*The first section of part four 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 The Imagination Machines
It's been a long while since they had noticed any significant signs of wildlife. Food had been scarce, with scavenging being the primary method utilized with which to feed themselves. But... strangely... almost suddenly... there were animals everywhere.
It didn't take Juin and Kutznetsov very long to organize hunting parties, even with some friction during the process. Though the party had been together in its current form for almost two weeks, there is still a high level of distrust. In the interest of appetites, however, the two agreed that the hunting parties should consist of a equal numbers of Easterner and Westerner as often as possible. Inexplicably, Kutznetsov withheld the Pole, Marciszewski, from any hunting. On the Western side, Juin - with prodding from Argent - negotiated that any party either of the women went out on were chosen by those women.
And this is how Argent and Rossella wound up on a hunt together.
Rossella knows Argent is infatuated with her. She's known it since they left the larger group in Austria. And, to be honest, she's taken advantage of it. She grew up on a vineyard in the northwest of Italy and so is accustomed to hard work, but even she must admit that she's been spoiled a bit since her secondary school sweetheart, Benito, asked for her hand in marriage.
Initially, she wasn't receptive to Argent's attention, unsure of if there were any malignant intent behind it. Indeed, she wouldn't even engage the American soldier in any significant conversation. But, after a particularly strenuous day moving through what was once Croatia, she had been scheduled after Argent for a night watch. She woke up completely refreshed, Argent having stayed up for both of their watches. She couldn't help but at least be more friendly with him after that. In getting to know him, he spoke often of European actresses - mostly Italian, but some French and Spanish - he was attracted to and it quickly became clear that she - who, in fact, was an aspiring actress - fit the description of most of the women he is attracted to.
The possibility of a relationship isn't why she chose to accompany him on a hunt. She is, quite simply, not interested. But her lack of marksmanship is no secret, and her desire is to rectify that. Objectively, Juin is the best to learn from, but Argent is competent enough and she knew that his desire to impress her, and his nervousness at being in such close proximity to her body, would give her the mental edge if any awkward situation should arise. It is a decision that will soon haunt her.
At the camp - less a camp and more a gathering point - the others sit in the cold in a defensive circle. Even though the Westerners had started many camp and cooking fires along their journey, they've not done so since the Russians joined the party. Marciszewski freaked out the first time he saw Margerison and Elona return from a forage with gathered firewood. For some reason, the Pole is terrified of the concept and the three Russians support the response. The Westerners assume that is has something to do with the smoke, but Marciszewski still seems to be overreacting... or hiding something.
And so, they sit together, using what body heat escapes through their layers of tattering clothing to help keep each other warm. A keen observer will notice Elona sitting between Margerison and Calvin. A still keener observer will spot Elona's hand in Margerison's, barely concealed in their bunched and bundled attire.
It is Vorobyov who first notices the ground beginning to shake, followed quickly by Juin, who stands and runs to a lookout point.
"What is it?" Margerison calls, though he already feels the answer by the time Juin responds.
As Juin yells back, "Machines!" Margerison and Vorobyov give the hand signal to go prone and to slowly spread out. From the lookout point, Juin signals that he spots two Mercury-class scout rovers. Nothing they can't handle if they had to, but they'd still be likely to lose at least one their number. Margerison notices Juin's frown and the Frenchman's expression of helplessness. Margerison's reaction does not escape Elona.
"Rossella? Argent?" she asks.
Margerison nods. "They're headed right to them."
Argent feels a little euphoria and it affects his awareness. He just witnessed Rossella shoot her first animal - an Alpine Ibex, Argent believes - and he got to do it while essentially lying on top of her. He could almost taste her fear, her anxiety, her hunger, her apology. It was an exhilarating experience for him, any way one can interpret it. On any other day, his expressiveness would have been forgiven. But not this day.
After Rossella's kill, he felt an immature need to showboat, and began to shoot as many Ibex as he could see. Never mind that he killed more meat than either could carry, but such an act - killing animals beyond the need for survival disgusts Rossella - had the opposite effect than Argent hoped for. And it made noise. A lot of noise.
"Argent," Rossella calls out quietly. Her tone and its subtle quivering makes Argent freeze dead in his tracks. Before he even turns to see what grabbed her attention, he knows he's made a serious error in judgment. A newbie mistake. Certainly not one a non-commissioned officer and veteran of several combat engagements should suffer.
He sees the two scout machines. Before his mind even fully registers what they are, he utters, "Oh, fuck."
"Do we go?" Margerison has no desire to be killed, but he has as little desire to abandon two people he has come to consider friends.
Juin shakes his head. Settled into his role as the natural leader of the group - though practically all of them are natural leaders - he nevertheless hesitates. Before he can issue any directives, Kuznetsov speaks up.
"Forget them. They are dead. And we'll be killed trying to save them." It is a cold assessment, and Kuznetsov can't help but realize that the deaths of Argent and Rossella will result in a power-shift within the group, but none of that makes his statement any less accurate.
To everyone's surprise, Juin lets emotion usurp pragmatism. "If you do not feel that this concerns you, it is fine that you take leave of the conversation." The Frenchman's response brings smiles to the faces of Margerison, Elona, and Calvin. The three Russians, however, continue their scowls.
As for the Pole...
"Where is your friend, Marciszewski?" Juin asks.
Kuznetsov reacts quickly, searching for their missing man, and when he finds nothing, he begins screaming orders to the other two Russians. Their fears give way to chaos and the next thing the Westerners see are three Russian soldiers leaving their hide positions and rushing out into the open.
Juin looks at Calvin. "What would you Americans say in this situation?"
Calvin chuckles. "Some cat just tore its way out of a bag."
Juin nods. "We need to determine what manner of cat it is."
"We going after Argent and Rossella?" Margerison asks.
Juin raises his sniper rifle, snaps the bolt back and ensures a round is in the chamber. "I am. The rest of you should continue on."
"Argent's my friend," Calvin protests. "You think I'm gonna let that go, you're fooling yourself."
Juin stares into the mulatto's eyes and realizes there's no changing Calvin's mind. He turns to Margerison and Elona, who are now visibly holding hands. A quick smile races across Juin's face, accompanied by the memories of past lovers - in particular, a Spaniard named Pablo and a Belgian named Evelien - and there is silent acknowledgment of the gravity of what is about to happen.
"Godspeed." Though an atheist, Margerison hopes his farewell sits well with the Catholic Frenchman.
*continued in A Tautology, Part II