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“Man, Gordon, have I got something to show you!”

“Hmm?” the physicist hummed, watching as his friend approached the tram. 

Barney briskly waddled forward, both his hands clasped and held close to his chest. He was out of his gear, helmet hair uncombed and shirt partially untucked. Gordon, clad in a stifling lab coat and tie, felt a fleeting wave of envy wash over him. Even on days where he was in the HEV suit the majority of the time, he would still have to adhere to the dress code. Back when he was a fresh hire, he was eager to don the professional wear of a doctor at the cutting edge of his field. It was an entire world separate from academic studies manned by students in sweatpants. Now he wore it more out of obligation than for any real practicality. 

Once he stepped foot on the tram, Barney swiveled his head, looking about the station for any eavesdroppers. But the wing was still and empty— the stark concrete halls bathed in faded and yellowed fluorescent light. By then, most Black Mesa employees had already punched out. The two of them just happened to both be working overtime. Once the door slid shut and tram lurched on its merry way, Barney untensed and presented his clasped hands toward Gordon. The security guard’s eyes were alight with giddiness.

“You are not gonna believe this,” Barney said as he carefully lifted up one hand.

There sitting on his palm was what looked to be a purple toad— with the exception of a singular red eye. In the piercing light of the tram car, the thing’s pupil contracted not unlike a cat, waning into a vertical sliver. Its hind legs fidgeted as it peered about the new environment.

Gordon leaned in, eyeing the creature incredulously. “Hmm.”

“‘Hmm?’” Barney parroted. “What do you mean ‘HMM ?!’ This thing here is a real live alien!”

The scientist pivoted his view from multiple angles, giving the purple critter a closer inspection. 

“Looks like a toad with cyclopia…” Gordon declared as he adjusted his glasses. “You sure you didn’t find this thing hopping outside the bioengineering lab?”

“OK, so there I was sitting at my post today when I heard this weird sound. Something like a deflating balloon, or a tiny screech. At first I thought it was my chair or the computer, but as I inspected my office I realized it was coming from the air vent— and you know how easy it is to get in those— so I hopped in and around the corner I found this cute little guy. When I got close, he rolled over and played dead. So I just scooped him up in my hands and kept him in a drawer until my shift was over.”

“What are you gonna do with it?” Gordon asked, one eyebrow cocked.

“I gotta be sneaky about it,” Barney admitted. “You know my roommate asks too many questions. I’m gonna keep it in my locker until I can hide a terrarium somewhere in our dorm. Can’t just keep it in a shoebox under the bed— that con only worked so long as a kid! Hoo hoo, the boys on the Extraterrestrial Forum are gonna be blown away by this!”

Gordon shot him a look. “Are you really going to get risk getting fired for leveling conspiracies against your workplace?”

“Come on, Gordo, you know I’m not that stupid, right?” Barney asked, returning his friend’s scowl with an equal amount of lightheartedness. “I know how to cover my tracks. Fake name, entire backstory ripped from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, same VPN I used to get the PDFs of those Austrian research papers you wanted.”

Gordon chuckled, knowing he had been bested on that front. “Well in that case, as soon as you announce that you found a real live alien, Black Mesa will release a study about the latest genetic research on frogs.”

“Geez, I really thought you wouldn’t be skeptical about this!” Barney exclaimed, gesturing at the creature with his free hand. “Have you ever seen an animal with a single, fully functioning eye? Not just a birth defect? Aliens, man.”

Gordon scratched his chin as he thought. “Copepods, actually. And opabinia had five eyes.”

“Quit changing the subject,” Barney pouted. “Don’t tell me you haven’t been reading the book I got you?”

“You mean the extra you got from an infomercial two-for-one offer?” Gordon asked with a sly grin. “Actually, I’ve been opening it every night. Great sleep aid.”

Barney scoffed. “C’mon. You’re the guy that said he had ‘absolute certainty ’ aliens existed.”

“Mathematically, yes, it’s pretty much guaranteed,” Gordon said, his tone now serious as always when it came to scientific fact. “But on an exoplanet a billion light years away or in a hydrothermal vent on Enceladus, not in a spaceship hovering over New Mexico.”

As Gordon rested his case, arms crossed against his chest, Barney frowned in defeat. However, it was not before long he found another avenue of persuasion as he playfully waved the creature in front of his friend’s irked face.

“Come oooon,” Barney teased. “I know you want to hold it.”

“Hmm…” Gordon hummed a third time. “It’s awfully colorful. You sure it isn’t poisonous?”

Barney shot him an exasperated look. “I ain’t dead, am I?”

Gordon fidgeted, his lips pursing this way and that as he contemplated, pulling and twitching his goatee. He gave a defeated sigh. “Yeah, yeah alright.”

The physicist carefully scooped the creature out of Barney’s hand. Immediately Gordon’s intense scrutiny softened into a relaxed smile.

“It reminds me of the Pacman frog I had in high school,” Gordon said, index finger stroking the creature’s spines.

“See? I knew you would like it. You appreciate these kinds of things.”

The concrete tunnel gave way to a rocky canyon, tinged blue in the arid night. All the while the tram continued to ferry them under the milky way, unaware and uncaring at the abrupt change of scenery. Barney craned his head to peer up at the night sky, and Gordon followed his gaze. It was so clear out there in the desert. Neither of them had seen so many stars before stepping foot in Black Mesa. To think those thousand pinpricks of light were there all along, hidden in plain sight. 

“Well, you’ll see. If any place is gonna discover aliens, it’s this crazy facility.” Barney paused for a beat, a coy grin breaking across his 5 o’clock shadow. “The government would probably cover it up, though.”

Gordon laughed, shaking his head. With the utmost care, he placed the strange creature back into the hands of his best friend and watched as the stars were swept away by yet another dark and cavernous tunnel.

“Barney… you’ve been watching too many sci-fi movies.”