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.
The Consuming Fire is the sequel to the 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel finalist and 2018 Locus Award-winning The Collapsing Empire—an epic space-opera novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from the Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi. Please enjoy this excerpt.
In the beginning was the lie.
The lie was that the Prophet Rachela, the founder of the Holy Empire of Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, had mystical visions. These visions prophesied both the creation and the necessity of that far-reaching empire of human settlements, strung out across light-years of space, connected only by the Flow, the metacosmological structure that humans compared to a river. They thought of it as a river mostly because human brains, originally designed for hauling their asses across the African savannah and not much upgraded since then, literally could not comprehend what it actually was, so, fine, “river” it was.
There was no mystical element involved in the so-called prophecies of Rachela at all. The Wu family ginned them up. The Wus, who owned and ran a consortium of businesses, some that built starships and others that hired out mercenaries, looked at the then-current political climate and decided the time was right to make a play for control of the Flow shoals, the places where humanly understandable space-time connected with the Flow and allowed spaceships to enter and exit that metaphorical river between the stars. The Wus understood well that creating tolls and monopolizing their extraction was a much more stable business model than building things, or blowing them up, depending on which of the Wus’ businesses one contracted. All they needed to do was to create a reasonable justification to make themselves the toll collectors.
In the meetings of the Wus, the prophecies were proposed, accepted, written, structured, A/B tested and honed before they were attached to Rachela Wu, a young scion of the family who was already well-known as the public charitable face of the Wu family and who also had a razor-sharp mind for marketing and publicity. The prophecies were a family project (well, the project of certain important members of the family—you wouldn’t just let anyone in on it, too many of the cousins were indiscreet and good only for drinking and being regional executives), but it was Rachela who sold them.
Sold them to whom? To the public at large, who needed to be convinced of the concept of the far-flung and disparate human settlements coming together under a single, unified governmental umbrella, incidentally to be headed by the Wus, who as it happened would collect levies on interstellar travel.
Not just Rachela, to be sure. In each star system, the Wus hired and bribed local politicians and publicly acceptable intelligentsia to promote the idea from a political and social point of view, to the sort of people who would like to imagine they needed a cogent and logical reason to toss away local sovereignty and control to a nascent political union that was already being constructed on imperial lines. But for the ones who either weren’t that intellectually vain, or simply preferred to get the idea of an interdependent union from an attractive young woman whose nonthreatening message of unity and peace just made them feel good, well, here was the newly dubbed Prophet Rachela.
(The Wus didn’t bother selling the mystical idea of the Interdependency to the other families and large corporations that they and their conglomerate moved among. For those they took another tack instead: Support the Wus’ plan for rent-seeking disguised as an altruistic exercise for nation-building and in return get a monopoly on a specific, durable good or service—in effect, trade their current businesses, with their annoyingly spikey boom-and-bust cycles, for a stable, predictable and ceaseless income stream, for all time. Plus a discount on the tolls the Wus were about to enact on Flow travel. In point of fact these weren’t discounts at all, because the Wus were planning to charge for a thing that used to be without cost to anyone. But the Wus assumed correctly that these families and companies would be so dazzled by the offer of an unassailable monopoly that they wouldn’t kick. Which turned out to be mostly correct.)
In the end it took the Wus less time than they expected to pull off their Interdependency scheme—within ten years the other families and companies were in line with their monopolies and promised noble titles, the paid-for politicians and intellectuals made their case, and the Prophet Rachela and her rapidly expanding Interdependent Church mopped up most of the rest of the public. There were holdouts and stragglers and rebellions that would go on for decades, but by and large the Wus had correctly picked their time, their moment, and their goal. And for the troublemakers, they had already decided that the planet called End, the human outpost in the newly imagined Interdependency that took the longest to get to, and to get back from, and had only a single Flow shoal in and out, would be the official dumping ground for anyone who got in their way.
Rachela, already the public and spiritual face of the Interdependency, was selected by (carefully orchestrated) acclamation as the first “emperox.” This new gender-neutral title had been chosen because market testing showed that it appealed to nearly all market segments as a fresh, new, and friendly spin on “emperor.”
This compact and highly elided history of the formation of the Interdependency may make it appear as if no one questioned the lie—that billions of people uncritically swallowed the fiction of Rachela’s prophecies. This was not at all accurate. People did question the lie, to the same amount as they would question any bit of pop spirituality marching toward an actual religion, and became alarmed as it gained acceptance, and followers, and respectability. Nor were observers of the time blind to the machinations of the Wu family as it made its play for imperial power. It was the focus of many handwringing editorials, news shows and occasionally attempted legislative action.
What the Wu family had over them was organization, and money, and allies in the form of the other now-noble families. The formation of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds was a charging musk ox, and the skeptical observers were a cloud of gnats. Neither did much damage to the other, and at the end there was an empire.
One other reason the lie worked is that once the Interdependency formed, the Prophet-Emperox Rachela declared her visions and prophecies had largely come to an end, for now. She devolved all functional power in the administration of the Interdependent Church to the archbishop of Xi’an and a committee of bishops, who knew a good deal when they saw one. They rapidly built an organization that shoved the explicitly spiritual aspect of the church to the side, to be the spice of the new religion, not its main course.
In other words, neither Rachela nor the church overplayed its spiritual hand in the critical early years of the Interdependency, when the empire was necessarily at its most fragile. Rachela’s imperial successors, none of whom added the “prophet” part of the title to their address, largely followed her example, staying out of church business except for the most ceremonial parts, both to the relief, and then as the centuries passed, to the expectation, of the church itself.
The lie of Rachela’s visions and prophecy was never acknowledged by the church, of course. Why should it have been? To begin, neither Rachela nor the Wu family ever explicitly said outside of family conferences that the spiritual side of the Interdependent Church was wholly concocted. One could not expect Rachela’s successors, either as emperox or in the church, to own up to it, or even to publicly air their own suspicions and undermine their own authority. After that it was simply a matter of waiting until the visions and prophecy became doctrine.
For another thing, Rachela’s visions and prophecies largely came true. This was a testament to the fact that the “prophecy” of the Interdependency, while expansive, was also practically achievable, if one had ambition, money, and a certain amount of ruthlessness, all of which the Wu family had, in bulk. Rachela’s prophecies did not ask people to change the way they lived, in the small-bore, every day sense. It just asked them to swap out their system of governance, so that those at the very very top could have even more power, control and money than they had before. As it turned out, this was not too much to ask.
Finally, as it happened, the Wu family wasn’t wrong. Humanity was widely dispersed, and of all the star systems that the Flow was known to touch, only one of them had a planet capable of sustaining human life in the open: End. All the humans in all the other systems lived in habitats on planets, moons, or floating in space, all monstrously vulnerable in their isolation, none of them entirely able to produce the raw materials needed for their existence or to manufacture all they would need to survive. Humanity needed interdependence to survive.
Whether it needed the Interdependency as the political, social and religious structure to implement that interdependence was highly questionable but, a millennium on, a moot point. The Wu family had envisioned a path to long-term, sustainable political and social power for itself and took it, using a lie as a tool to get everybody else to go along. Incidentally, the Wus also created a system under which most humans could have a comfortable life without the existential fear of isolation, entropy, the inevitable horrifying collapse of society and the death of everyone and everything they hold dear hanging over their heads every moment of every day.
The lie worked out for everyone, more or less. It was awesome for the Wus, pretty great for the rest of the noble class, and generally perfectly okay for most other folks. When a lie has negative consequences, people dislike it. But otherwise? They move on, and eventually the lie as a lie is forgotten, or in this case, codified as the foundation of religious practice and buffed and sanded into something prettier and more congenial.
The visions and prophecies of Rachela were a lie, which functioned exactly as intended. Which meant that visions and prophecy remained a doctrinal cornerstone of the Interdependent Church—from a prophet, mind you. There had been one, who had become the first emperox. There was nothing in church doctrine barring another emperox from claiming the power of vision or prophecy. Indeed, church doctrine deeply suggested that, as the head of the Interdependent Church, the visionary power of prophecy was the birthright of the emperoxs, all eighty-eight of whom to date could trace their lineage back to the Prophet-Emperox Rachela herself—who aside from being the mother of the Interdependency, was also the mother of seven children, including triplets.
Every emperox was doctrinally capable of having visions and making prophecies. It’s just that, excepting Rachela herself, none of them ever did.
None, that is, until now.
In the anteroom of the Chamber of the Executive Committee, the room given over at the imperial palace to the group of the same name, and of which she was the chair, Archbishop Gunda Korbijn abruptly paused, surprising her assistant, and bowed her head.
“Your Eminence?” her assistant, a young priest named Ubes Ici, said.
Korbijn held up her hand to quell the question, and stood there for a moment, collecting her thoughts.
“This used to be easier,” she said, under her breath.
Then she smiled ruefully. She had intended to offer up a small prayer, one for patience and calm and serenity in the face of what was likely to be a long day, and month, and possibly rest of her career. But what came out was something else entirely.
Well, and that was about par for the course these days, wasn’t it.
“Did you say something, Your Eminence?” Ici asked.
“Only to myself, Ubes,” Korbijn said.
The young priest nodded to this, and then pointed to the door of the chamber. “The other members of the executive committee are already here. Minus the emperox, of course. She’ll be arriving at the agreed time.”
“Thank you,” Korbijn said, looking at the door.
“Everything all right?” Ici asked, following his boss’s gaze. Ici was deferential but he wasn’t stupid, Korbijn knew. He was well aware of recent events. He couldn’t have missed them. No one could have. They had rocked the church.
“I’m fine,” Korbijn assured him. She moved toward the door and Ici moved with her, but Korbijn held up her hand again. “No one in this meeting but committee members,” she said, and then caught the unasked question on Ici’s face. “This meeting is likely to have a frank exchange of views, and it’s best those are kept in the chamber.”
“A frank exchange of views,” Ici repeated skeptically.
“Yes,” Korbijn said. “That’s the euphemism I’m going with at the moment.”
Ici frowned, then bowed and stepped aside.
Korbijn looked up, offered a prayer, for real this time, and then pushed through the doors into the chamber.
The chamber was large and excessively ornate in a way that only a room in an imperial palace could be, filled with the cruft of centuries of artistic gifts, patronage, and acquisitions by emperoxs with more money than taste. Along the far wall of the chamber a mural flowed, representing some of the great historical figures that had been part of the executive committee over the centuries. It was painted by the artist Lambert, who had painted the background in the style of the Italian Renaissance and the figures themselves in early Interdependency realism. From her earliest days on the committee, Korbijn had found the mural both an appalling mishmash, and its heroic representation of figures an almost hilarious over-representation of the importance of the executive committee, and what it did on a day-to-day basis.
No one’s going to put this committee in a mural, Korbijn thought, approaching the long table that featured ten ornate chairs. Eight of those chairs were already filled with the two other representatives of the church, three members of parliament, and three members representing the guilds and the nobility who controlled them. One of the remaining chairs, at one end of the table, was for her, as head of the committee. The other was for the emperox, currently Grayland II, the source of Korbijn’s current headache.
As she was reminded the very second she sat down in her seat.
“What the fuck is this about the emperox having visions?” said Teran Assan, scion of the House of Assan, and the newest member of the committee. He was a hasty (probably too-hasty, in Korbijn’s estimation) replacement for Nadashe Nohamapetan, who was currently in imperial custody for murder, treason and the attempted assassination of the emperox.
Korbijn missed her relatively polite presence. Nadashe may have been a traitor, but she had decent manners. Assan’s current outburst was, alas, standard operating procedure for him. He was one of those people who believed social graces were for the weak.
Korbijn looked around the table to see the other reactions to this outburst, which ranged from disgust to weary recognition that Assan’s behavior probably was setting new, low benchmarks for bad behavior.
“And a good morning to you, too, Lord Teran,” Korbijn said. “How good of you to start our meeting off with a round of pleasantries.”
“You want pleasantries while our emperox announces that she’s having religious delusions about the end of the Interdependency and the destruction of the guild system,” Assan said. “May I suggest, Your Eminence, that your sense of priorities is out of whack.”
“Insulting the other members of the committee is not a very effective way to work, Lord Teran,” said Upeksha Ranatunga, the ranking parliamentarian on the committee. Assan had been rubbing Ranatunga the wrong way from the moment he joined the committee. This took some effort, Korbijn knew. Ranatunga was the very model of the practical politician. She made it her business to get along with everybody, especially the people she loathed.
