This was the fourth prison he’d been in, and for a prison it wasn’t too bad. It was cold, but that was a common feature of prisons and lockups 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. They’d 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. It was as good as many of the quarters he’d had in the Navy, and better than most shipboard ones, bar the guard outside; the door wasn’t even locked. He lay on the bunk, 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, still and unresponsive as statues and with less expression. By now he could almost react coldly to the memory.

The television, a panel set into the wall behind bulletproof glass, flashed images that Peters ignored. The programming was a mixture of “news” and “business information”, pornography 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, though it was carefully screened to keep him from finding out anything he wanted to know; the second totally failed to engage his interest; and the third served only to emphasize that he had less in common with the people behind the screen than he did with lusi Velix. Another prisoner had shown him how to bugger the earphones so that they looked OK to casual inspection but didn’t work; after that he wasn’t even distracted by the sound.

The speakers over the screen squawked an attention tone and began issuing a litany in several languages, and simultaneously the screen cleared and showed text. None of the languages was anything he wanted to hear, but the third or fourth one was English: “John Peters, you have a visitor. Report to the visitation room, John Peters.” The screen said the same thing, and the synthesized voice went on to what he guessed was French.

He did get visitors occasionally. Mannix had come once, two prisons ago; Tom Goetz and Vanessa, neè Williams, had dropped by, a surprise, and he’d seen Warnocki twice, one of them at the last place. They’d all told him flatly that they weren’t allowed to talk about anything currently going on, and had chatted about the voyage and Llapaaloapalla with an eye to where they thought the cameras were. From hints and subtext he gathered that the ship had left a few weeks after Agent Cade had tossed him in the slammer. From the trend of recent interrogations he thought it was back. Nobody at all had come for at least a week. Be interesting–well, less than totally boring–to see who this was.

“Mornin’, Miz Cade,” he said to the hall guard. The woman–not Laura Cade–scowled behind her face mask but said nothing, and Peters walked briskly, head high, toward the visitation room. “Mornin’, Mr. Briggs,” he told the sharply-dressed middle-aged man waiting on the other side of the armor glass.

The man’s chuckle came through the speaker. “Actually, it’s a little after three in the afternoon, John,” he said.

Peters shrugged. “It’s always mornin’ of a new day for me.”

“You always say that.” Briggs smiled and shifted in his chair. “This time you may have some reason for your optimism.”

Help, or at least amelioration, had come from an unexpected source. Harold Carstairs had, in fact, gotten promoted; legal fiction or no, he’d “captured” Peters before witnesses, and the regulations required it. Carstairs had an uncle whose wife’s maiden name was Briggs; her brother’s son Sheldon was an attorney living in Hartford, Connecticut, specializing in tax law. Sheldon Briggs’s brother and his wife had died while sailboating in the Bahamas, and Sheldon was guardian to their 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.

“You said that before,” Peters remarked as he took his seat. He liked Briggs, keeping in mind that as a lawyer the man had probably had special training in how to be liked.

Briggs smiled. “Got something for you,” he said, and held up a rolled paper with a red-white-and-blue ribbon around it. He put it in the passthrough and closed the lid, and after an interval–during which it was probably inspected by radar, IR, visual, X-ray, and Y and Z rays if they were available–the latch on Peters’s side clicked.

“What’s this?” Peters asked as he took it out.

“Have a look.”

The ribbon slipped off easily. The paper was thick and luxurious-feeling, really high-class stuff. At the top, centered, was a round shield Peters recognized, and below was a short paragraph, which Peters read aloud: “‘To all before whom these presents may come: John Howland Peters, Taxpayer Identification Number 1457-96-2307, is hereby pardoned for any and all offenses against the peace and good order of the United States of America.’ Then there’s a scrawl, an’ after that it says ‘Eugene V. Hansen, President of the United States’. Well, ain’t that spiffy. Reckon these folks’ll let me frame it and hang it on the wall?”

“You don’t sound impressed,” Briggs noted. “Hansen just got sworn in. That was his first official act. Ought to tell you something.”

