THREE YEARS BEFORE THE DEATH OF THE LEADER
“You are a witch,” Wilhelm said, smiling. “At least, that is what the soldiers say.”
Jazmynde, leaning against her drinks cabinet, smiled slightly. The room was large, yet intimate. Wood and copper lined the walls in diagonal slats and geometric patterns, and the light was soft amber. “A witch?” She asked.
“In the best way possible, prognosticator of prognosticators. The best way. No one knows how you are able to guess the movements of our enemies, especially over such vast distances.”
Jazmynde shrugged. “‘How’ doesn’t matter. What I, or you, or Mara, or Yumi does is only measured by our success. I’ve been caught flatfooted before. We all have.”
Wilhelm swirled his whiskey in his glass and regarded it. “What Mara does is easy. She finds a bunker and hides in it.”
Jazmynde chuckled. “There’s more to it than that. Without her, where would you retreat to?”
He flushed slightly. “Regroup.”
Jazmynde sighed and said, “Ah, yes. ‘Regroup.’ Let’s not belittle what Mara does. She is soft on the attack but indestructible.”
“Are you soft on the attack as well, Jazmynde?”
“I merely see the pathways to the leader’s will. You, me, all of us are expressions of it. I defend you against the others as well.”
Wilhelm looked up sharply. “What do the others say about me?”
She smiled. “Why should that matter? You have our leader’s confidence. He trusts you to solidify his victories, and you have proven yourself worthy of that trust.”
Wilhelm nodded. “It just matters to me – the respect of our colleagues.”
“I can’t imagine why it should.”
He grimaced. “You’re proof against it? It really doesn’t matter to you?”
Jazmynde poured herself a whiskey, then drank in one quick gulp. “If it mattered to me, it would ruin my ability. I cannot fight a war before me and behind me. One war at a time.”
Wilhelm smiled. “And one battle.”
Jazmynde refilled her glass and raised it to Wilhelm. “One battle at a time as well.”
Wilhelm didn’t drink. “I still cannot help but wonder what the others say about me.”
“Why did you come to me, Wilhelm? Did you come to gossip, or did you come to accuse me of witchcraft?”
He chuckled. “Neither, really. I wanted to ease into talking about the upcoming battle for Eris.”
Jazmynde nodded. “Yeah, that barren rock. Kuiper object, kind of far afield.”
“Are you sure we need it?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Backing away from a fight, Wilhelm?”
“Never,” he snapped.
She nodded curtly, then said, “Agnes – display – Eris Dysnomia.”
Their eyes rolled for a moment, then refocused. In front of them, displayed within their retinas, the illusion of a display – the dwarf planet Eris and its binary moon Dysnomia – appeared to float between them. Eris and Dysnomia were both barely defined rocky round objects in blank space.
“Live feed, of course. This is as clear as it gets until the fleet arrives,” Jazmynde said. “They are still on their way. Agnes, when does it arrive?”
She blinked a few times, then said, “Okay, twenty-three standard days. What you are looking at is the final oasis that we know of. The last place our enemies have run to… that we are certain of, anyway. There is a large base there – previously research and development. Something about researching quantum gravity, vacuum manufacturing, things like that. Would also make a perfect storehouse for weapons too dangerous to leave in-system. We cut this place off, we cut off any staging ground in which our foes could regroup and go on the offensive. The Kuiper belt is closed to them. They’re cornered. We have to finish this.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I pieced together why we should go after them, even though the whole expedition is expensive. Ridiculously so.”
“Questioning the cost?”
“The need,” Wilhelm said flatly.
“The enemy is truly never beaten until they are incapable of regrouping. Until they are too tired to fight anymore. We don’t get to leave a rump rebellion behind us while we consolidate,” Jazmynde said. “We destroy them utterly, remove their will to fight us, and we can have peace.”
“But the cost of fighting something this far out…”
“You are afraid,” Jazmynde said.
His fists clenched. “Are you calling me a coward, Jazzy?”
She refused to be provoked. “Did I say ‘coward,’ Wilhelm? I specifically did not.”
“So I am afraid? Of this battle?”
Jazmynde shook his head. “No, you’ll never be afraid of a battle, Wilhelm. You’re afraid of what this battle means. It means an end.”
“We will win this battle,” he growled.
“Of course we will,” she rejoined. “The is our last major battle. After this, we can end this war. You’re afraid of what use you will be when the leader has everything he wants. You’re afraid of what will happen to you. What does a lord of battle do when there are no more battles?”
“I am not afraid of that!”
“Oh?” Jazmynde asked, narrowing her eyes.
Silence hovered and filled the space between them, among the quiet images of Eris and Dysnomia.
He muttered, “you are a witch.”
She held back her laughter, then held back a thought – something she had wanted to tell him. Instead, she said, “he will always have the need for you, Wilhelm. This is our last set-piece battle. There will always be war. Mankind forgot about it, but the long peace is over. We have learned to re-awaken the hell in each of us again.”
“Hell for others, heaven for us,” Wilhelm grinned.
“For you, Wilhelm. Not me. You were made for this. Am I a witch? Maybe. But you, Wilhelm. You are a bullet. I am the gun that directs the bullet. And the leader is the one who pulls the trigger.”
THREE MONTHS AFTER THE DEATH OF THE LEADER
The only gamble Jazmynde saw was not if someone would approach her to ask she join them, but who would approach her first. So when a flight escort bearing Wilhelm’s sigil requested permission to land twenty-three standard hours ago, she could see the options laid bare. The twenty-two hours were up and she knew that Wilhelm had already landed with her permission.
She assumed it would be Willhelm first. He was a man of action – meaning he was hasty, able to bluff his way out of his messes his haste creates, then claim it was all part of the plan when he lucks out. And here he was, coming towards her with some clumsy manipulation.
It was a measure of respect that he came to her. That, and even he knew she would never leave her home.
She reviewed her view of the game as he landed. Wilhelm will make a plea for an “alliance.” He will try to charm her. She will appear non-committal. Yumi will then approach her. Once Wilhelm hears of the meeting, there will be an assassination attempt. He will try to pin it on Yumi or Mara. Yumi will press her innocence, then her proposal, then make dark hints if Jazmynde waived it off. Then Yumi will send her own assassins and try to pin the attempt on Wilhelm. Wilhelm will blunder into it. Yumi and Wilhelm will turn their cold war hot. That is when Mara will make her offer.
Jazmynde laughed. ‘Human history always cycles from progress to farce and into progress again,’ she thought. ‘It is apparently my gift now to see the farce and possibly survive it.’
The perimeter bell chimed. “Yes?” Jazmynde asked.
The door popped open slightly. For a moment, she tensed. ‘Did I read this all wrong,‘ she wondered. ‘Did he come here to kill me?’
Her assistant Iaian opened the door softly. “Marshall? Wilhelm is awaiting your audience.”
“Bring him in,” she said.
Wilhelm quickly brushed past Iaian and walked through the door. Before Iaian could protest, Jazmynde dismissed him and smiled pleasantly at Wilhelm. She walked forwards and they hugged.
They parted and held briefly held hands. Jazmynde walked over to her bar and started pouring drinks. “Bourbon?” She asked. “Aged… let’s see… thirty-three years.”
He nodded vigorously. “That would be lovely. It’s was a long travel.”
She handed him the drink, then stepped back to her desk, leaning on the side. “Three days or so from Demos, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Yet you only alerted me that you were coming to Mare Ingenii a day ago. It… well… Wilhelm, it makes me feel like you weren’t offering me a choice.”
Wilhelm drank his bourbon in one gulp and set down the glass. “To be frank, Jazmynde, it is more like I had no choice.”
“Something forced you to come here?”
“Something named necessity. Surely you’ve sensed it.”
Her eyebrows raised slightly. “It?”
“Our treaty. There is a weakness. Surely you’ve seen it.”
“It is only as strong as we are. Like any treaty, it is exactly as good as the intentions of its signees.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Don’t think to lecture me on treaties, Jazzy…”
“Jazmynde,” she corrected coldly.
“…I have made and broken plenty of treaties in our time.”
“Jazmynde,” she said again. “You know how I feel about that nickname.”
He nodded curtly. “My apologies. I think the stress of these times has dulled me a little. Jazmynde.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “It is nothing. Just please – this is my home.”
He nodded. “I understand. I did not come here to attack,” he said.
‘Yet,’ she added to herself.
“I came to you for help.”
“Help?” She asked. “I’m a tangential figure here. I’m not even on our cradle world.” She pointed to the porthole looking out on the moon. “My power ends at that horizon.”
He sighed. “Our confederation. It’s not going to last. I hear rumblings from wherever Mara tumbled to, and Yumi…”
“She may be playing us false.”
‘Us,‘ Jazmynde thought, then held back her laughter. ‘That word feels rehearsed. This is his subtlety. I suppose it must work on soldiers…‘
“How so?” she asked.
“Well, to all outward appearances, we are closer than ever. Especially Yumi and I. We’ve made… promises to each other. But she is building up her base; far more than normal self-defense would account for. Her fleet grows, and she is rich in resources. She has no need for expansion, but she obviously has a hunger for it.”
Jazmynde knew all of this, but feigned concern. “How do you know all of this, Wilhelm?”
He sheepishly looked away. “Spies,” he muttered, like a child caught in a lie. “I have been watching my neighbors. I’d be a fool not to. And the information they bring me proves me right.”
Jazmynde sighed. “And if all of this is true, what can I do? I have no fleets, no armies, no massive weapons, and no desire to rule beyond my home and my people. My only power is my neutrality.”
He nodded. “Indeed, and that makes you powerful. That, and your… well… ability.”
She smiled and laughed slightly. “Ah, that’s right. I’m a witch.”
He caught her smile and returned it. “It’s only what the ranks called you. It was your uncanny ability to predict the motions of the enemy.”
“That’s the problem now, you see?” She said. “I no longer see any enemies. I only see my old friends.” The lie came out of her easily.
“And if one of them were an enemy right now? If one of them proved false to us? Could you see then?”
It was all she could do to not leap up and yell ‘ah ha!‘ She saw his purpose clearly. He would send an assassin against her before Yumi could act and make it appear that Yumi did it. All in an effort to drive Jazmynde to Wilhelm. She smiled inwardly. It was almost a clever move. She could actually respect his strategy if he hadn’t telegraphed it so clumsily.
She shrugged and held out her hands apologetically. “I am afraid I lost this gift due to the heartbreak of our leader’s death. The need for it is gone from me. I have no more sense of duty in me other than to my little retirement property here. The vision is gone, along with him.
“Remember that I decided to cede my portion of the territory to be spread among you three. At any point, I would be more than happy to act as a neutral party and broker any new agreements between you three, who I regard as my sisters and brother. You know that I will be scrupulously fair. But I am afraid all I had to give, I gave to our leader.”
He sighed. “I was afraid it was so. It was a long journey, and will be a sadder one back.”
“Perhaps,” Jazmynde said, “I can offer some advice?”
He nodded, suddenly eager. “Anything, prognosticator of prognosticators.”
“Let whoever is going to attack you attack you. Don’t go on the offensive first. Draw them in. As you know, conquest in space is expensive and time-consuming. Wait it out and see.”
She said this, knowing she might as well tell the Earth to stop revolving for all of the good it would do. He was a bullet – all they are meant for is to be propelled. He would blunder in his haste, but it would fail him at last.
He frowned. “Noted,” he said. “I must take my leave. I left my territory in good hands, but I worry if I am gone too long.”
She walked towards him and hugged him, patting his back. “Wilhelm, if you want to see me again, I will always be ready.” ‘There,’ she thought. ‘Let’s see what he makes of that.’
“I hope to see you again, and in better circumstances.”
“Better circumstances for who?” she asked and laughed.
He laughed with her. “All of us. There is room enough for all of us.”
‘Poor Wilhelm,’ she thought as he was leaving. ‘You can win a battle, but you cannot win a war.’