T Minus One

Mar. 9th, 2009 10:30 pm
acts_of_gord: (civvies - thoughtful)
By the time the last Strider topples to earth, Gordon is fairly vibrating with adrenaline- and he wasn't even driving. Probably for the best. Towards the end there it was pure chaos, Striders everywhere and Hunters darting in and out of every available bit of cover- not to mention the gunship and dropship parts that occasionally rained down from the sky. If it weren't for Steve, he has no doubt he'd have wound up wrapped around a tree trying without hope to take out the Striders on foot.

But the last Strider's remains lie twitching in front of him, and someone's voice is crowing over the PA that the Striders have been defeated. Every rebel in sight is cheering. And unless he's very much mistaken, there's a helicopter overhead attempting some kind of ...

... helicopters are not capable of victory dances. Possibly the pilot is having a seizure.

At any rate, Gordon collapses in his seat as Rojhaz smiles and sets course back to the base.
acts_of_gord: (I did not hear you say that.)
Beyond the door that Magnusson opened lay a short corridor; it opened out, inevitably, to a dimly lit garage. Gordon had just enough time to appreciate the rocket launcher and stacks of RPG crates next to it when a grease-stained rebel waves to him from the other side of the garage. "Dr. Freeman, that's for you," he said, "but I wanted to show you something-"

Gordon picked up the launcher and as many RPGs as he could carry and made his way over to where the man stood beside the half-yellow, half-skeletal muscle car. "I've taken a few liberties with your car," the mechanic said. He nodded to the blue-glittering form of a Magnusson perched firmly on the rear bumper. "Check it out- I added a rack for Magnusson Devices back here. Added onboard radar, too, so the Combine show up red on the dashboard for you. Plus it'll send a homing signal to your HEV suit in case you get separated from your car."

Gordon whistled, shaking his head. "That's a lot of work you did," he said.

The mechanic smiled. "No need to thank me," he answered. "Now, you and your driver come on over here and check out this map..."

"... wait. Driver?"
acts_of_gord: (young)
"So," said Aunt Agatha, one ever-so-carefully-plucked eyebrow raised. "Your mother tells me you're a scientist, Gordon?"

Family reunions. Ugh. The single greatest failure of his 'no talking if talking could result in someone taking it the wrong way' policy was the family reunion, and the single person at any given family reunion most likely to induce policy failure was Aunt Agatha.

"I don't think I heard you, dear."

You most certainly didn't, because there was nothing to hear, Gordon thought; but his mother was looking daggers at him from the other side of the room, so he dipped his head. "Yes ma'am."

"Hmm." Aunt Agatha fixed him with a long, searching look. "What sort of science? Barbara wasn't entirely clear, and- well, there's science and then there's science, if you take my meaning. Please don't tell me it's sociology or something like that."

"What's wrong with sociology?"

"Well, not to disparage anyone, Gordon, but it is sort of anthropology for people who don't want to leave their air conditioners behind, isn't it?" Aunt Agatha picked up a glass full of something fizzy and pinkish. "I would expect better of you than that. You always did have a knack for mathematics. Was it at least chemistry? There's a respectable future in chemistry."

"Physics," Gordon said grudgingly. "Theoretical physics."

"Ah!" Aunt Agatha brightened visibly. "There we are. E equals MC squared, things like that?"

Oh, God, if he had to explain quantum theory to his family he'd never hear the end of it; it was hard enough getting past the initial misconceptions and barrage of basic conceptual questions with the students. . . "Something like that," he murmured.

"'Something'? What, then, exactly? I think I'd really like to hear about this," Aunt Agatha said. "Come on, now. What are you up to, where are you doing it? Tell, tell."

Maybe if I close my eyes and count to ten she'll go away, he thought, but it didn't work. Aunt Agatha was still there, fading reddish hair pulled back just enough to give the impression that her forehead was a little too tight for its own good, eyebrows raised expectantly.

"Well," he said slowly, "have you ever heard of quantum teleportation?"

"I don't believe so, dear, " said Aunt Agatha. "It sounds complicated."

Gordon restrained the urge to roll his eyes by reminding himself that it was complicated- and anyway, at least she wasn't making a Scotty joke. "It has to do with transferring the characteristics of subatomic particles at speeds greater than the speed of light-"

Aunt Agatha shook her head. "But that's not what you're really working on out there, is it," she said. It wasn't a question, and the look she directed at him as she sipped her drink was too penetrating to be merely query.

". . . no."

"Well? Let's have it, Gordon. I'm waiting."

Gordon glanced around him, but there wasn't a Freeman or a Mroz in sight who seemed willing or likely to draw her off. And she was still eyeballing him when he looked back. "Well, macro-scale teleportation-"

He hesitated; she nodded. "Go on," she said.

"Well, the possibility exists of not just being able to transfer quantum characteristics, but actually transport macro-scale objects- solid matter- from one location to another through a type of wormhole bridge in space and time-"

Aunt Agatha's lips thinned. "Gordon," she said firmly, "don't lie to me. What are you doing really?"

"I don't understand," said Gordon, blinking. "I'm telling you the truth."

"It's not just a possibility, is it," Aunt Agatha said.

". . . no."

"That's what I thought. It's happened quite often already, hasn't it?"

