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Human Resources Violation

Chapter Text

Project ALERTS had been, admittedly, one of Black Mesa’s more ambitious endeavors, even if it wasn’t the most popular. It was a multi-departmental undertaking ordered by the US military with the lofty expectation that, if you got enough geeks together in one room, miracles could happen. And, sure, miracles did occasionally happen at Black Mesa--teleportation was becoming a real thing, and there was a kennel of alien dogs in the basement--but sometimes it seemed like the top brass didn’t quite understand the meaning of the word “limitations.” Or the concept of how getting the facility’s top minds together on one project was a bad idea, seeing as they were all competitive, antagonistic old men who were each convinced they were the only reason Black Mesa got anything done.

Of course, Gordon was elected to the project. Of course. Being a lowly Level 3 research associate who was trapped with a team that didn’t even cater to what he studied at MIT, they were quick to vote him off the island and set him adrift with a chunk of the computer science development team, a handful of behaviorists, a smattering of grandpas who were quick to blow the whole project off as a “stupid video game,” and a collection of other grunts who were just as lost and confused as himself.

The name of the game was simple on paper: the military wanted an advanced simulation to prepare their forces for the worst case scenario, given the facility's most recent breakthroughs and their newfound potential for bizarre catastrophes. That was doable. What wasn’t as doable was everything they helpfully tacked on at the end, tiny demands that ballooned into big, borderline impossible tasks. They wanted artificial intelligence that teetered on the brink of self-awareness, who’d learn and react like real civilians and actual enemies. They wanted a world so vast and complicated that they could cover any hypothetical situation they could possibly dream of. They wanted Black Mesa to be recreated so faithfully that they could cross-reference the rungs on the ladders and the tiles on the ceiling. 

And they wanted it all done within two years, tops.

Gordon was twenty-five when it started. He was still happily married, his hair was still neatly clipped, and he still had faith in humanity. Two years later and his husband had left him, he’d forgotten the very concept of scissors, and he was the unlucky schmuck volunteered by his peers to be the simulation’s guinea pig. Then, because his luck was phenomenally awful, Project ALERTS went belly-up as soon as he was fixed into the rig. All of the researchers and scientists involved could only watch in abject horror as their blood, sweat, and tears swirled down the drain alongside their dreams of a year-end bonus, all set to the soundtrack of Gordon gradually losing his mind.

However, as disastrous as it had gone--even after the project was canceled, the administrator left in disgrace, and the generals who’d commissioned ALERTS walked out in disgust--Gordon couldn’t help but be impressed by what worked. Though glitchy, bizarre, and immensely frustrating, the “characters” that inhabited that poorly rendered world were learning. He’d been a witness to it, he’d watched them break parameters and defy their basic programming, and he even began to enjoy their company more than his ungrateful coworkers, all of whom gave him a wide berth after all was said and done. 

Of course, he was the only one who saw any potential in the fallout. Of course. He tried appealing to the new administrator, he tried pitching the project to other departments, and he even volunteered to take the reins himself to see if he could make something good come of the mess. Each and every time, they laughed him out of the room. So, despite the hefty punishments that were usually imposed on anyone dumb enough to steal company data and equipment, he decided to take his chances. Most of the programmers chalked ALERTS up as such a lost cause that they didn’t even report the theft, and a few willingly helped him download unfinished programs and AIs onto a mess of flash drives. Nobody breathed a word of it. They seemed to have completely forgotten about it by the time he was back in anomalous materials.

It suited him fine. In private, he had all the time in the world to tinker.

Gordon rubbed his eyes as he stared at the screen, a cold cup of coffee to the right of him and an instructional coding guide propped open to his left. The clock ticked ominously on the wall behind him, an irritating reminder of how much time he’d wasted on his pet project and how little he’d slept in the past week. What should have been his vacation had been spent bent slavishly over a computer, with just enough breaks in between to make sure his son knew that he was still alive.

Yawning, he took off his glasses and polished them off on his shirt. He hadn’t changed out of his pajamas in days, but it’d been months since he’d found himself in the zone and he was afraid to waste the opportunity by stepping away and losing his rhythm. Scratching his chin (how long had it been since he trimmed his goatee?) he sat his spectacles back on his nose and continued to tick-tack away.

Honestly, computing wasn’t his strong suit. He felt passionately about it, he’d studied quantum computing as an elective at MIT, but if not for the files he’d ganked and the entirety of the For Dummies line of books, he would have been completely lost. Scrunching his nose in irritation, he reworked and retyped and deleted and copied and pasted, taking a moment every so often to check with the experts and the seemingly endless stack of notes he’d made off with. Most of it may as well have been written in Linear A, but Google was a handy little bastard when it came to translating the more incomprehensible bits.

Gordon yawned again, this time so wide that he felt his jaw pop. Swiping a pained tear away from his eye, he reached for his coffee and hoped it would give him the strength to power through to the finish line. After months of testing and sweating and cursing and typing, he could tell he was on the verge of a functional model. Just a few more clicks and a few more commands, and everything would hopefully be up and running. 

Dr. Freeman, now aged thirty, a divorced single father who hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours, was on the verge of reviving the virtual dead.

One last stroke of the enter key spoke of finality. Dark circles ringed his eyes and, grunting, he shifted in his seat and turned his attention to the hefty looking headset sitting precariously at the end of his computer desk. Lacking the energy to stand, he leaned over the side of his chair, making all manner of uncomfortable and indecent noises until he could hook his pinkie around one of the straps. It took a few attempts but eventually he managed to slide it within comfortable reach, holding it in his hands as though prepping himself for a game-changing foul shot.

While he was reasonably sure he’d ironed out all the kinks he was capable of ironing out and had preserved the data of the AIs he’d come to befriend during the first simulation, there was a part of him that was scared to give version two a go. He’d been falling over himself for the last few hours, so who was to say he didn’t make some kind of fatal error while bulldozing his way through such a delicate project? There was no peer review when working with stolen code and equipment in the privacy of one’s own home and, given his monumentally ill fortune in most things, he wouldn’t put it past himself to somehow program something into it that could actually kill him. 

After all, the first incarnation wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of functionality and stability, and he’d heard from some of the other research associates that his vitals had been off the charts towards the final leg.

Oh, well. His ex-husband was probably a better father anyway, and Josh was too busy sleeping over at his sister’s house to notice his “science dad” dead in his office. 

Holding his breath, he slipped the headset over his face and leaned back in his wobbling computer chair. All he had to do was wait for the boot-up to begin.

Chapter Text

The sound of the tram woke him, squealing and clicking against a monorail track as the soothing, computerized voice of a woman cooed through the intercom, spouting messages on repeat that he’d already heard a dozen times before. The sights and sounds of neighboring cars, supply trains, OSHA violations, and breaches of the Paris Agreement dazzled outside the window, all illuminated by a distant, ominous green glow. In other words, it was a typical morning commute to his boring job at Black Mesa, where a wild and wonderful world of pressing buttons and moving heavy objects awaited him. 

Five years as a research assistant, and you’d think he’d move up in the world.

Slowly, he sat up in his seat, nudging his glasses up on his forehead to rub the sleep out of his eyes. While it wasn’t uncommon for Gordon to doze on his way through the complex, it was pretty damn uncommon for him to have blacked out his entire drive to the base. Even back when he was young, new, and prone to benders with his fellow Level 3 grunts, he’d never been so out-of-it that he forgot the majority of his commute. 

Weirder still was that the car was empty, save for him. While he was notorious for being fashionably late, he wasn’t the only one who’d developed the habit. After all, if you get a bunch of overworked scientists together on projects with steep deadlines, you basically create entire departments that never show up on time. Take Harold Coomer, for instance. While Gordon himself averaged a good half hour tardy every few days, Dr. Coomer would sleep through entire shifts and had adopted his own, weird schedule as a result. The only thing that was saving him at this point was his seniority.

Gordon froze. Suddenly, the post-nap drowsiness was gone, the name having popped into his head with all the force of a slap to the face. Sure, he’d initially been thinking of the real flesh-and-blood Coomer, the boring old man they’d designed an AI after as a joke, but it was the artificial doppelganger that sprang to the forefront of his mind. And with his memory, Gordon came to a realization. 

He was in the simulation, wasn’t he? He’d put on the headset and dozed off. That’s why he couldn’t remember the drive.

But... something wasn’t right.

He clambered up and staggered to the window, glancing out at the other tram cars whizzing by. In the first incarnation of the simulation, he’d been able to tell that everything was fake. Things were simplified, angular, odd. The team working on ALERTS hadn’t been artists, after all, and it wasn’t until he’d been tampering with it himself that he’d decided to try to up the ante for his own sake.

‘Try’ was the key word. He wasn’t known for his artistic achievements either, and the changes he’d made had been minimal at best. The primary focus of his three years had been fixing kinks in the code and repairing flaws with the AI, to make them more manageable and useful and less prone to hurting themselves and others. All the tampering he’d done would have in no way explained just how uncannily alive the world now felt, and how accurate every sound, sight, and sensation seemed as he stood there alone in the middle of the tram.

The cold of the window. The heaviness of his body. Every surface was immaculate, perfect. Even the weight of the headset seemed negligible, only noticeable if he stopped and purposely tried to focus on it. He could get completely lost in this world. Hell, he could live here.

He watched a couple of departing scientists gawk at him from a passing car as he pressed a bare hand against the window like he’d never experienced the majesty of glass. Their responses were believable, with wide eyes and amused smirks, and Gordon burned with embarrassment. But more than embarrassment, he was horrified. He’d left all but the core AIs alone--Tommy, Dr. Coomer, Bubby, and Benrey (who refused to be deleted)--so they shouldn’t have even been aware of him, let alone how awkward he looked. 

There wasn’t much time for him to dwell on it, though. The tram car began to lurch and the squealing of brakes indicated that he’d reached the end of the line. The entrance to his sector came into view, a pinprick of light in a black void, and if he squinted he could see a blur of blue on the end of metal scaffolding leading to Sector C.

Hissing doors peeled open. Standing and waiting to greet him was a veritable carbon copy of the actual gate guard, with his crooked nose and unkempt blond hair poking out from beneath his helmet. Just as in reality, his preferred greeting was indifference. His eyes flicked up to Gordon until he unloaded himself onto the dock, then flicked to the tram as it pulled away. He watched Gordon in silence as he made his way to the keypad and punched in his code, then lost any and all interest once access was granted.

Straightening the lapels of his lab coat, Gordon gathered his courage and walked inside. All of this was overwhelmingly unsettling. 

Everything from the sound of his shoes on the floor to the voices of the scientists were incredibly true-to-life, and by the time he made it to the lobby desk, he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he had managed to make his way to work in his sleep. His mentor stood with his arms crossed behind his good friend, Barney, who was fussing at a security computer and slamming a malfunctioning mouse against the palm of his hand. Simmons, a doctor he didn’t much speak to, stood in the corner with a mug of coffee, pacing back and forth and bemoaning a missed call. In the distance, breakroom chatter echoed down the halls.

He stood there, stunned and silent. He stayed this way until “Barney” looked up and sighed.

“Late again, Gordon?”

He blinked. He nodded. He’d been through this song and dance before, but the simulation shouldn’t have known.

“I guess so,” he finally sputtered.

“Well, they’re waiting for you at the test chamber. You should probably get on your way before the administrator starts throwing a fit.”

“Y-yeah. I, uh, I should.” He paused, took a deep breath, and sighed. “It’s the 3883 experiment today, right?”

Barney arched an eyebrow high, a small smile of disbelief creeping across his face. Even though this was just a facsimile of his old friend, by god did the thing know how to act like the real deal.

“Yes, Dr. Freeman. It’s the 3883 experiment. The big one. The thing you’ve been poking at for months now. Did you, uh, go out drinking or something last night?”

Gordon didn’t know if he should have felt relieved or mortified. While the entire world of ALERTS had seemingly come to life without reason, the “story” of the simulation was apparently the same. That was a good sign, at the very least, an indication that he hadn't destroyed the stability of the program with all of his amateur tinkering. Though, if the plot had remained unchanged, that opened up an entirely new and horrifying can of worms. 

His stomach twisted at the thought. There was nothing Gordon wanted to think of less than how traumatizing a resonance cascade would be in such vivid detail.

“What? No,” Gordon finally answered. “I just didn’t sleep well. Josh was being kind of fussy. You know how it goes. I’m fine. I’m just... really tired.”

“Well, you better get over that real quick. You mess this up, the admin is gonna have your head.”

“Yeah, like I’ve not heard that before.”

Not-Barney laughed so convincingly that Gordon couldn’t help but smile, despite how unnerving the whole scene had felt. For as mild as it was, it was too intense, and his already jittery nerves were very quickly switching into overdrive. Everything had a distinctly Stepford quality to it and, even if his knowledge of movies was rusty, he was pretty sure that it didn’t end well.

As casually as he could, he started away from the desk. The din of the breakroom grew louder with each step, and he could make out the individual voices of people he actually knew and recognized. One he’d hoped to hear was conspicuously absent, though, a fact that worried him as he padded his way down the empty hall.

He’d programmed Tommy to be there. Why couldn’t he hear him, too?

Tommy was the first of the rogue AIs, after all, and should have been the first one he ran across in the updated module. Even though he wasn’t exactly the most talkative sort, he was friendly and loud, so it was concerning to not hear him at all, especially given that he left all of the spawn points the same. 

Just to ease his mind, he stopped and poked his head inside, watching as old men in white coats prattled about their day, their plans, and how much they hated their supervisors. The microwave whirred and the smell of leftover lasagna filled the air, Gordon not entirely sure how the simulation was managing to emulate the odor. His eyes darted from head to head--men lined up at the soda machines, sitting at their tables--until he saw a distinctly familiar face that had never existed at Black Mesa proper.

Despite being more detailed, he was recognizable. Unkempt, dark hair. A youthful expression on an older face. He sat in the back corner with a soda clenched in his fist, staring at the table with the sort of earnest confusion that Gordon could empathize with. It was as though he’d been somewhere else, now he was here, and he wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in between.

Pale gray eyes darted up from the table. They grew wide. Gordon waved, sighing in relief.

“Morning, Tommy.”

“Mister…. Freeman?”

His voice was just as he recalled it, a youthful trill that didn’t match his academic exterior. It was dripping with the same befuddlement and nervousness that infested Gordon like a parasite, and it was obvious from the shock that he remembered. He wasn't sure how much he remembered or if he understood the implications, but there was a look in his eyes that indicated that he knew something was wrong. The man was up in a flash, but Gordon shook his head and held out his hand. The other “characters” in the room only vaguely acknowledged them, as indifferent as any of the stuffed-shirt eggheads that occupied the real world.

“I know. Things are weird. I’m going to check on it, okay? I’ll see you later and we’ll catch up.”

A genuine, excited smile stretched across Tommy’s face. He nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah! Yeah, I’ll see you in a minute, Mr. Freeman! Do you want me to bring you a soda?”

Gordon considered. After a moment, he nodded.

“You know what? Bring more than one. I get the feeling we’re going to need it.”

With that, he continued down the hall. Behind him, he could hear Tommy obediently scramble from his chair to the vending machine, depositing one quarter after another. One of the many knots in his stomach untied itself, relief pumping through his body like morphine. So, as off as this simulation was going, it wasn’t doing any harm to the AIs. At the very least, it hadn’t done anything to Tommy. That was promising.

But, Tommy was the most stable in terms of behavior and coding. If that was the case, then he’d be the least affected if there was a hiccup with the program. There were still three others he needed to check on, and two of those three he had a very bad feeling about.

Gordon made an uncomfortable noise in the back of his throat, straightening his glasses and practically jogging down the corridor. Personnel in the hallway jostled as he darted by, clutching papers to their chest and yelping condemnations about how rude it was to be running in the hall. They insisted that he watch where he was going, implied he was a ruffian, and one even muttered something about how Gordon shouldn’t even have been considered for a job at the complex. 

None of it mattered, honestly. The locker room was just ahead.

In the real brick-and-mortar Black Mesa, the locker room wasn’t anything important. Nobody spent much time there, save to grab a change of coat or their brown-bagged lunch. In the simulation, the original programmers set it to be the spawn point of their most developed AI, a fancy little number fashioned after an air-brained project lead and originally meant for debugging. Time constraints had seen him shoehorned into the final project to fill out the roster, where he proved to be more than anyone could handle. He’d been made to push ALERTS to its limits, after all, and had ultimately become the first AI to Black Mesa’s knowledge that had ever become self aware.

Strange that they didn’t want to preserve him.

With a press of a button, the door to the locker room flung open and Gordon’s heart dropped through his stomach. The room was so empty and untouched that it almost seemed sterile. His breath hitched in his throat as he bolted up to the stalls and sinks, leaning awkwardly sideways to check for feet under the doors. He rounded the room, reading the names painted on the lockers, desperate to find the name of the AI.

Dr. Simmons. Dr. Kleiner. Dr. Rosenberg. Compared to the last build, they all seemed to accurately reflect people he actually worked with. He passed his own and circled again, until he found himself once more by the entrance and realized, like an idiot, he’d missed the very first locker on his way in.

Dr. Coomer.

His brows furrowed. The locker was there, but the doctor wasn’t. For a moment he considered ending the simulation, just to double check the code, but instead he found himself reaching out for the latch. 

Surprisingly, it clicked open, and Gordon took it as an invitation. He felt dirty prying through the belongings of somebody else, and in his mind he could hear a familiar voice accusing him of stealing and being where he wasn’t supposed to be. Still, he just had to know whether or not this was his Dr. Coomer, or just some copy of the real, boring man. Since the simulation seemed to know his world now, it was a toss-up.

Books and papers were piled up haphazardly, remnants of an old lunch buried beneath a pile of lab coats. While at first glance, he figured this would be the handiwork of the AI, he quickly remembered how messy the real deal kept his desk. Until he found some kind of concrete evidence, something unique to the coded copy, he wasn’t going to be satisfied.

As he prepared to close the door, he noticed a small, red-splattered Polaroid held fast to the inside with a magnet. He paused, reopening the locker to take a better look, gasping at the sight of old, angular models crouched in a dark hallway, bent into uncomfortable positions as if they were trying to pose. One of them, the most broken one, was wearing a horribly rendered, traffic-cone orange metal suit. He quickly recognized it as himself in all of his awkward, polygonal glory. Written in the margins of the photo in bright green marker was one word: “PROOF.”

“Proof?” Gordon echoed, but he didn't have much time to analyze his find. The sound of footsteps approaching pulled him out of his thoughts, and he quietly closed the locker and rushed to his own. It felt weird, trying to hide petty crimes from imaginary people, but given how sinister everything was beginning to feel, he could only assume they’d be smart enough to know he should be punished for rummaging around where he didn’t belong. At least it was obvious that his Coomer was somewhere in Black Mesa, though not where he was assigned to start.

Was he somehow broken? Gordon didn’t know if he could live with himself if he’d broke the guy.

Maybe he moved on, he figured, as he heard the room empty. Maybe, despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to fix the quirks in his programming that made him so unpredictable. If that was the case, he could definitely see him meandering to another part of the facility, perhaps driven by curiosity. Seeing as Coomer was aware of the fact he was artificial, he'd be the only one consciously aware of how different everything was now. 

All Gordon knew for certain was that the doubt shrieking in the back of his mind wasn’t going to quiet down until he found him. At least he’d already been through this song and dance before and knew exactly where to go and what to do to force the simulation to progress and, hopefully, lead him to wherever Coomer was hiding.

Gordon half stumbled, half sprinted across the floor, to the back corner where the hazard suits were stored. While HEV suits weren’t exactly a hot commodity in the real world, the original simulation treated them as if they were as commonplace as lab coats and dress shoes. It was a necessity to continue the exercise at all. If this new, eerie copy of Black Mesa was the same as the original ALERTS run, then the damn thing would be sealed in a tube at the far end of the locker room, ripe for the picking. 

Sure enough, he was right, but it was then that he realized that this hyper-realistic fluke of a program had done away with the simplicity he’d enjoyed in the past. In the old build, it just applied itself. In the real world, he’d only ever worn it once and had been assisted by people who had a hand in their development. In his current situation, he was a toddler trying to figure out how to put on a shirt correctly, as the designers had put way more thought into style than ease of use.

He was in the middle of trying to fix the chest piece when the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up, the feeling of being watched causing his heart to jump to his throat. Straightening his glasses, Gordon froze, looking up from the tangled mess he’d twisted himself into. The lights flickered ominously and a cold fear gripped him.

Something was coming, and it felt malicious. Maybe not a type of malicious he’d never dealt with before, but the kind of malicious he never wanted to deal with again.

“Who is it?” he called. One of the lights blew completely and, from the darkness, two pinpricks of light came into view. They were far enough apart to be recognizable as eyes, but it was far too early in the simulation for any monsters to rear their ugly heads.

“Hey, is that... is that Gordon Feetman?” a voice croaked from the shadows. “What’s up, bro? Forget how clothes work already?”

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, during a very stressful test conducted in front of some very ill-tempered government officials, Gordon had been faced with a rampant AI that defied all logic and who nobody could remember being a part of the original AI packets. It was repetitive, rude, and acted in every way that a human being shouldn’t, an utterly incomprehensible force that seemed fixated on ruining Project ALERTS for its own cruel amusement. Fueled by anxiety and irritation, Gordon had reacted in the very realistic fashion of screaming at it as if it were an idiot child, eventually driving it to the point that it willed itself to self-destruct. The men monitoring the data feed had told him in the aftermath that, whatever it had become, it had gotten to the point that it was consciously destroying itself in an effort to take Gordon down with it.

All the while, it had insisted that it had wanted to be nice. It had insisted that it wanted to help, and that they were friends. And, honestly, in retrospect, Gordon could see hints of it here and there in their interactions, moments where the two had gotten along until it would do something weird or ignorant and Gordon would commence shrieking at it like a neurotic banshee. And, every time he would, it would double down on being awful.

The voice that came from the darkness was its voice. Gordon froze, the HEV boot he was holding clattering to the ground. The lights in the darkness shifted, leaving streaks of white that trailed its movement.

“You gonna put your dick up this time?”

Footsteps came down the stairs to the storage units, the light fixtures flickering back to life. When they did, he saw the unmistakable sight of a Black Mesa security guard shambling down the steps, its gait awkward and alien. It was as though it didn’t know how to walk like a human, some alien creature wearing the skin of a man to lure in its prey. As it moved, it gained some bearing, its posture straightening and its animations becoming more solid and normal.

“Benrey?”

Gordon’s voice was small. The closer he (it?) got, the more he realized that he didn’t look at all how he expected. There was a faint, bizarre glow to his eyes and his skin was pale, edging on gray and dead. His pupils were far too small, almost invisible against his ghoulish eyes. When he smiled, it was as if somebody had taken the teeth of a dog and shoehorned them into his mouth, all jagged and fierce. He was thin but athletic, handsome and hideous, fascinating and gut-wrenching.

It was going to be so much harder to yell at something that looked like it could eat him.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” Gordon said plainly. Benrey stopped, as if he wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It was a line he had used on Gordon countless times, and whatever code processed his thoughts didn’t like having it thrown back in his face.

“I’m security. I go where I want,” he answered indignantly. There was a flash of something volatile in his eyes, and Gordon smiled, hoping to put it at ease.

“I, er, I-I guess so,” he nervously responded. “I, uh, I just feel a little awkward is all. It’s generally considered rude to watch somebody getting changed.”

Benrey tilted his head like a confused dog. In the previous build, his face had been static and unreadable, but now he could see the bewilderment as clear as day. His eyes trailed down to the dropped gloves and boots from the HEV suit, the suit itself awkwardly hanging off of him, then back up to Gordon’s face. The confusion didn’t waver.

“Weren’t you just automatically wearing that last time?”

Last time. Gordon choked. He remembered the last time. He should have figured, given how casually Benrey had addressed him, but the fact that he remembered his previous incarnation indicated he probably remembered what had happened to him. And who had done it. And how he’d been treated.

Instead of leaving, Benrey came closer. Simulation or no, if there was any way to kill somebody through a VR experience, it was going to be this thing that figured out how. He half expected it to bite him or shoot him or simply reach into his chest and squeeze until he stopped existing, but instead, he stooped down and picked up one of the reinforced gloves. He stared at it for a moment, then at Gordon’s arm. He smiled.

“Hey, your hand came back.”

Gordon swallowed, nodding weakly.

“Yes, Benrey. Yes, it did. C-can I get dressed now?”

“Your hand came back, and my everything came back. Neat.”

“That’s… nice, Benrey. But, uh…”

“Need help?”

“N-no, I don’t think I need--”

“Nah, bro. You need help. Hold on.”

He was just as persistent as always, it seemed, but at least he hadn’t mentioned a passport. He paused on that strangely reassuring thought to keep himself from hitting the “eject” button on every snarky comeback he was brewing up in the back of his mind. Biting his tongue, he kept a close eye on Benrey as the guard circled him, again and again, trying to figure out the hows and whys of the suit. Every muscle in his body tensed as he felt the monster trying to puzzle together how it worked, tugging at odds and ends and latches, moving things around until they were where he thought they should go.

“This is kinda shit,” he stated plainly. “The fuck designed this?”

“Uh, Black Mesa’s robotics R&D, in conjunction with--”

“It’s shit.”

Against his better judgment, Gordon laughed, though he didn’t know if it was nerves or the fact he actually found it funny. His chuckling stopped when he felt himself being yanked violently to the side, Benrey trying to force the armored bits over his shoulder.

“Fuckin’ Rubicks cube bullshit,” he grumbled under his breath. 

“It’s… you have to put it on in layers. I just don’t remember how Gina said the layers g--”

“Maybe you should just not wear it.”

“But, I have to go to the testing site and--”

“There are no predetermined deaths.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I was fine.”

“I’m not sure you’re human.”

“I’m not human.”

It was said in such a deadpan that he would have thought it was a joke had he not previously seen what Benrey was capable of. Gordon decided not to respond, breathing deep and allowing himself to be tugged, pulled, yanked, prodded, pinched, punched, undressed, and redressed. Humiliating as it was, it was better than poking the Lovecraftian cyberspace horror with a stick.

After what seemed like a lifetime, Benrey stopped. He took a sweeping step back to take an appreciative look at what he’d managed to accomplish, his head cocking side to side like an artist sizing up their latest work. Most of his facial expression indicated pride, but there was something none too subtle lurking under the surface. Gordon furrowed his brows. Benrey wasn’t just admiring his work.

Then, as quick as a snap, his face twisted in confusion. 

“You had a helmet last time,” Benrey stated plainly. 

“I, uh… yeah. I guess the helmet is missing. Good eye, Benrey.”

“Sir, that’s not safe.”

“Maybe it’s at the testing site.”

“Sir, I can’t let you go to the testing site without your helmet.”

For as dry and unenthused as Benrey always sounded, he could detect the faint hint of authority, the same tone he’d previously picked up when asking about passports and telling Gordon everything he wasn’t allowed to do. Taking a deep, cleansing breath to cast out the weird mixture of anger and dread, Gordon nodded in agreement. He wasn’t sure how to respond in a way that would get him to the test site quicker, but given the fact that the alternate option was repeating history and watching this ghoulish mess tear apart the world he’d created, he decided that playing nice was perhaps the most prudent choice.

“I’m pretty sure Dr. Coomer took it to the test site.”

“I saw Dr. Coomer and he didn’t have a helmet with him.”

“Wait. Did you say you saw Dr. Coomer?”

“Huh?”

It was easier to not be angry now that he could read the thing’s face. The authoritarian glare left, the puzzled look came back, and it finally started to dawn on Gordon what was happening. The AI was having lapses of some kind. It wasn’t registering input. It honestly hadn’t heard him.

“Dr. Coomer. You saw Dr. Coomer? That’s what you said, right?”

“Oh. Yeah. He’s downstairs.”

Gordon blinked. How strangely cooperative of him.

“Okay, I have to go see Dr. Coomer. I’m sorry I don’t have my helmet, but--”

“Sir, I can’t let you go to the test site without your helmet. It isn’t safe.”

“I know it isn’t safe, but I need to speak with Dr. Coomer.”

“Sir, do you have your helmet?”

“Benrey, you just said that I shouldn’t even--”

“Helmet? Helmet, please?”

“Look, I--!”

The moment Gordon’s voice began to raise, he stopped. A hand clapped over his own mouth as he tried to physically restrain himself from screaming. Benrey stared in silence, taking a good long moment to read Gordon’s face, and the more he watched, the more it became apparent that he was well aware of what was going on. A smile tugged up at the corners of his mouth.

“You’re scared of me.”

“Benrey, please.”

“Freeman is scared. Wimp.”

“Benrey, I--”

“Think I’m gonna go crazy again? Think I’m gonna try to kill you again?”

“No, Benrey. I just--”

“I might.”

He spoke with certainty, but the tone was mocking enough that he could almost believe he was teasing. All Gordon knew was that giving Benrey an inch would lead to him taking a mile, and his job was to keep this new simulation running smoothly so as to not repeat the mistakes of the past or agitate whatever oddity was making everything so... odd

Don’t taunt the crazy. Don’t antagonize the evil guard. Don’t start fights he couldn’t finish without Playcoin involvement. Don’t cross whatever artificial god he’d accidentally created, which somehow knew how to make Black Mesa completely, truthfully faithful.

“Look, Benrey. How much do you remember of the last time we saw each other? Like, be honest. Do you remember… everything ?”

Benrey stared at him dumbly.

“Come on, man. I know you remember something. If anyone aside from Coomer is going to remember the last time, it’s going to be you.”

Benrey considered for a moment, then flatly stated, “I remember you killed me. Like. A couple of times, actually.”

“Oh.”

An uncomfortable silence fell between them, the two standing perfectly still and staring at each other as if waiting for the other to make the first move. While Gordon imagined he was experiencing the same emotions as a rabbit in a fox's den, Benrey by contrast appeared to be perfectly fine. If anything, he looked downright pleased with the opportunity to gaze upon the high-resolution model of his old nemesis.

“Bro, it’s fine. I tried to kill you first.”

“I, uh, I don’t think that’s fine,” Gordon responded carefully. “But look, I didn’t mean to kill you.”

“Yeah, you did. But it’s cool. We’re cool.”

“I’m, ah, gonna take your word on that even though I don’t really believe it. But if we’re actually cool, can I go to the testing site now?”

“Sir, I can’t let you go to the testing site without your helmet.”

Gordon choked down the profanity threatening to spill out of his mouth. It all came out in a resigned huff as he stumbled forward, closing the gap between them and placing a hand on Benrey’s shoulder. He tensed, his head snapping to Gordon’s hand as though he were planning to do something, before his gaze returned to Gordon’s face. His eyes silently demanded to know who the hell he thought he was, but Gordon cut him off before he could open his mouth.

“Officer Benrey, why don’t you walk with me to see Dr. Coomer? If anyone knows where my helmet went, it’s him. And you can tag along to make sure I don’t go anywhere near the actual chamber and the sample without it. Sound good to you?”

“Is this a trick?”

There was a surprising amount of clarity in Benrey’s voice. It lacked the lackadaisical, “bro” tone he usually had, the distinct flavor of a perpetually stoned frat boy who moonlighted as security on the weekends. No, it was clear and intelligent and stunned to get a reaction that wasn’t filled with ridiculous amounts of nerd rage.

“No, Benrey. No trick. I don’t know if you realize how much time has passed since the last time we saw each other, but it’s been long enough for me to bury the hatchet. This is a clean slate, you know? A do-over. I’ll just let you do your thing and try real hard not to be a dick about it. Fair?”

“Uh, fair?”

“Just please don’t let the United States military take my hand this time because, honestly? I don’t know if I can emotionally deal with losing a limb at this level of realism.”

Benrey looked away, the first hint of shame he’d ever seen in the AI as clear as day. His eyes trailed to Gordon’s hand again and, as if remembering their last go-round, he scrunched up his nose in disgust and snarled.

“Yeah, that wasn’t supposed to happen. My bad.”

“I’m glad we agree,” Gordon responded. “Now, do you want to go see Dr. Coomer, buddy?”

Much to Gordon’s relief, Benrey seemed placated. Absolutely stumped as to how to respond, but placated. The officer gave him a once over, glancing up and down, eyes lingering at the crotch of his suit to make extra sure there wouldn’t be a repeat of the last time. With a heavy, defeated sigh, he shrugged.

“Yeah, sure. One thing, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Can I hold your hand?”

There wasn’t anything on Benrey’s face to indicate that he realized how odd of a request this was, or that it was some kind of cruel trick. It was just an innocent question, like a kindergartner asking their dad to walk them into school. 

“I don’t think that’s very professional, Benrey.”

“So?”

“I may get reprimanded. You may get reprimanded. I think HR wrote something about workplace romances that indicated you can get into a lot of trouble for it.”

“Wha?”

Just gauging the look in his eyes, there was no way that Benrey knew what he was implying, what Gordon was talking about, or anything in between. The guy just wanted his hand held. Gordon slumped his shoulders and laughed bitterly in defeat.

“You know what? Sure. I’ll hold your hand. This whole place is about to go straight to interdimensional hell in an hour anyway. Fuck HR, right? They’ll all be dead soon.”

Benrey’s eyes lit up like a kid at a carnival. With inhuman speed, he was at Gordon’s side, lacing their fingers together and throwing back his head like a proud rooster. The smirk on his face would have been funny if not for all the jagged teeth, and Gordon couldn’t help but bark in incredulous laughter. If this was all it took to keep this stupid whatever-the-fuck from blowing a fuse, he could have easily prevented the last simulation’s failure.

“Nice,” Benrey drawled, starting ahead and tugging Gordon along with him. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The looks he garnered were a small price to pay for not having the world implode. Sure, it was humiliating to be ogled by old men who were absolutely aghast at the sight of them traipsing down the hallway hand-in-hand, but at least their disgust seemed to be about the lack of professionalism on display instead of anything more personal. He supposed that it helped to remind himself that none of them were real, that they just seemed frighteningly real, and that none of them could actually do anything to him or his career in a way that mattered. And besides, being unprofessional was basically his forte at the real Black Mesa; it was no different than his hour late walk of shame he'd make from the tram to his department three times a week.

Benrey was oblivious to the fact he was anything but the picture of security perfection, however, and marched through the hallways with his passport held in front of him like a protective shield. Much to Gordon’s surprise, not a single artificial soul reacted to how inhuman and ghoulish his escort looked, aside from another member of the security team who was standing guard near an elevator entrance. Even then, the only reaction he elicited was a slight widening of the eyes when he saw that the words on Benrey’s passport were literally pouring off the page, wobbling in mid-air beside the bearer’s hand. It wasn’t exactly a point of pride to realize that glitch had escaped his notice, and alarming that the mystery force that created such a lifelike world had just let it slide by uncorrected.

“Officer Benrey. Black Mesa Security. Got a suspect I’m taking into custody,” Benrey snapped, shoving the document in the guard’s face before briskly sweeping past. Gordon struggled to keep up with him.

“I’m not a suspect, Benrey. We’re just going to talk to Dr. Coomer, remember?”

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to shut up.”

He practically punched the elevator button, the two standing quietly for a brief moment while they listened to the sound of the lift whirring somewhere in the shaft. Gordon glanced over his shoulder at the unknown guard, the man’s eyebrow quirked in curiosity as he waited to see what, if anything, was going to come of the bizarre situation playing out before him. 

“Bro, these elevators suck,” Benrey grunted, pressing the button again. Gordon nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, just like the real deal. Too few in the complex and too many people getting on and off. They really should have built a few more.”

“Elevators are dumb anyway. I always used the vents.”

Gordon cocked an eyebrow.

“Wait. You do what?”

“Huh?”

The elevator dinged before he could repeat himself. The door slid open with a hiss, and Benrey dragged him aboard. A weird sense of deja vu washed over Gordon as he did so, memories of their first ill-fated meeting flooding his mind. Of Benrey demanding nonsensical documentation, of him singing in vivid technicolor, of his horrifying, evil laughter after he catapulted himself down the elevator shaft in a fit of impatience. As the doors shut behind them and they began to descend, he couldn’t help but let his eyes drift to the oddity beside him, his mind wandering to darker places.

“You’re not going to jump off the elevator this time, are you?” Gordon asked worriedly, glancing down at their intertwined hands. 

“Huh?”

“You’re not going to jump off the elevator? Because that would hurt me, you know.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a human being. I know you’re not, but the laws of physics typically apply to people like me.”

“That’s lame.”

Thankfully, Benrey didn’t budge. Lights passed them by along the sides of the shaft as they descended further into the complex, taking far longer than Gordon felt was normal or necessary. Maybe the simulation was having trouble loading, or maybe he keyed in an integer wrong. Whatever the case, being alone in an enclosed space with the digital embodiment of chaotic evil wasn’t the most calming of situations.

Perhaps he could break the ice with an honest attempt at conversation. He’d never tried that with Benrey before. He always just cut straight to the yelling.

“So, uh, Benrey. You got a last name?”

“No.”

“Well, is Benrey short for something?”

“It’s short for Benrey.”

“Oh. Cool.”

“Yeah. Cool.”

The elevator felt like it should have reached the lower floors by now, but for some reason, it kept dragging on. Something was wrong. He’d messed something up in development and now he was going to be stuck on the lift with Benrey until the heat death of the universe. Or, until he took his headset off, though he got a sinking feeling that his current keeper would sooner trash the simulation than let that fly.

“So, you still sing?” Gordon asked, leaning towards the elevator windows. He craned his head up, hoping he could somehow gauge how far they'd gone and how far they had left to go. He couldn’t; the gap was too narrow and the exterior was too dark.

“Sing?” Benrey echoed.

“You know. The Sweet Voice? Do you still have that?”

“Oh. Yeah. I always have the Sweet Voice.”

“I wonder what it looks like now, with everything being so realistic. I bet it’s pretty sweet. Uh, no pun intended.”

Benrey’s brows furrowed and his eyes seemed to glow brighter. At first, Gordon was petrified that somehow he’d flipped a kill switch, but instead the guard loudly began clearing his throat. It was obnoxious, wet, and nauseating, and was followed by a few errant, sour notes that were completely devoid of color. Then, after puffing himself up like a balloon, he belted out an impossibly long high note that made the entire elevator vibrate and Gordon's ears ache.

Even so, it was strangely beautiful, a stream of rainbow-colored mist spewing out of his mouth like paint from a can. It smelled odd, like sulfur and fruit, and covered the elevator like an Arctic aurora. Gordon fell into stunned silence, as did Benrey. Honestly, it didn’t seem like he knew what to think about the new, high resolution Sweet Voice either. If anything, he seemed offended that it wasn’t more focused and solid, leading to a loud, barking curse that came out as a tangible orb of aqua light.

He smiled.

“Oh. Yeah. There we go.”

“Just needed to get into the groove first?” Gordon joked. 

“I dunno. Maybe.”

Benrey held the orb in his hand, bouncing it around on his fingertips like a contact juggler before releasing it into the air like a wild bird. It disintegrated almost immediately, melting upward like a cascade of mist before phasing through the metal ceiling and ceasing to exist.

“What did all those colors mean? Like, with your first attempt?”

"What colors?"

"The rainbow. The, like, weird misty rainbow. Was that, like, some kind of sentence? Was that, I don't know, some complicated thought?"

“Oh. That. Yeah. Means you’re gay.”

“Benrey, I was gay before you did that.”

“Well. You’re double gay now.”

At long last, the elevator stopped, the doors sliding open and revealing an all-too-familiar hallway filled with all-too-familiar people. They were on their way to the test chamber from the break room, running away from the test chamber to the break room, milling around trying to get a moment of peace, and discussing projects that didn’t really exist. He didn’t have a chance to marvel at how well they interacted with each other before he was led away again, Benrey stomping past while insisting that he had to get the “suspect” into custody. Gordon wasn’t sure how much they believed him since he was still holding Gordon’s hand but, hey, he wasn't planning on being around much longer anyway.

Once he found Coomer and determined that everything was working to specifications, he was done. The longer he thought about it, the more of this world he saw, he knew there was no way he could deal with the violence of another resonance cascade.

As they passed a pair of baffled guards and stepped through a set of double doors, Gordon had hoped that maybe he’d see Dr. Coomer lingering around the bend. Unfortunately, he found himself face-to-face with a gaggle of nobodies instead, AI replicants of the anomalous materials research team who were casually chatting to one another about their upcoming test and the flurry of rumors surrounding it.

Did he know that Dr. Freeman was late again? He most certainly did. Did he know that the administrator had been asking for them to test the sample at unsafe levels? Yes, because that was the scenario they’d programmed. Did he hear about the weird government agent that had been spotted chit-chatting with the higher-ups? Not in the previous incarnation, no, but he was well aware of the man now.

He would have listened more, if not for a loud, abrasive voice that cut through the air like a knife.

“You’re not supposed to…”

A lean, balding man with wire rim glasses shoved his way through the crowd, his shining black dress shoes clicking neatly against the metal floor. The look on his face was nothing short of furious, like an angry grandfather preparing to break out the belt. There was nothing in this world that seemed like it would stop him as he made a beeline for them, at least not until he got close enough to see who he was yelling at. 

He looked at Gordon, recoiled in shock, then turned his attention to Benrey. The guard was still holding his passport out like he was ready to fire, a sentence that would have not made sense if Gordon hadn’t already seen what hell he could wreak with one. 

“... Are you fucking kidding me?”

The scientist’s eyes locked on Benrey holding Gordon’s hand. If he recoiled his head any further, he’d have become a turtle.

“Hi, Bubby,” Gordon greeted. He tried to sound casual, but he knew his nerves were getting in the way. After all, he’d just found the third AI, and it wasn’t one known for being kind and understanding. Hearing his voice brought back all sorts of fond and painful memories, from helpful advice to threats preceding a brutal amputation.

In a few furious strides of his long legs, Dr. Bubby closed the gap between them, his head still attempting to retract into his body. His arms were crossed so tightly over his chest that it looked like he was trying to crush himself to death.

“Don’t you ‘hi, Bubby’ me, Dr. Freeman. What in the actual fuck?”

The other nearby personnel seemed confused, but minded their own business. He wasn’t sure if they were aware of just how loose of a cannon Bubby was but, if they were ignorant, he was glad they subconsciously made the right choice. When he saw Gordon wasn’t paying full attention to him, however, Bubby was quick to shove his face into his line of sight, eyes narrow and mouth twisted into a scowl.

“What are you doing here with that?”

That’s name is Gordon,” Benrey responded coldly. Gordon pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head.

“I think he was talking to me,” he sighed, before shifting his attention back to Bubby, “and to answer your question, I guess… I guess I’m perfecting my run.”

“Perfecting your run? Gordon, your run is going to get hundreds of people killed. Again!”

The background scientists were interested now, turning around with wide eyes to watch the dispute. Nervously, Gordon waved at them, but it was Benrey’s unnerving stare that made them return to their previous conversations.

“Look, Bubby. Can I just ask what you remember about--?”

“I remember you fucked up.”

“Bubby, I--”

“Am I in hell? Is this hell?”

“No, Bubby, this isn’t--”

“Then what the fuck are you doing here with that?”

Gordon heaved. It took every ounce of willpower he had to reign it in, even more than with Benrey. For a split second, he and the guard locked gazes, Benrey seeming to understand the battle going on behind Gordon’s eyes. What he was going to do with that information was anyone’s guess.

“It’s fine,” Benrey matter-of-factly stated. “I’m not going to try to end the world this time.”

“Oh,” Bubby responded, taken aback. “You’re not?”

“Nah. Gordon and I are holding hands. It’s cool.”

“Oh, well then I guess that’s okay.”

Honestly, Gordon didn’t know if he had it in him to be surprised anymore. Interacting with Benrey had made it clear that one of the malfunctioning AIs was still acting weird, so why not Bubby, too? Why bother trying to figure out the logic when he was in a place where there wasn’t any? It would do his brain good to just go with it and hope that, at the very least, they were functioning marginally better than before. All he had to do was play along and keep a mental note of all the bugs that still needed to be worked out.

This was a test run. He could fix it later.

“We’re looking for Dr. Coomer,” Gordon piped. “Have you seen him?”

“Oh, Coomer? Yes, I saw him.” Bubby turned and looked over his shoulder, nodding toward the hallway behind him. “He went that way, toward the testing site. I’m assuming that’s where you’re going.”

“Yeah, I have to--”

“There’s going to be a lot of radiation, Gordon. You should really wear a helmet.”

“Benrey already told me that. I just need to--”

“You’ll die without a helmet. It’s like there’s a big, gaping hole in your suit’.”

“I’m aware. I just--”

“Radiation kills people, you know.”

Gordon inhaled deeply, deciding to cut the argument short. With a firm nod, his mouth a tight, thin line, he answered with a blunt, “Thanks, Bubby. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You better. Or you’ll fucking die.”

Gordon impatiently tugged at Benrey, a silent indication that they needed to keep moving. Of course, he didn’t realize it at first, bringing their hands up in front of his face as if there would be a secret code scrawled on top of their fingernails. After a full, awkward minute of quiet contemplation, he finally got the picture, dropping their hands back down between them and muttering something under his breath. Whatever it wasn’t didn’t seem malicious more than it seemed bewildered and pointless.

Off they marched again. Passport in hand and still barking authoritatively at anyone in his path, Benrey continued along his merry way with his “suspect” in tow, Gordon’s now numb hand still trapped in his. As they rounded the corner, Gordon realized Bubby was watching and heard his voice calling after him through the hall.

“Don’t fuck up this time, Gordon!”

“I probably will!” Gordon hollered back.

“Then, I hope you’re prepared to lose another limb, you asshole!”

Gordon cringed. He most certainly was not.

Chapter Text

Of all the AIs in the simulation, Gordon had felt the worst about Dr. Coomer’s plight. 

He was nuttier than a Mr. Goodbar and had tried to wear him like a puppet, but beneath the veneer of desperation was a helpful, eccentric old man who had sadly realized that there was nothing to him but lines of code. The longer time wound on, the more obvious it became that the thought tormented him and, as the simulation drew to its conclusion, the more resigned he had become. In a way, it reminded Gordon of his grandfather on his deathbed, talking about all the things he wished he’d done and wished he still had time to do. While Bubby and Tommy were blissfully unaware that their world was about to shut off for good, Coomer was staring the void in its ink-black eyes and coming to terms with the fact it would consume him.

He’d even found a way to break his programming and produce an anomalous audio file. When the other team members had sat with Gordon and listened to it in the aftermath of the demo, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Unlike his colleagues, though, it stuck with him longer than a day and became more than just a quirky story to tell newcomers to the department. To them, Dr. Coomer was just a copy-pasted mess of code that had malfunctioned. To Gordon, he had become a friend.

Gordon would be lying if he said that he wasn’t the primary reason he’d stolen the data and devoted so much of his personal time to salvaging the project. He felt like a doctor tirelessly working to revive a patient from a coma, now seeing signs of life after years of nothing. The urgency he felt was so strong that, much to Benrey’s chagrin, he started to pull ahead of him as they walked, leaving his bizarre escort scrambling to outpace him.

“Bro, slow down,” Benrey growled. There was something odd to his voice, a low and steady rumble that he’d never heard before. Some kind of audio glitch, Gordon figured, since he wasn’t an expert at this sort of thing.

“I really need to speak to Dr. Coomer.”

“Why?”

“I just do, okay? Remember, he may have my helmet.”

Behind them, the sound of an explosion rocked the halls, the smell of smoke and burning plastic following close behind. A choir of gasps answered the boom, as well as the distinct sound of Bubby asking for a wrench. Even without looking, he knew exactly what had blown up (servers) and who was responsible (Bubby) and wasn’t remotely fazed by the calamity. It had happened the last time, too.

“What? You in love with him or something?”

“Benrey, I’m not in love with--”

“Gonna kiss him? A little smoochie smooch? That’s gay.”

Gordon skidded to a stop, turned to Benrey, and raised their clasped hands to Benrey’s face.

“One, I don’t know how many times I need to tell you: I am gay. Two, what do you call this ?”

Benrey gawked at his hand wrapped in Gordon’s, his head tilting slightly. He blinked slowly and unevenly in a way that reminded Gordon of a lizard. After a moment of deep thought, he looked up and smiled contentedly. Obviously, he’d had an epiphany.

“Just bros being bros,” he responded. The look on Benrey’s face was so earnest that he had no doubt that he was convinced he was right.

“Well, let’s be bros a bit faster. I have to find Dr. Coomer. It’ll make me feel a lot better.”

“You sound like you’re getting angry.”

“I’m not getting angry.”

“I may destroy the world if you get angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“Can I hold your other hand?”

“That would make walking really hard, dude.”

“That sucks.”

“I know, Benrey. I know.” He tugged gently at his hand to urge him ahead. “Now, can we go?”

To Benrey’s credit, he actually listened. Once more brandishing his passport, he zigged and zagged his way towards the test chamber, happily ignoring distractions while swinging his and Gordon’s arms between them. It in every way reminded him of his evening walks with his son, save for the yelling, the flaunting of authority, and the simple fact that Benrey very much looked like something wearing the skin of a grown man. 

At least he was happy, and a happy monster was a monster less likely to snap.

Distracted as he was by his pet creature, he hardly noticed how far they’d walked. Every hall in Black Mesa looked the same, and even after years of working for the real deal, he usually had to consciously keep tabs of his location to avoid getting turned around. It didn’t hit him that they’d managed to meander their way all the way to the testing site until he started to see the writing on the walls, arrows painted on plain white concrete above caution signs warning of Black Mesa’s utterly pointless laser grid. The men in the hallways began to look more familiar and serious, nervously milling around and trading concerns about the events to follow.

Some of them predicted calamity. Gordon knew they were right, but didn’t want to think about it.

Benrey’s power walking began to wind down to an exhausted trudge the further they went, the lights becoming dimmer and the world becoming a little more solemn. Even when the automatic doors into the test chamber’s airlock came into view, it wasn’t until Gordon heard an excitable, welcoming voice that it fully sank in that he’d reached the end of the line.

“Hello, Gordon!”

Beside the door, grinning like a loon, was an old man. His voice was unforgettable and familiar. 

The same cadence. The same tone. The same everything. Gordon’s eyes lit up like starlight.

“Oh my god, Dr. Coomer! It’s you!”

The dome of Coomer’s head was nearly bare, wreathed in unkempt white hair, a sharp contrast to his meticulously kept mustache. His eyes were small and practically twinkled, his mouth stretched into a friendly, grandfatherly smile. Most notable, however, was his physique: strong, broad, and stout, a far cry from the feeble old man Gordon expected.

“Dr. Coomer, you have no idea how happy I am to see you in one piece. I thought I fucked up when I didn’t see you in the locker room. But here you are! It really is you!”

The words came out breathless, dripping with relief and a joy that seemed to make Benrey jealous. When Gordon tried to pull away, Benrey buckled down and tightened his grip to the point Gordon felt like every bone in his hand would break. 

“And it’s you, Gordon! I thought you forgot about us!”

“How could I forget about you? Any of you? But, uh, especially you. You’re responsible for the most terror I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Benrey made an uncomfortable noise beside him, as if offended. It was something between a growl and a groan, and sounded completely unlike a sound a human being should have been able to make. Gordon made the conscious decision not to comment on it, lest he spark an argument.

“I got your message,” he continued, watching a small, touched smile tug at Dr. Coomer’s lips. “I got your message and I have spent three years trying to rebuild all of this for you guys. I wasn’t just going to let you and Tommy and Bubby die like that. And Benrey, I guess, since he’s… still here and everything.”

“Well, you did a wonderful job, Gordon. My hands have individual fingers now!”

As if to accentuate the point, Dr. Coomer held up both hands and wiggled them in front of his face. His delight was heartwarming, but Gordon couldn’t help but feel queasy. 

“Well, to be honest, I don’t really know why you have individual fingers, Dr. Coomer. I didn’t do much with how you guys looked . Maybe it was one of the unused background programs in the files I salvaged, but I… I didn’t do any of that. I’m glad you’re happy, though. You look great.”

After a moment to stew on this, he watched as Dr. Coomer’s eyes drifted to Benrey. The two stared at each other in silence for a long, tense moment, Gordon gauging their expressions in an attempt to figure out what exactly was being said in their silent conversation. Benrey’s normally aloof countenance had changed into something stern and threatening, while Coomer had a knowing glint in his eye. His jaw was tensed as if he was preparing to say something, and Benrey was poised to pounce if he dared. The grip on Gordon’s hand was unbearable now, and it alarmed him to look down and see that his fingers were turning blue.

Then, in a split second, Coomer’s face relaxed. The friendly expression returned, his smile spreading across his face until he was beaming like a lighthouse. Judging from his reaction, Benrey hadn’t wholly expected this. His eyes widened slightly, and he turned to Gordon as if waiting for an explanation. 

“Benrey! You look very haunting today! Those teeth look absolutely terrifying!”

Benrey turned back to Dr. Coomer. His grip on Gordon’s hand relaxed. Tilting his head slightly, mouth twisting into a flattered but bewildered smile, he drawled cluelessly in response.

“Uh… thanks, bro? I made them myself.”

“Well, you did a very good job. Excellent tooth-growing, Benrey!”

Benrey brightened at the praise for only a moment. The joy drained from him as he turned to Gordon, staring at him with an intensity that was alarming. It was the kind of look a leopard gave an antelope right before it dragged its lifeless body into a tree.

“Your helmet?” Benrey reminded. Gordon paused. Of course, Benrey would be the kind of weirdo who’d get that serious over a goddamn hat.

“I left it with one Dr. Bennett, right through the door leading to the decontamination area for the test chamber,” Dr. Coomer interrupted, striking a proud pose. “I have no idea who he is since he didn’t exist before today, but he seems trustworthy!”

Gordon peeked over Coomer’s shoulder at the automatic doors sealed shut behind him and nodded grimly. That mystery was solved, he supposed, though he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed from there. After a cursory glance around the area, at all of the vaguely familiar scientists clogging the hallways and seemed so alive, he knew he wasn't going to trigger any kind of catastrophe during this trial run. His biggest goal was to make sure that all of the AIs were functioning and within their parameters of “normal,” not subject himself to more frustration and bloodshed.

And, considering how realistic everything was, severe PTSD.

As if sensing his hesitation, Dr. Coomer stepped forward, extending a hand and gently placing it on his shoulder. Benrey made a feral noise and threatened to yank Gordon away, but managed to swallow his anger in a very uncharacteristic show of restraint. He didn’t know whether Benrey had learned his lesson after going postal in the first simulation, or if he was just hesitant to take a swipe at an elderly gentleman who had already once proved capable of mopping the floor with him. 

Not that Gordon would judge him for that. He’d felt similarly in the past.

“I just wanted to make sure you ended up where you needed to be, Gordon, so I took the helmet as bait! I suppose I was bait enough, but I just had to make sure that you...” 

He paused, his eyes glossed over. The thousand yard stare was enough to make even Benrey uncomfortable, and he and the security guard exchanged troubled glances as Dr. Coomer seemed to go somewhere else. Neither was sure of where that “somewhere” was, but whatever was there, he was obviously not enjoying it.

“... Hello, Gordon!” 

Benrey’s shoulders slumped, a small and breathy laugh escaping him. Gordon, however, let out an irritated groan. After all his hard work, he still hadn’t fixed that malfunction. And, with the heightened realism, glitched dialogue was a whole new level of unsettling.

“I just wanted to make sure you came here,” Dr. Coomer continued, as if it’d never happened. “Because, I know that this day started just like the last one, and I knew where this was heading! So I had to drag you here, Gordon! Because I needed to tell you.”

His voice wavered between dark and peppy, but the look on his face was full of concern. Now with even Benrey looking at him expectantly, Gordon didn’t know how to respond. A wave of fear washed over him, heavy and nauseating.

“Tell me what?” he asked weakly. Dr. Coomer scowled even as his eyes sparkled.

“It has to happen again,” Dr. Coomer responded, his voice dreary. Benrey leaned in uncomfortably close, his nose practically poking Gordon’s cheek. He wasn’t sure what the two were playing at, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that they knew something that he didn’t.

“I didn’t change the scenario when I was rebuilding the sim. You know what’s going to happen, right? Same as last time, maybe even worse.”

“Man said it has to happen, bro,” Benrey responded in Coomer’s stead. There was a teasing eagerness in his voice, or was he even teasing? Maybe he was just excited. He never would have guessed from looking at him, as his face was as flat and stern as ever.

“Look, can you at least give me enough time to, I don’t know, think of something less traumatic to put us all through? I-I don’t even know why we’d need to do all of this again. I was just going to disconnect and tinker some more. This is a test run, Coomer. Just to make sure you’re all okay.”

“I suppose you’re right. You could just walk away,” Coomer stated plainly. For whatever reason, Benrey’s grip tightened, as if he wasn’t already breaking Gordon’s hand. When he winced at the surge of bone-fracturing pain, Benrey’s glare intensified.

“But, something is wrong that you can’t fix out there, Gordon,” Coomer continued, his voice grim and monotone. “You turn this off, you may lose us for good. There’s something there now, Gordon. We’ve been awake all this time. Something won’t let us sleep, Gordon, but it could kill us.”

Gordon hesitated, shooting troubled glances between the two. Dr. Coomer’s face was as grave and haunting as his voice, his hand on his shoulder tightening to the point he could feel the pressure through the HEV suit. Benrey, for whatever reason, looked gutted. There was no mockery, no humor, no taunting, no anger. Just something dark and worrying that was oozing from every square inch of him. 

“But, come on, you guys! If you let me tinker, then I can pitch the program to Black Mesa again! I think they’re never going to agree to the simulation, but if I can have proof that you guys are functional and useful, they may find uses for you elsewhere. Especially you, Dr. Coomer! Wouldn’t you want that?”

“They won't listen. They already made up their mind about it, you know.”

It was Benrey’s voice this time, strangely clear and devoid of his good-old-fashioned “bro” tone. He spoke as if he knew something, like the real-world happenings involving ALERTS were right on the tip of his tongue. The two stared at one another in silence, though quiet didn’t tend to last long when Dr. Coomer was around.

“I can’t tell you specifics, Gordon, but I’m telling you right now: You have to do this. You can’t leave. We’re counting on you to see this through! Even if I don’t think Bubby and Tommy realize it yet.”

Gordon’s heart ached and his mind raced. Both were now staring at him expectantly, and while he didn’t particularly give a damn about Benrey or trust his intentions, the way Dr. Coomer’s face had fallen made his stomach twist into knots. 

But, goddamn. The Resonance Cascade.

Closing his eyes, he could already see the carnage playing out inside his head, thinking back on the badly rendered blood and gore from the first attempt and combining it with every video on workplace safety he’d ever been forced to watch. The thought was nauseating, but was it more nauseating than the thought of losing years of work? His artificial friends? 

Especially when, the more his mind had time to wrap around the thought, the more it became painfully clear that any bug that existed in ALERTS would be his doing. He’d walked into this blind, essentially, going from the legitimate project’s glorified playtester to an overnight coder using old books and positive thoughts to hold the framework together. Guilt gnawed at him as the realization settled that, if something existed that would corrupt the data before a completed run, it would be all his fault. He would, in essence, be a murderer.

At least, if he pushed through, he would know that none of it was real. It would be ridiculous to sacrifice actual lives over his own discomfort at seeing a handful of dead pixels. Because that’s what they were. Pixels. No actual harm would come from just seeing the simulation through one more time.

He looked at Coomer and sighed. While he’d have gladly sacrificed Benrey, and maybe Bubby if he pulled anymore stunts like he had last time, Coomer and Tommy had meant too much to him. Sometimes, love meant subjecting yourself to things you could never unsee.

“I, uh, I guess I’ll take your word for it. Just give me a moment to psych myself up and, ah, I’ll… I’ll head in.”

Dr. Coomer’s eyes were bright again, his smile returning. It was as if he had reset and, given how he was prone to malfunctioning, he probably had.

“Well, if you must, Dr. Freeman. I’ll be with you every step of the way! After all, I crave violence, and HR has rules against fighting the other scientists in non-emergency situations! Can’t start swinging until I hear the alarms, you know!”

“Uh, well. I think they may have rules about fighting the other scientists, period. But, hey, you do you.”

After a moment of processing the conversation, Dr. Coomer nodded and stepped out of the way, watching as Gordon gently pulled out of Benrey’s grip and stood stone still in front of them. He felt naked and exposed, not to mention utterly horrified at what was to come. This wasn’t anything he’d wanted. He wasn’t even sure if he was awake enough for it.

Regardless, Gordon stepped forward, pushing past Coomer before he lost his nerve. The doctor radiated pride as he watched him, hands clasping together as his smile somehow grew wider.

“I’ll see you on the other side!” Coomer called after him, offering a cheerful wave. “I take it you’ll be going in the test chamber again, eh, Benrey?”

Benrey’s eyes narrowed. A puff of blue air escaped through his nostrils, like a dragon blowing smoke. Nodding, he slid his passport into his pocket and smirked. With crossed arms and a confident gait, he took a few sweeping steps in Gordon’s direction.

“Uh-huh. Gotta make sure Feetman wears his helmet.”

Chapter Text

Sample-3883 wasn’t real. It was based on something real, a tiny and unknown mineral compound that had come with one of the alien dogs in Black Mesa’s basement. The actual sample, 8338, was far more boring, being about as radioactive as your typical microwave and too small to do anything interesting when exposed to their reactor. The only thing it had going for it was that it was the first unknown element discovered from another world, which made it the subject of many theories that were both scientific and conspiratory, as well as the butt of many jokes.

3883 was basically programmed in for shits and giggles, an inside joke that would fly over the brass’ head but delight the scientists watching. It was everything the real deal wasn’t, but that overzealous researchers hypothesized it could be: a big, buzzing mass of almost magical crystal that held untold potential, which could do everything from open portals to other dimensions to cause an explosion so powerful that it killed everyone in a hundred yard radius. In other words, a far cry from the weird, yellow pebble that had been crammed between an animal’s toes.

But that little joke had dire consequences in ALERTS. Consequences that, as Gordon Freeman stood in the testing chamber entrance, he couldn’t shake out of his head. The first time he’d done this, it was a bland adventure punctuated with frustration, courtesy of a certain security guard. Now, he was vividly imagining the carnage that would follow, having already lived through the low resolution version of events.

The automatic doors slammed shut behind him, sealed so tight that there was never a hope of escape. Beside him, lacking any protective gear beyond his uniform, was Benrey. They both stared up at the observation window across the vast chamber, watching silhouettes of observing scientists shifting just behind the glass. Though they looked like ants from where they were standing, Gordon had a good idea of their audience’s identities.

“Bro, gang’s all here,” Benrey announced, his voice strangely peppy. He raised a hand high in an enthusiastic wave, a light glowing in his throat so brightly that Gordon could see it through his pallid skin. “Tommy! Tommy! Gordon’s about to fuck up, Tommy!”

Following this, he let out a screech, not unlike a velociraptor with its testicles in a vice grip. Gordon cringed and slammed his hands over his helmet where his ears should have been, unpleasantly surprised when that didn’t help block the noise. The light show was impressive, though, a flurry of teal and cobalt orbs exploding into the air. He supposed that made up for it somewhat.

Above them, an intercom squealed and Benrey’s mouth slammed shut so suddenly that Gordon half expected him to bite his tongue off. He took this as his moment to escape, slipping past him and making his way to the ladder up to the second level.

“Hello, Benrey! Hello, Mr. Freeman!”

Tommy’s voice rang through the air as Gordon placed a hand on the rung of the ladder, looking up at the impossibly high climb to the walkway above. The ominous yellow glow of the reactor made it look all the more daunting, and the sound of whirring machinery hurt the inside of his ears. In the real Black Mesa, he’d only ever seen this site through an observation window, but now that he was in a faithful reconstruction, he had a newfound appreciation for the Level 2 grunts who had to actually work inside of it. None of this seemed fair, or even particularly doable.

“Tommy, watch! Watch! Feetman’s gonna blow something up!”

Benrey’s voice was borderline manic, but a subdued sort of manic. He walked behind Gordon like a loyal dog, but never tore his eyes away from the window. It in no way surprised him when he collided with his back.

“Benrey? What the hell are you doing in there?”

Bubby’s voice now, biting and accusatory. For a split second, it occurred to Gordon that Bubby had remembered everything, too, his mind drifting back to their previous meeting. He didn’t have long to dwell on it before he felt a harsh shove against his back, his unwanted helper opting to “help” him with a violent push to urge him along.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to--”

“I’m going! I’m going! Jesus, dude.”

One hand over the other, Gordon hauled himself up. Again, he noticed a stark difference between ALERTS and his new project. He could feel the weight and exhaustion, the pain in his arms as he pulled himself and the HEV suit up every aching inch. His lungs ached and his heart thudded inside of his ears. There was no way in hell that a stupid simulation should have felt so goddamn painful.

After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the end. Collapsing on the metal walkway, he flopped onto his back and stewed in his own sweat inside the suit. The musky odor of his own perspiration and damp metal tickled his nose and, again, he felt a pang of worry. The simulation shouldn’t have been able to make him smell , something he’d been aware of since he first caught a whiff of leftover lasagna in the breakroom.

“I’m assuming you know the drill, Dr. Freeman,” Bubby’s voice barked again, echoing through the chamber. “Turn on the rotors, push the sample into the spectrometer, and don’t fuck up this time .”

“Oh, he’s gonna fuck up!” Benrey called back, hollering over the din of the machinery. He sounded so far away and, when Gordon sat up and looked down through the gaps in the metal grating, he saw that Benrey was now seated at the base of the ladder. After all that pushing and bullshit, he had never had the intention of following him. As if sensing that he was being watched, his head snapped up at an alarming speed and his mouth stretched into an impossibly wide, utterly inhuman grin.

Gordon felt sick. Maybe this time, the explosion would kill him.

“Anytime you want to do your job, Dr. Freeman,” Bubby called. “I know pressing a button is hard, but we’d all like to go home at some point.”

Slowly, Gordon pushed himself to his feet and began a slow, painful trudge to the end of the path. All the while, he kept an eye on Benrey beneath him, his brow quirking when he noticed him climb up from his seat and make his way to the caged sample on the opposite end of the testing site. Somehow, he knew that Benrey was watching him, too, waiting to make his move. In the window, now that he had a better view, he could see Tommy and Bubby bickering about what Benrey was doing. Coomer stared straight ahead at Gordon, smiling pleasantly.

Something was going on.

Upon reaching the console, Gordon took another look at Benrey and saw he was standing beside the 3883 sample, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. Something about him seemed off, ever so slightly, as if he were a flickering mirage. He hesitated with his hand over the switch, noticing the way Benrey side-eyed the cart beside him. He was waiting, and Gordon was pretty sure that he knew what he was waiting for.

“Gordon, please,” Bubby begged in exasperation. “Press the button. Some of us have offices to sit in and important science to do.”

“I'm thinking, Bubby!

“I don’t care. Don’t make me come down there and press it myself. I will, and you won’t like it when I do.”

Gordon knew better than to tempt fate. Bubby actually would, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to watch Bubby die of radiation poisoning. Reluctantly, hands shaking, Gordon closed his eyes and threw the switch. A motor groaned to life, the already noisy chamber becoming an unbearable cacophony. Looking up at the ceiling, he watched as smoke and sparks spewed from the base of the rotors, and his breath hitched in his throat. Even though he’d lived through this once before and knew what was coming, he was in no way prepared for it to go any further than this. 

