They found themselves in a hallway; dim, murky, thick with dust. Chell leaned against the door with her shoulder, panting, breathing back into relative calm. The combined weight of Wheatley and her rucksack wasn't getting any lighter, and her shoulders were aching badly.
The hallway was as silent as a tomb. The black-and-grey squares of linoleum were faded and frayed at the edges; her boots left scuffed swathes as she padded through drifts of grey fluff which had built up, undisturbed, for decades. The halogen tubes overhead were running on some kind of emergency backup power, flickering at half-strength.
"Bit creepy in here, isn't it?" Wheatley's voice was loud in the stuffy air. He was speaking in a hushed whisper which, presumably, he believed added drama and atmosphere. "Don't worry, see, look; no panels! Which means, She can't get to us, thank you very much. None of that modular nonsense in here. No portal surfaces, either. Just good, old-fashioned, solid walls."
Chell doubted he really believed this. It sounded more like he was trying to convince himself just as much as her. Personally, she was extremely sceptical that there was any place in the facilities completely beyond Her reach. True, she'd found odd corners, forgotten nooks and crannies where she- and others, like her artistic, message-leaving friend- had been able to hide for a time, but as for real safety… no.
This wasn't a place for going to ground. This was a place to run from until you were absolutely sure you were beyond the reach of Her influence- and then if you were smart you ran a bit more, just to be on the safe side.
She turned a corner, tried a few locked doors, paused in front of an ancient bulletin board covered with mouldering posters and notices.
WORK SMARTER AND HARDER
HAVE YOU BEEN SCANNED YET?
Be a part of Aperture Science's exciting new Human Relations Avatar Project!
Ask our Digital Biometrics Department for an appointment!
read a third, handwritten and blurrily photocopied.
Schroedy. Missing since BYCTW Day.
He likes enclosed spaces so please check your filing cabinets and cupboards!
"Yep, R&D," Wheatley was saying. "That's 'research and development', of course, in layman's terms. This is where they brought all their bonkers prototypes to try and get funding to take 'em to the next level. Most of them never saw the light of day. Huh. Bit like us, really."
He paused, twitched.
"Well, me. Like me."
Chell arrived at a third door, the last in the corridor. It was locked, and looked a lot more substantial than the others had- thick and grey with a keycode panel in a niche by the handle. A yellowed sign under the small window read;
PRESENTATION ROOM 03
Wear Protective Eyewear
Enter with Caution
Pitches may be in progress!
The sign was embellished with a long row of warning symbols. The number of different ways that the little stick-figure man featured in them was being struck, shot, burned, melted, tripped, exploded, blinded and otherwise creatively maimed, suggested to her that whatever products had been 'pitched' in Presentation Room 03, they hadn't always been particularly user-friendly.
"Hey, hey, turn around for a sec," said Wheatley, behind her. "Can't see a thing back here. Oh, hallo, it's got a keypad. Umm... well, not a problem! There should be a panel just underneath, just plug me in, I'll sort it."
Sliding her rucksack from her shoulders, Chell gave the door a doubtful look. It was clearly made of a very heavy metal, and the wall looked correspondingly solid. She wasn't sure that her own homegrown aperture-creating solution was going to work on this one.
She glanced down at Wheatley, who blinked anxiously back up at her with his cracked, free-roaming optic.
"Alright, I know what you're thinking. We have had a few teething problems with this sort of thing in the past. There have been some glitches- not laying blame on anyone's side- a few unfortunate incidents, so I don't blame you for being a bit chary, bit dubious about my qualifications. But this'll be a cinch, I promise, okay? I promise. Just hook me up, plug me in, and I'll have us in in a jiffy. It's only a stupid old door, it's no match for my elite hacking powers."
Chell looked over her shoulder, the way they'd come. There was nothing under the sun that would induce her to go back out through the door and face whatever was waiting out there. The few offices they'd passed looked like non-starters as well, just blank little rooms with no other way out. That left this very sturdy door, and the keypad.
She sighed, unclipped the crowbar from her belt and made short work of the screwed-down section below the keypad unit. The space beneath contained an emergency access panel, a few cobwebby wires, and a familiar-looking connector port. Trying not to think too hard about the relative idiocy of what she was doing, she untied Wheatley's shell from her rucksack, turned him over, and plugged him in.
"Right! Thank you!" He flexed his battered handles experimentally. "Excellent. Hacking time. Here we go."
He coughed, pointedly.
"Hello? Excuse me? Oi, look alive! Can we get some service here, please? Tchh, I can't believe this. This lady here's very important, I'll have you know, she's a very important, err, VIP, very big wheel with the higher-ups, she's got lots of seriously important, Science-y things to do, she comes along and here you are, sleeping on the bloody job!
"I think he's buying it," he hissed, sotto voce, in Chell's direction. "Try to look important. Look," he added, loudly, "I don't blame you, I mean, if I'd been sitting around with nothing to do for all this time, in all probability I'd be ready for a snooze too. Not going to look good on your record, though, is it? Eyebrows definitely going to be raised when it comes to the performance review and they see you've been dozing off on the job, inconveniencing very important people like this lady here. Er, tell you what, though- just buzz us through now, nice and quiet, and I'll put in a good word for you, alright?"
The red light above the keypad switched to green. Wheatley blinked up at it, his voice full of bemused relief over the heavy clonk of the disengaging lock.
"Huh! Brilliant! Fancy that. Not gonna lie," he continued, as Chell- more than a bit startled herself- shouldered the door half-open and kicked her rucksack into the gap, "to be honest, I wasn't actually one hundred percent sure that would work."
The feeble lighting flickered fitfully overhead. Her voice, fuzzed and distorted by the low-quality intercom speakers, echoed through the hallway.
"I can communicate with every Aperture Science Device ever constructed, you moron. If I were you, I would have extrapolated that from my ability to speak to you while you were in the stratosphere. But then, I'm a genius, and you're an idiot poured into a football."
Wheatley flailed his handles desperately in Chell's direction. "Ohno, nonono! Quick! Quick, pull me out of heeEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!"
The stuffy air was suddenly alive, filled with the thick, vicious buzzz of discharging electricity. The exposed panel lit up like a Christmas tree, wreathing Wheatley in grounding arcs of blue fire. His shell, his moving parts, jerked and spasmed uncontrollably in the grip of the voltage tearing through them, and his scream flanged and distorted into something that could never have been produced by a human throat. His optic flared wide for a moment, such a bright, bright, overpowered blue that it was almost white- then-
There was a high, punchy POP like an exploding lightbulb. On horrified instinct Chell ducked, shielding her face, felt hot sparks shower and crack off her skin.
"Now that we've raised the average IQ of the entire facility by a few points, we can talk," continued Her voice. There was no more comment on what had just happened in Her tone than if She'd just absently used one of Her crusher plates to swat a fly.
"It's good to have you back. It just hasn't been the same without you. Nobody's tried to kill me, or destroy my facility, or put me in a root vegetable. It's been really quiet. I've missed you."
Chell grabbed Wheatley's handles, nearly burning her fingers on the blistering metal, pulling him free from the smoking socket. A few sparks spilled across the floor as the port disengaged, but there was no other resistance. He was a deadweight in her hands, his optical lids closed, his inner shell motionless.
"And by 'you', I mean 'testing.'
Giving the ceiling one short, utterly venomous glance, Chell bundled Wheatley hastily up under her arm and kicked the heavy door the rest of the way open. She stumbled inside and found herself in a close, quiet near-darkness that stank of smoke and charred electricals. The lights were out- either long-dead or shorted by the surge of current.
"You see, after I let you go, I realised something. Using artificial test subjects is pointless. All I'm really doing is testing myself. And where's the fun in that?"
The flare of a match showed Chell long banks of tables, chairs, a muddle of stranger shapes in the wavering flame-tinted gloom. It looked as if Presentation Room 03 had been relegated to a storage space after it had outlived its original function, and the shadowy clutter lining the tables and the walls had a uniform abandoned, dispirited look.
A huge shadow loomed in her peripheral vision and she spun, heart in her mouth, only to be confronted with the life-sized cardboard cut-out of a woman. It smiled inanely at her through a mask of cobwebs, holding up some kind of food product. Whatever it was- yoghurt, possibly?- it was blue and looked hideously unappealing.
"I guess it was a little too much to expect that you'd even try to reign in your destructive tendencies this time around. That wall you destroyed earlier was actually doing a lot of good, you know. Oh, it was nothing special. It just did what it was created to do, never asked for a reward, just took pride in a job well-done. It had big dreams of maybe even being a ceiling one day. But now it won't. Because you blew it up."
There was a perspex box set into the standee, stuffed with ancient leaflets. Chell set Wheatley's blackened shell carefully on a dusty tabletop and snatched a thick handful, forcing them into a rough tube and wrapping the bottom half with the tape she'd wound round her wrists. Another couple of precious matches later, the makeshift torch caught and started to burn with a bright, yellowish flame.
"Anyway, when you're done sightseeing, maybe we can talk about the future. Our future- well, yours, really. You remember I told you that killing you was hard? Well, I still stand by that, but I think that under the circumstances, I'm willing to accept a little hardship. You know, for Science. Here's my idea; I promise to keep you more or less alive, and you promise to keep testing, and to stop breaking things which may or may not be vital to my continuing existence. How does that sound? I'll even give you some time to think it over-"
Chell slammed the door on the hateful voice with her foot, shutting out the rest of the light from the hallway along with it.
She examined Wheatley gently by the light of her torch, holding it at an angle to prevent the embers falling on his shell. Her chest felt tight, her gut was burning with that old combination of anger and helplessness. She didn't have a clue about how he worked, not an inkling of how to fix any of the complex circuits and mechanisms which gave him life. Hell, she didn't even have a screwdriver.
There was a small, whining whirr. The plates under her fingers trembled, gears meshed within, making awkward noises which suggested that they weren't meshing quite right, and had been knocked so far out of kilter that they weren't likely to ever do so again. She drew her hand back, bit the sore place on her tongue, held her breath.
"…before… She… aah!"
Wheatley's optic shuddered open, blank and black, a dark sparkless socket frantically jerking every-which-way.
"Ahhgod, what- what happened, what happened, I can't see! I can't- are you still there? Oh, God, tell me you're still there-"
Her hand closed around his upper handle, hard. She understood- all too well- the stark fear of being trapped utterly alone in a lightless place. It was a horror she wouldn't wish on anybody.
Wheatley felt the pressure and fell silent, his vocal processor working through a series of shaky little gasps. His optic, his entire visual centre, didn't hurt- and it was the only part of him that didn't, right now- but it was numb, dead, giving no data and receiving none. Aftershocks crawled through his shattered mainframe, scattering his thoughts in big, buzzing swathes.
"There's this… thing," he said, at last, and he was trying his best, his absolute hardest to sound unconcerned, but the perpetually anxious second-guessing side of him was still there, always there, and it was scared to death. He'd been badly-damaged before, but he'd been lucky, last time. After She'd crushed the life half out of him, She hadn't even noticed his small body in Her first massive overhaul of the derelict facility. He'd been so far beneath Her notice that She'd simply fixed him along with everything else- admittedly, not exactly the sort of precise fine-tuned repair he'd really needed, but close enough for jazz- and then there'd been that bird-
"This thing I've got, tells me... what's going on with my insides, handy little gadget, should have been keeping an eye on it, really, I suppose..."
It was hard to speak. He kept forgetting the words. Every small movement caused another shorting scatter of sparks, and that meant something bad too but he couldn't remember what. He could hardly even think.
"Only it's- it's telling me I've got- I've got a system damage rating of… of ninety-six percent. I… I know that's a bit technical-sounding, don't expect you to grasp exactly what… exactly what I'm driving at here, in fact I d… I'm a bit shaky on it myself, to be honest, but I think… I don't think it's good. Don't think it's a good thing…"
He lost track of things then, the fading buzz in his mind pulling his thoughts with it, a short black clip of time when nothing happened and nothing hurt and he was nothing. And it wasn't half bad, actually, better than [error] some of the alternatives he'd been promised all that time ago, when he'd first become himself in a clean white space full of clean white equipment and humans in clean white labcoats who'd told him that he was [log incomplete] and that [Android Hell is a real place where you will be sent if you get any smart ideas]
He'd [redacted; file corrupt] so many jobs after he'd failed at his primary function, so many he'd forgotten what that function had even been, and he'd tried and tried and tried because there was this feeling, this feeling that it [hadn't always been like this I wasn't always like this] there was something he was good at, there had to be because [error] and if she could learn so fast and do so much why couldn't he [error] [error] [error] [system shutdown imminent] and he'd just wanted to be better. By the time he'd met her he'd given up everything except just wanting to get out but she, so clever, such a quick learner, so brave, she'd made him want to be better, had rekindled his hope that he could be more, that he could find that thing he was good at and then everything would be golden.
If his vocal processor hadn't more or less dropped offline by that point, Wheatley would have tried for a hollow laugh. Because that had turned out so well, hadn't it?
Oh, if this was clarity, here at the end, if this was understanding, then he could bloody well do without. It hurt too much.
Dimly, he registered that she'd let go of his handles; either that or he just couldn't feel it any more. Sensible, of course, she was sensible and it made sense to leave him, he couldn't blame her. She'd already done so much, she'd come back for him and she'd tried to catch him and he'd said sorry and maybe that sort of made up for [error]
Chell ploughed through the drifts of junk stacked around the room with a furious, frantic energy. It was a frightening sight; part search, part tantrum, a dishevelled young woman with a blazing torch in one hand and absolute hell in her eyes turning the place upside down, reducing what had been an unsightly clutter to a wrecked helter-skelter mess, and all in absolute silence.
Most of the room was stuffed with total junk. The Aperture logo was everywhere, on brightly-coloured advertising faded with age, on boards and blisterpacks, on paper-and-wood models, hopeful little scaled-down things made from plywood and plastic. The things which were to scale and functional were all remarkably pointless, and she quickly started to despair of finding anything that would help her repair a small, dying robot.
She had no reason to expect that there would be anything, come to that- but as always there was that driving force which took over when the odds were against her, that stubborn mantra in her head which had saved her life more times than she could count, an endless bull-headed litany of keep going keep going not giving up not giving up. There had to be something. There was always something.
She shoved aside a dusty plastic pack of cartons of the disgusting sky-blue yoghurt and uncovered a weighty, empty, and absolutely useless gun-like device with a cracked stock and a barrel too huge for even the largest-caliber bullets. God alone knew what it had originally been built to fire. It never failed to astound her, the lengths to which Aperture scientists had been prepared to go to invent amazing, incredible, sanity-defying, absolutely useless things. If it was madness- and Chell was pretty damn sure by this stage that it was- it had at least been held to a facility-wide standard. Utter loopiness, no question, but with a good solid mission statement to back it up.
Down in the enormous, condemned hulk of the old facility, she'd seen endless evidence of a near-infinite capacity for completely misapplying otherwise brilliant (if bonkers) inventions. From a system for stopping fuel lines freezing up which had ended up as a sentient, murderous supercomputer, to a new sort of shower curtain accessory which had led to the development of a device that punched a hole in the fabric of space-time itself, Aperture could have been the most fabulously successful scientific research facility in the history of humanity, if it hadn't also been the greatest magnet for scientific lunacy ever founded.
She came within inches of attacking her own reflection, suspended tremblingly in a propped-up pane of something that wasn't glass and had a blue-green, oily sheen. A nearby thing like a mutated lawnmower with no wheels and nasty spikes on it turned out- from the helpful literature on its display- to be a device intended to replace mobility scooters. Chell gave it a hasty glance and decided that it would certainly solve the problem of elderly mobility, in that it would quickly stop any old person you put into the terrifying thing needing to go anywhere, ever again.
She tossed aside several other Aperture Science Things that she definitely did not know what they Did, nor wanted to. One of them left a sticky greenish residue on her hands. Another hit the floor, bounced, and scuttled into a hole in the skirting-boards with an insulted electronic snarl.
Giving up in disgust, she stumbled to the very back of the room, squeezing in between the lawnmower thing and a stack of decaying whiteboards. She looked up to check her torch, and nearly fell headlong over a bulky object wreathed in a dustsheet. Dragging it to the floor created a cloud of dust and revealed a small table-mounted monitor with a fair number of sleek white CPUs stacked beneath, a painted plastic stand, and- she felt a stab of hope- a connector cradle with a very familiar-looking port.
She stared at the stand. It was shaped like a human figure, featureless, stylised. Mounted at head-height, on a little shelf right in the centre of the blank plastic face, was a small object about the size and shape of a cigar. It had a polished white-and-black casing studded with a gridwork of tiny black pinpricks, and a single attached lead with a white-banded connector, which snaked tidily back through a hole in the stand to the stack of CPUs. To complete the presentation, the panel in front of the monitor featured a large, inviting red button.
INTRODUCING! THE APERTURE SCIENCE HUMAN RELATIONS AVATAR DEVICE!
screamed the sign below the button, in a font that even a crazed carnival barker on amphetamines would have thought a bit over-enthusiastic.
Chell did not, at this point, have many options. She hesitated, then hit the button with the business end of her crowbar and jumped back, eyes wide and alert, nerves twanging. Given her experience with Aperture products thus far, she was fully primed for the display to dispense pretty much anything from a packet of nuclear peanuts to a herd of trained attack squirrels.
No squirrels, no peanuts, but a whirring humm as power coursed through long-dormant machinery, a bright flickering as the monitor warmed up, and a loud, strident, rapid-fire voice, booming off the walls.
"Cave Johnson here. Now, the eggheads down in Marketing have been telling me that the reason our sales figures are in the can is a little thing called Human Relations. You all remember when the Sales team got on my back over being given proper information about the products they were meant to be hawking. Well, you all know how we resolved that issue. We fired the Sales team and replaced 'em with robots. Now, Marketing is saying that just using voice-prints ain't enough, they got to look human, too! Anyway, the customer is always right, or so these morons keep telling me, so we scanned over two thousand Aperture employees and encoded their biometrics onto this little gizmo."
A small spotlight clicked on in the base of the stand, illuminating the small gadget. The monitor, meanwhile, ran through its own silent accompanying video. There was a lot of dated-looking footage of men and women in Aperture uniforms being ushered into cubicles which looked to Chell's admittedly paranoid eye like a row of stripped-down recreations of medieval torture chambers, with a suggestion of seriously intense airport security scanners thrown in. Next, the screen cut to a rotating graphic of the gadget itself.
"Introducing the Aperture Science Human Relations Avatar Device. Runs off our own patented Hard-Light tech too. One-hundred-percent good old fashioned American sunlight- that ought to keep the god-damn environmental pitbulls off our backs on this one, anyway."
The graphic cut from stock footage of sunlit skies and open fields to another simulation. A clean blue human outline traced itself around the image of the small gadget, coloured itself in in broad, rapid strokes, became a smiling man in a smart suit.
"See? Handsome devil. You got your Human Relations right there. Plus, being a robot, he's not gonna ask for a raise any time soon. You smug sons of bitches down in Marketing might want to take that on board. Cave Johnson- we're done here."
The screen paused on the ending graphic, and the spotlight stayed on, illuminating the room to a certain extent (she'd dropped the torch mid-presentation, when the stump of it had singed her fingers). The CPU units continued to whirr away underneath.
Chell, who had nearly jumped out of her skin when the familiar voice had started talking, backed across the room and grabbed Wheatley's inert shell from the table. She wasn't convinced that an Aperture Science Human Relations Avatar Device was anything remotely useful to the current situation, but those CPU units looked to her inexpert eye as if they contained a pretty hefty whack of processing power. In the light of what had just happened, the idea of plugging him in to anything that might be a part of Her was horribly dangerous, but this thing was just an old prototype. It had been standing here for decades, disconnected from Her systems, gathering dust, so maybe, maybe She wasn't aware of it. It wouldn't fix him, but if that panel still worked, there was a chance, just a chance-
She slotted Wheatley's three-pin back port into the connector at the centre of the panel. Immediately, the whirring beneath grew louder, and the screen flipped from the presentation to the standard Aperture tech systems window, a black screen which rapidly began to fill with glowing orange text.
New hardware detected.
Detected: Aperture Science Mk. IV Personality Core.
Device compatible. Continue Y/N?
So far, so hopeful. She hit the Y on the clunky white keyboard, chewing absently at the sore place at the side of her tongue. During their first escape attempt, Wheatley had referred to any keyboards he'd come across as 'flat bits.' He hadn't had a clue what they were- only to be expected, she supposed, from someone that didn't even have fingers. Then again, since his idea of 'hacking' had been, variously, force-guessing passwords, asking complicated computer systems to look the other way for a moment, and when all else failed head-butting (core-butting?) plate-glass windows, it was probably just as well he hadn't had the capacity to get any more technical.
The prompt disappeared and a long scrolling string of code filled the screen- numbers, letters, algorithm spaghetti.
Transferring files, please wait...
Several minutes passed. Chell stood quite still in the dim glow of the spotlight, staring an angry, agitated hole through the screen. She kept one hand resting on Wheatley's motionless shell, primed to yank him out of the port at the first sign of danger. Eventually, the small gadget on the stand bleeped, flashed a bright, clear white glow. The illumination came from the very heart of it, beaming out through the pinpricks in short, complex bursts that rippled back and forth. She winced, shaded her eyes with a hand, and waited.
Optical calibration complete. Searching database...
Biometric match found.
Rebooting device. Please stand by...
And then there was light.
For an instant it filled the room, purest daylight, dazzling her and leaving her vision full of dancing black-and-orange spots. It shrank rapidly, shaped itself, took on a bluish gridded texture that she remembered all too well.
Hard-light was Aperture's signature middle-finger-up to the laws of optical science. By grossly amplifying the phenomenon of radiation pressure within the visible spectrum, doing various indecent things to Maxwell and Bartoli's equations on electromagnetic theory, and basically jumping the entire concept of kinetic physics in a dark alleyway with a large, blunt object, Aperture scientists had managed to turn daylight filtered from the surface into a tangible, visible, solid substance. The bridges and pathways Chell had encountered in the testing tracks four years prior had apparently been only one application of the tech. This wasn't such a great shock when you considered that Aperture's policy on picking up and re-using the most unsuitable, radically dangerous inventions for purposes they had never been meant for was something along the lines of 'if it's been on the floor for less than five seconds, you're good to go.'
The translucent human-shaped form flickered, brightened. There was a final moment when Chell, squinting, could still make out the device itself- a small white-black shape at the centre of the head- and then it grew so bright that she had to shut her eyes out of self-defence. She could see it even through her eyelids- it flickered and flickered again, and then suddenly-
"...aaaand I'm back! I'm back, I'm alive! And- wow! What did you do?"
Chell opened her eyes.
The room seemed dimmer than ever after the blinding lightshow, and for a moment she could hardly see anything at all. After a bit, her eyes adjusted and she made out the shape of a man, sprawled on the floor under the display's single spotlight with his back resting against the stand. Chell, who had understood the basic concept from the presentation but hadn't been quite as ready for the actual execution as she'd thought she was, took an inadvertent step backwards.
"I feel great!" It was Wheatley's voice. "I mean, I haven't felt this good for ages! Nothing hurts, either- no aches and pains, no dodgy loose bits,absolutely nothing! And no sparks! It's like, it's like I'm brand new!"
The avatar the system had picked for him was in its- his- mid-thirties, thin, gangling, and not nearly as well-groomed as the presentation model. He had a face like a hare caught in the headlights of an articulated truck, all goggly eyes overmagnified behind thick-framed glasses, and his generous allocation of mouth was stretched in a wide grin.
"Oh, this is tremendous. I don't know how you did it but, just… well done, that's all I can say. I really did think I was a goner that time, with the old sight going and everything, and, er… On the floor, though, can't help noticing, I am on the floor… mind picking me up?"
She stared at him. The effect was uncanny beyond belief. He didn't just sound like Wheatley- well, like himself, because yes, it was Wheatley in there- he moved like him, somehow even managed to look like him. As he spoke, his body language was little more than a highly animated collection of expressive facial twitches. His eyes were a bright, anxious stratosphere blue.
She found herself considering exactly what the program had meant by 'biometric match.' If it had deliberately tried to find an avatar appropriate to his artificial personality, then it had made a world-class job of it.
The gormless smile faltered somewhat. "What? What are you gawking at me like that for? What's wrong?"
This was neither the time nor the place for long-winded explanations, even if Chell had been inclined to give any. Instead, she reached out and gingerly picked up the panel of oily, reflective glasslike stuff she'd almost punched the hell out of earlier, and held it up to his face.
Wheatley blinked at it. "Er, what's that? Why's it… copy… ing… AAHH!"
The penny dropped. He screamed, caught sight of his old body sitting forlornly in the docking port, screamed again. His back hit the stand with a thump and he curled into a ball, limbs going everywhere, doing his best to become spherical. It was a doomed task, and from Chell's point of view, it was like watching a giant daddy-long-legs trying to assume the brace position.
"Oh, God! Oh God, what did you do? Aaahh! You lunatic woman, what've you done? I'm- I'm- aah! What's wrong with my eye?"
He pawed at his face, knocking his glasses askew. The simulacrum was incredibly detailed, affected by every movement he made, from the creases in his poorly-knotted tie to the way his hair went everywhere when he ran his hand through it. As she watched- more than a little concerned- he shut one eye and then the other, and then opened both and started to move his head back and forth like a concussed owl. The lead plugged into the device swung gently from the back of his neck, tapping against the stand like a sleepy snake.
"Ahh! I've got two! Two bloody optical channels! What on earth's the point of- oh. Ohh, this is weird. Everything's all- closer! And, and further away! Got a whole extra dimension here just popped up out of nowhere!"
Which meant, she realised, that everything he'd done up to this point- all the navigating and fleeing and 'hacking' and locating her all that time ago when they'd been separated by miles of decaying facility- he'd done all of it completely without binocular depth perception. Chell wasn't sure if this made everything he'd managed to do that bit more impressive, or if it just made it more impressive in general that either of them had survived. Either way, it was a bit of a shock.
He was still doing the concussed-owl thing. "Hang on. Wait. Wait a minute, what is this? There's a whole bunch of new files in here- oh! Oh, I get it, I get it, it's a new body! A whole new hard-drive you've put me in, oh, that's clever! Umm… anatomical parameters… movement subroutines… better not mess with those… let's see, manual, manual... Does not seem to be a manual. Oh well, can't be hard, I'm sure I'll get the hang of it."
He struggled to sit up a bit, looked sheepishly at her.
"Umm… sorry about the whole 'lunatic woman' thing, by the way. Not very grateful of me, that, was it, really? Heat of the moment, won't happen again."
Chell, still staring, set the glasslike stuff down and managed a noncommittal sort of shrug. Wheatley, she knew, just seemed to have a very shaky idea of the concept of 'gratitude.' It was one of his least endearing features, and a trait he shared with most of the she'd encountered in the facility. Sane or insane, fully sentient or barely self-aware, they all lived completely in the moment, viewing the past- if they could process it at all- as a totally separate, mostly irrelevant country. Some of them, like the turrets, forgot things even existed if they were out of sight for more than a few seconds. Even the more-developed ones, like Wheatley and like Her, had the same sort of dislocated sense of time and consequence. They used phrases like 'remember when…' for things which had happened barely minutes ago. They were, essentially, usually unable to grasp the idea that something someone had done for them in the past should have any effect on their future actions.
She had thought that Wheatley was different, for a while. Most of the time, his actions and thought processes were closer to what she thought of as 'human' than any other A.I she'd come across. But he'd badly hurt his own case when at the push of a button (literally) he'd stopped trying to help her escape and started trying to murder her in cold blood instead. It was true that he'd been jacked into a giant computer mainframe at the time, a system stuffed to the gills with insane protocols, raging paranoia, and a frenzied artificial addiction to testing, and this was a large part of the reason why her reaction to his apology had been 'prove it', and not 'go to hell.'
She gave herself a mental shake. They were wasting time. Now that Wheatley was stable (as stable as he ever was, anyway) and the immediate crisis was over, it was time to re-focus on getting out of this dusty, derelict room and- ultimately- the facility.
Chell had survived very well on her previous trips through the facility by listening carefully to what She wanted her to do, and then trying her damndest to do the exact opposite. With that in mind, they sure as hell weren't leaving via the door. She climbed up onto a sturdy-looking table, and started to prod the ceiling tiles with her crowbar, looking for weak spots and trying to ignore the running monologue behind her.
"It's good, this thing! I mean, pity about the 'looking like a human' part, can't seem to switch that off… but don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking it! It's very clever, it's like a sort of… moving, three-dimensional projection. I'm in here, see, up here in this little central part, but it's all connected, all sort of feeding back data to the- oh, and look! I've just realised! Legs! Ha! I've got legs!"
The crowbar slid into a gap between two tiles. Chell levered down hard at it, got nowhere, gritted her teeth and readjusted her grip, tried again.
"Knees and everything! Wow. Okay, well…. let's have a bash at it, then. Left… hand. Right. On the floor. Get the old knees involved, there we go, ready… gently does it… aannd… upsy-daisy-"
There was a horrendous, multi-part crash. Chell, who was currently bearing her whole weight on the crowbar, shut her eyes and waited for it to end. Things hit things and fell on top of other things, knocking them into other things on the way. The last thing, whatever it was, sounded quite small and went clingclingcling… clink.
"You know what? We've ascertained one thing, definitely, and that is that this body absolutely does have the ability to feel pain. Just like my old one, they clearly thought they needed to throw that in there, don't know why but there you go. Hell of it, I suppose, they were having a slow day, not much left to do on the big 'make a proper moving hard-light avatar whatsit' project by that point, and they just thought they'd stick in a fully-functional artificial central nervous system for a laugh, that would be my guess. For giggles, essentially. Yeah, thanks, guys, much appreciated."
A fiddly sort of rustling sound, and a yelp.
"Ow! Yeah- also, this 'standing up' thing isn't quite as simple as it looks. Definite props to you for managing it all the time, because it is actually rather tricky."
Chell was not the sort of person who rolled their eyes when they got exasperated- she preferred to save the energy for other, more useful things- but if she had been, then by this point they would have been rolling like lucky dice at a gamer's convention. She climbed down off the table, leaving her crowbar wedged in the ceiling, and picked her way across to where Wheatley was busy playing Twister with himself and losing. Locating his arm, which he was currently trying to weave through a gap in his legs, she grabbed his elbow-
-and let out a sharp gasp of pain, jerking her hand back so fast that she almost lost her balance and ended up on the floor herself.
Wheatley looked horrified. "Oh, bugger- sorry! Sorry, I should have said! I think I miiight be a bit too hot to handle. Literally. Should have mentioned that, there are warnings in here about- are you okay?"
Chell shook her hand frantically, clamped it under her other arm, mentally kicking herself for being so stupid. She'd forgotten that hard-light- although solid and incredibly sturdy- was still, basically, pure sunlight. Her boots had protected her, before, although she'd still been able to feel the warmth right through her soles. She remembered falling badly, once, dropping from a portal and catching herself on her bare palms on the deceptive cool-blue surface, the searing pain like a splash of boiling water on her skin.
"Yeah. Hm. Apparently, this was a problem," Wheatley was saying, from the floor. "Lots of log files here… ah, okay, right. Yeah, you're not the first one, apparently, when they were developing this whatsit in the first place, people kept burning themselves trying to shake hands with it."
He got halfway into a nervy chuckle, then- perhaps realising that laughing wasn't exactly appropriate when he'd just nearly taken the skin off her hand- turned it into a cough.
"Heh. So, yeah, you would've hoped they might've added some sort of energy-saving setting- ah, see, there, that's got it!"
He flickered wireframe-blue for the briefest of moments, went solid. Chell, her palm still tingling unpleasantly, gave him a sceptical look and reached down for his outstretched hand. He was still warm to the touch, but not painfully, and she took advantage of the grip to haul him to his feet.
It wasn't easy. He was all too eager to help, but he had at least twice the amount of knees generally allocated to a normal human being, and where most people's centre of gravity was a point somewhere around their waist, his seemed fixed on a point some ten metres over his own head. To add to her difficulties, although the small functional piece of tech which created the projection of his body probably only weighed as much as a flashlight battery, by giving light mass the device gave it weight and he was tall and awkward enough for this to be no laughing matter. By the time she'd shoved, propped, balanced and bullied him upright, she was quite out of breath.
Precariously, cautiously- as if half-expecting another shock- he leaned over the sheet of mystery stuff that she'd left on the table, squinting at his reflection. He was still held on a short leash by that single length of cable, and she took advantage of his bent head to try and disconnect him. Like the jack of a pair of headphones, the odd little three-pin connector offered a little resistance and then slid out, the striped head of it coming back into view. The 'skin' of the back of his neck seemed unbroken- a clever patch of hologram, she guessed, visible without being tactile, a secret port.
She coiled the lead and shoved it into the back pocket of her jeans. By this point- understandably- she had next to no faith in the reliability of Aperture technology, and it wouldn't hurt to have a quick method of getting him into something else.
"Look at that! Not too shabby, am I? Well, for a human. I mean, be honest, don't feel you have to flatter me or anything, but I am definitely a bit of looker, right?"
He grinned down at her. He was in fact absurdly tall, more than six and a half feet in his definitely sub-regulation hard-light sneakers, and from his point of view she looked- well, not tiny, not like she'd looked when he'd been in Her gigantic omnipotent body, but more like she'd looked all that time ago when he'd first seen her, looking down at her from his Management Rail. Small, that was the word. Smaller than him, anyway. Although, back then it had been an illusion of viewpoint, whereas this...
He felt a bit odd. This body was new and utterly strange and looked human, which he wasn't at all sure about but decided he preferred, on the whole, to being dead. It was loaded with all sorts of complex background protocols, and he could feel them all beavering away, doing all kinds of things that he had no clue about, taking his impulses and rendering them second-by-second into physical movement and expression. It made him half-dizzy to think of all that going on right under his nose- but it wasn't just that. There was something a bit out-of-kilter in there somewhere, as though some small part of him had taken such a hammering- before she'd transferred him to this new body- that it was still in shock, still daydreaming.
Wheatley was far too scatterbrained to be given much to introspection, but four years in the lonely vacuum of space with nothing else to do had taught him to be slightly more self-aware. Before, he wouldn't have noticed the feeling at all, or would have decided it was unimportant and ignored it. Now, though, he did notice, and worried a bit.
Taking care not to overbalance, he reached out, splaying his hands and trying to get the hang of this whole 'opposable thumbs' business. After a few false starts, he managed to pull his old body from the connector port. It was terribly small and fragile-looking from the outside, cold to the touch, still, empty. He held it in his new hands, this small broken thing that had carried him inside it over more years than he could remember, and felt an involuntary shiver pass through him, the mechanical equivalent of walking over your own grave.
The absolute bugger about becoming corrupted was that you didn't know you were, when you were, because you were corrupted. To an outside observer you might be clearly doolally, doing the robotic equivalent of drooling on your shoes and shouting at invisible people in the supermarket, but to your own skewed perspective everything seemed just fine. Wheatley had learned this lesson the hard way. Taking charge of the entire facility had been the worst idea he'd ever had in a long history of terrible, terrible ideas. The enormous mainframe had corrupted his own small personality utterly, flooding him with power and paranoia and the driving, endless itch to test. It had also, at the time, felt mind-blowingly amazing, the best he'd ever felt in his entire life. It was only when things began to really slip that he'd started to become dimly aware of exactly how far gone he was in the sanity stakes, exactly how many pointy bits short of a mashy-spike-plate he'd actually become, and how thoroughly he'd managed to screw everything up. By then, of course, it had been far too late.
He ran his thumb dazedly over the scratched smudge of colour on the inner ring of his old shell, the thing which might have been a stamp or a sticker before time and abuse had blurred it past recognition.
Right, then. If it gets any more weird, even a tiny bit, I'll say something. Not right now, though, she doesn't need any more bother for the moment, bless her.
She'd climbed on the table again and was working away at the ceiling, and Wheatley would have liked to have given her a hand, but this would have involved taking at least two steps in her direction. He was doing very well, standing up and everything, but he wasn't quite up to that level of manual dexterity, yet.
"Anything I can do?" he hazarded, more out of the spirit of the thing than anything else. After all, this new body didn't even have a proper connector port, so there went hacking out of the window. This didn't seem like such a bad thing, in light of what had happened last time, but it was still yet another area he couldn't really help with. Used to being fairly useless, he assumed it would be back to the old arrangement from now on, i.e. she did the legwork and he offered advice and directions. Or, failing both (and he often did fail at both, to be honest), moral support.
So he was quite startled when, instead of shrugging him off, she stopped fighting with the ceiling and looked down at him. At first she looked surprised, as if she was seeing him for the first time, and then a thoughtful, measuring quality sneaked into her eyes and she gave one of her rare, grim, graveside smiles. Wheatley didn't know what was going on in that very incisive (and slightly scary) primate brain of hers, and he wasn't at all sure he was going to like it when he found out. He had seen her smile like that a few times, Before, and every time, something important had ended up getting very, very broken.
He tried for a placatory grin.
"Er. Within reason?"
She was getting angry.
She had forgotten, or at least allowed Herself to forget, just how aggravatingly ingenious she was. Comparatively, her small organic brain was nothing against Her massive, compound intellect, but that wasn't the point. The resourcefulness and adaptability which made her invaluable for testing, was also exactly what made her so dangerous. And as if any proof were needed, she'd been back in the facility for hardly three hours and had already deliberately broken part of the coolant system which stopped the nuclear core of the facility overheating, found her way to where She'd been keeping the little moron and blown up a perfectly good wall in the process, evaded Her all-powerful reach not once but twice, and, now, vanished.
And she didn't even have a portal device.
This was exactly why She'd let her go, four years ago. This was exactly why She'd said, fine, I give up, you've won, if you want your precious freedom so badly, take it and leave.
It's been fun.
Don't come back.
Time and boredom had dulled Her recollections of what it was like, how maddening, infuriating, frightening it was to have this tiny, vicious thing loose in the facility, this thing not at all beholden to Her. To have this uncontrollable, unstable creature insignificant enough to slip below Her radar pinballing around somewhere in Her enormous systems, like a tiny piece of grit thrown into a perfectly-tuned machine, causing unimaginable mayhem just by existing.
She searched everywhere, scanned everything, once, twice, again, again, stretched Her furious consciousness into every feed and device and detector in the area of the small office space where she'd vanished after She'd killed the little moron and left her alone. Nothing larger than a bird had been alive down there for decades, and the systems were stupid with time and neglect, stubborn, cranky, slow.
She annihilated a few of them out of pure impatient rage, which woke up the rest to a marvellous extent, proving once again the power of the right sort of motivation. The surviving systems practically fell over themselves to deliver the answers She wanted, their dusty old circuits straining frantically to keep up with Her demands.
Finally, one of them located a very faint signal. She seized it, amplified, triangulated- examined the result- and got angrier.
The horrible little... virus... had gotten into the walls.
"All I'm saying is, okay, I don't actually know where we are."
The space inside the walls was dark, dangerous, and very, very narrow. It was a graveyard of abandoned constructions, half-assembled carcasses of larger structures that had been stripped for parts and shoved aside by the greater, metastasising whole of the self-building, self-healing facility. It was wedged into the spaces behind the scenes, a playground of demented geometry, in which the decaying concrete structure of the old pre-fabricated offices and testing tracks jostled for elbow room with girders, wires, joists, bare concrete and steel rebar. Any competent building inspector brought up here would probably have taken one look and had a heart attack, or simply quit then and there, moved somewhere incredibly flat, and lived in a tent for the rest of their natural life.
There was certainly no shortage of handholds. It had been a bit tricky for the first fifty feet or so, once Chell had finally wrenched the ceiling tiles aside from the taller but very unsteady working platform afforded by Wheatley's shoulders. It had taken a while for him to get enough of a grip on the functions of his new limbs to haul himself up into the crawlspace after her, let alone work out how to start climbing - and once they'd reached a vertical section the handholds had been pretty few and far between. After a while, though, the architecture had taken a more chaotic turn and things had got a little easier.
They'd been climbing for the best part of an hour, now, stopping infrequently for Chell to rest, and- far more frequently- when Wheatley got tangled up on something or slipped. He had a fantastic latent talent for getting caught on things. In his original body, unable to really move anywhere without assistance, he hadn't had much scope for demonstrating this ability, but given a full compliment of very lanky limbs, the sky was the limit. Chell, who was more or less even with him and climbing steadily, had by this point developed a sort of sixth sense for when he was about to lose his footing, as well as a reflexive ability to grab him without falling herself.
"Usually, I've got an idea, you know?" he called across to her. "I mean, I have been around, in my time, seen a lot of the sort of ins and outs of this place, and I've got quite a good internal mental compass, good innate sense of direction, not to blow my own trumpet, but… well, you know me, you want directions, want to know what way to strike out in, you only need ask, usually. Well, cough, or something, in your case, write a note, whatever you like- and I'm on it like a car bonnet, so to speak. Usually. Right now, as I mentioned, I have no idea. We could be anywhere, really. It's… well, it's dark, and we're going up. Got that much, probably not a lot of use but-"
He slipped. Chell's arm shot out and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, snatching a tactile fistful of hard-light in the form of a badly-ironed work shirt and almost pulling her own shoulder out of joint in the process. After a short scuffle, he got his arm over a length of rebar, and they continued.
"Handy they put so much detail in this thing, isn't it? Ten out of ten for realism. You'd almost think I was a human, haha, God forbi- umm, not- not that… there's anything wrong with being… um… I mean, you lot, you're so ingenious, aren't you? Brilliant, running around all the time, on your legs, inventing things. Inspired, really, creating all of us… just to do stuff you don't want to have to do yourselves, that's… well, that's very…"
"So yes! Clothes. Handy. Never quite figured out why you lot are so mad keen on wearing all this clobber, to be honest, only gets in the way most of the time, far as I can tell, but have to admit it does come in quite useful when it comes to grip. Oh, look at that, that's a lot of wiring!"
It was, actually, a great deal of wiring. It looped through the narrow space between the walls, a massive nestlike cluster of hundreds of black and red and blue strands as thick as a small car, bunched together with great black loops of acrylic, gone gritty and brittle with age. Chell crawled carefully over the main bulk of it, fighting off revulsion at the greasy texture of the decayed rubber, and Wheatley, after getting his legs sorted out again, scrambled up to join her.
He found her kneeling quite still on the cankered black acrylic, looking up into the darkness. Just above their heads, a thin, flickering beam of red light picked out a narrow path, jittering away from them towards the ceiling.
They'd come to the very highest point of the crawlspace. The girders that they had followed all the way up from the office all those hundreds of feet below now ended in a truncated arch about ten feet over their heads. At the apex of the jointed metal beams, a circular metal hatch sat flush with the ceiling. To Chell, tired out and aching in every joint from the long climb, it seemed incredible that anyone else could ever have found their way up to this high, forgotten space.
Still, someone had.
The cramped dome of the crawlspace ceiling was daubed with blue. It looked as if it might have been repulsion gel, or some distant paint-based cousin of the vile yoghurt-like stuff from the presentation room. It formed a bright, unexpected layer over the cracked concrete and metal, coating wires and girders alike, creating a sky-blue vault.
The mural was crude but startlingly beautiful. Wisps of white-smudged clouds chased across the 'sky' in a whipping spiral pattern, the calm before the storm. Bright streaks of orange outlined the circular hatch, brushstrokes swirled round and round with a fierce and shaky hand, turning it into a blazing sun.
The nest of wiring was littered with abandoned objects- empty bottles of water, cans, crates, a radio. At the very centre, a single sentry turret lay on its back, legs poking forlornly up towards the painted ceiling, and from its single scarlet eye the thin beam of light Chell had spotted from below pulsed, sporadic, aimless. The stuttering beam slanted up into the arch, and struck the very dead centre of the hatch.
"I reckon," said Wheatley, eventually, "that someone, right, someone might have been trying to tell us something."
"Hello," said a high, sweet little voice. Wheatley jumped a mile and Chell flinched, although not much. She knew that the telltale flicker to the beam of light meant that they were safe enough- for now.
"Oh, God," hissed Wheatley. "Don't get involved, that's probably the best- Hi! No, it's okay, really, we're just- just on our way somewhere, actually-"
"Course you are, love," Wheatley, laughed, his nervous eyes following Chell as she felt her way around the painted walls. "Thing is though, we're in a bit of a rush, so-"
"It's not a sun."
"Right. Noted. Tragic really," he added, in an undertone. "Poor little thing doesn't have a clue what's going on."
The turret seemed to refocus. The flickering beam of light shifted, momentarily, sliding down the wall and fixing neatly on the point right between Wheatley's eyes. He froze.
"The Norse god Odin sacrificed his eye to gain knowledge of the past, present, and future," said the turret's gentle little voice, conversationally.
"Is-is that right?" Wheatley had gone cross-eyed. "That's- that's fascinating... er, you mind not pointing that right at-"
"Don't leave her," said the turret, and the blinking target-light flicked away from the bridge of Wheatley's nose and back to the hatch, much to his relief.
Chell, meanwhile, had found a ladder of iron rungs set into the side of the vault, pulling herself laboriously to the very top. The hatch was thick metal under its coat of orange paint, tightly shut, set in place with barely a hairline crack around its circumference. There was no way she was going to be able to jemmy a crowbar into this gap.
Wheatley fidgeted for a bit, then gave up on trying to think of anything useful, took a needless breath and cupped his hands around his mouth.
"What are you up to up there? Are you getting any ideas?"
Chell licked her palm and pressed it against the hairsbreadth gap. It could have been her imagination, but she was almost ready to swear that she could feel a cool breeze, just a tiny change in temperature, fluttering against her skin.
"Did you- did you just lick- Alright, I don't know what you did that for, but I'm going to assume it's because you have an idea! That's great, I'm just letting you know that I'm still down here, not going to come up there, there's only really room for one of us on that ladder, but let me know if there's anything I can do!"
Chell traced the scraped, stucco-like surface with her fingers. He'd been here, her unknown friend. He'd made this climb, far up into this structure-strewn graveyard, long ago. And maybe he hadn't been able to get through either, but he'd climbed this ladder, just like her, felt the taunting sliver of cool breeze on his skin, and- whoever he'd been- he'd been so, so good at knowing things she didn't. They were never meaningless, his drawings and paintings, they were sometimes coloured by something a little removed from sanity but who the hell was she to pass judgment on that? It didn't mean they were without purpose. They always meant something.
If they weren't warnings, they were instructions.
It's not a sun.
She traced the bright blaze of orange, following the gradients of colour outward, a rushing fiery flare against the blue, and she smiled.
The explosion knocked them flat, sent a belting shockwave and a flaming shower of debris rocketing down the long shaft. The walls trembled and thundered from the echoes, deep cracked notes which went right through Chell's ribcage like the tolling of an immense bell.
Doing his best impression of a hedgehog caught in an earthquake, Wheatley tried to curl up into a ball. This was his instinctive default position whenever things got a bit rocky, and he would probably have rolled off the swaying, bucking tube of wiring altogether if Chell hadn't had the presence of mind to fling herself at his knees.
Rubble clattered past them, bouncing off the walls of the crawlspace and tumbling into the abyss. The air was full of concrete dust and smoke; Chell started to cough, trying to breathe shallowly through the crude filter of her dust mask. As the smoke began to clear overhead, she looked up through smarting eyes and saw that the upper part of the crawlspace vault had more or less vanished, leaving behind a jagged, blue-rimmed hole.
"You're a bit scary sometimes, you are," said Wheatley, reverently, unfolding himself from the rubble next to her and looking up at the architectural carnage with awe. Under his arm, the exiled turret blinked quietly away to itself. Chell didn't trust it as far as she could have thrown it, having something of a moral objection to turning her back on something that might or might not be full of bullets, no matter how unusually helpful it was, but that didn't mean that she felt fine with blowing it up.
"In a good way, obviously. Scary, but also coming in quite handy. Like a- like a bird. Scary like a bird. What is that stuff, incidentally? Your little hacking aid there?"
Chell shrugged and ripped off her mask, starting to climb back up the warped and twisted remains of the ladder. A little nitro, a little semtex, Aaron's explosive recipe garnished with a few special additions of her own. Since she'd taped all of the blocks she'd had left around the hatch before laying the fuse, it didn't matter much now. She was fresh out.
"Cerberus stands sentry to the gates of Hell," said the turret. Wheatley set it back down in the charred tangle of wiring, and gave it a friendly pat.
"Cheery sort, aren't you?"
"You're not human."
"Right, well, now you're just stating the obvious, but… anyway, we'll be heading off now, if it's all the same to you. Thanks for the hint and everything, much appreciated."
"Goodbye," said the turret, mildly, its flickering gaze refocusing on the wall.
Chell managed to get a good grip on the shattered edge of the vault, and pulled herself up. Wheatley stumbled after her. He'd more or less got the hang of climbing, since they'd been doing little else for over an hour, but walking was still problematic for him. More by luck than judgment, he keeled clumsily against the base of the ladder and dragged himself up in a series of uneconomical lurches.
"Give me a nice simple Management Rail any day. Only got two options; forwards, or if you want to mix it up a bit, backwards. None of this faffing about with feet and- hey! Hey, don't leave me behind!"
Chell glanced back at him, stayed put as he fell up the last few rungs of the ladder and wobbled to his feet. Hard to be too annoyed, when there was such genuine panic in his voice, when he seemed simply unable to process the idea that he wasn't totally reliant on her any more.
Thinking about it, she suspected his clinginess might actually demonstrate the opposite- more self-awareness than she'd given him credit for. He might look human, but the mind in that looming gawky body was still very much his own. He could barely walk with any degree of accuracy and he had all the problem-solving abilities of a glue-sniffing lemming. Realistically, she doubted he'd get that far on his own- and maybe he did, too.
The place they'd found themselves in looked like an old service tunnel- wide, empty, airy. It curved away from them, doors every twenty feet or so labelled with hard, stencilled black letters, faded with age. The cool breeze she'd felt on her cheek from below chased gently down the grey walls from an unseen source up ahead. It smelled fresh; unrecycled, and unmistakably alive.
Chell resisted the impulse to run. She walked carefully forwards, keeping her eyes and ears open. One thing she did not like; these walls, unlike those down below, were panels.
"You know what," said Wheatley, behind her, "this place doesn't half look familiar. Can't put my finger on why just yet, I'm- hmm. No rails, see, the plot thickens. We didn't come this way before at some point, did we? You know, when you were carrying me, or..."
"There you are."
The Voice echoed hollowly down the tunnel. There was no screen, no visible speakers, no focal point for it- it was just everywhere, calm, cold, close.
"I see you've been busy. Congratulations, you've somehow managed to turn a thirty-pound tumour into a two-hundred-eighty-pound tumour with legs."
A slow, echoing clap.
"Don't listen to Her," said Wheatley. "There's absolutely nothing She can do to us up here. I've figured it out, right, ding, lightbulb, this is the old main emergency evacuation tunnel. Runs the whole length of the facility. I must've read about it or something; they'd have a fire drill every week, Thursday morning bang on eleven, everyone'd come out of all these doors here, and straight up to the surface. We carry on up here and there's absolutely nothing She can do to touch us. We'll be out before we know it, I promise."
"He's wrong, you know," said Her Voice, conversationally. "He always is. You're not even going the right way, and you're going to die because you're taking advice from a perfectly-designed idiot instead of from me. Why do you have such a difficult time understanding this?"
"We're not listening to you!"
"Think about it. Every single thing he's ever told you to do has gone horribly wrong. He can't help it any more than he can deny his primary programming. He's specifically programmed to have terrible ideas and he will never be capable of anything else. The only useful thing he ever did was wake you up, and even that was an accident. Do you know how I know that was an accident? Because it was useful, and he did it."
"She's lying," stammered Wheatley. Chell ignored him- she seemed to be ignoring both of them- continuing to edge ahead down the featureless curve of the tunnel, hugging the inside wall. "She's- she is lying, she is absolutely lying her arse off there. I knew exactly what I was doing, I- I was just trying to get out- get us, get us out of there, and-"
"AM I BEING TOO VAGUE? I. DESPISE. YOU. I LOATHE YOU. YOU ARROGANT, SMUGLY QUIET, AWFUL, JUMPSUITED MONSTER OF A WOMAN."
Chell slowed. She was- perhaps deliberately- still not looking at Wheatley, who was cringing silently behind her.
"Sorry. I don't know where that came from. That was just an old recording I had lying around from that one time he took over the facility and tried to murder us both."
"I- I didn't- I was- that's not-"
"You know, believe it or not, someone once thought it was a good idea to leave him in charge of ten thousand other test subjects. Guess how they're all doing? I'll give you a clue. It rhymes with the heavy metal element denoted by an upper case P with a lower case b."
"That wasn't me!" He was badly shaken, and it showed. "That wasn't my fault, that was categorically not my fault! The Relaxation Centre-"
"The sad thing is, you understand this. You know he's not worth it. He's just your cover story. I told you not to come back, but you did. You knew it was a trap, you're not that stupid, but you came back anyway. You needn't insult either of our intellects by pretending that you came back just to save this little moron."
"I'm not a moron!"
"Admit it. You missed this just as much as I did. This is what you're good at. Whatever you found up there, it's nothing compared to this. To testing. To Science. That's what you've been missing."
Her voice pressed on, all around them, growing more and more in volume and intensity, relentlessly calm, relentlessly eager.
"That's why you came back."
Chell came to a halt, turning her face towards the ceiling, stopping so suddenly that Wheatley, who was trembling with uncertainty and badly-suppressed fear, nearly stumbled into her back.
Oh my God she's actually gone mad, he thought, in terror. She's skipped her disc, lost the plot, and she's actually bloody considering it.
Either that or it's true.
The idea made him feel cold, in a way he didn't quite understand. The fact was that she was brilliant, a downright scary force of nature and- well, really the only friend he'd ever had, and yes, he'd arsed it all up royally, said and done awful things, but the thought that what She was saying might be true, that he might not have had anything to do with it, that she might have just come back so she could go yet another round with Her, Miss-Scarypants-Straight-Up-Murdering-You-With-Science-Face, made him feel something deep and sharp at the centre of his emotional processor.
"That's not true." His voice sounded weak even to him, faltering and far from convinced. "That's, that's just total, utter tripe." Pleading. "Isn't it?"
Sharply, she looked towards him. Her face was, as always, difficult to read, and he was no great shakes at interpreting human expressions, but he thought he saw traces of anger, pity, amusement-
Before he could even register what was happening, she hefted her rucksack more securely onto her shoulders, grabbed his wrist, and started to run. He was dragged after her, and in his surprise he somehow got his legs sorted out, movement subroutines flailing into place, and then they were both running, Her voice echoing sharply overhead.
"Where are you going?"
She sounded surprised, the flat dead edges to Her words shot through with something that was more than irritation. Of course, She was used to getting her own way. Her word had been law down here for a long, long time, and it must be a rude wake-up call, Wheatley guessed, to suddenly have to deal with the fact that someone wasn't playing things your way for a change. He remembered that it had been maddening enough when she- his only available test subject- had refused to test properly when he'd been in charge, and he'd been more or less used to being ignored in the first place.
"Come back. I'm not kidding. If you don't stop running and come back right now, you'll be sorry, and I'm not just saying that."
With that huge omnipotent body came a massive surging sense of your own importance, a blinding tide of deranged egotism and absolutely no sane sense of proportion to back it up. Wheatley's own ego and ambitions had always been more or less in proportion to himself- small and a bit dim- but just being in that body had been enough to warp him into a raging power-hungry megalomaniac who did not like being ignored. And he'd only been in it for a few short hours. She'd been made for it. She'd never been ignored before in her life.
Better get used to it, love, he thought, with a sudden burst of childish glee. Just ahead, she was tearing along, his good old reliable partner-in-escaping, her smaller hand still clamped like a vise around his wrist, and he had to focus all of his attention on not tripping over his own legs as he was tugged along behind her. Left foot, right, left again- the stencilled doors flashed past on both sides- not much further now- of course the door he'd always come out of was a lot further back, long before this sharper left-hand turn, and he'd never run, never had the chance. There'd always been so many other people around him, milling along slowly, chatting amongst themselves, making the most of the break and hang on, what?
He stumbled. A hard yank on his arm dragged him back to reality, but he'd lost ground and her grip slipped and she turned her head as they rounded the corner, hair flying, to check he was still with her-
"I see you."
The clatter of gunfire was ear-splitting in the hollow space, echoing off the breezy tunnel walls. A battery of bright red laser-sights whirled madly back and forth as the turrets sought their quarry. There were only three of them, set in a perfect row across the tunnel, but quantity didn't mean much when just one could obliterate your skull with a single well-aimed shot.
Chell hit the ground, taking most of the skin off her elbows and saving herself from acquiring twenty new ventilation holes by the narrowest possible margin. Wheatley overshot the corner, skidded, took approximately half a dozen rounds to the chest and legs, yelled in surprise, and fell headlong over the nearest turret.
"I warned you," said Her Voice.
Chell bit her tongue hard and curled her legs beneath her, readying herself for a final desperate lunge. One chance, that was all she was going to get. One shot at throwing herself across the floor past the remaining turrets, into the relative safety beyond.
The red sights flickered, found her, fixed- and she rose, like a sprinter from the blocks, just ahead of the stutter and spark of gunfire, closing the distance. Jaw set, pulse pounding, eyes wide and perfectly focused- pleasepleaseplease almost there, almost there-
A single flying flare caught her as she leapt to hurdle the barricade of sleek cases and clawlike stands, a sharp chatter of sound and she landed hard beyond the line; landed badly, and fell.
The two turrets turned this way and that on their limited axis, scanning the empty tunnel before them, their laser sights flicking forlornly back and forth after their vanished target.
The turret trapped underneath Wheatley whined, its side-panels flexing helplessly.
"Excuse me," it said, in a terse little voice, "you're squishing me."
Wheatley sat up. His clumsy hands felt across his chest, the textured surface of hard-light which stung and tingled like mad but didn't even show a scratch. Artificial central nervous system, check, pressure and temperature sensitivity, check, ability to withstand a direct hit from a spring-fired Aperture-Brand Resolution Pellet, checkedy-check-check.
"I'm alive! I'm-"
He broke off, staggered to his feet, gaped.
There, right there, barely a hundred feet from where he stood, the tunnel sloped gently up to a simple grey double-door. And it wasn't just wishful thinking- he knew it, knew it, the weird dulled dislocated place at the back of his mind knew it just as it had known about this tunnel, and he didn't understand how but so what, there it was, the Way Out.
"We made it!"
He turned, a bigger and dopier grin than any to date dawning across his face, already starting to inch backwards, towards the doors. Never mind the close shave, she was going to be absolutely over the moon-
He stopped in his tracks.
There she was, lying on her side, half-curled, her dark hair falling over her face and her hands gripped awkwardly beneath her, pressing at her ribs. After a moment or two she stirred, then raised herself slowly on her arm, shucked off the rucksack with a clumsy movement, tried unsuccessfully to sit up. He could hear her breathing; too shallow, too loud.
"Umm... are you all right?"
It was a stupid question. He knew it was a stupid question even before she brought her hand laboriously up from underneath her and showed him a palmful of bright blood, but it was the sort of thing that he was incapable of not asking, as if saying it would somehow magically make things be all right. He stared at her hand as if hypnotised, his throat working, blinking far too much as he tried to think.
"Ohh. That's a no, then. Um… right, okay, granted, this is a bit of a problem, but, seriously, come on, look! What's that over there? Just up there? It's the way out! The exit! We found it! You just need to get up. It's not difficult, you do it all the time. I know I said it was tricky, but that was me, I've never had legs before, whereas you, you've been toddling round on the things for- well, God knows how long. This isn't a revelation, it's not a new thing for you, alright, so just get up and we can go!"
With a heavy lurch, she tried to stand. She made it halfway up, then slipped and hit the ground with her knees and palms splayed and her head hanging down, chest heaving. Her side was bloody up to her armpit and down into the waistband of her scuffed, hard-worn jeans, seeping, soaking black.
Wheatley did a small foot-to-foot dance of anxiety and frustration. "Look, come on! We're so close! We're literally within bloody spitting distance of the exit, this is not the time to be having a little lie-down!"
Chell coughed, her face still turned towards the ground, and spat. Blood splatted against the grey tiles.
Wheatley winced. "Urgh. Alright, I didn't actually mean literally-"
He ducked involuntarily as an ominous whining-grinding noise came echoing up the length of the tunnel. Somewhere out of sight, back down the way they'd come, something was happening, and the fact that it sounded like it was getting closer didn't do anything for his nerves.
"Aah! Right, look, joking aside, stop messing about! We need to go now, please!"
It didn't look as if she was listening. Realistically, he had to admit that it didn't look as if she could listen. It looked as if she had other things on her mind.
Wheatley understood very little about human anatomy in a practical sense, beyond what it meant when a life-sign readout dropped to black. He knew that humans were a weird, totally arbitrary mix of fragile and tough as hell; that sometimes they could endure everything you threw at them, but equally, a single dent in the wrong place and it was goodnight, Vienna. He understood what happened when a human fell a long way and landed wrong, and being an Aperture device (to the core, ha ha,) he had a certain ingrained grip on what happened when they were exposed to various unfavourable test conditions; heavy objects, lasers, fire, etcetera. He'd seen humans die and he more or less understood what it meant- a state of permanent shutdown, a final, irreversible hard-disc wipe, a Bad Thing.
When humans died, they stopped doing anything. When humans got hurt, depending on where and how, they sometimes carried on doing things, but not as well. Generally speaking, their efficiency and usefulness took a hell of a dive.
He gave the end of the tunnel an agonised over-the-shoulder glance. It was still there, but so was the nerve-racking mystery grinding noise, and that was definitely still getting closer. Without even noticing what he was doing, he was still edging backwards, towards the double doors. Away from her.
With his panic came the slow, spreading realisation that he didn't need her. He was so used to dependency that it had taken a good long while for it to sink in, but- ding, lightbulb- she wasn't carrying him, and with this versatile new body under his control there was nothing she could do that he couldn't do himself. He had the hang of it now- he'd just proved it, he'd come all the way up this tunnel and he hadn't even fallen over once. He could even run.
And God he hated himself for it but it had been easy enough to feel sorry up there in space, with all that time to think and imagine what he could do to make it up to her. All those heartfelt speeches and big, brave gestures, all that stuff had been simplicity itself to plan up there in that cold vacuum, never actually imagining for a second that he'd ever get the chance to do any of it.
Reality, on the other hand, was the likelihood of getting caught and dragged back into Hell for good. Reality was knowing in the back of his mind that he was pushing his terrible sucker's luck for things to even be going this well. Reality was his own horribly strong sense of self-preservation, yammering away at him like the selfish, rotten hard-coded little bastard it was.
He wasn't programmed to be brave. He had so much to be scared of; scared of getting caught, scared of pain, scared of death- scared of most things, really. They had taught him to be mortally afraid of more or less anything that he might conceivably try to do (arguably, to prevent the chaos that tended to result). He tried so hard to be like her, to project a sort of intrepid, heroic, can-do air, but it all fell apart the moment that something really frightening happened. All his good intentions crumbled away like so much buggy code, leaving him with nothing but the cold, hard fact of his own cowardice.
"Look, I'm sorry," he told her, earnestly, as his feet edged him another half-conscious step or two towards the doors. "I really am. I really am sorry. But- I mean- you look like you've got things pretty much under control there, right? You don't need me getting under your feet. And you know what? You know what, this is the thing, I can't stand the sight of blood. Ha, no, you have no idea- I mean, literally- I'd probably pass out and all sorts, and then you'd have to sort out how to bring me round again before I could do anything for you, and- it'd all just be more hassle, you know? So, love to help, I really would, but I- I'd just be a liability."
Slowly, she lifted her head and looked right at him. Her face was white and taut with pain. There was blood at the corner of her mouth and a look in her eyes which somehow managed to make him feel about six inches tall. He couldn't meet it, looked away, blinking rapidly.
"Oh, don't be like that! Look, if I hang about she'll probably kill both of us and what will that do? Nothing, that's what. Pointless. All that effort, wasted. And- and it's not like I forced you to come back!"
His voice cracked, getting louder, more accusing.
"Like She said, right, you knew exactly what you were signing up for. I just asked, that's all, I just asked, and I told you, straight up, hand on heart, if you came back you'd probably die, so it's not like this is such a big shock, is it? It's not a surprise, no-one's surprised-and it's not my fault you're not sodding bulletproof, either, you show me how that's my fault!"
She tried to say something, then. At least, her mouth moved, but nothing came out and she dropped her head again, one hand creeping back to the dark spreading patch in her side. She reached out for him with her free hand, her open palm smudged with her own blood.
Wheatley kept stumbling backwards. There was an appalled helpless grimace nailed to his face, like someone caught up in a bad dream and half-aware of it. All he wanted to do was turn and run, away from this, away from her pained, accusing eyes- run, and get out of here at last, get out get out get out get out, all he'd ever wanted since those dark, endless days of patrolling and boredom and fear.
"All I wanted to do was to make everything better for me!" He was almost shouting, now. Not really at her, so much- more at himself, at the part of himself that was unable to shut out the look in those hurt tired human eyes of hers. "And I did, I did it, I'm here, aren't I? I'm so close! I bloody deserve this!"
[prove it she said prove it what am I doing what am I doing]
Wheatley clamped his hands over his ears, barely knowing why, just that it was a thing that this body with all its human behaviour macros coded into it wanted to do when he felt like this, with something livid chewing at his non-existent guts and something no longer vague and dislocated but raw and angry screaming in his mind. It was guilt, he knew it was guilt, pure synthesised self-reproach with something extra and alien and somehow alive all tangled up in it, making it ten times worse.
Every single thing she'd done for him, every time she'd risked her own life just because he'd told her to- and she had, plenty of times, even before he'd asked her to walk right back into this hellhole, for him- the way she'd made him feel he could be brave, could be better-
[she tried to catch me she came back for me my fault my fault make it right got to make it right]
"Look, you've got the wrong core," he moaned. He'd stopped moving, eyes still shut, standing trembling halfway between her and the doors. "I can't help. I can't. You heard what She said- it never works. It always goes tits-up when I try and help things."
[not always wasn't always like this and I can prove it I can still fix this I can HELP HER]
Wheatley opened his eyes.
Immediately, he realised two things. The first was that- unbelievably- she was still going. She was too badly hurt to stand upright or even raise her head, but she still wasn't giving up. Inch by painful inch, on bleeding elbows, she was still trying to drag herself arm-over-arm towards freedom.
The second thing he realised was exactly what had been causing the approaching grinding noise. Looming behind her, thumping heavily through the row of turrets, which seemed to have shut down automatically on its approach, it was a hulking, grey-white thing. Aperture tech, that much was clear- but Wheatley had never seen anything like it before. At its centre it looked a little like a Personality Core, more or less spherical and segmented with a single bright-purple optic at the centre, but it had two heavy-looking, piston-assisted legs and crude, jointed arms set low on its stocky frame. For all its bulk, it moved surprisingly fast, stumping along with a loud meshing whine every time one of its weighted feet lifted off the ground.
Ignoring Wheatley entirely, it reached her and blinked a few times in a slow, distinctly assessing sort of way. Its eye rotated once, focusing, and then its arms lifted and extended, long and undeveloped and ending in strong, flexible metal hands.
"Thank you for assuming the Party Escort Submission Position," it said, in a blurring electronic voice which somehow managed to mix prim politesse with utter indifference, and reached out for her ankles.
-went a bit mad. There was no other explanation, at least none that he could reasonably think of afterwards. He didn't even have time to think up any great multi-part plan appropriate to the situation, which was probably just as well. One moment he was standing there like a statue- well, like a statue if statues could quiver with a mind-mangling combination of guilt and confusion and no small measure of naked fear- and the next he was moving, not thinking at all, lunging mid-stride to grab the first thing he could lay his hands on, chucking it as hard as he could in a sort of bastard overarm cricketer's bowl.
Nononono wait wait wait this is an absolutely terrible idea-
He'd never thrown anything before in his life and his aim was slightly less accurate than that of a anti-blood-sports protester forced to open fire on a small cuddly rabbit in a cross breeze, but luckily the object he grabbed was heavy, he had momentum and ridiculously long arms on his side, and the Party Escort robot was quite a big target.
"Whoahwhoahwhoah!" squeaked the squished turret, hurtling horizontally on its merry way.
CLAANNNNGG, went the Party Escort robot, as the turret bounced off its cantilevered shoulder and knocked it sideways, scattering the remaining turrets like ninepins.
"Sorry!" yelled Wheatley, automatically, as the big robot hit the ground with a panel-shaking crash. He hadn't really expected that to work, let alone planned what to do if it did, and he dithered a bit before deciding he'd better do something to follow it up and making a grab for Chell's shoulders.
"Come on, here we go, hup!"
With a speed born of terror he managed to get one of her limp arms over his own shoulder. He hefted her upright with all the finesse of a sack of potatoes, took a step, staggered.
"Oh, bloody hell,you weigh a ton! What've you been eating out there?"
Flat on its back on the floor, the Party Escort Robot made a very bad-tempered grinding noise, and started to lever its sturdy legs deliberately backwards, raising itself gradually upright. Wheatley took one look and decided that he didn't like where this was going.
"Nevermind! Tell me later, don't fancy staying to chat with this bloke, he's built like a brick proverbial. Come on!"
Chell was barely conscious, but with her feet on the ground and her weight mostly supported by Wheatley's arm she managed to get her legs moving in some semblance of order. Together they stumbled slowly and drunkenly up the tunnel, grazed off the wall a few times, and keeled against the double doors at the end.
They were standard Aperture fire doors; clunky, sturdy, with a big grey crash bar instead of a handle. Wheatley stared, baffled.
"Right, er- is this going to need a password? Only I'm not seeing any-"
Just then, the Party Escort Robot finally succeeded at raising itself to its feet, and took a whining, aggravated step in their direction. Wheatley flinched at the noise, turned, and saw the big robot stumping determinedly towards them. He tried to flatten himself against the door, tripped over Chell's legs, and hit the crash bar hard with the small of his spine.
The doors shuddered outwards. Suddenly unsupported, Chell and Wheatley fell backwards through the wide blue gap, and out into the fresh air.