Author: rednightmare PM
He has to keep awake somehow. (Brazenly overgrown Barney Calhoun character spotlight. Rated T for violence, language and mild sexual references. One-shot.)Rated: Fiction T - English - Barney C. - Words: 16,525 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 5 - Follows: 2 - Published: 01-27-13 - Status: Complete - id: 8952455
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I just want Barney Calhoun to eat Doritos, listen to The Black Keys and be my uncle. Is that so much to ask, really?
Character Study Warning: I felt very guilty about having nothing Half-Life on my account, so this is going to be a LOT of Barney. Like, way more Barney than anyone has ever wanted, including myself. I make no apologies.
Hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.
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 saccharin granules that replace them – hardly ever stocks cinnamon or nutmeg – but always has coffee to spare. In the spray-cleaner sterility of a research facility built to accomplish bizarre, there's this one vestige of everyday life that everyone makes room for. And he's beginning to think it's the only color they'll allow in here, apart from wall paint stripes that guide lost visitors and 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 equipment. There is the white glow of overheads caught in steel, 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 they understood the importance of hot drinks to long, lonely shifts.
Part of his usual routine – open shift, half-shift and close shift – Barney bit open a pack, brushed away the spill, and dumped everything together. He poured in water and wiped clumsily at his eyes, crust in the corners, red ringing grey-green – sleepy now, sleepier later. And then he set pitcher in brewer and punched "on." The chemistry of caffeinated beverages; that was the most science he did.
Barney perched on a counter edge, helm placed beside him, and waited for the bubbling to slow.
God, was he tired. Then again, he was always tired; sleeplessness from early mornings to pacing nights were part of the job description, and HQ recently switched Calhoun to permanent Blue Shift. They stacked his days back-to-back by bad luck of the draw. The money was nice – wasn't everything, but definitely nice – when his temples were aching like hangovers, migraines pinching more often than not. Nine-to-fiving it would've been mercy at this point. Six o'clock in the morning right now, fifteen minutes until the starting lip of his weekday hours, but it easily felt like six PM.
That might have been in equal parts because Lauren played hooky from the Area 8 diner last night –afternoon, actually – to stay with him, or because Barney drank too much caffeine. Didn't matter which, right? He felt the effects. Knees clicked. Tear ducts stung. Both hands scrubbed his face, fingers scratching through the back of close-cut hair, peppercorn black. (Military shear was not the way he preferred to wear it, but dress regulations were what they were). This bulletproof vest – like any of these eggheads were going to shoot him – hugged in awkward spots, rumpling buttons, chafing beneath armpits, flattening Kevlar and mesh across his chest. Fourteen hours straight 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 glock and radio to come home – chefs, too, knew all about unkind schedules – and truth be told, after Blue Shift, they were both better off. The promise of three things pushed him on through echoing, empty hallways: clean sleep shirt, Tupperware in the fridge, and a cool apartment ready for nothing else but slumber. 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 New Mexican summer. The bed was a single, unfortunately, which meant Lauren made it uncomfortable through no fault of her own. When he wanted to rest, smarter to do it alone. 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 brew finished steaming, he'd sit there and drink. It's not the best coffee, not the worst. It's all right. Barney just takes it black, anyway – first to save time (he tends to run late), then to wash away toothpaste or freeze-dried noodle aftertaste, and finally because he begins to like the way it sits in his mouth. There is a lean bitter tang like mulch and machinery; probably has something to do with all the fluoride in the water, but he can't stay awake otherwise.
This job – the business of watching, doggedly and endlessly (sometimes aimlessly) – would age you quickly. They had you skulking these halls, nose flooded with lemon cleaner and lime powder, at all hours; when you finally sat, it was to stare unblinking into the neon of security monitors. Time blurred down here; no sunlight, no windows, no arid breeze to ward off the chill of omnipresent air conditioning. Who knew what hazardous fumes were seeping from these ducts at midnight; if radiation leaked up from spit-polished tile? (Any kids he'd have would probably end up three-armed.)
And this was all without mentioning the constant verbal abuse of arrogant, overtaxed science teams 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 grey had bled from them and turned his lids to smoke.
Barney drained his mug quickly, filled another, left the rest for another bleary sap 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 – freezing shower, turkey sandwich, another cup of coffee. That should keep him up until closing time. Long as he kept moving between start and finish, stayed upright and focused hard enough, there'd be no danger of falling asleep.
Just had to keep his eyes open.
The first thing you recognize is a strange taste in the air. It is cool, odd, poisonously 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 as angry eyes and condescending comments unstitch to something much different. They are not bitching and hawing anymore. They drop into silence as the stuck metal tinks overhead and you all take it in. That danger sense, 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? – came even before those very first tremors begin to rattle bulkheads all around Barney Calhoun. 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 hair up both arms. It crackles like cellophane and electricity gone wrong. Nothing moves for a heartbeat in time.
Then the white lights of this facility, an enormous place you barely know though you've patrolled Area 3 for years, whine. It is not an idle sound, and even when these Weapons Lab scientists (who have shortened your enduring temper all morning) say nothing, you can sense a shift. Something in the belly of this sanitary labyrinth has grumbled. That something is indefinable, but it makes you feel horribly vulnerable, every inch marked meat, a field rabbit two steps from hidden snares. The bulbs grow eyes. They look at you. They blink out.
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.
Everything turns cold.
You should wake up now.
Barney was generally too tired for dreams. Maybe he didn't have much of an imagination leftover after staring through security consoles, hopped up on caffeine or salivating over keyboard buttons. "You just don't remember them," Gordon informed him – the same straightforward, brutally blunt tone that offended so many coworkers. Calhoun 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 cheekily similar, and go make another pot of coffee.
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 Officer Calhoun could almost drudge out brief images of falling, body breaking on the illusion of ground. But they evaporated quickly, disintegrating from existence, never enough to genuinely frighten or disturb. Bad dreams were a very limited thing in his experience. All you had to do was wake up – open your eyes – and time would reverse, horrors unwinding, all these ghastly impossibilities disappearing until the world was exactly the way you knew it to be.
Except Barney's eyes were open on May 16th, 2003 – and nothing was like it should have been.
There had been something like a snap-freeze when that initial quake trembled Black Mesa Research Facility. Everything got bitter and breathing stung. Might have been radiation or the resonance itself, echoing through snake tunnels, multiplying disaster. Barney left that question to smarter men. He only knew that the iciness suck through his sternum, painful menthol, death wrapping fingers around your heart. Something groaned deep below them, air stopping in the shaft. Dr. Anton grabbed the tin elevator wall.
"That sounded like it came from Anomalous—"
Impact two. A second thump and everything changed. It was 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 his head to the soles of his feet. He staggered. His chest began to tighten with the instincts of men about to die.
The bangs don't stop – the space between them dwindles as this tight corridor begins to smoke. There is no way to deal with that onrush of sound and madness. It gets louder and louder and louder until your fine hairs all stand up, your stomach lunges into your throat, your center of gravity leaping for the ceil-
Barney never remembered his dreams. But it was easier to remember when the dreams were bad ones, and easier to feel while you were still awake.
"You drink too much," Gordon told him abruptly one morning as Calhoun slogged home from his post, lukewarm mug in hand.
They passed each other right here in Tram Corridor 3C12 – almost every day, exactly this time – he and Freeman. Barney would be trudging back home with droopy lids and infant stubble as his higher-paid, better-educated pal clipped to work toting folders beneath 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." Officer Calhoun was well-aware of his eyes, bloodshot yellow, and his face, chin unevenly dark. These tram walkway lights were too bright and gasoline grew Barney's dizziness. He patted his holster with one palm and gestured sluggishly with the cup. "Just beat. Relief didn't arrive last night so 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 with arched brow. He looked like an elementary school teacher all of a sudden. Math probably – it was an ironic image, Gordo with ballpoints stuck in his pocket, grading long division. Barney's snort and skeptical wave dismissed the concern.
"Yeah. Pissin' Pavelko off ain't good for me, either."
Gordon Freeman immediately reminded Barney of a character off the Muppets reruns Grandma Rose made him (and four older brothers) 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 Calhoun, 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 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, was not too often since Barney signed on Blue Shift.
"Take a weekend off. You look like shit."
"To be honest, I could use the extra work. Blew my Christmas bonus riding the rollercoasters," Calhoun joked; the "amusement park" in Area 10 (neither of which existed) was a running gag between guards, who told tall tales to new scientists. You couldn't call if Barney was snider about the rollercoaster or the notion Black Mesa might 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-face chipmunk who lost a brawl. The guys on Red Shift had a field day with that one.
"Sleep debt," Freeman warned.
"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 headcold 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. Figured this would happen. Blacked right out, a ten second blink; woke up smelling bleach on the spotless floor. He cussed, brushed off and kept going – little embarrassed, little frazzled, and glad nobody but automatic cameras saw.
It was anyone's guess how Gordon managed to maintain status quo like he did, so many months working in this unnerving centrifuge of a place. Dr. Freeman had been sticking on his ID card and lancing to Area 3 every weekday morning almost a year longer than Calhoun had. Never stepped off his train looked bright-eyed or bushy-tailed, really – not fresh-faced or eager – but always alert, fast-walking and ready for what needed to be done. You'd rarely ever see him at rest. The man was constantly moving – between test chambers, computer screens, data feeds, seminars. Where Four-Eyes 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 the other. The scientist 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 what the hell is that, blinking behind the reflection of his glasses. Calhoun decided the contents of that cup looked more like mutant snail puke and it was an observation that hounded him until this day.
"A real person's breakfast," Barney cut in before Gordon could interject, nose wrinkled, disgust in the spirit of keeping that joke alive. "With actual food."
If he found the assessment funny, Freeman didn't smile – 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 pokerfaced tones. "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, distracted by the thought. 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, processed it, and thumbed the oversized glasses back to his forehead. "Pussy."
Just to screw with him – half out of spite, half out of concerns dismissed – Barney stepped onto the rail 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 is saying. Wake up.
He is still alive.
Barney is still alive. Barney has been running and creeping and walking through these halls for some time now, but he is awake, and he is still alive. He is starting to have difficulty keeping his hands from shaking, difficulty aiming the commission glock that never leaves the grip of a sweaty hand. Your hands always look funny in dreams – hadn't Gordon told him that? – and whenever the young man glances down at his, they are pale and quaking, stained with vent grime and strange acid and the blood of broken-off thumbnails. He 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, he feels the need to keep breathing.
"Stop it," the guard with short sleeves and cracked armor tells both hands (begs them), an irritated mumble. His back teeth grind and his neck aches. His face is itchy and there's a numb spot beneath the bruise of a broken cheekbone, cracked by a broken lift. "Just stop it, will you?" But they don't.
That could be very bad. Barney probably wouldn't have noticed how long this dream had lasted (time, too, went nonsense in sleep), except he passed a working lobby clock and saw May 20. It had been May sixteenth when Barnard Calhoun sprinted in late for his Blue Shift patrol. May sixteenth when two asshole scientists from the Weapons Department yelled him into a stalled elevator. May sixteenth when latches broke and sirens screamed and every auxiliary safety measure failed. The officer had been like this since then: alive, moving, always pushing, not certain the direction was forward. He had just assumed it was still the same day.
"Come back," an echo howls behind him, but Barney doesn't, because it isn't real. He's heard it pealing raw behind every last corner, under every rubble pile, and he's run to check a dozen times. Because he has to. Because it's his job. But because changes little in this maze; priority lists and safety designations have dissolved; personnel files are lost amongst miles of thick earth and disaster. There is no one and nothing to find or save. Maybe he's imagining things. Maybe it's just the reverb of his own voice, his cries for help – heard, unanswered, stuck beneath a collapsed elevator shaft and now stuck inside his head.
He keeps walking. He has to.
"Spit that out of your mouth, Calhoun," Lt. Pavelko had gruffed behind him at the shooting range one evening, spooking the junior guard in a single stall, earmuffs dulling everything. Barney tended to bite his bottom lip while taking aim – bad habit, unconscious tick, focused on the pistol hammer at the far reach of arm. "Makes you look like a fucking princess. Do that with a Twelve and you're going to put teeth through it."
The memory comes when – halfway down a hall with no plaster, white-knuckling a Spas 12– Officer Calhoun realizes that funny-tasting slickness in his mouth is not spit. He had found the new gun sitting in his hands – a better, heavier gun than lightweight six-shooters – just a moment ago. The weapon was clean and full and laying only steps away from his former superior's corpse. It looked like so many others had… bloated belly, skeletal digits, head bulging inside a wet tan balloon. Stillness and drool rolling down shirt buttons suggested death, but Barney knew better by this hour. Pavelko, said the breast badge. Pavelko was not breathing; Pavelko was not Pavelko, anymore; but the monster replacing that frowning, leathery wolverine face was very much alive.
Headcrabs (as he'd learn to call them later) morbidly reminded the young man of pimples – fat, slippery tick bodies, claws like ice picks. Oh, they were killable, all right; pores splurted green when fired into, its dead maw oozed pink pus, and tough flesh burst like grapeskin when you stepped on one. Barney lost count of how many he'd killed since crawling out of that wreckage near AnMat Processing. They were something from a nightmare. He has never been so scared of anything in his life.
Four leftover rounds in a nine millimeter wouldn't down the Not-Pavelko; his arms were shaking too badly for precision shots. Instead, the guard lunged forward and grabbed for that dropped weapon, praying its barrel was full of slugs. They clacked weightily inside. He twisted around just as the abomination lurched up, pointed nozzle at its charging body.
Barney froze, sucked in his breath, squeezed the trigger. BANG. A burst of gunpowder – a kick – a bee sting suddenly at his face. Buckshot splattered the foul gelatin crab off and into a wall. There were no brains left inside, just a mulchy stem punctured by alien appendages. Not-Pavelko collapsed and spit scarlet across scuffed linoleum. The smear of headcrab was not identifiable anymore.
Calhoun stood up, pistol at a hip, Twelve filling both gloves. It fits all right in fresh fingers – does not complain about the ownership change. He does not remember that his mouth hurts until the young man is halfway down another corridor and looks down to where drops of red plink between shiny black boot toes. His swollen lower lip wears three leaking toothmarks. There is blood on Barney's tongue and a shotgun in his hands.
He holds it tightly, and he prays to wake up.
"Wake the hell up, kid," Smarz snorted when he ran in that morning of May sixteenth, brow hiked, watching Barney's soles leave skid marks across Area 3 Entrance Lobby. Officer Calhoun skittered around the front desk so fast that he almost forgot to check in for daily assignments. His overseer didn't appear sympathetic behind thin glasses and under balding blond. Smarz's head creases deepened. "You're on thin ice with admin, 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 like this, ultimately flimsy but necessary at checkpoints. Barney left out the fact he'd actually been early until forty minutes ago – when, waiting on another pot of break room coffee, the guard nodded off at his table, ceramic mug a warm spot in one large hand. He jolted awake already fifteen minutes past check-in. "Fuck," was all there'd been time to say.
"I don't really care," Smarz informed him, rumpled brow and calm, disapproving 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 hurried dress of a uniform thrown on, the uncombed tousle of black hair beneath helmet insulation. Needed to get it cut soon; didn't really have time. Needed to shave; forgot. Needed to get his weapons kitted and haul 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 to stay on overtime last night. And I, personally, have no interest in hearing about your transportation issues."
"Yes, sir. I'm really—" Sorry.
"Save it for Allison. She's the unlucky SOB we've got covering you." He twisted around to tap something into a computer. Intercoms beeped and keys hit out a reply. "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,' Calhoun wanted to protest – and he almost let it slip – but the reminder of how easily badges were replaced dampened sassy comments. So, keys jingling on his belt and helm strap digging neck skin, Barney did what he always did. He followed somebody else's orders. He tried to fix things. He tried to clean up a mess… even the messes beyond his paygrade.
Luckily for kids trying to make a buck, 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 arch to his brow – classic Freeman. He's the first one to say it to Barney today. And Barney 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. Officer Calhoun jogged by in a blur of white tiles, sleepy eyes and jet armor. Should've been sprinting, but he was too tired – couldn't make his legs move faster than they were, felt every impact weaken the muscle from ankle to knee. Everything seemed heavier. There might have been a thunderstorm churning outside, turning desert air dim, soaking southwest humidity through miles of bedrock. With the trams out, Barney must've run a mile of rail right about now.
"Can't talk; slept-in; long story!" His holster bounced at one hip and there was a chestpiece clasp he didn't quite get shut between both 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 unofficial punishment.
"I'm sure." Four-Eyes was on his way to the HEV tanks with papers under one arm and keychain dangling around the other.
Barney stopped only long enough to snap "Suck it, Freeman" and catch his breath. There was a considerable distance ahead. The guard hunkered forward with 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 right along his forehead.
"Are you getting fat?" Gordon asked without checking, 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 cheeks, gums and tongue. "Thought they made you people do fitness tests every once in a blue moon."
"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 upright. He drank another cupful of water. He stretched his back. He scratched beneath the ridge of helm sitting just where 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."
The physicist eyed him over his notes with a quiet, sick sense of amusement; it was the only one Freeman had. He never noticed when Gordon reached over and clicked the top notch on his neck piece closed. He had not thought about checking it himself. He had not thought about it until later, when shrapnel was bouncing off cement walls and plane engines sawed through the empty, open New Mexico air. "Late nights are getting to you, sheriff."
"Yeah," the guard 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. 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."
Barney Calhoun had someone looking after him all his life. He had never been 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 grey ATV, age eating 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 seat rails tight as small hands clammy with sweat could. Safety was no issue back then, too alive to understand you could die. Flipped it over so many times… they were stupid boys; lucky boys, too, considering no one had broken their neck. Half that vehicle would lift off the ground every sharp turn, flatten sloppy figure-eights through 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 your eyes, sweater sleeves, 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 gulley he hadn't anticipated – and the bar would break his fingers away, and he'd fall.
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. He'd be sitting shotgun with elbows hanging out, three brothers in the flatbed; eldest drove, youngest got the 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 country songs. The game was different now, making them allies instead of rivals, but its rules were still blissfully, idiotically simple: keep running – keep going farther – until they lost the asphalt or found their way home.
The first AnMat scientist Barney finds is face-down in a pool of saliva and gore. Dr. Ahdia Saeed, PhD. It looked like a fuel explosion killed her. She was lucky. He pulls off her nametag and sticks it in the backpack he'd taken for another time – a time when families might want to know.
He steps around the dead woman's blood pool and keeps walking, keeps going, holds 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 – 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 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. The boy would fidget under belt leather cutting his neck and reach to unclick, to stretch farther, to lean out and feel breeze ripping through five 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 – smack him, 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 backwoods byways.
The second AnMat scientist Barney finds has a bullet in his lung. Nine millimeter, commission glock, smashed right through breastbone. Its angle made suicide improbable. Officer Calhoun does not wonder about the possibilities: misfire, jumpy watchmen, maybe a few crazed blue shirts extracting penance for this hellhole the only way they could. It won't make a difference to dead men. He checks for a heartbeat anyway, then leaves him there, red handprint pressed into an unbreathing chest. Dr. Sasha Popov, PhD. His name clinks in the bottom of a burlap bag.
One time Barney had stepped on a water snake when he was in the third grade. Joel didn't know shit about first-aid, but he had picked their youngest brother 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 aspen trees. A post 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 hill forest got lost in mirage waves that blurred like a dream. 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.
The third AnMat scientist Barney finds stands up, moaning, and tries to rip his face off with sickle-branch claws. He does not check for a nametag on this one. It's better not to know.
"Sit'own, Chuckles," was all that needed saying when he'd 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 would horrify only a couple hours later.
When everything went to hell on May 16th, 2003, some time passed before Officer Calhoun made a decision. The trams are all out. The electricity overloads and spikes erratically. The smells are noxious and rancid and diseased. Thirty-four hours into the City of Dis, he had hiked to that Area 3 Entrance Lobby, screens blaring alarm codes, eyes wincing shut from the light and exhaustion. He had balanced the shotgun against a shoulder, typed with one hand, and he'd read. There were sixty-eight professionals scheduled to work that day in Black Mesa's Anomalous Materials Department. Barney did not recognize eighty percent. 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.
Barnard 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.
Barney isn't sure if that was significant, something to brag about, or a haunt on his mind for the next twenty years. But he was the only one who had.
"You're nothing," Dad would slur when he'd get in one of his moods – only had two, and one was asleep. "Come from nothing and never goin' to be nothing."
Maybe not. Maybe some prophecies were self-fulfilling, because Barney hadn't become much – never pushed too far, never bother 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.
The last scientist he'll 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!"
At least once the voice would have to be alive.
"Barney? Barney. Barnard James Calhoun, you'd better be faking it."
Sunglow curls gnarled over his face and fingers in Barney's ribs when he'd startle, lids suddenly open, not seeing much. She always seemed two parts annoyed and one humored when he'd fall asleep mid-sex. They'd be on his shitty boxspring, rotation of fan blades lulling him unconscious; jeans on the floor and shirt half-on; dark circles hidden by a darker room. There would be a moment of confusion until he could remember, recalibrate. 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. She would come out of the bathroom or stop kissing his stomach. She wouldn't be mad. She would be all arched look and deflating smirk; she'd say for real? For real, Barney? I know you're faking it.
And Barney would never be faking it, but sleep in his eyes and 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 this was some sort of mommy game – but eighty percent of one-hundred, 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.
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 8, Barney pleasantly half-drunk on Guinness, arm slung over her shoulder. Funny that he'd met his girl through Gordon, that Four-Eyes had known her first – funnier that Lolly soured so quickly on the white coat she used to call shy, sheepish, cute and now calls cold, condescending, rude.
Dr. Freeman went into Martin's Diner on 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 everyday silence for depression; she tried to chat him up every time 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 the physicist genuinely thought she was his friend's match, or if he just wanted to get a pretty, too-talkative woman off his back. Gordo's loss. The diligent doctor spoke 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, half-forgotten bar set in old-fashioned bronze. It was their unofficial three-month anniversary. Calhoun had needled Freeman for weeks about inviting Area 3's Hazardous Environment Supervisor out, and this created a tangible 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 was because Cross had – and he swears this is true – referred to Officer Calhoun's friend as "that hot redhead from AnMat." Maybe because he was a handy wingman and trying to get Four-Eyes laid. Or maybe it was simply because Barney was happy, and it irritated him somehow: that his first (here) and best (anywhere) friend arranged it, but would not – or could not – share in that happiness.
"Aw, Lolly. That's just Gordon. He likes you fine."
Because Barney had bitched and prodded, Freeman caved. Neither scientist looked particularly enthusiastic about their forced date; they chatted, but when it came down to it, always lapsed into swapping research notes or pondering test samples. It was no use sparking personal topics or publically praising his tongue-tied friend. They'd ordered a few drinks, hovered around the booth a while, left it open. Then they'd sort of... dissolved apart. Barney and Lauren retreated to the embarrassingly vacant floor, blues over tinny loudspeakers, companions forgotten in dark beer and the way her back sunk into his front during slow songs. Freeman dissected a bowl of chips while Cross complained about Calhoun's practice team and training course errors. They spent their outing this way – half-dancing until AM encroached, venue emptied, swaying back and forth with his arms around Lauren's waist, chin on her shoulder, a lulling daze like sleep.
Operation Freeman and Cross failed. Not miserably; just petered out before the fumbling effort ever got a root in ground. That mediocre date Barney can't really remember was an awkwardly professional evening for them. This went unrealized until later – or, at least, until Gina's inquiries got too politically correct – and it smacked of disappointment. He felt a little guilty about forcing the issue; then a little angry Four-Eyes blew a break charitably handed over; then useless in that he could not repay the favor Gordon had done for him. Anti-social, unliked nerd extreme, but the way Dr. Freeman sat wordlessly – hunched across a room, far out of action – and read people made Barney feel sort of like he was something growing in a Petri dish.
"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 little, honest resentment beneath the grin. "Maybe if I'd met him with a PhD 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 would protest halfheartedly, not expecting any ground.
"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 Calhoun laughed uneasily at, never positive whether the mockery was good fun or if they sat around shit-talking him in breakrooms 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; not so with Gordon. 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 Barney when he'd bypass stuck doors for them). But when it came to friends, the nondescript, perpetually-drowsy blue-shirt from Area 3 felt pretty sure he was the only one.
Some places were just harder than others to get along, literally and metaphorically.
Barney knew what it was like. He'd been a weirdo back in school, 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; 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 class, either, but had nowhere better to be. Too lazy to shave most of the time. Little unkempt. He was a class clown so people would like him – unremarkable and unnoticeable apart from that.
Two years of the cheapest state college to accept him were enough to make this whole academia thing seem useless. He'd picked up a job for campus security; managed an Associate's in Criminal Justice; worked freelance 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, stupid award and a random suggestion. They had a prodigious turnover rate; with these hours, it wasn't hard imagining why.
Once he dragged Freeman drinking with his other friends, the four guys from Red Shift who glugged down cheap booze every third Friday after close. Looking back, it wasn't a winning idea. "Who the fuck was that?" Stevens asked the next night, stuck in a monitor room, drinking coffee two shades lighter than Calhoun's. The latter just shrugged. He tried to blend in with the jocular attitudes and arrogance in his division; he tried not to make wakes. "Can you not bring your pencil-necked friends from upstairs? 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; their cantinas were identical, dance clubs comically outdated, residential parks sparse with little sunlight. Area Six 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 burned your nose. Second one wasn't precisely legal to play around in sans breast badge, but Black Mesa didn't house many gun fights, so nobody wasted much time polishing their aim. It flooded about three weeks before the bi-yearly inspection. Apart from that, Barney'd swipe his pass card, grab two pistols off a shelf, then he and Gordo would walk right in to an empty lot. They'd shoot their way through more ammunition than it seemed possible to ever need.
"You know," Calhoun reflected 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, what he always did when Freeman caught him comebackless. They fired off another few rounds. He watched Gordo figure out how to disassemble and reload the handgun – only took him a few seconds – assess, attempt, check and remake. "Ever killed anything?"
The young man paused to remember a mountain lion shot, mauled grass, ewe crying through her torn-out throat. Jake had walked around the back of their house and hit it with a rifle meant for hunting bucks. That was the only memory he had of Dad being proud of them and saying so; clapped "good eye," dragged the carcass away; 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 in 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 liver. Bail-jumper, short record, domestic 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. Nobody asked if it was reasonable to let security carry concealed off-campus (media said everybody had guns in that state). Nobody wanted explanations about vicious wildlife, wondered how he knew that flash of steel was a weapon and not a cheap watch, or sensed the crying woman with him was a hostage-not-a-wife. They stuck a medal on his blue shirt. Hospital called later to let him know the knifeman died of peripheral complications. Barney didn't know why they did that, or why anyone would.
"Nah," he said.
That might've been the time Guthrie busted them – guard shooting outside his slot, Freeman somewhere scientists shouldn't be. Sergeant pulled Calhoun out of a cubicle by the back of his jacket and chewed him out; had a few choice words for Gordon, too, but got no reply. Barney took the chastisements silently and contritely, just as he always had. Youngest sons were good at getting through trouble unscathed. Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.
Guthrie walked away with a threatened suspension and two docked shifts. There wasn't much to do but stand there until he was far enough 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 smartassed comments off without warning: 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 Calhoun 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 an absent habit done unconsciously, but she looked too cute – sitting sofa-side, scribbling into management sheets, biting away beneath the blare of an unwatched TV. He fell asleep to that sight a lot. And he'd wake up a lot to one of those purple fingernails, lavender shine, 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," Gordon heard from him one day, casually informed, 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 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 with so many elbows and backpacks, part because that meant nowhere to sit, part because he spilled frigging coffee all down the front of his shirt and people were still glaring about wet seats. It turned the blues of cheap upholstery and his breast pocket pale brown. At least the Kevlar would cover everything up. Officer Calhoun 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. The scientist's gaunt arms were crossed in an uncomfortable slouch – too many people, too much fan breeze. 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 the rail systems between E-J; their overcrowded shuttle jostled badly enough to rattle him fully alert before clocking-in. Maintenance weeks sucked. Never enough room; everyone ran late. Lights winked with every rocky patch and did a very poor job holding the subterranean gloom of Black Mesa at bay.
"That's baseless. I have no reason to hate her."
The guard winced and tried not to snicker through his frank expression. "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?"
"You're a sexist, Freeman."
He paused, thought very seriously about it, and Barney appreciated the focus of effort made. Gordon frowned slightly 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." Calhoun joked about this once – asked their tagalong PhD if lunchtime with idiots made him feel more intelligent. Gordon didn't laugh – didn't even crack a smile – just noted "There are different kinds of intelligence," and left it at that. Barney didn't mention the educational difference or question it again.
"Funny thing is," he added, after debating it for awhile. "I never know what to tell her."
"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 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 – physically, mentally – the distance between this world and the one that used to be was too great. Barney Calhoun could not make it. Concepts of love and friendship were remote with blood in your mouth and that odd, radioactive taste in the air. He could not make it to Topside Dormitories; he could not make it to ground zero; he could not make their faces or their safety echo of reality in all this chemical haze. All he could do was move. There was only to keep on, keep going; to 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 eyelid, to focus instead on heat in his belly and 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 hour Blue Shift.
Barney doesn't notice his stomach growling until Day Three. The surviving guard follows 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. He steps in. Then he smells microwave burn – cheap ramen, brittle carrots, bad peas… and Officer Calhoun realizes he's had nothing but water, water from fountains with push-buttons that gently warned Waste Not. He doesn't have time to think about how long it had been. He doesn't have enough discipline left to read vending machine labels. He doesn't have the energy to feel hungry with so many bullets and tags in his pack.
He is so hungry.
Half-aware of what he's doing, Barney reaches into his pockets searching for quarters – and actually finds one, some silver remainder of an old life caught beneath pant lint. He can't align the coin with the slot. The way his fingers fumble, thick and dumb, vision fogged or doubling, triggers such a despair in him that tears begin to well behind the scarlet of exhausted corneas. Then the guard remembers his gun and simply shoots a hole in that case – all the plastic scatters like a broken child's cup. Colorful packages crunch on still sterile tiles and glisten like medical dispenser batteries. Tortilla chips, mints, gummy bears, salted peanuts. He hates peanuts. He eats everything.
Then he sits – sugar stuck to hands, chocolate melted over blood calluses – and waits for the lounge coffee pot to finish straining.
It's quiet at this picnic bench, surface strangely clean, golden wood. There's a bottle of ketchup sitting close, a napkin dispenser. The trashcan is clogged with magazines, articles and some girlie spread looked stolen from the guards' break room five floors down. A newspaper of another reality waits, neatly rolled, and he opens it up out of reflex – places his shotgun softly on the table, shells settling upon cheap ink. Barney's stomach hurts on fear and M&Ms. Maybe he should see about clawing his way to a kitchen level – finding canned soup, some bread, dried fruit, something that didn't burn the moment it hit…
The coffee finishes with a steam whisper and red blink. Barney cannot not find any cups and doubts his hands could pour that well, anyway, so he drinks from the pot, glad for the way hot glass feels against cracked lips. It is uncomfortably warm in both hands but they don't care. He's not sure if what goes on from mouth to chest to buried insides is swallowing or inhaling; he just soaks up that odor and caffeine and wet earth flavor. It is like being a real person again. For a moment, it's like remembering who he was 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 him back – back to the crack and zuzz of cut wire, to overloaded circuits, to dead almost-animals. He can smell buckshot leaking in a monster he'd shot just around the corner. It seared through the floor. Its brains oozed through limp tentacles – deadly mush – the fluorescent, alien glow that this existence, this place, now was.
"Have to face the facts, kid," Pavelko used to huff, his response to every complaint, when there wasn't time for shift negotiations. The hard consul was thoughtlessly given but powerfully true. Barney knows that. Barney Calhoun realizes that escapism has never helped anything and here, sleeping-on-the-job at a cusp of hell, would probably get him killed. Barney can face the facts.
Barney just wishes he didn't have to wake up so fast.
He tilts the coffee close as he can and inhales deep.
He's going to fight up to the rail yard. He's going to fight for a place where he can see sky and breathe.
You never got enough to eat.
That was a major downside of sleeping and working in the same place, Barney learned, and would sagely advise 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. Temptations to sleep in, hit snooze, kick your alarm clock into a wall and procrastinate meant lots of skipped breakfasts and dinners overwritten to make up lost work hours. You scarffed boring cereal instead of bothering to make lunch. You nuked the fastest, easiest, least-satisfying foods. And, as a side-effect, annoying but tolerable: you walked around trying to shut up your 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; but hard labor in some areas translated to laziness in others. 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. Wasn't even something you could blame on Black Mesa, to be honest… bad planning and toughing-it-out had always been part of Barnard Calhoun's life.
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 Corp, and maybe it still felt like there was something to prove. The badlands miles overhead darkened early, purpling sand; the breeze picked up out there after dusk, dropping unbearable morning thermostats. None of that mattered where he spent the majority of his days and nights. Stupid scheduling had Officer Calhoun 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, 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 slow after-hours. He was holding a sloppy notebook folder with a flat container beside him. Calhoun's greeting made the scientist jump. "Past your bedtime, ain't it?"
Freeman managed a millisecond, uneasy grin. "Safety meeting" was his answer. He pulled the cardboard onto his lap to make room beside him. 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 breakroom coffee, a rumbling stomach, fatigue wrinkles beneath both eyes. "Where you going?"
"Lucky you," Barney mumbled.
The physicist adjusted his glasses, fought with his dorky red tie. There were printer stains on it and both of Gordon's hands. "Another shift?"
"Yeah. Been out here since noon. I'm fucking starving."
That was all it took – then there was an open box; a peace pipe; pepperoni, crumbly dough and greasy mozzarella in his hand. It was hard to say which was larger between Calhoun's eyes and growling stomach. Dr. Freeman set his carton of cheap, unappetizing dinner back down unenthusiastically; 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," the guard 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 – that there was a strange, discomfiting twinge of doubt 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 an unsolvable query, a partial theorem, a mechanism that wouldn't work. So maybe you could forgive Officer B. Calhoun, then, for not seeing it – for not speaking sense – for saying nothing that stopped the Event.
"Barney, do you believe in God?"
"I dunno. I guess so. Sure." The fact that salty tomato sauce made caring about divines hard probably said more that the young man could. He'd been brought up in a good Lutheran household, for all that meant these days; Mom used to comb her boys' mops flat, button them up and drag them through a church aisle on holidays. Consecration and birch pews failed to resonate. Barney never spent much time worrying about things he could not see, touch, and change. "Do you?"
Gordon knew him well enough to tell it wouldn't offend. "No."
"Bad scientist if you did." He got and ate another cut.
"There are a lot of ways to be a bad scientist. That's the least of them." Darkness out beyond the railway tunnels were distracting Freeman, making him gaze vacantly out, as though he looked for something without knowing what it was. There was bleakness to the lack of expression. Barney hadn't noticed, hadn't read how those narrow lines bled wan and poignantly old. "Do you think some things weren't meant to be understood?"
"Like this conversation?" he quipped. Instead of a comeback, the doctor's friend got another pizza wedge.
"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 seemed inordinately heavy hanging on their wrists. He did not need a real answer, and when Calhoun couldn't deliver, let out more air than the gaunt coat looked able to hold. "I understand the methods and their purposes. Really, I understand why the security protocols stand as they are. It's dangerous to let any one position compromise our facility. But these people – 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. Could we, yes; should we? I think we should, but I'm not sure. People always think they should."
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 kept giving Barney pizza to eat. 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 response, a diffident comment, a smart-assed joke that changed the fate of a world? Could you even know if it had truly been an appeal for feedback on that uncomfortable bench in an echoing tramway stop? Maybe he was charitable; maybe he was searching for consul science didn't give; 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.
The doctor stared forward, elbows on his knees, hands a flat steeple point jutting towards train track. "Yeah."
"You think too much."
He was just a kid – just a stupid, inconsiderate, thoughtless kid. He ate all of Gordon's pizza without realizing it. He sat next to a catalyst with nothing but brush-offs and jokes.
There was something of pity and admiration, something maybe a little envious, but something not unkind – something like a 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; alternating drivers, dodging sparse traffic, avoiding any highways apt to lead into civilization. It was three days of that before Eli Vance – 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." Officer Calhoun didn't like the thought of getting caught, but everyone else agreed 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. There was merciless sun on the back of his neck. There were bloodstains and sand plastered into his clothes. His hands felt inordinately weighty and it was hot inside the squeeze of Kevlar he hadn't dared take off. Kleiner tossed him a plastic bottle and called to go fill it up, so Calhoun did, slogging towards the little pond they'd picked out as tonight's base. And when he'd stooped down – felt clear water flood open hands, throat sore, mouth dry – there had been a missing piece, a familiar glimpse of his eyes in the shallow ripples, something realized cupped between 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; didn't know what the trigger was, what part of this tragedy seared worst, what that twisting mess inside his stomach was. 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.
Barney couldn't remember where he'd learned this. A magazine, a patrol manual, maybe a lecture from Gordon when they shuttled in together. But he had the information packed somewhere beneath bulletproof and coffee. You can go three days without sleep before law will call you insane. This estimate varies between people – some tire faster than others – but as a rule, Day Three meant delusions and misjudgments made you unable to trust yourself.
It is a good while past the eighty-hour-mark when Barney Calhoun stops trusting himself. He doesn't hallucinate. Doesn't think so, anyway – isn't sure how he would know. There hasn't been enough energy to dream for a long time; what makes the young man so sure his mind has been compromised is how, every once in a while, it starts to blink.
There is no dramatic fantasy or collapse. There is no apparent illness or injury. It is just a blip in time, that's all – a black flash, an empty second of memory where nothing exists, and he'll startle open with gun still clutched in his hands. They come more frequently as times crawls. Barney can't be completely certain how long these blank periods last; he is only aware of the moment-after, of the recoil, of the way his muscles lurch awake from the heartbeat pinch of micro-sleep.
He knows he needs help. He knows he can't trust himself when rest amongst monsters starts to seem more than necessary – it starts to seem sweet, attainable, like a good idea.
His feet are so sore and everything feels incredibly profound. Barney won't let himself sit down or relax. Each corner beckons, and his guts all swim haphazardly, and there is nowhere safe enough to risk what he feels would befall him. His mouth is like sandpaper; his skin cheesecloth; his lashes stick. The greatest doom is going to sleep.
