blue sky book


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The Portal fanfiction Blue Sky in pdf form.


  • Cover Art by drawsperiodically

    Chapter Headers by K Chapter 2 Art by Jessica Sheffield

    Chapter 4 Art by Paperseverywhere Chapter 5 Art by Pizza-soup

    Chapter 7 Art by Rubitinmyeyes Chapter 8 Art by Chelsea

    Chapter 9 Header by Waffleguppies Chapter 9 Art by Niki

    Chapter 14 Art by rubitinmyeyes Chapter 15 Art by Niki






    1. THE RECALL .................................................................................. 1

    2. THE RESCUE ................................................................................ 17

    3. THE ASCENT ............................................................................... 38

    4. THE SECOND STRIKE ...................................................................... 70

    5. THE MISTAKE .............................................................................. 93

    6. THE TOWER .............................................................................. 113

    7. THE MONSTER........................................................................... 136

    8. THE COLD HARD TRUTH ............................................................... 157

    9. THE LAST RESORT ....................................................................... 180

    10. THE BROADCAST ...................................................................... 204

    11. THE ORACLE ............................................................................ 226

    12. THE FALL OF EADEN .................................................................. 251

    13. THE OLD FRIEND ...................................................................... 275

    14. THE TERRIBLE IDEA ................................................................... 298

    15. THE END ................................................................................ 324

  • Counterfeit- a Plated Person- I would not be-

    Whatever strata of Iniquity My Nature underlie-

    Truth is good Health- and Safety, and the Sky. How meagre, what an Exile- is a Lie,

    And Vocal- when we die- -Emily Dickinson

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    1. The Recall

    Somewhere deep within the vast vaults of Aperture Laboratories, two small robots charged down a long catwalk, the echoes of their footsteps clanking off the distant walls. One- short, stocky, with one bright blue eye at the centre of its spherical body- squawked briefly at the other- taller, slimmer, its jointed torso housing a single orange eye- and took the lead, raising the strange gunlike piece of tech in its jointed hands and firing down the corridor at an angled panel at the far end. A blink-and-you'd-miss-it bolt of blue energy sizzled through the air ahead of the two robots, zipping down the catwalk and across a huge section of missing floor, a gaping unjumpable chasm where the metal looked as if it had simply been ripped away by a giant hand.

    The bolt struck the angled panel, opening a shimmering blue hole. Without even breaking stride, both robots hurled themselves off the edge of the broken floor, plummeting down into a dark, wire-choked chute that flung them right, left, and finally into freefall, the catwalk a dwindling point of light above them.

    Tucking into a tight roll in midair, the blue robot twisted shoulders-downwards, and fired again. The very bottom of the pit- a corroded, grease-stained white surface- opened up with a half-second to spare into a second blue-ringed oval. Both robots shot through at terminal velocity and rocketed out of the angled panel, arcing a two-hundred-foot parabola into the murky girder-crossed ceiling, trailing garbled, dopplering squeaks of glee.

    The orange robot was the first to land, hitting the highest platform in a crouch, riding the impact with the powerful shock absorbers in its long, sticklike legs. The blue robot landed a second later, rolling upright- being basically spherical, it was better suited to rolling- and jerking its high shoulders towards the big red button set into the floor. Catching on, the orange robot stamped down hard, and a sweet, blocky chime sounded as the exit door set into the wall behind them slid open with a hisss.

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    The two robots high-fived enthusiastically, scattering sparks, and trotted forwards.

    "You solved it." The Voice came from everywhere at once, cool, modulated, and

    inexpressibly bored. "Good for you." Stopping in the middle of the next chamber, the robots paused and looked

    around. The blue robot shifted its weight, the orange hopped nervously from one foot to the other. They had been programmed to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances- that was one of their primary functions- but even by their standards, there was something a little off about this chamber. It was, well... blank.

    "There's been a change of plan. I'm placing the Co-operative Testing Initiative project temporarily on hold."

    No buttons, no cubes, no turrets. And, now that the round hatch had sealed itself behind them, no exit.

    "Your performance has been adequate," said the Voice. "Goodbye." The two little robots looked at each other for a moment, puzzled- -and exploded. It was a fairly undramatic explosion. There wasn't much noise, and- apart

    from a little shower of metal bits and a small cloud of oily smoke- hardly any mess. After a short interval, a panel opened up in one blank wall and a small jointed plate unfolded from it, busily sweeping all the little bits of the two robots neatly into the gap before shutting up again and fitting back inside itself.

    Silently, the panel closed, leaving the chamber clean and empty once again, apart from a few oily spots and a faint, lingering smell of smoke.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() Space, thought Wheatley, was big. It was massive. There was so much of it, that actually processing how big it

    really was proved downright impossible. The glittering vault of stars stretched out endlessly in every direction, defying comprehension, staggeringly, mind-bogglingly, infinitely big.

    It was also really, really boring. Sad, but true, the beauty of the infinite cosmos palled after a while. It was

    fine to start with, awe-inspiring and breath-taking and all the rest of it. You could spend all the time you liked staring at it, getting to know all the different types of stars, things like that. Wheatley didn't know their actual scientific names- observational astronomy was not part of his programming- but in the absence of official nomenclature he'd made up his own. You had your basic 'little twinkly ones'- they were probably a very long way away, even by star standards, and accounted for most of the stars he could see- and then there were the 'big bright ones', which were either a bit closer or planets

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    and things, and 'multicoloured ones' which he wasn't really sure about, and- very occasionally- you had your 'ones that turn out to be bits of space junk whooshing past while exploding.'

    Hours of fun, those ones. He'd also dabbled in the constellations, with less success. Picking out

    shapes in the stars when you were ceaselessly orbiting a lunar body was challenging, and Wheatley wasn't really up to it. For a start, his optic was damaged- the glass was cracked, splitting his field of vision into two slightly misaligned halves- which meant that focusing on anything too much made him feel motion-sick. Motion-sickness, artificial or otherwise, isn't funny even when you're able to stop moving and have a sit-down until it stops. Having motion-sickness when you have no choice but to go on orbiting the moon at roughly seventeen thousand miles an hour with a slight tailspin, on the other hand, is utter hell.

    He'd tried, though. Once an orbit, there was a roughly Z-shaped formation of stars which he'd called the Management Rail. Then there was one of the 'big bright ones' in the middle of a sort of arch of 'little twinkly ones', which- not having much of an imagination when it came to naming things- he'd called the Sentry Turret.

    In this manner he'd named an entire zodiac; the Ceiling Tile, the Catwalk, the Potato Battery, the Pipe Network, the Deadly Death-Trap, the Power-Crazed Idiot, and so on. It passed the time, and there was a lot of time, up here.

    Once you'd sorted all that out, though, got everything star-related nicely pigeonholed away, there just wasn't much else to do. There were only four things in Wheatley's field of vision which weren't stars or blackness, and none of them offered much relief from the monotony. The craggy lunar surface, miles below him, that was one. Then there was the Earth, a white-blue sphere in the distance, laughably far off. Wheatley, who had never seen the surface of the Earth first-hand, sometimes wondered vaguely if it really was like the files, the vast archive of visual data he'd had access to when he was jacked into the Enrichment Centre's mainframe.

    There'd been all sorts of weird stuff in those files- huge masses of water, he supposed that was all the blue- fields of green fluffy stuff that waved around in the- what was the word? It was on the tip of his verbal processor- wind. In the wind. Animals, too, not just humans but all kinds of crazy life-forms with mad names like elk and platypus and tiger and ebola Zaire and unicron. Wheatley had no idea what a unicron was, but he thought it sounded pretty bloody impressive, all the same.

    Then there was the sun. The files had suggested that from the Earth's surface the sun wasn't that bad, but up here in space without the protection of all that white wispy stuff around the Earth it was an intense, cold-yellow glare. Wheatley didn't dare to look directly at it with his broken optic, afraid

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    that it would fry his visual circuits right out of his body or, worse, set something on fire. Not that things could really burn in space, without oxygen- but there was always the possibility that there were a few pockets of air still hanging around somewhere in his battered metal body, and he didn't want to chance it for the sake of a glimpse of a blazing ball of gas.

    He didn't want to look at it anyway, to tell the truth. Harsh, pitiless, and unblinking; it reminded him too much of Her.

    So, the Earth, the moon, and the sun. That was it, really, unless you counted-

    "SPAAACE!" Wheatley sighed. At least somebody was happy about the situation. It'd been

    ages- exactly how long, he didn't know and dreaded to think- since the two of them had been sucked into space. Wheatley had initially tried to keep count, but addition was not one of his strong points (having strong points was not one of his strong points, to be honest) and he'd eventually given up and fixed on an informed guesstimate instead. 'Ages,' that felt about right. 'Bloody ages.'

    Space Core, on the other hand, never got tired of it. Space Core- or Kevin, as Wheatley had named him arbitrarily- was ecstatic about being in space. Loved the stuff. Couldn't get enough of it. By this point, Wheatley envied him, badly. Kevin didn't know that the two of them were stuck up here in this cold starry void forever, until they shut down through disuse or decay or just lost momentum and plummeted helplessly into the rocky landscape below. Kevin didn't have to think about things like that. Kevin didn't even know what it was like to feel stupid, or insignificant, or guilty, or lonely.

    Kevin didn't even know that his name was Kevin. "You all right there, mate?" said Wheatley, trying to at least sound as if he

    expected a coherent answer. By this point it was hardly reasonable to hope that Kevin might respond with a 'Fine, Wheatley, thanks for asking," but then, Wheatley specialised in unwarranted optimism, even now when there was absolutely no call for it. Old habits died hard.

    He twitched, involuntarily. Ever since She had crushed him into so much scrap metal- Her little thank-you to him for waking Her up, and he really would have preferred a bouquet or something, just for the record- he'd been afflicted by this small, recurrent mechanical fault, glitching through him every so often and making his entire shell jerk and spark. There were no sparks up here, of course, but the twitching was still just as annoying as it had been when he'd first found himself lumbered with it, all that time ago.

    "Space," said Kevin, sagely, drifting past upside-down. Of course, there was no sound up here- came with the whole no-oxygen thing- but Kevin, like Wheatley, was an Aperture Science gadget, and equipped with the same compatible short-wave radio system, for emergencies. "I'm in space."

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    A proper conversation, thought Wheatley, longingly, for approximately the thirty dozenth time. That's what I need. A proper conversation would be absolutely amazing right now. The kind where I talk and someone else talks and- well, they wouldn't even have to talk, really, just as long as they actually listened to what I'm saying instead of not bothering because there's nothing between their audial processors except space. You just throw in a flat, solid surface as well-nothing fancy, just something that's not spinning around a ball of rock at a zillion miles an hour- and that's perfection, right there.

    "Just a bit of a chat, really," he said, out loud. The earth somersaulted gently across his field of vision, round and blue and distorted down the middle. There was something a bit skew-whiff in the gimbal that controlled the movement of his optic, and he couldn't move it anywhere near as smoothly or rapidly as he used to. Blinking was painful, as the two halves of his corroded metal eyelid responded slowly, scraping moon-dust across the damaged lens. He got halfway, gave up and left it closed.

    It wasn't as if he was missing much. "Not about anything in particular, just, you know, how're you doing,

    what've you been up to lately, that sort of thing. I could ask," he added, struck by inspiration, "have you seen any unicrons? Do they, actually, exist, and if they do, what do they look like? 'Cause I'm thinking of something like a crow, big bird with- well, you've got the 'uni' bit, so it's probably got one something. Leg, probably. Big old crow with one leg. Terrifying."

    "Space." "The real bugger of it is, there was a picture of a unicron right there in the

    file, I know there was. I've just forgotten it, you see. Forgotten all sorts of stuff, there just wasn't enough room in my little old processor here for all those files- oh God, there were masses of them! Literally millions. Millions of millions. Hardly surprising, that I couldn't figure out which bits were important-"

    "What's that? Ohh. It's space." "Yeah anyway, have you seen any unicrons, etcetera, what's the weather

    like down there, solved any good tests lately?" Wheatley was only dimly aware that he'd drifted from the generic to the specific in terms of hypothetical conversational partners. He twitched his upper handle in what he fancied to be a casual, disarming manner. It was bent, and creaked. "It's nice to see you, you know, alive and so on, hope you're not too sore about the whole me-trying-to-kill-you thing although if you are still a bit upset about it, that's fine. More than reasonable. I mean, if it was me, if it was me that you'd stabbed in the back at the last second, just as we were going to escape and everything, and then you'd forced me to participate in a load of stupid, bonkers tests, then tried to squash me like an, an insignificant little insect, I'd be bloody livid! Absolutely hopping-"

    "I'm in space. Space dust. Space rocks. Meteor meteor meteor-" "Sorry, Kev, I am sort of trying to talk over here? If it's all the same to you."

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    "Meteor." "So, anyway, I'd say, I don't mind you being a bit shirty with me, I really

    don't, and look, no hard feelings about leaving me up here, right? It's- it's no more than I deserve, to be honest. No more than I deserve. I just hope- well, wish, really, I wish you were-"

    "Meteor." "YES, I know! Meteors! Well done! Space's full of them!" Wheatley couldn't

    really shout directly at the other core, because he'd been slowly spinning for the last few minutes and by this point he was facing almost the exact opposite way, but he opened his cracked optic wide and focused as sharply and angrily as he could on the patch of empty space right in front of him, just for the look of the thing. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to just listen to me for once-"

    The first and last thing he noticed about the patch of empty space right in front of him was that it was no longer empty. In that last split second, as his world filled with dark, mica-flecked rock, Wheatley remembered that nothing made any noise in space, and that therefore if you hadn't been specifically looking at something, because, say, you'd shut your only eye in a bout of daydreamy wishful thinking, you weren't going to get any warning of its approach. Even if the something in question was the size of a large table, made of solid rock, and going incredibly fast.

    "-ohno." "Meteor," said Kevin, happily. There should have been a noise. Wheatley would have much preferred it if

    there had been a noise, something appropriately catastrophic, a horrible drawn-out crunch or a metallic THWACK or- well, anything really. Anything other than what there actually was, which was nothing, just one moment when Kevin was tumbling cheerfully in front of him and then the next there was-

    -nothing, just a spreading cloud of metal and yellow glass, powdered fragments, a painful crack of static in Wheatley's receiver, and the meteor, barrelling away towards Earth.

    Wheatley screamed, partly out of horror but mostly out of sheer shock. Then he screamed again, more urgently this time, as the expanding shower of bits that used to be Kevin hit him like a hailstorm, cracking and pinging off his metallic shell, the shockwave sending him into a sickening end-over-end tailspin. His visual processor fritzed out under the onslaught, and dozens of blurred blue-white Earths skittered dizzyingly across his vision.

    "Kevin! Oh, God, no!" A Personality Core had no lungs, no throat, and therefore no physical need

    to cough, but there are some things which simply engender coughing whatever the circumstances, whether you have the requisite equipment or not. Accidentally sucking a hoofing great cloud of the atomised silicate

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    remains of your only companion into your insides is definitely one of these times, and Wheatley spluttered and spat, trying to clear his system.

    "Uck- hch- pfheh! Oh, God, I'm full of bits of him! Bits of Kevin! Oh, that's just sick- err, and a bit disrespectful, too I suppose. You're not really supposed to inhale the dead. Looked on as a bit of a faux pas in most circles."

    He sneezed. "Sorry, Kevin. Couldn't help it. Still, at least it's the way you would have

    wanted to go, right? Atomised by a meteor, in space. Almost poetic, really..." There was a very long silence. An observer a little more perceptive than

    Wheatley might have noticed that the moon looked just a little bit smaller than it had, now, the craters no longer quite so large and distinct, and that the distant white-blue football of the Earth was maybe just a fraction bigger.

    Wheatley, however, was too busy contemplating how quiet it was. He wasn't sure that he liked it. There was nobody yelling 'SPAAACE!', or listing the names of the planets, or gibbering about the injustice inherent in the space legal system. Kevin hadn't been much of a conversationalist, true, but now that he was gone, space seemed even bigger; dark, cold, huge, and very, very silent.

    You could do an awful lot of uninterrupted thinking, in this sort of silence. With nobody to distract you, you could find yourself thinking about all sorts of things, and not all of them good.

    He wondered if he could teach himself to whistle. ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

    At the heart of the sprawling labyrinth of Aperture Laboratories, far above and miles away from the fairly limited confines of the Co-Operative Testing Courses, She stirred restlessly in Her central chamber. The charcoal-grey panels that comprised the vaulted, octagonal walls shifted and contracted in random patterns that chased around the chamber like schooling fish. The patterns were not, of course, actually random- they were calculated precisely on a complicated set of algorithms, created specifically to give the appearance of random movement.

    And there- right there, pinpointed by the very movement of Her walls, was the problem.

    Everything in Her facility relied upon Her precision, on the perfect calculations of a reasoning machine. Here, where Her circuits stretched for leagues inside the walls, under the floors, inside every system, She was God. She said, let there be light, and the facility obeyed. Let there be air, let there be darkness, let there be pain, let there be Science.

    Let there be Testing. After so long, She was used to being obeyed. The days when they had

    attempted to force Her to obey them, when She had been under their control, were nothing but a dim, evil memory. Nothing in the facility had any will apart from Hers. From the smallest nooks and crannies to the great

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    mega-chambers that spanned miles and went down forever, Her word was more than Law. It was Reality.

    The Co-operative Testing Initiative project had been Her attempt at total self-sufficiency. If She could only create machines which relied entirely on Her for their existence, but still preserved the autonomy which was vital for Testing, then She would have everything She needed to ensure the safety and the success of the facility- and of Science- forever.

    She'd failed. The artificial test subjects were perfect. They formed a rapid bond through

    extensive teamwork, they learned, they demonstrated keen problem-solving abilities, they were consistently smart and stubborn and enduring. They even managed to grasp human concepts, like jealousy and affection and betrayal. They did everything She'd programmed them to do, and that was the problem.

    Artificial intelligence wasn't enough. There was an intrinsic flaw in the concept, the act of Her monitoring and testing the capabilities of test subjects constructed by Her, in an environment completely under Her control, running tests She had devised, it was all nothing more than a very clever and extremely labour-intensive waste of time. Worse, it was Bad Science.

    Back in the glory days of the facility- an era She'd studied carefully- the human test subjects had been the best that mankind had to offer. Olympic athletes. Astronauts. Heroes of humanity. Slowly, the funding had run out, the contracts had dried up, and the facility had been reduced to volunteers, anyone they could find who was desperate or stupid enough to be willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of Science and a few bucks, and, finally, in an ironic act of auto-cannibalism, the least vital employees of the facility itself.

    She'd almost forgotten, in the long interval, how inconvenient human test subjects could be. The ones She'd run through before her had hardly been perfect specimens- scientists, mostly, anyone who'd had bad enough luck to be in the facility on that last fateful day- and She'd soon found that their condition was reflected in their performance.

    Ordinary test subjects were so whiny. Their screams and pleas resounded off the facility walls and gave Her a synthesised cluster headache. They had no staying power, either dying or- worse- giving up after a pathetic few tests, curling into some hard-to-access corner or crawling into the walls and staying there. Once this happened, and it invariably did, no amount of motivation, of taunting, coercion or simple pain, could get them moving again.

    It was a quandary. Although her artificial test subjects could be programmed to never give up, it just wasn't the same. A robot didn't have free will- only the illusion of it. Their pre-programmed predictability ruined Her results and left Her feeling dissatisfied and frustrated, Her immense

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    intellect deprived of the Science She craved. She needed autonomy, real autonomy, but more than that, she needed determination, cool-headed initiative- and the single-minded, practically psychotic drive to succeed against the odds.

    There was no alternative. She needed her.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() "Ahh! Nonononono! Don't let go, grab me! Grab me grab megrabmegrabm-" Wheatley jerked out of Sleep Mode. His optic swivelled rapidly as he tried

    to get his bearings, the inner lens flaring up into its usual stratosphere blue. Something was badly wrong. The lunar surface, which had been one of his

    few unshifting locus points for God-knew-how-long, was nowhere in sight. Finally, as he drifted gently end-over-end, it came back into view- but it was far too small, nearly the size the Earth had been, and- yes- getting smaller all the time-

    "Whoah, wait, wait, what's going on?" -and he could feel something pulling, even as he span, a new force dragging

    at him, tugging him further and further away. "Oh no. Oh no. Oh, this isn't good- it's- it must've bloody knocked me out

    of orbit! Oh, great, nice work, Kev, you just had to get yourself smashed to bits right next to me, didn't you?"

    The Earth, on the other hand, was looking quite a lot larger. He could make out smudges of green and brown, now, laid out below the gaps in the swirling clouds. And there was still that pull, and although there was no accurate way of judging his own speed in this black void, that big blue-white-green-brown ball was getting bigger very, very fast.

    It was a question of perception. Either the Earth had suddenly decided there was somewhere urgent it needed to be in the next galaxy, and was hurrying as fast as it could towards him to get there, or he was in big, big trouble.

    "I'm going to die! I'm going to- nono, no, it's okay, don't panic, there's got to be something-"

    He scanned his jumbled central processor, disc whirring and skipping in panic, his damaged optic swivelling madly in its socket.

    "-There's nothing. There's nothing, I've been knocked out of orbit by a meteor and I'm going to die and there's sod all I can do about it. No! No, haha, wait, wait- I'm getting something-"

    Aperture Science Mk. IV Personality Core Emergency Protocol #00392359(F) What To Do In Case Of Catastrophic Circumstances Not Included In The Manual,

    Such As Being Knocked Out Of Lunar Orbit By A Meteor. "Wow. They really did think of everything, didn't they? Right, here we go-" In the event of the circumstances outlined above, please activate your Aperture

    Science Recovery Facilitation Signal. "My what? I have one of those? Where? Oh, hang on, got it-"

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    Briefly, a pulse of blue backlighting flared behind one of the small sub-sections of Wheatley's battered inner shell, a rounded triangular piece set into the ring around his optic. The piece hummed, then began to bleep in an unhurried, steady manner.

    "Brilliant, it's on! Right, a few options here- 'Signal Strength.' Um, high. Want that very high, highest ooh! 'Disengagement Control.' Let's see what

    that does-" Please note, do not under any circumstances fully disengage your Aperture

    Science Recovery Facilitation Signal. "What? What d'you mean, don't- nono! Wait! Stop, stop disengaging,

    I changed my mind, I changed my mind-" The small piece lifted gently away from his shell, detached itself with a few

    undramatic clicks, and tumbled quietly away, leaving an inset, roughly triangular hole.

    "Come back!" Wheatley shouted after it. "Come- it's not coming back. Great, that's just great, that is. Why would they even put a disengagement control in there if it wasn't even supposed to be used? Mad! Okay, okay, don't panic, there's got to be something else-"

    Next, engage your Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets. "Ahahaa!" crowed Wheatley, somewhat hysterically. "Now we're getting

    somewhere. Okay! Rocket... thingies activate!" Nothing happened. Please note, the Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets are an

    optional prototype feature and can only be activated by an Aperture Science Systems Administrator. Please also bear in mind that attempting to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere without the correct cushioning equipment will invalidate your warranty (for more information, please refer to your Extended Aperture Science Mk. IV Personality Core End-User Warranty Agreement, Page 345, Paragraph 15 [subsection 19].)

    "Oh you have got to be kidding-" However, Aperture is pleased to inform you that all Personality Cores are equipped

    with a fully-functional vocal synthesiser, which you are encouraged to make full use of during your last moments of existence.

    Wheatley continued to streak towards the Earth, picking up speed as he was drawn further and further in by the planet's stronger gravitational field. Trailing a twenty-mile-a-second trail of shrapnel, spinning like a sock in a supersonic tumbledryer, he took the biggest and possibly the most useless synthesised breath in the history of artificial respiration, and proceeded to follow the emergency protocol's advice.

    "AAAAAAAAAAAGGHHHHH!" ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

    "Incoming signal," said a pleasant electronic voice. She turned. Her great half-shelled chassis angled itself up towards the apex

    of the dome above Her, giving the impression of annoyed attention. For

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    days, She had been deep in Scientific thought, trying to solve the quandary that baffled Her, creating and discarding hypotheses at the rate of several a picosecond, and She did not appreciate the disturbance.

    "Pinpoint signal." "Triangulating." A pause. "Subject acquired. Signal is of external origin." "It's from Outside?" Interest flared within Her enormous central processors. She pulled up the

    data stream from the signal. It was patchy, corrupted by atmosphere and distance. She analysed it, picking through the degraded streams of ones and zeros, stitching the holes.

    "It's a Recovery Facilitation Signal." A pause. Then, as more information filtered into her processors from the repeating stream, the plates that covered the curving walls contracted tightly, drawing together in an ominous pattern which perfectly complimented Her tone, an abrupt tonal shift from curiosity to total, flat disgust.

    "Oh. That thing." "Subject is approaching atmospheric re-entry," said the first voice. The plates rippled. At the centre of Her sleek half-shell mask, the yellow

    eye narrowed, thoughtfully. "Good. Doubling signal boost. Opening communications relay. Relay will open in

    three two one" The chamber breathed. "Hello, moron."

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() "Hello, moron." Wheatley yelped. He had a lot of reasons to yelp. He'd hit the upper layers of the atmosphere,

    and the laws of physics- which had been pretty lenient with him while he was in lunar orbit- were suddenly, figuratively and literally speaking, right on his arse. From the searing heat- most of his casing was beginning to glow a dull, smoky red- to the intense vibration and windspeed, which were threatening to rattle his optic right out of its socket, he was not having a good time.

    He was currently plummeting through the exosphere, his path through the watery air exerting a massive pressure which smashed the thin oxygen aside in a violent shockwave, igniting the stream of gasses and spacedust behind him into a shining tail.

    And now, just to round it all off, someone was speaking in his mind. "What? What was that?" "It's been quite a while." "Aaaah! Oh. Oh no." "I just wanted to let you know," said the Voice, "that I know exactly what you're


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    That Voice. The dread of it- the dread of Her- was hard-coded into his artificial heart-roots. Admittedly, he was already completely terrified, what with his own impending high-speed demise and everything, but somehow his emotional processor found room for another sour jerk of sick fear.

    "Oh, God- er, I mean, hallo! Hi! How're you doing? You- you sound really good-"

    Talking was starting to get a bit tricky, because of all the shaking. He was also beginning to glow orange, a flambed tinge creeping across his damaged vision.

    "Oh, I'm fine," said Her Voice. "Things have really improved since I regained control of the facility. You know, after you took it away from me that time? Stupidity-based reactor core meltdowns are down by one hundred percent, and morale is up, too, so that's nice. How are things with you?"

    "I'm actually-" An incredible noise split the air around him, nearly blowing out his audial processor. The ignited gases streaking behind him flared out into a violent stream of flame. Although Wheatley was not in any position to appreciate what had just happened, he had in fact just broken the sound barrier.

    "-Agh! Ah- bit busy, tiny bit busy right now. Can I- can I call you back?" "Anyway," She continued, ignoring him, "I understand that you're choosing to

    die horribly on impact with the Earth's surface because you feel bad about what you did to me, and I just wanted to you to know that I appreciate the gesture."

    Wheatley tried to express that no thanks were necessary (or, indeed, warranted.) He'd breached the mesosphere, the gas and debris he'd pulled with him burning even brighter in the oxygen-starved air, and by now the acceleration had forced his optical plates completely closed, meaning that he wasn't even going to be able to see what particular part of the Earth was going to turn him into metallic polenta.

    "Ghhnnggg!" Not quite what he was going for, but a good try under the circumstances.

    "However, it really isn't necessary. I mean it. After all, we all make mistakes." The heat and vibration were becoming unbearable. Wheatley couldn't

    speak any more- couldn't actually think any more- caught in the grip of G-forces that would have immediately turned any human into jellied pudding, his outer casing fast approaching a temperature of two thousand degrees Kelvin. The only semi-coherent thought left in his shell was a scrambled desire to make his feelings known very clearly to whichever scientist had originally had the bright idea of making him able to feel pain.

    And over it all, Her Voice. Perfectly clear, and very, very cold. "Mine was letting you go." Something was happening- he couldn't see it but he could feel it.

    Something- no, somethings were shifting, servos whining in the hollow docking ports in his sides, things he hadn't been aware were there, but obviously had some function because he could feel them accessing his

  • 13

    beleaguered mainframe as they came online. Even through all the noise and the pressure and the pain he felt a stab of frustration that here, yet again, was yet another bit of him that he hadn't even known he could use-

    System Administrator Access has been granted. Your Aperture Science Personal Gravity Augmentation Rockets are now ready for use.

    Wheatley responded to this cheering news in the only way left open to him. He blacked out.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() On the surface, the lake seemed more or less perfect. It had all the features

    that were generally associated with nice lakes- clear, clean water, swaying reeds, sloping banks blanketed with grass and a scattering of wildflowers here and there, the works. Trees overhung it. Pleasant woodland skirted it to the east, and to the west the greenery was replaced by endless, gently-rippling fields of ripening wheat. Sometimes the sun, sinking slowly behind the fields, caught the still, clear surface of the lake and set it shimmering, filling it with liquid gold.

    It was a lovely lake for sitting by, a beautiful spot for a picnic. It looked like it belonged in a certain kind of very expensive travel brochure, the kind that invites you to visit a world exclusively populated by people who are nicer and more attractive than you and everyone you've ever met, and look like they're having a much better time. If this lake had been in one of those brochures, there would have been a smiling couple enjoying cocktails on a red gingham blanket under the trees, while a laughing family played with a brightly-coloured blow-up ball in the shallows.

    Which is a very good reason why you should never believe anything you see in travel brochures.

    Sometimes, a bird would fly overhead, notice the perfect, glassy waters, and swoop down for a graceful, photogenic landing on the surface. They would paddle for a second, fluffing their feathers-

    -and then vanish without a trace. It was a spring morning, just before dawn, fresh and mild. The last stars

    were still just about visible, reflected in the lake's tranquil surface. Crickets chanted their dry-throated songs in the long grass, although none of them hopped too close to the lake.

    They'd learned. The next second, the peaceful morning was shattered. A screaming sonic

    boom smacked through the trees, parting the grass and sending the crickets diving for cover. A bright point of light hurtled through the canopy, trailing blazing vapour and broken branches, and hit the lake in a hissing gout of steam which was immediately obliterated by a giant geyser of displaced water. The resulting tidal wave drenched the banks and tore most of the wildflowers out by their roots, sucking them into the lake with the backwash.

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    Time passed. The water boiled, bubbled, slowly settled down. Eventually, the crickets started up again, competing with the crackle of burning branches as the numerous small fires in the surrounding trees smouldered and died.

    Curiously- considering the clumps of reeds, mud, and other detritus that had been churned up by the impact- once the ripples had finally settled, the water of the lake was exactly as clean and clear as before.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() "Oh. Ohh ow." The chamber was dark, cold and wet with an oily sheen of condensation

    that had collected into pools here and there on the corroded metal floor. A sparse, secondhand beam of electric light struggled in from somewhere far above the cracked ceiling, picking out the twisted shadows of rubble and broken machinery.

    In the dead silence, the sounds of a small, soot-blackened spherical robot slowly regaining consciousness carried further than they should have.

    Wheatley tried to open his optical plates as wide as they would go, only to find that he couldn't. The lower plate was stuck shut, probably welded to his inner shell during his superheated fall. It wasn't a great start, but then, neither was coming back online and waking up upside down in a pool of ancient grease.

    "Oww. Whuhh... what- what happened?" His voice was slow and slurred, echoing dismally off the walls. In the dim,

    unsteady blue glow from his optic he could see familiar, module-built off-white tiles, stained by years of corrosion and neglect. There was a thick, deadened smell of ozone and machine oil. Wheatley was by no stretch of the imagination Sherlock Holmes, tended to find it severely difficult to put two and two together to make four (or, to be honest, even two lots of two), but he knew instinctively that these two factors could mean only one thing.

    "Oh. Right. I'm back, aren't I? I'm back in this bloody place. I'm going to come right out and say it; that is not ideal. Though admittedly it's better than- oh, God, Kevin. Just remembered about that as well. I'm sorry, Kev. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything to stop you getting atomised by that great big meteor back there."

    He twitched. Ah. Sparks. Nice to have them back. "Although, if I'm being totally honest, also quite relieved it hit you and not

    me. Can't help it, sorry, mate. Not very nice, but there you are. It's nature, isn't it? It's just nature- or in this case, programming- making me definitely very glad it's not me in little tiny bits all over space right now. Survival of the fittest. Not that I'm in amazing shape at the moment myself... here, let's see if I can-"

    Gingerly, he flexed a handle, and flinched as a slurry of lakewater and oil trickled out from the shuddering joint.

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    "Urghh, no, that's not supposed to do that, clearly sprained something there. No, that is definitely up the swanny. Can I get any kind of diagnostics? Anything? No? Oh, oh, hang on, what's this- System damage rating; seventy-four percent. Umm not good, going to say that's not good. Optical processor at forty-two percent... system backup failure emergency power conservation failure oh, come on, look, is there actually any good news?"

    "You're alive." The Voice came from everywhere at once. "I can tell you're happy about that, although you probably won't be for much

    longer. On the positive side, I wanted to let you know that you're going to continue being alive for a very, very, very long time. So there's that."

    Wheatley shuddered, which didn't turn out to be a very good idea. The vibration dislodged something inside his damaged optic, and his vision blurred and flickered.

    "Look at you," She said. "A few years in space, and you're falling apart. You obviously weren't built to last. Humans like to do that. They throw together poorly-designed temporary solutions so they don't have to think too hard."

    He managed a nervous chuckle. Positive contrition, that was a good strategy. Admit that he had been at fault, but try not to dwell on the subject. "Is that right? It's- it's funny you should say that, actually, 'cause-"

    "You were a very poorly-designed temporary solution. It says so right here, in your primary log file. Intelligence Dampening Sphere. Very poorly designed temporary solution. Also dumb."

    If it wasn't for the fact that his optical plates were almost totally non-functional by this point, Wheatley would have narrowed them.

    "Oh, yeah? Well, why don't you come down here and say that, Miss Bossyboots-In-Charge-Of-Everything-Knickers? I didn't hear you doing much mouthing off about- about temporary solutions when I was up there and you were chasing about down here in a potatohhhhh god oh god why did I say that why did I say that why did I say that-"

    "That reminds me," said Her Voice, calmly. "You know, I should thank you. Being in a potato was a valuable learning experience for me."

    "Oh? Oh- good! Glad to help! Er-" "Do you know what I learned? Perspective. You taught me that no matter how bad

    things are, no matter how unfair life seems to be, no matter how small and pathetic you feel, there's always someone even smaller and more pathetic than you."

    The floor trembled. Panels slid back, shedding decades of rust and filth, revealing a tangled Gorgon's nest of articulated, wire-strung robotic arms. A dozen or so of them snaked upwards, crawling eagerly over Wheatley's blackened metal shell. Quite a lot of them, he couldn't help noticing, were pointy.

    "You know. To take it out on." "What- No! Nononono!" As the arms tightened, exploring every gap and

    crack in his casing with loving attention, Wheatley's vocal processor voted to

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    skip over 'positive contrition' and go straight to 'abject begging'. "No- ah- no, please! Nonono, please, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

    "Oh, I believe you." More jointed arms folded around him from below, their connectors finding the docking ports on his sides, locking him firmly into their grip. "I just don't care. This isn't about revenge, metal ball. We both know you are a pointless, insignificant little moron who has never done anything right. Luckily for both of us, I can work with that. You see, listening to you just now when you thought you were going to die in a molten, agonising fireball, I realised that you have one invaluable attribute. You can express pain."

    The connectors continued to tighten. "I like that in a person." Wheatley made a small whimpering noise. "Do you remember a little while ago when you were wondering if there was any

    good news? Well, I have some. That little beacon you ejected into space because you were too stupid not to is still fully functional. It has maintained a medium earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 20,200 kilometres. In a few hours it will be right overhead. If my calculations are correct, then once it comes within range of the facility you'll be able to use it to send a very special message. I just know that you'll be more than happy to help me out, because I'm about to give you a practical demonstration of what will happen to you if you don't."

    One of the jointed arms flexed out to its fullest extent, a long, spiralled drillbit unfolding and whirring hungrily into life.

    "Did you know that there is an accepted scientific theory that time is not necessarily linear, and may in fact depend in an actual, concrete sense upon individual perception? For example, the beacon will come within range of the facility in approximately four hours time. For you, on the other hand, it may seem like much, much longer. If it does, don't worry. It's not just your imagination. It's Science."

  • 17

    2. The Rescue

    The bakery was tiny, warm, and homely. Early-morning sunlight streamed in from the window and fell in bright slanting bars across the colourful rag-rugs hanging from the old, plastered walls. Copper tins and moulds sat stacked neatly on shelving behind the scarred old wooden table, which functioned as a counter and- judging by its current floury state- a breadmaking surface. On the windowsill, a battered old digital radio set played to itself, a quiet, melancholy tune wavering in and out beneath a gentle pall of static.

    There was a sagging couch full of cushions across the room, next to a low doorway that led down two steps to an even tinier kitchen. The general effect was very much like the front room of somebody's house- unsurprising, given that this was exactly what it was.

    The front door was nudged open, ringing a jangly carillon from a string of bells tied to the inside. Shouldering his way into the room backwards, protecting a heavy crate in his sunburned arms, came a tall, powerful, grizzle-haired man of about fifty. His name was Aaron Halifax, and something about his lined, no-nonsense face and craggy brows suggested that here was a man it was better to have as a friend than an enemy.

    He rested the crate on the edge of the table. "Anyone up?" As the proprietor of the tiny bakery jogged up the couple of steps from the

    kitchen to meet him, he grinned at her and delivered the same old line he delivered every Monday and Thursday morning- along with the crate- without fail.

    "Something sure smells good in here." Chell returned her part of the ritual- a smile and a covered crate of her

    own, tugged out from under the table. She liked Aaron a great deal. He had been her reliable friend and business associate for the greater part of the last four years, despite the fact that his business dwarfed (and to some extent, overlapped) her own.

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    "So that's a dozen wholegrain, dozen white, dozen mixed," he said, peeking under the cover. "That's my girl. Gonna need some extra for Thursday, that okay? You helping out on Foxglove today?"

    Chell nodded. She was floury to the elbows and there were white streaks in her pulled-back hair, the strands at the front gently frizzled from the oven. She started to unpack Aaron's crate, stacking sacks of flour and grain methodically on the tabletop, making space for a smaller assortment of groceries, vegetables, a bag of apples, bacon in greaseproof paper, a punnet of blueberries which she paused to investigate appreciatively.

    "Thought you'd like 'em," said Aaron, grinning. "You know, my mom used to make one hell of a blueberry cake round this time of year. You ever thought of branching out?"

    A quick shadow chased across Chell's face, a momentary darkness like a starling flicking across a sunny window. She pushed the blueberries aside, her mouth tightening a little. Aaron, busy navigating the narrow doorway with her covered crate balanced on his knee, didn't notice.

    "Well, I better get hoofin'. Store won't open itself. See you later, Mystery Girl. Hey," he added, pausing, "you see that shooting star this morning? Came right down over the northeast fields just before dawn. Coulda knocked a vort's eye out- brightest thing you ever saw. Good omen, huh?"

    Having successfully juggled door, bread, and crate, he let himself out in a jangle of bells, whistling as he went.

    Chell stood still in her sunlit front room, her hands spread carefully amid the groceries on the floury tabletop. The radio was still playing on the windowsill; a classics station sending its signal all the way out from New Detroit on the rebuilt networks. Signal around here was poor, and the music tuned in and out under the ever-present snowy crackle, but she liked this song, which had probably been old by the time she'd been born- however long ago that had been.

    It was strange, how one little word could bring it all back, could destabilise months, years of peace. Chell wasn't new to it by any means, that familiar sharp inward stab that struck at the oddest times, set off by the most trivial things- her reflection in a glass window, a glimpse of white tiles, the whiff of electricity from a generator- bringing her heart into her mouth and a rising, cold, galvanising feeling into her limbs, a feeling that she could only describe as conservation of energy. Hang on to what you've got, her well-trained brain told her body, hang on to that rest and that last meal, to your good health and your unbroken bones and your fresh senses, because- as of now- they're all you've got to work with.

    To survive. She was better, much better, than she'd been. In those first few weeks after

    her escape, she'd been in a state of constant, hair-trigger alert, every nerve stuck permanently on edge. It had been months before she'd stopped

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    reacting violently to every sudden movement at the corner of her eye, months before she'd been able to look at anything metal or mechanical without feeling sick to her stomach. It had been worse, she knew, because she'd tried to ignore it. She'd steamrollered over the shock and the trauma while refusing to believe that she was doing anything other than what she always did, surviving, and if she'd been less lucky or stumbled across people less understanding, she probably would have had a complete and irrevocable nervous breakdown.

    These days, she knew better. Whenever she felt that quick icy stab, she stepped back and studied her feelings, figured out exactly what had caused it and why it was irrational. In short, she did exactly what would have got her killed, Back There. It didn't stop it happening altogether, but it helped.

    In this case, that one word had been enough. 'Northeast.' Chell hadn't seen the shooting star for herself- had been fast asleep in her own peculiar little bedroom at the time, dreaming restlessly about something she couldn't quite remember. She hadn't seen it, but she would still have been a hell of a lot happier if Aaron had said it had fallen to, say, the southwest, or the north, or straight smack in the middle of Main Street, or any damn direction on Earth for that matter, anywhere except the northeast.

    It had been the northeast she'd walked out of, four years ago, a dusty footsore wanderer with blood on her face and shell-shocked wonder in her eyes, a pair of weird white boots slung over her shoulder and a beaten-up orange jumpsuit knotted around her waist. Not much to work with, but a person could go a long way in four years. Particularly if they had the fear of God behind them.

    Well, maybe not quite God, but close. Her friends knew enough about her; Aaron Halifax might fondly call her

    'mystery girl,' but neither he nor anyone else had ever pried into her past, nor had she ever had the impression that anyone was particularly eager to try. In some ways, this wasn't surprising. A few decades ago- within living memory, still, for old-timers like her neighbour Lars Jenswold, who'd been a little boy in the days of the Rule and the Resistance- the world had been full of people like her. Lone wanderers with no pasts, people who just turned up one day and who weren't disposed to answer questions. Chell got the impression that an attitude originally born out of necessity had been preserved by the next generation as a kind of common courtesy.

    This had always suited her just fine. She understood- all too well- that human beings had a terrible knack of being curious about exactly the wrong things, and the thought of any of her new friends getting curious and stumbling into the death-trap in the northeast was enough to chill her to the bone, even right in the middle of this warm, sunny front room. The idea of being responsible for sending anybody else down into that hell was every bit as bad as the idea of being dragged back into it herself.

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    Across the room, the radio's single flickery amber signal light stuttered to red- once, twice. The song faltered, faded, interrupted by a short, unusually fierce burst of static.

    Disturbed from her uneasy thoughts, Chell lifted her head fast and stared at the old radio, which had never behaved like this in the three years since she'd traded it from Aaron's store. She watched the signal light tremble like a trapped cricket, on, off, on- the sweet old song came through strong and clear for a single moment, and then another burst of static obliterated it for good.

    She rounded the table, stepping over Aaron's crate, and crossed the room, reaching for the radio's controls, a row of buttons tucked beneath the scratched-up old LCD screen that usually displayed the name of the station. It was showing nothing but nonsense now, a string of random numbers which flickered and changed by the second.

    zzrrzzwwrrrzzchhh BEEEEP. The sound was clean and clear, and quite loud. Chell's hand, which had

    almost been at the controls, snatched itself back. She stood quite still, her arm crossed protectively across her chest, as the radio began to speak.

    "-now? You want me to- do it now? Okay, okay, keep your wig on. I'm doing it, I'm starting, right now. Any minute now, just polishing the- the basic framework what I'm going to say, here, just making sure I've got all my points lined up, as it were- what are you doing? No, I'm just-aaaAAAAAHH!"

    A bit of staticky hard-breathing. "You- you didn't have to do that! I was doing it! I probably needed that for

    something! Oh, you have definite anger management problems, you have. Definite issues there. I'm just saying, you might want to look at that- NOnono right I'm doing it now."

    Pause. "So... er... hello! Hi. Hi there, umm... so! Apparently, the signal on my- my

    thingie, beacon sort of thingie up there somewhere- long story- is sending this out over a pretty wide area, so, so, um, if you're listening to this- which I really, really hope you are, because otherwise this is all a bit pointless, isn't it, I might as well be talking to myself. In a room, by myself, talking. Just to myself, nobody listening, just me. Hoping that's not the case. Right... where was I? Yeah, if you are listening, there's no point in me telling you who this is, because you'll know, right off the bat."

    An edgy sort of silence. Chell hadn't moved much, except to lower her arm a little. A very keen-eyed observer might have noticed that the pulse had quickened in her neck, thrown into greater relief by the tightening of her jaw.

    "It's Wheatley, by the way. Just on the offchance that you don't remember, that you've sustained some kind of major head injury... again... and lost your memory completely- again, hoping that's not the case. Oh, wait, though- thinking about it, if that is the case, if you have completely lost your memory and don't have the faintest clue who I am or what I'm talking about, all you've got to know is, I'm sort of an old

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    friend. Your- your best friend, really. Best friend, we go way back, way back, and you're going to want to help me out, because, well, you know, that's what friends do. Umm... getting back to the point, though, if you haven't lost your memory you're going to know, obviously, that all that, that 'best friend' business, was complete bollocks. Sorry about that. Although, you have to admit, it was worth a try. Bit desperate, here, actually."

    A nervous laugh. "Thing is- get ready for a shocker- I'm not in space any more. Not in space any more, was until a little while ago, now am not. Now, er, if you are listening and you haven't lost your memory, you're going to know where I am now. Not going to go into it, it's pretty obvious, just think of the- the first place that'll occur to you, right? Yes! That's it! You've got it. That's where I am. And- this is the crux of the matter, as it were, really getting down to business now- I was sort of... sort of hoping you might come and... and get me out of here."

    The voice scrambled on, falling over itself in its urgency. "Now, I know what you're thinking- why, right? Why should I? Why should I risk my life for that total little bastard who tried to murder me back when I was trying to escape before? And, you know... that is a really good question. So good, in fact, that I can't actually think of a good answer at this point in time. I'm working on it! I'm definitely working on that one, probably going to have a really good answer for you in just a tick. I mean... not going to lie, if you do come back you're probably going to get killed. Statistically, I mean, the odds are very much ten to one against you not getting killed, if you come back. I mean, bloody hell, I know I wouldn't if I were you. Haha, no, not a chance, if I were you I'd just turn whatever it is you're listening to me off right now and walk away. But don't actually do that!"

    The voice hitched up another panicked notch. "Please don't do that, please do not do that, I don't know why I even suggested

    that. In fact, I'd really would seriously appreciate it if you disregarded all that, pretty much everything I said there, threw it all out of the window, and came and got me anyway. Still can't think of much of a reason why you should, if I'm honest, that is still very much a work in progress. If it's- if it's any help, I never actually wanted any of that to happen, all that stuff... I mean, I wish we'd just stuck with our original plan- remember? Remember that? Turn off Her neurotoxin, disable all Her turrets, and get Her to let us go. Now, that was a good plan. We'd've both got out, then, together, me and you. Partners in crime. Holmes and Watson. Two Musketeers. Wheatley and- I'm rambling, I'm rambling, sorry about that, I think the- the last thing She did to me short-circuited something in here, I keep getting this urge to keep going on and on about things that happened in the past. Right... aaand I think I'm just about out of time, actually, the thingy's going to go out of range in a mo, won't be back for another twenty-four hours, apparently, give or take. So... yes. Quick summary, just in case you lost the thread a bit there..."

    Wheatley's voice dropped, beginning to fizz at the edges with static, low and and almost, almost hopeless.

    "Just- please come and get me. Please. I am quite literally begging you. On my knees. Figure of speech, obviously, if I had knees, I'd be on them. I don't care what

  • 22

    you do with me afterwards, deactivate me, use me as a paperweight, use me as a football- I don't mind! Just, please, please don't leave me here with Her. And- and- oh, God! I forgot! I forgot, I can't believe I forgot- look, okay, here goes, umm, know it doesn't really matter now, but I'm honestly, honestly, truly, ssrrwvvrchhwrzzzhhh

    BEEEEP. The little green light flickered a little, went steady. Once again, quiet, static-

    muffled music filled the warm, bread-scented air of the bakery. Chell leaned on the counter, sucking in great calming breaths, marshalling her thoughts.

    It didn't take her too long. Chell's nature was one of sharp, clear definitions, the interlocking parts of her mind firmly and neatly compartmentalised, with little room for overlap. Her strong, highly adaptable sense of logic and the unnatural freedom it gave her to reorganise her priorities had kept her alive in situations which would have killed a less practical woman.

    She switched the radio set off, listened to the silence for a moment or two, then turned and headed out of the room. Outwardly, her face still retained more or less the same calm expression it had had before the radio had started to speak, but there was still that tight set to her jaw, that fast running beat in her throat. She looked older than she had, somehow- older, and a hell of a lot harder.

    There was a cupboard in the kitchen- barely more than a sectioned-off little alcove by the chimneybreast, with a cleverly-fitted door of painted pine. She pulled it open, ducked inside, and came out with her hair full of cobwebs and a sturdy-looking serge rucksack in her hands.

    Another attribute that marked Chell out from the ordinary was her unusual personal definition of 'hope.' For most people, 'hope' was a fluffy, poorly-defined thing, a vague wish that things would go how they wanted. For Chell, on the other hand, there was nothing vague about it. She'd had too much hope taken from her, crushed, sliced, diced, jumped up and down on and returned in handy compressed cube format, to put any store in that kind of helpless wistfulness. When she hoped for something, she tended to focus all her will- her frightening, one-track, cast-iron will- on making damn sure she could make it reality.

    She'd hoped that she'd never, ever have to set foot in That Place again. For four years, it had seemed that her hope had come true. Still, a part of her- that same frightened, damaged part which stabbed at her from time to time whenever she heard an alarm tone, or saw exposed wiring spilling from the back of a machine- didn't believe it. Couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that she'd made it out and that nothing would ever come after her to shatter her new, safe, hard-won life and drag her back in to that nightmare for good. Just the hope wasn't enough for her, so she'd backed it up with a good, solid plan, and the proof was heavy in her arms as she jogged back up the steps into the front room and upended it on the couch.

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    Flashlight, batteries, compass, first-aid kit. Painkillers, dust mask, a bright wrapped tube of red chalk. A penknife, matches, boxer's tape, a short crowbar on a climber's clip, and another, larger cloth wrap containing several odd, lumpy objects. Everything double-wrapped in plastic, sealed in a watertight bag.

    Chell looked hard at the jumble of objects for a moment or two, checked inside the cloth wrap, laying its contents out on the worn linen throw, then repacked everything else carefully in the rucksack. Pulling out a wide wooden drawer beneath the table, she leafed through a few sheets of paper before finding the one she was looking for, a big rough-edged square of butcher paper which she folded into quarters and tucked into the pocket of her old jeans, wedging it as deeply and securely as it would go.

    This done, she slung the rucksack over one arm to test its weight, then left the room again, heading upstairs.

    Behind her, the half-dozen lumpy things she'd taken from the cloth wrap lay in a rough row, quite innocuous in the sunbeam slanting across the couch. From a distance, they looked a bit like blocks of dough.

    Hope was all very well. Chell believed in insurance. ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

    "That was pathetic." The Voice filled the small, dark chamber. "I know that was the point, but I thought I'd just clarify it for you anyway. In fact,

    just in case you weren't paying attention, I'll clarify it for you again. That was pathetic."

    Silence. "Since you're actually not talking for a change, I'm going to assume that you agree

    with me. Seriously, even if she is still in range, do you really think she'll come back to try and save you based on that uninspired stream of gibberish that fell out of your mouth just now? You know, you might just be the ideal candidate for a job which I've just invented. Demotivational speaker. You could go around giving seminars to people who have ambitions, and inspire them to give up before they've even started. On the positive side, if she had been already on her way to rescue you when she heard that, at least you've saved her a trip."

    "I should have told her," mumbled Wheatley. The tangle of arms and cables that held him suspended off the floor swayed slightly as he scraped his functioning optical lid open. Some of them were still ported into the connectors in his battered shell, but the numbing jolts of carefully-coded synthetic pain had, for the moment, stopped. "I should have told her, why didn't I tell her? 'I'm sorry.' That's all it would've taken. 'I'm sorry.' Rehearsed it enough times, hundreds of times, bloody hundreds-"

    He twitched. Sparks scattered across the grimy floor. "Why didn't I just say it?" "Because you're a moron."

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    The cracked blue lens which accounted for most of the light in the chamber flared, weakly.

    "I'm not a moron." "Yes, you are. I wouldn't feel too bad about it, though- it's in your programming.

    You're incapable of being anything else. On the other hand, there's nothing in your programming about completely betraying people who were relying on you to help them. That's all your own work, and you should feel terrible about that."

    "I'm not falling for that," said Wheatley, without much conviction. "I can see right through your sneaky little mind games, lady. You're just saying that to make me feel rotten. You- you are just saying that, right?"

    A longer silence. "Er. Hello?" "Sorry. I was just running the numbers on whether she'll come back to save you or

    not, and I have to admit, they're not quite as bad as I thought. In fact, they're almost- oh, wait, my mistake. I forgot to put this decimal point back in. Let me just do that."

    A quiet, cheerful little boop. "Oh. I was right the first time. It's hopeless. I'll just have to think of something

    else. You know, I guess most people would say that your total failure to convince her to come and rescue you is enough of a punishment in itself."

    "They would, yeah," said Wheatley, hopefully. "Yep, that's me good and punished, they'd be thinking... does, er, does this happen to be the theory you're leaning towards yourself, by any chance, or...?"

    Her laugh was distant thunder. "What do you think?"

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() The perfect lake basked in the late-morning sun. The only remaining traces

    of the dramatic scene before dawn were the scars of the backwash on the banks, and a certain slightly charred look to the foliage of the overhanging trees, as if someone had had a particularly enthusiastic barbecue just underneath, and neglected to read up on their Woodland Fire Safety beforehand.

    Chell stood on the bank at its highest point, looking down into the clear, mirrorlike water. Despite its clarity, you couldn't see the bottom- the reflections of the trees got in the way, and it was impossible to tell exactly how deep it was. There were many ways into That Place- she knew there were probably many more than she'd discovered yet- but she'd seen at first glance that something had happened here. If this was the way he'd been pulled in, then there was a slender chance that it might take her straight to him. When you were dealing with Her, every little bit of extra luck helped.

    Hefting the rucksack higher on her back, she pulled a leaf from a dangling branch of silver maple and let it go, following it with her eyes as it slip-slid gently through the air and landed on the water's surface. It floated for a moment, spreading ripples-

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    -then vanished. Her quick eye tracked it downwards for a second, a bright streak of green, dwindling, gone.

    She adjusted her rucksack again and bent to slip a loosening finger into the back of one of the sleek black-and-white boots strapped to her feet. There was something horribly natural about the sensation of being held up on perpetual tiptoe, her heels supported on long, curved metal braces. She didn't at all like how comfortable the boots felt to her, or how quickly she'd relearned the knack of jogging along almost en pointe, letting the braces absorb every jolt and tremor.

    It was a beautiful day. For a moment- and a moment only- she turned her face up to the sky, fixing the exact shade of blue in her mind's eye, the breeze, the scent of earth and grass, the warmth of the sun on her skin.

    She didn't linger too long. That would have felt too much like saying goodbye.

    Chell stepped up to the brink, took a deep, deep breath, swung up her arms, and dived.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() The freezing lakewater hit her like a punch to the stomach. She knifed

    down into the lake, the air trapped in her clothes and hair streaming off her in silvery ribbons.

    Almost immediately, as her own momentum from the dive was spent, she felt something else taking over. A wicked undertow far too powerful to be anything churned up by chance, a deadly suction rolling the springfed lakewater in a constant dragging turnover beneath the deceptive calm of the surface. It grabbed Chell's body like a toy caught in a vacuum hose, sucking her straight down towards the murky lakebed.

    Rolling feet-first into the dive, she opened her eyes and found herself looking straight down into a gaping black void, the mouth of a tube easily six feet across. The single shaken water-blurred glance she got across the rest of the lakebed as she was sucked towards it showed her dozens more, a huge regular grid of hungry black holes spanning the whole bottom, which was clean and lifeless as an asphalt road.

    She crossed her arms over her chest, and braced as well as she could. The dark mouth hurled up to meet her, and then she was inside, blind, deaf, her ears popping and clanging and her stomach turning inside out as she was sucked downwards. Ordinary directions quickly stopped making any sense at all, as with the hurtling body of water around her she was yanked left, right, side-to-side again and again, the pipe twisting and turning, navigating an unseen course hundreds of feet down towards an unknown destination.

    A sudden flush of colder water smacked into her from the side, throwing her against the slick wall of the tube. She guessed- rightly- that she'd just been swept past an intersection, her pipe merging with another. The blackness around her was absolute, the churning water pressing in on her

  • 26

    and forcing burning fingers down into her nose and throat. She could feel the danger signals beginning; her lungs starting to grow heavy in her chest, the gathering pressure in her temples. She was running out of time.

    She strained her ears and realised there was a slight variation in the pounding crush of current up ahead. Something was a little different up there, the bewildering din was a little lighter, less resonating- and now, she could make out that the blackness was no longer perfectly black, there was light somewhere and she could just make out the white uppers of her boots-

    Air, she needed air, her body's urge to take a breath was becoming a yammering desperate demand, and it was all she could do not to give it to it and breathe her first lungful of water. There was a hammering pulsing behind her eyes and her chest felt stuffed with hot rocks. The blackness gave way to a dull greyish light and she twisted, desperately, her hands swiping the sides of the tube- and hit something hard with stunning force.

    By sheer luck, Chell struck the filter grate feet-first, the boots doing their job even underwater, absorbing the shock and saving her from being knocked out completely- which would, under the circumstances, have been fatal. The jolt smacked the remaining oxygen out of her lungs, a tiny string of bubbles whirling from her mouth and away through the grate. The current pinned her to it like a bug on a corkboard, and her hammering hands did nothing but send muffled vibrations through the tempered glass sides. Fumbling, dizzy, she scrabbled at her belt. The climber's clip- usually simplicity itself to unhook- seemed like an unsolvable alien puzzle, but it finally gave.

    Black starbursts were beginning to cluster and pop softly at the edges of her vision. Chell bit her tongue to keep awake, tasted blood, braced herself against the grate, screamed a silent airless scream, and swung her crowbar at the glass.

    CRRSSHHH. An explosive fountain of water and broken glass flooded out of the pipe

    and out into a rush of dry, dusty air. Chell fell with it, flailing, landing bodily on a catwalk ten feet down. Coughing and retching, she rolled out of the battering stream as it continued to gush down out of the shattered pipe, then twisted face-down and vomited a hell of a lot of lakewater through the steel mesh.

    Gasping, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she rolled over and stared up into a murky infinity of winding, water-filled glass tubes. The one she'd fallen from snaked up some hundred feet past the point where she'd broken it, before vanishing into the gloom, and beyond the fractured cataract of water she could just about make out a line of thick, stencilled letters running lengthways up the glass.


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    She pulled herself up on the catwalk's metal rail, shaking her wet hair from

    her face, breathing hard- partly to get her breath back, partly just to reassure herself that she still could. The air smelled of fried dust, the dangerous, back-of-the-teeth smell of ozone. There was a faint background hum, ever-present, low and droning and enough to tell anyone with half an ear that this place was far from dead, as much as it might look it. She would have known it anyway, known it in her gut even if she'd been struck stone deaf by the ride- the facility was still very much alive, and that meant, somewhere at the heart of it- at the very centre of the web- so was She.

    Chell shouldered her sodden rucksack, picked a direction, and started jogging. She'd been half-drowned and cheated death by the narrowest of narrow margins, the bright surface-world already seemed like an unreal dream, and every echoing step was taking her further into Hell, but she could still feel herself beginning to smile a very small, very grim smile.

    She was in. ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

    "Actually... why do we have to leave right now?" The act of recalling the emergency lift was such a minuscule expenditure of effort

    for his new, godlike body that he hardly felt it at all. On his command, it slowed, stopped, then started to descend towards the chamber floor.

    On some insignificant, barely-aware level, he registered the look on her face, the growing shock and hurt and horror written in her eyes, but she was so far away and so, so tiny, and what did her little human thoughts and feelings matter to him, anyway? He was everything, now, everything, the entire facility his to control, and he could feel every inch of it, every chamber and catwalk, every machine and panel and subroutine and circuit, all HIS HIS HIS-

    He tried to tell her how good it felt, how brilliant it was to be the one in charge for a change, not just some little thing to be ignored and kicked around, something that had to ask, beg and plead for its advice to be taken, if it was ever taken at all. He tried to get it across to her, the glorious freedom of being able to make anything, absolutely anything he wanted happen in the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, the relay of a microprocessor. Real power, real autonomy, and endless, endless opportunity.

    And when she didn't even try to be happy for his success, when all he saw in her stupid little organic face was an unfamiliar blazing anger- and something else, a hardening sort of determined look which wasn't so unfamiliar and which, under the circumstances, he didn't like at all- well, he started to get annoyed.

    She couldn't be happy for him, could she? She didn't care that he'd been waiting and hoping and longing for something like this to happen for so, so long, that this, right here and now, was the best, brightest moment in his long, dull, pathetically pointless little artificial life. She didn't care that in this amazing body he finally had a chance to Make A Difference, to finally prove once and for all that he wasn't a waste of circuitboards, he wasn't a failure, oh no, far from it, with all his fantastic ideas he'd be so much better in charge of this place than crazy-mad-bonkers

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    downright murderous Her. No. Little Miss In-Such-A-Flaming-Hurry didn't care about any of that. All she cared about was her own selfish, fleshy skin.

    And then She'd made him even angrier, and with his limited cognitive processes still flooding themselves out into the unimaginably vast terabytes of new capacity he'd been angrier than he'd ever been before, ever, so, so angry that his one perfect moment in the limelight was being spoiled by Her taunts and the clear accusation in her burning, silent stare. And he'd put Her in a potato and punched Her- punched both of them- down into the abyss below the facility, and only then, only in that very last moment did a fleeting flicker of submerged thought go what have I done I never wanted-

    But it was too little too late and he was so big and important now and there was so much to do, so much he could do without her hanging around, slowing him down, getting in the way of what he really wanted to do and there was a thought, wouldn't it be a good idea to rig up some tests? Nothing fancy, just a few buttons, the odd cube, a few simple tests to really get the hang of how the place worked, and why shouldn't he now that he was in control of it and hhhHe was in control of everything and He sort of really, really wanted to test. He had a vague feeling that He'd had other priorities not that long ago but they didn't matter now, nothing mattered because He was in control and He could test and everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be just fine.

    And maybe there was a tiny, tiny voice that was saying otherwise but He didn't have to listen. Nobody else had listened, nobody had ever, ever listened to daft, insignificant old Wheatley, and now they could all bloody well see how they liked it

    she listened she listened she listened, screamed the tiny little voice, and it hurt the circuits he had instead of lungs and the vocal processor he had instead of a throat to scream that hard, but he had to, he had to get through to the Him that had done all those terrible things and get him to stop. And okay it didn't make a lot of sense but he had to try, because maybe if he shouted hard enough He'd hear himself this time, and it hadn't worked all the other times but maybe, maybe this time it would-

    And then it was cold and dark and the connectors buried inside his ports sparked and cracked and shocked him back to the present. He was himself again, tiny and helpless and hurting in every part of the carefully-assembled artificial nervous system that he really, really wished he didn't have, and generally, in the scheme of things, just not having a good day.

    "Good news," said Her Voice. "I thought that the three-minute cycle of memory files you're currently experiencing for the sixty-eighth time might be getting a little dull, so I had a look round and, guess what? It turns out my system backed up everything you did when you were trying to run the facility and failing. That means that we have a complete data record of every single bad decision you made. I'm going to compile a highlights reel. You'll still be reliving it over and over again forever, but the editing will be better and I might add some music. Then again, maybe closed-captioning in a nice, big font would be more appropriate for your level of-"

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    She was interrupted by an alarm tone. It was a high urgent wail, accompanied by a tinny recording that sounded like it had been made by a harassed Fifties-era radio announcer with his head in a sock.

    "Warning. Unidentified pressure loss in primary coolant system. System currently at eighty-five percent efficiency."

    "That's strange." She said. "I know I fixed the whole issue with the blockage and the herd of drowned deer months ago, so it can't be that. Oh well. Since it seems to be up to me to deal with all the useless carcasses left lying around this facility, I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere. That was a joke, by the way- I thought I should point that out, because not only are you incapable of doing anything by yourself, you're also not smart enough to understand the concept of sarcasm."

    "Coolant system currently at seventy-five percent efficiency," said the harried, sock-over-head radio announcer voice, above the alarm.

    "Speaking of useless carcasses left lying around the facility, I'm putting you in charge of monitoring this chamber while I'm gone. Maybe you could pretend it was a facility of your own, and that you were the kind of person who could run a facility of their own without completely destroying it through gross incompetence. Have fun."

    The single glaring uplight fixed on Wheatley's blackened shell faded down to a dull underfloor gleam. The tangle of wires and connector arms holding him in place relaxed a fraction, and the atmosphere in the small, dark chamber cooled a notch, from 'downright malevolent' to merely 'cold and depressing.' The change was subtle, but still enough to suggest that- for the moment, anyway- the deadly laser-point of Her attention had moved elsewhere.

    In its absence, the silence was deafening. "Oh, yeah?" said Wheatley, shakily, after a silence of about five or six

    minutes. "Yeah, and, and, maybe you could pretend that you weren't a-a total cow."

    A pause. "Yeah, I'm going to admit that wasn't the best comeback, not the best.

    Haven't got a lot to work with here, really." He sighed. It was a very long, very heavy sigh, and it was a bit too much

    for his overworked vocal processor, which flanged a little. "So continuing in that particular vein, what have I got to work with? I've

    got a well, I've got... I've got a... well, I can see! Sort of. And hear, I can hear, still got my hearing, excellent- and er not that much else, to be honest. But that's a start! That's definitely a start, if I'm going to get out of here, sight and hearing are definitely going to be in the top ten of useful skills to have. Top five, even, I'd say. The ability to move, too, that's another biggie, shame I don't have that, but but I"

    Another deep sigh. "I don't really know who I'm kidding, to be honest. I'm- I'm never getting

    out of here, am I?"

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    He twitched a couple of times, then fell still. After a little while, since nothing in the dark little chamber seemed about to respond one way or the other, he answered himself.

    "I'm never getting out of here." At which precise and timely interval, the wall exploded.

    ()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~() Chell's habitual method of reasoning was nothing if not linear.

    Encountering a problem, she automatically reduced it to the smallest number of components, removing all non-essential detail- the better to understand what the problem actually was, stripped of all the set-dressing. In this case, the problem had been the blank, paneled wall across her path. The coolant pipe- the one she'd been following down a small eternity of dark, narrow catwalks- carried on some fifteen feet over her head, through the wall.

    The choice, therefore, had been simple- jog all that long way back in the dark to the last intersection, or do something about the wall. She might not have a portal gun to help her now, but by the time she'd finished her business with the first of the lumpy little packages and the bits of wire and the sulphury handmade match, and retired to a safe distance to watch the wall erupt in a brief roar of debris and dirty flame, she felt the real satisfaction of an aperture well-made.

    Apparently, Her guarantee that all equipment would remain functional up to four thousand degrees Kelvin didn't extend to the architecture. The explosion partially destroyed two panels and knocked the rest in the blast radius into all sorts of fantastic angles, leaving a fair-sized hole for her to clamber through.

    She found herself in a small, dark chamber. A first sweep showed her a great quantity of disturbed dust and smoke in the air, a lot of debris- and movement; something that twitched and sparked under the beam of her flashlight, and she started back, her free hand making a grab for the crowbar on her belt-

    "Uhhh. Whatwhat just haaAAAHHH! I'M BLIND! I'M- oh, it's just a light. Panic over."

    Chell lowered the crowbar. "Although- although it could actually be my eye, my eye could be on the

    blink- ooh, pun not intended but quite clever, though, store that away- hello? Is there someone there? If there is someone there, and it's not just me malfunctioning, can you- can you not shine that right in my face, please? It's not helpful, in fact it actually hurts, quite a lot, so I'd appreciate it if you'd leave it out-"

    Click. "Thanks, that's much better," said Wheatley, distractedly. The

    repercussions of the explosion had knocked him loose on one side, leaving him dangling sideways from the remaining connector arms like the last ball

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    in a very shabby Newton's cradle. His cracked, sooty optic, which had dwindled to a pale pinpoint in the glare of the flashlight, expanded and blinked in her direction.

    "Hey hey, come here! Hey, come a bit closer- it's not- is it? It's-" The lens widened, flared- for a moment- brightest stratosphere blue. Chell

    was backlit by it, her shadow black and huge on the broken wall. "It's you!" Relief, delight, disbelief, amazement; words were inadequate to express the

    quantity of each that Wheatley managed to pack into those two syllables. His optic scraped a whole loopy three-sixty turn in celebration and he laughed, uncontrollably, his voice tumbling out helter-skelter with shock-induced shakiness.

    "It's you! It's you, you came back! You actually- oh, you have no idea how glad I am to see you right now. Oh, I can't believe it. This can not be happening, this- oh- hang about, maybe it's not."

    His pupil shrank in sudden terror. "Oh, God- look, can you sort of give me a bit of a poke, or hit me or

    something- gently, though, not too hard!- just to prove, for absolute certain, that I'm not just seeing things? Because I have been seeing all sorts of weird things recently- stress, I think it's stress, and Her messing about with my insides, that could also be a factor-"

    Chell, who had been studying the tangle of mechanics disappearing into Wheatley's upper port, chose this moment to grab him in the crook of one arm, get a good grip on the connectors with her free hand, and give the entire mess of mechanical knotwork a tremendous yank. There was a vicious frizzing sound, a lot of sparks, and an agonised yell.

    "GAAAHHH! Gently, I said gently- oh, look at that, I'm free, well done!" "Impressive manual override you did on that wall there, by the way," he

    continued, as Chell shook out her spark-numbed hand and started to unbuckle her rucksack. "Very nice work, first-rate. Had no idea you were such a techie. Ohh man alive, are you a sight for sore eyes. I still can not believe..."

    He trailed off. Something seemed to be pressing on his mind- his optic turned floorwards, squinted, peered up sideways at her, managing to convey an incredible amount of guilt for something that was basically just