A/N: As of 01/13 this fic is in a temporary hiatus. I will be writing more and I do plan to finish it, but I'm not sure when the next chapter will be up. In the meantime, thanks for reading and be sure to check out the tumblr for lovely art and updates on things!
They were somewhere.
Finally, after he-didn't-know-how-long walking he-didn't-know-how-far, they were somewhere.
He wasn't sure where exactly, but that was good. That was how Chell wanted it, and it made sense that she wanted it that way. It was so she wouldn't know where She was—no, no, that wasn't it—so She wouldn't know where she was… right?
Wheatley raised a hand to his aching head.
It hadn't really hurt, falling through the portal, and the pain it had left in his chest had passed after only a few minutes, but still he felt out of sorts. Though his eyes were closed, they stung as if they were still fixed on the portal's unnatural blue glow, and a faint buzzing seemed to have found a home on the inside of his teeth. He worked his jaw in response to the sensation, running his tongue over the offending structures but finding no relief.
He returned his hand to his side and flattened his palm against the floor supporting him. Like nearly everything else in the facility it was cold, though its texture was unexpected. Curling his fingers, he dragged their tips slowly along the floor beneath his hand. It was rough against the skin, a flat surface made up of countless tiny bumps and edges rising to meet his touch.
But more important than that, and unlike the catwalk they'd just left—he lifted his hand to slap the floor, and a satisfyingly dull thud accompanied the shock of the impact running up his arm—it was solid.
Blissfully, reassuringly, indisputably solid.
Wheatley opened his eyes to stare up at the wall through which he'd tumbled moments before. It was smooth again, its unbroken surface half-hidden in shadow and hardly worth a second look. With a groan he craned his neck to search for the spot where Chell had knelt to rest beside his head, but he found the area around him empty.
Crossing one arm over himself, he carefully rolled his body onto its side. From his new position sprawled on the floor he scanned the rest of the platform for her, twisting and straining to see what he could of the poorly-lit space. With nothing more than a couple of faded posters peeling away from the crumbling wall and some of those same uncomfortable, hard chairs they'd encountered before, the platform was gloomy and bare.
As his eyes completed their sweep of the area, a cold wave of dread surged through his body.
Chell wasn't there.
The open doorway at the far end of the platform was explanation enough for her absence. She must have been so unimpressed by his reaction to his first portal that she had finally realized what he'd known all along—that she really was better off without him—and so she had left him behind.
He rested his cheek against the floor, seeking to cool the skin now burning there as the words echoed in his mind.
She'd left him behind.
All he had wanted to do was to help her escape, to watch her walk out of the facility safe and free and not stop her this time, but in the end he knew he'd only slowed her down and put her in danger. Why had she stayed with him as long as she had? Maybe She'd been right after all, maybe she still hated him and it had all been a part of some strange, elaborate punishment for him. It made some sense. Why else would she have gone to the trouble of feeding him and cleaning him and holding his hand if she had it in herself to just leave him there?
Wrapping his arms around each other, he fought to suppress the swell of anger that accompanied the thought.
He had no right to question her reasons for doing anything, not after everything he'd done to her. It didn't matter that she'd smiled at him, and listened to him, and touched his body without pulling away. And it didn't matter that, for at least a little while, she'd seemed not to mind having him near her. The only thing that mattered was that she was gone and better off now and he was—
He was alone.
A sickening pang swept through him as the reality of his situation sank in. He was alone, exhausted, and lost, stuck in a dysfunctional body somewhere in the middle of a facility that wanted to see him suffer.
Breath coming in shallow gasps, Wheatley worked furiously to piece together a plan for his next few minutes, hours, days—however long he would manage to survive.
He sent out a hand behind himself in search of the bag he'd been tasked with carrying. Seizing it by the strap, he dragged it forward and fumbled at the clasp with shaking hands. Chell might have packed some food into his bag when they were still in the dormitories, and he was sure he'd felt something slosh around at some point, so maybe there was water in it too. But how long could either last?
How long would he need them to last?
He gave up after a short struggle with the clasp and threw the bag to the floor no more open than it had been before. Maybe he would be lucky, he considered—maybe She'd enjoy his death by starvation enough to simply leave him to it.
Rolling the rest of the way onto his stomach, he focused on the dark shape of the doorway across the platform. Though he couldn't see anything inside and he had no way of knowing what lay beyond, it was clear to him what he had to do. He had to get up off the ground and go inside the building. It would be safer in there than out on the open platform, he knew, as long as there weren't any turrets or bombs or lasers in there, or anything else that might want to hurt him.
He pulled his hands in close and pushed them down against the floor as hard as he could, barely managing to lift the front of him and hold it up for a few seconds. His arms trembled and his shoulders hurt at the effort, but he pressed on and began to lift his hips to give his legs room to maneuver beneath him.
The sharp sound of metal being struck split the silence of the platform and Wheatley fell back to the ground, the impact forcing the air from his chest. His eyes locked immediately onto the source of the sound—the doorway at the end of the platform.
He wasn't alone—and there it was again, the same sound—he wasn't alone and that was worse—and again—so much worse—twice more, and louder. He lay flat against the floor, flinching violently at each successive clatter. He could do nothing else, really, his arms and legs seemed to have stopped working, and even if he could move them, where would he run?
Harsh clanks poured from the doorway, each one like a blow to the side of his head, their combined echoes against the walls of the space loud enough to rattle his entire body. Burying his face in his arms, he braced himself for whatever end She had chosen for him.
As abruptly as the commotion had begun it stopped.
He lifted his head.
Wheatley choked at the sight of her as she emerged from the darkness, his throat closing tightly around a strangled sob.
Long-fall boots clicking quietly against the surface of the platform, Chell walked a short distance away from the opening then stopped to lean against the wall beside it. She spared Wheatley a quick glance and a nod, then raised the wrinkled sheet of paper she held clutched in one hand to her face. Her eyes alternated between it and the doorway nearby.
He wanted to scream, to stand up and yell at her for leaving him, and he wanted to wrap his arms around her and thank her for coming back, to ask her why she'd done it and promise her he'd do better, but he held his breath and clasped his hands over his mouth to keep any sound from coming out. He shook with the force of the conflicting emotions running through him, some strong enough and frightening enough that he couldn't even name them, and waited helplessly for them to pass.
When they finally had, he released his mouth and let all the air out of his body. With it, the tension left his limbs, and he placed his chin against the floor. For a while he lay there, limp and unmoving, watching her to make sure she didn't leave again, attention focused on nothing but her and the gradually slowing thumping between his chest and the floor.
For whatever reason—and he honestly couldn't think of a single one—she'd come back for him. It was a terrible decision on her part, but he couldn't help but feel relieved.
After allowing himself a few moments to regain his breath, Wheatley pressed his hands against the platform and raised himself on shaky arms. He was glad to find that they were working again, though they felt unusually weak. Bringing his knees forward to support his weight, he shifted and prepared to stand and walk to Chell but fell hard onto his backside before he could complete the movement.
As awful as he'd felt when he was lying down, he felt worse now that he'd lifted himself up from the ground. The portal's effects on his body seemed to be lingering still. His head felt far too light, his throat somehow even tighter than it had been before. He cradled his gut with his hands—that felt bad, too. Probably worse than the other things did, if he were to rank them.
Stomach, throat, head—that was the order, from worst to only marginally better. Though he hadn't taken into account his sore feet, he reminded himself, or his legs. After the distance he'd just traveled, those definitely deserved a place on the list.
Stomach, feet, legs, throat, head—he nearly laughed to himself as he counted off the parts of his new body that had most recently decided to betray him. It sounded like something from one of those educational recordings they'd shown him following his arrival at the relaxation facility.
The simple tune returned to him and he found himself humming.
Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…
Why had the woman in the recording always repeated that last part? Maybe it was because humans had two knees and two sets of toes. But they had two shoulders as well, didn't they? In any case, the song had never been very useful to Wheatley. There were so many parts of the human body it didn't even bother to mention—though as hard as he tried, he admittedly could never quite remember how the rest of it went.
Another wave of the bad feeling washed over him and he shuddered, clenching his teeth together until his jaw ached.
Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…
Chell's gaze rose from the paper and she glanced over at him, her brow creasing at the sound coming from his throat. She tucked the paper away into her bag and jogged to his side, placing her hand on his shoulder. He leaned gratefully into the touch.
"Hello," he did his best to smile at her, though he didn't really feel like smiling. "You, ah… you came back."
Her eyes widened at that, and she turned her head to look at the doorway then back at him. She didn't seem to want him to talk about it, so he changed the subject.
"I don't feel very good. Again. I'm sorry."
Wheatley didn't know what he expected her to do with the information, but telling her felt like the right course of action. Maybe she had more of those pills somewhere—they'd certainly helped before.
She frowned and knelt beside him, drawing her hand out from its home tucked within the portal gun to place her palm against his forehead.
"No, no, it's the stomach this time, not the head—" He pulled her hand away and pressed it against his belly instead. "Though I suppose the head's not doing too well either, but really it's feeling just fantastic compared to whatever's going on in here."
She seemed to think for a few seconds before tugging her hand out of his and taking a seat beside him. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the water bottle she'd given him earlier and took a long drink for herself, then held the open container out to him.
"Uhm—no. No, I don't think I want to put anything else in there right now. Not when it's like this," he regarded her warily as she raised the bottle to his mouth. "Not sure what it'll do, actually, a-and you know I'dreallyrathernotfindoutiftha t's—"
Ignoring his objections, she pressed the open end against his lips and tilted it upwards, and Wheatley quickly decided that given the choice between drinking, speaking, and breathing, drinking was the most sensible use of his mouth at the moment.
After he had swallowed a few gulps of the water, she pulled her hand away.
"Ahhh—" he wiped off the trail of liquid that had run down his chin and started to breathe again. His head actually did feel a little better already, but that had been at the end of the list, hadn't it? "Thanks, I suppose."
Chell nodded and set the bottle to the side, lifting her hand to rub the center of his back.
"Lovely, really, but we should get going now, don't you think?" he offered.
There was no sense in wasting any more of her time, not after she'd come back for him—he moved to stand but doubled over himself instantly. His vision blurred and the platform swam around him, yet another, even stronger surge of that awful feeling taking hold of him.
Chell pushed him back down.
"Not—not yet, then?"
She raised a hand to point to her own mouth, and her expression shifted, her cheeks going slightly hollow as she drew her lips into a tight circle.
Wheatley pressed his own lips firmly together, stifling a laugh at her display—judging by the grave look on the rest of her face, she probably wouldn't have appreciated it. Instead, he studied the rounded swell of her mouth and pondered at her intended message. As silly as it looked, it did remind him of something, though he didn't see what use it could possibly be in the present situation.
"I don't think this is going to help things very much," he began hesitantly as he moved closer to her. "But we can try it if you really want to."
He leaned down and angled his face toward hers, but stopped when her hand connected with his chin and pushed him away. She shook her head and pointed again at her mouth.
Puzzled, he sat back and watched Chell continue her demonstration not through further gestures, but by drawing breath into her body through nearly-closed lips. Her chest rose as she filled it with air—too slowly, it seemed to him—then fell again as she pushed it all back out. She repeated the bizarre ritual twice more before stopping and pointing at Wheatley.
"Love, I'm perfectly capable of breathing, I've been doing it this whole time," he laughed. "Quite a lot of it, too. It's a little late to be worried about that, don't you think?"
Undeterred, she reached out to press a finger and thumb on either side of his mouth and squeezed. His lips parted under the pressure, and he pulled away from her hand.
"Alright—alright, fine, okay, I'll do it!"
Pulling air through the smaller opening, he noticed, took more time and work, as did releasing it again. It seemed frankly inefficient to breathe this way when he could open his mouth wide and take all the air he needed in a second. He stopped to glance at Chell who simply smiled and nodded. Whatever she wanted him to do, it appeared he was doing it, so he continued.
After a few long minutes of breathing under her scrutiny, he found that his stomach—and most of the rest of his body—felt surprisingly calm. Though his legs and feet still hurt, the terrible feeling in his gut had faded almost entirely.
He stared down at himself in disbelief, pressing his hands against his middle. Not a twinge of the earlier upset.
"What did—I don't—how on earth did you know to do that?"
She lifted the portal gun into the air.
"Ah, right, you're an old pro at this portal business, aren't you?" he chuckled uneasily as she leaned toward him. Twisting in place, he watched her snatch something up from the floor behind him and found himself presented with the almost-shoe he now realized had been missing from one of his feet. "Oh, uh. Thanks."
As he replaced it, careful to position the strap between the proper toes, she stood and backed away from him, then curved her hand toward herself.
He filled his chest with another deep breath and began the long process of standing again, first leaning forward to plant his knees solidly against the floor, then his hands. With a push he rocked his weight back onto his feet and rose unsteadily, arms spread wide for balance, wincing as a sharp new pain shot up the backs of his legs at the effort.
While he waited for the dizziness to pass, Chell bent to lift his bag from the floor and threaded its strap around his shoulder.
When his vision had finally settled, he set one foot forward, then the other. After a few wobbly steps, his gait improved, and he followed Chell to the door across the platform.
In the darkness just past the threshold lay an intimidatingly long staircase leading upward to a lit doorway far above.
Wheatley sighed. He'd never noticed just how many stairs there were at Aperture, at least not before he'd been the one having to climb the awful things.
Clutching the rail to the side for better stability, he began his ascent. Navigating stairs wasn't a very complicated movement—it was actually rather intuitive after a little practice, much like standing or walking had been—but it was tedious and it always left his body feeling worse than before.
Touching her hand to his arm, she matched his pace for a few slow steps, then passed him. She arrived swiftly at the top, her boots clanging noisily against the metal stairs.
"I'll just—I'll be along in a minute," he called after her, but she was already out of sight.
When he finally reached the top, he paused in the doorway to slump against its frame and find his breath.
The stairs had brought them to a narrow hallway lined with doors. Bordered by walls uniformly grey and uninteresting, the corridor was decorated only by the occasional unpleasant-looking patch of green and black near the ceiling tiles. A flickering, blue-tinted glow clung to the surfaces inside, radiating from a long strip of lighting embedded in a ceiling that seemed unreasonably low.
Already halfway to the other end of the hallway, Chell stood facing one of the doors, struggling with its handle. When it refused to open, she moved on to try the next.
Wheatley stepped into the hall after her.
After spending hours gaping at the scale of facility surrounding the catwalks outside, the new space felt unbearably small. But there was more to the feeling than just the ceiling hanging so close to his head or the walls near enough to each other that he could barely stretch his arms out at his sides—the air inside the corridor felt nothing at all like the air outside. It was warm, heavy, and still, tinged with an untraceable, suffocating scent.
He fought a sudden and irrational urge to turn around and return to the abandoned platform.
"Are you… looking for anything in particular? In any of these rooms?" he asked, watching her tug at another doorknob. He still didn't know where they were in the facility, but it didn't exactly look like the sort of place one went if they wanted to escape from something—hide, maybe, but not escape.
She glanced back and pointed at the door beside him.
"Oh, you want me to give it a go too?" He took hold of the handle. "Suppose I have had a bit of luck with doors before, haven't I? At least since I've gotten hands. Can't really blame you for deferring to the expert."
He pulled down, then up, then down again for good measure, but the metal bar didn't move.
"Hmm. Alright. That's a no," he announced loudly enough that she could hear him. "No on this one. Locked. Very effectively. Should I…?"
She nodded without looking up from her work, and he moved on to try the next door, but it was locked as well.
An unsuccessful few minutes later, the pair stood together at the end of the hallway. A single door remained to be tried, a larger one with some word printed on it in big letters. Chell seized the handle, pausing to glance back at him briefly before pulling the door open.
"Look at that! It opened! One actually—ohh," he groaned at the unwelcome sight.
Chell reached up to give his shoulder a squeeze, then went through before him.
The corridor above, Wheatley observed as he leaned back against the staircase door and waited once more for his legs to stop aching enough for him to move, was nearly identical to the one below. Some portions of the lighting had failed over time to cast odd patches of shadow throughout the hall, but apart from that it was every bit as boring as the first.
They began to check the doors.
"I, ah—I suppose any of these doors might just open to an elevator to—to the surface, right?" he offered as soon as he could spare the breath.
She ignored him.
It wasn't a particularly good plan, he reflected as he tried the next door—locked—if that really was her plan. Did she actually think she'd find her way out by opening every single door she found in the facility? Sure, her escape probably would be through a door of some kind—locked—but sometimes there were bad things behind doors too. Things like turrets, and deadly pits of acid, and Her chamber, to name just a few.
Wheatley stopped before a pane of glass set into the wall, one that had been hidden in shadow during his first glance down the hallway, and peered through the layer of dust clouding its surface.
Though there was no light on the other side, he could just make out the room the nearest locked door was keeping them from entering. Long tables were arranged neatly in its center, and on top of them rested a number of items, a few he recognized by sight—a mug, a clipboard, an open notebook.
He felt a tug at the waist of his jumpsuit and rejoined Chell in trying the rest of the doors.
The map he'd found out on the last platform may not have offered any clues as to the true purpose of the place—he cringed at the memory of her tearing the paper from his hands and tossing it to the floor—but at least the identity of the former occupants of this part of the facility was now obvious.
There were no cubes to carry around and no buttons to press, no heavy machines whirring and churning nearby as they produced turret after deadly turret, no beds to rest on, and no guide rail in sight.
Scientists had worked there.
Wheatley could imagine how the corridor must have looked before, packed full of researchers moving through the polished, well-lit hallway with pens in their teeth and papers in their hands. It must have been loud, too, he imagined, focusing on the only sound to be heard in the passage, their footsteps echoing hollowly through the space.
That they had stumbled upon the abandoned research and development labs was not itself all that exciting, but still he felt a flutter of something good in the pit of his stomach at the turn of events.
"Ah—alright. Alright, first of all, you'll be glad to know I still have no idea where we are, not precisely at least, so don't worry about that," he began carefully. "But I—I think I have even more good news on top of that."
Chell didn't respond, apparently too absorbed in her struggle with the door in front of her to hear him. When it didn't open, she released its handle and slammed her closed fist against its surface with a jarring crack.
"Oh, um. Well. That didn't open it." She sent a brief but disagreeable look over her shoulder at him before moving to the next door—so she was listening. He continued quickly. "But here it is. The good news."
He lowered his voice to a near-whisper, though he knew the effort was probably wasted. If She wanted to hear what he had to say, She would.
"I don't think… She… can actually get to us in this part of the facility—I mean, not—not physically, She can't. I think we're safe here. Sort of."
Chell halted at the uncertain statement, hand resting on the last doorknob on her side of the hallway.
"After I accidentally—er, well, maybe a little intentionally—" he stumbled over the words before deciding on the best phrasing. "After you fell down into that pit under Her chamber I, ah… I had a look around."
She turned to lean against the door, arms crossed over her chest.
During those few calm moments after he had found himself—made himself—completely alone but for the chassis's protocols swelling to life inside him, he'd quickly set out to explore the sprawling complex.
Much of the facility, it turned out, was actually under his (and thus now also Her) direct physical control. Panels in the testing areas had responded to his input with no more effort than it took to blink his optic, and entire chambers suspended from enormous metal tracks had been shuffled around with relative ease, though not particular grace, while in the manufacturing wing he'd found the capability to construct several things he now bitterly regretted.
But as complete as his control over the facility had felt, there had been parts of it that were unreachable to him. Made of something more solid and permanent than the testing facilities and manufacturing areas, the immoveable offices and research labs that had once housed the scientists themselves had resisted his exploration, though the mystery of their contents had faded when his thoughts had turned to testing.
"There aren't any buttons or beds around here, not that I can see, anyway, and—and I'm pretty sure I saw a clipboard and some notebooks in that room back there," he pointed toward the window. "I… I think scientists worked here. Before."
Chell frowned, lifting her arms above her head and looking around the corridor.
"No, no, I know the scientists worked everywhere, but—" he stopped to reorder his thoughts. He wasn't explaining it very well. "There are parts of the facility, quite a lot it really, that I—that She can control. Panels, walls, machines, whole rooms even."
Her arms fell back to her sides, her expression darkening—she knew that already, of course she knew that already—and he hurried to complete the thought.
"But—but other parts of it are totally off-limits to Her. Or at least, they were to me. I don't think the labs and offices were built to be moved around like the rest of it—they weren't even connected to the chassis. I mean, I could see they were there, but I couldn't do anything with them, so… I think that's a good thing for us now. To be here and not somewhere else. Right?"
After a thoughtful silence, Chell nodded and walked back in the direction of the stairwell.
The light above Wheatley's head flickered briefly and gave out with a startlingly loud pop. He rushed forward, following her into the still-illuminated portion of the hallway.
"But, ah, that doesn't mean She's not still… around…" he added, looking back at the empty corridor.
He had been straining to hear Her voice, to feel at least a hint of Her presence, since the moment they'd first set out on the catwalks. There was no chance She had gotten bored of them—not yet, not after that last dream— but even so, he'd heard and felt nothing since waking.
Exiting the corridor, the pair began another climb up the creaking metal staircase that connected the floors of the building. With no more recognition than a quick glance as she passed him on the stair, Chell again reached the top in seconds and cracked the door to peek outside, then slipped through the opening.
Wheatley stopped at the top of the stairs and pressed the side of his overheated face against the cool metal of the door until his breath slowed, then entered the hallway.
He wrapped his hand around the closest door handle and pulled down, sighing as the metal bar—moved?
"Oh! Oh, this one's unlocked!" he yanked the door the rest of the way open. "And it's… not stairs!"
She appeared at his side, returning his wide grin with a smaller one and patting his back before stepping past him through the door.
It didn't lead to an office or a lab as he'd expected, but instead another corridor, one much roomier than the first few had been. He could extend his arms above his head and they didn't even make contact with the ceiling.
Large white rectangles had been mounted onto the wall on one side of the hallway, though a few had come loose and now hung crooked, weight focused on warped corners resting heavily on the floor. Wheatley held a tentative finger against one of the panels and studied the markings covering it—mostly numbers and shapes—then dragged his palm down the surface, erasing the marks to leave a trail of white in their place and a dark smudge on his hand.
On the opposite side of the corridor, a long, horizontal window installed just below eye level allowed a clear view of more tables inside another inaccessible room. Thanks to the light blinking sporadically within, he could see what looked to be heaps of scrap metal piled on top of the tables and various tools scattered nearby. He bent down and cupped his hands to the glass to get a better look at them, searching his mind for the right word for each.
The… thing they used to hit other things.
He pulled away from the window to see Chell waiting for him at the end of the corridor.
"Are we really looking for an elevator in here?" he asked as he caught up with her. At the rate they were going it would probably be faster just to return to the stairwell and climb the rest of the way up, at least as far as the stairs would take them—but he didn't want to bring that up until it was absolutely necessary.
She shook her head and turned the corner to proceed down another hall.
He smiled. He knew she'd have a better plan than that.
"What then?" he asked. "What's the plan? If you want me to know, that is. It's up to you. Totally up to you."
The two continued in silence for a while, Wheatley admiring the faded paper displays hanging on both sides of the hall—so much text, and such complicated diagrams and charts!—before Chell finally responded. Turning to face him as they walked, she placed her hands together in front of her, then held them against her cheek. He recognized the gesture immediately.
"Wait—you—you want to stop and rest?" he sputtered.
Her chin dipped in a quick nod.
"I know I said it's safer here, but that doesn't mean we should just—we—we don't have any time! Listen, I'm not tired, I'm perfectly—" In his alarm he confused the order of his steps, tangling his legs together and almost falling, but Chell's arm steadied him. "—thanks. I'm perfectly fine. I'm not tired, really, we don't have to stop."
In truth, he wasn't perfectly fine. He wasn't any variation of fine, for that matter. And he was more than just tired—he wasn't even sure how much farther his body could take him in its present state before failing entirely. But they'd already wasted enough time waiting for it to feel better out on the platform, and stopping again was the last thing he wanted to do.
"I'm sorry if I'm moving a little more slowly than before, it's nothing, I can go faster. It doesn't hurt that badly, I swear—"
She shook her head and raised a hand to tap her own chest.
"Wha—you? You can't possibly be tired already. You're you!" he objected, scanning her form in disbelief. "Your hair's a bit of a mess, maybe, but other than that, you look great, really. Ready to take on the world. So to speak. I hope that's not what it comes down to, but, hypothetically of course, I think you could do it."
Her gaze remained leveled upon him.
She really didn't look tired—at least, not compared to the way she'd looked in the dormitories when she had pushed him toward the bed for sleep. She stood before him completely alert, with clear eyes and a straight back and an expression of distinctly un-tired determination on her face.
And hadn't she just sprinted up three flights of stairs as though she'd never even heard of gravity?
"You can get through this, I know you can, you're good at getting through things. Just a little while longer. Maybe we'll find an exit if we keep going!"
Chell frowned, shook her head again, and repeated both gestures, tapping herself then resting her head on her hands.
"Well—well, alright. If you really need to, I guess," he mumbled. "But just until you're ready to keep going, alright?"
She nodded, and they resumed their walk down the hallway.
Maybe it would be good to stop for a proper rest, Wheatley reasoned, a better one than the panicked moments he'd spent curled up alone on the cold platform. Now that he felt slightly more confident that the walls wouldn't come to life and crush them at any moment, he supposed they could spare just a few minutes.
He could admit—to himself, not to her—that the long trek had exhausted him completely, leaving his body sore and his mind weary, unfocused, and badly in need of rest. He could think of no other explanation for the lapse in attention that had nearly caused him to walk right off the catwalk outside without a second thought.
He shivered and pushed away the memory of the void at his feet.
Moving through the corridors together, they tried every door they found with no luck, turning one way or the other wherever the hallways split but doing so using no logic Wheatley could detect. After several turns, he realized that he probably wouldn't be able to find his way back to the door through which they'd entered the area, but he released the thought, certain that Chell had been keeping better track of things.
Eventually, they turned a corner to enter a hallway cluttered with debris and home to an unusually wide door.
Unlike those they had previously encountered, the door was in poor shape. It was buckled inward in some areas, irregular strips of distressed metal visible through long gashes made in the green paint coating its surface. Where the locking mechanism should have been, a mass of frayed wires lay exposed—it looked like something had torn the lock straight off the door.
Unwelcomely, his thoughts returned to the mechanical death machine he'd imagined Chell to be before he had first seen her in the relaxation facility.
She held out a hand to trace one of the deeper indentations.
"What do you think did that?" Wheatley whispered, looking around the deserted corridor.
Chell took her lower lip into her mouth and held it there with her teeth, then waved a dismissive hand toward him. Stepping back from the door, she turned to inspect the surrounding area and plucked something from the rubbish on the floor then held it out to him.
He studied the object clutched in her free hand—a long, thin bar of some dark material, curved and split slightly at each end—uncertain what point she was trying to make with it.
"What's that for?"
In response, she raised the bar above her head and lowered it to tap the door near one of the gouges. The contact sent a soft metallic clank echoing down the hallway.
"Oh! Oh—hah. Of course," he nodded. "That's what did it, then. Looks about right. But that still doesn't explain who did it, or why. Can't really imagine why someone would do this, unless there was some sort of rogue scientist somewhere in Aperture who just really hated this particular door. Don't think that's the case, though I suppose anything's possible—"
She deposited the bar in his hand.
"Heavy," he noted, testing its weight. It seemed to be made of metal. "Really heavy for such a small thing."
Chell's attention returned to the mangled door, a sight she considered solemnly. Unwilling to interrupt her thoughts, he waited quietly for her to move again. Finally, she grabbed the handle and pulled, and to Wheatley's surprise, the door swung open easily.
Both stepped back, unprepared for the sight that met them.
Just inside the door, rather than a room or hallway, sat a solid wall of something—more accurately, several somethings. Wheatley squinted to see what he could of the obstacle from the light seeping into the space.
A wide desk formed the base of the haphazard wall. A few battered filing cabinets, a broken chair, and a cracked computer screen—among other, unrecognizable pieces of mechanical equipment—had been piled on top of the desk to block not only their entry into the room, but also their view of it.
Chell set the portal gun aside and stepped forward.
"Wait, you're not—oh, you are, aren't you? You know, I really don't think we're supposed to go in there," he warned her.
She grasped the corner of the desk.
"I mean, it's pretty obvious whoever was here last didn't want anyone else to get in," he continued. "They certainly made it hard enough, don't you think?"
She shook her head without looking back and began to pull the desk away from the outer edge of the door. The weight moved steadily under her force, creating a thin strip of black space between the desk and the door frame.
"But—but you don't know what's in there," he pressed as he stepped closer to her. Everything about the place felt wrong—the broken lock, the violently damaged door, the obvious effort to prevent any entry. Why didn't any of that bother her?
If she heard him, Chell gave no indication as she renewed her grip on the desk and pulled harder, widening the open space. After retrieving the portal gun, she returned to the doorway and leaned forward into the gap she had created.
"No. No, change of plans, this really doesn't look like somewhere we should be," Wheatley added more firmly, lurching toward her and wrapping his arms tightly around her waist to drag her away from the door.
For a stunned second she hung limply in his grip, but as soon as her boots touched the ground she began to thrash about, her elbow quickly landing a sharp blow in his side. He released her, pulling away from the pain as she spun to face him.
"I'm sorry!" he held up a hand in defense, the other pressed to the newest sore spot in his body. "I just—I really don't like this. Please, just listen to me. Don't go in there. Please."
Chell stepped to the side and swept her hand toward the doorway.
"That's not what I—I don't want to go in there. I don't want either of us to go in there! Can't we just find another room for you to rest in? One that's a little less… terrifying? Or maybe we could sit down out here in the hallway. There's some pretty soft looking rubbish in the corner over there," he added hopefully, gesturing away from the door.
She exhaled heavily and shook her head, returning to the doorway and vanishing through the empty space before he could stop her again.
"You—then—you come back out if there's anything bad in there, alright?" he called after her.
Predictably, there was no response, though a little more worryingly, there was no sound at all coming from beyond the wall. Wheatley approached the opening slowly, suppressing the urge to speak so that it would be easier to hear her, but still he heard nothing.
"Chell?" he raised his voice. "Could you please—make a little noise, maybe? So I know you're not, ah…"
He was met again with silence. Resting a hand on the door frame, he bent forward to search the dark for her.
"Maybe a-a clap, or a stomp or two, that'd be enough for me," Wheatley continued, struggling to ignore the uncomfortable familiarity of the combined darkness and silence. But he could still move, he reminded himself, he could still hear—he drummed his fingers on the doorway to reassure himself of both—and he could still see if he turned back around to face the corridor. "Just some indication that you're actually alright would be nice right now. That's all."
Turning his head, he directed his ear toward the room, and with the shift in position he could finally make out a faint tapping somewhere within. It was slow and deliberate, barely audible—likely her long-fall boots. He leaned further in to pinpoint on the sound.
He jerked back at a sudden and earsplitting crash originating somewhere in the room, managing to smack his head against the door frame. His free hand flew to the injured spot, the other holding the bar of metal in front of him as if to ward off any further sounds.
"Was—was that you?" That was probably a stupid question. "Er, I mean—are you alright? You're alright, aren't you? That sounded kind of bad, I really hope you're alri—AHH!"
His eyes shut immediately, his head struck with a sudden ache at the flood of light reaching his vision. Pressing his hand to his face, he tried to rub away the shock of the new input.
"Can't see, can't see, can't see," he chanted as he waited for his eyesight to return. "Can't see anything at all—"
After a moment leaning blind and defenseless in the doorway he dared a glance through his fingers and saw Chell standing empty-handed before him, a perhaps slightly apologetic smile on her face.
"Right," he mumbled, the relief of seeing her tempered somewhat by her actions. He was beginning to wonder if she held some specific grudge against his sense of sight. "Maybe give a little advance warning about the light next time, yeah? Knock three times or something? Might be appreciated."
She nodded and reached out to pull on his arm, tilting her head back toward the room behind her. From the angle he couldn't see much more of it than a wall and some more filing cabinets, but nothing inside looked particularly deadly.
"Well, at least the lights do work in here," he sighed as he tossed his bag through the door first, then angled his shoulders to fit through the narrow space. "Better than the alternative, right?"
With some uncomfortable twisting and a lot of help from Chell, Wheatley managed to squeeze the metal bar, his torso, and finally the rest of his body through the gap and into the room. She reached out to close the door behind him.
"Right then, that's done. We're inside. Both inside," he noted. Steadying himself against the corner of the desk, he lifted his eyes to take in the new area. "Now what are we—"
He faltered, the words stuck in his mouth.
At the sight of the room his stomach seized up just as it had out on the platform and a tingling heat pricked at the nape of his neck, leaving his mouth and throat painfully dry. The heat spread quickly, crawling up the back of his head and reaching around to settle on the skin of his face.
Chell returned to his side as the image before him blurred with the same stinging moisture as each time before. He closed his mouth and opened it again, struggling to push the air out and say something, but he could find no voice in his throat.
He let out a wordless breath. The bar of metal slipped from his hand and fell to the floor with an oddly muffled crash.
The reaction caught her interest—he could see her gaze flitting from his face to the room and back as the first warm drop slid down his cheek, could just make out the look of surprise as he staggered backwards the short distance to collide with the wall beside the door. Forcing his eyes closed, he dug his palms against them, rubbing the water out as quickly as he could.
What was wrong with him?
The symptoms were familiar enough by now that he'd identified the reaction at once—it was fear, overwhelming fear his body was responding to. But it didn't make any sense, it was just a place, just a room, and a totally empty one at that. Why did seeing it make every part of him feel so bad?
His voice returned when she touched him, her hands pulling his wrists away from his face. She stared up at him with wide eyes.
"Sorry—I'm sorry," he shook his head quickly to clear his thoughts, face flushing even warmer at her scrutiny. "I-I don't know—I don't know why this keeps happening, th-this bloody awful body just—just leaking for no good reason."
Her hold on him loosened, and he took his hands back to wipe the rest of the wetness from his cheeks, his attention focused on a spot on the floor between her feet. She laid a hand on his arm.
"No, it's—it's really nothing. I'm alright," he smiled weakly. "It's just—it's just that—"
Wheatley glanced around the room again, prepared now for the sight but not for the unease that accompanied it. Drawing a deep breath, he stepped past her and into the room.
"I've been here before."
There was no question where Chell had somehow led them, though the arrangement of the room's contents had changed since he'd last seen them. Once-orderly rows of work stations and desks were disrupted now, reduced to a chaotic jumble of tables and chairs shoved toward the sides of the room to cluster near its walls. Tools and notebooks and bits of metal—curved, white, familiar bits of metal—littered the floor beneath them, sharing the space with the scattered contents of several emptied bookshelves.
The place was an absolute mess.
But the brilliant white gleam of the work benches hadn't dulled at all since he had last rested upon them. Their surfaces, or at least those parts of them not covered by a tangle of electrical wires and long-dark computer screens, still reflected a nearly painful brightness from the lights buzzing softly above. And the flimsy paper posters on the walls still displayed the same images he'd spent hours upon lonely hours contemplating: happy scientists, happy robots, happy robot-scientists. (That last category had always baffled him, he reflected absently.)
And there it was.
At the other end of the room the thing sat, its irregular metallic bulk pressed up against the far wall just where it had always been, draped in partial darkness thanks to some fault of the lighting. He studied it from a safe distance, his eyes soon falling on a particular spot right on the end of it, a spot now bare and unoccupied—a jolt of panic shot through him and he forced himself to look away.
Carefully stepping around an overturned desk, he moved into the space that had been cleared in the center of the room.
The lab was smaller than he remembered.
"Didn't always look like this," he added quietly. "Used to be a bit tidier before."
Chell joined him, her head swiveling to observe the unfortunate mess that had once been his home.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked.
At her look—he couldn't really read it, she didn't bother to move her head or change her expression at all—he continued.
"This place, this lab—" his voice dropped lower even though there was nobody around to be bothered by it. "This is where I was built."
Her eyebrows lifted.
"Yeah. I mean, I don't remember any of that. They'd finished building me before they turned me on, thankfully. Can't imagine what it would've been like otherwise. Awful, I bet. But…"
Wheatley paused as she walked past him, watching her move toward the far wall and the machine—another unpleasant jolt ran through him, ending somewhere deep in his gut. When she arrived at it she crouched to examine its exterior.
He considered following her, but he couldn't convince his feet to move the rest of him any closer to the thing.
"Don't worry about that, it's—well, it's not important. Not at all. Probably doesn't even work anymore," he called to her, unable to hide the slight waver in his voice.
After a brief study of the machine Chell stood again and turned her back on it to face Wheatley. He barely managed to hold in his protest at that simple act—exposing herself to the thing without any thought for her own safety—but he remained silent. It couldn't hurt her, he assured himself. It couldn't hurt her any more than it could hurt him now.
She pointed at it.
"You want to know what it is." At her curt nod he swallowed. "Right."
Finding the strength to move his legs, he approached the contraption cautiously, observing it from his new perspective—he'd never seen it from so high up before.
It was only slightly above waist height, the part that faced away from the wall covered in a repeating pattern of panels, buttons, and small screens. Near its top, its face was interrupted at regular intervals by a row of deep, rounded indentations, each with a slightly protruding lip on its bottom edge—to prevent falling out, he had always supposed, a job the feature had performed quite well. Just visible inside the grooves themselves, the thin metal prongs of the unoccupied ports gleamed innocently.
He arrived at Chell's side and stood close behind her.
Though the enormous machine hadn't changed nearly as much as the rest of the lab had, it too wore its own touch of the chaos that gripped the room—a dingy lab coat had been tossed carelessly over the corner of it closest to the wall.
"The engineers called it a 'tweaking station.' It was used to make personality cores."
He raised a hand to gesture toward one of the indentations, careful not to touch anything.
"Pretty simple, actually," he continued. "First they'd hook you into one of these ports, and then this little mechanism inside—see it? Kind of tucked away there—that would move, sort of grab on and lock you in so you couldn't move around very much."
She studied the machine, leaning over it to peer into one of the depressions that had once held a core.
"Then they'd go to one of those panels over there—" he waved an arm out toward the secondary stations nearby—"And use it to, well, tweak you, I suppose. Make adjustments, you know—to programming, protocols, all that."
She had nodded throughout his short explanation, seeming to grasp the danger of the thing, but only seconds after he finished she reached out to run her fingers along the inside surface of one of the ports.
He snatched her hand back.
"Don't touch that! You don't know what it might do—"
At her scowl he released her hand, but she did not touch it again.
His attention returned to the tweaking station. Despite his past experiences with the thing, it didn't seem very threatening anymore. Its buttons were unlit, its screens were all dark, and the steady electrical hum it had always emitted was entirely absent. That was at least a little encouraging.
Walking alongside the machine, he examined each of its ports in turn. It had been so long since he'd seen it that he could barely remember who had occupied any of them in particular. After all, he'd shared the contraption with countless other cores over the course of his development, and none but Wheatley had remained there for long. But one port in particular—the one on the far left end of the machine, with the slightly crooked prongs and faint scratches in the metal surrounding it—held his interest.
"I was right… here," he stopped, standing over the indentation and pointing at it. "When they turned me on for the first time."
He turned to look back at the room, the exhaustion of their travel suddenly returning to weigh on his arms and legs. Kneeling slowly, he maneuvered himself to sit down against the wall beside the machine, well out of reach of his old port, and drew his knees up to his chest. He rested his head against the side of the tweaking station and scanned the contents of the room from the more familiar vantage point.
"Spent a lot of my time right here. Almost all of my time before they… stuck me on Her."
Chell moved to sit on top of a desk near the tweaking station, her eyes on him. She didn't seem too bored—she might have even been a little interested in what he was saying—so he kept going.
"I knew a lot more humans back then, you know," he continued. "Loads. Scientists, mostly. They were in here all the time. But they didn't really want to talk to me, not really—all they ever wanted to do was ask me questions and write things down."
She leaned back on her hands.
"I usually couldn't answer them, though. Their questions, I mean. It always felt like I knew the answers but—as hard as I tried, I just couldn't think of them."
His inability to respond had never seemed to bother any of the researchers, at least not as much as it had bothered him. For the most part they had reacted positively to it, bobbing their heads up and down and smiling, moving away to speak among themselves and write things down.
Only one of the scientists hadn't smirked when he was lost for the right word, had waited patiently while he reasoned his way through more complex thoughts, hadn't laughed once when he came up with all the wrong answers—but he'd been different from the others in many more ways than that.
"Sometimes we'd play games too, but the games were pretty hard. I always lost. Then they'd go back to that panel over there and do something to me and we'd try it again."
He stopped, noticing a dull ache in his upper arms, and loosened his hands from where they had been squeezing them.
"It never really hurt, though, it just felt… strange."
His body was shaking, why was it shaking?
Wheatley sat up and lifted his eyes to concentrate on Chell resting on top of the desk nearby. She was there, not any of them—they were all dead and the machine would never turn on again. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that it was only a matter of seconds before one of them would appear out of nowhere and stroll up to the tweaking station, clipboard in hand.
Chell cleared her throat.
She was still watching him, he realized, scrutinizing him now with an unnerving intensity. He shrank back further into the corner formed by the machine and the wall. She wanted more information.
But what else was there to say?
He supposed he could tell her about the quiet nights he'd spent talking into the darkness, or the longer, louder days he'd spent being handled and opened up and prodded, touched when he didn't want it by people whose hands were always too rough.
He could tell her how it felt to be shut down, to be trapped in a sightless, motionless half-existence until someone decided to bring him back out of it for still more modifications.
He could tell her about the laughter and how he hadn't understood it—of course he did now, but he hadn't then—how it had made him angry that he didn't understand it and how that had only made them laugh harder.
Or he could tell her how the silence when they were gone had been bad, sure, but the noise when they were there had always been so much worse, bad enough that somehow—he still didn't know how, but somehow—his own programming had slowly changed itself, over time developing a subroutine that caused his hull to shake the same way his new body was now when their voices first filled the quiet labs each morning.
He could tell her all of that and a lot more, but he didn't want to.
"I never thought I'd see this place again," he admitted quietly. He'd hoped he never would. "None of the management rails lead here, and I really wasn't supposed to leave the relaxation facility anyway. Thousands of labs, and we end up here… what are the odds?"
Her eyes left him.
He turned his attention back to the deserted room and away from his memories of its busier days.
Though its emptiness was reassuring, its physical state was still a source of concern. The battered door, the carefully constructed wall that had slowed their entry, the unreasonable mess within—everything hinted at something terrible having happened there, but what that had been he couldn't imagine. He didn't know who could have possibly left it like this, but at least if it had been a human then they were surely no longer a threat.
Still, he wondered what exactly they'd been trying to keep out of the lab in the first place, especially considering that apart from the door, all of the damage seemed to have happened inside the room rather than out in the corridor.
Sighing, he let his head fall against the side of the machine again.
Wheatley had just begun to search for the next thing to say when he noticed something odd. One small piece of the lab was out of place—or rather, not out of place, he realized. Across the room, a single desk had survived whatever had forced the others from their proper places and still stood in exactly the same spot and in the same condition as it had ever been. How had he missed it before?
Chell hopped down from her seat.
The movement caught his eye, and the thought of Doug's desk left his mind. He leaned forward to watch as she approached the station again, pulling the lab coat from the top of the machine and examining the cloth.
Her eyes rose to the tweaking station and she stiffened.
"What? What is it, what's the matter?"
She leapt back from the machine in a single, swift movement, the coat falling forgotten to the floor. In her haste to move away she knocked hard into the desk behind her and sent a few thick books toppling off the side. She reached an arm back to scrabble blindly for and grasp a stray scrap of metal, then lifted the piece in front of her with both hands, fixing the machine with a fierce glare he'd only seen once before.
He scrambled to his feet as well as he could manage and rushed to her side.
She didn't acknowledge the question. He turned to face the machine himself and froze.
They weren't alone.
Nestled in the port on the far right side of the tweaking station, just beneath the spot where the lab coat had been thrown, a lone personality core sat dormant.
Unsure of what to do, Wheatley remained still, staring blankly at the sphere while contemplating the new pounding in the sides of his head. But the shock of seeing someone in the abandoned laboratory faded as the core remained completely inactive in his port. Despite the noise they had made entering and exploring the lab, he was completely unresponsive—his optic was still closed, and there was no sign of movement in his frame or handles.
Chell wasn't moving either, Wheatley noticed. She was still hunched in that same odd pose, scrap metal held aloft, eyes open wide, curled lips baring her teeth to the air.
"He's—he's not on, love," he assured her, slowly backing away. Even when it was directed at someone else, the look was unsettling.
He crept closer to the resting sphere.
Of course he'd seen himself before—or, at least, parts of himself reflected in chance pieces of metal he'd found around the relaxation facility, but those images had always been obscured by the brilliant flash of blue that had been his optic. And he'd caught glimpses of some of the others during their construction, but he'd never really seen a point in paying attention to any of them at the time.
Seeing the strange core was different somehow, disconcerting in a way that made him want to turn around, squeeze himself back out into the corridor, and never enter the lab again.
But if he really had been turned off since the researchers had all died—Wheatley shuddered. He couldn't imagine going through something so awful, being trapped in such a state for years with no assurance that he'd ever be brought back out of it—then the least he could do would be to see if he could turn the core back on.
He hesitated, hand hovering above the lifeless hull. There really was no way around touching the sphere, as much as the thought bothered him.
"Sorry, mate," he murmured quietly.
Wrapping his hands around the handles, he gently pried them apart and away from the face plate of the core. They parted with a quiet creak and remained open.
He felt an illogical stab of envy at the state of the core. He was almost like new, not a dent or a scratch marring the surface of his hull. Whoever he'd been, he obviously hadn't seen a day of work—or a giant metal claw, or a bird, or several of his own bombs—in his life.
Wheatley touched the front plate and nearly jerked his hand away at the immediate, unexpected chill. Had he always been that cold? Nothing but the most extreme temperatures would have registered as uncomfortable to his internals, so he'd never thought much about it—not that his thermal sensors had ever functioned well in the first place.
Tentatively depressing the plate, he nudged the circular shape slightly inward, then pushed back to rotate it within the larger frame of the core's body. The piece moved easily under the pressure, sliding back until the inner frame hit the spot where the sphere connected to the port itself and stopped. He released it, and the plates slowly returned to their default positions. Pressing a thumb against the top ocular shutter, he slid it upwards then released it too, allowing it to snap shut over the unlit optic.
His eyes drifted between the hull and his own hand, and he grimaced at the unpleasantly heavy feeling the sight left in his stomach.
The difference between the two was stark. The sphere was smooth, rigid, and organized, his shape expertly designed and crafted, every inch of his body undoubtedly suited perfectly to his purpose, whatever that had been. But his hand was—wrong, was the first word that came to his mind. Wrong and irregular and knobbly, pale but mottled with ugly patches of pink, with tiny bits of hair growing out of the top and blue lines running like crossed wires beneath the surface of the skin.
Wheatley closed his eyes to block out the image, hoping to quell the fitful rolling in his stomach. As many functions as he'd already found for them, his hands still surprised him sometimes.
He shifted his focus back to the core.
Where had the engineers touched him when they'd wanted to turn him off and on? Somewhere on his side, maybe, or behind—hadn't there been a panel for it? He ran his fingers over the top of the core to the back, feeling around for the right area. His hand caught on a slight ridge, and he pushed down on it, lifting his finger when he felt the soft click.
Wheatley slid a fingertip over the switch the tiny panel had revealed. From the position of the core in the station he couldn't see the switch itself, but from the location of the panel he was certain of its purpose. He pushed down on the switch, then retracted his hand and moved away to watch the core closely.
Quiet seconds passed, then minutes, but the sphere remained completely still.
He reached back again to press the switch a few more times with no result.
The core was nonfunctional.
Wheatley released his breath, relieved. It hadn't been shut off and abandoned in darkness—maybe it hadn't ever functioned in the first place. Why an empty core had even been left there he couldn't imagine. Perhaps it had been some new project the researchers had just begun before She finally got the better of them.
He felt a hand on his back and turned to Chell. Her face was much calmer now, her lips curved downward in a soft frown.
"Oh, I—well, I thought maybe…" he shook his head. "Never mind."
He stepped back from the tweaking station, comfortable to observe the core now that he knew it wasn't silently begging for their help.
It was so much smaller than he would have thought. It seemed impossible that everything Wheatley had ever been, every awful thing he'd said and done, every big feeling that had gripped him so completely had ever been contained in something so unimpressive.
But as unimpressive as it looked, the sight of the inactive core left an unavoidable ache in his chest.
He had been ignoring the feeling as well as he could, managing to push away the creeping thoughts of how unnatural it felt to be in the wrong body so that he could help her first. He did have a plan of his own, though he hadn't quite worked out the details yet—he'd get her out, and when she was finally free he'd find a way to deal with whatever his life would be then. A simple plan made even simpler by the fact that he probably wouldn't last very long without her.
But even if She didn't kill him—incredibly unlikely, considering the circumstances—even then, he knew he would never be fixed because there was nobody left to fix him.
Chell wrapped her arm around his, and he worked to chase away the silence.
"You know, I never really got to see that many other cores. I saw a few when they were being built, sure, but half the time they were deactivated, and the rest of the time they didn't have all that much to say to me anyway. And then after I went to work in the relaxation facility, well—I never saw any again, not until…"
They stood in silence for a moment.
A booming voice rang through the lab.
Wheatley jerked at the sound, spinning around to face the room and seek out its source.
"You heard that, right? Tell me you heard that—" She nodded slowly, surprisingly untroubled by the interruption. "Oh, well. Good."
With a deep laugh the voice picked up again, a faint crackle of static crowding its edges.
"Ha ha ha, bet that scared the pants off ya, didn't it?"
At a more reasonable volume, the voice jarred something in his memory.
"Yeah, it did."
"Ugh, I remember this guy…" Wheatley muttered. It was not the sort of voice one forgot very easily.
Chell turned toward him, brow knitted in confusion.
"Don't worry, it's not a real person, it's just a recording," he pointed up at the speaker mounted high on the wall.
"Better put 'em back on, pal. We have a dress code around here."
Even the speaker hadn't survived whatever had upset the room—the little box was crooked, and beside it where the surveillance camera had once hung there was little more than a bare metal rod with a few wires sticking out of its end. The camera lay in pieces on the floor beneath it.
"All joking aside, I'd like you to keep in mind that, even though this is only a recording, the biosensors are indicating that you're in this lab during work hours but not currently engaged in any sort of actual work." The recording paused to noisily clear its throat. "You should really get on that."
Chell raised an eyebrow.
"The loud guy sort of has a point," Wheatley agreed, nodding toward the speaker. "Not about working, but we really do need to keep moving, don't we?"
The sooner she decided they could leave the lab, the better—he wasn't sure how much longer he could stand being there.
In response, she bent to pick the dirty lab coat up off the floor and draped it over the motionless personality sphere, tucking the cloth around the curve of its hull.
He followed her across the room to the door, glad to finally move away from the tweaking station. Lifting their bags from the floor, she hung one on her shoulder, then placed the other in his hands. He held the bag to his chest as she unfastened its clasp.
"So what are we going to do?"
She grabbed his arm and used it to turn him back around toward the lab, then pointed at several things in succession—first him, then around at the lab itself, then the bag in his arms.
"You want me to, ah… look for stuff?" he asked.
"What kind of stuff?"
She lifted her hands in a shrug.
"What about you? We came here so you could rest, didn't we? Don't you want to lie down, or…."
She shook her head.
They parted ways, Chell moving to one side of the room and leaving Wheatley to his own.
He didn't know just what compelled her to hunt down and stash away so many different objects—she certainly hadn't had much when he'd first met her. But maybe it was a human thing, the urge to collect and carry stuff around. He'd done some of that himself before leaving his own relaxation chamber, but that had only been food and water for his new body, not any of the other things she seemed interested in taking with them.
The drawers of the desk closest to him were filled with nothing interesting: thick books, lots of pens, stacks of paper held together by little bits of metal. He couldn't imagine a use for any of it, so he continued his search.
The next closest desk was nearly empty, not much more than a pencil and a few short snips of insulated wire inside.
The drawers of the third desk seemed to be locked and wouldn't open no matter how hard he tugged at them.
The fourth desk contained mostly tools, including some like the ones he'd seen earlier, and assorted core parts, though they were far too damaged to be of any use. In the mess of bent metal he could see a crushed side plate and a darkened optic split right down the middle—he closed the drawer and quickly moved on.
On the desk beside that he found a chipped mug with the familiar circular logo on its side, though there was none of that brown stuff they used to drink inside of it. It had probably dried up over the years, he decided. He pulled open one of the drawers, unimpressed again by its contents—how many pens did scientists need?—and had begun to push it back closed when a glint of light reached his eye.
Wheatley took the small object out of the drawer and held it up to study it in the light. It was simple enough—two small, rounded rectangles of glass, one whole and one cracked, connected to each other in the middle by a piece of metal. Short, flexible lengths of the metal stuck out like arms from its sides.
Half of the researchers had worn some variation of this over their eyes, he recalled. He'd never found out exactly what the things had done for them, but at least now he had the opportunity to see for himself. He flipped the object around and pushed it onto his face, settling the curve of the middle wire over his nose and the arms above his ears, then removed his hands and looked around the room.
His head began to hurt almost immediately. Through the pieces of glass he could see no definition to anything around him, his vision reduced to a mass of blurry splotches of light and dark. Holding his hand up in front of his eyes, he moved his fingers around experimentally—he could see the movement, but not much else. He let his hand drop to his side.
A blob of bright orange that was probably Chell shifted in his severely impaired eyesight, and he pulled the thing off of his face in time to see her smile as she turned away. Her shoulders shook with quiet laughter.
"I just wanted to, uh, see—hah, see—" it was his turn to laugh—"Um, just wanted to find out what these things do, exactly. Lots of the scientists used to wear them around all day, and they'd never answer me when I asked about them."
She continued picking through the contents of a work bench.
"I don't know why anybody would wear these things when they make it so much harder to see," he pondered, returning the object to its desk. "It's mad."
Continuing his search, he found little of interest in any of the rest of the desks, then moved on to stand before one of the bookshelves. Most of the books had been tossed to the floor, but he could see the corner of one peeking out over the edge of the very top shelf. He pulled it down, examined its cover, and tucked it away inside his bag.
A crash of sound burst from the other side of the room.
Wheatley turned to see Chell leaning over Doug's desk. Her hands were raised in the air and a pile of books and paper that had once been on top of the desk now rested in a pile on the floor in front of it. She looked surprised.
Something small and round fell off the back of the desk and hopped towards him, rolling to a stop near his feet. He picked the ball up and squeezed it. It was very lightweight, but not soft, and unusually bouncy. It didn't seem to have much of a purpose, but it was more interesting than anything else he'd found in the lab—maybe Chell would know what it was for.
"No need to make a mess of the place," he teased, navigating carefully through the debris on the floor to make his way toward her.
She waved a hand in his direction.
"Do you know what this thing is?" he asked, holding the ball out to her.
She didn't respond. Her attention was not on him or his discovery, but on the computer screen before her. An expression of intense irritation had settled on her face, and she was jabbing at a button on the front of it with her finger. He winced and dropped the ball into his bag.
"You, ah—you want to use that computer?"
Her irritation shifted to Wheatley as he walked around to her side of the desk. Leaning over her, he inspected the dark screen.
"You know, maybe this one's voice activated," he mused aloud. Noticing her look, he backpedaled. "Uh, no offense, I mean—well, let's just face facts here, some of them are. Nothing you can do about that."
She stared at him.
"Just let me talk to it, alright?"
Chell stood and moved away, and he took her seat.
It was a fairly standard computer—big box with a screen, in front of that a flat bit covered with little buttons (not those buttons, but the other kind), and behind it all plenty of cords to connect the various parts together. Nothing too complicated, certainly nothing he couldn't manage.
He leaned closer to the screen, reached out, and tapped the side of the box.
"Hello!" he greeted the computer. "Can you hear me? We want you on. Computer… on. Turn on. Please? Please turn on."
But there was no response. It was either ignoring him completely or couldn't hear him in the first place. He raised his voice a little—maybe its auditory sensor had gotten some dust in it over the years.
"Come on, we're not asking for very much. We'd really like it if you'd turn on for us. We need to use you—er, well, we need your help—with what I'm not exactly sure yet, but we can deal with that after you're on, alright?"
Still no response. It seemed a more direct approach would be necessary. He took hold of the screen with both hands, taking on a sterner tone.
"Look, there's still power in this part of the facility, I know there is—the lights are still on, so you're not fooling anybody with that. Give it up. Just turn on."
The screen remained dark.
Wheatley sat back, perplexed. Maybe the computer wasn't quite as advanced as he'd thought—it was hard to tell with Aperture tech sometimes. Thinking back to the times he'd watched the scientists interact with the computers before, he remembered that though they had spoken to them on occasion, much more often they'd used their hands to press the buttons on the flat pieces in front of their screens.
"Okay. Actually, maybe it's not voice activated," he reported to Chell, who had recently begun crawling around on the floor on the other side of the desk. Out of desperation, he supposed. "But it's alright, it's alright, I can figure this out. I saw them use these things all the time before—practically was one, love—so I can handle it."
He pushed firmly down on one of the buttons and held it for short time, but it had no effect on the rest of the computer. He tried a second, then a third, then a fourth without result, then slid his hand across the whole thing in frustration.
"I—I really don't know why this isn't working. All they ever did was press these buttons here and it always got them somewhere," he explained, but she didn't acknowledge him.
He held his hands above the buttons and began pressing down on them at random as he'd seen the researchers do from time to time, varying the speed and the rhythm of the input.
The computer remained inactive.
"This… is a little harder than I thought it would be," he confessed. "Before, whenever I was hooked up to a port or something, I just had to sort of think of things and they'd happen. Sometimes. Well, not very often. But sometimes."
She ignored him, apparently much more interested in the floor than in his excuses.
Discouraged, he mashed his palm uselessly against the thing. He couldn't even do something as simple as turn a computer on for her. He didn't know why that surprised him, but it did, and it stung.
There was a tiny electric pop.
He jumped up as the screen flickered to life.
"Aha! See? Told you I could do it!"
Chell stood and leaned over the desk to see the now-functioning computer, then smiled at him.
"Nothing to it, really, just took a bit of perseverance…"
Nodding, she rounded the desk, wrapped a hand around his wrist, and pulled him away from the computer. Once she had led him to another part of the room, she released him. He waited in place as she dragged a chair out from under some debris, set it upright, and rolled it close to him.
"Oh, you want me to sit down? Over here?" he glanced back toward Doug's desk across the lab, unoccupied but for the computer still humming noisily to life.
She gave him a gentle shove toward the chair and returned to the desk.
Though he would have much preferred to leave the lab and keep moving, he knew better than to pass up an opportunity to rest without having to worry about keeping up with Chell. Tilting his head back, he stared up at the poster hanging on the wall before him.
Displayed on its creased surface were, if their wide smiles were any indication, two very happy individuals—one human and one robot. He knew the one on the right was a robot even though he was shaped like a human because he was clearly made of metal, the visible seams and rivets down the areas of his body not covered by his lab coat being the other obvious clues. The human's arm was slung over the robot's shoulder, and the robot reciprocated the gesture.
In all the years he'd spent since his activation, he had never once seen an AI like the one in the poster. Why Aperture even had the posters had remained a mystery to him long after he'd left for the relaxation facility.
Pushing against the floor with his feet, he turned the seat of his chair to look back at Chell. She was occupied, leaning forward in her own chair to stare intently at the computer, though from his position he couldn't see what she was doing with it. He pushed a few more times, spinning around in a circle and picking up a bit of speed as he went. Seconds later he put his foot down again and waited for his vision to clear.
He let his eyes fall closed and leaned further back into the chair. It rocked slightly with his weight but soon went still. The chair was much more comfortable than the harder ones they'd found on the platform outside, though not nearly as nice as lying in a bed with Chell had been. The curve of it cradled most of his body quite nicely, the angle somehow lessening the pain in his back.
He could understand now why the scientists had spent so much of their time sitting.
He jumped a bit at the feeling of hands on his shoulders, but relaxed quickly at their encouraging squeeze.
Chell must have already finished with the computer—he could've told her it wouldn't be any help to them—and now she wanted… he couldn't tell yet, but he didn't really mind. Her skin was too warm and soft for him to mind much of anything. Settling back into the chair, he closed his eyes again.
Her hands began to move, her fingers sliding over the bare skin at the back of his neck, stroking down and up in long, slow motions. His head dropped down to expose more of the skin to her searching touch, his chin meeting his chest, and she pushed one hand forward, tensing it to drag the tips of her fingers up through his hair and down the back of his head and neck. His body shook briefly at that, his neck and shoulders twisting instinctively to chase the oddly pleasant sensation away.
When he could manage, he straightened himself again, and her hands moved away from his neck to grasp his shoulders firmly. Then gently. Then firmly, then—was she—she was.
Wheatley smiled to himself and pushed back into the shifting pressure. She was doing that thing, that wonderful thing that involved squeezing and pulling at his neck and shoulders, just the same way she had after she'd put him into the water the first time. His muscles tensed beneath her hands, then unwound as she rolled her knuckles against them.
"That feels nice," he murmured.
Her hand fell onto his shoulder in a few light pats, and she continued, digging her palms into the tight, sore spots, relieving the ache that had gathered there.
Nice was a vast understatement, he knew, but at the moment he couldn't think of any more impressive words to offer her. Her hands—her amazing hands that could make him feel warm and good and important all at the same time—kept moving on him, and he sank into the indescribable calm of her touch.
He opened his mouth to at least attempt say something more but stopped when her fingers tensed around his shoulders and pinched him, sending a jolt of pain traveling through his body. Before he could protest her touch softened again and she kneaded the sore spots.
"Mhh… really… really nice," he managed through a sigh.
She ran her fingers once through his hair then repeated the routine, tightening and loosening her grip and rolling the muscles in her hands. His head rolled to one side, and she redoubled her efforts, hands working harder and harder and harder until—
"Not so hard, love," he muttered, shifting in discomfort.
Her grip tightened further, and his shoulders hunched against the sensation of her fingers compressing the flesh almost painfully, his muscles tensing up in response to the steadily increasing pressure.
"That—that actually kind of hurts," he raised his voice a bit. "That kind of really—"
He gasped as her hands clamped down hard on his shoulders to drive the points of her fingers deep into his skin. The sharp pain of her grasp swelled quickly into a terrible throb searing where her skin met his. He struggled to move away, to call out to her, but her hands held him firmly in place, and the only sound he could manage was the thin hiss of air rushing in through his teeth.
A chill fell on his ear as She spoke.
Tell me. Is it everything you remembered?
Her laugh rattled through his thoughts.
Maybe that was a poor choice of words…
Wheatley burst forward from the chair, his legs supporting the unexpected weight only briefly before giving out and folding beneath him. The air left him by force as he hit the floor and for a panicked few seconds he couldn't replace it, couldn't do anything more than lie motionless with his mouth wide trying to recapture his breath.
Had he fallen asleep? Had Chell's hands caused him to drift off, or had that been a part of the dream as well? Maybe they were still out on the platform, and he'd been asleep the whole time—his mind swam as he sought to identify when it had happened, when things had changed. But they hadn't changed, had they?
Finally, he managed to suck in some air, the rush relieving the intensifying pressure against the sides of his head. He panted hoarsely for a moment, resting his cheek against the cold floor until he could move again. Curling into himself, he wrenched his body around to face Her.
But She wasn't there.
The emptied chair spun in place, slowing to a stop as he watched. There was nobody behind it, not Her, not Chell—he pushed himself upright and searched frantically around the room for any sign of Her but found none.
Wheatley lifted his hands to his shoulders and rubbed at the fast-fading ache in his muscles. Within seconds the pain passed, leaving no evidence of Her grip, but he held his hands there, reluctant to expose them again. He sat still, casting his eyes around the deserted lab, seeking out the sight of Her pale skin even as he willed the frenzied thumping in his chest to slow down.
His whole body twitched at a foreign sound behind him, and he turned quickly and raised his hands in front of him, but it was only the lab coat slipping off the deactivated core and falling to the ground. He took a shaky breath and turned back to face the rest of the lab.
Leaning over, he peered cautiously around the chair only to freeze in confusion. Chell was still there, still seated at Doug's desk and still not paying any attention to him—but unlike in his last dream she was awake, her hands pressed against the side of her head and her sharp gaze fixed on the computer screen before her.
He slowly processed the new information. She was there and she was awake.
Did that mean he was awake too?
Hadn't she heard him speak, hadn't she seen him move?
Throwing his arms forward, he crawled toward the chair and pulled himself up with its support. He stood shakily and began to move toward Chell in an unsteady stumble.
His movement finally caught her attention. She glanced up at him only briefly before turning back to the screen.
Maybe he'd imagined it all, he reasoned as he made his way toward Chell—but he'd felt Her hands, he'd heard Her words. Maybe he really was asleep, and She was just toying with him by hiding away from him like this. Or maybe he was awake and there was something seriously wrong with him.
He didn't know how to tell anymore.
But Chell was there and that was good. She would listen to him and nod and maybe even put her arms around him until he felt better, and then they'd keep going and get out of the lab and leave it behind forever—all he had to do was reach her and everything would be alright.
His foot struck hard against something on the floor and he nearly fell, but he caught himself. When the sharper pain had passed into a throbbing ache he kept moving.
She made no move to respond to him. But her hands were clasped around her ears—no, she was holding something up to her head, he could see the cord that lead from the thing to the computer. Maybe she hadn't heard him.
She held one hand out, palm facing toward him, and he stopped short of the desk.
"Chell, I need—"
Finally she turned her head to look up at him, though her scowl was not at all the look he'd hoped to receive. She raised her hand to wave him angrily away from the desk, shaking her head at him and focusing again on the computer screen.
He sank into a chair a short distance away and pulled his legs and arms close to his body. Hands clasped protectively over his shoulders, he sat and watched her in silence.
He pursed his lips and drew a long, slow breath, just like she'd shown him.
She wanted him to wait.
So he waited.