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Extended Excerpt: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

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The Last Emperox is the thrilling conclusion to the award-winning, New York Times and USA Today bestselling Interdependency series, an epic space opera adventure from Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi.

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction . . . and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people form impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization . . . or the last emperox to wear the crown?

Please enjoy this extended excerpt of  The Last Emperox, available 4/14/2020. 


PROLOGUE 

The funny thing was, Ghreni Nohamapetan, the acting Duke of End, actually saw the surface-to-air missile that slammed into his aircar a second before it hit. 

He had been talking to Blaine Turnin, his now-in-retrospect-clearly-not-very-good-at-his-job minister of defense, about the clandestine meeting they were about to have with a rebel faction who had promised to come to the duke’s side in the current civil war. As Ghreni had turned to say something to Turnin, his peripheral vision caught a flash of light, drawing his glance toward the thick port glass of the aircar, where the aforementioned surface-to-air missile was suddenly very prominent in the view. 

I think that’s a missile, is what Ghreni intended to say at that point, but he only got as far as saying “I,” and really only the very first phoneme of that very short word, before the missile slammed into the aircar and every thing, frankly, went completely to shit. 

In the fraction of a second that followed, and as the aircar suddenly changed its orientation on several axes, turning the untethered Blaine Turnin into a surprised and fleshy pinball careening around the surfaces of the aircar’s passenger cabin, Ghreni Nohamapetan, acting Duke of End, formulated several simultaneous thoughts that did not so much proceed through his brain as appear, fully formed and overlapping, as if Ghreni’s higher cognitive functions decided to release all the ballast at once and let Ghreni sort it out later, if there was a later, which, given that Blaine Turnin’s neck had just turned a disturbing shade of floppy, seemed increasingly unlikely. 

Perhaps it might be easier to describe these thoughts in percentage form, in terms of their presence in Ghreni’s theater of attention. 

To begin, there was Shit fuck fuck shit fuck shit fuck the fucking fuck shit fucking shit fuck hell, which was taking up roughly 89 percent of Ghreni’s attention, and, as his aircar was beginning to both spin and lose altitude, understandably so. 

A distant second to this, at maybe 5 percent, was How did the rebels know, we didn’t set this meeting until an hour ago, even I didn’t know I was going to be in this car, and also where the fuck are the antimissile countermea sures I am the chief executive of an entire planet and there’s a civil war going on you would think my security people would be a little more on the ball here. This was honestly a lot to process at the moment, so Ghreni’s brain decided to let this one sit unanswered. 

Coming in third, at maybe 4.5 percent of Ghreni’s cognitive attention, was I think I need a new minister of defense. Inasmuch as Blaine Turnin’s body was now presenting a shape that could only be described as “deeply pretzeled,” this was probably correct and therefore did not warrant any further contemplation.

Which left the fourth thought, which, while claiming only the meager remainder of Ghreni’s attention and cognitive power, was nevertheless a thought that Ghreni had thought before, and had thought often—indeed had thought often enough that one could argue that in many ways it defined Ghreni Nohamapetan and made him the man he was today, which was, specifically, a man violently captive to forces both gravitational and centrifugal. This thought was: 

Why me?

And indeed, why Ghreni Nohamapetan? What were the circumstances of fate that led him to this moment of his life, spinning wildly out of control, literally and existentially, trying to keep from vomiting on the almost-certain corpse of his now-very-probably-erstwhile minister of defense? 

This was a multidimensional question with several relevant answers. 

a) He was born;

b) Into a noble family with ambitions to rule the Interdependency, an empire of star systems that had existed for a millennium;

c) And which was connected by the Flow, a phenomenon Ghreni didn’t understand but which acted as a super-fast conduit between the star systems of the Interdependency;

d) All of which were taxed and controlled by the emperox, who ruled from Hub, the system through which nearly every Flow stream eventually routed;

e) That was, until a great shift in the Flow happened at some point in the near future, and then nearly every route would go through End, which was currently the least accessible system in the Interdependency;

f) Which is why Ghreni’s sister Nadashe wanted a Nohamapetan on End to usurp the ruling duke, but she couldn’t do it because she was busy trying to marry Rennered Wu, next in line for the imperial throne, and Ghreni’s brother Amit was running the House of Nohamapetan’s businesses;

g) So fine, whatever, it had to be Ghreni; 

h) Who went to End, and secretly fomented a civil war even as he publicly allied himself with the previous duke;

i) Who he then assassinated, pinning the assassination on the Count Claremont, who Ghreni assumed was just the imperial tax assessor;

j) And became acting duke by promising to end the civil war, which he could totally do because after all he was the one who was funding the rebels;

k) But it turned out the Count Claremont was also a Flow physicist whose research determined that the Flow streams were collapsing, not shifting;

l) Which turned out to be correct when the Flow stream between End and Hub, the only Flow stream out of the End system, collapsed;

m) The count then offered, in the spirit of pragmaticism, to join forces with Ghreni to prepare End for the imminent isola- tion caused by the collapse of both the Flow and also the Interde pen dency, which relied on the Flow for its existence;

n) Ghreni didn’t take the count up on this offer for, uuuuuhhhhh, reasons, and instead disappeared the count;

o) This pissed off Vrenna Claremont, the count’s daughter and heir, who rather inconveniently was also a former Imperial Marine officer with lots of allies and who knew the details of her father’s Flow research;

p) Which she then told every one about;

q) Who were pissed that the new acting duke had kept them in the dark concerning this whole “Flow collapse” thing;

r) And thus this new civil war;

s) Against him;

t) Which featured new rebels;

u) Shooting missiles at his goddamned aircar. 

In Ghreni’s defense, he had never asked to be born.

But this was cold comfort as Ghreni’s aircar slammed into the surface streets of Endfall, End’s capital city, rolling several times before coming to a full and complete stop. 

Ghreni, whose eyes had been closed during the entire ground crash, opened them to find his aircar upright. Blaine Turnin’s body was in the seat opposite him, quiet, composed and restful, looking for all the world like he had not been a human maraca bean for the last half minute. Only Turnin’s head, tilted at an angle that suggested the bones in his neck had been replaced by overcooked pasta, suggested that he might not, in fact, be taking a small and entirely refreshing nap. 

Ten seconds later the doors of Ghreni’s shattered aircar were wrenched open and the members of his security detail— none of whose aircars were apparently even targeted what the actual hell, Ghreni’s mind screamed at him— unclasped him from his seat belts and roughly dragged him out of the car, hustling him into a second car that would make a direct beeline back to the ducal palace. Ghreni’s final view into his ruined vehicle was of Turnin’s body slumping to the floor of the cab and making itself into a human area rug. 

“Don’t you think it’s suspicious that none of the other aircars were targeted?” Ghreni said, later, as he paced back and forth in a secured room of his palace that lay far underground, in a subterranean wing designed to withstand attacks for weeks and possibly months. “All the aircars were identical. We didn’t file a flight plan. No one knew we were going to be in the sky. And yet, bam, the missile hit one car, and it was mine. I have to assume that my security detail is compromised. I have to assume there are traitors in my midst.” 

Jamies, Count Claremont, sighed from his chair, set down the book he was reading, and rubbed his eyes. “You understand my sympathy for your plight is somewhat limited, yes?” he said, to Ghreni. 

Ghreni stopped pacing and remembered to whom he was spinning his dark conspiracies. “I just don’t know who to trust anymore,” he said. 

“Probably not me,” Jamies suggested.

“But am I wrong?” Ghreni pressed. “ Doesn’t it sound like there’s a traitor in my security?” 

Jamies looked wistfully at his book for a moment, and Ghreni followed his gaze to the somewhat tattered hardcover with the title of The Count of Monte Cristo. Ghreni assumed it was a historical biography and wondered idly what system Monte Cristo was in. Then he looked back at the count. 

“No, you’re probably not wrong,” Jamies said, finally. “You probably do have a traitor. At least one. Probably several.” 

“But why?

“Well, and this is just a hypothesis, it might have something to do with the fact that you’re an incompetent who assassinated his way to the dukedom and has lied to his subjects about the imminent collapse of civilization, which, incidentally, you have to date done nothing to prepare for in any meaningful way.” 

“Nobody but you knows I assassinated the duke,” Ghreni said. 

“Fine, then that leaves ‘an incompetent who lied to his subjects about the imminent collapse of civilization,’ and so on.” 

“Do you really think I’m incompetent?”

The count stared at Ghreni for a moment before proceeding further. “Why do you come to see me, Ghreni?” he asked. 

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why do you come see me? I’m your prisoner and a political liability to you. Your capture and disappearance of me is one of the primary reasons you’re fighting this current civil war of yours. If you were smart . . . well, if you were smart you wouldn’t have done pretty much any of the things you’ve done. But in the context of me, now, if you were smart you would have kept your distance and let me rot in quiet. Instead you come here and visit me every few days.” 

“You offered to help me, once,” Ghreni reminded him.

“That was before you decided the best course of action was to shove me down a hole,” Jamies countered. “Not to mention to continue to frame me for an assassination you performed, and to use that assassination to disenfranchise my chosen heir. How is that working out for you, by the way? You think Vrenna has been slowed down any by being stripped of her titles and lands?” 

“I don’t understand your daughter.”

“How so?”

Ghreni motioned toward the Count Claremont. “ You’re a scientist. You’re not . . . rebel material.” 

“I wasn’t,” the count agreed, “until you made me one. And as for Vrenna, you never met her mother. If you had, you’d understand better. Not that it matters, since, as with me, you were the one who made her into a rebel, and a pretty effective one.” 

“I don’t know that I would agree with that.”

“Yes, of course, you’re correct, an entirely ineffective rebel leader managed to infiltrate your security detail, plant at least one traitor, learn your secret travel itinerary and send a missile directly into your aircar and no others. Sorry, I was confused about that.” The count reached again toward his book. 

“I need someone to talk to,” Ghreni said, suddenly.

Jamies looked over toward the (acting) duke. “I beg your pardon?” 

“You asked why I keep visiting you,” Ghreni said. “I need someone to talk to.” 

“You have an entire governmental apparatus to talk to,” Jamies reminded him. 

“Which has traitors in it.”

“Let me remind you that I’m not exactly on your side.”

“No, but”—Ghreni motioned to the room— “ you’re not going anywhere.” 

The count paused again, as if to consider how best to respond to the reminder that he was a prisoner, then picked up his book. “Maybe you should just get a therapist.” 

“I don’t need a therapist.”

“I’d get a second opinion on that if I were you.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

“At the very least, don’t you have friends, Ghreni? Even fake ones?” 

Ghreni opened his mouth to retort to the fake friends crack and then paused. 

Jamies, book open, studied Ghreni carefully. “Come now, my usurping duke,” he said. “I used to see you surrounded by an entourage, back in the days when you were the duke’s advisor. A whole tranche of schmoozers and flatterers. You could schmooze and flatter with the best of them. Now that you’re the duke you should be able to pick and choose your hangers-on.” 

“I have friends,” Ghreni asserted.

“Indeed.” The count raised his book. “Then maybe you should bother them.” 

“You don’t want anything from me.”

That got a raised eyebrow. “Actually, I want you to resign your dukedom and let me go home.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I understand that,” Jamies said, dryly. “I’m just pointing out to you that your assessment is inaccurate. But, yes. In terms of your dukedom, there’s nothing I want from you.” 

Ghreni spread open his hands. “Which means I can talk to you.” 

“I still vote for the therapist.”

“You could still help me,” Ghreni said. “Help me prepare for what comes next with the Flow.” 

“You mean, despite the fact that I am your prisoner and you are fighting a civil war against my daughter, who you would kill if the opportunity presented itself.” 

“She just tried to kill me.”

“The fact you are trying to reduce a civil war to ‘she started it’ does not fill me with confidence,” Jamies said. “And besides that, it’s too late. The moment I could have helped you was months ago, when I made you the offer despite the fact you had murdered the duke and framed me for it. Dealing with that would not have been comfortable, but it could have been navigated. This civil war is something that neither you nor I can navigate anymore. You’ve angered too many people who were inclined to be your enemy, and too many of the people who might have been inclined to be your friend. Even if you produced me now, and even if I were inclined to help you, no one would believe after all this time that I was being anything other than coerced. And even if Vrenna believed it and changed sides— which she wouldn’t, by the way— the others would continue on without her.” 

“So what do you suggest?”

“I believe I already mentioned you resigning and letting me go.” 

“Besides that.”

“I suggest you work on your escape plan and disguises,” Jamies said. “ Because I suspect the remainder of your time as duke is going to be short and violent. You already have traitors in your midst. Unless you can make some new friends fast, you’re finished.” The count returned at last to his book. 

“For the last time, Your Grace, the Imperial Marines are not going to get involved in a domestic dispute,” Sir Ontain Mount said to Ghreni, after the (acting) duke had summoned the imperial bureaucrat from the space station where he and, incidentally, the Imperial Marines Ghreni wanted were stationed. Mount and Ghreni were taking tea in the (acting) duke’s office, which was furnished almost completely as it had been when the previous duke had used it, because Ghreni hadn’t bothered to swap out the accoutrements. “I do not need to remind you that current imperial policy dictates that the marines are to be used strictly for defense of interstellar trade, and for initiatives determined on the imperial level. That means the emperox directly.” 

“There is no interstellar trade,” Ghreni said, “and no way to contact the emperox about any initiatives. Your marines are sitting idle.” 

“The Flow streams coming into the system are operational for now, so trade is still incoming, and the emperox may still deliver orders,” Mount said, blandly. “And for the latter part, sir, Imperial Marines do not get involved in domestic disputes in order to get a little exercise. In any event, when I agreed to your taking the mantle of Duke of End in an acting capacity, it was on the understanding that you were to quell the civil war here on the planet.” 

“I did!”

“For roughly three weeks,” Mount observed. “One might say that wasn’t so much an end of a civil war as a breather between campaigns.” He sipped at his tea. 

