Saturday, February 27, 2010

Irrewind, 20100227: Adult Fiction

*Yes, I know that this is not the 1st or 3rd Saturday of February, but because of the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory, I had to adjust my posting schedule... and I didn't want to let February go "Irrewind-free," so nyah.

I certainly didn't mean for this to happen, but it sorta did. Wait... you have no idea what I'm talking about, so let me back up.

Somewhere along the way I developed a reputation (a small one, but a reputation nonetheless) for writing "adult fiction." Some might call it erotica, I might call it porn, whatever, but you get the idea. Whatever it's called, it was an accident. In an attempt to learn how to write women (and characters in general) better, I went the way of sex. Primarily as an exercise, mind you, but also because I, well, like sex and am intrigued by the notion of being able to write it well (I'll get there one day!)... so why not?

Anyway, in recognition of this new, er, goal of mine, here you go:

"The Anniversary"
It was a cool Texas night. Autumn was fading into winter. But she did not know it. Had she thought of it, she might have had some poetic inkling concerning the weather or the changing of the seasons, but her mind was elsewhere. Hundreds of feet up in the air, protected by the shatterproof windows of her hotel room, the temperature and time of day were far away from the landscape of her mind... Read More

"Push"
There's both a shy and aggressive nervousness in fumbling around in the dark. Lips struggle to stay locked together as two bodies sway clumsily around the room, as if separation might signal the end to it all. A subtle scent of alcohol mixes with faded perfume and cologne and only adds to the vertigo. The edge of a bed strikes the back of knees in silk stockings, and the free fall begins... Read More

"A Kiss by Extension"
His hands move slowly, aware of her heightened sensitivities. Lips place themselves against lips, resistant at first, but gradually relaxing. There's a hint that he's tasting her, though she's not quite ready to return the sensation. A tongue rolls gently in circular motion, offering subdued exhilaration in its attempt to encourage. He wants more, but she's unsure... Read More

"Linger"
A foot falls, then another. Timed to the breathing of approaching surprise. Ambient sound creates shadows in which to safely exhale. The gentle beating of a ceiling fan whips the air, further inhibiting the long-obsolesced ability to feel movement. Her silhouette, perfectly curved in the dark, tunes itself to the music of this silent dance. A foot falls... then another... Read More

"Amid Hints of Sensation"
The stain on the dress is not hers. Hidden amid the black and white polka dots, Natalie can only imagine what her roommate might say - or worse, ask - were it more obvious. She bundles it to further hide the spot, hoping to prevent any possible revelation to any possible visitor, blithely unaware that her confused but all too revealing smile is cause enough to elicit questioning. Feeling the grin, Natalie raises the dress to cover her face, unsure if... Read More

There's also that rather (as one reader put it) intense sex scene in The Storms of Dust, but I'll let you find that one on your own. However, as a bonus, here is the original version of the poem "Arson" that went up this past Tuesday:

"Arson" (original)

flick, switch
match strike
a burst of flame
quenches
a lustful thirst
her room is afire
beneath his friction
and though she drips wet
it is not water
she comes to him
and he in her
as lovers burn
to the ground

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On a Sea of Oatmeal

Captain Tenebrio Molitor made his way across the deck, double-checking the efforts of his crew. They were a novice crew and knew little of the affairs of the sea. Despite this, their Admiralty had made its inexplicable decision and the crew was promptly dumped onto the ship, Endeavor.

The Captain approaches his Executive Officer, expecting the news of the day. "How goes it?" Molitor asks.

The XO laughs. "They learn quick. Blocks and tackles are being blocked and tackled, the sails are set, the lines are taught and slack as needed. Everything is working as it should, Captain."

Molitor frowns. He knows the XO is hiding something. "What is it? Be honest. I am no tyrant."

"Well, sir, we seem to be going nowhere."

A laugh. Molitor nods in acknowledgment and peers over the side of the ship to the sea below. "Yes, well, the waters are unusually calm." The Captain continues his examination up to the sails. "And the winds seem to be still. Are we in doldrums?"

"It's possible, sir. The weather is strange here, and the sky..." There is fear in the XO's voice.

"What?"

The XO shakes his head. Perhaps it is nothing. "The sky is filled with strange things."

Almost in confirmation of the XO's concerns, a peculiarity occurs. In the clear glass sky, something blocks out the light. A giant shape eclipses the heavens beyond and, eerily, two large eyes appear out of nowhere.

***

"What the Hell?" Jonathan's temper isn't usually a problem, but what he stares at sends a rush of anger through his bones. As if in disbelief, he turns to check a bowl behind him. A bowl that usually has dozens of his son's pet mealworms, living in relative bliss as they burrow, sleep, and feed upon their bed of oatmeal. A bowl that is currently empty.

Jonathan blinks, and turns back to his beloved ship-in-a-bottle, now crawling with those same mealworms, seemingly afloat on a sea of Quaker Oats.

"Kevin!" he screams. "Get your butt up here, now!"

***

Tenebrio Molitor looks to his Executive Officer. "I guess our voyage is over."

His XO smiles, then glances at the cork snugly placed in the mouth of their bottled world. "Good thing, too. We probably don't have a lot of oxygen left."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

San Diego Chargers: Long Live LDT

Well, the expected has happened: LaDainian Tomlinson, the face of the San Diego Chargers for most of the past 9 years, has been released due to a cost-cutting move (there is, currently, no salary cap for the 2010 season, so that's not the excuse). Do I like the decision? Of course not. Do I agree with it? Part of me does, but part of me doesn't. Sure, he had an off-year, but athletes are allowed those (aren't they?). That this is the third year in a row he's shown a decline and that he is over 30 years old is what sealed his fate, but I call bullshit.

Whatever... there's a small chance he'll resign with the Chargers, but I'm not holding my breath. So until something miraculous happens, I'm just going to assume that what's done is done, and I wish LDT the best in the remainder of his career. I can think of other Chargers let go because of cost-benefit analyses who wound up being effective players for YEARS after their release (Junior Seau, Leslie O'Neal, Drew Brees, Ben Leber), but in typical A.J. Smith fashion, such phenomena are ignored.

Anyway, there's now talk that the Chargers will trade Antonio Cromartie for a proven, veteran running back to fill LDT's shoes. That is the most likely scenario, followed closely by A.J. Smith's love for building through the draft. Outside of these two options, Chargers fans are (so far) relegated to pipe dreams.

However... there's a third option that I've been mulling since before the Chargers season so painfully ended against the New York Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs: acquiring a new backup (via whatever method) and reshuffling their existing roster.

Given that LDT is gone, the Chargers are left with Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett at halfback and Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert at fullback. Sproles is not an every down back (and might not be retained, anyway) and Bennett is likely to follow Tomlinson into "old man" territory and be released in the next couple of years (if not this one). Which leaves Hester and Tolbert.

Think about it. Hester is not a true fullback, and if one were to compare Hester to the other Charger running backs from the 2009 season, his closest comparison is... oh, snap... LaDainian Tomlinson. Tolbert IS a true fullback (a good blocker, a good runner, and a good receiver), and is a much better fit for offensive setups that require a bona fide fullback. Both runners place high on A.J. Smith and Norv Turner's list, and it's not inconceivable to me to see a HB/FB combo of Hester and Tolbert filling the San Diego backfield for a long time to come.

Is it likely? No, but I'm still surprised that no Chargers beat writer has presented the possibility.

We shall see, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Arson

flick, switch
match strike
bursts of flame
quench
lustful thirsts
her room afire
beneath his passion
though wet
not water
lovers burn
to the ground

Monday, February 22, 2010

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Holy cow. The River of Mnemonsyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory is over, and I'll be honest: I'm exhausted. Voting is underway amid some fierce competition and I can't wait until the entire process is over.

It's nice to get back to a much less demanding schedule. Mondays and Wednesdays, for the past couple of weeks usurped by the challenge, are now back in the domain of ranting about things that I feel like ranting about (regarding matters of which you likely care not).

Kind of a pity, really, that I can't think of anything to say. My brain is still trying to dump the story I spent so much time on. Ah, well... I'll normalize in a few days, I'm sure.

Random Musings

In addition to Theme Thursday, I've begun participating in another writing group called Magpie Tales. It's a similar group, but uses an image as a prompt, rather than a word. My only hesitation with the group is that the entries are due on Tuesdays, which (if you take a look at my intended posting schedule) pretty much preempts all of my work to one of the two groups. Where am I going with this? Well, in all likelihood, while I will most certainly participate in both, it's probably not going to be on a weekly basis anymore. After all, there's still the normal bi-weekly The Tenth Daughter of Memory to worry about.

I need to travel. Overseas. I haven't for a while and I can feel it. I'm a bit of a wanderer and I don't like staying in one place for too long. I've received invites to Croatia and Morocco. Anybody else feel like offering a couch?

Been enjoying Chuck on NBC and picked up Burn Notice on USA. Love 'em. Also caught Human Target on Fox, and while I'm a huge fan of the comic books, I'm so far unimpressed with the television version. Lost, however, seems to be recapturing some of its old magic.

I find it hilarious that, due to the dominance of the Canadian and American teams, Women's Hockey might cease to be an Olympic sport.

Speaking of the Olympics... anybody else enjoying their fade into irrelevance? Maybe I'll expand on this at another time, but maybe I won't. I think they need to go back to holding the entire Olympics every 4 years, rather than the 2-year rotation between Summer and Winter.

Eh... that's enough from me for today.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Undiscovered Countries

*Part nine of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory.

*continued from SPQR, Part III

We have seen better days. Juin takes a mere instant to register the deaths of Margerison and Elona. Their bodies, motionless and partially crushed, lie in the distance mere feet from each other. Shutting off what he can of his mind, he tries to determine if he had, in fact, seen the remote fall to the ground. If so, he hopes Calvin - who is near the bodies - will find it and see if it's functional. A device created to stop devices that were created to destroy. It is the never-ending story - so far, at least - of human history. Ambition and a thirst for knowledge leading to weapons of ever-increasing destruction. War gave birth to weapons capable of destroying empire and then birth to weapons capable of destroying worlds. Now, war gives birth to weapons that can destroy history itself. The common curse of mankind - folly and ignorance. The Frenchman says a silent prayer, crossing himself, and moves to another firing positing.

Juin feels the ground beneath him shaking. He knows that Italy has its share of earthquakes, but for the life of him he can't recall ever hearing about one in Rome. His feet reverberate in his boots and it becomes clear that he stands very near the epicenter of whatever is happening.

He did not expect to be witness to a machine - a Pluto, he believes - erupt from the earth of Palatine Hill. And he certainly did not expect to catch a glimpse of Rossella behind its controls. Her expression blank, though determined, as if of one purpose. Cry, "Havoc!" And let slip the dogs of war.

***

Rossella is lost in the machine. Though unfamiliar with the controls, they are intuitive to her and easily learned. How others found such controls difficult escapes her thoughts. The Pluto moves clumsily at first, but with every step of its mechanical legs and every volley of its munitions there is an increase in fluidity and accuracy. She thinks of nothing but attacking the first machine she identifies. Though this be madness, there is method in it.

The downed Titan is damaged from its impact, but Vulcan-tenders quickly arrive at its location and begin hasty repairs. Rossella feels the press of a button. She is machine. A character in a film. All the world 's a stage, and here and now, she is humanity's greatest actor.

***

Calvin watches from up close and personal as the Titan explodes beneath a fury of mortar fire. He is again sent flying from the shock wave and as he recovers, he spies the machine that fired it.

"Holy shit," he grunts, reeling from the concussion. As the Pluto approaches he can clearly make out Rossella's form in the cockpit. Initial reaction is to scold her and tell her to get out of that thing, but he contains himself. She is doing quite well, upon objective observation... certainly better than anyone else had done. For the first time in this battle, Calvin allows himself to hope. O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.

***

The sheer power of the Pluto overwhelms her and she relishes it. It liberates and frees and enables her all at once and, unlike her rifle marksmanship, she rapidly develops an uncanny accuracy with howitzer and rocket. Machine after machine, one at a time - for she is deliberate and singular in her approach - falls beneath her firepower. She makes quick work of the remaining Jupiters, allowing herself enough human deduction to approach the behemoths while they are distracted with exposing the laboratory. The smaller machines seem to fall easily, and there is no question that she controls the battlefield. Why, then the world's mine oyster.

***

Juin cannot believe his eyes. As a soldier, he always errs on the side of caution. The better part of valor is discretion. And, yet, here was Rossella essentially berserking her way through the enemy ranks. A thoughtless and suicidal tactic... but it is working. There is reckless abandon in the movements of the Pluto, though they are quick, accurate, and effective. When one machine goes down, there is no hesitation to attack the next, regardless of positioning or maneuvering requirements. Delays have dangerous ends.

***

Were anyone to see Rossella smile, they'd have thought her mad. Despite taking damage from the perfect aim of her opponents, she continues to plow through them. The constant impacts only encourage her and she feels the sensation of an emotion very near to lust. Her conscious mind pleased that she is doing to the machines what they have done to humanity. An eye for an eye. The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief. As the other human-controlled machines take position on her flanks, a day that began as the twilight of mankind now ends at a new dawn. It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

***

An endless chorus of cheers greets Rossella as she climbs down from the cockpit of the Pluto. Exhausted and out of breath, her mind continues to process everything that just happened. Salafia yells at her, "Lei è matta!" You are crazy.

She looks for Calvin and Juin, but does not see them, for they are tending to the bodies of their fallen friends.

"She was impressive, no?" Juin says as he approaches the American. He tries to avert his eyes from the bodies of Margerison and Elona, not quite ready to come to terms with their deaths.

Calvin holds what's left of the remote and laughs weakly. His eyes betray recently shed tears, but they are quickly drying from the revelation that he will live to fight another day. He shows the Frenchman the device. Juin doesn't know what he should see.

"What?"

Calvin motions for Juin to take it. Juin inspects it, sees blinking lights and hears the buzz of its power supply. He is still unsure of what he's looking for and gives Calvin a questioning expression.

"It's on."

Juin laughs. Though the implication is clear, it does not devalue Rossella's accomplishments in his mind. Nor, does it, in Calvin's. A woman who yesterday was trapped within herself had awakened violently and helped obtain a victory in a battle that all thought lost.

"Should we tell her?" the mulatto asks.

"No. We need a hero."

***

In the laboratory, preparations begin to take everything apart for relocation. Kopeikin, Dunsworth, and Salafia direct teams of workers in the disassembly of everything they think they'll need.

Juin, Calvin, and Rossella huddle together and - for what is likely the first time - do nothing but revel in each other's company. The gathering is not without sadness, however, and the three reflect on their fallen friends. Argent, a brash American soldier, Calvin's best friend, who murdered and was murdered by his own cousin, lies in a grave somewhere north of Rome. Margerison, a former British police detective, buried with his lover Elona - an accomplished dancer - beneath the remains of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Fortunate friends in an unfortunate time, whose names - if Rossella has her way - will never be forgotten in this new era of human history.

"What are we gonna do now?" Calvin, bringing his friends back to the reality of the situation, knows there is much work to be done.

Juin shrugs, wanting to keep living this moment, and it is Rossella who answers. "Look for other survivors and kill any machine we see." Her smile is of a woman reborn. Regrets shed and eyes only to the future.

As if capturing a memory never had, Rossella calls out to Salafia as he walks by.

"Is there paint here?"

"A little. Why?"

***

It is a long procession of humans, protected by a single, human-controlled machine. Though weary, the travelers are not afraid, for their guardian is among them. As the Pluto eclipses the setting sun, Juin and Calvin can't help but laugh. On the side of the machine, painted in large silvered letters: ARGENT. And on its windshield, a single piece of paper taped to it, with nothing on it save a greeting and a farewell.

The Earth rests as its children fade into the horizon, on their way to a new home. A place in which to begin the task of retaking their home world... the undiscovered country.

