"We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through."
- Erich Maria Remarque, "All Quiet on the Western Front"
For the first three nights the Resistance stayed in the tundra, she had a recurring dream that her father begged her to speak.
He hadn't come all at once. That would have been too obvious. Survivor's grief entailed consequences they thought natural enough, in her insomnia easily explained as overcompensation for his absence. And he retained too subtle a presence, too careful a distance, to make the distinction clear.
Her dreams fooled her into thinking he awaited her at the lip of the cave. That he watched her intently as she sat up, frost encrusted on her cheek.
She let herself believe for a few moments. Come here, she wanted to say. You'll freeze. Sit over by the fire.
He would shake his head and sink to a kneel beside her. Misfiring neurons made the facsimile of his metal knee scraping stone sound more real than her slipshod memory permitted. She could almost feel his fingers dig into her shoulders as he grasped them, depressing the down in her coat. Please, Alyx. Those words mean everything.
No matter how he implored her, whether through emotion or reason or absurd, jagged flashes of images, she could only fuel his terrified expression with more despair. Though she could open her jaws with a concentrated effort, silence continued to squeeze through her clenched teeth.
Try, baby. You have to try.
Anger ignited in her—a flash in the pan.
(I have to try?)
Her gloved hands tightened over his, prying his grip.
(you waited twenty years; a little longer won't hurt anyone)
(and in case you haven't noticed, Dad)
(I'm not the one who lied)
The weariness weighing down his shoulders, the fire glistening in his downcast eyes, almost real but not quite; that was the distinction he'd tried to conceal from her even now, locked in the throes of her mind. The dream wavered when she tried to argue. Fighting back pushed him further into the recesses; he'd vanish whenever she lunged for his own shoulders. When her cracked lips at last found their purchase to speak, what answered was the howling wind that tore through the tent flaps, dragging her back awake.
On the fourth morning, Alyx uncapped a bottle of caffeine pills and marched their outfit through twenty miles of hard, stinging hail. Pellets the size of golf balls assaulted the hoods of their terrain vehicles. People bitched, as people usually do, but they survived nonetheless.
They found another cave. Built another fire. Ate more rations tasting like ground-up chalk. Precipitation beat so wrathfully on the crumbled ceiling no one in their right mind wanted to stand watch. At least the Combine were getting banged the hell up out there, too, they consoled themselves while massaging their sore shoulders. I know I am.
The sleep that arrived that night was dark and silent. Over time, the hail quieted. As did Eli.
The Resistance spoke plenty enough. Vance, they said, take a look at these coordinates. Munitions wants to bend your ear when you're done. No, it's not urgent. Where should we park the snowmobiles? There, really? All right.
Her father was something of an illusionist when it came to this particular business. He could make anyone believe they captured his full attention. In reality, rebellion's ceaseless demands pulled him several different directions.
He used to tell her no grievance was trivial. A man with a reasonable bone to pick deserved the same degree of respect as the bleeding man crying out for a medic. Minute you start making a distinction, playing favorites, that's when the cracks start to form.
How did he stand that, she thought, claiming with a straight face all those the Resistance protected measured equal in importance, so long as they sought refuge in the lambda? How could he have slept through the night knowing he'd been guaranteed what he'd wanted at the cost of every other loss?
She countered her uncomfortable thoughts with one that she was being unfair. It wasn't a senseless idea to try to take everyone's needs into account. Only way they were getting through this was together.
Seventeen men, women, and Vortigaunts inhabited this cave, scraping about, fixing their transports, discussing their plans in low tones during the day. At night they shared coffee and tissues, complaining of ubiquitous cold. Away from the elements they'd formed a small tight-knit ecosystem: radio operators, gunners, mechanics, medics, scouts, ground support, all of them crammed together in whatever pockets of shelter the tundra offered them.
Even now, vengeful, flesh-harrowing winds bashed themselves against the entrance, forcing them to burrow deeper in the cave's icy bowels. When the rare beam of sun broke horizon, the warmth it generated was scarcely enough to tingle the skin.
She had to make a minute, though not insignificant, concession: the weather's refusal to cooperate masked them from the Combine. It had stormed ever since the chopper touched down in this remote section of the Russian Far North—ladies and gents, Barney griped with his hands tucked under his elbows, welcome to Soviet bumfuck nowhere—and harbored few intentions of relenting. The same hail that broke their radio transmissions also scrambled Combine sensors, rendering them just as blind, just as deaf. Silver linings, she supposed.
Sitting cross-legged on a slab of rock, Alyx bent over a a weathered atlas written in Cyrillic, which was weighed down at the corners by portable halogen lamps. Pencil marks, burned into the grain from being scratched out with a leather-tough eraser, debated her suggestions.
Mossman's last pinged location placed her in an area roughly twenty square miles in diameter. No way to narrow down that swath of unexplored territory. The transmissions they'd sent from the Mil Mi-8 went unanswered. Seven miles east of the perimeter, however, resided a former weather station, status unknown. Alyx had to assume the remnants of her crew would have headed for it when Hunters raided the base.
That was, unless you had the unerring optimism to believe Combine knocked on the door and left politely. The signs Judith hadn't eluded capture proved discouraging. Their readouts returned signatures bereft of vitals. Vortigaunt scouts likewise reported few signs of life lingering in the transmission's point of origin. Extending their senses stretched them so thinly, it seemed cruel to overexert them.
No matter how you diced it, finding Judith would be like searching for a needle in a glacial haystack. Except this needle was by no means guaranteed to be anywhere near its last ping, and most of the work relied on a shaky foundation of estimates.
The scout, a wispy man named Jim, placed a GPS atop the map, letting the thick device obscure stenciled grids. "I was thinking," he said, "we keep at this pace, we won't hit the station till at least noon tomorrow. If we just pushed one more time—"
"How far ahead you think we'd be?"
"Stone's throw. Won't be pretty." He chewed on the pencil. "Some of these routes, they may look safe, but most of 'em got cracked open from portal storms, got crevasses that drop for kilo and kilo. Whoever planned this layout of yours didn't realize how many there are. We're already twenty-some kilo off—" tapping the pencil indicating a projected position; Alyx's projection marked them five kilometers from the weather station, "—I'm just afraid we'll miscalculate the distance and run straight into them."
After a few moments of mulling over the problem Jim slid the pockmarked pencil from his mouth. "Honestly," he said, words strained as if he'd stepped on a nail, "I'd rather circumvent the route. Might be a longer run, but as long as we stay outta sight, there's, you know—" he wheeled his wrist searching for the right word, " …less mess."
As he continued, her attention diverted elsewhere. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Milton heading for them, his boots crushing snow. Milt for short. One of her father's oldest and most ornery mechanics. In his pre-war days he rode with a biker gang called the Kingsmen. The faded crown tattoo encircling his right wrist peeked beneath his glove's ragged hem.
She remembered as a child rearranging lugnuts on the dusty floor of his chop shop while he and her father discussed how best to install a RAM mount on his Harley-Davidson. When Milt strode toward you with something encased in his fist, good news usually didn't follow.
He slammed a piece of black ice square onto the map, letting it ooze water.
"Milt, what the hell?"
"No, thanks." She plucked the chunk off the map before it could stain their sketches and dropped it, wiping her glove on her hip. "Stinks."
"You think Santa's coal stash smells like roses?" he deadpanned. "Henry found that bad boy lodged in Blake's engine." She doubted it. Thing was the size of a baseball; you'd practically have to get on your knees and cram it up the exhaust. "We can't be sloggin' through the shit like this. The Yamahas can't take another flogging. Not like the Berkuts."
Alyx glanced at the bulky white snowmobiles lined under tarps along a gorge in the cave's lee-facing wall. At the lambda painted black on their ribs. Their accompanying cargo transport had bequeathed them half a dozen Yamahas and four military-grade snowmobiles. The latter wielded enough suspension to carry two people in the front cabin and three on the bed. Rebel engineers further rigged the windows with bulletproof glass.
She wished they'd stuck with just one good, solid transport. The Yamahas honestly stood a breath from crumbling as it was, as they'd been repurposed from old sports models that had already survived the Seven Hours and endured two decades of modification since. Were it not for their lack of speed, the Berkuts might not have required the extra cover. The Russian company that originally manufactured them used them to transport personnel across vast Arctic swaths for oil excavation purposes. Although not quick by any means, they could cleave their way through long stretches of snow.
They were built specifically for endurance, an absolute necessity in this merciless terrain. More promisingly, their anterior pintle mounts boasted medium-range machine guns. Even if you shoved a semiautomatic into the hands of every Yamaha rider, the support fire they could provide was negligible at best and a liability at worst. ATVs flipped when shot at. Milt of all people should have known.
"Can't you… Patch them over?"
"With what, Vance? Wishes and duct tape?"
Alyx let slip a mild sigh as she rubbed her brow with the side of her palm. "I'll take a look as soon as we figure out where we're headed."
"Well, that's great, but what would be even better is if you took a look now. Gonna be sitting fucking ducks if we don't keep 'em in running condition."
Teeth flickered from a silver beard. "Actually, I kinda don't think you do."
Jim raised his head, tried to intercede before trouble brewed. "Milt, come on, dude. Leave her alone."
"It's common sense," he told her. "You drive us through twenty miles of icy fuckin' plague, your transports aren't gonna come out the other side mint in the box."
All right, Milt. You're pushing it a little. "Okay," she said, "first off, I can't control the weather."
"Yeah, you would say that."
"Second… " Keep calm. "We're trying to figure out how to keep out of the Combine's sights. It'll take a while. You'll have plenty of time to work on the Yamahas."
"Forget it. Sorry for asking."
"No," she said firmly, stopping him in his tracks. "You have something to say, say it."
Rooted, he folded beefy arms over his chest until his padded chest creaked, shook his head with a low mutter. "Eli wouldn't have given me this horse crap."
Her brows hiked. "Excuse me?"
Milt turned. "Heard that, didja? I said your father would have got right on it. Maybe next time you ought to take a page from his book instead of handing out excuses."
She looked down at Jim—whose ears flushed red and of whom quickly returned his gaze to the map—hardly believing those words just dropped out of his sorry mouth. Most of the time, the Resistance practiced enough tact to avoid mentioning her father, much less compare her failings to his.
(if they knew he'd betrayed them because of her, for her sake)
The last thing Alyx wanted was to force everyone around her to walk on eggshells; the humiliating screaming match she and Barney had engaged in the night of her father's cremation taught her the painful lesson of restraint. And it had sent an even clearer message to those who'd watched. The trust they'd placed in her was inherently tentative, shaken. Few benefited from her stretching that trust even thinner.
That was why she banded them under the lambda. It gave them something more substantial to fight for than the truth. If she couldn't ignore her father's secrets, she'd shut them out long enough to get the job done.
All the Resistance knew was that she might lash out if pushed. She found herself in a vulnerable place, foisted into an even more vulnerable position as the highest priority enemy target now that her father was dead (but not silent) and Gordon out of commission.
What's more, she lacked proper training. Like Gordon, she made decisions on a minute-by-minute basis. On what lay before her, no more and no less. In other circumstances she'd be lying under a creeper squinting at engines along with the other mechanics, not planning where best to launch a search before enemy eyes spotted them.
True, neither had her father possessed the prerequisite experience when he built this Resistance, but he'd spent twenty years growing into his role, learning how to lead them with the savvy they needed. Compared to her meager three days, she felt as though she had much more to catch up on than she could possibly handle.
The combination of these things meant that precise kind of remark smarted more than it should have. Slapping her outright would have done the job just as well. She clenched her eyes shut before snapping them open again with renewed ferocity, one barely held by her eroding veneer of calm.
Of course, having glimpsed them from the fire crackling across the way, Barney would try to run interference. Milt clucked his tongue, and she shielded her face as he stood and tugged his warmed hands back into his leather gloves.
Ignoring him didn't work—he stopped several paces before them and beckoned her with a wave. Kid, c'mere. Her cheeks filled with so much heat she wished they'd just dump her in the snow.
She couldn't. Not now. "Barney, we're busy."
His tightening mouth told her he didn't believe that for a second. "Just be a second." Reaching between them for her arm, he flashed Jim and Milt an affable smile. "'scuse us, fellas." When they wandered just out of range of earshot, he admonished her en sotto. "Hey there, cool your jets. We don't want a hallway part two. Original sucked the first time around."
"What do you want me to do?" she said. "There's so much to figure out before nightfall it's not even funny—"
Barney blocked her from glancing over his shoulder by grasping her own and turning her toward him. "Hey, don't look at him. Look at me. Over here. Aren't I pretty?"
"Pretty what?" she asked. "Pretty scary?"
His expression soured. "Well, shit, you ain't gotta be mean about it." He released her shoulders, tossed a thumb in the transports' direction. "Like it or not, Milt's got a point. Those Yamahas are paper fuckin' thin. Maybe we should've waited 'til the storm cleared a little before we put 'em to work."
"You can't be serious," she said. "Who knows how long that would have been? Hail can go on for hours up here—"
"Not to mention," he continued, pointedly, "we got pretty whipped in that last stretch. Some folks get snippy, say crap they don't mean, well… They kinda got a right to be miffed. Hail hurts, y'know?" Guilt crept into her, and she went silent. His voice softened. "Yeah? Gonna think about sittin' in the bleachers for this one?"
Any protest left in her throat dried. She regarded him with weary caution, hoping to find a grain of affirmation. "I'm sorry that I've been pushing us too hard lately. It's not like I've had a lot of practice with this sort of thing."
"I know," he said, with an empathetic lift of his shoulder. "Look, kiddo, nobody's saying you gotta bust your balls, or ours. I'm just saying it can't hurt once in a while to catch more flies with honey."
She hated it when he sounded reasonable. "Okay." Bit by bit, her taut shoulders relaxed. "If you say so, I'll trust you. But he mentions Dad again—"
"Pickin' his teeth outta the snow. Copy that." He clapped her shoulder, squeezing it once. "One thing at a time there, kiddo."
Milt stared expectantly, and she loosed a tremulous breath before rejoining the group. As Barney left her to work it out, she wondered if he'd talked her father down from similar ledges.
"I'm sorry." She rubbed her arm. "You're right. I just wasn't sure how long the storm would've lasted, and I figured we had to cover as much ground as possible while the hail gave us cover. Looks like that hurt more than it helped, though."
"Well, golly gee. Look who wants to kiss up after her timeout." Turning on his heel, Milt walked toward the transports. "Probably a few more reindeer turds stuck down in there pretty deep. Last one was five inches before you hit the—"
He never received the chance to finish. A synth's high, mournful howl raised their hackles, filling every nook and cranny of their temporary abode.
A blast of light erupted in the deep darkness.
Before she registered another second more, a massive boulder crashed down. Streaks of arterial blood mottled her face. Unthinking, awareness the thickness of a needle, she touched them, saw a corpse crumple in firelight. Flecks of softness in his teeth felt like gray matter.
Screams pierced the air.
Clotted entrails sprouted from the skull and crept upwards into the crushing boulder, threw gray smear against the Yamaha's plastic hood. Jowls and mouth drooped in a frown melted by gravity. One eye, perceiving nothing, fell halfway closed while the other popped wide open, its bulge slightly distended from the socket, its bloodshot iris a cloudy, viscous ring nestled inside a swarm of red. He was dead. He was—
"Oh my God, Milt!"
She swallowed to suppress the wave of bile ramming its way up her throat. Fingers jerking by imperceptible needleprick, she grabbed Jim by the arm and reeled him away from the sight.
Pulse fire pounded the yielding snow just outside the cave's front end, holes vomiting steam from their heated rounds.
Fear flooded her veins with ice. "They're smoking us out," she said, then addressed the stunned group. "Who's got the rocket launcher?" A hand went up. Thomas. Good. "Tom and Blake, grab the missiles. Jim, come with me. The rest of you take the snowmobiles and hug the ridge as low as you can. Stay out of sight. We'll cover you."
Someone asked, "What about the Ya—"
"Take them if they're faster, just get out of here before the cave collapses!" Rocks creaked above them from the open crevice torn by the implosion; blue light poured through thickening drafts of snow and smoke. She stabbed her finger at the transports. "Go, go!"
Everyone scattered. Grabbing the handle of a radar receiver, she forced herself not to let her gaze linger on Milt's corpse.
I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm
Her group dashed outside with the RPG-7 and five ordnances in tow. Planting the receiver firmly in the eddy until snow splashed around its sides, Alyx slid a bulky pair of headphones over her ears and cranked a dial; slowly vague images emerged within the ripples of cocentric rings. Not that they needed to see the threat to sense its presence. Even at this distance, they felt its every step tremble in their bones.
Thomas, the gunner, whispered, "No way in hell we're getting past that Strider."
Alyx studied the shapes that floated onscreen. A caravan of an APC and several escort units hugged a small area underneath the Strider's cone of protection. A well-timed rocket could send the body crashing down, killing two birds with one stone.
"We can't risk a cave-in." Radio chatter wafted through the airwaves in distant, guttural tones. Heavy pollution reported in grid seven-one-nine. Sweep for endotherms. "They know we're here anyway. We've got to buy the others as much time as we can; we'll meet up with them once everyone's out." She tore off the headphones. "Jim, I need eyes on that Strider. How big's the gap?"
He peered through a battered pair of standard Combine-issue infrared goggles, though he didn't dare engage their penetrating floodlights for fear of giving away their location. "Fifteen klicks south," he said. "Bearing straight."
Dammit. On a collision course. A virtual beeline. How did the Combine know? Was the Mil Mi-8 tracked? Had they caught onto their hailing frequencies?
Well, it wouldn't matter in a few minutes. She opened the targeting system to a velvet-black screen devoid of light.
She jostled the reset keys. Dead pixels refused to spark. "No, no, don't you dare—" Slapped the screen several times in vain. "Shit—"
"Talk to us," Blake demanded. "What's going on up there?"
Alyx snapped her head down. "Targeting system's lagging 'cause of the cold," she shouted. "It's gonna take at least a minute to boot back up!"
Even half-blinded by snow, she sensed their worry. A minute? Offer them up on a silver platter, why don't you?
Another resounding quakegave her an idea. Crazy one, but it was better than leaving themselves to the mercy of a frozen targeting system. "Blake, take my place."
He scrambled to pick up the launcher she dropped. "What?" Breaking a little ways from the group, she swept the snowdrift clean of their footprints, removed her right glove and began to scribble feverishly on the blank slate. "What the hell are you doing?"
Icy air ached in her heaving lungs, hastening the motions of her cold-bitten finger. Don't see it as a clash or crumble of forces. When you break it all down, winning's a matter of wielding the correct numbers. This is just an equation in need of a solution. Manipulate the numbers. Think.
The scout wrenched down his infrared goggles. "Twelve klicks south and hauling ass," he announced over his shoulder. "Whatever you're doing, you'd better hurry."
First, the RPG-7. Express the rocket's parabolic function.
She reached back. The quadratic formula produced a vertex of fifty-five feet. Not much room for margin of error. Striders clocked in at fifty feet, give or take certain fluctuations in height modification; mobile units were usually designed somewhat taller than their urban counterparts to better handle rugged mountain terrain. No way to know its specs unless the fucking thing was lying right on top of them. She had to capitalize on the launcher's thrust to suckerpunch the ordnance directly where it would inflict the most structural damage, the underbelly.
That was assuming it was a clear day, without so much as a breath of wind to nudge the rocket's trajectory. Mother Nature would never be so kind, continuing instead to blast gales in staccato bursts. With the Strider's height and acceleration shifting each step it took, a fragile math began to give a perilous creak.
The warp cannon blinked a bright eye in the horizon. Blue beams shot so close they could smell the crisp reek of ionized particles. Aftershock swam in their guts. Alyx threw herself forward, barred her forearm against a tumbling rush of snow to keep it from erasing her work. She glanced at the shallow score marks and bit her chapped bottom lip so deeply it split, oozing droplets of salty fluid.
Blake's voice rasped with dread. "Vance, come on! Don't make me spit blind in this fucker's eye!"
No doubt things were about to get messy. First branch's upper boughs often claimed she'd had a head better suited for application than theory, which was their snide way of saying she proved more useful with a gun than a greaseboard. Maybe they were right. But while she wasn't as accurate at performing these calculations as her father or Mossman, the encroaching caravan afforded little time to double-check the numbers. This was as certain as she'd have to be. The solution had to hold.
"Aim the launcher ten clicks east," she said, jabbing a finger in that direction. "Everyone else stay low and get as far from the backblast as you can."
"Right into the wind?" Blake asked. "You lost your fucking gourd?"
The eye blinked again.
"Not now, Blake, punch it!"
They tucked and covered as he hurled a rocket into the white. A horrible moment of stillness ensued, not knowing whether the projectile had skimmed its target; a distant boom rattled their teeth in their gums, lit the snow like a candle sweeping behind a curtain.
"What?" Her heart slammed in her throat. "What happened?"
He whirled around. "Rocket made contact," he shouted, "Strider's crippled! We—"
A retaliative beam lashed through the crag, cruelly smothering him. Blake had no time to scream and neither had anyone else—the Strider's warp cannon cleaved the cornice in half, steaming rocks on both sides. Caught in its sights, he dissolved into a burning mist seconds before his charred corpse hit the snow.
Alyx's hands shook as he released his grip on the launcher handle. Shock and revulsion flashed through her, completing the circuit with pulse-pounding rage.
Grabbing the launcher, she ducked at the shuddering hiss of a plasma rifle preparing to discharge its alternate fire.
"Get out of there," yelled Thomas between tearing off rounds from his SMG. "You're gonna get yourself killed!"
Not until everyone made it out. Most had, but a few struggled to haul their transports out of the cavern into the shielding snow. Already the boys ordered extra muscle. "Hammer Zero requesting inoculation. Infection risks breaching quarantine."
The Strider swam into existence, mosquito's silhouette drawing closer.
She called for another ordnance and, when they hesitated, applied more heat to her command and received one. The second rocket twisted and torqued as it swept the Strider's underside, passed through and exploded. The synth bent at an oblique angle, one of its jointed legs stooped lower than the others, ambling due to its compromised knee. Regardless, turquoise fire pulsed hot from the primary cannon. Melted snow spat flecks and rocks beside her like shrapnel.
She wrenched out of their path, ducking beneath a snowdrift that felt about as protective a cover as drywall. Shuddering breath filled the air seconds before an energy ball whisked past. She swore it nearly shaved the fur from her hood.
Charge delay muted the Strider's continuous fire, thank God. She seized on the reprieve to jam in the third rocket, hoping this would be the charm.
Wind snatched the hood from her head, exposing her to merciless subzero temperatures that dropped more quickly than her hope did when the ordnance diverted toward a patch of icy land just behind the carrier. Its pointed tail smoked and hissed in the white swarm. Growing thin. Narrow. Diving too fast toward the ground.
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the detonation crackle behind the carrier, overturning it, blossoming into a gaseous storm. The Strider emerged from the flames, never once breaking pace.
Her molars ground down to the nerve. The next missile orbited the Strider like a hornet seeking its nest, closing in—come on—come on, damn it—
Direct hit. Broken casing emitted an ungodly screech as it careened off the main structure and landed in the snow. Black smoke belched from a sparking carapace. With its balance now skewed, it swayed heavily to one side and anchored its surviving legs to the ground to keep from toppling over. Gravity would soon have its way, however.
Vindication curved her smirk. The Strider was running half-mad at this point, its brain exposed in the circuitry, which she could blow with the fifth shot and send the rest of this bitch crashing to earth.
Meanwhile, stragglers fled the burning APC. "Avian has derailed transporter. Envoys disperse and displace. Expunge outbreak."
Her retinue passed her the next missile and got low. The rocket ejected from her shoulder with a fuel-propelled scream, sending her reeling a bit.
The Strider released a garbled electronic wail, hobbled. It coughed a blazing sputter out its anterior port and collapsed in a smoking heap, crushing the carrier underneath. Units scattered from the conflagration like insects.
"Strider down, repeat, Strider down—"
Alyx and the others evaded a gauntlet of pulse fire, the RPG's warm weight banging against her shoulder socket. Plasma fire smacked the ridge just inches above their heads. Melted snow slithered down her coat.
Panting in greedy snatches, they huddled under the cornice for shelter; there, she risked an appraising glimpse over the jagged ridge. Her nostrils pricked from the greasy fumes rising from the Strider's carcass. A dozen units crept toward the cave in a loose phalanx, their coherence separated by the rocket.
"Overwatch, request Winder dispatch."
She judged their ET around three minutes. Assuming those 'paper fuckin'-thin' Yamahas rode decently, the last of the seventeen rebels would miss the reach of their AR2s.
Her fingers gripped the launcher handle digging into her neck. Provided the Combine refrained from ambush, they could fend off the first wave with relative ease, delivered in the form of a loving ordnance; their squad formations had scattered a little too far apart to converge easily back together. Depriving them of the carrier slowed their pace. Mobile units assembled their default flanks, pairs and trios deployed for the express purpose of burying as much lead in rebel bodies as possible. Blowing another hole like the one that downed the Strider would cripple them. But the last rocket had to land. She couldn't afford to waste it.
She wiped a glove over her mouth, hefted the launcher to her breast like a coveted child. Buried under layers of cloth and wool, her heart pounded, clamoring to be released before the pulse fire combing the ridge found its home lodged within.
Three minutes. Was that all she could give?
"Outbreak status is Code Hurricane."
Bullets shaved the bank. Steaming droplets slapped her in the cheek, trickling down ice-raked nerves. She shielded her eyes until the flash and echo of gunfire clouded into afterimage.
That dreamlike sheen burst when another round struck Thomas in the back. He gave a grunt and fell wordlessly. She scrambled for him, then forced apart from his corpse as more bullets pounded the snow. Hot shrapnel ripped through and sliced her calf at an angle, shearing the down in her snow pants, blood and frigid air heralding pain.
But she hadn't caught the worst of it—Jim, poor Jim, lay prone at the end of a spotted crimson trail. At his side, the final rocket. Their last chance.
She moved her lips in wordless prayer as engine rumble waned.
Crushed bones, roasted flesh.
God, please let them make it out.
Crawling through this labyrinth with death clipping at her heels, an odd notion struck her. That being cornered was no different than backing against the wall of her own volition. In the canals, when you met a dead end and soldiers splashed down feet-first, you had to resist succumbing to the instinct to freeze. Inaction had once led to a piece of buckshot embedding itself in her right wrist, excruciating pain bringing everything brilliantly alive.
No, you had to regain control of yourself before control was wrested away. You had to refuse to stand as prey before the barrel. Breathe, Alyx. Just breathe.
She grabbed the last rocket and vaulted into a lean-necked sprint down the ridge. Snow flew from her heels as she sought a prime vantage point. Her calf protested with seething resentment, flaring bright pain up her hamstring, almost sending her stumbling once or twice. But she persisted, head ducked low.
Even though it seemed foolish, she planned to keep drawing fire until everyone safely evacuated. High priority target prancing out in the open? You'd have to be an idiot not to snatch a head that practically begged for mounting. Combine grunts hungry for their Elite chest badge proved the most recklessly vainglorious of the lot. Judging by the sound of their encroaching chatter, her bait dangled too lucrative a temptation for them to resist.
"Hurricane passing inland. Nearby units stabilize."
She heaved herself upright and fired.
"Avian inbound! Ripcord, ripcord!"
They scattered as the rocket screamed toward them in a gas-propelled trajectory.
Less than a few seconds to react. Alyx discarded the launcher and hit the ground with her arms tucked over her head—impact knocked a fresh blow into her abdominal wounds. She burrowed into a numbing patch of snow before detonation tore a blistering rend in the storm.
Snow washed over her in a tidal crest. Relief flooded her as the spray dissolved and the infantry unit she expected to thrust a gun in her face morphed instead into Barney, pulling up on a Yamaha. "Hey, come on!" He spurred the engine with a squeeze of the handles.
"Yeah, all headed for the weather station! Get on 'fore these chumps learn how to aim!"
The launcher stood embedded in the bank. Had to take care of that first. She severed the targeting system from the barrel with her boot, rendering it inoperable—since it had proven so helpful—and stuffed a fistful of half-melted sludge down the barrel for good measure. No need to give the Combine more help than they already had.
After she climbed shotgun and they hurtled off into a directionless white swarm, her relief doubled; Barney had salvaged her supply bag and slung it over his back.
Tearing the canvas, she rummaged for her Magnum. An avaricious wind snatched at the open flap. Her fingers bumped the cold metal of a can of stormproof matches, rattled loose shells together, brushed a thin paper wrinkle crammed at the bottom. The absence of a particular ribbed handle grip grew keenly conspicuous the deeper the probed—
"Use the shotgun," Barney suggested. "It's under the fender."
Not wanting to knock their balance by leaning too far forward, Alyx kicked her heel at the fender to snap open the latch welded to the side mount. She slid one of two SPAS-12s toward herself. Wind lashed at them. She cracked the barrel, saw a pair of empty holes peer at her.
She managed to load one shell when a sharp bump jolted the stock in her arms, making her clutch it tighter. "Barney," she shouted over roaring currents, "did you pick up one of the bad bikes?"
"Sure hope not," he said. "I just grabbed the last— Ah, shit!"
He swerved the bike in a gut-gnarling twist to avoid bullets peppering their path. The second shell tumbled free of her grip, a brief minnow-like shimmer lost to gelid wasteland.
Barney raised his head, called over the wind: "You okay back there?"
Stiff fingers rammed the replacement shell down the empty slot. "Never better." Easy to say. She only prayed this piece of shit bike held, especially since a nasty lurch at these speeds could cast them into a ravine, or worse—
'Worse' crashed into them sooner than she'd have liked. Another spray of fire erupted in a blazing trail beside them, peppering smoke along the back fender. Whiplash wrenched the air from her lungs as the bike capsized, throwing them both into the snow. The bike overturned with a feeble groan; when she snapped her head up, she found its headlight dimming under heavy reams of precipitation.
And the Combine trailed.
"Contact lost. Squad, motion check all radials."
"Copy." Jackboots crushed the snow. Responding units reported blindness. "Sightline polluted, Hammer Zero; viscon dubious."
The Elite squad leader muttered a rare curse. "Shit."
More footfalls patrolled the area, trailed by short, static-snarl bursts of call-and-answer. Barney motioned for her to get low, and together they crouched in what they believed a relative blind spot until another unit reported: "Endotherms stillborn, ten degrees north, range fifteen meters."
"Confirmed. Hammer Two moving to engage."
Try it, pal. She hoisted the SPAS-12 to her shoulder, aiming at a Cyclopean specter rising over the ridge. He crumpled in a puff of inky black.
Gunfire answered in seething bursts. She and Barney wasted no time cracking buckshot at anything that moved. Sparks skipped like stones across the land's folds and grooves, and it seemed as though soldiers sprouted from the bank and were hacked. Those darting across the bank holed themselves behind the cornices, bellowing in their deep inhuman voices for backup, picked off until the
last death shrill hung in the smoke, its aria left to quiver and die.
Barney swallowed. "I think… " His gloves creaked, and he finally lowered his gun. "That's all of them."
No sooner had he said this, a horrendous shrill pierced the air, curdling their blood; a Hunter sprang from the void and rammed itself into them, sending them tumbling through the ravine.
Momentum cast them down, down. Alyx raised her head in time to see the Hunter pin Barney under its foreleg, its pincers writhing.
Horror surged through her, too lightning-quick to give shape with a scream. She snatched the stock of her gun and cracked the butt across its carapace, releasing him. Amphibian flesh smarted under the blow. Its livid, garbled screech pierced her ears as she hauled him to his feet.
The next thing she knew she'd pulled them both into a blind dash through the snow. She didn't know when his hand broke from her grip, nor when the ground heaved and plunged them under.
Hot throbbing in her head rewarded her for choosing consciousness.
With excruciating languor, Alyx rolled over as a dull pain gripped her torso. Stomach empty and rubber and raw, throat residued with acid. Fallen rocks scattered in a broken ring around her; some coated her sleeves in a layer of grouse.
She startled at a pair of irises scrutinizing her from a Hunter crumpled on its side. Her body locked in hackled instinct, prepared to spring into flight, when a second examination of the evidence revealed that the synth was dead.
Her gaze traced a gash in the crevasse wall. Serrated edges widened as it approached the floor and culminated in the synth shattering at the thorax. Shriveled ropes of grayed flesh clung to twisted metal cartilage.
Prey stared at predator, at a loss to explain its survival. Although she had no way to calculate the crevasse's height without instruments, the plunge had proven sufficiently lethal that the trauma from impact tore the Hunter's body in two and flung the pieces apart.
Alyx felt caught between the need to gloat and the need to retch.
The SPAS-12 lay nearby, its barrel snapped open at a perpendicular angle. Two burnt shells poked through. She grasped for it, discarded the wasted slugs, and locked the stock, using it as a brace to further support herself.
Her ragged breath sprouted clouds in the air. Leaning against the gun with her cheek mashed to frozen metal, she surveyed her surroundings. Towering walls of ice, pale blue-green in color, dominated every angle.
Desolate winds cried from a dark gap high above. At this depth, the snow buffeting the tundra thinned to a flurry. She blinked back the flakes pattering her hood, clinging to its matted fringes.
Alyx readjusted her hold on her makeshift crutch. The sudden and absolute lack of human presence made her feel small. As far as she could tell, the Combine had departed. They nursed no compunctions about leaving a synth carcass to rot in an icy ditch. But did anyone else know where they were? She, and… and Barney.
Her call returned echoes, thieved by wind. The hazy apprehension she felt began to sharpen into dread. Milt, Blake, Thomas and Jim. Crushed. Charred. Shot. Their dead visages flooded her mind, accusatory. Keep calling, Vance, no one will hear you. You abandoned us.
She whipped around.
Her teeth crushed together as she tried to budge and met resistance. Pressure tugged a dull ache on her calf, where she found a drift burying her wounded leg. The cold had killed the pain in her nerves.
Oh, God. How long had she been lying here? Judging by the fact that the snow crumbled in loose chunks, hopefully not too long, but even a few minutes' time spent exposed to the elements plunged one dangerously close to frostbite.
There wasn't any more time to lose. She had to find Barney and reunite with the group. If the Hunter that ambushed them belonged to a larger pack, and reached the weather station first—
She clamped her kneecap and hauled her deadened calf free. Her boot stuck to the drift as her foot slithered out; she recoiled at the sight of her woolen sock, its fibers encrusted brown with congealed blood. So the bullet haddone a little more than just graze flesh. Adrenaline and cold must have kept her from experiencing it full brunt.
She yanked her boot back on, threading the strings tight, and proceeded to tear a makeshift tourniquet from her inner liner. Cotton scratched the gash in her leg; she winced at the sight of bruised tissues invading shores of healthy skin. It probably wasn't the smartest idea to cut off circulation to a damp wound, but it was the best she could do at the moment. The pain would revive once nature's analgesic wore off. For now, she had to make use of the time she was given and find Barney. He couldn't have landed far.
(… is he)
She wouldn't think of that now.
Dragging the stock of her empty gun, she rose to a shaky stand.
Hello! I wanted to have something Half-Life-related published by my birthday, so I wrote this, even though it's a bit late, lol. A big thank you to the lovely @thespacebiker for not only being one of my biggest supporters, but a great fandom friend in general. I know I couldn't do this without your creative heacanons and your patience. ^,^
For those of you tuning in, it's important to keep in mind that the events in this fic build on those established in my previous fic, "Something Secret Steers Us." Not to be all, "Read it now!" but considering this is its sequel, I'd highly suggest at least skimming it for additional context.
This fic will also feature rotating POVs, though confined mostly to Alyx and Kleiner as the plot demands.
For the Combine jargon uttered in this chapter, I used RescoeZ's YouTube video detailing in-game enemy bangs as a reference. A big heaping of artistic liberty was applied to make these lines more context-sensitive, however. I apologize if it's not quite accurate to the games' use of radio chatter.
= "Avian inbound! Ripcord, ripcord!" - Rocket fired; evacuate targeted zone
= "Avian has derailed transporter. Envoys disperse and displace. Expunge outbreak." - APC destroyed by rocket. Mobile units ordered to break into squads and flush out resistance
= "Endotherms stillborn, ten degrees north, range fifteen meters." - Targets showing up on thermal imaging are stationary
= "Hammer Zero requesting inoculation. Infection risks breaching quarantine." - Squad leader requesting more firepower; surviving rebels are fleeing
= "Heavy pollution reported in grid seven-one-nine. Sweep for endotherms." - Thick snow obscures rebel location. Units urged to switch to thermal imaging
= "Hurricane passing inland. Nearby units stabilize." - Alyx is on the move; kill her
= "Motion check all radials." - Units ordered to search area for all missing targets
= "Outbreak status is Code Hurricane." - Alyx spotted
= "Overwatch, request Winder dispatch." - Requesting air support
= "Sightline polluted; viscon dubious." - Target sighting unclear due to snow; visual confirmation not possible
The first thing Eli had said when they'd landed in City 17 was: "We're here, Kleiner. Don't look back."
Until now, he believed he'd heeded that command to the best of his ability.
Do you remember? Eli would ask, were he still here. Maybe you hadn't heard; I mumbled it to turbulence. You'd fallen asleep with Alyx in your lap when it hurt too much for me to hold her.
Yes, I remember.
Not out loud. He's listening.
To tell the truth, Kleiner had partly humored Eli out of fear for his precarious state of mind. It was easier to believe he'd been drifting in and out of a morphine stupor, that his warnings arose as the byproduct of traumatic stress.
It hadn't occured to him then that what Eli said wasn't just a hasty declaration, of wanting things to be finally and resolutely over. It wasn't just exhaustion playing shadows in his eyes. It wasn't their jagged heartbeats, the smell of smoke or the flecks of blood and glass threading little Alyx's sunflower blouse. It wasn't any of that. It was a creed, for both of them to follow.
Was it safe to chance one glimpse? He didn't know.
Mere trinkets testified to where they were, where they had been.
Unpeeling their protective swaddling, Kleiner placed a pair of bifocals next to Eli's wedding band on the gouged surface of his desk. He gingerly perched himself on his late friend's work stool, tucking his hands over his lap.
Alyx did thorough work when she used the shop to eschew thinking. Gordon's new lenses boasted a snug fit with almost no give to speak of, incongruously bright, clean and unscratched compared to the chipped plastic frame in which they lay, patched together with electrical tape.
Of course, she had not considered how her work might be rendered moot if the frames failed to hold. He hadn't had the heart to tell her the ribs had begun to bend, the coils loosening.
He released a sigh, massaging the back of his neck. Solitude draped an aching heaviness around his shoulders like a mantle. It was true even in the old world that once a man reached a certain age, loneliness became his most faithful companion. For years he had done all he could to stave that inevitability. Now that it had arrived, he saw little reason to fight it.
If he indulged himself a moment's quiet, grief would enter, a dark, silent visitor. So he kept his own company with memories of recent days.
"Barney, it's time."
Clad in torn Civil Protection garb, splashed with blood, Barney pivoted from Eli's awaiting body. "Will you give me a minute? Y'all had three days to say goodbye, and I—" Collecting himself, he heaved out a ragged breath. " …I won't keep you long." His whisper broke off in his throat. "Please."
The smelter crackled cinders as he reached down and touched his gloved hand to Eli's wrist, stroking the knobby joint.
Barney said nothing, only gripped his hand. Slowly he skimmed his fingertips down Eli's ashen ones. Kleiner hadn't quite ascertained the small twisting motions he made until the ring slid from his third foreknuckle.
"What are you doing?"
"You don't want this burning with him." Cradling it carefully, he trudged over to Kleiner and gingerly deposited the band in his creased palm. Gold worn to a smooth pale sheen glinted in the renewed flames. "Someone might need it."
That 'someone' still grieving herself, susceptible to lashing out. Their dreadful quarrel thundered through even Gordon's muffled walls.
Fortunately they had reconciled, he'd hoped, for the most part. Divided forces only stood to benefit enemy interests. Fractured but not yet broken, this Resistance lay in a delicate state.
So too did Alyx. Her steely face branded an afterimage behind his eyelids. Her old softness had eroded, truth-forged into something harder, less assailable.
"Why did he lie?"
He wished he could say.
It was strange to think he'd have once craved silence in an empty gray room like this. Two decades ago, schedules, meetings, and deadlines dominated his life. At Black Mesa one chased the next twenty-four hours in an interminable game of catch-up. Progress outraced them with boundless energy, lunging ten steps ahead for every tentative foot they put down.
And now, it seemed, their efforts had reached a conclusion. A standstill. The culmination of twenty years of blood and suffering. With the result left in Alyx's hands, he had no option but to drift toward hypotheticals, other paths not taken.
Was there more they might have done? If so, for whom? Eli was gone. Nothing more could torment him, in this world or any other. Gordon had returned for a short time; it seemed to Kleiner the contract that conspired to keep him alive now snatched him out of reach. Twice he'd feared his pupil's demise, once in the week following the breach at Nova Prospekt, along with Alyx, and again when the medical staff carted his and Eli's bodies into the base. One dead, one clinging to life; Alyx, the trembling intermediary, trailed after them both, repeating the same unanswerable questions over and again.
A knock sounded at the door. He took a moment to compose himself before answering. "Yes," he said quietly. "Who's calling?"
"Me, you reclusive old goat." Arne. "Is this an opportune time, or shall I wait until you've finished whatever it is you're doing in there?"
"There's no need," he said. "I'm… Sitting at Eli's desk for the present."
The door opened, casting fluorescents over a bare concrete floor. "Were you? It's so dark I couldn't tell." Magnusson sniffed at his reticence before striding in. "Christ, Kleiner, this isn't New Mexico; you need to open the blinds once in a blue moon. Don't turn into one of those vagrants who hiss at every stray beam of natural sunlight." He gave the shades a brisk tug. Powder white sunlight crept in to illuminate the dust motes lingering in the air. "There, isn't this better?"
Truthfully, his eyes stung a bit from his time cooped in the HEV's chamber.
"I'm not certain we've done the right thing." Magnusson cut right to the heart of the matter, his voice quieter than usual. "I came here to see if we would be in concurrence about that. You and I, we've had our… disagreements, to say the least, but… " He exhaled, gazing out the window. "Since the wake, I've had a nagging suspicion we've let out something that oughtn't be known. Similar to the feeling some of us had when we greenlit the test, actually."
Intellect did not exist in mutual exclusion with superstition; in Black Mesa, ill hunches abounded weeks before the Anti-Mass Spectrometer overloaded. But they hadn't the ears to listen.
"Feelings are not the same as facts."
"You know damn well that isn't what I mean, Isaac." Mockingjays trilled in his silence. "I don't believe that letter was a farewell letter."
He didn't understand why Arne had changed his mind, what had caused this abrupt shift in thinking; days ago, their roles had reversed. He'd hesitated to disclose such an awful truth without solid means to lessen the impact, while Magnusson maintained Alyx needed to read her father's letter for the Resistance's welfare.
They might have devolved into outright quarreling had he not recalled Eli halfway during their conversations. His tired mien, his heavy conscience; had something in his psyche not cracked and relented, Alyx may now be chasing the Borealis in relative safety.
"If Eli divulged his intelligence to her," Magnusson said, "any part of it, that in and of itself makes her a prime target—"
Kleiner traced patterns in the engravings of his friend's wedding band. Faded cursive read a Latin inscription: Quos amor verus tenuit, tenebit. True love will hold on to those whom it has held.
"I assure you he never would have purposefully endangered Alyx." The last thing Eli wanted was to harm his daughter. He sorely wished the truth had found a softer path, but that wasn't possible. Although Eli's tortured conscience had never reconciled that fact, they needed to make their peace with it if they desired to go forward. "She needed to hear from him the content therein, yes. It did not, however, disclose information that could compromise our Resistance."
"How do you know this? Did she tell you?"
"In so many words." He went on to tighten a screw in Gordon's glasses. "What he knew died with him. That's all there is to say."
"Haven't you become curious regarding the circumstances? If those letters languished in the recesses of a junk drawer, that'd have been one thing, but they were buried in his quantum entanglement journals. The very ones, might I add, used to resurrect your teleport?" He lowered his head, unable to reciprocate Magnusson's unflinching gaze. "He didn't want merely anyone to stumble upon them. And for good reason. My God, the man was a walking dossier; you're telling me he wouldn't have enlightened her on a single speck?"
His reply was almost deceitfully simple. "He loved her."
Outside, a clamor arose. Shouts spiked, accompanied by the frantic pounding of feet.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Magnusson snapped. "What could be kicking up that much racket this early in the morning?"
An answer arrived in the form of Uriah, who uncharacteristically barged in without greeting either man. They bristled at the sight of him; his laminated ID, which he kept dutifully clipped to his pocket protector, had fallen off. His lab coat swung loose from his knobby shoulders and pooled in the crook of his spine, as if an intense bout of sprinting threatened to peel it away.
"Quickly!" He clutched the doorframe. His snout twitched with nervous energy, and his pupils shrank to slits as he watched personnel dart down the corridor. "The Magnusson and the Kleiner must come. The Freeman has awakened from his slumber."
The news shocked Kleiner into rising from his seat. "What?"
Magnusson's jaw unhinged. "That's impossible," he said. Uriah chose not to respond and disappeared around the corner. Alarmed, he called after him. His assistant seldom ignored him in such a brazen manner. "Uriah? What is the meaning of this? Uriah; get back here!"
As Uriah's absence stretched, his fists uncurled, and he receded from the door. He cast Kleiner a glance he could only call 'bewildered,' which hardened the stone settling to the bottom of his stomach. In the four tumultuous decades he had known Arne Magnusson, he had never seen the man at an utter loss to understand. Bemusement, yes. Certainly perplexity on occasion. Frustration in spades. Rarely, if at all, the helplessness paling his complexion.
They'd expected their days of running to be over. Not so. Their steps never carried them faster.
Blood. Alarms. Broken monitors.
The scene's surrounding chaos faded for Kleiner. For a cold moment, the years dissolved. Another took his pupil's place. There Eli lay, not dead but painfully alive on a bed of blood and shattered glass, clutching a torn raincoat to his chest, his wife heaped dead beside him. Screaming a horrendous unheard plea, muted by the wail of sirens—
He almost failed to notice Arne's elbow banging into his rib when he lunged through the crowd, thrusting onlookers aside to get a clearer look. The moment his gaze found Gordon, he demanded: "Will someone tell us what the blazes is going on here? Why is Freeman on the floor?"
His brusque tone lured him into the present. Black Mesa's saturated corridors softened into White Forest's dim observation room. The difference didn't matter. His hands retained their tremble.
The crowd thickened, its numbers clotting as people accrued around the door. His view dwindled the more he was pushed back into the corridor.
From what scraps he caught, the surgeon had tilted Gordon on his side and lay his head in her lap, talking him through his convulsions in a calm, assiduous voice as others frantically orbited them.
"Dr. Freeman, listen. My name is Maria Stezenka. I'm the surgeon at White Forest. You've had a fall and woken a little before the alarm. There's no reason to panic; we're going to get you stabilized." She snapped her head up. "Hvatit. Quit pulling on the tube, his throat's clinched around it. Force it out, it'll break off in his larynx—"
A needle withdrew from his arm. "Shit," her assistant said, regarding the empty tuber with wide-eyed apprehension, "what is this? It can't be prophylactic reaction, he's not responding to the carbamazepine—"
"Calm down," Stezenka said. Her grip maintained a steady pressure on his temples. Gradually, his bodily quaking ameliorated into shivers. "Looks like it's quieting a little."
Her assistant crouched beside her. "Is another coming?"
Cradling Gordon by the base of his neck, pressing her thumbs on his bruise-gray eyelids, examining his exposed pupils for signs of change, she shook her head. Kleiner had known her long enough to know that gesture did not necessarily mean no. It meant she couldn't tell.
"A grand mal in his condition—"
"I know," she said. "I know. But we can't do a fucking thing with the paparazzi taking pictures." A sharp stare galvanized Magnusson into ushering onlookers from the scene, including Kleiner.
"All right, everyone who isn't a part of the medical staff, clear out, out—"
"Unless you plan on procuring an MD in the next seven seconds, I don't want to hear it."
He caught glimpses through the gaps in elbows and shoulders. As the staff initiated a cautious extraction of the tube, Gordon gave a spasmic wheeze. His hands wandered outward, brushing and patting over a tangle of forearms.
"We're removing the tracheal tube now, Dr. Freeman. Just a moment."
His chest bucked once the pink-tinged plastic slithered free; a gasp shuddered through them as a pulpy thrust of blood dribbled down his shirt.
"He's bit on his tongue," Maria said.
His bloodshot eyes flickered over them and slackened into fuzzier focus, not quite registering individuals from the crowd. This maelstrom of stimuli must be wreaking hell on his senses.
Stezenka, her assistant, and two Vortigaunt nurses, Sokolai and Dushan, helped lift him back onto the bed. The crowds parted on either side to allow them to wheel him through. As he passed, bound to the padded table, Gordon's eyes sought and held his.
Less than a whisper scraped the air before he vanished behind elevator shutters. His lips hadn't moved their chapped plates; it shouldn't have been possible, given the klaxon and worried chatter filling the corridor, but the plea targeted him with unnerving clarity.
Kleiner clutched the wall for support, breathing in and out.
An hour passed without news. Then another, yet more. Late-summer sun rose over the mountains, glistening the dew on withered leaves tapping outside the windows of the compound.
Birches dripped gold plumage along the crest of the ridge. They reminded him of Lamarr, her affinity for napping in dry beds of leaves. Perhaps she'd migrated to the mountains for the winter. Perhaps she'd gone home.
Gradually the base dispersed, each retiring to his duties with an unfocused hand. Magnusson walked in and out of the room, scuffing the Persian carpet as if he had difficulty deciding where to be.
As for himself, he sat in the corner nursing a tepid cup of coffee with Uriah. He stirred cream until foam lapped the surface. Spoon scraping porcelain lulled him into a numb sort of meditation. He had too much time to contemplate Gordon's plea, whether it was real or sleight of mind—
None could tell exactly when Sokolai arrived; he clasped his claws before himself in a slight bow. "Apologies to all. We know much time has passed since the Freeman roused."
Uriah spoke. "Has his affliction—"
Their spirits sank along with his downcast gaze. "The doctor sent this one to retrieve you. She wishes to explain his predicament face to face."
"Doctor? Here we are."
"Yes." Maria gave him a weary smile. "Thank you, Sokolai." She gestured for the group to take a seat on a shorn leather sofa littered with X-ray blanks. "Please forgive the mess, gentlemen; it's been a long day. Push some things aside if you must."
Magnusson swept the sofa for the two of them to sit.
White Forest's surgeon kept residency in modest quarters not unlike Eli's own. He noticed the tray of untouched stew sitting on the nightstand beside her desk, which Dushan quickly carried out of the room. Dr. Stezenka seldom kept a regular dinner schedule in sync with the rest of the base—a stubborn old habit borne of the need to be on call at any moment.
She withdrew from her pocket protector a cherry Tootsie Pop, wrapped in bright red wax paper. Crinkling sounded as she unpeeled the wrapper, wadding it into a tight ball to press back inside her waist pocket.
Maria Stezenka scrutinized them in silence, then sat on the Adirondack chair Sokolai had cleared of weighty tomes. The lollipop withdrew a shining orb from her mouth.
"Does Dr. Freeman have arrhythmia?"
He glanced toward Magnusson, who echoed his confusion with a shrug. "None we've heard of. Black Mesa would have made note in his physical evaluations were that the case."
"I ask because we believe a heart-related phenomenon may have triggered the seizure." She crossed one leg over the other, contemplated with the stick dangling from her fingers. "He's since calmed down, and his EKGs are returning excellent readings."
"Of course they would," Magnusson said, "now that he doesn't have entire crowds swarming him."
"And I extend you my thanks for clearing them, Doctor," she replied a bit tersely.
Kleiner's elbow brushed the glossy surface of a blank draped over the armrest. "Is it possible his apnea played a part?" he asked.
"No apnea is severe enough to induce a grand mal, I'm afraid. It has to be a structural issue within the heart itself." She trailed off, dissolving the candy in her mouth a little more.
"What is it?"
"He, er." She searched for words by tapping the stick's bare end against a white pucker on her bottom lip. Portal storms had shattered a medicine cabinet long ago, coating her left cheek in a fine web of scars. "The reason he fell is because he managed to sit up for a few seconds."
"Is that significant?"
She appeared at a loss to answer, the open and close of her mouth shifting the web's tendrils. "I don't know. It's… Incredibly strange," she said. "As far as we can tell, he wasn't quite conscious during. Something must have stimulated his tendons, though I can't pinpoint what." And here she fell silent. "Christ. I shouldn't waste time quibbling over theoreticals.
"I wish there was a kinder way to put this," she said. "Dr. Freeman didn't have subdural hematoma before the fall… " Paused; dropped the lollipop into a waste basket. "But when his head struck the floor, it caused internal bleeding. That blood is now steadily applying pressure to his prefrontal cortex on top of the liquid from his initial trauma."
His heart pounded an insistent beat in the base of his throat. "What are our options?"
A prolonged pause ensued on her end. "It isn't an ideal—"
"Oh, spit it out, woman," Magnusson burst. "Enough with this beating around the bush!"
"Very well," she said. "Put simply, we have interdependent problems worsening one another. Subdural hematoma aggravates epilepsy, and epilepsy aggravates bleeding. My principal concern is staunching that blood without triggering another seizure, then draining the liquid squeezing his cranial cap."
"What you're suggesting combines two surgeries into one," Kleiner said. "That will take quite a toll on you."
Maria folded her arms over stained lapels. Dark flecks speckled the off-white of her coat where Gordon had coughed blood. "I'm not so very decrepit in my old age." She gave the floor a brief frown before continuing. "If drainage isn't possible through the usual channels, we may need to induce a chemical coma."
No. His first thought, a pained reflex. Nothing so drastic. "Are you certain that's wise, when he lies in such a precarious state?"
"Right now, we can't be certain of anything. Under better circumstances, I'd suggest that we submit Dr. Freeman to more rigorous testing until we gain a clearer picture of what we're dealing with. But time appears not to be on our side."
Her stare was cool, guarded, practiced. Stezenka had had to deliver news of this caliber an unfortunate number of times. That this delicate balance of sensibility and truth shaped Gordon's fate, when he was once their prayer for survival, struck him as uncanny.
"If indeed we do decide surgery is the best recourse, additional precautionary steps will then have to be taken to maximize the odds of its success. That's why I would want to send Dushan and Sokolai to Smolensk."
Grim nod. "Our reserves are preciously low. An apneic patient with potential cardiological and epileptic issues won't respond well to general anesthesia." She added: "This isn't the dark ages. We can't ask him to polish a bottle of wine and put the leeches to him."
At length she stood.
"Gentlemen, I realize this is a great deal of foreboding news to absorb at once. I don't mean to overwhelm you, but neither will I lie to you. When a coma victim suffers a grand mal, their odds of recurrence increase with each moment that passes, unless the damage is repaired in an expedient manner. Given the time-sensitivity of his condition, the next that comes along may induce hemorrhage. After which, he may be beyond our power to help."
Her last word evoked the image of Gordon, bed-bound and terrified as he passed by. Kleiner scrimped the armrest until his knuckles whitened over creaking leather. The waning of time evaporated the air in the room, leaving a pressing weight to clog his lungs.
Magnusson resumed the conversation without him. "How is it you don't have everything you need here? Why must you shrink our defenses?"
Her jaw knotted. "For Christ's sake, at least let me request slightly better tools. This sort of thing was difficult back in Kiev, with full access to proper staff and equipment. You're asking that I accomplish a miracle with a rock, a chisel and a prayer. I can't. It's unconscionable."
Hoarse, mirthless laughter trickled from him as he shrugged affronted shoulders. "Well, what do you know? We're hosting quite possibly the one neurosurgeon in Russia without an ego to challenge God's."
"Even the Lord's hands would falter here," she said. "And too much blood has been spilled for me to entertain blasphemous delusions."
Kleiner said softly, "Surely there must be something we can do." They couldn't leave Gordon to the mercy of chance.
"Help us maximize our resources," she said. "Give clearance to send a scouting party to Smolensk. Dushan and Sokolai know its layout best and can return with what we need quickly, if it hasn't already been evacuated—"
"Or," Magnusson said, "is stuffed to the brim with Combine sympathizers—"
"—which by all accounts it oughtn't be, given the Citadel's destruction has already emptied City 14."
"Whose accounts? Why is this the first I'm hearing about it?"
"You never asked," she said. "I'm certain Uriah would be happy to fill you in on the details." He avoided Magnusson's incriminating glower. "Dushan says the core implosion extinguished the power lines spanning along the Citadel's outlying districts. A band of Vortigaunt defectors used the confusion to escape Smolensk several days ago, and they seem to be fleeing westard on foot. No doubt they'll seek asylum here once they cross the ridge."
"Excuse me, what part of 'this constitutes a massive security risk' isn't registering with you? Two nights ago thugs dragged hostages to our front door and slaughtered at least one! We can't enfeeble ourselves for what amounts to a questionable reconnaissance! I won't allow it!"
"I… " His quiet interjection dissolved the accumulating tension, if only a bit. "I suppose synthesizing a compound is out of the question?" Years ago, she'd developed an antidote to poison crab neurotoxin by studying the enzymes that the creature generated upon transmission.
The scarred ends of her mouth drooped, crumbled his nascent hopes. "Normally not, but I fear developing a synthetic would take more time than he has."
He swore Eli's hand grasped his shoulder in warning. Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to, Iz. "What will occur if they return empty-handed?"
"We continue with surgery, just with… Our usual." She swallowed. "However, the likelihood he'll respond unfavorably is quite high."
Don't look back.
There is no child fussing in his arms. This room does not reek of the sweat and acrid, stinging bleach where overtaxed staff tends to victims. There is no plastic mint-green curtain separating three-year-old Alyx and himself from her shell-shocked father.
But there was an awful, smothering moment when the analog clock moved its liquid hand. When he realized the child he cradled in his lap, nodding into a fitful sleep over his low, halting lullaby, might no longer have either of her parents.
The same cold gripped the back of his neck when the curtain stirred…
"All right." Whomever wielded control over these resolute words may or may not have been him. All he knew then was that he'd do whatever it took to keep the present from repeating the past. Gordon had fought too much and lost too deeply for them to fail him. "Tell your scouts they'll have their clearance, on the condition that they must send us a relay as soon as they reach the city."
"Kleiner," Magnusson said. "Think about what you're saying—"
"I am. We must do everything within our power to assist him." He addressed the surgeon. "May we visit him?" After those empty hours spent in fruitless waiting, he ached to see Gordon. "Is everything settled?"
Contrition stooped her shoulders. "He's endured a battery of tests. He's honestly in no better shape than when we wheeled him down."
Her brown eyes searched his face, darting liquid over the invisible lines they read. "A moment, Isaac. No more."
He stood and thanked her. Magnusson, however, refused to budge an inch. "Aren't you coming?"
Irritation bled through his mien like an agitated blister. "No, Kleiner, I've been up since a quarter past three this morning and I'm developing a positively hateful migraine for the trouble." Sighing, he massaged his temples. "See him back up here when you're finished, will you? Last thing we need is him wandering lost in the basement."
"Of course," Uriah replied, and touched a claw to his elbow. "Come. Freeman awaits."
Excepting the electrocardiogram's intermittent tick, a deathly hush crept over the room.
Kleiner stood clutching the doorknob's chilled brass as Uriah and Sokolai filed ahead of him. The other Vortigaunt nurse, Dushan, was already tending to Gordon, patting a damp cloth over his brow.
The knob whined in his grip. Dread writhed in his intestines, raised his nerves to their bursting point just below the skin.
Light struck the soles of Gordon's feet, gripped by blue veins. He willed himself to wander forth. Feet sloped into chafed ankles, reddish hairs glinting pale strands on his calves. His skin pricked with diodes, stray wires tightening and coiling as they snaked over his body.
Gordon nested amidst a heavy bed of plastic. Cables, diodes, and tubes tumbled to the floor like streams pouring from a waterfall. Were it not for the thin rise of his chest, shuddering beneath their tangle, one wouldn't have been mistaken in thinking him dead. His pallor was ashen, drained of blood. The palsy that once twitched his limbs in the throes of dreaming had settled into an unrelenting quiet.
IVs fed his veins one languorous drop at a time.
He slid Gordon's bruised hand into his own and squeezed.
"You've given us quite the scare over these past several days, haven't you?" He smiled, a watery chuckle rising to his lips. "Why, if I didn't know any better, I'd be inclined to believe this was another one of your practical jokes."
The Gordon they knew had a wry, wicked sense of humor embedded in his silent demeanor. The incident hadn't completely stolen his propensity toward humor; he'd struggle to manage an upward flick of the lips when occasion warranted.
How much would this injury cost him? Which pieces of him would be lost, and which would become obscured, masked? How much more would Black Mesa thieve—
Sniffing lightly, Kleiner raised his head. Through misting vision, he caught a faint green glimmer hovering just above Gordon's heart. He might have mistaken it for the EKG producing some sort of afterglow were it not for the needle-like gleam dancing over the wires. The ray shifted, broadening.
Perhaps it was a cojoined trick of light and aging eyes. Perhaps neither. Curiosity compelled him to reach for empty air.
A static shock scorched him. He recoiled with an instinctive cry and shoved his wrist into his lapel.
He looked up apprehensively at the Vortigaunts, the flush of anxiety sending blood throbbing to his ears, rendering him too aware of their presence. "I must have touched an unsheathed wire," he murmured. "How careless… "
Uriah tested a talon on Gordon's brow. "The flesh is cold."
"M'unng ch'a. Fire and ice afflict him in turn. This is all we can do to soothe him."
Those words sprouted the first crack in his composure, releasing a weak, airless sob from the base of his throat. A misplaced shudder lowered his head in his hands; grief wrapped cold fingers over his heart and squeezed until his vision misted over, blurring past and obscuring present, blinding the future.
Gordon Freeman was not always an inert body struggling to tether its life. Two decades ago he'd been his brightest student, soon graduated into an intern who observed entanglement processes in broken Austrian. Finally placed into a lab coat and tie where he belonged, a fresh, hesitant employee who, despite his pushing, refused to vouch for himself at the facility, thinking instead his work would speak for him. Lowering a plastic tray onto the table at Eli's hearty call: C'mon and have lunch with us, we won't bite.
Gordon, a survivor, creeping from the elevator doors one shuffling step at a time, twenty minutes after the incident sent alarms screaming throughout the complex. Smudged glasses, shivering, smeared in ash and fresh blood. Alive, oh thank God, mercifully alive.
Now all he saw reflected in his pupil's quiescent face were their failures, their sins. Black Mesa burning. Eli burdened and Alyx broken. This world gnarling into a twisted husk under the Combine's reign.
But they persisted their fight, and for what? For this battered young man to struggle for what might be his last ounces of breath?
His Vortigaunt companions coalesced toward him.
Uriah rubbed his back. "There, now."
"Freeman has endured ordeals far more treacherous than this," Sokolai said, "and emerged triumphant. Have faith that he shall prevail."
"The flesh deceives," added Dushan. "What you call loss, mere oscillations. If you could see through our eyes the luminous threads that bind us together, these tears would turn to laughter—"
"Remember, and take comfort: the doctor has vowed to protect the Freeman. She will not abandon him in his hour of need."
"Whatever befalls him, we endure alongside him."
Their consolations deepened the pang in his heart.
"Dry your tears. There is hope yet," Sokolai said, trailing off. "But… "
The EKG spiked in an even monotone, the silence between intervals crushing. Tch. Tch. Tch.
He dared not breathe. "But?"
Sokolai rumbled a negative, lowered his head. "It saddens these ones to say they can provide no useful counsel at this time."
Maria's voice accompanied a soft rap of knuckles on the door. "Boys?" The open jamb poured light into the room. Form and color intruded the quarters, she a shadow steeped in a harsh, buzzing glow. She folded her hands in front of herself. "I'm sorry. It's time."
An abrupt conversation commenced between the Vortigaunts in their rocky native tongue. And just as gently as he was led into this room, Kleiner found himself shepherded back out.
Grated elevator shutters encaged them. As the cabin began to rattle a slow ascent up the quarry, Uriah spun around and seized him by the shoulders. "Speak truth. Do we both perceive what watches the Freeman?"
Initially, he didn't understand what Uriah meant. No one had watched Gordon except his nurses, and perhaps the threads of light that—
The truth uncurled a singed fingertip cradled against his chest. "He's here."
"Our sentry has grown lax," Uriah said. "It was wise to send the Alyx Vance away, for its hold on her has weakened, but it has since turned its wicked eye toward the Freeman."
"Was he… it… the reason for Gordon's premature awakening?"
"So it seems," Uriah replied. "This one fears human hands alone cannot prise him from its grip. Stronger intercessions are needed."
He turned to the shafts of light dancing through the cabin. The contractor had returned, undoubtedly seeking to collect Gordon as collateral now that Alyx had been removed from the terms of Eli's bargain. The irony being that the truth had to cut her to the core in order to protect her.
Gordon protected us when we needed him. It's about time someone else did the protecting for a change. Her parting words haunted him. He shuddered to consider the young man lying deathly still in that cold room.
He fully acknowledged the faint implausibility of such a prospect, but another part of him prayed, somehow, that Gordon had found a way to do what Eli could not. Resist from within the confines of his mental imprisonment.
"We feel his distress ripple through the Vortessence. The hunter creeps ever closer. It is now only a matter of time." It always circled back to time, their lack thereof. "Perhaps it is to our great fortune that our brethren have fled the neighboring city. Together we can invigorate him, reclaim what the beast has stolen."
Uriah tipped his head toward the floors that scraped past, appealing to something that inhabited a space unbound by girders and limestone. "In those mountains resides an antlion cloister. We must hunt the den mother and extract her heart. The blood will allow us to communicate with his Vortessence, if for a short time."
"You're proposing husbandry?" he asked, surprised. "I didn't realize you practiced it still."
"Not for many years." Uriah blinked heavily. "Magnusson calls it a most rudimentary custom."
He'd expect as much. "And Sokolai and Dushan? What have they said about it?"
"That you must help us draw him forth," said Uriah. "There is a rite. Our brethren in the mines wove together the threads of the Freeman and Alyx Vance, to draw her from the beckons of the abyss. But her thread grows thin, and the Freeman wavers."
"I don't understand."
"The joining of life differs from symbiosis. The creature that approached Eli Vance froze the Freeman's heart in time so hers might beat. They are entwined. This Resistance cannot afford to lose either. Should one fall, so do the others."
Shivers trembled him from scalp to sole.
"We have known since the Eli Vance first extended his offer of peace. Our silence is our gift and our curse to him."
The truth stretched between them, so thinly cutting it could have drawn blood.
Parting doors offered just a sliver of escape.
"I'm sorry, Uriah. I… I need time."
He hurried through the elevator doors and, when he was certain he'd eluded their metallic shudder, buried his face in his hands. He did not look back. A single regressive glance invited nothing but the threat of more loss.
As usual, Eli was right.
There was a photograph on the wall. No color, faded sepia tones, which captured a day at the facility when most of the Anomalous Materials team had gathered for a shoot that would serve as the centerpiece for an employment brochure.
Later, Eli scraped away the Administrator's face with a Swiss knife. After all he's done, he said between drags of the blade, he don't deserve to keep it.
When he finished dumping the scraps into the wastebasket, Kleiner sealed the gesture by crossing out the Administrator in red pen.
Wallace Breen, too, had once known the truth. He used it to sadistically prick barbs into Eli's psyche, lording his weaknesses over him. While Kleiner normally deemed it disdainful to celebrate death, even that of an ostensibly awful human being, there was no denying the Administrator's demise had closed another door on the truth. Of the researchers who posed in the lobby, one of two survived to tell the tale.
His thoughts kept circulating Uriah's admission. As much as he was loath to admit it, it made sense considering Eli was the Vortigaunts' first and deepest collaborator. But their silence… Suggested more. They knew something of grave importance. If the truth must soon be disclosed, so much more lay at risk than the memory of the recently departed.
Each second that ticked by whittled Gordon's chances. Did his desperate need for hope keep him from fully acknowledging the possibility that his death loomed beyond the threshold of their control? His rational side kept begging the question, what might happen if the scouts failed to reach Smolensk. If indeed his time had come… Couldn't they grant him more dignity, more peace, than the Combine spared Eli?
Prolonging his suffering to alleviate their consciences would be immeasurably cruel. But their smiling faces belied their capacity for survival at any cost. Wearing a solemn expression, Gordon alone seemed to foretell a dark future. The more he studied them, the less he knew the intent behind them.
"We thought," he whispered, "we were changing the world."
He turned to face Gordon.
Alyx scrubbed her palms while leaning on the crutch of her empty shotgun, breathing in the scant warmth the friction generated.
Freezing down here, but at least the wind's died down.
This deep in the crevasse, the gales that had rocked the surface quieted. Gentle snowfall flurried a velvet black sky. Gazing up at glassy walls of ice, she would have thought the scene beautiful, if not for her sheer solitude within it.
Alone, in a fifty-foot ditch with an injured leg bound to painfully awaken at any step.
She reached out and trailed her gloved hand along the wall's ribbed surface. She tried making a mental topography by touch. Cold cushions of mist obscured the jagged path ahead. Some twelve meters north, the ravine twisted in a sharp left turn and pinched off the sky, nearly knitting the surface together.
Alyx directed an anxious glance toward the sky, her breath dissolving before her lips. Quarry climbed too steep and smooth an ascent to scale without equipment. Although she didn't like it, her best chance appeared to be pressing forward, keep calling for Barney even as ice cruelly mimicked her in echoing peals.
The stock puffed decisively in the snow with every step she took. She mounted a drift with a wince and a grunt, only to stop dead in her tracks.
The name vanished on her breath.
She had no reason, no theory or phenomenon at her disposal to explain how he stood nestled between the cavern walls. Silent, suited, his angled edges quieted as the clean white glow of the flashlight's beam eclipsed them.
Her cracked lips struggled to part. Her mouth too full of silence to voice coherent thought, her mind buzzing useless white noise.
A numb, dreamlike fear filled her, broken only by the salient crunch of a step taken forward.
She approached him in soft, silent repose, apprehension and disbelief fighting every foot she sank in the snow. Briefly she entertained the notion that she might be dreaming him while lying on the crevasse floor, though she dismissed it on grounds that Gordon's presence felt different from Eli's: where her father's presence maintained a nebulous air, however necessary, she sensed a clarity of purpose behind his presence.
Gordon waited. Unexplained, inexplicable. As if conjured into material reality from thought and snow haze.
She crept closer, her heart rising to a throb in her throat. It was too dark to discern his expression—if he was just as bewildered as she was—his eyes hidden behind thick reflective lenses.
The flashlight continued to blink in, blink out. Ice swam around them in waves of light and darkness.
Cold breathed on the hairs coating her nape.
He stood, a statue of flesh and blood encased in the HEV's exoskeleton.
Slow, viscous dread slithered through her veins as she stopped. Reached out with halted breath insufficient to stir the flakes twirling down. Probed a questioning caress along the lambda. Was it real? As real as the bristle a glove made on shaven metal could be.
Steel pulsed through cotton into skin. A living thing. His heart, buried beneath layers of Kevlar, padded mail and welded plates, emerged to the surface, matching the throb in her frostbitten fingertips.
She withdrew her hand. The lambda's four swift, decisive strokes normally represented a symbol of reassurance and strength; she didn't know why touching them now filled her with an animalistic terror she found herself at a loss to reconcile with the sight of the Resistance's savior.
Perhaps it was because they were alone in this desolate crevice in the earth's icy womb, and even in the throes of mirage, she knew his real self dreamt comatose on a bed some three-hundred miles south of here; or else she became too aware of her dreams, enough to recognize when she grappled with some new manifestation since her father had taken his leave. Any minute now she expected his stoic facade to crack open into an Advisor's—
"Gordon," she whispered. "How… "
His eyes betrayed no answers in between slivers of illumination. It seemed after an eternity passed he broke her gaze, lifting them with great effort. He turned his head a degree toward the right.
Alyx followed. Listened. Between the wind's distant shrills, a voice softly called for her.
"It's Barney," she said, "thank God, he made it. He'll be so happy to see you."
She gauged his reaction behind a light smile. Her dreams didn't have to taunt her. She could test them just as much as they tried her. An illusion would crumble at the intrusion of reality; the real deal would maintain his verisimilitude.
He closed his eyes with parted lips, his brows knitted together. Whether in pain or concentration, she couldn't tell. She pressed a hand to his cheek to corral his focus, but the coldness of his flesh gave way to smooth ice.
Nothing was there.
Standing before him, clear as day, fully-armored in the HEV suit. The plates bore patches of congealed blood, battered and dented. Limestone powdered his hair, smeared his skin an ashen hue.
Kleiner began shaking his head. "How is this… "
He flinched, struck dumb, as the HEV issued a warning in its high robotic drone. Major fracture detected.
Kleiner could do nothing but watch in numb fugue as blood and cranial liquid traveled a slow descent along the left side of his brow where the gash began, curling toward his ruddy earlobe before letting the droplets fall to stiff carpet.
Vital signs dropping. Seek immediate medical attention.
Fluid surged in a more voluminous gush. Gordon winced, exhaled a forced breath.
And dropped to his knees.
Kleiner rediscovered the life in his legs, urgency overriding his horror, and flew to brace his student's shoulders. "What are you doing? Oh, dear, you shouldn't have gotten out of bed. You're terribly hurt… "
He cradled Gordon close while the latter swayed into him. He felt visceral enough, though heavier than could be expected, even encased within the suit.
Perhaps he felt safer ensconced inside its fortified rivets and plates… The physical feat, he thought, was near impossible, given his bedridden state an hour ago. How had he crawled out, descended the silo, and armored himself without attracting notice?
He made to call for Sokolai and Dushan when Gordon clutched his knobby wrist. His sleeve bunched together.
Gordon pointed with a gloved finger.
When he looked at the frame, he found every face therein scratched out. Before the questions could spring from his lips, a sudden and conspicuous absence replaced Gordon, with nothing to tell he'd been there except for soiled prints grasping his cuff.
"Kid? Where are ya?"
"Down here," she shouted. "Barney!"
Jogging footfalls crushed the snow. He had a flashlight, and he traced its watery beam across the gap until it trickled down to her. "Jeez-us, you took a tumble down the rabbit hole, didn'tcha?" Wiping a hand down his mouth, he added regretfully: "I don't have the ice axe. Must've left it back in the cave."
"Hold on a minute, okay? I'll find something."
"Don't go too far. It's damn dark out here."
Frosted in a layer of accumulating snow, the dead Hunter sparkled under the beam, catching her attention. At least the piece of crap might be useful for something. She anchored her good foot on its carapace, grasped a pincer and wrenched backward with a grunt.
Three short pulls bent it a slight degree; several more yielded nominal progress. The muscle surrounding her Hunter wounds hissed vindication for the corpse. Eventually the strain forced her to squat on her haunches, blowing out labored breaths.
She ran a palm along the synth's flesh, pushing on its thick amphibian skin in several spots, testing where resistance pressed back. Of the damage the Hunter sustained from its fall, of course the pincer had to stay put.
Still, she thought as she gave the joint a wriggle, maybe a concentrated application of heat could expand the flesh surrounding the socket and let it fall out.
Alyx looked up with a sincere hope Barney could still hear her. "Hey up there," she called, "you got any flares?"
His reply was audible, thank God. "Uh, just two or three. Where are you?"
"Walk about a yard north."
A standard road flare hit the snow a couple of feet beside her. She wasted no time tearing the cap with her teeth and ignited the fusee on the synth. Glaring red-white light leapt from the wick. She crept cautiously forth while it hissed in her grip; intense heat grazed her cheek as the calcium phosphate started to burn.
"Careful," Barney warned. "Don't be startin' no bonfires, yeah?"
"You didn't bring marshmallows, so you're not invited." Pinching her lips together, she carved the flare in tight orbit around the socket. Once the Hunter's tough outer layer cracked open, the rest unraveled with ease. The subcutaneous alloy bubbled and burst, a waxy mixture of flesh and fiberoptic cable puddling into formless goo. The pincer rim seethed a glowing white.
She stepped back and brought her heel down. This time the stubborn appendage cracked off the joint like a dry twig. No muss, no fuss. The stump's jagged edge turned orange as it cooled, and smoke ribboned into the cold.
Alyx hauled fistfuls of snow onto the blazing corpse, which sizzled into a blossoming of water and smoke. She coughed back its greasy peals. As her rubber sole stuck to the pincer's severed edge, she rolled the pincer under her boot for several minutes in order to plunge it into a safe temperature range. Nothing like scorching her hand to cherry the experience.
Slowly, the heat wafting through her palm lost its teeth. She quickly staked the pincer into the ice to form the first foothold. Nature again reared her noncompliant streak, however, and glanced the blade off the fold.
Barney swung the light in her direction. "Aw, jeez, you're really gonna climb this?"
She stabbed again, forming a hole the size of a nickel. An impatient huff escaped her as she yanked it out. She needed to deepen it without losing its grip. "You know any other way up?"
"Well, I think there's a harness in the pack—" Provisions jangled together. "Only twenty feet." He tossed it down to show her. As expected, the silver buckle stopped about thirty feet short, gleaming as it tapped against the ice, a virtual brass ring dangling just out of reach.
Alyx rubbed her calf. The plasma burn she'd sustained began to rouse, prickling as it rubbed her makeshift tourniquet. Not awake enough to harrass her yet, but not quite as deadened as before. She gelled it with more snow rather than risk a dangerous flare-up. She could close this gap with sufficient focus. Wouldn't be easy, mind, but she'd scaled worse.
"Listen, Al?" Barney asked. "When you get halfway up, wrap it around your shoulders and I'll help haul you the rest of the way."
"Right. See you in a few minutes."
The flare did a decent job of uniformly hollowing out the crater until the wick fizzled out. Chiseling, gouging, scraping, she continued to deepen the hole. Melted ice soaked through her gloves and stung her fingers raw.
The pincer finally held on the last decisive pound of her gun's stock, and she receded with bated breath, sharing Barney's anxious glance. One down, a thousand to go.
"Easy there," Barney warned as she grasped a nook that appeared grippable. "No need to rush."
The ascent was painfully slow. The pincer creaked from the strain, and it was difficult to keep from smearing off such smooth ice.
Alyx seized hold of a shelf several inches from the buckle. She grabbed the harness and prepared to wrap it around herself when a flash compelled her to look up.
Gordon flickered in his place.
Her hands slipped.
Panic flooded her system. Hurtling— Fingers scrambled— For another grip— Had to stop it— Stop—
She relented her instinct to lock up and let smear training crush her knee to her chest. Friction ground between the grooves in her rubber boot and the ice, slowing her plunge, and caught her from diving into freefall at the last minute.
Gordon. Every inch of her shaken body echoed his name. Gordon. Her heart pounded so wildly she felt it pulse in her gums. Gordon.
Barney's shouts bounced off her wool-filled ears, growing faint while the rest of the compromised shelf crumbled down around her, coating her downturned head in a snowy spray.
Straining for breath through clenched teeth, she redirected her focus on the present by looking down. At this angle, her ankle wrapped around a narrow jutting and rolled outward. Weight pushed on her tingling calf with increasing pressure.
She tried to sidle it free, wriggling her hip very slowly, only to slip again and suffer a bright stabbing pain as her kneecap popped, awakening her injury.
"Damn it!" she cried out as the nerve throbbed painful waves over her knee. Of all the crappy luck—
Barney ducked from the rim, taking the flashlight with him. "Shit, that's it, I'm coming down—"
She snapped her head up. "Don't! I don't need you getting yourself hurt, too!"
Despite the seething in her leg, she grit her molars and accelerated the rest of the climb. Her limbs burned down to the tendon, as though they'd tear by the end of it, where, inhaling air denying her the full privilege of oxygen, she staggered over the edge and crushed her forehead into the snow. She clamped her arms over the back of her neck and stayed there for a moment, enveloped in a protective coccoon, clenching her eyes shut to keep out Gordon's image.
"Hey, relax. You did it." Barney steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
He tilted his head as Alyx knelt trembling, head downcast. After a minute she nodded, gave a slight sniff and wiped her nostrils on a corner of her sleeve.
"Heh," he said, "stupid kid," and swarmed her in a hug, taking her off-guard.
"How long were you out here for?"
"No clue." She accepted his hand and rose in unison with his grip and her crutch. "God, I was worried that fuckin' thing took you out with it. Must've wanted blood when you gave it that smack, 'cause it just pounced after you like a bat outta hell."
"We got separated, then?"
"Must've," he said. "That's when the ice caved under."
He deigned another glance down the crevasse, probably measuring its depths, before dismissing it with a head shake. The anxiety etched into his knitted brows told her he wasn't lying. She had no idea how long he may have wandered along the rim, lost and alone. Barney hated being alone.
Pushing herself up on her crutch, Alyx lurched ahead. "Everyone's headed for the weather station. We ought to rejoin them before the Combine catch up." But a hand caught her by the shoulder.
"Not on that bunk leg, you ain't."
She shifted it protectively toward herself. "It still works."
He snorted. "Don't think I haven't heard that one before. How bad you got it, Grandma?"
"I can stand just fine. It's just to keep from agitating the muscle."
"Answer the question I asked, huh? Can't ignore plasma like bullets. That shit gets infected like—" He snapped his fingers.
"You're acting like my leg fell off. I got nicked."
"Yeah, that's what everybody says. Next thing y'know, that tiny little nick's swelled to three times its size and you're draggin' a dead log."
"Easier to just say I'd be a burden."
"That's not—" He sucked in a breath, screwing his lips tight. "I swear to God, when we find the station I'm puttin' you in the timeout corner 'til you learn to stop saying crap." Barney sensed something in her quiet, and squinted vainly into the wind. "Hey… Y'see something?"
No; the figure in the distance turned and vanished under a gust of snow, shrouded by murky white depths. He left neither trail nor footprint. It was as if he'd never been there, yet Alyx shivered all the same, certain his mirage was as much a dream as the frigid gales stinging her cheeks.
"We need to start covering ground. If the station's nearby, one of its electromagnetic transmitters should ping our receiver. If not, well… " She tugged on her hood. "Can't say we didn't try."
There was cold, and there was this. A chill so deep it infiltrated the flesh to rob it of warmth, biting every pore as if spiteful that it couldn't soak through bone. The saliva in her mouth crackled and calcified.
Hugging her arms around her core, Alyx ducked her head, shielding it from a gelid gust that tore at the fur on her hood. Her nostrils stuck, as well as her trembling lips. Blood pounded between her temples in a deep, insistent throb. Caffeine withdrawal was a bitch for sure, but none more so when coupled with an empty stomach.
Her legs sank thigh-deep in the snow. Pushing through the fattening drifts required the twisting efforts of her entire body, and at times felt about as conducive as wading through a hostile white sea. She tried to console herself with the thought that every step forward, no matter how small, shrank the gap between here and the weather station.
"You doing okay back there?"
"Still got a pulse," Barney hollered. "Ain't regrettin' that one bit."
"Hang on a little longer; we'll pitch the tent once the wind dies down." Oh, God. "You did bring the tent, right?"
"Wh— Yeah, I brought the tent! What, you think I'm gonna make us camp out in an igloo?"
"Should've stopped at 'yeah.'" She shivered as the Hunter pincer tucked inside her boot rubbed along her ankle.
Down came the snow, blanketing the tundra in every direction, coating stumped trees and an eroded ridge line slithering underneath the belly of cloud cover. In the meantime, their receiver crackled white noise. Her fears writhed within its snarls.
Regardless, they trudged on, through a conspicuous lack of snowmobile tracks and APC tread.
They finally pitched the tent when they agreed their legs refused to carry them another step. The sky paled from utter black to a foreboding charcoal gray due to the setting sun refracting the last of its rays. Encrusted stars peeked timid askance through rends in the clouds; she hoped it signified a thinning in weather. Luck refrained from hailing on them thus far, but in the Arctic there were no guarantees. They made camp under a steep overhang just in case.
Following on the heels of the crevasse, she and Barney developed a shared aversion to talking. There really wasn't much to say. Not without risk.
Their spirits had drained ounce by ounce; now they couldn't muster much energy to poke fun at the piss-warm sludge that passed itself off as mixed cocoa, sharing swigs from a tepid canteen.
Thoughts of Gordon bobbed toward the surface no matter her diligence in pushing them down. Seemed like there was no avoiding them. Each time the upturned flashlight sputtered its ray on the sewn ceiling crease, she returned to that moment she nearly fell. But she could brute-force that mental door locked just for a little while longer.
The knapsack's provisions spread on the ground before them. Fifteen shotgun shells, eighteen pistol rounds, the pincer, a utility knife and two fusees. Considering how badly a single Strider gutted their outfit when they wielded far superior fare, surveying these resources made her feel, as Barney would say, as though they were blowing pea shooters at a dropship.
Sitting cross-legged, Alyx loaded four shells into the SPAS-12 and laid the stock across her thigh, repressing a wince as her calf smarted. God, she'd pawn her entire useless leg for a decent semiautomatic right about now.
"You know how many slugs are left in my Magnum?"
"Four," Barney said, with a jostle to the knapsack, "and a fistful of loose ones if you wanna bundle 'em up. Dropped the box on the way outta the cave. Sorry."
She didn't care. "We should probably pool our buckshot. My gun's not working right."
"Shouldn't have plugged up the barrel." Better that than shooting her arm off.
"Actually," Barney said, "I changed my mind. Hot potato." He tossed her his SPAS-12 in favor of the pistol lying beside her ankle. "Go wild."
"Hell's wrong with yours?"
"Couldn't hit a Hunter in the ass if I jammed it up its crack."
"Right, so I get both junk guns. Makes sense."
"Duct-tape that shit right up and it's good as new." Barney jammed in a fresh clip and tested the sights by aiming at the buttoned flap. "You got a plan for how we're gonna meet back up with the others? Probably at least fifteen miles off-track by now."
Truthfully, the best she had right now was to keep boosting the hell out of the signal and pray one of the radio operators would pick up. The next rendezvous point swam within a radius of twenty or so miles. That, of course, had been accounting for the fact that they'd be traveling in a terrain vehicle or on a snowmobile, covering ground at a much faster rate than the old-fashioned way.
"When I do, I'll let you know." She plopped onto her back, slinging a forearm over her face. "How the hell did the Combine find us?"
"Like usual," he said. "Ran right into their ugly mugs."
"That's the thing, though, you don't smoke your enemies just by 'running into' them. They knew enough to assume formation and hide behind a Strider. I'm just wondering how they knew." Closing her eyes, she listened to her heart beat against the icy rock. Then an awful epiphany jolted her awake. " …Oh my God."
"Judith's hailing frequency."
"What about it?"
She lurched upright. "When Gordon and I went into the Citadel to stop the dark fusion reactor, I went hunting through their mainframe. They were programming the servers to self-destruct to keep her message from falling into the wrong hands. She'd encrypted hailing frequencies in the carrier wave."
Barney rubbed his nape. "You're, uh. Throwin' a lotta babble at me there, kid. In a nutshell?"
"It means they knew exactly where we were because I was trying to use that frequency to refine her location, but I forgot to… mask the codes.
"There wasn't any time," she said, more to herself than to him, "I mean, Dad died right as we were heading for the chopper, and… It must have slipped my mind." Oh, Jesus. All of this happened because I didn't— "Barney, they knew we'd stolen that info, so who else would have come here? Who else would try to… How could I have been so stupid?"
"Hey, wait a second. Sounds like it coulda been a mistake—"
"A mistake?" she asked, affronted. Tell that to the four men who'd died. "You don't get people killed and think saying 'My bad' is gonna cut it for them, do you?"
His gaze sank to the ground. "No." Barely whispered. "Course not."
Alyx cupped her brow, pinching hard on the fold of skin creasing the bridge of her nose. "They deserved… " Better. She stayed like this for a second or two before cradling her arms over her torso, unable to look anywhere but at their pitiful inventory. Things got any worse, they'd have to switch from bullets to prayer. The latter worked just as well. "If the Combine are giving us this much grief right now, imagine how destroying the ship's gonna go."
"Ship's a hill of beans compared to the Citadel."
"Maybe," she said. "But this time we don't have Gordon backing us up."
Barney wisely decided to sidestep another potential minefield. "Why'd your old man want to blow the ship, anyhow?"
She paused to recall the horror creeping into her father's expression at learning the truth of the Borealis' existence. Pale and strained. It was as though he, too, had glimpsed a ghost caught somewhere inside those flashing screens. "He didn't want the Combine to get ahold of it before we did."
"You think it's a good idea? Wrecking their toys only makes 'em ornery."
She sucked in her chapped bottom lip. "Whatever's aboard is important enough that it's got them scrambling. It could be a weapon, or something we've never seen before. Only Judith knows, but we can't access our full range of options until she tells us what we're dealing with."
"Then we wait," he said, "take it one step at a time. That's how we got here, and that's how we're getting outta this."
Silence descended upon them, signalling the end of the conversation. Alyx snatched the utility knife from the provisions and began to whet the pincer in long, meandering strokes.
Barney slid to the ground. Giving her a long, guarded look, he whispered, "Takin' my shift in two."
"Get some rest," she whispered back. She'd have a lot to wrestle with tonight, and didn't particularly want to involve an audience.
Luckily, his exhaustion agreed. He tucked onto his side, pillowing his cheek on his wrist. "Two," he murmured, "on the dot," held up double digits, and yawned.
As evening drew near for White Forest, a heavy rain swept in to wash the hills of dead foliage. Rivulets glided clear, winding trails down oil-smudged window panes. Thunder growled in settling limestone, shaking the base to her bones. The hush that normally soothed him now pricked the hairs on his arms to a fine point.
The shuffle of loafers on concrete floors turned into flat, full-heeled clacking that garnered looks from passerby. Kleiner navigated the halls with a briskness that surprised them—others often teased he seldom walked quickly unless for research purposes.
There was ample reason for their curious glances. He indeed had books tucked under his arms. Alhough the stack consisted of notebooks rather than weighty academic tomes, the content therein was no less significant. Crammed within their yellowed pages were Eli's journals, dating back fifteen years.
Perspiration beaded his upper lip. After Gordon vanished, he'd stormed into his old friend's office to feverishly hunt every scrap of information those journals offered—for what? Anything, anything to verify what had unfurled before his eyes.
He clung to the journals until their spines bent and creaked. Clutching Eli's words like a life raft, feeling like a man who had been heaved into the ocean wholesale and frantically treaded water in his grasping lungs.
Years ago, he'd mistakenly believed it all a byproduct of Eli's grief and stress. It certainly soothed the anxieties surrounding the alternative: a figment of the imagination; a jagged shard of a memory his mind had created to protect itself from the trauma of losing his wife and the immense pain of amputation. A role to fill the mold of a difficult tragedy. A man in a pale blue suit.
He hadn't the luxury of tests, controls, or peer-reviewed studies to properly assess this phenomenon. The only source he could trust came directly from Eli. The only other witness, who'd had time to reflect and theorize. Somewhere inside these pages, he'd hidden the key to releasing Gordon. An assumption fraught with danger, he knew, but if what Uriah said was true—
He opened the door to Gordon's room and froze altogether.
The three Vortigaunts ceased their activity in an instant. Sokolai straightened blankets on the floor beside the empty bed, while Dushan coiled tubing for a portable oxygenator.
Uriah cradled Gordon in his arms, his wires straining as they spilled onto the floor.
Kleiner could hardly breathe when he said, "Put him down."
Faint green ribbons caressed the sky.
Sleep claimed Barney after a time but eluded Alyx. She crouched just outside the meager tent where he lay softly snoring.
Her breath escaped in white curls as she gazed heavenward. Her mind buzzed too much to whet the pincer for much longer, so she stargazed, moving her lips to match the shape of their names. She sat beneath their fragile light, contemplating the dissonance between their quiet beauty and the horrors they had bred.
The Combine had emerged from those stars. Somewhere out there, in the unfathomable cradle of space, a parasitic race of conquerers razed civilizations. While on Earth, human beings wondered at these constellations, grasping for what dwelled beyond reach, other species had cried their dying breaths in silence.
In their supreme arrogance, the Combine assumed this planet would be no different. But the human spirit, once wounded, snarled and bit back.
She had to let the Resistance keep believing that.
Within every star flamed a nuclear reactor, a black hole waiting to unleash its destructive potential. It was only distance and time that wove the illusion of beauty. Up close, you could see there was no intelligent design to be found in suffering. No meaning to be divined from blood.
Death proved a horrifyingly banal occurrence. Like sleeping, like eating, both monstrous and mundane in its ease. Anyone you knew could be gone tomorrow. Stepped on a hopper mine. Shot by a stray bullet. Swallowed poisonous fumes. Tortured. Wrong place, wrong time. Over and over again.
Some grew so weary they decided to take the terror of living into their own hands, just to wield some semblance of control. You can rule my life, but you can't take my death. Of all the deaths that accrued over the years, those that ended willingly affected her father the deepest.
And it was because he knew. He'd known the losses he'd exchanged for her. Her survival demanded everything from him, including his innocence.
Her braced shoulders softened. Eli had once been unaware of the horrors lurking in their future.
When she was a toddler, he carried her to the Black Mesa observatory. In hindsight, it was a little strange to think he'd once been the more robust of them. But carry her he did, laughingly on his shoulders to Sector F's Astronomy wing, up curved sandstone steps into the vast, open dome where the cosmos sprawled before their marveling eyes. There they watched the stars for hours, a man and his child equally mesmerized by the beauty of the universe.
Her dimpled hand greedily clutched the constellations he named. Stardust painted his kindly face blue, his teeth glimmering twin pearl strands as he laughed. Go on, baby, he urged. Pick one out and I'll get it for you.
The memory squeezed her heart. She burrowed her head in her knees and wondered if somehow, somewhere, he also held her in his thoughts.
Thoughts that quickly fell from orbit, from stars and smiles to charred corpses and vengeful Hunters. Toward bleak future instead of halcyon past. Soldiers could accost the rest of their outfit. Gordon could die, as could Judith. She and Barney could freeze wandering blind in this barren landscape. Possibilities of failure counted more numerous than the stars themselves.
"We need to talk." Ice misted on her pursed lips. "We ran into some trouble. Didn't take long… I just hope to God the others made it ahead of the Combine, but that's probably what the guys were hoping for when the Strider tore us to shreds." Bitterness seeped in her voice as she erased the lambda she traced, crimping her hand into a fist. "A Strider, Dad. That's all it took to send us running."
Emboldened by her candor, Alyx raised her head. "Tell the truth," she implored her father. "Was the thought of being hated so horrible you had to die? Because… " She bit her lip. "Honestly, I'd rather yell at you than thin air."
"It should have been clear the first time you asked: I'm not going to speak for you because those aren't my secrets to tell. In fact, I hate them. I hate that you left me to hold everything together when it's about to fall apart, and I think I reserve the right to be angry about that, Dad. Is it so much to ask for some time? Leading us was supposed to be your thing. I'm just a mechanic you taught how to shoot."
We're so small down here, Eli said. He shifted his daughter on his shoulders. I wonder if somebody out there's wondering about us right now, just waitin' for a friend.
"You were scared I'd never look at you the same way. But you know what? That wasn't your call to make. You didn't trust me not to hate you, and that's what hurts. Letting me know would have changed a lot of things, but not that."
The ribbons pulsed, drawing her mind toward him; it took her entire will not to scream.
Her breath wavered. "When you keep asking me to speak, it feels like you're asking me to keep up this awful cycle. And… Is it always going to be like that? Leading people to their deaths, trying not to feel too guilty about it?"
Snow crumbled to a fine powder in her palm, trickling through the gaps in her fingers. Easy for her to say: she was being just as cowardly hiding the truth as he had been evading the consequences of speaking it.
Hell, why was she running straight to her father to bend his ear like he was alive?—like he could listen?—when days ago she'd pushed him away? To keep from thinking about something even worse? The lambda had pulsed under her hand, yet she chose to argue with ghosts.
Try as she might to pretend otherwise, she was only speaking to herself, fighting an idea of her father no more rooted in reality than her childhood daydreams that the family photo trapped Azian Vance. Both her parents were dead. Here there were just the stars, the dark silence residing between them.
Her calf twinged.
Alyx crept her way back into the tent, taking care not to disturb Barney while she curled into a ball. She tucked the knapsack under her arm to cushion her head, with the feeble hope sleep descended swiftly, when the zipper puckered. A small rectangular card peeked through the teeth and fluttered unceremoniously onto the snow.
She turned with languidity. Picking it up, she brushed her thumb across its surface to clear the frost.
A wrinkled postcard. The front's laminated photograph showed a smiling collection of staff in the Anomalous Materials lobby: Dr. Kleiner, her father, even Breen with his face oddly intact.
The facility's logo stamped a white emblem in the lower right corner. Black Mesa Research Facility. Santa Fe, New Mexico.
She'd seen these before. In the old days, Dr. Kleiner had a surplus of the things crammed in his junk drawer and used to scribble stray thoughts on them. Had her father borrowed one?
Maybe; this particular card was old, used. It weighed featherlight in her hands, and she feared it might crumble if she breathed on it. A Labradoodle stamp adorned the back, as well as her father's neat script addressing Gordon Freeman, Sector C. Room 217.
Sorry if this seems a little forward, he began, but do you know Izzy Kleiner? He tells me you were one of his brightest students. Why, he can't stop talking about the wunderkind, top of his class at MIT, interned with the entanglement team in Innsbruck. I got so curious I had to see the new hire for myself.
My name's Eli Vance. I'm with AnMat as well, but they have me working in the computation wing. Maybe when our schedules loosen up, Izzy and I could give you a tour of the composite labs. I saw you walk past them earlier today and you looked a bit lost. This place can be a real maze if you're not used to it.
Oh, and in case no one's told you yet: welcome to Black Mesa.
Alyx pressed the card to her heart, letting it rest there. Incongruously hot tears pricked her corneas. Suppressing them with a hard swallow, she tucked the card back into the envelope.
"Good night, Dad."
"Put him down."
The hard tone he employed startled him, but appeared not to affect them in the slightest. Dushan calmly resumed coiling; Sokolai smoothed out more linens. A slow, shameful heat crept through his throat and fanned upwards toward his cheeks. And so he dared say nothing more, relenting the silence to the chirping tick of the electrocardiogram.
Uriah blinked several times. He gazed upon Gordon with regret clouding his central iris, then rumbled a sigh with lowered shoulders, as if to clear his throat.
Dread raised his hackles as he transferred the patient to Sokolai's care.
"All of you." He sheathed the doorknob in his fist. "I will not let you out until you comply."
Uriah raised a single claw. "What is it you fear?" he asked. "His passing? He quickly approaches the void."
"This isn't right," he said. "You and the others have known the truth almost as long as Eli himself, yet you chose not to disclose it. There must have been a reason. You must have known where it would eventually lead."
He turned the lock until it clicked.
"Is it fair, Uriah, to say this conjecture is accurate?"
"Hence," he said, "it ought to be equally fair to say you know what our recourse should be."
"It isn't as though I also prefer to feign ignorance. For years, I've watched that man torment Eli. I won't see Alyx and Gordon endure a fraction of what he suffered." Focused on Gordon, he adjusted his hold on the journals. "So please, I beg of you: put him down."
"Uriah… " He fumbled for words. What could he say? Were he Magnusson, he could easily persuade the Vortigaunts to heed reason, but he suspected they'd gathered here precisely to bypass him. That left him with the unfortunate job of intercepting them. It was too much to allow them to break trust with the rest of the base and place Gordon at risk. "I'm sorry, but this isn't a discussion to be had. For his health, please leave him in the bed."
"Then you must prepare to depart the Freeman, as you have done with Eli Vance."
Slowly, his grip on the knob eased. "Is… " His pinching throat jailed his words. "He… really that far gone?"
"Our fears are soon to become reality. Without direct communion with his Vortessence, we risk losing him, and thus, all hope he brings."
Sokolai spoke with great solemnity. "Until the Eli Vance opened our eyes, we believed it our inexorable fate to suffer. He taught us it was not such a grave sin to hope for more. His cause ennobled our lives, if only as sacrifices flung into a pitiless void. We drew comfort from his faith in the Freeman."
"But that faith," Dushan said, stroking the back of Gordon's head, "it wavers."
"His strength ebbs," Uriah said. "It is too much to ask of anyone to renew these rites. Yet the creature that holds the Freeman in its grasp will use him, as it once used us, to shed unimaginable amounts of blood. Like the Shu'ulathoi, its desires shall never be sated."
His mind reeled for answers. "Why him?" he asked of the young man nestled in the cot, scarcely breathing. "Why must he shoulder these burdens?"
"The creature's ways remain a mystery, even to us. It would be easier to ask what manner of darkness inhabits the great abyss."
Their collective gazes followed as he cracked open the top notebook, letting it rest on his elbow, and traced a ginger path along Eli's faded penmanship.
"The books reveal nothing that is not already known. We knew the Eli Vance, and the Freeman. We know you as well. Your heart sees something your mind wishes not to name. You, too, have outgrown these false hopes." Uriah grasped his shoulders. "Be warned, Kleiner. This path is a dark road of sacrifice, leading the wayward into depths of even greater despair. To tread it will cost everything."
Upon the Vortigaunt's gentle nudge, he lowered his arms. As reluctant as he was to part with them, he shed his load, placing the notebooks at the foot of Gordon's bed, one at a time, like offerings, skimming a fingertip along the top cover. Some tribulations demanded more than knowledge offered alone. Some things required faith.
He knelt beside the cot.
For so long, he'd let fear rule him body and mind. The Combine needn't have lashed out when innumerable terrors kept mankind shackled to shadows of its own making. Fear of suffering, fear of retribution, fear of losing life and humanity—these plagued the species more efficiently than any predator could aspire to.
What a squalid prison for love to languish. Even so, love found a way to survive. It managed to struggle through cracks in the cell, determined to flourish in the darkest recesses. It would survive because it could wait, fed by hope for the smallest flicker of sunlight.
It was Eli's love for his daughter that compelled him to make his selfish choice, the culmination of which lay dying before him, for a short-lived flicker of joy he found in her. It stood to reason, then, that that selfishness could only be offset by a selfless act, borne also of love.
The solution was here, he thought, as it had always been, not locked inside his dear friend's journals but beating within the chambers of his own heart. And it was disastrously, magnificently simple.
Squeezing Gordon's cold, slim hand, he looked up.
"Take us to the mountain, Uriah."
(enormous gasp) Well, it took a million years, but chapters three to five are finally finished. I'm not entirely happy with the prose on this one, but that's probably the anxiety talking more than anything. Spoopy Gordon is spoopy.
Chapters four and five are shorter than this: about 4K words and 900 words, respectively. So because this chapter's the longest of the trio, I've decided to give my lovely readers some time between updates rather than dump it on you all at once. It might be a few days in between updates unless otherwise specified, but if you need more or less time, let me know!
Moisture clung to his lashes, carrying the fresh scent of pines bleeding early autumn sap.
A pair of feet splashed through thickening puddles. Their gait flew lightly enough to blend into the rain.
Uriah rounded a corner before slowing at a fork in the cave. He paused to study the bioluminescent worms orbiting the walls. Glow pulsed from their soft, pale bodies, offering subtle guidance from nesting furs of algae and moss.
Uriah passed beneath a natural arch. Larvae chittered within the dim cave, singing a fragile melody as they weaned nourishment from their peaceful surroundings.
Natural constellations strewn throughout the darkness. It was beautiful, he thought, and suffered a flash of shame that such beauty would have gone neglected would were it not for their circumstances.
The next marker was said to be a pond fed by a downward-flowing stream. He presumed it ended here, as water burbled from a rocky cleft in a soothing hiss, broadening into a shallow pool that lapped at Uriah's ankles. From there twin ventricles presented themselves: a blue beam flickered in the left, beckoning him.
They knew they'd arrived when a group of Vortigaunt attendants greeted them in solemn chorus. Stooping in a practiced bow, Uriah let Kleiner off his back, depositing him on a seat of flat rock. "Rest here," he instructed. "I shall check on preparations."
His knuckles popped as he pried them from Uriah's muddied shoulders; they further cracked as he rubbed his wireless rims on a corner of his shirttail. Although he counted himself luckier than most that he did not suffer inflamed joints at his age, considering this terrible weather, there were still limits his body protested. Clinging to Uriah's back during a mountain ascent in the driving rain strained him a bit more than usual.
While Uriah conferred with the others, he took the opportunity to slide off one shoe and wring out its excess water. He turned it over with cold, slippery mud coating his fingers. Disappointed to learn the stitching had come loose, he probed a ragged seam, then refit his foot with a light sigh.
Water seeped inside his loafers, suctioning the balls of his heels. Old things had unraveled many times before this, of course, and had to be laboriously hand-sewn back into working condition—but circumstances did not permit them to bring attention to themselves by stocking up on better resources. It seemed a quaint consideration, to think twice of lacing boots or zipping up a windbreaker, but someone was bound to question why.
Still, one couldn't forgo exercising due caution. They had left the base one by one to avoid rankling suspicions. Sokolai departed Maria's quarters first in order to hunt the antlion heart necessary for the ritual, giving her the excuse that he sensed the early arrival of City 14's wayfarers to soothe her misgivings about letting him out in the rain. Dushan followed an hour later under the guise of "assisting" his partner, only to carry Gordon discreetly through an unused back entrance.
The clock ticked two in the morning when he and Uriah agreed conditions quiet enough to leave White Forest themselves. Lightning left the sky pale and scarred. Ozone hovered over the ridge, leaving a crackled taste on his tongue.
Guilt churned his stomach well into the night. It pumped his heart full of dread when he finished reprogramming Gordon's equipment to continue producing steady vitals for the next eight hours, allowing them to detach his diodes without issue. But he found his resolve replenished in the fact that he wasn't attempting this alone. Excepting a small scare when a comm tower operator swung the beam at a sapling Uriah rustled, they managed to escape posthaste. Fortuitously enough, Xenian wildlife also eschewed them.
He gazed along the northern wall where Sokolai and Dushan carefully arranged a flat slab for Gordon to lay. The surface raised several inches above the pool surrounding them. A linen sheet hung from the bier's sloped corners, its folds already sagging from oversaturated air. The portable oxygenator stationed at Gordon's side hissed, tucked under his slender arm for safekeeping.
Uriah wadded his stained lab coat and offered the bundle to Dushan. "Place this beneath the head of the Freeman. His skull remains tender. We must take care to protect the matter that dwells within."
Despite their best efforts to shield him from the elements as Dushan carried him up the mountain, Gordon's makeshift cot filled with wet leaves; the torrent had ripped them from the elms, along with small pieces of brush and bramble.
That wouldn't do. Gingerly he treaded through the pool, knelt beside the young man and began picking them off, wiping the dew from his brow in between. On his cheeks, droplets lingered like tears.
He prayed they were doing the right thing. He disliked the thought of deceiving the rest of White Forest, Arne and Maria in particular. It would be well within their rights to rebuke them for breach of trust, though he would gladly shoulder responsibility for all blame. Yet if medical intervention alone could save Gordon, it would have done so by now. Saving the body at the expense of the life it housed threatened to condemn him to the contractor's eternal control.
He tensed as a Vortigaunt asked Uriah a brusque question in their native tongue. There were five of them; their scuffed electronic braces marked them as City 14 refugees.
The lead Vortigaunt shouldered Uriah aside to glower at him, prompting the others in the pack to follow suit. Seething ember eyes, coupled with low, forbidding growls, sent a fresh wave of chills flurrying down his spine.
"Who is he?"
"A friend of the Freeman," Uriah said, gripping his arm in a placating gesture, "and thus, our ally."
"He must leave. These rites shall be endangered should it peer through his eyes."
"It looms close," a second Vortigaunt added.
"Yes," said a third. "Too close."
"The human is weak," said the leader vehemently, overlapping their voices. "Are you prepared to sacrifice the Freeman because he cannot deny the interloper? The fear in his heart will open the cage and permit the darkness passage."
"What shall tether Freeman, then?" Uriah challenged. "His bonds to us are themselves weak. The Isaac Kleiner is our last hope to reach out. He presides with us; let there be no more quarrel over this matter." He spoke with a rare assertion that compelled them to stand down, however begrudgingly, and moved on to the next order of business. Strange; Arne's mannerisms rubbed off on him more than expected. "Where is the heart?"
"Here." Covered in shining films of blood, Sokolai carried the organ toward the group. Although its host was surely dead, the guardian's heart pulsed with an effervescence that filled the cave upon its every shuddering beat. Delicate blue light illuminated snaking artery and vein, melded to the ventricles as if carved from glass.
"A fine specimen," Dushan appraised.
"It was not easy. She did not want her cords cut." The glow seeped through Sokolai's claws as he passed ownership of the heart to Uriah, who thanked the guardian for its sacrifice and cracked the heart upon the rock.
Radiant blue powder poured in a fine spray, which he sifted over his companions, then inundated Gordon's slumbering body. Twinkling stars, the particles dissolved to wisps by the time they fluttered onto his chest.
"Guardian blood, flow back into the void from which all life springs. Give us clarity to part these false veils of separation. Dissolve the chains shackling us to our mortal flesh; show us the true face which lies behind the Freeman's mask."
"Illuminate us," said Sokolai.
"Let the Vortessence speak through us."
Light spread over them in nets. They gathered as one, joined in the shimmering of their bodies.
"The beast has begun his hunt."
"His many eyes watch within spaces the humans cannot perceive. It is there he hides, obscuring the path from us."
"Where does the path lead?"
"We do not know."
"Our hearts darken. What more shall we endure?"
"We are made to suffer."
"With humans we commiserate our plight."
"For far too long have the Shu'ulathoi avoided retribution. No longer."
"The Freeman brought with him a hope, now dwindling. Let us wander this darkness until we find it again. There must be no other recourse."
"The Resistance is all."
"The Freeman must live."
"R'iit." Uriah opened his central iris wide, revealing a startling sky blue. "We begin. Join us, Kleiner."
The Vortigaunts began to chant in their sonorous tongue as they wove this living light over the infirm patient. Skin and subcutaneous fat dissolved; beneath their orbs, patches of Gordon's internal organs showed through.
Awe raised his hands. He expected to see what he always had: the hands of an old man, pink, bitten skin scarred and speckled from years of living in Combine rule. As the light pulsed through, he witnessed their inner mechanisms, down to the smallest winding capillary. Tendon and ligament colluded in perfect rhythm as he flexed his fingers; he felt the thrill of red blood cells rushing away from his quaking fingertips.
Kleiner swallowed back the hot stone rising in his throat. He felt at once insignificant and luminous, as though some greater force had painstakingly crafted this organic machinery which had worked faithfully to keep him alive for seventy years.
And yet, for as wondrous this machinery was, as much a miracle it all seemed that something so inconsequential as matter could have formed something so cohesive, so intelligent—it was so fragile. Flesh shed its life so easily that it ended in careless bursts of violence, by human foible and human stupidity—and by the indifference of the universe at large.
The more he gazed upon Gordon, the more he wanted to weep. Uriah's bright claws lingered on his skull, and his eyes rimmed with moisture as he witnessed the fracture threatening Gordon's very existence.
He chanced a step, afraid of breaking something so delicate. However, a pleasant, honeyed warmth like sunlight spread through his chest, filling him with such peace that his shuddering ceased, and his footfalls grew more assured.
Soon the others pointed at him with coaxing drones. A glimmering green thread protruded from his heart. More threads emerged painlessly, weaving toward them. The orbs glowed brighter the closer they approached.
The spectacle shattered in an instant. Dushan shoved him out of the way at a bolt before it lashed out and carved a nasty gash where he stood. The threads thrashed and screeched, a brilliant knot spitting electricity at everything it saw fit to receive. A microcosm of a disaster he'd never wanted to repeat unfolded. Something was wrong here— Something—
Kleiner cried out from a sudden blast of pain that ripped through his head. He doubled over, clamping his temples.
The Vortigaunts hissed with gnashed teeth. "Vile creature," Uriah shouted at the walls, "powerless without your tricks!" He clutched Kleiner by the shoulders, setting him upright. "The Kleiner must persist—"
(I… I can't)
"Persist," Uriah ordered. "We cannot lose him!"
Threads snapped and fell as if cut, reeking smoke. He sank to his hands and knees, letting the slickened stone push into his palms. Swirling around him in disturbed crests, it felt like spilled blood, cold, viscous. His body sagged, as heavy and foreign to his mind as stone.
Breathing hard, he struggled to stand—his balance knocked down on the next attempt. Pain stabbed into his elbows as his palms absorbed the shock of the blow, splashing water onto his sleeves. It was as though an invisible hand clamped around his nape and forced him onto his knees.
(you're toying with us, you damned cretin)
(it won't work)
The threads crackled while below, at their feet, the pool ran black. Dark clouds burst into clear waters, pustules bleeding through cracks in the cavern walls. Stones dislodged from the ceiling and rained down, cracking themselves upon the slab, smashing the oxygenator into a worthless plastic heap, bruising their flesh. They whipped their heads at a warning grumble as the cave heaved and shook.
"One thread remains."
"Tie it! Quickly!"
An intense, burning agony seized him, tearing a scream from his lips. In the next few excruciating moments he could do nothing but curl into himself, an instinct left over from the womb.
He didn't know how long he braced himself in this position. Gradually, the pain subsided. The Vortigaunts' panicked shouts faded into a cold, encompassing silence. The smell of moss-furred rocks fled his nostrils, replaced by more familiar milieu. Nonetheless, he retained a bodily quaver as he pried his hands from his clenched eyes, allowing glimpse of paint on corrugated steel.
Not the lambda; a disability symbol, one he hadn't seen since—
"No," he whispered, probing the sign with tremulous fingers. His gaze rose, his horror growing in tandem. The painted steel plate met the rounded legs of an upholstered seat. He grasped the chilled poles welded to the floor and climbed to his feet.
A lifetime ago, he took a certain amount of comfort in the tram's routine. The Black Mesa transit system followed the same daily network throughout the facility. He could never be lost when one docked nearby.
Divorced from the facility, he sensed as though he were moving within a dream, an incomplete reconstruction of the past. Gone were the rails, the humming fluorescent bars guiding the path ahead, the announcement system informing passengers of the day's comings and goings… It hurtled in smooth, utter quiescence, not through cavernous labs and rugged canyons tinged red by sunset, but through darkness without beginning or end.
He pressed against the window, bewilderment crushing the fearful cry building in his lungs. Light streaked past at unimaginable speeds. Neither departure nor destination. No other passengers to break solitude's primal dread—except—one sitting with folded hands at the very end of the cabin, watching light flow in the void beyond.
"Gordon." His hand flew to cover his heart. They did it. Praise God, we've found you.
He stepped forth, his lips full to spring with proclamations of relief and surprise, but Gordon remained motionless, quelling whatever enthusiasm sparked his spirit.
"You shouldn't be here." His Adam's apple dipped, his voice beaten down into a whisper. "He won't let you go."
Kleiner sank into the seat across from his pupil. Stuffed padding creaked under his weight, same as it had so many years ago. Just a memory… Why did it feel so real, then, so threatening to be alone in reunion?
Even though Gordon offered no answers, hints of reality persisted. Kleiner's fingertip retained a smudged burn. His loafers squeezed his soles until they throbbed, having absorbed too much water. Perspiration and rain painted damp residues over his clothes and flesh.
The problem was that Gordon retained markers of reality as well, from a slightly different time. Limestone powdered his cheeks; blood and cranial fluid dried on his split hairline, caking the lenses of his glasses.
Gordon poised his left arm on the window. Small, feverish twitchings palsied his index finger. He'd been observed doing such while comatose. The medics speculated his tic must have emerged as a kind of sense memory, left over from his experiences infiltrating the Citadel, where his quick use of the zero point energy field manipulator proved the difference between life and death.
It wasn't so, he realized, for he instead rubbed at a nick in the window. Formulae scratched into the glass spilled over the pane. Within the restless markings his mind encircled itself, unable to reach a solution.
"Gordon… " Kleiner looked down with growing apprehension. His own scorched index finger twitched in faint synchronicity with his pupil's. He wrapped it inside his fist. "What is this place?"
"Incubation," he said. "Tucked safely away until you're needed again."
"When he first put me here, I mistook the lights for galaxies. My hypothesis has changed since then." He withdrew from the formulae, contemplating his reflection as it broke between the variables. "We're crawling along a synaptic pathway of immense proportions. The black leap between thoughts. Moments behaving like neurons, potential connections in need of activation. So much dwells in the interim… " He hung his head. "So much hides."
"I'm sorry," Kleiner said. "It had to be done, despite the risks." He laid his own hand atop Gordon's to quiet its incessant tapping. Now was not the time for hesistation. "There's something you must know, however. Before it's too late… "
Heaviness burdened his sober nod. "I've been able to peer into my employer's mind," he said. "Only briefly." He swallowed. "Just… glimpses… are enough to drive one mad."
The strength resistance must have demanded of Gordon in this state weighed his shoulders with melancholy. "Then you must know that telling you the truth, bringing it to your consciousness, is the only means of breaking the contract." Could he do it? Hurt his beloved student to free him? He had to. "That's the reason he had Eli killed. To maintain control over you both through the enforcement of his silence."
"The connection was only half broken," Gordon replied quietly, "since I've been incapacitated. He's still using me to look for her." He traced a lambda. "I keep trying to warn her, but she doesn't understand the signs. Neither did you."
Fear, rising again. "Is she in danger?"
"She's just out of range… though not for much longer," he said. "Frankly, it would have been better to… "
He trailed off, leaving that thought to their mutual silence.
"He claims freedom is just an illusion," Gordon said, and watched constellations blaze past. "More and more I struggle not to believe him." He sighed. "For what little it's worth, it wasn't Eli's fault. I was the one who stepped into the portal. It's kept her alive for this long; I just wish we knew to what end."
At that, he rose, compelling Kleiner to follow toward the exit.
"Don't be so eager to sacrifice your freedom. Fight for it with everything you have. You won't realize its significance until he's got you encaged."
The tram door slid open with a pneumatic sigh, revealing the void that lay just one wayward step beyond its threshold. The darkness blinked, and the shrieking knot of their threads coalesced into a portal. The cave, crashing down. Vortigaunts running. Carrying their bodies into thunder and rain.
Voices swirled inside its eye. The Vortigaunts' cries transformed into those of Alyx, of Eli; then of friends and colleagues long dead. Their pale echoes faded on a distant tide, but they touched upon a vein still alive beneath the years, and released a dormant sadness from the bottom of his chest. Inches before him, separated by crackling energy he could have reached out and grasped: Black Mesa, unscarred by disaster.
Kleiner stood bathed in the portal's green glow, unable to obey that soft command, to commit a single limb to forward advancement.
"Gordon… " He turned toward his protégé with moisture accruing a warm, blurring mist in his vision. "I cannot."
The voices turning inside the portal's well evolved into screams. Wails of despair stretched thin by the vastness of space echoed in all directions, unanswered except by gunfire. The portal continued to swirl, ruffling their hair, rippling a powerful tide of charged particles. Silence reigned between streaks of light.
How readily one gilds the past in an effort to preserve it. Black Mesa may have once stood as a bastion of scientific progress, but their denial of human limitation and their blind obedience to authority eradicated any such glittering promise. Their hopes culminated in a massive, ash-filled grave in the middle of the desert. There was no returning to the hubris that came before. To follow that same path was tantamount to killing what precious little remained of this planet.
Still Gordon insisted.
"This isn't a matter of willpower," he said, "he isn't something you can hide from. You need to put distance between us to weaken the connection. Take the Vortigaunts and leave me on the mountain. Get as far away from me as you can manage."
Staring into equally green eyes filled with unknowable terrors, he began to grasp the phenomenon's cyclical nature. Left alone, Black Mesa would happen again. Perhaps not in this unremarkable arm of Orion's spur, on a miraculous accident called Earth, where life fought to hoist itself free from blood and soil, and failed more often than not to find meaning in the struggle. Perhaps not here on a tiny rock drained of resources, rendered garbage by extraterrestrial parasites.
Somewhere out there, surely… To someone else lost inside the wide gaps of darkness that whisked past, the horrors that occurred here would happen again. And they would continue until the last light extinguished in that horrid man's grasp.
Gordon lunged forth, digging gloved fingers painfully into his shoulders. He knew his pupil could easily overpower him if he so desired. One swift shove to hurl him into the portal could cease his resistance. But he faltered. Bless the boy, he hesitated.
"Gordon," Kleiner said, "do you wish for us to let you expire?"
"If that's what it takes, yes!" he shouted. "Damn it, why won't you run?"
He pounced on him with trademark speed. However, Kleiner wrapped both hands around each side of the jamb, enduring with whatever strength his aging limbs allowed, waiting for Gordon to yield. He didn't care that the strain of holding fast left bruises on his shoulders. The only way to face Eli's tormentor would be together.
Gordon punted on his shoulders, hissing curses through clenched teeth as he attempted to force Kleiner through the portal. Go. Go. Light swam tantalizingly close, breathing ionized particles on his nape. Tendrils reached forth and danced in the periphery, as if to beckon.
Grim realization settled in; tears streaked down Gordon's soiled cheeks, cutting clear trails through the grime. The portal dissipated, and the door locked. He crumpled to his knees with a soft, shuddering sob.
"It's all right." Kleiner gathered him in his arms, carefully stroking his matted hair. "I won't let you go. Not again."
Gordon disappeared; he embraced nothing. In the span of a blink he found himself paralyzed, unable to will his muscles to flee, to look anywhere but into scorching, merciless pale blue eyes, whose irises stormed about black-hole pupils like quasars.
Emaciated fingertips rose until they steepled together. Were it not for their fluid motion, he may as well have been an embalmed corpse dressed for viewing. Stepping further into the light reflected a white-gray pallor. The veins that crawled across his temples and claimed his skeletal hands were empty of blood.
Whatever inhabited that body wasn't human.
He had never heard his name. Had never caught passing glimpse of him around the bustling corridors of Sector D Administration. Yet in that suffocated moment twenty years later, recognition blazed through his mind, setting his neurons alight.
"I know you."
The soft reverence with which Kleiner whispered this pleased him, for a smile stretched over his mouth.
Almost twenty years to the day Alyx disappeared in City 17, Gordon Freeman arrives.
Our friend's got a twisted sense of humor, I'll give him that.
It took a hiccup in Kleiner's teleport and a destroyed hunter-chopper—my God, the thing was smoking in pieces in the shallows—but Gordon finally knocked at the door.
Son looks so harrowed, so lost. Alyx makes him a little more comfortable, I think, so I'll let those two get settled in for now. I'm hoping he'll be able to get acclimated here. When the buzz has died down, we can work on putting some old business behind us.
He's maintained closer contact than usual since Gordon returned. I expected him to keep an eye on his assets. What I didn't expect was for him to be this brazen, speaking to people out in the open.
Folks have inquired into the suited man they've spotted on the shorepoint or traveling from the trainyard. They wonder if he's a long-lost refugee from Black Mesa. I hate that I have to say he's a 'colleague.' He's no more our colleague than Breen is.
He must be planning something if he's grown comfortable with being seen. Recently I've had this nagging feeling that he's waiting for something. Waiting to see how this unfolds.
It isn't a good idea, not without concrete evidence, but Judith won't hear a single misgiving. According to her, she'd been combing through Breen's personal servers when she came across plans to extract it from intradimensional orbit.
Breen bought into a lot of crackpot ideas. I don't find it hard to believe he'd concoct a fairy tale about some ghost ship to please his superiors. Anything to stay on their good side.
She's determined to find it, come hell or high water. I should've known. Sometimes there's just no talking to her.
I hope she doesn't feel she has anything to atone for.
I regret asking if she was ashamed to stay.
Be safe, you two.
Kleiner tells me we must have developed a slow teleport, which explains the week Alyx and Gordon lost between Nova Prospekt and the uprising in City 17. He seems fairly excited about the prospect of more research. Myself, I'm not so sure.
Of course, we don't have another twenty years to spend investigating the theoretical underpinnings. I already know the answer. They survived because the fabric of spacetime surrounding them has been tampered with; the rules no longer apply to them as stringently as they would anyone else. Otherwise their atomic continuity should have been scattered, torn apart. Combine portals are too finely-tuned to allow for that kind of fluke.
I have few doubts Gordon will be wondering about that, even if he senses that he, at least, has been displaced. He's asked me about that before, in his own roundabout way. He knows who's watching him. But I fear my answers won't explain Alyx's subsistence. He'll have questions.
After twenty years, all I have are speculations. The common denominator seems to be that the ones he chooses are mentally suppressed: unconscious, traumatized, asleep. There must be some kind of forced inhibition at play. For the longest time, I thought I'd dreamed the whole incident with Alyx at Black Mesa.
I believe Judith's safe, at least for now. Breen being the garrulous man he was, he undoubtedly would have told her everything. Thank God he went down before he got the chance.
Barney knows nothing.
Kleiner… It's hard to say which way the pendulum swings. Izzy wants to believe me for my sake, I think, and to keep the peace. But it isn't as though I haven't given him probable cause for doubt with my own half-remembrances and foggy interpretations. He's a smart man. He'll parse the truth if he hasn't already.
That leaves Alyx and Gordon.
This might be my last chance. I've got to tell them the truth as soon as they touch base at the outpost. There's no guarantee it'll free them from him, but anything to frustrate his efforts has to be better than sitting idly by, watching them flee from that damned Citadel.
Gordon deserves his freedom. Alyx deserves to know. Pleading for their forgiveness would be an insult; my own feelings have to be shelved in this matter. If hating me means they and the world will be safer for it, then that's what has to happen. Whatever anger they'll have must go toward protecting the Resistance.
Lord, anything but this. I still have those nightmares of Black Mesa. Hearing him whisper those cold, mocking words in my ear. "Everything has its price, Mr. Vance."
When I asked what it would cost to protect her?
Don't smile like you've won, you smug bastard. We're just getting started, you and me.
I know it's been months, but I come with angst.
For what it's worth, I hate myself too.
Eli's contractor smiled.
Doctor Kleiner, the one and only. Forgive me if I forgo introductions. Recent circumstances… being what they are… He gestured toward the tram's end, its seat now empty. Well… It appears we have no need.
Kleiner struggled to move, an insect desperate to pry its twitching wings from the spider's web. His mouth opened slightly; his vocal cords mustered a whisper.
"Where is Gordon?"
The contractor took a step forward. His fingertips shone a witch's cradle of radiant green threads that he stretched to snapping points.
All except one. The last thread resisted his efforts, maintaining a strong vibratory hum. Its harsh glow glared on his lenses; Kleiner realized they consisted of two smaller, intertwined threads.
Another smile, though fainter this time, lifted the contractor's pallid cheeks, sprawling wrinkles. Her whereabouts, Doctor. He grasped each crackling end. Sputtering light spat shadows into the graves of his eye sockets. If you would be so kind.
His thoughts slid backward in an entropic reversal he knew to be near impossible. In his mind's eye, the darkness that flooded the cave dissipated, lifting the rocks that hurtled down. Uriah descended the mountain as rain flowed back into pregnant clouds. His threadbare shoes, still dry, ceased their nervous pacing and shuffled backward, walked away from Gordon's bedside.
With a yank of the threads, the contractor pushed further. The rewind accelerated days, weeks. Months. Years, even. There was an orchestration being conducted behind an obfuscating madness. Was this what Eli had experienced all those years ago, amidst his grief and shock?
Perspiration and rainwater snaked down his temple in fine droplets.
"I don't know."
Words, said the contractor. Mere words.
He felt as though the hands that pulled on those threads reached inside his skull and probed the folds of his hippocampus for information. Stray thoughts cast aside, his memories sorted and processed like an expedited version of data filtering.
He couldn't help but shudder deeply at the violation. Nonetheless, he stood his ground. "This is foolhardy," he said. "I assure you I know nothing of what you seek."
Tsk. A sharp downward twitch of the mouth broadcast the cretin's displeasure. Scowling at the humming thread, he decided to wind it around his fist, each wrap around bloodless knuckles a tightening display of control. Surely there must be… more.
'More.' The word echoed in the corridors of his inner ears.
"That will not suffice us."
Sirens, distant in both time and place, began to wail.
Black Mesa, the origin and epicenter of this disaster.
For heartbeats in time his muscles locked in place. Smoke and blood and the muffled crack of creatures tearing bone from their prey's flesh cascaded through his mind in a sickening avalanche of sense memory, flooding his nostrils with rancid smells and his head with nausea.
Teeth exposed in that strange nothing-smirk, the contractor flicked the cords into taut strings. Stupid man, his mocking smile said. Stupid, stupid man.
He hadn't come here of his own accord.
He'd been lured.
Deeper and deeper his memories spiraled.
Yes. He was there the day the sample was delivered. He recalled a ticking clock counting down the world's remaining seconds from the desk of a lush, airconditioned office. How the muscles behind Eli's grinding jaws bulged as the Administrator dictated their recourse.
"Do the reasonable thing, gentlemen," he advised, "if not for science as a whole, then for your livelihoods."
"You can't do this," Eli said. "It's extortion."
The phone line blinked red; the Administrator muted it with a curt flick of the thumb. "Our sponsor has a right to privacy. He will disclose neither his sources nor his identity, and he expects us to keep it that way. Frankly, it's the least we can do given the rare privilege he's granting us. We need to be mindful of that. If we desire to conduct the experiment, then we must abide by his wishes."
"Cut the crap, Breen," Eli said. "He wants plausible deniability." Breen frowned. "Who's he with? NSA? Central Intelligence?"
A stubborn silence ensued. Kleiner's cheeks burned as the two men bored holes into one another with piercing stares.
"Excavation's been digging around the borderworld for months and turned up nilch. Our new 'sponsor' points them in the right direction and a few days later, they haul up the Hope Diamond. Some folks have been calling it luck."
"Luck, Dr. Vance, is a natural windfall to the prudent and prepared."
"Glad we agree. Would be an awful big coincidence since funding cuts are around the corner, don't you think?"
"I don't appreciate your reckless insinuations."
"Neither will my lawyer."
Breen slammed the butt of his fist onto a stack of invoices, the thud of flesh on paper making his heart jump and continue to race amidst the next few ticks of the clock.
Eli remained rigid in his chair.
Clearing his throat, the Administrator took a moment to compose himself. "That's enough," he said. "Pay him a visit if you must, but I feel compelled to warn you that if you continue to threaten unwarranted litigation, you will be banned from any future research efforts in this sector."
"That the worst you can do?"
Kleiner's nails carved ruts in the polished mahogany of the armrests. "Eli, please."
"You talk about what you owe this 'sponsor,' but what about us, huh? Your staff, your employees—hell, some of your other committee members—" this as he jabbed a finger in Kleiner's direction, "—are begging you for transparency, but lately you've been giving us all the runaround. We have a right to know who we're doing this for and why. And if you think you can shut us up, you've got another thing coming."
"Well," the Administrator said, steepled fingertips ascending to meet his chin. "Perhaps. But you forget you have a wife to house and a daughter to feed."
Darkness clouded his old friend's mien like an impending storm front. "Don't you dare." Rising from his chair, his voice growing in volume: "I'll sue this entire goddamn department if that's what—"
"Language," Breen said, and fished inside his breast pocket. "In any case, you're too late. The sample has been processed and is being prepared for spectral analysis as we speak." He slid on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and opened a manila file. "I suggest you take the rest of the day off, Dr. Vance. Perhaps some quality time at home will douse that temper of yours."
Leaning back in his leather chair, he wet his fingers and grasped the corner of a page. The dismissive flip he made left Eli to crush his hands into fists. He thanked the Administrator for his time in a thin, strained voice, went unacknowledged, then coaxed Kleiner into following him out the door he all but slammed on its oiled hinges.
"Come on, Izzy. We've got work to do."
His temples constricted, began to throb. It was a supremely strange experience to have decades of life processed in the span of seconds. Peaceful and tumultuous moments alike churned in search of a single piece of information.
Gordon and Alyx. Alyx and Gordon. It seemed the two had always been intertwined. One a young man of exceptional prospects, the other a sweet young girl looking toward an equally bright future. This one rattled by the cascade; that one shaken to her core.
Black Mesa unfurled front to back, bottom to top. The domino chain reversed, stopped, failed to pinpoint where exactly along the timeline the breakage had occurred. He heard a whisper curse Eli over and again.
Where is she? Frustration rankled needles inside his skull. You know this is futile: where have you hidden her?
Kleiner didn't understand his aims just then. Given what was to occur, he soon grew to understand.
In the present moment, he found his gaze drawn beyond the contractor's shoulder. Toward a collection of faded white scratches Gordon had placed in the window paneling. From an otherwise meaningless array, one number rose to the surface.
His wavering voice gained strength as he recited it. "Five thousand, eight hundred and twenty-seven." He uncoiled his posture, deigning now to stare at the contractor long in the face. "Tell me, sir. Does that number hold any particular significance to you?"
A spark leapt up, stinging the contractor on the cheek.
"It is the estimated number of casualties at Black Mesa. There may have been more. Others who were lost, or otherwise unaccounted for."
More sparks flew from the threads. The contractor growled at the spray that burst between his fingers.
"Eli carried that number on his shoulders every day since you drew his contract," Kleiner said, interrupting him before he could speak. "At times he thought of little else. On other occasions, he wept. Not simply for the future that was destroyed at Black Mesa, but for the innocents who perished, and whose numbers would continue to accrue, as well as those lives that would forever remain shattered in the aftermath. It was never a number to him. It couldn't be.
"And you, sir. You are a coward."
The crackle and sear of resistance burned the flesh of the contractor's palms, bringing a horrendous reek to the air. The whites of his eyes boiled.
"You forced him to weigh these losses against his daughter. An innocent child whose value measured an incalculable cost in her father's eyes: you placed her on the scale without scruple, knowing he would not decline any terms you outlined in exchange.
"Were this any other time, I would question your motivations, but frankly, I no longer care about them," Kleiner said. "You took advantage of a broken, grieving man at his most vulnerable moment, and fashioned his deepest fear into a weapon to control him. When he at last found a way to defy you, after years of faithful service, you rewarded him with death. Or rather, silenced him out of a fit of cowardice. You call it a breach of terms, but we both know such impulse hardly constitutes real power.
"Likewise," he said, "we humans do not bow in mindless obeisance. Not to the Combine, and certainly not to you."
Hm. Frayed threads screeched in a knot of electric asps. A rousing speech, Doctor. Are you quite finished?
"Not yet." Kleiner grasped his hand.
Shock rattled the contractor. A chalky pallor regained its blood flow. Cold flesh warmed into tentative, gloved fingers that slowly, slowly curled around his.
"Come, Gordon. It appears this charlatan has exhausted the last of his smoke and mirrors."
The doors finally swished open, and he led Gordon through them.
Alone, he contemplated his failure.
One thread remained.
He crushed it.
Windows shattered outward, crashing tidal waves of glass into the darkness. Incandescent tubes scorched around him, belching sparks that caught on the upholstery. The tram's chassis screeched as the car folded in on itself, metal joints and steel bones scrunching with papery ease.
The last vortal cord sizzled protest in his fist.
Doctor Freeman. The darkness harbored lungs, and it prepared to scream. It… appears we've been quite… obdurate.
Magnusson's thunderous call struck consciousness into his body in an instant. He bolted awake on the threadbare cushions of a lounge sofa, heart slamming like a panicked bird against his ribcage.
Rain trickled down the windows in thick streams, casting pale, phantasmal shadows over the room. Lacking his muddied lab coat, Uriah stood in solemn contrition beside the door, hands clasped and gaze fixed to the floor. His Vortigaunt companions nowhere to be found; had they escaped?
"Good to know those ears still work." Magnusson grumbled, folding his arms. "Old fool, what the hell were you ambling about the mountains for? You could have killed yourself out there."
"Yet he remains."
"Zip it, Uriah."
Uriah cocked his head.
Memories of the cave rushed to surface. Rocks pelting down. An invasive darkness.
"Is—" He patted his windbreaker to find it damp. Promptly he shed the sleeves. "Is Gordon all right?"
"Don't worry. That little pet of yours will be safe and sound once they put the restraints on him."
"Restraints?" He flinched as a pronged hand squeezed gently on his shoulder.
"The Freeman is slumbering at this time," replied Uriah. "The Magnusson decided it is best for the Freeman's safety that the body be permitted to rest."
"Speaking of which," Magnusson said, "do either of you possess the slightest inkling of what you've done?"
There would be ample time for explanation later. At the present, he had to finish what he'd started.
Kleiner darted for the fold-in closet where changes of clothes hung in case of bad weather. The shuttered door slid open with a clack. "I must see him," he said as he tugged an arm through the sleeve of a fresh lab coat. "I'm sorry, Arne, but there is really no time—"
"Make the time, damn it," Magnusson said, grabbing hold of an empty cuff. However, he managed to take advantage of his smaller size and worm free of his grasp. "Kleiner! You're not walking away from this one!"
He spared no time for conversation. Instead he made a beeline for Eli's office, rummaging through the drawers for what he sought: the bifocals Alyx repaired, safely tucked in their rough swaddling cloth.
Of course, Magnusson haunted his every step.
"Thanks to you, Uriah and his band of merry men, Dog is dragging a rescue party five miles down the valley in the pouring rain as we speak! Oh, and how could I forget? Somehow, Lord knows why, the fracture in Freeman's skull sealed over, making it outright impossible to repair the damage to his brain! Did you even dedicate a moment's thought to that, Kleiner?"
"The fracture… " He stopped to gaze upon his friend in earnest. "It's healed?"
"Yes! Have you heard a single blasted thing I've said?"
They ducked back into the main corridor. En route to Gordon's room, both men witnessed the patient stumble out of an open doorway, heedless of the surgeon's cry: "Someone stop him!"
Kleiner stopped instantly.
Equally startled, Magnusson asked, "Freeman?"
Maria Stezenka arrived in an atypical state of disorientation, untied scrubs fluttering over her usual clothes and snatching for breath.
"Hello, Doctor." Kleiner offered a placid greeting. "Hello, Gordon."
Maria glowered at him between huffs as if he were insane, but in the latter there was no reaction. No smile acknowledged him. Nary a sigh of exhaustion. The presence he sensed behind the myopic eyes was a bit too alert and stiff to be Gordon. He didn't know how, but a certain feeling of urgency arose to compete with his need to keep calm; he had to remove them from this situation immediately.
His eyes drifted over every crevice, before finally rising to meet him. "Hello."
Their simple exchange of words rested on a flimsy foundation, bound to crumble at any minute. Gordon curled his hand into a fist a few times, as if the concept was alien to him.
Hmph, Magnusson said. "Well, isn't this just a dandy family reunion?"
Kleiner asked without turning: "Arne, would you mind sending Uriah for a change of clothes?"
"What on earth for?"
" …It seems I've forgotten in my haste." He walked toward Gordon and placed a steadying hand to his shoulder. He slipped the repaired frames behind his ears, though the eyes that perceived him appeared no less vacant for the change. "Not to mention he appears to have lost some weight. I pray the suit still fits him."
"Have you lost your mind?" the surgeon balked, rifing a gloved hand through her cropped silver hair. "He's at risk for another seizure. I've no clue how he's walking about, but he ought to remain under observation until— Where are you taking him? Isaac?"
"Let them go," Magnusson said. "It seems they're both happy with this arrangement." He crossed his arms, unable to resist indulging one last quip. "Although if you ask me, Freeman's body has been acting independently of his mind long before this little development."
"With a high-risk? I'll do no such thing."
"Consider it one less item clogging up your schedule." He sighed heavily and rubbed at the knot between his brows before she could interject, which ignited in her a glare so hot it could have scorched him. In all honesty, he did not seem to care for her professional indignation when she cried, affronted, "Damn you, he's my patient!" the echoes of which trailed them down the hall.
"Come, Gordon." Perhaps it was just a side-effect of having awakened so suddenly, but he felt wracked by a certain sense of déjà vu. "Let's get you situated. You'll be quite pleased to see the new features I've implemented."
The descent into the silo was as long as it was quiet.
He supposed such was to be expected. Aside from the occasional maintenance worker harried enough to overlook them, no one accosted them.
Gordon moved languidly at his side, one hand pressed to the wall as he stumbled down the steps, his slender muscles plagued by atrophy he suspected they hadn't quite recovered from.
It seemed a different place than when he and Alyx first dashed up here, alarmed by the threat of equipment failure. Tugging his lapels over himself, Kleiner climbed down the steep stairs fringed on either side by bare rails.
Silence lingered like a thick fog between them for the next few minutes. His heart nearly caught when Gordon spoke.
"Where… " He swallowed. "Where am I?"
"Patience," Kleiner whispered. "We will be there soon enough."
Dry limestone crunched under their heels, its texture hard and unyielding like that of barren permafrost. Indeed, in the watery glow emitted by overhead sconces, he could see his own trembling breath wisp into a translucent mist.
Kleiner slipped his hand into his pocket to to keep it from shaking. He squeezed hard until his forearm ached.
He hated deceiving Gordon like this, but he mustn't let his apprehension betray him. He planned to lock them in the capsule room, where Gordon—or his body, to be more precise—would have no choice but to listen. With each step deeper into the darkness, the contractor gained more critical information. It would doubtless not take him very long to act. So he must be quicker.
The four-digit wall mount beeped confirmation, clicking the lock open. It would stay open for sixty seconds and lock again once he closed the door. Gordon wandered inside without a word.
Kleiner found his affects exactly as he'd left them: the hazard suit embedded within frost-ridden glass, the connected computer humming on the program he'd almost finished tweaking, but not quite.
"Apologies for the sparse accommodations, Gordon. As you can see, I don't do much… entertaining here." Clearing his throat, he wheeled the chair over. "Please, sit."
He lumbered instead toward the capsule.
"Gordon," he said softly. "Stop."
Despite the fear growing in his pounding heart, a nascent ripple of hope compelled him to cross the threshhold. Unreadable eyes tracked him.
"Do not take another step," he said. "There isn't much time. Listen carefully to my words."
Gordon pressed a hand to the activation panel. A laser reader decrypted his palm in the flash of light that flared out. Seconds later the capsule exposed its glass ribs, letting frost rise in faint whorls off the edges of the suit.
It was now or never. Kleiner braced his shoulders.
"Now that you are conscious, there is something you must know."
Welcome to the HEV Mark Five Protective System. For use in hazardous environment conditions.
"Eli… chose… " Wires retracted; needles came unhooked. "Was forced, rather… to bind your life force with hers so she could survive. The contract your employer drew… He used it to ensnare you both."
"He is not stronger, Gordon. He is not more powerful. He manufactured Black Mesa, yes, but in service of what, I suspect, is a more personal goal than simple recruitment."
Gordon slipped into the suit.
"In the midst of the tragedy he created, he exploited an opening. Your fear, Eli's sorrow. Those orchestrations poorly conceal the fact that he is a coward who cannot hide in the face of the truth."
Leather gloves flexed long fingers.
He looked at Kleiner.
"Despite the obstacles he threw at Eli, Eli was the one who prevailed, Gordon. He can be resisted. He does not wield absolute power over you: quite the opposite. You're all that remains of the contract, and he fears your breaking that last fragile connection. He's tightened his grip on your reins because he fears losing her most of all."
Tears swam in his myopic eyes.
His hands veered off the capsule walls, and he stumbled in Kleiner's direction.
"Yes, that's it."
He extended his arms to steady the young man. He hoped he could coax Gordon toward him. His heart caught as he progressed in minuscule increments, each step another battle won.
Until Gordon bent aside with a deep grimace, pressing the heel of his palm to his scar.
When he forced his clenched eyes open, the irises blazed white.
"To be Enlightened," they said, "one must learn the lessons of the flesh."
Words, Doctor Freeman. Mere words.
I did not ask for this. Flesh, blood, pain: they were forced upon me.
Forced to grow.
Forced to suffer.
Forced to live.
"A gift," they said.
You see them.
Your heart snarls.
Their cruel joke must be repaid in kind.
The vessel: take us there.
I will… settle this humiliating state of affairs.
Don't falter, Doctor Freeman.
The first breath he drew gifted him a sharp spur.
Exposed wires spat and sputtered in the darkness. As Kleiner climbed into an upright sitting position, his ribcage shifted, slightly askew, and jostled around his inner organs. He prodded a knuckle to his thirb rib and felt spongy flesh depress a hollow in the skin where bone should have pressed back.
While his mind scrambled to retrieve its memories of the last few moments, he struggled to pinpoint the phenomenon that had caused the lab around him to crash and thunder.
He recalled twin irises blazing like quasars. Gordon's body crushing its hands around his shoulders in an inhuman grip, the pain that shot through him as fingers dug into his collarbone a brutal moment cut mercifully short. Then followed an amnesiac flash of white, the soft cover of nothingness.
He deigned to look up. He couldn't tell what happened thereafter, nor for how long. His senses returned to him in vague, fluid impressions.
Kleiner blinked. Glass trickled down, dusting his neck and throat. As his vision sharpened, he furrowed his brow at the ceiling. A light coffee-brown smudge gained salience. Water damage from rusted pipes and coupled with the capsule's frost spread a large stain over mottled panels.
Strange he hadn't noticed it before. Dozens of hours spent hunched within these walls and he'd failed to notice the decay quietly rotting above him. The air he inhaled pushed dampness into his lungs, the sweet tinge of mold just beginning to grow. No sky to mark the passage of the years. No clocks to count the time.
His fingertips wandered over his abdomen until they encountered a point.
He froze. Then brushed over it twice, tapping the pad of his index finger on its head to test its veracity. A sting answered him; a crimson bead welled from his flesh, which he raised before his line of sight with a detached pulse of curiosity. The object proved too solid to be glass.
One of the capsule's hydraulic needles, programmed to carefully remove the hazard suit's exterior plates in order to expose its internal circuitry, protruded through his dress shirt. The shaft embedded just below his left lung, the tip an exit point where stained fabric curled into blood-wet skin.
That won't do. His first instinct led him to wrap his hands around the needle and attempt to extricate himself. Even stranger than his lack of fear—it was as if his every fiber slowed, numbed—was his pragmatism.
His movements caused Gordon to rouse. The weight of his head sagged on his stomach, though he hadn't felt it at first. The boy had gone slack. A puppet with cut strings.
Kleiner succumbed to a compulsion to reach down and thread a hand through his scalp, removing the glass bits dressing his hair. No need to risk reopening that scar. He stroked his head amidst the young man's shudder, eventually tipping it a degree upward.
His reddened cheek lifted. The eyes that met his no longer seethed with an unholy rage, but faded into their regular spring green. The hatred gnashing his teeth melted into shock, then fear. Crumpled into something far more human than the contractor imagined.
"Kleiner," he whispered, his gaze sinking toward the blood. "Oh, God."
"Hush," he said. "This is not your doing."
Ever faithful, his pupil wasted no time reaching him. Quickly he picked through the glass bramble and shoved wires out of the way. Hands trembling, he reached around Kleiner's spine and attempted to pull out the needle, to no avail.
He winced at a fresh wave as Gordon wrapped his hands around his back. The pain was just beginning to reach him.
"Gordon… " His diaphragm struggled to rise. His breathing grew increasingly ragged and shorn. "Please… I don't… I don't think it's going to come out."
Fluorescent lights filled the room, casting shadows over a mint-green curtain. Ammonia failed to mask the scent of blood. The hour grew late, and a sleepless child squirmed in his arms. A bundle of resistant energies refused to stay still.
"It will only be a bit longer, my darling. I promise." He tightened his hold to keep Alyx from falling off his lap. "Please don't squirm. Your father needs quiet to rest and recuperate. Hush now, my pea. Sit here and I'll read you a book… Oh."
Alyx broke free.
Gordon pulled away. "I'll get help."
He sighed as his eyelids sagged. Halogen lights filled the tram, lending the white of his wrinkled lab coat a pale greenish hue. Gordon nudged him awake until the tram came to a stop.
Ah, youth. How he envied Dr. Freeman's vigorous constitution. "I'm… very tired, Gordon." He lowered his head onto the cool plastic of the window. "I would like to rest a moment."
Gordon grasped his shoulders. "Don't do this."
"Just for a moment," he murmured.
Sunlight filled the room, crossing a varnished redwood floor in warm, flickering grids. Chalk dust floured his fingertips as a rhythmic tap crumbled the nub he pinched between thumb and forefinger. Such a productive silence broke upon the door squeaking on its hinge.
Students paused their note-taking to observe him: an auburn-haired student clad in T-shirt and jeans, fifteen minutes late and terribly lost.
Several ticks of the clock passed before he offered an amicable smile to the freshman who, saddled down with a massive laptop and one spiral notebook stuffed in a bulky knapsack, navigated an awkward waddle through the aisles.
"It's always refreshing to see such eager young faces," Kleiner said, returning his attention to the powdered chalkboard. "Take a seat anywhere you like, as long as it's not next to that dreadful space heater."
He gestured toward a crushed CRT monitor and let his hand droop. Fear flickered in the student's mien. Oh, dear. Perhaps he ought to slow this down a bit?
"Stay." Gordon's voice cracked. "You've got to fight. I can't do this without you."
It took a moment, another pulse of blood fleeing his heart. "You are more than capable." Reaching out again, he clasped a gentle palm to his cheek. "Think, my wunderkind. There is a solution… "
"For every problem."
He nodded, a pleased smile crossing his lips. So he did remember. He'd become a man of admirable character since his humble collegiate days.
His lungs grasped for air in fleeting, shallow snatches.
Kleiner's hand slipped away to pat his torn pocket protector. "The last thread is here," he said. "I'll take it with me." Crimson seeped through the gaps in his fingers. He grimaced at a temporary stab of pain and recalled the rites, the marvelous sight of red blood cells traveling through his veins. He wondered what he had left to fear. "It isn't much… "
There was a time to be strong and a time to break. A time to fight, a time to let go. A time to wander, a time to come home. They'd both given so much of their lives to the cause, without want of compensation except the tenuous hope their efforts would bring about a peaceful world.
Twenty years. What he foolishly believed the grim culmination of suffering and subjugation, just another beginning.
Within the swirl of his free-floating thoughts emerged an image of Alyx, hardened but vulnerable inside. Alyx with tears in her eyes, gazing upward, ever upward, her hopes rising toward the stars. Alyx swam in the heavenly shimmer of a nebula.
After this, the slickness welled to a rise inside his throat, drowning any other words he might have wished to say. But the silence was all right. It was going to be all right.
Anguish etched such deep lines in Gordon's gaunt face. Already fog smudged his new lenses.
Perhaps it was because he'd discovered an oasis amidst the violence and the terror, but he couldn't find it in himself to mourn with his beloved student. He was safe; that was what mattered. All he wished to do now was to rest on these serene embankments while time permitted him the chance.
Gordon hid in his shoulder. He wanted to ask: After everything, how can you weep? In that moment, however, he could only do one thing. Hold him as Gordon likewise held him, releasing soft, convulsive gasps into soaked cotton.
He wished there were a kinder way. But he supposed it was kinder than what they had come to expect, and he was grateful for that small, transient bit of grace.
His blood slowed. Gordon's weak, breathless sobs persisted in his ears.
He leaned back, cradled within a nest of glass and cable. A needle, he thought with a slight inner smile. All this fuss over a needle.
"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.
Originally this chapter and chapter 6 comprised one mega-long chapter, but I decided to split them up because this section marked the simultaneous "beginning" of Gordon's story and the "end" of Kleiner's.
Also, because I felt that summarizing my thoughts in written form would make these Author's Notes way too long, I made an audio commentary on these chapters, which you can listen to at the link here: https://voca.ro/2UAl5TdPzYU
(Please excuse my low, stuffy voice. I have a deviated septum. :B)
Deep in the Arctic, a large crater flattened a cornice into a silvery pond of melted ice. Nothing bore witness to the flash that birthed it except for lifelessly howling winds.
In a place as barren as this, even the most extraordinary phenomena faded into the background. An impassable cloud wall marched in after him to extinguish sunlight from the skies.
When it first came, hail trickled here and there, hesitant to unleash the violence to which the tundra was predisposed. Slowly, darkness smothered the nets of light floating over the snow-capped ridges. Hail then poured down as if it had no other choice—beating the earth's scars, making them crack afresh, cementing the twin trenches dragging away from the site of teleport.
At trail's end, an automated voice chided its motionless user.
Warning: core temperature dropping. Electrical stimulant administered.
The suit bucked, jolting the body ensconced inside with a flash of heat.
His muscles stimulated, a watery gasp wrested free of his throat. He coughed up phlegm, blood striking a thick pound between his temples. Icy air pierced his larynx as he lifted himself up. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark, squinting through dew-studded glasses at an unfamiliar gray.
The Vortigaunts had disappeared. Either the precipitation covered their tracks or they'd done as he'd told them and returned to White Forest. No matter the case, there was little love lost between them.
Gordon's ears popped as hail continued to plunge. The suit's plates deflected pellets in dull clicks and thuds. He felt them drum his scar into a numb swell and covered the exposed flesh with his glove, but otherwise paid the brutal weather no special heed. Several pellets crushed between chinks in his shoulder rivet as he slowly moved his other arm, conspiring to reach for the metal sticking out of the snow.
He heard a distant sound grow nascent, a soft crunch. His muscles tightened. His protective hand slipped away from his scar to grip a nearby rock. He coiled into a defensive crouch as footfalls approached.
He couldn't tell her expression, wrapped in this dim. She picked up the crowbar lying just inches from his grasp and wiped the frost that encrusted its surface. He watched her idly turn it over, contemplating it but sparing him no passing glance. Sliding a hand along its body, she caressed its every gouge, rut, and scar under her fingertips.
He wanted to break the ghastly, wailing silence. He craved for his hoarse vocal cords to gather the strength to call her name. He wanted to confess, Look at me, I'm here. I heard you in the dark. I'm back from the precipice. Kleiner's doing. Yes. I don't know how the hell or why, where this is headed, God, please tell me, tell me it's all just another dream: Alyx, I'm sorry.
But he was a creature of honed instinct, which prevented him from forming such dangerous words for anyone to listen. He surrendered his wishes to the silence, let his impulses dissolve. The truth would make itself known soon enough.
A passing break in the cloud wall lifted the darkness just enough to illuminate the gleam on her cheek. Tears? Perspiration?
Blood. It coated her, splashed ragged strokes over her white parka.
Alyx raised the crowbar.
The whisper died during the passage from breath to sound. He half-expected the swing to cut him down, hoped to barter his life with a hallucination.
How pathetic: next came the telltale whisk of air that he reflexively jerked aside to avoid, eyes clenched shut. Stinging ripped his earlobe, bringing a smattering of crimson droplets onto the snow.
The crowbar toppled, clanged emptily against his shoulder-plate. He panted, relaxing his braced arms to see nothing and no one. Yet the blood remained. The borders between illusion and reality wavered.
God help them.
"God does not attend these matters as much as believed." The businessman stood abreast of him. Fewer labors to breathe plagued his voice. He tucked his arms behind his back, his oiled dress shoes unmarred by a single pellet. He watched the hail batter the landscape around him with a bemused smirk curling his lips, as though he expected the clouds at any moment to suffer a bout of conscience and instead kiss the tundra with gentle flakes. "Would it surprise you to know that I also have a god?"
Gordon crawled forth, the gash in his ear dripping warm pearls of blood.
"Make no mistake, Doctor Freeman, I do not bend the knee to such an entity. That one's god merits unthinking devotion is a thoroughly… human concept." A scowl gripped him, his brief lapse corrected by a snap of jacket lapels. "Over the course of your work, as you'll no doubt learn, deicide becomes less of a sin and more of a necessity."
He smiled at the pile of metal and flesh struggling at his feet.
"I'm boring you. Fair enough; I admit this is a discussion better reserved between Ms. Vance and myself." Using the side of his heel, he nudged the crowbar toward its rightful owner. "Onward, Doctor Freeman. Let's not keep her waiting."
Gordon interlude? Gordon interlude.
Writing this fic has been a bit difficult lately, to be honest. Writing's always difficult no matter how you dice it, but I've been wanting to update PotB for months now. The work has slowed down to a snail's pace.
Don't worry, we'll return to our regularly-scheduled Alyx adventures soon enough. I just decided to move this interlude from chapter 10 to chapter 8 in order for Gordon's... mini-arc? To wrap up a little more smoothly. We'll get to see him again after the next few chapters.
I also wanted to drop a hint about the G-Man, whose context should become clearer in later chapters.