*The third 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 II
Elona was a dancer not because she loved to dance, but because she wanted to fly. Her parents began sending her to ballet classes when she was only six, and though she at first hated it and convinced her parents to let her quit - Russian instructors tend to be rather harsh disciplinarians - she was reintroduced to dance via the tango when she was eleven. She had a strong crush on her partner, a 12-year old whose eyes she still remembers. Even at such a young age the boy had power; his lifts made her feel like a bird.
Moving through the battlefield towards the Titan is easier than expected, and Margerison is thankful for the limited capacity of the machines to adjust to unspecified threats. So far, all of the enemy machines concentrate their efforts on the few remaining friendly machines and on exposing the laboratory beneath the Roman Forum. Between the rubble and the unusually spectacular thunderstorm, the Brit is satisfied with their chances of reaching the Titan unscathed.
Kopeikin had not wanted to part with Marciszewski's remote, but a gun to the head has an amazing persuasive effect. Double-checking his straps, Margerison is confident that the remote won't be easily separated from his body. He smiles nervously at Elona, whose presence was initially welcome, but now provides unnecessary distraction. He loves her, and her well-being is of extreme importance. Still, there's a job to do. Taking her hand, he leads her across the quickly crumbling cityscape - already in ruins - towards the imposing Titan.
Nearby, Calvin attempts to mold a rag-tag group of armed people into some semblance of an effective fighting unit. He, too, is thankful for the narrow-minded nature of the machines, and though the threat of being trampled, run over, or caught by ricochet and explosive are unfortunate likelihoods, they are at least spared the indignity of being directly fired upon by machines whose munitions are unlikely to leave any trace of flesh-and-blood targets.
He is very aware that their carbines and rifles do not do much damage to most of the machines, but their efforts can at least serve as distractions for those lifeless beasts attempting to accomplish their singular purpose. Video and audio sensors can be shot out or obscured, and small explosives can be placed on the legs of the machines whose mobility is accomplished via robotic legs.
Somewhere behind him, on top of one of the Seven Hills of Rome, Calvin knows that Juin hides among rubble, taking careful aim at those very video sensors. Though unable to register any real "kills," the efforts of the sniper undoubtedly increase everyone's chances of survival, if only by a minuscule percentage.
Here, on these other-worldly front lines, everyone witnesses how the faster reaction of the true machines affords them a combat advantage. That the human-controlled machines are capable of adjusting and redirecting their tactics is little encouragement, and the sheer numbers of the true machines keep any hopes of victory dishearteningly subdued.
Calvin and Juin lose sight of Margerison and Elona regularly, the two lovers quickly and frequently jumping in and out of craters and defilades, cracks and crevices. Often, the only clues to their whereabouts are temporarily deactivated machines, which all eventually reactivate due to Vulcan-tenders. Even when the tenders themselves happen to be deactivated, another shows up and fixes its hapless brethren.
Thundercloud and futility shadow this battle. But the blind desire for survival makes everyone fight on in spite of it all.
Rossella did not join her friends on the surface. Instead, she sits in the control chamber, watching a frightened and distraught Kopeikin provide morale to computer-connected pilots who cannot hear him. They are joined by Dunsworth, who tries to engage in a self-calming conversation with Rossella, but her mind is too busy finishing the process of bringing her back to normalcy. Every dull resonating thud and explosion causes Dunsworth to jump and she notices the piss stain on his pants, as well as the scent of drying urine.
She reaches out and grabs his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Her touch freaks him out momentarily, but he recovers and attempts a smile. "I guess. This is fucked up, isn't it?"
No, she thinks. Being raped is fucked up. This is just war.
"We're so screwed," continues Dunsworth. "I mean, these fucking things did in a few days what the hordes couldn't do in centuries!"
Disinterested, she nevertheless manages a friendly query. "And what is that?"
"Take down the Great Wall."
Something's happened. Closing in on the Titan, currently in its wheeled mode, Margerison and Elona take cover underneath some rubble. Something just fired directly at them.
"Was that lightning?" Margerison asks.
Moving his squad of rabble, Calvin freezes. "Oh, shit," he mutters. A small group of machines moves into position around his two friends.
"Juin," he yells out, hoping the Frenchman can hear him. "What are they doing?" There is no response, though Calvin sees muzzle flash. Juin fires calmly and rhythmically at the machines surrounding the Brit and the Russian.
Calvin returns his attention to Margerison and Elona. "What's happening? What's happening?" he asks aloud to no one. Salafia, approaching Calvin from behind, shrugs and shakes his head.
Suddenly, a realization. Single-minded of purpose. These machines are here to find and destroy the laboratory and everything their programming recognizes that comes from it.
Calvin screams towards Margerison. "The remote! They can detect the remote!"
Margerison and Elona frantically engage Marciszewski's device, momentarily shutting off approaching machines. But the assisting Vulcan drones effectively make their efforts a waste of time.
"Fuck this," Calvin exclaims. "Take the squad to higher ground. Shoot at everything," he orders Salafia. With that, he takes off running in the direction of Margerison, slipping on the mud and tumbling a few meters before regaining his footing.
Margerison sees Calvin coming towards them. Crazy American. "What the Hell is he doing?" The Brit still cannot hear the mulatto's warnings.
Elona grabs her lover's arms as the shadow of a machine passes over them. "We can't stay here. The Titan is not far off."
Looking into her eyes, Margerison sees the dedication and love of a woman who wants to share the rest of her life with him, however long that may be. He smiles, kisses her, and the two run as fast as they can towards the Titan.
"No, god dammit! No!" Calvin's voice is but a tree falling in the forest. And no one is within earshot, save perhaps an ancient god of sky and thunder.
