Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 48

  ‘I have to stay here with you until Melnik returns,’ Artyom declared apologetically.

  ‘I know, I know. They reported it. Let’s go inside, they gave me an order concerning you.’ Arkadiy Semyonovich invited him into the room with a gesture.

  ‘So, I’ve been told to photograph you for a passport while you wait for Melnik. I still have the equipment here from when Kievskaya was a normal station . . . Then maybe he’ll acquire a blank passport and we’ll make the document for you.’

  Sitting Artyom onto a stool, he pointed the lens of a small plastic camera at him. There was a blinding flash, and Artyom spent the next five minutes completely blinded, looking around helplessly.

  ‘Excuse me, I forgot to warn you . . . You’re starving. Come in, Katya will feed you, but I won’t have any time for you today. It’s getting worse for us here. Anton’s oldest son disappeared during the night. He’s giving the whole station a hard time now . . . And for what? And those here told me they found you this morning between the platforms? With a bloody head? What happened?’

  ‘I don’t remember . . . Most likely I fell down when I was drunk.’ Artyom hadn’t answered immediately.

  ‘Yes . . . It’s good that we had a sit-down yesterday,’ the chief grinned. ‘OK, Artyom, it’s time for me to get to work. Drop by a little later.’

  Artyom slid down from the stool. The young Oleg’s face was in front of him. Anton’s oldest son . . . Was it really him? He recalled how the night before the boy had turned the handle of his music box, placed it on the iron of the pipe and then said that only small children are afraid that the dead would take them away if they walked into the tunnels and listened to the pipes. A chill swept over Artyom. Was it true? Did it happen because of him? Once more he glanced helplessly at Arkadiy Semyonovich, began to open his mouth, but he went outside without speaking.

  Returning to his tent, Artyom took a seat on the floor and sat in silence for some time, looking into the void. Now it was beginning to seem to him that, having chosen him for this mission, someone unknown had damned him at the same time: almost everyone who had decided to share at least part of the way with him had died. Bourbon, Mikhail Porfirievich and his grandson, Daniel . . . Khan had disappeared without a trace, and even the fighters of the revolutionary brigade who had rescued Artyom may have been killed at the very next crossing. Now Tretyak. But the young Oleg? Had Artyom brought death to his companions?

  Not understanding what was going on, he jumped up, threw his rucksack and machine gun onto his back, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the platform. He walked mechanically to the place where they had assaulted him during the night.

  Approaching closer, he froze. The dead man looked at him through the dim haze of a drunken memory. He remembered it all. It was not a dream. He had to find Oleg or at least help Anton search for his son. It was his fault. He hadn’t looked after the lad. He had allowed Oleg to play his strange games with the pipes, and now he was here, safe and sound, but the boy had disappeared. And Artyom was convinced that he had not run away. Something bad and inexplicable had happened here during the night, and Artyom was doubly guilty, because he may have been able to prevent it, but he had been incapable.

  He looked at the spot where the terrifying stranger had hidden in the shadows. A heap of garbage had been dumped there, but, sifting through it, Artyom only frightened a stray cat. Having searched the platform without result, he approached the tracks and jumped down to the rails. The guards at the entrance to the tunnel lazily looked him over and warned that he went into the crossings at his own risk and that no one there would take any responsibility for him.

  This time Artyom didn’t go through the same tunnel as the day before, but took the second, the parallel one. As the lookout commander had said, this crossing was also blocked. The guard post was located at the blockage: an iron barrel served as a stove, and there were bags piled around. Alongside them there was a handcar, loaded with buckets of coal.

  The lookouts sitting on the bags were whispering about something and, on his approach, jumped up from their seats, intently eying Artyom. But then one of them gave the OK and the others calmed down and settled in as before. Taking a closer look, Artyom recognized Anton as the commander, and hurriedly mumbling something awkward, turned and began to walk back. His face was on fire; he was unable to look into the eyes of the man whose son had disappeared because of him.

  Artyom plodded on, lowering his head, repeating under his breath: ‘It wasn’t my fault . . . I wasn’t able . . . What could I have done?’ The splash of light from his flashlight skipped ahead of him. Suddenly he noticed a small object lying desolately in the shadow between two ties. Even from the distance it seemed familiar to him, and his heart beat faster. Bending over, Artyom picked the small box off the ground. He turned the handle and the box answered with that tinkling dreary melody. Oleg’s music box. Thrown or accidentally dropped by him here.

  Artyom threw down his rucksack and began studying the tunnel walls twice as hard. Not far away was a door leading to office facilities, but Artyom discovered behind it only a ruined public loo. Twenty more minutes of tunnel inspection didn’t get him anywhere.

  Returning to his rucksack, the young man sank to the ground and leaned back against the wall. Throwing back his head, stared at the ceiling, exhausted. After a second he once more was on his feet and the beam of the flashlight, fluttering, revealed a black gap, hardly noticeable in the darkened concrete of the ceilings. There was a loosely closed hatch just above the very place where Artyom had picked up Oleg’s music box. However, there was no way to reach the hatch. The ceiling was more than three metres high.

  A solution presented itself to him in a flash. Grasping the box he had found and throwing his rucksack onto the rails, Artyom raced back to the lookouts. He was no longer afraid to look Anton in the eyes. Slowing his pace at the approach to the post so the lookouts wouldn’t panic, Artyom approached Anton and in a whisper told him about his discovery. Two minutes later they left the post, to the questioning looks of the rest, alternately operating the handles of the handcar.

  They stopped the handcar directly beneath the hatch. The handcar was just high enough that Artyom, climbing onto Anton’s shoulders, could reach and move the cover, haul himself inside and then pull up his partner. Although the tight corridor went off in both directions, Anton decisively moved in the direction of Park Pobedy.

  Several seconds later it became clear that he had been right. An oblong cartridge case shone in the dim light. It was one of those that Melnik had given the lad the day before. Inspired by the discovery, Anton broke into a trot. He went about another twenty metres, to the place where the access corridor ran into the wall, and another hatch, also half open, blackened an opening in the floor. Anton confidently began to lower himself down. Before Artyom could manage to object, he had already disappeared. There was a crash from the opening, swearing, and then a choked voice said, ‘Be careful when you jump, it’s about a three-metre drop. Come on. I’ll shine the light for you.’ Placing his hands on the edge, Artyom hung down and, rocking several times, unclenched his fingers, trying to get both legs between the ties.

  ‘How will we get ourselves back out of here?’ he asked, straightening up.

  ‘We’ll figure something out.’ Anton dismissed the problem with a wave of his hand.

  ‘Are you certain that they didn’t think you were dead?’

  Artyom shrugged his shoulders. Despite the pain in the back of the head, the thought that some being had attacked him last night at Kievskaya seemed absurd now that he was sober.

  ‘We’ll go to Park Pobedy,’ Anton decided. ‘If there’s trouble about, the threat can only come from there. You should feel it, too, you were with us at the station yourself.’

  ‘But why didn’t you say anything to us yesterday?’ Artyom asked, catching up to Anton and trying to keep pace with him.

  ‘The boss didn’t allow it,’ he answered sullenly. ‘Semyonovich is really afraid of p
anic, and he has said not to spread rumours. He fusses over his position. But everyone has his limits. I told him ages ago that they couldn’t keep it a secret forever . . . Three children have disappeared in the last two months and four families have fled the station. And there was our guard with that needle in his neck. No, he says panic will ensue and we’ll lose control. He’s a coward.’ Anton spat out in sudden anger.

  ‘But who made that needle . . . ?’

  Artyom stopped in the middle of his sentence, and Anton stopped dead in his tracks.

  ‘What’s that again? Did you see it?’ the lookout asked, taken aback.

  Artyom did not reply. And so he stopped, staring at the floor and only moving the flashlight from side to side in order to see better what the lookout was pointing at. A gigantic figure had been crudely drawn in white on the floor. It was a twisting outline about forty centimetres wide and about two metres long, resembling a crawling snake or worm. From one side a bulge resembling a head was visible, and that gave it even greater similarity to a huge reptile.

  ‘A snake,’ Artyom offered.

  ‘Maybe they just spilled some paint?’ Anton tried to joke.

  ‘No, they didn’t just spill something. Here’s the head . . . It’s looking in that direction. It’s crawling to Park Pobedy . . .’

  ‘So, we’ll follow it . . .’

  Several hundred metres further on, they found three cartridge cases in the middle of the path. They both started walking more briskly.

  ‘Good lad!’ Anton said with pride. ‘Wouldn’t you just know he would think of leaving a trail!’

  Artyom nodded. He was becoming ever more certain that, while the unknown creature had been able to get to him without a sound, the boy was still alive. But would Oleg have agreed to go with his mysterious kidnapper willingly? Then why would he have marked his trail? Artyom grew quiet for several minutes, and so did Anton. The pungent darkness dissipated the recent joy and hope, and he once more became just a little frightened.

  In hoping to make amends to the father, he had forgotten all the warnings and terrible tales retold in whispers. He had forgotten the stalker’s order not to leave Kievskaya. Anton was tearing ahead to find his son, but why was Artyom going to the ominous Park Pobedy? Why was he neglecting himself and his primary mission? For a second he recalled the strange people from Polyanka and the discussion about fate and he felt relieved. But the relief only lasted about ten minutes. Just up to the next symbol portraying a snake.

  This figure was twice as large as the earlier one and it looked as if it was supposed to convince travellers they were going in the right direction. However, Artyom was not entirely happy about it.

  The tunnel seemed endless. They walked and walked forever, and more than than two hours already had passed by Artyom’s calculations.

  The third painted giant snake was more than ten metres long, and they heard something there. Anton froze, turning his ear towards the tunnel, and Artyom listened too. Strange sounds were coming from the depths of the crossings in fits and starts; at first he couldn’t make them out, but later he understood: a chant similar to the one the pipes had played to the music box at Kievskaya was being accompanied by the pounding of drums.

  ‘Not far now,’ Anton nodded.

  Time, which had already been slipping by slowly, nearly stood still. Looking at his partner, Artyom realized with startling clarity that he was nodding too dramatically, as if his head were twitching in convulsions. When Anton began to glide down onto his side, looking comically like a toy animal stuffed with rags, Artyom thought that he might catch him, because there was plenty of time for it. Then a light prick in his shoulder stopped him from doing so. Taking a puzzled look at where it smarted, Artyom discovered a feathered steel needle stuck in his jacket. Nothing came of his intention to pull it out. His whole body was petrified, and then suddenly it was as if it had disappeared. His feeble legs gave way to the forces of gravity and Artyom ended up on the ground. At the same time, he remained almost totally conscious but it became increasingly difficult to breathe. He was unable to move his extremities. He heard footsteps near him, swift and weightless. The approaching being could not be human. Artyom had learned to recognize human footsteps long ago, on the patrols at VDNKh. A sudden, unpleasant smell reached his nose.

  ‘One, two. Strangers, laid out,’ someone overhead said.

  ‘I’m a good shot, it was far away.’

  ‘The neck, shoulder,’ another responded.

  The voices were strange: devoid of any intonation, flat, they reminded one mostly of the monotone drone of the wind in the tunnels. However, they were definitely human voices.

  ‘To eat, well-aimed. That’s what the Great Worm wants,’ the first voice had continued.

  ‘To eat. One - you, two - me, we carry the strangers home,’ the second added.

  The picture before him gave Artyom a start: they tore him from the ground jarringly. For a fraction of a moment a face flashed in front of his eyes: narrow, with dark, deep-set eyes. Then they put out the flashlights and it became pitch black. And only with the flood of blood to his head did Artyom understand that they were dragging him somewhere roughly, like a sack. The strange conversation continued for a time, although the phrases were intermixed now with an intense groaning.

  ‘A paralysing needle, not poison. Why?’

  ‘That’s what the commander ordered. That’s what the priest ordered. The Great Worm wanted it that way. It’s OK to save the meat.’

  ‘You’re smart. You and the priest are friends. The priest is teaching you.’

  ‘To eat.’

  ‘One, two, the enemies are coming. There’s a smell of gunpowder in the air, fire. A bad enemy. How do they get here?’

  ‘I don’t know. The commander and Vartan are doing the interrogation. You and I are the hunters. It is good that the Great Worm is happy. You and I will get a reward.’

  ‘A lot to eat? Boots? A jacket?’

  ‘A lot to eat. No jacket. No boots.’

  ‘I’m young. I hunt the enemies. It is good. There’s a lot? A ReWard . . . I’m happy.’

  ‘This day is OK. Vartan brings a new young one. You, I, we hunt the enemies. The Great Worm is happy, the people sing. A holiday.’

  ‘A holiday! I’m happy. Dances? Vodka? I dance with Natasha.’

  ‘Natasha and the commander, they dance. Not you.’

  ‘I am young, strong, the commander is very old. Natasha is young. I hunt enemies, brave, it is good. Natasha and I, we dance.’

  Not too far away new voices could be heard and an argument had broken out. Artyom guessed that they had brought them to the station. Here it was almost as dark as in the tunnels, only one small campfire was burning in the whole place. They threw them nonchalantly onto the floor next to it. Someone’s steel fingers gripped him by the beard and turned him face up. Several people of an unimaginably strange appearance were standing around. They were almost stark naked, and their heads were shaved bare, but it seemed they were not at all cold. On the forehead of each could be seen a wavy line, similar to the pictures at the crossing. Their small stature caused them to appear unhealthy: sunken cheeks, pale skin, but they radiated some kind of superhuman strength. Artyom recalled with what difficulty Melnik had borne the wounded Ten from the Library, and he compared this with how quickly these strange creations had brought them to the station. A long, arrow was in nearly each one’s hand. Artyom recognized with surprise that they were made from the plastic sheathings that are used for spacing and insulating bundles of electrical wires. Huge steel bayonets hung on their belts, as from old Kalashnikov machine guns. All these strange people were approximately of the same age. There was no one here older than thirty. They scrutinized them in silence for some time, then the only one of the men wearing a beard and with a red line on his forehead said, ‘OK. I am happy. These are the enemies of he Great Worm, the people of the machines. Evil people, tender meat. The Great Worm is satisfied. Sharap, Vovan are brave. I will take the pe
ople of the machines to the prison and interrogate them. Holiday tomorrow, all good people will eat the enemies. Vovan! Which needle? The paralyser?’

  ‘Yes, the paralyser,’ a thickset man with a blue line on his forehead said.

  ‘A paralyser is good. The meat won’t be spoiled,’ the bearded one said.

  ‘Vovan, Sharap! Get the enemies and come with me to the prison.’

  The light began to recede. New voices were calling nearby, someone inarticulately expressed his delight, someone wailed mournfully. Then singing could be heard, low, barely audible, and not good. It seemed as if the dead really were singing, and Artyom recalled the tales that made their way around Park Pobedy. Then they put him on the ground again, flung Anton alongside and before long he lost consciousness.

  It was as if someone had shoved him, suggested that he had to get up right away. Stretching, he lit a lantern, covering it with his hand so as not to hurt the sensitive, half-asleep eyes, and inspected the tent (where was the machine gun?!) and he went to the station. He was so homesick, but now, when he again had turned up at VDNKh, he was not at all happy about it. The smoky ceiling, emptied tents filled with bullet holes and the heavy ash in the air . . . Here, it seemed, something awful had happened, and the station was strikingly different from how he remembered it. In the distance, most likely from the passage at the other end of the platform, wild howls were heard, as if they were slicing up someone there. Two emergency lamps sparsely lit the station, their weak beams penetrating the lazy tufts of smoke with difficulty. There was no one on the whole platform, except for a small girl playing on the floor next to one of the neighbouring tents. Artyom was on the verge of asking her what had happened here and where the rest had disappeared to, but, catching sight of him, the girl began to cry loudly, and he thought better of it.

  The tunnels. The tunnels from VDNKh to the Botanical Garden. If the inhabitants of his station had gone anywhere, then it would be there. If they had run to the centre, to Hansa, they wouldn’t have left him and the child alone.