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Concrit much appreciated. This is chapter 5 of Cliffton book 1, now rewritten and hopefully beta-ready. If you are looking for the older version for comparison purposes, it is here.

If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:
1 | 2 | 3 | 4

When I woke up this morning, I had a mission. Now I've got nothing to my name but the shredded remnants of my clothes. I'm exhausted, covered in black gunk, and pretty sure I can never go home again. It feels like I've been walking for hours, long enough my anger's finally died down, leaving logic in its place. This isn't a good thing, because now I remember how my temper always gets me on trouble. It sure has this time.

I'm a planner. Not a genius like my brother, but I'm usually pretty good at thinking things through.

Only I might have missed a few details when I hatched this whole scheme to start my own War. I spent weeks modifying Kalen's robots. Weeks preparing to use them. Somehow, I never thought about what'd happen after. Where I'd stay. How I'd feel about leaving my family. How they'd feel about losing another son. Not that they've noticed me much since Kalen's been gone, anyway.

Wonder if they've even figured out I'm not coming back.

At least Kalen's found us a place to stay. Guess we might be getting close to it now, because the scenery we're trudging past has shifted. One minute we're in the middle of the desert and the next we're in this residential area with big old houses and scraggly tumblebrush lawns. It's not a fancy neighborhood, but you can tell people take pride in their homes. A lot of them have little rock gardens or other ornaments in front and the buildings themselves seem well-maintained.

I follow Kalen up the pebbled driveway of one of the houses. It's painted a weird dark purple but the ornamental cacti in front are trimmed just so. There's a wind sock tacked up by the front door that looks like some kind of dragon, maybe? I'm not sure what it is, but it's monster-y and has big fangs.

Kalen's barely made it up the front steps when the door bursts open and the tallest, skinniest guy I've ever seen comes flying out. He's got blonde hair and enormous brown eyes that take up half his face. His huge grin covers most of the rest.

"KALEN! YOU'RE BACK!" he screeches. He looks like he might be about to launch himself at my brother and hug him, but then he turns toward the open door instead. "Yeah, Devin. I forgot. I'll be quieter, okay? Yeah, I know. Kalen's a fugitive. I just got excited. Sorry, dude!" Just watching this guy is making me tired. Or maybe it's the whole day catching up with me.

"How'd he know we were here?" I ask Kalen. "You didn't even knock."

"The security system probably alerted him the nanosecond we made it into the neighborhood." Kalen shakes his head. "Devin built it, and it's very... involved. We should be safe here."

"C'mon in, everyone!" The skinny hyper guy still hasn't really lowered his voice. "Oh, I'm Wes, by the way."

"Brendan." I hold my hand out and do my best not to sound grumpy. This guy is letting me stay in his house, even though he doesn't know me from Minister Squell. It's not his fault all I care about right now is a shower and a nap.

Wes pumps my arm up and down enthusiastically. I think it might come out of its socket if he doesn't stop soon. Then he tries to drag me inside, which doesn't really work because I must weigh about the same as three of him. He shoots me an awkward grin and grabs Kalen's arm instead. "I said come in, remember?"

Well, at least our new hosts seem welcoming enough. I step tentatively inside. Ahhhhh, climate control. It's hotter outside than a Reaping bonfire. After tromping around in that weather all day, the cool air's all I can focus on. I close my eyes and breathe a sigh of relief.

"Oh, fuck no." An angry voice breaks into my thoughts, and I open my eyes.

Apparently this is the other owner of the house? He's got black hair pulled back in a ponytail and he looks madder than a bag of wet cats. Also, he's right up in my brother's face, arms crossed over his chest. Doesn't seem to care that Kalen's twice as big around as he is. And it's a good thing Ponytail Guy's eyes don't shoot lasers like CallaBot's because Kalen would be dead if they did.

"Are you fucking serious with this shit?" Ponytail Guy isn't actually yelling but his voice just carries. I bet half the neighbors can hear him dressing down my brother. Grabbing one of CallaBot's many arms, I pull her into the house and shut the front door behind us. Seems like someone needs to. CallaBot's eyes start to glow threateningly, and I let go of her arm in a hurry.

"Does my house look like the fucking Snuggle Inn? Who the fuck are these - " Ponytail Guy shoots CallaBot a withering glance. I almost feel sorry for her, even though she's meaner than a fifty-fanged squid monster. "Who the fuck are these people and why are they fucking here?"

"Uh, Devin?" Wes looks anxious as he grabs Ponytail Guy's arm. "Dude? It's not a big deal. Calm down, okay?"

Devin glares at Wes. "I AM FUCKING CALM."

"What's the problem, Devin?"

Uh oh. I recognize the pitch of Kalen's voice right now. It's the way he talks to me when I lose my temper. The snotty, entitled tone that makes me want to pound him into a bloody pulp. Looks like Devin feels the same way. Guy kind of looks like smoke might come out of his ears at any moment.

"It's just my brother and Calla - oh yeah, she got turned into a robot." Kalen doesn't seem to understand he should probably stop talking now. "They don't have anywhere else to go. I figured since you were letting me stay here anyway - "

"Letting you stay here?" This Devin guy should be a stage performer or something. His vocal range is impressive. Also, I think he might kill my brother. "LETTING YOU FUCKING STAY HERE?"

Kalen's just standing there with his mouth hanging open. Good thing I closed the door or he'd catch flies.

"Devin, dude?" Wes lays a hand on his shoulder. "C'mon, it's okay. We've got plenty of room."

Devin jerks away from Wes and fixes him with his not-laser eyes. "It. Is. Not. Fucking. Okay."

I can actually feel how angry he is. The air around us is charged with his rage. If this is what it's like to be around me when I'm mad, no wonder Kalen avoids me all the time. Right now, I sure as fuck don't want to be anywhere near this guy. Good thing I'll be living with him for the foreseeable future. Maybe.

"You didn't even fucking ask if you could stay with us." Devin grabs my brother by the shoulders and growls at him. "You just fucking showed up."

Kalen just blinks at him, completely mystified. Oh, Kalen. This was your plan for us?

"Now you're bringing more fugitives here?" Devin steps back, crosses his arms again and shakes his head. He's lowered his voice and he almost looks dazed. "I don't fucking get it. What about me and Wes? What about our lives? Did you not even consider how all of this is gonna fucking affect us?

"Devin." Wes puts an arm around his roommate. His voice is soft but firm. "Dude. It's okay. We're fine."

"Fuck it," Devin mumbles. "Wes says you can fucking stay. I don't give a shit what you people do." He turns on his heel and stomps out of the room, Wes following close behind.

Kalen's frozen in place, eyes rounder than dinner plates. Guess he didn't think things through this time, either.

* * * * *

"What do you think they're doing in there?" CallaBot gestures toward the hallway with several of her arms.

Good question. It's been over an hour since our new hosts disappeared down that hall. Over an hour of sitting stiffly on this couch in an otherwise empty living room. Waiting for the owners of the house to return. If there's anything more awkward than this, I'm not sure what it could possibly be.

"What do you mean, what are they doing?" Kalen asks.

"Well, they're obviously not playing Robot Scrabble." CallaBot snorts. "They're a couple, right?"

"Wes and Devin?" Kalen's forehead wrinkles in confusion for a moment. Then he shakes his head. "No way, they're just friends. They've known each other forever. Why'd you even think that, CallaBot?"

Oh, Kalen.

"Seriously?" CallaBot begins, and that's when Wes saunters into the room.

"Sorry Devin and I left you in here so long." He offers an apologetic half-smile. "Want a snack or something?"

"Robots don't eat." CallaBot's eyes glow disdainfully.

"No, thanks, man." I'm actually starving, but it seems rude to impose. Not like we haven't already.

"You sure?" Wes grins at me. "You look like you could eat a lot."

I search his face for any sign of tension, but it's like the whole argument earlier never happened. Like it's no big thing Kalen and CallaBot and I are ruining his life. Then he looks me up and down, and his eyes get impossibly big. Guess he's noticed I'm covered in grime.

"Your couch!" I jump up self-consciously. "I'm so sorry."

"Oh, dude, don't worry about that." Wes shrugs. "That'll clean right up. No problem! Do you wanna see your room now? I bet what you want more than anything's a shower."

I barely get a chance to nod before Wes seizes my arm and starts pulling. "I'm saving the last room up here for CallaBot. It's got a better bathroom, and she's technically a girl, y'know?" He leads me through a door and down a rickety wooden staircase. "The shower down here's old style, but I didn't think you'd mind. You seem tough."

Do robots even need bathrooms? Guess it doesn't matter. The basement's okay by me. More distance from CallaBot and Devin. Less chance of getting yelled at that way. It's not like I don't understand why they don't like me. Problem is, yelling leads to other things, and it's not right to hit girls, even robot ones. Or scrawny guys, either.

"Here we are!" Wes stops at the end of a hallway lit by a single bare bulb. "Your new quarters!"

I stare inside, bemused. My new room appears to have been a storage area in its previous incarnation. There are piles of stuff everywhere. I can't even really tell if there's a bed. On the bright side, there's a whole bunch of free weights shoved into a back corner. Wonder if they'll let me use them.

"Yeah, um, dude," Wes looks embarrassed. "We kinda didn't get a chance to clean it out."

"It's okay, man." I know he and Devin weren't expecting more company. "I can take care of it."

"You sure, dude?" Wes asks uncertainly.

"Yeah, I'm good." Oh yeah, there was one thing. I fidget uncomfortably, because I'm a little scared to ask for any favors after the way we've barged in on him and Devin. "Um, anyone using those weights?" I gesture toward them nervously. "If not, could I keep them in here for now?"

Wes laughs out loud, and it's an impossibly joyful sound. "Devin and I look like we work out a lot? They came with the house. You might as well keep them. No one else here's gonna use them anyway." He turns to go, calling cheerfully over his shoulder. "See ya later, dude. Hope you have a good shower!"

And I do. It's probably the best shower I've ever had in my life. My bathroom may be old, but it's clean. Turns out hot water's just as effective whether it comes from an old-style shower head or a programmable washing station. Sure, I have to fiddle with the little knob thingy at first, but it's not that hard to figure out.

By the time I'm done, I feel like a new person. Even having to wear Kalen's old sweats doesn't dampen my mood. They're skintight and skimpy, but I'm clean for the first time in forever and I don't care. I'm feeling so great, I decide to venture upstairs. I could really use some human contact that doesn't involve yelling or shooting.

Or not. Wes and Kalen are playing SimFighting when I step out into the living room. It turns out that in this house, the game involves both yelling and shooting. CallaBot's sitting on the couch. Her face is unreadable, but the way she's got her arms all tangled together, I'm pretty sure she's bored. Only as soon as she spots me, her eyes glow balefully. Great.

"Hey, Brendan!" Wes glances up at me, then squeals in frustration as his SimFighter explodes. "Wanna play?"

I suck at video games, and I don't even really like them. It's not like I'm going to say no, though. Wes is the only person who's been nice to me all day. So I take the headset he offers me and give it a shot.

After a few matches, I've had enough. Wes flails all over the place when he plays, knocking into me and screeching and being generally distracting. Of course, that only makes me even more terrible at the game than I already am. On top of that, all the quick simulated movements are making me a little sick to my stomach.

"That was fun!" Wes yells as I take off my headset. "I actually won for a change." Then he does a double-take and his goofy grin gets even bigger. "Dude, we need to find you some new clothes."

Oh, man. Like I didn't feel out of place already. Now Wes is staring at me like I'm something shiny.

"Your arms," he breathes in childlike wonder. "They're huge. And muscly." He's on his feet in a flash, grabbing at me before I can back away. "Can I... can I touch them?"

Guess there's no point in saying no, seeing as he's touching them already anyway.

"Don't worry, bro." It's the first time Kalen's called me that all day. "Wes did the same thing to me the first time we met in person. He doesn't mean anything by it."

"Yeah, dude," Wes agrees, running his fingers over my bicep. "People just don't look like you where I come from."

Wes jumps and looks over my shoulder. Didn't think his eyes could get any bigger, but they do. He drops my arm with a surprised squeak, looking like a kid caught sneaking snacks before dinner. I turn around to see Devin, his own eyes nearly as wide as Wes's. Then he shoots me a glare that could melt UberSteel and stomps off for the second time in the maybe-three-hours I've known him. Wes runs after him without another word.

Good to know I'm making friends here. I sigh and head back downstairs where it's safe.

* * * * *

When I hear the knock on my door, I kind of want to ignore it. It's not like talking to people around here has done me much good so far anyway. But I don't really like being alone, either. At home, I had friends. Here, I've got no one.

More knocking. "Hey, it's Wes."

Great. Wes seems nice enough, but I'm pretty sure his pal Devin doesn't want me talking to him.

"I made pancakes. Wanna come upstairs and have some?"

My stomach grumbles. I really do want some pancakes. Mother used to make them on weekends. I miss Mother, who loved me more than anything even though I wasn't perfect like Kalen. She was the only one who did, and now I'll never see her again.

"Kalen and Devin went out to get robot parts." Wes says. "It's really quiet up there without them."

Not sure if Wes is trying to tell me it's safe to come out of the basement or if he just wants the company. Guess it doesn't matter much. I'm lonely and hungry, so I open the door and follow him upstairs.

"Sit down and relax!" Wes motions toward a chair at the breakfast table. "One order of pancakes, coming right up!" he announces excitedly before he bounces off into the kitchen. I hear banging noises and a whistled tune I don't recognize. Then Wes returns, setting a plate in front of me with a flourish. It's the biggest stack of pancakes I've ever seen, and he's used chocolate chips and whipped cream to make a slightly deranged-looking smiley face on the top one.

"Thanks, man." I dig in enthusiastically. They're delicious.

Wes plops himself into a chair at the other side of the table, bouncing up and down as he sifts through a pile of tiny parts. It looks like he's assembling some kind of device, and he's whistling the same tune as before as he works.

"What's that?" I ask. "Some kind of robot?"

"No, dude, it's the Discovery!" Wes must notice my blank look, because his jaw drops. "Y'know, the ship from NebulaQuest?" Now he's humming the same tune he was whistling before. Maybe it's the theme music for the show?

"Never seen it." For some reason I feel kind of embarrassed. Good thing I'm not a blusher.

"You've... never... seen it?" Wes is thunderstruck. "You have to watch it! It's great. They fly on a ship and meet aliens and go on adventures... And there's fight scenes and jokes and it's the best show ever made!"

Does this guy breathe through his ears or something?

I make short work of my pancakes. It's been at least a day since I've eaten much besides NutriBars. When I'm finished, I flop onto the couch, feeling more content than I have in weeks. Sure, CallaBot's giving me her usually disapproving stare, but I kind of don't blame her. I did turn her into an ugly metal monster. Besides, she doesn't seem to like anyone much.

Case in point, she's looking at Wes like she's going to laser him any minute. Guess that's because he's running around the room like a sugar-drunk child, pretending to fly his now-finished model of the Spaceship Discovery. He's even making loud zooming and whooshing noises as he narrowly avoids crashing into walls and the sparse furnishings.

"Y'know what would make this even better?" Wes comes to a halt, barely even out of breath.

"You not crashing around the house like an idiot?" CallaBot's voice drips with scorn.

Wes's face falls. "Aw, CallaBot. You're almost as grumpy as Devin." He brightens at the mention of his roommate's name. "That's one thing I kinda like about you! Anyway, I was talking about my model of the Discovery. It'd be better if it lit up. Y'know what? I think I'll go buy a lighting kit for it now!" He's grinning broadly as he dashes out the front door.

I can't help shaking my head as he goes.

"Gets on your nerves too, does he?" Is that actually amusement in CallaBot's tone?

"Wes is a good guy. He's the only one here who's been nice to me. And he makes awesome pancakes." I pause, remembering that robots don't eat. "Guess that's not much of a selling point for you, huh?"

"No, and he's a fool." CallaBot snorts. "Though at least he's not actively hostile like his little boyfriend. Ugh."

"So, um, are they together?" The muscle-touching incident yesterday's only made me wonder more.

"Not according to Kalen." CallaBot rolls her eyes.

"Oh, Kalen." I have to chuckle at my brother's cluelessness.

"I know, right? Was he even in the room with us?" CallaBot's snickering now, too.

"Why'd you even think that, CallaBot?" I do my best imitation of Kalen's high-pitched voice.

We both dissolve into giggles. Just like that, I'm laughing so hard I can barely catch my breath, and CallaBot's doubled over even though robots don't breathe. Every time I think I'm finished, I look up at CallaBot and it sets me off again, which gets her going again too. It's probably a full five minutes before we both settle down.

"Man, I needed that," I gasp when I'm finally capable of speech.

"Me too." CallaBot isn't smiling. Maybe her face doesn't do that? She does look happier, though, even if I'm not sure how. "I didn't even know I could laugh anymore."

"I wasn't sure I could, either." I stare at my hands. "Haven't had a lot of reasons to lately."

"Brendan, can I ask you something?" For once, CallaBot doesn't sound annoyed. "How'd you know my name before you accidentally turned me into a robot? And what were you doing with all those robots in the first place?"

I open my mouth and close it uselessly a few times before answering. The truth's a little embarrassing.

"Truth is, I followed Kalen when he went to meet you at the tree." So much for not being a blusher. My face feels so hot I kind of want to fan myself with my hands. "And the robots? Well, after Kalen blew up the fence, the military wouldn't let me enlist anymore. I thought I could build my own fighting squad. Guess that didn't work out so well."

If she didn't think I was an idiot before, I'm sure she does now. I wait for her insect-eyes to glare at me. Instead, she reaches over with one of her pincers and pats me on the arm. "You're not so bad, Brendan," she says.

Guess she isn't so bad, either. Maybe making friends here isn't a lost cause after all.

(Next chapter is here)
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