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This is chapter 2 of Cliffton book 1. This is all new stuff. A couple people asked to see the library trip, and I needed a less expository way of explaining why Kalen and Calla decided to set off the bomb. As always, concrit is much appreciated. Rip me to shreds. I don't mind. No warnings that I can think of.


If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:
Prologue | 1



Never Judge a Book By Its Cover
(Kalen -- four days before the bomb)



We've been walking for over three hours, and still no sign of the library. By the time we crest yet another sand dune, I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. Pushing aside my doubts, I stare at the sand below.

Hey, what's that down there? I squint into the distance. It's a hulking object, a shadow in the weak moonlight.

"Is that it?" Calla breathes.

I dig my night-vision binocs from my pack. A building, the first we've seen in what feels like forever. It's impossible to make out much else. "Looks like it. Let's make camp when we get to the bottom." My stomach growls so loudly I can barely hear my own words. "Aren't you dying to eat something besides a NutriBar?"

"Lands alive, yes." Calla sounds as relieved as I feel.

When we reach the bottom, I want to do a victory dance. I turn to the RoboCart and begin unpacking our gear.

"Is it supposed make that ear-rending screeching?" Calla eyes the cart warily.

I shake my head and turn it off. It belches smoke, filling the air with the acrid stench of burning electronics. Sighing, I turn my attention to setting up our sleeping quarters. I unroll my heatproof camping dome and lay it on the flattest spot I can find. When I press the Expand button on the front, the dome inflates with a loud huffing sound.

"Food's heated up." Calla hands me a bowl, then sinks gratefully into the camping chair I offer her. All the work she does on the farm sure has made her tough -- she's kept up with me every step of the way. Although I don't understand why her side doesn't have scientists and machines to take care of food production. Ours does.

"Hey, Calla?" I ask. "How come people do the farming on your side? Isn't there tech to handle that?"

"Active hands mean untroubled minds," she intones, like a schoolgirl reciting her lessons. Then she rolls her eyes. "Technology's used as a diversion in what little free time we've got. Labor keeps us occupied the rest of the time. I reckon the government'd prefer we don't have much time to think."

I pick at my food, even though Mother packed my favorite, cheesy hashbrown casserole. Maybe Calla's government has a point -- my mind sure was less troubled when my hands were busy. Now the questions are creeping in. What if Father finds out I lied about being with Cam and Brad? What if we can't get inside the library? What if we don't find anything?

What if we do?

Setting my half-eaten meal aside, I concentrate on the RoboCart instead. Even after I've meticulously cleaned and lubed every inch, it still screams like it's in pain when I turn it on. Maybe I should have brought my AutoDuffel after all. But it's military issue -- people will ask questions if it's all scratched up when I show up for team training.

When you're not who you say you are, you avoid questions at all costs. I know that better than anyone. All my life, I've played the perfect soldier, the model student. I was crowned King of the Reaping, recruited for a fighting team before anyone else. At graduation, my class voted me Most Likely to Make Heads Roll.

I never gave a damn about any of it, but Brendan sure did. He's always been jealous, assuming my life is easy because I have what he wants. Brendan doesn't see how hard it is, having to hide who I am just to fit in. How lonely it makes me.

Something tells me Calla would understand -- that there's more to her story than she's letting on. I've spent my whole life with a smile on my face, covering up what's underneath. Do that long enough, and you learn to spot it in others. But you also learn not to get involved in other people's business.

"So, what do you know about this library?" Calla's voice comes from above.

With a start, I look up. She's taken down her hair, raking her fingers through it like a comb. It cascades over her shoulders in shiny black waves, and I have to will my jaw not to drop. She's the perfect girl, with her thick-lashed brown eyes, full lips, and flawless dark skin -- and she's a powerhouse, too. If only she liked me the way I like her.

"Kalen?"

Oh, yeah. Library.

Retrieving the folded map from my pack, I spread it out and show her a tiny "X". "There should be an entrance right here."

"What's this over here?" Knitting her eyebrows together, Calla points to a perfect semicircle inked on the map. Like a fence, it encircles a region on the coast of the Great Sea. My heart plummets into my boots.

"It's -- it's -- " Swallowing hard, I try again. "It's the border."

"The border?" Calla echoes.

"Yeah." I let out a gusty breath. "We really are all savages, penning your people up like livestock."

Calla puts her hand on my arm. My face burns despite the cool desert night. "Who's to say your people're even the ones who did it?" Her eyes look a thousand years old, even though she's seventeen like me. "Our government's always watching out for our safety. Or so they say. For all we know, they're the ones who put up the fence."

"Good point," I admit. My dazzling smile belies the gloom I feel inside. I know my people all too well.

* * * * *

"Well, that was certainly an adventure." Calla laughs -- a bright, resonant sound that fills the empty space.

It slowly fades away, leaving the abandoned building silent and dark as a tomb. The leatherwings have settled back into slumber. Outside in the distance, desert dogs howl, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.

Unshouldering my pack, I pull out two XploreHelmets and put one on. There's a slight tingle as it links with my neurovision implant, bathing the room in a soft, pervasive light. I grin, and for once it's genuine. We scaled a pile of rubble and jumped through a ruined roof to get inside, but it was worth it. The shelves lining the walls look intact, as do the rows of books they hold. I hand Calla the second helmet. "You handled yourself well -- you'd make a great soldier."

Calla snorts. "I'm positive all soldiers duck and scream the way I did."

"Who doesn't scream the first time they disturb a leatherwing nest?" My gaze still riveted to the bookshelves, I shrug. "I know I sure did. We should be okay now, though -- as long as we're relatively quiet, they'll stay asleep."

"We ought to go look at those books." Calla snickers. "You've been undressing them with your eyes since we got here."

I'm standing in front of a shelf in nanoseconds. For a moment, I stare, awestruck -- I've never seen so many books in one place. My people don't have much use for them outside of classrooms, but they've always fascinated me. Inhaling deeply to take in their musty smell, I reach for a volume with careful, reverent hands.

But as soon as I turn a page, it crumbles to dust -- as do my hopes when each book I open does the same.

I grit my teeth to stifle a frustrated scream. Yelling could wake the leatherwings, or cause the roof to cave in further -- and if there are troops stationed nearby, I don't want to draw them here. There shouldn't be, not in the middle of nowhere. Besides, if the military knew about this building, it would be rubble by now. Still, I don't want to take any chances.

"Kalen, come here!" Calla shouts from far away. "I found something in the back."

Swallowing my disappointment, I follow her voice to a doorway marked "Special Collections". When I step inside, my heart skips a beat. In the center of the room stands a case stuffed with books. It looks like smoked PlastiGlass, with no visible locks or hinges. I run my fingers over its cool surface -- it feels slick, almost oily. No cracks or seams.

"Are you going to blast it open with one of your lasers?" Calla teases. "You must've brought at least one."

"You know me too well." The corners of my mouth twitch, my mind eased by our friendly banter. "The problem is, I can't tell how thick this material is. I'm not even sure what it is. If I overshoot, I'll damage the books."

"What if it's got some sort of invisible lock?" Calla chews a fingernail. "I've seen them in town, on doors in some of the public buildings. Only government workers can open ours, but maybe this one'd be different if the information here's truly free for the taking." She's still gnawing at her nails -- even she doesn't believe what she's saying.

I don't think I do either, but I sure don't have any better ideas. "How do the locks work?"

"The ones back home? Like this." Calla places her hands down flat on top of the case. With a low-pitched buzzing, it glows bright red. The glow slowly dissipates and the buzzing stops, leaving the books as inaccessible as before.

"Let me try." My cheery tone implies a confidence I don't feel. "Maybe only my people can open it."

Bracing myself for defeat, I lay my own hands on the lid. Nothing happens. My insides turn to lead -- I've failed. Then the room's infused with an eerie green light and the lid dissolves beneath my hands. Willing them to stay steady, I pick up a book and cautiously thumb through its pages. They hold, crisp and strong as the ones in my schoolbooks.

My composure cracks and I cry out in joy. Grinning at Calla, I gather a heaping armload of books and carry them over to a large table at the rear of the room. Her dark eyes flash with excitement as she follows my lead.

"I'll start with the fence," I say. "You want to research the War itself?"

Calla nods. Tense with anticipation, I grab the first book in my stack and flip straight to the index.

As I page through volume after volume, my enthusiasm gives way to dismay. There's nothing more about the fence than I'd find in a fifth-year History of War textbook. The fence was built 76 years BZ -- Before the Zero-Year. The Zero-Year was the start of the War, 1183 years ago. Everyone knows that much. It's even in children's rhymes.

Turning back to my shrinking pile of books, I reach for the one on top -- and my breath catches in my throat. It's bound in animal skin, which means one of two things: it's very old, or very valuable. In a place like this, it probably means both. The book feels comforting in my hands, like a well-worn pair of boots. I open it and begin poring over it.

The Great War began in Lord's Year 5076, but the first stirrings of conflict predate the construction of the People's Fence. The fence was erected in LY 5000 -- the identity of its builders is unknown, and the root causes of the War are the subject of perennial debate. This much is certain: at the turn of the 51st century, the North and South

I try and fail to restrain myself from snickering at the use of the word "erected." Calla shoots me an odd look.

"I -- I'm sorry," I stammer. My ears are burning. "The language in this text -- it's so old-fashioned."

Averting my eyes before I can embarrass myself further, I read on.

This much is certain: at the turn of the 51st century, the North and South were states in a single nation.

Now that's something I never learned in History class.


(Next chapter is here)
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