– CHAPTER TWELVE –
Stretched out before her in infinity, the dark blue of the ocean was still, reflecting the powder blue of the sky, making it believable a person could dive head first to the heavens. Puffy clouds sailed across the mirror surface and the lift and flap of the gulls gliding on the gentle currents of sea air was hypnotic enough to drive home the divine illusion. It all made Clara want to dive down into the sky.
Her confidence in what she saw was only broken by the large island out in the middle of the ocean. A clustering of buildings no more than six stories high sticking out of the blue. The cache Roos was leading her to was somewhere on that city island. Or so the young salvager asserted.
An earthquake had shaken Nork down to its marrow. Her father Mo Danvers had been young, just old enough to remember the rumors salvagers and conduits brought to Linden Grove about cloud-touching spires tumbling underneath the tectonic shifting. Only a few of the towers in the middle of the city had fallen, the older construction with weaker engineering standards.
The hurricane that swept over the coast not long after the quake had done more damage. That storm had drowned the city, creating the city lakes in this particular area, allowing the ocean to reclaim a large portion of the eastern neighborhoods.
Clara sat cross-legged atop a mass of bricks and stone that used to be someone’s roof, inside what possibly used to be a kitchen. It was hard for the conduit to determine, little remained inside the broken shell. Nearby a crumbling wall precariously leaned in her direction. Blackish-green mold spotted parts of the flooring thanks to typical seaside moisture. Electrical wires stuck out of a pile of splinters that used to be counters and overhead cupboards. Clara thought these were telephone wires. Closed circuits similar to those used to connect people to a vast communication network. For a long time after Black Out Thursday, long lines of similar wire were still strung across miles and miles of building tops in all the ruins. That would explain why the wires reached out toward the ocean, probably to another roof sunk below the ocean’s surface. Below Clara’s rubble perch, another wall made of brick was inch-by-inch sinking into what she thought of as the ocean’s edge. Waves lapped up this wall in an attempt to splash at her.
She wiggled her fingers at the waves. Can’t touch me.
Clara peered into the endless body of water below her, attempting to focus beyond the mirror surface, past the darting black fish shapes, and to the submerged part of the city. She imagined the buildings and streets as if trapped in a snow globe, a miniature cityscape captured forever in water, perfectly preserved in a glass sphere. She had known a set of sisters who collected the dioramic trinkets. These elderly twins were patrons of the former Wrench Works in Linden Grove—before Marty moved the business to the river town up north. These two aging women—shriveling, bent, and with grey buns pulled back so their faces were stretched tightly—would come to the old shop to pinch her little girl cheeks red and to purchase each of the snow globes her father would salvage. Snow globes were reminders of events and places from the old world. Her grandmother had told her snow globes were popular keepsakes back in the world long lost, each one commemorated places with unique sights and attractions, holidays, and special events. With a shake, snow or glitter would cascade over the three-dimensional depictions, little specs of magic with the power to bring memories to life. There was something sad and yet uplifting about those captured memories.
The edges of her mouth tugged up slightly at remembering those old women, how they smiled at her father when he would present one of the snow globes for their inspection. In doing so, he smothered twenty years from their wrinkled features and their eyes sparkled like the glitter in some of the globes. Often the sisters fought about whether they had been to one of the places depicted in the globes. Clara’s younger-self always giggled at their harmless arguments.
She shook away her thoughts and focused on the city island less than a mile away.
Reaching out a hand, she could almost clutch the cluster of buildings in her fist, if she tilted her head and squinted hard enough.
Where is Roos?
He had gone down into the dilapidated building Clara was currently roosting atop like a bored hen on a nest of ready to hatch eggs.
“This place is going to come down on your stupid head,” Clara warned the salvager before he left to explore.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her, “I’ve been here. The foundation and everything underneath is solid concrete.”
“And if while waiting for you I get tired of standing and decide to sit on the building and it caves in? Then what?”
He shrugged and managed an adorable crocked grin. “At least you’re up here. You can dig me out. Just wait here. I’ll be back in ten minutes, tops.”
It had been about seven minutes since he disappeared down an old stairway leading underneath the building. She checked her portable device again, still charged with a small Nite she’d infused in it once Roos departed.
If the eggs didn’t hatch soon, this hen was going to the yard to hunt and peck for worms.
Like all conduits, Clara’s abilities came with a craving that drew her to machines and electrical lines that once carried electricity.
Clara inhaled deeply, centering her concentration on her belly. This was a handy trick to push away all external stimuli. Then she drew from her own Field reserve. Pinched between her thumb and forefinger a Nite brightened to existence. The friction from slightly moving her fingers back and forth, almost as if she were going to snap her fingers, caused the Nite to snap, crackle and spark.
Wonder where Tink went? Last Clara saw of the human-like Nite, she was distraught over the big cat’s death—its loss of life. Tink had faded into the Field immediately after, probably to mourn. Could she have trailed the Field flowing out of the big cat and to the Field at large? Clara assumed the energy within and around humans and everything else in the world originated from the Field she could see with her sixth sense. After all, where else did she replenish the energy she used to make Nites? Upon everyone’s death, that unused energy had to move somewhere too. Back to the Field was the likely destination.
Clara reached out to the electrical wires buried underneath the collapsed roof. Eager to travel the line—as if riding the wire was second nature to it—the Nite leapt into the sheathed wires and shot out along the length to where the line ran underneath the ocean.
The bluish light of the Nite sizzled and sputtered at the surface of the water, unable to travel underneath the water.
Goose pimples broke out along Clara’s arms. She rubbed her upper arms until that tinkling faded.
Since Roos had left to investigate underneath the building, Clara had kept a light touch on the Field using her sixth sense. This time he would not sneak up on her. Consequently, she knew when Roos was coming up from the basement even before he silently exited the stairwell.
“All clear and safe,” he told her. “Ready to head down?”
Wind caught and snapped behind him the two ends of the bright red scarf he’d loosely tied around his neck.
In answer, Clara hopped off her perch, the eggs finally having hatched and the chicks excitedly squawking. It was time for this hen to leave the roost. A few large pieces of the bricks she’d been sitting on tumbled down the mound and rust colored dust wafted up behind the minor collapse.
I really hope this place doesn’t come crashing down on my head.
A stone box. That is about all Clara could say about the basement buried beneath the crumbling building. Quakes and floods, the sheltered space remained intact.
Four solid concrete walls and a ceiling allowed the basement to act like a bunker, the perfect fallout shelter for someone to hide out in during a hurricane or to wait out the end of the world. As far as Clara could tell, the shelter/basement managed its part. She wondered if anyone had used the space to hold over during a storm or other disaster…
With the ground floor’s roof caved in long ago, light from the surface crept into the stairwell and afforded the basement a margin of light, enough to see by.
Clara squinted and scanned the basement.
Hopefully the original residents of the building had escaped the cataclysms that had ravaged the ruin. She didn’t spy a skeleton. Good sign.
Broken shelving covered the floor, the pieces damp and springy underfoot. Clara smelled mold and after sputtering out a hacking cough, pulled a rag from her pack to cover her mouth and nose.
Similar thinking prompted Roos to pull his red scarf up around the lower half of his own face. Other than repositioning his scarf, he showed no sign of caring about the dangerous spores infecting the air. He went about kicking the broken boards away from one corner of the room. Space cleared, he revealed a hole in the floor and wall, a dark cubby.
“Nice hiding place,” Clara commented.
“Until you fall the twelve or twenty feet and hit the bottom, that is.” Roos walked past Clara and took a rope from his own pack. He then tied the end to a u-bolt hammered into the concrete wall opposite the basement’s gloomy pit. Putting one foot against the wall to anchor himself, he tugged hard. The knot held his weight and would hold Clara’s, who was shorter and lighter.
“You sure there’s a bottom?” A wry chuckle escaped Clara’s muffled mouth. She hoped Roos didn’t hear the trepidation she attempted to cover up.
He strolled past her in his way, lithe and quiet like a predator. The way he snuck around made Clara tense, the way a person freezes when a wild animal is nearby and the person wants to fade away into the unassuming background. Roos was dangerous, she didn’t doubt his skill with the pistols he wore at his hips, the salvager had saved her life with the weapons. More important of a question, was Roos dangerous to her. He held no animosity toward conduits like Clara, thinking their abilities with Field had useful applications. His quiet stalking bothered her. Predators were not brash, hunting in the open. Many of the beasts used concealment, fading into the background until time to strike. When would Roos pick his moment?
Out from his pack Roos pulled the remains of the rope he’d secured using the u-bolt; he seemed to have more than a mile’s worth of rope. Coiled at her feet like a sleeping snake, the pile was taller than Clara’s ankle. In fact, the weave of the scratchy hemp rope reminded her of the diamond pattern along a snake’s body.
I hate snakes. She shivered, her mind tricking her into hearing the deadly warning rattle of a serpent’s tail.
Roos dropped the unsecured end of the rope through the dark cubbyhole in the floor and wall. Within seconds, the rope pile next to Clara’s ankle unwound itself.
“Do you know how to repel?” Roos asked her, his gaze trained on the darkness waiting in the hole.
To answer him, Clara grabbed the rope with its snake-like diamond weave and knelt before the hole. She cast two Nites down the hole, coding one with an instruction to hover six feet below and the other to hover above the ground. Blue Nite light revealed a little more than ten-foot drop. A doable venture for someone who’d not worn a skirt and slippers since she was old enough to say ‘no’ and toss off those dress and slippers before proceeding to run around the apartment in the nude.
Holding the rope tight up top, Clara crawled into the hole and followed the firefly lights waiting for her below.
Afraid to make herself even a little weak, Clara had not empowered the Nites with enough Field energy for two fireflies to last long.
Her boots hit the ground and the Nite light went out.
“Coming down,” Roos called to her from above.
Tentatively, worried she might trip or walk into an obstacle, Clara took a few steps forward, hands out. Her fingers touched nothing. Yet she nearly fell on her face when her foot caught on something fixed to the ground.
Bending, Clara felt around her stuck boot. A heavy piece of metal a hand width wide, buckling by the unnatural bend, had caught her foot. Knowing this, Clara put both hands on the metal and wiggled free her foot.
Busy dislodging her foot, with no Nite light and having let go of her Field sense, she failed to hear Roos land behind her. His sneakiness definitely annoyed her.
“Hold on,” his voice told her as she rose to stand and brushed dirt from her knees.”I’ve got a couple of torches stored nearby… somewhere. Give me a moment to feel… around… Burn me! Where in the heck did I…”
You would think he’d never been down here before. Boys… Good thing Clara always came prepared. Wherever junk lay hidden, Salvagers could count on finding dark passages and holes. This is why Roos’ continued fumbling in the dark gave Clara pause.
She took off one of her pack’s shoulder straps and swung the leather bag around to her chest where she could rummage around more easily. Every time she packed her supplies she did so in the same methodical way, to memorize where every item’s placement. Clara found what she was looking for within seconds.
If her and Roos hoped to find this cache through the dark—whatever this underground access path was—then she would need to tap more of the Field than she had up above ground not a minute ago. Otherwise, she would never keep the metal torch functioning long enough. She could feel the slow trickle of draining fatigue immediately. It was similar to if she’d sprinted a mile and had to catch her breath before starting the jog again. Not an exhausting effort for Clara, only a bleak reminder of how she not long ago had shoved a ton of Field energy into a hungry big cat. The stitch in her side subsided after a moment.
The metal cylinder Clara held blazed with a yellow artificial beam, the beam spreading out to create a cone of yellow light.
A sweep of her immediate area found Roos hunkered down next to wall with his hands poised over two torches. Actual torches! Primitive sticks wrapped with cloth soaked in a goopy, solution similar to oil.
She Woke a spare metal cylinder and tossed the junk torch to Roos. Instead of attempting to juggle, he dropped the soaked cloth wrapped sticks and caught the junk torch. He pushed up on the slide button that activated the tool and the cylinder came to life. He knew how to use the junk torch then.
“Very useful,” he commented, a little sheepish for his extend time he spent hunting for the antiquated—by conduit standards—torches he’d left down here for them to use.
Clara again shined her light around her surroundings, trying to figure out where Roos had led her. “Me or the flashlight?”
She pointed the light’s beam at Roos’ face and he shielded his eyes with a forearm against the brightness.
“You said ‘useful’,” she reminded him, not hiding her irritation. “Well… which is it then? Me or the flashlight?”
“Both, I guess,” he responded, adding a noncommittal shrug. “You for Waking the light and the light for not possessing a heat source that could burn down the tunnel around us.”
They were in a tunnel all right. Actually, Clara’s father used to tell her stories about these exact tunnels. Had not Mo Danvers told his daughter about the tunnel network he called the subway? He had! And Roos led her down into the subway, Nork’s old rail system! The cache aside, this was an amazing find in itself since most of the above ground access points in the ruins were either flooded along with their respective neighborhoods, or blocked by unmovable debris. She kicked the set of steel tracks that had nearly tripped her to the ground. Overhead, the ceiling—made of concrete and gray brick, arching from one side to the other—was tall enough to allow a huge road golem space to travel along the rails. If she remembered the stories correctly, these burrowing road golems were known as trains and they had tirelessly transported people all over the expansive city miles. Trains used to run above ground too, outside the city limits, yet Clara had never seen one of the behemoth golems. People had long ago scavenged sections of the steel tracking outside the ruins, melted it down, and finally re-forged the once scrap material into more useful items for a different world. One day, Clara would find where the trains rested, forgotten.
Clara’s flashlight beam found the hole she and Roos had used to enter the subway. Edges uneven and jagged, the outline of the hole shouted of accidental creation. Either someone meant to renovate the basement and by mistake cut a path into the tunnels, or a quake had opened the hole where the foundation was weakest. Quake seemed the most likely cause.
“How did you find this place?” Clara asked as they began to walk the underground rails.
“Poked around,” Roos answered, tossing back his words behind a shoulder. He took the lead. “Any place not buried or flooded I dug through to see what I could find. Household appliances or machines. You know. Things I could sell.”
Suddenly Roos stopped and turned toward Clara. He cuffed up his sleeve just above the elbow, and shined his artificial torch’s light on a puckered scar high on his forearm, the gash not long healed.
“Nasty cut,” Clara commented appreciatively.
She had her own gallery of scars for show and tell, mementos from trips to Nork with Uncle Marty and run-ins with bandits on the road, run-ins like the one with the Mathers wagon the other day. The words I’ll show you mine if you show me more of yours almost slipped from her lips. The opaque black of the buried tunnel thankfully covered up the heat rising to the surface of her normally alabaster complexion.
“Pissed off seagull, actually,” Roos said.
Giggles escaped Clara unexpectedly. “What? It didn’t appreciate being hunted for dinner or something?”
One of those rare smiles broke through Roos’ reserved, closed off expression. “Dinner? No. I’m not into fowl.”
“Then what twisted the gull’s rear feathers?”
“You know that pile of building you were roosting on?”
“I was not roosting… I was… uh… I was perching.” She twirled two fingers to indicate she would let the difference in definition slide.
“So said the angry gull when its roost went tumbling down,” Roos chuckled low in his throat but because the cracks in his tough veneer were spreading, she let that pass too. Two quips in one day. Maybe next a landscape altering tsunami would slam Nork and flood this tunnel. Her world seemed about to end and Roos was trying to make the last minutes pleasant. Clara sped up the twirl of her fingers. Hurry up, smart boy.
“So where I was sitting in what remained of that kitchen?”
He continued, stumbling a little to get back into his story. “Um… yeah, so a small quake hit and part of the ceiling in the kitchen came down. I stumbled back, a little off balance, trying to get out of the way. Turns out a gull made its home up there on the second floor. The ceiling shook, fell, and I came face to face with an angry bird ready to peck out my eyes! It must of been a female gull with a nest of eggs the quake cracked. Pissed, she went after me, the closest person she could use to peck out her wrath with.”
Laughter exploded from Clara, making her snort. This threw Roos off. His body jerked back at the sudden eruption of mirth. After a heartbeat of indecision, he smiled despite himself.
“A big cat you’ll take down without blinking…” she began between beats of amusement.
“But a pissed off mama seagull,” Roos picked up, “is a whole different league. My best move was to stumble back and throw up my hands to deflect the feathers swatting me in the face.” He gestured as if the gull was there in the tunnel, squawking and flapping her long wingspan. “I backed up too far, fell down the stairs, and into the basement. The fall busted my elbow bad but when I looked up the hole was staring me in the face. I came back a week later, arm bandaged, and went down the hole to explore. Fast forward to now.”
“You should keep that story in your back pocket, tough guy,” Clara suggested, “attack of the nest defending gull will not impress too many young ladies.”
That comment, its seriousness, threw Roos off again and left him with no retort.
Clara shined her flashlight on her own face to reveal a gentle smile. She wanted him to know she was poking fun, and dare she say it, flirting with him. Just a little. It was better than tense silence.
“What if I’m searching for sympathy?” he asked, taking a step forward, following her lead as if they were dancing. “Would the story work then?”
She pretended to fall deep into thought, the light from her junk torch keeping her face aglow as she leaned toward Roos, allowed her body to sway loosely, and turned her eyes up to fix on his dark green gaze.
When the young salvager gulped nervously and his eyes began to dart in every direction, Clara said softly a single word. “Maybe.” That, plus an elfish grin, was all the answer she offered before she skipped around him and down the tunnel.
Much better. A mended clothesline with aired out laundry was much better than the open space between a dark alley.
Seconds later, Roos had gathered his wits and was jogging to catch up with Clara. He quickly passed her by a couple of steps and took the lead. But not before he made sure she saw him grinning like a silly boy back from playing in the Lady’s fountain.
“How far till we reach the city island?” Clara asked him.
“It’s a little less than a mile,” Roos answered, “seems longer with the twists and turns. Will your lights last that long?”
Each of the junk torches would last, or just about, until the two young salvagers arrived at the subway exist on the city island.
“Will you be okay? I mean, Waking the flashlights didn’t drain you too much, did it?”
He sure knows a lot about conduits, even our terminology. Clara chose to believe Roos was comfortable with conduits, accepting of them and their abilities. Most salvagers would keep a conduit at an arm’s length, even if the conduit was a customer they wanted to sell junk to. Members of the His Hand tended to hassle people who associated themselves with conduits. An arm’s length breathing room and eyes set in the other direction made life easier for most people. Life was hard enough in this harsh world… especially without friends, family, or allies.
“I’ll be fine,” Clara answered. She wrinkled her nose. The further along they went down the tunnel the warmer the air got, the thicker the air grew. It was like trying to swallow a mouth full of honey, only less sweet, and you were breathing in the sappy nectar as well as eating it. Breathing, Clara’s chest shuttered with difficulty.
Eventually Clara added, “I put enough Nites in both torches so they won’t run out for a long time. Don’t worry, Roos. Walking is not hard for me, I’ll be back to one-hundred shortly. Not needing to code the Nites takes less from me too and the torches are simple. No coding necessary.”
Now if she were running and breathing the thick air, she might feel more tired, the stress on her body would keep her from replenishing her Field store.
“Okay. My turn for a question,” Clara announced. She pointed her light to an open door coming up on their right.
On either side of the rails were narrow platforms, about two feet off the ground. Maintenance workers probably used the platforms to keep out of the way of rushing golems traveling on the rails. Up ahead on the right platform was an open door.
“Don’t know. Never looked inside, I was too excited to see if the tunnel went to an island not taken by the ocean. I wasn’t worried about anything else.”
As eager as Clara was to note the cache and the route there, her conduit curiosity urged her to explore the mysterious ajar door and the contents of the room beyond. The urge tugged her toward this minor detour, away from her original goal. The curiosity in Roos’ tone only encouraged her further.
Clara hopped on to the platform and advanced toward the open door while Roos followed.
What curious items did the tunnel maintenance crew store in this room? Mundane tools sure. Perhaps there were control panels too, once showing the status of the rails, tracking the golems’ locations. There could be spare parts for the tunnel golems, in case any of them broke down between their schedule routes! What a treasure horde! Untouched! All hers!
The possibilities tickled Clara the way the Field nipped at the nap of her neck, always pressing, pressure building.
She leveled her flashlight’s beam at the door, ready for it to shine on all the sleeping wonders from the old world.
She reached out a hand to push the door further open.
The door flew toward Clara at full force, slamming into her, hitting the spot on her forehead that Roos had bandaged after their encounter with the big cat.
Pain stabbed at her head and the world burst into a flash of light.
Dimly she heard the heavy closing of the maintenance door behind her followed by the click of a latch. Wait. Hadn’t the door been in front of Clara?
It had. Less than a couple seconds ago she’d been walking toward the door, intent on entering. Now Clara lay with her cheek pressed to the floor, an ache spreading out through her torso. Her junk torch rocked back and forth near her head. When had she dropped the torch? When she fell? She had fallen. Had she tripped… or did someone push her?
Clara shot to her feet and forgot the junk torch. No matter. She wheeled around and slammed her fists against the locked door.
“Roos! Help me! Please!”
Her yelling rang in her head in time with the fist pounding against the door.
A detail nagged at her as she called to Roos.
Someone had pushed her? She couldn’t remember her foot snagging like before on the rail.
“Roos?! What’s going on?”
From behind her, someone had pushed her, shoved her into the room. She was sure of this fact now.
“Burn it, Roos! Where are you?”
Clara tried tapping her pleas against the metal door. Only Uncle Marty or Tink know Morse Code, though. Roos probably wouldn’t know the special code her and Tink—her and her father first—had used. A secret code was not much use if other people didn’t know the sequences of letters and numbers.
Someone pushed her in here…
Again she pounded, fingernails digging into the flesh of her palms, as if a tighter fist would ring louder.
“C’mon, Roos! This is not funny! Let me out. Please…”
Roos pushed her in here…
She stopped pounding on the door.
Footsteps kicked up gravel as someone ran back down the tunnel. The sound retreated until all Clara heard was a ringing in her ears.
Clara resumed pounding the door with her fists while her cries attacked her head.
Wanna keep reading? Turn the page and continue to Chapter Thirteen.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved