Chapter 2

Beta

Hunter

Bits of nightmare crashed and burst through Artem’s thoughts. The Dark… Accursed monsters, which, thankfully, Artem encountered only once during his watches. Monsters which terrified him thoroughly, but how do you not get terrified…

So you’re standing your watch… Getting warm near a bonfire. Suddenly from the tunnel, somewhere from its depths, you hear an even and dull clanging—first remotely, quietly, then closer and louder… And then your ears are filled with a terrible, sepulchral roar coming from very near, too near. Chaos! Everyone’s up; boxes used as chairs and sandbags are stacked hastily to fortify the barricades, to provide cover, and the chief is shouting from the top of his lungs, straining his throat, “Alarm!”

A reserve from the station is already en route; the machine gun is being loaded at the one hundred-fiftieth meter; but here, where they’ll have to absorb the main onslaught, everyone is diving to the ground behind the boxes and the bags, aiming their rifles at the mouth of the tunnel. Finally, after waiting for the ghouls get really close, they light up the searchlight—illuminating the unearthly, raving black silhouettes. Naked, with black glossy skin and huge eyes and holes where mouths should be… Walking forward evenly, towards the barricades, towards the people, towards their own death, standing erect, without hunching, getting closer and closer… Three… Five… Eight creatures. The closest one raises its head and rips out a dismal howl.

Shivers crawl along your spine, and you want to get up and run, drop your rifle, abandon your friends, curse everything else to hell, and just run… You aim the searchlight at muzzles of the nightmarish creatures, to slash their eyes with bright light, but they don’t even squint, don’t shield their eyes with their arms. They continue to stare at the blinding beam with their eyes open wide, unwaveringly walking forward, forward… Do they even have pupils?

Finally, the reserve from the hundred-fiftieth meter rushes in with the machine gun, hits the ground next to you, and yells orders… Everything’s ready… Someone shouts the long-awaited “Fire!” The rumbling fire of several rifles is drowned by the rhythmic thunder of the machine gun. But the Dark do not stop, do not keel over: fully erect, they continue walking forward just as evenly, without missing a step. In the spotlight you can see how the bullets pierce their glossy bodies, pushing them backwards; they fall but immediately get up again and continue to walk forward. And again, this time with a ragged rasp, they howl through their punctured throats. Only after several minutes will the steel squall subdue their inhuman and pointless perseverance. Afterwards, when all the beasts are sprawled on the ground, breathless (do they ever breathe?), unmoving, each is given a final shot to the head from five meters away. And even when that’s all over, and after their bodies are thrown into the shafts, you will still see the spine-chilling images—the bullets ripping their black flesh, the searchlight searing their eyeballs, their unwavering walking forward…

Artem shuddered at that memory. Yep, it’s better not to talk about them, he thought. Just in case.

“Hey, Andreyevich! Get ready! We’re here!” shouted someone from the south, from the darkness. “Your shift is over!”

People around the bonfire started shuffling around, slowly awaking from their torpor, getting up, stretching, gathering their backpacks and weapons. Andrew picked up the foundling puppy as well. Petr Adreyevich and Artem walked back the station while Andrew and his partners headed to the hundred fiftieth meter to stand their own shift.

The shift relief shook hands with them, asked them about anything strange or unusual, wished them a restful night, huddled close to the bonfire, and resumed their previous conversation.

After heading south along the tunnel toward the station, Petr Andreyevich engaged in a fervent discussion with Andrey, seamlessly returning to one of their continual debates. The bald stranger, who had been asking about the dietary habits of the Dark, caught up with Artem and started walking alongside with him.

“So, you know Suhoy?” he asked Artem in his deep, dull voice, not looking him in the eye.

“Uncle Sasha? Of course! He’s my stepfather. I live with him,” answered Artem honestly.

“Really… Stepfather… I wasn’t aware…” mumbled the bald man.

“And what’s your name?” Artem finally asked, deciding that if someone inquires about relatives, then it gives Artem the right to ask a personal question in return.

“My? Name?” the bald man asked, surprised. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I’ll tell Uncle Sasha—err, Suhoy, that you’re looking for him.”

“Oh, yea. Then, tell him I’m Hunter… Hunter is looking for him. Tell him I said Hello.”

“Hunter? That’s not a real name. Is that your nickname?” Artem asked quizzically.

“Nickname? Heh,” Hunter smirked. “Why not? Actually… Listen, kid, it’s not a nickname. It’s a—how do I say it? A profession. What’s your name?”

“Artem.”

“Good. Nice to meet you. We’ll talk later, I think. Pretty soon, actually. Off you go!” And, winking to Artem in farewell, he stopped at the hundred fiftieth meter, along with Andrey.

After walking a little while longer, they started to hear the lively sounds from the stations. Walking next to Artem, Petr Andreyevich worriedly asked, “Hey, Artem, who was that guy? What was he telling you?”

“He was strange. He was asking about Uncle Sasha. Maybe he’s a friend? You don’t know him?”

“Not really. He came to our station a couple of days ago. On some business, I think. He’s acquainted with Andrey, and so he asked to join our watch. Hell knows why he’d want to go on a full watch with us. His face looks familiar…”

“Yeah. Hard to forget that expression,” suggested Artem.

“Exactly. Where have I seen him? You know his name?” inquired Petr.

“Hunter. He just said—Hunter. Try to figure out what that means.”

“Hunter? That’s not even a Russian word,” frowned Petr.

In the distance, they could see the red gleam of VDNH. Just like a majority of the metro stations, regular lighting on VDNH broke down long ago, and for the third decade, everyone lived in the reddish glow of the emergency lights. Only the “private quarters”—the tents—occasionally saw the light of regular incandescent bulbs. Real, bright mercury lamps shone upon only the richest of the stations. Tales about those stations became legends. Provincials from the remote, god-forgotten stations yearned for years to make the pilgrimage simply to stare at the wondrous white light.

Upon exiting the tunnel, they turned in their weapons and signed out. Petr Andreyevich, shaking Artem’s hand in farewell, said,

“Well, Artem, time to hit the sack. I’m barely awake myself, and you are probably already asleep on your feet. Send my regards to Suhoy. Tell him to come visit me.”

Artem said goodbye and, feeling a sudden bout of exhaustion, trotted toward his “apartment”.

The population of VDNH numbered approximately two hundred. Some resided in the station’s service rooms, but most lived in tents on the main platform. The old and worn army tents aged gracefully. Here, underground, the tents knew neither rain nor wind, and with frequent repairs, they made quite habitable abodes. Their walls kept the heat in and the light out, and even muffled the noise from the outside. What else is needed from a dwelling…

The tents were pressed up against the edges of the station, placed on both sides of each wall: facing the platform, and facing the railway. The platform had become an avenue, with a wide road in the middle and “houses”—tents—along its sides. The biggest tents, reserved for the largest families, stood under the arches, although the arches near the ends of the platform and in its center were kept clear by a mandate. Although there were small compartments underneath the floor, they were unsuitable for living, and were used on VDNH for storage.

A few dozen meters from the station, the two northerly tunnels were connected by a smaller tunnel, built to allow trains to do a u-turn and go the other direction. One of the tunnels was collapsed right past the connecting tunnel, and the other went to Botanicheskiy Sad and even past it, all the way to Mytischi. It was kept open as a last-resort emergency escape route. That was the very tunnel where Artem had just kept watch. The remaining parts of the collapsed tunnel, along with the connecting section, were used as mushroom plantations. The rails here had been ripped out and the exposed ground aerated and fertilized with the refuse from the cesspools. Mushrooms grew in neat rows along the entire tunnel. One of the southerly tunnels was collapsed as well, at the three hundredth meter; and the very end, chosen as far away from all human residences as possible, housed the coops and the pigpens.

Artem lived with his stepfather in a moderately-sized tent on Main Street. His stepfather was an important man, working for the administration and responsible for foreign relations with other stations, so they had the entire first-class tent to themselves. His stepfather frequently went on business trips, disappearing for two or three weeks at a time. He never took Artem with him, explaining that his business was too dangerous, and that he didn’t want to expose Artem to that kind of risk. He’d always come back from these trips scraggy, unwashed, unkempt, sometimes even wounded; but he’d always spend the first night back with Artem, telling him such astonishing stories that would make even the worldly-wise residents of this grotesque world incredulous.

Artem hungered to travel, but realized it was too dangerous to just mosey around in the metro: patrols from independent stations were often leery and didn’t let anyone with weapons through; and wandering in the tunnels without weapons meant certain death. From the time he and his stepfather relocated from Savelovskaya, he never went on long expeditions. Artem sometimes went to Alekseyevskaya—not alone, of course, in groups. He’d even gone as far as Rizhskaya. There was also one adventure that he could not discuss with anyone, even though he wanted to…

It happened a long time ago, when there weren’t even rumors of the Dark at Botanicheskiy Sad, when it was just a dark, abandoned station; the patrols from VDNH were venturing farther north. Artem was just a kid. He and his friends decided to push their luck: during a shift change, they reached the farthest cordon with flashlights and a double barrel shotgun stolen from their parents, and spent a long time crawling around Botanicheskiy Sad. It terrifying, but also exciting. In the weak beams of their flashlights they saw relics of human life: coals, burnt books, broken toys, torn clothes… Rats scurried about, and a strange purring sound emanated from the northern tunnel. One of Artem’s friends, he didn’t remember who exactly, but probably Zhenya, the most lively and adventurous of the three, suggested that they remove the barricades and crawl up the escalator… Just to take a look at what’s up there, what it’s like…

Artem immediately rejected the idea. His stepfather’s stories about people who’d gone to the top were still too fresh in his memory; how they fell deathly ill for prolonged periods, how they were haunted by the horrors they witnessed. But his friends immediately started convincing him of the rarity this opportunity presented: when would they be able to get to a genuine abandoned station, free from adult supervision, and maybe even go up and see, with their own eyes, what it’s like when there’s nothing above your head? Failing to convince him using just the merits of this argument, they collectively decided that if he was such a coward, that he should stay below and wait for their return. The thought of remaining alone in an abandoned station and of appearing cowardly in the eyes of his two best friends was unbearable to Artem, so he grudgingly agreed.

Surprisingly, the mechanism operating the barricade between the station and the escalator was working. It was Artem who managed to turn it on after half an hour of desperate tinkering. With a devilish rattle, the rusty iron wall budged and slid to the side, revealing a short row of escalator steps that led upward. Some steps had collapsed, and in the flashlight’s beam, the gaping cavities exposed giant metal gears eaten away by rust and covered in some brown, oscillating growth. It was hard for them to force themselves to continue. A few of the steps they stepped on creaked and collapsed, forcing them to crawl on the balustrade, pulling themselves upward by grabbing the light stanchions. The upward path was short, but their initial determination all but evaporated after the first collapsed step. To boost their courage, they imagined themselves to be real stalkers.

Stalkers…

This word, foreign and unusual to the Russian language, caught on quite well. In the past, it was used to refer to those desperate people forced by poverty to infiltrate abandoned military firing ranges, disassemble live missiles and mines, and sell the empty shells for scrap metal. The word was also used to describe the freaks who simply chose to crawl through sewers… But these definitions had something in common: they implied a dangerous profession involving the unexplored, unexplained, mysterious, enigmatic, evil… Who knows what went on at the abandoned proving grounds, where the radioactive earth—mutilated by thousands of explosions, carved with trenches and hollowed with catacombs—gave birth to monstrous sprouts? One could only imagine what would infest the sewers of a nearby metropolis long after the construction workers sealed the hatches and forever left the dark, cramped, fetid tunnels…

In the metro, stalkers were the rare daredevils who braved visits topside. These people, wearing protective suits with respirators and darkened glasses, armed to the teeth, ventured to the surface in search of needed supplies: ammunition, equipment, spare parts, fuel… There were hundreds of those brave enough to go up. Those who managed to come back alive—only a handful—were worth more than their weight in gold and were revered even more than former workers of the metro service. Dangers most diverse awaited those who dared to ascend, from the radiation to the grisly creatures it spawned. There was life on the surface, oh yes; but it wasn’t life familiar to human understanding.

Each stalker became a legend, a demigod, admired by everyone, both young and old alike. When children are born in a world with nowhere to sail and fly, where the words “sailor” and “pilot” fade and eventually lose their meanings—they dream of becoming stalkers. To don shining armor, to embark on quests for necessities, sent off by hundreds of adoring and grateful looks, to climb upwards to the gods, to battle the beasts, and to finally return to the underground with fuel, ammunition, light, and fire for all. To bring back life.

Naturally, Artem, Zhenya, and Vitalik all wanted to become stalkers. As they prodded themselves to keep crawling up the daunting, creaking escalator with its crumbling steps, they imagined themselves in protective armor, with Geiger counters and hefty submachine guns, the ones carried by real stalkers. But they had neither Geiger counters nor protective clothing, and instead of menacing military rifles they wielded only a single old double-barrel shotgun, which probably didn’t even work…

Pretty soon, their ascent was over, and they were almost to the surface. It was nighttime, thankfully, otherwise they would have gone blind immediately. After years of being used to the darkness of the underground, to the reddish bonfires and emergency lights, their eyes could not sustain the burden of daylight without injury. Blinded and helpless, they would have been unable to get back.

The antechamber of Botanicheskiy Sad was almost fully destroyed. Dark-blue summer sky, sprinkled with a myriad of stars and finally devoid of radioactive clouds, appeared through the half-collapsed roof. Ah, but what is a starry sky to a child unable to imagine an absence of a ceiling? When you look up and find your gaze not interrupted by a concrete canopy or a rusted network of wires and pipes, but fading instead into the dark-blue abyss suddenly spreading above—what a feeling! And the stars! How can anybody who had never seen stars imagine an infinity, when the whole concept of infinity was probably created by those inspired by a nighttime firmament? Millions of shining lights—silver nails pegged into a blue velvety dome…

The boys stood frozen for three, five, ten minutes, unable to utter a single word. They would probably have continued to stand in the same spot, and been boiled alive in the morning, if they hadn’t heard a sudden, soul-chilling roar from right around the corner. Recovering, they dashed headlong to the escalator and rushed downward for all their worth, ignoring precautions and nearly impaling themselves on the giant gears. Grabbing and pulling each other, they covered the entirety of their former path in mere seconds.

After tumbling down the ten steps head over heels and losing their shotgun along the way, they rushed to the barricade control panel. But—Dammit!—the rusty metal door wedged itself solidly in its tracks and would not shut. Scared to death by the monsters probably following them, they rushed back to the adults, to the north cordon.

But, understanding that they probably did something terrible by leaving the blast doors open and thus granting mutants a way down into the metro, to humanity, they agreed to keep their mouths shut and never tell the adults where they had been. They told the cordon watch that they went to one of the side-tunnels to hunt rats, but they lost the gun, got scared, and came back.

Artem, of course, caught hell from his stepfather. Though his butt stung for quite a while from the belting he got, Artem kept his vow of silence like a captured soldier, and never babbled his military secret. His friends had also kept silent.

Their lies were accepted.

Only now, reflecting back on the story, Artem pondered more and more frequently whether their adventure—and those open blast doors—was related to the evil storming their cordons for the past few years.

Greeting the passers by, stopping here and there, listening to a story, shaking a friend’s hand, giving a girl a peck, and telling the adults how his stepfather was doing, Artem finally reached his home. There was no one inside. He decided not to wait for his stepfather, but go straight to sleep. An eight-hour long watch could exhaust anyone. He threw off his boots, took off his jacket, and flopped headfirst into his pillow, falling asleep immediately.

The tent’s flap went up, and a massive figure quietly slipped in. It was hard to make out its face; only the red emergency light reflected darkly from the bald skull. A dull voice said, “Well, we meet again. Your stepfather, as I can see, is still not here. Don’t worry. We’ll get him as well. Sooner or later. He won’t get away. And now you’ll come with me. We have something to discuss. For example, the barricades on the Botanicheskiy.” Artem, petrified, recognized his recent acquaintance from his watch with the cordon, the one calling himself Hunter. He approached Artem slowly, quietly; his face was still invisible in the absence of the tent’s light… Artem wanted to call for help, but a mighty hand, cold like a corpse’s, clamped over his mouth, gagging him. His groping hand finally found a flashlight and turned it on, shining it into the man’s face. What he saw took his breath away and filled him with terror: instead of a human face he saw a horrible black muzzle with two huge black senseless eyes and a gaping orifice… Breaking free of the gagging hand, Artem bolted out of the tent. Suddenly, all the lights on the station went out and everything went dark, except for the shimmering flickers of a faraway bonfire. Without thinking, Artem ran toward it, toward the light. The fiend followed, growling, “Stop! You have nowhere to run!” He let out a terrifying laugh, which soon turned into a familiar sepulchral howl. As Artem was running, he heard the tramping of heavy boots behind him, not a fast scampering but even, regular footsteps, as if the pursuer knew that he had no reason to hurry, that he’d get Artem sooner or later…

Upon reaching the bonfire Artem saw a man sitting with his back turned. He started shaking this man and asking for help, but the man instead fell face up, and it became apparent that he’d been dead for a long time, and that his face was already (for some reason) covered in frost. In this corpse’s frozen face Artem finally recognized his stepfather, Uncle Sasha…

“Hey, Artem! Enough sleeping, get up. You’ve been out for seven hours already. Come on, sleepy-head, we have guests,” said Suhoy.

Artem sat up in his bed and stared in confusion.

“Uncle Sasha… You’re… Everything okay with you?” He asked, finally, after blinking for a minute. He finally overcame the urge to ask whether his stepfather was alive in the first place, only because the answer was an apparent yes.

“Yeah, everything’s fine, as you can see. Come on, get up, enough lazing around. I’m going to introduce you to a friend of mine,” said Suhoy.

A familiar dull voice became audible nearby, and Artem, recollecting the nightmare still fresh in his mind, became covered in sweat.

“So you two know each other already?” Suhoy was surprised. “You’re quick, Artem.”

Finally, the guest squeezed into the tent. Artem shuddered and pressed against the far wall of the tent—as he feared, it was Hunter. His nightmare again rushed through his mind: the empty dark eyes, the trampling of heavy boots behind him, the stiff familiar corpse near a bonfire…

“Yeah, we’ve met already,” uttered Artem, reluctantly extending his hand.

Hunter’s hand was warm and dry, and Artem finally started to convince himself that it was just a dream, that there is nothing evil about this man, that his imagination, overexcited by an eight-hour watch in the cordon, had poisoned on his dreams.

“Listen, Artem. Do us a favor! Make us some tea! Have you tried our tea?” winked Suhoy at the guest. “Some good stuff!”

“I’ve tried it already,” answered Hunter, nodding. “It’s good tea. They try to make tea on Pechatniki—tastes like swill. Yours is quite different.”

Artem went to fetch the water for tea and carried it to the main fire to boil it. It was forbidden to light a fire inside a tent—a few stations had already burned to the ground for that very reason.

Along the way, he kept thinking that Pechatniki was on the opposite side of the metro, and devil knows how long of a walk it is, how many transfers, tunnels, stations must be traversed—sometimes by lying, sometimes by fighting, sometimes through connections… And this guy casually blurts “On Pechatniki….” What can you say—that makes him an interesting person, albeit a bit scary. And his hand—what a mighty clutch—and it’s not like Artem himself was weak, frequently showing off his own strength during handshakes.

After preparing the tea, he returned to the tent. Hunter had taken off his coat, revealing a black turtleneck stretched snugly across his thick neck and bulky, muscular torso, and tucked into military trousers, which were cinched with an officer’s belt. Over the turtleneck he wore a vest with many pockets; and just beneath his armpit, strapped in a shoulder holster, he carried a huge polished handgun. After a closer examination, Artem finally recognized it as a Stechkin APS, with a long silencer and an unusual device attached on top—probably a laser sight. This monster alone must be worth a fortune. And this was definitely not a defensive weapon, noted Artem. He remembered, when Hunter introduced himself, he had said that hunting was his profession.

“Hey, Artem, pour some tea for our guest. Sit down, Hunter, get comfortable. Tell us a story,” bustled Suhoy, “Heaven knows, how long it’s been since I saw you last!”

“About myself later. Nothing interesting. Here, though, strange things are happening, I heard. The undead creeping from the north. I heard stories today, during the watch. What is it?” Asked Hunter in his usual manner using short, chopped phrases.

“It’s death, Hunter,” replied Suhoy, his expression suddenly darkening. “It’s our future death approaching. Our fate, inching toward us. That’s what it is.”

“Why death? I heard you kill them off quite effectively. They don’t have any weapons. But what are they? Who are they? Where do they come from? I never heard of them on the other stations. Never. And that means they don’t exist elsewhere. I want to know what they are. I sense a great danger. I want to know the degree of the danger, want to understand its nature. That’s why I’m here.”

“The danger must be eliminated, yes, Hunter? You’re still the same cowboy… But can this danger be eliminated—that’s the question,” frowned Suhoy with a dark smirk. “That’s the trouble. It’s more complicated than it seems. Much more so. They’re not just zombies, walking corpses from the movies. There it’s easy: you load up your revolver with silver bullets,” he continued, imitating a gun with his fingers, “bam, bam, and the forces of evil are defeated. Here it’s something else, something sinister… And I don’t get scared easily, Hunter, you know that.”

“You’re panicking?” asked Hunter in surprise.

“Their main weapon is terror. People barely manage to stay put. They’re aiming their rifles, their machine guns—against a few unarmed monsters. And everyone—even knowing that they have both a qualitative and a quantitative superiority—everyone is almost ready to get up and run away, almost going insane from the terror—and some have already lost it, let me tell you in confidence. It’s not just a fear, Hunter.” Suhoy lowered his voice. “It’s… I don’t know how to explain it properly… It gets stronger every time. They’re affecting our minds somehow… Intentionally, I think. You feel them from afar, and the feeling keeps getting stronger, this cursed uneasiness, or something. Then you start shivering. Even though you don’t see anything, don’t hear anything, you already know that they’re close by, approaching… Approaching… Then you hear their howl, and all hell turns loose. When they get even closer, you’re physically shaking. For a long time afterwards, you still see them when you close your eyes, evenly walking forward…”

Artem shuddered. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one tortured by these nightmares. He never discussed the subject with anyone else, fearing that they would think he’s either coward or insane.

“They’re loosening our psyche, the scumbags,” continued Suhoy. “You know, like tuning in our wavelength, so the next time you feel them even better, fear them even more. It’s not a regular terror… I’d know.”

He went silent. Hunter sat still, studying him with a stare and considering this news. He sipped the hot infusion, and spoke slowly and quietly,

“This means danger to everything, Suhoy. To the entire bloody metro, not just your station.”

Suhoy was silent, as if not wanting to respond, but suddenly burst out:

“Entire metro, you say? No, not just the metro, but our entire progressive mankind, which has finally gone too far with its progress. Time to pay. It’s a battle of the species, Hunter. Battle of the species. And these Dark are not the undead, not the monsters. They’re Homo Novus, the next stage of evolution, better equipped to the new environment than we are. The future is with them, Hunter! Maybe Homo Sapiens will rot for another couple of decades, maybe even half a century, in these hell holes which they dug for themselves when there were too many of them and not everyone could fit on the surface. The ones less well-off were shoved underground. We’ll become pale and emaciated, like Wells’ Morlocks—remember them from “The Time Machine,” the critters living underground in the future? They had been Sapiens too, some time ago. Yes, we’re optimistic, we don’t want to die. We’ll grow our little mushrooms in our own excrement, and pigs will become man’s new best friend, partners in survival, so to say… We’ll munch on multivitamins, prepared for us by our caring ancestors. We’ll sheepishly crawl to the surface, to grab just one more fuel canister, some rags, a handful of rounds if we’re lucky, and hurry back to our suffocating dungeons, stealing backward glances to determine if someone noticed. Because there, on the surface, we’re no longer at home. The world no longer belongs to us, Hunter… The world is no longer ours.”

Suhoy went silent, staring at the steam, the wisps slowly rising from his teacup and dissolving in the darkness of the tent. Hunter remained silent. Artem suddenly realized that he’d never heard anything like this from his stepfather. There was none of his usual assured confidence that everything will get better; none of his cheerful “We’ll get through it;” none of his many encouraging winks… Or was it all always just for show?

“Nothing to say, Hunter? Keeping quiet… Come on, argue with me! Where are your deductions? Where is your optimism? Last time we talked, you were trying to convince me that the level of radiation will go down and that people will eventually go to the surface. Hunter, Hunter… ‘The sun will rise over a forest, only not for me…’” he sung, sarcastically. “We’ll sink our teeth into life, and will hang onto it with all our might, ignoring the philosophers and the nonconformists exclaiming ‘What if there’s nothing?’ You don’t want to believe it, but in the depth of your soul you know that it’s the truth. And we like this thing, Hunter, don’t we? You and I really love to live! We’ll crawl through fetid sewers, sleep in pigsties and devour rats, but we’ll survive! Yes? Wake up, Hunter. No one is going to write the book about you and call it ‘Story of a real man.’ No one will sing a ballad about your will to live, your hypertrophic survival instinct. How long will you survive on mushrooms, vitamins, and pork? Give up, Sapiens! You’re no longer the ruler of the world; you’ve been cast out. No, you don’t need to croak just yet, no one is forcing you to die. Continue your crawling in agony, drowning in your own excrement. But know, Sapiens, you’ve outlived your time. Evolution, the laws of nature as you comprehend them, have already taken a new turn, and you’re no longer the most advanced species, no longer the crown of creation. You’re a dinosaur. Give up your seat to the new, more perfect species. Don’t be so selfish. Game over; let others play. Your time is up. You’re dying off. And let the following civilizations rack their brains over why Homo Sapiens have died off; though I doubt anyone will be interested…”

Hunter, studying his fingernails during the entire monologue, finally looked at Suhoy and solemnly spoke:

“You really broke down from the last time I saw you. I remember, you told me, that if we preserve our culture, if we don’t turn sour, don’t lose our language, and teach our kids to read and write, then we may even pull it off while living underground… Was it not you who told me that? And now, ‘Surrender, Sapiens.’ What happened?”

“What happened is that I understood something, Hunter. I felt something that you haven’t acknowledged yet, or maybe will never realize: that we’re dinosaurs and we’re living the last bit of our lives. It may take ten, even a hundred years, but still…”

“Resistance is futile, right?” spat Hunter. “Is that what you’re trying to say?”

Suhoy remained silent, lowering his eyes. Never before admitting his weakness to anyone, it took a lot out of him to say this to his old friend, especially in front of Artem. It pained him to wave the white flag.

“No! You’ll never see it happen,” said Hunter slowly, standing up to his full height. “And they won’t see it happen. New species, you say? Evolution? Inevitable extinction? Excrement? Pigs? Multivitamins? That’s not all I’ve been through. I’m not afraid of it. You got that? I’m not giving up. Survival instinct? Call it that. Yes, I’ll sink my teeth into life. I’ve had it with your evolution. Let other species wait for their turn. I’m not cattle on its way to the slaughterhouse. Give up and go to hell with your new and improved species, and surrender to them! If you feel like you’re done fighting, walk away—desert, I won’t judge you. But don’t try to scare me, and don’t try to drag me along to your slaughterhouse. Why are you preaching to me? Because it won’t be as shameful to give up as a group? Or are the enemies offering you a hot dinner for every friend you bring along? My fight is hopeless? You say we’re at the edge of a precipice? I spit at your precipice! If you think that our place is at the bottom, then take a deep breath and jump. This is where we part ways. If a Knowing Man, refined and civilized, is choosing to give up, then I’ll forego the honorable title and become an animal. And, like an animal, I’ll cling to life and bite into the throats of others to survive. And I’ll survive. You hear me?! Survive!”

He sat down and quietly asked Artem for some more tea. Suhoy got up and went to refill the teapot, grim and somber. Artem was left alone in the tent with Hunter. His last words, this resounding loathing, his vicious conviction that he’ll survive, ignited a spark inside Artem. He was gaining courage to start a conversation with Hunter, when Hunter turned to him and asked,

“Well, what do you think, kid? Tell me, don’t be shy… Do you also want to be a plant? A dinosaur? Sit around and wait for them to get you? You know the fable about the frogs and the milk? The two frogs got into a milk pail. One, a rational thinker, quickly understood that resisting is pointless, and that you can’t cheat fate. Maybe there really is life after death, it thought, so why should I needlessly get myself worked up and delude myself with empty hopes? It folded its legs and sunk to the bottom. The second frog was dumb, or maybe an atheist. It just kept on flopping about. Why would it keep twitching if everything was predetermined? But it just kept dabbling in the pail… Until it whipped the milk into butter and jumped out. Let us honor the memory of the successful frog’s friend, who died an untimely death in the name of philosophical progress and rational thinking.”

“Who are you,” Artem finally dared to ask.

“Who am I? You already know who I am. Hunter.”

“But what does it mean—hunter? What do you do? Go hunting?”

“How can I explain… Do you know how the human organism works? It is composed of millions of tiny cells—one type of cells transmits electrical signals, another stores information, third processes nutrients, fourth transports oxygen… But all of them, even the most important ones, would perish in a day—the whole organism would die—had there not been cells responsible for the immune system. They are called macrophages. They work methodically and regularly, like clockwork, like a metronome. When an infection enters the body, they track it down, finding all of its hiding spots, and eventually get to it and…” He made a gesture imitating twisting someone’s neck and mouthed a ghastly cracking sound. “And they liquidate it.”

“But what does that have to do with your profession,” insisted Artem.

“Imagine that the entire metro system is a human organism. It’s a complex organism, consisting of forty thousand cells. I’m a macrophage. A hunter. It’s my profession. Any danger serious enough to threaten the entire organism must be liquidated. That is my job.”

Suhoy finally came back with the teapot. While pouring the boiling concoction into the cups, he turned to Hunter, having come up with a response during his absence:

“What are you going to do to liquidate the source of the menace, cowboy? Go hunting and shoot all of the Dark? You won’t get very far. There’s nothing you can do, Hunter. Nothing.”

“There’s always one more option, the last resort—blowing your northern tunnel to smithereens. Collapse it completely. Cut off your new species. Let them breed on the surface and leave us mole rats, alone. The underground is our new habitat.”

“I’m going to tell you something interesting. Few people know about it, even on our station. We already collapsed one of two tunnels. Above us—directly to the north—are underground streams. We almost flooded the whole station when we were collapsing that tunnel. Had we used a little more explosives, it would have been goodbye to the dear VDNH. So if we blast the remaining tunnel, we won’t be merely flooded. We will be washed away by a radioactive river. It won’t be just our deaths, it’ll be the entire metro. If we engage in an interspecies war like that, then our species will lose. Check.”

“What about the blast doors?” remembered Hunter. “Can’t you shut them and cut off the northern tunnel?”

“Some dimwits disassembled all the tunnel blast doors along the entire line and used the parts to fortify some station. No one even remembers which station it was anymore. Didn’t you know that? That’s another check.”

“Tell me… Have their attacks been increasing recently?” Hunter, it seemed, gave up and tried to change the subject.

“Increasing? Hell, yeah! It’s hard to believe that not so long ago we’d never even heard of them. And now they’re our main threat. Believe me, soon will come the day when they’ll sweep us all away, along with our fortifications, searchlights and machine guns. You can’t have the entire metro raise an army to defend one worthless station… Sure, we make good tea, but nobody’s going to risk their life for tea, even tea as wonderful as ours. Ultimately, there is always the tea from Pechatniki. Again, check!” Suhoy smirked. “No one needs us. Soon we’ll be unable to counter the onslaught. We can’t cut them off, can’t collapse the tunnel. We can’t go up to the surface to incinerate them, for obvious reasons. Checkmate. Checkmate against you, Hunter! And against me. Game over for all of us in the near future, if you know what I mean,” sneered Suhoy bitterly.

“We shall see,” said Hunter sharply. “We shall see.”

They continued talking about unrelated topics, frequently mentioning names and catching up on stories unfamiliar to Artem. Every once in a while they resumed their old debates, also unfamiliar to Artem, which had probably been drawn out for years, calming when they separated and enflaming when they reunited.

Eventually Hunter got up and said that it was time for him to sleep, because he, unlike Artem, has not slept since the watch. He said goodbye to Suhoy, but upon exiting, he suddenly turned to Artem and whispered, “Come outside for a minute.”

Artem immediately rushed outside, paying no attention to his stepfather’s astonished expression. Hunter was waiting outside, zipping his cloak up all the way.

“Let’s walk”, he suggested and began to stride slowly along the platform, toward the guest tent where he was staying. Artem followed hesitantly, trying to surmise why this man would want to talk to him, to a mere boy, who hadn’t yet accomplished anything significant, let alone useful.

“What do you think about my profession?” asked Hunter.

“It’s great! If you didn’t do that… Er, and others, like you, if there are any… Then we’d all be…” mumbled Artem self-consciously.

He blushed at his stuttering. It had to happen now, when an important person was paying attention and wanted to tell something specifically to him, even asking him to step outside, to be in private, without his stepfather—he just had to blush like a girl and bleat like a suffering goat.

“You appreciate it? Well, if people appreciate it,” chuckled Hunter, “then you shouldn’t listen to naysayers. Listen, your stepfather is petrified. And he’s a really courageous man. At least he used to be. Something terrible is happening here, Artem. Something that you can’t just leave alone. Your stepfather is right: they’re not just monsters like on the other stations, not simply vandals or degenerates. This is something new. Something ominous. It makes my flesh creep. It reeks of death. It’s my second day on this station, and the terror is already starting to infect me. And, as I understand it, the more you know about them, the more you study them, the more vividly you see them, the stronger the terror. For example, you haven’t seen them much, right?”

“So far only once: I started keeping watch in the north only recently,” admitted Artem. “To be honest, once was enough for me. I still see them in my nightmares. Today, for example. And it’s been so long since that day!”

“Nightmares, you say? You have them as well?” frowned Hunter. “No, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence… And had I lived here a little longer, a couple of months of keeping watches regularly, I could very well have turned sour myself. No, lad. Your stepfather is wrong on one count. It’s not he who said all that. It’s not he who believes that. They think for him, they speak for him. Give up, they say, resisting is futile. He’d become their mouthpiece. He probably doesn’t even understand that… And they’re probably just tuning in on us, the bastards, attacking our psyche. Damn creeps! Tell me, Artem,” he addressed Artem directly, in a way that made him realize that he is going to say something very important. “Do you have a secret? Something that you would never tell anyone on this station, but can disclose to an outsider?”

“W-well,” faltered Artem, but it was enough for a keen person to understand that there was such a secret.

“I also have one. Let’s trade. I need to share my secret with someone, but I want to be sure that it won’t be blabbed about. So tell me your secret—and not some rubbish about some girl you like, but something serious, something that no one else must hear. And then I’ll tell you mine. It’s important to me. Really important, you understand?”

Artem vacillated. Curiosity was, of course, killing him, but he was terrified of disclosing his secret to a man who was not only an interesting person with an adventurous life, but also, from all appearances, a cold-blooded killer, one who eliminated the smallest obstacles in his path. And if it turns out that Artem really was involved in letting the Dark in…

Hunter encouragingly looked him in the eye.

“You needn’t fear me. I guarantee your immunity,” he winked conspiratorially.

They reached the guest tent, which was reserved solely for Hunter for the night, but remained standing outside. Artem deliberated a little longer, but finally made a decision. He took a deep breath and then quickly, without any pauses, recounted the whole story of the trip to Botanicheskiy Sad. When he finished, Hunter remained silent for some time, contemplating the turn of events. He then drawled in a raspy voice,

“Generally speaking, both you and your friends should be shot, to set an example for others. But I already promised you immunity. Although it doesn’t extend to your friends…”

Artem’s heart sunk. Terror made his body go rigid and his knees buckle. Unable to speak, he was quietly waiting for the rest of the sentence.

“But taking into account your young age and your stupidity at the time of the incident, as well as the statute of limitations, all of you are forgiven. Live!” To free Artem from his stupor, Hunter again winked at him, this time reassuringly. “But bear in mind that your station mates won’t show you any mercy. You voluntarily gave me a powerful weapon against yourself. And as for my secret…”

While Artem regretted his indiscretion, Hunter continued:

“I didn’t cross the entire metro for this station in vain. I won’t reconsider my decision. Danger must be eliminated, as you’ve already heard me say. It must and will be eliminated. I will do that. Your stepfather is afraid. As I understand it, he’s slowly turning into their weapon. It’s increasingly hard for him to resist them, and he’s even trying to dissuade me. If the story about the underground river is true, then the collapsing the tunnel is out of the picture. But your story cleared something up for me. If the Dark started getting here only after your excursion, then they are infiltrating the metro from Botanicheskiy Sad. There must have been something unusual in that area, to engender them… And that means they can be blocked there, closer to the surface, without releasing the ground waters. But hell knows what happens beyond the seven hundredth meter in the north tunnel. That’s where your reign ends and the reign of the darkness begins—the most widespread form of government in the entire Moscow Metropolitan Railway. I will go there. No one must know about it. You’ll tell Suhoy that I was asking about the situation at the station, which is the truth. You probably won’t even have to explain anything: if everything goes smoothly, then I’ll explain everything myself to the right people. But it’s possible,” he stopped for a second to look Artem in the eye, “that I won’t come back. Regardless of whether there’s an explosion or not, if I don’t come back tomorrow morning, then someone must tell my partners what happened to me, and what devilry is going on in your northern tunnels. I already visited all my friends at this station, including your stepfather. I felt—I could almost see—how a small worm of doubt and dread is gnawing on the minds of those frequently exposed to the influence of the Dark. And I can’t rely on anyone with worm-infested brains. I need someone healthy, someone whose mind has not been assaulted by these fiends. I need you.”

“Me? But what I can to do help?” asked Artem, surprised.

“Listen to me. If I don’t come back, then you must, at any cost, at all costs—you hear me?!?—make it to Polis. To the City… And find a man called Miller. You’ll tell him the whole story. One more thing. I’m going to give you something. Give it to him to prove that I was the one to send you. Come inside for a second!” After taking off the padlock, Hunter raised the fold of the tent and let Artem go inside first.

It felt cramped inside the tent, particularly because of a camouflage-colored backpack and a large duffel bag standing in the middle. A barrel of a massive rifle, in all likelihood a disassembled hand machine gun, was sticking out from inside the backpack. It shimmered grimly in the beam of Artem’s flashlight. Right as Hunter was closing the backpack, Artem managed to catch a glimpse of glassy-black metallic casings filled with machine gun rounds stacked on one side of the rifle, and small green antipersonnel grenades on the other.

Making no comments about his stockpile, Hunter opened a side pocket and procured a small metallic capsule made from a shell of a rifle bullet. Instead of a bullet, the capsule was topped with a screw cap.

“Here, take this. Don’t wait for more than two days. And don’t be afraid. Everywhere you’ll meet people who are willing to help you. You must do this. You know what depends on you. I don’t need to explain it any more, do I? All right. Wish me luck and get out of here… I need to catch up on sleep.”

Artem barely forced self to utter the farewell, shook Hunter’s huge paw, and trudged to his tent, hunching under the weight of the mission imposed upon him.

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