Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 29

  ‘OK, and who was it?’ the husky fellow who sat by the searchlight interrupted impatiently.

  ‘I asked the men I was loading with. Do you know who? Satanists! Get it? They decided, you see, that the end of the world has already come, and the metro is the gate to hell. And he said something about a circle or something, I don’t remember.’

  ‘Gateway,’ the gunner corrected him.

  ‘OK. So the metro is the gateway to hell, and hell itself is a little bit deeper down; and the Devil, you see, is waiting there for them - they just have to reach him. So, they’re digging. It’s been four years since then. Maybe they’ve already hit bottom.’

  ‘And where is it?’ the gunner asked.

  ‘I don’t know! By God, I don’t know. Well, I sure got myself out of there: I threw myself into the wagon while the guard wasn’t watching, and sprinkled some dirt over me. I rolled along somewhere for a long time; then they dumped out the contents of the wagon, from high up; I passed out, then came to, crept along, crawled out by some sort of tracks, just keeping on, straight ahead; but these tracks kept crossing other tracks, and my sense of direction deserted me. Then somebody picked me up, and when I woke up I was only at Dubrovka, get it? And the guy who had picked me up, had gone off already, such a nice guy. So I thought, where am I . . .’

  Then they talked about rumours that at Ilich Square and the Rimskaya there was an epidemic of some kind and many people had died, but Artyom paid no attention.

  The idea that the metro was the threshold to hell, or maybe even its first circle, mesmerized him, and a bizarre image arose before his eyes: hundreds of people crawling around like ants, endlessly digging a pit with their hands, a shaft leading nowhere, until one day one of their pieces of scrap metal sticks strangely out of the soil, without sinking down below, and then hell and the metro are finally merged into one. Then it occurred to him that at this station, people live almost just like at VNDKh: constantly attacking monstrous creatures from the surface, holding off the onslaught alone, and if Paveletskaya faltered, these monsters would spread throughout the line. Which meant that the role of VDNKh is not so unique as he had previously assumed. Who knew how many such stations there were in the metro, each covering its own turf, doing battle, not for the sake of general tranquillity, but for its own hide. You could go back, retreat to the centre, blow your tunnels up after you - but then you’d be left with less and less residential space, until all those who were still alive would be squeezed into a small patch of land, and would gnaw their way through one another’s gullets.

  But if VDNKh was really nothing special, if there were other exits to the surface that it was impossible to conceal . . . That meant . . . Artyom decided to discontinue that line of thought. It was just the voice of weakness, of treasonous, sugary, seductive arguments not to continue the journey, to stop striving towards the goal. But he mustn’t give up. That was a dead end.

  To distract himself, he resumed listening to the others’ conversation. At first they were talking about the chances of somebody named Pushka to win some sort of victory. Then the husky fellow started to talk about how some idiots attacked Kitai Gorod and shot loads of people, but the timely arrival of the Kaluga brotherhood overpowered them, and the cutthroats went back to Taganskaya. Artyom wanted to point out that it was not Taganskaya at all, but the Tretyakovskaya, but he was prevented from doing so by some scrawny guy whose face was hidden, and who said that the Kalugans had pretty much been kicked out of Kitai Gorod, and now a new group controlled it, which nobody had ever heard of before. The husky dude argued heatedly with him, and Artyom started to nod off. This time he dreamed about nothing at all, and slept so soundly that even when the alarm whistle went off and everyone jumped up, he just couldn’t wake up.

  It was probably a false alarm, because no shots were fired.

  When Mark finally woke him up, it was already a quarter to six.

  ‘Get up, time to go on duty!’ He cheerily shook Artyom by the shoulder. ‘Let’s go, I’ll show you the passageway that they wouldn’t let you into yesterday. Do you have a passport?’

  Artyom shook his head.

  ‘Well never mind, we’ll smooth it over somehow,’ Mark promised, and indeed, after a few minutes, they were already in the passage, and the security officer whistled the go-ahead obligingly, fondling two cartridges.

  The passageway was very long, even longer than the station itself. There were canvas tents along one wall, and rather bright little lamps burning (‘Hansa takes care of us,’ Mark smirked), and along the other was a partition - long, but not high, not more than a metre.

  ‘By the way, this is one of the longest passageways in the whole metro!’ Mark said proudly. ‘What’s behind the partition, you ask? And you don’t know? Why it’s a marvellous thing! Half of everything we earn goes there! Just wait, it’s still early. Things will start up later on. It’s almost always the same, in the evening, when the entrance to the station is closed and people don’t have anything else to do. Although there can be qualification rounds during the day. No really, you’ve never heard of it? Why we’ve got a Totalizator for rat races! We call it the Hippodrome. I thought everybody knew about it,’ he said with surprise, when he finally realized that Artyom was not joking. ‘Do you like to gamble much? I’m a gambler myself.’

  Artyom was certainly interested in watching races, but had never been fanatical about it. Besides, now, having slept so long, a storm cloud of guilt was growing and darkening over his head. He couldn’t wait until evening, couldn’t wait at all. He had to get moving; too much time had already been wasted. But the way to Polis led through Hansa, and right now there was no way of getting there.

  ‘I probably can’t stay here until evening,’ said Artyom. ‘I have to go . . . to Polyanka.’

  ‘But then you’ll be going across Hansa,’ said Mark with a frown. ‘How are you going to get across Hansa if you have no visa, and no passport either? I can’t help you there, my friend. But wait, let me throw out an idea. The chief of Paveletskaya - not our Paveletskaya, but the one on the Ring - is a great fan of these races. His rat, Pirate, is a favourite. He comes here every night, with a security detail and full lighting. How about wagering yourself, personally, against him?’

  ‘But I haven’t got anything to wager with,’ Artyom objected.

  ‘Wager yourself, as a servant. Or if you want, I’ll wager you.’ Mark’s eyes sparkled with excitement. ‘If we win, you get a visa. If we lose - you’ll get there just the same, although of course it will be up to you how to get out. Is there an alternative?’

  Artyom did not like this plan. It seemed somehow shameful to sell himself into slavery and, what’s more, to lose himself to a rat Totalizator. He decided to try to get to Hansa some other way. For a couple of hours, he hung around some stern border guards in dappled grey uniforms - they were dressed exactly like those at Prospect Mir - trying to strike up a conversation with them; but they kept mum. After one of them contemptuously called him One-Eye (that was unfair, because his left eye had already begun to open up, although it still hurt like hell) and told him to buzz off, Artyom finally abandoned that fruitless effort and started looking for the most sinister and suspicious people at the station, the weapon and drug traders - anyone who might be a contraband runner.

  But no one wanted to convey Artyom to Hansa in exchange for his automatic weapon and his lamp.

  Evening came on, and Artyom met it with quiet despair, sitting on the floor of the passageway and wallowing in self-flagellation. Around this time, the passage became more lively; the adults were returning from work, having dinner with their families; the children were making an uproar until time to go to bed; and finally, after the gate was locked, everyone poured out of their stalls and tents, toward the race course. There were lots of people here, at least three hundred, and finding Mark in such a crowd was no easy job. People were betting on how Pirate was running, whether Pushka would beat him just for once, mentioning various nicknames and other runners,
but these two evidently had no competition.

  The important rat owners approached the starting position, carrying their well-groomed pets in little cages. The chief of Paveletskaya-Ring was nowhere to be seen, and Mark also seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Artyom was even afraid that he was on patrol again today and wouldn’t come. What in the world would he do then?

  Finally, a small procession appeared at the other end of the passageway. Walking with an escort of two morose bodyguards, an old man with a shaved head, lush, well-groomed moustaches, glasses, and an austere black suit, bore his corpulent body along with no hurry, with dignity. One of the security guards held a cushioned red velvet box with a latticed wall, in which something grey was thrashing about. That, most likely, was the famous Pirate.

  The bodyguard carried the box with the rat to the starting line, and the moustached old man walked over to the referee sitting behind a little desk, chucked his aide off a chair, sat down heavily in the empty space, and started up a leisurely conversation. The second security man stood nearby, his back to the wall, legs spread wide, and with his hands on the short black automatic hanging around his chest. Such an imposing fellow was not the sort of person with whom to discuss a wager; even to get close to him was frightening.

  Then Artyom saw the sloppily dressed Mark, scratching his long-unwashed head, approaching these venerable people and beginning to explain something to the referee. From that distance, all he could hear was the intonation, but he could certainly see that the moustached old man at first flushed with indignation, then grimaced arrogantly, finally nodded with displeasure, took off his glasses, and started to clean them.

  Artyom made his way through the crowd to the starting position, where Mark was standing. ‘Everything is hush-hush!’ Mark announced, rubbing his hands with glee.

  Asked exactly what he had in mind, Mark explained that he had just thrust a personal bet upon the old chief, that his own new rat would outrun the favourite on the first round. He had to put Artyom up for it, Mark reported, but in exchange, he demanded a visa for all of Hansa for Artyom and himself. The chief, to be sure, rejected the proposal, saying that he doesn’t engage in the slave trade (Artyom breathed a sigh of relief), but adding that such presumptuous insolence would have to be punished. If their rat lost, Mark and Artyom would have to clean the latrines at Paveletskaya-Ring for one year. If the rat won, then, OK, they would get the visa. Of course he was positive that the second option was out of the question, which is why he agreed. He decided to punish the cocky upstarts who had dared to throw down a challenge to his pet.

  ‘And do you have your rat?’ Artyom asked cautiously.

  ‘Of course!’ Mark reassured him. ‘A real brute! She’ll tear Pirate to shreds! Do you know how she ran away from me today? I could barely catch her! I chased her nearly to Novokuznetskaya.’

  ‘And what’s her name?’

  ‘Her name?’

  ‘Sure, what’s her name?’

  ‘Well, let’s say, Rocket,’ Mark proposed.

  ‘Rocket - does that sound menacing?’

  Artyom was not sure that the competition was really intended to see whose rat would tear a rival to pieces, but he kept his mouth shut. When Mark explained that he had only caught his rat today, Artyom couldn’t stand it.

  ‘And so how do you know she’s going to win?’

  ‘I believe in her, Artyom!’ Mark proclaimed solemnly. ‘And anyhow, you see, I’ve really wanted to have my own rat for a long time. I used to bet on other people’s rats; they would lose, and I would think to myself: never mind, the day will come when I will have my own, and she’ll bring me luck. But I never decided to do it - after all, it’s not that simple. You have to get permission from the referee, and that’s such a drag . . . My whole life will go by, some newcomer will gobble me up, or I’ll die all on my own, and I’ll never have my own rat . . . And then you turned up, and I thought: here we go! It’s now or never. If you don’t take a risk now, I said to myself, then you’ll always be betting on someone else’s rat. And I decided: if I’m going to play, then let me play for high stakes. Of course, I want to help you, but excuse me for saying that that’s not the main thing. And so I wanted to go right up to that old fart,’ - Mark lowered his voice, - ‘and say: I’ll wager myself against your Pirate! He got so enraged that he forced the referee to certify my rat out of turn. And you know,’ he added, barely audible, ‘this moment will be followed by a year of cleaning the latrines.’

  ‘Because our rat will surely lose!’ Artyom desperately tried to reason with him for the last time.

  Mark looked at him attentively, then smiled and said:

  ‘But what if . . . ?’

  Having sternly looked over the audience, the referee smoothed his greying hair, cleared his throat with self-importance, and began to read off the nicknames of the rats taking part in the race. Rocket was last, but Mark didn’t pay any attention to that. Pirate got more applause than any others, and only Artyom clapped for Rocket, because Mark’s hands were occupied, holding the cage. Artyom was still hoping for a miracle that would spare him from an ignominious end in a stinking abyss.

  Then the referee fired a blank from his Makarov, and the owners opened the cages. Rocket was the first to break out, and Artyom’s heart leapt with joy; but then, while the other rats charged off along the length of the passageway, some slower, some faster, Rocket, not living up to her proud name, got stuck in a corner five metres from the starting line, and there she stayed. It was against the rules to prod the rats. Artyom glanced at Mark apprehensively, expecting that he would either start getting violent, or on the contrary, would languish, overwhelmed with grief. But the stern, proud expression on Mark’s face reminded him more of that of the captain of the cruiser who gave the order to sink a warship to prevent the enemy from capturing it, a story about some war between the Russians and somebody else that he’d in a beat-up book lying in the library at the VDNKh.

  After a couple of minutes, the first rats reached the finish line. Pirate won, second place was some creature with an unintelligible name, Pushka came in third. Artyom cast a glance at the referee table. The old guy with the moustache, wiping the sweat of excitement from his bald pate with the same cloth he had used earlier to clean his glasses, was discussing the results with the referee. Artyom was already expecting that they would forget about them, when the old man suddenly slapped himself on the forehead and, smiling sweetly, beckoned to Mark.

  Artyom felt almost like he did at the moment when they took him off for execution, although the sensation was not as strong. Making his way behind Mark to the referee’s table, he comforted himself with the fact that, one way or another, the coast was now clear for him to cross Hansa territory; the only trick was to find a way to escape.

  But disgrace awaited him.

  Shrewdly inviting them to come up to the dais, Moustache turned to the audience and briefly explained the wager, then loudly proclaimed that both rascals were being sent, as agreed, to clean out the sanitary facilities for one year, starting today. Two Hansa border guards appeared from God knows where, took away Artyom’s automatic weapon, assuring him that his main opponent in the coming year would not be dangerous, and promising to return the weapon at the end of the sentence. Then, suffering the whistling and hooting of the crowd, they were led off to the Ring.

  The passage went under the floor at the centre of the hall, just as at the other station of the same name, but there the similarity between the two Paveletskayas ended. The one on the Ring conveyed a very strange impression: on one side, the ceiling was low and there were no real columns at all - arches spanned equal intervals along the wall, with the width of each arch being the same as the width of the gap between them. It seemed as though the first Paveletskaya had been easy for the builders, as if the dirt there was softer and all one had to do was push one’s way across it; whereas at the other Paveletskaya, there was some hard, unyielding rock which was a real pain to chew through.

  But for some reason this place did not produce the depressing, melancholy feeling that the Tverskaya did. Maybe because here there was so much light, and the walls were decorated with simple designs and imitations of ancient columns, like in the pictures from ‘Myths of Ancient Greece.’ In short, this was not the worst place for forced labour.