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Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 19


  But from the moment when Khan intercepted him, time started to speed up and the reactions of the others upon hearing the sound of impact, seemed to him to be lightning quick. They were making their first steps toward Khan with their guns fixed on him, and Khan retreated softly to the side, squeezing Artyom to himself with one arm, holding him up, shielding his own body. His other hand was stretched forward and in it he held Artyom’s dimly shining new machine gun.

  ‘Go on,’ Khan pronounced hoarsely. ‘I don’t see the point in killing you, you’ll die anyway in an hour’s time. Leave us. Go on,’ he was saying, moving towards the centre of the station, step by step while the frozen figures of the undecided people were starting to turn into vague silhouettes and merged with the darkness.

  Some sort of fuss was heard, they were probably helping the moustached man who’d been knocked down by Khan, and the group started to move toward the entrance to the southern tunnel. They’d decided not to join Khan. Only then did Khan lower the gun and sharply ordered Artyom to get up onto the platform.

  ‘Any more of this and I’ll get sick of rescuing you, my young friend,’ he said with unconcealed irritation.

  Artyom obediently climbed up and Khan followed him. Picking up his stuff, he walked into the black aperture, with Artyom trailing behind.

  The hall in Turgenevskaya was quite short. On the left, there was a blind alley, a marble wall, and on the other side, there was a piece of corrugated iron over a break in the wall, and that was as far as you could see by the light of a flashlight. Marble, slightly yellowed with age, covered the whole station, which had only three arches. These led to the stairway which connected this station to Chistyie Prudi whose name had been changed to Kirovskaya by the Reds and which was now walled up with rough grey concrete blocks. The station was completely empty, there wasn’t an object on the floor, there were no traces of human activity, not a rat, not a cockroach. While Artyom looked around, he remembered his conversation with Bourbon, which confirmed that rats were afraid of nothing and if there were no rats in a place then there was something wrong there.

  Grabbing him by the shoulder, Khan crossed the hall with a quick step, and Artyom could feel, even through his jacket, that Khan was trembling, as though he’d caught a chill. When they put down their bags at the edge of the platform, getting ready to jump onto the path, a weak light suddenly hit them from behind, and Artyom was again surprised by the speed with which his companion reacted to the danger. Within a short moment, Khan was on the ground, spread out and looking at the source of the light.

  The light wasn’t very strong but it was shining straight into their eyes and it was hard to make out who was in pursuit of them. A moment’s delay and Artyom too dropped to the floor. He crawled to his rucksacks and got out the old weapon he was carrying. It was bulky and inconvenient but it made flawless holes of 7.62 calibre and whoever was on the receiving end of it would have a hard time functioning with holes like that in them.

  ‘What’s your business?’ Khan’s voice growled, and Artyom managed to figure out that if the person had wanted to kill them then they would have done so already.

  He could see how it probably looked from the outside: helplessly crouched on the floor, in the light of a flashlight and in his crosshairs too. Yes, if he’d wanted to kill them, they would be lying in a pool of blood already.

  ‘Don’t shoot!’ a voice called out. ‘No need . . .’

  ‘Turn off your flashlight!’ Khan said, and he moved over to the column to get his own flashlight.

  Artyom finally got hold of his weapon and, holding it fast, he rolled over to the side, out of the line of fire and hid in one of the arches. Now he was ready to emerge on the other side and cut off whoever it was, if the person chose to shoot.

  But the stranger followed Khan’s orders as soon as they were given.

  ‘Good! Now put your weapon on the ground!’ Khan said in a less tense voice.

  Metal clinked on the granite floor, and Artyom, aiming his weapon forward, crawled sideways and appeared in the hall. He had calculated correctly - fifteen paces in front of him, lit up by the reflections of the flashlight on the arches, with hands up, was that same bearded man who had initiated the skirmish at Sukharevskaya.

  ‘Don’t shoot,’ he said again with a trembling voice. ‘I wasn’t planning on attacking you. I decided to come with you. You did say that anyone who wanted could come. I . . . I trust you,’ he said to Khan. ‘I also feel that there’s something going on over there, in the right-hand tunnel. They’ve already left, they all went. But I stayed behind, I want to go with you.’

  ‘Good sense,’ Khan said, studiously examining the guy. ‘But my friend, you don’t inspire trust in me. Who knows why that is,’ he added mockingly. ‘Basically, we’ll examine your proposal. On condition that you hand over your entire arsenal to me. You’ll walk in front of us in the tunnel. If you want to play the fool then it won’t end well for you.’

  The bearded guy pushed his pistol across the floor to Khan with his foot, and carefully put several spare cartridges next to it. Artyom picked them up from the floor and approached him, not lowering his gun.

  ‘I’ve got him!’ he shouted.

  ‘Keep your hands up!’ Khan thundered. ‘And jump onto the path, quickly. Stand there with your back to us!’

  After about two minutes into the tunnel, as they walked in a tight triangle - the bearded guy called Ace, walked five paces ahead of Khan and Artyom - they heard a muted howl. It stopped almost as soon as it had started . . .

  Ace looked back at them frightened, forgetting even to shine his flashlight to the side of them. The flashlight was shaking in his hands, and his face, lit from underneath, was forced into a grimace of horror, and that had a greater effect on Artyom than the howl had.

  ‘Yes,’ Khan nodded, silently answering the question. ‘They made a mistake. But I guess time will still tell whether we have too.’

  They hurried on. Casting looks over to his protector from time to time, Artyom noted in him more and more signs of fatigue. His hands were lightly trembling, his stride was uneven, and sweat had gathered in huge droplets on his face. But they hadn’t been walking for long at all . . . This path was obviously considerably more tiring for him that it was for Artyom. Thinking about what was draining the strength from his companion, the young man couldn’t stop returning to the thought that Khan had seemed to be right in this situation, that he’d saved Artyom again. Had Artyom followed the caravan into the right-hand tunnel, then he would undoubtedly already be dead, he’d have disappeared without a trace.

  But there were a lot of them - at least six of them. Had the iron rule not held? Khan had known - he’d known! Whether it really was premonition or if indeed it was thanks to the magic of the Guide . . . It was almost funny that a bit of paper with ink on it could do that. Could that piece of rubbish really help them? Well, the passage between Turgenevskaya and Kitai Gorod had been orange, definitely orange. Or had it really been black?

  ‘What’s this?’ Ace asked, suddenly stopping and uneasily looking at Khan.

  ‘Do you feel that? From behind . . .’

  Artyom stared in puzzlement at him and wanted to let out a sarcastic comment about jangled nerves because he didn’t feel anything in the slightest. The claws of the heavy sensation of depression and danger had even seemed to unclench since they’d left Turgenevskaya. But Khan, to his surprise, froze in place, gestured to him to keep quiet, and turned to face the direction from which they’d just come.

  ‘What a keen sense!’ he said after a half minute. ‘We’re in admiration. The queen of admiration,’ he added for some reason. ‘We must definitely discuss this in more detail if we get out of here. You don’t hear anything?’ he inquired of Artyom.

  ‘No, everything seems quiet,’ Artyom listened and responded. At that moment he was filled with something . . . jealousy? Offence? Vexation, that his protector had said such things about the rough bearded scumbag who had only two hours ago threa
tened their lives? Please . . .

  ‘That’s strange. I think you have the rudiments of the skill to hear tunnels . . . Maybe it hasn’t developed itself totally in you yet. Later, later. That will all come later.’ Khan shook his head. ‘You’re right,’ he addressed Ace, confirming the man’s suspicions. ‘Something’s coming this way. We have to move and fast.’ He listened again and sniffed the air in a very wolf-like manner. ‘It’s coming from behind like a wave. We have to run! If it covers us, then the game is over,’ he concluded, tearing off.

  Artyom had to rush after him and break into a run so he wasn’t left behind. The bearded guy was now keeping pace with them quickly, moving his short legs and breathing heavily.

  They went along like that for ten minutes, and all that time Artyom couldn’t understand why they were rushing so much, getting so out of breath, stumbling on the cross-ties if the tunnel behind them was empty and quiet, and there was no evidence that they were being chased. Ten minutes passed before they felt IT. It was definitely rushing after them, hard at their heels, chasing them step after step - something black. It wasn’t a wave, but more like a whirlwind, a black whirlwind, cutting through the emptiness . . . And if it overtook them, then the same fate awaited them as had met the other six and all the other daredevils and fools who entered the tunnel alone or at a fatal time, when fiendish hurricanes raged, sweeping up any living thing. Such suppositions and a vague understanding of what was going on, were rushing through Artyom’s mind, and he looked at Khan with anxiety. Khan returned his look and everything was clear.

  ‘What, have you got it now?’ He exhaled. ‘It’s a bad business! That means, it’s already very close.’

  ‘We have to go faster!’ Artyom wheezed as he ran. ‘Before it’s too late!’

  Khan picked up his pace and now he was trotting along with wide paces, saying nothing, not answering Artyom’s questions anymore. Even the traces of exhaustion that Artyom had seen in the man seemed to have disappeared and something beast-like had emerged in him again. Artyom had to run to keep up but, when it seemed that they had broken away from the thing that was pursuing them inexorably, Ace tripped on a cross-tie and fell head over heels onto the ground. His face and hands were covered in blood.

  Out of inertia, they ran another dozen paces before they took in that Ace had fallen and Artyom thought quickly that he didn’t really feel like stopping and going back for the guy - he wanted to leave him to the dogs, the short-arse bootlicker with his amazing intuition. He wanted to keep going before the thing got to them.

  It was a disgusting thought but Artyom was seized by such a compulsion to flee and leave the fallen man that his conscience had gone silent. Therefore he felt a certain disappointment when Khan rushed back and, with a powerful jerk, lifted the bearded man to his feet. Artyom had secretly hoped that Khan with his more than disdainful attitude towards others’ lives, and indeed their deaths, wouldn’t hesitate to forget the guy and leave him in the tunnel like the burden he was, and rush on.

  Having ordered Artyom to take one of the injured Ace’s arms, he took the other and pulled them along. This made running considerably more difficult. Ace was moaning and grinding his teeth from pain with each step, but Artyom didn’t feel anything for him, apart from growing irritation. The long, heavy machine gun was painfully knocking against his legs, and he didn’t have a free hand to hold onto it.

  But death was very near. If they stopped and waited for half a minute, the ominous vortex would overtake then, whip and tear them into the smallest particles. In the course of a second they would no longer be of this universe and death cries would burst from them with unnatural speed . . . These thoughts didn’t paralyse Artyom but, mixed with malice and irritation, they gave him strength and he gained more and more with each step.

  And suddenly it disappeared, vanished entirely. The feeling of danger was released so suddenly that one’s consciousness was left unusually empty, like the gap after a pulled tooth, and it was as though Artyom was now feeling around with the tip of his tongue for the pit. There was nothing behind them. Just tunnel - clean, dry, clear and completely safe. All that running from fear and paranoid fantasies, the unnecessary belief in some sort of special feelings and intuition, seemed so funny to Artyom now, so silly and absurd, that he burst out laughing. Ace, who had stopped next to him, looked at him with surprise at first and then also started to laugh. Khan looked at them, annoyed and finally spat at them:

  ‘Well, what’s so funny? It’s nice here right? So quiet, so clean, right?’ And he walked on alone. Then Artyom realized that they were altogether only about fifty paces from the station, and that light was clearly visible at the end of the tunnel.

  Khan waited at the entrance, standing on the iron stairs. He had had time to smoke some kind of home-made cigarette, while they, laughing away, completely relaxed, made the fifty paces.

  Artyom was penetrated by a feeling of sympathy and compassion for the limping Ace who was moaning through his laughter. He was ashamed at the thoughts that had flashed through his mind back there when Ace had fallen. His mood was dramatically improved, and therefore the sight of Khan, tired, emaciated, scrutinizing them with a strange look of suspicion, seemed a little unpleasant to Artyom.

  ‘Thanks!’ Boots rumbled on the stairs and Ace climbed up onto the platform saying to Khan, ‘If it weren’t for you . . . You . . . Well, it would have all been over. But you . . . didn’t leave me there. Thank you! I don’t forget things like that.’

  ‘Don’t worry,’ Khan responded without any enthusiasm.

  ‘Why did you come back for me?’

  ‘You’re interesting to me as someone to talk to.’ Khan flung his cigarette butt on the ground and shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s all.’

  After climbing a little higher, Artyom understood why Khan had gone up the stairs to the platform and not continued along the path. In front of the actual entrance to Kitai Gorod, the path was heaped with sandbags as high as a man. Behind the sandbags was a group of people sitting on wooden stools with a very serious look about them. Buzz cuts and wide shoulders under beaten-up leather jackets, shabby sports trousers - all this looked rather amusing but, for some reason, it hadn’t produced any merriment. Three of them sat there and on a fourth stool there was a deck of cards, which the thugs had strewn carelessly about. There was such abusive language being used that listening to it, Artyom couldn’t make out even one normal word in the conversation.

  To get through the station you could only pass along a narrow path and up the little stairway, which ended with a gate. But diagonally across from the path, there was an even more imposing pack of four guards. Artyom threw them a look: shaved heads, watery-grey eyes, slightly bent noses, cauliflower ears, wearing training pants with a heavy ‘TT’ imprinted on the stripe. And there was an unbearable smell of fumes, which was making it hard to think.

  ‘So what do we have here?’ the fourth guard said hoarsely, examining Khan and Artyom behind him from head to foot. ‘Are you tourists or what? Or traders?’

  ‘No, we’re not traders, we’re travellers and we have no goods with us,’ Khan explained.

  ‘Travellers - grovellers!’ the thug rhymed and guffawed loudly. ‘Hear that Kolya? Travellers - grovellers!’ he repeated, turning to the card players.

  They responded enthusiastically. Khan smiled patiently.

  The bull of a man leant one hand against the wall blocking their way.

  ‘We have here, a kind of a . . . customs operation, you know what I mean?’ he explained. ‘Cash is the currency. You want to go through - you pay. You don’t want to then you can get lost . . . !’

  ‘Whose prerogative?’ Artyom protested indignantly.

  That was a mistake.

  The bull didn’t probably quite get what he’d meant but he’d understood the intonation and he didn’t like it. Pushing Khan to the side, he took a heavy step and got right up into Artyom’s face. He lowered his chin and gave the young man a severe look. His eyes were co
mpletely empty and seemed almost transparent, and they lacked any sign of a reasonable mind. Stupidity and malice, that’s what they emitted, and though it was hard to hold his gaze and Artyom was blinking from the tension, he felt how fear and hatred was growing in those eyes as they sat there at the tunnel entrance watching people come past.

  ‘What the fuck?’ the guard said threateningly.

  He was taller than Artyom by more than a head and three times as wide. Artyom remembered the legend someone had told him about David and the Goliath. Though he was confused which was which, he knew that it ended well for the smaller and weaker of the two, and this gave him a certain optimism.

  ‘Whatever,’ he unexpectedly plucked up the courage to say.

  This answer upset the man for some reason, and he spread out his short and fat fingers and, with a confident motion, he put all five of them on Artyom’s forehead. The skin on his palms was yellow, calloused and it stank of tobacco and car grease, and Artyom didn’t have time make out all the many aromas to it because the thug pushed him backwards.

  He probably didn’t have to apply much force but Artyom flew a metre backwards and knocked Ace, who was standing behind him, over too. They both fell onto the little bridge while the thug returned to his place. But a surprise awaited him there. Khan, who’d thrown his bag on the ground, was standing there gripping Artyom’s machine gun in his hands. He demonstratively clicked open the safety catch and with a quiet voice that indicated that nothing good could come of all this - so much so that even Artyom’s hair was standing on end upon hearing it - he pronounced:

  ‘Now why so rude?’

  He hadn’t said anything much but, to Artyom, who was floundering on the floor, trying to get to his feet, burning with shame, these words seemed like a dull precautionary growl which would likely be followed by a quick and hard attack. He stood up, finally, and tore his old machine gun off his shoulder and trained it on the offender, with the safety catch undone. Now he was ready to pull the trigger at any moment. His heart was beating hard and hatred definitely outweighed fear on the scales of his feelings and he said to Khan: