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.
“Any news on Pavel?”
“What the hell are you doing here, Ulman?” Miller responded at once as he saw Ulman standing behind him. “Shouldn’t the doctor look you over?”
“She already did,” Ulman stated. “I am fine.”
It was a lie, and not even a good one. Every inch of his body showed the truth: he felt like hell. His arms and hands had been burned to varying degrees when Ulman had tried to protect his head, and there was an ugly cut on his arm that had needed stitching. However, what kept Ulman from walking upright without feeling pain were the various ribs he had cracked when a steel plate had buried him. Even though it had saved his life and kept him from being eaten alive by the flames.
The pain and the weight on top of him had him pinned for hours – bit by bit pressing the air out of his lungs until his fellow Rangers had dragged him out. In a way, Ulman realised that he had been lucky but for all that he could tell Pavel had not been.
“We had to dig through a lot of rubble to get here …” Miller explained, his voice crude and there was anything but empathy in his eyes. “We found footprints near the cave in, so as far as we can tell Zorin went to the surface.”
“He’s heading for Polis,” Ulman realised – after all it was a straight route from here and not too far. “Then let’s go, we can still catch up with him.”
Sheer training made him reach behind for his VSV, only to grab empty air. He had forgotten that it was ruined since it had lain underneath Ulman when he had been pinned. Pressing into his back and taking a few of Ulman’s ribs with it as it was bent out of shape. So he’d need a new gun but before Ulman could walk anywhere, Miller grabbed him by the arm.
“Where the hell do you think you are going?”
The pain was so immense that Ulman grunted and bit his lip to suppress a scream. He knew that this would only stop the other Rangers from noticing the state he was in – not Miller. Yanking his arm free, Ulman resisted the urge to push him away. Instead he took a deep breath, trying to control his rapid breathing.
“I’ll need a gun if we’re going to find Pavel,” Ulman explained. “Or do you want to leave him up there to rot?”
Ulman saw the anger in Miller’s eyes due to the suggestion. And just for a fleeting moment Ulman was pleased to have caused him pain as well. After all, The Order did not leave anyone behind – it was a fundamental principal, and only someone who had nothing to lose would suggest otherwise.
“We are going to search for him,” Miller answered, his voice was even and carried his usual command tone. “But you are not going to be part of that team.”
Ulman bit the inside of his cheek to keep the anger in check; he knew lashing out now would not get him anywhere but sent back to Polis. “If you don’t mind me asking, Sir …”
“I do mind, Eduard!” Miller cut him off so loud that a few Rangers in the vicinity turned towards them. Even Ulman knew that it was not a good sign when Miller used his first name – but unlike the other Rangers, he could not pretend to be busy with something else right now.
Then Miller took a deep breath and when he spoke again his voice was calm at first. “I know you are angry at what happened, but you are in no fighting condition! Damn it, you are probably more of a liability.” To drive the point home, Miller gave Ulman a shove who only just managed to keep his balance. “I don’t gain anything from having to drag two people back!”
Ulman stared at Miller. As a commanding officer, Ulman knew that he was right but he could not be cut out so easily. The desperation was seeping through all of his body, only to stop him from thinking of a response.
It seemed that Miller did not want one anyway. “Go back to Polis,” he whispered and touched his shoulder.
Even as Ulman watched Miller walk away from him nothing made it past his lips. He desperately wanted to shout at him! After all he had promised Pavel to always be there, to have his back, to protect him, to fight side by side, and to always find each other! Always! This could not be an exception; he could not let him down! Pavel needed him now!
“No.” Ulman was surprised to hear himself say it out loud.
Miller turned around but what Ulman saw was not the same anger as before, instead it was calculated now. This meant that he was extremely close to serious consequences.
“What was that?” Miller pressed it out between clenched teeth.
Maybe he was giving Ulman a way to back down, but Ulman was already at the point of no return. He would damn his whole career if it meant saving Pavel. So he took a deep breath and stood straight, facing his commander. He would not back down, and if it was the last thing he did as a Ranger.
“Colonel, I know Pavel better than anyone,” Ulman began, his voice confident. “I know how he thinks, and right now he is hurt, panicked and probably desperate. You are going to find him easier with my help.”
However, Miller’s features did not change. He remained silent, looking Ulman in the eyes as if to decide what to do next; to inspect what the other man was thinking and probably figuring out how to respond to this insubordination. Ulman refused to back down, even though, the longer the silence stretched the more dread spread across his body.
In the end, Miller said nothing, he only slowly shook his head. Ulman closed his eyes and his shoulders dropped.
“Sir …” Ulman whispered stopping him before he could walk away. Ulman could hear the defeat in his voice but he also felt it in every single bone of his body. “… I was here to protect Pavel … and I can’t quit doing that now.”
Ulman looked at the ground, realising how much truth lay in this statement. After all, if Ulman were to return to Polis now he would have not only failed his order but also every promise and oath he had ever shared with Pavel.
When he looked up again, he saw a small frown on Miller’s face. Ulman was sure that he just imagined it but his body language was no longer set for confrontation. He could not tell what this meant.
What did it really matter? Ulman had nothing left to say. He had already told him as much of the truth as he could. He was out of options.
Miller rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Get a damn gun, and a gas-mask.” Then he slapped the back of Ulman’s head … “And don’t you dare to pass out up there.” … and walked towards the hole that led to the surface.
Ulman did not know what had made Miller change his mind but he did not need to be told twice.
However, it was easier said than done … it was a painful march with hardly any prints left in the snow. The further they got towards Polis the more Ulman felt the weight on his shoulders, the pain that intensified in his chest which was not helped by the occasional blood speck in the snow.
It was not enough to indicate that a mutant got to Pavel but it confirmed Ulman’s worst fear: Pavel was injured and since he had not made it to Polis yet, the injury must be substantial. Ulman refused to entertain any other possibility. Those only made him want to vomit …
Ulman leaned against a wall, taking deep breaths, bent forward to stop the bile from rising any further. He wanted to believe that it only came as a result of where his thoughts had gone but he could tell that his body was protesting against him as well.
When he carefully straightened again, his eyes fell onto the sun that was almost gone. Ulman shook his head. What were the chances of finding Pavel alive? When the sun set, the air would be more than freezing and that was only relevant if he would not run out of filters before freezing to death. They had not taken enough with them to last through a night.
Ulman swallowed hard and blinked the tears away. No, Ulman told himself. All of this could not have been for nothing, and he refused to give Pavel up for dead already. It would not be fair to Pavel otherwise; after all he had never given up no matter how dire the situation. He had never given up on Ulman either, so the least Ulman owned to him was to refuse to give Pavel up with the same bitter determination.
He turned away from the sun and saw the other squad members a few hundred meters ahead. It seemed that they had not noticed Ulman’s absence yet. He should catch up with them soon, because Miller had been right about one thing: Ulman was not in a good shape to defend himself out here.
Using the wall as support, Ulman began to walk towards the other squad members. When he neared an opened door, he pushed off and raised the Kalash. There were enough random open doors on the surface that Ulman knew how easy it was to get ambushed by anything lurking near it.
But when Ulman looked inside he found it empty, and yet, he felt unable to move further away. He did not know what it was, but something was not right here. He knew it, he felt it in his bones and in his gut. At the same time, it almost looked like one of the many abandoned buildings but it seemed to be in slightly better shape.
Was it an outpost? But Ulman also knew that Rangers and Stalkers marked their outposts throughout the city so that anyone could take shelter if push comes to shove. Ulman could not see any drawings and yet, he took a step inside, hearing the wood groan underneath his weight.
Maybe it had been abandoned, Ulman wondered as he noticed the specks of blood on the floor. Automatically he placed his finger over the cold trigger, scanning the room. There was no creature, no mutant but Ulman frowned as he saw a steel rod covered in blood in one corner. It did not seem to belong here, and as he walked towards it he also noticed that the dust and dirt had been disturbed not too long ago.
Ulman followed the skid marks, blood mixed in between but not nearly enough to come from a ripped apart corpse. They led him towards the nearest room, the door ajar. Taking a deep breath, and raising his gun Ulman stepped inside.
Imminently Ulman ran towards him, hearing his gun clatter to the floor along the way and fell onto his knees next to his body. The pain made Ulman’s vision blur but he had to ignore it because through all of this Pavel had not reacted at all. Instead, he simply rested on the ground like a rag doll.
“Pasha,” Ulman whispered and gently touched his shoulder. His skin was cold, probably even colder than Ulman’s hand. “Can you hear me?”
Ulman silently begged for an answer but nothing came. Was it already too late? Biting his lips, Ulman shook his head. He did not want to check for a pulse because he would not know what to do if there was none.
Taking a deep breath, Ulman placed his shaking fingers onto Pavel’s neck. It took far too long until he felt a beat but when he did, his breath hitched and there was nothing he could do to stop his tears.
Another beat … but the relief only lasted for a few scare moments until his training kicked in. Which told him that Pavel was still unconscious and alive but if Ulman could not help him … who knew for how long?
At first, Ulman had to check Pavel’s watch for the time he had left on his filter. After all, on the surface that was one of the most pressing problems. As he reached for his wrist, he noticed that Pavel had set a timer but it had run out: the numbers were fanatically blinking 00:00.
“Блин!” Ulman cursed. There was no way to know since when Pavel was breathing unfiltered air.
The pain Ulman felt when he took off his rucksack, made him gasp for air. He had to remind himself to breathe steadily before he managed to control the pain once more. As he reached inside, his fingers brushing against a filter he looked over Pavel and stopped short.
After all, Pavel’s chest was rising with ease, steady and calm as if he was asleep. No matter if awake or not, the toxic air of Moscow would make this impossible. Blinking, Ulman looked around noting the boarded-up windows and that the place had looked only half as messed up as others.
Maybe he had been right, this could be an abandoned outpost. At the moment it seemed that whatever had been the reason was not present but maybe the insolation was still intact. No dirty air gets in and no clean air gets out …
Taking a deep breath Ulman took off his own gas mask. He was ready to put it back on in a moment’s notice when he released the air but he could breathe. The air was old, stuffy and tasted bitter but it was breathable.
A laugh escaped Ulman as he watched Pavel. “Lucky bastard,” he called him and carefully took off his mask as well. Now he could clearly see what he had already feared: Pavel was hypothermic, his lips were pale and his face lacked almost all colour. He was not shivering, and Ulman knew that this was a bad sign. He had no idea for how long Pavel had been in this state but he refused to believe that it was already too late.
That would simply not be fair, but if the world had taught him anything it was that it did not care about right or wrong. It reaped whatever it pleased, and so Ulman had learned to push against its apathy with all his might.
So he dug out the blanket that he always carried with him. As gently as he could, he rolled Pavel to his side – wincing as he felt his arm protest – and moved the blanket underneath him. Then he wrapped it around him and laid him flat again.
“You’ll be okay,” Ulman mumbled underneath his breath and touched his cheek again. “You promised me something, remember?
While his hands may be cold, compared to Pavel’s body temperature they were almost warm. So he reached for Pavel’s vest and opened it just enough for him to slip his hand underneath his shirt. He felt his chest rise and fall, he felt his heartbeat but at the same time, he looked at Pavel and nothing happened.
Warming someone up without causing damage was a painfully slow process, Ulman was aware of that. But the more time passed, the more doubt found a home in Ulman’s thoughts. What if he was too late? What if Pavel was beyond saving already?
Ulman closed his eyes and bit his lips. Even if that was the case, Ulman told himself, Pavel would not be alone when it happened. He hated the idea of losing Pavel more than anything but he was willing to stay by his side until the bitter end; to hold his hand and lie right into his face that everything was going to be alright …
A small movement guided him away from these thoughts. At first, he thought that he had imagined it but when he opened his eyes, he saw Pavel trying to move. However, even the smallest movement was beyond his ability and so a frustrated sob escaped him.
A laugh made it out of Ulman and he quickly wiped the tears off his own face. There was no need for Pavel to see him this way. Not when he was coming around which was a good sign.
“Did you really think you would get the easy way out, Pasha?” he told him, hoping that his voice might help to calm him, to let him know where he was, and to hold on for just a little longer.
It seemed to work because slowly Pavel opened his eyes. But Ulman could not tell if he was really able to see him, if he realised what was happening right now. His eyes were only fixed on Ulman, he was silent.
Then Ulman saw tears falling from Pavel’s eyes – and he could not blame him for it. Seeing him so hurt twisted his gut but Pavel had probably been through hell and back already. So Ulman gently wiped the tears away and cupped his cheek.
“You’re going to be okay,” he promised.
He wanted it to be the truth but at the same time, Ulman had never seen Pavel so lost before, so confused and afraid … so helpless. Whatever he was thinking, it was clear that Pavel had latched onto Ulman like he was a lifeline.
Taking a deep breath, Ulman carefully lifted his head and shuffled closer so he could rest it on his lap. This way he could keep him close and keep him warm. He kept his hand on his chest because he needed to feel the beating of his heart, his breathing. With his other hand he started to comb Pavel’s hair in an effort to calm and ground him. It was the only way he knew that might tell Pavel that he was safe again. During this he never let Pavel out of his sight and so he watched as he fought against unconsciousness.
Ulman already knew that it was a losing battle and offered him a warm smile. “It’s okay, I won’t leave,” he whispered. After this, it did not take much until Pavel passed out again, but his breathing was regular and his heartbeat was strong.
“Is he alive?”
Ulman looked up when he heard Miller’s voice – it had almost been a whisper. He was standing in the doorway, not wearing a gasmask either, and only now walked towards them.
A nod was the only answer that Ulman managed. He was afraid that his voice might display even more than this already did. Even though The Order had no rules in regards of relationships, it was quietly agreed to be discreet, and also to not let it interfere with any orders.
In only a day, Ulman had broken both of these. While Miller must be aware of it, Ulman saw the same expression he had seen in the tunnel a few hours ago. Maybe it was compassion after all, but Ulman was not sure he wanted to know or even if their commander did.
Miller knelt down next to Pavel. As a small frown appeared on his face, he reached for Pavel’s jawline and gently tilted his head to the side so Ulman could see what Miller had a moment ago: the blood that had dripped out of his ears – by now it was dry or frozen solid.
Ulman closed his eyes and released a deep breath. He could not know what this meant for Pavel, and what it must have been like. If he was honest, he could not even begin to imagine it.
Only when Miller gently touched his shoulder, did Ulman open his eyes again. “Tell me when you think we can move him.” Ulman knew an order when he heard one but his tone had been quiet and subdued.
When Ulman nodded, Miller got back on his feet to take position at the doorway to call the rest of the squad to them. They would need to secure the room, and since it was shielded, they could likely wait until morning to get back to Polis.
During this time, neither of the men talked. One was always guarding the door, the others rested but they kept a respectful distance towards Pavel and Ulman. It was as if they did not want to intrude on a private moment. Only Stepan sat near them while he brought an additional blanket but even he could not find any words. Ulman did not know what to say either, so instead he kept his focus on Pavel. He ran his hands through his hair, felt his heartbeat and hoped that he would wake up again …
When Pavel was able to use his senses again, the first thing he noticed was the warmth. And he was glad for it. It was the same kind of warmth he had felt only for a moment while lying on the cold and frozen floor. It was familiar and it felt like home. It felt like … Ulman.
The thought should have brought a smile to his face but the realisation was quickly drowned out by the memories returning with a vengeance. Ulman’s desperate scream. The explosion. The lack of hearing. His inability to walk. The hatred. The cold … and …
Pavel swallowed hard and forced his eyes open. He was breathing heavily, and hadn’t there been a weight pressing him onto the bed, he would have started a desperate attempt to run away from here.
He noticed the brick walls, washed so many times and yet, some dirt still stuck to them. He smelled a petroleum lamp that gave light to this god forsaken station: Polis.
Had he managed to return? No. He knew that he had not. So the Rangers must have found him …
The voice was muffled, distant, like someone had shoved something inside his left ear … but it was one he would recognise anywhere and anytime since it was Ulman’s voice.
Was he alive? Pavel realised that he must have survived. After all, this was not an afterlife, and if it was it was far more painful than anyone could have guessed.
Suddenly, Pavel choked on his own breath and heard a deep sob escape him. It sounded disgusting, and he hated himself for it. And yet, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“Hey, Pasha …” Ulman whispered and the weight from Pavel’s chest was removed.
Through the haze of his tears and panic, he felt Ulman rest his forehead against his. He could feel his warm breath on his face. It was calm and even – in stark contrast to Pavel’s ragged and short breathing, which he had lost control over.
Pavel was unable to make any sense of what had happened to him. How he had started to hate this forsaken world, how he had had demanded an answer why it hated him in return … and how, despite all this hatred, Pavel was left with regret …
It had felt like he had been broken apart to be understood better. In the end, Pavel had still no answers. He only held the broken pieces …
“It’s alright …” Ulman told him softly. “… try to breathe.”
Those words felt like a lifeline to Pavel. Ulman’s voice was something he could cling onto to find a way out of the chaos inside of him. So he concentrated on Ulman instead, on feeling his head against his. The undeniable warmth of being so close. And the fact that Ulman had cupped his cheek and gently stroked him, all while breathing deeply. Ulman remained calm in this storm, and Pavel tried to match his breathing with Ulman’s.
If it took only a few moments or even minutes, Pavel could not tell but eventually his breathing started to even out.
Slowly Pavel opened his eyes once more; seeing and sensing the world around him. The stale air that never left Polis, mixed with disinfectant that clearly told him that he was in the infirmary. He could see Ulman again, see how he had his eyes closed …
Pavel was too afraid to believe that it was true but when he placed his hand into the nape of his neck, he felt his warm skin against his, he could feel his hair tickling, and even the beating of his heart was unmistakable …
Ulman pressed a kiss on the top of his head. “Better?” he simply asked.
His voice still sounded distant but it clearly belonged to Ulman, and it clearly meant that Ulman was alive and that Pavel was alive as well.
“Eduard, I really thought …” but he stopped. He was unsure if it was because he was too weak to admit his thoughts, or because his own voice sounded wrong as well.
Ulman took a deep breath and sat back. “Well, it wasn’t.”
It was a crude statement but spoken with such determination and confidence that Pavel found himself unable to disagree with him. Even the lingering doubt, even the self-hatred of what had just happened ebbed away. Pavel was still alive, and that was that, Ulman was right. Which meant that now he had to go on from here.
So Pavel nodded and watched as Ulman took his hand between his after giving it a gentle squeeze.
The small smile that had formed on his face, slowly fell as he noticed how tired and beaten Ulman looked. He knew that he should not be surprised by this, after all he had been through hell and back as well.
Even so, from a physical standpoint, Pavel could not make out much because Ulman always wore long-sleeves. He could only tell that his upper arm was bandaged, as well as seeing red skin near his neck and sleeves … so Pavel asked him, “How do you feel?”
Ulman smiled weakly – it was a sad smile which already told Pavel more than enough: Ulman was drained and needed rest but physically it would all heal at some point. Mentally? Time would tell …
“Alright, I think …” Ulman began slowly and then shrugged his shoulders. “Got a few burns, quite a cut on my arm …” He nodded towards the area. “… and cracked ribs.”
Pavel winced at those words – they both knew how painful and frustrating those could be. However, this was a far better out-come than Pavel had imagined. After all, Ulman was still alive and he had made sure that Pavel had lived as well. Wasn’t this what they had sworn to one another? Ulman had been incredibly lucky, but Pavel realised that maybe he had been too. Even if it was for another reason …
Clearing his throat Pavel went on, “and how am I doing?”
Ulman did not respond quickly, and the silence stretched instead. Pavel knew what this meant – somewhere bad news was waiting for him, and Ulman was weighing his words.
“You should be okay,” Ulman stated eventually. “A few cuts here and there. You haven’t lost any body parts. We found you just in time …”
After that Pavel could tell how he lost Ulman. His mind producing any possible outcome … reminding him of all that could have happened. But it hadn’t, and Pavel reminded him by freeing his hand and cupping Ulman’s cheek.
Ulman looked up and pressed into the touch. He let out a long breath before taking his hand and giving it a quick kiss. “You’re right,” Ulman mumbled. Then he cleared his throat. “Your knee’s shit.”
Pavel actually felt relief as he heard those words. Ulman would not have been so blunt if the injury would have had any long-term consequences.
“You are on morphine right now, so you can’t feel it,” Ulman explained. “Basically, you dislocated your kneecap and in doing so tore almost every tendon possible. The good doctor said it was a relatively common injury back in the day, so she already sewed it together. Might take a bit, and some training but you’ll be fine there.”
The statement should have been spoken with ease but Ulman’s voice had clearly betrayed him. So Pavel took a deep breath. “Tell me.”
Ulman sighed and looked him in the eyes. “She’s not sure if your hearing is going to return to what it was.”
It was such a simple sentence but the gravity it carried was enormous. Of course, he had noticed the difference and he knew that if he was unable to hear an enemy approach, being unable to follow two conversations, or not knowing left from right … If he was unable to decently cover a fellow Ranger his days in the field were over.
“I am sorry, Pasha,” Ulman mumbled. “She said everything has to heal first and then she can assess the actual damage. If there even is one left by then.”
Pavel swallowed hard at the thought. They’ve had other Rangers who had wounds that kept them from being able to go on missions; there were other duties available and yet, the thought bitterly ate at him. This would not be what he wanted, he wanted to help people, and as selfish as it sounded, he did not want to be stuck in one place.
Pavel did not want to think about it. “What …” Pavel stopped himself, after all he knew what had happened in that tunnel. “How did the explosion happen?” he corrected himself.
Ulman sighed and shifted. Maybe he had not picked the best topic but Ulman answered his question, “Whatever made them leave the station, they did not bother to turn off their fail-safes. Apparently, they had been scared that someone might tap into their grid …”
At that he stopped and shook his head.
“We checked,” whispered Pavel. Of course they had, they had walked the whole tunnel up and down and nothing had been out of the ordinary.
Then Ulman released his breath and trying to remove some tension from his shoulders. “Well … yes, but not for a gas pipe …”
Pavel swallowed, realising why the smell had been so familiar.
“… the more energy we ran through the grid, the more gas was pumped in the air.” And since they had been positioned quite high, Ulman had only noticed the smell when he had gone below out of boredom. “When you turned it completely on …”
“… it only took a small spark.” Pavel finished for him.
Ulman nodded sadly. Only now did Pavel realised that this could have ended far worse. The gas could have ignited sooner, it would not have needed the full load. Even so, it could have happened later as well, at any time. It had been a catastrophe waiting to happen. It was a hellish system.
“Quite a clever system actually,” Ulman continued talking, it was obvious to Pavel that he couldn’t bear the silence. “It had no consequence on the station, so they would have been fine hadn’t they fucked off a while ago. And it only takes one little valve to turn it off, if you know what you are looking for.”
After this Ulman became quiet and only mumbled, “which we obviously didn’t.” After all, new gas pipes were not marked as such like old ones had been – so they could not have known and decided to leave all the valves as they had found them.
Pavel only managed a weak smile, but he did not have anything to add onto this, and neither had Ulman. Instead, he kept staring at the floor, a frown on his face …
In order to pull him back towards him, Pavel gave his knee a gentle squeeze. When Ulman looked up at him, Pavel offered him an honest smile, and whispered, “I am glad you are okay.” For Pavel it still felt like a miracle.
Ulman nodded briefly. “Yeah, I was lucky.” But he did not elaborate on it. Maybe Ulman would tell him in the future what exactly had happened to him but for now it was enough to know that he was going to be okay. “Sort of.”
There was defeat in his voice, but all Pavel could offer right now was a little comfort. “Come here,” Pavel whispered and poked his thigh. “Before I get cold again.”
Ulman laughed weakly and nodded, so Pavel shuffled to the side in order to make room for the other man. Without saying anything further, Ulman removed his boots and slipped underneath the blanket. It took a little to sort themselves out given the lack of space and that Ulman was careful not to touch anything broken.
When Ulman looked up, Pavel nodded in approval and Ulman leaned forward to kiss the top of his head. Afterwards, he remained so close to his face that Pavel felt his breath. He knew that he wanted to say something, anything … Pavel knew the feeling but at the moment neither of them had the strength left. They were beaten and battered, and nobody knew how long it would take until all of these wounds healed – or if they even would.
However, Pavel knew one thing for sure: right now, they still had each other, and there was nothing that they had not managed to bring down together. They were okay for now, and that was all that mattered. So he smiled up at him, and pressed a kiss onto his cheek, soft and gently and Ulman leaned against it.
In a moment, the tension in his shoulders was gone. In return, Ulman took Pavel’s hand and kissed his knuckles. Even though, Pavel knew it to be impossible, he was also sure that Ulman had understood his thoughts.
Then Ulman snuggled onto his chest, his head tugged underneath Pavel’s chin as Pavel wrapped his arm around him. He could feel his breathing, the weight of his arm on his chest and his warmth …
Pavel took a deep breath, the thoughts of the cold and hard ground coming back to him. This time, they did not hurt him – they were at a distance as if Ulman’s mere presence kept them away. But no matter how close Ulman was, he could not give him an answer to what had happened to him on the surface: the hatred towards the world, that had turned into regret for past choices. Even though, he knew that not all of those had been his fault. Sometimes the Metro forces you to choose between two horrible things, but at least you learn to live with one.
Pavel could not imagine his life if he had chosen to stay with his father and brother; watching as anyone who spoke up disappeared, violence as the answer, and watching as people he used to love become complete strangers. He had lost his family in this time.
At least he had been lucky to find another family within The Order – just as Ulman had. On the surface, Pavel had been convinced, even until the last moment, that those strangers only felt hatred towards Pavel, and Pavel did not feel love towards them either.
Now, he wondered if this was really true … if Pavel did really not feel anything towards them, then why was there a tinge of sadness when he thought of them. Even when after more than 10 years, Pavel’s opinions had not changed. The anger had faded over time, and the sharp edges were sanded down.
He found it hard to believe that he would be alone with this. Or could they have really forgotten him forever, without second thoughts?
In the end, Pavel was still someone’s child. While he doubted that words alone could fix this, or even if it could be fixed, his father would probably want to know that his child was still alive, maybe even that he was a Spartan Ranger, and despite everything that he was a happy man.
Pavel blinked the tears away and looked down at Ulman. Seeing him clutch his shirt and breathing deeply and steadily calmed Pavel already. He really was a happy man, Pavel realised, and he also knew that Ulman would not let him go for the whole damn night. No matter what was to come, or what Pavel would decide, he was sure that Ulman would stay by his side.
As Pavel closed his eyes, concentrating on Ulman’s breathing and closeness, he wondered if he might even be a little lucky.