– CHAPTER FORTY –
Good to his word, Clayton allowed the conduits inside the compound to come to Clara to have their collars removed. Women pulled their hair back. Men tilted their heads. Everyone bared his or her necks. Sammy was the first.
It was a good thing that when Clara tapped the outer Field she’d taken more of the Field than she needed to Wake her man-golem. To slash through the connection in each of the inhabiting collars, she needed more Nites than she could have created with the shallow pool left to her when she took her own collar off.
Disbelief flooded each conduits’ eyes. They did not want to believe, fearing some cruel farce, a trick, not trusting enough to believe their bondage would finally be unlocked and they would again touch the Field, sense the Field. More than a few broke down when Clara broke the magnetic connection holding together the band around their throats, their limbs going loose and dropping them boneless to the ground. Most asked the same thing, albeit the words varied from conduit to conduit…
“Can we really leave?”
“Am I going home?”
“Will… will they come after me again?”
“Tell me true!”
Clara felt like a near to dry well by the time she unlatched the last collar. Never had she felt so good being near to a burn out.
One thing bothered Clara when she stood and looked out over the crowd outside the compound… there were only a couple dozen conduits in all. She expected more collared followers. She felt like she had freed hundreds from their bonds. Now that she looked more intently, she noticed most of the conduits were young, barely older than herself. None were children around Sammy’s age or younger. There were all those conduits taken from the Junker bus golem. A few older men and women milled about, each one with a stubborn expression a forge hammer couldn’t shatter. These mature conduits clutched the few children who had the abilities but who lacked the experience outside of a collar to know their limits and the extent of their powers, or to be happy about the collar’s removal. The few younglings might have been born and collared shortly after coming out of the womb. This revelation angered Clara more than the kidnapping.
Rose came to Clara and explained what she witnessed before she affected her own exit from the compound.
“Some actually want stay?” Clara had a hard time believing what she just heard from Rose. “And they want to keep the collars on?”
“Clara.” Rose appeared just as bewildered. “Unbelievable, I know. From what you told me, it must be like having a limb amputated.”
Head shaking, Clara let out a sigh. “Try a piece of your soul. You feel incomplete. It reduces your world to shades of grey. Everything looks, smells, and tastes the same but it’s… it’s not, Rose. It’s not the same. Did he even—”
Before Clara could accuse Clayton of manipulating the conduit followers, Rose held up her hands to shift Clara down a gear. “I heard his speech. He addressed the conduits apart from everyone else. Most of the followers not soldiering are at the church, wailing, praying, they’re calling to God to damn the Junkers and you. Their leader is dead, struck down while unarmed and trying to keep them safe from an outside threat.”
“At least they’re hate is aimed solely at me,” Clara mumbled halfheartedly, but she was serious.
Nodding, Rose went on. “Better just you than conduits as a whole. I get that. Anyway… Clayton told the conduits he would—through God’s mercy, as if the stubborn idiot were God’s mouthpiece!—offer them a choice. They could stay as God’s shepherds or leave to face the outside world on their own. Some believe in the His Hand’s teachings and so they wanted to stay.”
“But the collars, Rose! I get they have their faith. But… They didn’t even want me to remove those shackles?” Clara rubbed her own neck, the oppressive weight still lingering in a twisted knot.
Rose shrugged and looked back toward the closed gates. “They’re scared of the temptations. I asked a couple of them why they didn’t want their collars taken off. They told me the collars secure their faith. They’re not strong enough they say, to fight back the urges to touch the Field. Is that hard to believe, Clara?”
Actually, Clara understood… somewhat. Put a cookie jar on a kitchen table and seat a child in front of said jar, tell her not to pilfer one chip, warn her not to spoil her appetite before a meal. Seated within arm’s reach of her temptation, smelling the freshly baked goodness, the urge to take just one bite of one cookie would be too great. Willpower is everything. Not everyone is strong enough to fight.
Tink sat on Clara’s shoulder in her wispy young woman form, skirts and hair trailing behind Clara’s shoulder like tendrils of cool whist. Tink dangled her feet as if her toes were skimming the Field itself, the force of life Clara could feel wrapping around herself even now. The blue and gold shimmering river was everywhere when she used her sixth sense to reach out. Clara inhaled and held the air for as long as she could. She let go.
I’m not strong enough. And that did not bother her in the slightest.
Rose brought Clara out of her reverie. “You know, Clara, the conduits who did come out here are scared too. They don’t know where they’ll go from here.”
Point of fact, all the conduit eyes were locked on Clara, waiting for her to say something, to point them in a direction and command them to “march there”. Clara scrunched up her shoulders, as if someone was poking her at the base of her neck, trying to get her attention.
“I’ve been avoiding this,” Clara admitted.
Rose nodded firmly her agreement. Neither of the girls were fond of Clara’s deal with the Junker captain. Although Rose conceded days ago that Clara’s motives made sense, in a your-back’s-against-the-wall, no-way-out situation. The firm expression Rose shared with Clara told the young conduit that she, Clara, had struck up this bargain.
It was time Clara made sure the deal with Kell still held.
We’re all making deals with devils today.
Kell fondled the man-golem with greedy eyes. The cobbled together junk wrecking machine was a plaything he wanted in his toy chest. He reminded Clara of the jealous little boy who obsessively wanted the toy his neighbor possessed and was flashing around the yard under the other boys’ noses. Nener-nerer! Look what I have and you don’t!
Good thing the golem was heavier than most small road golem; without Nites, the man-golem would move about as far as a rusted road golem without wheels.
Can you trust this piece of rusted road trash? Tink buzzed with the fury of a hundred locusts. The intensity of her light at the side of Clara’s face caused the conduit to wince.
Tapping the code across the Field—so Kell wouldn’t hear—Clara answered. I gave my word. He came. If I start breaking promises, what am I?
How in the world did the Nite manage to convey a stubborn huff through the Field? Breaking promises makes you a Junker.
“It’s not for sale, Kell,” Clara shouted at Kell as she approached, careful to keep any playfulness from her tone that would make him think she desired to haggle. She didn’t!
Kell rubbed at his pointed chin, considering. “Does it come with you?”
The comment stopped Clara dead in her tracks.
Smoothing her skirts and forcing herself to remain calm, Clara closed the distance between her and the Junker, stopping outside of his reach. “Who said I’m for sale? If I remember correctly, I was not part of the terms I told Roos to bring to you.” Worry bristled Clara like a cat pinning its ears. “He did… didn’t he? Roos did bring—”
She glanced around, one eye squinting as if aiming for a target to spit venom at, searching for Roos. First Clayton raised her up to trust him, only to drop her on her butt a second later. Now Roos—
Cackling with malicious delight, Kell slapped his knee and spun around from the man-golem to face her. His grin nearly split his face in half. He told a joke to the world and only he knew the punch line. Such a showman! It made Clara sick. Could this pirate ever be serious?! “Of course Roos brought me your demands.”
Eyebrows rising, Clara asked softly, “And…?”
“I’m here, am I not?” Kell bowed low, his long left arm sweeping across his body, fingertips brushing the ground.
Clara’s eyebrows wanted to crawl up into her hairline. “For all I know you could be here for your own agenda, captain.”
Kell straightened so suddenly that the motion jolted Clara to leap backward, Tink bounding up into her firefly form along with her. He appeared wounded, offended. He couldn’t keep that act up for longer than a few seconds. “You’re agenda is my agenda, Clara. Of course! It was in my best interest to show up and see if you could deliver on your promises.”
She shook her head. “It’s not me who has to deliver.”
“Oh? What do you—”
In a casual manner, Clara protectively tucked one arm beneath her breasts and pointed at Kell with the index finger of the free arm’s hand. “It’s up to you, Kell. Roos should have explained. I agreed to lead the conduits toward you, but it is they who must decide to go with you, to be part of your crew.” She rubbed the space between her eyes. Was she really going through with this plan? “Your vision of a world in which conduits help other normals to prosper with junk tech, to rebuild cities, use machines again, is one I want to see. But only…” she raised her head, eyes squinting with criticism, index finger pointing accusatorily again, “… only if the conduits are equals. Not batteries. They have to have equal opportunities to earn rank and status in this new life we can build up with the blocks left behind from the Electrical Age. And, Kell, you have to convince the conduits. You need to make them follow you. Their beaten down and it won’t be easy. Their trust will not be easy to earn but you can. My advice? Start feeding the conduits better than that slop. Yuck!” She stuck her tongue out, remembering the snooty meals the Junkers served to the caged conduits.
Lips quirked, his own eyes squinting to measure her, Kell’s brain worked overtime, probably trying to find a way around this possible deal… at some point. Clara suspected something Kell did not: if you give the conduits an open future, many would come along on their own. She would.
For good measure, Clara’s eyes dragged the Junker captain’s to the man-golem. All the way up across the metal plating, to the emotionless bucket head. She wanted Kell to know that if he crossed her, she had the metal muscle to crush him just as her junk knight had the His Hand’s mortal angel soldiers. Clara grinned playfully.
Despondent, Kell groaned. He did, albeit, look on Clara with well-earned respect. “I’m a Junker! You think conduits will follow me and mine? Huh? Even the sitters at the orphanage I grew up in scared me with those nightmare tales. I barely joined up with my first captain.” His fingertips pressed against his chest and then suddenly he flung his hands out desperately.
“Just use some of that charisma you got oozing out of you, Kell,” Clara suggested. “It might grease the wheels.”
With one eye cocked, finger wagging at her, Kell began to chuckle. “I like your guts, coppertop! Hah! You sure I can’t interest you in a position on my boat? New horizons and all. C’mon!”
She shook her head. “Sorry. I already got a crew waiting for me, and a new member to induct.”
That left Kell scratching his head.
Those conduits the Junkers previously had captured rejoined the road pirates as full crewmembers; Clara decided to think of them as oarsmen. None of the conduits were particularly joyful over their decisions. Albeit only seeing them from a distance, Clara believed these oarsmen conduit swore resigned expressions for the change in their lives. No longer captives. Collarless. Kell offered his new oarsmen—his former captives—purpose, unselfishly willing to share his dream of a world in which conduits could enrich lives with their abilities. A fair deal.
Clara had to give the Junker captain credit, the speech he gave to convince the conduits to join his crew was stirring, a rousing hoopla that was too good to be true but too good to toss away as infeasible. He instilled faith in the conduits, much the same way Reverend Jimmy had with his formers, before his death. And all in the shadow of the His Hand compound. Kell should have pulled down his pants and waved his cheeks at the guards manning the walls. Clara chuckled at the thought.
The fact that the formerly imprisoned and subjugated conduits had nowhere else to turn but back to him helped Kell. They’d spent most of their adolescent lives in the Junkers’ kennel, in the belly of the monstrous bus golem. Either the conduits saw no roads they could venture on or paths dark and scary enough to frighten them back to the Junkers. Most didn’t know where their families were, if their families were alive. They had a choice for their lives now, or the semblance of choice. At least Clara had bargained better lives for the oarsmen conduits to “choose”.
If Kell kept his word, the conduits would live better now. Clara wanted to imagine the road pirates and Junkers pulling to the side of the road, in to port, settling in one of the ruins, rebuilding until the old steel and concrete titans lit up with Nite light again. The mental picture filled Clara with her own hopes. She smiled weakly to herself. Kell did well to illustrate her hopes.
Other conduits, those who had lived with the His Hand for years, mostly decided to wave off Kell’s offer of a conduit-powered world with equality between the normals and those who could touch the Field. Using their abilities was too foreign and so they had less imagination, they could not picture Kell’s conduit utopia. Kell let them go with a flourishing bow, his thanks, and the toothiest grin that bordered on insincere. The last pushed the declining conduits further away. Good thing Clara had already arranged for the His Hand conduits to follow Rose and Merlyn to the Mathers ranch. Rose would find them work and homes with her family’s laborers.
After narrowly escaping a hangman’s noose, Waking a humungous golem knight, unlocking dozens of inhibiting collars, Clara was tired. She sat on her man-golem’s foot, leaning against its leg in the shade its bulk offered, her hands lazily swinging between her legs, her skirts hiked unladylike up to her knees. She wanted a good pair of pants! And her knife. She’d feel better with the serviceable blade but it was lost, probably tossed away when the Junkers originally took her. She raised her left hand to her face, flexed her fingers, and remembered the tickling itch underneath her flesh. The same sensation that built up when she held too many Nites for too long, wailing for release. Either Nites could come in to existence or… or she could shove the power into a person and electrify him. A new weapon. Useful. Except, she wanted to Wake machines, bring about life… she did not want to take life.
Her hand dropped to knee and she exhaled.
Eyes fluttering open after having closed briefly, she connected with the blank, sleeping stare of the man-golem.
“You need a name,” she told the cobbled machine. “A hero should have a proper name.”
Hey! The Field buzzed angrily around Clara’s sixth sense. I drove the thing. I think I’m more the hero.
Tink stomped up an imaginary staircase, right up to Clara’s nose where she proceeded to tap a blue foot.
“What do you think we should call him then?” she asked Tink. “You know him best after all, Tink. Any suggestions?”
Tink plopped herself down on the tip of Clara’s nose, gazed up at the sleeping brawny metal giant, and considered seriously her options.
She did not take long to find the perfect name…
His name is Mo, Tink answered, as if the golem had told her itself.
Clara nearly cried. She felt her lower lip quiver, her eyes tightened as she forced back—
“You feeling alright there?” someone asked her.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Clara closed her eyes tightly until they were dry.
Oh! It’s him. The road rat that nearly burned you…
She blinked her eyes open to find Roos walking up to her, his stride reserved, his steps slow. He was used to sneaking about, stalking so no one noticed him. Clara knew him well enough now. Roos was a shy young man who didn’t fit in with normal society and so he skirted the outside of the crowd. To that end, boy and girl were much alike.
“Just thinking about my dad,” she answered, sniffing.
Fingers scrubbing the back of his neck nervously, Roos looked around, a boy afraid of being caught and pummeled for sneaking a kiss under the nose of a girl’s father. Clara’s cheeks flared with heat at the thought. Roos took her expression as a sign he should retreat, prompting him to blunder through excuses for coming to see her, to excuse himself quickly with soft mumbles she couldn’t discern clearly.
Good! Leave! You’re not wanted here, road rat. Tink stuck her button nose in the air and dismissed Roos with a curt nod of her head, her misty hair tail swishing. Of course, the Junker salvager could not see the Nite’s rude behavior.
Clara patted the ground beside her. “Stay. I insist. Please, Roos.”
If he didn’t stop scrubbing the back of his head he’d have a bald spot soon. Clara waited. She again insisted he sit and was close to pulling him down! He eventually did take a seat.
The two teenagers sat in the shade offered by the golem’s bulky metal body. Their mutual pregnant silence wedged between them while Tink buzzed about Roos’ head, inspecting him thoroughly. As if she could read the young man’s mind and intensions by staring into his mossy colored eyes and pouting at the roguish scar across his nose. He was handsome. And his shy demeanor only made him more mysterious, causing Clara to want to know more, to dig further, to peel back the layers of the onion that was Roos.
Clara pulled her knees into her chest, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rocked.
“Someday this turned in to.” Clara chortled uneasily. The comment was stupid, about as penetrating and meaningful as referencing the clouds in the sky. Boring!
When Roos didn’t respond, Clara tried again. “How far away is the golem you Junkers use?”
Roos’ eyes shifted to her and she spied a half grin. “Same place you stranded us,” he answered playfully.
Cheek set on her drawn up knee, dark curls brushing her bare lower legs, Clara quipped back. “You deserved it. Locking me up. Nearly burning me out by over using of my powers!”
Roos took the comment as an angry attack, a punch to the gut. In response, he hugged his sides and winced. “I would… I mean…” He blew out a breath from between his lips, frustrated over his stumbling words. Clara reached a hand out and glided her fingertips down his arm. It’s alright. “I never would have let Kell or the others burn you out, Clara.”
“I know,” she told him gently. “I should be sorry, Roos. My comment was a joke. You came to free me. That alone made up for everything… even the part about stranding me in a storage closet, in a commuter tunnel, underground.”
“I thought your hitting me over the head with a pipe made us even,” he said, looking at her.
She weighed her defensive action back in the bus golem against all of Roos ‘treacherous acts before the fact, trying to remember how hard she’d swung and the weight of the pipe. It had been heavy. “It was a start,” she concluded, smiling to indicate the humor… in case he failed to catch on quickly. Roos didn’t. After half a minute, Clara shook her head and chuckled until he joined her.
“We’re bad at this,” she said, taking part of the blame.
“I mostly grew up with a bunch of guys,” he explained dryly, pausing. Then he managed a shaky grin, “What’s your excuse?”
They both shared a laughed.
“How do you expect to move this thing back to your shop?” Roos wrapped his knuckles against Mo the golem’s metal shin. It rang solidly.
“The new Reverend is loaning us a wagon.” She wanted to say Clayton’s name but found her heart ached less when referring to him with his new title. “Some Nites and I’ll get Mo to settle down for the ride back to Rivend. Should take a day, two, maybe a week, given the big guy’s weight.”
“A new wagon would be nice,” Roos agreed, his head nodding. “The old one is in less than fine traveling shape.”
“It’s scrap,” Clara did not spare niceties. “Even I can’t Wake wood.”
Again, Roos nodded with agreement. “That’s it then… you’re going back home?”
“My mom and brother are probably worried sick.” Clara was worried about them, worried about how they were coping with her long absence. “I want to settle Sammy in Linden Grove with my family, I’m sure my mom will take him in with us. After that I’ll set out with Wendy, see if we can’t find her family.”
Guilt made Roos lick his lip. “And if you can’t?”
“There’s a bakery within smelling distance from my family’s place,” Clara said, imaging—hoping—Wendy might make a home in Linden Grove, if nowhere else.
The comment forced Roos to raise an eyebrow. But Clara didn’t explain.
“What about you, Roos?” Clara breathed. “Are you going back to luring innocent, naïve conduits into the clutches of your Junker brothers, hmm?”
An emphatic shake of his head answered first. “The captain plans to hold to his bargain with you. Amazing as it sounds. He never dreamed conduits would openly join the Junker crews. Now he wants to recruit conduits. Actual persuasion, I swear. He doesn’t want to twist arms. I’m serious, Clara! Seriously! The captain even used the word ‘minister’ when describing what he wants to accomplish.”
“Sounds like a religion,” Clara scoffed, hardly believing.
“I think the captain just wants to reach his vision.” Roos regarded her with a sense of wonderment, the way the followers used to look upon Reverend Jimmy. The attention made her resume rocking. Forceful, trying to convey the seriousness of what Clara had begun, Roos said, “You completely changed things for him. It’s infectious. The crew is invigorated like nev—”
To keep Roos from going on, Clara had rocked forward onto the balls of her feet and kissed him full on the mouth. At first the contact was hard and forceful. When she decided she not only wanted to distract Roos but she also wanted to kiss him too, she melted, nearly falling forward into his lap. Her mind raced, wondering if she was doing this right. Younger than eight she’d given Clayton an innocent peck on the lips, just to send him screaming across the ranch; she didn’t count that as a real first kiss. Was she pressing her lips against his too hard? Where should she put her hands? His back? His chest? Should they cup his chin? The tip of his tongue touched her lips. She hesitated but quickly relented. They had their bodies pressed together, trying to merge.
They heard coughing and pulled away reluctantly, falling off Mo the golem’s foot and into the grass and weeds.
Uncle Marty stood over them, judging whether to throw Roos over the compound wall and let the His Hand deal with his wandering hands. His eyes moved to Clara, asking her if she knew what she was doing. In typical teenage fashion, Clara rolled her eyes coolly and wished she was a few years older. Despite brokering a peaceful coexistence between Junkers and conduits, dealing a major blow against the His Hand’s leadership, and Waking a golem not even her father would have possessed the Field muscle to manage, Clara was still only sixteen years old.
Tink stood in agreement with Uncle Marty atop one of his sturdy shoulders, glowing furiously.
“What are you two about over here?” Marty asked, his facial scar puckering as he scowled at Roos in particular, looking for his answer. He was disappointed. It was difficult to see Roos as anything other than a Junker, a road pirate, part of a gang of bandits, the person who’d tricked Marty and Clara into trusting him.
“Saying goodbye, Uncle Marty,” Clara answered quickly, annoyed at the interruption.
Roos appeared crushed. Hearing the word goodbye made her departure real. They might never see each other again. Not if she had anything to say about the matter! Clara would make sure Roos knew he was to visit Linden Grove often, that she would point him in the direction of conduits willing to join the Junker crews. And if he wanted to stay in town for a while, to catch up with her… Clara wouldn’t mind.
