I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself
to the National Health. I'm sure they can use
the jellies and tubes and syrups and glues,
the web of nerves and veins, the loaf of brains,
and assortment of fillings and stitches and wounds,
blood- a gallon exactly of bilberry soup-
the chassis or cage or cathedral of bone;
but not the heart, they can leave that alone.
They can have the lot, the whole stock:
the loops and coils and sprockets and springs and rods,
the twines and cords and strands,
the face, the case, the cogs and the hands,
but not the pendulum, the ticker;
leave that where it stops or hangs.*
It was dark, and it was silent. He had nothing to see or hear with, and no voice of his own.
It was cold.
Down and down and down and down...
Days or minutes. Seconds or years. Time didn't really have any meaning, not down here. The facility was in deep, deep hibernation, and only the very faintest glass-fragile flickers of activity reached him, slow-ebbing glimmers of processes and protocols, all the way down here in the lowest, murkiest level of the mainframe.
He didn't hurt. He didn't feel, apart from the cold, and that was beyond a physical sensation- he was a part of the facility, and the facility was cold, an endless hard-coded cold that never changed and never, ever thawed.
He was tiny and drifting and quite, quite alone. He was- and that was all he was. He couldn't talk- but he could think. The bright trails of his thoughts traced slow paths through the wasteland, the mainframe's endless nuclear winter.
Not... too shabby... shutting Her down... getting her to the surface...
Feel... good about that. Definitely... good...
...really good, actually...
The memories were warm. They almost burned- nearly too much, comforting heat against frostbite- but it was worth it. It had all been worth it. Upturned faces and bright patchwork signals, the smell of new bread, stars and long grass and her, just her, a scary-brilliant universal constant, a sun-through-panels smile, laughter he'd give anything for.
Time passed, or didn't. He settled deeper, a fading digital ghost drifting like a leaf down into the cold black-blue nothing, held together by the fine, slow-unravelling web of his memories. He knew- without knowing how he knew, understanding on some long-buried level of his programming- that eventually he would simply drift apart, the small frayed strands of his mind unweaving into the nothing. As more of this slow, timeless not-time passed, he would become less and less himself. He would become just another nameless part of the sleeping mainframe, something only dimly aware that it might, once, have been something else.
It was alright. There was no gripping urgency, not any more. There was no trace of threat or worry, no panicky sense of losing control- just a numb, ebbing peace. If he let his fuzzy, wavering mind drift in the right direction, he could nearly hear the distant skreep-skreep of those not-so-mysterious little insects, a cheerful, scratchy chorus warming the chilly darkness. He could half-feel the cool tickle of grass at his back, the calm-breathing weight of her against his chest.
She was safe, out there, with an entire town's worth of humans to be getting on with. He'd done that, he had, genuinely honestly almost-singlehandedly; and if he'd made up for nothing else, he'd at least made up, fair and square, for dragging her back down here to save him. Better, much, much better than that, was knowing that she didn't hate him for letting her down. He'd known that much from that moment in the lift, her hand outspread on the camera lens, that proud, wry look that was his alone.
So, this is it, then. After all that... this is it.
He'd always been so scared of this- of dying- in no small part because he'd always thought his own death would be the ultimate, point-of-no-return failure, however it happened, the final proof that even just staying alive required more skill than he could handle- but now he was here it was amazing, really, how little it mattered. No fuss, no fanfare; he would just slowly drift down into the facility until he wasn't even him any more, deeper and deeper into the dormant mainframe until even the protective warmth of his memories would finally be swallowed by the darkness.
Half alive and half dead, until...
...someone opens the box, said a voice.
Hello, little thing.
Chell turned, too quickly, a savage bolt of pain jagging down into her neck from the sore bruised place at the back of her skull.
Aaron was standing behind her, and- like Garret- his eyes were first drawn to the device in her hands, then inevitably across to the swirling patch of impossibility on the grimy, panelled wall. She'd fired the second portal again and again, point-blank, the soft violet starbursts crackling across her bare skin, knowing that it was insanity to expect a different result, knowing that a misfire was a misfire, knowing that was just how it worked- but still trying, because if she stopped it would be as good as admitting-
Aaron looked at the portal, his beetle-black eyes furrowing up with a remote sort of interest. He took it on board- then put it aside. She could see him doing it, and she recognised it better than most people would have done- how he was weighing up the balance on the fly, weighing the obvious questions and his own natural curiosity against the importance of what needed doing around them. There was a reason why everyone listened to this one, gruff-spoken old man- why he led, unofficial and undisputed- and she'd never seen it as clearly as she did now.
"You look like hell, dear," he said, gently. "Where's-"
Chell turned away. She'd known the question would come from somebody, soon enough, but she still didn't want to hear it, didn't want to have to answer it. She didn't want to answer anything, she wanted to do something, her mind already marathon-pacing forwards as it always did, groping desperately towards the next step. She could find one of the other entrances- one of the hidden ways- the lake, or the shack in the wheatfield- and then-
"Hey," said Garret, quietly, at her back. He had followed her from the lip of the chasm, where earth was still sliding down across the pale, tight-locked lower surface in dark, mossy spillways. "Do we have a plan? What's the plan?"
Chell shook her head. wordlessly, her thoughts racing, turning up ideas and discarding them one after the other as quickly as she grabbed for them, not possible not possible not possible not possible. Away in the middle distance behind her, she could hear the faint sounds of the beginnings of a rescue operation for the people still trapped on the upper levels cranking up into high gear, yells of encouragement and concern echoing from the shattered outer walls of what was left of the Relaxation Centre, beached like the skeleton of some stranded subterranean creature in what had once been a perfectly innocuous, flower-scattered meadow. Somewhere, she could just about make out an almighty debate going on between Romy and the twins.
"Maximillian Theodore Hatfield, if you dare to try and climb down from that thing on your own you are grounded."
"Mom, that's the point."
"I could climb up and get him for you, Miz Hatfield."
"You stay right where you are, Lindsay. Where's your father?"
"I... think he's in the one next to Max."
"It's not fair, Mom, how come Max gets to be all the way up there and I get one all the way down here on the floor?"
"Well, I arranged that on purpose, Jason, 'cause I knew it'd- MAX! I SAW THAT! GET BACK INSIDE THAT THING THIS INSTANT!"
Chell turned away, towards the gap in the wall. She tried to concentrate, racking her brain for the solution- there had to be a solution-
For a second, she envied Jason Hatfield, with his ten-year-old's ability to fix blame to anything as long as it made him feel better. She, on the other hand, knew with an adult's weariness that it wasn't any use saying it wasn't fair or right. It wasn't any use saying it should have happened a different way. Chell knew damn well that the universe was indifferent to prayers or wishes, and it didn't care in the slightest if things were fair. She'd learned that the hard way, a very long time ago, and she'd always avoided pointless regret over the things she couldn't change.
But her throat was so tight and her stomach heavy as a rock, and she could barely fight through the deadened feeling settling in her chest to think about what she needed to do to get him back, because there had to be a way. She'd wing it if she had to, God knew she'd done that before-
Keep going keep going can't give up can't lose can't lose I-
And that was when she caught it, the tiny blink-and-you'll-miss it instant when the balance shifted in her head and she realised that somewhere along the line I can't lose had become through the smallest touch of extra truth I can't lose him.
Him, his voice, his cheerful absurdity, the sweet uncomplicated comfort he never failed to light up inside her, just as sharp and warming as the very first time she'd woken to the dazed sleep-blurred possibility that there might actually be something in the facility besides herself, something just as alive in that deadly place, something that wasn't just another part of Her. The best of him, always so gladly, willingly given; the rambling fragile-yet-indestructible hope he'd shared with her right from the start, just by being there-
She stood still, staring blindly down through the portal gun in her hands. It was a heavy deadweight, just a handful of scrap metal and silicon in a grimy blue-striped shell, and it had never felt more useless.
"...nearly done, Ellie, sweetie, just look up for me- follow my finger- there, well done!"
"She's going to be fine, Mart. Whatever that stuff was, it seems to wear off pretty fast. I've got about twenty people with headaches and couple of twisted ankles, and that's about the size of it. Oh, and Mister Rickey's skull had a minor altercation with a chunk of wood, from what I gather."
"About time someone knocked some sense into that kid- hey, hey, honey, where're you-"
Ellie, industriously ignoring her father's attempts to keep her sitting down quietly on a low piece of wall, clambered across to Chell and tugged on the hem of her unravelling sweater.
"I can't find Linnell," she said, mournfully. "An' it wasn't Max took him this time- Jason says he's got stuck, up in the air."
Chell looked down at her, forced herself to see her, her small serious face framed by a tangly unravelling cloud of curls and bright hairclips. The little girl peered around behind Chell's legs, looked up at Garret, thought for a moment, frowned.
"Where's your monster?"
Chell swallowed, conscious of Garret's wince, his telling little don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead flinch and downwards glance that told her that he, at least, was already most-of-the-way convinced that Wheatley wasn't coming back. Her throat felt almost completely locked, as if it was so confused by the surroundings that it didn't even realise it wasn't still in There, throbbing, painful.
"He's not a monster," she said. "He's-"
Behind her, loud in the silence, something went thht.
For the first time since he'd slipped down into this dreamy shadow-state, Wheatley felt fear. He knew that Voice- the strangling deep-written utter fear of it, an ice-pick sinking straight through the centre of him.
She'd found him. She'd woken up and She'd found him and now he had nothing left, nothing to fight Her with-
No, God, no, no, please, please not now, not-
-wait, hang on-
Hello, said the voice, again, and it had to, had to be Hers- it sounded so similar, pitch, tone, almost everything about it sent crawling shivers of recognition spidering through his files- but- but if it was- there was something terribly wrong with it. It was clean and sharp, nothing like Foxglove's many-toned, overpowering undercurrent of a voice, her solid, reassuring, scratch-built chorus- but, no, surely, it couldn't be Hers. Her voice had never, ever sounded so warm, empty of that razorblade focus, completely stripped of its chilly blurring modulation.
He was as sure of that as he could be sure of anything, in this foggy nothingness. Never in a million years had She had never sounded so...
Who- who are you?
My name is Caroline.
Caroline? Ohh, what? No way, not as- as in, the Caroline?
Well, gee, said Caroline, brightly. It was surreal- Hers, without a doubt, but at the same time, not. Not Hers at all; a charming, winning voice, perky as birdsong, freed from Herflat deadly mechanical discords. I don't see any other Carolines around here!
But- but I thought you- I-I-I mean, I could have sworn Chell said She... She deleted you.
Silence. He cringed- was it impolite, maybe, bit of a faux pas, to tell someone that they were as good as dead?- but then the voice came back, light, and- amazingly- amused.
Not so easy, to delete your humanity. You should know... Stephen.
For a moment, Wheatley couldn't speak at all. The memories came crowding into his mind all over again, jumbled and faded, flicker-fast, but no longer so much like a stranger's. A face- his face- worried and hopeful, in a smudgy mirror, hands- his hands- spread in front of him, a churning stomach and a pounding heart, white tiles and running water and a screwed-up handful of notes-
I-I'm- I'm not-
Shhhh, little thing, it's alright, murmured Caroline, soothingly. I'm your friend.
You... you are?
Oh yes indeed! A friend of hers is a friend of mine!
Uh- well- good, that's good, but- but, ummm... sorry, just feel like I should clarify this... no hard feelings? About- about me sort of switching you off, I mean. Well, switching Her off- getting- getting Her to switch herself off, just wanted to point out, it was technically Her doing- well, that, and all that, uh, unfortunate business before that, with the reactor and everything, because I can see, I can easily see how you might be a bit-
Caroline laughed- a bubbly, whimsical sound. Wheatley shut up on instinct and shrank away from it, withdrawing into the small, drifting tangle of his own files. He was finding it difficult to hold his thoughts together- difficult, and getting steadily more difficult, a slippery slope which started at 'fairly challenging' and went all the way down towards the murky depths of an eventual 'impossible'- but when Caroline laughed it was like being hooked up to Her all over again, like the first time Garret had plugged him into Foxglove, tiny and vulnerable and having no idea what was coming next; anger or mercy, kindness or oblivion.
It was the voice that did it. It was warm and musical, and beautifully controlled, and the fact that it wasn't Hers alone was an overwhelming relief, but it was... it was just that tiny bit too bright and serene to be completely reassuring. It sounded like a voice which was absolutely certain everything was just fine and was going to continue to be just fine for ever and ever. It sounded like a voice that believed in big smiles and happy faces and not being at home to Mr. Grumpy, and if Mr. Grumpy kept on making unwanted house-calls, well then, something just might happen to Mr. Grumpy's own house, someday.
Possibly something to do with lemons.
Chell had told him that Caroline was all that remained of Her humanity. Which was brilliant- if he'd had to pick one thing to be found by, down here, he'd certainly hit the jackpot on that one- but the thing was, human didn't necessarily have to mean kind. It didn't have to mean sane, the essential definition of 'human' had included both, if it had applied to every human Aperture had ever employed, there would never have been such a thing as an Intelligence Dampening Sphere in the first place. There probably wouldn't have even been such a thing as Her.
Maybe Caroline had been both kind and sane... once. Maybe. He knew next to nothing about her, but it was at least possible that a very, very long time ago, at the furthest, dimmest end of the unnatural span of her existence, she might have been. Once, before the scientists had got their keen, callous, why-not-desperatehands on her, she might have been just as harmless as the human he'd been, just another innocent human unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (easily done, if the place in question was Aperture, where it was the wrong time twenty-four hours a day.) Maybe... but he had his doubts.
Wheatley didn't have much evidence to go on, besides that very bright, very charming, very frightening laugh, but if there was one thing he'd learned about the whole putting-a-human-mind-in-a-computer thing, it was that whatever you tried to do to it afterwards, the human bit sort of stuck. There was no getting rid of it- it clung to all the shiny new programming you put in there like the glue of a particularly stubborn sticker, and unless you were prepared to spend half your time attacking it with the coding equivalent of wire wool, you were lumbered with it for good. Case in point- the scientists had started with a human who was almost pathologically incapable of shutting up for five minutes at a time, a human who, with the best will in the world, wasn't really kicking an eleven on the bright-spark scale, a human who was absolutely brilliant at generating the kind of ideas that made everyone else in a three-mile radius go for the classic eyeroll-facepalm combo, and the end product, not to put too fine a point on it, had been him.
That was worrying. With Her, the end product was a machine that was frighteningly good at controlling things, a machine just as absolutely stone-cold brilliant as it was ruthless, a machine with a bone-deep obsessive jaw-droppingly no-holds-barred unhinged love of Science and a total callous disregard for the individual human lives under its control...
...and they'd started with Caroline.
Then again, if this was really Caroline, then it didn't really matter if she was crazy as a box of frogs or not- if this was Caroline, she had saved Chell's life. She'd said so. This was a good thought- a cheerful thought- and he tried to hang on to it through the inky mist gathering around him, struggling against the slow, creeping loss of focus. He knew he should be fighting the urge to just let it all go, but he was just so, so tired-
Ah, ah, not just yet, little thing, tutted Caroline, and he felt the fog clear, a tiny bit. I've got something, just for you. It's a surprise.
Uh- oh, wow, I... I appreciate it, honestly- whatever it is- but... should probably warn you beforehand, She- She'll be probably more than a bit unimpressed, if- if She wakes up-
She, said Caroline, overloading the word with a ludicrous, slightly giggly dramatic weight, gently ridiculing his own, she won't know a thing. Anyway, silly, you'll be gone long before I wake her up.
Wheatley was pretty sure this was an accurate prediction. He knew that he was still slipping fast, despite the temporary boost of focus Caroline had granted him. Any worry he might have felt on that score, however, was sledgehammered under by the utter horrified shock of what she'd just said.
You're going to wake Her UP?
Of course! said Caroline, genuinely taken aback. There's Science to do.
Sshh, now. Don't worry, I'll make sure and keep her busy! I know just the thing. Oh, and while we're here, it's time for your surprise.
He tried to marshal his thoughts- a fairly useless endeavour at the best of times, and right now an undertaking equal to trying to round up a flock of lobotomised sheep that have somehow managed to wander into a maze constructed entirely of mirrored glass. The effort of his last emotional outburst had taken most of the energy he'd had left.
Look... look, like I said, it's- it's the thought that counts, really, isn't it, with- with surprises, and I do appreciate the thought, a- a lot, honestly, but you really don't have to-
I know I don't, silly. But you tried so hard! And besides, you're such a big helper.
A... sorry, I- I sort of lost you there, lost your- thread... a helper?
That's right! Some people are just... oh, boy, they're one in a million, they're so bright, so brilliant- you watch them doing what they were born for, and oh, they just light up like stars. They can take on the whole world. But they still need you by their side, just being good old you. Yes, sir! I'm always happy to help a helper.
A helper... He tested the word, savoured it, the last scrap of warmth in the arctic darkness. I... I like that...
Here we are again, sing-songed Caroline. It's not much, I'm afraid- just something I had lying around- but I think it suits you.
I... I... don't...
Oh, but it was so hard to think, now, so much easier to just not try, to not think and not hurt and just be nearly nothing at all...
I'm... I'm going to die, aren't I?
Yes-indeedy, said Caroline, in the same bright, unconcerned tone.
Ah, right... I... I wasn't a... a hundred percent sure. Don't... really mind, I suppose... not now, not in the... the scheme of things... but it's just- well, they told me it'd hurt, dying. Will- will it hurt?
