*This is the second part of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory. I still have no idea how it's going to wind up.
*continued from Partus Sequitur
"I said yes, god dammit!"
Four weary soldiers pull on a metal hatch hidden in the rubble until the hatch pops open, scattering debris and soldier alike. The two Americans quickly pick themselves up, moving into position and aiming their carbines down into the hatch. One, the mulatto, points at his own eyes with two fingers and nods towards the Frenchman. The Frenchman clicks on a flashlight and sends the beam into the darkness below. The Brit coughs.
"A lot of dust for a sealed shelter," he says in a Lancashire accent more subtle than most, likely the result of having studied law enforcement practices in America.
There is confusion from the other three soldiers and the Italian woman, but the Russian woman signals understanding. Not wanting to waste more time standing in the open, she utters, "There are dead inside."
The two Americans shrug and descend into the hatch, clearing the way. The party waits for a final "clear," and then follows. Last in, the Frenchman scans 360-degrees of the horizon with leery and experienced eyes, pausing on whatever piques concern with a closer look through his sniper scope. Satisfied, he closes the hatch door behind him. Hopefully, they'll be safe here long enough to regain their strength. And maybe even their sanity.
"Found the bodies," says Argent, the other American. Late 20s, there's a hint of Asian to him, and as his military haircut slowly fades into an unkempt mane, his ethnicity becomes even more evident. "Grandma's in the back... some type of library. Grandpa's on the bed. Looks like he died first."
The two women glare at him. "Can you be more cold?" the Russian asks. Her name is Elona, and in a former life she was a ballet and ballroom dancer. Though there is little striking about her facial features - she is plain - her posture and her poise make her an overwhelmingly attractive figure to the four soldiers. Of course, being one of the only two women in the group certainly assists with that. Of this, she and the Italian, Rossella, are all too aware. Though none of the men have so far made any inappropriate advances, the prospect of rape is something that remains near the front of their minds.
Argent nods. "When I'm dead."
The mulatto, Calvin, enters the main chamber where the others are gathered. He carries a stack of maps and sets them on the floor next to a pile of gathered dry foods and bottled drinking water. After days of wondering if the next would be their last, this veritable gold mine of life-sustaining resources provides a desperately needed respite.
"Where do you figure we are?" Argent asks, mostly to the Europeans.
Margerison, the Brit, responds, "Still in Slovenia somewhere. Almost to Trieste, I think. Hard to tell with all the landmarks and cities leveled."
To the surprise of everyone, Calvin adds, "We're in Ljubljana."
"You certain?" Margerison queries. Far be it for the Brit to defer European geographical expertise to an American, but nothing surprises him at this point in his life.
Calvin nods. "No doubt. Compass and pace count don't lie, Yardy. We haven't traveled enough to be farther than that."
Margerison glances at Juin, the Frenchman, with a curious look. Juin frowns almost comically and shrugs. The American is probably correct. Margerison, sublimely aware of Calvin's use of the nickname "Yardy," nods in deference. The Brit hates that name, not only because it's aesthetically unpleasant, but because it's completely inaccurate. Before the war, Margerison was a police detective in Preston, in the north of England. And thanks to the short-sighted nature of the two Americans' imaginations, they simply assumed that all detectives in the United Kingdom belonged to the vaunted Scotland Yard. One day, Margerison will take the time to set the record straight, but there are more pressing matters at hand... like surviving.
Argent blinks, somewhat in shock. He has known Calvin for years, and Argent can not recall a single instance of his friend displaying any knowledge of the world beyond American borders. "How do you even spell that?"
Calvin and Juin, the Frenchman, make their way slowly through the other rooms in the bunker, looking for anything that might be useful. Both men are pleasantly surprised that the bunker was built as a near-complete home.
"Jean-Vincent," Calvin breaks the silence, "how did you spot this place?"
Juin cringes at Calvin's pronunciation of his first name. The hard "t" that Americans are so fond of has always made Juin want to lead a raiding party to take back the Statue of Liberty. The idea makes him grin, though the grin quickly fades beneath the realization that the monument in New York Harbor is probably no longer standing. After all, nothing else seems to be.
Juin smiles and lightly taps his right eye. He is one of France's most accurate snipers. Or was, rather. There is no certainty as to which, if any, governments are left functional. "The portion of the ventilation system that is above ground. It looked unusual."
"So you just figured there's a bunker nearby?"
"Either that or an underground methamphetamine laboratory."
At night, the group gathers in the library. It is an odd feature of a personal bomb shelter, which is an odd feature in and of itself in this part of Europe. The old man and old woman - now stored in a corner of their bedroom, heavily salted for odor and wrapped in heavy blankets - were undoubtedly planning on staying below ground for a very, very long time.
While most of the group huddles fairly close together near the center of the library - the climate control system is far from robust - Rossella sits at an ornate and extremely old wood desk in one of the back corners. On the desk, a stack of envelopes, about 30 high. Each addressed to the old woman, Rossella surmises, and each sent from a young man overseas somewhere. She is unfamiliar with the postmark system on the envelopes. After a while, curiosity overcomes her and she begins to open the letters... only to find that they are all blank.
"Strano," she utters. Strange.
Argent, who has been persistently staring at her since she joined the group in Austria - smitten by her clear beauty, no doubt - perks his ears. He is no linguist, but Rossella's emoting was clear. Partially from his own curiosity, and partially because he likes being close to the Italian, he walks over to the desk.
"What is it?"
She looks up and smiles, mostly due to reaction. Argent makes her uncomfortable, though he seems at least superficially benign. She is well aware of his staring, and is even somewhat impressed by his ability to ogle her via peripheral vision. In any other situation she wouldn't have given him the time of day, but he is a large part of the reason she's still alive, and there's as of yet no reason to be unfriendly with him.
"These letters," she says. "There is nothing written on them."
Argent grabs a couple and sifts through them. "Huh. That is kind of weird." He pauses for a moment, studying an envelope more closely. "They're from a soldier."
She cocks her head. Argent notices her hair fall to one side of her face. "The postmark." He points to the return address and shows her. "Those codes are military post offices. So he's either a soldier or someone with a valid reason to be in a war zone. Middle Eastern theater."
Rossella smiles, legitimately this time. She's always viewed Americans as arrogant and stupid types, and while there's certainly an aura of arrogance to Argent and Calvin, she's since shed the stupid preconception. Argent admires her eyes for a moment, then returns his attention to the envelope.
"But why would he send blank pieces of paper?" he asks aloud, not necessarily of Rossella.
Behind him, Margerison responds, the Brit having a propensity for eavesdropping.
"Because he wanted to let his parents know that he was alive. He just... didn't want to tell them anything else."
To Argent, and even Calvin and Juin, the notion is odd.
"That don't make sense," exclaims Calvin, not really caring about the conversation.
"Look around, mate. This library belongs to highly intellectual academics. Not the type of people to raise soldiers or killers. The boy was... he was probably ashamed. Or afraid. Or both. War is Hell."
Of this, they could all agree.
"La guerre est l'enfer," Juin repeats. Out of reflex, he checks his wrist for a watch lost in battle long ago. Cursing himself for the slip in attention to detail, he estimates the time. "We should all get some sleep."
"Sleep schedule?" Argent asks, setting the envelope carefully back onto the stack. It is a false act of compassion, but one that he hopes Rossella takes note of. Argent has to make up for his earlier comment, for which Rossella showed clear disdain.
Juin shakes his head. In this bunker, though they are protected, they are also trapped. Being discovered almost certainly means being killed. Tonight, for the first night in many, there is no need for a security watch, and the group may all finally sleep at once.
For Rossella, however, sleep eludes. Instead, she keeps herself busy with the literature of subjective emotion, the type of literature that hypnotizes its readers. Over and over again she reads the same story, and it compels her, instilling in her both extremes of beauty and sadness that she's not felt in a long time. It's a beautiful story, quite possibly her favorite... 30 pages of nothing. Not a word. Merely a notion that someone loved by someone else was alive somewhere. To her, it is the greatest story ever told.
She will remember it for the rest of her life, though she worries that will not encompass a significant amount of time.
*continued in The Imagination Machines