“We talked about it already, can’t remember when that was. I ain’t accused of much against the peace and good order of the United States. Violatin’ air traffic regulations is about it.”

Tax offenses weren’t criminal offenses. The IRS attorneys made a big point of that, but as far as Peters could see the only effect it had was that the Feds didn’t have to worry about criminal-law rules of evidence. The penalties were, if anything, worse, except that it seemed they couldn’t just take him out and shoot him, despite several individuals who apparently would have preferred to do just that. He wasn’t a criminal; he just owed one Hell of a tax bill.

The Federal Security Administration 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, and had shared it generously with the IRS. 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 had painted a surprisingly complete picture. Informers, of course, but who?

Jacks. Had to be. Smiling, gregarious Jacks, who was slightly older than was really credible for his rate and rating, 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 most of the voyage, and involved with Peters’s coordination between Traders and humans for the last zul of it. 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 had come to $178,714,231.17; they’d offered to strike the seventeen cents, making it come out in round dollars, but Peters refused out of whimsy. Penalties, interest, and a whopping fine had brought the total as of the arbitrarily selected cutoff date of 1 June 2056 to 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. The cost of living was outrageous these days. At that point Briggs had entered the picture, and one of the first things the lawyer had accomplished was to get the continuing interest accrual stopped.

The IRS had offered to accept a handwritten order of payment to be delivered to Llapaaloapalla, in ornh at one to the dollar, exactly as he and Todd had predicted. Peters had cheerfully written it out, in English and decimal numbers, and gotten transferred to a high-class prison with windows and grass outside when he handed it over. Two weeks later he’d been brought here and tossed into solitary for ten days. He knew why, too: he could just imagine Prethuvenigis’s face when the paper had crossed his desk.

“I don’t see a check,” he told Briggs. “That’s the only thing I know of that’ll get me out of here.”

The lawyer smiled again, and Peters drew back. He hadn’t realized that a pudgy, blond, balding guy in a sharp suit could look so feral. “Well, not quite the only thing,” Briggs said, his tone tense with an overlay of whimsy.

Peters was trying to formulate an answer when the door behind Briggs opened briskly and Dzheenis strode through, carrying one of the bent-level bür weapons and wearing a bright shield on his left breast. Must have stuck the pin in the pocket slit, Peters thought irrelevantly, as the guards on Briggs’s side brought weapons to bear and the two by him, whom he’d ignored as usual, aimed pistols at his head. The damnedest assortment followed the Grallt: a pair of bür, also with shiny badges; two Marines with M27 sliver guns; a couple of ferassi in Trader 1049 livery, with badges; and Prethuvenigis’s goons, again with shiny shields. There seemed to be more outside, but the room was only so big.

“U. S. Marshals, by direct Presidential appointment,” Dzheenis said, and tapped the badge. “Put down your weapons. You behind the glass, release that man and step aside.” The two guards did no such thing. One of them grabbed Peters’s collar preparatory to dragging him off, and the two bür demonstrated what the armor glass was worth to Maker weapons.

Briggs had ducked below the counter. Peters did the same, wiping his face. Glass cylinders five millimeters in diameter, fifteen centimeters long, and moving at several Mach made for really messy head shots. More guards ran up the corridor from the cell block, and one of the bür methodically picked them off as they rounded the corner. He got three before the rest figured out that that wasn’t the way to do it. Then the world started getting fuzzy and accelerating on odd vectors.

Peters woke strapped to a gurney with an oxygen mask on his face, being carried down a corridor with lots of fresh scars on the walls. It took a bit for him to recognize the man walking alongside, and longer to credit it. “Good, you’re awake,” said Dr. Steward. “I already injected the antagonist, you’ll be fine in a minute.” He brandished a small handweapon, either the one Peters and Todd had taken from the nekrit or one just like it. “Audit this, motherfuckers!” he shouted derisively, and several people cheered.

Being carried up stairs on a stretcher isn’t pleasant, but the two bearers did a good job. After two flights they came out at street level, on a cold, blustery day with mist swirling around. Wherever they were it was the middle of town, concrete and stone and glass in various configurations. “Do you know where you are?” Steward asked. “IRS headquarters in downtown DC. Some changes are being made.” He looked down, and his face changed. «Somebody get this man a couple of blankets,» he snapped in fair Trade. «He doesn’t have a suit.» A blanket arrived immediately, and the doctor looked on benignly as Peters was wrapped. “I work for you now,” he told the bewildered ex-sailor. “My daddy was a science fiction publisher. I always wanted to go to space, so I jumped on Dzheenis’s offer, but I’d have sold my soul for this opportunity.”

“Bonus time,” Peters mumbled weakly, and Steward grinned like a thief.

The bearers popped one set of wheels out on the gurney and set Peters at an angle against a wall so he could see. A bür smallship took up a good part of the street, and two men in sharp suits were maneuvering a ladder into place. A third man, also nicely dressed, climbed the ladder and reached behind to help a woman. Hatches popped, and Marines, bür, and more Secret Service people climbed out in no discernible order, to take up suspicious watches all around. The well-dressed man held up a bullhorn and said into it, “I’m Gene Hansen.” The crowd didn’t go wild, but there were cheers, along with enough weapons held aloft to give the most militant pause.

When relative quiet was restored Hansen continued: “Pursuant to Executive Order nine-oh-one-three, which I just signed an hour ago, no employee or contractor of the Internal Revenue Service is authorized to carry a weapon as defined in the Peaceful Streets Act of 2017.” Nail files and up, that meant. “If you are an IRS employee and are carrying a weapon, go immediately to the nearest U.S. Marine and surrender it. If you aren’t sure of the definition, be conservative. Carrying a weapon in violation of this order is a felony, and peace officers are authorized to shoot to kill if such a violation is detected.”

Another cheer, followed by stirs and eddies in the crowd accompanied by a few clinks and clanks. “The rest of it is too complicated to go into here,” Hansen continued, “but the end of it is, you tax collectors work for the people of America, not the other way around, and if I have to call in help from the farthest star to insure that, well, I’m just grateful that such friends exist.” More cheers went up.

“Dr. Steward, may I borrow that handweapon?” Peters asked calmly. The President was still talking, but Peters was sure he’d seen the fellow in the blue anorak before.

“Certainly. It’s yours anyway. Let me loosen the straps so you can get your arm out.” Steward suited action to the words, leaning across Peters to do so.

Steward didn’t like to be called “Doc.” “Thanks, Doctor,” Peters told him. He took the weapon and held it below the blanket, and the doctor started to straighten up and turn. “What the–”

Blue-anorak had spun around and produced a revolver. He got off one shot, but his mistake was to take the time to stretch his arm at full extension before firing. Peters was thumbing the button, and kept it up until somebody else took a hand. The bür weapons were too much in this situation, but M27 sliver guns were specifically designed for close-quarters urban combat. The man’s chest exploded in gore before he’d begun to fall from Peters’s shots. A Marine and a bür smiled and nodded at one another.

“Medic!” somebody shouted, but this wasn’t the sort of crowd to run screaming in terror. Marines clustered around the downed man, and a couple of other people–Grallt, in this case–were clutching wounds in testimony that even sliver rifles were a bit much some ways.

“What the Hell was that all about?” Steward wanted to know.

Peters let the handweapon fall to clatter on the concrete. “Look for his ID,” he suggested. “Betcha it says ‘Styles.'”

“Are you all right?”

Peters stretched his lips in a strained mockery of a grin. “No. It don’t hurt, though. Must be the sleepygas.” Then he passed out again.

* * *

The suite at the Willard had been repaired, but if you looked closely at the window frames you could still see traces of the events of a year ago. Peters leaned back in his chair, careful not to stretch the clips and stitches under his left arm, and looked at the scene with pride approaching hubris and satisfaction well past the ‘smug’ point.

Alper was on the floor, helping little Emmett with the brightly colored toys scattered around; the boy had already tried most of them and rejected them as inedible. Ander was asleep in one of the wingback chairs, with Eve a blanket-swaddled lump in her arms. Lisi was suckling baby Thu in the other wingback, and Dzheenis was looming over her and his son with the same sort of expression Peters knew was on his own face. Khurs was half-prone on the couch, too swollen to more than waddle; her mate, a zerkre called Denis, was in the kitchen making her a peanut butter and zishis sandwich. Peters had just met him. He seemed a decent sort. He’d better be.

“We ain’t found you a girl friend yet,” he said to Steward, who was sitting in the fourth wingback around the coffee table sipping something with ice in it.

“It’s being worked on,” the doctor replied. “She works across the road there.” He jerked his thumb at the building behind, which was the White House. “First I need to find out whether it’s me or outer space she wants, then I’ll introduce her to this lot and see if she runs screaming. I don’t think she will.” He swirled his drink and sipped.

Peters chuckled. “Good enough. Like I told Dzheenis a bit ago, a pa’ol can grow by recruitin’ as well as by natural increase.”

“Seems to me you’ve got a nice balance of both here.”

There was a knock on the door, and Dzheenis, the only one mobile and unencumbered, went to answer it. He held a low-voiced colloquy with whoever had come, then pushed the panel wide, turned, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.”

“Don’t get up, and if anybody starts that damn music I’ll sing,” Hansen threatened as he came in. “George, it’s a small room and ought to be pretty safe. Why don’t you and Brenda stay, and the rest wait outside?”

“We can do that, Mr. President,” the Secret Service agent said.

“Good, thank you. I told you not to get up,” Hansen said to Steward, who had risen despite admonitions.

“I can move and my de’pa’olze can’t, not easily anyway. Won’t you sit down, Mr. President?”

“Thank you.”

The little boy focused on the new visitor, got to his feet, and took two steps before falling on his face. Alper snatched him up, muffled the screams, smiled “sorry” at the President, and took him to the bedroom.

“My son,” Peters said. “Named for my daddy. Alper wanted to make it John Junior, but I didn’t think that was a good idea.”

“Seems like a fine boy,” Hansen said. “Were those his first steps?”

“I reckon so.” Peters was grinning.

“Mr. President, you’re reputed to sip a Tom Collins now and again,” Steward commented, and offered a glass. “Here’s something you might like from a star too far away to see.”

Hansen took the glass and sipped. “Now that’s first class,” he said, echoing Prethuvenigis. “What’s it called?”

“Thivid,” Peters told him. “The n’saith make it from berries, and a tea that’s real good from the leaves of the same plant. Dzheenis, I’d take it kindly if you’d see to it Gene, here, gets a quarter-square of bottles of thivid to remember us by.”

“At your command, de’pa’olze.”

The Secret Service agents’ faces had gone stiff. Hansen looked up at them, then at a grinning Steward. He smiled slightly, sipped his drink, and said, “I take it you’ve decided to go with the Head of State option.”

Peters frowned. “I can’t see as I’ve got much choice.”

“No, I don’t think you do,” Hansen agreed.

“No,” Dzheenis put in. “My de’pa’olze has been the catalyst for changes that are still propagating across the Web like waves from a dropped stone. Mr. President, I’m sure you get tired of hearing about stars you can’t see, but even we don’t know how far the influence reaches. One small thing: Trader 1049 came when asked, and the ferassi have been cooperating with free Grallt, bür, and humans. Nothing like that has ever happened before, and John Peters set in motion the train of events that led to it.”

“Interesting times,” the President observed. “Not the best time for humans to get mixed up in it.”

“But you are,” Dzheenis said. “If ever there were Makers of radios and associated technology they have failed or been lost, and as for computers–well, Mr. President, the human species will be rich soon if you do it right, and that will mean you’ll be mixed up with it, as you say, as thoroughly as anybody.”

“The United States hasn’t seen much good out of it,” Hansen objected.

“That ain’t our fault,” Peters observed.

“No, it isn’t,” Dzheenis confirmed. “Warnocki’s shipyard is in Brazil because he couldn’t get permits; he already has customers. Captain Bolton’s anti-pirate fleet operates under Grallt law and funding because the United States wouldn’t license it; we just heard of their first kill. We never released the funds SPADET 1 earned, because we found out right away that they’d just get taken away from the sailors. Many of them are back with us, now, with modest wealth and great demand for their services, because you couldn’t wait for them to spend the money, you had to grab it at gunpoint.”

“I’ve heard all that,” Hansen growled. “I believe it. Hell, I’ve said it often enough, that’s how I got elected in the first place. But dammit, there has to be some organization, otherwise it all falls apart.”

Peters snorted. “Somebody’s got to drive. It don’t mean the driver gets the side meat an’ ever’body else gets hoof and horns.”

Hansen stared into space. “That’s not a principle very many people in this town will be anxious to apply.”

“No, and that’s why I gotta do this.” Peters looked Hansen in the eye. “I done took the Pledge of Allegiance more times than I can count, with and without God in it. I’m still proud to have been an American, but now I gotta withdraw that pledge.”

“I as well,” Steward put in. “I have a new allegiance.”

“Voluntarily, before witnesses. That’s all it takes,” Hansen observed. “A toast to the new order.” They all sipped, and Hansen went on, “Leaves me with a tough job, though.”

Peters indicated the big Grallt with a wave. “Lemme tell you the secret to bein’ a good boss,” he said in a light tone. “Find somebody twice as smart as you are, hypnotize him, and tell him ‘handle it.’ Then sit back and act modest when the compliments start pourin’ in.”

The others chuckled, even the Secret Service agents suppressing smiles. “I’ll keep that advice in mind, John,” Hansen said. There was a pause during which Steward brought more drinks. “Well, that’s the main thing I came for,” he observed, “but there’s a couple of minor matters.”

“How’s that?” Peters asked.

“First the good news. Donald Peters is in EPA custody in Pittsburgh, and as far as I know healthy. I’ve sent Secret Service agents to look into it. We should have more news by Friday.”

Peters nodded. “Granpap’s been preyin’ on my mind. Thankee kindly for the information, an’ I’ll be waitin’ for more.”

“Soon, I hope.” Hansen sipped his drink. “Now the bad news: I’d intended to return your spacesuit, but that won’t be possible. It’s been rather thoroughly destroyed, along with a good chunk of a hill at Oak Ridge.”

Peters nodded. “I reckon they figured out how to break open the power nodule,” he observed. “I’ll get another. Any survivors?”

“Not of the lab, no. There are dependents, of course.”

“Get us the names an’ we’ll send condolences, at least,” Peters suggested. “That about it?”

Hansen smiled. “I reckon so, as I think you’d say.”

Peters smiled back. “I reckon I would. Stay for dinner?”

“To my vast regret, no. I’ve got a Cabinet meeting in–” he glanced at his watch “–two hours, and I’ll probably eat a sandwich over working papers, with people whining at me.”

“Consider it a standin’ invitation.” Peters held out a hand. “Good luck, Gene.”

They shook. “Good luck to you, John,” Hansen said. “I think we’ll both need a lot of it. George, it’s time to go. Do you need to sweep the hall first?”

“No, the others are out there,” the agent said practically.

“Let’s go.”

Peters, Dzheenis, and Steward watched them leave. «He seems a good man,» Khurs observed from the couch.

«Yes, I think so,» Peters agreed. «Will dinner be soon?»

«Soon enough,» Dzheenis said cheerfully. «And there is a great deal on your plate.»

«Ooh!» Khurs cried out. «Something just happened.»

«Let’s go in the bedroom and find out what,» Steward suggested. «Grallt pregnancies are still a little new to me.» Denis came in from the kitchen with a sandwich in one hand; he raised his eyebrows and followed Khurs and the doctor out of sight.

Peters looked at Ander, still curled up asleep with Eve in her lap, and at Lisi, who was swaddling the now-sleeping baby. Dzheenis hovered, regarding his mate and offspring. «Yes, there’s a great deal on my plate,» the depa’olze of Peters pa’ol thought to himself. «But I’ll make the best meal I can of it.»

* * *

At 0343 Jack Steward swaddled the newborn and handed it to its mother. «Male,» he said. «He seems healthy. Congratulations.»

«Thank you,» said Khurs, and guided the infant to her breast. «Welcome to the Universe, John,» she said.

<<< Chapter Forty-Eight