(...and yet more delays. I'm really sorry. :( )

If I Didn't Care

Doug carefully placed the companion cube on the floor, glad to be free of the weight. He sat down next to it, wincing as pain coursed through his muscles. For a while he watched as the survivors settled themselves down, children with their parents, orphans huddled together. Cautiously, one by one, people started to remove their respirators. Doug did so as well, giving a sigh of contentment as the cool air hit his sweaty face.

"This is where we'll be staying?" said Tremblay, circling the room.

"Yes," B-9 said. "We're on one of the tracks built for testing that new gun thing, just behind chamber 24."

"Can't we get in there? There's hardly room to breath in this place."

"Yeah, I suppose you think I can get rid of her cameras."

"Well why can't you?"

"Uh, last time I checked, you told me I would die if I hacked one!"

Doug sighed and rested his head on the side of the cube, wishing they would stop talking. The journey to the testing tracks had been hellish, with GLaDOS hanging over them like a scientist toying with lab rats. Three of their number had been taken, another injured, and now, just when Doug thought they had found respite, Tremblay had started complaining.

"Henry," Doug said, standing and placing a hand on Tremblay's shoulder. "Let's just catch a second of peace while we can."

Tremblay whispered something inaudible and turned to face him.

"There's no time. I need to find a way to fix the GLaDOS before the system corruption damages the facility beyond repair. We might be able to fit an expendable core in the body for a while, let it take on the virus while we mend Caroline's."

"You honestly want to salvage that thing?" said a journalist, thrusting a finger in the air as if GLaDOS was in the room with them at that very moment.

"What do you expect?" Tremblay said, all politeness towards the reporters evaporating. "While you were busy covering Black Mesa's mediocre plans, we were pouring time and effort into this project! Why shouldn't I try to save it? You haven't seen the work that went into its creation."

Having heard enough of their argument, Doug rubbed his forehead with the sleeve of his coat and wandered across the room, too frazzled to even think of escape. B-9 skirted overhead and, having moved a few panels aside, disappeared into the next section of testing track. Doug wandered through after it, grimacing as the feud grew more voluble.

The section he entered was much the same as the last, constructed from a metal with a garish yellow hue. B-9 hung in the corner, staring at the floor.

"Escaping the noise?" Doug said, walking up to it. B-9 glanced at him and, without speaking, positioned a panel to act as a rudimentary seat.

"Thank you, B-9," Doug said, sitting down and laying his respirator on the floor.

"Wheatley."

"Sorry?"

"If it's no skin off your nose, I'd like to be called Wheatley from now on."

Doug peered at the machine with raised eyebrows.

"Err, whatever you want," he said. He didn't feel like questioning the preferences of a machine, and besides, it felt more natural to address B-9 by his human name. "Where did you hear of it?"

"One of the girls at the science competition called me it. Poor thing's probably dead now – that or being tested. Not much of a difference, really."

"Chell?"

"Yes – pretty tall, slightly pudgy."

"I've been meaning to ask you about that. I told her to stay with you, didn't I? What happened?"

"She went rushing off after you. Not much I could have done about it – no arms, and all that."

"Yes, but did you see what happened to her?" Doug said, rising to his feet.

Wheatley turned away.

"She was taken, lifted up by one of those metal claws. I didn't tell you in case you started worrying."

"What made you think that was a good idea?" Doug said, raising his voice. Wheatley glanced sideways at him with a slight hint of reproach.

"There's no need to shout."

"I've managed to stay calm all day; I think I'm entitled to shout by now!"

Doug kept his eyes fixed on Wheatley's optic, his fists clenched. Behind the wall, he could hear the debaters gradually falling quiet.

"How did she look when she was taken?" he said at last, trying to keep his voice steady.

"She had her respirator on, a few bruises. I must confess, I don't think she was entirely in the right; when I had met with her earlier, she hadn't spoken a word - almost like she was mute."

"I'm afraid the robot's right, doctor," came a voice from behind. Doug turned and saw Dr Chambers slipping through the gap, her face tense.

"Go on," he said. The short burst of anger was subsiding, replaced with a dread that gnawed away at his innards like a rat at a corpse.

"After the event with Miss Rand, Dr Tremblay had become suspicious of you. He didn't think you would try and keep the girl from speaking. Just a few moments ago, before the activation, he drugged her and cut out her vocal cords. I'm afraid I... helped him."

Doug blinked and sat back down. Chambers paused for a moment, waiting to see how he reacted, before taking a deep breath and continuing.

"We knew the girl would tell someone when she realized something was wrong, and had a document forged, ready to be hid in your workplace. To make it look like you'd let some underground biology ward use her in return for a hefty sum."

"He really is mad," Doug said under his breath. Chambers bit her lips, making a smudge in the perfectly applied lipstick.

"You have to understand," she said, unable to hold her silence. "He was doing it for the company. If you or she had spoken, we'd be dead."

"That's the way it's turned out, regardless. The wreckage of recklessness."

Chambers' face flushed red, and she turned to leave the room.

"That's why I told you. It doesn't make any difference now. Dr Tremblay is convinced we can get out of this, but I know it's futile."

"Why such a defeatist, doctor? You seem to be able to think up imaginative solutions to save yourself. Surely this is no different?"

She glared at him.

"When Tremblay first told us about his plans for Miss Rand, I was the only person in the room who objected. I may have given in soon after, but I tried. I saw you standing in the corner, too scared to do anything."

"What could I have done?" Doug said, although he wasn't sure why he was trying to defend himself. If anything, he felt like agreeing with her.

Chambers opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came to her.

Eventually, she shook her head and turned to Wheatley.

"B-9, Tremblay has requested your help. He believes that your connection to the GLaDOS may help in finding and treating the source of the corruption."

"But we shouldn't be trying to fix her! We need to take her down!" Wheatley said.

"Asimov's second law, B-9; you don't have a choice."

"Huh? You told me to ignore the laws!"

"Just come!" she said, holding up her arms.

Doug hesitated, still digesting the conversation, before following. Wheatley trailed along after them.

"Hey," it said. "I'm, uh, sorry about letting her go. Really."

Doug grunted. "Not really anyone's fault but my own."

"Why did you let her come, anyway?" it asked.

"I don't know. I've been trying to sort out everything. Ignoring the dangers and letting things run their course, instead of getting out of it while I can – or could. Or maybe I was just scared. You know, when she told me what they did to Chell… it didn't surprise me."