Gordon hesitated, but she was still looking at him; he nodded.

"Mmm. And it's had quite a few consequences, hasn't it? There hasn't been a miracle of science yet that hasn't gone from a blessing to a curse somewhere along the way."

". . . yes."

Agatha nodded, and set her glass down on a nearby end table. "You're all the way up to your eyes in the consequences now, I'd be willing to bet. Why don't you tell your Aunt Agatha exactly what's going on?"

"I. . ." He spread his hands helplessly. "I can't. . ."

"Gordon," said Aunt Agatha, "you know I won't go away until you've said it. Take a good, deep breath and spit it all out and who knows? Maybe you'll feel better when you're done. Or would you rather I fill in the blanks by myself?"

He opened his mouth. The words wouldn't come.

"Oh, all right. If that's the way it's going to be." She sniffed, a fussy little gesture. "The experiment happened. The experiment went wrong. The whole world paid the price for it. And then came the really unforeseen consequences. Since you couldn't clean up your own mess, you're cleaning up everyone else's. And the reason you can't tell me about it is because you don't want to admit that you're better at that than you ever were at science. Don't give me that look, Gordon, you know perfectly well that you were thinking it. There's nothing wrong with doing what you're good at, especially when you're very good at it-"

"I'm supposed to be a scientist!" Gordon burst out. "Not a-a-"

"Gordon, look at my hands." Aunt Agatha spread her arms as wide as physically possible. "Do you see them? That's how far apart 'supposed to' and 'are' tend to be in the real world. I know you were a scientist, dear, and I'm sure you were very good at it- but what you are now is what you're really needed to be, and I'd suggest you concentrate on that instead of holding on to old dreams. Maybe you'll see them again someday, but right now? I really don't think that's in the cards."

Gordon's shoulders sagged; he slid one gauntleted hand up under his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Damn it, he hated it when she was right.

"Now. Tell your Aunt Agatha what you're doing."

"I'm currently crawling through a maze of mud, wire fences, and wrecked cars that'd give a World War I veteran trench flashbacks, fighting off alien-controlled half-corpses that used to be people, the parasites that'd like nothing more than to do the same thing to me and everyone I care about, and soldiers who've been turned into cyborgs by an alien empire that wants to make humans as a whole into their slave army, so that I can take out what amounts to a fortified machine gun nest and break the enemy lines."

"There now." Aunt Agatha smiled and reached up to pat his cheek. "Was that so hard? You should really try being honest with yourself more often, Gordon. I think you'd find it therapeutic."

He stared at her.

"Oh, and you're bleeding rather badly. I'd suggest patching yourself up as soon as possible- and getting some food down your throat. It's really not a good sign when you start hallucinating in the middle of a battlefield, even if it does only last a moment."

Gordon shuddered, and opened his eyes for real.
acts_of_gord: (Default)
The radio transmitter behind them, Gordon and Alyx continue on their way through the mountains. Whoever drove this road last did so a very long time ago, if the height of the grass is anything to go by. That's fine with Gordon. It means that there's a good possibility the Combine haven't gotten much farther than the-

-who is he kidding? Gordon knows damned well that the instant he finishes that sentence there's going to be a whole squad of Elites just waiting around the next bend. That's just how it works. So he's not going to think about it, no. He's just going to keep right on driving. Maybe if they get up high enough they'll get a view that'll point them in the direction of White Forest....
acts_of_gord: (civvies - thoughtful)
Gordon knows the sound of those rotors. It's doubtful he'll forget it as long as he lives. Those are gunship rotors, at least one, possibly two. So he's understandably skittish as he hedges up to the mine exit and peers out. The all-too-familiar shape of a Strider is lumbering along an elevated roadway in the distance, followed by tiny moving specks that might be Overwatch or might be Elites, and that not-quite-British woman's voice echoes from speakers somewhere out of sight:

"All autonomous units: Accept mandatory sector assimilation. Coordinated constriction underway. Debride and cauterize. Entering phase nine, enhanced compliance. Deploy advisory control and oversight. Submit and be subsumed."

... this can't end well.
acts_of_gord: (bad feeling about this)
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.
acts_of_gord: (AIEEEEEE)
The metal door sliding down behind them cut off most of the passageway's light, but it also cut off the sounds of antlions screeching. Gordon considered it an acceptable alternative. He followed the glimmer of light from around the corner up ahead, shoved open the chain-link gate at the end, and stepped into a small room that might once have been some kind of mine office. The door at the far left end of the room was barricaded by a pair of tables; straight ahead-

Straight ahead, there was a blue-clad corpse in a mustard-yellow recliner. Gordon's thoughts leapt straight to headcrab zombies lying in wait. As he approached warily, his gun at the ready, he saw he'd been wrong. For one thing, even after the parasites were done with them, headcrab zombies generally had more... well... head. For another, the big dark smear on the metal wall behind it, which he'd taken for rust at first, looked very much like dried blood. And unless he was very much mistaken, that was a fallen shotgun on the floor beside the chair.

"A poignant scene," commented the Vortigaunt. "An eternity's repose. It brings peaceful thoughts, does it not?"

Gordon stared at the alien. No words came; he just shook his head and started heaving the dead man's barricade out of the way. Maybe if they weren't working with a literal deadline (how long had they wasted down here on pointless antlion battles? How much time that Alyx didn't have had those damned spitters cost them?), he'd have done something for the corpse, but...

He was still more than a little stunned by the Vortigaunt's tastelessness as they entered the dirt-floored tunnel on the other side of the door. And then he was a little more stunned as something that screamed like an antlion but charged like a bull elephant rammed into the wooden barricade blocking a nearby tunnel. As he picked himself up off the floor, rubbing at his head in shock, the Vortigaunt said, "Ah, the ancient Guardian. Retrieving the extract may not be... unchallenging."

It screamed again and rammed into the barricade. Gordon caught a glimpse of something glowing and huge through the rain of splintered boards. He crept forward as far as he dared to peer at it more carefully, and saw only galloping luminescence fading into the tunnel distance. It had to have been at least the size of the Nova Prospekt bull.

"The Guardian's presence guarantees the nearness of larval clusters," said the Vortigaunt. "They are commonly posted near the young."

'Not unchallenging' indeed. Gordon's bones ached at the mere thought. The last time he'd fought an antlion that size it'd nearly snapped his spine against the wall.

For a while, it seemed as if they might have been luckier than the Vortigaunt had thought. The only antlions they met as they continued along were the glowing grubs. Eventually, though, they came to an exposed pit housing an elevator shaft and a tunnel opening, red with emergency lighting. The Vortigaunt leaned forward, craning its head this way and that. "A wind from below bears the scent of extract," it noted. "The stuff we seek lies at the bottom of this pit."

There was no power to the controls, Gordon noted as he circled the pit and came back to the elevator. Nothing could move the thing short of cutting vital cables. More unnervingly, there was no bottom anywhere in sight. Without an abseil line or something of that nature the only way to the bottom was at 9.8 meters per second squared.

"This shaft connects to the chamber above, where my kin sustain the Alyx Vance," the Vortigaunt said. "Once we have the extract, we can rejoin them quickly, provided we can restore elevator function..."

Gordon wasn't really listening, though. That tunnel in the side of the pit was a ventilation duct, and he'd used those as a means of getting around obstacles plenty of times before. As long as he didn't think about how ridiculously tiny his landing zone was and how likely a horrible gravity-driven death would be if he missed it, he'd be fine. Without further ado (or, to be more accurate, without further thought), he backed up a few steps and took a running leap for the lip of the duct. There was a moment's heart-stopping scrabble on the edge, but only a moment's; he pulled himself up and clung for a moment to the vent floor, panting.

"Bravely done, Freeman! When you reach the lower chamber, you must find a way to summon me! But do not kill the Guardian, or the extract will be ruined!"

Gordon would have flipped the Vortigaunt off, but to be honest, if their roles were reversed he'd have been only too happy to stay behind and wait too. He brought himself to his hands and knees and started to pick his way forward. A huge, powerless fan blocked most of the tunnel up ahead, but two of its blades were missing. The space afforded was just barely enough for Gordon and his arsenal to scrape through, from dimness into darkness. And then, as the tunnel split at a T-intersection, into light- the light of antlion grubs, clustered around an acid-eaten hole that went down farther than Gordon could see.

( "I always get the shakes before a drop. I've had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can't really be afraid-" )

"Planet P, here I come," Gordon murmured, and jumped into the hole before he could change his mind.

Its walls were brilliant yellow, both where they bore grubs and where they didn't, and webbing tore away as he plummeted. Smudgy spots flashed past him, and then there was nothing around him but whistling air. For an instant he had the impression of a starry night as he fell; then he hit the water below, feet first. When he surfaced (grateful beyond measure once again for the duct-tape strap that held his glasses on), he saw the ceiling of the chamber he'd been dropped into was covered in honeycomb-like structures, many of which bore tiny glowing speckles of light. The larval clusters of which the Vortigaunt spoke? Maybe. It was hard to think what else they could be. But there was no way he could notify the alien now, not this far down and out of the way; he would have to navigate his way back alone.

When Gordon switched his suit's light on he could just barely make out a gap in the stalagmite barrier that separated the pool he'd landed in from the chamber at large. Under the surface, alas. Nothing he could do about that. He took a deep breath and dove- only to find out he was anything but the first person to try doing so. There were Combine corpses jammed in the underwater passage; he kicked frantically, scrabbling past them and breaking the surface as swiftly as he could. Being alone with the dead he didn't mind, but being alone with the dead somewhere that their presence was likely to trap him? That was a problem.

(A few months that added up to a lifetime ago, that thought would have been impossible. He'd have to look at that realization later, though.)

The larger pool took a while to explore; there were barnacles on the ceiling, their tongues dangling down into the water, and he had no desire to get caught by one of those things. He eventually found the way out, though: another yellow-walled grub tunnel. He had to crouch down at first, and then crawl on hands and knees, as the tunnel got smaller. Just as he was wondering if he'd have to start shedding guns to fit through the passage, he rounded a corner. The floor beyond wasn't yellow. It was brown and red, painted all over in oxidized shades Gordon knew entirely too well. He closed his eyes, willing the image of that puddle on the table to go away; then he moved on. Eventually he got up the nerve to open his eyes again.

The walls were still grub-yellow, but the tunnel opened out into somewhere larger up ahead. Larva honeycombs took up most of the ceiling. He crept forward a little further, relieved to see it was only a tunnel, not a chamber.

... a tunnel guarded by acid-lions.

They were there every time he turned a corner, every time he ducked out of the line of fire in search of grubs to squash for their pellets. They loomed up at him when he thought he'd found his way clear to the next tunnel, vestigial wings flaring as they spat their blazing venom at him. The hissing screech they made just before the shotgun shells blew them apart would be with him for the rest of his life, he knew- as short as that might be. Where they were coming from he didn't know. There wasn't enough space for them all in the narrow, cramped quarters he was trying to flee. But they kept coming... and then they didn't, and it dawned on him that he'd worked his way into somewhere open, falling into another comb-studded cavern. A wide, worn-away stone bridge crossed its depths. He stared at it a moment, trying to control the shaking born of adrenaline and who knew what chemicals in his blood.

It was a moment too long. The vast glowing bulk of the Guardian (oh, hell, it really was as big as the Nova Prospekt bull) thundered into sight at the far end of the bridge. The monster bellowed, its cry echoing through the chamber. It lowered its head for the inexorable charge-

There was no time for thought or even for instinct. Only for pure, raw, animal spinal reflex. Gordon ran.

The tunnels on the far side were the stuff of pure nightmare. Grey stone tunnels with huge pulsating cocoons on the walls. Yellow grub-tunnels, splashed with blood. One whose floor was slippery with icy, ankle-deep water. And always, always, no matter how desperately he ran or how hard he pushed the suit's sprint function, that THING was just behind him. He tripped, once, over a skeleton that still bore a few tatters of clothing. The time it took him to get up cost him dearly; the very next thing he felt was the phenomenal force of the Guardian's impact flinging him down the tunnel and into the stone wall.

"Warning," the suit suddenly said. "Blood toxin levels detected..."

Was it his imagination, or was the voice slurred? It was still working, he could tell, by now he knew the feeling of whatever chemicals the suit used being pumped into his bloodstream to compensate for the latest foulness, but... The Guardian bellowed. Gordon clenched his jaw against the searing pain and dragged himself into a grub tunnel before the thing could reach him.

As he smashed the nearest grub with his fist and caught its pellet, the thought completed itself: the suit's voice sounded like a tape player did just before its batteries ran out. When was the last time he'd been able to charge it? He hadn't seen a battery in... he didn't know. And the Vortigaunt hadn't been able to do much with it, either. He'd been draining the sprint capability all the way down every time, forcing it to recharge from the suit's main power supply. It'd been torn and chewed up and burned away by acid, and forced to regenerate, more times than he could count. If it ran out of power down here...

If it ran out of power down here, now, there was absolutely no way he'd be able to make it back to the surface. The suit was too heavy, and he was too badly damaged himself, even with the grub pellets. If the suit ran out of power he'd be trapped some unspeakable distance below the surface, paralyzed in the damn thing until the antlions came for him.

If, he told himself. That's all it is. Just if.

The other possibility wasn't one he could afford to consider.

As the latest round of chemicals from the suit finally took hold, he tentatively started forward. A sound of galloping footsteps reached him. Breath hissing, he jerked back into the grub-tunnel just in time for the Guardian to thunder past. Not much liking the idea of sprinting again, he opted to head back the way the monstrous thing had come, leaning against the tunnel walls and moving with great care. It was enough; ahead there was a doorway, an actual doorway, nailed shut from the other side but still somewhere that human hands had been-

The whuffling roar of the Guardian sounded again. Gordon ripped the gravity gun free from its moorings and frantically started blasting away at the barricade. The instant he had enough space to do so, he wedged himself through the hole into the narrow shaft beyond. None too soon, either. The Guardian lunged after him. For one heart-stopping instant he thought the beast would reach him- but its body was too big to push any further into the shaft, and its back-spines kept it from retreating. Gordon nearly collapsed in relief.

The floor beneath him did collapse, but since it was only about an eight-foot drop into a human-made tunnel, he was willing to forgive its failure. He made it back to his feet and started following the minecart tracks he'd landed on. They had to go somewhere that led to the upper levels eventually, after all.

'Somewhere' turned out to be a sizable cavern with more of the honeycombs than he'd seen anywhere yet studding the ceiling far above. As he continued along into the cavern, he caught sight of familiar machinery- and heard a distant, familiar voice. "I sense the Freeman down below!" it called. "Restore the elevator's function, that we may reconvene!"

He'd never been so glad to hear that damned voice in his life.

"I descend," the Vortigaunt announced as Gordon found the obstructive metal jammed in the elevator's gears and worked it loose. "Abide a moment longer, that we may proceed together."

Moments later- they seemed like hours- the elevator car slid into sight and the Vortigaunt stepped off. "The scent of ripe perfection beckons," it said. "Follow, Freeman, while I track it to the source. You have done the hardest work, gaining entrance to this chamber. Truly, the life of Alyx Vance is in able hands."

He offered the Vortigaunt a weak smile; it was all he was capable of. But he was pretty sure it understood.
acts_of_gord: (use the vorts)
The Vortigaunt was messing with him. It had to be. Gordon had chalked its initial announcement of "This body is yours to command" up to some sort of alien hive-mind thing. Its "Grim piƱata" comment upon finding the webbed-up skeleton clutching an ammo cache in its arms had just seemed weird. He'd probably earned its sardonic comment of "What did the Freeman expect to find down there?" after falling into the formerly plank-covered shaft full of water, but it'd gone on to add a gratuitous "Truly, the Freeman leaves no path unexplored." And now, given that he'd just:

- Dropped into an offloading chute that appeared to be his only way out;
- Inadvertently knocked loose the brakes of the cart he'd landed on in the process of doing so;
- Been taken on a downhill run through the mine tunnel so fast that his cart had reduced the headcrab zombies in his path to component parts;
- Plummeted (there was no other word for it), cart and all, into a mineshaft at least fifty feet deep before hitting the surface of the water;
- Had to cling to the rickety wooden emergency ladder leading out of said mineshaft in order to avoid being clocked in the head by the other cart that came careening out of nowhere a few moments later;

-well, after all of that Gordon really felt that being greeted at the top with a cheerful "Ah! No pit would be complete without a Freeman climbing out of it!" was just a little uncalled for. He glared at the Vortigaunt, shook some of the vile, smelly pit-water off his suit, and set off again up the tunnel.

They didn't have to go far. Off to the left, the tunnel wall abruptly gave way to a passage melted through the solid stone by the acid of the spitting antlions, into the kinds of stalagmite-laden caves he'd had to battle his way through twice already. He grimaced, but at least there didn't seem to be any adult antlions around, just the twittering grubs. Two of them were promptly introduced to the business end of his crowbar. His suit hadn't closed up the hole one of the flying chunks of debris had torn in its forearm yet, and he could see active bleeding going on through it. Without a proper medkit to rely on, he needed those raw larval pellets to close up the wound. As he rubbed the stuff in, another sound beyond the twittering reached him: a slow, steady thrumming- no. Not thrumming, thumping. In a very, very familiar WHUMM. WHUMM. WHUMMM rhythm.

Well, that was as good a sign as any. He let the remains of the pellet melt away as the suit closed up and started forward. The stone beneath his feet was a little slick, but he had enough traction to navigate, even as the path along the edge of the dizzying gap below grew narrower. As the WHUMM noises grew louder, the Vortigaunt stepped forward. "Behold," it said. "Across the chasm. That immense repellent device promises surcease from constant antlion attacks. If the Freeman is in agreement, let us find our way to that vibratory haven."

'Hey, look, a thumper' would've sufficed, Gordon thought- but he nodded and started picking his way along the only path remaining to them. It snaked across the gap like one of the ridiculously tiny catwalks he remembered from Black Mesa, joining the other side at last just shy of another grub-tunnel. When the tunnel opened out into the thumper-chamber, he swore under his breath. The chamber was huge and brightly lit, but it was also riddled with antlions- and from the muffled groaning sounds he could just make out over the thumper noise, there were zombies lurching around too. Oh, well, at least there were some generator fuel-drums in gravity gun range.

"Ah!" said the Vortigaunt as the first explosion tore through the knot of screaming antlions below them. "That lift across the chamber promises to further speed our travels." Almost carelessly, it drew back its hands and tensed its shoulders. A moment later the green lightning Gordon knew so well lanced out at one of the staggering horrors below. "Forward, Freeman!"

Easier said than done. The antlions avoided only the space immediately around the thumper, and the chamber was (to put it bluntly) immense. Worse, it was immense in three dimensions, its ceiling easily seventy feet high or more- and the antlions could fly. And there were acid-lions among their number, at least four or five of them. Gordon found that out the hard way. It was a damned lucky thing that the humans who used the area last had kept a supply of medkits on hand, or he'd have lost an ear or worse. The Vortigaunt might've been able to charge his suit's power supply, but there wasn't a thing it could do to patch up his injuries as the alien bugs came screaming at them.

It was a weird sort of mercy that the headcrab zombies were present. The antlions seemed intent on attacking anything that walked on two feet, whether human, Vortigaunt, or post-human. Given that some of the things had been Combine and were still carrying their grenades, Gordon was only too happy to let his enemies tear into each other. Either way, it was one less horror pointed at him. He had troubles enough to contend with.

A brief lull in the antlion rush coming up from the side tunnels gave Gordon the chance to sprint for the elevator controls. "You must hold on until it comes, Freeman!" called the Vortigaunt as it threw one of the zombies to the ground barehanded. "The lift is too small for the both of us- I will join you as soon as I can!"

Are you insane? Gordon wanted to say, but he doubted he could make himself heard over the chaos. The spitters were coming after him again, and he could hear the chirping of a nearby Zombine's grenade as it lurched towards him. He had his hands full holding the monsters at bay. Arguing wasn't in the cards.

(It passed through his head briefly, as he emptied both his shotgun's barrels into the face of an acid-lion that'd come much too close, that none of this would've been happening if he'd just kept his mouth shut and stuck with his old teaching job at Boston University. Very few claws and fangs, Boston University faculty. And even the least hygienic of the students couldn't spit acid.)

Whether it was seconds or minutes later he didn't know, but the sound of an elevator coming to a stop cut through the crackling, screaming, groaning hell-sounds around him. "Go on, Freeman!" said the Vortigaunt. No help for it; Gordon blasted the nearest Zombine out of his path and ran for the elevator, jamming his finger on the 'up' button the instant it was in range. The ascent was quick, but even so he had to fend off two leaping, yowling antlions. As the second one plummeted to the ground below he caught sight of the Vortigaunt. Surrounded by antlions and zombies, the creature was nevertheless holding its own, both with claws and lightning. It even seemed, in its own way, to be enjoying the mad struggle. Gordon couldn't help but think of Father Grigori, back in Ravenholm.

When the elevator finally came to a stop Gordon took the opportunity to sag back against one of the walls and catch his breath. He could still hear the struggle below, but it couldn't reach him. How much more like that did they have to face, anyway? And what, for that matter, did the Vortigaunt need him for, if it could hold off that many foes on its own? The mere thought of the creature seemed to be enough to summon it; he could hear its hooflike feet clattering on the catwalk that surrounded the elevator...

"Observe how they fight on below, heedless of our escape," it intoned. Gordon opened his eyes- the Vort had, in fact, found another way up. ""This is all very amusing, but we must not forget the gravity of our errand to heal the Alyx Vance."

Gordon shivered, remembering the puddle of drying blood under Alyx's back as she lay on the table, and nodded.
acts_of_gord: (use the vorts)
The tunnel's ceiling was a little higher than Gordon liked, seeing as he had to drop through it directly onto a set of mine-cart tracks just begging to snag his feet and twist his ankles, but it had this going for it: it was well-lit. And not by antlion grubs, either, but by the cold blue-white light of some kind of floodlamp. At least he could see where he fell.

"Sheckley!" cried a man's voice from up ahead, its tone strained almost beyond endurance. "We've got antlions!!"

Gordon turned sharply to look over his shoulder, but there was nothing. By the time he turned back there were two humans visible: one pale, wearing a medic's armband, and one bearded, hatted, and darker-skinned. The one in the hat was shaking his head in mild disgust. "Griggs, you idiot," he said to his companion, "that's Gordon Freeman. The Vortigaunt said he was on the way... Dr. Freeman, Alyx Vance is over here. The Vort's trying to patch her up."

He'd been traveling in the right direction after all. The rush of silent gratitude almost knocked his knees out from under him.

Sheckley jerked his head towards the wide equipment ramp behind him. Gordon followed, booted feet clanging against the metal slope as they made their way down to the bottom of the shaft. The Vortigaunt stood hunched over Alyx's prone, bent form, both its hands crackling with energy as it worked. Gordon's eyes couldn't help but stray to the dark, ruddy puddle surrounding Alyx on the table; he swallowed...

"Ah, Freeman," the Vortigaunt said. Gordon jerked his gaze away from the puddle. "It is well. The Alyx Vance clings to the margins. My kin are still some distance away." It fixed him with one baleful red eye and added, "For now, we must not be disturbed."

"Yeah, well, about that..." That was Sheckley, from behind Gordon. "That's gonna be tougher than it sounds. As long as you're down here, Freeman, maybe you can give us a hand."

He led the way back up to where Griggs was waiting, next to a tunnel labeled '36'. "We get a lot of antlions down here no matter what we do. Damn things want to turn this area into the next room in their warren. Griggs and me've rigged up some sensors on each of the tunnels so we've got a little warning where they're coming from and just how bad it's gonna get."

"Hey, Doc," said Griggs nervously. "On your way here, you weren't... followed, were you?"

"Don't listen to him, Doc." Sheckley snorted. "We're on edge because it's spawning season. They're always worse this time of year."

"The Vort says-" Griggs hesitated. "As long as we don't step on their grubs, they shouldn't hear us this far from the main nest."

Gordon's eyes flicked involuntarily downwards to the layer of goo that covered his feet and lower legs. Sheckley must've picked up on it, because the darker man hastily said, "Yeah, well, that's a theory I'd rather not test myself. We're down to our last two turrets-" He indicated the familiar form of a Combine gun turret to his left, painted instead in yellow and black and with the circled-lambda logo of the Resistance on one side. "And even these are held together by baling wire and duct tape at this point. Nice to have 'em in a pinch, but I wouldn't exactly trust 'em with my life."

"Ammo's over there," said Griggs, pointing to a huge, hefty crate near one of the tunnels. "And over on the other side, too. And medkits, everything you need for doctoring-"

One of the red lights behind Sheckley flared, and a siren began to sound. "Let's move," he said. "We have to defend the Vort."

Gordon, frankly, was glad for anything that took his mind off what was going on at the bottom of the pit. And after what he'd just had to slog through, well... he didn't trust the Combine-made submachine guns to do him any good at all. It was shotgun time.

The bugs came up from somewhere back in the dark parts of the tunnel, screeching like mad things. They charged the humans alone or in pairs, wings flaring. After the first few fell Gordon privately decided that the lone turret aiding them could probably hold off such an invasion by itself or with a little assistance- but it didn't stop him from firing, reloading, and firing again. These bugs and their kin owed him a lot of blood.

As the flood of antlions ebbed and the turret fell silent, Sheckley shook his head. "Hey, Doc," he said. "You came through the caves, right? Did you see any of their guardians?"

Gordon glanced at him curiously, wondering if he meant the spitters. Before Sheckley could elaborate, though, another siren began to sound- and another, from the tunnel labeled '24' opposite side of the pit. "We got the breech!" Sheckley said. He pointed towards a previously-overlooked hole in the wall. "Dr. Freeman, you grab the turrets and take care of 24. No offense, but it was pretty quiet until you showed up..."

