"You didn't, um, change anything while you were patching me up, did you?"
The vortigaunt beside her paused in the act of recharging the Combine mounted gun. "Change?"
Alyx could feel a blush creeping up her face, even though she knew the vortigaunt probably wouldn't see or even understand it. "You know. Maybe linking a synapse that had been severed, that sort of thing." She trailed off, watching through the scope as Gordon emerged among the sheds and pipes below, a couple steps ahead of a fast zombie. She readied a shot, but he was quicker, knocking back the skinned thing with a swift kick and then firing both barrels of his shotgun into it. A second zombie rose up behind him, but this time Alyx had the shot lined up. At this rate, he'll be up on the other side soon, and then we can finally get to White Forest. Assuming the car on the other side works, and that he can get it over here . . .
The last zombie down, Gordon looked up toward her sniper perch and nodded to her, then stood there a moment, breathing hard. Alyx caught her own breath, thoughts of White Forest briefly forgotten.
"The Alyx Vance feels unwell?" It stepped back a pace, the glow between its forehands changing color.
"No, no, I'm fine, just . . ." Just feeling like a damn teenager all of a sudden. The Combine's reproductive suppression field was very good at its primary purpose; Alyx didn't know many people younger than her, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd heard of a birth, or even a child. But its secondary suppressive purpose was a little less overwhelming, especially when faced with adolescent hormones.
That had been the most awkward thing about growing up among a cadre of scientists-in-exile, and given that her makeshift extended family included Dr. Kleiner and Lamarr, there had been a lot of awkward to go around. She'd eventually hacked into the lab's comm system and sent a call to the auxiliary lab in what remained of New Mexico to ask the two women she knew who might have useful advice (since asking Mossman was and had always been out of the question). The doctors Green and Cross were sympathetic and helpful -- well, Dr. Green was sympathetic, and Dr. Cross had been helpful once she stopped laughing -- and they'd talked her through the worst parts of being an adolescent girl, suppression field or no. But even the distractions of raging teenage hormones faded as she grew up, and despite the sixteenth birthday present from the two doctors (heavily encrypted schematics for something called a Ladies' Little Helper, along with the note You're an engineer -- tweak it till it suits you, and have fun), she'd left most of that in the past and hadn't expected to have to deal with it again.
Until just a little while ago, on the elevator up to the resistance base. Still weak from the Hunter attack, she'd glanced over at Gordon to see him cleaning a smear of antlion gunk off his glasses. He'd put them back on, blinked a few times, and looked at her and whoa what the hell oh.
In the warren of storage containers and sheds below, the man who'd triggered such a response made his way past another pit of oily waste and into another nest of zombies. She took aim and fired, glad that her weapons training at least hadn't been affected.
After a moment, she realized the vortigaunt was still waiting for her to finish, patient as a statue. "I just feel a little more aware of certain things," she said. Like the line of Gordon's throat at the collar of his HEV suit, or the way his glasses slide down when he's concentrating on something, or how he moves when he's fighting . . . It wasn't that she hadn't noticed these things before, and she knew she'd already been getting very attached to the taciturn physicist, but these thoughts hadn't struck her with such, well, heat before. She shot another zombie before it could reach him, scanned around for more, and made herself stop watching him through the scope. You're here to snipe zombies for him, not check out his ass. "It's probably nothing."
The vortigaunt made a sound like a generator slowing down. "The Alyx Vance is physically unchanged. Our repairs were extensive, but to her existing pattern."
"Good to know." She relaxed her grip on the gun as Gordon balanced along a pipe, crouched, and jumped down. No way to help him past that wall, so now all she could do was wait and hope there weren't too many zombies on the far side.
"In terms of the vortessence, matters are . . . different."
"Different?" She glanced at it, then back through the scope at the far wall of the canyon, trying to judge where he would emerge. "Different how?"
It ducked away, concentrating on the mounted gun. "The life of the Alyx Vance has been woven with that of the Free Man," it said quickly, as if hoping she would accept it and move on.
Small chance of that, she thought. "And what does that mean?"
The vortigaunt gave an exasperated sigh. "It seems the Alyx Vance has not tired of this question."
Alyx grinned. One of her earliest memories was following around one of the first friendly vortigaunts through the makeshift lab that had been their home, asking "why?" and "but what does that mean?" for a good two hours, until the poor beleaguered alien picked her up and deposited her with her father, pleading "a dire need for respite." The vortigaunts, being vortigaunts, had shared that story among themselves almost immediately and associated that question with her ever since. "Nope. Care to go on?"
"Trrr . . . it is difficult to explain to one whose vortal inputs are so impaired . . . Each of you is now tethered to the other, keeping the two of you in this time and place. You are bulwarks against oscillation or seizure."
"You mean, we're both keeping each other alive?" That was . . . almost comforting, in a way.
The vortigaunt swung its head back and forth in something like a figure eight, neither yes nor no. "More than death seeks to draw the Free Man away."
"What does that -- sorry." She still didn't understand, not quite, but her father had always said the vortigaunts' mysticism had some echoes in quantum theory, so give her a few hours and some time to think clearly and she might be able to work out an explanation. And if whatever they did to heal me linked us in some way, maybe that explains why I'm suddenly very aware of him. Nothing to worry about.
A flicker of movement drew her eye: Gordon, climbing the ladder up from the canyon. There was a fresh smear of yellow zombie blood smeared over his arm, but he didn't seem to be hurt. "Good work!" she called. "You're almost to the car!"
He turned, adjusted his glasses, and waved. She waved back, even though he couldn't see her. Or maybe I fell for him a while back, and I'm only just noticing now.
The vortigaunt looked from her to the tiny figure now climbing the rest of the way up the ladder, then back to her. "The Alyx Vance is considering mating?"
"What? No, that's not -- I mean --" She peered out across the canyon, blushing furiously. "Can you see the car yet?" she called, hoping the vortigaunt would drop the subject.
It didn't. "It is an entirely natural reaction," it said, raising its forehands in a placating gesture. "The device of impulse suppression is now defunct, and such responses are to be expected."
Alyx let out a groan and rested her head against the gun, too mortified to even look at Gordon now. And I thought the time Dr. Kleiner tried to give me "the talk" was bad enough; now I've got a vortigaunt adding the "it's perfectly normal" bit as well.
She took a deep breath, trying to decide how best to say that this was none of the vortigaunts' damn business, but a crystalline noise shivered across the sky, followed by the concussive blue ripple of a portal storm. The gun rattled under her hand, and something fell behind them, but her attention was on the bridge, which lurched and creaked in protest, iron girders crumpling as gravity dragged them down to the canyon below. She bent to look through the scope again, searching for Gordon, praying he was all right.
There he was: next to the car they'd hoped to take, a bit nonplussed at the new situation. And his glasses had slipped down again. He tapped the back end of the car, then walked over to the closest edge of the bridge.
The vortigaunt made a rumbling noise not unlike someone clearing his throat. "Much is owed to the Free Man for destroying the device of impulse suppression. Indeed, this one has entertained hopes of setting out on a courtship journey once the task at hand is settled to the satisfaction of all. It is a frail hope, but one that sustains."
Alyx glanced at it, puzzled. "You mean you --"
"The device was not specific to humans alone. This one knows another, on the far side of the once-city, whose form and speech are most pleasing." It ducked its head at her amazed expression. "Reciprocation is a strong possibility."
"That's . . . really sweet." In the abstract, at least. "I hope you see her -- um -- that one again."
For a little while they stood in silence. On the shattered bridge, Gordon knocked a few more cars off the edge with the gravity gun, arranging the rest to his satisfaction. The bridge is broken in two places, Alyx thought absently, maybe he sees another path down, or he's constructing a new way across . . .
"Still," the vortigaunt said finally, "one suspects that were the Free Man apprised of the Alyx Vance's desires, he would attend to the matter most vigorously --"
"Okay, stop. Just stop that line of conversation right there." She shook her head. Congratulations, you've finally found something more embarrassing than Dad's teasing. The part of her that wasn't mentally cringing, though, watched Gordon's actions on the bridge with rising concern. He's not going to jump the gap, is he?
This was all ignoring her imagination, which had latched on to the phrase attend to the matter most vigorously and was quite happily visualizing just that.
"I can't think about this right now," she said aloud, ignoring the images her mind conjured up. "If we're going to get to White Forest, I can't afford to be distracted."
The vortigaunt made an extended shrug. "Indeed."
"And I'd really appreciate it --"
The roar of an engine echoed across the canyon, and she looked up to see that yes, Gordon was going to jump the car right over the gap, first onto the precariously tilted center of the bridge, then as that lurched further and cars began to slide, straight off the end and right onto the mine's loading dock. By the time she'd even thought to worry, he'd already reached the near side and emerged from the car, looking as if he couldn't believe he'd done it either.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to Gordon," she finished as he started to climb up to their level.
"Of course," it said, just as Gordon reached the control room behind them. She tapped on the glass, and he gestured to the car proudly before remembering that he had to open the door for them.
Can't think about it just now, she told herself again as they reached the car and said their goodbyes to the vortigaunt. Too much to worry about, too many things that can go wrong if we don't get to White Forest . . . but maybe later, when we both have a little room to breathe.
That's if we ever have room to breathe again. And if we don't get killed. And if, how'd the vortigaunt put it, if reciprocation is a possibility.
As the vortigaunt raised the gate, Gordon got in and glanced over at her. On impulse, she winked at him.
He blinked, and an astonishingly goofy grin -- the first real smile she'd seen on him since the Hunter attack -- spread over his face. Still grinning, he gunned the engine and hit the accelerator. Alyx whooped and hung on. Let's hear it for reciprocation.