This Hollow Union

Humans expanded into space…only to find a universe populated with multiple alien species bent on their destruction. Thus was the Colonial Union formed, to help protect us from from a hostile universe. The Colonial Union used the Earth and its excess population for colonists and soldiers. It was a good arrangement… for the Colonial Union. Then the Earth said: no more.

Now the Colonial Union is living on borrowed time—a couple of decades at most, before the ranks of the Colonial Defense Forces are depleted and the struggling human colonies are vulnerable to the alien species who have been waiting for the first sign of weakness, to drive humanity to ruin. And there’s another problem: A group, lurking in the darkness of space, playing human and alien against each other—and against their own kind—for their own unknown reasons.

In this collapsing universe, CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson and the Colonial Union diplomats he works with race against against the clock to discover who is behind attacks on the Union and on alien races, to seek peace with a suspicious, angry Earth, and keep humanity’s union intact… or else risk oblivion, and extinction—and the end of all things.

Hugo-award winning author, John Scalzi returns to his best-selling Old Man’s War universe with The End of All Things, the direct sequel to 2013’s The Human Division. The End of All Things will be published by Tor Books in four ebook-only episodes throughout the month of June—“The Life of the Mind” releases today, and you can read an excerpt from the second episode, “This Hollow Union,” below!

 

 

“I have to tell you that I am deeply concerned that our union is on the verge of collapse,” Ristin Lause said to me.

It’s been said, and I suspect largely by people who are not terribly fond of me, that I, Hafte Sorvalh, am the second most powerful person in the known universe. It’s certainly true that I am the confidant and closest advisor of General Tarsem Gau, the leader of the Conclave, the largest known political union, with over four hundred constituent member species, none of whom number less than one billion souls. It is also true that in my role as confidant and advisor to Tarsem, I have a great deal of choice in terms of which things to bring to his attention; also that Tarsem chooses to use me strategically to solve a number of problems he would prefer not to be seen involved with, and in those cases I have a wide amount of personal discretion in solving the problem, with the full resources of the Conclave at my disposal.

So yes, it would not be inaccurate to say that I am, indeed, the second most powerful person in the known universe.

Note well, however, that being the second most powerful person in the universe is very much like being the second most of anything, which is to say, not the first, and receiving none of the benefits of being the first. And as my position and status derive entirely from the grace and need of the actual most powerful person in the universe, my ability to exercise the prerogatives of my power are, shall we say, constrained. And now you know why it is said of me by the people who are not terribly fond of me.

However, this suits my personal inclinations. I don’t mind having the power that is given to me, but I have only rarely grasped for it myself. My position has come largely from being usefully competent to others, each more powerful than the next. I have always been the one who stands behind, the one who counts heads, the one who offers advice.

And, also, the one who has to sit in meetings with anxious politicians, listening to them wring whatever appendages they wring about The End of All Things. In this case, Ristin Lause, the chancellor of the Grand Assembly of the Conclave, an august political body that I was always aware of having a grammatical redundancy in its title, but nevertheless not to be ignored. Ristin Lause sat in my office, staring up at me, for I am tall, even for a Lalan. She held in her hand a cup of iet, a hot drink from her planet, which was a traditional morning pick-me-up. She had it in her hand because I offered it, as was customary, and because she was, at a very early time on the clock, my first meeting for the sur, the Conclave’s standard day.

“In truth, Ristin, are you ever not concerned that our union is on the verge of collapse?” I asked, and reached for my own cup, which was not filled with iet, which to me tasted like what might happen if you let a dead animal ferment in a jug of water in hot sunlight for an unfortunately long period of time.

Lause made a head movement which I knew corresponded to a frown. “You are mocking my concern, Councilor?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “I am offering tribute to your conscientiousness as chancellor. No one knows the assembly better than you, and no one is more aware of the shifts in alliances and strategies. This is why we meet every five sur, and I am grateful we do. With that said, you do proclaim concern about the collapse of the Conclave on a regular basis.”

“You suspect hyperbole.”

“I seek clarity.”

“All right,” Lause said, and set down her iet, undrunk. “Then here is clarity for you. I see the collapse of the Conclave because General Gau has been pressing for votes in the assembly that he shouldn’t be. I see it because his enemies have been pushing votes to counter and undermine the general’s power, and they are losing by smaller margins with each outing. For the first time there is open dissatisfaction with him, and with the direction of the Conclave.”

“For the first time?” I said. “I seem to recall an attempted coup in the not ancient past, brought on by his decision not to punish the humans for the destruction of our fleet at the Roanoke Colony.”

“A small group of discontents, trying to take advantage of what they saw as a moment of weakness on the part of the general.”

“Which almost succeeded, if you recall. I remember the knife coming down toward his neck, and missiles immediately thereafter.”

Lause waved this away. “You’re missing my point,” she said. “That was a coup, an attempt to wrest power from the general by extralegal means. What I see now, with every vote, is the power and influence—the moral standing—of the general being whittled away. You know that Unli Hado, among others, wants to put the general to a confidence vote. If things progress, it won’t be long until he gets his wish.”

I drank from my cup. Unli Hado had recently challenged General Gau’s actions dealing with the human Colonial Union, and been knocked back when he asserted evidence of new human colonies that turned out not to exist—or more accurately, they had been so thoroughly removed from their planets by the Colonial Union that there was no hard evidence they had ever existed. Those colonies had been quietly removed by General Gau’s request; Hado had been fed the outdated information on their existence in order to be made to look like a fool.

And it had worked; he had looked like a fool when he attempted to call out the general. What I and the general had underestimated were the number of other assembly members who would willingly continue to follow a fool.

“The general isn’t a member of the assembly,” I said. “A confidence vote wouldn’t be binding.”

“Wouldn’t it?” Lause said. “The assembly can’t remove the general from the leadership of the Conclave, no. There’s no mechanism for it. But you understand that a no confidence vote on the general is the fatal crack in his armor. After that General Gau is no longer the beloved, and almost mythical founder of the Conclave. He’s merely another politician who has overstayed his welcome.”

“You are the chancellor of the assembly,” I noted. “You could keep a confidence vote on the general from reaching the floor.”

“I could,” Lause agreed. “But I could not then keep the confidence vote on me from reaching the floor. And once I was out of the way, Hado, or more likely one of his more pliable lieutenants, would ascend to my position. The general’s confidence vote would not be avoided, merely delayed.”

“And what if it were to happen?” I asked, setting down my cup. “The general is not under the illusion that he will be the head of the Conclave forever. The Conclave is meant to survive him. And me. And you.”

Lause stared at me. In point of fact, as Lause had no eyelids, she was always staring. But in this case it was with intent.

“What is it?” I said.

“You have to be joking, Hafte,” Lause said. “You have to be either joking or oblivious to the fact that it is General Gau himself who has kept the Conclave together. It’s loyalty to him and his idea of the Conclave that kept it from falling apart after Roanoke. It was loyalty to him that allowed it to survive the coup attempt that followed. The general knows this at least—he made everyone swear personal loyalty to him. You were the first to swear it.”

“I also warned him of the dangers of doing it,” I said.

“And you were right,” Lause said. “Technically. But he was right that at that moment it was loyalty to him that kept the Conclave in one piece. It still does.”

“We have perhaps moved on from that personal loyalty. That’s what the general has worked toward. What we have all worked toward.”

“We’re not there,” Lause said. “If General Gau is made to step down then the center of the Conclave falls away. Will this union still exist? For a while. But the union will be hollow, and the factions that already exist now will pull away. The Conclave will fracture, and then those factions will fracture again. And we’ll be back to where we were before. I see it, Hafte. It’s almost inevitable at this point.”

“Almost,” I said.

“We can avoid a fracture, for now,” Lause said. “Buy some time and perhaps heal the fracture. But the general has to give up something he wants very much.”

“Which is?”

“He has to give up the Earth.”

I reached for my cup again. “The humans from Earth have not asked to join the Conclave,” I said.

“Don’t spout nonsense at me, Hafte,” Lause said, sharply. “There isn’t a representative in the assembly who doesn’t know that the general intends to offer Earth significant trade and technological concessions, with the intent of drawing them into the Conclave sooner than later.”

“The general has never said anything of the sort.”

“Not publicly,” Lause said. “He’s been content to let his friends in the assembly do that for him. Unless you believe that we don’t know who is working Bruf Brin Gus’s levers on this subject. It’s not been exactly discreet about the favors it can pull from the general now. Or from you, for that matter.”

I made a note to schedule a meeting with Representative Bruf at the earliest convenience; it had been warned against preening to other assembly representatives. “You think Hado would use any deal with Earth as leverage for a confidence vote,” I said.

“I think Hado has a hatred of humans that borders on outright racism.”

“Even though the Earth is not affiliated with the Colonial Union.”

“That’s a distinction too subtle for Hado,” Lause said. “Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s a distinction that Hado will not bother to make, either for himself or to others, because it would interfere with his plans.”

“Which are?”

“Do you have to ask?” Lause said. “Hado hates the humans, but he loves them too. Because they might get him to the job he really wants. At least he thinks so. The Conclave will have collapsed before he can get much use of it.”

“So remove the humans, and we remove his lever.”

“You remove the lever that he’s grasping today,” Lause said. “He has others.” She reached for her cup of iet, saw that it had grown cold, and set it back down again. My assistant Umman popped his head into the room; my next meeting partner had arrived. I nodded to him and then stood. Lause stood as well.

“Thank you, Ristin,” I said. “As always, our chat has been useful and enlightening.”

“I hope so,” Lause said. “A final piece of advice for the day, if I may. Get Hado in here the next chance you get. He’s not going to tell you what he has planned, but it’s everything else he says that will matter anyway. Talk to him even briefly and you’ll know what I know. And you’ll know why I worry the Conclave is in trouble.”

“That is very good advice,” I said. “I plan to take it very soon.”

“How soon?”

“As soon as you leave me,” I said. “Unli Hado is my next appointment.”

Excerpted from This Hollow Union © John Scalzi, 2015

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