The woman lay quietly, barely breathing. She had a nasty looking wound on her leg, Chell had tried to clean it but she was no doctor. It probably didn't matter.
Though the fabric was stained and torn, the bright orange jumpsuit she'd been wearing when Chell found her was unmistakeable. Once Chell removed the sodden jumpsuit the woman's wounds, too, were familiar, acid burns and bulletholes in various stages of repair covering a gaunt pale body. The woman was a testing subject, like Chell, which meant that she was almost certainly doped up to the eyeballs with medications to keep her alert, to help her heal, to make her pliant. Like all successful Aperture products, these medications did their job, the woman would probably heal within the day, but they came at great cost. If anything killed her, it would be the withdrawal.
Chell finished winding makeshift bandages around the woman's leg and carefully straightened the scavenged clothes she'd dressed her in before pulling over the blanket. Who was this woman? She hadn't said anything when Chell found her, just looked up at her with a dazed, beatific smile before falling into unconsciousness. She looked vaguely familiar, probably one of the scientists Chell had met visiting the Centre with her father, but it had been so long since Chell had seen any other humans it was hard to tell. Her straight shoulder length hair had seemed black then, as she lay in the mud of the lake shore in the early morning light, but after being rinsed and dried it had proven itself to be light brown streaked with grey. She seemed relatively young, perhaps 25 or 30, but her pale face was lined with tension even in sleep.
Another testing subject. Chell had thought she was the last. GlaDOS had lied. Wheatley had lied, and lied successfully, which was rather more surprising. Why had he gone through that ridiculous pantomime with the walking cubes if he had other humans to test on? How many others were there, still trapped? What was GlaDOS doing to them? And to think Chell had almost felt sorry for the AI, trapped in that building all alone. Had even thought GlaDOS might have changed after being reminded of her origins as a human being. And yet here she was, torturing others as she had tortured Chell. Despite herself, Chell felt a stab of disappointment.
The woman remained asleep all day, though her body twitched and she made strange noises in her sleep. While she waited for the woman to wake up Chell went through her usual routine: check the fish nets, fill the water filter, tend the garden. She didn't go on any explorations looking for abandoned houses to loot for supplies, though, or forage for food in the woods or fields. Instead she limited herself to tasks she could do around the house, that let her stick her head into the room and check on her patient every hour or two. She really didn't want the woman to die. Chell had been alone for a very long time.
It was only when Chell carefully shifted the woman over to climb into bed herself that she showed signs of waking.
The woman frowned and, still asleep, pushed back against Chell, pulling the blankets around herself tighter. Chell laughed a little, putting a hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. Anyone with the will to keep the bed to themselves was probably strong enough that they weren't going to die.
It was hard to make anything out in the dark, even with a full moon, but was she...blinking?
Chell held her breath. The woman turned her head and...yes, opened her eyes. "Chell," she said, happily.
"Yes," said Chell. It was the first word she had said to another person in what felt like forever. How did the woman know her name? Yet another question, hopefully one that would be answered soon.
"You saved me," said the woman. She seemed very familiar now, something about her accent and tone of voice resonated deep in Chell's psyche. She could feel her heart rate quicken, and her stomach tightened with a mixture of anticipation and fear. "Good."
"It...I...it is very cold," said Chell. Constructing sentences felt like some arcane skill she had nearly forgotten. "Would you mind..." Sharing the bed had seemed like a good idea when the woman was asleep, shivering and ill, but it felt impossibly presumptuous now. "I will go find somewhere else to sleep," said Chell, trying to decide if it would be better to make up a mattress in this room or lock herself into one of the others. Now that the woman was awake Chell's finely honed sense of paranoia had started to kick into overdrive. What did she really know about this woman? Could she be trusted? How did she know Chell's name? What reason did she have to trust Chell herself? It was impossible to survive a place like Aperture without being changed into something sharp and dangerous.
"You're leaving me again," said the woman, her soft voice cracking and tinged with accusation.
"No," said Chell. "Not...not if you want me to stay." The woman reached towards her with a thin pale hand and held her wrist, her eyes large and expectant. She was surprisingly strong, Chell could have pulled away but not without an effort. She decided not to try. Instead she pulled back the blanket and slid into bed beside the woman.
She was so warm. Chell resisted the urge to curl up closer to the first human contact she'd had in years (decades? Subjectively it was shorter than that, of course. Or at least it should be), only to have the woman wrap her arms around Chell tightly and make a happy sound of contentment. Part of Chell felt stifled, almost trapped, but it was also deeply comforting to be held. She hadn't felt this way...not since highschool. Perhaps not since she was a child, before her parents died.
And yet she did not feel safe. Some instinct was keeping her wide awake, telling her to run. She turned within the woman's arms to face her. Her eyes glistened dark and unknowable in the moonlight.
"Who are you?" asked Chell, quietly. She felt acutely aware of the other woman's body, it's sharp angles and unexpected softnesses, the inescapable pressure of the woman's hands against her back.
The woman remained silent, staring. "I..." she began. She closed her eyes suddenly and ducked down her head. "I'm sick, I need to sleep."
Chell frowned. The woman was clearly dodging the question. She thought about shaking her awake again, but regardless of the woman's sincerity she was very ill, and Chell was tired herself. She did not fall asleep for a long time, though, instead she lay awake, listening to the strange woman breathe, the warmth of her like an extra blanket against Chell's skin.
Chell awoke with a start and found herself alone in bed, with only a thin sheet left to cover her. There were loud banging noises coming from the kitchen. She grabbed the nail studded baseball bat she kept below the bed and padded quietly towards the commotion. It was still dark, sunrise wouldn't be for hours, but she knew the way.
Chell found her houseguest standing by the sideboard, wrapped in the blanket and doing something in the sink. Around her were all of Chell's neatly organised bottles and jars, now in disarray, opened and in some cases emptied. As she stepped into the room there was a crunch as her feet crushed against the dried herbs and beans that lay scattered on the floor. Worse, there were two of Chell's carefully scavenged candles lit in jars by the window, casting strange shadows against the walls.
"Hungry, huh?" said Chell, with some annoyance, leaning across to snuff out one of the candles.
"Ymmph," said the woman. She was chewing on something, probably beef jerky. Meanwhile her hands were busy trying to use a can opener to open a can of peaches Chell had been saving for a special occasion. She was having real trouble: her hands kept shaking, and were slick with syrup and what looked like blood.
Chell sighed and put her hand on the woman's shoulder. "I'll open it," she said. The seal had been broken, there was no point saving it now. She leaned the baseball bat against a cupboard.
The woman swallowed. "Your can opener is broken," she said, before giving Chell the can and opener and wiping her hands on her shirt. Chell's shirt, though the woman made it look much bigger. She was very thin, no wonder she was hungry.
"Right." Chell grabbed a teatowel and wiped off the mess before opening the tin and pouring half of it into a cup, which she then handed to the woman.
The woman poured half the contents of the cup into her mouth and then choked as she tried to chew. She looked so mortified at the indignity of having to spit some of the peaches back into the cup that Chell had to stop herself from laughing.
"I know you're hungry," said Chell, "but you can't just go eating whatever you want. If you're going to stay here..." Chell was suddenly reminded of various foster parents, explaining the rules of the house and treating her like a delinquent until proven innocent. But it's not like she had any better role models. "If you're going to stay here you have to do it by my rules, ok? And that means no opening my tins without asking, they're hard to find. No making a mess in the kitchen at four in the morning, either."
Just for a moment Chell experienced an intense wave of hostility from the woman. Then she gave a thin smile. "Your house, your rules. Of course. I wouldn't want to be rude."
"Come on," said Chell, before picking up the baseball bat again, snuffing out the second candle and opening the kitchen door so they could sit outside on the porch.
Chell sat down on the porch chair and waited. The woman sat beside her, but not without a look towards the kitchen tinged with hunger and regret. Her hands shook around the cup she was holding.
"I don't feel...right," she said, frowning. Summer had been slow in coming, the ground was white with frost and Chell's pajamas and bedsocks weren't doing much against the chill. But despite the cold the woman curled up into the corner of the chair as far away from Chell as possible. Perhaps she regretted being so grabby when they were falling asleep.
"You're not yourself right now," said Chell. "You're healing, and Aperture pumped you full of all sorts of toxins. Your system's in a mess, and it's going to take time to right itself. But you'll be fine."
"Right. Fine. Stuck in this...broken body, in an abandoned house with no electricity and a crazy person with a baseball bat as my roommate. Everything's going to be just peachy."
"Hey," said Chell. What was up with this woman? "I'm doing you a favour here, taking you in. This is you not being rude?"
The woman sat up a little straighter, holding her cup primly. "Unlike some people I prefer being honest. 84.739% of test subjects die once they go into withdrawal from the Aperture Science Happy Test Subject drug cocktail. And even the ones who survive usually end up...damaged in some way. Look at you, you think those pajamas are a reasonable fashion choice. I am not going to be fine."
Chell flushed. She was damaged, in lots of ways. And maybe the pajamas were kind of dorky...but she shouldn't be letting this woman get to her. And...84.739%? That was a very specific number.
"Who are you?" asked Chell. The woman widened her eyes and looked like she was about to pretend to swoon. Chell tightened her hand slightly around the baseball bat. "No dodging the question this time."
"Well...who are you?" said the woman. "For all I know you could be some...murderer. Maybe you're plotting to murder me right now! I'm not the one threatening innocent people with baseball bats."
"My name is Chell," she replied. "But you already knew that. Somehow. Chell Garcia. I grew up around here, with my parents, until GlaDOS murdered them when I was a kid. You know who GlaDOS is, right?"
The woman nodded, eyes downcast and mouth pinched into a frown. She obviously had bad memories about GlaDOS too.
"Well, she didn't quite manage to catch me. Not the first time, anyway. When I grew up I went in to try and...find my parents I guess, and rescue any survivors. The authorities were too afraid to do anything, they claimed everything was under control. But when I got into the centre...they were dead. Everyone was dead, or frozen. I got captured myself, for a while, frozen too, I'm not sure for how long." Based on the level of dust and decay, quite a while indeed. She had trouble getting her head around it. "Then I escaped, and came out here. I was hoping there would be other people, but there's noone. It's like...the whole world is empty. I think something happened while I was asleep, I don't know." Chell looked out across the rooftops towards what used to be an industrial area. When she was a kid the horizon had always glowed a pretty orange, and you could see lights twinkling in the distance from houses and cars. Now the only orange light she ever saw on the horizon was the sun. She'd come across troubling signs of conflict during her explorations of the little town, scorch marks and the remains of bodies, not all of them looking very human. But there was no need to worry the woman with that yet. "I've been here...two months maybe. Long enough to set myself up, get through the worst of the withdrawal. Come the warmer weather I'm thinking of heading south, trying to find any other human survivors of...whatever it was happened to everyone here."
She turned back to the woman. "But I thought I was the last test subject left. I saw the life support modules collapse and fall. And GlaDOS...GlaDOS said she had robots now, to do the testing. Why was she testing on you? What's going on in there?"
"The robots didn't work," said the woman bitterly. "Not human enough to trigger the testing euphoria."
"Oh no," said Chell.
"And then I...then GlaDOS found a whole hidden section of the facility just full of human subjects. Including th...including me. Most of the humans were dead after spending so long in storage, and even those of us that weren't had to be...fixed. In one way or another."
That made sense. Chell still had issues after her extended stay in cryogenics, spots in her vision and weird tingly pains that were almost certainly brain damage. Apparently she'd been lucky.
The woman continued, her eyes distant and haunted. "And once we were ready, she started testing. It was horrible, I never imagined...I'm glad I got out of there."
"So much for GlaDOS having a conscience now," said Chell.
"Ha!" said the woman. There was so much bitterness in her voice Chell felt bad for being impatient with her. She wouldn't have been very good company herself so soon after her escape. She had some increasingly disturbing suspicions about this woman, but that didn't mean she couldn't be kind. Maybe she was exactly who she said she was.
"How did you get out? Did you kill GlaDOS?"
"Kill her? What is it with you and...no. No I didn't kill her. I just escaped. I suppose you could say I got lucky. It's still a mess in there, that mor...other core really did a lot of damage to the centre. During a test I saw an opportunity to get into the bowels of the building, where I...where I could hide from GlaDOS more easily. And then I found a route to the surface. And found you."
"Yes, that was...awfully lucky of you," said Chell. The odds of the woman stumbling so near to Chell's house by accident were astronomically tiny. She must have known where to find her. The knowledge made Chell feel very exposed. Maybe it was time to move on. "How do you know so much about me, again?"
"Oh. Uh. GlaDOS talks about you all the time, I think she feels...I think you made a pretty big impression. Killing her and all, hard to forget that, right?"
"I guess so," said Chell. She sipped at her peaches. They tasted mildly alcoholic. "You know you still haven't told me your name."
"Uh. Ka...Karen. Karen...Smith. I was a level 2 administrative assistant for Aperture. Not even a real scientist! Once the compulsory testing phase began I was put into a relaxation chamber, I... I don't know what happened after that. Because I was asleep. You know us humans, always sleeping, never noticing...things."
"Yeah." Chell finished her peaches and stood up. "Well, Karen, I better show you where the bathroom is before us humans go back to sleep. Don't want you waking me up again."
