Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 4

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The relief of seeing sunlight again doesn’t last long. Benrey mumbles something asinine that Gordon’s not particularly listening to, occupied as he is by the realization that they’re on a rooftop. A rooftop with a dumpster, a handful of loose industrial barrels, and a very steep drop.

To the builders’ credit, they’ve barred off the edge of the roof with more chain link fence, and even if the fence has a worrying give to it when Gordon leans too hard against it, it’s better than nothing. He peers over the side with trepidation. Several stories down, a length of train track bisects this building and the next, not so much boxed in as carved through. Again with the fucking trains, he thinks. And the only way off of this rooftop, other than turning around and walking right back into trouble, is a rickety, rusting staircase that clings to the side of the building with three screws and a prayer. Which leads directly to the tracks in question.

“Do not fucking push me,” Gordon insists loudly, one hand pressed against the brick as he tentatively steps down. The metal creaks under him with every shift of his body, growing louder with each subsequent step. He can feel the metal pulling from the wall, sinking lower as he descends, and his heart leaps into his throat when something groans so loudly behind him that it echoes across the tracks. Against the silence, it’s almost comically loud and nearly convinces him for a fraction of a second that he is as good as dead.

And what a joke that would be. Narrowly escaping his head getting clubbed in by goddamn supercops, only to have to restart the level because he was felled by a fucking fire escape.

“Jesus Christ, there’s not even any guardrails on this thing,” he moans, quieter, “and any second now, he’s gonna no-clip out of the fucking wall and scare the shit out of me and I’m gonna fall off and die! Stupidest way I could fucking die, I swear—”

“wuh?” comes Benrey’s voice from the rooftop.

Gordon flinches, nearly missing a step, and his heart skips a beat. “Nothing! Quit saying shit back there, it’s freaking me out!”

Benrey makes a mocking noise. “scared of words now, huh? lil’… chicken hat?” he calls down.

He’s not even going to dignify that with a response. Instead, he takes a deep breath. He tilts his head back and up, to look at the horizon instead of the ground. He takes another step, then another. He grits his teeth when he feels the metal give beneath him, and lets out a long, shaking breath from his nose. Finally, he hops off the last few steps of the staircase and follows the train tracks with his eyes.

On either side, they recede into dark, crumbling tunnels, an austere square pathway bored into the red brick of the surrounding buildings. The walls themselves are peppered with graffiti, some of it amateurish, some impressively rendered, and all of it as old and worn as the brick it’s painted on. And a faint blue sheen in the distance, where the tunnel opens, resolves itself into another energy barrier as Gordon gets closer. Same for the other end. They’re effectively walled in, or at least, Gordon is. His heart sinks.

“Well, where the fuck am I supposed to go now?” Gordon asks the open air, throwing his hands up in exasperation.

Questions pop into his mind, rapidfire. These tracks get used, right? He’s assuming as much, seeing as these ones are free of the plant life and detritus that overtook the rails in the trainyard. So how can a train get through the barrier, and he can’t? Is it just impermeable to organic material? How can it— Wait, no, that doesn’t make any sense. He threw a fucking rock at one of these things earlier, and it just bounced off. So maybe it’s something about the construction of the train itself. Some kind of specialized alloy used for the hull. Or maybe they come equipped with an energy field of their own, something that causes destructive interference when it comes into contact with these barriers and lets it pass through like a knife through butter.

God, what he wouldn’t give to have a crack at the internals of them. The past twenty years must have been real good for the physics fields… Well. High-tech fascist dystopia aside.

“loud tube,” Gordon hears from the rooftop, jarring him out of his own thoughts.

“What?” It’s hard to make out what he’s saying when there’s that weird rumbling underfoot, traveling up the legs of his suit and making the metal rattle.

Then he hears something thunderous in the distance. Repetitive. Insistent. Honking. Gordon turns his head at last. Oh. Loud tube. As in a tube, that is also loud. It hits him like a— well, like a—

“Train!” he yelps, scrambling back toward the stairway just seconds before the oncoming train hurtles past him.

His heart thunders in his chest, and a rush of wind chills the cold sweat beading on his skin. This is ridiculous - he feels like one of those old-timey movie-goers, scared half to death by a moving image on a screen. As if the thing was really coming right at him. Dumbass ape brains are the same in any decade.

“yooo, my ride’s here,” says Benrey. The sound of his strangely placid voice is enough to keep him from dwelling on his near-death experience for too long. Gordon glances up at him, only to watch him fling himself directly into the train’s path from the rooftop.

“Jesus Christ, Benrey—”

Gordon’s horrified yell is abruptly cut off by a laugh, a real gut puncher, as Benrey bounces off the front of the train like a rubber ball. His brain even supplies the ‘boing’ for him.

