Chapter 10—Return to Holyoak
As the Queen’s airplane landed at Holyoak airport, skiffs of snow blew across the landing field. Flowers may have bloomed in Mandalay, but here winter lingered. Mara tugged a long, wool jacket over matching grey trousers before buttoning a thick outer coat. Hat, scarf, gloves, boots—she thought she was ready this time.
She turned to Briank and Marissa, who also donned their outerwear. “Remember, we may not get the warm welcome we’re used to. Stay alert. Notice everything.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” they said
“If Ra or Francisco give an order, follow it immediately without question.”
“They briefed us, Majesty,” Marissa said. “We know what to do.”
Ra came down the aisle to them. “It’s time,” he said.
He preceded the Queen’s small party down the steps to the tarmac while Francisco followed behind. A biting wind stung Mara’s face, but she held her head high. In the distance, a crowd lined the fences at the terminal. Northern Home Guard stood at attention at even intervals, facing down the shouts and chants. People waved hand-painted signs she couldn’t quite read.
Two dark limousines waited at the bottom of the steps. Ra nodded to the President’s man at the first car. Long acquaintances, Ra and Gregor Petrovich performed their duties like dance partners. Petrovich pulled open the door, and President Kelly stepped out.
“Thank you for coming, Majesty,” Kelly said, taking her gloved hand. “I hope we can figure this mess out.”
“That is my hope as well, Kerner.”
The retinue split—Ra and Petrovich climbing into the leaders’ car, Francisco and the rest of the President’s security team ushering Marissa and Briank to the second car. They left quickly, pulling around in a tight circle to avoid the protestors. Mara shivered, both from the cold and trepidation.
“Jakaya invited us to his office,” Kelly said. He brushed imaginary lint from his coat. “Campaign headquarters, more likely.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Mara leaned forward. “Has he announced his intention to run against you?”
“Not yet. But, he’s spending a lot of time at the Congress House padding old alliances and reminding the members of the favors he’s done them.” Kelly stared out the window. “Alliances and favors we cultivated together.”
Mara clasped her gloved hands together in her lap. “Kerner, will you take my advice?”
Kelly looked at her.
“Don’t show him how hurt you are. Don’t antagonize him. Let’s see if we can tempt him to relax. Perhaps then we’ll learn something useful.”
“A fine strategy,” Kelly grumbled, turning back to the window, “if I can manage it.”
Mara followed his gaze to the wintry street passing by. “Where am I speaking today?”
“After our meeting with Brown, we go to the temple in Galway. Attendance there has dropped drastically after an initial surge. The Lama thinks seekers are investing in the anti-Earth propaganda instead of finding peace within.”
Mara frowned. “And after the temple?”
“The auditorium here in Holyoak.”
“Any security problems?”
“Demonstrations are planned outside the auditorium—I’m sure Gregor briefed your man. We’ve not heard of anything at the temple.”
“I can’t imagine a demonstration on sacred ground.” The Queen sat back. “It would be such bad manners.”
The cars turned into an older part of Holyoak with pot-holed streets and neglected buildings. The neighborhood matched the heavy, overcast day. After winding through narrow side streets, the cars pulled up to a small store front. Empty display windows gave no clue to what might be inside. A trio of sturdy men in dark coats waited on the sidewalk. Ra and Petrovich got out to speak to them. Mara reached for the door, but Kelly stopped her.
“My Second of Security.” He nodded at a hulking, blonde man with harsh features speaking heatedly with Petrovich. “William’s not happy about something.”
Mara watched the tense interaction. “Jakaya knows protocol as well as we do—better if he’s anything like my Robby. Would he make us wait on purpose? Is he that petty?”
“Last week I would have said absolutely not. But, I don’t know him anymore. Maybe I never did.”
“You do, Kerner. Jakaya may have hidden his ambition from you, but he couldn’t hide everything—not after all the years you two worked together. He’s a rival now. Start thinking of him in that way and you’ll be able to anticipate him. We will come away today with some answers, believe me.”
Mara studied the President. He looked haggard, exhausted. His usually animated hands hung limp between his legs. Jakaya had hurt him deeply. But, along with the personal betrayal, his activities had caused Kelly political embarrassment. She had read the opinion pieces in the newspapers and listened carefully to what Congress Mother Mbutu told her. Kelly’s political career was over.
Ra and Petrovich returned to the car. “We’re ready now, sir,” Gregor said, helping them out.
Mara beckoned to the car behind them. Marissa, Briank and Kelly’s First Aide, Basil, hurried to join them. An old bell jingled over the door as Petrovich led them in. Desks and scarred tables divided a narrow, open space. From the faint medicinal smell, Mara thought it might have been a pharmacy once. She also noticed the tang of printing ink and rusty plumbing. Lighting in the low ceiling quivered from a loose connection and glimmered on a plastic floor that was yellowed and cracked, but clean.
