Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 1

[table of contents]


[→ Chapter 2]

I have to… thank you for your… ah, service, Mis-ter Freeman. You’ve made some… compelling points, about the… metaphysical nature… of certain rat-themed com-mercial ventures. As well as, ahem, saving the world. Con… gratulations.

All… good turns deserve a reward. It’s my son’s birthday today. You should… join us. There will be… pizza, and a birth-day cake.

Enjoy the party.


Gordon Freeman opens his eyes.

There’s a dirty floor under his feet. Rumbling. Thinking comes slowly, but fast enough that he can tell he’s not alone. When he lifts his head, afterimages blur past his vision, and God, that throbbing in his temple is killing him, but he’s pretty sure those hazy figures are people. One of them looks at him with something like concern.

“Was he on this carriage?”

Carriage? It doesn’t look like a “carriage.” It looks familiar, sort of, in a way only public transit can look. Dirty seats, sticky floors. Smells the part. Like a subway train or the Black Mesa tram, littered with trash and full of people who don’t look thrilled to be there.

Something about their faces. Their strange, greasy faces. These are definitely not people who work with him, or people he recognizes at all, for that matter.

“This isn’t the birthday party,” Gordon says, hoarse. He doesn’t have to look at the strangers around him to feel the glances they’re throwing his way. They practically burn on contact.

“You should sit down,” somebody says to him directly. “You look like you’re gonna throw up.”

“’m good,” Gordon mumbles. “Great. Just gonna… keep standing here. And not do that.” He clutches onto a nearby pole tightly enough that his fingers ache. 

The carriage shudders to a stop an indiscernible amount of time later, and the jolt of it almost knocks him over. He waits for the others to pass by him before he makes the effort to hop off himself. It reminds him of a certain mixer back in grad school, riding the bus home after a bit too much “mystery drink.” The nauseating bumps, the heavy feeling in his head, and the complete lack of an ability to walk a straight line… it’s all too familiar. He stumbles down the exit steps and nearly wipes out the guy in front of him. 

"Ooh, Mr. Coolatta doesn't want to be wrong about a fucking entertainment center so he's just going to dump me on a train to fuck knows where! Real cute, man!" He hopes G-Man can hear him, wherever he is. This is— this is cheating . Deny him the rat’s pizza? He thinks the fuck not.

That righteous anger keeps Gordon going until he steps onto the platform, at which point he sways and grabs hold of a railing for dear life. He screws his eyes closed and seethes, trying to will his heart back to a pre-rage speed. He’s not even sure why he’s that mad. Is he drunk?

This isn’t what they’d discussed in the meetings, not that half the shit he’d already encountered had been accounted for, either. But this isn’t Black Mesa, and he was pretty sure that “Black Mesa” was supposed to be the focal point of the whole shebang. Vaulted ceilings rise high above him, where the sun filters through dingy skylights. The platform itself is bracketed by tall, tall trains, packed together like matchsticks and stretching as far behind him as Gordon can see. It’s giving him vertigo something fierce. And they really need to get a janitor in here, like, yesterday. Gordon scuffs the floor and leaves a visible streak in the dirt.

At the far end of the building, a man’s face looms in high definition, but looking at that massive, flickering screen for too long just makes Gordon’s headache worse. And so does that voice. It’s not that it’s loud so much as it is irritating, a false peppiness like a manager that’s sipped a little too much of the company Kool-Aid.  He walks in a daze, streaks of color sliding past his vision, and tries his hardest to wrestle his brain back down to earth.

No more, Gordon thinks. He’s not stepping into any more goddamn portals or teleporters or, or, whatever, if he can help it. He’s sick of this teleporting G-force hangover shit. Even simulated, it can’t be healthy.

Something heavy clatters to the ground in front of him. Gordon drags his eyes up and spots a pile of scattered luggage. And more importantly, the person that’s been shoved into it, struggling to right themselves.

Behind them, a man in a mask. It’s a bleak white color, eyeholes tinted black and impossible to see through from Gordon’s end, with a respirator at the front. Post-apocalyptic raider gear, but sleek and rounded and unblemished. Mass-produced. Like all the other guys nearby in the same mask and the same leather armor.

“Whoa, what’s your problem, buddy?” he blurts out on instinct.

The masked man turns to look at him. “Keep moving,” he orders, deep and garbled, and a cold sweat breaks out on the back of Gordon’s neck.

What kind of filter are these dudes using? He can barely make out what they’re saying. Gordon’s mouth opens, but then he sees a gloved hand drift toward an unfamiliar weapon on the guy’s belt, and he thinks better of it.

“Okay, okay, moving along! Moving along.”

He does as he’s told and pushes his way through a turnstile, although he can’t say he’s too fucking thrilled about it. 

You sacrifice your days off to help the geeks in R&D test their doomsday simulator, and for what? No birthday party. No warm soda. None of the fun little joke stuff programmed to cap off twelve hours of virtual hell and end on a high note. Just dropped unceremoniously into a shithole like this. It’s not like he was looking for a medal, but like, a nap would’ve been nice. 

Actually, scratch that. He wants the medal. He deserves the medal for all the shit he put up with. For not ripping off the headset and ripping the lead programmer, Craig, a new one. At the rate he’s going, he’s the goddamn Employee of the Year. 

At least the next hall he passes through has somewhere to sit among all the garbage. Just for a moment. This place has got serious “school cafeteria” vibes, right down to the unpleasant-looking food left half-eaten on the benches. Gordon takes a seat at one of the dingy plastic tables scattered around the room and buries his head in his arms, shielding his eyes from the light. 

Deep breaths, buddy. He’s gonna be fine. Just a little further, and he’ll be back in his apartment in no time, all the bullshit of the week prior just a thing of the past. Maybe he’ll watch one of those DVDs he checked out from the library. It’s a documentary about sea lions. They’re cute little guys.

“Drank the water, huh?”

Gordon blearily peers above his arms. He hadn’t even noticed there was somebody else sitting at the table. A squat man in a blue jumpsuit looks at him over the sandwich in his hands. His nails are dirty, Gordon notices. They stand out against the white sandwich paper. It’s a level of detail that takes him by surprise.

“What?” Gordon asks.

“They put something in it, you know.” The man taps his head with a knuckle, then continues, “Messes with your head. Nobody told you?”

“I didn’t— I haven’t drank anything, man. Just having a rough fucking day. I don’t even know where I am, ” he groans, tucking his head back down.

There’s a dry, ugly laugh, and he hears, “They must have got you in the head but good. You’re in City 17, the crown jewel of humanity. Enjoy your stay.”

“For some reason, I don’t think you mean that.”

Something crinkles, and the man’s voice comes out muffled. “Hey, a smart guy. Better keep that to yourself - it won’t get you very far.”

He frowns, but it’s not like anybody can see it.

When that vein in his temple stops pulsing so badly, he lifts his head again, and he’s alone. And he realizes suddenly that he’s no longer clad in the HEV suit. If he was, he might well have broken the shitty chair he’s collapsed into. That thing weighed a ton! Instead, he’s back in his work clothes: a plain t-shirt, one with minimal staining at the pits, and his nice pair of blue jeans. Gordon feels a strange relief now that he knows he’s out of the suit for good. He was starting to get worried that he really would be stuck in that thing.

Up he goes again. This time, it comes a little easier.

His mouth’s so dry, and if he’s being honest, he doesn’t trust that guy back there farther than he can throw him. But when Gordon pats his pockets down, hovering in front of a vending machine, he turns up a fat fucking nothing. 

“Whatever. I wasn’t thirsty anyway,” he mutters to nobody.

Gordon resigns himself to following the thin string of people at the far end of the hall, an endless queue feeding into a chainlink maze one person at a time. What is this place, even? He can’t shake the feeling that he’s being sorted into a prison camp or something. Maybe the “city” thing’s more of a euphemism. Seems kind of bleak, compared to the last place he got patted down by security. But none of these other doors lead anywhere, and he’s starting to get some weird looks from all the handle-jiggling he’s doing. What choice does he have?

At the heart of all that fencing lies a congregation of four - no, five? Hold on, he’s losing count. All he knows is that there’s a gaggle of masked guards, and his brain can’t keep a proper inventory of them all. And that each of them is staring directly at him as he steps into the center of them. Gordon swallows audibly. Being sized up by a bunch of blank-eyed wannabe cops isn’t doing wonders for his heart rate.

“Move along,” one says.

Gordon blinks. The guard shifts on his feet. And the others with him. 

“I said move along.”

He follows the guard’s hand to his belt, where it wraps around the handle of a baton. Gordon feels his stomach tighten.

“Wait, but where? I don’t—”

And then the baton extends. It flickers to life, buzzing and crackling with blue light at the end.

“I don’t know this place, man, can I at least get some directions, or— Ow! Hey! What the—” Gordon flinches backwards, reeling from a sudden, unexpected, and painful impact against his shoulder. “Not necessary!”

“I’ll tell you what’s necessary. Move.”

The others’ hands also drift toward their weapons. Perfect synchronicity. Gordon has played enough video games that he can take a hint. 

“Okay, I’m moving,” he says loudly, just to make sure they can all hear him. “Jesus Christ. You know you catch more flies with honey, right?”

He catches another blow, this time to the jaw. Gordon crumbles like a graham cracker.

“Motherfucker!” he hisses, rubbing his cheek. Is that— are they laughing at him? What is their problem? One of them mimes something that he doesn’t want to repeat, and sourness suffuses him from the chest outward.

Couldn’t he have woken up in, like, Albuquerque? Somewhere nice? He gets it, okay, he didn’t need to be fucking thoughtcrimed over the Chuck-E-Cheese thing. And it wouldn’t be the first time he’s blacked out and woken up somewhere unexpected. It would almost be funny if Gordon wasn’t convinced that he got a concussion somewhere along the line. Human brains weren’t made for all this 5G, virtual reality horse shit! It’s putting holes in his brain, and he’s got enough of those already.

And… God, is he bleeding, too? He pulls back his fingers from his face. The tips are tacky and stained an orange-red. High-definition. Craig really outdid himself this time. It’s cool, but also, like, not fucking cool .

“Hopped-up fucking power-tripping bootboys, like I don’t have enough shit to worry about!” It comes out through his teeth, venomous but quiet. A guard still turns to look at him, though, as he stumbles to his feet. “Yeah, you heard me. What are you gonna do, hit me again? C’mon, man! Hit me!”

The gate ahead of him slams shut before he can walk through it, as if punishment for running his stupid mouth.

“Oh my God, what now?” Gordon groans. His eyes raise toward the ceiling. And then toward a camera on the wall, its light cold and red and directed right at him. The hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

A door to his right creaks open, the “Security” label on its front chipped and worn. And behind it, another goddamn bootboy telling him to come here, move along, down the hall, let’s go, like he’s not so much a person as some kind of livestock. He doesn’t have a chance to argue or defend himself or take a step he isn’t physically ushered into taking, railroaded by a faceless, featureless nobody.

Gordon can’t say he’s too jazzed about it. 

He’s not too jazzed about the glimpses he’s getting from behind the doors in this hallway, either: mysterious fluids and massive, futuristic computer terminals and men strapped to chairs and officers slamming the peephole shut in his face. And when he follows the guard into a room with a blood-spattered chair in the center, the comparison becomes a little too real.

“Hey, okay, that’s a— that’s blood. That’s a lot of blood. I don’t know about you, but I really wanna keep all my blood right in here, okay?” Gordon thumps his chest with a closed fist.

Another guard, blood smeared on their helmet and visibly responsible for the mess, makes quick conversation and leaves. The sound of the door shutting behind them makes Gordon flinch.

And now he’s alone. With this guy. Who’s currently talking about how he’s gonna need some “privacy”. Which, considering the state his predecessor left this room in, didn’t spark positive feelings.

In fact, he’s got to say there’s not much positivity left to wring out of him. All that’s left is a surge of panic - and a festering anger at Mr. Coolatta, perhaps the sorest loser he has ever had the misfortune of knowing.

“C’mon, can’t we work something out?” Gordon pleads beneath a nervous laugh, turning to his dangerous-looking escort. “You like company secrets? I got all kinds of company secrets, and trust me, I’m not at the point in my life where I give a shit about NDAs. I mean, not that I know if Black Mesa even gives a shit about me , but you get my drift, right?” 

No response. It’s like this was a big test and Gordon just failed. The faceless stranger takes one step forward, two steps forward. He’s reaching for something at his collar, and he has no idea what to expect. A knife? A syringe tucked away in some hidden pocket? Whatever it is, he doubts it’s an invitation to Tommy’s birthday party.

“Whoa, whoa, okay, stop walking so close to me, let’s not do anything drastic—”

“Whoa, now. About that beer I owed ya,” interrupts the guard as he pulls off that slick white helmet, revealing… 

Oh. A guy. Just some ordinary guy, with short dark hair and a soft chin and a wry smile. And eyes that glitter with something curious. Gordon’s head spins. “It’s me, Gordon! Barney, from Black Mesa?”

Gordon’s eyebrows knit together. From Black Mesa? He racks his brain and comes up short. Not that he knew many people on a first name basis in the first place. But there is something familiar about the guy, something he can’t quite put his finger on. Maybe he was just somebody he passed in the hall from time to time, some nameless schlub from another department.

 “Beer? That’s, uh, that’s nice of you, but can we rewind like, two minutes—”

“Sorry for the scare - I had to put on a show for the cameras. I’ve been workin’ undercover with Civil Protection.” 

It’s like Gordon’s not even talking to him.

Barney’s grin falters as an awkward pause draws out between them, one in which Gordon hopes he’ll explain who “Civil Protection” is, but doesn’t. So Gordon blazes forward and asks anyway. 

“Civil protection,” he starts, drawing it out. “Uh, cool. Is that what you call all those guys in the whole,” he gestures to the guy’s uniform, “because I don’t know if I’m feeling very protected!”

“Yeah. Long story. I’ll fill you in later, Gordon.” Barney chuckles and turns back to the wall. Which is enveloped from floor to ceiling by the same kind of computer terminal he saw glimpses of earlier, its architecture organic and undeniably hostile. Watching him fiddle with its controls is so distracting that Gordon’s brain almost doesn’t catch that last thing.

“Gordon? How do you know Gordon?” he finally asks.

He doesn’t get an answer to that, though. Just some muttering under the guy’s breath, stuff about having to hurry and why do they make the darn things so hard to get into, shouldn’t have to be a theoretical physicist to log into Windows 95. Gordon snorts. But this Barney dude just keeps talking, and talking, and the gears in Gordon’s head struggle to turn fast enough to keep up. All he can do is nod and fail to get a word in edgewise.

Then he hears, “Great Scott! Gordon Freeman!”, and gets a square kick in the ass back to the present.

“Huh? Me?” Gordon follows Barney’s gaze. The monitor now hosts the enormous (and strangely familiar) visage of an older scientist. He’s regarding Gordon in a fond, almost fatherly way. It leaves him with the unsettling feeling of taking an extra step at the top of the stairs. Being kept in the dark.

“He was about to board the express to Nova Prospekt,” Barney says.

Gordon’s frown deepens. He’d really like to know what the hell a “Nova Prospekt” is, thanks, or why he’d want to go there in the first place, but the conversation barrels past him without any clarification. 

And… well, it rankles

He crosses his arms and glances around the room, half-listening to the conversation going on around him, but mostly focused on every little detail to spit in Craig’s face the second he’s released from the VR rigging. So far, the story has been empty, the pacing has been bad, the exposition was boring and useless, and he didn’t appreciate being treated like a nuisance. He’s debating whether or not to say as much when the clarion voice of Kleiner cuts his thoughts short.

“Well, Barney, what do you intend?”

“I’m thinkin’, I’m thinkin’!”

“Hello?” Gordon waves a hand to get their attention. “Guys, I’m right here. And I’m gonna be real with you, I don’t have any fucking idea what’s going on, so if somebody could fill me in, that would be great!”

Barney raises his eyebrows. “Whoa, language, Doc.”

There’s something about Barney’s tone that rubs Gordon the wrong way, something almost scolding. Maybe even shocked. As if this guy has any right to judge. Gordon didn’t ask for double overtime, dicking around in another one of these threat management scenarios instead of dicking around on his PlayStation. At home. All things considered, he’s being downright polite.

He opens his mouth to say as much, but he doesn’t get far before he’s cut off again.

“There’s no time,” the man on the screen insists, “but we’ll do our best to explain everything when you get here. Speaking of which… Alyx is around here somewhere. She would have a better idea of how to get him here.”

“Alyx? Who’s Alyx? And, while I'm at it, who are you?" asks Gordon, a hand on his hip.

That earns him a sidelong glance from both of them, and Barney says, “Don’t mind him. He took a couple clubs to the head—”

“One! It was one club!”

“—and I think he’s feelin’ a little woozy.” Barney turns to him with a patronizing look on his face. “That’s Dr. Kleiner, buddy. Remember? From Black Mesa? You spent a hell of a lot more time around him than you did me, so I figured…” 

Something buzzes. Barney pauses. His eyes whip somewhere above Gordon, as if consulting a clock that wasn’t there, then focus back on the screen with an intensity that should have melted the plastic. 

“Aw, hell,” Barney spits. “We gotta get a move on. We’re takin’ enough chances as it is.”

Gordon pinches his eyebrows and takes a deep breath through his nose. “Okay! Why not? Can you at least tell me where I’m supposed to be going?”

The video feed disconnects as silently as it started, leaving him alone with Barney again. 

“You’re gonna have to make your own way to Dr. Kleiner’s lab. Wish I could go with ya, but—” Barney’s interrupted by an insistent knock on the door, and he grimaces. “Aw, man, that’s what I was afraid of. Get in here, Gordon, before you blow my cover!”

With that, Barney yanks open the back door and shoves Gordon through it unceremoniously.

“Hey hey hey, c’mon, you could have just asked!” he squawks.

“No time for niceties, Gordon.” Barney’s voice is sharp and, in Gordon’s opinion, a little too mean. “Pile up some stuff to get through that window and keep goin’ ‘til you’re in the Plaza! I’ll meet up with you later.” That’s all he gets by way of explanation before Barney closes the door in his face.

“Fine! Fine. I’ll just do that, since this is something people do here!” Gordon gripes at the door, which remains firmly closed. Then he turns to examine his surroundings.

This is a warehouse, he thinks. It didn’t look that way when he came in, but he hasn’t really been keeping track of where he’s ended up. It’s dark and it’s cold and he’s surrounded by silhouettes of uniform shapes that he has to squint against the dim light to make any sense of.

Okay. Those are boxes. Piled up high in the middle of a dark and forgotten room, with motes of dust freshly kicked up into what little sunlight got through. When was the last time anyone cleaned up around here? Or touched whatever was in these crates, for that matter? 

Gordon stifles a cough. With that mystery solved, his eyes follow the light to a ladder leading up to a loft, where a window lies open. Convenient. The rest of the room is as barren as they come.

“You’ll never guess where you’re supposed to go, Gordon,” he says as he resigns himself to climbing it.

When he gets to the top, he finds that the window's not just open, but missing from the frame. He can’t stop himself from grumbling as he hefts boxes around to form a makeshift staircase. Good thing he’s been keeping up with his workouts lately, he thinks. Theoretical physics didn’t exactly demand a lot of upper arm strength. That said, some of those sons of bitches are heavy . Gordon grunts, wrestling the last of them into position with his entire upper body. If anybody saw his feet slip on the worn wooden slats, well, no they didn’t.

Then there comes the matter of climbing up the fucking things.

“Come on, Gordon, let’s get this bread,” he tells himself, bouncing a little in place. “Gordon… jump!” The wood creaks ominously under his weight, but holds. Just barely. Long enough, at least, for him to make it to the window.

Gordon peers outside. Tall brick walls rise around a narrow spit of dead grass. It’s his first real look into enemy territory, if he wants to be dramatic about it, and he can’t say he’s impressed. Though, wow, that is a lot higher up than it felt from the inside. He’s pretty sure he never used to be scared of heights like this, at least not before he had to scale the canyons surrounding Black Mesa (to say nothing of the dizzying heights of Xen), but what else is he gonna do?

“It’s just a couple feet, man, no big deal,” Gordon says, clapping his thighs to get his head in the game. It’s not so bad. There’s another crate just underneath the windowsill. He’s just gotta… swallow past that lump in his throat and jump.

Unfortunately, his ass smashes clean through the box, and he hits the ground, hard. 


After dusting himself off and briefly tending to his bruised knees (and ego), Gordon searches the enclosure for a way out. They’re really gonna leave him to fend for himself like this, huh? Just stumble through this City 17 place like he has any fucking idea where he’s going, and pray that he makes it wherever he’s supposed to be without getting his head caved in. 

No problem! He’s already off to a good start, he thinks, walking through an open door into the rear of another building.

On the inside, it looks to be a wing of some public building where entropy has long since taken over. High ceilings and muted light make the space look emptier than it is. Dirt and crumpled papers gather at the corners of the walls, recessed and inlaid with wood and clearly impressive once upon a time. The only evidence that people still come through here is a vending machine at the end of the hall, its front panel glowing.

“Lookin’ like I might be home free,” Gordon says, smug.

He rounds a corner only to be met by another guard blocking his path, leaning against a garbage can and examining their fingernails. Shit . They’re dressed in the same creepy, skull-like mask as the others, and he’s gotta say, running into one of these dudes unawares does bad things to the heart. The guard glances up. Then fixes Gordon with a long look before kicking an empty soda can at him.

“Pick up that can.”

Gordon stops short. “What?”

“I said pick up that can.” The guard gestures to it, like Gordon doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“I’m not picking up your trash, man,” he says, irritable, as he attempts to step around. He’s headed off by a broad arm, and more importantly, the baton it holds at the end.

A moment passes. Gordon’s eyes narrow. The guard doesn’t move.

Frankly, he's had it up to here with security guards and their power-tripping bullshit, but at least these ones seem predictable. Unlike some others he could name. He can deal with ‘predictable’. Gordon steps back and picks up the can, hefting it in his hand thoughtfully.

Huh. So he can even pick up things like this, too. Nice improvement over the last game.

Then he chucks it at the guy’s head. It bounces off the helmet with a hollow clink. That baton extends fully, crackling with electricity, and Gordon cackles, giddy and nervous, as the guard starts to chase him.

“Oh, you gonna catch me? Gonna catch me, bro? Better hurry up! Better do it in one shot!” He swerves around and bolts ahead, but the guard’s hot on his heels, muttering something about “failure to comply with loyalty check” that makes him snort. 

“More like loyalty check this out, ” Gordon calls out, before trying - and failing - to vault over a bench.

He stumbles and hits the ground, arms and legs akimbo.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hisses as he scrambles back to his feet.

Something whooshes uncomfortably close to his ear, and Gordon yelps, ducking on instinct. But he keeps going, darting around hapless citizens in jumpsuits just like his, until the tile under his feet switches to pale brick and he’s struck by the sudden blinding light of the sun once more. Outside. For real this time. In the middle of an open plaza, surrounded on all sides by looming, weathered buildings and mysterious spires. Gordon presses his hand against his eyes to shield them. It’s of little help when something flashes near him, like a camera - and, whoa, that is a camera, in the form of a bumbling little soccer-ball-sized robot that hovers above his head.

“Buzz off.” He waves it off.

It continues to flutter and snap Gordon’s picture, the four flat panels on its front constantly realigning themselves to focus the light. And that’s all it does. Even as Gordon shoves it out of his face. When that fails to convince it to move along, he just picks a direction and walks away. Briskly.

The robot drifts in his general direction, but Gordon’s faster, and it loses him in a snarl of tenements. Whichever way Gordon ends up, batting his eyes in an effort to clear them, it leads him down a narrow squeeze of rain-stained complexes, bordered on the interior by patches of grass. It’s quieter here, hushed except for a voice that blares from a distant speaker. The words themselves are indistinct. But Gordon recognizes that even-mannered tone, and it makes him roll his eyes. Blah, blah, fascist dictatorship, he gets it. He’s seen movies like this before.

When the stars clear, he notices that there aren’t very many people around, considering just how big this city seems to be. Big enough that he already feels lost. And… there’s more officers than people, actually. Several stand guard at the far end of the block and another hovers near an open door, glancing down Gordon’s way. Behind that open door, somebody howls, long and bloody.

Oh, Christ. Gordon’s heard of shit like this. Street smarts would dictate that he just keep walking and mind his own goddamn business. But he can’t stop his gaze from shifting to the source, and his heart pounds in his chest as the officer steps in front of the door to occlude his vision.

They mutter something like, “Keep walking,” but the distortion from the helmet makes it hard to tell.

Well, it’s not his turn to play hero. Gordon Freeman doesn’t even have his crowbar. So he does just that and keeps walking.

There’s not far for him to go, though. At the end of the street, a parked tank blocks his access, surrounded by guards and - Jesus Christ, what is that? A gigantic, spider-like thing strides across the street, its joints creaking and hissing as it does. Gordon stops and stares. But it doesn’t look back at him. It goes on its way, followed by more uniformed soldiers. He takes a moment to shake himself before he turns around.

More guards close in on the opposite side of the street, muttering into the radios at their breast. Gordon can’t make out what they’re saying, but he knows it can’t be good.

The only way for him to go is to his right, squeezed into an alley lined with empty boxes and used pallets. And it’s cordoned off from the other side of the block by a chain link fence. Calculations whir through his head. He’s not climbing that thing, that much is certain. But maybe he could… shove that empty box into the corner. Jump on top. Or wrangle that pallet into a makeshift ramp.

Or, Gordon realizes, shortly after breaking a sweat trying to do just that, he could just take the bright-fucking-yellow ladder right next to him. He scales the fire escape like he meant to do that all along. 

When he drops down on the other side of the fence - carefully this time, he reminds himself- it seems like more of a lateral move than anything. At the end of the street, another tank, more officers, more bobbing cameras, more jumpsuited citizens facing the wall with a wide-legged stance that suggests a cavity search. Gordon hurriedly looks away. And at the other end, he rounds the corner into a cul-de-sac, another dead end ringed by residential buildings and fenced-in squares of grass. Something tells him it shouldn’t be so quiet here. Like he’s walked into a goddamn graveyard.

A pair of men glance his way, but not for long. They just shift closer to one another, away from him. And they keep their voices low enough to avoid being overheard by the handful of masked officers that dot this otherwise-empty space. The dead end he’s walked himself into should be more concerning, probably. But there’s a… spinny thing just ahead that catches his eye, nine plastic panels with crosses and circles, and what else is he gonna do but spin ‘em?

He chuckles to himself. First he sets up a winning game of tic-tac-toe, then spins the last panel as fast as he can. Just for the hell of it. It comes up crosses, right in the middle.

“Whoa, nice. I win!”

Only when he looks up does it occur to him that he’s in a playground, nestled in a small spot of green. Gordon passes by a rusting swing set that he doesn’t trust to hold him and another spinny thing, but of a different kind. The kind that lies flat on the ground, that he can spin and spin and then try to jump on once it’s spinning at full tilt and grab hold of one of the bars and get dizzy and lose his grip and tumble off of, swearing the whole time. And then he can do it again.

“Gordon Freeman’s having a blast,” Gordon says to himself. He leans against the bars of the carousel, forgetting that this is the kind of thing that makes it start moving again, and nearly falls over. “They really wanted to show off the physics here, huh? Cool. I’m never doing that again.”

Gordon straightens the front of his jumpsuit and walks past a handful of staring soldiers like he has any business being here. He clears his throat, too. For good measure.

His “just act natural” autopilot system directs him to keep walking. The problem with this is that there isn’t much for him to walk toward . Turning around and going back the way he came would look stupid, for one thing, and suspicious for another. And he doesn’t like the way that one guard’s fingering his stun stick.

Gordon’s eyes alight on the only nearby exit: a door to an apartment complex, conveniently open. And he takes it before it even consciously registers, heart thudding faster in his chest. Nerves have a habit of creeping up on him when he’s lost, and that’s not even mentioning the recent addition of hostile men in armored uniforms. It’s not like he’s got minimaps, or any other features of convenience. Those things eat up all that sweet, sweet government grant money. But if he keeps moving forward, he’s sure he’ll figure out where the hell Kleiner’s lab is eventually.

…Or maybe he’ll run into a soldier kicking in somebody’s door, instead. Great! Gordon makes a swift turn into a complete stranger’s apartment.

“Whoa, uh, hey! Don’t mind me, I’m supposed to be here,” Gordon says, loudly and unsuspiciously. The people inside don’t really seem to mind him, though. Two of them huddle on a couch and mutter amongst themselves without looking at him. And another nods and passes him through, like they know each other. Gordon frowns.

“Man, it must be really dire here if this is the shit you’re cool with,” he tells them, picking up a fruit from their table and biting into it. It’s brown-skinned and mealy, with a stringent aftertaste.

And upon closer inspection, yeah, it is dire. Paint and plaster flake off of the walls in broad patches, leaving the bleached wooden slats visible underneath, like ribs. They flex, even, breathing in and out in time with the muted sounds of violence from the hallway. There’s a single mattress lying flat on the ground, no bedframe or anything, complete with yellowed stains. And an empty bookshelf that hasn’t seen the touch of a book in ages, if the dust is any indication. But they have a TV somehow. A goddamn television . Even if it’s small and squat and seems to be tuned in to the same uptight jackass that’s been plastered all over the city.

“You better get going.” A ruddy man with close-cropped hair looks up from the TV. “They’re shaking down the whole complex.”

There’s a thud from the other side of the wall, and then another, followed by muffled, mechanical speech. Gordon raises his eyebrows. 

“Yeah, no kidding,” he says.

He threads around the officers in the hall by taking the back door out of the apartment, breathing a sigh of relief as they fail to notice him. He’s left unsettled by the way these people are just… letting him file through their homes, as if he’s supposed to be there. As if they haven’t been given any scripts. That strange feeling only intensifies as Gordon takes the stairs up at the end of the hall. A man pokes his head out of his door to wave Gordon inside the moment he leaves the stairwell, and it’s not like Gordon’s gonna look that gift horse in the mouth.

This apartment’s just as fucked as the last, honestly. There’s barely any indication that humans live here, what with all the dirt and the broken furniture and the exposed brick walls. A woman lying on a couch doesn’t even move her head as he passes her. He’s gathered that this is supposed to be some kind of fascist dystopian hellscape, but sheesh, you’d think they could lighten up a little.

Gordon’s hastily shepherded out, though, and quickly forgets about it. Nowhere to go but up. He was heading toward the stairs anyway, but the sudden emergence of a cell of officers clambering up the stairs behind him makes the decision much more permanent. Gordon yelps and scrambles to the roof on hands and knees. They’re hot on his heels, the characteristic buzz of their batons never too far behind.

Another man slams a door shut behind him and holds it there, yelling at him to get moving, and Gordon’s eyes dart between him and the open air of the roof. It’s not a door ahead of him so much as a giant, busted-out section of wall. And beyond that, slippery terra-cotta tiles and a several-story drop. Gordon’s stomach sinks.

“Oh no,” he mumbles, walking forward despite himself. “No more heights, man, I can’t deal with heights!”

But the universe doesn’t much care for what Gordon Freeman wants to deal with, and he finds himself stumbling out into the light. And then sprinting, when gunfire begins to whiz past him.

“What the fuck, what the fuck—”

He darts behind a dome-shaped structure, but not before it clips him. Across the bicep. An ugly sound rips out of him.

“Oh, fucking, God, ow, nobody told me they were gonna be shooting at me already!” Gordon pulls his hand back from his shoulder and sees blood. Things start spinning a little. But the buzz of heavy artillery shakes him back to his senses.

It shreds the tiles next to him, but Gordon runs past the moment it stops. The space under his feet grows narrower and narrower, a flat plane to an edge, the shear resistance of a handful of tiles the only thing between him and busting his head open like an egg on the sidewalk. And, yeah, maybe he’s not about to die in real life, but it makes his heart thunder all the same. Epithets tumble out of his mouth as he bolts to the end of the next building, circling into the first open window he finds. 

Okay. Solid ground. He can work with this. This thought comforts him for roughly ten seconds before he descends down a flight of stairs and into a pair of heavily-armored soldiers.

Gordon turns on his heel, but there’s another pair rounding on him from the other end of the hall, and they’ve got him kettled before he knows it. All he can do is raise his arms in a pathetic show of self-defense. God, what they don’t tell you is that those stun sticks hurt! The blows rain down hard and fast, vindictiveness laced into every strike.

He yells and kicks. He sees stars. And then they blossom into white across his vision.

And then…

It stops.

[table of contents]


[→ Chapter 2]