*The second 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 A Tautology, Part I
"Run! Run!" Argent screams at Rossella as he opens fire on one of the scout machines. It is an act of suicide, but one Argent barely notices. He is, first and foremost, a soldier.
Rossella begins to climb the rocky foothill. In the shadow of the Alps, there is only one way to escape. She briefly considers joining the firefight, but even as her skill with the rifle increases, her skill in combat is - she knows all too well - nonexistent.
Marciszewski reaches the base of another foothill. The oldest member of the party, he is already out of breath. Seeing the American boldly - and stupidly - engage the two scouts, the Pole wishes he'd have brought his AK-74. Not that he knew how to shoot it well, but it would've provided at least a false sense of power and helped to calm his completely frayed nerves. Still, he knows the device hidden in the folds of his overcoat is the best advantage one can have. He only needs to overcome his fear and get close enough to utilize it.
The Russians split up, not having time to properly track the Pole's path. It is Vorobyov who winds up on Marciszewski's escape route. Though the Russian soldier knows he is walking into an engagement that his instincts scream to run away from, he also knows that the Pole is his best hope for surviving this apocalypse. Vorobyov shuts his mind off as much as possible, saving only enough cognizance to observe his surroundings and to will his legs to move faster.
Argent tries to count his bullets, but it's a hopeless attempt. His finger simply squeezes the trigger too quickly, fear-inspired muscle reflex eliminating any chance at objective strategy. He knows he's going to die.
Zaitzev pulls within direct view of the two scout machines. On one foothill, he sees the Italian woman climbing. On another, he sees the Pole. And, in the middle of it all, the Asian - the one who resembles Kuznestov - ridiculously engages the machines. It is an admirable act, and Zaitzev strangely finds himself succumbing to a soldier's respect for his enemy, firing his own weapon at the closest scout machine. It is the last conscious decision Zaitzev will ever make.
Though steeled by the firefight of too-forgiving small-caliber bullets versus ruthlessly efficient energy weapons, Argent begins to cry. His young life about to end.
But then... it doesn't. The two scout machines suddenly shift their attentions to something behind them - exactly what, Argent can't tell - and the American quickly disappears into the rocky terrain of the foothills. It is the response of a survival instinct telling emotion and thought to step aside to let the primal take over for a while.
Marciszewski sees Zaitzev's body burn and disintegrate from one of the Mercury scout's energy weapons and the other's Gatling cannon. Never friendly with Zaitzev - for the Pole was never friendly with any of the Russians - he is nevertheless overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. Human life is far too precious; now more than ever. Marciszewski inhales deeply. He must do this.
And so begins the strange sight of an aging Polish man running towards two of the most effective killing machines ever created.
Rossella sees it all, and through all of her confusion, the relief that Argent's chances of survival have dramatically increased sweeps through her. Perhaps she is interested, after all, or perhaps she's simply happy that one of her friends might live. She will figure it out later. Argent is still a great distance from her and she begins to descend the rocky terrain that she was, mere moments ago, trying to ascend as quickly as possible.
Taking a peek over the rock he's hiding behind, Argent spots the Pole rushing the scout machines. Despite not spending any time with the Pole, Argent maintains the impression that Marciszewski is a likable man. He does not, however, maintain the impression that Marciszewski is a stupid man. It seems to Argent that he should revisit his assumptions.
More interested in finding Rossella, Argent returns his attention to climbing. The Pole will have to fend for himself.
And then all is silent.
"What the fuck?" Argent mutters aloud, though no one is around to hear him. He cannot believe what he is seeing.
Rossella approaches Marciszewski, who is on his knees. In his left hand, he holds a small box-like device - it reminds Rossella of a remote control - and his right hand grasps his left arm. Heart attack? she wonders, wishing Elona was around.
"Are you okay?" she asks, not expecting a reply. To her surprise, he nods, then answers.
"Yes. I believe... my heart has taken all that it can handle."
Rossella stops. The Pole speaks English. And perfectly. What the Hell is going on?
Marciszewski's eyes fill with tears. There is both pity and apology in his expression, as if the weight of the world rests squarely on his shoulders. "The device in my hand. Take it."
Not knowing what else to do, she reaches for it. His grip is tight - almost paralytic - and she pries his fingers from it.
"Hide it. Do not let the Russians have it. Especially Kuznestov."
She nods and is unable to shake the return of fear. "Who are you?"
"I am the scientist." There is an emphasis on the word the, and its meaning is clear.
Shocked, Rossella almost drops the device, but quickly recovers and hides it. "What is this?"
"Your only hope."
Before Rossella can ask another question, there is a zip of bullet and a splatter of blood, followed quickly by the sound of a gunshot. She runs away blindly, having no idea of who shot the old man.
The shot's echo freezes Argent. He moves carefully down the hill, trying to keep rocks between him and the valley, and cannot see what transpires below. There is no intent to jump into another death-defying situation.
The assassin catches up to Rossella quickly, reaching her at the base of a foothill. It is Vorobyov. Striking her in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle, he screams out in broken English, "Where is box? Box!"
Nauseous and dizzy from the blow, she can only reply, "Non so." I don't know.
He grabs her and shakes her violently. "Box! Box!"
Argent creeps out from behind the last rock large enough to hide his descent. There is no movement in the valley and other than the lifeless machines and the bodies of Zaitzev and Marciszewski, he sees nothing. Which makes the sound of a rifle safety being flipped all the more disturbing.
"Where is the device?" It is Kuznetsov's voice. "Does the Italian woman have it?"
Argent holds his hands up, letting his carbine's sling take the weight of his weapon. "I don't know. I don't even know what the fuck you're talking about."
"Tell me, Argent. Is your grandfather named Saito Tsutomu?"
Argent flinches and glares at the Russian. There's no way for him to know that.
Kuznetsov smiles and its familiarity has a doubling effect. Days of subconscious deduction and the whispered comments of the others instill the sensation of staring into a carnival mirror. In this moment, this reluctant standoff, there is a reflection of the world. Constant beginnings of endings swimming with consistent endings of beginnings.
In the distance, the echo of a woman's terrifying scream.
And this is how Argent and Kuznetsov wound up on a hunt together.
*continued in Heaven and Hell