Gordon rolled his eyes at that, but grabbed the nearest turret and ran. He'd only barely set it down when the first wave of screaming horrors surged towards him. Then there was no time for anything but tearing into the vile things by any means necessary- shotgun, grenade, or turret, it scarcely mattered. The end of the antlion flood in one tunnel meant nothing at all beyond reload now and get ready to run; as soon as he'd drawn breath the lights would flare at another tunnel, and another. They just.

"Two lights! We've got 36- move those turrets, Freeman!"

Kept.

"Why are there so many???"

Coming, to the point where he found himself wondering if they couldn't partially defend the tunnels by shoving the piles of antlion corpses into some form of makeshift barricade-

"Three lights- I think we misunderestimated-" Griggs was shaking visibly. "Get ready! Oh, God, get ready! This is gonna be bad..."

Gordon ducked behind a heap of the dead bugs long enough to count over his shotgun shells; he'd run out of grenades long ago. Down the tunnel marked 12, there was a crashing sound and a sudden sharp smell of-

Ozone? Was that ozone?

He poked his head up over the corpse in time to see a bolt of green lightning sunder an antlion into its component parts, and the forms of Vortigaunts dropping into the tunnel from above one after another. "They made it!" Sheckley yelled. "It's the Vorts!"

The first of the three red-eyed aliens came forward, tucking its right fist into its left hand. "Ah," it said. "Freeman. Our delay... regrettable. We killed many antlions, yet many more remain."

"We must attend to the Alyx Vance," the Vort just behind it noted.

"There is no time," the first Vortigaunt said. "More antlions approach. We shall... quiet them." With that nicely ominous statement the lead Vort trotted down to take up a defensive position beside Alyx's table. The others split, one following Sheckley, one Griggs- and none too soon.

"Ah, shit! The whole place is lit up!" yelled Griggs. "Grab a tunnel!"

No more warnings after that. Only screaming, and Vortigaunt battle cries, and the smell of lightning and blood and gunfire. Bugs, Mr. Rico, he thought erratically as he spun to blast apart an antlion trying to savage him from behind. Zillions of 'em! But even that was more thought than he had time to spare. Wave after wave of the things came screaming at him, at the Vortigaunts, at Griggs and Sheckley, at Alyx-

No. Not at Alyx. Not as long as he could still prop himself up and pull a trigger.

One of the turrets blew, and then the other, and still they kept coming. Gordon swore and reloaded. He didn't dare take his eyes off the breach, now, it was down to him and maybe one of the Vortigaunts on that opening, the corpse pile wasn't even slowing the damn bugs down-

"Eat the Vortessence, you ant bastards!" screamed somebody. Sheckley, maybe. Didn't matter who. Lightning tore into the tunnel from three pairs of hands at once, and a stink like nothing Gordon had known since Black Mesa filled the air. Irrationally, he found himself thinking it a sign that they would survive... and sure enough, a strike or two later, the antlion assault ceased.

"We have exhausted their immediate number," rumbled the Vortigaunt just behind him. "Now to the next matter of urgency."

Gordon was already halfway down the ramp before the alien could finish saying Alyx's name.

"Her injuries are grave," said the Vortigaunt who had been there from the start, looking to the three new arrivals as they lifted their own glowing hands over Alyx's form. "This will necessitate deep submersion in the Vortessence."

A rumble of agreement went up from the others. Gordon dared a brief, shivering glance at Alyx's much too pale face.

"We require the larval extract," said the first Vortigaunt. "I will make the journey to seek the extract, deep within the nest in the sacred nectarium. But I cannot hope to bring it back alone."

"We must remain, to keep the Alyx Vance alive," said one of the others. The first nodded, and turned Gordon's way.

"Please, Freeman," it said. "Join me."

( "Enough to know that if you don't wipe it out, there won't be much for you to come home to..." )

"Yes! Take the Freeman!" "There is no finer companion!" "Just so!" echoed the others in a weird, overlapping chorus. The skin on the back of Gordon's neck prickled at the sound; but he nodded. There was never any question. Not with what was at stake.

The inhuman lines of the Vortigaunt's five-eyed face bent in a way that suggested approval. It set off at a run without any further ado, leading Gordon up the ramp and out of the pit, into the tunnel from whence the others had come.
acts_of_gord: (bloodletting)
Something just out of sight was twittering, a soft little trilling sound like someone who couldn't quite work out how to whistle encouragingly. Gordon did not find it encouraging in the slightest. Not down here, in the belly of some mine where the last few lights burned for the benefit of the dead. Not with Alyx unconscious and bleeding or worse, an unknown Vortigaunt her only protector, somewhere some unguessable distance above. There had been antlions above as well as zombies and that- thing; who knew what was down here now?

