"He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature."
- Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
There was something unsettling about someone introducing themselves in perfect Times New Roman. The librarian leaned as far back as her swivel chair would go, the backend resting at an angle against the curve of her desk, and her fingers white-knuckled around both armrests. The note currently being shoved in her face was hand-written; it had been drawn up right in front of her, a blank paper now suddenly filled with typewriter-esque calligraphy from someone who had been illiterate just last week.
"Hello! I'm Chell."
The librarian read over the note at least eighteen times, words only registering after eleven or so. A bite to her lip was proof enough to Chell that she was finished reading and the paper finally pulled back, giving the poor librarian some breathing room. She took it with exaggerated gratitude in the form of a hefty exhale and a loss of tension in her forearms. Such relief was short-lived; Chell had begun writing again.
This time she held it out at a reasonable distance. "You never told me your name."
The librarian's skin prickled all over, including over her tongue which now felt too big for her mouth. Chell was right, they'd never been formally introduced, which struck her as strange even if she couldn't place why. The librarian hardly thought of the two of them as friends; if anything, Chell held her hostage every time she showed up. Yet it seemed rude to be taken hostage by someone who doesn't know your name.
On the other hand was the matter of being identifiable. Opening herself up to be asked about. Hiding from someone who knew you by name was close to impossible.
"Da- um." The librarian closed her mouth as soon as she opened it. Her fingers made a brief grabby motion for Chell's pen before she spotted her own on the desk and took that up instead, alongside scrap paper which wouldn't waste any of Chell's journal.
She considered it a gift to a previously illiterate friend, writing down her rather unusual name instead of saying it and expecting her to sound it out later, but it was also a bit of a test. She wanted to see if Chell could finish reading it in her head before she herself could say it out loud.
"Daphne." The librarian's handwriting was squashed and straight and hard-pressed into the paper. It didn't want to be seen.
Chell's nose scrunched up and Daphne fiddled with her pen. Chell knew the versatility of H well - it played a role in her own name - but that particular combination was lost on her. Instead of looking to Daphne for answers, though, she kept staring at it like she was trying to make sense of a mathematical equation. Which she was.
Daphne murmured it, catching Chell's attention, which prompted her to say it again but a little louder. Chell cocked an eyebrow. She had been expecting the E to be silent.
Alright, then. "Hello Daphne."
Pass one test, fail another. Daphne recoiled as she watched Chell write, the immaculate nature of her penmanship taking on a smaller, heavier texture, a blend of her previous computer font and Daphne's own. She was reminded of the last time she watched The Thing.
Chell had been anticipating a joyful response. This was a triumph, the ability to communicate brand new and exciting. Why wasn't her friend excited? Her smile faded, becoming blank and her tongue swiping her lip and she switched into analysis mode, manually constructing pieces of Daphne's expression in an attempt to learn what was wrong and, if she could, help. She caught the shiver that ran down the librarian's spine but made no connection between it and the sudden loss of emotion on her own face.
Wait, she could just ask! "What's wrong?"
"Nothing!" Too fast of a response, not sincere enough to satisfy Chell. She underlined her sentence. "What's wrong?"
Lying wasn't going to work, was it? Daphne resorted to her initial concern, the one that started up when Chell had walked in with a pen and paper to begin with. "Y-you just… You learned so fast. Most people… Most adults just learning to read, it takes them years."
Chell's shoulders stiffened in a moment of polite shock followed by a head-tilt and a rise of both eyebrows like they were talking about odd weather patterns or their favorite china sets. "Really? Was easy for me. Read books with pictures like you said. Kids helped little bit. You did too and thank you."
"Mmm-hmmmm…" It came out more as a whine than a word, the thin-lipped internal screech of a woman who very desperately wanted to be elsewhere - or at least with a less mysteriously unpredictable partner. The mix of absorbed handwriting, unflowing grammar, and how nonchalantly Chell brushed off teaching herself to read in under a week brought up questions that Daphne felt should be buried rather than asked. Likely, the answers would only make matters worse. She couldn't even begin to speculate what this woman was or why she was so insistent on stalking a poor librarian who wanted nothing to do with her.
Yet at the end of the slowly-read note, Daphne shifted uncomfortably for a totally different reason. The probity of Chell's "thank you" alongside the smile she presented it with seemed too human to have been written by the alien beast that she was sitting across from. It was confusing.
She settled for the most tender "You're welcome" that her lungs could force out. It sounded hardly as intended. Her heart was beating too fast to be warm at the moment. Even so, it was enough for Chell, who didn't want to strain her apparently jumpy friend.
Underneath gratitude and social desperation were violent instincts turned protective, the back of her mind twitching with an urge to kill whatever was worrying Daphne so much. It couldn't simply be mild surprise at a new skill. Chell hovered the pen over her journal but didn't make any new letters. She could push the subject later, when her friend had calmed down.
As long as she wasn't in any immediate danger. Chell shot a sidelong glance towards the computers. Daphne seemed to know how to deal with them but Chell didn't rule them out. Just in case.
Conversation didn't last much longer. Daphne caught an unsettling view of the cover of Chell's journal as she closed it: carnation pink with a pattern of tiny white birds and red ribbons. Was this lady even real?
Evidently, she was. And she was clinging to her again on their routine trip around the bookcases and past the evil computer lab.
Chell's improved eating habits (read: lack of starvation) had given her some semblance of muscle mass, tangible under her sleeves and more than apparent in her iron grip. But being in the arms of someone who could throw her across the room like a ragdoll, shockingly, wasn't Daphne's main issue. It was the stranger's mind that terrified her. Mercurial and inconsistent. Who knew what Chell was thinking about at any given time?
Right now, she was thinking about buying some cupcakes.
