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Barney probably drinks too much of it.

Black Mesa Area 3 Sector G Recreation Lounge has never run out of coffee. It will occasionally fail on cream or nondairy powder, sugar packets, and the scary artificial maybe-cancer that replaces them—it hardly ever stocks cinnamon or nutmeg—but there is always coffee to spare. In the spray-cleaner sterility of a place built to accomplish The Bizarre, there's this one vestige of normal life everyone makes room for. And he's beginning to think it's the only color they'll allow in here, apart from the crisply-pressed blue of his uniform. There are white ceramic mugs, white Styrofoam cups, white paper filters, white-handled pots that sit in white machines. There are white floors and white checkpoint rooms and white lab machines. There is the white glow of steel caught in overheads, the white shower stalls and the sort of off-white banana oatmeal Barney ate for breakfast. And God damn, are there ever white coats.

But at least these topflight men of science understood the importance of hot drinks during long, lonely shifts.

In his usual routine, Barney bit open a coffee pack, brushed away the spill, and dumped everything together. He poured in water and clumsily wiped the leftover sleep from his eyes, because there was nothing he could do about the blood vessels—about the dark circles, about the red iris shot around the brown. He set the pitcher in the brewer and punched ON. The chemistry of caffeinated beverages—that was the height of his science.

Barney perched himself on the counter edge, placed his helmet beside him, and waited for the bubbling to slow.

God, was he tired. Then again, he was always tired; early mornings and pacing nights were the heart-n'-soul of the Mesa Experience, and worse, HQ had dumped him on Blue Shift. They stacked his days back-to-back by bad luck of the draw. The money was better than Red Shift, but those fancy Lambda Research paychecks still didn’t feel like a whole helluva lot, to be honest, not given the Uncle Sam-approved bucks those Weapons Lab maniacs had to be raking in, and not when his temples were aching like a ten-car pileup between a migraine and a hangover. Nine-to-fiving it would've been a mercy. Just like Dolly sang it, hey? Six o'clock in the morning right now, fifteen minutes until the start of weekday hours, but it already felt like six PM.

That might have been in equal parts because Lauren played hooky from Area 8 Diner last night—afternoon, actually—to stay with him, or because Barney drank too much caffeine. The withdrawal kicked worst in his nose, his back, his tear ducts. He scrubbed his face with both hands, scratching through the close-cut hair behind his neck, peppercorn black. (Military shear was not the way he preferred to wear it, but dress regulations are what they are). This bulletproof vest—like any of these eggheads were going to shoot him—hugged in awkward spots, rumpling buttons, chafing beneath the armpits, flattening Kevlar and mesh across his chest. Fourteen-hour patrol today in Sector G. He'd feel his pulse throb against his boot heels by the end.

Barney waited with shut eyes and dangling toes. He pictured a woman's jacket hanging on the doorway and the dinner she was probably cooking right now. Lauren would've left by the time he hung up his glock and his radio to come home—chefs, too, know all about bullshit schedules—and truth be told, after Blue Shift, they were better off apart. But that said, the promise of three things pushed him on through these empty hallways: clean sleep shirt, Tupperware in the fridge, and a cool apartment ready for nothing else but dreaming.

It was tiny, dark, unspectacular apartment. But the sheets were wonderfully cold and the mattress was soft enough. Low subterranean temperatures and tinted windows kept out the New Mexican summer. The bed was a single, unfortunately, which meant Lauren made it uncomfortable through no fault of her own. But in her absence, there would be some kind of meat stew in the icebox and a few curly blonde hairs stuck to his pillowcase. It was a nice, though incomplete, thought.

When the timer finished, he'd sit there and drink. It's not the best coffee, not the worst. It's all right. Barney just took it black, anyway—first to save time (he tended to run a little late), then to wash away toothpaste or freeze-dried noodle aftertaste, and finally because he began to like the way it sat in his mouth. That lean bitter tang like mulch and machinery; probably had something to do with all the fluoride in the water, but he couldn't stay awake otherwise.

This job—the business of watching, doggedly and endlessly (sometimes aimlessly)—will age you quickly. They had him skulking these halls, his brain flooded with lemon cleaner fumes, at all hours; when he finally sat, it was to stare, unblinking, into the neon glow of a security screen. Time blurred all together down here. No sunlight, no windows, no arid ninety-degree breeze to ward off the chill of the omnipresent air conditioning. Who knew what kind of hazardous shit seeped in from the vents at midnight, or if radiation leaked up from the spit-polished tile? (Any kids in his future would probably have tails and extra arms.)

And this was all without mentioning the constant verbal abuse from every arrogant, overtaxed science team, and the paranoia of not knowing—but suspecting—exactly what went on beyond Level 5's Airlock Doors. Barney's eyes yawned into dark circles that hadn't been there when he'd first stepped, fresh-faced and anxious, aboard that transit platform two years ago. The murky gray had bled from them and turned his lids to smoke.

Barney drained his mug quickly, filled another, left the rest for whichever sap came stumbling in here for Red Shift. Wouldn't be so bad. He only had to make it until hour-six break. Then maybe he'd get some food or something—then a freezing shower, a turkey sandwich, another cup of coffee. That should keep him up until closing time. Long as he kept moving and focused hard enough, there'd be no danger of falling asleep.

Just had to keep his eyes open.

 


 

Nightmare:

The first thing you recognize is a strange taste in the air. It is cool, odd, poisonous, thin. You cannot put your finger on it. But it is there, certainly; the men beside you—Dr. Zajac and Dr. Anton, their clip-cards say—notice it, too. Their angry eyes and condescending comments unstitch. They stop bitching. They drop into silence as the metal tinks and taps overhead and you all take it in. That twang of wrongness is alive in every inhalation. This is what you will remember when the dream collapses on itself. This is the fragment you decide to take away.

The taste—or was it a smell?—comes even before the very first tremors. Bulkheads all around you rattle. It is chemical—something painful like road salt, then spearmint, then like sucking rusty nails between your back teeth. When you exhale, there is a weight in your lungs, a texture of suntan lotion. A frizzle tickles the hair up both your arms. It crackles like cellophane and electricity gone wrong. Nothing moves for a heartbeat in time.

Then the white lights of Mesa, an enormous place you barely know even though you've patrolled Area 3 for years, whine. It is not an idle sound, not a seen-in-nature sound, and when these couple of Weapons Lab freaks (who have spat shit at you all morning) say nothing, you can sense a shift. Something blinks open. Like an eye. Like a mouth.

You know it—suddenly, irrationally—but you do. You know it before the safety breaks fail, before any genius doctors do, before everything breathes out and falls. You can taste it in the oxygen all around you and it's not paranoia. It's real. Black Mesa is going to eat you.

You should wake up now.

 


 

Barney was generally too tired for dreams. Maybe he didn't have much of an imagination leftover after spending all day/night/day/night hopped up on bad coffee.

"You just don't remember them," Gordon informed him in that straightforward, brutally blunt tone of his that offended so many people around here. Barney was accustomed to it. "It doesn't have anything to do with imagination. It's REM sleep. Your recall would improve if you got more of it."

"Thanks, Dr. Nye," he'd remark, or something else cheeky, and go make another pot.

An upside of chronic fatigue was that, while Barney didn't remember his dreams, he didn't remember the nightmares, either. Once in a while, he'd jolt sweating up from a sound sleep with no idea why. Sometimes he could almost coax out brief images of falling, of his body breaking on the illusion of ground. But they evaporated quickly, disintegrating from existence, never enough to genuinely frighten him. Bad dreams were a very limited thing in his experience. All you had to do was wake up—open your eyes, idiot—and time would reverse, the what-ifs disappearing one-by-one until the world was exactly the way you knew it to be.

Except Barney's eyes were open on May sixteenth, 2003. And nothing was like it should have been.

 


 

Nightmare:

There is something like a snap-freeze when the initial quake trembles Black Mesa. Everything gets bitter and breathing stings. Might be radiation or the resonance itself, snaking through tunnels, multiplying its disaster. You will have to leave that question to smarter men. You know only that the cold sucks through your sternum, death wrapping fingers around your heart. Something groans deep below, stopping the air in the shaft. Dr. Anton grabs the elevator wall.

"That sounded like it came from Anomalous—"

Boom.

Impact two. A second shake and everything changes. It’s not cold anymore, not humming with filtered air and fans, but hot—unbearably, bone-soaking hot, a flush of sickness ricocheting from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet. You stagger. Your chest begins to tighten with the instincts of animals about to die.

Boom.

The tremors don't stop this time. The space between them dwindles as the ground many floors beneath you begins to smoke, filling the shaft. It's like Hell down there. The black center's where the Devil lives; who said so; how do you know that? It gets louder and louder and louder until your fine hairs all stand up, your stomach lunges into your throat, your gravity leaps for the ceil—

You fall.

You fall.

You fall.

To the center of the end of the world.

 


 

Barney never remembered his dreams. But it was easier to remember how he felt when the dreams were bad ones, and easier still to shake them away when he was awake.

"You drink too much," Gordon told him abruptly one morning as he slogged home, lukewarm mug in hand.

They passed each other right here, right now, in Tram Corridor 3C12 almost every day, he and Freeman. Barney would be trudging back for some shut-eye with droopy lids and infant stubble as his higher-paid, better-educated pal clipped to work toting a mess of folders beneath the one arm and breakfast in his other. Things ticked like clockwork in Black Mesa. They never ran more than a few seconds early or a couple more late. (Excepting Barney himself, anyway.)

"I'm strapped, smartass; I'm not drunk." He was well-aware of his eyes, bloodshot yellow, and his face, chin unevenly dark. These tram walkway lights were too bright. Barney patted his holster with one palm and gestured with the cup. "Just beat. Lieutenant Pavelko made me pull a double, son-of-a-bitch. I'm about to hit the floor."

"I meant coffee. It's not good for you," Freeman noted, one brow arched. He looked like an elementary school teacher all of a sudden. Math, probably—it was a funny image, Gordo with ballpoints stuck in his pocket, grading long division. Barney snorted and waved him off a second time.

"Yeah. Pissin' Pavelko off ain't good for me, either."

Gordon Freeman reminded him of a character off the Muppets reruns Grandma Rose made all five Calhoun boys watch as kids. Red hair, weedy-tall, bit nasal—always ended up button-push boy for his senior scientists in AnMat. Narrow face, textbook nerd glasses, made his nose swell where the cushions sat. Didn't make friends so easily. Kind of a doormat, if you'd ask Barney, but nobody did, and it wasn't his prerogative to make physicists form spines. "Heyo, Beaker," he'd call out, too tired for much conversation, slug Gordon in the shoulder enough to hurt but not to knock him down. His answer would be a micro-smile and speedy quarter-nod, Freeman's cheeriest "hello." It wasn't much. Yet the small daily exchange seemed like enough to sustain their friendship until off-hours lined up—which, admittedly, wasn’t too often since Barney signed on Blue Shift.

"Take a weekend off,” Freeman told him, sniffing. “You look like shit."

"To be honest, I could use the extra work. Blew my Christmas bonus riding the roller coasters," Barney joked. The "amusement park" in Area 10 (neither of which existed) was a running gag between guards, who told tall tales to new scientists. He couldn’t decide whether he should be snider about the roller coaster thing or the joke of a notion that Black Mesa might actually dole out holiday raises. In truth, he'd spent most of his last paycheck on a root canal that left him slurring and tonguing for days. A facility dentist had given him gauze to bite down and ebb the blood. Didn't want to take off the rest of a perfectly good workday, so he'd stuck one in, cheek dry, and headed to duty looking like a fat-faced chipmunk who lost a brawl. The guys on Red Shift had a field day with that one.

"Sleep debt," Freeman warned.

"Yeah, yeah."

"All right. You're going to faint."

And Barney had once, walking the Sector H wait station by himself some dim night on a double-shift not unlike this one. He'd had a massive head cold but no sick days free. Probably should have just begged someone else to cover, but Lauren had a birthday coming up, so he rolled himself out of bed and sunk his face in cold water until looking remotely human again. And in the middle of his work night, he’d blacked right out, a ten second blink; woke up breathing in bleach on the spotless floor. Barney had cussed, brushed off, and kept going—little embarrassed, little frazzled, and glad nobody but the cameras saw.

It was anyone's guess how Gordon managed to maintain status quo like he did after so many months working in this centrifuge of a place. Dr. Freeman had been sticking on his ID card and lancing to Area 3 every weekday morning for almost a year longer than Barney had. Never stepped off his train looking bright-eyed or bushy-tailed, really—not fresh or eager—but always alert, fast-walking and ready for what needed to be done.

Where Beaker got all that energy from was a mystery, but there he'd be every 7:10 AM sharp: tie tied, coat relatively clean, prepared for the next radioactive spill his superiors sent him swimming through.

Gordo was an incurable goddamn morning person, and to tell you the truth, it kinda got to annoying Barney right about now.

"What I'm going to do is go home and get some dinner. Breakfast," he corrected. Freeman eyed him skeptically with his own liquid breakfast in hand. He was always chugging back these weird seaweed concoctions that smelled like mowed lawns and maybe pineapple. "Energy drink," he'd answered when Barney once asked, blinking behind the reflection of his glasses. The cup's contents looked more like mutant snail puke.

"A real person's breakfast," Barney cut in before Gordon could interject, nose wrinkled, disgusted in the spirit of keeping that joke alive. "With actual food."

If he found the assessment funny, Freeman didn't smile. He hardly ever smiled, and even then, it was an awkward, mean-spirited twitch rather than a proper grin. Rarer still were the laughs. The man was serious by nature, and his humor came dressed up in poker-faced tones. But you could tell, if you knew Gordon—and you probably didn't; but if you did—that he was kind of grinning on the inside. Most of what looked like meanness—that is, if you didn't know Gordon—he meant in an admiring way. "This is actual food. It's NADH, two grains, shot of licorice, blackberries. It's more food than coffee. You really want to stay awake, you'd reconsider it, too. Caffeine is weak. And it will kill you."

"Maybe pancakes," he added distractedly. Warm plate, little margarine, lot of maple syrup. He didn't bother cutting or slicing or any of that. He drowned them in it.

Gordon blinked and thumbed the oversized glasses back to his forehead. "Pussy."

Just to screw with him—half out of spite, half out of friendliness—Barney stepped onto the tram, twisted around in that foggy Lambda logo safety window, stuck up his middle finger and took back the biggest quaff of coffee he could manage. It burned his mouth as the car pulled away.

And he was asleep long before pancakes, or before making it home.

 


 

"Wake up, kid," a voice tells you. Wake up.

Come back.

 


 

Nightmare:

You are still alive.

You are still alive. You have been running and creeping and walking through these halls for some time now, but you are awake, and you are still alive. You are starting to have difficulty keeping your hands from shaking, difficulty aiming the regulation glock that never leaves your sweaty palm. Hands always look funny in dreams—hadn't Gordon told you that?—and whenever you glance down, there yours are, are pale and quaking, stained with vent grime and strange acid and the blood of broken-off thumbnails. You can hear every screw and sliding part in the sidearm and it sounds like so much more noise than it is.

Funny that even in a bad dream, you still feel the need to keep breathing.

"Stop it," you tell both hands (beg them). Your back teeth grind and your neck aches. Your sleeves are short and your armor is cracked. Your face is itchy and there's a numb spot beneath the bruise on your broken cheekbone, cracked by a broken lift. "Just stop it, will you?" But they don't.

Which could be bad. You probably wouldn't've noticed how long this dream has lasted—time, too, goes to nonsense in sleep—except you pass a working lobby clock and see May 20. It was May sixteenth when you sprinted in late for Blue Shift. May sixteenth when two asshole scientists from the Weapons Lab yelled you into their stalled elevator. May sixteenth when latches broke and sirens screamed and every auxiliary safety measure failed. You have been like this since then: alive, moving, always pushing, not certain the direction was forward. You just assumed it was still all the same day.

Come back, an echo howls behind you, but you don’t, because it isn't real. You’ve heard it pealing behind every corner, under every rubble pile, and you’ve run to check a dozen times. Because you have to. Because it's your job. But because changes very little in this maze; priority lists and safety designations have dissolved; personnel files have been lost under miles of thick earth. It's all draining down the sieve to the Devil now. There is no one and nothing to find or save.

Maybe you’re imagining things. Maybe it's just the reverb of your voice, your own cries for help—maybe you echo in somebody else's ear now, too. There were other people alive in Mesa once; real people, like you; you can remember their bright-eyed bodies running by you way, way down there at Ground Floor, where you landed when the tremors hit, that first second after the egg of the world turned black and broke open. They left you there, those real people. They left you stuck beneath a collapsed elevator, in that greasy metal and that raw blood and that torn-up human meat. And now come back is stuck inside your head.

You keep walking. You have to.

"Spit that out of your mouth, Calhoun," Lt. Pavelko had gruffed at the practice range one evening, a long time ago, spooking you in your single stall, his words dulled by earmuffs. You tend to bite your bottom lip when you're lining up a shot—bad habit, unconscious tick. You over-focus, you see, on the pistol hammer at the far reach of your arm. "Makes you look like a fucking princess. Do that with a Twelve and you're going to put teeth through it."

You remember this advice when—halfway down a hallway with no plaster, white-knuckling a Spas 12—you realize that funny-tasting slickness in your mouth is not spit.

You found your new gun—a better, heavier gun than lightweight six-shooters—just a moment ago. The weapon is full and was lying only steps away from your former superior's corpse. It looked like the others: bloated belly, skeletal digits, head bulging inside a wet tan balloon. Blood and drool rolling down his shirt buttons. It all suggested death, but you knew better by then. Pavelko, said the breast badge. Pavelko was not breathing; Pavelko was not Pavelko, anymore; but the monster replacing that frowning, wolverine face of his was very much alive.

Headcrabs (as you’d learn to call them later) remind you morbidly of pimples—fat, slippery tick bodies, claws like ice picks. Oh, they’re killable, all right; their tough flesh bursts like grapeskin when you step on one. You’ve lost count of how many you’ve killed since crawling out of the wreckage near AnMat Processing. They are something from a nightmare. You have never been so scared of anything in your life.

Four leftover rounds in a nine millimeter wouldn't down the Not-Pavelko; your arms were shaking too badly for precision. Instead, you lunged forward and grabbed for his dropped weapon, praying its barrel was full of slugs. They clacked weightily inside. You twisted around just as the abomination lurched up, pointed the muzzle at its charging body.

You froze, sucked in your breath, squeezed. BANG. A burst of gunpowder, a bee sting suddenly at your face. Buckshot splattered the foul gelatin crab off and into a wall. There were no brains left inside, just a mulchy stem scarred by alien beak. Not-Pavelko collapsed and spit scarlet across scuffed linoleum. The smear of headcrab was not identifiable anymore.

You stood back up, pistol at your hip, the Twelve filling your fingers. It fits all right there, does not complain about the ownership change. But you do not remember that your mouth hurts until you are halfway down another corridor and you look down to where drops of red plink between your shiny black boots.

Your swollen lower lip wears three leaking toothmarks. There is blood on your tongue and a shotgun in your hands.

You hold it tightly, and pray to wake up.

 


 

"Wake the hell up, kid," Smarz snorted when he ran in that morning of May sixteenth, watching Barney's soles leave skid marks across Area 3 Entrance Lobby. He'd skittered around the front desk and almost forgot to check-in.

Smarz didn't look sympathetic behind thin glasses and under balding blond. His head creases deepened. "You're on thin ice with the lieutenant, bucko. Thin ice. So if you don't want your name coming up for a pay dock, you'll shake it off and show up on time tomorrow."

"I know; I'm sorry; I pulled a late tour yesterday, and my tram was—" Detained. He'd been preparing an excuse. But Barney left out the fact he'd actually been early until forty minutes ago—when, waiting on another pot of break room coffee, he nodded off at his table, the ceramic mug a warm spot in one large hand. He'd jolted awake fifteen minutes past check-in. Shit was all there'd been time to say.

"I don't really care," Smarz informed him, twisting in his chair to check CALHOUN, B. into the computer with a nonchalant frown. The man always looked like that when he scolded you—like it was no big deal, no skin off his ass. He glanced at Barney's rough face, the uneven shirt collar, the uncombed tousle of black beneath his helmet insulation. Needed to get it cut soon; didn't really have time. Needed to shave; forgot. Needed to get a weapon checked out and haul his carcass to patrol before anyone else noticed him missing… "If you can't make a shift, don't sign up for it. No one on this floor gives a damn if you volunteered for overtime last night. And I, personally, have no interest in your chronic transportation issues."

"Yes, sir. I'm really—" Sorry.

"Save it for Allison. She's the unlucky SOB we've got covering you." He tapped something into a text box. Barney didn't like how hard his fingers smacked those keys. Smarz closed it before he could get a good look, but a half-assed look was enough; Barney's heart plunged; the bold black letters DISCIPLINA snapped away, leaving him chomping on his tongue because if he wasn't in pain, he'd have dropped his head onto the counter like a kid with Saturday detention and whined. "Go report for small arms and then double-time it down to Sector G. Some coats from Weaponry are complaining the staff elevator's out. They've got heavy equipment with them. You either patch up that console or you're trucking it downstairs yourself, capish?"

'I'm not a maintenance guy,' he wanted to protest—nearly did, too—but the reminder of how easily badges are replaced dampened his sassier self. So, keys jingling on his belt and helm strap digging his neck skin, Barney did what he always did. He followed somebody's orders. He tried to fix things. He tried to clean up the mess, even the messes above his pay-grade.

Luckily, there were always messes in places like Black Mesa, and always people who wanted things fixed.

May sixteenth—the day he'd been called to repair that elevator, almost an hour late for his shift—Gordon passed him just outside the guest computer lab in Sector G.

"Morning," he said, serious voice, striped tie, a skeptical kink in his brow. Classic Freeman. He was the first one to say it to Barney today. And Barney had worked so much this week, he wasn't completely sure if that was Gordo's idea of a joke or if it really was a proper daylight morning.

He couldn't slow down. Barney jogged by, his sleepy eyes and padded armor disrupting the white tiles. Should've been sprinting, but he was too tired; he couldn't make his legs move faster; he felt each footfall weaken the muscle from ankle to knee. Everything seemed heavier than usual. There might have been a thunderstorm churning outside, soaking some good old-fashioned Southwest humidity through miles of bedrock. With the trams out, Barney must've run a mile of rail by now.

"Can't talk; slept-in; long story!" His holster bounced and there was a chestpiece clasp he didn't quite get shut between his shoulder-blades. Should've asked Smarz if he had anyone closer to do this dumb job (like a maintenance guy), but it was probably some sort of punishment.

"I'm sure." Beaker was on his way to the HEV tanks with printer-warm paper under one arm and a keychain dangling around the other.

Barney stopped only long enough to snap suck it, Freeman and catch his breath. There was a considerable jog still ahead of him. He hunkered forward with his palm heels on his kneecaps and puffed for air. It was these vests' fault—hugged too tight, couldn't expand your damn lungs in them. Stupid helmet had jostled around and pushed a red line along his forehead.

"Are you getting fat?" Gordon asked, distracted by his clipboard, gesturing to a nearby water machine. Barney smashed the button to fill a paper cup and downed it. Cold nothing washed the taste of stale coffee from his cheeks. "Thought they made you people do fitness tests every once in a blue moon."

"Fuck… you."

"Verbal aggression towards science staff. I could report you," Freeman observed, barely bothered to look. He had the ugliest pair of glasses known to man—horn-rimmed, black, military-issue, lenses so thick you could hardly see the green of his eyes—but broke them too often for anything else. Last ones slipped right off his face and into a turbine. Dr. Kleiner was really pissed off about glass in his machines, too, so Gordon said—even told him to "rubber-band those things on or get the hell away from my equipment." Barney laughed about that one for awhile.

"I could put my boot this far up your ass. Where are you going? Area trams are out."

"Suit up. Running some tests."

"Yeah." With a last huff and wipe of his brow, Barney straightened up. He drank another cupful of water. He stretched his back. He scratched beneath the ridge of helmet sitting just where his ears met scalp. "Listen, real quick before I got to go. Did your HQ say anything about drills today?"

Gordon thought about it for a millisecond. "No. Why?"

"Dunno. Just…" He cringed. "Got sort of a funny feeling. One of those days, I guess."

Freeman eyed him over his notes with a quiet amusement. Barney hadn't noticed when he reached over and clicked the top notch on his neck piece closed. Not until later—much later—the latest later—when shrapnel was bouncing off cement walls and jet engines sawed through the empty, open desert sky.

"Late nights are getting to you, sheriff."

"Yeah," Barney agreed, gulped one more mouthful of air, and that was all there was to say. Had to go now. Time to move. "I'm off. See you when I see you, man."

Dr. Freeman was already halfway down the hall and back to his data by the time he answered. Remembering the image of that white lab coat walking away towards Anomalous Materials was like remembering the last flick of sunlight of the very last day. "Goodbye, Barney."

Goodbye.

Barney Calhoun had someone looking after him all his life. He had never been as alone as he was that dark-skied May sixteenth, when a handful of brilliant men and blue rock destroyed the world.

 


 

When Barney was a kid—maybe nine or ten—living out in southwest Nebraska, he and his brothers had this game. They'd all cram onto Uncle Dan's battered gray ATV, age eating the metal away 'round its oversized wheels, and hit the foothills spinning loops. Usually it'd be Robin or Joel driving while Cameron, Jake, and him clutched the seat rails as tight as small hands clammy with sweat could. Safety was no issue back then, when a child’s too alive to understand he can die. They flipped it over at least three dozen times. They were stupid boys—lucky boys, too, considering no one had broken his back. Half that vehicle would lift off the ground with every sharp turn, flatten sloppy figure-eights through the crabgrass. Every stone bounced them high. Gasoline reeked through the faint texture of exhaust. The motor choked and growled. Dust and grasshoppers and plant stickers would be flying every which way, painful sometimes—dirt got in his eyes, his sweater, his nostrils—but they kept going faster and kept clinging on. That was the whole objective, start to finish: try to hold on longer than everyone else.

Barney never won their game. There would always be a feint, a squealing twist, a hole he hadn't anticipated, and the bar would break his fingers away, and he'd fall free.

Little later, when Barney was more like fourteen or fifteen, it'd be Joel's rusted-out red Ford pickup—all five of them good and drunk (especially Joel)—nothing but sundown and burnt wheat and heat-cracked old road, driving who the hell knows where. He'd be sitting shotgun with his elbow hanging out, his three brothers in the flatbed. Eldest drove, youngest got the one functional seatbelt. There were more cows and cornfields than cops or cars. God, they all looked exactly alike, few years apart between each one. Stupid boys, lucky boys, howling themselves hoarse on bad beer and honky-tonk songs. The game was different now, making them allies instead of rivals, but its rules were still blissfully simple: keep running, keep going farther, until they lost the asphalt or found their way home.

 


 

Nightmare:

The first AnMat scientist you find is face-down in a pool of saliva. Dr. Ahdia Saeed, PhD. It looks like a gas line explosion killed her. She was lucky. You pull off her name tag and stick it in the backpack you’ve taken for another time, a time when families might want to know.

You step around the dead woman's blood pool and keep walking, keep going, hold on.

 


 

Dumb boys. Not a one of them had any sense. Everybody said so. They knew that, and they were proud of it, even when their antics grew so outlandish that Mom raised her bowed auburn head to tell them exactly what she thought. Barney could remember the silent scowls she'd save for Robin—who was two years older than Cameron, who was fourteen months older than Jake, who was eleven months older than little Barnard (their list went on and on). Rob was always the smartest one, the one they called "chicken shit," the one who figured out how real death was when he'd carried home a stray terrier and Dad broke open its head with the same hammer he'd just used to nail shingles on their tool shed.

Rob got scared pretty frequently when they played these games, first on Uncle Dan's four-wheeler and then in their beaten-down truck, but Barney never worried. He couldn't remember if Joel was truly that ace behind a wheel or if he'd just been too young and too stupid to care. Didn't matter in the end, though, because they never got caught and they never crashed. He'd been so sure they wouldn't, couldn't, he would fidget under the belt leather cutting his neck and reach to unclick, to stretch farther, to lean out and feel breeze ripping through his fingers. But Joel, somehow managing to keep the front tires straight—melting grin and cheap booze and firstborn—never let him take it off. He'd just laugh, Dad a hundred times less bitter, and smack him, and screw up his shaggy mess of black hair.

"Stupid crazy," Robin used to say when the pedal stomped down and they'd swerve to miss deer gunning across the backroads.

Stupid, Joel would hoot, or crazy. And then he'd slam the horn and scatter the does and spin them all around and around and around until the pain and the poor and the booze blurred together like a snowstorm. Or a dream.

 


 

Nightmare:

The second AnMat scientist you find has a bullet in his lung. Nine millimeter, regulation glock, Mesa Security-issue, smashed right through the breastbone. Its angle makes suicide improbable.

You check for a heartbeat, anyway, and then you leave him there, leave your red handprint pressed beside the execution wound. Sorry, you tell him—not because he's lost, but because somebody found him, and it wasn't you. Dr. Sasha Popov, PhD. His name clinks in the bottom of your burlap bag.

 


 

Once, a long time ago when he was in the third grade and nothing mattered, Barney stepped on a water snake. He fell down shrieking his big brother’s name.

Joel didn't know shit about first-aid, but he picked Barney up right off the lakeshore—knee-high in mud, fishing poles forgotten—and he ran his ass to the highway, Rob and Jake and Cameron huffing to keep up through the aspen trees. A postal van pulled over for them and drove everyone to the county hospital. It turned out to be a dry bite from a half-dead copperhead. He could remember how hard Joel was breathing, how he screamed for that car to stop, how the pain and sunlight and hilly forest got lost in one another. Some kids wanted to grow up and become their fathers, but Barney's father was a mean son-of-a-bitch who had little for them outside belittling jokes and whatever blunt objects were in reach, so he always wanted to be Joel.

 


 

Nightmare:

The third AnMat scientist you find stands up, moaning, and tries to rip your face off with sickle-branch claws. You do not check for a name tag on this one. It's better not to know.

 


 

Joel wouldn’t let him be too stupid. Just some, he required. Only enough to be a person.

"Sit'own, Chuckles," was all that needed saying whenever the Barney-that-was would move to take off that safety belt, tilt too far on the ATV, stand under wicked black funnel clouds and like feeling wild. "Use your head, you one-can drunk. You got too much living left to die like a moron. Come back and—"

Joel was a worthless alcoholic—he knew that now—didn't work, didn't try to get better, didn't do much of anything. Nobody talked about him or wrote to him or called to ask how he was doing. Nobody really wanted to know anymore. But God, Barney loved him so much, and the thought of never seeing that dumb, grinning face again horrified him like nothing else.

On May sixteenth, 2003, Barney made a decision. The trams were all out. The electricity overloaded and spiked erratically. The smells were noxious and rancid and diseased. Thirty-four hours into the City of Dis, he had hiked to that same Area 3 Entrance Lobby, every screen blaring an alarm code, making his eyes wince shut from the light and exhaustion. He had balanced his shotgun against a shoulder, typed with one hand, and he'd read.

There were sixty-eight scientists scheduled to work that day in Black Mesa's Anomalous Materials Department. Barney did not recognize most of them. All of them were Dr., Dr., Dr. Dr. Ahdia Saeed. Dr. Sasha Popov. Dr. Adam Boulanger. Dr. Bailey Michael. PhD.

Twenty-seventh down, unremarkable, white lettering against incandescent blue:

Dr. Gordon Freeman, PhD
BLACK MESA ID 1158014
Security Clearance Level 3-d
Clock IN: 07:12
Clock OUT: -
Area Designation: Test Lab C33/a.

Ground Zero. He had been there, at the Devil's eye. He had been inside the center of Hell where it opened. There was no way he could have survived.

Barney Calhoun had neither a Dr. in front of his name nor a PhD after, but he'd known the man who pushed the cart. He had known Gordon Freeman, the man who flipped a switch and introduced the end of it all.

He copied the names and sent them to the printer and tore out a long, warm page. He found a ballpoint in a desk cup. He fished out the name tags in his backpack. And he scratched them off, one-by-one. Dr. Ahdia Saeed. Dr. Sasha Popov. Dr. Isadora Chavez. Dr. Suzanne Le.

He looked at the names that were left.

Dr. Kaelan Goldsmith. Dr. Elijah Vance. Dr. Isaac Kleiner. Dr. Mahmoud Shamoun. Dr. Howard Rosenberg.

Dr. Gordon Freeman.

PEA-AYCSH-DEE, Barney used to holler when they'd split a six-pack outside the dead Area 8 arcade on deader Saturdays, acting drunker than he had a right to be, tossing their cans one-by-one off the rails.

When he'd drink too much, Dad used to tell Barney the future. "You're nothing," he'd slur. It was one of his moods, nothing—only had two, and the other was asleep. "You ain't come from something then you're never going to be something." Maybe his prophecies were somethings, though, because Barney hadn't become much. He never pushed too far, never bothered finding out what his limits were. It was too hard; too much trouble. He was not an ambitious man. He couldn't fix this.

But he was going to find a better man—a man who could fix it; who could turn this madhouse backwards; who could get the world making sense again—and he was going to wake him up, and he was going to protect him, and Barney Calhoun was going to get him out of this nightmare alive.

He tapped his pen on Gordon Freeman until it disappeared in blue snowfall. He could not scratch it out. Instead, it lay there, softly, buried under the dark spots. Sleeping through the middle of the dream.

 


 

Nightmare:

The last scientist you find will stand up in a rust-red cargo car and call out: "Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I'm human! Come back!"

 


 

"Barney? Barney. Barnard James Calhoun, you'd better be faking it."

Sunglow curls over his face and fingers in his ribs when he'd startle awake, too suddenly to see rightaway. She always seemed two parts annoyed and one amused when he'd fall asleep mid-sex. The dark room would hide his dark circles, but the rotation of fan blades above his shitty box-spring would lull him unconscious. There would be a moment of confusion until he could remember where he was. Most of the time it would happen in the thirty second window of unsnapping a bra or zipper; his leg would slump, his hand get inordinately heavy on her head, his breath would escape too slow. She would come out of the bathroom or stop kissing his stomach. She wouldn't be mad. She wear a snappy look to hide her deflating smirk; she'd say for real? For real, Barney? I know you're faking it.

And Barney would never be faking it, but with sleep in his eyes and a bleary grin, he'd always pretend that he had.

Lauren was the kind of girl you married. Not him, but somebody would. She was a little older than Barney, thirty-two to his twenty-three, and it made him suspicious at times, wondering if she was a creep, if this was some sort of mommy game. But eighty percent of the time, he didn't really care. They hardly ever fought. They drank the same kind of beer. She called him "kiddo" and accused him of needing a bib; he called her "my old lady" and asked if she needed help crossing the street. He was keenly aware that working in this place probably made his face look older than it really was.

Lauren really fucking hated Gordon, though. Most people tended to fucking hate Gordon.

"My God, the man cannot stand me," she'd whisper after they'd head home from that pub in Topside Area 6, Barney pleasantly Guinness-drunk, arm slung over her shoulder. Funny that he'd met his girl through Gordon, that Breaker had known her first, and that she’d soured so quickly on the white coat she used to call shy, sheepish, cute and now calls cold, condescending, rude.

Dr. Freeman went into Area 8 Diner Thursday mornings, when the place was really dead, to finish paperwork and eat in a quiet corner booth. Ordered the same stupid blueberry muffin every time—paper napkin, tap water, nothing else. That was Beaker, all right. Poor Lauren mistook this for depression; she started trying to chat him up whenever he'd slink in there, his posture awkward and insectoid, her presence careful and sunny. Hilarious to think about now, of course: babe in a turquoise apron and pink lipstick, annoying Gordon with attempts to be friendly.

"She tried to get in my poor buddy's pants," Barney would happily explain when asked how they met, grab the pink flesh of her cheek between two fingers—get socked in the abdomen, shoved, whacked with whatever was in Lolly's hand. It was only funny because it was true.

Sometimes you had to wonder if that's why Freeman arranged for them to bump into one another—if he genuinely thought they'd hit it off, or if he just wanted to get a pretty, too-talkative woman off his back. Gordo's loss. He’d spoken only a few courteous, precursory, circumscribed words to Lauren before inviting him to breakfast one day, intoning he'd met someone Barney would like.

Gordon was right, though. He did like Lauren. She was foul-mouthed in a friendly way, tank-tops and pajamas, soft arms and an hourglass silhouette, smelled like cloves. They went on a pathetic double-date once—he and Lolly, Gordon and Dr. Gina Cross—to some misty, watered-down Area 6 bar set in old-fashioned bronze. It was their unofficial three-month anniversary. Barney had needled Freeman for weeks about inviting the Hazardous Environment Supervisor out, and this created an excuse.

God knew why he had given Gordon such a hard time about Cross. Maybe because he hoped someone could loosen Freeman's threadbare personality up for a change, make him play normal male once and a while. Maybe it's because Barney knew Cross, and spent enough regular work time with her to figure they'd get on. (She had—and he swears this is true—once referred to Gordo as "that hot redhead from AnMat.") Or maybe it was simply because Barney was happy, and it irritated him somehow: that his first (here) and best (anywhere) friend would not or could not share in that happiness.

But because Barney had bitched and prodded, Freeman caved. Neither scientist looked particularly enthusiastic about their date; their chatter inevitably turned to research notes or test samples. It was no use. They'd ordered a few drinks, hovered around the booth a while, left it open. Then they'd sort of dissolved apart. Freeman dissected a bowl of chips while Cross complained about the Red Shift team mucking up her training course. Barney and Lauren retreated to the embarrassingly vacant dance floor. They spent their whole night this way, half-dancing, swaying back and forth with his arms around Lauren's waist, chin on her shoulder, almost like sleep.

Operation Freeman-Cross failed. Not explosively—just petered out before the fumbling effort ever got a root in ground. Gina's "hot redhead" inquiries got too politically correct after a while. And Barney felt a little guilty about forcing the issue, a little angry that Beaker blew a charity break, a little useless in that he could not repay the favor Gordon had done for him. People sort of felt like Freeman looked at them as if they were something growing in a Petri dish.

"Aw, Lolly. That's just Gordon. He likes you fine."

"I think he's maybe had three conversations with me. Three conversations in… how long I've been holding you up?" Some five months now. "And the deepest confession I've ever gotten from him—the craziest he's gone in my presence!—was 'I don't really like seafood; can we go someplace else?' He thinks I'm a total idiot," Lauren'd complain, laughing a bit, honest resentment beneath the grin. "Maybe if I'd met him with a PhD under my arm and not some potholders. Must be all he thinks I do: puff pastries and suck you off."

"Come on. Gordon's not like that," he’d protest halfheartedly.

"How the hell do you even know what he's like? I can get more dialogue from a toaster."

Which was why most people tended to fucking hate Gordon. Barney tried to explain: Freeman wasn't a nut to be cracked, silent as a challenge, or to be off-putting. It's just how he was. You either got it or you didn't. In his experience, most people didn't get Gordon, and Gordon was probably fine with that.

He didn't seem to want many friends. Funny, because Barney always seemed to have plenty of them. "Friends," anyway—guys that gave him a hard time, old triggers-on-loan, pistol-jockeys—whose raunchy jokes he laughed uneasily at, never positive whether the mockery was good fun or if they sat around shit-talking him in the break rooms afterwards. But they were people to drink, snicker, and bitch about potbellied bosses with. Fair-weather jackasses were better than nothing, at least, for him.

Dr. Freeman had colleagues, heroes (Isaac Kleiner), scolds (Arne Magnusson), a mentor (Eli Vance—the single, solitary AnMat guy who'd ever said "please" or "thank you" to security when they'd bypass stuck doors). But when it came to friends, Barney felt pretty sure he was the only one Gordo had.

Maybe it was a little weird, yeah. Gordon was creeping up on forty and there wasn't a whole hell of a lot some twenty-three-year-old kid could seriously offer him in terms of intellectual stimulation or life wisdom. But Barney knew what it was like. He'd been a weirdo once, too: rumpled clothes, unspectacular grades, vague pot smell on his old patchy bomber coat. Not a troublemaker; just not a star. Made the football team freshman year of high school, but got kicked off one semester later, not because he'd quit but because he'd stopped going to practice. Didn't like the way those guys talked to each other and never seemed able to make friends with them. Didn't like sitting in college, either, but had nowhere better to be. Too lazy to shave most of the time. Little unkempt. He was a lightweight clown so people would like him, but unnoticeable apart from that.

Two years of that was enough to make this whole academia thing seem useless. He'd managed an Associate's, then immediately dropped class and and picked up a job for campus security; worked freelance, too, in parking lots, automobile shows, then full-time at Don-Savine Corporate. Barney wasn't sure how exactly how he ended up at Black Mesa. Someone's recommendation, a stupid award from City Hall ("heroism," which was a laugh), and a recommendation from somebody at Martinson Alumni Center. Lambda Research had a prodigious turnover rate; with these hours, it wasn't hard imagining why.

He probably should be making different friends, too, when you put it that way. Younger and stupider friends; friends with DUIs; friends who wanted to hit the city and pick up chicks and get white boy wasted. Barney hadn't picked up a chick in his life. He always had work in the morning. Maybe he was the weirdo, after all.

Once he dragged Freeman drinking with the four guys from Red Shift, who glugged cheap booze every third Friday after close. Looking back, it wasn't a gold-star idea.

"Who the fuck was that?" Stevens asked the next night, stuck in a monitor room, drinking coffee two shades lighter than Barney’s. The latter just shrugged. He tried to blend in with the guards in his division, even if they were a bunch of ex-high school football players; he tried not to make wakes. "Can you not bring your pencil-necked friends from upstairs around? I don't think he spoke five words. Gave me the creeps. "

"Yeah, well," was all Barney said.

The guys from Red Shift were a bunch of assholes. Probably why he liked hanging out with Gordon.

There weren’t a lot of places to have fun in Black Mesa. The cantinas were identical; the disco club was a joke; the parks were sparse and under-cared-for, cactus clusters around sad baseball diamonds and benches. Area 6 Bio Dorm boasted a golf course, but neither of them had clearance. What they had locally was a pool and a shooting range. First one packed so much chlorine, it'd burn the insides of your nose. Second one wasn't precisely legal to play around in sans breast badge, but Mesa didn't see a lot of crime scenes, so nobody wasted much time sharpening their aim. It flooded about three weeks before the bi-yearly security inspection. Apart from that, Barney'd just swipe his pass card, grab two pistols off a shelf, then he and Gordo would walk right into an empty lot. They'd shoot their way through more ammunition than it seemed possible to ever need.

"You know," he observed once, earmuffs around his neck, surveying the dark spots in a paper dummy. Chest, stomach, right ear gone. "You don't suck with that thing, Freeman."

Gordon adjusted his glasses with pistol firmly in hand. He held it no differently than a screwdriver or test tube. "Family in Michigan. My mother's. Rednecks."

Scoff. "Rednecks. You wouldn't know a redneck if he jumped up and bit you in the ass, Beaker."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Fuck you," Barney politely informed him, what he always did when caught comebackless. They fired off another few rounds. He watched Gordo figure out how to reload the handgun—only took him a few seconds—assess, attempt, and remake. "Ever killed anything?"

"Turkeys. You?"

Yeah. First, there was a mountain lion, mauled grass, an ewe bawling through her torn-out throat. Jake had walked around the back of their house and hit it with a rifle meant for hunting bucks. He'd missed the killing shot by inches and froze, leaving the lion glossy-eyed and panting in dead grass with a bullet in its lung, so Barney had pulled the gun away and finished it off. That was the only memory he had of Dad being proud of them and saying so; he’d clapped "good eye," dragged the carcass away; no one mentioned the chickening out. Jake cried for having killed such an incredible thing. Barney remembered how quiet it had seemed afterward. There had been a hot pool of cat blood and whorls of red dust.

That stretch of grass looked no different than the campground fifteen miles behind Martinson College: woody knoll, picnic tables, someone's blanket, big steaming wet patch where he'd put bullets in a guy's kidney. Bail-jumper, short record, domestic abuse, homicide. Officer Calhoun, Patrol Car #4 hadn't thought about any of that. He'd just heard something and saw metal and fired. It took all of two seconds. Nobody questioned him. Nobody asked if it was reasonable to let security carry concealed off-campus (the media said everybody had guns in their state). Nobody wanted explanations about vicious wildlife, wondered how he knew that flash of steel was a weapon and not a cheap watch, or how he sensed the crying woman was a hostage and not a wife. They stuck a medal on his shirt. Hospital called later to let him know the knifeman died of peripheral complications. Barney didn't know why they’d do that, or why anyone would want to know.

"Nah," he said.

That might've been the time Guthrie busted them. Sergeant pulled Barney out of a cubicle by the back of his jacket and chewed him out. He took the chastisements silently and contritely; youngest sons are good at getting through trouble unscathed. Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.

Guthrie walked off the range with two of Barney's shifts and a suspension threat. There wasn't much to do but stand there until he was far enough away to leave.

"Gobble," Gordon said, clicked an imaginary hammer with his right thumb, and mime-shot the sergeant right in the back of the head.

Barney thought Gordon Freeman was the most hilarious person he ever met. Wasn't much fun—terrible conversationalist, bad with people, drained the life out of a party. But he'd crack these smart-assed comments off without warning, his face completely deadpan, glasses blank with light glare, mouth so serious you wouldn't catch the joke if you didn't know Gordon. They'd floor Barney with tears in his eyes when nobody else got it. Hanging out with Dr. Freeman was like one unending inside guffaw.

"He just doesn't seem to give a fuck. I don't see how you deal with it," Lauren went on, hand chopping the air. Barney liked the plum color she painted her nails less than he liked that she nibbled on them. The thumb got it particularly bad. He could've guided her arm away, stopped her before those teeth could do damage, but she looked too cute. There Lolly would be, sitting side-sofa, scribbling into management sheets, biting away beneath the blare of Frasier reruns. He fell asleep to that sight a lot. And he'd wake up a lot to one of those purple fingernails, bare legs across his lap, pointer hovering close as it could get without poking him in the nose. And she'd be teasing, childishly: "Barney. Baaarney… wake up, Barney, I know you're faking it…"

He was never faking it. But for her sake and for his, Barney always pretended he had.

"Lolly kind of thinks you hate her," he informed Gordon one morning as they caught a bumpy tram ride to the temporary transit station in Area H.

You could barely move in these damn trains. They were usually deserted by the time Barney would catch his outward-bound after Blue Shift, but riding in was a pain-in-the-ass. For more reasons than one: part because there was no fucking room to breathe between so many elbows and backpacks; part because that meant nowhere to sit; part because, that morning, he had spilled frigging coffee all down the front of his shirt and people were still glaring about the wet seats. It turned the blues of cheap upholstery and his breast pocket pale brown. At least the Kevlar would cover everything up. Barney stood holding tightly to the overhead beam while Gordon, squashed in an aisle seat, shot his stain a "serves you right" look.

"I don't," Freeman informed him back, equally neutral. Beaker's gaunt arms were crossed in an uncomfortable slouch—too many people, too much air conditioning. Mild surprise made his reassurance sound almost pleasant.

"I know you don't. I said Lolly thinks." Barney had to grab on with both hands to steady himself. They were always intermittently working on rail systems E-thru-J; their overcrowded shuttle jostled badly enough to shake him fully alert before clock-in. Maintenance weeks sucked. Everyone ran late. The lights winked on-off every rocky patch they hit and did a poor job holding the subterranean gloom of Black Mesa at bay.

"That's baseless. I have no reason to hate her."

Barney winced and tried not to feel pissed in earnest. "Great, Gordo. Real great. Who wouldn't jump for freakin' joy to hear that?—drop the whole thing. Can you try to be a little less clinical?"

"Good figure."

"You're a sexist, Freeman."

He paused, thought very seriously about it, and Barney appreciated the effort. Finally, Gordon frowned beneath the sharp short line of red hair. He cleaned his glasses with an edge of coat sleeve. "She's a nice girl."

Dr. Freeman may not have been warm—not even lukewarm—but the man did no placating. You could always believe what he said.

"Yeah. Will you maybe mention that next time? She thinks we're not serious or smart or good enough for you or something. Says she doesn't know why you'd even want to be around us."

Barney joked about this once—asked their tag-along PhD if Lunchtime with Idiots made him feel more intelligent. Gordon didn't laugh—didn't even crack an inside smile—just noted, "There are different kinds of intelligence." They left it at that. Barney didn't mention the educational difference again.

"Funny thing is," he added, after chewing on it for awhile. "I never know what to tell her."

"About what?"

"About why you do."

Freeman scowled about it only long enough to polish his glasses in a handful of coat.

"Don't have a reason not to," he confessed, and as they shouldered through to Area 3, Barney couldn't see the eye-roll or the smile.

Maybe Gordon Freeman pushed that specimen cart because he had a dozen, a hundred, a thousand reasons to vest all his faith in whatever his supervisors told him. Maybe he did it because he believed in the experiment's aims. Maybe because he truly, desperately wanted to know.

Or maybe he just didn't have a reason not to.

Barney never found Lauren. He never found Lauren just like he never found Gordon, and it ashamed him to admit he'd only been half-looking. They were too far away—physically, mentally—the distance between this world and the one that used to be was too great, and Barney Calhoun could not make it. He could not make it to Topside Dormitories; he could not make it to Ground Zero; he could not make their faces seem real in all this chemical haze. All he could do was move. Keep on, keep going; wake up, Barney; come back, Barney; don't fall asleep now, we barely—you can't—I'm not—have to stay awake.

He tried to stay awake with cold water and pinches. He tried to ignore the blurriness of that television set, the heaviness of each eyelash, to focus instead on how the silk shift sat over her hips. But as he did too often, Barney fell asleep before they made love, and did not wake until Blue Shift.

 


 

Nightmare:

You don’t notice your stomach growling until Day Three. You follow a trail into Area 3 Recreation Zone 6b—big orange letters: SCIENCE STAFF ONLY—thinking only of live physicists and soft couches, a moment's rest. You step in.

Then you smell microwave burn. Cheap ramen, brittle carrots, bad peas, and you realize you’ve had nothing but water, water from fountains with push-buttons that gently warn Waste Not. You don’t have enough discipline left to read vending machine labels. You don’t have the energy to make choices with so many bullets and tags in your pack.

You are so hungry.

Half-aware of what you’re doing, you reach into your pockets for quarters, and you actually find one, a little remnant of old life caught up in it all. You can't align the coin with the slot. The way your fingers fumble, thick and dumb, triggers such a despair in you that tears well up and blur your eyes.

Then you remember your gun and simply shoot a hole in the case. Plastic scatters like a broken child's cup. Colorful packages crunch across the sterile tiles and glisten like medical dispenser batteries. Tortilla chips, mints, gummy bears, salted peanuts. You hate peanuts. You eat everything.

Then you sit—sugar stuck to your hands, chocolate melted over blood calluses—and wait for the lounge coffee pot to finish straining.

It's quiet at the table; the golden wood is strangely clean. There's a bottle of ketchup sitting close, a napkin dispenser. The trashcan is clogged with gum wrappers, articles, and some girlie spread that looks stolen from the guards' break room five floors down. A newspaper from another reality waits, neatly rolled, and you open it up out of reflex. You place your shotgun softly beside the little rack of low-calorie sweeteners, its shells settling in the barrel. Your stomach hurts on fear and M&Ms. Maybe you should see about clawing your way to a kitchen level—finding canned soup, some bread, dried fruit, something that won’t burn the moment it hits…

The coffee finishes with a steam whisper and red blink. You cannot not find any cups and doubt your hands could pour that well, anyway, so you drink from the pot, glad for the way hot glass feels against your cracked lips. It is uncomfortably warm in your hands but they don't care. You’re not sure if what goes on inside your mouth is swallowing or inhaling; you just soak up the odor and caffeine and wet earth flavor. It is like being a real person again. For a moment, it's like remembering who you were three days ago, in those unsullied hours before May sixteenth.

But the taste of ozone and sickness and rot hang heavy just outside to bring you back. Back to the crack and zuzz of cut wire, to overloaded circuits, to dead almost-animals. You can smell buckshot leaking in a monster you’ve shot just around the corner. It sears through the floor. Its brains eke through limp tentacles—deadly mush—the fluorescent, alien glow that this existence, this place, now is.

"Have to face the facts, kid," Pavelko used to huff at you, his response to every complaint. You can face facts. You just wish you didn't always have to wake up so fast.

You tilt the coffee close as you can and breathe deep.

You don’t need the kitchens. You’re going to fight up to the rail yard, you think. You’re going to fight for a place where you can see the sky.

 


 

He never got enough to eat.

That's a major downside of sleeping and working in the same place, Barney learned, and such was his sage advice for anyone from the outside world who inquired about Black Mesa's living conditions. It wasn't as though the residential dorms were ill-stocked; there simply never seemed like enough time. The temptation to hit snooze, kick his alarm clock into a wall and procrastinate meant lots of skipped breakfasts and cancelled dinners to make up lost work hours. He scarffed boring cereal instead of bothering to make lunch. He nuked the fastest, easiest, least-satisfying foods. And, as a side-effect, he walked around trying to shut up his stomach most of the time.

At least eighty percent of this trade-off was Barney's own damn fault; that had been obvious long before he had Gordo to point it out or Lolly to stuff his fridge with Tupperware casserole. He mostly ate cold salami sandwiches and shitty macaroni from a box. He rushed headlong into double-shifts, forgetting to calculate how many hours stood between him and a meal.

He'd been pulling an unusual amount of double-shifts that month, though. It had just turned October, not quite Barney's second year working for Lambda Research, and maybe it still felt like there was something to prove. The badland miles overhead darkened early, purpling the sand; the breeze picked up out there after dusk, dropping the thermostat to more bearable levels. None of that mattered where he spent the majority of his days and nights. Stupid scheduling had him patrolling noon-to-nine in his usual sector, then hoofing like a dumbass to man cameras in a completely different one thirty measly minutes after close. Took the damned trams fifteen of those minutes just to show up. Eating wasn't an option; showering, nope; and glimpsing the sun more than twice a week: forget it.

And all that was nonsense before the switch from Red to Blue. You know, he'd actually been sort of tan when he started working here.

"The hell are you doing here, Beaker?" Barney asked one evening on his daily sprint for Area 3 Sector J, startled to find Gordon sitting on a station bench in the abandoned after-hours. He was holding a sloppy notebook folder with a flat container beside him. The greeting made Freeman jump. "Past your bedtime, ain't it?"

An uneasy, millisecond grin. "Safety meeting" was his answer, and he pulled the cardboard onto his lap to make room. Barney stepped over the seat and thumped down. "AnMat protocol. Admin makes us go through one or two every year. Talk about vision and objectivity. Remind us to keep our goggles on, no blocking the emergency wash. Review dangerous equipment. Et cetera."

"Sounds like a barrel of goddamn laughs," said the man with the gun. His helmet clunked left-to-right, chin strap hanging. He had a fistful of break room coffee, a rumbling stomach, fatigue wrinkles beneath both eyes. "Where you going?"

"Home. Sleep."

"Lucky you.”

Freeman adjusted his glasses, fought with his dorky red tie. There were printer stains on it and on both of Gordon's hands, too. "Another shift?"

"Yeah. Been out here since noon. I'm fucking starving."

That was all it took. Then there was an open box—there was pepperoni, crumbly dough, and sweaty mozzarella in his hand. Gordo set his carton of cheap, unappetizing dinner back down unenthusiastically, but right at that moment, stuck between shifts, junk food was the best possible thing that could've happened in Barney's life.

"Oh, man. Yes. You are my fucking hero," he gushed around a sloppy mouthful of pizza. It was gone in two bites and a shower of crust. Before he could swallow (if he even did), Gordon was handing him another piece, and politeness didn't dare show its face. "I owe you a beer, man."

"More than one."

If Barney was a more observant person, he might have noticed the odd way Freeman looked that evening; he might have caught that strange twinge of discomfort behind the typically apathetic face. You couldn't ask him what was wrong, what was bothering him. And there often wasn't much point, anyway; four out of five, it had to do with some unsolvable query, a partial theorem, a mechanism that wouldn't work. So maybe you could forgive a kid, then, for not seeing it—for not speaking sense—for saying nothing that stopped the Event.

"Barney, do you believe in God?"

"Wow, I dunno. I guess so. Sure." Salty tomato sauce made caring about divinity hard. He'd been brought up in a good Lutheran household, for all that meant; Mom used to comb her boys' mops flat, button them up, and drag them through a church aisle on holidays. But Barney never spent much time worrying about things he could not see, touch, and change. "Do you?"

Gordon knew him well enough to say it straight. "No."

"Bad scientist if you did." He ate another slice.

"There are a lot of ways to be a bad scientist. That's the least of them." The darkness out-beyond the railway tunnels was distracting Freeman, making him gaze vacantly, as though he’d been looking for something without knowing what it was. "Do you think some things weren't meant to be understood?"

"Like this conversation?" he quipped. Instead of a comeback, another piece of pizza.

"I'm talking about human limitations. It's a question of responsibility, not ability. Are there some things Man was not meant to do? Things that are hallowed. Sacred. Meant for a god."

"Jesus," Barney chuffed, just wanting to eat.

Gordon caught the irony but didn't make any fun. His hands looked inordinately heavy hanging on their wrists. He was on a rip-roll tonight, but did not need a real answer—and when Barney couldn't deliver, let out more air than the gaunt coat seemed able to hold.

"Look, Freeman," Barney fobbed. He folded a bitten slice in one hand to wipe the grease off his face and into the shoulder of his blue shirt. "I don't know about God stuff. But there's got to be shit out there we've no business fucking with yet. Forget responsibility, man. Forget time travel and aliens and that stupid cat in a box bullshit. Just for starters: What do you eggheads really know about, I don't know, death. What do you know about death, Freeman? Something, maybe. Maybe some data and some pretty good guesses. But when you get down to, like, the nitty-gritty of it—of God stuff—do you people really know any more about this shit than I do?"

Gordon thought about it. A little, if just to give Barney some credit for trying. When he looked up, askance from the corner of those ugly glasses, it was with a tiny flinch of a smile. "Have you ever seen someone die?"

"As a matter-of-fact, Gordon." He rolled the pizza as tight as he could and shoved half the dough in his mouth without thinking, without tasting, without imagining the kidney blood on the park grass or the pistol in his hand, without wondering what he should say or how the words might make him feel later. He swallowed it all in one bite. It hurt parts of him he couldn't see on the way down. "I have."

"Me, too."

"Oh. Grandma?"

"No," Gordon said. He pulled off his glasses to wrestle away an invisible fingerprint. His fingers pinched his tie too hard around the lens. "My nephew. Last year."

"Fuck, man. Oh my God. I'm so sorry."

"Well, he was hardly my nephew. Not at thirty-three months. I'd only seen him a few times." The glasses were as clean as they were going to get. He slid them back over his ears. But Gordon had forgotten the tie, and it lay crumpled, like a streak of nosebleed, outside the collar of that too white coat. "Tay-Sachs. She was advised to terminate. But my sister thought she could beat the math."

"Why didn't you—? I would have—"

"There was nothing you could do. There was nothing I could do."

"Fuck that. No way, hell no, that's not right. I would have done, I don't know—something! I would have brought you food or booze or flowers or—" He could feel it pushing up against the bottom of his throat again. Temper, stuttering and flushed, but not quite. This tasted more like helplessness. Like seeing a dead lion in the front yard; like finding your big brother passed out in a puddle of Bud and piss for the umpteenth time and understanding this is it, this is what's going to kill him, and there ain't a goddamn way you can beg that will get him to stop; like a brainiac's cat in a box, both dead and alive; like the desperation of (never-were, never-came-from, never-going-to-be) nothing. He felt really angry for a second. He groped for anything else to say. "You tell me the next time some dark shit like that happens. I'm your friend, Gordon. That's fucked up. Not telling me when your baby nephew dies. You're not supposed to go through death alone."

Gordon was quiet for a moment. He looked back down at his bony hands. He took a deep breath that sounded suspiciously, incredibly, like a sigh. "I guess you're right. I don't know much more about it than you do."

They sat there in silence. A train car rattled the tracks somewhere far down the tunnel, banking left and moving away, through a mile of darkness and toward some other lit and lonely place. Gordon didn't say anything for the longest, but then, as if nothing strange had passed between them, he picked up the soggy pizza box, flicked it back open, and took a slice out for himself. The last one sat there, crumbly and inconvenient. He shook the cardboard in Barney's direction until he picked it up and held the cooling crust in his hand.

"I understand AnMat's methodology. Really, I even understand why the security protocols stand as they are. It's dangerous to let any one position compromise our facility. But these people—" He picked off a pepperoni and studied it as if it were alive. When it wasn't, he fished a used Kleenex out of his pocket and tucked the cold meat inside, crunched it up tight and waited for a trash can. It turned his fingers shiny. Barney thought of the dead baby he'd not known about, thought about Gordon sitting quietly in a dark hospital room while everybody cried and touching its chest, counting wet breaths, calculating the pulse drop, witnessing this horror because nobody else could handle it. For a few seconds, Barney thought he was going to go stupid-crazy and throw his arms around him and squeeze him hard and tell him how goddamn proud of him he was; how mad fucking smart he was and not just in an egghead way, but in a real way, a way that makes you a better man than other men; how he really was somebody; how you don't have to know what will make people laugh or what to say or how much to say or the answer to life and death and God and astrophysics just to be a whole person. But Gordon was still talking, so he looked at the pizza in his hand, and he took a lukewarm bite. "We get so infatuated with what we're on the brink of, and administration is so concerned with how we'll do it, that no one asks the other things. I think we’re right, but I'm not sure. People always think they’re right."

Dr. Freeman was a smart man—too smart a man to be comforted—and there was nothing to reassure him with, but Gordon kept talking, and he turned over his very last piece. It was such a casual, friendly thing to do. Yet looking back with the wisdom of distance, it seems like there had to be more. Could there have been a perfect response, a different comment, a smart-assed joke that changed the fate of a world? Could you even know if it had truly been an appeal for sense on that uncomfortable bench in a deserted tramway? Maybe he just needed someone to sit there, stuffed silent and stupid, to listen as a phenomenal board of white coats learned more than their mathematics could contain.

Barney's answer?

"Hey, Gordo."

Gordo stared forward, elbows on his knees, hands a flat steeple jutting towards train track. "Yeah."

"Anyone ever tell you you talk too much."

He was just a kid—just a stupid, inconsiderate, thoughtless kid. He ate all of Gordon's pizza without realizing it. He filled in the silence with jokes.

There was something of pity and admiration, something maybe a little envious, but something not unkind—something like an older brother—in the way Freeman looked back at him then. It was kind of an asshole expression, a twitch of brow behind glass.

"Think that was your tram," Gordon noted, and Barney—too distracted and too asleep—cussed, jumped up and sprinted after it, leaving his friendships behind.

Nobody yelled come back.

 


 

Barney didn't cry at all.

He did later, of course. Wouldn't have been human not to. They'd been states away and gunning a convoy of three shit SUVs, he and the couple scientists who escaped Black Mesa's blast radius. They alternated drivers, dodged sparse traffic, avoided any highways apt to lead into civilization. It was three days of that before Eli Vance—a baby girl with head full of curlycues in his arms—said they should stop.

"Camp somewhere," he suggested, voice weak. "Clean up, stretch out, try and sleep."

Barney didn't like the thought of getting caught, but everyone else agreed that it sounded like a good idea. So Simmons pulled their hog-assed vehicle off-road, into the shadowy gulch of a red grit canyon. They must have been south of Cuauhtémoc by the time those wheels finally stopped.

While smarter guys were bickering about the wheres-and-hows of tent construction, Barney had climbed out of that stifling car and stood. Merciless sun grilled the back of his neck. There were bloodstains and sand plastered into his clothes. His hands felt like lead and it was hot inside the squeeze of Kevlar he hadn't dared take off. Kleiner tossed him a plastic bottle to fill up, so Barney did, slogging towards the little pond they'd scoped out as tonight's base. And when he'd stooped down—felt clear water flood open hands, his throat sore, his mouth dry—there had been a missing piece, a familiar glimpse of eyes in the shallow ripples, an old dream cupped there in his bare palms. Everything hurt so bad. Barney sat down and started sobbing. Next thing he knew, Rosenberg was holding him by the shoulders, glasses blinding, telling him it's all right, son; it's OK; you're all right.

He didn't know why he was crying. Barney hadn't been thinking about anything or anyone in particular. It was just horrible. All of it was just God-awful-horrible, so he had to cry.

But he hadn't cried at all in Black Mesa—not when the elevator dropped, not when the bombs fell, not when the world began shutting on-off.

 


 

Nightmare:

You can’t remember where you’d learned this. A magazine, a patrol manual, maybe a lecture from Gordon when you shuttled into Area 3 together. But it's there, packed somewhere beneath bulletproof and coffee.

The average human being can go three days without sleep before conditional insanity sets in. This estimate varies between people—some lose their marbles faster than others—but as a rule, Day Three brings on the delusions and distortions. Three days, and a human being can't trust themselves anymore.

It is a good while past the eighty-hour-mark when you stop trusting yourself. You don’t hallucinate. You don’t think so, anyway—you’re not sure how you would know for sure. There hasn't been enough energy to dream for a long time. But what makes you so certain your mind has been compromised is how, every once in a while, it starts to blink.

There is no dramatic fantasy or collapse. It is just a blip in time, that's all—a black flash, an empty second of memory where nothing exists, and you’ll startle open with a gun still clutched in your hands. They come more frequently as time crawls. You can't be positive how long these blank periods last; you are only aware of the moment-after, of the recoil, of the way your muscles lurch awake from the heartbeat pinch of micro-sleep.

You know you need help. You know you can't rely on yourself when lying down starts to seem more than necessary—it starts to seem sweet, attainable, like a good idea.

Your feet are so sore and everything feels incredibly profound. You won't let yourself sit or relax. Each corner beckons, and your guts all swim haphazardly, and there is nowhere safe enough to risk what you know would befall you. There are monsters in here. Your mouth is like sandpaper; your skin cheesecloth; your lashes stick. The greatest doom you can imagine right now is going to sleep.

And this is why you order yourself—left foot, right foot; one step, two steps; slack knees and wobbling hips—down a hallway in the opposite direction of light. There is a medical station this way. You remember this very clearly. Your stomach hurts on a mash of junk food and coffee that does nothing but fast-beat your overtaxed heart, but this you remember, because security is your job, and first-aid is prerogative to a man with a gun. Red Shift bitched about those emergency protocol meetings. How ridiculous the notion had seemed; how messy it'd be should some egghead croak over a damn nut allergy; how much they had scoffed, sitting on fold-out chairs with instant cappuccinos in hand, at the action-flick notion "if someone got shot."

The office is small and compact, built for isolated disasters no one ever really imagined happening. Its sterile cot leans against a wall, its sink is full of splint wrapping, and leaky pipes have soaked the counters. There are bandages splayed about in an eccentric Halloween prank. Someone has been here already, stuffed their backpack with gauze and raided the antiseptic. They left the lights on and the refrigerator bare. A day ago, this would have sunken you like a barge, but today you cannot bring yourself to care. Your organs aren't bleeding. This is not what you stumbled here for.

The cupboards all hang wide, locks broken. You rummage with stupid hands until you spill a drawer full of medicinal tubes. It makes a big bang. A few of them roll under the cabinets. On hands-and-knees, head whirling, you almost slip on one—a near-catastrophe that would've passed you right out on this floor—but thank God, you catch yourself. You reach far back as your arm will go.

In one scoop, dozens of vials tumble out. You pick one at random. You squint to read it and can barely make the lightheaded glyphs into words. Your fingers leave a motion trail through the dark-bright.

Wake up, Barney.

You sit up, take a deep breath, and jam the epinephrine pen through your pant leg, into your thigh.

When the adrenaline hits, you push yourself up, nearly faint, and climb cabinet handles until your feet are under you again. Everything feels cold and pale. You gasp as though your chest is full of snare drums. Frigid sweat seeps through your clothing and you can't tell if it's the nausea, the iciness, or the rush making you shake. But you are up. You are awake. You can walk and shoot and see.

You think you don’t cry, but only because you can't feel the wetness rolling down your face.

The rest of the needles are flung into your bag with whatever else you can find. Sounds don't sound right and your body feels wrong. But you’re alive. You’re still here.

"You have to get up," Freeman told you a million years ago, looming over Sector G reception desk, knocking the back of your helmet until you couldn't sleep anymore.

 


 

Neil Zajac and Javier Anton were a couple of grumpy old fucks.

Barney knew it the second he pried the defunct elevator open and they glared right past him, two Weaponry nerds, all princessed-up like facility malfunctions were his personal fault. Doctor in front of your name makes some people huffy as shit.

"—don't understand how we're expected to work like this. Do you know the computer labs on the main level have been closed for eight days?" Dr. Anton, stocky and unfriendly, hoisted his eyebrow at Dr. Zajac, wrinkled and blue-bearded. Barney pushed the maintenance cart in behind them. "If I can't access my files, I'd like to know: exactly how does Dr. Breen expect my team to generate data?"

"You don't need to tell me that the electricians are incompetents. I was late to no less than four meetings this year thanks to tram failure. Tram failure! Explain to me why an organization with our funding can't keep its public transit running."

"Trams? We can't even reach our sector on foot."

"I doubt Aperture has to contend with broken elevators."

The lift shrieked to a start under their rude chortling and a hammer of Barney’s fist. There was a dramatic sigh of relief from Zajac and a triumphant finally! from Anton. They descended. The morning’s coffee had gone sour on his tongue.

"Thank God for small victories," Anton muttered, his face mottled in the backlights of Area 3. "At the rate these things move, we'll be lucky if we get to the testing area by tomorrow morning. Luckier if we don't die from radiation poisoning en route."

"Lucky, indeed."

And they were sinking—slowly, slowly. Like they would never reach the bottom. Like a drunk waking up as his little brother slaps him. Like a baby breathes.

 


 

Radiation.

It's one of those far-off menaces. One of those flashy words that doesn't mean anything; one of those hazard signs only relevant in warzones and science fiction. Barney isn't like Gordon Freeman with his hands folded around ethical questions; he has never been very good at fretting over what he can't avoid and cannot see.

He wears his regulation uniform. He bypasses yellow-flagged doors marked DANGER: NO ENTRY. Otherwise, Barney doesn't dwell much on the warning stamps scattered throughout Black Mesa. He doesn't research symptoms at night; he doesn't book clinic visits for every headache or flu. He does not worry about silent disease, mute poison, accumulating in his pores. He's never had a baby die on him. He's never known somebody who was delivered into certain doom while a room full of smart men watch, thinking maybe, just maybe, this time they'll beat the math.

When he was a kid, Barney used to find Joel passed out cold on the backyard grass all the time. He'd be lying on his side like a kicked dog next to a pile of puke or sprawled face-up toward the stars. You see that kind of thing enough, well, it stops surprising you. But the dismay never goes away.

Once, Joel had taken so long to wake up, Barney had thought he was dead. He'd ridden his bike over to Joel's place because he hadn't been answering anybody's calls, found him blue-faced in the middle of a smashed dozen eggs. Barney had slapped his face over and over and screamed at him until his throat hurt, until he didn't sound like a fifteen-year-old boy raging at his sack-of-shit alcoholic of a brother but a little girl wailing for somebody to remember she was there. He had just staggered up, dead-limbed, horror-numb, to call the cops when Joel cracked open an eye. He wasn't blue. He had just smacked his socket on the kitchen counter on his way down.

These days, Barney tried not to think about having brothers. Jake had split for Cali at seventeen and who knew if he'd ever come back; Cam was a fucking Nazi with a beer gut and a gun fetish; Rob was a cop, the next-best-thing. But sometimes, when his shift was quiet and the monitors blazed into static, he thought about Joel lying in those busted eggs. He had lay there as Barney hollered at him, too wasted to speak, staring like a baby, until tears rolled down his yolky face. He had never meant for it to happen, maybe. Maybe he had never wanted to get so drunk. God, you couldn't want your baby brother to pull you out of your piss-soaked jeans and hit you with the garden hose because he'd been too scared you'd crack your skull in the shower and drown. But maybe it just snuck up, that sickness. It just grew and grew, building and boiling over, and it didn't stop until his body did.

Maybe that's what this is. Sickness that quietly builds.

 


 

Nightmare:

You worry about everything and nothing now. God, you can feel the radiation, feel it stretch in your bones—yellow, green, orange replacing the whites and reds. You must be full of it. But you keep walking. Run, at times; creep others; crawl hands-and-knees some. You do not think about it. You just move and shoot.

Killing meant something once. The person in you radiates out.

And when you’ve lost your last clip—when you're stuck in a coolant basement with lanky demons and no leeway—you spin your hollow weapon about, and you swing it as hard as you can. Alien blood explodes from a spindly, leathery arm; around the butt of the pump-action; across the cement floor. You can hear the plates of its skull crack beneath that broad singular eye. You see lips break, saliva drip, the flash of what looks like death panic swarming in sclera that remind you of Mars. They look like goblins. Doesn't matter if it's silly. These are monsters, all the same.

Fangs protrude when the creature hits concrete. You’re not sure if the expression is meant to be a cringe or a threat. You’re also not sure if you care.

There is so much darkness in the tunnels before you. At the end, they tear open to blinding, blue sky.

You show the goblin your teeth, and step on its head.

 


 

Calhoun, Barnard J.
EMPLOYER: Black Mesa Research Facility
POSITION: Security Officer
ASSIGNMENT: Area 3 BLUE SHIFT
CLEARANCE: Level 3
DISASTER RESPONSE PRIORITY: Preservation of Facility Equipment and Materials
SECONDARY PRIORITY: Welfare of Research Personnel

A dozen voices, none of them right: you are nothing, nothing; you better be faking; you need to get up—

LOW PRIORITY: Personal Safety

He threw his body over Zajac and then down, down, down the whole world came.

 


 

Nightmare:

You follow the rail ties through darkness until there is a small light, and you walk forward until that distant blue glow burns all the claustrophobia away to fences, cargo tanks, barbed wire and finally: air.

There is a terrible fight. There is always a terrible fight, but there is daylight on your skin when the enemies change. You think this change should bother you far more than it does. But bullets kill humans easier than monsters. There's just a moment—just a moment when, ahead of you, a group of survivors goes screeching out into the rail yard, men in white coats sprinting wildly for help. It's just a moment before the waiting soldiers—fatigues and automatics, robot-talk and prime objectives—open fire, and everything's madness again, but madness that makes sense.

You’re lucky you hesitated. You’re lucky you didn't flail out there crying help me, too.

You still don’t fully understand why you didn't. But you’re not allowed to be too-stupid. Just some. Just enough to be real.

You hide.

It's more than obvious what they were waiting for now. Most of the marines leave once the dust settles and the scientists’ bodies stop twitching. A few stay behind to clean up. Horrifying that there is so little mess to demarcate the massacre; you always expected bits, gore, something to mar crime scenes for future generations and monuments. But there’s not much. Shells roll. Rapid-fire has punched some holes in the idle train cars. They drag their five fresh corpses out and lay them in a neat pile; nobody bothers providing a burial once the ID tags are checked. A man tosses tarp to cover them up. Then, work complete, three of the six-troop outfit climb aboard their ATVs and zip off toward another station, somewhere nearer to Black Mesa's core.

You kill the rest of them. You aren’t clear how. You narrowly miss a grenade burst that covers your face in packed sand.

You do not touch the bodies—of scientists or soldiers—and you do not stack your dead. You only take a moment to check those names and cross off your list—Dr. Liam Robertson—just one AnMat guy here. You take all the tags anyway. You try halfheartedly to find your sanity. You almost throw up (there's nothing on your stomach), but then you get a grip, get off your hands-and-knees, and keep going. You need to keep moving away.

That's when you hear the cry: "Come back!"

It can't be explained, not really, and it doesn't seem rational. Because it has been so long, you see, so long since you really thought about the reality of people who can speak. You're not even sure you speak anymore. When that voice hits air, though—the voice of something that doesn't want to kill you—an assault of senses returns. The sun is here suddenly, warm and painfully bright, so bright you cannot tell if it's hurting or joyful. The sky is open and stinks of gunsmoke and oil, not benzene and decay. The ground is ruby dirt—soft soil, not concrete, not blood.

"Wait," the voice says.

Your hands slouch around your shotgun. You’ve forgotten what being tired feels like. There's adrenaline thrashing everywhere inside you, making it so you can't analyze, can't see what's (who's) there. Everything is still too fucking white—the white of safety bulbs and new paint and coats of better men than you were. You just grab a glimpse. Just a glimpse of light standing there in front of you, a jagged spoke in the spent battlefield, a loose shard of a mind gone critical. You see clean glass.

Glasses.

It is like a ghost. It is impossible, but you see it.

You died! you try to say. You try to say you can't be here, get away from me, it isn't right. But there is a catch in your throat and nothing comes out. That light just looks back at you, a little impatient, a little fond, a little mean in what it does not say to those who look-in from the outside. It blinks as though you’re silly for stopping, for bleeding like you are, standing there clinging to a barrel you know is jammed as Black Mesa burns down around you and you’re soundlessly screaming no, I'm alive, fuck you haunt, I'm alive.

The light's caught in a pair of lenses, a faceless reflection, black frames, kind of a jackass shine in the green the glass hid.

Gordon Freeman.

You cannot remember closing your eyes. You do not recall your consciousness unraveling, or the way your willpower finally dropped like two-thousand pounds from where it pushed both hands against the bottom of your brain.

You stop seeing anything.

You fall.

 


 

It is May sixteenth.

It is May sixteenth and his boots are squeaking on the tile. It's not his fault he's late—not this particular day—but that does not factor. The senior floor officer is pissed, scolds him in the lobby in front of a dozen researchers and it echoes into an empty locker room with American flags on white walls. Rustle into armor, load that pistol; he's in a hurry. No time for breakfast—just coffee. Blue Shift tonight. "Wake the hell up, kid."

"Wake up, Barney," says Gordo, his knuckles rapping against the dark helmet plastic, monitor glow tearing that color from his face. Barney jerks up with a red dial print mashed into his cheek. Area 3 Sector C is empty, and seven AM sun can't permeate Black Mesa's brick to wake him, to show the passage of time, to warm the back of his neck. "Shift's over; you can go home. Come—"

"Come back," grunts the soldier into his radio, eagle-eyed, standing in the deserted train yard, his camouflage in stark contrast to piles of whites, reds, regulation blues. Fresh blood tidepools upon tightly-packed ground. It’s from another AnMat scientist Barney found; the scientist's name tag says Robertson, and until a moment ago, he had been sobbing joyously for help and fleeing towards them. "I'm alive, I'm alive, oh thank God," Robertson choked, grey hair wafting wildly about his head, sleeves torn at each shoulder, face bloodshot. He’d scrambled from behind a crate so suddenly that Barney almost fired from where he'd been hidden across this sun-caked lot. "I knew someone would come; I knew they would rescue—" But that was as far as he got. They shot him in the stomach and let him fall, riddled bag of potatoes in a doctor's coat. The old lab head went squelchthump onto his face. Barney presses every thatch of his spine against a shady wall and begins to pant, eyes dilating, rifle huggled to ribcage, mouth dry. His body runs bitter cold. He had almost hollered out to them. He almost— "Victor Delta six-oh, this is scout 512. Momentary interference; say again. Come back. Victor Delta six-oh, come back."

No wait, no wait, no wait— Metal rubble, flattened chest and nosebleed, gasping too fast, severed arm still in its white coat at the dark bottom of an elevator shaft. There are gym shoes running away and the wailing sounds are strange—so strange a pitch—human ears cannot describe them. Dogs, porpoises, evilness with teeth and paws. There is so much weight bearing down and the ground is searing beneath his back, smelling of burnt rubber, a whorl of confusion where everything broke. He needs help. Barney cannot feel his feet, his hands, where Dr. Zajac's leg is smashed beneath his knee; the rest of Zajac is in several places, fleshy pieces. He can't move. His mouth tastes like copper and bile. He screams. No one comes. Everyone is running. Help me, don't leave, help me someone please—

Come back.

Fingers on his shoulders, wink of light against shaven glass; his lids are too heavy, he can't open them—

"Barney, wake up. Wake up. You have to go."

 


 

"Wake up, son," says Dr. Rosenberg, and a cold palm is slapping his face in the soft earth of the train yard. The eyes behind the glasses are not green at all, they are brown, and this is not a nightmare. He is not dreaming. The world has startled awake. "Come back."

back to the land of the living

back and sit your ass down, kiddo

back and show me you care

back, please, oh God oh God don't leave me here

 


 

"Come back, Barney," Freeman called, and the smell of black coffee and the computer glow and thump-thump on his helmet brought back the world.