– CHAPTER EIGHTEEN –
Cooped up in a cage for one, two, or however many days the Junkers had been keeping her, had given Clara a sense of claustrophobia. They had shrunk her world down, suppressed her range of movement.
However much she wanted to, the conduit had not panicked.
Countless times Clara had to wheel herself underneath a golem to work on the machine. Now that was a tight squeeze, the space especially confining if the golem had no tires and was up on blocks. That little world had more of a chance of falling in, crushing her. The Junker cage could do far less, but only if Clara kept her mind open and free. Weak as she was, tapping into the Field, using her sixth sense to roam freely, would prove a taxing task. She had needed to conserve what little strength she possessed while trapped in the kennel, on a limited diet, with little sleep. Being so weak, lacking fine control, Clara might let too much of the Field in, as well. Sensory overload was insanity, just as bad as panic. Instead, the conduit fell back on simpler methods of perceived freedom…
During quieter—sleepless—moments, Clara imagined the world outside her cage as expansive and endless, enough to steal a breath. Sunshine on her shoulders, warming her face. Wind gusting, taking up her curls. The Field spiraling around a junkyard of stacked, towering golems ready for salvage. But, even with this imaginary world to look forward to, Clara still felt boxed in. The borders of her new world—the kennel—always there, if left outside her mind’s eye.
Now she knew why she had had that persisting sense, even when letting her mind drift to a mentally intangible plane of openness.
The Junker’s golem beast was tight and confining, the single hallway outside the kennel narrow, the ceiling no more than eight-feet high. All the surfaces were metal, the walls corrugated with specs of rust in the groves, the floor solid steel—frigid under her bare feet, she wanted to curl her toes—stamped with a diamond pattern. She nearly tripped a couple of times, her toes frozen and with little feeling. Wish I had my boots.
Kell led the way, hunched over so not to hit his head on the low ceiling. The other men—including Roos—walked normally, fully upright with a little clearance above. Turnip Head and the other Junker, both handling the snares attached to metal pole-arms, walked behind her, pushing her along.
“Go on then. Be a nice little battery,” Turnip implored.
“Go too fast and we’ll strangle you, not on purpose but you’ll learn the lesson either way,” the other man warned.
Clara took in more of her surroundings as they walked.
The single hallway stretched the length of the golem, the thing’s throat she thought of it, the space wide enough for two thin men to walk together. The sound of footfalls bounced around the space and quickly rebounded back on itself, making Clara’s shoulders hit her ears as she tried to avoid the returning ruckus that felt so close. Some doors opened into the hallway, Clara counted three to occupy her mind. Most of the other doors slid open into wall pockets. Behind her a spiraling staircase led… where? She guessed either to the roof of the golem beast or to a second level. When the golem nearly ran her over, it did seem taller than a regular building…
The group moved past a part of the hallway with a welded line up both walls and across the ceiling and floor. A weaving of beads, welding, that connected two golems. This was not just one golem… it was a caterpillar-like beast of metal, sewn together to create something horrible! Kell confirmed proudly that the golem—he called it a bus boat and referred to the golem as a “she”, like a boat—was constructed using three golem, each a double-decker with expanding sides. He commented that eighteen wheels wider than Turnip Head’s gut were required to stabilize the bus boat for travel across the “road sea”.
“She’s a big girl, true is true,” Kell chortled lightly, “but I like me junky women. Hah!”
“Really now,” Clara retorted, acting surprised and concerned. “Best you feed me more than, captain. Rich and fatty foods. I’m a little lean on the bones. Wouldn’t want you disappointed.”
She stuck out her lower lip.
Quick as a hawk swooping down on its prey, Kell wheeled around on one heel, grabbed Clara’s chin, and squeezed until she let out a mousy squeak. Damn it! I am not a mouse for this cat to play with between his claws.
Kell ran a thumb along the line of her jaw, caressing her contrary to his vice grip on her mouth.
“You’ll do fine for what I need ya for,” he assured her, gaze stony and impossible to crack.
“And what is that, my captain?” Her words were clipped, harsher than she wanted. But this Junker was manhandling her and she didn’t appreciate being caught in his talons.
She felt someone behind her place a foot against the smaller of her back. He then yanked on a pole arm. The collar dug into her neck.
Clara gagged and spat involuntarily.
A wave of Kell’s hand halted the abuse and Clara found she could breathe again.
Surprisingly, Kell did not reprimand her for her loose lips. “I’m going to show you what you may be able to help me with. Patience. First! Let’s us walk to the front so I can show you something. ‘Kay?”
He didn’t wait for her to answer. An indication Kell didn’t care much about her opinion, where she wanted to go, what she wanted to do. This was his bus boat. The captain gave orders, not her.
Another crewmember, down on his knees and scrubbing the floor, a deckhand younger than she, had to move out of their way. He slid open a door and ducked through the doorway.
Eyes darting in as they passed, Clara saw more cages similar to the ones she, Wendy, and the others occupied. Another conduit kennel. Maybe these other cages were empty. Extras.
Before she could see if there were any dejected forms behind the row of bars, the deckhand who went through the door started to slide the door out of its pocket and closed again. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Clara looked into the eyes of the young crewmember and was surprised at what stared back at her. Affection. Not for her but for his life. A life here of all places. Here on Kell’s bus boat from golem hell! Turnip Head too reprimanded her when she was sassing his captain. Roos was not afraid of Kell. He was ashamed at leading Clara to a place not of her own choosing, a place that would—probably—harm her, use her. Yet he made no apologizes—yet.
The conduits were the only people on his bus boat that wanted shore leave. If Roos had wanted to, he could have let her run back through the tunnels and up to the surface, before his friends came. He had had a choice.
Blew his choice. Clara exhaled through her nose and rolled her shoulders, trying to adjust how the collar sat around her neck. Nope. She was not going to get comfortable.
At the end of the hallway were three doors. One waited directly ahead either wall at a pocket door. From vents over the two side doors, hoses and wires—tied neatly together—exited the rooms beyond and ran along the ceiling, the bundles held up by nets. Clara’s eyes followed the bundles to electric lamps, wall sockets, and into other rooms. They even disappeared up the spiral stairs at the other end of the hall.
Clara tried to swallow a knot in her throat. She dry-washed her bound hands behind her back, her palms sweaty.
Out of nowhere, Kell’s face appeared beside her own, enjoying her expression, reading her.
“Have you guessed what’s behind these doors, coppertop? Hmm?”
When Clara did not answer, Kell did not appear disappointed. The mirth on his narrow face spread. He clapped his hand together and got ready to perform a jig. “Hah. Allow me to show you then. Come. Come. Don’t be shy.”
She managed to slide her gaze over Roos, who for a split second was observing her as Kell had. Except he wasn’t eyeing her like she was an egg in a nest ready for the plucking. His expression said to her, This is my world. It’s not perfect. It’s all I have. Welcome. No apologies.
Ushered into the room to the right, Clara’s spine immediately tried to fold her in half and crush her stomach. A sick feeling reached up her throat. She wanted to retch but the collar and poles…
“Give her slack, boys. Let the fine selection on this morning’s breakfast menu come up out of her if she wills it.”
Kell barked and the dogs obeyed.
On her knees now, head tilted forward, dark curls swinging in front of her face, Clara unloaded the meager contents of her stomach. Warm acidy sick slid up and out of her throat and splattered her feet. Stomach empty, her chest heaved from a lack of air, her last breath expelled along with this morning’s meal.
A piece of cloth dabbed at the corners of her mouth. Someone was kneeling beside her, now tilting her head back to allow her sips from a canteen. Between sips, that same person washed more of the sick from her lips. A fowl aftertaste littered her mouth but she felt cleaner. Clara’s hair would smell of sick, especially if they didn’t allow her a bath or at least a bucket. Wait… Her hair was not in the way of her face. She turned her head. Roos knelt beside her, one hand loosely holding her hair back at the nape of her neck, the other holding the canteen and a bandanna.
“Looks like Roos got a crush,” Turnip Head poked, cackling wickedly. “Careful down there, mate. You’ll be cleaning battery acid off ya for a week. Hah.”
Clara jerked herself away from Roos. He let go of her hair and proceeded to replace the cap on his canteen.
“Wow. Ho. Looks like she just wants to crush you, Roos mate. Heh.” Turnip Head followed his oniony-stinking humor with a slap of the knee.
Clara, albeit tired from retching, forced herself to stand with what dignity she could muster.
From a far, Kell was regarding her curiously, tracing a thick metal thread under one eye. The engraving made it seem like he was wearing silver eyeliner.
She had embarrassed herself enough. Clara was determined to face this sight. She drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. If this is my fate, I’ll face it on my feet, not on my knees.
This new room was a torture chamber, probably of Kell’s design given the satisfaction on his face when he witnessed her initial reaction. It housed the complex junk tech powering the beastly bus golem. Clara saw this place as the golem’s engine room.
The hoses and wires strewn across the floor left little space for walking while large machines cramped the space further. The air too was busy, the noise a cacophony. Clara saw the order of the layout. She heard the symphony. Pistons pumped. Fans spun. Machines rattled and sputtered like thousands of horses running at peak performance, no winding, no exhaustion, fully fed and with a need to race. This was the beast’s chest, a strong set of muscles toned and powerful, able to left a great weight. Clara knew directly across the hall, behind the opposite door, a second engine room—with the same components—was set up.
Her mechanic’s eye appreciated the set up before her, the ingenuity behind creating such junk tech. What made her sick was the heart within this beast’s chest, the rig at the center. A conduit pulsed at the center of this wonderful construction of junk.
A conduit—a girl by her slim and dainty frame, with a chopped boy’s cut and cute bow lips pulled wide in exhaustion—was strapped to an upright harness. A harness made from a chair bolted to a slightly raised platform in the middle of the wire/hose sea. All the tubes and wires seemed to connect to the chair and the conduit via a metal helmet. She held on for dear life to what looked like two steel rods, one fixed to each of the chair’s arms; many of the wires wrapped around the wood chair arms and to those rods.
Clara did not need to see the girl’s curling toes, the veins standing out on her neck and forearms, to know the girl was tired and struggling to hold on, under pressure to create Nites, to stay tuned with the Field.
With a blink, Clara saw her father sitting in that torture chair. Strapped in. Nite sucking headgear rammed over his cranium. In her mind, the chair was draining Mo Danvers, sucking him dry. Over and over. Day after day until the marrow of his powers was gone and he hollow, a spent shell. Uncle Marty said the Junkers took Clara’s father years ago. He never came back to Linden Grove. His absence from home was because—like Roos said, the Junkers didn’t murder conduits—they used him up. Kell and crew used him up just as they were doing with his child here…
Hatred rolled to a boil within Clara’s already queasy stomach.
I was right. We are batteries. The Junkers are using us to power their large bus golem! Clara looked to Roos. You weren’t kidding when you said conduits are “useful”, huh?
Despite her heart being in her throat, Clara was determined to stand firm for as long as her spirit would allow. Or as long as it took Tink to bring help.
“So. What? Are you going to strap me in next so you can drive a few more miles down the next bend in the old roads?”
Doing well to appear abashed and injured by her insinuation, Kell took a step closer and fussed over her suggestion. His flamboyant gestures toward her, though, the exaggeration of hand gestures and wave of hips, was just plain overacting. “What do you take me for? A monster with no feelings? I am beside myself!”
Clara’s left cheek twitched and that side of her mouth curved slightly. “You’re a saint, captain. You down right make the list of the likely to enter the pearly golden gates those crazy thumper folk preach about on their boxes.”
“You would place me with those fanatics?” Now Kell truly was abashed, actually hurt. His honest reaction surprised Clara.
Another jerk came from the snares and Clara’s feet became confused and couldn’t decide which way to move. She fell on her rear, gasping for air.
“Hold your tongue!” Turnip Head shouted at her.
“You’re speaking to the lord captain!” The other man with the second snare added with weepy dedication.
“He’s a fine man, the captain is. He’s taken in us lost boys. Given us a purpose. Shown us a road.” The anger faded from the Turnip Head, though his cheeks flushed just as purple-red as his speech softened. His watery gaze, filled with emotion, never left Kell. “We had nothin’. No one wanted us. No community. Don’t have useful skill, you get thrown out. No parents to learn from after all. But Kell and his brothers… they take boys like us in, give us a boat, give us the roads. Damn fine men. He’s a right good captain!”
For his part, Kell did not restrain his men. He wanted Clara to understand their loyalty to him, the ferocity with which they would step in front of him if someone drew a pistol and shoved it in his face. They would die for Kell. They would scrub the decks of the beast golem with their tongues if their captain ordered.
Clara thought she might pass out soon. She could barely breathe. Beads of sweat slid down her face.
Finally, Kell casually flicked two fingers to the side, dismissively. Turnip and his buddy didn’t hesitate, they gave Clara slack. Her head went between her knees and sweet air started filling her lungs. She tried swallowing too quickly and choked.
Using those same two fingers, Kell lifted her head. “Air is up here, not between your legs.”
The Junkers behind her chuckled and hinted at how well they knew what was between her legs.
She struggled to speak. Kell saw this attempt and knelt to give her an ear pierced with two loops of cooper wire.
Another breath and Clara was able to make enough saliva to moisten her mouth, so speaking did not hurt. “Over and over, I’ll place you in a line with Reverend Jimmy himself. You and your lost boys may not kill conduits but you make us slaves, take our lives way. It’s as good as brainwashing, taking away our sense of self. You took my father from me!” Tears leaked from her eyes at this last line.
“Know anything about this, Roos?” Kell directed his words over a shoulder but kept looking at Clara, searching her light brown golden eyes.
“She told me Junkers killed her father, captain sir. His last name was, and hers is, Danvers. If that helps ya, captain.”
Kell closed his eyes, considered the family name for a moment, then he shrugged one shoulder lazily, he was near yawning.
“How many coppertops we have right now?” The second Junker holding the other snare asked.
“How many cages we got?” Turnip answered with a laugh at the joke no one else thought was funny.
“Monsters. All of you,” Clara declared quietly, hanging her head, chest still shaking from crying and near strangulation.
“Don’t remember a Danvers,” Kell revealed honestly.”I’ll be honest, though, we don’t often ask for names from our coppertops.”
“You are all monsters,” Clara spat. She raised her head to look at the conduit strapped into the chair rig. Blue Nite light glowed around her faintly, about to blink out. The conduit was barely staying erect in the chair. Almost spent then.
“Perhaps we are,” Kell agreed, completely serious now. “But we are surviving. In this world, that is all anyone can do. We use the tools available. It’s not an excuse but the way of things. Be glad we don’t burn coppertops like you at the stake. I hear thumpers do that, like you’re all witches from stories. A waste really and I think them fools. Truth? I don’t speak to the copperheads like I am you… Ms. Danvers.”
The conduit strapped in the rig arched her back in pain, a soundless scream on her lips. She hung there for a count of two before crashing down in her seat, gripping the metal handles more tightly now. Clara could not look any longer. She stared at Kell’s hard eyes instead.
“Different. Roos tells me you are not like the other coppertops,” Kell went on, regarding her like cattle he meant to purchase. Purchases such as cattle or horses no one takes lightly, not even Junkers with an eighteen-wheeler golem monstrosity. “He thinks you’re stronger than most he’s met. Powerful enough to power… well… to power more than a road golem.”
A short time later, he broke away from their shared gaze to peer over his shoulder at the agonized conduit. She barely had anything left to give to the chair and the golem.
“Get someone to switch it out before burnout occurs,” Kell ordered. Roos went running, although not before he spared a glance for Clara, wondering… what? Did he wonder if he could leave her with Kell, alone? Too late. She was in the pot and cooking, the water only growing hotter.
Once more Kell turned his attention to Clara. He sighed. “Different? Special? Maybe both. Strong? I’ll wager. But whatever you call yourself… I brought you here, showed you this,” Kell made a show of gesturing behind him, “to press upon you the fate you could have if you don’t cooperate. I have grand designs and I need a conduit of significant power to arrive at my ultimate destination.”
“Call me significant.”
Kell showed Clara his teeth, his wolfish hunger. “Hah. Such spark. Even in the face of fate. Those blind zealots of the His Hand have it all wrong. You know? Their own goody-good light has blinded them. They see little of the world. The potential in the world. They see conduits as demons. To me? Well… you all are the keys to a new world. A golden utopia filled with promise. A place grander than the ashes of the world we left behind on Black Out Thursday. Conduits were meant to usher in this new world. That’s your purpose! See? You all are endless power, energy to feed our imaginations and dreams! You see it, don’t you? In your dreams maybe? We share the same dreams… Clara.” He hesitated using her name but he wanted to turn Clara to his side, make her a willing participant. She knew the truth. She was still just a battery to Kell. Spreading his arms wide, Kell’s closed eyes fluttered and his head fell back so he faced the ceiling. He was witnessing a beautiful visage. “You see it? A city. A city bigger than any of the ruins left over from the old world. Taller than the heavens. Brighter than the sun! The world wants us to transcend to godhood. You all conduits are angels. And on your wings we shall soar.”
The word ‘soar’ hung in the air, a feather held up on a light gust. At this moment, Kell might have been in a church for all his veneration. Even the men behind her fell silent, sharing in their captain’s vision. This was his gift to them. His promise. He gave them a family. Next, he would lead them to a home for orphans. No wonder Roos followed this man.
“What do you say, Clara? Will you dream with me? Will you help make the dream into a city lit up with Nite light and humming with machines?” Kell offered her a hand. He wiggled his fingers. Come to me. I have candy!
“You killed my father.” She reminded Kell, as if he’d forgotten during their short conversation. “How can I help his murderer? Your promises are poison, captain, no better than hazer weed. Burnout, Kell!”
Clara spat at the captain’s boated feet and his expression curdled.
Just then, Roos returned followed by two more crewmembers dragging a conduit between them.
Kell’s arms shot out to display a flattened palm at Roos.
“Don’t need it.” Those hard eyes never left Clara. Kell was speaking to her more than giving orders to his crew. “Take that coppertop back.” He waved them away. “We’ve got a perfectly good battery right here. Strap her in, boys! Make it quick before we roll to a stop.”
Her skin broke out in gooseflesh, every pore opening up and taking one long shuddering breath at the same time.
An ocean wave of chills did not slide over her… frozen lightning struck her and held fast.
Clara gritted her teeth. She held tight to the metal rods fixed to the chair they had trapped her in, the metal pricking her flesh as if it were not smooth steel but a surface spiked with needles. The chair, the golem, was stripping every bit of power from her. Flesh. Bone. Soul. How much more could they take? Clara held on, though she knew not how or why.
They will not have me! Tink is coming back! She is!
Although she kept her eyes tightly shut, the room’s gentle blue Nite light danced on the inside of her closed eyelids, a dark dance floor.
She curled her toes and told herself not to utter a whimper. Screaming would be what they wanted. What Kell desired. Clara would not give in to the leering man. Knowing him—even as briefly as she did—he was probably still in the room, leaning back in a chair tilted on its back legs, puffing on a pipe, rotting teeth clenched on the stem, red weed smoke drifting up from the carved bone bowl.
Just when Clara thought they’d taken too much, sucked her dry, even the marrow from her bones, she dug deep and drew from a reserve she never knew existed within her. Boundless. Infinite. In that moment she hugged the world and it was sweet.
But like all sweets, too much can make anyone sick.
Clara finally gave in. She screamed and the blue light behind her eyes withdrew, leaving her in darkness.
Rest. They finally allowed her to rest.
“Clara? Are you alright? Clara… say something. Please.”
Back in the cage. She was no longer forcibly strapped into the bus golem’s engine. Yet the machine was traveling along. Beneath the cold, vibrating metal of the floor she left the road passing underneath her.
Sweat drenched her body. The filthy shift the Junkers allowed her to cloth herself with was soaked, chilling her body. Clara shook. Her teeth chattered as she pulled herself into a ball.
Warmth began to spread out from her shoulder blade. Friction, the firm caress of flesh meant to bring concern and compassion, moved back and forth against the space below shoulders.
Clara struggled to lift one eyelid, an iron weight dragged at her lash to keep her eye closed. When she managed finally, Wendy’s gloomy face greeted her.
“You were gone for so long,” Wendy told her, voice cracking. Now she was the one pulling Clara from the edge. “I thought you burned out.”
Clara drew in a breath, coughed, and when the fit subsided to a wheeze, she worked moistness into her mouth. Talking was still difficult but she managed. “Kell can burn out for all I care.” She cursed and began to cough again. Wendy rubbed Clara’s back more, arm stuck through the two sets of bars separating their prisons.
“How long was I gone?” It felt like hours to her. That did not make sense. The rotation was three hours, perhaps four depending on the conduit’s age and strength.
Wendy rolled one of her shoulder. “Long time. I didn’t think you’d come back. No one did. We feared…”
For the first time since she regained consciousness, Clara noticed the whispers gently reverberating through the kennel.
She managed a tiny grin, one quirk on one side of her mouth. Got them talking did I?
As far as Clara was concerned, this was a rowdy party at one of the inns or taverns she often dragged Uncle Marty home from.
Clara’s elation was short-lived, snuffed out by the interruption of another voice.
“They kept you inside the engine for seven hours.” Concern as deep as the strokes from Wendy’s hand seemed to further gentle Roos’ already docile tone.”At three and half, Kell was ready to pull you but you kept going, no sign of burning. He was curious.”
“About whether I was the one, the conduit he’s been looking for to power his shining future? His city for wayward scraps?” She spat these last words, hoping they would sting Roos as he left the room. Immediately she regretted her sharp and quick tongue.
Thankfully, Roos had left before she might have apologized to him.
Clara gave into sleep again and accepted Wendy rubbing her back until the gloom cocooned her and the nightmare retreated… for the moment.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Nineteen by clicking here…
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved