Chapter 3

Alpha

If I Don't Come Back

A thorough interrogation was imminent: upon Artem’s return, his stepfather would surely _grill_ him and ask him about his conversation with Hunter. But contrary to Artem’s expectations, Sukhoy was not waiting with a rack and Spanish Boots, but instead slumbering peacefully—it was his first opportunity to sleep in over a day.

Having slept through the entire day after keeping a night watch, Artem was now obligated to work a night shift on the tea farm.

After decades of living underground, in the darkness only partially _dissipated_ by a dim reddish light, the true meaning of the words “night” and “day” gradually vanished. The station’s illumination was dimmed at night, as it was done _long ago_ in long distance trains to allow the travelers to sleep, and was never turned off completely—except for during emergencies. Even after spending years in the darkness, the human vision [|sight] could not compete with the sight of the beasts inhabiting the abandoned tunnels and passages.

The division into “day” and “night” was done more out of habit than necessity. Having a night made sense only because it was convenient for most of the inhabitants of a station to sleep at the same time. Cattle slept at the same time, lights were dimmed, and _quiet hours were enforced_ [|noise was prohibited]. The exact time was displayed on the two giant clocks, each above the tunnel entrances on the opposite sides of the station. These clocks were included in the list of strategically important objects, such as the armory, water filters, and the generator. They were carefully maintained, and the smallest glitches were corrected immediately. Any attempt to sabotage the clock, whether by diversionists or by vandals, carried out the most severe sentences, including banishment from the station.

VDNH had a strict penal code. Criminals were swiftly brought to justice by a tribunal, which took into consideration the permanent state of emergency. Diversion against strategic objects _resulted in_ the harshest of punishments. Smoking on the station, starting fires outside the designated areas, and careless usage of handguns and grenades also resulted in banishment from the station, in addition to the confiscation of all possessions.

Such draconian measures were necessary because a few stations had burned down completely _to date_. Fire would spread through the entire tent city in an instant, indiscriminately consuming everyone and everything in its path; the residents of neighboring stations would _remember_ [|hear] the mad, agonizing screams for months after the catastrophe; and the charred bodies, glued together by melted plastic and tarpaulin, bared their teeth, cracked by the insane heat, at the travelling merchants and wanderers who inadvertently walked into this hell.

To avoid a repetition of this grim _destiny_, the majority of the station added carelessness with fire to a list of _capital_ [|grievous] offenses.

Banishment was also a punishment for such crimes as burglary, sabotage, and intentional evasion of work. However, taking into account the fact that everyone was always in sight, and that the station _housed_ around two hundred people, these _and other types of_ crimes occurred rarely, and mostly by foreigners.

Work was compulsory on the station; everyone, young and old alike, had to fulfill a daily work quota. The pig farm; mushroom plantations, tea factory, _meat-packing plant_, fire station, engineering _depot_, and the _weapon shop_—each resident worked in one, or sometimes two places. In addition, males were required to keep watch in one of the tunnels once every two days, and even more frequently during the times of conflicts or when some new danger would crawl out from the depths of the metro—with increased watches and with armed reserves stationed on the railways.

Life was tuned this finely only on a handful of stations, and VDNH’s reputation was attracting large crowds of people looking for a new home. However, foreigners were accepted rather rarely and reluctantly.

There were still a few hours until the beginning of his shift at the tea factory, and not knowing what to do, Artem headed to his best friend Zhenya—one of his companions in the dizzying journey to the surface.

Zhenya was the same age as Artem, but in contrast to Artem, lived with his real family: father, mother, and a younger sister. There were only a handful of cases where the whole family was saved, and Artem secretly envied his friend. Of course, he loved his stepfather and greatly respected him even now, after his nerves were beginning to give, but he fully understood that Sukhoy wasn’t his father, not even a relative, and never called him “Dad”.

Sukhoy, on the other hand, having initially asked Artem to call him “Uncle Sasha”, with time began to regret it. Years kept going by and he, an old tunnel wolf, missed his chance to start a real family; he didn’t even have a woman who would wait for him to return from his journeys. His heart ached to see mothers with small children, and he dreamt of the day when he would no longer march off into the darkness, disappearing from the life on the station for days, weeks, or maybe even forever. And then, he hoped, there would be a woman who’d become his wife, and they would have kids who, having learned to talk, would call him not Uncle Sasha but Dad.

Old age and feebleness were approaching; there was less and less time , and it was probably wise to hurry; but Sukhoy just couldn’t tear himself away. One assignment was replaced by another, and there was no one to delegate a portion of the responsibilities to; to entrust the _connections_ [|contacts] upon; to disclose professional secrets to, in order to _afford_ a boring job at the station. He’s been long wishing for a calmer occupation and could even count on a managerial position at the station, all thanks to his reputation, his stellar service record, and his friendly relationship [|relations] with the administration. But until he could find a someone even remotely suitable as a replacement, he lived in the present and pushed his retirement off into the future, while pouring his blood, sweat, and tears to protect faraway stations and tunnels.

Artem knew that despite an almost fatherly love, his stepfather never thought of him as his own, and, as a matter of fact, considered him a _blockhead_ [|goofball |dolt], quite _unfairly_ [|undeservedly]. He never took Artem on his lengthy expeditions, despite the fact that Artem was growing up, and it was impossible to scare him with stories of being kidnapped by zombies or eaten by rats. He also didn’t understand that his mistrust in Artem was doing quite the opposite—impelling [|pushing] Artem to undertake the most reckless adventures, which ultimately got him belted. Suhoy evidently wanted his stepson to live a safe and secure life after his own dreams: working and raising kids, not wasting his youth; instead of roaming the metro and encountering pointless danger—much like what Sukhoy was actually doing. While wishing this tranquility upon Artem, Sukhoy didn’t realize that to earn for it he himself first had to live though _fire and water_, survive hundreds of adventures, and be sated by them. It wasn’t wisdom acquired over the years that controlled him now, but old age and tiredness. Artem, on the other hand, was teeming with excitement. His life was only beginning, and he couldn’t fathom living a stagnant life, drying and crushing mushrooms, changing diapers, and avoiding crossing the five hundredth meter. His desire to sneak away from the station was growing every day, as we was understanding the lot that his stepfather was _allocating_ for him. A career in fathering kids and manufacturing tea _scared_ Artem. That is probably what Hunter saw in Artem: his spirit for adventures, the desire to be thrown about like tumbleweed by the tunnels’ winds, chasing them into the unknown, following his destiny, that made him place such a _grave_ responsibility upon Artem’s shoulders. Hunter was a good judge of character, and a single hour-long conversation was enough for him to trust Artem. Even if Artem didn’t reach the destination, he would at least try, instead of forgetting his responsibilities, should anything happen to Hunter on Botanicheskiy Sad.

Hunter made the correct decision.

Zhenya, thankfully, was home, and Artem could pass the time listening to the latest gossip and discussing the future, while sipping [+strong] tea.

“What’s up!” replied Zhenya to Artem’s greeting. “You’re also working tonight at the factory? They scheduled me as well. I felt sick earlier; was going to ask the higher-ups to switch. But since you’ll be there, I’ll be all right, I’ll manage. You had vigil duty today, yea? Kept watch out there? Well, go on, tell me! I heard you had an emergency there… What happened?”

Artem emphatically turned toward Zhenya’s little sister, who was so enthralled _by_ the forthcoming narrative that she stopped feeding mushroom peelings to the rag doll given to her by her mom, and watched them _moon-eyed_, holding her breath, from the corner of the tent.

“Hey, you, kiddo,” sternly uttered Zhenya, understanding Artem’s gesture, “you’d better gather your things and go, play with the neighbors. Didn’t Katya ask you to come over? You should always maintain a good relationship with your neighbors. So go on, grab your kewpie dolls—and shoo!”

The girl _peeped_ something and forlornly began to gather her things, _in passing_ speaking her mind to her doll, who dully stared at the ceiling with her half-faded eyes.

“They think they’re so important! But I already know everything! You’re going to talk about your stupid toadstools,” she said disdainfully as she was leaving the tent.

“And you, Lena, are too young to discourse about toadstools. You’ve still got mother’s milk on your lips,” replied Zhenya, putting her in her place.

“What is milk?” asked Lena perplexedly, examining her lips.

Neither of them deigned to answer her, and the question was left hanging in the air.

When she left, Zhenya fastened the folds of the tent closed and asked,

“Well, what happened? Come on, spill it. I’ve already heard so many rumors. Some say, that a giant rat crawled out from the tunnel, others—that you deterred a Dark scout, and even wounded it. Whom do I believe?”

“Don’t believe anyone,” advised Artem. “Everyone’s lying. It was a dog. A small puppy. Andrey picked it up—he’s the marine guy. He said he’ll raised it to be a German Shepherd,” added Artem with a smile.

“But Andrey himself told me that it was a rat!” recounted Zhenya in confusion. “Did he lie to me on purpose?”

“Don’t you know? It’s his favorite _catch phrase_: rats the size of pigs. He’s a comedian, see?” responded Artem. “What’s new here? What do the guys say?”

Zhenya was friends with the merchants, who shipped tea and pork to the market at Prospekt Mira. In return, they carried vitamins, rags, other junk; and sometimes even got their hands on greasy books. These books, often with missing pages, had somehow made their way to Prospekt Mira—probably having crossed half a metro, from one trunk into another, from one pocket into another, from trader to trader, finally finding their ways to VDNH.

Residents of VDNH prided themselves in being able not only to survive in the continuously worsening conditions, but also to _upkeep_ [|maintain] the rapidly deteriorating human _culture_ [|civilization]—at least within the bounds of the station—despite being removed from the center and from the main trade routes.

The station’s government tried to pay as much attention to this topic [|issue] as it could. All children were [|mandatorily] taught to read. There was even a small library at the station, which comprised mostly of the _traded_ books. Unfortunately, the traders didn’t have a _selection of_ [|choice of] books—they bought whatever they could [|they took whatever was given to them]—and there was more than enough of _literary garbage_ [|pulp].

Books were held in such respect at the station, that no one would dare to _tear a page from_ [|desecrate] even the most worthless book. Books were canonized—they were the last reminder of the beautiful world, vanished into the void. The adults, treasuring every second of their memories brought _about_ by reading, passed this attitude toward books _unto_ their children. But the children didn’t have anything to remember; they never knew, and would never know, any world outside the endless plexus of the cramped, gloomy tunnels, corridors, and crossings.

Few places in the entire metro worshipped the printed word, and the inhabitants [|residents] of VDNH considered their station as one of the few remaining strongholds of culture, the northernmost outpost of civilization on Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya Line.

Both Artem and Zhenya liked to read. Upon the return of his friends from the market, Zhenya would always rush to greet them and ask them whether they’d brought back anything new. The book would go to him first, and only then to the library.

Artem got his books from his stepfather, who’d acquire them on his trips [|treks]. In their tent they had an almost genuine bookshelf, which displayed tomes yellowed by time, damaged by fungus, chewed by rats, stained by reddish drops of blood. They owned titles unseen by anyone else at the station, and even possibly in the entire metro: Márquez, Kafka, Borges, Vian, several volumes of Russian classics.

“They guys didn’t bring anything this time,” said Zhenya. “Alex says, next month there’ll be a whole shipment of books from Polis. He promised to keep a couple for himself.”

“I’m not talking about books,” Artem brushed him off. “What did they hear? How is everything?”

“Everything? Nothing’s really happening. There are rumors, but there are always rumors, you know. The traders can’t live without their gossip and tall tales. It’s their major staple—they wither without gossip. But to believe or not to believe—that is the question. Everything seems calm now—if you compare it with the time when Hansa was at war with the Reds. Oh, yeah!” he remembered. “They banned dope on Prospect Mira. If they find anyone trading it, they confiscate it, kick the trafficker off the station, and put a mark on his record. If they find any the second time, Alex says, then they’ll banish the offender from Hansa for a few years. From all of Hansa! For a trader, that’s certain death.”

“Yeah, right. They imposed a ban on it, just like that? What’s gotten into them?”

“They said, that since it causes hallucinations, it’s a narcotic, and it will destroy the brain after prolonged consumption. They’re worried about health, supposedly.”

“Well, they should worry about their own health! Why would they suddenly worry about everyone else?”

“You know what?” added Zhenya conspirationally [|in a low voice]. “Alex says, that they’re actually just spreading the dis about the harmful effects on health.”

“What’s ‘the dis’?” asked Artem in confusion.

“It’s short for disinformation. Listen: Alex once went past Prospect Mira along our line, all the way to Suharevskaya. He was on some shady business; didn’t tell me what. And he met an interesting guy there. A mage.”

“A what?!” Artem couldn’t keep from bursting into laughter. “A mage? On Suharevskaya? Yeah, your Alex would be the one to talk. And what, did this mage give him a magic wand? Or a magic lamp?..”

“You’re an idiot!” quipped Zhenya, offended. “You think you’re smarter than everyone else? The fact that you haven’t met them or even heard of them doesn’t mean that they’re not real. Do you believe in mutants on Filevskaya?”

“What’s there to believe in? They live there. My stepfather told me about them. But I haven’t heard anything about any mages.”

“While I do respect Sukhoy and all, a lot, there are probably some things that even he doesn’t know anything about. Or maybe he just didn’t want to scare you. Anyway, if you’re not going to listen…”

“All right, Zhenya, go on. _I’m interested; let’s hear it_ [|It is interesting nevertheless]. Although it does seem a bit…” Artem smirked.

“Anyway. They were sleeping near a bonfire. No one really lives on Sukharevskaya, you know? Merchants from other stations stay there overnight, because the _arm_ of Hansa sees them off Prospect Mira after lights out. All the rabble hustles there—pickpockets, charlatans—always _following_ [sticking to] the merchants. Wanderers also rest there, before heading south. There’s some kind of insanity in the tunnels past Sukharevskaya. Although no one lives there—neither rats nor mutants—nonetheless people passing trying to through often just disappear. Vanish, without a trace. The next station after Sukharevskaya is Turgenevskaya. It adjoins the Red Line—there was a connection to Chistye Prudy, although the Reds renamed it back to Kirovskaya, after an important communist, they say… Anyway, people were scared to live next to that station; walled up the passage. And so now, Turgenevskaya is empty. Abandoned. So it’s a long way from Sukharevskaya to the next inhabited station… And that’s where everyone’s disappearing. Anyone travelling alone will surely vanish. Large caravans, on the other hand, with at least ten people do make it through. Just a normal tunnel, they say: clean, calm, empty, without any lateral offshoots—impossible to get lost. There’s not a soul there; no rustling; no vermin… And then the next day someone would hear all these stories, give in to the descriptions clean and cozy tunnel, _spit at_ [|ignore] the superstition—and vanish into thin air, as if he never existed.”

“You were saying something about a mage,” Artem reminded him quietly.

“I’ll get to the mage in a minute,” promised Zhenya. “So, people are scared to go south through these tunnels alone. They look for companions on Sukharevskaya, to have someone to cross the tunnel with. And when there aren’t any trade fairs, there aren’t many people, and it can take days, if not weeks, to gather a large enough group to go on. The more people, the safer it is. Alex says that you can meet some interesting people there. Lots of scum, of course, so you need to watch out. But sometimes you luck out, and hear some amazing stories… In short, that’s where Alex met the mage. Not like you think, a cartoonish Genie from some Arabian lamp…”

“A jinn and a mage are two different things…” Artem injected carefully, but Zhenya ignored his remark and continued:

“The guy is an occultist. Spent half his life studying various _mythical_ [|mythological] literature. Especially someone named Castañeda, Alex says. So this guy can read others’ thoughts, can see into the future, can find things, can foretell danger. He says he sees spirits. Can you imagine, he even…” Zhenya _waited an artistic pause_, “travels through the metro without any weapons! No weapons at all. He has a Swiss army knife—for food, and a plastic walking cane. Anyway! He says that those who make dope and those who swallow it are madmen. Because it’s not what we think it is. It’s not dope, and the mushrooms aren’t actually mushrooms. This sort of fungus would never grow in the temperate zone. By the way, I’ve flipped through a reference book on mushrooms once—and he’s right, there’s no mention of those. Nothing looks even remotely similar… Those who swallow it for the trip, thinking that it’s just a hallucinogen, are mistaken, this mage says. And if you prepare these ‘shrooms slightly differently, then you can enter into a state of trance, and control [|manipulate] real-life events from this mushroom world where you end up after eating them.”

“You mage is definitely a mushroom junkie!” confidently stated Artem. “A lot of people mess around with dope here, just to relax, you know; but no one is insane to this extent. That guy is addicted, one hundred percent. He probably doesn’t have much longer [+to live]. I remember Uncle Sasha was telling me this story… On some station, don’t remember which, an old man was _importuning_ [|harassing] him, claiming that he was a powerful psychic, and that he’s waging a constant _war_ [|battle] against other powerful psychics and aliens, [+though evil ones]. They almost prevailed, and it could have been his last day—since all his energy goes into this battle. The station was like Sukharevskaya—it’s a way station; the fires and close to the middle of the station, away from the tunnels; people rest there and continue the next day. Three people pass right by my stepfather and the old man, and the old says, with terror is his voice, ‘See, the one in the middle is one of the strongest evil psychics, a disciple of the darkness. To his sides are two aliens. They help him. Their leader lives at the deepest point of the metro.’ My stepfather told me his name, but I forgot. Ends in –sky. Anyway, the old man continues, ‘They don’t get close to me because you’re here next to me. They don’t want normal people to know about our battle. But they’re attacking me with negative energy right now, and I’m shielding them. I’ll not give up so easily!’ You’re laughing now, but my stepfather wasn’t humored. Imagine, a god-forsaken corner of the metro; who knows what can happen there. It sounds delusional, but you know. Uncle Sasha kept telling himself that the old man is mentally ill, but then he felt that the one in the middle, surrounded by two aliens, was glaring at him, and then he thought he saw his eyes glowing a little…”

“What nonsense,” faltered Zhenya.

“Could me nonsense, but on those distant stations you need to be ready for anything. And the old man was telling him that the final battle with the evil psychics was approaching. If he were to lose—which he could, he didn’t have much strength left—then it would be [|mean] the end _of_ [|to] everything. There were more good psychics formerly, and the war was more balanced, but then the evil ones started winning, and this old man was one of the few survivors. Or maybe the very last one. If he perished and the evil wins, that’s it. End of the line.”

“I think this station is already at the end of its line,” added Zhenya.

“Then it’s not the very end; there’s yet something to strive for,” replied Artem. “So anyway, the last thing the old man says is ‘Sonny! Give me something to eat. I don’t have much strength in me left. And the last battle is nearing… Our future depends on it. Your future!’ You see? He was begging for food. Same with your mage, I think. He also probably has a few screws loose, but probably for different reasons.”

“You’re definitely an idiot! You didn’t even hear [+my story] till the end… And even so, how do you know that the old man was lying? Besides, what was his name? Did your stepfather say?”

“He did, but I can’t quite remember it. It was a funny name… Started with ‘Chu-’. It was probably ‘Chuvak’, or maybe ‘Chudak’… It’s often like that for the hobos: they have a stupid nickname instead of their real name. Why do you ask? What was your mage’s name?”

“Alex says that nowadays, they call him Carlos. Because of the similarity. I don’t know what he meant, but that’s exactly what he said. You should’ve listened till the end. At the end of the conversation, he told Alex that it wouldn’t be safe going into the north tunnel the following morning—which is what Alex was actually planning to do. Alex listened to him and didn’t go. And he was right! That day some thugs attacked the caravan in the tunnel from Prospect Mira to Sukharevskaya, although it was considered a safe tunnel. Half the merchants died. The other half barely managed to stay alive. So there!”

Artem _pondered over the said_.

“In general, one can never know for sure. Anything can happen. My stepfather told me that this used to happen in the past. He also said that on the farthest stations, where people forget that humans are sapient [|rational] beings and become barbarous and savage, the strangest things happen—things that we can’t explain even with our logical reasoning. Though, he didn’t specify what exactly happens. He didn’t actually tell me this—I accidentally overheard it.”

“Ha! I’m telling you: some of the things they say—normal people would never believe them. Last time Alex shared another story with me… Wanna hear it? You probably wouldn’t hear it even from your stepfather. A trader was telling Alex at the market on the Serpuhovskaya Line… Do you believe in spirits?”

“Well… Each time after talking to you, I start asking myself whether I believe in them or not. But then I spend some time alone, or talk to normal people, I recover,” answered Artem, barely containing a smile.

“But seriously?”

“I read some things, of course. Uncle Sasha told me some things. But to be honest, I can’t quite believe all these stories. Honestly, I don’t really understand you, Eugene. We have a never-ending nightmare here on this station with the Dark—which doesn’t happen anywhere else in the metro. Somewhere on the central stations, people are telling their kids scary tales about our lives and ask each other, ‘Do you believe in the Dark or not?’ But that’s not enough for you. You want to scare yourself some more, with other things?”

“Are you not at all interested in anything that you can’t see or touch? Do you honestly think that the world is bound by what you see? By what you hear? A shrew mole can’t see anything. Blind from birth. Does that mean that the things that the animal can’s see don’t actually exist? Same with you…”

“All right, fine. What were you telling me? About a merchant from Serpuhovskaya Line?”

“About a merchant? Oh, yeah… Alex met a guy at the market. He’s actually not from Serpuhovskaya. He’s from the Ring. Citizen of the Hansa, but lives on Dobryninskaya. That station connects to Serpuhovskaya. I don’t know whether your stepfather told you or not, but no one lives on that line until the next station—Tulskaya, which is patrolled by the Hansa. They are _insuring themselves_: since the line is uninhabited, you never know what can come crawling out of there, so they created a buffer zone. No one goes past Tulskaya. They say there’s nothing there: all the stations are empty, all the equipment is broken, and it’s impossible to live there. It’s a dead zone: no animals, no _rubbish_ [|nonsensical things]; even the rats avoid it. It’s empty. But this merchant had a friend, a tramp [|vagabond], why once went past Tulskaya. Don’t know what he was looking for. He was telling the trader, that it’s not so simple on the Serpuhovskaya Line. That it’s this empty for a reason. That you can’t even imagine what kind of stuff goes on there. That’s why even the Hansa isn’t trying to colonize it, even as a plantation of a livestock pen…”

Eugene paused, sensing that Artem had finally forgotten his rational cynicism and was listening with _an open mouth_. He shifted in his seat [+to be more comfortable] and continued, _triumphing on the inside_:

“But you probably don’t want to listen to this nonsense. Just fairy tales. Want some tea?”

“Hold off on your tea. Instead, tell me, really, why the Hansa didn’t want to colonize that section. That’s really unusual. My stepfather says, that there’s been an overpopulation problem recently—they don’t have enough room for everybody. Why did they _let go_ such an opportunity to claim some more land? It’s not like them at all!”

“Aha, so you are interested after all! So, this _vagrant_ wandered pretty far north. He said, you keep going on and on—and not a soul. No one at all—like in the tunnel past Sukharevskaya. Can you imagine—a place with no rats! Only the sound of the dripping water… But the stations are dark and abandoned, as if no one had ever lived there. And there’s a constant feeling of oppressing danger, ceaselessly crushing the soul… He was walking briskly, traveled almost four stations in half a day. What a reckless guy. Imagine, traveling so far into the wilderness, all alone! In the end, he reached Sevastopol’skaya. It’s connected to Kahovskaya. You know, the Kahovskaya Line, the one with only three stations. Not even a real line, more like a misunderstanding, a stupid _appendix_… He decided to spend the night right there, on Sevastopol’skaya. He was wearied and exhausted from his journey. Gathered some _wood shavings_ [|chips], built a small fire in the middle of the station so it wouldn’t be too terrifying, crawled into his sleeping bag. And then at night…” Here Eugene got up, stretched, and said with a sadistic smile, “I don’t know about you, but I really want some tea right now!” Not waiting for a reply, he went out the tent holding a teapot, leaving Artem alone with impressions _from the story_.

Artem was certainly annoyed by Eugene’s drollery, but decided to suffer [|bear] until the end of the tale to speak his mind to Eugene. He suddenly remembered Hunter and his request, or, rather, his order… But his thoughts quickly _refocused_ on Eugene’s story.

Having returned, Eugene poured some tea into Artem’s faceted glass, which was held by a rare, metal tea glass holder—the kind that _was_ [|had been] used to deliver genuine tea in trains in the past, and continued:

“So he was lying right next the fire. Silence all around, heavy silence, as if your ears are stuffed with _something_ [|cotton balls]. In the middle of the night he suddenly wakes up from this unexplained sound… Utterly insane, impossible sound. He immediately jumped to his feet, his face covered in cold sweat. He was hearing children’s laughter. Joyful, rippling laughter… From the tunnel. Four stations away from the closest settlement. In a place where even the rats refuse to live, you understand? He had a reason to be alarmed. He got up and ran to the rails through an arch… And he saw a train approach the station. An entire wagon train. The headlights were beaming brightly, blinding him—he could have lost his sight, had he not covered his eyes in time. Yellow light was _beaconing_ [|shining] through the windows; there people inside; and everything is completely silent! Not a single sound! Neither the humming of the engine, nor the clatter of the wheels. The train soundlessly sails into the station, and leisurely disappears in the opposite tunnel… Can you imagine? The traveler fell straight down—his heart nearly gave out. The people in the train cars [|in the windows] seemed real—they were talking to each other, completely oblivious of him. The train went by him, wagon after wagon, and suddenly, standing by the last window in the last train car, there was a small child, looking at him. Staring, pointing his finger, laughing audibly… The only two sounds heard in this quietness were the vagabond’s own heartbeat and this child’s laughter… The train dove into the tunnel, the laugher is ringing more and more quietly, until it fades completely. And then—emptiness, along with the absolute, terrible quietness.”

“And then he woke up?” asked Artem spitefully, voicing but a glimmer of hope.

“If only! He dashed back to his extinguished fire, gathered his possessions, and ran back to Tul’skaya, without stopping once. He covered the entire distance in an hour. He was probably scared _to the bone_, you know…”

Artem got quiet, astounded by the story. Silence settled over the tent. Finally, after gathering his thoughts, Artem coughed to make sure that his voice was not about to break, and asked Eugene, while trying to sound as disinterested as he could:

“Do you believe in it?”

“This isn’t the first time that I heard such stories about Serpuhovskaya Line,” replied Eugene. “I don’t always repeat them to you. I can’t discuss such things with you properly—you always start to get jittery… It’s getting late, we both have to go to work soon. I have to get ready—I’ll see you at work.”

Artem reluctantly rose [|up], stretched, and headed home to pack a lunch for work. His stepfather was still sleeping. It was quiet at the station: everybody had already gone to sleep, and the night shift at the factory would start soon. He hurried. As he was walking by the guest tent where Hunter was staying the previous night, he saw through the open folds that it was empty. His heart missed a beat; he slowly began to realize that his conversation with Hunter was not a dream, that it really did take place; and that the development of events directly affected Artem—and maybe even his destiny [|future].

The tea factory was located in a cul-de-sac, formed by a blocked escalator, which led up to the surface. It was called a “factory” mostly for convenience: most of the work was done by hand. It was too wasteful to spend electricity on tea production.

Behind metal screens that separated the factory proper from the rest of the station, mushroom caps were hung to dry on a metal wire, strung from _wall to wall_. When it was especially humid, small fires were built under the mushrooms to help them dry instead of turning moldy. On the tables underneath the wires, laborers first sliced, and then ground the dried mushrooms. The resulting tea was packed into paper or plastic bags—depending on what was available at the station—and mixed with some other powders and extracts, the nature of which was known only to the factory manager. That was the entire, unsophisticated process of making tea. If not for the _indispensable_ [|obligatory] conversations during a work shift, eight hours of cutting up and grating mushroom caps would be quite a wearisome activity.

Artem was scheduled to work this shift with Eugene and Kirill—the unkempt man who stood watch at the outpost earlier. Kirill livened up when he saw Eugene—he was eager to continue an earlier conversation, and immediately resumed where he left off. Artem didn’t want to listen from the middle of the story, and he sunk completely into his thoughts. The account of events on Serpuhovskaya Line was slowly fading in his memory, and was soon replaced by the conversation with Hunter, about which Artem had seemingly forgotten.

What could he do? The assignment entrusted to him by Hunter was too important to be _shrugged off_. What if Hunter doesn’t manage to succeed? He was trying the impossible: marching into the enemy’s den, into the thick of the battle [|into the very furnace]. There was no way that he could know the _severity_ of the danger he was facing. He could only guess what awaited him past the five hundredth meter, past the gleams of the bonfire of the last border outpost—possibly the last man-made flame north of VDNH. He knew no more about the Dark than any other resident of VDNH—none of whom dared to embark on such mission. He didn’t even know whether the [+entrance] through which the creatures were creeping through into the metro was located at the Botanical Garden.

The possibility of Hunter failing his quest was too high. The danger emanating from the north was so great, and was the pressure was mounting so quickly, that any delay was inadmissible. Perhaps Hunter did know something about the thread, but chose to reveal it neither while talking to Sukhoy nor during his conversation with Artem. Furthermore, he was fully aware of the risks associated with the chosen challenge, and was preparing for the worst possible outcome. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have involved Artem into this _plot_. That means that the probability that he’ll fail and that something terrible will happen to him to prevent his timely return is not only non-negligible, but also fairly high. But how would Artem just drop everything and leave without a word—just like Hunter, worried about the “worm-ridden minds”… How would he reach Polis, the legendary Polis, all by himself, avoiding all the known and unknown dangers waiting for inexperienced travelers in the dark tunnels of the metro? Artem suddenly regretted being hypnotized by Hunter’s stern stare and revealing his secret, consequently agreeing to take on this assignment.

“Hey, Artem! Artem! Are you asleep or something? What’s up with you?” Eugene was shaking his shoulder. “Did you hear what Kirill said? They’re planning to send a caravan to Rizhskaya, and they’re assembling volunteers tomorrow evening. Apparently, our administration decided to unite with theirs. We even send help over there when they need it, to show that pretty soon we’ll be close to each other. Someone on their station recently discovered a spool of cable—and the administration wants to lay phone lines to connect the two stations. Or, at least, telegraph lines. Kirill said that he doesn’t have work tomorrow and he wants to go. You want to?”

Artem realized that fate itself must have been giving him the chance to complete his mission, should worse come to worst. He nodded. “Awesome!” exclaimed Eugene. “Let’s go together. Kirill! Can you write our names, too? What time tomorrow? Nine? Okay, we’ll be there…”

Artem remained silent until the end of his shift, unable to shake off his somber thoughts. Eugene was obviously upset that Artem left him alone with overly-talkative Kirill, while Artem mechanically removed mushrooms from the wire and ground them into dust. Pluck and crush, pluck and crush, over and over, while remembering Hunter’s face and he told Artem that he may not come back—a calm face of someone used to risking his life; a face without fear… But… _The face blurred into dark splotches, as his subconscious could only foresee a disaster_.

Artem went back to his tent right after work. His stepfather was already gone—he must have already left for work. Artem lay dawn and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow—despite the fact that he first wanted to analyze the situation in this brief moment of solitude.

His sleep, uneasy after all the conversations, thoughts, and worries of the past day, wrapped him and pulled him into the depths of his dreams. Artem saw himself sitting at a bonfire at Sukharevskaya, next to Eugene and a wandering mage with a strange Spanish name Carlos. Carlos was teaching him and Eugene the correct way to make dope, explaining that they way they consume it on VDNH is plain wrong, because these ’shrooms are actually not mushrooms at all—they’re a new, sentient species that may eventually replace all humans on Earth. The mushrooms aren’t separate entities, they’re part of a bigger whole, and are connected by neurons to the mushroom spawn which spans the entire metro. Those who consume dope aren’t just using psychedelics—they’re coming into contact with this new sentient species. If you do everything correctly, then you can become friends with it, and it will help those who communicate with it via dope. But then Sukhoy suddenly showed up and, shaking his finger, forbade them from ever smoking dope, because the brain becomes grubby after prolonged usage. Artem decided to see whether it really would: he stood up as if to stretch his legs, but instead carefully snuck behind the mage with the Spanish name. Through a hole in the back of the head Artem saw a part of the mage’s brain, darkened by numerous burrows, while long white worms dug into the flesh and carved new passages though the brain. The mage continued to talk as if nothing was happening. Artem, shocked, dashed away and grabbed Eugene’s arm, begging him to get up and leave. Eugene impatiently pulled his arm away and asking Carlos to continue. And then Artem saw how the worms are crawling from Carlos’s brain are crawling on toward Eugene, up his back toward the neck, trying to get in through the ears…

… Then Artem jumped onto the train tracks and ran away as fast as he could, before realizing that he was headed to the very tunnel that no one must ever cross alone, only in groups. He turned around in order to go back, but no matter how fast he tried to run, he couldn’t reach the station. It suddenly got very bright behind him—enough for him to see his own shadow on the tunnel floor. He turned around and saw a train relentlessly emerging from the depths of the metro, roaring as its wheels grated against the rails, blinding Artem with its headlights… Artem’s legs gave out: they had no strength left in them, as if he didn’t even have legs, as if his pant legs were stuffed with rags…

And when the train was just mere feet away from Artem, the apparition rapidly lost all its color and appearance; it withered and vanished. Instead, there was something new and different: Artem saw Hunter, wearing clothing white as snow, in a room with blindingly white walls and no furniture. He was standing with his head tilted down; his gaze was fixed on the floor. He raised his head and looked directly at Artem. It was a strange feeling, because in the dream, Artem had no concept of self—as if he observed everything from the side. When Artem saw Hunter’s eyes, he felt an unexplainable worry, as though he was expecting something very important, something that was about to happen… Hunter spoke. Artem was overwhelmed with the unexplainable feeling of reality of what he was seeing. During his previous nightmares, in the back of his head he knew that he was asleep and that the imagery that he was seeing was a by-product of his weary mind. In this vision, however, the knowledge about the possibility of waking up did not exist.

While trying to meet Hunter’s _sight_ [|gaze] Artem realized that Hunter, while searching for Artem, was unable to see him. Nonetheless, he spoke slowly and solemly, addressing Artem: “Your time has come. You must do what you promised to do. You must succeed. Remember! This is not a dream! This is not a dream!”

Artem opened his eyes wide. Even after his eyes were open, in his head he heard with incredible clarity the dull and raspy voice saying, “This is not a dream!”

“This is not a dream,” repeated Artem. The details of his first nightmare were quickly fading from his consciousness, but the second he remembered with perfect clarity. He could not shake Hunter’s unusual outfit, mysterious white room, and the words “You must do what you promised to do” from his mind.

Sukhoy entered the tent and asked, worriedly, “Hey buddy, have you seen Hunter after our conversation last night? It’s almost evening, and he’s nowhere to be seen. His tent is empty. Maybe he left already? Did he tell you anything about his plans yesterday?”

“No, Uncle Sasha, he was just asking me more about this station, about what I think is going on here,” conscientiously lied Artem.

“I worry about him, that he’s going to do something stupid. Not only to himself—he’ll make it worse for all of us, as well,” sighed Sukhoy, distraught. “He doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. Hey, aren’t you working today?”

“Eugene and I signed up for the caravan that’s leaving tonight to Rizhskaya. We’re sending over some supplies, and will begin to unwind the spool of cable from there.” Artem suddenly made the realization that he’d already made the decision. As he was speaking, something snapped inside of him, and he felt a strange sense of relief, followed by hollowness—as if someone removed a tumor weighing down his heart and making it hard to breathe.

“A caravan? You should be staying home, not hanging around with some caravans… But it’s not like I can change your mind. I’d come with you—I have some things to get done on Rizhskaya, but I don’t feel well tonight. Maybe another time. You’re not leaving yet, right? It’s at nine o’clock? I’ll still have time to say bye before you leave. You should get ready.” Sukhoy turned around and stepped out of the tent.

Artem quickly threw some things into his backpack—the things he thought would be useful during the trip: flashlight, batteries, more batteries, mushrooms, a single bag of tea, some sausage, a magazine for a submachine gun, ever more batteries… Very important—his passport. He wouldn’t need it on Rizhskaya, but without it, the very first patrol past the boundaries of the station can stop him or ever, depending on the situation, even put against the wall and shoot… And of course, Hunter’s capsule. That’s it.

Artem put the backpack on his shoulders, looked at his tent for the last time, and decisively walked towards the caravan.

The volunteers were gathering on the platform near the southern tunnel. A hand-powered railcar was waiting for them on the rails. On it were stacked boxes of meat, mushrooms, and tea; on top of the boxes was some unusual device, put together by the local craftsmen—probably a telegraph.

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