Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 7

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The manhacks’ sights seem to align on Gordon as one, a dozen sinister, glowing eyes swiveling to face him with an uncanny simultaneity. The drip of water from the pipes above slows to a halt. Gordon can count the seconds in between each sluggish heartbeat—

One. His eyes slide to the explosive barrels above, beside, all around him, stacked precariously from floor to ceiling.

Two. The manhacks bounce against the walls, grinding and spitting, then jerk back into their intended paths.

Three. Footsteps. Behind him.

Thud. Sparks fly.

“yoink,” he hears, a voice right in his ear, and the goosebumps don’t have the time to crawl down his neck before the ground gives under him with a sickening shoomp.

Legs - waist - arms, head, dragged underneath and subsumed into something cold and gritty, giving way like the thinnest of fluids but compressing him from all directions and crushing him tight, so tight, he can’t breathe, he opens his mouth to shout but feels it filled to the brim with sand -

And then his eyes dip under the surface just as those sparks catch the fumes the wrong way, a roaring, cataclysmic light blossoming into view for a fraction of a second before winking out like a candle. Heat briefly washes over the top of his head before it, too, gets snuffed. There’s nothing, nothing, all around him, but Gordon can’t move a muscle or so much as blink, utterly frozen in place.

Pinned. Like a butterfly to a piece of parchment. Lanced through every conceivable space between his atoms.

It’s impossible to tell how long he’s trapped like this - it could be seconds, it could be hours, he doesn’t know, it all stretches out into the same agonizing drip - before he’s forcibly dragged upward again. Gordon breaches the surface of the floor with a gasp. The rest of him follows suit in short order, those unearthly pins and needles vanishing the moment he returns to the chamber.

Gordon stares straight forward, eyebrows singed and knees wobbly, then drops to the ground. Criss-cross applesauce. It takes him a solid minute to register Benrey opting to sit next to him, head turning slowly to face him. He blinks.

“happy new year,” Benrey tells him. His fingers waggle in an arc.

“What,” he starts, “the fuck. Was that.”


“No, the— The fucking—” His voice sputters out, unable to even conceptualize what just happened to him, let alone put it to words. Gordon’s hands gesture furiously in an attempt to convey it.

Benrey only tilts his head in response.

“You know what you did!” That’s what Gordon settles on, anyway. “How am I not, like,” he continues, ending that statement by mimicking an explosion with his mouth and hands.

“uhh… you know,” says Benrey.

He most certainly does not know, at least, not until Benrey sinks straight down into the floor next to him. And then pops back into place.

“Wh— Did you noclip me?”

Benrey raises his eyebrows, and his nose wrinkles. Like Gordon’s being stupid. “like you haven’t done it before?”

“Uh, no! People can’t just noclip! You are literally the only person I have ever seen noclip!”

“press v. idiot.”

The color starts to come back to Gordon’s face, roused by the excitement of a fresh argument. “I-I don’t have a— I’m not playing this shit on keyboard, bro! It’s all VR, I only have these stupid little… wands, or handles, I don’t know what they’re actually called.”

He clenches his hands around them. Or rather, he tries to. He doesn’t feel anything there when he does, and he— he doesn’t know if that’s normal. He doesn’t remember. Back in Black Mesa, there was a lot of shit going on, okay, a lot of plates to juggle, and he wasn’t getting very much sleep, besides. There’s a lot Gordon doesn’t remember for certain, now that he thinks about it. But what he does know is that he’s never fucking felt something like that before. And he’s not keen on feeling it again.

Instead of elaborating, though, Benrey pulls out a little notebook from his front pocket and flips through a couple pages. “wands, huh. i’m gonna have to fine you for, uh, sorceling without a license? four… four dollars. please,” he says, hand outstretched like he’s awaiting payment.

Gordon wheezes with laughter, taken aback.

“So, like,” he says after he catches his breath, “if you can just noclip me like that, okay, hear me out: why not just noclip me all the way to the end of the game? Then we can stop playing and go home. Get that pizza.”

“can’t do that.” Benrey starts to pick at his fingernails.

“Why not? Is there, like, a time limit?”


“Okay,” Gordon says. He really draws it out, too, hoping that Benrey will get the hint and continue the conversation. When he doesn’t, however, Gordon’s gotta give it some gas himself. “So why not?”

“don’t feel like it.”

Gordon’s eyebrows knit together in frustration. “What, so you’d rather do this the hard way? It’s gotta be easier for you to just drag me through to the final boss. You don’t even— you don’t even like me, man. And I don’t like you. It’s a win-win scenario.”

Benrey seems utterly engrossed by his nails, since he’s glaring at them like they owe him money. “yeah. i don’t like you,” he grunts at last.

“Glad we’re on the same page, then,” says Gordon, though he’s left with the distinct feeling that there’s something he’s missing.



A silence unfurls between them with all the grace of an inflatable life raft, violently shoving them apart.

They’re… fighting, right? This is a fight. But it’s a less overt one than he’s used to, and he fidgets, uncomfortable. He doesn’t have anything to yell at Benrey about right now, and Benrey doesn’t have anything cutting to say in turn, and Gordon’s left at a loss. His eyes dart around the room, like it’ll unlock some new fucking conversational path for him.

As he does, he realizes, to his relief, that all the manhacks are gone. And the barrels. The detonation must have completely taken them out. And him with it, if not for… Benrey. Dragging him through the level geometry.

Gordon looks back at Benrey. Like, really studies him this time. It’s… strange. Looking at him with something approximating a human face. Before, it was all flat, grainy textures and blocky geometry. Unnerving in its own right, especially when Benrey’s bloated head loomed at him from down the darkened halls of Black Mesa, but there was something comforting about it, too. There was a firm divide between game and reality, between human and not.

This, though - seeing Barney’s face slowly twist, mouth flattening and eyes narrowing, with wrinkles and a soft chin and dark circles under the eyes like he’s just some guy Gordon worked with in grad school, instead of a dead-eyed AI gone rogue - pokes holes in that membrane. As does the knowledge that he’s touched that face, however accidental. Gordon’s felt it shift, warm and distressingly alive, under his hand.

A wild impulse tells him that he should touch it again. Just to ground himself. Gordon feels his hand twitch, but adamantly does not listen to it and keeps it right where it belongs.

More than that, though, he’s also struck with the realization that Benrey… really doesn’t want him to lose, does he? This should have been funny to him, he thinks. Watching himself get blown to smithereens and ragdolling all over the room? Hell, Gordon would’ve laughed, too. But maybe Benrey’s actually started listening to him. Which is great, you know, since he’s spent the past few hours begging Benrey to stop trying to get him killed.

An unfamiliar feeling, brother both to relief and camaraderie, starts to sprout in his chest.

Then Benrey yanks him out of that train of thought by asking, “what are you looking at?”, and Gordon jerks his gaze away so fast it gives him whiplash.

“Nothing! I-I’m not looking at— You just— You had something on your face,” Gordon lies. You know, like a liar.

Benrey scrubs at his face with the back of his hand anyway, trying to get it off. Whatever it is. Gordon can’t help but watch the way his nose and mouth screw up under the pressure. A face of flesh and blood. Clay given the appearance of life, by way of scripts and algorithms and neural networks that Gordon can’t even begin to fathom.

But maybe he can start to pry them apart. He’s the guy with the crowbar, after all. That’s what he’s good at.

“So,” he starts, awkward, “you, uh, you got any other magic tricks?”

He feels stupid the moment he says it. He feels even stupider when Benrey freezes midway through wiping his nose, then slowly drops his hand back to his lap, saying, “what are you— what are you fuckin’ talking about?”

“I don’t know,” Gordon groans, “I’m just trying to— I— I’m not good at icebreakers, man.” Then he mutters to himself, “Maybe this is why girls don’t talk to me.”

“why would you talk to girls? you could talk to… uh… plants. rats. sewer rats.”

“Benrey, I haven’t seen a single rat the entire time we’ve been in these sewers. Which is… kind of weird, now that I think about it,” he says.

“they’re scared of you.”

Gordon snorts. “Nah, dude, they’re scared of you. They’re all squeakin’ to themselves, like, ‘oh no, it’s Benrey, he’s gonna gobble us!’”

Benrey snaps his teeth playfully at Gordon to sell the joke. And, wow, do those look sharp. Did they always look that sharp? He laughs, but it comes out a little nervous.

“you wanna see a trick, bro?” says Benrey, tilting his head to the side with an uncanny swiftness.

“What kind of trick are we talking about— Oh, whoa, that’s a knife. Okay.”

Gordon’s eyes bug out of his skull, because he doesn’t know where the hell Benrey pulled that out from, but it’s big and it’s shiny and it’s way too close for comfort and Benrey’s turning it in his hand like it’s a neat new toy instead of a fucking knife.

“Awesome!” His voice breaks, barely-restrained terror kicking it up a few octaves. “Cool trick! You can put that away now!”

“what? that’s not the trick.” Benrey shuffles closer. Gordon shuffles backward in equal measure. He doesn’t get far before he hits the wall behind him. Benrey fiddles with the knife, does a stupid flip with it that would look a lot cooler if it wasn’t a hair’s breadth from Gordon’s face. “look. i got, uh… friendly fire turned off.”

And with that, Benrey plunges the knife straight into the palm of his hand.

“Jesus Christ!”

The reaction’s immediate, instinctual, but nothing… happens. The blade passes through Benrey’s flesh as cleanly as a pin through fabric, and when he pulls it back out it leaves nothing: no blood, not even so much as an exit wound. Benrey repeats the motion a few times just to prove the point.

“pretty freakin’ neato. if i do say so myself,” Benrey drawls.

Gordon mouths those first few words back at him, as if in disbelief that Benrey’s actually saying them. “Okay, so, first things first,” he says after a moment, collecting himself, “a little, uhh, social tip for you: People usually want a little fucking warning before you whip out the knives and start doing cool tricks with them!”

Benrey pauses, considering this. Then his face lights up. “okay. wanna see another cool trick? there’s, uh… there’s gonna be a knife. big one.”

“I know! I can see it!”


That’s all the warning he gets before Benrey’s leaning forward, knife in hand, crowding into his personal space and leaving their faces just inches apart, and Gordon feels the razor-sharp press of steel against his skin. His neck. His heart pounds so fiercely that he can hear it in his ears, a dull roar, the taut bulge of his jugular threatening to give way against the edge of the knife on each and every pulse.

“still turned off,” Benrey grins at him. Like he’s just showing off some sick stunts on a Tech Deck. "chill."

“Benrey,” Gordon hisses, hoarse, barely wanting to breathe.

“see?” He pushes.

That’s it— he’s done for— he can feel his skin give, the spaces between his molecules too fragile and wide to keep Benrey out— but it doesn’t hurt. Blood doesn’t spill. There’s only the phantom sensation of sharpness. Then Benrey pulls back, withdrawing.

“What is your fucking problem—”

Benrey pushes again, but this time, there’s a definitive sting to it that shuts Gordon up real fucking quick. “careful, bro,” he singsongs, low and quiet. “turned it back on again.”

He strains to see what Benrey’s doing without moving his head. The effort makes sweat bead on the back of his neck.

“off.” Throb. The sting disappears. “on.” Throb. It returns. Gordon’s knuckles clench. “off.” Throb. Gasp. “on.” He holds his breath again. His pulse pounds. “off—”

“Stop that!”

Gordon’s faculties come back to him at last, and instead of letting Benrey continue to play this fucked up little game of his, he shoves, hard. Benrey’s eyes go wide as he topples backwards, hitting the ground with a quiet noise. Gordon’s— he’s— his head spins, his chest heaves with the breaths he’d been trying to tamp down, blood surging through his whole body. Dizzying him. Burning his skin.

“No more fucking tricks, just— just put the knife away! I’m done!” His voice bounces and crashes off of the walls. “And you’d better keep that shit turned off! If you stab me, or shoot me, or— or fucking, whatever, I’m gonna kill you, man! Suicide pact!”

“yeesh, what’s your problem?” Benrey retorts. “you wanted to see it.”

“That is so fucking debatable dude, I— no, I’m not even gonna— I’m not arguing about it!” He’s not even going to entertain this conversation anymore. He’s getting up and stomping off and looking for the nearest door out of here, whether Benrey likes it or not. He can just stay there on the floor, for all Gordon cares.

Something akin to embarrassment chaps him as he heads off in one direction around the walkway and ends up blocked off, having to go back around the other way. Past Benrey. Who’s just sitting where he landed, watching him. It steams him so badly that he can’t stop his thoughts from hissing out of his mouth like steam, like “Can’t fucking believe it,” “absolutely insane,” he cannot fucking believe that he thought Benrey was, like, actually trying!

It’s all mindgames with him, isn’t it? It always has been. That’s the only reason Benrey’s making him do this shit the hard way. Probably the only reason that Benrey hasn’t outright killed him is that it’s more fun to jerk him around. To watch him struggle and fuck everything up. For a laugh. God, he’s stupid.

He knows the ‘why’ of it, but he doesn’t yet know the ‘how’. That’s the thing that’s sticking with him. Being tormented by Benrey is practically a way of life by now, he fumes, so he’s gotta focus on something more useful. Something less self-loathing. If he can get Benrey to fess up how exactly he got to this game, maybe he can use that to get out and get away from Benrey for good.

“You told me,” Gordon starts, spinning on his heel, “you said that you came here. To look for me.”

Benrey blinks at him. “who said that.”

“You did. Don’t fucking— Don’t gaslight me, or whatever it is you’re doing.” He lurches forward. “You said you came here for me. You were gonna bring me back to the party. But like… okay, here’s what I’m not understanding. How did you get here?”

“uh… door.”

“A door.”


Gordon pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You’re telling me you just… opened a door. And here you were.”

“it was a back door,” Benrey adds helpfully.

“Right, no, yeah, how silly of me. It was a back door.”

Benrey’s expression sours. Gordon’s starting to recognize that look: like he’s smelling something unpleasant. The first sign of a burgeoning sulk. “you’re just… jealous. got no credentials, can’t open nothin’… typical gordon behavior.”

“Wha— Gordon behavior? Look, I’m jiggling all the fucking handles I can get my hands on, okay? None of these doors go anywhere! Here, look, I’ll even,” Gordon says, stomping over to a bland, unassuming door, “I’ll even try that one. Right over here. Bet you two PlayCoins it’s not gonna open.”

“unauthorized betting… that’s gonna be a paddlin’,” Benrey tells him.

It makes him snort. “Alright, fine. Benrey’s scared of losing a measly little PlayCoin. No, no, it’s cool! We can’t all be high rollers.” Gordon grins, relishing in the little huff from Benrey that gets. He thinks he hears Benrey mumbling behind him, an offended (and delayed) whatever, man, and it feels nice to rub his face in it when Gordon jiggles the fucking handle and gets a whole lot of nothing for his efforts.

It doesn’t even phase him at this point. Doors aren’t really doors here, he’s found. They’re setpieces. Suggestions. The veil of a larger, more realized world, pretending to linger just out of sight. It goes against the ethos of a more modern game, Gordon thinks, but given how much of a pain in the ass it’s been to shepherd a flock of AI from beginning to end without the tempting distraction of side paths and hidden areas, he’s come to appreciate it. Especially when the alternate paths are all bricked off and he’s still managing to get lost.

The point being: The door remains closed. Gordon does a gesture not unlike a magician revealing his magic trick. “Ta-da.”

“you’re doing it wrong.” Benrey rolls his eyes, then pushes Gordon out of the way with a really unnecessary forcefulness, in Gordon’s opinion. And when he tries the door himself, it swings open, easy as pie.

“How did you—”

He doesn’t get time to interrogate the situation before it ends, the door slamming shut on Benrey’s back and the briefest glimpse of a dark hall ahead. Gordon grabs the handle again and turns and yanks and furiously rattles the door, but it doesn’t budge.

“Benrey!” He pounds on its flat face, trying to get Benrey’s attention as much as he’s trying to bust it down. “Are you serious?! Get back here! Let me in!”

Try as he might, though, it remains firmly closed. And Benrey’s being fucking obstinate, again. He stands there for a long, silent moment, sweat cooling on his forehead, before he lets his head fall forward and thunk against the door.

“Great. Okay. We’re doing this the hard way. No, it’s fine,” Gordon tries to convince himself, a pitiful imitation of himself just moments earlier, “it’s cool! This is how I wanted to do this, actually. No distractions. Just Gordon Freeman and his big, puzzle-solving brain.”

He looks around the whole of the room, its stone walls mottled and dripping, attempting to put that brain to use. The structure itself becomes more apparent now that he’s got some peace and quiet. He’s been dropped onto the uppermost level of three, which amounts to a raised walkway encircling the other two, all of them draped in a thin film of bluish light. The wall opposite is split in two by an open hall, lit by a single red bulb. Iron bars wall off that half of the walkway, though, and he’s not sure how to get around it. Or if he’s even supposed to.

Below him, the walls slope, culminating in a metal grate that makes up the whole of the floor. And below that, the bottom of these three levels, accessible by a ladder threaded through the dead center of the room. It appears to lead only to pipe large enough to dwarf a man. He groans and resigns himself to climbing down. When he gets to the bottom, though, he realizes a flaw in his plan: the pipe down here is raised a good ways above the ground. And by “a good ways”, he means “even higher than him, and he’s a real big boy”. Built like a tree, his mom always used to say. Like it’s doing him a lot of good right now. Gordon stares up at it for a bit, as if that’ll make some key to this puzzle reveal itself, but reveal itself it does not.

