<Back to Exiled on Rant

Chapter 1

com•pound (kəm′pound) per•son (pər′s’n) n. more than one person so fused together in identity, lifestyle, and goals that no demarcation is clearly distinguishable


—NewWebster’s Thirty-Seventh Secondary Dictionary


OVERCADET STEPH’NI B’LTN RENHANT panted, the slippery floor forcing him to crawl toward the door. The room had never angled uphill before, and he kept sliding backwards, his hands and feet slipping out from under him. In the darkness, desperate for a handhold, he felt for anything he could grasp. A chair. A table. There. Someone’s wrist.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

He pulled himself forward, stretching his hand across the person’s waist, his arm sliding across a naked breast. A woman! Shame flooded his face. He offered an apology as he tried to push himself off and couldn’t. He realized to his horror he was naked also, his body engaged in a way he found repulsive and sensuous at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” he groaned, as his vision went white, and he lost control. Crawling off the woman, he slipped and fumbled to the wall, searching for the light. The room flashed into brightness, painting blood everywhere, leaving the woman’s sightless eyes to stare up at him, fixated on the slashes of red covering the front of his body.

Renhant jerked, his eyes flying open in the darkness, his mouth dry with fear. He grasped his bedding in his fists, only to find his sheets soaked with sweat. It was the same dream every night. That wasn’t the way it happened, though. He stumbled to the toilet and threw up, as he did each time he woke from the dream.

The other bed in the cell creaked. “Another nightmare, huh? That’s tough, kid. Flush the toilet when you’re finished.” The words were growled, slurred with sleep. Then there came a long whistle of expelled gas.

Renhant hit the button on the wall, the smell of his vomit disappearing down the drain. Sitting on the cold of the metal floor, the wall’s chill penetrating his face, he wished he could go back and start over. Just one year. Just one month. Tears streaming down his face, he wanted someone to help.

Just one lifetime to live over again. He ran his hands over his hair, realizing it was as soaked as his sheets.

Crawling back in the rude bunk, he knew he wasn’t alone. Jer’son was somewhere in a similar lockup. So was Barn’t. They hadn’t been allowed to communicate, as if they might actually be able to plan a way to escape. They were on a spaceship, for gods’ sakes! At least let them have one another for solace.

Sliding hot, moist skin against the damp cold sheets was truly almost as bad as the nightmare had been. Then there was the smell from his cellmate’s gas. Renhant gagged as he forced himself to lie very still, waiting until the urge to vomit once again had passed. Finally, he closed his eyes, and in the stillness, a world that had once been better filled his dreams.


“YEAH, LOOK.” Renhant held up the credits. He turned and walked backwards, doing a little dance step, waving them over his head. “Fifteen credits!”

“Hey, who’d have thought that kid had that much. I figured a newbie that fresh to have maybe one or two at the most.” Renhant’s friend, Overcadet Fal’dera Hult Jer’son, laughed. “Did you see him beg you to take the money? And that was before you even kicked him!”

“Yeah, where’s my five?” Overcadet Je’main Winterd Barn’t jumped to grab it from Renhant’s hand.

“Who says you get five?” Jer’son teased, waving the credits in front of the smaller boy’s face.

“I’m the one who kicked him hardest. I deserve my share.” Barn’t pouted, his face turning red.

“Here,” Renhant peeled off five of the credits and handed them to Barn’t. “Here’s yours, too, Jer’son. Let’s go to the games room. They’ve got some new ones I want to try.”

With echoes of laughter, the three friends disappeared down the corridor, games on their minds, the boy lying in his own vomit in the utility corridor forgotten. They knew there would be others with money when they needed more. There always were.


JER’SON KNELT by Renhant’s bunk. “Did you notice the new kid? The one behind the pipes?” He grinned expectantly. “You know, when we were borrowing that newbie’s credits.”

His friend sat up on one elbow. “Yeah, I saw him. I didn’t know anyone else did. We should have beat him up after we thrashed that newbie. What do you think? Should we show him who’s boss around here?” He let himself fall back to the bed, tossing a hard ball at the bottom of the bunk above, catching it each time it returned.

“I talked to Barn’t, and he says the kid had a really bad reputation downside.”

“Barn’t knows that?” Renhant laughed. “He can’t even decide which shower niche to use unless we point him to one.”

“He says he was called up to the head rooms—”

“He was what?” Renhant sat up abruptly. “Did he rat?”

“Nah.” Jer’son pushed hard against Renhant’s shoulder, dismissing his concerns. “You know Barn’t. He wouldn’t rat without asking us first. No, he filched the kid’s file—it was right there on a glass—and he’s a forced inductee, had to come to the academy ship with no choice.”

“So, what do you think? Is he all right?”

“Don’t know.” He thought so, however. Forced inductee? That sounded like someone who would fit into their little trio snug as a bug. “Maybe. I say give him a cycle or two and see if he rats. If he does, I’ve never broken an arm. I might like to give it a try.” He laughed at that.

“Barn’t okay with this?”

“You know Barn’t. He’ll tag along with whatever we decide. Who knows, if he proves okay, the new kid might even be one of us some day.”

“If he fits in,” Renhant mused. “Otherwise, we’ll just work him over good. It wouldn’t hurt him at all.” He snickered, and then finished with, “Well, maybe just a little bit, but then that might do us some good.”


BARN’T HELD the fingerlight to the page, the lights of the holding cell long ago dimmed. He knew he would get in even more trouble if they knew he had the small device with him, but he had to have light. He was really nervous about going in front of the judge tomorrow. That’s when they’d find out just what would happen to them. With the girl dying, and then Zen’ri, it probably wouldn’t be good.

He hoped they’d be kicked out of the academy for sure. That’d be fine with him. He’d just go home. Sometimes he thought he’d like that, just pack up and go home, forget about all his classes and military training.

He didn’t know that he was really cut out to be a soldier like the others, not even if he did make officer someday. OverCap’t Je’main Winterd Barn’t. Wouldn’t that have really impressed his old man! It wouldn’t go over well if he came home, kicked out from MegaCorp, though.

Maybe he wouldn’t go home, just get a job on a private ship, and work his way up from the bottom. There were all kinds of things a boy his age could do. He stopped and corrected himself. There were things a man his age could do.

He was a man. He had been with her that night. He knew she hadn’t been dead then, because she had made moaning sounds as he had spilled his juices into her.

Barn’t hit his head with his fist, slamming the heel of his hand into it over and over. Someone had to take the blame, and it wasn’t going to be him. It was Renhant’s fault that all this was happening. If Renhant hadn’t done whatever he’d done, they wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t be here, and he’d graduate from the academy in only a few more quarters, go home and show his old man what a jerk he’d been, telling him he’d never make it once he got here.

Once on the ship, Barn’t had thought he was free from the insults. Then, his old man had decided he had to come see him at the academy, and when he’d gotten here, he’d told his insults to everyone in the dorm, making him feel small all over again. Now, he could never go home. The old man’d never let him live down getting kicked out of the academy.

Barn’t ran his fingers down the file, hating using this paper copy, wishing for his glass, knowing it had been taken away with everything else that was his, taken and “held” for him until all this was resolved. He was sure there must be at least one accidental death case like theirs on the list where the accused were simply discharged.

After all, Zen’ri’s death had certainly been accidental. They hadn’t touched him, not really. It was just that Zen’ri was running, wouldn’t listen to them, and they had to stop him. He must have tripped. Zen’ri always was clumsy, anyway. Surely they would take that into account. They couldn’t really blame him for Zen’ri’s clumsiness, could they? Yeah, maybe kick him and Jer’son and Renhant out, but surely they wouldn’t do anything more than that.

Barn’t’s eyes starting to twitch, he came to the bottom of the list. There had to be at least one. He went back to the top; he must have missed it. Surely, not every single case was assigned to Rant. Not him, not Barn’t. He just wanted to be at the bottom of the ladder on a ship somewhere. He’d even wash floors as long as he didn’t have to go to Rant.

The words on the paper blurring, he wiped his eyes as he jerked across the words, running his fingers down the list once more. There must be at least one. There has to be, he told himself as he started reading at the top one additional time.


JER’SON SAT on his bunk in the dark, hitting his fist into his palm over and over. The slapping sound of knuckles against flesh was gratifyingly loud in the blackness.

Bofsky’d wanted to go. It was his idea. Even then they could’ve turned around and come back, especially at the point when they discovered they didn’t have enough credits. Playing ringleader, Bofsky had found a way. One walker for all of them, sharing one at a time.

Jer’son shouldn’t have listened to him. If they’d stayed on the ship, things would have been okay.

Then, there was that idiot, Zen’ri. To run like that—how stupid! They wouldn’t have hurt him. All he had to do was keep quiet for a while. Now, all three of them would be sentenced tomorrow. He knew what they’d do, not like stupid Barn’t, thinking they’d just let them all go home. No way. They were all going to Rant. That’s where all academy officers got sent when they broke the really serious rules. Well, they weren’t exactly officers, yet, but the three of them were almost officers, would have been, too, if it weren’t for Bofsky.

Jer’son continued to pound his hand, anger flooding his veins, hoping, just hoping he got on someone’s nerves. He needed to vent his rage on something or someone. He’d kick bars and pound metal, whatever it took. Gods, he hated Bofsky!

“Hey, you, kid. I’m trying to sleep up here.” Jer’son’s cellmate shifted in the bunk, and the metal creaked with his weight.

Jer’son went nuts. He jumped up and pushed on the edge of the man’s metal sleeping platform, slamming into it hard. “You talking to me? That me you’re talking to, huh?” His breath coming in gulps, pent up fury painting the world red, Jer’son turned away, and equally fast, he whipped back, lunging into the man’s bunk repeatedly, attacking it with his fists each time.

“Kid, go back to bed. You don’t want to mess with me,” the tired voice snarled.

“I don’t, huh? Then you just leave me alone, you hear? Just leave me alone.” Jer’son lunged forward one more time. As he did, a hand wrapped itself around his wrist.

“Want a broken arm, kid?”

He pulled back, forcing his wrist from the man’s grasp, his other hand slipping and inadvertently hitting the man in the face.

“That’s it, kid. You keep asking, so I’m gonna give you what you want.” With a creaking of the man’s bunk, there were quickly two angry people standing in the room. “Come on, kid. You think you can take me, or are you going to shut up and let me sleep?”

Jer’son hissed, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and with that, he attacked the man with both fists.

The man staggered, but the boy had no chance. While fending his hits with one hand, the bigger man kept his other curled into a fist¸ connecting with his inexperienced cellmate in all the places where the young man would hurt the worst. Soon, he hurt too badly to fight back.

As he lay on the floor, the man spat at him, “Now lie still. I want to sleep.”

This time, Jer’son did as he was told for the rest of the night. The next morning the guard kicked him as he lay curled on the floor.

“What happened to you?” Glancing up, the guard grinned. “Oh. I know who happened to you.”

“Damn right,” muttered the occupant of the top bunk.

Kneeling down, the guard grabbed Jer’son’s face in his hand, turning it, looking for damage. “Clean face. Good, this’ll be an easy one to overlook.” Giving the man in the top bunk a sharp slap to the shoulder, the guard called out, “Thanks. Good job,” and turned to walked out.

The man’s only reply was, “Go away.”


THREE DIFFERENT guards pulled three different seven-teen-year-olds from their last night on the academy training ship. Each was forced to stand outside a cell holding a change of clothing until a shower room was ready. Then, one at a time, the boys were taken inside, and the guard stood at the door monitoring as each boy stripped off his clothes and handed them to the burly man at his side, who then searched the pockets before stuffing them into a recycle slot.

Exposed to the greedy eyes of the watching sentry, each boy was required to shower and dress in the change of clothing he had been given. One at a time, the guards delivered their packages to the sentencing chambers, where finally all three were together again.

“Guys, do you think they’ll just let us go home?” Barn’t whispered. His cheeks were flushed with worry. Red traced lines in the whites of his eyes.

“Grow up. How many times over the past few cycles have you read down that ridiculous list you snuck in here? Things won’t change for us, Barn’t. Face it.”

“It might be we’ll be different. We might. When things change, there always has to be a first time. We might be it.” He scratched at his neck, leaving red marks as long as his fingers. They matched the color of his cheeks.

“Yeah, and Bofsky might pay his dues with us, too. Do you think that might happen, Barn’t? Bofsky might decide it’s not fair for him to get off while we pay his dues. Right. Like I said, grow up.”

“Be easy on him. He’s just scared.” Renhant sat with his head against the wall, his eyes on the ceiling.

Jer’son exhaled a barking sound at the reminder. “I guess I’m not, and you’re not, huh, Renhant? Just Barn’t, right?” He stood, walking around the room. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, you know. I was supposed to move on up and take command of my own ship. It’s not like those military commanders out there passing sentence on us haven’t sent men to their deaths, and then said, ‘Oops!’ Why do they have to do this to us when this is no different?” Jer’son slapped a bare fist against the wall.

“Because they can. Then they can feel righteous about keeping everything moral and honest when really it isn’t. You and I know that, but it doesn’t change what they can do. We don’t have a choice. We have to do what they tell us today. We just have to make sure we agree on one thing.” He sat up and leaned forward, motioning for the other two to join him. He whispered, “If this goes as bad as I think it will, Bofsky pays. I don’t know how or when, but we make a pact here and now to never rest until he has paid as much as we have. Is it a deal?”

All three boys reached their hands out and shook, the pact sealed with the act. The door opened, and they turned to face the guard.

“Break it up, boys. There will be no collaboration allowed. You will be led one at time to the chambers. Please follow protocol. Nod when sentenced. No comments are allowed, whether the sentence is in your favor or otherwise. Overcadet Renhant, first. Then, I will return for you other two.”

Renhant walked to the door, turning to his friends, and just looked at them before spinning around with resignation to follow the guard. Soon the other two were also taking their places as they were led off to learn of their fates.



The three boys could see their former friend, their Judas, across the room. He looked so proud and cocky at having escaped the punishment he should be sharing.

“Overcadets Renhant, Barn’t, and Jer’son, this board of inquiry has returned a verdict for the despicable actions you have initiated. You have shamed this training academy. For the willful entrapment and injury unto death of one Cadet Fabr d’Sen Zen’ri, you are sentenced to a permanent posting on Rant. A jumpship is waiting. Officers, please escort these men out now.”


JER’SON FELT his mind go blank at the actual words being said. Sentenced. Posting. Rant. He remembered the boy, the cadet aboard the ship who had died.

“Hey, Zen’ri.” The boy turned to face him, a look of wariness crawling across his face. “Remember me?” He smiled at the boy. He had attended several classes with him, but Zen’ri wasn’t his type. Small and awkward, he usually got the desk chores where he couldn’t mess much up.

Cautiously, he answered, “You’re Jer’son, right?”

“Yes, you remembered.” He put on his brightest smile. He had to charm this boy to get what he wanted. “Remember that abilities class we were in, the one where we were paired in the team races?” He looked at him, willing him to remember a race that had never happened.

“Um, I’m not sure.”

“Remember, Zen’ri? We were on the same team, and you were the last one who ran. You helped our team take first. Surely you remember.”

“I think I would if I did that.” The puzzled look on the boy’s face competed with what must be his desire to claim what Jer’son was offering him, recognition for a skill at which he was abysmally poor.

“You just don’t remember because you know you have more important things to do, not just win races. You know that thinking is more important. Isn’t that right?”

Cadet Zen’ri frowned. “I do think I remember something about that race.” He looked unsure, though.

“You must, Zen’ri, because we couldn’t have done it without you. Well, there’s something else I can’t get done without you.”

Hesitantly, the boy answered. “Sure. Um, what can I do for you?”

Jer’son rubbed hands together. “I have this pass I damaged, and I need a glue that will put it back together again without it coming apart when I run it through a scanner.”

Zen’ri obliged the request, even showing Jer’son the best way to apply it. What really amused Jer’son was how pleased he sounded doing it, as if he were helping out a good friend.

As if, Zen’ri. As if.


BARN’T MUMBLED, “Permanent posting? Life sentence is what it is.” Memories of his father flooded his thoughts.

“Look at you! Mr. La-te-da! So, what did I come to see, a girl or an officer? I don’t see any officer’s bars on those shoulders, yet.”

“I know, Dad. I have to graduate to become an officer.” Barn’t turned from his father to face his bunk, unable to bear the drunken flush on his face.

“Don’t look away from me, boy. I’m your father, and you have to do what I say. I told you you’d never make it here.” His father turned to the rest of the dorm, speaking as if wanting the others to hear. “How many other fathers come here to see their sons? How many of those fathers ever got a medal for bravery? How many of those fathers set a standard so high their sons got to piss their pants just to reach it? Gods, it’s hot in here. Do they have a place I can get a drink?” He grabbed Barn’t’s arm. “Huh, boy?”

Barn’t muttered, “How many of those boys have to deal with a drunk for a father?”

“What, boy? I heard that. I am not a drunk.” Louder, to the dorm, “I am not a drunk. My boy, Barn’t here, says I’m a drunk, but I’m not. I just like a little one every now and then.”

He can’t even call me by my real name, not like a real father would. Je’main. It’s Je’main.

Making sure his face was expressionless, he turned to his father. “Dad, maybe we can get you something in the officer’s mess. It’s right this way.”

“Damn right, it’s this way. Bet you’re proud to be seen with your old man, huh, Barn’t. I’m a real war hero, that’s by god right. A real, honest-to-damn war hero.” He strutted, calling out to the other cadets, “Look at me. Eat your eyes out, boys!”

After seeing you, they’re probably glad their dads didn’t get a special bravery medal allowing them access to the training academy where those same fathers could continue to mess up their sons’ lives just as they’ve probably done all along at home.

Barn’t kept his face straight, though. It’d be hell enough when his father was gone without being teased for being a baby, too.

Gods, he hated his father.


RENHANT WHISPERED, spitting the words angrily, “You’ll pay, Bofsky. Somehow. Someday. Just wait.” Bofsky had stolen something from him, and Renhant knew what it was. His pride. He remembered the sister he’d wanted to be so proud of him.

“So, my baby brother’s going to follow in his sis’s footsteps and graduate from the academy.” Reenna Chi’lita Renhant reached across the table and ruffled his hair with one hand. “You deserve a night out on the town for this.” Standing, she paid for his treat, and they stepped into the shopping arcade. “Of course, it won’t be easy, Rennie, but you’ll love it. The academy’ll be like family after a while. Your family.”

He grabbed her hand and led her to an arcade counter, the games involving shooting and throwing. Smiling at him, she slipped out a credit for him to put in the machine. Looking up, he was surprised to see tears running down her face.

“I am so proud of you, Rennie. No matter what happens, I’ll always be proud of you. Nothing you could do will ever take that away.” As she stopped right there in the middle of everything and hugged him, he hugged her back, knowing he would make her proud, would make MegaCorp proud. He would do that for his sister no matter what the future held.

He would never let his sister down, whatever that promise demanded from him.


THE BOYS felt the ziptites jerk tight around their wrists. Not criminals, at least not to each other, only a tenday earlier they had been on the road to graduation, the honors of the academy theirs. Now, they were being looked upon as MegaCorp trash. Couldn’t the others see them for what they really were? Officers! The short time until graduation didn’t matter; this was Jer’son, Renhant, and Barn’t, the same guys who sat in class, ran the drills, and joked at the mess table.

At least none of the other uppercadets would be in the corridors with them. The three of them wouldn’t have to listen to the mocking calls, the whistles of derision, or the taunts made by the others who were just glad three more competitors were out of the running for the top spots at graduation.


RENHANT STOOD at his instructor’s invitation. It was his third year at the academy, and this was the final day of the session. He looked at his score as the instructor raised her hands and started to clap, the entire class joining in and cheering for him.

He held his head high. He deserved this, although he had twisted every rule in the book to make it come true. His score was the highest ever recorded in her class. He had known her reputation for toughness when he signed up for her class, and he had made it his business to learn who his smartest classmates would be. It hadn’t been hard, really. A planned “chance” meeting at meals, the shoulder bumped in the games room, the quick apology and introduction, and a “friendship” was formed, one beneficial at least to him.

Then, later, the friendship firmly entrenched, had come the first payment. You’re my closest friend, and I’m not as good at this as you are. Can I please borrow your study notes? Sometimes he had to twist an arm to get what he wanted, but this was worth it.

He smiled, taking pride in the honor being bestowed on him by his teacher and classmates. Running his eyes across the room of cheering students, he stopped at one boy in the back who wasn’t cheering. He paused, glancing away, remembering.

“That’s cheating, Renhant. I can’t give you the answers. Besides, they always watch. They’ll know if you copy.”

“I wouldn’t be copying. I will be absent that day. I need your answers to study with, that’s all. Besides, when I go in for my makeup exam, the real test’ll be already over, so how could it be copying?” At the boy’s doubtful look, Renhant stepped closer to him. “I really need this. You and I are friends, or at least that’s what I thought. All I’m asking for is a little help here.”

“We are friends, Renhant. I told you so, but this just doesn’t seem right.”

“You mean it doesn’t seem right to help a friend. That’s where we stand, huh?”

“No, that’s not it.” The boy looked at him pleadingly. “If I give you my answers, you’ll use them just to study with, right, not to use on the test?”

Renhant smiled and stepped away. “That’s right, just for studying. I wouldn’t use them on the test at all. That would be cheating, wouldn’t it?” He put his arm around the boy’s shoulder, reassuring him they were still the closest of friends, even if they really weren’t, not by any stretch of the imagination.


“LITTLE GIRL! Can’t you make it like the rest of the boys?” The instructor’s voice mocked Barn’t.

It was his first year at the academy, and no matter what he did, he couldn’t keep up with the bigger boys on his team. He looked up. Just three more pegs, and he’d be at the top, the current nightmare over.

“Don’t pee your panties!” The other boys laughed at the instructor’s deriding gibes.

All the other guys had been to the top, some of them on the first try. He knew his team couldn’t move on until he grabbed the top peg. Frustrated, he felt his eyes grow damp. He wasn’t good at this. They should know that. Every boy should be allowed at least one thing he wasn’t good at. Some of the guys weren’t as good at the other skills learned in their class lessons, but no one made fun of them for that. No, it was “get some extra help after class” for them. Well, no one was giving him any extra help now. Just the laughing.

He reached for the next peg and pulled himself up, his muscles quivering with the strain. He held on, sweat beading his face, and looked up. Two more pegs. Just two more pegs, and they’d quit laughing. He released one hand, opening and closing it, trying not to think about the blister forming on his palm. He reached out and grasped the second peg. With fire shooting through his shoulder, he inched his body up until he could see the top peg just above his head. Just that one was all he had to do, then he would be part of the team. They’d stop laughing at him then. All he had to do was touch it, just one quick touch.

His breath vibrating from his lungs, he opened a hand and grabbed at it, eliciting a spattering of cheers from below.

Working his way back down, barely able to keep from slipping, he dropped heavily to the floor. Standing, holding to the wall to steady his quivering legs, he turned to his team. One of them spat at him, “You almost made us lose. Even a baby could climb that. Sissy.” Then, the team was gone, on to the next challenge, his efforts forgotten.

He didn’t forget, though. He knew just who had laughed at him. He would always remember. He wouldn’t forget them, even if they forgot him. Ever.


JER’SON KICKED the door, and again, and again. How dare they lock him in this room! He was an overcadet, a respected member of the academy. It wasn’t his fault his instructor had killed himself.

Jer’son had indisputable proof that all he had done was tell the truth. Anyway, if the instructor hadn’t failed him, nobody would’ve had to know, would they? He wouldn’t have had to write that message and broadcast it on the intraship network.

He yelled through the small opening in the door, “I didn’t do it. He killed himself. I wasn’t even there.”

Then, the door swinging wide, in walked an officer flanked by two guards. The officer walked to the table in the middle of the room and slapped a glass down on the table.

“You wrote this. We have proof of that.” He spat his contempt

“If I did?” Jer’son had. It was his broadcast playing on the surface.

“Where did you get this information?”

Ah, now he knew where this was headed. He could back up his facts, because they were true. He had friends who knew. They’d been there, been with the girl, said she looked just like her father, and when they had asked her, she admitted the instructor was her father. Jer’son had to suppress a grin, though. It seemed she hadn’t really wanted to admit who her father was until after a little rough “play.” Jer’son knew she had also owned up to a few other top brass who’d spent time with her.

Now on confident ground, Jer’son retorted, “Check it out. The records are there at the spaceport I talked about. The instructor’s daughter really is a sky-walker. Keeps the military happy when the ships come in. I even know a few captgen’ls who have been with her, even the one on this ship.” He smirked. “I guess the instructor didn’t know.”

The officer grabbed the glass and handed it to one of the guards. “Take this and check out the kid’s story. See if he’s telling us the truth.” Turning to Jer’son, he growled, “We have proof you were nowhere near the instructor’s quarters when he was killed. It’s the only thing saving your hide about now. Let’s just hope your story checks out. Otherwise you’ll be held as accessory, suicide or not.” The officer turned and walked out of the room, the remaining guard with him. When Jer’son heard the locking mechanism click over in the door, he raised his foot and kicked it again.

It’s true, he thought. You can bet on that. Then, with nothing to do in the barren space, he sat on the lone chair in the room and put his head on the table.


THE LIFT BLINKED red three times, and then with a sudden flash of green, the doors slid open. The three boys, hands behind their backs, resolutely stepped in. Their two guards followed, their weapons at the ready. As the doors closed, it was as if the light from the boys’ world was eclipsed from around them. MegaCorp Military Academy was gone. They were leaving behind all they’d worked for. Never again would they be looked on as the future hope of MegaCorp. From this point on, they were nothing more than washed-up has-beens.

However, there was something new, a connection forming deep inside each boy. There were three of them, and they were a team. They had a pact, and that pact was stronger than what was coming up. That pact was stronger than Rant ever could be.

In the coming days, the three teenagers would need that strength. It would be the only thing to see them through.

Chapter 2

Twelve men walking

Came upon a tree.

Left one hanging,

I’m glad it wasn’t me.


Eleven men talking

Thought they’d done right.

They didn’t know

I got away that night.


—From “The Legend of Tommy Boy”


THE LIFT STOPPED, and the doors slid open. No one moved. None of the boys wanted to be the first to take that step toward an uncertain future. Someone else’s life lay outside that lift door. Not Renhant’s life. Certainly not Barn’t’s. Most importantly, not the world Jer’son had imagined; he would not let it be his future.

Finally, out of patience, one of the guards bumped Jer’son with his weapon. Knocked off balance, he stumbled off the lift, inadvertently leading the other two to a place none of them wanted to go. He turned just in time to see Barn’t and Renhant stumbling after him.

Ahead, the airlock loomed above them as they approached, the jumpship just on the other side. At a motion from the guard on his right, Jer’son stopped, and Barn’t, head down, preoccupied with his situation, ran full speed into him.

“Crikes! You little idiot!” Jer’son hissed his irritation at his friend’s carelessness. “Can’t you even watch where you’re going?”

“Shut your traps up!” the guard on the left snapped. “You sissies aren’t causing any problems here. Got that?” When the boys didn’t respond, the guard repeated his question, “Got that?” stepping behind them and hitting Jer’son in the back with the butt of his weapon.

“Yes, ser,” the ex-overcadet coughed out.

“You other two?”

“Yes, ser,” came the boys’ replies.

“Glad you agree.” Snide humor laced the words. “You pissants better mind your p’s and q’s. Word’s out about that little wussy you killed.”

“Seen his picture. Too pretty to waste.” His partner snorted his disgust.

“Don’t let it get to you, Aain’sl. We never would have had access to that particular little piece.”

“Yeah. But still.” He turned to the three boys again. “Bofsky was the only man among you. One of him is worth three of you. Thank the stars this academy still trains at least a few good officers to lead us into the future.” The guard cleared his throat, then spat a wad at the boys’ feet.

“Damn right. Men like Bofsky are what this academy needs. Ship out the riffraff like you three,” the other guard seconded with a laugh.

Renhant, Barn’t, and Jer’son looked at each other, knowing a different story about Bofsky, also understanding it was useless to speak up. Revenge would have to come a different way.

One of the guards whipped out a pass and held it in front of a scanner. The airlock doors immediately cycled open. “Inside, boys. It’s time to get the filth off this ship. Crowd ’em up. We’re coming, too.”

This time, the guards didn’t wait for the boys to move. Slamming into them, their weapons as rams, they pushed the boys forward into the airlock, forcing them to stumble over one another.

“Can’t walk too good, huh? Lost your manhood when you lost your chance at being an officer, is that it, trash?” The guards looked at each other and grinned.

The boys regained their feet and stood, humiliated and frightened, their hands still bound behind their backs. It was plain they had no options except to take whatever the guards decided to dish out. There was no one to take up for them. As far as anyone outside MegaCorp would know, they were simply being posted to a new assignment. This would be an assignment, however, at which they would never be heard from again.

One of the guards, leaning around to trigger the ship’s side of the airlock door, leaned hard into Jer’son, already sore and miserable from his beating the night before. When the man whispered into his ear, “Pretty toy,” and ran his tongue along his cheek, the boy reacted.

“Get away from me, you pervert!” he hissed, slamming the side of his head hard directly into the guard’s face.


JER’SON PULLED at the ziptites around his wrists, but they didn’t budge. He hadn’t expected they would, but in his anger, that didn’t stop him from trying. It was the stink of the man next to him, the sour smell of someone who ate too many spicy foods and didn’t shower often enough. The need to get away overwhelmed him.

He knew what the man had wanted when he made him stand outside his cell that morning. The way he had looked at him, the leer when he handed Jer’son the clothes, had said it all.

Later, when he led him to the shower, the man had stood there, refusing to look away. Jer’son hadn’t wanted to take off his clothes, not with those hated eyes all over him. It wasn’t just the bruises from his beating the night before. It was a flashback to the nights when he had first come to the academy.

As Jer’son had peeled one garment after another, the chill of the room hitting his bare skin, he had glanced at his “caretaker.” A leer stared back, the grin disgusting in all its coarseness and perversity. He had turned away to cover himself, but the man barked at him, “This way, boy. I can’t have you doing something I can’t see, can I?” He prodded him with the tip of his weapon. Then, when Jer’son didn’t respond fast enough, a hand grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around, forcing him to stand under the needle-like spray, exposed and unprotected.

Jer’son’s stomach had knotted when he saw it was the same guard escorting them on the jumpship. When the man hit him in the back, forcing him forward, he had wanted to swing around and slam his arms into his face. He knew he was lucky, though, to have the second guard with them, because he was sure what the man wanted to do, would do, too, if he got the chance. One, surely, would keep the other reined in.

Then, in the airlock, the man was right next to him, too close, closer than he had to be, even in that small space. He felt his hand on him, touching his side, sliding across his clothing and touching him there.

Jer’son tensed. He could stand it. They would be on the jumpship soon, and the man surely couldn’t bother him there. Then, the brute leaned against him, gripping his crotch in a tight squeeze, and he whispered ever so softly in Jer’son’s ear, licking his face as he kneaded between his legs.

The airlock with the guards and his friends at his side melted away, and it was the training ship in front of Jer’son’s eyes. In that moment, he was thirteen again.

“Yes, this is the one I told you about, the pretty one. See what attractive features he has?”

Jer’son looked up and smiled at the two men talking about him. He didn’t know the one man, but the other was his activities instructor.

It was his first year at the academy, and he liked all his teachers. Most of them liked him, too, or at least they seemed to. At thirteen, nearly fourteen, now, he had grown a lot since his induction. Last tenday his dorm leader had even sent him to the barber to have his face shaved.

It made him feel special to get noticed. He was also glad his activities instructor had helped him change to a different bunk, one that was off around a corner. Now he had some privacy. His bunk couldn’t be seen from the other bunks in his dorm.

His instructor had suggested the move, telling him the other boy was willing to give up the bunk, even though he wouldn’t explain why. When Jer’son had agreed, a big grin on his face, the other boy had just swept up his things with relief and dumped them on Jer’son’s old bunk.

That first night, Jer’son woke with a start. Something didn’t feel right. Someone was by his bunk, hands touching him. He lay very still, afraid to move, hoping the person would go away and leave him alone. Yet, the person kept touching until Jer’son couldn’t lie to himself any longer. The hand was no accident, and it wasn’t going away.

When it was finally over, the hands covered Jer’son and walked away, leaving him to cry himself to sleep. He now knew why the other boy had been so willing to change bunks.

For the rest of his first year at the academy, he didn’t know which nights the hands would return. As he soon found out, they would return often, coming up with ever more inventive things to do to the boy cowering in the bunk.

When the guard licked his face, all those memories came flooding back, and Jer’son snapped. “Get away from me, you pervert!” No man was ever going to touch him like that again. He would get this man’s hands off him, whatever the consequences. With a blaze of red-hot fury wiping reason from his mind, he attacked with the only thing he had available, his head.

Jer’son slammed his skull sideways directly into the guard’s face and was gratified to feel him let go. His moment of triumph was short lived, however. Before he could turn in triumph, he felt a blazing flash of light start at the back of his head, and in a slow-motion arc, he fell ever so gradually into the incandescent core of a fiery sun.


JER’SON STOOD proudly at the helm of a starship, and he looked through the viewscreen at the offending vessel attacking the helpless world below. His ship’s weapons would pulverize them until they sent all their escape pods from their ejection ports and gave their ship up for dead. He would protect all the children on this hapless world from these vile aggressors.

“CaptGen’l Jer’son, here are the reports you requested.”

Jer’son took the portable glass in his hand and swiped his fingers above it to scroll through the information. It was just as he had thought. In spite of the enemy’s pleas for mercy, their cries of innocence, soldiers from that contemptible crew were attacking the planet below in the middle of the night, raping innocent women and children. He now had the proof in his hands. How could he allow that to continue?

“Gunners, lock on target.” Jer’son stood and walked the bridge, making sure all gunners’ fingers were poised over the red “fire” icons. “Repeat after me, men. We must protect the children.”

In turn, the gunners repeated Jer’son’s phrase. They had to understand they were destroying the enemy’s ship because of what their soldiers were doing to the poor innocent children on the planet below. This was not a mission of vengeance, but of rescue for those who could not help themselves.

“Ser,” a voice interrupted him. “There’s a message coming in from the enemy ship. Should I put it on the viewscreen?”

He laughed in derision. “One last cry for mercy? Sure, let’s hear it.” He looked around the bridge at his gunners as the message came onboard. He had a reputation as a captgen’l of steel, and this attempt to divert his ship’s attack was bound to be an over-the-top drama production. However, nothing would bend his resolve, and his men knew it.

“Fal’dera, it’s your mother. It’s really me, and I’m on board that ship in front of you. Please don’t fire. There are good men onboard. They are trying to save the children on the planet below.”

He stared, then turned to his men, his face hard. “This is the most despicable of tricks, men. See how low they are willing to go? Fire!”

Then, the scene shifting as dreams will do, he was on a tall dais, the wind whipping flags that towered over extensive parade grounds. He rose to his feet, his promotion to overgen’l making him stand tall, his pride in his ship and his men having been put before all else. As a hand pinned his new rank on his overjacket, a voice whispered in his ear, “You let children be raped for this promotion. You even killed your mother to get where you are today.”

“No!” He tore the medal from his overjacket, throwing it far away. “It’s not my fault. I don’t want to be overgen’l. They tricked me into doing it. I want my mother back.”

“Too late,” the voice said.

When he looked down at his overjacket, the medal was still there.


WHEN JER’SON had yelled out, and his head slammed into the guard, Barn’t and Renhant had tensed in the small space. They watched the guard, blood now streaming from his nose, raise his weapon and slam it against Jer’son’s head, crumpling the boy to the floor.

The guards looked at each other over the boys’ heads. The second one chuckled, remarking with a leer, “Just takes some of them longer to get used to the new order of things.”

As he reached out and triggered the door, the first guard barked at Barn’t and Renhant, “You two, over here and turn around.” He clipped the ties off their wrists. “Now he’s yours to carry. Pick him up, and let’s go.” Then the guard grabbed Barn’t’s arm and stopped him. “You. First, come here.” At the look of fear in the boy’s face, the guard laughed. “Don’t worry, kid. You’re safe around me. I only like the mature ones. It’s Tan’sn over there you’ve got to worry about. He likes ’em sweet and tender, just like you,” and he laughed as he grabbed the front of Barn’t’s shirt to wipe the blood off his face. Pushing Barn’t away, red now staining the front of his shirt, the guard pointed. “Runt, get your friend.”

As Barn’t knelt by Jer’son, he looked in Renhant’s eyes. They both flinched as the guard barked, “Carry him like he’s your best friend, because from here on out, he’s your only one.”

Stepping into the jumpship, the two friends held Jer’son between them, his arms around their necks. The second guard blocked the way to the main cabin, and he jerked his head the other way. The other direction they saw six rough slings, three on each side of what appeared to be a cargo hold.

“Set your friend down over there.” One guard pointed, indicating the three across the back wall. “Drop him in the middle one. You two take the ones on either side. Hop to it. It’s a full day even on this jumpship, and I don’t want to be in here with you any longer than necessary.” Then the guard walked up to Barn’t and took his face in his hands. “Well, maybe with you, little one. But, our time is not to be, not on this trip. Later, maybe.” He pointed to Jer’son. “Load him up, boys, and get yourselves seated.” He reached out a hand and roughly pushed the injured boy out of his friends’ arms and into the sling with the words, “Like this. Now, strap in.”

The first guard walked up and grabbed a strap from the ceiling, pulling a chain curtain to the floor, and locking it in place. “See,” he said. “We’re safe from you, and you’re safe from us. Too bad your friend there got himself knocked out. I might have kept him on this side. I might have even let you two watch.” With a guffaw of laughter, he grabbed an opaque visor from a rack over his head, flung himself into his seat, and closed his eyes. “Three jumps to get to our next stop: Rant, Planet of the Damned. Enjoy your vacation, boys.”


RENHANT WATCHED the second guard reach into the locker above his head. He pulled out an extra visor, hefting it in his hand and grinning.

“So, boys. I guess you don’t know what to expect traveling on one of these ships.” He turned to his partner with a malicious grin. “After all, the jumpships are just for the highest military purposes. Like today. The general public doesn’t even know they exist. It is quite an honor to be allowed to travel in one, meaning the honoree is of quite high military rank.”

“I think you’ve got it wrong, Tan’sn,” his partner sniggered, lifting his visor for a moment. “These losers fall at the other end of the spectrum.”

“But they are pretty. So, this being their first trip, and last, I might add, surely they should be given the best of accommodations.” The guard walked over and made as if to offer Renhant the visor through the chain curtain. “Oops! Doesn’t seem I can get this through the curtain. Hm. I guess you’ll have to do the jump without it. If you hadn’t been such bad boys, I’d probably let you wear one. But, no treats for the mean old guard means you three, oh, that’s right, you two have to do without. Sorry, boys. You know, this is the only part of this jumpship that’s not shielded. I hear it’s pretty gruesome, or at least the yells of the detainees we transport sound that way. They won’t ever tell us about it, though. Enjoy!”

With that, the guard slipped his visor on and fell into his sling.

Renhant lay still, not having any idea what to expect, when he noticed the whine of the engines increasing in pitch. As the sound rose out of his range of hearing, he noticed the edges of his vision turning pink. His heart jerked into motion, and then he felt the pain begin. His arms and legs were torn from his body. He could feel the tendons snapping and the blood vessels releasing their hold on each other, spraying his body’s lifegiving energies into the emptiness of space around him. Then, when he could take no more, the globules of his blood turned to fire, pelting his body, burning his clothing from him, searing his skin until the very meat of his body began to roast. Then, he began feasting on his own flesh, consumed with a hunger he knew he could never satisfy.


BARN’T RAN his fingers in the sand. He looked up from the shore and saw his mommy standing there waving at him, his mommy from before, when his mommy and his dad were still together, and his dad didn’t drink all day long. This would be a good vacation. He knew that.

Sometimes he came on vacation and his new stepmom locked him out of the house. He had to stay outside all day just like when he was at home. His dad never believed him when he told. His dad just believed his stepmom. After a while, his dad would start hitting him, calling him a liar.

Finally, he had quit telling. It was just what he did when his dad went away each day, spent the time outside. Not when his mommy had been here. She always let him back inside. Maybe today she would come outside and play.

“Je’main, I see you’re building something in the sand. What is it?” His mommy walked to the edge of the sand and stood there, her dress blowing in the wind, her hair brown and long.

“It’s a sand castle, Mommy. It’ll have big towers and flags on the top and everything. I have little men and women I can put at the tops of the towers so they can look out at the sea and see the boats coming. That way if someone gets lost, the people on the towers can help the lost people find their way home.” He smiled.

“That’s nice. Your father will be home in just a little while, and I’ve prepared us something really nice to eat. Would you like that? Something really nice to eat?” His mother stood at the edge of the sand looking at him and then turning to peer across the sea at the horizon, as if she could sense something coming.

“Mommy, come play with me first, please. It’s been so long since you’ve played a game with me. I’ve missed you.” Barn’t looked at his mother with pleading in his eyes. “Just this one time. Just today. Dad’s not home yet, and I won’t ask you to play very long. Please?”

His mother sighed. She turned to the house and then held up her hand to shade her eyes as she looked back to the horizon. Barn’t then saw her look high in the sky.

“What are you looking for, Mommy?”

“Oh, nothing, dear. I’m just hoping, I guess. More wishing than anything else.”

“Mommy, why do you sound sad?”

“I’m not sad, Je’main. I just need a rest, that’s all.”

She put her hands in her pockets as if it were chilly, but Barn’t felt very warm out in the sun.

“Mommy, will you come play in the sun with me? It’s very warm out here.”

She looked at him and smiled that warm smile he liked so much, the one she always smiled when she covered him up at night and told him to not let the bedbugs bite.

“I guess I could come out for a few minutes. Let me go put my other shoes on.”

“No, Mommy,” he cried, suddenly afraid. If she went inside, she might not come back out, and she was here, now. She was with him, and he hadn’t seen her in so long. “Stay outside with me, Mommy. You can take your shoes off here. You can put your shoes back on when we’re finished playing, and then you can go inside.”

“Sweetie, that just won’t do. I must have my outside shoes on to play on the beach. I promise I’ll be right back.” She ran to the house. She turned and looked at Barn’t, and she blew him a kiss. He reached up and caught it. He waved it high in the air, showing her what a good catcher he was. His mother laughed and waved, standing there for a moment, her hair blowing in the breeze. He loved her so much. He watched her as she turned and walked into the house, closing the door behind her.

Barn’t jumped as a huge crash came from the house. He turned to look out at the water and closed his eyes. His mommy might really be there, might still be there, if he didn’t turn around and look.

The back door slammed open as his dad threw the screen door wide, yelling at him, “Where is that empty-headed woman I married? And why is this back door locked? Je’main, did you lock yourself outside again? And why did your mother have to give you such a sissy name? Every time I call you, the whole neighborhood knows.” He spat into the dirt, his face red with anger. “Stupid boy. When your mother was alive, you never locked yourself out of the house.”

As his father turned to go back inside, an unseen window slammed shut on the other side of the house, and a few moments later, a vehicle from around the corner roared away, just as it did every day when Barn’t was locked out of the house.

Barn’t didn’t want to open his eyes, because he knew what would be there. He didn’t want to see. He wanted his mother to come back, so he just sat with his eyes closed and waited. Finally, his father came down the steps and walked up to him. He kicked him and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing sitting here in the yard all day. There’s nothing here I can see except this grass that always needs mowing and these fenced walls closing me in. Gods above and below, I hate this place.” He kicked Barn’t again. “Get inside, boy. You’ll never make anything of yourself out here. Besides, your stepmother finally has dinner on the table. I just can’t figure out what that woman does all day. Not for the likes of me.”

Barn’t jerked, the vibration of the jumpship and the webbed seat cutting into his legs as they tried to bring him back to reality. The thought he tried to keep hold of was, If I keep my eyes closed, maybe it’ll go away. Just maybe.

At first he was grateful when the jumpship faded away again. After a moment, he wasn’t, not when his own personal hell swept over him once more.


JER’SON’S EYES flew open. Blearily he stared straight ahead, his breathing hard, feeling something funny in his mouth. His stomach churning, he turned and found Renhant and Barn’t on either side of him.

Looking ahead of him though a chain curtain, he saw the two guards who had escorted them. One was snoring. Both were sleeping with opaque visors across their faces.

It was only then he noticed his two friends were gripping his own hands tightly, as if very afraid of something they couldn’t see in the dark.

Then, with a twist of his gut, and a knife thrust of pain driving through his head, he slumped over, and he was gone again.


A MILLION YEARS later, and yet just as quickly as the nightmare had started, Renhant was back in the sling. The guards snored under their visors.

“Barn’t. Barn’t, Jer’son’s making funny noises.”

He watched his friend jerk his eyes open to the inside of the jumpship, the chain still separating them from the other side of the compartment and the two guards, one with the marks of a nosebleed on his upper lip. Turning his head, he could see Barn’t narrow his eyes at Jer’son. Bloody bubbles oozed out of the injured boy’s mouth.

Barn’t mouthed, “The guards?” He motioned to the two sleeping men.

Renhant shook his head back and forth, mouthing that they already knew and didn’t care.

Barn’t reached over and shook Jer’son. All he got was a moan. Reaching his sleeve up, he tried to dry the red spittle bubbling out of his friend’s mouth.

Renhant, emotionally empty, shook his head in resignation, lay back, and closed his eyes. If this wasn’t hell, he didn’t know what was.


JER’SON JERKED awake, his heart beating like a drum. He turned at the sound of a caustic voice.

“How about it, boys? That jump made the others sound like girls on a sleepover. Care to share a few of the details?” At the looks of unbridled terror on the boys’ faces, the guards slumped in their seats. “Thought not. It never hurts to ask, though.”

The first guard stood and looked in through the chain curtain. “Hey, look, Tan’sn. We might both get a treat this trip. My favorite in the middle is back awake. I was starting to think I had to take the big one over there. I was just hoping he wouldn’t be too much for me.” Turning back to Jer’son, he smiled. “Hey, sweetie, how long you been awake?”

Jer’son kicked the chain in reply.

The guard leaned over to his friend. “I guess he doesn’t want to play nice, Aain’sl.”

“So, I guess that means we get to play rough, Tan’sn. I like it better that way.” They both burst into riotous laughter.

Finally, the second guard—Aain’sl—stood up, flipping Tan’sn a set of code crystals. He reached down, unlocked, and raised the chain curtain. At the surprised looks on the boy’s faces, he said, “That was the third jump, boys. When you’re jumping unshielded, every jump seems like the first one. Isn’t that right, Tan’sn? Wouldn’t you say that?”

Tan’sn stepped over, pulling Barn’t from his sling, running his hand over the boy’s face. “Pretty and sweet, you know? Pick ’em ripe when they taste the best.” He pushed Barn’t to the door. “I wouldn’t know about the jumps. I’ve never done one unshielded. Never want to, either.” He reached down and pulled Renhant up, running his hand up and down Renhant’s arm before letting him exit after Barn’t. “Such pretty boys. We don’t get them on this run that often. Too bad we can’t stay and visit with them. We could build such fond memories together.” He looked back to the second guard. “It’ll take me a few minutes to check those other two in if you’d like some private time together. The station’s mostly downplanet this run, so no one’ll know.” He winked at his friend and walked out the door.

The remaining guard stood over Jer’son and leered at him. He grabbed the straps holding the sling chair to the ceiling and leaned over to look him right in the eyes. “I asked for this duty today. I knew you’d get assigned to Rant. There was no way you three were going to walk. I’ve overheard the little one telling everyone who would listen to him that he’d get off, that they wouldn’t send you three here. Well, guess what? You’re here.

“I enjoyed that little peep show in the shower. I just wonder if we should check out some of those bruises right here, find out where they all are, and just see how good my memory is. I was looking pretty closely back there, and I don’t forget much.” The guard reached to pull Jer’son’s shirt open, and Jer’son drew up his legs as if to protect himself from the guard’s advances. “How sweet! My toy wants to play hard-to-get. Like I said earlier, I like to play rough.”

With those words, Jer’son, who had been squirming in the sling as if afraid of the guard, let his legs loose like the coiled springs he had made of them. He was academy trained, and the guard should have remembered that. He shouldn’t have given him such an obvious opportunity for action. Ramming his feet directly into the man’s crotch, injuring the delicate body parts that he so wanted to inflict on his captive, Jer’son yelled in defiance. As the guard grabbed his manhood with his hands, dropping to the floor in agony, Jer’son climbed out of the sling and kicked the man again.

“That one’s for the first time I was touched,” Jer’son erupted violently, not meaning his interactions with the guard. Instead, he remembered those nights so long ago, those dark stretches lying awake not knowing if he would have a visitor, relieved when he didn’t, and hating himself the times he did. Sometimes it had felt good, and that’s why he’d never told, not really for his parents or because he was afraid of being kicked out of the academy, and he hated himself for that.

“That’s for the second time I was touched.” His boot connected yet again. It took a long time for him to kick out all the times he’d been visited that year, but he knew every one. He had relived each of those moments in his head so many times during those long nights that he could never forget a one. With each instance recalled, rage boiled inside, and with unbridled fury, he lit into the guard one more time.

This time when he yelled, “Keep your hands off me, pervert,” the man did. As Jer’son walked out of the jumpship, he knew he had learned to fight back, and if anyone needed any proof, all they had to do was walk into the rear of the jumpship. There was their proof, lying on the floor, holding his degenerate crotch, moaning like the pervert he had proven himself to be. Now he had to find Barn’t and Renhant. They were a team, and when guys were a team, they took care of their own. He knew that’s what they’d have to do here, stick together, stand up for one another, and take care of their own, no matter who got hurt.

Jer’son stopped and called out, just to hear his words spoken aloud, “No matter who gets hurt.” It sounded good to him. It sounded really good to him. He repeated the words louder, just to hear them once more, “No matter who gets hurt.” They echoed off the metal walls; and somehow, they made him stronger inside.

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