– CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE –
Two bulbs—round and red like juicy apples—were set into the fixtures in the bus golem’s ceiling, one at each end of the hallway. The red bulbs glowed hot, dousing the entire hallway in the color of blood.
Hurried footfalls tramped above Clara’s head. They reminded her of farm ants, legs scuttling, trying to escape the crushing foot of a cruel child.
Chaos. Was all this because she crippled the golem, gave the beast bad indigestion? It can’t be… or can it?
Clara’s concern about whether those ants were coming for her, to return her to the kennel, sent her staggering. Her weakened state did not help. She lost her balance, knees liquefying, legs no more useful than a sleeping golem’s suspension.
Good thing Roos was there to catch her.
Her head spun nonetheless and she saw Nites dance in front of her eyes.
To cover her embarrassment, Clara reflexively giggled like a stupid girl in skirts, hair done up pretty, face painted. She could not help herself. It was Roos’ strong arms around her, the way he gently held her yet wrapped her with strength. He made her feel safe. She needed to keep herself together. This was an escape operation. There was no time for girlish flights of idiocy over a boy. She reminded herself about how Roos led her into the humid, fugal covered tunnels underneath Nork and locked her in a closet, a place to keep her safe until the Junkers came to collect her.
Anger flooded Clara. Her limbs warmed and she found her legs working once more. Her feet wanted to turn inward stupidly so she waddled along with Roos’ aid. At least he was useful for something.
They wobbled past several doors as they moved through the long, single corridor. The space was so tight Clara had to press herself close to Roos or else scrape her shoulder against the metal walls. She grumbled but pressed her stubbornness down to her toes.
Despite her worries, none of the Junkers rushed down the spiraling staircase at the back nor did they burst through the pocket doors to surround them. Of course. Kell or one of his lieutenants sent Roos to take care of her and connect another conduit to the engines. It was the only possible reason no other Junkers were showing up. At some point, soon, someone would come, when the golem did not begin moving at a regular pace.
Clara and Roos eventually came upon the conduit kennel.
How much time could they squeeze from this fruitful situation?
She dug in her heels just before Roos led her pass the kennel door. “Wait! I can’t leave without Wendy. We need to get her out with me.”
And maybe everyone else in there too, if we have the time.
“Time is short,” Roos told her while tugging at her arm, trying to keep Clara moving. “I’ll have enough trouble getting you out of this place alive. Add one more and…” Roos looked into her eyes and knew her desire. He shook his head and sighed as a man does when carrying a heavy load and he does not think he can take another step let alone make the mile he has left toward his goal. “You want to take all the conduits, then, huh?”
Frowning, Clara glanced at the spiraling staircase. A bead of sweat slipped down her spine. Not a soul came down. She returned her attention to Roos. “I just can’t leave them here. None of those kids deserves to burn out. If they don’t escape, I don’t.”
“Even if it means your life, Clara?”
Images of Sammy appeared before her mind, the little boy taken from his bed because he was a conduit, useful to Kell’s agenda—where was Sammy? Where had the Junkers taken him? Did Kell have command of other beastly bus golems? He and his crew eluded to possible other captains, other beastly golems stalking the paved roads.
Clara saw his sister Gabby’s bloody face, killed in her sleep because she woke at the wrong moment, fought against her brother’s kidnappers.
Clare did not hesitate. She stared hard at the Junker with the flowing red scarf and aloof manner. “Even.”
Curses flew from Roos’ mouth, sharp emotion explosions contrary to his usual cool demeanor.
With little time to argue, Clara decided she needed to push the Junker toward her line of thinking. Though she had little energy and moving meant spots waltzing around her vision, Clara pushed the young man away and fell against the wall for support. She then went about dragging herself toward the pocket door.
“Clara! You don’t understand.”
“Oh, I get it,” she said through clenched teeth. “Save me and wipe your conscience clean. Go on your merry junking way. Don’t look back. You tell Captain Junker I overpowered you. In my state that’s impossible but he might believe you… I guess. Or he might reprimand you, flog you and tell you you’re a bad little orphan. End of the day, there are plenty of conduits to replace this battery. An acceptable—”
Suddenly, someone was grabbing Clara by the shoulders. Roos whipped her around and threw her against the wall, abruptly cutting off her speech. He leaned in close and snarled in her ear.
“You don’t get it. Stupid girl! I’m trying to save your life. Your life.”
“You got me into this situation you’re trying to save me from, idiot!” Wow. Yelling set her head spinning.
Head shaking, Roos lowered his voice although his tone retained the hard flatness of irritation. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid girl. Yeah. My bad. I’m a junk head. But there are worse places to be than here. Kell wants to bring us back to a better world. A world united under something better than hungry bellies, power taken away from those who have the food to fill the bellies. With machines doing the work, the possibilities are endless! The world as it is today fears and hates you, the conduits. Here at least you’re useful.”
“Operative word there is useful. As in I’m being used.”
She did not realize how tightly Roos had been holding her against the wall. She was starting to tense with pain. Roos must have realized his strength. In that moment, Clara felt his fingers relax. It was like having nails drawn out of her flesh with a hammer’s claw. His expression was troubled, conflicted.
“There are still worse places,” he repeated.
“Oh really? Where are these hells?”
“Outside for instance.”
“Out—” Wait. What was going on ‘outside’?
“You overloaded the golem,” Roos explained, seeing her puzzlement.”We stopped and became vulnerable in the open. They came on us from up the road. No fear. If they get inside, to you and the other conduits…”
“Wait. Who? Who is here, Roos?”
Just then, Clara heard the rattling of gunfire. The sharp ping-ping pitting of metal shells colliding with the bus golem’s armor hide.
Clara’s eyes darted around the hallway, expectant, anxiously waiting for holes to appear.
The Junkers were under attack. That was the reason everyone was scurrying around the bus’ top level. They were manning armaments on top of the bus or returning fire from the safety of gun ports. Had Tink brought an army to rescue Clara? Elation and relief flooded Clara and she smiled briefly, until she realized that when the people sent here to rescue her realized why the Junkers took her, they would know she was a conduit.
Outside might be a warzone. Roos didn’t want Clara to venture outside into the line of fire, he was taking her somewhere else. He wanted her somewhere safe. But what if the Junkers defended the golem and turned back her rescuers?
This could be my only chance. She decided. Roos was correct. Some places were better than others. Right now, running head long into area with whizzing bullets was preferable to getting sucked dry of her Field. Staying and trying to free the other conduits was the correct action. However, if the Junkers turned away the rescue party none of the conduits would know freedom again. If Clara could get to the rescuers before they retreated…
She decided escape and returning for Wendy and others would bring everyone freedom.
Clara drew in a deep breath and using what remained of her strength she threw out her hands, palms open, and pushed Roos against the opposite wall. The young man hit the wall hard, the impact staggering him and spilling his marbles from their bag. He would recover those quickly and try stopping her.
Feet bare, wearing only a filthy rag over her nakedness, smelling worse than the rag, her dark hair bouncing in front of her vision, Clara ran.
Which door would lead her out?
Over one door hung a sign. The sign’s four letters proclaimed the door the EXIT. Convenient. Practical. All the doors around her looked the same. Primer grey steel, the surface rippling horizontally like a series of breaking waves.
Clara whispered thank you to God, the one who did not care if she could Wake machines—her grandmother always scoffed at the His Hand, claiming their dogma the bigamy and ignorance of a lost people looking for purpose in chaos.
Fingers hooked around the imbedded latch, Clara pulled and the door did not slide. Instead, the metal folded open like an accordion. Off-tune music blared at her. Gunfire mostly but she heard the biting clash of metal on metal, swords meeting and chewing at each other’s folded blades.
Light hit Clara’s eyes. She was not used to such natural, bright sunshine after a week or more hold up in the bus golem, nothing but darkness or artificial bulbs to show her the hell she was living in. She sucked in a breath and threw up a tired arm. Her head swam with lively Nites, all shifting into human forms and performing dizzying dances for her vomiting pleasure.
Clara bent over, hands on her knees, and retched. All the while, she kept her eyes closed, the light pressing heavy against her lids. Her head hurt so bad.
Behind her Roos shouted, pleading for her to step back inside. Step back inside with him. Twin gunfire erupted from where the young Junker’s voice originated and passed through the space she had been standing in before bending over and empting the few contents of her stomach.
Minimal food and over usage of the Field caught up with Clara. She attempted to put a foot forward, to put distance between her and the Junkers’ beastly golem, expecting a set of steps descending to the ground. Her toes found no purchase and she fell forward.
The world tilted, ringing with a cacophony of stimuli. People were shouting. All around her she heard tavern profanity to make virgins blush and mother’s scald. Voices, all jumbled together, called for the “Fist of God” to dispense justice. There was fighting. Clashing. Metal rang like mallets striking bells. All of it pressed in on her as if she was concentrating on her Field sense and sensing all the life around her warring for survival.
Clara fell into darkness and as usual lately, she welcomed the escape. All she wanted was escape.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Two by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved