Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 5

  In the metro, the rare daredevils who had the guts to venture to the surface were called stalkers. In protective suits and gas masks with tinted glass, they were heavily armed as they ascended to the surface in search of items that were necessities for everyone: military supplies, equipment, replacement parts, fuel . . . There were hundreds of men who dared to do this. Those who were able to make it back alive could be counted on one’s fingers - and these men were worth their weight in gold. They were valued even more highly than former metro employees. All kinds of dangers awaited those who dared to go up above - from the radiation to the ghoulish creatures it had created. There was life there too, on the surface, but it was no longer life according to the customary human conception of it.

  Every stalker became a living legend, a demigod, whom everyone, young and old, regarded with rapt amazement. In a world in which there was nowhere left to sail or fly, and the words ‘pilot’ and ‘sailor’ were becoming dull and losing their meaning, children dreamed of becoming stalkers. To strike out, clothed in shining armour, accompanied by hundreds of gazes of adoration and gratitude, climbing to the surface, to the realm of the gods, to do battle with monsters and, returning underground, to bring the people fuel, military supplies, light and fire. To bring life.

  Artyom, his friend Zhenya, and Vitalik the Splinter, all wanted to become stalkers. And, compelling themselves to climb upwards along the horrifying, screeching escalator with its collapsing steps, they imagined themselves in protective suits, with radiation damage monitors, with hulking machine guns at the ready, just as one would expect of real stalkers. But they had neither radiation monitors, nor protection, and instead of imposing army-issue machine guns, they had only the ancient double-barrelled rifle, which, perhaps, didn’t even shoot at all . . .

  Before long, their ascent was complete, and they found themselves almost on the surface. Fortunately, it was night; otherwise, they would have been blinded. Eyes accustomed to darkness and to the crimson light of bonfires and emergency lamps in their many years of life underground wouldn’t have withstood the glare. Blinded and helpless, they would have been unlikely to make it back home again.

  The vestibule of the Botanical Garden station was almost destroyed; half of the roof had collapsed, and through it one could see the radioactive dust of the dark-blue summer sky, already cleansed of clouds, and strewn with myriad stars. But what was a starry sky for a child who wasn’t even capable of imagining that a ceiling might not be above his head? When you lift your gaze, and it doesn’t run up against concrete coverings and rotten networks of wires and pipes, but is lost instead in a dark-blue abyss, gaping suddenly above your head - what an impression! And the stars! Could anyone who had never seen stars possibly imagine what infinity is, when, most likely, the very concept of infinity first appeared among humans inspired, once upon a time, by the nocturnal vault of the heavens? Millions of shining lights, silver nails driven into a dome of dark blue velvet . . .

  The boys stood for three, five, then ten minutes, unable to utter a word. They wouldn’t even have moved, and by morning would certainly have been cooked alive, if they hadn’t heard a bloodcurdling howl ring out nearby. Coming to their senses, they rushed headlong back to the escalator, and raced down it as fast as their legs could carry them, having thrown all caution to the wind, and several times nearly plunging downwards, into the teeth of the gears. Supporting each other, and pulling each other out, they made the journey back in a matter of seconds.

  Spinning down the final ten steps like a top, having lost the double-barrelled rifle along the way, they immediately lunged for the control panel of the barrier. But, damn it, the rusted old iron had become wedged, and it didn’t want to return to its place. Scared half to death that the monsters would pursue them from the surface, they raced off homewards, to the northern cordon.

  But, remembering that they’d probably done something very bad, having left the hermetic gates open, and had possibly left the path downward, into the metro, and to people, open for the mutants, they found the time to agree to keep their lips sealed, and not to tell any of the adults where they’d been. At the cordon, they said that they’d gone to a side tunnel to hunt for rats, but had lost their gun, become frightened, and returned.

  Artyom, of course, caught hell from his stepfather. His rear end smarted for a long time from that officer’s belt, but Artyom held up like a captive partisan, and didn’t blurt out his military secret. And his comrades kept silent as well.

  Everyone believed them.

  But now, when he thought of their escapade, Artyom fell, more and more often, into reflection. Was this journey, and, more importantly, the barrier they’d opened, connected somehow to the scum that had been assaulting their cordons for the last several years?

  Greeting passers-by, stopping now and then to hear some news, to shake hands with a friend, to land a kiss on the cheek of a familiar girl, to tell the older generations about his stepfather’s dealings, Artyom finally reached his home. Nobody was there, and he decided not to wait for his stepfather but to go to bed: an eight-hour watch was enough to take anyone off their feet. He threw off his boots, took off his jacket and planted his face in the pillow. Sleep didn’t make him wait.

  The flaps of the tent were lifted and a massive figure slipped quietly inside, whose face couldn’t be seen. The only thing visible was the ominous gleam of a smooth skull reflecting the red emergency lights. A muffled voice was heard: ‘We meet again. Your stepfather, I see, is not here. Doesn’t matter. We’ll find him. Sooner or later. He won’t get away. For now, you’ll come with me. We have something to talk about. For example, the barrier at the Botanical Gardens.’

  Artyom, frozen, recognized the guy he had met at the cordon earlier, the man who had introduced himself as Hunter.

  The man came closer, slowly, silently, and his face was still not visible. For some reason the light was falling in a strange way. Artyom wanted to call for help, but a powerful hand, as cold as death, clamped onto his mouth. At last he managed to grab hold of a lantern, turn it on and light up the person’s face. What he saw, rendered him powerless for a moment and filled him with horror: what loomed in front of him was not a human face, but a terrible black muzzle with two huge, vacant and white-less eyes and a gaping maw.

  Artyom darted and threw himself out of the tent. The light suddenly went out and the station became totally dark. There was only some weak reflected light from a small fire somewhere in the distance. Without pausing for thought, Artyom rushed in that direction, toward the light. The ghoul jumped towards him from behind, growling, ‘Stop! You have nowhere to run!’ He roared with terrifying laughter, which slowly became a familiar graveyard howl. Artyom ran off, without turning to look, hearing the footfalls of heavy boots behind him, unhurried, even, as if his pursuer knew that there was nowhere to run, that Artyom would be caught sooner or later.

  Artyom ran up to the fire and saw a figure sitting there with its back to him. He was going to tap the sitting person on the shoulder and ask for help, but the person suddenly fell backwards and it was clear that he had been dead a long time and his face was covered with hoarfrost for some reason. And in the face of this frozen person, Artyom recognized Uncle Sasha, his stepfather.

  ‘Hey, Artyom! That was a good sleep! Now get up! You’ve been snoozing for seven hours in a row already . . . get up sleepyhead! We have guests coming!’ Sukhoi’s voice rang out.

  Artyom sat up in bed and stared at him, stunned. ‘Oh, Uncle Sash . . . You . . . Is everything OK with you?’ he asked at last, after a minute of blinking. It was hard for him to overcome the urge to ask him if he was alive or not, and that was only because the fact of it was standing in front of him.

  ‘Yes, as you can see! Come on, come on, get up, no point lying about. I want to introduce you to my friend,’ said Sukhoi. There was a familiar but muffled voice nearby, and Artyom was covered in perspiration, remembering his recent nightmare.

  ‘So, you’ve met already?’ Sukhoi w
as surprised. ‘Well, Artyom, you’re sharp!’

  Finally, the visitor squeezed into the tent. Artyom shuddered and pressed against the tent wall - it was Hunter. The nightmare came alive again: dark, vacant eyes; the roar of heavy boots behind him; the stiff corpse sitting at the fire . . .

  ‘Yes. We’ve met.’ Artyom managed to squeeze out his reply and reluctantly extended a hand to the visitor. Hunter’s hand was hot and dry, and Artyom slowly started to convince himself that it was just a dream, that there was nothing sinister about this person, that it was just his imagination, ignited with fear after eight hours at the cordon, playing out in his dreams.

  ‘Listen, Artyom! Do us a favour! Boil some water for tea! Have you tried our tea?’ Sukhoi winked at the visitor. ‘A poisonous potion!’

  ‘I know it,’ Hunter responded, nodding. ‘Good tea. They make it at Pechatniki too. Pig’s swill. But here, it’s a different matter.’

  Artyom went to get the water, then to the communal fire to boil the kettle. It was strictly forbidden to make fires inside tents: a couple of stations had burnt down due to tent fires before now.

  On the way he thought about Pechatniki - it was at the other end of the metro system, and who knows how long it would take to get there, how many transfers, crossings, through how many stations you’d have to go - lying sometimes, fighting sometimes, other times getting through thanks to connections . . . And this guy says casually, ‘They make it at Pechatniki too . . .’ Yes, he’s an interesting character, even if a little scary. His grip squeezes like a vice, and Artyom wasn’t a weakling - he was always eager to compare strength with a good handshake.

  Having boiled the kettle, he returned to the tent. Hunter had already thrown off his raincoat under which you could see a black polo-neck jumper, tightly filled with a powerful neck and a bulging, strong body, and military trousers drawn tight with an officer’s belt. On top of the polo-neck, he was wearing a vest with lots of pockets, and a holster hung under his arm containing a burnished pistol of monstrous size. Upon closer inspection, Artyom could see that it was a ‘Stechkin’ with a long silencer, and it had something attached to it, which by the looks of it was a laser sight. A monster like that would cost you all you had. The weapon, Artyom noted immediately, was not a simple one - not for self-defence, that was for sure. And then he remembered that when Hunter introduced himself he added, ‘as in someone who hunts.’

  ‘So, Artyom, pour the visitor some tea! Yes, and you Hunter, take a seat! Tell us how you are!’ Sukhoi was excited. ‘Devil knows how long it’s been since I last saw you!’

  ‘I’ll tell you about myself later. There’s not much to say. But strange things are going on with you, I hear. Goblins are crawling around. Coming from the north. Today I was listening to fairy stories while standing with the patrol. What’s up?’ Hunter spoke in brief, choppy phrases.

  ‘It’s death, Hunter,’ Sukhoi’s mood suddenly darkened. ‘It’s our death stealing up from the future. Our fate is creeping in. That’s what it is.’

  ‘Why death? I heard that you crushed them very successfully. That they’re disarmed. Well? Where are they from and who are they? I’ve never heard anything like this at any of the other stations. Never. And that means that it isn’t happening anywhere else. I want to know what’s up. I’m sensing a great danger. I want to know the level of danger, I want to understand its nature. That’s why I’m here.’

  ‘Danger should be liquidated, right Hunter? You’re still a cowboy, Hunter. But can danger be liquidated - that’s the question.’ Sukhoi grinned sadly. ‘That’s the hitch. Everything here is more complicated than it seems to you. A lot more complicated. This is not just zombies and corpses walking across cinema screens. That’s too simple: you load a revolver with silver bullets,’ Sukhoi demonstrated by putting his palms together and pretending to point a pistol as he continued, ‘pow-pow! And the forces of evil are slain. But this is something different. Something frightening . . . And as you well know, it’s hard to scare me.’

  ‘You’re panicking?’ Hunter asked, surprised.

  ‘Their main weapon is horror. The people are barely maintaining their positions. People are sleeping with machine guns, with uzis - and they’re coming at us unarmed. And everybody knows that there’s a higher quality and quantity of them still to come, they are almost running away, going crazy from the horror of it - some have already gone crazy, between you and me. And this isn’t just fear, Hunter!’ Sukhoi lowered his voice. ‘This . . . I don’t even know how to explain it to you plainly . . . It gets stronger every time. They are getting into our heads somehow . . . And it seems to me that they’re doing it on purpose. You can sense them from afar, and the feeling gets stronger and stronger, and the agitation is so vile that your knees start to shake. And you can’t hear anything yet, and you can’t see anything, but you already know that they’re coming nearer . . . nearer . . . And then there’s a howl - and you just want to run . . . But they’re coming closer - and you’re starting to shake. And a while later you can see them walking with open eyes into the searchlights . . .’

  Artyom shuddered. It seemed that he wasn’t the only one tormented by nightmares. He used to try not to talk about it to anyone before. He was afraid that they would take him for a coward or for a lunatic.

  ‘They’re crippling our minds, the reptiles!’ Sukhoi continued. ‘And you know, it’s like they adjust themselves to your wavelength, and the next time they come, you feel them even more strongly, and you’re even more afraid. And this isn’t just fear, I can tell you.’

  He went silent. Hunter was sitting there without moving, studying him, and apparently thinking over what he’d heard. Then he took a mouthful of hot brew and spoke, slowly and quietly: ‘This is a threat to everybody, Sukhoi. To the whole filthy metro, not just to your station.’

  Sukhoi was silent, as though he didn’t want to reply, but suddenly he burst out: ‘The whole metro you think? No. Not just the metro. This is a threat to the progress of mankind, which got itself into trouble with its progress already. It’s time to pay! It’s a battle of species, Hunter! A battle of species. And these dark ones are not evil spirits, and they aren’t some kind of ghoul. This is Homo novus - the next stage in evolution, better adapted to the environment than us. The future is behind them, Hunter! Maybe, Homo sapiens will rot for another couple of decades, or for another fifty in these demonic holes that we’ve dug for ourselves, back when there was plenty and not everyone could fit above ground so the poorer folk were driven underground in the daytime. We will become as pale and sick as Wells’ Morlocks. Remember them? From The Time Machine where beasts of the future lived underground? They too were once Homo sapiens. Yes, we are optimistic - we don’t want to die! We will cultivate mushrooms with our own dung, and the pig will become man’s best friend, as they say, and our partner in survival. And we will guzzle multivitamins with an appetizing crunch that were prepared by our careful ancestors in the tonnes. We will shyly crawl up to the surface to quickly steal another canister of petrol, a few more rags, and if you’re really lucky, a handful of cartridges - only to quickly run back down into the stuffy vaults, looking shiftily around like thieves to see if anyone noticed. Because we aren’t at home there on the surface anymore. The world doesn’t belong to us anymore, Hunter . . . The world doesn’t belong to us anymore.’

  Sukhoi fell silent, looking at the steam slowly rising from his cup of tea and condensing in the twilight of the tent. Hunter said nothing, and Artyom suddenly realized that he had never heard anything like it from his stepfather. There was nothing left of his former confidence in the fact that everything would necessarily be fine; nothing left of his ‘don’t panic, we’ll get through it!’; and nothing left of his encouraging winks . . . Or was that just all for show?

  ‘You don’t have anything to say, Hunter? Nothing? Go on, contradict me! Where are your arguments? Where is that optimism of yours? Last time when I spoke to you, you were certain that the levels of radiation would lower, and peop
le could return to the surface again. Eh, Hunter . . . “The sun will rise over the woods, but just not for me . . .” ’ Sukhoi sang in a teasing voice. ‘We’ll seize life with our teeth, we will hold onto it with all our strength - but what would the philosophers have said and the sectarians confirmed, if there was suddenly nothing to grab? You don’t want to believe it, can’t believe it, but somewhere in the depths of your soul you know that that’s how it is . . . But we like this whole business, Hunter, don’t we? Me and you, we really love living! We will crawl through the stinking underground, sleep in an embrace with pigs, eat rats, but we will survive! Right? Wake up, Hunter! No one will write a book about you called The story of a real person, no one will sing about your will to live, your hypertrophic instinct for self-preservation . . . How long will you last on mushrooms, multivitamins and pork? Surrender, Homo sapiens! You are no longer the king of nature! You’ve been dethroned! No, you don’t have to die instantly, nobody will insist on that. Crawl on a little more in agony, choking on your own excrement . . . But know this, Homo sapiens: you are obsolete! Evolution, the laws of which you understood, has already created its new branch, and you are no longer the latest stage, the crown of creation. You are a dinosaur. Now you must step aside for a new, more perfect species. No need to be egotistical. Game over, it’s time you let others play. Your time is up. You’re extinct. And let future generations wrack their brains over the question of what made Homo sapiens extinct. Though, I doubt anyone will be interested . . .’