*Part seven of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory.
*continued from Gray Matter
Sand succumbed to fire, morphing into a molten pool of tenderly-distilled magma, glowing in the relative darkness. A man's face, unevenly striped with soot and sweat, appeared from a shadow like a devil in the dark. An observer had nothing to fear, however, as the smith's intent was one of creation, of beauty. There was little evil in his thoughts and even less in his movements, nothing more than a desire to reflect upon reflection.
Saito Minoru was born when his father was 36. It was a late start to what wound up a fairly large family, and Minoru would eventually have three brothers and four sisters. His first sibling, another brother, was born two years later, almost to the day. Their birthdays were only five days apart. In spite of the common notion that a first-born maintains a type of separation from younger siblings, Minoru and his brother, Tomoya, grew up extremely close and remained such until Tomoya's death.
Somewhere near Venice - "Cousins?" Calvin is confused. He doesn't discount the possibility, but the odds of meeting in the manner they did make the concept extremely hard to believe. That a world war followed by an effective Armageddon could somehow lead to a random encounter in Central Europe was... disturbing. Somebody's got to be messing with them. There's just no other way it could be true.
Argent nods slowly. He doesn't seem to believe it himself, but Kuznetsov simply knows too much about Argent's ancestral past for it be a pure, or even calculated, coincidence. "Second cousins or some shit like that."
Calvin furrows his brow, still not sure what to make of the revelation. "You gotta be fucking kidding me."
"Doesn't matter." Argent shrugs. "I'm still gonna kill him."
He was not only a craftsman, but - by all interpretations - an artist. The viscosity of the silica was at its ideal, and the artist hastily filled the mold and prepared his hand-crafted press. His prowess in achieving perfectly flat surfaces was renown throughout Murano and Venice. Indeed, people had traveled from as far as Paris and London for the mere chance at watching him at work. There was no doubt the plate with be smooth and clear, worthy of a window in any monarch's palace.
Minoru married first, when he was 23. Everyone had thought that Tomoya would be the next to wed, but a sister and another brother beat him to it. Though Tomoya did marry young - at 24 years old - he had purposefully taken a little extra time to be sure of his choice of wife. Minoru's marriage was borne of duty and the shaky relationship the eldest brother would have with his wife was more than proof of that. Tomoya, however, married for love. Not only his, but his wife's. In an unusually modern gesture for the era, he also wanted to be sure that he was his lover's choice of husband.
Somewhere near Ravenna - Calvin quickens his pace and catches up with Juin, who over the past few weeks has not only become the group's leader, but also its point man. Juin recognizes the rhythm and tempo of Calvin's gait before he turns to look at the American.
"What is it?" Juin asks, somewhat nervous about Calvin's appearance. The mulatto was, in all likelihood, the most calm of all of them, and his worries were usually enough to unnerve the others.
"Argent. Something's up."
Juin laughs. He understands why Calvin is concerned - he's known Argent for a decade - but the statement is ridiculously obvious. Slightly embarrassed, the Frenchman apologizes, but Calvin takes no offense.
"Our friend is in love, Calvin. He's barely been farther than a meter from her since..." Juin hesitates, then decides not to finish the statement. "He'll be fine."
"He's going to kill Kuznetsov."
The two men glance at the Russian, still tied up and being led by Margerison and Elona. Though Kuznetsov is the subject of their observation, Juin grins at the the Brit. In one hand, Margerison holds Kuznetsov's tether. In his other, Elona's hand. Aware of the circumstances, Juin is nevertheless happy for his two friends. In front of the lovers, Argent walks shoulder-to-shoulder with Rossella in silence.
"He may have to get in line," Juin replies. "Get back on trail. We're letting our guard down."
The sheet of tin was carefully set on a stone table and secured in place. There was fearless confidence as the artist applied a tiny amount of mercury and rubbed it into the tin surface. He signaled his apprentice and the two lifted a larger pitcher of mercury and poured it onto the sheet. Eyeing the evenness of distribution, the artist nodded and they retrieved the plate of glass and gently lowered it. There was a sense of marvel - one that had never diminished - as the glass seemed to float on the viscous and poisonous metal, like lovers staring into lovers' eyes, but cursed never to touch.
When Minoru was 27 and Tomoya 25, both had their first child. A firstborn daughter each to first- and second-born sons. Born the same year, in the same city, and in the same month. Gathered family wondered and joked about how close these two girls would be - much like their fathers - but it was not, in fact, to be. Both Nobuko - Minoru's daughter - and Harue - Tomoya's - grew up academic and athletic. Their grandfather often commented that they seemed, at times, to be the same woman, but each were competitive beyond any reasonable circumstance. Perhaps, then, it was their similarities that drove the two cousins so far apart.
Somewhere near Perugia - A gentle rain started two days ago and hadn't let up. If anything, it is only getting stronger. The group is exhausted and, despite full bellies and a ready supply of clean water, their level of fatigue has led to lapses in judgment and in security, especially during their night watches.
It was during last night's watch that Argent fell asleep for a few minutes - moments, really - and awoke to the sight of a rope tied to a tree. He cursed loudly and scrambled to locate Kuznetsov's trail. Finding it, he yelled out "This way!" to the others and began following the Russian at a dead sprint. Argent failed to ensure the others had awakened and, worse, failed to notice that Elona's rifle was missing. They were mistakes that professional soldiers do not typically make on the battlefield. But then, soldiers are not typically beside the women of their dreams while at the front lines.
Rossella had been awake when Kuznetsov broke free from his ropes, but her mind - still so very distant from itself - convinced her that it was but a memory. That Kuznetsov approached her, ran hand through her hair and uttered, "Я сожалею," - I am sorry - only made it seem more vague.
The mirror had settled and its creator stared upon it with a gaze akin to that of a new father's. Its image was as clear as any man-made mirror had even been. The dedication and lust for perfection emanated from its reflections of captured light, and the artist could not help but to feel so powerless in its presence. That he created such a work of beauty was overwhelming to him, and he could not shake the thought that he was staring into an abyss in which a man's soul could disappear. His eyes froze as they looked into themselves. He would not remember picking up the hammer. Nor would he remember throwing it.
When he was found later amid shards of broken mirror, huddled in a corner with his arms around his knees, he would only say one thing: "Ho visto il futuro." I have seen the future... and it is frightening.
Yet another empire had faded into the annals of history and its crumbled walls had revealed new opportunity. Nobuko, already a prominent figure in the manufacturing industries, had tired of her culture's slow acceptance of women in the workplace and obtained a position with a firm located outside of Moscow, helping to oversee the creation of new business models with which Russians hoped to compete in the global economy. Once there, she was introduced to a member of the Russian National Hockey Team - one Sergei Kuznetsov - and the two quickly fell in love.
As one empire crumbled, its natural enemy enjoyed a temporary place at the pinnacle of the world. Harue, an honors student at university and almost a member of Japan's Olympic ski team, applied to and was accepted as a graduate student of geochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Upon graduation and subsequent enrollment in the school's PhD program, she had met an aspiring filmmaker named Kevin Argent.
Neither cousin attended the other's wedding.
Somewhere near Rome - Thunderstorms have been rolling in for days now, initially intermittent but slowly assuming an eerily regular schedule. Argent notices that the usual sound a bullet makes is quite a bit different when it's raining. The tone is louder, possibly, but the impact of the sound wave is much less. Or perhaps he's got it backwards, he can't really tell. Either way, he doesn't like it.
Ammunition is low and he is careful to only return fire when he sees multiple muzzle flashes from one location. Kuznetsov is not an infantryman, of this Argent is certain, but the Russian's technique of battlefield maneuvering is not incompetent. Still, as this battle between individuals moves closer to the ruins of Rome, Argent knows he has the upper hand. It occurs to him only subconsciously that Rome is, in fact, in ruins, and not wiped off of the face of the planet like every other large settlement he's traveled through, but his mind is in the fight. He'll have to worry about such phenomena at a later time.
What does register consciously is the sight of hundreds - maybe even thousands - of machines in the distance. There is hesitation as he realizes that they are war machines and not, as he's become accustomed to encountering, the so-called "green machines." Another zip of a bullet fired his direction prevents him from analyzing the situation further, but it remains a source of fear.
Opportunely, as Argent stares down the iron sights of his carbine, Kuznetsov fires another shot. The origin of the flash is mere millimeters from Argent's aim and the American adjusts and returns fire accordingly. There are multiple flashes from Kuznetsov's position and Argent is convinced that he's hit the Russian - his cousin.
Cautiously, Argent waits a few minutes, then proceeds to crawl through the ruins until he can safely approach Kuznetsov behind obstacles of approach. To his relief, he has hit the Russian, although likely only by fortuitous ricochet. Kuznetsov is gutshot, and in his already fatigued state - combined with a general lack of medical personnel - the wound will be fatal. Argent is surprised to see Marciszewki's device with him, though he quickly figures that he shouldn't be.
"I told you I'd kill you," Argent says, coldly. A sense of remorse sneaks up on him, but it isn't enough to dispel his sense of satisfaction.
"You did," Kuznetsov nods in response. He has little will to resist and, instead, just smiles. "Strange, isn't it?"
"What is?" Ever cautious of the situation, Argent maintains his aim at his cousin, all the while observing his surroundings for any probing machines.
"That we meet like this." Kuznetsov's smile subtly changes into a malicious grin.
Argent doesn't see the pistol. In his haste to give chase, not only had he failed to notice Elona's missing rifle, but was not able to notice Margerison's missing handgun. By the time his eye registers the movement and sends the signal to his brain, and just before his own trigger finger reacts, there is a loud crack. It is followed quickly by another.
The bodies of Argent and Kuznetsov are found by the others two days later, Argent lying dead on top of his cousin. Both men are buried and Juin says some words for each. Calvin attempts to tell of his friendship with Argent, but finds himself unable to speak. He falls to his knees and lets out screams of anguish and defiance. There is no consoling the mulatto, as tears and spit mix with rain into a puddle beneath him. Everyone cries - save Rossella - though no one really notices beneath the now-steady precipitation. As for Rossella, her only concern is that she's reunited with the device, safely tucked away with a bundle of blank letters.
Elona, her pragmatism emerging more by the day, makes note of this, and reminds the others that they still have a chance as long as they have the remote. Everything else is, at the moment, irrelevant.
As they continue on into Rome itself, Rossella turns to look at the sky - her first conscious act since her assault - and imagines the face of a man. Among the chaos of raincloud, the imagined visage of a great-grandfather, sobbing at the end of a legacy.
*continued in SPQR, Part I