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The Thirteen Sacrifices
The beach was simply breath-taking. Seagulls soared all around like so many wonderful kites, racking the air with their screeches. The sand, still dark from the receding tides, dampened the feet of whoever trod upon it. Great sandstone cliffs loomed to the west, and beyond the wispy clouds, the bright sun sporadically warmed the backs of the soldiers as they marched.
"Will it hurt?" whispered the young boy to Henry, his frightened voice muffled by the black hood which enclosed his head.
Henry said nothing, pretending he hadn't heard. He gave the child a cautionary shove and the boy let out a small strangled sob. The chains around the boy's skinny ankles rattled as he walked forever forward.
Henry raised his expressionless gaze to the head of the procession. In front, The Commandant led the way with long, lithe strides that belittled his age. In step behind him six soldiers with identical impassive faces each pushed a hooded and shackled captive forward. Henry was the seventh soldier in line, the boy the seventh captive. He casually glanced over his shoulder and saw six more soldiers and six more captives. That made thirteen. An unfortunate quantity. Henry knew that it would not matter. The captives were living on borrowed time as it was.
All thirteen soldiers took two quick steps forward and dropped to one knee in unison, each pushing their captive to the ground before them. The Nobodies were caught unaware and awkwardly fell to their knees or tripped, splaying clumsily onto the ground. The boy toppled face first into the wet sand, letting out a cry of pain and confusion. Henry could see the heavy burlap hood rising and falling rapidly to the indistinct shape of his small mouth. He suppressed the urge to comfort the child. The child was a Nobody, Henry reminded himself. He meant nothing. He was a responsibility, no more.
The soldiers stood and strode four brisk paces away, where they gave a sharp about-face and stood, stiff and unmoving, letting their detached gazes fall upon the doomed before them. One solider began drumming his fingers impatiently upon his worn black khakis. The moment was imminent now. A slight buzzing of building excitement and dread filled the air. #13, a burly man of Indonesian decent, began to tremble. #11, a slim Caucasian woman, was producing small gasping sobs beneath her hood. The rest had fallen silent. Henry clenched his hands into white-knuckled fists; digging his fingernails into his soft palms. He bit his lip in satisfaction as blood began to flow from the lacerations. His face remained impassive.
All around him, as if by some unseen signal, twelve soldiers slung twelve government-grade semi-automatic machine guns from their muscular, fatigue clad shoulders. Fingers eagerly crept into trigger niches, and safety catches were released with a chorus of small snaps. Without hesitation, Henry drew his weapon and pointed it unwaveringly at the still-sobbing boy. The Nobody. His responsibility.
Slowly, the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon. Half of the glimmering circle had been hovering over the crashing waves just moments before, but now it was a quarter. Then, seconds later, an eighth.
The soldiers grasped their weapons with renewed enthusiasm. The moment was excruciatingly near.
The Commandant counted down his troops.
Henry became increasingly aware of the cawing of the seagulls overhead and the crashing of the waves behind them. He felt his heart pounding furiously in his chest. He had never felt so hopeless.
The sun was only present by the barest of margins now. Henry wiped his sweaty hands on his pants and licked his dry lips. He looked down the scope of the rifle and saw for the first time the eyes of the boy he was meant to kill. They were as wide as saucers, innocent and yet so brave, so daring. They were not wicked eyes. This boy didn't deserve to die. None of them did.
The sun fell beyond the horizon. A moment passed, small yet infinitely long.
The air was filled with gunfire. All around him, the Nobodies were falling, screaming, dying. Henry looked to his fellow soldiers, fervently pumping the triggers of their weapons, a feverish gleam in their eyes. He looked to the Nobodies, jerking wildly as the onslaught of bullets tore through their flesh.
Did he have a choice?
He raised his weapon and shot the young boy between the eyes.
The gunfire ceased abruptly, and from the naked silence a great cheer was born.
“Long Live the Federation!” The soldiers roared, deafeningly, as one.
At first, Henry was silent, his eyes locked unwillingly on the unmoving body of the boy, letting the screams wash over him. Then he began to chant along. His hoarse screams were the loudest of all.