Stinging rain whipped and sputtered his small flame into lifelessness. What shelter he had under the cracked columns along the spit the wind stripped away; if he did not leave soon, he would be soaked, and if he was unable to get dry before the cold set in, he would die out here.
Still, he couldn't look away. The Reich had arrived in force with their banners streaming as they poured out of the nearby metro. They had their slaves rip the gilded gates down and set to them to work building fires, fixing windows, and clearing out whatever inhabitants had used it before they'd come. The stalker watched one ripped out through a crack in the wall by a demon that perched on the roof. His masters drank and laughed. Jeered as the corpse was ripped and apart and devoured, and shot only when the creature came close to their own men.
Years ago, the waste of filters have so many come to the surface would have been unthinkable. But then, so would the rain.
* * *
The stalker first saw rain again when he was a major for the Red Line, escorting a Ranger on a mission that would doom them both. Rain and sunlight - unbelievable, since the bombs fell. But more had come; the rain cleared the air and washed it into the earth, and clear skies awakened long-slumbering seeds. The plants that grew were stunted and unrecognizable, but there were more every year. Filters that used to clog within minutes now lasted hours.
Filters that lasted hours made long trips on the surface possible. He had spent whole days under the sky, only to crawl back into the tunnels and scrub his filters clean at night. Long trips made travel out of Moscow possible. Risky, but possible. He kept to the suburban lines at first, then discovered that even a sewer or deep basement would do. The air had cleared that much.
He used to catch glimpses of people, from time to time. Villagers in the suburban metros. Other stalkers, on the surface. Then he would find - gratefully - their caches, and spent fires. But by the time he reached St. Petersburg, he was the only man he'd seen in a hundred miles or more.
So he'd remained, for the past year, until now.
* * *
The fascists showed no sign of leaving; they were settling in, for good. They could sleep in the lower levels, out of the toxic air. Which the stalker realized he had better do, and limped his way across the broken street to Primorskaya Station. He squeezed past the rusted turnstiles and locked the gate to his erstwhile home: the collection booth, comfortably sealed in by unbroken plexiglass. Sometimes he'd wake to see the metro's other denizens caught in the traps he laid outside; once, a fist-sized crack next to where he slept, under a picture of the Eiffel Tower.
He hung up his wet coat and tugged a blanket around his shoulders instead. Removed his mask, then unscrewed his filter to clean it. Counted how many rounds he had left in his rifle before drying it and oiling it. The mundane tasks of life. If he was lucky, there would be fish in his traps tonight. Primorskaya was half-flooded, just like Venice, with an exit to the sea. In his months of crawling through the empty stations of the city, he'd found no better place than this: isolated, protected, and out of view. The water blocked one tunnel; the other had collapsed. He put all of his treasures here: himself, his postcard, and his boat.
He hadn't been idle all his months in the city. The explosions had wrecked all of the ships along the waterfront beyond salvaging, but there was one in dry dock for refitting that hadn't be as damaged. It had taken weeks just to scrounge up all of the parts he needed to repair it, and far longer to make the repairs, knowing absolutely nothing about watercraft. But like all citizens of the metro he knew motors and generators, and once it was watertight and running it was good enough for him. Then to seal up door to below deck tightly enough that he could stay there and breathe long enough to clean his filters; he had to, for this to work. The few trials he had around the bay had worked well enough. He hadn't drowned.
He'd been working up the courage to leave when the Reich had showed up. They didn't crawl and creep their way through the metro like he had; they brought drills and gatling guns, smashing their way down the line in days what had taken him weeks. The island was the only place they hadn't reached, and their slaves were clearing the rubble - he could hear them, day and night. Sometimes their bodies washed up in his safe haven - if they broke a limb, or got too sick to work, the Reich soldiers would shoot them and toss them in the bay. Sometimes. Other times they wouldn't waste the bullet.
No one he recognized from the Red Line, thankfully. No, his comrades knew what awaited them if they were captured by the Reich. They would - and he had - escape or die trying.
* * *
The stalker went to D6 only once.
Weeks later, well after the Reich soldiers had taken every last weapon and supply, down to the spent but salvageable casings. It was still a struggle to walk, and no one would come with him.
For all the blood that had been shed to break into the stronghold, getting in was trivial: the trains and explosives his own people had used had destroyed the blast doors beyond fixing. Corpses of Red Line soldiers had been left where they'd fallen. In the aftermath of the Rangers' short-lived victory, they'd had no time to put anything in order. He was sure they meant no disrespect. Meters past those were the bodies of Rangers too slow or too wounded to run from Reich.
He checked the faces of a few before he lost the heart for it.
Cold, damp, dusty, and dark; generators ripped out of the walls, light bulbs unscrewed, they had even taken the blankets and boots. He felt his way past the ruined control room and empty armoury to the barracks, where a few scattered worthless personal effects lay on the floor.
He left with his grimy postcard of Paris.
D6 hadn't held anything anyone wanted, and the Rangers and the Red Line had broken one another for control of that nothing so badly that the only real power left in Moscow was the Reich. The Reich, and the Dark Ones. Whatever his Ranger had done, the Dark Ones had returned soon after, and another wave of living corpses had followed. The scattered survivors of the Red Line had wanted little to do with the man who'd let it all happen - or at least failed to stop it, so as soon as he had healed enough to walk, the stalker was on his own. When he'd left, every station in the city was either under the Reich, or abandoned to its ghosts.
* * *
Muffled screams roused him from where he dozed, half-oiled weapon in hand. Too experienced to jerk awake and dart around; he quietly snapped the rifle back together and crawled to a hole in the booth to peer outward. Faint light from the rubble at the other end of the station. He crept toward it along the depression of the tracks, out of sight. Braced himself and peered beyond.
They were terrifyingly close. Yesterday they'd been hundreds of feet away; he'd spend too much time watching the surface, not enough time down here, on his boat. Work was halted for now - the emaciated slaves stirred listlessly as one of their number clutched her face. Blood poured through her fingers; debris, from the drills. Probably blind. The tiny hole to the stalker's side went dark as the hapless worker was kicked up against it; blood oozed through when she was shot.
The stalker shrank back as soundlessly as he had approached. It took effort, this time. It would take them until dawn, most likely, to break through all the way. He had mere hours to gather enough fuel and prepare everything to leave. And he had to do it all quietly, now.
The deafening whine of the drill covered most of what he did, but it they stopped it to keep it from overheating from time to time; the intermittent clang of picks, shouts and laughter from the fascists, a half-hearted cry of protest or two when their workers were kicked or shoved or used for entertainment.
When the stalker was done he laid down on the deck exhaustedly.
* * *
The workers' arms grasped at him, dragging him slowly down under the water. Into darkness. They hated him for surviving, for running away. First the bombs, and now this. He had hope and they had nothing and they would take it from him.
Suffocating, trapped. "Help," he hissed, not really expecting an answer. A last, fleeting, panicked attempt to survive. He'd betrayed the last man who would bother. "Please don't leave."
A glove of Spartan armour reached out and grasped his outstretched hand.
* * *
The stalker gasped awake and wiped the sweat from his face; they were nearly through. Any closer and they would see his boat - as it was, he had to push it through the tunnels with a board, not daring to use the motor. He tugged on his mask and flattened himself to the deck as he drifted out to sea, inches below the grasping legs of a spider the size of his bow.
The rain had turned to grey snow, blanketing the black bay so thickly he could barely make out the many lights in the palace. Within minutes he would vanish without a trace to the west. He spun the wheel hard to the north, instead. The motor was only as loud as the driving blizzard; he killed the engines far from the decorative jetty outside the palace and drifted in.
Steps were hard for him, now. The oversized, decorative kind were even worse. He had to climb each one on his hands and knees, braced against his rifle. The slush soaked through his gloves, but he dared not take them off lest he have to put his hands on broken glass without them.
The stalker was drenched by the time he reached the palace; adrenaline and effort kept him from freezing. He huddled against a dark windowsill, out of the wind. Caught his breath and dragged himself inside. Where moisture had leaked through the marble was stained; streaked with ash and marred by dirty boots. He only knew from pictures that it was white. He followed the bootprints past rotted paintings and down a staircase with ceilings that soared dramatically above. Down here, out of the dirty air outside the wine cellar but not inside to share the warmth and protection, were the slaves they used to fight; as fodder for demons and whatever else they could spare their own men. They disarmed and chained them for the night, as some still had flesh and strength left. One locked piercingly blue eyes with his and raised a finger to where his lips would be, over his mask.
The stalker froze. Heard a creak from the darkness within and when his eyes had adjusted to it, picked out the black of a Reich uniform being readjusted. The slave he sat next to turned his head, spat; the soldier tossed his mask back to him, casually.
He was in the shadows, but exposed to any who looked closely. His heart rang in his ears; long gone were the days when he could outrun anyone, and the fascist was a shout away from having scores, maybe hundreds, of men at his side. Escape or die trying... but these men in front of him looked like the kind who would have done that, too, if they could have. Watching the slave the fascist sat next to spin his filter frantically back into place made him wonder what he would be willing to do to breathe.
Might have to do.
The blue-eyed one rattled his chain loudly. "I need to piss."
"So piss where you are," the Reich soldier growled back. Unamused.
"And sit in it all night? I'll make it worth your while," offered flatly. Lifelessly.
The soldier stood with a grunt and turned toward him. "You will anyway."
He didn't move to take them out, but from here the stalker could see that he had the keys. He slung his rifle and drew his knife. The slave who'd just replaced his mask didn't hesitate - he reached up, wrapped his chain around the soldier and covered his mouth. The soldier drew his pistol immediately to shoot him but the stalker got there first. Gunfire would alert them all; he broke his hand and kicked the weapon away before stabbing him in the neck, and chest, while the slave held him down.
His hands were too numb from cold and slippery with bloody to work the locks; the slave did it for him. Took the pistol, while the stalker offered his own sidearm to the man who'd kept him from being caught. Which saved his life; when the rest were unchained, and realized that the stalker was alone, and crippled, and had weapons and supplies there was one agonizing moment where he saw them consider simply killing him to take them, but the two he'd armed moved to stand beside him, meaningfully.
The Reich soldiers weren't stupid. "Where are the guards?" The stalker asked, as quietly as he could.
"With the rest," a slave jerked his head in the direction of the tunnel that linked to the metro. "Let's get out of here."
The stalker shook his head. Collected a few of the chains and used them to wrap around the handle of the doors to the wine cellar. "If you leave now, defenseless, they'll hunt you down like dogs. How long do you think you'll survive in the metro, unarmed? On the surface, without filters? Run and die like cowards. Fight to free your comrades and live." He didn't wait for them; he limped off in the direction of the tunnel.
Two followed, then three. Most of them did, eventually. They avoided the light and made it almost to the end, where the drill covered the sound of so many footsteps.
Until banging and shouting started from the cellar door.
Three soldiers whipped around, but the stalker aimed for the gatling gun first, the only weapon that could kill them all. Taking the shot cost him a lance of pain down his bad leg, he wavered but didn't fall. The wound was glancing and he was so used to it that he managed to duck behind a rolling cart full of rocks before doubling over in agony. The blue-eyed slave covered him; he tossed rifle to one of the others who hadn't fled or been shot when the firing began. "Fight, comrades!"
Not to the men who'd come down the tunnel with him, but to the others. They were badly outnumbered by soldiers, but they were not at all outnumbered. The workers they'd armed with picks. Shovels. Drills. "This is your chance! Fight with us!"
Most stood in puzzlement, others cowered in terror. The Reich soldiers didn't seem to know if they should see them as a threat - they weren't shooting at them, and if they killed them, who would dig? One tossed a grenade behind the cart; the stalker threw himself behind the engine of the drill and covered his face with his hands. His ears rang and there were shrieks of dismay. Signs of life. Someone was still firing.
"Brothers! Sisters!" His hands were trembling before; they were shrapnel-riddled and useless, now. He used his feet to drag the chains across the drill's rails and elbowed the mechanism to start it with a satisfying crunch. "We fight with you!"
But it meant his cover was gone; he was unarmed. Suddenly his chest was hot and it was hard to breathe - through the haze of pain he could see that two of the fighters were still alive. Two of them, and ten Reich soldiers. He tried to call out to them again, but air wouldn't come. An old, heavily armoured Reich soldier picked him up by the mask and ripped it off, splattering blood everywhere.
"Red Line." He spat. "A Red Line officer. Good! An execution is just what we needed."
"Fight, comrades..." The stalker wheezed. Unsure if the workers heard him, or if it was the soldier's own words that doomed him. Behind him, a gaunt old woman mouthed the words 'Red Line officer' in disbelief, a hardness in her eyes just before she buried her pick right in the soldier's skull.
All it took was one. The rest followed. Realized there were scores of them, and the gatling gunner, was gone, and they descended on the rest with screams.
The stalker made it to his feet, once. Thought about joining the fight. Thought about dragging himself back to his boat. Long intervals swallowed by blackness showed him that he'd made it a few feet. More pounding from the cellar. More soldiers. Two workers on the gatling gun, turned around to face them.
Fire. Fire that ripped its way through the palace above him, followed by gunfire, demons. "Comrades..." He reached out to the ones he couldn't save. Who he'd stumbled over, in piles, at the doors of D6.
* * *
He woke in a pile of blankets. Each breath made him wince and when he shifted his bad leg didn't move with him. It took a few seconds to realize that the crackling fire wasn't the palace, that the haze above him was scratched plexiglass and not smoke. Outside his shelter, the strumming of a guitar ceased with his noises of pain.
The blue-eyed man leaned inside, his mask off. The face was hollow from starvation, bearded, and very, very scarred. But he smiled. Nodded to the postcard. "Where do we go from here, Athos? Paris?"