They call this place Black Mesa, but the name doesn't do the darkness justice - there's a dark underbelly to this village of boffins, toughs, and suits that goes way deeper than the miles-deep, Bond-villain worthy setup they have the gall to call a "research facility." And, between you and me, I've seen the Mesa, and it's all brown and tan. Talk about false advertising.

We're in a desert town. If you've never been in a desert at night, count yourself lucky - most of the creepy-crawlies sleep during the day, and wait 'til the sun has its back turned before getting down to the dirty work. The night brings warm-blooded folks out of the frying pan and into the cold fire, turns this shrine to learning into a pit of felony, injustice and sin. I committed a dozen crimes by proxy a day and was none the wiser, and all in the name of science.

After the debacle back in May of '0X, I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I quit the theoretical physics business, struck out on my own. The name's Gordon Freeman, of Freeman Investigations. Private Eye, defender of the innocent, yadda yadda yadda.

I take one last swig from my flask before I start closing up for the night. I don't really have a drinking problem, so much as a drinking solution to a financial problem. Working for the glorified defense contractors at Black Mesa is about as lucrative as you'd expect with the financial state of the government these days, but it came with room and board - At present, all I have to my name is an office, a doghouse-sized apartment in the converted barracks from when this place was a Cold War missile base, the clothes on my back, and my dignity - the last being better than what most of my old friends at the facility have.

As I shut down my computer (let it never be said I don't move with the times), I was interrupted by a knock on my door. I didn't even bother saying "Who could that be at this hour?" - I've never exactly been one for excessive talk. I just opened the door and let in the caller.

I was surprised. The girl - she was much too young to be anything other than a "girl" - looked like she had been through a warzone. She looked like a serious runner. She carried herself like one (looking much taller than she was), had the right build, wore a tattered jacket, faded jeans and a sweater about a half-dozen sizes too small that barely went past her ribcage, and probably played hell with her breathing. I just had to look in shame and pity. No, really, I maintain it was shame and pity.

The girl, meanwhile, was examining my office, looking over the room before raising her eyebrows visibly when she saw the crowbar.

Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick, and I've learned to trust the judgement of anyone with his hundred-meter smiling effigy carved into a rock face. To wit, I swiped a crowbar from the old facility, with the help of an old janitor friend of mine, and considered it the retirement present I never got. Sixteen inches of dark red steel. It opens, it smashes, it intimidates, and on one memorable occasion it helped win a bet on the World Series. The jury's still out on how it compares to a pension.

The girl took my hand, holding it considerably tighter than was strictly necessary, and shook it quickly. "Dr. Freeman? I'm Alyx Vance."

Vance?, I muttered to myself. I knew the name, but I was having trouble placing it until she supplied "My father worked with you back at Black Mesa - I'm not sure you remember me, though."

Eli Vance had been an old buddy of my teacher and immediate superior Izzy Kleiner. He was always struck me as a sentimental, family man - happily married, dozens of friends, and, now that I thought of it, a daughter, who he of course doted on as much as a top-secret theoretical physicist could. In fact, I still probably had the baby pictures he had sent out to his mile-long Christmas list somewhere.

The girl regarded me, and smiled sheepishly. "Man of few words, aren't you?" I shrugged, half smiling. She stifled a laugh.

I judged we had been civil enough, and that it was getting late. I went to my desk, sat down, got out a pad of paper from my pocket, and motioned for her to talk.

"Oh, um." She collected herself. "Dr. Kleiner told me to come here - he's got some strange instructions for a mineral analysis he's doing next week. He said to show you this." She produced a sheaf of papers from...well, under her sweater. I shot her a look, but took it wordlessly.

An experimental procedure, from Black Mesa Research Facility letterhead. Dated yesterday, it called for "Standard analysis of a non-standard sample" and "105% capacity of anti-mass spectrometer, due to abnormally high purity of sample". I gasped - the wording was familiar. This exact same order had been given to me once before - and it had been the last straw, making me walk out on everyone there, practically on the spot.

I glanced the day of the scheduled procedure - Friday, May 16th. The same day? That can't be a coincidence, I thought. I looked at Vance's kid pointedly, and tapped the calendar, turning it over to the coming Friday.

She didn't see the connection. "The test is barely a week from now, I know, but Dr. Kleiner said you have a way with getting things done fast. Do you think you can do it?" I nodded, but held up a hand and began rooting through my files. It didn't take long to find what I was looking for; a curling sheet of paper, slightly stained, and identical to the one Little Miss Vance had handed me but for the year, and "INCIDENT" scrawled on it in an untidy hand - mine, from years ago.

I still remember the damn test, but I didn't want to bring it up. Time hadn't healed that years-old wound, and I've never been a coward, but I didn't want to rub salt on it. So, in silence, I placed the two sheets of paper side by side, facing her.

The girl's eyes widened, showing a scar on her brow that I hadn't noticed. "Oh my god. This was the Incident?"

I nodded gravely.

"But that would mean someone's trying to do it again! This is gonna be huge. You need to do this!"

My only response was to roll my eyes at the melodrama, and hold out my hand.

"What...oh! Right, right, Dr. Kleiner says he'll be able to pay you." The girl took an envelope - from her jacket pocket, mercifully - and held it out. I took it, with a bow - who says chivalry is dead?

After she bid her speedy goodbye, her eye still on the crowbar all the while, I decided to start right away. Not much else I was planning to do with my night. I got my crowbar, put on my overcoat and hat - the night is cold and unfeeling in more ways than one out in the desert - and set out.

A theoretical physicist's work is never done. Since going private, I will say that I'd take walking the streets over tinkering with the properties of subatomic particles any day. You get much more satisfaction - seeing yourself make a difference, with visible effects on people - than from finding the integer-spin value of a fermion.

Still, though, I have my regrets, usually around dinnertime. All that job satisfaction still didn't put food on my table. In fact, I was feeling pretty hungry right now. I decided to head over to Dr. Kleiner's place myself, for two reasons. Firstly, he was probably expecting me to come over, or he would have come over and paid me in person instead of sending over Vance's kid. And secondly, Kleiner is the best cook this side of the Four Corners a man could hope to meet.