Wednesday January 1, 2003:
Man, what a night! New Year’s Eve at Black Mesa turned out to be one hell of a party. I wasn’t expecting these nerds to knock it back, but they really know how to cut loose.
The rota had screwed me over and I’d been posted to work a late shift. I wasn’t looking forward to hunkering down in some concrete tunnel while everyone else celebrated. But at 11.30, Chico appeared early to relive me and take over.
“But Chico,” I said, “Aren’t you gonna miss out?”
“No,” he said. “It’s too much for me. You’re a young man. Enjoy yourself. Just remember you owe me one, si?”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I hauled ass over to Feynman’s as fast as I could. The place was packed: scientists, engineers and guards all wasted together. I found Gordon sitting on his own, sipping a bottle of beer quietly, a minute away from midnight. He lit up when he saw me.
“Look who decided to show up after all!” he said.
“You know you can’t keep me away from a party,” I answered. I downed a beer as quickly as I could and ordered another straight away.
Someone turned off the music and we all gathered around the TVs, counted down from ten and watched the fireworks in Time’s Square. Someone started singing, and everyone joined in as best they could. Freeman and I linked arms and we started dancing. I can confirm: he has no sense of rhythm.
Then all of a sudden I spotted a flash of red hair at a table by the window.
“Gordon!” I said, pulling at the sleeve of his shirt, “There’s that chick I was telling ya about! Dr Cross!”
She was sitting with a friend, wearing a tight pair of jeans and a halter top, and looking just as hot in her civvies as I’d imagined.
“Let’s go over and put the moves on them,” I said, “You can wingman me.”
Gordon blanched and said that he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“Aw come on Gordon,” I whined, “This is my big chance! That’s the future Mrs Barney Calhoun over there!”
Gordon sighed, but he gave in. We sidled over to their table and eventually I worked up the nerve to catch her eye.
“Hey there!” I said, with an insurance salesman grin plastered on my face. “Dr Cross? Remember me? From the Hazard Course?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said, smiling awkwardly, “You’re the guy, right?”
“That’s right!” I said. “I’m the guy!”
Not exactly James Bond, but I managed to pivot.
“Happy new year!” I said to her.
“Happy new year,” she said back.
“Happy new year!” I said to her friend.
“Happy new year,” said the friend.
“Happy, um, new year,” said Gordon, to nobody in particular.
“Happy new year,” I said, one last time.
There was a pause. I could feel them slipping away, so I took a gamble and said: “Do you mind if we sit here?”
“Ummm,” winced Dr Cross.
She looked at her friend, who took pity on us and nodded back.
“Sure,” sighed Dr Cross.
“Great,” I said, sitting at their table.
“This is my friend Lauren,” she said.
“Hey,” I replied. “Have you guys met Gordon?”
“I’m aware of his work,” Cross said, as Gordon sat next to me. “MIT right?”
“Guilty,” said Freeman.
He laughed nervously and started playing with a beer mat, and I realised that recruiting a science geek to be a wingman probably wasn’t the best idea in the world.
“Hey,” I said, “Why is it that every New Year we sing about an old land sign? What’s the deal with that?”
“Auld Lang Syne,” said Dr Cross. “It’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
“Who?” I said. “Never heard of him.”
“So Gordon,” she said, turning to him, “Has there been any progress with the new Xenium samples?”
Remember what I told you about what Gordon’s like when he’s talking science? Yeah, well it didn’t take him long to forget about being shy. Him and Cross were soon chatting away about quantum chromodynamic gauge invariant lagrangian, whatever the hell that is, and she even started giggling when he made a comment about Rosenberg’s theory on gluon displacement. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Thanks Freeman. What a cockblock!
I realised I was getting left behind, so I was quite gratified when Cross’ friend Lauren turned to me and smiled.
“I take it you don’t understand a word they’re saying either?” she said.
“I dip in and out,” I said. “Just wait till they start arguing over String Theory.”
“I think that’s how physicists flirt,” she said.
That made me laugh.
“My name’s Barney by the way,” I said, “Calhoun.”
“Charmed,” she replied. She had a cute accent actually. British or something.
“So whaddya do here Lauren?” I asked, while the other two yammered on about quarks. “Rocket scientist?”
She gigged. It was a nice giggle; as catchy as a chewing gum jingle.
“No,” she said. “I’m a lot more boring.”
“No way!” I said. “You don’t look boring to me!”
“I work in Sector D in the finance department,” she said. “I’m an accountant.”
“Okay I take it back,” I said. “That is boring.”
She laughed again, but I didn’t want to come across as one of those assholes who always rags on girls, so I said: “Seriously though, that must be a tough job. I could never do that.”
“It has ups and downs,” she said. “Spending in this place can get out of control.”
“So where are you from? I asked. “How did ya end up here?”
She told me she was from a little place in England called Exeter, and that she’d gone to Brown to study economics when she left high school. She didn’t know anyone in the US when she arrived, but ended up rooming with a budding physicist named Gina Cross.
Gina had been snapped by Black Mesa’s recruiters, who funded her PhD and Doctorate in exchange for a stake in her work, and when she’d joined the payroll, she’d recommended Lauren for a job as a bean counter.
“So nepotism does pay off?”
“More or less,” she said, “But I wouldn’t say that to the person who handles your payslips.”
“Okay, fair point.”
“What about you Barney? What’s your story?”
I told her about life growing up in Iowa with Joe and my old man. About how it was tough without a mom and how dull things were out in the sticks. I ended up going on about how I moved to Albuquerque to try to get a degree, but dropped out and got stuck there, about working at the gun store, my crappy apartment, and how a steady pay cheque and free rent had dragged me out into the desert.
By this point I’d sunk a couple more drinks, and I was beginning to loosen up a bit, when she asked me:
“But what made you want to be a security guard?”
To be honest, I didn’t have a proper answer for her, other than the fact that it seemed like a good idea at the time. My dad was a cop, and now my brother was too, so I thought that it would be like that but less hassle.
“It’s not really, like, my calling,” I said, “The whole security thing, it’s just a stop gap.”
“So what do you really want to do?” Lauren asked.
“Well,” I said. “I wanna lead people, and help people, and do something where I really make a difference, you know?”
There was a pause.
“I’ve no idea,” I finished lamely.
“Well maybe you make a difference already,” she said. “You’ve made a difference to my night anyway.”
“Sure. I got to chat with someone who doesn’t care at all about science. You’ve no idea how nice that is.”
I laughed, and she laughed, and then I looked at her. There was something about Lauren. She was a lot like Freeman really. Quiet and smart, and a really good listener – someone who made you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. I’d been so engrossed in our conversation that I’d forgotten to be steamed about Gordon stealing Dr Cross.
“Hey, do you wanna dance with me?” I asked, before I could stop myself. “I feel like making shapes.”
“I will if you promise to never say that phrase again,” she said, and took me by hand.
We stood up together, and I told Gordon we were going to dance for a bit. As I’d predicted, him and Gina were now debating and didn’t even notice us. I shrugged, and we took to the dance floor.
At first I kept my distance, trying to look casual: I didn’t want Lauren to think I was some kinda creep or anything, but then the music slowed down and a voice from the speakers said:
“All righty folks, we’ve had a request for a song for all the lovers out there, so grab a partner and let’s take it slow, m’kay?”
I shook my head. “
“Otis Laurey a DJ,” I said. “Now I’ve seen it all.”
I was about to make an excuse and go back to the table, but Lauren actually grabbed my wrists and put my hands on her hips.
“I like this song,” she shrugged.
“Me too,” I said, even though I’d never heard it.
The more I looked at her, the cuter she was. Okay, so maybe she wasn’t holographic, but I wasn’t going to hold that against anyone.
Eventually the night wound down, and the bar began to empty. The four of us trudged back to the train stop and prepared to go our separate ways. Just as Lauren’s monorail pulled up I said to her:
“So, hey, I had a really nice time tonight.”
“Me too,” she said.
“So, um … when can I see you again?” I asked. “I mean, should old acquaintance be forgot and stuff, right?”
She smirked at me, took out a pen, and scribbled something on the back of my arm. Then she stood on her tip toes and kissed my stubbly cheek.
“Happy new year Calhoun,” she said.
“Yeah you too,” I said, feeling my heart rise like warm dough.
The ladies got on their train and left, while Gordon and I sped back to our dorms. I smiled at the phone number Lauren had scrawled on my bare skin.
“I tell ya what Gordon,” I said to, “I have a feeling 2003 is gonna be my year.”
He passed out on my shoulder.