– CHAPTER SIXTEEN –
A nightmare. Like the bedtime stories meant to scare little conduits. Roos. The tunnels. The maintenance closet. The beast golem. All of it, part of a nightmare. Just like those stories Clara’s grandmother told her so she would “hush up and go to sleep”. Clara liked listening to the scary stories.
Grammy told her two types of stories. The first about conduits nabbed in the night by people who didn’t understand, or more likely feared, their abilities. Then there were the second type, stories of conduits who would raise up the now techno-less society to a newer golden age, brighter than the world her grandmother was born in or the one Clara knew. Grammy meant the first stories to warn Clara and the second to give her little conduit strength. Stories.
This had been one of the first type… the nightmare kind. Clara enjoyed listening to the frightening bed tales. She just didn’t want to live one. She couldn’t believe she had lived the nightmare.
A soft bed. She would wake up in a bed full of feathers. Warm. Safe. Rested.
She woke to cold. A cold floor that stung her cheek like the after ache of a mallet made from a block of ice.
Clara’s head hurt too. Different from the icy chill of the floor, this was a dull pounding. Hadn’t Roos fixed up the gash on her head?
No. She had not dreamed Roos. Or the locked closet door. No matter how much she wanted to believe otherwise.
She gradually became aware of the rumbling underneath her… all around her.
Clara remembered the beastly golem that had been speeding down the street to stomp on her head.
Was she now in the beast’s stomach? It sure felt like the golem swallowed her whole and now she was sitting in its stomach, digesting.
“That is simply insane,” she mumbled. Her tongue felt two sizes too big for her mouth. She worked her jaw and in doing so created saliva she then swooshed around to moisten her sore mouth. Better.
Clara struggled to sit up. Her head shook like a bag of marbles with the string tie loose and the bag’s mouth gapping. A hand to her temple settled the colliding glass balls to a somewhat stillness. Somewhat.
After inhaling two breaths, she opened her eyes, slowly. That hurt too. She thanked the room at large that the candle light in the space was low and un-harsh, barely pushing away the enclosing gloom. Any discomfort quickly went away.
That is until she smacked her head trying to stand up. Ouch!
The ceiling was low.
No. Not the room’s ceiling… the cage’s ceiling! Clara was in a damn cage like some animal! She was nude too.
Heat bloomed on her cheeks. Her entire body blushed.
Quickly she attempted to cover herself, to maintain some sort of dignity. She might be in a cage but she was not some big cat, a furry bear, a ravenous wolf, or a hooting monkey. She remembered the monkeys in the alley.
Rubbing her head, Clara hunkered down on the balls of her feet. Clara’s body was still exhausted from the over usage of her Field, nonetheless she could feel she had not slept for a good amount of time. Not an entire twenty-four hours but a few hours.
Next she needed to figure a way out of this trouble.
Light flickered from a sorry candle on the other side of the shaking room, its wick nearly burned away. Most of the room cast in filmy gloom, the details around Clara were difficult to discern.
Feeling around outside the bars pinning her in, Clara found the door and the lock placed on the latch. Her fingers told her the lock was a good old fashion steel padlock. No junk tech panel like on the outside of the earlier closet. My powers can’t solve everything. She tried to squeeze between the bars but the space was barely wide enough to stick her arm through.
“Don’t bother,” a defeated voice advised her.
Reaching out toward the voice, Clara discovered another cage sat next to her own, in a line, same width and height by her estimation.
“You try sticking your hand out to grab something from a guard and all you’ll get is a jab to the ribs. They won’t even open the door. No point in goading them. They’ll let you out… but on a leash… to suck you tired.”
Sobs and sniffling pricked at Clara, the sounds of a whipped dog sitting up to heel in front of an abusive master.
Clara set her jaw and spoke through clenched teeth. “I’ve gotta try. I’ve gotta try something.” She wrapped each hand around a bar and tightened her grip until her knuckles popped.
The owner of the voice was not the only stray penned up in this nightmare kennel. Occupied cages filled the room to bursting, each squat cage with unbendable wrist-thick bars. Clara tried and failed. Dark shapes lay in those cages. The human forms heaved lightly with fretted sleep, all except the occupant in her neighboring cage, a female by the slender, slight curves. The waning light of the candle reached only far enough to provide Clara cursory details of her fellow captive. This melancholic girl—young by Clara’s estimation—was sitting up inside the gloom of her cage, back pressed against the wall opposite the barred door, knees pulled into her chest. The crown of bristly hair topping her head, a boy’s cut, stiff and wild, came up only a little past the mid-height of the wall. Taller than me then. If she’s still up, not sleeping like the others trapped here with us, was she the conduit in the tunnel with Roos? Good guess. No doubt the people in the tunnel with Roos were related to those driving the beastly golem.
Her cage neighbor snickered—a sound forced and tired—at Clara’s pulling of the bars. This person had tried the same initial escape ideas Clara just had. Many times. She had watched other captives try the same methods, only to fail as she had. Continued failure breaks even the strongest spirit.
Her voice, the pitch… she can’t be much older than me.
Clara would not crawl. She was not an animal.
Head down so not to hit it again, Clara walked bent over to the opposite end of her own confines. She pressed her back against the bars there and sat down nearest to her awake neighbor.
“Hey. What’s your name?” Clara asked softly.
The hesitation to answer made Clara think this girl might not know her name. How long had their captors held her? If she was close to Clara’s age, could they have taken the girl as a child?
Someone whimpered. That person was still asleep, unable to escape the waking nightmare, not even in dreams. Or was it a different nightmare all together?
“Wendy. My name is Wendy,” the other girl finally answered, possibly unsure of the correctness. Had she forgotten her own name? Maybe no one had cared enough in a long time to ask her…
“Nice to meet you, Wendy,” Clara replied easily. “Call me Clara.”
“Wendy.” Clara has resolved to use the girl’s name whenever possible, to help her hold on to that identity, to restore a little of her hope. “Are you a conduit?”
“They only take conduits.” As if this was common knowledge.
“Who are ‘they’, Wendy?” Did Clara really want to know?
Wendy raised her head, a skittish animal trying to avoid detection by the hunter she knew was in the forest, and then focused her eyes on the room’s closed door.
When no one entered, she answered quietly. “Who do you think they are?” She didn’t look at Clara.
Clara moistened his lips.
Underneath them the beast lumbered along, not a slow ox but a powerful horse at full gulp to a battlefield, trapped inside the road golem’s belly. Were they moving along the streets of Nork? The path was uneven, likely interrupted with the bumps from broken asphalt, the puckering of the road where nature’s roots had broken through.
Suddenly the beastly road golem slowed and came to a halt, much too quick for its colossal size. The floor underneath Clara vibrated steadily with idleness.
“Junkers,” Clara answered for herself when her mind finally shifted gears. “It was Junkers who took me… us. Junkers took us. Pirates of the roads. Bandits. Characters from nightmares.”
“Not nightmares. Not anymore. Not for us.” The girl sounded sure. Surer than she had been regarding her own name.
That frightened Clara. She wanted someone to pinch her. Wendy refused.
At some point the beastly road golem growled and continued on its way.
By then Wendy had folded herself on the floor for sleep.
Smoke tickled Clara’s nose. The candle in the room’s corner had burned to nothing and the darkness overflowed.
Clara watched the spot where she might find the room’s door, waiting for it to open, for a Junker to enter, to come to kill her like in the stories. Junkers did that. They stole conduits in the night and murdered them. If death was certain, like in the stories, then why had they caged up conduits in this room? Alive?
Quietly she spoke to the room at large. “Sammy? Sammy, are you out there? If you’re in the room please say something. Please!” Clara wanted one of the other conduits to speak up, to be Sammy Gonzales. She wanted a second chance to do right by him.
“C’mon, Sammy! Be here. Say something. Tell me you’re alive!”
But no one spoke to her. She heard shifting. Her pleas stirred several people to a shallower level of sleep. A couple of the captives moaned at her to quit her noise but their hearts were not committed.
Outside, the moving prison had sped to a rhythmic lop again. Rough ride but it could easily loll a person to at least a light sleep.
Clara gave in eventually. Her eyes were too heavy to keep open as she pulled her knees in and curled up on the floor. “Clara. My name is Clara,” she repeated to herself, a touchstone for her to hold tight to.
Someone else said her name. Perhaps Wendy spoke her name.
Several times Clara woke. Always tired. Never having slept for a long period. Call it paranoia. Her awareness never allowed her to drop her guard.
Upon one waking the beastly road golem was still. The floor did not hum with the idle energy of an animal waiting to strike or striding across a hunting field. It too was asleep… for the moment.
Bolts slid free to unlock and a door creaked open.
Clara pressed her eyes tightly closed against the new harsh light.
With difficulty, she opened her eyes to a squint, her vision blurred but clear enough for Clara to view movement in the room. People were here. Two… no, three people!
Two men dragged a third between them, that third person limp and unconscious. The rag doll did not grunt or whimper when the two men tossed—him or her?—into one of the cages.
The bared door slammed shut with a clang and locked.
The road pirates began to consider which new doll they might play with next.
“That one there.”
“You sure? Looks ‘little stringy?”
“Most of them are. You want ’em strong? Them minds sharp? Most are too trick if their wits are about ’em. Gah… Does it matter?”
A pause. Consideration. “Not really. Means we might have to change out again. Sooner.”
She heard a smack—or rather a dull clap—hit against a hard surface, probably a skull.
“Grab the damn coppertop so we can get going again, a’ight? Burn. Leave the thinking to Kell. He’s captain of this boat.”
Clara’s vision sharpened enough for her to catch a glimpse of the two Junkers dragging away another diminutive conduit, the captive willing, not putting up a fight. He or she was too weak, malnourished to fight back or access the Field with precision.
The gloom closed in around Clara again as the main door closed. White spots pulsed in front of her vision, like tiny Nites traveling the Field.
Tink… where are you?
Molding Nites from your internal Field takes energy, physical power. Rest is required. Food. A conduit’s body must be healthy.
The Junkers knew as much.
They fed the captive conduits and Clara enough to keep them alive and producing just enough Nites for whatever it was they needed the conduits.
Funny. Hah. I always thought they killed people with my ability, Clara mused every time she glanced around the room of cages. I guess Roos was right about the Junkers. But he would know… stupid ass.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be wrong or right about the legends and stories of the Junkers.
The food the road pirates served was worse than her mother’s snooty oatmeal. The sludge was cold and grey with chunks of something.
“You gonna eat that?” Wendy asked when the first meal arrived and Clara had simply stared into the bowl with the stomach churning mess.
“Not sure,” Clara mumbled in offense to her wood bowl, as if it too asked if she would eat it.
For a couple of minutes Clara eyed the regurgitated-looking slop. Then her stomach protested with a wild gurgle. Food. Energy. Don’t be stupid… eat.
“Is it any good?”
“Does it matter?” Wendy snorted, amused but tired. All the new captives asked stupid questions. Clara was not any different.
How long since she had taken off on that two-wheeled golem and run into the beast golem that swallowed her whole? Two days? She had used a lot of Nites that day with Roos, she would have needed days of sleep to recover her full capacity of strength, at least eighteen hours. It felt like only few hours had passed since then, though. Clara was exhausted still. Lack of sleep. Sleeping on the cold, hard floor. None of the conditions of her captivity helped her restoration.
The Junkers did not give the conduits utensils to help with eating so everyone ate with their hands. The road pirates did not really think of the conduits as much more than batteries. Useful tools, nothing more.
Aside from the slop, the Junkers also brought her some clothing with her first meal… Can you call a burlap sack clothing? More like a horsehair shift. Itchy, uncomfortable, formless, not soft enough to bundle as a pillow.
The grinning idiot who brought her the itchy sack stared at her with hungry eyes. Pinkish drool collected at the corner of his mouth. Sweet weed had stained his teeth red and left his breath radiating the familiar sickly odor. It reminded Clara of when you eat a flat cake drenched in maple syrup.
Clara didn’t give the hazed man, bald as a plucked chicken and sweating in the cold of the room, the satisfaction of seeing her weak and afraid. She didn’t cover herself instantly or make a show of being shy. At least, she hoped her naked body was not rosy with embarrassment. Hazy Junker made some inappropriate gestures, clenching her sack like he thought to keep it from her a while longer, grabbing his dangling man parts when he finally did give her the makeshift shift. When all he received from Clara was an eye roll he frowned, passed over her slop, and left.
Clara wiped her greasy fingers on her burlap shift and put her licked-clean bowl against the door, like all the conduits in the room. Twenty seconds and she found herself starving, tired. Tasteless, light, and not filling. More, her stomach rumbled, banging the butts of a fork and knife against her stomach wall, a demanding child.
Did she have enough energy to make enough Nites to push into one of the Junkers, to shock them with her lightning trick? She might manage to make enough to give one a tiny jolt of static electricity shock, more annoying than useful toward an escape.
Between the third and fourth meal no one had yet come for Clara. The Junkers dragged away other conduits and tossed those spent and drained ones back into cages. The intervals of how long a conduit spent away from the cages varied based on the body type, age, and gender. Clara hated admitting this but… Generally—compared to boys—girls’ frames were more compact, they carried less muscle, and thus possessed less strength. This meant female conduits could perform less with the Field… generally. That fact aside, most of the captive conduits were taken away and returned within several hours, roughly; Clara didn’t have her portable device to help keep time.
Like the first conduit she saw them take, none of the conduits fought their captors. Wendy was hauled away and gave no more protest than the other conduits. Everyone was dried up, tearless, their spirits broken, their hold on their internal Fields feather light, thin as twine and as easily broken.
While Wendy was away, the Junkers kept other conduits in the cage she had occupied the night Clara first woke.
She tried to talk to these conduits but most seemed to have long since swallowed their tongues or had forgotten how to interact with other humans.
No conduit kept one particular cage. Whether the Junkers did this on purpose or not, Clara was unaware. It could be the road pirates did not want any of the conduits from forming an identity apart from the herd. Humans tend to seek out individuality. They decorate their personal spaces according to personality and taste. They take professions suited to their skills and abilities, like Clara did as a salvager and mechanic. Identity, that is why families bestow names to their members, to set them apart, for uniqueness; the last name ties everyone together but the first name says the individual is different from her parents or siblings. Providing the conduits no particular area to call their own, the Junkers kept them confused, always guessing. The burlap shifts everyone wore was another method toward this madness.
“What’s your name?” Clara asked a new neighbor whom the Junkers tossed into the neighboring cage after they dragged Wendy away.
Her new neighbor provided her a blank, exhaustive stare as answer.
“Do you have a name?”
The set of eyes peered back at her, showing her an empty shell, a reflection of how she was coming to feel.
“What did your family call you?”
That question sent the conduit—a few years younger than Clara, fragile, broken yet retaining some innocence—curling into a call. He or she was soon weeping.
Every so often the Junkers replaced that single candle high in the corner. Its light shined across the room, atop the cages, leaving the sea of cages below in murky waters, the light growing dimmer as it reached Clara’s space. As such, the room was kept relatively dark, giving Clara little hint as to the distinct features her rotating neighbors bore. She would have liked to see a face, even if the features were drawn and lifeless from the monotony of their enslavement. Knowing if a conduit was a girl or boy would have been nice. The bigger frames likely belonged to boys, the few curves allow by the shifts told of girls. The glimpse she saw of conduits dragged into the room suggested no one was beyond their twenties in age.
Everyone was part of the herd. Gloomy shapes, penned together in close confides but kept apart with imprisonment and darkness. Cattle. That’s all the conduits were to the Junkers. Cattle.
By now—she had plenty of time to think, if nothing else—Clara knew what the conduits were for.
“… conduits are useful…” she remembered Roos tell her. The words rang clear in her memory.
Clara gnashed her teeth and kept a firm grip on her hate, to keep herself together, from breaking. Hunger and lack of sleep made this difficult.
Underneath her the golem lumbered along, akin to traveling on a ship with the ocean or river constantly bucking and tossing. Clara felt sick and often found herself sicking up. This also drained any energy she might have accumulated from her limited slumber. The other conduits had their road legs, each accustomed to riding in the belly of a massive whale-like golem.
She was tossing her stomach when another three or four hours passed. Two Junkers came into the room to switch out the conduits. They switched out Clara’s neighbor, rotating in the only conduit willing to talk to her, the only captive willing to hold together the last shards of self, enough to remember her name. Wendy was Clara’s neighbor again.
Wendy crawled to the back of her respective cage with what remained of her energy, flopped herself down and rolled so her back was against the bars.
Clara waddled across the cold metal flooring, hunkered further down, and reached a hand through the two sets of bars. She rubbed Wendy’s upper arm and shoulder. A liberated sigh left the other conduit and Clara felt Wendy go limp.
Contact. All humans need it. All crave the touch of another person or even a pet. It’s the reason why humans seek communities, bear families. For a moment Clara wondered if that was the reason Roos was a Junker… a band of brothers to call his own. Roos said he was an orphan. He’d lost his parents. His family.
Hold on to the hate. Red-hot rage will keep me warm. It’ll weld me together. She let out a huff instead of sigh, steeling herself against weakness, against the frigid cold of the floor.
