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‘Why does he punish them?’ Artyom didn’t understand.
‘For arr . . . arr-o-gance,’ the savage articulated carefully.
‘For arrogance,’ confirmed the voice of the priest. ‘The Great Worm made man last, and man was his favourite offspring. For he did not give intellect to the others, but gave it to man. He knew that intellect is a dangerous toy, and therefore he ordered, “Live in the world with yourself, in the world with the earth, in the world with life and all creatures, and honour me.” After this, the Great Worm went to the very bowels of the earth, but said beforehand, “The day will come and I shall return. Behave as if I were with you.” And the people obeyed their creator and lived in the world with the earth he had created and in the world with each other and in the world with the other creatures and they honoured the Great Worm. And they bore children, and their children bore children, and from father to son, from mother to daughter they handed down the words of the Great Worm. But those who had heard his order with their own ears died, and their children died, and many generations were replaced, and the Great Worm has not yet returned. And then, one after the other, people stopped observing his covenants and did as they wanted. And there appeared those who said, “There never was a Great Worm and there is not now.” And others expected that the Great Worm would return and punish them. He would burn them with the light of his eyes, devour their bodies and cause the passages where they live to crumble. But the Great Worm has not returned and has only cried for the people. And his tears have risen up from the depths and flooded the lower passages. But those who have turned from their creator have said, “No one created us, we always have been. Man is beautiful and mighty, he cannot have been created by an earthworm!” And they said, “All the earth is ours, and was ours, and will be, and the Great Worm did not make the passages in it, but we and our ancestors.” And they lit the fire and began to kill the creations which the Great Worm had created, saying:, “Here, all the life that is around is ours and everything here is only to satisfy our hunger.” And they created machines in order to kill more quickly, in order to sow death, in order to destroy the life created by the Great Worm and to subdue his world. But even then he did not rise up from the extreme depths to which he had gone. And they laughed and began to do more against that of which he had spoken. And they decided in order to degrade him, to build such machines that would replicate his likeness. And they created such machines and they went inward in them and they laughed:, “Here,” they said, “now we ourselves can rule as the Great Worm, and not as one, but as dozens. And the light strikes from our eyes, and the thunder rolls when we are creeping, and people leave their womb. We created the Worm, and not the Worm us.” But even this was not enough for them. The hatred grew in their heart. And they decided to destroy the very earth where they lived. And they created thousands of different machines: that belched flame, and spat iron, and rendered the earth into parts. And they began to destroy the earth and every living thing that was in it. And then the Great Worm could not bear it and he condemned them: he took from them their most valuable gift, intellect. Insanity overtook them, they turned their machines against each other and began to kill each other. And they no longer remembered why they did it and what they were doing, but they were unable to stop. Thus did the Great Worm punish man for his arrogance.’
‘But not everyone?’ a child’s voice asked.
‘No. There were those who always remembered the Great Worm and honoured him. They renounced the machines and light and lived in the world with the earth. They were saved, and the Great Worm did not forget their loyalty, and he preserved their intellect, and he promised to give them the whole world when his enemies have fallen. And so shall it be.’
‘And it will be so,’ the savage and child repeated together.
‘Oleg?’ Artyom called out, hearing something familiar in the child’s voice. The child did not reply.
‘And to this day the enemies of the Great Worm live in the passages burrowed by them, because there is nowhere else for them to take shelter, but they continue to worship, not him, but their machines. The patience of the Great Worm is enormous, and it has been sufficient for long centuries of human outrages. But even it is not eternal. It has been foretold that when he makes the last strike at the dark heart of the country of his enemies, their will shall be crushed, and the world will fall to the good people. It has been foretold that the hour shall come and the Great Worm will summon the rivers and the earth and the air for aid. And the earthly layer will sink, and the seething currents will rush, and the dark heart of the enemy will rush to oblivion. And then finally the just will triumph and there will be happiness for the good, and life without diseases and fungi for one’s heart’s content, and every kind of beast in abundance.’
A flame was lit. Artyom had succeeded in leaning his back against the wall, and now he no longer had to bend agonizingly in order to keep the people on the other side of the bars in his field of view. A small boy sat cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the room with his back to him. Over him loomed the withered figure of the priest, lit by the flame of the burning lighter in his hand. The savage with the blowpipe in his hands stood alongside, leaning against the door jamb. All eyes were fixed on the old man who had just finished his narrative. Artyom turned his head with difficulty and looked at Anton, who was fixed in that convulsive pose in which the paralysing needle had caught him. He stared at the ceiling and was not able to see his son, but he certainly heard everything.
‘Stand up, sonny, and look at these people,’ said the priest. The boy immediately got to his feet and turned toward Artyom. It was Oleg.
‘Go closer to him. Do you recognize any of them?’ the old man asked.
‘Yes.’ The boy nodded affirmatively, looking sullenly at Artyom.
‘It is my pop and I was listening to your songs with this one. Through the pipe.’
‘Your pop and his friend are bad people. They have been using machines and have been disparaging the Great Worm. Do you remember, you told me and Uncle Vartan what your papa did when the bad people decided to destroy the world?’
‘Yes.’ Again Oleg nodded.
‘So tell us again,’ the old man placed the lighter into his other hand.
‘My pop worked in the RVA. The rocket forces. He was a missile man. I wanted to be just like him, too, when I grow up.’
Artyom’s throat dried up. How had he not been able to work out this riddle earlier? So that’s where the lad had got that strange tab and so had declared that he was a missile man, just like the slain Tretyak! The coincidence was almost incredible. There remained in the whole metro people who had served in the rocket forces . . . And two of them had ended up in Kievskaya. Could this have been by chance?
‘As a missile man . . . These people created greater evil for the world than all the rest put together. They sent machines and equipment that burnt and destroyed the earth and almost all life on it. The Great Worm forgives many who stray, but not those who gave the orders to destroy the world and sow death in it, and not those who carried it out. Your father has caused intolerable pain to the Great Worm. Your father destroyed our world with his own hands. Do you know what he deserves?’ The old man’s voice had become stern.
‘Death?’ the boy asked uncertainly, while glancing first at the priest and then at his father, doubled up on the floor of the monkey cage.
‘Death,’ the priest confirmed. ‘He must die. The sooner the evil people who have imparted pain to the Great Worm die, the sooner his promise will be fulfilled, and the world will be reborn and delivered to the good people.’
‘Then papa must die,’ concurred Oleg.
‘That’s the boy!’ the old man tenderly patted the boy on the head.
‘And now run, play with Uncle Vartan and the kiddies again! Only, look out, be careful in the darkness, don’t fall! Dron, lead him and I’ll sit some more for a while with them. Return in half an hour with the others and grab the sacks, we’ll be ready.’
r /> The light was extinguished. The swift, rustling steps of the savage and the light tread of the child faded into the distance. The priest gave a cough and said to Artyom, ‘I’ll have a little chat here with you if you aren’t opposed to it. We usually don’t take captives unless they are children, and then they are all puny and born sickly . . . But we are seeing more and more adults who are deaf. I would be glad to talk with them and maybe they would not mind, only, well, they eat them too quickly . . .’
‘Why then do you teach them that it is bad to eat people?’ Artyom asked.
‘The Worm will cry there and so on? Well, how can I put it? It is for them in the future. For you, of course, you will miss this moment, and even me, too, but now the basis of a future civilization is being laid down: of a culture which will live with nature in the world. Cannibalism is a necessary evil for them. There is nothing without animal protein, you see. But the legends will remain, and when the direct need to kill and stuff your face with those like you fades away, they will stop doing it. Only then will the Great Worm remember. It is unfortunate only to be living in this dandy time . . .’ The old man again began to laugh unpleasantly.
‘You know, I’ve already seen so many things in the metro,’ Artyom said. ‘At one station they believe that if you dig deeply enough, you can dig all the way to hell. At another, that we already are living on the threshold of paradise, because the final battle of good and evil is over and those who survived were chosen for entry into the Heavenly Kingdom. After that, the story about your Worm doesn’t sound all that convincing somehow. Do you at least believe in it yourself?’
‘What’s the difference what I or the other priests believe in?’ The old man grinned. ‘You won’t be alive much longer, just a few hours, so I’ll just tell you something. One cannot be so frank with someone as with he who will carry all his revelations to the grave. So, what I myself believe in is not important. The main thing is that the people believe. It is difficult to come to believe in a god whom I have created myself.’ The priest stopped for a short while, thinking, and then continued. ‘How could I explain it to you? When I was a student, I studied philosophy and psychology at the university, although I doubt that’s anything to you. And I had a professor: an instructor of cognitive psychology, a most knowledgeable man, who laid out the intellectual process systematically - he was a real pleasure to listen to. And then I put to him a question as all others do at that age: Does God exist? I had read various books, had conversations, as is customary, and I was inclined to the view that most likely He did not. And somehow I decided that this professor in particular, a great expert on the human soul, could answer for me precisely this question that so pained me. I went to see him in his office, on the pretext of discussing a paper, and then I asked, “In your opinion, Ivan Mikhalych, does God actually exist?” Then he really surprised me. For me, he said, this question isn’t worth asking. I myself was from a family of believers, used to the idea that He exists. From the psychological point of view, I did not try to analyze the truth because I did not want to. And generally, he said, for me it was not so much a question of knowledge based on principle, as everyday behaviour. My faith was not that I was sincerely convinced of the existence of a higher power, but that I was fulfilling the prescribed commandments, praying at night and going to church. I would be better for it, more at peace. And that’s it.’ The old man went silent.
‘And what?’ Artyom couldn’t contain himself.
‘Whether I believe in the Great Worm or not isn’t so very important. But commandments from divine lips live for centuries. Just one more thing: create a god and teach his word. And believe me, the Great Worm is no worse than other gods and has survived many of them.’
Artyom closed his eyes. Neither Dron nor the chief of this surprising tribe, nor even such strange creations as Vartan, had the slightest doubt that the Great Worm exists. For them it was a given, the only explanation of what they could see around them, the only authority for action and a measure of good and evil. What else could a man who had never seen anything except the metro believe in? But there was in the legends of the Worm something that Artyom was still unable to understand.
‘But why do you incite them so against machines? What’s so bad about these mechanisms? Electricity, lighting, firearms, and so on. Your teachings mean that your people live without them,’ he said.
‘What’s bad about machines?!’ the old man’s tone changed dramatically: the good nature and patience with which he had just set forth his thoughts evaporated. ‘You intend an hour before your death to preach to me the benefits of machines! Well, look around! Only a blind man won’t notice that if mankind owed some kind of a debt, then he wouldn’t rely so much on machines! How dare you snicker about the important role of equipment here, at my station? You nobody!’
Artyom hadn’t expected his question, way less seditious than the previous, about his belief in the Great Worm, to provoke such a reaction from the old man. Not knowing how to respond, he remained silent. The priest’s heavy breathing could be heard in the darkness, as he whispered some kind of curses and tried to calm himself. He resumed speaking only after several minutes.
‘I am out of the habit of speaking with non-believers.’ Judging by the voice, the old man had regained control of himself. ‘I got carried away in speaking with you. Something is keeping the young ones, they aren’t bringing the sacks.’ He paused meaningfully.
‘What sacks?’ Artyom responded to the ploy.
‘They will prepare you. When I spoke of torture, I wasn’t being strictly accurate. Pointless cruelty goes against the grain of the Great Worm. My colleagues and I, when we understood that cannibalism had taken root here, and we could no longer do anything about it, decided to look after the culinary side of the problem. And so someone recalled that the Koreans, when they eat dogs, catch them alive, put them in sacks and beat them to death with sticks. The meat benefits a lot from it. It becomes soft, tender. One man’s multiple haematomas, as it were, are another man’s cutlet. So don’t judge us too severely. I myself would perhaps be happier to die first and then suffer the sticks. Inevitably, there will be internal bleeding. A recipe is a recipe.’ The old man even clicked the lighter in order to get a look at the effect he had produced. ‘However, something is keeping them, it shouldn’t have happened . . .’he added.
A whistle interrupted him. Artyom heard cries, running, children’s crying and that ominous whistle again. Something had happened at the station. The priest listened to the noise uneasily, then extinguished the fire and grew silent.
Several minutes later heavy boots began to rumble on the threshold, and a low voice murmured, ‘Is anyone alive?’
‘Yes! We’re here! Artyom and Anton!’ Artyom yelled at the top of his lungs, hoping that the old man had no pipes with poisoned needles hanging around his neck.
‘Here they are! Cover me and the lad!’ someone screamed. There was a dazzling, bright flash of light. The old man dashed towards the exit, but a man barring the way hit him in the neck. The priest began to wheeze and fell.
‘The door, hold the door!’ Something had come crashing down, plaster began to fall from the ceiling and Artyom blinked. When he opened his eyes, two men were now standing in the room. They were not run-of-the-mill soldiers and Artyom hadn’t seen anyone like them before. Dressed in heavy long bullet-proof vests over tailored black uniforms, both were armed with unusual short machine guns with laser gun sights and silencers. In addition, massive titanium helmets with face guards, like the Hansa Spetsnaz, and large titanium shields with eye slits added to the impressive sight. A flame-thrower was visible on the back of one. They quickly inspected the room, illuminating it with a long and inconceivably strong flashlights, that were shaped like cudgels.
‘These?’ one of them asked.
‘Them,’ the other confirmed. Efficiently examining the lock on the door of the monkey cage, the first moved back, took several steps and leapt, striking the cage with his boots. The rusty hin
ges broke and the door collapsed half a foot from Artyom. The man lowered himself onto one knee in front of Artyom and lifted his face guard. Everything now fell into place: Melnik was looking at Artyom through squinted eyes. His wide serrated knife slipped along the wires entangling Artyom’s legs and hands. Then the stalker cut the wire that had been binding Anton.
‘Alive,’ Melnik remarked with satisfaction. ‘Can you walk?’
Artyom began to nod, but was unable to lift himself to his feet. His numbed body was still not totally under his command. Several more men ran into the room. Two of them immediately took up a defensive position at the doors. There were eight fighters in all in the party. They were dressed and equipped just like those who had stormed into the room, but several of them wore long leather cloaks, as Hunter had. One of them lowered a child to the ground, covering him with the shield he wore on his arm. The child immediately raced into the cell and bent over Anton.
‘Papa! Papa! I lied to them so they’d think I was on their side! I showed them where you are! Forgive me, Papa! Papa, don’t be silent!’ The boy could hardly contain his tears. Anton looked at the ceiling with glassy eyes. Artyom was frightened that two paralysing needles in a day could turn out to be too much for the watch commander. Melnik placed his index finger on Anton’s neck. ‘He’s OK,’ he concluded after several seconds. ‘He’s alive. Bring a stretcher!’
While Artyom talked about the impact of the poisoned needles, two fighters unrolled a cloth stretcher on the floor and loaded Anton onto it. On the floor, the old man began to stir and mumble something.
‘And who’s this?’ Melnik asked, and, having heard from Artyom the explanation, said, ‘We’ll take him with us and use him as cover. How’s the situation?’