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Something Secret Steers Us

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Gordon's glasses emerged broken. In truth, she hadn't even realized they were missing. Between tests, repairs and preparations for her father's wake, it must have slipped her mind, or else she'd assumed the surgeon had filed them away. Later on Dr. Stezenka confirmed she hadn't removed them, that they were already well off his face when he rolled into the infirmary.

Their twisted frame arrived in the bitten hands of a flight mechanic who'd crushed the right lens by accident when he dropped a toolbox on what he thought to be a cord. Didn't even realize till it cracked and then I knew, shit, that can't be nothing good. She thanked the embarrassed man for his honesty, though the lens was now mangled and would have to be replaced.

Alyx examined her handiwork. Plastic bifocals, their stems patched together with electrical tape; few people wore this strong a prescription.

She traced her thumbs over their angled rims. A faint spot of congealed blood remained stubbornly caked to one corner, having resisted a thorough rinse. The skin of her fingers peeled the more she flexed them.

Every once in a while she would oblige a curious impulse. When she held the good lens to her eye, the room blurred and blended its edges, and her temples throbbed from such an impending migraine that she had to lower them.

"Dad, hold on! Dad, please!"

She begged her father until her temples throbbed from the strain. Shaking him yielded no response, but prying his eyelids apart in a naive effort to make his irises see her again only made the problem worse. Unfocused and bloodshot, they lazily drifted in opposing directions as their inner muscles slackened. It was the last grim reminder, same as the blood sticking damp to his jumper and the heaviness of his body, same as his vacant flesh sagging in her arms, that he was dead, and she wasn't dreaming.

A red droplet hovered on his eyelash before spilling down his cheek. His expression was gruesomely stiff, the lines between his brows deepened in the pain of the moment his neck snapped. She managed to fumble one of his eyes open before she saw that last ounce of evidence, and her throat constricted—she crumpled over him, gave way to desperate sobs. Despite her attempts to avoid it, the truth would not, could not, be denied.

(no Dad please don't leave me)

(open your eyes)

(please)

For every corpse she'd witnessed, Alyx had seen just a grand total of three given full-fledged burial. Most survivors chose to cremate when circumstance permitted; for a good portion of the Resistance, burial seemed impractical and deceptive. Bodies freshly washed and dressed looked no different than ones trapped in slumber, and it was easier to think of the dead as ash that fed the fire than as comrades who had once walked beside them. Life was much more difficult to breathe into their existence than death, and they simply didn't want the reminder more than was necessary.

Gordon wouldn't need the smelter. The medics gripped her arms and calmly reassured her of that when they gathered his body in addition to her father's and her hoarse, endless inquiries edged toward paranoia. Gordon Freeman was not dead, but diagnostic shots of his brain made in a primitive CAT scanner revealed swelling that became exacerbated when Advisors slammed him into the wall. One too many unattended concussions had stacked up, and this the straw that broke the camel's back: his skull sported a fracture that allowed liquid to pool against his left hemisphere.

Ironic, then, that dangerous liquid should be the very thing guarding him against the brunt of the damage. The fracture hadn't bled into subdural hematoma like they feared, though the X-rays did show white clouds obscuring gray matter. Stezenka said it first, said it frankly: "Surgery now would be a premeditated act of murder, and I'll not be holding the knife when it happens."

The liquid had forced them into a stalemate. They feared draining it before its time might inflict even worse damage, and they decided instead, while she shivered in the adjoining room, that the least harmful course of action would be to place him under observation until it drained of its own accord. How, and at what rate, remained as yet indeterminable.

Their eyes offered her a feeble sort of pity. Her hands ran cold as they held them, detached from sensation. Don't nourish this fear, Alyx. Try and get some rest. It seems you and Dr. Freeman need it.

That night she wept under her sheets until her chest ached. When the ache subsided, ebbed to an uneasy slumber, she wiped her nose on her wrist and reminded herself of that basic, anchoring fact: he's not dead. He was not dead, though he so strongly resembled Eli lying on that sterilized table she found it hard to believe it wasn't the same bier on which her father lay in wait of the furnace, his hands tucked over his motionless heart.

Clad in heather-gray shorts and T-shirt, his body stretched over the table's padded surface, more delicate in shape than the bulky HEV would have let on. His skin shone pallid like wax, and his eyelids quivered at their lashes as if he were minutes from awakening in a cold sweat.

An accordion-shaped bag pumped from a metal attachment, heaving breath into his lungs via a tracheal tube. His diaphragm rose and fell in tandem with the puffing of the ventilator, made necessary from the times he'd stop breathing altogether. He sometimes jerked and twitched as he fruitlessly swallowed back gulps of air: apnea, which increased their fear of premature surgery.

The diodes attached to his temples ran toward an EEG, while others pulled opposite toward an EKG. According to the spikes of both brain and heart, he was a living dead, one that breathed, oozed sweat and suffered quiet nightmares.

Alyx imagined him adrift over a sea of unconsciousness, his innermost thoughts chopping through its waves. Certainly, his heart still beat, and his secondary bodily functions continued even without the full spark of the brilliant mind they supported, but if nearly two decades of living with scientists had taught her anything, it was that there was no human life without the processing unit.

If she were being completely honest with herself, she would have preferred to watch him in silence, monitoring those minute signs that he remained alive. They insisted he could hear, everything? everything, and that he required the stimulation, even if it came in the form of short conversations here and there.

Right; pretend. While he'd been awake, she'd talk about any old thing and he'd listen intently, but that was before the hangar robbed them both of words. Talk now seemed ill-fitting in her mouth.

Lately all she could do was show him his broken glasses, promising she'd find a way to fix them. She poked a finger through the hollowed lens, wiggling it at him.

You're gonna be blind when you wake up.

Her initial thought was to ask around. Someone had to have spares lying in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, right? Maybe reading glasses they weren't using? Her inquiries, however, soon led her to realize he was severely myopic, much more so than the average bespectacled denizen of White Forest. If he was to see clearly again, she'd have to make another lens from scratch.

Easier said than done. Being bifocal, two halves of differing shapes needed to be mounted together to form a new lens. Probably have to take them down to the shop and cut a mold from plastic resin base using the three-axis lathe…

Vertigo would aggravate his state once he pulled through, so Gordon might have to borrow some weaker glasses until she came up with an improved product. But it wasn't much different than cutting lenses for a microscope. She just had to find the right material.

She pricked her finger, sucked a hiss through her teeth, stuck the drop of blood in her mouth. Better add 'sharper file' to that list.

Gordon's jaw knotted as she hissed. If she watched closely enough, she could see the muscles tense. Even unconscious, he couldn't rest. But he was still fighting; he could open his eyes if he struggled hard enough. There was always that chance he'd return, however foolish the hope driving it may have been. A chance her father would never have.

A flash of light sliced through the window, catching her attention as it spread across his body. The thin, glittering ray painted the walls a bright neon-blue and trickled over the floor tiles.

Glancing up from her bedside chair, she edged her way around a tangle of wires and jerked the blinds open, squinting to discern its source. The comm tower had the bad habit of letting its reflectors idle toward the med bay between operator's shifts, and it seemed as though the beams crossing the dark were for the technicians trying to fix their mistake.

With its three rods converged to point at Arcturus, the satellite dish swung on its creaking hinges, scanning the mountains and the trees for signals hundreds of miles away. Nothing to worry about—

Unless it was accompanied by gunshot. Bang; the dish vomited sparks like a shorted socket and the report quivered through the trees. Shouting followed.

The beams cut erratic gashes through the dark, growing more intense as they descended the hill. As she studied them, she realized they weren't a display but a message. Five lights flicked intermittently on and off.

C-O-M-E
O-U-T
O-R
T-H-E-Y
D-I-E

Alyx bristled at the clamor of orders and boots pounding corrugated metal.

"Sorry, Gordon," she said, "never a dull moment," and locked the door's wall-mounted code before heading out. She didn't feel right about leaving him without some sort of guardian, or even an armed surgeon for that matter. Stezenka knew her way around a shotgun just as well as any of them. But the base couldn't risk another perimeter breach, especially if more of them had returned.

Yanking her pistol from its place on a wall mount, she threw open the crate below it and jammed in a fresh magazine. In the main hall, rebels dashed to and fro, grabbing their own weapons from various hiding places and racking them.

She followed a pair of Vortigaunts out the door. Outside, a balmy gust of summer air hit her, and everyone who sprinted slowed their pace to the point of stopping rigid in their tracks, halted by the swinging of the beacon from the roof of the comm tower. She shouldered around the thickening crowd to get a better look.

"Hold your fire," the gunner on the roof called out, pointing the beacon toward the hill's crest.

Worried murmurs rippled through them, for good reason. She wouldn't have believed it had the light not picked out a succession of rebels being herded from the forest. They trickled between the firs' dark gaps in twos and threes, until about a ragged fifteen appeared.

She cursed under her breath. Bike chains encircled their wrists; some of them limped from unattended injuries, a twisted ankle, a broken arm. Bloodied CP masks hid their faces from view.

Slowly the macabre display filed before the base, with no one on her side knowing what to do in the quiet except wait for the enemy to make the first move.

The captors, Metrocops also worn decrepit from the trek, brandished USPs. Those unfortunate souls they corralled were shoved compliant with the stock end. Many sported bruises, oozing dark stains through their clothing.

Alyx tightened grip on her pistol's pump, holding it steady in front of her. Her pointer finger recoiled from the trigger to keep her from firing prematurely. She couldn't risk wasteful loss of life. Nor could she miss the asshole who headed this operation.

Said asshole descended the hill with the silent population of White Forest hairbreadths away from blasting him into dust. Up on the roof and behind the sandbag barriers moating the base clinked the sounds of other trigger fingers being restrained by the barest impulse. Nonetheless, he raised an outstretched palm once he stopped a short distance from the entrance, his boots crushing thin grass.

"Eto dostatochno daleko." Russian burned through his vocoder. "We know Eli Vance is dead. Bring us the little bitch that leads this kennel."

A warm wind gusted through, swirling motes in the beacon's high-powered beam. Alyx took a few steps forward, her sneakers rippling dust behind her. Her aim held at his armored chest where he'd torn off his Combine insignia.

Traitor with a god complex. Of course.

Guided by the beam, she walked slowly until she stood several paces from the cop. Despite the pinching in her throat, she said: "Good job, you found the bitch. What can I do for you?"

He nodded tersely at her. "Fair fuckin' trade. This belong to you?"

The Metrocop waved for one hostage to be dragged up front, whom he shoved into a steep kneel. Her aim wavered when he yanked off the mask, revealing a familiar, battered face straining for breath.

"Barney—"

His eyes glittered anger moments before they mirrored her shock. Twisting sharply to the side, he bucked his captor. "Get away from us! He's got a—"

"Na kaleni." The cop thrust a heel onto his back, staggering him into the dust, making the skin on her arms crawl. "I'll make this simple for you, dushka. Your base for your litter."

The base for the captives. He couldn't possibly want it to contact the mother ship, that much was for damned sure. Neither did they possess the numbers to make good on the implicit threat at hand, she knew, but her thoughts veered her toward the inhumane consequences of refusing. She imagined their Matches pulsing fire, shooting them down regardless. The cops kicking in the door to find their despised Anticitizen One lying on a padded table in a dim room, all that stood between them and him the meager puffing of a ventilator.

She stared into Barney's pleading eyes.

"Let them go."

"So be it, suka. Die with your strays." Wheeling around, he shot a rebel point-blank. A blast of light ejected crimson mist, raining over his own white-gray mask as if flicking red ink across its plastic.

Gunfire drowned her strangled cry. And then it seemed every cowardly piece of shit who'd ever thought the word 'desertion' came crawling out the woodwork.

"Vance," someone shouted, "he's got a planter!"

The cop used the distraction to haul Barney back up to his feet and throw the satchel, which hit the dust three feet before them.

She swept it up by the handle and launched it as far toward an empty patch of forest as her biceps allowed. Then ran. Ran and ducked, because the primate part of her brain had taken over and told her legs to burst into flight, to get out of there as fast as possible.

With a shock she realized too late that she'd played right into the bastard's hands. Premature detonation crashed with a crescendo of screams, raining down detritus in fiery whorls, sending her toppling belly-down into the dirt.

The cracks in themselves were deafening: her eardrums filled and popped with the sound. Running her tongue over her teeth, she tasted a thin coating of salt. Still alive for the most part, still hanging on.

A brief warm twinge flared over her heart. Shrapnel. The point pierced the first layer of her leather jacket, though it stopped just shy of meeting skin.

No blood.

Don't think of blood. She pulled out the steaming metal and tossed it aside.

Bullets flew past, eating holes in the ground. Green electricity answered the call to battle, piercing milky clouds.

The swimming sounds of gunfire grew salient, and she pushed herself up. Barney, she had to find him in this haze. Smoke curdled the air, obscuring the knifelike flashes dealt from both sides, but looking toward the east, she made out the barest shapes receding toward the forest.

Hunters, antlions, headcrabs. The wilderness bared claws.

"Barney?" She sprinted up the ridge, ripping past stinging bramble, the breath in her lungs shallow and her legs burning with lactic acid. Her breath caught as the shadows coalesced at the summit of a rocky slope, the cop raised his gun— No—

Instinct jerked her out of the path of a bullet that gnawed sapling inches before her cheek, splintering the tree's young flesh. She ducked behind a bigger trunk as more ripped out, scrambling for cover through the dark.

She peered around the trunk, breathing hard. They were nearly over the lip of the gorge. Anything he did put her in an unwanted position of pure defense, the next step before they caught bullets in their backs. Charging him would be a suicide tactic. There had to be some kind of weakness, there had to be something—

Leaves crunched, followed by a loud shout that drew her attention. Barney appeared over the ridge's craggy rim, ducking arms that lurched for him, swearing, challenging. Punting his shoulder into the cop forced them both backward and slammed his captor's temple against a fir trunk, splitting a thin crack over the grayed plastic of his mask.

Go. She built upon the pause his outburst afforded her to scurry up the rocks. But by the time she reached the apex, the Metrocop had snatched his hair by the root and wrenched the pistol into his neck, poised the edge against his carotid.

She whispered it through clenched teeth. "Don't you touch him." Heavy slogging pushed against her calves as brush crushed under her soles. Her sights pointed at a vague incline, not daring to test the darkness but not relinquishing the boundary either. The shadow swam, target hazy, but she didn't need broad daylight to aim.

"Al." Barney ran his tongue over his cracked lips. "It's okay. Just go."

Her head gave a small, solemn shake.

In the next few seconds that followed, the cop tapped the barrel against his nape, deepening his shiver into a recoil. "Don't be fooled by this, Calhoun, you're still very much the afterthought. Eli abandoned you for Freeman, and she'll do the same."

"Shut your mouth, you prick," she spat. "Barney, look at me. Everything's gonna be okay."

"Leave him be," said the Metrocop. "One mutt isn't worth the entire kennel."

A swift shove plunged Barney down the gorge. He screamed for her, but before she could answer, the cop delivered a punch that slapped flat the air pockets in her lungs, made her Hunter wounds scream fresh at her.

He seized on the opportunity while she doubled over wheezing to slam her into a pine trunk, crushing his hands around her throat, digging his thumbs into her windpipe. Rough bark bit into her snarling abdomen.

Shit, no—! Her gun slid out of her holster and hit the dirt as her hand shot down to her hip, slipping from her fumbling grasp.

Starved for oxygen, her body panicked. She bucked and scratched at him, her heart thumping like a mechanical piston. She had seconds to make a decision before one was made for her.

No air. No air.

The gunfire and the electricity, which pulsed hard and fast, grew fainter until it dissolved. The surviving cops fled like the cowards they were. But the hatred, icy hatred, radiated from his every fiber, spurred him on to do everything in his power to snuff her out.

Tight. Tighter.

Paroxysm granted her enough strength (almost from a hidden place full of watchful eyes) to fumble her fingers around a bough at her side. Snapping it off with a gnash of her sticky teeth, she drove the jagged end through the fissure in his mask.

Soft flesh yielded to the blow, and he reeled back with a guttural cry of pain and shock. His hold on her broke, letting oxygen flood her lungs in painful, ragged gasps.

He thrust his gun in her face, though anger gripped her too tightly to surrender her to fear just yet. She knocked it out of his fist and a thunderous flash shook the leaves, sent it skidding down the gorge.

His calm facade shattered, he lunged for her.

Her jacket slapped around her ribs, scarcely more than a wet rag at this point. She scrambled in the dark for whatever she could turn into a quick weapon. Her gun? Hidden under crisp leaves, indiscernible. Another bough. A rock embedded under a film of moss. She gave the heavy stone a solid tug, tearing it free of the soil.

"So you thought you could weasel your way in here, bully us around, is that it? Oh no, you don't," just as the cop bore up again, she smashed the rock across his mask, until the jagged bolt leapt over the skull widened, "I'm sick of you assholes thinking you can get away with it—"

Another blow knocked him down, and she repelled him by spearing a foot into his guts. She brought her heel down on the mask's fissure, cutting short the froth-at-the-mouth scream hurled at her through a tangle of compressors and microchips.

Stooping to an irreligious kneel, she battered him with all her might. Pain registered a faint prickle in her hand and nothing more. Another blow and his armor caved in, splashing wire and plastic shards. Yet a third and the mask finally cracked, revealing the simian grotesquery of transhuman modification.

Warm blood dribbled down her wrist by the time she dropped the stone, painting her forearm in a glistening coat of scarlet. The mask's shards embedded in her flesh gleamed like gems as she turned her wrist, examining the damage with a slight amount of curiosity. Adrenaline rendered it no pressing matter.

The Metrocop lay crumpled on the ground. Trampled pine needles stuck about his head as fresh blood welled down the battered face, past the broken-mound nose, past the mouth no longer open to spew curses. She couldn't look at the corpse, not without a lurch twisting in her stomach, so she turned away, forehead mashed into cold bark— God— Jesus Christ—

Crack.

Alyx whipped around at the sound of a branch breaking somewhere in the clearing behind her, an icy fist gripping her heart. Her fingers, more than used to acting on hardened instinct, yanked the worn grip of her Magnum from its planting place barrel-down in the leaves. She aimed at the nothing that had fallen silent in the whispering rustle, and, for a while, the only sign of life was her breath huffing out.

It was so dark. Moonless. Only a handful of stars showed, scattered across the sky as haphazardly as marbles, the forest swaying dark pines, gnarled roots, bashed rocks, reeking of blood and smoke.

Another cop emerged in her swimming field of vision. She gave a warning shout, stop, shoving the barrel forward, stop or I swear I'll shoot— He climbed, heedless, ascending the clearing at a slow, painful pace.

Alyx blinked back the hot droplets pricking her eyes. Oh, thank God. She ransacked him in a crushing bear hug. A wince and a slight grunt escaped him as he buckled from the force, rocking a little on his heels.

Barney rested his chin on her shoulder, and she bore the weight of his head for a while. When they pulled apart, allowing him to see the Metrocop, reflex jerked his mouth into grimace. He spat on the corpse. "Good riddance. Piece of shit."

The grimness of the moment ended there; they jumped a little as a full-grown pine cracked and fell before them, sloughing off cones. A glowing red pinprick fanned out a translucent scanning field, which swept the clearing for signs of life. That followed by a questioning series of chirrups.

"Up here, boy," Alyx called.

Shoving broken logs aside, Dog squeezed his gargantuan frame through the gap he made. She waved, and he gave an excited hoot, galloped up the ridge and stopped, heralding a message from the comm operator through his communications interface.

"Vance, you okay? How are they out there?"

She shifted her arm, letting Barney lean on her shoulder. "The CPs ran, but—" Wasn't worth it to pursue. "Get everyone back inside. And call the med bay: we're gonna need medics, and—" She bit down on her knuckle and squeezed her eyes shut, deepening the darkness.

"What about the comm dish?"

"Leave it alone; we'll figure it out in the morning. I want everyone inside and the blast doors sealed. Tell sentry they've got twenty minutes before lights out."

"You got it."

She looked up. "Dog, can you please go down to the garage and get the bolt cutter?" He bleeped obediently and took off at an astonishing speed, pawing chunks of moist earth along the way. "Good boy."

"Yeah, and tell him to fetch some hand warmers while he's at it. Mine are like ice." Barney bucked his binds. "Stupid-ass things won't even budge. Been tryin' for days, nothing. Thank God nobody gets tetanus anymore." His gaze wandered down her wrist, to the beads that tapped a steady rhythm on the rocks. "Look at you. You're bleedin'."

"Most of it's his." She tapped on the chains. "These things got cable locks?"

"Hell if I know—" She grasped the first chain and turned it over with her thumb in order to examine the rivets; though difficult to tell in this dark, the sadists among Civil Protection were prone to welding them together to forge a stronger bind. It'd be pertinent now to figure out which tools would best weaken the chain without having to put blades near the skin. "Ow, ow! Don't pull—"

"Sorry."

He sighed, gusting a clump of bang that had fallen over his brow. "Can't feel anything below the wrist," he muttered. "None of us can."

Luckily, Dog hurried with the cutters.

"Told ya these things were strong," Barney hissed, "fuck—"

"Just give me a minute—there." She wiped the blood and sweat from her palms and wrenched down on the handles, the blades biting through the links with a swift snap. "You okay?"

"Yeah… stings, though." He flexed stiff fingers, pushing his thumb into the palm of the other to massage the circulation back into them. There was a belated pause. "Hey, uh. Gordon around?"

And there they arrived to the million-dollar question. As much as she and the Resistance owed him, she had to wonder at his ubiquity. It was almost as if nothing of lasting consequence happened until he showed up, his presence confirmed by everyone in the area.

Still, it wasn't an unnatural question. Barney had the right to wonder at his friend's absence after what they'd been through. Didn't mean she was in any way prepared to answer.

"C'mon," she beckoned him with a wave, "let's get these folks settled."

-----------

"Get your licks in, Vance?"

The medic's voice intercepted her on the way out. Was her own damn fault for not walking faster.

Stopping, she peeled the linen bandage she'd wound around her wrist. Her palm sported blisters, and the congealed blood had assumed its checkered imprint.

"Guess you could say that." She sighed. "How are they?"

"Some better than others, but overall not as bad as we expected." He pounded out a cigarette on his palm and anchored it between his teeth, fishing into his back pocket for a storm match. "Seems our cop friends wanted to keep 'em in relatively good shape, give or take some things."

"Like what?"

"Well, they've all got mild levels of dehydration. I told them to keep drinking fluids, preferably Gatorade if we have any. Bruises and cuts need to be cleaned and wrapped; there's one guy in need of stitches on his knee, but Reid's doing him up now. Shit-ton of surface abrasions on their wrists, as you'd expect, so don't make them do any heavy activity that involves flexing the wrists a bunch, firing a gun, computer work, that kinda crap. Um," he said, scratching at his wispy stubble, "no signs of infection as far as I can tell, which is good. Mostly they're tired, hungry, scared, and irritable from low iron. They need to rest and recuperate, and hopefully with time, their scars will heal."

He paused then to strike the match, cupping his hands around the flame. The match head he dropped inside a water bottle clipped to his utility belt. "That being said, the dorms are getting crunched. We may have to move Dr. Freeman downstairs."

Oh, dammit. "Again? We just got the equipment where Stezenka wants it. Now she wants us to move it all back out?"

"Actually, it was Magnusson who suggested it."

"Well, good for him. Unless he comes up here and threatens to shank me with a can opener, Gordon's staying put." The medic shook his head ever so minutely; neither did his flint-gray eyes oblige any humor as the filter gleamed inside them. "What about the rec room? No one's using that, right?"

He blew a smoke ring.

"We're not letting them sleep on that freezing concrete. I don't want us to be putting Gordon out in the hall, either. There's gotta be more spare room, even if we have to shove aside a few—"

A shout came for the medic at the vestibule. John, ya lazy fuck. Get your punk ass over here and help us carry the body down so Calhoun's not killin' himself. And for Chrissakes, put out that cancer stick. That's just embarrassing.

The medic gave a sardonic snort and flicked his ashes, striding down the hall at a brisk pace to obey his superior's orders. Shut the fuck up, man, you hear anybody coughing up a lung?

Barney, likewise, was stubbornly trying to help them haul a blood-stained tarp into the base. The hostage the Metrocop shot. The effort of pulling her made him bark curses from the pain tugging at his wrists—and his insistence he was fine enough, really, annoyed his companions.

She jogged over to him, grasping him by the elbow. "Oh, Jesus, let them do it. You just got home."

"Heh… you know you sounded a little like your old man there?"

"Come on, sit down."

"Hell, I'm fine."

"Just shut up and sit down, willya?"

"Okay, jeez. Whatever you say."

She made him sit on an ammo crate shoved against the wall, where he leaned his head back and blew out a prolonged breath.

He must have taken a serious blow when he plunged down the gorge; his bottom right lid puffed over the socket as if his eye wanted to wince shut. Not only that, but the patch of bruised tissue that built over his damaged cheekbone showed an unhealthy green tint against his complexion.

From what she understood, Barney and his team were supposed to return to the base in a day. Two at the most. They'd been gone for close to a week, and they'd maintained sporadic contact until then. Bits and pieces of wavelength hailing from differing backdrops—a rustic building, a bedroom with charred tables upturned, a rattling steel cabin—served as their only link to him. When she remarked to Kleiner how it seemed as though they were moving city to city, Magnusson stalked out of the comm room, having thought Barney was dallying. Good grief, Calhoun, you'd be an hour late to judgment day.

Is the old geezer gone? Barney looked this way. That. Good.

She couldn't catch the rest of his explanation. His breath came high and rushed, as if he'd been running the whole time instead of hitching trains. There was a little here about the trains running stupid and circuitous routes, a little there about Overwatch acting like a snake cleaved in two, biting everything that moved, but otherwise it seemed a steady flight. City to city, he said. We're burning our trail as we go, but it's kinda hard when you're lighting the fire at your feet.

The bloody tarp coupled with his heavy reticence stabbed pangs of guilt through her. How many signs had she missed assuming they were okay? It would have been the easiest thing in the world to arrange a scouting party…

"He said it first," Barney said.

"Said what first?"

"That your old man had died." He paused to inhale, rubbing the lengths of his thighs with his palms a few times. "When I first heard, I thought: These assholes must be lying. There's no way it could be true. But it was. They hacked the radio signal a day later and we listened to the playback."

"God," she whispered.

"Christ, it just ain't right." Leaning forward, he buried his head in his hands. "I keep thinking—if the train hadn't overturned, and we'd gotten here on time—hell—maybe things would've turned out different—"

She slid down the wall, letting the pallet beside the crate creak as she perched herself on its thick planks. "Barney," she began, "those things were way too powerful for us."

The words dissipated in her throat.

"Dad's wake is tomorrow," she said, "so they want to cremate him tonight. That was before all this went down, though. Maybe I should tell them to cancel."

He gave his head a resolute shake. "Nuh-uh. No way."

"I don't want to, but if they're still out there— The smoke could alert them."

"And then they'll know they've spooked us. Can't do that."

"You're—"

"In no real shape to say goodbye? Yeah, no shit. Best laid plans." He dragged a heavy hand down his mouth. "You know where Gordon really went? I need to talk to him."

"He's not here." She couldn't help flinching at herself.

"Really? Kleiner tie him up and gag him with a dirty sock?" He shrugged. "Just sayin'. He never gets cold feet."

"I don't know what to tell you."

Barney shot her a look that somehow blended suspicion with exasperation. "Heh."

"What?"

His shoulders hitched again. "Just sounds like you're not telling me the truth's all."

"A minute ago you were saying I sounded like Dad."

"Yeah, and now you sound like when he's tryin' to pull the wool over my eyes. Don't peek behind the curtain, Barn, don't ask what's with all the switches and levers."

Keep your punches above the belt. "I assure you neither of us think—thought—like that."

"You sure?"

"Pretty sure."

"Well, ain't that mighty goddamn comforting."

Make no mistake, Barney could bitch with the worst of them. He sounded like he was simmering now that the immediate threat was gone. She'd give him the benefit of the doubt—tired, injured, that pent-up irritaton would have to bleed out somewhere—but only up to a certain point.

She stood a little too quickly. "Look, we're all bushed and just want to get some sleep while it's still dark out. Don't turn this into something it's not, okay?"

"How can I turn it into anything if you're giving me zilch to work with? …I just want to talk to him a minute, all right? That okay with you?"

She steeled her jaw. "For the last time," she said, "Gordon can't come up right now. That's all you need to know."

"All you need to hear, more like. He's that tired, he can put on his big boy pants and tell me to fuck off himself, yeah? And why're you carrying around his glasses?" he asked, pointing at a tape-patched stem as it poked out of her jacket. "What kinda 'supply run' you got him on, anyway, contacts caches? Shit, Al."

Her hands flew toward her liner, where she'd apparently tucked the bifocals. Dammit, why hadn't she put them back on the table before she left—?

With a growing sense of dread she patted under the wool and, brushing her fingertips over a warm, knobby material, pulled it out to find the remaining plastic lens had melted where the shrapnel had stopped fractions of an inch short of entering her heart. White foam bubbled and cracked on its surface.

She lowered them, mute. Now her carelessness had destroyed both lenses. If it alarmed her this much, make it double for Barney, who knew just as well as she did that Gordon would rather gnaw off an arm than abandon his specs.

He wasn't stupid; his discovering Gordon's condition loomed closer, all but foregone conclusion at this point. All he had to do was keep reading the signs, stumble into the wrong room.

Even so, the words stuck in her throat. She didn't like evading him like this, rankling their mutual frustration, but she feared he would take one furtive glace into that dim, cold observation room and ask questions, completely reasonable questions that would drag her back to the hangar, back to the awful palpitated skip between heartbeats when she first realized her father was truly dead, Gordon soon to follow, back to the unresponsive silence of pooling blood…

"What's going on? What's wrong?"

She shoved the ruined glasses back inside her liner, zipping up her jacket for good measure. "Nothing."

"Like hell it is," he said, his voice so biting it drew forth a bevy of looks from the others in the hall.

She didn't have time for this. She turned on her heel. He followed.

"Hey, kid? The aloof schtick? The cold shoulder? The I don't give a single flying damn what you think thing? I get it. I do. But you know what, sooner or later you're gonna have to open your mouth for more than just sucking in air." When she didn't respond, he tried a different tack. "We already knew about Eli because they told us, all right? You think that was easy to listen to… "

She punched the call button for the elevator, and he went on, much more softly this time, in such a wounded undertone that it squirmed the guilt nesting in her stomach. "Please. If we're in trouble, you gotta let us know. You're not gonna scare me off. Tell me."

What she'd give for him to drop it right now. There'd be plenty of time to break the news tomorrow, just not tonight. "I swear I'm not hiding anything. Why can't you trust me on this?"

He groaned. "What, you think I fell off the first train to Nova Prospekt?"

Elevator sure was taking its sweet-ass time to trundle up two flights, wasn't it? Her teeth touched just scarcely, jailing her frustration behind its crevices. Don't do it. Don't push me. "I think you should stop, all right? Stop."

Honest-to-God anger flickered in his smoke-smudged face. "Why? Fuck's sake, you're acting like he's dead!" For whatever reason, he just couldn't seem to close his own mouth and shut the hell up before blurting something even more miserable."Did I guess right? That why you're pretending he's off playing errand boy? 'cause he's dead?"

"Jesus Christ, Barney, what is your problem?"

"Really?" he asked hotly, jabbing a finger toward the bloody tarp. "You really gonna ask that after what happened back there?"

"No, but I'm not gonna stand around in the middle of the hallway throwing this temper tantrum with you!"

He advanced, ready to follow her into the elevator, until she placed her good hand on his chest and shoved him back, repelling him.

Caught off-guard, Barney stumbled a few reeling steps and froze. The grated door rolled back with a creak, waiting in the ensuing silence.

The crowd's whispering had stopped. Three halls down, Kleiner clutched the door with taut fingers, caught on the threshold of Gordon's room. The place went so quiet the lights' overhead hum seemed to scream.

A Vortigaunt technician approached them, poor soul. He tried to clasp a steadying hand to Barney's shoulder and offer a calming word, but was rebuffed with an agitated shrug. The blood slammed in her veins as he threw his arms wide.

"Well, shit, sorry to point out the Emperor's got no clothes on, Your Royal Highness. I don't know about you, but I'm throwing a tantrum because it seems like whenever I ask, everybody hems and haws and I never get a straight answer till it's too late anyway, so—" He spun around, fists clenched. "Somebody mind tellin' me just what the hell's going on for once? Or am I gonna have to hear that one through the CP grapevine, too?"

She grabbed his arm. "We didn't know, okay? We should've realized you were in trouble earlier, but we didn't, and I'm sorry."

"Gee, don't trip falling all over yourself there. It's not like an innocent woman died tonight or nothing—"

"He's in a coma."

Four words delivered like a slap, too curt and stiff for him to immediately register the blow, the corridor echoing deathly silence; regret filled her as he stood stunned, his expression like someone who'd just taken a bat to the head. He stared without blinking, uncomprehending for a moment.

" …what?"

She dropped her hand to her side. After her father's death, Alyx decided she would no longer mince her words, that it'd be the truth or nothing. She took her sentimentality and packed it inside a space too tight to let breathe, but even that didn't make matters like these any easier.

Barney's anger was justified. Above all he needed trust and to be trusted, not to be left scrambling to piece together the fallout. She knew every time she turned him away, it splintered a little bit of both of them, but she just couldn't do it. As selfish as it was, she couldn't deal with the prickle behind her eyelids, she couldn't deal with losing that last ounce of protective callus she had left and potentially breaking down in front of him like some child.

She swallowed and let out her breath in slow, precise measures, releasing the words that wanted to remain imprisoned.

"Gordon isn't here because he's three halls down, hooked up to every machine we can think of just to keep him breathing. They're too scared to even touch him right now. You know why? Because he has so many concussions that his skull started leaking into his brain. Because we pushed him until he broke. That's why you didn't see him out there."

Her heart beat quick in her ribcage, like a butterfly struggling in cement.

His lips twitched. "Oh," he replied in a mild, bleak tone. "Oh, shit… "

The worst thing about it, she thought, was the lack of punitive consequences. Morale around the base had crumbled, the Borealis just a faint pulse in the backs of their minds as they struggled to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Had her father seen them—with his blood pumping in his veins instead of spread as a stain on the floor of a beat-up hangar—he would have been supremely disappointed. That shame saliently reflected in the eyes around them.

"I'm sorry you had to hear it like this."

"A coma." He no longer sounded angry or on guard. " …He'll be okay, right?" Barney gave a hopeful wince. "Or at least they think he is? He can't be that bad off if—"

She shook her head at the floor. "Barney, I'm…not the best person to be talking to about this." She rubbed her wrist, now aching with a dull throb. "Don't worry. We'll make sure she gets what she needs."

It took him a moment to register her words. He stepped back and heaved a ragged breath, his gaze drifting over each of the hallway's occupants as if he were seeing them for the first time.

"All right," he said absently, swallowing. "Thanks."

-----------

Her sneakers imprinted soft, pliant earth as she carried a jar toward the river.

Rushing over a gathering of moist, glittering rocks, the Dnieper flowed through pine-dotted cliffs. The surrounding air was cool and crisp, the sky a lustrous blue. In the distance mockingbirds trilled, their clear voices echoing through the hills.

Dad enjoyed mornings like this. Unbidden, her mind wandered to a memory of sitting at his side as he watched first light from a torn lawn chair, awaiting the sun while a dewy breeze rippled through the mountainous tree line. His hand on her head was warm as he stroked her scalp. 'Come watch the sunrise with me, baby girl. Fresh air and good company do wonders for these tired bones.'

Call it heartless, but she just couldn't bear to meet his corpse again. A burial would have torn something inside her.

(get rid of it get rid of it don't make me pretend that empty thing is him please)

A jar was reasonable; a jar of ash mixed with white clover gathered from the mountain was not so heavy as to be unbearable. It pressed cool glass inside her hands, sand transformed by heat. So too her father, transformed into something altogether lighter.

Where the river would carry him, she couldn't say; but he couldn't be stuck in the ground where he would be forgotten.

Barney attended his cremation. He didn't want to discuss it, although she wouldn't have pressed him even if he had. Like Kleiner, he'd needed that closure. A proper chance to say goodbye.

Sandy mud squished around her soles. She hugged the jar to her chest, once, before opening the lid.

"Short is our time," Uriah rumbled at the procession. "Too soon must we depart this life to heed the beckons of the most unknowable abyss. But what greater fate than this, to shed the flesh that chains us and inherit the elements that created us? Though we are beaten and demeaned in our bodies, made to grieve beyond measure, we must not neglect our sacred origins. We are All, and All are One."

Several Vortigaunts murmured while bobbing their heads. One patted a man on the back, providing him a shoulder to lean on. A guard beside them made the sign of the cross over her armored chest as she released the ashes into the river, letting remains and petal sweep into the current.

I love you, Dad. Take care.

"Now begins the Eli Vance his journey into the Vortessence; his cause and compassion we Vortikind shall not forget. Like the water that flows before us, so must travel his essence. May the Great Mystery recognize the soul of our kin and embrace him with arms swift and joyous. L'uung tah."

For the next half-hour she, Dr. Kleiner, Uriah, and Magnusson received condolences, thanking the Resistance members who came to help send her father off. Never had she gazed into so many bloodshot eyes, heard so many strong voices catch and break.

Human and Vortigaunt repeated their sorrows to her one at a time.

Your father was an inspiration. Thank you. Truly, this Resistance has suffered a grave blow in the loss of the Eli Vance. Thank you for coming, Dushan. You must be devastated. It's okay. I'm sorry Dr. Freeman couldn't be here this morning. Somehow I think he knows. Eli was the strongest man I knew; I don't know what we'll do without him. Neither do I, she wanted to say.

There came a point where she could no longer cry. Not for lack of trying—her dried red eyes burned for days, only to well over with fresh tears—but amidst the weeping and hitting pillows and her aching lungs railing at her father for leaving and herself for allowing this to happen and at the cruelty of fate, there had come a time when, sitting alone in the dark, an enormous calm crept inside her.

A silent but not entirely unwelcome visitor: a heavy, solid presence like bedrock settled deep inside her. Nothing more could pass through her—no grief, hurt, or anger.

When the last tear rolled unheeded down her cheek, her eyes widened to perceive the dark. The shafts of moonlight weaving through the blinds were so salient they hurt. It was as if she could finally see. Something in her mourning had shifted, had unraveled only to thread back together. Everything too painful to consider dulled into background noise, but it also made the banal monstrously clear.

The next day she tried to walk amongst the living once more. She wouldn't allow herself to break down so long as her body could function. After all, she could fix the Mil Mi-8. Run another maintenance check on the auxiliary generators. Cut some makeshift lenses for these glasses. One thought floated above the others, as if she were no more than a character in a dream, bound by its laws however illogical and absolute—

They'll pay.

Revenge; it seemed so petty a grievance stacked against the collective suffering inflicted upon a planet so destitute the Vortigaunts christened it "this miserable rock." But considering the attendees at the wake had given her the opportunity to pause and reevaluate, and she'd come away realizing her father's life had touched far more people than she'd ever know. She owed it to her fellow mourners, to the cause for which he dedicated his entire being, to ensure the Combine not just fell but fell hard, not with a whimper but with a bang. For the humans and Vortigaunts who would have laid down for him in his stead, who could only watch him dissipate in wind and water. For Gordon, Barney, Dr. Kleiner, Mossman, there must be justice. A world without it was unfit to live in.

And how, precisely, would she go about propagating that justice? The question troubled her ever since the notion took root in her mind. Look what indulging her temper got them: another procession on the other side of the river.

Alyx stood on the sloping embankment, tucking a loose strand behind her ear as the breeze grazed past.

They didn't see them. Barney was there, along with a few others from his squad. He'd cleaned up a little for the procession, having changed from his ragged CP uniform into a wrinkled flannel shirt and jeans, mud splashed around worn work boots. He jammed his hands deep in his pockets as they took turns pouring the woman's ashes into the current.

She took but three steps when Magnusson stopped her.

"Hold it there, young lady. We've some business to sort out."

Reluctantly, she turned. "Is it the Borealis? Judith send another transmission?" She raked a hand through her hair. "If you could give me a little time to finish repairs, I can be outta here in three hours."

Birds chirped while Magnusson and Kleiner shared glances.

"That's—not it, is it? The hallway."

Magnusson rolled his eyes. "Oh, heavens no. If I had a nickel for every screaming match that started in that hall, I'd be able to put in much-needed soundproof walls."

"Then… " She trailed off, her gaze drifting between the two reticent men.

Kleiner grasped her good hand, patting it once, and tried on a thin smile. "No need for fear. This is strictly a matter of estate, I assure you."

Magnusson cast him hard, sliding askance. From his shrinking violet response, she could only guess they'd been at it again. "Personal intimations aside, the sooner the better. Meet us in the launch room once you're finished here."

Let me guess, another rocket. Awful time for a joke, she knew, but it was the first thing that came to her weary mind as they left. Poor Kleiner had so much weighing down on his stooped shoulders, the sudden and conspicuous lack of Lamarr among them, and all his colleague could think about was keeping one hand on the tiller, maintaining everyone in their proper places. He needed to feel in control in order to process his grief, but Isaac often took the brunt of it. When he wasn't overturning cushion and cabinet alike in search of Lamarr, he was running to Magnusson's every beck and call.

Even her father had found it hard to believe they'd once been the best of friends.

-----------

" …timing isn't right… "

"When has it ever been the right time? The Combine stop their clocks for no man."

"I know, but we must consider her… her state—"

Magnusson sighed. "I understand you wish to spare her further grief, but she's no longer a small child in need of your hand-holding. This is a matter between her and her father, and since you don't want to pry into Freeman's side of things, it will be crucial to let her in on it now. She might even discover vital information we may have lost otherwise—"

"Must it be now, Arne? Right now?"

"If she values the Resistance her father's built, she'll understand. In either case, I think you should leave her the final verdict."

Rapping her knuckles on the door interrupted their conversation. She leaned in, ear pressed to the metal. "Hello?"

There was a short pause, followed by murmurs and a shuffle of feet.

"Come in."

Kleiner seemed a bit more amiable as she walked in, giving her another short-lived smile. He sat on one of the control panel's two swivel chairs; the other was unoccupied since Magnusson opted to stand with his arms tucked rigid behind his back. "Yes, hello, dear. Please sit down. Arne and I have something we wish to discuss with you."

She twisted the frayed strings on her hoodie, not liking this already. "I heard," she admitted. "Something to do with Dad?"

Magnusson shot Kleiner a pointed look over her shoulder. "All in due time," he said, patting the back of the vacant swivel chair. "Sit first."

She complied, though with some measure of trepidation. "What's going on?"

Without further ado, Magnusson reached into his breast pocket and produced a wrinkled envelope, giving it to her. "We were organizing your father's personal affects when we found this letter tucked amongst his journals. Forgive us for prying, but according to the page it was clipped to, it seems he wrote it during your escape from the Citadel. He intended for you to receive it once you embarked for the Borealis."

Words failed her. For a moment she sat cradling the envelope, her name written unmistakably in her father's small, tight script.

At his colleague's probing harrumph—oh, right—Kleiner rummaged inside the drawer and withdrew a second. "There's one for Gordon here as well, but… Obviously, he's in no proper state to read his."

Written while they were on the run… There may have been a chance this was his struggling attempt at goodbye, rendered moot when they returned to White Forest. Logically, these letters should have found a home at the bottom of a wastebasket. What were they doing here?

"Any idea what it might be about?"

"We were hoping you could tell us," Magnusson replied.

She lowered the envelope onto her lap. "Oh."

"Anything, Vance," Magnusson added. "Any scrap of information, no matter how mundane you may believe it to be. Your father knew things that could turn this war on its very head; I shudder to think of how much critical information vanished when he… well." He cleared his throat in his fist.

She was torn. On the one hand, she was being given a gift, hearing her father's thoughts one last time. Yet on the other, she'd be lying if she said this didn't feel a bit sudden.

What… could he possibly have to say? And why had he felt the need to keep it secret, unless he believed in some capacity that the message contained therein wasn't necessarily a good or conducive one? A man didn't conceal his simple "love you, baby, be safe" notes in his journal if that's what they entailed. Even if he had, it certainly wouldn't have sparked debate among his friends, which was why she hoped either one of them had at least an inkling of his intentions.

"Dr. Kleiner?" He'd spaced out, staring long into the envelope he clutched. "Are you okay?"

"What… " He shifted, readjusting his spectacles. "Oh, er, yes. Of course."

-----------

A clock ticked, breaking the sheer solitude of the break room. It was there Alyx settled onto the cushions of the ripped sofa, envelope in lap, hands tucked between her knees.

It seemed like years had passed in this room, bereft of human presence. In reality, less than a week had transpired since everyone gathered to view Judith's transmission and discuss the Borealis' fate.

Poor Gordon had little time to catch his breath. He'd just raised a Tweety Bird mug to his parched lips when Magnusson barged in to pile on more rocket duties. Then he complained about interrupting "tea time," prompting her father to shake his head good-naturedly and chance another sip from his own mug. That old sputnik's not growin' wings anytime soon, Magnusson. Let him finish his chamomile.

Oh, yes, by all means! Take your time.

Even the One Free Man was no match for a staredown between Black Mesa scientists. He stood spattered in dried viscera, cartoon mug steaming from his torn gloves, green eyes darting between them. Alyx, he mouthed, help. She offered him a weak smile and a consolation shrug as Magnusson thrust an imperious finger out the door.

Sometime today, Freeman?

You'd better go, Gordon, Eli said. We'll be right here when you get back.

He knocked back a swift gulp, grimaced. Off he went.

The replacement she'd fixed him at her father's suggestion sat evaporated on the stand, though it still retained the scent of the honey she'd stirred in. Its bag of Earl Grey shriveled, a ring of condensation darkened the battered metal. They'd forgotten it behind the old family photo.

Plucking the latter off the stand, she gave her mother a small smile. "What do you think, Mom?" Azian held her as a toddler, amberized in a sweeter moment. "Yeah… no reason to worry. He's probably just yelling at Gordon and me to hurry up and get our asses home before the Citadel blows. Typical Dad."

Her smile faded.

She'd requested to see the accompanying notebook he'd tucked the letters in, which they obliged. Nothing to report there: it might as well have been one of the many weathered, dog-eared college-ruled books on which he'd documented BME's quantum entanglement research, filed with date and time. Brief and businesslike, the forwards lacked his usual warmth. Care of Alyx Vance; care of Dr. Gordon Freeman. She couldn't explain the incongruity. Perhaps that had been by design.

Inhaling, she tore the envelope seal.

"Baby girl,

"I've been haunting this cramped old lab, wasting more paper than I ought to, trying to distract myself from overthinking. I can hardly sit still knowing you and Gordon are out there running from an unstable dark fusion reactor. But with my nerves, always, lies the hope you two will pull through in the end. That's why I'm writing this, though in the sincerest hope it never finds need of you.

"Before everything goes to hell, you need to know the truth, the entire truth. About Black Mesa, Gordon, my role in it, all of it. You think you know the story, but the version I told you is incomplete. I feel I owe it to you now to be honest.

"Looking back, Black Mesa seems too deep in the past to remember. Judith says we ought to strive for progress, to keep going forward in a world that insists on regressing, but no matter how long the strides we make, each step takes us farther away from that old world we used to know. Forgive an old man for waffling, but I can't help but fear one day, maybe sooner than we expect, we'll forget what it was we started fighting for.

"Of course, I didn't always think that way. I once believed it was better to forget. Lord knows the incident merited it.

"On the day of the resonance cascade, we were being led into slaughter by the very people who claimed they'd protect us. We learned we couldn't trust our own government, as they were all too willing to spill our blood and pin the 'mistake' on us. The military that arrived to help us contain the rift sealed off the facility instead, separating us from our families. They had no intention of evacuating staff or civilians to safety. That much became clear when we heard gunshots…

"After sending Gordon to the surface, we decided to make our way over to the Lambda Core labs. The security task force took your uncle Izzy, myself, and what remained of the Anomalous Materials Team topside with the intent to sneak a convoy past the military checkpoint. Though we managed to escape their notice, a few of our crew volunteered to turn back, to free the civilians trapped in the residency dorms.

"They told me not to go. Izzy warned me of the dangers. But I just couldn't sit back knowing they had you and your mother trapped in there, doing God knows what. So against everyone's counsel, I went.

"The doors were locked and we attempted to jimmy them open. But that, too, had been calculated. They'd wired the security lock with a bomb, set to go off the minute it detected outside interference. As you might guess… none of us knew.

"A fire broke out. The guards were dead, the military now on their way to investigate and intercept the survivors. The shockwave threw several people out of their apartments. Officer Himura… he's the reason I got off light with just my leg."

She closed her eyes, keeping them closed for a moment before opening them again. She knew the story behind her father's prosthetic leg from a young age, due to pressing circumstances that demanded he not sugarcoat his disability.

She knew he'd lost it and underwent prompt amputation. She retained hazy memories of huddling in Kleiner's lap during the surgery. She was fussing, and he attempted to coax her to sleep in a crowded living room with what few bits he remembered from his Austrian mother's favorite lullaby: 'Where do baby bears sleep? In caves, they sleep, safe in the dark until well into the morning'—but somehow she'd never connected any of it to Black Mesa.

She recalled their worries sometime later, concerning a possible blood clot forming in the back of his amputated leg. The doctor held a chilled stethoscope to his bare back while he bounced his child on his good knee, made him breathe three long breaths and spoke to him in the voice of a mother used to scolding overgrown children. You have to exercise caution here, Mr. Vance. All right. If it breaks off; it won't, will it, Alyx?; if it travels to heart or lung or brain…

"Sirens screamed, smoke flooded the place… Faintly, I don't know how, I heard your mother. 'Eli,' she was saying, as calmly as if she were calling on the work phone like it was any other day, 'is that you? Come here. I've got her.'

"In a daze, I followed the sound of her voice, crawling over debris and broken glass to reach her. When I finally did, she offered me you, bundled up in her raincoat. She'd thrown it over you to protect you. She smiled at us… and she was gone."

Alyx had no memories of Azian, which left her father to fill in the gaps. For understandable reasons he'd always referred to her mother in terms of her life and avoided the topic of her death, preferring instead to conjure snapshots from a happier past. He'd made it no secret Dog stemmed from her research into recurrent neural networks. Terrible poker player, gracious hostess to the constant stream of guests who paraded in and out of their tiny apartment in the Sector H dorms. Quick to laugh, he said, and quicker to forgive, a woman who possessed a vast reserve of calm to counterbalance his stubborn streak.

To hear him speak of her so openly, so poignantly… Was it strength that compelled her to relent her only child? Or had it been numbness?

She thought her inability to mourn her as deeply as her father had was because, technically speaking, she'd been a stranger. Too young to process Mommy was no longer around, it's Daddy and Uncle Kleiner now, had she needed more? She'd never heard her mother laugh, never teased out her knowing grin over a round of euchre, and despite Mossman's attempts to instill herself as a surrogate (because every girl needs a role model in her life, Eli) she felt it disingenuous to fantasize. Who she'd mourn would just be another version of her mother, her flaws and quirks sanded away by time.

"And you… You were still. You looked like you were sleeping, only you refused to open your eyes. I kept rocking you, thinking you might have just been playing some kind of game, being stubborn, because you've never, ever laid this still. 'Alyx, baby, please, wake up. We don't have time for this.'"

Like father, like daughter.

No. Her palm throbbed, and she clamped it to her temple to dam those intrusive memories—

"That was when he arrived. You've never met this man, and with God's grace, you won't have to. What I could say about him would be irrelevant speculation, except he's not human and not Combine. I should have realized as much when he strode through the fire and the smoke. He told me that it was time for me to go with him.

"I had no idea what he meant. My mind was trying to convince me this was just an awful hallucination, some kind of horrible lucid dream. 'No, no, I can't leave. She won't wake up.'

"He gave the alarms an irritated look and seemed fit to remind me his employers were not patient people, which bewildered me even more. Then he picked you up, and that's when the fear and grief drowned my denial, blinding me more than the smoke. I could hardly breathe, hardly move. But when he pulled back your mother's hood from your sleeping little face, I somehow found the strength to scream at him to get away from you.

"Chills ran down my spine as he glared with these radiant, inhuman eyes. They were not the eyes of someone who suffered fools. 'Be reasonable, Mr. Vance.' He insisted your absence in the face of the horrors to come would frankly be the bigger mercy to you. That if I truly loved you as your father, I'd let you go."

"Dad," she peered in apprehension from the letter to her father's younger, smiling face, "what are you saying?"

"But, Alyx, I was selfish. I hadn't considered these horrors he predicted, nor the consequences they'd bring. I'm not sure I thought in that moment, period. All I knew was if there was a chance to save you, I'd take it, because the thought of letting you go terrified me more than if he'd said I was going to die myself.

"So I implored this man with everything I had not to make me give you up. I begged him to exchange my life for yours. 'If you've got any mercy of your own,' I said, 'help her. She's just a little girl, my precious baby girl. Punish me if that's what you want, but don't make her pay for what I've done.'

"'That will not suffice us. More.'

"This man… he makes contracts with people. Offers them terms of 'employment' they can't refuse. And, if they don't make good on their word, collects on their debts. I struck a deal with a devil in a blue suit—and exchanged twenty years of unimaginable horrors for it, just so I wouldn't have to let you go.

"I gave him Gordon."

No.

Her mind read the words but refused to register them.

Her stomach churned.

No.

No, you're lying.

You're lying you're lying stop

"He was the one I thought of first when he told me to choose someone to be, in his own words, 'the message and the messenger': the one man who could stop this invasion. He saw him in my mind's eye, and he took a keen interest. I knew then it was over. I said no, not Gordon, he's not a pawn, but when he began to walk away with you in his arms— Oh, Alyx, I was so weak, I didn't break. I crumbled."

Needles stabbed into the walls of her throat; she could feel the beginnings of sour bile rise up. "No, Dad," she whispered, knowing it was in vain, "please, don't—"

"I promised him everything he wanted: Gordon, the Combine, my unerring obedience handling both. I would become the face of the Resistance and take his every order without question. Using it, I would guide Gordon, when the time came, to the Citadel. He stipulated I would not allow him to come to harm unless he so demanded it."

(No no no this can't be true)

"I promised him I'd tell no one this, though I fear that time may soon be coming to a close regardless of my silence on the matter."

(Don't lie stop LYING)

"I promised Gordon's life as leverage and collateral for yours. I promised his body, his mind, his services, to this man. Until such time his employers, whoever they might be, decided he should return, his life force would sustain you, keep you safe through the next twenty years. His slowed, stasis-frozen heartbeats reanimated yours. His breath would fill your lungs with air again. His blood and his bone and his thoughts, all stolen, all snatched. I signed them away to keep you alive."

(STOP LYING STOP)

"That's not to say you are the regret itself; everything but.

"The negotiation, the assuming of a responsibility I had no right to take, playing the part of judge and jury on humanity's behalf, giving up the life and freedom of one of my dearest friends who did nothing to deserve it… Those are the sins I'll carry with me. I can only pray you don't think lesser of me for them.

"For the two decades since I agreed to his terms, it's proven simultaneously to be my greatest joy and my biggest regret. The price it demanded, however, is unspeakable, still being paid even as I write. You may not like my saying so, Alyx, but I'm no different from Breen in that regard. At least he was upfront about who and how he was willing to sacrifice."

(PLEASE DAD STOP)

is that why you looked sick when I told you to prepare for unforeseen consequences is that why you fought Breen so hard is that why I have no memories of my mother even though you said it happened when I was too young to remember

Hunter fangs sprout agony through her back she lies on the table in the mines her vision clears and Gordon exhales in the soft luminescence oh thank God you're awake, why wouldn't I be awake, the vortal coil has been woven

wake up Dad please

Gordon lies horribly still on the hangar floor facedown on the ground he won't move won't respond to their shouting and shaking neither of them will oh God they've killed them both, they've killed them both

the Advisor paints her in her father's warm spinal fluid and casts him aside and her father weeps blood and she can't let him go because he has to wake up and when they lift him off the ground Gordon's head drips fluid from a gash in his matted scalp and no one will open their eyes

She slammed the bathroom door open and staggered over the toilet. Wrenching the seat up, she retched inside the graying porcelain bowl, her stomach pushing bile up her throat into its small pool of water, as one convulsion after another squeezed her guts.

"To tell you the truth, I'm scared. Scared of what may happen to this Resistance should the truth be known, scared of what'll pull us apart once they discover the man they trusted is a coward and a liar. Scared of facing these good, innocent people who look to me for guidance, many of them parents who've lost their own children, and telling them their losses were just a part of the terms of service. Afraid of the consequences he promised would come should I break any part of my contract to him. It could all come crumbling down in the blink of that man's glowing eye.

"Most of all, I'm not sure how to apologize to Gordon, where even to begin. His courage has inspired hope for all of us, and I owe him so much more than I can repay. How could I just rip that faith away from him, from the world at large, by telling him he was being played from the moment he walked into City 17?

"He's given us so much, baby, and received so little in return. When the transmission came through that he'd dismantled the Citadel, I couldn't help but feel a bittersweet mixture of pride and shame, as if that were my own son up there, showing Breen and his puppet masters he won't take their crap lying down.

" …If only he knew. I can hardly stand the thought. Now I don't know if I can look him in the eye knowing how deeply I've betrayed him as well as everyone else. I'm prepared to accept his grief and his anger, but not his sorrow. Not his disillusionment.

"I'm so sorry. Those words can never be enough, I know. I wouldn't ask you to shoulder my mistakes and I'm not doing so now. I'm writing this so you'll understand when the time comes, should you two rightfully choose to hate me and what I've done.

"Know this, Alyx, if nothing else. For better or worse, your life is intertwined with Gordon's. There is a connection there, one none of us will ever truly grasp the nature of. You have to trust it wholeheartedly. Only by working together will you bring the Combine to their knees and make them see the justice they've escaped. Gordon Freeman may be our appointed Opener of the Way, but you, sunshine, will be the light that points him there. Seeing you two together and all you've accomplished so far, I believe now your lives have the potential to affect powerful change, so much more than the symbiotic relationship he proposed long ago.

"Never forget that I love you. The laws of this universe are fundamental and immutable, and that is one of them. You've made my life worthwhile. Every sadness, every struggle, every day I pushed my limits was so that someday you might get to live in a world without war. You deserve that, honey, the best life can offer in love and laughter and light. If somehow I could take it all back, suspend the test, tell that man to piss off and break his damned crystal into a million worthless pieces, I would.

"Please come back to us safe and sound.

"With all my love,

Your Dad"