Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.
Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.
The Flow is eternal—but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency—are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.
The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi’s all new interstellar epic, is available from Tor Books March 21, 2017, and we’re excited to present the Prologue below. But if you’re itching for more space opera now, Tor Books is pleased to offer an ebook bundle collecting all six novels of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series!
The Collapsing Empire
The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.
There is, of course, a legal, standard way within the guilds for a crew to mutiny, a protocol that has lasted for centuries. A senior crew member, preferably the executive officer/first mate, but possibly the chief engineer, chief technician, chief physician or, in genuinely bizarre circumstances, the owner’s representative, would offer the ship’s imperial adjunct a formal Bill of Grievances Pursuant to a Mutiny, consistent with guild protocol. The imperial adjunct would confer with the ship’s chief chaplain, calling for witnesses and testimony if required, and the two would, in no later than a month, either offer up with a Finding for Mutiny, or issue a Denial of Mutiny.
In the case of the former, the chief of security would formally remove and sequester the captain of the ship, who would face a formal guild hearing at the ship’s next destination, with penalties ranging from loss of ship, rank, and spacing privileges, to actual civil and criminal charges leading to a stint in prison, or, in the most severe cases, a death sentence. In the case of the latter, it was the complaining crew member who was bundled up by the chief of security for the formal guild hearing, etc, etc.
Obviously no one was going to do any of that.
Then there is the way that mutinies actually happen, involving weapons, violence, sudden death, the officer ranks turning on each other like animals, the crew trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. Then, depending on the way things go, the captain being murdered and tossed out into the void, and then everything backdated after the fact to make it look all legal and pretty, or the mutinous officers and crew being shown the other side of an airlock and the captain filing a Notice of Extralegal Mutiny, which cancels the mutineers’ survivors benefits and pensions, meaning their spouses and children starve and are blackballed from guild roles for two generations, because apparently mutiny is in the DNA, like eye color or a tendency toward irritable bowels.
On the bridge of the Tell Me Another One, Captain Arullos Gineos was busy dealing with an actual mutiny, not a paper one, and if she was going to be really honest about it to herself, things didn’t look like they were going very well for her at the moment. More to the point, once her XO and his crew burned their way through that bulkhead with their hull welders, Gineos and her bridge crew were on their way to being the victims of an “accident” to be named later.
“Weapons locker is empty,” Third Officer Nevin Bernus said, after checking. Gineos nodded at that; of course it was. The weapons locker was coded to open for exactly five people: the captain, the officers of the watch, and Security Chief Bremman. One of the five had removed the weapons on a previous watch; logic pointed to Executive Officer Ollie Inverr, who was currently cutting his way through the wall with his friends.
Gineos wasn’t entirely unarmed. She had a low-velocity dart pusher that she kept in her boot, a habit she picked up when she was running with the Rapid Dogs gang in the warrens of Grussgott as a teenager. Its single dart was meant for close-contact use; from a distance farther than a meter, all it would do is just piss off whoever got hit with it. Gineos was not under the illusion her dart pusher was going to save her or her command.
“Status,” Gineos said to Lika Dunn, who had been busy contacting the other officers of the Tell Me.
“Nothing from Engineering since Chief Fanochi called in,” Dunn said. Eva Fanochi was the one who had first raised the alarm about her department being taken over by armed crew led by the XO, which had caused Gineos to lock down the bridge and put the ship on alert. “Chief Technician Vossni isn’t answering. Neither is Dr. Jutmen. Bremman has been sealed into his quarters.” That would be Piter Bremman, Tell Me’s security chief.
“What about Egerti?” Lup Egerti was the owner’s representative, useless as the proverbial tits on a boar in most circumstances, but who probably would not have been in on a mutiny, as mutinies were bad for business.
“Nothing. Nothing from Slavin or Preen, either,” the latter two being the imperial adjunct and the chaplain. “Second Officer Niin also hasn’t checked in.”
“They’re almost through,” Bernus said, pointing to the bulkhead.
Gineos grimaced to herself. She was never happy with her XO, who had been pushed on to her by the guild with the endorsement of the House of Tois, the Tell Me’s owner. The second mate, Niin, had been Gineos’s choice for her second in command. She should have pushed harder. Next time.
Not that there’s going to be a next time now, Gineos thought. She was dead, the officers loyal to her would be dead if they weren’t already, and because the Tell Me was in the Flow and would be for another month, there was no way for her to launch the ship’s black box to tell anyone what had really happened. By the time the Tell Me exited the Flow at End, the mess would be cleaned up, evidence rearranged and stories gotten straight. Tragic what happened to Gineos, they would say. An explosion. So many dead. And she courageously went back to try to save more of her crew.
Or something like that.
The bulkhead had been burned through and a minute later a slab of metal was on the deck, and three crew members armed with bolt throwers stepped in, swiveling to track the bridge crew. None of the bridge crew moved; what was the point. One of the armed crew gave a “clear,” and Executive Officer Ollie Inverr ducked through the hole of the bulkhead and onto the deck. He spied Gineos and came over to her. One of the armed crew trained his bolt thrower on her specifically.
“Captain Gineos,” Inverr said, greeting her.
“Ollie,” Gineos said, returning the greeting.
“Captain Arullos Gineos, pursuant to Article 38, Section 7 of the Uniform Code of the Mercantile Shipping Guilds, I hereby—”
“Cut the shit, Ollie,” Gineos said.
Inverr smiled at this. “Fair enough.”
“I have to say you did a pretty good job with the mutiny. Taking Engineering first so that if everything else goes wrong you can threaten to blow the engines.”
“Thank you, Captain. I did in fact try to get us through this transition with a minimum of casualties.”
“Does that mean Fanochi is still alive?”
“I said ‘a minimum,’ Captain. I’m sorry to say Chief Fanochi was not very accommodating. Assistant Chief Hybern has been promoted.”
“How many of the other officers do you have?”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that, Captain.”
“Well, at least you’re not pretending you’re not going to kill me.”
“For the record, I’m sorry that it’s come to this, Captain. I do admire you.”
“I already told you to cut the shit, Ollie.”
Another smile from Inverr. “You never were one for flattery.”
“You want to tell me why you’ve planned this insurrection?”
“Not really, no.”
“Indulge me. I’d like to know why I’m about to die.”
Inverr shrugged. “For money, of course. We’re carrying a large shipment of weapons meant for the military of End to help them fight their current insurrection. Rifles, bolt throwers, rocket launchers. You know, you signed off on the manifest. I was approached when we were at Alpine about selling them to the rebels instead. Thirty percent premium. That seemed like a good deal. I said yes.”
“I’m curious how you planned to get the arms to them. End’s spaceport is controlled by its government.”
“They would never have made it there. We come out of the Flow, and we’re attacked by ‘pirates’ who offload the cargo. You and the other crew who don’t go along with the plan die in the attack. Simple, easy, everyone who is left makes a bundle and is happy.”
“The House of Tois won’t be happy,” Gineos said, invoking the Tell Me’s owner.
“They’ve got insurance for the ship and cargo. They’ll be fine.”
“He won’t be happy about Egerti. You’ll have to kill him. That’s Yanner Tois’s son-in-law.”
Inverr smiled at the name of the House of Tois’s patriarch. “I have it on good authority that Tois would not be entirely put out to make his favorite son a widower. He has some other alliances a marriage could firm up.”
“You have this all planned out, then.”
“It’s not personal, Captain.”
“Getting murdered for money feels personal, Ollie.”
Inverr opened his mouth to respond to this, but then Tell Me Another One dropped out of the Flow, triggering a set of alarms that no one on the Tell Me—not Gineos, not Inverr—had ever heard outside of an academy simulation.
Gineos and Inverr stood there for several seconds, gaping at the alarms. Then both of them went to their stations and got to work, because Tell Me had unexpectedly dropped out of the Flow, and if they didn’t figure out how to get back into it, they were, without a doubt, irretrievably fucked.
Now, some context, here.
In this universe there is no such thing as “faster-than-light” travel. The speed of light is not only a good idea, it’s the law. You can’t get to it; the closer you accelerate toward it, the more energy you need to keep going toward, and it’s a horrible idea to go that fast anyway, since space is only mostly empty, and anything you collide with at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light is going to turn your fragile spaceship into explody chunks of metal. And it would still take years, or decades, or centuries, for the wreckage of your spacecraft to zoom past wherever it was you originally planned to go.
There is no faster-than-light travel. But there is the Flow.
The Flow, generally described to laypeople as the river of alternate space-time that makes faster-than-light travel possible across the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, called “the Interdependency” for short. The Flow, accessible by “shoals” created when the gravity of stars and planets interacts just right with the Flow, to allow ships to slip in and ride the current to another star. The Flow, which ensured the survival of humanity after it had lost the Earth, by allowing trade to thrive between the Interdependency, assuring that every human outpost would have the resources they’d need to survive—resources that almost none of them would have had on their own.
This was, of course, an absurd way of looking at the Flow. The Flow is not anything close to a river—it is a multidimensional brane-like metacosmological structure that intersects with local time-space in a topographically complex manner, influenced partially and chaotically but not primarily by gravity, in which the ships accessing it don’t move in any traditional sense but merely take advantage of its vectoral nature, relative to local space-time, which, unbounded by our universe’s laws regarding speed, velocity, and energy, gives the appearance of faster-than-light travel to local observers.
And even that was a crap way of describing it, because human languages are crap at describing things more complex than assembling a tree house. The accurate way of describing the Flow involved the sort of high-order math probably only a couple hundred human beings across the billions of the Interdependency could understand, much less themselves use to describe it meaningfully. You likely would not be one of them. Nor, for that matter, would Captain Gineos or Executive Officer Inverr.
But Gineos and Inverr knew this much: it was nearly impossible—and almost never heard of, over the centuries of the Interdependency—for a ship to exit the Flow unexpectedly. A random rupture in the Flow could strand a ship light-years from any human planet or outpost. Guild ships were designed to be self-sustaining for months and even years—they had to be, because the transit time between Interdependency systems using the Flow ranged between two weeks to nine months—but there’s a difference between being self-sustaining for five years or a decade, as the largest guild ships were, and being self-sustaining forever.
Because there is no faster-than-light travel. There is only the Flow.
And if you’re randomly dumped out of it, somewhere between the stars, you’re dead.
“I need a reading for where we are,” Inverr said, from his station.
“On it,” Lika Dunn said.
“Then get the antennas up,” Gineos said. “If we got dumped, there’s an exit shoal. We need to find an entrance shoal.”
“Already deploying,” Bernus said, from his console.
Gineos flipped open communications to Engineering. “Chief Hybern,” she said. “We’ve experienced a rupture exit from the Flow. We need engines online immediately and I’m going to need you to make sure we have sufficient push field power to counteract extreme high-G maneuvers. We don’t want to turn into jelly.”
“Uuuuhhhhh,” came the reply.
“For fuck’s sake,” Gineos said, and looked over to Inverr. “He’s your minion, Ollie. You handle him.”
Inverr flipped open his own communication circuit. “Hybern, this is XO Inverr. Is there a problem understanding the captain’s orders?”
“Weren’t we having a mutiny?” Hybern asked. Hybern was an engineering prodigy, which advanced him through the guild ranks. But he was very, very young.
“We just dropped out of the Flow, Hybern. If we don’t find a way back to it soon, we’re all screwed. So I’m ordering you to follow Captain Gineos’s directives. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” came the reply, after a moment. “On it. Starting emergency engine protocol. Five minutes to full power. Uh, it’s probably going to mess up the engines pretty badly, sir. And ma’am.”
“If they get us back to the Flow we’ll figure it out then,” Gineos said. “Ping me the second they’re ready to go.” She flipped off the communication link. “You picked a very bad time to have a mutiny,” she said to Inverr.
“We have a position,” Dunn said. “We’re about twenty-three light-years out from End, sixty-one out from Shirak.”
“Any local gravity wells?”
“No, ma’am. Closest star is a red dwarf about three light-years away. Nothing else significant in the neighborhood.”
“So how did we come out if there’s no gravity well?” Inverr asked.
“Eva Fanochi probably could have answered that for you,” Gineos said. “If you hadn’t murdered her, that is.”
“Now’s not a great time for that discussion, Captain.”
“Found it!” Bernus said. “Entrance shoal, a hundred thousand klicks from us! Except . . .”
“Except what?” Gineos asked.
“It’s moving away from us,” Bernus said. “And it’s shrinking.”
Gineos and Inverr looked at each other. As far as either of them knew, entrance and exit shoals for the Flow were static in size and location. That’s why they could be used for everyday mercantile traffic at all. For a shoal to move and shrink was literally a new thing in their experience.
Figure it out later, Gineos thought to herself. “How fast is it moving relative to us, and how quickly is it shrinking?”
“It’s heading away from us at about ten thousand klicks an hour, and it looks like it’s shrinking about ten meters a second,” Bernus said, after a minute. “I can’t tell you if those are constant rates, either for the velocity or the shrinkage. It’s just what I’m seeing now.”
“Send me the data on the shoal,” Inverr said to Bernus.
“Would you mind telling your lackeys to wait outside?” Gineos said to Inverr, motioning to the armed crew. “I’m finding it difficult to concentrate with bolt throwers aimed at my head.”
Inverr glanced up at the armed crewmen and nodded. They headed over to the hole in the bulkhead and stepped through. “Stay close,” Inverr said, as they exited.
“So can you plot a course to it?” Gineos asked. “Before it closes on us?”
“Give me a minute,” Inverr said. There was silence on the bridge while he worked. Then, “Yes. If Hybern gives us the engines in the next couple of minutes, we’ll make it with margin to spare.”
Gineos nodded and flipped open communication to Engineering. “Hybern, where are my engines?”
“Another thirty seconds, ma’am.”
“How are we for the push fields? We’re going to be moving fast.”
“It depends on how much you force the engines, ma’am. If you draw everything to drive the ship, it’s got to take that last bit of energy from somewhere. It’ll take it from everywhere else first, but eventually it’ll take from the fields.”
“I’d rather die fast than slow, wouldn’t you, Hybern?”
“Uhhhh,” came the reply.
“Engines are online,” Inverr said.
“I see it.” Gineos punched at her screen. “You’ve got navigation,” she said to Inverr. “Get us out of here, Ollie.”
“We have a problem,” Bernus said.
“Of course we do,” Gineos said. “What is this one?”
“The shoal is picking up speed and is shrinking faster.”
“On it,” Inverr said.
“Are we still going to make it?” Gineos asked.
“Probably. Some of the ship, anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that depending how big the shoal is, part of the ship might get left behind. We’ve got the stalk and we’ve got the ring. The stalk is a long needle. The ring is a klick across. The stalk might make it through. The ring might not.”
“That’ll destroy the ship,” Dunn said.
Gineos shook her head. “It’s not like we’re hitting a physical barrier. Anything not inside the shoal circumference will just get left behind. Sliced off like with a razor. We seal the bulkheads to the ring spokes and we survive.” She turned her attention back to Inverr. “That is, if we can shape the bubble.” The bubble was the small envelope of local space-time, surrounded by an energy field generated by Tell Me, that accompanied the ship into the Flow. Technically there was no there inside the Flow. Any ship that didn’t bring a pocket of space-time with it into the Flow would cease to exist in any meaningful sense.
“We can shape the bubble,” Inverr said.
“Are you sure?”
“If I’m not, it won’t matter anyway.”
Gineos grunted at this and turned to Dunn. “Put a ship-wide alert to get everyone out of the ring and into the stalk.” She turned back to Inverr. “How long do we have until we reach the shoal?”
“A little longer than that,” Bernus said. “The shoal is still speeding up.”
“Tell them they have five minutes,” Gineos said, to Dunn. “After that we seal off the ring. If they’re on the wrong side of the seal, they might get left behind.” Dunn nodded and made the announcement. “I assume you’ll let out some of the people you sealed into their quarters,” she said to Inverr.
“We welded Piter into his,” Inverr said, of the security chief. He was looking at his monitor and making tiny adjustments to the path of the Tell Me. “Not much time to fix that one.”
“It’s going to be a close thing, you know.”
“Making the shoal?”
“Yes. But I meant if we leave the ring behind. There are two hundred of us on the ship. Nearly all the food and supplies are in the ring. We’re still a month out from End. Even in the best of circumstances, we aren’t all going to make it.”
“Well,” Gineos said. “I assume you’re already planning to eat my body first.”
“It will be a noble sacrifice you’ll be making, Captain.”
“I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not, Ollie.”
“At the moment, Captain, neither can I.”
“I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you I never really liked you.”
Inverr smiled at this, but still didn’t turn his attention away from his monitor. “I know that, Captain. It’s one reason I was okay with a mutiny.”
“That and the money.”
“That and the money, yes,” Inverr agreed. “Now let me work.”
The next several minutes were Inverr showing that, whatever his deficiencies as an XO, he was possibly the best navigator that Gineos had ever seen. The entrance shoal was not retreating linearly from the Tell Me; it appeared to dodge and skip, jumping back and forth, an invisible dancer traceable by the barest of radio frequency hums where the Flow pressed up against time-space. Bernus would track the shoal and call out the latest data; Inverr would make the adjustments and bring the Tell Me inexorably closer to the shoal. It was one of the great acts of space travel, possibly in the history of humanity. Despite everything Gineos felt privileged to be there for it.
“Uuuuuhhh, we have a problem,” Interim Chief Engineer Hybern said, over the communication lines. “We’re at the point where the engines have to start taking energy from other systems.”
“We need push fields,” Gineos said. “Everything else is negotiable.”
“I need navigation,” Inverr said, still not looking up.
“We need push fields and navigation,” Gineos amended. “Everything else is negotiable.”
“How do we feel about life support?” Hybern asked.
“If we don’t do this in the next thirty seconds it won’t matter whether we breathe or don’t,” Inverr said to Gineos.
“Cut everything but navigation and push fields,” Gineos said.
“Copy,” Hybern said, and immediately the air in Tell Me began to feel cooler and more stale.
“Shoal is almost down to two klicks across,” Bernus said.
“It’ll be close,” Inverr agreed. “Fifteen seconds to shoal.”
“One point eight klicks across.”
“One point five klicks across.”
“Bernus, shut the fuck up, please.”
Bernus shut the fuck up. Gineos stood up, adjusted her clothing, and went to stand by her XO.
Inverr counted down the last ten seconds, abandoning the countdown at six to announce he was shaping the space-time bubble, resuming it at three. At zero, Gineos could see from her vantage point behind and just to the side of him that he was smiling.
“We’re in. We’re all in. The whole ship,” he said.
“That was some amazing work, Ollie,” Gineos said.
“Yeah. I think it was. Not to toot my own horn or anything.”
“Go ahead and toot it. The crew is alive because of you.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Inverr said. He turned to face Gineos, still smiling, and that’s when she jammed the barrel of the dart-pusher she’d just retrieved from her boot into the orbit of his left eye and pushed the trigger. The dart unloaded into his eye with a soft pop. Inverr’s other eye looked very surprised, and then Inverr slumped to the ground, dead.
From the other side of the bulkhead, Inverr’s lackeys shouted in alarm and raised their bolt throwers. Gineos held up her hand, and by God, they stopped. “He’s dead,” she said, and then put her other hand on Inverr’s station monitor. “And now I’ve just armed a command that will blow every airlock the ship has into the bubble. The second my hand goes off the monitor, everyone on the ship dies, including you. So now you get to decide who is dead today: Ollie Inverr, or everybody. Shoot me, we all die. If you don’t drop your weapons in the next ten seconds, we all die. Make your choice.”
All three dropped their bolt throwers. Gineos motioned to Dunn, who went over and collected them, handing one to Bernus and then handing the other to her captain, who took her hand off the monitor to take it. One of the lackeys gasped at this.
“For fuck’s sake, you’re gullible,” Gineos said to him, flicked the bolt thrower setting to “nonlethal,” and shot all three of them in rapid order. They fell, unconscious.
She turned to Dunn and Bernus. “Congratulations, you’re promoted,” she said to them. “Now, then. We have some mutineers to deal with. Let’s get to work, shall we.”
Excerpted from The Collapsing Empire © 2016 by John Scalzi