They first appeared to Titan as fifty-three stars in the sky, or a sprinkling of diamonds in the void grabbing scintillation from the crescent of Saturn and a far distant sun. They were distant and appeared unmoving against the field of stars and planets. It was a new constellation, and everyone on Titan knew what it portended.
They were still weeks away, but they were coming.
Every day, Wilhelm stared at the reddish dot that was Titan. His decision was made, he was locked on his enemy, and all that remained was to finish the battle he already knew he would win.
It was his secret: success was already his. He merely had to wait for the universe to catch up to the fact.
He couldn’t wait.
Wilhelm sat in his private room on his flagship, the light amber glow from his lights bathing the room in a warm aura. He comfortably lounged in his sofa, feeling the hum of the ship through his feet, the low drone of machinery throbbing through the hull. He loved the feeling. It felt like purpose.
His room was small, but somewhat large compared to the other spaces the high officers had to share on his ship. Rank afforded him few luxuries; a private space was one of them. He was comfortable in his room. It afforded him privacy when he wished, yet he could still control all of the functions of his fleet. It was the one place he could relax.
The gravity due to the spin of his ship was lighter than on Mars, but it didn’t bother him. He was used to long travel in varying gravity. The nausea that bothered so many people during long journeys due to spin or unaccustomed weight never got to him.
He stared at Titan as if his will alone could propel them faster towards their destination.
There was a small knock on his door. “Come,” he said, standing up.
“Sir,” a crisp voice said behind him. Wilhelm swiveled, a pleasant look suddenly draping over his face.
“Yes, Colonel,” Wilhelm said pleasantly.
“A message from her magnificence, Marshall Yumi. Do you wish to review it?”
“Plaintext or encoded?”
Wilhelm nodded. “Sounds important. It can wait, then,” he said, then winked. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
The Colonel shook his head. “No, sir.”
“There’s something you can help me with,” Wilhelm said. “You can come over here and sit with me while I think.”
The Colonel nodded. “Yes, sir.” He walked over to the couch and they sat together.
“Observe Titan,” Wilhelm said.
The Colonel blinked a few times and brought up the ship’s display of Titan, a small orange speck in the deep black. “What am I looking for, sir?”
“Oh, nothing really. If I were a child, I would be constantly asking ‘are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ I already know the outcome of all of this. I just wish the formality of it actually happening was over.”
“What is the outcome, Marshall?”
“Victory, Sam,” Wilhelm said. “Utter victory. Once that traitor Mara is gone, we can get down to the real work and finally present a united front to Earth. We can go to them as equals. We will control our destiny the way the Leader wanted us to.”
“Permission to speak freely?” Sam asked.
“Granted, of course.”
“Do you really think that Mara killed the Witch? There was a lot of respect for both Marshall Mara and Marshall Jazmynde among the ranks.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Absolutely. We have proof. And while Mara exists, there exists a canker on us. Betrayal must be answered. We cannot go to Earth divided. First, we lost our father, then we lost our mother. Disease of all things claimed our father, and Mara the traitor killed our mother.” He smiled gently and relaxed. “Titan will give her up to us, or Titan will burn.”
Wilhelm’s smile descended into a frown. “I hate that we have to do this,” Wilhelm continued. “I was hoping for a prolonged peace while we shored up our victories and solidified our government. There is so much to do, Sam. This… this distraction. We have to take care of it quickly.”
Sam nodded gravely. “Is this why we don’t have multiple waves coming in? Why we are one large fleet rather than a series of smaller fleets timed to arrive in waves like we’ve always done?”
“We don’t have anyone to attack us when our back is turned,” Wilhelm said. “We don’t need to sneak in and we cannot afford a siege. Destiny is waiting, and she is tapping her toe. We have the might of nearly the whole system here so we can hit them en masse. We’ll over-awe the traitor. I hope when they see one of the largest fleets ever assembled, Titan will immediately surrender.”
“I hope so too, sir,” Sam said. “I… I would hate for this to degenerate into a civil war.”
“Same here, Sam. It is vital that this be over quickly. People grow sick of war. I know I do. Once the traitor Mara is gone, we will be one unified system. Earth will have to treat us as equals rather than their property We can’t go to Earth and say, ‘so say we all, except for Saturn.’ That would weaken our position.
“But the loss of life, Sam. That concerns me. If it were me, I would that we could just get all of this out of our systems and become friends. The Leader had this vision. He hated war as much as I do. It was just a terrible means to a glorious end. I had hoped at the end we would see the last of this waste. Maybe I could retire on some patch and live comfortably.”
“Do you think retirement would satisfy you, sir?”
Wilhelm chuckled. “Probably not. It just kills me to lead all these good people against so many other good people. I see our goal… it is a fine, honorable goal: peace. But the only way to it is through Titan.”
Wilhelm stood up. Sam stood up with him, sensing that their time was at an end. Wilhelm clapped Sam on the shoulder and smiled brightly. “Forgive me my concerns, my friend. I am sure everything will turn out fine. This fleet is here to show we mean business. Once Titan sees us, they’ll turn Mara over to justice. And if not… well, I have supreme confidence in you and our people. We’ll do what’s necessary for peace.”
Sam nodded, smiling slightly. “We will be equal to your leadership, sir. The people… they love you, sir. We’d follow you anywhere, and we are certain of the justice of our cause.”
“Dismissed, Sam. Thank you for spending time with me. I should see what Yumi has to say.”
Sam saluted, turned crisply, and walked out of the room.
‘That should filter down the ranks,’ Wilhelm thought. ‘As long as they are as certain as I am of victory but also regret the necessity, we should do well.‘ He touched the side of his throat as if he were taking his pulse and said, “Franklin?”
“Yes,” a woman’s voice said in his ear.
“I am reviewing messages. Please do not disturb.”
“Yes, Marshall,” Franklin said, then clicked off.
“What do we have here, Yumi?” He muttered to himself. He sat down on his couch and said, “Messages, exec Yumi most recent decrypt.” He felt a flash inside of his left eye – a small scan from the inside of his iris. He blinked automatically, even though there was no exterior flash. “Message display,” he said.
A video message appeared in front of him. It was an illusion, but a vivid one. It looked like a screen projected two feet away from him; but in reality, only he could see it, the display being a play of photons manipulated in his eyes. He was the only one who could hear the beeps indicating that the message was decrypting.
When it was done, he muttered, “play.”
Yumi’s face appeared in front of Wilhelm. She smiled.
“Wilhelm, I hope this message finds you well…”
‘So formal,’ Wilhelm thought.
“Raul, Paige, Hardin, and the rest of the staff miss you already. I know you’ve already laid out your plans and they seem solid enough, but I really wish you would have listened to my concerns. I know that, like you said, battle tactics are not my forte, but I really think you should have done this in waves. You’re going in with no supply chain and you’re not going to be able to forage in space. And if Mara really did kill Jazmynde, she is very probably prepared against you.
“I know how you hate it when it is mentioned, but remember Io. Io was largely improvised over the course of a year. Mara has had time to prepare the entire Saturnian system against us for decades. She has some kind of cultish hermit world going on there on Titan. I have not been able to get anything more than the most general information about the place. Certainly no agent provocateurs. No worms, no breeches, anything.”
“Pause,” Wilhelm said, and the video froze. “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man,” he muttered, then nursed on his anger about Io. No matter how many places he had conquered in the past, there was always Io to dangle in front of him. No matter how solid his plans, Yumi would mention it.
“I cannot get that stain off of me, unless…” He thought of Titan. Mara had decades to build up her base. There were no improvised defenses like on Io. She would be ready. If he could crack that base, the memory of Io would disappear. It would cease to be a defeat and only become an anomaly; a dramatic but inconsequential dip in his hero’s story. “Continue.”
“We have so little information about the place, darling. I wish you had listened to me concerning this invasion. Slow and steady, even though I am not an expert in your field. It’s what Jazzy used to say, remember? About the hasty stroke going awry? She was full of old sayings like that. I miss her. I want Mara to pay for what she did as much as you do.”
‘Which means she doesn’t care if it happens at all,’ Wilhelm thought.
“Anyway, I am perhaps blathering because I miss you and I am worried. It won’t do for our first invasion to be a misstep. If anyone can do this, it is you, my love. But I wonder if it can’t be done at all. Like I said before you left, perhaps caution is what is needed. I know its too late for me to send out ships – not in any way that will make a difference. It just concerns me that you have all of your supplies there with you. Couldn’t you at least land them on some nearby moon like Rhea? Rhea might not be dangerous.”
“There is a long distance between might and isn’t,” Wilhelm said.
“I know, I know. I am probably distracting you with my worries. I am sure you have all of this in hand and I am just being a worrier. I just miss you is all, and my heart is with you, and I wish this were all over with. If you could, please take some time to message me back and tell me everything is going to be okay. I could use your reassurance. I love you with all my heart.”
Yumi’s visage disappeared.
Wilhelm laughed loudly as he sat down. He shook his head. “Yumi,” he muttered. “Oh, Yumi…”
One thing was obvious to Wilhelm: that message was not meant for him. It was meant for everyone else after what she was sure would be his defeat. It was a message she would bleed out after a small “security breach” so everyone could see the poor woman who worried about her love and his terrible plan. She was covering her own ass. If he succeeded, she would be seen merely as a woman who missed her husband and fretted over her safety. If he failed, she would be seen as the voice of reason trying to reign in “Mad Wilhelm.”
“We must strike now,” he had urged, and she heartily agreed. “We must project strength,” he said, and she cheered him on. And now, this.
Wilhelm stood and paced. “I was brought up to believe in fidelity,” he said to himself. “I was taught a woman supports her man. I was born in the wrong time, in these days of factionalism and false words. Even now she sets me up for failure and sets herself up for the voice of reason.”
He sat, heartbroken. “I almost trusted her,” he muttered. “I wanted to believe it was all real, our love, the two of us: a king and his queen. An empire to win, and a good woman at home.”
He sighed deeply and ran his hands through his hair. “Too maudlin,” he said. “This is all supposition. As Jazzy would say, it’s bad to make assumptions on incomplete data. I wonder who could spy on Yumi for me while I am away.”
He thought over their staff at Mars. Paige was absolutely Yumi’s creature – they were paramours and their bond was tight. Raul, maybe. He was a creature of ambition but too grasping. He would only back whichever side he was certain would win. Hardin, Francis, Heatherstone’s son-in-law… what was his name? Martinez? Something like that. They were possibilities.
There was even the possibility that some of his staff reported to Yumi. Probably not Sam. Probably not Gerta, not Yitzach, Ahmed. Maybe Geisl. Maybe Eudomea.
“It’s hard enough to fight a war in the front,” he said. “Must I fight one to my rear as well?” He missed the good old days when the Leader was alive and all Wilhelm had to do was attack the Leader’s enemies. The Leader’s bullet, that was what Jazzy called him. He wore that title as a sense of pride.
“Jazzy is gone, and I suppose that’s for the best,” he said. “It saved me the task of killing her in the future when she was no longer needed. But I could use her advice right now. I wish I had my own Witch. Jazzy was full of twists, she could never speed directly towards her target, but she was at least faithful to the Leader.”
Wilhelm started composing his reply to Yumi in his head while he brought up the ship’s view of Titan again. It was still a dull orange spec, even with the magnification the telescope was set to. It felt like he would never get there.
Jazmynde blinked a couple of times and the display shut down. She had been staring at the miniscule dots of light heading towards them.
“How does it look to you?” Mara asked.
“It looks like Wilhelm means it,” Jazmyne said. “There’ll be no multiple waves of attackers. He’s going to try to do this in one stroke.” Jazmynde turned to Mara. “But why?”
Jazmynde and Mara were in Mara’s office, joined by Mara’s second-in-command, Mabel Jansen, and the rest of Mara’s command staff: Aeson, Farshid, Able, Latrice, Charles, and Cain. They were the only ones on the base that knew that Jazmynde was alive. They were all looking through their cornea-projected displays at the incoming fleet.
Mara couldn’t stop looking at the fleet, so still and quiet. “Why all at once?” Mara asked. “I’ve seen no reports of any other ships anywhere near the system. We’ve got eyes out to Ymir and beyond, as well as some passive sensors between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. A single small ship like yours could slip through, but not a fleet like that.”
“Why would he want to slip through?” Mabel asked with a hint of a lisp. “They paint their ships white for a high albedo. They want us to see they are coming.”
“Good point,” Mara said.
Jazmynde nodded. “He wants to defeat us before he ever arrives. He wants us to imagine the damage he’s going to do with those numbers long before he fires a shot. Our own imagination is an excellent weapon to use against us. Plus, I don’t think he is planning on this taking very long. He would need a constant stream of supplies going to his people if he were going to stage a siege. Enceladus certainly isn’t much of a storage depot. Not for this, anyway. I doubt many of his ships are amphibious. Most of the Saturnian campuses are academic institutions and friendly to Titan, and they were all designed by Mara and are difficult to crack. Rhea certainly won’t be of any help to him.”
Mara smirked. “I do wish he’d try to stage from there.”
Jazmynde shook her head. “He’d never fall for a trap that obvious. Wilhelm isn’t the berzerker he used to be. He’s more circumspect, and all the deadlier for it. But why bring his wagon train with him?”
“There seems to be one obvious answer,” Mabel said. “He doesn’t trust Yumi.”
Everyone turned to Mabel. “Expand that thought, please,” Jazmynde said slowly.
Mabel shrugged. “He’s bringing all of his supplies with him because he doesn’t trust Yumi to back him up with multiple waves of supplies. He’s afraid that if he arrives with only his soldiers and enough supplies for an assault, she won’t back him up. She’ll leave him to die out here.”
Jazmynde turned to Mara. “Who is this woman again?”
Mara smiled. “Just another one of us strays.”
Jazmynde turned to Mabel. “I like you. Come over here.”
Mabel smiled and walked over shyly. Jazmynde put her arm around her.
“You might be right,” Jazmynde said to Mabel. “It is one explanation of what we are seeing. It is a hopeful thought, which is why I mistrust it.” Jazmynde squeezed Mabel’s shoulder.
“I hope it is true,” Mabel said.
Jazmynde nodded. “And Wilhelm hopes it he can defeat us easily in one stroke.”
“The wonderful thing about hope,” Mara said, “Is that it has no bearing on the outcome. Not without work, anyway.”
“Spoken like an Ionian,” Jazmynde said. “There are three stages of life to someone from Io: work, toil, and expiring. Let’s work to put off expiring for another time. If it is okay, Mara, I would like to keep Mabel close to us. I like the way she thinks.”
Mabel blushed slightly. Jazmynde squeezed Mabel’s shoulder one more time and walked over to Mara. She stood next to her and re-enabled her view of the oncoming fleet.
“What does Wilhelm bring to us, Jazmynde?” Mara asked as they peered at the incoming fleet.
“He brings grav lances, a well-trained and seasoned invasion force, infiltration experts, intrusion software, EMPs, basically anything he could grab that might dig a fifty-meter hole into the ground and pop the hull of this campus. More importantly, Mara, what do we bring to Wilhelm?”
Mara’s eyes narrowed and she grinned. “Defeat.”
Jazmynde nodded sagely.
“And you?” Mara asked. “Everyone thinks you’re dead. Everyone in this room was sure of it until they saw you as they entered. None of them had any reason to believe otherwise. One thing I know from living on a campus like this: rumors are going to fly about you being here.”
“Let the rumors fly,” Jazmynde said, “but deny them. I am not yet ready to reveal that I am still alive. We’ll have to keep this a secret in this room.”