– CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE –
They raced the sun and beat the blazing ball with time enough to spare. Overhead the sky was the color of a deep purple bruise. The moon held sway, waxed to full. Stars sparkled playfully for one last romp around the yard before the bell to come in for the day.
Tink’s orchard sat in twilight. The tall fruit baring canopies overlapped to create a bleak dome, the ground carpeted with gloom. Perfect for escaping the sun, pleasant to work under, but a dark place during a moonlit hour. Shadows there had teeth and claws. Little noises roared to the bellow of monsters.
Clara and Wendy snuck under while a guard on the wall yawned long and stretched wide, waiting for his shift change, eyes to any threats beyond, unwise to trouble within. The two teenage conduits wove their way between the thick trunks of trees, eyes scanning the shadows, feet careful treading across the cracking fall leaves underfoot. Thankfully, slippered feet created little noise for tired ears to hear while high above the muffling leafy branches.
Wendy asked several times who Clara was looking for. And Clara told her with heavy and heavier sighs, “Waiting. Not looking. I’ll know when we find him… or her.”
“Everyone is a sleep,” Wendy said, letting out her own yawn. No one kept as a battery, locked in a cage when not being drained to burn out, would find trust easily. Though Clara could not see her, she knew Wendy’s face wore a cynical scowl, and rightly so.
“Everyone but us and one,” Clara responded, squinting at the shadows that swayed with the gentle gust of wind.
Moonlight fell through slits in the crisscrossing boughs of the canopies. If Clara unfocused her vision, the silvery light mixed with the damp early morning air fell in swirls of pixy lights. It reminded her of the Field and made her sad.
At least I have enough light to see b—
Leaves shifted behind her and Wendy. Then came a brief sound…gone as quickly. Not boots treading over the fallen foliage. Boots kicking the ground… a deliberate motion meant not to startle but to warn of someone’s advancement.
At the same time, both Wendy and Clara turned toward each other. They shared a curious glance. Who is coming? Should we hide? Wendy’s eyes glistened with the spirit light of morning.
Clara shifted her eyes in the direction of the leaves shuffling sound.
The outline of a newcomer stood a fair distance away. If not for the sparse light of pre-morning, this person would have folded in with the shadows. By the set of the shoulders and the posture, this person was a man. He allowed the girls to notice him and waited for them to invite him into their company.
“Think that’s the person you’re here to see, Clara?” Wendy asked timidly.
In response, Clara rolled a shoulder and cocked her head to one side. Her muscles and joints shifted and popped. She took a single step forward, just a simple extending of the foot, lightly touching the ground with her slippered toes before nodding her head permissibly. Come and be welcomed the gesture spoke.
Wendy gasped and took two steps back when the newcomer disentangled himself from the shadows and walked forward. Clara understood where Wendy’s reaction came from. She saw the rancher jeans and collared work shirt, standard follower wardrobe for a man. If Clara had not grabbed her shoulder, Wendy would’ve run all the way back to the conduit house, never looking back, thinking she’d been caught past curfew without a follower escort. Clara noted the scar across the young man’s nose, the persistent shrug in his steep-slopping shoulders, asking the world to leave him be, ignore him, pass on by. It was impossible for her to hold off the smile spreading across her face and wished her cheeks were not warming. She used all her self-control to keep from shying away from this young man. Even after Roos’ betrayal, he still made Clara a little weak in the knees, started a flutter in places she wished never to speak of.
“Nice duds,” Clara managed to squeak out. “Wolf in followers clothing, huh?” She didn’t mean for delivery to sound peevish toward Roos, nonetheless the words were harsh sounding. He didn’t flinch. Maybe he believed the attitude was warranted… he didn’t allow his friends to turn her in to a battery.
“To mix with sheep, pull on the wool,” he responded, “it’s like draping the wool over their eyes.”
“He’s a Junker,” Wendy said underneath her breath, “the Junker who came to you!”
Clara had a fistful of Wendy’s blouse twisted in her hand before the other conduit’s feet even left the ground. She did not take her eyes off Roos. Neither Clara nor Roos denied his identity.
“He’s a friend, Wendy.” Though the words were a statement for her conduit friend, Clara directed the question at Roos. “I assume you’re here to help.”
Roos hesitated in answering, which nudged Clara to the idea that the Junker was not here solely because of her. Other motives drove the young man. Just as Clayton had his own underlying intensions for supporting Clara at the compound and with the Reverend. Boys! Always trying to protect who they deem weaker then they. Women—in a male’s mind—were frail creatures stuffed in dresses, tending to children, picking flowers, and cooking dinner. No one would like Clara’s cooking. Her cooked meat tasted worse than old shoe leather!
Then she remembered the collar around her neck, the dragging weight. Clara’s ability to Wake machines didn’t define her. She wanted to think her imagination set her apart from normal humans and conduits. Most conduits could Wake machines. But the machines need to function correctly. A busted piece of junk was useless. Waking a malfunctioning machine was like Waking a cripple. Clara could take working spare parts from four busted golems, refurbish a single golem, and create something remarkable waiting for Waking. Still, was hard not to think of herself as only part of a whole right now. Without her conduit abilities, she was a mechanic only… that was not enough.
She made sure Wendy saw her looking up at the tree canopies, eyes squinting to see past the branches, leaves and to see to the sky. The purple-black light of night was lightening to grey. Dawn was coming. Clara addressed Wendy when the latter noticed the breaking dawn. “Sneak to the edge of the orchard.” Wendy attempted arguing, murderous eyes shifting to Roos every second or two. “Don’t argue, please. Morning will be here soon and so will workers for the harvesting. Keep a look out while I talk to my friend.” She put emphasis on the word friend, trying to reassure Wendy. And maybe reassure herself too. If she trusted Roos to help them, would he at some point find a reason to turn them all back over to Kell’s road pirates?
Reluctantly Wendy scurried off to the edge of the orchard to keep watch. Was she really so near of an age with Clara? Sometimes Clara believed Wendy five years younger.
“You’re making nice with the thumpers now, huh?” Clara said, raising an eyebrow at Roos.
Roos scrubbed a hand through his hair. “One more person in the crowd is hard to notice. I’m good at keeping low and blending.”
“Blending? Followers don’t have shining metal tattoos in their skin.” She had not seen any of the metal embeddings in Roos that the other Junkers and Kell had carved into their flesh. During their time together in the ruins, they had never been in a situation that called for them to take off their clothes and Roos had not exposed any flesh with modifications. Clara blushed at the first thought.
“I don’t have any.” As he answered, Roos shook his head. “Having metalfications makes a person stand out. I can’t afford to play the sore thumb.”
“You didn’t swear any oaths then? To the Reverend, or Croo, or the gideons. You didn’t swear off junk tech, stealing conduits away from their families, burning them out? Or does Jimmy Boy not mind the abductions so long as you simply burn the conduits and treat junk like snakes ready to bite?”
“You’re angry at me.”
Getting over being lied to, led into a trap, and held against your will as a power source took more than a couple days. She thought she might be mad at Roos for the remainder of her life!
“Even after I tried to save you?” he asked, trying to be playful but failing. Roos was not good with talking to people.
“Does that make everything alright in your mind, Roos? Does your single good deed wash the slate?”
He sighed and rubbed the scar across his nose. “Clara, I-I don’t expect forgiveness from you. Or for you to understand. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Sure I do!” She swatted away his raised hand, scrapping her knuckles across the tip of his nose as if swatting a puppy after it bit its master. “You’re an ass, Roos! Burn you… This world is hard enough without people being able to trust each other. Don’t talk! Listen. I understand wanting to use machines to improve life. Make building a house easier. Transportation swifter than the fastest horse. Lighting a house without fear of tipping over a candle and burning the place to the ground. But Kell can’t force conduits into servitude. As the word implies… It. Is. Slavery!” Shame hung off Roos’ face and his head almost disappeared below his rising shoulders. “You’re loyal to the Junkers, I get that about you. They’re your family. I get that too. Without my mom and Leo, I’m not sure life would be as sweet. I might risk my life more in the ruins searching for junk. But I need to get back to them… to my family, so I’m careful. Are you really here to help me?”
“You have my help. All you need to do is trust me, Clara,” he said hopefully, knowing she might reject him.
“Is Kell outside the gates waiting to take back his batteries?”
“Your Uncle Marty is watching over him and the Junkers we brought along.”
That was surprising. Clara was unsure if she wanted to cry or hurt Marty. “Marty is here? How? When? Why?” The why she uttered bitterly. Why did Marty care if she returned from the His Hand’s captivity? He could as easily leave her to the Reverend and his choice for her, tell Clara’s mother another story about how her daughter—like her husband—would not be coming home. Except this time, without Marty’s involvement in the events—he could tell the truth.
“He found us actually. Not long after the His Hand took you all here, after the botched ambush.”
Made sense. Tink would not have revealed herself to the Junkers, not even Roos. She would go visible for Marty. How was an answer Roos did not have. Roos told her the Junkers didn’t know how Marty knew where to find them. He did mention the old junk salvager and trader was speaking often in hushed tones to the empty air. He’s talking to Tink, Clara knew but did not voice to Roos. “Kell thinks your Uncle Marty is a little nuts.” Tilting his head, Roos regarded Clara as if a thought occurred to him. “He’s not. Is he? Marty speaks to Nites. Or a Nite… like you?”
“I didn’t think Nites could communicate.”
“Do you know much about Nites? I didn’t think Junkers spoke to the coppertops they keep.”
“We don’t. But I’ve never seen a conduit interact with Nites as if they’re living creatures. It’s odd.”
“People like me bring machines to life, a process that almost confers a personality on the machines.”
“Your own personality or something the Lighted programmed into the machines before the world went to sleep?”
Clara considered that question carefully. Junkers thought of conduits as batteries. A means to their end. Followers and their Reverend believed conduits a temptation from their god. Neither of the groups wanted to know about conduits. Only Roos asked questions, displayed interest.
Once, Clara’s father had explained to her that parents have influence over their children. Birth gave babies a blank slate so they could soak up information and write their own code based on outside stimuli. With parents always around—teaching a child how to walk, how to count to ten, to brush their teeth and use eating utensils, and much more—some of the parents’ personalities likely rub off on the infant along with that basic how-to-be-a-human information. When a conduit creates Nites and programs instructions for a machine to follow, they are engaging in a similar process. Mo Danvers told his daughter it is very likely some of a conduit’s intensions and emotions are written on to the Nites he or she creates. That’s why conduits don’t turn on machines, they Wake machines. Waking implies life, giving life.
Heat began to radiate through the fruit trees, pressing down on Clara gently. Morning was cranking up the day’s light. She could more clearly see Roos now too, as well as Wendy crouching not far away from where she and Roos stood. Wendy’s head was swiveling, watching the streets beyond while also checking on Clara and the Junker she couldn’t trust.
Clara brushed aside Roos’ question. Although she decided then—thanks to his caring inquiry—that Roos was different from Kell and the Junkers. Different enough for her to trust him, for now.
“If I trust you, Roos… you have to promise I won’t go back to the bus golem. Promise me.”
He reached across the space between them, took her upper arm, and squeezed affectionately. “Marty has already worked everything out with Kell. You’re safe.”
“But not all the conduits are safe, right? Kell’s here because he think he’ll get a whole store of batteries. For me, Marty is letting Kell take whoever he can extract from the compound.”
Fists clenched in fury hotter than the rising sun, Clara was ready to have Roos tell Marty and Kell to shove their plans. Burn them! Again, Marty was going to sacrifice other people to get what he wants. Last time it was her father. Now, to free Clara, Marty would hand over conduit children. It was an unacceptable trade in her eyes. She would take her chances with the Reverend. She would find another way to get herself, Sammy, and Wendy away from the His Hand. Rose and Merlyn would not leave without her and they would not give up innocent lives to achieve that end.
“Kell won’t help you if he doesn’t earn something at the backend,” Roos told her, seeing the rebellion in Clara’s eyes.”He was not happy to have the golem shut down and the His Hand over take his crew. He’s more than a little embarrassed. He wants us back on the road again and he needs the conduits to power the bus golem.”
Clara couldn’t help herself, she grinned at Kell’s misfortune. Serves the road rat right!
“I know that look, Clara,” Roos warned. “It’s the same look you had in the bus golem when you were ready to clobber me with a steel pipe. You’d have done it if it meant your freedom. Kell will not be as easy to fend off if you mean to prevent him from taking any conduits with him when all this is over.”
“He can’t have the conduits again, Roos,” she told him fiercely. “Never again if I can help matters. No conduit will burn out so Kell can keep his Junkers rolling.”
“Do you have any alternatives, Clara? Will you leave the conduits here with the His Hand? You’ve seen this life. Would you want to live here under a thumper thumb?”
“None of the options end well for the conduits, Roos.”
“Kell doesn’t want to burn out the conduits… he just… there’s not many conduits, none willing either.”
An idea came to Clara. A crazy idea. It might get everyone what they wanted, even Kell, More important, maybe she could bargain a better life for the conduits—all the conduits in the ashes of the old world.
She regarded Roos with hopefully what he would read as an expression of sanity. “Tell your captain I think I have a way for everyone to get what they want. Roos, take him our terms.”
“Any eyes on us?” Clara asked Wendy as she walked to the edge of the orchard where the shadows were thinning. She knelt beside the smaller conduit.
Wendy shook her head and then jabbed a thumb up and over her shoulder. “None. The guard up there is one sheep away from his bed but his shift change hasn’t arrived. He’s tired for sure, and dull.” Her big yellow eyes, filled with uneasy shiftiness, slipped over to Clara while at the same time managed to take in their immediate surroundings. “Only eyes on us are the Junker’s.”
“Don’t worry about him,” assured Clara.
“I don’t worry about him,” Wendy said dryly, lying. “What I don’t want is to march back to the Field sucking chair the Junkers sat me in. I’d rather burn, declaring who I am.”
“Good.” The word tasted bitter to Clara when she spat out the single syllable. At least Wendy was not going to give in to the Reverend just for a good meal and sturdy bed. She would fight, kick, and scream to the pyre or noose, whichever the thumpers preferred. “I’m going to make sure we get out of here, Wendy. Mark what I promise. You and me, gone—”
“And without these damn collars I hope,” Wendy with tearful longing. “All I want is to run myself through the Field. I want to look upon the flow and dip myself in it, on my terms, for me. I’m tired of some people tying my hands so I drown and others forcing me to go without water for weeks. Enough!”
Clara’s smirk twisted and Wendy blanched at the impishness. “Actually, why don’t we see what we can do about this jewelry the thumpers claim is the latest fashion. Shall we?”
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty-Two by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved