A terrorist? That's impossible!
They've got my brother all wrong. Sure, I saw the explosion just like everyone else, and I saw him with his finger on that damn button. There's no way he meant to die, though, or to take that girl with him.
You should have seen him mooning around here all summer. With a low draft number like his, any normal kid would've been celebrating. A spot on a fighting squad is hard to come by, after all. We train for war all our lives and celebrate the day we're of age to enlist. Even then, most of us are waitlisted for a year or two. Hell, I'm still waiting.
Not Kalen, though. He was special.
He could run faster and farther than any of the other boys his age. Not only that, but he was smart to boot. Before he was even old enough to start his lessons, he had already taught himself to read and write. When he did reach schooling age, the Bookmasters moved him a year ahead, to the second-year class with me.
They didn't want to separate you, Mother said. Even then, I knew it wasn't the whole truth.
We were close back then, though, almost like twins. On days when the weather was fine, we played soliders, tromping through the woods to the fort we built in a hollow tree. Rainy days meant sprawling on the rug in our room, playing Robot Scrabble and Tank Yahtzee. At night, we huddled together under our blankets, whispering about the future we would share.
You'll be history's most decorated fighter! he breathed. I'll build the most fearsome robots the world has ever seen.
School was hard that first year. The older boys in our class didn't much care for Kalen, the small blonde interloper who outshone them at every lesson. In a fair fight, he could have bested any of them. Problem was, the fights were never fair.
I'll never forget the day Teacher made me stay inside at recess, writing on the electroboard 100 times "I will not make farting noises in class." When I finished and came out to the playground, Kalen was covered in mud. Tears cut tracks down his dirty face; he was crying too hard to tell me what happened. All he could do was snuffle and point.
Teacher sent three boys home that day. Braddock Kingston left sniveling through a broken nose. Mother came to fetch Kalen and me; when we got home, I bloodied his nose too.
That's for not fighting back, I told him. I have to give him credit; he didn't cry that time.
Mother shook her head, but didn't say a word to Father when he came home. He would've whipped my hide clean off, no doubt. Teacher wouldn't have me back for a week, but I never regretted what I did. No one picks on my brother except for me.
By the end of the year, Kalen was giving as good as he got. There was the time he put Itching Nanites in Farren Allston's lunch. The class was in an uproar as Farren scratched so hard he fell out of his chair. After he reprogrammed Jensen Brady's Science Robot to sass Teacher, the other boys quit tormenting him. As far as they were concerned, he was one of us.
Underneath, though, Kalen's always been different. When the other kids were skirmishing or practicing their gun skills, he'd have his nose in a book. He was always tinkering with those robots, but did he ever make them shoot anything? Not even once. There's something not quite right about that.
Somehow, though, no one seemed to notice. Kalen always got the best grades in everything, be it fighting or fractions. And when we reached sixth year and started to notice girls, he always scored high marks with them, too. I have Father's build, broad and stocky, but Kalen grew tall and lithe. He had Father's eyes, though, a shocking ice blue that made people stop and look. Worst part was, he barely noticed the female attention.
That was when we started to grow apart, but Kalen didn't notice that either.
Ninth year was when our formal combat training began. Our grades were kept in our permanent files, to be assessed by the Military Committee during year twelve. The simplest triumph or mistake could lower or raise the magic number doled out in the draft. As always, Kalen brought home exceptional marks.
Kalen always gives it his all, Mother said, shaking her head. Why can't you be more like him?
Meanwhile, I studied late into the night while he made friends on the Splinternet. He started sneaking out to meet them, but I never told. They put the strangest ideas into his head. He'd come home raving about the Other Side, how maybe they weren't such a bad lot after all.
They're people just like us, he said. Have you ever wondered what we're fighting for?
All the while, no one knew. He knew his role and played it well. Twelfth year, they crowned him King of the Reaping and covered him in flowers. He smiled and waved from the hoverfloat, some vapid golden-haired girl at his side. Afterward, I asked him if he'd kissed her, but he shook his head, blue eyes laughing at the very thought.
Funny how he never had a care for girls until he met her. Twelfth year had just ended and he was in a funk. With a draft number so low, he'd be sent for before the cool breezes came. As boys, we'd made a fort in a hollow tree, but we'd abandoned it years before. He started going back there, calling it his thinking spot.
I followed him to the tree one day. My face grew hotter than his as she batted those lashes and flipped that long black hair. When I confronted him later, he came clean. Her name was Calla, and she was from the Other Side. You should have seen the way his face lit up when he said her name. After that, I was his confidant, his partner in crime. Every conversation, he had to bring her up.
It's hot, I'd say. I think I want some ice cream.
Oh, Calla likes ice cream, too, he'd chime in. Idiot! Who doesn't like ice cream?
Still, I didn't see the signs. Lord knows I should have. One night he came home, flushed as if with fever, eyes burning bright.
Listen to me, Brendan, he pleaded. It's just not worth it - all this death. I have to stop it and I know how.
Shut up, Kalen, I said. That's crazy talk. The War is what brings us life. It's treason to speak against it.
Kalen's always been a dreamer, though. Even then, I didn't take it seriously. How I wish I had. If I couldn't talk sense into him, I could have reported him at the very least. Either way, I could have saved him. I could have saved myself.
Only two days later, I stood at the fence. Bodies pressed into bodies as Kalen stood before us, that girl at his side. He should have been packing his bags, getting ready to fight for his people. Instead, his eyes froze us all in place and his voice sang out words that none should ever speak.
His finger was on the button I never thought he'd press. The explosion was deafening, and the world went up in flames. I never saw him again.
A week later, I sat in my hard metal chair, palms sweating and back straight as a board. Proud young men in uniform grinned at me from posters on the shiny metal walls. The lights were hot against my neck as the recruiter smiled and opened my file. He flipped through the pages and the smile froze on his face.
Is there any chance I can take his place? I'm still on the waiting list.
He looked up, eyes hard and icy like Kalen's on the day he died. My heart sank.
Family members of terrorists are ineligible to serve. Both your draft numbers will be reassigned to new candidates.
Before the words had finished leaving his lips, the Security Robots were at my side. I screamed and thrashed as their cold pincers bit into my flesh. As they turned their metal backs and left me on the pavement, inspiration struck.
Kalen, you bastard. You got me into this mess, and you'll get me out of it too.
It wasn't hard to find the information I needed on the Splinternet. Kalen never bothered to cover his tracks. He knew that no one else would ever suspect, and I'd never tell. I'll never be the genius he was, but he left me all I needed. It didn't take much tinkering to turn his robots into killing machines.
If they won't let me fight, I'll just make my own war.