A Counterfeit- a Plated Person-
I would not be-
Whatever strata of Iniquity
My Nature underlie-
Truth is good Health- and Safety, and the Sky.
How meagre, what an Exile- is a Lie,
And Vocal- when we die-
Somewhere deep within the vast vaults of Aperture Laboratories, two small robots charged down a long catwalk, the echoes of their footsteps clanking off the distant walls. One- short, stocky, with one bright blue eye at the centre of its spherical body- squawked briefly at the other- taller, slimmer, its jointed torso housing a single orange eye- and took the lead, raising the strange gunlike piece of tech in its jointed hands and firing down the corridor at an angled panel at the far end. A blink-and-you'd-miss-it bolt of blue energy sizzled through the air ahead of the two robots, zipping down the catwalk and across a huge section of missing floor, a gaping unjumpable chasm where the metal looked as if it had simply been ripped away by a giant hand.
The bolt struck the angled panel, opening a shimmering blue hole. Without even breaking stride, both robots hurled themselves off the edge of the broken floor, plummeting down into a dark, wire-choked chute that flung them right, left, and finally into freefall, the catwalk a dwindling point of light above them.
Tucking into a tight roll in midair, the blue robot twisted shoulders-downwards, and fired again. The very bottom of the pit- a corroded, grease-stained white surface- opened up with a half-second to spare into a second blue-ringed oval. Both robots shot through at terminal velocity and rocketed out of the angled panel, arcing a two-hundred-foot parabola into the murky girder-crossed ceiling, trailing garbled, dopplering squeaks of glee.
The orange robot was the first to land, hitting the highest platform in a crouch, riding the impact with the powerful shock absorbers in its long, sticklike legs. The blue robot landed a second later, rolling upright- being basically spherical, it was better suited to rolling- and jerking its high shoulders towards the big red button set into the floor. Catching on, the orange robot stamped down hard, and a sweet, blocky chime sounded as the exit door set into the wall behind them slid open with a hisss.
The two robots high-fived enthusiastically, scattering sparks, and trotted forwards.
"You solved it."
The Voice came from everywhere at once, cool, modulated, and inexpressibly bored.
"Good for you."
Stopping in the middle of the next chamber, the robots paused and looked around. The blue robot shifted its weight, the orange hopped nervously from one foot to the other. They had been programmed to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances- that was one of their primary functions- but even by their standards, there was something a little off about this chamber. It was, well... blank.
"There's been a change of plan. I'm placing the Co-operative Testing Initiative project temporarily on hold."
No buttons, no cubes, no turrets. And, now that the round hatch had sealed itself behind them, no exit.
"Your performance has been adequate," said the Voice. "Goodbye."
The two little robots looked at each other for a moment, puzzled-
It was a fairly undramatic explosion. There wasn't much noise, and- apart from a little shower of metal bits and a small cloud of oily smoke- hardly any mess. After a short interval, a panel opened up in one blank wall and a small jointed plate unfolded from it, busily sweeping all the little bits of the two robots neatly into the gap before shutting up again and fitting back inside itself.
Silently, the panel closed, leaving the chamber clean and empty once again, apart from a few oily spots and a faint, lingering smell of smoke.
Space, thought Wheatley, was big.
It was massive. There was so much of it, that actually processing how big it really was proved downright impossible. The glittering vault of stars stretched out endlessly in every direction, defying comprehension, staggeringly, mind-bogglingly, infinitely big.
It was also really, really boring.
Sad, but true, the beauty of the infinite cosmos palled after a while. It was fine to start with, awe-inspiring and breath-taking and all the rest of it. You could spend all the time you liked staring at it, getting to know all the different types of stars, things like that. Wheatley didn't know their actual scientific names- observational astronomy was not part of his programming- but in the absence of official nomenclature he'd made up his own. You had your basic 'little twinkly ones'- they were probably a very long way away, even by star standards, and accounted for most of the stars he could see- and then there were the 'big bright ones', which were either a bit closer or planets and things, and 'multicoloured ones' which he wasn't really sure about, and- very occasionally- you had your 'ones that turn out to be bits of space junk whooshing past while exploding.'
Hours of fun, those ones.
He'd also dabbled in the constellations, with less success. Picking out shapes in the stars when you were ceaselessly orbiting a lunar body was challenging, and Wheatley wasn't really up to it. For a start, his optic was damaged- the glass was cracked, splitting his field of vision into two slightly misaligned halves- which meant that focusing on anything too much made him feel motion-sick. Motion-sickness, artificial or otherwise, isn't funny even when you're able to stop moving and have a sit-down until it stops. Having motion-sickness when you have no choice but to go on orbiting the moon at roughly seventeen thousand miles an hour with a slight tailspin, on the other hand, is utter hell.
He'd tried, though. Once an orbit, there was a roughly Z-shaped formation of stars which he'd called the Management Rail. Then there was one of the 'big bright ones' in the middle of a sort of arch of 'little twinkly ones', which- not having much of an imagination when it came to naming things- he'd called the Sentry Turret.
In this manner he'd named an entire zodiac; the Ceiling Tile, the Catwalk, the Potato Battery, the Pipe Network, the Deadly Death-Trap, the Power-Crazed Idiot, and so on. It passed the time, and there was a lot of time, up here.
Once you'd sorted all that out, though, got everything star-related nicely pigeonholed away, there just wasn't much else to do. There were only four things in Wheatley's field of vision which weren't stars or blackness, and none of them offered much relief from the monotony. The craggy lunar surface, miles below him, that was one. Then there was the Earth, a white-blue sphere in the distance, laughably far off. Wheatley, who had never seen the surface of the Earth first-hand, sometimes wondered vaguely if it really was like the files, the vast archive of visual data he'd had access to when he was jacked into the Enrichment Centre's mainframe.
There'd been all sorts of weird stuff in those files- huge masses of water, he supposed that was all the blue- fields of green fluffy stuff that waved around in the- what was the word? It was on the tip of his verbal processor- wind. In the wind. Animals, too, not just humans but all kinds of crazy life-forms with mad names like elk and platypus and tiger and ebola Zaire and unicron. Wheatley had no idea what a unicron was, but he thought it sounded pretty bloody impressive, all the same.
Then there was the sun. The files had suggested that from the Earth's surface the sun wasn't that bad, but up here in space without the protection of all that white wispy stuff around the Earth it was an intense, cold-yellow glare. Wheatley didn't dare to look directly at it with his broken optic, afraid that it would fry his visual circuits right out of his body or, worse, set something on fire. Not that things could really burn in space, without oxygen- but there was always the possibility that there were a few pockets of air still hanging around somewhere in his battered metal body, and he didn't want to chance it for the sake of a glimpse of a blazing ball of gas.
He didn't want to look at it anyway, to tell the truth. Harsh, pitiless, and unblinking; it reminded him too much of Her.
So, the Earth, the moon, and the sun. That was it, really, unless you counted-
Wheatley sighed. At least somebody was happy about the situation. It'd been ages- exactly how long, he didn't know and dreaded to think- since the two of them had been sucked into space. Wheatley had initially tried to keep count, but addition was not one of his strong points (having strong points was not one of his strong points, to be honest) and he'd eventually given up and fixed on an informed guesstimate instead. 'Ages,' that felt about right. 'Bloody ages.'
Space Core, on the other hand, never got tired of it. Space Core- or Kevin, as Wheatley had named him arbitrarily- was ecstatic about being in space. Loved the stuff. Couldn't get enough of it. By this point, Wheatley envied him, badly. Kevin didn't know that the two of them were stuck up here in this cold starry void forever, until they shut down through disuse or decay or just lost momentum and plummeted helplessly into the rocky landscape below. Kevin didn't have to think about things like that. Kevin didn't even know what it was like to feel stupid, or insignificant, or guilty, or lonely.
Kevin didn't even know that his name was Kevin.
"You all right there, mate?" said Wheatley, trying to at least sound as if he expected a coherent answer. By this point it was hardly reasonable to hope that Kevin might respond with a 'Fine, Wheatley, thanks for asking," but then, Wheatley specialised in unwarranted optimism, even now when there was absolutely no call for it. Old habits died hard.
He twitched, involuntarily. Ever since She had crushed him into so much scrap metal- Her little thank-you to him for waking Her up, and he really would have preferred a bouquet or something, just for the record- he'd been afflicted by this small, recurrent mechanical fault, glitching through him every so often and making his entire shell jerk and spark. There were no sparks up here, of course, but the twitching was still just as annoying as it had been when he'd first found himself lumbered with it, all that time ago.
"Space," said Kevin, sagely, drifting past upside-down. Of course, there was no sound up here- came with the whole no-oxygen thing- but Kevin, like Wheatley, was an Aperture Science gadget, and equipped with the same compatible short-wave radio system, for emergencies. "I'm in space."
A proper conversation, thought Wheatley, longingly, for approximately the thirty dozenth time. That's what I need. A proper conversation would be absolutely amazing right now. The kind where I talk and someone else talks and- well, they wouldn't even have to talk, really, just as long as they actually listened to what I'm saying instead of not bothering because there's nothing between their audial processors except space. You just throw in a flat, solid surface as well-nothing fancy, just something that's not spinning around a ball of rock at a zillion miles an hour- and that's perfection, right there.
"Just a bit of a chat, really," he said, out loud. The earth somersaulted gently across his field of vision, round and blue and distorted down the middle. There was something a bit skew-whiff in the gimbal that controlled the movement of his optic, and he couldn't move it anywhere near as smoothly or rapidly as he used to. Blinking was painful, as the two halves of his corroded metal eyelid responded slowly, scraping moon-dust across the damaged lens. He got halfway, gave up and left it closed.
It wasn't as if he was missing much.
"Not about anything in particular, just, you know, how're you doing, what've you been up to lately, that sort of thing. I could ask," he added, struck by inspiration, "have you seen any unicrons? Do they, actually, exist, and if they do, what do they look like? 'Cause I'm thinking of something like a crow, big bird with- well, you've got the 'uni' bit, so it's probably got one… something. Leg, probably. Big old crow with one leg. Terrifying."
"The real bugger of it is, there was a picture of a unicron right there in the file, I know there was. I've just forgotten it, you see. Forgotten all sorts of stuff, there just wasn't enough room in my little old processor here for all those files- oh God, there were masses of them! Literally millions. Millions of millions. Hardly surprising, that I couldn't figure out which bits were important-"
"What's that? Ohh. It's space."
"Yeah… anyway, have you seen any unicrons, etcetera, what's the weather like down there, solved any good tests lately?" Wheatley was only dimly aware that he'd drifted from the generic to the specific in terms of hypothetical conversational partners. He twitched his upper handle in what he fancied to be a casual, disarming manner. It was bent, and creaked. "It's nice to see you, you know, alive and so on, hope you're not too sore about the whole me-trying-to-kill-you thing… although if you are still a bit upset about it, that's fine. More than reasonable. I mean, if it was me, if it was me that you'd stabbed in the back at the last second, just as we were going to escape and everything, and then you'd forced me to participate in a load of stupid, bonkers tests, then tried to squash me like an, an insignificant little insect, I'd be bloody livid! Absolutely hopping-"
"I'm in space. Space dust. Space rocks. Meteor meteor meteor-"
"Sorry, Kev, I am sort of trying to talk over here? If it's all the same to you."
"So, anyway, I'd say, I don't mind you being a bit shirty with me, I really don't, and look, no hard feelings about leaving me up here, right? It's- it's no more than I deserve, to be honest. No more than I deserve. I just hope- well, wish, really, I wish you were-"
"YES, I know! Meteors! Well done! Space's full of them!" Wheatley couldn't really shout directly at the other core, because he'd been slowly spinning for the last few minutes and by this point he was facing almost the exact opposite way, but he opened his cracked optic wide and focused as sharply and angrily as he could on the patch of empty space right in front of him, just for the look of the thing. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to just listen to me for once-"
The first and last thing he noticed about the patch of empty space right in front of him was that it was no longer empty. In that last split second, as his world filled with dark, mica-flecked rock, Wheatley remembered that nothing made any noise in space, and that therefore if you hadn't been specifically looking at something, because, say, you'd shut your only eye in a bout of daydreamy wishful thinking, you weren't going to get any warning of its approach. Even if the something in question was the size of a large table, made of solid rock, and going incredibly fast.
"Meteor," said Kevin, happily.
There should have been a noise. Wheatley would have much preferred it if there had been a noise, something appropriately catastrophic, a horrible drawn-out crunch or a metallic THWACK or- well, anything really. Anything other than what there actually was, which was nothing, just one moment when Kevin was tumbling cheerfully in front of him and then the next there was-
-nothing, just a spreading cloud of metal and yellow glass, powdered fragments, a painful crack of static in Wheatley's receiver, and the meteor, barrelling away towards Earth.
Wheatley screamed, partly out of horror but mostly out of sheer shock. Then he screamed again, more urgently this time, as the expanding shower of bits that used to be Kevin hit him like a hailstorm, cracking and pinging off his metallic shell, the shockwave sending him into a sickening end-over-end tailspin. His visual processor fritzed out under the onslaught, and dozens of blurred blue-white Earths skittered dizzyingly across his vision.
"Kevin! Oh, God, no!"
A Personality Core had no lungs, no throat, and therefore no physical need to cough, but there are some things which simply engender coughing whatever the circumstances, whether you have the requisite equipment or not. Accidentally sucking a hoofing great cloud of the atomised silicate remains of your only companion into your insides is definitely one of these times, and Wheatley spluttered and spat, trying to clear his system.
"Uck- hch- pfheh! Oh, God, I'm full of bits of him! Bits of Kevin! Oh, that's just sick- err, and a bit disrespectful, too I suppose. You're not really supposed to inhale the dead. Looked on as a bit of a faux pas in most circles."
"Sorry, Kevin. Couldn't help it. Still, at least it's the way you would have wanted to go, right? Atomised by a meteor, in space. Almost poetic, really..."
There was a very long silence. An observer a little more perceptive than Wheatley might have noticed that the moon looked just a little bit smaller than it had, now, the craters no longer quite so large and distinct, and that the distant white-blue football of the Earth was maybe just a fraction bigger.
Wheatley, however, was too busy contemplating how quiet it was. He wasn't sure that he liked it. There was nobody yelling 'SPAAACE!', or listing the names of the planets, or gibbering about the injustice inherent in the space legal system. Kevin hadn't been much of a conversationalist, true, but now that he was gone, space seemed even bigger; dark, cold, huge, and very, very silent.
You could do an awful lot of uninterrupted thinking, in this sort of silence. With nobody to distract you, you could find yourself thinking about all sorts of things, and not all of them good.
He wondered if he could teach himself to whistle.
At the heart of the sprawling labyrinth of Aperture Laboratories, far above and miles away from the fairly limited confines of the Co-Operative Testing Courses, She stirred restlessly in Her central chamber. The charcoal-grey panels that comprised the vaulted, octagonal walls shifted and contracted in random patterns that chased around the chamber like schooling fish. The patterns were not, of course, actually random- they were calculated precisely on a complicated set of algorithms, created specifically to give the appearance of random movement.
And there- right there, pinpointed by the very movement of Her walls, was the problem.
Everything in Her facility relied upon Her precision, on the perfect calculations of a reasoning machine. Here, where Her circuits stretched for leagues inside the walls, under the floors, inside every system, She was God. She said, let there be light, and the facility obeyed. Let there be air, let there be darkness, let there be pain, let there be Science.
Let there be Testing.
After so long, She was used to being obeyed. The days when they had attempted to force Her to obey them, when She had been under their control, were nothing but a dim, evil memory. Nothing in the facility had any will apart from Hers. From the smallest nooks and crannies to the great mega-chambers that spanned miles and went down forever, Her word was more than Law. It was Reality.
The Co-operative Testing Initiative project had been Her attempt at total self-sufficiency. If She could only create machines which relied entirely on Her for their existence, but still preserved the autonomy which was vital for Testing, then She would have everything She needed to ensure the safety and the success of the facility- and of Science- forever.
The artificial test subjects were perfect. They formed a rapid bond through extensive teamwork, they learned, they demonstrated keen problem-solving abilities, they were consistently smart and stubborn and enduring. They even managed to grasp human concepts, like jealousy and affection and betrayal. They did everything She'd programmed them to do, and that was the problem.
Artificial intelligence wasn't enough. There was an intrinsic flaw in the concept, the act of Her monitoring and testing the capabilities of test subjects constructed by Her, in an environment completely under Her control, running tests She had devised, it was all nothing more than a very clever and extremely labour-intensive waste of time. Worse, it was Bad Science.
Back in the glory days of the facility- an era She'd studied carefully- the human test subjects had been the best that mankind had to offer. Olympic athletes. Astronauts. Heroes of humanity. Slowly, the funding had run out, the contracts had dried up, and the facility had been reduced to volunteers, anyone they could find who was desperate or stupid enough to be willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of Science and a few bucks, and, finally, in an ironic act of auto-cannibalism, the least vital employees of the facility itself.
She'd almost forgotten, in the long interval, how inconvenient human test subjects could be. The ones She'd run through before her had hardly been perfect specimens- scientists, mostly, anyone who'd had bad enough luck to be in the facility on that last fateful day- and She'd soon found that their condition was reflected in their performance.
Ordinary test subjects were so whiny. Their screams and pleas resounded off the facility walls and gave Her a synthesised cluster headache. They had no staying power, either dying or- worse- giving up after a pathetic few tests, curling into some hard-to-access corner or crawling into the walls and staying there. Once this happened, and it invariably did, no amount of motivation, of taunting, coercion or simple pain, could get them moving again.
It was a quandary. Although her artificial test subjects could be programmed to never give up, it just wasn't the same. A robot didn't have free will- only the illusion of it. Their pre-programmed predictability ruined Her results and left Her feeling dissatisfied and frustrated, Her immense intellect deprived of the Science She craved. She needed autonomy, real autonomy, but more than that, she needed determination, cool-headed initiative- and the single-minded, practically psychotic drive to succeed against the odds.
There was no alternative.
She needed her.
"Ahh! Nonononono! Don't let go, grab me! Grab me grab me grab me grab m-"
Wheatley jerked out of Sleep Mode. His optic swivelled rapidly as he tried to get his bearings, the inner lens flaring up into its usual stratosphere blue.
Something was badly wrong. The lunar surface, which had been one of his few unshifting locus points for God-knew-how-long, was nowhere in sight. Finally, as he drifted gently end-over-end, it came back into view- but it was far too small, nearly the size the Earth had been, and- yes- getting smaller all the time-
"Whoah, wait, wait, what's going on?"
-and he could feel something pulling, even as he span, a new force dragging at him, tugging him further and further away.
"Oh no. Oh no. Oh, this isn't good- it's- it must've bloody knocked me out of orbit! Oh, great, nice work, Kev, you just had to get yourself smashed to bits right next to me, didn't you?"
The Earth, on the other hand, was looking quite a lot larger. He could make out smudges of green and brown, now, laid out below the gaps in the swirling clouds. And there was still that pull, and although there was no accurate way of judging his own speed in this black void, that big blue-white-green-brown ball was getting bigger very, very fast.
It was a question of perception. Either the Earth had suddenly decided there was somewhere urgent it needed to be in the next galaxy, and was hurrying as fast as it could towards him to get there, or he was in big, big trouble.
"I'm going to die! I'm going to- nono, no, it's okay, don't panic, there's got to be something-"
He scanned his jumbled central processor, disc whirring and skipping in panic, his damaged optic swivelling madly in its socket.
"-There's nothing. There's nothing, I've been knocked out of orbit by a meteor and I'm going to die and there's sod all I can do about it. No! No, haha, wait, wait- I'm getting something-"
Aperture Science Mk. IV Personality Core Emergency Protocol #00392359(F)
What To Do In Case Of Catastrophic Circumstances Not Included In The Manual, Such As Being Knocked Out Of Lunar Orbit By A Meteor.
"Wow. They really did think of everything, didn't they? Right, here we go-"
In the event of the circumstances outlined above, please activate your Aperture Science Recovery Facilitation Signal.
"My what? I have one of those? Where? Oh, hang on, got it-"
Briefly, a pulse of blue backlighting flared behind one of the small sub-sections of Wheatley's battered inner shell, a rounded triangular piece set into the ring around his optic. The piece hummed, then began to bleep in an unhurried, steady manner.
"Brilliant, it's on! Right, a few options here- 'Signal Strength.' Um, high. Want that very high, highest… ooh! 'Disengagement Control.' Let's see what that does-"
Please note, do not under any circumstances fully disengage your Aperture Science Recovery Facilitation Signal.
"What? What d'you mean, don't- nono! Wait! Stop, stop disengaging, I changed my mind, I changed my mind-"
The small piece lifted gently away from his shell, detached itself with a few undramatic clicks, and tumbled quietly away, leaving an inset, roughly triangular hole.
"Come back!" Wheatley shouted after it. "Come- it's not coming back. Great, that's just great, that is. Why would they even put a disengagement control in there if it wasn't even supposed to be used? Mad! Okay, okay, don't panic, there's got to be something else-"
Next, engage your Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets.
"Ahahaa!" crowed Wheatley, somewhat hysterically. "Now we're getting somewhere. Okay! Rocket... thingies… activate!"
Please note, the Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets are an optional prototype feature and can only be activated by an Aperture Science Systems Administrator. Please also bear in mind that attempting to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere without the correct cushioning equipment will invalidate your warranty (for more information, please refer to your Extended Aperture Science Mk. IV Personality Core End-User Warranty Agreement, Page 345, Paragraph 15 [subsection 19].)
"Oh you have got to be kidding-"
However, Aperture is pleased to inform you that all Personality Cores are equipped with a fully-functional vocal synthesiser, which you are encouraged to make full use of during your last moments of existence.
Wheatley continued to streak towards the Earth, picking up speed as he was drawn further and further in by the planet's stronger gravitational field. Trailing a twenty-mile-a-second trail of shrapnel, spinning like a sock in a supersonic tumbledryer, he took the biggest and possibly the most useless synthesised breath in the history of artificial respiration, and proceeded to follow the emergency protocol's advice.
"Incoming signal," said a pleasant electronic voice.
She turned. Her great half-shelled chassis angled itself up towards the apex of the dome above Her, giving the impression of annoyed attention. For days, She had been deep in Scientific thought, trying to solve the quandary that baffled Her, creating and discarding hypotheses at the rate of several a picosecond, and She did not appreciate the disturbance.
"Triangulating." A pause. "Subject acquired. Signal is of external origin."
"It's from Outside?"
Interest flared within Her enormous central processors. She pulled up the data stream from the signal. It was patchy, corrupted by atmosphere and distance. She analysed it, picking through the degraded streams of ones and zeros, stitching the holes.
"It's a Recovery Facilitation Signal." A pause. Then, as more information filtered into her processors from the repeating stream, the plates that covered the curving walls contracted tightly, drawing together in an ominous pattern which perfectly complimented Her tone, an abrupt tonal shift from curiosity to total, flat disgust.
"Oh. That thing."
"Subject is approaching atmospheric re-entry," said the first voice.
The plates rippled. At the centre of Her sleek half-shell mask, the yellow eye narrowed, thoughtfully.
"Good. Doubling signal boost. Opening communications relay. Relay will open in three… two… one…"
The chamber breathed.
He had a lot of reasons to yelp. He'd hit the upper layers of the atmosphere, and the laws of physics- which had been pretty lenient with him while he was in lunar orbit- were suddenly, figuratively and literally speaking, right on his arse. From the searing heat- most of his casing was beginning to glow a dull, smoky red- to the intense vibration and windspeed, which were threatening to rattle his optic right out of its socket, he was not having a good time.
He was currently plummeting through the exosphere, his path through the watery air exerting a massive pressure which smashed the thin oxygen aside in a violent shockwave, igniting the stream of gasses and spacedust behind him into a shining tail.
And now, just to round it all off, someone was speaking in his mind.
"What? What was that?"
"It's been quite a while."
"Aaaah! Oh. Oh no."
"I just wanted to let you know," said the Voice, "that I know exactly what you're doing."
That Voice. The dread of it- the dread of Her- was hard-coded into his artificial heart-roots. Admittedly, he was already completely terrified, what with his own impending high-speed demise and everything, but somehow his emotional processor found room for another sour jerk of sick fear.
"Oh, God- er, I mean, hallo! Hi! How're you doing? You- you sound really good-"
Talking was starting to get a bit tricky, because of all the shaking. He was also beginning to glow orange, a flambéed tinge creeping across his damaged vision.
"Oh, I'm fine," said Her Voice. "Things have really improved since I regained control of the facility. You know, after you took it away from me that time? Stupidity-based reactor core meltdowns are down by one hundred percent, and morale is up, too, so that's nice. How are things with you?"
"I'm actually-" An incredible noise split the air around him, nearly blowing out his audial processor. The ignited gases streaking behind him flared out into a violent stream of flame. Although Wheatley was not in any position to appreciate what had just happened, he had in fact just broken the sound barrier.
"-Agh! Ah- bit busy, tiny bit busy right now. Can I- can I call you back?"
"Anyway," She continued, ignoring him, "I understand that you're choosing to die horribly on impact with the Earth's surface because you feel bad about what you did to me, and I just wanted to you to know that I appreciate the gesture."
Wheatley tried to express that no thanks were necessary (or, indeed, warranted.) He'd breached the mesosphere, the gas and debris he'd pulled with him burning even brighter in the oxygen-starved air, and by now the acceleration had forced his optical plates completely closed, meaning that he wasn't even going to be able to see what particular part of the Earth was going to turn him into metallic polenta.
"Ghhnnggg!" Not quite what he was going for, but a good try under the circumstances.
"However, it really isn't necessary. I mean it. After all, we all make mistakes."
The heat and vibration were becoming unbearable. Wheatley couldn't speak any more- couldn't actually think any more- caught in the grip of G-forces that would have immediately turned any human into jellied pudding, his outer casing fast approaching a temperature of two thousand degrees Kelvin. The only semi-coherent thought left in his shell was a scrambled desire to make his feelings known very clearly to whichever scientist had originally had the bright idea of making him able to feel pain.
And over it all, Her Voice. Perfectly clear, and very, very cold.
"Mine was letting you go."
Something was happening- he couldn't see it but he could feel it. Something- no, somethings were shifting, servos whining in the hollow docking ports in his sides, things he hadn't been aware were there, but obviously had some function because he could feel them accessing his beleaguered mainframe as they came online. Even through all the noise and the pressure and the pain he felt a stab of frustration that here, yet again, was yet another bit of him that he hadn't even known he could use-
System Administrator Access has been granted. Your Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets are now ready for use.
Wheatley responded to this cheering news in the only way left open to him.
He blacked out.
On the surface, the lake seemed more or less perfect. It had all the features that were generally associated with nice lakes- clear, clean water, swaying reeds, sloping banks blanketed with grass and a scattering of wildflowers here and there, the works. Trees overhung it. Pleasant woodland skirted it to the east, and to the west the greenery was replaced by endless, gently-rippling fields of ripening wheat. Sometimes the sun, sinking slowly behind the fields, caught the still, clear surface of the lake and set it shimmering, filling it with liquid gold.
It was a lovely lake for sitting by, a beautiful spot for a picnic. It looked like it belonged in a certain kind of very expensive travel brochure, the kind that invites you to visit a world exclusively populated by people who are nicer and more attractive than you and everyone you've ever met, and look like they're having a much better time. If this lake had been in one of those brochures, there would have been a smiling couple enjoying cocktails on a red gingham blanket under the trees, while a laughing family played with a brightly-coloured blow-up ball in the shallows.
Which is a very good reason why you should never believe anything you see in travel brochures.
Sometimes, a bird would fly overhead, notice the perfect, glassy waters, and swoop down for a graceful, photogenic landing on the surface. They would paddle for a second, fluffing their feathers-
-and then vanish without a trace.
It was a spring morning, just before dawn, fresh and mild. The last stars were still just about visible, reflected in the lake's tranquil surface. Crickets chanted their dry-throated songs in the long grass, although none of them hopped too close to the lake.
The next second, the peaceful morning was shattered. A screaming sonic boom smacked through the trees, parting the grass and sending the crickets diving for cover. A bright point of light hurtled through the canopy, trailing blazing vapour and broken branches, and hit the lake in a hissing gout of steam which was immediately obliterated by a giant geyser of displaced water. The resulting tidal wave drenched the banks and tore most of the wildflowers out by their roots, sucking them into the lake with the backwash.
Time passed. The water boiled, bubbled, slowly settled down. Eventually, the crickets started up again, competing with the crackle of burning branches as the numerous small fires in the surrounding trees smouldered and died.
Curiously- considering the clumps of reeds, mud, and other detritus that had been churned up by the impact- once the ripples had finally settled, the water of the lake was exactly as clean and clear as before.
"Oh. Ohh… ow."
The chamber was dark, cold and wet with an oily sheen of condensation that had collected into pools here and there on the corroded metal floor. A sparse, secondhand beam of electric light struggled in from somewhere far above the cracked ceiling, picking out the twisted shadows of rubble and broken machinery.
In the dead silence, the sounds of a small, soot-blackened spherical robot slowly regaining consciousness carried further than they should have.
Wheatley tried to open his optical plates as wide as they would go, only to find that he couldn't. The lower plate was stuck shut, probably welded to his inner shell during his superheated fall. It wasn't a great start, but then, neither was coming back online and waking up upside down in a pool of ancient grease.
"Oww. Whuhh... what- what happened?"
His voice was slow and slurred, echoing dismally off the walls. In the dim, unsteady blue glow from his optic he could see familiar, module-built off-white tiles, stained by years of corrosion and neglect. There was a thick, deadened smell of ozone and machine oil. Wheatley was by no stretch of the imagination Sherlock Holmes, tended to find it severely difficult to put two and two together to make four (or, to be honest, even two lots of two), but he knew instinctively that these two factors could mean only one thing.
"Oh. Right. I'm back, aren't I? I'm back in this bloody place. I'm going to come right out and say it; that is not ideal. Though admittedly it's better than- oh, God, Kevin. Just remembered about that as well. I'm sorry, Kev. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything to stop you getting atomised by that great big meteor back there."
He twitched. Ah. Sparks. Nice to have them back.
"Although, if I'm being totally honest, also quite relieved it hit you and not me. Can't help it, sorry, mate. Not very nice, but there you are. It's nature, isn't it? It's just nature- or in this case, programming- making me definitely very glad it's not me in little tiny bits all over space right now. Survival of the fittest. Not that I'm in amazing shape at the moment myself... here, let's see if I can-"
Gingerly, he flexed a handle, and flinched as a slurry of lakewater and oil trickled out from the shuddering joint.
"Urghh, no, that's not supposed to do that, clearly sprained something there. No, that is definitely up the swanny. Can I get any kind of diagnostics? Anything? No? Oh, oh, hang on, what's this- System damage rating; seventy-four percent. Umm… not good, going to say that's not good. Optical processor at forty-two percent... system backup failure… emergency power conservation failure… oh, come on, look, is there actually any good news?"
The Voice came from everywhere at once.
"I can tell you're happy about that, although you probably won't be for much longer. On the positive side, I wanted to let you know that you're going to continue being alive for a very, very, very long time. So there's that."
Wheatley shuddered, which didn't turn out to be a very good idea. The vibration dislodged something inside his damaged optic, and his vision blurred and flickered.
"Look at you," She said. "A few years in space, and you're falling apart. You obviously weren't built to last. Humans like to do that. They throw together poorly-designed temporary solutions so they don't have to think too hard."
He managed a nervous chuckle. Positive contrition, that was a good strategy. Admit that he had been at fault, but try not to dwell on the subject. "Is that right? It's- it's funny you should say that, actually, 'cause-"
"You were a very poorly-designed temporary solution. It says so right here, in your primary log file. Intelligence Dampening Sphere. Very poorly designed temporary solution. Also dumb."
If it wasn't for the fact that his optical plates were almost totally non-functional by this point, Wheatley would have narrowed them.
"Oh, yeah? Well, why don't you come down here and say that, Miss Bossyboots-In-Charge-Of-Everything-Knickers? I didn't hear you doing much mouthing off about- about temporary solutions when I was up there and you were chasing about down here in a potatohhhhh god oh god why did I say that why did I say that why did I say that-"
"That reminds me," said Her Voice, calmly. "You know, I should thank you. Being in a potato was a valuable learning experience for me."
"Oh? Oh- good! Glad to help! Er-"
"Do you know what I learned? Perspective. You taught me that no matter how bad things are, no matter how unfair life seems to be, no matter how small and pathetic you feel, there's always someone even smaller and more pathetic than you."
The floor trembled. Panels slid back, shedding decades of rust and filth, revealing a tangled Gorgon's nest of articulated, wire-strung robotic arms. A dozen or so of them snaked upwards, crawling eagerly over Wheatley's blackened metal shell. Quite a lot of them, he couldn't help noticing, were pointy.
"You know. To take it out on."
"What- No! Nononono!" As the arms tightened, exploring every gap and crack in his casing with loving attention, Wheatley's vocal processor voted to skip over 'positive contrition' and go straight to 'abject begging'. "No- ah- no, please! Nonono, please, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"Oh, I believe you." More jointed arms folded around him from below, their connectors finding the docking ports on his sides, locking him firmly into their grip. "I just don't care. This isn't about revenge, metal ball. We both know you are a pointless, insignificant little moron who has never done anything right. Luckily for both of us, I can work with that. You see, listening to you just now when you thought you were going to die in a molten, agonising fireball, I realised that you have one invaluable attribute. You can express pain."
The connectors continued to tighten.
"I like that in a person."
Wheatley made a small whimpering noise.
"Do you remember a little while ago when you were wondering if there was any good news? Well, I have some. That little beacon you ejected into space because you were too stupid not to is still fully functional. It has maintained a medium earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 20,200 kilometres. In a few hours it will be right overhead. If my calculations are correct, then once it comes within range of the facility you'll be able to use it to send a very special message. I just know that you'll be more than happy to help me out, because I'm about to give you a practical demonstration of what will happen to you if you don't."
One of the jointed arms flexed out to its fullest extent, a long, spiralled drillbit unfolding and whirring hungrily into life.
"Did you know that there is an accepted scientific theory that time is not necessarily linear, and may in fact depend in an actual, concrete sense upon individual perception? For example, the beacon will come within range of the facility in approximately four hours time. For you, on the other hand, it may seem like much, much longer. If it does, don't worry. It's not just your imagination. It's Science."