*The second section of part eight of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory.
*continued from SPQR, Part I
Dunsworth is a short and squat little man. That, combined with his smooth and round facial features, makes him appear about 20 years younger than he actually is. A Canadian engineer, he is Kopeikin's number two when it comes to machine research. The two of them lead the group on a tour of the laboratory and begin to answer questions that the group has had since the beginning of the war.
"Marciszewski was a bit naive, eh, just a tad. But he wasn't stupid." Dunsworth speaks with an almost childish abandon, and his excitability annoys everyone, Margerison and Juin in particular. "Once he realized there was shit blowing around the room, he started contacting everyone in the community... the science and engineering community, eh... looking for recruits he could trust. Everyone who's heard of the lab thinks he started it as a last-ditch thing, but really," the Canadian pauses for emphasis, "he got this place rolling before we started sending the technology all over the freakin' world. We've been designing stuff to counteract the machines with ever since. That remote you had was one of Marciszewski's first designs. Most effective one, too."
"Why Rome?" asks Margerison.
Dunsworth stops and thinks, then shrugs. "No clue. He was Catholic, I think."
Juin rolls his eyes, which elicits chuckles from Margerison and Elona. Though asked to by Kopeikin, she does not translate the joke.
Kopeikin begins speaking and Elona relays his words in English. The scientist explains that they are almost directly underneath the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Marciszewski, apparently was not only classically educated, but infatuated with Roman history. He was, too, a very religious man, related to a previous Pope and several high-ranking cardinals. Indeed, he was even related to an Archbishop of an autonomous Catholic church. Though he admits he is not certain, Kopeikin believes that Marciszewski wanted to preserve the Holy See, and building the laboratory under Rome was the best way to ensure that.
The irony of one of the world's most accomplished physicists and mechanical engineers being a pious and devout Catholic is not lost on either Margerison or Juin.
The Brit continues his questioning. "Any idea why a group of Russian soldiers would capture Marciszewski and try to steal his remote?"
There is hesitation from both Dunsworth and Kopeikin, and their pauses do not instill confidence. "There have been rumors of another laboratory in Star City. We think this is where these newer machines came from... the ones designed to find us."
Elona ceases translating for a moment and asks a question of her own. "Why would anyone want to stop you? We are almost extinct."
Dunsworth nods, losing his excitable nature for a moment. "We don't think anyone is alive in Star City."
Kopeikin finishes the answer and Elona's mouth falls agape. Margerison gently nudges her and she shakes herself out of her momentary shock. "He says he thinks it was to be a preemptive strike meant to prevent any resistance."
The Brit cringes. "Resistance? To who?"
The tour continues deeper underground. The group is shown the laboratory's power plant, which is quite literally man-powered. Work teams take turns in four-hour shifts, turning and spinning what are essentially giant hamster wheels. They pass a radio room whose antennae snake through the Earth and rubble overhead, patiently waiting for any random or deliberate man-made signal. Kopeikin somberly recalls the last radio transmission they received... a goodbye from the International Space Station, whose current personnel rotation had slowly starved to death. Elona shudders at the thought of those men and women devolving into cannibalism, leaving one to die alone, in orbit. She secretly hopes that the rumors of astronauts and cosmonauts being issued cyanide capsules in case of such stranding are true.
Eventually, the group is brought to a chamber full of roughly two-dozen people, connected to computers via what appears to be complicated EEG and EKG devices. The people seem asleep, though there are frequent twitches and vocalized reactions from them. It is only now that the group remembers that there is a battle happening on the surface above.
Dunsworth grins widely. "This is the cool shit."
Kopeikin explains that they, in fact, control machines of their own, though their numbers are distressingly limited. The human-controlled designs are more efficient in regards to movement and versatility, but far less so in regards to command and effectiveness. The people hooked up to the machines are their pilots and drivers. While this offers no chance of their machines turning on them, the delay due to transmission of command and reception of sensory input means that the other machines have split-second advantages in engagements.
"Why not have cockpits?" Juin asks.
"We tried that," replies Dunsworth. "We don't have enough trained drivers to survive the losses we were incurring. These things are a bitch to control."
The group eats dinner in the mess chamber, reunited with Salafia.
"Where's all this food come from?" Margerison isn't sure he wants to know, but he's curious by nature.
"We have many dry stores, but they will not last us much longer. Sometimes we get lucky outside and manage to kill animals, but the machines are making that more difficult. Dunsworth is planning on extending the tunnels to outside the machine perimeter so that we may hunt." A disturbed expression encroaches Salafia. "We also have our dead carefully preserved in a lower chamber."
Elona loses her appetite.
Calvin can't sleep and sits up. Next to him, Juin sleeps in a comical position that almost makes Calvin laugh. The Frenchman cuddles his sniper rifle and has his left hand shoved down the front of his pants. Beyond Juin is Margerison and Elona, who have long since taken to sleeping together.
Calvin turns and sees Rossella, sitting up, staring at the blank letters. He slides over to her and notices drops from tears permeating empty page. He embraces her as a brother would a sister and her sobbing increases.
The American sighs, realizing that Rossella's catatonic state was no act - admittedly, Calvin had thought it might have been. "He's dead."
There is a loud wail, quickly muffled. She looks up at Calvin's face, knowing Argent was his best friend. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too." Calvin also begins to cry.
It takes less than ten minutes for the two to fall asleep. The American cradling the Italian, and the Italian cradling the letters. On the top letter there is a hastily scratched greeting and farewell, though the body of the page remains blank. The greeting: "Dear Rossella," and the farewell: "You will survive. Love, Argent." They are written in Argent's handwriting.
The rumblings of an explosion jolt the five awake. Juin can hear bells tolling, though they are louder - less muffled - than they were before. Hundreds of people stir within the underground tunnels and chambers and, in mere seconds, the place is chaotic.
Margerison grabs a running woman by the arm. "What's going on?"
The fear in her eyes almost shakes the Brit. "The machines. They've broken through."
Dunsworth and Salafia are screaming commands, most of which disappear into the din unheeded. The two men see the five and wave them over.
"Jesus fuck," Dunsworth yells. "There's a fucking Titan. They've got a fucking Titan!"
Margerison smacks the Canadian, which calms the man down. "What the fuck's a Titan?"
"Some sort of Jupiter modification. We don't know what it does. All we know is that anybody whose ever reported one has never been heard from again."
"Well, that's just fucking wonderful," utters Calvin. Snapping out of his funk, he turns to Salafia. "What's the defense plan?"
"Defense plan?" Salafia is dumbfounded. "We are not soldiers."
Calvin laughs. He can't help it. This deal is getting better by the minute. "Yeah, whatever. Get everyone together whose got a god damn gun."
Thought it is Salafia who should be in charge, he acknowledges the order and runs off. Calvin hops over to Rossella. "You gonna be okay?"
She nods quickly in uncertain affirmation.
"Okay." Calvin smiles at her and takes off after Salafia. Juin follows suit.
"Where the Hell are they going?" Dunsworth has pissed himself.
"To fight, mate. They're soldiers. Tell us more about this Titan."
The Titan, though reports of it have until now been unconfirmed, is a self-contained unit, with even a less capable communication system than the other machines. Dunsworth claims that it is immune to Marciszewski's remote device, though to Margerison this seems like the machinations of a fearful rumor mill. The only way to shut one off is to climb on top of it and apply the remote directly to exposed circuitry. That's the theory, at least.
Another explosion shakes the tunnels and soil and rock fall from the ceilings.
"Do you control any machines that can take it on?"
Dunsworth shakes his head. "A deactivated Pluto we added a cockpit to, but our only pilot was killed in a skirmish weeks ago."
"Where's the remote?"
The Canadian hesitates.
"Where's the fucking remote?"
"Kopeikin has it. He needs it to defend the control center."
Margerison sprints down the corridor, hoping he can remember the way to the chamber. Elona and Rossella quickly follow.
"What are you thinking?" Elona asks.
"Channeling my inner Zeus."
She has learned Margerison enough in the past few weeks to know what he means. He figures to take on the Titans. The thought terrifies her, but her love for him is stronger than even she had thought, and her fear subsides. She speeds up, legs remembering what it is to dance; to run. She takes his hand. She'll be damned if he goes without her. "This is Rome."
"Jupiter, not Zeus."
Initially unsure of what even he knew to be a brash decision, her smile convinces him that it is the right one.
*continued in SPQR, Part III