Wheatley remembers the day he awoke.
Everything is a blur of color. The translucent heads-up display of numbers, status reports, and blinking corruption alerts is gone. Fuzzy and undefined, he's in a haze of blue and gold, brilliant and vivid and cool and bright, and no matter where he looks, everything is so endless and dizzying and huge.
He's curled on a slab of hard concrete, vertigo clamping tight, the Door behind him. He's not sure how he made it here. The last thing he remembers is a room of sharp white with a large metallic cylindrical structure of some sort in its center. He remembers being outside of it, hooked up by a port with a lumpy sheet-swathed gurney just a few feet away, and then he must have shorted out or something because then he remembers being inside that chamber, vision fading; a heartbeat of black and the white beyond the glass.
Everything hurts. He's felt pain before, and he very much knows what it feels like. This is beyond anything he's ever known. It's a steady throb, pulsing through him, and it's centered toward where his central processing unit is loc—wait.
Wheatley tries to focus, attempting to run the proper subroutines to convince his sight to sharpen and depixilate, but nothing happens. He looks down, thoroughly confused, and then—oh dear god hands.
He yelps in alarm, and then he's thrashing about and he becomes even more terrified because he can move—how is that even possible, he hasn't even got a management rail!—and he finds himself scrambling headfirst into rolling waves of amber, hands—his hands, they're his hands!—grappling the ground and digging into soft earth and rough bodies of stalk, shoving him onward, onward. Something buckles, pain crawls upward and inside of him, and then he's managed to roll over somehow and now he can see everything up above, the sky, the clouds, bursts of white unspooled across an endless blue, the world.
He feels. He can feel. He doesn't know how it's possible, but he can. This is what it's like, isn't it? This must be. God. The ground beneath him, cool, cold, individual strands of grain bunching beneath his fingers, and it's so much to take in because he's never had fingers before, no, he mustn't have, this feels so incredible, so real, so wonderful; there's so much around him and it's struggling to push through into every inch of him so he can feel it all.
And then he realizes that he's breathing.
Wheatley hears himself take a soft inhale—it hurts a little, just a little, not as much as everywhere else—and he can hear the shaky, slow release. This is one of those things humans do, right? Breathing. They have to do it or they'll die. It's something for their brain, isn't it? Oxygen. It's a subconscious process that they don't even have to think about. It just happens so they don't have to worry about it. And once he worries about it, it stops.
The sudden halt of airflow is sharp and obvious. There's a swelling feeling centered in the middle of him, swelling and grasping and desperate and oh god, oh god, what does he do, the world is seeming to burst from inside of him—and then something sparks. He takes control, inhales, trying to suck in as much air as he can, drawing in sweet relief and ecstasy. Everything settles, the pain subsides, and it's with another grateful breath that he recognizes something: the damp scent of the earth.
It triggers. He doesn't know why it seems familiar, but it is, and it's something so deep and buried that he's having trouble understanding exactly why this sense of I've done this before is permeating the moment. Panic settles in; the world seems to bleed into darkness, black closing tight.
There are little humans. Children. They're scattered about, playing in the grass and making gestures with tiny hands. Some move their mouths, but there's no sound. It's silent. One approaches with a questioning countenance, and he can see his hands reach out and ruffle the child's red hair, moving soft and smooth through the strands. Her hands grasp for the item in his lap, a small keyboard—he's got legs? Real legs, how amazing is that!—and he can hear his own quiet laughter as her fingers mash the keys. Clashing notes crash into the air, sharp and dissonant, and then the world opens up again, a gaping mouth of blue with a golden burn of sun in its center.
It's beautiful. Even though it's blurry and unfocused and colors seem to seep into places they shouldn't, it's beautiful. Before, he might have seen everything in pixel perfect perfection, but it can't compare to this. He can't quite figure out why. Why is this imperfection so much better?
He feels a surge of wonder grip him at the very center, tight and soaring and incredible. All he can do is look at the sky, absorbing everything that the world has to offer. It's so huge, he didn't think anything was that big, there's no ceiling, a place without end, how insane, and suddenly he feels like he's falling and his voice is welling up from somewhere and—
"Oh, god, I'm—I'm… I'm human. I'm actually… actually human. I don't—god, I'm human."
