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.