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Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 38


  He hadn’t had the time to finish dressing when the tent flap lifted and the Brahmin Daniel entered. In his hands, he held an identical zippered stretch bag. They stared at each other in amazement. Artyom was the first to realize what was what.

  ‘You’re going up? You’re our chaperone? You’re going to help us go look for I don’t know what?’ he asked, jeeringly.

  ‘I know what it is,’ snarled Daniel, ‘but I have no idea how you intend to look for it.’

  ‘Neither do I,’ admitted Artyom. ‘I was told it’d be explained later . . . So here I am, waiting.’

  ‘And I was told that a clairvoyant is being sent up to the surface, and that he’s supposed to feel where to go.’

  ‘I’m the clairvoyant?’ snorted Artyom.

  ‘The elders believe that you have a gift and that your destiny is special. Somewhere in the Testament is a prophecy foretelling the appearance of a youth, led by fate, who will find the hidden secrets of the Great Library. He will find that which our caste has attempted to find for this past decade without success. The elders are convinced that this person is you.’

  ‘Is it that book you told me about?’ asked Artyom.

  For a long time, Daniel didn’t answer, then he nodded his head.

  ‘You’re supposed to feel it. It’s not hidden from everyone. If you’re really that same “youth, led by fate”, then you won’t even have to run around the stack archives. The book will find you,’ he said, running his eyes over Artyom searchingly, and then added, ‘What did you ask from them in exchange?’

  There was no use keeping back the truth. Artyom was only unpleasantly surprised that Daniel, who was supposed to give him information capable of saving VDNKh from the ghoul invasion, knew nothing of this danger or of the conditions of his agreement with the Council members. He briefly summarized the agreement for Daniel and explained the catastrophe he was trying to prevent. Daniel attentively heard him out, and was still standing motionless and thinking about something when Artyom left the tent.

  Melnik and the bearded stalker were already waiting in full combat dress, holding their gas masks and helmets in their hands. His partner now carried the light machine gun, while Melnik clasped a copy of the assault rifle that Artyom had been given. A night vision device was hanging around his neck.

  When Daniel stepped out of the tent, he and Artyom looked at each other with a swagger, then Daniel gave a wink and both started to laugh. They both now looked like real stalkers.

  ‘We lucked out . . . Before rookies go on important missions, they spend two years training under stalkers, fetching firewood from the surface. But you and I, we’re sitting pretty!’ said Daniel, whispering, to Artyom.

  Melnik looked at them disapprovingly, but said nothing. He motioned for them to follow. They came up to the passage arch and, after going up the stairs, stopped at the next cement block wall, where there was an armoured door guarded by a reinforced sentry detail. The stalker greeted the sentries and gave the sign to open the door. One of the soldiers got up from his seat, went to the door and pulled at the bolt heavily. The thick steel door moved smoothly to the side. Melnik let the other three pass, saluted the sentries, and went out last.

  A short buffer zone about three metres in length began beyond the door, between the wall and the pressure doors. Another two heavily armed soldiers and an officer stood watch there. Before giving the order to raise the iron barrier, Melnik decided to brief the rookies.

  ‘Listen up. No talking en route. Either of you ever been on the surface? Never mind . . . Give me the map,’ he said to the officer. ‘Until we get to the vestibule, walk in my footsteps and don’t wander. Don’t look around, don’t talk. When we leave the vestibule, don’t even think about going through the turnstiles, or you’ll lose your legs. Keep following me. I don’t want to see any independent activity. Then I’ll go outside. Ten over there,’ he pointed at the bearded stalker, ‘will stay behind and cover the station vestibule. If everything is clear, then as soon as we’re on the street, we’ll immediately turn left. It’s not too dark right now, so don’t use your flashlights out there. We don’t want to attract attention. Did you get the word about the Kremlin? It’ll be on the right, but one tower can be seen above the buildings as soon as you come out of the metro. Don’t look at the Kremlin, no matter what! I’ll personally smack anyone who does upside the head.’