Wheatley can't seem to wrap his head around it because it doesn't make sense. It just doesn't. The last he remembers, he was a core. A robot. An AI. A mechanical, sentient being with every intent on staying that way. Then there's a jump, just this place where nothing exists, and now here he is, somewhere outside—outside, who would have thought—lying in a bunch of yellow plants.
And he can feel. He can feel everything moving around him, the wind and the earth and each stalk of grain, and although pain is scraping beneath, creeping and aching everywhere, he can feel and it's such an incredible sensation that it's almost overwhelming. He makes a grunting noise—not sure how that works, how odd—and he tries to get up to have a look at the rest of him, because really, he can scarcely believe this!
As he flounders about on the ground, figuring out how these appendages work (they're not supposed to bend certain ways, in case you were curious), he begins to laugh. He doesn't know why, but something just clicks, and he's a convulsing mass of lanky limbs. It's indescribable; it's strong and he can feel it working through him, beautiful and cathartic, exercising muscles inside of him that he's never used, his muscles; he's got muscles and legs and he can truly feel, this is amazing!
Several minutes pass until he can properly breathe again. When he finally manages to sit up, he's hunched over, spine curved, legs bowed in front of him. He's aching all over, but that's not what's bothering him. It's the telltale Aperture orange that's all over this body.
All the wonder, all the delight, all the revelry that he had had in being human is sucked away into the bright, coiling color, devoured. Lingering chuckles trail off into thin wisps and slide back down his throat. Something inside of him is clutching his heart in a cold, constricting vice of fear.
That place. That horrible, terrible place. He's been there.
The gaps in his memory—they were there.
Wheatley strains to look behind him. His neck cranes, muscle protesting, and he gazes at the Door. The dark body of the shed seems so sinister, so foreboding, and he feels everything inside of him contract and twist like Her arms are pulling out his wires, his circuitry, his motherboard—
He lets out a strangled cry and starts to move. The wheat parts before him, brushing past his face and bare forearms, and then his limbs give out in a crumpled heap beneath him and he's a quivering wreck of orange and peach in a sea of swaying gold, curled as much into a sphere as he can manage. Maybe if he can fit it just right it'll all go back to normal, it has to, it has to—
The sky is cold and blue, insanely blue, enveloping him and smoothing out beneath his eyelids, and all he can think of is her, of her determination and her courage, of the earth as it rose above the black horizon, of the pain inside of him and of the noise humming inside his head, of Her and the Room and the Machine, and—
He opens his mouth and he lets out a scream, primal and raw and afraid.
What has She done to him?
This can't be happening. He must be powered down and this has to be a simulation of some kind fed from Her as punishment for all he's done. No, this isn't supposed to happen. This isn't normal. This isn't right. Why is he like this? Why did She decide to put him in this awful, fleshy thing? He can't remember how long it's been. He can only remember the blackness and stars and the sucking vacuum of space and the tight grip of her arms keeping him safe against her belly and the moon, the moon, the moon.
With shaking arms, Wheatley's managed to force himself onto his knees. He's crawling again through the plane of rippling gold, his stomach dragging across the ground, knuckles gnashing against tangles of roots and rocks and dirt as he claws forward. Desperate and terrified, all he knows is that he has to get away from this place. He has to get away from Her and Aperture and all of the ghastly, horrific things inside the swallowing labyrinth beneath that shed.
He crawls for nearly half a mile before he's spent. Ribcage heaving, he sprawls out among the wheat and closes his eyes, wishing the throb inside his head would lessen. The pain is too much, pressing and pulsing along his temples, and with every beat of that knotted muscle in his chest, it feels like everything is trying to escape and burst through the casing of his skull. He groans, a frail whimpering sound in his throat, and he winces when he tries to roll over because the rest of him hurts as well. Legs, arms, back, head; he can no longer move without feeling like everything is going to snap right off. He's not sure if any of it actually can, but he's not about to tempt fate. Humans can be such fragile little things, and luck is something he's never really had.
Wheatley tries to concentrate on breathing, on thinking, on living, on anything. A faint buzzing still purrs in his ears, quiet and frantic and somehow familiar, but his memory is muddled and he can't make much sense of what's happening. All he knows is that he's outside, really truly outside, stuck in this vast, gorgeous field of amber and wind and azure, and somehow he's been plunged in the shell of a smelly human body.
He has no idea why or how or even when. He doesn't know how long it's been, what he's supposed to do, or where he's supposed to go. He's never been left to make his own choices like this. He's been dictated by Her for so long, by Her and by Aperture and by everything else. His entire purpose has been defined solely by the facility for years on end. He's to take care of test subjects, to keep them safe, and ensure that their stasis is smooth and uninterrupted unless otherwise specified by the higher ups.
Without any of that, he's… pointless, isn't he?
He can't even imagine what he would do on his own. The only time he's ever attempted something outside his constraints, it's been with her. She's enabled him to do things he thought he'd never do. Not only did he plan a daring escape from within the belly of the beast, he defied the maniacal AI in charge. He pulled strings, tried to get her out, used every resource he could possibly use, and he had succeeded—to an extent.
Wheatley sifts through what memory fragments still remain, and he suddenly feels an indescribable clench of dread. Spikes, mashers, blades, bombs, elaborate puzzles of lasers and bottomless pits, convenient death options and mandatory killing—
He… he was a monster.
A tremble claims his human body and he finds himself breathing especially hard. He had tried to kill her. He had really tried to kill her. And that itch webbing through his circuits, compelling and insatiable and ravenous, it had commanded every part of him.
Even if he manages to find her out here, out in this cold, vast world, how can he even hope to meet her face?
Wheatley lies there, breathing, feeling, reeling, the wind nipping at the soles of his feet and the knuckles of his reddened hands. He's overwhelmed. Something feels like it's curling around inside of him, knotting around in the center of his chest, and it's painful. He doesn't know why this body is doing this. He wants to scream, he wants to shout and expel the creature that seems to be writhing inside of him, but he can't. Nothing will move. Cold is pressing in, cinching around his wrists and neck, and even if he could find the strength to scream, he doesn't think his voice would work.
Her… How can he ever expect to find her? The facility might stretch down for miles, but this place is so far beyond anything he's ever known. Aperture is only a tiny piece, a sliver, a drop in the ocean. To find her in a place like this would take lifetimes.
And yet, she's the only link he has out here. She gave him purpose beyond protocol. He did everything he could to help her, she gave him the means, he did it, he had the power, and it ate him from the inside out.
He grips bunches of stalks in his left hand, pulling, tightening, fingertips digging into root and soil. It hurts, everything does, but all he can do is breathe, think, and endure. He has to find a way out of his field. Other humans must be out here, they must, they have to be, and he's got to find them and get help somehow. He's got to find her. He's got one lifetime, just one, and he'll find her even if it means spending it a thousand times over.
She's… she's still alive, isn't she?
He swallows, hands pushing into the earth. His pallid knuckles flush with color as the muscles in his spindly arms string taut and raise his belly off the ground.
No, she has to be alive.
Wheatley pulls his legs beneath him, bare toes curling into the cold soles of his feet, and he cranes his neck to see over the flowing grain. Blue horizon, gorgeous and trembling blue, everywhere, crossing in every direction; blue and amber and chilling wind. He doesn't dare look behind him. He knows what's there.
She's got to be alive. She's too strong not to be. She's—
And then he remembers the opera.
His HUD kept streaming errors in long strings of red. He must have been so far down. It was muffled, but he could still hear. She was saying goodbye to her. It wasn't happy. It was goodbye. It was goodbye for good, good riddance, never bother me again you monster, but I might miss you a little.
Wheatley crawls forward. She is alive. She is. He knows it. She must be out here somewhere. He's not sure where, but she must be, she has to, and he's going to find her. The wheat is pressed under him as he inches onward, crushed and parted under the flats of his hands, and even though he doesn't know where he's going, the first step she would take would be to get away from There.
He crawls and crawls, and the further he gets, the weaker he feels. The human body can only do so much, but he doesn't know why his is acting like this. She was so incredible, her and the way she moved, how she jumped and sailed and soared and how she commanded every part of her so wonderfully, and he wishes he could do that. She made it look so easy. She made it seem effortless. She was beautiful.
He doesn't know why his insides feel like they're malfunctioning when he thinks of her. It's uncomfortable and it doesn't help the pain that's already there. Regardless, he keeps thinking of her because there's so much he wants to say. So much. He wishes he could tell her everything, all that he's felt and seen and done. It's welling up, brimming hotly underneath his skin, but he can't even begin to parse it into words.
The wear in his atrophied muscles begins to pull him to the ground. He wants so badly to give in to the aching that's settled into his limbs, into his head, but he can't, he just can't, he's got to find her.
Collapse is relief. He wants to move on and crawl forward, but he can't. He's so tired, so weak, so cold. Nothing is cooperating. Nothing responds when he tries to move. His shins are scraped and his fingers sting numb, pushing onto pulsing temples. His eyes flutter, and soon blackness sews into his vision.
He's got to find her. Please, please, let him go. Just let him go. This isn't fair. It isn't fair. He has to tell her first, please, let him go.
The crashing of wheat rattles into his skull. He doesn't know what it is, so he lies still. It stops only a few feet away, and he starts to expect Her and Her henchmen, Her robots, some way to extinguish him in this rotten, awful body, and so his eyes snap open.
He looks up—and there she is.
Jostled by the crowd, Wheatley comes to and finds himself on a street corner. He's being pushed aside, funneled along the curb, and his body seems to be on auto-pilot because he's still walking in spite of being buried in memories. Biting his lip and tugging down on his knit cap, he manages to slip through the throng toward the window of a nearby shop. He presses his back against the cold glass and he brings his hands to his mouth, breathing a hard exhale, ashen smoke unfurling toward the sky.
He's shaking now, and his head has started to hurt. He's not sure why it's decided to do this now of all times, but it's all the more proof that there's something terribly wrong with him. Ever since he awoke to find himself in this thing, everything's been so wrong.
He then pulls on an edge of his cap—the cap she bought him—and he can't help but smile.
Not everything's wrong, he supposes. No, not everything. Definitely not everything.
Wheatley rubs his forehead and peels himself off of the shop's window. He can't afford to do things like this. He has to ignore the headache and concentrate. He's got a job to do this morning, after all. He has to prove that he can do this. He can do things properly and he can help make pennies just like everyone else. Because he can!
The music shop is pleasantly warm. The bell finishes its final chime as the door swings shut. Wheatley glances at his oblong reflection in the sheen of a nearby saxophone as he pulls off his cap. His hair looks just as ridiculous. Frowning into the golden body of the instrument, he tries to mat it down with his palm.
"Oh, there you are. Good, good. Glad you made it."
Thomas shuffles out of the back isles. His suit is a nicely pressed brown and black plaid. Wheatley likes the maroon colored tie tucked beneath the buttoned blazer and wants to say something about it, but before he can, Thomas tugs out the piece of paper that's hanging out of Wheatley's coat pocket. Unfolding it between craggy fingers, he peers at the application through thick circled glasses.
"Well. Hm. All right. You do realize the only thing you filled in was your name, right? And that's just 'Wheatley.' No last name. Just Wheatley." One furry eyebrow arches and Thomas glances further down the wrinkled page. "No other biographical information… Your address is here, but honestly, I'm skeptical about that, too."
Wheatley nervously yanks on the ends of his gloves. "Well, yes, about that. I can explain. The thing is—I don't… really remember all of it."
"You don't remember your birthday?"
"I… well, no," Wheatley manages. "No, not really."
"You don't remember your phone number, do you?"
"Not unless you mean the little glowing numbers on the inside of it."
"What about previous employers?"
He remembers Her, he could never forget, never, but he keeps his mouth shut and shakes his head instead.
"Well then." Thomas scratches his scalp. "I suppose you can still lift things, can't you? Sort them? It's not difficult."
"I can do that." Wheatley nods enthusiastically. "Yeah, sure, I can do that. Not a problem! Just tell me what to do and I'll give it a go."
Thomas folds the application again. "Come along. This way. We'll get you a nametag and you can hang up your coat."
He turns on his brown dress shoes and makes his way down the back isles. Wheatley follows past gleaming instruments and portfolios of sheet music; past cleaning kits and screwdrivers and thumb-sized bottles of oil; past boxes of pristine metronomes; past the midnight body of the grand piano and its ivory teeth. Thomas approaches an old oak door—its surface worn, bled of once-rich color—and turns the round brass knob.
Inside is rather cozy, Wheatley thinks. (He has to duck to make sure he doesn't hit the door frame with his face.) It's a small room, squared, with a simple pine table and filing cabinets shoved against the walls. A window overlooks the slim frame of the table, its periwinkle curtains tucked to the side. A polished coatrack stands in the leftmost corner.
The office itself is nice. But that's not what Wheatley is staring at.
