The crackling of shifting paper. The thud of glass planted firmly on wood. The overhead whining of electricity. These noises made Gordon feel normal, that physics and the universe still adhered to understood concepts. Inside his room, Gordon could pretend that he was still a theoretical physicist, for whom expectations of behavior and performance would be dominated by science and experimentation of a more academic nature, and only rarely the practical.

The only concession was the HEV suit.

"You ever gonna take that thing off, Gordon?" Barney had asked on his second day on the base. Gordon had shook his head. Barney had started to laugh, then saw the look on his face. Not a trace of a smile. Not a wrinkle of concealed mirth. The suit had saved his life on a day that was supposed to be normal. He now dwelled within a world that was decidedly not. The suit came off for reasons of hygiene. If he could sleep beneath an alien sky with the suit on while listening to the sounds of distant flying manta rays, he could sleep with it on a moldy spring mattress.

Eli and Dr. Kleiner had yet to comment on it, but Gordon knew the questions would be inevitable. He sensed, somehow, that they understood. The lack of aging. The unfamiliarity with the current situation. They knew, and he didn't know how, that he had been gone. And part of him really resisted the notion of bringing it up to either of them. They think I'm a bit cracked already.

Gordon adjusted the lamp, focused his light on the faded ink of old journal entries, the last newspaper ever printed on earth, and a handful of half-scorched documents carried out of the smoking ruin of Black Mesa. North America – mostly gone. Portal storms. Even chunks of Canada had not been spared, and Mexico if anything had been even harder hit than the U.S. They didn't deserve that. Our mess.

Europe – where he stood. Greatest population of what was left of humanity, at least in terms of density. At least, as things stood now. Plenty of infrastructure to make use of. Dying slowly before, dying quickly now. Somehow made sense that the last stand would be in the old world rather than the new. World War III.

Asia – much the same as Europe, although the Combine harvest had been conducted much faster there. Gordon traced the dark images in the old photos with a gloved finger, jaw clenched. Train cars loaded with people. A sea of tents. Someone had written in pen on the back 2016 and underlined it. Another photo of the same street, all the windows boarded up, tents gone, train station empty and similarly boarded. That same someone had scratched 2020 on the back and underlined it again in an angry hand. Places like India and China had been the first targeted – the cities at least. Where the population was densest. Was.

As for Australia, Africa, and South America – unclear. It made Gordon wonder if Australia had proven too much for the Combine, but it was likely wishful thinking. He felt a small stab of guilt at his lack of curiosity for the other two continents – they had always seemed so distant to him, and now they likely always would be. Perhaps things are better there. Somehow.

As for home and family … Gordon reached for the glass. The amber liquid trickled down his throat, warm from its lengthy stay at his desk. It had been a while since he had sipped from it, and now he downed the whole thing in a few ugly gulps. Gone. It was fruitless to entertain thoughts of any kind of reunion. They were dead, or lost, or worse. No wonder Eli was worried if he was cracked. It was all he could do to remain logical about it all. Face it. You did not expect to make a return journey. They were lost to you already.

The last. You are the last.

Gordon forced the lump back down in his throat. Useless. Illogical. Work to do. Thinking to do. And with the sociopolitical situation along with the small matter of his species' survival cleared up, there remained one other factor to consider.

Gordon pictured a chess board. Pawns – people like poor Barney, maybe, the average citizens and personnel swept up in this madness. They could be sacrificed freely or mostly ignored, but as Barney had proven, only a fool would forget their existence entirely.

What did that make Gordon? Not a pawn. Pawns didn't get hired.

The king – him, of course. Unable to move freely, but everything hinged on his continued existence, his secondhand interference. Gordon had half a mind to try and find a way to arrange his own spiteful checkmate, but looking across the board … his opponent appeared to be a far more damaging and disgusting foe.

Eli Vance was the queen, he could see it. He ran the base, organized a good chunk of the Resistance, liaised with the vortigaunts. Was he wholly in control? No. But victory hinged on his continual presence on the board. Only a fool would sacrifice him needlessly, if at all.

Bishops – someone like Dr. Kleiner. Useful in his own field, but it would be madness to take him out of it, and they had few to spare. Eli was better-rounded in comparison. Gordon, for as much as he inwardly cringed at it, could at least be counted on with a gun in hand.

Rooks? Gordon reevaluated. Barney was a rook now – he had been a pawn before. Similarly limited in direction, but powerful when pushed. The vortigaunts, his now-found friends? Rooks, he supposed. They certainly did not seem like pawns. So where stood Gordon?

When a pawn crosses the board, there are only two pieces to exchange it for. He was no queen – he lacked the context and experience that Eli possessed; he wasn't even sure if he could match the man in sheer brilliance. So that left him as a knight. Sir Freeman of Black Mesa.

Powerful. Mobile. Specialized. But not alone, perhaps? A player with only one knight was not uncommon, but Gordon personally would sacrifice a bishop or rook over a knight any day. But it is just an analogy. Thinking of the situation as a chessboard brought him comfort. Put him at ease. Because when he looked at the hazy images and fearful language arranged before him, all Gordon could see was a mess.

The door scraped open behind him. Gordon forgot – the second concession. He leveled the concession's barrel at the door frame. A set of red eyes stared back at him, and for a moment Gordon almost thought to pull the trigger. The lab coat stopped him.

"The Freeman feels ill-at-ease." The vortigaunt affectionately known as Igor inclined his strangely-shaped cranium. "The transition is understood to be difficult, but the Freeman is accustomed to difficulty."

Gordon lowered the pistol and placed it back in its holster. Three rounds to the eyes – typically lethal with a handgun or submachine gun. One round with higher caliber. One crossbow bolt. No special resistance to explosives or depleted uranium weapons. He didn't want to remember all the ways he knew how to kill the things. But the knowledge came unbidden, a parting gift from Black Mesa. Gordon knew how they died – not especially hard.

"The Freeman should know that another approaches. By helicopter."

Another? Gordon gave the vortigaunt a questioning look. Helicopter? He couldn't imagine one remaining operational, let alone flying under the radar of their enemies, myriad as they were. The vortigaunt let out a chuckle.

"You will know him as sib, as you know us. You, left stranded, who unknowingly sought the all-in-one. Who found that hideous strength nestled in a fragment blasted deep inside."

Thieves … you are all thieves…

Indeed, Gordon felt something stir inside, an errant twitch somewhere deep in his abdomen, followed by a small bloom of pain in his skull. Igor stared, unblinking. Gordon stared back, feeling something billowing from deep within. A mix of fear and disgust chased down by the most searing sensation of … hatred?

"You know of what I speak," hissed the vortigaunt, taking a single step forward. "The spring of our joy and our woe. The-" But it stopped and turned its head. Footsteps, light and rapid. "The Alyx Vance!"

"Hey Igor. Are you bothering Gordon?" Alyx meant it as a joke, yet again, Gordon found no humor in it. The alien had been bothering him. Even as the somehow foreign anger snaked away, a trace of it remained, wholly his own. Barging in here and spouting nonsense at me. But it wasn't nonsense. When Igor glanced back at Gordon, he felt that unspoken acknowledgment, the same way Eli and Dr. Kleiner acknowledged that he had just been "gone" for all that time. It knows. But what did it know? About him?

"The Freeman is beyond such trivialities. Were I bothering him, I would litter the floor, as so many of ours did at Black Mesa."

"Yeah?" Alyx joined Igor at the doorway, started looking Gordon up and down. "I don't know, he doesn't seem the type. What do you think, Gordon?"

Gordon shrugged noncommittally. He wasn't sure what to make of Alyx. Last he checked, she had been an infant. Now? Now she was an adult who had grown up in a world that had suffered two alien invasions and was in the midst of a third. Duct tape covered the holes in her jacket, while the tears in her jeans leaned less towards "fashion statement" and more towards "running for my life through heavy vegetation." And for all her warm smiles and light humor, Gordon knew for a fact she always carried an automatic pistol inside her jacket.

"We will adjourn our meeting with the Freeman," said Igor, bowing his way out of the room. "We are expected for a game with the Calhoun, who is freshly off duty."

"You're not going to beat him at ping-pong," Alyx called back casually over her shoulder. "No one can."

"Not to worry!" called back Igor, his strange voice sounding only stranger as it echoed through the steel hall. "Today is the day for chess!"

Gordon sucked in a sudden breath at that. The inside of his suit now felt like it might cook him alive, he could feel the sweat building in the space between himself and the inner mesh, in the creases and the armpits. He flinched, rubbed the bridge of his nose, his body desperate to somehow jettison the discomfort he now felt.

"You okay?" Alyx stepped into the room. Gordon tried smiling up at her from where he sat, but she looked behind him at the desk. "Yeah, it's not healthy to fixate on all of that. We have to take care of what's in front of us before we can get to the rest. Dad always told me that."

Gordon looked Alyx in the face. He saw concern and a hint of … perhaps he was being egotistical. He was no one to look up to. A broken man inside of a suit, his two most notable accomplishments little more than ending the world and then subsequently exterminating the first invaders to try and take advantage of it. He opened his mouth but the words didn't come. Sir Freeman. Alone at his sad table.

"I think I know what you need." Alyx extended a hand, dirty yet feminine fingers slotted through fingerless gloves. Gordon just gaped at it. "Come on. Trust me. Everyone likes spending time with D0g."

D0g. The robot named after an animal likely extinct. It more closely resembled a gorilla in appearance, and its temperament seemed to blend the two; peaceful obedience belying a berserk rage when challenged. He was not sure how a visit would cheer him up … but at least it would beat sitting in his room, alone, trying to diagnose the exact nature of the apocalypse he had helped cause.

Gordon followed her out of the room. He stood a head taller than Alyx, and following her light and quick footsteps made him feel comparatively ungainly, especially when combined with the suit's added weight. Strange. I always felt so athletic compared to the rest of Black Mesa. Of course, when the baseline was the likes of Dr. Kleiner, this was scarcely a feat.

"That's the old passage to Ravenholm," said Alyx as they passed by a particularly dimly lit tunnel. "That's where D0g carried you through a couple of days ago. Father Grigori has been coming and going, keeping an eye on things. Things have died down a bit since the Combine left." She frowned for a moment. "Kinda wish we kept that tunnel sealed, but we can't afford to be too blind to what's going on."

Gordon had spoken to Father Grigori once or twice. Despite being thoroughly detached from reality at this point, he too seemed to recognize Gordon's unique predicament. Perhaps it was the detachment that led him to accept Gordon so casually, despite not fully understanding who he was.

From what Grigori had told him about his former home, it did not surprise Gordon the priest was unable to let go.

"I will leave only after I see all of their true faces … one last time." If the man slept, no one had yet found out where.

The metal passageway terminated in an airlock. Alyx hummed to herself as she punched in a short code and waited for the auto cycle. She gave Gordon a side-eye he pretended not to notice, mostly because he was never sure what to say to people outside of his own academic circle. From what Eli had said, the closest skillset Alyx had, given her own eclectic education, would be that of a mechanical engineer. Engineers had always intimidated him.

The doors opened and the two of them stepped out into the early evening air. This part of Black Mesa East appeared to be within some sort of valley or canyon, all rock walls and orange sky. The interior resembled little more than a scrapyard – plywood boxes piled on top of pallets, chain link fence rattling in the faint wind, and old shipping containers stacked together.

And of course, as Gordon noted with faint amusement, from the earth jutted a small wooden sign on which the words "Beware of dog!" had been spray-painted in red. Cute.

Most curious of all was the small glass container Alyx now turned to. Inside – a small, clawed, heavy looking apparatus featuring a bolt jutting out of its side and some manner of glowing orange substance contained within its "barrel."

"Surprised dad didn't show this thing off as soon as you got here, Gordon," said Alyx, tapping a few keys. The glass cabinet slid open with a hiss. She maneuvered the gun outside of its container with a small grunt of effort. It does look a little front heavy. "This thing and the rotato are always his favorite to show to guests." She proffered it towards him. Gordon took it gently, resting his left hand beneath the orange barrel, and his right on the bolt. He couldn't find any kind of trigger.

"Point it at those boxes." Alyx pointed up to a few stacked wooden boxes sitting atop the sheet metal of a nearby shack. Gordon obliged, swinging the "gun" upwards and levering it against his hip. "Now pull the bolt back."

To his surprise the side bolt, which he assumed had been rigid, indeed gave a little as he tugged it. The gun glowed a soft orange at its tip. The claws opened, and the box flew towards him as if caught by a strong wind or some magnetic force. With a soft hum, the box now hovered in front of him, locked in place by-

"We call it the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator when Dr. Mossman is in earshot," said Alyx, who grinned at him from off to the side. "But uh, I don't see her, so I guess it's safe to call it the gravity gun."

Yes. Countless applications and scenarios flashed through Gordon's mind as the tethered crate floated there, locked in the zero point energy field. Reflexively, Gordon pushed the bolt forward. With a flash of orange, the box shot forward and shattered against a portion of chainlink fence, which partially buckled at the force. Alyx hooted at the display.

"Yeah! You're getting it. Bolt back to pull, forward to push. Great for playing … catch." Something gleamed in Alyx's eye for a moment. She strode forward past Gordon, motioning him past the ominous premonition of imminent canine presence. Indeed, no sooner had they strode into the great open spot lit space, dotted by rusting dumpsters and old cargo containers, the "dog" greeted them with a whoop.

Knuckling his way out from his rather sizable "doghouse," the robot made for a formidable presence. His gait looked uneven, courtesy of arms of slightly different length, but he moved with impressive speed towards them, stopping in front of Alyx to lower his head and eagerly receive a few pats on the head.

"You remember Gordon, right?" asked Alyx. Gordon wasn't sure, but he was almost positive the robot nodded its little head. It looked at Gordon, the three flaps folding back slightly as the red iris inside dilated. It gave a small whoop of acknowledgement. "You see what Gordon has?"

The robot abruptly straightened and whooped again, this time lightly slamming its knuckled into the dirt, making the ground shake a little. Alyx chuckled as Gordon stepped back, mildly alarmed. Without warning the robot took off, sprinting towards a small metal container in the corner, which hummed and shook as he approached. Opening a great claw, D0g lifted the container to reveal…

A ball. Sort of. Balls usually didn't emit static electricity and then roll up to Gordon's shins repeatedly, as if to hump his leg. This one appeared to be a dull metallic blue, with a vibrant teal lining its insides and shining through. Bumps coated the surface of the ball, putting Gordon in mind of the shape of bacterium.

"Deactivated rollermine," said Alyx. Gordon nodded as if that somehow explained everything (it didn't) but his confusion must have still shown somehow, because Alyx continued. "It still sees you as an enemy, but can't shock you. We've tried reprogramming them to friendly, but it uh, makes them explode." D0g made a sad little electronic noise at this.

"Fetch," as it turned out, consisted of retrieving the ball with the gravity gun, firing it violently across the yard, and then having D0g storm after it. Then D0g would, instead of obediently bringing it back, instead shoot it back across the yard with his own inbuilt gravity gun, forcing Gordon to huff back and forth to catch the thing, as either D0g's aim was terrible or the robot enjoyed watching him run. Despite the exertion, it did take Gordon's mind off things for a time, and the yard grew darker without him noticing.

After a while, the ball landed harmlessly at D0g's ironclad feet as he stared up at the canyon walls, head cocked and flaps straight out. He whooped and tapped his knuckled against the soil. Something thrummed in the distance.

"What's wrong, D0g?" asked Alyx, a slight quaver in her tone, but the answer came quickly enough.

"Visitors!" called out Eli, stepping into the scrapyard with a scientific coterie in tow: Dr. Kleiner, his headcrab sitting atop his cranium; Igor, still wearing his labcoat and now clutching a clipboard; Dr. Mossman, who gave Gordon a disapproving glance when she saw what he carried; and Dr. Vahlen, who kept taking long backwards looks at … Adam. He (sorry, she?) stared at Gordon for a few long moments before stepping forward with the others. Two Resistance members followed behind, guns not pointed at (but certainly trailing behind) the alien. One was Father Grigori, freshly bathed, eyes scanning the skies. He gave no sign of having noticed Gordon, which was quite all right with him. He tended to shout, and Gordon was not in the mood.

"Ah, so I see you've introduced him to the gravity gun!" Eli grinned and clapped Gordon on the shoulder. Dr. Mossman gave no sign of irritation at Eli's casual nomenclature; Gordon surmised that Eli Vance got a pass in that regard. "Good, good. I have a feeling you two were meant for each other." He paused for a moment, suddenly looking serious. "Now, Gordon … it might be best if you went inside for this. These people are…" Eli bit his lip, looking for the words. He glanced at Dr. Kleiner. The thrumming grew louder.

"It is better to rip this band-aid now rather than later, Eli!" said Dr. Kleiner, lifting Lamarr from his forehead slightly, giving him the impression of some kind of strange fleshy haircut. "We have scarcely contained word of Freeman's presence. They may as well get used to it."

Eli frowned but opened his mouth to speak. Unfortunately, the helicopter now crested the canyon edge, and his words were lost in the howling cacophony of a rotor vehicle entering a contained space.

People coughed and edged backwards, eyes covered as the aircraft landed, scattering dust and detritus in all directions. A harsh light shone from the helicopter's door, swinging back and forth. Beneath it, Gordon caught the shadow of a hefty barrel. As the helicopter touched down, its blades cut from a roar to a steady whine as the pilot killed the engine. The rear doors opened and more people filed out, grunting as they stretched their legs.

Now these look like soldiers. A man led them, tall and scruffy about the face, short and dark hair atop his head. He walked stiffly, and judging from the scars dotting his face, this likely stemmed as much from former injuries as it did his own bearing. He gave Eli a smile, but his gaze hardened as it set on Gordon, making something turn in Gordon's stomach.

The last … we are the last…

The man leaned back towards the first soldier behind him on Gordon's left, a gas-masked individual of impressive broadness. The two exchanged a whisper. The gas-mask stared back at Gordon, the goggles glinting. Again, that surge of strange anxiety, coupled with recognition, and … something else. Something familiar.

But all of this lasted for only a moment before another, even more bowel-churning voice broke the sudden still.

"Ah, Freeman! So the rumors were true!" Dr. Magnusson, hauling a massive suitcase out of the back of the helicopter. He shot a glare at the broad soldier. "Make yourself useful, if you would. This needs addressing."

The soldier nodded and easily hauled the suitcase off the ground. Magnusson dusted himself off and marched straight towards Gordon who, despite carrying a gravity gun and being safely ensconced inside his suit, suddenly felt all but naked.

"You have some explaining to do, young man!" said the good doctor, wagging a stubby finger in Gordon's face, jowls aquiver. "We are not exactly sitting on a bounty of scientific expertise these days, and the time for hiding is long past over! It is shameful it took you this long to get into the fight!"

"That may have been outside of his control, Arne," said Eli quietly. Magnusson rounded on him, momentarily stymied.

"Yes, well, be that as it may, there are other misdemeanors that need accounting for as well." Magnusson shot Gordon a dirty look. "He knows what I am talking about. For now, we have more immediate concerns." Magnusson paused at Dr. Mossman, shook her hand. "Judith. You look well. Dr. Vahlen." He stopped at Dr. Kleiner, opened his mouth, shook his head, and said nothing. He finally stopped before Adam. "Is this the specimen?"

"I am Adam," said Adam.

"Adam. Really?" Dr. Magnusson shook his head and looked back at the assembled crowd. "And you are letting it just stand here, out in the open?"

"Not without a stern hand resting upon his shoulder!" bellowed Father Grigori, hefting his lever action rifle. Dr. Magnusson visibly paled at his face.

"Oh no. It's you. They told me you were dead."

"It is not yet my time, and indeed, cannot be, not when so many souls remain burdened!"

