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Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 37


  The walls in the offices were lined with stained oak, and two large oil paintings hung there, opposite each other. Artyom easily recognized the Library on one of them, while the other depicted a tall building covered in white stone. The label under the picture read: ‘General Staff, Russian Federation Ministry of Defence.’

  A large wooden table stood in the middle of the spacious room. About ten men sat in chairs around the table, studying Artyom. Half of them wore grey Brahmin robes; the other half, military officer uniforms. As it turned out, the officers sat under the painting of the General Staff, while the Brahmins sat under the Library painting.

  A person of short stature but of commanding bearing sat solemnly at the head of the table. He wore austere glasses and had a large bald spot. He was dressed in a suit and tie, but had no tattoo to designate membership in any caste.

  ‘To business,’ he began, without introducing himself. ‘Tell us everything you know, including the situation with the tunnels from your station to Prospect Mit.’

  Artyom proceeded to describe in detail the history of the VDNKh battle against the dark ones, then about Hunter’s mission, and finally, about his trek to Polis. When he related the events in the tunnels between Alekseevskaya, Rizhskaya, and Prospect Mir, the soldiers and Brahmins started to whisper among themselves, some incredulous, others animated, while an officer who sat in the corner diligently recording the narrative occasionally asked him to repeat what he had said.

  When the discussions finally stopped, Artyom was allowed to continue his story, but his recital elicited little interest in his listeners until he got to Polyanka and its inhabitants.

  ‘If you will!’ interrupted one of the officers, indignantly. He was about fifty years old, of compact build, with slicked-back hair, and he wore steel-framed glasses that cut into the meaty bridge of his nose. ‘It is known without a doubt that Polyanka is uninhabited. The station was deserted a long time ago. It’s true that dozens of people pass through the station every day, but nobody can live there. Gas erupts there from time to time, and there are signs everywhere warning of the danger. And well, of course, cats and paper waste are long since gone, too. The platform is completely empty. Completely. Cease your insinuations.’

  The other officers nodded in agreement, and Artyom fell silent, perplexed. When he stopped at Polyanka, the thought entered his mind, for an instant, that the tranquil conditions that prevailed at the station were unreal for the metro. But he was immediately distracted from such thinking by the inhabitants, who were more than real.

  The Brahmins, however, did not support the angry outburst. The oldest of them, a bald man with a long, grey beard, regarded Artyom with interest and exchanged some words with those sitting nearby in an unintelligible language.

  ‘This gas, as you know, has hallucinogenic properties when mixed in certain proportions with air,’ said the Brahmin sitting at the old man’s right hand, in a conciliatory manner.

  ‘The point is, can we now believe any of the rest of his story?’ retorted the officer, frowning at Artyom.

  ‘Thank you for your report,’ said the man in the suit, interrupting the discussion. ‘The Council will discuss it and inform you of the result. You may go.’

  Artyom started to make his way to the exit. Was his entire conversation with the two hookah-smoking inhabitants of Polyanka really just a hallucination? But that would then mean the idea of his having been selected - of his being able to bend reality while fulfilling his destiny - was just a product of his imagination, an attempt at self-consolation . . . Now even the mysterious encounter in the tunnel between Borovitskaya and Polyanka no longer seemed a miracle to him. Gas? Gas.

  He sat on the bench next to the door and didn’t even pay attention to the distant voices of the arguing Council members. People went by, handcars and railmotor cars drove through the station, and the minutes passed, while he sat and thought. Did he actually have a mission, or did he make the whole thing up? What’ll he do now? Where’ll he go?

  Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the officer who made notes during his narrative.

  ‘The members of the Council state that Polis cannot assist your station in any way. They are grateful for your detailed report on the situation in the subway system. You are free to go.’

  That was it. Polis can’t help with anything. It was all for nothing. He had done everything he could, but it changed nothing. All that remained was to return to VDNKh and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the remaining defenders. Artyom heaved himself up from the bench and went off slowly, with no particular destination in mind.

