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The HEV suit was desperately upset with him.

The Advisor had flung Gordon against the hangar's retaining wall with enough force to gouge a crater in the concrete. He failed to draw a single breath before retching; even with the ballistic protection offered by the armoured panels and rigid ceramic plates covering his upper torso, the impact had succeeded in splitting his stomach lining; the crimson clots in his vomit left precious little to the imagination. There was foam at his mouth and his breathing had grown dangerously laboured, breath hitching and rasping in his lungs.

Gordon hit the floor shoulder-first, shards of chipped cement cutting into his clavicle through a puncture in the suit's armour. He hadn't the scene of mind to cushion his head; it was only the degeneration of the concrete that saved him from the loss of several teeth when he cracked his face against the floor, but the fall still managed to split and bruise his lips, breaking his nose and setting it to bleeding. The suit's medical diagnostics registered the sloughed and sliding feeling of Gordon's cold-blistered skin beneath the neoprene bodysuit, his fractured sternum grating together, the shattered bones of his left foreleg pressing incessantly against their shinguard.

He felt in that moment not wholly human, but like some shivering, wounded prey animal, pulled down by a hungry predator and partially gutted but still, in some tenacious manner, clinging to the last vestiges of life.

There was a perverse justice in that, Gordon supposed. Everything he'd done in his life had been little more sophisticated than the spitting and yowling of a traumatised beast trying to keep the scavengers from picking at his innards. He had killed more people than he could count in the wake of the resonance cascade, during the takeover of Black Mesa, on Xen. And then, 17 years โ€“โ€“ and, incidentally, 17 cities โ€“โ€“ into a future cudgeled into half-starved, infertile asepsis by the Combine, he'd carried on killing...

Gordon coughed violently, forcing sickness from his throat. The motion forced thick dollops of blood from between Gordon's teeth, the gore hitting the floor in nonsensical Rorschach patterns โ€“โ€“ fragments of death and bile scattered without meaning, without hope of interpretation, without hope of redemption. Since the resonance cascade, Gordon could only think about death dispassionately, as chunks and pulp and spoiling flesh. Death had matted in his hair as the regurgitated insides of a stalactitic barnacle. Death had gummed the joints of his HEV suit as the clear, colorless cerebrospinal fluid of colleagues whose heads he'd been forced to bludgeon, the fleshy headcrabs doing little to cushion the skulls to which they clung.

Deathโ€ฆ bodiesโ€ฆ blood... wellsprings and waste products. That a large portion of Xen's fauna, not to mention the Combine themselves, were parasitic struck Gordon as being possessed of a certain reasonable, comprehensible rationale: the beginning and the end. In the midst of life we are in death. Et cetera.

Gordon shuddered and curled into himself, attempting entirely in vain to stave off both the chill air and the creeping dread. A disquietude vaster and sourer than mere foreboding swept through him, sucking on his skin like a limpet clinging to a submerged rock; he gasped great, ragged breaths, the effort immensely difficult through the haemorrhaging of his chest and the clotting in his nose, trickling with grave finality along the back of his throat until he tasted rusted nails on his tongue. The HEV bleated its usual nonsense about major fractures and imminent respiratory failure, the suit's power supply too depleted to palliate the aches and pains with little more than microdoses of localized anaesthetic.

Despite their immediacy, the events of the past short while were becoming, in some quiet but not entirely natural manner, increasingly distant. Something deep within him โ€“โ€“ and what it was he had neither the leisure nor the skill to recognise โ€“โ€“ seemed to retreat away from whatever doom he sensed nipping at his heels. Gordon had discovered not long after the resonance cascade that he possessed a number of convenient corridors of evasion in him, with their protective turns and angles adept at putting distance between himself and impending โ€“โ€“ and inevitable, he feared โ€“โ€“ psychological collapse.

Despite Gordon's best efforts, the hanger of the White Forest Base, the crumbling brickwork and gravel-fine concrete partitions, seemed to blur and lose cohesion, devolving into something darker and dirtier. Twisted forms in Gordon's peripheries might or might not have been suggestive of the twin-turbine transport helicopter and the aerial work platform, the freight elevator and the crates laden with supplies, but those forms were strained and ruptured, never quite resolving and leaving nothing in the mind but an overwhelming sense of wrongness. The place appeared to exist in perpetual dusk, the setting sun streaming through the broken window doing little to illuminate the general miasma.

The mountainside must have been a pleasant place twenty years before: trees overhanging the dirt roads, deer grazing on the hillsides, sunshine glancing off the swift surface of the river, little frame buildings like something out of a Bavarian postcard dotting the banks here and there.

It wasn't a pleasant place any more: garbage scows along the river, so polluted the water roiled and churned against the levee in a greasy grey soup; coal yards left over from the long-abandoned mines, the black tunnels still save for the inconsolable trills of the antlions and the grinding of diesel fuel rushing through the pistons of much belaboured generators, the sounds boring through the ears like Doctor Kennedy's wellbore stability analyses back at Black Mesa; dead-end blocks of decrepit outhouses and lumberyards, the chasses of aging concrete riddled with hairline fractures from the abuse of portal storms and the bombardment of Combine outriders... and the surprisingly clandestine attacks of the Advisors...

An uncanny silence settled upon the hangar. Its touch was frigid, its embrace that of a corpse and just as comforting.

A corpse.

Pain gripped its claws into Gordon's stomach. He heard the ocean in his head โ€“โ€“ a roar building in his ears and breaking against the backs of his eyes.

Eli...

Dear God...

Each of his breaths sounded deep and froggy with the promise of tears, mucus closing his already bruised and aching throat. Gordon tried to move his hand along the floor... the oil drippings beneath his armour making the rivulets in the cement gleam like blue-satin ribbons.

Not three feet outside the radius of Gordon's reaching arm, Eli's chest was still; dead air hung around his mouth and nostrils. His hazel eyes stared at the ceiling, dull and depthless. A steady stream of blood and liquified gray matter percolated from the base of his skull, his heart persisting โ€“โ€“ aortic blood momentum, some distant part of Gordon's mind affirmed to itself โ€“โ€“ even as what remained of his brain sloughed across the concrete and pooled in the petrol from the spill slicks.

Gordon's outstretched hand beckoned a species of vertigo that seemed to have a faculty for nausea with an absolute lack of any accompanying motion whatsoever. Just as there were silencers that, when affixed to automatic hand-weapons, deadened their reports, so too did it feel to Gordon as though the massive hangar were bracketed by sound baffles. He scrabbled desperately through the soft dark; he swore he could feel the slime of it hitching into his mouth with his every breath, nails shearing from his fingers to the quick as he clawed through shadows that seemed to have grown inordinately in the short time since...

Something is wrong.

Eli Vance's body was twisted on the ground and dead beyond doubt.

Flung away by an Advisor, just as Gordon had been... left bloody and broken, abandoned on the hangar floor.

Abandoned.

Alone.

Gordon felt the short hairs on the back of his neck standing up of their own accord.

The thread suddenly dropped in a hopeless snarl, just as he was about to manoeuvre it through the needle's eye of his understanding.

Where...

Where is...?

"Dad? Gordon?"

He saw her.

Alyx Vance was standing at the far end of the hangar; she had not been there ten seconds previously...

The air shivered around her as if her presence offended it, faint motes of dust floating in a sluggish halation around her head. Her mauve-coloured eyelids, muddy with exhaustion and bruised from crying, went wide around the bright whites of her eyes. Expressions played across her face over a fistful of moments โ€“โ€“ fear, hatred, shattered pride, pain, guilt. Her gaze โ€“โ€“ clinging to her father's body like a petrified cat over water, for whom to surrender was to be swept away โ€“โ€“ was astonishingly direct and lucid. More than her being fiercely self-assertive or disarmingly pretty โ€“โ€“ both of which had impressed themselves upon Gordon's notice with an uncommon efficacy โ€“โ€“ Alyx had one of those extraordinarily empathetic, extraordinarily vital faces that filled his senses with an unfamiliar sense of calm, leaving traces of cinnamon warmth in Gordon's stomach, like the hazy, teasing reminder of some previous existence in a kinder, quieter life.

