Sci-fi Short Story: A Small Mercy

A Small Mercy

Ella Salome

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?” 

“Governor-” 

“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.  

“You know.” 

“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.” 

“So?” 

“Mutiny.”  

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.

***

Breathless and red faced, Bracer burst into the guards quarters causing a brief stunned silence amongst the crowded personnel barricaded inside. This was followed by a flurry of excited chatter and even a few cheers.  

“Christ,” said a lieutenant, “We’d given up.” 

“We thought you were dead, Captain,” said another guard.  

Bracer swept his eyes across the room, trying to assess how much progress they’d made in the flight preparations. A rough pile of duffel bags formed a centrepiece on the floor, their arrangement frighteningly devoid of any military precision. He could almost smell the fear and doubt rippling off the cramped bodies. They’d been waiting here for at least an hour now. Probably trying to ignore the carnage on the security cameras as they packed; listening out for the tell-tale howls which proceeded death. He attempted to rally them.

“Governor Armitage has unlocked the hangar. We are making a run for it in ten minutes.”  

“Fuck off she did,” said a low level officer, “I thought she’d die before giving over those flyers.”  

No one moved. The whole room stared at Bracer expectantly. The half question wavered tensely in the air. He cleared his throat.  

“Governor Armitage won’t be accompanying us back to Earth. She has elected to remain here and… oversee things.”  

More silence. Bracer felt the sceptical stares like a physical prickling on the back of his neck. Worse than the accusation was the unspoken agreement that no one would blame him for achieving the access to the hangar at any cost. He wasted no time explaining himself.

“Officers!” Bracer bellowed, “Anyone who isn’t standing in front of me packed and ready for departure in- ” he paused to look at his watch- “eight minutes, and seventeen seconds, will be left to fend for themselves. Understand?”  

“And if we encounter hostiles?” Said a guard, sporting an ugly looking wound on her thigh.

“I’d rather die trying than not,” Bracer said.  

***

Bright was halfway through her fourth glass of whisky when she heard the dulled echo of heavy footsteps coming up the corridor. She was surprised she hadn’t heard the howls. Usually the hostiles were ear splittingly loud when they were on the hunt. Images of old battles inundated her mind, memories from her time as a scout for the early settling parties. Bright shuddered sickly.  

A figure barrelled past her window. Fists pummelled her door.  

She heard a man’s voice outside, already hoarse from yelling. She could just make out the words.

“Bright! Let me the fuck in.”  

Bracer. She hadn’t expected to see him here again. When she didn’t immediately disable the locks, he doubled back to bang on the window. His face was streaked with blood and dirt. His eyes were wild, his nostrils flaring with rage. Bright watched the window pane flex with the repeated impact of his beating as he yelled.

“Let. Me. IN!”

And then the howling started. The chilling cacophony briefly stilled Bracer’s barrage on her window. The look on his face changed her mind about keeping him out, and she flicked the switch to open her door. As soon as he was inside, she locked it again. 

Bracer stood breathing hard from his run. He was clearly still furious, but the energy seemed to have drained out of him. Unable to stand any longer, he collapsed against the wall and sank down onto the floor.  

“I shouldn’t have left them,” he said gruffly, “but I had to know why.” 

Bright nodded, her throat thick with unexpected tears. She suppressed them, and Bracer continued. 

“Did you know the ships were gone?”  

“No treaty, no peace, no ships.”

The words came slurred from her mouth with a sing-song rhythm.  

For a moment Bracer wondered if she’d simply gone insane.  

“Bright…” he couldn’t find the words, but something in his voice seemed to reach her. 

 “I knew,” she said quietly, “I opened the hangar myself and watched them leave.”

Her head hung heavy with whisky and regret.  

“I don’t understand,” Bracer said.  

The howls were more pronounced now, dripping with bloodlust.  

“There was never a treaty,” Bright said, “We never even tried to make peace. Once we saw what the hostiles were capable of on a battlefield, no one of any importance was willing to stay and oversee the colony. I volunteered to step up as Governor, to keep the guards in order while the politicians and civilians evacuated. Easiest promotion I ever got. Guards were going to be the last ones out. We were going to leave the prisoners.” 

She sipped her whisky, and eyed him over the top of her glass.  

“So what happened?” Bracer asked. 

“There wasn’t enough room on the ships.” 

She said it matter of factly, finishing the sentence with a small derisive chuckle of disbelief.

Bracer remained silent. Bright’s glass was empty now. She dropped it carelessly, brought her hands up to cover her face. A sob shook shoulders. 

Bracer watched her cold visage crumple with years of pent up despair. Through tears, she continued.  

“Logistics fucked up the calculations. Some issue with fuel storage. When they left, they told me they’d send back more carriers for the guards.”  

“Did you believe them?” 

“Of course. Who would expect such cruelty? That they would leave us behind… So I waited. The peace treaty was a cover story, to keep you all sane. Then a month passed, and then two. Then the transmissions from earth stopped.”

“So you just… went on? I mean…”

“At first I lied because it was the best way to keep the prison running smoothly. When the transmissions stopped, I told myself it was a technical malfunction. It was easier if I imagined that it was temporary. After six months I still watched for that ship every day. Once that delusion wore off, I simply had no other choice. If word had gotten out to the prisoners that they couldn’t leave when their sentences were up…”

“Hell,” said Bracer.

Bright nodded sombrely.  

“Why didn’t you tell me before? I told the crew they could go home…”

“I hoped you’d die before you got there. You might never have had to know. We’re dead anyway.”

“You can’t imagine,” Bracer said softly, “what we went through to get to that hangar.”

“Believe me, I can.”

Bright stood up unsteadily, snatched the whisky bottle off the table by its neck, and slumped down next to Bracer on the floor. The stink of blood was strong on him, and she noticed that he had wounds in his abdomen. They looked deep, and she was once again impressed that he’d made it back to her office at all.

The baying of the hostiles spiralled into a shrill crescendo. Bracer couldn’t take his eyes off the window. It wasn’t long before tall shadows obscured the light from the corridor. Bright heard his breath catch, but she kept her eyes trained to the floor. Bracer was surprised when Bright took his hand, and pressed something small and hard into it. A pill.  

“You don’t want to be caught alive,” she said.  

Bracer thought about what he’d seen during the first attack, and found that he agreed. It wouldn’t be long before the door gave in. The suspense was intolerable. He wondered how Bright had lived with it for years. Suddenly he appreciated what she’d spared him by her lies. A small mercy, compared to the pill she had just handed him. He used the whisky to wash it down.  

“Do you have one for yourself?” He asked.  

She watched him slump down as the heavy toxins took hold. As though one more lie was one too many, Bright shook her head. 

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