The Man Who Has to Die
by Steven Fischer
The man who has to die stares at her through the airlock window.
And he does have to die—there’s no question left in her mind about that. The only question left is why.
Not because he deserves it. She knows that better than anyone else. He’s a good man. A good man who happened to do something bad. And not because it’s protocol. She’s never placed much stock in following rules.
But there is a reason, even if she can’t remember it right now. And the man still has to die.
Her father’s voice echoes back through a memory, warm and thick over the quiet crackling of a fire on the holo projector in their quarters aboard the ship.
“There are only three reasons, Jesse, that a captain should ever take the life of one of his crew.” He sips from the glass of bourbon on his desk—the real stuff they brought from Terra, not the watery trash he says comes out of the mess hall synth.
They’ve been in flight for less than a year but just held their first execution. Dumped a man’s body right outside Pluto’s orbit for doing something to a woman that Father won’t fully explain. She’s hardly more than a child, and she just nods along.
“The first,” Father says, “is prevention. To make sure the man can’t ever do what he did again.” He pauses to make sure she’s listening. “But that’s not enough on its own. You could throw him in the brig for the rest of the voyage and accomplish the same thing.
“The second reason is deterrence. To show the rest of the crew what will happen if they try whatever he tried. To tell them that what he did was serious, and that you take it seriously. That the punishment is stiff, and swift, and irreversible. But that’s not enough, either. Fear alone doesn’t make men behave. It only makes them more careful not to be caught.”
Father frowns and stares into the fire, swirling the liquid in his glass. It casts a twisting amber shadow on the wall in the firelight. “The last reason is catharsis. Sometimes, a man has to die because it’s the only way to help his victims heal. The only way to give them, or the crew, some sense of rightness in a world gone all wrong.”
He says it with confidence, and because of that, she believes him.
But it’s not true, she knows now. She can think of more than three reasons to execute a man. She can think of more than three reasons to execute this man. At least she could last night when she gave the order. But right now, staring at him through the thick polyfiber window, she can’t even seem to remember one.
Somehow, he looks less frightened than she knows she must. His peppered hair and beard are neatly trimmed, as if he took the time to shave this morning. He probably did. His black Federation uniform looks clean and freshly pressed. Just like it always did when he was the captain. And his eyes. His eyes are unshaken and utterly unafraid.
She looks down at the text on the terminal and begins to read.
“Captain Jeremiah Stanchion, you have been found guilty of willfully disregarding your vessel’s lawfully ordered mission, of actively attempting desertion, and of inciting the same among members of your crew. Under article 487b of the Terran Federation Code of Military Justice, you have been sentenced to die.”
Her voice quivers a bit as she lets out the words, and suddenly, she’s a child again, standing in the airlock herself, getting ready for her first spacewalk. Her father places his hand on her shoulder.
“Are you afraid?” he asks.
He smiles that warm, rich smile, and a bit of her fear falls to the side. “What do we do when we’re afraid, Jesse?”
She takes a deep breath through her nose. “We breathe,” she replies. “And we count. And we don’t let the fear cloud our judgement.”
So she breathes. She breathes, now, as she stares at the man who has to die. And she counts. Backwards from one hundred by sevens. And the reasons come flooding back.
The man has to die because he was the captain. And as the captain, he should have been quelling talk of desertion, not joining in. Because even though the ship was badly damaged, there was still a chance they could make it to Proxima. And because that was their mission, and the mission always comes first. Because returning to Earth was tantamount to treason. And because she’d begged him over and over to put the ship back on course.
But none of those reasons matter right now.
Because she knows the man did it only because he loves her. Because he couldn’t keep his own advice. Because he couldn’t stop the fear of her dying from clouding his judgement.
And because she loves him too.
And yet, the man still has to die.
Because the man who has to die is also the man who taught her duty. And taught her to be loyal. And taught her to always place the needs of others before her own. And because twenty billion people on a decaying planet are counting on this ship to find them a new home.
Counting on them not to turn back, like the man did. Even if that means the man has to die. Even if it means they’ll all likely die.
She looks down at the flashing red button and feels the eyes of the crew on her back. She pushes it.
Because the man has to die, if for no other reason than that she is the captain, and last night she said that he did.