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Chapter 2


Rebel jungle base, outside Ventura, planet Tumani

"This devil helped the Tumani government kill your parents," the large man said.

Easily the same two meters tall that I am, but at least twenty kilos heavier than my own hundred, the copper-skinned man spoke in a booming voice that matched well with his size.

"Are you going to let him get away with that crime—with all those crimes?"

No one answered.

The man paced back and forth in front of a pale gray tree whose half-meter-diameter trunk stretched limbless from the ground to far above what I could see. The entire image shook slightly, as if the person recording it was trembling in fear. Whoever had edited this holo had left in panting that further suggested the recorder had been terrified.

Tied to the tree with quick-clasp cables around his neck, waist, wrists, knees, and ankles was a darker man at least a head shorter and no more than half the weight of his captor. The man shook his head back and forth, his eyes bulging with effort, but the rag in his mouth stifled his attempts to scream. Strangled, unintelligible sounds emerged, more animal cries than words.

"Are you?" the larger man screamed.

The image jerked right and left as the recorder scanned the clearing. On both sides stood boys, at least two dozen of them, dressed in dirt-streaked and torn gray and green and tan and brown shorts and shirts, few with shoes, all at least as thin as the man tied to the tree, all visibly hungry, afraid, and angry, their faces tight with tension. The smallest couldn't have been a whole meter and a half tall, while the biggest was no taller than the terrified captive. They all looked younger than eighteen. Many appeared to be prepubescent. All were just kids, kids who should have been spending their days growing up with their families, climbing in trees, not watching the useless struggling of a man bound to one.

"We are soldiers," the captor said, waving his arm to take in people on either side of him, people I could not see, "soldiers who rescued you before this man and his fellow criminals could kill you as they killed your families." He lowered his voice. "And now you are soldiers, too, safe with us, your new brothers." He spoke louder again as he added, "Does a brother let anyone who hurts his brother go unpunished?"

He stared at each of them in turn, pausing a second on each face, his expression calm and resolute and strong. When he finished sweeping across the boys, he faced forward and screamed, his mouth twisting with rage, "No!"

Wordless murmuring all around.

He pointed again at the prisoner, who was now straining so hard against his bonds that muscles and veins stood out all over his body. "So I ask you, brothers, soldiers, men of the families this man stole from you: Will you let him get away with his crime?"

"No!" a boy screamed. The image jerked to focus on one of the tallest of the kids. "No!" he said again.

The large man nodded in satisfaction.

"No," a small, pale boy standing next to the first responder said, his voice barely audible, tears making his eyes glisten. "My family is gone."

The large man approached the little boy, kneeled in front of him, and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Yes," he said, "the government devils—this demon" he pointed at the captive without taking his eyes off the boy "and his evil friends took away your loved ones." He stood, keeping his hand on the child's shoulder. "But now you have a new family. You have all of us." He turned the boy to face the others as his hand again swept through the air to encompass them all. "And will we let your suffering go unavenged?"

"No!" several boys yelled.

"Will we let the demons get away with murdering his family?"

"No!" more voices screamed.

"With killing all of your families?"

"No! No! No!" The others joined, and the answer became a chant.

The captor held up his hand.

The boys quieted.

"Who will be the first," the man said, "to show this government demon that he cannot break us, that no matter what he does to us or to our families, our brotherhood will prove too strong for him? Who will be first?" He looked down at the small boy standing next to him. He removed his hand from the boy's shoulder. "Who will it be?"

The boy wiped his eyes and looked up at the man. "I will," he said, his voice quavering.

The large man smiled and rubbed the top of the boy's head. "We have a warrior!" he said. "Size and age mean nothing to a soldier as strong and brave as this one." He ran his hand over the boy's head again, but this time he let it linger there long enough to turn the boy to face the captive. He advanced on the prisoner, his hand still guiding the boy, the boy trailing him with the unsure motion of one walking while not yet quite awake.

When he and the boy were so close to the captive that they were almost touching the now sobbing man, he stopped and stepped away from the boy.

"Hit him," the large man said. "Hit him for your family, for yourself, for all of us."

The boy raised his fist but looked into the eyes of the captive and paused.

"Hit him!" the large man screamed. "For your new brothers! So they all, all of the government demons, all of the people who killed your parents and brothers and sisters understand that we will stand together against them!" The boy looked at him for a moment. The man nodded and said, "Hit him!"

The boy punched the prisoner in the stomach with the tentative, weak blow of a young child, his fist not even fully balled, the strike barely moving the writhing captive's shirt.

The other boys whooped and yelled and cheered.

"Who will join this warrior," the large man screamed, "in carrying our message to those who would hurt us, who would hurt our brothers?"

"I will," said the tall boy who had first responded. He ran forward without prompting and hit the captive hard in the gut.

The prisoner sagged as much as he could against his bonds.

The boys cheered again.

The little boy stared at the bigger boy and hit the prisoner again, this time harder.

The boys yelled, wordless animal sounds.

"Join them!" the large man screamed. "All of you! Show them your power as soldiers, as brothers!"

One boy stepped forward, then another, and another, and in seconds all of them were racing forward, yelling and waving their fists. They fell upon the prisoner like a tsunami breaking on a shore. The recorder rushed after them, lagging most of the boys but now with them, a fist waving in front of the image, one more fist to join the barrage pummeling the captive, who no longer moved.

The crowd parted long enough for me to see the blood-soaked prisoner, small bloodied fists pounding over and over and over into him, and then it froze, the frenzied beating boys and the tree-tied corpse motionless in the air in front of me.


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