Chell always found it odd that stores sold individual cakes but not individual cupcakes. Purchasing warmer clothes for the increasingly cold weather had left her without enough to get an entire pack. She'd thought that she could find individual cupcakes for a cheaper price, as seemed to be the logic of stores - less items, cheaper expense - but not a single location offered that.
On the way out, she smuggled an apple into her pocket out of spite.
All in all, she knew of maybe eight stores total that she could afford to buy from and four of them sold primarily food. The last one on her list also failed to deliver in the cupcake department but Chell refused to leave without spending her measly earnings on something edible.
Time for exploration. With it, careful reading. Plenty of packaged meals had hidden corpse ingredients which she was slowly learning to spot and avoid. Her search morphed into intrigue the deeper she wandered into the store, each new item snatching her attention away from the last. It wasn't so much the objects themselves that interested her; it was the fact they were new.
That is, until she wandered down an unfamiliar isle.
October had hit the market hard and this store was a proud front-runner, displaying candy in gorgeous orange and purple bags already marked down to an affordable price.
She had the perfect amount of money, able to afford the limit of what her deep pockets could hold and not a single piece more. The strange choice of decor did catch her eye but it was nothing worth noting for the moment. Chell was too comfortable with the smell of cheap sugar to be unnerved by some paper mâché skeletons and...soft, cloud-like spiderwebs that she may or may not have stolen a chunk of.
Commotion caught her attention on the way home. People were gathered at the bottleneck of a familiar alleyway, individually frightened but with a collective mob mentality of morbid curiosity and high energy that Chell found herself drawn to. She'd spent a decent part of last night in that same alley; it seemed inconspicuous at the time, aside from the dangerous stranger lurking inside...but he was gone. What was left to be afraid of?
In part, her push into the whispering crowd was an excuse to press against human bodies and share their warmth. It was a sorry replacement for real attention but enough to stave off hunger until her next library visit. People didn't want to give up their front-row seats and stubbornness seemed to be the only thing that could break their staunch desire for personal space.
The dead body was nothing new. Her attention went to the people nosing around it, decked out in identical uniforms and carrying weapons in their belts. Was this the dangerous thing? Was this what people were flocking to worry over?
One quick scope of the surrounding individuals had Chell rating herself as the strongest, bravest, and therefor in the best position to play guardian. She shoved her way through the crowd, ducked under the yellow tape, and stood proud between innocent bystanders and the uniformed fleet. She had their attention instantly.
They gave an unspoken glance-around, picking apart who would have to talk down this Meddlesome Marsha. One of them, a stubby-legged man with unthreatening features, drew the shortest straw. His approach caught Chell's eye before she had a chance to finish sizing everyone up and deciding the order they would die in.
Chell bared her teeth, fists clenched. Striking first put her at a slight disadvantage; it was smarter to counter and hit immediately afterward, taking away your opponent's first shot and therefore wasting their energy in the process of avoiding damage. Specifically, she was waiting for him to take out one of his weapons so that she could steal it.
The officer, alternatively, had a faint idea of who he was dealing with. He had a daughter who liked swing-sets and a wife with too much faith in humanity.
"Ma'am…" His voice was a steel butterfly, wispy and wimpy with the added undertones of authority that came with his uniform. A hiss passed through Chell's teeth. She didn't like him one bit. "Do you need something?"
No response. One of her fists loosened for a split second with the intention of grabbing her notepad, but the memory of her last fight came back. She couldn't distract herself and risk getting grabbed again. Her scrunched nose twitched. The officer made a mental note to warn the Missus about this.
He went on, "This is a crime scene. You have to...stay behind the yellow line. Do you understand, ma'am?"
Chell blinked for the first time in minutes. She didn't understand, actually. Her gaze darted from him to the anxious people behind her - unaware that their muttering had turned against her - just long enough to qualify as communication. The officer went silent, temporarily believing this to be a mere twitch from the madwoman until he realized that she was waiting for an answer. Why are they so nervous?
"Someone died here, ma'am." Maybe that was a little too harsh. This unfortunate, probably demented lady didn't need to be hearing about murder. "We're trying to...find who did it. We're going to catch them, understand? So that...they can't...kill anyone else." He winced as he spoke. Still too dark, but he had no other way to put it.
Wait, they didn't know it was her? Chell's lips closed around her teeth and an expression of unnerved inquisition came over her face. It wasn't a secret that she had killed someone. She was a killer by nature! With a body count that, when counting AI (because why wouldn't you?), rivalled GLaDOS's!
Yet by the reticent uncertainty in his tone and the subtle threat of execution for the murderer, Chell wasn't so inclined to correct him. This was the clean-up crew, then. The military. Turrets in blue suits. It was their job to regulate. Killing them in view of witnesses would be counterproductive.
Test chambers themselves, as in the physical constructs in Aperture's depths, were gone, but Chell had spent her life in them. Like a small-time farmer in a busy city, she subconsciously only had her native culture to go off of. Everything functioned like a test chamber or it didn't make sense. Every action had a goal, every goal had a solution. Every so often there would be a change in rules like the introduction of lasers, hard light bridges, or not touching people until given permission. But the basic premise was always the same: win.
Death was not winning. Death was failure. Here was a new rule for the books: murders must be secret. Chell wrote it in her mind and instantly a hundred ways to hide or otherwise dispose of bodies came to her. This wouldn't be difficult.
The officer watched her slowly come out of her aggressive poise and into one of emotionless thought, his eyes following her tongue every time it ran over her lip. Another officer, sharp-voiced and female, intervened with a speedy approach and a shameless shooing gesture. Chell hissed in polite declaration of mutual enemyship and ducked under the yellow tape, not so much vanishing into the crowd as getting swallowed by it.
It was quiet now and all of the herd's collaborative interest in the macabre settled stodgily onto her. Very few people wanted to be her friend after that.