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Metro 2033 44
‘But you just said that these are legends,’ Artyom objected.
‘Well, the Brahmins say they aren’t.’ The stalker waved the sheet. ‘It even explains here how to find our way to the location of this military unit. True, it also says that the installations are partially inoperable.’
‘Well, just how then do we get there?’
‘D-6. It mentions D-6 here. Metro-2. The location of one of the entrances is indicated. They maintain that the tunnel leads from there towards this unit. But they stipulate themselves that unforeseen obstacles may arise on trying to get through to Metro-2.’
‘Unseen observers?’ Artyom recalled a conversation he had heard once.
‘Observers? That’s rubbish and nonsense.’ Melnik wrinkled his face.
‘The missile unit was also just a legend,’ Artyom added.
‘And it remains a legend as long as I haven’t seen it myself,’ the stalker cut him short.
‘And where is the exit to Metro-2?’
‘It’s written here: Mayakovskaya station. That’s strange . . . As many times as I’ve been to Mayakovskaya, I never heard anything like that.’
‘So what will we do now?’ Artyom was curious.
‘Come with me,’ the stalker answered. ‘You have a bite, relax, and I’ll think about it for a while. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.’
Only when Melnik began to talk about food did Artyom suddenly become aware of how hungry he was. He sprang to the cold, tiled floor and was at the point of hobbling toward his boots when the stalker stopped him with a gesture.
‘Leave your shoes and all your clothes, put them there in that box. They will clean and disinfect them. They will also check your rucksack. Over there on the table are trousers and a jacket, put those on.’
Smolenskaya looked gloomy: a low semi-circular ceiling and narrow arches in massive walls lined with marble that was once white. Although decorative false columns overhung from the arches and well-preserved plasterwork adorned the walls at the top, all of it only accentuated his first impression.
The station gave the impression of a citadel besieged for a long time that its defenders had adorned in their own manner, giving the place an even more stern appearance. The double cement wall with the massive steel doors along both sides of the pressurized gate, the concrete firing points at the entrances to the tunnels, all said that the inhabitants here had grounds to fear for their safety. Women were hardly seen at Smolenskaya, but all the men were carrying weapons. When Artyom asked Melnik directly what happened at this station, the latter only vaguely shook his head and said that he could not see anything unusual here.
However, a strange sensation of tension hanging in the air did not leave Artyom. It was as if everyone here was waiting for something. The stalls were arranged in a line in the centre of the hall, and all the arches were left free, as though they were afraid to obstruct them so as not to hinder an emergency evacuation. At the same time, all the housing was situated exclusively in the spaces between the arches.
Halfway along each train platform, where it went down to the rails, sat duty personnel, who constantly kept the tunnels under observation from both sides. The almost total silence at the station added to the picture. The people here spoke in low voices among themselves, sometimes going into a whisper altogether, as if they were afraid that their voices may drown out some kind of troubling sounds coming from the tunnels.
Artyom tried to recall what he knew about Smolenskaya. Did it perhaps have dangerous neighbours? No, on one side the rails led to the bright and safe Polis, the heart of the metro, and the other tunnel led to Kievskaya, about which Artyom remembered only that it was populated mainly by those very same ‘Caucasians’ he had seen at Kitai Gorod and in the cells of the fascists, at Pushinskaya. But these were normal people, and they were hardly worth being so concerned about . . .
A dining room was located in the central tent. Dinner-time, judging by everything, had already passed, because only a few people remained at the crude, homemade tables. Sitting Artyom at one of the tables, Melnik returned a few minutes later with a bowl in which an unappetizing grey, thin gruel smoked. Under the reassuring glance of the stalker, Artyom dared to try it and didn’t stop until the bowl had been emptied. The local dish turned out to be simply remarkable in taste, although it was difficult to define from what specifically it had been prepared. One could say for certain that the cook hadn’t spared the meat.
Having finished eating and putting the earthen bowl aside, Artyom calmly looked around. Two men still sat at the neighbouring table, speaking quietly. While they were dressed in conventional quilted jackets, there was something in their appearance that caused him to imagine them in full protective suits and with automatic rifles at the ready.
Artyom caught the look one of them exchanged with Melnik. Not a word was spoken aloud. The man in the quilted jacket examined Artyom casually and returned to his leisurely conversation.
Several more minutes slipped by in silence. Artyom attempted to speak once more with him about the station, but Melnik answered reluctantly and curtly.
Then the man in the quilted jacket stood up from his seat, walked to their table and, leaning towards Melnik, said, ‘What will we do with Kievskaya? It’s coming to a head . . .’
‘OK, Artyom, go have a rest,’ the stalker said. ‘The third tent from here is for guests. The bed has already been made up. I made the arrangements. I’m going to stay here for a while, I have to talk to these guys.’
With a familiar unpleasant feeling as if they had sent him away so that he couldn’t overhear adult conversations, Artyom obediently stood up and pushed off towards the exit. At least he’d be able to study the station alone, he consoled himself.
Now, when he was able to take a closer more attentive look, Artyom discovered several more small peculiarities. The hall had been perfectly cleared, and the assorted junk with which the majority of the inhabited stations in the metro were unavoidably filled was completely missing here. And Smolenskaya was larger and did not give the appearance of an inhabited station. It suddenly reminded him of a picture from a history book in which a military encampment of Roman legionnaires was depicted. Correctly and symmetrically organized space, which faced in all directions, nothing of excess, sentries placed everywhere and reinforced entrances and exits . . .
He didn’t manage to walk around the station for very long. Having been confronted by the frankly suspicious glances of its inhabitants, Artyom understood after only several minutes that they were watching him, and so he preferred to retreat to the guest tent.
A made-up cot really did await him there, and in a corner stood a plastic bag with his name on it.
Artyom sunk into the springs of the squeaking cot and opened the bag. Inside were the things that he had left in the rucksack. Digging in it for a second, he drew from the bag the children’s book he had brought from the surface. He wondered if they had checked his little treasure with a Geiger counter. Certainly the dosimeter would have begun to click nervously near the book, but Artyom preferred not to think about it. He leafed through a few pages, making out the slightly faded pictures on the yellowed paper, delaying the moment when he would find his own photograph between the next pages.
Would it be his?
Whatever happened to him now, to the VDNKh, and to the whole metro, first he must return to his own station in order to ask Sukhoi, ‘Who’s in this photo? Is it my mother or not?’ Artyom pressed his lips to the picture, then again laid it between the pages and concealed the book back into the rucksack. For a second it had shown to him that something in his life was gradually falling into place. And a moment later, he was asleep.
When Artyom opened his eyes and left the tent, he didn’t even consider how much the station had changed. Fewer than ten complete housing units remained there. The rest had been broken or burned. The walls were covered with soot and pocked by bullets, the plaster was crumbling from the ceiling and lay on the floor in large pieces. Around the edges
of the platform flowed ominous black rivulets, the precursors of a coming flood. There was hardly anyone in the hall, only a small girl playing with toys alongside one of the tents. From the other platform, where the staircase of a new exit from the station went, muffled screams were heard. Only two surviving emergency lighting lamps dispelled the darkness in the hall.
The submachine gun that Artyom had left at the head of the cot, had disappeared somewhere. Searching the whole stall in vain, he resigned himself to the fact that he had to go unarmed.
Just what had happened here? Artyom would have liked to question the little girl who was playing, but she, having just seen him, desperately broke into tears so that to get anything from her proved to be impossible.
Leaving the little girl choking in her tears, Artyom carefully passed through the arch and glanced at the path. The first thing that caught his glance was the three bronze letters screwed to the marble facing: ‘V. .NKh.’ Where the ‘D’ should have been only a dark trace was visible. A deep crack went across the whole inscription along the marble.
He had to check what was happening in the tunnels. If someone had captured the stations, then, before going back for assistance, he had to explore the situation in order to explain exactly to his allies from the south what danger threatened them.
Immediately after the entrance to the line, there was such an impenetrable darkness that Artyom could see no further than the elbow of his own arm. Something was uttering strange, chomping sounds in the depth of the tunnel, and it was insane to go there unarmed. When the sounds stopped for a short while, he began to hear the water babbling along the floor, flowing round his boots and rushing back, towards VDNKh.
His legs shook and refused to step forward. The voice in his head warned over and over again that it was dangerous to go on, that the risk was too great and he would not be able to discern anything in such darkness anyhow. But another part of him, not paying any attention to all those sensible arguments, was pulling him deeper, into the darkness. And, having surrendered himself, he, like a wind-up toy, made one more step ahead.
The darkness surrounding him became total and nothing was visible. A strange sensation arose in Artyom, as if his body had disappeared. Only the rumour of his former self remained and he depended wholly on his mind.
Artyom moved forward for some time more, but the sounds from the direction he was heading did not get nearer. Then others were heard. The rustle of steps, the exact duplicate of those he had been hearing earlier, in the same darkness, but he was unable to recall where exactly and under what circumstances. And with every new step reaching him from the unseen depth of the tunnel, Artyom felt as if a black, cold horror was seeping, drop by drop, into his heart.
In several moments he, not being able to endure it, turned and broke headlong for the station, but, not seeing the cross-ties in the darkness, tripped over one of them and fell, knowing that now the inevitable end had come.
He broke out in a sweat and didn’t even consider immediately that he had fallen out the cot during a dream. His head was unusually heavy, a dull pain pulsed in his temples, and Artyom spent another few minutes on the floor, until he finally came to, but even then he was unable to lift himself to his feet.
But at that moment, when his head had cleared a little, the remnants of the nightmare completely vanished, and he was no longer able even to recall approximately just what he had dreamed. Lifting the curtain, he glanced outside. Besides some sentries, there was no one - evidently, it was now night. Deeply inhaling and exhaling the customary damp air several times, Artyom returned to the tent, stretched out on the cot and slept like a log without any dreams.
Melnik woke him. Dressed in a dark insulated jacket with turned-up collar and military trousers with pockets, he looked as if he intended to leave the station any minute now. He had on his head that very same old black field cap, and two large bags, which seemed familiar to Artyom, stood at his feet.
Melnik moved one of them toward Artyom with his boot and said:
‘Here. Shoes, a suit, a backpack and weapons. Change your shoes and get ready. You don’t have to put on any armour, we don’t intend to go to the surface, just bring it along. We leave in half an hour.’
‘Where are we going?’ Artyom asked, half awake, eyes fluttering and trying to restrain a yawn.
‘Kievskaya. If you are OK, then along the Ring to Byelorusskaya and to Mayakovskaya. And there we’ll see. Get ready.’
The stalker took a seat on a stool standing in the corner and, pulling a scrap of newspaper from his pocket, began to roll himself a cigarette, looking at Artyom from time to time. Under this watchful eye Artyom was nervous and fumbled everything.
However, after about twenty minutes, he was ready. Not saying a word, Melnik rose from the stool, grabbed his bag and walked to the platform. Artyom looked round the room and followed him.
They passed through an arch and exited toward the paths. Climbing along the wooden staircase added to the path, Melnik nodded to the sentry and began to walk towards the tunnel. Only now did Artyom notice how strangely the entrances to the lines were arranged. On the side of the platform that led to Kievskaya, half the path was blocked by a concrete weapon emplacement with narrow gun slots. A metal grate obstructed the passage as well. And there were two sentries on duty. Melnik gabbed with them in short, unintelligible phrases, after which one of the guards opened the hinged lock and pushed the grate.
Along one side of the tunnel stretched spooled black insulation wire, from which weak lamps hung every ten or fifteen metres. But even such poor lighting seemed a real luxury to Artyom. However, after three hundred steps, the wire had become detached, and in this place one more sentry awaited them. There were no uniforms on the patrol members, but they looked much more serious than the military at Polis. Knowing Melnik by sight, one of them nodded at him, letting him pass ahead. Stopping at the edge of the lighted space, the stalker took a flashlight from his bag and switched it on.
After another several hundred metres voices were heard ahead and the glows of flashlights appeared. Melnik’s submachine gun slid down from his shoulder and ended up in his hands in an imperceptible movement. Artyom followed his example.
Most likely it was another, long-range patrol from Smolenskaya. Two strong, armed men in warm jackets with fake fur collars were arguing with three peddlers. The patrol had round knitted caps on their heads, and on the chest of each hung night-vision instruments on leather straps. The two peddlers had weapons with them, but Artyom was ready to bet anything that they were just traders. Huge bales of rags, a map of the tunnels in their hands, the special roguish look, the animatedly shining eyes in the beams of the flashlights, he had seen all of this repeatedly. They let peddlers into all the stations usually without any problems. But, it seemed, no one expected them at Smolenskaya.
‘Well it’s OK, pal, we are going by,’ one of the traders was trying to convince a patrol member, a lanky moustached man in a quilted jacket that fit too tightly.
‘We have our belongings here, take a look for yourself, we will be trading at Polis,’ echoed the other peddler, a chunky guy with hair down his eyes.
‘What harm is there from us for you? There’s only good; here, take a look, jeans just like new, your size for certain, brand name, I’ll give them to you for free.’ The third had taken the initiative.
The sentry shook his head in silence, blocking their passage. He answered next to nothing, but as soon as one of the peddlers, taking his silence for agreement, tried to step ahead, both sentries nearly simultaneously clacked the bolts of their submachine guns. Melnik and Artyom stood five paces behind them, and though the stalker lowered his weapon, the tension was felt in his attitude.
‘Stop! I am giving you five seconds to turn around and leave. It’s a secure station, they don’t allow anyone here. Five . . . four . . .’ One of the sentries began to count.
‘Well, how are we supposed to get there, through the Ring again?’ One of the peddlers was about to
get perturbed, but another, shaking his head resignedly, tugged him by the sleeve and the traders picked up their bales from the ground and dragged themselves back.
Waiting for a minute, the stalker gave Artyom a sign, and they began to walk to Kievskaya right behind the peddlers. When they were passing the sentries, one of them silently nodded to Melnik and put two fingers to his head, as if giving a salute.
‘A security station?’ Artyom was curious, when they themselves had passed the cordon. ‘What’s that mean?’
‘Go back and ask,’ the latter snapped, stopping Artyom from asking any more questions.
Although Artyom and Melnik were trying to hold a bit further back from the peddlers walking ahead, the sound of their voices came ever closer, and then suddenly stopped short. But they hadn’t passed even twenty paces, when the beam of a light struck them in the face.
‘Hey! Who’s there? What do you need?’ someone cried nervously, and Artyom recognized the voice of one of the traders.
‘Calm down. Let us pass, we won’t bother you. We’re going to Kievskaya,’ the stalker answered quietly, but clearly.
‘Pass, we’ll let you go ahead. No use breathing down our necks,’ they declared from the darkness after conferring briefly.
Melnik shrugged his shoulders with displeasure and leisurely moved ahead. After about thirty metres that very same trio of peddlers was waiting for them. Upon Artyom and Melnik’s approach, the traders politely lowered their wares to the floor, parted and allowed them to pass. The stalker, as if nothing had happened, began walking further on, but Artyom noted that his pace had changed. Now he walked silently, as if hoping to muffle the sounds. Although the peddlers immediately followed them, Melnik didn’t look at them once. Artyom himself had been trying to overcome the desire to turn round for a rather long time, about three minutes, but then he looked back anyhow. ‘Hey!’ a tense voice was heard from behind. ‘Wait up there!’ The stalker stopped. Artyom began to feel perplexed. Why was Melnik so obediently responding to some petty traders?