"He speaks the truth," said Adam, regarding Magnusson curiously. "It is not his time. And I am not unwatched."

"How did you convince it to come here?" Dr. Magnusson asked, casting a glance at Dr. Vahlen.

"It volunteered."

"Gordon Freeman keeps me safe." The thin man shrugged, and it almost looked natural. Gordon suspected she had been practicing. "I give venom so the doctor can make medicine. And I will help with the rat problem." Gordon could only imagine how she intended to do that. He hoped she would keep it out of sight.

"You vouch for this-"

"Adam," cut in Alyx, folding her arms. "Her name is Adam."

"Her name…?" Dr. Magnusson shook his head, not sure what to make of any of this.

"We can compare notes," said Dr. Vahlen impatiently. "This theater is unnecessary. All of your questions can be answered in a scientific environment." By which she meant her lab. Gordon understood her discomfort when out of it – the world had too many variables bouncing around. He tightened his grip on the gravity gun. The two soldiers were both staring at him, still.

"Of course." Dr. Magnusson coughed into his hand and then turned to Kleiner. "I trust the parts are disassembled and ready for transport, Dr. Kleiner?"

"We will have that teleportation lifeline up in no time!" said Dr. Kleiner brightly. The headcrab chirped on top of his head, and he gave it a loving pat. "I understand that you have brought…"

"Weapons and armor. Gifts from our loving alien overlords." Dr. Magnusson rolled his eyes. The other soldiers were shuffling them off, crates which rattled as they walked. "Lily and I have been working on something a bit more cutting edge than those damn crossbows we keep issuing. It's a pity we lost that gauss gun on the coast – we've experienced something of a breakthrough in that regard … oh, Freeman, if you wouldn't mind stacking those?" Dr. Magnusson pointed to the crates. "It's been a long ride."

Gordon shrugged and began lifting and setting the crates carefully with his gun. The soldiers watched quietly. The older man with the exposed face seemed to be chanting something under his breath. It sounded like ranks. And names. A lot of them. The heat rose inside Gordon. He couldn't help but feel relief as the older soldier broke off to speak to Igor.

"I heard you are coming with us?"

"The extract requires extraction in a manner most vortal," uttered the vortigaunt in his gravelly voice. "And I would discuss other matters with those at Victory Mine."

"We've got fuel for a drop off, but then Lily has to fly her back to White Forest. Refuel and hand off the teleporter parts." The soldier shrugged. "If we're tackling a nest, I wouldn't mind having another vort. Things can get chaotic in the tunnels." Whatever they were talking about, it sounded like the man had experience.

"Everything's unloaded!" called out the shorter soldier, a woman with brown hair in a ponytail. Of all things, a large blade sat in a sheath on her back. "Adrian, let's get the stuff."

"Follow me, please," said Dr. Mossman, beckoning. "And handle it carefully." The three of them retreated back towards the airlock, out of sight.

"This is the beginning of our own retaliation. Evening the score. Getting into the fight." The older man cracked his knuckles. "Let the Combine and the ADVENT rip at each other's throats. We'll get into position to finish off the survivor."

"It may not be so simple, Commander," replied Eli, rubbing his chin. "They have the advantage now, but we all know what it will mean for us if they open another superportal…"

"They've centralized their entire grid around that Citadel," insisted the Commander. "We – or they – find a way to take that out of the picture for a bit, and the whole human race could run riot. If we're in a position at that point to arm and train the populace, we have our uprising."

"I could get the word out," said Alyx. "Run back through the canals, meet up with the folks in hiding. The Railroad might be torn up, but I know where the fallback points are. Barney does, too."

"This is all still hypothetical, for the moment." Eli looked so tired for a moment. "We don't even know if we will get that kind of opening."

"We should start preparing for it regardless. Way I see it we have two possibilities." The Commander raised a finger. "One: the aliens fuck it up, piss off the Combine too much, they open a superportal. Nothing we can do in that scenario; no point preparing for it."

"Right. And the second?"

"Possibility two: ADVENT recognizes what they are dealing with and engages in some preventative measure. That happens, we need to make sure as many people come to us instead of them. We can capitalize on that; we should prepare for it."

"Which scenario do you think is more likely, Bradford?" asked Alyx, finally giving Gordon the man's name. He frowned at being addressed that way, but still answered the question, eyes crinkling with pain.

"The former. In all honesty."

"We still have more reason for hope now than we have in over fifteen years!" said Dr. Kleiner. "We must not forget that. And … perhaps a quick ending to things would be best, given that we have glimpsed the slow?"

"I do not intend to lay down and die," muttered Dr. Vahlen. She glanced back at Adam, who regarded the proceedings with no small amount of curiosity. "What do you make of this, Adam?"

"The Elders will be victorious in the end," replied Adam, quite calm. "I know not how, but it is an inevitability."

Dr. Vahlen sighed.

"Unhelpful."

"Gordon!" Dr. Mossman called from beyond the chain link fence. "We could really use that field manipulator over here!"

Gordon wanted to stay and listen, but defying Dr. Mossman felt more than unwise. He joined the three of them amidst their stacked crates. He aimed his gun for the heaviest-looking.

"I've got it." The soldier stepped between Gordon and the box and hefted it up with a grunt. He took a few shaking steps forward before bracing it against his stomach and tottering off with it. The two women rolled their eyes as he left.

"The dick-measuring begins," muttered the soldier.

"Was that the new one? The one Bradford found?" asked Mossman, pointedly ignoring the previous comment.

"Yeah. Shephard. He's pretty tough." She glanced at Gordon for a moment. "But I still think that extract is going to kill him."

There it was again. Extract. But they said little else as Gordon retrieved the crates and began piling them inside the helicopter. He was mildly surprised to see the number of seats inside the helicopter – about a dozen or more. Roomier than it looks.

"Was that everything?" asked Dr. Magnusson, to a chorus of nods. He almost smiled. "Good. Good. I will be staying here for a while and catching up on the latest scientific developments." He turned to Alyx. "Young lady, I understand you can be trusted with the installation of White Forest's teleport?"

"I installed the one here," she said. Dr. Mossman started to say something but stopped. Gordon suspected it was the way Eli was beaming at his daughter so proudly. "Between me and Lily, we can get that thing running in a day or two."

"Then I will be back there in a day or two, excellent."

"I will depart as well," murmured Igor. "I am needed at the Victory Mine."

"Don't take too long, please," said Dr. Vahlen, actually touching the vortigaunt on the elbow as he stepped past her. "You are needed her."

"The Dr. Vahlen can be assured that this one will make every effort to return to assist her. But I must not depart alone." The vortigaunt's eyes fixed on Gordon. "The Freeman is needed as well."

"I don't think so." The Commander's interjection came immediately. "We have the manpower, already. But if he wants to give us that suit, it would be appreciated."

No chance in hell. Gordon returned the Commander's glare, coolly.

"We're fine as is, sir," called out the broad-shouldered man, Shephard, from the back of the HIND. "We'll be okay without it."

"No. We see only failure in his absence." The vortigaunt did not budge. "The Commander Bradford is familiar with the Freeman's capabilities."

"All too well," snapped Bradford.

"Then the Commander Bradford should be pleased to turn the Freeman's energies on to those who deserve it." The vortigaunt inclined his head. "And … we seek two samples of extract."

Bradford's eyes narrowed momentarily, then his features softened into that of contemplation.

"For him?" Gordon noted the way Bradford spat the him.

For us.

"Yes."

"And what if I disapprove?" asked Eli, stepping in. "What if I say I need him here, in a labcoat, where he belongs?"

Dr. Vahlen snorted. "Let us be honest, Eli. Gordon Freeman's most notable accomplishments were not achieved in a labcoat. That suit belongs to him now, and he belongs to it." She knows the score. Gordon couldn't even pretend to be offended. Now he knew the doctor saw him exactly as he saw himself. And like him, she was a little disappointed.

"Moira, you do not know him as I do, as Izzy does-"

"None know him as we do," murmured the vortigaunt, rendering all silent. "Our liberator. Our champion. And the most notorious cutter of cords."

Eli frowned, but Gordon recognized surrender when he saw it.

"I have always paid attention when you spoke, Igor. When any vortigaunt saw fit to speak up…"

"This is how you achieved allegiance between us. We remember the Eli Vance's extended hand. We ask that you extend it once more, for us."

Eli gave Gordon a pained expression. Gordon just shrugged. He had no attachment to the base. The gravity gun felt heavy in his grip. What I am most known for…

He could stay and work in a labcoat, he supposed. But the glares from the soldiers, the awed look from Alyx, the nervous way his colleagues edged around him physically and in conversation … he was not known for it.

Gordon would have loved for things to have been different. For there to have been a particle accelerator, or something, something for him to work on. But instead there were tunnels. Tunnels, he surmised, that would be full of bugs. Possibly the same ones from the coast. His resume as it stood, leaned more towards bug disposal than it did lab work. If I can go … I should go.

He would be back, of course. Black Mesa East needed him. But not for his brain.

"Commander Bradford…?"

"Between the suit, the gravity gun, and … the man himself…" Commander Bradford swallowed. "Yeah. Yes. Fine. We should bring him."

"We'll want all three of those things back, mind," said Dr. Kleiner, waving his finger around at everyone as if it were a sparkler on the 4th of July. "They are all very dear to us!"

"You'll have them back," replied the Commander, clapping Dr. Kleiner on the shoulder. "I … guarantee it. And we'll sort out this extract business together."

"Right. Good. Settled then." Dr. Magnusson clapped his hands together. "Now, if you don't mind, some of us are very eager to get back to work!"

Some departed. Gordon stayed. Eli stayed. Adam stayed, still flanked by guards. Alyx kissed her father goodbye and boarded the helicopter. From inside, feminine screams of delight erupted from the cockpit – apparently she and the pilot knew each other. The other soldiers boarded alongside Igor. It just left Eli, looking uncomfortable. And Sir Gordon Freeman, of Black Mesa.

"This isn't what I want for you," said Eli quietly, not meeting Gordon's gaze. "I hope you know that, right?"

Gordon nodded, again wishing things were different. Eli gave his shoulder a squeeze, barely discernible through the suit.

"Be safe out there, son. Keep an eye on Alyx for me until you get back. And … Bradford…?" Eli grimaced. "Keep an eye on him. I think you know why."

Gordon was beginning to suspect. But he didn't need to know the specifics to recognize a deep-seated hate when he saw it.

Adam did not approach the helicopter, so Gordon approached her instead. The alien's yellow eyes flickered.

"You have to go. But you will come back. And that will be … better. I will like it better." After pausing, Adam extended a hand. Must have learned that at some point. Of course, Adam still had a bit to learn – she refused to unclench her fist. Gordon squeezed that fist all the same. None of the knuckles felt remotely in the right place. With that, Adam smiled, exposing too many sharp teeth, and Gordon turned on his heel.

As Gordon stepped onboard the helicopter, a firm hand turned him around. What now? Father Grigori, stinking of garlic, drawing him close.

"You almost forgot it, brother!" the priest proclaimed, too loudly given how close he was. Gordon winced. The priest thrust something into Gordon's left hand. "You are of no use without it. Here!"

Gordon looked down. The thin strip of red metal curved and terminated in nice solid forks. He nodded. He could not dispute that he felt … less … without one. God knew where Grigori had found it. A field manipulator and a lever. I am a physicist after all.

Father Grigori nodded and headed back down the ramp, leaving Gordon to find his seating. The helicopter began to whir to life.

"Alyx, you got the gun!" called out the pilot.

"Yes, ma'am!" Alyx hefted the mounted gun on the helicopter's side with glee. She turned to Gordon and winked.

As the helicopter began to life, the big soldier, Shephard, leaned back to Gordon from his seat.

"I don't know how much this means, Freeman," he bellowed over the roar of the engine and the rotor, "but from one killing machine to another, it's good to have you on board."

Gordon nodded back at him. For some reason, he began to think of chess again. Of knight pieces in particular.


Adrian next. Victory Mine next.