, not as much by what she said as the way she looked, how her voice broke on the last word, the way her fingers started to pick and pluck savagely at the dressing on her arm, as if it was some kind of combination she had to solve. "Hey, hey, no, don't worry, it's alright! No, because I bet, right, that Aaron bloke is totally convinced now, we probably absolutely convinced him back there, that it was a really bad idea to go anywhere within a mile of the place. Just like you said, convincing, and your ideas always work, don't they? Good ideas, from your direction, never a problem. And! And you know what, even if for some mad reason he's not completely one-hundred-percent convinced, we could try something else. We could think up something else, like, er... well, we could... break into his house, and- stay with me, I can see you're looking sceptical but I haven't got to the good bit, yet- break into his house while he's asleep and put on a, a bed-sheet or something, I could go on your shoulders- no, actually, it's probably better the other way round, from a structural point of view, centre of gravity and that, plus I've had a bit more practice. Um... where'd I got to?"

"A bed-sheet," said Chell, after a moment. Her voice was oddly choked, and her mouth was doing some odd things, but at least she'd stopped picking at her arm.

"Oh, right, right, yes! And we could wake him up and tell him that we're a mysterious time-travelling ghost, from, like, the future, and it's vitally life-or-death important that he makes sure nobody ever goes anywhere near the facility, because- his- umm, are you all right?"

Chell- who for a worrying few seconds had really looked like she was undergoing some painful sort of internal spasm- burst out laughing.

Wheatley wasn't sure what was so funny, but he wasn't about to complain, either. Her whole face came alive when she laughed; not in a scary-brilliant, born-puzzle-solver-and-stuff-breaker sort of way, no, this was a different thing altogether. It was like sunlight in the facility, like suddenly seeing a patch of bright blue sky clear through a gap in the cage of panels and realising you were much, much closer to it than you'd thought.

And whenever he managed to do it, whenever he managed to make her smile, or laugh like she was laughing now, leaning helplessly against the side of the barn, giving herself entirely up to it- the fact it had been him made it even better. Even if he didn't know what he'd said, exactly, it felt like a success, and more, it felt-

-like I could do it all day, no problem. Would not mind that at all.

"Yes," she managed, at last, straightening up and gingerly letting go of her side. "Aaron believes us. He'll keep them away."

"Well- well, that's great! Isn't it? What're you so worried about, then, if-"

She shook her head again, this time with a touch of impatience, and he realised rather belatedly that- for her, anyway- her worrying hadn't been the point. For Wheatley, who could hardly ever avoid announcing to the world in general what he happened to be thinking at any given time, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep in mind that she only did the same when there was an actual, valid reason. In this case, she was trying to explain.

"It's just why I... pushed you."

"Oh, what, to tell him about it? Pfff, don't worry, it's fine. I mean, yes, it was a hideously traumatising experience and everything but, you know, I'll live. Just sort of, I dunno, warn me next time. Some kind of, of non-verbal signal before you launch me into it like that, that'd be perfectly adequate preparation. I mean, I do vaguely remember telling you at one point that I like to have sort of forewarning in these kinds of important, possibly hazardous situations, the cliff notes beforehand, so to speak, just a rundown of the most salient points before you chuck me in at the deep end- but, er, it's okay if you don't remember me telling you that. I think we were both a bit out of sorts at that point, and four years is quite a long time."

"Yeah. It is."

She gave him one of her half-comical, half-cynical looks. It seemed to suggest that they were back to business as usual, but what she said next wrapped that notion around a brick, slung it through a few dozen portals for extra oomph, and fired it directly into his stomach.

"I missed you."

He stared at her. She looked oddly troubled, considering; for all the world as if she was the one who suddenly felt as if their innermost systems had suddenly kicked off a violent self-cleaning-cycle, instead of the one who had the upper hand by default, calmly making earth-shaking statements like that out of the blue.

"What you did... I hated you," she said- quietly, matter-of-factly. The cleaning-cycle inside him went into overdrive, and not in a good way. "I was mad as hell at you, but- I missed you. Understand?"

"Umm, not... not entirely..."

She sighed.

"Me neither."

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

[Sleep Mode activated]
[error: file incomplete]
[Accessing…]

The cold little cubicle was even smaller than the shower in his flat, which was quite an achievement, and he was all over goosebumps, apart from the places where the really uncomfy sucker things with wires on were attached to his bare skin. He'd already been there for quite a while- long enough to become confused about the passage of time- and he was getting properly fed up with following the brusque, infrequent instructions from the hidden intercom somewhere in the ceiling.

Somewhere up there, he was fairly sure, a bunch of people with labcoats and clipboards were looking at the data he was giving them, whatever it was that was being recorded by the sucker things and the wires and his responses to their endless questions, and he only hoped that there was at least some reason for it, that somebody was getting something useful out of all of this, because all that he personally was getting was cross and very, very nervous.

