Jon was tossed into the gilded room with all the care and precision of a sack of potatoes being hefted onto a truck. Between the handcuffs and the fact that he hadn't eaten since the day before, his efforts to stay balanced were doomed from the start.
"Leave us," snapped His Eminence, the Lord President of the Totally Democratic United Nation of America, without turning away from the floor-to-ceiling window before him. The lights of his garden, most of them focused on likenesses of himself in marble, hedge, and colored flower, glowed harshly in the moonless night.
A hum of uncertainty passed between Jon's guards. "Your Eminence, sir," began one, a woman with short brown hair and more muscles in her right arm than Jon had in his entire body, "he's dangerous. You know how crafty the resistance can—"
"Don't patronize me, soldier!" ordered His Eminence. "If I want to meet with an anti-government fanatic alone and unguarded, that's my right as Chief American. Now, run along. I'll call you if I need you."
The guards nodded sharply and departed, closing the gleaming white doors behind them. Jon seriously considered the merits of collapsing on the golden curlicues of the rug, then shook it off and got unsteadily up off his knees.
At last the Lord President swept away from the window. His suit was downright subdued, the classical style updated only with a few bits of gold braid and a set of ruby cufflinks at his wrists. "Have a seat, Jon," he directed, waving at one of the plush chairs framing a low oval table. "You look famished. What are they feeding you in those prisons?"
"Grits, mostly," said Jon. He couldn't stop his mouth from watering when the other man opened the door of what appeared to be a mahogany-plated toaster oven and pulled out a grilled BLT, but when His Eminence placed it on the table in front of him along with a tumbler of something fruity, he swallowed and kept his hands firmly in his lap. "You expect me to eat this? Just like that?"
His Eminence cocked his eminent head. "Do the cuffs make it awkward? I can have the guards cuff one of your hands to a chair instead. Then you'd have a free hand."
"It's not the handcuffs, Colbert!" exclaimed Jon. "Why are you doing this? You're treating me like a misbehaving dog that's finally been let back into the house, offering me a treat and seeing whether I'll behave. As if you think I'm going to start ignoring your dictatorship if you give me a sandwich!"
A few years ago, that kicked-puppy look on the Lord President's face would have had Jon rushing to soothe him, maybe with a reflexive apology for whatever bit of absurdity he had taken offense to. "Not just the sandwich," he said sulkily. "Obviously there would be more than just that."
"It's not going to make a difference."
"What if I gave you a job?"
"Any job you want," continued His Eminence, either misunderstanding or oblivious to the gaping incredulity on Jon's face. "Cabinet-level position? I'll kick out one of my secretaries. Or, if you don't like any of the ones I already have, I'll make up a new one. I can do that, you know. Want to be a four-star general? I can do that too. With all these treasonous generals getting dishonorable discharges, there's more than enough leftover stars to go around. How about my second in command? 'Lord Vice President' has a nice ring to it...."
The Lord President arched his eyebrows imperiously. He had gotten much too good at that. "We prefer to be called 'megalomaniac-Americans', Jon."
"You think my problem with your government is that I don't have enough power in it?" continued Jon, too furious to pause for breath. "You took over my country, you took my family, you've shipped my children off to some indoctrination camp — what could possibly make you think I would turn around and work for—"
"You want your kids back?"
Jon's heart stopped.
"I can't get the rest of them," added His Eminence, almost apologetically. "Your brother's still expatriated in one of those countries America hasn't taken over yet, and your wife disappeared somewhere into the underground eight months ago. But I know which camp your kids are in. They could come live here, if you wanted. Or — Lorraine's got this lovely little place on an island, lots of sunshine, fresh ocean breezes, only minimal guard, supply ships twice a week. How does that sound?"
It sounded impossibly good. "You'll let my kids go," repeated Jon, desperate not to misunderstand.
"That's the idea."
"Will you let the others go?"
The Lord President frowned in confusion. Jon kept his face neutral, refusing to think about what he was doing, never mind that it was the only thing possible.
"All of them," repeated Jon. "No more camps. Send all the kids back to their families." And put facts back in the regular school system, and restore the free press, and...one step at a time.
"I've put a lot of work into those camps," protested His Eminence softly.
There was a flash of something vulnerable in his eyes; Jon grasped frantically after it, hoping he hadn't made it up in the first place. "It's not too late," he insisted. "You can take them back. Anything you've done, you have the power to undo it. You can make everything right again."
The other man drew up in his eminent seat. "It was a simple question, Jon," he snarled, the last light in his gaze flickering out. "Work for me and have your kids, or go back to your cell. Pick a side. We're at war."
The starship Enterprise.
What had he done?
A margarita glass. That little speck of brown could be the maraschino cherry.
And were they ever going to feed him again?
Jon tried to force his mind back to picking out shapes in the block of cement next to his head. He wanted nothing more than to pace the tiny box of a room until he dropped from exhaustion, but if they really were trying to starve him to death, he wasn't ready to start helping them along. Not yet.
Daddy, we're proud of you. You stuck to your principles, tried to save lots of people, and didn't let that mean ol' President call your bluff.
A dog biscuit.
The state of Michigan.
Daddy, why didn't you come back for us? You said you'd do anything for us!
That was more like it. Vivid enough that Jon found himself pulling the lumpy pillow over his head, as if that could shut the voices out.
A person in a hammock. The streak of darker grey underneath could even be its shadow on the sand.
What Jon wouldn't have given for a hammock right then. Or a margarita. Or, heck, a dog biscuit.
Why had he turned down that sandwich, again?
Oh, right. He had principles. He was thinking of the greater good of his whole society.
Daddy, don't you love us anymore?
"Okay!" shouted Jon, deafening in the emptiness. "You win! Hear me? I'll work for you, I'll run whatever you want me to, I'll go on TV every night and sing your praises! Just give them back!"
There was an industrial thunk from outside, then the thick metal door rolled back. Jon kept the pillow over his head and squeezed his eyes shut, mentally kicking himself. He couldn't have made them wait a tiny bit longer?
"Mr. Stewart!" said a warm voice. "Alkaline Trio, am I glad I've found you."
Befuddlement briefly wrested control away from despair, long enough for Jon to abandon the pillow and open his eyes. The figure beside him was...unexpected. To say the least.
"Aren't you a little hot for a shock trooper?" he muttered.
"I get that a lot." The other man knelt beside the mat and offered Jon his arm. "Except for the part where I'm not a shock trooper. Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"Not where," corrected the other man. There was a reassuring gravitas to his voice, the like of which Jon hadn't heard in far too long. "When."