Run. Repeat that pattern of left leg over right leg over left. Stamp through verdant grass still cold from dew and toss herself over fragments of rock jutting from the compacted putty earth. Slice through the chill film of air under a florescent sky and put her shouting Achilles and abdominals and triceps and lungs on hold. And don't ever, ever, slip in the mud.
Listen. To the high shouts and tumble of words from the red-dotted, raw people swarming and fleeing around her. To the staccato march of gunfire slamming the sound barrier over and over until her ears are beaten numb and can only hear a high-pitched, medicinal whine like the whisper of electronics half-awake.
Duck. Behind trunks of pine-scented conifers so freshly fallen their inner bark is still white. Behind the waist-high skeletons of concrete, laid out in fractal rectangles like sunken islands scattered across the valley. Behind anywhere offering sanctuary from the invisible lead slugs that punch through the air like spears of divine judgment, anywhere with a line of sight and enough room to breathe.
Aim. Her hands don't shake, though they did at first; there's a smooth parlay, now, between eye and hand which calculates the elements of battle: identifying the three-legged, inhuman targets among a thunderstorm of activity; the quick systems-check over her thin frame confirming the continued beating in her chest; the urgency of a reload by the pistol's weight in her palm.
Fire. A shockwave up her arm, another blow to the numbing of her ears, one less cartridge in the barrel, and that's another point for the home team: a sphere of influence on the stretch of grass is cauterized. And regardless of how soon it's replaced, the simple fact of those short few gained seconds adds up to the next item on the to-do list.
Hope. That the tripod rounding the bend in the trees will be the last. That all the muzzle-flares on two legs won't turn tail or flicker out. That maybe just maybe just maybe the enemies of White Forest haven't won. A thought breaks the surface for only a moment, gasping for air, "you're still human," before it's sucked back into the depths and she hops back onto the tendons in her feet.
The engine wailed under her, the tires bucked over every miniature dip in the terrain, and the glass windows vibrated on all sides, but her hands and feet moved over the controls quickly and securely. Her eyes were trained straight out the windshield, narrowed with concentration, stress, and just the tiniest bit of fun. She didn't have to glance into the rearview mirror to know her pursuer was still behind her, lumbering after her with long, slow strides. Her foot buried as deep as it could go on the accelerator, she careened between two forested faces of stone like the path had been carved through the rock with a knife. The tree trunks were rough blurs on her either side. Halfway through the gorge, a mine detonated, briefly sending the two right tires up into the air before they crashed back down.
The ruined sawmill was straight ahead, flying toward her, but she wasn't concerned. Release accelerator - slam clutch - first gear - release clutch - slam brakes, and the two back tires screeched and kicked out to the side; she simply turned the steering wheel over and over in her hands, turning into it like a hydroplane, and the car neatly skidded around the curve, kicking up a long cloud of dirt. With another convoluted series of controls and pumping the steering wheel back the opposite direction, the car rocketed away from the sawmill to the right, around the mound of trees and for the moment out of sight of the strider.
She knew it wouldn't last long, though. She was now at the northeast corner of the valley, and the water tower towered high over her, dead ahead. A few more movements from the driver's seat, and the car screeched to a long, violent stop at the foot of the tower. The car's engine was still shuddering to a stop when she burst through the door, sprinted thirty meters away, and threw herself behind a toppled, rusted oil tank in the shadow of the tower. The air was heavy with shouts and the distant thud of grenades; however, what her ears strained for were the strider's telltale muted footsteps, which had chased her across the valley. She'd baited and funneled its three hunters into a shack filled with hopper mines, and it didn't seem too pleased.
Her breath slowed to the point she could taste the gunpowder on the air again. Tentatively, she took a handheld mirror from her pocket and held it aloft to peer over the oil tank. The strider was lumbering around the tree bank, swinging its giant, beetle-like head from side to side to find her.
Striders had always given her the creeps. They were among a class of shock troops the Combine called 'synthetics', or 'synths' for short. Striders, hunters, gunships, and a few other strange creatures Alyx had only heard rumors of were all alien animals from other planets in the Combine empire. From what she'd gathered, in smoke-wreathed factories on off-world colonies, the creatures were grafted with armor and weaponry into their flesh, 'improving' them for battle. It was hard not to hate them, but it was even harder not to feel a little sorry for them.
The tripod stamped right up to the water tower and prodded the now-vacant car with one speared foot. It flipped the car onto its roof like a grilled tomato - Alyx grimaced as the windows shattered into nonexistence - and then flipped it again, finally leaving it wobbling unsteadily on its poorly-suspended tires. The strider wandered past the water tower and oil tank without seeing her and continued down the trail as its harpoon legs dug holes into the dirt.
She sighed with relief and rested the back of her head against the uneven metal. This wasn't going well. The human Resistance was fighting back for now, but she was certain morale wouldn't stay up for much longer; at least during yesterday's attack they'd had the rocket to protect. Now there was no purpose - what, were they supposed to be all gung-ho about dying to save a handful of research buildings and a radio tower? She glared at a scrap of blue sky through the cloud layer like it was keeping silent on purpose. Both sides were weary and threadbare: now it really only came down to which one would trickle out first. And somehow she didn't get the feeling it would be the remotely-controlled, half-animatronic shock troops.
Just as she was about to shake off her fatigue and rejoin the fight, a pistol magazine fell out of the sky and bounced twice on the grass. What the...
Turning the magazine over in her hand, she looked up at the water tower: the only tall structure nearby. A weary smile lit her face when she saw a familiar figure waving at her from the top of the water tower; somehow, she wasn't surprised to see Barney leaning over the railing with his trademark earsplitting grin. He beckoned her up with a wide sweep of his arm. She quickly glanced over her shoulder to confirm the strider really was out of sight, and then jogged over to one of the water tower's four rusted iron legs and pulled herself up the ladder, which ran at a slight angle.
"Barney," she said as he helped her off the top rung, "What are you doing up here? Don't you want to join in the fun?"
"Hey, I'll have you know that I have had plenty of fun - now, yesterday, last week, and this entire blasphemous life of mine."
"Hm. When was the last time you were tested?" she teased as she took a step away from him.
"Ha. Ha. You'd better watch it, kid, or I'll toss you off the railing. Now ya want supplies or not?" With one hand, he directed her around the curve in the gantry, which ran around the perimeter of the water tower's main tank. About halfway across the walk, the railing was covered with hastily-welded sheets of metal to cover a cache of ammunition and medical supplies piled up in a Soviet-era crate.
"Oh, sweet! Who brought this up here?"
"Beats me," he said. "Someone just told me about it as I was passing through. Lucky they did, too; I was running on empty."
"Hey, at least be grateful you don't have a vindictive strider on your tail," she said as she knelt by the stash. Tired of carrying everything in her pockets, she'd equipped a leather bag on her leg, which had one strap halfway up her thigh and another around her hips. There wasn't much space, so she just tucked in a handful of grenades and a few medkit vials for good measure.
"Ouch. Whaddyou do to piss it off?" he asked, watching her stock up.
"I didn't invite it to a christening," she responded with matching eye roll.
Now fully reloaded, she cocked her pistol with a satisfying, tactile click. As she shoved it into the holster at her side, she slowly sat back on her heels.
Off to the south side of the valley she could just make out the blurry shapes of Dog and the surreal litter of strider corpses on the ground. He and a handful of rebels trained in the use of rocket launchers - Sam among them - were the last line of defense keeping the research complex secure. Up in the sky, a swarm of little black dots like a flock of crows seethed over the battlefield: shield scanners, dropping hopper mines onto the field below. She shook her head morosely as she remembered the lightweight weapon on her belt. The other side had monstrous creatures with warp cannons, and she had a pistol. "I gotta admit, I feel pretty useless," she admitted. She spoke with her hand on her necklace and a faraway expression, as though she weren't really talking to him. "All I've been able to do is pick off hunters and make supply runs. I never considered just how screwed we'd be without the gravity gun."
"Hey, shit happens, right?" the voice behind her retorted casually.
Her head snapped around to stare at him, blinking. She'd forgotten she was talking to him and not him. She swallowed the lump in her throat and chuckled once, humorlessly, just to placate him. "Heh. Right."
Alyx rose to her feet with a hardening look in her eye. "This is all just so strange," she restarted, back to business. "Not minutes after Gordon teleports to Adlivun Electric, you just drop right out of the sky. And then minutes after that, all this happens." She gestured at the chaos around them, letting it speak for itself.
His eyes slowly narrowed. "What are you saying," he demanded, his tone uncharacteristically flat.
She was immediately contrite. "No, no - that's not what I meant at all. I'd never accuse you of anything like that, Barney. It's just... you've got to admit the timing's weird."
His posture relaxed, her apology accepted. "The timing sure is weird as all hell, I'll give ya that, but I'm pretty sure I know why I showed up so soon after the Doc left. In that escape pod - whaddya call it, an Advisor pod? - we had no idea which way was up, let alone how to get anywhere friendly. We were arguing about what to do when the sensors picked up a huge spike in energy a few miles off, an' I just to say recognized a few streams of data. Uhh, what's the term: telem...?"
"That." He rubbed the back of his neck and grinned, somewhat proud of himself. "I guess helping out Doctor Kleiner at his lab wasn't a complete waste of time, huh? We followed the coordinates of the energy spike, and..." he raised his hands in an accepting shrug. "Here we are. I arrived because the Doc left in the portal.
"As for the other thing," he continued, "you know, why these guys are attacking right now? I'd be willing to bet it's part of some convoluted scheme of theirs. Though if it does turn out to be one big coincidence... Honestly? I've seen stranger thi-"
But he was cut short when Alyx suddenly grabbed him by the elbow and tugged him down behind the sheets of corrugated metal in the railing. She'd seen the strider turning around to make its way back toward them.
"Get down," she barked in a harsh whisper.
Too late. They couldn't see the strider, but its triumphant shriek told them all they needed to know. Half a second later, the sheets of corrugated metal in the railing began screaming and straining against their welds as they absorbed a hail of pulse cannon fire. The rounds, bullet-sized orbs of concentrated photon energy, were rapid-fired in short bursts, which only got stronger and more accurate as the seconds ticked by: it was getting closer.
"Is there another ladder?" she shouted to Barney. These sheets of metal never lasted long as cover; she could already feel hers growing hot against her back.
"Just the one!" he yelled in response. She could barely hear him. His hands, not clasped over his ears, were gripping a pulse rifle. They were so close to the ladder, but the path wasn't covered. They'd be exposed all the way down.
There's never another ladder, she thought.
"Go around the tower," he bellowed at her. "I'll distract it, then you do the same for me!"
"Ready..." He raised himself into a low crouch, only barely over the railing, and pressed the secondary fire on his pulse rifle. With an irregular static sound and a whiff of ozone, a sphere of dark energy rammed right into the strider. "Now!"
Bent over nearly double, Alyx ran around the curve of the water tower as the strider shrieked behind her. The synth, disoriented, fired its warp cannon. The dark blue blast smashed into the ground with a deafening crack near the base of the tower, sending an explosion of grass, shards of rock, and dirt clods up into the air.
Alyx made it to the other side of the tower; now all she had to do was think of something to distract it again. Once that thing started firing, Barney would have only a couple seconds more of cover before the photon rounds tore through the metal like tissue paper. She blindly reached into the bag on her side and brandished a grenade; she wrenched the pin out and leaned around the curve - but she saw only empty air where the strider had been.
Everything seemed to slow down. She saw the grenade flash slowly in her hand... heard Barney call something out to her... But when the roar of adrenaline in her ears quieted, what really caught her attention were the muted, lumbering footsteps directly behind her. She turned in place to find herself nearly face-to-face with the strider, its warp cannon glowing bright blue.
She didn't think; her hand just hurled the grenade as hard as it could. The grenade flew in a clean arc over the strider and exploded a few meters behind it - with another savage alien warble, the strider was jostled and its warp cannon missed. This time, the blow struck one of the water tower's legs. A chunk of the wrought iron disintegrated in an explosion which violently shook the entire tower, knocking Alyx clean off her feet and onto her back.
The world around the water tower was tilting oddly - no, she realized, the tower was falling. And she was right between the ground and the tower. Gravity made her slide toward the edge, and she would have fallen off if she hadn't grabbed on to a metal rung in the railing. The angle between the ground and the tower was fast decreasing, so, now hanging from the railing nearly perpendicularly, she let go. There wasn't time to do anything else.
The fall was longer than she had thought and she slammed into the earth hard, but she managed to roll on the landing and then run. Her legs would only carry her a few long strides away before the tower crashed, sending a shockwave through the ground which sent her tumbling face-first. She couldn't think - this was all so fast - she couldn't think! A moment later a torrent of icy water rolled over her, pinning her down with the weight of a toppled wall. Her muscles did nothing against the sudden pressure; she could only wait until the invisible hand pushing her down lessened enough for her head to snap above the surface for a painful, choking gasp.
She knew she was badly hurt; she could hardly move, hardly breathe, hardly even cough up the water in her throat. Lights bloomed before her eyes as her hand disjointedly fumbled at the clasp to the bag at her side. Grenade - magazine - magazine - grenade - medkit!
By the time she'd gotten a grip on the slippery plastic vial, pain had crashed through her shock, making itself known in full force. There was a spear through her ankle, a sledgehammer on her skull, a bear trap digging its jagged teeth into her lungs. Finally, she managed to press the vial's nozzle against her throat and clamp down on the release button. There was another, sharper and briefer, flash of pain as the fluid was forced through the pores of her skin - and moments later, warm relief. She felt something pop in her ankle; she could feel the vice on her chest release its hold - a few cups of clear water tumbled from her throat as she tore a few jagged breaths.
Then a second medkit, and then a third for good measure. When she was finished her head was buzzing a little, but she was intact and her breath came easily. Water was still flowing around her, but it was slower now and closer to ankle-deep. She turned around where she sat. Her hand flew to her necklace when she saw just how close the tower had come to crushing her; if she'd done any little thing differently... she didn't want to think about that.
A little farther along, she saw the tips of two of the strider's legs sticking out from beneath the crash like spider's legs from a rolled-up newspaper. She was reminded of - of some movie she'd seen a long time ago, with striped tights and ruby-red slippers; although the thought didn't make her smile, it did ease her tense expression a little.
"Barney?" she called, cautiously rising to her feet. She was pleased to discover she could keep her balance this time. "Barney, where are you? Are you okay?"
A silhouetted figure with an earsplitting grin appeared at the top - which had been the side - of the fallen tower, waving down at her; the image starkly reminded her of the one from only a few minutes ago. He was still on the opposite side of the tower she'd been, which meant he was now standing shakily on top of the wreck, right next to where the rusted metal wall had popped open like a can in the microwave.
"Alyx! HA! That was one hell of an experience, wasn't it?! Swear, this beats a mechanical bull any day! How're ya holdin' up?"
"I'm fiiiine." She coughed again. "Sunshine and rainbows, remember?" He was battered and dripping, but didn't appear to have been hurt. "Well, you certainly didn't take much damage," she noted.
"I'm wearing riot armor! Seriously, shouldn't you at least have a vest?"
"I'll grab one as soon as I see the next Kevlar R Us. Besides," she added, scowling at the wreckage of the water tower, "if I had armor on, I wouldn't have been able to roll. I'd have been crushed under that thing like a bug."
"Wait! What happened to the strider?"
A laugh bubbled up from deep in her chest as the last of her weariness broke. "You might say that little problem took care of itself."
As he navigated his way down, he muttered a near-constant stream of curse words.
"Kiss your mother with that mouth?" she jibed as he landed on both feet in front of her.
"I'll have you know that went out of style when I was nineteen." He quickly changed the topic, "Think the junker's scrap metal by now?"
"It was on the other side of the tower, so it shouldn't be," she said as she led the way. Sure enough, in the latticed shadow of splintered girders sat the old sixties jalopy she'd grown so acquainted with. Everything from its peeling red paint to the pine-shaped piece of cardboard hanging from the rearview mirror that might once have been an air freshener said that this car had seen it all and was prepared to see some more. Alyx clambered into the driver's seat after kicking off the ice cube sized chunks of broken glass from the disintegrating leather. Alyx barely even waited for Barney to be fully inside before swerving up the bank.
"Watch it, kid, I'm an invalid," he said, slamming the door shut.
"Are you hurt?"
In response he just ungloved his right hand and held a finger up to the light, revealing a tiny red scratch. They both laughed.
Alyx buried her foot into the accelerator and the jalopy's engine screeched with antique fervor. They picked up speed heading south; with a slight curve to the right, they plowed straight through the middle of a fight. A smattering of rebels defended the barracks - two large, plain buildings connected by their upper floors - from a single strider, crouched low, and two hunters, making their strange chatter as they lunged after the survivors.
Alyx swerved the car to the side around the strider and plowed over a hunter as they zoomed past the fight.
"Hey!" Barney shouted at her as the barracks shrunk behind them, "Aren't we gonna help them out?"
"You got another water tower in your pocket?" she responded without taking her concentration from the road. They bounced off the dirt path onto a narrow stretch of grass between a wall of slate rock and the trees; the scorched remains of a red shack rushed by on their right. "What those people need are rockets and medkits, which are both back at base-"
They emerged into a clearing - the chain link fence of the research complex, full of armed rebels, was just on the other side - when they drove right over a hopper mine. Its blast from behind them knocked the back two tires clean into the air, sending the car flying forward nearly en pointe so the ground rushed perpendicularly past the windshield. The two screamed and clutched their seats for dear life until finally the backside slammed down to the ground. Alyx only barely had time to move her foot off the accelerator to the brake pedal before they broke through the chain link fence and crashed the front half of the vehicle into the earth-covered slope.
The metal frame crumpled - the engine shrieked - the two passengers flew forward in their seats - and then, abruptly, everything fell still. For several long, relaxed moments, the only sounds were the irregular wheezing of the dying engine and the comforting band of gunfire and shouts on their either side that said they were surrounded by the good guys. Alyx's hand, moving blearily, fumbled with the ignition key until the jalopy shuddered into silence.
"Ya know what I miss?..." Barney groaned with his forehead still pressed against the dashboard, "Airbags."
Alyx wrenched her chest free from the steering wheel with a painful gasp, "Seatbelts might have helped, too." She rubbed her bruised sternum with a grimace. "Uhh. Y-you got... you got any, uhh - witty remarks to make about this?" she asked weakly.
"Hehhh," he gulped to ease his shaking voice, "gimme a minute, kid; I'll think of something."
"What the hell?" A familiar voice cried. They turned to see the gobsmacked face of Marcus staring at them as he ran toward the wreck. He peered through the shattered window on the passenger side and laughed, "I gotta say, Calhoun, you sure know how to make an entrance!"
"One o' my better traits, admittedly." Barney motioned for Marcus to move back as he stumbled out the door.
"We've been looking for you guys," he said. "The brains are cooking up something in there, and your names have been tossed around a couple times. It sounded big."
Alyx rose shakily to her feet, using the door handle as a support to survey the area. It looked like they'd crashed a hole through the chain link fence before burying their front end in the earthy slope covering this side of the complex. Behind her loomed the spindly dual peaks of the radio tower. A line of fighters, two or three thick, fortified the base; it had been a few hours ago the order went out to retreat from disorganized combat in the valley - now the human forces were either kept at the base or clustered around strategic positions, such as the barracks. The pace of activity was familiar to her: lively from the combat, but weary.
The world was... not spinning, exactly, but contorting, drifting, like her field of vision was the surface of a body of water. Her eyes fluttered shut as they were reminded of their night spent sleeplessly draining themselves dry. She stumbled to rest her back against the car door and cradled the carved pendant around her neck in the curve of her palm. The sounds pressed in on her from all sides like the weight of deep water, heavy and familiar with gunshots, crackling static, and yelps of pain. Was this really her life now? Although the fighting had only started recently, it felt like it had been going on a long time.
She knew she had to keep going, but the coin had flipped. On the other side of the excitement and the light-hearted remarks was an underlying pain that wouldn't go away; it could only be covered and ignored until it made itself known again, demanding to be acknowledged.
Her hand squeezed the pendant around her neck until its boxlike corners dug into her hand, but it just wasn't helping. This necklace represented to her a mother she never knew; she couldn't just force her father into it as well and expect it to work.
A familiar carillon of hydraulics and electrified joints broke through her maudlin thoughts in much the same way the source of the sounds broke through the line of rebels. Her head turned just in time to see a flash of galvanized metal before two great arms swept her up into a tight hug.
She laughed aloud in shock and elation. "Dog!"
He spun her in a happy circle off the ground and buried his little red optic into her chest. His body was warm with the friction of movement and the peaceful hum of his internal generator. She beamed and wrapped her arms around the narrow axel in his neck. It was impossible to be upset with Dog around.
He set her neatly on her two feet and backed up to settle onto his hind legs. It was easy to imagine a tail wagging behind him.
"It is so good to see you!" she cooed, patting his head. The equidistant panels circling his iris flexed at her touch in much the way a pet's ears would perk up when being scratched. She glanced over her shoulder. Marcus and Barney were exchanging a few words as they slowly moved back toward the base, but it was clear they were waiting for her to catch up. "I'm a little busy right now, boy, but listen. The people at the barracks need help now, as well as supplies. Do you think you can do that for me?"
He straightened up, indignant there was any doubt in the matter. He nodded vigorously. Crouching his haunches low as though he were about to play, there was a brief buildup of tension of the hydraulics in his limbs and then a great release as he launched himself past her.
"And be careful!" she shouted after him with a hand half-cupped by her mouth, but doubted he'd heard. She watched him gallop away with a slight smirk. "What a nut," she muttered.
Jogging up to Marcus and Barney, she caught the tail end of the former explaining something.
"- must've heard she's a demo expert, so about an hour ago they pulled her off RPG duty for some thing inside. You guys head up to the control room. I'll find her and the vort; tell them you're here. Glad you guys showed up; I was about to hunt down a radio to get you over here."
"It must be important if we're off the field," Alyx remarked, her weight shifting from foot to foot. When there was a fight going on, she wasn't accustomed to sitting out. "Are you sure you have everything under control out here?"
"They've actually been easing up on us the past few minutes!"
Her eyebrows slowly pressed together. "Really." Her voice was flat. She eyed the tree line past the guard posts with healthy skepticism. Sure enough, it did appear quieter than it had been twenty minutes ago. The distant sounds of gunfire were lessening, and the only signs of trouble this close to the base were the irregular flashes of hopper mines across the grass, glittering malevolent red. Her hand drifted to the holster at her side as she turned back to Marcus, her eyes reluctant to peel away from the horizon. It wasn't like the Combine to just trickle out.
"Let's get going," she declared, and they made their way into the damp air of the research base.
The control room was bathed in the yellow-grey ambient light from outside. Computers and monitors were packed against the walls in a sporadic fringe, with a single central console sitting like an island at the center. The defining point of the room was the window: it dominated an entire wall and extended across the ceiling as a skylight. With an overhang outside and its tapering point, the window looked a little like a rocket itself. Its overlook included the shut blast doors of the primary rocket silo and the two columns of red lights that formed the radio tower. Usually the mountain could be seen off to the side, but by now the front of dense clouds had swallowed it.
Alyx's hands were splayed flat across the antiquated surface of the console, the rapid tapping of her thumb the only indication of her irritation. Her eyes peered down at the battle in the valley. She watched a strider - the size of a ladybug at this distance - topple over under RPG fire. The Combine was definitely letting up, but they weren't going anywhere. They usually had a straightforward policy when it came to insurgents: rush them with troops until they crumple or surrender. But if they had adapted their strategy... well, that was cause for worry.
"What are they doing," she muttered, glaring out the window.
"Sorry," Barney said from his position leaning against a shelf of monitors, "what was that?"
She pushed from the console and crossed the room at an agitated pace. Her careful defenses keeping herself under control relented.
"Why are they even here?!" she abruptly demanded, storming across the floor. "The rocket is launched! My father is dead - Gordon is gone! Why come here if there is nothing. Left. What more can they possibly do to us?!"
"Well, kill us, for one," Barney pointed out. "But I thought what happened with the prototype was a technical malfunction."
"Oh please, you just know it was their doing - somehow." She focused her thoughts into the anger. "That would just be so convenient, wouldn't it, if there was just a disconnected wire or something. Just - damn them, what are they even doing here?! What, it would make sense to separate Gordon and then attack us, but what the hell is with this puny force? And if their focus is on him, then why come here at all?! What, just to distract us?"
"Kid - kid!" He removed himself from the wall to stand in her path, his voice empty of its usual levity. "Listen, just stop pacing a minute and take a deep breath. I know that things are tough right now; I get it, I really do. But you keep asking me these questions I can't answer, thinking that if you know them then maybe all of this - what happened to your dad - will make some goddamn sense. It won't. I can promise you that. You're the only person who can keep you under control, but sometimes ya just... ya gotta take a breather, y'know? No one'd blame you for sitting this one out - hell, clearly there's more than enough going on down here as it is. It'd give you time to work it all out."
"I can't just not go on the mission," she stated.
"Yeah," he insisted, leaning forward to look right at her, "you can." He moved over to the elevator slowly, keeping his focus on her. "Now, I'm gonna go find those two and whoever they're working with, and come back in a few minutes, and you tell me honestly whether or not you think you're up to this." He stepped into the lift and it started shuddering downward. "Kay?"
Her back to the wall, she fought the rhythmic shaking from deep in her chest as though she were still in public. She was embarrassed and angry and alone, but more than anything else she just felt pathetic. Here she was, wallowing in self-pity when there was work to be done. Here she was, standing alone in an empty room, crying, when she should be out there, helping.
She couldn't afford to do this, not now. There was that scent at the back of her throat: that stale, humid, horribly familiar scent that meant this was going to be a long cry. Just stop, just stop, just stop! she told herself. If only she could just download the chaotic mess in her brain into her hacking tool as easily as a software file, free to open up and deal with later. Somewhere it couldn't reach her, or remind her that the person who had always comforted her when she was upset would never be able to again.
Her two hands ran down her cheeks in an attempt at keeping her cool. She just had to wait for the coin to flip back.
But there wasn't time for that - the elevator in the back corner whirred to life. They would be here any second.
She hurriedly peeled herself from the wall and patted her face dry with the hem of her top. Clothing wasn't exactly top priority nowadays, so she still wore the same Black Mesa hoodie as before; the bloodstains had faded to dark brown smudges, and in a fit of sleeplessness last night she'd stitched the holes shut with a bit of loose thread. It looked the same way she felt: falling apart and over-wrung, but still expected to function.
She bundled her baggy brown jacket closer around herself just as the elevator grate clattered open. She pretended to be preoccupied with the inactive console as they wandered in. Breathing deeply, wiping her eyes, she checked her reflection in the black screen as the sounds of the group approached.
It sounded like Sam and Barney were chatting about something as they gathered around the central console. Alyx gathered her composure and raised her head; she just hoped they wouldn't look too closely at her eyes.
Approaching from the elevator, she saw Uriah in his usual crisp, white lab coat, leading Marcus. The tall man was carrying heavily in his arms a strange device. Sam and Barney stood at the opposite side of the console: the former merrily holding the straps of a stuffed backpack on her shoulders, and the latter with his usual light smile painted over a stressed face. Although Alyx was half-worried he might bring up their previous conversation, he thankfully seemed to have let it drop for now.
Suddenly, Barney ended his conversation and quipped with a snap, "Hey, Alyx, I got it: hate to crash the party!"
They stared at him blankly.
Sam said, "So how's that concussion, Calhoun?"
"No, no: that's my witty remark for crashing the car."
In response, Alyx just groaned and buried her face in her hands. Although she slowly shook her head, her chest shook a little with a suppressed laugh. "You suck, Barney," she chuckled.
"Not for a few years, actually."
"And now," Uriah said, an alien overlay to his voice like the rustle of cicadas, "we can begin." Marcus settled a strange device onto the console. "I have two points of great concern to make," the vortigaunt began. "The first, is this."
The device was roughly as large as a pumpkin, but in the shape of a perfect cube. Its back was covered in a fine mesh of interlocking tubes and wires, while its front was blank except for a digital clock set at, 00:00:30, and a red button the size of a pea in the center. Sturdy handles had been screwed onto its either side. The overhead lights were reflected in its pale metal exterior, but its top face bore the sigil of the Resistance: an orange lambda symbol inside a circle.
Despite their situation, Alyx still managed to give Uriah a smile. "Please tell me you have good news."
"It's an EMP," Sam explained casually.
Alyx balked. "Whoa! You mean this thing's nuclear?" she asked, wondering whether she should take a few steps back.
"Negative," Uriah said, "it is an explosively pumped flux compression generator."
Alyx calmed. "Oh, good. How powerful?"
"This one predicts it capable of neutralizing a radius of at least 200 meters."
"It's small," Sam said, "but it ought to do the job."
"Good enough for me." Alyx clasped her hands together. "Oh, finally our luck is turning around!"
"Uh, hey, yeah," Barney interjected with a pointed clearing of his throat, "not to be slow on the uptake or anything, but how's this help us? I mean, yeah, it could take out a couple striders, maybe three if we herd 'em together or something, but it's hardly a gamebreaker."
"Because..." The answer rushed quickly upon Alyx as the words tumbled from her mouth, "whatever's controlling this invasion is probably an Advisor!" She nearly laughed as the pieces fell into place. "Just think about it! The Advisors evacuate the Citadel and gather their forces on the railroads, and then use them to invade White Forest to stop the rocket. And when that failed, they decided to..." her voice trailed off.
They decided to visit the helicopter hangar when we were about to leave.
Advisors were at the head of the battle. It made perfect sense. But what made her smile falter and then slide from her face was the realization that she knew exactly which ones. There would be two: one with dents from Dog's ham-sized metal fists, and the other with her father's blood. Her eyes flickered, almost hungrily, to the EMP which sat innocently on the console.
She came back to reality as the rest of the group hammered out the last details.
"Tell me that thing has a remote detonator," Barney said.
"Nope," Sam replied cheerfully, "a timer set for thirty seconds."
"If the blast doesn't get both of them," Alyx interrupted, her voice slow but heavy with authority, "then the electromagnetic pulse should fry their life support, killing them anyway. Or at least isolating them for a few hours."
The three humans and one vortigaunt regarded her in silence, the balance in the room shifted, making the distant sounds of battle sound louder.
"So unless anyone has any more questions," she concluded, "I think it's about time we end this."
"Not a question," Uriah said, "but a second matter of grave importance." He laid his hands, one over the other, on the EMP as though protecting it from the humans around him; he nodded his head pointedly toward Alyx as he said, "It is vital that you return to the pod of the Shu'ulathoi, if this device has a hope of striking our enemy's pressure point."
The two rebels clearly hadn't been filled out on this part. "The what?" Sam asked.
There wasn't time to explain so Alyx just said, "The Advisor pod. The... escape pod Barney crashed earlier." Then back to Uriah, "Why?"
"My kin will explain upon your arrival. But until you have done such, it will be near impossible to deliver this final blow."
"Alright, be mysterious," she said with a raise to her eyebrow. "So we'll just head to the crash site then come back here for the EMP." To Marcus standing beside her, "You did say they were easing up on us, right?"
"Glass..." he said.
Alyx laughed once in confusion. "Heh, what?" Marcus's eyes were wide with horror and fixed on the window - hovering right on the other side, Alyx could clearly see a little shield scanner watching them. And in its pincers was a flashing hopper mine.
Marcus violently grabbed Alyx's shoulder to drag her with him under cover behind the console and shouted, "Glass!"
BOOM! The window exploded inward, scattering the room with shards of glass.
The room cleared slowly, and they unsteadily rose to their feet.
"Glass?!" a livid voice shouted from one side of the room. Barney marched over to the console with a triangular shard of glass the size of a dinner plate embedded in his kevlar vest. He yanked it out with a gloved hand and threw it to the ground, all without taking his glare off Marcus. "That's what you say, glass?! Why not 'Mine!' or 'Heads up!' or 'Duck!' - when you saw a fucking hopper on the other side of the window, what compelled you to say glass?!"
"I'm - I'm sorry!" Marcus babbled, and he looked it. Raising to his feet, he was several inches taller than Barney, but appeared to be much less that. "There wasn't time!"
"Heya, Calhoun, lay off the guy," Sam said, brushing plaster dust off her pants. "It was just a little explosion. Big whoop."
Barney made a wordless sound of frustration and stomped away.
The rest of them were recuperating from the blast, but Alyx was on edge. That shield scanner had just been watching them...
"Guys, be quiet," she ordered, her eyes unfocusing as she strained her ears.
At first, there were only the background sounds of the battle, loudening as the seconds ticked by. A single blast in the distance vibrated the machinery of the control room.
And then they heard it: a painfully slow tap, tap, tap on the roof, sending a thin stream of dirt trickling down from the ceiling. And then another one, from the other side.
"Oh god..." No sooner had she said the words than there was an inhuman screech from above and two hunters, one after the other, fell from the skylight to land with heavy slams on their tripod legs.
Chaos erupted. One charged up a string of flechettes while the other lunged for Uriah - Barney saved the vortigaunt by shooting it down with his pulse rifle - while it recoiled, the second hunter leaped over and with a sweep of one of its three legs struck Barney full in the chest, sending him flying into the wall.
Alyx's hand flew to her side but grabbed her hacking tool by mistake. Without hesitation, she sent an arc of electricity from the tool at the recoiling hunter's face and its two stacked lights burst. Blind, it swung its head at her, toppling her to the floor. It stood over her, unsheathed its two long, curved spikes and - she felt two hands clamp down on her shoulders and violently drag her out from under the hunter just as it stabbed into the concrete.
Alyx kicked at it and stumbled to her feet as Marcus released her.
"Get the bomb!" she shouted to him, and ran over to an unconscious Barney.
The other hunter was by the window engaged in a duel with Uriah while Sam, wide-eyed and near panicking, tore through her bag of supplies behind him. A mass of green energy flew from Uriah's outstretched hands, but the hunter neatly sidestepped the attack and with a swipe of its clawed leg slashed through the vortigaunt's lab coat into his lizard-like skin. He howled in vortigese; he raised his hands above his head and then slammed them to the floor, creating a small green shockwave which made his adversary cringe, giving off sparks.
Alyx grabbed the collar of Barney's Civil Protection uniform and shook him.
A gasp, loud and ragged, tore down his throat as his eyes fluttered open. "Wha-?"
The blind hunter, hearing the gasp, fired a row of flechettes across the length of the wall, but thankfully a full meter above their heads. The little blue projectiles exploded one by one, showering the room in shattered bits of machinery.
Marcus, the EMP cradled heavily in his arms, stumbled past the blind hunter toward the elevator, but, acclimatizing to its handicap, the creature tripped him.
Alyx nearly screamed when she saw the bomb fall, but it settled onto the floor with only a small dent in its exterior. With one clawed foot the synth pinned Marcus to the floor by the nape of his neck, pressing hard enough to make him shout with pain and red liquid dribble onto the concrete. With the other foot it tapped along the floor, clearly searching for something.
Her handgun bullets tore miniature holes into the hunter's armor, but it didn't so much as flinch. When it felt the EMP, it gave a high-pitched screech of success and raised its leg to smash the device.
But at that moment, Sam plunged her hand into her backpack and retrieved an apple-sized hunk of a substance which looked like pale putty. She chucked it at the blinded hunter, where it stuck to the creature's temple with a soft smack. She held aloft in her other hand a small silver clicker.
"FIRE IN THE H-" click.
BOOM! The shock wave cracked against their skulls like a baseball bat and vibrated the control room to its foundation. When the searing light disappeared, the hunter stood dazedly with a giant chunk taken out of its chassis, and then indifferently tumbled backward into the central console.
"Now away with you!" Uriah yelled, his lab coat blossoming with yellow blood. With a surge of green power, the other hunter skidded backward. Marcus scrambled to his feet and scooped up the EMP in a single movement while Alyx practically dragged Barney with her into the elevator. Uriah grabbed Sam by the nape of her jumpsuit and with uncanny strength shoved her toward the others. "Reach the pod!" he cried. "If nothing else!"
As the iron elevator gate slammed shut, Uriah turned to face the hunter, which was crouching expectantly for a fight.
Uriah's hands glowed white-green with power. When he raised them up to his either side, arcs of electricity shot off them to connect with the walls and shattered electronics across the room. Holding his head high, he then violently clapped them together.
The four humans only felt a blinding surge of heat, green light, and a noise like an thunderclap as the elevator descended into the base.
The elevator clunked downward slowly, but they moved very quickly.
With a smile, crooked and slightly panicked, Alyx asked Barney, "How you holding up?"
He clutched his chest as she pulled him to his feet. His face shone with tears. He gasped, "It's fine, it's just a rib."
Growing increasingly distinct from the lower levels were gunshots, shouts, the screams of hunters. "God, they're in the base," she whispered.
Think, Alyx, think! She briefly looked over them all: Sam was kneeling on the floor, pawing through her bag of supplies; Marcus stood in the corner, holding the EMP in his arms with extreme care; and Barney, slowly turning red in the face, was painfully clutching his pulse rifle.
"Alright," she said, "Sam and I will take point, and you two do everything you can to keep them off that EMP. We need to get to the Advisor pod, and from the sound of things that isn't exactly going to be a walk in the park."
She looked over her pistol and shoved it into its holster with mild disgust. "Can I have your shotgun?" she asked the woman across from her.
There was only a brief moment of hesitation, and then chucked it to her. Eyeing Marcus's submachine gun, Sam asked, "Heya, that thing has a grenade launcher for its secondary, right? Give it here." She stocked the launcher full with three M203 grenades, and one after the other tossed two glowing, melon-sized cases to Barney, who fumblingly caught them. "That's secondary for your pulse rifle. I only have the two, so don't waste them."
"Me?" he rasped, clicking them into place. "Wouldn't dream of it."
"Now come on, guys," Alyx reassured as the lower floor came into sight, "we can do this."
Through the diamond-shaped holes in the gate, a small corridor came into view. The acrid tang of explosives, gunpowder, and smoke mingled with the more metallic, gut-churning scent of blood. The noise pounded eardrums; the shock waves, even at a distance, vibrated bones. The usual walls of peeling paint were splattered with bright blood: most red above the bodies of human fighters, but one yellow above a vortigaunt. The air was polluted by a haze of smoke, thin but acrid.
At the opposite end was an open steel door to the auxiliary control room - the memory of the room immediately hit Alyx in the gut as where she'd last made her dad a cup of tea. Pacing patiently in the light of the collage of monitors was a hunter.
Through a door on the right wall just a few paces away, a gust of fire roared into the corridor; with it leaped another hunter, its chassis charred and smoking.
At that moment, the elevator grate opened with a pleasant, courteous ding.
"Housekeeping!" Sam announced, and launched a grenade.
The hunter was blasted off its feet and the four fighters rushed in. Alyx reached it first where it lay prostrate on the floor; she stuffed the shotgun barrel through a charred hole in its armor and fired - emptying both barrels, its internal circuitry and viscera were ripped to shreds. Alyx caught a glimpse through the doorway it had come from; it was the sloped passage into the secondary silo, and the cacophony of battle echoed up to her.
The other hunter, in the auxiliary control room, turned to them and crouched low on its three legs, screeching wordlessly.
"It's gonna charge!" Alyx cried, but Barney was already shooting it down with a long stream from his rifle; Marcus sprinted past her and heaved the steel door shut while it was stunned. Seconds later, the door shuddered in its frame under a slam from the hunter, but it held firm.
"This way!" Alyx called, and ran to a door on the left wall. Her hand was shaking so hard it took her three tries to enter 5-6-1 into the keypad, but once she did the four of them rushed into the new room.
This one was small and square; three walls bore only identical steel doors, but the left wall was a chain link fence. Through it was a long corridor of smashed crates and more bodies. They entered just as a man was stumbling toward them down the hall with terror carved onto his face. A hunter pounced on him from behind, pinning him to the ground. It unsheathed its double spikes - already dripping with blood - gored him through the gut, and let him drop to the floor.
It raised its head to look at them.
Barney didn't waste any time; he merely rested the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and fired the secondary trigger. The dark energy sphere scorched straight through the chain link fence, leaving a red-hot circle in the metal, and slammed into the hunter, disintegrating it with an echoing keen into a shower of electric-yellow sparks.
Alyx heaved open the steel door to the right, but closed it immediately - a group of vortigaunts were facing off against more hunters, and that was exactly the kind of fight you did not want to be in the middle of.
"Let's go through the courtyard," she suggested, tapping the code into the door dead ahead.
It opened into daylight. The grey, grass-topped walls of the complex surrounded the narrow, rectangular courtyard which extended two meters to their right and twenty to their left.
Marcus yelped when he saw the strider towering over them in the middle of the courtyard.
"Calm down," Alyx said, as gently as she could while running to the door on the right, "it's just a dummy! Dr. Magnusson uses it to test out his new gadgets."
They gathered behind her as she reached the keypad, but someone's urgent hand grabbed her by the elbow.
"Alyx," Barney said, his voice harsh.
"What is it?" She turned to look at him, but his eyes were fixated on something behind her. She didn't know what the big deal was, it was just the dummy -
And then she noticed, in the far back corner of the courtyard, a dummy strider with its support hinges, crumpled up and out of the way. Her eyes swung up to the towering figure, which stamped its three speared feet expectantly, staring down at them with malicious delight.
As its warp cannon began charging with blue light, there was only time for a single word, weak and humble though it was, to tumble from Barney's lips.