That extraordinarily empathetic, extraordinarily vital face was streaked with tears and snot, frozen in a rictus grimace of grief.

Stained with the blood of a slain parent.

Suddenly, Gordon registered the smell of dust and burning in his nostrils and an unhealthy, watery taste in his mouth. Fear froze the plasma in his veins to a brittle, mineral consistency.

"Alyx..."

Her name on his lips was little more than a gasp, an empty sob in lieu of a sound, a desperate drag of air that retained only the meanest contours of human speech.

Gordon felt the air around him stir as Alyx reached out her hand, moving as though through a fast-setting resin, muscle straining with the effort. The shadows of her fingers fell across Gordon's cheek for the space of a heartbeat, like the stroke of a feather.

A single strand of hair had come loose from her headband, falling to tap against her cheek. Gordon wanted something desperately to tuck it back...

He heaved himself a pathetic few inches along the floor, teeth clenched, the labour leaving him white. He shivered, shifting to one elbow, trying to lever himself upright. Failing, he fell on to his side with a terrible whimper.

"Gordon, hun... Gordon..."

To his utmost mortification, Gordon felt a single tear slip out from under his eyelid, overwhelmed and aggrieved by his shame, the acute sense of loss, as well as his dear friend's earnestness, her need to make things right, and her aggravation at having been denied that very desire.

She tried to take a step towards him, lifting her boot...

"Alyx."

The voice pronounced her name strangely, as though it was ill-accustomed to addressing people in such intimate terms. It held the raspy texture of coated abrasive, murmuring words across sandpaper...

When it appeared behind Alyx, resting a proprietary hand on her shoulder and freezing her to the spot, Gordon's mind screamed until it, too, lost its voice.

The creature at Alyx' back wore the skin and skeleton of a tall, middle-aged man in a tidy blue suit. Gordon had once guessed, peering between the plastic blinds of the Sector C conference room back at Black Mesa, that it was no more than fifty, but it seemed, at times, much older. There was a weight, a weariness, on its face that reminded Gordon, with no small measure of horror and revulsion, that one day he might very well look and feel just the same. Its features were fine and sharp and disconcertingly symmetrical, arched eyebrows and starvation-hollow cheeks lending it a dark, almost satanic look. Its widow's peak was combed into a stiff, uninspired flattop of grey and black, leaving nothing to obscure its ill-matched eyes โ€“โ€“ a luminous cross-pollination of blue and green, like the radioactive slag beneath the Sector D rocket propulsion silo.

There was nothing in its eyes that suggested anger or pleasure, no dignity of human emotion. There was reserve. Patience. Perhaps an inkling of interest that Gordon was tempted to recognize as a faint though formidable curiosity. It peered constantly in two slightly contrary directions, as if the illusion of eyes and ears and organs of sundry other senses were more for Gordon's benefit than its own.

Rise and shine, M-Mister Freeman. Rise... a-and... shine.

The intonations, at the time, had been so strange that Gordon had struggled to decipher more than one sentence in three...

Summoned by the Man in the suit, Gordon had come to himself in a train car, peering out a grimy window at rushing city alleyways, slowing as the train slowed for its station, the doors opening with a pneumatic hiss like the sigh of a battle-weary dragon.

No weapons. No HEV. No Black Mesa. No Xen. Not even a sodding crowbar.

No clue where โ€“โ€“ or when โ€“โ€“ he was.

It had been a clean snap in the sequence of Gordon's life, with no memory of anything in particular beforehand that might have caused it. No sense whatsoever of what might have happened in the interim save for the remnants of the confusion one found in dreams.

Barney had intercepted him a mere few feet shy of boarding the train to Nova Prospekt. After contacting Isaac Kleiner, the former Black Mesa security guard had donned his Civil Protection gas mask and vocoder and escorted Gordon through City 17, under the guise of an arrest. Barney's deception was complete, almost machinelike in its perfection, an actor playing a part for perhaps the hundredth time...

Gordon clutched pitifully his skull as a megrimous headache began to throb between his temples. He made an ambiguous moan of pain and confusion in lieu of actual words.

No, it wasn't Barney... it hadn't been...

That's not how it happened.

"Gordon..." murmured Alyx, struggling to move her jaw, "please..."

For a moment, the Man glanced at Alyx with an expression that, had a human worn it, a casual observer might mistake for bemusement. Her effort, to it, was as nonsensical as asking how one breathed or moved one's hand... not that the Man was given to doing either entirely convincingly...

Gordon remembered: their group had been separated when Overwatch Soldiers kidnapped by Barney as he was scouting an escape route from a rooftop vantage point...

No.

Gordon's mind screamed a chorus of derision and delirium. It shrieked and howled, picking out old memories, tearing open old wounds and fears. There were voices in his head and they burned. His stomach churned with sick; his chest felt suffocatingly tight.

Alyx had been the one kidnapped by Overwatch. Alyx had helped him disable the dark matter reactor in the citadel and evacuate the citizens of City 17, hitching a ride on the last train out of the urban center along with Barney and his insurgents. One of the resistance members had used the Gravity Gun to free Gordon from the remains of their crashed train when the Citadel exploded. After making contact with the White Forest base, Barney hadn't been severely injured by a wayward Hunter because he'd been scouting some empty coal hoppers on the other side of the staith...

No.

Something was wrong... something was very, very wrong...

Gordon choked, desperate to breathe.

He... he had been wandering in the coal yard near the wreckage of the train, lost in the darkness beneath one of the derailed hopper cars. He had watched โ€“โ€“ helpless, trapped โ€“โ€“ as she was... as the Hunter... he had smelt it first: the iron-sweet scent of blood and decay tainting the musty air.

Alyx... impaled on the blades beneath the Hunter's pair of compound eyes... dying in a vortigaunt's arms...

Gordon nearly swooned at the vastness of the memory, the seismic power of his panic. Its constancy, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain.

How could he forget... how could...

The fine spray of dried blood had freckled her face, making her look as though someone had blown cinnamon across her nose. The darker stains on her back and stomach, a matching set of horrifically-deep puncture wounds, had turned a sour yellowish shade from the severe gastrointestinal perforations...

He had been forced to confront an enormity of loss he simply had not been ready for, and the experience had left him with a profound sense of understanding, a deep, desperate ache, a wound with no blood to show for it.

Alyx was special. Her gestures were always tentative,ย gentle, instinctively aware of the risk of making him feel trapped or guilty. In moments of stolen, fiercely-guarded quiet, she touched his hands so very carefully, with superficial, lingering caresses as if to extract some essence, some strong salve, to inoculate him against the wrought-up intensity of suffering he could not otherwise forbear to let himself glimpse, let alone contemplate for any length of time.

But for all the twenty years during which she had believed in him, heard stories about him, venerated him by virtue of whatever earnest โ€“โ€“ and grossly over-exaggerated โ€“โ€“ mythologizing Barney had done in the interim, Alyx had never treated Gordon with anything less than calm and self-possessed kindness, a compassion borne of a blunt manner and an honest character that had Gordon feeling... loved, not merely respected, and mercifully no longer feared, for the first time in decades.

He had existed for so long at the edge of emotional poverty, deserted by affection, deprived of physical contact โ€“โ€“ reduced, ultimately, to silence โ€“โ€“ that he had resigned himself to an indifference so thoroughgoing that even his blood seemed sludgier for it. The terror and self-hatred, the thunderous beating against his ribcage and the fierce seizures of the muscles of his throat, had swayed, eventually, to an unpitied misery. Then to hopelessness. Then to acceptance. Then to something so blunt and cold Gordon felt more affinity with the pneumatic seals and morphine injections of the HEV than whatever feeble flesh the suit was intended to protect. Alyx made him feel real again โ€“โ€“ whole and physical and present in the world โ€“โ€“ and he was so grateful to her. He was a miserly, miserable creditor in the exchange of compassion, and Gordon did not believe himself deserving her kindness. Her friendship had in it a certain diffidence, a desire to lavish, an eagerness to do good and to give pleasure, and he had none of those things. He only knew them in the abstract, and he based his actions, as pathologists were wont to do, on the dents and scars and sediments of a soul long kept in formaldehyde.

His existence had long since been dimly shaded away, the colors of his emotions flat... an ingot of lead-grey light beside which blazed Alyx's supernova.

She had decided, in radical defiance, to show him kindness, and Gordon loved her for it.

I will not lose her,ย Gordon had decided after that awful encounter with the Hunter... not quite believing the words, because he knew it was a life-changing thing and life-changing things ought to have some molecular structure to make them real. I will not lose her.

It would destroy him.

As if attuned to his sudden agitation, the shadows around the hangar flickered like sheet lightning behind a storm front. A haze of glowing light hovered in the air, gradually expanding, gradually descending, slowly winding down towards the floor. Gordon had jumped through enough portals to recognise a highly unstable spatial anomaly collapsing in his direction...

But something was different this time.

In Gordon's memory, now that he came to examine it, there were certain... blanks. Rewrites. Errors. And not the sort that could be accounted for by injury or the HEV's morphine or by having been beaten into insensibility by a telekinetic alien grub. Experiences of that nature, loathe as he was to admit it, had occurred quite enough times for him to be able to tell the difference.

No... Something was different.

Something had changed.

Something had... collapsed.

Quantum coherence... the wavefunction of an electron in a box could penetrate into the walls of the box. There was a small chance โ€“โ€“ equal to the amplitude of the wavefunction squared in that part of space โ€“โ€“ that if Gordon made a measurement of where the electron might be, he might find it within the wall, or even outside the wall...

But the walls...

They were falling.

Alyx...

Across the hangar, the Man's smile snagged on its high cheekbones, not quite reaching its eyes. Motions flickered across its face in small jerks and twitches: its lips curling back over its teeth then pressing to a thin line; its eyes narrowing, closing, the skin around them wrinkling; the muscles of its jaw tensing and dancing beneath its skin.

Its hand was a pale, articulated tagmata, like the body of a yellow sac spider โ€“โ€“ it twitched like a dying thing on Alyx's shoulder.

A fresh flood of rage seared Gordon's veins.

It was the creature's doing... it was changing things...

It had changed things.

Alyx had never saved Gordon from the Civil Protection units in City 17. Alyx had not escorted him to Kleiner's lab, nor had she tested the ill-fated teleport.

Judith Mossman, not Alyx Vance, had instructed Gordon in the operation of the gravity gun.

The vortigaunts had helped Gordon storm Nova Prospekt, and Barney had been the one apprehended by Breen's Overwatch grunts during the uprising.

Alyx had never touched him. She had never pressed her hands to the glass and begged Gordon to return safely to her...

Alyx had never clung to life on a makeshift litter at the bottom of a mine shaft.

Alyx's life had never been woven with his... despite the fact that Gordonย felt it, still... the ache of her absence was an unremitting companion, like the phantom pain of an amputated limb, the virtual ghost of a collapsed superposition, a particle of pure potentiality...

The very nature of quantum theory forced Gordon to regard spacetime coordination and the claim of causality as complementary but exclusive features of a physical description... if Gordon used a slit detector to observe the trajectory of an electron, the mere act of measurement meant that many years earlier the electron must have already passed through one slit or the other. If Gordon did nothing, then the electron passed through both slits. Just as there were multiple futures, there were also multiple pasts, and the act of observation in the present was capable of deciding what had happened in the past... a superposition of possibilities that crystallized only once they were observed...

When did it take her, wondered Gordon with cold, calculated fury.

When did the Man in the suit slice Alyx from her own life, as it sliced me from my own death.

No doubt wise to Gordon's speculations, below the bags of its eyes, the Man's nostrils flared with a deep intake of breath, as though it might catch Gordon's scent even at a distance.

I am not one to squander my... investments...

Entangled images, superpositive associations... two distinct sets of memories burst through Gordon's head as though he had touched a live wire. The realisation scorched his insides. He knew, as surely as he knew his own name, that Alyx belonged to it. That it had found itself a new tool, one worth far more than the initial appraisal...

The details came together in an instant, and Gordon suddenly understood why he remembered Alyx delivering him from the hellscape of City 17, and why he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he had never met her before. Why Gordon remembered Eli Vance dying, sucked dry of blood and brain matter, and why he knew, even now, that Eli was still very much alive. It was a musical note coming together to make a single chord โ€“โ€“ Gordon could read the sheet music, though the Man alone knew how to play the instrument...

Gordon's throat grew thick with an emotion that might have been grief, or sadness, or self-pity, or despair, or all of those things at once. He wanted to sob or snarl, his chest trussed with a long suppressed scream, but the abrasive, hollow ache seemed to sandpaper away all expression, leaving his eyes flat and his face numb.

The space above Gordon unfolded. It began as a wedge, a sliver, a grotesque slice. Then the roof of the hangar receded, accelerating into the distance until it became infinitely high, a shaft ascending to celestial heights. Broken fragments of brick and mortar ran along the inside of the shaft, winding their ways towards the impossibly distant roof, the walls and rooms of the base blown out like the rank, bloated innards of a distended stomach split down its middle.

Even as Gordon gazed skyward, he found himself looking down, as though from the height of an airplane, at the city in which he had washed aground like tidewrack, mere days ago that hung at his throat with the weight of years. The alleys and streets were as damp and filthy as he remembered, the skyline bristling with chimney flues and greasy from the unending clouds of black pollution. The vast urban sprawl spread out from the Citadel in irregular semicircles, rather like the fluid discharge from some minor wound. Indeed, there could be said to be something clotted and crusted about City 17: hovels built from debris and such refuse as might be found washed out from sewers and canals. The buildings were ugly and angular with grey roofs and tiny windows, walls discoloured by their own soot, the tenements little better than cramped boxes packed together into industrial compounds, protected by high walls and barbed-wire fences which evoked in Gordon's memory recollections of prison camps โ€“โ€“ and worse โ€“โ€“ the emaciated creatures concentrated within.ย 

Gordon was struck with the sensation of laying in the basin of a vast oubliette, the walls of the world curving over his head, capped by the broken city that would burn forever. Caught in the liminal space, between the unbroken and the broken, the now and the then, the living and the dead, stretched out in its infinite repetition.

Boundless space bound inside the superposition. A universe inverted. Quantum action in a field...

Real or illusory, it was a terrifying sight. Gordon was reminded of a staircase, winding to join its own tail; ouroborous, the alchemical worm, incarnate as wounds in the fabric of the world, folded and twisted along fractures in time. The visual deception fascinated him even as the miserable, ragged wretches of City 17, condemned to tramp up those infinite steps towards an invisible vertex filled him with a primal, mindless horror so viscerally organic it had Gordon reeling from nausea.

The measurement of a quantum system collapses the wavefunction.

For a long time โ€“โ€“ he would never know how long โ€“โ€“ Gordon peered up into the mirror image of City 17, floating against a gulf of starless, silent dark. Neither entirely black nor wholly still, because blackness required light from which to be a contrast, even as stillness needed some concept of motion from which one could be at rest. Gordon hung in space before something huge and unknowable: shifting walls of filth and suffering and sadness, crawling with half-formed masses reminiscent of skulls and synthetic organisms, insects and internal organs... their forms never quite resolving and leaving no impression save an itinerant but overwhelming sense of disgust.

The splintered fragments of reality flowered inside Gordon's head, tendrils of awareness spreading from him and interlinking, skeining out, binding him to a vast lattice of entangled data, seeds of order in seas of random noise, extending themselves from moment to moment by the sheer force of their own internal mathematics. Some part of Gordon, some sane and coherent part, realised that he was somehow inside the head of the Man, in its world, staring senseless into the inchoate masses and lambent, abstract surfaces that dwelled there, his own mind trying and failing utterly to comprehend the processes of a being that was to a human as a human might be to an ant.

Only just what, this sane and coherent part of Gordon enquired, am I supposed to do about it now?

As Gordon fought to steady himself, sorrow and fury and grief surging unimaginably close to his skin's surface, ready to be drawn out like a final plan of retreat, he saw the Man โ€“โ€“ with dear, wonderful, precious Alyx โ€“โ€“ making a move to withdraw through its favourite door. The brilliant rectangle of white light flooded the hanger, casting hideous black shadows that might have been faces. They rose through the room, speaking in tongues, deformed mouths howling in rage and pain that rivaled Gordon's own.

It hurt to breathe.

Not her.

Christ, please... not her.

Don't take her from me...

A mouth opened, and words as strange and deep as the midnight-blue ocean stole out into the shadow.

"You, Doctor Freeman," said the Man, "have proven yourself p-powerful but entirely undisciplined... with no hope of being t-trained toward useful redemption." It sucked a gulp of air, less like catching one's breath and more like a pair of bellows furnishing a strong blast of wind. "In other c-circumstances, your estimable person might have been perfectly s-suited to doing as he is told, but o-otherwise privileged by your, ah... friends'... erstwhile interventions, you have proven quite, quite... unsuitable."

It spoke with a voice that was like hurling words into darkness and waiting for an echo.

"You have... proven yourself an i-intuitive man, Doctor Freeman... so I trust we, ah... understand each other when I t-tell you to... pack your desk, hmm?"

Gordon had no rebuttal to offer, any potential sounds cut off at the throat before he breathed them. But something feral and ugly strayed across the bruised hollows of his face, his eyes not wide, but focused. The pallor of his expression not that of shock, but of rage. His hands balled briefly into fists of quivering stone.

You will suffer for this, thought Gordon, with a sureness and certainty so comprehensive he could almost imagine the process bearing some relation to thermodynamics, to the irrefutable laws of creation which ordained that energy, time, space, sustenance would gravitate naturally and easily from a state of order to disorder. A principle of retribution, of entropic inexorability.

The Man merely glanced about itself with a kind of blank distaste, as though the sight of Gordon's anger was of insufficient worth even to be objectionable.

The Combine, at least, had an explanation. They were cruel and calculated and evil, but they bled. They could be fought and slain. But the Man was random and capricious and unconcerned with domination or survival, wont to let humanity's enemies go unchecked because to do otherwise was simply not in its interests, because their suffering and death was not high profile enough to warrant its involvement...

It understood exactly what it was to kill, exactly the enormity of what was lost at the moment of death. It understood how valuable each and every life was.

The Man just didn't care.

The whole world closed around them like an iris โ€“โ€“ the Man with Alyx, the creature steering her into the darkness. There were no handles on the Man's door... no locks, no hinges, nothing to get a grip on. The top and bottom, even the sides, lay so utterly flush with the perfectly parallel edges of the world that Gordon knew, once closed, there would be no hope of jimmying it open even if he had a thousand years and several more thousand crowbars...

The door swung shut. The mirror image of City 17 winked out of existence. The shadows receded.

The broken trees by the shattered window swayed and dripped, leaves snatched by the wind whirling in wild circles through the air. The clouds roiled. The air mouldered.

Gordon touched upon a dull ache in his chest, slow and sluggish, and without panic and terror to lend him strength, without that strength becoming power leashed but no less lethal for its control, he just felt... sad. Tired. Terribly so.

Grief began obscurely but insistently to coagulate, to assume crystalline form, like the frost gathering on the shards of the windowpanes.

Gordon's whole being, his bruised and broken body, seemed to be contracting, condensing, shrinking from the stale, customary boundaries of the flesh whose perimeter, without Alyx's touch to teach it tenderness, knew only the modulations of his nerve endings and the dull numbness of the morphine.

You will suffer for this.

The certainty, the promise, comet-blazed for a few brief seconds before the pain plucked a thread at the edge of Gordon's consciousness. With a soft rustling sound, almost a sigh, everything settled, and as the darkness gathered Gordon jealously to itself, the world went blissfully black...


Warning: Vital Signs Critical. Seek medical attention.


"Gordon! Gordon! Wake up, Gordon! She's gone, Gordon!

"She's gone."