The sign might have been meaningless, she thought. She’d spent two days wandering this time – her furiously focused marching leading her miles away from the machine before fear, or guilt or something had forced her to turn back. Now, as she made her way across the last few hundred metres of gravelly wasteland that separated her from home, or rather from the machine, she could almost feel herself shaking with relief.
It was in exactly the same state as she had left it. Exactly the same state she’d first found it in fact. There was, she dimly realised, no reason why it shouldn’t be but as the only responsible there was a definite comfort in re-asserting that certainty.
The machine stood about twenty-foot tall, the one feature in an expanse of flatness so vast that even glancing towards the horizon brought on bouts of confused dizziness. She knew there were hills and mountains somewhere out there. Once upon a time she’d crossed them in fact, before finding the machine.
She struggled to remember why she’d come so far. The fact of her journey had long since been detached from the feelings of it. She must have had her reasons, the journey wasn’t one anyone would try without a purpose, and that was enough to know. If nothing else the thought of going back was locked behind an impenetrable mental wall, she had come here and she would stay here.
The first grave, the one she’d dug herself, was about fifty metres from the industrial bulk of the machine. She’d piled rocks on top of it as a shaky marker in the absence of anything more fitting. It’s inhabitant had no name that she knew, he’d been dead and half-decayed when she’d arrived. Slumped against the machine, his back resting on one of the few flat panels amongst the great bulk of whirring cogs, flywheels, valves and unnamed contraptions which made up the greater whole.
He hadn’t been there by chance, or if chance had bought him to the machine intent had kept him there. Set off to the side of the iron and steel box a small shed contained signs of a settled life, if not a comfortable one. A battered white shirt was laid out in a corner, in only marginally better condition than the blue jeans and t-shirt he’d died in but evidently placed there as an almost reverent concession to neatness. A hand full of stones, culled from the infinite supply outside for no reason that she could comprehend, had been arrayed in neat rows alongside a couple of wooden boards upon which he and now she slept. And finally a chipped ceramic cup lined with a patina of filth. Not much of a haul for a life but living by the machine she’d learnt that you didn’t need much.
The stones she’d buried with him, the cup she’d used, letting the drops of frosty dew which gathered on parts of the machine sustain her in a state always short of satisfaction. The shirt, too large to be comfortably worn, still lay in state. His life, any life, merited more than a pile of rocks.
She passed two more graves before she came to the machine. One was marked with a stick, the other with stones, none of them bearing names. Her predecessors she assumed, although the notion that she would or even could die there seemed almost absurd. Even as she’d buried him the idea that he had ever lived as she did seemed absurd. A corpse never could be human, life was unmistakable and she’d decided the second she saw him that it had never been held in that desiccated form.
Finally there was the machine. As she drew closer the eternal orchestra of mechanised existence started to vibrate through her. She dipped her head to the sign, almost unwittingly.
‘DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED’
She’d taken it as a command. Understandably so to her thinking. She had no way of knowing what the machine did, or why it did it but if the graves were anything to go by it must have been important. How important was the real question. The idea of walking away had for some reason never dawned on her, not for more than a few days at least. From time to time a bout of curiosity would send her wandering. Never to anywhere or for any purpose beyond seeing what, if anything, the machine would do in her absence. Some small part of her courted disaster, seeing how unattended the machine could be left before the unknown worst happened. But it was an act which left her riddled with guilt. Had the others ever walked away? Had they been so selfish? Perhaps they did, perhaps they knew the true nature of the risks that she so negligently took. As much time as she had to think about it the point always came where the mountain of unanswered questions threatened an avalanche and with paranoid deference she shied away, carefully extricating herself from the self-imposed obligation of understanding.
More than that though her occasional forays into the wasteland came about because she wanted a reason to come back. The machine went on, seemingly inevitably, it needed nothing, asked nothing and despite her early obsessive pouring over every inch of its intricate frame seemed neither to take anything in or turn anything out. How something so timeless, so seemingly free of need could demand such obsessive observation was beyond her and she longed to know why. If only had broken, if only it had ever changed. Each pointless expedition was fuelled by the fervent hope that she might return to find that something had occurred to validate her presence. It never did.
In her search for something more than her oblique duties she’d tried anything she could think of. She’d tried writing messages in the grit and dirt and she’d tried naming the various parts of the machine. Anything which might offer more than the simple demand of existing alongside the ever indifferent machine. If her predecessors had found something in the fabric of the landscape, in the pebbles and detritus then it was lost on her.
The messages she’d scratched in had faded with the first wind and her attempts at arraying stones into cryptic declarations had left only a nagging sense of discomfort. If others came after her what would her missives mean to them? They meant little enough to her, at least after the instant of creation. Mostly they amounted to little more than random words, created out of the desire to exist and destroyed when the onus of that existence became too great.
It wasn’t long after these abortive attempts at distraction that they appeared.
At first she’d suspected that they were hallucinations. The days with the machine had long since reached the point where numbering them was more of a grim routine than a useful measure of life. Was that not caring a sign of looming insanity? That seemed plausible enough and from there why would delirious visions not be a manifestation?
They first came as insects. Not beautiful or impressive but still minute sparks of life amidst mechanical anonymity. A movement amidst the metal which for once followed no inevitable pattern. Her first thought had been fear. In part for her sanity but mostly for the machine. The former, she thought, she could afford to lose.
She should have killed them at the start. The machine mattered, they did not, to anyone but her at least. But such small things, eclectic in form but uniform in their insignificance, seemed like an acceptable element of chaos amidst the grinding machinery. They could, or in her mind would, no more damage the machine than she would – even as they traced their intricate paths across its exterior. And if she had gone mad then would it not be a worse form of madness to destroy her own illusions than to simply accept them? So she lived with them and they with her.
It was perhaps months later before she ventured off again. Leaving the creatures was no wretch, they weren’t like the machine, they demanded nothing beyond, perhaps, her own detachment from reality. She may miss them but the task of testing the machine had once again built up to a weight too unavoidable to be borne.
It was vanity that made her leave but there was no reason for her going over the edge, none she could find anyway. That shift came after three more days of wandering.
There was no adventure when she went away, she walked, ate and slept to the same rhythms of life which led her when she was with the machine. But perhaps it was on her return that she snapped. It was done without drama or excitement, without even awareness, she simply returned and sat down before the machine. And while she never had the time for hindsight a dim part of her knew even then that an ending of sorts was approaching.
The creatures were almost completely coating large swathes of the machine now. Their forms expanded and made more elaborate by her absence. There was no harm in that as far she could see. Their lives of scuttling interaction seemed wholly separate from the machine lived them on. A superimposition on a wholly alien entity.
The thrumming, grinding and thumbing of the machine rang out their usual apathetic beat. She stood and listened for a moment, settled in the certainty of mechanical security. It was a comfort of sorts, tinted by the usual sadness of the uncertainty which defined her life with the machine.
Her eyes though were fixed on the creatures, their translucent shells glittering in the sun as they dashed across the stolid grey metal. They had almost become beautiful, mere black dots transformed into seemingly unique and chaotically designed entities. Each one a new being almost as complex as the artificial bulk they’d chosen for their home. They drew her in with an almost hypnotic effect, the chaos of life at last giving her something to wonder at beyond the unanswerable questions which surrounded the purpose she’d accepted the day she’d buried her predecessor and taken his place.
For a few days she simply gave herself over to the creatures, awaking each day eager to see what new changes had taken place in their ever increasing society. Some began to fly, others died away only to be consumed and reformed into new life by the others. They had no purpose in their actions, no meaning in their existence but with a fervour which she could almost confuse for joy they didn’t pause in their constant movement and antenna twitched interaction.
The machine started to become an afterthought, a glint of steel beneath the growing organic mass which once caught only prompted an instant of recrimination on her part. She hadn’t left the machine and her duties were fulfilled even as she submerged herself ever deeper into the lives of the strange lifeforms that increasingly surrounded her.
She stopped sleeping, she stopped eating, such things seemed more and more like the obligations of a previous, artificial life. Instead she simply stared and took in each new pattern of movement, each new being to appear on the machine, each death.
When he came he found her lying dead in the shade of the machine, her chin still resting on hands frozen in place by rigor mortis and her now cold eyes still fixed on the machine. What she’d been looking at he couldn’t say, one patch of metal seemed much the same as any other from what he could see. But he buried her with all the ceremony he could muster and marked her grave with stones. Then he sat down and stared up at the sign.