To Stand or Fall

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, beginning with “The Life of the Mind” on June 9th. Read an excerpt of the fourth and final episode “To Stand or Fall” below! Please note that this installment contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.

 

Part One

There’s a saying: “May you live in interesting times.”

To begin, it’s a curse. “Interesting” in this case uniformly means “Oh god, death is raining down upon us and we shall all perish wailing and possibly on fire.” If someone wanted to say something nice to you, they wouldn’t tell you to live in “interesting” times. They would say something like, “I wish you eternal happiness” or “May you have peace” or “Live long and prosper” and so on. They wouldn’t say “Live in interesting times.” If someone is telling you to live in interesting times, they are basically telling you they want you to die horribly, and to suffer terribly before you do.

Seriously, they are not your friend. This is a tip I am giving you for free.

Second, the curse is almost always ascribed to the Chinese, which is a flat-out lie. As far as anyone can tell it appeared in English first but was ascribed to the Chinese, probably due to a combination of causal racism and because someone wanted to be a shithole of a human being but didn’t want it to be marked down against them personally. A sort of “Hey, I’m not saying this, those terrible Chinese are saying it, I’m just telling you what they said” maneuver.

So not only are they not your friend, they may be also a bigot and passive-aggressive.

That said, the Chinese do have a saying from which it is alleged that the bigoted passive-aggressive curse may have been derived: “宁为太平犬,莫做乱世人,” which, roughly translated, means “It’s better to be a dog in peace, than a man in war.” Which is a maxim which is neither bigoted, nor passive-aggressive, and about which I find a lot to agree with.

The point is this: My name is Lieutenant Harry Wilson. I’ve been a man in war for a very long time now. I think it would be preferable to be a dog in peace. I’ve been working toward that for a while.

My problem is, I live in interesting times.

*  *  *

My most recent interesting time began when the Chandler, the ship on which I was stationed, skipped into the Khartoum system and promptly blew up the first two other ships it saw.

They had it coming. The two ships were attacking the Tubingen, a Colonial Defense Forces ship which had been called into the system to quell a rebellion against the Colonial Union, instigated by Khartoum’s prime minister, who really should have known better. But apparently he didn’t, and in came the Tubingen, which sent a platoon of soldiers to the planet to escort the prime minister off the planet. Which is when these other two ships skipped in and started using the Tubingen for target practice. I imagine they expected that they would be able to finish the job, unmolested. They were not prepared to have the Chandler come at them out of the sun.

In reality we had done no such thing, of course. We had just skipped into the space above Khartoum slightly closer in toward the planet’s star than those two ships, and the Tubingen, which they were busy attacking. And the fact that we were, from their perspective, hidden in the disk of Khartoum’s star, did not give the Chandler any special advantage. The ships’ systems would have detected us no later. What gave us an advantage was that they were not expecting us at all. When we showed up, they were giving all their attention to destroying the Tubingen, firing missiles at close range to shatter the ship at its weak points, to end the lives of everyone on the ship and throw the entire Colonial Union into disarray.

But coming out of the sun was a nice poetic touch.

We had launched our own missiles before our particle beams touched the ships’ missiles, detonating all of them before they could smash into the Tubingen. Our missiles jammed themselves into the hulls of the enemy ships, targeted to disrupt power systems and weapons. We didn’t worry about the crews. We knew there wouldn’t be any, except for a single pilot.

From our point of view the battle was over before it began. The enemy ships, only lightly armored, went up like fireworks. We hailed the Tubingen by standard coms and by BrainPal networking, to assess the damage.

It was significant. The ship was a loss; it would barely have time to evacuate its crew before its life-support systems collapsed. We started making room on the Chandler and sent skip drones back to Phoenix Station for rescue ships and crews.

Reports trickled in from the surface of Khartoum. The platoon from the Tubingen, tasked to bring the planet’s prime minister into custody, had been shot out of the sky from ground-based defenses. The soldiers who had leapt from the shuttle to escape its destruction had been picked off by the same defense.

Only two soldiers had escaped unharmed, but between them they destroyed the defense installation, staffed with Rraey soldiers aligned with Equilibrium, the group who had wreaked so much havoc on the Colonial Union and the Conclave. They captured two of the Rraey from the ground installation, including the commander. Then they finished their original mission and brought back the prime minister of Khartoum.

Someone was going to have to interrogate them all.

For the two Rraey, that someone was me.

*  *  *

I entered the room where the Rraey prisoner of war had been waiting for me. The Rraey had not been shackled but a shock collar had been placed around his neck. Any motion quicker than a very casual and deliberate movement would generate a jolt, and the faster the movement, the more powerful the jolt.

The Rraey did not move very much.

He sat in a chair very badly designed for his physiology, but no better chair was to be had. It was positioned at a table. On the opposite side of the table stood another chair. I sat in the chair, reached out, and placed a speaker on the table.

“Commander Tvann,” I said, and my words were translated by the speaker. “My name is Harry Wilson. I am a lieutenant in the Colonial Defense Forces. I would like to speak to you, if you don’t mind. You may answer in your own language. My BrainPal will translate for me.”

“You humans,” Tvann said, after a moment. “The way you speak. As if you are asking for permission when you are making demands.”

“You could choose not to speak to me,” I said.

Tvann motioned to the collar around his neck. “I do not think that would go very well for me.”

“A fair point.” I pushed up from the chair and walked over to Tvann, who did not flinch. “If you will permit me, I will remove your collar.”

“Why would you do that?”

“As a token of good faith,” I said. “And also, so if you choose not to speak to me, you will not have to fear punishment.”

Tvann craned his neck to allow me access to his collar. I removed it, unlocking it via a command from his BrainPal. I set the collar on the table and then returned to my seat.

“Now, where were we?” I said. “That’s right. I wanted to speak to you.”

“Lieutenant…” Tvann trailed off.

“Wilson.”

“Thank you. Lieutenant, I— may I be candid with you?”

“I hope you will.”

“While I do not wish to suggest I do not appreciate you removing this instrument of torture from my neck, allow me to note that the act is hollow. And not only hollow, it is, in fact, disingenuous.”

“How so, Commander?”

Tvann motioned around him. “You have removed the shock collar. But I am still here, in your ship. I have no doubt that on the other side of this door is another CDF solider, like yourself, with a weapon or another implement of torture. There is no escape for me and no assurance that aside from this immediate moment, I will not be punished or even killed for not speaking with you.”

I smiled. “You are correct that there is someone on the other side of this door, Commander. It’s not another CDF soldier, however. It’s just my friend Hart Schmidt, who is a diplomat, not a killer or a torturer. He’s on the other side of the door primarily because he’s running a recording device—an unnecessary thing, as I am also recording this conversation with my BrainPal.”

“You’re not worried about me trying to kill you and escaping,” Tvann said.

“Not really, no,” I said. “I mean, I am a CDF soldier. You may know from your own experience that we are genetically engineered to be faster and stronger than unmodified humans. With all due respect to your own prowess, Commander, if you attempted to kill me you would be in for a fight.”

“And if I did kill you?”

“Well, the door is locked,” I said. “Which kind of puts a damper on your whole escape plan.”

Tvann did the Rraey equivalent of a laugh. “So you’re not afraid of me.”

“No,” I said. “But I don’t want you to be afraid of me, either.”

“I’m not,” Tvann said. “The rest of your species, I am afraid of. And of what might happen to me if I don’t speak to you now.”

“Commander, allow me to be as candid with you as you have been with me.”

“All right, Lieutenant.”

“You are a prisoner of the Colonial Defense Forces. You are, in point of fact, a prisoner of war. You were captured having taken up arms against us. You, either directly or by the orders you gave, killed many of our soldiers. I will not torture you, nor will I kill you, nor will you be tortured or killed while you are on this ship. But you have to know that the rest of your life is going to be spent with us,” I motioned around, “and in a room not much larger than this one.”

“You are not inspiring me to be forthcoming, Lieutenant.”

“I can understand that, but I’m not finished,” I said. “As I said, the rest of your life is very likely to be as our prisoner, in a room about this size. But there is another option.”

“Talk to you.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Talk to me. Tell me everything you know about Equilibrium and its plans. Tell me how you got ten human colonies to agree to rebel against the Colonial Union. Tell me what the endgame is for your organization. Tell me all of it, start to finish, and leave nothing out.”

“In return for what?”

“In return for your freedom.”

“Oh, Lieutenant,” Tvann said. “You can’t possibly expect me to believe it’s within your power to offer that.”

“It’s not. As you’ve implicitly noted, I’m just a lieutenant. But this offer doesn’t come from me. It comes from the highest levels of both the Colonial Defense Forces and the Colonial Union’s civilian government. Disclose everything, and when this is all over—whatever this is, whenever it’s over—you’ll be handed over to the Rraey government. What they do to you is another kettle of fish, assuming that they have something to do with Equilibrium at all. That said, if you’re especially forthcoming, we can make an effort to have it seem like we didn’t know what an excellent intelligence asset you were. That we thought you were just some common military commander.”

“But I am,” Tvann said. “The scope of my orders were limited, and focused on this mission.”

I nodded. “We were pretty sure you were going to try that,” I said. “And who could blame you? There’s no percentage for you letting on any more than you had to. But we know something you don’t think we know, Commander.”

“What is that, Lieutenant?”

“Commander, does this ship seem familiar to you in any way?”

“No,” Tvann said. “Why should it?”

“No reason,” I said. “Except for the small detail that you’ve been on it before.”

Excerpted from To Stand or Fall © John Scalzi, 2015

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