Employees! So pesky and demanding. “Please, may I spend Christmas Eve with my family?” “Please don’t choke me, I’m only the messenger.” “Please don’t choose me to be the test-subject for your latest ACME protagonist killer.” Small wonder that some bosses quietly eliminate the workers once they are no longer useful, preferably before they cash their paycheck. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
In Glen Cook’s 1979 A Shadow of All Night Falling, grand wizard Varthlokkur waited for centuries for the birth of Nepanthe, the woman who fate had decreed would be his one great love. His long wait finished, he aims to collect his trophy. Her brothers stand in his way, so he hires three skilled mercenaries to remove the brothers. Varthlokkur kidnaps the now defenseless Nepanthe, retreats to his seemingly impregnable fortress, and then declines to pay the mercenaries. Cue an alliance of three furious warriors and Nepanthe’s surviving brothers….
David Drake’s mercenary troupe, Hammer’s Slammers (commanded by Friesland’s Colonel Alois Hammer), was formed to suppress an uprising on Friesland’s colony-world Melpomone. The foreign mercenaries were offered settlement on wealthy Friesland in exchange for their services, as well as a chunk of cash. But after the mercenaries crushed the rebellion, Friesland’s government decided that it wasn’t such a great idea to settle battle-hardened mercenaries in their midst. Nor did it seem like a good idea to let the mercenaries sell their skills to other employers, since said employers could well be Friesland’s enemies. Best idea: kill off the now-superfluous soldiers. Friesland expects that their own Colonel Hammer will acquiesce. They are wrong. Hammer sides with his soldiers. Forewarned, the Slammers obliterate their would-be assassins and become the very destabilizing force that Friesland had feared.
In Joe Abercrombie’s 2009’s Best Served Cold, mercenary captain Monzcarro “Monza” Murcatto has very nearly delivered the city-states of Styria into the hands of her ambitious employer, Duke Orso. Her very competence threatens Orso…or so he thinks. The Duke has Monza and her beloved brother Benna murdered and their corpses thrown from the battlements of his fortress. Oops: Turns out Monza wasn’t dead. Monza survives. Now the Duke, and the six assassins who killed Benna, face an angry, lethally competent warrior fixated on revenge.
In Yoon Ha Lee’s 2016 Ninefox Gambit, heretics commandeer the strategic Fortress of Scattered Needles. The fortress may have been vulnerable to subversion, but it has heretofore withstood all attempts to conquer it by force. Nevertheless, the Hexarchate is determined to retake it. The obvious candidate to recover the facility is military genius Shuos Jedao. Jedao is dead (alas) but can be reanimated to serve. This is a risky move; the general is brilliant but also unreliable, perhaps even insane. He once massacred his own troops, for reasons he would never explain. The Hexarchate comes up with a cunning plan: resurrect Jedao, permit him to live for as long as it takes him to regain the fortress, then kill him. If only it were that simple….
In JY Neon Yang’s 2019 The Ascent to Godhood, the courtesan Lady Han provides for her old age by relieving her patrons of the occasional minor treasure. Assistant Minister Chong takes offense and plans a dire fate for Lady Han. This is the impetus Lady Han needs to ally with the current Protector’s middle daughter, Hekate. Soon Chong is history and Hekate is on her way to becoming Protector. Lady Han becomes Hekate’s most valuable ally.
One might think Chong’s example would underscore the need to keep Lady Han happy, but Hekate is too confident of her hold over the former courtesan to imagine that any mistreatment could alienate Lady Han. It just goes to show that even evil overlords have their blind spots.
No doubt you have your own favourite tales of downsizing gone awry. Feel free to mention them in comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is currently a finalist for the 2020 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.