  When he had almost reached the passage to Borovitskaya, he heard a quiet cough behind him. Artyom turned and saw the Brahmin from the Council, the same one who had sat at the old man’s right hand.

  ‘Wait a moment, young man. I believe you and I need to discuss something . . . privately,’ added the Brahmin, smiling politely. ‘If the Council is not in a position to do anything for you, then perhaps your obedient servant can be of more help.’

  He took Artyom by the elbow and led him away to one of the brick residences in the arches. There were no windows here, and no electric lights. Only the flame of a small candle lit the faces of several people who had gathered in the room. Artyom was not able to get a good look at them, because the Brahmin who brought him quickly blew out the flame, and the room was plunged into darkness.

  ‘Is it true about Polyanka ?’ asked a woolly voice.

  ‘Yes,’ answered Artyom, unwaveringly.

  ‘Do you know what we Brahmins call Polyanka? The station of destiny. Let the kshatriyas think it’s the gas that brings about the gloomy enchantment, we won’t protest. We would not restore the sight of our most recent enemy. We believe that people encounter messengers of Providence at this station. Providence has nothing to say to most of them, so they simply pass through an empty, abandoned station. But those who have met someone at Polyanka should have a most attentive attitude towards such an encounter and remember what was said to them there for the rest of their lives. Do you remember?’

  ‘I’ve forgotten,’ lied Artyom, not particularly trusting these people, who reminded him of the members of a sect.

  ‘Our elders are convinced that you have not come here by chance. You are not an ordinary person, and your special abilities, which have saved you several times along the way, can help us, too. In exchange, we will extend a helping hand to you and your station. We are the guardians of knowledge, and that includes information that can save VDNKh.’

  ‘What’s VDNKh got to do with anything?’ burst Artyom. ‘You all talk only about VDNKh! It’s as if you don’t understand that I came here not just for the sake of my station, and not because of my own misfortune! All, all of you, are in danger! First VDNKh will fall, then the whole line will follow, and then the entire metro will come to an end . . .’

  There was no response. The silence deepened. Only the cadenced breathing of those present could be heard. Artyom waited a bit longer and then, unable to stay silent, asked:

  ‘What must I do?’

  ‘Go up, into the great stack archives. Find that which is ours by right, and return it to us here. If you can find what we seek, we will give you the knowledge that will help destroy the threat. And may the Great Library burn if I lie.’

  CHAPTER 13

  The Great Library

  Artyom went out into the station, looking from side to side with a mad look in his eye. He had just entered into one of the strangest agreements of his life. His employers refused to even explain what, exactly, he was supposed to find in the stack archives, promising to provide him with details later, after he had already gone up to the surface. And though it had occurred to him, for a moment, that they were talking about the Book Daniel had told him about the night before, he didn’t dare ask the Brahmins about it. Then, too, both of them had been pretty drunk yesterday, when his hospitable host had told him this secret, so there was reason to doubt its truth.

  He would
not be going to the surface alone. The Brahmins intended to outfit an entire detachment. Artyom was to go up with at least two stalkers and one person from the caste, to whom he was to immediately give what had been found, should the expedition meet with success. That same person would show Artyom something that would help eliminate the threat hanging over VDNKh.

  Now, having emerged from the impenetrable gloom of the room onto the platform, the terms of the agreement seemed absurd to Artyom. As in the old fairy tale, he was required to go he knew not where, to fetch he knew not what, and in exchange, he was promised he knew not what kind of miraculous salvation. But what else could he do? Return with empty hands? Is that what the hunter expected of him?

  When Artyom had asked his mysterious employers how he would find what they were looking for in the giant stacks of the Library, he was told that he would understand everything in due course. He would hear. He didn’t ask any more questions, fearful that the Brahmins would lose their confidence in his extraordinary abilities, in which he himself did not believe. Finally, he was strictly warned that the soldiers must not learn anything, else the agreement would no longer be in force.

  Artyom sat down on a bench in the centre of the hall and started to think. This was an incredible chance to go out onto the surface, do what he had only done once before, and do it without fear of punishment or consequences. To go up on the surface - and not alone, but with real stalkers - to carry out a secret mission for the guardian caste . . . He hadn’t even asked them why they so detested the word ‘librarian.’

  Melnik slumped down on the bench next to him. Now he looked tired and overwrought.

  ‘Why’d you say yes?’ he asked, without expression and looking in front of him.

  ‘How’d you find out?’ asked Artyom, surprised. Less than a quarter hour had passed since his conversation with the Brahmins.

  ‘I’ll have to go with you,’ continued Melnik in a dull voice, ignoring the question. ‘I answer to Hunter for you now, whatever’s happened to him. And there’s no backing out on an agreement with the Brahmins. Nobody’s done it yet. And above all, don’t think about blabbing to the military.’ He got up, shook his head, and added: ‘If you only knew what you’re getting into . . . I’m going to sleep. We’ll be getting up tonight.’

  ‘But aren’t you in the military?’ asked Artyom, catching up to him. ‘I heard them call you “Colonel”.’

  ‘Yeah, I’m a colonel, just not in their chain of command,’ answered Melnik grudgingly, and left.

  Artyom spent the rest of the day learning about Polis, walking about aimlessly through the limitless space of stairs and passages, examining the majestic colonnades and marvelling at how many people this underground city could accommodate. He studied the whole of the ‘Metro News’ penny sheet, which was printed on brown wrapping paper, listened to vagrant musicians, leafed through books at stalls, played with puppies that were being offered for sale, listened to the latest gossip, and could not shake the feeling that he was being followed all this time and was under constant observation. Several times, he even wheeled around suddenly, hoping to catch someone’s attentive look, but it was no use. He was surrounded by a swarming crowd, and nobody paid any attention to him.

  Finding a hotel in one of the passages, he slept for several hours before appearing at ten in the evening, as had been agreed, at the gate of the exit into the city at Borovitskaya. Melnik was running late, but the sentries had been informed and offered Artyom a cup of tea while he waited.

  Interrupting himself for a minute to pour boiling water into an enamelled cup, the elderly sentry continued his story:

  ‘So . . . I was assigned to listen to the radio. Everyone hoped to catch a transmission from government bunkers beyond the Urals. But it was no use, because the first thing they hit was the strategic targets. That’s how Ramenki got smeared, and all of the out-of-town summer residences, with their basements thirty metres deep, how they got smeared, too . . . They might have even spared Ramenki . . . They didn’t try too hard to hit the peaceful population . . . Nobody knew then that this war was to the very end. So, maybe they might have spared Ramenki, but there was a command point right next to it, so they slammed it . . . And as far as civilian casualties were concerned, it was all, as they say, collateral damage, you should pardon the expression. But at that time nobody believed that yet, so the brass had me sit and listen to the airwaves over next to Arbatskaya, in a bunker. And initially, I heard a lot of strange stuff . . . Siberia was quiet, though other parts of the country were broadcasting. Submarines - strategic, nuclear - went on the air. They’d ask whether to strike or not . . . People didn’t believe that Moscow no longer existed. Full captains were sobbing like kids over the radio. It’s strange, you know, when salty naval officers, who hadn’t uttered a swear word in their entire lives, are crying and asking for someone to check and see if their wives or daughters are among the survivors . . . “Go, look for them here,” they’d say . . . And later, they’d all react differently. There were those who said, “That’s it! The hell with it, it’s an eye for an eye!” and they’d get in close to their shores and launch everything against the cities. Others, on the contrary, decided that since everything was already going to hell in a hand basket, there wasn’t any sense in continuing to fight. Why kill more people? But that didn’t have any effect. There were enough out there who wanted to avenge their families. And the boats answered for a long time. They could run under water for half a year while on station. They found some of them, of course, but they couldn’t find all of them. Well, that’s an earful of history. To this day, when I think about it, I get the shakes. But that wasn’t the point. I once picked up a tank crew that miraculously survived a strike; they were ferrying their tank from their unit, or something . . . It was a new generation of armour technology that protected them from the radiation. So, here were these three guys in this tank, and they light out at full speed from Moscow, headed east. They drove through some burning villages, picked up some broads, and went on, stopping to top off with some straw distillate and then getting back on the road. When the fuel finally ran out, they were in some backwater, where there wasn’t anything left to bomb. The background radiation there, too, remained pretty high, of course, but still it was nothing like it was next to the cities. They laid out a camp, dug their tank in hull-down, and ended up with a sort of fortification. They pitched tents nearby, eventually built mud huts, set up a manual generator for electricity, and lived for a fairly long time around that tank. For two years, I spoke to them almost every night and knew all of what was going on in their personal lives. Everything was quiet at first, they set up a farmstead, and two of them had kids that were . . . almost normal. They had enough ammo. They saw some weird stuff there, and creatures were coming out of the forest the likes of which the lieutenant we were talking to couldn’t even describe properly. Then they went off the air. I spent another half year trying to raise them, but something happened out there. Maybe their generator or transmitter broke down, or maybe they ran out of ammo . . .’

  ‘You were talking about Ramenki,’ recalled his partner, ‘about how it got bombed, and I thought, for as long as I’ve been serving here, nobody can tell me anything about the Kremlin. How is it that it remained whole? Why didn’t it get hit? I mean, that’s where’d you expect to find right proper bunkers . . .’

  ‘Who told you it didn’t get hit? Man, did it get hit!’ the sentry assured him. ‘They just didn’t want to demolish it, because it’s an architectural monument, and also because they were testing new weapons against it. So that’s what we got . . . It would’ve been better if they’d wiped it off the earth from the beginning.’ He spat and fell silent.

  Artyom sat quietly, trying not to distract the veteran from his reminiscences. It was rare that he was able to hear so many details of how everything had come about. But the elderly sentry remained quiet, lost in some private thought, and eventually Artyom seized the moment and decided to ask a question that had preoccu
pied him earlier, too:

  ‘But there’s subway systems in other cities, aren’t there? At least, I heard there were. Is it true there’s no people left anywhere? When you were a radio operator, didn’t you hear any signals?’

  ‘No, I didn’t hear anything. But you’re right. People in Petersburg, for example, should have been able to save themselves. Their subway stations are deeply embedded, some even deeper than what we’ve got here, and the setup was the same. I travelled there when I was young, I remember. On one line, they had no exits onto the tracks. Instead, they had these hefty iron portals. When the train arrived, the portal doors would open together with the doors of the train. I remember this quite me surprised at the time. I asked everyone, but nobody could properly explain why things were set up that way. One told me it was to prevent flooding, another told me it saved a heap of money on finishing work. Later, I became friends with this one subway worker, and he told me that something had devoured half of one construction team, and that the same was going on with other teams. They were finding only the gnawed bones and the tools. Of course, the public was never told anything, but those iron doors were installed all along the line, just to be on the safe side. And that was, let me think, back when . . . Anyway, what the radiation may have spawned there is hard to imagine.’

  The conversation broke off as Melnik and one other person, short and thickset, with deeply set eyes and a massive jaw overgrown by a short beard, came up to the gate. Both were already wearing their protective suits and had large haversacks slung on their backs. Melnik silently inspected Artyom, placed a large black bag next to Artyom’s feet, and motioned towards the army tent.

  Artyom slipped inside and, opening the zipper on the bag, took out a black set of overalls like the ones Melnik and his partner wore, an unusual gas mask, with a full-face window and two filters on the sides, high laced boots, and most important, a new Kalashnikov assault rifle with a laser sight and folding metal stock. It was an exceptional weapon. The only thing Artyom had seen like it had been carried by the elite Hansa units who patrolled the line in railmotor cars. A long flashlight and round helmet with a fabric cover lay at the bottom of the bag.