The Collapsing Empire: Chapter One

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 March 21st from Tor Books, and we’re pleased to be running excerpts all this week! Read chapter one below, or head back to the beginning with the prologue.

 

 

Chapter One

For the week leading up to his death, Cardenia Wu-Patrick stayed mostly at the bedside of her father, Batrin, who, when he was informed that his condition had reached the limits of medical competence and that palliative care was all that was left to him, decided to die at home, in his favorite bed. Cardenia, who had been aware for some time that the end was close, had cleared her schedule until further notice and had a comfortable chair installed near her father’s bed.

“Don’t you have better things to do than to sit around here?” Batrin joked to his daughter and sole surviving child, as she sat to begin her morning session with her father.

“Not at the moment,” she said.

“I doubt that. I’m pretty sure every time you leave this room to go to the bathroom, you’re accosted by minions who need your signature on something.”

“No,” Cardenia said. “Everything right now is in the hands of the executive committee. Everything is in maintenance mode for the foreseeable future.”

“Until I die,” Batrin said.

“Until you die.”

Batrin laughed at that, weakly, as that is how he did everything at this point. “This is, I’m afraid, all too foreseeable.”

“Try not to think about it,” Cardenia said.

“Easy for you to say.” They both lapsed into a quiet, companionable silence for a few moments, until Batrin grimaced silently at a noise and turned to his daughter. “What is that?”

Cardenia cocked her head slightly.

“You mean the singing?”

“There’s singing going on?”

“You have a crowd of well-wishers outside,” Cardenia said.

Batrin smiled at that. “You’re sure that’s what they are?”

Batrin Wu, Cardenia’s father, was formally Attavio VI, Emperox of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, King of Hub and Associated Nations, Head of the Interdependent Church, Successor to Earth and Father of All, Eighty-seventh Emperox of the House of Wu, which claimed its lineage to the Prophet-Emperox Rachela I, founder of the Interdependency and Savior of Humanity.

“We’re sure,” Cardenia said. The two of them were at Brighton, the imperial residence at Hubfall, the capital of Hub and her father’s favorite residence. The formal imperial seat lay several thousand klicks up the gravity well, at Xi’an, the sprawling space station that hovered over the surface of Hub, visible to Hubfall like a giant reflective plate flung out into the darkness—or would be, if most of Hubfall were anywhere near the planet surface. Hubfall, like all the cities of Hub, was first blasted, then carved, into the rock of the planet, with only occasional service domes and structures peppering the surface. Those domes looked out on an eternal twilight, waiting for a sunrise the tidally locked planet would never offer, and which, if it did, would bake Hub’s citizens, screaming, like potatoes in a broiler.

Attavio VI hated Xi’an and never stayed there longer than absolutely necessary. He certainly had no intention of dying there. Brighton was his home, and outside it, a thousand or more well-wishers pooled near its gate, cheering for him and occasionally breaking out into the imperial anthem or “What Say You,” the cheering song for the imperial football team. All of the well-wishers, Cardenia knew, had been thoroughly vetted before they were allowed within a klick of Brighton’s gate and within earshot of the emperox. Some of them didn’t even have to be paid to show up.

“How many did we have to pay?” Batrin asked.

“Hardly any,” Cardenia said.

“I had to pay all three thousand people who showed up to cheer my mother on her deathbed. I had to pay them a lot.”

“You’re more popular than your mother was.” Cardenia had never met her grandmother, Emperox Zetian III, but the tales from history were toe-curling.

“A rock would be more popular than my mother,” Batrin said. “But you shouldn’t fool yourself, my child. No emperox of the Interdependency has ever been that popular. It’s not in the job description.”

“You were more popular than most, at least,” Cardenia suggested.

“That’s why you only had to pay some of the people outside the window.”

“I could have them dismissed, if you like.”

“They’re fine. See if they take requests.”

Presently Batrin napped again and when Cardenia was surehe was asleep, she got up from her chair and exited into her father’s private office, which she had commandeered from him for the duration and which would be hers soon enough in any event. As she exited her father’s bedroom she saw a squadron of medical professionals, headed by Qui Drinin, imperial physician, descend upon her father to clean him, check his vitals, and make sure he was as comfortable as someone who was dealing with a painful and incurable disease from which he would never recover could be.

In the private office was Naffa Dolg, Cardenia’s recently appointed chief of staff. Naffa waited until Cardenia had reached into the office’s small refrigerator, acquired a soft drink, sat down, opened the drink, had two swallows from the container, then set the drink down on her father’s desk.

“Coaster,” Naffa said to her boss.

“Really?” Cardenia said back.

Naffa pointed. “That desk was originally the desk of Turinu II. It is six hundred fifty years old. It was a gift to him by the father of Genevieve N’don, who would become his wife after—”

Cardenia held up a hand. “Enough.” She reached over on the desk, grabbed a small leather-bound book, pulled it over to her, and set her drink on it. Then she caught Naffa’s expression. “What now?”

“Oh, nothing,” Naffa said. “Just that your ‘coaster’ is a first edition of Chao’s Commentaries on the Racheline Doctrines, which means it’s nearly a thousand years old and unspeakably priceless and even thinking of setting a drink can on it is probably blasphemy of the highest order.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Cardenia took another swig of her drink and then set it on the carpet next to the desk. “Happy? I mean, unless the carpet is also unspeakably priceless.”

“Actually—”

“Can we stipulate that everything in this room except the two of us is probably hundreds of years old, originally gifted to one of my ancestors by another immensely famous historical personage, and that it is priceless or at least worth more than most humans will make in their lifetimes? Is there anything in this room that does not fit that description?”

Naffa pointed to the refrigerator. “I think that’s just a refrigerator.”

Cardenia finally found a coaster on the desk, picked her drink up off the carpet, and set it on it. “This coaster is probably four hundred years old and the gift of the Duke of End,” she said, then looked at her assistant. “Don’t tell me if it is.”

“I won’t.” Naffa pulled out her tablet.

“But you know, don’t you.”

“You have requests from the executive committee,” Naffa said, ignoring her boss’s last comment.

Cardenia threw up her hands. “Of course I do.” The executive committee consisted of three guild representatives, three ministers of parliament, and three archbishops of the church. In other times, the committee was the emperox’s direct link to the three centers of power in the Interdependency. At the moment they were charged with maintaining the continuity of government during these final days of the emperox’s reign. They were driving Cardenia a little batty.

“First, they want you to make an appearance on the networks to, as they put it, ‘calm the fears of the empire’ regarding your father’s situation.”

“He’s dying, and quickly,” Cardenia said. “I’m not sure that’s calming.”

“I think they’d prefer something a little more inspiring. They sent over a speech.”

“There’s no point reassuring the empire. By the time my speech reaches End he’ll have been dead for nine standard months. Even Bremen is two weeks away.”

“There’s still Hub and Xi’an and associated nations in-system. The furthest of those is only five light-hours out.”

“They already know he’s dying.”

“It’s not about him dying. It’s about continuity.”

“The Wu dynasty stretches back a thousand years, Naffa. No one is really that worried about continuity.”

“That’s not the continuity they’re worried about. They’re worried about their day-to-day lives. No matter who would become emperox, things change. There are three hundred million imperial subjects in-system, Cardenia. You’re the heir. They know the dynasty won’t change. It’s everything else.”

“I can’t believe you’re on the side of the executive committee here.”

“Stopped clock. Twice a day.”

“Have you read the speech?”

“I have. It’s awful.”

“Are you rewriting it?”

“Already rewritten, yes.”

“What else?”

“They wanted to know if you’ve changed your position on Amit Nohamapetan.”

“My position on what? Meeting with him or marrying him?”

“I would think they’re hoping the first will lead to the second.”

“I’ve met him once before. It’s why I don’t want to meet with him again. I’m definitely not going to marry him.”

“The executive committee, perhaps anticipating your reluctance, wishes to remind you that your brother, the late crown prince, had agreed in principle to marry Nadashe Nohamapetan.”

“I would rather marry her than her brother.”

“Anticipating that you might say that, the executive committee wishes to remind you that option would also probably be acceptable to all parties.”

“I’m not going to marry her either,” Cardenia said. “I don’t like either. They’re terrible people.”

“They’re terrible people whose house is ascendant in the mercantile guilds and whose desire for an alliance with the House of Wu would allow the empire a lever with the guilds it hasn’t had in centuries.”

“Is that you talking or the executive committee?”

“Eighty percent executive committee.”

“You’re at twenty percent on this?” Cardenia offered mostly feigned shock.

“That twenty percent recognizes that political marriages are a thing that happens to people, like you, who are on the verge of becoming emperox and who, despite having a millenniumlong dynasty to fall back on for credibility, still need allies to keep the guilds in line.”

“This is where you tell me of all the times in the last thousand years the Wu emperoxs were basically puppets for guild interests, isn’t it?”

“This is where I remind you that you gave me this position not just out of personal friendship and experience with court politics but because I have a doctorate in the history of the Wu dynasty and know more about your family than you do,” Naffa said. “But sure, I could do that other thing, too.”

Cardenia sighed. “We’re in no danger of becoming guild puppets, though.”

Naffa peered over at her boss, silently.

“You’re kidding,” Cardenia said.

“The House of Wu is its own mercantile family and it has the monopoly on ship building and military weaponry,” Naffa said. “Likewise, control of the military runs through the emperox, not the guilds. So, no, it would be difficult for the guilds or any of the houses who control them to make short-term inroads into control of the house or of the empire. That said, your father has been very lax in controlling the mercantile houses and has allowed several of them, including the Nohamapetans, to build power centers that are unprecedented in the last two hundred years. This is, of course, leaving out the church entirely, which is its own power center. And you can expect to see all of these try to grab more power for themselves because you are expected to be a weak emperox.”

“Thanks,” Cardenia said, dryly.

“It’s not personal. Your ascendance to the crown was unexpected.”

“Tell me about it.”

“No one knows what to think of you.”

“Except the executive committee, who wants to marry me off.”

“They want to preserve an existing potential alliance.”

“An alliance with terrible people.”

“Really nice people don’t usually accrue power.”

“You’re saying I’m kind of an outlier,” Cardenia said.

“I don’t recall saying you were nice,” Naffa replied.

• • •

“None of this was supposed to be your problem,” Batrin said to Cardenia, later. She was back in his bedroom, sitting in the chair. The medical staff that had worried on him while he was asleep had retreated to nearby rooms. It was just the two of them again, plus an array of medical equipment.

“I know,” Cardenia said. They’d had this conversation before, but she knew they were about to have it again.

“It was your brother who was groomed for all of this,” Batrin continued, and Cardenia nodded as he droned on slowly. Her brother, Rennered Wu, was actually her half brother. He was the son of the imperial consort Glenna Costu, while Cardenia was the result of a brief liaison between the emperox and Cardenia’s mother, Hannah, a professor of ancient languages. Hannah Patrick met the emperox while giving him a tour of the rare books collection of the Spode Library at the University of Hubfall. The two corresponded on academics after that and then, a few years after the sudden death of the imperial consort, the emperox gifted Hannah Patrick first with a rare edition of the Qaṣīdat-ul-Burda, and subsequently, not too long thereafter, and a bit to the surprise of both, with Cardenia.

Rennered was already the heir and Hannah Patrick, upon reflection, decided that she would rather step out of an airlock than become a permanent fixture of the imperial court. As a result, Cardenia’s childhood was pampered but far removed from the trappings of actual power. Cardenia was acknowledged as a child of the emperox and saw her famous father regularly but infrequently. She would occasionally be teased by classmates, who might call her “princess,” but not too often or too viciously, because as it turns out she was a princess and her imperial security detail was sensitive to slights.

Her childhood and early adult years were as normal as they could be when one is the daughter of the most powerful human in the known universe, which was to say not very but close enough that Cardenia could see normal, distantly, from there. She attended the University of Hubfall, received degrees in modern literature and education, and upon graduation gave serious thought to becoming a professional patron of some artsrelated programs and initiatives for the underadvantaged.

Then Rennered had to go get himself killed while racing, slamming himself and his charmingly retro automobile into a wall during a charity exhibition race with actual race car drivers and basically decapitating himself in the process. Cardenia never watched the video of the crash—that was her brother, why would she—but she read the forensics report afterward, which while clearing the event of any suspicion of foul play, noted the safety features of the automobile and the unlikelihood of the accident being fatal, much less one that ended in decapitation.

Cardenia later learned that at the charity auction after the race Rennered was supposed to have publicly announced his engagement to Nadashe Nohamapetan. The confluence of those two events stayed firmly connected in her mind afterward.

Cardenia had never been very close to Rennered—Rennered was a teenager when she was born and their circles never meshed—but he had treated her kindly. As a child she idolized him and his playboy ways from afar, and as she grew older and saw how much of the crush of imperial fame had passed by her to land on his shoulders, was quietly relieved he was there to shoulder it. He seemed to enjoy it more than she ever would.

He was gone and then suddenly the empire needed another heir for emperox.

“I think I lost you there,” Batrin said.

“I’m sorry,” Cardenia said. “I was thinking of Rennered. I wish he were still here.”

“So do I. Although perhaps for different reasons.”

“I would be happier if he were succeeding you. A lot of people would be.”

“That’s certain, my child. But Cardenia, listen to me. I don’t regret that you are succeeding me.”

“Thank you.”

“I mean it. Rennered would have made a perfectly good emperox. He was literally born for the role, just as I was. You weren’t. But that’s not a bad thing.”

“I think it’s a bad thing. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Cardenia confessed.

“None of us knew what we were doing,” Batrin said. “The difference is that you know it. If Rennered were here, he’d be just as clueless but more confident. Which is why he’d faceplant right out of the gate, just like I did, and my mother, and my grandfather. Perhaps you’ll break the family tradition.”

Cardenia smiled at this.

Batrin cocked his head, almost imperceptibly. “You still don’t know what to make of me, do you?” he asked.

“No,” Cardenia admitted. “I’m glad we’ve come to know each other better, these last few months. But—” She opened her hands, palms up. “All the rest of this.”

Batrin smiled. “You want to get to know your father, but you have to focus on getting ready to rule the universe instead.”

“It sounds ridiculous. But yes.”

“That’s on me. You know you were an accident. At least on my part.” Cardenia nodded at this. “Everyone, including your mother, told me that it would be better to keep you at a distance. And I was happy to agree with them.”

“I know. I never blamed you for that.”

“No, you didn’t, and you have to admit that was odd,” Batrin said.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You are a literal princess, but you didn’t live like one. I think it’s fair to say most people in your situation would have resented that.”

Cardenia shrugged. “I liked it being optional. When I was eight, I resented it a little. When I was old enough to know what being a princess meant, I was glad I got to miss most of it.”

“It caught up to you anyway.”

“Yes, it did,” Cardenia agreed.

“You don’t still want to be emperox, do you?”

“No, I don’t. I would have rather you had given it to a cousin or nephew or someone else.”

“If Rennered had married earlier and had a child, that would have solved your problem. But he didn’t. And anyway if he had married that Nohamapetan woman, and she’d produced an heir, then she would have been regent. That seems like a bad idea, to have her running things unchecked.”

“You pushed him to marry her.”

“Politics. You’re being pushed to marry the brother already, I assume.”

“Yes.”

“It’s politically advantageous.”

“Do you want me to?”

Batrin coughed, extensively. Cardenia poured him a glass of water and held it to his lips to let him sip. “Thank you. And no. Nadashe Nohamapetan is heartless and vicious, but Rennered was no innocent, either. He reminded me of my mother that way. He would have kept her in check, and he would have enjoyed the challenge and so would she. You’re not like Rennered, and Amit Nohamapetan doesn’t have his sister’s saving grace of being brilliant.”

“He’s a bore.”

“A much more succinct way of putting it.”

“But you just said it’s a politically advantageous match.”

Batrin gave the very slightest of shrugs. “It is, but so what? You’ll be emperox soon enough.”

“And then no one can tell me what to do.”

“Oh, no,” Batrin said. “Everyone will tell you what to do. But you won’t always have to listen.”

• • •

“How much more time does he have?” Cardenia asked Qui Drinin, at dinner. More accurately, Cardenia was having dinner in the residential apartment private dining room, which was only ridiculously sumptuously decorated rather than appallingly so, in delightful contrast to the rest of the residential apartments. Drinin was not eating but rather was standing, waiting to give his report. Cardenia had asked him if he would like to eat, but he’d refused so quickly that she wondered if she had unwittingly breached some bit of imperial protocol.

“No more than a day, I think, ma’am,” Drinin said. “His renal system has basically failed, and while we can help with that, that system is running just slightly ahead of everything else. Pulmonary, respiratory, and other systems are at critical milestones. Your father understands that heroic measures could be taken but those would prolong his life by days at best. He’s opted not to take them. We’re really just making him comfortable at this point.”

“He’s still lucid,” Naffa said. She was also not eating.

Drinin nodded at this and turned to address Cardenia. “You shouldn’t expect this to continue, ma’am, especially as the toxins continue to accumulate in his blood. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, if you have anything very important to say to your father, you should do it sooner than later.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Cardenia said.

“Of course, ma’am. And may I also ask how you are doing?”

“Personally, or medically?”

“Either, ma’am. I know you had your network installed a few weeks ago. I want to be sure you have no side effects from that.”

With the hand not currently holding a utensil, Cardenia reached back to the spot on her neck, just at the base of her skull, where the seed of the imperial neural network had been implanted, to grow into her brain over the course of a month or so. “I had some headaches a week after it was implanted,” she said. “It’s fine.”

Drinin nodded. “Very well. Historically, headaches are not uncommon. If you experience any other side effects let me know, of course. It should be fully implanted by now, but you never know.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Cardenia said.

“Ma’am.” Drinin nodded and moved to leave.

“Dr. Drinin.”

Drinin stopped and turned. “Ma’am?”

“After the transition I would be pleased if you and your staff were to remain in the service of the emperox.”

Drinin smiled and bowed deeply. “Of course, ma’am,” he said, and departed.

“You know you don’t have to ask every member of the imperial staff to stay,” Naffa said, after he had gone. “You’d spend your first month doing that.”

Cardenia motioned to where the doctor had departed. “That man is going to be giving me physical examinations for decades,” she said. “I think it’s okay to ask him personally to stay.” She looked up at her aide. “It’s weird, you know. You not eating with me right now. Just standing there with your tablet, waiting to tell me things.”

“Staff doesn’t eat with the emperox.”

“They do if the emperox tells them to.”

“Are you commanding me to eat whatever disgusting thing you’re eating with you?”

“It’s not disgusting, it’s a cinnamonfish bouillabaisse. And no, I’m not commanding you. I’m telling you that you may, if you like, have something to eat with your friend Cardenia.”

“Thanks, Car,” Naffa said.

“The last thing I need right now is you being staff all the time. I do actually still need friends. Friends who don’t get worked up about who I am. You were the only kid I knew when we were growing up who didn’t make a big deal out of me being a princess.”

“My parents are republicans,” Naffa reminded her friend. “If I treated you differently because of who your father was, they’d’ve disowned me. They’re still mildly scandalized that I’m working for you now.”

“That reminds me that when I become emperox, I’ll be able to give you a title.”

“Don’t you dare, Car,” Naffa said. “I’ll never be able to go home for holidays.”

“‘Baroness’ has a nice ring to it.”

“I’ll dump your fish soup on your head if you keep this up,” Naffa warned. Cardenia smiled at this.

• • •

“I saw the video you made,” Batrin said, once he had woken again. Cardenia observed that Drinin had been correct; her father’s demeanor was fuzzy and wandering now. “The one where you were talking about me.”

“What did you think?” Cardenia asked.

“It was nice. It wasn’t written by the committee, was it?”

“No.” The executive committee had complained about Naffa’s rewritten speech until Cardenia informed them that it was either Naffa’s words or none at all. She enjoyed her first victory over the tripartite political forces counterbalancing the emperox. She did not pretend that there would be many more of those once she came into power.

“Good,” Batrin said. “You should be your own emperox, my daughter. No one else’s.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Do.” Batrin closed his eyes for a moment and appeared to drift off. Then he opened them again and looked at Cardenia. “Have you chosen your imperial name yet?”

“I thought I might keep my own,” Cardenia said.

“What? No,” Batrin said. “Your own name is for your private world. For friends and spouses and children and lovers. You’ll need that private name. Don’t give it away to the empire.”

“Which of your names did my mother call you?”

“She called me Batrin. At least long enough to matter. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.” Three years prior, Hannah Patrick had accepted a position of provost at Guelph Institute of Technology, ten weeks from Hub via the Flow. By now news of the emperox’s worsening condition would have reached her. She wouldn’t know her daughter had become emperox until well after the fact. Cardenia knew her mother was deeply ambivalent about her ascension.

“I considered marrying her,” Batrin said.

“You’ve told me.” Cardenia had heard a different story from her mother but this was not the time to bring it up.

The emperox nodded and changed the subject. “May I suggest a name to you? For your imperial name.”

“Yes, please.”

“Grayland.”

Cardenia furrowed her brow. “I don’t know this name.”

“When I die, look her up. And then come talk to me about it.”

“I will.”

“Good, good. You will be a good emperox, Cardenia.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ll have to be. The empire is going to need it, in the end.”

Cardenia didn’t know what to say to that, so she just nodded, and reached out for her father’s hand. He seemed surprised by it, and then gave it the smallest of squeezes.

“I think I’ll go to sleep now,” he said. “I’ll go to sleep and then you’ll be emperox. Is that all right?”

“It’s fine,” Cardenia said.

“Okay. Good.” Batrin gave Cardenia’s hand a squeeze so light it barely registered. “Farewell, Cardenia, my daughter. I’m sorry I didn’t make more time to love you.”

“It’s all right,” Cardenia said.

Batrin smiled. “Come see me.”

“I will.”

“Good,” Batrin said, and then drifted off.

Cardenia sat with her father and waited to become emperox.

She didn’t have to wait long.

 

Excerpted from The Collapsing Empire, © 2017 by John Scalzi.

11 Comments

Subscribe to this thread