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Something Secret Steers Us

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Daddy's leg hurts him again. He can't remember why it started back up in the first place—all he can think about is—what? Oh, he doesn't know. He shifts in bed with a wince scrimping his face.

The pain tries to remind him of what happened, he says.

She traces the plastic wire attached to his index finger. So much blood going up, up into his arm. All the way to the neck and the brain and then it falls back down again, except to his leg, where there is no more blood, where the doctors stitched it shut. A hole had appeared in his leg and all the blood almost rushed out, because blood feels it's a prisoner and tries to make any escape it finds. Maybe it wants him to remember that?

The morphine makes him look genuinely confused. I don't know, baby.

She sits in his lap, feeling his heartbeat knock against her ear. It comforts her to be held like this. When he inhales it's as though the entire room sucks in air, prepared to tell her an important story.

Looking down, he wriggles the mound in the blanket, the fake leg, with a sigh. His real leg had gotten tired and fallen off. This is the second or third version of the story he's told since she walked in here hand-in-hand with Uncle Kleiner, who's nodded off in the corner chair, but she doesn't mind. Maybe if he pours all the stories into her brain, out of the bits and pieces a pattern will emerge and she can reassemble them accordingly. The trouble is he can't focus on just one. He stops and starts. Goes straight and circles back. His brain and his mouth don't agree.

Legs can't fall off by 'mselves, she informs him.

You're right. Unsatisfied, he gives his head a minuscule shake. No, what really happened was this: something snagged on his knee like a fish hook and tried to reel him away. But he bucked and twisted, dug his fingers into the earth, and with a mighty kick sent the hook flying back—

Nooo, she cries, shaking her head until her plastic banana-shaped barrettes clatter. Now you're makin' stories.

Oh, he says with a yawn. Daddy's saying goofy things again, isn't he? His voice grows quiet, strange. But the fact remains, there is due retribution for one's sins.

What's re-tr-bu-shun? What's sin?

Sin is something you do to hurt people. Retri-bu-tion means revenge. Unfortunately, however, it comes with a price.

What price?

Eli frowns. It was a metaphor. He had been stabbed in the thigh near the femoral artery, but the shrapnel didn't completely pass through. Instead it fractured the bone underneath. Because they couldn't fully extract it, his leg risked getting infected with something called gangrene: they had to cut it off to prevent the infection from spreading. I'm sorry to be so blunt, sweetheart.

What does she mean, will he miss it?

Do you hear? Your mother's calling.

There he lies on the intersection of past and present, imagination and reality, dreaming of other worlds as he bleeds. Something's dragging him away, his thoughts are drowning. This is hell, the pain won't stop, there can't possibly be a hell after this, where is she, where are you going, no Alyx don't go not for me, oh please come back, please God let her be safe.

He thinks he twisted something helping Izzy up the elevator shaft. But not to worry, a Christ in high-impact reactive armor ascended the tomb, and he, who reckoned him when the cock crowed thrice that day, pointed him towards the surface. Towards light and redemption and the Lambda Complex. He hopes he'll find it, even though sitting here in pain and helplessness, like revenge, is not the answer.

There are a lot of things you can't do in Black Mesa. Question string theory. Lose your leg. Pray. You can't divide by zero, either, you'll only get an undefined string of unknowns, but they had to push their curiosity well past the bounds of human limitation. There are some things in this world best left alone. He heard the whisper and he'd ignored it. He heeded authority over glaring truth and that was his sin. Now that that man wants to punish him for his failures, he must accept his fate.

Man?

With another sigh he pushes back the springy hair on his toddler's head. No, honey, there is no man. He made him up, silly Daddy.

He just wishes he'd never walked into work that day. He only wants to go back home, take the day off and play blocks with his baby girl. He wants to see her smile when he tickles her, and laugh at the way she beams at him, as if he's her everything, same way she's his everything.

She once touched the Milky Way. Does she remember? He remembers it well: he holds her up in the observatory and tells his giggling baby to touch the stars. There is a pink shoe attached to a little leg, and the long misty arm of the Orion Spur snakes its way around her ankle, and he realizes something grave, and he snatches her away

don't touch my little girl

(don't you dare touch my baby)

-----------

Alyx pried herself from the bathroom floor, the cold tile a blessing against her slick, feverish skin.

Her limbs tingled from sleep. As she pushed herself up from her pillow of crumpled papers, she noticed they refused to cooperate, as if after twenty-three years of use she no longer knew how to wield them. Her reaching hand veered off the slick porcelain of the toilet lid, and she leaned forward on her haunches, breathing hard. Finally she gripped the edge of the sink and hauled herself up.

Icy water squeaked out of the rusted faucets, pattering the mirror that hung over the wash basin in a fine mist. After giving her mouth a thorough rinse, she dunked her head under the stream, letting the sputtering jet numb her scalp.

Dripping water, she stared into the mirror, her breath fogging the glass, gusting the droplets that splashed, unnoticed, from her chin.

Slowly, she sucked in her moist bottom lip, reached out and touched her fingertips to the mirror. Smooth, cold glass shivered through her nerves, confirmed the reality of her presence. All real, as real as the hangar, the moonless night the hostage died.

She swirled small patterns around her reflection's swollen eyelids. Dad had always said, with a touch of melancholy, that she had her mother's eyes.

Barely conscious of it, she gave a long, simmering groan. And then an anguished cry erupted from somewhere within her, a raw scrape-throated scream of anger and grief as she beat her palms upon the mirror, digging her split nails into the crown molding. Roiling to the surface was the impulse to scratch her reflection's eyes out. All for you. You're the one who did this. Make it stop.

She clutched fistfuls of the letter over the gurgling sink, pages damp, ink blurring like tears, only for her resolve to fail at the last second. What good would it do to destroy them now? What was done was done, the cogs long turning, and it benefited no one to succumb to another fit of selfish anger. This place needed someone strong to lead them, someone who had clear heart and conscience.

She dried herself on a moth-eaten towel and tucked the letter behind Gordon's glasses.

Her father said his piece. Now for the truth.

-----------

Chipped and dented from a meager week and a half of user wear, the HEV suit dwelt within a sterilized chamber some two stories' descent into the silo base, nestled behind frosted glass and attended by computerized instruments.

Calculations must be made. No doubt Gordon's body and brain chemistries had changed, if not were thrown outright askew, by this most recent predicament. He had to readjust the suit to accommodate those physiological changes.

Kleiner rubbed sore eyes beneath his rimless glasses, hunched over a harsh square of light emitted from a computer monitor. The clatter of keys punctuated his self-directed mutterings.

"Shift this parameter over here, it'll throw the entire system off-kilter… Perhaps if I just… No, that won't do it, either… Drat."

"Tweaking the suit again?"

The needle-like instruments wound down as their hydraulic components hissed them to a stop.

Emitting a light sigh, he gave up the ghost, wheeling back in his chair to let her take a closer look at his work. "Ideally, but it appears as though I'm merely shifting around lines of code for the fun of it. I'd hoped to have done a bit of patching to extend the suit's battery life, but I for the life of me simply cannot seem to circumvent these constraints I've put in place. If all else fails, I may have to upend the core program and start over."

God, what waste it'd be if he did. According to the logs, he'd clocked over two thousand hours into the HEV just to ensure the suit worked as a cohesive unit, not counting any of its auxiliary functions. "You're not kidding."

Kleiner, however, rarely shied from his duties. "One never kids when it comes to user safety." He wiped his fogged lenses on the tail of his lab coat, then peered up at her once his vision sharpened. "Are you all right? You look rather pale." He brushed the back of his hand to her forehead. "Oh, dear, you seem to be running a bit warm."

She said quietly: " …Do you remember when you and Dad left Black Mesa?"

His hand slipped away, and he turned to enter more corrections.

His swerve into reticence didn't surprise her; as a matter of fact, she expected it. She seldom asked about Black Mesa because of the survivors' collective hesitance surrounding the incident. It was an issue of courtesy, not to poke too deeply at the wound, however innocent the intent.

Granted, they touched upon the past when mood and memory permitted, just in ways that didn't disturb the surface. Her father reminisced on "the good old days" like nobody's business, Kleiner supplying short anecdotes on occasion; Barney insisted aside from his bustling social life, which he missed compared to the tedious solitude of CP work, his security job used to be pretty shit, not worth the recollection; Magnusson would pontificate about the facility's history, quoting Oppenheimer and Bainbridge, they feared the atmosphere would catch fire, but if you ask me, my dear, the New Mexican sun was doing a spectacular job of that long before nuclear fission put a twinkle in anyone's eye; and Judith bemoaned the fact that she lost her position to Gordon every other day, just about. But the heart of the matter, the wound underlying the scars of the sealed cascade, that they perfected a lifetime evading, trapping the past behind chronic and convenient silences.

"Dr. Kleiner?"

He closed the program and walked across the room to readjust a needle that had misaligned in the capsule. "Alyx… that letter—"

"What else did he lie about?"

Her question stopped him cold, rooting him to the spot, before the banal necessity of his task slowly reanimated him. Gingerly he closed the cover, head bowed, letting his hand linger on the glass. "You mustn't think like that."

"No? Then how am I supposed to think about it?"

Kleiner was silent.

She repeated her question. "Why did he lie?"

Scrutinizing his worn loafers, he clutched knotted fists to his abdomen, his voice dwindled to a whisper. "Oh, Eli. How you dreaded this moment." Raising his head, he sucked in a breath, turned, gestured for her to sit. "Alyx, my dear. Please do not take what I am about to say as an indictment on his character. We were operating within very harrowing circumstances."

She waited.

"As it was," he began, taking a seat himself, "we could not in good conscience escape Black Mesa without ensuring its civilian populace were safely evacuated. Sending Gordon to the surface for help was but the first step. When he strayed too far from the Lambda Complex, and his suit no longer emitted tracking signals, Eli feared the worst.

"He worried himself sick over you and your mother. Furthermore, he could not shake the feeling he had also killed Gordon. He was near inconsolable then, believing the blame for the incident lay squarely on his shoulders. Nothing I said could sway him from his convictions."

He fiddled his thumbs in his lap as he trailed off, relinquishing the next few moments to the hum of electronics.

"It was then he told me he'd seen a man conferring with the Administrator the week before. A government official, he assumed, though for some reason he suspected he may have been more than that. This man delivered us sample GG-3883. We didn't know how he managed to procure such a fine specimen, but…

"The Administrator ordered us to act as though the excavation team had recovered the sample. We were not to disclose our sponsor's identity to anyone upon pain of termination. Though, in hindsight, that would have been the infinitely kinder punishment…

"And that man, he… Pardon me, dear, I… "

Brows knit painfully together, he raised his whitened fingertips and pressed them against his scrimped mouth, quivering out a tattered breath.

She knew he was approaching the old wound far closer than she had any right to ask of him, so she sat with him until it passed. Black Mesa came and went as it pleased. The facility lived in tapered smiles, shortened laughter, in the depths of a memory that made her younger self clutch him tight while he stroked her hair, promising things he only half-believed himself. Everything would be okay. Nothing would hurt them. It's behind us now.

"That man told Eli… that everything… has its price."

"The Resistance," she said.

His voice waned, quavering. "Yes."

"Dad accepted," she said. "The Citadel, Breen, Ravenholm, Nova Prospekt… he knew they'd happen. He knew people would die believing in some kind of freedom they couldn't even have. And he just… let them."

"He never intended for any of this to occur."

"But it happened."

"Alyx, he wanted to spare you the harm disclosing the truth would have caused you otherwise. He knew there was absolutely nothing you or anyone else could have gained from being told back then. For goodness' sake, you were so young—"

"And Gordon?" she asked. "All this time Dad knew where he really was and why, but he never said a word when people started to make up rumors."

"The alternative—"

"No. Don't." She shook her head. "Whoever this 'man' is, he's dangerous. Don't you see? Why do you think those Advisors attacked us just when we let our guard down?"

An even graver thought struck her.

"Did you know he was going to die?" she asked. " …Did he?" And his silence, his silence spoke volumes. "Oh, God. Oh, my God."

A hole pricked somewhere deep down in the dam. Those things she'd tried so hard to keep down for the past week came flooding through that tiny fissure, high-pressure. She clenched her eyes shut, but even this couldn't stop the fat, glistening droplets from spilling over her cheeks, gliding down the curve of her chin and bursting in her lap.

Kleiner was at a loss. "Alyx," he said softly, reaching out for her but refraining at the last second, much like he used to do whenever she cried as a child.

Another mistake on her end, demanding answers from him when she knew neither of them was emotionally equipped to have this conversation. How many times during her childhood had her father sat her down and told her to try to be brave for Uncle Izzy's sake? Why, Daddy? Because under all those brains he has a tender heart. If he sees you crying, chances are he might, too.

Some things never changed. Moving with excruciating languor, he removed his rimless glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I'm sorry, Alyx.” As she lifted her head she realized, horrified, that tears streamed down his sunken, hollow cheeks, past the lines that had managed to carve moments of laughter from two decades of Combine rule. A stone bobbed in his throat as he tried to smile, but his lips only came up to a half-curve. “I'm sorry—“

Fresh tears blurred her vision. They'd both lost family with her father. With Gordon's arrival they'd enjoyed the luxury of hope, but now she was beginning to realize it was just that—a luxury, to be snatched from them at any moment. The truth was it didn't matter whether one was rebel, Metrocop, Resistance leader, or the literal savior of humanity. Death would collect them regardless, and the smelter awaited them.

Maybe all their struggles amounted to futile effort, a fool's errand. An armored suit worn once and tucked away.

She wouldn't accept her death with any of the grace her mother and father had. She'd be dragged screaming into the dark, gnashing her teeth and biting the hand that supposedly fed.

Until now, she'd been measuring herself against this shadow in her head, this specter of Eli, weighing whether or not he'd have done the same in her circumstances. And she'd been so certain, so absolutely sure her father would have done the right thing, wouldn't have let anyone under his protection die.

"I can't take this," she whispered. "Between Dad and Barney and Gordon, it feels like I'm being crushed… And I know they need me to hold it together, I know… But making these decisions over who lives and who dies… How am I supposed to do that?"

But maybe he would have. The prospect that she didn't really know him at all, what he was capable of in a similar moment of blind, abject desperation, terrified her. That behind every self-effacing moment of his was calculation. That his insistence not to saint him but to look to Gordon instead—so certain this myth of a man held the answers they sought—had been in fact meticulously designed to get her to this point, with Gordon as the control. Solved like an equation, by proof and by axiom, whose life will pay the greater dividend? Whose life may we cast aside? Show your work, Dr. Vance.

Kleiner shook silently, bitterly, hand cupped over his mouth.

She let the chair cushion wheeze in her absence as she gathered him in her arms, squeezing him tight. Over his trembling shoulders she gazed into the HEV's frosty capsule, at the paint-flecked lambda presiding at its core. Gordon had said something about it once, which she'd turned over in her mind ever since.

The lambda symbolizes decay, but also change.

One heartbeat pounded against her cotton hoodie. Two, then three. The ruined glasses pressed upon her heart. Drawing back, she reached into her liner and traced the four strokes over their beaten frames.

As scientists, they battled entropic decay. The more they sought to control it, the less of it they understood. What little they did understand was that it was a universal chain reaction, as pervasive and exacting a force as the Combine.

Once begun, entropy could not be reversed, unless it was also linear. Try as they might, they couldn't return to Black Mesa and pinpoint the moment the world would go to hell. They couldn't surgically remove those mistakes, nor ignore the various accumulations that had steered them to this destination, right here, right now.

Time continued its pitiless onward march; entropy decreed her father would die, and if entropy, drawing up the contract, decided Gordon and the rest of the Resistance would follow him into the dark, then entropy would have its way. Thy will be done.

Down here on this "miserable rock," one's life was caught in a perpetual state of loss. Friends and family and hope lasted only as long as your heart allowed them to.

Eli must have known what losses entropy demanded of him when he saw it stare him down with cold, expectant, nebulaic eyes. And he had agreed to its stringent conditions, its pain and its horrors, all for love.

Love was the variable that transformed entropy, the sole exception to an otherwise ironclad law. A father's love for his daughter slowly reversed their fates.

Did it make the Combine stronger, that they loved nothing, not even conquest, and so lost nothing upon defeat? Was a perfect, parasitic existence so preferable to one of ceaselessly broken spirits? What did they have to lose except a few more resources?

They have no strength, Gordon said. Might, maybe. But not strength.

The simple answer he'd given her drifted back to her, reminding her of the truth. Real strength wasn't measured by the size of one's armies, the abundance of their munitions; it lay in the willingness to bare one's spirit in spite of the blows. The Combine had nothing to win since they had nothing to lose. No Black Mesa of their own to haunt their days, no sense of a life worth fighting for.

She rubbed Kleiner on the back while he shook. It had taken him enormous strength just to tell her this much. And where he'd comforted her as a child, she resolved to return that favor. She'd let him grieve as long as he needed.

However, the capsule's hum stopped. The CRT fizzled out and killed his work, dead pixels crackling over the extinguished monitor.

Cold silence reigned in that gray room. And they heard the telltale signs, the rushing above them, the shouts to get it back on dammit. She gripped Kleiner's knobby shoulders as he quickly put his glasses back on, her voice laced with apprehension.

"Gordon."

His mouth pinched into a grim line.

Without generator support, his machines would fail. The tracheal tube especially risked gagging him, or worse, may force him to cough up life-threatening vomit. If the door had been locked beforehand, precious minutes would tick off before anyone could even get into that room, much less get his equipment working again.

She bolted for the door, crying aloud as her elbow smashed itself on an aluminum bookshelf. Her wince grew as the shelf fell over with a horrendous clatter, splaying journals across the floor.

"Wait a moment! It's dark out there." Kleiner fished a steel tube flashlight from the desk drawer. Flicking it on, he gave a resolute nod behind the blinding beam. "Let's go."

Twin footfalls echoed one another up a spiraling cluster of hallways. The emergecy fire stairwell made twists and turns into darkness, but it was a sheltering darkness, a familiar one. Here in this base she'd chanced her first toddling steps and later urged her father on to his.

Pointing her Magnum toward the ground, Alyx climbed several tight paces ahead of Kleiner, blocking his body with her own, her path carved out by the beam his flashlight wove through the dark. They hugged the walls with their shoulders pressed to the stone, constantly scanning the upper floors for signs of change.

Taking the stairs as briskly as she could, she glanced over her shoulder every few seconds to confirm he followed. "Careful." One false step could send either of them tumbling, and these ruts carved into the quarry were treacherous. "Wait." She stopped abruptly. Aimed at the ceiling. "You hear that?"

Silence drifted down the ancient stairwell before a crash halted them. Men swearing, Vortigaunts guttering similar curses in their gravelly native tongue. The only thing louder than their irate oaths was the clanking of metal. A muffled but persistent banging rang out, as if something thrashed itself on the exterior silo doors.

That something shrieked a thin pained note as electricity rained down in a burst of sparks, compelling them to twist away. The smell of charred flesh raised the hairs on her arms bristle-straight.

God, no… not more. She hauled her knees up the stairs, pried her dry lips to tell Kleiner to run—

Moments later the generators kicked in, bathing the floor in a muted red glow. The accompanying intercom crackled. "False alarm, folks. Damn crow roasted itself on the power lines."

Her mind accepted the words at face value, but her body, unwilling to relent its sense memories, refused to grasp such mundane reality. She trembled still, her gun's full magazine clicking and chittering in its barrel. She forced herself to relax her jaw, cracking her molars apart to keep them from grinding themselves to a burn.

A thin hand on her shoulder made her jump. "Are you all right?"

She didn't hear, instead sinking her gaze toward her dust-floured sneakers; the noise from above dissolved into a low, liquid drone. For a few moments she felt as if she were floating somewhere beyond herself, beyond her swimming guts and buzzing head, a deadness slipping under her skin and muscle as warm droplets flecked her nose and cheeks.

The hand that reached through the fugue tethered her, brought her back. Gordon? No he's bleeding out we need to get these two inside. She stared, unseeing, until the man before her morphed from her father's dead visage into Kleiner's alive but pale one.

He offered her an affable smile, but that can't be right, her father always frowns whenever she shakes him. Despite his steadying grip, he had a fine layer of perspiration scrubbed over his brow. In the crimson light, the droplets glinted like blood.

Kleiner asked again, his voice growing sharper from its muted, underwater quality: …yx? …lyx, I say, are you all right?

Her shoulder gave a small hike. Yeah. She… She'd be fine, as long as those bastard slugs kept to themselves.

Kleiner studied her, head cocked, worry crinkling his brow. "Hyperarousal," he muttered to himself, lowering his light. "Dear," he said with slow, soft hesitance, "do you know where you are right now?"

Hangar. No; the silo. Silo, and they were alive. Just a false alarm. (her throat cracks to the texture of drought plates, oh my God he can't be dying too, oh please don't, don't do this to me, not now, I can't be alone again not like this not now)

(not now, a few more seconds, just not right now, please God don't let him, don't let him, don't leave me no no no
no God no don't go don't
go
)

Her bad hand started throbbing again, pulse fluttering inside the vein. She dug her fingers into the limestone to quiet it. "Don't worry about me. What about Gordon?"

He seemed reluctant to let the matter go, but didn't pursue, instead tracing his beam along the grates in the upper floor. "The generators should suffice for the time being, provided that feathery scamp's not fried them also." He sighed slightly, pushed up the bridge of his glasses. "Nevertheless, we ought to see him. His equipment may have restarted."

Of course, they encountered problems there as well: the biggest being that the outage screwed with the door's code lock. Toggling the keys made it protest with a shrill cry, and it refused to accept Kleiner's optical override.

On the third failure, he stepped back, running a hand along the thick metal. He pushed on the unrelenting door in several spots and shook his head. "Well, I can't say this with a hundred percent certainty, but I believe the system may have crashed due to the short."

Great, just what they needed. "How long do we have till everything kicks back on?"

"A few minutes, maybe a bit longer. Perhaps we should wait until the system catches up. If we try to circumvent it now, the door risks sticking permanently."

She would have debated that a little more had a loud metallic clangor not crashed in their ears. "Someone's in there. Stand back."

She grabbed her EMP and torched the lock. There'd be time to fix it later. Her hand flew to her holster as the door belched smoke and flung itself open, withdrawing her pistol at a slicing glint of steel.

"Don't—" Barney clenched the disengaged bed brake in a white-knuckled grip, ready to swing at the slightest provocation. He lunged a step forward before feeling the flashlight's beam strike his face and swearing at the dazzle, throwing up a hand to block it. "Shit, don't shoot!"

Upon seeing him she slackened, tucking her pistol. Other than a hastily-overturned chair, the room was undisturbed, but she had to ask. "Everything all right in here?"

Little by little he relaxed, easing the brake back down to his side. "Yeah," he said, "yeah. Lights went out all of a sudden. Between that and the commotion, I thought…"

Kleiner flicked on the switch; they winced at the fluorescents that filled the room. Gordon's contours, mere suggestions illuminated by the equipment's residual glow struggling to find a place in the dim, now showed in full the harsh reality of his scarred, slender body. Shadows crept across his cheeks, making him appear ascetic, almost gaunt. For the first time he seemed to crumple under the weight they—she, her father, this entire damned Resistance—had made him carry.

"Hey, doc," Barney murmured. He gave a quick sniff and wiped the pad of his thumb over his cornea. "Sorry I was about to play piñata." His eyes, glassy pink but not yet bloodshot, softened as they locked with hers. "Didn't want any break-ins."

While he put his makeshift weapon back in its rightful place, giving it a few solid pumps to raise Gordon's bed back up to its normal elevation, Kleiner sidled in. Clicking off his flashlight and setting it on the nearby counter, he replied, "Oh, no, you're always quite welcome here. Seems the local corvids are causing a bit of a stir again."

"Crow troubles, huh?" Sheepish, he rubbed the back of his head. "Well, that's a relief. For a minute there I thought I was gonna have to toss ol' Nosebleed over my shoulder like a sack of wheat and kick out a window or something." He shuffled aside to let Kleiner reposition the cup over Gordon's mouth, struggling to tear his gaze away from the sight. "Generators on the fritz again?"

"That's one of our concerns, yes, but… " His shoulders sagged as he turned a small dial on one of the machines. Slowly the ventilator's plastic bag wheezed and crunched, began breathing again. "Since you've been absent for a while now, you ought to know there have been some… " He inhaled. "Occurrences… as of late—"

"Advisors." She might as well come out and say it; no use beating around the bush.

Both men raised eyes toward her, the former CP weary, the old scientist so drained of color his face was bone-white.

She squeezed the counter edge as the latter turned away, hit by a pang of guilt. The past few days aged Kleiner terribly, though he was working overtime to make everyone believe otherwise. His once flighty demeanor turned into episodes of outright fragility: dropping clipboards, walking into doors, forgetting which room he'd just entered, which one he'd left. Restless, he complained more frequently of headaches, unable to concentrate on his work no matter how many times he scrutinized the numbers.

His mind was trying to distance him from that moment. From how his jubilation at the rocket launch had crumbled the instant the medics carried the two bodies into the base.

"Eli, what's happened to you? Wh-where on earth are you taking him? …Eli? Eli!"

Magnusson seized his elbows, wrenching him away. "Christ Almighty, Kleiner, stand back and let them through!"

"Gordon," he balked at the next in procession. "My God… "

Since then, he'd fretted over Gordon. There was no doubt in her mind he'd be checking in throughout the night.

He looked so lonely lying on that table. Vulnerable, almost. Moisture wove a translucent gleam over his skin, and he trembled as if feverish.

Crossing over to the sink, she wet a napkin under some cool water and dabbed it to his forehead. The muscles behind his forehead tightened on instinct as the water trickled onto his flesh, then relaxed by slow degrees, his breathing leveling out into calmer intervals.

"You mean that pod thing?"

Barney's comment startled her out of her reverie. "You've seen them before?"

He surveyed his memory, scratching his temple with a finger. "Sure saw something come hurtling out of the Citadel to the north of here just a few days ago. Must've burnt up in the crash, not that I'm complaining. Big old nasty-lookin' thing." He paused to listen to Gordon's beeping EKG. "There's more than one?"

She crossed her arms. "Unfortunately, and they've been trying to cut the power. We're just lucky the Vorts can hold out longer than they can. If only we could find out where they've been roosting—"

"Alyx," Kleiner said, shutting a cabinet door from a corner of the room. His tone was the same as the first time she proposed the idea, a drained mixture of imploring and melancholy. "Please, my dear. Not tonight."

He unfolded a linen sheet and gently draped it over Gordon, taking care not to agitate the sensors. "Oh, fie," he added when the blanket snagged on his forearm and unpeeled a diode anyway, "these old things never do adhere well, do they?"

"I'll help ya with that," Barney tucked a corner under Gordon's wire-strewn arm, "so, uh… how long's he been asleep for?"

"Four days," Kleiner said. "No changes as of yet."

One side of his mouth lifted weakly up. "Eh, lazy bum probably just wanted an excuse to lie around in bed all day. I mean, shit, Gordon, you've got some major bedhead goin' on." Reaching over the table in order to preserve the delicate tangle of wires running from his scalp, he ruffled his friend's hair, though without the crisp look of annoyance he would have normally received for doing so.

"Er, Barney… ? Please try not to touch his head if you can."

"Oh." He withdrew his hand. "Sorry. Won't do it again."

"It's quite all right, he does need to be kept clean… I'll notify the nurse. Ahem. Well, everything appears to be in working order, so if you'd both excuse me, I must be getting along. Good night to you, Barney. Sleep well, my dear." Night, Dr. Kleiner, she murmured to the sliding door.

He stared forlornly after it. "Goddamn. He looks ready to cry."

"Can't blame him." She slumped against the table's steel frame at the foot of Gordon's bed, stretching her legs out before hugging her knees close to her chest.

"Hey," Barney said quietly.

"Mm."

"You okay?"

"Yeah," she said, pressing her cheek into torn denim. "Think so." Burying her head between her knees, she relented. "How was Dad?"

"Good." Soundlessly he sank next to her, crouched against the wall. "He looked good."

They sat like this for a few wordless minutes, neither of them daring to move for fear of breaking something immeasurably fragile.

It's too late to turn our backs on what you've started, Dad. I won't run from it, if that's what you need me to do, but not if it has to come down to bargaining with people's lives…

It used to be a fond adage of Eli's, that everything happened for a reason. He'd neglected to mention those reasons were seldom revealed in their entirety. Now she felt she couldn't be too certain of anything.

Gordon's skull cracked and leaked; until now that had been the practical, unfortunate explanation, one which had to suffice them for lack of alternatives.

The Resistance blamed itself. We must have overworked him. God damn it, it was only a matter of time. Let him sleep.

The Vortigaunts had euphemisms of their own. He has strayed from us. With hope we watch him from these distant shores. Disturb not his meditations. The Freeman resides now in an abode where none may enter.

Was it truly a matter of bad luck, nothing more? Or did Gordon lay like this… febrile, restless, locked within the throes of his own mind… ultimately because her heart continued to beat where so many others had failed?

One life paying the debts of another. Where she once lay on a battered table, sinking into the silent, murky waters of near-death, now so did he, as a manner of designated synchronicity. The very notion twisted a noose in her intestines, creaking ever tighter to the metronome of the ventilator.

Barney spoke.

"Guy I knew in college," he whispered, "had something kinda like this. Moron crashed his bike popping wheelies by the side of the freeway. Took about a month for the swelling in his head to go down. Was one lucky son of a bitch, though."

He went on, filling the uncomfortable silence with what details he remembered of his friend's recovery: how he had to be taught to walk using rails and initially refused to do it out of embarrassment, but was running around campus within months and even went on to join the track team; how an awakened Gordon would probably get broth and Jello shoved down his throat until he'd glaze over at the sight of either one; how his friend was always somewhat moodier following the accident, his previously mellow temper more hairtrigger. Noises in particular roused his ire; book pages rustling, a fork scraping across a plate, turn that fucking radio down, Jesus. But that was probably due to a certain area of the brain being affected (amygdala, I think), and Barney wasn't sure old Gordo had it in him to even holler at a fly.

Her chest throbbed with a dull ache, each word bouncing off her like hail on a tin roof. He was trying his damnedest to cheer the both of them up with idle, awkward conversation. She knew she should try to reciprocate the effort, but hearing the good fortunes of someone in a negligible past (Barney very pointedly avoided mentioning what became of the man following the resonance cascade), especially when theirs seemed so distant, sank her mood even lower.

She dug her nails into her jacket sleeve. When she at length broke his stride, her voice scraped out low, sounding like another's entirely.

"How lucky could he be," she droned, "surviving that, just to get caught by Black Mesa?"

Minutes devoured the silence. "Lucky then and lucky now never really been about the same things, I guess."

"I'm sorry," she said. "Not just for that. For last night, too. For everything."

There came a wan smile on his end. "'s all right, kid. We just caught each other at a bad time." He clapped a hand to her knee, squeezing it once, only to quickly withdraw it when his sleeve hiked up his wrist, revealing a glimpse of ridged scar tissue.

Alyx closed her eyes in response, shut out the sight, and exhaled shakily. "I'm sorry you had to come home to this."

"Not your fault."

If only he knew. Her father's words ghosted and died on her lips.

"How was she?"

"Was a wake."

"You liked her."

Air slipped through his nostrils in a long, wistful sigh. "Couple days before we got ambushed, I kept bragging about how great White Forest was gonna be—mountain view, fresh food, beds that don't feel like you'll break your back just lying on 'em. We'd be shootin' the breeze compared to what we had in the city. She looks me dead in the eye and she says, 'You're so fulla shit it's a wonder you don't come with a privy.'" He tapped her bandaged wrist. "What about you?"

"It… comes and goes."

"Yeah," he said, and watched Gordon's chest rise and fall. "Talking helps," he added after a while. "If you get it out there, outta your head, it loses its teeth, can't sink into you as much." Stopped to rub his palms over his thighs. "Your old man used to say that."

"He follow his own advice?"

"Not always," Barney said.

Gordon's left forefinger twitched: the spasm minute but not unremarkable. The blanket wrinkled as his nail scratched it, curling a slight degree inward. Barney leaned forth, curious, but Alyx recognized something different in those sharp tremors.

"The gravity gun." He typically kept his less dominant hand on the punt mechanism to avoid trigger accidents. Judging from his stern expression—his jaws tightening while his nostrils flared—he was contemplating some problem. His forearm tensed, and the EKG spiked several times while his trigger finger dug into the linen, three short taut scratches. "The doctors think he's processing his memories of the Citadel."

Something about that gave him a raspy chuckle, made him shake his head. "Yep… only you would try to date and file your dreams, poindexter." He turned to her. "You think he can hear us?"

"I hope so," she said. "They said it could be projection, though. Apparently that's common when you're watching someone in a coma."

Barney opened his mouth and closed it. He seemed to revise his thoughts several times in his head before finally saying: "I just keep thinking, y'know, if it were you or me lyin' on that table, those CPs would've been toast."

Exhaustion compelled her to lower her head on her knee again, to pick at a fringed hole on her jeans. "Let's be real: if it were you or me, he'd be tearing the Combine a hundred new assholes right about now."

"Al, those bastards don't give a single solitary shit about anything. Anything we do'll be giving 'em a slap on the wrist."

That much had been painfully clear. Following the letter, her initial target narrowed in focus. This 'man' who tormented her father should count himself so lucky if he had anything to do with the Combine.

Some part of her wanted to tell Barney everything. The letter, the immense guilt her father carried with him. "What if—" But she hesitated, mute amidst the pump-pump-hiss that circulated treated air into Gordon's lungs. My dad… What if he didn't exactly do this for selfless reasons? "Do you know about the Borealis?"

He glanced down at her, his soft gaze turned penetrative; elbow propped on his knee, chin pinched between his thumb and forefinger, the lines around his bruised eye deepening. Can't bullshit a bullshitter, Barney would say. Maybe that was something to be grateful for rather than something to curse.

Mercifully, he decided to play along. "Doc Hindenburg told me a little about it." (His nickname for Magnusson which, needless to say, wasn't appreciated.) He tipped his chin toward the bed. "We'll get the job done. Van Winkle over here finally decides to rise and shine, he'll be all, 'Wow, wish I been a part of that action.' Then we'll make funna his gnarly ten-foot beard."

"You really think we can do this without him?"

"Somebody has to," he said. "Ain't fair to keep asking him to do all the work."

She wouldn't argue with that. "Dad wanted us to destroy the Borealis."

"Good."

"Good?"

"Blowing shit up's the easy part. Gonna be a huge pain in the ass if we gotta haul it back home."

"So I take it you disagree with Dr. Kleiner."

"Kleiner doesn't want us havin' too much fun."

"Barney, be serious."

"I am serious."

"They ran Judith off with Hunters the last time we knew."

"We'll find her."

"And if we don't?"

"Again: we'll find her. She escaped Breen, she can escape them, too."

"How are you so sure?"

"'cause I'm not overthinkin' everything."

"Yeah, maybe that's your problem."

"Hey, now, not in front of the baby. We just got him down."

"Sorry he's such an ass, Gordon."

"You hearin' this, man? You gonna let her talk smack about me? Dunk her in the trash. I dare ya."

"Real mature."

"Heh… So, the Borealis—"

"Gonna be cold."

"I'll pack a sweater."

"It's in the Arctic, Barney."

"Okay, okay." He hugged her shoulders. "Two sweaters."

-----------

Someone had painted the lambda on the hangar floor. It greeted her early that morning when she slipped in to finish last-minute preparations for the Mil Mi-8. Jagged orange lines crackled over grainy limestone, almost wet to the touch, marking themselves over the russet splotches of her father's congealed blood.

Gratitude and sadness mingled inside her. Those stains would always be there as long as there was a White Forest, as long as there was a Resistance, to mourn them. No one would forget their losses that day. But the lambda remained, dogged but bright.

Decay, but also change. The thought lent her strength, renewed her tentative hopes as she watched the hangar fill with personnel. They'd loaded the chopper with supplies, and a second waited nearby to airlift support. The time had come to face the Combine and claim the Borealis for their own.

Alyx stepped onto the circle, her mittened hands clasped together. "Listen… I think we all know my dad was the big speech-maker around here, so I'll just keep this short and sweet. And also so Barney doesn't nod the hell off."

Said slumberer twitched awake as he leaned against the railing, rubbing his eyes with a mutter, yeah, yeah, I'm up, quit crackin' the whip. Awkward chuckles drifted through the crowd.

How to begin? "These past few days… Have been…"

Honestly, she lacked the proper words to describe them. Over the course of five days, they'd said goodbye to Eli, scattered the ashes of those whose deaths came about as the result of senseless mistakes, and clung to the glass-fragile hope that Gordon would pull through.

"Tough," she said at last. "Trying, actually, if you want the truth."

She let the frigid quiescence in the air draw on as she thought of the HEV, its lambda replicated before her weathered boots. Raising her head, she continued.

"Our fight doesn't end with my father, or with Dr. Freeman for that matter. The lambda wasn't raised by just one or two people; it's held up by all of us, which is why we have to stick together and give the Combine everything we've got. It's what my father would want, and what I expect out of each and every one of you. And I'll try my damnedest to do the same, so that when Go… Dr. Freeman wakes up, it'll be to a safer, more peaceful world."

There ensued a long moment of silence, at the tail end of which a gunner thrust his AR2 in the air. "For Freeman," he shouted, and the echoes rippled through them.

For Freeman.

Dog lumbered on his haunches, a low, mournful whistle escaping him. She caressed his flaps. Be good while I'm gone. His aperture closed, and he swept her into his hulking mechanical arms, nodding vigorously as she told him Watch over them, boy, good doggie.

Kleiner approached once he deposited her on the ground. "It gets quite cold at those latitudes."

"So they say."

"You've packed enough clothes, haven't you? Enough rations to last in the event of—"

"Plenty."

"And there is ample fuel to sustain your flight? You've ascertained it will hold?"

"Don't worry so much," she said with a hint of a smile. Never change, Uncle Kleiner. "We'll be fine, really. There's just one thing I want you to worry about."

"Oh?" She placed them into his cupped hands, leaving him to peel back the fringed corners of the old wash cloth they were swaddled in. Gordon's new lenses gleamed under the hangar sconces. He tilted his head, confused. "What's this?"

"A trade," she said, "though he might need some time to get adjusted. They're not the exact same strength as his old ones." And with another tiny smile: "Tell him not to eat too much Jello when he wakes up, okay?"

Understanding, he tucked the glasses into his pen protector, and in turn withdrew Gordon's unopened letter from the pocket of his lab coat. He paused. "Are you certain of this?"

She nodded. "Gordon protected us when we needed him. It's about time someone else did the protecting for a change."

"One could scarcely imagine a better honor." A weary smile tugged his lips as he patted the bifocals over his heart. "They're safe with me. And whatever you do up there, please, do heed the utmost caution."

He looked so much frailer without her father's strong arm wrapped around his shoulder in companionship. She imparted him with the warm hug he would have given his dear friend and added a soft peck on the cheek. "This isn't goodbye."

Kleiner gave her hands a gentle squeeze. "My darling, I would never dream of it."

God, she was gonna miss him.

Barney moved through his goodbyes with a much lighter demeanor. Currently he was trying to tease Magnusson into giving him a hug, to little avail. "C'mon, Hindenburg, I know you wanna. Put 'er there, ol' buddy," he said, patting his sweatered chest.

Nose wrinkled as if having smelled something foul, Magnusson drew up his chin and leaned away, which only stretched Barney's shit-eating grin. "Calhoun, the day we embrace is the day swine achieve lift from their nonexistent wings."

"Save the love letters for later, doc, you're makin' me blush. How 'bout you, Uriah?"

Uriah twitched his snout in a similar manner. "Though he wishes the Calhoun well on this enterprise, this one must respectfully decline."

"Aw, man. Don't you leave me out in the cold, too," he told Kleiner, then wrapped him in a strong hug, patting him solidly on the back. "Gonna be plenty of frostbite where we're going."

"I should certainly hope not."

"And hey, doc? Don't go catchin' any more of 'em headhumpers. Still got the creeps from the first one." Climbing aboard the chopper, Barney leaned out the door, shouting over the propellers: "Bring ya back a postcard!"

The ceiling folded back, and White Forest waved them a safe voyage. The lambda grew smaller until it became an orange speck, an ember in the dusk.

She gradually eased her boots off the pedals as the Mil-Mi 8 gained a steady foothold in the air. From their climbing altitudes, it was easy for her to see just how small they really were, nestled among dark pines. At a certain height it seemed difficult to believe misfortune had ever befallen them here, that the river quietly winding through the scarred northern hills had always flowed without her father's ashes. In spite of the blows, life persisted.

As inheritor of Eli's secrets, she had to decide how they affected the welfare of the Resistance going forward. She'd debated what to do for quite a while, even going so far as to consider burning the two envelopes, thus keeping them from inflicting any more harm. Eventually she realized doing as much would be to point the finger at him, confirming he had reason to be ashamed, to carry that leaden silence with him into death.

She couldn't say she condoned his choice, but she understood. He craved forgiveness, not revenge. She'd set him free once, from a jar over the river. She'd be remiss not to do it again.

When Gordon's condition stabilized, she would tell him everything. She'd help him mourn the shattering of the pedestal, and help him see her father, too, was just a man, nothing lost but their idealizations. Eli may not have looked Gordon in the eye, but she damn well would. And things would be okay.

As for his letter, she decided to keep it as an imperative to pull through. If things grew dire, as they were bound to do, she'd think of the lambda and one man's wish not to let go.

Despite her burning curiosity regarding its contents, it remained unopened among her supplies.

Magnusson placed too much stock in knowledge for its own sake. Not all secrets were created equal, not all of them beneficial. Their power hinged on one's intent. They could be beacons to guide them, or they could be weapons forged to slay.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, huh, Gordon. She remembered the time he told her, while they trekked through the ruins of City 17, about a claim Albert Einstein once made. Namely, that he didn't know how the third world war would be waged, but he could easily predict the fourth: with sticks and stones.

To demonstrate the point, he bent down and cradled a chunk of brick in his hands.

They'd use stones if they were angry enough. Nothing else so powerfully reminded them of their shattered civilization: the stones they plucked broken, scorched pieces of concrete, snatched from holes blown in the street, gripped in white-knuckled hands and hurled with the same brute violence as Molotov cocktails, joined in nebulous gasps of fire. Up high in an occupied tenement a window would burst from one. A sniper would be hit in the mask and, enraged, wheel around his sights.

Gordon pitched his brick at a courtyard statue of Dr. Breen, taking the head clean off.

Stone-wielding rebels goaded their tormentors: Come on, let's stone us a slave. Even as they were gunned down into corpses, inanimate objects to step over and amass, a collection no more useful to the Combine than the stones they dropped, they repeated this chant. They asserted their superiority through death. The victims laughed as they were accosted and beaten and shot, teasing their killers with bitter humor. Give us shovels instead of bullets, slaves, and let us dig each other's graves. Light as a schoolyard taunt, their words contained no small measure of pity for what the human race had become.

In some capacity, Gordon said, Einstein was right. This war was waged with sticks and stones.

-----------

A visitor stood at the patient's bedside. The surgeon, Stezenka, passed through him as if he were smoke, flipping through notes in a chart.

Slowly he extended one emaciated hand and stroked the patient's glistening brow, rubbing his thumb in small, contained circles over the skull. Skin and blood and bone shuddered at his touch, the cavity within soft to the point of fragility. If he so desired, he could crush Dr. Freeman's mind into a worthless, quivering mass: a suggestion his employers made with increasing asperity these days.

He had his orders. As always, he found them lacking and so chose to repudiate them. Following them blindly would cost them the precious capital nestled within those three pounds of gray matter. How he detested avoidable waste.

Stezenka's assistant noticed a spike in the EKG. "Heart's a little fast."

Stezenka rustled her notes. "Apnea again?"

"Seems so."

"Let him relax a bit before you go readjusting the air pressure. His lungs need a consistent stream."

"All right."

A cart pushed through. Wheels scraped tile.

Slumbering again, I see, the visitor whispered, his voice a low, sibilant lullaby. Gordon's lashes flickered, his unconscious eyes seeking its source. A pity you should come so far, just to meet such… abrupt… failure.

One corner of his mouth tucked upwards as a finger twitched in response.

We seem to have encount-ered an issue. Since you've proven yourself an… exemplary problem-solver, I thought it best to con-sult you on this matter. There has been an illegal breach of terms, one which ne-cess-i-tates an immediate response… An exploit-ed loophole… if you would believe such a thing.

Alien breaths came high and shallow, noiseless in that dark, empty air, as if his lungs harbored no such concept.

As much as you may wish to rest, I regret to inform you… your services are still… required… as per the terms of our… agreement. The bid is still open, Doctor Freeman. And it is… rising.

His Adam's apple made a sharp dip in his throat.

You do indeed… unnder-stand what it is I am proposing. The visitor nodded. Very well. Your friends have… escaped their part of the con-tract. Now the time has come for you to… collect… their debts.

One by one he slid his fingers over the heart, spreading them wide. His smirk melted by degrees, morphed into a sinister snarl as he sank his fingertips into the thin material of Gordon's shirt. Pushing deeper, he depressed cloth and flesh until the steady beeping of the EKG hitched, producing several short, abnormal pulses struggling to maintain equilibrium.

The assistant bristled. "Maria, he's—"

With a gnash of his teeth he wrenched them free, tearing vivid green threads from the chest cavity.

Like a puppet jerked into place by a tug of the strings, Gordon lurched upright, sending a cold shock through the witnesses. He sat up for a split second before gravity claimed him, spilling over the table's edge and hitting the floor, sending his table and its equipment crashing down.

"Shit!" Stezenka's assistant cried. Glass shattered, diodes sprawled, monitors screamed. Blood snaked from his nostril onto the bleached tiles. His severed tracheal tube hissed air.

The surgeon whirled around, dropping her notes to prop his head into her lap while he convulsed, his cold, pale flesh stippled in cuts. "Christ, he's going into seizure! Get me some carbamazepine!"

Dress heels cracked the glass they ground underfoot. Gordon's visitor stepped over him, wielding his vortal threads like reins in his fist.

Open your eyes, Doctor Freeman.

He obeyed.