My creative “essay” is a short story set in the Half-Life 2 universe at the time of the uprising in City 17 towards the end of the game (the “Anticitizen One” portion). One moment in particular that always stood out to me when playing this was when Gordon Freeman walks to the plaza outside the train station, which is where he first properly observed City 17, and witnesses a group of resistance fighters dismantling a giant screen at the top of a pillar playing one of Dr. Breen’s recorded speeches. This was probably the intention of the developers, but it reminded me of the statue of Stalin being toppled after the downfall of the Soviet Union and other similar symbolic gestures after the overthrowing of dictators or authoritarian governments. This story sets up this event, specifically the person who was instrumental in its orchestration.
Savior of City 17 by Sean Colligan
Nathan’s steps were heavy as he rounded the corner toward the plaza. The weight wasn’t just coming from his back or his shoulders, it circulated through him, carried by his blood. His heart pushed it along steadily with each beat, venting his breath so he could watch it hang in the bitter morning cold. The air was still except for the occasional frigid breeze that carried Hannah’s whispers. They were just as powerful as the distant sirens and Dr. Breen’s voice as it bounced off the narrow brick walls and flooded every corner of the city:
“I ask you, what greater endeavor exists than that of collaboration? In our current unparalleled enterprise, refusal to collaborate is simply a refusal to grow; an insistence on suicide, if you will!”
Nathan still heard Franklin’s voice from that meeting days ago in the moldy basement that was just like so many others the resistance congregated in. The walls were lined with tattered blueprints and maps covered with ink and photos of suspected Combine spies. It was as if they were real soldiers. Nathan watched as Franklin pointed to a map on the table in front of them.
“Since the trains have stopped coming in, there are only two ways into the plaza, and this alleyway here is blocked by a gate which they always leave sealed. As far as we can tell, they don’t even bother putting guards there, of course that does us no good since we don’t have enough ordinance to blow it open and smaller gates like this one can only be opened by remote. That leaves us with this one chokepoint here. Of course, in the last few days, they’ve amped up security at this spot, usually posting two full CP squads and an armored tank. The only ones who can get close are sanitation people, which is why you’re here. If you present your clearance, they’ll let you get close enough…”
“Christ, I don’t believe it,” Barney stepped down from the ancient wooden staircase and walked into the illumination of the bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. The harsh light made it clear to see the bags under his eyes and the lines of gray in his otherwise dark hair. The subtle smile he always seemed to keep on his face was nowhere to be found.
“Barney, if you’re not here to help, I don’t think you have any reason to be here,” Franklin replied blankly.
“For God’s sake Franklin, how can you be alright with this? The kid’s barely 20!”
“He volunteered! Besides, the rest of the captains all voted on it and we agreed. You were there, remember?”
“That doesn’t make it right! How the hell can we sacrifice people like this, how does that make us any different from them?”
“Trust me, they don’t wait for volunteers, they select at random and kill you if you refuse.”
“You know why he’s volunteering, don’t you? Have you forgotten about Hannah?” Nathan felt himself choke as he felt her palm on the back of his neck for one fleeting second. He remembered coming back to his home that night more than a month ago. Franklin was there waiting for him with other resistance fighters. Hannah was on the floor with a bullet in her head and a pool of blood beneath her, her hazy blue eyes frozen open. Franklin tossed him a computer chip they had taken out of the base of her neck. Nathan kneeled on the floor, staring at it as Franklin tried to explain, as they took the body and cleaned the apartment. He moved out before the sun came up. After a brief silence, Franklin spoke.
“We did what we had to. She was carrying a Combine transponder…”
“That was implanted in her when she was asleep, without her knowing! And you shot her like a traitor!”
“Like it or not, Barney, that’s exactly what she was.”
“How the hell can you say that in front of…”
“Because the Combine put that thing inside her, not us! He knows that!” Barney looked over at Nathan, exhaling as he tried to calm himself.
“Kid, I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I’m sure it hurts like hell. We all loved Hannah, sure, but not nearly as much as you did. I know it feels like it’s all over for you, but there’s still plenty of life to live.” Even Barney tasted the bitterness in his words. Hope was scarce in a world where the human race was slowly being exterminated around them.
“Look,” Barney resumed. “All I’m saying is, you’re the one who decides whether or not you go through with this. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Now are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” Nathan looked at Barney and Franklin and spoke without a moment’s hesitation.
“Yes.” Barney nodded solemnly as Franklin leaned in, placing a hand on Nathan’s shoulder.
“You have no idea what a contribution you’ll be making, Nathan. And don’t worry, you’ll have enough explosives on you to take out a dozen Combine soldiers and a tank; you won’t feel a thing.”
Nathan felt the electronic eyes piercing him as he stepped closer to the blockade. The cold still stung him with traces of Hannah’s voice, though it was soon drowned out by Breen:
“Did the lungfish refuse to breathe air? It did not. It crept forth boldly while its brethren remained in the blackest ocean abyss with lidless eyes forever staring at the dark, ignorant and doomed despite their eternal vigilance.”
Cheering rang through Nathan’s ears now. He cringed to try and shut it out, but the shouts and applause from last night refused to leave him. He couldn’t help but think back to yet another dank basement, this one larger than most. Half a battalion’s worth of resistance members crowded the space as he and Franklin faced them from on top of empty crates.
“I’m not going to waste any time,” Franklin said, doing his best to make eye contact with everyone in the crowd. “I absolutely mean it when I tell you that you’ll all have to fight harder than you ever have tomorrow. This wouldn’t be a lot to ask if you were soldiers. But you’re not. None of us are, as much as we’d like to be. We’re office workers, teachers, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters thrown into a battle none of us could be prepared for. And yet, I don’t know about you, but I can’t find a single reason to be afraid. Many think Gordon Freeman died last week after his strike at Nova Prospekt, the attack that started our offensive campaign against the Combine here and everywhere. I don’t believe that’s true. I see Gordon Freeman everywhere I look, because this room is full of people willing to give up everything for our freedom. I see Freeman on every single one of your faces, especially his.” Franklin pointed at Nathan, standing next to him.
“Gordon Freeman is alive and well in this young man. He will allow us to force our way into the plaza and take down the screen that constantly spews Breen’s mind-numbing filth. And when we dismantle that symbol of oppression, our offensive will be unstoppable! The Combine will have to work a hell of a lot harder to keep us quiet! So remember this face, all of you! This is the young man who will take us to our freedom! He will light our way!”
The crowd erupted in a shrill, eccentric cacophony that tore at Nathan’s eardrums. Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. There were crying widows and crowds that kneeled around him. Franklin had posted a picture of him on the wall and before the night was over there were more than 20 candles around it, as if he were already dead. Nathan kept hearing pieces of conversations that almost made him gag; someone claimed he was born inside the city in spite of the suppression field, another said he had been imbued with powers of clairvoyance from a Vortigaunt sage. But the worst was the name they gave him: the Savior of City 17.
Although it made him sick to be so revered for something he’d wanted to do since Hannah died, Nathan didn’t say a word. If these people needed to believe in this, he couldn’t bring himself not to let them. Perhaps, he thought, Freeman figured out the same thing. A lot of people think he’s some kind of God or otherworldly hero, but he never said anything either way. Nathan knew he was only human, though. The Vorts always mention how he’s driven by “other forces”, and that may or may not be true, but at the end of the day he was just a man. Just like him.
That night, Nathan dreamt of being chained to the pillar at the center of the plaza, where the infamous “Breen screen” was situated. Resistance fighters, all wounded and bleeding, silently surrounded him like phantoms. Each one, using his or her own blood as ink, drew a lambda symbol wherever they could find unmarked skin on his naked body. He didn’t sleep after that.
Breen’s voice brought Nathan back to the present:
“Are all the accomplishments of humanity fated to be nothing more than a layer of broken plastic shards thinly strewn across a fossil bed, sandwiched between the Burgess Shale and an eon’s worth of mud?”
As the soldiers raised their weapons, Nathan held up his clearance badge.
“In order to be true to nature, and our destiny, we must aspire to greater things.”
Suddenly Franklin’s words broke through the noise once more, as he revisited the alley he had come from just a minute earlier.
“Remember,” Franklin spoke quietly as he finished strapping the vest onto Nathan’s chest. “Get as close as you can before you hit the switch. As soon as you’re set here, we’ll be ready to move in.” Behind them, other resistance fighters were lugging mammoth lengths of cable into the alley; they would use it all later to tear down the monitor in the plaza. Nathan got the occasional solemn glance or encouraging nod, and as cold as he knew it made him, he saw no purpose for the tears in their eyes.
“Sorry, I’m sure it must be heavy,” Franklin said, throwing an overcoat on Nathan to conceal the explosives. “Nathan, I think I can speak for everyone when I say you’re more than a hero. This is the bravest thing I’ve seen anyone do for the uprising, and I want you to know you won’t be forgotten. Humanity will always remember what you…”
“Franklin,” Nathan interrupted, speaking for the first time in two days. With emotionless clarity, Nathan said his last words.
“I want to die.”
Franklin’s hopeful glow quickly faded as every part of his face seemed to sink. He said nothing as he let his arms fall from Nathan’s shoulders. Nathan turned away, and took the first heavy step toward the end.
Even with his badge in the air, the Combine squad still had fingers on their triggers. When he got close enough, the captain had the others lower their weapons and pointed him into the plaza.
The closer Nathan got, the more he felt Hannah: the back of her hand against his cheek and her arms wrapping around him, sinking through the vest and into his ribs. A dense sheet of sweat coated his body, and he felt closer to drowning with each step. Suddenly, he remembered the blood on his skin from last night, and he felt the lambdas burning into his flesh. As the squad parted to let him pass and the tank was within arm’s reach, he pulled off his coat.
The next moment stretched out all around him, blurring his surroundings. He heard the gargled, electronic shouts of the Combine, Franklin’s speeches, the cheering crowd and the sobbing women all in one muddled wall of noise. All at once he felt the weight planted on his chest from the explosives and all the misplaced hopes of what felt like the whole remainder of humanity. Breen’s voice was more powerful than it had ever been:
“…yes, I am a collaborator. We must all collaborate willingly, eagerly if we expect to reap the benefits of unification. And reap we shall.”
But as he gripped the detonator handle, something broke through all of it. It was just a whisper, not much louder than the ones before, but loud enough. It was what Hannah said to him every morning:
“I’ll wait for you.”
Nathan closed his eyes and held the detonator switch.