Pilot after pilot disconnects from their computers, waking up and groaning from sensations of pain.
"What is this?" Rossella asks.
Visibly trembling, Dunsworth replies, "We're losing."
The Italian grunts, wishing that she were with her friends. Even in the face of death, she knows she would take comfort in their poise and resolve. Her memory jogs a vague recollection of something Margerison asked.
"This Pluto machine. Where is it?"
Dunsworth looks at her, obviously confused. "In an upper chamber just below the surface. We buried it to protect it."
"You must drive it."
"I... me? I can't."
Ignoring him and not providing opportunity for argument, she grabs the Canadian and drags him along. "Show me the way."
The Titan is even more imposing up close. With alternating smooth and blistered surfaces, its visage is both sleek and brutal. Margerison catches a glimpse of folded legs beneath its wheeled chassis and wonders how tall it stands. Lithely, delicately, Elona climbs the machine to where Kopeikin believes the access panel to be. Margerison tosses her the remote and begins his own climb - one far more clumsy. Constantly slipping during his ascent, he wonders if his woman can walk on water.
Calvin watches in horror as the Titan, probably detecting the remote, attempts to shake the two humans off. The American is glad that this particular machine has no arms.
Margerison and Elona scramble their way to the top, hoping that the other machines will hold their fire. Are they capable of fratricide? It is not a question the Brit wants answered. He and Elona gain solid purchase on top of the machine and start looking for the panel. The Russian points excitedly to an edged surface, roughly where Kopeikin told them to look. That must be it.
A sudden blast of heat and flame sends Calvin flying backwards, throwing him onto his back. As he stares into the darkened sky, squinting from the impact of heavy raindrops, he sees the Titan lift up off the ground. It is not using its legs. "Oh, no, no, no," Calvin moans. The Titan, it seems, can fly.
Calvin has had enough for one day. Perhaps enough for an entire life. "Fuck you, God!"
Rossella keeps trying to convince Dunsworth to strap into the Pluto-walker, but the little Canadian simply won't. He is too afraid.
"Please, you must," she pleads.
The Pluto stands just over 25-feet tall and is nearly as imposing as a Jupiter. It is as heavily armed and armored, though its weapons are mostly indirect fire weapons - mortars, howitzers, rockets - rather than direct fire weapons such as guns, energy beams, and cannons. It is clear to Rossella that the Pluto is designed to burn things to the ground.
She takes a breath, recalling her training as an actor and clearing her mind, paving her way for the persona of whatever character she is to assume. Attempting to channel a persuasive type, she instead opens her eyes, seeing the world through eyes of what she believes is a soldier.
"Get out," she orders Dunsworth, who happily complies. She watches in disgust as he climbs down the access ladder, then she jumps into the cockpit and straps in. The controls seem to resemble some of the video games she and her brothers used to play and she laughs with a strange glee at the thought.
She looks around for the opening to the chamber and, finding none, calls down to Dunsworth. "Where is the exit?"
"There isn't one," comes the reply. "You've gotta shoot your way out."
She inhales again and holds her breath for a moment. She has one more character to assume. Exhaling, she clears her mind. She will become machine. It is her only hope.
She does not hear Dunsworth mutter, "Crazy bitch, eh."
The Titan cuts through the air with ease and Elona and Margerison struggle to hang on. The Brit holds on to the edged surface of the access point, but the g-forces are too much that he can't reach for the remote. Elona holds on to a munitions hardpoint with her left hand; her right hanging on to Margerison's belt.
"Can you activate it?" he asks, screaming at the top of his lungs. Between the pelting rain, the bolts of lightning, and the whir of the Titan's turbines, he barely hears himself think.
She nods and reaches for it. The Titan banks sharply, firing on an approach run towards one of the hillsides. Slipping, her right hand joins her left in grasping the hardpoint. Looking up at Margerison, her eyes reveal an intent to try again.
"No, wait," Margerison says, afraid that Elona will lose her grip completely. The machine flies violently, rapidly ascending and descending anywhere from just above the ground to hundreds of feet into the sky. Breathing becomes a chore for the two, and the strain on the muscles approaches the limits of their endurance.
Elona smiles at her lover and lunges for the remote. He closes his eyes in panic, but opens them as he feels her fumbling for the harness.
"You have to open the panel," she says, almost begging. She is confident, but that does not mean she is not afraid.
Margerison nods and forces himself to let go with both of his hands. Prying on the panel with pistol and fingernails, he begins a fast count to four - as long a period of time as he's willing to hang free. On the count of two, the panel pops open. He cries out in relieved surprise, just in time for the Titan to bank sharply again. Margerison slips to the edge of the machine's dorsal surface and Elona grabs him, dropping the remote in the process. There is quick recognition of failure, then Elona pulls him back up.
"What do we do?" she asks.
"Hold on to me."
She does so and Margerison fires his pistol into the open panel. The machine reacts violently, losing control of itself and beginning to spin. Elona screams as she is thrown clear of the machine. It is a miracle of the gods that Margerison grabs both her and a handhold before she falls to her death. Still, everything is wet and he can feel her slipping. Oh, God, gods, Zeus, Jupiter, Buddha, Allah, whoever the fuck is there. Don't let her fall. I'll promise I'll worship you.
Possibly as punishment for helpless hypocrisy, she slips away from him. In his mind, time slows to a crawl. His eyes are stuck in hers and his stomach weakens. He is confused as she begins a smile and mouths the words, I love you.
It is too much to bear and Margerison knows that survival is no longer important to him. The human race be damned.
Unwilling to leave her, he lets go of the handhold.
*concluded in Undiscovered Countries