“Why?” Mara asked.
“Enrio the First. Enrio the Great. The First and Last, Lord of the Dominion, etc. etc.,” Jazmynde said. “That is what the Leader’s wanted to be called at the end. At first, his stated goal was unity of the campuses against the greed of Earth. It was a possible solution to a real problem. When the campuses on Mars didn’t fall in line… well, the Roman Cassius said that a man isn’t rich until he can afford his own army. Enrio was fabulously wealthy from exploiting the very campuses he wanted to unify.
“I don’t know if it was always his intention to empire-build. It probably was. He was the fourth son of a very rich family, and fourth sons are always hungry no matter how rich they are. I do know he had no problems using violence, and in that regard, he gathered the violent to him.”
“Wilhelm,” Mara whispered.
“Wilhelm. Among others. You’ll remember Heatherstone, Akiro, Hermitage, Freiz, Chan… all vital parts of his machinery, and all highly damaged people.”
“And me,” Jazmynde nodded. “I refuse to pretend I am not a monster as well. I dislike violence. It is inelegant, but that doesn’t stop me from committing it.
“When he found me, I was completing my military history education on Amazonis Planitia. A casual interest of mine among many, but I was good at it. I mostly did hypothetical studies: alternative solutions to military problems, scenarios using current technology, and yes… ideas on conquest for the solar system. All completely academic. I was well known within the small academic community I was in, but that was all and I was as content as a young woman can be. There is a rush to being known as a young savant, no matter how ill-deserved that might be.
“My father was the commander at Pettit – an auspicious-sounding title in this military age, but nothing more than a grand administrator. He was an honorable man. That is what killed him.
“Everyone knows that Mars was the Leader’s first conquest. What is glossed over in history, now that the beneficiaries of the Leader write it, are the small holdouts there. The tiny bases like Poynting, Sytinskya, and yes, Pettit.
“The Leader had already recruited me when I heard about what happened to Pettit. My studies were done on the campus at Tooting. so I was far away from the mess. The Leader had already ‘recruited’ me and I was a junior member of his command.
“Pettit held out a little too long for the commander at the time, Heatherstone. Father didn’t believe in what he accurately saw as the real goal: conquest. Heatherstone wiped the base out. There were no survivors. I found out via Heatherstone braying it to me personally, saying that my ‘pacifist’ tactics would have just delayed the inevitable. ‘What are a few hundred lives compared to the millions we’re going to save?’ They didn’t know that my father was there, and I never told them.”
“I kept my mouth shut. I resolved at the time to work my way into the graces of Heatherton and the Leader, and then eventually avenge my father.”
“What happened?” Mara asked.
“Vengeance is futile, Mara. If I killed the Leader at that time, one of his inner circle – maybe his best friend Lanyon – would have taken over. The Leader surrounded himself with terrible people. I certainly would not have survived. I wanted to die for a while, but I did what I do best: I analyzed the situation. Not just my father’s death: what events lead up to my father’s death. What events created the Leader and his friends. How did we get here, to this spot, when a war had never followed us out to space before?
“We were so close, Mara. That’s what you might not understand. We were so close to leaving war behind. Why now? Why did so many people follow the Leader?”
“Why is it so?” Mara asked.
Jazmynde smiled slightly. “Because of so many reasons that are not important here, It wasn’t just important that the Leader die. It was important that he died at the exact right moment.”
“What determined the right moment?”
Jazmynde laughed. “Let’s see if we survive Wilhelm first. Then maybe we can discuss it further.”
“No more, Mara. We don’t have much time. There is no knowing when Wilhelm will arrive. Mars and Venus are both on war footing. A fleet may be here in as soon as a month and your base is not ready to withstand him, no matter what you may think.”
“I think we can handle Wilhelm.”
No,” Jazmynde shook her head. “You can handle Wilhelm from fifteen years ago. You are perfectly capable of defending yourself in a battle over a decade old, but times have changed on the outside while you’ve been turtled up in here. You have some work to do.”
“But one last thing,” Mara said.
“Since all is being admitted,” Mara said, “how did you kill the Leader?
Mara sighed. “I never made a secret of my dislike of the Leader. I was always polite to him, but never trusted him.”
“As well you shouldn’t have.”
“So his passing didn’t leave me adrift. I couldn’t muster a grand mourning like Yumi did. My thought was…”
“‘It’s about time,'” Jazmynde said.
Mara smiled and nodded. “It was about time. I felt like if he continued, something terrible would happen.”
“The Leader wanted to be a great man. Great men are never good men. He had plans to consolidate his power, and that meant death. Here’s the thing about acquisitive governments. Once they can no longer expand, they eat their own. The Leader didn’t build a system. He did it for himself and didn’t care if the whole thing collapsed after him. There were no more worlds to conquer save Earth, and Earth was always impossible. Yet he still considered it up to the end: not invading it, but bombing it to rubble. Because he was a charismatic man, he successfully kept this from everyone.”
“Except his witch.”
Jazmynde nodded. “His guard was more relaxed around me. I had passed up hundreds of opportunities to betray him but never swallowed the bait. So he unburdened himself more often. The Earth tasked him: the most valuable real estate in the system, and he could never have it. If he couldn’t have it…
“Well, that is one of many reasons he had to die. That, and something else very important: I never forgot who I was the daughter of. I am a monster, but I wasn’t always so.”
Mara nodded. “At least you know yourself.”
“I do. Do you?”
Mara started to answer but stopped. She considered the question, then said, “I want to say I do, but I probably don’t.”
Jazmynde smiled. Perhaps Mara was teachable yet.
“I had been poisoning him for years,” Jazmynde said. “It was a slow build-up to death, but a sure one. An ancient poison – something developed by my teachers well over a century ago. A little bit of genetic editing over time, forcing the body to adapt in a way that is detrimental to its survival. I needed time for him to complete his conquest. He suspected once. I needed someone to take the fall, so if you remember Akiro… well, that is what happened to him.”
“Once, the Leader received hints of someone trying to poison him. He had no idea that he was currently being poisoned and had been for years. It didn’t matter. I needed him to feel safe again. The Leader was a very unstable man. So I chose Akrio to take the fall. I planted evidence on him, found some people to turn on him. That wasn’t hard. I scattered a fool-proof case against him, then let the Leader think he stumbled upon it all by himself.”
“You sent an innocent man to die,” Mara protested.
“No, I sent a very guilty man to die of a crime he did not commit.”
“That was unjust.”
“It was VERY just,” Jazmynde said. “He had done the same thing to so many other people. He stoked the Leader’s paranoia and like a forming planet, he cleared his orbit of anyone in his way. He deserved to die, and in exactly the way I set up.
“So when it was time for the Leader to die, it was an easy matter. This poison introduced an allergy into his system – something that no one would think to test against. By the time a few decades had passed without incident, there would be no need to check. So when it was time for him to die, I crushed a couple of peanuts into his food.”
Mara smirked. “A peanut?”
“Yes, a legume. Somewhat rare out here. By the time his system had been taking this poison for decades, his system was ready to be completely derailed by a legume. Peanut allergies have been around forever, but it took a long period of tweaking his system to get him this allergic. He immediately went into anaphylactic shock and was dead before anyone could clear his air passage. His body was checked for toxins, but a toxin check never checks for legumes. I was able to change the initial coroner’s files to indicate that he died of a rare genetic disorder.”
Mara looked away. “Witch,” she muttered.
Jazmynde shook her head. “Not a witch. A strategist.”
‘You were telling the truth when you said that you would kill anyone for your goals.”
“I try to tell the truth as often as possible,” Jazmynde said.
“And now, we are about to enter a period of chaos,” Mara said sadly.
“Which will be light compared to what the Leader planned.”
“A cheap excuse.”
“Worse,” Jazmynde said. “It isn’t an excuse at all. It is a choice that I made.”
“You made that choice for everyone,” Mara snapped.
Jazmynde nodded. “I did. No one else wanted to make it.”
“What is that choice?”
“To forget war. To leave this wasteful idiocy behind. Conquest is for children. We live away from the cradle world now. Isn’t it time to forget the stupidity of our childhood?”
Mara laughed, “And how is more war going to stop it?”
“By finally killing those who want to wage it. This assault from Wilhelm – he plans on it being the opening gun to secure his place as the new Leader. Yumi plans on being the power behind the throne. What if neither person is necessary to society? And what if society realizes this?
“And even better, Mara… what if we are not needed. If I could make us the last gasp of militarized human conflict, then my father would truly be avenged. If I have my way, you, me, Yumi, Wilhelm, the Leader, all of us will be very poorly remembered by history.
“I will tell you this now, Mara. My final goal is the liberation of humanity from people like us.”
Mara’s eyes narrowed. “Then who will lead humanity? Who will stop some other strongman from taking over?”
“In time, humanity themselves will take care of it until the whole nightmare started thousands of years ago by the Akkadian conqueror Sargon the Great is finally dissipated. In the meantime, make this generation sick of war while the leadership dies off with no one to replace them.”
“Me included?” Mara asked, shifting.
“That all depends, Mara. I came here fairly certain you tried to kill me. I also came here uncertain as to whether or not I would kill you.”
“I didn’t try to kill you,” Mara said, “But I think I know why Iaian may have tried.”
Jazmynde leaned forward. “Now you have my attention.”
“I told Iaian that I thought you had killed the Leader. This was a few months ago. He must have pieced together the fact that you did somehow.”
Jazmynde nodded sadly. “He was a man of fierce loyalty. He believed in the outward goal of the Leader to unify the campuses against the predations of Earth. He wouldn’t hear a word against the Leader, so I never pushed it. If he knew I killed the leader…
“You can see why I always advise against sharing my thoughts,” Jazmynde said angrily. “Had you kept this to yourself, had you come to me, Iaian would be alive. As it is, I had to up my timetable and make my move while Wilhelm and Yumi are still strong and unified.”
Mara shook her head sadly. “I wish I had never told him.”
“Here I thought this was part of some plan of yours, Mara,” Jazmynde said. “It is a fault of mine that I attribute to careful planning that which can be explained by incompetence.”
Mara laughed. “Incompetence. It was just lovers sharing their thoughts.”
Jazmynde nodded. “I suppose so. I did not calculate on that weakness.”
“Strength,” Mara said.
“It depends on your goal.”
“At least you can see that I never wanted to kill you. There was no need to kill me.”
Jazmynde narrowed her eyes. “The jury is still out, Mara.”
“Do you think you could kill me so easily?”
“I would not even have mentioned it if my hand wasn’t already at your throat,” Jazmynde said, leaning forward. “I may only be confiding in a couch I am about set on fire.”
Mara met Jazmynde eye to eye. “I am ready to die.”
Jazmynde smirked. “Everyone is when it comes down to it. Being ready to die doesn’t mean you get to live.”
Mara considered it deeply, thinking about what Jazmynde said. A people without a grand leader. Humanity making its own way. Unlearning war and conquest.
Mara nodded. “I am ready to stop.”
“Stop being the big boss here. Ready to ease the way into being just another person like I once was. Ready to leave all of this.”
“Ready to stop being the leader?” Jazmynde leaned forward. “But your pictures are so pretty on the wall.”
Mara laughed. “I should never have allowed that. I don’t want to be that person. To be like Wilhelm, who is so anxious that everyone worships him, or Yumi, who so wants to be loved.”
Jazmynde nodded. “All laudable. This time of chaos… it has been coming for a long time. It is why I asked you to build places that Wilhelm could not defeat. I wished you to use your brilliance to protect humanity from what is the logical outcome of every conqueror: destruction, murder, and horror. Instead, you’ve grown bloated here, huddled against the defeat of Io. What does that say?”
Mara sighed. “I grew indolent. But not lazy.”
Jazmynde smiled. “No, never that. But knowing what you know, what do you propose to do?”
“Save my people, then guide my people into a campus that no longer needs me.”
Jazmynde leaned back. “Bat sub star run deactive slash one.”
Mara yelped and her hand flew up to the back of her head. She rubbed a spot just by the base of her skull. “Ow!” she yelled.
Jazmynde nodded. “I bet that stang.”
She stood up. “What the hell was that?”
“Your identity chip.”
“What the hell happened to my identity chip?”
“Well,” Jazmynde said, “It had a little something extra. Basically, when you came to live with me initially, all those decades ago, you got an identity chip implanted to allow you to go through areas that were coded to you. The chips also contained scripts that would run commands with my voice ident. The ident chip had far more power than needed. Basically, it had a power supply attached that could overload, either shocking you into immobility or blowing up, severing your head from your neck. I just destroyed yours. A bit of a sting, but you can’t fry a board without some collateral damage.
“If we are to work together on this, Mara, we have to work as equals. I will teach you some things, but that doesn’t mean I am higher than you in any way. It only means I know more about a specific subject than you do. That is meant only to be temporary. If we are to succeed in this, we have to do away with all mammalian politics, especially between ourselves.”
Mara, still rubbing the back of her neck, “Mammalian politics…”
“The whole concept of alpha or beta people, which has always been bullshit. Oneupsmanship, hoarding knowledge, domination. All of that has to eventually be excised from humanity. That will take some time.”
“But you have done all of those all the time, Jazmynde,” Mara said.
“When you talk to a monkey, you use a monkey’s language,” Jazmynde said, smiling. “Altruism is a stupid way to commit suicide.”
Jazmynde stood up and stretched. “Feeling better already,” she said. “We have a lot to do to prepare for Wilhelm, and not much time to do it with.”
“So am I to be a witch?” Mara asked.
“Not a witch,” Jazmynde said. “A shaman.”