No one up there heard him, of course.
An entrance hall.
Just an ordinary hallway.
The entry-phone is an abandoned orphan, the metal door has no electric power, there’s a dead dog in the doorkeeper’s glass aquarium, the letter-boxes clatter tinnily in the draught, with no letters or junk mail in them: someone has collected everything and burned it long ago, to warm their hands up a bit at least.
At the bottom of the wall — three gleaming German lifts, standing wide open with their stainless steel innards glittering, as if he could just get into any one of them right now and ride straight up to the top of this tower block. Artyom hated them for that. And beside them — the door of the fire escape stairs. Artyom knew what was behind that. He had counted them already: forty-six floors on foot. Mount Calvary was always climbed on foot.
"Always… On foot…"
The knapsack weighed an entire ton now, and that ton pressed Artyom down into the concrete, making it hard to walk, hindering his stride. But Artyom strode on anyway, like a clockwork toy; and he spoke like a clockwork toy too.
"So what if they didn’t… have any intercept… missiles… All the same… There must have been… People must have… Somewhere… It’s not possible that only here… Only in Moscow… Only in the Metro… The earth’s still there… It hasn’t split apart… The sky’s clearing… It’s just not possible… For the entire country… And America… And France… And China… And Thailand or some other place like that… What did they ever do to anyone… There was no reason to…"
Of course, in all his twenty-six years of life, Artyom had never been in either France or Thailand. He had hardly seen anything of the old world at all; he was born too late. And the geography of the new world was far scantier — the Exhibition Metro station, the Lubyanka Metro station, the Arbat Metro station… The Circle Line. But when he examined the mould-blighted photographs of Paris and New York in the rare tourist magazines, Artyom felt in his heart that these cities were still there, still standing somewhere, they hadn’t disappeared. Maybe they were waiting for him?
"Why would… Why would only Moscow be left? It’s not logical. Zhen! Do you understand? It’s not logical! And that means… It means we simply can’t pick them up… Their call signs… We can’t… Not yet. We just have to carry on. We can’t give up. We mustn’t…"
The tower block was empty, but it still made sounds, it still had a life: the wind flew in through balconies, slammed doors, wheezed in the lift shafts, muttered something in other people’s kitchens and bedrooms, pretending to be the owners who had come back home. But Artyom didn’t believe it any longer, he didn’t even look round and he didn’t pay any visits.
He knew what was behind those restlessly banging doors: plundered apartments. All that was left were snapshots scattered across the floor — the dead strangers had had themselves photographed as mementoes for no one — and incredibly cumbersome furniture that was impossible to take anywhere, into either the Metro or the next world. In other buildings the windows had been blown out by the shockwave, but here there were sealed double-glazing units and they had survived. Only in twenty years they had all acquired a coating of dust, as if they had been blinded by cataracts.
Earlier on in some apartment or other he might come across the former owner, nuzzling the trunk of his gas mask against some toy and weeping through it nasally, not able to hear anyone approaching him from behind. But now it was a long time since he had come across anyone. One of them had been left lying here with a hole in his back beside that idiotic toy of his, and the others had glanced at him and realised that there wasn’t any home up here on the surface, there wasn’t anything here at all. Concrete, bricks, slush, cracked asphalt, yellow bones, the decayed dust of everything, and the radiation too, of course. It was like that in Moscow, and all the rest of the world. There was no life anywhere, except in the Metro. It was a fact. Everyone knew it.
Everyone except Artyom.
But what if somewhere in the boundless expanses of the Earth there was another place fit for human habitation? For Artyom and for Anya. For everyone from the station. A place where they wouldn’t have a cast-iron ceiling over their heads, and where they could grow right up to the sky? Build themselves houses of their own, a life of their own, and from that place go on gradually to resettle the whole of the scorched Earth?
"I could find places… For all our people… They could live… In the open air…"
Artyom could have stopped on the fortieth, or even on the thirtieth; after all, no one had told him that he had to climb all the way to the very top. But somehow he had got it into his head that if he had any chance of success at all, then it was only up there, on the roof.
"Of course… It’s not… Not as high… As on the tower… That time… But… But…"
The lenses of Artyom’s gasmask had misted over, his heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest, and someone seemed to be probing at Artyom’s rib, looking for a way to slip a crude metal shank in under it. The breath he drew in strenuously through the gasmask’s filters was too meagre, there wasn’t enough life in it and, just like that time in the tower, when Artyom reached the forty-fifth floor, he gave in and tore off the tight-fitting rubber skin. He took a gulp of sweet and bitter air. Completely different from the air in the Metro. Fresh.
"The height… Maybe… Up there… About three hundred metres… The height… So maybe… So probably… From that height… I can pick it up…"
He shrugged the knapsack off his shoulders and lugged it the rest of the way. Leaning his stiff back against the hatch, he forced it out and clambered onto the open surface. And only then did he fall. He lay on his back, looking at the clouds, which were only an arm’s length away; he coaxed his heart and calmed his breathing. Then he got up.
The view from here was…
It was as if Artyom had died and gone flying up to heaven, but suddenly run into a glass ceiling and got stuck there, dangling underneath it, no way back and no way forward. It was obvious from that height that it was no longer possible to go back: when you’ve seen how teeny-weeny everything on earth really is, how can you take it all seriously again?
Towering up beside him were two identical skyscrapers, bright and colourful once upon a time, now grey. But Artyom had always climbed this one. It felt cozier that way.
For a brief second a gun-slit gap appeared in the clouds and the sun fired a shot through it; he thought he saw a sudden glint from the next building, either from the roof or from the dusty window of one of the upper apartments. As if someone had caught the ray of sunlight in a little mirror. But before he could glance round, the sun barricaded itself away again and the glint disappeared. There weren’t any more.
Hard as Artyom tried to turn his eyes away, they kept slipping over towards the regenerated forest that flourished where the Botanical Gardens had been. And to the naked, black wasteland at the very heart of it. A spot as dead as if the Lord Himself had dumped his left-over boiling sulphur onto it. But no, not the Lord.
The Botanical Gardens.
Artyom remembered them looking different. They were all that he remembered from the pre-war world that had disappeared.
A strange business: look, your entire life consists of tiles, tunnel liners, dripping ceilings and rivulets running along the floor beside the tracks, of granite and marble, of stale air and electric light.
Then suddenly there’s a tiny little piece of something else in it: a cool morning in May; innocent, delicate new greenery on elegant trees; park paths covered with drawings in coloured chalk; a tantalising queue for ice cream; and that ice cream itself, in a wafer cup, not simply sweet, but absolutely heavenly. And your mother’s voice — weak and distorted by time, as if it’s coming through a copper telephone cable. And the warmth of her hand, which you try not to let slip out of yours, so that you won’t get lost — and you cling on with all your might. Although, is it really possible to remember that kind of thing? Probably not.
And all of this something else is so incongruous and impossible that you don’t even understand any longer if it really did happen to you or you simply dreamed it. But how could you have dreamed it, if you’ve never seen or experienced anything like it?
Artyom could see it all in front of him — the chalk drawings on the paths, the sun shining through the lacy foliage in golden needles, the ice cream in his hand, the funny orange ducks scattered across the brown mirror of the shady pond and the rickety little bridges over it — he was so afraid of falling into that water and even more afraid of dropping his little wafer cup into it!
But her face, his mother’s face — Artyom couldn’t remember that. He had tried to summon it, when he went to bed he had tried asking himself to see it at least in his dreams, even if he forgot it again by morning — but nothing worked. Had there really not been even a tiny little corner of his head where his mother could have hidden and waited out the death and darkness? Apparently not. But how can a person exist and then completely disappear?
And that day, and that world — where could they have vanished to? Look, they’re here, right beside you, just close your eyes. Of course you can go back to them. They must have escaped and still be there, somewhere in the world, calling to everyone who has got lost: we’re here, but where are you? You just have to hear them. You just have to know how to listen.
Artyom blinked and rubbed his eyelids, so that his eyes would see today again and not twenty years ago. He sat down and opened the knapsack.
It contained a radio transmitter-receiver — a cumbersome army model, green and badly scratched — and another monstrosity — a metal box with a handle that could be turned. A home-made generator. And right at the bottom — forty metres of fine cable, the antenna for the radio.
Artyom attached all the wires, walked round the roof, reeling out the cable, wiped the water off his face and reluctantly pulled on the gasmask again. Squeezed on the headphones He caressed buttons with his fingers and twirled the handle of the generator: a diode blinked. He felt a buzzing and vibrating in his palm, like a living thing.
He flipped a switch.
He closed his eyes, because he was afraid they would prevent him from fishing out that bottle, the one with a message in it from a distant continent, where someone else had survived. He swayed to and fro on the waves. And he turned the generator handle as if he was rowing an inflatable raft along with his hand.
The headphones started hissing, whining through the crackling with a shrill "Eeeooo…" and coughing consumptively they fell silent for a moment and then hissed again. As if Artyom was wandering through a tuberculosis isolation ward, looking for someone to talk to, but not a single patient was conscious; there were only nurses putting their fingers to their lips and shushing strictly. No one here wanted to give Artyom an answer, no one intended to live.
No one from St. Petersburg. No one from Yekaterinburg.
London remained silent. Paris remained silent. Bangkok and New York remained silent.
It hadn’t mattered for a long time now who started that war. It just didn’t matter how it had started. Who could it matter to? History? History was written by the victors, there was no one here to write it, and soon there wouldn’t be anyone to read it either.
The airways were filled with emptiness. Boundless emptiness.
Communications satellites hovered restlessly in their orbits: no one called them, the loneliness was driving them insane and they plunged back down to Earth; burning up in the air was better than this.
Not a word from Peking. And Tokyo was a silent grave.
But Artyom kept turning that cursed handle anyway, turning and rowing, rowing and turning.
How quiet it was! Impossibly quiet. Unbearably quiet.
"Moscow here! Moscow Here! Come in!"
That was his voice, Artyom’s. As usual, he couldn’t wait, he didn’t have the patience.
"Moscow here! Over! Come in!"
He mustn’t stop. He mustn’t give up.
"St. Petersburg! Come in! Vladivostok! Moscow here, come in! Rostov! Come in!"
What’s wrong with you, City of Peter? How could you have turned out to be so feeble? Feebler than Moscow? What’s taken your place up there? A lake of glass? Or has the mould eaten you up? Why don’t you answer? Eh?
Where have you got to, Vladivostok, proud city at the other end of the world? You used to stand so far away from us, did they really spill their plague on you too? Did they really not have any pity, even on you? K-kuha, k-kuha, k-kuha.
"Come in, Vladivostok! Moscow here!"
The entire world is lying face-down in the mud, it doesn’t feel the drops of this interminable rain on its back, it doesn’t sense that its mouth and nose are full of rusty water.
But Moscow… There it is. Standing there. Still on its feet. As if it was alive.
"What is all this? Have you all croaked then, all of you?"
Maybe that was their souls who had slipped into the airwaves and were answering him like that? Or maybe that was the way the background radiation sounded? Death had to have a voice of its own. Probably just like that: a whisper. Sssssssh… Come on now, no noise. Calm down. Calm down.
"Moscow here. Come in!"
Maybe they would hear him this time?
Right now someone would cough in the headphones, break excitedly through the hissing and shout somewhere far, far away.
"We're here! Moscow! I hear you! Come in! Moscow! Don’t go off air! I hear you! My God! Moscow! Moscow has made contact! How many of you have survived there? We have a colony here, twenty-five thousand people! The land’s clean! Zero radiation! The water’s unpolluted! Food? Of course! Medicines, yes, we have them! We’re sending a rescue mission for you! Just hold on! Do you hear, Moscow? That’s the most important thing — hold on!"
This wasn’t an attempt at radio contact, it was a spiritualist séance. And Artyom simply couldn’t get the hang of that. The spirits he was summoning didn’t want to come to him. They felt just fine in the next world. They looked down through the sparse gaps between the clouds at Artyom’s little hunched-up figure and just chuckled: Down there? To you? Oh no, not on your life!
He stopped turning that damned handle and tore off the headphones. He got up, coiled the antenna into a neat bundle, slowly, forcing himself to be neat, violating his own will, because he wanted to tear it into pieces and fling it into the abyss from forty-six floors up.
He packed everything into the knapsack and set the demon of temptation on his shoulders. He carried it down. Into the Metro. Until tomorrow.