Oh, the cold here was biting. He wouldn't have noticed it if it weren't for his left lung, his left lung and the stupid bits of exposed bone about the sternum. The last unconverted parts of his whole body, the nerve endings there were still intact and turned raw and red by the chill. His rounds done, Agent Ketterson tightened a woolen greatcoat about him, then tapped his temple with an index finger.
“There’s nothing here. Can I come back in now?”
“Sure,” the voice drifted back to him. “We'll have hot chocolate and marshmallows waiting.”
He shivered and trudged back through the icy taiga.
Of course, he couldn't just reach the door and go in. That would be silly. First he stepped inside a ballistics-reinforced antechamber, and plugged in a password. Then he stepped into a heated, plastics-lined chemical shower, though the current attendant vetoed that quickly. Finally, another airlock, and then the doors to the site swung open. Ketterson shivered a bit, then hung up the greatcoat and walked down the hall.
The site had been functional for decades, but only in recent years did the quick remodels become necessary. One entire wing was partitioned off by an airlock, where the few staff who still had to worry about it could put on their clean suits and go about another day's work in health. As for the rest of them, well…
Ketterson stopped in at the medical wing, even though it wasn't where he was going. A nurse there lifted up a patient and transferred her to another bed (the steel rebar in her arms must have assisted her considerably). Ketterson edged around her as she began to change the sheets on the bed, mumbling an apology, and went to look at the patient.
Poor Johanna. She had given so much for them. Even as more and more joined the numbers of the damned, every day, she was dedicated- it was her who had found out that once the infection reached the brain, it went one of two ways- either becoming a mass of tiny tubes, or a mass of wire circuitry. From there, that one gifted technician had been able to create a network attached to the circuitry, letting everyone with fully-converted wire-type brains to connect. It was the only way the site and its staff had remained functioning and survived.
And Johanna Garrison had been going so well, her brain starting to turn into wires- but the conversion went wrong, and the stroke hit. Now she couldn't read, didn't understand much of what was said to her, and had no functional control over the right side of her body. Because of the single medical doctor connected to the Hivenet already, he could tell other things about her, too, reduced brain usage and decreased nervous connections. All things pointing to a bad prognosis. He poked her hand, and she stared up with glassy eyes.
He wanted to sit next to her, to talk with her, maybe to thank her for something, but it looked like she was drifting into sleep again. He merely squeezed her hand with his own metal pliers of fingers, and left, back down the hall.
At least they didn't have to worry about containment any more. Or, barring the limited Hivenet, communication. Were they still part of the Foundation? What Foundation? The Foundation had failed. Somewhere out there, keeping away from the ice and the salty oceans, there was still a metal construct rolling across barren plains, looking for devotees to sate its hunger and its final piece. Thankfully someone had taken the initiative to launch the disk it wanted into space just before everything fell apart. The lone site in Siberia could focus on research, keeping the power supplies running, and do little side projects, as if that would help.
The Greenhouse was one of these side projects. It was everybody's pride and joy. Ketterson stepped in, his lipless jaw twitching happily at the welcome breath of warm air. If he could smile, he would. Even though windows still pointed into the accursed tundra, the air here was steamy and warmed by waterwheel power. Large-leafed plants and flowering trees, mosses and ferns, and even tiny animals ran amongst the bushes.
The Gardener was Marie Ayala. She knelt by the dirt, cutting clippings off of bushes and flowers with a pair of scissors, to plant again. Ketterson's heart ached when he saw her. Once a mechanic who could fix anything, her beautiful mind had turned into a mass of pipework when the disease hit. Now she did the same tasks every day in the Greenhouse. Clipping, planting, digging, reciting poetry. Ketterson knelt beside her, and touched her shoulder.
“There will come soft rains,” she muttered, speaking softly as she worked. Her hand shovel dug into the soil. “And the smell of the ground. And swallows circling, with their shimmering sound.”
He knew the poem. She said it so often, and once one person knew it, by virtue of the Hivenet, everyone did.
“And frogs in the pool, singing at night- and wild plum trees in tremulous white. Robins will wear their feathery fire, whistling their whims on a low fence-wire.” She- all of them, but especially the ones that weren’t on the Hivenet- were so devoid of emotion, until it came to the poems. She could say them with all of the sadness and longing, all of the feeling of what could have been in the world.
“And not one- will know of the war, not one- will care at last when it is done.” A plant dropped into the soil angrily. In the beginning, there had been hope: maybe when every last living thing on earth had succumbed to the virus, it would die without a host. Then perhaps all the animals and humans in hiding could restart everything. But Johanna had looked at the microbes in the soil and water, and found out that the protozoa at the root of the food chain were succumbing, and not surviving the conversion process.
Copper and bronze content in the soil was rising every day. It no longer seemed inconceivable that the beloved green marble of earth might one day become a massive clockwork heart.
“Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if Mankind perished utterly.” Marie raised her hand, and, on cue, a sparrow fluttered down from a nearby tree to sit on it. Ketterson watched it- bright, sleek. A handful of clean iron blades had become its wings, its feet were pristine copper gears and tubes.
“And spring herself, when she woke at dawn, would scarcely know that we were gone.” The sparrow leapt and fluttered away. Tears sprung to poor Ayala's eyes, then were gone, and she stopped digging forlornly. Ketterson hugged and kissed her, overcome for a moment by the tragic irony, staring at the spot on her metal hand where a ring had once laid. Holding her, he looked out at the tundra, at the empty world they were left with.
Then again, more and more staff were connecting to the Hivenet every year. Maybe, at Site Omega, some vestige of humanity remained. They would never know.
The Greenhouse, soft and vibrant, went silent; until Marie bent over the dirt once again.
The tears were gone, in an endless loop.
The world outside was wide and cold.
“There will come soft rains, and the smell of the ground…”