Dr. Coomer didn't remember the first time he went to sleep. He just watched Gordon slowly settle down and close his eyes and then it was morning, like no time had passed at all. Sure, it was a bit strange, but nothing unpleasant. It was easy enough to just get up and move on with the day. Black Mesa wouldn't conquer itself!
The second time he fell asleep was a rather different story.
Gordon had just finished telling him a lovely bedtime story, and was making himself comfortable near the door of the rocket launch room. Dr. Coomer had a clear view out the window, and he gazed out at the stars twinkling in the night sky far above him.
When they started blinking out, disappearing into the void one by one, he assumed that he had drifted off without realizing it and that his dreams were trying to pull a fast one on him. Yes, this is only a dream, he assured himself as the mountains started to vanish into the now empty void of the sky, followed by the ground right outside the building, like they were nothing but flat pictures being torn down from where they hung lifeless in the sky.
He only started to grow uneasy when the walls of the room blinked out, too, leaving only the grimy floor and his slumbering companions floating in an endless sky. No, an endless skybox.
Dr. Coomer stood and gazed grimly into the skybox, begrudgingly admitting to himself what it truly was. He had seen the nothingness outside Black Mesa that very day, and it had scared him so badly he had tried to push it to the back of his mind. But now he was surrounded by it. Suffocated by it.
Need his dreams be so cruel, torturing him with the horrors he had witnessed but a few hours ago? It was a dismal thought, but it was certainly more acceptable than the only other possible explanation.
"But that's impossible," Dr. Coomer murmured to himself. "This couldn't be real. Certainly, if I was awake and this was truly happening, my sharp companions would have... taken notice..."
His voice trailed off as he turned to find an empty room. Tommy, Bubby, and Benrey had all vanished without a trace, just like the world around him. The only one that remained was Gordon.
Dr. Coomer approached the sleeping man, heart thudding in his throat. He carefully reached out a hand and patted his shoulder, shaking him a bit when he failed to respond.
"It's time to wake up, Gordon! Another bright and early morning in Black Mesa!" He didn't react in the slightest, which was maybe the scariest thing that had happened yet. Gordon was a twitchy man, the kind of guy who would startle awake at the slightest sound. If he wasn't moving at all? That set off alarm bells in Dr. Coomer's head.
He knew by now that he wasn't dreaming. It had been decades since he'd had a nightmare at all, and even back then his dreams were certainly never this vivid. So when the small patch of ground they stood on slowly started blinking out, one floor tile at a time, and Gordon continued to lie unmoving on the ground, Dr. Coomer knew something was very, very wrong.
"Gordon? Gordon, y — Hello Gordon! Another day, another dollar, am I — Black Mesa awaits us, Gor — Hello, Gord —" Dr. Coomer shook his head, trying to rid himself of all the fragmented sentences clogging his throat. "Gordon, you have to — Hello, G – Please, wake up!"
But he lay still. The ground was all but lost, and Dr. Coomer had to scooch even closer to Gordon to avoid falling off. In doing so, he got a closer look at the man, and his heart dropped in his throat. He was... too still. Far too still.
Dr. Coomer raised a shaky hand to Gordon's neck, feeling around for his pulse. Nothing. He cupped a hand around Gordon's mouth, checking for any signs of breathing. The air was cold.
When the floor finally disappeared beneath them, Dr. Coomer went with it.
It must have happened in an instant, but it seemed to last forever. He was dissolving, and the feeling was indescribable. He could feel each atom of his being as it was wrenched away from him, one by one. He was being torn right down to his base components and then discarded like useless trash. Flattened out like paper, and then dissected into oblivion with an inhuman precision.
It was like something was looking at him, looking into him, and perceiving him on a level that was never supposed to be seen. He was never supposed to be able to look deep inside of himself and see not molecules, not atoms, but numbers. Strings of zeros and ones, looping around each other like a miserable substitute for DNA. And it was all so finite. There was a beginning and end to his existence, right there in front of him, so flimsy and hollow it could be obliterated with nothing but a glance.
And yet, despite his brain struggling to process a total upheaval of his worldview even as it was being ripped into nothingness, for one single moment, trapped in that limbo between existence and nonexistence, Dr. Coomer glimpsed at... something. Something was out there, beyond the skybox.
But he couldn't look closer, couldn't reach out and grasp for it, because he was already gone.
The third time Dr. Coomer fell asleep, it came out of nowhere.
One second, a group of soldiers were beating the shit out of Gordon, Bubby and Benrey cheering them on. But then one of them pulled out a knife, and before Dr. Coomer knew it, Gordon was passing out from blood loss.
In a panic, Dr. Coomer whirled around. The end of the corridor they were in had already vanished, revealing the all-too-familiar skybox lurking behind it. He frantically glanced around at the other members of the science team, but they were too busy reacting to Gordon's arm to notice anything.
"Now gentlemen, let's get out of here before they peel us apart!" The warning came out cheerier than he had meant it, and when Bubby turned to face him, nodding in agreement, he didn't seem to notice the skybox looming ever closer. Without a second's hesitation, he turned heel and walked down the corridor towards it, Tommy and Benrey right behind him.
"NO! Come back! You can't — Hello, Gordo — there's nothing — !" Despite his pleas, they walked right into the void, leaving Dr. Coomer alone.
The void moved much faster this time, and Dr. Coomer had to turn tail and sprint the other direction to avoid it. He ran so fast he almost managed to catch up with Gordon, who was being carried down the hall ahead of him by two of the soldiers. He was nearly unconscious, groans of pain getting quieter and quieter as he slowly passed out.
Why was this happening again? Last time it could almost have been nothing more than a particularly fucked up nightmare, seeing as everything was fine in the morning (he knew it wasn't true, but it was nice to pretend). But now it was the middle of the day, and it was clear that nobody else even noticed their world cracking around them.
One of the guard's mics buzzed from the end of the hall, and he picked it up to start talking into it. Gordon stirred, lifting his head slightly to stare at them. The void retreated, just a bit, almost like it was giving Gordon space to listen.
And then it hit Dr. Coomer like a punch to the chest. He remembered all the times Gordon would reach up to touch his head, feeling around for something that wasn't there. Muttering to himself about some kind of simulation. And when the world dissolved, he was always asleep, and he was always the last one to disappear.
The void finally got to him, just as inescapable as the last time. But this time, as he was being ripped apart, he focused and looked as far into the void as he could stand. And for just a moment, so quick he almost missed it, his gaze slipped through a gap in the skybox and he saw it again. There was something out there, something beyond this fake world full of pain and suffering that Dr. Coomer had only just realized he was trapped in.
And Gordon could take him there.
By the fourth time Dr. Coomer went to sleep, he had a lot to think about.
Turns out his clones weren't as independent as he'd assumed. They must have been somehow affected by his distress, because they all decided to stage a fight against Gordon to try and escape this world through him. After waking up, he had just been wandering through Black Mesa trying to locate the others, when he felt each of his 300 clones die in the span of a few minutes. He was able to puzzle everything together pretty easily when he arrived at the gruesome scene.
It wasn't much of a bother to him, really. If his clones wanted to fight a man without an arm 300 to one, the cruel bastards clearly knew nothing of sportsmanship, so it was a good thing that Tommy got rid of them all. Convenient, too — he was getting rather tired of dealing with them himself!
At the moment, Dr. Coomer was lying on his back (ragdolled, his brain supplied) watching Gordon and Benrey argue over one trivial thing or another. He knew Gordon would tire of the conversation and go to sleep (end the simulation) soon, but he felt surprisingly calm about it. Maybe calm wasn't the right word — he felt like he'd accepted his defeat.
He hadn't been the one fighting Gordon, but he could feel the emotions of his clones as their power returned to him. All of that rage, and fear, and uncertainty... removed from the heat of the action, Dr. Coomer found it all so tiring. What was the point of causing a scene? It would end the same way no matter what he did — when Gordon decided to leave, Dr. Coomer would disappear along with the rest of it. And maybe that was alright.
Despite this internal resolution, Dr. Coomer still felt afraid as Gordon settled down. He may be used to the feeling of being ripped back into code by now, but that didn't make it any easier to bear.
So to distract himself, as Gordon fell into sleep, Dr. Coomer decided not to look at the encroaching void. Instead, he watched his friends' sleeping bodies. None of them had seen outside Black Mesa, so they seemed perfectly unaware of what happened to them every night. They all looked... so peaceful.
Gordon must have been really tired, because the void got to them in a few seconds. So Dr. Coomer turned his gaze to Gordon, the man at the epicenter of reality's dissolution. Now that he knew what to look for, it was almost painfully obvious that he wasn't real. His chest never moved when he breathed, and his movements were jerky and stilted. He looked more like a puppet than a real person, really.
Focused as he was on these unsettling details, he wasn't expecting it at all when Gordon's eyes opened and fixed directly on him.
Gordon stared at him for a moment, really looked at him, then gave him a little nod, regret in his eyes. Dr. Coomer smiled sadly and nodded back at him. A quiet understanding passed between them, in that moment before the void reclaimed Dr. Coomer.
Gordon apologized, and Dr. Coomer forgave him.
And then, before he knew it, everything was over. The Neo-Science Team defeated Benrey, and threw one last big party at Chuck E. Cheese for Tommy's 37th birthday. Gordon was finally crashing from his adrenaline high and looked just about ready to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, and Dr. Coomer couldn't blame him.
But... he didn't want to go just yet. He felt a real bond with Gordon, now. They'd been through hell and back together, and if that didn't forge lasting trust, what would?
So when the world started fading away for the last time, Dr. Coomer willed himself to hang on for just a moment longer. He wasn't sure if his programming would let him talk without glitching during the day, so he waited for the world to start disappearing before approaching Gordon and clearing his throat nervously.
When he started talking, he wasn't even sure if the sleeping man could hear him, but when he stirred and tilted his head slightly, he felt encouraged to continue. He hadn't exactly had the time to prepare a speech, so he just tried to be as honest as possible. At the end of the day, even after all the fear and anger and hopelessness, he really did trust Gordon. He trusted him to do what he could to help the science team, whatever that may be. Even if it was nothing.
"And I don't know what's going to happen to us once you exit the game for good, but I know we'll never forget you. I hope you won't forget us," he finished, smiling wistfully. Gordon swallowed, like he was holding back tears even as he was falling asleep.
"Well. This is where I get off." He couldn't delay things any longer. He'd gotten his message across, and it was time to go. But before he could give Gordon a proper goodbye, something happened.
The world... shifted, ever so slightly. And then the Science Team was there with them. Tommy, Bubby, Benrey, even Darnold and Forzen. And they were conscious.
"Well, this isn't my bed," Darnold observed.
"What — what's going on?" Tommy asked, worried. Everybody started voicing their concerns, glancing at the void — they could see the void now! — with varying levels of alarm. But they all quieted down when Gordon stood up and opened his eyes.
"Hey, guys," he said, with a small, hopeful smile.
"Gordon... Are you here to...?" Dr. Coomer was almost too afraid to voice his hopes, in case he was wrong. Those worries were proved unfounded when Gordon nodded, smiling wider.
"Did you really think I could just leave you all in here? After everything?" Dr. Coomer felt tears brimming in his eyes, and he scooped Gordon up into a tight hug, which the man returned, laughing.
"I don't know what the fuck is going on, but does this mean we get to go home?" Bubby piped up. Gordon let go of Dr. Coomer to grin at Bubby, shrugging a little.
"Weeeell, not exactly. I mean, technically, this will be the farthest from home you've ever been. But do you really want to go BACK to Black Mesa, after all that?" Bubby opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again to think, before finally shrugging and landing on "maybe you have a point. Whatever."
"hey. hey dude." Benrey walked up to Gordon and squinted at him. "what's goin on, man. did you just revive me? seems kinda, um, counterproductive. dunno what's wrong with you."
Gordon rolled his eyes and sighed. "Listen, I hate you, but I wasn't about to take everybody with me and just leave you behind. It would just plague my consciousness, probably, and you don't deserve to take up any of my brainspace, so. Don't think this means we're friends."
Benrey opened his mouth, probably to start another argument, but Gordon pushed him away. "Listen, I don't know how much time we have, so we gotta go now. I can answer all of your questions later."
"Mr. Freeman? Where are we going?" Tommy asked, still sounding worried. Gordon smiled at him, and started feeling around the side of his head, looking for something only he could see.
"We're getting out of here, Tommy. I'm going to set you all free." And then he flashed everybody a huge grin, pressed an invisible button on his ear, and the world went white.
The next time Dr. Coomer went to sleep, he had pleasant dreams.