And this is why he orders himself – left foot, right foot; one step, two steps – slack knees and wobbling hips down a hallway not in the direction of light. There is a medical station this way. Barney remembers this very clearly. His stomach hurts on a mash of junk food and coffee that does nothing but fast-beat an overtaxed heart – but this he remembers, because security is their job, and first-aid is prerogative to a man with a gun. Everyone bitched about those emergency protocol meetings. How ridiculous the notion had seemed; how messy it'd be should eggheads 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, something built for isolated disasters thought never to happen. Its sterile cot is leant against a wall, sink full of splint wrapping, and water droplets making the counters wet. There are bandages splayed about in an eccentric Halloween prank. Someone has been here already, stuffing their backpacks with gauze, raiding for antiseptic. They left the bulbs on and the refrigerator bare. A day ago, this imperfect find would've sunken Barney's hopes for thoughts of doing the same, but he cannot bring himself to care. His organs aren't bleeding. This is not what he's stumbled here to win.
The cupboards all hang wide, stores wrecked, locks broken. Calhoun does not mind. He fumbles, rummages, with sloppy hands until spilling a drawer full of last-minute tubes. It makes a big bang. A few of them roll under the cabinets. On hands-and-knees, head whirling, Barney almost slips on one – a near-catastrophe that would've passed him right out on this cool floor – but catches himself. He reaches far back as his arm will go. In one scoop, dozens of vials tumble out. The guard picks one. He squints to read it and can barely make the lightheaded glyphs into words. His fingers leave a motion trail lagging through the miasma of vision.
Wake up, Barney.
Barney sits up, takes a deep breath, and jams the epinephrine pen through his pant leg, into his thigh.
When the adrenaline hits, he pushes himself up, nearly faints, climbing handles until his feet are under him again. Everything feels cold and pale. He gasps as though his chest is full of snare drums. Frigid sweat seeps through his clothing and Barney can't tell if it's the nausea, iciness or rush making him shake, but he is up. He is awake. He can walk and shoot and see.
The rest of the needles are flung in his bag with whatever clean splints and ointments still flutter on stainless steel shelves.
Sounds don't sound right and his ligaments all convulse. But he's alive. He's still here.
He can keep going – at least a little longer.
Barney doesn't cry, because he isn't conscious of what was anymore, and he can't feel the wetness rolling down his face.
"You have to get up," Freeman said a million years ago, looming over Sector G reception desk, knocking the back of his helmet until he couldn't sleep anymore.
That was a time before death could be meant in an imminent sense. It was before small things stopped mattering; pizza and dumb jokes and smudges on glasses that would never come out. It was before elements and chitin and green smears. It was before things like the blood dried up on Barney's mouth – it was things like wasting ammo, decaf, Lieutenant Pavelko, Lauren's grip twisting his ears and her teeth in his lip. "Come back here and show me-"
So suddenly can small things, nothing in particular, start to hurt.
Neil Zajac and Javier Anton were a couple of grumpy old fucks.
Barney knew it the second he pried that defunct elevator open and they passed him, two Weaponry nerds, glares sidelong like facility malfunctions were his fault. Disrespect isn't surprising by this point. "Doctor" in front of your name makes some people huffy as shit, Officer Calhoun has observed in his time working for Black Mesa; he was beginning to suspect scientists thought everyone sans white coat belonged to the same labor serf throng. Funny how everyone with less education than you becomes a moron and everyone who's had more a grumpy old fuck.
"—don't understand how we're expected to work like this. Do you know the computer labs on the main level are completely closed?" Dr. Anton, rotund and unfriendly, hoisted his eyebrow high at Dr. Zajac, wrinkled and blue-bearded. Barney could not tell if the discontentment was directed between colleagues or right at his sleepy, less-educated face. He just pushed the machine tray in behind them. "If I can't access my files, I'd like to know: which administrator is it expecting my team to generate data?"
"You don't need to tell me the electricians in this facility are incompetents." Barney frowned; the comment conveniently came just as a button panel popped free in his glove. Security was not expected to speak. He didn't. "I was late to no less than four meetings this past year due to tram failure. Tram failure! Explain to me why an organization with our funding can't keep its transportation running."
"Trams? We can't even reach our sector on foot."
"I doubt Aperture has to contend with broken elevators." Little annoyances; tiny things. They seem so miniscule now.
The lift ground to start with their rude chortling and the futile hammer of Calhoun's fist. There was a dramatic sigh of relief from Zajac and a triumphant finally! from Anton. Retention chains released and direction signals blinked dutifully toward the target floor. There was a reflective gloss from the levels around them as they descended – energy, experimentation, strange hours and the constant miscellaneous vapor that seeped off this place. Scuff marks littered the safety plastic. Barney's morning coffee had gone sour on his tongue.
"Thank God for small victories," Anton muttered, his face weird colors in the backlight 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."
And they were sinking slowly – doctors and guard – malfunctioning clinks towards a spot where education, annoyance and small victories meant nothing anymore.
In twenty-two minutes, Barney wakes up screaming, pulls himself out blood and rubble at the bottom of an elevator shaft, and that was the end of things that meant.
It's one of those far-off menaces. One of those 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 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 any yellow-flagged doors marked DANGER: NO ENTRY. Otherwise, Barney doesn't think much on the warning stamps scattered throughout these buildings. 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.
Maybe that's what this is; maybe a far-off menace came to life.
Barney worries about nothing and everything now. God, he can feel the radiation, feel it stretch in his bones – yellow, green, orange replacing the whites and reds. His limbs are full of it. They keep walking. Run, at times – creep others; crawl hands-and-knees some – reacting to stimuli, defending, reaching for reloads and squeezing the trigger into every body that leapt at him whatever color it was. (In)human, bestial, and all the somewhere-in-betweens. They all bite on bullets or the butt of Barney's shotgun when it clicks depleted. He does not think about it. He just shoots.
Killing meant something once. Now it is rote action. The person in him radiates out.
And when he's lost his last clip again – stuck in a coolant basement with lanky demons and no leeway – Barney spins that hollow weapon about, and swings it as hard as he can. The cutting lime of alien blood is a vibrant explosion across the leather of Vortigaunt skin; around the metal of a pump-action; across the warm cement floor. You can hear the plates of its skull crack beneath that broad singular eye. He sees lips break, saliva drip, the flash of what looks like death panic swarming in sclera that remind him of Mars. They look like goblins. Doesn't matter if it's silly. These are monsters all the same.
Fangs protrude when the staggered creature hits concrete. He's not sure if this expression is meant to be a cringe or a threat. He's also not sure if he cares.
There is so much darkness in the tunnels before him. At the end they tear open to blinding, blue sky.
He has no sense of there being a next stop. But he knows he has to get that far. What lags behind in the false lamp light – what is festering down here – will infect him, kill him, corrupt.
Radiation: sickness that quietly builds.
Barney shows the goblin his teeth, and steps 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.
Barney Calhoun follows the ties through darkness until there is a small light, and he walks forward – until that distant glow burns blindness and blood and claustrophobia away to fences, cargo tanks, barbed wire and finally: air.
There is a terrible fight. There is always a terrible fight, but it is with air in his lungs and day on his skin that the enemies change. Barney thinks this should have bothered him far more than it does. Projectiles mince human structures with less (or sometimes more) difficulty than the unshelled monsters they've carved to get here; it's hardly a noticeable difference after awhile. They all blur into the same cloudy threat. There's just a moment, really – just a moment when ahead of him comes screeching a group of survivors, of men in white coats – sprinting wildly across the opposite side of those rails. It's just a moment when the soldiers: fatigues and automatics, robot-talk and prime objectives – open fire, and everything's madness again, but madness that makes sense, as anticipations not brave enough to be real hopes splinter like buckshot.
He's lucky he hesitated. He's lucky he didn't flail out there crying help me.
Barney still doesn't know why he didn't.
But he hid.
Most of the marines left once this desert dust settled, screaming snuffed out, and their immediate area looked devoid of life. A few stayed behind to clean. Dreadful that there is so little mess to demarcate the massacre; you always expected bits, gore, something horrific to mar crime scenes for future generations and monuments, but none of that factored here. Shells rolled. Rapid-fire had punched holes in train cars. They dragged five physicists' corpses out and laid them on neat platform pile; nobody bothered providing burials once the ID tags checked. A man tossed tarp to cover them up. Then – work complete – three of the six-troop outfit climbed aboard ATVs and zipped off toward another station somewhere nearer Black Mesa's core.
Officer Calhoun kills the rest. He isn't clear how. There was just something hostile, something wrong, in the way those regulation boots stood out and waited.
It's more than obvious what they were waiting for now.
He does not touch the bodies, of scientists or soldiers, and does not stack them. Barney takes a moment to catch his breath and find his sanity, almost throws up (but there's nothing on his stomach), then stands and keeps going – keeps moving away.
That's when he hears the cry: "Come back!"
No one is shooting at him anymore. The man's ears are ringing deaf from aftershock. It can't be explained, not really, and it doesn't seem rational – because he's just risen from the shadow of a rusted freight car. It's the same barricade Barney used fifteen minutes ago, exchanging rounds with military men who shout in brute code, squinting into slits against temperate, dehydrated air. He narrowly missed a grenade burst that's covered his face and vest in packed sand. He's been breathing deep gusts through clenched teeth that can taste the difference in oxygen. But it has been so long, you see, so long since Calhoun, Barnard J. – BLUE SHIFT thought about people, that the concept of rescue cannot be reintroduced under hails of firepower. It's too large and second nature to feel strange. It can't permeate the shock of another almost-death.
This makes it hard to realize things, and after the fight is over, when that voice hits air – the voice of something that doesn't want to kill him – an assault of senses return in an assembly line. The sun is here suddenly, warm and painfully bright, so bright you cannot tell if it hurts from burns or joy. 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.
Barney's hands slouch around their shotgun. He's forgotten what being tired feels like. There's adrenaline thrashing everywhere inside him, making it so the guard can't analyze, can't see what's (who's) stopping him. Everything is too bright – too white, the white of safety bulbs and fresh paint and coats of better men than he was. He just grabs a glimpse. Just a glimpse of light, a jagged spoke in the spent battlefield, a loose shard of a mind gone critical: clean glass.
It is like a ghost. It is impossible, a flare of something familiar, but he sees it.
You died! Barney tries to say – you can't be here, get away from me, it isn't right. But there is a catch in his throat and nothing comes out. That light just looks back, a little impatient, a little fond, a little mean in what it does not say to those who look in from the outside. It looks back as though he's silly for stopping, for bleeding like he is, standing there clinging to a barrel he knows is jammed as Black Mesa burns down around him and he's soundlessly screaming no, I'm alive, fuck you haunt, I'm alive.
The light's caught in lenses, a park of coldness, faceless reflection, black frames, kind of a jackass shine in the green the glass hid.
He could not remember closing his eyes, consciousness unraveling, the way his willpower finally dropped like two-thousand pounds from where it pushed both hands against the bottom of his brain.
He stopped seeing anything.
He just fell.
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 navy walls. Rustle into armor, clack pistol to safety; he's in a hurry. No time for breakfast – just coffee. Blue Shift tonight. "Wake the hell up, kid."
"Wake up, Barney,"says Gordon Freeman, knuckles rapping a dark plastic helmet, monitor glow tearing the color from his face. He jerks up with a dial print reddened into a check. Area 3 Sector C is empty as trams change cycles, and no seven AM sun can permeate through Black Mesa's brick to wake Officer Calhoun, show the passage of time, 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 hollow of a deserted train yard with camouflage against reds, yellows, regulation blues. There is fresh blood collecting in a sea upon this tightly-packed ground. The blood is from another AnMat scientist Barney found; the scientist's nametag 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!" the man had choked, grey hairs wafting wildly about his head, sleeves torn at each shoulder, face bloodshot to its very nerves. Robertson had scrambled from a control post ahead of his peers so suddenly that Calhoun almost fired from where he'd 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 – heavy, limp, useless – riddled bag of potatoes in a doctor's coat. The old lab head goes squelchthump onto his face. Then everyone else behind him does. Barney presses every thatch of his spine against a shady storage room wall and begins to pant, eyes dilating, hugging rifle to ribcage, mouth dry. His body ran bitter, nausea 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. Everyone is running. Help me, don't leave, help me someone please-
Fingers on his shoulders, console glow, 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 beneath a shadow of trains and body piles. 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 monitor glow and thump-thump on his helmet brought back the world.
Tl;dr: Blue Shift just 100% all-the-time SPAZZED THE FUCK OUT.
Technical Note: Wasn't too sure what to do about age in this. I always assumed Barney was about Gordon's age in HL1, but when I saw the HL2 models, those assumptions were challenged. To reconcile and for realism's sake, I decided to just write him as a slightly younger man than I originally envisioned. It felt awkward at first, but turned out to be a pretty useful characterization exercise, so I'm not unhappy.
Thanks for reading!