Saturday, August 19, 2023

“One Small Mercy” • by Eric Fomley

Shriek swept the bunker with her pulsar rifle as her visor adjusted to the low light.
Dead soldiers and war mechs littered the cement floor, laying at twisted, odd angles. Blood and mechanical fluid pooled around the corpses. The stench, even through her filtration mask, was almost unbearable.

Shriek’s guts twisted. She swallowed a clump of bile in her throat. The Company had lost contact with the two squads sometime in the night. They’d sent her to check, but the answer was clear. No survivors. The company would have the financial burden of recalling the implants and reissuing all the soldiers.

Death was never the end.

She shouldered her rifle and made her way around the room, scanning each body in turn to ensure everyone was accounted for in her report. As she knelt in front of the corpse of one of her peers, she heard a rasp behind her.

Shriek stood and spun around, yanking out her handgun and pointing it at a young man laying a few meters away. Her visor immediately identified him as an enemy combatant. Her finger slipped inside the trigger guard. But she hesitated.

She increased the illumination in her visor. There was something familiar about him. Had she killed him before?

Shriek lowered her gun.

“Please,” the boy rasped. “Do it. It hurts.” He clutched a place on his stomach below his ribs. Blood leaked through his fingers. He grimaced.

“No, I can’t,” she said. “I’m sick of it. Aren’t you tired of killing?”

He nodded slowly. She saw the understanding in his eyes. Maybe they all were.

“Hand me my gun then, if you would. I’ll do it myself.” He jerked his head toward the rifle on the floor a few feet away.

A smile tugged at the corner of Shriek’s lips. “I can’t do that either. I have fallen for worse tricks. My company’s implants would not allow a suicide. I doubt yours would either.”

She walked over, knelt next to him, and retrieved the canteen that hung on her belt. The soldier’s fingers trembled as he tried to grasp it, so Shriek put the water to his lips and helped him drink.

“Thank you,” he said. His voice was smoother now. “Why are you helping me?”

“As I said, I’m tired of killing. But I also believe I’ve killed you before.”

He gave her a wan smile. “I’m sure I’ve killed you too. I’m sure we all have or will before our companies decide there’s a winner. Or that they can no longer afford to keep recalling our minds and reprinting our bodies. And what was all of this for?” he said and looked around the room. “One more bunker, one more outpost for your company to own, one step closer to owning this desert rock. Their greed will never end. Neither will my company’s.”

Shriek frowned. “You don’t think our companies will ever let us go?”

The soldier shook his head. “Who would sign up for this after seeing their initial batch? Who would want to be locked into a life of eternal killing?” He choked out a sad laugh. “There’s no fee to be earned. No life beyond this one with a fresh, young body and a vibrant future. No. There’s only one way out of this life.” He tapped a spot on his skull, the place where his implant was latched onto his bio-printed brain. “To hope that a stray shot hits the mark. That there’s nothing left to retrieve.”

A sinking feeling gripped Shriek’s heart. The soldier’s words matched a worry that had long been embedded there, ever since the war expanded, and the number of objectives increased.

“I have to believe it will end,” she said. “Or there’s nothing left for me to live for.”

“Do you call this living?” He asked.

She didn’t respond, and looked down at the wound he still clutched.

“I ask you again,” he continued. “Kill me. Shoot the spot. End my cycle. Then we won’t have to meet again. Then I can finally know the meaning of peace.”

Shriek sucked in a breath of filtered air. An orange ping appeared in her visor. The Company requested a status update. She couldn’t delay any longer.

She chewed her bottom lip and stared into the soldier’s questioning eyes for a moment longer before extending one of her hands. “Good luck to you,” she said. She shook his blood-slicked hand.

Shriek stood and shot the soldier in the chest. A place far from the implant.

She hoped, as she looked at the smoking hole in his stilled form, that one day they would meet again. On a day without a war, in a future she couldn’t lose hope in without losing herself.



ric Fomley's stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge Magazine, and many other places including, of course, here on the Stupefying Stories website. (We’re particularly fond of “End Program.”) You can find more of his stories on his website,, or in his Portals or Flash Futures collections.



Karin Terebessy said...

This is a really beautiful story on many levels. So many soldiers never ever get to leave the war behind. My kid brother is a combat veteran. This piece really resonated with me. And I also kept thinking of Wilfred Owen's poem "Strange Meeting," in which he meets the soldier he killed in the halls of hell. Powerful work!

Made in DNA said...

Hope springs eternal on the road to hell paved with good intentions. Great story.