  So it’s true, about the Kremlin and about the stalker’s rule not to look at it, no matter what, thought Artyom in amazement. Suddenly, something stirred within him, some fragmented thoughts and images . . . Stirred, and then calmed down.

  ‘We’re going up to the Library. We’ll go as far as the doors and steps. I’ll go in first. If the stairs are clear, Ten’ll keep his sights on ’em and we’ll go up; then we’ll cover Ten and he’ll come up. No talking on the stairs. If you spot danger, signal with your flashlight. Don’t shoot unless it’s absolutely necessary. Shots can attract them.’

  ‘Who?’ Artyom could not stay quiet.

  ‘What do you mean, “who”?’ repeated Melnik. ‘Who would you expect to meet in the Library? Librarians, of course.’

  Daniel swallowed hard and paled. Artyom looked at him, then at Melnik and decided this was no time to pretend he was a know-it-all.

  ‘And who’s that?’

  Melnik raised his eyebrows in surprise. His bearded partner put a hand over his eyes. Daniel looked at the floor. For a long time, the stalker looked at Artyom with eyebrows raised and when he finally understood that Artyom wasn’t joking, he coolly answered, ‘You’ll see for yourself. The main thing to remember is this: you can keep them from attacking if you look them straight in the eyes. Straight in the eyes, got it? Don’t let them get behind you . . . That’s all. Move out!’ He put on his gas mask, then his helmet, and gave the sentries the thumbs-up.

  The officer took a step to the master switch and opened the pressure doors. The steel barrier crawled upward, slowly. The show had begun.

  Melnik waved his hand, indicating it was OK to come out. Artyom pushed the transparent door, raised his rifle, and jumped out into the street. And although the stalker had demanded that he follow in his footsteps and not wander, it wasn’t possible to obey . . .

  The sky had changed completely since that time when Artyom had seen it as a boy. Instead of a limitless, transparent sky-blue space, dense grey clouds now hung low overhead, and the first drops of an autumn rain had begun to ooze from this cotton-like sky. A cold wind blew in gusts, and Artyom felt it even through the cloth of his protective suit.

  There was a mind-boggling, inconceivable amount of space here, to the right and to the left and in front. This boundless space was both spellbinding and strangely depressing at the same time. For a fraction of a second, Artyom wanted to return to the Borovitskaya vestibule, underground, and feel protected by the nearby walls and immerse himself in the comfort of an enclosed, limited space. He was able to deal with this oppressive feeling only by forcibly distracting himself to study the nearest buildings.

  The sun had already set, and the city was gradually descending into a dingy twilight. The skeletons of low apartment houses, dilapidated and pitted by decades of acid rainstorms, stared at the travellers with empty orbits of broken windows.

  The city . . . It was a dismal, yet magnificent sight. Hearing no calls, Artyom stood still, looking about as if mesmerized; he could finally compare reality with his dreams and with nearly equally blurry childhood memories.

  Daniel, who likely also had never been on the surface, froze next to him too. The last to emerge from the station vestibule was Ten. The stalker slapped Artyom on the shoulder to get his attention and pointed to the right to where, in the distance, the silhouette of the cathedral’s dome stood out against the sky.

  ‘Look at the cross,’ droned the Ten’s voice through the gas mask’s filters.

  At first, Artyom noticed nothing in particular, and didn’t actually see the cross. Only when a giant winged shadow took flight from
the crossbar with a lingering, bloodcurdling wail did he understand what Ten had meant. After a few flaps of its wings, the monster had gained altitude and began to glide downward in wide circles, searching for prey.

  ‘That’s where they nest,’ said Ten with a wave of the hand.

  Staying close to the wall, they moved to the entrance of the Library. Melnik led the group, staying several steps ahead while Ten was stepping backward, half-turned, covering the rear. It was precisely because both stalkers were distracted that Artyom was able, even before they had drawn even with the statue of the old man sitting in the armchair, to cast a glance at the Kremlin.

  Artyom had not intended to do it, but when he saw the monument, it was as if he had been jolted, and something cleared up in his mind. A whole piece of yesterday’s dream suddenly popped to the surface. But now it didn’t seem to be only a dream, because the panorama and Library colonnade that he had seen exactly resembled the view that was before him now. Did that mean that the Kremlin looked the same as he had imagined in his visions?

  Nobody was looking at Artyom, even Daniel wasn’t nearby, as he tarried behind with Ten. It was now or never, said Artyom to himself.

  His mouth became dry and blood began to pound in his temples.

  The star on the tower really did glitter.

  ‘Hey, Artyom! Artyom!’ Someone shook his shoulder.

  A numb awareness came alive with difficulty. A bright flashlight beam assaulted his eyes. Artyom started to blink his eyes and shaded them with his hand. He was sitting on the ground with his back against the granite base of the monument. Daniel and Melnik were bending over him. Both were looking into his eyes with worry.

  ‘His pupils are constricted,’ stated Melnik. ‘How’d you manage to lose him?’ he asked Ten, with annoyance. The latter stood at some distance and kept his eyes on the street.

  ‘Something made a noise back there, and I couldn’t turn my back to it,’ explained the stalker. ‘Who could guess he was so quick . . . Look, he almost made it to the Manezh within a minute . . . And he would have kept going. It’s a good thing our Brahmin has a head on his shoulders,’ he said and slapped Daniel on the back.

  ‘It shines,’ said Artyom to Melnik in a weak voice. ‘It shines,’ he said, looking at Daniel.

  ‘It shines, OK, it shines,’ repeated Daniel, reassuringly.

  ‘Weren’t you told not to look over there, dumbass?’ said Melnik to Artyom, angrily, now convinced the danger had passed. ‘You going to obey your superiors?’ he asked, and cuffed him on the back of his head.

  The helmet reduced the educational value of the blow, and Artyom continued to sit on the ground, batting his eyes. Having finally run out of obscenities, the stalker grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him hard, and put him on his feet.

  Artyom gradually recovered himself. He grew ashamed that he was not able to resist temptation. He stood, looking down at the toes of his boots, hesitating to look at Melnik. Luckily, Melnik didn’t have time to read any sermons, as he had been distracted by Ten, who was standing in the intersection. He had signalled his partner to join him and was pressing his finger to a filter on his gas mask, indicating a need for silence. Artyom decided to stay out of trouble by now following Melnik everywhere and never to turn in the direction of the enigmatic towers.

  Approaching Ten, Melnik also froze in his tracks. The bearded man was pointing into the distance, away from the Kremlin, to where the long-crumbling high-rises along Kalinin Prospekt gave the appearance of grinning, rotten teeth. Carefully drawing near to them, Artyom looked out from behind the stalker’s broad shoulders and immediately understood the situation.

  Right in the middle of the Prospekt, about sixty metres from them, he saw three human silhouettes standing motionless in the gathering dusk. Human? At such a distance, Artyom wouldn’t have bet they were, indeed, people, but they were of medium height and stood on two legs. This was encouraging.

  ‘Who’s that?’ Artyom asked hoarsely, whispering, while trying to identify the distant figures through the fogged window of his gas mask. Were they people or some spawn that he had heard spoken of?

  Melnik silently shook his head, making it known that he didn’t know any more than Artyom. He shone the beam of his flashlight at the motionless beings and made three circular motions. Then he switched his flashlight off. In answer, a bright spot of light came on in the distance, moved in a circle three times, and went out.

  Tension eased immediately and the electrified atmosphere returned to normal. Artyom sensed this even before Melnik gave the all clear.

  ‘Stalkers,’ explained the guide. ‘Remember, for next time: three circles with a flashlight is our recognition signal. If you get the same response, you can go forward without fear. You won’t come to harm. If you get no response, or some other response, then run. Don’t wait.’

  ‘But if they have a flashlight, it means they’re human and not some kind of monsters from the surface,’ objected Artyom.

  ‘I don’t know what’s worse,’ said Melnik, cutting off Artyom. Without further explanation, he moved up the stairs to the Library entrance.

  The heavy oak door, almost as tall as two people, gave slowly, almost unwillingly. The door’s rusted hinges shrieked hysterically. Melnik slipped inside, put his night-vision unit to his eyes while holding his rifle level with one arm. After a second, he signalled the others to follow.

  They could see a long corridor before them, with the twisted framework of iron coat racks along the sides. This was once a cloakroom. In the distance, in the fading day’s light coming weakly in from the street, were the white marble steps of a wide, rising staircase. The ceiling was about fifteen metres high, and the wrought railing of the second floor gallery could be distinguished about halfway up the wall. There was a brittle silence in the hall, responding to their every step.

  The walls of the vestibule were covered by moss that stirred slightly, as if it were breathing, and strange, vine-like plants as thick as one’s arm hung from the ceiling almost to the floor. Their stalks shimmered with a greasy lustre in the flashlight beams and were covered with large, malformed flowers that exuded a suffocating odour that made one’s head spin. They also swayed ever so slightly, and Artyom didn’t feel like venturing to find out if the wind blowing through the broken second-floor windows caused them to move, or whether they moved on their own.

  ‘What’s this?’ asked Artyom, addressing Ten and touching the vine with his hand.

  ‘Greenery,’ came the filtered reply. ‘House plants after being irradiated, that’s what. Morning glories. Did a proper job of growing ’em, those botanists . . .’

  Following Melnik, they reached the stairs and started to ascend, keeping to the left wall while Ten covered them. The lead stalker did not take his eyes off the black square of the entrance to other rooms that could be seen ahead of them. The others ran their flashlight beams over the marble walls and the rusty moss-pitted ceiling.

  The wide marble stairs on which they stood led to the second floor of the vestibule. There was no ceiling above it, and thus both vestibule floors combined into a single huge space. The vestibule’s second level formed three sides of a rectangle. In the centre, there was a space through which the stairs ascended, and there were areas along the edges with wooden cabinets. Most of them had either burned or rotted, but some looked as if people had used them just the day before. There were hundreds of small drawers in each section.

  ‘The card catalogue,’ said Daniel quietly, looking around with reverence. ‘The future can be foretold using these drawers. The initiated know how. After a ritual, you blindly pick one of the cabinets, then randomly pull out a drawer and take any card. If the ritual is properly performed, then the name of the book will foretell your future, provide a warning, or predict success.’

  For a second, Artyom wanted to go up to the nearest cabinet and find out what section of the card catalogue the fates had brought him to. But his attention was distracted by a giant cobweb which stretche
d several metres across a broken window in a far corner. A bird of considerable size was caught in thin filaments of apparently extraordinary strength. It was still alive, twitching weakly. To his relief, Artyom did not see whatever it was that had managed to spin this unnatural web. Besides them, there wasn’t a soul in the vast vestibule.

  Melnik signalled them all to stop.

  ‘Now listen,’ he said to Artyom. ‘Don’t listen to what’s outside . . . Try to hear the sounds from inside you, in your head. The book is supposed to call you. The Brahmin elders think that it is most likely on one of the levels of the Main Stack Archives. But the folio can be any place at all, in one of the reading rooms, in a forgotten library cart, in a hall, in one of the matron’s tables . . . So before we try to find a way into the archives, try to sense its voice here. Close your eyes. Relax.’

  Artyom squeezed his eyes shut and started to listen intently. In the complete darkness, the silence fell apart into dozens of tiny noises: the creaking of wooden shelves, the noise of draughts passing down corridors, vague murmurs, howls that carried from the street, and a noise like a geriatric cough that carried from the reading rooms . . . But Artyom was unable to hear anything that resembled a call or a voice. He stood like that, motionless, for five minutes, and then five more, ineffectively holding his breath, which might have obstructed his efforts to differentiate the voice of the living book from the farrago of dead book sounds.

  ‘No,’ he said, guiltily shaking his head and finally opening his eyes. ‘There’s nothing.’

  Melnik said nothing, nor did Daniel, but Artyom caught his disappointed look, which was self-explanatory.