Book: The Eighth Circle of the Subway
The Eighth Circle of the Subway
...Eddy slipped into the carriage in the last moment and the guillotine doors shut with a bang behind his back. A siren howled and the train dashed forward whistling and rumbling, immediately picking up speed. Somebody cried involuntarily, having fallen on the pinned elbow rest. Eddy only smiled – this one would get off at the first or second circle. Or would die. The Subway doesn’t tolerate the likes of him.
Before his eyes flashed the face of that guy there, above – beaten, distorted with pain and despair; and his doglike glance up to a policeman raising his club. It was his own fault – he hadn’t crossed the road in time, while there was a green light – but still...
...The train braked even more abruptly than it had started, but this time nobody hit the needles sticking out from the front wall. Eddy pondered for a moment whether he should go down here, and this pause saved his life. A tall guy in a chequered cowboy-like shirt and blue trousers sitting tight on his hips dashed to the exit – and got himself into a break-mode. The door-leaves flashed and the guy was cut into halves. The blood gushed out, the black maw of the utiliser opened wide in the floor, and the body stumps fell down. The floor closed.
The break-mode works rarely, especially at the first circle, so until the next station one shouldn’t be afraid of dirty tricks. But there he’d have to get off. The strict rule of Death-Riders: one carriage – one stop.
Below the ceiling the ghost-lamps were blinking with lurid light and in this light all of the passengers seriously resembled ghosts. “Most of them actually will be dead soon enough,” thought Eddy. As for Eddy himself, he was not intending to become dead. As well as all the rest, for that matter. Including that guy who had been cut by the break...
Eddy had no time to finish his thought. The train braked at the far end of the station, but their carriage stopped where it was still possible to reach the platform in a jump. Eddy was the first who jumped to the platform, getting over the seven-foot gap without an effort. Almost simultaneously a young lad with a just appearing black moustache landed nearby. Eddy appreciated the accuracy of his movements in passing. A strong rival. You must have your wits about him. Who knows what there is in his pockets.
...The escalator ended abruptly, and a precipice opened behind his feet. Eddy was ready for this. Only a novice can be caught on “the gap”. He threw his body in a spurt over to the neighbour escalator, which was going down. The first circle is over. But this is just warming-up.
The footstep under his feet went down and Eddy remained hanging on the handrail. Behind him there was heard a cry that choked immediately, crushed by gear wheels rotating below. Eddy glanced around him with a secret hope – you wish, the dark-haired guy was safe and sound, hanging on the handrail just as himself.
The footstep returned to its place and Eddy let off the handrail. Just in time. An electric discharge went crackling along the full length of the handrail, and those who hadn’t jerked their hands back in time fell on the steps in convulsions. Well, the first greens are cut off...
Eddy jumped off the escalator, safely avoided “the devil’s ass” that opened in front of him and started running over the platform. The second circle began.
The train came almost immediately and stopped in the middle of the platform. It was suspicious, but to stay at one place was even more dangerous, and Eddy jumped in. Some people, including the dark-haired guy, also managed to jump into the carriage before the guillotine doors closed, cutting somebody’s hand off. Eddy felt pity for the guy, yet this one would survive, albeit without his hand – at the second circle the wounded are still rescued...
...The floor diverged and Eddy hung on the handrail again, along with the others. He had been right not to like this train. Now imagine a high voltage current over their hands!.. Then again, no, there wouldn’t be one. In the Subway you always have some chance. A small, barely seen one – but you have it. Only the Russians, they say, have such places where there are no chances. But the Russians pass even there. If they don’t lie.
And they do know how to lie. For instance, that there are no police raids there... The policemen, they say, are afraid to venture out. What the hell do you need such police for?! Or whatever they call it...
It was about twenty seconds left to hang till the station when a robust guy hanging near Eddy suddenly kicked him in the stomach with his foot. Eddy nearly unclenched his hands because of the pain, but miraculously, he didn’t. You fat son of a bitch... Eddy dived into his coat’s pocket and groped for a shabby gas lighter. Only a novice would ask for trouble on the second circle. And if he is a “greenhorn” – he will try again. The robust guy did. But when he swayed on the handrail, Eddy stretched his hand and struck the wheel of the lighter near the fat fingers clenching the rail. The guy howled and jerked his hand off instinctively. In that very moment the train stopped. Nobody paid attention to the cry of the one who fell down. The third circle was awaiting them.
The door leaves, glittering with sharpened steel, moved to the sides, but instead of a floor there was still a gap below. That didn’t surprise Eddy. After all, last time he had got to the seventh circle. Yet there he barely escaped being smashed by “the merry man” and he had to withdraw.
Eddy swayed, unclenched his fingers in the precisely calculated moment and fell forward, managing to grasp at the edge of the platform. The contact rail was dangerously near. You jerk! He pulled himself up and rolled over the edge. Ah, “the labyrinth”. The third circle.
The sliding paths were crawling along the platform, intersecting each other at different levels, turning and changing direction every now and then. Eddy watched this apparently chaotic movement for several seconds until he felt which way to go. He wouldn’t manage to explain how he did it; and he wasn’t intending to explain anything to anyone, for that matter. When Eddy jumped on the path he had chosen, the dark-haired guy landed nearby. Behind them there were three more. Yes, only three. That was quick, mind you...
...Eddy jumped to the neighbour path automatically, and a heavy press fell onto the place where he had stood a moment before. Skipping the next line, Eddy jumped to the far one, then to the next... In ten minutes he got safely to the other side of the platform. A minute later all of their company was there.
The train was already awaiting them. Everyone jumped in without casualties, only the last one lost the heel of his boot. Pure luck. He could have lost his foot, too.
The train had scarcely dashed forward when the light in the carriage went out. That didn’t mean anything good. Exactly! Sprouts of tentacles studded with suckers crawled lazily out of the walls. The octopus-carriage! Tough luck... Already the fourth circle. Eddy snatched the knife out of his sleeve and started to cut off the tentacles reaching for him. The rest were busy doing the same. The slaughter took place in silence and in almost absolute darkness; there was heard only the heavy breathing of the people and sometimes – the whistling of a knife having missed its target and cutting the air.
One tentacle nevertheless reached Eddy’s arm and stuck immediately, tearing his clothes and skin. He struck with his knife without looking, but this muck didn’t even think of falling off! With great difficulty Eddy managed to tear off the squirming stump, but his arm was bleeding heavily. He bandaged it somehow with a torn away sleeve and caught his breath. It would be good to have a rest, but it was still early – only at the seventh circle there was a safe spot, “the neutral”. This time Eddy was intending to get to the end. Just as these four. Actually, already three. The fourth one was lying on the floor, winded all over with greedily pulsating tentacles. It seemed that he was still alive, but even if one cut off all this – he would bleed to death. And still, a thin guy in eyeglasses – why was this student still alive?! – bent over the dying man and was trying to cut off the horrible cocoon. It didn’t make any sense, but Eddy involuntary felt respect for Eyeglasses.
The platform. Jump, roll over. “The clothes-peg” clicks angrily behind, but it’s late. Where to now? To the other side of the platform, to the fifth circle – or to the sixth one right away, via “haemorrhoids Emma”?.. And Eddy jumped into the tunnel.
He immediately began sliding down the absolutely smooth sloping gutter. It was dark there and Eddy put on his infraglasses. He scudded along the pipe that constantly curved at various angles, with an ever increasing speed. Thanks to his glasses, Eddy noticed in time a long blade springing out from the floor in front of him and threw his body to the wall, rushing an inch away from it. A turn, another one... Steel hooks hang from above. Eddy pressed himself into the floor, trying to become as flat as he could. Further, further...
And suddenly a light loomed ahead. It was either the station or... Or! These were the lights of the train! The damned “haemorrhoids” was carrying him straight under the wheels. Eddy barely had time to pull out the vacuum sucker and stick it to the wall. The train rumbled right up to him, and he was hanging, clenching to the saving sucker and praying to all the gods he could remember. In the middle of the prayer something crashed into Eddy’s back, the sucker didn’t hold and he fell under the wheels...
Eddy came to his senses almost immediately. The back of his head and the grazed side were aching, but on the whole he got away easily. Apparently, he fell into the tunnel a second after the train had rushed by. This is what a sincere prayer for your soul means! Even if the text is only approximately right.
A dark spot stirred near him and immediately took the shape of a man. Eddy rather guessed than saw that it was the dark-haired guy. Damn him! Yet another tough guy...
The platform’s edge appeared to be quite nearby. This time Eddy climbed at it with difficulty – the effect of the fall. His companion climbed after him. Having looked around, Eddy noticed with surprise that skinny Eyeglasses was still with them. But the fourth guy was gone.
“And where’s that one?” blurted out Eddy. Eyeglasses showed him two crossed arms without saying a word.
Eddy turned away and went along the platform, from time to time dodging automatically the fly-breakers flying over him every now and then. His head worked badly. Eddy walked as if on an autopilot, but these were trifles. There was something more serious at the sixth circle – Eddy had been here once before.
Here it is! Straight towards him there was rushing a machine resembling an asphalt compactor, but unlike the latter it had quite a decent speed. Eddy stopped, waiting. When the machine was already near, he tumbled abruptly aside. The compactor missed him, but braked immediately and turned for a new attack. Damn it, where’s the train?! And as if mocking him, the train flew out from the tunnel and stopped several yards away from Eddy. The saving doors could close every second, and the raging compactor was already rushing to cut his way. Eddy dashed headlong to the door. A crack ran over the platform, the floor began to sink, going away from under his feet, but Eddy, pushing himself off the crashing platform with the last effort, managed to roll into the carriage, miraculously escaping the needles at the entrance. In comparison with the sixth circle’s platform, this deadly carriage seemed sweet home to Eddy...
Just like ten years ago, when their district had gone mad. Everything around was crashing, the ground was going away from under their feet, the barracks were burning, and from behind a dirty mass of a bulldozer with a lifted bucket was approaching inexorably. Well, now it’s ok, now it’s the Death-Ride after all, but then... Then they just hadn’t evacuated in time. Nevertheless, Eddy escaped. Then – and now...
The dark-haired guy and Eyeglasses were already here.
“Thank you. You have distracted it”, said Eyeglasses politely.
Eddy swore in response. Like hell he had... It’s just that the damned compactor chased him and not these two jerks, while it would have done better if it had.
The train dashed from its place and scudded into the darkness. There were two more circles ahead.
They jumped out to the platform almost simultaneously and fell immediately, lying flat on the floor. A dim twelve-foot blade went over their heads with a whistle and disappeared as if it had never existed. Trains didn’t go any further. The seventh and eighth circles were to be passed by foot. A carriage, though hiding danger in it, gave at least some protection – here one was deprived even of this.
Not awaiting the rest, Eddy jumped on and started running to the other side of the platform. He reached the pedestrian tunnel named “the gut” in slang, stunned from the absence of traps and scared of it more than of anything else. The dark-haired guy and Eyeglasses, looking at him dumbly, started walking along the platform, and at once three compactors rode out towards them. Eddy pressed himself against the tunnel wall, watching the events.
Eyeglasses was running in zigzags, avoiding “the black holes” in a surprisingly cunning way, and the compactor was rushing after him, getting nearer and nearer little by little. The dark-haired guy was running on a straight line, but it wasn’t the panic run of a persecuted beast – it was the famous “life line” that every Death-Rider had heard of. And all would be well, were it not for the two compactors that were at once rushing to cut his way.
Eyeglasses jumped aside in the last moment, the compactor missed, crashing a pair of fly-breakers that swooped too low; then the machine turned away, but it was too late. By that time Eyeglasses was already standing by Eddy.
“Well done!” said Eddy approvingly. Eyeglasses smiled abashed, and because of this smile Eddy felt somehow better. “We will still be running a lot!” he thought, without paying attention that for some reason he was thinking in plural.
The dark-haired guy was doomed, but he continued running stubbornly in a straight line without turning. The two compactors reached him simultaneously, but then the dark-haired guy did the impossible: he flew up into the air, jumping about six feet high, made a somersault and rolled over the platform without deviating from his “life line”. The very moment he was in the air the two compactors ran one into the other. The flash of the blow blinded Eddy for a moment. When he was able to see again, on the platform there was burning down a heap of deformed metal, smoking and emitting soot. The dark-haired guy was standing beside them, and one could hear his heart beating convulsively. Eddy shook his hand without a word – he couldn’t think of anything better to do.
“Let’s go”, he said with a suddenly hoarse voice, and began striding through “the gut” without looking back.
There were no traps in “the gut”, but here something more horrible than the first circle standards was awaiting the Death-Rider. And it didn’t keep them waiting for long. A blinding light flared ahead, there was heard an increasing howl and rumble – this is perhaps how the devil was laughing in Hell, mocking over another unlucky sinner. That’s why the thing was called “the merry man”. It was a huge metallic cylinder, almost the diameter of the tunnel, which rushed through “the gut” from time to time in different directions.
One of the old Death-Riders said once that if you ran towards “the merry man” without turning away, shouting: “I’ll crash you!” – it would stop and turn back. Most likely that was a joke, and Eddy wasn’t going to check it. He dashed along the tunnel, seeking for the saving niche in the wall – it had to be here somewhere! Here it is... Eddy dived into the niche and pressed himself against the wall. The next moment he was pressed still stronger, but this appeared to be just the dark-haired guy. “The merry man” flew by, howling.
“The poor student”, thought Eddy, “he didn’t make it... And even if he would – there is scarcely a place for two in the niche.”
The howl ceased suddenly, a smacking sound was heard, and then there was silence. Eddy and the dark-haired guy looked out from their shelter at the same moment, and the dark-haired guy let off Eddy’s arm which he had been pressing against the wall. “My God, were it not for him, I would remain without an arm!” realised Eddy, and he looked at the dark-haired guy in a quite different way; but the dark-haired guy was looking in the different direction, where “the merry man” had disappeared.
There Eyeglasses was standing – alive. He threw a blackened plastic square to the floor and strode towards them. Of course! Eyeglasses had lighted his life-card. Now he was safe for ten minutes. During this time he was either to get to the finish or to withdraw, because the eighth circle without a life-card meant certain death.
“Will you go further or withdraw?” asked Eddy when Eyeglasses had approached them.
“I’ll withdraw. I’ll go with you till “the neutral”, recover my breath and withdraw. That’s enough for me. Last time I went only as far as the sixth.”
“Ah, so he isn’t a novice,” thought Eddy. “Then again, this could have been realised earlier...”
... All three of them dashed into the safety island, leaping over the blinking border, and fell on the floor. For a minute or two they were lying silently, resting. Then Eyeglasses glanced on his life-timer. He had about six minutes left. He lay down again and after some lingering said: “To think that earlier, the Subway has been a usual means of transportation. Some thirty-forty years ago...”
“Lie even more,” responded Eddy lazily.
“I’m not lying”, Eyeglasses was offended. “I’ve read in the books.”
“In the books... And what about guillotine doors? ‘Devil’s asses’? I would like to get to the guy who invented ‘the merry man’...”
“There was nothing like these back then.”
“And what was there?” the dark-haired guy raised himself a little, interested.
“Just a subway. Rails, carriages, and the doors had rubber gaskets instead of knives. And the escalators were usual, without any traps.”
“So why the hell did they devise all of this?” asked Eddy unbelievingly.
“Those damned self-organizing systems... and the symbiont programmers”, muttered Eyeglasses. “However, I must go, sorry.”
He went to a rusty ladder descending from above and started climbing it, surprisingly dexterously. Soon he disappeared from sight.
“Let’s lie for another minute and go on,” said Eddy. “We have the last circle left.”
“No need. Lie here. Have a rest...”
Eddy turned back abruptly. At the border of the island there were standing two guys. One, a huge beefy chap, about six feet and a half, plus an old army “Berthold”. The other one was small, without eyebrows, without hair, and only his eyes seemed masculine. To the left, near the ladder, there were standing three scrubs, various iron objects in their hands.
“We're not the angels that you dreamed about...” whistled the castrate; the beefy guy muttered something gloomily – probably appreciating the joke.
Eddy had heard about “the angels”. “Guys”, he began, whining, “you’ve got the wrong guys, we have nothing but our trousers, and these we’ll put off just now, you just wink, and we’ll...”
“Begone, Satan,” informed the bald one in a mentor tone. “Tempt not our hearts with thy lies. Got it?”
Eddy got it. That they wanted life-cards he got from the start. In the black markets such a card would cost as much as seven grand, so that even two were worth risking. By the way, his cards were from the black market, too. He never asked where they had come from.
“Fellas,” drawled Eddy in a servile voice, “fellas, don’t take a sin upon your souls, we’ll never make one step without them at the eighth...”
He’ll make it. He must. A charge at the beefy one – they don’t expect such a thing from him – and he’ll dive into “the gut”. They’ll not chase him – even symbionts cannot catch a death-rider in the Subway, especially at the seventh-eighth... They don’t want to get themselves killed, do they?.. Only that the dark-haired guy... So what, the dark-haired guy...
Somehow, inconsistently with his own thoughts, Eddy charged straight from his knees at the castrate’s feet – the guy appeared to be surprisingly heavy – and threw him on the beefy one, roaring. The latter had excellent reflexes, he dodged, and the castrate flew out of “the neutral”, shrieking, and disappeared in “the ass”. Well done, beefy one, a sound mind in a sound body! And now – into “the gut”! Having jumped in quite a different direction, Eddy seized the arm holding an iron bar, which intended to crash the dark-haired guy’s skull, and thrust his whole weight upon the man’s elbow.
At first he thought he had broken his own arm – the sound of a shot was quite low. Eddy watched from the floor how the beefy one was raising his pistol again. The wounded shoulder ached badly, but it was scarcely likely it interested anyone. Apparently, it did. The shirt on the “angel’s” breast swelled with a bloody bubble, pieces of meat flew everywhere, and the beefy one fell to the floor with a quite surprised expression on his face. The rest of the team vanished immediately in the grey mist of the hatch.
The dark-haired guy, not hiding any longer, pulled out of his pocket a small cylinder and poked it into his right smoking sleeve – now his grenade launcher was loaded once again. Then the dark-haired guy picked up a pistol and thrust it to Eddy.
“Here. It may be useful.”
“Are you ok?”
“Almost. Got my leg stabbed with a knife.”
“And I have a shoulder hurt. But this is nothing. What’s your name?”
“And I’m Eddy. Can you walk?”
“I’ll try. If not – go alone.”
“Go to hell,” said Eddy kindly, unexpectedly for himself. He helped Max bandage his leg and they got up from the floor. The eighth circle was ahead.
Eddy vaguely remembered what came next. They dragged themselves along the platform, staggering, the platform was crumbling under their feet, the walls around were burning, it was hard to breathe; both of them intuitively dodged fly-breakers and ball-lightnings every now and then, avoided traps without even noticing them and went on and on...
Sometimes it seemed to Eddy that he was on the surface again, in the city, and there was fire around him again, everything was burning, and the Nobody’s Houses were writhing in the fire, and the fire-fighter’s trucks were extinguishing the flames with their acid blend, and it was hard to say what was worse – that blend or the flaming hell all around; and there, further on, behind the wall of fire there were the police cordons waiting for the hiding symbionts to run out towards them, and they wouldn’t investigate – they always shot first, and investigated later... Then there was a moment of clarity. They were in “the gut”, and “the merry men” were coming towards them from both sides. The niche was far away, and besides, there was no place for two in that niche. But Eddy already couldn’t leave Max. And then he did what wouldn’t have occurred to him only an hour earlier. He snatched out his reserve, hidden life-card that he had carried miraculously through the control automate – and stuck it into Max’s hand (Max had lighted his own one by then). Both cards blazed up simultaneously, and “the merry men” disappeared as if vanished into thin air. But here, at the eighth circle, the life-cards functioned for only a single minute, instead of the ten minutes at the other circles or half an hour at the usual Subway regime.
The minute was not enough. “The merry man” was rushing at them again, and the platform was still far away. And then both of them turned around and raised their right hands. It was forbidden, but they didn’t give a damn about all the bans! The shot flashes went one after another, and it didn’t even occur to them that the charges in their grenade launchers should have ended long before. Only when the howl had ceased did they lower their hands. “The merry man” turned into a heap of molten metal.
Then there was a lapse again. Eddy remembered only that Max had fallen and couldn’t get up, and then he’d lifted him on his back and had carried him. Max had protested weakly, electric discharges had been crackling around, some stupid violet cloud had been chasing them, and Eddy had been walking with what was left of his strength, cursing with just invented words...
Until he saw the light.
...Flashes were blinking from all sides, the barrels of TV cameras were openly aimed at them, and some guy in a white tuxedo and with a dazzling smile was shouting constantly into the microphone, and Eddy couldn’t get what this guy was talking about.
“Eddy McGrave... the winner... the pride of the nation... a prize of one thousand life-cards... progress of Mankind...”
“You idiot!” shouted Eddy, grabbing the man in the tuxedo by his lapels. “Max, tell this...”
Then he saw Eyeglasses in the crowd, smiling and waving at them, and finally fainted...
The three of them were sitting in Eyeglasses’ small flat (Eddy had never found the time to ask his name), drinking coffee and synth-Cognac. Eyeglasses was talking for about five minutes, but Eddy didn’t hear him. Only one thought was beating in his mind: “We did it!..”
Gradually, however, Eyeglasses’ voice made its way through this thought:
“Bastards! They themselves don’t understand what they have created! This is hell... and the satisfied, doomed devils in pyjamas, burdened with families and debts, are feasting their eyes upon the suffering of the dying sinners... before bedtime! As if there were no tomorrow.”
Eddy reached out for a glass of cognac – or rather, he wanted to but didn’t, because the glass slipped into his hand by itself. He didn’t even notice how it happened. “I’m going mad”, thought Eddy. But then he remembered the single-charge grenade launchers that were shooting a hundred shots, his own unmistakable choice of way in “the labyrinth”, Max’ “life line”...
They were supposed to die. But they are sitting and drinking coffee. They became human beings. Or not quite human beings. Or quite human beings. What did they become?
“This is not hell”, thought Eddy. “He is wrong. This is a purgatory. You didn’t pass it – you get into hell. You did...”
And then Eddy noticed that Eyeglasses was silent and was looking at him sadly.
“Eddy, my friend”, said Eyeglasses quietly. “Do you really want your children to become human beings only after they pass all the eight circles of the Subway?..”