*Part three of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory.
*continued from Alive
They had stayed in the bunker for six days. That was five days too long for the Frenchman and the American mulatto, about enough time for Lancashire Brit and the Asian-American, and not long enough for the Russian and Italian women. The argument over when to leave remained civil for the first three days, but by day four had become heated, culminating in a mandate by the Frenchman, Juin, on the sixth day.
"Come with me," he had said. "Or stay here and die. I don't care."
Of course, he did care, as his five companions were practically the only five people he met since the world fell apart whose company he enjoyed. It was no accident that this party of six banded together and split off from a much larger group of survivors back in Austria. That larger group was poorly led, and it hadn't been feasible to assume that there would be enough food and water along the way to keep over two-hundred people alive, much less safe from whatever there might be that was undoubtedly lying in wait.
And so they left.
At this very moment, however, as Juin, Calvin, and Margerison level their weapons at four Russian soldiers, leaving the bunker at Ljubljana seems like a very stupid decision. After all, four Russians armed with AK-74s and AK-47s are four more enemies than the group had encountered in a couple of weeks.
The Russians, outnumbering the party, yell commands to each other. And though Juin and Margerison believe they hear some Polish, as well, none of the three Westerners speak either language. Juin and Margerison scream back commands in English and French, but none of the Russians seem to understand those languages, either. Or, at least, acknowledge that they do.
"Where is Elona?" Calvin asks, ready for this encounter to end, regardless of the level of violence involved.
"I don't think that's a good idea, chap," responds Margerison, aware of his own reluctant celibacy in the presence of women. Who knows how long these Russians have gone without a female in close proximity?
"Why not?" Calvin retorts, defiant more from the situation rather than any real desire to argue. "Anybody else you know speak Russian?"
"We can talk about this later."
Gritting his teeth and ignoring Margerison's protests, Calvin turns his head slightly and calls out. "Argent! Elona! Get the fuck over here!"
This spooks the Russians, who until then were unaware there might be more people around. They glance the horizons and the corners of rubble, all the while maintaining their aims on the three Westerners. There is relative silence for the next few minutes as the soldiers on both sides utilize their senses to full effect, observing their surroundings without noticeable observation and waiting on the edge of panic for someone's next move. Then, the sound of movement. Rubble beneath footsteps and the faint calling of an American voice in the distance.
Argent, Elona, and Rossella appear from behind a pile of structural debris and one of the Russians shifts his aim to the new intruders. Almost without thinking, Argent and the three Westerners shift their aims at that Russian. Elona and Rossella, fumbling with their own rifles, recognize a subtle reaction to the appearance of women and make a futile attempt to hide themselves behind Argent. For a moment, the Russians seem to let down their guard.
"What's up?" Argent queries.
"Russians," Calvin replies dryly.
Argent glances at Elona, who appears uncharacteristically meek for an instant, but nods in silent understanding and steps out from behind Argent.
"Кто - Вы?" she asks, somewhat shyly. Who are you?
"So why'd you pretend not to speak English?" Argent asks of Kuznetsov, the apparent leader of the Russians. At the very least, he is the most forthcoming.
Kuznetsov smirks, attempting to maintain an air of superiority among the party. "It is my right. I was assimilating tactical intelligence concerning the situation."
"Your right?" The statement visibly irritates Argent.
The Russian merely nods. After a pause, as if testing the waters, he asks, "How many languages do you speak, American?" The implied insult is all too clear.
Argent stares in response, thinking of something to say, though it is Calvin who answers. "Two."
Kuznetsov turns to the mulatto, perhaps unsure of Calvin's American nationality. "Well, that is one more than I expected."
"We fled from the Fulda Gap after the battle." Kuznetsov explains as the now group of ten sits closely together, trying in vain to stay warm from a tiny Sterno fire. Though huddled together, there is a clear spacing between the Russians and the Westerners, with the four Western soldiers protectively - if subconsciously - between the Russian men and the two women. "Well," Kuznetsov continues, "during the battle." He smiles wryly, assuming his attempt at blunt honesty will help lull the Westerners into a state of trust.
The Westerners figure Kutznetsov to be in his late 20s or early 30s. Argent fails to notice, but Margerison and the others take note of the subtle Asian features in the Russian's face. Of the other three, two are clearly Slavic, but it turns out that one, Marciszewski, is Polish. Though the Pole occassionally utters something in Russian, neither Vorobyov nor Zaitzev say much, Kutznetsov ostensibly a very controlling leader.
Margerison, so far handling most of the Western conversation, grins in response. He is leery of the Russian group, but he finds no reason to as of yet be confrontational, save for Kutznetsov's earlier linguistic deception. "That's essentially what we did. Those machines you threw at us were just too hard to take down."
Kutznetsov laughs. The Pole and the other two Russians give no indication they are aware of what is being said. "I think your interpretation of the situation is a... misinterpretation."
"What do you mean?" asks Calvin, who acts as though he's been wanting to clarify something for a while.
"We didn't send those machines after you," Kutznetsov beings to explain. "Well, we did at first. But then events turned awry."
Calvin nods, knowing that the Russian's description of what happened will agree with what Calvin has thought since the battle. "You were shooting at those things from behind." It is not a question.
Kutznetsov glances at Calvin and nods. "Yes. That was not a battle between the East and the West. Everyone was fighting the machines."
To Calvin, it is a confirmation of - and a small consolation for - what he feared was a ridiculous assumption. To the others, however, it is a shock.
As Elona translates into English, Marciszewski tells the story of what he believes the machines really are.
Technology had long since reached the point that machines became capable of designing themselves. Indeed, the aerospace industry in particular touted the ability of computers to design better and better aircraft, given the design parameters provided by a human engineer. Still, those processes were overseen by humans and subject to rigorous testing.
Someone, the Pole isn't sure who, invented a computer model of a brain that, upon being verbally told what a designer wanted a product to be capable of, would design that product or machine itself... with no human intervention whatsoever. And, as human nature invariably encourages, that computer brain was used to design weaponry. A new generation of unmanned tanks, aircraft, other weapons, capable of completely hunting down and eradicating an enemy.
There were a few caveats, however. One, is that this artificial brain must be told by a human what it was to design, and what capabilities that design should have. In essence, this means that these machines hunting down and destroying all that is humanity - from humans themselves to their monuments and creations - are the results of imaginations found only in what are the darkest recesses of what is human thought and emotion.
Another caveat was that the brain seemed to only create machines of single-minded - to use a human term - purpose. A harvester would only harvest, for instance, and a weapon would only kill.
A third was that there was rumored to be a backlash among the Russian scientific community, and realizing that they could not stop their government's proliferation of such devastating weapons, the scientists smuggled the technology out and gave them to as many world powers as they feasibly could.
For most of the Westerners, this is a shock, and hard to accept. For Juin, at least, it explains why the governments found on the other continents also appear to have vanished from the face of the planet.
"So these things are not going to stop until everyone is killed?" Argent asks.
"Not just killed, my American friend," says Kutznetsov. The use of "friend" irks Argent. "But until all evidence of humanity is erased from this world."
The irony is clear to some, particularly Elona, who has long recognized the fragility of nature. Technology, albeit inadvertently, has come to the rescue of Gaia, Terra Mater... Mother Earth. But this eradication of humanity will be so thorough that, though these machines cannot proliferate without a human giving them design instructions - thanks to their single-mindedness - all traces of civilization on Earth will be wiped from the memory of the universe. Including, eventually, the machines that carry this elimination out.
Memory, it seems, is to be murdered by imagination.
*continued in A Tautology, Part I