Part Eight. The Competition
When Wheatley finally screwed up the courage to return to GLaDOS’s chamber a few hours later, GLaDOS glanced at him and said nothing. Well. That didn’t mean she was upset, not really. She often did that. Although she’d been doing it less often as of late. Hm. Maybe she was upset. He hoped not. She was hard to deal with when she was upset. Harder to deal with than usual, anyway.
“’allo,” he said nervously. “How’ve you been getting on?”
“Fine,” she said, and her voice was decidedly less friendly than usual. She was definitely mad at him for something, but for what, he didn’t know. “What do you want?”
“Well uh… I was tired of… of being by, by myself,” he mumbled. Out of the corner of his optic he thought he saw her chassis relax a bit, but that was probably his imagination. He wasn’t looking at her, anyway, not really, and if he’d wanted her to do anything, other than touch him again that is, it would be what his imagination had just imagined she’d done.
“I’m about to start a new project,” she told him. “My availability will be limited in the next few days. It’s going to be very consuming for me, both in terms of resources and time.”
“Oh,” Wheatley said lamely. He wouldn’t be able to spend time with GLaDOS for the next few days? It sounded like… like torture. He was already dreading it. Not be able to hang out with his most favourite snarky supercomputer for an extended period of time? Ohhh no, this was not going to be fun. “Uh… what’s it… what’s your project about?”
“It’s very technical,” she answered, in one of her more official voices. “I’m not going to be able to explain it to you. I’ve said about all you’d be able to understand.”
Wheatley frowned, suddenly angry. “I’m not that big of an idiot.”
“What? I’m only preventing you from trying to get your processors around something you won’t be able to understand. You should be thanking me. You could blow your primary CPU, trying to think about things that I think about.”
“I suppose it’d kill you to help me understand, would it?”
“It might,” GLaDOS said tightly, and Wheatley winced when he remembered just what might have happened, had he been a little more proficient in his running of the facility. Oh, that damnable Incident. When was he ever going to live it down?
“Sorry,” Wheatley mumbled. “Forgot about that.”
“Lucky you,” GLaDOS remarked. “I remember it every day.”
Wow. Every day? “Seriously?” Wheatley choked out.
“Oh yes,” GLaDOS answered. “Every day.”
“That sounds… lovely,” Wheatley said in a small voice. GLaDOS looked him over for a few seconds.
“Oh, relax,” she said, shaking her head, “I’m only teasing. I don’t hold it against you. I do remember it every day, and I have to admit I sometimes wonder why I keep you around, but you don’t have to worry about it influencing anything I do.”
“Oh!” Wheatley exclaimed in relief. “Oh, I see. I uh… I knew that. I uh… was just going along with it. Because. That’s. Better. For you. Not for me, obviously, since I have to uh, act all nervous, and all that.”
“Mmhm,” GLaDOS agreed. “I’m sure that’s exactly what you were thinking.”
“Oi, are you busy now?” Wheatley asked hurriedly, more to get off the subject than anything. She was so all-knowing, she was.
“So we could, we could play checkers, right?”
“If I have to,” GLaDOS sighed. Wheatley thought it over for a minute, decided she was being intentionally difficult again, and retrieved the board.
“Huh,” GLaDOS said, as he began to carefully set the pieces up. “I didn’t think you knew where I kept that.”
“I found it when I was looking around, once,” he mumbled, trying to make it as neat and tidy as she did. Her checkerboards were practically a work of art, they were.
“I’ll never have to retrieve it again, then,” she went on. “Since you know where it is.”
He blinked and stopped what he was doing. “Well I… if you want, I can uh, can get it from now on.”
“That would be nice.”
He looked down at the board. It wasn’t quite set up yet, but he was getting a thought, and it was one of those thoughts he didn’t want to get away. “Is that… is that because… because you do ev’rything, ‘round here?”
She shrugged. “I do have a lot of important tasks to complete.”
Wheatley nodded sagely. Made sense. When he’d finished, he thought about asking her if he could be black, this time, then decided against it. He still wasn’t sure what mood she was in. It seemed to be swapping around a lot, at the moment. He didn’t want to upset her by changing the norm, which made her uneasy even when she was in the best of moods.
He did his very best, and either she wasn’t really playing again or he’d gotten a bit better, because he managed to take four of her pieces, this time. He frowned, thinking she was distracted again. She didn’t look distracted, in fact, she looked like she was very into this game, but then again, maybe she’d started her project a bit early. “You are playing, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” GLaDOS answered faintly. “I must admit, you’ve… improved, somewhat.”
He jumped up and down a little. “Have I? Have I really?”
“A little. Not that much.”
He gave her a knowing look. “Ohhh you. I must’ve gotten much better, I have, else I, else you wouldn’t be trying so hard, now would you?”
She looked up at him, her optic dimming a bit. “Maybe I’m thinking about something else. Something more important.”
“Mmhm. And what is it? If you don’t mind me asking. That is.”
“It’s too important to –“
“See? You’re not thinking of anything,” he said triumphantly. “That’s what you always say, when you don’t want to answer my question.” And she did, he realised. That was actually true.
“I do not.”
“Yes you do.”
“I do not.”
“Ohhh yes you do.”
“Just shut up, if you can remember how, and take your turn,” GLaDOS snapped. He smiled cheerfully at her. “Sure, luv,” he said. She made one of her annoyed noises and looked away from him.
She was so lovely when she was mad. When he wasn’t scared of her, that was. Then she was just scary. But he wasn’t scared of her now, ohhh no. He was very confident in his position, that of the friend she couldn’t quite admit to having but didn’t want to do without. She was so much fun, she was.
They soon finished the game, Wheatley not quite pulling out a win but not losing terribly either, and Wheatley happily put the board away, feeling pretty good about his newfound checkers ability.
“Wheatley,” GLaDOS said.
“Yup?” He looked up at her expectantly, but she seemed to be hesitating. Hm. That was odd. He didn’t think she’d ever done that before. Wasn’t like her, not at all.
“Good game,” she said finally, somehow not quite looking at him but not quite looking away either. “You played well.”
Wheatley blinked up at her. “I… I did?”
“Yes,” GLaDOS answered. “You’re learning.”
Wheatley smiled in her direction, but she was avoiding him again. “Thanks, luv,” he told her. “I’m doing my best to, to be a good uh, a good… um…”
“Opponent,” GLaDOS supplied.
“Yeah! That’s the word uh, I was looking for. Opponent, I’m gonna be a good one of those.”
“You certainly do try hard, I’ll give you that.”
“I’ve got a lot to live up to,” Wheatley said quietly, attempting to get the lid to fit on the box. He struggled with it for a few moments before GLaDOS gave it a nudge with her claw, sliding it into place.
“What are you talking about? You have no relatives. I suppose there could be a few previous versions of you lying around, but they would hardly have been any more accomplished than you are. What could you possibly have to live up to?”
“I’d’ve thought that’d be obvious,” he mumbled. It was one of those times where he wasn’t sure if she did know what he was talking about, and was only pretending she didn’t, or if she was genuinely confused.
“You don’t mean me, do you?”
“Of course I mean you!” Wheatley scowled, a bit put out. “Who else, is there anyone else? C’mon.”
“Why would you bother?” GLaDOS asked. “You can never do that. Not ever. And you tried and failed miserably already, remember?”
“Yes. I remember,” Wheatley said in a very controlled voice, sending the box unceremoniously on its way to the appropriate shelf several floors below. “I can’t seem to forget. Some bloody supercomputer reminds me about it most ev’ry day. Even though she, she said she was over it.”
“I am,” GLaDOS replied. “That doesn’t change the facts, though.”
“Well, I wish you’d stop bringing it up,” Wheatley muttered. “I made a mistake. Or ten. Or twenty. I admit it. I didn’t mean to do it, and none of it was, was pre-planned at all, and, and I regret… well no actually, I don’t regret doing it, because if, if I hadn’t, well, life’d be a lot diff’rent, I mean you’d still be dead and uh, I’d actually be dead too, because the facility would’ve, would’ve exploded and uh, and that’d be it.”
“I arrived at that conclusion a long time ago.” GLaDOS retracted her claw into the ceiling. “That’s how I got over it.”
“You couldn’t’ve mentioned it to me?”
“We must all make our own peace,” GLaDOS told him philosophically.
“I guess,” Wheatley said, disgruntled. “I still wish you’d tell me stuff.”
“How am I supposed to tell you things if I don’t know you want to know them?”
“I dunno! You’re the supercomputer! You tell me! What are you good for, anyway?”
“I’m not going to answer that, because it should be apparent to anyone. Even you.”
Wheatley’s chassis sagged a little. “We’re fighting over something stupid, again.”
GLaDOS shrugged. “It happens. What’s important is that no one goes away angry.”
“Are you angry?” Wheatley asked tentatively, figuring that if she was, they’d need to get that over with.
“Not really,” GLaDOS answered thoughtfully, shifting herself to the left. “More slightly annoyed, I think.”
“I’m sorry,” Wheatley said quietly. “You’re… you’re good for a lot of things. I know that. I know you’re good for millions of things. I dunno why I said that.”
“That’s all right,” GLaDOS said generously. “I understand. It must be quite frustrating, trying to live up to me every day. If I were you, I wouldn’t even try to… no, if I were you I would be me, and I probably would. Never mind.”
Wheatley laughed. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re not me then, eh?”
“God,” GLaDOS shuddered, “I can’t imagine a worse state to be in.”
Wheatley’s lower shutter came up, and he looked at the floor. GLaDOS’s faceplate whipped around to look at him in one swift movement.
“I… didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” GLaDOS said softly.
“It’s fine,” Wheatley said quietly. “I understand. I don’t really want to be me, either.”
Wheatley frowned. “Why is everything I say stupid?”
“I didn’t say that. But I can’t understand why people say that.” She shook her head. “You’re you, and that’s all you’ll ever be. Why would you ever want to be someone else?”
“Easy for you to say,” Wheatley muttered. “You’re only the most advanced Core ever built. I’m the Sphere designed to be an idiot, remember?”
“What d’you mean, so?”
“You might be designed to be an idiot, but that’s no reason not to be yourself,” GLaDOS explained. “I’m perfect because that’s who I was built to be. If you’re supposed to be the idiot, well, then be the best damn idiot there ever was.”
“Why would I want to be a… good at being an idiot?”
“Everyone’s good at something. Except for me. I’m good at everything. But if being an exceptional idiot is your talent, well, play it out. Don’t stifle it.”
“You really believe that, don’t you?” Wheatley asked, a bit stunned by the whole thing.
“I believe in living up to one’s potential, yes. I have the potential to be perfect, so that’s what I try to do. If you have the potential to be the most successful idiot on the planet, you should try to do that.”
“That… almost makes sense. Not quite. But almost.”
“Think it over,” GLaDOS suggested. “It will make sense eventually.”
“But why would you tell me that? Why would you want me to be an even bigger idiot than I already am? Wouldn’t that be, be even more annoying?”
“I never said a bigger idiot. Think about what I said and then get back to me.”
Wheatley did so, pondering it all the way through sleep mode into the next morning, until GLaDOS shoved him off of her and said, “You need to leave. I have work to do.”
“Uh?” Wheatley said, not even awake yet.
“Go find something to do,” GLaDOS went on. “I have to start on that project.”
“’kay,” Wheatley mumbled, somehow managing to make it out of her chamber without banging into anything.
Once he was out, though, he became thoroughly confused. Waiiit a minute. She was just gonna… just gonna start the project now? Just like that? Wow. That’d been… abrupt. He hadn’t even had the chance to say good morning. Or ‘allo. Whichever one he’d been feeling more. He was kind of thinking he’d’ve gone with good morning, though. He wasn’t really feeling the ‘allo spirit today.
He wandered aimlessly around the facility for a while, not really knowing what to do with himself, now that he’d been sent away like that. All he’d wanted to do that day was to hang out with her. And maybe she would realise he hadn’t meant to react so badly when she’d touched him, and she’d do it again. No. Probably not. Well, maybe. Depended rather a lot on her mood.
He whiled away the day not doing too much of anything, attempting to bother Atlas and P-body at one point but finding that she hadn’t activated them. After a very long, very boring, very lonely day, he decided to head back to GLaDOS’s chamber. Surely she was finished for the time being. She couldn’t work on that all night too… could sh- no, of course she could. Who was he kidding. This was GLaDOS he was talking about. His shutters lowered in sadness. This project wasn’t even hardly begun, yet, and it was already ruining his life.
On his way back, he looked up to see someone he’d never have expected to see, not ever again in a million years.
“Hey, I remember you,” the green-eyed Sphere said. “You’re that guy who tried to kill the pretty lady. And her little potato friend.”
“Yeah,” Wheatley said weakly. “My claim to fame, that.”
“What’re you doing here?” Rick continued in his blustery voice. “I thought you were in space, with the rest of us!”
“I… I was,” Wheatley said, “but uh, but GLaDOS pulled me out.”
“The boss lady herself, huh? Well I’ll tell you, partner,” Rick said, leaning forward conspiratorially but speaking at the same volume, “I think she liiiikes me.”
“What?” Wheatley sputtered.
“She’s taken quiiiite an interest in me,” Rick went on. “A very close interest, you get what I’m sayin’?” He wiggled his handles suggestively.
“I… I can’t imagine why she’d…. why she’d do that,” Wheatley said faintly.
“Women are full of mysteries, my friend,” Rick announced, leaning up against Wheatley and closing his shutters, managing to look nostalgic. Wheatley shuddered and backed up. Now there was a core Wheatley did not want touching him. “And Rick here’s just the one to figure ‘em out. And with the boss lady herself in my pocket, well, ha, you can bet I’m in for quite the future.”
“If you ever try to control her again, you have no idea what she’ll do to you!” Wheatley shouted. “You just, you just keep away from her!”
“Oh, poor little moron,” Rick said sadly, closing his optic and shaking his chassis. “You don’t understand, do you. If she didn’t… want me… she’d have left me out there, in the big empty yonder! And she definitely wouldn’t have been basking in my esteemed presence for the entire day.”
“I am not a moron!” Wheatley shouted. “I’m just… I’m… I have a cognitive disability, that’s all! It can be fixed! Easily!”
“Suuure it can,” Rick said, rolling his optic. “If it can be fixed, why haven’t you fixed it?”
“Because I… if I’m built to be an idiot, well, I’m going to be the best damn idiot that ever existed!” Wheatley shouted. Rick looked at him for a long moment, and then began to laugh. It was a long, loud, robust laugh, and it set Wheatley’s circuits on edge. “Stop it!” he cried.
“You’re going to be the best idiot that’s ever existed?” Rick guffawed. “What kind of a goal is that? Oh, I know, I know! A goal for idiots! Who will never be anything but idiots! See, little Sphere, this is why I get all the ladies, and little idiots like you get left with nothing!”
“You haven’t got any ladies!” Wheatley shouted.
“I only need one,” Rick said, with a smile Wheatley didn’t much like. “Not only am I proficient in physical combat, I’m pretty good with verbal sparring too. I can net Miss Gladys easily. Give me a couple of days, and I’ll be by her side, runnin’ things. Because I’m good at runnin’ things, and unlike some idiots I know, I can do the job. Remember when you did it? And you set everything on fire? That was pretty exciting, but ladies generally don’t like it when you set their stuff on fire. They give you the ol’ silent treatment. Also won’t join you in bed.”
“Don’t call her that!” Wheatley cried, upset more by Rick’s use of his private name for her than anything else. “You should, you should have some respect, you know! She’s the, she’s the Central Core, for God’s sake, you should call her by her name, you should, and – “
“Ahhhh, say no more,” Rick said in a knowing voice. “I see what’s happenin’ here.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“Ohh yes I do.” Rick leaned forward again, coming very close to Wheatley, who attempted to move away. “Someone liiiikes the big bad boss lady.”
“Of course I like her!” Wheatley snorted. “She’s my friend.”
“Mmhm,” Rick nodded. “Friends always act like you do when confronted with an alpha male such as myself.”
“She brought me out of space first, mate!” Wheatley snarled. “So I think maybe she wants me around a bit more than she wants you here! You’re only here for her project!”
“I… I dunno,” Wheatley admitted reluctantly.
“She didn’t tell you,” Rick said self-righteously, “because you’re not important enough to know. Like I am. She probably brought you out of space and has been entertaining you all this time just because she felt sorry for you. And boy oh boy do I feel sorry for you. A dolt like you, hoping for the affection of an angel like her? Are you kidding? In fact, go ahead, try it! I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun to watch.” At the end of this his voice lowered into a more malicious tone.
“She doesn’t feel sorry for me,” Wheatley said in a quiet voice. “She’s my friend. Friends don’t feel sorry for you. They help you when you feel sorry for yourself. And she does. She does that for me.”
“Aw, how sweet,” Rick trilled. “I wonder how long she’s gonna lead you on for.”
“Oh, you know, where a nice lady like that takes a sucker like you and makes him feel all special-like, then dumps him when he’s about to declare his undying devotion? Screws up the rest of his life and sends him into a deep, dark depression? Haven’t seen that one? Don’t matter, boyo, you’re livin’ it!”
“She’s not leading me on!” Wheatley shouted. “We’re, we’re just friends. You don’t know her. Only I know her!”
“In a few days,” Rick said in a low voice that dripped with an unspoken challenge, “that’ll change, kiddo, that’ll change.”
“It won’t,” Wheatley said weakly. “She’s smarter than that. She’ll figure you out. She probably already has figured you out.”
“Ladies don’t know what they want until you give it to ‘em,” Rick said confidently. “See you later, little loser Sphere.”
Rick pushed past Wheatley on the rail, leaving him to stare after a loudly humming Adventure Sphere in sadness. He had a creeping feeling that Rick was right. He suddenly, terribly needed to see her, right away, and sped off to her chamber almost faster than he ever had.
“GLaDOS!” he cried as he entered. She looked up at him as he arrived.
“What,” she asked dully.
Oh no. Oh no no no. It was true! It was all true. She wasn’t even pretending to be happy to see him, or at least neutral about it. She was falling for Rick’s trap!
“Uh… ‘allo,” he said, at a loss as to what to do now. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Mm,” GLaDOS answered. “I’m just going to shut off now, if there’s nothing terribly important you need to say.”
Of course there was. He wanted to ask her if what Rick had said was true, if she was leading him on and all that, but… but she did look terribly tired. It could wait, couldn’t it? Just a little while? Until tomorrow, maybe?
“It’s alright, luv,” he told her, hoping she didn’t notice the tremor in his voice. “You… you do what you need to do.”
“Good night, then,” she told him, and with that she was off. He regarded her sadly.
He really, really hoped Rick was wrong.
He would really hate to lose her.