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“Let’s be clear about what’s going on,” Deran Wu said. “It’s the end of civilization as we know it. And it’s going to be great for business.”
On the top floor of the Guild House building, in the great conference room set aside for the use of the governing board of the House of Wu, where Deran Wu stood at the head of the immense table and offered this opening line, the governing board of the House of Wu, to a person, stared at Deran as if he had just ripped an enormous fart directly into their faces.
Come on, Deran thought, that was a great line.
Deran gave no outward indication that he was displeased his line fell flat. There was no need to. For the first time in his career with the House of Wu, Deran was not particularly concerned with what the members of the governing board of the house—each of them one of his cousins to varying degrees of separation—thought about him, or his plans, or his snappy lines. This was because Deran was now managing director of the House of Wu.
And not just managing director. That role had been previously contingent on the sufferance of the board of directors, whose opinion about anything, from the competence of the managing director down to what should be served for lunch, could be most charitably described as fractious. Deran Wu’s managing directorship, on the other hand, was immune from board disapproval, because Jasin Wu, the previous managing director, had attempted a coup on the emperox. The emperox, quite reasonably, believed this cast suspicion on the entire governing board of the house.
At least, this was the excuse.
More accurately, Deran Wu made board noninterference in his managing directorship a condition of handing over every bit of information he had on said coup, which he had been an active participant in, up to and including the assassination of one of the managing directors of one of the other great merchant houses and the attempted murder of one of the emperox’s closest friends and rumored lover. The emperox, pressed for time and preferring the devil she knew, gave her assent.
And here we were, at the first full House of Wu board meeting since the recent unpleasantness, with Deran, previously not necessarily in line for the managing directorship, ever, now running things, whether the board liked it or not.
Standing there, it occurred to Deran that they probably didn’t like it at all. Which might explain why the line went over so poorly.
“Why are we here?” came a question, from far down the very long table at which the directors, the cousins of Wu, sat.
“Pardon?” Deran said, looking down the table to see which cousin it was.
It was Tiegan Wu, who ran the small arms division of the House of Wu armaments concern. “I said, ‘Why are we here?’” she repeated. “You are now the dictator of the House of Wu. This is the governing board. Former governing board, I should say. Now it’s powerless. What was the purpose of calling us here?”
“Besides to gloat,” said Nichson Wu, who ran the automated security concepts division, i.e., robots with guns.
“Yes, the gloating part had occurred to me,” Tiegan said, staring at Deran.
“My cousins,” Deran said, gesturing in a way that he hoped conveyed reassurance. “I remind you that these are extraordinary times. Jasin, our former managing director, tried to overthrow the emperox. She was not convinced that the governing board was not complicit in the coup attempt. She does not know you as I know you.”
“Does she know you’re completely full of shit?” asked Belment Wu, who ran warship construction. Belment had never been Deran’s biggest fan.
“She knows I, at least, can be trusted,” Deran replied. This got a snort from Belment.
Proster Wu, to the immediate right of Deran, cleared his throat. Proster was arguably the most powerful person in the room because, among other things, he oversaw the entire security division. Which meant, quite literally, that he had the most guns. Traditionally, the Wus who headed up the security division never stood for the general directorship. They didn’t have to. They were the powers behind the throne, as it were. When Proster cleared his throat, everyone, including Deran, shut up and looked at him.
“Deran,” Proster said, “let’s not waste each other’s time, shall we? You’re managing director because you betrayed Jasin and blackmailed the emperox into giving you the job. She also let you cut all of us”—Proster nodded to the board—“out of the decision-making for the House of Wu. Well played. But don’t pretend that we don’t know that, or that we don’t know you were just as complicit as Jasin in that stupid attempted coup. Don’t insult our intelligence. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough,” Deran said, after a moment.
Proster nodded and turned to face the rest of the table. “As for why we’re here, it’s simple.” He pointed at Deran. “Our new managing director is not entirely stupid. He knows that even if the emperox has given him complete control of the House of Wu, that ‘control’ is an illusion. He doesn’t have a power base in this room. He doesn’t have enough allies outside of it. And as he correctly notes”—Proster swiveled back to Deran—“the end of human civilization is coming. He doesn’t have time to wait us out. Not if he wants to implement the plans he so clearly has and needs our cooperation to realize. Accurate?”
Not quite, Deran thought. He was not nearly as unprepared as Proster thought. Deran had quite a little list of people, mostly other Wu cousins, who would be delighted to cut throats if it meant they were put in charge of an actual division at the House of Wu. Hell, Proster’s head was first on the chopping block if it came to that. There wasn’t a Wu cousin in this room who wouldn’t strangle their own grandmother—and several other grandmothers, why be stingy—in order to run security, especially now that the managing directorship was locked up for the near future.
Proster had been in his directorship too long; he’d forgotten how hungry an ambitious cousin could be. He should have remembered this. He’d railroaded Finnu Wu, the previous security director, right out of her chair, and well done that had been, too. Finnu ended up retiring to another system entirely, so as not to be reminded, on a daily basis, of her ignominious unseating. Deran knew more about Proster’s own set of vices and missteps than probably anyone else, Proster included, and would be happy to share that information with whatever Wu cousin would step up.
So, no, Deran was not quite as without a power base or allies as Proster was attempting to posit. More accurately, Deran was confident he could acquire both, in time.
But time wasn’t on his side. Proster was right about that.
Time wasn’t on anyone’s side, anymore.
So Deran nodded at Proster and said, “Accurate.”
“We all understand each other,” Proster said. “Good. Then tell us, Deran, how the end of civilization is somehow going to be good for the House of Wu.”
“It’s simple, really.” Deran said. “The House of Wu has monopolies on shipbuilding and armaments and security. What are the things that are going to be needed as the Flow streams continue to collapse?”
“Food,” Tiegan Wu said.
“Water,” said Nichson.
“Medical supplies,” added Belment.
Deran waved these away impatiently. “You’re missing the point.”
“People starving is not the point?” asked Tiegan.
Deran pointed. “Close. People starving is not the point. People who are afraid of starving is. Over the next few years the Flow streams are going to collapse. People are going to be scared. This empire is called ‘the Interdependency’ after all. Every human habitation is by design dependent on others. This was fine when the Flow was stable. As it becomes less stable, so do the political and social systems of the Interdependency. Those systems are going to need to be propped up.”
“By security forces and arms,” Proster said.
“Until the security forces get scared too, because their food is running out like everyone else’s,” Tiegan said.
“Well, actually, we have that covered,” said Nichson, i.e., the “robots with guns” cousin.
“The point is, unrest is coming,” Deran said. “Heightened unrest. Sustained unrest.”
“And we want to make money off the chaos,” Tiegan said.
“We want to offer the ability to hold off chaos as long as possible,” Deran replied. “The unrest will happen. It’s already happening. It’s inevitable. But ‘inevitable’ doesn’t have to mean immediate. We can buy time for system governments. Or more accurately, they can buy that time from us. Because, yes, we want to make money off of that.”
“For as long as the money is good,” said Lina Wu-Gertz, near the far end of the table. Lina ran the resale division, which sold used spaceships or the ships that were built but never used because the intended owner never took delivery. “When civilization ends, money’s not going to be any use.”
“Civilization isn’t going to end,” Deran said.
“Did I miss something?” Belment said. “Did you not just stand there and say civilization is ending?”
“I said, ‘civilization as we know it.’” Deran reached down to the table, picked up a remote, and pressed a button on it. The wall behind him came to life, showing a green and blue planet.
“That’s End,” Proster observed.
“That’s civilization,” Deran corrected.
Copyright © 2020 by John Scalzi