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A Small Mercy
The sirens were screaming like a choir of banshees, drilling their urgent message into every available ear. Governor Bright Armitage took several deep breaths before carefully typing in her access code. She shut down each siren individually, gently re-immersing the prison in an uneasy silence. She turned from her desktop console to face the uniformed man who waited tensely behind her.
“Repeat yourself, Captain Bracer.”
“Hostile factions of the native populations have broken the peace treaty. I don’t know why, they attacked quickly and with great force. While we were trying to hold them off, the convicts launched a rebellion. They may have worked together, or it may be the prisoners were just waiting for an opportunity.”
“They certainly pick their moments.”
“We were stretched too thin. Hostiles breached the perimeter in sector sixty seven. I’m sorry Governor, we tried to hold them off.”
“Then why are you here, Captain? I thought it was your job to maintain order in this prison?”
“You should be out commanding the taskforce.”
The Captain’s face paled, his lips tensed into a flat line. Bright watched the skin around his eyes crease with unease. Even so, his posture was straight and tall; shoulders square, hands clasped behind his back, uniform impeccable.
“The taskforce all perished in the initial attack. It only took two hostiles… thirty of our most skilled combatants, dead in seconds. The other guards are safe for now, barricaded in the common room, awaiting orders.”
Captain Bracer waited for any emotional response in Bright’s expression, finding none. Years of service under Governor Armitage had taught him to practice patience with her; she would speak when she was ready, and it never paid to rush her. It was only the unbearable dread building behind his calm demeanour that pushed him to try again.
“Governor, this is not something I can sort out with a few canisters of tear gas and a taser drone. It’s a slaughter out there. If you’d seen the taskforce go down…”
Bracer swallowed weakly, fighting down the rising bile in his throat before he continued.
“If there are prisoners out there who aren’t aligned with the hostile native forces, they’re a lost cause. A few thousand bodies for the hostiles to cut through before they reach us. It won’t take long.”
Bright stared with displeasure at the emergency lights flashing their yellow warning to the empty corridor outside her office window. They should have turned off when she’d disabled the sirens; a malfunction in the operating system, no doubt. She turned back to her desk console, stroking the controls with deft fingers and watching the display for signs of a system error.
Captain Bracer continued to stand to attention, his hands shaking almost imperceptibly.
“Bright…” the familiar address caused the Governor’s shoulders to stiffen.
“What do you expect me to do, Captain?” Her eyes never left the screen.
“We have to go,” he replied, “We should be gone already. There is still a majority of officers who are fit for space travel. We have enough flight specialists for a crew. It’s not ideal but I think we have the supplies to last. Fuel may be a challenge, but we can at least make it into orbit, radio earth for an extraction. I’ve already given the order to start packing essentials.”
“You don’t have that authority, Captain.” She spat out the word as if it were a bitter fly in her mouth.
For a second Bracer was dumbfounded.
“Governor,” he said, “The peace treaty is breached. You and I both know that it was a very thin line of defence at the best of times. We have failed our convict populations. An evacuation is long overdue. Protocol surely demands that we preserve human life first and foremost?”
“I will not surrender this planet.”
“I don’t know what insane stand you’re hoping to make here, but I will not support it. After the months of waiting for relief forces which never come. Don’t let us die before we see Earth again. Grant me access to the hangar.”
In a rare show of informality, Bright unbuttoned the tight collar of her jacket and leaned backwards onto the desk. Flicking open a drawer with one absent hand, she produced an impossibly pristine bottle of fine whisky.
“Do you think our superiors back on Earth will be happy to see us?” Bright asked. She broke the seal on the bottle and inhaled its rich scent with a sigh of satisfaction. “It was made very clear to me that this program was to be a success. We are not to return to Earth as failures.”
Bracer had a niggling urge to slap the bottle out of her hand; she didn’t look like herself holding it. He’d never seen her so much as glance at a drink during active service.
He watched her casually filling a tumbler of whisky.
“Let us go,” he said. “Come with us, or stay here alone. Just open the hangar.”
“And if I don’t?” she asked.
“Tell me anyway. I want to be sure.”
For a quiet moment they stared at each other, and then Bracer looked away, shaking his head.
“The guards have been stuck here for years longer than any of the contracts they signed. They’re scared. They’re tired. They miss their families. There’s no way in hell they’re ready to die defending a prison full of rioting criminals. It was a miracle they kept going after the politicians evacuated.”
Bright stole a glance at his face as he said it. His eyes were downcast. This was not a man to whom betrayal came easily. Bright tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling as though it might hold the answers. Finally, she turned back to her desk and started typing.
Bracer watched the information flashing across the display, red lights and security clearance procedural messages.
The end result was a black screen, displaying a white message:
Release Doors for Light Spacefleet Hangar? Yes/No
A disconsolate finger rose gracefully and landed on ‘Yes’.
“I’ve granted access authority. Any 3rd level clearance pass will open the Hangar. Go.”
Bracer seemed reluctant to leave her behind. But he wasn’t going to stick around to argue the point.
“It was an honour, Governor Armitage.”
“Bracer?” She said, just as he was turning to go. He stopped, and looked back at her. “You were a good Captain. Just remember that I meant well.”
He met her eyes and nodded once, and then hurried out the door at a jog. Bright turned back to her desk and enabled the heavy duty locks on her office door.
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