When the next morning came, they woke up side by side on the hard ground outside the camp, and they stood to go back. Barney looked up as they walked in, and he wordlessly offered them a ration pack. Alyx took it gratefully from him and opened it. She offered half of it to Gordon, who took it.
"What's your plan now?" Barney asked as they ate.
"We have to find the Borealis," Alyx said softly. "We have to know what the hell is on that boat."
Barney nodded. "The helicopter's dead, but there's probably another form of transportation around here that'll get you there."
Someone ran up. "Hey, we're getting a weird transmission on the radio. Some lunatic babbling about the Borealis."
Gordon and Alyx looked at each other as they got up to follow him. He led them to the radio tent where two operators were standing around the small set-up. When they saw Gordon and Alyx, the woman picked up the handset.
"Can you repeat that, over?" she asked into it.
"Don't know how many times you want me to say it. Leave the Borealis alone! You don't know what's really there! Not even She knows!"
The signal was bad and full of static, but they could still make out every word he said.
Alyx took the handset. "Who's this 'She'?" she asked into it.
"The demon of Aperture Science. She knows everything, but the Borealis has been hidden from her. There's something unholy there, something bad enough they wouldn't let an isolated AI know about it."
"How do you know about it?" Alyx countered.
"I found the external drive about it. But I wasn't the first. I know you're looking for that ship. Don't go there, and even if you do, for God's sake don't crack open the hull. Hang on." The man disconnected for a moment, and then he came back. "Actually, you should go there, but you need to destroy it."
"What's there?" Alyx demanded.
"Something that can tear this universe apart."
"Is that even possible?"
"You don't know what Aperture was doing twenty years ago, and you don't know what Aperture has had on its side for a long time. GLaDOS and the testing program were just the tip of the iceberg. The Borealis represents the worst of the worst of Aperture. No; more than that. The worst of humanity."
"Can we even destroy something like that?" Alyx asked, looking over at Gordon, who shrugged.
"I don't know. But you have to try."
"What's your name?"
The man laughed and took a long time in answering. Eventually, he said, "I'm the Rat Man."
"Do you have a real name?"
"I don't know if I do anymore," he sighed. "Doesn't matter. All that matters is that the Borealis and its cargo don't see the light of day."
Alyx and Gordon looked at each other. "It sounds like he's been with Aperture this whole time," she said. He nodded. "He knows a lot more than anyone else. I think we need to find him."
"How do you intend to do that?" the radio operator asked.
"I don't know," Alyx admitted. "But this thing can't have much range. Maybe he's around here somewhere. And maybe Dr. Kleiner knows where the Aperture complex is. If it's around here, that might be where our friend is."
Gordon nodded, and he led her back to the fire pit. Kleiner was staring into space. Gordon waved at him, and he looked up.
"Oh, Gordon, Alyx, yes?"
"Doc, we were wondering if you know where the Aperture complex is," Alyx said.
Kleiner cast his memory back. "I think I remember someone mentioning that Aperture was based out of an old salt mine on the Michigan peninsula."
"That's where we are now," Alyx said. "Are there any mines around here, apart from the one taken over by antlions?"
"I think there's a big one north of here, but that's at least two days away on foot."
Alyx looked at Gordon. "There's no way he's that far away," she said, and he nodded.
"Are there any others?" she asked Kleiner, who shrugged.
"I don't know. I'm sorry, my dear."
"Someone has to know," Alyx said. "Maybe Barney. He's been crawling all over this place." Gordon nodded.
"I've been doing what now?" Barney asked, walking up.
"Do you know of any mines around here?" Alyx asked. He considered it.
"Not that I can think of. But that might not be the best way to look for our friend." He looked over at Kleiner. "Doc, doesn't Aperture have dozens of smaller facilities scattered around?"
Kleiner nodded. "They do. I don't know where you might be able to find one around here though…"
Alyx looked at Gordon. "What do you say, Gordon? Do you want to start looking?"
"Let me help get you started," Barney volunteered. "My scouting party might have found something last night that could help you guys out." He led them outside the camp, explaining, "We squirreled it away out here in case someone needed to use it." He led them to the ridge and then down below to a small clearing sheltered by trees and rocks. Alyx saw it first and laughed.
"You're kidding! How did you—"
"Gordon left it outside before the launch," Barney explained with a smile.
She ran up to the car they had driven to White Forest. It was still in one piece, and she bet it was still functioning. "Let's get this out of here." She enlisted Gordon's help, and they cleared a path wide enough to drive through.
"You guys should collect some supplies from the camp before you go," Barney said. "And I would talk to the radio operator. He might have been using a unique frequency."
They nodded. Barney sighed and shook his head. "And before you go, can you do me a favor?"
"Anything," Alyx replied. Barney had done so much for her and her father through the years.
"Stay one more night. I think everyone would benefit from it, especially Kleiner."
Alyx nodded. "Of course. You're right." Gordon figured more rest would do them both good, and he nodded. They turned to walk back to the camp, and Alyx moved to stay beside Gordon. Barney raised an eyebrow incrementally but didn't comment and turned away.
When they got back to camp, Barney walked into one of the tents and came back with soap. "Gordon, I was thinking about going down to the river to wash off. Want to come?"
He hesitated. On one hand, the idea of getting out of the HEV and washing off the sweat and grime was very attractive. On the other, he wasn't sure if he should leave the camp for so long.
"Go on," Alyx told him. "You'll thank me later." He wanted to protest, but she stared at him, and he sighed.
"Just be careful," she told him. He nodded, and as he and Barney moved to go, she suddenly ran up and pressed her pistol into his hand. "Just in case. Don't you lose that, alright?"
He nodded and slipped it into one of the HEV thigh holsters. She hugged him and watched him walk out of the camp.
Barney led Gordon to a quiet, sheltered bend in the nearby river, and as they stripped down, Gordon caught sight of something on Barney's bare back. Four metal spots were inlaid with his skin, two just below the shoulder blades and two right above the hips. There were similar spots just above his elbows. Barney caught him looking, and he smiled faintly.
"Most people think Civil Protection don't get body mods. That's not true. They graft metal to the back of the spine, rib cage, femur, and humerus, and they run cable along all of it. It's not as extensive as what Overwatch gets, not even close, which is why no one thinks it really happens."
Gordon raised an eyebrow and looked questioningly at him.
"I never told Kleiner or Eli. As far as they know, when I enlisted as a CP, my 12 hours at the Citadel was a compressed boot camp. Not quite." He rolled his shoulders back. "It's actually done a lot for me. It increases strength and stamina, and when you combine with the CP dispersal armor, it can become significantly more difficult to take down a CP. You don't seem to have any trouble, though."
Gordon shrugged. He supposed he had an augmentation system as well, the HEV. Some of the HEV's functions could be invasive, and training with it had turned him into something much more powerful. When you thought 'physicist,' you didn't think of a weapons expert able to free-carry his own weight. That sounded more like an Army Ranger or Jason Bourne.
"Here." Barney tossed Gordon the bar of soap. "You first."
In an hour or so, they were sitting on the bank in the sun in freshly-washed clothes, watching the water burble by. Gordon found himself paying close attention to the world around him, listening for anything out of place, watching for any wrong movement. Out of the corner of his eye, he could tell Barney was doing the same thing.
"Right here, one could almost forget about all of it," Barney said quietly. "Black Mesa, the Combine, White Forest, all of it. Almost."
Gordon closed his eyes. The words 'Black Mesa' brought with them pangs of guilt, especially now. If he hadn't done what he had done in the test chamber that day, none of this would have happened. The past few days had been a blur of danger and adrenaline, but now he had time to reflect. Now he had seen the damage he had wrought close up, had felt the effects of it himself, and had even married a woman whose life was severely marked because of what he had done. There was far more than Vortigaunt blood on his hands from Black Mesa, and it would take him an eternity to cleanse himself of it.
"You should have seen her face when we said she wouldn't find you in the rubble," Barney said, referring to Gordon's miraculous survival of the initial reactor explosion at the Citadel. He laughed shortly. "She wasn't ever going to give up. Not until she found you or your body under that concrete. She just refused to believe she wouldn't find anything. And I don't think anyone's ever seen her any happier than when she sees you come back safe and sound."
Gordon looked at him, wondering just where this was going.
Barney sighed and leaned forward. "The Vortigaunts say you saved her from a Hunter, that you 'retrieved her Vortessence'. That's a pretty big deal, and as her godfather, thank you."
Gordon nodded. He hadn't hesitated when the Vortigaunts had asked him to save her. He knew there were strings attached, and just what they all were he didn't know yet, but he was willing to live with them to have her at his side.
He suddenly sensed something, and he jumped up.
"What's wrong?" Barney asked, getting to his feet. Gordon just wriggled back into the HEV and ran back toward the camp. Barney chased after him, shouting for him to slow down, but he couldn't afford it. Something was wrong.
He accelerated into the camp, and one of the refugees looked up in surprise. "If you're looking for Alyx, I think she's in there," she said, pointing to one of the tents. He got there right as a doctor and Kleiner did.
"Gordon?" Alyx called, and Gordon went in. He found her pushing herself up off the ground, and he stepped forward and offered her his hand. She took it and let him help her to her feet.
"What happened?" the doctor asked her.
"I… don't know," she said. "I just felt dizzy, and then I was on the ground." She hadn't let go of Gordon's hand, needing that connection.
Barney raised an eyebrow and looked at Gordon. Something wasn't quite adding up here. Gordon had never shown any inclination toward psychic abilities, but he had certainly suggested he had them just now. And if he didn't know better, he'd say Alyx was doing the same thing.
Actually, they were acting a bit like Vortigaunts, with the strange sixth-sense thing. Just how had Gordon saved her? Barney knew there was way more to it than the little the Vortigaunts told them, but what that meant he wasn't sure. Barney guessed one of the Vortigaunt rituals had been involved, which would probably explain these… side-effects.
Gordon brushed Alyx's hair from her face and looked worriedly at her. She laughed and looked up at him. "I'm alright, Gordon. I promise."
"I'd still like to look over you," the doctor said.
"Of course." Alyx looked at Gordon. "Go talk to the radio operator. We're going to need all the information we can get."
He shook his head. He had no intension of leaving her just after something like that.
"Will you at least wait outside?" she asked. "It'll be like fifteen minutes."
"Indeed," the doctor added. When he didn't move, the doctor smiled. "I'll be with her. Don't worry." Very reluctantly, Gordon let go of Alyx's hand and went outside with Kleiner and Barney.
"Oh, dear," Kleiner fretted. "I hope something isn't terribly wrong."
"She'll be fine," Barney assured him. He looked over at Gordon, but Gordon was down in the depths of his own mind. How had he known Alyx needed help? And how had he known exactly where she was? He didn't think he was psychic.
The Vortigaunts said their lives were woven together, whatever that meant. He knew—somehow—that they now shared a collective life-force, and he was still trying to figure out just what he thought about the implications that suggested.
"Hey, man, what's going on with you?" Barney asked Gordon. He knew there was more to it than their developing relationship and budding romance. Gordon shrugged and shook his head. He had an idea, but he still didn't entirely know. He needed to talk to the Vortigaunts about the ritual, but now he wanted to be back in that tent with Alyx.
The doctor came out with Alyx. "She's perfectly alright. Don't worry. I would, however, suggest taking it easy for the next few days."
Gordon nodded. Alyx looked at him and smiled. She walked up to him and looked up into his eyes. "Let's go talk to the radio operator," she said. He nodded and let her lead the way. They walked to the radio tent, and the operator looked up as they entered.
"Do you know what frequency our friend was using earlier?" Alyx asked her. She nodded.
"Our Borealis friend? Yeah." She wrote the frequency on a scrap of paper. "If you've got a radar unit, you can follow that. That should take you right to him if he's got his transmitter on. It might help to know that we think the signal was coming from the south-east."
Alyx thanked her, and they walked back toward the fire. Gordon spotted a group of Vortigaunt, and he tugged Alyx's sleeve, tilting his head toward them.
"What's up?" she asked. He just motioned with his head again, and she relented. "Alright."
The Vortigaunts looked up as they approached. "The Freeman wishes to know about the Ritual," one of them said. He nodded.
"What ritual?" Alyx asked. The Vortigaunts hadn't told her just what they had done to save her. They had told her very little about it.
"The ritual used to save the life of the Alyx Vance," one of the Vortigaunts replied. She blinked.
"Gordon, why didn't you tell me?" she asked. He shook his head.
"The Freeman did not wish you to worry," the first Vortigant told her. "And it was the only way to save you."
"What did you do?" she asked.
"Our kin healed many of your physical injuries, but your life-force was weak. So our kin used the Ritual to weave it with the Freeman's."
"What?" It affected her almost like a physical blow, and she looked up at Gordon. "You went through that? Just for me?" He nodded, and she hugged him fiercely. "Thank you," she whispered, putting worlds of meaning into those simple words. She turned back to the Vortigaunt. "So what's the catch? Are Gordon and I married now?"
"If that is how you wish to think of it," he replied. "As a result of the Ritual, you two have begun to develop a deep psychic bond. It may take weeks to fully blossom, but even now you two are fundamentally connected."
Alyx laughed and looked up at Gordon. "You could have told me, you know! Then we would have been able to tell Dad!" He shrugged, and she laughed again, shaking her head. "Alyx Freeman. Has a nice ring to it. I do have to admit that wasn't exactly how I imagined my wedding, with me passed out, and you putting yourself through something like that."
He looked meaningfully into her eyes, silently asking if she was truly alright with this revelation. He was, after all, a monster.
"Stop looking at me like that, Gordon. The idea of being Mrs. Freeman isn't that scary. It sounds like a lot of fun. So yes, I will marry you. Don't you dare bring up consent." She took his hand and kissed him. "Dad would have been so happy. He was serious about wanting grandkids," she said sadly. Her voice caught, but she pushed the emotions away. "Now what do you say we see if we can find the Rat Man?"