The Death Of Toby Mulholland Vol. 3

The climb had been arduous: hand over hand over hand over hand. An old railway line, pressed hard against the vertical rock made it easier, but it was exposed. I understood that we were a long way away from the command base, but intelligence claimed that scouts still patrolled this whole area.

I was deep in the old world now: far from the modernity of the Core and in to a rabbit warren of redoubts. Every bridge had been rigged with explosives here, but still they came. The locals thought that they were safe, that they had taken their precautions, and that they had taken them all wisely.

We wear the hubris of our pasts like the neck tattoos of the imprisoned; we are marked by it and we are tainted. What is left behind is as hard as a plug of granite, and it may – just may – be clung on to for grim death by a desperate soul, singing songs to spiders in the darkness. Could that be me?

The machine room was a hideous tangle: ropes twisted and filled the space like the tendrils of some obscene vine or creeper. It was hard, from my perspective, not to see this abomination as one of them, as a sentient being, hell bent on reducing me to a ball of paste. I needed to move forward.

The door was as thick as my arm, and I had no idea how to open it. I knew that there would be safety inside, but if I couldn’t find my way in it was no use to me. The spray of the falls blasted the whole area, making it almost inaccessible. I needed to survive here, not succumb to some waterborne ill.

The hut at the top of the train line was so seductive, but it would provide insufficient shelter. It may have looked clean and pleasant enough, with its posters and its glass, but the bloodshed had only been cleaned up quickly: too many of my predecessors had been lured here to return. I knew that.

The lock needed to be impenetrable to the machines, but accessible to those of us poured of flesh. I had received meagre instructions from The Archimandrite, but that was months ago now, and my mind had rejected the need for any information not an immediate requirement for our survival.

My fingers worked their way around the frame once more, looking for some kind of purchase. It had to instigate an impulse in my nerve endings which would count only as background noise in the mind of the oh so advanced machinery. A prick and a click; it caught and it was obvious. I had made it in.

The falls were a path to a different place. Climbing the rushing waters would lead only to my death on the rocks below. While I may be resurrected three years later, may isn’t good enough for me. The paths up the falls – by turns concealed, by turns exposed – would be my precarious path to the top.

I heard flutterings in the distance, not close enough for attack, but close enough to understand. I had to make it up the falls and then descend through the crags. The direct path was too exposed. It was not worth the risk, even by river. Trees provided cover, but the route through was well rehearsed.

I worked my way through the scrubby paths, section by section. I wanted to make it all the way to the zenith, and I became more and more confident of my progress as I ate through the distance. It shook the air; it knocked me off my feet, and threw me back down the quick way. I held on, tight.

Adrenaline won the battle while my body waged war on the terrain. The machine had the advantage of flight, but it was losing time searching only the most logical routes. I crashed back down to the door from above, smashing the second machine under my heels. Serendipity comes to the rescue.

The spider hung from the underside of the sink, waiting for its prey. It was a comforting presence in this claustrophobic opening. The filth on the floor of the cell was human in its paint. The machines had never made it in to this space, and that was our only success here. No blood in this old grout.

He looked me in the eye and I saw an ancient truth: if he could survive here, after the destruction of all goodness and grace, then I could too. My path may take many attempts, but he would protect me here. Together we would survive in this dark and dingy place. And with that, he was gone: long gone.

A split is only as useful as it is protective. If the schism begins to fray, then it must be nipped in the bud. I could sense that the beginning was starting to commence, but I had no objectivity left in me, nothing from which to provide a fulcrum. I could only keep counting and maintain my awareness.

At the foot of the railway, beyond the clapper board and rotting carriage, was a collection of hollow, dead buildings. Water ran through them as if it had once defined their purpose. There was to be no shelter amongst these ruins. Their cleanliness provided only the reflected image of vain hopes.

The banging had kept me awake for three days. It was a task set for the weakest of the machines, out to prove themselves with their feats of inhumanity. I had provisions and resilience; I could sit out their warfare as long as they liked. The mechanical beat on the great metal door held my thoughts.

With time it came to rest, and so did I. There was no chance I was going to give myself away at the first lull in hostilities. I knew my path forward, and I had practiced and practiced it again and again in the darkness and the noise. I knew every bump, ever step, every lump of whittled hardwood.

I remained still for three more days, after the banging had stopped. The locking mechanism allowed for a degree of observation, but its position was precarious. If I wasted the opportunity now, then the whole charade would need to begin again. I needed to make my play count. Or start over, again.

Light filled my eye as I made it to the hatch. For a moment I had thought it artificial, that it was the machine attempting to blind me. A drop of water acted like a fish eye, giving me the view of a clear, bright day. With no one around, I put my hand to the latch and began, slowly, to make my count.