– CHAPTER FIFTEEN –
Come on, Clara! Quick. Hurry! Hurry!
The Field buzzed like a swarm of angry wasps, Tink’s urgings stinging that place at the base of Clara’s neck where she pressed her sixth sense when out of focus.
Tired and nearly out of breath—she had gathered too many Nites to charge the tracks, it left her weak and slightly off balance—Clara pushed her body forward. Her lungs burned as if on fire. Yet she ran. She ran as if her life depended on the next breath, the next pump of an arm, the kicking up of one knee than the other.
Run. Hurry. Run!
Tink’s pinprick of blue light flew out in front of Clara, leading the way. The light was a beacon, a lifeline tugging Clara forward.
Not far ahead Clara came upon her pursuers.
Four bodies writhed between and other side of the metal tracks still humming with residual Field energy. Clara didn’t stop to rejoice in her small win over the dastardly group who wanted her. She did manage to snatch a couple particulars in her passing, though…
A Scarlet scarf lay in a muck-dark muddle. A feminine form curled in a fetal position, long hair veiling her face. Is that their conduit? One person nearly blocked her way, a mountain of flesh she had to leap over to pass. In leaping, she nearly lost her legs and found her face among the incapacitated. Obstacle cleared, she kicked the man’s round belly—as hard as an iron-bounded wooden cask—with the toe of her boot. His guttural return was like a large stone dropped in a lake.
Turning to go, Clara suddenly fell to her knees. She quickly shoved her hands out in front of her and scraped her palms against one of the splintery slats between the tracks. She sucked in a sharp breath and bit her lip.
While trying to find her feet, Clara’s ankle caught. Something had locked itself around her lower leg and clamped down hard with fingers of steel.
She repressed her urge to scream. Instead she set the knee of her trapped leg on the ground to support herself and using her free leg she threw all her weight into a reverse kick. Bone crunched and a snuffling grunt echoed up and down the tunnel’s length.
The vice grip on Clara’s leg loosened and she sprinted away.
If she possessed even a single breath left, Clara did not inhale the last. Her lungs were up in her throat and her head pounded with the sounds of the tunnel she had to escape. Water dripping. Mud squishing. A slat between the tracks snapping underfoot. A rope slapping Clara in her—
Dangling there in front of her was the robe she and Roos had used to climb down here earlier.
Light spun up its length with a wake of sparks raining down. Follow me. Climb!
Clara gulped down a breath, paused to listen to her heart thrum against her breast. Ready, she gripped the rope tightly in both hands and began to pull herself up toward the golden sunlight speckled with blue, her legs iron weights threatening to pull her down.
Hand over hand she climbed toward the fresh air, hauling her tired body away from the mossy humidity growing on the tunnel air, away from danger, from the nightmare. She climbed toward safety.
Hours passed. Or possibly minutes. Clara was unsure how long it took her to ascend the rope and crawl through the opening leading into the basement. Tink knelt on the filthy concrete floor waiting for Clara, hands folded on her shimmering skirts of silky light, her hair floating around her head in hasty disarray.
At first sight of Clara, Tink did a quick pirouette, twisting in the air to shift back to a blue ball of light that dashed up the stairs leading out of the basement. Clara followed behind, faltering only when she realized she had not pulled Roos’ rope back up from the tunnel.
She hopped down three steps, dove, and slid on her knees to the hole in the wall.
She attempted to gather up the rope but found it already taut with a weight at the end. Her pursuers were… well… pursuing.
Cursing, Clara took the steps out of the basement two at a time and broke out into the crumbling kitchen pile. Through the collapsed roof, the afternoon sun nearly blinded her.
Hand thrown up against the glare, Clara took her leave from the building and exited onto the empty street.
She gazed down both ends of the street, wondering which direction held the fastest route to salvation and Dano Slynt’s boat… to home. The rope in the decrepit building’s basement hung from her thoughts, the people climbing tugging at her mind. It’s not about heading home at the moment, she realized. I need to put distance between me and tunnel rats. All they see is a wheel of cheese. A long chase may not be worth their effort. Hopefully.
All at once Clara became aware of her bone-deep wariness and her need for a quick escape. Too many Nites. Down in the tunnels I created too many and now I’m ready to fall into a bed for a long sleep. Her knees felt like buckling and her body was shaking as if cold, despite the warmth of the sun.
A glance over her shoulder and through a crooked window showed the empty stairwell inside the crumbled building. Roos and his pals had not exited yet. The jolt she zapped them with had slowed them down, bought her time. Very little of her lead likely remained. Standing here was gobbling up the precious seconds.
Clara ran off down the street in the direction she and Roos had come from earlier in the morning.
Less than a quarter a block she had stopped, her hands were slapping her bent knees, dry heaves clenching her airway. Tears squeezed out from her shut eyes. Crying will not help me. She set her mouth into a firm line and flicked away the tears from her cheeks with a swipe of her hand.
Eyes flung open, Clara immediately caught sight of some new legs. Her mouth turned into a fierce grin, her teeth showing, hard with resolve. She would need many Nites and the effort of tapping her dwindling store would tire her, zap her strength, but she would not need much to sit astride a road golem.
That’s if the thing even starts!
Behind Clara she heard four people stumble from the crumbling building’s kitchen, all except one with pistols or blades in hands, heads swiveling, searching for her. The wind caught and snapped out a red scarf.
Without risk, there is no reward. Clara gritted her teeth and turned her attention back to the road golem. She had little other choice.
Yards away sat Clara’s alternative legs. Two wheels really. Time had not worn away the rubber of the tires, not enough to keep her from riding the thing for a few miles to some hiding spot she couldn’t wait the tunnel rats. Rust had taken away the metal’s shine but the sleeping machine was still beautiful, just unused to dressing up for a party. Stray debris had shattered the single headlight in front but Clara wouldn’t need the light. Had not her father called this golem a cycle with a motor? Probably. Anyone riding the golem sat astride its back, hugging the metal, feeling the roar of the engine just underneath the fuel tank, exposed to the rushing wind, a part of the golem.
The two-wheeled road golem leaned against a larger automobile, leaning as if casually waiting for adventure to catch it up. It was propped up enough so she would not need much strength to right it.
With a groan and some exertion, Clara pulled the two-wheeled golem up and then after a breath she placed a hand on the golem’s engine, below the tank that once held gasoline.
Most gasoline exposed to the air evaporated over the last hundred years while the machines slept. Tightly sealed sources simply degraded during the same timeframe, hardening, gumming up an engine, fuel lines, and messing up a golem’s internal mechanisms. Clara hated cleaning out the clogs to get a golem working again. Once cleaned out, though, a golem needed no fuel. Nites powered the machines now. Fuel didn’t matter anymore, without the machines to, drill for, pump, and then refine the sources, new gasoline stores were impossible to consider. Nites were both the fuel and potential charge… golems gobbled Nites. Clara didn’t understand the phenomenon. To her, it was all magic. Perhaps it was this lack of understanding that frightened people.
Clara just hoped the old fuel in the two-wheeled golem had not gummed up the engine too poorly.
She swung a leg across the seat, leaned over the golem’s side to place her hand on its engine, whispered her intensions with a sheer force of determination, and produced Nites directly into the golem…
The golem Woke for the conduit… barely.
The two-wheeled golem Woke like a sick big cat who’d gone a month without a proper kill. The machine sputtered and coughed, unsure if it wanted to provide Clara with the get-up-and-go she desperately needed.
Teeth bared and gnashing, Clara stretched herself along the top of the golem and slammed her other hand on the other side of the engine. She properly looked like she was hugging the thing. No matter. She was pissed and in a hurry. Wake damn you! Wake and be my legs!
Blue Nite light gleamed in her hands, outlining the veins and shadowed bones.
Clara gasped what seemed her last breath before death.
Her head shot up when the golem let out a final cough and roared to life. Well… not roared but meowed. The fuel had gummed the internals like greasy fat in arteries, the valves and hoses needed cleaning, proper attention. It was enough for her, though.
Being around machines and tinkering with golems since she was old enough to see over her father’s workbench, the conduit knew how road golem’s operated.
She placed her hands on the handlebar grips, rolled her right wrist, throttled up, and worked the clutch.
Nearby birds took to the sky as the golem’s engine ground against the ruin’s populace-less silence. Clara barely heard the flapping of dozens of wings over the golem’s noise as she flicked her wrist repeatedly to get the machine moving.
Rear end waving like a fish’s tail in mid-leap over the surface of the water, the golem kicked up loose bits of the street’s concrete and chugged forward.
Between her legs Clara felt the engine’ struggle as it barely managed to keep the pace of a lame horse. For too long no one had tended the machine. It would break down sooner than the Nites would dissipate back to the Field.
I just need a few minutes, five maybe, to out run these fools and then you can rest. Promise. She caressed the golem’s tank, the last bits of the red paint flaking, some sticking underneath her nails with the tunnel scum.
She dare not look back. Forward to home. Forward to Dano Slynt’s boat.
Like most streets in Nork or any other ruin, sleeping golems clogged the paved thoroughfares running along and beside the buildings. Commandeering a two-wheeled golem made navigating an escape route easier. Clara and her coughing two-wheeled golem zipped between the enclosed, four-wheel golems laying on their sides and roofs like Tink caught up in the mindless surge of the Field. The cycle’s rubber tires buckled and flopped around. One or two spokes snapped off while a few were pointing out like thick needles. More than once Clara steered too close to a street lamp or an overturned golem, snapping off those jutting spokes with a snick-snack and a ping.
Clara’s knuckles grew white as she held on and tried with what remained of her strength to keep the two-wheeled golem on a clear path through the ruin’s streets. Doing so was difficult. Fatigue had set in too deeply to her bones, down to the marrow.
“Tired,” she whispered to herself, two eye beats from a slumber like the golems she whizzed past. If she could just lay her head on the cycle’s tank for a second, maybe two seconds… Warm metal. Humming sweetly. “Nice. That’s really nice. I’m so tired. Just for a second, a couple of…”
Yes you can! You too can keep going.
Was that her father’s voice? Was Mo Danvers speaking from the grave to his little conduit? Was he speaking from the Field? The voice was delicate and silky, yet playful. Clara did not hear the words so much as sense meaning.
Head up, Clara. I’m here. The blips assured the exhausted conduit. I’m here with you, right beside you.
Out of the corner of her vision—the right side—a familiar firefly light beamed.
Clara picked up her head, narrowed her gaze and revved the golem’s throttle.
Soon as she did, a side street drew near. The very little concentration Clara allowed to focus on the Field told her only one or two golems waited in machine slumber down that passage. One sat up on a curb while half of the other golem’s chassis stuck out from a building’s wall!
Clear riding all the way.
Clara jerked the two-wheeled golem to the left, clipping an overturned elephant-sized golem large enough to carry two families of six. The two-wheeled golem’s motion transferred to the elephant golem and set it slowly spinning on its roof. That sharp turn sent Clara and the golem beneath her bouncing off a raised cement street corner, the jerkiness threatening to toss her.
Stomach up in her throat, Clara managed to steady the golem out of the turn. Then she was on the side street, heading into the alley, breathing easy.
Immediately upon entering the alley Clara felt watched. Glances around her confirmed the feeling. The alley was overrun with monkeys larger than her younger brother was. They occupied the upper balconies jutting from the buildings on either side. Using tails like ropes and their gangly arms, they lazily swung from the vines and branches overgrowing the walls and strung between the buildings like clotheslines. The golem’s sickly coughing offended them. Exhaust from the tail pipe made them choke. Many slapped hands over ears to block the disturbance. Others hooted and shook fists at her and the noisy, nauseating golem. While she traveled through concrete tree houses, their wild yellow simian eyes tracked her movement and they swung in judgment over her passing. Clara licked her lips. She sunk down low against the golem, its vibrating comforting. By the time she reached the mouth of the alley, her riding had not elicited the shit chucking she expected.
She turned right, exiting the alley and rolling onto another of Nork’s main streets. This pointed Clara southwest, to the bottom of Nork, to the bay, and Dano Slynt’s boat. If the golem petered out before she reached Slynt, then the conduit would hold up in a hiding spot—somewhere not occupied with monkeys—until Roos and his friends lost interest in her.
Behind her monkey alley exploded with raucous cheers. At least, Clara hoped the simians wished her well. After all, this was her story. She was the hero. The cheers gave Clara renewed vigor.
Clara tucked a loose strand of dark curl back behind her left ear after it flung itself in her mouth. Up a head, golems blocked the street. A quick examination showed Clara a path around. A tight squeeze along a walking path but the golem could manage. She hoped.
For a second time she jerked the golem’s handle bars, the decaying rubber around its wheels flopping around but holding together. The golem bounded up onto the walking path, Clara steering the two of them around the street blockage. Within seconds conduit and golem rode back onto the avenue.
Clara reached down and patted with appreciation the paint flaking fuel tank. Good girl. A little further. Just a little—
Eyes back on the road, Clara nearly pulled on the golem’s handlebars and popped the machine onto its decaying back wheel. Her heart dropped into her stomach at what next barred her path.
“Burn my luck!” she cursed under her breath.
A mechanized beast as wide as the avenue itself barreled down the avenue toward her. The hum of its engine made the one her cycle bore seem as insignificant as Tink compared to big cat. Clara had never seen a golem as massive as this one. Bigger than a small single-story building. Heavily armored with metal plating from a fleet of golems it must have devoured from unquenchable hunger. A conical grill shoved sleeping golems in the road aside while large tires crushed others. Metal crunched. Glass shattered sharply. The beastly golem shook with a power from an age everyone wanted to forget. Exhaust pipes sprouted from its back, ran along the sides, spitting an amount of blue Nite fumes the residence of monkey alley would not appreciate.
Picking up speed with the sight of Clara, the beastly golem blared a horn to warn her of its presence, a throaty bellow. How could Clara miss the thing?! Was it challenging her? Its patched steel body would crush her and the two-wheeled golem, bugs on its glass!
Clara intended to swing the cycle around with a wide, arching turn, to head back north, away from the approaching monster. Except, the golem’s rubber tires betrayed her. Time had taken the air from the tubes inside the tires. A hundred years had worn the tires’ tread bald. Finally, this last trip shredded what remained. Barely having turned the handlebars, the front wheel buckled and the golem teetered and then fell, throwing Clara forward to roll head first over the concrete, in the direction of the fast oncoming beastly golem.
Cloth tore. Flesh scraped and burned. The road pulled her curling locks.
If she did not cease her dizzying tumble, Clara’s head might roll under one of the beastly golem’s wagon-sized tires, squeezed her head like a grape.
Something in the road did hit her in the head, but not an oversized tire.
Blackness overtook Clara. Her pain receded. The vibrancy of the Field pulsed brightly with concern against her sixth sense then it was gone.
Wanna keep reading? Turn the page to Chapter Sixteen.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved