Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 6

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The air in the empty passage before them sits humid and stagnant. Nothing has really smelled good for a while, but this is somehow worse in its specificity, a mildewy undercurrent to every breath. Gordon hopes, for a moment, that if he rests his head and closes his eyes, he’ll feel better. And it works. For a moment. It’s nice and black behind his eyelids. Like this, he can make out the distant buzz of the city. Tires rolling over the asphalt above. A hum that could be a transformer. A droning noise, thudding quietly into existence from the sky. Gordon frowns and looks up.

A blue light hangs there, bobbing unnaturally and fast approaching. The thick chop of helicopter blades, now obvious, thunders above.

“You don’t think that’s for us, do you,” Gordon asks weakly. Benrey just looks up and blinks.

Long, bright lights begin to skim over the length of the overpass. Their edges cast the canal walls into sharp relief where they slip through the gaps in the highways and crosswalks above. The wind whips around him, and an assault helicopter dips low in the sky, its severe black edges glittering.

The searchlights sweep low. They catch Gordon’s form in the shadows. Just a boot or two. Gordon shuffles back into the dark of the tunnel on reflex, looking for all the world like a startled little crab. But they latch back on him with an inhuman precision, and he has to shield his eyes against the sudden spotlight. His heart leaps, a nauseating, cold throb in his chest. He catches Benrey’s eyes again, and they stare at each other for a moment, their eyes wide with surprise.

And then comes the distant whir of heavy machinery groaning to life, a drum spinning up and artillery preparing to fire.

“Oh, shit— Run!”

All of his limbs clang together as Gordon scrambles to his feet, as ungainly and desperate as a baby deer. His feet slip on the ground, the floor of the canal caked in wet earth, but he shoves himself off of it with his hands and bursts into a full-bodied sprint, skating down the grade and relying on sheer momentum to keep himself upright on the canal’s slick slope.

A high, piercing whine cuts through the air. It’s unlike any artillery Gordon’s ever heard before. A strip of bullets pours into the ground, tearing a wobbly path down the length of the canal.

They flash a bright yellow on impact. Gordon yelps and jerks away, his feet frighteningly close.

The waterlogged earth coalesces into a puddle, freestanding and reaching ankle depth at its deepest. He dashes through it, splashing around chunks of debris and pallets stuck on their ends, as that minigun roars to life behind him again. The path splits in two - on nothing but instinct, Gordon chooses the closer of the branches, and he skids on his feet as he forcibly redirects all his momentum to the left. Piles of earth, swept to the walls, frame a narrow walkway that runs along the outer edge of the dry canal. He scales the half-buried set of stairs up to it without missing a beat.

It’s gotta lead somewhere, right? It’s— it was designed. Somebody built it, or placed it here, or whatever. Stairs lead to hallways lead to doors and rooms and the world he is in has a function, so far as it exists to get him from point A to point B. And, in theory, getting him there without getting turned into hamburger meat. There’s texture to it, sure - he discovers this afresh as he rounds the dead end and something licks his head in the dark, wet and distressingly warm - but texture can only do so much to hide the seams. Gordon lets out an involuntary sound of disgust. He’d know that anywhere: the unpleasant touch of a barnacle. People don’t keep this many barrels of flammables just laying around, for one thing, conveniently waiting to be shoved into the wiggling tentacles nearby.

Metal screams and sputters off the guardrails at his side. Bullet holes explode into being on the concrete behind him, licking at his heels, and at the end of the walkway, there’s a door, cracked open just a hair, and he’s so close to getting inside but there’s barrels, more fucking barrels! Blue and white and in his way! He hurls them out of the way, one by one, blood thundering in his veins as that mechanical whine revs up again, and the helicopter fires at him one last time—

Gordon roars as he wrests the last barrel away and flings the door open. Icy nausea spikes in his stomach, so cold it loops back around to white-hot, and it aches like something septic. He slams it shut behind him to the sound of bullets rebounding off the metal on the other side. Something beeps at him from his suit.

His stomach falls, uncannily like he’s dropping, and he pants, hard. On the inside, once the roar in his ears has died away sufficiently, the tunnel he finds himself in sounds strangely empty. He slumps against the wall.

The gunfire dies down, and he waits there, sweat chilling on his forehead, hoping that they’ve given up. He must be freaking the fuck out, he realizes, like he’s an observer of his own self. He’s so aware of his blood in his body. It’s cold in his extremities. And then a hail of bullets hammers down on the door, and Gordon doesn’t really react like he thinks he should, turning his head towards it as if being pulled through molasses.

Something steps through the brick wall opposite. Gordon blinks at it.

“yo.” It waves at him.

“Hey,” Gordon says distantly. In the dim light, it resolves itself as Benrey. He laughs, once. “I think I’m having a panic attack.”


He shakes his head slowly, then straightens himself up off the wall. His knees voice their opposition to the matter. “Not cool,” he emphasizes, trying to gin up the usual heat to his voice. “I’m having a really bad time. I haven’t slept in awhile? And, um,” Gordon pauses, gathering his thoughts, “like, it’s getting all psychological. IIII might pass out.”

“awesome,” Benrey says.

Gordon closes his eyes.

A spiral staircase leads down, into a watery catacombs. Gordon takes the stairs two at a time. It almost sounds impressive, but it doesn’t feel like it. He’s just hurling his legs forward, one after the other, like so much dead weight. Static buzzes at the corners of his eyes. These tunnels feel like they must have been constructed decades ago, centuries, even, their ceilings low and roughshod. Gordon has to crane his neck forward to scoot under them. They spiral downward, further and further, blending together, barrels and planks and filth crowded in the recesses of each rotation, and Gordon’s vision starts to spin when he stops moving. He shuts his eyes again, right there in the middle of the stairs. That icy nausea floods him, and this time, it hurts. Like something’s reached inside of him and gripped his internal organs as tight as it could.

Oh, God. He’s gonna hurl. Gordon leans forward, hands braced on his knees, and takes shuddering breaths through his mouth.

“haha, you gonna hurl?” asks Benrey, mouth turned up smugly.

“What? No. I just need…” Gordon breaks off to hyperventilate a little. He doesn’t know if it’s helping, but it feels compulsive. “I just need to catch my breath.”

“better out than in, i always say.”

The laugh that bursts out of Gordon is surprisingly devoid of energy. “Since when?”

“uhhh…” Benrey looks around, as if physically searching for what to say, and then shrugs. “now.”

He must consider the conversation over at that point, as he rounds the corner down the staircase and out of sight. At least he’s not breathing down Gordon’s neck. Gordon clenches his fingers on his knees and shudders. The floor spins under him. He stays like that until it slows enough that he can move without losing his lunch.

At the foot of a steep incline, the thin, narrow walkways open up into high-ceilinged access tunnels, clearly more modern than the ones before. Gordon edges his way past more of those goddamn barnacles. His feet feel so heavy and clumsy in the slippery muck that it’s no mean feat. They seem to have taken a liking to places like these, dank and recessed. Life finds a way, he supposes.

The corridors turn tighter and tighter. Corners twist at impossible angles. All Gordon can do is keep his right hand on the wall, closing his eyes when thinking about it gets to be too much. His left hand clutches at his middle on reflex. He’s just gotta maintain contact and keep moving and something about his journey will make sense, in a Euclidean sense. In the distance, he thinks he hears Benrey’s voice, spurring him on, and Gordon echolocates. Like a bat, he thinks, lightheaded. Listening for that call and response, picking up only the faint, insistent beeping of the HEV suit in some kind of warning. He doesn’t have much else to work with. The textures repeat, folding inward upon themselves in endless fractal, and he can’t watch without his brain wanting to fold inward alongside it.

“Benrey,” he shouts back. “I’m back here!”

No response. Gordon’s fingers tense on the wall.

Iron grates block off exits here and there, and shepherd him down a single helpless, twisting path. All these ceilings swim around him, first high then unnervingly shallow. Gordon loses his footing, once, but he crawls back to his feet shortly afterward. The chop of helicopter blades grows louder. His only visual cue in the endless, tangled dark is the blue flash of searchlights as they glance off a grate between him and the outside world.

At long last, after what feels like hours, the knotted halls culminate in a tiny atrium, blocked at one end by a makeshift barricade of wooden planks nailed into a doorframe. Benrey leans against one of the walls, arms folded and working his jaw like he’s chewing gum. Cold relief drips into Gordon’s gut.

“I made it,” Gordon pants by way of greeting.

Benrey’s eyes shift under his helmet, bored, but then widen on contact. “whoa. look what the cat dragged in.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m spinning out, big time,” admits Gordon breathlessly, leaning against the wall himself. His voice comes out high and reedy with nerves. “Not, uh… not doin’ so hot. I’m gonna go full King Kong in a minute! If I can’t… just… catch a fucking break.”

Something about Benrey’s face doesn’t sit right with him. He’s used to a certain amount of scrutiny, but this makes his skin crawl.

But when Benrey speaks, all he says is, “uh, okay. i don’t care. i’m gonna,” and then he trails off into a strange hissing onomatopoeia, accompanied by gestures that shed absolutely no light on what he’s talking about.

“I don’t know what the fuck that means. And that worries me. I’m worried,” Gordon warbles.

Benrey’s already turned around when he responds, “y’know. emptying the tank. whatever.”

Okay. Cool. Add that to the list of things he didn’t even know Benrey had to worry about, being… whatever he is. Not human. Gordon very pointedly looks away. He doesn’t know why it couldn’t fucking wait, but he takes the opportunity to peer past the planks nailed to the wall, taking in a small room with high brick walls and… and a loft. With a man sitting in its rafters. His eyes go wide.

“Hey… Hey!” he calls out. He frantically waves a hand at the crack in the boards.

“Get in here! Hurry!” comes the response.

Well, he doesn’t need to be told twice. Gordon hefts his crowbar in his hands, preparing to pry those boards off, but he doesn’t like how it feels in his hands. Heavy. Slippery. He tries to wipe his hands off on the front of his HEV suit, but bare metal isn’t very good for that kind of thing. Put his weight into it, there, and… Christ, what did he pull? He grimaces and grabs at his side on reflex, then recoils at the touch. And glances at his fingers.

“Whoa. That’s blood,” Gordon says, voice high. A cold sweat beads on his forehead.

He turns toward Benrey again, briefly, woozily wondering if he’ll have anything to say about it. Something funny. Anything, besides standing there with his dick out. But he doesn’t even hear the words coming out of his own mouth, sucked away into a tunneling void that swallows his vision from the edges, before his knees give way underneath him and he drops like a stone into that dizzying dark.

Alyx drops her elbow onto her dad’s shoulder, peering over it to observe his work. He glances up at her with a tired smile. She hasn’t seen hide nor hair of him all day, and from the state of his monitors, she can guess why. Dizzying arrays of contextless numbers cover the screens, and Eli’s cursor jumps back and forth between them, layering line graphs on top of one another over and over, as if divining meaning from the alignment (or lack thereof) between their peaks and valleys.

“Brought you something,” she says, dangling a cloth-wrapped package in front of him before setting it in one of the few clear spaces on his desk. “Headcrab a la King. Louie was feeling creative today.”

“I don’t like the way you say that,” Eli laughs. He takes the package anyway.

“Try it, you’ll like it. I promise.”

He shakes his head fondly. Up close, under the pallid fluorescent light, the bags under his eyes look so much more prominent. And Alyx doesn’t like the way his hands shake on the cloth knot. Something must have really caught his interest if he’s gone that long without heading to the mess hall.

“How’s all the, uh, spreadsheets coming along?” she asks.

“Don’t get me started.” Eli tucks into his food gratefully, and starts to speak in between bites. “I feel like an intern again. Been awake so long, I’m seeing discoveries where there are none.”

Alyx grabs a nearby chair and takes a seat beside him, crossing her arms over the edge of the desk and tilting her head. So that’s what it is. It’s not the thrill of a breakthrough keeping him from a meal; it’s a sense of obligation. That, and a healthy dose of sleep deprivation, she guesses. Her smile falls, and a worried sigh escapes her as she reaches out and tugs his sleeve.

“You can’t keep doing this forever, you know,” she says softly. “I know you’re worried about everyone and you’re trying to help them play catch up, but—”

“Oh, don’t you worry about me, Alyx. I know my limits. If you think this is a lot of work, you should have seen the all-nighters I pulled when we first got to Xen! Goodness gracious, I think I have more nightmares about all those papers we wrote than the Combine.”

A breathy laugh whistles through her nose. She turns him loose and claps him on the shoulder, as if he’s more a friend than her father. Her eyes angle toward the screen he’s staring at and she watches, bemused, as the cursor clicks and drags, clicks and drags.

Data was never her field. She can fix anything in her father’s lab and knew what most of the scientific jargon meant, but her expertise most definitely lay in the mechanical, the physical. The theoretical sciences were best left to people who were around when there was still theory to study. Now, there’s only practice and experience, most theory smoldering in the remains of libraries and universities. There are a few things she can deduce after years of watching him and his colleagues work their magic, but by and large, number crunching just isn’t her thing.

All she knows is that before her, numbers are high that should be low, and graphs wobble threateningly from green to red and back again, and a heat map emblazoned on every page provides a false-color cross-section of a tiny fragment of Xen crystal, rotating in its enclosure nearby. Alyx taps her thumb nail against her tooth and thinks of the mystery cat Kleiner had mentioned in his lab. She wonders which of the lines represented that ill-fated project.

Whatever they are, her dad is entranced. His brows furrow and then relax as he overlays one graph over the other, switches windows, finds something new. She’s not sure how much help she’ll be, hovering over his shoulder like this, but she’s curious. Alyx starts to notice a pattern in his expressions - the way his mouth purses when he spots something he doesn’t like. The way his eyebrows raise when he spots something he does. And the way the latter comes to outweigh the former, slowly but surely.

At long last, Eli stops. He scratches thoughtfully at his beard. The hand still clutching his dinner lets it fall. His body shifts back in his seat and the entire chair creaks with his weight.


“What’s so ‘huh?’” she asks quietly, as if speaking too loud will alert the metrocops.

Eli’s mouth curls into a neat frown, one that’s more baffled than angry. But she can still tell that he’s irritated. He’s quiet, he’s kind, and he’s always subtle when frustrated, but she’s known her father long enough to know that he doesn’t like not knowing.

She glances again, at those peaks and valleys, and tries to divine meaning from them. There’s, well, errors, she thinks. Blips of activity that don’t align with the other colorful lines, spikes just barely out of an acceptable threshold of error. Only two of these charts have such anomalies, the other lines staying varying shades of Parameter Green. If her dad were more in the habit of labeling his graphs, she’d have a better idea of what she’s looking at, but he’s done so many deconvolutions and matrix transformations on the data that it may well not correspond to anything physical at all. And yet, it’s caught his attention anyway.

“You see it too, don’t you?” Eli asks after a long, heavy pause. Alyx lifts her eyes and nods sagely before responding.

“Yeah. I see it. I… don’t know what any of this data is, to be honest,” she chuckles. “But if you ask me, it kinda looks like something… rocked the boat.” A pause. “So, uh, what does it mean?”

Still frowning, he crosses his arms over his chest and shrugs his shoulders. “I haven’t the foggiest. This isn’t my data. Kleiner sent it to Judith, but Judith was already working on the refining of the—”


Alyx’s voice comes out in an uncharacteristic whine that immediately grabs his attention. He responds with a chuckle that’s almost nostalgic. Nostalgic and knowing.

“I know, I know. You aren’t keen on Judith. But, you see, it’s integral to our plans for her to finish with—”

“That’s not it and you know it,” Alyx scolds gently. “I just told you that you can’t just keep taking on everyone else’s work. It’s not fair that everyone gets to have a full eight hours of sleep except for you. You’re not a houndeye. You don’t have to play watchdog.”

“Maybe not, honey. But…” He trails off, his eyes drifting back to the computer screen. “…I don’t know. I feel like I was meant to see this. Don’t know if anyone else would’ve paid it any mind. Chalked it up as noise, maybe. But, you know, this spike coincides almost perfectly with the time Kleiner told me that Barney found—”

His words are cut off by a loud, inhuman sound. Alyx sits straight up in her seat and whips around, spotting her father’s Vortigaunt assistant lumbering down the hall toward the open door. Louie, they called him, and normally he was the coolest cucumber she’d ever had the pleasure of knowing. But when he walks through the doorway, he’s wringing his hands - all three of them - and there’s a glimmer in his largest eye that looks almost human.

“The Eli Vance,” he begins. His head wobbles from side to side and he drones wordlessly between snippets of mumbled, unintelligible speech. For all intents and purposes, he is somewhere else.

Alyx glances at her father, but his frown has faded into something more neutral, his once-pointed stare muted with concern.

Claws clicking against claws. Fingers tangling around fingers. Louie shifts uneasily on his feet and wobbles his head some more, as if adjusting an internal antenna. “The Eli Vance, I have… I have come bearing… news.”

“I’m listening, man.” Eli’s voice is steady and low in contrast.

Something prickles at the back of her neck. Vortigaunts weren’t what you’d call flappable, for one thing. Sure, you kind of get used to the chorus of groans from the barracks when the Citadel gets its hands on another of their kind, but that’s more of a resigned anguish. A distress that mostly makes for uncomfortable paperwork. This is different, Alyx realizes.

She leans forward in her seat.

“News,” Louie repeats, staring not quite at them, but through them. “From my brothers, on the railroad. Words whispered in secret of darkness, that which is unnatural. Cold.” A shiver runs through him. “The one we know as sib… or, should know… have know, haven knowns…”

He trails off, parsable speech twisting into something less so. Syllables recombining and slurring. But Alyx thinks she gets the gist.

“Are you talking about… Gordon? Is he okay?”

He opens his mouth around a response, but disconcertingly, doesn’t speak. In the quiet moments, it’s easier for her to notice the way his chest heaves, like he’s just done laps around the facility. Tremulous and effortful. Then, jaw gurning, he answers at last, “He is… removen from us. We have speak of a void… swallowing, severing, having severed… we speak of a— of a null— nullity. Encroaching upon us.”

Alyx’s heart kickstarts, panic and anger ferociously knotting themselves up in her chest. This time, when she looks at her father, he stares back at her, frown deepened. The blips in form don’t worry her nearly as much as the implications of the content.

As long as humans had known the Vortigaunts, they’ve been aware of their universal constants. One: they’re alien, obviously, with their bulbous red eyes and wrinkled, leathery skin, natives of that place out of space called Xen. Two: They’ve chosen to ally themselves with the vestiges of humanity, thanks in part and whole to Gordon Freeman. The savior of their kind. The one who she’s grown up hearing stories about, equal parts fantastical and hushed with gravitas. Three: The Vortigaunts are linked by a sort of telepathy, a hivemind, and Gordon alone - out of all the humans left on Earth - is privileged enough to have tapped into that pool of consciousness.

Only the Vortigaunt equivalent of a lobotomy is capable of severing their connection to the others, as far as she knows, and she’s had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing the effects firsthand. Or, failing that… death.

Alyx hops up from her chair with a force that sends it screeching backwards. Louie doesn’t so much as flinch, staring past her. “I’ll be back,” she says.

“Alyx, where are you going?”

She’s already halfway out the door before the words leave her dad’s mouth.

Well, this isn’t how he imagined his Sunday going.

Twenty-four hours ago, Matt was whittling. Whittling. That’s how bored he’d gotten at his station - just picked up a hunk of wood and started tearing into it with his pocket knife until it achieved something like a recognizable form. He calls it a bird. It takes a bit of squinting, but it’s definitely a bird.

Now, though, he’s been cut off from radio contact, sealed in his cramped little sewer outpost, given a headache from the rattle of tank treads on the aging brick above, and he’s had a good chunk of hair buzzed off the side of his head to boot. He liked that hair. And to make matters worse, the latest refugee to be sent his way (and possibly the last) isn’t looking so hot. In the, uh, “bleeding out on the floor” sense.

“Stay with me, pal,” Matt says, voice firm and steady, and he kneels down to lightly clap a hand on the side of the guy’s face. He only gets a low moan in response.

So he’s gotta be, what, thirty-something? Or maybe the goatee just makes him look older. It’s hard to tell in the low light. What Matt does pick up on, though, is the high-tech armor he’s strapped into. That’s new. And it’s got a great big hole punched through the abdomen, where the metal gives way to some kind of woven material. Unfortunately for this refugee, whatever did that also seems to have punched a hole clear through him.

A weird sense of calm settles over him in the same instant that the gravity of the situation does. Distantly, he feels his trunk trembling, but that’s all. A palm feels for a throat. Pulse faint, but still there. He could fix this. He’s seen the medics fix things like this before. He—

“hey, uhh, no touching the merchandise, please?”

A man steps forward from the wall opposite, a hand settling on his holster as he appears to lurch into being out of nothing. To his credit, Matt doesn’t flinch, but Jesus. Was he there the whole time?

“gonna need to see your passport,” he continues tonelessly. Almost like he’s bored.

“What?” Matt doesn’t move away, instead reaching under the prone refugee’s arms to lift him. “Are you with him? C’mon, help me get him in here!”


And now he just sounds confused. But after a long, tense moment, in which Matt grows all the more convinced that he made a really dumb move by leaving his trusty pipe in the outpost - like it’d do much good against a stranger with a gun and the emptiest-looking expression he’s ever seen - said stranger finally drops his hand from his waist and bends down to grab the other guy’s legs. What’s up with him?

The ground’s pitted with big puddles that Matt tactically avoids, but the stranger (he’s gotta be a refugee too, right, but the bulletproof vest and company logo seem to indicate otherwise) stomps through like they’re not even there, splashing him with rank greywater. They drop their load onto a threadbare mattress on the ground, some of them more carefully than others. He grunts and wipes his hands on the front of his pants afterward. He’s not sure how much it helps right now, but it’s a reflex.

“Looks like Civil Protection caught up to you,” Matt starts by way of an icebreaker.

That, too, seems to catch the guy off-guard. But Matt’s only making small talk out of habit, like he’s reading from a script while the rest of his brain focuses on fishing out needles and alcohol and his stash of bug juice. Or what’s left of it. The last few travelers haven’t looked so hot themselves.

“We’re tearing up the railroad, covering our tracks. I, uh,” he pauses, prying open the last of his supply crates as best he can, “I’ll see what I can do for your friend. I can’t make any promises, though. He’s in bad shape.”

“wuh? don’t… don’t talk shit about his shapes,” Big Boss Man says awkwardly. (That’s what Matt’s taking to calling him in his head, for lack of a name. You know, like the wrestler, from back when he was a kid. The similarity is striking.) “he’s got good shapes.”

Matt ignores this. He sloshes his jerrycan of water instead, and isn’t thrilled to hear how empty it sounds inside, but he suspects he might have bigger problems in the coming days. So he scrubs his hands as best he can, douses them with a handle of vodka afterward, and peels a needle from its battered packaging. The whole while, Big Boss Man just stands there, hands jammed in his pockets and eyes tracking him across the room from under the shadow of that helmet.

Okay, so, the last time he’d seen Griggs do this, he’d followed all these steps to the letter. Except Matt’s got the luxury of sterile needles and an observer who isn’t prying too much into why. The next part doesn’t seem all that scientifically-sound, if you ask him, but Arlene pulled through okay, so it must have done something good. And so Matt snaps off the business end of his last health pack and dumps the bright green contents directly into the refugee’s open wound.

“that’s not how you drink mountain dew, bro.”

“Oh, he’s a wise guy now,” Matt says, mostly to himself, but he’s not all that sour about it. More ‘mildly amused’. He could use a little levity right now, and it’s a lot easier for him to handle than, like, panic. God forbid. “Might not be how a real doctor does it, but this stuff’s potent. Some kind of… bio-engineered thing. The one good thing the Combine did for us.” His voice slips into bitterness at the end. Those dark eyes remain fixed on the wound, though, not giving Matt a second thought.

Then he reaches for it, like he’s about to jam his filthy hands right into the open cavity.

“Hey! What are you doing?!”

The guy grunts in confusion again. But at least he stops before he makes contact. “uh… helping. helping my good bro—”

“You can’t just be sticking your hands in there! Sheesh, were you raised in a barn?”

“i got… i got grown. in a tube.”

Okay, so he’s a frickin’ test tube baby. Fun fact! But it’s one that Matt doesn’t have the faintest clue why he’s being told, and he says as much. Maybe it’s shell-shock, he thinks, as he shepherds Big Boss Man into washing his hands. Like he’s a child. Yeah, that’s gotta be it. It’d explain that thousand-yard stare, for one thing, and the way he looks at Matt like the very concept baffles him. Something in him softens a little. It’s not like he couldn’t use the help.

“So first things first,” he starts, “you’re gonna help me get his insides back into him. Alright?”

Across from him, Big Boss Man’s breathing gets louder, heavier. Some kind of fear response, he thinks. “uh. yeah. cool.”

“Don’t freak out, okay? This isn’t my first rodeo. Just do what I tell you and we’ll give your friend a fighting chance.”

“‘m not freaked out. you’re freaked out.”

He doesn’t argue with that, because, to tell you the truth, he kind of is. But he still guides the stranger with a steady voice into sliding intestines back into their rightful place, at least, to the best of Matt’s knowledge. He’s no doctor. But he’s picked up a thing or two. And it doesn’t look like he’s sustained any organ damage, which is a good sign. That’s a little beyond his pay grade.

“So… you got a name?” Matt asks abruptly. It’s only just occurred to him to ask, while they’re both buried wrist-deep inside another man.

“b— bope— uh. benrey.”

“Okay, Benrey.” He readies the needle. “Talk to me. This your friend?”

There’s a pause. “best friend.”

At that, Matt glances up at him. Benrey’s fixed him with a completely impenetrable stare, not a glimmer of light in his eyes, and a cold chill runs through him, pebbling him with goosebumps. Okay, jeez, he gets it. He won’t pry. It’s not the first time he’s heard somebody say it like that, but it is the first time he’s been so intimidated by the delivery. They must have really seen some shit together, he realizes.

He can empathize. His buddy Josh was the same way. Never bothered him any then, either.

“Best friend. Got it. Tell me about him,” he says, aiming to keep his mind off of… well. Any of this.

And this is how he finds out, over the course of the most nerve-wracking field surgery of his life, that the guy in the armor is Gordon Freeman. Like, the Gordon Freeman. The one everybody talks about. Honestly, the bright orange armor should have been a giveaway. But the point is, he’s here, and Matt’s the one thing standing between him and death’s door, and he’s gotta say, this was not the kind of responsibility he signed up for: the fragile heart of the Resistance beating limply in his hands. Every once in awhile, the guy groans underneath him, eyes fluttering and abdomen trying desperately to tense muscles whose fibers aren’t in one piece, and he’s determined to take that as a good sign. Means he hasn’t kicked it yet.

He also finds out that trying to talk with this Benrey character is frustrating at best. The thread of his conversations always seems to be frayed, veering in a dozen different directions. Benrey references things that Matt’s never heard of, that he’s pretty sure don’t even exist, and he gets the feeling that it’s supposed to lighten the mood, but he never really went for that kind of humor. It’s more confusing than anything. But whatever it is Benrey’s talking about, at least he’s talking. And every once in awhile, he even says something useful.

The radio silence has been getting to him, admittedly. No news is supposed to be good news, but everything he’s heard echoing around him has screamed bad, bad, bad, and if nothing else, it’s a bizarre relief to know that things are as bad as he’d feared.

But more than that, it’s what the guy with his hands in Gordon Freeman’s guts does when he's not talking. He snaps his gaze back to the wound and just… stares. Yeah, Matt’s a little occupied with his own given task - trying to sew Dr. Freeman up without making him look like an extra in a zombie movie - but every time he looks up, Benrey’s eyes are fixed on the same exact spot. In fact, he gets the uncanny feeling that Benrey’s frozen in place, like a mannequin.

His hands don’t shake. They don’t even move out of the way until Matt explicitly tells him to. Matt suppresses a shudder, but soldiers on.

There’s a hum, quiet but constant, coming from the flickering fluorescent light above the food line. 50 Hz, Barney thinks. Oh, he’s very aware of that one. Sometimes one of the chefs behind the counter jiggles it in an attempt to make it shut up, but it don’t work for long. Not that “chef” is an entirely accurate depiction of what they do. Their job, as far as Barney can estimate, is to stand there and stare you down while you grab your daily shrink-wrapped food items from the trays in front of them. The one directly in front of him doesn’t even look away from the TV in the corner as he picks out rectangles from a tray.

Barney’s gotten pretty good at this game over the years. The Combine only manufacture packaging with certain dimensions, and he’s come to learn which of them are likely to hold what. They’re all of a similar shape and size, an inch or two in height with an opaque white surface and a black barcode printed on the side. But the slightly smaller, denser ones tend to have the high-energy stuff, all your canned meats and what have you, while the largest of them lean more towards your breads and crackers. Fruits are a bit of a curveball. But those canned peaches? Oh, buddy.

A jingle interrupts the broadcast, clear and weirdly melodic. “This is an emergency broadcast from your overseer, Dr. Breen,” Breen himself announces afterward.

Yeah, when isn’t there. Anyway, Barney picks up a thing or two in his position, and a friend of a friend mighta let on that a factory was re-opening production a few months back. Right in the heart of all those rolling orchards to the south. And that same friend may well have pointed out that the crimper they’ve got hasn’t been serviced in years, leaving a distinctive, irregular imprint on the seal. And, Barney thinks as his fingers wiggle over top of a promising candidate, Kleiner might owe him one.

A clerk scans his requisite six food items with disinterest.

“…persons or persons of interest with Gordon Freeman,” he hears Breen say, and his ears perk up.

When Barney takes a seat at a bench and glances up at the broadcast again, he sees a blurry image of a man in orange armor, caught mid-motion as if running away. His mouth pulls to the side behind his mask. It almost seems inevitable that one of Breen’s surveillance bots would catch him going through the canals, but his stomach sinks a little nonetheless. There comes to pass a veritable slideshow of Gordon in various states of distress and escape, courtesy of all those nosy little drones tagging him around town.

Well, at least he’s alive, Barney thinks.

Another figure begins to show up next to him in the photos. Indistinct at first, but persistent, and definitely with Gordon. Barney’s hand stops in the middle of shoving his rations into his many, many pockets. Nobody else should have been with him. That wasn’t part of the game plan. The other Combine grunts start to pay closer attention, too, the usual ambient conversation of the mess hall hushed.

Dark. Short. Armed. And then the next image flashes to a face, partially obscured by a hand. Barney’s heart stops for a moment.

That’s his face.

His heart pounds so loudly in his ears that it drowns out all background noise. He feels exposed, suddenly, even despite the mask, and his eyes dart frantically across the room. Are any of them looking? Adrenaline makes the headcount instant. Most at the TV. Five eating. Three in line. Three engaged in conversation. One, unmasked to eat, looking up from a brown protein bar. Catching Barney’s eye.

Okay. Barney jams the rest of his food into his jacket with a single-minded frustration. There’s no way she could have seen - no, she couldn’t have known he was looking at her, not with these dark eye pieces. Coincidence. But not one he wants to leave up to guesswork. He needs to get out as calmly and indistinguishably as possible, and not immediately turn tail and run into the guy he mostly knows as CP97, mask up and the corner of a ration in his teeth.

“Whoa, there,” he says on instinct.

“Mmm!” he grunts. Then he juggles the many packaged items in his hands, apparently not opting for a tray today, and gets it out of his mouth. “Hey, buddy! I was just looking for you. You already find somewhere to sit?”

“IIII gotta head out, actually,” Barney says, attempting “apologetic” but coming up short. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. He makes like he’s about to step around, but 97 happens to step in the same direction.

“Aw, what? What’s going on?”

He scrambles for an excuse. “Not feelin’ good. I think that 'soy based protein substitute' isn’t sittin’ with me too well.” Barney clutches at his stomach for emphasis. There’s a practiced strain to his voice when he continues, “I’ll catch up with you later.”

97 makes a sympathetic noise, and lets him push past.

Barney measures his pace carefully as he winds his way toward Kleiner’s lab through the byzantine halls of the Combine station, the urge to sprint blistering in his veins. He’s gotta play it smart. About ten minutes until he’s supposed to check back in to pull his shift. So that’s ten minutes to get to the lab without anybody looking twice. Mentally, he shuffles through plans in his head. He’s always liked having a good set of plans. Minimizes surprises. In his line of work, he’s found that he doesn’t like surprises. “Someone running around with his face and blowing his cover” is the kind of surprise he really doesn’t like. And, sure, none of his plans A through Z through Double Theta accounted for that particular wrinkle, but he can improvise.

Just to play it safe, he takes the long way around. Code name for “the vents”. His knees groan at him as he shuffles through them. God, he ain’t gettin’ any younger, is he? But there’s no way around it. Can’t afford to compromise Kleiner’s position on top of everything else. A tin in his pockets digs sharply into his side as he crawls. Oh, Kleiner better be thankful for this one. Barney would laugh, fond and a little dark, if he wasn’t so occupied with making as little noise as possible.

Eventually, the knotted tangle of vents narrows and heads into a back room, its dusty brick walls studded with monitors and server racks. And Ol’ Familiar. Barney slaps the side of the transporter enclosure fondly but gently. It’s dark in here - Kleiner’s turned off the lights and closed the access shutter, just after Gordon left. Unfortunately, this means that he has to fumble uselessly for the switch, and then gives up and resorts to pounding on the door with his fist to get Kleiner’s attention.

A moment passes. Barney swears he can hear a faint “what in heavens” from behind it. And then the shutter starts to roll upward, slow and clearly aching for grease. Kleiner stands off to the side, behind a concrete column, a pipe wrench wielded uncertainly in both hands. The instant he sees Barney, midway through taking off his mask and calling out “Hey, Doc,” his entire body slumps with relief.

“Oh, thank goodness it’s you, Barney,” Dr. Kleiner says, dropping the wrench. He wipes his forehead with his sleeve. “I thought that it might be, but then again, you can’t be too careful. I was really ready to give it to you!”

“I can see that.” He can’t help but chuckle.

Kleiner enters an access code into the keypad mounted on the column. The shutter rolls back down again, just as ornery as before. “What brings you through the back?”

“Well, Doc, that’s what I was wantin’ to talk to you about,” Barney says. As he speaks, he walks toward Kleiner’s desk, pulling his rations from his pockets. Plus the one’s he’d held over from the lunch rush. “But I figured you should at least have somethin’ to eat before I break the bad news.”

“I have been hearing some concerning things over the radio,” muses Kleiner, meandering over to inspect Barney’s haul. “My. You could provision an army with the contents of your jacket. Where do you keep it all?”

“All these zippers and buckles ain’t just for show, you know. Even if they, uh, don’t always make sense to me.” Barney grins and holds the last package aloft, wiggling it in his fingers. The peaches.

Kleiner catches on instantly. “No. You didn’t,” he gasps, a hand to his heart.

“Told ya. I got friends in high places.”

He tosses the tin to Kleiner, who fumbles the catch before opening the white packaging. Just as he’d predicted. “Well, thank you, Barney,” Dr. Kleiner says. “I do love a good peach… Come, eat with me. When was the last time you had anything?”

“I plead the fifth.”

“Fie. At least sit down. You look white as a ghost.”

He does, taking the folding chair opposite Kleiner’s gratefully. It’s only when he does that he realizes he’s shaking. A coarse tremor. 3 or 4 Hz. Kleiner pours a drink into a mug, something hot and brown in a repurposed coffee pot that is distinctly not coffee, judging by the smell. But Barney takes it anyway. It warms his fingers. And it tastes more like chicory than anything else. Kleiner sits with him, unwinding the tin and popping one of the peaches into his mouth.

“Thinkin’ about Plan G right now, Doc.”

Kleiner peers at him over his glasses, aghast. “Plan G? What’s going on?”

“Gordon’s been runnin’ around with somebody,” Barney says darkly. “Not just any somebody. Doc, he’s got— The guy’s got my face! And now Breen’s broadcastin’ it to the whole city! This is beyond Plan G, honestly, it’s, it needs some kinda amendment,” he rambles, pushing his hair back where it’s fallen out of his careful coif.

“He has your face?”

“Spittin’ image, I swear to God,” he insists. “I-I can’t imagine why. I don’t know. All I know is that now everybody’s seen Barney Calhoun’s twin brother pallin’ around with Public Enemy Number One, and I’m lucky I even made it back here without somebody havin' a bone to pick with me. It’s only a matter of time until the rest of the guys in my unit put A and B together.”

Kleiner’s quiet for a moment, searching him. Barney doesn’t entirely like the way his eyes soften. It’s ringing too much of… pity. And he’s survived too long in this shithole to be pitied, Barney thinks bitterly.

“Well, our schedule seems to have moved up a bit,” Kleiner starts, thumbing his chin thoughtfully. “But it’s nothing we can’t manage. You can use a power drill, can’t you? With your help, I may be able to have the transporter up and running again in a few days, and—”

“A few days?” interrupts Barney.

“A conservative estimate, yes, but—”

“I don’t think we’re gonna have a few days,” he says, leaning forward on his elbows. His thumb worries a patch of skin at the inside of his wrist, a nervous tic. “I did my best to throw ‘em off my scent on my way here, but I don’t put much past the hive once they’ve gotten all riled up.”

His mind kicks into high gear, juggling the mental math of a hundred different outcomes. None of the cameras he passed would have caught his face. They shouldn’t be able to peg who he is right away. But they’ve got him at the mess hall. Scanned his rations. A forensics team wouldn’t take long to isolate the security feed, follow him out. Past the atrium. Doubling back. Mixing in with groups of other grunts. He knows pretty well where they hide all those little cameras, and he’s not been caught skittering back here yet. But. They’ll find out where he disappears on the feed. And a smart cookie can put two and two together and reason that he had to have gone somewhere. If they’re clever - or if Breen’s in a bad mood - it’ll take them hours at most to track him down. And Barney’s learned by now just how competent the Combine can be when they put that big ol’ hivemind to use.

Three hours. Worst case scenario. If Barney Calhoun’s having a real bad day.

“We gotta be ready to hit the pavement,” Barney tells him. Staving off Kleiner’s protests, he continues, “Now, hold on. I know you still wanna work on that teleporter, but you gotta listen to me, Doc. Combine could be knockin’ at your door before breakfast. And I’ll drag you outta here if I have to, okay? We can replace the teleporter. We can’t replace you.”

Kleiner closes his mouth on a word. His mouth tightens in such a way that Barney swears the old man’s gotta be holding back tears. It wasn’t strictly meant to be sentimental, but if it works, it works. “Alright. I understand,” he says at last. “At least we have some forewarning. I’ll make sure Lamarr is in her carrier for the night.”

Barney blinks, taken aback. “Is she not?”

“Oh, of course not! She was in the middle of some enrichment activities when you stopped by. I’ve left her in my quarters… hopefully she’s still entertained by that watermelon.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Barney mutters under his breath. “You’re gonna take that thing with us?”

“That ‘thing’ is a valuable research subject,” says Kleiner, haughty.

“Yeah. You mean ‘pet’.”

Across from him, Kleiner shoves another peach slice into his mouth. “She contains multitudes. As do we all, might I remind you.”

Barney snorts in disbelief. The only “multitudes” that thing wants to contain are a multitude of human brains. But at least he’s not the one who’s gonna have to wrangle it into a carrier. And if Kleiner asks, he’s got another thing coming. Barney’s got more important work to do. Sensitive research documents don’t just destroy themselves. A tripwire, a handful of pulleys, and some chemical accelerants, though? Yeah, that’ll do the trick. Better that Kleiner’s got something to keep him occupied, anyway. Barney doesn’t suspect that he’ll like the idea too much.