A handful of people stood by their workstations. From teenagers to elders, neither wide-eyed nor hostile, they seemed to be waiting politely to return to their tasks. As Mara entered, a few of the older women dropped a curtsey.
William, President Kelly’s Security Second, shouldered past them. “This way, sir,” he said.
Francisco stationed himself at the door while the rest passed down a central aisle. Mara saw that in spite of the old store’s humble appearance, each work space used the latest equipment. She glimpsed an animated statistical graph plotting on one computer screen and admired the nearly invisible communications network. Jakaya Brown enjoyed more funding than he wanted the casual observer to know. But his invitation told her he meant for Kerner to see his connections and, maybe, her as well.
In the middle of the big room, Brown waited beside a tidy desk. Impeccable, as always, he stepped forward as they approached, his crisp gray suit and clipped black hair a contrast to President Kelly’s somewhat rumpled appearance.
“Majesty,” he said, bowing at the perfect angle to demonstrate respect without deference. Mara was impressed by this careful execution.
“Mr. President.” He held out his hand Earth-style to Kelly.
The President’s hesitation before grasping Brown’s hand was minuscule, unnoticeable except to Mara and, apparently, to Jakaya. The Queen thought the former Staff Father’s benign expression slipped ever so slightly, revealing a glimpse of cold satisfaction.
“I apologize.” Jakaya gestured to the two straight-backed chairs in front of his desk. “I don’t have a conference room, Mr. President. I hope this is acceptable.”
He beckoned to a young woman. “I’m sure we can find somewhere comfortable for the rest of your party to relax. Idayama, please make our guests welcome.”
Briank and Basil followed the girl, but Marissa hesitated, looking to the Queen for guidance. Still new to her duties as First Aide, Marissa felt more at home with crime scene gore than political gamesmanship. But, she quickly recovered and followed the others. Both Basil and Briank possessed keen political minds, and Mara trusted Marissa to follow their lead. The three of them might end up gathering more information than she did.
Jakaya poured tea at a credenza nest to his desk. “Majesty, I believe you take yours without embellishment.”
He handed her a cup and saucer, plain but elegant.
“Still sweet and light for you, sir?” he asked Kelly.
The President scowled, but accepted the cup. Mara felt herself releasing a deep breath. Maybe Kerner could do this after all.
“You must have wondered at my invitation,” Brown said, easing into his desk chair. “I realize the etiquette was questionable, but I felt the circumstances warranted a breach in manners.””
“Circumstances?” Mara asked.
“Anti-Earth sentiment is growing here in the North, Majesty. Most of the rumors are ridiculous and only incite fear, but there are real questions that require real answers.”
“What questions are those, Mr. Brown?” Mara asked.
He spread his hands. “What is Earth’s agenda? Why did Earth’s agents choose to communicate with only the Southern government?”
“Archer was here in Holyoak,” Kelly said gruffly. “You met him.”
“He came only at your insistence, Mr. President. And it was only at your insistence that we were promised a Starfleet interface—even though that promise was never kept.”
“Are you suggesting Captain Archer purposely excluded the North?” Mara asked.
“What I’m suggesting, Majesty, is that it looks like he did. And we all know that perception is everything.” He tapped a paper on his desk. “Fifty-seven percent of North Callindans we polled don’t believe The Fifteen came from Earth. Half of those believe Captain Archer told that story to destabilize our society—Northern society, to be specific.”
“That makes no sense,” Mara said.
“To a certain population, with a certain mindset, it makes perfect sense. The South has always been bigger, stronger, richer. The resentment some of our people feel towards the South, and you personally, Majesty, doesn’t need much encouragement to generate fantastic plots and conspiracies. In these minds, Mr. President, your interaction with Archer and failure to hold him to his promises have undercut your credibility. You’ve become the Queen’s puppet, in the eyes of these fanatics.”
Kelly leaned forward. “Don’t do this, Jakaya.”
“Sir?” Brown’s dark brows drew together.
“Don’t,” Kelly said darkly. “Do. This.”
Jakaya looked at his hands on the desk. “If I don’t ask these questions, Mr. President, someone else will. Someone who doesn’t understand your goals the way I do. Someone who might use this difficult situation against the Queen instead of working with her to find the answers.”
He looked up at them. “But, if you think there is another way to address this complicated problem, please, tell me.”
Mara held herself very still. She could feel the rightness of Jakaya’s analysis. His grasp of the problem was astute and laid out the implications in a direct way. But, something else was happening, something more being said.
“The problem is complicated,” she said. “Too complicated for any one man or even one government.”
“Exactly, Majesty.” Jakaya’s face relaxed. “I only want to offer my assistance in any way that serves.”
“We’re done here.” Kelly stood.
Mara rose with him, still trying to tease out the odd undercurrent she had felt. She was resigned to Kelly’s inability to keep his head any longer, but not sure what fueled his rage. Jakaya’s assessment of Kerner’s reputation wasn’t insulting or even new. Couldn’t he even sit in room with Brown without taking offense?
“Thank you for your time, Mr. President,” Jakaya said, standing. He didn’t offer his hand, and neither did he bow. “Majesty, a great pleasure, as always. Gregor, William, may I walk out with you?”
“Don’t bother,” Kelly growled, yanking on his coat.
He strode up the aisle and out the door, trailing aides and security. Jakaya turned to the Queen, but she shook her head and held up a hand to stop him.
“This time,” she said, buttoning her coat, “we follow proper etiquette.”
She left him standing at his desk and steeled herself for the tirade to come.
“Order!” The Queen demanded. “We must have order!”
The small conference room quieted. Marissa and Basil stopped arguing with Briank. Vice President Reneau and President Kelly stopped shouting at each other. Somewhere, in another room, a telephone rang.
Mara folded her hands in her lap and took a breath. “Constance, we asked you to join us because you’ve been following the anti-Earth movement so closely. But, if you and Kerner can’t be civil …”
“I apologize, Majesty.” The stern woman blushed. “Mr. President.”
Kelly blew air through his pursed lips. “Sorry, Connie. Mara.”
“Good. Now.” She rearranged herself in the chair. “Please continue, Briank.”
“Yes, Majesty.” He pulled a brochure from the stack of papers on the table. “As I started to say, Brown’s literature is very sensible.” He looked up to see if more protests would interrupt him, but everyone in the room remained polite, if sour.
“He poses questions without rhetoric or spin. For example…” He unfolded the brochure and read. “If The Fifteen traveled through a black hole, sending them light years off course, how is it that the Enterprise found Callinda at all? What are the odds that a ship would stumble across a particular planet in the vast expanse of the galaxy? Coincidence?”
Briank looked up. “You have to admit, it’s a good question.”
“The genius is,” Basil said, “no matter how we answer the questions, the suspicion remains.”
“Suspicion about Earth and about the South,” Marissa added.
“Yes,” Vice President Reneau said tersely. “Never mind that the South has always supported our independence. Never mind that the subsidies are in place because our economy would collapse without them.” She glared at Kelly. “The fact is we couldn’t stand alone even if we wanted to.”
“Not yet,” Kelly qualified.
“So, posing these questions serves Jakaya either way,” Mara said, hoping to guide them back to the current problem. “If we can’t answer them to the public’s satisfaction, he’s seen as the hero in uncovering the Great Conspiracy.”
“And if this fear subsides,” Kelly continued, “he’ll be the one remembered for taking action.”
Reneau got up and paced around the table. “He’s positioned himself perfectly, so what is he waiting for? Why not announce his candidacy and get it over with?”
“He must have a reason,” Kelly said. “Jakaya has always been methodical, careful about every detail. I don’t think that would change.”
“Whatever the reason for his delay,” Basil said, “he will make the announcement eventually.”
“I don’t trust those polling figures he fed us,” Kelly groused.
“No. We’ll conduct our own surveys.” Reneau jotted a note. “Don’t worry about those figures too much, Mr. President.”
“There was one positive statistic in that analysis,” Briank offered. “You’re still very popular, Majesty.”
“Really? Jakaya made it sound like resentment toward me had grown.”
“Not according to their polls.” He pawed through his papers and handed the Queen a sheet.
“Even the staff spoke highly of you, Ma’am,” Marissa continued. “The anti-Earth/anti-South pieces in the papers that criticized you bothered them.”
“They were embarrassed by them,” Basil corrected, “which might be a whole other discussion.”
“Maybe, we can use this,” Mara showed Kelly the sheet. “If I’m still popular, maybe people will listen to me.”
“When they’re not listening to Jakaya usurp my presidency.” Kelly grumped.
“We should rebroadcast Ambassador Running Bear’s last message, too,” Mara said, choosing to ignore his growing melancholy. “He stated Earth’s intentions clearly—to establish relations, one sovereign planet to another.”
“It won’t matter,” Basil said. “People won’t believe him.”
“Some will,” Mara argued. “I asked him to let the Elders send messages to us as well. I think seeing Reginald Gibson’s sister and hearing her words will matter a great deal.”
“We need more information about the anti-Earth movement,” Briank said. “Who is their leadership? How are they funded?”
“I’m working on that,” Reneau told them. “The trail is quite convoluted. They don’t want to be identified.”
“The first public statements came out of The New Québécois,” Briank reminded her.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re looking at Notre Dam.”
“Emmond?” Kelly asked.
Reneau smiled. “Governor Mbutu is too smart and too connected to blatantly support a radical movement. And he’s carefully neutral in his public statements.”
“But, you think he’s part of it?” Mara asked.
Reneau shook her head. “I can’t say yet. But, we are gathering information on others as well. I’ll send you our preliminary report, Majesty.”
“There’s something else you need to know, sir.” Reneau sat down next to the President. “General Chan spoke to the business consortium in New Quebec this morning. His remarks could be construed as support for Jakaya.”
“What?” Kelly blanched.
“Several of the attendees called the office after the meeting. They considered such criticism from the General of your Home Guard as actionable. You may have to fire Chan.”
“This can’t be possible,” Kelly muttered.
“Congress Father Yee called as well,” Reneau continued. “He said there are grumbling in chambers.”
“What kind of grumblings?”
“There’s talk of turning away the diplomatic ship when it arrives.”
At last, the room fell silent.
The snow showers around Holyoak gave way to watery light, which bled through the gray bandage of sky. Too little, too late, Mara thought, not knowing if her grandfather’s adage referred to the weather or foretold the future.
Another wave of nausea hit, bending the Queen over the toilet in front of her. She gagged and choked a thin string of spittle, her stomach long emptied, and rode the wave over the crest and down. She sat up, resting against the wall’s cold tile, and looked again at the small window over the toilet. Even the thin light was fading now. She really needed to get ready for her speech. Absently, she brushed at the splatters on the bodice of her gown.
Suddenly, she remembered the last time she wore the gold brocade. Jonathan jumped out of his shuttle that first day, a man completely at ease in his body. She remembered stumbling a little in this dress. She told herself then she was surprised that he looked so Callindan, but in fact she staggered at his handsome grace.
Her burning, constricted throat tightened even more and she closed her eyes against tears. Think about the speech, she told herself. Think about Kerner. But, Archer’s smiling face kept her company through another round of heaving.
A quiet tap sounded on the bathroom door. “Majesty?” Marissa tested.
“One moment.” Her voice sounded clotted.
“Should I cancel your appearance?”
She rose on shaky legs, splashed water on her face, checked her gown in the mirror. She burped a little, but her stomach seemed to be calming. Quickly, she brushed her hair and slipped combs back in place. When she opened the door, Marissa and Moira Kelly waited for her.
“What can I get you?” Moira asked, taking Mara’s arm. She pressed the back of her hand to the Queen’s forehead. “At least you don’t have a fever. You say you caught this flu from Collier?”
“It’s all over Mandalay,” Marissa said.
“You shouldn’t go out tonight.”
Mara took her friend’s hand. “I have to. You know that.”
Marissa handed her a glass of water. Mara sipped carefully. “My speech tonight lays the groundwork for answering the questions Jakaya has asked. And it let’s the people know Kerner is asking those questions, too.”
Moira’s mouth quirked. “Jakaya thought this would finish Kerner.”
“It still might, Moira,” Mara warned. “We don’t know how widespread this anti-Earth movement is.”
Moira’s chin tipped up. “But, we have to try.”
“Yes, dear, we have to try.”
The man glared out from the interface screen like a dark hawk—sharp brow, sharp nose, sharp cheekbones. Only Ambassador Running Bear’s bow mouth softened his aspect—his mouth and the long, black hair that fell over his shoulder.
“I am concerned, of course,” he said, his rich voice filled with music, “but misunderstandings like this are common early in a first contact. And we are dealing with a first contact, even though all parties are human. Callinda has every right to be suspicious of Earth, and every right to demand us to declare our intentions. I’ll prepare a more detailed statement and send it to you right away.
“Let me be clear, however.” His obsidian eyes snapped. “Callinda’s internal affairs are of no concern to Earth. I will deal with the legally elected or appointed leaders of the planet, not political hopefuls and certainly not extremists. And if there’s any indication that I or the civilians with me are not welcome, we will turn this ship around and return to Earth.
“In the meantime, there are a few people here who would like to speak to you.”
He beckoned to someone off to the side and stood away from the small desk. An elderly woman took his place. She smiled, her fluffy white hair framing an angular, intelligent face. Blue eyes crinkled with her smile.
“Hello,” she said, her gaze inviting and confident. “I’m Lydia Abercrombe. Reginald Gibson was my brother.” Her smile widened. “It’s hard for me to imagine Reggie as a king, but I guess that’s how you think of him. It certainly wasn’t his ambition. He considered himself a farmer, though he wasn’t very good at it.” She laughed, deep-throated and contagious.
“I remember the day Reggie and the other settlers left on The Callinda. It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky, and the apple blossoms had just started to bloom…”
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Click here to read Chapter 11.