(Art by K! Where it's going, we don't need roads.)
Wheatley was lost.
He’d stopped running fairly quickly, as it had dawned on him that he didn’t actually have any destination in mind, other than simply away. Unfortunately, by that time he’d already been out of sight of anything which might have given him a clue about where he was. There was a tallish sort of brambly hedge to his right, and the road at his feet seemed to be leading directly out of town and into the fields beyond. It was small, and rutted, and if the neat white-painted sign nailed to the side of the barn to his left was to be believed, someone with lots of optimism to spare had come along at some point and named it Hope Street.
The barn looked slightly familiar. It was tall and red-timbered, a little like the one near the Eaden sign, except he didn’t remember the goods elevator running nearly the height of the structure, trailed with creepers, or the cavernous set of doors in its long red-timbered side. It took him a while to realise that it was in fact the same barn- he was simply looking at it from the other side.
He wandered a little way into the field behind the barn, kicking gloomily at things- it wasn’t bad, kicking things, once you got the hang of it, he could sort of see why humans liked doing it so much.“Brilliant, that was. Absolutely brilliant. Why don't you try opening your stupid great big gob a bit wider next time? Might be able to fit the other foot in it. Because obviously, there's nothing she wants to hear more than me comparing her to the mad cow that tried to kill her a bunch of times, that is obviously going to go down like a weighted storage cube, that is, really going to make her feel better about having me hanging around. Rrrgh.”
He snarled, smacked himself on the forehead, and flopped miserably against the big, contoured lump of metal at his back.
“I don't even know why I got so worked up. It's her not saying anything, that's what it is. Just standing there, in silence- yeah, maybe saying the odd word, throwing the occasional couple of syllables out there, but for the most part letting me do all the shouting so she can stay all calm and hang on to her precious... being all perfectly justified and having the moral high ground. Silently. Manipulative, is the word for that. Practically Machiavellian, and I do not use that word lightly.”
Wheatley sagged. “Oh, God... that's all bollocks, isn't it? It's not her fault at all. Wish it was, though. I'd feel a lot better, for a start.”
He looked down at the thing he was leaning against- a chunk of half-rounded, riveted metal, dark and discoloured, like the shell of some giant prehistoric snail. From its highest point, a thick length of steel rebar climbed upwards, strung with wires.
Absently, Wheatley glanced up- and did a double-take, starting backwards, mouth hanging open.
“Oh, what? What’s one of those?”
Above him, rooted there like some strange species of extraterrestrial tree, a three-legged structure towered into the sky. It was taller than the barn- taller than the town hall, or anything else in the town, come to that- a looming, elongated pyramid of criss-crossing metal girders at least thirty feet high.
The whole structure was festooned with cables and wires of all colours, strapped to the metal beams in drooping bunches of rainbow spaghetti. In addition, each welded strut was dotted from top to bottom with dozens of things which looked like nothing so much as pale plate-shaped mushrooms, but on closer inspection turned out to be satellite dishes. All shapes and sizes, white, pale grey, paint-streaked, stencilled- they stuck out from the structure at every possible angle, clustered in random configurations as if they’d just happened to sprout there.
The three places where the structure met the ground were encased in three strange seashell-like blocks of verdigrised, contoured metal, giving them the appearance of massive hooves. Wheatley craned his neck on one side, trying to read the letters which, spray-painted and very slightly askew, ran up the side of the hoof he'd been leaning on.
“EV…OLG… XOF.” He gave the letters a baffled blink. “Evolgxof?”
“Foxglove,” said somebody, over his head.
“Ohh, right,” said Wheatley, craning his neck the other way. “Oh, that makes much more sense, that does. Foxglove. I- aah! Who- oh, there you are, up there! Had me worried for a second there. Hallo!”
“Hi,” called the human, who was leaning off the side of the structure about ten feet above the ground. He was attached to one of the horizontal girders with a climbing clip, and his freckly, good-humoured face was mostly obscured by something that looked like an antiquated riot police helmet, but was probably a safety mask. He pushed it up and waved the clunky old welder in his gloved hand cheerfully in Wheatley’s direction.
“You must be the guy Mart Otten was talking about. How’s Chell?”
