Talk:XVIII: Congress Shall Make No Law

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XVIII: Congress Shall Make No Law

Gallatinopolis, geographic and political center of North America, is a crusty little patch of buildings surrounded by an entire planet of wheat fields. A lone highway stretches from the south: Greenway 200, an emerald ribbon in a sea of gold departing northward until it’s covered with a springy mutated moss.

Our ship found mooring east of the little part-time capital. I wasn’t in a mood to enjoy the scenery—Clarissa and Ed were gone. Everything else seemed pointless. Visiting the Palace’s dungeon, a hastily padlocked tool crib, had proven useless. One prisoner was dead. The other was beyond saving, and beyond telling us anything. Hadn’t anyone here heard of poison in a hollow tooth? He had several week-old bullet wounds, though. Eleven-caliber Webley. I watched the son of a bitch die.

Now, Lucy chattered as the great ship made fast. “They’ll wheel a derrick in behind us and lower the whole shebang to the ground.”

I tried to help: “Why not just fly off, the same way we got on?”

“We would,” she answered, “but most of these passengers are delegates. Simpler to get rid of us all at the same time, doncha think?”

“Maybe not. If there’s any of Madison’s people still aboard, I’ll kill the bastards with my bare hands!”

“Might be more effective than that little gun of yours. Look, Winnie, prudence don’t suit me, either—Pete was the deliberate one in the family—but we gotta sit tight and see what develops first.”

“You call that a plan?”

“It’s all we got. Maybe if we beat ’em in Congress. They’re only holding Ed and Clarissa to keep us from sayin’ our piece … .”

“You’re kidding one of us, Lucy. Madison’ll waste them just for spite.”

“Hmm. We’ll think of something, son. My old cerebrum’s on autopilot right this second. By the way”—she pointed out the window—“if any of those folks down there look like ants, it’s ’cause they are—we’re down!”

Vast sections of wall swung outward, daylight crashed into the cool Victorian lobby, people began filing out. Minutes later, standing at a luggage carousel lowered from the ship’s belly, I replaced the plastic-tipped cartridges with 240-grainers from Ed’s bags, now piled around my feet with Clarissa’s things. I waited for Lucy to hire a taxi, but with thousands of humans, simians, and cetaceans deblimping all at once …

IN 138 A.L., Prussia decided to emulate North America by confederating Europe—even if it didn’t want to be confederated. In brief campaigns, the other German states, France, Benelux, and the Italies were gobbled up. Spain and Portugal fell to fifth channelists, and England, as usual, was in trouble.

An agitated Congress assembled, the first since 1900, a disheartening sight to Europeans who’d come begging for assistance: even the assembly hall was roughed out of pine planks. The Old World was mystified at the vital barbarity of the New, but they had good reason to ask for help: Scandinavia was threatened by a Czar emboldened by the Prussian distraction, the Finns fighting a gallant but futile guerrilla war against the Cossacks; two great barge fleets stood ready to invade England—under Hamiltonian leadership, the Irish were preparing their final revenge.

By a substantial margin, Congress voted strict neutrality. There was ample precedent: this nation had avoided wars in 1812, 1860, 1898, and ended its 1845 engagement with Mexico in four virtually bloodless weeks. Yet it surprised no one—except, again, the Europeans—when a volunteer force gathered to make the fabled Thousand Airship Flight, and many a delegate who’d demanded official neutrality boarded those dirigibles, some never to return.

The war lasted one hundred days. The exhausted Hamiltonians, already being nibbled to death by native Thomas Paine Brigades, couldn’t comprehend the fresh, disorderly, leaderless Americans, unwilling to surrender—unable, even if they’d wanted to. The aerolift volunteers were better clothed, better fed than peasant-conscriptees, who’d only recently traded their pitchforks for clumsy Prussian bolt-actions, and fell before the machine pistols Confederates had lived with all their lives. A German officer complained, in an unfinished letter, that these American devils only shot their enemies between the eyes. He was found shot, perhaps by coincidence, between the eyes.

Wherever they went, Confederates left anarchy behind. Gallatin’s ideas carried them fully as far as the force of their arms; enemy and friendly nationals alike learned quickly. Many a nobleman returned home to find his castle turned into a resort hotel by some local enterpriser. The Germanies and Italies remained fragmented. Spain fractured into a dozen polities. Brittany seceded from France. Armed at Prussian expense, Eire returned to her ancient tribal anarchy. The Balkans sub-subdivided until every village was a nation.

England held on. Scotland, Wales, the Isles of Wight and Man departed. Skye and Mull promptly seceded from Scotland, and Oxford University erected customs barriers. The formerly United Kingdom began to resemble a badly done jigsaw until it established a Gallatinist Parliament, and the perplexed king was persuaded to add “Anarch of the Commonwealth” to his titles. Ireland was gone, but Normandy was petitioning for annexation.

In 1918, amid the aftershocks, a worldwide influenza epidemic struck. Nearly four hundred Confederate airships had somehow survived the war. Stocked, again at private expense, they flew around the globe dispensing a new and powerful medication to the disease-ridden planet.

WE FINALLY FOUND our lodgings, across the street from Liberty Hall, and were graciously ensconced in the third-floor “penthouse.” It was a good thing our accommodations had been reserved. All over the tiny capital lobby floors were being rented by the square foot, and people were sleeping in hovercars. I looked at the large, inviting bed and thought of Clarissa. For a man of my age, I was doing a lot of crying these days.

Gallatinopolis was never intended to be large. Except for the Quadrennial, a sort of political skeleton crew meeting every four years to select a president, the city had remained quiet after the War in Europe, stirring again briefly in 1933 with the ascension of President Chodorov, who filled the vacancy created when President Mencken shot his own vice president in a duel, only to be gunned down by the veep’s irate mother.

Accommodations disposed of, Lucy and I crossed over to the assembly hall, passing through its doors beneath the foot-high letters:



—Fleet Admiral His Grace A. B. Chandler

We paused at a sign in the rough-paneled hallway promising THE JEFFERSONBURGER—IT’LL SET YOU FREE and, with understandable trepidation, elbowed our way into the crowded snack bar.

“Third time Congress met,” Lucy said around the greasy fringes of her lunch, “I only just made it. Always liked politics. Just perverse, I guess. After the war, Pete and me tried ranching the Matto Grosso, but between Jivaros and the soldier ants … Finally got ourselves a little stretch behind the Admiralty range, settled down carving out uranium. Antarctica’s downright homey, compared to Brazil—no poison darts! Damn sight better off than those first Moonsteaders in seventy-three!”


“There we were, rich as Croesus, an’ getting richer, when the Czar up and claim-jumped the whole bloody continent! Kinda stupid, seein’ as Russian nationals didn’t amount to a full one percent of the population—refugees, at that. Troops came about three weeks later. Pete got kinda shot up, so I herded our old hoverbuggy clear to Tierra del Fuego—dodgin’ Russky war subs, Pete all feverishlike beside me, and all we had left in the world piled on the back seat.”

Piotr Kropotkin, bloodsoaked bandages and all, addressed the Congress. Antarctica was a bonanza of coal, oil, other minerals. Its colonies were popular. America outfitted another volunteer expedition.

The Czar declared war, attacking Alaska, occupied the Kingdom of Hawaii, and invaded Japan, shattering her centuries-old isolation. The Confederate hoverfleet, a small-but-deadly 250-mile-per-hour navy, won decisively at the Bering Strait. Their imperial dynasty murdered by the Czarists, the Japanese adopted a strange quasi-Gallatinism, with feudal undertones that still confuse political scientists. Another political mystery is the precise nature of Hamiltonian involvement with the Czar—why were they allowed to maintain their regime in Hawaii, finally overthrown when massive numbers of occupying Russian troops were reassigned south?

On the ice, attrition had had its way with the first Siberian waves. Now troops came from the warmer Motherland, lacking the preparation and technology for an environment that made the Steppes seem tropical. North Americans in heated spacesuits simply led them where they could die most efficiently.

By 1958, the real war was being waged by advertising people. Broadcasts into the Russian homeland told serfs that their lives were their own, and disputed the fatherly intentions of a ruler who’d let them perish by the millions. Fusion-powered space-planes rained propaganda into the streets of Saint Petersburg. In the meantime, Lunar colonists constructed Sequoyah I, history’s most powerful wireless transmitter. Fusion-potent, it modulated Russian bedsprings, lightbulb filaments, and tooth fillings, singing the praises of well-ordered anarchy, and hissing the vile Czar from moonrise to moonset.

Angrily brandished agricultural implements and machine tools leavened by aerodropped Confederate weapons overwhelmed the Russian government. Czar Rasputin IV vanished; rumor often places him in Argentina or some other remote corner of the System. Today, the hoe and spanner symbolize the birth of Russian liberty.

The war was over, the last significant nation-state on Earth destroyed.

THE ROUGH-HEWN corridor was filled with milling people. Elaborate wrought-iron sconces illuminated portraits between the gift shops and storefronts.

The first, G. Washington, that hated tyrant, hung in a frame no less distinguished than any other. Beneath it a cuspidor was bolted to the floor. Gallatin, Genêt, Jefferson, Monroe, Calhoun—Sequoyah and Osceola in their turbans. Jeff Davis, Gifford Swansea, Arthur Downing, Harriet Beecher, massive bearded Lysander Spooner. Jean-Baptiste Huang, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Tucker, his face benign as we passed, Nock, Mencken, Chodorov, Lane, Rand, LeFevre—and suddenly an empty frame with a small brass plate:


A.L. 192–196

“Lucy, what’s this?”

She paused, grinning broadly. “That, my boy, may just represent our finest hour—and the sole legacy of the Fifth Continental Congress. Wouldn’ta missed it for buckets of rubies!” She fondly patted the frame. “Back in ninety-one, it was. The Quadrennial couldn’t stomach any of the candidates, an’ the ballot always carries this other choice, so …”

“That’s what they elected?”

“Well, who’d really die without a president for four years? Been thinkin’ of suggesting it again, sometime.”

None-of-the-Above gave way to someone named Hospers, then, appropriately enough, to a portrait of Jenny—twenty-fifth President (if you count old George and None-of-the-Above) —of the North American Confederacy.

We jostled into the delegates’ chamber. I don’t know what I’d been expecting—the U.N. General Assembly or Flash Gordon’s Bathroom—it was a barn: weathered pine, rough beams, dominated by a huge Telecom screen up front. Somewhere a vendor was crying “Peanuts! Pinons! Fried Grasshoppers!” My belly rumbled and I tasted greasy hamburger. Two walls were stepped into tiers of upholstered benches. Thousands of desks cluttered the football field-sized floor. I started toward the spectator seats.

“Hey, watcha doin’, youngster?”

“Sorry, Lucy. Is this reserved or something?”

“Shucks no! Just thought you’d like to see the mayhem up close.”

“From the floor, you mean?”

“Sure, as a delegate’s guest. I got connections. Have a grasshopper?”

“God, no!” We threaded our way along: medium-size consoles for humans and chimps, great big daddy-size ones for gorillas.

Lucy pointed at the untiered wall. “Those cylinders over there are for cetaceans. Mostly don’t give a hoot in hot water, but occasionally they want something done bad enough to take being cooped up. Usually prefer staying in a hotel pool, managing by Telecom.”

“Their delegates can vote by Telecom?”

“Hives and heatrash, no! This place is supposed to be inconvenient! You wanna encourage more government? What a thought!” She shuddered dramatically, then winked and sat down abruptly at a console, keying the terminal. Her name appeared at the front of the room, among a few others already present, followed by a number: 6076. “My constituency, such as it is, six-thousand-odd people—odd enough t’let me stand for ’em at this quiltin’ bee, anyway. Sure y’won’t have a grasshopper?”

“Ulp!” I shook my head, taking the extra seat. “Lucy, you continue to amaze me. You represent some district in Laporte?”

“No district to it, son. We’re all”at large” here. Though there’s some as shouldn’t be. Anybody can represent anybody else—or nobody but themselves. Not even themselves, if they just wanna sit in the gallery and be entertained.”

“Well, who do you represent?”

She punched up a couple of drinks, which arrived a moment later through a slot. “European war vets mostly. Colleagues, friends from the old days in Antarctica, some of Pete’s chums. You want that lemon slice?”

“Trade you for the maraschino cherry. Is that the usual way to select representatives?”

“Ain’t no usual way, Winnie, Learn that, you’ll get along fine. Most folks just show up representing friends, neighbors, people in the same trade. Maybe half a dozen are professionals, with a million proxies each.”

“That many?”

“Don’t get sarcastical! Votes don’t amount to much, anyway. It’s what gets said here. Though nothing guarantees anyone’ll listen.” The screen changed again, more delegates arriving, vote-strengths shifting as viewers all over the continent punched in proxies and cancellations. Totals were revised moment by moment; many a politico with thousands of supporters might suddenly discover that, through the miracle of electronics, he was representing no one but himself.

“Interesting,” I said finally, “but not very democratic.”

Lucy laughed. “The object’s getting things done without violating anybody’s rights. Hardly a traditional democratic concern. But this is probably the most democracy ever to park its brains on a bench. Anybody’s welcome, anybody can vote, an’ you can change your mind any time. Whole thing’s telecast so you can see how your rep’s treatin’ you—maybe shift to somebody else if you want. Representative Participatory Democracy—Gallatin’s contribution to creative political instability. Don’t take it too seriously—ain’t good for you.” She flagged the seedy-looking peanut vendor. I buried my nose in my glass, refusing to watch.

“But it should be taken seriously,” I finally protested. “It’s only the seventh Continental Congress in—”

“Even so, I’ll bet more folks’re watching that Mike Morrison western on channel 962 tonight. Everybody’s got a right to ignore the state and be safe doin’ it. Makes up for fanatics, like me.”

“Hmm. What would President Jackson say about that? By the way, you haven’t told me about the Sixth Continental Congress, yet.”

“Nothin’ t’tell. Buncha waste motion, huzzahing the two-hundredth year since Independence. Slept through most of it.” She crunched another grasshopper.

“I see. Lucy, we had a Bicentennial, but it all seemed kind of flat.”

She looked at me closely. “What was left to celebrate?”

TIME GROUND SLOWLY onward. New names blinked onto the screen, the room gradually filled. Important-looking people stopped by to greet Lucy like a long-lost friend. Apparently I’d underestimated this batty little old lady. We ordered a meal. More nothing happened. Finally: “When does this show get on the road anyway?”

She glanced up at the screen, shading her eyes. “Can’t tell, exactly. You bored or something?”

“Or something,” I admitted.

“Ain’t no certified regulation starting time. How could there be?”

“God damn it, Lucy! Clarissa and Ed are prisoners! Maybe dead already.” I cringed inwardly at the words. “And we’re sitting here on our—”

“I know. But whatever happens—even to them—is gonna happen right here, and not until at least nine-tenths of North America’s represented. Ooops!—forgot t’tell you. Take a gander at the tote screen. See that number?”

I looked: 0.83901256. “Eighty-three percent?”

“Closer t’eighty-four, and no Congress till it hits ninety.” As she spoke, the figure jumped to eighty-six. “Y’see, this place is never really empty. Always somebody wheelin’ an’ dealin’. But that number’s only gone over oh-nine-hundred six times in history, and nothin’ else counts.”

“Even if enough wheelers and dealers showed up just by coincidence?”

“Ever try organizin’ ninety percent of anything? Highest it’s been the last thirty years is seven-hundredths of a percent—I know!”

“So it takes something really big to get them all together. But Lucy, this could take weeks!”

“Give Jenny and me a little credit—an’ one of those seegars, too. I might’s well look the part.” She lit up from a hot spot on the console.

“Lucy, I just can’t get my bearings. You all keep changing the rules on me, then I turn around and there aren’t any rules! How can you live like that?”

She puffed professionally. “Only stability this side of the grave, I always say, is in the funeral parlor. Hey—looky there!” The screen was filled with names, the percentage 0.90000002 and still climbing.

“What the hell is this?”

“Shh!” Lucy whispered. “Let’s see how it’s gonna go.”

Jenny again: “Mr. Williams, we have a proposed emergency before us. Will you yield?” The screen cut to an unkempt, toothy individual with apparent adenoid problems: BUCKLEY F. WILLIAMS, FRANKLINITE FACTION.

“Erh, Madame President,” Williams answered in a bored tone, “insofar as the responsibility were mine alone, I would be deliriously gratified to accede to your charming request. However—” The audience booed enthusiastically, and someone shouted, “Cut the crap!”

“I take it you won’t yield, Mr. Williams?” Jenny said patiently. “Very well, you have ten minutes.”

“Erh, thank you very much, Madame President. Fellow delegates, as you all are consummately aware, we who deem ourselves Friends of Benjamin Franklin have long advocated an unequivocal terminus to the irresponsible and apathetic governance of this polity. There are grave and consequential matters being heinously defaulted to irrational, whimsical, and venally individualistic instrumentalities.” He tapped his prominent teeth with a stylus and sniffed. “Such nugacity is insupportable. Accordingly, and with full assent of my associates, I urge adoption of the following resolution, to wit: that the Seventh Continental Congress hereby decree an Eighth Congress, one year hence, and in each successive year thereafter, henceforward and forever.” Nose toward the rooftree, he rolled his eyes like a dying horse, sniffed again, and sat down.

Jenny waited for the boos and hisses to fade. “Thank you, Mr. Williams, do I hear a second?” Someone near Williams bobbed up and seconded before the camera could catch him. “It’s been moved and seconded that—Mr. Williams, will you kindly transmit your motion to the secretary?—that a permanent legislature be reestablished. Discussion?”

A thousand lights were blinking on the board, wrangling for recognition. Lucy cut her volume and chuckled. “Now maybe I can answer your question.”

“What did I—oh, yeah—What the hell’s going on here? What about the Federalists? Who’s this Williams, and what’s he up to?”

“Calm down, son. We’re here: ‘Gallatinists: Declaration of Emergency.”’

“Okay, but what’s all this other shit?”

“At least you understand its nature. But we gotta wade through it, anyway.”

“I thought we called this Congress to warn—”

“That’s where you’re wrong. This is just us good ol’ folks, whose number ‘happens’ to be ninety percent, remember?”

“But you said it was all carefully arranged!”

“And so it was. But everyone’s entitled to speak, and in practice, they reserve space on Jenny’s agenda, in case we ever have a Congress. Some been waiting for decades, carried over from her predecessors’ lists. Offering ’em this rare shot helped us put it together. Lucky there ain’t ten times as many. Managed to convince a few we got a real emergency. Williams and the rest are holdouts, then we’ll get down to real business.”

“This isn’t any different from my own state legislature! Who are these Franklinites, anyway?”

“They just want a permanent government—been around since Lysander was a pup. Looks t’me, though—she squinted at the screen—”like they’re still dwindlin’. Never stood much chance. What they want, under the rhetoric, is a nice coercive system of franchise monopolies, government contracts—”

“Rotarian Socialism,” I mumbled, quoting Mary Ross-Byrd. “That’s what Propertarians call it: ‘Free Enterprise—and keep those subsidies coming!”’

