And What Shall It Profit a Man?
by George Smith

Crime doesn’t pay

     Senator James Kress was piped on board the Jefferson, a United States of Earth battle-cruiser, that was docked with the Confederate Moons of Saturn’s space station, Machiavelli, as they orbited above the frozen wastes of Titan.

     James Kress was a tall man with a patriarchal face and bearing, that had won him many an election to the Senate of the Free Mars Democracy. He was an ancient man, even with the advanced medicine of those days, and his wealth and power ensured total access to the best.

     He could not expect to live much longer.

     He was a consummate politician, but a politician of no grand successes, no great triumphs; the great sorrow (he would say tragedy) of his life was that he had, until now, expected to be no more than a footnote in the great pages of history.

     He was so automatically a politician that he had to ask to meet and thank the seven-man crew of the Jefferson, even though none of them would ever be able to vote for him. As a result, the captain and the crew were waiting in the corridor outside the airlock, floating at attention with the peculiar bobbing motion of freefall.

     As Second Engineer Lee Stone, a short, thin, blond-haired, blue-eyed man, bobbed at attention, his mind turned to memories of the past.

     They had stood against the red concrete wall—all concrete on Mars was red—with the wind blowing red sand about their feet: Lee’s mother, father, and older brother. He was surprised by how quiet the guns were; in the holocaust they were always much noisier. It seemed as if the bright muzzle-flashes alone tore their skin apart as they slammed into and slid down the wall.

     “And this,” the captain said by way of introduction, “Is second engineer Lee Stone.”

     “A pleasure to meet you, young man,” Kress said, extending his hand to be shaken. Stone made no move to take it.

     “We have met before,” Stone replied, still making no move to shake hands.

     “Indeed?” Kress replied, hand still extended.

     “Yes. During your victorious suppression of Neo-Hassan revolt, you massacred my entire family—butcher!”

     In one corner of the captain’s cabin was a hologram of Earth that was kept in perfect time with the real Earth; on one wall were his medals, plaques and letters of commendation, carefully framed. On the wall opposite the door was a painting of the final moments of the USE-CV George Washington, as it was forced out of orbit. This ship was enveloped in the hellish red glow of re-entry, one it was not to make. It was the ship on which the captain’s great grandfather, the admiral, had died during the first Inter-Systems War.

     “Are you out of your mind?” the captain screamed. “Do you know what you make me look like? Like a damned fool!”

     After visibly calming himself, he went on in a softer voice: “You know how important this mission is. Millions of lives will be saved if the senator can negotiate a treaty in time. It is our sacred duty and responsibility to help these desperate people avert a war. In the proud tradition of the Space Force of the United States of Earth, who have always stood foursquare between men and their folly, I expect you to do your duty regardless of any personal animosity you may feel towards the senator.”

     “I understand and will live up to my obligations to the full, sir.”

     The captain relaxed into a relieved smile.

     “You know, Stone, there’s a personal side of it to consider. I know the senator is a piece of mass-murdering scum, but if he pulls off this treaty they’ll make him a hero, and that, of course, by sheer implication,, will make heroes of us. For a moment there I thought you were actually going to try to kill him.” He grinned self-depreciatingly.

     “That would violate my Space Force oath: as long as I am an officer of the U.S.E., it is my responsibility to safeguard and protect his life. Therefore, I officially tender my resignation. As per regulations this becomes effective upon reaching the next port of call, at which time I’ll no longer be an officer. Then I will kill him.”

     They threw him in the brig, of course. Actually it was an empty cargo container—their crews were so well-trained that a brig would generally be a waste of valuable space and weight. He would have been a great deal more upset if he had not anticipated the outcome of his announcement. As it was he had had time to make adequate preparations. Disembarking should not present difficulties.

     Suddenly the door slammed into its locking position. Floating there, braced against the handholds, was Victoria Davis, the navigations/communications officer, a tall, attractive, dark woman.

     “You stupid bastard, if you were intending to kill that scum, why did you warn him?”

     He let a moment pass. “I wanted him to know for which of his innumerable sins he was being executed.”

     “And why didn’t you tell me you were going to do this?”

     “Be reasonable, Victoria, you know I had less than an hour to make preparations. You have a life here, years invested in a career—this is something I must do.”

     “You never even told me about your family.”

     “There was no point. It was in the past. I wanted to leave it dead and buried there. I never thought I’d have a chance for justice; you know the kind of security the Martian senators live under. But this crisis and his desperation have given me one chance for justice. I will take it.”

     “If you succeed, the war he might have stopped will kill millions.”

     “That is not my responsibility, and has no bearing on his previous crimes. But that’s not what’s important here. I won’t apologize for not asking you to help me. I won’t allow you to risk being spaced alongside me.”

     The accident, or sabotage, happened just before turnaround. A jarring shock rang through the ship. The radiation alert sounded, the emergency lights came on, and they were tumbling in freefall. It took several seconds longer than he had expected to force the lock.

     The captain seemed unsurprised. He told Stone Harley and Ann were dead and he was the last engineer.

     He strapped in. Victoria had plotted the course. There’d been a reactor core cooling system breach. They were incapacitated for several days. The life support engineer appeared on the screen, reporting Senator Kress to be in bad condition. The damage was such as would have to be repaired manually. Only Stone was qualified, and the radiation levels were fatal. Victoria screamed, “Are you out of your minds? Let him die!” She was put under arrest.  There was a moment of silence after she left.

     “Stone, I know I can’t order you to…but the traditions of our service…if it had been anyone else you’d…”

     Stone said nothing, unbuckling himself from the console and jaunting out of the bridge.

     The lead-lined space armor was cold and bulky. The emergency lights in the corridor were dim and red as he jaunted out of the engine room’s emergency airlock. The massive outer door slid slowly aside. Victoria ordered him to halt.

     He looked at her steadily, without emotion.

     “Without honor, of what account is life?”