Behind Uncle Marty Clara spied the duel compound gates opening to let out a large wagon much larger than the one used to bring her golem knight here. Several followers were leading the wagon lashed with a small horse team. For sure a generous gift, given those beasts the Junkers brought to pull the first wagon had galloped off during the battle. Horseflesh was expense.
The followers led the horses and wagon up to Clara, Roos, and Marty. Their fiery glares were fixed to Mo the man-golem. If they could, the followers would pile wood around Mo’s feet and light the pyre for one of their junk burnings! Clara’s stomach bubbled with indignation. All she wanted was for Clayton to recall his—
She paid the followers little attention as they approached. Clara didn’t notice Deseray among the small group of followers. The drab—the very absence of any color really—skirts and white blouses made it so the women all looked like true sisters, identical, from the same womb.
Deseray pushed aside two of the follower men in the group, both bigger then her but unprepared for her outburst. The knife’s blade Deseray wielded gleamed wickedly in the afternoon sunlight, flashing orange before she plunged it to the hilt in her father’s lower back, around the area of the kidneys and other vital organs.
Three, four, or maybe five thrusts she managed. As she stabbed, Deseray screamed with insanity, her words incoherent, her tongue wagging, eyes ablaze.
Feet planted firmly, Clara rose but only in time to catch Marty as he toppled on top of her, pinning her to the ground.
Useless as trees with roots firmly entrenched, the other followers stared incredulously at the girl who the Reverend and his secret conduit wife had adopted as their own. Deseray was a foreigner to them, hands bloody, speaking with a tongue that offended their ears and they could not understand. They saw her as no different from a conduit. But of the followers to stand against the devils tempting them in this world, the devils needed collars around their necks, hands bound, face hooded.
Deseray fled without any opposition. By the time the Junkers, Rose, or Merlyn noticed the threat, Deseray had disappeared in the thick woods growing up to the compound’s southwest wall. Clara expected Marty’s blood related daughter had fled back to Eve Powell and the two were speeding away from the area with whatever group of thumpers had decided to follow their fallen leader’s wife.
For a heartbeat, Clara didn’t realize Deseray had gone. The screaming that still rang in her ears, she could have sworn, was sounding from Deseray’s mouth. No, it was clearly her, Clara, who was wailing. Clara relented when her throat went horse. She now began to wheeze with panic.
A hand big enough to cup Clara’s head reached up and weakly caressed her face.
“The Wrench Works was your father’s and mine,” Uncle Marty managed to breathe, struggling. “Sparkplug, our hearts are in that business. It’s yours now.”
“I don’t want the stupid shop,” she complained wretchedly, “I want you. Don’t leave me, Uncle. Dad already left me. You can’t too!”
“Mo and I put our hearts into that shop,” he told her, blood dribbling from his lips. His organs were filling with blood quickly. “Wherever you take the shop, you have our hearts. We’ll never leave you, Sparkplug. And the shop is you, it represents the world that was and what it is today. Conduits. The Field. Never forget yourself. Never!”
Never was her Uncle Marty’s final word.
She rubbed her hands along her surrogate uncle’s shoulders, once full of so much strength, they could lift anything, hold up any ideal, any solution she needed. Now his muscles were limp. Uncle Marty’s blacksmith girth was smothering her. She shook the old salvager hoping to rouse him from sleep. He was sleep. That’s all. Sleeping. Clara could Wake machines.
Drawing on the Field, the outside Field that clung to all the life in the world, Clara took in as much as she could hold, until she was spilling over and drawing well over her limit. Then she released the Nites.
The busy sparks of life buzzed around in confusion, unsure of where to go, what machine to cling to. Clara’s thoughts were centered on Marty but the Nites would not seep past his flesh. After a time, the Nites evaporated, merging into the rushing Field. All but one Nite left, the one holding the form a wispy four-inch tall young woman. Clara tapped the outside Field once more but she was so tired, it was like sucking on mud. Thick and clogged.
Let go Clara, Tink urged, the Field pinging gently against the conduit’s sense. He’s gone. Let him go.
This was not the goodbye Clara had wanted today.
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© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved