– CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO –
“Ouch.” Wendy’s entire body lurched.
“Oops! Heh. Sorry.” Clara drew back the screwdriver she had been using to probe the inhabiting collar around Wendy’s neck. While attempting to wedge the flathead of the tool into a hairline seam, Clara had slipped and the flathead grazed the dark flesh of Wendy’s neck. She drew no blood but there was a light scratch where the corner of the flathead road across Wendy’s skin.
“I thought you said you know what you’re doing!” Wendy’s words were sour. Her face scrunched up as if she had taken a whole bit out of a lemon.
“Most of the time my tools tighten and loosen nuts and bolts on machines.” Pausing, Clara winked at Wendy. “Machines have off switches.”
Gentle when she touched the other conduit’s arm, Clara guided Wendy back down to sit again on the three-legged stool.
Clara continued to pry at a panel on Wendy’s collar. Its seams were thin, barely noticeable in the shadows of Wendy’s chin or when the ring of metal was turned around, the seamed side obscured by her bristly shoulder-length hair.
Anticipating another slip from the tool, Wendy sucked on her teeth and her eyes narrowed to slits. One eye peeked open and down in an attempt to watch Clara’s work. The dark-skinned conduit mumbled something about how she didn’t make the same ticks and grinding noises as a machine. Clara laughed and shook her head when Wendy clucked her tongue and blew air between her teeth to make the sounds of a machine, a machine breaking down and on its very last Nite! She nearly slipped again between a snort and chuckle.
Those seams in to the metal were impossible to see in the available candle light. If Clara could fling open the curtains drawn closed over the windows, allow morning light to stream into Merlyn King’s sick room, maybe then she wouldn’t need to squint to see.
There! She had it! Clara finally managed to dig the flathead into the seam just enough for a bit of the tool to get under and…
The panel popped open.
Clara’s mouth curved up on both sides smugly. She then made a popping sound with her mouth to mimic the metal panel’s opening. Let’s see what we’re working with here.
The collar itself was as thick as Clara’s thumb—five pounds heavy if her estimate was correct. With only a casual glance, the collar also appeared to be one unbroken ring of metal. Careful inspection had revealed where the collar closed, the break line hidden by designs etched across the surface of the metal. Intricate crosses. Dove couples with ever reaching wings. Crowns made of twisting thumb-pricking thorns. All the symbols seemed like runes or wards from fairy tales, the very same ones wizards would use to guard against evil. Clara snorted with derision when Rose told her the symbols’ purpose and about the collar’s design. The collar resembled a piece of junk. Among the religious runes were tiny now dead lights meant once to flash, turn dials, and triggers you could flip. As far as Clara could tell none of the dials or triggers had a purpose. The design was deliberate but random. Rose said the Reverend meant the collar as a yoke, a burden for the conduit who wore the inhibitor, a physical reminder of their sin. Clara understood the metal etchings better after that final clarifier… the crosses, doves, and thorns were supposed to be actually—honest to goodness—wards to protect the conduits against the influence of the Field and junk tech. Or so the thumpers believed.
If the designs had any actual power, Clara could not see or feel any religious magic coming from the carvings. At least, nothing that gave her the same tingling as the Field… which to her was magic, or the closest thing she knew as magic. She also saw a reason for the collar itself…
Clara grinned madly and felt like shouting outrage. She wanted to tramp over to the Reverend’s house/chapel and scold the man and his god.
A trick. A bag of nuts and bolt everyone is convinced holds coins!
She reversed her grip on the screwdriver and thrust the tool down, flathead side down, into the floorboard near her thigh.
Wendy squeaked from the sudden motion and nearly jumped off the stool again.
“Clara.” Wendy said her name but paused, seeing if the moniker would draw the mechanically-inclined conduit’s attention.
It didn’t. Clara’s wrist bent sharply as she began to work the tool back and forth, digging its dull, flathead into the wood, peeling away fingernail sized curls of wood shavings.
“What’s wrong, Clara?” Wendy swallowed hard. “Can you get the collars off us? You can’t can you?”
“I’ve seen that expression on your father, girl,” Merlyn said with the reminiscing air of a person recalling a frightening yet humorous memory. He was standing at the window, alert as a big cat in the weeds or some large bird of prey. He was ready to swoop down if his room’s door opened, to shoo away any nurses checking in on him and who might talk to a gideon, Croo, or the Reverend himself about Clara tinkering with the conduit collars.
“She has her father’s eyes,” Merlyn was speaking to Wendy directly now. “Playful and full of life, ready to dance with daggers for the thrill the danger brought. It’s the same look he displayed when showing Rose and Clayton’s father a new piece of junk. Sometimes he was sure the machine would work. Other times… it was a gamble. Either way, most times, we laughed. Mo was as good as any conduit, and a better mechanic. But he was willing to dance with daggers, with machines that would suck him in and spit him out as ribbons if he drew too near the engines grinding, turning, and pumping.”
Hearing Merlyn recall her father so fondly softened Clara’s anger. Suddenly her hand began cramping, her wrist sore. She loosened her fingers and the tool fell among the wood shaving. Rubbing circulation back into her claw-like digits, Clara managed to straighten her fingers.
Merlyn appeared by Clara’s side, his knees popping as he knelt where she hunkered on the balls of her feet. Knuckling his long white mustaches, he peered into the open panel on Wendy’s collar. His hand massaged the muscles in Clara’s back until she felt them relax; she then rolled back onto her heels, planted her rear-end on the floor, and let out an exhalation of relief.
“What am I looking at?” He squinted and leaned in for a closer view at the collar’s secrets. The guts in the collar appeared complex. Though Clara doubted the older man knew what he was looking at. “I’m guessing you were right, Clara… the His Hand are using junk tech to keep the conduits from accessing their abilities.” Merlyn blew at his mustaches and his nose twitched as the white hairs brushed his nut-brown nose.
“Are you joking, Mr. King?” Wendy asked, tilting her head down as if to better view the collar. All she saw were her feet.
“Nope.” He shook his head and added with a huff, “Hippocrates.”
“What did any of us think kept conduits from sensing the Field and creating Nites, huh?” Clara waited for Wendy and Merlyn to add imaginative suggestions. “Prayers? Faith? Maybe a dip in holy oils to anoint the burning junk?!”
“Would anyone have found and gotten the panel off?” Merlyn asked Clara.
“Probably not. Most conduits are not mechanics. A lot of my customers are conduits who can’t fix their own junk. And, like Rose said,” Clara snarled, “this is a yoke and we beasts of burden are cowed to submission.”
Now that Clara knew what to look for, things Tink observed and explained on the Junker’s golem came back to Clara. The distracting distortion keeping me at arm’s length from the Field is too similar to what Tink described after she broke through the Junker’s tech. They had a machine that put out a blocking frequency to isolate the Field within the golem, creating a bubble. Nothing in, nothing out. Same thing here. Except there’s something else I’m missing…
“Can you turn off this thing then?” Wendy’s hands went to the collar and tugged desperately. A couple of her fingers found the open panel and she tried pinching the wires, pulling on them.
“That’s just it,” Clara began to explain. “It’s more complicated. It dampens the Field with a duel frequency. I think it also sucks away the Field we try to pull in. Imagine grabbing at smoke. The smoke looks physical but when you touch, it slips through your fingers. Same here. That’s that distance we sense. Reach out… go ahead. It feels like the Field is there but out of reach? Yup. You’re touching the Field but the collar is draining what you attempt to take in from your inner Field. A lot of stuff around the world is broken. We can still infuse Nites into broken machines and they just won’t work well, if at all. Nites go right to machines, seek them out, whether they work or not.”
Despite Clara’s explanation of futility, Wendy kept trying to break her collar. Her breathing quickly became laborious from the desperate excitement, like a rat trapped in a bucket over a fire, the rodent wanting out but trapped.
Merlyn reached up and with his leathery, worn rancher’s hands he grabbed Wendy’s scrabbling hands, held them for a couple seconds, and managed to calm her. Then the old ranch foreman slid his long fingers over the etched metal. He was looking for a clasp, a way to get the collar off Wendy. “The metal is also keeping the Field away from us conduits,” Clara continued. “I’ve seen it before. It insolates. That metal can keep radio waves from going in or out of a building made of the stuff. And the Field is similar to radio waves.”
“Take it off then,” Wendy demanded weakly.
“I’m trying, miss,” Merlyn assured. “Hold still now.”
“No clasps,” Clara said with exasperated disappointment. Didn’t the older man think she had searched for a way to get the collar off? “The collar is held shut somehow. Maybe the Field is doing it.”
“Your own abilities turned on you, trapping you?” Merlyn said spitefully.
Clara nodded curtly. Wendy began to sob. Merlyn tried to comfort the dark skinned conduit, who had spent more time than Clara in enslavement and had fallen more times when hope raised her too high only to let her drop again.
]The door to Merlyn’s room flew open in a rush of rage to admit a huffing Rose, her shirts swirling.”He’s an arrogant… A know-it-all… And an idiot with wool stuffed where his brain should be! A-a woolhead!”
The wool-headed arrogant idiot had to be Rose’s brother. Last night he had brushed off Rose’s attempts to speak with him on the urgent matter of convincing the Reverend to release Clara and the other Junker conduits, at whatever cost the His Hand leader requested of the Mathers family. This morning, after making sure Clara received the tools she requested the previous night, Rose had left to find her brother again. She found him training with the His Hand’s guards, those men allowed to carry arms in the name of their god, to protect the followers from those who would stand against their god’s law.
Clara guessed Rose’s second attempt to speak with her brother had not gone half as well as she planned.
Merlyn strode across the room to the door and closed it. He leaned his old bones against the door, crossing his legs at the ankles, and reached into the folds of sling supporting his healing limb. As if a magician pulling a coin from behind Clara’s ear, the old man flourished a pipe with his good hand, the steam short, the bowl carved with leaves. He tapped tobacco into the pipe’s bowl from a pouch he kept inside his belt, packed the dark leaves with a thumb, and finally lit the pipe with a match he flicked alit with his thumbnail. What was more magical, Merlyn did all this with only one good arm and hand!
Smoke tickled Clara’s nose. Not as sweet as the red weed that addicted many, that syrupy stink clung to Marty like a monkey latched to his back. Thinking of Marty made Clara imagine him begging the Reverend for his daughter Deseray’s release, offering the religious leader her father bound and gagged as payment.
Anger burned away the image and made Clara listen to Rose while she told the room about her meeting with Clayton. Or rather, Clayton’s refusal to help in the way Rose wanted. He explained to his younger sister how Clara and the conduits were better served staying with the His Hand, accepting that their abilities were temptations they needed to overcome. He feared Clara might falter if let loose into the world were junk littered the ground and with people who still remembered and yearned for the world before the “the Flood”. Too many temptations.
Rose did an exaggerated imitation of Clayton’s voice as he might have delivered his refusal to help them. She made her brother sound like a bear woken early from hibernation and needing to fill his belly. If the situation were not so dire, Clara might have laughed. Rose did, albeit her mirth came as more of an unladylike grunt.
When she finished, Rose sat down on the bed, exhausted from her performance here and her failure with Clayton.
“Can you trust the Junkers, Clara?” Merlyn asked, knowing their options for freeing her, Wendy, and the other conduits were more limited now. “If not, I can ride out soon. I would be back to speak to Rose’s father in two days, at most. He will not allow Clayton to dictate the family’s alliances, nor will he allow Mo Danvers’ daughter to remain a prisoner against her will. He has men who will march.”
“I proposed a deal to Roos,” Clara reminded the older ranch foreman. “He’ll carry the terms to Kell.”
“This deal of yours depends a lot on the decisions of the conduits,” he reminded her, “conduits he wants and needs. You’re asking him to change how the Junkers have lived on the roads, outside the communities. Do you think he’ll buy in to this new way of life? Come now, Clara! Do you think he’ll gamble his dreams?”
“Reverend Jimmy means to have my choice sooner than later. I don’t have a lot of options, none of the conduits here do. I’m just trying to make sure life is fair for them, if all goes well. If.” Clara chewed her lower lip and looked back at Wendy’s collar. She needed a way around the collar’s dampening of their abilities. How?
“What about stalling him?” Rose asked.
Clara shook her head. She wanted to spit. “Maybe. But I won’t.”
“If it means your freedom, Clara…” Merlyn said.
“He killed my father, Merlyn! I want the man dead, not for my neck to become stiff from bowing. No.”
Best Clara could promise was that she would avoid the Reverend and his big faithful dog, Croo. Stand her in front of Jimmy Boy, well, she might just stick a knife in him. And if only a butter knife was only at hand, she would make due.
“Marty needs a conduit for his plan to work?” Merlyn wanted to confirm what the mechanically-inclined conduit told them early this same morning.
“A strong conduit,” Clara answered with a sigh, “one that would know how to program the instructions and who possesses enough of an inner Field to create a whole heap of Nites. Never mind that probably only a couple people could manage both. Conduits don’t advertise themselves, he’d never find someone in time. And the Junkers lost their stock of conduits when Clayton and his new buddies grabbed all of us.” She felt good laying some blame at Clayton Mathers’ feet.
“A couple conduits could do what you described?”
Doubt settled heavily in Clara’s stomach, she wanted to curl up into a ball and wait for someone else to come up with the plans and workarounds to issues in those plans. “Maybe not even that many.”
Unsure, she shrugged. “My father tried once. You know how that ended, Merlyn.”
Merlyn nodded reluctantly while sucking on his pipe. He drew in the white smoke deeply and then puffed out three rings from his open mouth before speaking. “Stalling it is. I’ll ride out soon as I can get past those fussy nurses. Keep working the collars, girl.”
Bending the knee to the Reverend was out of the question. Clara would not say she be fixed with their ministry. Maybe she could hide out with Sammy for a few days. The compound was large, large enough to get lost in. The boy wanted to avoid the schooling the His Hand forced all children to attend, and he wanted to avoid his foster siblings even more.
Where was Sammy anyway? He said he would meet her in the morning.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty-Three by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved
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