When I was putting together a list of science fiction related posts to share with you guys this month, I remembered back to a few years ago when one of my good friends from Gaia shared some of her work with me, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. One of those fanfics, a story about the british bastard bot Wheatley trying to befriend a scorned Chell, stuck out in my mind as a really touching, very well written piece, so I asked her permission to share it with you guys today.
Second class citizen
by Roz Sawyer
Finally, after so many trials and failures and near-death experiences, he had freedom and so did she. It had really come down to the wire, too. Almost literally, even. Now that they were out and putting as much distance between themselves and the facility as they possibly could in a day, Wheatley was still wondering what had made Chell hold onto him in the end, keeping him from flying off into outer space. Hadn’t he been absolutely monstrous to her? He’d even gone as far as throwing bombs at her, hurling verbal abuse just as rapidly while staring her in the face, but here she was carrying his once-again tiny little body across the vast expanse of golden yellow vegetation, showing no sign that she would drop him anytime soon. He’d tried asking her about it as soon as they were out of the lift shaft, but she’d just given him a strange, unreadable look that left him feeling particularly unfulfilled. He’d tried asking her about that, too, but before the question was out, something shuddered in the shed behind them and the door to the shaft opened back up to make way for the unwieldy and badly singed Weighted Companion Cube that Chell now carried on her back, tied up in the entirety of her jumpsuit.
They had been walking for what felt like hours to Wheatley, who hadn’t bothered to check his internal chronometer (he’d lost most of his faith in it some time ago, before all this had happened). It must have been a long while, though, because he could hear Chell’s labored breathing and he felt the change in her step as she walked. She was holding him sideways, the front of his spherical body pointing off to her right, so it wasn’t difficult at all for him to tilt his optic up to look her in the face. She was staring straight forward, hardly blinking and wearing the same face of determination he’d grown so accustomed to seeing on her. Her mouth was open, however, and she was taking very deep breaths. Wheatley had never seen her look so tired, but then again the air out here wasn’t swimming with adrenal vapor like the air in the facility. Chell would probably tire much quicker now that they were free.
“You look exhausted, luv.” Wheatley kept his optic on Chell’s face even as she looked down at him. Eye contact was important to humans, wasn’t it? “I think you should take a little rest. There’s no extra adrenaline to breathe in around here. You’re gonna start feeling tired like a regular human now.” He paused, the light in his optic shrinking to a pinprick. “Not that there’s anything irregular about you! Not at all! No, no, you’re a perfectly ordinary human.” Another pause. “Uh, I mean that nothing’s wrong with you! Except that bit of brain damage, yeah, but that doesn’t slow you down. No, you’re brilliant anyway. You’re irregular, but in a good way. Is this making any sense?”
Chell was still breathing hard, but the look in her eyes and the little nod of her head she gave him told Wheatley that she did, in fact, understand the meaning behind his rambling. His optic light returned to normal size.
“Good, good. I’m sorry if I offended you. Again. Really sorry. Also again. Now how about you have yourself a little sit-down over there.” He waved one of his handles up and down. “I saw a clear spot off that way. You should be able to see all around you in there, so there’s no chance of anything sneaking up on us. Unless it sneaks up from underground. Then we’d really be buggered, me and you.” He’d have continued if Chell hadn’t moved one hand up from around him and rested it just above his optic. Wheatley wasn’t sure what that gesture meant, but he stopped talking and caught sight of the slightest of smiles on Chell’s face when he did. He remained silent until she had walked them into the clearing, untying the jumpsuit from around her shoulders and waist to let down the immense Companion Cube and spreading the garment out to sit on. She set Wheatley in her lap as she rested her back against the cube, letting out another deep breath as an audible sigh.
A few minutes into her rest, Chell lifted Wheatley up to set him beside her on the outspread jumpsuit while she removed her long fall boots. Wheatley kept his optic trained on all the movement, watching as Chell undid the straps and slid the skin-tight boots off. The inner parts of the boots had left nasty red lines and blotches on her skin that Wheatley couldn’t help but recoil from.
“Oh, luv, those red spots look awful. Do they hurt?”
Chell hesitated before nodding her head up and down.
“Oh, they look like they really do. Are you happy to finally get those boots off?”
“Yeah, it really shows.” Chell lifted her eyebrows in mild surprise as Wheatley’s voice began to quiet down, his tone uncharacteristically somber. “Was that bothering you all the time you were testing? You could’ve said something, luv. Or, well, you know, jumped up and down and waved or something to get my attention.” He let out a simulated sigh. “Never mind. Forget it. Even if you did I wouldn’t have listened.” He lifted his optic back up to look Chell in the eye, his tone returning to normal. “And that’s why now I’m taking it upon myself to make things easier for you. So, let’s see what we can do about how painful it is to walk in those boots.” He looked around in all directions with Chell as his center point. When he spoke again there was a hint of what sounded like a smirk in his voice.
“Well I see something. It’s a pretty obvious one, if you ask me.” He gestured as best he could with his optic toward the Companion Cube. “What are you carrying all that extra weight around for, luv? That cube there weighs about…oh, I dunno, thirty pounds minimum? Giant thing. I can’t see why you’re lugging it around out here. There aren’t any test chambers outside the facility.” A beat. “And that’s a good thing. Very good.” He nodded his entire body emphatically to prove his point. “I can’t even see why She would give it back to you, either. Look at the condition it’s in. What happened to it? Did it fall out of orbit or something? Did they test Aerial Faith Plates with these things? It makes sense if you think about it, but I’m not exactly in any mood to think about space for a while.” He looked back up at Chell to see a melancholy expression on her face, which he took as his cue to move back to the subject at hand. “So, luv, as I was saying, why don’t you just get rid of the bloody thing and get on with…”
Wheatley cut himself off when he saw Chell’s expression change with remarkable speed. The sad, regretful look was instantly replaced with the most vicious glare she’d given him since he had been forcibly detached from the GLaDOS chassis. Wheatley could almost imagine the look in her eyes burning through his exterior with the intensity of a hundred – no, a thousand – Thermal Discouragement Beams. He involuntarily squeaked as his approximation of a pupil shrank to an almost invisible size once again.
“Or not! Or not! That’s just fine, as well! You know what? Forget I said anything. Forget I said anything at all since we sat down here. Except the part about wanting to make things easier for you. I meant that.”
Chell just rolled her eyes, a gesture Wheatley had grown accustomed to since they had met, and leaned back against the Companion Cube with her eyes shut.
“Oh yeah, it makes a pretty good back rest, doesn’t it? Hadn’t thought of that.”
Chell put a finger to her lips, her eyelids still closed, and Wheatley silenced himself with another sigh.
They traveled for a few more days – a length of time that Wheatley could see passing with his own optic – and in all that time Wheatley could not understand Chell’s reaction to his suggestion of letting the Companion Cube go. This time when he’d asked her about it she’d huffed at him and rolled her eyes, a much more vehement non-answer than his previous questions had gotten. Since then he’d tried to distract himself with other concerns, like the lack of diversity in the scenery or the growl sound he kept hearing when Chell held him against her stomach, but his mind kept coming back to that glare. What value could that cube possibly have in this place?
It wasn’t until the evening of the third day of walking and sleeping outside (a practice that made Wheatley uneasy, what with the combination of being fully exposed to the elements and being forced to look at the moon and stars until sunrise) that the pair ran across the remains of a building. There was no telling how old it was, but its architect had had the foresight to build the roof and walls out of thin plates of steel. The windows and doors had no coverings on them, but the floor was made out of thick concrete that made the heel springs of Chell’s long fall boots click against it as Wheatley turned on his flashlight to help her get a look around.
“Well, this place has certainly seen better days,” he mused, his optic shifting around. “I wonder what it was used for. Thick floor, tough walls…I think the roof’s well waterproofed, so that’s a load off my mind.” The light from his flashlight dipped into every corner, amplifying the waning sunlight that snuck in through the windows. For a metal-lined structure, this place was very open to the air. Each window was partly framed by short walls that came out into the room within, leaving a narrow aisle down the middle lined by good-sized compartments.
Wheatley briefly shut the light off, turning his optic up to look Chell in the face. “Do you have any idea what this place was?” He paused for a beat. “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry. I always forget.” The lids of his ocular aperture moved themselves into the best smile he could manage. “Think you could write it down, luv? I don’t mind you putting me down in here.” Chell eased Wheatley to the floor before untying the limbs of her jumpsuit-pack to release the Companion Cube with a loud clunk. “There we are. Here’s a nice spot. Plenty of dust.” Wheatley turned his flashlight back on, bathing the patch of floor in white light.
Chell knelt, trying her best to fold her legs and feet in a way that didn’t make the heel springs uncomfortable, and reached out one finger to the dust. Wheatley watched intently as she formed a word for him.
“Uh…” Wheatley squinted at the word Chell had written. “Well yeah, yeah it is, but that’s not what I was asking, luv.” The shake of his optic he gave Chell nearly knocked him on his side. “When I asked what this place was, I didn’t mean for you to describe it to me. Tell me what it was used for. That’s what I’m after.”
Chell sighed, punctuating it with an eye-roll. She leaned forward again, her expression miffed, and wrote another word above the first one.
“Horse?” Wheatley looked back up at Chell, trying not to shine the light directly in her face. “I don’t…”
Chell gestured rapidly back and forth between the two words with her extended finger.
“Stable horse? Horse sta- Oh!” Wheatley laughed, shaking his frame enough to threaten his stability again. “I see. You were answering the right question the whole time. Uh,” he blinked his optic quickly a few times, “well sometimes ‘stable’ is an adje-…uh…um, a word that describes things instead of…a word that is something. Don’t know why that is. Bloody confusing. I’d like to have a word with whatever sap invented the English language.” Another laugh, his voice smiling for him when he spoke again. “Have a word with him, get it? Ah, aren’t I brilliant?” He lifted his optic back up to Chell’s face and was almost elated to see that she was holding back laughter herself. She’d brought her writing hand up to her mouth to cover it up, physically keeping her silent giggles in. Wheatley smiled with his optic again. Seeing Chell look so happy, even though she was trying to hide it, roused something in him that felt strongly positive. Then the reality of their situation came back to him and Wheatley’s optic darted around the room again.
“So, this was a horse stable. Looks about right for one.” Not that Wheatley had ever actually seen a horse stable in his existence, but that was beside the point now. “A stable for horses. A…” His pupil-light shrank. “Ugh! They…they kept animals in here once! Dirty, smelly, huge animals! With fur! And fleas, quite possibly! And now I’m sitting on this floor!” A simulated gasp. “I bet they excreted all over this floor! Pick me up and clean it off, luv! Clean it off! Clean it off! Clean it off!”
Seemingly alarmed by Wheatley’s realization, Chell hopped to her feet, boots clacking against the concrete as she searched around the stable for something. Finally she returned brandishing a grease-stained off-white cloth that she shook out, scattering a thick cloud of particles that promptly flew out the nearest window as the air blew through.
Wheatley sighed in relief. “Oh, thank you, luv. Knew I could still count on you. It’ll be quick work. I could probably use a good shining-up after so long. Oi!”
Rather than use the cloth on Wheatley, Chell had dropped back to her knees and lifted the Companion Cube sideways, resting it on one edge as she wiped up the underside of it. She scrubbed at it with all the precision and care of a proud owner polishing their silver. If Wheatley had possessed a jaw, it would have hung slack at this moment.
“What are you doing, luv?! That thing’s burnt to kingdom come! A little dirt’s not gonna make it worse! Besides, it hasn’t got moving parts and I have!” Chell didn’t pause in her work at all. “Luv, can you hear me? Oh, please don’t tell me the brain damage is getting worse! Luv? Look at me, luv. Over here! Oi! Look over here!” In his agitation, Wheatley had begun to wiggle his handles, giving him the final push that sent him rolling over onto one side. “Ah! No! Nononononono! It’s all over me now! Get it off! Get it off!” He moved every part he could think of, but nothing moved enough to right him. “Aw, look what you made me do, luv! I’m all filthy now and all because you weren’t listening to me!”
Now Chell whipped her head around, giving Wheatley another glare. Immediately he went silent, his pupil tiny. His optic shifted around in his frame uneasily until Chell’s expression softened just a little and she picked him up only to set him down on a rotting crate a few feet away.
“Oh.” Wheatley looked down at his perch, any sign that he’d been smiling less than five minutes ago completely gone. “You were listening.” He kept Chell out of his line of vision, scanning the floor in front of the crate now and keeping his voice low. “Sorry about that. Again.” He sighed. He couldn’t see Chell at all, but the sound of her giving a thorough rub-down to the Companion Cube echoed all over the room. Wheatley sat in silence for half a minute until a thought popped into his mind.
“Do you need the light, luv?” Wheatley lifted his optic up so he could see Chell again. She shook her head back and forth in response. “Alright. Okay. I’ll just…be over here, then.” The noise stopped as Wheatley shut off his flashlight, for once at a loss for anything else to say. Instead he heard the clicking of Chell’s boots as she got up, walked over to him, gave the top of his body two good pats and then walked back over to the cube, apparently trying to rub off as much burnt material as she could with what tool she had.
“You’re welcome,” he said, again looking down at his crate. Chell didn’t bother to acknowledge his response and a moment later he was looking back over toward her. By now she was on the other side of the cube, arm working tirelessly to clean it up, and Wheatley puzzled at her behavior again. As far as he could see, his logic had been flawless since leaving the facility and here Chell was defying it in the utmost extremes. Perhaps it was just part of her nature to disobey authority in any form, but up until now she’d done everything right to ensure survival. Now here she was trying to clean burns off of a completely useless object when the cloth she had wouldn’t make them come out and there was someone else in the room who needed that attention more.
The idea of trust issues crossed Wheatley’s mind briefly, but he threw it out straightaway. It was true that he hadn’t done much to earn Chell’s trust back yet, but she wasn’t polishing her burnt cube because she trusted it. Was she? No, that sounded ridiculous, even to Wheatley. He looked away from Chell and the cube again to think undisturbed. He could talk while the cube could not. He could be helpful now and again and the cube only weighed Chell down. He had made Chell laugh, something that he was now counting among his greatest achievements, and the cube didn’t even have the capacity to do the same. He had heard somewhere that Weighted Companion Cubes were sentient, but they never showed it. Who was to say that was true?
A moment later and Wheatley was venturing another look in Chell’s direction only to see that she had stopped polishing the cube and was now resting her head and arms on top of it with her eyes closed. He tilted his optic to the side, this time taking care not to move himself too suddenly.
“Luv?” No answer. “Are you alright, luv?” Still no answer. “Are you still angry with me? I do mean it when I say I’m sorry, just so you know.” This time Chell made a noise, snorting loudly enough to startle Wheatley. That answered that, then. She was asleep. Wheatley dropped his voice to a whisper. “Oh. Sorry one more time, luv. You just rest now.”
He’d have left it there had one detail not caught his attention. She was asleep on the cube. It was supporting the weight of her upper body again, just like on all the rests she had taken on the walk that eventually led them here. Suddenly the pattern was clear to Wheatley and for lack of a better word to describe it, he was mystified. He narrowed his optic at the cube. What quality could that thing possibly have that made Chell care about it so much? More than him, even? Wheatley almost asked this question aloud, but he remembered that Chell was asleep just in time. Perhaps, if she wasn’t still angry with him in the morning, he’d ask her about this.
Wheatley’s own “sleep cycle” was much shorter than any human’s, so every morning he always found himself awake before Chell. This morning was no different. His ocular aperture blinked open, he took stock of where he was resting and immediately turned himself as best he could to face Chell. She was still halfway on top of the Weighted Companion Cube, a sight that put Wheatley back into the bad mood he’d been in when he went into sleep mode. He glared at the cube again, but before he could utter a word, a strange noise broke the early morning’s silence for him. It sounded like a mix of an animal growl and liquid bubbling around inside something. Wheatley’s blue iris nearly disappeared again as he shouted for Chell.
“Wake up, luv!” He began shifting around in place, his handles waving up and down frantically. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! I think something’s in here with us and it does not sound happy. What…What if we’ve taken its territory?! Oh, I bet we did!” His optic rolled around in his frame, searching the stable for any trace of the creature. “Well that’s just bloody brilliant. Not even a week outside the facility and we get attacked by something.” Ceasing to focus on anything, Wheatley just let his optic move around aimlessly. “I can just see the look in Her smug, yellow optic. I bet She knew this would happen. I- Ah!”
Chell puffed out a sigh, now stood over Wheatley. He hadn’t even noticed her getting to her feet.
“Oh.” Wheatley stilled his optic, looking up at Chell. “It’s just you, luv. I didn’t see you there.” He looked left and right quickly, lowering his voice. “Now, no sudden moves. We don’t want to make this thing any angrier. Did you see anything over there where you were by the…” He paused, looking in the cube’s direction. “By that thing?”
Chell shook her head.
“Oh. I wonder where it is, then. It sounded like it came from o-…” Wheatley visibly stiffened his entire frame when he heard the noise again, only now it was over by him. “Aah! No! Nonononononono!” He clamped his ocular aperture shut, practically vibrating in place. “Don’t eat me! I’m made of metal!” He sat there, shaking for almost a full minute before he dared open his optic. Nothing had happened. Wheatley shifted his gaze in all directions before settling it on Chell. She’d put a hand over her stomach, her expression mildly pained.
“What happened, luv?” Before he got an answer, Wheatley heard the sound again, quieter this time. “Ah!” He watched as Chell cringed and rubbed her stomach. Wheatley quirked his optic to one side in confusion. “Is that…you making that noise?”
“Oh. Eheh…” Wheatley blinked twice, looking at the floor. He’d have blushed if he could. “I didn’t know humans made noises like that. Does it mean anything?”
Chell knelt in front of Wheatley’s crate, rubbing a word into the dust with one finger: Hungry
“Oh, I see. Was it your stomach making that noise? That is the name for it, right? ‘Stomach’?”
“Does that hurt? It sounds like it does.”
She nodded again.
Wheatley sighed. “I’m sorry, luv. Is there anything in here you can eat?”
Chell shook her head this time, writing another word: Outside
“Back out there again?” Wheatley quirked his optic to the side. “But we’ve only just got here.”
Chell shook her head, half-smiling, and pointed to herself before pointing outside.
“Okay, okay, I’ve got this.” Wheatley squinted his optic in concentration. “You…are going outside.”
Chell nodded with vigor before pointing at Wheatley and then at the floor.
“Hmm, let’s see. I am…staying here?” A pause. “Why, luv? You’re not leaving me, are you?”
Chell shook her head, then pointed to herself again and made a slow scooping gesture in toward her chest.
“You…will come back?” Wheatley’s small countenance brightened. “Is that it?”
“Ah, I see. You’ll go out looking for food and then you’ll come back here. Guess that makes sense. You’ll probably need your arms for gathering food up and it’ll be tough going ’round out there being weighed down.” Wheatley wiggled his top handle toward the cube.
Chell got to her feet, giving Wheatley another dirty look.
“What?” There was genuine confusion in Wheatley’s optic. “What is it? Was it something I said?” His only responses were a sigh and a pat just behind his upper handle. Wheatley sank into his seat a bit, watching as Chell crossed the room, picked up the Companion Cube and lugged it to a spot directly across the stable from the crate he was still sat on. Wheatley expected Chell to get back up immediately, but instead she paused, running a hand along the still-damaged top edge of the cube and smiling. The look of fondness on her face stirred something powerful in Wheatley and he made a noise not unlike a human man clearing his throat. Chell’s head immediately turned toward him.
“Well alright. Off you go.” Wheatley gestured toward the door with his optic. “Ease that pain inside you from not eating. Nobody’s holding you back.”
Chell paused only to raise an eyebrow at Wheatley before standing up, grabbing her jumpsuit up off the floor and tying the arms and legs into a sack.
“Ah, look at that. Clever girl.” Wheatley smiled up at her. “Go on now. I should be just fine right here. Unless something comes in here. Then I don’t know what.” Chell smirked and shook her head before walking out the door with her makeshift bag.
Once Chell was out of view, Wheatley trained his narrowed optic on the cube across from him. “Alright, then. Now it’s just me and you in here.” His optic shifted into more of a smug expression. “Nobody for you to hide behind.”
“Now the way I see it,” Wheatley began, raising himself up as much as he could by leaning on his lower handle, “I’m a second-class citizen compared to you. Now why do you think that is?”
The Companion Cube, understandably, said nothing.
“No idea? Really?” Wheatley’s optic narrowed again. “I doubt that. I’ve seen how she looks at you. How she takes care of you. I don’t even get a second glance.” He sighed and looked down for a moment. When he looked back up at the cube, Wheatley’s expression was more hurt than malicious. “It just doesn’t make any sense! What have you ever done for her?” A beat. “Were you one of the cubes that helped her solve the tests? Must’ve been one terrible test from the look of you. I’ll be totally honest: you look awful.”
The cube made no reply.
“In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’d been through the-…” Wheatley’s luminous pupil shrank. “…incinerator. Oh bloody hell, I heard about that experiment.” The lower lid of his ocular aperture slid up to cover his optic halfway. “Get a test subject attached to an inanimate object, then make them burn it. Now it makes sense!” He snapped his optic shut with a frustrated growl. “Rrgh! Why didn’t I think of that before? She gives you all that attention because She made her think you were her only friend.” Wheatley’s ocular aperture became a threatening slit, his voice almost a whisper. “Well I’ve got news for you, mate: you’re not. She’s got me now.” Wheatley put on the best prideful smirk a core could manage. “I’d say I make a pretty good friend, all things considered. I talk to her, I look out for her, I use my flashlight for her, I make her laugh…” His voice trailed off at the last item on his list and he chortled to himself. “Now ask yourself this, mate: what do you do for her? Now that we’re out of the facility?”
The cube said nothing.
“Exactly!” Wheatley shouted. “You just sit there and make it hard for her to do anything she needs to do! There’s no adrenaline to breathe in out here! She hasn’t got her portal gun to pick you up anymore! It’s hard work lugging you around!” He shut his ocular aperture and shook his optic from side to side. “No consideration. None at all. I bet you love all that attention she gives you. Just quietly eating it up. So to speak.”
Wheatley was practically vibrating. “Ooh, you silent types. Thinking you’re so superior. Well it’s not true!” He nearly rolled off the crate in his enthusiasm. “You’re nothing but dead weight out here, mate! A bloody great waste of space! I can be useful to her now that we’re out! Should I go down the list again?”
“Well, should I? Ah, it’s not worth the time. It’s already pretty clear that there’s nothing you’ve ever done for her that could possibly surpass me. You haven’t done anything! This is too easy, mate! Absolutely nothing!” Wheatley almost launched into another tirade when his voice caught in his processors and his frame slowly relaxed. His optic dipped down, as did the top shutter of his ocular aperture.
“Nothing at all. You never did anything, so she could never be angry with you, either. You never said a word, you never let her down, you never turned your back on her…” Wheatley sighed again, his whole frame moving with the sound of it. “You never hurt her. Not once.” He lifted his optic to look at the cube again, his voice quiet and shaky. “Well look at that, mate. You’ve got something I haven’t.” The look in his optic was almost sheepish. “I was right before. She does trust you more than me. I suppose I don’t deserve trust. I mean, what have I really done to earn it back?”
No reply from the Companion Cube.
Wheatley’s optic narrowed again. “Well you don’t have to rub it in, mate!” He huffed out another sigh and looked away. “I suppose you’re right. I almost killed her, you know. Tried pretty hard. She got away, though.” Wheatley raised his optic, looking near proud. “Such a clever girl, she is. Always one step ahead of me. Heh, not the hardest thing to do. I can admit that now.” His gaze shifted to the floor in front of the cube. “Told her so many times she’s clever, but that’s not enough, is it? Something’s missing. What else should I be doing that I’m not? What else can I do? There’s nothing for me to plug into out here, so that’s out.” He raised his optic to the cube. “Can you think of anything?”
The cube didn’t make a sound.
Wheatley narrowed his optic once more. “Well a fat lot of good that does me, mate! Some friend you are!”
It hadn’t taken long for Chell to find something to eat. Not far from the stable was a small cluster of apple trees, probably planted to grow treats for the animals raised on the land. After eating some, Chell had filled her makeshift basket with as many red apples as it could hold, which admittedly wasn’t many, and was on her way back when she heard it. It was definitely Wheatley’s voice being carried on the light wind, but his words were distorted by distance. He sounded very upset, so Chell proceeded with caution as she approached the stable. As she got closer and peeked in one of the long windows, Chell noticed that even though Wheatley was pausing as if he expected a reply, none was coming before he carried on talking again.
“See, it’s always been my understanding that a friend’s someone who actually does something for another person. Doesn’t just sit around being useless. That’s exactly what you’re doing right now. All you really can do. I honestly don’t see why she still hasn’t figured it out yet.”
From where Chell was standing, it appeared that Wheatley was talking to himself. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of it, wondering if some circuit in him had finally fried from the stress.
“Could be the brain damage, yeah, but I doubt it.” Wheatley shook his optic side to side. “That never really held her back. She can’t say a word, but she doesn’t need to. She’s not actually silent, if that makes any sense.”
Chell moved around the building, headed for the door. The window cutouts were high off the ground, but on occasion she’d peek through them on her way by, her face barely reaching over the edge.
“She can write out words for me. I’m still working on my reading, but I’ve gotten pretty good. Gestures. She’s got gestures with her hands and arms. Sometimes I know what those mean. Working on that, too. And her face.” Wheatley’s optic smiled. “Lovely face, she has. So many different expressions. It’s not all that hard to know what she’s thinking most of the time. I wouldn’t exactly call that ‘silent.’ Would you?”
Chell watched as Wheatley’s optic dipped down and in front of him and she almost snorted with laughter. She had moved around the side of the building enough to see that Wheatley was not talking to himself, but to the Weighted Companion Cube sat across from him where she had left it. Chell kept her free hand clamped hard over her mouth, holding in the faintest chortle as she kept listening.
“Yeah, knew you wouldn’t say anything. I’m onto you.” Wheatley narrowed his optic to a slit. “I can see right through your little game now. If she figures out that your so-called ‘friendship’ was just part of an experiment, out the door you go. You don’t like the sound of that, eh mate?” The slit of Wheatley’s optic seemed more like a smirk now. “Well how about I just tell her? I think she deserves the truth. That’s what a real friend would say. I tell her the truth about you and boom! I’m not a second-class citizen anymore! It’s perfect! Got anything to say to that, mate? Anything at all?”
For what seemed like the hundredth time, the Companion Cube said nothing.
“Ah, come on!” Wheatley’s voice came out in a growl that made Chell take a step back from the doorway, jostling the apples in her jumpsuit basket. “We’ve been at this for about an hour now! I think. Could be less. Either way, you haven’t answered me the whole time! If you had any brains in there you’d drop the act by now! It’s…it’s like talking to a wall! I’ve had better conversations with test chamber paneling than you! What is this?!” Wheatley flung his gaze to the ceiling, seemingly in disbelief. “Oh, where is she? She should be back by now. Hope she found food.” His voice quieted and he settled down against the crate again, sighing. “Maybe I should just keep quiet about that experiment thing. Don’t want to make her sad. Never want to see that particular look on her face again.”
Chell leaned into the door a bit, unaware that an apple was shifting on the pile.
Wheatley continued, his optic pointed at the floor. “That wouldn’t exactly be helpful, would it? I promised I’d do everything I could to make things easier for her. What have I done so far to keep that promise?” He sighed again, shutting his optic completely. “Maybe I’m just not worth it. I can’t even do that much to get her to trust me again. Friends are supposed to keep promises, right?” Wheatley blinked his optic open just in time to see a bright red apple roll into his line of vision. “What?” He stared at it for a moment before looking up to the side that the apple had rolled from.
Chell stood in the doorway, body stiff and the slightest hint of a blush on her cheeks.
“There you are, luv!” Wheatley did his best to smile sincerely. “I see you found some food. Nicely done.” He paused, his expression turning to one of fear as his pupil shrank. “Er, how long have you been standing there?”
The laughter Chell had been restraining came loose all at once and she nearly dropped the apples as soundless giggles shook her body.
“Er…” Wheatley’s optic darted left and right, his bottom shutter raised. Finally it rested on Chell and Wheatley started to laugh along with her. It began as forced, uncertain laughs that finally grew into an honest chuckle, making Wheatley shut his optic fully as his frame wiggled with mirth. “Funny thing, laughing. Literally funny. Just hearing you do it is enough to make me do it, too. Why is that?”
Getting out the last of her giggles, Chell walked into the stable and set her apples down on the floor between Wheatley and the cube. She crouched down to be at optic level with Wheatley, resting her palm on the top of his shaking frame to still him. Wheatley’s optic snapped open as soon as he felt the light pressure and he stared right into Chell’s eyes.
“You haven’t answered my question yet, luv. Did you hear everything I said?”
Chell raised one hand, palm facing the floor, and moved it in a see-saw motion from side to side.
“So…hmm.” Wheatley stared at her hand as he thought. “Some of it?”
“Ah, I got it right!” Wheatley smiled, but it faded quickly as the implications hit him. “Well then how much of it did you hear?” He paused. “Forget I asked that.”
Chell just smiled at him, reaching her free hand to the floor and writing in the dust: Experiment?
“Ah.” Wheatley looked away off to one side. “So you did hear that part. I…I don’t know if I’m meant to tell you, luv.”
Chell stroked the side of Wheatley’s frame with her fingertips, giving him a questioning look.
Wheatley looked her in the eye, his resolve visibly crumbling. “I…Er…Oh, luv.” He looked down at the edge of the crate he was on. “There isn’t any good way to say this. You’ve been…programmed.”
Chell raised an eyebrow, the tiniest bit of acid in her eyes.
“Well not by me!” Wheatley’s blue pupil changed to a tiny speck again. “By Her! She had this experiment – or the old scientists did, I don’t know which – where a test subject is given an object to carry around and get attached to. Then, once they start to feel something toward it, they’re meant to…to incinerate it.” His pupil returned to normal and he sighed. “That’s what She did to you. Got you attached to that thing there.” He looked over Chell’s shoulder at the cube. “You’re carrying it around everywhere and taking care of it because of Her.”
Chell turned her head to stare at the Companion Cube, one hand still on Wheatley’s frame. She was perfectly still, but Wheatley could feel her hand move off him and onto the edge of the crate.
“I’m sorry, luv.” If Chell didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn Wheatley was about to cry. “So sorry. I mean, I couldn’t have stopped Her then, but I’m sorry.”
Chell turned back around, her face unreadable.
Wheatley’s bottom shutter was raised again, adding to the effect of his voice. “Have I upset you, luv? I have, haven’t I? I didn’t want to tell you, but you made me and…No.” He clamped his optic shut. “No, no, no. Not your fault. Not at all. Not mine, either.” The shutters opened again very slowly. “It’s Her. All Her. Everything about Her is so evil. Even her body is evil! You saw what it did!” A pause. “No, I won’t bring that up.”
For a moment it seemed that the expression on Chell’s face was one of distress, but her next move made Wheatley question that assessment. She got off her feet, putting herself in an almost cross-legged position, and took Wheatley off the crate to set him in her lap. Chell held him sideways and tilted up so his optic was easily visible.
“What?” Wheatley barely had the word out before he felt Chell’s hand on him again. Now she was petting him, her entire palm moving from behind his top handle toward the plug on his back. When he looked up, Chell was smiling at him. “What’s this now? Not that it isn’t nice, but why are you doing it?” Chell’s smile only grew a little and slowly Wheatley felt himself relax. “You…you wanted me to calm down? Was that it? Well, I think it worked.”
Still smiling, Chell took off her boots and crossed her legs, leaning Wheatley on one knee to face her.
“So you’re not upset?”
Chell rolled her lower lip between her teeth for a second before making her “so-so” gesture again.
Wheatley looked down and sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Chell thought a moment before pointing at Wheatley and shaking her head.
“Hmm, there’s a new one.” Wheatley looked back up at Chell’s face. “Not upset with me?”
Chell nodded, smiling.
Wheatley wiggled his handles with glee. “Ah! I’m getting pretty good at this.” His optic smiled. “I’m glad you’re not upset with me. Don’t think I really have to tell you that.” His expression became more serious as he continued. “You’ve got every reason to be upset with me, though. I was positively beastly to you. Why would you take someone like that along with you?” He paused. “And why didn’t you give me that answer the first time I asked?”
Chell gave him a perplexed look before her eyes practically lit with realization. Wheatley watched her furrow her brow, obviously thinking very hard.
The anticipation was grating on Wheatley. “Come to think of it, there are a few things about what happened that didn’t make sense. Once you escaped and got to my lair…” he clamped his optic shut again. “Her lair. Her lair. Sorry.” He looked up at Chell’s face again. “Once you got there, you didn’t do a single thing I said, which was good. That was very, very good. At least, you didn’t until the very last second. I told you to hold onto me and you did, even though She tried to force you to let go.” His optic shutters shifted into another smile. “Oh She tried to push me out into space, but you applied that grip and pulled me back in. And it didn’t stop there!” His optic went wide again. “You protected me from Her! You were losing consciousness, but you moved around me to keep her claws away. She tried to talk you into handing me over, but you wouldn’t have it.” The next word out of Wheatley was almost whispered. “Why?”
Still pensive, Chell dipped her head down to look Wheatley in the optic.
“Why’d you do it, luv? Was it because it’d make Her angry? It did. Good plan.” Wheatley looked down at Chell’s opposite leg from the knee he was resting on. “I can’t really think of another reason.”
It was then that something clicked in Chell’s mind. She turned sideways, reaching over beside her to pluck an apple from the stack she had brought back. Wheatley didn’t know what to think when Chell suddenly held it right up to his optic.
“Um, okay.” He scrutinized the fruit in front of him. “I know you’re trying to tell me something here, but what is it?”
Chell tilted Wheatley’s frame backward so he was looking at her, then locked her own eyes on the apple in her other hand.
“Er, right.” Wheatley tilted his optic at a strange angle to look at the object again. “It’s…an apple.”
Chell smiled and nodded her head with vigor.
“That’s it? That’s what you were trying to tell me?” Wheatley looked back up. “What’s that got to do with…” As Wheatley’s voice trailed off, the bottom shutter of his optic slowly began to rise up until his ocular aperture was half-closed. “Oh. ‘Apple.’ That’s the word I tried to get you to say when I got you out of cryosleep.”
Chell nodded again.
“You remember that, luv?”
Chell’s smile grew and it almost looked like she was laughing as she nodded a third time.
Wheatley’s voice remained hushed. “So, all those things we did before I took over the facility? You still remember all that?”
This time Chell lifted him up to face her at eye level and Wheatley was met with the biggest grin he’d ever seen. Before he could get a good look at it, Chell lowered her arms again, bringing his frame in close to her body. Pressed against her torso, Wheatley felt more than saw both of Chell’s arms wrapping around him.
“Luv, what are…what is this?” Wheatley moved his optic from side to side, causing Chell to wiggle in place. “Is this a hug, luv?”
Chell gently patted the top of his frame.
Wheatley smiled, the movement of his optic and handles making Chell squirm again. “I’ve never had a hug before. It’s nice.” He closed his optic, savoring the moment, but only a second later he felt Chell’s arms loosen and he found himself sitting on her knee again. Wheatley opened his optic slowly to find Chell looking right at him, a shy smile on her face. “So, guess that answers my question.”
Chell’s smile widened as she half-giggled.
“That’s really it, luv?” Wheatley tilted his optic sideways, shutters each down a little in a way that made him look vaguely owlish. “All those things I did before? Doesn’t seem like enough to me. Yes, I did all those helpful things for you so we could escape, but I tried to kill you. You do remember that, don’t you?”
Chell nodded very sternly.
“Alright, good.” Wheatley tilted his optic back upright. “It’s good you remember. Not good that I tried.” His lower shutter rose again. “I really am sorry about all that, luv. I can’t even quite remember why I did it. Well, I do remember why, but now it doesn’t make sense. First I want you to help me escape and then I stop wanting to leave.”
Chell patted Wheatley’s frame, looking off into nothing for a moment before she smiled again. Reaching out her other hand, she wrote something in the dust: Free
“Er, yes.” Wheatley tilted his optic again. “That’s true.”
Chell moved her hand, first finger extended, between the word and Wheatley.
“Me? I’m free? Well yes, I just said that. You and me both.”
Chell smiled as she shook her head, pausing for only a second before leaning forward, her chest nudging against Wheatley’s top handle as she wrote something else, much longer this time. When she sat up, Wheatley had to turn his optic to read it: Her body is evil
“Her body is…Oh!” Wheatley’s optic snapped back around to look up at Chell. “You got me out of Her body! Is that it?”
Chell’s nod was slow as she sat up, but she was smiling.
“Ha!” The single laugh was accompanied by Wheatley’s optic popping out of his frame for a second, his handles parting to allow it. “I got it! How many times is that now?” His optic rolled over. “Oh, I’m a master. An absolute genius at this.” His gaze turned to the Companion Cube beside Chell. “See that? In your face!” When Chell turned her head to look, Wheatley made a coughing noise and looked away. “Er…yeah. I know it’s not going to answer. Figured that out by now.” Again Chell’s body shook with laughter and Wheatley smiled at the wobbling sensation he felt as her leg moved underneath him. “Laugh all you want, luv. It’s lovely when you do.”
Once Chell had control of herself again she paused, just staring at Wheatley for a moment before picking him back up and setting him down on top of the Companion Cube.
“What?” Wheatley looked down at the cube through his bottom handle. “What was that for?” His question was met with a sweet grin from Chell. “I don’t think I understand this one, luv. Hmm.” He looked upward in though, his optic tilted to the side very slightly within his frame. “Oh! Wait…no.” He blinked. “Ah! I think I’ve got it! Mm, no. No, that doesn’t make any sense, either.” As he continued, Chell picked one of her apples back up and bit into it, smiling as she sat and watched Wheatley’s mind work.
When the sun set that evening, a cold wind picked up, blowing through the unshielded stable windows and forcing Chell to put her jumpsuit back on, zipped up to the top. Wheatley, who had finally run out of ideas about what Chell’s latest gesture had meant, pushed his frame up with his handle to watch her.
“Did I ever tell you that jumpsuit looks good on you?” Chell’s head turned abruptly and Wheatley nearly fell backwards in surprise at her speed. “Um, it does. Not just saying that. It fits you very well.” He nodded his optic, smiling.
The look on Chell’s face softened, her eyes opening up wider as she smiled.
“Oh, what an interesting face you’re making.” Wheatley watched Chell turn a bit red in the cheeks as he opened his optic up fully to get the best view. “I think I like that face.”
Chell sat down to put her boots back on, her eyes never leaving Wheatley’s optic. When she was finished, she moved Wheatley over on the cube’s surface to make room for her folded arms and chin. She only broke eye contact when she yawned, covering her mouth with one hand.
“Okay, that’s…” Wheatley narrowed his optic again, “…fatigue? Are you tired?”
Chell nodded slowly.
“Well go to sleep, then, luv. You don’t have to wait for me to say something.” Wheatley shook his optic. “I’m not in charge of you. Do whatever you want. Well, as long as you don’t want to hurt yourself. Or me. Yeah, that wouldn’t be good. How about this? Do whatever you want as long as neither of us get hurt.” He nodded, smiling. “That sounds much better. But still, I’m not in charge of you. I really wish you wouldn’t, but if something did come up where you had to- Oh!” Chell had moved her hand across the top of the cube, hooking her fingers around Wheatley’s lower handle. “Um…” He stared at her momentarily, his pupil noticeably smaller, before cautiously raising his handle up, gently holding Chell’s fingers against his frame. When she smiled in approval, Wheatley returned it.
“Am I bothering you, luv?”
Chell looked off to one side for a moment before wiggling her head side-to-side.
“Is that a yes? Uh, even if it isn’t, I’ll be quiet now. Oh, and I’ll keep the light out of your face.” Wheatley shut his optic. “Better?” He cracked his shutters open an inch to watch as Chell nodded and set her head back down on her free arm. “Good, good.” He shut his optic again. “Goodnight, luv.”
Chell’s smile lingered even as she closed her eyes, still sat up and leaned over the Companion Cube. Right as she did, she gave Wheatley’s lower handle a light squeeze and the top of the cube a light pat. So what if GLaDOS’s influence had been the initial reason why she loved the Companion Cube so much? It didn’t hurt her to care for it and even though she was free, the cube was still useful to her. It was like…what was that thing called? A teddy bear? The term echoed around in Chell’s head as if it were in a foreign language. She didn’t dwell on it, though. The thought was replaced by the image of Wheatley’s futile argument with the cube. Chell grinned, eyes still closed. Perhaps her bitterness had gotten to her before, but she was beyond it now. It had been her intention to escape with Wheatley from the moment he had first proposed the idea to her in the Relaxation Center. Like everything else, she had had to accomplish this at all costs. Her theory about the GLaDOS chassis had been right and Wheatley had more or less returned to himself after he was separated from it.
Chell relaxed her face and sighed, moving her head to get more comfortable as she felt herself drift. The top edge of the Companion Cube wasn’t an ideal place to sleep, but this way she could be near both of her friends at once. The last thought she had before falling asleep was that if she could help it, no one would feel like a second-class citizen again.