THE END

Saturday, February 20, 2010

SPQR, Part III

*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.

"I can't."

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

Friday, February 19, 2010

SPQR, Part II

*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.

A sob.

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.

"Where's Argent?"

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."

"What?"

"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

Thursday, February 18, 2010

SPQR, Part I

*The first section of part eight 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 Upon Reflections

It is a strange thing to take comfort in the fact that Rome is in ruins. Though most of the vaunted city is demolished and hidden beneath rubble, that it has not - like Trieste - been erased from existence lights glimmers of hope in each member of the group.

Juin maintains his place as the point man, while Calvin has joined Rossella in silence, leaving Margerison and Elona to theorize with each other what is happening in the capital of one of the most famous empires of history.

They walked through several lines of war machines and were completely ignored. Initially, Margerison and Elona thought that Rossella might have been actively engaging Marciszewski's remote, but the Italian was walking with her head down and seemed oblivious to her environment - not that any of them knew how to use it, anyway. Margerison estimated that there were thousands of machines surrounding the city, each with their weapons pointed towards Rome's center. Though there is a nagging feeling that they are coming to the end of their journey, such a sight only produces more questions while providing no answers.

As the group approaches the historical fulcrum of the city, the Seven Hills of Rome, Juin gives the hand signal to freeze. Rossella misses the signal and Elona grabs her as she aimlessly wanders by. Juin gestures as if he hears something, though how he can hear anything in such a powerful thunderstorm is beyond Elona. Suddenly, Juin goes prone, prompting the others to follow suit. Again, Elona is forced to pull on Rossella.

Movement surrounds the group, and each person - save Rossella - readies their firearms.

"Halt!" There is heavy Italian accent to the command. "Drop your weapons, raise your hands, and identify!"

***

In a scene reminiscent of the group's encounter with the Russian soldiers - though this, far more friendly - Margerison, Elona, Juin, Calvin, and Rossella sit in a concentric circle among rubble just north of Viminal Hill and east of Quirinal Hill. They are joined by a squad of nine strangers, with two more standing guard some distance away, though well within earshot. It is clear to the group that not all of the eleven are trained soldiers - if any - and are a hastily compiled patrol. Unlike their previous encounters, there is no attempt to shield Elona and Rossella, as this new group contains women of their own.

Salafia, the apparent squad leader, is so far the only one to speak, though it appears the others remain quiet out of fear of being heard by the machines rather than from any order Salafia may have issued. The conversation proceeds in whispers.

"You made it all the way from Germany? On foot?" There is genuine surprise in Salafia's question.

Juin nods. "Three of us fought in the Fulda engagement. We picked the two women up in Austria when we were in a larger group."

"There are other survivors?" Salafia's disbelief is both satisfying and utterly terrifying.

"Perhaps. There were."

Shaking his head, Salafia digests the information. Suddenly, looking back at Juin as if remembering an important question, he asks, "How did you get through the machines?"

Juin shrugs, prompting Elona to answer. "They ignored us."

Salafia shakes his head again and palms his face. "This is no good. No good."

"Why?" asks the Frenchman.

"These gathering machines are not here for us, but for the laboratory. We've known that they've been looking for it."

"And," Margerison interrupts, "it appears they've found it."

There is a loud airborne shriek followed by several explosions. Everyone reacts by hitting the dirt. In the distance, the sounds of bells tolling. Rossella vaguely recalls the tone of the bell of San Giorgio in Velabro. A beautiful tone from a beautiful bell. She has no idea why she thought of that.

"What's going on?" Juin asks as he crawls to a higher position.

"We must get underground," Salafia begins to explain. "The bells are air raid sirens. The machines are attacking."

***

In their sprint toward an underground tunnel near Palantine Hill, Margerison spots some of the feared Jupiter-tanks, wheeled and legged monstrosities blistering with weapons pods and layered with thick armor. Before they enter the tunnel, he looks back and sees something that is almost an alien concept to him: there are machines fighting machines. Combined with the tolling of the bells, the scene is almost Biblical, even to an atheist.

"Fucking Hell," he says, to the confusion of everyone else.

***

Once in the tunnels the group stops to catch their breath and Salafia orders a handful of his people to cover the tunnel's opening. It is an elaborate setup and Juin quickly determines that while some of the coverings are simply camouflage, others are designed to stop airflow and prevent heat signatures. The observation makes him smile. There are engineers here. These must be Marciszewski's people.

Salafia takes his time inspecting the coverings, for it is a task in which rests the survival of humanity. He and some of the others make constant minor adjustments until he's finally satisfied. When he is, he turns to Rossella and asks her something in Italian. She does not respond. Not wanting to press the matter, Salafia approaches Juin.

"How did Rossella Ferilli come to be in your group? In Austria?"

Juin is taken aback, though he conceals his reaction. "You know her?"

Salafia nods. "Yes. She is an actress."

***

The "laboratory" is an elaborate construct. Built into hastily dug tunnels, it exists in a system of labyrinthine nooks and crannies, with living quarters, primitive bathing and sanitation facilities, food and water stores, and actual scientific and engineering research and development labs placed wherever its inhabitants could most conveniently place them. Primarily underneath the Capitoline and Palatine Hills - the Roman Forum is directly overhead - it is an engineering marvel befitting those of the ancients. By modern standards, though still impressive, it is little more than a rat maze. But it is functional, survivable, and - so far - safe.

Salafia leads the group to a large chamber, bored out with pick axe, shovel, and the sweat of those desperate to live. Here, Juin can feel the reverberation of the dozens of bells that continue to toll from remnants of basilicas, cathedrals, and churches above. The effect makes the chamber seem like a massive grave, patiently waiting for its occupants to die.

"Kopeikin," Salafia calls out, catching the attention of an elderly Russian man, bespectacled and wearing a dirty lab coat.

The members of the original group hesitate at the sound of a Russian name, but there are hundreds of armed people here and any attempt to fight their way out of the laboratory would end in defeat. Not that they could find their back to the tunnel entrance, anyway.

The scientist responds in Russian and Salafia communicates with him in that language. Kopeikin scolds Salafia and the Italian nods in deference.

"What's going on?" Margerison asks Elona.

"I don't know. I cannot hear them." She looks at her lover apologetically and he returns the look with a smile and a squeeze of her hand. The two of them watch as Salafia returns to them, waving at other guards. Before anyone can react, a half-dozen mismatched weapons are pointed at the heads of the five friends.

"I am sorry," Salafia says, "but this must be done."

***

Rossella is beginning to show more signs of life, though Elona worries that the strip-search may have lingering effects on the Italian. Indeed, when it was Rossella's turn, the others could hear her screaming and crying out for help. At one point, Calvin thought he heard her cry out for Argent, but Elona figures that the American is still experiencing overwhelming grief from having lost his close friend.

After the five are finished being searched, Salafia apologizes profusely and brings them all fresh clothing. He asks Rossella where she got the device she was hiding. Again, she does not respond, so he asks Juin.

"From a Polish scientist. Marciszewski."

Salafia nods and turns to leave. He hesitates, then turns back. "One thing further. What are the blank letters for?"

Juin gestures to Rossella. "Her. She wants them."

Sensing the Frenchman's irritation, Salafia halts his inquiry and turns again.

"May I have them?" Rossella's voice shocks her friends. Salafia smiles at her and motions to a guard, who brings the letters.

"Sono spiacente, signorina Ferilli," the guard says as he returns them to her. I am sorry.

***

The five are brought back to Kopeikin, who is ostensibly in charge. Through Salafia, he apologizes again for the search. As he continues to speak with Salafia translating, Juin interrupts.

"We have our own translator, merci," he says, indicating Elona.

Salafia shrugs and Kopeikin almost angrily gives him an order. "Найдите Dunsworth."

The group looks to Elona, who explains, "He wants him to find someone."

*continued in SPQR, Part II

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Upon Reflections

*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

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gray Matter

*Part six 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 Magpie Tales event).

*continued from Heaven and Hell

An American, a Frenchman, and a Brit tie a Russian to a tree. Only this is not a joke.

The American, Argent, sees nothing but a man who should be killed. A few days ago, Kuznetsov twice pointed a gun at Argent's head. Kuznetsov also failed to punish one of his men for raping Rossella. The fact that Juin killed the rapist does not figure into Argent's calculations. The Russian will die. It's only a matter of when.

"When this is over," Argent starts, almost whispering, "I'm going to kill you."

Juin gives Argent a sharp and scolding look, and the silent command is understood. Argent feigns defiance for a moment, then leaves the scene, off to find and comfort Rossella as well as he can... and as much as she'll let him. Juin can't blame Argent for how the younger American feels. Regardless of the heinous act, everyone knows that Argent fell for the Italian almost at first sight, and has since felt protective of her. He is hopelessly smitten. That she has yet to return any such inclination is beside the point.

As Margerison double-checks the knots holding Kuznetsov, the Frenchman finds himself unable to take his mind off of the tree. It is a black poplar, common in this part of Europe, and though it stands nearly 60 feet tall, Juin gets the impression that this particular tree has been in this particular spot for only a few days. Perhaps the impression is a result of Elona's story, but he can't shake the feeling that her story is irrelevant. He is standing in rebirth and he can feel it. It is a strange and wondrous notion, stained only by the fact that they are about to interrogate - and possibly torture - a man who is possibly one of the last humans alive on the planet.

"What are you going to do?" Kuznetsov asks, his voice devoid of fear. "Hit me?"

Margerison smiles a smile borne of reflex and absent of humor. "Just going to ask you a few questions."

Kuznetsov, again without emotion, responds, "And I need to be tied to a tree for this?"

The Brit shrugs and finishes with the knots. He walks in front of the Russian and sits cross-legged on the grass, appearing as comfortable as a man on a picnic. "It's your fault you lied about who you really are; not ours. You going to cooperate?"

The Russian smirks. "Maybe."

"Don't be an idiot, mate. There's an angry American over there who's waiting to beat the shit out of you. And we both know what happens when angry Americans start intervening in things."

"Is this the famous 'good cop, bad cop' routine from your movies?"

Margerison spits, an ignominious act meant to reflect the Russian's attitude. The Brit has endless patience, but he needs to convince Kuznetsov that he most certainly does not. "I'm the only copper here. And you're going to tell me what we need to know, or I'm going to let that American kill you."

***

"When it comes to interrogation, candidates, the brain is malleable. A proper interrogation makes the subject learn. Or, at least, think he's learning."

Margerison remembers the words of his instructor. There is no more effective means of gathering evidence than having subjects tell on themselves. Confessions are the ultimate prize, of course, but there is danger in acquiring one too quickly. Too many criminals watch too many movies and think that sending police on wild fox hunts is a charming thing to do.

"Brainwashing, then?" Margerison asked. The instructor squinted his eyes and shook his head, deceptively surprised that someone had bothered to attempt an analogy. Margerison was on the right track, but no, interrogation was not brainwashing.

"Not exactly, Detective Sergeant. There are some similarities, but we are not brainwashing. This isn't convincing a three-year old child that God or Santa Claus are real."

There was nervous laughter at the instructor's joke, most of the students unwilling to equate their beliefs to any sort of brainwashing, but Margerison understood completely.

"That stated, as in brainwashing, it is the malleable nature of the human mind that allows interrogation techniques to work. The brain is nothing but gray matter. Pewter. Capable of being shaped and formed into something useful to hands willing to work it."

It was then that Margerison's imagination began to swirl in earnest. In his mind, a hollow pewter sphere filled with water. The water, information he needed; the pewter, his subject. Form a spout, and the water can be poured right out.

That Detective Sergeant Margerison graduated at the top of his class was no accident. It was also no accident that Margerison wound up in the most feared interrogation unit in the British Army.

***

Argent sits on a rocky hillside, overlooking the fresh landscape that was once Trieste. On any other day, he'd have been captivated by the beauty. Today, however, he just stares at Rossella, who cries in the arms of Elona roughly 40-feet below. He doesn't even hear Calvin approach.

The two Americans have known each other for several years, from boot camp to infantry school; airborne school to reassignments. In their ten years in the Army, the longest they've been apart has been a mere seven months. Despite entirely different upbringings - Calvin from an upper-middle class family and a perpetual honors student; Argent from the lower-middle class and lucky to have graduated - the two became fast friends. They share conniving, calculating natures, and their fellow soldiers often joked that the two were the men behind the curtain, despite their relatively low ranks. Over the years, their sense of privacy no longer applied to each other, and they were closer than most brothers.

"You hearing this shit?" Calvin asks, purposefully sidestepping what he knows is Argent's primary concern. "Yardy's got that dude singing like a bird."

Argent blinks, momentarily returning to reality. "A yardbird," he utters, his quick wit practically an involuntary response.

"Page and Plant, baby."

"A zeppelin made of lead."

There is quiet laughter. Calvin sighs relief, knowing that his friend is okay. The two men continue to sit in silence, one staring at the rolling waves of the Adriatic. The other... secretly longing for the love of an Italian woman who currently has no reason for any emotion other than hate.

***

The party can't believe what they're hearing as Margerison proceeds to retell everything Kuznetsov told him. The Russian remains tied to the tree and is soundly asleep. Interrogation is an exhausting process, after all, for both the subject and the interrogator. Indeed, the Brit appears more tired than the others can remember him, particularly Elona.

Margerison explains that Marciszewski was one of the original scientists involved with the project, compensated greatly by the Russian government to create what Kuznetsov calls the Imagination Machine. Once the Pole realized that the Russians wanted the machine for weapons design - perhaps Marciszewski was a bit naive - he formulated the plan to spread the technology to the other world powers in the hopes that, like the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, nations would be hesitant to use such weapons against each other.

Something, however, went wrong. What exactly, even Kuznetsov doesn't know, but the end result was a proliferation of machines that set about the world with their singular purposes, whatever those purposes may have been. Clearly, most of the machines were tasked with killing humans.

For the next part of the tale, Margerison seems to brighten. In addition to smuggling the technology out of Russia, Marciszewski tasked a small group of scientists to prepare a hidden laboratory whose sole purpose was to design and test devices that could override and deactivate the machines. The remote Rossella hides closely to her body, underneath her clothing, is one of the first of such devices. There is general hope that there are more.

"Where is this laboratory?" Juin asks, impatient to get going. He prays that it is not overseas somewhere.

Margerison shrugs. "Only Marciszewski knew," An overwhelming deflation sweeps across the group, "but Kuznetsov seems to think it's in Rome."

Juin shoulders his sniper rifle. "Then what are we waiting for?"

Margerison and the others stand, and the Brit nods. "I agree, but there's a problem."

The question comes in the form of anticipating stares.

"Someone, it seems, designed some machines specifically to find this lab." The Brit's words seem innocuous enough, but as they sink in their implication becomes terrifying. Even in the brightest sunlight they can remember, there is a sensation of skies going dark.

"Mon Dieu," whispers the Frenchman, crossing himself.

"God's got nothing to do with this," Margerison exclaims.

Juin glares at the Brit. Now is not the time for theological discourse. "My God does."

To the others, mostly agnostics, the concepts are just more shades of gray in a world where blacks and whites no longer exist.

"How about we begin moving?" Elona interjects, not wanting to waste any more time. To her, time is the one resource they seem to have ample amounts of, but never enough time to use. She almost laughs at the thought, correspondingly confusing and profound. But she will save the pop culture philosophizing for later, when being alive matters less. "We can reach Rome in two weeks."

"What about him?" Calvin asks of Kuznetsov.

"Bring him," Elona replies. "He may be useful."

Behind Calvin, Argent embraces Rossella - more for his comfort than hers - whispering encouragement into her ear. Though outwardly calm and deliberate, his eyes betray a different state. Elona notices the young man's internal malice and knows there is nothing to be done. They can't leave Kuznetsov and they won't leave Argent. It is only a matter of time before the calm gives way to storm.

Elona hopes that they can survive the weather.

*continued in Upon Reflections

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dear Cupid... You're a Prick

Dear Cupid,

I usually only write one letter to an imaginary figure per year, but since Santa Claus has already proven that he is illiterate and, thus, incapable of writing back, I figured I'd write a letter to you. In short, I'd like to state that your aim clearly sucks and that you need to go back to Artemis, Pan, Robin Hood, Rambo Jesus, or whomever the Hell you took archery lessons from, because I sat at home by myself for Valentine's Day. I got nothing. Just a few texts from some girls who I know who were kind enough to wish me a Happy Valentine's Day. Sure, I appreciate their sentiment, but let's face it: they were rubbing it in. While they were off being swept off their feet by some dude who was only interested in a holiday screw, I was screwed by being relegated to watching the women's USA hockey team kick the crap out of China in a Winter Olympics that I am otherwise uninterested in.

Perhaps you're too busy fluttering around on those far-too-retardedly-small wings of yours to be bothered to take a proper aim and make a proper release. I don't know. All I know is that you suck. The only chocolate I had was some dried out M&Ms from the bottom of a cookie jar, and the only flowers I saw were dead because someone up there in your fake-ass pantheon decided to make it snow in the American Southeast and kill all the flora.

Did Saint Valentine and Saint Patrick switch days this year? Because pretty much everyone I know was rather drunk... you guys saving the one-night stands for March or what? How about some fucking lucky charms, asshole?

If I ever see you floating about, rest assured I'm gonna take a shot at you. And I ain't gonna miss. I hope your Hallmark royalties run out and you die a slow painful death from starvation. Prick.

Sincerely,
JeffScape

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Heaven and Hell

*Part five of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory.

*WARNING: mature content

*continued from A Tautology, Part II

Evening, Today: There are loud noises echoing from over the ridge and their origin is unmistakably machine. They are so loud and so many that Margerison and Elona have been crawling for the last mile. Both can smell the ocean, and the city on the other side of the ridge can be no other than Trieste. There is excitement between the two, but also fear. Though unsaid, the former British police detective and the former Russian dancer miss their friends greatly. It has been almost two days since they left the others during the incident with the scout machines, and they've no idea any are even alive. They miss the conversation, the debate, the company, and - perhaps most of all - the safety in numbers. A group large enough for companionship, but not so large as to preclude survival.

Margerison briefly considered turning around when they first heard the sounds, but Elona pragmatically reminded him that there would be no escape for them either way. One group of machines or another... neither encounter offering much chance of survival. And, besides, she wanted to see the sea at least one last time. What a tease to be able to smell it, but never again see the crashing blue and white upon sand and rock.

And this, they do see. It is a wonderful sight. It is what else they see that almost sends them into a panic.

***

Morning, Yesterday: Vorobyov tried to contain himself. He was raised with a healthy respect for women, but the situation was dire. He knew he saw the Pole give the device to the Italian woman. He knew it. There was no question in his mind. Why wouldn't she just give it to him? She probably didn't even know what it was.

"Box," he said again. Each repetition of the word sounded more angry than the previous, egged on by her repeated attempts at claiming ignorance. He knew that he was going to have to physically search her, but what little was left of his humanity was, as of yet, preventing that.

"Box!" The back of Rossella's head was bleeding, but the defiant terror in her eyes had gone nowhere.

***

"They're ignoring us," Margerison says. "All of them."

"Are you certain?" asks Elona, but even she already noticed that most of the machines barely even pause to acknowledge the human presence.

In a rare - and potentially stupid - moment of overconfidence, Margerison stands and begins jumping and waving, screaming at the top of his lungs. There is no reaction. Satisfied, Margerison turns and smiles at Elona. "See?"

She pushes herself off the ground and stands beside him, returning his smile. "You are an idiot."

They stand there, taking in the sight of what was once Trieste. Though what they see clearly eliminates any chance of rescue from the once sprawling Adriatic port, it is overwhelmingly beautiful, and the two cannot help but admire it.

Thousands upon thousands of machines make their way through Trieste, some destroying buildings and landmarks, while others collect and disintegrate the rubble. Still others appear to plant trees and grass, rebuilding the area in its youthful image, before human civilization settled the area nearly 5000 years ago. The famous port now absent, replaced by pristine beaches with no evidence of gathered vessels.

And among them all, there are no Mercury-scouts, no clumsy Mars-walkers, no sleek and graceful Minerva and Diana-hunters, and no nearly-indestructible Jupiter-tanks. Just machines created to clean up humanity's messes, and not humans themselves.

"Single-minded of purpose," Margerison utters, remembering the story the Pole told to them days before.

It is a haunting thing to witness. Though the graves of 200,000 are no doubt somewhere nearby, the renewed landscape fails to lend itself to the memory of genocide. Memory's murder observed firsthand. And the only thoughts Margerison and Elona can comprehend are the realizations that they are alone... truly alone... for the first time.

In context, the kiss that follows may seem a cold, callous act. Intimately, in the moment shared only by two people falling to the ground, it reminds them that they are alive. And in love.

***

There were mechanical whines in the distance, and Vorobyov wasn't sure what they were. Not that it mattered. He did not like being out in the open, but this woman was making things far more difficult than they should have been. It was taking too long, and he decided to end it.

Vorobyov grabbed Rossella and shook her, repeating his screams of box. Her attire was geared for winter, and while he consciously hoped that the device would simply fall out of her clothing, he secretly desired... something else.

What began as frisking had suddenly become groping. And what had begun as an act of cognitive thought had devolved into feral instinct.

***

Their bodies are dirty, but neither cares. The bunker in Ljubljana had afforded them their last experience with bathing, and to Margerison and Elona, the scent of the other only seems to further awaken subdued carnal desires. The lunar cycle is at its fullest, and the silhouette of her upper body reflects and refracts tiny pieces of broken moonlight through otherwise imperceptible beads of sweat. The effect is hypnotic, and his body continues to stiffen. A subconscious reaction within her stirs muscles long out of practice and there is a quiet internal embrace. Gasps crescendo into a song that quickens the heartbeat of the man beneath. He feels her once-trapped fluids free themselves and escape across the landscape of skin so rarely exposed.

***

Realizing that more than her life was at stake, Rossella tried to crawl away. The back of her head hurt and she was unaware that it was bleeding. In retrospect, that ignorance was a mixed blessing, lest she have fainted from the knowledge. She managed to kick Vorobyov away when she felt his hands fumbling for her belt. Still, in the sheer violence of that moment, he had torn part of her waistline, exposing the pale skin of her buttocks.

Vorobyov's mind had shut off, his concern no longer with the device nor even the possibility of approaching machines. He was angry. Angry at Rossella for lying to him. Angry at the world for being destroyed. Angry at himself for being unable to control a woman. Without any thought, he dropped his pants below his knees and threw himself on the Italian. She cried out. It was a cry full of more anguish and despair than Vorobyov had ever heard. But it was not enough to make him stop.

***

Elona moans and it carries into the distance. Margerison listens in futility for its echo as Elona repeats her moans, louder and louder. He smiles at his lack of control and revels in it. Elona shifts her body in what seems every direction as she rides his hips. There is no question as to whom has taken the lead. She grabs his left hand and softly spits on it, cleaning his fingers with her own. Confused at first, all is quickly revealed as she guides his hand to her clitoris, forcing his fingers into a gentle circular motion until he begins to recreate the motion on his own. He has already come, evidenced by the pooling of ejaculate between their bodies, but the stimulation of his psyche is so complete, he has no intention of letting his lover come down... she desires him inside of her and deserves her pleasure. Right here, right now, in the midst of apocalypse, he lives only to serve the Russian woman, feeling her way towards ecstasy above him.

***

"No," Rossella cried. Then again, louder. "No!"

Vorobyov penetrated her, and Rossella's dryness irritated him. It should not have felt the way it did. She must be a deceiving woman. She must. He grabbed her hair and pulled back on her neck, prepared for a second thrust.

He did not see Argent, much less heard him, when the American's body slammed into him and rolled him a few meters down the foothill. He was also unaware that Argent placed a gun to the back of his head.

"Put it down," said Kuznetsov. "I will deal with my own men."

Argent turned toward Kuznetsov and glared. "This motherfucker's gonna die."

"Maybe. But not yet." Kuznetsov motioned for Vorobyov to pull his pants up and then asked the would-be rapist a question, all the while maintaining his aim at Argent. Vorobyov responded, fastened his belt, and recovered his weapon. Kuznetsov pointed at Argent, and Vorobyov leveled his rifle at the American. Kutznetsov then walked over to Rossella, who was visibly shaking and clearly terrified, and tried to place a hand on her shoulder. She smacked it away and tried to hide herself in the ground. It was a sad thing to see - a woman trying to will herself to disappear within such rocky terrain - and Argent wanted to reach out to her, but knew that Vorobyov would shoot for any reason.

"The device," began Kuznetsov. "Where is it?"

Rossella did not respond.

***

Elona squeals with delight - screams, actually - as her body quivers almost uncontrollably. This is a moment she has wanted and waited for. The right lover at the right time. Serendipity brought them together - a cold, hard, tragic serendipity - and she can't help but thank it.

***

Morning, Yesterday: There was a loud crack combined with a muffled splash. Vorobyov's body fell limply to the ground, his head disintegrated. For Rossella, the action did not register. Argent and Kuznetsov, however, knew immediately what happened.

Nearly a kilometer away, Calvin lowered binoculars from his face. "Dude. His head is gone."

Juin, prone and not happy about having killed a fellow human, grimaced.

Behind them, the scattered and burned remains of Zaitzev still smoldered across the landscape, under the shadows of the Mercury scouts. In front of them, Marciszewksi rested dead, a ballistic entry wound in his back and its exit wound in his chest.

Calvin returned to examining the Pole. "You're sure this is Russian caliber?"

Juin nodded, never taking his aim from Kuznetsov's head. On the foothill, the Russian dropped his weapon, knelt to the ground, and raised his hands over his head. Argent rushed Kutzetsov and hit him in the face with the butt of his carbine.

The Frenchman looked at Calvin and stood. "Let's find out about this cat."

***

Evening, Today: Two lovers breathe beneath the night sky, amid the sounds of machines rebuilding a world once lost. Elona places her head on Margerison's chest, listening to his heartbeat as she blissfully falls asleep. They are lost in the magic.

Unbeknown to them, four soldiers and a woman make their approach across European terrain as quickly as their legs can carry them. One soldier, the Russian, runs with his hands tied behind his back and tethered to the mulatto. The woman runs blindly, hiding her consciousness somewhere within her own mind.

Nightmare and daydream begin their slow collision, threatening to reawaken their dreamers into what's left of the real world.

*continued in Gray Matter

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Tautology, Part II

*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