Wheatley winced. ‘Furious’, although technically correct, was probably not what this mountaineering human wanted to hear.
He raised his voice. “Fine, fine, she’s fine, er, got a bit of a hole in her, long story, but, you know, got it stitched up with a bit of string, no harm done! Well, harm done, obviously, but not actual, lasting damage, is what I mean. Physically. No lasting physical damage done.”
“Glad to hear it... I think.” The human scratched the back of his head dubiously with his free glove, then grinned. “Garret Rickey.”
“What? Oh! Right, that’s your name. Did not know what you were on about there.” Wheatley folded his arms and leaned casually back on the nearest hoof. “Wheatley, by the way. My name, I mean. Interesting sort of contraption, this, isn’t it? Very… advanced-looking. Very Sciencey. I know a fair amount about this sort of thing, you see, quite knowledgeable about, um, machines, machinery, computers… your own work, is it?”
“Well, she’s kind of everyone’s,” said Garret. He stowed the welder away in a makeshift holster hanging from one of the supports, and patted the girder above his head, fondly. “We’ve been working on her for ‘bout three years now, all told.”
“Three years? Blimey. What took that long? I mean- I'm not being rude or anything, it's very impressive, but, er...”
“Soon as I get her working, you'll find out.” Garret grinned again. He had a lot of sun-bleached curly hair and the kind of upper-body build that suggested he arm-wrestled cougars in his spare time. “She’s going to put Eaden on the map.”
Wheatley nodded, in what he calculated to be an astute, impressive sort of manner. “Oh, it draws maps as well, does it? Funny, because to me, it looked more like some sort of communications set-up, what with all those dish things all over it and everything, and the big antenna on top. Fine, though, I can see now, obviously- maps happen to be something else I am a bit of a legend at, by the way. Reading maps, following maps, that whole area of map comprehension and interpretation is my particular speciality within the… map sciences.”
“That so?” Garret, who had been hanging back from his clip and listening with a slightly bemused air to most of this, began to get a look which a person inclined to be suspicious might have called a little bit sly. “Well, it's great to get to talk to someone knows as much as I do about the technical side of a job like this.”
“Between you and me, most folk round here are pretty handy with a hammer, but when it comes to how to spot-weld an RSJ or splice your basic belkin-patch cable, you might as well be speaking flux-shift for all they know 'bout it.”
“Most of them wouldn't even know the difference between an in-line LNB signal amp and a tri-ax optical MDU.”
“Right,” said Wheatley, whose eyes were making panicky little darts as if they wanted to escape from his head and, by doing so, the situation. “Haha. 'Cause what sort of, of moron wouldn't know that?”
“By the way.” Garret unlooped a thick coil of loose wires from the end of the girder he'd been working on, sorting through them as he talked. “I better get these hooked up before I fit the rest of this panel back on. Can you pass me a three-eighths crimper? Should be in the tool-box there- looks like we might be able to reach, if I lean back some.”
Wheatley looked down at Garret's tool-box, a large, battered metal trunk sitting with its lid open on the grass.
“Oh,” he said, weakly. “That's quite intense.”
Garret’s tool-box had what looked at first glance to be at least four hundred roller-bearing drawers, assorted compartments, and more tools than anyone should reasonably need for anything, ever. Inanimate as it was, Wheatley couldn't shake the definite impression that it was smirking at him.
“Umm, sure! Not a problem!”
“She's mostly scrap, of course,” continued Garret, plaiting wires expertly together and pretending not to hear the mildly frantic metal clattering noises from below. “Stuff from Aaron's stockroom- you met Aaron?”
“Er, twice! Briefly. Here you go.”
“Thanks, but those're slip-joint pliers.”
“Oh. Well, er, easy mistake to make, think you'll find, they do look very similar, slip-joint pliers and... and what you said the first time- give me a moment-”
“Sure, take your time. Anyway, that place is a goldmine. We weren't getting anywhere 'til I had the idea of looking though all that scrap he keeps lying around in there. As it is, I still had to write the software to get all these different systems to talk to each other from scratch, let alone the dish relays themselves-”
“-Ahah! Got it, got it, there you go.”
“Uh, well, that's a Robertson screwdriver. Have a look in the fourth drawer down. So at first we were only trying to get a better radio signal in here, fit up a more reliable way of communicating with the bigger towns we trade with, that kinda thing.”
“How about this?”
“Yeah, no... closer, though, kind of. That's a hammer. And signal's always been kind of patchy around here. There's just a lot of natural interference for some reason, so you need a good strong transmitter to start with. But then I got thinking, since the Ottens don't mind this thing in their field, why not go for something a little more ambitious?”
“That'd be my sandwich,” said Garret, kindly, taking it anyway. “I guess it is time for a break. I'll come on down.”
He stuck the sandwich in his mouth, unclipped himself, and slid through the nets of wiring and steel mesh to the lowest horizontal strut, then swung down and dropped to the ground in a single agile movement.
“So, er, just to clarify,” said Wheatley, who wanted to steer the conversation far away from the subject of tools and technical knowhow, “what does it- she, sorry- what does she actually do?”
The young man looked up at the apex of the mast above him. There was a devout enthusiasm in his face, so strong that it was very nearly love.
“When she's fired up,” he said, dreamily, “the whole structure's gonna act as a base station, getting us signal clear across the tri-state area, maybe even further. We'll get wireless digital signal processing and data transmission as high as two g-bits per second. We'll have long-distance capability that'll put the vorts to shame. Radio, of course, and phone, internet, all the public news broadcasts, independent channels- you name it. No more shifting around trying to find a good signal halfway across town- if it all works out, we'll be able to send and receive anything just as well as those hotshots over in New Detroit. Maybe even better.”
What was it with humans and getting completely obsessed with things? Wheatley supposed that it was what allowed them to get so much done, to think up things like inventing other life-forms to do things for them, or hopping in little metal tubes and blasting off into space just for the hell of it, or cutting atoms up into tiny bits just to see what happened.
True, he sort of knew what it was like, to really, honestly want something so badly that you ended up doing desperate, crazy things you'd never normally dream of just to try and get your hands on it. After all, he’d been so hell-bent on escaping the facility in the end that he'd shaken off decades of protocol-driven inertia and gone looking for the deep-sleeping, slightly brain-damaged, button-pushing-fingers-possessing means to make it happen. Since then he’d done all sorts of bonkers things he'd been too scared to even think of, before- but it would have been nice to say that he'd been motivated by something a bit more noble and enterprising than absolute terror of what would have happened if he hadn’t done them.
It was a problem that humans didn’t really seem to have. They just did things. Nobody was standing over Garret Rickey and telling him that if he didn't build this giant insane tower of his and get it working by such-and-such a time they'd chuck him into an incinerator.
Choice, that was the thing. Choice made all the difference. Ask a machine 'why?' and they'd go, 'Because I'm programmed to.' An Aperture machine would probably add ‘and She’ll turn me into thirty pounds of wire wool if I don’t’.
Ask a human 'why?', on the other hand, and they always got a loony sort of look on their face, and went, 'why not?'
Garret, meanwhile, had pulled out a grubby little memo recorder, and was making rapid notes on the glowing touchscreen with his thumbs, sandwich stuck in his mouth again for safe-keeping, still gazing up at the structure towering over his head. He seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was there, which- given the rather daunting experience with the tool-box- suited Wheatley just fine.
“I’ll just leave you to it, then,” he said, stepping carefully backwards. “Can see you two need some, er, alone time. Keep up the good work.”
“Nice meeting you,” said Garret, distractedly and a bit muffledly, around the sandwich. “Come back and help sometime, we always need more hands.”
“Right!” called Wheatley, who was halfway across the field by now. Walking backwards took a fair amount of co-ordination- more than he was really comfortable with- but he was anxious to get out of shouting range before Garret snapped out of his contemplative state and asked him to identify any more incomprehensible pieces of equipment. “Will do.”
He made it to the corner of the barn, turned, and nearly walked straight into Chell.
She stopped dead in her tracks, as did he. An extremely awkward moment passed, followed by several more slightly less awkward moments, followed by Wheatley finding his tongue.
“Hallo,” he said. This seemed a safe enough bet. “You… alright?”
She nodded, looked past him to the end of the field, where Garret was now busy unbolting a panel from one of Foxglove’s massive hooves.
“Had the speech?”
“Ha, yep, chapter and verse. The whole sales pitch.” He coughed. “Obviously I pretty much knew what she- the tower, that is, by the way, she’s a her- pretty much knew what she was about soon as I saw her, didn’t take me long to sort of get a handle on the project, as it were, so I was able to, um, advise him on a couple of points. Glad to help out, you know me, always glad to be… generally helpful… look, I’m sorry I said that, back there, I didn’t mean it, honestly, it just sort of slipped out.”
He forced himself to hold eye contact- something which did not come naturally; it was his ingrained instinct to glance somewhere new every couple of seconds, and her serious grey gaze was hard for him to bear. He tried desperately to fathom her impassive human expression, trying to judge if anything he was saying was hitting the right note, or if he should just start running again to be on the safe side.
“You're not anything like Her, honestly, honestly you're nothing like Her at all. And I'm not- I'm not just saying that because it might make you less hacked off with me- although, although, got to admit, cards on the table, that is a factor, it is up there, in my- reasoning- but doesn't alter the fact that it is actually true, you're about as much like Her as- I- I mean, apart from the fact that you're both female, um, both of the female persuasion, and you are both quite good at murdering things- which is fine! Which is fine, because, um, important, vital difference, you only kill things when you have to, I have noticed, it's not like it's your hobby. Again, sorry, the point is, even when you were trying to murder things, you weren't anything like Her. Annnd... still are not. Obviously.”
Chell didn't say anything at first. She looked down, feeling the neat patch of gauze on her left elbow.
“I had to make Aaron understand. If he went looking- if anyone did- it's...” She swallowed. Her voice was even lower than usual and not entirely steady, but quite clear. “It's my worst fear.”
Wheatley let out an incredulous huff of laughter. “Your worst- sorry, at the risk of getting into another row, which I'm not looking for, believe me- but seriously, come off it, you? You're not afraid of anything!”
She looked up, sharply. She might have suspected mockery, or even flattery, but Wheatley hadn't intended either- hadn't intended anything, other than a plain, admiring statement of fact- and it showed. Her expression faltered, and she shook her head.
“Yeah, right, fine. Push the other one, it opens the door.” He started to laugh again, got a better look at her face, and became immediately sober.
“Oh. You're doing that... 'being really serious' thing again.”
“These are good people, Wheatley. My-” She stopped, her lips compressed and white, jaw set, as if she was in pain. “My friends. If one of them- if any of them ended up- in there- it'd be my fault-”
“Hey!” He was alarmed, not as much by what she said as the way she looked, how her voice broke on the last word, the way her fingers started to pick and pluck savagely at the dressing on her arm, as if it was some kind of combination she had to solve. “Hey, hey, no, don't worry, it's alright! No, because I bet, right, that Aaron bloke is totally convinced now, we probably absolutely convinced him back there, that it was a really bad idea to go anywhere within a mile of the place. Just like you said, convincing, and your ideas always work, don't they? Good ideas, from your direction, never a problem. And! And you know what, even if for some mad reason he's not completely one-hundred-percent convinced, we could try something else. We could think up something else, like, er... well, we could... break into his house, and- stay with me, I can see you're looking sceptical but I haven't got to the good bit, yet- break into his house while he's asleep and put on a, a bed-sheet or something, I could go on your shoulders- no, actually, it's probably better the other way round, from a structural point of view, centre of gravity and that, plus I've had a bit more practice. Um... where'd I got to?”
“A bed-sheet,” said Chell, after a moment. Her voice was oddly choked, and her mouth was doing some odd things, but at least she'd stopped picking at her arm.
“Oh, right, right, yes! And we could wake him up and tell him that we're a mysterious time-travelling ghost, from, like, the future, and it's vitally life-or-death important that he makes sure nobody ever goes anywhere near the facility, because- his- umm, are you all right?”
Chell- who for a worrying few seconds had really looked like she was undergoing some painful sort of internal spasm- burst out laughing.
Wheatley wasn't sure what was so funny, but he wasn't about to complain, either. Her whole face came alive when she laughed; not in a scary-brilliant, born-puzzle-solver-and-stuff-breaker sort of way, no, this was a different thing altogether. It was like sunlight in the facility, like suddenly seeing a patch of bright blue sky clear through a gap in the cage of panels and realising you were much, much closer to it than you'd thought.
