Read John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire: Chapter Two

  • More Chapters from The Consuming Fire:
  • Prologue - September 26, 2018
  • Chapter One - September 26, 2018

The Interdependency, humanity’s interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it—unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth—or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy… and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.

John Scalzi’s epic space-opera novel The Consuming Fire—the sequel to The Collapsing Empire—arrives October 16th from Tor Books. Read chapter two below, or head back to the beginning with the prologue!

 

 

2

The moment Emperox Grayland II had been waiting for came at the end of a long and frankly mind-­numbing meeting.

“Your Majesty, perhaps we should further discuss your… visions,” Archbishop Gunda Korbijn said. Around the table, the heads of the executive committee, tasked with advising the emperox in her administration of the Interdependency, whether she wanted that advice or not, swiveled to look at her.

On those nine faces, Grayland registered various emotions. Some registered concern, which she appreciated. Some registered contempt, which she did not. Others registered, variously, amusement, irritation, disgust or confusion. Some faces registered some or all of these emotions combined.

Grayland II, Emperox of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, Queen of Hub and Associated Nations, Head of the Interdependent Church, Successor to Earth and Mother to All, Eighty­Eighth Emperox of the House of Wu, studied all these faces, taking in the expressions arrayed across the table, assessing the emotions of the nine arguably most powerful people in the known universe, aside from her.

And then laughed.

Which did not endear her further to them.

“You think us mad,” Grayland said, employing the imperial “we,” because in point of fact she was busy being the emperox at the moment and could use the imperial address without undue pretension.

“No one has suggested such a thing,” Korbijn said, hastily.

“We are very sure that is not true,” Grayland replied, lightly. “Certainly no one has suggested such a thing, here at this table, to our face. But we are not so naive as to believe that away from our presence, such things are not only whispered but spoken aloud, and perhaps occasionally shouted.”

At this, Grayland noticed several sets of eyes shift to Teran Assan, the newest member of the committee. This did not exactly surprise her.

“We are all loyal, Your Majesty,” Upeksha Ranatunga said.

Grayland turned to Ranatunga. “We have no reason to doubt the committee’s loyalty,” she said, kindly. Ranatunga was the one who had had a concerned expression. “To me, and to the Interdependency. Yet we are also aware where ‘loyalty’ can drive the concerned, if they believe the person to whom they are loyal has taken leave of their senses.”

“Your Majesty wishes our obedience, then,” said Assan. He’d been one with contempt on his face, although to be fair he’d worn that expression since he’d taken his seat, a few weeks prior.

“We are hoping for your faith,” Grayland said, and looked around the table. “You may believe we understand that this faith is difficult for you. No emperox since Rachela has claimed revelatory visions until now. For a millennium the emperoxs have been content to stay out of the revelation business. And even those of us who experienced delusions kept them out of the religious sphere. When Attavio II experienced alcoholic hallucinations near the end of his reign, he saw bejeweled chickens running around the palace.” Grayland chuckled at this and then noted that no one else at the table was chuckling with her.

“Some of us worry your visions may be closer to chickens than actual revelation,” Assan said, and Grayland watched as eight pairs of eyebrows, attached to the other committee members, moved up in varying levels of shock and surprise.

Grayland laughed again. “Thank you, Lord Teran,” she said. “Would that all our advisors were so honest in their opinions.”

“I didn’t say that to gain your favor,” Assan replied.

“You may be assured that we did not think you had,” Grayland said. She turned to Korbijn, the head of the executive committee. “And as we had anticipated that this would be a matter of concern for the committee, not to mention the Interdependency as a whole, we have already ordered Qui Drinin, the royal physician, to make himself available to the executive committee, at its pleasure, to discuss our current physical and mental state. You may ask him whatever you like.”

“That’s good to hear,” Korbijn said. “We’ll call him very soon.”

Grayland nodded, and then returned her attention to Assan. “Our visions aren’t phantom chickens, Lord Teran. They are something else entirely. We can’t say we wanted them. Times are difficult enough at the moment without adding this spiritual aspect to them. But we are the emperox and a direct line descendant of the Prophet Rachela. The same blood runs through our veins as hers. This is the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States, and the empire has seen fit to keep the House of Wu on its throne for a millennium. Is it not unreasonable to believe that one of those reasons was to keep open the possibility of revelation?”

“I am skeptical that revelation is a genetically heritable trait, Your Majesty,” Assan said.

“Well, if we are honest, so are we,” Grayland said. “And yet here we are. We, like Rachela, are the head of the Interdependent Church, a church that was founded on the basis of revelation. We, like Rachela, have had our revelation at the cusp of an immense change in the nature of humanity’s existence in space. We, like Rachela, are called to shepherd our people through crisis.”

“This is the collapse of the Flow your scientist alleges.”

Grayland smiled. “Have you seen the list of ships that arrived to Hub from End in the last month, Lord Teran? We have. The list is very short, because the number is zero. They’re not here because they never left End. The Flow stream from here to there has collapsed. If memory serves, one of the ships that has yet to arrive is one of yours, by which I mean, one from the house of Assan. Scheduled to arrive from End three weeks ago. I seem to remember my tariffs assessor mentioning it.”

Assan looked uncomfortable. “It’s still within its acceptable window for arrival.”

“And there is a civil war going on at End,” Ranatunga noted. “That will have some effect on the arrival of ships.”

“The committee may suppose it has the luxury of assuming pedestrian causes for the late arrival of every single ship from one of our states,” Grayland said. “We don’t. The Count Claremont, at the direction of my father, studied the data from Flow streams for three decades and predicted to within hours the collapse of the Flow stream from End to Hub. Within another month, the Flow stream from Hub to Terhathum is very likely to be next. We have made all this data available to this committee, to parliament and to scientists; and Lord Marce, the Count Claremont’s son, has stayed to explain the data to everyone who chooses to listen.”

“And yet neither parliament nor the scientists are entirely convinced,” murmured Korbijn.

“There is a lot of data to cover, and unfortunately not very much time,” Grayland said. “We regret to say they are likely to be better convinced when the Terhathum Flow collapses.”

“If,” Assan said.

Grayland shook her said. “When.”

“And you’ve seen this in your visions,” Assan said, pushing.

Grayland smiled at this. “One does not need visions when one has data. In both cases, however, one does need to be willing to see. We need this committee to see both. We need you to understand the data. We need you to have faith. And if you will not do either, then, yes, Lord Teran, we will accept simple obedience. That will do for now.” She stood, obliging her executive committee to stand in return. Then she nodded, acknowledging them, and left the room.

* * *

“I think I may have made a mistake,” Cardenia Wu­Patrick said, to the ghost of her father.

Attavio VI, or more accurately his ghost, or even more accurately the computer simulation of Attavio VI, fashioned from a lifetime of recorded memories, emotions and actions, nodded. “You may have,” he said.

“Thanks,” Cardenia, who when in her full majesty was called Grayland II, said. “Your vote of confidence here is inspiring.”

The two of them were in the Memory Room, a large and largely unadorned room accessible only to the current emperox. Inside of it was a virtual assistant named Jiyi who could, when asked, call up the avatar of any of the previous emperoxs, down to and including the first, Rachela. When Cardenia’s time as emperox was done, her memories, emotions and actions would also be downloaded to serve the uses of whomever would be the next emperox.

If there was going to be one, which at the moment struck Cardenia as a question without a very good answer.

“I was only agreeing with you,” Attavio VI said. “You seem upset and I thought agreeing with you might make you feel better.”

“Not in this particular case, I have to say. We need to work on your program’s ability to pick up emotional cues.”

“Well, then.” Attavio folded his hands together, standing while his daughter sat. “Give me more detail on what you think you’ve made a mistake about.”

“About saying that I’m having visions.”

“About the end of the Interdependency.”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, yes. You probably did make a mistake about that.”

Cardenia threw up her hands.

“I’m wondering what you expected,” Attavio VI said.

“Are you really?”

“To the extent that I am able to, yes.”

“Tell me why.”

“You are attempting to re­create what Rachela did, but you don’t have Rachela’s starting conditions. You don’t have the support of the Wu family or its resources to support you in other areas. You don’t have the leverage with the noble houses to make deals. The only support you have is likely to be the Interdependent Church, and that only grudgingly. Finally, you’re not building an empire. You’re attempting to dismantle one. One that has been successful for a thousand years.”

“I know all of that,” Cardenia said. “I also considered that we’ve already had one Flow stream closed up and that more will close soon after. I know that I don’t have time to build consensus in the parliament or among the guilds or even among scientists before things start to fall apart. I need to get out ahead of the crisis in a way that lets me save as many people as possible. The way to do that is through the church. And the way to do that is in a way that gives the church no doctrinal way to argue. By claiming prophecy.”

“You do understand that ‘no doctrinal way to argue’ does not mean ‘no argument,’” Attavio VI said. “A church is an institution separate from the religion it serves. It’s filled with people. And you know how people are.”

Cardenia nodded. “I thought I understood that.”

“But now you have doubts.”

“I do. I didn’t think that I could turn the church instantly. I’m not stupid. But I thought there would be more cooperation. More understanding of what it was that I was doing.”

“You haven’t expressed this to the leaders of the church,” Attavio VI said.

Cardenia snorted and looked at her father. “I’m not that stupid, either,” she said. “As far as the church is concerned I am serenely confident of my visions. The executive committee, too. I met with them today and told all of them I needed their faith. I thought Lord Teran’s head, at least, might explode from rage.”

“I didn’t know him,” Attavio VI said. “I knew his father. The House of Assan is a close political ally to the House of Wu.”

Cardenia nodded again. “It’s why Lord Teran was placed on the committee, I think. The guilds thought they needed to make it up to me for putting Nadashe Nohamapetan on the committee first. But I’m not sure Lord Teran is any better. With Nadashe Nohamapetan, at least, you knew she was plotting for herself and her family. I’m not at all sure what Lord Teran is up to.”

“You could find out,” Attavio VI suggested.

“I don’t think we’re there yet.”

“You’re the emperox. You’re always there yet.”

* * *

Lord Teran Assan swiped his hand over the lock for his suite in the family apartments in Xi’an. His suite was currently minimally appointed; most of his belongings were still in his larger apartments in Hubfall, where prior to his current assignment he’d been acting as the House of Assan’s managing director for operations in­-system.

Assan’s ascent to the imperial executive committee was a coup for the House of Assan, which had been angling to be on the committee for literally centuries. It was always denied a spot because the House of Assan was famously allied with the House of Wu, and the House of Wu was nominally headed by the emperox. In point of fact the emperoxs almost never meddled in the day-­to-­day operations of the House of Wu. The Wu board of directors, assembled from ranking cousins of the Wu family, would resent it intensely, and anyway the emperox had the rest of the Interdependency to run.

Nevertheless the other guilds, and their respective noble houses, believed the Assan-­Wu relationship too close for political comfort. The last thing they wanted on the executive committee was another potential reflexive cheerleader for the policies of whomever was the sitting emperox at the time.

But then Nadashe Nohamapetan had to go and try to assassinate Grayland II—once for sure, possibly twice (the jury was still out on that one; actually the jury had yet to be empaneled for that one, but the metaphor still held), and regardless of that did manage to kill her older brother in the process, foment a rebellion on the planet of End with the help of her other brother, and generally act in all sorts of obviously traitorous ways.

Suddenly, a little light fluffing of the emperox seemed like just what the guilds had ordered. And so, enter, for the first time, the House of Assan onto the executive committee. Assan was obliged, as the ranking family member in­system, to take on the responsibility.

Assan thought it was a real waste of his time. Grayland (and here Assan winced involuntarily, because he had met the emperox when she was still Cardenia Wu­Patrick and not been impressed by her in any way whatsoever; she was about as qualified to be emperox as Assan was qualified to juggle knives) was obliged to meet with the committee and hear their concerns and advice. But she wasn’t obliged to consider or follow them in any substantial manner, and it was clear by the end of Assan’s first meeting, nearly a month prior now, that Grayland mostly came to the meetings to get them over with.

This was especially problematic because Grayland, immediately prior to his arrival on the committee, had dropped her nonsense about the shift in the Flow streams, trotting out some twit named Lord Marce who purported to have evidence of the same. Marce was, it had to be said, not exactly the most convincing of public speakers, either in front of the committee or testifying in front of parliament. And while the growing lack of shipping from End was beginning to concern a number of houses (including Assan’s—the emperox was correct that one of their fivers, the And for This Gift I Feel Blessed, was now worryingly overdue), the fact that the emperox’s lackey announced that the next Flow stream to collapse would be to the home system of the Nohamapetans was a little on the nose.

It hadn’t happened yet, in any event. Until (or if) it did, there were all sorts of reasons for ships to be held up at End without the drastic explanation of a Flow stream collapse. Including an imperial freeze on spaceship movement.

Which led to the question of what, exactly, it was that Grayland II was actually playing at. And how long she thought she could play at it before it all fell down around her. And whether these goddamned “visions” of hers were now just another tactic to keep her whatever damn fool game she was running going for a few more days or weeks.

All things considered, Assan felt he should have just stayed in his office and stuck to his own business.

Which was not to say that he wasn’t going to use his current situation to his own advantage.

Assan walked over to his bar, put ice in a tumbler, poured whiskey over it, and then called Jasin Wu, board member for the House of Wu, on a secure line.

“You wanted a report on this session?” Assan asked.

Jasin grunted and Assan hit the highlights, including the discussion of Grayland’s visions. “She asked us to have faith,” Assan finished up.

“For fuck’s sake,” Jasin Wu said, disgusted. “The House of Wu makes starships. She’s wandering around saying the Flow is collapsing. We’ve had orders drop forty percent off their usual clip. It’s like she’s trying to destroy her own family.”

“She never really was part of the family, was she,” Assan murmured. “It was Rennered who was supposed to take over everything.”

“Until he drove a car into a wall, yes,” Jasin said. “Stupid. That is, if Nadashe Nohamapetan didn’t have him killed by messing with his car.”

“She’s not really a problem anymore for you.”

“She’s still alive. So she’s still a problem. For now.”

“‘For now’?” Assan asked.

Jasin ignored this. “You need to get a one­-on-­one meeting with Grayland,” he said. “Find out what’s really going on with her.”

“I’ve been trying to get a with her since I arrived,” Assan protested. “I keep being shoved down the schedule. You should ask for a meeting with her. And take me with you.”

“That’s not usually done,” Jasin said. “The emperox has an annual courtesy meeting with the House of Wu board once a year, and otherwise everything is handled by underlings.”

“The emperox claiming visions isn’t usually done either,” Assan pointed out.

Jasin grunted again at this. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and switched off.

Assan took a sip from his whiskey and placed a second secure call, this one to Deran Wu, cousin of Jasin, also on the board of the House of Wu.

“You wanted a report on this session?” Assan asked, and then gave Deran roughly the same report he’d given Jasin.

“You gave Jasin the same report?” Deran asked.

“Pretty much,” Assan said.

“And his reaction?”

“He’s concerned it will affect shipbuilding.”

Deran snorted. “That’s because he’s an idiot. Anything we lose on ships we gain in weapons sales and security assignments.”

“In the short term,” Assan pointed out. “If the emperox is correct about the Flow streams collapsing.”

Deran made a dismissive motion. “Grayland’s loopy, and it’s not going to take that long for the rest of the house to recognize that and take steps.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means you don’t need to worry about it right now. And that it would have been nice if Nadashe Nohamapetan had managed to finish the job when she sent that shuttle to plow into my dear cousin. That was a piece of work.”

“I don’t think Jasin is pleased she’s still alive. Nadashe Nohamapetan, I mean. Not Grayland.”

“Trust me, I’m well aware of Jasin’s opinions on that matter. He’s not shy about that.”

“It wouldn’t look great for the emperox if something were to happen to Nohamapetan.”

“No,” Deran said. “And that’s not how I would want that particular chess piece to be taken off the board. Either chess piece, in this case. Which is another thing you don’t need to worry about right now, Teran.”

“Of course.”

“You should try to get a meeting with Grayland one to one.”

“She’s ducking me.”

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?” Deran smiled and then cut the connection.

Assan smiled too, but to himself. He finished his drink and made his third and final call for the evening.

“Yes?” the voice on the other end said.

“I’m calling for Lady Nohamapetan.”

“She is… indisposed.”

“I’m aware of that. I’m also aware I can leave a message with you and it will get to her.”

“What is it?”

“I believe she will want a report on this session.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. Then:

“Go on.”

 

Excerpted from The Consuming Fire © 2018 by John Scalzi

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