"Right, yes. The bathroom," said Karen, placing her hand on her stomach and looking mildly disgusted.
"Come on," said Chell.
As Chell expected, once Karen fell back asleep she didn't wake for hours. When Chell was going through withdrawal she'd slept almost continuously for what had felt like days, and she hadn't been getting over a major injury. Karen barely moved as Chell made sure she was secure, and she lay sleeping soundly, occasionally twitching, while Chell went to bed herself in another room, and then as Chell woke, washed, dressed and started on her various tasks for the day.
Chell knew exactly when Karen woke up this time. She'd been cleaning up in the kitchen, but the shout Karen made could probably have been heard from Canada.
"Help! I've been tied up by a maniac!"
There was the sound of the bed rattling and shifting about. Chell hoped her guest wasn't doing herself an injury, she'd done enough doctoring for one day. Still, no point rushing unnecessarily. She picked up a knife and whetstone and walked at a leisurely pace towards the bedroom.
By the time she walked through the door to the bedroom Karen's voice was getting hoarse. Probably wasn't used to having to do so much shouting with weak vocal cords.
"Oh thank God, Chell!" said Karen. Her eyes were wide and desperate. "Someone's tied me up for no apparent reason! It must have been thieves or vagabonds of some sort. Quick, help me escape before they come back!"
Chell raised her eyebrows as if in mild surprise, then sat down in a chair opposite the bed, her eyes calmly regarding the scene in front of her. Karen's eyes flicked to the contents of Chell's hands and her voice gained a slight tremor.
"Oh, a knife! Use it to cut my ropes!"
Chell smiled, just a little, and stayed where she was. Karen's eyes got, if anything, even wider.
"Why aren't you helping me? Don't you trust me? What, do you think I tied myself up as part of some nefarious plan?" Her tone switched from disappointment to very poorly acted shock. "Or perhaps it was you who tied me up!"
Chell smiled a little wider, and started to sharpen her knife. She felt a little silly engaging in such blatant theatrics, but she had to admit to herself that she got a kick out of making Karen squirm. It was cathartic, and she was a woman in great need of catharsis. Plus the knife really did need sharpening.
"Ok, ok," said Karen, her voice going down a few decibels but remaining stubbornly quavery despite her best efforts to sound calm and placating, "That's...not entirely unreasonable. You've been alone for a long time, and the last few people you spoke to did try to kill you, even if one of them did let you go in the end out of the kindness of her heart. A beautiful mysterious stranger arrives at your house out of the blue, of course you're going to be suspicious. I understand that, I really do. But...uh...could you put the knife down? It's making it hard for me to think."
Chell ignored her and kept at her task.
"Ok, not putting the knife down. I'm an unarmed woman, tied to your bed, her injured leg cruelly strained by ropes and that's apparently still too much of a threat to face without some kind of weapon. That's the kind of person you are. Frankly, I'm disappointed."
Yes, you treat your guests so much better thought Chell darkly, but she wasn't in the mood for talking just yet. And a small part of her squirmed in doubt. Could Karen really...it felt silly to even think it...could she really be GlaDOS? Chell had seen some weird things in Aperture, but an AI in human form?
Then again, there was the example of Caroline, the woman inside the robot (possibly) inside of Karen. Chell wondered again if there was another, rather less competent Aperture employee inside of Wheatley and the other spheres. It was a creepy thought. As was the idea of GlaDOS using versions of herself as test subjects in the bodies of humans whose original minds had gone. Assuming that Chell's hypothesis about Karen's origin was true.
But whatever Karen was, she was definitely dangerous, and a liar. There'd be time for apologies later if Chell's other suspicions turned out to be incorrect.
She put down the whetstone and stood up, walking towards the bed, her eyes still on Karen.
"Are you going to let me go now?"
Chell kneeled down next to the bed, her eyes still on Karen, and picked up the bucket she'd left there, holding it up so that Karen could see it before putting it back down.
"A bucket? Why are you showing me a bucket?"
Chell sighed. The silent treatment could only take you so far.
"Tell me when you need it," said Chell. "Or when you're ready to tell me the truth. Until then, I have better things to do."
"Need it?" Karen looked at her with genuine confusion, then the expression was slowly overtaken by one of pure horror. "Oh my god, you expect me to use a bucket? What kind of monster are you?"
The one you made of me thought Chell, but the only answer she gave Karen was a small shrug before she turned around and started walking back towards the kitchen.
Would her thyme be dry yet? She'd found a promising looking recipe for baked fish using dried thyme, she was looking forward to trying it. She wondered if the recipe would stretch to feeding two.