There are pictures. Dozens of them. Scores of them. They're everywhere, everywhere: tacked onto the walls, propped up on the desk, stuck onto cabinets with cutesy shaped magnets, plastered onto the surface of the window. Wheatley doesn't think he's ever seen so many in a single place. In fact, he's sure he hasn't. Everywhere he looks, there are rectangles of captured color spotted with smiling faces, snipped edges fitted into circled frames; pressed plastic, sanded wood, sheets of smooth glass.
He pockets his gloves, his knit cap bunched into a tingling-warm hand. Padding up to the pinewood table, he takes one of the small frames into his palm. His long fingers curl around the wooden edges, smudging the pane of glass. Smiling back at him is a petite woman with a rounded face and wavy autumn-red hair. She's bundled up in a thick black winter coat, arms crossed to warm her hands. Wheatley leans closer to study her face. It looks like someone peppered freckles onto her flushed cheeks with one of those shakers that Chell uses at mealtimes.
"Hey, who is this?" he asks.
Thomas has been rummaging around the office for something, presumably a nametag. He pauses and looks up from a cabinet drawer. "What? Who is what?"
"This." Wheatley flips the photograph frame to show him. "Who is this?"
"Oh." Wheatley notices the man's face visibly shift. His eyebrows knit, his worry lines deepen, his eyes cast to the floor. "That's Lottie."
"Well, Lottie's a lovely girl." Wheatley peers down at the picture again. "Is she your—ah, what is it—daughter?"
"No," says Thomas. His hands are stuffed into the pockets of his plaid blazer, his shoulders slouched. "That was taken forty years ago."
Curious, Wheatley glances to him. "Where is she now?"
Thomas shakes his head. "Look, you're a nice fellow. Odd, but nice. This is a personal matter. I'd rather not get into it." He snatches the picture away, holding it protectively between his wrinkled hands.
"Oh. I'm sorry," says Wheatley, watching him as he gently places the frame back onto the desk. Thomas's fingers touch the glass, almost reverent. "I… I didn't realize."
"No, you didn't. Of course you didn't. You're not—" Thomas stops himself short with a grimace and squinted eyes. He draws a breath, phlegm rattling in his throat, and his hands flatten and smooth his white, thinning hair. "Sorry. Sorry. Just… try not to mention her."
Wheatley nods. As he backs away from the pine table, he begins to notice that all of the photographs on the walls, on the cabinets, slipped into frames and stuck with magnets—they're all of Lottie. In some, she's vibrant and young and healthy, and in others, she's older with graying hair and creases in her face.
He feels something strange, a soft pawing in the back of his head. He's not sure why this seems so important, so familiar, but it is. The urge to ask about Lottie barrels up his throat, but Wheatley bites his tongue because this Thomas is a kind person, a person kind enough to give him a metronome to help Chell, a person kind enough to offer him a job, and he doesn't want to offend him any further.
"Well, here you are." Thomas stands on the tips of his toes (with Wheatley bending down) and pins the white nametag to Wheatley's powdered blue shirt. It rests right above the left breast pocket, proudly reading in thick black capital marker: WHEATLEY. Two eighth notes decorate either side of his name.
"Good," says Thomas. "Now, let's get to the front and I'll show you around. We'll get down to business. Leave your coat back here."
Wheatley does as he's told. He shrugs off the rest of his coat and hangs it on the pillar-like coatrack in the corner. Next to the rack, he notes, is another picture of Lottie. She's cheerful, standing in the center of some park (he supposes), her dark eyes alight. She seems to be holding some sort of stringed instrument in her hand. It's small, brown, held near her shoulder, cradled like a dear treasure.
This photograph must be old, he thinks. The colors aren't quite as vivid as some of the other pictures. Or maybe that's just the glass. He can't be sure.
"Are you coming?" Wheatley can hear Thomas calling him from the front of the store.
His thumb runs over the smooth surface of the framed photograph. It's such a strange feeling, this pitter-patter in the back of his head, this peculiar sense of déjà vu—and he doesn't even know where it's from. It's starting to bother him, just like his headache, and he wants so much to understand what's wrong with him but it just seems like it's locked, barred, shut away and protected by the best security system. He couldn't hack it even if he tried.
"Wheatley!" Oh, dear. He sounds cross. Not good.
"Sorry!" Wheatley wrenches himself away from the frame and spins on his heel. "Right, of course! Coming, sorry! I'm coming!"
Panicking, he dashes out of the small office, leaving the walls of photographs—and Lottie—behind.