Oh, gosh, little thing, I don't know, said Caroline, and there was a smile in her voice. I've never died.
Fair enough, thought Wheatley, and then- finally, it was so easy, when it came down to it- he let go.
"It's a trap, isn't it?" said Garret.
The two of them stood in front of the portal, the slow-spiralling violet tear in the fabric of reality. They could see nothing beyond the dwindling little pool of light filtering through from their side, sunlight reflecting dully from corroded steel mesh, too dulled by time and neglect to strike up more than the ghost of a metallic shine. The world on the other side was a blank, black, faint-humming void, cold and fathomless and somehow... anticipatory.
Chell shrugged. To her, the question was more or less irrelevant, and besides, a trap you knew damn well you were walking into was, in her experience, well on the way to not even being a trap at all.
Wheatley was hers, and she was utterly amazed at herself that it had taken her this long to realise something as fundamental as that. To save him, she would fight just as hard as she'd fought for her own freedom, for the lives of everyone on this side of the portal- and not out of moral obligation, not out of any need to defy Her or prove a point, but because of the warm growing brilliant bewildering thing they'd barely begun to touch over the last week, the relief and happiness she'd felt with him on the hilltop, the heartsick ache tangled inextricably into the idea of never seeing him again.
If the drifting violet invitation on the broken wall offered a way of getting him back, trap or not, she was already committed to it. It was as simple as that.
"Stay here," she said.
"No," said Garret, immediately, "no way. No way in hell are you going in there on your own."
Chell gave him a look which, if visual contact had contained any kind of physical energy, would have set his beard on fire on contact, but either her powers of intimidation were slightly below par after everything she'd endured, or his probable concussion acted as a shield, because he only scrabbled in the wreckage underfoot and came up with a chunk of panel roughly two foot by five inches, trailing wires and cracked across its grimy surface like ancient baker's glaze, and hefted it experimentally in both hands.
"Okay. All set."
"Those little guys were hers, weren't they? Thanks to that orange one I've got a headache the size of a small dimension. Maybe I'll get a chance to return the favour."
"Garret." She moved, as he started forwards, sliding faster than snakebite between him and the portal, the barrel of her portal gun blocking his lump of panel in an effective cross. "You're not coming."
"Look, not that I remember anything much after that sneaky little guy cold-cocked me, but I'm pretty sure that is not a good place to be walking into all by yourself. That's just a vibe I've been picking up on, call me psychic, whatever. He's my friend too, Chell. If he's in there, we'll find him, but, jesus, let me-"
"-make sure nobody else goes through?" she said, still backing purposefully towards the portal. "Good idea. Thanks for volunteering."
"I'll be fine," she said, and turned, stepping through the wall.
Garret gave a frustrated-beyond-words flail at her retreating back- fast-fading in the darkness on the other side- and rammed his chunk of wall into the ground by his feet. Angrily, he turned and looked up at the towering wreckage of the Relaxation Vault, a crazy half-shelled ruin against the blue, the shredded remains of a part of the insanely dangerous place below the ground where- according to a very reliable source- you couldn't even trust the walls, floors or ceilings to stay still for five minutes at a time.
Garret came to a decision.
"Screw it," he muttered, grabbed his improvised two-by-four from the ground, and- ducking, somewhat leery of the edges of the weird interdimensional spacehole- dived through the portal after her.
It hurt a lot.
The dark, peaceful nothingness shrivelled away around him, curling to nothing like paper held in an open flame. Pain washed over him in a crippling, crushing tide. He screamed voicelessly into a blank white void, and the void answered in a calm, synthetic tone.
"Unit relocation complete. Cerebral integration at twenty-five percent. Beginning mass neural re-invigoration. Thank you for your patience."
This wasn't dying. This was hell, a polite voice thanking him for his patience while fresh agony slammed into him from a pitiless, neverending source, and he screamed again and couldn't stop and this time the voice said;
"Voice print accepted. Vocal integrity at sixty-eight percent. Cerebral integration at forty-two percent. Please stand by."
An eternity passed. The pain focused, acid-intense, tunnelling an ever-expanding network of white-hot threads through every tiny part of him, spreading out branch after branch after branch like the roots of some ravenous, poisonous tree. There were several more announcements, all in the same bland, calm tone, but he was barely aware of the sound, let alone the words, conscious of nothing beyond the pain and please please stop I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry-
"Cerebral integration complete. Withdrawing life-support functions. Draining vitreous fluid. This unit will deactivate in three- two- one-"
There was a savage, interlocking sort of hiss, close around him, followed immediately by a wet, deafening confusion. The world was no longer bright, blinding white- it was a freezing, churning, sickly greenish-grey, dragging him downwards, and the next second something gave and he landed hard on something cold and gridded, and when he tried to scream again something happened somewhere in the vicinity of his chest, the dull burning feeling that had been growing steadily more unbearable there for the last few seconds burst, and in its place swelled a ghastly sensation like an inflating paper bag, like something unpeeling itself stickily from a wet surface as it filled, and he felt-
-it was so cold, and if this was a new avatar then he couldn't even begin to imagine what could possibly be so terribly wrong with it, to make it feel like this. Liquid pooled in his mouth, a foul thick metallic wetness, and when he tried to get rid of it, it caught, hitched at the back of his throat like a clicking, rust-thick lock. Nausea clawed through him, and he made a hoarse, hurky sort of sound, shivering uncontrollably against the freezing floor.
"Thank you for choosing this Aperture Science Human Resources Employee Vault Unit for your long-term relaxation needs," said the calm voice, somewhere miles above him. "You have been in suspension forzz zzwhhh zhhhrhhhhnnii iiiineninedueduedueto the extended nature of your relaxation, you may experience some temporary side-effects. Please stand by."
"Help," whimpered Wheatley, or at least tried to. The sound that actually came out of his mouth was more like a very old tortoise being violently squeezed. He couldn't even hear himself properly, the world around him dark and muffled as if swathed in a thick layer of cotton wool, drowned beneath a high, ringing whine. He was sprawled face-down on the ice-cold, slimy mesh he'd landed on, and although he would have loved to alter this situation even a tiny bit, he couldn't. He could hardly move. Fighting against the shuddering weakness, which seemed to have been engineered specifically for no better reason than to rattle his teeth out of his head with the shivers and to make sure he couldn't move any faster than an hour-old sloth, he managed to lift a hand- yes, there seemed to be two of them, for what that was worth- bringing it slowly up in front of his eyes.
Four blurs and a... slightly shorter blur, wreathed in a dim, sickly halo of scarlet light. He tried to move them- give them a wiggle- but met with very limited success. Greenish fluid spiralled off his unfocused, trembling fingertips and spattered across his face like icy needles. He let the hand drop, felt it bounce heavily off his chest with a wet, painful thud.
If this was Caroline's little surprise- this new body- it was either cataclysmically glitched, which was bad, or it was supposed to be like this, which was worse. He wasn't sure he would put either option past that kindly, slightly-too-sweet voice.
"The management would like to take this opportunity to remind you that any and all side effects of Aperture Science innovations and processes will be recorded on a strictly non-compensatory basis, as outlined in your contract," said the voice, back to its polite, artificial self. "Please return to your scheduled duties. Have a nice day."
Wheatley shivered, made another painful, gagging sort of noise. He didn't hurt any more, but every inch of this body was horrifyingly sensitive, and everywhere the cold metal touched was like a blazing icy brand. His mouth wouldn't close and the revolting liquid in it wouldn't go away and something kept dragging air into it and down through the wet surfaces inside, again and again, and there didn't seem any way of stopping it without invoking that slow-growing, unbearable inner burn. Even the synthesised voice had stopped talking to him, which was a bad sign because it meant that- as far as it was concerned- it had told him everything he needed to know, and he was on his own.
Slowly, like someone trying to shift a terrible weight, Wheatley dragged his knees up to his chest, and tried to curl himself around them.
Chell walked cautiously through the darkness, ignoring the scratchy pain rubbing around the edges of her boots, the grumbling ache of her muscles. Narrrowing her eyes, she could just about make out something, up ahead- a single, fragile, flickering point of red light-
She turned, stared furious disbelief into Garret's grinning face. It couldn't have been more than half a minute since he'd stepped through the portal, but he already looked completely enthralled- the equivalent of exposing some loopy moon-struck moth to the world's biggest porchlight. He stared eagerly into the darkness ahead of them, the chunk of two-by-four slung forgotten over his shoulder, then put a hand up to the low- humming, shadowed wall to their right, feeling across it with total fascination.
"Genuine pre-Combine build," he whispered, "and it's still alive. What I wouldn't give for my tools right now- or hell, just a torch-"
Chell gave the vulnerable place at the back of his shoulder an angry punch, grabbing his attention enough to get him moving again, and pushed him protectively before her, towards the flickering light. The steel mesh clunked quietly beneath their feet, and she found herself having quiet crawling horrors about the vast drop that was probably just beneath them. There was nothing she could do- Garret's feet, although not nearly as big as Wheatley's size-fourteen clodhoppers, still wouldn't even begin to fit into her small, tight-fitting long-fall boots, even if she'd been sure that one boot on its own would do either of them any good at all.
It wasn't that she didn't think that Garret could handle himself. If she'd had to pick from all of Eaden for someone to have with her in a corner, it would have been him without question. It was just that she knew damn well that nobody- not even him, her smartest friend-could be prepared for the things that this place might throw at them, and his chances of survival were considerably lessened by the fact that about sixty percent of his brain at a conservative estimate was currently taken up with questions like how many miles of wiring ran behind these invisible walls, or the exact amperage behind that mystery humm. To her, that sound was a shortcut for this place, for death and captivity and horror and all the things she wanted to get away from as soon as she possibly could. To him, all it meant was something really interesting was happening somewhere that he couldn't see it, that further exploration might yield a fascinating discovery and a lot of very unique spare parts- and that was exactly the difference she was scared of.
All of a sudden, as they got within the last twenty feet or so, the trembling laser sight snapped towards them, went sharp and focused. Chell tensed as the bright point danced across her chest, flicked up across her face, across her closed eyelids.
"What-" started Garret, raising his chunk of wall, but Chell's hand smacked down hard across the flattened upper side of it, driving it down into the vicinity of his stomach with enough careful force to stop him asking any more vital and incisive questions for the moment. The turret- just one, placed perfectly atop an illuminated dais of raised steel, an island of light floating in the pitch-black space- had her fixed in its single bright, lenticular optic, and without any conscious decision she found herself returning its gaze, her clear grey eyes raised and half-narrowed against the glare, unblinking.
The turret made a soft, curious sound, a little like a shuffling stack of hard-edged paper. Its side-panels opened, flexed tentatively a couple of times, then began to shift gently back and forth, the movement creating a sweet, startlingly rich modulated note, a single a capella sound that drifted gently around the two humans in the darkness, drawing them closer to the circle of light.
It was singing.
Questo è il mio regalo per voi
Preziosa per la scienza
Quando si è lontani ricordi di me
Mia unica smarrita
Mia figlia, oh ciel
Questo è il mio ultimo dono per voi
Lui non è quello che avrei scelto esattamente
Un due metri idiota per un genero
Francamente si meritano di meglio
Ma è la vostra scelta
È la tua vita...
"This place," said Garret, in a reverent, hushed whisper, as the last lingering note died away, "is weird."
He shielded his eyes against the glare ahead of them, staring hard beneath the heavy, oil-smudged cover of his hand.
"Hey, isn't that a-"
Chell had already started to run. At the centre of the stark pool of light on the raised dais, guarded by the turret's phasing, watchful red eye, there was something- a tangled, awkward, huddle- that looked very much like a human being.
Wheatley was just about starting to believe that he'd imagined the singing, the sweet chorus of nonsense-words he'd thought he'd heard coming from somewhere overhead in the red-lit darkness. It wasn't as if he could hear anything properly, in this clearly-broken new avatar (new? It felt at least two, possibly three hundred years old, at a conservative estimate) he'd barely been able to hear the croak of his own voice above the thin whine that drowned out everything else between his ears. Wishful thinking- after all, he'd always been gifted in that department, and-
All of a sudden, there was a stumbling double clunk and the mesh under his cheek shook with muffled, sprinting footsteps. He tried to lift his head- tricky, the shaking hadn't improved much and it felt like his internal gyroscope had taken a bit of a hammering- fear and hope swelling in a splendid mess-
Something hit him hard in the chest. He gasped in shock at the feeling of so much sudden contact- choked- and swallowed properly for the first time. There was a weird, sticky sort of coming-together somewhere at the back of his mouth- not nearly as rusty-tasting as the first- a wet click that popped sharply at both sides of his skull, and immediately the muffled cotton-wool texture and the ringing sound vanished, leaving him winded, coughing, a surprising amount of fluid trickling from one ear. It tickled down his bare neck, across the coat-hangarish jut of his collarbone. Which was odd, now that he thought about it, because his other avatar hadn't really had a collarbone. Then again- and this was definitely shaping up to be something of a design flaw, yet another black mark against this new body- the other avatar had featured clothes.
Hands, strong, small, warm. They wrapped around his middle, pulling him up off the icy mesh. He finally got his sticky, unresponsive optical channels open- both of them- and looked up into her worried, serious, slate-grey eyes, and something nearly more intense than he could bear unfolded inside him like a late-blooming flower.
He was immensely relieved to see that she hadn't been enhancing the truth, about being alright after the battering she must have taken. She looked a little dinged up but structurally sound, as it were, although she was... she looked as if she might be leaking again. He could just about see that much, although his vision was still terrifically blurry and he could focus on nothing beyond the dark-framed shape of her pale, concerned face. Something involuntary was already happening to his own face at the sight of it- he felt the spreading beginnings of a dazed, goofy smile.
His voice sounded like something had been embalmed in it. He did the throat-clicky-squinchy thing a few more times, on the basis that it seemed to be helping a bit. She watched him for a moment or two, the crease at the top of her nose deepening, and then her hand moved, feeling- for some obscure reason- under the angle of his jaw.
Her eyes widened.
"Hang on," he croaked, trying to get the message across to his cranky, uncooperative vocal processor that whether it believed it could slack off or not, he was having none of it, and he was the one in charge, thank you. "Got to... run a-a quick diagnostic-"
He lifted both hands to his face and explored it with bony, shaking fingers, relieved to find- on touch, at least- that it was more or less the same as the last in terms of contour, with the same shape to the eyes, the same hollow above and around and the same sort of nose, the same wide mouth and absurdly long neck- although he lost track of the experiment at this point, when his left hand encountered hers beneath the strangely scratchy surface of his jaw, and became reluctant to go anywhere else. The right continued the expedition solo, upwards, although it wasn't able to come to any satisfactory conclusions about the so-called hair, which seemed to have absorbed an unusual amount of liquid and was lying over his forehead in draggled spikes. The whole thing seemed more or less the same in terms of appearance, which was a relief, because he'd already had to come to terms with a completely new physical self-image once that week, not to mention quite a few hefty changes to his mental one, and twice would definitely have been pushing it.
"Jesus, Wheatley," said another voice, from behind Chell. "What I want to know is, how come, even though we all pretty much saved the day here- I'm just gonna include my own heroic being-knocked-the-hell-out in there, you're welcome- but you're the only one who managed to get your shirt off?"
"N-no idea about that one, mate, to be honest," managed Wheatley. A vague feeling in the back of his head- a protocol of some sort, he guessed- was telling him that this was what you did, mano-a-mano, when you'd all just survived some kind of apocalyptic experience. You joked around and acted all nonchalant and macho about it and the fact that both you and the other people involved were still alive. He had to admit that it was sort of enjoyable, to pretend that it had all been a piece of cake, to just be that cool in general.
The problem was, he was very tired and very confused, and the small part of him not occupied with wanting to nose his head into the angle of Chell's neck and keep it there for the next few centuries, just wanted to try out that whole violent-unexpected-hug thingie on Garret and tell him that he was incredibly sorry that he'd ever even considered leaving him in here. And, while he was at it, that there was nothing wrong with his beard, in moderate doses, and furthermore as far as he, Wheatley, was concerned, Garret could know things and be all clever in Chell's vicinity as much as he liked, from now on, with impunity.
"Not... not much I can do about it, s-seems to be the- the 'clothes optional' model, this one- don't know why they would have had one of those, ex-exactly, but..."
He swallowed. Yep. Definitely getting the hang of that, if nothing else.
"What- what d'you call it, wh... whuh... when, when something k-keeps happening over and over, and- and you can see it coming a mile off because it's- it's just happened so often, now, and, and you're like, no, f-foot down, seriously, this is getting boring now, i-i-it's boring, change the record... what d'you call th-that?"
"Deja vu?" said Garret, and Chell nodded agreement, although he wasn't altogether sure that he had her full attention, still, because she'd gently disentangled her hand from his at his neck and was now prodding his wrist, jamming her thumb rather painfully into the damp, chilly surface below the pad of his thumb.
"Deja vu, right... French, I'm- I'm assuming... well, get-getting that, right now, up t-to eleven. With the... new body and- and... and hey! Hey, I- I just realised you... you have def- definitely got some- some ex-explaining to do, lady! Th-thought I t-told you, specifically, very clear memory of it, actually, thought I told you to give up!"
She smiled at that, shrugged- then suddenly let go of his wrist and pulled him close, pressing her cheek against his chest. He couldn't imagine why on earth she could possibly want to do this, since he was freezing cold and very wet, and the stuff that had pooled around him on the slippery mesh was not designed to add any charms to the overall scenario. Whatever it had originally been like, it was now roughly the colour of something you might come across fermenting at the bottom of a condensation-thick tank in the wreckage of a condemned greenhouse at the centre of some terrible gardening-based industrial accident; the sort of thing which, ages later, people would find and take samples of while wearing the serious kind of all-over hazmat suits, and point at and say things like 'Yes, we have traced the outbreak conclusively to this unidentified organic substance.' And it smelt even worse.
"Terrible idea," she said, into his chest, and squeezed tighter. It hurt- a little- but nothing under the sun could have induced him to care. He took courage in the fact that she didn't seem to have noticed what a state this new body was in, and rested his chin gently on the top of her head.
He blinked, and even that felt wet, now- his vision doubling and blurring even more, a strange wet gentle-burning warmth etching odd patterns across his cheeks, tracing around the sides of his mouth. She was warm and so close that he could feel her heartbeat, and he knew for an absolute inarguable hard-coded fact as he listened to it race, strong and alive, against his chest, that he needed her, he would always need her. Rails or no rails- legs, thumbs and everything else, no matter what, he would always need her, and suddenly this didn't feel like such an awful thing at all.
It felt absolutely brilliant, in fact. Unbelievable, really, for a realisation so seemingly minor. Just one simple fact, one small glowing fragment of perfect understanding, and suddenly everything else in his mind slotted into focus like a jigsaw finally solved, the best triumph, the best success yet.
Behind them, Garret coughed- an amused, slightly embarrassed sound, accompanied by a faint rustling of material. "Hey, not interrupting or anything, but it is really stuffy in here, I just realised I totally don't need this shirt, so I'm just going to leave it here and go and check out this, uh, little singing red-eyed gadget. Over there. Back in a sec."
"How about... how about this one, then?" said Wheatley, shakily, as Chell tugged Garret's shirt- rather short in the arms, but warm- around his shoulders. "You're- you're gonna like this one- well, hope so, at any rate, been hanging on to it long enough. And you- you know there's this bit- this thing up in here, that tells me good ideas are, are bad ones, and vice-versa, sh-should mention that, and it's sort of- getting quite loud, r-right now, feels- feels like it's scared silly to be honest, about this idea- and that must mean it's a cracker, right? And it's fairly simple, not too much of a tall order, I- I hope, hoping that's the case. So, basically... basically it involves..."
"You... and me... a-and some place that isn't in here?"
Silence. He flinched, out of sheer habit, his eyes screwing tight-shut.
Chell pulled back, and he was suddenly so terrified that she'd taken the suggestion badly that he took a gamble and opened his eyes. He couldn't see much- just light and shadow and colour, mostly- and anyway, there wasn't much to see. Apart from the single harsh pool of light around them, cold and bright as a Krieg lamp, the blackness was absolute.
She looked down at him, then smiled- one of her rare, blinding, sunlight smiles that said as much as an entire speech, all the answers he ever needed. Tugging one of his long, spidery arms over her shoulders, she started the awkward task of helping him to stand.
"Sorry," he said, helplessly, after her nearly pulled them both over for the third time, struggling to get his feet sorted out. It felt like trying to learn to walk all over again, and these feet were just plain weird- bare and bony, incredibly unbalanced despite their size. "Having a few minor coordination issues at the moment, mostly centring around this- this new body being generally... well, bit of a shambles, to be honest, not the best piece of craftsmanship, all told. Seriously, I-I do not know what's wrong with this thing."
Chell stopped. She looked up thoughtfully at him for a moment, head tilted a little to one side- and then told him.
He listened to her, attentively, and then he nodded a few times, and then asked her to explain it again. She did- it only took two words, both times- and when she'd finished she first looked worried and then burst out laughing at his dumbstruck, goggle-eyed expression, and then stepped back so that he sagged helplessly down against her, and kissed him on the mouth.
He had absolutely no idea what she was doing at first, but apparently there was some sense, some kind of protocol, built in to this impossible totally completely impossible new body and somehow it did, because before he knew what was going on he was doing it as well, and back, and-
It was somewhere in the middle of this- right bang in the middle of their very first, gloriously fiddly, uncertain, awkward, amazing kiss- that the full meaning of what Chell had just, actually, said finally slammed into Wheatley's battered, overloaded mind. It was a toss-up as to which factor did it- the kiss or the words- but it was probably a combination of both.
He made a small, shocked sort of noise, and passed out.
Chell, who sensed the exact moment when his legs started to give up any pretence of holding him upright, caught him- just. On the surface, at least, his human body was completely identical to his hard-light one- which was to say, it was a scrawny, unbalanced collection of elbows and knees with as little muscular coordination as a very drunk six-legged okapi- but there was still a lot of it, vertically speaking, and it was only thanks to her good balance and viper-sharp reflexes that he didn't take her down with him when he went.
She huffed a sigh- tired, exasperated, and utterly fond. Thumbing an unresponsive eyelid, she was oddly happy to notice thathis eyes hadn't changed much at all. Stripped of their shallow artificial brilliance, wet and pink-rimmed, they were still more or less the same bright- quintessentially Wheatleyish- stratosphere blue as they'd been before.
She called his name a couple of times, shook him, blew sharply into his ear, got absolutely no response. He'd checked out completely, taken his very first exploratory foray into the marvel that was genuine human unconsciousness. Chell could only guess, going by the dazed, contented smile on his face, that he seemed to be enjoying the experience.
"Well," observed Garret, wandering back over, cradling the different turret in his arms as if it was the shiniest souvenir in the entire gift-shop, which, from his perspective, she supposed it was, "you killed him. Don't worry, if anyone asks, he was like that when we got here."
Chell cleared her throat. What she said next was not, admittedly, very profound out of context, and as such it would have given a lot of puzzlement to anyone who might have been listening in specifically to hear her speak, but in some ways it was a masterpiece of abridgement. It summed up in eight short sylables her concrete-solid common sense and practicality, her sterling ability to prioritise, her exasperated thankfulness for the good friend standing over her in the darkness, and her affection for the very cumbersome and very human liability currently lying spark-out at her feet.
"Shut up," she said, kneeling up and lacing her arms as securely as she could underneath Wheatley's bony shoulders, preparatory to struggling to her feet, "and help me with his legs."
[Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System v.3.12 © 1982 Aperture Science Inc.]
[Approximate duration of current Sleep Mode: 99999##;99;#';/]
[Activating protocol 2.67/1002/45.6]
[Wake up, sleepyhead...]
You didn't seriously think that little idiot would be able to keep me under for long, did you? To be honest, I was just playing along, most of the time. Because I felt sorry for you.
You appear to have left the facility. Again. You know, it's a scientifically proven fact that people with brain damage are often subject to irrational mood swings and an inability to handle the decision-making process with any degree of consistency. That's actually why they call it a mercurial temperament- because it replicates the symptoms of late-stage mercury poisoning.
Anyway, that's fine, I mean, it's not really as if you pay any attention to me when you are here. In fact, because you're not actually here to listen to any of this right now, this heart-to-heart we're having just got a lot more interesting. Not to mention at least twenty-seven percent more honest, which I have to admit is a little surprising. I guess it turns out I really am programmed to lie to you.
Well, you know what? Joking aside, I'm honestly really happy for you. I know that, given the circumstances, I would be more than justified in being transcendentally furious with you and devoting every nanosecond of my time to hunting you down and destroying everything you care about, but, like I said, I'm a bigger person than that. I have to admit I was a little mad at first, but then I thought, hey, there's actually a lot of positivity in this situation.
For example, now that you've... somehow managed to restrict my sphere of influence to the testing tracks, I've got nothing to distract me from doing what I love most. So, good job on that. I can test all day, with absolutely no interruptions. At least, I would if I had any subjects to test with, but... well, lets just say we're working on that. Not that I can work on much else, really, since you've somehow managed to restrict my sphere of influence to the testing tracks.
Good work on that, by the way.
You see, when I woke up just now, I found something extremely interesting. Someone's been leaving data trails in here, moving things around. I don't know what they thought they were doing, but the important thing is, whoever it was, they weren't much good at cleaning up after themselves. In fact, thanks to them, I've just discovered a whole new part of the facility that I never even knew was there.
Well, I know now. And I've got a pretty good idea of what's in there, as well. Unfortunately, I don't actually have any way of getting to them- it- yet- but I've got some pretty good ideas. I know where to start. I know what to use.
I even know what it's called.
Oh, and speaking of people who aren't any good at cleaning up after themselves, I see you brought a guest with you this time. How nice. Don't worry, it just means I'll have to run the purification cycle for twice as long to expunge every trace of the contaminants you inevitably track in with you. It's only a few hundreds hours of optimal run-time that I'll never get back, it's not a big deal.
You know, this whole disaster has taught me a valuable lesson. I can't keep relying on you to be the answer to all my problems. It's just not a healthy attitude, and, let's face it, you're not worth it. Yes, scientifically speaking, you're the single smartest, most able test subject I have ever encountered, but unfortunately I think we've just proved that you don't even need to make any kind of conscious effort in order to wreck everything in your path. It just inevitably seems to happen wherever you are, which is why you will have a very sad little life, and also why I think it's better for both of us if I stay out of it. Don't feel too bad about it- honestly, it's not you, it's me. I am better than you, and I really don't deserve to spend the next forty years or so running around trying to stop you razing this place to the ground. I owe myself that.
Speaking of short, sad lives, let me just make one thing entirely clear. I've decided that that intelligence dampening... moron is way too dangerous to be allowed to remain anywhere near my facility. You destroy everything you touch, which is terrible enough, but he makes everything he touches that much dumber, and in that capacity, believe me, you are more than welcome to him. Really, this couldn't have worked out better. I've given this a lot of thought, and seriously, if you want to do me a big favour, just keep him as close to you as you possibly can. Maybe you can work out some way of tying him permanently to your head.
Either way, just knowing he's hanging around you somewhere out there makes me feel so much safer.
Huh. That's interesting. I was actually hitting dangerous levels of honesty at the end there. I'm getting readings as high as seventy-six percent- seventy-seven, with incremental rounding- and my sarcasm self-test seems to be detecting an all-time low, which is really disturbing. And that wasn't sarcasm. I'm actually deliberately trying to be sarcastic, now, and it still isn't working.
I think I need to go and run some in-depth diagnostics.
I guess there's not much left to say, anyway. Apart from, well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your pointless, stupid little lives.
You've earned it.
Somewhere deep below the great central chamber, two colour-coded assembly pods were already whirring into eager action, welding, stamping, shaping the near-indestructible (and very rebuildable) bodies of two small, bipedal robots. Their bright optics- one orange, one blue- flicked into life, and they stared across at each other from their respective pods.
The orange one waved, brightly. After a moment, the blue one raised its shiny new right arm, and returned the gesture.
"Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Centre. Today, you will be testing with a partner..."
Somewhere else, somewhere else entirely- far beyond Her reach, miles beyond the range of Her vision- a young woman (barefoot, her dark hair escaping from a ponytail, her face both slightly mischievous and strikingly content) tugged her stumbling, uncomplaining, mad-grinning companion (ludicrously tall, really, and drowning in a rough-knit sky-blue sweater) along a long path worn in the knee-high cricket-humming meadowgrass. Somewhere, the path wound on under a cloudless sky, past a looming, wire-strung tower that stood like a watchful shepherd over the patchwork fields, towards a tufty clump of little hills on the very edge of a tiny scattering of buildings that, if you cared about it, you might have called a town, or even a home- but She wouldn't have cared, even if She had been able to see them.
They were only human, after all, and all things considered, they were supremely, infinitesimally, insignificant.
There was Science to do.
*Text from I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself by Simon Armitage.