“You got the point. Listen—they’re about through.” The Franklinites had lost, 99.99 percent to 0.01; on to the next order of the day.

“Madame President,” said a pretty, honey-haired girl with a wry smile, “I move that Congress adjourn—”

Catcalls and curses filled the room.

Shouting over the tumult, Jenny exclaimed, “I’ll remind the delegates that a motion to adjourn is always in order! Second?”

“Madame President! May I be allowed to finish my motion?” She was still on her feet, others around her standing in their chairs. The noise died down—what can you add to a motion to adjourn? “Madame President, delegates assembled, I move that this body adjourn—permanently”

Her cohorts jumped and cheered, answered by yells around the room, some friendly, some not. The Franklinites shot a unanimous raspberry at them. Sandy answered, lowering her voice seductively in the pickup, “We love you, too, Buckie.”

Lucy had leaped up, shouting, “Second, Second!” Now she came back to herself, grinned sheepishly, and sat down. “Always did have a radical streak, I guess.” She relit her cigar. The Dissolutionists lost, three to one, but for some reason they cheered again, and Lucy beamed. “Highest total yet! Hope Pete’s restin’ happy tonight. He’s got good reason.”

“Tryin’ t’sabotage us,” Lucy explained. “Below 90 percent, we’re outa business, remember?” She didn’t seem perturbed. “They hope the Dissolutionists will join ’em, but Sandy’s too smart for that.” She waved at the young anarchist leader who grinned and waved back.

“I don’t know, Lucy, all this petty maneuvering …”

She pounded my shoulder. “What else you expect? Politics brings out the worst in people every time. Maybe I’ll join the Dissolutionists after all.” I glanced around later that evening. Most of the Franklinites had sneaked back in, not wanting to miss the real action.

The big board went on shifting as more viewers tuned in. Next up, the Prosimians, contending that orangutans and gibbons should be admitted to the Confederacy. All of their delegates were human. Forsyth had mentioned these worthies in disgust: do-gooders and ward-heelers looking to benefit from the proxy-power of others. The captain had curled his lip, “Orangs and gibbons may be the most intelligent folks on the planet—won’t have anything to do with politics!” But the Prosimians were yielding to the Alliance of Sapient Machines.

“Lucy, are there really any sapient machines you know of?”

“Well, some sure have their own personalities. My two old Thornies have consecutive numbers, but each one handles differently. You’ve probably noticed the same thing with guns. The day a machine walks in here and—Come to think of it, some prankster tried that, back in—”

“But there’s some seriousness in all this?”

She considered. “Probably not now, but y’never know about tomorrow …”

I nodded emphatically, looking around idly for an exit and a bathroom.

The Alliance—as human as the Prosimians—moved to admit orangutans, and any “other intelligences” (their definition), automatically henceforward. Their definition would have included cantaloupes, elephant’s-foot umbrella stands, and at least half the FBI agents I’ve encountered. The proposition failed.

The Neoimperialists, after a brief, Cato-esque commercial demanding destruction of any remnants of government left anywhere in the world, yielded to the Annexians. “Nothin’ new,” Lucy explained. “The Neos, mostly war vets, start with a good enough idea. Government’s morally repugnant to any decent person. But how’d they avoid killing a lot of the very folks they’re liberating? Just won’t wash.”

A slight twinge in my bladder. “What about these Annexians?”

“They just want Antarctica and some other places admitted. I dunno—we generally encourage other continents t’do things on their own. On the other hand, Greenland”—she indicated the agenda—“that might not be a bad idea.”

The Annexians took the floor. By Telecom, the current speakers for Greenland were testifying. Independent more than a century, the island had a Gallatinist assembly. In a recent 90-percent-or-better session, they’d decided to petition for admission.

The vote was affirmative. The North American Confederacy, a culture which routinely handled English, Spanish, and Quebecois, now would add another language. Well, if they could handle Cetacean, why not Danish?

And now, just as I was desperate to leave the room, I found I couldn’t.

It was our turn.