I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die." – The Unicorn
The Transmogrification Device stood before them, a silent and imposing white cylinder set into the wall and rising from floor to ceiling. It had a pair of sliding doors, like the elevators, and above them, a series of blinking lights and gauges, the most prominent of which was a large circular indicator dial. The machine dominated the tiny room, which was otherwise empty, with not even a camera to be seen. The two humans regarded the device in dreary silence. Wheatley adjusted the position of his glasses with one hand.
Their long journey was at its end; their quest, completed. Things would once more be as they should. So why did success feel so hollow?
"Chell…" It was only when Wheatley spoke that she realized she had taken hold of his hand. Her eyes fell to the floor. She didn't need to make things any more difficult for him than they already were, and she knew it; she tried to pull away, but he didn't let go.
"Please don't look so sad, luv," he said, his voice gentle and guilty. "I don't want- I can't see you like this. Not now." He took her hands between his own and held them near his heart, as though he hoped she would somehow remove the imaginary dagger that had buried itself to the hilt in his chest. "You're always so sure of everything you do – but me, I just… I-I'll be honest with you: I'm not sure- I don't know if this… is the right choice. So I guess… I need to know that you think it is."
He looked at her hopefully, but she would not meet his gaze. Instead she stared at their clasped hands, and the weariness in her eyes twisted the invisible blade in his chest, making him stumble on his words. "B-because if you can't be strong now, then how- how can I hope to be? Please, just… just smile for me, alright?"
He gently lifted her chin so she would look at him, and as she did, she surprised herself, because she did smile, if only slightly. Wheatley mirrored the expression, the small smile weighted down by the same sadness that hung in his eyes like rain in a cloud. She could see everything in his eyes, and suspected that her eyes revealed the same to him.
She ignored her better judgement, and regretted the kiss before it had ended. But it was the only one they would ever share, marred though it was by sorrow and inexperience, and for that, it meant something deeper than the sea.
Wheatley stayed very still, unsure how to respond, even when she had stepped away. Chell turned and watched the lights dancing on the machine for a while. It was only when she looked at him again that he returned from whatever dream world he'd been lost in – blinking, as if a spell had been broken.
"Um… Right." His gaze fell momentarily to the floor, but he had no real desire to keep it there. It returned to her without resistance. He looked as if he were going to speak, and then as though he had lost something. He could not capture what he what he wanted to express, much less put it into speech or gesture. So he left it unsaid, and went to the Transmogrification Device.
At his approach, the doors slid open, and Wheatley paused to gather his courage. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his hands trembling at his sides. He wanted to look back at Chell, but he knew if he looked at her now, he wouldn't be able to go through with his choice. So he didn't look at her, but stepped into the machine with all the dignity he'd never had.
The doors closed behind him. The machine began to hum; the dial's hand began to spin. A vibrant blue glow leaked out from the cracks around the doors, growing brighter and brighter until it was nearly white, and seemed to shimmer with a thousand colors. Then it stopped, and remained silent for the span of a heartbeat that felt like a century. The doors hissed open, and a cascade of fog curled out across the floor.
And there he was, that familiar core she'd known, it seemed, so very long ago. His casing was smooth, devoid of the scuffs and dents she remembered him with. His optic was open, free of the crack that once ran through it – but it was dark.
She stared into the emptiness, waiting for that blue glow to appear behind the glass. Dread and despair gnawed away at her heart until they freed themselves, and they pooled in her throat and under her stomach. But then, a light bloomed in the darkness, and she finally let out the breath she didn't know she'd been holding.
Wheatley was quiet for a moment. He had forgotten what it felt like to be a robot, and was overwhelmed by the relief that washed over him as the pain of mortality left him, sweet as the silence after a cacophony. But still he hurt, and it was a different hurt, deep within. He would need time to readjust to this form – but he would have plenty of it. He had more important things to think about at the moment.
The robot turned his optic upward toward Chell, and his lower shutter rose slightly. There was a strange stiffness to the motion, as there had been when he'd first lifted his hands. "'Ello, luv," he said, wishing he could have thought of something better to say. It would have to do.
She smiled anyway, and it was a genuine smile, but there was some small, selfish sorrow in her eyes that refused to be completely banished. She, too, would need time. But she lifted the core and held him close. It was time to go home.
Chell stepped into the elevator and leaned against the back wall as the doors sealed and the elevator began its slow ascent. At last, it was over. She closed her eyes, and finally had a chance to realize how tired she was – emotionally, if not physically. Adrenal vapor could keep her body going, but not her soul.
She opened her eyes again when the elevator suddenly stopped moving, and she found herself staring into GlaDOS's cold yellow optic.
"Finally. You certainly loitered down there long enough. What were you even doing? Wait, no – I don't want to know." Without waiting for a response, she continued almost cheerfully. "The point is that you did what you set out to do. And you did put out the fires, so there's that." GlaDOS narrowed her optic and leaned toward the elevator, dropping the amicable tone. "On the other hand, I strongly suspect you also started them."
Wheatley made a sound like he was going to object, but stopped himself before it became a word. It was an unfounded accusation, to be sure. But it wasn't entirely unfair. GlaDOS herself had said that the facility had been a bomb waiting to go off, and though it could have happened without Chell and Wheatley, in this case it had admittedly been them.
"Which makes this the third time one or both of you have nearly destroyed my facility," the robot continued. "I don't want to see a fourth, so this time I'm welding the door shut behind you after you leave. Now get out. Don't bother trying to come back."
If there was one thing Chell couldn't fault GlaDOS for, it was trusting her instincts. And nobody could argue with her solution, either. So the woman gave a shrug of acknowledgement, and the elevator continued its long climb. Perhaps she could leave this place with a modicum of respect for the AI. As GlaDOS passed out of view below, Chell smiled slightly at nothing in particular. Respect for GlaDOS – she wondered how quickly that would wear off.
Lights slipped down the walls with the regularity of water dripping from a faucet. Floors came and went like seasons, until the elevator unexpectedly slowed as it passed into an open space. A green-eyed core rose steadily on a guide rail alongside them.
"Well, look who it is! I knew you two would pull through," Rick said. He chuckled quietly. "It's been quite an adventure, hasn't it?"
Wheatley hesitated briefly. "Something like that," he answered slowly.
The Adventure Core looked vaguely amused. "You plan on having any more?"
"I don't know." Wheatley closed his optic momentarily. If he had still been human, he would have shrugged. "Maybe. I'll have plenty of time to think about it."
"Fair enough. Not like you're gonna run out of power or anything up there. Knew those solar panels had to be good for something."
There was a short time filled only by the dull hum of the elevator climbing steadily toward the surface, and then Wheatley spoke up again. "So I guess this is the last time we're gonna speak to each other, innit?"
"Yeah, well. That's generally how these things go," Rick said, though Wheatley didn't know what things he was referring to, and didn't bother to ask. The Adventure Core glanced upwards for a moment. "Looks like we're runnin' out of rail here, and I really shouldn't keep you much longer. You've got places to be, things to do."
"Thanks. For everything."
It was the Adventure Core's turn to close his eye and tilt in imitation of a shrug. "Don't worry 'bout it." He looked at his fellow robot for a moment and added, "You done good, kid. I'm proud of ya."
Wheatley blinked in surprise and looked at the floor. Before he could respond, Rick came to a bend in the rail and stopped there. "Ah, time's up. Good luck out there!" he shouted after them.
The blue-eyed core wanted to shout a goodbye in return, but didn't have time to think of the words, let alone actually say anything, before the elevator suddenly returned to its full speed and lurched back into the darkness of the shaft.
It was dark when the door to Aperture slammed shut behind them, and the sky was clear. Chell took a deep breath of the cold, fresh night air, and held the core tighter to her chest to banish the chill it caused with his machine warmth.
How long had it been? Time seemed to pass differently in Aperture, or not pass at all; GlaDOS had even once explained that this was very much an intentionally cultivated effect. So Chell was a little surprised both that it was already night, and that only a day had passed. Or at least, she figured it was only a day, or she would be hungrier. But maybe that was the doing of the adrenal vapor as well.
Wheatley didn't give a damn about time – though it did feel strange to not be rushing. It wasn't only the lack of an urgent goal driving him on, but also that he'd gotten used to the feeling, on a deep and instinctual level, that his time in this world was limited. Every moment had a certain importance when one had a set and finite lifespan. Even as a robot, Wheatley would not be free of this tiny but ever-present burden, and indeed could not even begin to free himself from it, for as long as Chell still lived. Every second was precious, now, not because his time was limited, but because hers was.
And he would worry over this, always on some level fretting about it, as no machine was ever meant to. But these were dark thoughts, and he didn't have time for them, though he had all the time in the world for himself. So he would push them aside, try to forget them, and create as many memories as he could, hoarding them for when that dismal day would finally come. He had a bittersweet appreciation for the now that no other core could ever know – just as they would never know the agony of suffocation, or the sweetness of a kiss.
By the time they arrived at the cottage, the adrenaline had worn off completely, and Chell could barely keep her eyes open. She placed Wheatley on the chair by the window and collapsed into her bed, and was asleep so quickly that he wasn't sure whether she'd even heard his goodnight. But he wasn't going to wake her for it, so he stayed quiet, and watched her shoulders rising and falling for a while, wondering about his memories – whether they would come back in time, or were lost forever. Whether it even mattered.
He looked out the window into the night sky. There, very clearly, as if the stars had brightened just for him, he saw Monoceros, the unicorn.
"There are no happy endings. Because nothing ends." – Schmendrick