*The first section of part eight of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory (it's also an entry in the weekly Theme Thursday event).
*continued from Upon Reflections
It is a strange thing to take comfort in the fact that Rome is in ruins. Though most of the vaunted city is demolished and hidden beneath rubble, that it has not - like Trieste - been erased from existence lights glimmers of hope in each member of the group.
Juin maintains his place as the point man, while Calvin has joined Rossella in silence, leaving Margerison and Elona to theorize with each other what is happening in the capital of one of the most famous empires of history.
They walked through several lines of war machines and were completely ignored. Initially, Margerison and Elona thought that Rossella might have been actively engaging Marciszewski's remote, but the Italian was walking with her head down and seemed oblivious to her environment - not that any of them knew how to use it, anyway. Margerison estimated that there were thousands of machines surrounding the city, each with their weapons pointed towards Rome's center. Though there is a nagging feeling that they are coming to the end of their journey, such a sight only produces more questions while providing no answers.
As the group approaches the historical fulcrum of the city, the Seven Hills of Rome, Juin gives the hand signal to freeze. Rossella misses the signal and Elona grabs her as she aimlessly wanders by. Juin gestures as if he hears something, though how he can hear anything in such a powerful thunderstorm is beyond Elona. Suddenly, Juin goes prone, prompting the others to follow suit. Again, Elona is forced to pull on Rossella.
Movement surrounds the group, and each person - save Rossella - readies their firearms.
"Halt!" There is heavy Italian accent to the command. "Drop your weapons, raise your hands, and identify!"
In a scene reminiscent of the group's encounter with the Russian soldiers - though this, far more friendly - Margerison, Elona, Juin, Calvin, and Rossella sit in a concentric circle among rubble just north of Viminal Hill and east of Quirinal Hill. They are joined by a squad of nine strangers, with two more standing guard some distance away, though well within earshot. It is clear to the group that not all of the eleven are trained soldiers - if any - and are a hastily compiled patrol. Unlike their previous encounters, there is no attempt to shield Elona and Rossella, as this new group contains women of their own.
Salafia, the apparent squad leader, is so far the only one to speak, though it appears the others remain quiet out of fear of being heard by the machines rather than from any order Salafia may have issued. The conversation proceeds in whispers.
"You made it all the way from Germany? On foot?" There is genuine surprise in Salafia's question.
Juin nods. "Three of us fought in the Fulda engagement. We picked the two women up in Austria when we were in a larger group."
"There are other survivors?" Salafia's disbelief is both satisfying and utterly terrifying.
"Perhaps. There were."
Shaking his head, Salafia digests the information. Suddenly, looking back at Juin as if remembering an important question, he asks, "How did you get through the machines?"
Juin shrugs, prompting Elona to answer. "They ignored us."
Salafia shakes his head again and palms his face. "This is no good. No good."
"Why?" asks the Frenchman.
"These gathering machines are not here for us, but for the laboratory. We've known that they've been looking for it."
"And," Margerison interrupts, "it appears they've found it."
There is a loud airborne shriek followed by several explosions. Everyone reacts by hitting the dirt. In the distance, the sounds of bells tolling. Rossella vaguely recalls the tone of the bell of San Giorgio in Velabro. A beautiful tone from a beautiful bell. She has no idea why she thought of that.
"What's going on?" Juin asks as he crawls to a higher position.
"We must get underground," Salafia begins to explain. "The bells are air raid sirens. The machines are attacking."
In their sprint toward an underground tunnel near Palantine Hill, Margerison spots some of the feared Jupiter-tanks, wheeled and legged monstrosities blistering with weapons pods and layered with thick armor. Before they enter the tunnel, he looks back and sees something that is almost an alien concept to him: there are machines fighting machines. Combined with the tolling of the bells, the scene is almost Biblical, even to an atheist.
"Fucking Hell," he says, to the confusion of everyone else.
Once in the tunnels the group stops to catch their breath and Salafia orders a handful of his people to cover the tunnel's opening. It is an elaborate setup and Juin quickly determines that while some of the coverings are simply camouflage, others are designed to stop airflow and prevent heat signatures. The observation makes him smile. There are engineers here. These must be Marciszewski's people.
Salafia takes his time inspecting the coverings, for it is a task in which rests the survival of humanity. He and some of the others make constant minor adjustments until he's finally satisfied. When he is, he turns to Rossella and asks her something in Italian. She does not respond. Not wanting to press the matter, Salafia approaches Juin.
"How did Rossella Ferilli come to be in your group? In Austria?"
Juin is taken aback, though he conceals his reaction. "You know her?"
Salafia nods. "Yes. She is an actress."
The "laboratory" is an elaborate construct. Built into hastily dug tunnels, it exists in a system of labyrinthine nooks and crannies, with living quarters, primitive bathing and sanitation facilities, food and water stores, and actual scientific and engineering research and development labs placed wherever its inhabitants could most conveniently place them. Primarily underneath the Capitoline and Palatine Hills - the Roman Forum is directly overhead - it is an engineering marvel befitting those of the ancients. By modern standards, though still impressive, it is little more than a rat maze. But it is functional, survivable, and - so far - safe.
Salafia leads the group to a large chamber, bored out with pick axe, shovel, and the sweat of those desperate to live. Here, Juin can feel the reverberation of the dozens of bells that continue to toll from remnants of basilicas, cathedrals, and churches above. The effect makes the chamber seem like a massive grave, patiently waiting for its occupants to die.
"Kopeikin," Salafia calls out, catching the attention of an elderly Russian man, bespectacled and wearing a dirty lab coat.
The members of the original group hesitate at the sound of a Russian name, but there are hundreds of armed people here and any attempt to fight their way out of the laboratory would end in defeat. Not that they could find their back to the tunnel entrance, anyway.
The scientist responds in Russian and Salafia communicates with him in that language. Kopeikin scolds Salafia and the Italian nods in deference.
"What's going on?" Margerison asks Elona.
"I don't know. I cannot hear them." She looks at her lover apologetically and he returns the look with a smile and a squeeze of her hand. The two of them watch as Salafia returns to them, waving at other guards. Before anyone can react, a half-dozen mismatched weapons are pointed at the heads of the five friends.
"I am sorry," Salafia says, "but this must be done."
Rossella is beginning to show more signs of life, though Elona worries that the strip-search may have lingering effects on the Italian. Indeed, when it was Rossella's turn, the others could hear her screaming and crying out for help. At one point, Calvin thought he heard her cry out for Argent, but Elona figures that the American is still experiencing overwhelming grief from having lost his close friend.
After the five are finished being searched, Salafia apologizes profusely and brings them all fresh clothing. He asks Rossella where she got the device she was hiding. Again, she does not respond, so he asks Juin.
"From a Polish scientist. Marciszewski."
Salafia nods and turns to leave. He hesitates, then turns back. "One thing further. What are the blank letters for?"
Juin gestures to Rossella. "Her. She wants them."
Sensing the Frenchman's irritation, Salafia halts his inquiry and turns again.
"May I have them?" Rossella's voice shocks her friends. Salafia smiles at her and motions to a guard, who brings the letters.
"Sono spiacente, signorina Ferilli," the guard says as he returns them to her. I am sorry.
The five are brought back to Kopeikin, who is ostensibly in charge. Through Salafia, he apologizes again for the search. As he continues to speak with Salafia translating, Juin interrupts.
"We have our own translator, merci," he says, indicating Elona.
Salafia shrugs and Kopeikin almost angrily gives him an order. "Найдите Dunsworth."
The group looks to Elona, who explains, "He wants him to find someone."
*continued in SPQR, Part II