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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"

Chapter Text

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.