And whenever he managed to do it, whenever he managed to make her smile, or laugh like she was laughing now, leaning helplessly against the side of the barn, giving herself entirely up to it- the fact it had been him made it even better. Even if he didn't know what he'd said, exactly, it felt like a success, and more, it felt-
-like I could do it all day, no problem. Would not mind that at all.
“Yes,” she managed, at last, straightening up and gingerly letting go of her side. “Aaron believes us. He'll keep them away.”
“Well- well, that's great! Isn't it? What're you so worried about, then, if-”
She shook her head again, this time with a touch of impatience, and he realised rather belatedly that- for her, anyway- her worrying hadn't been the point. For Wheatley, who could hardly ever avoid announcing to the world in general what he happened to be thinking at any given time, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep in mind that she only did the same when there was an actual, valid reason. In this case, she was trying to explain.
“It's just why I... pushed you.”
“Oh, what, to tell him about it? Pfff, don't worry, it's fine. I mean, yes, it was a hideously traumatising experience and everything but, you know, I'll live. Just sort of, I dunno, warn me next time. Some kind of, of non-verbal signal before you launch me into it like that, that'd be perfectly adequate preparation. I mean, I do vaguely remember telling you at one point that I like to have sort of forewarning in these kinds of important, possibly hazardous situations, the cliff notes beforehand, so to speak, just a rundown of the most salient points before you chuck me in at the deep end- but, er, it's okay if you don't remember me telling you that. I think we were both a bit out of sorts at that point, and four years is quite a long time.”
“Yeah. It is.”
She gave him one of her half-comical, half-cynical looks. It seemed to suggest that they were back to business as usual, but what she said next wrapped that notion around a brick, slung it through a few dozen portals for extra oomph, and fired it directly into his stomach.
“I missed you.”
He stared at her. She looked oddly troubled, considering; for all the world as if she was the one who suddenly felt as if their innermost systems had suddenly kicked off a violent self-cleaning-cycle, instead of the one who had the upper hand by default, calmly making earth-shaking statements like that out of the blue.
“What you did... I hated you,” she said- quietly, matter-of-factly. The cleaning-cycle inside him went into overdrive, and not in a good way. “I was mad as hell at you, but- I missed you. Understand?”
“Umm, not... not entirely...”
[Sleep Mode activated]
[error: file incomplete]
The cold little cubicle was even smaller than the shower in his flat, which was quite an achievement, and he was all over goosebumps, apart from the places where the really uncomfy sucker things with wires on were attached to his bare skin. He'd already been there for quite a while- long enough to become confused about the passage of time- and he was getting properly fed up with following the brusque, infrequent instructions from the hidden intercom somewhere in the ceiling.
Somewhere up there, he was fairly sure, a bunch of people with labcoats and clipboards were looking at the data he was giving them, whatever it was that was being recorded by the sucker things and the wires and his responses to their endless questions, and he only hoped that there was at least some reason for it, that somebody was getting something useful out of all of this, because all that he personally was getting was cross and very, very nervous.
“Listen, er, is this going to take much longer? I mean, we've been here hours, now, we've done all sorts of crazy things- well, I have, don't really know what you're up to up there, but I'm sure it's very technical and everything- and normally I’d be fine with a bit of overtime but I’ve sort of got-”
“You'll hear a short tone,” said the intercom. It sounded bored. “When you hear it, step on to the blue circle.”
“Right, fine, anyway, thing is, there’s possibly been some sort of administrative cockup, right, ‘cause nobody told me I was down for this today and I’ve sort of got something I was planning to-”
“Stand on the blue circle,” snapped the intercom.
“Alright, alright! Keep your hair on-”
He stepped forwards. Immediately, everything went dark, and a livid blue glow flooded the ceiling of the cubicle. He ducked.
“Oh. It’s gone- it’s gone blue. Is that supposed to happen?”
“Subject detected,” said a friendly, twanging sort of electronic voice. “Voice print one hundred percent complete. Electroencephalography results calibrated. Subject is now ready for core scan.”
“Sorry, ‘scan’? Wh- look, joking aside, how about, right, before we go any further you let me know what, exactly, it is that I’m being scanned for? And if it’ll hurt. That bit’s fairly important, because, last time, right, last time you lot pulled me in for one of these compulsory test things, some kind of, um, biometrics scheme I think it was, the word 'scan' was definitely thrown around, and it actually hurt quite a lot. I mean, I don't have a particularly high pain threshold, I should probably tell you right now, and that was not an experience I want to have to go through twice. Especially since, as I said, I've got something I need to be doing. Quite important- very- very important in fact, so the sooner I can get out of here, the better, thanks. Apart from anything else, it's bloody freezing in here. Smells a bit weird, too.”
The intercom stayed silent. He looked up at the blue-lit ceiling, hesitated, rapped lightly on the wall.
“Anyone there? Or have you all, I dunno, gone for coffee or something? Hello?”
Nothing. It was bloody typical of them, the scientists, walking around as if they owned the place just because they all had proper degrees in things like quantum mechanics and robotics and nuclear physics from MIT, instead of the sort of computer science diploma you got by doing night classes in a small room over a laundrette. You’d see one of them every so often- more and more, lately- a scientist in their Aperture labcoat, wandering the corridors with an abstracted look in their eye, and you’d know exactly what they were after. It was every employee for themselves, and if you didn’t reverse direction before they spotted you, if you weren’t quick enough, or if you happened to be above-average in terms of noticability, that abstracted look might suddenly focus in your direction.
And after that, Heaven help you.
Being, generally speaking, the first thing that people looked at in a hallway full of not-unfairly-tall people, he tended to have to resort to tactics like Oh! I Just Remembered Something Really Important I Have To Go And Do In The Exact Opposite Direction, or Oh Wow, Look At That Amazing Thing Behind You, or, if circumstances were particularly urgent, Does Anyone Else Smell Burning?
None of these tactics tended to work very well, and anyway, he hadn't even had a chance, this time. They had wanted him specifically. They had even known his name.
He wished he knew what time it was, but they'd taken his watch around the same time as they'd asked him if he had any jewellery, piercings, fillings, joint replacements, cardiac devices, etcetera. They'd also taken his glasses, which meant that even if he'd had his watch, he wouldn't have been able to see what it said, especially not in this blue-tinged, odd-smelling darkness.
He was beginning to realise that he probably wasn't going to be getting back to the office any time soon, and that wasn't fair, wasn't fair at all. Today was supposed to have been the day, after all these weeks, the Big One.
He'd sort of put it off a bit, once or twice, every time, every weekday that he'd taken that long walk across the office to the little table by the photocopier with the exact change in his pocket and hundreds of brilliant things to say lined up in his head, and ended up back at his desk a minute later with a bagel he did not actually particularly want, a vivid mental snapshot of her quick bright smile, and the realisation that he was an utter idiot.
But today- today had been different, he'd just known it. He'd even written his little speech down on a stack of little Post-its, which was serious-level forward-planning as far as he was concerned, but now it wasn't going to happen because the bloody scientists had bloody decided that today was a really good day to start titting about with more bloody scans.
“Alright, this is getting beyond a joke, now. And what is that smell? It's like... almonds or something- look, if you're seriously going to leave me in here while you have a little snack, you could at least turn the lights back on!”
The intercom clattered. Now there were two voices, distant and fuzzy, as if neither was speaking directly into the microphone, or even facing the right way.
“How the hell is he still talking?”
“No idea. Should be out cold by now.”
“Well, he does look kind of dopey anyway, it's hard to t- wait a second- is that still on?”
“What?” A close-up clatter. “Oh, sh-”
He was scrambling for the cubicle door even before the intercom clicked off, his hands finding nothing but flat featureless ceramic tile in the darkness, a cold sick clot of fear rising in his throat, meeting the cloying taste of almonds in his nose and mouth as his heart sped up and his breath came shorter and faster. The sickly-sweet perfumed air was lead-heavy in his lungs, choking, and he tried to yell but a black-spotted wave of dizziness came sweeping over him, and then he was falling-
[redacted; file corrupt]
()~~~~~~~~click for part 2/2~~~~~~~~()