This was the third prison he’d been in — not counting temporary lockups, like the cells in the basement of the IRS building — over the past four months, and for a prison it wasn’t too bad. It was cold, but that was a common feature of prisons and lockups both, in his experience; the temperature was set by regulation, no doubt. He wished he had his kathir suit, but that had been taken the morning after his arrest. He’d refused to take it off until they threatened to cut it off; at that point he’d still had some dim hope of eventual release, and being at the epicenter of what amounted to an atomic explosion would have made that moot, at best. He’d skinned out of the suit and handed it over, receiving in exchange the first of a series of loose, sloppy, orange boiler suits like what he was now wearing.

The bunk had a mattress and linens, the toilet had a seat, and there was a mirror over the washbasin. Apart from the locked door, it was as good as many of the quarters he’d had in the Navy, and better than most shipboard ones. The barred window would have been irrelevant if he’d never served on Llapaaloapalla; windows in enlisted quarters had been rare in any case, and nonexistent on the ships.

He lay on the bunk, engaged in the mental exercise he’d devised. He was trying to remember every word anyone had said in his presence in ferassi, searching for cognates and similarities in the Trade and puzzling out the meaning. The exercise also served to call back Ander and Alper’s faces as he’d first seen them, as still and unresponsive as a statues, and with less expression. After a couple of months of this he could almost react coldly to the memory.

The television, a flat panel set into the wall behind bulletproof glass, flashed images that Peters ignored. The Prisoners’ Rights Act of 2019 required that he be provided televised entertainment, but nobody in his economic stratum had had one when he was a boy, and he’d never developed the habit. Apparently nobody in that stratum did now, either, because the programming was a mixture of “news” and “business information”, pornography of various grades that seemed aimed primarily at male homosexuals, and depictions of people whose lives included cars, telephones, computers, running water, and full-time electrical power. The first category he found occasionally diverting; the second totally failed to engage his interest; and the third served only to emphasize that he had less in common with the people depicted than he did with lusi Velix. Another prisoner, in the last place but one, had shown him how to bugger the earphones so that they looked OK at casual inspections but didn’t work; after that he wasn’t even distracted by the sound.

The first two months of his confinement had been spent in a series of temporary cells in the IRS’s basement, white-painted concrete boxes with slabs for bunks and no movable parts anywhere, brightly lit twenty-four hours a day. From there they’d brought him out for interviews, interrogations, and visits with “his lawyer.” The Taxpayers’ Rights Act of 2019, as amended, required the Internal Revenue to provide him with representation; the lawyer they’d assigned looked younger than Carstairs, spoke with a lisp, and seemed to have no interest in his case beyond getting his tax returns for 2053, ’54, and ’55 filled out and filed. 2053 was easy; he’d been in the Navy the whole time, and his only other income had been his living allowance from the Grallt. After much conferring and reading of instruction pages, the lawyer had grudgingly agreed that the allowance had been given for the convenience of his employers, not for his benefit, and while it had to be reported it wasn’t taxable. That was that. He was due a refund of $47.13.

2054 was harder, and 2055 should have been impossible, but the Feds had an astounding amount of information, some of it quite detailed, about what had gone on aboard Grallt Trade Ship Llapaaloapalla during the last uzul and a half. It wasn’t sorted worth a damn — that was part of what they wanted him to do — and there were many lacunae, but the data they had painted a surprisingly complete picture. Informers, of course, but who?

It didn’t really matter, but the problem was intellectually challenging. His interrogators — an alphabet soup he made no attempt to distinguish among, having decided long ago that assholes were interchangeable parts — were pleased by his diligence. He sketched in a rough timeline and started assigning events, cheating when he pleased on the reports he turned in. “Correcting” the times of occurrence, and sometimes the order of occurrence, of some of the events that had been reported made a satisfactory way of papering over the gaps; he had no intention of giving them any new information if he didn’t have to, but he kept the real events in order in his own mind.

Jacks. Had to be. Smiling, gregarious Jacks, who was slightly older than was really credible for his rate, and who had established a close relationship with a Grallt. Se’en wasn’t stupid, quite the contrary, but she liked to gossip, and didn’t pay attention — and she’d been part of the communications and translation section for the whole voyage. If she’d told Jacks everything she knew or surmised, the pattern of information the Feds had matched what Jacks would have known. The name went on his list. The chances of his getting to act on that list were minimal to nonexistent; he kept it anyway.

At the end of the form-filling and information-sorting, his total tax obligation for ’54 and ’55 came to $178,714,231.17; they offered to strike the seventeen cents, making the amount come out in round dollars, but Peters refused out of whimsy. Penalties, interest, and a whopping fine brought the total, as of the arbitrarily selected cutoff date of 1 June 2056, to just a trifle under a billion dollars — $982,211,704.84, to be exact. Six and a half percent interest added over five million dollars a month, almost two hundred thousand a day. Five bucks a breath, more or less. Well, the cost of living was outrageous these days.

Tax offenses weren’t criminal offenses. The IRS attorney made a big point of that, that a tax offender wasn’t considered a felon under the law, but as far as Peters could see the only effect the rule had was that the Feds could restrict his access to attorneys and didn’t have to worry about criminal-law rules of evidence, which his new associates were glad to inform him about. The penalties were, if anything, worse, except that it didn’t seem they could take him out and shoot him, despite several individuals who apparently would have preferred to do just that.

They’d offered to accept a handwritten check. When he’d pointed out that his assets in dollars amounted to approximately one day’s interest — his back pay for the voyage — they’d generously offered to accept ornh. At par. He’d laughed in their faces at that. Individuals differed, but the IRS as an institution had no sense of humor, and looked down from an awesome height on everybody. He’d been tossed immediately into solitary for “contempt”, which he had to admit was the simple truth.

Writing the check would have been an offense, anyway, one that could earn him another whopping fine and another five years in the slammer; it wouldn’t be paid, which he knew — that was what was illegal. Everybody else knew, too, at least everybody who had net access.

He kept the recording in his net files, not because he didn’t have it memorized, but because Prethuvenigis had arranged for Ander and Alper to be in the background, carrying the babies, and it was the only memento he had. The press conference had included the captains and Trade-organization heads of all of the Trade ships in orbit, the captain of Therzin Vee, and an individual he’d first thought was Granpap. That was astonishing enough, but then the caption had come up, identifying the man as Candor Zin. The media thought the others were more interesting, identifying the ferassi only as a “mystery man”, but to Peters it seemed that having the de’pa’olze of Zin pa’ol appear in public should have meant that stars moved, or at least changed color.

The only one who spoke was Prethuvenigis, and the Trader had simply risen, looked directly at the camera, and delivered what the net called the Galactic Edict:

We will not treat with the United States of America.

We will not deal, negotiate, bargain, or knowingly speak with any official, citizen, or agent of the United States of America in any capacity.

There was more, a lot of it, but the bottom line was that the United States was to be isolated, by force if necessary. Zifthkakik in the possession of U.S.citizens or agents were deactivated, and were required to be turned in, on pain of detonation in place. Vehicles traveling to or from U.S. destinations were restricted to a maximum altitude of a trifle over sixty-five thousand feet. American ships, airplanes, and people wouldn’t be molested unless they attempted to interfere, in which case the bür forces on orbit were charged with abating the nuisance. Technology or monetary transfers to the benefit of Americans were forbidden, with bloodthirsty penalties attached. A special exception let Grandpap keep his lights and power. The Edict would continue in force until John Peters was delivered, intact, to the Grallt, and the United States foreswore all claims. If Peters died in captivity, the Grallt and their allies would see to it that as many Americans as possible gave him escort to Valhalla.

The politicians, and the newsreaders who interviewed them, thought it amusing. “It can’t last,” one of said, smiling in bumptious self-confidence shared by the others on the panel.

For a moment he’d entertained the hope that the last provision might influence his captors toward an early release, but the IRS took the firm view that events occurring outside the United States were irrelevant — unless they could find an excuse to levy a tax on them, of course. His sentence, as initially handed down, added up to a century or so. He was actually more sorry for other Americans than he was for himself about that. It meant that, in fifty or sixty years, they’d carry him out, and rocks would begin falling from the sky soon after. Prethuvenigis did not bluff, and the bür shared one thing with Americans: they enjoyed watching things go boom.

Help, or at least amelioration, had come from an unexpected source. Harold Carstairs had, in fact, been promoted; legal fiction or no, he’d “captured” Peters before witnesses, and the regulations required it. Carstairs had an uncle, approaching Granpap’s age, whose wife’s maiden name was Briggs; her brother’s son, Sheldon Briggs, was an attorney living in Hartford, Connecticut, specializing in tax law. Sheldon Briggs’s brother, Lawrence, was deceased, he and his wife having died while sailboating in the Bahamas, and Lawrence and Ethel Briggs’s only heir was a daughter, Evelyn, who had joined the Navy and become a fighter pilot.

This unlikely chain of circumstances had resulted, to Peters’s astonishment, in his having both expert legal representation and a little medium-weight political influence. It wasn’t nearly enough to get him off — the IRS wasn’t about to give in that easily — but it was enough to get his sentence reduced. Ten years was the final number, with credit for time served, and the possibility of parole if he was well-behaved and cooperative.

Granpap died in 2060, the notice coming in a formal letter from the West Virginia State Coroner’s Office describing the cause of death as “complications resulting from old age.” That was followed more or less immediately by a letter from the Internal Revenue, specifying a long list of personal property seized and its value placed against the tax lien. The house, and the ten acres of property around it, didn’t appear anywhere on the list, and a few months later the deed to it showed up in his mail; along with it came a computer-generated note to the effect that the Taxpayers’ Rights Act of 2019, as amended 2021, required the IRS to leave him in possession of any property whose income might be seized to pay outstanding liens. He shook his head and stuffed the note away with the rest of the paperwork. The income from ten acres of side-hill West Virginia wasn’t going to pay the interest. Of course, selling it outright wouldn’t have dented the lien, either.

Another letter, this one in vanishingly-rare hardcopy laden with official seals and stamps, notified him with pompous precision that the zifthkakik and two weapons, previously the property of Donald Peters, had been surrendered to the Grallt.

He was well-behaved and cooperative, or at least able to simulate those qualities, so they handed him fifty eagles and a new suit of clothes and escorted him to the gate after a mere eight years eleven months. They also handed him a court order, specifically enjoining him not to leave the jurisdiction of the United States until the lien was paid, and informing him that, first, any income would be seized to that end, and second, he would be under surveillance to insure that he complied with the order.

He sighed, looked up at the hot South Carolina sky, and began walking. He had a house in West Virginia. Just a matter of one foot in front of the other.

Chapter 49A >>>