n3m3sis43: ((FMAB) Huuuughes and Winryyyy)
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This is chapter 1 of Cliffton book 1. It's a reworked version of parts of my previous chapter 1, if you're curious. I've added in some details and worldbuilding -- hopefully it's enough. As always, concrit is much appreciated. Rip me to shreds. I don't mind. Warning for implied sexual abuse.

If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:

I'm On Your Side
(Calla -- one week before the bomb)

It's not fair. It's not fair. That's all I can think as my sandals slap against the dirt. It's not fair.

Running's a struggle, and even breathing's a burden. It's hotter than blazes, and the air's as thick as the stews Ma cooks for Pa after a hard winter's day of farm work. Will I be cooking those same stews when the cool breezes come, or will Morgan turn up his nose at such commoner's fare? I'd just as soon not ponder that.

Instead, I speed up, mindless of the noise I'm making. A branch tears at my blouse like long, merciless fingers, and I nearly scream out loud. My stomach twists itself in knots, but I keep going. All I want's to get to the hollow tree. Kalen's been waiting nearly two hours, but I'm betting he's still there. He's got nothing better to do, not until his fighting team's sent off to join the War. His military likes its troops well-rested, he says.

I'm out of breath when I reach the fence, and there's a stabbing pain in my side, too. I force my feet to slow their pace as common sense creeps back in. I've got to be more careful. If the border guards catch me, they'll arrest me for sure. Not that it's likely they're even here. Troops rarely bother to patrol this part of the fence, despite the break in the barbed wire at the top. The gap's been here a year or more, and no one's seen fit to repair it.

And why in the blustering breezes would they? What'd be the point, when no one with half a brain ever crosses the border? Why'd anyone want to, when all that's on the opposite side's a bunch of war-loving savages, bred from birth to be cold-blooded killers. Or so the Instructors would have us all believe -- like our side's any better.

I scale the fence, dropping lightly to my feet on the other side. There's no rush now, because the hideout's not far from here. I make my way to the tree, gently parting the ferns around it to reveal the girl-sized opening in its trunk.

"You're late!" Kalen pokes his head out of the hideout, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief. Everything about him's so cheery, from his winning smile to his yellow hair. "I was starting to think something happened to you."

My stomach lurches again. Something did happen to me, but I don't exactly want to talk about it.

"Calla?" Kalen's smile fades. Is everything all right?"

I bite back a bitter laugh, knowing it'll only bring tears along with it. "I'm fine. You startled me, is all."

"You sure?" Kalen asks. "You look upset."

"Instructor Training ran late. It makes my blood boil, thinking about how I've got to spend the rest to spend the rest of my life 'enriching young minds'." I punctuate the words with air quotes.

I'm only half-lying. The idea of becoming an Instructor really does fill me with rage. As if I want to teach the evils of the Other Side to a gaggle of little girls. Except none of the other Acceptable Professions interest me, and some are downright demeaning. I'd much rather be a Doctor or an Architect, but I've learned my whole life I can't. The voice of my second-year teacher, Instructor Engstrom, echoes in my mind.

Acceptable Professions for agreeable young women are as follows: Floral Arranger, Instructor, Care Assistant, House Cleaner, Meal Preparer and Child Minder. These are the duties for which the female temperament is well-suited. All other careers are reserved for men. This ruling is in our best interest -- to question it would be disagreeable indeed.

"At least you don't have to go out and kill people." Kalen's voice has a bitter edge to it. He retreats inside the hideout, brown skin blending into the shadows. His eyes look disembodied in the darkness, and the sight's enough to make me shudder. It's only Kalen, but can't any man be a danger? I've learned that lesson all too well.

"You're right," I practically spit as I crawl inside the tree's trunk, flicking on our portable lamp as I do. "All I've got to do's spend my nights pleasing a husband I hate. Oh, and then I'll spend my days teaching children to hate a person I actually like. You've obviously got it so much worse than I do."

"I'm... sorry." Kalen toys with the lace of his boot. "I know it's hard for you, too."

Shame wells up inside me. It's not like my problems are Kalen's fault, and I haven't even told him what they are.

"I'm sorry, too," I whisper. When I lay my hand gently hand on his shoulder, I try not to notice the flush creeping across his cheeks. The last thing I need's another boy wanting me.

"It's okay. I know we've both been on edge all summer." Kalen brightens, gesturing toward an enormous Ubersteel crate." Anyway, I brought a game that might cheer you up. I've been playing it since I was just a kid, but my friends Wes and Devin -- they're from your side of the fence -- they said they'd never heard of it until they moved across the border."

Moved across the border? Who in the blazing fires of Squail'd do that? Certainly no one in their right mind.

"I still can't believe your side doesn't have Robot Scrabble." Kalen's forehead scrunches up in confusion. "What do your people even do for fun?"

"Robot... Scrabble?" I ignore Kalen's question.

Truth be told, I've got no idea how to answer it -- my people don't do much for fun. School, careers and household duties keep them far too busy to do much else. As the government says, active hands mean untroubled minds. I've heard tell of parties from my rich friend Elise, but the average folks lack the time and money for such frivolities.

If it weren't for my brothers, I wouldn't even have time to see Kalen. Between the four of them, they've taken on all my summer chores. They're good boys, doing their best to lighten my load. They can see I'm unhappy -- of course, I can't explain why, and I doubt they'd understand if I did. No man could.

"Yup." Kalen's eyes twinkle, and he pries open the lid of the box with a low, rusty creak. "It's just like regular Scrabble, only better." The muscles in his brawny arms flex as he reaches inside, pulling out large hunks of metal and placing them in a large, jumbled pile. They look like the tractor parts my pa sometimes sends me into town to fetch.

"How does it work?" I'm certain Kalen's messing with me.

"It's easy," Kalen says. "Every time you play a word, you get to pull from the Parts Pile. The better your score, the more parts you can take. You use the parts to build a robot -- when all the tiles are gone, your robots fight to the death. The player with the last robot standing is the winner!"

For a moment, I'm struck dumb. Leave it to the Other Side to turn an innocuous word game into an act of war. "Do your people do anything that doesn't involve fighting?" I finally manage.

"War is kind of a way of life for us." Kalen stops unpacking his robot bits, the shine leaving his eyes. "It's all most of my people care about. My brother Brendan's always ranting about how lucky I am. He's so jealous that I'm in the first draft for the fighting teams, but I'd let him take my place in a nanosecond if I could."

"My people aren't any better," I sigh and roll my eyes. "They don't trust anyone, not even each other. And none of them'll lift a finger to stop this pointless War, even though none of them know what the fighting's for."

"That reminds me." Kalen's eyes light up. "I was on the Splinternet last night, and I came across an old message board. The government was supposed to have shut them all down, but I guess they missed this one."

Technology's not my thing, but I nod and smile like I've got the faintest clue what Kalen means. We've got CompuPanels at school, but there's no need for such gadgets at home on the farm. I barely even know what the "Splinternet" is, let alone a "message board". If I act interested in his technobabble, he's got to get to the point sooner or later, right?

"So I was checking out the board," Kalen continues, "and I found an old map of the Majestic City region. My people had these archive-buildings back in the day -- 'libraries'. They housed all sorts of information, free for anyone to access."

Information, free for the taking? Impossible. It's got to be a myth, and I open my mouth to tell Kalen so. Except I don't have the heart to disappoint him, not with his eyes sparkling again, full of excitement over his dweeby information-farm.

"Most of the libraries were burned ages ago, but the map shows one that's not known to be destroyed. We could check it out -- look for records that explain how the War started in the first place. What if it's all a big misunderstanding? We could stop it, open the borders -- our peoples could be friends."

"Where's this... library?" I ask.

"It's out in the desert, at least a few hours' walk. We'd have to go at night -- it's way too hot to hike that far during the day. There's a good chance we'd need to bed down before making the return trip." Kalen's face turns a dusky rose. Apparently, the idea of "bedding down" together's too much for him. "W- we'd need a heatproof camping dome and some other supplies, but I can take care of that." He pauses and swallows hard. "What do you think, Calla?"

It sounds like a wild gronk chase, but it's the first spark of hope I've felt all summer. If we could open the borders, there'd be somewhere for me to go. A place Morgan couldn't come after me. I feel ill, remembering how he waited in the hall for me today. The way he broke the only rule a man's expected to follow with his wife-to-be. It'd be a blessing in disguise if it meant I'd be free of him. Except with his harsh words still ringing in my ears, I know I never will be.

You'd best not breathe a word of this to anyone, Woman. There's a special wing in the Home for the Intractably Insane, reserved for disagreeable young women like you. Ones who tell tales about their men. No one'll ever believe you over me, not with your commoner's blood and my family's good name. They'll put you away for life.

"Sure, why not?" I'm desperate enough to try anything. "My brothers'll cover for me with Ma and Pa."

"Great!" Kalen's eyes twinkle once more. "But first, my robot is going to kick your robot's ass!"

(Next chapter is here)
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