Artyom pulled off the gas mask, knowing that he was out of danger inside The Church Base.
“Artyom!” he turned towards the familiar voice and relief wash over him as he saw Ulman running towards him. “You’re home, Lucy.”
Before he could question the statement, Ulman pulled him into a bear hug and patted his back. Artyom pressed against him - there had been too much pain that such a simple gesture almost caused his resolve crumble.
He did not want to let go but Ulman eventually pulled back and asked him, “Are you okay?”
The question almost made him laugh. He did not even know where to begin but he did not want to dwell on it any further, so he offered a weak smile and responded with “Yeah, sure.”
“Come on,” Ulman placed a hand on his shoulder and guided him. “You need some rest.” Artyom knew that he saw through his lie. Sometimes he wished that he could hate Ulman for his uncanny ability to sense unrest but in the end, he was always glad for it.
While they walked towards the back of the Church, where a sleeping area had been installed, Ulman began to fill him in, “when Anna came back without you, Miller sent someone to Reich to demand your return. Since we did not expect much, we went to the gardens to – wait –“ Ulman interrupted himself and took Artyom’s backpack as well as his rifle, carrying them. Then he continued. “So, we went to the gardens to see if there were any clues. We had nothing until that blacksmith called in … what’s his name?”
“Yes, at the garden we only ran into Reds …” As they reached the sleeping area, Ulman dropped his backpack on the floor, creating a thud. Artyom tensed. “… we got the notice when we already tried to make our way to this base. So we decided to wait and see if you show up.”
Ulman pulled off his gloves. “Aside from the fact that Alex tripped on some stairs and sprained his wrist,” he continued to ramble. “What a fuckwit … has not even a single scar and then falls down some stairs because he needs to gossip.”
Despite the words, there was slight amusement in his voice and Artyom knew that Ulman was fond of the young Ranger. He also noticed Ulman’s gear underneath a bed, which he must have marked as his earlier.
“At least it was exciting gossip,” Ulman added and unzipped the heavy jacket with gear as well. “What the hell did the Reds want at the garden anyway?” He was mumbling to himself, as he threw the items onto the bed.
“The Dark One,” Artyom answered quietly but his eyes focusing on a cut that went along Ulman’s hand. It extended up his arm but was covered by his long sleeves. Luckily, Artyom thought, that it looked superficial.
Ulman drew a deep breath, and only after holding it for a few seconds did he release it. Artyom watched as he stepped closer to him and started to remove Artyom’s gloves. He wondered how he would react. After all, it was a topic that the other man resolutely avoided – always stating that what is done is done.
“How would they know?” Ulman asked, clearly not wanting to debate morals or dwell on past events.
Artyom did not respond. He only felt coldness spread across his body, followed by anger – the betrayal still fresh on his mind.
“Artyom?” His voice a mere whisper as he cupped his hands between his. Artyom still felt the hurt and pain Pavel had caused him, and what this betrayal would do to his new family as well. Then Ulman touched his cheek, his thumb softly stroking him and bringing him back. “Sit down.”
Ulman let his hand fall onto his shoulder, and guided him to his bed. Artyom followed him as he sat down at the edge with him.
Artyom did not know where to start. Thinking about it now, it made so little sense to explain that Pavel had betrayed him, all the pain that it caused him. How stupid he felt for believing him in the first place, and even more stupid that he still hoped that there was some good inside of Pavel. Wasn’t he just another solider following orders? Would Ulman have done something similar if ordered? Would Artyom?
Ulman began to run his hand along his arm. Artyom knew that it was his way to let him quietly know that he safe here. Artyom knew that it was true. “Start at what happened at the gardens.”
Why did it really matter? Ulman already knew what had happened there since Anna must have reported it. When Artyom sighed, Ulman gave him a slight squeeze, so he tried to collect his thoughts.
“The Nazis took everyone captive, including some Reds,” Artyom began slowly. The memory of waking up in that rotten room coming back to him. His hands tied, and watching as the Nazis shot an innocent man dead. “One of them was Pavel who …” Artyom bit his lip, trying to forget how Pavel had sounded as he had explained that they were a team now. “… he helped … we escaped together,” he corrected. He paused a moment, waiting for Ulman to ask for details but the questions never came.
“I saved his life and he promised to bring me to a neutral station so I could return to Polis but when we were at the Red Line …” Artyom shook his head, the mocking voice of Pavel ringing in his ears. Had he really meant it when he had said that he was sorry that Artyom was on the other side of the conflict? Probably not. Not when he had pointed a gun at his head just earlier today.
“Well, I am guessing you aren’t best friends anymore,” Ulman finished the story for him. The bruises on his face and body told the rest.
“I was wrong to believe him. Stupid,” Artyom spat out the words but despite this, he did no longer feel anger. Instead, there was only sadness. After all the things they had seen and lived through in The Reich, Pavel had still chosen this. “This could have brought our fractions together but instead we’re still set on hurting each other.”
This time Ulman offered no response, he only bit his lip and looked away. There was almost no inhuman behaviour that seemed to shock him anymore, and not for the first time did Artyom wonder what he had seen as a Ranger. At the same time, Ulman had not given up either; even after a decade he still saw the good in people first and gave his life to defend the last remains of the cesspit that were humanity.
Artyom shook his head. “After escaping that Nazi prison, seeing all that …” He could not find the right words to summarise what he had seen. It was more than horror: The images of the dead bodies strung up in the middle of the station, like little ornaments but meant as a warning. The constant smell of piss, shit, blood, and rotting flesh lingering in the air. Unknown to Artyom Ulman became tenser with each word he used to describe the experience.
Just as he began to explain how desperate the prisoners sounded, Ulman cut him off. “It is called a concentration camp, Artyom. It is not a prison.”
However, the word did not register for Artyom. He knew very little about this part of history, and did not understand what motivated their ideology either. They hated all that was too different from their set ideals.
Ulman sighed and rolled his eyes but he explained it to him after all. “If you are lucky the Nazis don’t kill you on the spot. Maybe you’re just not mutated or foreign enough for them, in some way useful, you keep your mouth shut and follow their rules – which you have to pull out of your ass. They need people to do their shit, it is slave labour, they don’t feed you enough but as long as you do the work, you stay alive. Step out of line, break down, or …” Ulman didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he swallowed the last part. “They don’t see people as human. You are their product and property as long as they need you, if you stop being useful, they discard you just like that …” he snapped his fingers making Artyom jump.
Artyom tried to understand but it did not make sense to him. They thought that they were saving the metro with their ideals, and strong criteria but why did they have to strip other people of their right to be human? Why discard them like they were nothing more than tunnel trash?
“Why is it necessary to act like this?” Artyom wondered quietly.
“Why?” Ulman snorted and spat out. “Fuck me if I care.”
Even though Ulman’s answer to some questions was just to shrug his shoulders because he had accepted that he wouldn’t find an answer, he had never discouraged Artyom from asking his own; or showed anger towards it.
Artyom almost did not dare to ask, “wouldn’t you want to understand it?”
The response came in an instant, “no, I don’t”
Maybe Ulman was right, they should not try to understand the very roots of this brutal ideology. After all, it was based on eradicating everything too different. As he looked at Ulman, his tense body language, Artyom could not help but wonder if he would even pass their requirements given his mixed heritage … Would Artyom pass? The thought that he might not and then end up in one of those camps made him shudder.
This attracted Ulman’s attention who came back from wherever his mind had wandered to. He opened his mouth but in the end he stayed quiet, and shook his head a little – as if he had decided against speaking after all.
Maybe Ulman’s strong aversion lay in his life as a Ranger … It might be his mentality as a solider to try and protect himself from all the pain, anger, and killing that the metro showed them on a daily basis. If you were lucky, you could lead a sheltered life even in the metro. They did not have this luxury.
When Artyom looked at Ulman again, anger had turned into sadness. His mind was lost in the past but he was not speaking, neither was he pulling away. They remained next to each other, sharing each other’s company in silence. The same way when they would find each other in the empty canteen in the middle of the night – unable to sleep.
This time, Artyom felt alone even though he was right next to him. He could almost sense how he lost Ulman to the past. So Artyom reached for his hand, resting his on top.
Ulman looked at their joined hands, slowly a frown was forming on his face. Then a sigh escaped him, and the tension slipped from his shoulders. In an effort to ground him in the present, Artyom reached for his chin and gently tilted it up so that they could look at each other.
For a moment, Artyom could almost feel Ulman’s sadness through his fingertips. Ulman blinked and nodded, seemingly more to himself than to Artyom.
“Did you notice how they never called people by their names but only by numbers?” Ulman began quietly and shook his head – probably in an effort to push a memory further away.
Artyom swallowed, a memory of such an incident on his mind. He had thought that it was an odd way to refer to prisoners. So Artyom nodded. The thought of only become a number in someone’s eyes created a cold feeling inside his stomach.
“Hmm …” Ulman leaned his weight back onto his heels, Artyom’s hand slipped from his when he began to roll up his sleeve. The red and angry cut extending halfway up his lower arm, but it stopped right before a much older scar. One that was so pale that it blended in with his skin, and that you almost would not notice it without a second glance. “In the old world, they used tattoo ink but we did not have that luxury.” Cut deep into his skin was the number 57. Artyom held his breath as his fingers moved over the bumpy skin, following the old lines.
“I am still not sure why they did not kill me instantly. I was quite a handful when the Nazis took over the station …” Ulman’s voice lost its emotion with each word, until it seemed like he was citing a report to Miller. “… I was young and strong, so I coped relatively well with the slave labour.”
Artyom knew that there was nothing he could say or do to make this better. Even if there was a possibility to remove the scar, it ran much deeper than that.
“To answer your question,” Ulman cleared his throat and began to roll down his sleeve again. “No, I don’t want to know why they see me as less human. I am sure that this knowledge would take something from me.”
Only for a brief moment did Ulman look into Artyom’s eyes. He could see the tears that threatened to fall.
“I helped a Ranger to organise a breakout,” Ulman explained and bit his lip. His eyes focused on the floor. “They took us all back to Polis but there was nowhere and no one for me to return to, so I decided to become a Ranger as well and started to call this my home.”
At those words, the tears slipped from his eyes and rolled down his cheek. Artyom rested his hand against Ulman’s cheek. He only wanted to take the pain away, wished that it could be transferred onto him. Even as Ulman pressed against the contact, Artyom knew that it hid deep inside his soul.
It was strange to know that a man who faced every situation – no matter how dire – with a witty remark, and offered a shoulder to lean on to so many Rangers, carried so much pain inside of him. How long would it take before his soul broke under the weight or became cold?
“Who do you talk to about this?” Artyom asked out loud.
Ulman snorted. “I am talking to you, am I not?” But the comment lacked the usual bite.
However, Artyom knew that it was true. They may not always share the detail of the demons that haunted them but they found each other. They gave each other comfort by sharing space in the canteen, and later holding each other while they slept after wordlessly entering the other’s room. Maybe they did not have the words to share the scars that hid deep inside of them. Often it was a wordless but deep understanding.
Not for the first time, Artyom wondered if this was love. Maybe it was for them because the metro was not a romance novel. Maybe Ulman could not give him more, and Artyom was not even sure if he himself could.
Artyom let out a long breath, and carefully wiped a tear from Ulman’s cheek. For a long time, Artyom looked at Ulman’s face. When Ulman meet his eyes, Artyom prayed to see anything different than sadness and lingering pain.
Shifting his weight, Artyom leaned forward. “Come here,” he whispered. Artyom held still when their lips were almost touching but feeling no resistance, he carefully leaned in. He wanted to linger as their lips brushed together, neither was rushing to make this into more.
When they parted, they stayed silent and Artyom moved to kiss his cheek; kiss the tears away. He only wanted Ulman to feel … loved. So Artyom pulled him into a hug, letting Ulman burry his head into his shoulder as Artyom wrapped his arms around him. Artyom did not intend to let him go.
Especially not when he heard a sob escape Ulman. Not knowing what to say, Artyom ran his hands along his back instead. What was there to say after this?
Ulman mumbled something into Artyom’s shoulder but he did not understand it.
“It’s just my allergies acting up,” Ulman added as he shifted his head to rest his cheek on Artyom’s shoulder, still not letting go of him.
A small smile managed to creep onto Artyom’s lips all the same. “I am glad you are here,” Artyom admitted quietly. In this moment, Artyom could not tell if he referred for Ulman’s presence in the Church or in the whole world.
Ulman nodded, and carefully settled his weight back and so Artyom loosened his hug. “I am glad you are alright,” he stated, as he settled back to sit on his heels and wiped the tears from his face. Artyom’s hands stayed on his upper arms. “And I am sure you’ll get your answers one day, if you want to,” Ulman continued. “You’re a bright kid after all.”
Artyom smiled weakly, even though he was no longer sure if he wanted to know the answer.
Ulman let out a deep sigh and offered him a weak smile. “Come on …” Artyom gave him a nudge. “… you also need some rest.”
When Artyom took him by the shoulders and guided him to lie down, Ulman did not offer any resistance. He watched as Ulman snuggled into the pillow, not saying another word.
He slipped out of his jacket, and settled down behind Ulman, wrapping his arms around him and pressing Ulman’s back against him like they had done on so many nights before. “Okay?”
Ulman only nodded but Artyom felt how the tension left his body with each breath. So Artyom held him, not intending on letting go and leaving him. He placed a soft kiss on the top of his hair and noticed that Ulman had closed his eyes.
Artyom wished that he could lift all that darkness from Ulman’s soul. He knew that he could do this no less than Ulman could for him. It was impossible but it seemed possible to learn to live with it and to help each other.
“Thank you.” Ulman’s voice was quiet and hazy from sleep.
Artyom knew that Ulman did not have to thank him. It was he who had often reminded Artyom that next to the pain and horrors of the Metro, there was also kindness. Artyom would hold onto it with his last breath, and tonight he felt lucky that he had been able to return some of it.
So Artyom closed his eyes and responded by whispering, “Go back to sleep.”