I like it here.
I always liked the little pockets of forest left over between cities, the places where it wasn't worth anyone's time to level the ground or log the trees. It's not exactly the wilderness, but it's peaceful enough to give you the feeling, and there probably aren't bears.
Since my eardrums got busted, of course, it wasn't the same. The sunlight and shadows were the same, but half the quietness of the woods is actually the little sounds of leaves and twigs and maybe water. Just enough noise to make you feel like there's hardly any. Sometimes people ask me (with those long pitying faces) how I can live without music, or voices, but I think it's that not-silence that I miss the most.
When we secured this place back in '03, and the others told me how the sound was baffled almost out of existence, I figured hey, everyone hears the same nothing here. I'm not missing anything. I guess I was pissed off at Mace for a while when we found he'd brought Smith here — who the hell did he think he was? What gave him the right? But whenever I had some time off in the area, I would come up here and sit and it started to make sense. Nowhere safer in the world.
Zhao's saying something. The others are looking at her like they can almost hear her. Dee rolls her eyes and waves impatiently at the area. Zhao sighs and starts signing instead.
I think it's pretty obvious, Richards signs. Maybe it's just a visit. He made this place for her — I'm not surprised he can't keep away.
Dee and Zhao nod, but something's bugging me — something I've forgotten. It's happening more often than I'd like these days. I should know why this is important, but it's jammed in a crevice in my head and I can't dig it out.
Up the hill and I can feel years of dead leaves crunch under my feet. Can't remember that sound anymore either, but half of it comes through the soles of your shoes anyway. Speech-to-text scrolls down my HUD as Dee grumbles about the hill, but I tune it out as usual.
I find the right vantage point behind a tree leaning back from the crown. From there I can see moving undergrowth in three directions where my teammates are coming, and one sorry-looking old man (old? no older than me) with a gun shoved in his belt, standing in a shaft of afternoon's last sunlight like he planned it. Knowing him, he probably did.
There's an older iPod and a pair of portable speakers sitting next to the cairn he left for Specialist Zoe Smith. And a hole in the ground just before them. And a tarnished silver urn overturned, a white sheet over the spilled contents.
I hoped they would send you, Charles Mace signs to me.
I hoped I wouldn't find you, I respond. Haven't you done enough to her?
The iPod screen shows something's playing. Of course no one else can hear it either. I flip on the HUD's zoom function to read the screen.
It's safe for us. The sound waves won't travel far enough. But it'll work for her.
"Two four zero two," I say out loud. It feels hoarse and for a moment I'm not sure if the software's picked it up properly, but then I see Richards's face through branches of red leaves, across the clearing about one o'clock. He looks… I don't know what that look is, but he damn sure knows what's happening. "He's trying to bring her back."
She knew this song before. Mace smiles. I'll teach it to her again.
The white sheet ripples a little. The leaves aren't moving.
I thought all I could do was give her peace. I should have known it wasn't enough. I won't fail her again.
He must see how I'm watching over his shoulder because he turns and pulls his gun on Richards. From the way his head moves I think he must be talking. Good luck with that, Richards can't lipread for shit.
And then Zhao just walks out of the bushes at my three. Her hands are empty, and it's hard to tell through the glare on her visor but I think she might be crying. What does she think she's doing?
It started going downhill when she left, she signs to Richards. It fell apart when she died. We need her back.
We can't just come out of the woods with a dead colleague, Richards signs, but I can definitely read that expression. That's "please talk me into this" if I ever saw it.
We're facing armed resistance, Zhao signs. No alternative. If we can't stop him…
She and Smith were close. For me she was the kind of friend you make at work. You're glad to see them there, but nothing follows you home. I felt it more when she went on leave than when she died. But that doesn't mean Zhao is wrong, does it? Maybe we never had Eta-10's cachet, but we did lose something and it wasn't just a skill set or someone to spend coffee break with. She was the heart, or maybe the spine. Something you can't replace.
Mace looks from Richards to Zhao, then smiles and tucks his gun back into his belt. We can all go back, he signs. I lost something too, when she died. Don't we all want another chance to fix our old failures?
Sure, don't we all — if it were that easy. But what if it is? What if this is all it takes, and you really can go back?
Richards stands upright all of a sudden. Failure, he signs, and his hands are trembling. Paris. And the song at the party.
The memory I was digging at suddenly tumbles out. Decades ago we got called out to Sommes-Nous Devenus Magnifiques?, it must've been the '84, because the organizers wanted us to mop up after this pretentious little shit Smith kept running into. Someone who kept harping on how everybody around him was a failure (except for him, of course) and this time he'd written some interminable po-mo requiem that turned half the anacoustic enthusiasts in Europe into screaming neurotics.
Because of the nightmares.
I was wondering when you would figure it out, Mace signs, looking at once smug and disappointed. Consider yourselves lucky. My original plans for that piece were far more elaborate.
Richards looks stunned. He's saying something to himself, but I can't quite catch it. I make a move toward the iPod, which has just kept on playing while we debate. They burned her body to ashes and laid her in an unmarked grave, and suddenly I'm glad for that sheet. How long now before those ashes swell into blackened meat and reeking rendered fat, wrapping around unshattered bones, slick with jellied blood —
Zhao stops me. I try to pull away, but she's got her fingers dug deep into my arm and she's not letting go.
She would have known right away, Mace signs. She wouldn't have forgotten me. No one will forget me anymore.
"She fought it!" Zhao shouts silently at me, shaking my arm to make me look. Her face is grotesque behind the visor, wrenched with desperation, streaked with tears and with colored lights from the HUD. "She wanted to live. The Foundation could have saved her, she begged them to save her, there's a dozen skips that could've done it but they let her die!"
Yeah. She fought it. It chewed up her belly and bred in her bones and still the doctors tried to burn it out, she wouldn't let them stop. They drowned her in poison and she still called for more. Last time I saw her she was yellow as old linoleum, skin hanging loose even on her skull, she was so thin. And that's where she'd wake into life, too weak to scream.
"You have to give her this chance! This is what she would've wanted, you know it is, you know it!"
Yeah, I know it.
I don't care.
I don't want it.
I grab a noisemaker off my belt. 110 dB, thirty seconds. More than enough.
Zhao tries for it. She misses.
Mace turns around just in time to see the sonic grenade land dead-center on the sheet.
He pulls his gun on me but doesn't fire. He knows it's too late.
The air ignites around us. There's no way this many butterflies could live in this small an area, but here they all are anyway, the guards Mace created to defend her. He was right the first time: she didn't belong in an unmarked grave. She belongs here. Safe. At rest after that last terrible fight, and all the ones that went before. Not dragged backward out of an ugly lingering death just because sometimes it's hard to let go.
As the monarchs swarm her grave, I can see tiny jewel-green pellets dropping out of the air. 2402's only defense: shrink them back into the chrysalis. It won't be enough. I can feel the pressure shift against my poor blown-out eardrums and I know the silence has won.
Mace is screaming, pulling at his hair — gun's still in your hand, buddy, bad idea. Better let me have that so you don't hurt yourself. It's probably not necessary to hit him in the face too, but I can't for the life of me see why I shouldn't.
Zhao and Richards come out of cover, looking poleaxed the both of them, whether from sensory deprivation or something else I can't tell. Dee scrambles up from my left a few seconds later. How much of this she's put together is anybody's guess, but she looks… approving? Satisfied, anyway. A good day's work. She puts the restraints on Mace, none too gently, and gives me the thumbs-up. I pick my way through the tremor of orange and black wings to recover the iPod and its speakers.
When I turn back Zhao is looking into the ragged grave, where no butterflies have landed. I don't think she meant for me to see her face.