Bring Your Daughter to Work Day
Chell took a few steps back from her potato battery stand and sighed. Doug had insisted she use her good arm to write with but, due to being unused to working with her right hand, the words had come out as a messy scrawl. That, however, was the least of her problems. Looking to the side, she saw the other girls' projects were all potato batteries as well. One child had made a baking soda volcano, and was standing next to it with a smug grin, occasionally glancing at the vegetables with raised eyebrows.
Doug came up behind her and smiled.
"It looks impressive, Chell."
Chell looked up at him with a slight frown.
"I'm being serious!" he said.
"Yeah, well, the judges are hardly going to notice it. I told you I should have done a lemon. I'm putting my money on the volcano."
"You just wait until they read your observations. It'll floor them," he said, readjusting the box in his arms. "Right, I've got a few things that need taking care of; remember, don't stray too far."
"I know, you keep telling me. What's in the box?"
"Eh, nothing important. Anyway, you have some time before it begins. Why don't you talk to some of the other girls? Make some friends?" Doug said, smiling and walking off in the direction of the GLaDOS chamber.
Chell bit her lip and sat down on one of the rickety plastic chairs provided for the journalists' use. For a while she watched in silence as the photographers prepared their cameras for the big event, occasionally taking snaps of the girls next to their science projects. Some of the important scientists' daughters had congregated into a small 'elite' group, but Chell had no desire to join them. In her mind, the whole thing was a charade; all she wanted to do was see the GLaDOS with her own eyes.
Her head had begun to loll when she heard a familiar voice. Standing up, she looked around, moving in the direction it had come from while trying not to knock over the reporters' expensive equipment which crowded every spare inch of the floor.
"I'm just saying they're going to get restless, alright? No harm in a bit of light entertainment, which I could easily provide. Just so you know," the voice continued. Chell smiled; there was no doubt that it was Pendleton speaking.
Pushing through the crowd, she found herself standing next to a tall, balding man whose face was lined with a permanent scowl, the result of years of dealing with infuriating lackeys. A spherical metal object hung from the ceiling just outside the doorway, and it was from this that Pendleton's voice seemed to be emanating.
"Excuse me?" Chell said. The man whipped around, took one look at her, and started waving at the machine.
"Go!" he said to it.
"Look here," it said, "I don't much care for…"
"Fine, fine! Honestly, humans!" And with that, it scooted off down the hall. The man loosened his shirt collar and turned back to Chell.
"I'm sorry about that," he said, holding out his hand. "I'm Doctor Henry Tremblay, head of genetic lifeform research."
Chell's jaw dropped, but she quickly regained her composure and shook his hand.
"You're really Dr Tremblay?"
"The one and only."
"I've been following your work for a while, it's brilliant. I… Sorry, I'm Chell Rand."
"Oh yes, I know about you. I was a friend of your mother's. My deepest condolences."
"Thanks," Chell said dryly. She usually despised platitudes, but now she bit her tongue and tried to think of a way to guide the conversation elsewhere.
"May I ask what that machine was?"
"That? Oh, nothing really. A simple beta model for the core technology. We call it B-9."
"Its voice reminded me of a man I met here once."
"Yes, well, we sometimes get folks from around the office to make some recordings. Saves money. Your mother provided the voice for the turrets."
Chell nodded, staring after the machine. Tremblay sidestepped in front of her, giving a smile that strained his skin.
"Anything I can get you? A drink, maybe?"
"That would be nice, thank you," she said.
Once he had dashed off, she proceeded cautiously down the hallway, keeping her eyes on the metal rail which ran along the ceiling. She was halfway down the poorly lit corridor when the sphere dropped down from the roof. With a startled yelp, she fell backwards, her eyes smarting as the bright blue glare from its optic illuminated her face.
"'Ello? You alright down there?" it asked. Chell blinked and stood up, wincing and rubbing her elbows. A metal 'eyelid' of sorts lifted up under the machine's optic, giving the impression of a smile.
"Oh, good. Thought your little primate heart might have stopped, or something. You're a pretty sensitive lot, aren't you? Still, at least you're fine."
Chell looked up in amazement as it moved closer to her, still 'smiling'. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. She wasn't even sure if it would understand her.
"You, uh, going to say something? Anything?" it asked. She remained silent.
"Right, then. Um, introductions…" It paused, looked up at the ceiling, and started speaking slowly in the manner of someone talking to a foreigner. "Hello, my name is…"
"Wheatley?" Chell said, blurting it out without thinking twice.
"Huh! Nice name, I like that. And I am core B-9."
"No, I'm Chell. You're Wheatley. Wait, no, hang on."
"Not sure what you mean. I wish, though; it's a great name."
Chell rested her hand on the wall and laughed shakily. She tilted her head, trying to grasp how the little thing worked. It squinted and tilted itself as well, and despite the lack of facial features, she realized it was just as curious about her as she was of it.
"You're a bit unusual," it said at last. "No offense, of course, but all the other humans I've met so far – they're different. Much more formal, you know what they want from you. Is there anything you want?"
"Well, you're a pretty incredible piece of technology. I'm interested in how you work, I guess. Mr. Rattmann managed to get me a picture of what the GLaDOS looks like now, and you look an awful lot like those things they have attached to it."
"Ah, yes. Personality constructs, if you want the full name. And I am indeed one of them. Unlike the ones attached to her, though, I transmit things directly into the memory banks. No need to hang me on her like some sort of common gewgaw. I can go wherever I want. Sort of. I just follow the rail, really; but I'm still more important then those other cores."
"Can it talk back to you?"
"Oh yes. They switched her on to see if I was affecting her in any way, and she started filling me with all this horrible stuff. Once she's on permanently, I think I'm just going to ignore her."
"What is it you actually do?"
The robot paused and looked away, its top eyelid lowering.
"I, uh... just have to keep supplying her with suggestions and thoughts. Anything, really; as long as I keep talking to her they're happy. Yeah."
Chell nodded, still fixated on B-9. It was glancing at her occasionally, seemingly unnerved by her stare.
"Right, well, good luck with the potato batteries," it said at last. It was just swiveling around to leave when Tremblay came up the corridor, holding a large paper cup of red liquid. At the sight of B-9, he tightened his grip on the cup.
"B-9, I told you to leave! Remember, if you talk to a child long enough, you'll die."
A diaphragm shutter built into B-9's eye plate closed around its optic, leaving a small pinpoint of light.
"You never told me that one before! Why didn't you? Oh gosh." It turned quickly to Chell. "Nice meeting you," it said before zipping down the hall, the metal rail squeaking like an injured rodent.
Tremblay shook his head and presented the cup to Chell.
"Would it really have broken down?" she asked him as she took a sip.
"Of course not. It's far too valuable for that. We only tell it things like that to make it behave. It's also convinced that it'll die if it disengages from its management rail."
Chell wrinkled her nose; it was a creative solution, but she couldn't help thinking it had an edge of cruelty. She tried to shake the thought. The core might have acted like a sentient creature, but it was all simulated. It couldn't actually feel fear – or so she hoped.
Taking another sip and bidding Tremblay goodbye, she made her way back to the main room and slumped down onto a chair. Her head was feeling stuffy, as if a hot mist was trapped inside her skull. Thinking it was dehydration, she took a few more gulps of the liquid before placing the cup by the chair leg.
A few minutes later, she had passed out.