He rummages through the boxes on the ground floor, intent on digging out at least one of those things until an alarm rings on the computer terminal. He lets it ring once, twice, three times before realizing the doc isn’t coming back to get it, so he sighs and takes a look anyway.

Black Mesa East. Shit. Barney scrambles to answer it.

“Barney,” Alyx breathes on the other end. A hand raises to her chest. “Is everything okay over there?”

“Well, officially, I’d say that everything’s under control. Just between you and me, though, we might be at DEFCON 2,” he says, running a hand back through his hair in a way he hopes comes off as sheepish.

“Hah! Oh, God. I hope that was a joke.”

Barney makes a tactical choice not to answer that. Instead, he swerves and says, “Now, I know you’re not the type to be makin’ personal calls…”

She looks a little abashed at that, a hand coming up to grip her elbow. “Oh. No. Sorry, I had to ask… I just had a feeling. Uh, right. I’m actually calling to see if you’ve heard anything about Gordon,” Alyx tells him, her voice going soft.

Something clatters behind him, and he cranes his neck to see what - a box of folders, now knocked onto the ground, courtesy of Dr. Kleiner clambering around the loft. “I’m fine!” he hears.

“Can’t say I’ve heard from him. We’ve been a little occupied on our end,” Barney starts, gesturing backwards at the scene. “I do know that the Combine’s got their eye on him… We’ve got a live feed here in the lab, all their little robots feedin’ in pictures. Reckon we’d be the first to know if they lost track of Gordon.”

Her shoulders sag. “That shouldn’t be a relief, but,” she trails off, laughing quietly. “It’s just that Louie’s kiiind of freaking out over here. I’ve never seen him shaken up like this… and then he starts talking about Gordon, and—”

“Hold on. What all did he say about Gordon, exactly?”

Alyx fills him in to the best of her ability, or at least, that’s what he assumes. There’s a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo involved, like there usually is when the Vorts get brought to the table. It was fascinating, once, up until it wasn’t. Nowadays, all the vagueness and mystical language tends to make him irritable, wondering when they’ll get to the point. And the point, as far as he can sift out, appears to be this: Something bad’s about to happen.

“That’s about what I figured,” Barney says. Frustration’s obvious in the heated sigh that follows. “Don’t need a Vort to tell you that much.”

Alyx’s face falls. “Seriously? None of that sounds like a big deal to you?”

“Yeah, well, if that premonition coulda come a few hours ago, then I’d be more impressed,” he says flatly. “We’ve already got a big deal on our hands. Now, if Louie could give me a hand figurin’ out what the hell’s goin’ on on our end, that’d be a different story.”

“What do you mean?”

Barney worries his lip, weighing his words. He supposes it can’t sound that crazy, all things considered, but he still hesitates. “Well, I was keeping my eye on the news feed, and I saw the damndest thing…”

First, there comes sound. Voices. Low and muffled. The scrape of wood on stone. The persistent drip of water.

Then, there comes pain. Ebbing into being in waves. They well up from somewhere below him, wherever “below” is. Wherever “he” is.

Finally, there comes light. It creeps into the crack in his eyelids. It aches as if he’s feeling it through a thick layer of cotton. It aggravates something behind his skull, and those waves crest and crash over his head. It fucking sucks, and he tries to scrunch his eyes shut against it, but it doesn’t work.

Failing that, Gordon opens them to the narrowest aperture he can manage. And he sees… a ceiling. He must be on the ground. That’s a good place for him to be, he thinks. Signals travel from his brain to his arms, compelling them to move - lift him up - do something, but something goes haywire on the way from point A to point B and he ends up dropping them uselessly (and loudly) on the floor next to him.

Those voices stop, then start again. “Hey, your friend’s awake,” he hears.

“Guh,” mumbles Gordon, in lieu of the sentence he’d half-formed in his head.

When he fully peels open his eyes at last, there stands that guy from earlier, hovering over him but not quite looking him in the eyes. Rather, he’s looking down. Gordon licks his lips aand finds them dry. A cold feeling in his gut tells him he shouldn’t look down, but he can’t help himself, and he awkwardly cranes his neck forward.

And he spots… nothing. Or at least, nothing interesting. It’s just him. And some blood. But not coming out of him this time; it’s just caked on the exterior of his HEV suit. The violent gash in the carbon-fiber fabric doesn’t part with the motion like he expects; there’s just a gnarled tributary running down the front of his jumpsuit, knitted back to wholeness. That cold feeling rushes to his head so fast it makes him dizzy. Gordon drops his head back down abruptly, and is pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a mattress underneath him to cushion him from a brand-new concussion.

“Take it easy,” the man tells him, a hand on his shoulder. “Your friend and I got you fixed up as best we could, but you lost a lot of blood.”

Gordon tries to blurt out “He’s not my friend” and “What happened to my blood” at the same time, and he ends up saying “He’s not my blood” instead. Then he passes back out.

The next few minutes - hours? - pass in the same cottony, dreamlike haze, while Gordon drifts in and out of his head. At some point, he realizes that he’s awake, and standing, and then he’s standing in a different place, and then somebody’s foisting his crowbar onto him. He nods and says things that might be approximations of words. And, as ever, Benrey’s there, saying things that might be approximations of words himself. At least he’s used to that.

“Look, it isn’t safe here. I’ll give you some supplies to keep you going, then you really gotta go,” he’s told as he’s shepherded toward the exit. Gordon catches the edge of the doorway to keep himself from wobbling on his feet. “They’ve flooded the area with manhacks. Keep your eyes peeled.”

“Manhacks?” Hey, there’s a word! It even makes sense contextually. “What’s a manhack?”

“like battlebots. but in 3D,” Benrey chimes in.

“Awesome,” says Gordon, faint.

Then he’s being pushed out the door despite his weak attempts to cling to it, and he hears, “Good luck out there,” from behind them. He waves back, or at least, he makes an attempt to. The twisting does bad, bad things to his insides.

On a pained gasp, he calls back, “Thanks, buddy!” and then lets out a breath through his teeth.

Ancient fluorescent bulbs dot the halls ahead sparsely, casting them in a pallid shade of blue. The exit’s been hastily crowded shut by pallets and crates, possibly even by that resistance member himself. Good news for him. Bad for Gordon, though, because he’s the one that has to shove them out of the way and smash through them.

He gets through a single wooden pallet before some flying mechanical thing bursts through the crates in front of him, rending them to shreds. Followed by more of its kind, like Battlebots in 3D. Manhacks, Gordon realizes. Okay, he gets it now. They wend slowly through the air with intermittent jerks, propelled by a helicopter-like mechanism, and gnashing blades whir at their fronts.

Gordon swears as he swings at the nearest one. His crowbar meets angry, thrashing metal, and then he swears even more profusely as pain surges up his side. Something’s pulled. Stretched too far before it had a chance to set. His knees buckle, unable to keep him upright. Gordon clutches at his stomach with one hand and leans on his crowbar with the other, a sweat breaking out on his forehead.

“you, uhh, you missed, butterfingers,” Benrey chides.

Gordon’s got a retort hot on his tongue, but Benrey draws his pistol and fires off a handful of shots in quick succession, down the length of the hall. The remaining manhacks sputter, jerking, then explode into twisted metal. There’s an ease and a slouch to his posture that pisses Gordon off a little. Like he really, truly doesn’t care. He does this shit all the time. And Gordon’s the weird one for having a bitch of a time getting through this. That ache in his side pulses and throbs, and Gordon digs his fingers into his palm, stifling an angry noise through his teeth.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Gordon glares up at him. “I’m pretty sure I almost died, Benrey! Like, just five minutes ago! Give me a break!”

Benrey blinks, and it’s like his entire facial expression resets from “smug and condescending” to “clueless” in that instant. He peers closer at Gordon, where he’s clutching his side. “whoa. what happened to you?” he asks, genuine surprise in his voice.

“You— You just—” Gordon sputters uselessly. He was there the whole time! Presumably! Unless he just, like, buzzed off and went to go do something else. Like usual. Resignation settles over him like a thick blanket soon enough. Whether or not Benrey participated in the goings-on of the world around him was largely up to chance. So eventually, he gives up, takes a deep breath, and says, or rather, pants the last half, “Gordon’s biiig hurtin’, man. I— oh, God— gimme a second, I gotta figure out how to… get to my feet.”

Benrey frowns at him. The handgun gets holstered. Gordon’s not really paying attention to him until Benrey’s shadow falls over his face. Then he looks up.

A hand. Chipped nail polish and all. Gordon looks at it, and then at him again, and the gears in his head fail to click. Benrey rolls his eyes under the shadow of his helmet.

“scared to hold my hand or somethin’? huh? too gay for you?”

“What? No!” And out of pure spite, the one thing that could make him take Benrey’s hand right now, he does just that.

It’s warm. Kind of rough. Gordon has half a second to process this before Benrey’s tugging at his hand. He’s not expecting it, and he hisses and swears as he lurches to his feet well before he was ready. The muscles around his ribs clench and release and it makes his abdomen riot and Gordon stumbles, ungainly on his feet, until Benrey steadies him with a hand on his shoulder.

He clicks his tongue. “oh yeah no you are super fucked up, huh.”

“I am aware,” Gordon says flatly.

He glances down at his torso, where plasma fire’s breached the Kevlar, and tries to get a good look at the bandages underneath. They’ve… they’ve fixed him up pretty good, honestly. Like, for what it’s worth. They were just two guys, right, or maybe just one because he's not sure how much Benrey counts, and Gordon presented to them with his HEV suit barely keeping his guts in. And he hasn’t lost the game yet. Somehow. Whatever diodes they’ve got him hooked up to, it really feels like he should have got a fucking game over, a roiling, muscular ache that radiates from his middle to his whole body. A tangible warning.

When he thinks about it, silhouettes flash behind his eyelids - his hand, scrambling to catch something falling out - and he shudders, hard. He’s not going to think about it anymore. There’s a lot of, of, incompatible information floating around, a lot of malevolent code, and he’s just going to sit those bits of data aside for processing later. When his brain isn’t actively telling his body that he’s dying.

“They didn’t tell me about any of this,” Gordon mumbles, when he looks around and realizes he’s been shepherded to the end of the hall. “I was only supposed to run the test for a couple hours…”

“what?” Benrey looks past him, down the corner.

“I was gonna get overtime! But I-I’m not supposed to be in this shit for too long, gives me all kinds of stress headaches and— Christ!”

Gordon flinches away from a manhack that screams its way down the hall, taking chunks of wood with it. Instinct compels him to ready his crowbar for a swing, because he hasn’t quite learned his lesson yet, but Benrey mumbles, “oh, shit,” and lobs off shots at where it’s overshot the approach. Gordon’s heart leaps up into his throat.

“Please be careful,” Gordon begs, voice ragged, with his hands pushing his hair back on his head. He swears he felt a bullet graze his facial hair. “I’m not joking, man, I-I don’t like this anymore! I don’t wanna get hurt anymore! I’m over it!”

He’s— He’s having a hard time reconciling it. In his head. It had hurt. Even appendicitis hadn’t hurt like that. He doesn’t know how they make it hurt. He doesn’t want to think about the why, or the how, because, frankly, it doesn’t matter what degree of reality he’s operating on. Gordon does not want more bullet inside of him!

“well, don’t hit my bullets, then,” Benrey counters, sulky. But he lowers his gun anyway.

These narrow tunnels extend unimpeded for long stretches before abruptly changing direction. Sometimes they fork, but never significantly, only offering brief (yet inconvenient) detours. Or, in one case, a health pack, which Gordon gratefully tears into. He doesn’t really know how these things work, or what part of the body they’re supposed to interact with, but he decides to play it safe and do what he’s used to: chugging the whole thing in one go.

It’s cold, cold enough to give him brainfreeze. A part of him immediately regrets it. But he’s not thinking about it. It’s stupid. It shouldn’t work. And yet, that full-body ache dulls to a lingering gnaw, and the tension between his eyebrows melts a little.

One of the many, many doors in his path opens up to a chamber with a low ceiling, at least, relative to him. The floor abruptly drops off inches from his feet, and for a moment, he dreads the drop, stomach sinking up until he spots a ladder to the bottom. His brain’s not even chugging along fast enough to gin up a defensive mental response.

To whom? He doesn’t know. Himself? Whatever watchful entity has its eye on him? It’s just instinct at this point.

Beige paint flakes off under his fingers as Gordon slowly, clumsily descends. The groan of the rungs under his weight echoes around him in the small space. The floor doesn’t feel so much like the stone of his surroundings as it does a swamp’s floor, dismal and wet, with unidentifiable muck clinging to his shoes on each step. Water gathers in a shallow pool in the center, carried from a tunnel that opens up before him into an unfathomable void.

Splash. Splash. Benrey hops down from the highest ledge, eschewing the ladder and splattering Gordon with a small wave of dirty water. He makes a disgusted sound in the back of his throat.

Then he hears another splash. And another. Not Benrey this time - they echo from up ahead. Gordon slowly reaches to turn on his flashlight, dreading what it’ll reveal.

It catches the flat plane of glass eyepieces, flashing back at him like a cat’s eyes in the dark.

“Shit!” Gordon hisses.

He fumbles with the button, desperate to turn it back off and hoping that their AI didn’t catch the bright light at the end of the tunnel. The burst of mechanical garbling off the narrow walls kind of nips that hope in the bud, though. And the accompanying burst of gunfire. He’s not loving that.

“Benrey, give me your gun!” Gordon demands in a stage whisper, flattening himself against the wall.

“uh, no? finders keepers?”

“Oh, come on!” The splashing grows louder, closer. “All I’ve got is this stupid fucking crowbar! Can’t you just, like, spawn another gun for me?”

He can’t quite make out the look Benrey’s giving him, but he can feel the disdain dripping from it nonetheless. “why would i do that? you’ve been… been a big mean to me. all yelling at me and stuff… hurts, bro.”

“We don’t have time for this, Benrey!” snaps Gordon.

“never have time for benrey,” he continues, settling into a good sulk instead of giving Gordon the gun. “always calling me names, telling me to leave, getting in front of my bullets when i’m just tryna… uh… tryna be a good bro.”

Another venomous rattle of bullets hitting stone makes Gordon flinch and clap his hands over his ears. But, woe betide him, he can still hear Benrey chewing him out.

“maybe… i’m gonna take a lunch break or sumn. takin’ a fiver. gettin’ a chicken sandy. since i’m buggin’ you so much,” Benrey says with a sniff.

“Oh my God, okay, fine! I’ll be nice! Just— Just shoot these guys, man! Please?!” Gordon hurriedly remembers to tack on the ‘please’ at the end, but his voice has broken into a truly embarrassing squeak, all tremulous and borderline weepy. God, maybe it’d be better if he lets the Combine kill him, actually.

Benrey singsongs, “thank youuu,” and promptly lets off two shots down the tunnel. Two large thumps and splashes follow them not a second later.

Gordon remains tense until the ringing in his ears dies down, and he realizes that the sewer’s gone well and truly quiet. And Benrey’s… Benrey’s not even looking at him after that little power play, he realizes, as his eyes adjust to the low light again. He’s just kneeling on the ground near the prone forms of two Combine grunts. Rifling through their vests like they’ve got loot drops. A gear winds, a force shifts, and a spring in Gordon’s chest gets compressed tighter and tighter until its housing begins to crack.

“Was that really necessary?”

Benrey looks at him and cocks his head, not unlike a dog.

“Christ, okay,” Gordon says under his breath. He inhales, long and slow, then holds it there before letting it back out again in the same controlled fashion. In and out. “I can see how this is gonna go. You want me to be nice to you, Benrey? I’m gonna be so nice to you, man. I’ll make your goddamn teeth rot!”

That, clearly, wasn’t what Benrey was expecting. The resulting “what?” that squeezes out of him sounds like it’s being ground between stones.

“Thank you, Benrey,” he continues, simpering, with barely-repressed rage seeping through his clenched teeth. “Thank you so much. You saved me! Since you’re so good at shooting! I bet you’re not even using some kind of, of, some kind of wallhack or whatever! Nothin’ but net, right? That’s why they gave you the gun, right, and not me, because Gordon Freeman sucks at it!”

Benrey narrows his eyes in bewilderment. His mouth opens on a word, but then just hangs there, parted. If he stays like that for much longer, he’s gonna start catching flies.

Oh. That’s good. He likes this. He likes making Benrey shut up for a change, he thinks.

There are a few moments of blessed silence before Benrey’s mouth closes, then opens again, this time with something actually loaded behind it. “they dropped this,” he says. A non-sequitur. At least until Benrey slides something metallic and vaguely rectangular across the floor, pried from the Combine’s arms.

A gun! A real gun!

Gordon scrambles for it the moment he figures out what it is: not just any gun, but a submachine gun, a pleasantly hefty son of a bitch that settles in his grip like it was made for this. For Gordon Freeman to wield. His mouth splits into a grin without his realizing it. “Nice,” he breathes, all that pent-up anger unwinding. He lifts it up to look down the sight, miming firing off shots with little “pew pew” sounds. “Finally, I can do something in this stupid game! I could kiss you right now, man!”

He says this while eyeing Benrey down the sight. Those narrowed eyes have popped right back open.

“uh, whatever,” mumbles Benrey, blinking before hauling himself back up to his feet. He distinctly refuses to look Gordon in the eye when he says, “don’t fuckin’… blow your load about it.”

Freshly armed, Gordon makes short work of the grunts that drop down from the ceiling as he threads his way through the high-walled tunnels. They seem to be rappelling down from the manholes above. Doesn’t matter to him, though. He barks with delight as he nails them before they even have a chance to hit the ground. God, this feels great! He’s finally in control again! He missed that feeling, he really did.

It’s such a relief that he doesn’t even mind the abrupt drop into an open cistern, or swimming past its rotating water filters, or ducking his head deep into the water to dodge the Combine shooting at him through the open night air. They can’t touch him right now. Gordon just takes a deep breath, slings his bright and shiny new SMG over his shoulder, and dives.

There’s no way out above - the walls rise high into the air, unscalable, and a lattice of iron bars taller than even himself stands between him and dry land. No problem. He flicks on his flashlight, illuminating the water and the sediment he’s kicked up. It reveals a small tunnel, bored into the bottom of the western wall and mercifully unblocked. Gordon slices through the water with the grace he’d lacked the last few times he tried it. Sure, yeah, the HEV suit isn’t exactly aerodynamic, but he’s got the technique to make up for it.

“bbbbbb,” he hears at his side, muffled by the water. Benrey. Blowing bubbles at him. Gordon can’t help but respond in kind, just like before.

It’s a tight fit, narrow enough that Gordon can’t avoid scraping the sides of the brick. The darkness swallows him, encroaching from all angles, but when his heart kicks up again, he just kicks his legs harder and closes his eyes. They wouldn’t— they wouldn’t just put in some stupid dead end as a “gotcha”. Doesn’t seem like the developers’ style. The occasional sampling area provides a brief burst of fresh air, grated alcoves where, presumably, some poor intern had to trek down here and lower their plastic cups into the water for testing. Gordon pants like a racehorse the moment his head breaches the surface.

And again. The last time he does, he emerges into a proper service tunnel, with banded pipes steaming and hissing all around him like so many angry snakes. Some inhuman groaning fills the whole of that tight space. In the center, a raised pipeline, maybe a few feet in diameter, ferries water from one part of this massive water treatment plant to the other. It’s warm to the touch. And climbing on top of the fucking thing and following its path seems to be the only way out of this place.

Gordon navigates that slippery, curved surface with unsteady steps, narrowly dodging barnacles and manhacks and gouts of blistering steam that burst from its innards. Benrey follows close behind, but he tromps through the steam like it’s nothing.

“ow,” he says after a delay.

The pipe threads through the facility and out into the open once more. Under them lies a little divot of green grass, nourished by sewer runoff and framed on all sides by tall, tall spires of concrete. Gordon has maybe five seconds to look up at the sky, taking in the smattering of stars that manage to filter through the heavy light pollution, before he hears the distinct sound of tires screeching to a halt. Followed by boots stomping on the walkways surrounding them.

And then, there comes an anguished creak. And a thump. A hatch opens across the yard, and out of it spills one orange barrel after another, where they slam to the ground and slowly roll towards the two of them.

“Oh, fuck this!” It comes out as something halfway between a laugh and a groan, with the latter winning out as Gordon slips to the ground. A bolt of pain lances through his stomach on impact.

By “fuck this”, of course, he means he’s not fucking dealing with it. So he doesn’t. Instead, he darts to the left, furiously ignoring the way each and every stride tugs on something around his abdomen. As if he's a fish on a hook. The SMG makes short work of the white-helmeted drones in front of him, while Benrey makes short work of the barrels behind, his cackling audible over the cacophony of barrel after barrel exploding in turn. Even from here, where Gordon swears he’s made a good distance, he feels heat licking at the back of his neck, and a paradoxical cold sweat begins to bead on his forehead.

That sweat doesn’t dry up once he’s made it out of harm’s way, though. In fact, it swells and worsens, trickling down his face.

An open door spells his escape from the yard, but not from the Combine, whose vehicles roar and squeal and vomit out their cold-blooded contents above. Gordon can’t stop now. He shoulders his way blindly through a winding hallway, the width of a single door across, with faltering yellow lights strung from the walls. Manhacks shear past him, intent on lopping off a nice souvenir to take home with them, but Gordon’s got numbers on his side. Specifically, in bullets. You don’t have to be a goddamn sharpshooter to mow down your enemies with 45 bullets to a mag.

Hallway. Turn. Doorway. Turn. More hallway. That dizzying sensation starts to creep back in, a psychotic vertigo, but before it can really sink its teeth into him, the hall ends in a room with a locked door. And a vent, carefully placed smack dab in the center of the solitary cone of light. To tell you the truth, the hand-holding’s getting kind of old.

“Man, I should’ve gone to a trade school,” Gordon says to himself as he drops to his knees. “Gotten a HVAC certification or something, y’know? Then maybe I’d be getting paid to crawl through all these vents— Fuck!”

Gordon tumbles through a vent grate underneath him on contact, its weak welds failing to hold under his weight. He slams to the ground below with a thunk. The impact winds him, and he wheezes, curling into a little ball as the shock rattles through his entire suit.

“careful,” Benrey helpfully calls down after him.

After a moment, he groans and gets to his feet. He’s landed in… a room. A big room, bigger than any others he’s seen in this sewer system, with multiple levels delineated by walkways and guardrails. Pipes crisscross the length of it, some groaning under the weight of their burden, others hissing impetuously with steam. Gordon spots Benrey sitting on top of one of them, legs kicking idly. How did he get there so fast?

More important than Benrey, he comes to realize as he scans the room, are the orange barrels crammed ass-to-elbows in every possible niche and corner and walkway. How did he miss those?! Time stretches out like taffy as the implications of being stuck in the middle of dozens of explosive barrels with the world’s most unpredictable trigger finger truly sink in.

“Don’t move,” Gordon says slowly. A bead of sweat trickles down his forehead. “I have never been more serious with you in my entire life, Benrey, do not fucking move.”

“i’m just chillin’,” Benrey sniffs.

“Great. Keep chillin’, then. I’m gonna… step around here and check out that doorway. Carefully.”

He spares a glance back at Benrey just to make sure that he is, in fact, still sitting there, and then edges his way slowly toward a ladder up to one of the higher levels. Realistically, he doesn’t need to walk so carefully, stepping like he’s a cartoon character tiptoeing to the fridge after midnight, but he wants to be very, very careful, thank you. Gordon sucks in his stomach on reflex as he squeezes past the barrels on the walkway. There’s an open doorway on the the other end, and from here he can make out copper pipes and steam valves just inside.

All’s going well until he hears it. A whirring. Blades chipping on brick. And, from below, a swarm of manhacks, red lights hovering in the darkness.

“Oh no,” he moans.

[table of contents]


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