“Let me offer a rebuttal,” Assan said. “In the past month our beloved emperox has announced that she believes the Flow—our way to travel between stars—is collapsing, and trotted out some backwater scientist no one’s heard of to bolster her claim. This claim is fueling economic and social unrest, even as other scientists dispute the assertion. And now, in response to that, the emperox is claiming mystical communications.
“But Her Eminence here”—Assan waved at Korbijn—“wants to exchange pleasantries. Fine. Hello, Your Eminence. You are looking very well. Also, wasting time on pleasantries is stupid and unnecessary, and incidentally, in case you haven’t heard, the leader of the empire is having fucking visions, so maybe we should dispense with the pleasantries and focus on that, what do you say.”
“And what is your objection to these visions, Lord Teran?” Korbijn said, as pleasantly as possible, folding her hands together.
“Are you kidding?” Assan leaned forward in his chair. “One, it’s obvious that the emperox’s claiming visions because she’s getting pushback on the idea that the Flow is shutting down. She’s trying to do an end run around parliament and the guilds, which are resisting her. Two, so far, the church—your end of things, Your Eminence—is giving her cover to do just that. Three, if she is having visions and isn’t just using them as a convenient lever, then our young new emperox is in fact delusional, and that just might be a pressing issue. All of these need to be addressed, now.”
“The church isn’t giving the emperox cover,” said Bishop Shant Bordleon, who as the second-most junior member of the committee sat across from Assan.
“Really?” Assan shot back. “I haven’t heard a peep out of the church about it since Grayland gave her little speech in the cathedral two days ago. That’s just a few news cycles. You surely could have said something about it by now. A rebuttal, perhaps.”
“The emperox is head of the church,” Bordleon said, in a tone that suggested he was instructing a particularly stubborn child. “This isn’t some minor priest going rogue in a far-flung mining habitat who we can tell to get in line.”
“So it’s different for emperoxs,” Assan cracked, sarcastically.
“In fact, it is,” Korbijn said. “The emperox addressed the bishops formally, speaking ex cathedra, not in her capacity as the secular head of the empire but in her ecclesiastical person as the successor to the prophet. We can’t dismiss what she said in that context. Nor can we rebut it. The most we in the church can do is work with it. Interpret it.”
“Interpret visions.” Korbijn looked around the table. “The Interdependent Church was founded through the visions of the Prophet Rachela, who also became the first emperox of the Interdependency. The roles have been intertwined since the founding of the empire.” She focused on Assan. “Doctrinally speaking, Grayland is doing nothing controversial. The church, whatever its current nature, was founded on visions of a spiritual nature. Our doctrine accepts that the cardinal of Xi’an and Hub, as the head of the church, may have visions of a spiritual nature, just as Rachela did. And that these visions may be revelatory, and may affect doctrine.”
“And you expect us to go along with that,” Assan said.
“Who is the ‘us’ you are referring to?” Korbijn asked.
“The guilds, for one.” Assan pointed to Ranatunga. “Parliament, for another.”
“There are still laws for blasphemy,” Bordleon noted. “They’re even occasionally enforced.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient,” Assan said.
“Lord Teran has a point,” Ranatunga said, and Korbijn, for one, respected Ranatunga for being able to say that without stroking out. “Doctrinally correct or not, no emperox in memory has so actively laid claim to the religious mantle of head of the church. Certainly none have claimed visions.”
“You believe the timing is suspicious,” Korbijn said to Ranatunga.
“‘Suspicious’ is not the word I would use,” Ranatunga replied, politic as ever. “But I’m not blind to Grayland’s political situation, either. Lord Teran is correct. She’s disrupted the function of the government with her claims about the Flow. She’s panicking people. The answer to this is not to appeal to prophecy, but to science and reason.”
Korbijn frowned slightly at this. Ranatunga caught it and held out a placating hand. “This is not a criticism of the church or its doctrines,” she said. “But, Gunda, you have to admit it. This is not what emperoxs do. We need at the very least to ask her about it. Directly.”
A notification on Korbijn’s tablet pinged. She read it, and stood, prompting the others to stand as well. “You’re about to have your chance, Up. She’s here.”
Copyright © 2018 by John Scalzi
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