Ulman sighed as he flicked the bud of his finished cigarette onto the tracks below. There was little he could do to help Pavel with the mechanical side of things and since the tunnel was quiet, Pavel could not really blame Ulman for being bored.
They were seated high up on a bridge. And after an hour, Ulman’s guard had relaxed, sitting at the edge of the platform, with one leg dangling down. Nevertheless, he kept his VSV within reach, so Pavel knew that Ulman would take care of any uneasy surprises while he worked on the fuse box.
After a while, Pavel noticed Ulman shift but he was in no hurry, so there was no danger. Then he felt his hand on his shoulder: soft, and no pressure. Ulman did not want to startle him.
“I’ll take a look at the tracks.” Pavel nodded. “You’ll be okay up here?“
Since he was not really listening, he could not even tell if it was a question or a statement. “Almost finished,” he mumbled.
Ulman padded his shoulder, probably taking this as a yes, and moved away from him. Pavel heard him descend the steps. The pace slowing down the further he got from their little camp. Once he heard him hit the ground, Pavel turned his attention back to his work.
A few days ago, Vanya had passed with her squad through the station which had been abandoned for an unknown reason years ago, but she noticed that the generator was still working. With the closeness to Polis and Pavel’s former training as a mechanic, Miller had ordered him to assess the damage, see if it was possible to re-wire it and feed the electricity towards Polis.
Pavel had quickly realised that the damage to the grid was minimal, but it would still take some tweaks to reroute it. Luckily, Miller had ordered Ulman along for cover and so Pavel was able to work in peace – without having to worry about the smallest noise.
Maybe it would be a little faster if Ulman would not interrupt him.
Rolling his eyes, Pavel shouted back, “I am almost done!”
There were only two little wires and if that worked … “Maybe you should …”
Pavel flipped the switch and in an instant the tunnel flooded with light. Pavel had to squint for a moment and fumbled for his Kalash. “Well, look at that.”
With a smile on his face, he stood up and looked at Ulman who was below him on the tracks. Seeing his body language, Pavel instantly sensed danger: tense and calculated moves away from something only he saw.
“Run!” The shout was sudden, and loud – echoing off the walls.
Despite his training, Pavel froze in place. He did not know what Ulman had seen, and where exactly to run to to avoid it. Ulman looked up and waved towards the side passage they had come from before he set off towards it.
Pavel followed instantly, he left his tools where they were and started to run. As soon as he reached the stairs, a strange smell hit his nose. He frowned, it was familiar but it took him a moment to place it. Then he swallowed hard and looked at where Ulman was … Pavel realised what Ulman had known a minute before him: They were in deep shit.
Where Ulman used to be, the tunnel had turned into a maze of yellow, red, and blue fire eating everything in its path. The shock wave of the explosion throwing Pavel off his feet and turning his world black …
Pavel could not tell how long it had taken for him to come back again but the world had changed considerably. The tunnel had caved in and ripped open towards the surface. The world had also become silent. It was then that Pavel realised that the blast must have damaged his hearing.
He swallowed hard at the realisation but at the moment this was the least of his problems. He needed to get out of here, he needed to get back to Polis. To tell them what had happened, to get help …
Pavel took a deep breath and looked at the rubble. What was left behind it? Was Ulman even alive?
He called out his name but, of course, he heard nothing. He could not even hear his own scream … he was not even sure if he had really called out.
There was nothing left. Pavel was aware that he could not know this, but he felt it at the pit of his stomach, in his very being. After all, he had seen how the tunnel had turned from empty to being filled with blazing fire. What other option was there when he had stood right next to the explosion? His body had probably incinerated within moments.
Pavel bit his lips and closed his eyes. Despite the urgency, he felt the need to honour Ulman’s death in a quiet moment. His chest tightened, a sob fighting its way out. Pavel shook his head, he could not break down now. He still had a mission, and they were Rangers after all. They had sworn their lives to the cause and so they had to continue fighting no matter how dire the situation or how desperately Pavel wanted to give up right now.
I am so sorry. He clenched his teeth as he turned towards the hole in the tunnel. This was his way out, the only way left that ran towards Polis.
So Pavel pulled himself upwards, and pulled the last bit of strength out of whatever emotions were controlling him at the moment. It always amazed him that you could gain strength out of fear, pain, sadness and even anger. And damn right, Pavel was angry right now.
Suddenly a sharp pain shot through his leg as he tried to take a step and he collapsed instantly. His vision blurred and the air escaped his lungs. He screamed, loud – probably, but the fact that there was no damn response caused even more anger.
As he looked at his leg he saw nothing wrong with it. But as he tried to shift it by a bit, the pain already intensified. There was no way he could put his weight onto it.
Pavel punched the ground so hard that he could not unclench his fist for a moment. He waited until the pain subsided and he could breathe again. Only then did he reach for a steel rod near him and heaved himself up. His knee would not take any weight at all, it was broken or maybe ripped apart …
So he left the tunnels and stepped outside into the cold world as an unarmed, deaf and crippled man.
However, what did it matter anyway? If the world wanted to get rid of Pavel today it would do so anyway. After all it really seemed to hate him … Pavel thought bitterly.
Not only had it turned everyone he had held dear into monsters … but as soon as Pavel had found a place of comfort, where he felt warmth and safety, it had to burn this away as well …
Pavel clenched his teeth as his knee gave out again. He tried to hold himself upright but, in the end, fell to the ground. A bitter laugh escaped him, he could feel it inside his chest but the world offered him only silence.
The tears in his eyes stung because of the cold winds hitting his face. Pavel did not care from which type of pain they stemmed from … He was on his broken legs, not even managing the few kilometres, and all Pavel wanted to do was scream and shout at this cruel world! He wanted to hear his voice rip through the streets and echo of the dead walls!
Even that was a wish that would not be granted. So he let himself fall and rolled onto his back, watching the remains of Moscow. Sometimes, if he really tried, he could still remember what it had looked like years ago, before he had sat in that train and watched as the bombs fell before it pulled into an underground station …
He hated the memory. He hated it with every fibre of his being because he found no comfort in it. This was a place for the dead now, and Pavel would become one of those forgotten souls very soon.
Just like those millions of people, there was no-one left to mourn him. The people who used to be his relatives would not cry for him, the hurt and hatred ran too deep to be crossed by death. And with Ulman gone, the only person who stubbornly refused to leave the place he occupied in his heart, there was nobody left.
Maybe in the future another Ranger might find his frozen body, loot it for anything useful and find the tags … oh, Pavel Ivanovich Zorin, so that’s what happened to him … and then they’d move on.
Was this really what he wanted them to find? The fact that Pavel had simply lain down on the frozen ground and had given up? Had forgotten his oath?
Pavel opened his eyes and shook his head. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, if that was already the case, he might as well try before he rotted away.
He moved his wrists and tried to move his feet, since they had become stiff in the cold. Wincing he sat up, looking at the empty streets around him. The sun had started to set, which meant that it was going to be dark soon. This was definitely not the time anyone wanted to wander around unarmed, let alone injured and deaf.
Looking at the direction of Polis he failed to make out his goal and knew that he would not make it in time …
Pavel realised that he had two options now: continue to lie on the frozen ground while wallowing in self-pity, or he could hide inside a building and hope to make it through the night. Miller had stated that the apartments along the way were mostly uninhabited. Even though, he really did not like the implication of “mostly”, this was his best chance right now.
It took more effort than he wanted to hobble towards the façade. As soon as he could hold onto it, he rested his weight against it and watched it. The building had crumbled on the top but seemed abandoned at the lower levels. Nothing moved inside of it.
Taking this as a good sign, he made his way towards the door – it was a slow and painful process.
His eyes closed in disbelieve as the door did not budge when he tried to open it. There were hardly any locked doors left on the surface, all broken open at some point. How unlucky was he to find one of the few places left to be boarded up. Pavel shook his head, wondering for a moment if it had been closed up for a different reason.
If that was the case, Pavel might as well bite the bullet now and see what it was. He was dead on the street, so even if it was a slim chance, he was better off on the inside. So he pushed the door, again and again until he was so angry that he threw himself against it.
The door crashed with Pavel onto the ground, leaving him in pain – this time not limited towards his broken leg. Instead it was everywhere, in his fingertips, hands, shoulders and even in his chest.
Great job, Zorin! He cursed himself and threw the steel rod away from him. Come and get me! If there was anything that lived here, now was its chance to get a tasty bite of him.
Even as Pavel lay there, waiting for fate to come nothing happened. Not even the disgusting mutants wanted anything to do with him. Shaking his head, Pavel shuffled with the last bit of strength to the nearest room and leaned against the wall. He closed his eyes and finally let the tears fall.
He was too tired to fight anymore and there was nothing left to fight for. The whole world had narrowed to this small room covered in dust. And it was an empty world, he was alone in it …
“You are going to get what you deserve …” He could still remember his father’s words as Pavel had left his family. He had not been able to stand by and watch as his father became hungry with power, and violent. He had been unable to bear the pain, the constant fighting, the manipulation, and the feeling of his fist when Pavel still dared to protest. “… and in the end, you are going to be alone!”
A bitter laugh escaped Pavel. Would he be pleased to know that he had been right? Pavel could still remember times before his father had been this heartless, but those lay long in the past. Even if he heard about Pavel’s death, he would not care about it.
And death would come … Pavel was certain of it by now. He did not know if his filter would last through the night but it was more likely that the cold would catch him first. Maybe Pavel would be lucky and there was an afterlife. Maybe he could be united with Ulman again. Maybe then they would finally be able to find peace – to leave behind the demons that haunted them and kept them awake at night. Each had their own, some they shared …
How much Pavel longed to see Ulman’s gentle smile one more time … to feel his warm touch against his skin, his hand in his. Or just to hear his voice – telling him that it was going to be okay.
When needed Ulman had always been there, steady, indomitable and with a wicked sense of humour. He had never left him and always protected him.
There were tears in Pavel’s eyes and he knew that he did not want to forget Ulman. Neither did he want Ulman to be forgotten by this damned world. Not after all it had done to him.
Pavel could still remember how skinny and lost Ulman had been when he had first arrived in Polis, and how silent he had been for weeks. People had told Pavel that he didn’t have to talk to Ulman out of pity – others had given up sooner – but pity had had little to do with it. Pavel knew what it felt to have your life fall apart in front of your eyes and to be left with nothing. Then all the sudden, you end up in a place that was so free of pain that you did not trust the peace.
However, Pavel did not want to think of this. He didn’t want to wonder if they were just two fundamentally broken people who had always refused to give up on each other. Maybe it was true but it had been one of the kindest and most beautiful experiences in this harsh world.
Pavel had blessed every single night he had been able to sleep next to Ulman, to still hear him breathing or muttering words he couldn’t understand in his sleep. The feeling of his head resting on his chest or how he held onto Pavel, never letting go. It had made Pavel feel whole, like he belonged …
Even something as simple as whispering his name felt different when it came from Ulman. The way he put so much love into such a simple word, as if he had never heard a more beautiful name before.
He could not believe that the last thing he had heard was Ulman shouting his name in desperation. At the thought Pavel’s breath hitched, and the tears continued to fall. There was no way to stop them, because he would never hear Ulman say his name again.
The only thing left to him were the memories and unable to keep his eyes open any longer Pavel wanted to forget himself in those. He thought of the way Ulman’s hand felt in his, how his lips had felt when they had kissed for the first time … He recalled his laughter … the hours they had spent tinkering on the car, getting to know one another … when Ulman had found him crying, and without demanding the reason, had held him … not leaving his side. Ever since then, he had always been there.
Maybe, Pavel thought, there was an afterlife. And if that was true, he knew that Ulman would be there for him, to be next to him – just like he had been all those years ago.
When Pavel opened his eyes again, he saw Ulman kneeling in front of him, but he could not move, barely feel his arms and legs. At least this meant that his knee stopped hurting. The world remained stubbornly silent, but Pavel only noticed this because he could not understand what Ulman was saying. It had been a word … a name …
It was only then that Pavel registered the implication of Ulman not wearing a gasmask. Neither was Pavel, instead he was breathing unfiltered air. It tasted bitter and cold.
Then Ulman touched his cheek. Pavel expected the comforting warmth but instead the touch felt cold.
Of course. Now it all started to make sense. Because we are dead.
And yet, the thought did nothing to scare him. After all, Ulman was here now, he was with him, which meant that whatever they would face next, they would face it together. Just like they had promised each other.
So Pavel felt comforted by his presence. Even honoured that Ulman had chosen to be with him right here, and right now.
Pavel desperately wanted to tell him that he loved him, that he could never repay Ulman for this. After all, he had failed him earlier today … had left him alone to die horribly. However, Pavel could not move his lips, and if a sound ever made it out, he could not hear it. There was nothing he could do to make the tears stop either.
Ulman took a deep breath and gently touched his cheek. Pavel felt him wiping the tears away. Then he offered him a soft smile and said something.
You’re going to be okay.
Pavel could almost hear it, even though he knew that it was impossible. He knew Ulman’s low voice, the gentleness laced with worry. The thought twisted his heart. After all, he did not want Ulman to feel sadness or pain over this. So he tried to ignore the glittering in his eyes as well …
Ulman shifted, and gently took Pavel’s head and rested it in his lap. Despite remaining silent, Pavel did not feel alone because he could feel him running his fingers through his hair. A calming feeling that had almost always put him at ease, the same way the sound of Ulman’s breathing had or the warmth of his body.
Pavel did not know for how long this lasted but he was unable to keep his eyes open any longer. He stole one look at Ulman again – seeing that he was nodding into the empty room – and then he closed his eyes.
For a moment, Pavel thought that he was able to feel Ulman’s warmth again. Then he stopped thinking.