"Listen, er, is this going to take much longer? I mean, we've been here hours, now, we've done all sorts of crazy things- well, I have, don't really know what you're up to up there, but I'm sure it's very technical and everything- and normally I'd be fine with a bit of overtime but I've sort of got-"

"You'll hear a short tone," said the intercom. It sounded bored. "When you hear it, step on to the blue circle."

"Right, fine, anyway, thing is, there's possibly been some sort of administrative cockup, right, 'cause nobody told me I was down for this today and I've sort of got something I was planning to-"

"Stand on the blue circle," snapped the intercom.

"Alright, alright! Keep your hair on-"

He stepped forwards. Immediately, everything went dark, and a livid blue glow flooded the ceiling of the cubicle. He ducked.

"Oh. It's gone- it's gone blue. Is that supposed to happen?"

"Subject detected," said a friendly, twanging sort of electronic voice. "Voice print one hundred percent complete. Electroencephalography results calibrated. Subject is now ready for core scan."

"Sorry, 'scan'? Wh- look, joking aside, how about, right, before we go any further you let me know what, exactly, it is that I'm being scanned for? And if it'll hurt. That bit's fairly important, because, last time, right, last time you lot pulled me in for one of these compulsory test things, some kind of, um, biometrics scheme I think it was, the word 'scan' was definitely thrown around, and it actually hurt quite a lot. I mean, I don't have a particularly high pain threshold, I should probably tell you right now, and that was not an experience I want to have to go through twice. Especially since, as I said, I've got something I need to be doing. Quite important- very- very important in fact, so the sooner I can get out of here, the better, thanks. Apart from anything else, it's bloody freezing in here. Smells a bit weird, too."

He paused.

"...Hello?"

The intercom stayed silent. He looked up at the blue-lit ceiling, hesitated, rapped lightly on the wall.

"Anyone there? Or have you all, I dunno, gone for coffee or something? Hello?"

Nothing. It was bloody typical of them, the scientists, walking around as if they owned the place just because they all had proper degrees in things like quantum mechanics and robotics and nuclear physics from MIT, instead of the sort of computer science diploma you got by doing night classes in a small room over a laundrette. You'd see one of them every so often- more and more, lately- a scientist in their Aperture labcoat, wandering the corridors with an abstracted look in their eye, and you'd know exactly what they were after. It was every employee for themselves, and if you didn't reverse direction before they spotted you, if you weren't quick enough, or if you happened to be above-average in terms of noticability, that abstracted look might suddenly focus in your direction.

And after that, Heaven help you.

Being, generally speaking, the first thing that people looked at in a hallway full of not-unfairly-tall people, he tended to have to resort to tactics like Oh! I Just Remembered Something Really Important I Have To Go And Do In The Exact Opposite Direction, or Oh Wow, Look At That Amazing Thing Behind You, or, if circumstances were particularly urgent, Does Anyone Else Smell Burning?

None of these tactics tended to work very well, and anyway, he hadn't even had a chance, this time. They had wanted him specifically. They had even known his name.

He wished he knew what time it was, but they'd taken his watch around the same time as they'd asked him if he had any jewellery, piercings, fillings, joint replacements, cardiac devices, etcetera. They'd also taken his glasses, which meant that even if he'd had his watch, he wouldn't have been able to see what it said, especially not in this blue-tinged, odd-smelling darkness.

He was beginning to realise that he probably wasn't going to be getting back to the office any time soon, and that wasn't fair, wasn't fair at all. Today was supposed to have been the day, after all these weeks, the Big One.

He'd sort of put it off a bit, once or twice, every time, every weekday that he'd taken that long walk across the office to the little table by the photocopier with the exact change in his pocket and hundreds of brilliant things to say lined up in his head, and ended up back at his desk a minute later with a bagel he did not actually particularly want, a vivid mental snapshot of her quick bright smile, and the realisation that he was an utter idiot.

But today- today had been different, he'd just known it. He'd even written his little speech down on a stack of little Post-its, which was serious-level forward-planning as far as he was concerned, but now it wasn't going to happen because the bloody scientists had bloody decided that today was a really good day to start titting about with more bloody scans.

"Alright, this is getting beyond a joke, now. And what is that smell? It's like... almonds or something- look, if you're seriously going to leave me in here while you have a little snack, you could at least turn the lights back on!"

The intercom clattered. Now there were two voices, distant and fuzzy, as if neither was speaking directly into the microphone, or even facing the right way.

"How the hell is he still talking?"

"No idea. Should be out cold by now."

"Well, he does look kind of dopey anyway, it's hard to t- wait a second- is that still on?"

"What?" A close-up clatter. "Oh, sh-"

He was scrambling for the cubicle door even before the intercom clicked off, his hands finding nothing but flat featureless ceramic tile in the darkness, a cold sick clot of fear rising in his throat, meeting the cloying taste of almonds in his nose and mouth as his heart sped up and his breath came shorter and faster. The sickly-sweet perfumed air was lead-heavy in his lungs, choking, and he tried to yell but a black-spotted wave of dizziness came sweeping over him, and then he was falling-

[redacted; file corrupt]
[diverting active]
[rebooting…]

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

"Grab me! Grab me- uff!"

Wheatley hit the floor shoulders first, which was an awkward way of doing things. His upper body uncurled from the ball he'd rolled himself up into while he'd been in Sleep Mode, leaving his legs sprawled mostly on the sagging sofa and unable to help him at all. He was stuck.

By degrees, and with a lot of flailing, he managed to throw the balance enough to keel fully off the sofa. It was a complicated process, and by the time he'd actually managed to collapse, legs and all, on the floorboards, he couldn't help feeling that he'd really accomplished something.

He lay still, letting the sickly claustrophobic traces of the nightmare ebb away. Something about a tiny white box, and... well, something bad had happened, something terrifying. And there'd been something about Chell, he was almost sure, but what was most pronounced was that same sense of dislocation, something at the back of his mind scrabbling weakly to connect.

There was a single red point of light above the couch, a tiny glowing eye which caused him a moment of terror before he realised it was the radio set. It had been quietly hissing static to itself when they'd come in that afternoon, and Chell had turned it off with an absent flick of a switch.

She hadn't said much, after their chance meeting at the barn. She'd seemed a bit distant, somehow, as if she was aware she'd skirted a little too close to something she hadn't meant to stumble over, and was being extra-cautious to compensate. Of course, Wheatley had compensated quite adequately himself, at least at first, filling any available stretch of silence with his usual waffle, the verbal equivalent of aerosol party string- but even he had wound down a bit in the end. Given what she'd said, he didn't think that she'd been upset, exactly- but something had definitely been up with her, and he'd started to feel more than a little helpless in the face of it- he couldn't even begin to puzzle it out for himself, not if she wasn't even going to give him the slightest clue what it was.

He still couldn't believe that she'd said that. I missed you. Granted, she'd also said that she'd hated him, but she had used the past tense, and that had to mean something, didn't it?

I missed you. It was only a shame that she hadn't elaborated, hadn't gone as far as to state exactly why she'd missed him. If he could manage to work out what it was, he could make extra-sure that he went on doing it, or being it, whichever was appropriate.

"Presumably not because of my ability to summon emergency escape lifts, for example," he said, out loud. "Or... to not go absolutely murderously bonkers when handed a near-infinite amount of power. Or- actually, you know what, process of elimination isn't really going to work here, it's a bit pointless trying to list everything it probably isn't. Could be here all night."

He sighed. The rug was actually quite a bit more comfortable than the couch- not as padded, but he didn't really need it to be, and at least his feet didn't stick off the edge. There was a little moonlight slanting through the window, and the light provided just enough contrast for him to be able to see his hand as he lifted it up, a dark spindly shape against the pale greyish spread of the plastered ceiling.

He turned it back and forth, studying it. Four fingers and a thumb- the whole thing was such a simple set-up when you thought about it. There was hardly anything to it, but the things you could do if you happened to be lucky enough to come with it installed were bloody infinite. He'd picked it all up fairly quickly, he thought, considering- although admittedly, that wasn't much to do with him. It was more to do with all the movement protocols programmed into this new body, giving him a leg-up, allowing him to act more or less like he'd been walking around and using his hands for things for more than three decades, instead of less than three days.

He wondered if she would even have been able to tell- say he'd somehow made his way out on his own, like this, put on an accent- would she even have guessed that he wasn't human? Would she have guessed he'd been him?

Probably, he decided. She would have figured it out. She always had been sharp like that, and besides, the Aperture logo which had been helpfully embroidered on his avatar's shirt pocket would have been a dead giveaway. And he couldn't exactly say he blended in very well. No, 'very well' was definitely a bit of an exaggeration. A better way of describing how well he was fitting in out here, based on everything that had happened so far, would be 'not at all.'

He sighed again, a bit louder. The little front room was dark and warm, and- in stark contrast to that first night, in the wheatfield- entirely quiet. It was the variety out herethat was so unnerving- in the facility, unless something was going on, you had the same grey noise all the time. It didn't change, you might not even be aware that it was there unless something called your attention to it, but there it was, day in, day out, in the background. Reliable, that was the word.

Out here, on the other hand, there were no constants. It was either as silent as the grave or full of things that went skreep-skreep and yaaark. There was no order to anything.

At this point, Wheatley, who hadn't been paying much attention to the direction his thoughts had been wandering in, suddenly caught up with himself and realised that he was missing the facility.

It was a terrible shock, as if his rambling mind had walked, face-first, into a hidden electric fence. He sat up, struck dumb, wide-eyed with horror. It couldn't be true. He had spent so long- so unimaginably long- waiting, planning, longing, hoping, praying- trying to get out- the very thought of being back there terrified him- he couldn't be missing it-

He remembered reading a book- well, sort of scanning it lightly, to be honest, there'd been an awful lot of books in Her files and he'd been in a bit of a hurry to prove a point at the time- but there'd been something in this one about a bloke whose wife had gone doolally and, instead of, say, getting a qualified psychologist to prescribe her some hefty anti-psychotics, he'd decided to park her in an attic and let her get on with it. Right now, this felt like an excellent idea, and so he promptly shoved the insane, dangerous thought unceremoniously to the back of his mind, and hurled everything else he could think of on top of it, just to make sure it couldn't get loose and start wandering around the circuits of his brain like the aforementioned mad spouse, attacking the saner thoughts around it and chewing on the furniture.

One thing was for certain- he'd never, ever, in a million years tell her that he'd caught himself missing the godforsaken place. God alone knew what she'd think of him. After she'd escaped (and he still didn't have a clue how she'd escaped, hadn't been keen to broach the subject at all, to be honest) she'd clearly never looked back.

He winced, involuntarily. Well, until he'd made her- asked her to-

Thunk.

Wheatley started, and peered worriedly up at the ceiling. One major disadvantage of this new body was that it didn't have any kind of exterior light, which was doubly ironic considering that it was made of nothing else. The moon had drifted behind a cloud, and without a backlit optic, he was very much in the dark.

Thud, went the thing that had gone thunk.

He hesitated, then stood up. The little front room was quite low, and his head very nearly brushed the ceiling as he fumbled his way across to the doorway and ascended the staircase, a narrow, rickety wooden affair which creaked and yowled like a whole horde of wheatfield-things under his feet.

The upper floor of the house was barely half the size of the lower rooms, and- following what seemed to be the typical style of Eaden architecture taller than a single storey- perched on top of them as if it had been dropped there by accident one day and had just happened to cling on. There was a tiny hallway with only two doors, and around the first of these Wheatley could see a soft glimmer of light.

"Hello? Are you in there? Um, also, are you all right?"

Thunk. There was no question about it. Whatever it was, the sound was coming from this room.

Wheatley gave the door a dubious little nudge. It moved.

"Oh, brilliant, not shut. Lucky. Very lucky, to be honest, I still haven't really made any inroads concerning this whole 'handle' malarky, definitely wouldn't have known where to start if it had been, er, locked or passworded or something. Still don't feel happy just barging in though, unless- hello?"

Still nothing.

"Alright, see, if this had been my old body, I could've just played the trusty old 'knocking on a door' audio file a few times, would have done the job nicely. Um, sadly, though, that seems to be one of the few things which didn't survive the transfer. I'm not saying that's your fault or anything, I'm sure you did the best job you could with the limited time, resources, and knowledge available to you, I'm just explaining that, among the things I don't seem to have any more, is the ability to make it sound as if I'm knocking on a door. Which is a pity. Are you- are you hearing this, at all, or...?"

He listened intently for a few seconds, then took a nervous step back- at which point something on the other side of the door went not only thunk and thud but bang and scrape.

"Wh- Right, that's it, I'm coming in."

Her bedroom was small, low-ceilinged, plain. She didn't seem to be much of a one for decoration anyway, if the rest of the house was anything to go on, but the peculiar thing about this room was that there was hardly anything in it, not even the things which humans tended to label 'necessary.' No tables, no chairs, not even a bookcase or a picture on the wall. There was a mattress on the floor in one corner, a confusion of blankets and cushions all over the place, and not a great deal else.

In the light of the small lamp- a rounded, cordless thing like a white pebble- he spotted her. She was tightly curled at the foot of the mattress, wedged up against the corner in a nest of tangled sheets and pillows. Her eyes were closed and her face shone with sweat, and as he stared, her body jerked, kicking hard against the wall.

Thunk.

So there was one mystery solved. Wheatley was pretty sure he understood; just like you didn't put the great big military androids with machine guns in the wing made entirely of glass, you didn't put the sleeping scary-intense natural expert at wrecking things in the same room as ornaments and breakable items of furniture. Now that he was looking, he could see that there were dents in the plaster and dings in the skirting-boards, and a heavy curtain across the little window, made from a kind of thick muffling fabric that looked as if it'd stop you damaging yourself too much if you happened to bounce off it, and on a second inspection, the little lamp looked like it had spent a disproportionate amount of time being used as a football.

She rolled over in a sudden violent movement, half-off the mattress, and in her sleeping face he saw a terribly familiar expression. There was only one thing he knew of which could make her look like that, asleep or awake- so utterly focused, so grim and alert and hair-trigger tense.

She was testing.

She coiled her knees under her, and her right hand fought a handful of sheets into a deathgrip. Whatever she was seeing, whatever path her mind was dragging her down, Wheatley knew instinctively that it belonged to the world they'd left, the nightmare world that he'd only just caught himself missing, long grey corridors and vast white chambers, and a Voice, a calm cold Voice that echoed everywhere-

Even as he watched, her whole body tensed, readying for another desperate lunge across an obstacle only she could see. It was frightening for him to see her this out of kilter with reality, just like he'd been terrified when she'd been shot, when she'd looked up at him with clouded, uncomprehending eyes, and he'd realised she didn't know what was going on.

Wheatley was used to not knowing what was going on. For him, confusion was business as usual. When shedidn't seem to know what was going on, on the other hand, there was clearly something terribly wrong with the balance of the universe- zero had been divided by, the apocalypse was underway, the Four Horsemen were getting up and looking for their scythes in the umbrella stand, etcetera.

Somebody else in his place might have tried to shake her awake, but the painful thump she'd given him last time he'd attempted to wake her up that way was still fresh in his mind and he still wasn't used to having physical control, anyway, especially in this very specific situation- there was only one thing he was used to doing, here.

Without even thinking about it, he crashed to his knees at the edge of the blanket-mattress-pillow-nest, and yelled.

"Whoahh! Whoah whoah whoah, hold your horses, stop!"

And, to his utter astonishment, she stopped.

Half-curled, jaw clenched, pulse racing in her neck, she was clearly a long, long way from relaxed, but she stopped as if her internal spring had caught on an opposing cog, freezing her in place. Wheatley gulped- startled, relieved, and completely at a loss for what to do next.

"Oh. Alright- alright, um, didn't actually think that'd work, but... hang on, I'm- I'm trying to think of something, give me a minute..."

He thought, frantically. Her face, so still, so studious, as if she was running God-knew-how-many calculations a second in there- ready to take his advice, but equally ready to take care of herself, run, puzzle, fight-

"Ah! Okay, alright, I have thought of something. I'm not too sure if it's going to do any good, mind, but, umm, we're a bit low on options right now, so I'm going to at least try. Er… and, oh, bloody hell, I just thought, you're not even going to talk, are you? 'Cause you think you're still in th- okay, never mind, doesn't matter, still not a problem. Look, thing is, I can't see what you're seeing, which does make it significantly trickier, so you're going to have to help me out a bit. Alright? Just nod, if you can hear me, okay? Just nod."

Her chin jerked, slightly.

"Close enough, right, I can work with that. Er… most importantly, it's all fine, you don't need to worry. I know it might be a little hard to credit, considering, but there's not actually a lot She can do to us right now, for reasons which are, um, fairly obvious to me but might be, understandably, a little bit harder for you to grasp. The important bit is, nothing's going on, annnd... we don't have to rush or anything, we can take our time. Whatever's in front of you right now- just guessing, is it a pit? Bottomless pit? Just nod."

She nodded, a little more clearly.

"Yeah, er, had a feeling it might be- well, you don't need to go that way. I'm absolutely positive, there's another way, in fact- oh, look over here, there it is!"

Sitting back on his heels, he pointed- rather pointlessly, really, unless she could see through her eyelids, but just in case- in the general direction of the glowing pebble thing. It had a nice, reassuring sort of light to it; not too bright, not glaring, just warm and friendly, which was probably why she kept it around.

"Nice straight corridor, no pits, no turrets, just lots of handy portal surfaces if we need 'em. Got your portal gun, by the way?"

Her hands tightened reflexively on the sheets.

"Right, that's a yes, brilliant, that'll make it much easier. Definitely foreseeing a very easy ride from here on out, no particular hazards on the radar. Right, well, no point hanging about, off we go, just follow my rail!"

It was the most bizarre thing he'd thought he'd ever done, and by this point there had been a lot of bizarre things, from holding his own burnt-out corpse in his hands to finding himself suddenly on the moon. She really did seem to be seeing the things he described, allowing herself to be guided by his voice just like she had in reality, and so he rambled on, picking up confidence as he went, leading her through her own dream.

"Come on, this way! Easy up here, flight of stairs, don't trip, be a bit embarrassing to get all this way and then knock out a tooth or something on a step, really, wouldn't it? Nicely done. And up ahead, we've got, er... well, up ahead's a... big... empty room. Just an empty chamber, classic, minimalist, door at each end, no obstacles or anything... don't know what it's there for, to be honest, a sort of... chillout zone, maybe, or a waiting room, or a- a giant squash cour- never mind, doesn't matter what it's for, point is, it's perfectly safe. See? Through we go."

The facility that he painted for her, as the minutes ticked away and her clenched jaw and clutching hands slowly began to untense, was a benign, barely believable fantasy. It was a world away from the memories he'd been so reluctant to relive for Aaron that morning, as different as day and night, the harmless twin to that evil, entangling horror. His imagination was short on detail but long on wishful thinking, and for Chell's sleeping mind he drew a picture of an Aperture where walls stayed put and floors held you up, where the turrets never worked but the lifts always did, where it was breathtakingly, beautifully simple for her to work her way upwards- always upwards- after his guiding voice.

Maybe it was the Aperture he wished he really had made for her, the Aperture he'd planned to make back when he'd thought that he'd be so much better in control than Her, when he'd pictured how safe and sane the place would be with himself in the driving seat. Once he'd taken possession of that giant, omnipotent body, he'd been so carried away by the feeling that he could actually Make A Difference, like- [as soon as they notice all my amazing ideas] -well, like he'd always wanted to, that he'd forgotten that the chance to Make A bloody enormous Difference to her had been right in front of him, right then and there- the easiest thing in the world, just helping her escape.

And maybe it wasn't even as clearly-defined as that, just a vague idea of a place where he could actually help her, somewhere where he more or less knew how things worked and could lead her to safety. It was certainly very different from the way things had been so far, out here. Everything up here on the surface was strange and bewildering and he had no function, other than trailing after her through a world that she belonged to but he couldn't even begin to understand.

Wheatley was not blessed with much of an ability to keep at things which didn't seem to be working out, and it was terribly discouraging for him to realise that, out here, he couldn't even pretend to be speaking from a position of knowledge and experience. He couldn't even begin to fool her- or anyone else- into thinking that he knew what he was doing.

He didn't try to prolong the dream, even once he'd managed to witter her unconscious mind down from a nightmare into something closer to a sort of linear, piecemeal sightseeing tour. It barely even occurred to him, in fact- the thought that he might have been able to keep her going a bit longer would have delighted him when he'd been in control, when he'd been testing her, but now his mind shied instinctively from the very idea, skirted it with a shiver of something like revulsion. It felt far too much like something She might have done.

Still, for this short space of time, in this small room with its one warm point of light, he at least felt as if there was a point to his presence. Guiding her through her dream, he was useful.

"Nearly there," he told her, at last, leaning back against the wall and lacing his fingers together, turning the bowl of his hands inside out. His hard-light knuckles bent back without a noise, which struck him as distinctly disappointing.

"Brilliant, well done. And... ding! Here's the lift. It's straight up to the top for us, now- no detours, we're not going to be stopping to take in the scenery, just all the way up, vertically, from A to B- A being where we are now, B being the surface. Topside. The great outdoors. Speaking of which, stand back, doors closing, safety first... and up we go."

She'd unwound, slowly, as he'd talked her through her own convoluted dreamscape. She'd stopped looking like she was set to start bouncing off the walls at a moment's notice, and the edge-of-a-blade tension had ebbed out of her limbs and out of the stubborn lock of her jaw. Now, she turned over in her nest of blankets and her hands slackened, dispelling the illusion that there had been anything held between them at all.

Wheatley shifted, carefully, drew his knees up a little.

"Annd... we're out."

He'd been half-afraid that she would wake up, but to his relief she just sighed and made a small sound under her breath- words, nonsense, he couldn't tell- and stayed deeply, calmly asleep.

He waited for a little while, turning the cordless-lamp-pebble-thing idly over in his hands (he'd picked it up at one point, helping her navigate an imaginary dark bit which had required the services of an imaginary torch). There wasn't any batty half-legible scribbling all over the walls of this small room, and it was warmer and cleaner, and instead of sitting on a crate in his little spherical shell he was sitting on the floor in a great big lanky thing the size of a small tree, but there was a funny sort of familiarity about it, all the same.

"You know what?" he said, quietly. "I mean, obviously, you don't know what, you can't hear a word I'm saying 'cause you're fast asleep, thank God, it's just a figure of speech- but... what I was going to say was, d'you remember Kevin? Little round chap, yellowy sort of eye, not what you'd call a particularly erudite conversationalist. He was one of the corrupted cores you stuck on me back when you were... umm, well, not to get into all that again now, let's just say when we were having a certain minor difference of opinion. About you living. About you, continuing to be al- okay, just going to apologise for that again- sorry- and move on."

He propped the pebble on his knees, draping his arms absently over the top.

"Kevin didn't have a lot of lumber in the attic, to be honest, there wasn't much going on up there, but I'll say one thing for him, he knew what he wanted. I mean, he didn't really have a proper big multi-part gameplan all sorted out like we did, never had the head for all that 'bigger-picture' stuff, did Kevin, but he knew what he wanted, he wanted to go to space. Which, surprisingly- I mean, you'd be forgiven for thinking that was a slightly unrealistic goal- but surprisingly it was actually where he ended up. In space, with me. And we had some times, you know... floating... looking at things... him being all like 'I'm in space," and me being all 'yep, yes, we are both in space, that is definitely true'... but you know what he used to say, sometimes? 'I'm bored of space.' That's what he'd say. 'I'm bored of space, don't like it up here, it's too big. I want to go to Earth. I want to go home.' His exact words."

Wheatley sighed into his folded arms. "So it's like, he wanted that really badly, but then he actually got it, and... it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. And in the end, of course, in the end he... well, he got smashed into sherbert by a massive great big chunk of rock out of nowhere, which on reflection doesn't really fit into the sort of moral I'm attempting to convey here, but... what I'm trying to say is, I'm not- I'm not sure I can hack this. I don't- I- I have no idea- well, I just don't know what I'm doing, really. I have no idea what I'm doing. I mean, it's alright for you, you're human. This is what you're supposed to do, wandering around up here, eating plants and, and cows and things, hanging around with lots of other humans in your little communities-"

She moved, suddenly, turning over. He froze, willing her to settle again and not do anything difficult, like waking up and wanting to know what exactly he was doing in her bedroom, gawking at her. Thankfully, she only shifted into a more comfortable position in the nest of blankets, became still.

"I mean, don't- don't get me wrong," he continued, after an extra-long pause, just to make sure. "I don't want to go back, not in a million years- in fact, can I just state right now, just for the record, that I am never, ever, setting foot back in there, ever again. Ever. Not even part of a foot or, or even a finger. Not even the tip of a finger, it's not going to happen. It's just..."

He fiddled with his tie, his voice fading to a mutter, his fidgety fingers pausing at the edge of the small grey circle-shutter logo on his shirt.

"I'm an Aperture device, aren't I? Out here, it's not- it's- I'm... I'm not compatible with anything. Daft sort of way of putting it, probably, to you, but basically true. I don't have a point, you know? Sorry, sorry, again, you don't know, asleep, obviously, but if you weren't, maybe you would. Not likely, but possible, you might."

Wheatley sighed again. He unfolded himself and set the pebble-lamp down on the floor, getting to his feet, casting huge jerky shadows across the ceiling, as if someone with a knack for shadow-puppetry was violently murdering an enormous spider. Chell hadn't moved again since she'd rolled over. She stayed where she was, curled away from him towards the wall.

"Well... cheers for listening, anyway," he said.

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

Chell listened to him leave, picking his way clumsily over the pillow-blanket obstacle course that was her bedroom floor. Once she was sure he was out of earshot- or audial-receptor-shot, or whatever it was that he had- she rolled over, propping her bandaged elbows on a heap of pillows, fixing the pebble-lamp with a pensive look. She tended to leave it on- it was a skim battery, charged algae, and could keep going for a ridiculously long time on its own.

She'd been awake for some time. She'd woken up as soon as he'd ended her dream for her, and she wasn't particularly proud of herself for the deception, but by the time she'd been properly awake he'd been talking about things he clearly didn't want her to actually hear, and she hadn't known how to respond. She was bewildered enough by the realisation that he'd just talked her out of her dream, out of one of the violent night terrors which had plagued her for the last four years. Her sleeping mind had just accepted him into the scenario- even allowed him to change it- whereas she was fairly sure that if anyone else had tried that, they would have been looking out in the hallway for their teeth.

It was also a shock to realise that- despite everything, everything that had happened since the first time she'd willingly followed the sound of his hopeful, rambling waterfall of a voice through the facility- some unconscious part of her still trusted him.

She wanted to help him- in return, partly, and partly because she did know how it felt, to feel so out of your depth that you were drowning. She didn't like the way that all the frantic optimism had drained out of his voice as he'd talked, until all that was left was something that didn't sound like it liked itself very much, and didn't really see why anyone else should, either. There was precious little comfort that she could have given him- only that she'd found it hard herself, adjusting to a world she'd known next to nothing about, and that would have been pretty poor consolation, considering. As he'd pointed out, she was human. Her natural social instincts might have been critically atrophied at first, but at least they'd existed.

He was so strange, he grew harder for her to fathom the longer she knew him- utterly human for so much of the time, full of human frailties, hungry for approval and interaction, contact. That morning, when she'd taken advantage of him, it had been because she'd had instinctive confidence in the total control his emotions had over his mouth- and in the total lack of control he had, over his emotions. A very peculiar thing, now that she thought about it, to expect from a machine.

She wondered-

Wondered, perhaps, wasn't the right word. Chell rarely wondered, had little time for wondering, it was too close to wandering, rambling vaguely around with no destination in mind. Chell did not wander. Her thoughts moved like a marathon, a relay-race, measured and paced and swift, concept after concept passing from one to another. She took what she knew and ran with it; and in this case, she knew...

Down in the dead space beneath the facility, she'd seen the evidence of Cave Johnson's final project. She knew what it had been- sick, half-crazed, dying, the master of Aperture had set his engineers to work on a way of placing a human mind in a computer. She knew that they had succeeded, and that the procedure had been carried out at least once. She was, you could say, familiar with the result.

And of course She, the near-omnipotent being that Cave Johnson's assistant Caroline had become, hadn't known- hadn't remembered anything of being human until the things they'd discovered in Test Shaft 09 had brought it forcibly home to Her. She'd excised Her remaining humanity like a lump of cancerous tissue, purged it from Her mind as soon as She'd realised what it was. Chell was under no illusions about that, and she knew that if she owed her life to anyone in the aftermath of that last hideous struggle, four years ago, it hadn't been Her. It had been the human She'd been created from, however little of her remained. It had been Caroline.

If the process had been carried out once, wasn't there a chance that they might have tried it again? After all, She lied. She almost always lied; it was the nearest thing that a being as stone-cold malicious, intelligent, and deadly as Her had to reliable constant. She had said that Wheatley was a construct, the product of the greatest minds of a generation working together with the sole purpose of creating the dumbest moron who ever lived.

Chell just found this too tidy to be true. She had no idea what had made Wheatley the way he was, but she was coming to seriously doubt it had ever been intentional. Despite what She had said, she couldn't seriously believe that anybody, even an entire team of Aperture scientists, would ever have knowingly put together such a mess. He certainly wasn't the perfect idiot, because even his idiocy was inconsistent. He wasn't the perfect anything.

And yes, she'd felt lost out here, at first, but she'd had her one saving grace; her rock-solid survivor's drive, and with the help of the kind people around her, it had been enough. And she'd known, hadn't she, as hard as it had been to adjust, she'd at least known that the adjusting was worth it, she'd needed nobody to tell her that this world was where she belonged, where she deserved to belong. Even that last little snarl of fear, the too-familiar voice that whispered you missed this, had no power over that, at least in her waking mind.

Wheatley, on the other hand, had about as much natural drive as a square wheel. Having clearly long since given up on any attempts at learning any of the vast list of things he couldn't do, he instead spent most of his time trying endlessly to pretend he could do them. If he put one-tenth of the effort he put into incompetently lying his head off into actually trying to do things- if she could make him try, give him a reason to feel like he should-

Well. It'd be a start.

Chell settled back and looked up at the soft-lit ceiling. She pulled the lamp closer to her chest, and her quick fingers sent shadows flicking across the plaster- a bird, a rabbit, a sphere with a bright, blinking eye.

She smiled; a slow, sweet, determined smile. It would have worried the hell out of Wheatley if he'd seen it, particularly if he'd known himself the cause of it- it was unhurried and curiously, unwittingly fond, but it was still the kind of smile that- coming from her- suggested that something was about to get good and solved.

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

"This next test presents a unique challenge."

The two small robots stepped out of their respective assembly pods. At the far end of the chamber, the lock cycled open, revealing a dark, featureless space and a catwalk, leading away into the distance.

"Please note that any memories either of you may have of me placing the Cooperative Testing Scheme on hold and violently disassembling you are fabrications, caused by the stress of you being violently disassembled. In honour of your successful reassembly, I've compiled a brand new series of challenges, which will need to be completed within a set schedule. I hope I'm not boring you, Orange."

The blue robot shook out its high hockey-player shoulders and gave Orange, who was staring dreamily off into the distance, a hard nudge. It jumped, and squawked crossly.

"The first part of this test requires you to locate and retrieve a quantative sample of a certain non-standard testing element. Unfortunately, the elevator at the end of this catwalk is out of service. You will need to implement your Aperture Science Portal Devices as well as your integral long-fall cushioning systems to descend safely to the bottom of the shaft."

Jogging to the very end of the catwalk, the two robots peered gingerly down the dark, echoing hole in the centre of the elevator platform. Their optics sent a murky blue-amber glow a little way down the shaft, illuminating a grim vertical stretch of cracked ceramic tiles that petered out into complete blackness.

"You'll be happy to know that I sent a scouting robot down there for you, so you can have some idea of what to expect. He never came back, but I'm sure that's just because he's having too much fun."

The robots looked at each other across the shaft. It was a good thing- as far as their peace of mind was concerned, anyway- that they had been programmed with next to no ability to comprehend the concept of a 'lie'.

"Continue testing."

Orange gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Blue nodded eagerly, and they both took a short run-up and leapt, unhesitating, into the abyss.

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

 
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