“i’m good,” he hears distantly from the far end of the tracks, where he can only imagine Benrey’s giving him a thumbs up.

That’s enough emotions for one fucking day, Gordon thinks, sinking to the steps below. His knees are giving up the ghost. That train just keeps going, and going, accompanied by the steady metallic grind and thud of wheels on rails, and he finds that it’s not going nearly as fast as it seemed when it was barreling down upon him. Makes it a little more annoying to wait for it to go past. He’s sure that if he takes a good look around afterward, there’ll be some kind of conveniently-placed ladder for him. One that’s a nice highlighter yellow. Maybe with a spotlight pointed at it, even, so he can feel real fuckin’ stupid about it taking this long for him to spot.

Slowly, though, the train screeches to a halt, sandwiched between the two barriers. Meaning that there’s no way around it to the buildings that make up the other side of the tunnel. Gordon groans.

“You know, I would’ve really liked to be on the other side of this thing!”

“what are you complaining about?” Benrey asks, his voice coming from a different location now. On top of the carriages. Benrey’s got a hand flattened above his eyes to shield them from the sun, and he peers down at Gordon with an expression that Gordon can’t make out, but that he’s certain would piss him off. “jus’ gotta do some jumps, brooo. dunks… fuckin’… kobe!”

And with that, he hops neatly off the carriage and onto a latticed metal platform on the other side. In Gordon’s defense, it’s not even painted a nice, bright, attention-grabbing color.

“Kobe didn’t just do jumps, man,” Gordon yells across the gap.

He pushes himself to his feet and stomps back up to the roof, determined not to think too hard about that worrying metal whine with each step. At which point he realizes that the lack of guardrails wasn’t just to stress him out personally. Turns out that it’s a hell of a lot easier to jump onto the top of the train without them in the way. His boots clang noisily along the sheet metal of the carriage roofs.

“You can’t just say ‘Kobe’ if you’re not doing an actual dunk! That’s the whole point, you know, and you don’t even— Do you even know what a basketball is, Benrey? Did they let you out of your enclosure long enough to see a Lakers game?”

“kobeee,” Benrey repeats, as Gordon hops across that same gap to join him.

This stretch of rooftop is bracketed by shelled-out buildings, possibly residential, once. Not so much now. They cast a long shadow over the narrow walkway before him. Most of the doorways have been boarded up, as if to keep people out, but who would want to break into a place like this? Some time ago, their windowed walls must have been white and gleaming, and now the crumbling plaster flakes away when Gordon grazes against it. The windows themselves aren’t much better off. Most of them lie empty, devoid of glass except in the occasional jagged shards still lodged in the sill.

And just in front of his nose, one of those shards blasts backwards, a shattering noise accompanied by a distant bang. Gordon jerks backward, hands instinctively flying up to cover his head. Like that would be any help.

“Christ, are there more of them?!”

Yeah, there are. As if the sound of bullets on brick wasn’t answer enough, he spots a pair of Combine soldiers across the gap, having just crawled out of the same stairwell he and Benrey did earlier. One of them fires haphazardly, their shots going wide and posing more of a threat to the local bird population than Gordon himself, while the other aims directly into the sky and fires a single shot. A flare, Gordon realizes. A cold feeling drips into his gut - there’s gonna be more of ‘em, and soon, and they’ll know exactly where he is. Was the fucking city-wide surveillance system not enough?

He reaches for his waist, aiming to grab a gun out of a holster, but in all the excitement he’s forgotten that he doesn’t have one.

“Gun, gun, where the fuck is my gun?” he hisses, ducking behind one of the sheets of plywood nailed to the fence. Gordon can’t shake the feeling that he’s supposed to have one by now. Why else would they put a bunch of bad guys all the way over there, where he can’t beat the shit out of them?

“baby man forget his gun at home? you, uhh… lost it? huh?” The condescension in Benrey’s voice makes Gordon want to wring his goddamn neck. “betcha… forgot your passport, too. again. bet you’d lose your whole schlong if it wasn’t… wasn’t super glued on there. i checked.”

Gordon turns to stare at him, momentarily forgetting that his life is in danger right now. “What in the fuck are you talking about—”

“bwshhhh,” Benrey says.

Well, he’s not so much saying it as forcing that stupid sound through his teeth, but the more important thing is that it’s a shoot-y kind of onomatopoeia. Because he’s lining up the sights of his little handgun and lazily returning fire, with a lack of urgency that is borderline insulting. And he’s… missing, as Gordon discovers when he peeks past the edge of the drywall.

“Hey, uh, a little to the left, my guy!” he tells Benrey.

Benrey lowers his gun and flaps his free hand in dismissal. “no backseat driving, please? license and registration? keep your eyes on the road, please.”

“Wh— I was just trying to help!” Gordon makes an ugly, exasperated sound in the back of his throat. Fine! Whatever. He doesn’t care. Let Benrey fuck it up all he wants. He’s just gonna turn his attention to the boarded-up doorway behind him, which he doesn’t need a gun for, thanks, and—

And he’s not even going to finish that thought before one of those barrels next to the soldiers explodes, sending them ragdolling through the air. An uncontrollable laugh bursts out of him.

“Did you do that?!”

“uh, duh,” says Benrey. “i went to… black mesa barrel class. advanced studies. orange ones blow up. blue ones got… uhh, drinks. like… powerade. brown ones have potion.”

Huh. That might be the first useful thing Benrey’s said in… well, ever. That would explain the big, bright hazard signs on the side of them. Gordon wipes sweat from his forehead, riding out the last of that laugh, and lets out a shaky exhale after. Then he says, “Right. Potion. I remember the potion… Hey, hang on a second. Fucking— Darnold! I can’t believe I forgot about Darnold!” He straightens himself to face Benrey head-on, a realization striking him. “Holy shit, Benrey, I have so many questions I gotta ask you!”

Benrey blinks, face blank. “huh?”

How did you get here? How did I get here? Is— Was everybody else okay after they, like, killed you? How are you even alive right now? And how in the fuck are you planning to bring me back to a party 20 years in the past?

Gordon opens his mouth, intending to ask just one of these things, but the problem with sitting on so many questions for so long is that they’ve formed a gnarly little logjam inside his brain, and they all try to spill out at once. Which means that all he gets out is a handful of stilting words that include “Benrey”, “Black Mesa”, and “pizza”, but nothing of substance. Nothing that resembles a coherent fucking question. He waves his hands in the air all the harder in an attempt to convey what in the fuck he’s trying to say, but Benrey’s face shows no signs of understanding. And, after an awkward silence, Benrey’s mouth pinches to the side, then he turns and walks through the wall of the building beside them as if Gordon hadn’t said anything at all.

Frustration bubbles up under Gordon’s skin. What’s wrong with him? The one guy who might be able to shed some light on his predicament, however dim, and he blew it! Honestly, though, the joke’s on him for hoping that he’d get a real answer out of Benrey in the first place. The guy would probably just make some annoying, childish noise at him and say something incomprehensible about whatever fucking video game he was thinking about instead.

There’s something comforting about that frustration rerouting itself down “goddamn Benrey” neural pathways. Familiar. So that’s what he settles on, envisioning that the boards in front of him are Benrey’s stupid face as he pries them off of the weathered doorframe.

Inside, it’s practically open to the elements, with a skeleton of bare, untreated wooden beams where once there was a roof. It’s lit only by the low-hanging sun that filters through the gaps. Even the floor is only half-there, the slats either pried off or blown off by whatever fucking thing befell this place. Gordon takes care to watch his step. There’s no furniture to speak of, no decorations, no nothing… except a symbol painted in egg-yolk yellow on the south wall. A lambda, encircled by a, well, a circle. Just like the one on the chest panel of his HEV suit. And underneath it, a small cache of supplies - a box of handgun ammunition and a health pack.

Two things he doesn’t really need right this second. Awesome. He kicks the health pack a little out of spite. It makes him wonder, though. Did somebody know he was coming? It’s not like they chose something more generic to plaster on the wall, like the antifa logo Gordon had pinned to his messenger bag throughout undergrad.

Another room branches off of the north side, just as empty and decrepit as the last. With the exception of a couple of bright orange barrels lined up in front of the back door. The explode-y kind. Now that he’s actually paying attention, they do say ‘flammable’ on the side, don’t they? Just in case he didn’t figure out what their deal was the first time around, he supposes. Too bad that he doesn’t actually have anything to blow them up with.

“Wonder if I could pick these up,” Gordon muses. “Just about everything’s a physics object around here, right?” To his surprise (and delight), he can. They’re heavy sons of bitches, being, what, 40-gallon drums? Something like that. But all those summers of weightlifting paid off, and he grunts, “Gordon… lift!” as he hauls it up to eye level.

Then there’s a metallic ping, and flames start to erupt from the barrel.

“Fuck! Hot, hot, hot!” He hurls it to the ground, flapping his hands afterward to cool them off as it rolls unsteadily across the floorboards. Then he whips his head around, looking for— Benrey. Fucking Benrey. “Why would you do that?!”

He doesn’t hear Benrey’s response, because the barrel chooses that moment to explode. Violently. Gordon claps his hands over his ears, eyes squeezed shut. The force of it staggers him - thank fucking God for the HEV suit, he thinks wildly, because he’s pretty sure his pitiful human flesh wouldn’t have withstood that kind of blast from that kind of distance. Even with layers of futuristic metal cladding on his side, he swears he can feel his bones rattling.

“barrels aren’t supposed to work like that, by the way,” fades in Benrey’s voice, barely audible over the ringing in his ears. “these ones got… warning shots.”

It’s bizarrely sensible, coming from Benrey, but Gordon finds himself unable to voice his surprise. Whatever part of his brain governs the power of speech must have been knocked loose in the blast. Instead, he silently sways on his feet, and makes a vague gesture at Benrey that lies somewhere between “threatening” and “pleased.” The world around him is a whirl of colors as he stumbles his way toward the freshly-cooked back door of the ruined house, and takes a less-than-confident step onto what was once a lovely patio. Scenic view and all that. The sound of his boot loudly clopping against concrete is somewhat grounding, at least, as is the breeze that washes over his face as he steps out into the open.

It all seems uncannily realistic: the sights, the smells, the nauseating tang of gasoline hanging in the air. Just like the headache blossoming behind his eyes in the wake of the explosion. Or the pain that still radiates from his shoulder, just from getting grazed by a bullet at the beginning of the game. Dwelling on this for a split second too long triggers a sinking feeling inside of him, something dark and panicky and a little too familiar: unreality. Hyper-reality. Whatever you want to fucking call it. Colors too vivid, relief too stark, the unsettling sense that the world is melting around him. All that shit that he hasn’t been medicated for since the day he stepped foot into the tram at Black Mesa. And with that sensation comes a thought that can’t be dislodged with just a firm shake of his head.

Something is wrong.

His brows furrow and his mouth begins to form the words - more for himself than Benrey, who is staring at him so vacantly that Gordon can practically see the “For Rent” sign posted on his head - but he doesn’t get far, cut off by the sound of a loud pop. Something small and heavy digs into the grassy earth by the side of the patio, and every muscle in Gordon’s body tenses in a panic.

Something is wrong.

He’s played this game for a long-ass time and hasn’t felt like this before. Not when he was throwing hands with the Vonnegut aliens or trading bullets with the United States Military out in the middle of the desert. He’s played a lot of games in his life, even wanted to make an online career out of it, and he’s never once felt like he was in actual danger. Like the VR was being taken too far.

But this…

No. No, that’s stupid. He’s stupid. This isn’t real, it never was real.

This is all psychosomatic, he tells himself, taking a deep and shuddering breath. It’s a psychosomatic response to stress. A hallucination. The pain, the realness of it all; it’s just his brain playing tricks, paranoia getting the better of him for the umpteenth time. Like when he smokes too much fucking weed, anxiety aggravating something it shouldn’t aggravate, and he should just pause the game, take the headset off, drink a glass of water, go to bed, contact his doctor, and—

Another gunshot rings out and logic is lost. It hits too close. It feels too real. An insidious voice hisses in his ear that he’s in very real danger, and it’s all the incentive he needs. Gordon barely looks at Benrey before his legs begin moving of their own accord and, like a rabbit flushed out of a hedge, he takes off at a breakneck speed that even he would be shocked he could reach. If he was capable of that kind of higher thought right now, anyway.

“whoa, uhh, where you goin’?” Benrey barks, and it’s got an unfamiliar inflection to it. Something like… distress, where there’d never been such a fucking thing before.

The shock of it fuels Gordon anew as he sprints right past the origin of the gunfire. He lifts his eyes from the ground and meets the gaze of two identical Combine drones, their eyepieces glinting in the light as they level their pistols at him once more and utter indecipherable garbage into their lapels. Rounds whiz past him, uncomfortably close to his face, and he loses sight of where he’s going in the fracas. He crashes into a wall of chain link and lets out an embarrassing squawk.

Sounds coalesce first into a cacophony, then pure white noise. His pulse pounds in his ears as he feels something plink off the back of the HEV suit and he digs his fingers into the gaps in the metal lattice and scrambles until he feels forward momentum. A weak point in what he assumes is a fence, though his brain won’t allow him to register anything beyond the most basic of basics: the ground beneath his feet, the brightness of the sun, and a very narrow field-of-view in front of him that his fight-or-flight instinct allows him to see. Everything in his periphery is a threatening blur, streaks of color that move as fast as he does as he blindly navigates the world, legs pumping and chest burning with every aching breath.

He’s vaguely aware of the sound of a train. Gunfire. The fact there’s Combine on the opposite end of the tracks trying to harry him somewhere. There’s an explosion that makes his teeth rattle, and he swears he hears a villainous laugh rip through the air.

Panting, he ducks into what he believes is an alley and becomes conscious of the fact he has hit a dead end. There is a dim voice behind him, familiar but still sparking terror, and his hands press against a concrete wall as he desperately feels for any sort of stupid MacGuffin that a game would give in these situations. A secret switch, a gap in the concrete. It is only when he’s on the verge of screaming that he takes note of a familiar symbol haphazardly spray painted over an open vent.

The lambda symbol, like before. In the abandoned house. With the health kit and the bullets, a sign of good things. Escape.

His entire body trembles as he falls to his knees and forces himself inside, the cramped space doing nothing for his nerves. He feels his armor scrape against the metal sides, the horrible sounds of creaking and screeching following him as he crawls along. There are no health kits, no ammo, no guns or even snacks, and he hisses through clenched teeth in bitter disappointment as he pushes ahead, sweaty and shaking, until he can see slivers of light through a battered slat covering at the end of the tunnel.

He also hears somebody crawling after him, clumsy bumping and grunting that doesn’t seem like a Combine at first glance. At least, not to a rational person. But Gordon isn’t feeling entirely rational right now, and his first instinct is to kick at the air behind him, hoping that he’ll hit whoever - or whatever - was stupid enough to come crawling after a panic attack on legs. And he strikes gold.

Or rather, he strikes Benrey, if the whiny, “ow, what the hell?” in response is any indication.

“I’m going to fucking kill you, dude! I told you not to sneak up on me!” Gordon’s voice comes out a few decibels too loud and an octave too high, echoing painfully in the confined space.

Even if it’s just Benrey behind him, and not an enemy in the traditional sense, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s boxed in on every possible side now, and he swears he can feel the walls closing in on him. Squeezing him. Suffocating. It shakes loose the thought, the fear of being pursued, and Gordon throws himself against the brittle-looking exit panel with all of his might. When it doesn’t immediately give, he lets out a loud, violent curse, and tries again.

And again.

And again.

There’s banging, rattling. He hears heavy breathing behind him, and what must be words of some kind, but it’s drowned out by the sound of bending metal and screws being ripped out of cement. Gordon yelps as he hits the ground on the other side with a clatter. He yelps even louder when something tears into his arm, red-hot.

The HEV suit beeps and says… something. Something that pertains to blood loss and fractures, but it blends in with the rest of the static surrounding him. He grits his teeth and clambers onto his knees, looking up and across for the first clear picture of his environment that he’d allowed himself since he started running. There, he meets the eyes of a reloading Combine who seems pleased with what he (she? They? Why is he fucking worried about this right now?) has done. It occurs to him as he scrambles up to his feet that the son of a bitch had been waiting for him, like a cat waiting for a mouse to emerge from its den. Had they heard him?

God, the game shouldn’t have been that smart. And his arm shouldn’t have hurt that bad, now that he thinks of it, clutching onto the bullet hole in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Though the hand dangling at the end still clings fruitlessly to a crowbar he’d forgotten he had, he can’t lift it. He can’t shrug.

Fucking VR shouldn’t have been able to— to paralyze him like this! But then again, it shouldn’t have been able to cut off his arm, either, and look how far that assumption got him.

He has no time to obsess over this like he wants to, because he feels something bearing down on him from behind, then hears a gunshot from far too close. The cop he’d been staring down jerks backwards and collapses, and Gordon’s brain jerks him upward and away. Across the cement pathway overlooking the railroad tracks, trailing blood behind him as he feels his body being steered forward and down, plummeting, stomach twisting until he feels solid ground beneath him and takes off running again.

His feet crunch across the multicolored rocks of the train ballast. The sun dims as he bolts into a tunnel. Bright yellow light fades into a synthetic and foreboding blue that carries the tell-tale beeps and hisses of those supersoldier fucks, clearly nearby.

The ballast gives way to concrete. Combine pop from crevasses and corners like targets in an arcade game, then sputter and fall. Shrill, shrieking noises, like flatlining heart rate monitors, echo between concrete walls as Gordon stumbles up a cold gray staircase that makes him suddenly aware that he is in a building. Maybe. He doesn’t remember how he got here or where he is - a small part of him wonders if he found his way into a railway maintenance tunnel - but he sees paths spreading out before him, soldiers crumpling to the ground like flour sacks, and…

…Crates. He skids to a stop so suddenly that he nearly hits the ground, looking up at a stack of crates in a hallway that feels simultaneously claustrophobic and dizzyingly high-ceilinged. The walls sway and pulsate around him, almost alive, and he hears calm, plodding footsteps closing in behind him. It never occurs to him that it isn’t a threat this time, his brain playing a constant loop of a gun at the back of his head, hands around his neck. Gordon Freeman in a pool of blood in an empty hallway, murdered by a fucking video game. Like every shitty creepypasta he’s ever flipped through out of boredom while he was on his lunch break.

In an instant, he grabs the crowbar from the useless side of his body and grips it shakily in his left hand. It’s not his dominant side, no, but he doesn’t need to be precise to break shit.

Wood splinters fly past him, and then he flies past the splinters. He stumbles up and down and around dizzying turns, through narrow passages and cramped stairwells lined with white brick that looks more fitting for a bathroom. He sees light at the end of the tunnel and explodes out onto another train platform, barely registering the drop as he stumbles off of it and lands hard enough on the tracks below to force blood through the wound in his arm. Red splatters across colorful rocks as more Combine emerge from the aether as if summoned by a divine force, and Gordon pushes himself out of the shade, across the ballast, and into direct sunlight.

There’s another whine, another complaint from behind him as he barrels into an oncoming horde of soldiers, and his brain quickly agrees this was a bad idea. He stumbles as the stones under his feet give way to concrete and he falls against something with a give - a gate, he realizes - that he desperately fumbles with as the long, deep drone of a train whistle devours the sounds of radios and gunfire. Once more, Gordon falls, this time onto a creaking catwalk that he immediately tumbles off of, landing in foul-smelling, stagnant water that seeps into the tear in his armor and makes the hole in his arm scream. Somehow, he resists the urge to do the same.

He runs. He wades. He dodges around barrels and crates dumped into whatever channel he’s fallen into, and he winces as the wind whipped up by a passing train nearly knocks him clear off of his aching feet. He struggles to swim when his legs prove to not be long enough, the HEV suit and his injured arm hard to accommodate for as he struggles and flails, confusion and terror rearing their ugly heads every time he dips under the surface a fraction of a second too long.

He used to do this shit competitively! Why can’t he get a grip?!

His heart thuds and his mind races - he can hear Combine flatlining all around him, louder than the train - and his stomach threatens to part ways with whatever little bit of bile is left in it. The world vibrates, and he’s unsure if it’s the train, nerves, or something more sinister in his own fucking head.

Gordon doesn’t even realize the gunshots have stopped when he hits the nearest point of dry land, a pile of gravel topped with a dislodged, rusty train car covered in flaking red. He just scrabbles up on his three functional limbs, hissing and spitting and choking on his own heart. The urge to move forward, to put as much distance between him and danger, spurs him to latch dumbly onto a ladder built onto the side. It feels damn near impossible to climb without both arms, but climb he does, though he doesn’t fully remember how he manages. All he knows is that there is blood, and pain, and he’s staggering ahead and then…

… Another fall. He lands with a loud “woof” and the world suddenly bleeds back into focus. He looks up at a square hole above him and sees Benrey staring down and remembers, with a hint of embarrassment, that the guy even existed. His heart rate begins to drop back to normal levels as they stare silently at each other, and he lets out a long, shuddering breath as he struggles to find a way to speak.

Benrey beats him to the punch, though. His eyes dart just behind where Gordon had landed flat on his back on the bottom of a boxcar, and his mouth twitches.

“vonnegut,” he says simply.

And the panic returns. Gordon shoots upright and swings around, scooting away on his ass until his back is flat against the wall. He white-knuckles his crowbar and tries to look threatening, glaring daggers at two shadowy figures backlit by a fizzing, black-and-white television nestled at the far end of the car.

“Good God!” gasps one of them, stepping forward into the small patch of sunlight.

Gordon’s fingers tense. It’s… a man, outfitted in the same blue jumpsuit as all the other civilians. The same close-cropped hair, the same patchy shave job. He swears he’s seen this guy a dozen times before. Doesn’t do much to alleviate his nerves, though.

“Guess those sirens are for you, huh?” he continues. He bends down on one knee, bringing himself to Gordon’s eye level with a hand extended. As if to help him up. “Good thing you found us.”

“Us? Who’s ‘us’?” He doesn’t take the fucking bait. Instead, he raises his crowbar a fraction higher. “Don’t touch me, man, Gordon’s not in a touchy-feely kinda mood!”

The man stops short, then slowly raises his hands in the air, palms open and facing Gordon. A peaceful gesture. “Okay, I got you. No touching. You're not the first to come through here by a—”

“Oh,” an unfamiliar and raspy voice breathes, interrupting him, and Gordon can hear the disappointment dripping off of it. “This is… ah. Hmm. Well. The Freeman is here.”

He blinks. His eyes adjust to the light. The other silhouette resolves itself into something strange, with a bowed posture and a lumpy, vaguely-humanoid outline. And a single, bulbous, glowing red eye. The Vonnegut, he realizes. And, because his brain’s panic response is to think about the dumbest, least relevant shit, he also realizes that that’s not what they’re actually fucking called, are they. Whatever they are, all he knows is that the last time he saw one, it was trying to zap him to death, and he has no goddamn idea why this one isn’t.

Gordon caves at last, and he spits out the one question he’s been dying to ask since he woke up in that filthy train station hours ago. “Will somebody please explain to me what the fuck is going on?!”

The two of them glance at one another, then back at Gordon. “Look, we're just the lookout for the underground railroad,” the man says after a pause. “We’ve been expecting you. Whole channel’s buzzing about you, Dr. Freeman. But, uh, my Vortigaunt friend here might know more than I do.”

“The Combine’s reckoning,” muses the— the Vortigaunt quietly. To itself, as if Gordon’s not even there.

Gordon’s voice pitches up with frustration. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You are the One Free Man,” it tells him, in a tone of voice that heavily implies the capital letters. “But… obscured. Removed. With the shattering of our shackles, we should know you as sib. We do not know what to make of this.” It scrapes its long claws together in something akin to a nervous tic. Gordon doesn’t know if that’s what it means, exactly, but he can’t help a little bit of anthropomorphizing. Its teeth, short but pointed, work from side to side before it continues with an air of finality, “Something is wrong.”

“You’re telling me,” Gordon sighs. By now, enough of the instinctive panic has drained away that he thinks he can get back on his feet, and he struggles to do so. His knees— hell, his everything is shaking like a leaf. It takes a moment for the Vortigaunt’s words to sink in properly, and when the stars finally clear from his vision, he pipes up with, “Hey, hold on. I didn’t understand, like, ninety percent of that… Like, how am I obscured? You have that big ol’ eye, don’t you? Should be able to see me fine.”

The Vortigaunt fixes him with a long, unreadable look. But Gordon reads an emotion into it anyway: disappointment. It makes him bristle with defensiveness before it even manages to say a single word. What the fuck does that thing know, anyway?

“Only incredible power would disrupt the connection, power few wield. We can smell the chamber on you but your essence is dim to our senses. The One Free Man, liberator, and we see you not. Curious. Unsettling. We grow concerned,” it says at last. Then, with whatever passes for panic in their kind, it adds, “This is… unexpected.”

“Please, just say something normal,” he begs, to no avail. “Look, man, Gordon’s hurtin’! I’m bleeding out over here, or something, and I can’t think too good, and for once I’d really just like a yes or no answer!”

At that, the jumpsuited guy steps closer, leaning to the side to get a better view of the arm that Gordon’s desperately clutching. “Oh, hell, that doesn’t look too good. We oughta try to fix you up before we send up off to the main station… It’s right around the corner. They’ll get you started on the right foot,” he tells Gordon. He makes a move to clap Gordon on the shoulder, but appears to think better of it just before he makes contact.

Gordon sways as if he’s been slapped around a little nonetheless. “Sounds good. Gimme a health pack or whatever and let me get to guzzlin’.”

“Uh, actually…” The man clears his throat awkwardly, then gestures toward the Vortigaunt. “My friend here can give you a jolt. Get you right as rain.”

“Sure, okay, whatever. Gimme the juice!”

Maybe it’s not the wisest idea to let this once-hostile alien species have its way with him. And maybe he could’ve chosen a better way to phrase that. But, like, even if this thing is infuriatingly cryptic, it doesn’t seem like the others of its kind that Gordon’s had the misfortune of running into, back in Black Mesa. It’s actually talking to him, for one thing. And the other guy seems awfully insistent on calling it his friend. The friend of his friend is his friend, too. Right? Sun Tzu said that.

As he’s mulling over the intricacies of enemy-player relationships in his head, the Vortigaunt approaches him with its hands raised. All three of them: the two at its sides, like any other humanoid, and the small, dinosaur-like hand branching out from the center of its chest. Gordon cannot fucking fathom what evolutionary purpose it serves. He doesn’t need to, though, because it’s waving its clawed fingers in mysterious patterns through the air, summoning into being a morass of glowing green energy that it shapes, like a sculptor working a soft clay, into a sphere. So it must be good for something.

He finds a strange comfort in watching this whole process. Like, yeah, bullets and explosions are real things that could hurt you in real life. But this? This is magic video game bullshit. This is the psychological equivalent of pinching yourself to wake up from a dream. And Gordon’s entire body sags with relief, both mental and physical, when the Vortigaunt prods that ball of energy at his arm. It knits together flesh and soothes screaming nerves and presumably does some other shit to fix him up that Gordon can’t stomach to watch right now. He’s never been good at watching himself get shots, either.

Gordon lets out a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, and he leans against the corrugated metal wall, basking a little. He’s calm. He’s chill. He’s back in his own head. Everything’s gonna be fine.

And, of course, Benrey chooses that moment to drop into the boxcar, announcing his entry with a clueless, “check it out. i got… snacks”. (What he actually has appears to be an armful of empty milk jugs.)

The lookout raises his eyebrows, mildly surprised. But the Vortigaunt flinches at the sight of him.

It freezes, like a movie still, and regards Benrey with a stare that is strangely human and, for once, easily decipherable. Shock. Terror. There’s a dozen different negative words Gordon could have used if he’d had the forethought to bring a thesaurus, and he quizzically looks back at Benrey to see what exactly the guy is doing to warrant this kind of response.

The answer is nothing. Benrey stands there, arms full of plastic, expression as bland as ever. He isn’t even looking at the Vortigaunt so much as he’s looking past it, at the fizzing television in the corner of the boxcar.

“oh, sweet,” Benrey begins, dropping his loot and taking a step forward. “uh, boob tube. you got playsta—”


The sound of the Vortigaunt’s voice cuts him off and drags Gordon’s attention away from Benrey. Hell, even his friend in the jumpsuit seems shocked by the sheer gravity of that one word, the coarseness of his tone, the growl hidden just beneath. Anxiety shoots up Gordon’s spine like an electric current, colder and much different than the jolt the alien had just given him. He exchanges a worried look with the other human in the room, then shifts his gaze back to the Vortigaunt.

Stiff. Rigid. Arched into a position that could probably be read as threatening. It looks increasingly more like the critters he mowed down in Black Mesa than a friendly NPC.

Then, he looks at Benrey again. Unfazed and aloof. Foot still extended out to take another step. The only indication that he’s even registered anything amiss is the very, very slight tilt of his head. A dog that thought it heard somebody coming onto the porch.

“What trickery is this?” the Vortigaunt continues, starting to back away itself. “Unreadable. Unknowable. We have seen darkness only when our cords are severed, but this!” It gestures at Benrey and swings its head to its fellow lookout. “Darkness. Disruption. It is removed.”


The word spills out of Benrey and Gordon at the exact same time, and Gordon can tell from a quick glimpse at Benrey that he’s taking a bit too much joy in that. He nudges Gordon with his elbow. Gordon can feel the word “jinx” coming, but cuts him off with a shove. His attention turns back to the Vortigaunt.

“Not even the Combine lurks in such shadow. This explains much to us. We shall oversee the removal of the obstruction, return you to the Vortessence, and cleanse—”

“Whoa, no.” There’s an unexpected spike in anxiety in the man in the jumpsuit as he quickly steps between the alien and… whatever the hell Benrey is. And Benrey responds with a quiet sniff.

“weird,” is all he offers before angling his head toward a cracked door along the side of the car. It’s a clear indication that he’s already thinking about moseying onward. And the man in the jumpsuit seems to agree, as he lunges over and rips open the door with surprising urgency.

“Yeah, maybe it’s best if you go,” he urges. The Vortigaunt protests, but Gordon doesn’t really catch what it says. Something about it being foolish. Something about darkness and doom. Something he really doesn’t need to hear right now, and something he doesn’t get a chance to chew on before he finds himself being bodily herded out of the room.

“Jesus, okay, personal space!”

“Be careful now. We really can’t afford to get noticed,” the man cuts him off, ignoring him. He hears Benrey’s boots crunch on rocky ground and is practically shoved out after him. “Civil Protection catches you down here, it’s bad news for the whole railroad.”

Gordon lands on the ground with a grunt and stumbles to his knees. By the time he looks up, the door is already screeching closed above him. The Vortigaunt’s voice is cut off by an inch and a half of metal, but the last thing he hears through the crack is a solemn promise to restore “the Freeman” to… well. He never finds out. The door is shut before the sentence can be completed. And it weighs on him, heavily, as he flops back on his ass in a pile of dirt and gravel, staring up from whence he came.

Benrey sidles up next to him, feet planted firmly in the debris and his arms crossed. He pouts at the door, then at Gordon. “my snacks are still in there. they stole my snacks, bro.”

If he’s expecting sympathy, Gordon doesn’t know what to tell him. He pulls his knees to his chest, buries his face in his palms, and sighs. It’s a loud, growling, cathartic sigh, but it does little to return his heart rate to normal.

And then, with a final defeated groan, he clambers to his feet. He picks the only direction he can go, and he begins walking again.

[table of contents]


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