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How To Save Christmas [2/2]
Hobbes: writing with colours
wafflestories


The nanobots were just about putting the finishing touches to the structure they had spent the last few hours building for the third time in the mouth of the tunnel, shielding the tiny, sensitive circuits and components they had assembled carefully beneath the cooling metal welding. It had been a long job- three times as long as it should have been- and from the tired, slow-sculling movements of the glowing swarm over the structure, it was fairly easy to tell that they were glad to be done.

At least, right up until the moment when the blue-eyed core, travelling with reckless headlong speed and yelling as it went, shot down the tunnel and smashed through the glittering barricade, scattering incredulous clumps of nanobots and bits of delicate metal in all directions.


“Sorry, Jer,” panted Wheatley, “didn't mean to interrupt, lost the hang of the whole 'braking' thing there for a moment, but, thing is- we need your help.”

There was a moment of silence. With physical forms almost too small to be seen by the naked eye, the nanobots were hard pressed to get across the impression of speechless, stunned fury, but somehow they did a pretty good job, regardless. The temperature started to climb, the air charged by the enraged vibration of a million tiny, indignant metal-and-silicon bodies as the scattered nanobots thronged around the tunnelmouth, an angry-bright growing glow that surrounded Wheatley entirely.

He edged backwards a little, swallowed, raising his handle hopefully.

“Er... pretty please?”

The nanobots flickered, drew together, and then swarmed. A furious stream of light poured down Wheatley's connector rail and across his shell, and he screamed and took off, optic tight-closed and handles braced, a glowing, screaming ball hurtling back the way it had come through the shadow-shrouded grand terminal, trailing a comet-tail of fizzing, chittering blue sparks.

“AAAGHHH GET THEM OFF ME GET THEM OFF ME GET THEM OFF ME-”

He shot down a narrow tube, took three hard turns and a spiralling chute down into a dark sectioned shaft, bounced hard off a wall, and whipped backwards under the broken panel and into the smallish room behind the walls. The nanobots hung on, grimly, shrieking dire threats in tiny, chipmunk-voiced Machine, until Wheatley's hapless collision with the thickest part of the shaped potato plant wedged in the floor threw most of them straight off, their tiny bodies unable to resist the deceleration, a violent blue splash of concussive light surging across the leaves in an eye-watering wave.

Rick, who was busy telling the heating system about the time he went over Niagara Falls in a pickle barrel, glanced up.

“Oh, hey, you got the lights. Nice work, Twinkles.”

“Wheatley,” snapped Wheatley, pausing in the act of shaking his inner shell as hard as he could to dislodge the remaining nanobots. A pissed-off nanobot, even one you have named Jeremy and profess to have a pretty good rapport with, is not something you want running around inside your circuitry. He felt pretty scrambled as it was- full of maddening itches and tickly, invaded shivers, as if a whole nest of ants had been pattering angrily all over his sensitive shell and workings, inside and out.

“It's not that hard to memorise, two syllables, easy to pronounce, no idea why you seem to be having so much trouble with it. Anyway- oh, wow, look at that, that's brilliant! Lights! Spot on, guys, that's exactly what I wanted, you read my mind. Spooky. Keep it up, Jer, you're all doing smashing job, very... illuminating, hur. Lovely. Just- just work on the old co-ordination a bit, maybe, get a sort of... timed flashy sequence going, that's always a stunner, and we'll be all the way there. Hey, do- do you know Morse code? Maybe you could do Morse code for 'Merry Christmas!' Or, or 'Happy Holidays,' always good. Up to you, really, whichever you prefer, it's your show. Knock yourselves out.”

Partially, at least, this seemed to be exactly what the nanobots had done. Whether a result of their violent impact with the tree, or the fact that they'd never found themselves stranded in so much organic, non-conductive material before, all the swarm seemed capable of for the moment was eddying in stunned, dim-glowing patterns through the leaves, lighting up in random, bewildered points when two or more bumped into each other, creating a shimmering, ghostly blue-white luminescence. Wheatley watched it for a while, awed, the glow sparking back from the smudgy lens of his optic, blue against blue.

“Magical.”

“Fire still woulda been cooler,” grumbled Rick.

“Isn't that a bit of a contradiction in terms? Haha... just a little- little physics-based joke, there- fire, being, traditionally hot-”

“Man, you are a massive nerd. I mean, I'm a computer, and I think you're a massive nerd. That's got to mean something pretty damn bad.”

“Your- your face is pretty damn bad. Ha! That was an amazing zinger, not gonna forget that for a while!”

“Well, you know, that's crazy, 'cause that's exactly what your mom said last night.”

“Right- we're wasting time, we're wasting time, let's just get on with it. It's- it's crunch time, now, really, C-minus two hours, and counting. C standing for Christmas, obviously, we're getting right down to the wire- let's move.”

*

They were, Wheatley realised, as the minutes ticked slowly closer to midnight, going to have to depend on the fat bloke for quite a lot of leniency. If he expected everything to be exactly how it was in the book, if the magic formula had to be followed exactly, then they were more or less shafted. He'd done his best, but the fact was, the book showed a pretty, human-y sort of room- a home, essentially- with a fairly specific set of items in it. This, on the other hand, was the Facility, and all he had to work with were four cold, smeary walls, a huge, fortuitously-shaped potato plant, and whatever junk he could find lying around. Luckily, from what he could gather, the person in question was supposed to be quite jolly, fairly well-disposed, probably inclined to be generous, but it was still a bit of a worry.

Rick was getting restless. As far as he was concerned, he'd done as much work as could reasonably be expected, and he was getting itchy handles, eager to be off on yet another of his courageous, insanely dangerous, high-octane forays into the unmapped depths of the facility- well, so he said, anyway. Wheatley wasn't quite sure why he was so dead set on asking the fat bloke for a proper adventure if he kept having them all the time anyway. Still, he was happy to give the other core the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being.

He wasn't that bad, Rick, once you got to know him. A bit abrasive, if you weren't used to it, but the relevant literature all agreed that this was a time of year when you were supposed to join forces with people you wouldn't normally get along with, work together for the good of all, faith, hope, and charity, etcetera. He supposed that applied just as much to big obnoxious personality cores that liked setting things on fire and being insulting and humming their own theme music, as it did to the humans in the books and films and things that he'd read. Well, browsed, more sort of scanned, really, he'd been pressed for time, but it amounted to the same thing.

Besides, it was nice to feel that someone else was there, as committed as he was to the venture, their sights set on the same goal. It was a pleasure he'd been starved of, for more or less as long as he could remember, and he'd only recently rediscovered it. Addictive, that was the word for it.

“Done,” he said, as the panel he'd been forcefully headbutting for the last ten minutes finally caved in, scattering plasti-ceramic dust in all directions and falling out of sight in shattered chunks. The battered jointed arm that had held it in place withdrew, whining resentfully, out of sight. “Hacked. I'd- I'd make it bigger, sort of wider- he does look fairly big-boned, this Santa bloke, got some girth going on there- but I don't think I can do much more of that sort of, uh, very technical hacking, today. Takes it out of you, it does, after a while. It's fine, probably, he's just going to have to breathe in a bit. He's a dedicated sort, by all accounts- makes it all around the whole bloody planet in one night, there's effective time management for you- I'm sure he'll be able to improvise.”

The rectangular space the panel revealed glowed a bright orange-red, full of fine, soot-blackened grilled mesh and exuding dangerous baking heat from a distant, unseen furnace. Wheatley, his shell still ringing unpleasantly from the battering he'd just given himself, didn't really want to get too close to it in case it melted or shorted out something in his casing, but the visual effect was definitely promising. It didn't look exactly like the cheerful fireplace blaze in the book, but it wasn't a million miles away, either.

“How're you doing up there, by the way, Kev? Not getting dizzy or anything?”

The third- hastily recruited- member of the venture rocked happily back and forth on the highest point of the tree, sending slow, semi-concussed ripples through the glimmering nanobot-lights. His handles waggled above the loops of cable holding him in place, bright-gold optic twitching dazzlingly back-and-forth, sweeping wild trails of golden-yellow across the dim, paint-splattered walls.

“I'm a star. Star in space. Christmas star in space, gonna, gonna lead the wise men. Nnnnnthis way, wise men. This way to space. ”

“Er, yeah, brilliant, keep up the good work-”

“Space. Christmas.... in space. Shhhhhh, here comes Space Santa. Hello... hello, Space Santa. Hello, little core. What's- what's- what d'you want for Christmas? Oh oh oh can I- can I have- space? Yes, you can. Thaaaanks, Space Santa. Gonna fly the reindeer. Into space. Donner. Dasher. Prancer. Cupid. Blitzen. Comet. Comet. Comet.”

“Hey, Twinkles, the little guy sounds like he knows more about this Christmas thing than you do.”

“Comet.”

“Yeah- alright, don't get cocky, there, Rick, you've already got a black mark against you, Christmaswise. Wasn't going to mention it, but- see, you're all green, got your big green eye face thing going on there, and sneery ol' green things that make sniffy remarks are definitely dubious territory, when it comes to Christmas. You're- you're probably on the big man's danger list already, just for that. So- so just keep it down and let me do the last-minute prep here, alright?”

Rick rolled his optic. “Whatever. This better be worth it. There's a booby-trapped diamond mine in Acapulco with my name on it.”

Wheatley checked his shaky internal clock, gasped, backed up, his connector making excited vvt-vvvt sounds as he circled the glowing tree. Wait, hang on, does that say- aaaah! Oh, God, this is it! Barely a minute to midnight, this is it, this is it, any second now!”

Rick skidded smoothly up alongside him. “Yeah! Adventure, here I come!"

“Spaaaaaace!”

Less than a minute, now, twenty seconds- ten- five... four... three... two... aaaaaaand... now!”

There was a long silence. Apart from the small adjusting noises from the inner workings of the three expectant cores, and the faint, disoriented susurrus from the nanobot-infested tree, the small room was entirely still.

Wheatley kept his optic fixed as wide as it would go, trained on the orange-red flickering of the ersatz fireplace. Inwardly, he put everything he had into a final, silent prayer that this would work, fixed all his debatable powers of concentration on a fervent chant of come on come on come on please please-

“Or, you know, maybe I'm running a bit fast,” he said, after a little while. “Or a glitch, could be a glitch, I did rattle everything about a bit back there. Ah- coming up to a minute after, now, this could be it, this could be it properly this time, for real- annnnd- now!”

Nothing, stubbornly, continued to happen. Wheatley motored forwards a little bit, peering into the gap he'd knocked in the wall with his optic squinted gingerly half-shut against the heat radiating from behind the mesh, just in case the man himself had become stuck en route.

“Annd... now?”

“Space Santa?” asked Kevin, doubtfully, after a longer silence, from the top of the tree.

“Yeah, don't- don't panic, Kev,” said Wheatley, in a voice which was winding itself slowly higher with transparent worry, “I'm sure he's- he's probably running a bit late, happens to the best of us. He has got the whole bloody planet to get round in one night, like I said, it's not like he's just strolling down the shops, plus he's old, practically geriatric, by the look of him, for a human. Don't worry, we did everything right, I'm positive, give him a minute or two, and i-it'll be just like the book, I-I promise. I promise.”

*

They waited for a long time.

Wheatley didn't even dare take his optic off the missing panel for a second, just in case- horror of horrors- he missed the arrival of the fat bloke and somehow forfeited his share of the bargain. The nanobots flickered gently on the tree, and the unleashed heat of the furnace behind the wall slowly warmed the small, cold room, but nothing else happened.

“Bored,” said Kevin, from the top of the tree. “Bored of being a star. Wanna go to space.”

“Any minute now,” said Wheatley, for maybe the sixtieth time, his voice jittering with desperate, dwindling hope. This time, however, Rick- whose optic had been getting steadily and silently narrower with each repetition, dwindling to a dangerous green slit- entirely lost it.

He revved his internal motor, drew his connector back, and gunned forwards on the rail, ramming Wheatley amidships with a vicious metal claaaannnng and knocking him clean off his connector in a shower of sparks. Wheatley yelled, plummeted, smacked optic-first into the floor with a hefty CLANK.

“AAAHHHow ow ow that hurt, that really- what did you do that for? What did you do that for, I didn't do anything to y-”

“Shut up!” yelled Rick. “For once, just shut the hell up and give me one goddamn straight answer without prancin' round it like a couple of grandmas at a barn-dance! Does that book of yours say anything about this whole Christmas thing being, you know, legally binding? There anything in there 'bout that at all? Just 'cause we did all this dumb crap-”

“It's not dumb-”

“-is this guy contractually obliged to show up? Huh?”

“Well- well, not- not as such-”

Rick circled the tree, furiously, glaring down at Wheatley, who had rolled helplessly into a depression in the weathered panels of the floor, stopping just short of the still-open book. “No! No he ain't! Joke's on you, Blue! You got me to do all this crap, you actually got me believin' some crazy fat guy with a beard might show up an' deliver-”

“Hey-hey-hey, shhhh, keep it down, it says he can hear ev-”

“Ahh, wake up and smell the goddamned neurotoxin, ya bird-brained moron, it's not real! It's just a dumbass picture book for babies! Not even robot babies! It don't even exist! Hell, even if it did, you see any robots in that book of yours? It's a human thing, it ain't gonna work in here! Ain't enough pointy trees and sparkly crap on earth to put that right! Man, you're dumb! If I had fists and you had a face, I'd punch you so hard right now that my fist would go straight through your face!”

He powered backwards, fuming. “Well, that's it. Rick's had enough. I got a list of cool stuff I could be doin' right now the length of your stupid tree, why the hell should I waste my time hangin' round here with you?”

By an arduous process of waggling his handles, Wheatley had finally managed to push himself the right way up, flipping awkwardly over. His voice cracked, dismayed, pleading.

“Rick, mate- I swear, literally any minute now-”

The Adventure core just stared down at him, his acid-green optic a narrow slit of disgust. He turned on his axis, zipping smoothly along his rail towards the maintenance exit high up in the wall.

“Forget it. I'm gone. Happy fake-mas, loser.”

“Yeah- well, you'll be sorry, that's all I'm saying!” yelled Wheatley, as the bigger core disappeared from sight. “Oh, you just made the list, you did, and- and if you think I'm putting in a good word for you with the big man when he shows up you are sorely mistaken, sunshine! Yeah, wave goodbye to your adventure, bloody great big lump of anthracite's all you'll be getting this year!”

“Wanna get down,” said the Space core, overhead. “Wanna go to space.”

“Oh, yeah?” Wheatley tried to snap his handles angrily in Kevin's direction, hindered by the fact that he was facing the wrong way and could only maintain his nearly-upright position on the floor by using his lower handle as a sort of awkward prop. “You- you know what, you might as well sod off as well, if you're so bloody anxious to get going! I mean, you're not exactly contributing anything vital up there, nothing I couldn't do myself, so go on, off you go, if you're in such a bloody hurry! Go and- and buddy up with Mr. bloody Testosterone Pants, that's, that's fine as far as I'm concerned!”

“Space.”

“And will you shut up about flipping space?! This isn't about space, this is supposed to be about faith, hope, and charity, so just shut your great big stupid orange face, alright, I can do this on my own! It was my idea, I-I don't need you, I don't need anybody! In fact, in fact, you're all just doing me a favour, actually, 'cause that just means there's all the more Christmas for me!”

*

“Every time, every bloody time I forget how I did it the last time, in-furiating- right, let's try putting the zero-one-one in front this time... oh! Ringing, it's ringing, that's definitely a good s- hello? He- yeah, hi, Mum, it's me!

I-I'm fine, Mum, nothing drastic to report, just, you know, checking in. Would have called earlier, I was just having a little technical difficulty with the phone on this end, bit of a numerical issue. How're you, are you alright? Good, that's- that's great. What- what're you and Dad up to?

Dinner with the Parkers, nice. And... got the tree up yet? Ye- yes, I know it's Christmas Eve, Mum, hadn't escaped my notice, just- just thought you might be running late again this year, that's all, you usually-

Oh, it's going great, brilliant, I'm just powering my way up the old ladder over here. In- in fact, might be something pretty big on the cards in the New Year, bit of a whisper on the horizon- no, no, I can't really tell you any details right now, Mum, it's all a bit hush-hush at the moment, but, er, might be about to pay dividends, as they say. Fairly exciting.

Yeah. I'm over the moon.

What- what am I doing? What, right now? Uh- um- I'm- I'm at a party, actually, as it happens, little Christmas Eve party, ha, yeah, it's all kicking off here. Getting a bit wild, bit crazy... oh, just a few... dozen... friends, you know how these things sort of snowball...

Yeah- it's- it's a very quiet par- we're having to keep it down, Mum, to be honest, the neighbours are a bit funny about the noise, that's probably why you can't hear much, but believe me, we are still having a grand old time. Very- plus, very good noise reduction, as well, probably, this phone- it's, it's the latest thing they have over here. Obviously doing its job.

Er- well, not really at the moment... well, sort of...

Well... now you mention it, there is sort of a certain someone- aaaghhh, Mum, that was right in my ear, the noise reduction's not that good! Y- well, sort of, yeah. Yeah, she's-

-oh, you know, just, just someone I met at work.

Mum, for heaven's sake, what sort of question's that?! 'Is she pretty?' I'd like to think my own mother'd respect my choice in a, a girlfriend enough to judge her on her personality, her- intrinsic qualities, not on something as shallow as, as mere looks.

Uh- since you ask, though, yep, she's bloody gorgeous.

Yeah...

Right. You were beginning to lose hope. Yeah, cheers, thanks for that little snippet of information there, Mum, that's- that's cheerful, good to know. Uh- nono, no, hah, um, I can't put her on, because... she's not here. No, we're not- no, Mum, it's- it’s- it’s early days, we're- we're not really at that stage in the relationship yet, she's not hanging round me every minute of the day, she's- well, I'd imagine, Christmas Eve, she's probably- probably with her family, close friends, something like that. Just, you know, having a good time with the people she cares about. That- that sort of thing.

Well, I don't know, Mum, you don't want to rush things like this, best not to jinx it, like I said, early days- no, I don't have a photo of her, she's- she's a bit camera-shy. Makes a flipping amazing bagel, though, and her eyes...

No... no, I don't suppose she does, I bet you're spot on there, about that. Thanks, Mum.

No, no, I'm alright, honestly. Just- a bit worn out. You know, by the amazing party. That I'm at.

Sorry? What's who's name? Hers-

-um, um, oh, God, you're- you're breaking up, sorry, Mum, there's a lot of- of interference on the line all of a sudden! Can't hear a word! Probably something wrong with the exchange- are you still talking, because I-I can't- you know what, wow, I- I should probably go, anyway, there's some crazy stuff going down on this end, just- just wanted a quick word- say hi to Dad for me...

...yeah. You too. And- and Happy New Year.

Bye, Mum.

*

Wheatley was angry.

He was still on the floor, completely unable to make any sort of progress towards not being on the floor, helpless and fed up and angry. Properly angry, the sort of angry that made you feel like something hot and tight-wound inside you was going to short-circuit and explode if you didn't find a proper outlet for it. He was angry because it was over three hours after midnight and it was pretty obvious even to his blindly overinflated sense of optimism that the fat bloke was a no-show, he was angry because Rick had ditched him like he was nothing (plus, called him the m word, just to add insult to injury,) and he was especially angry because he didn't know what had gone wrong.

He didn't know whether it was something he'd screwed up in the preparation, or something one of the other two had done wrong, or if- like Rick had said- Christmas was a human thing that only worked for humans in nice, pretty, safe-looking places like the ones in the book, and it just didn't work for small, well-intentioned artificial personality cores trapped in hellish underground scientific testing facilities. Wheatley wasn't sure which explanation was worse, if it was better to think that he'd tried really hard and still stuffed something up, or if all his hope and effort had been pointless from the word go. Either way, it was unfair, unfair, unfair, and he was angry.

And, as he rarely did, whenever he felt particularly bitter or resentful, when for whatever reason his habitual cheeriness was running low and things seemed just that painful little bit bleaker and more real than usual, he found himself thinking, if I was in charge around here, if I had any say in any of this, they'd be sorry.

He didn't exactly know who 'they' were, but if he'd thought about it, he would have realised that he meant- everybody. Everybody who happened to be in the vicinity, anyone within reach on that half-imagined, very hypothetical, absolutely wonderful future day when he finally got his shot at the big time, they would all be very, very sorry that little old Wheatley had ever felt frustrated or helpless or left out, that tiny forgettable Wheatley had ever been laughed at or kicked around or, worst of all, plain old ignored.

“Should have asked for that, instead,” he muttered, narrowing his optic darkly, an ominous effect rather spoiled by an accidental twitch of his handle, which nudged him off-balance and caused him to roll- slowly and without much dignity- completely over onto his back port. “That would have showed them. Merry bloody Christmas, from Wheatley, with interest.”

Clunk, went something, from the fireplace.

Wheatley started, optic telescoping, handles flailing helplessly as he tried to work himself over onto his side again. Neither handle could currently touch the floor, so his usual method of leverage was right out. Through the extreme orbit of his optic, lens widened to its maximum diameter, he managed to focus on the missing panel, just in time to watch the mesh grille go flying halfway across the chamber with a hollow thwannnnnggg, the victim of a well-applied foot.

The person who scrambled, a cautious few seconds later, through the hole in the wall, wasn't anything like the person he'd been expecting. There was nothing jolly about her- nothing red or white or festive or rotund. Just a human, with a dark, tangled ponytail hanging in unkempt strings around her ears and clear, sharp warm-steel eyes, arming the sweat off her face and looking around her in wary puzzlement. She spotted him almost immediately, and her eyes widened in recognition.

“Oh! Oh, wow, it's you! Hello! How's- how's it going? Sorry I haven't been around much, today, been, um, fairly busy, actually, all told. Had a bit of an idea, actually, was trying to implement it, only it- I suppose you could say it didn't exactly work out, so, it's still business as usual, I'm afraid, back to escaping the old-fashioned way. How's that going, by the way, get anywhere, while I wasn't there, anything I need bringing up to speed on? Any significant breakthroughs?”

She shook her head, but he could tell that she was distracted. Her gaze moved over the colourful walls, past the companion cube Rick had sweet-talked the Object Retrieval System into delivering for them, the canned goods they'd managed to pile on it. She stared at the cans, and then the trailing bundles of red-and-green wires hanging in looping lengths around the walls, and the downright terrible attempt at bits of holly and mistletoe and robins that Wheatley, paint-thick old brush clamped awkwardly under his handle, had perpetrated on the walls and ceiling, which really hadn't deserved the assault.

“Yeah... bit, bit tricky to explain,” said Wheatley, weakly. He was cringing, ashamed by how completely daft all this had to look to her eyes, how bizarre and pathetic it probably appeared someone who didn't have the faintest idea what all this was all about, who'd never even seen the picture in the book, never had any inkling of the vague, dim sense-memories that he'd tried so hard to match. “Don't really feel like going into it all over again right now, to be honest, so- can- can you pick me up, please? Don't know if you've noticed, but I am on the floor- nonono stop there's no reason to look over there, don't- don't look over there!”

Too late. She'd turned to the corner by the companion-cube-table, the stretch of wall just beneath his rail. He saw her reading, eyes flicking over the scrubby, runny, badly-formed letters. Rick had insisted that the Adventure Core wasn't writing any dumb list, that he would talk to Santa mano-e-mano- and it was uncertain if Kevin could write, or even understood the concept of written language- but Wheatley had personally thought it best to be on the safe side.

Dear Santa,

This year I would like, for me and her to escape. essentially, from here (IE the Facility.) Understand that's a v. tall order but I'm thinking you definitely owe me for the last few decades so maybe we can just call it even? Plus I did all the things in the book so I'm hoping we've got a deal! What with being able to fly round the world and fit down chimneys I reckon getting us out of here won't be that big a stretch for you.

Just watch out for the turrets though- you might want to leave all the deer outside, unless they happen to be bulletproof.

Yrs. sncrly,

“Oh, God,” said Wheatley, eventually. He'd shut his optic, in the hope that he could just mercifully short-circuit out of an overload of pure embarrassment, but no such luck. “You were categorically not meant to see that. See- there's- there's this thing, right, called 'Christmas,' supposed to happen... well, today, really, we are technically a couple of hours into it, now, and I sort of- I sort of thought, ha, I thought it was real, so I sort of threw all this together to... save it...”

He laughed- a rather feeble sound- then gingerly opened his optic.

“Joke's on me, a-apparently, because turns out it- wait, what- what're you doing, what's wrong?”

She had come to a standstill, her hand halted in the act of tucking a strand of hair back behind her ear. As far as he could tell, from his awkward position, she was staring up at the tree with a face that suggested that, had it suddenly fallen from the sky and started talking to her in Spanish, she wouldn't have been any more astonished.

He had to admit, the tree was probably the most successful part of the failed venture, in itself. It was big and green and pointy, just like the picture, and the stranded nanobots were still doing their bewildered shimmering thing through the leaves, spreading and rippling and sending slow flurries of blue-white light streaming across the tips of the branches, and Kevin's large golden-orange optic was perhaps the world's most jittery, hyperactive treetop star, granted, but it did sort of work, given everything else.

“Hey, hhheyyy, lady. Wanna go to space?”

She took a step back, still gazing up at the tree, then looked suddenly back down towards Wheatley, who was startled to see that her face- her pale, grimy cheeks, the dark shadows under her eyes, the thin, livid stripe of a laser burn on her temple- had suddenly changed expression, shifted further from its usual impassive mask than he'd ever seen it before. Most shockingly, her cheeks were wet, inexplicable moisture brimming silently from her eyes. She swiped at them with the palm of her free hand, looked back at the tree, the tears on her face shining in the gentle nanolight.

“Oh, god, you're- you're leaking, don't do that, don't do that, I-I'm sorry... uh, wow, though, that's... ouch, I didn't realise it looked that bad. You don't have to keep staring at it, you know, if you...”

She leaned the portal gun carefully against the companion cube, and sat down a little too suddenly, on the panelled floor alongside him, staring up at the tree. As he watched in bewildered silence, she leaned back on her bandaged palms, crossing her ankles neatly in their strange black-white boots. Her intense scary-brilliant eyes were wet and curiously, unusually peaceful, and in that moment Wheatley suddenly remembered- an odd, dim burst of a memory, skittering across his mind like a misfired marble- that sometimes humans did this- cried, she's crying- when they were happy, too.

“...wait... hang on, do you... do you know what it is? Oh, it never even occurred to me that you might know what it is- d'you recognise it, at all? Big old tree with lights on and a star thingy at the top, any of this ringing any sort of... festive bells? Festive, bit of a clue, there...”

Slowly, she nodded. His pupil widened, elated, his handles making giddy little zz-zzt sounds as he pushed himself proudly upright against the cube's flat surface.

“You do! You've- you've seen one before, haven't you, you must have! Oh, tremendous, so it's not just me! Do- I mean, not angling for praise here or anything, but... do you... do you like it? Is- is that it, is that why you're doing that? Because you like it? It- it is, isn't it? It is! Oh, that's tons better- sorry, obviously, still not great I made you do that, but cards on the table, it is a bit of a relief, I haven't had the greatest evening, to be honest, it's nice to have a- a positive reaction of some kind. You're- you're the only one, incidentally, in a majority of one, there, in the 'liking it' stakes; the big man clearly didn't think much of it, he didn't even show up. Still, never mind, there's always next year."

He raised his upper handle, hopefully. She picked him up, carefully, two-handed, and set him down on top of the companion cube. She shifted him sideways-on so that he could see, by a quick flick of the optic, both her and the tree, then reached for one of the cans. Wheatley's options had been fairly limited on that point, restricted to the contents of the small cache that had already been stacked in one corner of the small room, but she seemed perfectly happy to pick out a container of some sort of potted meat, and start working on the stiff ringpull. She kept looking back up at the tree every once in a while, her expression rapt and open, as if she was half-scared that it might vanish while she wasn't looking. One thing was clear; he'd been right, she liked it. A lot.

“You know,” he said, after a moment, “I literally just remembered, there was this- this sort of saying, at one point. Handy little aphorism I just remembered. 'It'll all be over by Christmas'. Not exactly sure who said that- some fairly impatient bloke, I suppose- but, point is, since it's not all over by this Christmas, I'm thinking our chances are pretty good that it'll all be over by next Christmas. Makes sense, right?”

She paused for a moment, looking back at him, then nodded, smiling a rare smile. He grinned back, to the extent that he could- his lower optical lid drawn up in a happy beam, handles crooked at their jauntiest angle. She was just a smelly human, and despite the convenience of her clever, button-pressing, Wheatley-carrying, test-solving brain and fingers and legs, he found it hard to forget how bloody terrifying she could be-

-but sometimes he found it difficult, impossible, to keep in mind that it was bonkers, considering how unreliable humans always proved to be when you really needed them, for him to trust her. After all this time- without ever even intending to, she had been the first one to re-introduce him to the experience of working alongside someone else, of sharing triumphs and losses, of maybe even not being alone. The place she occupied in his mind was the exact opposite of that bitter, abandoned, angry feeling of They'll Be Sorry. And when she smiled at him like that, oh...

...man alive.

Faith, hope, and charity. He hadn't really thought about it, before- he'd been a bit too focused on the whole bargain side of the thing, of trying to make sure he got exactly what he wanted out of the deal- but amazingly, he was actually sort of feeling it, now. The faith was a work in progress, and the charity didn't exactly come naturally, either, but when she smiled like that, the hope was absolutely no problem.

“So, I-I bet we'll both be well out of all this, by then, you and me. And we'll do it on our own, completely unassisted by flying herbivores and big old fat bastards in questionable outfits. Which- which means, next time we take a shot at this whole Christmas thing, we can use our lists to ask for other stuff, whatever we want like... well, maybe a new jumpsuit, for you- not- not that there's anything wrong with your jumpsuit, did not mean to imply that there was, just, you know, maybe you'd like a different one, or- or a three-portal device...”

She had finished the contents of the can by now, and he noticed that she had started to open her mouth widely at a rate of perhaps once every couple of minutes, a curious involuntary action which he'd learned to associate with her needing to switch off and recharge for a while. In this case, it was probably something to do with the cosy, heated atmosphere he'd accidentally created by breaking through the wall- radically different from the facility's usual endless, bone-deep chill. As he watched, she put the can aside and settled, comfortably, resting her forearm and chin on the top of his companion-cube stand, giving the tree a last, long look.

“You going to have a little nap? Fine, that's fine, I'll just stop here, let you know if anything happens, you can count on me. Not going anywhere- can't, really, 'til you hook me back up on my rail up there, but that can wait 'til morning, no issue there, I'm not hurrying you on that one. Oh! Hey, that's a thought,” he added, struck by yet another sudden, unassailably brilliant idea, “speaking of you helping with, with things in general- seeing how you liked it so much, maybe, right, next year, maybe you can help me with the tree! What d'you think?”

Her eyes opened, refocusing on his optic, and a little crease appeared at the top of her nose. Before he could start to worry that he'd said the wrong thing, however, she smiled again and leaned her head forwards, resting her forehead for a long, quiet moment against the age-grubby metal at side of his optical ring.

A moment- and then she moved again, turned away in a quick, exhausted motion and curled up on the warm tiles alongside the cube, the portal gun within easy reach of her hand.

For quite a while after this unprecendented, out-of-the-blue moment of contact, Wheatley was too startled to speak. Silent, optic wide, he watched her settle into what- as far as he could tell- looked like a deep, calm sleep, her slight coiled-spring body curled and still in the warm, wavering light from the grille. Kevin's perpetually-overexcited little exclamations and the muted squeaks of the nanobots, an unlikely combination, actually made for quite a pleasant sound when you got used to it- a sweet off-tempo little chorus that sort of fitted the warm, colourful little room. More though luck than judgement, he had at least managed to make somewhere that looked safe, felt it- the essence if not the ideal match of the pretty, welcoming, homely place in the book.

He sighed, handles relaxing, optic drifting half-closed. Yes, it was true that, on paper, the day had been a bit of a failure. Yet another of his great ideas had failed to work out the way he'd intended it to- he hadn't really saved Christmas, and despite his best efforts he hadn't got the two of them any closer to escaping. For some reason, though, he didn't feel hard-done-by, bitter or angry or even that put out about the whole thing. Not at all. Not this time.

This time, although it made very little sense, and he wouldn't really have been able to explain it, even if it had occurred to him to try- he couldn't help feeling as if it hadn't gone too badly, today. Not too badly at all.

“Sleep tight, love,” he said, quietly. “Happy Christmas.”

*



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