Jazmynde’s ship, white and gleaming, arced its way to Titan. Behind it, there was the crescent of Saturn with a straight sliver of ring bisecting the horizon.
Jazmynde finished reading her reports – a general information dump gathered from general broadcasts across the system. It was signal noise from every campus in her range, some of the waves being so dim that she had to account for the stretched wavelengths reaching her. It was hard separating the wheat from the chaff in all of that radio pollution, especially with the broadcast hiss coming from the Jovian planets.
Luckily, it didn’t seem like anyone had changed their codes since her “death.” Because of this, she knew that Mars and Venus were on war footing and the other campuses were angling behind the one group with a standing army and a bloodthirsty general.
Yumi and Wilhelm were hitting the propaganda hard, broadcasting near constant tributes to Jazmynde. Jazmynde was almost moved by them. She too made a very useful corpse. She was amused by the high amount of bullshit in the messages, and there was no mention of witchcraft. “Disappointing,” Jazmynde tutted. “I was finally beginning to warm up to the title.”
There was only one dark source – a single point where no broadcasts were emanating: Titan.
“You’d think there’d at least be some cross-chatter or some leaking broadcasts from signals sent out to GPS, but nothing,” Jazmynde muttered.
She wondered. No one had heard from Mara since the Leader’s funeral. Was Jazmynde flying to a ghost campus?
She had been broadcasting her courier codes for over eight hours. There was no reply. She was only three hours out from Titan. She hoped there was someone there to meet her.
Later, Jazmynde sat in Mara’s office and sighed. After a month’s journey, she hated to sit but she was exhausted from the trip. Her eyes kept scanning the area. She was happy to see anything that wasn’t the inside of her ship.
She lazed on the couch as if caught in a collapse midway, not lying down all the way, but also not sitting up. The gravity on her ship was higher than that on Titan – she had set the revolutions too high. So she had the vertigo-inducing feeling of always nearly falling. It was best to recline and let the feeling take her.
She looked around Mara’s office. The office was huge, with a high ceiling that must’ve been at least four meters high. The place was well appointed: plush, weighted couches, and a long wooden conference table took up one end.
“Wood,” Jazmynde thought. “That must’ve been ridiculously expensive to get here.”
The carpet was thick with a large, dark orange stripe running along the middle. Tan stripes took up the edges. The orange stripe continued up the wall and over the ceiling.
She thought of what she saw as she was escorted to Mara’s office. The campus was bright, huge, shining, and already antiquated. The people she saw were taciturn, the guards who escorted her to the office barely saying anything to her.
At the far end of the room, opposite to the conference table, was a large mahogany office desk. “Another extravagance,” Jazmynde muttered. “Wasteful.” The desk was neat and mostly covered with memorabilia. Taking up the entire wall behind the desk was what appeared to be a window that looked out to Saturn in space, a bright tan banded sphere who’s magnificent rings drew the eye.
She could see the bright pinpoint of a satellite pass in the distance. It was a live feed, probably from geosynchronous orbit.
Jazmynde smirked. She was deep inside Titan with no hope of seeing the stars from the ground. “I can see why she has a live feed looking out to the stars,” Jazmynde said. “I can imagine how a constant orange haze could get tiresome.”
“Still talking to yourself,” Mara observed as she entered the room. She strode quickly. Not much had changed about Mara. Her hair was very short, but that was the norm for low-gravity environments. She was short and lithe, with a round moon face and small lips. She was wearing a black outfit, tight with no draping.
Jazmynde smiled. “Yes, I am very loquacious for a dead woman.”
Mara regarded at Jazmynde on the couch. “Spry, too.”
Jazmynde sat up gingerly. “More so than you intended, Mara?”
Mara stopped and her face went neutral. She looked at Jazmynde curiously for a moment, then walked over and sat on a chair in front of Jazmynde’s couch.
“I was not expecting you, Marshall,” Mara said. “Your courier ship… it didn’t look familiar and was broadcasting courier codes from Earth.”
“Earth and moon – double planet callsign,” Jazmynde said. “It was not a lie. I can technically serve as my own courier.”
“It was a Jazmynde-type lie. Hovering as close to the truth as possible while still misrepresenting things, and encouraging the listener to misunderstand.”
“How much do you think I enjoy listening to my assassin accuse me of being a liar, Mara?”
“Your assassin?” Mara asked. “I am no assassin.”
“I thought you were dead until you arrived here. I assumed it was Yumi or Wilhelm who killed you. Once I saw that it was you, I assumed that you faked your death.”
Jazmynde shook her head. “I didn’t fake the attempt you made. I survived it and figured I’d use the idea of my death to my advantage. My own house, Mara. You tried to kill me in my own house.”
“I never made an attempt.”
“Your creature did.”
“My creature? Who is…”
“Wait, is Iaian…”
“Iaian is dead.”
Mara sagged backward into her chair, sadness draping over her. It was the first time Jazmynde ever saw Mara display a raw emotion. “How?” she whispered.
“He let in an assassin who tried to kill me. Once that assassin failed, he tried to do the job himself. So I killed him.”
Tears brimmed in Mara’s eyes.
Jazmynde frowned. “I know you were lovers, I knew you had been for years. I knew that you had been close since you first arrived on my doorstep thirty years ago and I had him watch over you. That was my intention.”
“Nothing so dark, Mara. I never ordered Iaian to love you. Instead, I let you two grow close – encouraged it in my own little ways. You were lonely, and he was lonely. It was good to see you both happy, and I could use Iaian to keep a watch over you without either of you knowing it.”
“You manipulative little…”
“Stop. I forced no one to do anything against their will. I am sure Iaian loved you and you loved him as well. I didn’t manipulate. I let things happen and then saw a use for it. Iaian was happy, which increased his efficiency. You were happy, which kept you working. I never imagined that it would blow back and that you two would try to kill me.”
“I didn’t try to kill you,” Mara insisted through her tears.
“Iaian did,” Jazmynde said calmly. “And you and Iaian were always so close.”
Mara wiped away her tears. “Did he die painlessly.”
Jazmynde sat up and leaned forward. She looked angrily at Mara. “No.”
Mara wiped away her tears and nodded. “Okay, whatever is done is done.” She sat up again, ramrod straight and her expression blanked again. “Are you here for revenge?”
“No,” Jazmynde said, leaning back. “Revenge is too petty. I have come here to see what kind of monster you’ve become.”
“We’re all monsters, Mara. I am a monster of expediency. I have my goals and I will sacrifice anyone to attain them, even myself. Wilhelm is a violent, brutish monster, now more than ever. He is a monster of rage. Yumi is a monster of need, and she will take far more than she will ever give. You cannot be a Marshall and not be a monster. Look at the monsters we’ve created and used over the years. Chang and his tortures. Androv and her propaganda. Secret police, ‘extra-legal’ affairs. Monsters reported to us, which made us the worst monsters save our Leader. You are a monster as well, Mara.”
“I am no monster. Ask anyone here.”
“Ask any one of these people who are utterly dependent on you for their survival? Ask any of the children who grew up under your portraits in the hallways, standing cross-armed and attentive? I’ve seen more of you in your corridors than I’ve ever seen you in life”
“I did not put those up,” Mara protested.
“Nor did you take them down.”
Mara sighed. “So you’ve come here to criticize me in my own home?”
“You tried to murder me in mine, surely you can handle a little critique of yours.”
“I did not try to murder you,” Mara snapped.
Jazmynde’s eyes narrowed. “Consider me unconvinced.”
Mara shrugged. “I don’t know what I can do to change that.”
Jazmynde nodded. “I don’t know either.”
“Impasse, then,” Mara said.
Jazmynde sat back. “Perhaps I can be convinced. I have not finished judging you.”
Mara smirked. “You have to right to judge me here.”
“You gave me that right when Iaian tried to murder me.”
“The only rights you have here are the rights I allow you.”
Jazmynde smiled. “And that is the kind of monster you are. Control. You absolutely have to be in control.”
Mara looked away momentarily then looked back, her eyes hard-set. “Of course I do. Things fall apart if I loosen control. People are vulnerable if I loosen control. All you see around you comes from my ideas. My people are protected in a way that Io never was.”
“Yes,” agreed Jazmynde. “This is a miraculous prison you’ve created.”
“People live in comfort here!”
“Yet it is a prison nonetheless. You cannot control people like this, Mara. They’re not systems you can fabricate and shape. Your hermit kingdom is not self-sufficient. It is inherently unstable. And wasteful! For instance, I cannot imagine the amount of resources it took to make this palatial office, Mara. You are living like a dictator. Yet the campus itself is old and aging out.”
Mara shrugged. “We have everything we need right here. We are self-sustaining. We need no one.”
“This is not true. You are stagnating. Your ships – ten-year-old designs at best. My ship is a couple of years old but could be out of this system while your ships were still sparking their chemical drives. Your tech here is the same. You’re becoming a cave fish, Mara.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Fish that live in caves on Earth,” Jazmynde said. “After multiple generations, they lose their eyesight. There’s no need for it in a cave, so their eyes atrophy.”
“I was born on Io, Jazmynde. What would I know of fish?”
“You’ve made your own cave, Mara. You’re becoming blind. You’ve grown indolent. An invasion may be the best thing for you and your people.”
Mara stood and paced. “You’re so certain it is going to come?”
Mara frowned. “Then let it come.”
Silence passed between Jazmynde and Mara, each lost in their thoughts.
“I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for killing Iaian,” Mara said.
“I am certain I will never ask you to forgive me, Mara. The man tried to kill me. I feel regret that he betrayed me. I will never feel an ounce of regret for killing him.”
“So you’ve come to me with your rage and hatred,” Mara said.
“I have no hatred of you, Mara. Quite the opposite. You are the closest thing to a daughter I have or ever will have.”
“Yet you think I tried to kill you.”
“Like mother, like daughter. There is nothing I won’t sacrifice to attain my goals.”
“Which are what, Jazmynde?” Mara asked. “All the time I’ve known you, you’ve mentioned your goals. I always assumed that your goals were like that of everyone else: serving the Leader. Was that another Jazmynde lie? You let me assume one thing while you hid the truth?”
“The truth is always more complicated than what is said, Mara.” Jazmynde grinned, “Remember what I once said about setting the couch on fire if I thought it knew what I was thinking?”
Mara smiled and laughed. “Sometimes I wished I could set the couch on fire with you on it.”
Jazmynde spread her arms. “Here I am. Want to try to kill me again?”
“I didn’t try to kill you,” Mara said. “Don’t change the subject. I get the idea now that your goals were not the same as the Leader’s. Were you at cross-purposes?”
“I served him to the best of my ability.”
“Which is not answering the question, Jazmynde. You said you’d sacrifice anything to achieve your goals – these goals that on reflection I realize you’ve never actually stated. As usual, you just let me fill in the blanks and let me interpret it as candor. What are these goals, Jazmynde?”
“I’ll set you on fire if you’re not careful, Mara.”
“You’ve mentioned your goals and how important they are to you, Jazmynde. You brought it up. If I remember right, you even mentioned them to me when we first met after the destruction of Io. I’m getting the feeling that you and the Leader differed. Were you two at cross-purposes?”
Mara sighed testily. “I see your way now, Jazmynde. You don’t want to lie but you hate telling the truth. So you will avoid an answer with a question, just like you did now. If you loved me like a daughter, then tell me now: were you at cross-purposes with the Leader?”
Jazmynde sighed. “Who wasn’t? We all had our own motivations for service, I no more or less than the others. No one absolutely agrees with anyone.”
“A question, then generalizations; neither of which are answers. After all these years, Jazmynde, I am learning the rules of your game.”
Jazmynde laughed. “Okay, you got me Mara. I’ll answer.”
“Were you at cross-purposes with his goals?”
Jazmynde sighed. “Yes.”
Mara paused, then looked intensely at Jazmynde. “Is that why you killed the Leader?”
Jazmynde looked back, a hard determination was in her eyes. “Yes.”