The Collapsing Empire: Chapter Two

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 two below, or head back to the beginning with the prologue.

 

 

Chapter Two

Kiva Lagos was busily fucking the brains out of the assistant purser she’d been after for the last six weeks of the Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’s trip from Lankaran to End when Second Officer Waylov Brennir entered her stateroom, unannounced. “You’re needed,” he said.

“I’m a little busy at the moment,” Kiva said. She’d just finally gotten herself into a groove, so fuck Waylov (not literally, he was awful) if she was going to get out of the groove just because he walked into it. Grooves were hard to come by. People have sex, and he was unannounced. If this was what he walked into, it was his fault, not hers. The assistant purser seemed a little concerned, but Kiva applied a little pressure to make it clear festivities were to continue.

“It’s important.”

“Trust me, so is this.”

“We’ve got a customs official who won’t let us take any haverfruit off the ship,” Brennir said. If he was shocked or scandalized by Lagos’s activities he was doing a good job of hiding it. He mostly looked bored. “Offloading our haverfruit is why we came to End. If we don’t sell it, or develop licenses, we’re screwed. You’re the owner’s representative. You’re going to have to explain to your mother why this trip was the cause of the financial ruin of your family. So perhaps you might like to join Captain Blinnikka in talking with this customs official right now to see if you can resolve this problem. Or you can just go on fucking that junior crew member, ma’am. I’m sure those are equivalent activities as regards your future, and the future of this ship, and your family.”

“Well, shit,” Kiva said. Her groove was definitely gone, and the assistant purser, her little project, looked pretty miserable at the moment. “That was a pretty impressive jab you just gave to someone who can fire your ass, Brennir.”

“You can’t fire me, ma’am,” Brennir said. “I’ve got tenure with the guild. Now, are you coming or not?”

“I’m thinking.”

“I should go,” the assistant purser said. “I mean, I can go. Maybe I should go?”

Kiva sighed and looked down at her conquest. “When are you on duty again?”

“Three hours.”

“Then you stay right here.” She untangled herself from the assistant purser, put on something acceptable for the outside world, and then followed Brennir out of her stateroom and through the ship.

The Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby was a fiver, a ship whose size and design meant that theoretically it could support a full complement of crew from its own resources for roughly five standard years before everything began to go bad, internal biological and support systems began to fail, and the crew collapsed into a brief spasm of unspeakable horror toward each other before the end, as all crews marooned in the vast emptiness of space with no hope of rescue eventually did.

As a practical matter, however, within the Flow streams of the Interdependency, no one human outpost was more than nine months from any other. Fivers and tenners, their larger siblings, typically dedicated enough of themselves to support their crews for a year—a three-month margin for error—and the rest of their space and systems were given over to cargo and, in the case of the Yes, Sir, astroponics, growing the agricultural products that the ship’s owners had a monopoly on and traveled from outpost to outpost to deliver.

The House of Lagos, the owners of the Yes, Sir, had a monopoly on citrus. The entire genus, from root to fruit, from the heirloom species like lemons and oranges to more recent hybrids like gabins, zestfists, and haverfruit. It was the last of these that the Yes, Sir had come to End to do business in—to sell the fruit it had grown and harvested on the trip out to End directly, and to negotiate licensing for local agribusiness to grow it on End on behalf of the Lagos family.

That was the plan, anyway. Except now some asshole customs official was trying to fuck them all.

Kiva entered the Yes, Sir conference room where Captain Tomi Blinnikka, Chief Purser Gazson Magnut, and some miserable shitfuck of an imperial customs official waited. Kiva nodded to Blinnikka and Magnut and took a seat at the table they were at. Blinnikka dismissed Brennir, who slid the door closed behind him as he left.

“All right, what’s the problem?” Kiva said, when Brennir was gone.

“Lady Kiva, I am Inspector Pretan Vanosh, assistant head of imperial customs for End,” the miserable shitfuck began.

“Charmed,” Kiva said, cutting him off. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is a closterovirus,” Vanosh said. “That’s a type of virus—”

“My family has had the monopoly on citrus fruits for eight hundred years, Mr. Vanosh,” Kiva said. “I know what a closterovirus is. I also know it’s been two hundred years since we’ve had a confirmed case of a citrus closterovirus affecting any of the crops we either sell or license. We genetically engineer our crops for resistance.”

Vanosh smiled thinly and offered up a physical folder to Kiva, who took it. “That clock has been reset, Lady Kiva,” he said. “Nine months ago your sister ship, No, Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe, arrived with a shipment of grapefruit graft stock that carried a new strain of virus. It spread through your licensed orchards and devastated your client’s crops.”

“All right, but so what?” Kiva said. “If it did happen, and I’m not going to stipulate it did until we have our own people take a look, then we’ll compensate the clients and plow under the orchards. It doesn’t have anything to do with this shipment of haverfruit.”

“It’s not that simple,” Vanosh said. “The virus is crosscompatible with some of End’s local crops, including banu, a staple down there. We’ve had to quarantine entire provinces to halt its spread. Food prices are through the roof. People are concerned about the possibility of famine. The Duke of End was already battling an insurgency. This has made it worse.” Vanosh leaned forward on the table, toward Lagos. “To put it bluntly, Lady Kiva, the House of Lagos has helped to destabilize this entire planet.”

Kiva stared at this official fuckwit in disbelief. “You can’t think we intended—”

Now it was Vanosh’s turn to cut off Lagos. “Lady Kiva, it doesn’t matter what your house intended, what matters is what it did. What it did in this case is pour oil onto a fire. Until this is resolved in a court of law, I’m afraid your trade rights for End are suspended.”

“I don’t know about any of this,” Kiva said.

“Everything about the virus is in the report.”

“Not about the fucking virus. About the destabilization and the famine or any of the rest of that crap. You can’t pin it on us.”

“It’s not all pinned onto your family, Lady Kiva, I assure you. But enough can be pinned to your family to have caused this suspension.”

“Is this is a squeeze?” Kiva asked.

Vanosh blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Is this a squeeze? Are you hitting us up for a bribe?”

“A bribe?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure what part of this discussion suggested to you that I was fishing for a bribe, Lady Kiva.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, don’t be coy,” Kiva said, irritably. “Let’s pretend we’re all adults here and we don’t have to get cute about a business transaction. Tell me what you want”—she jabbed a thumb at Magnut, whose expression suggested he couldn’t believe this particular conversation was actually happening—“and Magnut here will take care of the rest.”

Vanosh turned to Magnut. “Do you bribe imperial customs officers often, Chief Purser Magnut?”

“Don’t answer that,” Captain Blinnikka said, to Magnut. Magnut looked visibly relieved to be told to stay quiet. Blinnikka turned to Vanosh. “My apologies, Inspector. Our owner’s representative is understandably frustrated at the moment and chose her words foolishly. I assure you that it is not our policy to attempt to bribe imperial officials, nor should Lady Kiva’s outburst suggest that any of us believe you are bribable. Isn’t that correct, Lady Kiva?”

Kiva gave her starship captain a long look of you have to be fucking kidding me, pal and then, having received an I am so not fucking kidding you, you asshole look back from the captain, turned her attention back to Vanosh. “Yes. I made a bad joke. Sorry about that.”

“Perhaps you should stay out of the field of comedy, Lady Kiva,” Vanosh said.

“That’s a hot tip, thanks for that.”

“In any event, Lady Kiva, Captain Blinnikka, you appear to be under the impression that I’m the reason your goods are sequestered and your trade privileges suspended.”

“Aren’t you?” Kiva asked.

Vanosh smiled, again thinly, which made Lagos wonder if he could smile any other way. “If it were up to me, Lady Kiva, I would have taken the bribe and then threatened to have all three of you arrested, and then pocketed the even larger second bribe.”

“I knew it,” Kiva said. “You shifty little fucker.”

Vanosh nodded his head slightly in acknowledgment. “However, in this case, the directive comes from over my head. In point of fact, Lady Kiva, the ban on your haverfruit and any trade your ship and your family might conduct on End comes from the duke himself.” Vanosh handed over another document, this one a traditional folded letter on heavy parchment, sealed in wax with the ducal signet, which meant the Duke of End was very much not fucking around on this one. “You will have to take it up with him,” Vanosh continued.

Kiva took it. “Well, this is just fucking perfect, isn’t it,” she said.

“Indeed,” Vanosh said. “If I may offer a suggestion, Lady Kiva.”

“Yes?”

“The Duke of End owns most of the planet. Maybe don’t try to bribe him.”

• • •

Arranging a meeting with the Duke of End took a day. The Port of Endfall wasn’t allowing direct shuttle flights from ships— “We had some shot at when they came in for a landing”—so Kiva had to shuttle to Imperial Station, the massive space station where the empire kept the majority of its business, and take the beanstalk, heavily fortified from insurgent attack, down to port. There she was met by a local family lackey, who welcomed her and led her to her car.

“What the hell is this?” Kiva asked when she saw it. The car was less of a car than a small tank.

“In order to reach the duke’s palace, we’re going to have to go through some rough neighborhoods, Lady Kiva,” the lackey said.

“You don’t think this looks a little conspicuous? That it doesn’t have ‘shoot at me’ blinking over it in bright lights?”

“Ma’am, at the moment, pretty much anything that moves is being shot at.” The lackey opened the passenger compartment door. “For that matter, anything that stays still for too long is shot at, too.” He motioned her inside. Kiva took the hint.

The inside of the passenger compartment of the little tank was reasonably luxurious, at least. Kiva sat down and strapped in and acknowledged the other two people in the compartment with her, executives for the family here on End.

One of them extended her hand to Lagos. “Lady Kiva, I’m Eiota Finn, your local executive vice president for the House of Lagos.” Kiva shook it, and Finn used her other hand to motion to the third occupant. “This is Jonan Rue, head of your legal department here.” Rue nodded.

“Hi,” Kiva said, to both.

“You won’t remember, but you and I have met before,” Finn said, to Kiva. “Before I was assigned to End, I worked in your mother’s office in Ikoyi. You were a child then, of course.”

“Right. Well, that’s a great story, Finn, but at the moment you’ll forgive me if I don’t really give a shit if you met me when I was six. I want to know what the fuck is going on with this ban.”

Finn smiled. “You’re definitely your mother’s child,” she said. “She was also blunt and to the point.”

“Yes, we’re a family of assholes,” Kiva said, and the car lurched forward. “Now, explain.”

Finn nodded to Rue. “We have two problems right now, Lady Kiva, and they’re related. The first is the ban. The second is the rebellion.”

Kiva furrowed her brow at this. “What does the rebellion have to do with us?”

“Politically, nothing. It’s just another rebellion.”

“ ‘Just another’? How many rebellions does this goddamned planet have?”

“One or two a decade,” Finn said. “The planet’s called ‘End’ for a reason, Lady Kiva. It’s the farthest human outpost in the Interdependency and the most difficult to get to, and the only one where the residents don’t have guaranteed travel privileges. It’s been the dumping ground for all the empire’s rebels and dissidents for centuries. They don’t all just start playing nice when they get here.”

As if to accentuate the point, there was a loud thock from one of the side panels.

“What was that?” Kiva asked the driver.

“Exploratory shot, ma’am. Nothing to worry about.”

“Being shot at is nothing to worry about?”

“If they’d been serious, they would have hit us with a rocket.”

Kiva looked back to Finn. “You people do this once a decade.”

“Once or twice a decade, yes.”

“You don’t have other things to take up your time? Sport teams? Board games?”

“Usually the rebellions are confined to outer provinces,” Rue said. “They pop up, the reigning duke sends in the Home Guard, it’s over in a couple of months. This one is different.”

“This one is organized,” Finn said. “It’s got some firepower behind it.”

“Yeah, I figured that part out on my own,” Kiva said. “But I’m still not hearing what it has to do with us.”

“As I said, politically, nothing,” Rue continued. “But this particular rebellion has been expensive to fight. Tax revenues are dropping because of business disruption. That money’s got to come from somewhere.”

“From us?”

“From us,” Rue agreed.

“Not just us,” Finn amended. “He’s putting the squeeze on all guild interests here. Higher taxes and tariffs, for a start. The duke pushed them up to the imperial legal limit.”

“But that wasn’t enough,” Rue said. “So at that point, the duke started getting creative.”

“When the virus was reported on the grapefruit, the duke froze the banking accounts of the House of Lagos,” Finn said. “Theoretically they’re in escrow pending legal determination of damages to End in the spread of the virus to native crops.”

“How are we responsible for that?” Kiva asked.

