Artyom had never had the guts to tell Ulman how exactly Pavel had died. Instead he had to hear it from Miller – given how close you were, you deserve to know – but Ulman wished that he had never known. It had been Pavel’s worst nightmare: being ripped limb from limb by a mutant and if you were lucky you were still alive while they chewed into you.
Could he really blame Pavel that he had blown himself up instead? No, and neither did Ulman find the spark that would have started all the anger that he should have directed at Artyom. It went against his better judgement – after all, Pavel’s death had done something to Ulman and Artyom had not stopped it. But every time Artyom heard Pavel’s name his features fell, so Ulman did not find it in himself to spread more pain. In the end it had not been Artyom’s duty to protect Pavel. It had been and still was The Order’s duty to protect the inhabitants of the Metro; eventual death was simply a part of it …
So what should have Artyom done differently when a Nosalis had torn Pavel from their cart? There had been no way to stop it. Should he have risked walking the tunnel back just to try and find something left of Pavel? No … that would have been stupid, and idiotic but at least it would have left Ulman with anything that told him that Pavel had lived. Because nowadays Ulman woke up each morning and thought he was missing a vital part of himself. And each morning he looked down at his body, expecting to miss an arm or a leg but found it all attached. So he put on a smile on his face, joked around and tried to ignore that Pavel should be eating breakfast with him, that he should wake up next to him, or that Ulman never saw him at any briefings.
Other Rangers avoided the mention of his name near Ulman – maybe out of respect, probably because they had already forgotten him – but it didn’t matter, because Ulman was not willing to talk about him. Neither had he commented when Pavel’s belongings had been left at Polis instead of taking them to D6. Just like that Pavel had been neatly cut out of their lives … his life.
At least until Ulman had returned from a mission near Hole Station and saw the wrecked cart in an abandoned tunnel. He recognised it instantly: the floral print on one of the chairs, the ammo box that was covered with silly stickers. It was their cart … the one Ulman and Pavel had used to get near The Reich. The same cart that Ulman had sent Pavel and Artyom away with to meet him at Black Station.
“You be careful out there.” Pavel had said to Ulman. Their mission had led Ulman right into the heart of the enemy, and Pavel should have had his back. Of course, he had been worried. In the end it had been cruel irony that Pavel had not lived to see the next day.
Was this also cruel irony? That he would find the remains of their cart – raided a long time ago – when Miller had explicitly told him to get back to Polis quickly? Had Miller known that Ulman would come close to the place where whatever was left of Pavel lay scattered? Had he not wanted for Ulman to find any evidence that Pavel had existed? That there was more left than memories that were too painful to touch? And those would stop existing anyway when Ulman was going to lie six feet under …
Then everything that they had would be nothing more than ashes and dust. He could not allow that!
Ulman reached for his radio, intending to call it in. He would explain without many words that he was taking a detour. He already knew what Miller would say: It was impossible to find anything. Pavel had blown himself to pieces – and even those would be long gone; eaten by rats or worse. Don’t take a single step down the tunnel. That is an order!
Instead Ulman swallowed the bile that had risen and turned his radio off. Then he walked inside the tunnel, careful at first not to get jumped by any mutants. It seemed quiet and as it became steeper Ulman didn’t have a chance to pick up his pace. At least the physical effort kept his mind from imagining what he might find … If he might find anything at all.
Did he really expect to find anything that still resembled Pavel? Was he even prepared to stumble upon the rotten and messed up remains? Could he stand to see this part of himself so torn apart?
However, Ulman was certain that there was something, anything waiting for him. There had to be! It would not be fair otherwise. Someone who had played such an important part in his life could not disappear …
Ulman took a deep breath. In the distance the tunnel was opening up – a much larger room was illuminated behind it. It must be the Depot, Ulman realised. It had been somewhere here.
So, he raised his Shambler, ready to fight anything that might jump him. After all, he would do Miller no favours getting ripped apart like Pavel. Only that this time, nobody even knew where Ulman had gone …
It had been a mistake. He was a high-ranking officer. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to do this. He knew better. This was wrong, wrong, wrong. Not a single step further, it was too dangerous. There was nothing of importance past this point.
Suddenly he heard a crack from below. As he looked down, he noticed a broken bone underneath his boot. It must have split into two due to Ulman’s weight.
He had only looked away from the end of the tunnel for a few second before he realised his error. He could have been ripped into shreds very easily in that time but he had been lucky. Without anyone covering him he couldn’t allow these mistakes. After all, he had nobody these days.
Ulman had promised to protect Pavel, the same way Pavel had and now he wasn’t even sure what the point had been. Why had he held Pavel when he had cried from nightmares? Saved him from bandits? Pressed his hands onto a bullet hole that didn’t want to stop bleeding?
Ulman screamed and kicked the bones under his foot.
It had been pointless! Useless! All this pain, the fear, the tears … for nothing …
“Take a deep breath.” Ulman closed his eyes, knowing Pavel’s voice by heart.
He felt Pavel’s hand on his back, in an effort to ground him and calm him. Hugging and holding him close from behind, with his head pressed into the nape of his neck until Ulman’s ability to see past the blind panic and to breathe again would return.
It had happened years ago … after Ulman had failed to save hostages, had failed his oath again. He knew that it was nothing but a mere memory he experienced right now.
Eventually he had to open his eyes again, and when he did, he was not in Polis. Instead he still found himself in the rotten tunnel. So he brushed off the dirt when he got back onto his feet. Ulman was tired to death and knew that he should turn back.
As he turned around he noticed something reflecting of the ground. Frowning he shone his light along the wall once more and there … a small object reflected back again.
For a moment, he stood frozen. It couldn’t be …
It was at the same height as Ulman. Did he really expect to find anything at all? A full skeleton still wearing Pavel’s uniform. Ridiculous, there were even too many bones in this tunnel to say who had been who.
However, the light was not reflected by a structure but by a lone object lying in the dirt. There was no body near when Ulman reached the spot. Yet, his hands were shaking when he reached for it.
As soon as his fingers brushed against the cold metal, Ulman’s knees gave out under him. A dog tag … The Order’s emblem on it and the back stating a name, year of birth as well as blood type.
In that moment he could almost feel Pavel near him. He could almost feel his hand touching Ulman’s cheek while whispering that it would be alright before kissing him lightly to reassure him that he would not leave. He could almost feel his arms around him, holding him close and as tight as possible.
In the end it was only almost … Pavel was gone, and no matter how desperately Ulman wished for it and demanded it from the universe, when he was going to open his eyes Pavel would not be here. He would not feel the comfort and love they had taken in each other – able to forget the violent world around them, while they had created their own timeless bubble.
Time had run out and Ulman would never again feel his hand in his, how it had felt like when he ran his hand through his hair, kissed his cheek, his chest against his own, and laughing so hard in his arms that he cried … He would never hear Pavel’s laughter again.
Now there was only a dark tunnel, and the tears that ran down Ulman’s cheek. It was strange because ever since hearing about his death he had not cried no matter how desperately he had wanted to. Instead he had chocked on the air, cursed a god he didn’t believe in, screamed for mercy, vomited, or beat the wall until his hands were streaming with blood.
Now that he had started crying, Ulman was not able to make it stop either. He was lacking the energy to scream, wail or even get up again, so he let his head fall between his legs, enduring the pain.
Maybe it would finally clear the wound and shape him into anything beautiful. However, he had heard it all before and knew that this was not true. It was sweet bullshit that people who lived merry lives told the suffering. Just more lies to cover the fact that life can rip you open, and leave you with gaping wounds until you rot peacefully in the ground – decomposing a body and soul littered with scars. Pavel’s death only added to the mosaic as if it were a form of art.
This time he would be left alone with the mess …After all Ulman had failed to protect Pavel, and the consequence was clear: Nobody was left to steady him should he sway, catch him should he fall, drag him to safety should he fail to do so himself, and nobody would hold him when he couldn’t breathe anymore. So Ulman failed to understand how he was meant to survive …
He felt someone touch his knee – only a brief contact, enough to get his attention but not to startle him. Ulman almost expected it to be Pavel but when he looked up, he saw Khan.
“Are you alright?”
“Sure, perfectly.” A bitter laugh escaped Ulman but in that moment he did not care anymore.
“We should go,” Khan offered – his voice low. “This is a dangerous place.”
This almost caused Ulman to laugh again – as if he wasn’t aware of this. As if this place hadn’t torn Pavel apart, and maybe one of those bones in this tunnel had belonged to him. Maybe it was meant to tear Ulman apart as well – give him the sweet satisfaction of resting beside Pavel.
Ulman’s attention only turned back towards Khan when he touched his shoulder. “Are you physically okay?”
As a response he nodded because he knew that his body was okay – it was his spirit that had shattered; so just like the weeks before he could walk, talk, and put on a smile to hide all the damage.
“Then let’s go. You already did what you came here for.”
Khan could not know that but Ulman knew that he was right. And maybe, Pavel would not want him to rest for eternity next to him. At least not yet … Despite the weight that wanted to keep him on the ground, Ulman reached for the hand Khan offered to help him get back up.
“I’ll walk with you,” Khan offered, not letting Ulman out of his sight as he started walking.
Ulman followed and honoured the silence that stretched between them. He did not want to explain what exactly had urged him to go down the tunnel, and neither why he had held another Ranger’s tag close to his chest while breaking down in tears. He even remained quiet as they entered a station, only mumbling a weak explanation as he presented his tags as identification. Then Khan sat him down, saying something before he disappeared.
Ulman looked at the dog tag in his hand, running his thumb over the engraving. The touch feeling alien to him since it was no longer cold from lying on the ground for weeks. Instead it was warm because Ulman had stubbornly held it for the last … hour?
Only at the realisation that he had lost track of time and distance did he look up. He was not even sure which way Khan had led him, not even which station he was in right now, or even where Khan was. Had he left him? Would he return? And while this should cause some sense of panic, Ulman only faintly registered it. There was no strength left for another reaction …
“Here …” Ulman turned his head, seeing Khan sit down next to him. He held a steaming cup in his hand and took Ulman’s free hand to pass it over. His touch was surprisingly gentle, as if Ulman wasn’t a Ranger trained to kill but a fragile object. “… this will help you.”
Ulman eyed the cup, smelled the brew and deemed it adequate. After taking a sip, he realized that it was anything but. “That’s disgusting.” He pulled a face but swallowed.
“I know,” Khan confirmed but indicated that Ulman should keep drinking it. “But you are quite exhausted after …” He didn’t go into further detail for which Ulman was glad “… this will help to restore your energy.”
So Ulman took a second sip and since he already knew the horror he could prepare and the brew was almost passable. He was doubtful how this would help him but at the moment it was his best chance.
“Trying to poison a Ranger is not nice, Khan,” Ulman mumbled as he noticed Khan’s slight amusement at Ulman’s obvious disgust. However, Ulman had to admit that he was slowly starting to feel at home in his body again. He was still exhausted but at least the world was starting to take shape again, and he realised exactly how beside himself he had been. So maybe there was something good in this cup. “Thank you.”
Khan did not comment on this, instead he let Ulman finish the rest in silence. When he had, Khan took the cup and nodding towards the dog tag Ulman was still holding he asked, “Were you close?”
Ulman should have known that the question would eventually come … Khan would not have fished him out of this tunnel without wanting an explanation. The explanation was right there: a single tag in his hands – the proof that Pavel had lived and that he had died.
“Yes …” Ulman whispered after a while. Pavel’s death still felt like someone had broken Ulman apart and stolen a piece but he could not say it out loud. After all, he still found it hard to believe that such a thing had been possible at all. The truth was right there, and it was painful. Then he snorted and added, “Calling him my lover would be an injustice to what we had.”
Khan only offered silence. This did not matter to Ulman because what did he even know about the bonds that formed within The Order. Some of them went beyond platonic, and some even lay in between for which they lacked the words to explain. But Ulman knew for a fact that he and Pavel had not been the only people to find their soulmates within those ranks. In the end, it had made neither of them weak – the tears, pain, and even laughter and support they had shared had only made them stronger.
“Pasha and I …” Ulman paused briefly at the realisation that he hadn’t used Pavel’s nickname since his death. “… We were a great team. We could work wordlessly when needed, always sensed when the other was in deep shit. We knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and balanced them out.” How often had Pavel covered him from afar while Ulman had sneaked right through enemy territory? But Ulman knew that this balance had stretched far wider than just in the field. “We always had each other’s backs … but then …”
Ulman stopped. I sent him to his death. But he could not say it because maybe it was not the truth.
“I failed him,” Ulman said instead. “I could not protect him and now …” He shrugged his shoulders, now he was alone, unprotected.
Khan took his time until he spoke again. “Maybe he is still protecting you.”
Ulman shook his head and sighed. “Khan … with all due respect …” He knew that Khan only meant well with his words, that he was trying to help, so it would be unfair to be angry at him for it. “You know that I don’t believe in all this spirit mumbo jumbo.”
As far as Ulman was concerned there was nothing left of Pavel but the dog tag he held in his hand. Even if it was a harsh truth, it still seemed kinder than any alternative that religion or superstition seemed to offer.
“Then what made you go down the tunnel?”
That he had to find Pavel, it might have been a simple hunch, or a calling but in the end Ulman did not know, so he only shrugged his shoulders.
“Why do you think I was there?” Khan asked as well.
“If you are going to suggest that Pavel ordered you to find me …” Ulman felt his stomach tighten. He wouldn’t have thought that Khan would be so shameless to use Pavel’s death for his own agenda. “… I advise you against it unless you want to get hit.”
When he looked at Khan again, he saw him holding up his hands in defence and staying quiet. His face did not show anything other than empathy … maybe even care. Maybe Ulman was wrong … maybe Khan would not be so manipulative. Ulman closed his eyes and released his breath in an effort to loosen the knot in his stomach.
Opening his eyes again, Ulman wiped the tears away. The anger had disappeared, only to be replaced by embarrassment about how he had lashed out at someone – maybe the only one left – who felt an ounce of care for him.
“Does it really matter in what I believe?” Ulman asked Khan but before he could answer he went on to explain. “I honestly don’t know what I believe in … and I don’t think it matters, in 100 years there might be an answer, but I won’t live for it. So right now, if our souls wander the Metro after our death, or even if we have a soul won’t change just because I say so. Whatever is there already exists.”
Ulman was not sure if he managed to explain himself decently. He was a soldier after all, explaining and mulling over spiritual aspects was not his strong suit. It seemed that the effort had been enough for Khan to open the dialog again.
“Maybe what I call spirits and ghosts looks different to you,” Khan offered but Ulman only offered a puzzled expression. “For you what remains might be a memory that you experience, a gut feeling – like that one that made you go down the tunnel – or anything that Pavel taught you in those years. Anything that guides you nowadays, direct or indirect. Just because Pavel has died does not mean that everything of him is gone. He is still a part of you.”
Ulman mulled over those words in silence. There were many influences that Pavel had had in his life, and the reverse was true as well. They had started as friends, and later became the only person the other could trust with every single part of themselves. If it were not for Pavel, Ulman would be a completely different man right now. The same could probably be said about Pavel, the only difference was that Ulman lived on. However, maybe Khan was right, as long as Ulman lived … Pavel also remained in this world.
Suddenly a smile crossed his face. “Pasha taught me to drive …” As the memory hit him, he could once more feel the tears in his eyes. The confusion on Khan’s face was not the only reason why Ulman went on talking. “I was too young when the bombs dropped, so I had to be taught by The Order. Pavel was the lucky man to do so, after a month or so, he gave up.” He just wanted to talk about Pavel, share what they had experienced – something he had denied himself all this time prior. Even if it was just a small and innocent memory.
“Gave up?” Maybe Khan was only humouring him …
“Yeah, I drive like shit …” Ulman responded. “… but Pavel said it doesn’t need much talent to not hit anything and run over a mutant, so he decided I was good enough.”
Ulman could still remember Pavel’s reasoning word for word, and also his declaration that he would do any driving from now on.
When Ulman looked at the crowd he almost swore that he had seen Pavel in it; looking at him with an expression of sadness but also hope and care. He knew that he was seeing the past … thinking of a time when Ulman had finally admitted to all the pain that had slowly broken him apart.
Carefully Ulman wrapped his fingers around the dog tag – this was something he could hold onto. So while taking a deep breath, Ulman fished out his own chain and took it off. It didn’t take much until he managed to open it and slipped Pavel’s tag onto the chain as well.
Then he placed it back around his neck. He closed his eyes, feeling the difference in the weight. This was a tradition among Rangers that Ulman had hoped to never take part in. However, in this moment … it felt right.
“How does it look?” Ulman asked Khan.
Khan nodded and offered a smile – small but filled with compassion. “Like it belongs there.”
And Khan was right, Pavel had always and always will be a part of Ulman. But pretending that it would be easy from now on, would be reckless. This was part of healing, and from experience Ulman also knew that it had its ugly sides.
Nevertheless, he offered Khan a smile and wordlessly thanked him by padding his shoulder.
“Right, I better radio in with Miller,” he explained as he slipped the tags underneath his shirt. “He’ll turn the air blue after that delay.”