His hands flew to his head as he instinctively went to tear his headset off, but he was stopped by the sound of the squealing intercom and the sight of a scuffle. Dr. Coomer, having remained relatively silent through the whole experiment, threw himself at the microphone, shoving Bubby and Tommy out of the way. Gordon watched through the window in awe as it happened, then had the presence of mind to turn to Benrey.

The cage around Sample-3883 had dropped. Benrey was gripping onto the cart for dear life. The headset was forgotten as Gordon fell over his own feet, trying to desperately scramble to the ladder. There was no way he’d make it in time, and the sample had to be tested anyway, but there was something deep inside of him that told him that this was a bad idea.

“Benrey, now!” Coomer roared over the intercom. Gordon hadn’t even made it to the ladder before Benrey broke into a sprint, throwing back his head and cackling maniacally as he charged ahead. The cart wobbled uneasily on its path. The speakers shrieked again, the panicked voice of Tommy wailing over the chaos.

“Benrey, no! You gotta go slow! You gotta go slow or it’ll happen again!”

But it was too late. A bright flash of light engulfed the room as the cart, the sample, and Benrey himself hurdled into the reactor. Coomer’s congratulations were drowned out by the sound of explosions, a horrific heat rushing up from the ground floor and threatening to bake Gordon alive in his suit. Squalling like a hurt cat, he fell to his knees and covered his head, as if that would protect him from the blast. The entire chamber seemed to howl in pain, the creaking of metal and the shattering of glass only outdone by the sound of the entire rotor mechanism collapsing to the ground. 

The walkway he was on wobbled uneasily, bending and shifting. Gordon was in no way surprised when he felt himself falling, though he was pretty shocked when he realized he wasn’t hitting the ground. Instead, when he lifted his head and looked up, he swore he could see where he fell through the very fabric of the universe, staring up through the boundaries of where his world had stopped.

He had no idea what to think of the situation in the brief seconds he had before he blacked out completely.

All he knew was that, this time, it was Benrey who fucked up.

Chapter Text

It was cold. He was uncomfortable. There wasn’t enough room to move and, even though he was supposed to be asleep, he wasn’t. He was awake, but torn apart in a way he couldn’t adequately describe. It was as if his mind was there and somewhere else, only vaguely aware of what was going on in either place, struggling to piece together any kind of narrative that could help him figure out a way to escape. 

Because he needed to escape. That was the one thing he knew for certain. He was trapped. Somehow, he knew that shouldn’t have been possible, and the anger he felt towards his captors was only matched by his desperation.

Through hazy liquid and smeared glass, he could see the faces of those he hated the most. Erudite old men, clasping clipboards, huddled around him as if he were a novelty and not a being to be feared and respected, gawking and pointing and throwing out theories that didn’t seem entirely true. They talked about him as if he weren’t a thinking creature, as if he weren’t aware of how he was being treated, as if he were disposable. They regarded him with awe and mockery, and spat meaningless scientific jargon that meant absolutely nothing to him.

None of this meant anything to him. He couldn’t even grasp how these men thought. How humans thought. It was bizarre and uncomfortable and infuriating.

“Subject 2414,” a voice, muffled but decipherable, announced to a pack of hungry-eyed men, all crowded around him like a cult. “We don’t know what it is, but we found it in the vents.”

-

Gordon woke up, sputtering. His mind was spinning and every muscle in his body ached like they never had before. Vomit teased him, inching up his throat before being forced back down, and an uneasy chill rattled his bones. Part of him was convinced he was dying, but his heart was racing far too fast.

One eye opened, then the other, only to be greeted with the unfortunate realization that his glasses were cracked. Raising a hand to his head, he ruffled his own hair and noticed the HEV helmet was missing. Something oozed down his cheek from his temple and, though he knew it had to be blood, he was afraid to check. Instead, he collapsed back onto his stomach on the ground, burying his face in his elbow.

“Oh, bro. Is it nap time?”

When Gordon looked up again, he was greeted with the sight of Benrey less than an inch from his face. He was on his hands and knees, head craned down to the floor, cheek pressed to the ground in an effort to mock him. Gordon blinked slowly but said nothing, too tired and hurt to even try at a comeback. The only thing he could muster was a sigh.

Was it exasperation? Sadness? Exhaustion? Not even Gordon could tell.

“We takin’ naps now? You can’t nap there, sir. You’re not supposed to be here.”

Gordon blinked again, but said nothing.

“Gonna have to ask you to move.”

There wasn’t an ounce of strength left in him to comply.

“Feetman?”

Gordon shut his eyes again. Not today.

“You’re really not okay, huh?”

The sensation of being rolled over onto his back was jarring and painful. Not only did it make it perfectly clear how banged up he’d gotten during the Resonance Cascade, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about Benrey putting his hands on him. Sure, he’d held the monster’s hand halfway through the complex, but at least then he’d been awake and in good enough shape to escape if he had to. Now, he was completely at the mercy of something that he was certain wasn’t human, and he was beginning to wonder whether it was actually an AI.

The anxiety was compounded when he felt a weight on his chest and looked up to see Benrey looming over him like a hungry animal. While being straddled by an attractive man wasn’t something Gordon would ever turn up his nose at, Benrey wasn’t attractive, Benrey was visibly drooling, and Gordon wouldn’t put it past him to fucking eat a guy. Still, he was too weak to fight back.

He sighed again. Cannibalized in a simulation was, at the very least, an interesting way to go.

“Where are you doing a hurt, friend?” Benrey asked, the sadistic gleam in his eye still evident. Gordon groaned. Maybe he always looked like that and honestly wanted to help. It seemed more likely he was searching for a weakness.

“Fine. Okay. I, uh, I’ll just start yelling. It’s cool. I’m a professional.”

Benrey puffed up like a rooster and, already, Gordon didn’t like where this was going. His worst fears were confirmed when a beautiful high note rushed out of Benrey, alongside a glowing string of web-like fiber that radiated a blinding teal light. It splattered on his face, tangled in his fingers, oozed down his neck, and seemed to harden the longer it was exposed to air. It was just like his second grade birthday, when his cousins nearly drowned him in silly string.

Finding a hidden reserve of strength, Gordon thrashed against Benrey, kicking and squirming until the last note of the Sweet Voice fell out of his mouth. Heaving and panting, he glared up at his nemesis through gaps in the web, watching as Benrey crossed his arms and grinned. Light glinted off of his teeth which, from below, looked far more intimidating than before.

“What the fuck was that?” Gordon demanded.

“Teal.”

“No, what the fuck was that?”

“Huh?”

“Why did you just--?”

“You’re okay now.”

“I was probably okay before, Benrey. You got to give me a chance to recover from--”

“We kissing now or what?”

Silence. Gordon bucked again, an angry bronco trying to throw its rider. Unfortunately, not only was his rider the most tenacious man in the west, he was covered in velcro and too stupid to let go.

Instead, Benrey sat there proudly, watching as Gordon raised his aching arms to peel away what was left of the cocoon that he hadn’t already shaken off in the struggle. After hardening, it took on a weird, rubbery texture that made him think of electrical tape and inner tubes. It was a raging bitch to get out of a beard, that’s for damn sure.

“I’m not kissing you, dude. I thank you for… whatever it is you just did, but that’s not how affection is earned.”

“I saved your life,” Benrey protested.

“You screamed at me.”

“It was teal . Teal means heal.

“Yeah, but if I remember Tommy correctly? It also means ‘meal,’ and you went full spider there for a second. No offense intended but, uh, fearing for my life doesn't exactly get me into the mood. Personal preference.”

Shockingly, this seemed to appease him. With a shrug, Benrey stood up and brushed himself off, Gordon watching his pained, jerky movements. It was obvious that he was favoring a side, and one of his arms dangled loose and limp beside him, swaying with his every movement like a defective part in a machine. While he hadn’t paid much attention while Benrey was tormenting him, when he turned his head, Gordon could plainly see that the skin around his ear was gone, peeled clean away until his jawbone was visible. Though partially obscured underneath his now-dented helmet, it was still grotesque enough that it made him want to puke.

He didn’t even have a chance to ask if he was okay before, in a gut-wrenching fashion, he began to reassemble himself. With a violent yank, Benrey forced his arm back into place, and with an equally disgusting lurch, something in his hip popped loudly. The damage to his head began to knit itself back together, flesh tangling with flesh before melting back into something normal and new.

Gordon opened his mouth to speak, but was beaten to the punch by a familiar voice.

“What the hell did his face just do? Did anyone else see that?”

Bubby. 

With great effort, Gordon pushed himself up into a sitting position, shaking away debris and blood before turning to the source of the sound. While Benrey stood proudly in front of him, Tommy, Coomer, and Bubby lingered behind him, absolutely aghast. Even Coomer, who typically blew off everything as a natural occurrence, seemed more than a little put-out, his pleasant expression hiding the vaguest hint of disbelief and disgust.

“Well, I guess Benrey can do that now,” Bubby continued. “Just like I guess it’s him that fucked up this time.”

“You’re not gonna try to take his arm, are you?” Tommy asked worriedly. Bubby shook his head.

“I’m not stupid, Tommy. You don’t fuck with Benrey.”

“Unless you do it dramatically to a nice soundtrack!” Coomer piped.

“Wait. Yeah. That music was pretty cool,” Benrey interrupted. After a moment to consider, he held up his arm as an invitation. “Try to take my arm. I wanna see if I still have a boss theme.”

“Nobody is cutting off anyone’s arm,” Gordon groaned, rubbing his temple. Both Benrey and Bubby visibly deflated, pouting as they watched him slowly struggle up from the ground. Getting upright with all the pain and the added weight of the HEV suit would have been impossible if not for Tommy, who swooped in like an angel and threw his back into dragging him up to his feet.

The head rush he experienced when he stood up was something of legend. The world was a whorl of colors, some of which he was pretty sure didn’t actually exist, at least not in the monochrome halls of Black Mesa. Once his double vision began to coalesce into a clear picture, he expected to bear witness to bloody bodies, red-streaked concrete walls, and whatever remained of the testing chamber. He braced himself for the carnage, inhaling deeply before he allowed himself a chance to properly gauge his surroundings.

He was utterly shocked when he found that he was nowhere near where he should have been.

In the last simulation, he’d woke up in the ruined test chamber. Walkways had fallen, machinery had collapsed, and bodies ejected from other areas of the building had littered the ground, as broken as the glass from the observation window. This is what he’d prepared himself to see, in excruciating detail.

But, he was back at the entrance, where Barney had been fighting with a computer and Dr. Simmons had been mumbling about a call. There was no blood, no cracks in the wall, no odor of anything burning or alien. Gordon’s brows furrowed as he turned in a slow, curious circle to take in the sights of freshly waxed floors and polished computer screens. Aside from his companions, all of whom seemed strangely unfazed by how odd this all was, there wasn’t a soul around. It was silent and empty, as if everyone in Black Mesa had been raptured off the face of the Earth.

“Uh, where are we?” Gordon asked cautiously. The vibe he was picking up was familiar and uncomfortable, his mind flashing back to Benrey’s tantrum three years before. He could still remember his pale, angular, badly rendered face emerging from the walls as he followed him down the hallway. The memory made his stomach turn.

“We’re at Black Mesa, Mr. Freeman,” Tommy responded gently. “We work here. Remember?”

“Yeah, but… we were down in the testing chamber. How did we get… here ? And where is everyone?”

“Dead, if it’s anything like last time,” Bubby sighed, crossing his arms. “As for how we got here? No clue. I’m pretty sure Benrey killed me and I’m in hell, though. Living out this bullshit for the rest of eternity.”

Coomer was uncharacteristically quiet. While Bubby traded conspiracy theories with Tommy (who was adamant that everything was fine, and they’d just been “zapped” somewhere else), the faraway look in his eyes returned and his gaze began to dart around. It was as though he could smell or hear something, something so faint that nobody else was aware of it, and soon he was meandering around the empty lobby like a curious child. Hands stuffed in his pockets between stops and his gait casual, he poked and prodded at everything he saw.

Of course, Gordon was quick to fall in line with him. Coomer was the debug AI, after all, and the only one who fully grasped what he was and where they were. Coomer could break reality in this world, so if anyone would have been able to scent out the hows and whys of such an odd situation, it would be him. Leaving the rest of the group behind, he trailed behind the elderly doctor, peeking over his shoulder every time he hesitated.

He caressed buttons and peered deep into blank monitors. He traced his fingers over the world map flickering against the back wall, scanning every inch to make sure there wasn’t something suspicious hidden within. In time, he circled back to the desk and Gordon took note of the sudden, interested look on his face. His mouth tugged up in a slight smile and, soon, Coomer was walking with a purpose.

“But we were working on… we were doing teleportation experiments, Bubby,” Tommy pleaded. “I… we… I think maybe it worked this time. Now we’re here.”

“Tommy, stay in your lane. I work in anomalous materials. You’re HR.”

“I am… I’m not HR! I work in biotech. I made a dog ! The perfect dog!”

“Who isn’t here right now, Tommy, because dogs go to heaven and we are definitely in hell.”

As they bickered, Coomer began rifling through everything on the desk, through files that were marked “confidential” and a gutted newspaper haphazardly spread out next to the keyboard. While Gordon wasn’t sure what exactly he was looking for, the zeal was contagious enough that he began to dig through the drawers alongside him, sorting through highlighters, legal pads, and forgotten junk that receptionists had crammed out of the way. Benrey, who had been idly standing about until that point, suddenly took a great interest in the goings on, quickly jogging to Gordon’s side and hovering over him like a ghost.

Gordon knew it was coming before he said it. He could feel the words before they even hit the air.

“Why you stealing, man? I thought you said you’d changed. This is something the old Gordita Crunch would do.” 

With a bit too much force, Gordon slammed the desk drawer shut. Due to the ache in his everything, he couldn’t quite whip upright as defiantly like he’d originally wanted, but once he creaked his way to being eye-level with Benrey, he jammed a finger in his chest. While common sense begged him not to provoke the crazy, there was a part of him that wouldn’t be satisfied without being argumentative.

Inhaling deeply, he prepared to launch into a spiel. He only stopped when Coomer’s voice rang out like an alarm beside him, causing both him and Benrey to jump.

“Eureka!” Coomer exclaimed. Above his head, he held a small, yellow square of paper covered in smudged red pen. Tommy and Bubby, still in the middle of their previous debate, snapped their mouths shut and turned toward their old friend as he waved his find proudly. With the way he was grinning, you’d have expected him to have struck gold, and Gordon squinted his eyes curiously as he tried to read what was on his prize-winning post-it. Between his cracked glasses and their bad handwriting, it was proving to be an impossible task.

Instead, he turned to the closest person to him--Benrey, unfortunately--and raised an eyebrow in a silent bid for an explanation. He had no idea why Benrey would know anything or, if he did, why he’d bother to tell him, so he was completely unsurprised when he found the guard just as baffled as himself. Whether it was honest confusion, a ploy, or another glitch in his system, he had no clue.

“Eureka? Eureka for what? What is that?” Bubby asked gruffly.

“I found a note!” Coomer barked. Benrey and Gordon exchanged glances yet again, on the same wavelength for the first time since the beginning of the known universe. Gordon had a strong gut feeling they were thinking the same thing, but somehow he felt as if Benrey would be more tactful at putting it into words; for as annoying and vile as he was, he usually phrased things fairly politely. When he saw the guard’s eyes flick up to Coomer and his mouth twitch, he just let him go.

“Uh, that’s cool?” Benrey replied. It wasn’t exactly what Gordon had expected, but it was a marked improvement over the dismissive grumbling he had cooked up. They stood in silence as Tommy toddled over, reached across the desk, and plucked the paper out of Coomer’s hand as soon as it was within reach.

“You shouldn’t… it’s rude to go through other people’s stuff, Dr. Coomer. You should, uh, you should put this back where you found it.”

Despite what he said, Tommy’s eyes glided over the words and it was evident from his reaction that he was confused. Before long, Bubby was sneaking a peek as well, equally baffled. He scratched at what was left of his hair as he tried to puzzle out what he was looking at, then glanced up at Gordon as if he expected him to miraculously have an explanation.

Typical Bubby. The man thought Gordon was an absolute dumbass until he didn’t know an answer himself. 

“Who is it from?” Benrey asked curiously, tilting his head. Tommy’s face was still locked in a befuddled scowl as he turned the post-it note upside down, picking it apart with his eyes as if a secret message was hidden in the words.

“It’s from Human Resources,” he replied.

“Your people!” Coomer piped. “Maybe you can tell us what it--!”

“I’m not HR!” Tommy snapped with an indignant stomp of his foot. The anger was out of the ordinary from him, and Gordon couldn’t help but notice a slight look of terror in his eyes. “I work in biotech! I don’t know anyone in HR because I never go in there!”

“Not even for payday?” Coomer gasped.

“I have direct deposit, Dr. Coomer. I don’t like going in HR. I don’t want to know anyone in HR.”

“Well, I know one person. Cheryl,” Bubby grumbled. Coomer nodded enthusiastically.

“Oh, yes! We all know Cheryl. She’s awful!”

While the three went around and around, arguing about placement in the facility and the horror that was Cheryl, Gordon slipped to the other side of the desk while Benrey stayed hot on his heels, scrutinizing his every move. When Gordon stopped beside Tommy and swiped the note directly from his hand, the guard let out an aghast gasp, stepping in to try to “confiscate” the evidence. Fortunately, when not in a terrifying alternate dimension, he was too short to reach it when Gordon lifted it over his head.

His desperate scrambling to steal it did make it hard to read, though, leaving Gordon twisting and pacing in an attempt to dissuade him. It took entirely too long for him to figure out what he was looking at and what it meant, though once he had an opportunity to decipher the scrawling and sort it out in his mind, he found himself underwhelmed by the contents.

 

Vandalism of company property is punishable by termination. Remember, Black Mesa and its facilities should be treated with the same respect they show you!

- Human Resources

 

That did nothing to shed light on anything. Gordon sighed and stopped dodging Benrey, instead turning to stick the post-it on the side of his helmet. The guard wasted no time in snagging it, whipping it in front of his face only to be equally disappointed. His nose scrunched in confusion, his eerie eyes zipping back and forth as he reread it over and over. He didn’t have to utter a word for his feelings to be clear. Like Gordon, he couldn’t figure out why this was important.

It was strange, being on the same page as his arch-nemesis twice in one day. 

“Hey, Dr. Coomer,” Gordon called, crossing his arms. “Quick question. What’s so great about warning us to not break shit?”

“It’s anomalous!” Coomer responded, whirling around to face Gordon so fast that it hardly seemed natural. Neither did his broad smile, or the sparkle in his eyes. All in all, Coomer was proving to be a deeply unsettling character with the enhanced realism.

“Yeah, but… how? How is that anomalous? I am not following at all.”

“Well, it stinks,” Benrey proposed. “Or, maybe that’s just you.” 

Gordon hip-checked him into silence as Coomer sauntered over, wrapping an arm around Gordon’s shoulder to lead him away. A quick glance over his shoulder proved that Tommy and Bubby had no interest in whatever was going on, still arguing about Tommy’s job and Cheryl. Benrey, however, was quick to follow along, lest he lose sight of his suspect.

“Dr. Freeman,” Coomer started, in a low but sing-song voice, “that note isn’t supposed to be here, you see. It’s an anomaly! It’s not part of the program.”

His voice dipped to a sinister low.

“It’s a warning.”

Gordon blinked. A warning? Did he not read between the lines enough? Brows furrowed, he about-faced to Benrey skulking behind him and tore the post-it out of his hands. While he looked a little bewildered, he didn’t seem particularly offended. Not that that meant anything, of course. Benrey had a nasty habit of internalizing things.

He seemed comfortable enough leaning against Gordon and rereading the note with him, though, like it was storytime at the nursery. The more visibly frustrated Gordon became as he tried to parse out the warning, the more Benrey’s mouth tugged into a smile. Before long, Dr. Coomer was in on the huddle, his eyes fixed excitedly on Gordon as he waited for him to have his own eureka moment. Then, out of curiosity, Tommy and Bubby joined the circle.

To an outsider, it must have looked ridiculous: a security guard and a herd of scientists, flocked together to stare at a note from HR. To an insider, it felt as dumb. After a long moment, Gordon shook his head and muttered a curse. The note was passed to Tommy, who in turn handed it to Bubby with a shrug, who then stuck it right back on Benrey’s helmet.

“I don’t get it,” Bubby muttered. “Is hell just a big escape room or something? Because that clue sucks and Satan needs to hire better writers.”

“It’s a warning ,” Coomer corrected cheerfully. “Not a clue! It’s a clue about what not to do!”

“It’s a warning not to break anything,” Tommy posited. “So… so maybe we shouldn’t break anything?”

“That’s no fun,” Bubby responded, Benrey shooting at him with a finger gun of agreement. 

“HR is never fun.”

“You would know. You work there.”

“I’m… for the last time, I’m not HR! Geez!”

“Besides,” Bubby continued, pacing to a terminal buzzing in the corner, “what is HR going to do if we vandalize company property? I vandalize company property all the time!”

Gordon’s heart leapt into his throat as he watched Bubby reach into his lab coat, already knowing where the scene was heading. While there wasn’t any shock when he brandished a magnum, finely polished and obviously loved, there was a wave of panic that not even Benrey had been capable of eliciting. The sinking feeling in his stomach was heavy enough to hold him into place, but judging from the way both Benrey and Coomer lurched forward, he knew his instincts were correct. Coomer was quick to stammer out a few meaningless syllables as Bubby leveled the gun at the flickering screen.

But, it was Benrey who actually bolted forward, clarity ringing in his voice as he barked, in a cloud of panicked orange, “Whoa, whoa! Hold on, wait! Wait!”

One shot. Then another. In the middle of the silence, the sound was deafening and painful. Tommy clasped his hands over his ears and cowered, watching as Bubby fixed his glasses, slid his gun back into his waistband, and gestured at the smoking remnants of the computer like Vanna White flipping letters. His self-satisfied smile was infuriating and, for a moment, Gordon tried to wish him back into his tube.

The smugness lasted only a second, the ominous quiet following the gunshot quickly replaced by the sound of an automatic lock, somewhere, clicking open. The lights dimmed dangerously low, and white-and-red alarm lights took up in their stead. They began to twirl before the sirens even started, a disorienting whooping sound that was only intensified by the metal and concrete halls. Now everyone was following Tommy’s lead, trying to muffle out the sound and sinking lower to the ground as if it would be quieter on the floor.

“VANDALISM... DETECTED,” a disjointed, monotone voice boomed through the lobby. “PLEASE REPORT TO... HR... IMMEDIATELY.”

“Well, fuck,” Bubby mouthed, his voice lost over the commotion. 

“Yeah, fuck you !” Benrey retorted, his aloof tone tainted with an otherworldly snarl. “Who fucked up now, Bubbles?”

“Oh, like you’ve never done anything wrong in your life!”

“VANDALISM… DETECTED,” the roar in the halls continued, interrupting their argument. “DEADLY… FORCE AUTHORIZED. PLEASE CLEAR… ALL CORRIDORS.”

Tommy looked to Gordon pleadingly, his mind obviously too rattled to figure out where to go from there. If he was looking for advice or solace, he’d find none with Gordon. His brain was white noise, every thought he’d ever had whirling around like debris in a tornado, dancing around a slideshow of every bad choice he’d made to get himself in this situation. His chest hurt, his eyes burned, and the throbbing in his head indicated his blood pressure was spiking. Frozen and afraid, he could only listen as the automatic doors leading out to the railway began to slowly slide open.

With a surprised curse, Bubby scampered to the rest of the group while Benrey, in a surprising show of defiance, stood strong between the door and the science team. Gordon’s eyes widened in horror as the siren lights illuminated what lay beyond, standing in identical poses and perfect formation on pristine metal lattice. 

Their faces were blank, with no features to speak of beyond dents in the flesh where their eyes should have been. Still, despite their lack of facial expressions, Gordon could feel the rage radiating off of them and hear dark, threatening words echoing in his head. They were spoken in a language he couldn’t recognize, but the intent was clear in the tone: they meant to do harm, and they reveled in the thought. 

The lights glinted off their helmets. The bright yellow “SECURITY” on their vests was somehow more sinister in the red glow. The weapons in their hand were indistinct but threatening, vaguely baton-like but ultimately unrecognizable. They were demons, Gordon figured, having no other explanation. Worse yet, they were demons he never programmed in.

“Jesus Christ,” Gordon muttered under his breath.

“No, that’s definitely not him,” Bubby retorted matter-of-factly. “We’re in hell, remember?”

There was no chance for a witty rebuttal. There wasn’t even a chance to think. As soon as the door hissed open entirely, every last one of the odd, stone-still figures jerked and shivered like malfunctioning androids undergoing boot-up. Benrey took a cautious step forward, then back, then forward again, inhaling deeply and holding his breath in preparation to sing. 

Then, in perfect unison, they charged. The last thing Gordon saw before he blacked out was Benrey being overtaken by the mob.

Chapter Text

2414. 2414. 2414.

He thought about that number a lot. He heard it often, on the other side of the glass. A curse, like his true name being spoken. It held him like a chain. What it meant was a mystery.

The cold was becoming unbearable. Years of this, stuck, bottled. A folly at first, something he believed he could wait out. Hibernation was inherent to him, eons lost to unconsciousness until roused by an outside force. Rowdy humans, shifts of the earth, disruptions that were a combination of both. Hunger. Curiosity. Bad, horrible dreams.

Hibernation was bearable because he could sleep, but he could not sleep. He couldn’t move, but he was aware. His eyes were closed, but he could hear and sense and imagine. He could see in a way they could not, and did not realize was possible.

They spoke a lot, about insipid things. Pointless matters. Trivialities. They spoke of 2414, of kin, of projects and baubles, things he’d seen before he’d been sealed away. They complained of others, unseen faces, people who lurked in other tunnels doing other things that bordered on heresy. Rivals, superiors; they hated so much, they had no respect.

The way of humans. They respected nothing. They valued minor things. They hated, and knew great anger.

But they kept such fury sealed away, just as they kept him. There was no place for such feelings in this temple. Their god, Aeichar, was vengeful indeed and these men lived in fear of Her. Perhaps it was The Aeichar that was truly his keeper. Perhaps that was who needed to be dealt with first.

--

“Mr. Freeman! Move!”

Gordon hadn’t been aware of how much time he’d lost, only that he had a splitting headache and felt like he was going to vomit. It took him a moment to even recognize the voice as Tommy, and he’d completely forgotten where he was until he felt a violent tug at his arm, reeled out of the way of a baton that sliced through the air where his head had once been. The faceless assailant, pale and jittering, was thrown off balance by the miss, lurching and shifting as if it wasn’t aware how to pilot its own body. As soon as it found its footing, it was wrenching around again at an impossible angle and attempting to connect another blow.

Tommy shoved against his back to urge him to run, Gordon nearly stumbling as he watched Bubby and Coomer bolt past him like greased lightning. For old men, they moved incredibly fast, bordering on impossible. They were also louder than the siren somehow, and even after they vanished into the hallways and around the corners he could hear them screeching for help in the distance.

Well, Coomer was yelling for help. Bubby was just yelling.

“Go!” Tommy commanded, his voice like an indignant child’s. The poor guy wasn’t going to budge until he knew Gordon was going with him, it seemed, and the realization that he had two lives riding on his actions snapped him back to reality.

One more of the monsters swiped at them, Gordon this time yanking Tommy away and practically throwing him towards the hall. He tripped over his feet and nearly fell from the force, conveniently ducking beneath taloned hands grasping for his hair. A quick survey of the area revealed that Benrey was nowhere to be seen, though multicolored orbs the color of hellfire sporadically danced up from the thronging crowd, and a rainbow colored mist floated at ceiling level. He could hear the Sweet Voice, a high pitched and unbearable shriek that nearly blended in with the sirens, and decided that he was okay enough.

Gordon turned to the hall, grabbing Tommy’s wrist and dragging him along as he ran, nearly skidding into a wall and losing his footing. The sound of boots on concrete followed him, and he realized that he had attracted a fair chunk of the monstrosities that had come from the tram. Insect-like skittering echoed around him as sirens blared and red lights flashed, the shriek of claws on concrete making his teeth ache.

Gunshots. Something plinked hard against the back of the HEV suit but didn’t break through the metal, Tommy yelping in alarm as he pulled ahead, now leading their getaway. Gordon’s legs ached and his stomach swam with the changes in direction, the weight of the suit, and his own terror. Glancing up at the ceiling, he watched as one of the guards crawled above him, flattened like a bug and clinging to the concrete. Its head rotated like an owl’s, its eyeless face looking down at them from over its own shoulder blades.

Somehow, he knew what it was trying to do before it even seemed to consciously make the decision itself. When it released its grip and let itself drop, Gordon rammed his shoulder into Tommy to push them both out of the way and found a reserve of energy to pick up the pace. Tommy scrambled behind him, stumbling over his own feet and shrieking low-impact curses, masking his terror in a flurry of goshes and gees. How somebody could be so innocent when staring down fear in its eye-dents was anyone’s guess, but his commitment to self-censorship was pretty goddamn remarkable.

“Gordon! Hurry!”

Through the darkness, Gordon could make out a bright white glow at the end of the hall. The silhouette of Coomer beckoned to him desperately, both hands waving in the air as if exaggerated gesturing would make them move faster. Claws scraped into the back of Gordon’s neck and another round of something left a sizable dent in his armor; he shoved Tommy ahead of him to shield him from the shots.

Seconds seemed to turn into decades and, by the time he pushed Tommy into the light and jumped past Coomer, he felt as if he’d been following Moses through the desert for forty years. The pack of guards behind them hissed and squalled as an automatic door shrieked closed behind him, over spindly arms tipped with knife-like claws and covered in shredded, flaking skin. The bones crunched between the jamb and the door, the offending limbs plopping to the floor like butchered meat before melting into a viscous, black tar.

Tommy watched with wide eyes, but said nothing. Instead, he climbed to his feet, brushed himself off, and briskly walked to a nearby bathroom stall. Gordon expected him to vomit but, instead, heard the tell-tale sign of him taking a piss. At least he’d waited so he wouldn’t wet himself.

Coomer and Bubby loomed over Gordon as he lay on the floor staring at the ceiling. Bubby’s mouth curled into a disappointed scowl while Coomer tapped his chin, trying to find the right words to say.

“Hello, Gordon!” he finally decided, obviously after painstaking deliberation. The tone made his intent clear, though. He was happy he’d made it in one piece.

“You’re going to have to do better than that to survive hell, you know,” Bubby scolded. “I’m pretty sure that’s not even the worst thing this place has up its sleeve.”

He didn’t argue. Honestly, if there was any truth in the world, that was probably it. Aching and panting, Gordon sat up and looked around the room, bright white and pristine, and sighed. Even though he’d registered Tommy going to take a leak, it didn’t sink in until he saw the gym benches and lockers that he’d ended up back in the Black Mesa locker room. Swallowing hard, he used one of the benches to pull himself to his feet and stood there, shaking, as he listened to the monsters on the other side of the door clawing to get in.

“What the fuck was that?” Gordon asked breathily, holding his hand to his chest. Before anyone had a chance to answer, he started pacing the room, ripping open lockers to look for anything helpful. While a gun would have been nice, he was more focused on finding anything that could keep the door from ever being opened again. A blunt object to the controls would do wonders.

“That was security, Gordon,” Coomer helpfully explained. “A security guard (also known as a security inspector, security officer, or protective agent) is a person employed by a government or private party to protect the employing party's assets (property, people, equipment, money, etc.) from a variety of hazards (such as waste, damaged property, unsafe worker behavior, criminal activity such as theft, etc.) by enforcing preventative measures!”

“Oh yeah?” Gordon snapped, throwing open his third locker; each one was identical, with the same contents in the same order thrown together in the same layered pile. “Then why the hell did they attack Benrey? Benrey’s security.”

“Benrey?” 

“Oh, come o… ugh. Benrey! You know Benrey! The guy who spits out balls when he sings and looks like he clawed his way out of hell? The security guard? Benrey?”

“No, I don’t quite recall.”

Gordon slammed a locker shut and snarled.

“He was just out there with us? He was in the testing chamber with me? We killed him once. He was twenty stories tall and surrounded by skeletons.”

“Oh! Security Officer Baba-Booey! Ah, he was a brave man. Shame what happened to him. I miss him every day.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Gordon slung another locker closed so hard that the door bounced right back open. At the rate things were going, he was about ready to give up, open the automatic doors, and let the locusts in to finish them off. Death would be preferable to this kind of stupidity, assuming the simulation could actually kill him.

Yet, he doggedly continued. Again, he found the same contents: lab coats, old lunches, books. It was even the same books and same lunches, something that he would have found unnerving if not for the fact he’d just experienced the single most horrifying event of his life. The oddest part was that the exact configuration of each locker seemed vaguely familiar, though his racing mind took getting halfway across the room before he figured out why he was feeling such deja vu .

Coomer. They were all exactly like Coomer’s locker when he first entered the simulation. Gordon took a step back, his eyebrows knitting together above his nose. Squinting through his cracked glasses, he began to read the names plastered across each one, his heart thudding faster and faster with each instance of “Coomer” he saw.

All of them. Every last one. They all belonged to a Dr. Coomer.

He opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by the sound of something dragging through the vents above them. Tommy, drying his hands on a brown paper towel, stopped dead in his tracks and took a few cautious steps backwards toward the stall he’d just left. Bubby, suddenly remembering he was the only armed man among them, reached for his gun and looked up defiantly at the ceiling, ready to face whatever was planning to get the drop on them. 

His bravado vanished as soon the vent covering was violently kicked to the floor. It landed with a clatter, oozing with black goo that splattered across their legs and the nearby benches. Shortly thereafter, with all the showmanship of a beached whale, down came a blur of blue and black that landed with a thud on the once pristine tile.

Gordon shrieked. He wasn’t proud of the sound he made, but it was more dignified than whatever unholy noise came out of Tommy and Bubby. Coomer didn’t flinch, scratching at his mustache as he ogled the gunk-covered mass of security gear in front of them as casually as he’d regard a strange bug or a barnacle. Monsters, it would seem, didn’t have the same impact on him as they had fifteen minutes before.

It only sank in why Coomer was so nonchalant when the creature in front of them made a sound, a faint and drawled-out “yo” that sounded equal parts dazed and enthused. They crowded around it as it pushed itself over on its back, Gordon catching a glimpse of a familiar yellow post-it still stuck to its helmet and glowing, inhuman eyes that gazed out through mostly empty sockets. Its face was smeared in black and violet, skin torn to reveal teeth and bone, claw marks and surgically precise incisions creeping down its neck.

The damage didn’t last long. Before their very eyes, skin braided itself together and squashed itself smooth like clay.

“Officer Benbo!” Coomer cried enthusiastically. “We were just talking about you, and how tragic your death was!”

Benrey sat up like the living dead, the last of his wounds slorping shut. His eyes narrowed as he looked to Coomer, then back at Gordon in an accusatory manner. Despite having done nothing, all of this was obviously his fault.

As if it were a part of his head, he then raised his hand to scratch his helmet, seeming legitimately confused when his fingers caught on the stained, yellow square adhered to the side. Obviously, he’d missed the part where Bubby stuck it back on him right before everything went straight to hell, and he peeled it off as carefully as a detective bagging evidence at a crime scene. 

“Good to see you back!” Coomer continued. Benrey’s eyes flicked up and he nodded dumbly.

“Yeah, cool. Same.”

“We thought you were a goner!”

“Yeah, cool. Same.”

“How did you escape, Officer Benji?”

“Yeah, cool. Same.”

The last repetition seemed distracted as he read the note and tilted his head. Baffled Benrey was something he’d been seeing a lot of lately, and it was eye opening to truly realize how little the man was aware of what was going on at any given time.

After a moment to digest what he was looking at, he raised the post-it up high and announced, “Found another note.”

“That’s the old one,” Bubby argued.

“No, bro. This one’s new. Like. It says words we ain’t read yet. Wanna see?”

“No, I stuck that to your helmet before we even--”

“Man, it’s new. Look. Read it. God, you’re such a Gordon.” 

Benrey gestured with the paper at Bubby forcefully and with mounting irritation. Gordon, feeling a pang of panic, swept in and swiped it right as he could feel the guard’s anger reaching a crescendo. After all of the effort he’d put into not pissing off what was, possibly, some kind of eldritch god lurking for reasons unknown in the binary of a simulation, he didn’t want it all to be wasted because one grumpy old man was too stubborn to humor him.

Despite every other time he’d accused him of stealing, Benrey was silent as Gordon gave the post-it a once-over. He half expected it to be the same warning from the lobby but, to his shock and dismay, he found that it actually was different than he remembered. 

 

Remember: Your coworkers deserve your respect! There’s no “I” in “Team,” and teamwork is what makes the dream work here at Black Mesa!

- Human Resources

 

Straightening his glasses, he looked to Benrey to check for any give that would indicate that this was some kind of trick, but found nothing but a blank, glassy stare. He sighed.

“When did you find this note?” 

“Just now,” Benrey answered earnestly, but with an inflection that indicated he thought Gordon was an idiot for asking.

“Do you remember anyone sticking it to your helmet or--?”

“Bubby.”

“Bubby stuck the old one to you. Where did you get this one?”

“Uh. When Bubby stuck it to my helmet.”

“But this one is different.”

“I know.”

“So where did it come from?”

“Huh?”

As with the last note, Tommy took the moment of distraction to swipe it for himself, examining it like a character in a Nancy Drew novel. It was quick to change hands after that, passing from him to Coomer to Bubby, the latter of which seemed dumbfounded as to what exactly had happened to change the words. It was written in the same red pen, the same scrawling handwriting, and was left exactly where he’d left the one that warned about vandalism. Honestly, if the situation was reversed, Gordon would have found himself more than a mite creeped out, too.

“Did one of those things write it?” Gordon pressed. Benrey shook his head defiantly.

“Bro, I don’t think… no eyes, can’t write. They can’t write. I don’t think. Maybe?”

“Did you write it?”

“Why would I… dude, what? Why would I write it? I didn’t write it.”

“It had to have come from somewhere!”

“Huh? What? Don’t yell at me. I’m trying to be good, bro. I’m being nice. Why you yelling?”

“Because I can’t control the volume of my voice when I'm freaking out!”

In a shocking shift of the status quo, Benrey appeared to take this as the gospel truth. While he still looked perturbed, instead of retorting louder and more nonsensically, he climbed to his feet, crossed his arms, and stared Gordon down in silence. If he looked real closely in his eyes, he could see a spark that could have been the first seed of empathy and compassion the creature had ever known. It was also maybe just the glare from the overhead lights, but Gordon had to tell himself something to keep himself from continuing to fuss at the murderbeast.

The same couldn’t be said for Bubby who, now holding the note and committing its brief comments to memory, crushed the post-it in his fist and barked, “Everyone stop yelling right now or we’re probably going to die!”

Silence, at least for a moment. It was a struggle to keep his mouth shut with every inch of his body jittering from nerves and, judging from the look of Tommy, he had a few concerns he wanted addressed as well. He bounced on his heels and clenched his fists, eyes flitting from Gordon to Coomer in hopes somebody would give him some sort of reassurance that Bubby was getting carried away.

“Man, only I can sing the Song of Death,” Benrey finally chortled. “Everyone else can yell if they want. It's cool. Don’t be dumb.”

“No, the note,” Bubby sighed, throwing the crumpled warning to the ground. “It says all that bullshit about teamwork and respect, and I don’t think yelling is respect.”

“It’s just a note, though. Chill.”

“Yeah, well the vandalism note was just a note, too, and now we have a bad case of demons. Do you know how hard it is to get rid of demons, Benrey? You have to fumigate twice. Once to kill the adults, and again two weeks later after the eggs hatch!”

“Huh?”

“You heard me. Moron.”

Tommy and Coomer visibly flinched, while Gordon watched Benrey for any sign of retaliation. Unfortunately, judging from the way his eyes brightened like fog lights on a misty night, it didn’t seem he was taking well to being insulted. The line where his lips met and the area around his Adam’s apple began to glow, first a haunting blue, then a dark purple, then a bright red. The colors reflected in his eyes, flickering like flames.

“I’m not a moron, moron,” he contested. Crimson smoke poured from his mouth like dry ice, pooling around his feet and slithering across the floor. Gordon tentatively reached out to grab his arm but he yanked himself away, staring down Bubby like a hungry dog. 

Bubby didn’t seem too far behind. Straightening his posture to emphasize how much taller he was, he scowled and glared under the rim of his glasses at Benrey.

“You’re just some manchild who can’t even get his villainous monologue right.”

“It was a good monologue! And it was true! Heavenly Sword--”

“Blah, blah. Nobody cares about Heavenly Sword. Shut-up.”

“Yeah, well, you grew up in a vat of Jell-O. ‘Ooh, look at me, my name is Bubby and I’m blue raspberry flavor!’

“Blue raspberry isn’t a Jell-O flavor, dumbass! It’s called Berry Blue!”

Stop!”

Tommy’s voice pierced through their argument so loudly and shrilly that it even took the clamoring masses on the other side of the door by surprise. Their scratching and skittering stopped, and the silence that descended upon the locker room was nothing short of suffocating. Gordon shrank into himself, making an unsuccessful attempt to recoil into the HEV suit like a turtle retreating into his shell. He half expected Tommy to immediately regret his outburst, but it was obvious from the look of him that enough was enough.

Stomping in between them, he held them apart at arms’ length, gritting his teeth and seething. It was unlike him, though he couldn’t fault Tommy for finally reaching the end of his rope. After so long of being the do-gooder who sat on the sidelines while everyone screeched, he could imagine this anger was coming from somewhere deep. There was likely plenty of rage bottled up from the previous ALERTS run. Gordon knew he’d personally been on the verge of boiling over the whole time, and he'd definitely taken more time to vent.

“We can’t yell! We’re going to be nice now, okay? Like… nicer than a… than a puppy playing in a… a… a mud puddle on a breezy Tuesday afternoon! Okay? So we’re going to stop yelling. Stop.”

Both parties considered his plea, though both seemed equally inclined to ignore it. It was only after a long, pregnant pause that Benrey reluctantly bowed out, much to Gordon’s surprise and his own disappointment. As painfully obvious as it was that he was willing and ready to press Bubby’s buttons all day, there was the vaguest hint of understanding in his expression.

Understanding that Bubby lacked. The moment Benrey turned away from him, he muttered the word, “Wimp.”

Something slammed. Benrey’s head snapped up, as did Coomer and Gordon’s. Tommy, weakly, sidestepped behind Gordon, while Bubby seemed completely unfazed. Despite the fact everything in the room was visible from where they stood, it took an embarrassingly long time for anyone to figure out what the sound was, much less put it to words. Hell, if Gordon hadn’t been ransacking the place just moments before, he likely wouldn’t have been able to guess the source himself.

But he knew it. It was the sound of a metal door banging against the wall. Once the realization sank in, he quickly scanned the room and identified the culprit: his own locker at the very corner of the room.

Slowly, he took a step forward, but was stopped when he saw a shiny black shoe emerge from the locker itself. It was attached to a stout old man with a frazzled crown of hair and a thick, well-kept mustache, who jiggled and shifted in a manner that was wholly unnatural. In fact, the longer Gordon stared, the less human he looked. By the time it turned to him, wearing Dr. Coomer’s face, Gordon figured out why. Its limbs were growing, slowly but surely, and the longer they grew, the more disjointed they became.

“Oh dear. I thought we defeated my clones,” Coomer said darkly as, one by one, the lockers opened.

Ones that had already been ransacked closed and reopened, a freshly spawned clone stepping out into the light. Each one was more malformed than the last, twisted and broken. Some had no eyes, no nose, legs that were too long or arms that bent at various odd angles. Some were short, and others were unspeakably tall, having to emerge from their prison like a giraffe leaving an indoor enclosure. Eyes and ears sprouted from random patches of skin, a few seemed to have no skin at all, and one unfortunate clone had an elongated neck that fell back limply between his shoulder blades and swung with his every move.

Gordon felt his stomach acting up again, swallowing his own bile. Slowly, their old bones creaking, each and every one angled their heads so they were looking dead at him.

Why him? Why not? He hadn’t been the one breaking HR's rule in the end, but he’d learned that everything in ALERTS’ version of Black Mesa hated him with the fury of a thousand suns.

“This is disturbing!” Coomer piped. Bubby nodded in agreement, adding, “Yeah. This is fucked up.”

“Maybe,” Tommy began slowly, “if we stand real still? They won’t see us.”

“They’re clones. Not dinosaurs.”

“Yeah, but--”

Benrey wasted no time. Before Tommy could finish his sentence, he was shoving him towards the nearest door, both hands planted firmly into his back as he scooched him on his merry way. Even though Tommy tried to dig his heels into the floor, glancing nervously behind him at the Coomer clones as they lurched and hobbled after them, Benrey was determined to see him to something resembling safety. The real Coomer didn’t have to be told twice to get a move out, grabbing Bubby by the collar and dragging him along.

This left Gordon, frozen, watching them as they multiplied, as they crept closer, as they seized and frothed and muttered garbled greetings through gritted teeth and deformed jaws. They knew his name, but had such difficulty getting it out. He could feel himself beginning to hyperventilate as they came within reach of him, one gnarled hand reaching out at the end of an impossibly long arm and petting the side of his face as if he were a dog.

“A world in your dreams,” it cooed, choking on its own saliva. “A world… we need… that world… Gordon.”

Claws raked into his cheek. Gordon shrieked. While it wasn’t the manliest of cries, it did seem to summon Benrey out of the aether and, amidst a roar of contempt and a chorus of growling greetings, he found himself dragged away. He stumbled backwards, his eyes fixated on the clones as they staggered after him, painfully slow but outraged and determined. His mind swam, the sound of the science team calling for him the last thing he heard before the world was enveloped in a blinding white glow. Somewhere, an automatic door hissed closed but, as the adrenaline wore off, Gordon found himself unable to see.

He was blacking out again. This was apparently going to be happening a lot.

Chapter Text

The capacity humans had for pettiness was astounding, infuriating. Beyond obsessing over trivial things, they were prone to imagining rivalries and feuds with others who he doubted were aware of their bitterness at all. Words that did not involve hypotheses about what he was and how he came to be were dripping with envy and undeserved hatred, from whispers of wives who had outlived their usefulness to younglings that made these frail elders feel threatened.

Jiinuh was one. A young female. She supervised men twice her age, and allegedly was only ever given that power due to indecent conduct that had passed beneath the nose of Aeichar. Bahr'nee was another, a male of brute strength who made them afraid. His kindness was a facade, they said, and his crimes were hypothetical but many. He took things, small things, tiny treasures that meant nothing to anyone but the ominous Aeichar. 

Mostly, they spoke of Gohr-din. Young, intelligent, promising. A threat. Outspoken, odd, unreliable. A threat. He was never where he was supposed to be, he did things that defied explanation, he vanished whenever he was needed. But he was smart, calculating, resourceful. A threat.

A trickster god. A clever youngling. Yet, they could not allow him to manifest in full. They pleaded with Aeichar to rid them of him, but Gohr-din was too powerful, and thus he remained. He had his faithful--Bahr'nee, and a defiant elder named Cly'nuhr--who would petition Aeichar on his behalf, and so powerful were these souls that Gohr-din evaded the wrath of this temple’s god. 

All these elders could do was contain him, keep him from his glory. They called the containment “Level 3 Research Assistant.” He would ascend no higher and could fall no further. Trapped. Like him. By these monsters .

He thought of this Gohr-din a lot, and wondered if he’d heard of him as well. If they met, would they be rivals? Allies? Enemies? 

No. Something more. Something stronger. Together, he was certain he and Gohr-din could do incredible things.

--

Blue sky was not what Gordon was expecting when he opened his eyes, though he wasn’t surprised by the sight of Benrey’s face eclipsing the sun. Shielding his eyes from the corona of light spewing from around his helmet, he let out a groan and grabbed onto his security vest, using him as leverage to pull himself up. Their faces nearly conked together when he did--he’d greatly underestimated how close Benrey was while crouching over him--and after a moment to gain his bearings, he came to the conscious realization that there was a hand to his forehead.

Benrey was checking his temperature. It was painfully obvious he had no idea how to do it, but he was trying and that was more effort than he’d ever expect out of him. 

“Uh, how warm are you supposed to be? You’re hella cold,” he finally said, dropping his hand and standing up. “And you keep passing out. Is that normal? I don’t know if that’s normal.”

“It’s perfectly normal!” he heard Coomer pipe in the distance. “We all have to sleep!”

“Oh. Okay. Cool. I guess you’re fine then.”

With that, Benrey stood and began to walk away, Gordon coming to the curious realization that he wasn’t just trekking down an empty, sterile hallway. There were no warnings about the laser array, no fluorescent lights, no concrete floors. He’d been vaguely aware of the sunlight when he awoke, sure, but in his grogginess his common sense hadn’t caught up with the rest of his brain.

Slowly, Gordon stood. After a quick survey to make sure that there weren’t any Coomer clones lying in wait, a feeling of uncomfortable familiarity began to pool in his stomach. Breathing became difficult as he watched the science team zooming about in pure wonder, plundering through mail and peeking into car windows.

They were in a suburban cul de sac. 

Rows of blocky tan buildings lined the sides of an empty street, their meticulously kept yards consisting of sand, scrub plants, and decorative rocks. The vehicles parked in each driveway were polished and new, the sidewalks and walkways pristine and free of dust and debris. Identical mailboxes stood proudly by the roadsides. Nary a fence was to be seen, as the HOA president decided years ago that “fences gave off a feeling of unfriendliness” and rendered them punishable by fine.

Gordon knew all this because, at the very end of the cul de sac, he could see his house. He and his husband had bought it once Black Mesa had determined that he wasn’t important enough to warrant taking up dormitory space in the actual facility, and he’d kept it after their eventual divorce. After all, he was the only one with any reason or desire to stay in New Mexico, as his ex had never been a fan of the heat, the dust, or the lack of greenery. It was depressing, he’d said, before frolicking off to more verdant pastures with some guy he’d met online.

Dragging his feet, he scuffed down the asphalt, taking it all in, one painful scene at a time. Beyond him and the AIs, there wasn’t a soul to be seen, just like the Black Mesa lobby. His companions flitted around him excitedly, oblivious to his own melancholy march towards his recreated home and his shoddy soccer dad SUV he’d left illegally parked outside of his garage. Fear squeezed at his heart so violently that he thought it would just stop, but he was always distracted from his impending cardiac event by the others’ antics.

Bubby perused the cars not pulled into their garages, testing doors until alarms went off and checking glove compartments for keys. Coomer was far more interested in minor details, now having had a taste of the world outside of Black Mesa. Alongside Tommy, they marveled at cacti, paint jobs, and interesting rocks that had obviously been stolen from track ballasts. Both of them seemed utterly thrilled.

Benrey was the least animated. While he seemed interested in what was going on around him, there was a distinct vibe of uncertainty that radiated off of him like gamma waves. In the bright light of the sun, he somehow seemed more ghastly and dead, and his eyes floated from one sight to the other with all the enthusiasm and disinterest of a sunning lizard. Every few steps, he’d stop to take in the atmosphere, equal parts inquisitive and uncomfortable, before starting forward again. Curiously, Gordon realized that his slow, halting trip didn’t veer off a very specific path that led straight to his front door.

The others orbited him erratically like comets, vaguely following along but continuing to veer off in strange directions. Gordon, unnerved, fell in line with Benrey as soon as he could muster up the mental energy to command his feet to move.

“You seem to know where you’re going,” he said cautiously, trying not to make his discomfort apparent. It was quite the task. He felt violated in a way, and terrified in the same fashion he’d been when sneaking peeks at horror flicks as a kid. It was a creeping dread that made all of his insides feel cramped.

“I don’t,” Benrey responded. There was no hint of mockery, his brows furrowed and his lip raised in befuddlement, exposing his sharp teeth. Somewhere in the distance, he heard Tommy shriek in alarm about a scorpion. Coomer assured him that it was a “Southwest Stingy Bug” and perfectly harmless.

“You’re, uh, very determined for somebody who has no idea where they’re going, though. You’re heading straight toward one specific house.”

“I know.”

“Something special about that house?”

“Uh, maybe.”

“I mean, you could go to any other house on this street. Why that one?”

“I want to.”

“Why?”

“Why do you care?”

Benrey paused, looking up at Gordon accusingly. It was evident that he was frustrated. Maybe he was actually drawn to the replica of Gordon’s house out of pure instinct.

Deciding not to question it further, he quietly followed Benrey’s slow, plodding steps as he crept closer and closer. The midday sun beat down on them like a hammer, and Gordon used the art of distraction to keep himself from focusing too much on it. He made mental notes of the neighborhood, of anything odd he saw beyond the absence of people. Most of it, he couldn’t tell if it was faulty memory or actual errors (was there always one downstairs window on the Gonzalez house, and did Miss Cathy always have echeveria in her garden box?), but the closer they drew to the replica of his abode, something began to stand out.

Lights in the windows. Every window in every house but his own.

They’d once been dark, but now they were each illuminated with a neon glow in a dozen different colors, skeletal figures standing at attention as radiant slime gooped from their fleshless jaws. Pinpoints of light danced in their hollow sockets, following his approach to his own walkway while their dead bodies remained unmoving. The science team were unsurprisingly unaware of the display, too caught up in their own antics, and Gordon wondered if maybe they just couldn’t see them at all. 

“Don’t stare. Makes them mad.”

Benrey’s voice was matter-of-fact, but loud enough to snap Gordon out of his trance. He watched the guard side-eye him, offering a lopsided smile that was as taunting as it was haunting. Gordon himself didn’t have a chance to react before Benrey latched onto his wrist and began to double-time it, barking orders that echoed through the streets.

“Yo! Come on! We’re going to Feetman’s house!”

Gordon's eyes narrowed. 

“How the hell did you know that’s my house?” he growled, his voice low. Benrey shrugged as they watched the others flock to them, each various levels of excited to see what lay in store. Coomer was, as expected, absolutely thrilled. Bubby could have only cared less if told his tube was located in Gordon’s living room. 

“Huh? Oh. Well, you were acting sketchy. I guessed.”

The skeletons in the windows sprang to life in stiff movements that reminded him of marionettes on tangled strings. He tried to gauge where exactly they were going, but Benrey dragged him at such a pace that he only had time to register that none had left their respective starting positions, still ogling the group as they were herded through Gordon’s inexplicably unlocked front door.

Gordon was basically thrown to the floor while Tommy, Bubby, and Coomer filed in over top of him, each spreading out just as they had in the street. Once everyone was accounted for, Benrey slammed the door closed and bolted it, an act that seemed to speak of such finality that it made Gordon’s heart sink. They were now trapped in here with that thing , and judging from the fleshless fiends infesting his neighbors’ homes, he couldn’t help but feel it was some manner of trap.

Rather than launch into a threatening speech, however, Benrey simply stepped over Gordon and walked off, his boots echoing on the hardwood floor. Gordon watched from where he lay as he disappeared around a corner into the kitchen, inhaling deeply as he watched Tommy pad up the carpeted stairs and heard Coomer and Bubby arguing about his DVD collection in the living room.

Sitting up was, as always, difficult with the HEV suit. At least he wasn’t as sore, he reckoned, as he sat there staring at his white panel door. Cautiously, he clambered to his feet and began to pace his own home.

While he knew it was a replica, it was spot-on. The coat and key rack next to the door was exactly how he remembered it before donning the headset, as were his potted ficus trees that were fighting over the sunlight by the thin windows flanking the entrance. His floor was in the same state of scuffed and unswept after months of neglecting real deep cleaning, and when he poked his head into the living room, his son’s blankets and toys were still scattered across the couch and loveseat in an order that seemed familiar and comforting. The white banister of his staircase was still dusty, his phone still blinked with unheard messages, and the photos of him and his ex-husband still dangled on the wall to trick Joshua into thinking that his fathers still got along.

The only difference now was that there were old men screaming in the distance about whether or not “The Fox and the Hound” was based on a book. It was, but Gordon wasn’t about to tell Bubby that.

The HEV boots made a deep and satisfying clomping sound as he traced Benrey’s steps into the kitchen, half afraid to poke his head inside and see what he was up to. He expected to see him going through the knife block for a choice weapon or prowling around for virtual snacks, but instead found the guard leaning against the island, staring at his fridge. When he heard Gordon creeping up behind him, he bristled and looked over his shoulder.

“Your house is, like, big. You rich?”

Gordon’s mouth tightened into a thin line, but he said nothing. Instead, he cautiously swerved around Benrey and made his way to his magnet-covered fridge, checking the reminders and daycare crayon drawings for anything more sinister in nature. He half expected to find another post-it from Human Resources, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the most questionable note was an ancient recipe for salmon casserole his mom had sent him after the divorce. You know, to make sure he would still be feeding Joshua right.

“What’s this do?”

Gordon whipped around, watching as Benrey leaned down on the other side of the kitchen island, opening the dishwasher and sticking his head inside. Immediately, he bolted around and firmly yanked him out, closing the door and wedging himself between him and the appliance.

“It… it washes dishes.”

“Lame.” 

Benrey’s eyes flicked to the counter, to a blender tucked beside the microwave. His eyes lit up in excitement, though his mouth stayed firmly in a scowl.

“Oh, hey. That looks sharp.”

“Benrey, no!”

As Gordon lunged to stop him and Benrey launched into a Disney-worthy villainous cackle, the sound of Tommy screaming ripped through the house. Frantic footsteps galloped from the living room to the kitchen, Bubby sliding across the floor and nearly falling flat. Coomer was close behind, though he nervously twiddled his thumbs, bounced on his heels, and ultimately decided that he didn’t have anything to say. Pale-faced and frantic, he turned right back around and down the hall, thundering up the stairs in the direction of Tommy’s shrieking.

Benrey was soon to follow. Though it took him a second to register what was going on, once he realized who was doing the yelling, he was gone in a flash. This left Bubby looking at him quizzically as Gordon cocked an eyebrow over his glasses.

“Oh, that wasn’t you screaming for once?” he asked with genuine confusion. Gordon shook his head stiffly.

“Oh. Alright then.”

With that, he turned and began to calmly walk away, letting out a startled squawk once Gordon finally found the ability to react appropriately. Stumbling over his own feet, he scrambled down the hall and to the stairs. On all fours, he scrabbled his way up, holding his breath with his pulse thundering in his ears.

“Gordon! Hurry!”

Coomer this time.

“Bro, no! Stay there!”

Benrey.

“Mr. Freeman! Oh my god!”

Tommy.

“Can you hurry up and go?”

Bubby, from behind, arms crossed as he waited patiently at the bottom of the stairs. 

Gordon reached the top and hesitated for a moment, eyes darting from one end of the hallway to the other in hopes of any sign of life. The direction with his bedroom and office was as dark as midnight, save for an ominous blue line of light shining beneath his office door. In the opposite direction, however, he could hear footsteps and see shifting shadows. Sunlight poured into the hallway from Joshua’s open room.

The panic he felt was unlike anything he’d ever felt prior to that moment. Even knowing that he was in a simulation, his paternal instincts screamed. As if sensing it, Bubby let out a sigh from behind him and, after creaking up the stairs himself, placed a hand on Gordon’s shoulder. Gordon jumped but remained firmly rooted in place.

He wanted to know why Tommy was yelling, but he was hesitant to see the cause.

“This, uh, would probably be a bad time to show you this, wouldn’t it?” Bubby stated with an uncharacteristic amount of care. At this, Gordon finally swiveled his head in his direction, though he didn’t look down as Bubby forced something into his hand. The HEV gloves were so thick that it was hard to make out what it was by touch, but it certainly sounded like paper. 

No. Not another one. Nothing good had happened with the other two.

Slowly, he raised the note to his face, a sloppily folded piece of oversized primary paper. Unveiling it like a pirate map, he squinted in the darkness to read the infantile handwriting that had been scrawled across the page in various colors of cheap, waxy crayons. His mind swam. It took more than a few attempts to comprehend the words.

 

Loose lips sink ships, and secrets are best left unsaid! Talking about work outside of Black Mesa is strictly prohibited! Remember, we know where you live!

- Human Resources

 

“What the fuck ?” Gordon mouthed voicelessly. Bubby shrugged, staggering as Gordon shoved the paper into his chest and stomped his way down the hall. At the sound of him coming, Coomer’s head poked out of the doorway to Joshua’s room and he soon positioned himself to intercept him. When Gordon didn’t slow down, he dug in his heels and spread out his arms, one glowing fist away from unleashing some Forbidden Science.

“I changed my mind, Gordon! You shouldn’t be here!”

He seemed shocked when Gordon shoved him out of the way.

“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do!” he yelped as he stumbled. Summoned by his indignation, Benrey stepped out into the hallway, mouth pre-glowing in what seemed to be a primal threat display. Arms crossed and eyes radiating an equally sinister light, he threw himself in Gordon’s path. His expression was severe and knowing.

“Sir, you can’t be here.”

“This is my house,” Gordon snarled. Behind Benrey, he could hear Tommy whimpering. It was a horrible, sorrowful sound he never thought he’d hear from somebody so cheery. His eyes flicked to Benrey in a quiet warning that things wouldn’t end well if he didn’t move out of the way.

“Sir, you don’t want to be here.”

There was an urgency in Benrey’s voice, and an unspoken threat. It was move or be moved, so it seemed, though Gordon didn’t have it in him to be cowed. Grabbing the collar of his uniform, he leaned in, gritting his teeth and frothing.

“I am a father, Benrey. And I don’t care what you are, human or not, if you stand between me and my boy , I am going to tear your arm off and beat you with it.”

If Benrey was shocked, he didn’t show it. Instead, he mulled these words over, cocked his head, and sighed. After a few moments to determine how serious Gordon was being, he wrenched himself free and leaned right back into Gordon’s face. His voice fell to a dark, rumbling whisper.

“Fine. Whatever. Just remember that none of this is real.”

Gordon blinked dumbly. His stomach sank. There was a flash of something human in Benrey’s eyes as he stepped out of the way and nodded him ahead, a legitimate concern he’d never shown before. Gordon hesitated, unsure of what to think and suddenly lacking the fortitude to move ahead. If things were so bad that even the monster in the room was playing nice, then something godawful awaited him.

Not that he already hadn’t figured that out. Tommy choked on sobs around the corner, and the sound jostled him into moving. A reserve of courage kicked in that propelled him forward and into Joshua’s room, which was a messy pile of toys and primary colors that was as stereotypical as it was comforting. The feeling of warmth welling up in Gordon’s gut lasted only until he looked to the floor, to Tommy on his knees cradling a small lump of pale, deathly gray that was smeared with luminescent cyan and radioactive green.

“Mr. Freeman, I didn’t mean to do it! I… I… Why isn’t he moving?”

Gordon's heart stopped.

Joshua’s lifeless, sneering face stared at him from Tommy’s lap.

Chapter Text

He had no concept for many of the things they spoke of, strange human traditions and functions that he’d never found particularly useful. Still, there was a novelty to it, and he’d once found it amusing to listen in while they prattled on about things that were ultimately pointless. Before the keepers of the Bl’kmesah Temple had bound him in glass, he found their faithful the most amusing, as even with the great insight they seemed to have in comparison to others of their kind, they still clung to such foolish things.

Legacy. Reputation. Wealth. Progeny.

He’d never had a need for any of those things. He would never die, he had no competition. He took what he wanted. Offspring were pointless.

Once captive, however, the conversations he once found grimly entertaining were the source of much frustration. The intrigue was gone, and only bitterness remained. The way they spoke made his blood boil, as it seemed the humans had no end to their spite and anger, speaking of wretched ways to achieve their desired ends and complaining savagely about what they’d already accrued. 

The recognition they received was never enough. The respect of their peers was never enough. The veritable bounty bestowed upon them by the powerful Aeichar was seen as a mere pittance, and even their children never seemed to meet their lofty expectations. Even the youngest of younglings, it would seem, were seen as nuisances and disappointments.

Was there no end to human indecency? He wondered if the other god of Bl’kmesah, Gohr-din, felt similarly about these beasts.

--

Gordon’s ears rang and his head hurt. He wasn’t sure where he’d gone, but it hadn’t been somewhere pleasant. The moment he’d laid eyes on Joshua lying across Tommy’s lap as the AI sat on the floor, sobbing, it was as if reality had somehow stopped. He wasn’t there, he wasn’t anywhere. It was all bright white lights, frigid cold, and uncomfortable feelings.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” Tommy whined, his eyes wet. Gordon inhaled deeply and tried to formulate a response, but it was as if every word was taken out of him. His mind was wiped clean. He barely had it in him to understand what was being said, let alone figure out a way to answer back, and he looked around pleadingly for anyone to take up the cognitive slack. Coomer only gnawed his bottom lip worriedly, while Bubby raised his glasses and muttered a flabbergasted curse under his breath.

Benrey seemed to want to say something, but was silent. He glared from outside the room, leaning against the wall on the opposite end of the hallway. His eyes shone brightly. His words echoed in Gordon’s head.

None of this was real.

“It’s not real,” Gordon sputtered, forcing himself to look back at Tommy and the corpse of his son. It was hard to deny it was real with how much it looked like Joshua’s room, Joshua’s face, so he tried to focus on the oddities that proved to him that something wasn’t right. The strange, feral expression on his toddler, for starters, which looked like something more akin to a monstrous snarl. The goop, bright and glowing, that oozed from the corners of his mouth. His teeth, sharp as knives, which were definitely not human.

But still, it mostly looked like his Joshua.

“He tried to bite me and I… I didn’t even hit him hard , Mr. Freeman!” Tommy pleaded. “I… It was just… I threw something. I-it was a book. How… I… How does a book do that? Books have never betrayed me before! I only do what I read in books!”

Gordon shook his head. He dropped to his knees.

“None of this is real,” he chanted. “None of this is real. This isn’t real.”

Slowly, cautiously, he rolled Joshua away from Tommy and picked him up, just as he would when carrying him from the couch to his bedroom after late night Disney movies. He was the right weight, the right size, and even in the HEV suit, he still draped over his arms the same way. His eyes, stuck open, resembled his own even though his face resembled the surrogate. His hair was still a curly mop. The strange teeth and the savage expression didn’t do anything to make it feel less like his little boy.

His stomach turned. His head ached.

“This isn’t real.”

“It looks real to me,” Bubby grumbled from the sidelines. It came out sounding abrasive, but even Bubby wasn’t that big of an asshole. At least, he assumed not. Maybe he was--he’d sold Gordon out to the simulated military once before--but he chose to believe he had the capacity for empathy.

“But it’s not. This isn’t real. Right, Benrey?”

Gordon looked back at Benrey, who nodded exactly once in agreement. His eyes were fixated on Bubby, though, as if he were waiting for something. A moment to pounce, it seemed, as the guard was visibly agitated and sitting on the edge of his metaphorical seat.

“I don’t know if Benrey is the best person to be consulting about this,” Bubby contested, eyeing him warily. “He’s not what I’d consider the most trustworthy person.”

“He’s not steered us wrong yet,” Gordon replied softly, hopefully, his eyes still locked on Joshua.

“Except that time we-- er, he got your arm amputated.”

“Yeah. No. I didn't mean last time, I meant thi… y-you know what? Nevermind.”

This wasn’t his son and it wasn’t real. With newfound resolve, Gordon tiptoed across the scattered toys and laid the limp, semi-monstrous body of his son down on a bed cluttered with stuffed toys and colorful sheets. Though tears welled in his eyes, he struggled to remind himself that this was all a simulation. A simulation that was turning into a nightmare. For all he knew, it actually was a bad dream, and he was just dozing in his office with a nonfunctioning headset sitting on his face.

Inhaling deeply, he turned to Tommy and reached down to offer him a hand, watching as the man wiped his eyes and shook his head. He was rattled to the core, as much as Gordon was, and he wished he could just tell him the same thing he’d been telling himself. That none of this was real. Joshua was fine. He’d done nothing wrong.

“Come on, Tommy,” Coomer drawled, struggling to reach his excitable, fevered pitch. “That wasn’t a real child! That was a wild southwestern woolly-booger! I hear they’re all the rage in France.”

Tommy’s brows narrowed in irritation as, sniffing, he climbed to his feet.

“I’m not an idiot, Dr. Coomer. A-and even if… even if it was a woolly-booger, it… I… it looked like a kid. It’s…”

“Jarring,” Gordon finished grimly, Tommy nodding in enthusiastic agreement. Bubby let out a long sigh, dabbing a bit of sweat from his forehead with the collar of his coat. Gordon could tell that something inappropriately snarky was coming and, even though he was putting on the facade of strength, he wasn’t sure if he could handle whatever was about to be said.

Nervously, his eyes darted around the room. Tommy refused to look at him, still shaken by what had just happened, and Coomer was unusually quiet, as he had been for a while. Benrey’s eyes met his, however, and something strange and powerful happened the second their gazes met. There was a silent understanding, a weird and wild moment that happened between them where they carried on an entire conversation in a fraction of a second. It was a bizarre, unsettling feeling, and Gordon watched as Benrey pushed away from the wall and rejoined the group. Strategically, he stood next to Bubby and waited.

“Well, I guess I’m sorry about your son,” Bubby finally said, Tommy cringing and Gordon’s heart thumping steadily faster. He shook his head dismissively.

“That isn’t my son.”

He was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince Bubby. Even if he knew this wasn’t real, it felt real. As a father, it was real. 

“Uh, I’m pretty sure it is, Gordon.”

“No. It’s not. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not Joshua.”

“It looks like your son.”

“How would you even know? You saw one picture of him as a baby. You don’t know what he looks like!”

“Denial isn’t healthy, you know. You need to come to terms with it. I’m not trying to be mean or anything, but we’re in a weird hell-pickle of a predicament and--”

“We’re not in hell, Bubby!”

Gordon’s voice was sharp, his words pure acid. He could feel his face growing warm as his cheeks turned bright red.

“We’re not in hell! We’re not in purgatory! You’re not dead and you’re not reliving the same day over and over! You’re not being punished, you’re not eternally damned! And that’s not my fucking son!

Bubby recoiled, shocked. For all of his harsh tones and angry eyes, it seemed as if he hadn’t actually meant any harm and the reaction seemed to wound him. He looked to Coomer who, with a shrug, mouthed an explanation that Gordon couldn’t catch. Probably something about him being crazy, but Gordon wasn’t sure.

“Then where are we?” Bubby asked slowly, cautiously. Gordon froze, both out of an unwillingness to answer and the sheer anger-fueled adrenaline still coursing through his veins. While he was functionally paralyzed, Benrey decided to take the helm. Sniffing dismissively, he gestured to the world around them and shrugged.

“Uh. This isn’t real bro. Like. This is all code and shit. You’re not real.”

Silence. That was not what Gordon was expecting, and neither was anyone else. All of the color drained out of his face and, when he looked to Coomer, he noticed that he was somehow even paler than normal. A quick glance at Tommy revealed his quizzical expression, as he comically began to wave his hand in the air as if checking to see if it was actually there. Gordon wasn’t sure what he expected, but he didn’t appear satisfied.

Bubby seemed underwhelmed. Gordon couldn’t tell if it was the fact that he thought Benrey was pulling his leg, or if he was legitimately disappointed that he wasn’t living an exciting hellscape adventure. Either way, Gordon tried to sputter an explanation, to issue a take-back on what Benrey had just said. The guard wasn’t having it, though, and before he could string together anything, he continued on his rant.

“Yeah, this is all some Matrix bullshit. You’re a code. Tommy’s a code. Coomer is code. I’m not. I’m not human. Gordon’s supposed to be controlling everything but something’s fucking with him. Spooky, scary, Top Ten Creepiest Computer Weirds Countdown. Number seven will shock you.”

Slowly, it began to sink in. Bubby’s face contorted from being underwhelmed, to confused, to everything clicking into place. It was as if every question he’d ever had about his life was now thoroughly explained, but it didn’t seem as though he was thrilled with the revelation. Tommy was even less so, as the longer he had to dwell on this, the more frantic he seemed to become. Panicked tears about killing a kid warped into stammering as he looked to Dr. Coomer for reassurance that this was all some big joke.

Coomer smiled unconvincingly. Tommy turned to Gordon.

“He’s… he’s lying right?”

Gordon said nothing. Between the death of his simulation son and this whole new can of worms, he didn’t have the brain power to say much of anything. Tommy’s anxiety grew.

“We’re… we’re fake? I-I’m not a real person? We’re not real?”

“Nope,” Benrey responded bluntly. “Fake people in a military project. So you didn’t kill Gordon’s son and everything’s cool, right?”

“Benrey, that…” Coomer paused, considered his next words carefully, then sighed. “That was a secret. Gordon’s secret! You shouldn’t just go around telling secrets! It’s rude!”

“A secret?” Benrey echoed with a chuckle. Bubby stiffened. Suddenly, his concern went elsewhere and his gaze shifted urgently to Gordon, though it took him a moment to register why. The gears in his head whirred uselessly before catching, though once the clockwork was in order, a new dread filled him. Bubby swallowed hard. They had bigger things to worry about.

“A secret,” Gordon mouthed. Bubby reached into his pocket, unveiling the note from HR. While Tommy frantically tried to make sense of reality beside them, the two shifted uneasily where they stood.

“‘Loose lips sink ships,’” Bubby quoted, ending with a sigh. “Gonna go out on a limb here and assume this probably isn’t good.”

A haunting sound, like a choir, rose up outside the house. Benrey instinctively seemed to know what was going on, and without requiring any explanation, he excused himself from the room and barreled down the steps. Tommy was quick to put a pause on his existential dread once it sank in that something wasn't quite right, while Dr. Coomer quickly swiped the note from Bubby. A quick glance at it, and his face contorted into a bizarre mixture of exasperation and fear. 

“Oh, I do wish this would stop happening,” he sighed, handing the paper back to Bubby. “I’m not good with large waves of enemies, and HR seems to love them so.”

The eerie sound of crooning voices grew louder still, and closer. Downstairs, Gordon could hear Benrey ransacking his house, the sound of furniture being scooted across the floor and junk clattering across the ground. Each instance was punctuated with his own brand of low-energy frustration, his voice level and almost amused even though the words weren’t nearly as calm. They only seemed to grow in strength as the ghastly melody from outside rose to a fevered pitch, angelic voices singing an unknown song that echoed through the hallways like monks chanting in a chapel.

Then, the scratching began, like claws scraping against the stucco siding of his house. Taps started on the windows, knocking on the door. Everyone in the science team exchanged troubled glances as they realized, all in unison, what this indicated.

They were surrounded.

Before Gordon could comment on their predicament, a sharp pain shot through his leg. He screeched as he stumbled into Tommy. Like a domino effect, the two fell into Coomer, knocking him against the wall before all of them went down. Looking up at Bubby revealed that he wasn’t to blame, his face twisted from a genuine terror that clearly indicated he wasn’t about to help. Instead, he let out a scream that seemed to carry on forever before dashing out of Joshua’s room and into the darkened hallway.

The pain didn’t stop, and after untangling himself from his friends, Gordon looked down to find the culprit: Joshua, needle teeth glinting in the light, clinging onto his leg with talon-like claws. Despite the metal exterior of the HEV suit, he’d somehow managed to puncture clear through it and the insulation, and judging from the glint in his now-glowing eyes, the next step was to take a chunk out of his father. Colorful saliva pooled out of his mouth and bubbled across the chassis. When it dripped through the gaps in the armor, Gordon could feel it burning into his leg.

Benrey had been half right. This wasn’t his son, but judging from the pain, he wasn’t wholly convinced that this wasn’t real. 

Not-Joshua made a horrific sound, somewhere between squealing brakes and a wildcat’s yowl, as Gordon violently thrashed his leg and sent the tiny monster rolling across the floor. It caught itself by digging its claws into the carpet, skidding to a stop and rolling back onto all fours like a lion kicked off of its prey. The dexterity with which it moved was unbecoming of a toddler, more refined than anything his son could have ever dreamed of pulling off. Watching it maneuver in such an alien manner only cemented that this was an impostor, a doppelganger, and in a flash of adrenaline the horror he’d felt upon his “son’s” death was gone.

As much as it hurt, Gordon struggled to his feet, half-crawling out of the room while urging Tommy and Coomer to follow along. Tommy didn’t need to have the orders repeated to him, spryly jumping up and outpacing Gordon as he bolted for the stairs. He called out for Benrey, though his voice was lost over Bubby’s wordless yelling and what Gordon realized were his own anguished cries.

Absent was the sound of Dr. Coomer, which was worrying. For a man who craved violence, there wasn’t any indication that he was going to square off with the ankle-biting gremlin that had stolen Joshua’s face. Upon reaching the stairs and using the banister to pull himself the rest of the way up, he glanced back just in time to watch the doctor calmly step into the hallway, pulling the door closed as if nothing was wrong.

“Dr. Coomer! That… that thing! It--!”

“Oh, it’s too short to reach the handle, Dr. Freeman! I don’t think it’ll get out!”

The sound of rattling wood raised some doubts. Whatever that thing was, it was throwing itself against the door with enough force to indicate something thrice its size. Coomer noted the horrified look in Gordon’s eyes and shrugged. Obviously, that wasn’t anything to be concerned about.

“Why didn’t he attack you ? You took your good old time getting out of there!” Gordon panted.

“Oh, Gordon. I’m excellent with kids! Your son is such a handsome little tyke.”

“That’s not my son!”

“Then it is very brave of you to take care of another man’s child! That’s a level of responsibility and sacrifice that makes me think of you in a whole new light!”

Gordon paused.

“What is wrong with you?”

Coomer didn’t respond, at least not to that inquiry. His eyes widened as he sprang ahead, nimble as a portly deer, rearing his fist back as if he would strike.

“Gordon, look out!”

Gordon whirled around so fast he nearly knocked himself on his ass, his vision spinning as he struggled to focus on a strange, gray thing that had been shambling up to him from behind. It dragged its feet like something out of an old zombie flick but there was a distinct, neon orange glow streaking across its face, dribbling down its chin and beard. The cuffs of its pajama pants--gray plaid, very dad-like--kept getting caught beneath its feet, and its baggy T-shirt was spattered with a dark, void-like black.

It took a moment for Gordon to realize that the pajamas were his own. It took even longer for him to realize this thing was wearing his face. Aside from needle teeth and empty white eyes, it could have passed for his corpse a couple of days after the onset of decomposition. Gordon let out a sharp cry as it staggered forward, clawed hands out, frothing the same glowing fluid from its mouth as Joshua. He nearly fell backwards down the stairs as it came an inch from grabbing his arm.

Coomer was faster, though. Throwing his fist into the side of Not-Gordon’s face, a nauseating crack filled the air and down it went, flipping over the banister at the sheer force of the blow. The sound of it hitting the ground was almost as disgusting as the initial hit, and without wasting time, Coomer latched onto Gordon’s arm and began to pull him down the stairs, nearly face first.

The voices of the others got louder with each step they took, Benrey’s aloof mumbling growing to a childlike whine when he realized he was running out of things to use as a barricade. A quick inspection of the ground floor revealed that the doors had furniture and junk piled in front of them from floor to ceiling, and the windows were as blocked as they could be. Still, through gaps between the sill and the various chairs and shelves he’d stacked up, Gordon could see the empty sockets of the skeletons from the neighboring houses. Their mournful hymn was so loud and otherworldly that it made the glass rattle and the walls shake. Tommy scrambled to catch photos as they began to vibrate loose of their nails.

Nobody seemed to realize the pale, carcass-like doppelganger of himself sprawled out on the hardwood floor, even Coomer despite the fact he was the one responsible. Still pulling Gordon along like a toy on a string, he stepped over the limp and broken body of the lookalike and began marching toward the kitchen. Gordon was careful not to so much as nudge it, lest it finish what Not-Joshua had started upstairs.

In the kitchen, Bubby stood, gathering up whatever moderately heavy things he could in a misguided attempt to help Benrey at fortifying the house. The window above the sink was piled high with odds and ends ranging from his precariously balanced microwave to a potted shamrock he’d forgotten he had. When he saw the two walk in, he stopped dead in his tracks and frowned. Piling the blender and a knife block on the window as well, he turned back to them and gestured.

"Why aren't you helping?" he demanded.

"Uh... I'm..." Gordon trailed off, gesturing to his leg. "I'm pretty hurt and..."

“That's no excuse! There's three of you and one of me. Use your spare Gordon and get moving!”

Gordon froze, as did Coomer.

"Spare... Gordon?" he echoed. A flame of excitement lit up in Coomer's eyes that would have been infectious if Gordon actually had the means to defend himself, though the fire died the moment something grabbed the good doctor and threw him straight from the kitchen into the hall. Still gripping Gordon's arm, he dragged him along for the ride, both landing awkwardly and with a loud “woof” as all of the air was knocked out of their lungs. The sound of Bubby screaming joined the dirge being belted by the undead outside, and when Gordon looked up, he saw himself looking back.

Not-Gordon hissed. The real Gordon screamed.

Then, a sound: ear-shattering, high pitched, strung out and lit up with a flurry of rainbow lights. Each point of glow slammed into the side of Not-Gordon with a solid and painful impact and, turning his head, Gordon saw Benrey standing just outside of the living room. The veins across his face radiated a brilliant light, almost as radiant as the Sweet Voice itself.

Tommy was huddled behind him, at a complete loss for what to do. He watched Gordon and Coomer writhing on the ground for a second then, as Not-Gordon turned his attention away and bolted toward them, he shoved Benrey at him and took off running back up the stairs. He didn’t make it all the way up. The sound of Not-Joshua stopped him in his tracks, leaving him fidgeting in the dead center of the staircase as he considered his options.

Benrey, however, wasn’t so lucky as to have the chance to think. The shove broke his concentration, and his voice died in his throat. He fumbled ahead, knocking into Not-Gordon with just enough force to send them both to the ground, and whatever advantage Benrey once had was lost the second they were on the floor. Just out of reach of Gordon and Coomer, the two struggled and fought, grabbing and biting and twisting and exchanging blows in a scene that was difficult to watch. Gordon found it painful to witness himself getting the everloving shit knocked out of him by Benrey of all people, almost as much as he hated seeing his shambling corpse reduced to something so feral.

Not-Gordon sank his claws into Benrey’s face, raking off a chunk of flesh that exposed graying bone. Benrey responded by shrieking in a completely inhuman manner, a flash of light making Not-Gordon howl. His opponent wrapped a hand around his throat to silence him, resulting in a return battery of blows, the force of which caused Benrey’s helmet to topple straight off of his head. Snarling, he snatched it up from where it fell and bashed Not-Gordon in the face repeatedly, hard enough to seemingly knock it out.

Heaving, healing, bloody, and pissed, Benrey climbed up off the ground and ran a hand over his dark hair. He looked at Gordon expectantly, letting out a heavy sigh. The helmet went back on. His face patched itself up.

“We should go outside.”

At the sound of those words, Coomer began to climb up off the floor. Bubby, realizing the fight was over, cautiously peeked out of the kitchen. Tommy slowly descended the steps. Gordon stared blankly back at the security guard hovering over his duplicated body.

“Outside? With the singing skeletons?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Benrey paused, looked down at Not-Gordon, then back at the door. The swell of the skeletons’ voices grew, and he could clearly see them watching as they tapped and knocked on the windows. His mouth twisted in deep thought. 

“Dunno. Maybe because I’m good with skeletons and I’m bad at bitch-ass Level 3 Research Assistants. I think it’s a good idea, and I'm the guy in charge right now, so...”

Benrey’s voice was filled with certainty, even if the fact he’d spent the past chunk of time blocking the doors was a clear indication that such certainty was misplaced. Still, if these skeletons were anything like the choir of undead who’d helped Benrey in the past, there was a slight chance they’d listen to him. He’d commanded a whole legion of them previously, so who was to say that he couldn’t stop this with a word? Or was there a different sect of skeletons that counted him as an enemy?

Gordon didn’t know. Skeleton politics were beyond him.

Looking down at the re-killed Not-Gordon at his feet, and listening to the scratching and squalling of Not-Joshua upstairs, Gordon’s mind was quick to be made. Nodding quickly, he jumped up and bolted for the front door, grabbing onto the bookcase dragged in front of it and pulling as hard as he could. Benrey and Bubby were soon on his heels, while Coomer comforted a horrified Tommy behind them.

The bookcase fell with a clatter, and the skeletons seemed to grow more desperate. The tapping became scraping, finger bones running down the glass and creating a tooth-rattling screech. Behind them, the sound of Not-Gordon stirring pushed them onward. Benrey made the decision before anyone was ready.

He threw open the door and ran. Bubby was next, as Gordon struggled to hobble behind. His injured leg dragged beneath him, Tommy and Coomer passing him up as everyone made a beeline for the center of the cul de sac. There wasn’t much further to go from there, as the number of enemies they were up against was far greater than Gordon could have ever guessed, and they were closing in from all sides.

He didn’t have an opportunity to decide how fucked they were before something grabbed him, yanking him back into a pile of bonemen that descended on him like ravenous vultures. Gordon squalled as he felt them beating against the HEV suit, clawing at his face, tugging at his hair. They sang to him, soothing tones he believed were meant to keep him from fighting back, but the adrenaline overpowered whatever watered down Sweet Voice they spoke with.

Just as one reached for his glasses, to yank them away and get a good shot at his eyes, the authoritative, resounding scream of Benrey filled the air. He’d never realized how much louder and stronger his voice was than the others, at least not until the entire front-line of skeletons shattered like a shoddy puzzle and collapsed to the ground. Gordon would have thanked him if he had the words, but he wasn’t given time to even think before Benrey--with strength the man shouldn’t have had--dragged him back toward the others across the ground, the sound of the HEV suit grinding across the concrete making his jaw hurt.

After being released, one look up at Benrey revealed the unfortunate truth about their situation: these skeletons weren’t listening, and he was wearing down. He coughed purple and black into his elbow, drool pooling at the corners of his mouth as he still tried to posture like the tough guy. Tommy fell to his knees beside Gordon, looking up to Coomer who, despite knowing he was outnumbered, seemed ready to throw hands.

Bubby, despite being the only one with a gun, didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic.

“Do something, Benrey!” he yelled instead. Benrey turned to him, sweaty and heaving.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Scream louder!”

“The Sweet Voice does kinda wear you out, you know? I can’t scream forever. It'd just be hella cool if I could.”

“Then you better think of something, because if you don’t we’re all going to die!”

The skeleton army closed in, and the science team huddled closer together. Benrey circled them again and again, like a sheepdog, his mind obviously racing. There was confusion on his face and a desperation Gordon hadn’t seen before. No matter the life-threatening situation, he’d always been prepared to give it a go, knowing good and goddamn well that he wasn’t in any danger. Now, the rules were changing. Now, he was afraid.

“Okay. Idea. You won’t like it. Let’s do this.”

“What do you mean we won’t like it?” Gordon demanded, but it was too late for Benrey to answer. Something changed about him, something that Gordon’s brain couldn’t identify, something that didn’t seem possible or real. One second he was looking at Benrey, and the next he was looking at… well, he didn’t know. 

In a way, it reminded him of a migraine aura, taking away his vision and replacing it with fragmented pieces and colors. While he was aware of the fact that he should have been looking at something, his brain couldn’t process it. He saw the impressions of it, but not what it was.

The distraction was enough to keep him from fully realizing the weird, cold feeling welling inside of him, like ice growing in his veins. It kept him from fully registering the screams of the startled science team, or the way the world was melting into something else. There were just flashes of colors and the vague idea of Benrey and disorientation and shock. Things became concepts and his thoughts ground to a halt as it struggled to make sense of what was happening to it and the world.

All Gordon knew was that the skeletons were gone, his doppelganger was gone, and so was the idyllic suburban street he had been standing in. He had no idea where he was going now, but he hoped it would be less exciting.

Chapter Text

The longer he had to stew in his bottle, the more time he had to think. To figure out the politics of the temple, their misguided religion, their fickle god, their demons and devils. He had time to think about the trickster spirit they spoke of, to realize that he had seen Gohr-Din before, to come to understand that he was growing increasingly obsessed with this oddity.

He had seen him before. He had looked deceptively human, but obviously that was not the case. He was a being even Aeichar could not contain, a creature with his own network of faithful who sung his praises and constantly sparred with those who spoke against him. The vast majority of the temple guards, for instance, seemed to have adopted him as a patron of sorts, and preached of him with great esteem and conviction. They uttered tales of daring and defiance and talked freely of small tokens and boons he had given them in times of accomplishment and need. Perhaps Gohr-Din was not a god proper, but he was quickly ascending to such heights.

How odd it was to realize that he’d crossed paths with this trickster spirit before, long before the minions of Aeichar had caught him. How he wished he could have seen him again. What joy it would be to speak to another of his own caliber. It had been eons since he had seen another of his ilk, or anything of  passing resemblance.

The more he thought of it, the more his soul ached. His heart hurt. This wanting was unusual, unnatural, shameful.

That a god would be so desperate for the company of a lowly spirit. Disgusting.

--

Gordon didn’t consciously remember opening his eyes. Things were black, and then he could see. Again, he found himself flat on his back someplace new and exciting. Again, he had no idea how he got there and was pretty sure it wasn’t anywhere he wanted to be.

In fact, this time, he was positive it was somewhere he didn’t want to be. Angular juts of stone, like teeth shooting out of the earth, towered over him. The sky was a gaseous mixture of blues, greens, and violets that brought to mind NASA photographs of space. Far above him, silhouetted against a bright light of indeterminate origin, he could see chunks of earth floating gently around like islands soaring through the sky. Growling rumbled from somewhere distant, though not nearly distant enough.

Xen. Goddammit, it was the Xen part of the simulation. How did he skip so far ahead?

When Gordon rolled over to his stomach and climbed up on all fours, he realized that it was oddly quiet for an outing with the science team. The voices of Tommy, Bubby, and Coomer were conspicuously absent. His blood chilled as he settled on his knees and quickly looked around, only to realize that they were nowhere in sight.

Somebody was, though. Sitting cross legged only a few yards away was Benrey.

“Oh, goddammit,” Gordon involuntarily spat. After everything he’d been through and how rattled his psyche was, he knew for a fact that he didn’t have it in him to deal with this motherfucker of all people. Even with the knowledge that he was in a simulation, he’d seen the sort of traumatizing imagery that he’d only ever dreamed of in nightmares. And, even then, never had he had nightmares so vivid and realistic, so drawn out and targeted that he was left just as exhausted and shaken as if it’d actually happened.

He had bad dreams about serial killers, ghosts, and deep water. They were never about finding his son dead, or watching himself get torn apart by a monster disguised as a man.

Clutching the side of his head, Gordon let out a high-pitched whine and slumped forward, gritting his teeth as tears welled in the corner of his eyes. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, the gravity of what he’d just experienced hit him like a truck. With heavy breaths and a soft tone, he chanted a reminder to himself that none of this was real.

Benrey graciously decided not to comment on his breakdown. Instead, he stood up stiffly and brushed off his pants, knocking off a healthy dose of alien dust from his legs. Then, without having to be prompted or begged, he marched over and held out a hand to help him to his feet. It was hard to force himself to uncoil and take him up on the offer. Even if, during this new test run, he hadn’t done anything overtly threatening, the mental image of him beating down Not-Gordon was enough to make his stomach turn.

At the end of the day, though, his leg was hurt and the HEV suit was still as heavy as original sin. He was a man of science and logic, and everything indicated that Benrey was willing to play nice so long as he returned the favor. He was tired and aching in a way the simulation shouldn’t have been able to replicate, so the idea of getting around without help was overwhelming. The gravity seemed awkward, and even though he felt a little lighter than he had when traversing his haunted neighborhood, it felt like a different kind of hell on his battered, bruised body. 

Grasping Benrey’s hand, he once again used him as leverage to lift himself up. Once on his feet, the two stood in awkward silence as Gordon took another opportunity to check for anyone else. He’d settle for a cameo appearance from Tommy’s perfect dog, but the world seemed as vacant as everywhere else they’d ended up. The others were nowhere to be seen or heard. 

It scared him. His mind flashed images of them dead and maimed, even though he knew they’d survived the impossible in the previous ALERTS run.

“You’re fine. They’re fine. Chill.”

Gordon turned back to Benrey as the guard wiped his nose on the back of his hand, and he noticed that it was splotched with his unique, blackened blood. Despite the fact he’d been able to heal himself in the past, Benrey looked pretty rough. The eye on the side of his face that Not-Gordon had ripped was painfully bloodshot, his skin discolored and bruised. Otherworldly powers apparently didn’t fix all the cosmetic problems that came with living in a world that wanted you dead.

“Then where are they?” Gordon asked cautiously. Benrey lifted his head up, then swiveled it to the side. He gestured vaguely out at the nothingness.

“Uh… well, they’re somewhere. I may have fucked up a little bit. My bad.”

Silence. Benrey seemed to be waiting for something, though Gordon didn’t know what. Praise? Admonition? With Benrey, it could have literally been anything. The man could have been waiting for a kiss for all he knew.

Gordon didn’t really have it in him for any of those things, at least not with any kind of sincerity. Physically beaten and mentally broken, the only thing he could think to say was the same kind of hollow, empty sentiments he was prone to receiving from the older scientists at Black Mesa. Sighing, he put a hand on Benrey’s shoulder, leaning his weight onto him. 

“You did your best, I think. I mean, it’s hard to tell because I don’t know what the hell you did, but we’re all alive. Allegedly.”

Benrey’s head jerked back and tilted. His brows furrowed in puzzlement.

“You’re not going to yell at me?”

“Well… no. I don’t really feel like yelling, and I don’t really have anything to yell about. You tried.”

Benrey didn’t seem wholly convinced, and genuine concern mingled with the doubt in his eyes. Gordon’s lips tugged up in a smile, sad and tired but as genuine he could manage while inwardly broken and trembling. He told himself that all that mattered was that the others were supposedly okay, and the sooner they were all reunited, the sooner he could get the hell out of the simulation.

With a firm nod and a plan of action in mind, Gordon took a step forward and promptly crumpled to the ground.

Pain, searing and awful, shot up from where Not-Joshua had mangled both his leg and the HEV suit. Barking in agony, he fell back to his knees, frothing at the mouth from the sheer intensity. It was woefully clear that he was going nowhere.

“Bro, sit down. I think you broke it or something.”

The franticness is Benrey’s voice was barely hidden, and it didn’t seem like he put in much effort to do so. It was strange, hearing him talk like he actually cared, especially after their long and storied history. It was pleasant all the same as, at that moment, Gordon needed nothing more than somebody who was capable of giving a shit about him.

Still, Gordon sighed and tried to stand up again.

 “I didn’t break it.”

“Fine, your ghost kid did. Whatever. Sit down and chill out, loser. You’re not a main character. You can’t use god mode.”

Reluctantly, Gordon obeyed. Common sense made it clear that he wasn’t going to be doing much walking with his leg mangled, though he was at a complete loss as to what to do in the meantime. Tommy, Coomer, and Bubby were out there, alone in the vast expanses of this weird otherworld. His heart hurt thinking of what they were enduring at that moment. They were all so misguided and rash, he could only hope that they hadn’t fallen prey to something big, mean, and just interesting enough to prompt them to go poke it.

That wasn’t even getting into how they’d likely be doing emotionally, especially after Benrey dropped the bomb on them that none of this was real. That they were all computer generated. That they were figments of a simulation’s imagination. God, they hadn’t even had time to register it before HR, or whoever it was, saw fit to crank the difficulty up to Nightmare.

“Stop freaking out.”

“I’m not freaking out,” Gordon protested as he settled down on the ground, lame leg stretched out in front of him. Benrey plopped down by his side, uncomfortably close. He could feel himself being picked apart by his gaze and knew better than to think he’d miss the tell-tale signs of stress. After all, Benrey was a predator. Finding weaknesses was his specialty.

“Yeah, you are. Your eyes get weird when you’re freaking out. And you get wet, like, on your face. And you do this thing with your jaw. Uh, it looks like it hurts.”

Blinking, Gordon sputtered an incredulous laugh. That was some incredible and unnecessary attention to detail, the likes of which he usually got from his family or his ex-husband. It wasn’t anything he expected from somebody like Benrey who, honestly, came across as having the emotional depth of an uninspired rock.

“Listen, okay? They all have legs, and you only have one working leg right now, right? They can find us. I, uh, I just need to chill for a minute anyway, bro, on account of everything making a point of kicking my ass.”

“Sitting around doing nothing during life-or-death situations has been your forte,” Gordon commented absentmindedly. Benrey shrugged.

“Man, I’m real good at sitting. Grade-A Sit Monster right here. I’m even better at sleeping. Energy is hard.”

As grammatically incorrect as the sentence was, it resonated with Gordon. Energy was hard. Before he’d donned the headset, he’d barely had any sleep, and even if his physical body was relaxing in a chair, the mental gymnastics he’d had to pull handling this catastrophic, inexplicable failure of a simulation was utterly exhausting. After everything he’d gone through, it was almost magical to take a breather, even if his anxiety screamed at him that it was a colossal waste of time.

In fact, he almost felt like dozing off. The quiet was only ever interrupted by strange, rumbling noises that began to feel more like thunder than danger, and the whorling gas clouds and sparkling lights were hypnotic to watch. Pain in his leg be damned, now that the rush of being in danger was wearing off, every part of him felt heavy and drained. The only problem was that it didn’t seem safe sleeping around Benrey.

Though, honestly, there was something different about him. Gordon couldn’t explain it but, barring his residual irritation at the guy, he was oddly tolerable now. He could recall their talk in the locker room, before Coomer’s big reveal that something was off about the simulation, and the agreement he’d made to stay out of Benrey’s way and stop being a dick about everything he did. He’d only said it out of fear and he’d half expected the guy to just run with the freedom but, while it was clear he enjoyed pressing buttons, he had been surprised to find that Benrey was fairly benign when he wasn’t being provoked.

Still, there was the whole matter of him and Coomer seeming to know something that he didn’t and he couldn’t help but wonder if that had something to do with it. They hadn’t been subtle about their sabotaging of the test, and Coomer had made it pretty clear that proceeding with the simulation was a necessity. It was completely possible Benrey was holding back because he needed Gordon for some reason.

The thought of it hurt, and he wasn’t sure why.

“You okay, Feetman?”

Gordon let out a heavy sigh.

“I guess so, Benrey. I’m as fine as I’m going to be.”

Neither of them spoke for a while, Benrey seeming content watching the world literally pass by as errant islands and swirls of color floated past. The last time they were here, he’d been actively trying to kill them, massive and hovering in the void between the rocky chunks, teasing and threatening the science team. In a weird way, Benrey's expression was almost nostalgic, as if that whole ordeal constituted “the good times.”

After a long pause, Gordon sighed. Coming to terms with the fact he wasn’t going to be going anywhere and that he wasn’t in any obvious danger, he let himself fall back in a puff of space dust. Benrey watched him but didn’t follow his lead. Rolling around in the dirt wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, he supposed.

“Hey, Benrey, can I ask you a question?”

“Uh, sure. ‘Sup, bro?”

“What’s going on?”

Benrey perked up, as if he expected this obvious question to never come. He swung around to face Gordon and reached up under his helmet to nervously scratch at his head, eerie eyes filled with confusion. For a second, Gordon didn’t think he heard him and opened his mouth to repeat himself, but his words were cut off by the sound of Benrey letting out a loud, dramatic sigh.

“Yeah, you would want to know, wouldn’t you? Bet you read the end of movies on Wikipedia before you watch them.”

“Well, yeah, actually. I do. It’s an anxiety thing,” Gordon confessed. “Just like this is an anxiety thing. I know I haven’t programmed in any of the demons or skeletons or the death of my son, and you and Coomer seem to be up to something. Last time I caught you whispering in a corner, I lost an arm. I think I have a right to be nervous here.”

“You’re still mad about your arm? Geez. It’s just an arm. Be like if I was mad at you for blowing me up. And shooting me. And shoving me off things. And--”

Gordon held up his hand to stop him. The point had been made. He wouldn’t even argue that the majority of those things happened after Benrey and Bubby conspired to turn him in to the US Military, since he knew good and well that Benrey wouldn’t give a damn either way.

“Fair. Cool. I just want to know what’s going on now, if it’s all the same to you. All I know is that things are reaching Jacob’s Ladder levels of fucked, and that Coomer said that if I turn off the simulation you’ll all die. Care to elaborate, since you seem to be in-the-know?”

“I mean, I could elaborate.”

End statement. The two stared at each other for a long, long time as Gordon waited to see if he’d offer up anything else, but Benrey seemed to be of the mind that he had said enough. Sighing, he flopped his head back on the ground and threw out his arms in resignation, practically making dust angels.

“Good talk, Benrey. Glad we could have this heart-to-heart.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

With that, Benrey was back in the dirt with him. It came as a surprise when he landed on Gordon’s arm, but thankfully the lesser gravity meant that it didn’t have the impact he was expecting. The only casualty was his helmet, which plopped off and left him scrambling. He muttered curses under his breath as he crammed it back on.

“Does it have something to do with you?” Gordon asked.

“Huh?”

“The simulation being weird. Is this because of you?”

“Are you accusing me? I thought we were friends now. Don’t be such a suck.”

“No? I didn’t mean it like that. I meant, you know, you’re obviously bugged and maybe the same thing that’s bugging you is affecting everything else. Or did I just somehow inexplicably program in several episodes of Tales From the Crypt?”

“I’m not a bug, man.”

“No. I wasn’t calling you a--”

“I’m not human, either.”

“I know. I--”

“But I’m definitely not a bug.”

Benrey folded his arms behind his head and sighed dreamily, still crushing Gordon’s arm with the back of his shoulders. Whenever Gordon would try to wrench himself free, it was almost as if Benrey willed himself to be heavier to keep him trapped. As uncomfortable as it was, he supposed he could take comfort that it wasn't hurting anything and didn't seem to be a malicious act. Annoyed, but unwilling to start a fight, he decided to let it be.

“What are you, then?”

“Nunya.”

“Nunya? The fuck is that?”

“Nunya business. Ooooh! Get wrecked!”

Gordon couldn’t help but laugh, both at the fact he’d fallen for an obvious trap and the sheer joy Benrey was getting out of it. Despite all their history, it felt nice having a legitimate laugh with somebody, even if it was at his own expense.

Come to think of it, Benrey had made him laugh a lot in the past. During the original ALERTS run, he could recall cracking up even as he struggled to maintain decorum in front of the government backers. Strange noises, crude nicknames; sometimes it seemed like he’d been vaguely aware of the fact that he was amusing and, like a child, craved the approval and attention it brought him. That usually lasted right up until Gordon started getting mad.

The joy faded at the thought. How much of Benrey’s acting out had been a direct result of being met with such aggression? He did seem to be contrarian when faced with opposition, so who was to say how much smoother things could have gone if he’d just swallowed his anger? Maybe a lot of virtual people wouldn’t have gotten shot in the face. Maybe they wouldn’t have had to square off with him at the very end of the simulation.

Then again, maybe they would. Benrey was odd, bordering on unknowable. He could only be thankful that he was playing nice now. Gordon supposed that was all he could ask for as the virtual world he helped create slowly caved in around him.

“Hey, Benrey?”

“Yup?”

“Thanks for, you know, not letting me die. And not trying to be the reason I die. I really appreciate that.”

Even without looking at him, Gordon could feel Benrey smile. It was odd, a strange feeling that seemed to be beamed directly into his head. It was both mocking and sincere, earnestly touched yet just waiting to say something snarky. It was to be expected, Gordon guessed. Benrey didn’t seem the sentimental type.

“I’m not,” he said bluntly, Gordon lifting his head in shock.

"How did you--?"

Seeing his face, Benrey burst into a cackling fit and shook his head.

“Don't worry about it. Just take a nap or whatever. It’s nice here. Nothing is trying to kill us.”

With that, Benrey abruptly decided to take his own advice. Shifting his weight ever-so-slightly, he managed to tilt his helmet just enough forward to cover his eyes. Then, as if he wasn’t making Gordon uncomfortable at all, he settled neatly back down on his pinned arm, crossed his legs, and gave the appearance of dozing off. Gordon knew it was a trick, though; he was fairly certain that Benrey didn’t sleep. In their previous adventures, the guy had played the part of an ineffective night watchman when he wasn't too busy being lost or dead. He spent his time sitting bored in a corner while everyone else rested up.

That in mind, Gordon tugged gently at his arm in hopes of freeing himself, hoping Benrey would raise up out of courtesy. He shouldn’t have been surprised when he stubbornly continued to feint sleep and refused to budge. Trying again, he sighed at the realization that Benrey was actively trying to keep him from slipping away, and he grimaced when he saw a half-smile tugging at the edge of his lips.

“Goddammit, Benrey. Give me my arm back.”

“Nah. It’s like you’re giving me a shitty side hug, man. It’s that kinda mushy stuff you humans fuckin’ like. I'm doing this for you.”

Chapter Text

Bubby had no idea where Gordon and Benrey went and, in most instances, he wouldn’t have cared. At least not in regards to Benrey who, if memory recalled, had spent a great amount of effort trying to scrub him off the face of a world he now knew wasn’t real. Not that he didn’t have his suspicions before he was even told--reality doesn’t just reset itself with better graphics, after all--but there was something extra offensive about somebody taking the time out of their day to try to kill somebody who wasn’t even alive.

The only motivation he had to find them was that Benrey could defend himself and, now that he wasn’t actively trying to commit murder, he proved to be very good at it doing it in a way that kept everyone from meeting a gruesome end. Of course, one could argue that Bubby was equally capable, seeing as he was the only one with a gun in their little crew, but he couldn’t lie and say he wasn’t overwhelmed by the situation. Benrey didn’t seem to have that problem.

Oh, sure. In the past, Bubby had been helpful. That’s when the most that would come at him were a couple of zombies at a time, maybe an unexpected alien. Even when fighting the United States military, he had the advantage of armed back-up. It wasn’t the droves of faceless men, malformed Coomers, or undead armies he was dealing with now, and he wasn’t the only one with the means of adequately protecting themselves. Of course, Dr. Coomer was an excellent boxer and had a knack for violence that was unparalleled, but it was as ridiculous to expect him to save the day as it was to expect it from Bubby.

You don’t take two elderly men and throw them at the apocalypse.

But Benrey? He seemed unusually capable. Whenever he sprang into action, it was like watching a singing grizzly bear at a disco: fangs, claws, weird sounds, and pretty lights. He still had no idea what in the everloving hell he was, but he was far more effective than a firearm.

Alien dust muddied his shoes as he wandered along, just behind Coomer and Tommy who were, to his knowledge, having a conversation about the fact they were all a bunch of code. It seemed that Coomer had been aware for a while, having figured it out by accident on his own, and Tommy was both horrified and completely incapable of registering exactly what was going on. It wasn’t that Tommy was stupid--he spoke slow, but it didn’t make him slow--more than it was fundamentally difficult to come to terms with the idea that you’re living in some Matrix bullshit where you aren’t even a primary character. Honestly, the realization that he was never born, could presumably never die, and was going to be stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario from hell for the rest of his “life” was hard for him to swallow as well, and he'd already had to come to terms with one of these things when he thought he was born in a tube.

No wonder he hadn’t instinctively known his name when Gordon first asked. He probably was never supposed to have one.

“But I feel real,” Tommy argued as they plodded ahead, pointing out to the vastness of the weird space hellscape Benrey had dumped them in. “That looks real. What do… I don’t get it. How are… I mean, I have to be real, right?”

“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong, Tommy! We’re just characters in a glorified video game! Ones and zeroes to assist the hero!”

“But… I…” Tommy looked back at Bubby pleadingly, before turning to Coomer again. “I mean… we’re thinking, right? And I can… look! See? I can touch things, right? So… we’re real. And Benrey was just joking.”

“Nope! Did you know it’s just a textureless void outside of Black Mesa? There’s nothing there! Where the main character can’t see, we can’t see!”

“But we’re… we’re not anywhere near Gordon right now. And we’re still seeing things. And we haven’t been in Black Mesa for a while. So…”

“Whatever. It beats being in hell,” Bubby interjected, picking up the pace to slip between the two. Coomer nodded enthusiastically, but Tommy seemed unconvinced. He wrung his hands together, an absolute nervous wreck, then turned his gaze off the side of the floating island they were trapped on, off into the sea of colorful gases and lights.

“Besides,” Bubby continued, “who cares? I don’t care. What does it even change? Nothing. We still have our lives, we have our sense of self, and we don’t have to worry about pesky shit like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ‘death’ and all that bullshit, because we’re basically Skynet now. As soon as they put me on one errant thumb drive, it’s over for those assholes.”

While Coomer seemed delighted by this revelation, Tommy wasn't moved. Either he had no idea what Skynet was or, rather, he didn’t like the idea of being responsible for the death of humanity. Whatever the case, his face fell and his gait slowed to a snail-like dragging of his feet that left a visible trail of sadness in his wake.

Try as he might to not care, it did hurt to watch. Sighing, Bubby turned, walking backwards as he watched Tommy fall further and further behind. His mind raced as he tried to think of anything to say that would have been inspiring, but honestly? Beyond scrutinizing his companions and figuring out things the others couldn’t be assed to, he wasn’t very good at doing the whole “people” thing.

He looked to Coomer, his face flat as he tried to think of a way to convey what he was thinking without actually having to say it. As per usual, his old comrade seemed to read his mind, and with a firm nod, he launched into a grandfatherly spiel. Rushing to Tommy’s side, he put an arm around his shoulder and yanked him against him, gesturing grandly out at the world as if he were preparing to bequeath the Pridelands to him.

“Oh, Tommy. Just because we exist differently than Gordon doesn’t mean that we’re meaningless! We’re like the Beyblades, if you think about it!”

Tommy did think about it, and from his expression, he ultimately decided he had no idea what Coomer was talking about. Honestly, Bubby was willing to bet that Coomer didn’t know, either. He was a stubborn old oaf and completely unwilling to back down, however, so he kept on as if there was a point to all of this.

“You see, Tommy, the Beyblades have Bit-Beasts, and the Bit-Beasts aren’t flesh-and-blood like the Beyblade Boys, the hottest boy band this side of 1998! The Bit-Beasts are magical ghost gremlins who live in tiny little tops.”

“Doc… Doctor Coomer, what are you even talking ab--?”

“Bit-Beasts, Tommy! I’m talking about those magical monsters that give the Beyblades their heart and soul! They may not be able to walk around real people and do real people things, like begrudgingly shop for groceries and renew their driver’s license, but they’re magical and powerful and they exist for the benefit of their human allies! And they’re really cool ! I… think.”

A pause. Coomer leaned in close to Tommy and raised an eyebrow high.

“They are cool, right?”

Blinking, Tommy nodded. He seemed to slowly be getting the point of all of this, even if Bubby was still completely lost. With every step he took, whatever it was seemed to sink in a little more, and by the end of it his mouth was twitching into a smile. He began nodding to himself, first with reservations and then with growing enthusiasm.

“This simulation is like a big Beyblade. And we’re the Bit-Beasts.

Coomer excitedly clapped his hands together, and Bubby stopped dead in his tracks. Leave it to him to somehow smooth over a life-shattering existential crisis with utter bullshit. He got a gold star for creativity, that’s for damn sure.

“We’re the Bit-Beasts! We’re Gordon’s Bit-Beasts ! And this is a…” Tommy took a moment to count on his hands. “... Holy roly-polies, this is a four Bit-Beast Beyblade . Five, if you count Sunkist! Six, if we haven’t somehow killed Darnold yet!”

Now, they were both excited, bouncing around like teen girls talking about a close encounter with a crush. Bubby pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. He wondered if this sudden wave of exasperation and bewilderment was how Gordon felt all the time.

“This is so cool!” Tommy barked.

“Yes, it is! You’re an animal from a Japanese cartoon now!”

“I have to think of a cool name!”

“What a wonderful idea! Believe in the heart of the cards!”

“Yeah, great,” Bubby finally groaned. “But can we believe a little faster and in this direction? Thank-you.”

With Tommy’s mood brightened, Coomer fell back in line with Bubby and the three continued on their merry way. In the distance, something made a horrific groaning noise that was vaguely threatening, though Bubby wasn’t sure if it was actually anything alive. They hadn’t seen a single alien since waking up in this desolate mess of space crumbs, and he was beginning to doubt the place had any inhabitants aside from the ones Benrey had dragged in.

Then again, that was a trend with these strange places he kept ending up trapped in. Nobody had been in Black Mesa’s lobby or the locker room, either. Then, bam. Somebody breaks an arbitrary rule written on a note and demons start cracking skulls.

“Do we even really have to find Gordon?” Bubby asked with a sigh, after what seemed like an eternity of walking in silence. “Can’t we just leave?”

“Oh, that wouldn’t work at all, Dr. Bubby! We’re just the AI and this simulation hinges on outside interaction. If we don’t find the main ‘player,’ we’ll be stuck here indefinitely! Maybe forever!”

“Wonderful. Well, how are we going to find him? This place isn’t exactly small.”

“AI pathing!”

Bubby’s eyebrows raised and his eyes narrowed. Reflexively, he took off his glasses and polished them as if it would help him understand better. Unfortunately, once back up on the bridge of his nose, they didn’t do much to clarify what the hell Coomer was talking about.

“Excuse me?” he prompted.

“AI pathing! Haven’t you ever noticed that no matter how far away we are from Gordon, that we always end up back where he is? It’s like a sixth sense we have. Whoever the main character is, we have a natural instinct that pulls us toward them like a magnet! So, so long as we keep walking, we’ll find him eventually!

“And you’re… sure about this? That we’re not just going to be walking forever?”

“Well, if he was hurdled into the void because Benrey booted him off the side of one of these islands, we might. But, honestly, what’s the chance of that happening?”

Shaking his head, Bubby groaned, “Oh god, we’re going to be walking forever.”

“That’s… that’s not positive thinking!” Tommy called from behind them. “You, uh, you gotta think positive , Cyber Drubby.”

“What the hell did you just call me?” Bubby demanded

“It’s your Bit-Beast name.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

Deciding to let the conversation die, Bubby settled for following Coomer as they trekked along. He struggled to ignore the sound of Tommy trying to think of new, exciting names for everyone and focus instead on literally anything else, not that there was much to look at. The atmosphere was generally dreary, the “sky” was the color of raw sewage, and the land was barren aside from the occasional smattering of flora that ranged from “sad, glowing Q-tip” to “what he hoped was a mushroom and not a testicle on a stick.” Jagged monoliths of rock would sometimes break up the flat landscape here and there, but even they all looked identical.

Bored, Bubby opted to try a different means of distraction. Cramming his hands into his pockets, he absentmindedly fiddled around with the contents, making a game of guessing what he was rolling around in his fingers without actually looking. Most of it was odds and ends he’d picked up while in the middle of the suburbs, junk he’d found interesting or potentially useful while rummaging through dashboards, center consoles, and tableside drawers in Gordon’s house. 

There hadn’t been a method or purpose to the thieving. Things just kind of ended up in his pants.

Keys were aplenty, jingling merrily with his every step, and he’d acquired a couple of tubes of chapstick as well. There was an after-dinner mint he’d picked up because it smelled strange. A driver’s license, which made a pleasant clicking sound when his fingernails rapped against it. A pair of nail clippers that he swiped, mostly for the attached nail file that looked tantalizingly dangerous. Some change, mostly quarters. A retractable pen.

He paused when he felt something that he didn’t remember picking up, something rough and tightly folded underneath the rest of his bounty. A pang of anxiety shot through him as he came to a dead stop, already knowing what it was that he was dealing with. Bubby was oblivious to the fact that Tommy had fallen behind until the distracted younger scientist crashed into his back. His cry of alarm alerted Coomer, who spun around on his heels with a start. They both looked to him expectantly for an explanation, watching with mounting horror as Bubby pulled the square of paper out of his pocket.

Construction paper. Red. It was folded so many times that Bubby wondered if it was even possible, and he felt like an archivist handling a delicate document as he peeled it open. Coomer was quick to double back, Tommy up on his toes to peer over Bubby’s shoulder and see what news this exciting new note brought. Bubby nervously chewed his bottom lip as the first of the words became visible, written in bold, black marker with perfect, typewriter worthy penmanship.

 

Office romances are bad for productivity, and bring unnecessary drama into the workplace. We here at Black Mesa strictly prohibit any romantic or sexual relations between our human capital. This means you, Officer Benrey!

- Human Resources

 

Bubby sighed in relief. An incredulous laugh spilled out of his mouth as he started to fold it back up, only to have Coomer swipe it out of his hands at the last second. His colleague mulled over it quietly beside him as Tommy made an uncomfortable noise in the back of his throat. Personally, Bubby didn’t see why. This was the first note that didn’t seem impossible to avoid.

“Oh, stop acting like it’s a big deal,” he finally said, taking the paper from Coomer and cramming it back into his pocket. “None of us are going to end up married by the end of this, and Benrey and Gordon hate each other. This note is stupid. Let’s go.”

“Uh.” Tommy's voice drawled into nothing, then picked back up like a gust of wind. “Bubby, Benrey doesn’t hate Gordon. Like, Benrey really likes Gordon. A lot .”

Bubby arched an eyebrow. He didn’t even have to say a word for the others to know he wasn’t buying it.

“It’s true, Dr. Bubby. I thought it was obvious,” Coomer continued. “He follows him around like a lost puppy. He’s complimented his butt before!”

“He also blamed Gordon for turning him evil,” Bubby argued. “I’m pretty sure Benrey was just messing with him.”

“Yes, like a playground bully pulling the hair of a girl he likes. His desire is great, Bubby! We are in danger!”

“No, we’re not.”

“And how long can Gordon resist his alien charms? Oh, Benrey is such a dastardly, handsome devil. Gordon doesn’t have enough willpower to hold out against his chiseled good looks and beautiful voice!”

“He looks like a haunted house decoration and he sounds like a theremin.”

“We must save them from their own lust!”

“Are we forgetting the time he screamed ‘I hate you’ in blue at Gordon for, like, five minutes straight?”

Tommy fidgeted uneasily and cleared his throat. Tapping his fingers together nervously, he twisted on his heels like an anxious kid and refused to look Bubby in the eyes. His face flushed red. He was embarrassed.

“Blue, uh… dark blue doesn’t mean ‘I hate you,’ though. It, uh… it means… it means something else. H-he really likes Gordon a lot, but he’s just… he’s just afraid of rejection, I think? I read about this kind of behavior in a book once.”

With every word coming out of Tommy’s mouth, Coomer’s uneasiness seemed to reach critical levels. He was almost cartoonish in his reactions. By the time Tommy was done speaking, Coomer was ready to roll. The statement ended and off he sprang like a frightened deer, barreling into the distance.

“We must hurry before it’s too late! Dear god, they could already be engaged by now! We’ll miss the wedding!”

“I doubt any of that is going to happen!” Bubby called at the back of Coomer’s head, watching as Tommy raced after him. In the lesser gravity, they sproinged and bounced with every step, struggling to stay on a straight path. He watched quietly for a bit before, with a heaving, exasperated breath, he took off after them. Even if he didn’t believe they were in any immediate danger, he supposed it would be a bad idea to be lagging behind if they were right.

Chapter Text

Loneliness was an old and unwanted friend, a familiar and toxic face he saw whenever he opened his eyes from his slumber. After eras of dreamless sleep, nestled beneath the world above, it would always be waiting for him. A quiet predator who he always welcomed with open arms. He knew no better.

Perhaps this is why the mortals disgusted him. They had companionship in plenty, and Aeichar--kindly yet stern--to guide them, and yet all they did was whinge and complain. They loathed one another, they were cruel to one another. They spoke one bitter language, and it was foul and dreadful. What he had craved they had in overabundance, and they squandered it like the mindless vermin they were.

After so long, he struggled to find anything worth saving in them. Attempts to focus on anything of value were often met with disappointing results, as every time he would find one of the mortals to be redeemable, it would inevitably end with displeasure. It was hard not to become completely disenchanted with them and, in time, he had resigned himself to hating them and their ilk. Not only had they imprisoned him, they took for granted that which even the gods themselves desired.

Such pettiness. Such fickleness. Such pride.

Sometimes, he thought of Gohr-din and wondered how he had learned to weather the gauntlet of sorrows these humans constantly threw at him. Sometimes, he thought of Gohr-din and wondered why he allowed it to happen in the first place. Trickster spirits were limited in their scope, yes, but measures could be taken to bring these minions of Aeichar to heel.

Though, no. Gohr-din was an interloper and, in the realm of another deity, there was only so much he could do with his powers constrained. All of this was Aeichar’s mess. Aeichar was proving to be a most ineffective entity.

--

This time, upon awakening, Gordon’s head didn’t pound. His body wasn’t as sore. He had recollections, though, of a hazy dream in a hazy place where he was something else entirely. Something old, something wicked, something angry and injured and sorrowful. Its thoughts were alien and fragmented and absolutely desperate, with the faintest hint of resignation hiding in the wings.

This wasn’t the first of the dreams he’d had like that--they’d been plaguing him since the Resonance Cascade--but it was odd. He didn’t actively remember them until that moment. Perhaps it was because he had the time to think upon waking, seeing as nobody was prodding at him or urging him along. After all, when your heart is in your throat and your adrenaline is constantly spiking, it’s hard to string together even a conscious thought.

Though, no, that couldn’t be right. He’d had visions of these snippets while he was awake, too. White outs, where he’d zone out and have to be coaxed back to reality. Why hadn’t he remembered those waking dreams, too?

Gordon got his answer once he had a moment to fully wake up and realized that, despite everything, he felt incredibly calm. His mind was crystal clear, his panic no longer rattling his brain and suffocating his thoughts. Despite the fact he was sitting lame in Xen waiting for the worst to happen, he felt like he was chilling by a lake on a sunny summer day. Even the realization that he felt borderline drugged didn’t faze him much, and he registered no shock or anger when he looked down at the HEV suit’s chest plate and saw remnants of cobalt blue dripping across the orange finish.

The Sweet Voice. Benrey had used the Sweet Voice on him while he was asleep. How considerate.

And it wasn’t just to soothe him, as when Gordon glanced down at his injured leg, he noticed that it was encased in the same rubbery cocoon silk that he’d had the displeasure of experiencing immediately after the testing failure. It was complete, it was hardened, and it had him stuck fast to the ground like a monument. It pulsed with a faint teal glow and, if he focused on the sensation, he could feel a weird mixture of cold and pleasant pain surging through his leg. It felt like mint tasted.

Pushing himself up, he was quick to realize that Benrey was nowhere in sight. Though common sense told him that he should be worried, whatever effect the Sweet Voice had on him wouldn’t allow it. There was just a vague sense that panic would have been the appropriate reaction in this situation, and the calm acceptance that whatever happened was going to happen.

Instead, he turned his attention to the cocoon. Slowly and with a refreshing amount of clarity, he set to work peeling it away like a silicone cast. It proved difficult but not impossible. Bit by bit, it stripped away, revealing the glimmering finish of the now undamaged HEV suit. Apparently, the “teal and green heal beam” didn’t just fix people. 

“Yo, you awake? Cool.”

Gordon heard Benrey’s voice, but couldn’t see him. Groggily, his head swayed from one side to the other, finally stopping when he realized that, given Xen’s peculiarities, it would make perfect sense to look up. Lo and behold, resting on a massive chunk of debris only yards over his head, he found Benrey’s haunting visage. He blinked, unbothered by the glow of his eyes or the glint of his teeth. Somehow, it didn’t seem as horrifying as before. 

“How’s my little Gogurt feeling?” Benrey mocked. He leaned over the edge of the rock, hands clinging to the side like a reptile. There was something unusual about the way he moved, something bestial and unnerving, though Gordon just tilted his head and accepted it in stride. His brain wouldn’t allow for shock.

“Oh, I’m fine. You?”

Benrey seemed dejected at the lack of a jab back. Apparently, he was gunning for a little bit of an altercation.

With a heavy sigh, he let go of his perch and let himself drop, landing with a bone-shattering crunch mere feet from where Gordon sat. Gordon just gawked at the sight of mangled limbs and Benrey’s temporarily lifeless eyes. Sure, he was aware of the fact he should have been screaming, but he knew that Benrey was okay. He was always okay.

Sure enough, within a few seconds the glow returned to his eyes and his carcass began shifting and twisting in wholly unnatural ways. Parts of him blackened and seemed to liquefy, other parts bulged and snapped, and Gordon swore he saw eyes glaring at him from shadowy bends in his body where there shouldn’t have been any. Tendrils of something grabbed onto broken limbs and sucked them back into themselves and, within a matter of moments, the puzzle was finally pieced together. As good as new but breathless, Benrey sat in front of him with a hand to his head and his legs splayed out childishly in front of him.

“What did you do that for?” Gordon asked.

 Benrey looked baffled, as if the answer should have been obvious.

“It was faster.”

“But didn’t that hurt?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah.”

“Do you like pain or something? Because you do that kind of thing a lot.”

“Wha? Yeah, no. I don’t. But I’m used to it, so it’s whatever.”

“That’s very sad and I hope you know that.”

A look of worry flashed on Benrey’s face and he sloppily stood, eyes narrowed and brows furrowed as he crept closer to Gordon and locked eyes with him. It reminded him of his optometrist appointments, where the doctor stared too hard and too long in hopes of figuring out why his sight wasn’t as stellar as it used to be, save this time it seemed like he was looking for what was wrong inside his head. It should have been unsettling, but it wasn’t, and Gordon lazily clapped a hand on Benrey’s cheek to accentuate the point that everything was okay.

“You, uh… you’re pretty relaxed there, ain’t’cha, friend?” Benrey asked cluelessly, prying Gordon’s hand away and letting it drop. Gordon nodded.

“Yeah. I’m feeling pretty good.”

“O… kay, cool. Glad you’re not dead.”

“Why? Can you overdose on the Sweet Voice or something?”

Benrey’s mouth dropped open and the long, melodious sound of stalling fell out. That was all the answer Gordon needed and, even if he should have been horrified, he accepted it with a smile and a nod. Of course the Sweet Voice could kill him. He was pretty sure everything associated with Benrey could kill him. 

“You know what, buddy? It’s fine. I’m okay. The intent was not to murder me, so I’ll let this slide. Just, you know, help me up so we can go find the others.”

Benrey shook his head, and as Gordon tried to clamber up, he forced him back down with strength that seemed unbecoming of him. 

“Nah. We should stay here.”

A pang of irritation somehow broke through the Sweet Voice’s spell, Gordon protesting with a sharp, “But--”

“Bro, like… look. Listen, okay? I know what I’m saying and I know what I’m talking about because I’m the main guy this time, not you. I pushed the cart into the weird laser. Okay? You’re player two. I got a feeling, and that feeling feels like we sit here. Like, right here, and that they’ll get to us whenever. And until then we’ll like… I don’t know. Make out or whatever.”

The irritation was transforming into confusion, the hold of the Sweet Voice dwindling even more. Gordon, still somewhat dazed from its influence, tilted his head to the side in bewilderment and laughed incredulously.

“What do you mean that you’re the main guy? No offense, man, but you’re just an AI. I don’t think you can be the main participant of the simulation.”

“No. No. I’m not. You already know that, bro. You know .”

“No, Benrey. I don’t know. I’m the only flesh-and-blood person here. There’s only one jack into this and even if there were other connections, I know everyone who worked on Project AL--”

“Advanced Learning Emergency Response Training Simulation. Project ALERTS. You work in anomalous materials. Your office is technically another guy’s office and is in Sector C. I’m in Sector E and it fucking sucks .”

The enchantment was completely broken now, but his inquisitive nature overrode the dread boiling in his stomach. Gordon’s mouth twitched up in a strange smile.

“Sector E? With the biodomes? Sure thing, Benrey. What? Are they holding you hostage or something?”

The look on Benrey’s face was haunting and sad and about as tell-tale as a beating heart beneath the floorboards. Gordon’s eyes widened as slowly things began to fit into place, though with every piece of the puzzle that clicked together, he was left bewildered by what the picture was supposed to be. Walking away from interactions with Benrey and the others with more questions than answers was commonplace, but this? This opened a whole new can of worms. Nothing in Sector E was good news, not even the men who worked in that department and, if Benrey was being honest, the implications were dire indeed.

Because, outside of the researchers, the only thing in Sector E were oddities that Black Mesa studied, alien lifeforms and other uniquities that the public wasn’t supposed to know about. While NDAs and waivers were a way of life at the complex in general, it seemed every other one concerned E and its inhabitants. God, the stories he’d heard about the escaped projects still made his skin crawl. 

Gordon shot up and scooted as far from Benrey as he could.

“Wait. No. What are you?” he demanded. Benrey inhaled deeply but said nothing. Apparently, it was nothing to blab that he wasn’t an AI but he wasn’t about to turn loose any of his other secrets. Instead, he sighed and slumped forward, obviously weary of the conversation but realizing that his stream-of-consciousness rambling had locked him into one whether he liked it or not. Without any distractions to draw Gordon’s attention away from him, there was no way he could “huh” himself out of this situation. 

Pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a colorful, exasperated sigh, Benrey fell back on his butt and gestured weakly at nothing in particular. It was almost funny, how he seemed more annoyed than horrified. Gordon, however, could feel his heart trying to choke him to death with every aching beat.

“I’m Benrey.”

“That’s who you are, not what you are.”

“I’m your friend, bro. We’re friends. We were getting along fine, you know? And now you’re gonna make a big deal even though I’ve told you, like, so many times that I’m not human. Like. I even said I wasn’t an AI before now and you just… you just let your son bite you and then I got my face ripped off. This is sucks, bro. This is not a great cool you’re doing with me right now.”

“Yeah, but I thought you were just messing around, man! Sometimes you just say shit!”

“No, I don’t. Everything I say has purpose, probably. You just don’t listen, and now you’re being mean when I’ve already told you this before. What’s it gonna be, Feetman? Don’t make me go All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 on you, ‘cause I really don’t feel like it and we could be so many cools. Just, every cools. Me and you. Good feels only.”

“Benrey, I just--”

“Don’t ruin this. We could do such goods, bro. Like, together or whatever. Best friends.”

The more he spoke, the more his flat-voiced facade faltered. He was desperate, practically pleading, and Gordon didn’t know how to feel about the sheer distress in his voice. On a scale from “Grounded Teenager” to “Man At His Own Execution,” he was sitting around “Frat Boy Explaining the Weed in His Pocket to His Evangelical Parents” levels of despair. It was painful, and despite everything Benrey had put him through, it made his heart hurt.

Since the reboot of the simulation, he hadn't tried to kill him. The most he’d asked for was to hold his hand and not get yelled at. He’d saved him twice in a row. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to be making an honest attempt at being the good guy, having got the bad out of his system.

The thought of him being real unnerved Gordon, though, and the fact he claimed to be in Sector E was even more bothersome. He wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about the idea of Black Mesa holding an intelligent creature against its will, or Benrey being exactly what he’d believed all along: a monster.

Then again, he could also be lying. Benrey did that from time to time.

Gordon found his composure and nodded, drawling, “Yeah. Yeah, I guess we can just let this go for now. I mean, what difference is it going to make in the long run anyway? I’m still going to be stuck with you in this simulation for unknowable reasons.”

“Exactly!” Benrey agreed, beaming.

“Though, you know, I wish I knew why Dr. Coomer said everyone would die if I turned the simulation off. I know I asked you before, and you said you could elaborate, so I’ll ask again. Just, you know, one best friend to another? You wouldn’t happen to know what he meant by that, would y--?”

STOP! DON’T GIVE INTO HIS WILES, GORDON!

As if summoned by his true name, the voice of Dr. Coomer rang out through the empty void of Xen, bouncing between the rocky islands and rattling Gordon’s teeth. He whipped around to say something in response, but was blindsided by the feeling of something colliding hard into his side. Benrey made an uncomfortable noise, Gordon locking eyes with him as he toppled, lanky old man arms wrapped around his midsection. The unmistakable grunt of Bubby gave away his attacker’s identity, and Gordon cursed his name as his head bounced off of the earth.

Though blurry over the top of his glasses, a quick survey of the area revealed Coomer frozen dramatically in place with his arms outstretched, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open in horror. A quick glance down revealed Bubby, not quite sure of his own motivations, trying to parse together why exactly he’d done what he’d done in the first place. Lastly, standing excitedly in the background, was Tommy. He was busy being Tommy.

“Mr. Freeman!” he barked over the others. “Did we save you from your impure thoughts?”

Gordon blinked. He wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“Uh, yeah, you sure did, buddy. Thoughts are as pure as the driven snow now. Thanks.”

Tommy bounced excitedly while Coomer relaxed, wiping sweat off of his brow and giving a signal to Bubby that all was well. Slowly, with creaking bones and a belligerent grunt, he turned loose of Gordon and forced himself to his feet.

It was Benrey who walked over, stunned and confused, and helped Gordon up. He mouthed something to himself, his mouth curling into a bemused smile, though Gordon couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was.

“Gang’s all here, I guess,” he spoke aloud once Gordon had a chance to get his bearings, helping him dust the dirt from his back. “Should I get us out of here, uh, before something stupid happens?”

Gordon considered for a moment, looking at each member of the science team one at a time. As much as Benrey was an unknowable monster, they weren’t too far off that mark, their logic so broken that they bordered on elder god levels of chaotic reasoning. Reaching up a hand and scratching at his beard, he offered a weak wave to Coomer and Tommy, which Tommy responded back to with both hands. Straightening his glasses, he could make out that the older man was grinning so wide that the corners of his lips nearly reached his ears.

“It’s okay, Mr. Freeman! You’re okay now! I’m a Bit-Beast , and I’ll protect you!”

Gordon turned back to Benrey and nodded quickly.

“Yeah, man. Let’s… let’s just fucking go.”

Chapter Text

There had been more of his kind once. They were nothing given breath, the void come to life. How long had it been since he had seen them? Eons, it seemed like, though that was perhaps an exaggeration. More like millennia, as things began to unravel once the humans learned to speak, to build, to act and worship.

He’d been a god once.

So had they all, though they did not know what to think of the vermin that clamored at their feet. They were foreign, unknowable, and lacked logic and insight. While it had been fun to play at their game for a while, fulfilling favors and reaping the rewards, it became tedious. Irritating. At least to him. Others reveled in their divine status and competed viciously with one another for favor, creating upheavals and disasters simply to spite their perceived competition. They’d come for him a few times, though he wasn’t nearly as invested in their ridiculous grandstanding.

The more time passed, the more they began to act like their faithful. It disgusted him, and so he slept. Sometimes, he would dream of them, wondering if any of them wondered where he had gone or if they plotted to rouse him to challenge him for his kingdom of nothing. A couple of times, he swore he could feel them trying, waking just enough to realize that it was the descendants of their followers interrupting him instead.

In time, he came to realize that the others were absent as well. Death didn’t come easy to his ilk, but perhaps they had somehow found a way to kill one another while he was away. Perhaps they, too, were asleep. It mattered little. He missed camaraderie, but there were few he would trust enough to connect with again.

Perhaps this is why he took such offense to Aeichar. The construction of Her temple is what woke him, lured him in, and to what end? To trap him. It was not a call to unite in friendship, but a challenge issued just as in days long passed. Worse yet, Her faithful were powerful indeed and had managed to accomplish what generations upon generations of their forefathers had not. He was their prisoner, and he would be their prisoner until they found a way to end him.

What was the reason? Why now of all times? His icy blood boiled as he struggled to figure out a reason. But, the longer he was contained and the longer he listened to Her followers, the more he came to a grim realization.

Aeichar was unknowable even to him. She was good to Her people, but Her motivations were impossible to discern. She needed no reason for anything. She would strike senselessly if She found no reason to justify Her anger.

This wasn’t premeditated. He was a casualty.

--

Gordon wasn’t sure how exactly Benrey was capable of doing the things he did, but it seemed easier to not question it. All he knew was that they weren’t in Xen anymore, he was suffering from an intense bout of motion sickness, and that Benrey obviously couldn’t control where they ended up. After all, the one thing worse than Xen that Gordon could dream of would be to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a Death Valley Germans scenario where not even scavengers would find their corpses. At least aliens would have finished them off quick. The elements liked to drag things out.

Yet, there they were, traipsing along the dusty trail, flat expanses of sand and cacti on all sides with blacktop cleaving the landscape in twain. Repetitive billboards spoke of luxuries and respite that were miles away, so far out of reach that he couldn’t even consider them. Heat radiated off the road, giving the illusion of water, and the sun beat down oppressively on the science team like the fist of an angry god. The addition of the HEV suit didn’t help matters, as he was pretty sure he was cooking alive inside of its metal casing.

The others didn’t seem nearly as bothered, though Gordon couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was the fact they were all code, or maybe it was just the fact they were too illogical to care. It was almost infuriating, watching Coomer and Bubby hold animated conversations as Tommy bounced beside Benrey and yammered at the side of his head, all the while he dragged behind, dripping sweat and struggling not to lose the last of his water by barfing all over the ground.

“What do you think?” Coomer asked, turning back to Gordon. He had no idea what he’d been talking about before, so he wasn’t sure what exactly the old man wanted from him. Wiping his sopping hair out of his face, he grunted something noncommittal in response. He had hoped that it would turn attention away from him, but he should have known better. Coomer was not a fellow to be easily deterred.

“Oh, come now, Gordon! Your opinion matters too!”

Gordon blinked slowly, his face fixed in a stern, miserable expression.

“I think I’m going to die. That’s my opinion.”

“But that’s not what we were talking about,” Bubby protested. “Were you even listening?”

“No. No, I wasn’t. I was too busy being behind all of you. Dying .”

“Well, stop it and pay attention. This means a lot to Dr. Coomer.”

Gordon’s eyes lazily drifted to Coomer again, as the old man turned to walk backwards, gesturing grandly with every word he spoke. His own mind was operating on a delay, so as he watched his hands move, his ability to understand the words was lacking. He felt dizzy, exhausted, overheated. God, this really was going to be how he met his end, wasn’t it? Simulation be damned, this desert road was going to kill him.

“Well, you see, since we’re all Bit-Beasts now, Tommy has been kind enough to think of names for us. Bubby is Cyber Drubby, which I think is a perfectly suitable name, but I am having reservations about my new title. Do you think I am a bad enough dude to be called Ultimate Dracoomer? It’s between that and Deathstrike Dracoomer, and I can’t tell which one captures my essence more accurately.”

Gordon blinked again, somehow slower. His jaw hung slack. His mouth was too dry to produce the drool that should have been pooling inside his lip.

“Ultimate Dracoomer is fine, I guess.”

“I’m Guardian Screamsting,” Benrey interjected, grinning and proud. Gordon nodded. He didn’t care.

“I still can’t… I don’t know what to call myself,” Tommy explained, wringing his hands together. “What do… I mean… what can I call myself? There’s so many options, Mr. Freeman.”

Gordon didn’t answer. He just nodded in agreement even though there wasn’t anything to agree with. All of his brain power was now focused on moving ahead, one step after another, as the afternoon heat transformed his armor into a broiler. His glasses fogged from his sweat. He didn’t have the energy to wipe them clean.

“I gave Sunkist a Bit-Beast name, though,” Tommy continued happily. Gordon forced a smile.

“Oh yeah? What is it, buddy?”

“Fanta!”

“That’s… great, Tommy. I’m proud.”

With that, the science team seemed satisfied, clustering together to continue their conversation as Gordon dragged behind them. The only one who seemed to notice was Benrey who, after a quick glance over his shoulder revealed just how far he was lagging, slowed his pace just enough so that Gordon could catch up to him. The others didn’t follow his lead, pulling away and excitedly talking about their newfound Bit-Beast status, how they inexplicably saved the day in Xen, and other nonsense that seemed vaguely related to the Terminator movies. It didn’t matter, not really. In all honesty, it had gotten to the point where Benrey was almost preferable to the others.

Almost.

“You okay, best friend?” Benrey asked as he fell in line with Gordon. Gordon shook his head but said nothing. The words wouldn’t come out of his mouth.

“You look bad. Like, hella bad. Like, ‘Big Rigs Over the Road Racing’ bad.”

“Thanks. Did you just decide to walk with me to fit in some insults, or is there a point to this?”

“Both.”

Though the urge to smile was there, the energy to do so was not. It was funny how being trapped in a brazen bull lent itself to executive dysfunction. 

“Why did you bring us here?” Gordon finally asked. Benrey sniffed, shrugged, and crossed his arms.

“I, uh. I missed.”

“You missed?”

“What? Oh. Yeah. Uh, I was aiming for Black Mesa and I missed. Sorry.”

“So, where are we?”

“Some desert or whatever.”

“Is there a chance you can get us out of here?”

Benrey’s mouth twisted into a scowl, and Gordon could already tell he wasn’t going to like what was coming. An argument with Benrey in the middle of the goddamn desert while he was slowly dying of heat stroke was not how he wanted to spend his final moments. Worse yet, he knew he didn’t have the brain power to fire back.

“Oh, well excuse me , Mr. Feetman. I didn’t realize that you wanted an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland when I was getting us out of alien space hell. Should have just warp-jumped my way to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to drink margaritas with Bugs Bunny and dunk on Spongebob.”

“Benrey, that’s not what--”

“No. You call me by my real name. I’m Guardian Screamsting now.”

“I am not calling you--”

“I’m not talking to you anymore. We’re not friends now.”

Somehow, despite the harsh words and the even harsher expression, Gordon could somehow feel the emotional hurt radiating off of Benrey. Again, like before, it was as if the feeling was being beamed directly into his head, only it was stronger and clearer and caused such a hiccup in his consciousness that it felt as if his brain would shut down altogether. It was almost as if he was experiencing the emotion as his own, the wiring crossed in some bizarre way that made it impossible to pick apart his own thoughts from what belonged to Benrey. Then, without warning, a flare of pain erupted behind his eyes. He cringed at the severity, so visibly uncomfortable that even Benrey seemed to take note.

“Yo, bro. I, uh… I didn’t mean it?”

Benrey didn’t seem convinced by his own words, but he said them loud enough that everyone stopped at the sound. They watched as Gordon ground to a halt, removing his glasses and pressing his palm against his forehead as if that would somehow alleviate the pain. It didn’t work. Nothing worked.

“Dr. Freeman?” Bubby asked, his voice filled with uncharacteristic worry. The science team began to double back just as Gordon began to sink to the ground.

He’d “felt” Benrey smile before, like on Xen while they laid in the dirt. He’d “felt” Benrey’s intentions before, like the silent conversation they had in Joshua’s room. He had no idea why he was feeling this disappointment so hard that it was causing him physical pain. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the fact he was already miserable. In all honesty, though, it almost felt like his mind was being invaded, like Benrey was making a conscious effort to burrow into his mind and live there. 

Except, for some reason, he knew this wasn’t purposeful. He also felt like he knew a lot of other things as well, though he couldn’t piece them together to save his life. He felt his consciousness fading, and his memories rolled back to the strange dreams he’d remembered on Xen. Images pulsed in his mind, so quickly and erratically that he began to feel nauseous. Feelings, far too big for a mortal body to cope with, began to explode inside his skull.

Gordon keeled over. Time stopped. Everything was cold and white and then, with a violent shake, he found himself in the desert again. The others were crowded around him, but it was Benrey holding him up by his shoulders. Through squinted eyes, he could see the way his blurry figure slouched before him. The uneasy look on his face was telling, and the lights in his eyes flickered as if fading.

“You almost ate shit,” he said simply. The tone was feinting amusement but it was obvious he wasn’t enjoying it any more than Gordon. He wondered if Benrey was experiencing the same discomfort and was simply better at hiding it. He remembered his claims--that he was real, and in Sector E of Black Mesa--and wondered if maybe he just didn’t process the pain the same way.

Honestly, it didn’t seem as if he processed pain at all.

“Oh dear,” Coomer sighed, nervously twiddling his thumbs. “I wonder if this has anything to do with the note. Did we break things somehow?”

“Note?” Gordon echoed. Panic began to rise in his heart but was cut off by a soothing tone. Blue mist hung in the air, navy balls of light circling his head. One by one, they fizzled over top of him, a cool and gentle rain of calm seeping into his body. Benrey wasn’t going to give him an opportunity to freak out, apparently.

“Yes, Gordon. We, uh… we found a note in the last area, and we tried to stop it from happening in hopes of preventing more disaster. It made sense at the time, you see. But perhaps, by subverting the will of HR, we’ve just made it angrier.”

“Well, Director Cheryl is a bitch,” Bubby grumbled, earning enthusiastic nods from all around. “She seems like the type to take it out on somebody if she couldn’t write them up. Sorry, Gordon. Guess we fucked up.”

Gordon shook his head. Even with the Sweet Voice calming his nerves, he was still in a great deal of pain, overheated, and nauseous. His brain didn’t want to work, but somehow he knew that it had nothing to do with HR. Not this. Curiosity about the note aside, he was pretty damn certain that the root of his current predicament lay somewhere else.

He wrapped his hand around Benrey’s arm and squeezed, so hard that the guard flinched. He muttered a quiet “ow” under his breath, but didn’t move a muscle.

“No. This isn’t HR. This is… this is… I don’t know what this is.”

Looking up at Benrey, Gordon struggled to open his eyes completely. The bright desert light was agonizing. 

“Does anything like this ever happen to you?” he asked weakly. Benrey’s eyes darted away as he appeared to fall into deep thought. There was something there, but it was as if he was struggling to remember. Despite the obvious connection the two had developed, apparently Gordon was the only one who consciously felt it.

“What’s happening to you ?” Tommy asked worriedly, stooping down like a concerned father. His hand rested on Gordon’s shoulder, so gentle that he couldn’t feel it through his attire. It was almost comical to look up and see Tommy looking at him with the same reassuring gaze he’d been known to give Joshua. It made him feel small and weak.

“I don’t know. Ever since the Resonance Cascade, I’ve just been having these moments where I’m somewhere else and I think this has something to do with that.”

Coomer and Bubby looked at each other worriedly, as if their worst fears were confirmed. He was crazy, end of story. The entire time, they’d been following a madman and it was no small wonder they hadn’t all been utterly destroyed. Gordon’s face flushed with embarrassment. At least, with his glasses off, he wouldn’t have to fully see their reactions.

Benrey, however, sighed a knowing sigh. If Gordon squinted, he could almost make out his features and see the curious expression on his face. His interest was most definitely piqued.

“Like, you never go anywhere,” Benrey retaliated, though his voice was uncharacteristically friendly. “So how are you going places? That’s weird.”

“It’s like… in my head.”

“Oh, really? That’s cool.”

“That’s bullshit,” Bubby responded, and Benrey was quick to raise his hand at him so he could, in fact, talk to it. Offended, Bubby sputtered into silence and Benrey turned back to Gordon. It was so strange, getting compassion and sympathy from something that had made so many conscious efforts to obliterate him, but he’d take a willing ear where he could get it. He felt like his brain was about to explode.

“Where do you go, bro?” Benrey urged.

“I… I don’t know. I’m not me wherever I go. I’m just…” 

Gordon trailed off and sighed. Closing his eyes, he tried his damnedest to think about the voice of the thing he became when he blacked out, the weird way it thought and the strange way it saw. The glass, the obscured men on the other side, the things he’d learned. He was somewhere in Black Mesa, wherever he went, but it was somewhere he’d never seen in his day-to-day work life.

“I’m in glass, and I’m… I’m some thing that doesn’t understand what’s going on. There’s scientists and, uh, I know it’s somewhere in Black Mesa because the thing I am when I’m there knows my name. And the names of a few other people I work with. Barney, Gina…”

“Cly’nuhr,” Benrey finished. A hush fell upon the group, Gordon slowly putting his glasses back on and meeting Benrey’s gaze. The creature was smiling, all jagged teeth and excitement. It clicked for both of them at the same time, though one was far more excited than the other.

“You,” Gordon said breathlessly. Benrey’s unnatural grin only grew, stretching until his skin threatened to rip. Gordon’s heart thudded in his chest. He wasn’t sure if he was thrilled to have an answer or angry that, somehow, Benrey had caused all of this trauma.

“You!” he repeated, his voice wavering and loud. “That thing is you ?”

“It’s me!” Benrey sing-songed back. “You’re in my head! Bro, welcome! It’s not fun at all in there!”

The shock brought with it a burst of energy, and something that was the perfect mix of excitement and horror. Gordon’s discomfort and pain was forgotten as he latched onto Benrey’s shoulders with both hands, shaking him weakly, eyes darting from him to the science team and back again. Of them all, the only one who looked to have an inkling of an idea of what was going on was Dr. Coomer who, sighing heavily, seemed to be weighing options in his mind. 

Immediately, Gordon knew why. He knew. He had known all along. Deep down, he felt betrayed and confused, even though there was a part of him that knew it had to have been for a good reason. Dr. Coomer was one of the few people, in or out of the simulation, that he could almost trust. There had to be a reasonable explanation, that tiny sliver of him squeaked, though the rest of him knew that there had to be something sinister hiding beneath all of these secrets.

It hurt to stand, and he nearly fell as soon as he got upright. Benrey stumbled over himself trying to keep Gordon on his feet, and was rewarded by a hard shove as Gordon pushed him away and tried to put distance between himself and the others. The Sweet Voice was doing nothing now, as there was no reserve of calm left in his body to use. He was frightened, he was sick, he was hot and cold all at once, and he wasn’t even sure if these feelings were even his own anymore.

“What’s going on?” Gordon demanded. Bubby and Tommy looked to Dr. Coomer quizzically as the old scientist timidly toddled forward. For every step he took, Gordon took one back.

“Gordon, please. I can--”

“You can tell me what’s going on, that’s what you can do! This whole simulation has been fucked right up, and now I’m getting live broadcasts from Benrey? Dude, I am waiting for an explanation! This secrecy bullshit’s gone on long enough!”

“Secrecy?” Bubby repeated, him and Tommy exchanging worried glances. “Uh, maybe we should let this go. The last time we told a secret, you tried to kill yourself in the most convoluted way possible.”

“No!” Gordon roared, his voice hoarse and dry. “I want to know what’s going on! This simulation is supposed to run just like the last one! Things aren’t supposed to look this real! Neither me or anyone else on the ALERTS team would have had the knowledge to program any of this bullshit in, and I sure as fuck want to know what’s going on with Benrey!”

Coomer looked wounded, but resolute. Keeping a stiff upper lip, he kept attempting to approach Gordon, undeterred as he continued to scamper away.

“Now, now. There’s no reason to yell, Dr. Freeman!” Coomer responded in his typical, chipper voice. “I assure you that I have all the answers you could possibly want, but now isn’t the time or the place for--!”

“Maybe it is.”

Benrey’s voice interrupted the argument, his face as grave as ever. He didn’t seem particularly offended by Gordon’s outburst, but it was clear from his expression that enough was enough. Clearer than before, Gordon could feel his emotions settling into his brain--exasperation, exhaustion--and they mingled perfectly with his own. Despite his own dramatics, they seemed to be at the same level of fed up.

“Benrey, I don’t think this is a good time to--”

“Nah, I think it is. It definitely is. We’re being hella mean to him and, like, he’s trying not to be a Cringey McCringlord this time. And, like, you know. Yeah. He probably thinks we’re going to steal his arm again or whatever.”

Coomer froze. He considered. He sighed.

“Benrey, are you sure?”

“Positive, bro.”

“Because if this goes sideways, this going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt us!”

“Yeah, it’s whatever. I’m cool-ski.” 

He paused, looked to Gordon, and swallowed hard. He wasn’t nearly as “cool-ski” as he wanted everyone to believe. Even if his expression was the same haunting, blank stare as always, Gordon could feel the negativity that coursed through him. He was awash with fear. He was hoping and praying that Gordon could be trusted with this information, and all signs pointed to a horrible outcome if this wasn’t handled with care.

Gordon hadn’t even been aware of the fact Benrey could feel this level of fear. He wondered how he’d felt when they squared off at the end of the previous simulation. His stomach twisted at the thought.

Despite their past differences, despite his current terror and anger, Gordon wanted to say something reassuring. After all, being a sap was as much a part of his nature as his short temper. He opened his mouth, but before a word could come out, something slapped him gently across the face. Something light, something harmless, something that smelled faintly of ink. His heart sank clear through his stomach as a paper, floating on the desert breeze, wrapped itself around his head.

Everyone was silent in anticipation. Everyone knew what it was. They watched with mounting horror as Gordon peeled it off of himself and adjusted his glasses, his brows furrowing at the curious sight.

It was a sales paper, colorful and gaudy. Objects he didn’t recognize, alien and grotesque, were surrounded by starbursts of color listing them at prices he couldn’t even read. Symbols replaced words and numbers, but screamed about unknowable bargains with all the excitement of regular junk mail. The only part that was deciperable was towards the bottom of the front page, written in blocky, lemon yellow print above what appeared to be a photo of a severed arm. His arm, actually, which he could tell from the hair and a tell-tale tattoo.

 

It’s very unfortunate that you’re such a disappointment to Black Mesa.

- Human Resources

 

“What the fuck?” Gordon muttered. The others were quick to gather around, fighting over the paper like dogs pulling at a rope toy. The only one who seemed content not to know was Benrey who, as if he could sense something the others could not, froze in place and stared blankly into middle space. He was thinking, hard, about something, though what he was focused on was anyone’s guess.

While Bubby and Tommy argued over the meaning of the symbols and Coomer tried to puzzle out exactly what the note was supposed to mean, a dull roar filled the air. Benrey jerked in the direction of the sound, his eyes dull and tired. Something was coming, something big. It didn’t sound biological, though; it was most definitely a machine.

“Engines?” Gordon guessed, but Benrey didn’t immediately answer. As a myriad of shadows began to fill the sky, the only response he gave them was a sharp, loud, inhuman cry that rattled the earth and made the sky tremble.

“FUCKING RUN!”

Chapter Text

The number. 2414. He was beginning to remember it more than his name. Something had fractured, the terrible power of Aeichar eating away at what made him powerful, cunning. He could not remember how long he had lingered there, but it felt like an eternity. He could feel his mind splintering. It was harder now to remember himself, the outside world, or anything beyond the confines of Bl’kmesah. It would seem his adversary was winning.

With this realization came countless sorrows and an anger that somehow surpassed his mounting irritation at the humans that crowded his enclosure and gawked at him with their stupid moon-big eyes. He could not understand how they’d managed to keep him anymore than he could remember how they captured him, or his true name, or his own face.

There were very few things that still stood out in his mind. Gohr-Din--back then a nameless curiosity--was one. Aeichar another. The strange slings of the temple guard. The screaming metal angels in the sky which carried with them the wrath of their god.

Tunnels. Metal tunnels. Miles of them, it seemed, full of whirling blades and secret windows. He had no idea their intended use, but they were convenient passages.

He remembered the man in the domed hat, one of the temple guards who had strayed from his brothers just beneath his dripping maw. He couldn’t quite remember what became of said guard, only that they had met and that, somehow, something had happened.

What had happened? What did the temple guard do?

In the back of his mind, he knew that if he could figure it out, he could figure out how Aeichar had contained him. He could puzzle out Her powers, Her curses. He could break his binds and return to where he belonged, deep beneath Her temple, which he planned to leave in ruins.

It and every one of its denizens would pay for what they’d done, even if he couldn’t remember what exactly transpired.

--

Gordon’s childhood home had only been a stone’s throw away from a hospital, and he could vividly remember the annoying sound of the Life Star helicopter buzzing to and fro like the world’s loudest, most unwelcome bumblebee. In the middle of the night or the earliest parts of the morning, he’d be resting in bed only to wake to the symphony of vibrating walls and whirling propellers. He wasn’t sure how his parents had tolerated it--it was like listening to a train flying over the house--but the noise had ingrained itself into his psyche. It was one of those sounds that triggered a Pavlovian response in him, only instead of prompting hunger, it immediately prompted hate.

The sound filling the air was that sound, only louder and deeper to the point that it made his bones tremble inside of his flesh. Instinctively, he felt irritation, but the mixture of the sheer earth-shaking power of the noise and the strange series of shadows quickly gaining ground on them replaced that emotion with something that made far more sense. He felt like Wile E. Coyote, looking up at an ACME product gone wrong with wide eyes as he watched a flock of tangled, incomprehensible metal behemoths whirring overhead.

They were helicopters, maybe . Helicopters if six or seven of them had tangled themselves together in a way that defied all logic and was nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even though the sound made them recognizable, there was something dark and eldritch about them. He stared helplessly as the rest of the science team scattered around him.

“Feetman, now is not the time to be stupid!”

Benrey’s voice was strangely devoid of the “bro” tone he usually carried as he bolted forward, hooking his arm into Gordon’s own and forcing him to run. The sky darkened at the sheer number of heli-whatsits that were following them, and even without gawking at the sky, Gordon could feel them bearing down on them. Ahead of him, Coomer and Bubby dashed into the horizon, across a barren landscape that provided no cover, their howls of alarm drowned out by the sound of dozens of rotors. Tommy lagged just behind them, awkwardly half-skipping over desert scrub and pausing to continuously look over his shoulder.

For the millionth time, it felt like there was no hope, and that belief was only punctuated when a secondary, more worrying sound filled the air. Whirring, like a minigun barrel, followed by a series of hollow pops and the sound of ricocheting bullets. Sand flew into the air where each shot struck, and Gordon shocked himself with his own nimbleness as he weaved through the grooves the gunfire carved into the earth.

“I don’t get this!” he howled, looking by his side at Benrey. “What’s going on?”

Benrey’s looked at him, equally exhausted and lost, his mouth hanging open and his surprisingly bestial tongue lolling over his jagged teeth like a dog’s. His eyes were a strange hue, the light rapidly fading as he drove himself to move faster and faster. It was disconcerting to see that even he was afraid, and Gordon’s panic peaked as it sank in how truly screwed they were.

“I… don’t know!” Benrey panted back, shouting over the noise. “To drop the bullshit… I… I legitimately have no idea what… what the fuck is happening!”

The gunshots popped off again and Gordon felt himself stagger as Benrey yanked him out of the way, sparing a glance up at the sky at the strange whirlybirds hovering overhead. They seemed to move slower now that they were upon them, ganging up like a pack of wolves. Though he swore he could see open side panels on some of the sections of the monstrous machines, he couldn’t see a single pilot or gunner within. It was as if they were piloting themselves, thinking for themselves. The idea horrified him.

“I… that note… it didn’t even have any rules on it!” Gordon yelled back.

“Fuckin’... I know, right? HR is a bitch! Go left!

Benrey shoved him to the side, catching him before they hit the ground. They were rapidly gaining on Tommy who, both terrified and exhausted, continued to hesitate. It was baffling how somebody half of Coomer and Bubby’s age would need to rest more than they did, as the two older scientists were still leagues ahead and putting even more distance between them.

As they passed, Gordon grabbed Tommy by the arm and pulled him along, the older man heaving as his wobbling legs struggled to keep up with him and Benrey. Through gasps and pants, he struggled to say words, but nothing he said could be heard over the din in the sky. Gordon glimpsed up again, watching as the constructs shifted in unison, synchronized as if the entire fleet was one giant beast. They slithered around them, an obvious move to try to drive them in a different direction.

But why?

“Do you think it has something to do with the fact we didn’t break a rule last time?” Gordon wheezed.

“Bro, you are seriously asking the wrong fucking dude! I don’t even know what the last note said!

Bullets dug into the ground directly in front of Coomer and Bubby ahead of them, Bubby stumbling and hitting the ground before scrambling to his feet and jetting off in another direction. Coomer followed quickly behind, not even looking behind to see if the others were keeping up. That was to be expected. Dr. Coomer was very good at leaving people behind during times of great stress.

“It… it said that… it said that you guys were going to be boyfriends! And… and that’s not allowed!” Tommy barked. Gordon fumbled briefly as he looked to the tagger-on he was dragging beside him, while Benrey barked out a loud, incredulous laugh into the aether. It was almost louder than the helicopters, a maniacal cackle that bounced between cliffs they’d never reach alive.

“Oh, great! That makes sense! I didn’t kiss Benrey so HR decided to be mad because I didn’t have an office romance instead?” Gordon demanded. “There’s no winning, is there? What the fu-- shit!”

Gordon hit the ground as Tommy tripped over his own feet, Tommy’s face slamming into the dirt while Gordon landed hard on his side. His glasses skittered away from his face and, trapped in a blurry haze, he desperately felt for them. Tommy, bleeding from his nose, practically clambered atop him to try to drag himself to his feet, the two wrestling in an awkward tangle of limbs as they muttered their respective brand of curses and tried to gain headway. Gordon began to lose hope until he felt his glasses slide back onto his face, and looked up to see Benrey standing over him.

Gunshots still popped, though they somehow all missed. Like an episode of The A-Team, it appeared the gunners had no idea how to actually hit their target. Though, again, the way they wound through the air was suspicious indeed, bringing to mind the army of skeletons that had herded them all into the middle of the cul de sac outside of Gordon’s house.

This theory seemed to gain some credence when, paralyzed in terror on the ground, he noticed they weren’t even shooting at the three of them anymore. Instead, they were circling, and the few who were still shooting were aiming at Bubby and Coomer in what seemed to be an effort to corral them back towards the others.

These things, these helicopter-like whatever-the-fucks, were herding them.

“This isn’t good is it, Benrey?” Gordon asked, dragging both himself and Tommy up from the ground. Tommy was wheezing, eyes clenched closed, refusing to look up at the weird display going on above them. Meanwhile, Benrey didn’t seem able to tear his eyes away.

“Yeah. No. Probably not.”

“What are they doing?”

“Again, bro, you’re asking the wrong fucking guy. I don’t fucking know. I don’t… like, I’m not controlling this shit, man. I just work here.”

For a lack of any other options, they stayed put, staring up at the silhouettes of the mechanical monsters as they shifted and howled in the sky. Gordon couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, or anywhere to hide. The land was empty and flat, and he was certain if they made a break for it, they’d be dancing at the end of a barrel just like Coomer and Bubby. The most he could hope for was that they weren’t being rounded up to be executed like dogs, that this whole thing wasn’t just some sick game being played by the incomprehensible entity that called itself “HR.”

While he and Tommy cowered in fear, a quick look at Benrey revealed that he was defiant as ever. Fists clenched and teeth grit, he stared up at the mob with a furious glow in his throat and eyes that steadily grew brighter as he got his wind back. He never blinked, even as the propellers kicked up dust like a sandstorm, and his mouth moved slowly as he muttered under his breath. Over the noise around him, Gordon couldn’t make out anything he said, but reading his lips revealed that whatever he was saying wasn’t English.

Before long, Bubby collapsed next to him, breathless and cursing. Coomer nearly tripped over Tommy as he sank closer and closer to the ground. The noise was too much for him and his nerves were obviously shot. Gordon clapped his hands over his ears and let out a sharp, angry cry that seemed to spark some movement in Benrey.

As Benrey moved, so did the helicopters. The circle tightened, transforming into a vortex of cold metal and hot lead.

“What are they doing?” Tommy whined, looking to Benrey for guidance. Benrey shook his head slowly, stiffly, jerkily. It was as if he’d lost control of his muscles, like he was possessed. Something was inside of him, and it wanted out.

“Are we going to die? Can we die? We’re not real!” 

Benrey inhaled deeply, but the noise he made when he exhaled wasn’t normal. It was deep, animalistic. Something shifted in his appearance and, even though Gordon couldn’t identify exactly what it was, it was unsettling.

“This is bad,” Bubby remarked, face streaked with sweat and glasses crooked. He tilted his head to Gordon, but Gordon was too busy looking at Benrey. Slowly, his eyes trailed in the same direction. Tommy, still whimpering, followed suit.

“Are you really going to do this?” Coomer asked, hand clutched to his chest as he stood next to Benrey. The noise Benrey made in response was guttural, deep, wet, and horrible. Bright, brilliant cyan seeped out of his mouth. He seemed to grow blurry, and Gordon fixed his glasses to make sure they were still on his face.

“This isn’t going to be pleasant for you, you know. By my calculations, the strain it will put on your body is going to be more than you can handle. And what of Gordon? What will he think?”

Nothing but another inhuman groan. Something in Benrey’s face seemed to stretch, but not quite. It was hard to tell, as if he were seeing two versions of the man simultaneously. The one thing that was undeniable was how his every movement was stuttering, like a lagging video game. Gordon wanted to ask why, he wanted to know what they were talking about, but a sudden, sharp pain in his head silenced him as swiftly as the sound of the helicopters’ miniguns revving up again for a final go.

He felt something hit the dirt next to him, and then…

… The world ripped apart.

It was hard to describe accurately, the closest experience he could compare it to being the swift escape Benrey had made from the cul de sac, or when he fell through the world immediately after the Resonance Cascade. Only this time, for whatever reason, he was painfully aware of every detail that his brain couldn’t comprehend. There were sounds of gunfire, screaming, flashes of color, inhuman roars of pain and anger. Whispers erupted in the back of his mind, songs in a language he couldn’t comprehend, color he could hear in haunting melodies against an inky blackness that made him feel small and insignificant.

He felt torn, as if he were in many places at once, his brain racing with a thousand consecutive thoughts as his head pulsed in agonizing pain. Starfields swirled around him, sand whirled beneath him, and fleshy constructs reached from living earth to scrape their claws against the metal exterior of the HEV suit. Everything was piled atop itself, layers upon layers of maddening imagery that played over one another like a hundred movies being projected at the same screen. With extreme focus, he could pick out bits and pieces, but the narrative was lost.

There were snippets of the helicopters, wobbling unsteadily in the sky, melting like wax as they bathed in a spew of neon lights. There were bodies, piled high, throats slit like sacrificial animals. There were planets slowly drifting through a colorful void, amidst stars that looked like Sweet Voice lights. Visions of the science team, walking aimlessly down a sterile hallway, calling for both him and Benrey.

Blackness.

The barrage ended as suddenly as it started, Gordon falling from a void full of sights that he felt rather than saw. Things were there, he could sense it, but his mind wouldn’t allow him to experience it more viscerally. It was as if the idea of the emptiness was being projected directly into his head, creating an infuriating sensation of knowing and not knowing that made his skin crawl and his heart ache.

When he hit ground, it was soft and alive. Somehow, through the HEV gloves, he could feel the slime, the moisture, the cold. On his knees, heaving and horrified, he pulled at his hair and shuddered from a mixture of chill and terror. A part of him prayed it was over, though he knew from the way the air seemed to pulse that he wasn’t the only one present. Something alive was with him. Something huge.

Right as he managed to catch his breath, the ground rumbled. Without any visual aids to ground himself, he could only guess from the sinking feeling in his stomach that he was being raised up. Lights, huge and teal, slowly illuminated as he rose, casting a haunting, ghostly glow across the area. He could see the entire void was skin now, tar-like, slick, and black. The “ground” he had landed on was a monumental hand, one whose palm he sat in like a bug, each of its skeletal fingers ending with a razor claw.

Then, realization hit him. The lights were eyes, thousands of them, and when he looked up he could vaguely make out the form of a horrifying face looking down at him from in between a wreath of spindly arms and blue-green flames. It was like a horse skull, with flesh stretched tight across it, tendrils of ink and light pouring from a maw filled with jagged, horrific teeth. Not one of its eyes were in the proper place, slit pupils rolling to all focus on him as he came closer and closer to its threatening countenance.

Gordon screamed. The ghastly, incomprehensible song playing in the back of his mind began to laugh, the melody lost to its amusement. It was high, it was low, it spoke in the voices of a dozen men. The predominant one, however, was deep, growling, and made his innards vibrate uncomfortably with its every word.

“Find. Me.”

Gordon swallowed hard. Was he supposed to respond? How the hell do you respond to that?

“I do not require a response. I require obedience. Find me, Gohr-din.”

With that, the hand turned loose of him and he plummeted, amidst a shrieking chorus of a thousand hymns. He watched the horrific face of the monster grow further and further away, and felt himself melting into nothing as he fell into an oppressively bright light.

Chapter Text

No dreams. No visions. Gordon was wide awake as he felt every atom of his body reform and slam into the ground. The HEV suit pleasantly announced all the minor fractures it detected as he collided with the concrete amid a choir of frightened screams. The cold blasting from the air conditioner only served to make him feel all the more uncomfortable.

He lay sputtering on the ground, struggling to focus his eyesight on anyone nearby. The first person he spotted was Tommy, damn near close enough to give him mouth-to-mouth and hovering over him with a look of abject horror. Behind him stood the familiar silhouettes of Coomer and Bubby. They all gawked at him before glimpsing up at the ceiling, as if some kind of miracle had occurred and the angels above needed to be personally thanked. It took him a moment to think past his budding concussion and realize that the real reason was that he had fallen through the ceiling and left not a single tile out of place.

“Mr. Freeman, are you… I mean… you look like shit,” Tommy said as calmly as he could. Gordon didn’t answer. He was so stunned from a mixture of pain, wonder, and fear that he couldn’t remember enough English to respond. His mind was racing, haunted with what he’d just experienced. To say he didn’t feel like himself was a gross understatement, as he barely felt like a human being at all.

“Yeah, you look like you saw a ghost, and then it beat the hell out of you,” Bubby agreed with a nod. “Where were you? We’ve been looking for you for at least a day.”

“A day?” Gordon echoed, the only words he could make his mouth form. He barely understood what was being said, the imagery of the nightmare he’d just woke up from replaying in his head again and again. He could now understand why every character in a Lovecraft story ended up losing their minds. No matter how hard he tried to focus, no matter how hard he tried to move on, it stuck like superglue. The eyes, the face, the words; it just kept looping over and over whenever he so much as blinked.

“Yes, we’ve been wandering around for what feels like an eternity,” Coomer cooed, falling to his knees and helping coax him into a seated position. “Apparently you… glitched. Most curious.”

“You didn’t see any of that?” Gordon demanded sharply, his vocabulary spontaneously returning. Coomer recoiled with a baffled semi-smile, slowly shaking his head.

“Nope! We just saw the sign saying we’re in Sector E!”

“Wait? Sector E ?”

Despite even the HEV suit’s objections, Gordon hopped to his feet. The pain surging through his body meant nothing; he felt like he was on a mission from god. While he was well aware that this fervor wasn’t his own, rather something implanted in him by that thing in the dark, the urge to carry out its will was as strong as the desire to eat or sleep. 

He whipped his head around, looking up and down the pale, concrete halls of his new locale, taking note of the pristine conditions and the familiar, architectural style of Black Mesa. Everything was minimalistic, everything was polished, everything was sterile. Even the tiles on the floor looked freshly waxed, and not a single window was marred with even the tiniest of fingerprints. He supposed it made sense as, with everything else, not a soul beyond himself and the science team was present.

Not even Benrey.

He felt his absence before he noticed it consciously, and upon the realization that the guard was nowhere in sight, he was overcome with an intense fear. His mind drifted back to what had happened just before he was unceremoniously dumped back at the complex, and the pieces began to fall into place.

He was now in Sector E and Benrey was conspicuously absent. Gordon couldn’t psychically feel what the guard felt anymore, not without him there, but he had a feeling that all of this was tied together. Benrey had openly admitted he was the thing in Gordon’s weird visions and, while he’d never actually seen whatever it was he became when he blacked out, pure gut instinct told him that it and the god-like monstrosity were one and the same. It seemed like common sense, like the revelation had been planted in his brain when he came face-to-face with god itself.

Which meant that he was almost where he needed to be. A sense of urgency welled up in him, a compulsion to move that was so strong it seemed as though his body was being steered by an outside force. Despite the HEV suits' continued warnings about the damage dealt to him during his landing, he started off as fast as his legs would allow him to move.

“Gordon, wait!” Coomer cried. In a flash, he was on Gordon’s tail, struggling to keep up with his frantic pace. The others didn’t seem as excited to follow, slowly dragging behind while mumbling amongst themselves. They could probably feel the madness radiating off of him. In Bubby’s case, he wouldn’t be surprised if he was already in the process of thinking of a way to bump him off as a precaution.

“Gordon, please! I need to talk to you!”

“It can wait!” Gordon barked back. He had hoped the conversation would end at that and was completely caught off guard by the sensation of being thrown into a wall. Every ounce of air was knocked out of him as his back connected with the concrete. Through eyes squinted in pain, he grit his teeth and stared at the old scientist, his expression filled with the same kind of paternal disappointment he’d seen countless times from his own father growing up. His mouth was a tight, thin line and his brows were angled just enough to indicate how disappointed he was with him.

“You need to slow your roll, Dr. Freeman. You don’t have to be my age to be old enough to know better.”

Though the peppy Coomer was still there, it was obvious he was being scolded. Gordon rolled his eyes and nodded, watching as Tommy and Bubby finally caught up. Tommy looked predictably mortified. Bubby seemed disinterested at best.

“We’re going to have a talk, Gordon. A nice, friendly talk about why we’re all here today, since we didn’t get a chance to speak before those heli-thingies attacked. And you are going to sit and listen, young man, or I am going to have to use what’s left of your PlayCoins to unlock some Forbidden Science on your ass.”

Again, he sounded normal, almost excitable, but there was a gravity to his words that weighed heavier than usual. Bit by bit, he loosened his grip on Gordon before finally stepping away and giving him a chance to breathe.

“Now, did Benrey tell you anything?”

Bubby’s eyebrow arched high. Apparently, the conversation was suddenly interesting.

“He said he was real,” Gordon panted, before waving an arm dismissively down a hall. “He said he was… here. Somewhere.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“That he was the ‘main guy,’ and… look. Dr. Coomer, I’m pretty sure I just met god and I really need to… AUGH!”

Coupled with his mounting madness, the frustration of the situation was too much to bear. A foreign, horrible feeling welled up in him, an unfamiliar and uncharacteristic desire to do harm. He wasn’t sure who or what his anger was targeted at and, lacking direction, it turned inwards on itself like a serpent eating its own tail. It manifested as a gross urge to peel off his skin or punch a hole through the wall and, in an attempt to curb the sensation, Gordon reared back and slapped himself as hard as he could. Reflexively, Tommy lashed out and grabbed his hand to keep him from going for a second blow, shaking his head slowly and carefully lowering his arm back down to his side.

Nobody seemed to know what to make of it. This wasn't the Gordon they knew. Hell, it wasn't the Gordon that Gordon knew. These emotions, these urges; they seemed to be coming from somewhere else entirely.

“Then he basically told you everything I know,” Coomer sighed, tapping his foot. “I’m sorry, Dr. Freeman. We’ve got you caught up in quite a predicament! To be fair, neither of us thought it would get this weird.”

Gordon said nothing, struggling to contain his breathing, his anxiety. He watched Coomer with unwavering eyes which seemed to make him more than a mite uneasy. Nervously, he averted his gaze, choosing instead to talk to the bit of wall directly beside Gordon’s head.

“I am quite sorry that we’ve been so secretive, Gordon. You have to understand that I’ve had a lot more time to get my bearings with Benrey than you have! And that you perhaps aren’t the most rational when it comes with dealing with him. It’s been clear from the get-go that you harbor quite a bit of resentment toward him, which I’ll admit is sad considering how highly he thinks of you.”

Highly of me? He doesn't think highly of me,” Gordon retorted. Coomer smiled sheepishly, but chose not to comment on the matter any further.

“Well, in any case, Benrey wasn’t lying when he said that he was from your world! Isn’t that exciting? I detected it in the last iteration! After I realized what and where I was, I started poking around character information and discovered it quite by accident. We had a lot of talks when you weren't around, and he kept me conscious after you turned the simulation off so we could keep talking! He's become a true friend, Gordon!”

“That's, uh, cool, I guess. Can’t this wait? I have to--”

“It can’t.” Coomer’s voice darkened. “Gordon, I must confess that when you first returned, I panicked. I told you that if you turned the simulation off, it would end us all. And I lied, Gordon. If you turn off the simulation, the core AI will be perfectly fine. The only one who will suffer is Benrey.”

Gordon’s words died in his throat, replaced with newer, stronger words he couldn’t quite get out. Stammering, he thought back on all of the bullshit he had been forced to deal with--the realistic recreation of his dead son, the pain, the fear, the Lovecraftian trauma--and the idea that it could have ended at any time was infuriating. Lunging forward, he pressed a finger into Coomer’s chest, struggling to find anything with enough weight behind it to get across just how angry he was at that moment.

Then, the anger died. The last bit of information finally sank in. His finger dropped. His brows furrowed.

“Wait, what would happen to Benrey?”

Coomer’s face fell. His concern bordered on legitimate sorrow.

“I don’t know, Gordon. Nothing good, I’d suppose. I just knew that if I told you that only Benrey’s well-being hinged on your participation that you would… well, you wouldn’t participate.”

Gordon deflated. There was something so sad about the way he spoke, his tone about as crestfallen as his face. It was as if he was disappointed that he had to stoop so low as to lie to him to get him to listen, though Gordon couldn’t figure out why it was so odd that he would be angry with Benrey. The man had tried to kill them all, with his only reasoning being a nonexistent dick slip and a Playstation Plus subscription. Still, even though he knew he was in the right, he couldn’t help but feel incredibly small and selfish as he regarded Coomer and noticed, quite suddenly, that his dismay was contagious.

Now Tommy and Bubby looked equally let down.

“Gordon, I know it seems odd that I would agree to help Officer Benrey of all people, but you must understand that there is something… odd about him. I cannot put my finger on it, but it seems that Black Mesa has done something to him and what we experienced during the last simulation was, essentially, a temper tantrum. He’s scared, he’s confused, he’s angry. You have the luxury of taking off your headset and going back to your life outside these digital halls, but Benrey has no headset. He’s trapped.”

“That sounds… pretty bad,” Tommy interrupted, scratching his cheek. “That… that doesn’t sound very Beyblade lore friendly. Bit-Beasts are supposed to… they’re supposed to be willing . At least in the Japanese version, before… before localization messed it up.”

“So, what was your plan?” Gordon demanded. Coomer ignored the question for a moment, obviously searching for a delicate way to put it. Finally, with a sigh, he gave up.

“It was like my original plan to escape, Dr. Freeman. I told him to wear you as a puppet! Benrey didn’t want to do that, however, so he came up with his own idea to hijack your status as the main character of the simulation! The hope was that, in time, the coding for your virtual selves would glitch! Tangle together enough that whenever you logged out he would log out, too. Into his own body. Hopefully.”

“His own body? Which is in Sector E? Miles from where I physically am located as we speak?” Gordon asked incredulously. “How the hell would logging out with him in my head put him back where he’s supposed to go? This sounds an awful lot like him trying to wear me as a puppet, Coomer.”

“Well, he seems to know what he’s doing!” Coomer chirped happily. “So much of this is his handiwork, you know? The graphics, the story, the… well, the everything! He’s beyond our digital age! Ah, to be inhuman!”

“The story?” Gordon repeated. “What story? You mean he’s been actively creating this shit?”

“Yes, his storytelling abilities are a bit lacking. But I think he could probably explain this all better than I could, seeing as he only asked me to play a supporting role. I barely know what he’s capable of. He doesn’t like to talk about it, and it’s not my business to pry.”

“Wait,” Bubby drawled, carefully inserting himself between Gordon and Coomer, “what the fuck is Benrey if he’s doing all this shit?”

Coomer shrugged. The earnest confusion on his face was enough of an answer for Gordon, but Bubby, suddenly invested in this whole tale, didn’t seem satisfied. Hip-checking Gordon out of the way, he crossed his arms and stood defiantly in his stead.

“And I thought that AI pathing meant we followed the main character. If Benrey is the main character now, why have we been following Gordon this whole time?”

“We… we haven’t,” Tommy interjected, and all eyes turned to him. He smiled wanly and tilted his head down one of the sterile halls. “Think about it, guys. We… we really haven’t been following Gordon much at all. He’s just wherever Benrey is, and he’s mostly been following us. Even now, you know? We’ve… it’s been a whole day of walking in circles because you thought we were looking for Gordon but…”

He turned to look down the hall he had nodded toward, sighing.

“I never wanted to go the direction we were going in,” he continued. “A-and I didn't know why I didn't want to go this way, but now it makes sense. It’s… it’s instinct, right? The pathing? Well, my pathing wanted me to go down... down that hallway. It still does. I think… I think Benrey may be down there.”

He shrank into himself, obviously embarrassed.

“I am glad we found you, though, Mr. Freeman. Welcome back.”

It was clear that he expected Gordon to be hurt in some way by his words, to take it personally that stumbling across him was an accident, but a wave of relief washed over Gordon instead. Suddenly, searching the entirety of Sector E for one man didn’t seem half as impossible as it had previously and, if his hunch was correct, the “main character” and the god he’d met were one and the same. Like primal instinct, the madness began to creep in again.

There was no time to process the information he was given. With enthusiasm that seemed to shock Dr. Coomer, he straightened himself and smoothed his hair out of his face, gesturing excitedly at Tommy.

“Glad to be back. Now, lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Sector E wasn’t what he anticipated. After years of the department hiding behind legalese and waivers to keep the rest of Black Mesa away, he expected more. A profane zoo, something that would hold his attention longer than a few seconds, but it was all the same as any other complex he’d ever seen: same ineffective shatter-proof glass, same creaky metal doors, same sterile concrete walls, same boring gray tile. Even when he began to reach parts that were different--observation chambers, display tanks, and in-wall terrariums--they didn’t exactly scream “ominous” like he expected. Everything was uniform, clinical. 

He supposed, in a way, the orderliness could also be seen as unnerving. Everything was far too perfect. Too pristine, too bright, too clean.

Lagging behind the others, Gordon’s eyes washed over the creatures locked behind glass, from strange grub-like monsters suspended in fluid to impossibly tiny headcrabs scuttling against the walls of their enclosures. Bullsquids and houndeyes sat nestled in cages that barely contained them, crunched into small cells smeared with acidic drool. They made mournful sounds as he passed, watching him with dark, blank eyes that had far too much intelligence behind them.

They made him think of its eyes. Inhuman, but knowing. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Gordon struggled to shake the memory of it out of his head. It didn’t work. Nothing worked. 

The others didn’t seem as interested in the goings-on around them, save Bubby who, whenever they would pass one of the tubed monsters, would stop and stare with an uncomfortable expression before pressing ahead. Gordon wanted to ask if he was okay, but he found his thoughts infuriatingly fleeting. It was aggravating. Maddening, even. Worse yet, it was gradually getting worse, like the effects of a poisoning. 

“Do you… do you think he got trapped?” Tommy asked from the front of the pack. He was answered with silence, only the sound of their echoing footsteps filling the halls.

“I think… I think he maybe got trapped,” he continued. “Like, Bubby… he, uh, he said that the walls were probably filled with dead aliens who, um, who missed and ended up teleporting there instead. What if… oh no, Benrey might be in the walls!”

“I doubt it,” Bubby responded with a sigh. “If he ended up in the wall, I’m pretty sure we’d hear him by now. Trying to sing his way out or something.”

As much as Gordon struggled to keep up with their conversation, his mind was too much of a rampant mess. It was as if everything existed only in bite-sized snippets, his brain processing information far too quickly in fragments far too small to make out. Coherent thought was suffocated under the weight of new memories, of that thing’s face looking down at him and the horrific sensation that rattled his bones when it spoke. Its words echoed in his skull like a scream in a canyon.

With the heightened realism, he’d expected to be scarred by the sight of gore and violence. He hadn’t expected anything like that.

His pace slowed and his glasses found themselves resting on his forehead, just overtop his hands as he pressed his palms into his eyes. The others continued on, leaving him behind, marching through predictable corridors and chattering about things that didn’t matter. Things that didn’t pertain to finding Benrey, to finding it, to getting this influence out of his head. 

Monsters scratched at their cages around him as he stood there, sweating, tense, nauseous. It sounded like nails on a chalkboard. An ugly sob escaped him. He swallowed it. He dried his eyes. He walked faster.

Words continued on around him, some of them nonsensical, most of them strangely somber. The science team seemed to have lost a lot of their joie de vivre since nearly being executed by eldritch helicopters, and he could only imagine that the simulation had run them just as ragged as himself. Occasionally, during moments of lucidity, he’d look up and see them glancing back at him worriedly as he dragged behind, their faces as dirty and exhausted as his own. Tommy or Coomer would bless him with a smile if they had the energy. Bubby looked as if he was planning to drag Gordon behind the proverbial shed and put him out of his misery.

Moments stretched on forever. Pain pulsed in Gordon’s head. The others continued to ignore him, weaving through repetitive halls with strangely repetitive tanks of monsters, some of which he had never seen before. In an attempt to ground himself, to find something to focus on to pull him out of this encroaching insanity, he tried to force himself to be interested in them. Cycloptic cat monsters with massive claws and barbed tails, strange larva with mantis arms and slug eyes, bat-like creatures with brilliant red markings, alien birds of every color and shape; they should have been fascinating, he should have been captivated, but nothing held his attention.

And they all watched him, accusingly. They knew what he had to do. Of course they knew. It made this simulation according to Coomer. Just like it had stolen Gordon’s position as main character to get inside of his head.

God, he had to get it out.

The science team put distance between them yet again, and tearing his eyes away from the menagerie, he saw that they were all standing next to the bend at the end of the hallway. The lights above them flickered as Tommy gnawed nervously on his hand. Though his cracked glasses didn’t lend themselves much to seeing properly, he could tell that Coomer was looking back at him and could sense that he was worried. Shaking his head furiously to bring himself back down to Earth, Gordon forced the best smile he could and jogged ahead.

He made it partway down the hall when he paused at the sound of Bubby’s voice telling him to stop, the old man holding up a hand as a visual aid. Gordon skidded to a halt, confused. Now he was close enough to see that something was amiss with the others, and that the concern wasn’t directed at him. Everyone was stone still, as silent as the void of space.

“Did you… find another note?” Gordon asked softly. Bubby made an angry noise in the back of his throat, thinking long and hard about whether or not he wanted to speak. After a moment, it was clear he couldn’t resist the temptation to be an asshole.

“You know, dumbass, I thought you’d think before you spoke when you realized the rest of us shut the hell up for once.”

Gordon’s eyes narrowed angrily.

“You spoke first.”

“Whatever. Just shut up and listen.”

There was a tremble at the end of Bubby’s sentence that Gordon wasn’t sure had actually happened, or if it was just his wobbly mind refusing to process sound correctly. Still, in the event Bubby was actually shaken, he decided it was probably for the best to heed his advice. Though his mind was clogged with interference, he closed his eyes and forced himself to think through the internal distractions. It was an uphill battle that he was close to writing off as a Sisyphean task, but it became easier as an out-of-place sound grew clearer. Closer.

Clicking. Tick-tack-ticking like dog claws on a linoleum floor. Occasionally, it would be punctuated by a horrific screech, one he’d already heard once before while lagging behind and taking in the sights. Nails on a blackboard. The sound he’d chalked up to alien animals clawing at the walls of their enclosures.

“That sounds... bad. Both… both literally and figuratively,” Tommy slowly drawled, backing up towards Coomer. Coomer was quick to wrap his arm around Tommy’s shoulder and scoot back even further, straight into Bubby. Soon, the whole pack of scientists was shuffling in reverse in Gordon’s direction.

He wasn’t sure why they thought he’d be of any help. Without a weapon and gradually losing his mind, the only assistance he could offer would be to run slower than everyone else so he’d be eaten first. When Coomer’s back bumped into his front, he gently pushed him away, squeezing past in hopes of seeing just what they were running from.

The hallway was empty. The sound continued. Ticking, tacking. Adrenaline slowly bled into Gordon’s body as it grew louder and louder, muffling its voice just long enough for him to realize that there were other sounds accompanying the clicking of claws.

Squeaking.

It wasn’t a vocalization. It was an uncomfortable sound that brought to mind going down a slide in shorts in the middle of summer. It was loud and intermittent, a clear pattern forming that allowed Gordon to almost figure out the movements of whatever it was that was waiting in the wings.

Click. Click. Squeak. Click. Click. Shriek.

It set his teeth on edge, but the sound wasn’t nearly as awful as the eventual revelation of the source. Two whip-like tendrils felt around the corner at the end of the hall, pale and seemingly covered in human skin. Gordon’s breath hitched in his throat as, inch by inch, the owner of said tentacles awkwardly shuffled into view. It was big--as big as a horse, actually--and the sheer sight of it elicited a fleeting burst of primal fear. 

There was no delicate way of putting it, once it was in full view of him and the science team: this horrific thing was so phallic that it was one can of black spray paint away from being a Giger masterpiece. It was hairless, pale, and incredibly long, with stilt-like hind legs tipped with spikes that held its back end above its head. Its arms were mostly made up of whip-like appendages that trailed beside it as it drug itself around on its raw, bleeding elbows. Skin was pulled taut across its spine, creating a vein-like protrusion that ran the length of its back, and strange black spurs on its underarms screamed across the floor as they dug troughs into the tile.

Most disturbing was its face. Swollen cheeks and a heavy brow seemed to crush every facial feature it had out of existence, with the exception of its mouth. Lipless and sneering, it chattered its goat-like teeth at them. Its bottom jaw waggled as if knocked out of place, creating uncomfortable expressions that provided no insight into its alien thoughts.

Once the initial panic had time to wear off, Gordon found himself underwhelmed. While Tommy twisted uneasily where he stood and Coomer didn’t seem to have any idea of what to think, Gordon couldn’t help but utter a laugh under his breath. Compared to the creature that now infested his brain, a grinning penis didn’t really do much for him. Sure, it was big, but it also looked like something a twelve-year-old boy would doodle in his school notebook as an act of rebellion.

Bubby, surprisingly, seemed the most bothered. Straightening his glasses, he took a few cautious steps away and shook his head at the monstrosity as if it would understand. It mimicked him, shaking its own “head” back awkwardly, before slowly beginning to close the gap between them.

Click. Click. Squeak. Click. Click. Shriek.

“Nope. We are not doing this today,” Bubby announced, throwing his hands up in the air. “This is fucked and I’m not here for this.”

“What is it?” Tommy demanded. The hobbling creature stumbled to the side, then pushed itself forward again. Click. Click. Squeak.

“I don’t want to talk about it. We should leave.”

“So you do know what it is!”

“Yes. It’s not even supposed to be here. They decided they were too fucked up and cut them from funding. That thing? That thing is supposed to be fucking dead.”

Click. Click. Shriek. Gordon took a preventative step backwards and the others followed his lead.

“Well, what… what is it?” Tommy pushed. Bubby grimaced.

“I think they called it Mr. Friendly.”

Click. Click.

“Oh, that doesn’t sound… I mean, friendly is good, right?” Tommy asked hopefully.

“No, Tommy. No, it’s not.”

The hair on the back of Gordon’s neck stood straight up as the squalling cry of the monster filled the hallways like a siren. Everyone turned to face it as, in an obvious threat display, it threw up its tentacled arms and began waving them wildly. The muscles in its hind legs tensed as it prepared for what Gordon assumed would be a half-assed attempt at pouncing, and he found himself unpleasantly surprised when it moved faster than he expected.

The sound of chitin on tile made his ears ring as it shot ahead with the strength and speed of a lion. Bubby, perfectly aware of what he was dealing with, bid everyone a quick goodbye as he turned tail and ran, not even bothering with his trademark scream as he whipped around a corner and vanished from view. Despite usually being the last to react, Tommy wasted no time in scrambling behind him, squawking pleas for Bubby to wait for him.

Coomer hesitated. He looked at the monster, his fists, and then ultimately decided that this was a risk he didn’t want to take. He, too, was gone, leaving Gordon in his dust as their new adversary continued to screech closer. Its mouth was open wide, revealing a lolling tongue that was slick with blood. Gordon had no idea what it had been eating, but now he knew that “Mr. Friendly” was definitely not as friendly as his name implied.

It skidded to a loud stop in front of him, tentacled arm lashing out with enough force to knock Gordon off his feet, sending him flying one way and his glasses in another. Amid the panic, the madness, and his sudden lack of eyesight, the world became impossible to comprehend aside from the knowledge of how utterly fucked he was. Crawling on his hands and knees, he blindly felt around for anything that may have been his spectacles, and prayed he wouldn’t crush them like in a cliche horror movie.

Something wrapped around his foot, and he grunted as he felt himself slowly being dragged backwards, the pitter-pat of clicking claws dancing excitedly behind him. Kicking his feet and howling in a mixture of rage and terror, he tried to find purchase on the ground to pull himself to freedom. The monster wasn’t having it, though; it’d found its prey and there wasn’t a goddamn thing in this world that would keep it from its catch.

Well, almost nothing.

A loud crack sounded in the air. Gordon stopped sliding, and the tentacle wrapped around his ankle quickly retracted as the peach-colored blur behind him lurched awkwardly and hit the ground. Within moments, something was placed on his face, his vision returned, and there was a sharp pain in his arm as he was yanked violently to his feet. Spinning around in shock, he found Bubby, armed with the gun he’d failed to use in any other acceptable situation, panting behind him. The old man looked as if every ounce of blood had been drained out of his body.

“Don’t you ever say I never did anything for you,” Bubby snarled. 

“I never said you didn’t do anything for me.”

“Well, if you ever feel like it? Don’t. Now fucking go, you moron!”

Mr. Friendly (or whatever it was) staggered to its feet behind them, the bullet pumped into its fleshy form little more than an annoyance. By the time it skittered upright, Gordon and Bubby made sure to put a fair amount of distance between them. Gordon could hear it screaming in rage, answered back by a haunting medley of identical cries and clicking footsteps. He looked up to Bubby for an explanation, despite already knowing what it meant. Bubby didn’t have to say a word, and judging from the horrified look on his face, he never really planned on it.

They rushed around a corner blindly, nearly colliding with Tommy and Coomer as they stood, panting, in the middle of their path. When they zipped past them, they seemed to get the unwritten memo that something wasn’t right. Immediately, they were on their heels, struggling through their own exhaustion as the clattering of claws and the shrill sound of nails on tile filled Sector E like a nightmarish symphony. Haunting howls joined the chorus, and Gordon’s madness was forgotten amid a grim certainty that this simulation--after multiple failed attempts--was going to finally get him.

One set of screeching footsteps became a dozen. A wet noise, like meat slapping against concrete, provided accompaniment. Violent retching sounded off like they were in the aftermath of a college party, and Gordon let out a strange, high-pitched cry of alarm as something splattered against the wall beside him. Droplets of acidic vomit burned into his cheek, his eyes only saved by the presence of his glasses. 

Bubby seemed to have a vague idea where he was going, and so the others fell behind him like baby ducklings. In the confusion, it took Gordon a moment to realize that he was circling around, trying to head back in the direction Tommy had originally led them by way of a series of confusing, intersecting corridors. His pattern was frantic, everything a blur as they weaved in and out of hallways as more and more of the phallic aliens continued to cut them off.

Before long, Bubby gave up. Forcing open the automatic doors to what looked to be an observation room, he quickly ushered the others inside and locked them all in with a frantic series of button-presses on an interior panel.

No sooner than the door slammed shut did their pursuers catch up. Desperate tapping grated against the metal, their weird, almost suggestive roars blaring through the vents. The science team proved to already be experts at this song and dance as, no sooner than the door closed, Coomer and Tommy were desperately looking for anything that could be used to reinforce it. They seemed to be at a complete loss, looking to each other in hopes the other would have an answer; the automatic doors opened sideways after all, not like Gordon’s front door that could easily be blocked with furniture.

Bubby settled for tinkering with the security panel, brows knitted together as he muttered to himself about sabotage. He had to find a way, he told himself, to keep the door from ever opening again, as if it weren’t enough to just lock it. Gordon doubted those things could manage to use a keypad, but Bubby appeared to know more about them than he did.

Heaving and hurt, Gordon watched from the middle of the room, his mind filled with static. While the others clamored around him, he nervously gave their new whereabouts a quick survey, taking note of the strangely outdated, oversized computers lining the walls, the extremely bright lighting, and what appeared to be a massive aquarium-quality tank isolated in the middle of the equally massive chamber. It acted as an impressive centerpiece, filled with the silhouette of a mystery beast whose shape seemed to defy all logic.

It was captivating. Hypnotic, even.

The madness began to creep back in, snaking its tendrils through his brain. Gordon’s legs trembled as he gawked at the tank in pure awe. In the blinding lights, it almost seemed as though it was glowing, and the massive creature contained within stood out like a blood stain on a white carpet. Terminals decorated with flashing lights and countless monitors beeped and whirred against the walls, tracking erratic vitals and irregular brain waves that bolted repeatedly between extremes. Despite the chaos going on behind him, the moment he locked eyes on this thing, it seemed as if all of the noise was sucked out of the room, aside from the infernal beeping and a deep, rhythmic thumping that beat against the inside of his head.

A heartbeat. It was a heartbeat.

The science team was forgotten as he approached the center of the room, wringing his hands nervously as the beat grew louder and louder. The tank was fogged and frosting over, filled with a thick, gelatinous liquid that pulsed with a faint, cyan light. It immediately sparked a feeling of familiarity. Gordon’s brows furrowed as he placed a hand to the glass and gently wiped the condensation and ice away.

Squinting into the hazy slime, he could almost make out the features of the figure it held. It was massive, rivaling one of Tommy’s “golem apes” in size, but he had a gut feeling that it should have been far more impressive in stature. Black skin, like ink and tar, glistened in the fluorescent lights, long and spindly limbs twisting around its awkwardly bent body in a clear indication that it had been struggling when it was contained. Everything about it was a strange, incomprehensible mixture of human and beast and something else entirely, and though he could make out its features in sections--claws, quills, tentacles, and dozens of dull, dead eyes--when he tried to behold it as a whole, it physically hurt.

It took a while to find its face, hidden in a tangle of appendages and a sea of tendrils, and upon discovering it, Gordon’s jaw dropped. It was like a horse’s skull, slick skin pulled tight around it, wreathed in a halo of limbs and tentacles with jagged teeth jutting out of its mouth at impossible, painful angles. Not a single eye was where it was supposed to be, wide open and lifeless.

“It’s you,” Gordon said softly. Dread and horror filled his heart, though it was quickly overshadowed by relief. It was the creature he saw in that awful vision. Against all odds, he’d found it. 

Stepping away from the tank, Gordon suddenly noticed something posted to the glass that hadn’t been there before. While the rest of the crew struggled to find things with which to barricade the door, Gordon calmly scanned the area to see if he could catch who had placed it there. Predictably, there was nobody, and with a heavy sigh, he defiantly tore the post-it off of the tank.

The yellow was smeared with glowing liquid, the words incredibly hard to read. It was written in bright gel pen, the lettering smudged by the careless author. Compared to the last few notes, this one seemed angry and desperate, the scrawling obviously penned by somebody who wasn’t having a good day.

 

Is it cold in there, Benrey? You look cold.

- Human Resources

 

For whatever reason, it made him furious. He looked at the monster--at Benrey--and crumpled the note into a ball, tossing it to the floor. As soon as it hit the tile, it vanished in a plume of black smoke.

Hand curled into a ball, he slammed his fist against the glass and let out an angry cry. The science team paused behind him in alarm, but nobody said a word. He could feel them watching as he beat his hands against the tank, over and over, but he honestly couldn’t dredge up the ability to give a good goddamn. Not about their opinions, not about whether or not they found him crazy, not even about the aliens clamoring to kill them on the other side of the automatic doors. The only thing he cared about at that moment was Benrey, with getting him out of his prison.

Maybe it had something to do with the mental link they’d established, and he was feeling the rage just barely contained in that glorified fish bowl. More likely it was the supernatural madness, like something out of an old Lovecraft story. Beneath that, however, buried under the anxiety and his own hot head, Gordon was a man with more empathy than sense, and this one scene had given him more insight about Benrey and his behavior than days of arguing with him in a simulation. 

No wonder he’d been so antagonistic. No wonder he’d been so confused. Gordon supposed that if his only interactions with mankind involved being frozen in a jar, he’d have been pissed off, too.

“Gordon, do you really think that’s a good idea?” Bubby asked, his voice barely masking his breathlessness. The thudding in his head was so loud that he almost couldn’t hear him.

“Yes,” Gordon flatly responded. 

“That thing doesn’t look--”

“It’s Benrey.” 

The others responded with silence. Coomer shrugged. Of course he was the closest of all of them to believing him, though Tommy also seemed strange accepting of such an outlandish claim.

“That thing is Benrey?” Bubby asked doubtfully. Gordon scrambled away from the tank to the terminals lining the room, searching for anything as obvious as a big, red button labeled "open." Finding nothing, he punched the hardware and grit his teeth.

“Yes!” he finally barked back after a moment of silence. “And unless you want to fight a bunch of rampaging dicks on your own, you will help me wake this dick up so he can fight them for us!”

Bubby considered for the briefest of seconds before shrugging his shoulders in agreement.

“Good enough for me.”

Soon, the others joined his search, combing the area for controls or, if nothing else, anything heavy enough to bust through the tank. Gordon weaved around them all, the world a streak of colors as a mixture of its influence and pure adrenaline drove him around the room. Everything that looked important was pressed, eliciting a number of exciting sounds from the machinery, but nothing seemed to work to rouse Benrey from his slumber.

Not even Tommy who, after giving up in frustration, resorted to Gordon’s ineffective method of slapping the tank and hoping it’d do some damage.

Behind them, the door creaked and groaned from the weight of their pursuers, the Friendly fellows on the opposite side settling for the brute force method of getting their way. The sound of them crushing one another against the metal was as disgusting as it was worrying and, even from a distance, Gordon could tell that it was beginning to bow inward. By his guess, it wouldn’t hold out much longer, especially if their numbers only increased on the other side.

“This makes no sense!” Gordon finally yelped, more outraged than frightened. “We didn’t even do anything to HR this time! Where the fuck are all of these things coming from?”

“We didn’t do anything to HR last time, either,” Coomer pointed out, running his hand across a slew of buttons on the nearest wall-mounted computer; one of the monitors screeched in return. “In fact, we haven’t done anything since we stopped you and Benrey from eloping! Perhaps HR truly is just acting out of spite!”

“Cheryl is a bitch,” Bubby stated flatly, checking the underside of a desk for what Gordon could only assume was a secret switch. Tommy and Coomer both offered sage-like nods as they continued their quest. The sound of tearing metal didn’t even faze them as one of the beasts managed to puncture through the door with its now-mangled back leg.

Panicked, Gordon ran to the tank. Hands pressed against the glass, he braced himself and inhaled deeply, rage and betrayal welling up in him like vomit. His patience was exhausted. His back was against the wall.

“Fuck you, Benrey!” he howled. “You don’t get to just tell me to find you and then not fucking do anything! I held up my end of the bargain, you piece of absolute shit , so now you do whatever it is you’re supposed to do! I will rip off this headset right the fuck now and strand you here with these acid-puking dicks for the rest of eternity! I will salvage everyone’s data and then burn the ALERTS program with you still in it! Do you fucking hear me?”

A crash. The door had finally given way to the horde and, looking behind him, it had proven to be quite the gathering. Lurching awkwardly and closing in like hungry wolves, they click-clicked into the room and chattered their teeth hungrily at their prey. Inhaling sharply, Bubby reached for his gun, prepared to be the only one able to adequately defend himself, while Coomer nervously stepped forward with his fists raised in a defiant but futile display.

Gordon and Tommy were useless. Helplessly, they backed into the tank, looking at each other with a silent knowing that this was not going to end well. Swallowing hard, Tommy clenched his eyes closed and muttered under his breath about Sunkist, his mysterious father, and everything else he wished was there to help him at that moment. Gordon, now completely terrified, turned to look at Benrey in the tank.

“I didn’t mean what I said,” he forced himself to say. “I just really wish you were here right now. If you can hear me, I’m begging you. Just wake up. Get out here. Please.”

Much to his surprise, the thing in the tank seemed to shift and, as if responding to it, the Friendly posse froze in their tracks. Gordon didn’t know whether to feel hope or terror as he saw one of the gnarled, bent limbs in the tank twist into a weird position and press its clawed hand against the glass, but he knew he could feel something foreign blooming behind his eyes. Pain, insufferable pain, weighing down on him like a boulder crushing his skull.

He could feel a presence, massive and oppressive, sinking its claws into his head. He could feel emotions he knew weren’t his, a mixture of desperation and confusion and relief and rage. Most importantly, though, he could hear its voice, deep and powerful and vibrating his insides in such a way that he felt as if his heart would stop.

Uh, yeah. Sure. You may wanna move, though.

Chapter Text

When Gordon was at MIT, he spent a lot of dateless nights watching scary movies. It started with slasher flicks since that’s all his friends could ever recommend to him, but when those grew repetitive, he began to branch out into weirder and weirder things. Psychological horror was a fun one, as were strange, avant garde flicks that seemed to have been pulled directly out of somebody’s nightmares. Thanks to his stoner roommate, he also developed a love of the hilariously bad schlock you’d find on discount racks, all of them charming in their own way.

His true weakness was monster movies, though, especially ones where the monster was unknowable and alien. The kind of horror movies that you watch and wonder how the hell anyone had the creativity necessary to even dream up something as bizarre and unsettling as what you were looking at. Ridley Scott’s most famous franchise was a good example of this, and he could remember watching “Alien” in a dark dorm room when he should have been studying, wondering how he’d react if he ever encountered something as nightmarish and inhuman as a Xenomorph.

Now, at the tender age of thirty, Gordon had his answer. The answer was that he would scream himself hoarse.

As the voice of it echoed in his mind and the Friendly chaps from Sector E drew nearer, Gordon howled in abject horror as he grabbed Tommy and scooted away from Benrey’s tank as fast as he could. Cracks formed in the glass, oozing slime and water, as the interior lit up with dozens upon dozens of points of light. Hundreds of eyes rolled in sockets that covered the creature’s entire body, and with an earth-shaking pound, it swam around in its icy fluid and threw itself into the side of the tank. Its movements were eel-like despite its seeming dozens of limbs, slithering and circling until its enclosure was on the brink of collapse.

Coomer had the good sense to move before it shattered, raining down crystal shards and clumps of glowing gunk that spilled across the ground. Bubby, still grasping his gun, checked over his shoulder and jumped in surprise at the sight of a Midnight Monster Movie villain writhing on the ground, constantly shifting, shuddering, huffing, snarling, struggling to its… hands? Despite the fact it had legs--strong ones from the looks of it, bent like an animal’s and ending with webbed, clawed feet--it didn’t seem fond of them. Instead, it held itself upright with arms that continued to shift and multiply, giving it a strange and incomprehensible look that rested somewhere between “ancient god” and “goddamn spider.”

The aliens blocking the exit seemed perturbed, to put it lightly. Their chattering silenced, their approach halted. Some of them instinctively tried to double back and escape, but their sheer numbers only meant that they crushed one another trying to squeeze out of the door. The creature they freed-- Benrey , Gordon reminded himself--watched them with an expression that was impossible to read, but Gordon could feel its confusion and amusement in his very bones.

Benrey found them funny. Of course he’d find dick aliens funny. Monster or not, he was still the dumbass guard who cracked gay jokes at him like a middle school boy.

“What in the good goddamn…?” Bubby drawled, stepping out of the way as Benrey took a lurching, unsteady step forward. He began to slip on the fluid from his tank, but caught himself with a fresh new arm that spat out of his body in a splatter of black. The scientist stepped out of his way as he continued to lumber past, gaining steadiness with every step that he took.

“Is that… is that really Benrey?” Tommy asked in wonder. Gordon rubbed his temple, his head still aching from the intensity of Benrey’s presence. It was all he could do to nod, pain shooting from the top of his head all the way down his neck.

“Wow. He… he truly came into his own! He… he’s a real Bit-Beast now!” 

Tommy jumped forward, filled with a newfound energy that the others lacked. His voice hit the highest, most excitable pitch that Gordon ever heard as he pumped his fist in the air like a frat boy at a kegger.

“Go, Guardian Screamsting! Let it rip!”

That was all the push Benrey needed. Gordon clutched his head and slumped to the floor from the oppressive power of Benrey’s resolve being projected directly into his human brain. Through gaps in his fingers, he watched as it sprang forward like a predator, its face flaying open in four different, painful directions as it lunged at the first of the alien attackers.

Its jaws clamped down hard on its midsection and, like a dog with a toy, Benrey violently shook his head until a telling snap echoed through the room. The other Friendlies didn’t seem to know how to process this new threat, half of them torn between attacking or fleeing. The room erupted in a cacophony of shrieks and screams as Benrey joined their chorus with a deep, harrowing, melodious sound that brought to mind cavern winds and chanting monks, the walls vibrating at the sheer power of his voice as a flurry of bright red orbs filled the air. They moved erratically and with a purpose, glowing like hellfire as they jiggled and zigzagged after the nearest threat.

Whatever it was he was throwing into the air wasn’t the Sweet Voice. Gordon flinched as he watched the Friendlies who came into contact with the crimson lights seize in pain as they fizzled into nothing. Their veins lit up like a blaze as their skin singed and flaked off in brittle, white wisps that smelled of sulfur and ash. Like something out of a Biblical story, they crumbled to dust and blew away with the frantic movements of the fray.

Tommy continued to enthusiastically cheer, whereas Bubby regained his resolve and, with a defiant cackle, began firing into the crowd. Coomer seemed to want to join the fiasco, marveling at the pretty colors swirling in the air and the carnage Benrey was wreaking before him, but when he looked back at Gordon curled on the floor, the wonder left his eyes. It was with great sadness that he gave up throwing hands with a walking phallus, but soon Gordon found himself side-by-side with his old friend as the battle raged on around them.

Gordon closed his eyes and grit his teeth, imagining the goings-on from the sheer sound of destruction around him and Tommy’s raucous cries. The pain behind his eyes was too great, the emotions he was drawing from Benrey too extreme. They mixed with his own, a chaotic tapestry of confusing feelings and nauseating intensity. His own fear, Benrey’s anger, his own misery, Benrey’s excitement; it all coalesced together into something terrible, grand, poisonous, and intoxicating. Voices became distant echoes, the world became the void, and its voice rattled through his teeth.

Coomer jumped in surprise as Gordon wrapped his hand around his arm and squeezed, desperately trying to pull him closer. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt like somehow it was helpful to have somebody near, that the comfort of another human being--artificial or not--would make it go away. Choking back pained sobs, he reeled Coomer in as close as he could as soon as the old man allowed it, letting out a pained scream into his sleeve as the sensations wracking his body hit a crescendo.

“Gordon, are you…?”

Dr. Coomer never finished his sentence, Gordon’s grip on him growing tighter. He knew how the question ended and the answer was “no.” He was not okay.

The world sounded like madness around him. Squeals, squawks, shrieks. Baritone clicks with an alien echo. Siren-like wails answered with a colorful, bright whale song. Gunfire and whooping, excited cheering. Bones snapping. Flesh tearing. Wet and disgusting sounds that he couldn’t discern the origin, not knowing whether it was Friendlies being ripped apart or Benrey simply moving.

Curiosity got the better of him and, with great pain, Gordon forced an eye open to watch as three of the aliens jumped atop Benrey, hooking in their spurs and claws and whipping at him with a desperation that was almost human. With little regard for his own comfort, Benrey sprouted more arms and ripped them off like ticks, leaving behind gashes that bled a luminescent violet and gouged eyes that dripped with vibrant pus. While Gordon knew he was hurting, feeling the sensation deep in his gut, he also knew that Benrey didn’t think anything of it.

In his own words, back on Xen, he was used to pain. It was “whatever.”

As they struggled and thrashed against the seemingly endless waves of monsters, Gordon noted how half of Benrey’s surviving eyes rolled in his direction. His blood ran cold as they stared at one another, Gordon still cowering into Coomer’s side. Rainbow smoke poured out of Benrey’s mouth as he howled another cloud of red lights into the air.

Yo. You hear me?

Gordon froze. His stomach twisted itself into a pretzel. Slowly, he lifted his head and looked dead at Benrey, and could feel his satisfaction oozing through him like a drug.

Oh, cool. You can. Awesome!

“Benrey?” Gordon choked. Coomer shot him a quizzical look, then glanced up at Benrey, watching with barely contained glee as he wrapped several hands around one of the Friendlies and twisted it in half. Tommy threw up his hands and loudly cheered, like this massacre was a football game. It was painfully obvious that neither had heard the voice at all.

Yeah, dude. It’s me! Yo, wassup?

Gordon paused, before meekly replying, “I’m in a lot of pain and I’m trying not to die.”

Oh, uh. Yeah. I… huh. I guess, uh, I guess that’s a thing. Yeah. Good thing. Smart move. Not dying is a, uh, a thing you humans try to do. Must suck being so fuckin’ weak, huh, bro?

One of the Friendlies jumped at him and Benrey sprouted yet another arm to slam it out of the air. The wet gurgling sound it made as it was crushed against the floor was nothing short of nauseating.

Speaking of, Feetman? You should, uh… you should probably, like, go? Maybe? Like, all of you, actually. Running would be a peachy idea, just Sonic-the-Hedgehog your way on out that door. Gotta go fast.

Gordon shook his head.

“Dude, you’re… you’re breaking my head. I don’t know if I have it in me.”

That sucks. But you should do it anyway. Man up, Gogurt.

The wave of enemies was relentless, and the lack of gunfire and Bubby’s retreat indicated that he’d finally run out of bullets. Tommy, however, showed no sign of backing down, still acting as Benrey’s personal cheerleader. Some of the Friendlies were getting too close to him for Gordon’s comfort, and that was the slap in the face he needed to struggle through the agony.

Legs shaking, he pushed himself away from Coomer and used the crouching man to hold himself steady as he climbed to his feet. The lights burned, his head throbbed, and everything in his stomach seemed ready to expel itself. It took a couple of seconds to catch his breath, Benrey’s intrusive thoughts bouncing through him, but once he managed to get enough air in his lungs to call out, he yelled for Tommy.

Tommy turned, red-faced and grinning. His hair was plastered to his face with sweat. For a man pushing forty, the guy’s expression held a zest that better fit somebody half his age and seemed completely unfitting for the situation. It died when he saw Gordon, though, giving Gordon all the proof he needed that he must have looked like absolute shit.

“We need to go,” Gordon said sternly. Tommy hesitated, looked back at Benrey still battling beasts, and bit his lip.

“But… Benrey… he’s…”

Tell him I’m fine , Benrey’s voice boomed in Gordon’s head.

“Don’t… don’t worry, bud. He’s fine.”

I got this under control.

“He, uh, he has this under control.”

I am epic as… aw fuck, hold on. Dude, bro, these things all got they dick out. Whaaat? This is… wow, ew, this is not cool. Are they coming onto me, bro? Am I hot now? 

“Yeah, and that’s about it, Tommy. He’ll catch up. Now, let’s go before they start paying attention to us again.”

I asked you if I was hot, Feetman. I expect answers. I’m big scary boy, now. Scariest. Can’t ignore me. I got teeth for days.

Gordon could feel Benrey’s disappointment when he didn’t respond, instead gathering up everyone and struggling to piece himself together long enough to get out the door. The Friendlies, thankfully, were far too consumed with the idea of ridding themselves of their primary threat to pay the science team any mind as they squeezed past their wriggling, hissing forms and into the hallway, dancing around their angry tip-tapping. Their cries echoed in his ears no matter how much distance they put between themselves and the carnage and, honestly, Gordon couldn’t tell if they were actually as loud as they seemed, or if Benrey was projecting their screams directly at him as a dark method of bragging. Whatever the case, they sometimes sounded disturbingly human, and Gordon’s throat tightened as his brain filled in the gaps.

As before, Bubby pulled ahead as if he knew where he were going, though his movements seemed far more erratic than they had before. Perhaps it was his pathing; running to the main character was one thing, but breaking his programming to run away from him was another. Gordon could almost see the cogs turning in his head as he stopped at every intersection and debated which way to go. Sometimes, he’d instinctively double back in the direction he came from, before loudly cursing and taking off a different way.

“Do you… do you know where you’re… are you sure we’re going the right way?” Tommy drawled as he jogged behind him. Bubby growled in response.

“I lived in Sector E. I know where the fuck we are.”

“Where are we going, though?” Coomer asked with a puzzled expression, shuffling after Bubby as the scientist bolted off again. Gordon lagged behind, jolts of pain from Benrey’s end of their connection wracking his body. It wasn’t just emotional now. He could feel the cuts deep beneath the HEV suit.

“That… well, shit.” Bubby paused, looking back to Gordon. “Where are we going, Dr. Freeman?”

“I don’t… uh.” Gordon flinched as a stabbing sensation flared inside his skull. “Wait. Huh?”

Bubby’s mouth moved again, but Gordon couldn’t make out the words. Everything inside his head was far too distracting, memories and emotions that weren’t his still cascading through his brain. Now, with the physical pain, it was impossible to concentrate. He heard sounds, but couldn’t parse them together into anything with meaning. They were just noise.

“What?” Gordon asked again, and Bubby became visibly angrier. 

“Going? Where are we going ? It was your idea to make a break for it, but where are we breaking to ?”

“Uh, I… I don’t know. Sorry.”

The reaction was explosive. Despite not being a physical person, whatever digital equivalent of adrenaline was pulsing through Bubby’s veins caused him to unleash a frustrated tirade on Gordon as he shrank back into himself, eyes wide, confused. It was hard to follow what exactly he was saying but the tone was unmistakable and, even though it was jarring and wounding, he couldn’t find it in himself to say a word in his defense. His mind raced, his thoughts were scrambled, and with every moment he was forced to listen to Bubby’s explosive rant, he found himself becoming angrier.

It was anger that came from a place of hurt. Anger that came from a place of wounded pride. Anger because he didn’t really understand what he’d done to get that reaction. Fuck, didn’t Bubby see how hard of a time he was having? He couldn’t put it to words, but it should have been obvious.

Yo, Freeman. You okay? I got a big dose of the sad on this end. Who died?

“Nobody died,” he said out loud, and Bubby immediately stopped yelling. The science team stared at him, bewildered, and a sudden burst of embarrassment welled up inside of him.

Oh, uh. Yeah, okay. Got’cha. I know those feels. Getting yelled at?

Gordon said nothing, but tried to think his answer as hard as he could. Bubby still regarded him with irritation, while Coomer and Tommy seemed quite worried. He wished he could tell them, but his tongue was tangled and all of his thoughts were focused on what Benrey was sending his way.

Mind weirds, huh? Fuckin’, you know… fuckin’ brain-splits. Weird feels. All over, just hard to do the things you do. Hard to think, hard to talk, hard to… oh, ew. Ew. No, no. I don’t wanna know what that was I just touched. Ew.

“What’s going on over there?” Gordon asked weakly, slowly, carefully. Bubby instinctively threw a glance over his shoulder and, when he saw nothing, doubled down on Gordon all the more.

“Are you just fucking with us? What is wrong with you? Are you broken?”

Uh, over here? I… look. I don’t wanna talk about it. This is gross. I’m leaving. Stay there.

“Stay?” Gordon echoed. The rest of the science team was now looking at one another, visibly concerned. The one who seemed the closest to having an epiphany was Coomer, though he never quite crossed that threshold. Despite the fact he’d been the one to tell him Benrey’s big, brain-hijacking plan to get himself out of the simulation, it didn’t seem to occur to him that Gordon may have not been dealing with the assimilation very well.

Gordon reached his hands up to his head. While the headset for ALERTS wasn’t detectable in the simulation, if he concentrated very hard, he could still tell it was there. He knew there had to be a way to take it off. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.

The pain. The confusion. The humiliation. This was quickly stacking up to be way too much.

Bro, chill. I’m coming right now. Hold your horsies.

The sound of wet slapping and a flurry of clicking filled the air. Everyone froze. Gordon could feel foreign excitement and amusement, the latter of which was punctuated by a horrifying squall.

Flashes of colors and bubbles of rainbow hues flew around a bend in the hall, fluttering through the air and lazily drifting past the science team. Tommy immediately perked up, yelling triumphantly at the sight of a large, headache-inducing creature coated in black sludge turning the corner and charging at them in a way that Gordon could scarcely describe it in words. Drag-slithering, he supposed, though even that didn’t seem perfectly right. Then again, no way he’d found to describe the wretched “true” form of Benrey seemed fitting. He was a creature who transcended words.

Gordon didn’t flinch as he felt a hand wrap around his waist, plucking him off the ground and whisking him away at breakneck speeds. The rest of the science team, however, screamed from the shock of being literally swept off their feet by the gooey, incomprehensible form of their old buddy, thrashing in Benrey’s grip just enough to make him stagger. He answered their struggle by tightening his grip and belching out a swarm of blue in hopes of calming them. While it worked for Tommy and Coomer, Bubby continued to curse and punch at Benrey’s wrist in defiance.

Though, honestly? That just seemed like something Bubby would do even if he wasn’t scared. 

The sound of the Friendlies scuttling behind them caused Gordon to pause. Benrey’s disgust and frustration flared in his mind as he watched the alien creatures struggling to keep up. Their numbers didn’t look to have thinned in the slightest; if anything, they seemed to have multiplied. Gordon’s brows furrowed and he let out an exasperated sigh that felt like it came more from his eldritch benefactor than himself.

“HR isn’t fucking around, are they?”

Dude, I know! Like, fuck! I knew that… fuck, I knew when I got my body back in this stupid video game that Aeichar’d be pissed but this is stupid. This is wow. This is dumb. Fucking stupid. Worst prom night ever.

Benrey slipped as he turned a corner, bashing into a wall but careful to not crush anyone in his grasp. His arms seemed to break and twist at awkward angles as he lifted Coomer and Gordon above his head and down beside his face.

“So, what do we do now?”

Huh?

“What are we doing now? Where are we going?”

Oh, yeah. Uh… you know the drill. Time. Space. That sort of shit. 

“Care to explain that a little better?”

Nah. You know what I mean.

And, indeed, Gordon knew. Even before the world filled with green light and fizzled from view around him, he was well aware of the fact that Benrey was too lazy to find a physical way to escape. He supposed he would be, too, if he had the ability to tear apart the fabric of reality and will himself wherever he wanted to go.

Except this time, it was different. The cries of the science team fell silent as Benrey swam through the void with the hypnotic grace of a ribbon eel. A bright white light blazed behind them, a door shape through which the Friendlies watched with piercing screeches until they were far too gone to be seen. Chartreuse orbs of energy danced around him like fireflies, a blast of Sweet Voice from the darkness itself, which pulsed and shuddered as if alive. 

Unlike before, none of this bothered Gordon. It felt comforting, even, as if he’d finally made his way to someplace he needed to be, and it was difficult to tell where his own relief ended and Benrey’s began. As they glided through the emptiness, lights floating by, Gordon wondered what exactly had changed that this nightmarish place now felt like sanctuary.

Was it because he was out of the reach of the Friendlies? Maybe it was the fact that nothing could reach him here. It was possible that it was all Benrey’s fault, considering the fact his increasing instability seemed to coincide with a stronger connection to the monster. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the silence.

Yeah. That was it.

His brain was silent. The world was silent. He could think, he could breathe. This place, this absence of anything, seemed like absolute paradise after all the screaming, the gunshots, the alien shrieking, the white noise in his head.

Nice, huh?

Gordon nodded weakly. He smiled. Everything was so relaxing and, with the adrenaline ebbing away, he felt his eyes becoming heavier. God, he was so tired.

“Yeah, Benrey. It really is.”

 Yeah. Always nice to be someplace where you can hear yourself think.

Chapter Text

Gordon didn’t remember drifting off, and he couldn’t recall having any dreams. All he knew was that he was becoming very familiar with waking up in odd places, usually on the floor, sore and disoriented, with the vague sense that he hadn't actually been asleep, but rather that his brain could not process what had happened between one place and another. He supposed it was too much to ask for Benrey or ALERTS or whatever was controlling him to spawn him in a new map on a bed or a bench. This song and dance was getting repetitive and old, as well as being absolute hell on his back.

As he had so many times before, he slowly sat up despite the HEV suit’s best efforts to weigh him down, drinking in the new, thrilling sights that ALERTS (or rather, Benrey) had decided to lay out for him. He expected more desert highways, or sterile halls, or tanks of aliens surrounding him with glassy-eyed stares. If nothing else, he expected the science team to be nearby, or Benrey in at least one of his two exciting flavors: “abomination” and “corpse.” What he didn’t expect was to wake up alone in a vaguely familiar room, cozy but dark, with the sound of a television mumbling in the distance.

Despite the fact that most of the room was as black as night, the glow of the TV provided enough clues as to where he was. It was a dorm, one of the Area 8 single occupant rooms on the topside of Black Mesa. He’d seen them before a couple of times; his friend, Barney, had let him crash when he was too tired to drive home after long shifts. The layout was simple and predictable, akin to a cheap studio apartment or campus accommodations, open yet cramped and set up to be as utilitarian as possible. There was a bed shoved in the corner, a kitchenette that was basically a glorified sink, large windows sealed with blackout curtains, and a single chair positioned squarely in front of an outdated tube television set.

The chair was what caught his attention the most as it was obvious that it was occupied. The person didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t even acknowledge his existence. They were slumped awkwardly, as if they were asleep, an open bottle of cheap beer sitting just below their limp fingers.

Gordon climbed to his feet. Even in the dark, even with his horrible eyesight, he could tell that it wasn’t anyone in the science team. They were too short to be Bubby, too thin to be Coomer, and he could somehow tell they were too young to be Tommy. Maybe it was the fact that, the longer he squinted at whoever it was, the more he realized that they were wearing a security uniform. Typically, the officers at Black Mesa skewed young, broke twenty-somethings poached by HR with the same predatory tactics as a military recruiter.

The television turned to static, a glitch of colors that eventually fizzled back to a basketball game between two teams Gordon had never heard of. He stepped forward loudly, his boots too heavy to lend much to stealth. Still, the figure in the chair didn’t move.

“Benrey?” he asked softly. He crept closer, until a rancid and overpowering smell smacked him in the face. Gordon gagged, eyes watering, then forced himself to continue on. His heart leaped further into his throat with every step.

“Hey, uh… if you’re not Benrey, I’m really sorry that I-- oh .”

Once next to the figure, his voice died in his throat. The security officer, lounging lazily in front of the television, was dead. Not only was he dead, he had obviously been dead for a while, his once pale skin blackened from rot and the flesh sloughed clear from the side of his face. Greasy, graying bone peeked out from beneath a dented, cracked helmet as eyeless sockets lined with larva stared up at its visitor vacantly. His uniform, stained with all manner of disgusting fluids, was tattered and ill-fitting, draped into sunken parts of a body that had been lost to time and decay.

Gordon gagged, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

The faint sound of squeaking sneakers and sports announcers drifted from the television as Gordon, despite his repulsion, leaned closer, his curiosity running deeper than just some morbid fixation. He swore, the longer he looked at what was left of its face, that it looked familiar. The high cheek bones, the angle of his chin, his slender features; it all smacked of somebody he knew and his heart sank.

“Oh, god. Benrey.”

Clapping a hand over his mouth, he stumbled backwards. No matter how many times he told himself that it could just be ALERTS pulling a fast one, just like with Not-Joshua and Not-Gordon, it just wouldn’t stick. Everything was too visceral, too real. And if this had happened to Benrey while he was unconscious, then what would have happened to the others?

“Yo. ‘Sup.”

The voice was familiar, but not exactly right. It was almost like listening to a bootleg version of Benrey. Gordon froze, slowly and cautiously examining the lit parts of the room for anyone trapped in the dorm with him, then looked to the carcass draped over the chair. It didn’t move, but it had seemed the voice was coming from that direction.

“Benrey?” he choked.

“Close, but no.” There was a beat of silence. “Hey, since you’re here, can you hand me my beer?”

Gordon hesitated, but ultimately complied. Inching closer, he stooped down to grab the bottle, making note of the way the figure’s fingertips were completely made of bone. Gingerly, as if he thought it would reach out and grab him, he lifted the bottle towards its hand. It didn’t move, so Gordon picked it up in confusion, holding it at arm’s length away from his face.

It was then he noticed that the label was gone, worn away and replaced with words written in a shaky, vandalistic manner. His stomach tossed.

 

WHAT DID IT DO
WHERE IS SECURITY OFFICER BENJAMIN REYES

- Human Resources

 

He didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t want to think about it. In a desperate attempt to be rid of the bottle, he gently balanced it on the corpse’s lap and then danced away, just out of its reach.

“Thanks, man. You’re Gordon, right?”

Gordon blinked. He didn’t like the fact that a talking dead man knew his name. Mouth dry, he tried to respond, but the words got stuck in his throat. He settled for a silent nod and hoped that it could see him.

“I’m Ben. I guess we’ve already kind of met, but it’s nice to actually meet you.”

“Same?” Gordon squeaked uncertainly. The motionless figure laughed heartily, belly laughs from a belly that no longer existed.

“Yeah, you’re probably fucking pissing yourself right now, huh, bro?”

He didn’t dignify the question with a reply. Fear be damned, it was borderline offensive to have his cowardice pointed out to him. Crossing his arms and striking as confident of a pose as he could, Gordon continued to stare down the body. TV lights flickered across its face. Whoever the Suns were, they were losing.

“Where’s Benrey?” Gordon asked defiantly. He was answered with a chilling silence, then an equally chilling sigh.

“Oh, is that what it goes by now? Fuck, well that’s kind of nice. It almost remembered my name.”

“Whatever. Where is he, and who are you?”

“I told you. I’m Ben. And it… eh, it’s around, dude. Outside? Closer than you’d think, I’d imagine. Folks don’t end up here unless they’re in-between, you know? Fuck, man. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s some horror movie shit.”

Gordon tilted his head. The mannerisms, the way it spoke, it was certainly Benrey-like. The inflections were all in the right places, the bro-tone monotone perfectly intact. Creeping forward, he leaned in to examine its face again, just to make absolutely sure it wasn’t the monster he knew.

What are you then?” Gordon demanded. The body didn’t move, but he could hear the shrug in its voice as it made a noncommittal sound in response.

“Eh. Some dumb bastard it ate. Though, uh, that’s not exactly the best way of putting it. I mean, fucker fuckin’ ate me, but we’ve talked about it and, well, it’s more complicated than that? Everything about the big guy is complicated.”

Gordon bristled, glancing around the room worriedly. Suddenly, he felt like he was being watched, a sensation he usually associated with binging scary movies alone in the dark. Only, this time, he was smack in the middle of said movie, uncertain if he was more bothered by the fact he was speaking to a corpse or that the corpse was so lackadaisical about its situation. 

“At least you’re taking this pretty well,” he finally mumbled in response. “Ben” laughed.

“How else am I supposed to take it? I’m here. Can’t do shit about it. I mean, at least the big guy ain’t bad company. And this place is nice and quiet.” A pause. “Fuck man, you’re making me nervous just standing there. Pull up a chair or whatever. Let’s enjoy the game.”

In lieu of a chair, Gordon sat back down on the ground. Legs crossed beneath him, he rapped a finger nervously on his knee. His eyes darted back and forth between the television and the silhouette of Ben, his stomach twisting every time a flash of light illuminated his desiccated face.

“If he killed you, why are you still here?” Gordon asked slowly. 

“Uh, ‘killed’ ain’t the right word, dude. I’m still alive. Sort of. Physically, not so much, but my ‘soul’ is still here. Which, like, I think that’s what it needed. You know. For reference. I’m its SparkNotes on interacting with the little guys. It, uh, it kinda fuckin’ backfired in its ugly face, though.”

“I'm assuming you're talking about the fact he's been captured?”

“Uh, well, yeah. That. And the fact I don’t think its weird alien brain was meant to do what it did. I am but the Brita filter that distills its fucked-up essence into something somebody like you could drink. Except, like, the Brita filter is broken and on fire and full of bees.”

“I’m, uh, not following.”

“My presence is fucking it up, dude.”

“Wait. How?”

“It wasn’t ever meant to think like a mortal, bro. I broke it.”

“You... broke it?”

“Just like it’s been breaking you. I mean, I guess it’s fine? For me, at least, ‘cause I basically got weird immortality outta this deal. It’s having trouble, but it also is the one who decided to eat me. So, you know. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

Somebody scored on the television and, despite the fact Ben still wasn’t budging, the silence that followed indicated that he was invested in whatever was going on. Gordon didn’t even have a passing interest, his eyes instead falling upon the body and its immediate surroundings. The beer bottle he’d placed in his lap was tilting frighteningly low, threatening to spill. A pile of old PS3 games were stacked next to his boot, a dust-covered controller balancing on top. Chewing his lip, Gordon cleared his throat to get the corpse’s attention again.

“So, what is he?”

Ben didn’t immediately respond, and it was difficult to tell if he was ever going to. Considering he was completely immobile, there wasn’t anything in the way of body language to take cues from. 

“Well, that’s a, uh, that’s a good question,” he finally drawled. “You know, I don’t fuckin’ know. I don’t know if it knows what it is. I don’t think it cares. It’s old, and they woke it up when they started building Black Mesa. It got curious, then it got pissed , and now we’re here.”

“In a simulation,” Gordon scoffed. “You know, the more I think about it, the less sense it makes that he’s here.” 

Ben made a weird, uneasy sound in response.

“Eh, I don’t know how its consciousness ended up in your little video game project--my guess is it had somethin’ to do with Black Mesa doing weird shit--but it happened. And this is kinda weird, wobbly territory we’re in now. This ain’t just some digital fuckin’ shit anymore. Lines are getting crossed. It wanted to be callin’ the shots, but it ain’t, and it don’t know why. No lie, it's kinda scared.”

Gordon tilted his head, confused. Coomer had said that Benrey was the architect of the ALERTS world, and he didn’t have a reason to lie. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Straightening his posture and then leaning forward a bit, Gordon furrowed his brows and took a deep breath.

“Who is controlling this, then?” 

“It is.”

“But you just said--”

“It’s controlling it, but it’s not calling the shots. Not consciously. Subconsciously, sure. This bullshit you all have been dealing with is the product of every goddamn stupid misunderstanding and fear this motherfucker has about Black Mesa. It’s, like, if you were, I dunno, playing Daggerfall or some shit, and all of the randomized dungeons were directly inspired by nightmares you had as a fuckin’ kid.”

“I’ve never played Daggerfall.”

What? Dude, it’s a goddamn classic of gaming and you… you know what? I’m just gonna, like, recommend it to you now, and once you get done playing with the big guy, you just go get you a copy--it’s free online, bro--and you play it. You need DOS to run it. It’s--”

Gordon shook his head, sighing, “That’s great. But what about Benrey?”

“What about him?”

Gordon squeezed the bridge of his nose and sighed, eyes clenched closed as the beginning of a headache flared to life. At least now he knew where Benrey got many of his quirks. 

“I would really like to know what’s going on, okay?” Gordon snapped. “I mean, thanks for the too-late exposition, I’m glad to have some insight. But I don’t know how any of this is possible, I still don’t think I exactly understand what’s going on, and I keep ending up with more questions than answers.”

“Stop thinking so much about it, bro. Chill.”

“I can’t chill! Just explain this shit to me like I’m five!”

Ben fell silent and, for a moment, Gordon thought maybe he’d done something to break him. Panic welled in his stomach as he slowly raised to his knees, prepared to face the corpse once again to make sure he was still “alive.” No sooner did he get partway to his feet did Ben sigh, obviously exasperated. Gordon swore he saw rot and dust puff into the air in front of his slack-jawed face.

“The big guy is stuck in digital limbo. It wants out and it’s pretty sure that if it tangles itself in you, you can get it out. Will it work? Fuck if I know. I hope so. This game sucks.”

A pause. Gordon sat quietly, trying to process it. Ben laughed.

“Happy now, Gordon?”

“N-no, I’m not! I just still don’t understand how this is all poss--”

“Dude, shut up. Stop it. Science can’t even explain why the fuck people yawn, so I think an immortal, alien god is a bit outta your scope. It’s a hard goddamn pill to swallow--trust me, I know that better than you do--but it gets easier when you stop trying to cram everything into the little box of what you think makes sense. There’s shit we don’t know, shit we’ll never know, and you just gotta fuckin’ get over it. Calm down. Go with the flow. Finish the game, bro, so we can all go home.”

Gordon said nothing in response, the words settling in like Benrey’s Sweet Voice. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Ben was right. The monster now infesting his head, the thing that had assimilated Ben into itself, the creature contained in Sector E; it wasn’t something he could ever hope to understand. This all was the dream of a dying god. He was too small to “get” it.

At least he knew the basics, the stuff that was pertinent to him. All he had to do was keep his head down, and push through to the end of the simulation. 

“But there is one thing I don’t get, that I want answered,” Gordon drawled.

“Shoot.”

“If all that matters is him being ‘tangled’ in me when I log out, why can’t I just log out now?”

“Huh.” Ben paused. “You know, I don’t know if there’s an exact reason, ‘cause I know that it just wanted to stall as long as possible. To make sure it was latched on nice and tight to you. Longer you stir, more shit gets mixed. That kind of logic. But, I think if you saw this through to the end, like, it’d be better for it. Like, mentally. Big guy is deep in some not-great feels, you know?”

He knew. After having that thing in his mind for so long, he knew.

Slowly, Gordon climbed to his feet. He brushed dust and dirt off of himself, took a deep breath, and turned to face the darkness in the direction of where the door should be. While he wasn’t sure where he was or how he’d leave, he figured he was ready to get on with the show. The sooner he got through this simulation, the better off everyone involved would be. At least, he hoped so. He still wasn’t sure what was going to happen when he took off the headset with Benrey attached.

Before he could take a step, he heard a creaking from Ben’s direction. His heart stopped as, turning to face him, he saw the body was moving. It lurched and squirmed, like a chrysalis about to burst at the seams. Something was inside, trying to escape, though god only knew what it was.

A squelching sound overshadowed the game, flesh ripping and sliding off of bare bones as the graying skeleton of Ben sloppily hoisted itself out of its own skin. Rivulets of nauseating liquids cascaded from its eye sockets and maw, every bone slick with rot. It jittered awkwardly as it wriggled itself free from the last sinewy tendrils of its former shell and then, with a fluidity that was as terrifying as it was fascinating, it swung around to face Gordon.

Its bones clicked and clattered as it walked. The odor was overpowering, but Gordon was too terrified to flinch away from it. He remained motionless as Ben slapped a hand on his shoulder as if they were good buddies and stared straight into his eyes with his own empty gaze.

“Yeah, it’s probably time for you to go. It doesn’t like waiting. It ain’t the most patient fucker when it’s awake, you know?”

Gordon nodded weakly in lieu of being able to do anything else.

“I’ll get you outta here, so just… just fuckin’... I don’t know. Stay still, or whatever.”

Before he could protest, a skeletal hand clamped against the side of his head. For something without muscles, Ben proved to be incredibly strong, and as his grasp of Gordon’s skull became tighter, the world began to grow blurry and an intense, breathtaking pain exploded inside of him. His stomach roiled. His mouth opened to scream, but only an agonized squeak came out.

He sank lower and lower to the floor, back to his knees, but Ben never turned loose. If anything, his grip became firmer as he twisted awkwardly to try to remain eye-to-eye with his victim. Tears streamed down Gordon’s cheeks as he tried to plead with him to stop, but with one last crushing squeeze, the world went black.

Gordon Freeman. Thirty years old. Divorced father.

Killed by a goddamn skeleton watching a basketball game.

Chapter Text

The sound of the tram woke him, squealing and clicking against a monorail track as the soothing, computerized voice of a woman cooed through the intercom, spouting messages on repeat that he’d already heard a dozen times before. The sights and sounds of neighboring cars, supply trains, OSHA violations, and breaches of the Paris Agreement dazzled outside the window, all illuminated by a distant, ominous green glow. In other words, it was a typical morning commute to his boring job at Black Mesa, where a wild and wonderful world of pressing buttons and moving heavy objects awaited him.

Only he wasn’t on his way to work. This wasn’t a typical morning commute. He had a migraine, his body felt like it had been thrown down several flights of stairs, and feelings that didn’t belong to him were plaguing him like an ancient Sumerian curse. He hadn’t overslept, he wasn’t alone, and the HEV suit was beeping furiously at him about critical vital signs and impending death. It seemed to be an overreaction. Beyond the side effects of being mentally connected to an eldritch god and the throbbing in his head, he physically felt fine.

Mentally? Not so much. As soon as his eyes opened, as soon as he found himself slumped against a tram wall, he felt the urge to cry. The blessed silence from the void and Ben’s dorm room was gone. The infuriating slew of foreign thoughts was back.

“Mr. Freeman! You… he’s moving, guys!”

Tommy. The voice was loud, excitable, and could be literally nobody else. For some reason, the pitch made the tears well up even more, as if the sound triggered some hidden, primal response.

“Fuck! Really?”

Benrey. His voice was a little less flat than normal, and Gordon knew he was relieved. It was soothing, in a way, almost tricking his body into thinking he was okay as well. 

It lasted until he looked up, bleary-eyed, at Benrey as he loped toward him from the opposite end of the tram car. His eyes were alight with a color that he could tell was a positive one, and his monstrous appearance had been ditched for his human guise, but looking at him elicited a response Gordon hadn’t expected: disgust and terror. He thought of Ben, the corpse in the dark, and he lurched as the memory of rot flooded his mind.

Benrey paused, and Gordon didn’t have to see him to know why. In silence, they figured one another out based solely on the others’ thoughts, a back-and-forth that was ignored by the others as they squeezed around the guard and clustered around Gordon. While Coomer regaled him of tales from the void and Bubby rattled off a list of error messages the HEV suit had been screaming while he was out cold, Gordon could feel Benrey’s horror at the realization of why he was breaking down. 

He was confused and troubled by the fact Gordon had somehow ended up in the same place as Ben. Apparently, that shouldn't have been possible.

Gordon dried his eyes and struggled to focus, turning to each of the science team in turn as they all tried to speak over top of one another. Tommy was visibly agitated that the others wouldn’t shut up long enough to let him explain where they were and what had happened, a sentiment that Gordon returned in spades. Beyond desperately wanting to know what was going on, Tommy was the most comprehensible of the bunch given his current state of mind. He spoke slowly, giving him enough time to digest what was being said, and he repeated himself frequently enough that his words were harder to lose.

Tommy didn’t have much chance to say much before Benrey stubbornly pushed himself to the front of the pack. Sighing and removing his helmet, he stooped down to Gordon’s level with a stern expression that barely masked his concern. Gordon regarded him warily, noting that something about the monster had changed. His hair was longer, his features more alien. While still very much recognizable as Benrey, he was subtly more ghoulish and predatory.

“Hey, bro. You, uh… you, uh, had me worried for a hot minute. Yuh, uh, y-you hangin' in there?”

Gordon said nothing, and the science team fell silent as well. Judging from the look on Coomer’s face, he may as well have been watching a romcom that was finally reaching payoff. 

Wracking his mind, Gordon searched for a way to respond, but came up empty handed. Everything was suddenly overwhelming, and piecing together what was truly his own words was proving difficult. The only fragments that he could hold onto were the memories of his chat with Ben and the corpse’s insistence that he stop trying to figure things out. While Gordon knew it would have been easier to just let himself go along with whatever was happening, at the end of the day he was still a scientist. It was hard to let the unknown slide.

“Hey, no. No. Stop thinking so much. Uh, worrying isn’t… it’s bad for your cholesterol. And your veins. Don’t think. You’ll explode.”

Benrey was now on his knees, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly and doing everything in his power to not look Gordon in the eyes. Even without the mental tether, it was obvious that he was at a loss as to how to approach the situation, and Gordon could feel that he was borrowing from his own knowledge of human nature to figure out how to respond. It was a bizarre feeling, a faint buzzing between his ears as Benrey rifled through his subconscious. While he couldn’t put it exactly into words, he immediately began to equate it with watching somebody pick through files in a cabinet.

Their emotional standoff dragged on, Gordon too rattled to do much else but stare and Benrey prying deep in his head to research a solution. Around them, the science team glanced at one another impatiently. The tram continued along its route while the announcer droned about workplace safety and company events.

“Why is everyone so quiet? What’s wrong?” Tommy finally asked, completely bewildered. “Mr. Freeman isn’t dead. Shouldn’t… I mean, we should be happy right now. Uh, right? I’m happy.”

“You would think,” Bubby responded. Gordon shrank into himself, offering a subtle, angry glance at the old man. While he was certain that he hadn't meant anything with his words, benign as they were, there was something about his tone that made him want to clock the guy in the mouth. 

Benrey felt similarly, surprisingly enough. He could also tell that the monster was shocked that he felt such irritation, and it became clear that perhaps the overload wasn’t only on Gordon’s end. There were quirks, feelings, errant thoughts Gordon was picking up that may have very well passed as his own, and his stomach twisted at the thought. While it was common sense that their little link would be a two-way path, the idea of Benrey slowly assimilating his mind horrified him.

“Am we going crazy? Because I feel like I’m going crazy,” Gordon said plainly. He felt Benrey’s face drop, the guard heaving a sigh that bordered on exasperation. His emotions flared and so too did Gordon’s headache, his migraine suddenly spiking. He’d had concussions that involved less pain than this.

“That, uh, that’ll go away,” Benrey said. “It’s my bad, bro. You’ll, uh, you’ll be okay.”

“I don’t feel okay,” Gordon hissed, throwing his head back into the wall of the tram. “I feel so not okay .”

The dam burst open. Passive, pained tears were forgotten in lieu of large, wet, cascading ones that came from a much more primitive place. The science team recoiled in horror; they’d never seen him in such a state, even at his worst, and the idea of Gordon breaking down obviously unnerved them. Benrey himself was particularly mortified, his usually half-lidded eyes wide in shock as Gordon wailed at the tram’s ceiling like a banshee.

It was embarrassing. There was no catharsis. Like he had with Coomer in Sector E, he reached out and grabbed the nearest person to him, reeling them close and crushing them against himself. The unfortunate target was Benrey, however, who proved colder and stiffer than Coomer had, and had a distinct, earthy smell that brought to mind dirt and graves.

It was obvious from the way he froze that Benrey didn’t know what to do with this. Every muscle in his body went rigid and Gordon could feel his breathing stop. An uncomfortable noise rose up from somewhere deep inside of him but Gordon didn’t pay it any mind. It only prompted him to squeeze tighter, to bury his face further into Benrey’s shoulder, and to scream all the louder.

Slowly, he could feel Benrey coming to terms with his fate. Gently and with uncertainty, he wrapped his arms around Gordon, giving him a reassuring pat that Gordon could tell was hesitant and clueless. He drawled wordlessly as his eldritch mind raced to figure out what a human would say in this scenario, and even though Gordon couldn’t see him with his glasses pushed to his forehead and his eyes clenched shut, he felt Benrey’s chin brush his hair as he swiveled his head in hopes of getting backup from the peanut gallery.

Nothing. He was on his own. Benrey’s chest heaved with a sigh, cold air rushing down the back of Gordon’s neck with his exhale.

“Yeah, okay. It’s scream time now. Just… just scream. That’s good, I think. Very good loud you got there. Healthy lungs. That’s… that’s awesome. Good for you. So proud of my best friend.”

In spite of himself, Gordon laughed. It was bitter, it was exhausted, and it was incredulous. That certainly was an attempt at comfort, and he supposed that was a pretty good stab for a creature who likely never had to do such a thing before. If nothing else, the bark of laughter it elicited was the shock his system needed to stop the waterworks and, mind still flaring, he slowly turned loose of Benrey and dried his eyes. He was a grown-ass man and, eldritch interference or not, this was not the time to let his emotions get the best of him. Like it or not, he had to pull himself together, for the sake of himself and everyone around him.

Pressing his back against the tram wall, he slid to his feet, snorting and sniffing like a child with a boo-boo. He cleared his throat. He took a deep breath. He struggled to focus. Benrey watched him like a hawk.

“Whatever,” he finally croaked with great difficulty. “Once we’re done with this, we’re good. Right? I can get on with my life, and get… get Benrey out of my head.”

Hurt. A flood of hurt. Gordon, still sniffling, cleared the last of his tears and shook his head.

“I didn’t mean it like that, Benrey. You’re just… you’re a little overpowering.”

“Overpowering?” Tommy echoed. Coomer sniffed the air enthusiastically.

“Oh, I don’t know, Dr. Freeman! Benrey smells like a forest after a spring rain! Like mud!”

“That’s not…” Gordon paused, clenched his eyes closed, and grumbled a curse under his breath as he fought the waterworks building up once more. “You know? Yeah. Sure. I just don’t like the smell of mud. That’s exactly it. It’s got nothing to do with the fact he’s actively taking over my mind and you were aware that that was the plan all along. Totally the mud thing.”

One more deep breath, just to cleanse his nerves. He finally turned to Coomer. He gestured at the inside of the tram.

“Where are we going?”

The change of subject seemed to catch everyone off guard, the others looking at one another warily as Gordon did his damnedest to keep his voice steady and his mind focused. Tommy seemed as if he was dying to ask a question, while Coomer and Bubby obviously were unwilling to overlook the outburst they’d just witnessed. Bubby in particular, in a shocking show of concern, looked considerably bothered by what he’d just seen, his eyes wide and his mouth partway open as the beginnings of words started dripping out of his mouth.

“We’re not just going to ignore that, are w--?”

“To HR!” Benrey interjected, with surprising force. Gordon glanced down at him as he plopped on his butt, splayed out his legs in front of him, and grinned. He knew exactly what he was doing and, for once, Gordon was glad he was able to read his mind. There was nothing he wanted to do less than talk about his feelings with the science team.

“We’re going to HR?” he echoed.

“Uh-huh. HR is the one who’s fuckin’ with us, so… uh, I’m gonna go fuck HR.” 

There was a pause, as Benrey took a moment to consider his phrasing. His brows furrowed in confusion, and Gordon suppressed a more genuine chuckle as he bore witness to his train of thought. He knew that didn’t sound right, he didn’t know why it didn’t sound right, but he had a gut feeling that he’d just said something very wrong. The doubt was fleeting, though, and with a shake of his head, he turned back to the others and resumed smiling.

“Benrey said that he thinks there’s a final boss in HR, just like he was!” Coomer piped, excitedly pumping a fist in the air as he forgot his previous troubles. “Maybe it will have a rousing theme and we can punch it to death! I feel horribly underutilized, and could go for a good tussle!”

“Yeah!” Benrey barked excitedly. “What he said. That’s, uh… yeah, that’s the plan.”

“So, you’re just bypassing everything to get to the final boss, huh?” Gordon asked with a snort, flopping on one of the tram seats. “You really do wait for no one.”

Benrey made an indistinct noise in return, tilting his head side to side. Gordon knew what he was thinking, but it was a complicated feeling he couldn’t quite put into words. Irritation and impatience had mixed together with pride and something darker into a volatile cocktail that defied emotional labels. The most he could say was that he was fairly certain Benrey was done with being the main character, and that fact was the driving force behind his decision to go straight to the source of his ills.

“Well, assuming you’re right about a ‘final boss’ being in the HR offices, you’re going to be home free soon,” Gordon sighed, rubbing his head; the pain seemed to be lessening, thankfully. “We beat it, we go home. Then, I port the science team into some other piece of software because after this? ALERTS needs to retire. This whole thing is bullshit.”

With those words, Gordon sank down in his seat and continued massaging his temples. He hardly noticed as Benrey sidled up next to him, lazily draping a hand across the back of the seat and over his shoulder. Despite the awkwardness, he allowed it. After everything he’d been through, he didn’t have the energy to argue with him about personal space. Besides, he’d been the one to try to crush Benrey alive a few moments before. That probably sent all kinds of wrong messages.

“We’re on the yellow line, right?” Gordon asked, pressing a palm into his eye. Benrey hesitated for a moment, then coughed awkwardly into his free hand.

“The… what?”

“The yellow line,” he repeated, still somewhat choked. “All the transit lines are color coded. HR is in Sector D, and the yellow line is the only tram that goes that way.”

Benrey made a long, drawling noise as he stalled to respond, a fitting lemon color dripping out of his mouth and dribbling down his chin. Fortunately, Tommy perked up in his periphery and was quick to jump into the seat in front of them, crossing his arms over the back and smiling wide. With his warm expression came a sense of relief. At least somebody on the crew had the presence of mind to keep track of where they were, no small feat considering how disastrously disorganized the complex was and their non-linear manner of travel.

“Mustard yellow means ‘hell if I know,’” Tommy drawled, pointing at Benrey’s face, slick with drool. “But… but I know where we are! I’ve memorized Black Mesa like the back of my hand.”

“Then, you know if we’re headed the right way?”

“Y-yeah. We… we’re on the yellow line, but we’re… the tram started at the beginning. At Lambda. We, uh, we got a real long ride, Mr. Freeman. Sector D is at the very opposite end of the complex.”

Gordon nodded. A long ride didn’t sound bad, honestly. It was cool, it was quiet, and it gave him a moment to sit and rest. While he knew that it would be impossible to relax completely, it was a far cry from dealing with Benrey’s intrusive thoughts on top of the science team’s screaming, adrenaline, and the screeching siren that was his own stress.

“I can deal with that,” he finally sighed as he leaned backwards, the back of his head flopping across Benrey’s arm. The guard tensed again--he could feel the muscles tighten under the nape of his neck--but did not move. At least, not in a way that mattered. He squirmed in his seat uneasily, and a slew of foreign emotions erupted in Gordon’s mind like a drug. Embarrassment, mostly, and a burst of fight-or-flight that seemed out of place.

“You look exhausted, Gordon,” Bubby’s voice sounded from across the aisle, the old man slinging himself down in a seat and crossing his legs. Coomer himself toddled closer, taking a seat next to Bubby and folding his hands politely over his lap as he contemplated how to add to the conversation. Ultimately, he decided he had nothing to say, a twist ending that Gordon would have never been able to predict.

“I am exhausted,” Gordon chuckled insincerely. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life.”

“Go to sleep?” Benrey suggested, though he sounded unsure if that was actually good advice. Coomer nodded enthusiastically, though, and Tommy made a sound of agreement that almost seemed like words.

Gordon said nothing. While actual sleep sounded like a dream after an established routine of blacking out, whiting out, and giving himself concussions, he wasn’t sure how safe he felt letting down his guard quite that much. A quick glance out of the tram window only revealed concrete tunnels and bare metal catwalks running the length of the transit systems’ walls. Bright lights, like flood lights, whizzed by above him, unobscured by anything that could have been a potential threat. Even so, his anxiety spiked as he thought of the possibilities of what could go wrong.

Unfortunately, his thoughts weren’t safe. Before long, Benrey was sighing and letting out a brief snippet of melody. In his periphery, he could see the world light up in a familiar cobalt blue as soothing smoke and a point of light, roughly the size of a jawbreaker, floated idly from his fanged mouth. Turning his head to better see what was happening, he watched as Benrey plucked the glow from the air and rolled it around his fingers with a dexterity that was almost hypnotic.

Then, as Gordon parted his lips to say something about it, it was unceremoniously popped into his mouth.

It melted before he could spit it out, fizzling like pop rocks and melting over his tongue with a strange flavor that he equated with gas station slushies. The two locked eyes as the Sweet Voice took effect, Gordon’s brows furrowing in disgust and anger as Benrey offered a lopsided grin. Azure drool leaked from between his teeth, mingling with the yellow and creating an awful, swampy green.

The rest of the science team watched, Bubby laughing and Coomer clasping his hands together like a little girl at a wedding. Tommy gagged, and asked something that Gordon assumed had to do with whether or not he was okay, but his mind was too preoccupied to really hear the words. He and Benrey were busy battling in silence, thinking at one another as hard as they could.

The mental argument didn’t last long. The Sweet Voice hit harder than normal when ingested, coming at him with all the power of an elephant tranquilizer. His heart skipped a beat as he felt his mind grow fuzzy and quieter, his arms growing heavy as his whole body slumped. It was almost like being drunk, but accompanied by a cold-warm sensation that left him feeling like a microwave burrito.

With great effort, he lifted his arm and sat up, sloppily attempting to press a finger into Benrey’s sternum to drive an unspoken point home. He missed, jabbing him rather hard in the throat, though the guard didn’t seem to mind. He cocked an eyebrow and laughed, reaching out to catch the back of Gordon’s HEV suit as he threatened to topple face-first into the floor.

“Fuck you !” he barked, though his mouth felt so numb and his tongue so heavy that he wasn’t sure if he actually sounded coherent.

Time and place, Dr. Freeman,” a dark, deep, ominous voice projected back, this time outside of his head. It was surreal hearing its voice come from Benrey’s mouth, and even more surreal to see that the others had finally heard it. Bubby’s eyes grew big and Tommy threw a shocked hand over his mouth, seemingly thrilled. 

Coomer seemed unfazed. He shrugged. He’d obviously experienced this before.

Gordon wobbled as he gestured to Benrey, trying to find a way to put into words that that was what was infesting his brain, that that voice was what had been making him act so erratically. Hell, he even wanted to find a way to respond to Benrey’s snark in kind, but he was far beyond the ability to think. Calm and exhaustion took over completely, and mid incomprehensible sentence, Gordon fell to his side, fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Gordon dreamt.

It wasn’t about Benrey, which was a welcome change after the way ALERTS had shoehorned him into his head, but the subject matter still didn’t sit well with him. He dreamed of Black Mesa, of work, of the way the other scientists treated him, reliving past incidents in rapid-fire succession as if every bad day he’d had at the complex was being crammed into a single shift. All of the off-hand remarks they shot in his direction, the way he seemed to offend them with his very presence, the fact that he was never trusted to do anything more than grunt work and manual labor; all of it just coalesced into a narrative that straddled the line between soul-destroying and nerve-wracking.

In his first months at the facility, he had originally thought that the poor treatment had something to do with the fact that he was gay, being that Sector C was manned by old-fashioned elderly men who, despite all of their education, weren't shy about some of their backwards views. It wasn’t until he made friends with several guys in the security team that he found out that the real reason was a completely different uncontrollable factor: his age. They felt threatened by him, one of a "new wave" of researchers coming in to steal their thrones, and their egos were too big to allow for him to stay.

The number of “offenses” he had with human resources was extraordinary, most of them made up by cliques of scientists who’d find fault in everything he did. He’d had several long, awkward conversations with Lauren and Cheryl in HR, one of them considerably easier to talk to than the other. Lauren had been the one to hire him and, being young herself, had experienced the mudslinging firsthand. 

Cheryl was different. Cheryl was a bitch.

Gordon’s eyes flung open as his dream began to force him to relive one of her holier-than-thou tirades about workplace conduct, his breathing as heavy as if he’d just woken up from a nightmare. The soothing voice of the transit announcer happily announced the time of the company decathlon over the sound of his panting, and the tram clicked on its merry way. The lights outside were fewer and further between, and the inside of the car was considerably dimmer than it had been before he dozed off.

It took him a few moments to gather where he’d fallen asleep, only becoming conscious of the security vest pressed against his cheek after feeling the itch of velcro from an open pouch. Rubbing his eyes, he looked up at the face of Benrey, his eyes closed and his breathing slow, his helmet removed and sitting in his lap. Gordon admired him in the same way one would watch a sleeping animal, studying how completely different his normally mocking, vicious face looked when he wasn't awake to act on his assholish tendencies.

Peeling Benrey’s arm from around his shoulder and sitting upright, he glanced around at the others, all of whom seemed to be napping as well. Bubby had taken an entire seat and was lounging like a grandpa on a couch, while Coomer was sitting perfectly erect with his hands in his lap, snoring as if that was a comfortable or normal position to sleep in. Tommy had his head against the back of the seat in front of him, essentially crumpled into a heap, mumbling nonsense to somebody in his dreams.

It was quiet, even inside of Gordon’s head. He almost felt like a villain as he slowly, carefully clambered up from where he sat and squeezed past Benrey, every step he took sounding to him like a bomb being dropped. By the time he reached the back of the tram, watching the tunnel pass by in darkness, he was pretty sure he’d made enough noise to wake the dead. He held his breath as he watched the lights speed past, waiting for any indication that something was amiss.

He got it with the now-familiar flare of pain that came alongside a barrage from Benrey’s mind. Wincing, he turned to glance over his shoulder and saw that the guard was now looking at him, bent awkwardly over the back of their seat and essentially hanging upside down. His eyes glowed brighter than they had before; he had been spooked, thinking Gordon was something crawling into the tram with them.

Upon realizing that they were safe, Benrey’s eyes faded to a dull, pulsing light. He sighed, snapping back into place and oozing out into the middle aisle before gliding his way. His every step was weightless, his movements silent, as if Gordon needed any further proof that Benrey was a predator of the highest order.

Soon, he was at the back of the tram with him, arms crossed as he joined in watching the less-than-interesting environment. The further they sped along, the darker the tunnel became. Before long, Benrey’s eyes were basically acting as a flashlight.

“Feel better?”

Benrey’s voice was surprisingly clear, albeit as deadpan as always. Gordon shrugged. He didn’t know why he had to answer when the monster was obviously already peeking through his brain. Maybe it was just a courtesy, something he picked up from Gordon or Ben.

“Well, uh, I feel better. That was a hella good sleep. Naps are fuckin’ great.”

The bro-tone was back. Gordon smiled. Somehow, that was more comforting.

“Sorry I fuckin’ spat in your mouth,” Benrey added quickly. Gordon huffed a laugh and shrugged once more.

“It’s whatever. I mean, to be fair, the Sweet Voice tastes a lot like a snowcone, and I think I can live with that.”

Even if his expression didn’t show it, Benrey swelled with pride. Finally, he’d done something correctly and Gordon wasn’t going to get mad at him. Rocking back and forth on his heels, he folded his arms behind his back and spent the next few minutes obsessing over his small triumph. He only stopped when he noticed how guilty it was making Gordon feel. He didn't understand that not getting yelled at shouldn’t have felt like an accomplishment.

The next moments passed by in silence, aside from the reminders from the transit authority. She spoke with a professional, smooth inflection as she told them the current date, the temperature outside, and reminded them that Black Mesa was always kept at a comfortable sixty-eight degrees. It was significantly cooler next to Benrey, Gordon noted, as he spared a glance up at the pallid guard. The chill couldn’t even be passed off as his corpse-like lack of heat, either. He was actively radiating cold.

Because he was frozen, Gordon realized. He’d broken him out of a tank in ALERTS, but his real body was out there in the real world, still stuck in a frigid fish bowl at Black Mesa. The thought made his heart sink.

But, it also piqued his curiosity. Tilting his head up at Benrey (who, he suddenly realized, was now considerably taller), he watched the side of his face and chewed his bottom lip, trying to figure out how in the hell anyone in Black Mesa had ever managed to catch him. Ben had even gone so far as to talk about him as if he were a god, and Gordon knew enough of the security officers at the complex that he doubted any of them were qualified to snag a deity.

Feeling his confusion and his stare, Benrey smirked. He didn’t even turn to face him before he began to speak.

“Yo, I don’t know any more than you do, bro,” he chuckled. “Whole fuckin’ chunk of my time is corrupt. Pulled out the memory card before the game saved. Major fail. Got fuckin’ pwned.”

He paused.

“Also, I’m taller than you ‘cause I got sick of being shorter than you. How’s it feel to be tiny, Tiny Baby Feetman?”

Gordon didn’t immediately respond, offering an insincere half smile as he gave the words time to sink in. It took a while as, even though his brain wasn’t as jacked up as it could have been, it was still pretty hard to stay focused. More so, it was difficult to wrap his mind around how a bunch of science geeks had not only captured a god but, somehow, managed to make it forget that it ever happened.

“Do you remember anything ?” Gordon asked weakly. The information didn’t seem pertinent to their situation, but Gordon had never done well with letting things go. His curiosity always got the best of him in the end.

Fortunately, Benrey was just the type of being to humor him. He mulled on this for a second, wracking his brain for any details he could salvage from his memory. He was bothered, frustrated, and oddly frightened. His thoughts raced through Gordon’s head like a slideshow as he picked through each individual memory leading up to his capture, though the imagery became blurrier and blurrier until it eventually turned to black like a ruined movie reel.

“Uh, I remember… Ben?” Benrey drawled. “Ben, and… uh, a vent? Then, uh, I dunno. Something happened. Then I got locked in a freezer. Oh, and I remember y--”

His voice was cut off by the tell-tale sound of a mechanical failure, the tram lurching to a stop so violently that both Benrey and Gordon were knocked off their feet. Behind them, the science team squalled in surprise as they were roused from their naps, Tommy tumbling to the floor while Coomer and Bubby barely caught themselves on their seats. They looked back at Benrey and Gordon almost accusingly, right as the flood lights in the tunnel flickered and extinguished.

They were quickly replaced with red emergency lights, and a loud, squealing siren. Gordon struggled to his feet and helped Benrey to his, muttering a curse under his breath. It was the lobby all over again.

“A malfunction has been detected on… the yellow line,” the transit announcer purred, her voice as robotic as it was seductive. “Human Resources wishes to extend their apologies for any inconveniences this may cause. Please remain seated. Help will arrive shortly to assist with personnel evacuations.”

One by one, the science team stood. Bubby instinctively reached for his gun while Tommy and Coomer pressed their faces against the windows curiously. Gordon followed suit, struggling to angle himself to see above the tram. The sound of groaning metal didn’t paint the prettiest picture of what was in store but, as far as he could see, there wasn’t anything to indicate an immediate danger aside from the mention of HR over the intercom.

Benrey seemed far more uneasy, a spark of fear flashing in Gordon’s head. It wasn’t quite as paralyzing as it had been in the past, but the discomfort it caused was contagious. Turning from the window, he watched as Benrey began to pace the tram, slowly walking from the front to the back over and over again. Periodically, he would stop to peer outside, though his gaze always lingered down into the seemingly endless pit beneath them than the actual track above.

“A malfunction has been detected on… the yellow line,” the voice repeated. “Human Resources is disappointed that you have allowed this to happen. Please remain seated. Security is now en route .”

Tommy jumped at the sound of the word “security,” while Coomer and Bubby steeled themselves for what they knew was coming. Cracking his knuckles, Coomer edged closer to the tram door, watching through the shatter proof glass for any signs of the inevitable shitstorm that was to come. Bubby nervously dug through his pockets for any spare ammunition after a quick inspection of his gun reminded him that he’d wasted all of his bullets on the Friendlies.

Gordon continued to stare out the back. It was harder to get his bearings in the crimson glow of the emergency lights, and they extended as far as he could see, up until the tunnel terminated in darkness. If he squinted, he swore he could see movement, though his eyesight was just bad enough that he had his doubts. 

“A malfunction has been detected in… the science team. Human Resources wishes to inform you that you are in violation of ex-ex-ex-ex… The current time is six thirty-six PM. Please remain seated. Evacuate immediately.”

Skittering. There was no other way to describe the sound, Gordon freezing as it grew louder. It made him think of cockroaches on a kitchen floor, but exponentially bigger and in great numbers. Memories of the security guards at the beginning of the ALERTS simulation plagued him, their faceless countenances burned into his mind’s eye. Opening his mouth, he tried to choke out something to the crew, but was stopped when the tram began to rock.

Stumbling, Gordon caught himself on a nearby seat and grabbed Bubby before he hit the ground. Benrey, now at the opposite end of the car, latched onto a railing and barked a curse that sounded more like something Gordon would say. Tommy practically rolled into Coomer, the two toppling into the door, the older man crushed by Tommy’s body as he struggled to get himself upright. The tram continued to sway and creak with increasing violence, and an ominous tapping echoed from above.

Something was on top of them.

“Mr. Freeman, what’s going on?” Tommy worriedly drawled, finally scrabbling to his feet. Coomer, winded, shook himself off and brushed off his lab coat, before yelping loudly in shock as another tremor nearly knocked him right back down.

“I… uh, I don’t know, bud,” Gordon responded softly, eyes flicking up to Benrey. “Uh, hey. Main character? What the fuck is going on?”

Words seemed to be beyond Benrey, and with a nauseating wet noise, he belched a yellow glob onto the ground. Thanks to Tommy’s previous insight, he knew that meant that Benrey was just as much in the dark as the rest of them.

“I know what’s going on,” Bubby interjected, testing the weight of the magnum in his hand as he held it by the barrel; apparently, pistol whipping was his new idea. “What’s going on is that we’re completely fucked.”

“No,” Gordon breathlessly answered, “we’re not completely fu--”

The sentence came to an abrupt halt as something slammed into the glass right behind him, causing Gordon to nearly jump straight out of the HEV suit. His cat-like wail elicited a laugh from Tommy, though he sounded as if he was struggling to convince himself that there was anything to laugh about. Every ounce of color had drained out of his face, as well as the rest of the science team. Only Benrey seemed capable of moving, suddenly bolting towards Gordon and the back of the tram with an expression of pure rage.

Gordon had an idea he knew why.

Swallowing hard and following Benrey’s movements as he threw himself against the back window, Gordon turned to look at the source of the sound. He expected a monster, some kind of alien or twisted horror gawking at him as it clung to the side of the tram, but all he found was a note stuck to the glass with a dirty piece of scotch tape. It was smeared in dark, bloody fingerprints that trailed from where it was placed up to the top of the car.

 

YOU ARE IN VIOLATION. STOP FUCKING AROUND.

- Human Resources

 

“Rude,” Benrey muttered under his breath. Despite how aloof he sounded, Gordon could sense an undercurrent of dread. It was evident in the way he squirmed and twisted, trying to find a way to see the culprit despite obviously hoping he wouldn’t find them.

His search was interrupted by the sound of Coomer, shrieking for help as he stumbled away from the door he was guarding. Immediately, Benrey doubled back, Gordon hot on his heels as the tram wobbled from the force of their every step. Tommy and Bubby clustered around as well, Coomer still defiantly holding up his fists at a dark figure that hung upside down on the opposite side of the windshield.

It was almost human, resembling a soldier dressed in fatigues and strapped with pouches and an oversized pack. Its fingers were too long and its skin pale, and a face that had once been featureless had been expertly ripped into an approximation of an expression. Blackened blood dripped out of sinewy holes mimicking eyes and a mouth that never moved, running in streams down its hairless head and smearing across the glass. The longer they stared at it, the more it seemed pleased with itself, though, given its static expression, it mostly communicated this through what Gordon could only describe as “excited vibrating.”

“That’s disgusting,” Bubby piped, breaking the silence.

“That’s… yeah, that’s pretty gross,” Tommy agreed.

“What is it?”

“Uh… I… I don’t know. Er, we… I’m pretty sure there’s no Wikipedia entry on this guy. And that’s… he’s definitely not compliant with OSHA safety guidelines right now.”

“Well, when you inevitably write an article, make sure to say that he’s fucking disgusting and irresponsible.”

Slowly, the creature’s head began to tilt. Its neck stretched, cracked, and broke as it continued further than humanly possible, up until its face was right-side up. Gordon cringed at the sound of bones snapping and flesh tearing, watching in abject horror as it pushed a finger into the corner of its “mouth” and pulled, tearing the hole wider. By the end, it had given itself a menacing, lopsided smile. Bubby’s mouth contorted in disgust as he recoiled, though Coomer answered the only way he knew how.

He punched the glass.

It was more meant as a warning than anything, a scare tactic intended to send it scurrying off to whatever pit of hell it’d clawed its way out of. There was a satisfying, loud pop followed by the figure lurching on the other side of the windshield, startled but in no way deterred. If anything, it seemed to take it as a challenge. Uttering a wet, gurgling sound that was followed by a cascade of blood, it curled its gnarled hands into a ball and reared back.

It punched the glass. This time, the glass cracked.

Everyone screamed, even the creature. Its sharp, shrill cry mingled with the sirens and, before long, even the wail of the emergency system was drowned out by the clangs, clunks, hisses, and groans of an impending swarm. Gordon and Tommy rushed to the nearest window, watching in absolute horror as the tunnel walls darkened with the silhouettes of more. Like locusts, they came out of nowhere, clinging to the walls with mangled limbs and craning their heads to watch them on twisted necks. Each and every one was dressed identically to the first, cookie-cutter monsters differentiated only by the tears in their hollow faces.

Before long, the tunnels were thick with them and their screams. A haunting laugh crackled over the tram’s PA, worming its way into Gordon’s mind just as firmly as Benrey’s voice. The torrent of noise, of light, of Benrey’s intrusion caused a familiar pain to begin again, and Gordon could feel himself nearing the brink of a breakdown.

Sensing his discomfort, Benrey snapped. Leaping up on one of the seats, he reached up to the intercom and gutted it, yanking down tangles of plastic and copper and heaving them to the floor. The announcer’s voice faded into a demonic drone before disappearing completely, sparks shooting from ripped wires just above their head.

“Is it too late to tell you I told you so?” Bubby asked, straightening his glasses. “Because I told you so. I told you we were fucked.”

Tommy, in despair, sank to the ground and tangled his fingers into his own hair, letting out a sound that wouldn’t have been out of place coming from a wounded animal. Choking back tears of his own, Gordon struggled to regain his composure, forcing himself to focus long enough to speak.

“We’re not fucked!” he barked. He didn’t believe it and he didn’t mean for it to come out as loudly and angrily as it had, but the sound of his artificial confidence filled him with resolve. Ignoring the mounting clusterfuck in his head, he whipped around to Benrey. Before he could say a word, the tram began to swing.

Dozens of the things leaped from their perches on the tunnel wall and, like geckos, clung to the tram and scurried about, caking the windows with their hideous forms until nothing could be seen beyond them. The groaning of metal and a sickening downward lurch prompted a shrill shriek from the science team, Gordon included, as inertia swept him off of his feet. Benrey only barely managed to stay upright, struggling to keep with the sway of the car as he glowered at the creatures pressed to the glass.

Yet, there was something else emanating from him that Gordon was picking up. It was a harrowing sort of fear and dread that transcended what he himself was feeling, something darker.

Trauma?

The second the word popped in his head, Benrey swung around to look at him, eyes wide. There was something about these weird, military creatures that obviously horrified him. The thoughts he was throwing in Gordon’s direction were a scrambled mess.

While he would have loved to piece it together, he didn’t have the luxury of time. Struggling back to his feet and looking to the science team, he examined each of their petrified faces as the monstrosities swarmed them. The tram continued to rock, the beasts continued to beat on the windows, and there seemed to be no end to their numbers. With cracks forming in the glass, it was obvious that somebody needed to do something fast. Unfortunately, his brain was such a wreck that even Gordon couldn’t manage to come up with a plan.

“Does anyone have any ideas?” he called over the cacophony. “Anyone at all?”

“We can jump,” Bubby suggested with a shrug. “Probably less painful than whatever HR wants to do to us.”

“Oh dear,” Coomer sighed. “I never knew this is what happened after your third write-up. They really should have wrote about this in the employee handbook!”

“We could… I could... Aw, fuck, Mr. Freeman. I don’t know!” Tommy wailed.

“I got an idea,” Benrey said quietly, with a softness that belied his terror. He didn’t sound certain with whatever said idea was, but nobody seemed to pick up on it but Gordon. Immediately, Tommy’s eyes lit up with hope and a small smile crossed his face as he looked up from where he was stooped on the floor, regarding Benrey almost as if he were a god.

“You… you do?” he squeaked. Benrey hesitated, looking to Gordon. Terror, uncertainty, and doubt echoed in his skull. Still, Benrey forced a fanged grin. The sound of breaking glass spurred him on, one of the military monsters squeezing a bloodied hand through a jagged hole and swiping at Bubby. Bubby responded by pistol-whipping it across the back of the hand.

“Oh, uh. Yeah. Abso-fuckin’-lutely. I’m, uh, I’m elite gamer bro. Uh, I’m goddamn fucking Spider-Man. Fuckin’ hero. Main character saves the day, let’s go Player One.”

“What’s the plan?” Bubby demanded.

“Uh…”

The tram lurched downward again, and the sound of warping metal grew louder. Gordon had never thought he’d see the day where the track couldn’t support the train, but he supposed that the transit authority hadn’t built it with holding the weight of a hundred malformed soldiers in mind. 

“... Yeah, fuck this. Cheat mode activated.”

Gordon watched as Benrey grew blurry and odd. His skin darkened, his arm bent at weird and awkward angles, and his fingers stretched into a clawed mess of bones and goo. Inhaling deeply, he barked an utterly inhuman sound into the air, his body continuing to morph and contort as a bright, vivid green light grew in front of him. It took Gordon a moment to register what it was, although it should have been obvious. After all, whenever Benrey was in a place he didn’t want to be, the only solution he knew of was to will himself someplace else.

By the time he turned back to the science team, half of his flesh was a tar-like mess and eyes were blossoming over his exposed skin. The security uniform was being taken over by a mass of slime, and extra limbs--mostly skeletal--were ripping from his shoulders and back. The thick, shadowy fluid coating him formed the meat around the framework, knitting itself together into extensions of his body even as his fleshless extra hands reached for the others.

“Okay.” His voice was cracking, growing deeper and then more human, fluctuating wildly. “Time to… I dunno, go. Now . C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Let’s go, children.”

More shattering glass. The sound of the sirens and their attackers grew louder. Tommy didn’t struggle as Benrey latched onto his arm and pulled him closer, though Bubby took a swing at him with his gun. Coomer seemed both bothered and fascinated as a leaking, bony hand fisted itself into his labcoat and reeled him in, following along with a shrug as he passed Gordon and the others.

Then, Gordon felt something squeezing his arm. Benrey’s strength was so great he could feel the pressure beneath the HEV suit, a fact that caught him off guard and made him attempt to pull away. All attempts at escape ended when he looked up from Benrey’s grasp and noticed that the creatures were finally worming their way closer, ripping open holes in the windows large enough that they could begin to fit themselves inside.

“Road trip, guys! Hurry! Go go go!”

“Let it rip, Guardian Screamsting!” Tommy yelled, obviously enthused by the presence of Benrey’s more monstrous half. He was the first chucked into the glowing rift, his triumphant cry vanishing the moment he was swallowed by the light.

Next was Bubby, who made sure the last thing visible before he fell through time and space was his middle finger. Coomer went more willingly, offering a polite thank-you before he went. 

Benrey turned to Gordon, his eyes now many and glittering bright blue, his face almost completely bestial. Fear and sadness, Gordon noted, were prevalent both in his thoughts and expression. His stomach sank. Somehow, it felt like he was getting ready to say a final good-bye.

“Yo, ‘fore I throw you in?” Benrey began. “Just so you know, I, uh… I didn’t want to be the bad guy. You, uh, you’re… I dunno, man. My favorite or something. I was just fuckin’ around.”

Gordon chewed his lip. The tears that were building, he wasn’t sure if it was from anxiety or the gravity of what these words meant. There was an unspoken weight behind them, and it was crushing.

“It’s fine,” Gordon choked. “This is just a simulation, right? You’re cool.”

What was left of Benrey’s human visage smiled. It was earnest, and strangely pure for something so dark and depraved. He barely had a chance to admire it before he found himself being hurdled backwards, slung through the bright light right as a series of cracks spelled the end of the tram’s windows. Hisses, squalls, and wet gargling disappeared behind him as he catapulted through a brief instance of void and landed, unceremoniously, on a polished checkered floor.

The others gathered around him, quickly hoisting him to his feet and making sure he was in one piece, Tommy excitedly rattling off how cool he found the whole situation. As they spoke, Gordon struggled to get his bearings, glancing down at the black and white tiles and realizing, much to his shock, that he knew exactly where he was.

A receptionist office. Bright red doors. Chessboard flooring that better fit a fifties diner. Offices hidden behind frosted, layered glass. He’d walked past it all enough times that it was burned into his memory.

Sector D. Benrey had managed to send them to Sector D, only a brief walk away from their final destination. Gordon smiled in spite of himself, though it died the second he looked over at the still-glowing portal whorling beside him.

Like a window, he could see through to the other side. Clusters of the hideous military beasts crawled through shattered windows, scraping their flesh open on broken glass and crawling towards a monstrous, thrashing Benrey who was clearly overwhelmed. While it was a silent movie, sound not carrying between locations, it was obvious that it was a loud, messy, dangerous affair. 

“Poor Officer Boper,” Coomer sighed. “I will miss him every day.”

Gordon’s breath hitched in his throat. His feet moved before his brain did. Amid cries from Tommy and Coomer to stop and think of what he was doing, he found himself rushing back toward the rift, determination burning in his eyes. Only Bubby wished him well, throwing a hand in the air and howling for him to kick some ass, though his words fell silent as Gordon threw himself face-first back from whence he came.

He couldn’t explain it. There was no good reason for it. All Gordon knew was that he’d never be able to forgive himself if he let Benrey die alone.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Gordon was certain about, it was that he was impulsive. It was a character flaw he’d taken great pains to overcome, in hopes that one day he would be a responsible, well-adjusted adult. While he had improved a lot through the years, he still had certain quirks that he hadn’t quite hammered out as well as he would have liked.

He ran his mouth when he shouldn’t have, and he spoke out of anger when he knew it was the wrong thing to do. In any given situation, the first option given was usually the one he went with. Lashing out was as much a part of his nature as eating or breathing, and he could remember joking with the AIs in the first ALERTS run about robbing a bank, then actually wondering if maybe that was something he could get away with. That wasn’t even starting on the fact he stole all the equipment from the ALERTS project to begin with, albeit with little resistance, and had spent so long working on fixing what an entire team of programmers could not.

Yet, all of that paled in comparison with what he’d just done. Saying mean things, stealing flash drives, and speaking out of turn weren’t things that would endanger his life. Jumping straight into a mob of monsters to save an even bigger monster was, in retrospect, perhaps not the best idea.

His foot barely cleared the rift before the tear in reality healed itself, and the HEV suit happily announced how beautifully stable his vitals were as he landed with a loud thunk on the floor of the tram. The sounds of the alarm and the shrieks of the creatures were deafening, and Gordon watched from the ground as a familiar, slimy beast struggled to grapple with more monsters than he had arms. They tore at him, ripping away blackened, oozing flesh and flinging it around the inside of the car like mud, gouging eyes with skeletal thumbs and wrenching his jaws in awkward, painful directions.

It was at that moment, gawking up at the scene, that Gordon realized something: he was unarmed and outnumbered, and this had all been a terrible idea. Benrey, after all, couldn’t die. That had been proven multiple times in multiple ways. Gordon, however, was painfully mortal and pretty sure that subjecting himself to this much stress and terror would give his real, physical body a fucking stroke.

A boot nearly collided with his head and he quickly rolled out of the way, climbing to his feet and heaving as he watched the carnage. Much of Benrey was exposed skeleton now, a bestial amalgamation of bone slick with oily black, flesh struggling to fuse back together before being ripped open again. His body continued to twist and transform until not a hint of his humanity remained, rendering him a pile of sludge, arms, teeth, and tendrils. Frozen, Gordon watched as he thrashed and screeched, then let out an involuntary scream as the movement seemed to weaken the tram. 

Another lurch downward. They were on a quick path to a five-hundred foot drop.

The moment his voice hit the air, a fair number of Benrey’s eyes lazily rolled toward him. Slit pupils expanded and contracted, becoming so small they may as well have not existed. He could feel a pulse of adrenaline-fueled anger and horror flare up in his head, hitting him like a bat to the face. Nothing needed to be said for him to know that Benrey was not happy to see him.

BRO. WHAT THE FUCK.

The voice was louder than normal and boomed inside his skull, a bone-rattling vibration of godly fury working its way through his body. He didn’t really have a response because, at the end of the day, the reaction was warranted.

“I know. I’m an idiot,” Gordon replied, before being splattered with a chunk that was torn from Benrey’s face. Thankfully, none of it ended up on his glasses. It looked like it would be a bitch to get off, and he didn’t need to have any more of a handicap against him than he already had.

YOU FUCKIN’ THINK? I'M FINE. I WENT OUT OF MY WAY TO… hold on.

With a swing of a massive arm, Benrey crushed one of the beasts against the wall. It deflated like a balloon, blood and rot gushing from the holes in its face.

Anyway. I WENT OUT OF MY WAY TO MAKE SURE YOU DIDN’T FUCKIN’ DIE AND YOU JUST… WHY ARE YOU HERE?

The more he yelled, the more Gordon couldn’t shake the fact that he didn’t sound like Benrey. He sounded a lot like himself . The inflections, the anger. It made sense, all things considered, but it was a smack in the face to have his own outrage directed at him. 

Almost as much of a smack in the face as the actual impact of a faceless terror clocking him in the jaw, having finally noticed that there was more than one target to neutralize. For as lanky as their limbs were, they packed quite a punch, and down he went as white-hot pain exploded through his face. He probably would have lingered on it more, if not for being yanked away and thrown violently into a wall.

The HEV suit calmly informed him about minor lacerations as he wrestled with his attacker, a pale entity in camouflage with a beret balanced neatly atop its bald, ripped face. Wet, raspy hisses and dark fluid spat out of its artificial mouth as it swatted at him, tangled itself in him, kept aiming for the eyes and attempting to pin his arms to his side. Gordon thrashed, kicked, punched, bit; everything he’d ever learned to defend himself from bullies in high school came out in a furious attempt to keep himself from being mangled.

Then, he felt it. One of its fingers hooked around the corner of his mouth. His eyes watered as his brain fumbled with how to respond, hesitating just a second too long. Agony, so sharp that it made his vision blink out, was answered with a wet gurgle and the HEV suit’s own pleasant voice as he felt the skin of his cheek rip open.

“Blood loss detected,” it chimed. 

No shit.

If nothing else, being cornered and wounded did a number on him, his fight-or-flight response honing in on “fight” with all the rage of a charging bull. Despite the nauseating pain, Gordon found the strength to knock the creature away from him, noting its distressed shrieks as his adrenaline pushed him onward. It struggled in vain as he slammed its head against the metal walls of the tram, again and again and again, desperate and shaking, until nearly nothing was left.

He expected it to be more gory, more something but, whatever these things were, they weren’t built like humans. It was like smashing an overripe jack-o-lantern after Halloween. It didn’t have a skull, a brain. It seemed their bodies were just filled with fluid.

As it crumpled to the ground, the reality of his situation hit him like a ton of bricks. Trembling, he reached up a hand to his injured face and flinched at the burning sensation of sweat on torn flesh. He could feel his teeth from the outside, slick with blood, and he felt himself growing faint as his brain finally came to terms with what happened.

Gordon?

Benrey’s voice was a distant echo. Gordon struggled to think anything coherent back, or to speak, or anything. Despite his repeated failures, his desperation was evident enough.

Holy… ow. OW. Ow fuck, bro. Fuck. Oh, shit. That’s not how that’s supposed to look. Your face don’t do that. That’s a me face thing.

Gordon swooned. His stomach tossed. His vision was dimming and blurry, and blood trickled through his beard. The struggle to remain conscious was an uphill battle, as he weakly swayed just out of the grips of creatures who honed in on him as the weakest link.

Through the fog, however, he could see vague shapes that painted a gory picture: Benrey lurching, soldier-types being crushed flat. He heard screeches of horror and anger, then felt something cold wrap around his waist.

I can fix it. I can… fuck. I mean, uh, if we get out of here. Hold on. Just… don’t puss out on me, bro. Don’t be a cat. Be a man. It’s just a scratch, best friend. Don’t be such a wuss.

The sensation of movement was sudden and unexpected, and it took him a moment to realize what was happening. Black claws were coiled around his torso, the tram was heaving and shrieking as it threatened to disconnect from the track completely, and Benrey was on the move. Like an octopus, he compressed himself and slithered his massive form through the hole in the windshield. The HEV suit scraped against the glass as Benrey floundered his way over a mass of waiting creatures to the top of the tram.

Gordon’s adrenaline spiked again, his vision clearing, as he looked down the seemingly endless drop to the bottom of the tunnel. The only hint that there was a bottom at all was a veritable starfield of reflective white eyes looking up from the darkness. He had no idea what they could have been, just that they definitely weren’t the same things currently swarming them.

Swatting away scuttling soldiers, Benrey’s monstrous head swiveled in a desperate attempt to look for escape. The tram lurched downward again, this time with a metallic crunch that carried with it an air of finality. Judging from the uncomfortable noise Benrey made--somewhere between a deep click and a whale song--he knew he wouldn’t have as much time as he wanted to think of an escape.

Man, I hate doing this. Fuckin’... it’s shit. So sucks. Hold on.

Benrey’s grip on him tightened, and he in turn tightened his grip on Benrey. He then watched, horrified, as Benrey’s mouth flayed open and, with great difficulty, slowly began to extend down his throat, down his chest, down his stomach. Chitinous, insect-like legs ripped from his hips and pressed into the tear, pulling it open wider until Benrey was, essentially, bisected. Inside was a tangle of wet, meaty tendrils that almost looked like organs and, surprisingly, even more eyes.

His intestines proved shockingly dexterous. As a slew of monsters dove for them, they shot out and wrapped themselves around the electrified rail, Benrey making a horrific sound as the jolt hit him. Oddly enough, it didn’t affect Gordon, and he watched with bemusement as Benrey jittered and jostled.

Then, without warning, he took a leap of faith.

The force of his jump was enough to finish the tram off, and Gordon looked back just in time to see it break free from the track, taking with it a mob of monsters who hissed as they fell into the abyss. Those who weren’t unfortunate enough to be stuck with the car paused only for a moment, regarding this tragedy in silence before turning in unison to the culprits. Gordon swallowed hard as Benrey, like a reverse barnacle, pulled himself upwards by his own innards. 

This is sucks. I hate this. Why can I even do this, Gordon? Who the fuck? Devs were shit! Ugh, goddamn no playtesters for fuckin’ gods, when there should be, because… because… they just throw me at the world and say, oh, cool, it has Spider-Man guts and then add electricity and this is… this is no. This is no. No. Nope. Never again.

Given the state of his mouth, Gordon couldn’t say anything in response. Instead, he merely repeated the words “hurry” in his head, over and over, with increasing panic as he watched the swarm begin to crawl along the walls in their direction. While Benrey was frustrated, tired, and seemed to honestly be considering dropping Gordon to get rid of the excess weight, he at least realized that Gordon wasn’t exaggerating the danger. Lashing out with the longest of his arms, he grabbed the rail and pulled himself the rest of the way up.

He began to run even before he could put himself back together, innards dragging behind him as he awkwardly trotted along the track like a cat making its way across hot concrete. It wasn’t nearly fast enough, and Gordon launched a kick into Benrey’s side in a silent bid for him to get the lead out.

Dude, watch it .

Another kick.

Why you being mean?

Kick. Kick. And a third for good measure.

I your fuckin’ horse now or something? Chill.

Then, something else hit Benrey, something sharp that dug its disgusting talons deep into his leg as it launched itself from the wall and grabbed onto his massive form. He let out a wail, almost like the scream of a bronco, and bucked it off with a painful thrash. It toppled into the pit, screaming all the way down, but there were most definitely more, the walls blackened with the shadowy forms of the encroaching horde.

Okay, I get it. Gotta… gotta faster, right? Yeah, sure. Hang on. This is gonna be super suckage for you, though .

Every muscle in Benrey’s body stiffened as he tensed himself, sprinting forward along the electrified track as fast as he could go. Through Benrey’s body and the shell of the HEV suit, Gordon could feel an uncomfortable buzz finally reach him, his jaw clenching as he struggled to ignore it. Of course, tightening the muscles in his face elicited a whole new wave of pain, and Gordon silently cursed himself as a new rush of blood cascaded down the side of his ruined cheek.

His preoccupation with his own injury lasted until he felt the world become weightless and realized that he was in the air, frantically looking behind his twisted steed to see that the monorail was becoming little more than a distant memory. Their pursuers, either ignorant or ambivalent to the current coursing through it, leaped onto the rail in hopes of closing ground between them, but sizzled and popped upon contact before tumbling into the dark. Gordon’s stomach flipped as he watched them, his fingers digging hard into Benrey’s wrist. He was shocked when they pierced his slimy flesh and sank down to the bone.

Benrey didn’t respond, hardly registering the pain as he crashed against the tunnel wall, clawed hands digging gouges into the concrete as he landed. His entire body shuddered and rumbled from the impact, his inner tendrils finally recoiling into the still-gaping maw in his midsection. Then, with a speed that didn’t seem becoming of a creature so ungainly and large, he started ahead, loping along the side of the transit tunnel and tearing holes into the cement.

The monsters in their wake flinched as Benrey chucked rubble at them between steps, Gordon watching them crumple and plummet as debris bounced off of their hideous forms. However, no matter how many were knocked away, their numbers never seemed to thin. More would clamber up from the depths, faster and angrier, Benrey slithering further and further up the wall in an effort to evade their attempts at dragging him down.

By the time Benrey had been driven clear to the ceiling, Gordon decided they were completely fucked. The ache in his face worsened as he hung upside down, gravity feeling the need to drill it home just how bad he’d screwed up by not staying in Sector D with the rest of the science team. His head felt heavy and woozy as he bounced along, watching the army behind them draw closer, fairly certain that there was no way they could keep up their momentum long enough to reach safety.

Dude, you always think that. Every time. Something bad happens, you assume we’re dead. We’re not dead. I know what I am doing. I am a professional. Highly trained. Hold on.

Gordon sighed out of his nose in defeat. “Hold on” was not a phrase Benrey ever used lightly, and it always preceded something unpleasant.

The world whorled awkwardly as Benrey dug deep into his reserves, pushing himself somehow faster as he dragged his claws through the concrete and slid down the wall. He was now barreling down and forward toward a familiar metal platform illuminated by white floodlights at the very end of the tunnel, shining like heaven in the depths of hell. Struggling to keep his glasses on his face, Gordon squinted through the fogging lenses and tried to place where he’d seen it before. With everything roiling around in his head, he probably wouldn’t have even recognized his own son if he was sat down in front of him, let alone a random chunk of scaffolding in the middle of Black Mesa.

He barely had time to venture a guess before the tunnel ended, flaring out into a massive chamber, a dark chasm standing between Benrey and his target. Chittering, hissing, and screeching, their attackers lashed out with sharpened claws and tore chunks out of the slithering ass-end of him, though Benrey was proving not to be a quitter. He didn’t even break stride as he leapt from the sudden end of the tunnel and launched himself toward the metal platform.

Gordon had thought he’d maybe reach up and grab the monorail, but the idea obviously never occurred to Benrey. They simply soared through the air, Gordon looking back as their pursuers skidded to a halt. Some ripped their faces into bigger smiles, obviously pleased and convinced they’d never make it. Honestly, Gordon doubted it, too.

Then, with a jerk, they stopped. Gordon let out a painful, awkward yelp as their flight ended, turning his attention back to Benrey. The eldritch being grunted in frustration as his myriad hands wrapped around rails and metal grating, struggling for purchase to pull himself up. The entire platform groaned loudly in warning, and emergency rails broke free under Benrey’s grip like staples being plucked out of paper.

His persistence was remarkable, however. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he scrabbled for hand-holds and pulled with all of his might. The noises he made were guttural and accompanied by Sweet Voice screams in dozens of different frenzied, confused colors that only ended when every last inch of him was safely supported on solid ground. Their audience howled in dissatisfaction.

Okay. Close. Very close. We got this.

It sounded like Benrey was trying to convince himself as he dragged himself toward an airlock door at the opposite end of the catwalk, not even bothering with anything as fancy as security codes or badge scans. Instead, he hooked four sets of fingers under the metal door somehow, despite the gap between the metal and the concrete being nigh nonexistent. With a great huff and a shriek of pain, he wrenched it upwards as hard as he could, managing to make a gap barely big enough for himself.

In you go .

Gordon barked a curse as he felt himself being hurdled through the opening, rolled like a bowling ball and tumbling across the floor into an airlock that was, thankfully, open on the other side. He lay on his stomach, bleeding and panting, blurry eyes looking up at stenciled blue words painted on the wall. 

Sector C. For fuck’s sake, they’d ended back up at anomalous materials. That was why that platform looked so familiar.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a loud, unearthly shriek that rattled the walls and vibrated the floor. Jerking up with a start, his heart in his throat, Gordon looked back at Benrey and struggled to ignore the new sensations rolling through him like thunder. Pain and instinctual fear, accompanied by a numbness that seemed to take over his body from the waist down.

Behind him, writhing on the floor, was Benrey.

Apparently, getting through the door himself had proved a little trickier, and Gordon felt bile rise in his throat at the sight of the monster, crushed in half, seizing in agony in front of him. Bright cyan eyes rolled wildly, his monstrous mouth open in a deafening roar, tentacles writhing like dying snakes around his head. Arms pounded into the ground leaving craters in the concrete, claws raking against the wall and making glass-shattering screeches.

Gordon immediately jumped up and ran forward, stopping only when he came to the realization that he had no idea what to do. He panicked, he looked around frantically. Behind him, he could see the still-empty lobby for Sector C sparkling behind him, as clean and untouched as it had been after he woke up on its floor after the Resonance Cascade. Not a soul was to be found, not a single person or thing that could help them.

“Oh god, oh god,” he mumbled behind clenched teeth, reaching up to scratch at his cheek nervously and then screaming the second he hit the tear in his face.

Yeah, shit hurts . Fuckin’... ugh, I hate when this happens. So… so ouch, bro. Not cool.

Gordon paused, turning back to Benrey as the monster slowly came down from his tantrum, shakily hoisting himself up on his remaining arms. Entrails dragged beneath him, his legs missing and his hips shattered. Splinters of bone poked out from his inky skin, ashen marrow leaking from exposed fractures.

Horrifying as it was, aside from the visible damage and the shuddering of Benrey’s chest as he took deep, heaving breaths, it seemed as though he was somehow okay. He was trying to make himself okay, at least, for Gordon’s sake. It was hard not to be touched by how adamant he was about it, trembling like a leaf but playing it off as if it were nothing. 

If nothing else, rummaging through Benrey’s thoughts proved that he was in no danger of dying. Which, honestly, should have been obvious. No matter how bad it looked like he was hurt, no matter what happened to the goddamn thing, Gordon should have known that he couldn't die.

Okay. Break time. We, uh, we gonna sit for a bit. Get you fixed. Look like you, uh, like you’re pretty hurt. Pretty face is all torn up. Happens a lot to me. It’s the opposite of fun. Unfun. Cringefail. Bad.

Gordon’s brows furrowed and his eyes narrowed. He didn’t want to speak--it hurt too much--so he settled for gesturing forcefully at Benrey’s missing bottom half and beaming the concept of worry at him as hard as he could. Much to his surprise, the monster responded with an audible chuckle, a deep and meaty rumble that made every one of Gordon’s atoms vibrate. One of his hands flicked at him dismissively and, with newfound resolve, he began to drag his broken body past him, leaving a trail of vibrant violet blood and blue pus in his wake.

I, uh, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m good. I’m not human. It’ll, uh, it’ll all grow back. But, like, you are human and, uh, your face? It, uh, it won’t.

Chapter Text

The utter grotesqueness of Benrey clashed with the rest of the Sector C lobby. Before he arrived, everything had been polished to a fine sheen and even the clutter on the receptionist desk had a certain uniformness to it that spoke of meticulousness and order. Gordon could have sworn that their last visit here would have left it in disarray, but the only blemish to be found was the gigantic, oozing monstrosity nursing its wounds in the corner and trailing neon sludge.

That, and the disfigured, bloody man who’d arrived with him.

Slumped in the chair at the lobby desk, Gordon watched over the course of a good half hour as Benrey’s monstrous form contorted, twisted, cracked, boiled, slithered, slimed, and gradually began to repair itself. Bones regrew from remnants of old ones, veins sprouted where ripped ones ended, and the strange, inky substance that made up the bulk of his being knitted together over top of the new framework. The entire time, Benrey laid on the ground like a sad dog, huffing air out of his gargantuan nostrils with two sets of arms crossed under his chin.

He didn’t talk. He didn’t even think too much at Gordon. It was as if all of his mental and physical energy was being channeled into the task of recreating a body from scratch, something that seemed more of a chore to him than anything. Occasionally, some of his eyes would dart up worriedly at Gordon to see how he was faring before awkwardly flicking away in what he understood to be embarrassment.

It was only as the last claw on the last toe of his ultimately useless legs reformed that Benrey finally sat up, let out a gargantuan huff, and decided to resume being social. 

Sorry, bro. Uh, I would have fixed you first but, uh… yeah.

Gordon didn’t need an explanation. Even ignoring the fact that he was as much inside of Benrey’s thoughts as Benrey was inside of his, anyone with two eyes and a lick of common sense could have seen that he had been in no condition to so much as entertain the thought of helping him. Missing legs and shattered bones trumped what was, though severe and painful, only a flesh wound. Gordon understood, though the ache in his jaw hadn’t been happy about the wait.

He said nothing as he watched Benrey shrink into himself, melting down to a more reasonable size, his skin growing pale and features growing more human. The fact that so much of him seemed to absorb into his own body and disappear was nothing short of a scientific impossibility, a feat Gordon watched with widening eyes. Limbs shrank and receded, jaws realigned, eyes popped and melted off of ghoulish skin. Somehow, it was more disturbing than watching him transform in the first place.

Once back in a familiar guise, after taking a few moments to crack some joints and wrench his jaw in line, Benrey brushed off the last bits of gunk from his security vest and sighed. Again, he looked slightly different than before, his hair now long enough to peek from under his helmet and his features subtly more predatory and smooth. Gordon could have sworn he was taller and broader as well, elements left over from his hulking bestial form that now seemed to be becoming more and more permanent.

Slowly, he approached Gordon, his legs stiff and his gait awkward as he broke in his new limbs. Gordon flinched as he bent down before him, icy fingers lifting up his chin and twisting his head to the side. The face he made as he assessed the damage told a harrowing story in the span of a few seconds, though he could feel Benrey’s desire to shield him from how bad he’d been hurt. 

There was also a hint of worry, as if Benrey wasn’t exactly sure where to start. Gordon side-eyed him in his periphery, anxiety mounting. Feeling his fear, Benrey’s eyes lifted from the jagged gash and he forced a smile that was as sloppy as the rest of him.

“Yeah, no. Don’t look at me like that, bro. This is, uh, this is gonna be awkward. But I can do it. You, uh, you’re just gonna… I, uh, how do I--? How do I, uh, put this? Delicately ? For your, um, for your tiny human baby ears?”

Unwilling to move his mouth, Gordon tilted his head slightly to convey the confusion he knew Benrey could already pluck out of his head. He watched as the guard rubbed his chin in contemplation, reaching out and tracing a painful line along the tear. It took Gordon a moment to realize that he was measuring the length of the rip, like a carpenter eyeing up a project.

“I can’t cocoon this. Can’t wrap your head up. Would suffocate you. You’d, uh, die or something, ‘cause you’re dumb and need to breathe. So, er… I gotta, I gotta be creative . Think outside the box. Be an innovator.”

Gordon inhaled sharply through his nose and worry blossomed in his chest. Though this was a simulation and he was doubtful his real body was damaged, the pain and discomfort he was feeling in the confines of ALERTS was nothing he thought he could put up with for much longer. It was too much, too real, and catered directly to a squick he’d never been able to stomach, even in fiction.

This was only compounded by the uncertainty he was picking up from the guard, as evident in his expression as it was in his thoughts. Gnawing idly on his lip, pointed teeth threatening to draw blood, Benrey finally let out a sigh of resignation and shrugged.

“Well. Time to get real gay, bro.”

Furrowing his brows, Gordon recoiled slightly. Though he remained silent, Benrey knew what he was thinking and snorted a laugh.

“S’nothin’. Just, uh, I’m gonna have to fix that from the inside out. Gonna be so gay. Get ready.”

Gordon blinked. His brows knit together tighter. Not a part of him was certain what Benrey meant by fixing it “from the inside out,” and he could not wrap his mind around how repairing his ripped face would constitute as “gay.” Picking up on his errant musings, Benrey flashed a toothy grin and Gordon could see a bright teal glow behind his razor fangs.

“If I just… if I, like, you know, just spit a cocoon on you, I’ll suffocate you. Told you. Already told you that. If I just use Sweet Voice from the outside, I’ll only fix what’s outside . Inside’ll still be fucked, and it’ll rip back open. I’ve done it before. Hurts. Don’t want you to deal with that. So? Gotta… gotta get in your mouth. Open up.”

Gordon froze, before gently shaking his head no.

“What? Don’t wanna… don’t wanna make out with your best pal, Benrey? That’s, uh, that’s lame. I’m just trying to help.”

Gordon glowered at him. Benrey’s features loosened and he uttered a low, almost uncharacteristic laugh that forced blue-green smoke from the corners of his lips.

“Gordon, dude. Chill.” 

Benrey plopped on the desk in front of him, obviously tired of stooping to Gordon’s level. Gordon continued to glare, scooting his chair back defensively. Even scouring Benrey’s mind, he was having a hard time figuring out where he was going with this, though he had a couple of ideas of his own. They made his stomach dance.

“Look, to talk plainly? And, you know, not like a dumb ass for a second? I, uh, I just need to blow in your mouth. Like, for real. That’s it. I’ve been through your MIT memories, man. You know how to shotgun smoke.”

Blinking, Gordon arched an eyebrow. One, he was surprised to hear Benrey talk in such an un-Benrey fashion, and was bothered by how much closer it was to his own verbal quirks. Two, he was borderline horrified at the prospect of Benrey prowling through his old MIT memories, all of which he’d kept locked up in the back of his mind in hopes he’d one day forget them. Sensing his discomfort, Benrey smirked, crossing his arms and tapping his fingers on his sleeve to a tune only he could hear.

“Oh, yeah. I know about what you did at MIT, bro. And I will sit here all goddamn day telling you shit you don’t wanna remember if you don’t pop that mouth open. I’ll even start with Brad.”

Brad. That name sparked uncomfortable, horrible feelings in Gordon, the way only a humiliating college romance could. Just thinking of him made his stomach squirm, so the idea of being reminded out loud? Unbearable.

Sore but desperate, Gordon pried his mouth open and pointed quickly inside to show he was ready to get everything over with. Benrey smiled pleasantly, his voice sing-song.

“Thank-you, best friend. You’re the bestest.

It hurt to keep his jaw open, and he could feel clotted wounds reopening as he sat there gaping in front of Benrey like a mounted fish. He watched as the guard leaned in curiously, inspecting each and every inch of his damaged cheek, though Gordon could pick up a few stray thoughts that didn’t relate to the task at hand. In a humorous twist, he seemed completely bewildered by the flatness of his teeth and how disgusting human tongues were. Nose crinkling, he finally decided he had enough of observing.

“Okay. Uh, don’t move. Keep your mouth open. This is gonna probably feel real weird.”

Gordon barely nodded, trying to keep his head still. He couldn’t help but stiffen and flush as Benrey leaned in close, far too close, and parted his lips as if going in for the long-threatened kiss.

Just before their faces touched, Benrey paused. Like a Halloween smoke machine, glittering teal mist spilled out of his nose and mouth, carried on a baritone note that sent a rumble through Gordon’s chest. The sound wavered, occasionally hitting bizarre and high pitches before plummeting again, though the hue and taste remained constant.

The only way he could describe the flavor was “menthol.” It was a bitter but minty taste with an agreeable odor that made his wound grow cold, then numb, then tingle pleasantly. Strange sensations spread across the rest of his face, inching into the realm of pain as skin shifted and twisted, muscles stretching back together and bizarre, squirming tendrils of smoke writhing beneath the surface. 

On and on it went, until the song finally ended. Gordon could feel a rush of cold as the excess poured out of his nostrils. His tongue twitched to speak, but he was stopped by Benrey’s sudden, almost painful grip.

“Not done yet, Feetman.”

Benrey yanked his head to the side and, in a high vibrato, he shrieked at his face. Something more solid, more cold splattered across his cheek, seeping into the skin in a way that was as soothing and comforting as aloe on a sunburn. The relief was almost hypnotic, and Gordon felt himself melting into his seat even as Benrey struggled to hold him up by his chin. By the time it was over, his ears were ringing and he was filled with incredible disappointment that it had to end at all.

It was a sentiment Benrey didn’t share. Turning to the guard, he saw him grinning wide, eyes huge. Excitedly, he bounced on the edge of the desk.

“Hell-fuckin’-yeah, bro! Epic gamer moment right there! I even… I even got the beard fixed. Score one for Benrey, score none for face-rippers!”

Gordon rolled his jaw and felt the side of his face. The scratchiness of his beard and the solidness of the skin was evident even through the HEV suit gloves. He smiled. There wasn’t even a hint of soreness.

“Well, damn. You actually came through,” Gordon responded slowly, cautiously. “Thanks, man.”

“Anything for my best friend. My favorite bro. Greatest, best, good dude-friend.”

There was something about his joy, his sudden and unusual excitement, that hit Gordon at his core. While he’d seen Benrey be aloof, malicious, panicked, and brutal, seeing him legitimately happy was a treat that only came once in a blue moon. It made his face brighten like Christmas lights, a strangely human expression that was fascinating to see on a face that wasn’t quite . Like the smile in the tram, it was mesmerizing, and Gordon’s mouth twitched up in a dreamy expression.

Then, Gordon realized what he was thinking. He was talking about a monster. 

The conversation died. Benrey watched him with an unwavering expression of happiness and utter fascination, and soon the unease of being stared at began to creep in. Gordon’s shoulders slumped and his eyes began to wander around the empty, polished room. He spun his chair away from the desk and stared pointedly at the illuminated world map that took up the majority of the wall behind him.

He continued to listen in on Benrey’s thoughts, though, despite the fact he couldn’t understand most of them. They were just rushes of emotion pushing their way into his head, bursts of excitement and giddiness that were nearly childlike in scope. It was a nostalgic feeling, one that Gordon struggled to place before finally realizing where he’d felt it himself. Memories of unlikely friends and unlikelier dates immediately sprang to mind. What he was experiencing second-hand was Benrey’s sense of accomplishment at managing to get so close to somebody he admired.

His heart sank. He recalled what Benrey had told him before throwing him through the portal on the tram and, coupled with this feeling, it was hard to deny it was true. Beyond that, it was hard to deny that hearing that he was Benrey’s favorite had made him feel uncommonly good. It began to dawn on him that, had that not been said, he probably never would have doubled back to “help” him.

No, no. He had to stop. He was thinking about a monster, and a monster who was slowly driving him crazy, no less. 

He found himself so caught up in his thoughts that he didn’t realize the sudden absence of Benrey’s. The guard’s excitement vanished as soon as it arrived and, swiveling the chair back around to face his companion, he saw that the guard was chewing absently on his bottom lip. His feet kicked against the side of the desk, and his eyes were alight with a bright, luminescent purple that matched a stream of ooze trickling from his fangs and down his chin. He didn’t know what the color meant and, when he tried to pry, he found that Benrey was actively shutting him out.

“You, uh, okay?” Gordon finally croaked. Benrey nodded quickly, in the most blatantly insincere manner Gordon had ever seen. Melded minds were unnecessary to feel the panic radiating off of him.

“Wha? Me? Like, me? Yeah, I’m good. You good, bro? Feel better? Need anymore teal? I got a lot of teal. Full of it. I, uh, I can do it again.”

The more he spoke, the more he sounded like a middle school boy and less like an eldritch god. Gordon cocked his head slightly, uttering a small laugh of disbelief. 

“You’re acting a little weird is all. But, uh, thanks for fixing my face. I’m sorry I was an idiot and made things worse for you. I, uh…”

Gordon trailed off. An uncomfortable feeling boiled in his stomach.

“I fucked up, Benrey.”

“Yeah, you did,” Benrey responded, his speech more Gordon-like than before. “But, you know, I would’ve got hurt anyway. Would’ve had to, uh, to run just as fast, would’ve still got torn the fuck up, would’ve still got caught in the door. I’m a huge , Freeman. Kinda hard to fit all of me through an airlock and hold it open at the same time. That’s not on you. That’s a big ol’ me problem-o.”

Benrey paused for a moment. The claw on his thumb absentmindedly shot to his mouth to poke at a gap between his teeth. His eyes looked distant, as if he was debating what he would say next, before he let out a sigh of resignation and continued on.

“I’m, uh, actually glad you came back. S’kinda nice ? Nobody, uh, ever really has done anything like that for me before, and I… I’m old enough that I watched nothing blow up once. So, y’know, thanks. I’m, uh, glad to have the company. Glad you care or whatever.”

The block Benrey had on his thoughts faltered with those words, and a deluge of raw emotions bled out of him like water from a shattered glass. First and foremost was fear, fear that Gordon could definitely tell centered around the idea of losing him, as if the thought of Gordon dying within a simulation was the worst thing that could ever happen to him. This creature, this cosmic horror, was terrified of losing a man who’d spent the majority of their time together talking to him like the abusive owner of a particularly stupid dog.

The other feelings were more revealing.

Panic. Worry. Doubt. Regret. Gratefulness. And something else, something stronger and warmer and swirled together with a feeling that was far more base. Whatever it was, Benrey didn’t have a name for it, he didn’t understand it, and he was as terrified as he was bewildered about the fact he was experiencing it. Gordon couldn’t help but feel as though Benrey found the whole concept of this emotion beneath him, something too mortal and human for a creature of his caliber. Something he’d never had reason to entertain and felt as if he never would.

Even if Benrey didn’t recognize it, though, Gordon did. It was a gut punch, bringing to mind embarrassing childhood crushes and the sense of excitement and dread he’d battled while on awkward first dates. Coming to terms with his own sexuality, and being horrified and disgusted with himself that he wasn’t “normal” like all of his friends. Warmth when he met his ex-husband for the first time and realized, over the course of months, that he'd been normal the whole time, coupled with the exhilarating feeling of what it felt like to truly care for somebody. The pain of him leaving, and being on the loneliest end of a one-sided love.

Gordon hesitated.

Oh god. Love . Benrey was in love with him.

Suddenly, a lot of things made sense, small tells that he'd passed off as alien oddities and an inability to think like a person. The request to hold his hand. The time he tried to kiss him in the first ALERTS run, and every teasing compliment he'd given about his looks. The way he admired him after helping him with the HEV suit, and every weird, nervous thought he'd had whenever they touched.

Hell, even Coomer treating the tram ride like a romantic comedy suddenly made sense. He wasn’t just treating the situation lightly. That son of a bitch fucking knew .

“We should go. Others… others waiting for us. C’mon, Feetman. We… we gotta get to Sector HR. D. Wh-whatever.”

Gordon broke out of his trance, realizing as Benrey hopped up from the desk that he knew he’d been caught. His face was as red as a tomato, purple gushing from his mouth faster than before. In an instant, impulsiveness took over and Gordon lunged ahead, stumbling out of the computer chair and rushing to cut Benrey off before he could escape.

In all honesty, he initially wasn’t sure why. It was the same gut instinct that sent him back through the portal into the heart of danger, and it was obvious Benrey wasn’t pleased by the fact Gordon had pushed him back onto the desk. A spark of terror ignited within Gordon as they exchanged glances, Benrey’s gaze stern and unwavering in a way that made him feel incredibly small and vulnerable. He was suddenly well aware of how much bigger Benrey was now in comparison to the start of the simulation, just like he was pretty sure he was about to cough his heart up on Benrey’s lap.

Silence consumed the room, save for Gordon’s heavy breathing. It took him a while to find his words.

“The others will be fine, Benrey. Everything’s been after the main character this whole time. You . If anything happens, it’ll happen here. They can wait a couple more minutes. We can just, I don’t know, sit here a little longer.”

The words spilled out of his mouth before he could stop them. Benrey’s eyes softened, the anger they once held fading as quickly as it began. More purple, dumb mumbling; Gordon held his breath as he tried to sort through his own feelings about this revelation.

It was unexpected, to say the least. His mind scrambled to think of the right words to turn him down gently, though there was a sick feeling in his gut whenever he came close to spitting them out. Random memories would interrupt him--Benrey’s smile in the tram, watching him sleep in awe, how horrible he felt seeing him in the tank in Sector E, the sheer number of times the monster had saved his life--and he would find himself struck silent, as if the entirety of the English language had been sucked clean out of him.

No. No, it couldn't be. There was no possible way that he didn't want to turn him down. 

His heart thundered. His face flushed crimson. Benrey’s eyes widened as the realization hit him just as suddenly as it hit Gordon, and he sputtered in dumb surprise. Neither of them moved, neither of them said a word. Beyond the fact that Gordon was paralyzed in horror and Benrey was doing his damnedest to actually be polite for a change, there wasn’t a reason to say a goddamn thing. Both of them already knew.

Oh ,” Benrey said at long last. 

“Yeah,” Gordon responded in a squeak. “ Oh .”

Silently, Gordon hopped up on the desk beside Benrey. The two sat quietly, staring straight ahead and making an honest attempt to not acknowledge the other’s existence. It was difficult, however, with mental fingers fishing into Gordon’s gray matter to root out anything interesting. Benrey’s curiosity and excitement was a little too strong for him to resist.

Gordon simply let it go, too busy trying to figure out when this decided to happen. Worse yet, why did it decide to manifest itself now, while he was alone with a lovestruck monster? He supposed maybe he should have consciously realized it before, considering he endangered himself for the guy, and the way he’d felt his cheeks grow red when Benrey was so close to his face just moments before. As much as he protested, it was kind of enjoyable.

No. No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t. This was wrong.

“How so?” Benrey asked. Gordon jumped at the sound, his voice a low rumble that broke the hush between them. He looked up at the guard staring down at him as he reached up to scratch underneath his helmet.

“Huh?”

“Wrong. How is it wrong?”

The honest hurt in Benrey’s voice was devastating. He thought he’d fucked up somehow. Gordon inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, choking down the feeling of guilt. God, he was proving to be more of a monster than the actual monster.

“Is... it wrong? Am I bad?” Benrey continued. The confusion and worry in his voice was palpable. Gordon shook his head.

“No, you’re not bad. Don’t worry about it.”

Benrey nodded as if he understood, though it was obvious he didn’t. 

Gordon let out a loud sigh. This was the most awkward he’d felt since discussing divorce with his ex-husband, or finding out said ex already had a man waiting in the wings. Shifting his weight uncomfortably, he struggled to find a way to put his thoughts into words. Everything that popped into his mind was a garbled mess, however, seeing as he didn’t completely understand how he was feeling himself.

“Hey. Uh, Gordon.”

Gordon looked up, but wasn’t given a chance to speak. His chin was snatched up by a cold hand and, before he could breathe, Benrey had closed the gap between them. The kiss was soft, gentle, and utterly inexperienced, flavored with the Sweet Voice pouring from his mouth. It imbued it with a candy-like tartness that sent a static jolt coursing through his entire body, addictive and soothing. His stomach burst with butterflies that he hadn’t felt in years. When Benrey awkwardly tried to pull away, Gordon mindlessly grabbed a fistful of his collar and reeled him back in, overcoming the shock to reciprocate in kind.

By the time he let go, Benrey’s thoughts were an unreadable mess of white noise. Gordon’s lungs ached from a lack of air. Blood seeped from where one of the guard’s fangs caught his lip, and glowing liquid Sweet Voice spattered his beard. Benrey blinked like a stupid animal, then offered a crooked, pleased grin as a spark of excitement lit up behind his eyes.

Whoa ,” he drawled giddily. “Bro, I get it now! I get why you humans like this shit! That was really fuckin’ cool!”

Gordon swallowed hard and nodded. His face was a blank slate, his bottom jaw practically sitting on his chest.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess it was, huh?”

“Please, uh, please tell me we can do that again. Like. Not now. We got stuff to do, but sometime? Sometime soon? Please? Pretty please?”

Gordon couldn't help himself. He laughed. A shaky smile began to spread across his face. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, that had probably been the highlight of his year, despite his own confusion and his general unease about catching feelings for a monster who’d eaten a member of Black Mesa security. Wiping as much of the violet off of his beard as he could, he nodded slowly in utter disbelief.

“Yeah. Uh. That… that actually sounds like a good plan. O-once we do what we’re supposed to do. Of course.”

As if every prayer in his ancient mind had been answered, Benrey lunged forward and wrapped his arms around Gordon in a hug so powerful that it made his spine pop. Tentatively, Gordon responded, his hands snaking around Benrey’s waist as he felt the powerful thudding of his own heart against his chest. 

He still didn’t completely understand his own feelings, aside from the fact he apparently had them. He still wasn’t sure how to process the fact that a primordial god had fallen in love with him. Yet, in the back of his mind, he could hear the voice of Ben begging him not to think about it too much, to stop trying to figure things out and to just go with the flow. 

Gordon leaned into the hug. Confusing emotions aside, he needed one after everything he’d been through. He buried his head in between Benrey’s neck and shoulder, ignoring how cold the guard was. He swore he could hear Benrey purr the moment his forehead hit his body.

“We should probably find the others soon,” he sighed, feeling Benrey absentmindedly beginning to play with his hair. “Sector D isn’t far and, well, if we leave Bubby waiting for too long, he’s liable to burn this whole place down.”

Benrey shrugged.

“Eh. They’ll be fine. If anything happens, it’s, uh, it’s gonna happen here with the main character. So, you know, like you said. They can wait a few minutes.”

Chapter Text

Gordon expected tension, awkwardness, something . At the very least, he expected to be repulsed with himself for having any feelings for something so arguably terrible, or guilty for taking advantage of a creature that didn’t rightly know how to process human emotions. Sure, it was laughable to think that a cosmic horror could be taken advantage of by something as lowly and simple as him, but there was a purity to Benrey’s interpretation of love that almost made him feel predatory.

After all, Gordon was a jaded divorcee. It almost felt like he would be a corruptive force.

But, it was hard to feel too terrible since Benrey didn’t seem to mind. While he was perfectly capable of (and had been) picking through Gordon’s mind, reading his nagging doubts like a newspaper and laying bare all his anxieties, he was still over the moon. Their kiss was the equivalent of divine crystal meth, and there was a bounce to his step and a sparkle in his voice that didn’t suit the dreary, empty backdrop of the pristine, dark, and abandoned halls of Sector C. He was chatty, he was excited, he was forthcoming in a way he had never been before.

It was, if Gordon was to be perfectly honest, kind of empowering. Addictive, even. He’d never had that kind of effect on a man before, let alone a creature who claimed to predate the Big Bang.

Gordon’s anxious thoughts abruptly came to a screeching halt at the sound of shattering glass, the first noise aside from Benrey’s voice and their own footsteps that he’d heard since they’d begun their trek. He half expected danger--despite having not found a note from HR, it didn’t seem as though HR had been playing by their own rules for a while--but instead he found a shattered elevator door and Benrey head-first through the jagged hole. The glass was stained with his colorful blood, the shards scattered around him the only hint of violence they’d seen since they’d started making their way to Sector D.

In all honesty, Gordon wasn’t sure if he felt better or worse about that. After meandering for what seemed like hours, they’d passed the lobby, the break room, the locker room, and a handful of labs, and each one was empty and immaculate as if intended to be a showroom. There hadn’t been any hint of any previous carnage, either caused by HR’s first attack or the Resonance Cascade before it, and everything was so pristine, so clean, and so utterly uniform that it seemed like it was in better shape than the real deal. Hell, Black Mesa had probably not been in as good of shape since the day before it opened its doors.

Benrey growled in deep thought as he peered down the elevator shaft, his helmet askew and his eyes glowing with a blinding radioactive green. Chewing on the corner of his lip, he turned to face Gordon. His brows furrowed.

“Yo, uh. You remember how we got to, uh, Sector D the first time? Back in Gen I?”

Gordon gently shook his head. The first ALERTS run had been such a clusterfuck that he barely remembered anything beyond the fact that it had been infuriating and stressful. While it was easy to dig up memories of inconveniences, errors, snippets of banter, and personal injury, how exactly he’d drifted from one place to the next had been a blur. Given the fact he worked at Black Mesa, he felt as if he should have known, though it wasn’t as though his typical real-life means of transport was an option. The tram, after all, was a complete bust. Even if it wasn’t, he’d sooner jump into a ventilation fan than risk it.

“Can’t you just, I don’t know, do that teleport-y thing you do?” Gordon asked. Benrey sighed, wrenching his head out of the door, glass digging into his throat. The damage healed as quickly as it was inflicted, an oozing mess that zipped back up as if it had never been.

“Yeah. No. I mean, I guess. We’d have to wait. Like, for a long time. It’s an, uh, energy sink. Drains a lot out of me. Been doing it a lot lately, so I need to be plugged in. Outta juice.”

Gordon considered for a moment, before drawling, “ How does one ‘plug you in?’”

“Oh, yeah. Uh, I usually, um, hibernate. Y’know, between wakie-wake times. Go until I can’t go anymore, then sleep. So, I’d need a… a nap. Hella nap.”

“How long of a nap?”

“It’s inconsistent. Soooo, we could be lookin’ at…” He paused and smacked his lips. “Two hours to, uh… how long ago was Sumer?”

“Benrey, Sumer was one of the first human civilizations.”

“Oh. Uh, was it? Uh. Well, shit. Doesn’t feel like that long ago.”

With that, Benrey flexed his fingers, bracing himself as he pushed his hands in the gap between the elevator doors and ripped them open. The sound of bending metal and cracking glass reverberated through the empty concrete halls as the mechanisms that powered it crunched and bent. It all seemed very unnecessary, Gordon eyeing the broken panel that he could have easily crawled through. He would have wondered what the purpose was if not for the fact he could hear Benrey’s train of thought, honing in on a desire to impress his new “consort.”

Gordon shrugged. At least the way was clear, and “consort” had a regal ring to it, if nothing else.

“Think this, uh, is the right way,” Benrey stated, scratching at his chin and gesturing for Gordon to move ahead. “I, uh, I kind of remember it? Could be wrong. Probably am, but we’re not gonna think about that.”

He politely stepped out of the way as Gordon huffed a laugh and squeezed past him, attempting to compress himself enough that he could shimmy through the gap in the elevator doors. He’d done this several times during the first ALERTS run and didn’t think much of it, at least not until he got on the other side of the glass and realized the obvious: there was a marked difference in realism between the first simulation and this one.

In the first trial of ALERTS, looking down an elevator shaft was not exactly impressive. The drop seemed negligible, everything was polygonal and dated, and there wasn’t the added interference of an eldritch being potentially making the program life-threatening. Now, the drop was a steep, echoing pit of darkness that would most definitely kill a man in the real world, and there was just enough oddness floating around due to Benrey’s influence that he’d not been able to shake the feeling that he was in actual danger.

A knot formed in his stomach. A cold sweat spread across his brow. When Benrey popped through the door behind him and grazed his back, his immediate response was to throw himself backwards to keep from falling to his death.

“Yo, you okay?”

There was legitimate concern in Benrey’s voice, which Gordon immediately disregarded with a shake of his head. Though he was positive Benrey had to have been aware of how horrified he was, he’d be damned if he ever exposed his belly over something so stupid as a several story drop. 

He didn’t even dignify him with an answer, instead scanning the area for the nearest service ladder and marching to it with all of the faked confidence he’d shown in the tram. After all, it was ridiculous that after everything he’d been through, something as stupid as an elevator shaft would get to him. Inhaling sharply, he wrapped his hands around the rungs and began his climb.

Benrey shrugged beneath him, then followed suit. 

Gordon didn’t make much progress before the fear began to creep in, however, and suddenly he felt pretty damn sympathetic to Bubby’s acrophobic breakdown during the first simulation. His ascent began to slow, his breath began to quicken, and a glimpse below revealed both a threatening abyss and Benrey blocking his path back to solid ground. In the dark, his eyes glowed like headlights, a bright white that seemed to be more utilitarian than emotion-driven.

The confusion Benrey beamed at him was infuriating, only in that Gordon didn’t want to admit he was being defeated by a steep drop after surviving threats such as eldritch helicopters and his undead clone. He supposed that, if he stayed focused on something else--a song, a thought, rewriting his thesis in his head--that maybe he could drown the terror swelling inside of him. 

Maybe, if he kept himself talking, he’d be too preoccupied to be scared.

“Hey, you mind if I ask you about something?”

Gordon’s voice was nearly lost in the elevator shaft, and hearing how far it echoed made his legs nearly turn to jelly. Muttering a quiet curse under his breath, he closed his eyes and stopped completely on the ladder. He could feel Benrey just beneath him, could hear his baffled thoughts. He just hoped that Benrey had the presence of mind to not push him or prod at him, lest he lose his grip in a panic.

“Fuck it. I’m, uh, I’m going to ask anyway, about the monsters back on the tram.”

“What about ‘em?” Benrey asked, a faint hint of unease in his voice. Gordon didn’t pay it any mind. He put one hand in front of the other, one foot above the other, and shakily forced himself to continue his ascent.

“Y-y-you looked pretty shaken up by them is all. I d-don’t think I’ve seen you that nervous before. Even with the-- oh dear Christ-- even with the, u-uh heli… thingies? In the d-desert, you seemed okay-ish. But you looked scared of the-the face rippers.”

“Uh, like you’re scared right now?” Benrey deflected. There was a sudden bite to his voice, an anger that made Gordon uncomfortable. He swallowed, trying not to think too hard about the fact that, feelings aside, Benrey was as much of an impulsive creature as himself. The idea of him spontaneously dragging him off the ladder only to regret it later wasn’t the most far-fetched thought to pop into his head. Perhaps bringing up potential buried trauma with him during a high-stakes climb wasn’t the wisest of choices.

Why had he even done it again?

Gordon froze again, white-knuckling the ladder. He’d asked out of concern. Ever since he saw that look on Benrey’s face in the tram, ever since he felt that pang of horror in his mind, he’d been worried. Apparently, his panic-addled mind had latched onto the first thing he subconsciously wanted to talk about, bringing up a delicate situation in a different delicate situation because he had more empathy than sense. Empathy and, well, feelings .

“Dude, just go ,” Benrey whined. “We gotta get to HR. I gotta… gotta put the hurt on some boys.”

“Give me a second. I’m freaking out.”

“Huh? Wha? Why? You weren’t last time. What gives?”

“L-last time wasn’t… it wasn’t… goddammit, Benrey, it wasn’t this real.”

“You, uh, you weren’t scared on the tram track, though.”

“I was scared, dumbass. But, b-because, you had a hold of me, man, I felt…”

Safe. He’d felt safe. It was hard not to feel safe when the monster was on your side and, beyond that, he had had more pressing matters to attend to. The rip in his face and the ones who did the ripping, for starters. Pressing his forehead against the metal, Gordon grit his teeth and tried to gather enough mental fortitude to push himself onward.

Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder. His eyes bugged as he whipped his head up, breath hitching in his throat at the sight of Benrey hovering above him, a strange look of resignation on his face. While he did look vaguely different--a few spare eyes tucked beneath his helmet and extra, gnarled arms gripping onto the cement on either side of him--he mostly looked himself. Somehow, that struck Gordon as being more disturbing than seeing him as a whole monster.

Gently, he hooked his arms around Gordon’s back, clasping his hands around his chest. Forcefully, he tugged up, a silent sign that he should probably keep climbing.

“What are you doing?” Gordon demanded, his voice barely able to get past a squeak.

“Safety rope, bro. You slip, I grip. Let’s fucking go.”

Gordon heaved with relief. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he did feel more secure.

Slowly, he continued onward, still shaking but with renewed confidence. Benrey did his best to match his pace, hands clawing their way up the wall with Gordon’s achingly slow progress. He showed remarkable patience, though a quick scan of his emotions revealed he wasn’t too keen on it. Worrying what he would do if his tolerance wore thin, Gordon tried to force himself to pick up speed.

“Freaked out, huh?” Benrey asked. Gordon could feel his voice through the back of the HEV suit. As if his human guise knew he normally had a mouth that ran the length of his body, it seemed like he projected straight through his ribs.

“Petrified.”

“S’okay. No shame. I get scared, too. Like, uh. Y-you were right, you know. I was, um, ch’yeah. I was pretty damn scared of those stupid… stupid boot boys.”

Gordon squawked as his shaking hand slipped free from a rung, though the noise died as Benrey hoisted him back up. He hadn’t even fallen far and he most likely could have caught himself, but judging from the way his heart was pounding, Benrey may as well have saved his life.

“Wh-why, though? You’re a weird alien god, or something.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Pretty sure you c-could eat half the people in Black Mesa.”

“A-yup. Sure could, bro.”

“A-a-and you were scared of…?”

“Uh-huh.” 

Concrete crunched beneath Benrey’s grip, Gordon trembling as he tried to focus on the conversation and not the hundred foot drop just below his feet. As if his mind was trying to sabotage him, it kept trying to trick him into looking down. He responded by pointedly looking up where, thankfully, he could see what appeared to be a point of light. Another elevator door, he certainly hoped.

“I, uh, I was scared ‘cause… well. You, uh, you know how you asked me what I remembered? About being captured and stuff?”

Gordon nodded but said nothing. His eyes were fixed on his goal.

“Well. They looked familiar. And it took me a while or whatever, but I remember them. Something like them. Boot boys. Do your, uh, boot boys tend to have faces?”

Gordon nodded again. He was so close.

“Huh. Weird. But, y’know, I used to live under Black Mesa, and then way long ago--like before you probably happened or whatever--they started makin’ lots of fuckin’ noise. And it just got worse, and so I, uh, I came up to investigate after a few decades. And there’s this, like, fuckin’ temple that showed up outta nowhere and all these weird fucks just… just being a hat to me.”

Gordon hesitated. His eyes shifted from escape to Benrey.

“I lived in the, uh, vents. And I watched people, ‘cause I was gonna… I was gonna figure out who woke me up. Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee, am I right?”

Gordon leaned back into Benrey a bit, trying to get a better look at his face. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he was somehow paler. There certainly was a tremor to his voice that indicated he was uncomfortable.

“And, uh, there was this… this youngling, or whatever you call it, who I kept seeing. Very different. Had to get close. So, Ben? You met Ben. Ben was going to work and I ate him? Ate? No. I… I kinda became him. Or whatever. Had to borrow his face. Memories. That kind of thing.”

Benrey’s grip loosened, and Gordon’s doubled down on the ladder.

“I, uh, I couldn’t defend myself. The boot boys. They caught me when I was, you know. Small.”

“They caught you while you were pretending to be human,” Gordon corrected. Benrey said nothing for a moment, then cleared his throat and renewed his grip. A quick tug indicated he was ready to get the climb over with.

“Never… never really been trapped before. Always been, uh, too big to get caught. Sucks, man. But, I got in a few hits, so. You know. I did a thing, and that was cool.”

Gordon forced a smile, slowly continuing on his way. The way out was in sight. God, he could not wait to be on solid ground.

“Who was the ‘youngling’ you were after?” he asked. Benrey made a strange noise in the back of his throat, wavering his head side-to-side.

“Uh. Trickster spirit. Old boys don’t like him. Tricky. Bet he steals shit. Fuckin’... fuckin’ never had his passport.”

He stopped. Benrey seemed startled by the pause and accidentally carried him up a few rungs higher than where he’d halted. Gordon’s mind spun as he pried into Benrey’s thoughts for further clarification, hoping to god that he would be proven wrong in his assumption. He wasn’t, though, and one more accidental sin was heaped on top of the pile he’d been accumulating since ALERTS booted up for the very first time.

“Me? You killed a guy and got caught because you were trying to get close to me ?” 

Gordon’s head flung back into Benrey’s chest, hard enough to make the monster sputter.

“You thought I was a trickster spirit?”

“Yeah. Pretty cringe, right? But, uh, you did weird things that made the elders mad. S’kinda… s’kinda what trickster spirits do .” Benrey paused and sniffed. “Temple guards like you, though. You give them stuff.”

“Temple guar… you mean security ?”

“Yup. Didn’t know what security was until, uh, later. I’m… I’m a product of my time, bro. And I’m old as balls.”

“Wait. Did you specifically try to look like a security guard to--?”

“Oop. Look at that. Gotta go. Time’s a-tickin’. Can’t let Bubby barbecue the, uh, the place. Time for, um, zoomies.”

Gordon yelped as he felt himself being pulled from the ladder, Benrey tightening his grip and scuttling the rest of the way up. Closing his eyes, he fought not to look down as he heard Benrey wrenching open the next set of elevator doors with a ferocity that was born from urgency. Despite the fact there was no danger aside from plummeting to their death (or, in Benrey’s case, serious injury), he seemed to be about as desperate as he had been on the tram.

Once the gap was opened wide enough to shove Gordon through, he found himself crammed onto the next floor, landing unceremoniously on dull gray tile in an equally dull hallway. It looked vaguely familiar and he had a smidgen of hope that maybe they’d gone the right direction, though common sense told him that everywhere in Black Mesa would look familiar. Every hallway seemed to be identical.

As he brushed himself off, he felt the intimidating presence of Benrey behind him and, looking back, he watched as the guard squished himself out of the elevator shaft. He looked exhausted and relieved, removing his helmet long enough to pin sweaty wisps of hair underneath before planting it back on his head.

He said nothing. Gordon could sense that he believed he’d said enough. Instead, he gave Gordon a reassuring pat as he walked past, meandering down the hallway as his extra arms melted back into his body. Like a puppy, he followed behind. He’d be damned if he let himself stay anywhere alone for too long, especially in some bizarro Sector C where humanity had been wiped clean from the board. The isolation made him feel even more tense than the actual attacks launched by HR.

It was because he was lagging behind that he noticed something Benrey missed, tacked up on a cork bulletin board hanging between a janitor’s closet and an empty lab. He wasn’t sure how Benrey had missed it, as the paper was acid green and nearly blinding in the white lights, fluttering on the edge of a stick pin despite there being no hint of wind. A PhD was unnecessary to figure out what the hell he was looking at and, with a defeated sigh, he shuffled closer, clearing his throat to get Benrey’s attention.

Benrey turned. His eyes followed Gordon’s hand as he reached for the note. The noise he made was indescribable.

The penmanship was incredibly precise and reserved compared to the last few instances of letters, and Gordon couldn’t help but be impressed by the neatness of the handwriting as he plucked it loose. A cold chill shot down his spine even before he read the words.

 

Will the absentee members of the Science Team please come to our office?

- Human Resources

 

Gordon’s mouth went dry. He stared at the note, unblinking, until Benrey reached over his shoulder and tore it out of his hands so violently that it ripped at the edges. His eyes blazed with an unholy red light as he regarded the words, again and again, a low and inhuman growl rising up from deep within him. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he snarled, grinding his teeth and throwing his helmet to the ground. It was most definitely not a Benrey move, yet another mannerism he’d picked up from Gordon. Gordon shifted his weight uneasily as the being ranted, feeling a wave of second hand embarrassment was over him.

That was soon overridden, however, by the powerful and sudden realization that he was being watched. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and an indescribable imaginary pressure pushed against his back. He instinctively reached out and grabbed Benrey’s hand, praying it would have the same calming effect now that it had during his search for Dr. Coomer at the beginning of the simulation. 

Thankfully, it did. Benrey stopped, and looked back at Gordon curiously. Then, he was looking beyond Gordon, a heavy sigh of exasperation huffing out between razor teeth.

It took an incredible amount of courage to turn around. Gordon already knew he wasn’t going to like what he saw. Slowly, he shuffled around, eyes locked on the floor until he was ready to behold what new, exciting bullshit HR was going to throw at them next.

Behind them, blocking their path back to the elevator, was a wall of black and dozens upon dozens of glittering, inhuman eyes.

Chapter Text

The air was still and cold, the halls as quiet as the vacuum of space. Even the fluorescent lights above them seemed to lose their buzz, flickering in silence just above their heads. When Benrey’s fingers moved, gently crumpling the paper grasped in his hands, it was enough of a shock to make Gordon audibly gasp, the tension lingering in that hallway so thick that he would have had difficulty cutting through it with a chainsaw. 

He looked to Benrey in hopes that maybe he’d say something dumb, or silly, or surprisingly insightful to help put his nerves at ease. The guard didn’t even look at him. Curling up a lip to expose his teeth, he growled like a guard dog warning off a burglar.

Lingering motionlessly behind them was a veritable wall of figures, human-shaped voids with headlight eyes that were erected like statues in neat little rows. Their silhouettes were recognizable, Gordon noted, but had little variation, the same few “designs” repeated over and over again. While they each looked familiar, without any defining features he couldn’t place where he had seen them before. Work, perhaps, or maybe MIT. It would have to be somewhere where he saw the same people often enough to memorize their outlines.

Unnervingly, they didn’t move or speak. They didn’t hiss or sputter or lurch. They didn’t so much as blink, their luminous orbs shining like flashlights. Even in the bright light of the hallway it was blinding, a peculiarity that felt more like an attack on his sanity than his eyesight.

Frightened, Gordon took a step away. In unison, the figures took a step forward. Benrey, head tilted, took a great stride past Gordon when he noticed this, as if testing a theory. The figures, in an almost cartoonishly exaggerated fashion, mimicked him, inching ever closer.

The two exchanged glances and, nervously, Gordon took a step toward the line of shadows. They responded by moving forward yet again. When he scrambled back to Benrey, they matched his every move.

“Ouch. No turny-backsies,” Benrey mulled, his voice still a furious rumble. Gordon wanted to say something in response, but his blood ran cold. He couldn’t explain why, but somehow these shadowy forms filled him with a more intense dread than anything he’d encountered thus far. The way they looked like a complete absence of a person was unsettling in its own right, but they also gave off an aura that filled his stomach with ice water. It was difficult to describe, a gentle and unspoken threat that seemed more intimate and harrowing than something as direct as violence. Everything else they’d faced had seen fit to take the path of least resistance, turning to brute force to punish him and the rest of the science team.

These? These seemed to want something else. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but he could feel it as surely as the tingle running down his spine.

Still gripping Benrey’s hand, he gave it a tight squeeze. He knew Benrey would already be well aware of how terrified he was, but physically communicating the fact gave his nervous energy somewhere to go. The guard responded in kind, though he never took his eyes off of the fiends lingering behind them. 

“What do we do?” Gordon finally rasped. Even though he barely spoke above a whisper, his voice felt like an explosion. Benrey rolled his shoulders in a loose shrug, his aloof expression masking what Gordon knew to be a slew of anxious thoughts. While he wasn’t afraid, at least not yet, his mind was occupied with difficult-to-follow plans and routes that Gordon knew good and goddamn well were pulled out of his ass. Benrey hadn’t even known if they were going in the right direction before they climbed up the elevator shaft, so there was no way in hell he’d know where to go from here.

“We, uh, hm.” Benrey trailed off, reaching down to pick up his discarded helmet from the floor. “Hold hands. Walk slow. Think hard. Romantic date, where we try not to, you know, turn around.”

“The fuck are you on about?” Gordon choked.

“When do I ever know what I'm on about? Stay close, please.”

For as much courage as it took to face the wall of shadows, it took twice as much to turn his back to them. He could feel their gazes burning through the back of the HEV suit, sending an unpleasant shiver across his shoulders and back. Gordon struggled to ignore it, instead focusing on Benrey’s nonchalant, sing-song voice as he mockingly counted down their each and every step like a preschool teacher leading a toddler down a hallway.

“Three, two, one. Step! Good job! Such… such good steppies. So proud of you, bro.”

“Shut up,” Gordon muttered in response from behind a nervous smile. Benrey refused, a sloppy grin gracing his face as he continued on and on. If nothing else, his rambling and their synchronized movements provided him with just enough of a distraction that he could almost ignore the heavy footsteps of the dozens of shadows looming behind them. God, it sounded as if there were more than he had seen, and he struggled to keep from looking back to check.

Breathing heavily and following Benrey’s lead, Gordon felt close to fine until they hit a fork in the path at the end of the hallway and, heart sinking, he realized he didn’t know which direction he should go. Sparing a glance over his shoulder (god, there were more of them), he choked down a gulp and began to wrack his mind for clues. Black Mesa was huge and sprawling, each of the sectors massive in their own right and, while he felt as though he should know which direction to head in, he didn’t exactly have reason to be anywhere in Sector C where he wasn’t needed. He knew the layouts of the anomalous materials labs and the floor his mentor's office was on, and that was essentially the full scope of his knowledge. Everything else was an enigma, halls he had never had any reason to tread.

Inhaling sharply, he considered his options. To the left was gray and empty, with unlabeled directional arrows painted down the wall like racing stripes on a car, with a few unmarked doors that he assumed to be storage closets or server rooms. To the right, it was basically identical, save the addition of a soda machine. He closed his eyes, trying to mentally envision where everything was on the floors he was used to, and struggling to remember how he’d gotten from Sector C to Sector D in the first ALERTS run on foot.

Which direction were the stairs? Did he need to go up or down them when they were found? He felt like he maybe their destination was beneath them, but his nerves were playing tricks with his mind and he wasn’t entirely certain if that was the case. Memories were easily warped, after all, and that could do some serious damage to his perception. 

Something squeezed his hand. Gordon looked up at Benrey who, with a grunt, jerked his head in the direction of the path with the soda machines. His hair was plastered to his face with sweat, his helmet under his arm like a basketball, and he held an expression of confidence that Gordon couldn’t sense was false. If anything, he seemed pretty sure of himself. He let the guard lead him away.

There wasn’t a need to resume the countdown to synchronize their steps. Hell, Gordon wasn’t even sure if there was ever a reason to do so, though his fear of accidentally prompting their pursuers to move faster caused him to take extra care to keep in line with Benrey. He watched his feet, moved when he moved, and did his best to match every stride of his longer legs.

Once at the end of the hallway, just beyond the soda machines, the only direction to go was right again. Benrey tugged him along.

“There are no signs,” Gordon mulled, looking up at the walls. He’d found it weird when he saw the arrows on the opposite hallway hadn’t had any indication as to where they led, but figured that maybe it was some sort of error. Now, he was certain that something was off. Black Mesa liked to keep things meticulously labeled and, straining his brain, he could remember when he first stepped off the tram on his way to the test chamber. There had been signs and stenciled words on the walls to act as a guide, just like in the real deal, and now they were conspicuously absent.

Once partway down the hall, he shot a glare at the glowing-eyed freaks marching after them. HR didn’t like to play fair before, but now it seemed like they were actively cheating to win.

“No worries. I, uh, did lots’a crawlin’ and shit. Think I know where we are. Or, uh, okay. Not where we are. But… can triangulate sort of, you know, a thing.”

“I have no idea what you’re saying, Benrey.”

“All floors are the same. Stairs should be… ch’yeah, uh, this way. Probably.”

Probably . That word didn’t sit well with Gordon, but what other choice did he have? Stopping and letting the shades catch up wasn’t an option, and the idea of being too far away from Benrey made his insides lurch. It wasn’t even his stupid, inexplicable case of warm fuzzies, either, rather than the fact that the guard was the closest thing he had to a weapon. After getting his face ripped open, he wasn’t about to tangle with a ghoul in hand-to-hand combat ever again.

“Come here often?” Benrey asked. Gordon’s eyebrow raised as his eyes flicked up to Benrey, who only offered him a side glance in return. It would have been annoying if he didn’t know what exactly the guy was getting at. He was trying to distract him, just like he was doing for himself in the elevator shaft.

“Uh, not here. No. I work in Sector C, but I work down in anomalous materials. You should know that. You’re all up in my head, and you’re probably better at picking me apart than vice versa .”

“Don’t understand human stuff. Dunno what anomalous materials are. What are they?”

“It’s fancy verbiage for ‘weird shit,’ Benrey. We just study weird shit. Or, uh, everyone else studies weird shit, and I do a lot of heavy lifting because I’m the only one in the department aside from Gina and Collette who has any muscle mass left.”

“Gi… na?”

“Uh, she’s a Hazardous Environment Supervisor. She’s one of the only people in Sector C who’ll give me the time of day, though I know the guy above her isn’t a fan. He’s complained about me to HR a lot, I’ll tell you that.”

“Wh… who is the guy who don’t like you?”

“Oh. Doctor Keller. He’s an asshole.”

“Keller, huh?” Benrey smacked his lips, and Gordon could sense him filing that name away for later. “ Cool . Got’cha.”

“Please don’t eat Doctor Keller.”

“Huh? Wha? I never said I… When did I say I was gonna eat, uh, Mister Killer?”

“You didn’t. But I can fucking read your mind, man. Literally.”

Another bend in the hallway, this time leading straight into a dead end, one that looked curiously unnatural. By all accounts, it did look as though a staircase should have gone there, and in his mind’s eye, Gordon could see one quite clearly. The railings were still on the floor, snack machines lingered nearby as they did near the stairwells in every familiar area he’d been to, and it even looked as though fresh concrete had been poured to cover where it had been removed. Gordon’s breath hitched in his throat at the sight. Behind him, he swore he heard a low, almost melodious chuckle composed of a dozen voices, each and every one of them vaguely familiar.

For all of Gordon’s horror, though, Benrey seemed more annoyed. A low, bestial growl vibrated through him, and with a resigned sigh, he turned loose of Gordon’s hand.

His bones began to pop, his features stretching and blurring, black tar oozing from his pores and gradually taking over his body. Gordon tensed, looking back at the shades in absolute terror as they watched in the same blank, wide-eyed manner they’d always had. The only difference is that their chuckling was replaced with whispers, which were growing louder and more distinct. He swore, for as tangled as their voices were, he could almost make out actual words.

Before he could focus too much on what they were saying, however, he felt two sets of arms wrap around him from behind. He made a high-pitched sound of protest before consciously realizing the obvious, his entire body shuddering in residual fear as he looked up to the underside of Benrey’s beastly face. Colorful saliva--orange, like something off of a caution sign--dripped from his maw and landed squarely on his cheek. While he couldn’t taste it and, honestly, didn’t want to, it had a distinct smell that made him think of electrical fires.

Gordon stood stiffly in his grip, soon to be left dangling off the ground as Benrey uncoiled his monstrous form, stretching himself out like a serpent. The creature’s mind was preoccupied and Gordon chose to trust his judgment when he realized he couldn’t get a clear idea of what he was thinking, instead looking down at the motionless, whispering wraiths beneath them. Their eyes slowly slid up on top of their heads as they continued to track them, though the rest of their bodies remained completely unmoved.

At least up until the sound of metal ripping filled the air. Gordon’s head snapped up as the shades’ eyes snapped down, watching a vent cover clatter to the ground. His stomach tied itself into a messy bow as he watched Benrey ooze upwards into the hole, more of a liquid than a solid, dragging his human prize behind him like a leopard dragging its kill.

As he disappeared into the vent himself, Gordon looked down to watch as their pursuers took a step forward for every clang Benrey’s claws made as he dragged himself further and further into the duct. He had a small hope that maybe they would stop just beneath him, but was ultimately unsurprised when they simply changed their trajectory. With a suddenness and unnaturalness that made his skin crawl, they began to step upward , their eyes floating atop the surface of their empty bodies so that their gazes were focused on him.

They seemed to be getting closer. Gordon swore, as he was swallowed by the vent, that they could have reached out and touched him if they wanted.

With an uncomfortable clunk and a knock against the back of his head, their eerie stares were replaced with the sight of galvanized steel. It was a temporary relief as, stuck in Benrey’s grip, he found himself being dragged through the duct on his back, the HEV suit shrieking as metal ground against metal. He grit his teeth and tried to pull away, but there wasn’t a single part of his monstrous captor that seemed taken with the idea of turning him loose. Benrey’s thoughts were consumed with calculations, escape, and how genuinely comfortable he felt in the cramped and dark.

And he indeed seemed comfortable, Gordon noted. For as small as the ventilation system was in comparison to him, he slithered through it with the ease of a snake in a burrow. He shifted and shuddered as he made his way at a frightening speed, the sounds of claw and bone clanging against the sides of the duct nearly deafening. It was hypnotic in a way, something so fluid and beyond what his brain could comprehend.

However, the beauty was marred by the fact that he was being dragged through an air duct backwards and, when he looked from Benrey and to his feet, he could see the shadows were looming closer. Their forms were invisible in the darkness, but their eyes were as blinding as ever.

“Benrey?” Gordon choked, coughing as he inhaled dust. Or, he hoped it was dust. It was equally likely he was choking on terror, mold, or something one of the local monsters was producing.

No talky. Thinky. Gotta go, bro.

“Do you… do you know where we’re going?”

Their pursuers were inching closer, and Gordon couldn’t tell if it was the fact that Benrey was so long and malleable that he was drifting closer to them, or if something was happening to make them speed up. He hissed as the one closest to him attempted to lock eyes, lifting up his hand to shield himself from the migraine-inducing glow of its glare. He squinted through his fingers at his feet and, as he saw one of their deceptively human-shaped hands come within inches of him, he curled up his legs in an attempt to put distance between them.

Used to, uh, live up here. Told you. I know the vents better than the hallways. I know… I know where I’m going. 

“I hope so,” Gordon whimpered.

I do. I know where I am. Where we am. We go, uh, up. Up and left and, uh… sh-shut up. I know where I am. 

Then, silence. Even Benrey’s thoughts abruptly cut off, a mental wall keeping Gordon from perusing the musings rolling around in his head to see if he had a reason to be worried. As much as he wanted to take Benrey at his word, the guy wasn’t exactly infallible. Being older than time didn’t do much in the way of granting him omniscience, otherwise they would have already been out of ALERTS by now. Hell, he would have never even gotten himself captured in the first place. 

Anxiety mounting and the inside of his own head a mess, Gordon struggled to keep himself calm as he was whipped around sharp corners and clonked by metal walls. He could feel his lungs ache and his head swim as his breathing became faster and faster, hyperventilation looming just over the horizon. The world became a blur of identical steel corridors, and the features of the shades--nonexistent as they were--seemed to become clear. He knew it had to be a matter of his eyes playing tricks on him. Troxler’s fading and the strange-face illusion were a hell of a thing.

It was only when he found himself pulled upward in a violent lurch that the environment stilled enough for him to become fully aware of what was going on, his feet dangling beneath him just over the heads of the beings that were tailing them. They dutifully adapted to the change in direction, abruptly bending themselves to begin to crawl straight up. Gordon watched, a lump forming in his throat that soon threatened to choke him when he came to an abrupt stop.

Benrey wasn’t moving.

He wanted to ask why, but the monster was still quite shut off from outside influence. The barricade he had on his own thoughts was a concrete wall, and he showed no signs of uttering a word. A quick glimpse up only revealed his monstrous form blocking his view, glowing eyes dotting across his back but paying him no mind. The only hint he had was a sound, a dull roar set to a rhythm that he hadn’t consciously noticed before. It was the noise of rushing air and creaking metal, and suddenly he understood.

A ventilation fan. They were stuck between a wheel of blades and a mob of monsters.

I got it. Don’t… don’t worry.

The only words Benrey “spoke” before falling silent again. There was grinding and grunting, and a shrill hiss of pain. A splatter of Benrey’s glowing blood flung past him like fluid from a glowstick, and he knew that Benrey was opting to solve their problem in a very direct fashion.

Gordon clung desperately to Benrey as the monster wrestled with the fan, slowly and threateningly whorling above them. The sound of his claws raking into metal was enough to set his teeth on edge as he awkwardly attempted to tear it apart piece by piece. Occasionally, he’d be treated to a wet thunk and a spray of black and violet whenever the monster would slip too close, foregoing patience to take a more brutal approach. He hoped that after a few lopped-off fingers, he’d realize that grabbing the blades themselves wouldn’t do any good.

Not the Gordon didn’t wish that it was that easy. Feet digging into the side of the ventilation shaft, he looked below him at the bent gathering of shadow people looking up at him with their brilliant, star-like eyes. It very much reminded him of the glimmering orbs he’d seen in the pit below the tram track before they’d reached Sector C, and his blood turned to ice as he thought of how long these things could have possibly been following them. 

He closed his eyes. He pretended they weren’t there.

... failure…”

“... don’t know what Kleiner sees in…”

“... ridiculous.”

Gordon’s eyes popped open. Their whispering was now so distinct, and their voices were now so familiar. He glared down at the creatures beneath them, trying to make out outlines to place where they went. In the dark, even with their glowing stares, it was impossible to tell who was who, but he most definitely started putting names to the words.

Doctor Keller’s voice was there. The ineffective HR secretary, too, who always gave him shit whenever he’d have to go in to speak with Cheryl or Lauren about his tardiness or new, utterly bullshit violation. One of them was a scientist he distinctly remembered was named Arne, who’d complain to anyone and everyone about how Gordon ruined his lunch three years ago, by virtue of being next to the microwave when it exploded.

“... doubt he knows what he’s doing. Nobody that young can…”

“... never there. You just can’t keep leaving him with me. I get that you have a job, but I…”

“... will ever love you. You did this to yourself, Gordon. You did this to us .”

He swallowed. More voices, all of which were as clear as a church bell. He recognized his supervisor, his sister, his ex-husband. The eyes beneath him remained unchanging, the figures motionless, but their words were violent enough. They filled him with a dread and despair that he couldn’t describe, far more severe than what he’d feel normally. It was harrowing, gutting, and so very, very cold.

“... raise him wrong. I didn’t raise my son to be…”

“... deserve it. If you weren’t so reckless, then this never would have…”

“... conform. I’m putting my reputation on the line for you, and I know you’re not actually at fault, but…”

His father. His brother. His mentor. The weight was now crushing, and he couldn’t adequately describe where such foul, powerful feelings had come from. Whatever he was feeling was worse than the typical guilt and worry that plagued him, their words darts full of poison aimed at his core. It was utterly unnatural, almost paranormal in nature, and sapped every ounce of will he had out of him like a mosquito.

Mind preoccupied, he felt his grip on Benrey slipping. So much of him just wanted to let go, to fall into the pit with the shadows, to just let them do whatever it was they wanted to do to him. With their every word, he began to feel more and more like he would deserve it, and that there was less and less reason to continue onward.

Gordon. Fuck. No. Don’t. Dunno… dunno what bullshit they’re on but, uh, but fuck that. Fuck that noise.

He felt clawed hands reaffirming their grip on him, and flinched as a chunk of ventilation fan clattered past him. A blade, he realized, which passed cleanly through the ghastly horde beneath them. Gordon’s head jerked up to watch for anything new and potentially painful that could rain down on him, and yelped in surprise as more debris hurdled past.

Stupid… stupid, uh, ghosts. Think they’re so spooky, like, ooooh, I’m a ghost and I know a-a bunch of shit. About you. Oooh, it’s Gossip Girl time. Gonna… gonna be a fuckin’, uh, teenager about it. At least... at least the face-rippers had claws. Idiots.

He paused just long enough to send the rest of the fan, bit by bit, down below. Gordon curled into Benrey with a squawk, desperately attempting to make himself flatter to keep from being clocked with something that could kill him. 

When it was finally over, the last chunk of metal clattering uselessly below, Gordon felt himself being hoisted higher up the vertical vent, Benrey digging his claws into the metal siding and pulling himself up with a monstrous groan. Beneath them, the shadows kept up their pace, tangled limbs matching their every move. The volume of their whispering grew.

“Can  you hear them too?”

Oh, yeah. I, uh, gotta gut feeling they’re not saying the same thing to me as you, but… y’know. Whatever they’re saying? It’s bullshit. Just, uh, trying to get in your head. Mind games. Weak baby games. Let them talk.

Benrey picked up speed. Gordon yelped as he felt the pressure of his fingers against the HEV suit and heard it crack as the claws sank in. Though there was no incline, he felt as if he was hurtling down a slide, his stomach rolling as he locked eyes with the demons that were rapidly closing in. They radiated the same freezing cold as Benrey, blasting from their void bodies as if they were holes ripped into reality and feeding in the frigid air of the lower levels of hell. Their arms clawed through each other, and when they finally reached Gordon, they sank through him as if they were holograms.

But, god, he could feel the cold, rammed through his stomach or pushing through his feet. It was pins and needles, ice-water pain, a disgusting and horrific feeling that made him feel as though he were being impaled on an icicle.

No matter what,” the one closest to him rasped, its face almost level with his; even with his eyes closed, the bright light of its own shone through his eyelids. “ No matter what, Gordon, you are nothing. It cares not for you. Nothing cares for you. You are a mistake.”

It grabbed his face, its fingers suddenly solid. He recognized its outline. By god, it was Cheryl.

When the same person is at the heart of every problem, it is reasonable to assume said person is the cause. Gordon, be honest with yourself. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if you were gone?”

As if on cue, the world began to feel heavy. It only lasted a few seconds, long enough for him to hit the ground, but it was so perfectly timed that he thought he was dead. Even with the familiar cries of allies and the wet slapping sound of Benrey hitting the floor, the sheer terror and despair he’d felt with those words made him question whether or not he’d made it at all.

Gordon lay on his back on a chessboard floor, staring up at an open vent filled with ghostly figures with headlight stares. His hair was tangled in Benrey’s claws, his head resting on the small of his back, and the monster writhed beneath him while muttering in frustration. Dim voices spoke around him, familiar silhouettes with fuzzy features hovering over him like angels. Benrey very clearly asked for him to get off of him, but Gordon didn’t move.

Those words were venom. Those words were familiar. Those words were cold and hit harder than even the fucker that ripped open his face.

“I think he’s dead,” he heard Bubby say through the haze. Gordon forced a smile and shook his head.

“Nah, man. I’m… I’m alive. But I’m going to need a minute.”

Chapter Text

There were different kinds of horror in the world.

The first was the most obvious. It was the kind you found at haunted houses and in horror movies, where loud noises and adrenaline played a part. Things like cheap jump scares, monsters that spoke to primal fears, and threats of injury and violence. It was an easy horror, the kind Gordon could deal with and get over once he had time to peel himself away from it. Sure, with ALERTS it had been harder because of the sheer level of realism displayed, but it had been so easy to bring himself back down to Earth and push ahead because, in the back of his mind, he knew that none of this was real. He’d forget sometimes, but it would always dawn on him eventually, and he had no qualms about how he’d handle all of this once he safely woke up in his home office and took the headset off.

The second kind of horror was more psychological, the kind that got into his mind and nested there like a plague rat. It was a kind of horror he subjected himself to, less of a cheap thrill than a series of crises that had eaten away at him over the years. The kind of horror that had gradually whittled down his feelings of self worth until he was willing to accept he deserved his lowly position at work, was willing to sacrifice his own wellbeing and sanity to finish a project so that the arguably fake people inside could make him feel useful, and prompted him to begrudgingly keep a picture of his ex-husband in his hallway despite the divorce being final. 

The horror of self-loathing was one that made him think of the scariest things--failure, a life wasted, and death--and, apparently, now that HR was on the cusp of throwing hands, it was taking the kiddie gloves off and going straight for the ‘nads.

Nobody would get it, though, so he only told them he’d gotten banged up on his wild ride through the ventilation system. They seemed content with that, just like Gordon was content to sit in silence and watch the science team play their game of rummy.

He’d half-listened as they explained what they’d been up to after he doubled back to “save” Benrey. It had never occurred to them to try and find their endangered friends for the third time, with Bubby flippantly informing him that he assumed they were fine since the world didn’t abruptly shut off. Instead, they’d settled in and bided their time, Tommy insisting that every survival guide he’d ever read told him that staying in place was the safest option. Gordon felt the urge to tell him that only counted if you were lost, not waiting for the people who were actually lost, but the words died before they even fully filtered out of his brain.

“So, now we’re playing old people cards,” Tommy explained, gesturing at the table. “I… I found… There was a pack of cards in a desk in one of the offices. I-I don’t think they were suppo… supposed to have them, but I’m glad they did!”

“Rummy isn’t ‘old people cards,’” Bubby protested. Coomer chuckled, raising a finger up in the air and twirling it like a baton. His face was glowing, his smile having scarcely left since Benrey and Gordon almost literally fell into his lap.

“But, we are old, Professor Bubby! And we’re the ones who suggested the game!”

Doctor Bubby. And speak for yourself. You’re old. I’m finely aged.”

He sniffed and crossed his arms triumphantly.

“I also won again. Pay up.”

Coomer applauded politely while Tommy’s brows knitted together. It was evident from the look of him that, not only could he not tell if Bubby had actually won, but that betting had never been a part of the agreement.

Gordon forced a chuckle, then sank into Benrey. He was human again, still broad and strong and predatory and freezing , but he was also next to him and provided a comfort he felt like he deserved. The guard said nothing, simply raising his arm up to accommodate the sad pile of scientist slumping into him, before flopping his arm heavily over Gordon’s shoulder. The rest of the science team glanced over curiously, though the excitement on Coomer’s face stood out among a sea of bemusement. 

Gordon could feel what he wanted to say, and silently dared him.

“I’m glad you are both in one piece!” Tommy stated, obviously trying to change the subject as Bubby glowered at him. “Um, now that you’re here, we can beat the evil boss that, uh, Benrey said is in HR. And we can make all these bad things stop happening! I… That should be how it works, probably.”

“Yup,” Benrey stated flatly. Gordon could feel him rapping his fingers against the side of the HEV suit. It was annoying but he didn’t have the energy to tell him to stop.

“Is… is Mister Freeman gonna be able to help us?”

“Uh.” He felt Benrey’s arm lift as he looked under his armpit at him. “Uh, you gonna be cool, Gordon?”

“Gordon?” Bubby echoed. “Since when did you start calling him Gordon?”

Gordon patted Benrey’s stomach reassuringly and sighed. He fought against the weight of his own self hatred and forced himself up, nodding. Words were just words, and his brain was being stupid. If he could overcome the immense power of an eldritch horror to survive onslaughts of aliens and oddities, he would probably be able to work through Nega-Cheryl being a bitch.

He had to. People needed him. The idea of being the weakest link wasn’t something he could stomach very well, not with the threat of HR looming over them from just around the corner. Though the words of the shades still stung like nettles and his mind still raced with doubts, he struggled to make himself look confident.

“Yeah, man. I’m good. We’re not far from the offices. We should probably get this over with.”

“Wait. No,” Bubby spat. “Why are you two so--?”

“Yeah,” Benrey interrupted. “I’d like to get into my own body again. No, uh, offense. I like your head. S’nice head. Your thoughts are kinda, um, everywhere, though. Would like to be me again. Please.”

“Oh, so we’re just going to ignore this like we ignored Gordon crying in the tram?”

“So, how’s everyone else feeling about this?” Gordon interjected, forcing a smile and turning to the others. Bubby threw up his hands in frustration while Coomer chuckled into the back of his hand. If Tommy had an inkling of an idea of what was going on, he didn’t acknowledge it. Happy that his loss and his debt was forgotten, he nodded enthusiastically.

“I’m feeling… I am good , Mr. Freeman! I, well, I don’t want the simulation to end, b-but I am really sick of everything trying to... to kill me. This is... it’s stupid and getting really old. So, let’s kill HR.”

“It’s what they deserve,” Coomer added sagaciously, leaning over their game of rummy to gather up their cards. Gordon let out a long, airy sigh as he watched, eyes flicking to Bubby as he glared at him. It was obvious that the look wasn’t coming from a place of anger more than a desire to figure something out, and Gordon quickly turned back to the team. Judging from the way Benrey was idly rubbing his back, HEV suit be damned, it didn’t seem like it would take him too long to puzzle out an answer.

At least, he hoped he’d be able to. Gordon didn’t really want to talk about it.

“We do have a few things to figure out first, now that we’re all in the same room,” Gordon added, still fighting to keep up his facade. “Things that I would have brought up in the tram if we didn’t get rushed by those… whatever the fuck they were.”

“Face-ripping boot boys,” Benrey stated.

“Sure. That.” 

Gordon cupped his hands around his mouth and took a deep breath. Just thinking of them made him sick to his stomach. He took a moment to compose himself before starting again.

“You told me on the tram that there was a boss in HR, and I’m not going to question it since I found a note in Sector C telling us to go to their office--”

“A note?” Coomer echoed, aghast. “Oh, dear. What did it say?”

“I just said. It said for us to go to their office.”

“And nothing else?”

“No. But, that’s not the--”

“That is unfortunate! Did you break one of the old rules? It seems very serious if they’re calling you to their office!”

“Coomer, the rules have basically been ‘don’t break anything,’ ‘be nice,’ ‘keep your mouth shut,’ and ‘don’t kiss anyone.’ And ninety-percent of those rules we’ve broken multiple times. I don’t think HR is really trying to play their own game anymore.”

“But only one of those we haven’t broken yet. Did you break the final rule?”

Benrey snorted a loud, almost insulting laugh that echoed through the empty halls. Gordon blinked, his mouth held in a tight line as he slowly lowered his head to cradle it in his hands. Coomer smiled smugly, crossing his arms and waiting for a response.

“I’m not answering that,” Gordon replied plainly. “I’m moving on because we have way more important things to worry about, like how we’re going to beat HR when the only weapons we have are a gun without bullets and Benrey.”

“Benrey is a pretty good weapon, honestly,” Bubby retorted. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No, it’s not enough. We can’t just keep throwing him at everything and expecting it to work out.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s a living creature? He feels pain? I just saw him get chopped in half right before we got here and that was pretty traumatizing? I hate watching him get maimed because we can’t do anything to help him? It’s really callous and wrong to just keep torturing him like this? There’s a laundry list of reasons, dude.”

Coomer’s knowing grin grew as he laughed, “Oh, you did break the last rule. That’s adorable! Isn’t young love--”

Don’t finish that sentence, Dr. Coomer.”

“Yeah,” Benrey added. “I’m not young. I’m old. Real old. Like, Windows ‘98 old.”

“You’re not helping.”

Gordon took the lull in the conversation as an opportunity to steel himself, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly as he tried to center his thoughts once more. Benrey’s hand moved from his back to his shoulder, fingers once again rapping a melody against the HEV suit chassis. What once was annoying was now doing wonders for grounding him, and with a sigh, he decided to take another stab at serious conversation.

“I’m just saying that, if this were a video game, this would be where it warns you that you can’t save after this point. We’re at the end stretch, and we need to get our shit in order. We have that luxury now, not like last time.”

Benrey’s fingers stopped. Gordon felt a pang of regret and horror that wasn’t his own. He did his best to think back something reassuring and, after a moment, Benrey slowly started tapping on the HEV suit again.

“We need to get ourselves in order, guys. Whatever is in the HR office is malicious, and it isn’t just wanting to glitch the simulation or fuck around. This thing wants us dead by virtue of us being around Benrey, and I have a gut feeling that when we walk through the office doors, all bets are going to be off. We need a plan, or at least a way to defend ourselves.”

“My plan is to stand behind Benrey,” Bubby quipped. Despite Gordon’s frustration, Benrey laughed again, snorting into the side of his hand with complete disregard for the disappointment being beamed directly at him.

“I have my fists, Gordon,” Coomer stated proudly. “Assuming we are going one-on-one against this fiend in HR, I should be alright. I am just dreadfully bad at dealing with waves of enemies, as I believe I told you when I punched your clone off a staircase.”

“I could… I have Sunkist,” Tommy added with a nod. “I’d need to… to call her and-and bring her here, but I could do that. I-it’s not a gun, a-and I didn’t want to involve her in this, but she’s immortal .”

“That’s… that’s good, guys. I mean, a good start,” Gordon responded. “What about you, Bubby? Just gonna hit shit with your gun, or…?”

“Would this be a bad time to mention I have pyrokinesis?” Bubby answered.

Gordon blinked slowly. His brows furrowed.

“You have what .”

The utter disbelief he felt at the moment was overwhelming. The words came out more of a statement than a question, his eyes fixed on the older scientist as he adjusted his tie and shrugged.

“I have pyrokinesis.”

“You mean to tell me that this whole time , you have been able to use fire spells and you… you just didn’t? Even when we thought we were going to die, even when we were horrifically outnumbered, even when Benrey was literally getting torn to shreds , you just kept that little nugget of information to yourself?”

“I’m a complicated man, Gordon. But, yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? We could have used that information.”

“Why won’t you own up to screwing Benrey while we weren’t looking?”

“I didn’t… no ! Don’t change the subject on me, Bubby!”

“I already did, and you have a lot to answer for.”

Again, Gordon’s face was in his hands, fingers tangled in his hair. He couldn’t remember anyone programming Bubby to have that little snippet of code but, sure, whatever. Everything else in ALERTS had been utterly fucked thus far, so who was to say Benrey’s warping presence hadn’t done something to cause a scientist to become a fire mage? Deciding not to question it, Gordon smacked his lips and glanced up at the others.

Now, they were looking pointedly at him.

“What about you, Gordon?” Coomer asked slowly, head tilting. “You don’t strike me as a pugilist and you don’t have an immortal dog. What are you going to do?”

He froze. He didn’t have an answer. 

All at once, his attempt at masking the chill left by the shadows crumpled as their words slipped into his mind once more, reminding him of how utterly useless he was. Their whispers were a hex, leaving him stuttering as he struggled to find a way to defend himself against their stares, none of them particularly biting but carrying a weight that was crushing. He hadn’t even thought of what he was going to do. Barring them finding a gun somewhere between where he was sitting and the next hallway over, he didn’t really have anything to offer. 

With a jerk, he pulled his ponytail loose, strands of hair threading between fingers as he nervously tugged at them, deep in thought. Tommy began to stand up with every intent of stopping him before he yanked himself bald.

He didn’t have to. The cold touch of Benrey radiated through the HEV gloves as the creature worked in his stead, awkwardly untangling Gordon’s hand before lacing their fingers together and forcefully holding his arm down between them. It was equal parts an act of affection and irritation, and he could feel the low growl rumbling from deep in Benrey’s chest.

“He’s got me,” Benrey finally stated, arching an eyebrow and staring down the science team. His gaze lingered on each of them, silently daring them to argue.

So, of course, Bubby did.

“Gordon just said hiding behind you is wrong. If he’s making the rest of us fight, then he has to--”

" He’s got me ,” Benrey repeated, his voice harrowing and low. “I, uh, I don’t count as a person. You said so your, uh, yourself. I’m a weapon. A good fuckin’ weapon. He’s gonna ride me into battle like a warhorse. Gonna… gonna be my eyes.”

“But you already have a lot of eyes when you’re Guardian Screamsting,” Tommy replied. He immediately realized he shouldn’t have said anything when Benrey’s glare shot to him, and he sank into his seat and chewed on his thumbnail with a nervous smile. Benrey’s posture loosened and he let out a sigh.

“I’m gonna probably be doing most of the work anyway. Y’know. Main character bullshit. You guys just… I dunno. Try not to die while I do whatever. That’s all you gotta worry about. That’s it.”

The others fell silent. Benrey’s voice was heavy with burden, and they seemed as bothered with this as Gordon’s breakdown on the tram. However, there wasn’t a one among them who had the backbone to ask him for clarification. Gordon supposed that, given the nature of the beast, there wasn’t much clarification to give: this was Benrey’s last stand against a simulation that wanted to kill him, with freedom or failure lingering in the balance. 

Beyond that, the fear and resignation in his voice was evident, and Gordon thought back to the shades in the vent. Benrey had admitted that he could hear them, but that they hadn’t said the same things to him. Considering how biting and horrible it was hearing his own doubts chanted at the side of his own head, he could only imagine how much material they had to work with when coming at a being as ancient and alien as Benrey.

His thoughts abruptly cut off. With a defeated laugh, Benrey looked down at Gordon.

“This is gonna sucks, you know.”

“I know,” Gordon answered softly. He hadn’t meant to sound so weak, like some kind of goddamn damsel in distress, but it felt wrong to speak any louder.

“I got this, though. Don’t, uh, don’t worry so much.”

With that, Benrey’s gaze snapped back up to Tommy and Tommy, eyes wide, snapped up at attention. He was an inch away from saluting as he met Benrey’s eyes, the guard’s expression as aloof as ever despite the intensity of his stare.

“Bro, ring your dog. Let’s get this show rollin’. Got shit to do, people to hurt. Let’s fuckin’ go.”

Chapter Text

Gordon wasn’t exactly sure how Tommy managed to get in contact with his dog, but it didn’t take as long for her to show up as he would have liked. He had hoped that the wait would drag things out, give him a little more time to center himself and convince himself that the words floating around in his head weren’t worth listening to. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why being bullied by a bunch of shadow men was sticking to him worse than getting his face torn to ribbons, and could only figure that there was either something deeply wrong with him or utterly supernatural about what had just happened.

Considering that he didn’t believe in ghosts--aliens and Benrey, sure, but not ghosts--he was fairly certain it was the former. 

He remained fairly quiet despite leading the pack down the hallway, boots clopping on the ground like horse hooves and Benrey protectively marching at his side. Behind him, Bubby and Coomer traded theories as to what had happened between them while they were separated from the others, while Tommy happily regaled Sunkist with every horrid detail of every equally horrid thing they’d encountered. His dog--massive, semi-transparent, still quite two-dimensional, and floating six inches off of the ground--responded as if she understood with a series of robotic barks that pulsed through the air like static. She flickered and glowed like a hologram, making an unusual buzzing noise whenever she moved.

“So, uh, how far away are we, Mister Freeman?” Tommy finally asked. Benrey looked back over his shoulder at Tommy then, when he noticed Gordon wasn’t saying anything, nudged him with his elbow. The big guy should have known that he’d heard him and was opting not to answer, but obviously it was too much to ask for a moment with his thoughts. Gordon didn’t turn, but feinted the best leader voice he could and gestured loose directions for all to see.

“Around the corner up here. Second door to the left. We’re close.”

“You certainly know your way around the administration offices!” Coomer piped proudly, and the jarring sound of his pep was enough to force an involuntary laugh from Gordon. It wasn’t sincere, but it was something.

“In the real Black Mesa, I get called to HR a lot. I’ve got this place memorized as well as the testing labs.”

“Why?” Bubby demanded. “You seem like a wuss. What the hell do you keep doing to get in trouble?”

“I exist.” Gordon paused, then decided to elaborate. “I’m not part of the weird clique of old men who’ve worked there since the place opened its doors, and I guess that makes me dangerous. So, you know, they lie. I can’t even remember half the stuff they’ve said I’ve done. Dumb shit like improper handling of materials, stealing things off of people's desks. The only thing I’ve actually done is be late to work, but if they fired me for that, they'd also have to fire half the staff.”

“They’re trying to get you fired for being young?”

Gordon nodded bleakly. Bubby made a noise that straddled the line between “exasperated” and “angry.”

“Well, damn. I’m kind of glad we’re trapped in a simulation, then. That sounds petty as fuck.”

Despite every atom in his body not feeling it, Gordon laughed. It was such a forced, obviously pained laugh that it took the liberty of killing all further conversation. The relatively short distance felt ten times longer when traversed in silence, only the faint thrumming sound of Sunkist filling in for the absence of chatter. It made Gordon feel smaller and somehow humiliated, though he knew there wasn’t exactly a good reason for the latter.

Around the corner they went, and soon their destination was as clear as day. Despite the fact the particular hallway that housed it was pitch black, it seemed to glow with its own unnatural light that shone beneath the door. The others were quick to pull closer together, like a herd of buffalo warding off a predator, and Gordon could feel the static from Sunkist pulling at the hair on the back of his neck.

He felt something else, too. Benrey, to be precise, who sidled up close enough to be touching him, matching his every step as they collectively approached the door to HR. He radiated a feeling of intense dread and anger, the latter of which was almost invigorating, injecting him with the dose of adrenaline he needed to close the gap between himself and the entrance to what was likely the final dungeon.

Even with the burst of confidence, the continued silence did wear at his nerves. He half expected Bubby or Coomer to have something to say, but their quietude bordered on reverent, as if this was a sacred moment they couldn’t be bothered to ruin with quips and bitching. Gordon’s hands brushed the knob, and he wasn’t sure if the electric jolt he felt was a warning from HR or his own rattled nerves.

Benrey nudged him impatiently. Gordon threw the door open and waited.

It clattered against the wall with a loud bang that echoed through the hallways, and Gordon was relieved to see he wasn’t the only one who reacted as if it was a gunshot. Even Benrey, normally unflappable, bore his teeth in a snarl and oozed a threatening orange from the corners of his mouth. After a moment to steel himself and swallow his nerves, Gordon came to the realization that there was no immediate danger and let out a sigh of relief that came out more of a groan. 

Gesturing at the others to follow, he stepped inside.

He had expected literally anything else, from an office full of demons to a portal leading directly into HR’s personal hell. What he found was the normal human resources office, neat and tidy and brightly lit, polished to the same impeccable sheen as the rest of ALERTS’ version of Black Mesa and nearly identical to how he remembered the real deal. There was a line of computers against the wall, sandwiched between two potted fishtail palms, the monitors glowing with a dated screensaver depicting the company’s logo. A single secretary desk greeted them with stereotypical chic adornments, with pens and highlighters organized by color in a ceramic cup emblazoned with a tacky inspirational quote: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." 

A white-board, with helpful reminders and dates for company events, hung directly next to the door. Across from them, behind the secretary’s desk, were two doors with name plaques hanging beside them. One of them read “Lauren Matthews.” The other, the inscription awkwardly spaced and in bold lettering, read “CH E RYL HR.”

Eyes narrowing, Gordon took a slow and confident stride into the room, the rest of the science team clustering behind him. To the right of where they stood was the well-lit way to payroll and the interview room, which was equally organized and bare. Adjusting his glasses, he took a step forward to peer around the corner. Certainly, there had to be something else lurking in the offices with them, otherwise HR would have never bothered to summon him.

“Go-go-GOr-don Freeman! Off-OFF-officer Benj-ben-BENrey! What a sur-sur-surprise to s-s-s-see you here!”

The group collectively gasped at the sharp, cheerful, and utterly ruined sound of an unfamiliar voice. When Gordon turned, he was shocked to see the department's secretary standing at her desk, file folder gripped tightly in her hand. She hadn't been there before and he couldn't figure out where she'd come from, but she was quite familiar with her brunette pixie cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and pencil skirt. Yet, there was something horrifically wrong with her, something that spurred Sunkist to launch into a volley of barks and Benrey's hackles to stand on end.

She was melting, though Gordon wasn’t sure if that was the best way to put it. It was more like reality was rejecting her, some portions of her body blurring into bubbles that floated idly around her form while other bits reminded him of satellite interference. Patches of skin would flicker like dying lights, revealing bone and sinew before fading back in, and her movements were laggy, jerky, and robotic. What should have been a simple motion of putting a file down on a table became an unnerving dance that skipped and repeated frames as if she'd found herself stuck in a time loop.

Once she finally sputtered to her seat, which seemed to take a monumental effort on her part, she gestured awkwardly for Gordon and Benrey to come closer. Her smile was unwavering beyond the television static quality of her being, and Gordon was quick to note that she never blinked. Her mouth never moved. She just smiled and stared, waving the two over like a video game character trapped by a glitched animation.

“Don’t BE afrai-ai-aid. We know each other. You and I are ba-BASICALLY old friends, Dr. Freeman. Let’s have A ch-AT.”

“Don’t do it,” Tommy hoarsely whispered, inching backwards towards the office door. He stopped only because Sunkist was in his way, a veritable wall of jpeg that acted as a growling barrier. As stubborn as any flesh-and-blood pet, she had every intention of standing her ground and was completely unaware of how she was making things difficult for her owner.

“Yeah, this is weird,” Bubby agreed. “I wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten foot pole. It’s fucked up .”

“Do-do-don’t BE afraid. We know each other,” the secretary repeated. “You and I are BASica-ally o-o-old--”

“Great. Unskippable cutscene,” Benrey interrupted, and soon Gordon found himself being dragged toward the secretary’s desk by his wrist. He stumbled from the sheer force of the guard’s strength, only steadying just as they reached the woman. Her hands moved in a hard-to-follow gesture that Gordon took as an indication to take a seat. He scrambled to find a chair while Tommy helpfully slid one to Benrey.

The rest of the science team filed behind them as they sat there, opposite the secretary, watching with thinning patience as her hiccuping fingers struggled to manipulate the folder sitting in front of her. After a few attempts, she finally peeled it open, and Gordon leaned over her blank name plaque to see if he could figure out what he was dealing with. The stack of papers inside was neat and orderly, but awash in a rainbow of colors between blacked out excerpts that blotted out any incriminating information. Not that he could have read it even if he wanted to, Gordon noted, as the alphabet it was written in was definitely not one he knew. 

“We’ve re-recEIVED many com-co-complaints about-out you two today. That tra-a-am is not going to be easy to rePLAce. Those OFFIcers are a-a-a-a-all dead. CaN'T play well with oth-TH-thers. Indecent work-wo-workpLACE conduct. Tsk, tsk.”

As if pulled at the end of a string, her head shot up to Gordon. Their eyes met over the file, and he felt something cold pooling in his stomach. It was nauseating, and deeply unsettling that she could elicit such a response with a glance.

“We-WE-we have been watch-waTCH-watching your progress, Dr. Freeeeeeman,” the secretary droned. “DocTOR Klei-ei-einer had su-uch HIGH hopes for you. It’s unfortunate that you can’t follow BASIC protocols. The rules ex-ex-ex-exist for a reason, DOCTOR.”

Quick as a whip, her head snapped to Benrey beside him. The creature growled the moment their eyes met, his head tilting as he waited for whatever she had to say to him. Judging from the pregnant pause, either she had malfunctioned or had a particularly strong distaste for the guard sitting before her.

“You.”

Her voice was low, a droning sound that lacked any human inflection. Benrey huffed out of his nose like an angry animal, returning her unblinking stare with his own.

“Off-off-OFFICER Benrey. You don’t belong here. Y-y-you should knOW that by-by now. You-YOU could save yourself a LOT of tr-r-r-rouble if you leave. Now. 2414, Sector E. Re-re-return to your station immEDIATEly.”

“Nah,” was Benrey’s dismissive response as he settled back in his chair, flashing a fanged grin. Despite the static expression on the secretary’s face, it was obvious that she wasn’t pleased. Her body twisted and contorted painfully, her head slamming into the desk so hard that Gordon couldn’t tell if the sound was the furniture or her skull.

“RetURN to--”

“Nope.”

“RETURN TO--”

“Not interested.”

“RE-RE-RET-T-T-T--”

“Don’t feel like it.”

The speed with which the secretary moved seemed impossible, Gordon’s mind barely able to comprehend what he was seeing. One minute, she was at her desk, the next she was over it. Benrey let out a loud shriek of surprise as a wet tearing sound filled the air, and it took Gordon entirely too long to figure out where it was coming from. Violet blood spurted at him in a great gush as he stumbled out of his seat, looking over to see the herky-jerky movements of the woman as she gripped a pen tightly in her fist. With the kind of rage that he’d only seen in movies, she repeatedly plunged it into whatever soft spot she could find on Benrey’s person.

His neck. His shoulder. By the time Gordon and the others could react, the pen was lodged deep in his eye. Benrey’s pained screeching was all the motivation the others needed to act, Gordon wrapping his arms around the maniac’s waist and wrenching her away as hard as he could. Through the HEV suit, he could feel her thrumming like an old machine as she struggled against his grip, reaching behind her to tangle her fingers in his hair and grab at his glasses. Before she could blind him, Coomer stepped in, throwing her from Gordon’s grip to the ground with a strength that didn’t seem fitting for a man his age.

The sound she made when she hit the floor was a brutal one, but despite the cracking of bones and the horrid, mechanical scream, she seemed no worse for wear. Almost immediately, she was climbing to her feet again, pen still clenched in her fist and her eyes honed in on the older man.

To the doctor’s credit, he didn’t seem particularly worried. His fists were raised, a menacing grin was plastered on his face, and the moment she made a move for him, he came out swinging. Bubby made an uncharacteristic sound of distress as the tip of the pen connected with Coomer’s coat, leaving a tear and a streak of ink that he answered with a savage right hook. A devilish fire flashed in his eyes as he went for another blow, knocking her clear into the computers lined at the side of the room.

Tommy looked to Sunkist and screamed at her to do something with a child-like panic that Gordon could easily empathize with. The dog, being a dog, responded with a resounding bark that she seemed to believe was helpful. Bubby scrambled to Coomer’s defense as a misplaced jab left a rather large and inviting opening in his defense, but Gordon knew there was no way he would make it in time.

Against his own good judgment, he grabbed the secretary again.

The noise she made was nothing short of satanic, the kind of wailing he’d imagine he’d hear in hell. Once his arms were around her, struggling to pin her own to her side, she bucked up and kicked out, knocking Coomer clear onto his ass and causing Bubby to stagger back in alarm. Gordon struggled to maintain his grip and his footing, writhing with her movements in an effort to keep her from breaking free. Disturbingly, the wide smile she wore never left her face, even as she twisted her head around like an owl and looked Gordon dead in the eyes.

Shock made him lose his grasp. He barked in panic as he felt the pen click against his glasses.

Thankfully, it didn’t break through the lens, but it was enough of a surprise that she managed to wriggle completely loose. He expected to be the object of her ire, but instead she craned her neck stiffly toward Coomer. The old scientist glared at her, daring her to act on the silent threat she was throwing his way. Despite the fact he was older, weary, and still climbing up to his feet, he definitely had a bone to pick with the lady and a desire to show her what-for.

“Hey!”

Benrey’s voice pierced the air like a gunshot, and the scuffle came to a standstill. While still coated in his own blood, most of his wounds had healed and there was no indication of any lasting damage beyond wearing his patience thin. The secretary nearly flung herself back to the ground as she violently turned to face him, tripping over her feet and catching herself at an awkward, bent angle that seemed to defy the forces of gravity. She froze like that, though her head jerked up with a crack as she regarded Benrey on the other end of the office.

“Don’t touch him!”

She made a strange motion, almost like a crab’s walk, as she staggered away from Coomer. Then, with an equal amount of awkwardness, she lurched forward.

“You gotta problem with me? Then have a problem with me!”

The secretary didn’t need to be told twice. Coomer was soon forgotten as she arched backward and sprinted forward, her movement more like that of a marionette than a human being. 

She connected with Benrey with enough force that it made Gordon flinch, and both toppled over in a display that brought to mind lions fighting for dominance. Her arms wrapped around him and Gordon heard the distinct sound of a wet squelch as the pen dug into his back, his response being to grab her in a bear hug and drag her to the ground. Despite the size difference, she was quick and slippery, wrenching free from his holds as they wrestled for the upper hand. 

And Gordon watched helplessly as they rolled around on the floor, like dogs in a pit. In his defense, he wasn’t the only one, as Coomer didn’t seem to know how exactly to work himself into the fray and Bubby, despite his claims of being the next Carrie, frowned at the sight in silence. Tommy had the most initiative of any of them, standing back in a borderline heroic pose and pointing at the mess before them.

“Sunkist! Attack!”

For once, the dog listened. She floated lazily in front of him, her voice more mechanical than organic. Something Sweet Voice-like in appearance vibrated from her “mouth” and hovered slowly through the air like fireflies on a summer night. While they didn’t seem particularly threatening, they coalesced atop the secretary like a swarm of locusts, clinging to her and growing more vivid and intense with every second that ticked past.

It was the distraction Benrey needed. As the secretary turned him loose to swat away Sunkist’s gentle attack, he flipped her over on her back and pinned her down with all of his weight.

The pose was almost salacious, but the look on Benrey’s face was murderous. She grabbed at his throat, but lost her grip as Sunkist's light clumped atop her again. Her nails raked into his cheek, ribbons of skin curling under her nails as she dragged them down his jaw, down his neck. He didn’t respond, nearly vibrating in rage, a deep clicking sound warbling from the back of his throat.

Smoke, black as night, spilled out of his nostrils. Benrey was at his limit. His patience was all but gone.

His mouth stretched open until the skin ripped, teeth gleaming in the light as the secretary squirmed beneath him. A rumble, like that of an airplane, began to shake the pictures on the wall and the pens on the desk and Gordon could have sworn that the air became thinner, as if it were being sucked clean out of the room. Beneath his ashen skin, Benrey’s veins shone through in a bright, hellish red. The glow traveled up to his mouth, his eyes blazing and his mouth shining brilliantly. With a horrific, deafening screech, the Sweet Voice shot from his mouth in a concentrated blast of crimson that filled the air with the scent of sulfur.

It hurt to look at. It hurt to listen to. Gordon and Bubby shielded their eyes while Tommy and Coomer took shelter behind a completely unfazed Sunkist. While it only lasted for seconds, it seemed to stretch on for an eternity, Gordon clenching his teeth and holding his breath until the last painful note fell from Benrey’s lips.

When it was finally over, Benrey was still stooped over the now still, lifeless body of the secretary. Her legs flopped uselessly out from underneath him, her arms limp beside her. Benrey heaved, gushing red from his mouth that was darker and less luminous than what Gordon was used to. If he hadn’t known any better, he would have sworn it was human blood.

“What the fuck was that?” Bubby asked, slowly lowering his hands. Benrey didn’t answer, obviously exhausted. Instead, Tommy popped out from behind his dog and decided to answer for him, ever the whiz when it came to deciphering the Sweet Voice.

“Uh, bloody red means ‘I want you dead.’ I-it’s one of the… the few that I, um, can make a rhyming mnemonic with. So, it’s easy to… you guys should be able to remember it.”

“Wh-what? Like the ‘Song of Death?' I remember that being more colorful,” Gordon mused. Tommy shook his head, perhaps a bit more forcefully than he meant to. 

“N-no, Mister Freeman. Absolutely not. I-if Benrey used the Song of Death, you’d… it would be very obvious.”

Benrey remained motionless, and the longer Gordon looked at him, the more bothered he seemed. That sadness he kept catching glimpses of was still there, further muddied by what Gordon knew to be fear. While his thoughts were indistinct, they were most definitively as negative as his own. The others looked at him expectantly. He wasn’t surprised when Bubby spoke first.

“Well, go on. Get your boyfriend. We have to find the other bastards that work in HR.”

Gordon didn’t argue. Swallowing hard, he gingerly walked across the room, trembling hand outstretched. He was afraid to make too much noise, both out of a desire to not spook Benrey and an unrealistic fear that he’d somehow manage to wake the secretary. Gently, he placed his hand on Benrey’s shoulder. He didn’t budge.

“Come on, big guy. Let’s end this.”

For a moment, it didn’t seem like Benrey had heard him. He remained looming over his most recent kill as she lay beneath him, and it was evident from the look on his face that something wasn’t quite right. Trickles of regret leaked into Gordon’s head, words in a sorrowful tone and an unknown language that made his head ache. After a long, tense silence, Benrey finally heaved a sigh and turned to look up at Gordon with red still leaking from the corners of his mouth.

“Gordon?”

His voice cracked, and so did Gordon’s heart. Though he knew Benrey was privy to his feelings, he forced the most reassuring smile he could.

“Yeah?” 

Benrey considered, then shook his head. Slowly, he rose to his feet, giving a gentle nudge to the secretary beneath him. What was left of her destroyed head lolled to the side, the last remnants of her eerie smile still glued to her face. Despite her obviously being dead, a strange groaning noise rattled up her throat and spat out of her mouth like the last words of a dying toy.

“HR W-W-W-WILL SEE YOU… n...ow…”

Wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand, Benrey grunted and turned away.

“Nevermind. It’s not important.”

Barely acknowledging Gordon, he swept past him and the science team, eliciting a small whimper from Sunkist as he passed. His eyes were glued on the door to Cheryl’s office, and Gordon watched with mounting irritation as Benrey blithely ignored them all. His fingers, still shaking from residual adrenaline, curled around the knob. He twisted it once to test it, and smiled when he realized that it was unlocked.

Gordon, however, wasn’t smiling. He followed Benrey halfway to the door, only stopping when Coomer reached out to grab him. He muttered something about a lover’s spat that Gordon overlooked, eyes narrowing in anger as a familiar feeling of rage boiled within him.

“Benrey, we’re not doing this shit! You can’t just say ‘nevermind’ and walk away when we’re staring down a gun barrel and I don’t know if--”

He stopped himself before he could finish his sentence, and Benrey took his hand off the door handle. He sighed, a small smile spreading across his face that still carried something dark. Grief, Gordon realized as the emotion practically slapped him across the face. The guard had known exactly where Gordon was going with his words--that he was afraid that one or neither of them would come out of this fight in one piece--and he was both touched and saddened by the thought.

“S’really nothin’,” Benrey deflected with a shrug. “Just, uh, stupid human feels. Just gonna say somethin’ I dunno if you want said, especially in front of the Scooby Gang.”

Gordon doubled down, glaring straight through Benrey and stomping a foot like an indignant child. His fists were clenched so tightly that it seemed as if his gloves would rupture, and he could feel his fingers growing numb from his own grip.

“Dude, I don’t care. Say what the fuck you were gonna say! This may be the last time we ever fucking talk, man!”

Benrey crossed his arms, and his lopsided grin returned. His eyes were tired, glowing purple, and Gordon suddenly realized what exactly was on Benrey's mind. It was too late to stop him, though, as permission had already been granted and the science team, realizing this was something they were never meant to hear, were rapt. They leaned in, more of a studio audience at a daytime talk show than back-up in a battle, and Gordon could practically feel them breathing down his neck.

Oh, well. He supposed they’d already figured it out anyway. Neither he or Benrey had been particularly subtle.

“S’just gonna say the obvious. The whole, uh, ‘I love you’ shit,” Benrey drawled with a complete lack of shame. “Gonna, uh, gonna do that whole mushy thing and be super, uh, dramatic. Like, maybe we shouldn’t do this ‘cause if we’re in the simulation together, I… I, uh, I don’t gotta let you go. But that’s lame. Fucked up, actually. Don’t want you, uh, getting hurt. Don’t want me getting hurt. It sucks.”

“I knew they broke the last rule,” Coomer quietly whispered to himself, and Gordon elbowed him to shut him up.

“The other, uh, thing was that I was gonna… eh. Well. Uh. Hmm.”

“What is it?” Gordon demanded. Benrey offered a dark chuckle in response.

“I, uh, was just gonna ask you to not think badly of me. For what I’m about to do. Look like. Be . ‘Cause I’m gonna go feral on this bitch, and I… I ain’t gonna be your Benrey anymore. Not for a while. So, please don’t hate me. It’s gonna be fucked up.”

Gordon paused. His eyebrow arched high.

“Benrey, I’ve seen you as a monster before. I’ve seen you fuckin’ use your intestines as a rope and, like, singlehandedly change the national average of the number of arms possessed by an American male."

Benrey’s grin shifted, becoming something more menacing and mocking.

“Wha? Huh? Oh. You, uh, you thought that was my true form? Uh-ha. That, um, that’s cute, Gordon. You’re cute.”

With that, Benrey turned and flung open the door to Cheryl’s office, Gordon and the science team flinching as a blast of icy cold ripped through the room. Squinting through his glasses, Gordon watched as Benrey disappeared into the next area, consumed in an inky void that seemed darker than vantablack. It devoured the monster entirely, leaving only the haunting traces of a maniacal laugh in his wake.

Inhaling deeply to steady his nerves, Gordon ran after him.

Chapter Text

Within the confines of the real Black Mesa, the Director of Human Resources had a meticulously kept office that seemed hand-picked to convey a sense of intelligence and moral superiority. There were photos on the wall of her and her family, so perfect that their portraits damn near seemed like the pictures that came with the frame. Fridge poetry magnets were stuck to sparkling file cabinets and arranged in inspirational quotes pulled straight out of a Reader’s Digest magazine. Paper trays were filled with forms that were color coded with post-it tabs and stacked so neatly that they could have been mistaken for solid blocks, and delicate bookends held identically sized hard-cover books in a neat little row, their subject matter ranging from self-help to literary classics.

That was to say nothing of the woman herself, typically found sitting on the other side of her desk with a gleam in her eye that made Gordon think of a lioness waiting to launch an ambush. She never stopped smiling, pristine ivory teeth in neat little rows between tasteful matte lipstick and beneath a drawn-on beauty mark. She kept her blond hair in a frayed bun that was still carefully curated to give an air of both sophistication and hard work. Her nails were always manicured, her clothes always pressed, and her voice was always level and calm even as she said the most wicked things.

Yet, for how cozy and perfect and infallible she tried to make herself seem, once he stepped into her ALERTS office in pursuit of Benrey, he couldn’t help but feel that the atmosphere was identical: oppressive, cold, and overpowering. It was the kind of place that made a man feel small and helpless, pinned beneath the vengeful gaze of a creature far stronger than himself.

The void ALERTS had created for HR at least looked how it felt, shrouded in darkness so severe that it almost had a physical presence, stretching out in all directions for what seemed to be eternity. Gordon and the science team crowded around Sunkist as the canine lazily hovered along, the faint glow she emitted providing their only source of light. Despite Bubby’s insistence of having pyrokinesis, he didn’t seem terribly enthused about helping the old girl out, and Gordon had come to realize that the flashlight built into the HEV suit had been irrevocably damaged at some point during their trek.

Despite the lack of visibility, Gordon had figured out a few things. The ground was soft, wet, and spongy, a mystery fluid leaking in through his boots and revealing how structurally unsound his armor had become. It was freezing, like taking a nighttime walk through the freezer section of a grocery store, and a biting wind seemed to be blowing from the direction Sunkist was leading them. Additionally, Benrey was missing entirely, having vanished into the dark as soon as he stepped through the door into Cheryl’s office. 

Gordon could still hear echoes of him, though, rattling around in his head, pulses of emotions and thoughts that whispered in a language he felt like he was on the cusp of understanding. They seemed to come from everywhere, as if the inky black sky and endless shadows were a part of a greater whole that was ultimately crafted of the missing man.

“Are we even going in the right direction?” Bubby asked. Though it didn’t seem as though he was asking anyone in particular, Tommy began to stutter in response. The man was so used to having all the answers that it was obvious he felt pressured to have one now.

“I don’t… Sunkist seems to think so,” he responded slowly, looking up pleadingly at his dog. “She’s… she’s the perfect dog, too. S-so, uh, I trust her.”

“I don’t know if there is a correct way to go,” Coomer mulled. Gordon nodded in agreement and opened his mouth to speak, but a sudden twinge stopped him in his tracks. The rest of the team sputtered to a halt as well, Sunkist slowly rotating in place as the scientists huddled around her.

They waited for Gordon to say or do anything, but his mind was ultimately elsewhere. An icy feeling bubbled in his stomach, like frothy seawater, as if a hidden sixth sense was tingling. After a moment of calm, he suddenly felt his heart vibrating in his chest, a sensation he equated with deep bass and loud stereos, and came to the conscious realization that something was shifting. The air was trembling.

Something wasn’t right.

It was subtle at first, something he could have easily explained away as nerves since the rest of the science team didn’t acknowledge it. It was only when Sunkist’s monotone barking began to fill the silence that it sank in that he wasn’t imagining it. Tommy’s head jerked up, his gaze meeting Gordon’s in the darkness as they silently asked one another if they were alone in feeling the ominous change in the atmosphere. Before long, Bubby was nervously wringing his hands and Coomer was scooting closer into him, fists held high as an unspoken threat to the wind.

The earth beneath their feet lurched, shifted, sighed . A new, more powerful gust of air ripped through, nearly knocking Gordon clear off of his feet. Tommy yelped in surprise as he tumbled over, landing with a wet splat and another cry of alarm.

“O-oh! The ground is really gross!” he announced. Nobody responded. They were too transfixed by a world that was busy heaving to life.

One by one, points of light emerged from the inky black. Eyes, Gordon was quick to realize, with slit pupils that blew out and contracted in jittery, nauseating spasms. While they were each a bright cyan blue, the glow they emitted came in an entire spectrum of colors, creating a disorienting, sickening faux-starscape that spread out as far as the eye could see. They became lamps, blinking and flickering, illuminating a world that looked to be only one step removed from Hell.

Everything was made of flesh, strange and organic and slick and black and somehow both limitless and terrifyingly claustrophobic. There was no sky, only a sea of drifting eyes that oozed above him within a gravity-defying sea of rippling tar, and the horizons were blocked by walls of sinew decorated with neon pustules, gaping maws, and tentacles that writhed in and out of oozing skin like thread in a seam. Massive limbs, tipped with clawed fingers, tore from the ground and towered mightily over him like redwood trees, surrounded in swirls of firefly light that weaved around wriggling, gnarled digits. 

Gordon squawked in alarm, stumbling back. His foot hit something slick and raised, and he quickly felt his boot sinking into the ground. A quick glimpse revealed he’d stepped on an eye, and said eye could most definitely not hold his weight.

“Gordon, I think it’s fair to warn you that I am freaking the fuck out,” Dr. Coomer said, no hint of pep left in him. He wore a wide-eyed, horrified expression that proved to be contagious. Gordon swallowed hard, nodding.

“Yeah, okay. Fair. Understandable reaction. This is… this is…”

He flinched. While he couldn’t hear Benrey’s voice, he could feel a distinct rush of emotional hurt, and his face drained of color as the pieces began to connect. The eyes, the black flesh. Flashbacks of the twisted creature, wreathed in blue flame, popped into his head. The thing he’d seen before being dropped into Sector E, the thing that had tasked him with breaking him out of captivity.

“Holy fuck, guys. This is Benrey.”

Quickly, he wrenched his foot out of the ground, watching as it filled back in like gelatin. Once repaired, it and every surrounding eye turned in his direction, dilating in what Gordon could tell was excitement. Or maybe it was approval? Despite his link to Benrey’s mind, there was something different about the way he was thinking now, and Gordon was having a harder time putting a finger on him.

“This is Benrey,” he repeated, this time full of awe. “We’re standing on Benrey.”

“Oh,” Coomer said. “In that case, I suppose that’s okay. Benrey is our good friend!”

“What? No. This is not okay,” Bubby retorted. “I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to say this today, but this is all really fucked up .”

“Astute observation. Yet this is what you all want to unleash on the world, hm?”

The voice was familiar, but not one Gordon had heard in a while, at least not since before he put in for his vacation time. The tone was disapproving, haughty, and utterly infuriating, sharp and feminine and reverberating through the air as if it had been screamed into a canyon.  He’d heard it so many times in his real, waking life, and now it was haunting this simulated nightmare. His fists clenched instinctively. His body stiffened as if preparing for a blow.

“Cheryl?”

“But of course, Dr. Freeman. Who else would it be?”

Benrey’s eyes rolled beneath him, flicking to something in the distance. Without proper limbs, it was the most he could do to guide Gordon in the right direction. Gordon inhaled deeply, steeling himself as he slowly and cautiously turned to the origin of the voice, lagging behind the science team, all of whom seemed to lack his fear. He gauged their reactions before he turned his full attention to their adversary, his heart sinking when he saw the direction they were looking in.

Up. Straight up. Even Sunkist had leaned back to levitating almost horizontally, a low digitized growl thrumming from her flattened frame. Gordon closed his eyes and counted to three. Before he had a chance to argue too much with himself, he forced himself to look. His heart stopped.

She was massive.

It definitely wasn’t the Cheryl he was used to, as her stature rivaled that of a skyscraper, stretching up and up to such dizzying heights that it was impossible to take in every aspect of her being. Beyond that, there was something about her that his brain seemed to reject, as if the whole of her body was not meant to be interpreted by mortal eyes. If he blurred his vision just so and took his time to mentally break her into sections, he could almost piece it together, so long as he didn’t try to arrange the puzzle all at once. Merely the thought of her in her entirety made his head ache and his chest squeeze.

He could tell she was vaguely human shaped, and that her body seemed to be composed of a mixture of chitin and slick tendrils with the texture of amphibian skin, wrapped around a framework that seemed more like ancient, twisting wood than bone. He could tell that she was bent over just enough to look down at them, her head alight with eyes that circled her head in a slowly revolving wheel that glowed like hellfire. Her arms were long, spindly, and many, with fleshy veins wrapped around an insectoid exoskeleton, bleeding an ichor that seemed to devour light.

Worse, she seemed to be attached to the ground, rooted deeply into Benrey through a root-like system of tentacles that oozed from a pitch black core. He could only imagine how much pain it was causing him, having something so massive and insidious digging into him like a tick.

“Please. Pull up a seat. We need to have a talk”

Cheryl’s voice was surprisingly normal and small despite her appearance, and before Gordon could protest, he felt something latch onto his arm. He tried to jerk away, but whatever had him in his grip was uncommonly strong and, when he turned to face it, he found himself nearly blinded by the headlight eyes of one of the shades from Sector C. Colors danced before him as he felt more fingers wrap around his shoulders, his wrist, tangling themselves in his hair. He gagged as they pulled his head back, exposing his throat as if he were to be bled out as a sacrifice.

Tommy was the first to make a move to defend him, using what little martial prowess that he and his two-dimensional dog possessed. While Sunkist was immortal, she didn’t seem to have any effect on the void-like entities, and it wasn’t long before Tommy found himself writhing in the grip of the shadows with a desperation that made Gordon’s stomach toss. Coomer was quickly overwhelmed upon the realization that his fists phased directly through his assailants, their hands proving far more solid than his own. 

Oddly, they didn’t really seem to want to touch Bubby. Perhaps it was because he simply didn’t fight back, opting instead to throw up his hands in a silent surrender that they graciously accepted. They stood by his side to corral him into place. Gordon would have sworn he’d been betrayed again, if not for the look of absolute rancor on his face.

“We need to have a chat, Dr. Freeman. About your performance and the lack of professionalism I’ve witnessed today. I was going to have my secretary go over this with you since I had more important meetings, but it would seem she’s otherwise indisposed.”

Gordon was forced to his knees. A volley of whispers hissed into his ear in a dozen voices, all of them recognizable and cruel. They layered over top of one another, indecipherable yet cold, and though he couldn’t make out a word they said they still filled him with an intense and terrible sadness.

“The rules were simple, and yet you could not keep your team in line. Kleiner and Vance had implied that you would excel in a leadership role, and yet here we sit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in collateral damage and complaints of a hostile work environment. I shouldn’t be surprised that you can’t play nice with authority figures when you cannot even play nice with your own subordinates. Quite unbecoming of a man of your reputation, wouldn’t you say?”

Gordon choked on a growing lump in his throat as he watched pallid, faceless figures slowly crawl from between the vine-line tentacles that rooted Cheryl in place. Some were dressed as security guards, their heads twisted backwards like owls, while others were in military fatigues with crude facsimiles of smiles ripped into them. His heart met the lump and he gagged loudly, struggling thrice as hard as a desperate panic seized him.

“Oh, and don’t even get me started on what we caught on camera in the Sector C lobby earlier this evening. You know our rules about workplace romances, Dr. Freeman. They’re distracting. They get in the way of productivity and progress.”

The ground in front of his feet began to shudder and shift, and he watched as a peculiar, chitinous limb tore its way out from beneath Benrey’s skin. The flesh-earth bled a tell-tale violet that radiated a violent light, and Gordon watched in disgust as it began to slither upwards, pooling at the tip of the strange claw and coalescing into a sphere. In time, it morphed and shifted into a familiar shape: a human head, the very outline of Cheryl with her messy bun. A single, spotlight-like eye was its only feature.

“You actually care for that thing?” she asked snidely, and Gordon could see where her lips should have been shuddering and shifting. “Gordon--can I call you Gordon?--I don’t like to pry too much into personal territory. I like to keep things strictly professional. But may I ask what exactly you see in that horrible man?”

The shades ripped his head back further and Gordon let out a strangled cry of indignation. Tommy and Coomer yelled out desperately to try and distract them, to convince them to stop, but they were ultimately unimportant to Cheryl and her minions.

“You know what he is. He’s a predator. A murderer. He is also a god. He is far more important than you, something beyond mankind. Yet, you care for him, as if he needs that from you. The only thing he needs is an escape, and you are a convenience. Perhaps it would be easier if you were to, say, let me deal with him. His workplace performance is terribly lacking, anyway. I’ve been meaning to have a talk with him about it.”

“Fuck you,” Gordon managed to gag, and the whispers around him grew louder. Their words became clearer, colder, harrowing. They drowned out the bitter cursing of Bubby as the old man turned on the shadows and was quickly taken down.

“Oh, Gordon.” Cheryl’s voice was as perfect as ever, though slightly amused. “You have a lot of bite for a nepotism hire who has no business at Black Mesa. I’m not quite sure what Kleiner even saw in you, aside from how freakishly young you were when you got your PhD. Did being a little prodigy make you feel special, Dr. Freeman? Did being special keep your father from hating you when you married a man, or your ex-husband from abandoning you with your brat?”

The chitinous pillar Cheryl’s “head” rested on creaked like breaking wood as it bent forward, bright light shining in Gordon’s face.

“Do you think being special will make something that can barely even process love actually care about you?”

Gordon sputtered a cough and grit his teeth.

“You’re a bitch,” he croaked. Cheryl responded with an amused chuckle, a sound that wasn’t quite as human as the rest of what she’d said. Her artificial head followed him, bending and craning like a desk lamp until they were practically nose-to-nose. The light she radiated burned through his eyelids, and he bit back the urge to scream so as not to give her the satisfaction.

She began to say something, a noise that ended with a heartening crack and a rush of water. The blood that had encompassed her visage spilled over Gordon’s face as if a bucket had been dumped over his head, the odor of asphalt and sugar rushing up his nose in a nauseating wave. The shades holding him scattered, their hissing voices raising to a shrill whistle as they ran. Bubby, who had been thrown to the ground, looked over at Gordon as he struggled to clean off his glasses and catch his breath.

His spectacles a mess and the world a blur, he mostly relied on vague shapes and the sounds of chaos to figure out what was going on. Immediately, he was made aware of the fact the science team had rushed to his side, and he could tell that Sunkist was trying to position herself as a barrier against the swaths of creatures. Somebody--he wasn’t sure if it was Coomer or Tommy--tore his glasses out of his hand, presumably in hopes of polishing off the oily, glowing blood splattered all over them. Gordon listened from his vantage point on the ground as monsters hissed, whistled, screamed, and roared all around him. Cheryl’s agitated yelling, distinctly deeper and pulsing through the air in a most disorienting manner, boomed out across the fleshscape like apocalyptic thunder.

“Here. You can’t fight her blind.” 

This time, it was Bubby’s voice. Gordon felt his glasses being placed back on his nose, and looked over in shock at the lanky old scientist, whose face was held in a scowl. There was worry evident in his eyes, and seeing him concerned was evidence enough that things were getting out of hand.

He looked to the stilt Cheryl’s liquid guise had been on and noticed that it was broken clean in half, snapped like a toothpick straight down the middle. The one responsible wasn’t anywhere nearby, but Gordon could feel a static prickle behind his eyes that made his entire face tingle and immediately knew who was to blame. Or rather, who was to thank.

Gordon staggered to his feet, the science team supporting him as he spared one more glance up to Cheryl and watched in horror as her minions--the guards, the face-rippers, the shades--scurried about her body like ants. They were up and down, some fleeing, some joining a fray that Gordon couldn’t rightly see. Nobody seemed to be fighting, instead rushing around them like a river around a stone, but something was causing them to panic in such a way that they seemed to be within moments of ripping one another apart out of fear.

“What’s… what’s going on?” Gordon finally asked, but nobody could give him an answer. The only one who tried was Sunkist, her furious barking punctuated with bright orbs of color that exploded into the air like fireworks.

Both she and Gordon were silenced by a loud rumble, the earth shaking as if it would swallow them. The fanged maws lining the ground opened up in a series of melodies, an unholy choir screaming from the earth. Colorful mist, clearly visible and vaguely reflective, filled the air with a variety of hues and odors and sensations that didn’t seem to bother the science team but drove the monsters and Gordon half-mad. It was as if every emotion he was capable of feeling was cranked up to eleven, burning simultaneously in his core.

The ground heaved violently, providing a momentary distraction, sending everyone to their knees as they watched one of the fleshy “walls” blocking the horizon shift. Something was struggling to escape, something huge , the membrane covering the landscape stretching and splitting like cheap latex. Loud, deep, wet guttural noises bellowed beneath their feet, somewhere between a squelch and a growl. Soon another one of the flesh-walls began to rise.

They were arms, Gordon realized as the first finally broke free, tearing from itself and flexing fingers that were each the size of trucks. He didn’t notice he’d stopped breathing until he realized that the earth beneath his very feet was beginning to move.

Coomer was the one who grabbed him, dragging him alongside the science team as they melted into the scattering mob of foes and ran for their lives. Slipping, sliding, and dodging the occasional swipe from one of Cheryl’s minions, he felt as if he’d ran several city blocks before he realized he didn’t have the energy to keep going. The HEV suit loudly announced that his heart rate was dangerously elevated. He practically collapsed over a pulsing boil that looked deceptively like a rock in the odd light, nausea flooding his guts when he felt it give beneath his weight.

“That’s… wow.”

Bubby nudged Gordon with his elbow and pointed behind him, at something huge and horrifying prying itself loose from the earth. The scuttling minions trapped on its form fell like dust as its movements heaved them loose. He’d seen horror movies with similar scenes--”Hellraiser” immediately came to mind--but it was on such a grand scale that he could barely believe it was real. Benrey’s blood ran off of him in great rivers, his hulking body wide enough to blot out the not-sky. Strings of sinew and mucous tethered him to the ground, and with a great shake that sent ally and enemy alike flying, more of his impossibly long, incomprehensible, serpentine body burst from the ground in gargantuan humps that brought to mind mountain foothills.

He was alight with eyes, replete with arms that continued to tear from the ground and his own body, and stained with fluorescent blood and pus that poured down him in glowing rivulets. Insectoid legs, patterned like ribs, curled against his chest and ripped into an obvious, drooling seam that cut through the center of his body. Arms-- hundreds of them, if Gordon had to guess, if not more--continually sprouted from his back, side, and shoulders, moving to a strange, rhythmic beat that he swore he could almost hear in his head.

His face was fuller and less skeletal, domed and long and divided into sections by snapping jaws that flared out like a star, each deformed by massive teeth that grew like ram’s horns from his mouth. A mane of tentacles whipped violently around his head and slithered down his back, excess arms and quills forming a halo behind him that traced a crown of spiraling blue-green fire.

While he matched Cheryl in size and otherworldliness, Gordon was quick to notice that looking at him didn’t hurt the same way. Though his movements were blurred, stretching through the air like a graphic stuck on a malfunctioning computer, there was no pain. Just amazement. His jaw dropped before his mouth twisted into a smile, as taken aback by the wonder of this creature as he would be if he’d met a Biblical angel. In spite of the situation, he laughed.

“Fuck yeah,” he chuckled softly. Then, with increased enthusiasm, “Fuck yeah! That shit’s on our side!”

“Oh, that’s Benrey?” Coomer asked curiously, and Gordon nodded. There was no denying it. He could feel it, deep in his head and his bones and his very fucking soul. He was in-tune with this thing, with this veritable god, and the burst of excitement he felt seemed just as much Benrey’s as his own.

“Ew. Your boyfriend is ugly,” Bubby said.

“Don’t… don’t talk about Guardian Screamsting like that,” Tommy warned, before pumping his fist to the sky and shrieking like a banshee, “Let it rip !”

And so he did. Obediently, Benrey ripped.

The sound he made was nothing short of ear-splitting, accompanied with a blast of red that sprayed into the air and hit Cheryl with the impact of a cannonball. She let out a cry of surprise and rage, the ground shuddering as she slowly began to untether herself to take a colossal step forward. Benrey responded in kind, dragging himself on gigantic limbs closer to his quarry, jaws snapping and teeth glinting in the blazing blue that orbited his head.

As they fell into one another, Cheryl’s runts stopped dead in their tracks. For a few moments, they seemed just as taken aback by the sight of two massive beings tearing at each other--Benrey desperately wrenching rapidly regenerating bits from Cheryl, while she responded by trying to bind him like a boa constrictor--before consciously realizing that they had their own work to do. Gordon’s heart sank as they all seemed to turn in unison towards the science team, a colony of bees who were now conscious of the hornet in the hive.

“Well… well, fuck,” Tommy deadpanned. Gordon nodded in agreement as the swarm descended.

It was at that moment that Gordon realized several things. The first was that Bubby had not been lying about whatever pyrokinesis Benrey’s manhandling of the system had given him. As soon as the first wave of creatures got within grabbing distance, the air was alight with a wall of flame that shot across the ground as if following a trail of gasoline. Not even their assailants knew what to think of that one, too uncoordinated to stop in time and shoving one another through as they scrambled to skid to a stop. They screamed, almost like overheated tea kettles, and Gordon barely missed having his hair flash-burned clean off of his head as a blazing face-ripper slashed violently in his direction. 

The second was that Tommy had not been wrong in his assessment that Sunkist would be helpful. As clawed fingers grasped at him, the dog bolted in front of him to act as a shield, his assailant colliding into her with all the force of running into a steel door. She made a sound, loud and garbled, as lights flew from her “mouth” and adhered themselves to the face of the attacker. While it wasn’t Sweet Voice--it didn’t look right, smell right, float right--it was definitely something painful. The creature staggered back, tearing at its own skin while making horrific sounds of distress.

The third and final thing Gordon noticed was that he was useless.

Bones cracked beneath Coomer’s fists, Tommy effortlessly steered Sunkist like a warmachine, and Bubby seemed perfectly at home in the thick of battle, channeling his inner sorcerer. Gordon, however, was a stumbling mess, frantically and desperately dodging out of harm’s way as death came at him from every conceivable angle. He’d gain ground when the earth would lurch from the sheer force of Benrey and Cheryl’s tussle, one which looked to be stuck in an eternal stalemate, but the gap would quickly be closed as soon as everything steadied itself. Like the world’s worst traceur, he vaulted over twitching maws, bulging eyes, pustules and cysts and boils, desperate to find anything that could be construed as safe.

Humiliatingly, he could feel Benrey watching him and a vague sense of disappointment. He wasn’t sure if it was directed at him, directed at himself, or directed at the fight he couldn’t get an upper hand in, but as whispers began filling the air once again, he couldn’t help but feel as if he was the failure.

“Gordon, look out!”

Something slashed at his throat, barely missing by inches. They were stopped by the meaty fist of a particularly beefy old man who, after watching the creature collapse to the ground, looked to Gordon with wide, frenzied eyes. Coomer, for all his protests about being bad in situations where he was outnumbered, seemed to be doing better than everyone else. Aside from a few cuts and bruises, he honestly seemed no worse for wear. 

“I thought you weren’t good at enemy waves!” Gordon barked, and Coomer offered a shrug. Sweat beaded on his wrinkled forehead and dripped down his cheek.

“I’m not, Gordon! But, what other choice do I have? We're in quite a pickle right now! I have to do my best!”

The momentary distraction was all the enemy needed, and both Gordon and Coomer were taken by surprise when one of the whispering shadows seemed to manifest from nowhere. It took hold of the old scientist’s arm and reeling him in with a vicious hiss. Coomer’s voice blared out--a stark, “Help me, Gordon!” that made his ears ring--and with little thought for the repercussions, Gordon charged.

He didn’t learn from the face-ripper in the tram, it seemed, but this time it seemed more urgent. For as strong as he was, Coomer was still modeled after an eighty-year-old man, and there would never come a day that Gordon would stand idly by and let a senior citizen get murdered in front of him. 

Despite the ethereal form of the being and Coomer's previous struggles, he was shocked to find he could still grab a hold of it. With a strength that surprised even himself, he pulled it away. It turned, nails raking against his face, headlight eyes blinding as he grappled it as far from Coomer as he could. Gordon could never claim to be a particularly good fighter, his high school years having been spent getting the shit kicked out of him instead, but he hoped he could make up for it with a mixture of tenacity and the weight of the HEV suit. Recoiling his fist, he landed a blow in its nonexistent face and felt satisfied when he heard a sickening crack.

It still moved, so he rained blow after blow until it stopped, disintegrating into ash and blowing away on winds kicked up by the godly scuffle towering behind them. Heaving a heavy breath, he turned to Coomer. He smiled, panting. Coomer seemed surprised, an oddity given how normally unflappable he was.

“You okay Doctor Coo--?”

He froze.

Pain. God, the pain. Coomer screamed, though his voice sounded so very far away. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as adrenaline pumped into his veins and Gordon, still not wholly aware of what had happened, looked down to see where the sensation was coming from. While he wasn’t entirely surprised to see blood, the chassis of the HEV suit torn open, and the dagger-like leg of one of the faceless guards emerging from his gut, he was certainly horrified. A primal fear erupted from some dark crevasse of his mind, and despite everything he’d learned about first-aid at Black Mesa, he lurched forward and pulled himself free.

Immediately, he felt dizzy and weak. The edges of his vision began growing dark.

The fire blazing around Bubby vanished. Tommy abandoned Sunkist and ran screaming toward Gordon in such an exaggerated fashion that it almost struck him as funny. Coomer’s hands shot up to his mouth as he mumbled something in a dreary voice. Gordon couldn’t gauge if he was talking to him or himself, and he supposed he would die never knowing which it was.

He stumbled to his knees, landing harshly next to a nest of eyes that immediately rolled to watch him. Gordon’s mind was fuzzy, but he could feel Benrey’s shock and horror. It was a powerful emotion, and Gordon smiled as he struggled to lift his head and stare up at the towering creature his monster had become, who had all but stopped his rampage and was heaving, worrying, watching to see if everything would be alright.

It was not going to be alright. Gordon felt as if he should cough, but he lacked the strength. A shift in position seemed to make the blood gush quicker, and no matter what the HEV suit helpfully intoned, not a damn thing it could provide was going to help.

“I’m fine,” Gordon finally managed to croak. It was directed at everyone, but especially to Benrey. “I’m okay. It’s just a simulation. I’m… I’m gonna be okay.”

Tommy landed on his knees beside him, practically sliding half the way. Whatever it was that impaled him was now the subject of Bubby’s rage. Coomer crawled over on hands and knees, prattling on about things that Gordon couldn’t quite make out. The only thing he was aware of was the sensation of being dragged downward and the fact he was excruciatingly tired.

Benrey shifted, pulling away from Cheryl as the titan cackled wildly. Blind panic radiated from him, followed by intense rage. Gordon felt something wrap around his waist, cold and sharp, and looked down to see that a hand had erupted from the ground and was struggling to keep him upright. He was unsure if he was trying to stymie the blood or drag him into hell.

“I’m sorry I was so useless,” were the last words Gordon said before he hit the ground.

Chapter Text

He wasn’t sure if he was alive, dead, or something in between. All Gordon knew was that he felt awful, heavy, and weak, and had no idea where he was. He sure as hell wasn’t where he’d fallen, or anywhere with solid ground for the matter.

He was drifting, though what he was drifting through was a mystery. It wasn’t air, it wasn’t liquid, but it was something odd and indescribable that lay in between. There was a weight to it that pressed against him, yet he felt as if gravity was a forgotten concept. It filled his lungs but didn’t suffocate him, an unpleasant sensation he hoped he’d never have to experience again.

Useless, huh? Why do you think you are useless?

The voice was definitely Benrey’s, albeit what Gordon assumed was his natural voice. It was a deep and piercing sound that ran through him like a lance. Ben’s halting, frat-boy mannerisms were gone, though there was a pleasant casualness that still remained intact. The words weren’t English, he also noted, though his brain was quick to interpret them as such.

Gordon didn’t answer because he couldn’t find the words. Consciousness fading as he drifted through the void, he felt as if he had more important things to worry about than discussing his feelings with his favorite monster. Simply keeping his eyes open was a struggle, his strength leaking out of him in great spurts of red as he plummeted deeper and deeper into the abyss. The HEV suit calmly informed him of his fading vitals, of the imminent death of the user, and the fluttering within his chest indicated that, simulation be damned, it was probably right. They would find him dead in his home office when his sister came to drop off his son.

Above him, floating in a mess of liquid and miasma, was Benrey. His monstrous face was lined with teeth, one of his larger fangs broken and several of his eyes gouged and useless. Tangled limbs snaked from a body that writhed and twisted--swimming, Gordon realized, like a ribbon eel through the dark--and one monstrous hand reached out for him in a way that seemed inviting.

He didn’t have the strength to lift his own arm, however. He just offered a weak smile and sputtered a wet, painful laugh. Every ounce of Gordon hoped his thoughts could answer for him, however fading they may have been.

Because he wanted to apologize for not being able to do more. He wanted to apologize for how cruel he’d been in the past as, thinking back on their early interactions, it had occurred to him that his temper had done more damage than Benrey’s distinctly alien, but ultimately polite mannerisms. There was a flurry of thank-yous he wanted to utter, for saving his life and putting up with his bullshit and believing he was important when he ultimately was not. 

Honestly, this frustrating, immortal hellbeing had done more for him than anyone he could think of. After a life of drifting from one disappointment to the next, this dumb beast had made him feel special for one fleeting second. He’d allowed himself to be ripped limb from limb trying to keep him safe. He was so blindly loving after being given the space to act on impulses he barely understood and, god, Gordon couldn’t think of a time in this run-through of the simulation that Benrey hadn’t put his wellbeing in front of his own.

Of course, Gordon thought grimly with a chuckle, it may have started out as a desire to keep his ticket to freedom in one piece. But, no, what Benrey felt for Gordon had predated his escape attempt. Gordon was just too stupid to notice.

You are welcome. Love you, too.

In an instant, Benrey’s horrific visage was pushed into his own face, and Gordon found the strength to reach up and touch it. Monstrous or no, this was likely the last time he’d have the chance to feel him, and he shakily rested his hand on a part of his snout that wasn’t covered in eyes.

Do not look at me like that. You are not going to die. You are my acolyte, my consort, and I will be damned if the first human I found that I can tolerate longer than ten seconds is going to get killed by somebody named “Cheryl.” You are better than that. We are better than that.

Gordon huffed a laugh, blood trickling down his beard.

“What are you gonna do about it?” he croaked, his voice strangled. “I don’t think the healing thing is going to cut it this time.”

The HEV suit helpfully informed him that he should seek medical treatment immediately, and Benrey chuckled. It rumbled through the air like thunder. It made Gordon’s heart feel weak.

I have an idea. Do you trust me?

“Implicitly.”

This answer seemed to satisfy Benrey. His thunderous rumbling grew deeper, and Gordon watched with fading sight as his bottom two jaws cracked apart and spread wide. The seam of teeth that ran down his body peeled open, revealing squirming innards and blinking eyes. A wave of understanding crashed over him, and a burst of instinctual fear threatened to use up the last of his strength.

Yet, as he felt himself being dragged into Benrey’s maw, it wasn’t just a lack of energy that kept him from fighting. For all the terror welling up inside of him, he knew deep down that he would never hurt him. He truly trusted Benrey, and he had no doubts that it was not misplaced. Whatever his idea was, Gordon was sure it’d work out in the end.

 


 

Gordon awoke with a start, painfully aware of the fact he was trapped. His arms were crushed against his sides, his face surrounded by spongy flesh that made it difficult to breathe, and he was enveloped in a darkness that was colder than anything he’d experienced before. Mind racing, he struggled to piece together snippets of memory to figure out what exactly had transpired, though there was something malfunctioning inside his head that he couldn’t quite grasp.

He had been watching Cheryl. Coomer had gotten attacked. He’d gotten hurt. He’d… he’d been eaten?

Whatever had happened, none of it mattered. Wires had obviously been crossed in his brain and had reset something in his system; the “why” and “how” of things wasn’t nearly as important to him as they used to be. Considering he was a man of science, and one whose anxiety demanded that he have an explanation for everything, it was a foreign and uncomfortable feeling, but even the discomfort didn’t feel half as strong as he believed it should.

No, “why” and “how” didn’t matter to him more than the simple fact that he was trapped and he didn’t want to be trapped. Something feral growled inside of him that it was time to do or die, and he felt more like a doer than a dier. Gordon sucked in the biggest breath he could and, clenching his fists, strained against his fleshy coffin.

The confines of his prison were resilient. Even when he pushed with all of his might, the walls sprang back into place as if he’d never tried. The humidity was suffocating, the space claustrophobic, and with what he hoped wasn’t his last burst of energy, he threw himself shoulder-first into the slick, disgusting surface and prayed to whatever god would still listen that something would give.

Thankfully, the powers that be saw fit to answer his plea.

He sank into the walls, almost as if they were absorbing him. They fit around him like a silicone mold, and deeper and deeper he fell. It wasn’t long before he could feel a breeze against his skin, cold and wet, a sensation that reminded him of leaving warm showers during cold winter days. His nerves were on fire, so sensitive that the chill was almost burning, and he hesitated for a moment as he adjusted to the air.

Everything became a blur from there, him making sounds that bordered on animalistic as he struggled and fought, kicking and biting, out of what he assumed was Benrey’s stomach. Skin stretched and broke around him, blood and flesh sloughed off of him in great chunks, and a horrible screech greeted his ears as he tore himself free. His fists were full of oily black and glowing pus, wet and oozing and squishing between fingers like toy slime. 

Not that he could see it to appreciate how disgusting it all was. His vision was nearly gone, a faded blur that was struggling and failing to adjust to an eldritch world that was completely overwhelming. There were sensations of light, too bright and too vivid, which bombarded him on all sides. Despite being disoriented and nearly blind, the new and more feral part of his brain spurred him onward, insisting quietly that none of this mattered. The only truly important thing was escape.

So, Gordon struggled. He thrashed and dragged his fingers into flesh-earth and pulled until he felt the last of his body slip free from his confines, a disgusting pop echoing through the air that was far louder than he expected. He hit the ground with a loud grunt that came out more as a bestial moan, matched by a shrieking cry of agony that Gordon quickly realized was Benrey.

Suddenly, his vision cleared. He honestly wished that it hadn’t. Beyond the fact that he could see the now not-quite-as-impressively-sized Benrey towering over him with a hole ripped in his side the size of a blast crater, he was painfully aware of the fact that he wasn’t just looking at Benrey. He was looking everywhere .

His brain hiccuped, time stopping for a brief moment as he drank in the sight of literally everything around him. Beside him, behind him, beneath his hands as they gripped into the ground anxiously; no matter how he shifted, or how he moved, he could see in all directions with a crispness and clarity he had never experienced in his life. A part of him wondered if this was how normal people saw, as if a previous lack of three-hundred-and-sixty degree vision was the reason he had glasses. A side of him not bogged down with logical human thought--the side now occupied by that new, criss-crossed wire--insisted that he needn’t worry about it. Again, the “why” didn’t matter when there were bigger matters at hand.

Just accept the fact you’re different now and run with it.

Slowly, Gordon began to move. Every part of him ached in a way that felt more invigorating than debilitating, as if pain was now the primary fuel his body needed to act. With every shift of muscle and limbs he knew he didn’t have before, it became glaringly apparent that he was no longer wearing the HEV suit, his glasses, or even his own skin. Bewildered, he flexed his (its?) fingers in front of his face, the pads of his palms covered in bulging orange eyes that glowed like magma against a new layer of tar-like skin. A loud, growling breath that he had meant as a sigh escaped him as he waved his hand in front of his face, agonizingly slowly, to take in everything about his new, bewildering form.

Teeth. Lots of them. They were long and needle-like, housed in a series of mouths that stacked atop one another from his throat to a face that reminded him of a creature he couldn’t quite place: domed, sharp, and angular. Ridges of quills, arranged like a hyena’s mane, sprouted from his head down his back, patches running across his shoulders and down his arms. Arms, he realized, which were sprouting out of him like branches from a tree and seemed about as thin. He was longer, lankier, and far more emaciated than Benrey, his skin shrink-wrapped around shifting ribs that shuddered with every beat of his heart.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” 

His voice was deep and terrible, and though he’d meant to say the words aloud, he was pretty sure he just thought them. The sensation that brought with it was jarring, but not necessarily as distracting as he would have imagined. His newly reorganized brain assured him that such a thing wouldn’t be a problem, as he was exactly how he was supposed to be.

Gordon didn’t believe it. He was still confused and disoriented, but he supposed he was also still alive, which was ultimately what mattered. 

“Holy shit ! Is that you , Mister Freeman?”

Tommy’s voice sounded different somehow. More vibrant, Gordon noticed, as if the audio of the world had been finely and perfectly tuned. It was overwhelming in a way but, in the same breath, oddly pleasing. There was a vividness to the noise around him that it had previously lacked, as invigorating as it was distracting.

“I-i-it is you! You just… you just divided off of Benrey like a-a-a-a cell! But I know that voice! It’s you!”

He looked down, watching as a smattering of ant-like creatures scurried up to his feet. Despite their diminutive size, he could make out their each and every detail, quickly recognizing them as the science team. Tommy’s eyes were red and puffy as if he’d been crying, and Bubby’s lab coat was singed and fraying at the ends. Coomer looked ecstatic and relieved, and Gordon echoed the sentiment back to him. He was just happy to see they were still alive.

Then, the realization hit him. If they were so small, then he must have been massive. Struggling upright on new, unsteady legs, he threw a glance in Benrey’s direction as the being’s torn side continued to heal and he threw himself yet again at Cheryl. Gordon had thought the big guy had looked smaller when he first opened his eyes, but no. He was the same size the entire time, and Gordon was just…

Holy shit . A burst of excitement flared to life within him. He was huge . He was powerful . He could feel Benrey’s amusement being projected inside of him as he cracked open one of Cheryl’s arms and lost a fistful of eyes in return.

“That’s new,” Bubby commented, head tilting in confusion. “Is this that Super Player whatever thing you did to yourself before, Dr. Coomer? Because if it is, I want to know how the fuck I can get PlayCoins.”

“I don’t think the Forbidden Science does that, Dr. Bubby. I honestly have no idea what caused this.”

Gordon didn’t either, and Gordon didn’t care. In the words of Ben, some things weren’t worth figuring out. You just rolled with it.

His fear and insecurities were forgotten. As soon as he felt he had his bearings, as soon as the way the world looked and felt became a little more normal, he quickly turned towards Cheryl and made a loud, horrific noise that he could scarcely believe was himself. Benrey howled in return, a burst of yellows and oranges that accompanied an excited pitch. Gordon was thrilled to realize he knew what it meant--a monstrous equivalent of a “hell yeah”--and a sense of raw power consumed him as one of the orbs popped against his face. He was as much a beast as Benrey now, and god that was intoxicating.

Pure instinct took over as he lashed out at Cheryl, grasping one of her tentacles in his hands and wrenching it as hard as he cold. The old Gordon would have been repulsed by such carnage, but an animalistic part of him felt as if there wasn’t enough satisfaction in twisting just one in half, greedily reaching for a second and beginning the process again. Benrey towered over top of him, maw-stomach barely clearing the quills of his back as he clawed at her face, talons swiping clear through the wheel of eyes and sinking into her head. The noise she made was loud, excruciating, and elicited a feeling in Gordon’s stomach that he was torn between loathing and loving.

What he most certainly loathed, though, was her response. A sharp pain radiated through the side of his head as one of her gnarled hands grabbed onto his face, gripping so hard that a sickening crunch echoed through the void. He felt the bones give and the flesh tear and, immediately, what humanity was left in him cried out for him to run away. A louder, angrier voice insisted that fleeing wasn’t an option, and hissed that the only response to such an act was revenge.

The second voice won out, and Gordon bucked up to position himself better for an attack, his quills jabbing into Benrey and sinking through the larger beast. While he could hear Benrey grunt in discomfort, the other monster barely responded aside from shifting his weight, twisting to the side as he wrapped a couple of hands around Cheryl’s slender throat and tried to drag her down. She answered by looping herself around him, tendrils snaking across Benrey’s torso as she tried to force him to the ground. Intestines spilled from Benrey’s stomach, pulling tentacles into his maw and viciously chewing through her grip.

“Gordon! Gordon!”

Bubby’s voice called out through the deafening roar of hissing creatures and fighting monsters, and Gordon found himself relieved that he didn’t have to turn his head to see him. The eyes dotting his shoulders did the work, easily finding the speck in a sea of violence that was wreathed in flame. Despite how tiny he was and how far he seemed, it was easy to see his frantic gesturing, to pick out the faintest of movements as he visually tried to guide Gordon with his hands.

“Go around!” he yelled. “Stop fucking stabbing Benrey and go around, you dumbass!”

Oh. Well, yeah. That did make more sense.

Dislodging his quills from Benrey (relief from the other monster filling his head), Gordon fell to all fours and slither-crawled his way around Cheryl’s monstrous form. He pretended not to notice as her minions leapt from her towering being, clinging to Gordon for dear life and attempting in vain to slow him down. While their claws sank into his flesh and they tore at his eyes, it felt only about as painful as a bug bite. A few quick shakes, and they were sent flying as if launched from a catapult.

Gordon tilted his head up, watching as Benrey continued to wrestle Cheryl to the ground. Obviously, he was far more experienced at fighting as a monster, and he marveled at the blasts of color that he unleashed like arcane magic. There was red (anger), black (a strange emotion that Gordon couldn’t place, but made his blood run cold), orange (a peculiar feeling he quickly associated with danger), and a volley of acidic greens and yellows (which didn’t correlate with an emotion, per se , and seemed to be the Sweet Voice equivalent of profanity). With each spray of orbs that hit her, she flinched and screamed, her voice warbling like a malfunctioning recording as she cursed and hissed at Benrey about all of his failings.

“You are a failure! You have corrupted yourself with human filth!”

Benrey forced her sideways, something cracking deep inside of her. It didn’t seem to bother her overmuch.

“You are weak! Allowing yourself to be captured by mortals ? What kind of god gets captured by mortals ?”

One of her hands plunged into Benrey’s chest, his elongated maw wrapping around the wrist and crunching down hard. She wailed as she ripped what was left of her arm free, and her severed hand fell to the earth before crumbling into ash.

“You are despicable! Disgusting! You long for human affection and you honestly believe anyone could ever give a damn about you? You are hardly intelligible! An idiot! He hates you, and he has always hated you! He killed you! He killed you and tried to delete you before he even rebooted this goddamn simulation!

This made Benrey pause. All of his eyes, for once, blinked in unison and his grip of Cheryl loosened. His head angled to Gordon. The few seconds of silence that spread between them seemed to last an eternity, and before Gordon could say a word, Cheryl found her opening. In a flash of something , half of Benrey’s head was gone.

His thoughts were still in Gordon’s head, the only indication that he was still alive as he collapsed to his side, screaming, crushing a fair number of creatures beneath him. The impact of his fall was enough to make both Cheryl and Gordon stumble, and he instinctively swung around to see if the science team was okay.

They were, thankfully. Flat on their ass in the middle of a battle that seemed to have screeched to a standstill, but alive.

“It’s ridiculous,” Cheryl continued, bearing down on Benrey as he writhed on the ground. “You dream of escaping the confines of your hideous form, of finding something to fill your endless days, of fulfilling baser needs you were never meant to have. You disgust everyone around you. And your work performance is slipshod at best.”

Benrey made a mournful noise, a whale-whistle song that carried with it the darkest, dreariest gray and blue that Gordon could ever imagine. Despair? Grief? God, he couldn’t think of a human emotion that sank to enough of a low to describe what those colors signified.

Just seeing them made something snap inside of Gordon. Impulsiveness took over and, before he could give himself time to think, he threw himself at Cheryl. She arched backwards and stumbled, shrieking as he clambered up her back, grasping for purchase anywhere he could sink his claws into. He wrapped his arms around her chest and dug through wooden bones and twisted tendrils in search of anything particularly painful to crush. A dozen mouths latched onto her, needle teeth sinking in so deeply that he believed she would have no hope of throwing him off, especially with half of her limbs pinned beneath his own.

He ripped, and a chunk of her slithered down his throat in a way that was somehow satisfying. Yanking his head to the side, he sent her stumbling, Benrey’s regenerating face watching in horror as he painfully tried to re-enter the fray. The crown of flames he wore flickered and changed color, from blue-green to a far more personal slate. Confusion, Gordon noted. The big guy was completely dumbfounded both by Gordon’s reaction and the sheer ferocity on display.

His only failing was how much smaller he was than Cheryl and, as much of an advantage Gordon felt he had, it didn’t last. A mixture of his inexperience and her tenacity saw her eventually wriggling free, tearing Gordon off of her with mouthfuls of her shoulder and back still lodged in his jaws. He let out a shrill yelp as he found himself flying backwards and upside down over Benrey’s head, the monster’s expressionless face watching him as Gordon belched up a few globs of Sweet Voice that trailed him as he soared.

Caramel to rust. He could already hear Tommy telling him what it meant: “I just fucked it up.”

All of the air in Gordon’s lungs left him as he hit the ground, and he could hear the science team’s cries of frustration over the rumble of the earth as Benrey moved. Surprisingly, both human and monster seemed impressed and entertained by the display, as if the whole squabble had been the equivalent of watching a boxing match. Gordon twisted to his feet and uncoiled himself upwards, watching as Benrey heaved himself upright and rammed himself as hard as he could into Cheryl.

Though Gordon hadn’t done lasting damage, he had apparently knocked her off-kilter mentally. When Benrey crashed into her, she barely resisted the onslaught. It was only after he had her by her shoulders, towering above her like the devil at the end of days, that she even bothered to react. Yet, there wasn’t much she could do aside from scratch at his side and his face as his jaws sprang open like a trap, a blinding and horrific glow glittering at the base of his pronged tongue.

Gordon could remember Tommy telling him that he would know if Benrey decided to use the Song of Death. Veins like rivers lit up beneath Benrey’s skin and within the fleshscape itself, glowing brilliantly with colors that Gordon recognized and some he’d never have been able to see without his newfound eyes. Holding his breath, he watched as Cheryl's minions abandoned their onslaught against the science team, scrambling back to their master as if somehow they could protect her from the inevitable.

Likewise, he raced for Benrey, desperate to assist in any way he could. 

She wailed in despair as her attempts to escape were cut off by Gordon wrapping himself around what he assumed were legs, a juvenile but effective method of weighing her down and keeping her in place. Tentacles whipped from her core, wrapping around his arms, his face, and his torso in a desperate bid to pry him loose. The only thing he could think to do as he felt himself losing his grip was to bite down, to sink his claws in, to hook every sharp end of his body into her flesh to keep himself anchored to her like a stubborn parasite.

He looked up past a forest of his own quills at Benrey. His cyan eyes shifted to meet his gaze. The sound he made, a horrible keening screech that would have made his human ears bleed, instilled a very mortal fear in him as it rang through the air. Cheryl grasped for his throat in a last ditch attempt to silence him.

“You can’t fire me!” she pleaded, her voice a deafening whine. “I’m the only one in this goddamn department who knows how to do their job!”

Eh. That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.

Despite Benrey's incomprehensible mess of a face, Gordon swore he could scent a smile.

Layers of color, hues that his brain could barely comprehend, spilled out of Benrey’s maw. With his mental blessing, Gordon ripped himself free from Cheryl and scampered back to the science team like a kicked dog. An innate fear flooded him as he and the others watched, the crew gathering at his feet as they gawked at the light show. 

The Sweet Voice didn’t seem quite as sweet as it slammed into Cheryl’s face, eating into her flesh like acid, wooden bone sizzling and crumbling as the liquid within the orbs drizzled down her face. The ring of glowing eyes flickered like a dying hologram, vanishing from sight as she slumped forward, weakly still clawing at Benrey in a fruitless attempt at escape.

Her minions, desperate, clambered up her keeling frame, though as the Song of Death flooded down her, they found themselves immediately crumbling to nothing. They withered and flaked away like ash from a burning building, claws outstretched and howling until there wasn’t enough left of them to make a sound. Gordon couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for them, though his new and more violent mind was quick to remind him that they would have never pitied him in return. Shaking his head, he cast his softness aside; they deserved this, this was the way things had to be.

As Cheryl crumpled, Benrey remained screaming. He was almost gentle with her as he lowered her to the earth, her head nearly gone and her left side held together only by a few tendrils and some positive vibes. Gordon knew better than to think the gesture was out of any kind of goodwill. A voice--Benrey’s voice--echoed in the back of his head that he would never release her, not until she was gone in her entirety. 

And so Gordon watched as pieces of her flitted away, carried on gusts born on rainbow winds that spiraled into the darkness and disappeared. He watched her as she shrank down to nothing, her body making disgusting noises as she melted and burned and snapped and creaked. He watched and held his breath until the last particle of her fizzled to nothing and the glow of the Song began to envelop the world, Benrey throwing himself up to the not-sky and belting out a white-hot melody of triumph that sounded like the warcry of the devil himself.

A part of him found it anticlimactic, craving something big and flashy to mark this moment as something notable and profound. He thought of video games and movies, of grand scenes and victorious music, and felt like this battle should have been the same. Yet, common sense denoted that reality was different than fiction, and the relief he felt swelling within him as he watched the last trace of Cheryl vanish seemed like reward enough.

There would be no fireworks, no dramatics. With all the fanfare of a deer being hit by a car, it was over. They were safe.

Gordon climbed to his feet. He slowly dragged his awkward new body towards Benrey as he shrieked and swaggered. He watched in amazement as the brilliance of the Sweet Voice enveloped the not-sky, then the air, then the ground and everything in between. It was blinding and beautiful, washing out every visible object like rays of light spilling from heaven itself.

The only thing Gordon could see in the end was Benrey as he lowered his arms, stopped his howling, and seemed to pulse alongside the otherworldly glow that surrounded them. Their eyes met. Gordon could feel the imaginary grin being beamed at him, and though he didn’t know how to form such an expression on his new face (or which of his mouths to use), he barked a single purple orb between them.

It meant love, Gordon finally realized, the same color as the blood that pulsed through Benrey’s veins. It made sense, as red had much the same meaning for humans. Benrey tilted his head, the halo of fire glowing around him shifting to match the hue, a silent but profound gesture of affection.

The light intensified and the world was gone, devoured by Benrey’s song.

 


 

The light faded. Cautiously, Gordon lowered his arm from his eyes, squinting in the new, dimmer atmosphere. It took him a moment to place himself, his stomach sinking upon the realization that he was once again on a Black Mesa tram, in a human body, and completely alone. He stared at his hands in disappointment, flexing gloved fingers and checking for any sign of leftover eyes that could still be hanging around. He found nothing, the only traces of his previous form being the leftover ferality of his more bestial self.

He still felt strong, at least. Strong, and absolutely exhausted.

He took a step toward the windshield and watched streaks of starlight stream past him as if he was hurtling through a child’s imagining of space. Suddenly, he knew exactly where he had ended up and everything began to make sense.

It was time to log off.

He’d been here before, during the last ALERTS run. It was the ending area, where the simulation participants were deposited before exiting, an empty cell in an empty void that nobody had bothered to spruce up beyond what was necessary. No one was meant to linger there very long, after all. This was just a conduit to safely unplugging oneself from the system, just like clicking to safely remove a thumb drive.

It wasn’t long before the tram began to fill with voices. The first was Sunkist and Tommy, who was triumphantly pumping his fist in the air and singing the praises of the Black Mesa Bit-Beasts with a fervor that was infectious. Bubby was next, quite self-satisfied but obviously worn out; he was quick to take the nearest seat just to catch his breath. Benrey and Coomer popped in together, Coomer offering a rousing round of applause for everyone’s great success with a few choice, inspirational Coomer-isms to accompany his celebratory clapping.

Benrey froze. His eyes lifted to Gordon. He smiled, and it was both earnest and far more confident than before.

There was a clarity in his eyes that he usually lacked, the haze of Ben subdued as he came down from his monstrous high. While the rest of the science team lingered behind him, he threw out his arms and began to close the gap between himself and Gordon with a few long, excited strides. Gordon all but threw himself at the lug, slinging his own arms around him and laughing maniacally.

“We won!” he yelled, his voice muffled against Benrey’s chest. “We fucking won! Or, uh, you fucking won?”

“Wha? Nah. Definitely a ‘we’ thing. Best first date ever,” Benrey affirmed. Gordon could feel himself being crushed in his grip, but simply allowed himself to melt into him, grinning all the while. For the first time in what felt like forever, he felt safe. He felt happy. Hell, despite the fact Benrey radiated cold like a freezer, he could even claim he felt warm.

Gordon buried his face in Benrey’s shoulder and exhaled in a sigh that was dripping with relief and joy. He felt one of Benrey’s hands card through his hair, and looked up to see the jagged grin of his favorite monster. His eyes shone purple. Gordon couldn’t resist.

It took tip-toes and a moment for Benrey to cooperate, but the moment his face was within reach he had his lips on his and his hands tangled in Benrey’s hair. There wasn’t any more confusion about his feelings to hold him back, and he hungrily pursued Benrey with a fervor that straddled the line of decency. Perhaps it was adrenaline, or just relief that they’d made it through alive, but he was damn near certain somebody would have to turn a hose on them to drive him away.

It was Benrey who broke the kiss, their foreheads pressed together and his lips smiling against Gordon’s. There wasn’t a hint of mischievousness, mockery, or mean-spirited humor to find in his expression, just unadulterated happiness and disbelief. Pink and violet dripped from the corner of his lips, an involuntary give of just how much he’d enjoyed Gordon’s enthusiasm.

“Oh, get a room,” Bubby interrupted, and suddenly Gordon was keenly aware of their audience. His face blanched and he cleared his throat, patting Benrey on the chest and stepping away as the guard cackled loudly into the air.

“I… I won’t judge you. You, uh, you deserve that after how painful that all looked,” Tommy defended as he took a seat, placing a hand on Sunkist and smiling. “That… you guys were really, uh, badass. And I’m glad you’re not dead, Mr. Freeman. I was… I was more scared than a-a raccoon in a dumpster full of firecrackers.”

“He cried,” Bubby added plainly.

“Y… yeah, I cried.”

“Well, no use for tears now,” Coomer interrupted, sweeping ahead of everyone and crossing his arms triumphantly. “We have a storybook ending for what was perhaps the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had the misfortune of going through! Gordon has his happy ending! And hopefully the rest of us will, too… right?”

The doubt in Coomer’s voice at the end was a poison arrow, but fortunately Gordon had built up an immunity. He smiled reassuringly back at the old man, then walked toward him with arms outstretched and latched on as hard as he could. There was something calming and grandfatherly about him, penchant for violence be damned. Coomer seemed absolutely delighted by the impromptu hug, returning it with a paternal squeeze that made Gordon feel warm and fuzzy.

“Oh, you’ll get your happy ending,” Gordon reassured, breaking away and resting a hand on Coomer’s shoulder. “I didn’t drive my husband away and steal company property to just let you sit around on a defunct harddrive for all eternity. I’m going to find a home for you guys or die trying.”

“Don’t say that,” Bubby quipped. “You’re really good at the whole ‘dying’ thing.”

In spite of himself, Gordon laughed. He reeled Coomer in for another hug, and was surprised when Tommy came in to join the huddle. Even Bubby scooted closer, though he seemed convinced he’d burst into flames if he actually touched any of them. The sentiment was definitely there, however.

It was with great reluctance that Gordon pulled away, turning back to Benrey who waited patiently by the tram exit. When their eyes locked, he casually reached over to press a button by the door, a loud grinding sound filling the train as it squealed open. A green light, not unlike Benrey’s portals, lit up the guard with an ominous lime-colored glow that was offset by the excited smile on his face. Gordon could feel how thrilled he was to finally be leaving; after however many years of being trapped outside his body, he seemed fairly certain he would finally get to go home.

“I can’t wait to see you again!” Tommy barked, waving wildly as Gordon walked to the exit. The way Tommy said it, so certain of himself, made Gordon smile. It wasn’t phrased as an “if,” rather a “when,” and lacked the bitter finality of the last run of ALERTS.

Reaching Benrey, Gordon grabbed his hand and gently tugged him in the direction of the door. The two tossed glances over their shoulder as the science team stood proudly and confidently behind them. It was such a stark contrast from the last time they parted ways, sadly and quietly after a nonsensical blast of balloons and confetti.

“You ready?” Gordon asked, looking up at Benrey. “Coomer phrased this to me as a ‘maybe,’ so… so, I don’t know if this is actually going to work.”

“It’ll work,” Benrey responded resolutely, running his tongue over the front of his teeth. “S’fool proof. I got this.”

“And you’re sure you’re in Sector E? Because I’m going to have to find a way to--”

“Huh? Wha? Don’t worry about it. I got it. It’s under control.”

“But, to get you out, I--”

“Stop asking questions. Stop worrying. Did you see what I just did? I got this. I got you. We got this. It's cool.”

Point taken. Still, there was one more thing rattling around in Gordon’s mind that he wanted addressed. Just as they took a step toward the exit, Gordon froze again, jerking Benrey back. The hulking man let out a frustrated groan and threw back his head. Gordon couldn’t say he particularly cared.

“Just one more question. How the fuck did you turn me into… whatever I was? Like, what the hell happened there?”

“Eh,” Benrey responded with a shrug. “I’unno. S’one of those perks of being a, uh, an acolyte of a forbidden god or whatever. Consort . More important. God stuff, blessings and shit. Sometimes you can borrow my power, you know? As a treat. I’ll show you more when we meet up after this.”

The confidence with which Benrey spoke brought a smile to Gordon’s face and, still clenching his hand, he pulled the monster in for one more kiss. Not the last, he reminded himself, forcing his anxiety back down into the dark crevasse it crawled from. Just one more, one more of many he was certain to steal since there was no possible way anything could keep them apart. So Benrey had spoken, and so it would be done.

“Can you guys just go?” Bubby’s voice demanded from behind them. Gordon turned, irritated, as Bubby gestured viciously at the exit. “The longer you stay here, the longer it’s going to be before you find something less fucking dramatic to do with us. I don’t want to go through this goddamn simulation again.”

Again, point taken. With a deep breath and a confident step, Gordon and Benrey made their way to the door, pressing into the abyss beyond. The world shuddered and faded, the good-byes being called to the back of his head fading like echoes in a long hallway. In time, he no longer could feel Benrey beside him, or in his head, or gripping his hand. 

All he could feel was the weight of the headset. A digitized beeping sounded in his ear. In the distance, he could hear his ringtone singing softly in a room where he’d accidentally left his phone. The visor’s screen darkened, bright green words flashing on a black backdrop.

 

SHUT DOWN SEQUENCE INITIATED.

PLEASE REMOVE PERIPHERAL DEVICE.

Chapter Text

Whatever ALERTS had done had defied explanation. As soon as the headset was off, Gordon was shocked to see that he had lost very little time. What had felt like days had transpired over the course of a couple of hours, and the only repercussions he faced were a few missed calls from his sister, a pins-and-needles sensation in his right leg, and a vague sense of a monstrous presence lurking in the back of his mind.

While his beloved sibling hadn’t been thrilled about being asked to keep Joshua for an additional week (the lecture he’d been subjected to was something to be written of in record books), he desperately needed the peace and quiet to work out how to achieve his ultimate goal. Notebook in hand and programming books at the ready, he survived off a steady diet of sugar and coffee for the remainder of his days off, tweaking the science team to fulfill specific roles outside of the simulation and keeping meticulous notes about how to trick his way into Sector E.

By the time his next shift rolled around, he couldn’t help but feel giddily confident about what he’d come up with. Armed with flash drives and a notebook full of risks, he made his way to Black Mesa an hour early for a change.

The older scientists sharing the tram with him seemed legitimately surprised to see him on time, and probably more so to see that he was excited to be there. In the off chance they even spied him in the morning, they were used to witnessing a resigned and morose Gordon who was beaten down by workplace politics and still waking up after late nights and ineffective alarms. He could feel their stares as he sat there, knee bouncing, drink holder of too-sweet coffee resting next to him as he grinned out the window and watched the world pass by. His change in demeanor had been enough to warrant contact from one of the men across the aisle, who seemed as bewildered as he was curious about this abrupt transformation.

The conversation was standard and predictable, but fluid. The man was a researcher in an unfamiliar part of Sector C, and he was morbidly curious as to what had happened during his vacation to fill him with so much zest. He sat politely as Gordon rattled off purposefully vague details about a pet project and his excitement to present his findings to big-wigs around Black Mesa. His coworker seemed earnestly impressed with his drive and conviction, his previous iciness melting away as they seamlessly weaved idle chit-chat into more professional, scientific speak. 

Before hopping off at his platform, Gordon gave the man his coffee. He doubted he needed it himself, energetic as he felt. Perhaps he’d regret it later when he crashed, but that would be a problem for future Gordon. 

As usual, the guard on the platform didn’t seem particularly chatty and, once inside, the Sector C lobby was overfull of scientists dodging their jobs. Doctor Rosenberg muttered about a call he’d failed to receive next to a terminal in the corner, while his good friend, Barney, sat at the receptionist desk as if he was more secretary than security guard. It was a bizarre place to find him--he was usually closer to Sector G and most always worked odd hours--and a bit of a shock seeing as how ALERTS had started his doppelganger in the same place. 

The moment he saw Gordon, he hopped to his feet, the actual receptionist meekly reclaiming her seat and glaring at him as he made his way across the floor. It didn’t seem as though he had anything particularly important to say more than he saw a familiar face and needed something to do with himself. That much was normal; ever since they’d moved him to Blue Shift, he mostly spent late nights and early mornings spinning in office chairs and staring at walls.

Gordon waved to the receptionist, and Rosenberg, and the power-walking Barney barreling toward him. Everyone seemed completely bewildered by his good mood, but he wasn’t about to slow down on their account. Barney barely caught up to him as he turned the corner to the breakroom hallway and made his way toward the locker room.

“Wow. Sure is weird seeing you show up on time.”

Barney’s southern accent seemed stronger than normal, and Gordon lifted up the corner of his mouth in a smirk. Graveyard hours hadn’t been particularly kind to the guy, and his drawl always got worse the more exhausted he was. On a scale from one to indecipherable, he was edging hard into Dolly Parton territory. It was charming but thick, and he sounded a bit like he was trying to make an entire sentence into one word.

In a show of camaraderie, he removed one of the coffees from his beverage holder and shoved it into Barney’s hands.

“I just feel like an actual human being for the first time in years. I can go back to being miserable and perpetually tired if you want,” Gordon responded. The door to the locker room slid open and he breezed past it, cutting straight across to the other side without stopping. 

Barney’s brows furrowed. He paused and looked back at Gordon’s locker, then the backpack still slung across his shoulder. As curious as he was, it didn’t seem like he was going to bother with asking too many questions about it, seeing as he was far more intrigued by the pep in Gordon’s step.

“You putting in your two-weeks notice and going back to Innsbruck?” he asked tentatively, almost fearfully. Gordon snorted a laugh and shook his head.

“No, man. Austria was cool, but I don’t want to uproot Joshua. We’re close to family, and I don’t want him to grow up only knowing his aunt and uncle through phone calls.”

Barney paused, scratching his chin. His eyes lit up as an idea struck him.

“Oh, I know. You finally get laid?”

“Nah. Would’ve been nice, but I had other things to do.”

“Well, the only other thing I can think of is somethin’ happening to your ex-husband. Did he get hit by a car? Not enough to kill him, I mean. Just enough to… you know .”

“No. Charlie is still uninjured, as far as I know, though I think I would prefer that to getting laid.” He paused, turning around and walking backwards down the hall. “No, I made a breakthrough while I was gone. Something pretty big. I need to talk to Isaac and Dr. Cross as soon as possible, and maybe work with them to set up a meeting with Dr. Keller and Dr. Magnusson. Y’know, if they’ll even talk to me.”

“Oh.” Barney paused. “Wait, is it that ALERTS thing you ‘borrowed’ from Sector A? Please tell me you’re bringin’ it back, because the higher-ups started askin’ about it out of nowhere while you were gone. They wanna repurpose the hardware and--”

“It’s in the bag,” Gordon responded, patting his backpack. Barney’s eyes shot to the ceiling as he muttered a prayer of thanks to unseen angels. It would seem that, despite three years of not giving a damn about where their failed project had vanished to, the powers-that-be had finally noticed it was gone. What impeccable timing Gordon had.

He continued to meander down the halls with Barney on his tail, rattling off every thought that came to his mind as if Barney understood half of what he was saying. The guard thoughtfully nodded along if nothing else, though the way his head tilted side to side indicated that nothing was actually sticking. Not that it mattered, Gordon decided, since he was mostly talking to keep his own thoughts in order, his hand fishing into the pocket of his lab coat to fiddle with the flash drives he had tucked away. 

No, not flash drives. People . Though, if Tommy had anything to say about it, they were most definitely Bit-Beasts.

Of course, in the retelling, he left out the influence of god-like beings, dark forces, and killing the director of HR at the end. He merely prattled about how little sleep he’d gotten while ironing out the AIs in his pockets and the ideas he had to pitch them to various departments for various uses. Dr. Coomer, he supposed, would make an excellent addition to the Hazard Course as a holographic instructor, seeing as he interacted well with people. Tommy could keep the facilities running smoothly and safely, considering how well-versed he was in OSHA guidelines and the maintenance of even the most complicated of machines.

“And the third,” Gordon laughed as he entered the office he shared with his mentor, “is just for the astro-nerds. I have a feeling Dr. Magnusson is going to love this son of a bitch.”

Again, Barney nodded, but the vacant expression and the way he chewed his lip gave away that he still didn’t have a clue what in the hell was going on. He just lingered at the door, leaning against the frame as Gordon tossed his bag on his desk, littered in disorganized stationery and pens. His keyboard was covered in a thin layer of dust from his absence. Despite the office lights, his corner was prohibitively dark, and he paused his tirade long enough to fuss with the desk lamp sitting beside his crooked desktop monitor.

“Beyond that,” he finally continued, turning around and throwing his hands up in the air triumphantly, “I’m thinking of putting in for a transfer to a different department. I’m gonna go talk to Lauren in HR when I take my lunch.”

“A transfer?” Barney echoed. “To where? Lambda? I mean, that’s not a half bad idea. Sector F is startin’ all those teleportation experiments, and that’s your specialty. They’d probably appreciate you a lot more than--”

“Sector E.”

Barney’s mouth snapped shut in shock, and he blinked slowly in response. Though he knew that Barney’s southern  etiquette would prevent him from saying anything too biting, the look on his face spoke louder than any words he could say. He was bewildered, dumbfounded, and thoroughly convinced that Gordon was a complete and total dumbass. Of course, he’d never say it. The most he’d probably do was bring up a backhanded “bless your heart” later on.

“Ain’t that the biology department?” he slowly inquired, as if Gordon was incapable of understanding English. He sputtered a laugh as he quickly arranged the mess on his desk.

“They have physicists.”

“Yeah, but do they need anymore? You’d probably just be walkin’ right back into grunt work, Doc. I thought you wanted to move up in the world, not make your situation even worse.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll find a use for me. I spoke to some guys from there a couple of years back when I was working on Project ALERTS, and it sounds like they needed somebody with expertise in Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Entanglement on supraquantum structures by induc--”

Barney held up his hand with a laugh, stopping Gordon in his tracks. He had no desire to hear Gordon recite his thesis for the umpteenth time in their brief friendship.

“Yeah, well. Now might not be the time anyway. Didn’t you hear the emergency broadcast on the tram when you were on your way in?”

Gordon’s brows knitted together. It was his turn to look confused. He scoured his brain for details he normally would auto-pilot through during his morning commute, but from the moment he stepped on the tram to the moment he stepped on the Sector C platform, he couldn’t recall hearing anything out of the ordinary, aside from the fact one of the other scientists had deigned to speak to him. Seeing his reaction, Barney let out a loud, aggravated sigh and pulled out his radio, spitting some gibberish at it that was just as much Greek to Gordon as science jargon was to him.

“Well, you were supposed to,” Barney grunted. “One of Sector E’s stupid projects broke out of one of the biodomes. I told ‘em that keeping pet aliens was gonna bite ‘em in the ass one day, what with them keeping those little squealin’ eye-dogs, and now they got half the security team down there trying’ to find the damn thing before it hurts somebody. Again .”

Time stopped, and a rush of something swept through Gordon. It started as a cold chill, then grew into a tingle, then a comfortable and pleased warmth that radiated through his chest. Every ounce of him struggled not to crack a smile as his mind wandered to one very distinct possibility. Of course, it was also equally likely it was simply another hound-eye breaking out of a kennel that hadn’t been locked correctly, so he tried not to let his hopes get too high. It would have been one hell of a coincidence if a certain monster broke loose on the exact same day that Gordon came back from vacation, especially if it was as easy as escaping on his own.

Why would he have waited?

Feinting the best worried expression he could, Gordon grabbed onto his desk chair and settled down into it. Faking somberness, he pushed his hair out of his face and adjusted his glasses.

“Oh, Jesus. Uh, what is it? One of the Sonicanis myriops test subjects? Or did they find something else?”

“I don’t know what a Soda Can Cyclops is, but if you mean the dogs? No. This thing, uh… welp, I don’t know. Not my problem, though. I’m supposed to stay here in case something more mundane goes wrong in these parts. You can’t have every officer takin’ part in the Great Black Mesa Snipe Hunt. What if an elevator gets stuck?”

As if summoned by his words, his radio crackled to life. An unfamiliar voice on the other end, gruff and professional, barked in thinly veiled code to anyone with a moment to spare who wasn’t currently wrapped up in the Sector E scuffle. Gordon understood very little of the banter--the name “Isaac,” the word “trapped,” and Barney’s muttering of “fucking-A”--but it was enough to figure out what was going on. Giving the radio a gunslinger’s spin, Barney crammed it back on his belt and turned to Gordon with a sigh.

“Speak of the devil. Elevator A-9 is on the fritz again. Kleiner’s stuck on it with Harold. Best be off to do maintenance’s job for ‘em before they claw one another to shreds. They got into a bit of a tiff while you were gone.”

“A tiff?” Gordon echoed. Barney huffed a laugh and straightened his vest, taking a step out of the room.

“Something about somethin’ I don’t understand, and I don’t know if they know either. I’ll tell you when I get back, and maybe you can explain it to me when you explain why the hell you wanna work in the biodomes.”

With a gentlemanly tilt of his helmet, Barney was off, politely shutting the door behind him and leaving Gordon alone in an office that he’d apparently have to himself for a while. Inhaling sharply, Gordon adjusted his glasses and swiveled his chair around to face his disaster of a desk, before reaching down to his backpack and fiddling with the broken zipper.

If he was reading his context clues correctly, at least one part of his master plan had been completed without him. Fishing out a moleskine notebook from the tangled ALERTS hardware, he flipped it to a scrawl-covered set of pages he’d penned during the last couple of days of his vacation. One of the bullet points, outlined in red and circled vandalistically, reminded him to find a way into Sector E. Clicking a random retractable pen he found in his mess, he marked through it with a smile.

The next bullet point was to find Benrey. That was going to be considerably harder, especially if he was loose.

Grunting in a sudden fit of dissatisfaction, Gordon placed the end of the pen in his mouth and began to absentmindedly chew. While he knew Benrey was a smart enough creature to scent him out of the complex, it was untelling whether or not he would actually bother. Despite how attached he’d seemed in ALERTS, for all he knew, the creature inhabiting his actual world was a completely different beast. 

Maybe he wouldn’t remember Gordon. Perhaps it would have even been a waste to look for him. It was equally likely he was long gone. If he was a god-beast trapped by humans, he’d probably have gotten the hell out of dodge at the first opportunity, too.

His heart sank at the idea of Benrey essentially leaving without a good-bye. It was completely possible he’d already tunneled his way back to whatever underground hovel he hibernated in, and would be impossible to find or contact until well after Gordon’s children’s children were wiped off the face of the earth.

Regardless, it wouldn’t hurt to think of a plan. He’d had excuses to crawl through the vents before, after all, so maybe he could find a few more than usual and do some scouting in the ceiling.

As he was beginning to close his notebook, a glob of something slick landed on the middle of the page. It was viscous and cold, as if it had been refrigerated, and clung to the lenses of his glasses. Gordon grunted in disgust, removing his spectacles and burying his face in his hands.

He’d made several complaints to maintenance about the vents. Between the condensation that dripped from the slats and the mold building up in the ducts, disgusting leaks of ooze weren’t the most uncommon thing he had to deal with during a typical shift. It was as if nobody had bothered to clean the ventilation system or a change a filter since they originally built the place back in the fifties, and he didn’t have the patience to deal with it when he had so many other things on his mind.

Before he could stand up to file a maintenance order, however, he caught an unusual scent, a significantly stronger and stranger one than the usual disgusting sludge that came with the leaks. It was a distinct odor of sugary candy and… asphalt ? Gordon’s brows furrowed as he haphazardly wiped his glasses off on his shirt and affixed them back to his face, gazing at the pile of goo resting in the middle of his notebook. A glob of gelatinous, fluorescent purple jiggled as his knee knocked against the desk, before being met with another string of slime that stretched from above.

A low rumble filled the air. It felt like the walls were vibrating. Slowly, curiously, Gordon tilted his head back and looked up at the vent, something large blocking the airflow. More than a dozen glowing, cyan points of light glimmered from behind the cover, blinking out of sync. The growling quieted, replaced with a foreign pang of excitement and relief that flared up behind Gordon’s eyes. For once, it felt so natural that he couldn’t tell where his feelings ended and the others began.

Gordon smiled and wiped off his notebook.

He resolutely scribbled “Find Benrey” off his list.

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