The Vortigaunt paused as they headed down the side tunnel, turning one open hand to pulse power into Gordon's suit. "That will do, for now,"
it said. "What lies beyond yonder barrier is no danger to us."
It nodded towards what looked not unlike an automatic garage door up ahead. There was no handle to open it manually, but the nearby generator sprang into life at a little coaxing from the alien. The door slid open to reveal a cavern vaster than anything Gordon had seen yet. The ceiling, the distant walls, even the nearest upswelling in the floor were star-studded with larval combs. It was an incredible sight... although, perhaps, one Gordon might have better appreciated if he hadn't been all too aware that each of those 'stars' was trying to grow into an adult antlion."Ah,"
said the Vortigaunt as they approached the cluster of larval combs on the nearest stalagmite. "Such quantities of the larvae... such a heady aroma."
It sounded, Gordon thought, like a Food Network chef presented with an open jar of caviar. Although not for long, since the Vortigaunt chanted something in its guttural native language, raising two hands over its head. The nearest larvae blazed brightly, as did a few of the more distant combs; as the light faded, one or two cells remained brilliantly luminescent. "Excellent,"
said the Vortigaunt. "A bounty of extract. This should only take a moment."
Gordon glanced over his shoulder, but nothing was coming down the corridor. Nothing moved in the distant shadows as the Vortigaunt clambered over most of the combs to thrust its arm into the brightest-lit portion. "Secretions of the finest quality,"
it said with considerable satisfaction. As it withdrew its arm, turquoise light flickered between its clawed fingers. "Let us return now to the Alyx Vance."
He was only too glad to leave that place behind and make for the elevator at the Vortigaunt's heels. The lift gate slid shut behind them. As it began to rise through the darkness, the Vortigaunt turned to Gordon. "Truly,"
it said, "well done. You bear some traits we thought innate to Vortikind." So that's what it feels like to be told 'you're a credit to your race, son',
flickered through Gordon's mind for an instant."Antlion husbandry was once our ancestral practice,"
the Vortigaunt continued. "The creatures exude many valuable compounds, but the extract is the most prized by far."
Its light glimmered again from between the alien's fingers, the only thing lighting the darkness. "It dissolves the false veils that divide the Vortessence. All this you shall witness when-"
It broke off, turning swiftly to face the front of the elevator. From above the sound of other Vortigaunt voices floated down:"No pulse!""Her heart has stopped!""She ebbs!"
The seconds between the last word and the elevator coming to a stop were possibly the longest of Gordon's life. He very nearly forgot about his companion in his haste to get out of the elevator and to Alyx's side. "If we lose her, we lose all!"
said one of the attending Vortigaunts, and honestly, he couldn't argue.
Fortunately, his companion was faster, and within moments all four of the Vortigaunts' hands were filled with the same turquoise glow. "Behold,"
it said. "The extract. Join, now, as we imbibe..."
The others muttered their agreement. Gordon wasn't sure what they expected of him, but that had never stopped him before; he stepped forward towards the table, and they made room for him. They stretched out their suddenly-blazing hands towards Alyx's prone form. For an interminable moment there was silence. Then one of them rumbled, "A human is needed.""Agreed. Join us, Freeman."
"What- what do I-"
The Vortigaunt on the opposite side ofthe table clenched its fingers, scattering much of its share of the larval extract over Alyx's form. It swallowed what remained, and announced, "We weave the Freeman's life with hers."What?
Gordon wanted to say, but no words came out. They might have gotten lost on the way to the surface. He didn't know. He was too busy staring at the suddenly flickering, almost translucently purple Vortigaunt across the table from him- and at the second, and the third, and the one beside him. He hadn't swallowed any of the stuff, had he? He certainly hadn't touched any of the larvae. Maybe the grub pellets-"Yes,"
said one of the Vortigaunts. "There is a quickening."
Gordon's eyes flickered down to Alyx, and a surge of hope tightened his throat. Please
, he thought. It was all the words he could form. Just: please."Almost vortal, this bond between you,"
murmured one of the other Vortigaunts. He wasn't paying attention. Only watching, as Alyx's body seemed to flicker in and out, layer by layer of skin and muscle and organ and bone-( Oh, Doc-tor Freee-maaan.... )GET AWAY FROM HER!
he wanted to yell, but his voice wouldn't obey him. He could feel the whole thing slipping through his fingers even as he tried to hold onto the memory. It was dwindling out of his reach, the Bastard was keeping it from him, he had
to hold on-
Then one of the Vortigaunts rumbled, "She stirs,"
and Gordon's attention snapped back to the here and now. The others were agreeing with its statement. By the time Alyx gasped "Oh God,"
and clutched her hands around her head, he had already forgotten the whole encounter.
For now, anyway.