“Oh, it’s always fucking something,” he moans. That should have been obvious from up top, but, like, he doesn’t know! Optical illusions! Sure!

Gordon cannot emphasize enough how much he doesn’t wanna climb all the way back up there. Not when he has no idea when he’ll get another uninterrupted stretch of alone time, anyway. With any of these AIs tailing him, it’s kind of a tall order. Maybe it’s stupid to hope for the best at this point, but it seems like the coast is clear. He could just… close his eyes for a bit. Take a nap. Enjoy it while it lasts.

“Hey, Benrey,” he calls out, more because he’s pretty sure that Benrey’s not listening than in spite of it. It’s kind of a formality. “I’m, uh, I’m taking a power nap! Like, five minutes. I’ll catch up with you!”

“what, on the ground?” Benrey’s voice pops up beside him, and Gordon flinches.

“How the fuck did you get here?!”

“sad. kinda, uh… uncivilized,” Benrey continues, ignoring him. He stresses each of the syllables on the last word like he’s reading it aloud for the first time. “you some kinda animal? huh? lil’… puppy boy?”

A laugh bursts out of him, bordering on hysterical. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, man! How many times did we sleep on the floor before? You never had any problems with it then!”

“yeah, well. that was… camping. hanging out with the boys. it’s always legal and cool to hang out with the boys. only sad lil’ doggies sleep on the ground by themselves.”

Gordon lets out a sigh. “Okay, fine. Call me Lassie or whatever, because I’m conking out right fucking here and there’s nothing you can do to stop me,” he says firmly.

And he means it. The only thing that could make him get up right now is, like, the juiciest-looking cartoon steak, with the bone and everything. So he shuffles into a sort of fetal position on the ground and closes his eyes as aggressively as he can manage.

It’s a good plan, except for the part where Benrey clears his throat and says, “yo, look. the couch wizard came.” And it’s stupid enough to get Gordon to crack an eye open.

To his disappointment, the thing that Benrey’s now sitting on is not, in fact, a couch.

“Benrey, that’s a filing cabinet.”

He looks down at it, surprised. “what? oh. uh,” Benrey trails off. Some thought or another churns sluggishly in his head, before he snaps his fingers.

“That’s a— What is that?” Gordon heaves himself upright to see it better. He cannot fucking believe he’s doing it - he said he wasn’t gonna do it - but it’s not until his head’s up off the floor that he realizes it’s a bathtub. Shiny and white. And upside-down, naturally, so Benrey can sit on it with one leg crossed.


He’s so tired that instead of bubbling over with irritation like he intends to, he doubles over, laughing so hard he can barely breathe.

That’s the last thing Gordon remembers before he blinks his eyes open again, and he’s alone.

There had been a time in Gordon’s life that he’d thought Cincinnati was the worst place he’d ever slept, called away to give a presentation to ungrateful undergrads at some mid-tier university whose name escapes him even now. The speech itself was nothing to write home about, certainly nothing worth hanging onto after it was said and done, but the hotel stay was, something that was etched into his brain like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

A podunk little no-tell motel with hair on the sheets and stains on the curtains, where every surface felt sticky and he was pretty goddamn sure the bathroom had a two-way mirror. He was convinced that wasn’t just his anxiety talking, either. The place had “Norman Bates” branded on it, right under the crooked letters on the sign advertising their free HBO.

He could have dealt with it, and to his credit, he’s dealt with a lot of scuzzy hotels without incident. That is, if not for the fact that each night he’d stayed there, something had seen fit to wake him up at dick o’clock in the morning, leaving him brewing cheap coffee before the sun was even peeking up over the busy interstate just outside his window. There was one night where he was entertained by the shrieking of baby momma drama through the walls, so thin that he walked away knowing the life story of both parties involved. The second night saw a drunk man repeatedly trying to enter his room and, when told he had the wrong one, kept insisting that Gordon’s name was “Paul” and that he needed to stop fucking around.

And it was bad. Very bad. But not quite as bad as waking up on a grimy concrete floor to the welcoming scent of algae and chemical-tinged smoke.

Gordon groans as he lifts his head. It feels as though he’s barely slept at all, and an angry voice in the back of his head is already raising hell before the rest of him is awake enough to remember where he is. He feels for all the world like he’s awoken in a burning aquarium, and he’s greeted only by a morass of dark shadows and muted greys, blurring together over the top of his crooked glasses. His brain whirs as he straightens them, quickly scanning his surroundings: stone walls, cement floors, rusted barrels, and Benrey laying in a pile in a corner not far away.

Funny. He didn’t even know the guy needed to sleep.

He’s snoring softly where he lies, strangely human for all of his general lack of humanity, and the total fucking mundanity of it throws Gordon for a loop. He’s just… napping. Like anybody else. Despite the fact he’d made it through the entirety of Black Mesa without so much as blinking, as far as Gordon could tell. It wasn’t like he ever deigned to join in their little nap sessions, anyway.

But there’s something odd about the atmosphere. Bad vibes, if you will. Something that makes Gordon’s hackles stand on edge the longer he sits in the cold and dark, and the more he becomes aware of another noise besides Benrey’s rumbling. It’s not machinery, or gunfire, or radio chatter, or Alyx, or Combine, or whatever else.

It’s a light tap-tap-tap that Gordon equates with fancy, polished dress shoes.

Suddenly, the snoring stops. The dripping water and the whisper of a fetid breeze falls silent, sounds he wasn’t consciously aware of until they were gone. Gordon’s throat tightens as he slowly rises to his feet, body sore and stiff from phantom injuries. He shuffles around to face the sound - they’re coming up behind him, slowly and deliberately, with confidence - and his heart stops when he sees two points of silver-cyan light glimmering in the shifting shadows.

There’s a… a tear. A violent gash in the fabric of space. Like somebody opened a black hole in the middle of this urban dungeon, straight into the cosmos, a howling darkness studded with starlight unfurling before him. But not exactly: he can still see the brick work beyond it, distorted and discolored and partially obscured, but more than definitely still there. And in the center of this anomaly, standing with a poise that seems uncharacteristic, is none other than the motherfucker who got him into this mess. Oversized suit and all.

“You,” Gordon growls. But the moment he takes a step forward, he feels his muscles catch and lock in place.

The breath leaves his lungs painfully. He is stuck in time, head angled perfectly to look into the eyes of Mr. G-Man Coolatta, though with a new, uncanny edge to him. Uncomfortable. Alien. There isn’t a hint of familiarity in his eyes, but there is the cold, calculating stare of a predator, an almost reptilian fixation that seems both a few steps above and below human emotion.

What Gordon wants to do is to yell. He wants to pound his fist into Mr. Coolatta’s sunken face, grab him by the collar of his fancy jacket, and demand to be taken to where he was supposed to go. Chuck E. Cheese, CiCi’s Pizza. Hell, he’d settle for a Little Caesar’s at this point. Instead, he is forced to watch helplessly as Mr. Coolatta strides toward him, briefcase in hand. His shriveled old man mouth twists up in an unnerving imitation of a smile.

“Doctor… Freeman.”

Gordon finds that whatever spell was cast on him has worn off just enough that he can angle his head to the side. There’s something in those two words that he doesn’t like. A tone, maybe. An emphasis on the wrong syllables.

“I… do not think that we, ah, have met. Before. That is… unfortunate?”

The way he sucks in air between sentences. The wheeze. Pauses that shouldn’t exist. Mr. Coolatta had always sounded weird, sure, but this seems extreme even for him. Gordon feels his muscles loosen and straightens his posture. He crosses his arms. He studies Tommy’s dad with a critical eye.

He glances back over his shoulder at Benrey. Benrey doesn’t budge. He doesn’t even seem to be breathing.

“What do you mean?” Gordon answers slowly, cautiously. “We’ve met before. More than once, actually. You’re the whole reason I’m here, asshole.”

Mr. Coolatta stops mid-stride, pinning him in place with an unreadable stare, and Gordon’s heart sinks. Maybe calling the man who got you trapped in the Bumfuck Nowhere Apocalypse an “asshole” wasn’t the most intelligent of moves, and a reel of what-ifs flashes in Gordon’s head faster than he can parse them. Anxiety grips his heart like a vise and squeezes until pain radiates down to his stomach. He takes a step backwards, laughing nervously, without an ounce of sincerity in it.

“Oh, god. I, uh. I… I didn’t mean it like that,” he says, eyes darting back and forth. "What I meant is, you know. Nice Bulgarian shithole. Is it yours? It looks lovely this time of year. Nice, ah, color scheme? Very… uh… minimal.”

A pause. Mr. Coolatta regards him coldly. Even if his expression is as flat as a dead man’s pulse, there’s something curious about his stare. It reminds him of a cat watching a toy being dragged across the floor. Tensing up for the kill.

“This? Is not mine. Nor, is it yours.”

Mr. Coolatta pauses, but the pause sounds wet, somehow. A grotesque silence overtakes them. Gordon shivers involuntarily, skin crawling when he hears the man exhale. It’s chilly and moist, downright swampy, in a way that reminds him of something. But what? It’s on the tip of his tongue, but it’s too distracted by fear to jump off.

“That’s a shame,” Gordon chokes. “Nice suit?”

He hopes the compliment will lighten the mood, maybe bring Mr. Coolatta back to normal levels of weird and threatening. However, the quiet between them spans on and on, as infinite as the strange, translucent night sky pulsing and churning behind his nemesis. Tommy’s dad cocks his head just a fraction, a quick jerk to the side.

And that feeling. That cold, wet feeling intensifies. His stomach fills with ice water and flips on its side. The last time he felt like this was…

…Xen. He felt like this in Xen, back when Benrey was the big bad; that moist, alien, frigid feeling of being trapped in an alien otherworld, as polygonal as it may have been. But this is more intense, more terrifying, and when Gordon snaps his head up, he notices an almost imperceptible change in Mr. Coolatta’s expression.

It’s faint, but he catches a glimmer of it. A look that whispers, “Gotcha.” The way those eyes begin to glow with a mesmerizing silver-blue confirms a suspicion that’s been fermenting in the back of Gordon’s mind: this isn’t Tommy’s dad. This is… something else.

“Who are you?” Gordon demands.

He takes another step away and swings his head back towards Benrey in hopes that maybe he’ll sit up, help him. Do something. Anything.

But there’s nothing. The entire room remains still, frozen in place just like himself. Jesus, is Benrey even alive? The sudden thought that he may not be hits Gordon like a freight train. Not that he cares about the guy in and of himself. He’s thinking purely about how much he needs back-up in the middle of World War Alien.

“Who. I am? Is not important,” New Coolatta responds, each word a struggle. “What. Is more pertinent. I am a… man. Of business. Perhaps? A friend.”

Gordon’s eyes go as wide as dinner plates. He shakes his head hard and fast.

“I got enough friends, man. N-no offense. Got one hell of a friend right now who’s, uh, causing me enough trouble as it is. And, um, y’know? As for the business thing? I think I saw a ‘No Solicitors’ sign just outside—”


“Stopping! Stopping now.”

New Coolatta steps forward. His steps are brisk and confident, far more confident than his voice. Whatever this guy is, he’s a lot more at ease wearing human skin than having human conversation. Polished shoes click cleanly on the concrete as he sweeps around Gordon, arms folded neatly behind his back and briefcase dangling from curled fingertips with a practiced nonchalance. He circles Gordon like a vulture, waiting for its prey to die. There is no mistaking that he is fully aware of the fact he is in control.

“You… are not my. Asset?” he says simply, confused and intrigued but somehow distant. “My… employers are con-cerned. But I? Am most curious as to… how you happened. And how? You got here.”

New Coolatta pauses mere inches from Gordon’s face and his eyes flick up and past him. That illuminated gaze is now hovering over his shoulder and Gordon seizes the moment to breathe. He inhales deeply, clenches his fists, and turns slowly - cautiously - to follow the stare, as if he doesn’t already know where it’s headed.

Benrey. Still curled up, still unmoving.

“Curious,” New Coolatta adds. “Very curious.”

In that moment, Gordon is invisible to his new foe. A bitter feeling rises up his throat, and shoots straight past his mouth to his brain. The ignition in his brain sparks to life and the engine roars. Jaw clenched and knuckles white, Gordon sucks in another wet, angry breath. The fear is gone. Jealousy rears its head, a great green dragon that crushes its competition.

But why? What the fuck could he possibly be jealous of?

You didn’t even want him here, whispers that sinuous little voice in his head. Didn’t want him following you and messing things up for you. Again. But whoop-dee-fucking-do, he’s screwing up the cutscene for you, ruining your immersion! Again!

You’re supposed to be Player 1! He can’t even let you have that!

He doesn’t think. He doesn’t even hesitate. His hands shoot out of their own accord and find their mark on New Coolatta’s shoulders and, before he can regret his actions, he sends the suit stumbling backwards. Sort of. Whatever New Coolatta is, he’s frighteningly cat-like and sturdy, and he barely makes it back a couple of steps before catching his footing and turning his now-furious gaze back to Gordon.

But Gordon is, if nothing else, a creature of vitriol. Vitriol that overrides common sense, common decency, and whatever shreds of survival instinct may still be rattling around in his head. His lip peels up in a snarl.

“Benrey? You want Benrey?”

Fury fades first to confusion, then amusement. New Coolatta’s lips tug up in a stiff, lopsided smile. It looks stupid. Fake. Like a kid on school picture day who doesn’t know how to say “cheese.”

“No!” Gordon continues, his voice breaking as his volume rises. “You’re going to come out here, threaten me, and then decide you want that guy? C’mon, man! Do you know how much shit I’ve done? I almost died! I have been shot at a bajillion - maybe two-jillion - times! I’ve been killing cosmic fascists left and right! I talked to a girl!”

He flails his arms for emphasis. New Coolatta doesn’t respond, save for a single raised eyebrow.

“And that fucker?” Gordon gestures frantically back at Benrey. “He’s been trying to get me killed! He thinks this is all a big funny ha-ha! I’m the one taking this game seriously! Fuck’s sake, man, I’m the main fucking character!”

The smile falls on New Coolatta’s face and, for a split second, Gordon thinks he’s gotten through to him. This illusion lasts just until he sees where New Coolatta’s eyes have shifted toward, past him to the corner where Benrey is sleeping. Or, was sleeping, Gordon realizes as he hears the shuffling of fabric on concrete and boots on cement.

He whips around, hovering somewhere between ‘angry’ and ‘relieved’, as he watches Benrey’s leg twitch, his head raise. His eyes squint as if there’s light to squint against, and he lets out a baffled, “huh?”

His head lazily lolls over to Gordon. Gordon hears the slow click of dress shoes from New Coolatta’s direction, and a hiss that betrays his inhuman nature. Then, he feels an absence, an emptiness.

He turns back to New Coolatta.

He’s gone.

“why you yelling?” he hears Benrey mutter from the floor. “s’ fuckin’… nap time. can’t yell at nap time.”

Gordon stammers. He practically skips backwards, then sideways, and freezes like a deer as he examines both sides of the room. Benrey lays limp and groggy in one corner. The other is normal, devoid of starscape and weird interdimensional businessmen. It’s just stone, rust, dripping water.

“Did you not see that?” Gordon demands. “Hear that?”

“heard you yellin’. teacher’s gonna be mad. gonna, uh, gonna send you to the corner. time-out. disrupting nap time while the other kids are sleeping.”

“Wh— What the fuck are you talking about?”

“gordon sleepman. can’t even sleep.”

“Benrey, please, I am begging you. Please tell me you—”

“mean. meanman. doesn’t care if he wakes up the, uh, the people-puppies.”


“little humans. people-puppies.”

Gordon groans. His body is still shaking, but he can’t tell if it’s adrenaline, anger, or fear. He decides, like the jealousy, it’s best to not think too much about it. After all, it’s only a game.

“It’s only a game,” he repeats again, this time out loud. He closes his eyes and waves his hand dismissively at his companion. “Never mind, Benrey. I’m sure… I don’t know. I’m sure it’s just foreshadowing. We’ll figure it out later when we fight the final boss or something.”

The ladder in the center of the room stretches not just to the middle level, but all the way up to the very tip of the ceiling, connecting to the roof. There aren’t any platforms, though, just sections of pipe that cross overhead in an ugly, misshapen lattice. And there just so happens to be one particularly human-sized pipe right in front of him, with just enough space for him to clamber on top. He eyes its rusted manifold with suspicion.

“This is stupid,” he complains. “They don’t even— Where was this supposed to go? Up here? Am I supposed to believe that they just had guys crawling all over these things to fix them? They probably don’t even let you have any harnesses! Like some old-timey skyscraper shit! ‘Look, Ma, no hands!’”

As he’s finishing up his rant, Gordon throws himself onto the pipe. It shudders viscerally under his weight, and he winces, stomach dropping, but, despite all appearances, it holds steady. And so he shimmies around this dank little dungeon on his belly, adamantly reminding himself not to look down.

It’s slow going. These were never meant to support his weight, he thinks wildly, which is fucking insane because he doesn’t know why else they would have put in a ladder from floor to ceiling if they didn’t intend for you to get to the ceiling, but the poorly-mounted pipes groan and sway under him and he stops suddenly to clutch them as if that will keep those aged, corroded bolts from giving way under the strain and spitting him to the ground.

Eventually, after the longest fifteen minutes of his life, those pipes cross over to the far side of the room, and a drop of just a few feet lands him cleanly on the other side of those iron bars that had walled him off before.

Gordon steps through the hallway, the one feature in the room that he’s been trying to access this whole fucking time, and his relief at making progress is immediately quashed once he comes out the other side.

It leads to a room, the kind of thing he thought he had a good handle on by now, but this one amounts to a narrow walkway and an abrupt, stomach-churning drop to a pool of water stories below. His stomach swoops. This, too, is bisected by a wall of iron bars, too narrowly-spaced for him to consider squeezing through. And there’s more pipes, of course, why wouldn’t there be more pipes, enormous columns of rusting steel spanning from floor to ceiling in a knotted, rumbling mass. Whatever substances they hold rush through them with such a force that it makes even the grated walkway quiver, flooding the room with a low drone, all-encompassing, suffusing his entire body, peppered with the occasional hiss of steam and groan of metal.

Vertigo grips him by the neck. He presses himself firmly against the wall, retreating as far back from the spiraling edge as he can.

“No big deal,” he tells himself, having to raise his voice over the noise even when he’s not worried about getting somebody else to hear him. “Just gotta… take it easy. Gordon style. I’m always takin’ it easy.”

This is the biggest lie he’s told all day.

The walkway curves around the morass of pipes, jagged and awkward, but he can’t find an easy way down, try as he might. The pipes themselves bend into horizontal platforms beneath him, located at convenient jumping heights. Or falling heights, specifically. Gordon whines involuntarily.

“Ohhh, I don’t wanna go down there, Gordon really doesn’t wanna go down there—”

“yooo,” comes a voice from far below. Gordon’s heart leaps into his throat.

“I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna blow him into— into fucking— smithereens. Just as soon as I get down there,” Gordon mutters.

He tentatively peers over the edge and spots the source: Benrey, floating on his back in that stagnant pool of water. All the way down at the bottom. He’s even got— what is that? A pair of sunglasses? Like he’s chilling in a fucking swimming pool. Gordon can’t help but laugh.

“pool party,” Benrey yells.

“How did you get down there?!”


Gordon sputters. “What?!”

“do a jump… make a big splash!” Benrey makes a “bwoosh” kind of sound with his mouth and flings his arms out wide, which causes him to lose his balance, and he tumbles backward into the water.

Oh. Cannonball. Gordon laughs so hard that he squawks, ugly and undignified.

Benrey doesn’t re-emerge from the water; instead, he pops his head out from somewhere in the pipe forest that separates them. “c’mooon, it’ll be fun,” he says, egging Gordon on. “fun in the suuun. summer vacatiooon.”

“Does this look like a hot vacation spot to you?”

He shrugs. “not my fault you wanna be a… negative nancy, friend.”

Gordon’s mind alights on an opportunity. “Hey, you wanna be my friend? Do something, uh, friendly? Tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do here,” he says. “Ideally, in a way that doesn’t involve me doing any fucking cannonballs.”

“what? pussy.”

“Did— Did you just call me a pussy?!” A shocked, breathless laugh bursts out of him. “Look, man, you don’t know how fucking weird it feels to jump off of stuff with all this VR shit on you! If I fall in real life, I’m gonna get, like, all tangled up in this shit, and I’m gonna make a really stupid noise and you’re just gonna laugh at me and— uhh, the point is, help me out a little, okay?”

“well what do you want me to do, huh.” Benrey leans against one of the pipes, crossing his arms. “can’t be solving all your problems for you, gordon weakman.”

“Oh, come on, that one wasn’t even funny.”

Benrey sighs, and it comes out loud and guttural and cartoonishly exasperated. “okay, fine. since you’re so difficult…”

And with that, he holds out his arms in front of him. Like he’s expecting Gordon to throw something to him. Or…

“Oh, no. No no no,” Gordon insists. “That is the last thing I’m gonna do!” For one thing, Benrey’s just as likely to sidestep out of the way and let him fall on his ass as he is to actually help him out, and for another, there’s no way Benrey’s strong enough to catch him in the first place. It’s just plainly, obviously stupid, from every conceivable angle.

That doesn’t stop Benrey from raising his arms a little higher, entreating him to hop down. “c’mon, buddy, take your lil’ chicken hat off. it’ll be fiiine,” he says in the most demeaning tone of voice Gordon’s ever heard. When Gordon doesn’t immediately do as he says, he adds, “where else do you think you gotta go, dummy?”

Gordon’s ears burn. “Jesus, can you not talk to me like that?” He mutters a few more obscenities before coming to the conclusion that, well, Benrey’s right. For once. It’s becoming increasingly more apparent with each second he spends scanning his surroundings.

Fuck it. Maybe he’ll land on Benrey just the right way and squash him like a bug. Crunch. Problem solved. He bites back a snort before closing his eyes tight, anticipating the worst nonetheless.

“Okay. I’m… I’m gonna do it. You’d better not pull any of your weird little tricks!” he calls down to Benrey.

One… Two… Three—

Air whips past his face as Gordon jumps. His stomach rockets up somewhere between his ears, a tingling nausea and a mounting terror that this was stupid, so fucking stupid, he’s doing an impromptu trust fall exercise with the least trustworthy guy he’s ever had the misfortune of knowing - well, except for that one shady guy who kept trying to sell him molly in the Arby’s parking lot, but this is different because it’s Benrey and—

And he lands with a solid whump, right in Benrey’s arms. Somehow, despite the fact that he’s gotta have at least fifty pounds on the guy, Benrey only staggers for a brief moment and manages to stay upright, arms wrapped tightly enough around him that he remains a good couple of inches off the ground even after landing.

“gotcha,” Benrey breathes.

Gordon feels that heat crawl from his ears to his entire face, which is a reaction he very much doesn’t want to be having right now, thank you. He finds his mouth suddenly dry.

“Great, can you put me down now?” He has to crane his neck back to avoid, uh, you know. The proximity. Breathing down Benrey’s neck.


He pushes at Benrey’s shoulders, and Benrey blinks back at him, bewildered, until some pachinko ball in his brain rattles into the right slot and the light bulb comes on. To mix a metaphor or two. Then he does as Gordon asks, depositing him safely onto his feet. Gordon very firmly does not meet his gaze, clueless as it is, because he has a job to do and that job is looking for his next doorway or MacGuffin or whatever and it is not ‘getting impromptu hugs from a guy with a poor understanding of human boundaries’.

It’s not like it’s a big fucking deal, he tells himself, as he carefully navigates this vertical maze of piping. There’s a valve just underneath them, bright red and ripe for the turning. He’s just— he doesn’t get a lot of those in his daily life, you know? Hugs. Human contact. Or inhuman, as the case may be. He just doesn’t want any of that oxytocin coming from the one guy he is really determined to work up a good animosity toward. That’s— that’s crossing the streams.

And it’s not like Benrey seems to give a shit, either. He’s gone back to picking his nose and telling Gordon to “let it rip”. Which he does, but not because Benrey told him to. It’s just really fun to spin that shit as hard as it’ll go.

When he does, the valve releases a sudden gush of water into the chamber, causing the water level to rise. And rise. A cold sweat threatens to break out on him, that mounting dread that he’s just made a really dumb mistake and now he’s gonna flood the whole fucking room and die unceremoniously, but it halts a short distance under his feet. And, not for the first time, Gordon wishes he could just get a grip.

It doesn’t seem to have done much for him on this side. But it occurs to him that maybe the water’s risen in the previous room, too. Which… might let him get into that massive outflow pipe on the bottom level! He makes his way back, doing that cannonball from a much safer height and splashing over to the walkway, and beams as he confirms his hypothesis. This is the smartest he’s felt in days.

This is his element, he thinks. Slipping into the water from the ladder, holding his breath and slicing through it with powerful strokes, the burn building pleasantly in his muscles. Even the HEV suit doesn’t pose much of an obstacle to him, what with its weight and its ungainly curves. This particular pipe leads back to the valve room, but on the other side of those floor-length iron bars, an area previously inaccessible. For a moment, he lingers in the water. Weathered stone bricks swim around him. At this depth, the pale blue light above has been swallowed up by those mysterious refractory properties of the water, leaving him in the low, low light of the abyss. He feels, for a startling moment, like he’s floating in a sensory deprivation tank, all things hazy and formless in his periphery.

Then Gordon surges to the surface, breaking through it with a gasp. He returns to the realm of the concrete.

“dang, michael pelps over here,” Benrey comments, perched on the lip of the cistern Gordon’s found himself in.

Gordon treads water and ignores him. “Do you see anything up there? Like, any other valves or something?”

“you can’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“they’re, uh… turnwheels. stop breaking the fourth wall, bro.”

“What are you talking about— No, you know what, never mind. I just…” Gordon trails off, instead kicking off toward Benrey’s side of the cistern.

It’s the side with a ladder between water and land. The other side - the one with their ticket out of here, an open hallway with a bright, warm light taunting him from its end - remains inaccessible, like somebody’s deleted the pool ladder in The Sims. Gordon hauls himself out and gives the place a good once-over, and finds… nothing. No switches or physics objects or anything. Just a broken wooden pallet in the corner.

“i’m bored,” Benrey says unhelpfully. He kicks his legs back and forth. “hurry up, man… fuckin’… taco bell’s gonna close.”

“Give me a fucking second! I’m thinking,” Gordon snaps back. He’s palming every suspicious-looking brick he can find, he’s smashing up that wooden pallet, and it’s not amounting to much. “If you’re that bored, just go on ahead without me. I’ll catch up.”

It’s bait, but it’s bait that Benrey has apparently decided not to take, because he just huffs and keeps kicking his legs.

It occurs to Gordon, after spitefully kicking the wooden remains into the water and watching them float, that he probably could have chucked that pallet in and climbed on top of it. Thereby giving him a leg up to the other side. Irritation mounts in him, but he doesn’t breathe a word of this particular eureka moment to Benrey, sick as he is of Benrey riding his jock about every goddamn fuck-up he’s had the occasion to make. Instead, he crouches down and squints. There’s something below the surface, he realizes. Something big.

“Hold on, I think I got something,” Gordon announces, before diving back in. He leaves Benrey confused and muttering in his wake.

This time, he kicks downward, and the pressure builds around his skull, in his ears. It’s gotta be a good couple of yards to the bottom, he estimates. That ‘something big’ resolves itself into a blurry pile of boards, nailed over a hole in the brickwork and hiding behind it a plethora of crates, pallets, large wooden spools. The kind of thing that is so obviously unfeasible and video game-y that Gordon has to restrain the urge to laugh. It’s a bit of a struggle, but he still manages to pry the boards up with his crowbar before the burn of carbon dioxide in his lungs threatens to make him gasp for air, and all those delightful physics objects slowly tumble and float to the top. And him with them.

He clambers atop the nearest of them when he surfaces, although it’s kind of a tall order, what with the way he nearly flips the spool over on top of himself. Gordon grips the thing like he’s a baby polar bear on his first ice floe. He also resolutely ignores the way Benrey’s chuckling at him. He’s the smart guy for once, he solved the puzzle on his own, and Benrey can’t take that from him.

Gordon hoots with delight as he hops off the last wooden crate and onto solid ground. “It worked!”

Benrey follows close behind, opting to jump from platform to platform much the same as him. “wooo,” he says, devoid of enthusiasm.

Fresh off the high of solving another puzzle, Gordon practically bounces out of that wretched chamber, and to his surprise, daylight filters down from the high ceiling of the corridor he emerges into. He… he must have been asleep longer than he thought. It amounts to a narrow canal through the heart of the city, warm light and golden stone, a shallow, clear stream of water lazily trickling from one end to the next. It almost looks good enough to drink.


[table of contents]


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