If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:
Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
( you wouldn't like him when he's angry )
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I'm so fucking stupid. What have I done? I wanted to stop the War, but I've only made things worse.
Ears ringing, I dash through the trees. Branches scratch at my face and arms. My heart hammers in my ears and my breath comes in gasps. It's hotter than blazes and the air is so humid it's more like breathing soup. Still, I force myself to keep going. For once, I'm grateful for my years of mind-numbing physical training.
I'm too busy trying to get away to even think about where I'm going. So when I find myself in front of the house where my friends Wes and Devin live, I'm a little surprised. Still, it's as good a place as any to hide out. My hand is poised to knock when the door flies open. I jump backward so far I nearly tumble off the front steps.
"Kalen, dude!" Wes exclaims, grinning from ear to ear. "You're a living legend! I can't believe you did that."
"Uhhhh, yeah," I hedge. "About that - "
"No, seriously," he cuts me off. "You're a hero! Your name's all over the Splinternet."
"Hey, um, do you think we could go inside? I'm pretty sure there are troops looking for me."
Moving aside, Wes lets me in and triple-bolts the door. "Don't worry, dude," he says. "We've got a top-notch security system here. If anyone's coming, we'll know in plenty of time to take care of business. That's how I knew you were coming."
"Yeah, you scared the shit out of me."
"Pretty jumpy for such a big damn hero," calls a raspy voice from another room. A moment later, Devin appears, rubbing his eyes. He's still in his pajamas and he's holding a steaming mug the size of his head. Yawning, he rakes a hand through his rumpled dark hair.
"Late night, Devin?" I ask.
"Yeah, I stayed up gaming. Wasn't really expecting all this fucking excitement." He looks at me pointedly. "You've been holding out on us, buddy. Why didn't you tell us you were planning to stage an attack on the border?"
"The funny thing is - " I begin, but Wes cuts me off again. While Devin is clearly on his first cup of SynthBrew, Wes looks like he's drunk a whole pot already. He's practically crackling with excitement, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
"So, what's next on the agenda, partner?" Wes asks. "We could hit an armory or something."'
"Uh, well..." Suddenly, the realization hits me. In my hurry to save myself, I've forgotten one very important detail. Big damn hero, my ass. "Shit, you guys! I was supposed to meet Calla at the tree. I've got to go back and find her."
* * * * *
Stomach churning with anxiety, I survey the scene before me. Border patrols are stationed every few feet along the fence, armed with laser cannons and probably nanoblasters as well. The gap in the barbed wire where the explosion occurred is especially well-guarded. There's no way to get past them to return to the hollow tree. If my partner in crime made it out alive, she'll be waiting for me there - unless she panicked like I did.
"Maybe we can create some kind of diversion?" Devin ventures.
"How are we going to do that?" I demand. "We're completely unarmed."
"Hmmmm," Wes strokes his bleached-blonde goatee for a minute, thinking. "I know! I'll limp over to those guards and pretend to be hurt. Meanwhile, you and Devin can jump 'em from behind. We'll take their uniforms so we can pass as patrolmen."
"Um, Wes?" Devin's voice is filled with scorn. "You've been watching too much neurovision. This isn't a fucking episode of NebulaQuest. Shit like that doesn't work in real life."
"Oh yeah?" Wes looks hurt. "How would you know? You dropped out of Multiversity before you even finished Strategy 101."
Maybe bringing these guys along wasn't such a great idea. Between the brutal heat and their bickering, my head feels like it's going to explode. Though I'm not the best at thinking on my feet, at least I have combat training. Wes and Devin are smart guys, but they grew up on the Other Side, and the only "battle experience" they have is from playing SimFighting.
"Well, Kalen," Devin says. "You're the fucking military expert. What do you think we should do?"
"With the way they've beefed up security, there's no way we can get through without reinforcements. Maybe we can go back to my parents' house and pick up my robots."
It's an hour's walk to my parents' house. By the time we're close enough to see the security gates of their neighborhood, I'm drenched in sweat. It's Reaping, the beginning of fall, but the weather doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. At the moment, though, that's the least of our worries.
"What'll we do now?" Wes yells, clutching Devin's arm. "This place is crawling with troops!"
"Wes. Keep your fucking voice down." Devin hisses. "They'll hear us!"
Repressing the urge to deck them both, I ponder what to do next. If I can't get my robots, I'll just have to build new ones and hope Calla can survive on her own until I'm finished. Wes and Devin might lack common sense, but they've got more than enough connections to find me the supplies I need.
"Guys," I say, fighting to keep the irritation from my voice. "I'm starving. Let's go back to your place and eat something while we plot our next move. Do you know where we can find some spare parts?"
* * * * *
Taking a deep breath, I climb the fence. Once I'm on the opposite side, I breathe a sigh of relief. Security seems to have slackened a bit in the three weeks since I was last at the border, and my robots had no trouble subduing the few patrolmen we encountered. Still, I'm keeping my InvisiSuit cloaked as long as I can - I'm pretty sure being caught here would mean certain death.
Gathering my robot troops, I begin moving toward the hollow tree where Calla and I were supposed to meet. I've only been underway for a short time when I notice the sun glinting oddly off of something metallic up ahead. While I'm puzzling over what it could be, a loud voice barks out an order.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, INTRUDER! IDENTIFY YOURSELF!"
For a moment, I think it's more troops. But the voice sounds distorted, like it's coming from inside an InvisiSuit like mine. Why would border patrolmen need to be invisible? Pressing the "Talk" button on my own Suit, I respond. "Uh... why don't you identify yourself first?"
How come my words sound so quiet? The "Talk" function on my Suit should have amplified my voice. A purple laser scorches the air, inches from my face, and I shout in surprise. Shouldn't I still be invisible? Either my Suit's malfunctioning, or I pressed "Uncloak" instead of "Talk". Great.
"YOU DIMWIT!" shouts an oddly feminine robotic voice - how's she know I made a mistake operating my InvisiSuit? It takes a minute before I realize she's not talking to me. "Haven't you done enough damage with your substandard weapons? Besides, your aim sucks."
By this time, I'm close enough to see that my adversary has a robot army of his own. It's unusual to encounter someone besides me with mechanical minions, and what's more, these robots look strangely familiar. One of them even has a custom paint job with glowing blue flames that looks just like something I'd do. In fact, all of the robots look strikingly similar to the ones I left at home. They can't be my creations, though, because they're fitted with awkward off-brand weaponry I'd sooner die than use.
Wait a minute. Those can't be my robots, unless...
Before I can finish my thought, the feminine robot speaks again. "KALEN?!"
"H- how do you know my name?" I stammer.
Before the fembot can respond, another purple laser streaks past me.
"KALEN, YOU FUCKING BASTARD!" Suddenly, it all makes sense - the robots that look like mine, the familiar anger, and even the shoddy weapons.
"I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! YOU RUINED MY LIFE, AND YOU DON'T EVEN HAVE THE DECENCY TO DIE!"
Blue spheres hurtle toward me - nanoblaster fire. A loud "Bzzzzzzt!" sound issues from Brendan's general vicinity. "OW!" Brendan screams, dropping the laser pistol on the sand. It's only after the danger's passed that I realize - blue nanoblaster fire means he had his weapon set to kill, not stun.
"Where did you get these weapons - Discount RoboMart?" the fembot snickers. Her body - an insectile thing with lots of segmented legs and vicious pincers - doesn't match her voice at all. I remember building that robot, but I definitely don't recall making it female.
"SHUT UP, CALLA!" Brendan yells.
What in the world is going on here? Why in the world would Brendan modify my bugbot to have a female voice? Why would he name after my best friend? And most important of all, why would my own brother try to kill me? "Um... Brendan?" I ask, dodging yet another purple laser from one of "his" robots, "Why did you name that robot Calla?"
"He didn't name me Calla," the fembot snorts.
Robots can snort? I definitely didn't program my robots to do that.
"I am Calla," she continues. "Your idiot brother turned me into a robot!"
"YOU TURNED MY BEST FRIEND INTO A ROBOT?" I shriek, "I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU!" Pulling a remote control from the pocket of my InvisiSuit, I press the button that says "Robot Troops Attack". I watch with grim satisfaction as my metal soldiers fall upon Brendan like a pack of hungry wolves.
* * * * *
"Well, this is a fine mess you've gotten us into, Kalen," Brendan says, staring at the smoking rubble that surrounds us. Scattered about are the melted remains of our faithful mechanical allies, gone from this world too soon. Both Brendan and I are covered in soot and grime. Our InvisiSuits are destroyed, and the clothes we had on underneath are in tatters. The CallaBot is nowhere to be seen - she must have left at some point during the fracas.
"Me? You shot first," I retort.
"Yeah, and then you told your entire robot army to attack me!" Brendan's voice is indignant.
"You turned my best friend into a robot!" I can't believe Brendan's trying to blame this on me.
"It's not my fault your robot malfunctioned and shot her," Brendan grumbles.
"It malfunctioned because you modified it... badly!"
"ARE YOU CALLING ME INCOMPETENT?" Brendan screeches, running at me with his fists, the only weapon he has left now that our robot armies have blasted each other to bits. I grab him by the hair and elbow him in the gut. He doubles over, making an oof sound.
"Are you fools still fighting down there?" The CallaBot's voice asks from behind me. I jump and turn around to see her climbing down the side of the ravine created by our hours-long robot confrontation.
"CallaBot!" I shout, overjoyed, "You came back!" She may look like an enormous metallic insect, but she's still my best friend.
"Yeah, but I'm leaving again if you two don't stop pummeling each other." Her voice drips with contempt.
"But he ruined my life with his terrorist attack!" Brendan shouts.
"Speaking of ruined lives," Calla says, sounding none too pleased. "Why did you set off the explosion? I thought the plan was not to push the button unless we were in mortal danger."
"Yeah, um," I say, feeling my ears start to burn. "That was... it was kind of an accident."
"What?" both Brendan and Calla say with simultaneous incredulity.
"I was backing away from the fence, keeping an eye on the Enforcers to make sure they weren't going to open fire. Just as I was getting ready to give you the signal to run, I-" I pause, too embarrassed to continue.
"You what?" Calla demands.
"Um, I sneezed," I say, my face hot with shame. "I sneezed, and I squeezed the button by accident."
For a moment, Calla's mechanical eyes glow as if lasers are about to come out of them. Then she laughs.
"Worst. Terrorist. Ever."