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It was way too late at night— or way too early in the morning, probably— but John was awake anyway and deep in discussion with his friends about something very important: videogames. Who needs a sleep schedule? John doesn’t. (He does.) He couldn’t sleep if he wanted to, anyway; he was way too excited about the current topic, which had meandered into talking about recent & upcoming releases people were excited for and someone had brought up Half-Life: Alyx.

“It looks cool as fuck” John typed. There was a flurry of agreement, although one of his friends was a bit skeptical. “Hey, how much do you need to know about Half Life going onto it?”

Oh, fuck. The answer was, apparently, “a lot”. John groaned. His experience with the Half-Life franchise had been… minimal. Sure, he knew about it, and he’d played Portal which… apparently had some shared universe stuff going on?, and he’d been able to osmosis some info about it,but when it came to knowing what actually happened besides “Gordon Freeman hits things with a crowbar and also there’s aliens?” he was clueless. That was going to be a problem.

Another problem: there had been a free bundle to play all available Half-Life games… up until Alyx’s release, and it had been out for a bit by now. Awful. John ran a hand over his face. Well, that sucked. An argument broke out between two of his friends in the GC over if it was a better idea to play the original Half-Life first or jump straight to the Black Mesa remake, and he read about 4 messages into it before realizing it was going to go on for a while and tuning it out as he looked through Steam. Wow, there sure were a lot more games in the series than he realized. Wasn’t it a meme about how Valve never made a third game? What the fuck is Opposing Force?

John paused in his search as he got a DM. Oh, hey, it’s Az. (Pronounced “Ayzee” for… reasons. Reasons he didn’t understand.) John took a quick look at the GC, saw enough spoiler tags to make it look like a SCP entry, then tabbed over to his DMs to see what Az wanted.

-

AAC
hows it goin
disaster man john
awful.
AAC
great!
you want to get into the hl series right?
disaster man john
Uh
Yeah
AAC
awesome
ive got something for you
disaster man john
?
AAC
theres a vr port of the first game!
sort of. its not an official release yet
BUT
i found an experimental build
disaster man john
huh.
AAC
and not only is it vr
it has advanced machine learning ai
disaster man john
...in Half Life?
AAC
hey im just sayin what the website says
disaster man john
ok
Alright
Sounds fake but I dont know enough about Half Life to disprove it
AAC
shut up, im tryin to help you out
do you want this or not
disaster man john
If I end up the protagonist of a creepypasta its your fault

-

Gordon took one look at the shit going on around him, said “I’m ending the simulation”, and took his headset off.

John groaned as he leaned back in his chair and set his headset and controllers down on his desk. That had certainly been a… Well, “an experience” would be underselling it. It had been total fucking mayhem. Sure, it had started out fine: he got into character pretty easy after discovering the NPCs didn’t respond to him otherwise, and he knew enough about the game’s plot to get it underway despite the obstacles. And boy howdy had there been obstacles.

The skeleton was a surprise, though.

He took a few minutes to just sit there and pull himself back together. He was actually pretty tired out from spending, what, three hours in a blind panic as he tried to corral four AIs? Honestly, they were more of a challenge than the aliens were. Especially that security guard. What was their name… Benry? Benrey. Fucking Benrey.

His thoughts wouldn’t stop racing, though. Glitches and confusing level design and rude guards aside, he’d had a lot of fun and couldn’t stop thinking about what he might encounter next, about some of the random things the AIs had said, about how… strangely real the experience had felt, despite everything being shitty and low-res. Maybe it was because of interacting with the AIs in the way he did? Honestly, it was more like they were real, actual people. …Well, maybe not Dr. Coomer. John liked the guy, but out of the group he was definitely the most AI-like.

Oh, Az was messaging him. John adjusted his beanie and squinted at the screen as he continued trying to adapt to not wearing the headset anymore (strange, it usually didn’t take this long). Az had noticed he’d stopped playing and wanted to know how it went. Makes sense. Az had been the one who’d passed him the copy, after all, and John had been pretty skeptical; they were probably waiting to hear his verdict.

So, he was honest. He told Az his first impressions, complained about how janky the VR controls could be, and spent about 10 minutes going off about Benrey. Az reminded him of the experimental in experimental build, and didn’t seem too perplexed when John brought up the Black Mesa Sweet Voice™ as one of Benrey’s quirks. Okay, so that’s just a Half-Life thing he’d never encountered. So was the skeleton, probably. 

The group chat was in a heated debate over pizza rolls or something. John figured he’d chime in with his own opinion, and was met with a lot of yelling at him for… being awake? Oh, fuck, since when was it 2 AM? He’d completely lost track of time.

disaster man john
Look I was busy playing Half Life, it happens
worm on a string
o shit you actually got it?
disaster man john
AAC did.
worm on a string
niiiice
go 2 bed tho
the single biggest chungus
asdhfg wait hold on so you’re into hl now
and your name is joh n
by the power in me i decree you
[full life consequences voice] JOHN FREEMAN, WHO WAS GORDON FREEMAN’S BROTHER,
disaster man john
shut the FUCK up
the single biggest chungus
make me
john freeman
Ill drive to your fucking house
I have a baseball bat and I have rage
DID YOU CHANGE MY FUCKING NAME?

-

“Once upon a time… There was a website called Wikipedia.”

Gordon fired a shot at the skeleton lurking in the doorway.

The limp ragdoll of Dr. Coomer stared off into space. His face was solid and expressionless, but the familiar, welcoming voice of the tutorial AI was clearly heard anyway despite no mouth movement: “The free online encyclopedia that ANYONE can edit!”

“Sounds like you know this story well.” Gordon adjusted how he was sitting on the floor to get a bit more comfortable. Dr. Coomer stayed where he was, facedown on the floor with his arms sticking straight out at a weird angle. “And one time, there was a guard named Benrey. You know what Benrey did? They edited pages on Wikipedia with false information. You know what happened to them?” Gordon paused to let his words sink in. “They got incinerated by a rocket.”

The fact that any of this made sense in context was a fucking miracle. Gordon kept talking anyway, well aware of how silly he felt and sounded. He needed to wrap this up. “Do you know the moral of this— You get the moral of this story?”

“No,” Dr. Coomer said in the peculiar way where his voice would cut out like someone’s dying internet connection causing a Discord call to skip.

NO,” said the Black Mesa VOX.

“…Goodnight, buddy,” Gordon said, and then took the headset off.

That play session had rattled John more than he liked to admit. It was… strange. Maybe he was just getting into the groove, maybe he was letting his imagination run wild as he interacted with the colourful cast of NPCs, but things felt more… Hm. He wasn’t sure how to put it.

Things felt a bit more real. The AIs, buggy and inconsistent as they were, had started to show dreams, aspirations, worries and concerns. Even ridiculous one-offs like that soldier they’d cornered (God, he’d forgotten his name. Frozen?) had some kind of emotion behind them, even if he was in the middle of trying to con Tommy by offering him a Beyblade with 3 Bitbeasts. They’d sat around and talked about plans for the future, with some of it being a bit heartfelt (in Coomer’s case) or surreal— because, apparently, Tommy had made an immortal dog, and no one else had found that weird.

He’d learned to just roll with it.

That was the name of the game, really: rolling with it. The AIs would do something or say something weird, and he had to try and work with it or else they’d get fed up with him. It could be hilarious at times, and as the game went on he found himself getting better at understanding each AI’s idiosyncrasies and adapting to them.

But… it wasn’t just that. There had been moments where things had been… different. Where he could actually feel the exertion from running through Black Mesa, where he could feel the weight of the HEV suit, where he could swear the emotionless faces of his AI friends ( friends? ) had subtle, readable expressions instead of the blank look they’d been textured with.

He tried not to think about it.

It was getting harder to not think about it.

Hunched over his desk and breathing hard, John remembered his stupid suggestion, his joke he didn’t expect to be taken seriously, where he had suggested they climb over the rocky walls enclosing the outdoor sections of Black Mesa. Bubby had shot him down, obviously, but Dr. Coomer…

He’d cleared the boundary. He’d come back. And, even though he was used to the scientists’ blank expressions, this time Dr. Coomer looked hollow. There was nothing behind those eyes, no emotion in his usually jovial voice, because

There’s nothing there.

Of course there wasn’t anything outside Black Mesa. Black Mesa was the game’s setting, was the end-all-be-all, except maybe he was going to go to an alien planet by the end going off of the argument he’d seen before it devolved into blacked-out spoilers. Sure, their goal was to escape, but… it felt more like that was going to be a post-credits scene, not a location he’d actually get to explore.

Yet, his worry had felt genuine on a level he didn’t intend. What if there’s nothing out there? What if we’re trapped in Black Mesa forever? What if Black Mesa is all there is?

Bubby had salvaged the situation, of course, with a typically-irreverent quip. Dr. Coomer had snapped back to normal like nothing had happened. They’d moved on. Gordon couldn’t avoid the dread that had settled over him, though, weighing him down harder than the HEV suit ever had. He had to make it through this. He had to find a way out of Black Mesa, and if there truly was nothing out there— 

A beep scared the ever-loving shit out of him and he jerked back, eyes wide with panic. Oh. It was just Discord. John exhaled hard and tried to steady his shaky nerves. What the hell was all that about? Sure, sometimes he found himself getting a bit too into character with games— it could be fun to contemplate what might be going through someone’s head— but that had been… 

It didn’t feel right.

-

john freeman
Why do you keep fucking changing it back
I am not John “Full Life Consequences” Freeman
the single biggest chungus
cuz its funne
bean.
how far did you get?
john freeman
Uhhh
I launched a rocket?
worm on a string
oh u got to blast pit already?
wait no no whats that one uhhhhhh
uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
bean.
Apprehension?
worm on a string
apprehension!
bean.
oh no you did On A Rail
john freeman
Is that the fucking trains one?
bean.
LMAO
worm on a string
BFGJBXDJKGF IM SO SORRRYYYYYYY
bean.
HOW BAD WAS IT
john freeman
DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN GET HIT BY THE TRAINS
DID YOU KNOW
worm on a string
OH NO
john freeman
I was ready to fucking snap you guys
bean.
see this is why i was saying you should get Black Mesa
worm on a string
IM SORRRYYYYYYYYYYY
u gotta get through the original 2 appreciate it tho!!
bean.
ON A RAIL WOULD ARGUE OTHERWISE
john freeman
What are you even talking about
bean.
reasons Black Mesa is good: On A Rail is much shorter
also ███ isn’t shitty (edited)
worm on a string
SHHH SPOILERS
bean.
oh fuque
john freeman
Anyway I have zero idea what Im supposed to do next
I launched a rocket for some reason?
worm on a string
wait did u not like
listen to any of the npcs
john freeman
Uh
bean.
JOHN,
JOHN YOU CAN’T KEEP SHOOTING EVERYBODY
john freeman
LISTEN
ITS NOT MY FAULT
matt, holographic edition
wasnt on a rail a minecraft achievement?
worm on a string
i think they took it out ):
matt, holographic edition
oh
that sucks
the single biggest chungus
its not minecraft you piece of shit gamer

-

AAC
you there, john? (edited)
disaster man john
Oh, shit, sorry
Yeah I just spaced out for a minute there
And then Bean started yelling at me because the AIs are too murder-happy
What’s up?
AAC
just checkin in on you
ais givin you any more trouble?
disaster man john
94e865re7tr9e8twfdh9
THAT’S A FUCKING UNDERSTATEMENT
AAC
i fogot that’s how you keysmash
holy shit.
disaster man john
What?
Wait. No.
No.
We are not having this argument again.
AAC
why are your fingers on the numbers row
what are you doin up there
disaster man john
I swear to god
Do NOT make fun of me right now
AAC
you keysmash like a cishet
disaster man john
Shut the fuck
Listen
Shit’s getting weird
Weird-er
I don’t trust the fucking guards anymore, man
And

John’s fingers hovered over his keys as he stared at the half-composed message.

It feels like I’m really

He hesitated. How would Az react? How could he even explain this? God, Az would think he was insane. But… it felt like…

It felt like he was really there, in Black Mesa. Like the casual banter between himself and Dr. Coomer was because they’d been friends from before he started playing the game and not just because he was programmed to help out the protagonist. Like his throwaway comments about random shit like the photo of a kid in Gordon’s locker had a meaning beyond just surface-level fluff. Like he was someone else. Like… 

John erased the message.

-

Everything hurt.

Gordon was honestly surprised he was still standing, let alone walking or running. God knows how badly beaten and bruised he was under the HEV suit. If only he was able to take the fucking thing off, that would solve so many problems. Sure, it saved his life more times than he could count, but he couldn’t help but think back to what that scientist had warned him about. About how the military was tracking them through his suit. Not only that, but how the entire thing was full of GPS trackers that he couldn’t get rid of.

What was he supposed to do? Not only was he going to be hunted down as long as he was wearing the only thing that had kept him alive so far, but… Gordon gritted his teeth as a too-rough movement sent another jolt of pain through his arm. What was left of his arm. He was still pretty solid in the “don’t think about it” stage, but that was getting harder and harder to do. Sure, he tried to not look at it, but each time he encountered an obstacle he needed to climb or something he wished he could shoot it would get dredged up from the murky water. Also it really, really hurt. Also he was probably going to run out of blood eventually?

Speaking of murky water. Tommy splashed into the brown water before them without any hesitation. Gordon watched as he vanished from sight, then looked around to see if there was any path he could take that didn’t involve getting, like, fifty infections. Tommy could say it was OSHA approved all he liked, but he wasn’t inclined to believe him right now. Flailing around in green slime was… Well, he’d been planning to say “bad enough”, but it was probably worse. He’d managed to keep his arm above the Danger Fluid, though, and that didn’t really look like an option here.

“Hurry, Mr. Freeman!” Tommy stuck his head up above the water’s surface and gave him a worried look before diving back under. Right. Couldn’t keep standing around. Gordon took a deep breath, tried to cover his wound with his remaining hand (and then remembered that wouldn’t really do him any good, seeing as he needed that arm to swim with), and then dove under.

The dive was mercifully much shorter than Gordon had feared. At some point he must’ve passed Tommy, seeing as he could hear someone behind him as he kicked his way to an opening. Or, at least, he hoped that was Tommy. He was not up to dealing with one of those fucking Meat Sharks again. God, that thing was going to give him nightmares for weeks.

Okay, focus, Gordon. Get out of the water, and keep getting the fuck out of Black Mesa.

Gordon wasn’t sure what he expected to see when he got his head above water again. He had a couple short, blissful moments of peace as he let out the breath he’d been holding (even though, for some reason, part of him had been telling him he didn’t need to hold it in the first place) and scattered water droplets everywhere with a shake of his head, but all of that shattered as his vision cleared and he took in what was waiting for him.

It was Dr. Coomer.

It was… a lot of Dr. Coomers.

The room was packed with copies of the friendly scientist he’d been traveling with up until now. Gordon’s jaw hung open as he tried to take the scene in. Next to him, Tommy jumped up out of the water like a gangly dolphin and landed with zero concern to the sight in front of him. When Gordon made no move to get onto dry land himself, Tommy turned to look down at him with a slight frown. “Wh— What’s the matter, Mr. Freeman..?”

Gordon opened and closed his mouth a couple of times as he tried to find any words for this. The Dr. Coomers were just… standing there. Idle. Waiting. Lifeless. It was the most uncanny thing he’d seen in his entire life, and he’d seen a lot of things these past few days. Despite that, Tommy seemed utterly unbothered. Either this was another thing where Tommy just didn’t see what was wrong with this picture, like how nobody could see that fucking skeleton that kept haunting him, or… 

“Tommy,” Gordon said, holding out his hand for Tommy to grab onto, “I need help—“

An entire room’s worth of eyes locked on him.

Gordon went as still as he could, even as he started to hyperventilate from panic. Maybe they’re like T-Rexes, maybe as long as I stay still— 

HELLO, GORDON!

Gordon screamed as the room erupted into chaos. The army of clones surged towards him; Gordon tried to dive back under, but several pairs of inhumanly strong arms grabbed on to him and dragged him up into the room like he weighed less than nothing. Gordon struggled, wishing desperately for a crowbar or a gun or anything to defend himself with as he felt fingers digging into the seams of the HEV suit’s armor plating. There, in the center of the sea of people shouting his name over and over, was a Dr. Coomer with a wide, manic grin and something deeply, unsettling wrong about him.

“I’ve unleashed the power of all 300 clones!” he boasted. Gordon winced as he was shoved up against a rusted metal-paneled wall; the sea of bodies parted as Dr. Coomer— the real one, it had to be him— strode towards him. There was something unearthly behind his eyes. It gave Gordon the feeling that he was standing on the edge of a yawning void, and any second now he was going to tumble down into it— or that the copies of the person he’d considered a friend were going to push and drag him down into it, no matter how many of them went down with him.

“There’s an entrance in your suit, Dr. Freeman,” the scientist said. His smile grew wider, and Gordon realized with paralyzing horror that, with the sheer amount of clones grabbing onto him, he couldn’t escape.

And I want in.

Gordon screamed. He wrenched his injured arm out of the Coomers’ grasp and held it up over his head like that would do him any good; it only deterred them momentarily, and the more he struggled the tighter they held onto him as the Original Coomer drew closer. He was surrounded. He needed to think of something, and fast, or else something very bad was gonna happen.

He spotted curly brown hair in the mob of white. “TOMMY! ” Gordon bellowed in panic. “TOMMY, YOU HAVE TO KILL THEM! YOU HAVE TO SHOOT THEM!” God, could Tommy even hear him over this noise?! He could hardly hear his own thoughts as the cheerful repetition drilled into him.

The Dr. Coomer with the awful void behind his eyes grabbed onto his arm. The armored plating of the HEV suit buckled under the force of his grip, and Gordon muffled a cry as the ever-present pain ratcheted up a couple of notches.

This was it. He was going to die down here.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small shape get lobbed into the thick of the crowd. A moment later, the grenade detonated and annihilated any clones caught in the blast. Gordon’s heart soared as he saw Tommy throw another grenade; the Coomers changed target, but weren’t able to close the distance in time before losing more of their number. Tommy held his position, fearless despite the enemy, and Gordon made a mental note to thank him if the two of them made it out of here alive.

“I’ve been outside Black Mesa, Dr. Freeman,” the prime Coomer said, snapping his attention back to him. “There’s nothing there.” Tommy’s big damn hero moment had caused him to let down his guard, and even with Tommy opening fire on the army of clones he was still restrained and hollow-eyed Coomer was far, far too close for comfort. This was the worst possible scenario.

But YOU.

Dr. Coomer reached out and grabbed at Gordon’s face. His other hand still had Gordon’s stump in a deathgrip, but right now the panicked man was more focused on the feeling of Dr. Coomer grabbing onto… something. His glasses? No, that wasn’t… right… 

I know there’s a world in your dreams.” Gordon’s vision distorted. Not blurry, like was usually the case when someone was fucking with his glasses, but something… else . Something different, something horrible. He could vaguely make out the shape of Dr. Coomer among the static filling his vision. This was wrong, this was wrong, this was wrong—

AND I NEED TO GO THERE.

A gunshot rang out, then another, and another, as Tommy unloaded a full magazine into the clones holding Gordon down. Gordon felt the hold on him loosen, and despite his near-blindness he wrestled the remaining Dr. Coomer off of him and made a break for it. The static in his vision was getting worse, though, and his surroundings cut in and out of blackness like he was watching something on an old, shitty TV. He knew he couldn’t make it far like this, but if he could just make it far enough

End of the line, Dr. Freeman,” Dr. Coomer said from behind him. Gordon turned to face him with wide-eyed terror. He could barely make out the silhouette of Tommy in the doorway, but every atom of his being was telling him to run, and keep running, until he’d left everything behind.

What was there to run to, though? Black Mesa was all there is. There’s nothing out there.

There was a burst of gunfire, then harsh, crushing silence. Gordon locked up, heart hammering in his chest and breathing shallow, as he hoped and prayed that it was over. Please, God, let it be over.

“Mr. Freeman!” Tommy. That was Tommy. Relief just about knocked him over, and he dropped to his knees as the adrenaline of life-or-death battle drained out of him. “I killed them all.”

“All of them?” Gordon’s vision was still fucked up. He thought that maybe destroying Coomer would’ve fixed it, but… apparently not. He felt around his face, trying to find any evidence of what Coomer had done to him; his fingers brushed against what might’ve been his glasses, and after some fumbling he adjusted it enough for his vision to return to normal. Tommy was standing in front of him, surrounded by corpses and splattered with blood. He was still aiming his gun, but Gordon had more things on his mind than trying to remind Tommy what trigger discipline was. “What about the real one?”

When Tommy didn’t respond, he collapsed into an uncomfortable sitting position and stared at the remnants of his arm— the entrance in his suit. The sound of gunfire made him flinch. He half-expected Dr. Coomer to pop out from behind the corner— No, it was just Tommy unloading into the more intact corpses strewn about the room.

“Did you kill ‘em?” Gordon managed after his breathing steadied. “I need to know if you killed the real one, the one that was…“ He hesitated. “The world in my dreams. Did you hear about that? Did you hear what he said?”

What did he mean? What the fuck was that? Gordon remembered Coomer jumping outside Black Mesa, remembered his chilling reveal of what he’d seen beyond the border, but this other half of the puzzle was unfamiliar and, frankly, even more terrifying.

Tommy didn’t respond to his questions. It was something he was used to from him, sure, but right now he really needed some feedback. He couldn’t stand the oppressive silence. “Tommy! Talk to me!

The sheer desperation in his voice must’ve gotten through to him, because Tommy stopped what he was doing and walked over to where Gordon lay in a disheveled heap. “Umm…” He looked down at him, gun still aimed and hopefully empty (Gordon really didn’t feel like adding bullet wounds to his list of injuries). “Do you want a soda?”

Gordon slumped down and smacked his head against the floor with a pathetic groan.

“You need to tell me the truth,” he managed after some internal screaming. “Did one escape? ” Tommy gave him a confused look. Great, he didn’t understand. “The one that followed me— Did you kill it? Did you kill it?

“We should get going, Mr. Freeman,” Tommy said with some hesitation. Gordon inhaled, counted to four, and exhaled. Right. Gotta keep going. Don’t think about what just happened, don’t think about it, don’t think about it. It was getting really hard to not think about it. He let Tommy help him to his feet and stumbled along behind him as the scientist guided him towards a med station that he really hoped wasn’t empty.

He stepped over one of the Coomer corpses blocking the way. It reached up and grabbed his leg. “SURPRISE ATTACK, Gordon!”

Gordon screamed and kicked him as hard as he could. As it turned out, that was pretty damn hard; it knocked Dr. Coomer away from him and into a wall, and before the threat could get to his feet Tommy unloaded the remainder of his magazine into him. Shaking, Gordon approached the limp body and once again found himself wishing for a weapon of his own.

There was a ringing in his ears. His vision pulsed, and Gordon grunted in pain as a migraine overcame him; static danced around the edges, and his view was filled with a red tint that blurred everything into vague shapes. A voice filled his thoughts, sounding like it was coming from inside his own head: “Gordon…

Dr. Coomer.

Every time you go to sleep, ” Dr. Coomer said, “I can feel my body TORN apart… ATOM by ATOM.

Gordon was standing over him. Gordon’s hand was shaking. He looked down at the body and found himself meeting its eyes. He found himself staring into a void. Tommy was talking, maybe, but none of his words reached him. All he could hear was Coomer’s voice.

It’s agonizing…

Gordon could hear a heartbeat. Was it his? He tried to focus on it, tried to block out the voice rattling around in his head. It was impossibly loud: Dr. Coomer's voice drowned out everything, leaving him with nothing else to hold onto no matter how much he tried.

“…John.

…John?

Who the fuck is John?

Who is—

He is— 

I’ve SEEN outside Black Mesa, John.

“SHUT UP!” With a fierce scream, Gordon slapped the ragdolled lifeless Dr. Coomer as hard as he could. It felt like he’d hit a wall at full force; he shook his hand a little, his palm stinging. The impact had barely jostled Coomer, and he continued as if Gordon hadn’t done anything at all.

There’s NOTHING…

GET OUT OF MY HEAD! John Gordon pressed his arms to the side of his head, as if covering his ears would stop the voice coming from inside him. His fingers brushed up against something familiar unfamiliar that should shouldn’t be there, and he jerked his hand away like he’d been stung.

But I know… YOU…

He dropped to his knees. The speech continued, unstoppable in its progress no matter how much he screamed and fought against it.

There’s a world outside here, John…

Gordon John Gordon pressed the heel of his hand into his headset forehead and screamed until his throat burned.

And I need you to take me there.

-

“hey,” Benrey said, “what happened to your arm?”

Gordon opened his mouth, closed it, then collapsed into a limp heap on the floor much like the rest of the Science Team had. His head smacked into the floor a bit harder than intended

and suddenly he wasn’t at Black Mesa anymore.

The first thing he was aware of was the fact that his head really, really hurt from where he’d hit it. The next thing was that everything had gone pitch-dark, like when the lights had cut out: impossibly black, unforgiving, and dead silent except for himself. The Science Team was gone. Black Mesa was gone.

Something was on his face. Gordon grabbed at it, remembered the sensation of Dr. Coomer grabbing at something that hadn’t been there but that he felt now, and ripped it off with more vigor than was probably needed; the unfamiliar object clattered the floor, followed by the controllers he’d been holding. Controllers? He didn’t have time to take that in. Instead his eyes were locked onto his hands. Plural.

His right arm was there like nothing had happened.

Gordon hiked up the sleeve of the thick grey hoodie he was wearing (what happened to the HEV suit?) and found his arm fully intact, without even a scar marking where there’d been a severe injury just a few minutes before. He flexed his fingers and turned it from side to side, unbelieving. No, but— How? He’d felt the soldiers hack it off while he screamed in agony. He’d spent two hours limping through Black Mesa and bleeding out. It felt unreal. He wasn’t supposed to have it. So— Why? 

He could still feel it hurting, but it felt… wrong. Faint. Every part of him was saying he shouldn’t have an arm right now, that he should be in serious pain, but… Gordon awkwardly prodded at it a few times as if expecting his finger to clip through it, then grabbed on and squeezed as he tried to verify that it actually existed. Yeah, ow, that hurt a little. His brain was still bringing up errors despite that; there was a faint feeling of pins-and-needles from his fingertips to a point just below his elbow, and he could feel a ring of that weird, distant pain encircling the wound that wasn’t there anymore, but asides from that it was… normal.

Okay, Gordon, focus. Figure out the magic regrowing limb later. Where the hell are you now?

Gordon scanned his surroundings for any sign of the Science Team and found none. This… well, it very much wasn’t Black Mesa. It was a messy bedroom, a bit larger than the dorms in Black Mesa; the bed was unmade, a clothes hamper by what he figured might be a closet door was overflowing, and posters of things he didn’t recognize (but he did recognize) were tacked up on the walls. “Dr. Coomer?” he hazarded. “Tommy? Bubby? …Benrey?” No answer. “Guys?”

Shakily, he grabbed onto a nearby chair and got to his feet. He’d gotten so used to the HEV suit that he felt vulnerable without it; sure, it was a relief to not have the heavy skintight armor clinging to him anymore, but he didn’t realize how much safer he’d felt with it until it was gone. Being without weapons had been one thing, but this was another. And, hey, at least he’d had the Science Team backing him up… 

He braced himself against the desk the chair had been parked next to. Okay, Gordon, think. Breathe, and think, and figure something out. Use your big stupid brain. You’ve been through a lot of shit, you can make it out of this too. Step one: figure out where he was and what happened to the Science Team. Gordon turned to the computer he’d been ignoring until now, figuring that was a good place to start

and saw the Half-Life title screen.

He wasn’t Gordon Freeman.

His name was

It was like something had been violently ripped out of him. John collapsed forward like a puppet with cut strings and banged his head on his desk; barely muffled by it, he screamed in a mixture of pain and confusion and fear and frustration until his voice gave out and he slumped back down onto the floor. He stared unseeing at the Index headset and controllers Gordon he’d tossed aside earlier; things started coming back to him in messy patches, bits and pieces linking together to form an image that left him nauseous.

His name was John. He was 27. He lived in Montana after his family had moved here when he was younger. His friend Az had given him a copy of Half-Life VR, and he’d been playing it for the past… however long. He wasn’t Gordon Freeman. His name was John. His name was

It’s agonizing… John.

John curled up in the fetal position and buried his head in his arms. Both arms. He never lost an arm. It didn’t matter that his brain was still telling him he should be missing his right arm from just below the elbow, he had both arms, he’d never lost it. Somehow, some way, Dr. Coomer had known his name. Dr. Coomer had looked at Gordon Freeman and had seen beyond him, had seen outside of Black Mesa, and had seen the player holding the controllers. John had forgotten who he was, but Dr. Coomer knew— how long had he known?— and seen right through him.

There’s a world in your dreams.

Oh, god. John remembered the hands, remembered being held against the wall as Dr. Coomer approached, and remembered the hollow-eyed scientist reaching out. He remembered standing over yet another broken body, and remembered the voice in his head saying words he didn’t understand. He remembered. There was something outside of Black Mesa, and it was this. It was him. The world in Gordon’s dreams was this. Every time Gordon fell asleep— that had been him turning the game off for the night, tearing Dr. Coomer apart atom by atom.

He retched a little and tried to calm himself down before he stressed himself sick. What was he going to do ? Az had told him the AI were advanced, sure, but… This was different. This was so, so much worse. The AI was self-aware. How long had they been? Had that been the case ever since he first booted up the game? Had that been the case ever since Dr. Coomer jumped over the mountains— jumped over the map boundary— and seen the endless void outside Black Mesa? What had he done? What was he going to fucking do now?!

And, beyond that… 

John’s arm still hurt.

VR wasn’t supposed to hurt. That was something that happened in movies, or creepypastas, or fanfics, or… Point is, he wasn’t supposed to feel anything. He wasn’t supposed to feel the bruising from where Gordon had been beaten senseless, wasn’t supposed to feel the agony from when Gordon had lost an arm, wasn’t supposed to still be feeling woozy from blood loss. He’d been roleplaying to get the AI to function, sure, but… he wasn’t supposed to actually be Gordon Freeman. He wasn’t supposed to have memories of spending time with Joshua, of when he’d first started working for Black Mesa, of actually enjoying shitty games like Kane & Lynch 2 (which had honestly just been something he’d pulled out of a hat because he thought it’d be funny).

He wasn’t supposed to be having to remind himself over and over of who he actually was, because his brain kept fighting against it and saying his name was Gordon, he’d lost an arm after getting betrayed by people he’d thought were his friends, and he needed to get back to the Science Team and get the fuck out of Black Mesa.

“I’m not in Black Mesa,” he said in a hoarse voice, as if saying it out loud would maybe help him believe it better. “It— it’s just a game, bro. It’s just games. It’s just…“

He didn’t see Az’s message, this time.

-

worm on a string
has any1 seen john?
bean.
if you say soda is a soup one more time I am going to break your legs with my mind
matt, holographic edition
fcking try i dare you
bean.
fall down some stairs, Matthew
matt, holographic edition
[ uno_no_u.png ]
worm on a string
no but rly tho
the single biggest chungus
@john freeman
helloooooooooo
john
john
j o  h n
matt, holographic edition
hes on busy again i think
the single biggest chungus
he isn’t.
i jus checked
matt, holographic edition
oh
worm on a string
its been a week,,
the single biggest chungus
god i hope i didnt actually piss him off
bean.
he just pretends to be angry for fun, I dont think you did anything
matt, holographic edition
wise words from the telekinetic leg-brekaer
worm on a string
h,,
the single biggest chungus
hey @AAC (an aedgelord coolguy) you’re irl friends with him right
is he like. good?
matt, holographic edition
maybe he just needs some downtime
or something
bean.
John’s been busy before, but… not for this long I don’t think
and he usually says something by now
@john freeman
the single biggest chungus
@disaster man john
hey john look i changed your name back
are we cool now
johnnnnnnnnnnnn
worm on a string
should i try calling him?
matt, holographic edition
if he has discord on mute that wont do anything
worm on a string
fuck
cmonnn johnnnnnnnnnn
what if something happened,,
bean.
it’s gonna be ok, Worm, don’t panic
maybe his internet got knocked out again

AAC (an aedgelord coolguy) is typing…

-

He’s back in Black Mesa.

He’s sitting in the break room and talking to Tommy about pizza rolls. There’s a new Beyblade and its Bitbeast is a pizza roll and Tommy really wants it. His birthday is coming up. He’s gonna be 37. He makes a note to self: buy Tommy the Pizza Deluxe XF.

ATTENTION. JOHN,” the Black Mesa VOX says. “REPORT TO ANOMALOUS MATERIALS LAB.

Tommy tells him he’s gotta go, it sounds important. He waves goodbye and steps out the door and Az is leaning against a wall. Az asks him how he’s doing. He says he’s fine, but he’s gotta go. The test is about to start. He’s running late, and he’s gonna get fired if he doesn’t hurry up. Az says okay. Az says

“Don’t you think you’ve done this before?” Az asks.

He’s back in Black Mesa.

He’s back in Black Mesa, and there’s blood on the walls. He’s back in Black Mesa, and his arm hurts. He’s back in Black Mesa, and Benrey is looming in front of him and their grin is full of teeth and teeth and teeth. He’s back in Black Mesa and Dr. Coomer won’t listen to him. He’s back in Black Mesa and Dr. Coomer is grabbing him. He’s back in Black Mesa and Dr. Coomer takes his headset off. He’s back in Black Mesa and he’s trying to fire his minigun but his arm isn’t working. He’s back in Black Mesa and he can’t move.

He’s back in Black Mesa and he’s lying there and Az is there and Az says

“Hello, Gordon!”

John woke up with a scream.

“Are you quite alright, Gordon?” Dr. Coomer asked. John didn’t respond at first. A nightmare. It was just a nightmare. He wasn’t in Black Mesa. He was in his room, sitting at his desk, and he’d been exploring some shitty GMod map that Benrey found with the Science Team. They’d stopped to take a break, and John had taken his VR headset off for the time being so he could just chat while he grounded himself back in reality, and then somewhere along the line he’d fallen asleep.

Well, that sucked. Talk about a cliche. John scratched at a spot just below his right elbow and tried to focus on himself, on who he was, on where he was, on what he was doing. He’d found some exercises on how to manage dissociation after some curious Googling a bit ago, and so far they’d been… well, not fixing it, it was something running far too deep to be fixed he feared, but it helped a little. He just had to stay grounded. He wasn’t in Black Mesa, and he wasn’t— 

“Gordon?”

“I’m fine, Dr. Coomer,” John said with a groan.

Okay. So… things hadn’t gone to plan.

He’d quit playing for a while, after he’d Gordon lost an arm and after Gordon he’d woken up on the floor of his own room with no memory of who he was or where he was until he got shocked back to reality. He hadn’t been able to sleep that night, or the night after, or for… a while… until his body finally had enough and he’d passed out for about a whole day. Even just seeing the desktop shortcut for the game would fill him with existential dread, but he couldn’t put it out of his mind. He couldn’t leave the Science Team behind, not after learning how much Dr. Coomer knew about their fictional reality. And… he had a bit of a selfish reason, too.

He’d hoped that if he beat the game then the curse or whatever would be broken and he’d go back to being John, the average guy that listened to Linkin Park and got in arguments with his online friends over inane shit. That he would stop being Gordon Freeman. That all of the mismatched memories and phantom pains and scrambled identity issues would go away. He just had to beat the game, and everything would be fine.

It… it got harder as he went on. The Science Team had no idea what was happening to him or who he really was. They didn’t realize the truth behind his nervous breakdowns, didn’t know about his strange behaviour outside of the game, and didn’t know that he was fighting to hold onto what was left of his previous self. Even Dr. Coomer seemed oblivious, up until the very end:

Gordon. If you woke up one day, and realized everything around you was a lie… was FAKE… what would you do?

He hadn’t had an answer.

None of this is real, is it?

He couldn’t avoid it anymore. He’d tried so, so hard to put it out of his mind in the final hour. As much as he wanted all of this to be over, as much as he wanted his life to go back to normal… He didn’t want his adventure with the Science Team to end just yet. He didn’t want to expose them to the horrible truth that Dr. Coomer had seen. He kept up the facade, kept up the roleplay, because even though he knew that falling back into the role was surely making his mental state worse he had convinced himself that he needed to do it for them.

He didn’t want to say goodbye.

The credits had rolled, and John had taken off the headset, and he’d been crying. It had been bittersweet, seeing the game fade out after one last hurrah with the Science Team (and after one last stupid argument), and he’d come out the other end… and nothing had changed. His hands were still unfamiliar. His room was still unrecognizable. His brain still told him he was Gordon Freeman, and John realized that he was fucked.

“Hey, uh, I’ll be back later,” John said in the general direction of his microphone. He waited for Coomer’s acknowledgement before taking off his headphones, getting to his feet, and shambling out of his room.

Importing the AIs to GMod had been a lucky idea— Az had told him the game was on sale, and seeing as it was pretty close to Half-Life anyway John had figured out how to move the files over without breaking anything. He’d even discovered that it had a VR mod, which was pretty sweet. He’d hesitated for a long while when trying to select a player model. He could pick something that represented him better, maybe, or… 

Well, there had really only been one answer.

John stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. The word “cliche” came to mind again. The face looking back at him was unfamiliar: short, ruffled dark brown hair, pale skin, dark eyes that looked nearly black, stubble, a face that was a bit too round. It felt more like he was looking at a stranger that also happened to be mirroring all of his actions. It was… unpleasant was a bit too light of a word. Horrifying, maybe.

He reached up with the hand that he shouldn’t have (sure, G-Man had given it back to him Gordon god who even knows anymore, but it had ended up being a prosthetic that persisted even after the transfer to a different game— he tried not to think about how that worked) and curled a lock of his hair around a finger. Maybe he should grow it out. He hadn’t had long hair in years, but maybe having a ponytail at least would help him feel a bit better..?

It was way too early in the morning for him to be awake, but John made some coffee anyway. He set his mug down on his desk, sat back down, took a breath, then put his headphones back on. He didn’t have the mental fortitude to switch back to VR just yet. Not after that nightmare. “Alright, I’m back,” he announced. “How’s everybody doing?”

“Gordon,” Bubby said in his usual impatient tone, “your chat client is beeping again!” John’s half-hearted smile fell. Right… Az must be DMing him. He didn’t know why — it wasn’t like he ever responded— but ever since he’d gone silent Az had checked in on him at least once every couple days. Their messages ranged from encouraging cat memes to telling him about stuff that he’d missed out on in the group chat to little tips that ended up steering him in the right direction to solve a Science Team-related problem. Even though he never responded, John still appreciated each message he got, no matter the subject. It was… nice, knowing that someone cared about him.

He could’ve sworn that, once, one of those messages had said “Gordon”.

He’d blinked, squinted at his screen, and re-read the message.

AAC
hey john hows it goin (edited)

John had convinced himself that the “(edited)” was just because Az had fixed a typo. He didn’t let himself think about what he first saw. He told himself it was because it was tired, because he was so used to the Science Team calling him Gordon all the time even after the game was over (he’d tried asking them to call him “John”, but it didn’t stick and he discovered with some alarm that after the game he was responding more reliably to “Gordon” anyway), because… 

Anyway. John tabbed out of the game and hovered his cursor over Discord. He should probably see what Az was saying this time, but… He shivered a little. The nightmare had faded to nothing more than patchy, incoherent details as soon as he woke up, but… he remembered seeing Az there, in the halls of Black Mesa, out of place but there nonetheless. He didn’t want to think about what that meant. It’s just because Az is the only one that still talks to me, he told himself. They're always checking in on me, of course they're in my dreams… John groaned. Wow, that sounds pathetic.  

He hadn’t told Az what happened. He hadn’t told anyone. How the hell was he supposed to? ‘Hi, the videogame I was playing might be haunted, and now I have a bunch of AIs living in my computer and yelling at me all the time, and also I think I’m Gordon Freeman.’ He’d sound completely delusional. So John just… didn’t. He didn’t talk to anyone besides the Science Team, didn’t go outside, didn’t do anything besides fight an internal war with himself and lay in bed and sometimes play videogames with or do some sort of shenanigan in GMod whenever the Science Team asked.

John didn’t know how long it’d been since he first started playing the game. He felt like he barely existed on this plane of reality anymore. Time passed by, with the only thing keeping him remotely attached to the concept being the messages from Az.

“I can’t keep doing this,” John said, cutting Tommy off from when he’d been talking about something or the other. “I mean— No, Tommy, go on, I just… I’m gonna head out for a while.”

Bubby frowned a little. “Are you sure you’re doing okay? You look like shit.” John opened his mouth, closed it, looked at his discarded VR headset, and hoped that Bubby was referring to the currently-ragdolled Gordon model and hadn’t manifested the ability to hijack his webcam or something. …He should probably unplug that. You know, just in case.

 “I feel like shit,” he replied. “I’m gonna, uh, go to 7-11 or something. Do you guys want anything?” he added on as an afterthought, forgetting for a moment that he couldn’t exactly give them anything physical. The AIs replied in chorus anyway; Dr. Coomer wanted soda, obviously, and Benrey said something that sounded kinda like “donkey kong” under the noise of everyone else speaking. “Alright, cool.”

Okay. Wallet, keys, phone. John looked down at his phone for a moment before putting it in his hoodie’s front pocket. “Hey, real quick? Don’t— don’t contact me. Unless you really, really need to. Unless it’s REALLY important. Okay?” Their reaction was more mixed than he was comfortable with. “Seriously. You can… I guess you can message me, that should be fine, but. Nothing audio. I’m gonna be out in public.”

“whats the matter?” Benrey said. “scared im gonna tell everyone how much of a loser you are? huh, feetman?”

“Don’t— don’t fucking call me that.” John glared at the computer screen and hoped Benrey could feel the death lasers he was mentally taking aim with. “I don’t know how you can fuck with this thing, but… Just let me have about an hour of normalcy. That would be cool. Okay? Okay.”

He knew it was a bit much to ask. Still, maybe he’d be lucky this time around and things would wait until he bought some chips to go horribly wrong. Benrey played along and quieted down, and John left the game running (atom by atom , Dr. Coomer’s voice said in the back of his head). Right. He was just gonna be gone for an hour at most. Just gonna stop at 7-11, get some chips, maybe get some soda, and then head home. Easy task. No big deal.

John couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad was gonna happen.