It occurred to him that the whistling was almost- not quite, but almost- like the sound a black headcrab made just before it leaped. He wished he hadn't realized that. Pistol drawn, he started to move forward- at which point he did hear the scream of a black headcrab about to leap. Only reflex saved him from the thing catching him by the face. As the well-punctuated corpse clattered to the ground and the sound of his gunshots died away, Gordon realized he was still hearing the twittering. More: he realized that it was coming from a hole in the tunnel floor up ahead. Unwillingly, slowly, he crept forward and peered into the only barely-bridged hole. Who-knew-how-old water pooled far below, too far and too deep for him to see the bottom. More importantly, one wall glowed. Not with electrical light, nor with natural phosphorescence, but with the living, breathing motion of a pair of many-legged grubs each easily the size of one of his own armored legs. As he stared at the things in revulsion, one of them lifted its head and trilled.

Gordon shuddered and eased himself over the edge of the hole. There was no other way forward, and unless he missed his guess the shadow in the far side of the pit was the shadow of a tunnel overhang.



Something was growling at him, a wet, low growl like a predator with a mouthful of half-swallowed blood. A few seconds ago something palely glowing had dashed past the opening in the floor of the tunnel full of grubs and webbing in which Gordon huddled. Something big. Silently, he counted over his supplies- pistol, ammo, crowbar, gravity gun- and wished, not for the first time, that he could lay his hands on just one Black Mesa satchel charge. Whatever that thing had been-

It growled wetly again. Wherever it was hiding, it was running out of patience. If it leaped at him through the hole, he'd have no time at all to dodge, and no room to get away. Gordon swallowed, readied his pistol, and dropped through the hole. The fall was short and easy. The splat! of something caustic as bullsquid spit against his face... anything but. "Warning: hazardous chemicals detected," the HEV suit announced as Gordon desperately pawed the stuff away with his free hand before it could get to his eyes. If he unsquinted just the tiniest bit, he could just barely make out the pony-sized, glowing, multi-legged thing up ahead. It looked like it was gathering itself for another projectile spittle attack.

It screamed, and he fired, and kept firing even as he dodged sideways and the burning stuff splattered everywhere. Something squished wetly under his feet, almost tripping him. He recovered in time to see the glowing bug turn his way again. This time he emptied the rest of his clip into its head section. It stopped moving, but he wasn't paying attention. Even the thin sheen of spit-stuff left on his face was still burning into his skin. If he didn't find a medkit soon- ah! There, something greenishly glowing on the tunnel floor, the same color as- wait. Medkit vials were that color, but they did not give way to touch like a mass of earwax. He brought the stuff up close enough to see: a faintly glowing lump of something almost the same color as the Combine medivials.

Under other circumstances he would never have even considered it, but he could feel the skin of his face being burned away where the spittle had struck him. In a desperation move he swiped off about half of the stuff's mass and slapped it against the worst of the burning, which stopped immediately. With an exhalation of pure relief he plastered the rest of it onto the damaged zone. Not until it was all absorbed or melted between his fingers did he realize it'd been expelled from one of the grubs he'd stepped on... but hadn't Alyx said the medkit vials came from the digestive tracts of antlion larvae?

Oh, hell. He was heading into one of their warrens, wasn't he? It'd certainly explain a few things...

Up ahead, away to the left, there came the sound of a spitting antlion's challenge-scream again. Gordon closed his eyes a moment before reloading.



The cavern roof arched away high and terrible overhead. Old half-digested corpses, human and Combine alike, bobbled in the chill water around him. There were ordinary antlions, only visible in the light of their twittering grubs, hissing down at him with insectile rage. Off to his left, the gently swaying tongues of barnacles promised their own sort of death to anyone who made it out of the water; and in the distance, he could hear at least two of the spitters screaming their challenge.

Gordon drew a deep, deep breath, gathering all his willpower. The words didn't want to come, but...

"I. HATE. THIS. PLACE!"
acts_of_gord: (down for the count)
Gordon opened his eyes to a sharp, pounding pain in his head that throbbed in time with his pulse. It would have been nice to say that this was somehow something new.

As the pain began to recede, the light began to trickle in instead- gleams of sunlight through gaps in darkness, patches of paleness that might almost have been the blue of sky. But only patches. Most of his vision was taken up by sharp-edged bulk... metal fragments? It looked like it-

Oh. Oh.

The Citadel swelling, and then the explosion, and the shockwave catching up to the-

He was in the train car, he remembered that now. The wrecked, torn train car; and with that memory came the realization that gravity was pulling on him from entirely the wrong direction. With a grimace and a set jaw (there was no more painkiller in the HEV suit, and hadn't been for a long time), he managed to wriggle himself loose from the pieces of metal pinning him in place. It looked as if the train car had landed with its forward end down and the rear end up in the air, and Gordon was not in the forward part. Neither, for that matter, was Alyx. So far as Gordon could see, she wasn't anywhere- but that meant nothing until he could get loose and be sure.

He worked himself the rest of the way free and started tentatively picking his way down the slope of the car's floor, holding onto the odd remaining passenger seat or vertical pole as he went. Window segments and pieces of roof or wall swung alarmingly as he moved, and more than once he had to pause in his forward progress as the metal around him groaned with the effort of not falling over or apart. As he reached the forward end of the car he discovered that most of the rest of the train was half-submerged in water, and appeared to be trying to sink further. He lunged for the last door of the forward car as swiftly as the rising waters would allow, only to find it jammed shut, and the windows unwilling to open far enough for him to fit through.

Well. That was just prime. Now what?

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acts_of_gord: (Default)
Gordon Freeman

December 2012

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