Right now Wendy did not require hate. She needed love. Once, Clara had spent herself making enough Nites to Wake a road golem, a machine with an open backend for hauling. Clara wanted to see the thing growl, to hear its engine purr. Only Clara had been six. Nites enough to bring that golem to life sent her falling into her father’s open arms, falling toward tired darkness. Three days she slept. Clara knew what it was like to spend her abilities, pay the toll for Waking junk. She knew how Wendy felt at the moment. Not able to lift her arms. Weak as a puppy after ten minutes of play with a rag bigger than it.
She waited. The girl would answer in time, when she was ready and worked up.
Perhaps five minutes passed.
“What… Clara?” A tired game. Wendy understood why Clara needed to talk to her, to hold on. Still, Wendy was going against the grain, contrary to her life in the cages.
But Clara needed to keep her mind sharp. Talking was the whetstone to slide her blade across, to keep her mind sharp. Without thought, conversation, your wits leave you dull. That’s what she saw when she gazed into the eyes of the other conduits. Wendy still had a spark. Clara would use that star to guide her home, however long the journey. Maybe she could drag Wendy with her.
“Tell me of your home. Please.” Clara nearly choked on the words. Faces swirled in the gloom, in front of her eyes. Mom. Leo.
Wendy lay still, pressed tightly against the cage’s back wall.
Suddenly she shook with silent sobs.
Clara stroked the other girl’s back until she settled.
“Fresh bread,” Wendy finally muttered. She sniffed and with an arm wiped her nose. “My mom. She was a baker. We lived above the shop, me and my three sisters.”
“That must be nice.” Clara could imagine those smells wrapping the apartment Wendy’s family shared in a bundle of warmth and sweetness.
“Every morning me and my two younger sisters woke to loafs and pastries coming out of the ovens. The smells were light enough to lift us right out of bed, toes wiggling and eyes bright as the new day’s sun!” Wendy sighed the way people do when taking the first bite from a piece of bread, cut seconds after set on the counter to rest, hot and filling. “I swear. Hah. My oldest sis, she would open the shop’s door, the one that leads upstairs to our rooms, and fan the kitchen’s smells up stairs. It’s the only way my little sisters or I would wake.”
“We’d come downstairs to the bakery and Dawn would have on a plate thick rolls spread with honey butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. She grinned wickedly. She knew she was bribing us, getting us up with sweets. Mom used to do the same to her. None of us liked getting up for school.”
Clara murmured wistfully in agreement. “Who does?”
“By the last bite our fingers were sticky. And then Dawn would shoo us back upstairs, tell us to clean up and get ready for school. We’d go, grumpily. Hah. Always, always we’d say ‘thank you’ and after taking only a few steps we three would run back down to give our big sis a hug. We were stalling. Now, I just wanna hug her again. Not to keep from going to school. Just to… to have her close again. Rolls or no rolls.”
“You’ll see your sister again, Wendy,” Clara assured her new friend. Secretly she tried to convince herself too. You’ll see Leo again. He needs you to charge his game. Pitching her voice low, afraid someone would burst her bubble, her hope. “We’ll get out of here, just you wait, Wendy. Just wait.”
Hysterical sobs shook Wendy now. “You actually believe that, don’t you?”
“I have to.”
“Wait a week. Wait until they come for you, take you away and strap you in. You haven’t been tired until they’ve drained you of nearly everything. It leaves your grip on the Field thinner than smoke. At first you won’t hurt. But something… something inside you will ache. Need. It’s all around, the Field but you… You’ll want to guzzle but all you can do is sip. You’re too tired to manage more. But it’s not enough. Never enough. Just when you think the pain is gone, hunger quelled, they take again. Just wait, Clara. You’ll understand.”
Wendy crawled away from Clara’s friendly touch. It might be too close to her sister’s hugs. Touch she had led herself to believe she would never feel again.
Clara would resist. She would toe that chasms’ edge but not plunge. Wendy was hanging over, fingers still holding on. She had not forgotten the smell of her mother’s honey rolls. She could feel her sister’s embrace around her heart. All Clara would need to do is pull Wendy out, away from the edge. In doing so she would spare herself. That was her hope. She needed to last long enough to get out of this cage and crawl out of this hell beast’s throat, before they came for her and started to drain her too.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Seventeen.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved