Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 2

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Gordon blinks. Colors bleed back into his sight from the edges. He’s on the ground, there’s something slick under his head, and there’s a woman hovering over him, smiling like he should be in on the joke. Gordon cannot emphasize enough how little he is in on any of this.

“Dr. Freeman, I presume.”

He presses his hand to his forehead and groans. “God, I sure hope so.”

She’s nice enough to offer him a hand up, and also nice enough not to mention that she just watched him get his ass kicked. Once his head stops spinning, it’s easier to take in specifics.

Like her height. Sure, he’s been taller than most of the guys he’s run across (all of them, actually, Barney included; pretty short dude) but he’s still not expecting the way she has to crane her neck just to look at him. Her hair’s short-ish and pulled back by a headband, and her clothes look a decade out of date, what with those low-rise jeans and everything. They’re tacky enough that Gordon’s eye keeps being drawn to them.

“Better hurry. The Combine can be slow to wake, but once they’re up, you don’t want to get in their way,” she tells him.

He listens as machinery whirs and churns somewhere just out of sight, but his mind is somewhere else entirely. The word “Combine” sticks out like a sore thumb, spoken in such a tone that he can tell she believes that he should already know what she means. Problem is, he doesn’t. He knows what a combine is - there’s only two possible definitions he can come up with - but she says it with an ominous emphasis. A capital “C.” The Combine. He makes an educated guess that perhaps that word and the soldiers shooting at him had something in common.

Lost as he is in his thoughts, Gordon belatedly realizes that the button has summoned an elevator. The door unfurls in front of her.

“Uh. Noted.”

He’s not sure exactly where he ended up, or why there’s an elevator here in the first place. Or why she’s here. Last he checked, he was… running. Blind. He could be fucking anywhere, for all he knows. Although, upon closer inspection, Gordon can kind of narrow it down. Massive windows with small, dirty panes suggest something industrial, and the crates stacked near the service elevator lend themselves to the impression.

The bodies of half a dozen soldiers near the elevator lend themselves to a different impression, though. A more relevant one. He nudges one of them with his foot, and feels a bizarre relief when they groan and stir.

So she didn’t kill them. That’s probably good.

“Dr. Kleiner said you’d be coming this way.” She laughs under her breath and steps into the elevator. Gordon figures he might as well follow. Between them, at least one of them seems to know what they’re doing. He watches her lean back against the wall, then press the button to go down almost as an afterthought. “I don’t think it occurred to him that you might not have a map.”

Something shudders in the gears and pulleys around them. Gordon can’t suppress a shudder, either.

“Yeah, I guess they figured I’d just figure it out. Like I’m some kind of… I don’t know. A baby bird. Go ahead, jump out, since you feel so fuckin’ smart,” he says, hands gesturing wildly as he talks.

The woman raises her eyebrows, and a smile line creases the corner of her mouth.

“I’m Alyx Vance,” she starts. “My father worked with you back in Black Mesa? I’m sure you don’t remember me, though.”

He hesitates. The last name “Vance” doesn’t ring a bell, but he doesn’t really have much in the way of work friends. An anxious feeling blossoms in his chest, the same kind of feeling he used to get whenever an old “high school buddy” would run into him in Target. That tight, horrible stress born from somebody knowing you , but you can’t even remember their face.

“Oh… yeah. Vance. I, uh, I remember Vance. He still, uh, doing science? You know. The kind of science he does over in Sector…”

He trails off awkwardly until his voice dies, never finishing the statement. There’s a pause, then her shoulders shake with a laugh.

“You’re not what I expected, I’ll say that much,” Alyx says. Under normal circumstances, Gordon would have taken offense, but there’s something about the way she carries herself that seems earnest. Sincere. It’s like they’re old friends, or at least she believes they are. She has a natural charisma that all his coworkers lacked.

No amount of charisma changes the fact that he’s sore and confused, though.

“Wait, were you… expecting me?”

“Let’s just say I’ve heard a lot about you.”

She leads him out when the elevator creaks to a stop, and pauses in front of a floor-length yellow poster of the man from those broadcasts. Gordon’s getting kind of tired of seeing his face, old and snowy-haired and dour in spite of his smile. He looks vaguely familiar, though, and it takes Gordon a moment to realize he’s the spitting image of the Gorton’s fisherman. What the fuck did he miss?

Alyx gestures to it and asks, “Remember him from Black Mesa?”

Gordon shrugs. “I don’t think you understand, man— uh— Alyx,” he insists, stammering awkwardly. “Full disclosure? I just started working there a little while ago. I know, like, three guys, and I don’t know any of these guys. Except, uhh, maybe one of these guys? The old guy, he looked like one of my guys, and let me tell you, I was not expecting that—”

“Whoa, let’s bring it down to an 8,” she snorts. “This is your old administrator. Don’t get my dad started on Dr. Breen, or you’ll know more than you ever wanted to know.”

Alyx messes with some kind of electrical panel next to the poster, and the wall opens inward to reveal a short, dark tunnel, ending in a completely ordinary door. Gordon whistles in surprise.

She walks backward through it, watching him.

“Through here,” she instructs with a nod. Then she tilts her head. “You know, it’s funny, you showing up on this day in particular.”

And he watches her open the door before he can respond, and she vaults over a railing to the lower level of the next room like she’s done it a dozen times before. He is… not doing that.

“Is it? It hasn’t seemed very funny so far,” he says as he takes the stairs instead.

She glances back at him. “We’ve been helping people escape the city on foot. It’s a dangerous route to my father’s lab, through the old canals. Today, we’re finally on the verge of having a better way.”

Excitement lines her voice, but she remains silent for the rest of their short trek, almost like she’s waiting for Gordon’s curiosity to get the best of him. A long, awkward invitation to ask questions about whatever revolutionary whatever-the-fuck she has going on. Unfortunately, he’s got more important things on his mind; for all he cared, she could have been talking about buying a panel van. That’s not nearly as vital as figuring out why he was currently bleeding and lost in a bad YA novel instead of enjoying greasy, reheated pizza.

Eventually, she stops at a vending machine. It’s got the same misspelling as the cans he’s been kicking around all day. Weird.

“Here. Let me buy you a drink,” Alyx grins.

“Huh? Oh, thanks, but I heard something weird about the water here, I dunno if—”

She doesn’t listen to him, instead popping a coin into the slot before hitting a complicated series of buttons and the side of the machine. There’s clearly some method to her madness: another hidden panel swings open before him, revealing complex laboratory equipment on the other side.

It’s honestly pretty sick.

Alyx turns back to him and leans on her hip, arms crossed, smugness evident in her posture. Yeah. It is pretty sick, huh?

“Oh… and by the way? Nice to finally meet you,” she says at last.

“Uh, thanks,” Gordon responds, mystified.

He slips in ahead of her once it becomes obvious that she has no intention of leading, and he feels her step in line with him once his foot is in the door. She’s watching him, curious. Scanning his face for any sign of approval before breaking away to tend to… well, whatever it is she does. Gordon’s not sure. She never clarified exactly who she was or what she did.

Actually, nobody has. He’s just having to take their word for it that they’re not as bloodthirsty as the assholes with the cattle prods.

Gordon brushes himself off and swivels his head to take in the new and far-more-comfortable environment she’d led him to. It’s a lab, not unlike some of the satellite labs at his real job, and it’s far more spacious than Gordon would ever imagine for a hidden chamber behind a vending machine. Hell, it’s so big that it feels almost barren, with an empty, freshly-swept concrete floor and high ceilings leading to boarded-up windows.

It looks like some barebones, half-cobbled venture, but it still manages to impress him with just how advanced and scientific some of this gear looks. There’s tubes! Fluids! Industrial-sized oscilloscopes! He’s gotta admit, he loves that kind of thing. And, unlike most of the other places Gordon’s been in the past few hours, it’s fairly clean. There’s even an embroidered rug in the center, which is a remarkably vivid shade of red, all things considered.

Alyx heads over to a hunched figure in a white lab coat, which Gordon quickly realizes is that Dr. Kleiner guy. In the flesh. Crouched low next to a stack of crates and animal carriers and scratching his head.

“Blast that little… where did she get to? Lamarr! Come out of there!” He slaps the lid of a crate and peers inside. It’s large enough that, even from a distance, Gordon can tell that it’s empty, but there’s an air of desperation to the guy that he can almost sympathize with. It’s hard to believe he lost a dog that big, though, judging from the sheer size of the carrier.

“Everything alright, Dr. Kleiner?” Alyx asks.

Kleiner jumps, startled, and rubs the back of his head. It takes him a moment to collect his thoughts, as if he has to reboot his brain like an old computer. The silence is brief, and with surprising fluidity, he straightens and continues as if he’d never been spooked at all.

“Oh, hello, Alyx,” he says. He props a hand against his hip, then sighs. “Well, almost alright. Lamarr has gotten out of her crate again. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect Barney of trapping and…”

Kleiner trails off as his eyes finally drift over to Gordon. Then, after a moment, they widen in recognition. Whatever clicks into place behind his eyes utterly fails to do so behind his own.

“My goodness… Gordon Freeman. It really is you, isn’t it?”

“That’s me. One honest-to-God Gordon Freeman.” He tries to laugh, but it comes out strained.

Up close, the sense of familiarity is even more pronounced. It’s something about that receding hairline and upturned nose and those beady little eyes. But Kleiner looks at Gordon with far more reverence than he’s ever gotten from anybody he knows back home, and it’s unsettling, is what it is. He’s just some fucking guy.

“I found him wandering around outside. Bit of a troublemaker, isn’t he?” Alyx elbows him in the arm, knocking him out of it.

To his credit, the sound he makes isn’t as whiny as it could be. “Hey, I’m not a troublemaker! I’m just a trouble… finder. It finds me .”

Kleiner fixes him with an unreadable look in response. Somehow, it’s both relieved and troubled. And there's something he can’t place underneath. He’s definitely happy to see Gordon, Gordon's sure of that, but doesn’t seem to know what to make of what he’s saying. The tense stare they exchange is mercifully short, however, as Kleiner breathes deep and continues on as if nothing happened.

Maybe he was glitched, like Coomer had been. Maybe everyone was. It would explain a lot.

“We owe a great deal to Dr. Freeman, even if trouble does seem to follow in his wake,” Kleiner reminds her. And him. He’s finding at least half of this sentence to be news to him. Dr. Kleiner leads them to a computer monitor, assuming they’ll follow behind. And Gordon does, because it’s nice to just follow people around sometimes. Especially when you have no idea what it is you’re supposed to be doing.

“I must say, Gordon, you’ve come at a very opportune time.”

Gordon doesn’t find out what that opportune time actually is, because he’s too busy trying to scan Kleiner’s face. Looking so hard makes his ears turn off. The problem is that he must’ve seen a dozen guys like this at Black Mesa, balding and bespectacled, and his name’s not ringing any bells, and—


“I can’t take any credit for the breakthrough, Doctor—”

Gordon interrupts her, hands gesticulating, “Hang on. You look like… okay, I know this is a long shot, but have you ever heard of a ‘Dr. Bubby’? About yea high, same, uhh, glasses and… hair… deal.”

The two of them share a look. Then Kleiner responds, slow and curious, “I, uh, I’m afraid I’m not familiar. As much as I wish I had an encyclopedic knowledge of scientists with my… disposition.”

He chuckles and gestures to his head, but there’s something probing in the way he keeps his eyebrows raised. A distant feeling that Gordon registers as disappointment unfurls in his chest. He wasn’t expecting to be so let down to hear that, even if a part of him knows it was silly to even ask. He can’t help it. The two looked so alike that he was convinced there had to have been some connection, but in the end, he figures he should have known better than to get his hopes up.

An awkward pause makes itself at home. Which Alyx breaks shortly thereafter. “Let’s just see if this thing works, okay?”

This thing?

It hits Gordon that he’s missed the entire conversation, that he doesn’t know what “this thing” is, and now both Alyx and Kleiner are looking at him expectantly. Almost unblinking. They want to hear his thoughts, they seem to be waiting for his go-ahead. He doesn’t know why, seeing as he’s just some guy, but the uncomfortable feeling their stares elicit makes his mouth start running before his brain has a chance to catch up.

“Okay, cool, yeah. The thing. We should definitely—”

Now Gordon’s the one interrupted by somebody calling out, “Well, is he here?”

And he turns around to see… Right. Barney. Walking in like he owns the place, right at home, obviously not having gotten the everloving hell knocked out of him between Point A and Point B. Lucky bastard. And now the gang’s all here, he thinks, but that has yet to be comforting. Barney grins and slaps him on the shoulder. His good one, mind you, but it still stings.

“There you are! Man, Gordon, you stirred up the hive!”

“Yeah, uh, so I’ve noticed! Is anybody gonna fill me in on why these guys keep trying to beat the shit out of me? Or is that just what they do to everybody around here?” Gordon asks. His voice cracks a little from the performative stress.

Barney whistles, low and amused. “What, is the stress getting to you? I can’t blame you,” he snorts.

Okay, that’s getting a little old. Fucking, yes, he’s stressed. What part of his whole general demeanor suggests that he’s not stressed out right now? Gordon opens his mouth to say something caustic, but loses track of it as he watches Barney fiddle with a bank of monitors. From here, it looks like they’re overseeing everything from the plaza to the interrogation rooms Gordon passed not long ago. As if they’re tapped into the same cameras that were trailing him earlier.

A line of goose-stepping Combine soldiers marches forward on the screen, and a frown creases Barney’s face. He turns back to look at the rest of them, disquieted. “We can’t keep him here long, Doc. It’ll jeopardize everything we’ve worked for.”

Alyx leans back on a lab bench, crossing her arms, and says, “Don’t worry, he’s coming with me.”

Gordon turns to face her. “I am?”

“That's right, Barney. This is a red letter day. We’ll inaugurate the new teleport with a double transmission!” Kleiner beams at them, his excitement palpable. He even holds a finger proudly in the air.

Gordon’s mouth hangs slack at the sound of “teleport.” Oh, so that’s what “this thing” is. He missed the fucking memo on that one. He’s dealt with Xen crystals before, okay, and he’s not too keen on trusting them to sling him from one place to another.

“You mean it's working? For real this time? Because I still have nightmares about that cat,” says Barney.

Gordon and Alyx share a look. The fact that even she looks so unsettled just drives the point home. His mind fills to the brim with horrifying mental images of mangled cats and equally mangled Gordons, lying on experimental platforms with their insides on their outsides. Nausea sweeps through his stomach like a flush of cold water, and his voice pitches up in an involuntary whine that never figures out how to transition into actual words.

“Now, now, there’s nothing to be nervous about,” Kleiner starts, opening up his persuasive argument with the least reassuring statement possible. He faces away from them and busies himself with a long stack of printer paper.

“What cat?” Gordon and Alyx ask at the same time, in the same slow, worried cadence.

“We have made major strides since then. Major strides.”

”What cat?” insists Alyx.

Kleiner resolutely ignores her. The fact that he’s being so flippant makes a switch in Gordon’s head flip from “anxious” to “angry.”

“Yeah, can we talk about that? Please?” Gordon steps around Kleiner’s desk to face the three of them head-on. “I’m not crazy about, like, anything I’ve heard in the past few hours, and you all just keep talking over me and telling me what to do and now I’m freaking out about a fucking cat!” The longer he talks, the more his hands move and the more his voice rises in volume.

Another pause draws out between the four of them, more unpleasant than the last. They’re all staring at him like he’s grown a third head, and Gordon feels a prickling heat crawl up the back of his neck. He felt pretty sure of himself just a moment ago. Why does he feel like he’s been caught doing something stupid?

“Alright, Gordon,” Kleiner says slowly, “let’s slow down. It’s been a long time since you were in the land of the living, and I can imagine you’re awfully disoriented.”

“A long time? What are you talking about?”

“Gordon, we haven’t seen you in twenty years,” Barney tells him. He gestures to his hair, where it’s graying at the temples. “Can’tcha tell?”

That headache flares to life again, mild but insistent. Gordon’s gaze flickers between the three of them like they’re all in on some joke, and he’s waiting for them to get to the punchline. But the punchline doesn’t seem to be coming.

“No. No, I was on my way to…” Gordon stops himself from finishing that statement. He’s starting to feel awfully silly.

He should have known better than to think that after all this - after twenty-seven years of pushing his way through bullshit at every turn, from the big to the small to the cataclysmic - he would just stop Benrey from destroying the simulation and get his just desserts. His eyebrows furrow, and he pinches them at the nose, hoping it’ll make the tension around his skull ease up. It doesn’t.

Twenty years. They’ve flung him twenty years into the future. Just what kind of future-proofing was Black Mesa up to? And what the hell happened between then and now?

…Teleporters. They’ve got the teleporters working now. He knows that much. Awfully confident of them, considering just how much of a pain in the ass that particular project was shaping out to be.

Barney clears his throat and steps forward. “Hey, Doc. Since he’s not taking the streets, you might as well get him out of his civvies,” he says to Kleiner, bypassing Gordon entirely.

“What?” Kleiner blinks. “Oh dear, you’re right. I almost forgot. Barney, I’ll give you the honor.”

“Uh, pardon me? My what now?” Gordon drops his hand from his face to look between the two of them, eyebrows shooting up to his hairline.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to care. Barney just chuckles and says something about having to get back on his shift and walks right past Gordon, like he’s not even there. Heads to some kind of control panel instead, next to a corrugated steel door in the corner of the lab. It’s reminiscent of a garage. Gordon can’t help the prickle of curiosity as Barney pecks at a keypad. The door churns and rattles, some unseen motor slowly hauling it upward to reveal a small, brick-lined room. And in the center—

“Oh no,” Gordon moans, quiet and nasal.

In the center, a glossy, orange-and-black HEV suit, enshrined in a narrow case with a glass cover. Gordon can just make out his reflection in it. Blurred at the edges, yes, and distorted a little by the curvature, but that’s him, alright. Gray hairs and all. (It’s the stress, okay, you have no idea what kind of stress MIT puts on a guy.) And that’s… that’s not his HEV suit, exactly. It’s slimmer, sleeker, the bulky armor of the torso and waist replaced with a woven black fabric of some kind. At some point in the last twenty years, somebody must have decided that the bright fucking orange diaper wasn’t doing the wearer any favors.

“Here we go,” Barney says, pride obvious in his voice and the forward thrust of his chest.

He steps inside and flicks a switch, turning on an overhead light. And revealing a small, squat, uncomfortably fleshy creature on top of the glass case. Barney lets out a noise of surprise, then shouts as it leaps at him, right in his face.

“Damn it! Get it off me!” He wrestles the thing off of him, hands tight around two narrow forelimbs that wriggle furiously in his grasp. The shape of it’s more obvious when Barney’s struggling to hold it aloft, round and humpbacked and not unlike a plucked chicken.

That’s when it hits him.

“Jesus Christ, is that a headcrab?!” yelps Gordon. His hands instinctively go for his crowbar before he remembers that he doesn’t fucking have one right now.

Barney hurls the headcrab to the ground, where it screeches and awkwardly rights itself on its feet. Gordon’s eyes dart around the lab, hoping that somebody else might have a weapon to fight the thing off - and boy, is he getting tired of being this goddamn helpless - but Alyx and Dr. Kleiner barely seem fazed.

In fact, Kleiner brings a hand to his chest and gasps, “Lamarr! There you are!” like a fond (but worried) pet owner.

“I thought you got rid of that pest!” Barney snaps.

“Certainly not!” Is that indignation Gordon hears? He has maybe two seconds to process this before Kleiner turns back to him with a smile. “Never fear, Gordon, she is de-beaked and completely harmless. The worst she might try to do is couple with your head. Fruitlessly.”

The headcrab, apparently named Lamarr, makes a high keening noise in response.

“Couple? Like, you mean it— Oh my God, what?!” Hysteria cranks Gordon’s pitch up to embarrassing levels.

He can’t help the burst of laughter that escapes him, desperate and incredibly confused. Something about this - not the ‘getting his ass beat’, not the ‘being flung into the far future’, not even the ‘getting his ass beat a second and third time for good measure’ - breaks him. The headcrab wants to fuck him. Okay! Sure! Gordon wheezes with laughter, his hands braced on his knees.

And then his head jerks up at the sound of a distant clattering. Something heavy falls, then another, and Gordon follows the noise to the source: a loft on the far side of the lab, piled high with crates and ancient-looking computers and other laboratory ephemera. Which Lamarr is currently scaling, tipping over cardboard boxes in a frantic attempt to escape.

“No, no! Careful, Lamarr, those are quite fragile!” Kleiner scolds, a plaintive quaver to his voice.

He gets a monitor knocked to the ground for his efforts. The four of them wince in unison at the sound of shattered glass. Lamarr scrambles and skitters upward, and Kleiner can’t make his way up there fast enough before she crawls into an open vent, disappearing down the length of a sheet metal duct.

Gordon blinks, then turns to face Kleiner, eyebrows raised. “Well, uh. Problem solved?”

“Hardly! It’ll be another week before I can coax her out of there!”

Barney huffs in the back of his throat, muttering, “Yeah. Longer if we’re lucky.”

“Okay, okay, hang on. You guys used to have a cat, right? Like, a normal pet? Why would you get one of those gross little fuckers instead and - and debeak it?” Gordon runs a hand back through his hair. A strand falls loose from his ponytail and hangs in his face.

Isn’t that kind of fucked, anyway? Like how you’re not supposed to declaw cats because you’re, like, literally chopping off their toes? What are the ethics of lopping the beak off of some zombie-making, plucked-chicken-looking alien creature? To make it a pet, no less? There’s options, they gotta have options. There’s no way they couldn’t have just gotten a dog. It’s a fascist dystopia or whatever, there’s gotta be some poor, skinny, mangy dog running around the streets somewhere. For flavor. They always have one of those.

“Maybe you should ask Barney about that one,” says Alyx, grinning.

“Hey, now, don’t pin this on me! It was a joke, alright, I didn’t expect Dr. Kleiner to go on and actually do it.” He crosses his arms. “Still can’t believe you made me catch one of those damn things.”

“Made you? I dunno, you seemed pretty enthusiastic about it—”

“Look, you get a couple beers in a guy and—”

Dr. Kleiner clears his throat, interrupting their argument before it gets the chance to properly start. “I’m afraid we’ll have to table this discussion for another time,” he says, in the tone of voice of somebody who has had to ask them to table this discussion several times before. “We’ve got to get Gordon into his suit, and time is ticking. Barney?”

“Barney?” Gordon repeats vacantly. Then the rest of that statement catches up to him. “Hey, wait, I’m not getting back into that thing! I just got out of it! And I’ve got chafing in places you really don’t want chafing!”

“We’ve made a few adjustments since the last time you saw it. 80% less chafing, guaranteed,” Alyx tells him. He’s not sure if she’s being serious or not. It’s hard to tell with these guys.

Barney snorts. “Yeah, I can’t say that big ol’ metal diaper was doin’ you any favors.”

“That ‘metal diaper’ was the height of technological progress in 1997, if you must know,” says Dr. Kleiner, with a whiff of defensiveness. “But the general sentiment holds, I believe. There have been serious advancements made in the anti-chafing field… chiefly, the introduction of a carbon-fiber bodysuit under the chassis. There were a number of complaints about that sort of thing before, well,” he trails off, gesturing around them in a way that Gordon takes to mean ‘everything’.

“Carbon fiber sounds pretty chafe-y, my guy.”

“C’mon, Gordon, we don’t have time for this,” Barney says, impatient. “You two mind givin’ us some privacy?”

“Already on it,” says Alyx, as she smartly turns tail and heads back to the central lab area.

Kleiner mutters his assent and does the same, leaving Barney and Gordon alone in the glorified garage. With the HEV suit. Gordon sighs. He’s not getting out of this one, is he? At least the thing looks more, uh, ergonomic this time around. Once he’s sure the others are out of viewing range, he clears his throat awkwardly and gives Barney a sidelong glance.

“Now’s not the time for bein’ delicate, Doc. ‘Sides, it’s nothin’ I haven’t seen before.”

Gordon’s not sure he likes the way Barney says that. And besides, even if it was something Barney had seen before, Gordon sure doesn’t fucking remember it. Despite his words, Barney pointedly looks at the HEV suit instead, and he supposes it’ll have to do. He can’t help the way his ears burn as he starts to undo the buttons at his neck, working his way down the single-piece jumpsuit until he’s got it open down to the crotch. At which point he shucks it off his shoulders. The plain white tank top and gray briefs underneath it come as a surprise even to him, but a welcome one, all things considered.

“You can keep your underthings on, though it might not help with all that chafing you were talkin’ about,” says Barney, still not looking directly at him.

“Cool! Cool. Yeah, I think I’ll, uh, do that. I mean. Keep them on.” He’s had enough of hopped-up security guards getting a peek at his steak and eggs lately, thank you.

And so Gordon toes off his cheap, utilitarian sneakers, and he steps out of his jeans, and stripped of all those things, artifacts of some slice of humanity he’s slowly losing his grip on, he reluctantly steps foot into that mess of carbon fiber and synthetic polymers and God knows what else. And he tries not to fidget too much as Barney tugs it tight up his legs. He expects the bodysuit to be stiff and unwieldy, like the bulletproof vests he’s used to seeing, but it fits him snugly and has a smooth texture on the inside not unlike a wetsuit. The rectangular panels on the front - good old-fashioned Kevlar, Barney informs him - are his only indicator that this isn’t your ordinary scuba gear.

Barney lets Gordon zip it at the front while he busies himself with the armor. All told, the experience is much less like stepping into a mech, like the first time around. Seamless and simple and, honestly, a process that Gordon barely remembers. It was like he just had but to step foot into it and the job was done. This is a more involved affair, he finds. More realistic. Each individual piece of orange armor has to be fitted into place just so, like a clamshell, before being screwed tightly together. First come the boots, shitstompers in their own right, even if they’ve been given the same slick redesign as the rest. Then armor sealed around his outer thighs, a curious band of metal around his hips and waist, and arm fittings, replete with gloves.

Finally, Barney wrestles that characteristic chest piece into place with a grunt. He’s starting to break out in a sweat. It’s only then that it dawns on Gordon just how strong this guy’s gotta be. He supposes it makes sense. Black Mesa always encouraged a fit and healthy workforce, and Gordon’s no exception. Takes a lot of muscle to haul around this HEV suit, both in theory and in practice, let alone all the bullshit jumping and climbing and running for his life he had to do in it.

Mostly, though, it’s how skinny Barney is that makes this catch him unawares. It’s not something he noticed until Barney got all up close and personal, but the way he twists and turns to get around Gordon makes it clear that the bulk of him is just padding from that Combine uniform. Gordon shifts in place, suddenly uncomfortable. The unflattering comparisons creep into his head before he can stop them.

The abrupt peal of a klaxon forcefully yanks Gordon away from that train of thought. He doesn’t scream - it’s more of a yelp than anything - but it’s close enough to be embarrassing.

“Oh dear!” he hears from the other side of the lab.

“Look alive, Gordon,” Barney says, clapping him on the back hard enough to make something rattle. “Follow the doc, and get that suit juiced up!”

“Jesus Christ, can I go five minutes without something happening?!”

Gordon suspects that the answer to that is ‘no’ before the question fully leaves him. He does as he’s told nonetheless, nearly tripping over his own feet from the sudden simulated ungainliness of a hundred pounds of steel. Dr. Kleiner’s at the far end of the building, fiddling with a picture on the wall. Really doesn’t seem like the time, Gordon thinks hotly.

“Ah, yes. Gordon, there’s a charger on the wall,” instructs Dr. Kleiner without looking at him. “I’ve modified your suit to draw power from Combine energy outlets, which are plentiful wherever they patrol.”

Gordon scans the aforementioned wall and finds the aforementioned charger, a sharp and hostile-looking amalgam of black metal and bright, glowing yellow lights. For all his advanced education, he can’t make heads or tails of it. It’s not like there’s instructions printed on the side.

He glances at Kleiner, hoping for an explanation, but Kleiner’s got his face buried in some sort of scanner. A faint blue light illuminates his face before blinking out of existence. Then something rumbles under Gordon’s feet, and the wall near him starts to split in two, a hidden door to a secret room recessed into the wall. Behind it, another bank of computers and terminals and a platform of some kind, ringed by concentric bands of metal. It’s sort of like an elevator, if Gordon had to take a guess. It doesn’t appear to go anywhere, though.

Kleiner files into the newly-revealed room, followed by Alyx and Barney, and Gordon’s heart rate spikes as he realizes that he’s gotta hurry the fuck up. He thrusts his hands haphazardly into the complicated inner workings of the charger, hoping that whatever he’s messing with won’t, like, electrocute him. To no one's surprise, he doesn't get far with this approach. He does, however, dislodge a ribbed plastic hose inside, and it flops limply out of the front, spewing a small amount of glowing yellow liquid onto the floor. And onto Gordon's suit.

Juice? Is this fucking juice?

Well, this is no time for him to look a gift horse in the mouth, he supposes. Failing all else, Gordon grabs the end of the hose and jams it into his mouth.

Whoa. Whatever this stuff is, it tastes like mango juice with a side of paint thinner and battery acid. He's had worse at parties before. So, that established, he steels himself to sucking down as much of it as he can, slurping wetly. Gets it all over his fucking goatee like some kind of animal. A curious electric feeling courses through his body, tingling and alien, and a small meter inlaid into a panel on his suit begins to tick up. Cool. But kind of gross, and he can't even begin to imagine how this works.

Gordon draws from it until he's pulling nothing but air, then powerwalks in after them, scrubbing at his face with his glove. Just in time to see Alyx step onto the platform, those concentric rings closing around her like an elaborate system of guard rails.

“Gordon, why don’t you position yourself near the panel over there and wait for my word?” Kleiner suggests.

“Uh, okay? Why?”

Again, no response. They’re all too busy getting this thing set up, whatever it is… Oh. Oh!

“Oh, shit! This is the teleporter!” Gordon gasps, as if this is a revelation to anybody but himself. “I was expecting something a little more… I dunno. Glow-y. Mysterious.”

He was also kind of expecting to have to go first. It’s reassuring that he’ll get to see how this thing works before they shunt him through it and give him another G-force headache, but a part of him can’t help feeling bad that they picked Alyx to be their lab rat instead. Gordon’s still not thrilled about the cat thing. Either way, it doesn’t seem to be his call, so he stands next to the electrical panel Kleiner suggested and acts like he’s doing something important.

“Isaac, are you there?”

An unfamiliar voice speaks from the other end of the room, and Gordon turns to spot a stranger’s face filling the whole of a large monitor mounted on the wall. The man angles himself this way and that, like he’s struggling to present himself in a Zoom call.

“Yes, yes, Eli, a bit of a hold up on this end. You will never guess who found his way into our lab this morning!” says Dr. Kleiner, by way of response.

The man’s face is dark and warm, lined with the wrinkles of a life well-lived, and his short, heavily-graying hair suggests that he’s roughly Kleiner’s age. Nobody Gordon recognizes, he knows that much, though he does bring to mind somebody he knew in a past life. Not quite as strongly as Kleiner, but there’s something about this stranger that makes him think of Darnold. He’s older, yes, and sounds completely different, but he's got a kind and excitable gleam in his eyes that makes his thoughts drift back to the Lambda Lab, to the Potions Department. He feels a weight inside his chest as he dimly wonders whether or not Darnold’s still kicking, somewhere in those enormous banks of computers.

… He was probably fine. Lucky bastard was likely sipping soda in an entertainment facility with the others. He hoped.

Gordon turns back to the man on the screen. His face lights up with recognition when he spots Gordon, prompting him to awkwardly rub the back of his neck.

“That’s not who I think it is, is it?” Eli, wasn’t it? Eli’s eyebrows raise in surprise.

Kleiner nods. “Indeed it is, and it’s our intention to send him packing straight away… in the company of your lovely daughter.”

“Are you ready for us, Dad?” Alyx calls from the teleporter.

Daughter? Dad? Gordon’s eyebrows draw together, trying to process this new information. He feels like he’s watching a little clique from the outside, full of laughter and inside jokes that he is distinctly not invited to partake in. Brings to mind bitter highschool memories that he’d rather leave buried. (He’s nearly 30 years old, for God’s sake, why is he still hung up on this?) That aside, Gordon supposes he can see it. He wouldn’t call Alyx the spitting image of her dad, but there’s something unmistakably them that they share. Maybe it’s the smile.

“We’re all set on this end,” Eli confirms, appearing to check some panels and push the occasional button on his side.

Alyx leans forward, hands braced on the guard rails. The weight of her makes them squeak ominously. “Then let’s do it!”

The platform begins to rise, stopping just underneath a light fixture mounted at the top of the shaft. Like Gordon said earlier, it doesn’t actually seem to go anywhere, so he’s not sure what the point is. But then again, he’s not the theoretical physicist here— Wait. No. Yes he is! Doesn’t make the whole set-up any more scrutable to him, though.

Up at his station, Kleiner does some calculations of his own, muttering, “Let’s see, the massless field-flux should self-limit and I have clamped the manifold parameters to CY base and LG orbifold, Hilbert inclusive. Conditions could hardly be more ideal!”

“That’s what you said last time,” Barney frowns.

“Oh, yeah, the LG orbs are all in alignment,” Gordon says, blithe and needlessly confident. “Everything looks clamped on my end. Yep.” He slaps the side of the electrical panel next to him to prove this. Unfortunately, the impact causes one of the giant plugs to pop loose from its socket, clattering to the floor. Gordon winces and flinches back from the spray of sparks.

“Initializing in three… two… one… Oh fiddlesticks, what now?”

“Uh, Doctor, the plug.” Alyx gestures to Gordon and his little fuck-up.

“Oops. My bad,” he says meekly. Then he picks up the plug and wiggles it back into place, jamming the others more securely into their sockets for good measure.

Above him, Alyx smirks. Heat crawls up Gordon’s face. “You gonna let Gordon throw the switch?” she asks, a pointed eyebrow raised at him.

Kleiner gives him the go ahead, at which Gordon can’t help but huff. “Wow, thanks, G-man. You really sent me into the future just so I could do menial fucking labor,” he says under his breath.

He only partially means that, though. The switch in question is massive, a real mad scientist’s affair, and no matter how pissy he is at being demeaned like this, there’s something undeniably cool about the prospect. As if he’s about to flip on a set of Tesla coils and raise Frankenstein’s monster from the dead. It takes a bit of elbow grease to work it loose, but in short order, Gordon’s throwing down the switch with a satisfying clunk.

The metal rings surrounding Alyx begin to spin around her, slowly at first, then picking up speed with the accompaniment of a low droning sound, which increases in volume accordingly. Blue lamps flare to life on the interior of each ring from the bottom up. Alyx’s eyes dart around, and she steps backward, then forward again as she realizes there’s not much room to maneuver. Basic physics tells Gordon this must have something to do with magnets. There’s spinning, there’s electricity, there’s sparks and lights and a worrying teal plasma coalescing around her, so there’s gotta be a serious electromagnetic field going on around here.

“Very good,” Kleiner announces. “Final sequence commencing… now.”

“I can’t look,” Barney groans, turning away.

“Me either.” Gordon’s groan comes out far more despondent than Barney’s. Barney’s not the one who’s gotta hop into that thing next, okay? It’s equal parts sympathy and self-preservation.

He covers his eyes with a freshly-gloved hand, but he can’t help but peek through his fingers. Just a little. Through that narrow slit, he sees that the plasma’s grown from a thin tendril worming around Alyx to an envelope, surrounding her on all sides. She laughs, slow and nervous, as she raises her hands in a defensive stance. Oh, God. Gordon slams his fingers shut again. All he can do is listen as Alyx’s sounds of surprise grow more worried, and the drone permeating the air picks up in pitch, and the last of her words trail off in a distorted shriek before a whip crack snaps through the air and rattles the metal enclosure.

Then there’s a low whine, as if the system’s powering down. Gordon sucks in a deep breath and braves another look. Well, she’s… she’s gone. He can see that much. 'Where to' is a different story.

“Please tell me it worked,” Gordon moans weakly, dropping his hands.

“See for yourself,” comes Eli’s voice again. Gordon looks back at the monitor, where Eli’s shifting out of the way. And to his left, Alyx leans into frame, giddy and windswept and miraculously in one piece.

“Hey, Doc!”

Kleiner sighs, running his hand back along his head as if he had hair to push back with it. “Thank goodness. My relief is almost palpable.”

“Fantastic work, Izzy,” says Eli, beaming.

“Well, I can’t take all the credit. Dr. Freeman proved an able assistant.”

“That’s me, only the able-est of assistants,” Gordon says. Then he blinks. “Wait, hold on, that’s not what I— I’m not ableist, okay, that would be fucked up! I’m the most able of assistants. Incredibly capable guy. That’s me, Gordon Freeman. Not ableist. I open doors for people with wheelchairs all the time!”

Dr. Kleiner and Eli glance at each other through the viewscreen for an uncomfortably long beat, then Eli clears his throat. “Let’s go ahead and bring Gordon through now,” he suggests, brushing past it.

“Right you are,” Kleiner says with a quick clap of his hands. “Speak to you again in a few moments.”

He returns to typing at his console, presumably preparing the apparatus for a second transport. Barney takes the chance to elbow him in the arm, mirroring Alyx earlier, and snorts, “Good job, Gordon. Throwing that switch and all? I can see your MIT education really pays for itself.”

A hot spike of irritation lances through Gordon. “What? Whatever, man, they asked me to! Can’t you ever say anything nice to me for once, Benrey?”

“Whoa, easy, boy,” Barney says. His eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, and his hands rise up in front of him, palms facing Gordon. A placating gesture. “Hey, Doc, you sure he ain’t got some kinda concussion? I don’t know how well that’s gonna play with all those manifolds, or what have you.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have much in the way of experimental data for that,” Kleiner responds with a strained laugh. “Gordon, as soon as you’re in position, we’ll send you to Eli. And, ah, make sure to report any side effects, will you? You might have a slight headache afterward, that’s normal.”

That klaxon sounds again, and the three of them flinch as one. “And not a moment too soon,” says Barney.

“Great! I’m glad that’s normal! I would’ve liked to know that, like, half an hour ago!” bitches Gordon to deaf ears. Well, at least now he knows that the migraine wasn’t indicative of some kind of brain hemorrhage. Probably.

He really, really doesn’t want to do this. But Barney and Kleiner look at him expectantly, and his stomach sinks as he realizes that he doesn’t have an easy way out of this one. Where else is he gonna go, anyway? Out the way he came? At least if he deals with being teleported, he’ll be among NPCs who might have the time to give him some answers. The number of questions he’s racking up in the back of his mind is becoming untenable, his mental bookshelves all bowing under the weight of them. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a good nap waiting in the wings.

So Gordon takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and then steps forward onto the platform himself.

The guard rails close around him just the same as they did Alyx, and it rises into the air again, with the slow churn of machinery grinding into place as a pleasant backdrop. “This doesn’t feel very OSHA-compliant,” Gordon whines, his hands instinctively gripping the rails at his sides.

“Oh, he thinks there’s still an OSHA to worry about,” Eli bursts out laughing. “That’s optimistic, Gordon, I’ll give you that.”

Dr. Kleiner chuckles at that, too. “Alright, Gordon. Initializing in three… two… one… eh, Barney, if you would be so kind?” As he speaks, the rails churn to life, spinning around Gordon and dazzling him with the blue lights on their interior.

Below him, Barney nods and places a hand on the switch. “Good luck out there, Gordon,” he says.

“Yes, indeed. We’re ready to project you, Gordon. Bon voyage, and best of luck in your future endeavors.” That drone reaches a fever pitch as he types the last of his commands into the terminal. “Final sequence,” Kleiner announces, and Barney flips the switch—

“What the hell?!”

There’s a crash. A sputtering of sparks. Another goddamn alarm. Cables tear from their housing on the ceiling, and with them falls something heavy, dropping to the ground with a thud. Something round and chicken-shaped.

“What is it?” calls out Kleiner.

“It’s your pet, the freakin’ head-humper!” Barney snaps back, covering his head defensively.

“Guys? Guys! Those cables seemed important!” And that they did, but the rails are still spinning around him, and the background whine is escalating to a fever pitch, making the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Like an off-note. Gordon clamps his hands over his ears to try to drown it out, but the whine builds into a shriek and bleeds in through his palms.

“Lamarr? Hedy! No!”

That’s the last thing Gordon hears before the headcrab startles, leaping away from the sparks and directly towards Gordon.

Just as a whip crack rattles the platform.

His vision blurs and thrums suddenly, a kaleidoscope of colors streaking past his eyes. And his head, his fucking head, it throbs as if every heartbeat is building up pressure in his brain, it’s going to explode! Gordon clamps his hands down even harder, as if squeezing all the blood back to where it needs to be. His fingernails dig into his scalp. His eyes narrow, almost shut tight. But just beyond them, he can make out a distant vista, something that isn’t the aged brick and cold, bare steel of the laboratory.

Sand. Sun-baked sand stretching out to the horizon. A single telephone pole, crooked and unmoored. And a flock of black birds, startled into flight, their caws almost offended-sounding as they dust up from the ground and the headcrab - Hedy? - hops up to snag one in its claws.

Another flash behind Gordon’s eyes, a surge of white and a crackle of electricity. Throb. He’s back in the lab again, or at least, he thinks he is. Something wet blurs his vision. There’s yelling in the background, voices now familiar to him but so garbled as to be incomprehensible. But when he tries to step forward, out of the plasma field, his feet drag like he’s trying to move through molasses, every motion agonizingly slow to the point of impossibility. Then a hook yanks him just behind his navel and jerks him away.

Those iridescent flashes in his vision jitter and shimmer, looking for all the world as if he can see himself being jerked through spacetime, and they’re nothing so much as the streaks of headlights outside a car window. Gordon blinks, and has to wrench his eyes back open. He’s in front of Alyx, now. Others, too, but he can’t make them out. Somewhere gray, industrial. Dotted with server banks and printer feeds. He thinks he hears Eli, but he’s never been too good at picking out people by voice, and there’s too much blood pulsing behind his eardrums to tell, anyway.

“It seems to be some kind of interference,” he hears from an unfamiliar face.

No shit, he wants to yell, but he can’t. He can only stand there, helpless, as he surges through Minkowski space again.

Colors warp and shift away from that pearly green iridescence and into an angry orange-red. They flare with each sluggish heartbeat. Gordon squints at this new room before him, Big Brother’s wet dream, an entire wall lined from end to end with surveillance feeds and computer terminals. An embroidered red carpet, spread in the middle. And at the center, the locus of it all, an aging man who looks suspiciously like the Gorton’s fisherman, seated at an ornate desk.

He tries to laugh, but nothing comes out fast enough.

“What’s the meaning of this?” The man gets to his feet. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”

Not like he could answer that, even if he wanted to - again, again with the fucking teleportation shit, he’s so sick of it he might actually be sick! Something jerks him back to the lab, back to Barney and Kleiner, and he hears Kleiner yell at Barney, “You can’t just wade into the field! It will peel you apart!”

Somehow, even through the slow-motion time distortion, Gordon feels his heartbeat kick into anxious overdrive. Jesus Christ, is that what it’s doing to him? Peeling him apart? That nausea surges. Suddenly, Gordon’s keenly aware of what might have happened to that fucking cat. It’s… Schrödinger, right? Like in undergrad. Alive and dead, and he’ll only get to figure out which state he’s truly in if he can get out of this godforsaken field.

“We just lost Gordon! What’s going on?” Alyx’s voice, tinny and frantic, comes from the monitor on the wall.

“I wish I knew, I’m encountering unexpected interference!” Kleiner tells her.

Barney gazes up at him from the floor, where he stands dangerously close to the warp field, arms outstretched as if he means to scale the damn thing and tear Gordon out himself. “Don’t worry, Gordon, we’ll—”

Flash. Yank. Throb. Wetness trickles down Gordon’s face.

“There he is!” Alyx.

“We’re losing him again!” A woman, just behind her.


Back to the dizzying array of monitors and the violent orange-red surging past his vision. That man - Dr. Breen, he remembers with a great struggle - stands facing the wall, head angled to look up at a video feed that Gordon can’t make out.

He speaks, unaware of Gordon’s presence. “The man I saw, I’m all but certain it was…”

One of the monitors starts to move of its own accord, a robotic arm swiveling it to face Gordon directly. Like a massive eye rotating in its socket. Breen follows its gaze, his face wrinkling in a cold sneer as the two of them lock eyes. A chill runs down Gordon’s spine.

“…Gordon Freeman,” he breathes.


Gordon pops into existence high in the air, unsupported, and immediately drops down into a body of water. There’s no time for him to suck in a breath, no time for him to even stretch his arms out in an attempt to tread water. He just sinks like a rock. Inky blackness subsumes him, with nothing to orient himself in space save for the sunlight rapidly receding above him, and panic grips him by the chest.

Then a great, scaly beast emerges from the darkness.

Its maw opens wide as it approaches, fast, faster than any sea creature Gordon’s seen before, and the interior is fleshy and studded with small, sharp teeth and it quickly becomes clear that it’s big enough to swallow him whole and oh Christ it’s going to swallow him whole! And he forces his eyes shut and waits for the end—


And he whites out again, just for a moment. Long enough for whatever mysterious transdimensional force is in play to yank him back to the present. The lab. But not quite the lab - a view from the outside looking in, separated by a floor-length window, through which Gordon can see Kleiner furiously typing commands as he occasionally glances at Eli’s face on the monitor nearest.

Kleiner’s voice manages to pass through the glass, muffled as it is. “What do you mean, he’s not there?”

“He didn’t come through!”

“Then where is he?” Kleiner insists, worried.

“Behind you,” says Eli, as he shifts his gaze to look at Gordon directly.

Kleiner turns to face him, too, and throws his hands up in the air as he yelps in surprise. But he recovers quickly, and orders Gordon, “You must get out of here! Run!” as Eli orders him in turn to shut the thing down.

“Get down outta sight! I’ll come find you!” yells Barney, from somewhere that Gordon can hear but not see.

Okay, sure! He would do that if he could fucking move! And he’d say it to Barney’s face, too, if he could, but he’s still stuck in this stupid field and he can feel that hook cinching around his waist again and—

And then there’s that familiar whine of the teleporter powering down, and that hook releases its grip, and Gordon Freeman finally drops back into reality as he knows it. His knees give out the moment he touches solid ground. And he hurls, or at least, his body tries to, anyway. There’s no pizza or warm soda for him to even hurl up.

“Never again,” he mutters hoarsely, once his body behaves enough for him to get words out. “Never again! That wasn’t science, that was magic bullshit for fucking wizards! Not this time, Greybeard! Gordon’s walkin’!”

Gordon raises his head and stumbles to his feet, clutching at the guard rail beside him. The world spins. As it slowly settles, he starts to get a good eyeful of his surroundings, now that he’s pretty sure he’s not going to be forcefully whisked off to God knows where. He’s standing on a metal walkway just outside the lab, with an electrical substation at his left. A large transformer hums. The setting sun casts a warm yellow light upon a rusting factory in the distance, and high-rise tenements pepper the sky around him.

So this was another one of those threat management things, huh. A worst-case scenario, one of many: an unexpected intrusion into the field, more matter being shunted through time and space than their calculations had allotted. All reasonable stuff, except for the part where they haven’t even gotten the bare basics settled in the real world. Carving out that pathway from point A to point B was the whole fucking reason he was running those Xen crystal simulations in the first place, right? Seems like they’re putting the cart before the horse.

Maybe Craig had gotten a little too into the whole worldbuilding side of things. Wouldn’t be the first time a contractor had milked them for something unnecessary.

Gordon turns around to spot one of those obnoxious, rotund surveillance robots bobbing behind his head. It lets off a camera flash right in his face.

“No fucking paparazzi, please!”

He shoves it, and it only bobs in response. It’s soon followed by another of its kind, clicking and whirring and snapping his picture. Maybe he should go, actually. If his legs will listen to him, anyway.

The only way for him to go is down, dropping off the end of the walkway, and Gordon lands with a solid, metallic thud as his new boots absorb the impact. From there, he’s cornered, surrounded on all sides by looming buildings, with the exception of a narrow path winding through the chainlink fence of the substation. Gordon eyes the electrocution danger signs that are plastered around him with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Sure, he has no idea what language they’re written in, but a stick figure struck by electricity is a pictograph that transcends all language barriers.

“I don’t know if they upgraded this suit to have, like, electricity resistance or something, but something tells me this is not how I wanna find out,” Gordon tells himself as he attempts to give the transformers and wires a wide berth. Easier said than done.

But he makes it out alive, and that’s what matters. The fence gate on the other side leads to a recessed stairwell, poorly-lit and cluttered with garbage. Does anything get cleaned around here? That lab was the nicest-looking place he’s seen in a dog’s age. Each step he takes up those stairs echoes around him, and he winces, hoping that no one’s around to hear it. Then he rounds the corner, passes through a hall studded with sodium lamps, and finds… another chainlink fence. This time, the gate through it is cordoned off by boards nailed across the doorway.

Gordon grabs one of the planks by the edges and tries his hardest to wrench it free. These screws in 'em can’t be that sturdy, right? But sturdy it is, and it doesn’t budge. So Gordon resigns himself to rattling the fence in frustration.

“Come on,” he groans. “Where am I supposed to go now?! Everybody keeps telling me, ‘Gordon go here’, ‘Gordon do this’, ‘Gordon step into the teleporter and get your atoms all scrambled’, and for what? A goddamn pizza?!” Gordon lets out a wordless yell and shakes the boards all the harder, then leans his head against them in defeat.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, sweat cooling on his forehead, before he hears a voice above him.

“Hey, Gordon!”

It’s Barney, standing on a walkway above him and waving down. Relief crashes upon Gordon’s shoulders like a wave. “Barney! My friend Barney! Oh my God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you, buddy!”

“Hey, the feeling’s mutual,” he says with a crooked grin. “The citadel’s on full alert! I’ve never seen it lit up like that.”

“The citadel?” He follows Barney’s gaze behind him to a massive blue spire, the same one he’d seen out in the plaza. Oh. The Citadel, capital-C. Birds scatter from its parapets, but their movements don’t seem right, all jerky and ungainly and like they’re about to plummet in freefall before they finally take flight. Gordon squints.

Oh . Those aren’t birds, are they.

“Get out of City 17 as fast as you can, Gordon,” Barney tells him. “Take the old canals, right? They’ll get you to Eli’s lab. It’s a dangerous route, but there’s a whole network of refugees, and they’ll help you if they can.”

Gordon’s voice pitches up in a whine. “What, by myself? Seriously? Can’t you come with me, man? I don’t know where I’m going!”

“I’d come with you, but I’ve got to look after Dr. Kleiner.” The look Barney gives him is the closest he’s come to ‘sympathetic’ all day. “Oh, and before I forget… I think you dropped this back in Black Mesa,” he adds, as he holds something aloft.

His crowbar!

“Holy shit, I never thought I’d be so happy to see that again,” breathes Gordon. “Gimme!”

Barney tosses it down at his feet, stifling a laugh. “Good luck out there, buddy. You’re gonna need it,” he says at last. He gives Gordon a quick, cheeky salute, then turns and heads back the way he came.

“Thanks! Uh, bye! Talk to you later!” Gordon calls after him. So what if he’s coming off a little strong? He doesn’t know when the hell he’s gonna encounter a friendly NPC again, and he’s just trying to take advantage of the moment.

Well, at least he’s got his trusty crowbar to protect him, he thinks as he picks it up. The steel is pleasantly heavy in his hands. Oh, yeah. He can put two and two together.

The crowbar makes short work of those boards, and God, does it feel good to beat the hell out of something. Gordon whoops and hollers as he busts them down with more force than is strictly necessary. Sweet freedom, baby! The freedom for him to make his way through the fenced-in passageway before him, to see a wooden crate lying ahead in a dark corridor, and to sit his ass down and take a breather. Just for a second. It creaks under his weight, but holds steady.

Deep breaths, buddy. It’s gonna be fine. Gordon buries his face in his hands and sighs.

Something chirrups in the distance, and Gordon hears the beating of wings as a nearby flock of birds kicks off. Like they’ve been disturbed. Please just be a cat, he thinks furiously, as if he can will it to be true just by thinking it hard enough. He can handle cats. He lifts his head to look for the source, hoping against hope that it’s nothing he has to worry about right now.

And spots somebody’s face clipping through the side of the corridor, eyes lidded and dark.


Gordon screams.

[table of contents]


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