“We might not be,” Rue said. “That’ll need to be decided in court. But if the duke can prove that the virus was introduced into the End ecosystem due to negligence on our part, he’s entitled by imperial law to compensation and penalties.”

“And in the meantime, to keep us from repatriating profits to Ikoyi and potentially out of the reach of the duke, our accounts are in escrow here,” Finn said.

“But they’re not really in escrow, are they?” Kiva said, and pointed out the small, thick, bulletproof window. “The duke is using them to fund the fight against these rebels.”

Rue smiled, thinly. Everyone on End, apparently, smiled that way. “As it happens, when the duke declared the current state of emergency, he nationalized the banks. The official line is that it’s to tamp down on financial panics and speculations. But the executives at the guild banks tell us he’s raiding accounts.”

Kiva snorted. “Well, that’s nice.”

“It’s not a bad plan, at least as it relates to the House of Lagos,” Finn admitted. “If he beats the rebellion, he has all the time it will take for the litigation to run to replace the funds he’s stolen. That will be years.”

“And if he loses then it won’t matter anyway, because he’ll probably be dead,” Rue said.

Kiva grunted at this and looked out the window. End’s capital city of Inverness rolled by, run-down, unhappy, a few sooty fires in the distance. “Will he?”

“Will he what?” Finn asked.

“Will he lose?”

Finn and Rue looked at each other. “It wouldn’t be the first time a Duke of End has been deposed,” Finn said.

“Fine, but what about this one?” Kiva asked. “Are we wasting our fucking time going to talk to this asshole?”

“It’s not looking great for the duke, no,” Rue said, after a minute. “We’ve heard rumors of desertions in the provinces, and of military commanders changing sides and taking their soldiers with them. We’ll probably know within the next week how things are going to shake out.”

Kiva pointed upward. “And what about those assholes? The imperials? The duke is a goddamned noble, after all. They would probably see it as bad optics to have him dragged out in the street and shot.”

“This is End, Lady Kiva,” Rue said. “As long as the Interdependency gets its percentage of trade, everything else is an internal matter.”

“Including the death of a duke?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a Duke of End has been deposed,” Finn repeated.

“We’re about to arrive at the palace,” the driver said. “It’ll take a few minutes to get through the security checkpoints. Ma’am, may I have your invitation to the palace?”

Kiva passed it forward and then turned her attention back to her underlings. “So basically what I do now is go in and beg this motherfucker to let me sell my haverfruit, and if he does, expect him to put any profit into this so-called escrow and never see it again.”

“Not for years, no,” Finn said. “Best-case scenario.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you see this coming?” Lagos asked Finn, and jabbed a finger toward the heavily fortified palace, visible through the front windshield. “We’re sitting here grabbing our own tits while this asshole is using our cash to play whack-amole with insurgents.”

“As it happens, I did see it coming,” Finn said. “Which is why the accounts that are escrowed were only about half as full as they were the minute the first reports of the virus started coming in.”

“Where’s the rest of the money? Did you bury it in the backyard?”

“In a manner of speaking. The House of Lagos has become, through a number of intermediaries, owners of quite a lot of property.”

Kiva motioned around. “Not here, I hope. This fucking town is on fire.”

“No. Mostly in the provinces of Tomnahurich and Claremont. Particularly Claremont. The local count there was keen on offloading a number of very nice properties. He wanted to achieve liquidity, fast.”

“Of course he did. Nobles don’t tend to be popular during revolutions.”

“No, they don’t, Lady Kiva.”

The car started moving forward again. “There are two other things you should know going into this meeting with the duke,” Rue said, to Kiva.

“Tell me.”

Rue handed over a sheet. “One, we did as you asked and followed up on that virus. There was absolutely no evidence of viral infection on those grapefruit grafts until after they made it to orchards here on End. Nothing in the stock or fruit in the warehouses, and nothing on the samples that were tested on the No, Sir before she left.”

Kiva took the sheet and looked at it. “So you think it’s sabotage.”

“Pretty sure of that, yes. Whether we can prove that to the satisfaction of a court is another matter. Which brings us to the other thing. The duke has an advisor from one of the guild houses. You’re not going to like which house it is.”

Kiva looked up. “Oh, don’t you even fucking say it.”

“It’s the House of Nohamapetan.”

• • •

The name of the ducal castle was Kinmylies. It was overly plush in a manner that suggested that the residents had confused excess for elegance. Kiva, who came from a line of immensely wealthy people who didn’t give a shit whether their wealth impressed you or not, immediately felt twitchy within its walls. This place needs a cleansing fucking fire, she thought, as she was led down one interminable hallway after another, on her way to the Duke of End’s office.

“One thing,” Finn said to Kiva as the page came to retrieve her. “The duke finds profanity a mark of a lesser intellect. Try to avoid it with him if you can.”

What an asshole, she thought, as she stepped into the duke’s office, as vomitiously ornate as any other part of the palace. The family legend had it that Kiva Lagos’s very first word as an infant was “fuck,” a legend that was entirely liable to be true, given the swearing propensity of the Countess Huma Lagos, Kiva’s mother and head of the House of Lagos. It would have been more surprising if it wasn’t, frankly. Kiva couldn’t remember ever not swearing, and of course as the daughter of Countess Lagos, even as the sixth child with no shot at the title, no one was ever going to tell her to stop.

And now this prick, who had a jabong up his ass about it.

The prick in question, the one with the rectally stored jabong, was standing at his office bar, a tumbler of some amber liquid in his hand, tall with a beard that could hide birds in it, laughing. Standing next to him, also with a tumbler, also laughing, and in his family’s pretentiously simple black, was none other than Ghreni Nohamapetan.

The page cleared his throat and the duke looked up. “The Lady Kiva Lagos,” the page said, and departed.

“My dear Lady Kiva,” said the Duke of End, coming away from the bar. “Welcome. Welcome.”

“Your Grace,” Kiva said, and gave a bare nod. As the daughter of a house head and ranking representative of the house on the planet, Lagos could have simply addressed him as “Duke” and gotten away with it. But she was here to kiss ass, so might as well get to the puckering early.

“Allow me to introduce my advisor, Lord Ghreni, of the House of Nohamapetan.”

“We’ve met,” Ghreni said, to the duke.

“Have you now?”

“We went to school together,” Ghreni said.

“What a small world,” remarked the duke.

“Isn’t it just,” Kiva replied.

“Yes, well. Sit down, Lady Kiva,” the duke said, motioning to the left-hand chair in front of his desk. Lagos took it, an overstuffed monstrosity she nearly disappeared into, with Ghreni taking the chair on the right. The duke sat down in his own fucking parody of a chair, behind a desk a poor family could make a house out of. “I do regret that the circumstances of our meeting could not be better.”

“I understand, sir. It is challenging when you have insurgents almost knocking on your door.”

“What? No,” the duke said, and Kiva saw Ghreni twitch out the very smallest of smiles. “No, not that. I meant the difficulty with this virus your house brought to us.”

“Truly,” Kiva said. “Are you sure that we brought it, sir?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean our investigators here did not find it in any of the samples in our warehouse, or on the No, Sir. It only showed up in the orchards.”

“This is news to us,” Ghreni said.

“Is it?” Kiva replied, looking at him directly. “Well, if it is, my representatives have made a report.” She looked over to the duke. “They’ve filed it with your secretary’s office, along with the notice of an appeal for the lifting of our trade ban.”

“I don’t think lifting that ban would be wise,” Ghreni said. “With all due respect to your representatives and their investigators, Kiva, until that study can be thoroughly examined, the duke, for the safety of the citizens of End, has to assume that any other product you carry is likewise infected.”

“I’m afraid your friend is correct about that,” the duke said, to Kiva. “You’ve heard about how the virus crossed over to our banu. Wiped out the crop in entire areas. We can’t risk another event like that. The banu failure is one of the reasons we have this rebellion in the first place.”

“I understand your concern, sir, and that is why the House of Lagos is willing to assist you.”

The duke squinted at Kiva. “How do you mean?”

“I understand you have placed our accounts in escrow, pending resolution of a court case regarding the virus.”

Kiva watched the duke’s eyes flicker, briefly, over to Ghreni’s before coming back to her own. “So I have. It was the prudent course of action.”

“Allow me to formally offer those sums to you as a loan from the House of Lagos to assist you in resisting this rebellion. We would be happy to offer you excellent terms.”

“That’s… generous of you,” the duke said.

“It’s business,” Kiva replied. “It does the House of Lagos no good to have you out of power, sir. And this allows you access to funds that you would not otherwise have at your disposal. Why should that money sit and do you no good? Put it to use.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Ghreni said.

“Actually it is that simple,” Kiva retorted. “We can write it into the loan that if the House of Lagos is found liable, the loan represents the damages and that any remainder plus interest on the loan constitutes penalties.”

“It’s not a matter of legalities, it’s the matter of perception,” Ghreni said.

“The perception of the duke robustly defending his people looks bad? Worse than the perception of a duke being overthrown because he’s too daintily concerned about looking bad?”

Ghreni turned to the duke. “Sir, it looks like a bribe.”

“A bribe for what?” Kiva exclaimed.

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” Ghreni said.

“Lady Kiva, in exchange for this generosity by the House of Lagos, what would you expect?” asked the duke.

“Again, and with respect, sir, it’s not generosity. If the suit fails, the House of Lagos would expect to get our loan back. That’s business.”

“But you want something else, too, don’t you?” Ghreni asked.

“Of course I do. I want to be able to sell my god—” Kiva caught herself at the last moment. “—blessed haverfruit, sir. And when I do, the money we make on the sale and licensing will not go with the Yes, Sir when we leave. It’ll stay here, with you, as part of the loan.”

“Along with any additional viruses your crop might be carrying,” Ghreni said.

Kiva looked over to the duke. “Sir, there are inspectors at Imperial Station. They do random sampling of our cargo anyway. I’m happy to have them do an in-depth inspection of the haverfruit to assure it’s clean and poses no threat to the End biome.”

The Duke of End at least appeared to think about it, but then he stared over at Ghreni, who sat impassively, and shook his head. “Lady Kiva, you have been kind, both with your offer and your concern. But I don’t believe that such measures will be necessary. I believe this rebellion will be contained presently. As such your offer will be unneeded. As for your haverfruit, until we have time to thoroughly examine your report, I need to err on the side of caution. I’m afraid I’m unable to lift your trade ban until the conclusion of the trial. I know you understand.”

“You bet your ass I do,” Kiva said, and stood.

“Excuse me?” the duke said, standing. Ghreni stood as well.

“Thank you for your time, sir. Will you call me a page so I can find my way out of this goddamned maze?”

“Allow me to walk the Lady Kiva out, sir,” Ghreni said, to the duke, smoothly.

“Yes, of course.” The duke nodded his good-bye to both of them and headed back over to his bar.

“You motherfucker,” Kiva said, to Ghreni, as soon as they exited his office.

“It’s nice to see you too,” Ghreni said.

“You better hope I don’t find you or the House of Nohamapetan is behind this fucking virus. Because if I do, I will come all the way back to End to feast on your fucking heart.”

“You’re always welcome to visit me, of course.”

“So, are you?”

“Behind the virus?”

“Yes.”

“Obviously I am not, but even if I were, I don’t think you’re foolish enough to believe I would tell you.”

“You could save me a trip.”

“Now, why would I want to do that?”

“You haven’t changed, Ghreni.”

“And you shouldn’t feel too bad, Kiva.” Ghreni motioned back toward the duke’s office. “You almost had him with that offer of a loan. That was smart, by the way. As a guild house any loan you make to a noble in the defense of the imperial system is backed by the empire itself. A fine way to cover your ass.”

“Until you screwed me.”

“I’d think you’d be used to that by now.”

Kiva snorted at this. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that, Ghreni. ‘We went to school together,’ my ass.”

“It was much more politic than how you would have put it. ‘I fucked his brains out whenever he went to visit his sister in her dormitory at university.’ ”

“I wouldn’t have said it like that,” Kiva said. “I was told not to swear. How is your asshole sister, anyway?”

“Not happy. She was going to be crown princess of the empire, but then Rennered Wu lost his head in a racing accident.”

“A real tragedy for her.”

“She thinks so. It was bad for Rennered as well, of course. I understand the emperox’s bastard daughter is now the heir. So my brother will take a run at her, I imagine.”

“There’s the Nohamapetan family I remember. Full of romantics.”

“You didn’t complain, once.”

Kiva stopped and looked at Ghreni, who also stopped. “Well, once I was a fucking idiot. Now I’m not.”

“That would be a first for a Lagos, then,” Ghreni said.

“What scam do you have running on this dipshit duke?”

“One, his name is Ferd, and not ‘dipshit.’ Two, I’m offended you think I’m running a scam on him.”

“You got him to shake off a multimillion-mark bribe.”

“See, I told you it was a bribe. I was right.”

“No one passes up that much unless they’ve got something better on offer.”

“I can’t possibly speak to that, Kiva. Certainly not to you.”

“Come on, Ghreni. This isn’t about the virus. And we’re on fucking End. It’s going to take me nine months to get back to Hub and another three from there to Ikoyi. Anything you tell me now is going to be dead news then.”

Ghreni looked around, and then started walking again. Kiva caught up. “Tell me. Tell me what you have planned for End.”

“Your first error, Kiva, is assuming that anything I’m doing here has to do with just this planet.”

“I don’t follow.”

“I know you don’t. I didn’t intend for you to.” Ghreni stopped again, and then pointed. “Take this hall. Then the second left, and then the first right after that. You’ll be back to the same lobby you came in from.”

Kiva nodded. “You were never one to go all the way to the end of things, were you, Ghreni?”

“You might be surprised.” He leaned in and gave Kiva a peck on the cheek. “Good-bye, my dear Kiva. I wasn’t ever expecting to see you again, you know. No one important really ever comes to End. And I don’t expect to see you again after this. But I am fond of you, in spite of everything. So I’m glad we got a moment for this.”

“Whatever this is.”

Ghreni smiled. “You’ll have a name for it soon,” he said, and walked off.

• • •

“Hit me with it,” Kiva said, back on Yes, Sir, with Captain Blinnikka and Gazson Magnut.

“We were supposed to take receipt of roughly sixty million marks’ worth of licensing fees and royalties here on End,” Magnut said. “We’re going to come away with zero, all in escrow, and we probably won’t get it back. We estimated that the haverfruit would generate twenty million marks for the product on hand and another ten million marks in initial license fees and stock sales. We’re coming away with another zero for that. We have another roughly ten million marks in miscellaneous cargo picked up at other stops that we’re not being allowed to unload and sell, so zero for that, too. There’s about a million marks’ worth of cargo being sent to End that we’re acting as shipping for, and that was allowed to be unloaded, but has been placed in quarantine for several weeks in a hold open to the vacuum of space. We’ll be gone when the delivery happens and the fees will be held for the next Lagos ship to arrive. Which is the I Think We’re Alone Now, which will be along in twenty standard months.”

“So, a hundred-million-mark loss,” Kiva said.

“We netted forty million marks on the last three stops, so it’s a net sixty-million-mark loss, more or less. And this is the last stop on the itinerary. Then back to Hub to transfer to Ikoyi.”

Lagos nodded. Using the Flow there were several ways to get to End, but only one way to get back—the Flow stream from End to Hub. Sooner or later, all streams flowed into Hub. But what that meant was there was no other chance to recoup losses between End and Hub.

“I’m open to ideas, here,” Kiva said. “Tomi?”

“The whole point was to introduce haverfruit to End,” the captain said. “Everyone else in the Interdependency is already full up on it. We can harvest what we have—we’re going to have to, at this point—vacuum flash out the water and sell the concentrate at Hub. But your family already has licensees there. They could complain to the imperial trade commission if we came in and undersold them.”

“The captain’s right,” Magnut said. “And even if we matched prices we’d create a glut. We’d pick up a few million marks at most, and piss off the licensees the House of Lagos needs for long-term profits.”

“So what we’re saying is we’re fucked.”

“That would be the gist of it, yes, ma’am.”

Kiva put her head in her hands for a couple of moments, then looked over to Blinnikka. “When do we leave End?”

“We have some ship maintenance we’re taking care of while we’re here at Imperial Station, and Gazson here is taking on some additional crew to make up for the ones we lost at Lankaran. We’re here for another week.”

“Can we stretch that?”

“Not really,” Blinnikka said. “Our current dock is claimed nine days from now. Imperial Station needs a full day for cargo clearance and reset. We have seven days and then we have to move.”

“Then seven days it is.”

“Seven days for what?” Magnut asked.

“For a fucking miracle to happen and save our asses,” Kiva said. “That’s not too much to ask for, is it?”

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

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