(Art by K! *rubs face all over it*)
A 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-*
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.
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-
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.
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 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 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-
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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-”
“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.
“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 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.”
“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 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.
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 testing 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 the 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 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.
()~~~~~~~~click for part 2/2~~~~~~~~()
*Text from A Counterfeit- A Plated Person by Emily Dickinson.