Spring rain lashed the windows, and the wind tossed the branches in Lafayette Square across the street. The trees were starting to bud out, and everybody had told him to look forward to cherry-blossom season, but if the rain and wind didn’t let up soon there wouldn’t be any blossoms to look at.

A disappointing cherry-blossom season made a perfect metaphor for how things were going otherwise. Despite nearly two months of crash course he still had no idea how these people reasoned, if they did. He’d always known about concepts like “sovereignty” somewhere in the mishmash of irrelevancies he’d learned in his lifetime, but the people he’d been dealing with had them so thoroughly ingrained in their thought processes that explaining to them that the Grallt, and the rest of the kree, not only didn’t use them, but didn’t approve of them, was blank-look material. The typical reaction seemed to be a brief stunned expression, a shake of the head, and a return to the original line of thought, as if he’d described a direction as “yellow”: Does Not Compute. It didn’t help that it was an election year, and his interlocutors were walking on eggs, fearful of doing or saying something that might disturb the uneasy balance of power between the Democratic-Progressives and the Democratic-Conservatives, thereby bringing the awful wrath of both factions down on their heads.

“Good morning, John,” said Ander as she emerged from the bedroom.

“Hello, lovely lady,” he told her, and took her in his arms for the first time in at least fifteen minutes, being careful not to push painfully on her swelling belly.

“I don’t feel lovely,” she grumped. “I feel swollen and gross, and everything hurts.”

“You are a lovely lady,” he said firmly. “Your depa’olze says so, and the depa’olze‘s word is law.”

That wasn’t at all how things were managed in the Peters pa’ol, but it was enough to make her smile and offer a kiss. He took the kiss, returned it, and gave her another squeeze. “How’s Alper feelin’?”

“As well as can be expected. She’ll be out in a few moments.” Ander looked down at herself, expression rueful. “I hate this part. I truly do believe that the reason for it is to make the woman look forward to the pain so it can be over with.”

“You’re probably right,” Alper agreed as she came out of the bedroom. She snuggled against Peters, and for a moment they stood in their three-way embrace, as best they could with swelling bellies in the way. The blonde woman was taller and seemed less distended in proportion, but the best calculation they had of the due dates amounted to “any time now”. Peters had secretly hoped that at least one of the children would share his birthday, but the twelfth had come and gone with no such event. The women had seen doctors, both aboard Llapaaloapalla and, reluctantly, here in Washington, and their pregnancies seemed to be progressing normally, but they were extremely uncomfortable and anxious for the process to be over with.

Dzheenis came in, trailed by his new mate, and greeted the group. The blonde Grallt was as tall as Alper but not as slender. She didn’t speak much English yet, but had a dry, deadpan wit in the Trade that had already–more than once, in fact–caused Peters to look up half an hour or so after she’d said something and realize he’d been zinged. Khurs entered only moments later, and Peters wished that Granpap could have been there. His pa’ol was assembled, everyone he could call a close relation bar the old man, and he would have liked to eliminate the exception.

«Attention, everyone,» he said. «The sessions will begin at ten o’clock, so we have a little less than a llor to prepare. No doubt they will be as futile and fruitless as they have been to now, but we must continue to approach them in good faith. Dzheenis, do you have the figures on zifthkakik availability that Assistant Secretary Horowitz asked for?»

«Yes. I’m afraid they’re tentative, but they are the best I can–»

The door flew open with enough force to bang against the entry wall, and a man in head-to-toe bulletproofs with helmet and face shield stepped through and levelled an ugly-looking weapon. “Everybody freeze!” he said sharply. Everyone did, more out of shock than eager compliance, and a slighter figure, a woman by the hair and makeup, also in bulletproofs but without a helmet, stepped up behind him. “Laura Cade, Internal Revenue Service, Enforcement Division,” she said, and flashed something shiny in a black folder. “Which of you is John Howland Peters, Taxpayer Identification Number 1457-96-2307?”

“I’m John Peters.” He released the women and stepped forward. “What’s this all about?”

“John Howland Peters, you are under arrest,” the woman said, and smiled, a rictus that only emphasized her hostility. “Regulations require me to inform you that any resistance will be met by force, up to and including deadly force. You are advised to cooperate fully.” Peters was too stunned to respond immediately; Laura Cade said over her shoulder, “All right, boys, round ’em up.” She stood aside, and men dressed like the first but armed with handweapons started to push into the suite.

“Stop where you are!” Dzheenis shouted, and the invaders spun to face the big Grallt. He had his hands in the air, palms forward, and the armed man in the lead let out an audible sigh. “I am obliged to inform you that this room is an embassy outside the territory and jurisdiction of the United States of America. If you leave now this regrettable incident can be excused.” His phraseology was a little stilted, as if he were delivering the speech from memory; what Peters didn’t know was where and why he’d memorized it.

“I told you, we’re Internal Revenue Service,” Cade snapped. “Embassy status doesn’t matter to us when we’re in pursuit of a fugitive.”

“I am obliged to inform you,” Dzheenis said, still reciting, “that the laws and regulations of this jurisdiction do not recognize differences in status among those brandishing weapons. You are threatening us with deadly force, and nice definitional distinctions are irrelevant. I repeat: if you leave now, this regrettable incident can be excused. If you persist, we will be compelled to recognize this act of war as such.”

“Act of war? This is a civil arrest!”

“You have invaded our territory under arms and threatened to carry away our people and sequester our possessions under threat of deadly force; I heard you utter that very phrase yourself,” Dzheenis said, sounding as if he were now speaking ex tempore, indeed with the tiniest hint of amusement. “By our definitions that’s what a war is. We don’t care what your definitions are, nor do we observe artificial restrictions on the means of self defense.”

“But–”

The room darkened as a large object obscured the windows. Glass sprayed inward, and heavy blows smashed window frames and walls to form an aperture about the size of a standard double door. Bür in dull green kathir suits began filing through the opening at a lope, cloaks swinging, each armed with a weapon that looked like a carpenter’s level bent slightly in the middle. «The one without a hat is the leader,» Dzheenis said, and the bür in the lead nodded.

Adding six bür to the population of the room made it distinctly crowded. “I am obliged to inform you,” Dzheenis said, reciting again, “that you have committed an act of war. We are reserving our reprisal. We have further determined that the following conditions apply: if you discharge a weapon, none of you will survive; if one of us is injured, this building will be destroyed; if one of us is killed, the bür will evacuate the survivors and destroy Washington with meteor strikes. Is this clear to you, or should I repeat it?”

“I don’t–”

Dzheenis held up a finger and interrupted, in a tone that might have been used for instructing third-graders: “First, if you discharge a weapon none of you will survive. Second,” another finger, “if one of us is injured, this building will be destroyed.” Third finger: “Third, if one of us is killed, the site of this city will glow red-hot for some considerable period of time. I hardly see how I could speak more clearly, but I will repeat it again if necessary.”

“It’s a felony to interfere with a Federal law enforcement officer in the performance of her duties!”

“Laura Cade, you are not an officer of any kind here. You are only a dangerous nuisance,” Dzheenis told her, still in the voice used to rebuke a child for mild misbehavior.

Cade was taken slightly aback for the first time in the interchange. Peters had noted, with approval, that the lead gunman had moved his finger away from the trigger of his weapon; he was clutching it so tightly his thumbnail was noticeably pale, but he wasn’t likely to kill someone by reflex. The ex-sailor, sometime diplomat, took half a step forward, palms up and out, and said as levelly as he could manage: “I reckon we ought to try to calm this situation a little before somebody gets hurt.”

The officer turned and snapped, “The way to calm this situation is for you to stop resisting arrest!”

Peters lifted his eyebrows. “Ms. Cade, if you’re stupid enough to think you’ve got the upper hand here I reckon your boss’d thank us for shootin’ you and gettin’ you off the promotion list. The way to cut the fuse on this here bomb is for you to tell your folks to ground arms and stand easy, and I’ll do the same.” He gestured at the bür. “These folks got a ship in orbit that’s armed to the teeth and couldn’t set down in the park yonder, and I recommend that you think real hard about sendin’ a squad or two of cops up against folks who think the difference between a gunshot wound and a ten–kilometer crater is that the flash and smoke’s more fun to watch.”

One of the helmeted men had flipped up his face shield and grasped Cade’s upper arm; he was speaking quietly but urgently into her ear. “Very well,” she said truculently, expression unrepentant. “Troops, ground arms but stay on your toes. This isn’t over yet.” The last phrase was directed at Peters.

“No, it ain’t. Now give me a minute. I’ll get back to you,” he said with a nod as the Federals began easing their stances, and turned to face the bür he thought was the officer. «Pleasant greetings. May I know who you are?»

The Trade phrase was a polite request for name and precedence; the bür brought his right hand up, palm forward, and touched his chin with his forefinger. «My name is Velix Teeda,» he said, accompanying that with a nod. «I am lusi of dekre two and eight, formation six, parade one and eight of Therzin Vee, ship six, eight, and three squares of the Host of All Bür,» he said, the full formal self-introduction. A “dekre”, or “eight-person”, comprised eighty troops–sixteen “hands” of five men–plus officers and noncoms, totalling ninety-five; its CO, or “lusi”, would thus be about lieutenant equivalent, Marine style.

«My name is John Peters. I am depa’olze of the Peters pa’ol, trade ship Llapaaloapalla,» he said with equal formality. «Thank you for your prompt arrival, lusi Velix. May I direct you?»

«I was ordered to obey your directives unless they were clearly demented, ze Peters.»

«Good. Please direct your people to assume nonthreatening postures but remain alert.»

Lusi Velix nodded shortly and barked two short phrases, and the bür soldiers shifted to positions similar to parade rest, weapons at port, cloaks draped over shoulders and upper arms. The movement caused a stir among the Federal officers, but nobody got too excited, and the tension in the room ratcheted down noticeably.

«Will your smallship accommodate my family? Five persons,» Peters asked.

«No, it is fully occupied. A passenger carrier of sufficient size can be here in a few antle.» The lusi tapped an object on his belt, and Peters was startled to note a perfectly ordinary phone, the sort available over the counter with prepaid time included. He’d never had one–they were too expensive, and he hadn’t had anyone to call anyway–and he had never even thought about them. Velix Teeda took his silence as assent, punched a speed-dial combination, and spoke urgently. «Two and eight antle, no more,» he said with a smile, and clipped the gadget back on his belt. «Useful item, that,» he noted with evident satisfaction.

Five minutes. «All right. Ander, Alper, go and get your airsuits and anything else you can grab quickly. Khurs, I’m glad to see you wearing your suit, but I don’t think they’ll let you go back for anything else. Dzheenis, you and Lisi go with the others. Let Prethuvenigis know what’s going on.»

«Depa’olze,» Dzheenis said with a half-bow, and Ander and Alper headed for the bedroom.

“What’s going on?” Cade demanded. “These people are in protective custody. They can’t just leave.”

“Miz Cade, there comes a time when self–confident optimism turns into flat reckless stupidity, and in my opinion you done gone a good ways beyond that point.” The woman jerked her head back, face twisted into a scowl, and Peters continued, “I ain’t turnin’ my family over to your tender mercies if I can help it, and in this case I can. You don’t like it, well, you just declared war on more stars than you can see and all the people who live there, and we’re waitin’ for you to open the festivities. I guarantee that you, personally, will not survive.”

The Federal officer didn’t reply, just stood rigid, eyes hot, face a rictus of mixed hatred and rage. Her adviser’s face was the color of skim milk; he murmured urgently into her ear, to no apparent effect.

“Should I be destroying records?” Khurs asked practically.

“We don’t have time–no, wait.” Peters smiled and looked up. «Lusi Velix, it appears there will be no shooting for the moment. Would a little casual destruction assuage your people’s regret somewhat?»

«It’s always disappointing to go to a party and not dance,» the officer replied gravely.

«I thought you might feel that way. Very well. When my family have finished removing their possessions, search the place. Remove or destroy, at your option, every scrap of writing or other records, including those two objects and their appurtenances.» He indicated the computers. «You should take those, you’ll find them interesting. Also, remove or destroy any and all items of off–world origin, and smash the furniture and fittings in general. Try not to start a fire; the structure is old and highly flammable, and there are many persons not involved in this dispute within it.»

«By your clear direction, ze Peters,» Velix Teeda said, and began barking orders in his own language.

“What’s going on?” Cade demanded as three of the bür soldiers stacked their weapons and began bundling up the computers. “That material’s under a Federal seizure order. You can’t remove it.”

“A cretin to the end.” Peters sighed and made an irritated gesture like swatting a fly. “Miz Cade,” he said with exaggerated patience, “this here’s an embassy, and I’m a diplomat. My embassy has been invaded by hostile forces, and I’m in the process of destroyin’ vital records and evacuatin’ personnel, and I’m gettin’ just a little bit tired of you and your bullshit. You.” He caught the eye of the man who’d been advising. “You seem to have a little sense. There’s thirty-five more of these guys,” a thumb-gesture at the bür, “in the troop carrier outside, and if they go by their normal organization there’s three more troop carriers waitin’, and they’d like nothin’ better than to turn the lot of you into strawberry jam and spread you over the buildin’ behind me. Either get this bitch out of here or shut her up before I get mad enough to tell ’em to go ahead.”

“Threatening a Federal agent is–” Cade’s expostulation was cut off by the adviser’s hand over her mouth, and he and another agent in bulletproofs seized her by the upper arms and hauled her by main force out the door. The point man, left alone, looked around a little wildly.

“Just stay calm and don’t do nothin’ stupid,” Peters advised him in an undertone; he set the butt of his weapon on the floor, lifted his face shield, and leaned against the wall, watching but doing nothing. The passenger carrier arrived, and the bür ship moved aside to let it match its hatch to the opening, leaving the soldiers obeying their orders enthusiastically, comprehensively trashing the suite. «My love to you all,» Peters said. «I’ll see you when I can.»

«Aren’t you coming?» Ander asked in alarm.

«No. I must go and see if any of these fools can be made to see reason.»

«My depa’olze, I must advise you that I consider that highly dangerous,» Dzheenis said soberly.

«Yes, I know.» He sighed and pulled the two women tightly against him. They were crying, pouring a flood of tears down his chest. Khurs was no less affected; she pushed a little, and Ander and Alper edged aside to permit the little Grallt to participate in the hug. Dzheenis stood erect, but his eyes were wet, and Lisi, the newest of the group and the least able to follow the events of the last few minutes, looked gravely alarmed.

«You’ll miss the babies!» Alper wailed.

«Very probably. You should hurry and get back to the ship before you have them on the trip up.» He looked up at Dzheenis, who stared soberly back, and sighed. «It is just possible that something may still be salvaged from this mess. Go, and let me try.»

«And if not?» Dzheenis asked.

Peters grimaced. «I have no advice, and to give orders would be fatuous. Please go. This does not become less painful for being extended.»

«Yes, my depa’olze.» Dzheenis began urging the others toward the boat, Lisi first. Then he took Khurs and Alper’s hands and tugged gently, and Ander followed, holding on to Peters until compelled to let go, face barely recognizable behind her mask of grief. The hatch closed and the smallship lifted away, allowing rain to lash through the opening.

Peters wiped his eyes and looked around at the remaining human occupant of the suite. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Harold Carstairs.” He was about twenty-five or twenty-six, and added a wary “sir!” as Peters approached.

Peters smiled and turned. «Lusi Velix, a moment.»

«Yes, ze Peters?»

«I’ll be leaving with this young man. Don’t be alarmed at the events of the next few moments. When you are finished here, return to your other duties with my thanks.»

«My pleasure, ze Peters.» The bür officer saluted and nodded.

Peters nodded back and faced Harold Carstairs. “Does your promotion path include Miz Cade’s job?”

“Yes, sir, eventually, if I’m good enough.”

“Well, congratulations. You just convinced a dangerous criminal to surrender after an armed confrontation in which fortunately nobody got killed. That oughta be good for a couple gold stars, don’t you reckon?”

The man–boy–looked confused. “I suppose so, sir.”

“Then let’s go get you that promotion, hey? I’ll go quiet like, and you can wave your shooter. I’d admire if you didn’t actually shoot me with it, though.”

“Um… ”

“Somethin’ wrong?”

The boy looked embarrassed. “I have to wrap you.”

“Heh? Even if I’m cooperatin’?”

“Yes, sir. The regulations say that all detainees have to be restrained, sir.”

Peters sighed. “Then go ahead, but don’t make it too tight.” He turned and presented his hands behind his back. “That about right?”

“Yes, sir, that’s perfect.” Carstairs wrapped Peters’s wrists with a strap, not too tight as specified, and picked up his weapon. “Let’s go, sir.”

Peters smiled to himself and started toward the door. When he reached it Carstairs called out, “Coming out! Open the door!” in a surprisingly strong voice, and the panel swung open to reveal a hall full of bulletproofs, uniforms, and weapons, with Laura Cade in the lead, face flushed. “Mr. Peters has agreed to surrender,” Carstairs commented. “He’s been real cooperative.”

“I’ll bet,” Cade snarled. “Get him in the wagon.” A pair of goons in bulletproofs grabbed him by the upper arms and began hustling him down the hall, and Cade followed, mouth set in a grim line. When they turned to go down the stairs Peters looked back. Harold Carstairs was standing, gaping a little, watching them leave, and another of the agents was looking at the young man who’d performed the arrest, face a study in speculation.

They half-pushed, half-threw him into a boxy vehicle and slammed the door. He’d barely had time to seat himself on the unpadded bench when the vehicle started up, turning right, left, right, then abruptly left before descending into an underground parking lot. Then it was more comealong holds and a fast shuffle down corridors covering what seemed like a kilometer before stopping at a steel door with a single thick window.

“Stand still,” Cade snapped. The two goons produced a handweapon each and pointed them at his head, staying away from direct contact; no doubt the precise distance was specified in the regulations. Laura Cade expertly stripped off the wrapstrap, pulled the door open, and said, “Inside.” She shoved him, hard, and he half-fell through the door, which closed with a final-sounding thud and a multiple click of locks going home.

<<< Chapter Forty-Seven Chapter Forty-Nine >>>

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