My Human always took good care of me. I liked him, most of the time. His home was my home, it wasn't big but it was big enough for me. My territory was not just his den, because I could get out through the breeze-maker, and smell other Humans and other dens. Some of them had cats too. Many of those were my brothers and sisters, but we hardly ever saw each other except through the metal bars of the breeze-makers.
His homes were always my homes. I knew from the start that he was a good Human to have, to care for me. Even though sometimes, I didn't think much of what happened to us – him or me. He didn't always live in one place. So I didn't always, either. But I went with him. Sometimes, I don't think he knew it was me. I always knew it was him, though.
My story isn't very long, I'm afraid. But I was told that it was a 'cautionary tale', for those that come after me. My lives are spent, but others might still have some left. Before I join the all-in-one, where my new friends will take care of me and hum to me in voices that sound like mother's deep purr, I will share my story.
Barney paused at the entrance to the grocery store, on his way out after a brief beer run. He'd run out and the big game's pre-show was only just starting. His friends, he considered, needed to pace themselves better. And, his friends needed to pay up, because this would get expensive. On his salary, he could only afford the cheap stuff, and they pissed through that like it was water.
Well it was water, but that was a rant for another, slightly more drunk moment. For this moment, however, Barney heard a sound that he'd always found to be his one true weakness. And no, that wasn't the opening of a beer bottle. A faint but furtive sound, joined by others.
Why did it have to be kittens? Today of all days!? There was a local boy, reminded Barney of himself as a kid; with the hardly-brushed black hair, wide if slightly sad eyes, dirt smudged on his cheek. More though… Barney knew this moment of his, knew his expression intimately. He sat behind a big cardboard box with the words 'free kitenz' on it in half-faded marker strokes. The boy's face, while briefly happy to see someone stopped to look, adopted a shadowed cast.
"Mom won't let you keep 'em, huh?" Barney said, and the boy shook his head slowly, his lower lip starting to puff out.
Barney looked around. There were a few others like himself at the store: stocking up on booze and muchies while their friends sat in their homes, gathered around big-screens or small-screens or even radios and Jacuzzis waiting for the game to begin. He spotted a few of the Black Mesa personnel he'd seen on patrol, nodded, but noticed they had no interest at all in stopping by this boy and his box of fur-covered guilt.
"This ain't a good time of year to have kittens outside," Barney said, and the boy nodded once more.
"Mom says they haf'ta go, we don't got enough money for food." Even if the kid was bluffing, he was sure doing a great job of selling to Barney. Of course, he could have been giving a song-and-dance routine. Barney didn't care. What he did care about was that there were five small bundles of love in that big cardboard box. There was a knocked-over bowl of food and an equally empty water dish that had begun to soak into the box, a couple little turds as well.
But Barney saw only the ten glimmering eight-week-old eyes looking up at him, hearing their little voices, along with mouths full of those adorably sharp tiny teeth, mewing more loudly as they seemed to realize he'd been caught in their trap. Barney sighed. He looked at the shopping cart full of beer cases, and back at the kittens.
"Tell you what, kid," Barney said, "I've got a dorm full of friends and I'm not afraid to use 'em. I'll take the kittens off your hands for ya."
The boy's face seemed to expand with a surprise that made Barney laugh. "Really?"
"Really," Barney confirmed. "Thing is, I need to get some supplies for 'em," he scratched the back of his head, and glanced back down at the shopping cart. "You think you could do me the favor of grabbing me a bag of cat food and one of those double-dishes? I think I saw some in that one aisle…" He slid the kid a twenty, pretty certain it would be enough. The boy sped into the store, and equally out again, almost panicked.
"Don't go nowhere," he breathed, "I'll be right back, mister!"
Barney chuckled as the boy ran back into the store. He couldn't have been more than maybe nine or ten, but at least he knew what needed to be done here. The security guard felt a little bad for the kid: he'd probably be doing this same thing in Fall, if they hadn't already taken care of that mom cat. Or Tom cat, whichever, didn't seem to matter.
Kneeling, Barney reached into the box and let the kittens sniff at his hand. They were a little on the young side, but he'd grown up around animals, he knew that they'd be as weaned as they'd get by now, and if not, he would… Well, he'd go get kitten formula, who was he kidding.
Barney was such a sucker for kittens.
The boy emerged from the store again with a shopping bag dangling from his neck bearing a grey-plastic double-bowl, and his arms laden with a twelve-pound bag of cat food. In his hand there were some bills. Barney took the weighty food and the plastic bag carefully, stacking them onto his loaded cart. Then he reached for the box of kittens.
The boy held his clenched hand up, "mister, you got change."
"No, I don't," Barney said, ruffling his fingers through the boy's hair and then placing his hand on his shoulder. "That's for you. Save up, kid, so next time you can keep one of 'em for yourself." The kid's smile was all the reward he'd ever need for that act. "You want to say good bye?" Barney asked, and the boy sobered again, nodding.
He gently scratched one of the kittens' heads, "this one was my favorite, I was gonna name him Max."
Oh man, he'd already named 'em? Barney sighed. "Well, then, Max it is, I'll take good care of 'em, and make sure they go to the right folks. You tell your mom something for me, will you?"
"What's that?" The boy asked, curious.
"Tell her to listen to Bob Barker, okay?" Barney winked. Obviously the boy wasn't too sure what that meant, but he would oblige. After giving a slightly weepy farewell to the other kittens in the box, the boy felt a hand on his shoulder. Barney removed the food and water bowls, handing them back to the boy and sending him on his way. The box went onto the top of the cart, which rumbled onto the asphalt parking lot, and gave the kittens their first taste of car ride.
"Oh Barney you know they won't let us keep them," Lauren said, staring at the box, with the others equally enthralled. "But they're so cute!"
The big game went on, almost ignored. Barney realized he'd forgotten litter and a box, but pulled out an aluminum pie tin, shredded up some paper to put in it, and that seemed to be just fine for the five-some of fluff-balls. They were remarkably well-behaved, in that regard.
Unlike some of his friends.
By the time the evening's events had unfolded (42 to 6? Oh please, why bother showing up?), Barney's buddies had in fact befriended the kittens and promised to keep their mouths shut about it to the Black Mesa admin. But one remained with him: Max, the grey-striped, brindled one with yellow eyes and the quietest meow of the bunch. Soft voice, except for that purr of his.
Lauren kissed Barney on the forehead when it looked like he couldn't get up out of the couch: what with that kitten curled up on his chest, just under his chin. "I'll see you later," she said, and left the love of her life with his newest distraction.
Max grew steadily into a sleek adult. He was content, apparently, to sleep while Barney was out. Apparently: Barney wasn't at all aware that the air conditioning vent in his dorm's living room was loose. One corner of it, the side closest to the back of the couch, had lost its bolt, and provided just enough of an opening that Max could pull on it to get in, push gently to get back out.
Max always seemed to be asleep on the couch's armrest, however, whenever Barney got back home.
Barney thought that Max was a damn good cat. He wasn't noisy, wasn't aggressive at least not toward him, seemed pretty content to remain in the dorm. He hadn't tried running out into the hall, a couple of his litter mates had done that plenty of times, giving them hours of worry about whether the other less-friendly security guards would turn them in for having smuggled animals into their rooms.
Barney did give him a lot of affection, to make up for that lack of perceived territory: there were catnip mice wedged under every piece of furniture that stood more than half an inch off the floor; a set of ping pong balls skittered across the bathroom tiles or into the tub at odd hours; his old worn out shoes became a nest when he was hoarding things in the closet.
And Barney also thought that Max liked him back. It was absolutely true. Max stared at his Human, standing on his chest just a few minutes before his alarm would go off at five-forty-five every work day. Gazed down at him with those bright-yellow eyes, not saying anything, just giving off a loud, inescapable purr.
Even on the days that the alarm didn't go off, Max stood on his Human's chest, purring, at five-forty. He stood underfoot in the small kitchenette; he waited on the bathmat staring up in awe and confusion when Barney chose – chose – to get himself all wet. He batted at Barney's hand while the man tried to shave for a date, but Lauren would only ever laugh delightfully, wickedly, at the nicks and cuts that incurred.
Come to think of it, Barney realized that his one visible scar, that inch-long thing on his left cheek, had been caused by a cat. Well, not caused by, so much as happened because of. Barney appraised the cat that lay stretched half-over his lap. Whatever was on the television was of no importance to either man nor beast, but it played endlessly in the background as Barney picked up the cat's sleep-limp tail.
That other cat, how old had Barney been? Maybe six? No, seven. He'd barely started second grade. Kids had gathered around a particularly old tree in the neighborhood and claimed that a squirrel was up there being menaced by a pair of ravens. But it turned out that it was a small cat. Grey, like Max, only a more solid shade as he recalled. It had been a noisy one, so unlike this cat soundly sleeping on his lap now.
That one, though, fought with a nerve that Barney always respected. He'd bat at the one bird, the other would try taking a bite out of it. Barney had enough, started climbing the tree to get the birds away from it, and maybe bring the cat down. When the old tree chose to give out to the termites and fire damage, rot and gravity, was of course when Barney had just managed to shoo the birds and take hold of the terrified feline.
His mother claimed that he was very brave, but that he ought to have called an adult out. She held his hand when the stitches went in. She wouldn't let him keep that cat, either. But it kept coming around: he saw it perched in their own yard's tree, looking at him through his second-story bedroom window at times.
Barney occupied a few minutes with his sound-asleep cat, attempting to put the tip of his long tail into his ear. That took some work, and didn't quite make it before Max woke up. He stretched, spine-down, paws-up, grasped Barney's hand along with his own tail to furiously mock-bite on it.
"You're a damn good cat, Max," Barney said, chuckling. "Sharp, but good." He rubbed the dents in his skin where the cat's teeth had almost penetrated: almost, but never biting so hard he'd break the skin. That cat was awesome.
Max stood on Barney's lap, sat down, wrapped his tail around his white-dusted paws. He gave the feline equivalent of a knowing, wise smile, pressed his head against Barney's face, curled up and slept again before Barney could get up to pee.
He'd never have heard the end of it, if everything else hadn't already gone wrong. So wrong. Black Mesa was in ruins – well, it was navigable, it was still standing, but it was a mess. He'd lost his friends in the mayhem of this thing, the Brains called it a Resonance Cascade. He called it many other things; Barney wasn't known for his foul mouth but he certainly let fly a few choice expletives.
It was Lauren's birthday, well it had been her birthday, a day after that experiment that ruined the place had started, a day before it all ended with a big ass bang.
Barney wasn't sure what to do. He'd managed to survive, with some of the scientists to boot. Dragged them out of the place and crossed his fingers that they'd live to see what else could go wrong in their lives.
He hadn't seen too many others get out of the facility. Lauren was in there somewhere. He'd forgotten to get her flowers for her birthday. He'd even been at the store, getting cat food—
"Aww Hell," Barney sighed, and stifled a sob. If it wasn't one thing, it was another.
Max was a damn good cat. Maybe… maybe.
Maybe kept Barney running for nearly a year. He and the others scampered from shelter to shelter, outrunning the government that appeared to want them all dead. Wiped out – why? Because they had the nerve to survive?! Because they knew the truth about the place?
Naturally. Barney had to keep these scientists together, had to make sure there weren't other attacks. His job as a security guard really hadn't prepared him for any of the bizarre crap that had gone down last year. For the moment though, Barney walked slowly from one patrol point to another, circling their hidden canyon encampment.
He'd made it out with the uniform on his back, a full clip in his gun, and nothing else. Nothing. At least Dr. Vance had pulled that photo out, or something – he'd never talk about it, nor how he managed to make it to his own family dorm to extract his young daughter Alyx out of there.
Well, if miracles like that could happen, maybe it wasn't all bad. They had friends out here in the scrub canyons: migrant workers, other Black Mesa survivors, even a few of the once-hostile HECU guys that Barney had to shoot at the year before. Anyone that had anything to do with the place was a target. They'd found out that things were changing: life as they knew it was just never going to be the same.
Except that sometimes, it had a way of seeming all right.
Barney's foot steps along the gritty path had been his only companion, save for the hooting of an owl somewhere nearby, and the weirdly alien chittering of those head humper things he was extremely fond of killing. He heard one, close by.
And then weirdly, he saw a flash of motion, followed by the sounds of a headcrab's death rattle. It was dark, night had fallen hours before. There was not much light coming from the half-moon above. But he swore he saw something fly by him, it must have been that owl. But the owls around here weren't nearly big enough to take down a headcrab, that would be like a…
It wasn't an owl that had leapt past. Barney heard the sounds of a scuffle on the ground, nearby bushes trembled with whatever action was going on. Cautiously, Barney turned his flashlight on, and sought out the source. He found it all right, followed the greenish-yellow trail of headcrab blood, and stopped when he spotted the dead alien.
Above it, a pair of huge, yellow eyes. Dark fur, almost black, shone under the flashlight. The cat walked out from around the headcrab, began licking itself suddenly as cats were wont to do. It wasn't quite as big as Barney expected, then again he expected a bobcat or even a puma. But it was not a small cat, either: twenty-pounder, at least, though. Barney watched silently, as the cat stood and stretched, acted like nothing at all was out of the ordinary.
"I'll be damned," Barney said, with a wide smile. He knelt to pet the cat, it let off a rumbling purr and held its tail high. "Good boy," he praised the tom, "you did good. That was a mighty fine leap you made." If he went back now, the others would see the tears in his eyes, so Barney stayed there with the cat for another few minutes, as it pushed up against his knees and claimed him with that distinct cheek-rub. When he did rise, turning to head to his next post, the cat followed, and Barney's smile grew wider with each passing step.
He reminded Barney of the cat that had lived in the College basement where he'd hung out for that one semester. Badass cat. Apparently brought down possums and chased off dogs. Barney had won a bet or two about how fast that basement cat could chase off an intruder. Cat scared the crap out of every other new student but him.
To Barney, that black, white-footed cat had given off a yowl and pissed on his boots.
The campus wildlife stayed clear of Barney, whenever he wore those boots. Of course, so did the girls.
They'd been forgotten about, in the subsequent years. As the Portal Storms flung their misery and chaos over the Earth, everything in everyone's lives changed. Governments fell and rose. One reigned over the world, now; one which ostensibly had the best interests of Humanity in mind.
They created jobs, they made people feel safer, drew them from the Outlands and to the mega-metropolises, the Cities. Incorporating miles of farmland (though any stretch of it was just as corrupted by alien life as the areas beyond its walls, at least it could be guaranteed that this land would be well-patrolled), and sometimes rising half a mile upwards with the sprawl of downtowns lumped toward a single massive living space. Cities had no names, because they were often made of multiple communities from before.
Old locations were in ruins, hardly touched once the blights of alien inhabitation started. Even hard-core gangs and fools that believed this was all just a phase left for the numbered locations. They could be guaranteed shelter, food, something to do.
The Cities worked like a charm. Since these lands where Barney and the Brains were hiding had gotten more than dangerous enough to be avoided entirely, the groups of survivors out there had to make choices. Enter the Cities, or perish from the aliens or starvation like anyone else.
They chose to enter, of course. But they remained together. Sometimes, they thought they'd seen an old friend. Barney and the others didn't need to change their names, but whenever he'd spot someone from Black Mesa, it always wound up being the same. Recognition came at a high cost. He'd say, "it's me, Barney!" And they would look surprised, that cast of shame or fear clouding their features, causing Barney to walk away, embarrassed.
But because of his training, at least, he had access to reasonably good job offers. The Cities were busy places, and there were lots of people needing to be kept peaceful. While it was true that he wasn't a fully trained police officer, and he wasn't an Army brat, he held himself with the poise he needed to pull a good position.
Eli and Izzy, Rosenberg and the others kept to themselves, mostly. They couldn't be kept from doing their work though. They were engineers, they were scientists. But they had their hands full just now, with Alyx.
Barney kept his eye out for the girl, but he knew she'd slip by him as easy as that cat did. Here in City 98, there were lots of pets that had gone feral. Maybe brought by well-meaning owners, but they couldn't be sustained the way they used to be. Pets were extravagant, pets were no longer really welcome.
Of course, Barney's cat wasn't a pet so much as a pal. Crawling around in the vents over Izzy's apartment (wasn't it just ironic, that he'd wind up losing his keys to his home just as often as he'd done with his office's back at Black Mesa?) he'd found this one. Half-starved and all-feral, but the cat didn't take half a moment to latch on to Barney's jacket.
It took him another half hour to barf up Izzy's keys, but that was a story for another time.
At the moment, the orange and white cat stood on Barney's shoulder and hissed. He was gone in a flash, as quickly as he'd scampered up the man's side. Barney never even felt it: that cat weighed little more than a few pounds, even when it ate well. The black-haired man took a glance after where it had fled, and heard as he turned back the reason why it had done so in the first place.
"Hey, D0g," Barney grunted, "boy, you gotta be quieter this time of day. If someone spots you, they'll know Dr. Vance is around."
The mechanical beast lowered its head, gave off a few beeps and chirps, and then clomped away, pistons churning. It found Alyx, who was playing hide-and-seek… Though no one else knew she was playing. Oh, Barney saw the problem, why Maxy had sprung up to his shoulder like that a moment before: that was his hiding spot.
Barney urged Alyx into the alley, down the steps into the old restaurant where she and the rest spent much of their time. This section of the City was old, they hadn't been able to move in to the City, so much as inhabit it. Others, lucky sods, Barney spent a lot of his paid-time protecting in their high-rises, on their way to and from still-cushy jobs.
Sometimes Barney wondered why they even bothered. The world was so different, now. It wasn't like it would get any easier. The Vortigaunts and Humans had finally broadly accepted one another – with Eli's help, though not one history book would ever cover that truth.
The Vorts were few and far between, but had been pushed through Xen on a regular basis. Even now, sometimes, a Portal Storm would hit, and suddenly there would be another half-dozen of them standing around in their little flux circles. Some folks tried blaming the Storms on them. But Barney knew better than that. He listened to them with more than half an ear: they'd mentioned Gordon. By name.
He couldn't get much more information out of them, but he knew for whatever reason, that they idolized him. Most of them, anyway. Having been around the Brains for this long, and under such intimate circumstances, Barney never harbored any hatred of them, and certainly didn't assume they were all alike. He had to listen to that crap up in the high-rises. How Vortigaunts were ruining the economy, how they were ugly, how they were smelly.
Barney really wanted to quit that job. But then, he wouldn't be able to protect his friends, if he didn't have access to good food and clean water, credit at stores, a safe place to sleep.
Maxy kept bringing fleas in to that safe place. But then, Maxy kept bringing dead birds and rats home too.
And you could cook those.
The day that the Combine came, was a very bad day for everyone. That was what Izzy said, anyway. Looking back, while his words weren't exactly untrue, they certainly didn't capture the… seriousness or severity of the situation. Master of understatement, that man.
That day, almost everything they'd been working toward, that all the Brains had been thinking up, had been destroyed. How to get water clean and in quantity where it was needed. How to keep headcrabs from burrowing through soils. Where to place sonic barriers they'd designed, for the best protection from those damnable antlions.
Well, most of their research was vaporized along with half the City. If they hadn't had their respirators already, everyone that Barney knew would have died from the cloud of dust raised by the collapse of buildings. Their hideout was still around, so they met up in the restaurant under the edge of the forgotten south side wall.
Alyx kept her chin up, that girl was amazing. She got the group ready to run, to fight, to do something. When the weird flying craft started going overhead, giving off their strange humming from engines that were more biological than mechanical, looking for strays to shoot or gather up, Barney had to clamp his hand around her mouth, keeping her silent. Now was not the time, his green eyes begged hers. She nodded, he felt her lips tighten and jaw clench. She knew better than to scream when he removed his hand.
But did he? The hovering craft was almost directly overhead. Its bright blue-white light swung back and forth, fans and rotors blasting the tattered building's broken interior. The basement where the group of Black Mesa refugees huddled was hardly protection, if that thing started aiming its built-in weaponry at them. Or if it landed. The floor was already broken up, the last Portal Storm a few years before had seen to that.
It probably saw their heat signatures, that was what Barney thought anyway. Their two Vort friends were about ready to break their own silent, frozen vigil and begin firing their green bolts of electricity at it.
It swerved away, suddenly drawing its searchlight beam over a wall. The others scattered quickly into the alley, and beyond, to the Outlands where more rubble would hide their presence. But Barney remained just a moment longer. He'd seen something, the same thing that caught that Combine's faceted eye.
Maxy Two, bigger and bolder than Maxy had been, and most surely the stupidest cat Barney had ever met. But stupid wasn't what went through Barney's mind, as he saw the animal tear across the rooftop away from the restaurant. That cat drew its fire. "Good cat," Barney said, quietly, and then vanished into the alley.
That cat was hardly a fighter. But he defended his territory: he'd inherited it from Maxy One, and if he was anything like that bag of fleas, there would be more Maxy-like cats in this City for years to come, even without this one. Barney was a bit moody when they got to the nearby shelter, he was even more moody because no one realized why.
Barney had been asleep on the train, but then everyone else was exhausted too. It wasn't like they were going to miss their stop, this train would only go as far as their one destination. Everyone would disembark, everyone would be herded around like good cattle.
He wasn't too fond of that. When Eli had suggested that they try and make it to the European continent, Barney hadn't been hot on the idea. He knew there was a reason, for whatever purpose Eli didn't state, he did detect the singular burning passion in his voice when he suggested it. At long last, when they'd gotten their transfer papers ready and had made all the necessary changes to their identity codes, Eli told them why.
One word, he'd said, had changed everything.
After that, Barney didn't question it. Gordon was alive? That was worth following any lead, worth any amount of hassle. Barney hadn't known the man more than half a year. But in that short time they had changed the world. Or at least, gotten drunk at it, and shaken their wobbly fists in the air.
Gordon was a good guy. The best, according to Izzy's claims. When they met up with Mossman and a few others in France, they almost risked it all in raising a too-public toast to the One Free Man.
It was then that the revolution truly started. When they began to drift into the continent, to spread word. Of course, spreading a tale of amazing hardship and glory wasn't that easy. Not when everyone they met had no idea what language they were speaking, or were too terrified to reply.
They'd started small. They began to build over time. As more and more American refugees were brought across the land-bridge and in those terrifying vast ships, they realized that it was going to come down to the wire. Now or never. Start this damn revolution or die out.
They chose. Those memories of recent months dug deeply into Barney's mind. He got the feeling he was being watched, for some reason. Eyes that were more green than blue stared at him: not cat's eyes, certainly. He was used to those. He missed them. Yellow. Purring was pretty far from the sound that Barney heard: the metal-on-metal of railcar brakes. With a start, Barney woke up and realized that he would somehow have to pass the entrance scans.
As Barney got off the train, he lugged his single suitcase like everyone else did; placed it onto a little cart and watched it get wheeled away to be inspected and maybe handed back to him if he was lucky enough to get through the scan himself.
Would he really risk this? Carrying subversive materials was one thing. He and the others had been split up but knew their destination would be the same. Eventually they would all come together again, but he had his orders. He wasn't going to fail them. Except…
"Mister Calhoun? Barney Calhoun?" A woman's curt voice came over the loudspeaker in the station waiting area, and he rose. She'd been calling out other names since their arrival minutes before. People didn't get let into this City, numbered 14, unless they were clean. Clean meant more these days than just well washed. Barney made his way to the side room that he'd watched people enter. One by one, they went in, and presumably came out to the City proper.
That's what he hoped, anyway. It could wind up being a serious problem if it didn't let out into the place they'd agreed on!
Barney hadn't heard any sirens go off, no klaxons indicating a threat, and he'd seen all of his companions go through those doors. Meaning, hopefully, that they'd all made it through with their contraband intact. Everyone was carrying something different: parts and plans, machinery that was easily broken down and explained as health equipment or family heirlooms.
Barney sat nervously, with three others in a smaller waiting room. Each of them was summoned by a masked Civil Protection worker, in turn, as others were brought in. One finally got to Barney, who followed the man into an even more isolated room. There he sat, on an uncomfortable chair, in a room he just knew had once been used to interrogate prisoners. It had that feel.
Another official came in, sat herself down across from him in the only other chair. She looked sternly at him. Her hair had once been dark, but was now speckled with white, and shaved close to her skull where two info-ports had been installed. She was more Combine than Human, he realized. But she hadn't undergone the full treatment.
Very shortly, another helmeted CP deposited Barney's luggage into the room, exited, and shut the door behind him.
"Mister Calhoun," the woman stated flatly, "is this your luggage?"
He looked it over, without moving. "Yes?" Could she tell he was nervous? Everyone she met had to be nervous, no one ever was stupid enough to be calm in here. Everyone had their own reasons. "It is. Is there a problem?"
The woman lowered her head, keeping her eyes on his. Hers had a strange sheen to them, almost metallic. Had she gotten replacement eyes? That was creepy. "Yes, and no." She reached down to pick up the heavy suitcase. Since there was no desk or table, she merely set it onto her lap, turned it to face him, and opened it. Locks were so last-century, apparently.
Her expression hadn't changed, really, she looked more dead than deadpan. She might have been pretty, once. Her tongue surprisingly came out to lick her lips, before she said, "is that yours?" Her eyes flickered downwards, then back up to meet Barney's again.
The cat in the suitcase was still sleeping, though groggy and starting to stir. They hadn't known how long it would take to get through security, after all. And Izzy wasn't really a vet by any stretch of the imagination. He'd whipped up something to knock it out, said nothing, and got on the train back at their last City.
Barney scratched the back of his head. "Well, I… uh, that is," he stammered. He fought back the urge to just grab his suitcase and bolt out the door. It was a good thing that he didn't.
"Well keep it quiet," the woman said, carefully shutting the case and pinning it closed without even looking. She leaned over a bit, closing the distance to Barney's ear. "We get some strange things through here, Mr. Calhoun. Not too often people smuggle pets in. It's unauthorized, but… it's so cute." She drew in a breath and handed him his suitcase, stood, and indicated that he could go. To the left, down the hall, outside to the courtyard.
His friends waited, City 14 was now ready to be revolutionized.
Barney's work undercover had taken them across the countryside, when he was relocated to City 17. That had been the plan, after all, for whatever reason they knew they needed to be there. That was fine: City 14 had gone under some pretty heavy restructuring, after Breen had been through it. He'd seen to the changes himself, apparently.
Don't get Eli started, was their chant for at least a few months. Getting into a City was a bit easier these days. Getting out… That was a trick. But Barney knew some tricks. They'd been tromping around Europe and seeing the sights. He used his access to the Combine information network to get old maps, new maps, troop disbursements, all manner of helpful things.
After Eli had lost his foot getting into the City, he'd almost immediately left again and stayed out. He had to: he had a lab to build. They had several, scattered around this sprawling formerly-Serbian place. But his own was past the City, a difficult but workable trek past toxic waterways and dangerous outposts.
But Barney couldn't leave the City, he had his duties to perform. He had people to drag out of their apartments and beat senseless, he had folks to disturb with news of impending destruction of their block. He had to make sure that Izzy didn't get himself caught, too.
Though, Alyx was capable of helping out there. She was a godsend, that was for sure. She'd grown up racing between City and hideaway, beautiful and strong, and clever as hell. Smart like her father, who cherished her more than anything on Earth. She roamed where they could not, invisibly; or sometimes very visibly, too visibly for anyone's taste.
She always got away, though. Even when it looked like she wasn't going to. Sometimes, that was pure luck on her part. Sometimes, it was Barney adjusting patrol times or calling troops back to base. She'd been out at Black Mesa East when Izzy needed to test their teleporter.
So she hadn't seen him when he'd openly wept like a child at the sight of the only thing they had on hand to test it with. It was true that this cat was a hair past crazy, but Barney liked cats. This one was young, barely past its 'teen' months. It already had half an ear missing, and its tail was pointed in two directions at any given time. Barney hadn't really intended to get attached to it.
But it just happened. Like it always did.
Izzy had assured him that things were ready, that all that science mumbo-jumbo was going to pay off today.
Barney would have nightmares about that cat, for years… Probably for the rest of his life. That wasn't quite true: he would have nightmares about what happened to it. But the cat… Would always have a place in his heart.
"Well Max, it's just you and me," Barney said, putting his hand over the grizzled cat's shoulder and scratching just in the right spot to get that itch. There was always an itch there, no matter what. "What say we play some ping-pong?" He reached his left hand onto the table beside them, rooted around in a box. That perked the cat's ears up, made his heavy tail thump against Barney's leg.
Max… was it the third? Fifth? Barney wasn't even sure any more. How many Maxes had there been, since that first one more than thirty years before? This one in particular had seen his share of events. This one, Barney had noted with a grin, actually lived more than a few years. Max the Nth (he'd picked up that term from Gordon) was a good cat. He didn't have to help save the world, he didn't need to guard against unwanted headcrabs, or hunt for tidbits to feed hungry refugees.
This one hadn't exactly been pampered, after all he'd been found under the roof of one of the burnt-out buildings that the Alliance was going to tear down and rebuild. He was an ornery cuss, too; only Barney had been able to coax him down from the rafter, and only with Barney, was where he seemed to feel comfortable.
The former security guard, former rebel, current hero in good standing, found what he was looking for in the box beside his well-cushioned chair. A tiny, glowing, encapsulated ball of energy. It gave off a tingling vibration, a slight sound that Barney's hand muffled. Open and shut, open and shut; the cat peered intently at Barney's hand, and spotted the toy every time he could see it.
Barney steeled himself. "Go get it!" He said, and let the ball fling out to the floor, where it bounced energetically and with a tiny spark. The cat, very predictably, launched his heavy butt off of Barney's legs and left two lines of slightly scratched skin behind him. But Barney didn't care.
All he seemed to care about was whether he'd have to fetch the thing himself. After all, Max the Nth wasn't exactly known to catch them. Only chase them. Good thing he had an inexhaustible supply of the energy pellets. Gordon's work on things like that was sheer genius. Barney's admiration of the man never ended. But then, he'd saved the world. Barney had been there to help. Gordon never hesitated to create silly things like a cat toy using those Combine-made energy pellets, he'd hardly batted an eye at the whole saving the world thing.
Not everyone had made it to see the Alliance form. Vortikind and Humanity moved together into the future, Barney headed up the security division for a number of years before stepping down. Pretty much everyone from the days of had retired, or passed on, depending on their age and directness of involvement. Some folks would be missed more than others, obviously. Eli's sudden and tragic death had hit everyone in the rebellion quite hard. It could have been much worse, though.
Gordon's actions later on made for decisive victories against the Combine on Earth. He and Alyx, well, they'd become the item that Eli had wanted, though still had yet to get on that whole grandkids thing. Life was plenty busy for Gordon and Alyx. If Barney hadn't lost his eye in that battle ten years ago, maybe he'd be out there crossing the countryside and looking for pockets of Combine activity to stomp out. But that was not to be.
Instead, Barney insisted on getting something done that no one really expected after this long. He started a brewery, and Max the Nth was his bar cat. All that beer he'd owed Gordon? Paid in full, of course. Max stood careful guard over the bar when it was open, and enjoyed his daytime sleep arrangements on Barney's lap quite a bit. The cat didn't mind noise or smoke, but had a thing against certain people: most of the time, when Max bristled up and started growling, it was because one of those jerks that liked to start fights had come into the place. They'd be allowed to stay, only as long as they didn't fight. They generally were thrown out by D0g2.
Life was good. Barney just wished that Max wasn't so picky about the women that he met… Because even if Gordon wasn't ready to settle down and make little Vances and Freemans, Barney certainly was. Except for this cat, who expressed his decisions about any given lady long before Barney even brought them into his upstairs apartment.
If they tripped on the stairs, they'd never, ever make it. So proclaimed Max, with a knowing, wise grin.
It is a lesson to learn, I've been told. Choose wisely, young ones. Choose because they will always be better for it. Some moments last longer than others. Sometimes, the Interval is quite long. But always, you'll know who you've found. When you can rest your head on their lap, and enjoy it when they think they are making you dream of running.
Now the purring beckons me. It is a color I've never seen before, a sensation like mother's tongue over my head after my first breath. One of you should choose my friend, his moment, like all Human's moments, are much longer than ours. And I would not want him to miss out. He cannot play fetch alone, after all.