Ghreni ground his teeth because he knew Mount was not actually as obtuse as he was pretending to be; the imperial bureaucrat knew full well that the players in the current civil war were entirely different and had different goals. But neither was he interested in getting his precious marines muddy with exertion on Ghreni’s behalf. This was Mount’s not-exactly-subtle way of saying, You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out of it.

“At least allow me to borrow from your armory, then,” Ghreni said. “Inasmuch as the material there is currently resting.” 

“‘Borrow’?” Mount chuckled a bit, discreetly, into his tea. “My dear duke, one does not borrow bullets or missiles. Once they are used, they are spent.” 

“I’ll be happy to purchase what I need.”

“What happened to that shipment of weapons you rescued from those pirates all those months ago?” Mount asked. “The shipment that was meant to come to the previous duke but found itself waylaid? My understanding was you had liberated it from the pirates’ perfidious possession.” 

Ghreni indulged in a bit more teeth grinding; he knew Mount knew the answer to this question as well, and was additionally annoyed by the bureaucrat’s snide alliteration. “Some of that shipment was destroyed in an attack. Much of the rest was stolen by the current rebels.” 

“That’s unfortunate. That shipment really appears to have been cursed.” 

“I agree,” Ghreni said, and sipped his own tea to avoid an outburst. 

“It’s possible the missile that knocked you out of the sky was part of that shipment, Your Grace.” 

“The thought had occurred to me.”

“How ironic.” Mount set down his tea. “It was unfortunate that your predecessor was not able to finish off his civil war, and that you therefore inherited some of his troubles, and perhaps added some new troubles of your own. But what stood for him stands for you. The Imperial Marines must remain neutral in this dispute. I am sure you will understand.” 

The door to the (acting) duke’s office opened and an assis- tant came through bearing a tablet, which she presented to Ghreni. “A high-priority message, Your Grace,” she said. “Encrypted. Your eyes only. It’s meant to be read immediately on receipt.” 

“Something serious?” Mount asked.

Ghreni looked at the public headers of the message. “ Family business,” he said, to Mount. “Please excuse me for a moment.” 

“Of course.” Mount reached for his tea. Ghreni confirmed his biometrics and the message opened, in text, from his sister Nadashe. 

Ghreni— 

If you’re reading this then things have gone poorly on this end. What it is I can’t tell you because this was written in advance. But what ever has happened, I’ve put the backup plan into effect. 

Which is: I’m sending you a troop carrier, the Prophecies of Rachela. It is fully armed and carries 10,000 Imperial Marines. Its commander and most of his executive team are ours; those who aren’t probably won’t survive the voyage. It should arrive not long after this message. 

If you haven’t finished up your little civil war on End, the Rachela will help you mop up. It would be helpful if you were the Duke of End by the time the Rachela arrives, but if you aren’t then you will be by the time the Rachela is through. 

Then the commander of the Rachela will take command of the Imperial Marines there, whether the current com- mand structure helps or not. Then the two of you will take control of the Flow shoals and prepare for our arrival, which will happen one way or another. 

You have a lot to do, little brother. Get it done. And don’t fuck it up. 

See you soon,

Nadashe 

Ghreni grinned at the note and closed it, which deleted the mail and then reformatted the tablet, and then bricked it, because you could never be too careful. 

“Good news?”

“Excuse me?” Ghreni said, to Mount, setting the now-inert tablet on the table. 

“You were smiling,” Mount said. “I was asking if it was good news from home.” 

“You could say that.”

“Well, good,” Mount said. “You could do with a spot of good news, if you don’t mind me saying so.” He took a sip of his tea.

Ghreni imagined Sir Ontain Mount as the dead man he would be when the Rachela arrived, and smiled. 

And while he did that several thoughts ran through his head, sequentially rather than plopped there, this time. They were: 

Fucking hell, I’m saved; and

The Rachela better get here pretty damn soon; and

How in the world did things go poorly for Nadashe? And, finally,

What the hell is going on out there, anyway?

Copyright ©John Scalzi 2020

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6 thoughts on “Extended Excerpt: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

  1. “In the fraction of a second that followed, and as the aircar suddenly changed its orientation on several axes, turning the untethered Blaine Turnin into a surprised and fleshy pinball careening around the surfaces of the aircar’s passenger cabin, Ghreni Nohamapetan,acting Duke of End, formulated several simultaneous thoughts that did not so much proceed through his brain as appear, fully formed and overlapping, as if Ghreni’s higher cognitive functions decided to release all the ballast at once and let Ghreni sort it out later, if there was a later, which, given that Blaine Turnin’s neck had just turned a disturbing shade of floppy, seemed increasingly unlikely.”
    Love it or loathe it, THAT whopper of a sentence is nothing less than Peak Current Scalzi! I love it, but I can easily imagine the horror it would evoke in the hearts of so many would-be “editors” of SF. Bravo, Mr. S.

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