"Kleiner! Open this godforsaken door or I'm tearing it down myself!"
The thumping stopped long enough for Gordon to study the dangling wire that tossed cinders into the air. It resembled something he believed a nebula from the tram. He'd tried to calculate its location based on the tram's speed. His lips silently wandered over the numbers once more as his ear pillowed on Kleiner's motionless heart: hence his lack of response when the door unlocked and a crest of light washed over the room.
"All right, you two, time to stop this pussyfooting around… " Magnusson halted on the threshold, light splintering off his silhouette in sharp beams. "Oh." His voice became considerably softer. "Oh, God in heaven."
In another time it might have been a curiosity: how a stolid man who prided himself on maintaining control at all times crumbled in a matter of seconds.
He had never heard Magnusson whisper until that moment.
"Merciful Christ… what happened… ?"
He crept forth, mouth agape. A strange hybrid of instinctive sob and startled cry burst from his lips. He clapped a hand over them to abort the noise as he absorbed it all: the blood, the broken glass, the seething wires raining sparks onto singed concrete.
Gordon naturally relented when Magnusson shoved him aside, separating him from the body he no longer registered as Isaac Kleiner. He shook the limp, hollow thing, pressed fingertips to empty arteries on its wrists and neck, lamented the blood, so much blood, glanced toward Gordon for answers and found none. As the pieces assembled themselves, the grief and horror on his face morphed into awareness, and with it, hatred.
"Take off that suit." Magnusson's tremulous voice whetted into an iron edge the more he tightened his hold on Kleiner's thin shoulders. As for the dead himself, he might have slept for all of his docile quiescence. His head lolled aside to nestle on his colleague's heaving shoulder. "Do you hear me? You don't deserve to wear it!"
Out of White Forest, the land stretched on, its borders those of a dream with no discernible beginning or end. He walked until the rugged hills smoothed to a gentler, rainwashed slope. He walked when running no longer sufficed. When the mechanical pump of his legs relented to automation rather than willpower, exertion stinging his calf muscles after a week of non-use. The burning sensation marched up his knees, seared through him where the crowbar clanged against the metal hip-plate.
Still he trudged. Flecks of Kleiner's blood fluttered into the puddles his ceaseless strides impressed upon the moist dirt. The only sounds that trailed him, the shudder and scrape of breath through his clenched teeth, and cries. Cries of birds. Cries of creatures being killed in the forest.
In the west, the sun sank upon a cushioning of treetops. Pale gray clouds drifted over the horizon. The bright scythe of a crescent moon cleaved them apart, casting a hard diamond glitter on the water below.
A heavy dusting of perspiration chilled his face as he reached for the weapon clipped to his pauldron.
The Combine tasked to guard their stranded outpost hadn't counted on anything but a placid evening among grasshopper chirrup. True, they expected their commanding officer to cough when he raised a cigarette to his withered lips—no one in their fuckin' right mind came to Smolensk unless they suffered a death wish—but they hadn't counted on a piece of molten rebar to sprout through his throat, pinning him to the brick in a horrible soldering of flesh, plastic and mortar.
In the time it took the cigarette to fall, the other units dispersed, scrambling for cover. "Officer dow—" The next to radio in assistance squawked an anguished cry and crumpled over the steps. Rebar smoldered a searing hole in his stomach.
An evening's balmy breeze carried the clink-hiss of a fresh bar being pushed down the flight groove. The third caught it in the spine before he could swing his AR2 in the assailant's direction. The fourth screamed "Show yourself, coward!" and received an unceremonious pistol round between the eyes.
Smoke curdled noxious fumes, bubbling the blood that pooled between cracks in the stone.
Gordon emerged. He squinted from the bodies toward the horizon. Gulls' plaintive wails flowed over an empty current.
His shadow grew on the stone where the first dead officer lay slumped. Part of the rebar stuck inside the throat had cooled upon its fluids into a gray, ribbed handle, while the rest hissed red.
Fortunately, it hadn't jammed inside the vertebrae. He slid it straight out, snapped off the slag and stuffed the viable portion down the flight groove.
Waste not, want not.
Sounded like something the businessman would say.
Gordon regarded the corpse's plunge with no more interest than the wilted clover struggling to grow through the cracks at his feet. His attention gravitated toward a tower looming high over its surroundings. He tracked the charcoal shadows flitting behind an open window, and made to dash up the stairs leading toward the city gates when a voice beckoned him.
The Borealis was a trap. He had to destroy the ship before his employer caught her there, sever his hold on her once and for all. Perhaps then they'd be free. Perhaps then—
No. He didn't expect to return. He was keener than to believe there would be a place for him in the Resistance once he finished this business.
"Freeman!" the voice called again, a chafing knife taken to his nerves. "Cease this killing!"
He refused to turn back. "Go home."
A clawed hand grasped his elbow.
"Kleiner took the last vortal thread binding you to the creature," Uriah said, "and cast it into the abyss so that you may walk free. That is the truth, Freeman." He gestured to the charred, drained bodies sprawled on the landing several yards below. "The Alyx Vance remains in grave peril. For love of you both, he relinquished his life. Shall you waste his gift on such lowly scum as these?"
No more than they wasted Kleiner's life on him. "He trusted you." He shrugged off the Vortigaunt's grip to march toward the tower, where the Combine's alien flesh had been left to rot and crumble from the villa's underlying skeleton. "I don't believe in repeating mistakes."
His progress was further halted by a pair of unfamiliar Vortigaunts, who denied him entry by standing shoulder to shoulder with one another.
"Even you cannot escape the inexorable web of fate," said the one on the left. "In Black Mesa we see our brethren fall, and we cry out in unheard silence. We kill many soldiers throughout our journey. It does not matter; once you cut the vortal cord of our master, we become trapped, weaving in and out of time. A constellation of moments. We see you as well, at your birth and at your death. All are simultaneous. Your corpse, he speaks through your mother's womb."
His scalp prickled. He had no wish to speak as either.
"It is difficult to see you clearly amidst the shifting of the constellation," Uriah added. "You assume death marks an end. T'chaa… We die many times. We live many times more. The stars burn and dwindle, only to burn again."
His lips crushed together. "Move."
"Concerned the Freeman is with now, which is but an illusion," Uriah said, serene as one without conscience might be. "Yes… The time has come. Alyx Vance wishes to deliver this one a message."
That statement would have rendered his skeptical on the most magnanimous of days. His response produced a short bark. "What?"
"The ship brings death. Its destination, the palace of the Shu'ulathoi. They are taking her there so she might bear witness—"
"To the ritual of enlightenment."
"This is ridiculous," he said.
"Judge her not. She, too, thinks only of the ship… She is frightened. Her mind closes its eye. We see her no longer."
Stone stopped crunching under his boots.
"Heed his words, Freeman. Had the rites fallen upon us, you might lie dead." The left-hand Vortigaunt raised an arm to shield his partner, descending a few steps to erase the gap between them. "Quiet the fury that thrashes within your heart before you enter these chambers. Or it shall be silenced for you."
Gordon lunged, intent on barreling through. But the Vortigaunt caught him by the shoulders and hurled him backward. His opponent pounced with surprising dexterity, knocking the crowbar from his grip, which crashed onto the stone behind him.
He ground his free hand into a fist and took a blind swing. In answer, the blow that responded rattled through his chest-plate.
The crossbow. He scrambled for it, though that, too, was soon wrested from his control when his opponent deflected it in an upward chop, causing the broken slag to soar out of sight with a hollow wheeze of air.
Gordon wheeled around with the useless stock, but the Vortigaunt caught the potential bludgeon mid-swing and crushed the stirrup into a smattering of pieces.
"An honorable fighter, they call the Free Man!"
His anger roiled at the taunt, accompanied by the next careless shove. Bastard was taking it easy on him. The muscle strict necessity had carved from his limbs over the course of the past two weeks had atrophied while he slept, and now refused to move with the same speed his mind commanded them. The HEV pressed its weight upon his skin in a way that felt unnatural.
"You killed him." An animalistic growl writhed from the bottom of his throat. "Why didn't you stop this? Did you tell him it was the only way?"
Their silence stretched to a maddening degree.
Whether as an act of punishment or of blind rebellion, he couldn't say. He walked a few paces away from the group. And smashed the heel of his palm into the newly-sealed flesh of his cranial scar, over and over, until the tender skin rose in a heated throb.
Uriah cried aloud while the rest of the group remained stoic to his desperate fit of self-destruction. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. Right now he wished his skull would simply do as the businessman intended: burst and bleed.
"Damn it," he seethed, "God damn it, you should have left me in the cave!"
"Alas, Freeman. The cutting of your cord is not our blessing to bestow," replied the Vortigaunt. "Now, be still. Be silent. The Vortessence cannot guide us if you allow the darkness in your heart to obscure it."
The last shove forced him into a kneel and sliced the mesh covering his shoulder. As he stumbled, clutching the torn net, the HEV announced in its disaffected feminine drone: Minor laceration detected. Warm blood leapt free of the wound, moistening the links.
Gordon grasped the stones and dug his teeth into his chapped lip. Though he fought to keep from swaying, his mind raced. If he hadn't fallen comatose— If the Vortigaunts hadn't lured him into this asinine rite— If Kleiner had listened when he'd told him to run— None of this would have happened—
Human and Vortigaunt glared in tandem, panting.
"Already the flesh bleeds," his opponent snarled. Crushing the crossbow's useless frame underfoot, he finally stood down.
The adrenaline of the failed fight evaporated from his veins, threatening to weigh down his bones. His last ounce of will broken, he bowed his head. Letting his gloved fingertips brush the soft seal of skin where the healed flesh began, he traced the wound snaking around his scalp. The injury that should have killed him tingled from a cool, dewy gust.
He thought of Kleiner. Gentle fingers kneading his hair until they slipped away. His lungs swelling, full to burst on this aching, empty grief.
Behind repaired lenses, his eyes stung, dry and sore. Nothing left to wring from them.
"You must persist," Uriah said. Where had he heard those words spoken before? In the cave. Shouted at Kleiner. We cannot lose him. "Long are the roads that loom ahead."
Sitting up in bed. The cave. The tram.
He remembered it all so clearly.
"Lead us, Freeman." Firm but not without a tinge of regret, Uriah's words nudged him onward in a simple reminder of his duty.
He beheld Smolensk with swollen eyes. It might have been City 17's ghostly twin if it had succumbed to natural decay rather than a reactor collapse. The seaward wind creaking through its holes carried the dimmest scent of ash.
Reduced to his hands and knees, he crawled toward the city gates with a painful frailty, grasping each misshapen cobblestone with questioning fingers. He couldn't be sure if it was real. If the ground would continue under him.
As ever, he had no choice but to obey what he'd been told. And the Vortigaunts followed.
Pain sang a deep song inside his unused limbs. It was only through sheer will that he reached the landing. There he slumped over the emplacement barrier, breathing heavily onto the unmanned stock.
Feet coalesced around him. Gordon felt arms wrap around his twinging shoulders, propping him upright. Uriah again.
One at a time he climbed the stairs to the chapel.
They entered from the transept and turned right to investigate a dark, derelict chancel.
Pests, a Vortigaunt said.
He scanned the environment. Of course, those 'pests' presented a bigger risk to him than to them.
A faint chitter raised his hackles. Slowly he reached down to unsheathe the crowbar when a stream of dark shapes flew screeching overhead, dipping through a shattered stained-glass window.
He lowered his arm and saw the scat dripping from holes in the weathered brick. Not the headcrab his instincts warned him of, but a family of bats. Harsh experience must have trained them to flee from intruders at a moment's notice.
More of the Combine's presence could be felt around the corner, where refueling stations and standard consoles lined the walls.
The stone font cemented in the middle sported a prominent crack, long deprived of its original purpose. Even so, dark water gleamed a shallow pond inside the bowl, reflecting the moon's glow.
Gordon leaned over the rim. For a single heartbeat, the face peering up at him wavered, no longer his own.
He delivered a swift punt and knocked the mirror down. Water, weeds, and dust-gray locust shells rushed out in an entangled spill, washing over their feet. Underneath the crumbled caulk lay a metal panel.
He pointed. "Can you get this working again?"
The Vortigaunt leader rumbled in a caustic manner. "L'iir ja. For what purpose? Where else might the illustrious Freeman intend to grace with his presence?"
Lurching around, he tore the panel open and smashed it back on its hinge. Metal slammed on stone in a dull scream, echoing throughout the chapel.
"Perhaps I wasn't clear," he said, his tattered breath stirring stagnant motes in the air, "we are going to get this equipment working." He stowed inside, flicking on his suit's flashlight to examine the console's water-rotted guts for some semblance of working circuitry. "We are going to charge the teleport to a sufficient rise-time. After which, you will return to White Forest. Tend to the grieving and the dead."
"Know your place, Freeman, you wretched cur," spat his opponent. "To humans I owe neither debt nor reparation. I seek only to slay the creature that has plagued our people."
"And Kleiner?" he asked just as belligerently. "Who was protecting him from that 'creature' when you all dragged me back?" Reaching in, he toggled a series of switches that reactivated the fuse, making the machinery hum to life. "Right. Let's get this working."
"Who are you to address us so? You foul bag of guts: his eyes peer out through yours. We cannot allow you to carry him unchecked to the vessel."
Gordon opened the hatch by way of a snap kick leveled at the panel and crawled out. "If you really believed that, you'd have killed me when you had the chance," he said. "You didn't. Because you know he won't stop at just me."
Silence reigned again. Not unfitting for a place of worship.
It didn't take them long to get the equipment running again. Several well-placed jolts here and there to encourage circulation in the wiring eventually slaked the dust off. Pedestals that once housed idols of saints he couldn't name retracted to reveal floor receptacles. From them, electrified cables shot out, clamping to attachments embedded in the walls. They screeched at first, then began to pulse.
Heavy netting draped over the chancel. The Combine had retrofitted an entire small-scale tunneling device to the chapel. It was a clandestine bit of engineering he might have admired from the safety of another life.
He tightened his knuckles over the nicked metal hanging from his hip. After a time you learned to sense when a portal approached activation. Always a crisp taste on the tongue. Like ozone.
When the bright eye blinked awake, Gordon observed its neon iris, feeling the swirl of charged particles ruffle his scalp. Seemed almost serendipitous that portals of these ilk whisked him away from worse prospects. A lifetime ago he'd jumped the beam to the borderworld without giving a scrap of thought to the possibility that the facility he stranded might be destroyed in his absence. Another, presented to him from the glassless windows of a dark, silent tram, displaced him twenty years.
He had but a vague idea where this one would lead, but nonetheless felt compelled toward it.
After all, wasn't that what he signed on for? To go where he was told?
"Freeman," Uriah said. He stared, unblinking, as the Vortigaunt touched the begrimed skin of his brow with a single talon. "Beware. This, too, is a sacrifice."
At least they agreed on something. "Wouldn't be the first."
Gordon gazed at the shattered stained-glass window. Here and gone; he was also a creature trained to flee.
He leapt into the glowing well.