Chapter 14—Hospital Talk
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“I don’t like this,” Dr. Jones muttered, buttoning the Queen’s dressing gown.
“You’re starting to repeat yourself, Deborah.” Mara shifted in the hospital bed, gritting her teeth against the blue fire that shot through her shoulder and back.
“You’re not strong enough,” Jones continued. “That wound can start hemorrhaging again at any moment.”
“I need to know what’s happening. Let them in.”
Still muttering, Jones crossed to the door. “Fifteen minutes,” Mara heard her say.
“She takes very good care of you,” Lydia Abercrombe smiled from the chair at Mara’s side. “But, she’s prickly, hmm?”
Marapura squeezed the fingers that slipped into hers. Lydia had refused to leave after the shooting. She persuaded the hospital staff to set up a cot in Mara’s room and somehow conjured toiletries and a change of clothes amidst the chaos. In and out of consciousness that first day, all Mara remembered was Lydia’s angelic face hovering over her.
When the door opened again, Lydia rose to greet the visitors. Mara watched in wonder as the slim, elderly woman charmed the scowl off General Jone’s face, helped Robby arrange chairs, and kissed Ambassador Running Bear on the cheek. Congress Mother Mbutu embraced her. Even Francisco, uneasy in his new role as Security First, relaxed in her care.
The original Queen, Mara mused, accepting kisses and kind words from her friends. Was Reginald Gibson so noble? Did he learn from his little sister?
“The Prime Minister will join us shortly,” Robby told her as Deborah shut the door.
Once everyone settled, Mara put forth her best smile. “Thank you for coming to me with this briefing. I know how busy you all are, so let’s get started. General?”
The big man cleared his throat. “Yes. Mendelsohn found money transfers to the sniper’s account from a Notre Dam investment company. Simple enough on the surface, but a clerk for the company also belongs to the Alliance for Callinda. General Chan is holding the clerk and the party leader for questioning. Later today…” He paused. “After President Kelly’s funeral… Congress Mother Mbutu and I will question them ourselves.”
Silence took the room. Mara closed her eyes, remembering her phone call to Moira the night before, remembering their children, remembering all she had wanted to say to her big, blustery friend and now never could. She took a shallow breath and pushed on.
“Do we know yet how the shooter gained access to the roof?”
“It looks like a carefully planned operation,” Francisco said. “Jessup Taylor, the guard assigned to Roof-Center, was late that morning—car trouble, he told us. In fact, the electrical system of his car was tampered with.” Francisco paused, refocused. “Because Jessup was late, he was alone in the locker room. That’s where the assassin killed him and took his place.”
“In the barracks?” Mara shuddered. “How did he get past the gate? And all of you?”
The young man’s face darkened. “It was Gravis’ new steward.”
“No,” Mara breathed, remembering the young man who trimmed her arborvitae. “You and Gravis both vetted him.”
Francisco’s face struggled, hardened. “Not well enough.”
“The plan was perfect,” General Jones cut in. “The Roof-Center position is right next to the stairway, so the shooter set up without encountering any of the other guards. And all they saw from their distance was Jessup at his post.”
“Marissa is helping, I understand.”
“Yes, Ma’am. She’s a skilled investigator. We’re lucky to have her.”
“And you’re getting along without her, Robby?” Mara turned to her Staff Father.
“Of course, Majesty.” Dinh touched the bridge of his glasses. “The Elders are comfortable and safe. We’re seeing to all their needs.”
“The Palace is the safest place for them,” the General said.
“But, you can’t hold the Elders prisoner there,” Mara said.
“We understand, dear,” Lydia said. “We’re content to meet our families as the General and Francisco advise for now. And the Ambassador is seeing to the Press.”
“Which is becoming problematic,” Running Bear said, “As you know, The Sadat is still in orbit. Even though the relatives of the original colonists chose to stay, they are still wards of the diplomatic corps. It would be unconscionable of us to strand them in a hostile situation, but the ship’s presence can only make matters worse.”
He nodded at the Queen’s side table and the newspapers stacked there. “You’ve read about the anti-Earth protests in Faith and Vanessa.”
“Now an equally vocal pro-Earth movement seems to be growing in response, emboldened they say, by Sadat’s presence. A march is scheduled later this week in Holyoak. And an intra-Line commission has formed to counter anti-Earth propaganda.”
Running Bear leaned forward. “I dare not recognize these groups or their activities. It would only make them more aggressive and the anti-Earth sects angrier. What’s needed is de-escalation. We must remove any fuel for either fire.”
“You want to send us home,” Lydia said.
“But, if pro-Earth sentiment is rising,” the Congress Mother said, “surely that’s a good sign. People are connecting with Earth, with the Elders.”
“People are taking sides based on fear instead of information,” Running Bear said. “Once established, an emotional mind-set is nearly impossible to change. If we can’t calm the populace, it will take years, even decades, to create a functional alliance between Earth and Callinda.”
Mara studied the Ambassador. Something in the tone of his voice, in the spaces between his words, tickled her attention. The pain medication Deborah had given her started to soften the edges inside and out. She struggled to follow the frayed string of her intuition.
“Diplomacy requires decades,” she said quietly. “Lifetimes. You know that, Ambassador. But, you don’t have that much time, do you?”
Running Bear turned his inscrutable face toward her.
“I think your assignment changed on the way here,” Mara continued. “I think Earth needs Callinda now.”
Running Bear maintained his perfect stillness. Only his chest, rising and falling a bit faster, betrayed him. Finally, he blinked.
“Yes. My mission changed.”
General Jones bristled. Francisco pushed away from the wall.
The Ambassador addressed the Queen only. His black eyes snapped.
“Earth faces global destruction from an unknown enemy. All we know are the fragments Captain Archer learned from a time traveler, a temporal guardian, who has his own unspoken agenda. If we are to believe this second-hand information, our only hope of survival is to send Captain Archer after the Xindi, send his ship into a region of space that devours anything that enters, and wait while we watch the skies.
“My mission now is the same as every diplomat’s in the corps—find a safe haven for the people of Earth.”
“Refugees,” Delilah said. “You want to send refugees from Earth.”
“It’s not safe for them here,” Jones said. “Surely, you have other allies, other planets, that would take you.”
Running Bear nodded. “Those arrangements are underway. But the Xindi weapon is designed to destroy an entire planet—obliterate it. Naturally, our allies are nervous that, once they destroy Earth, the Xindi might turn their weapon on any planet harboring Humans.”
Mara caught the worried look that passed between Horatio and Delilah. If Earth’s allies feared reprisals from the Xindi, shouldn’t Callinda as well?
“And then there’s the question of evacuation,” Running Bear continued. “How do you transplant a world population without creating panic? Who, if anyone, stays behind?”
The Ambassador paused. For the first time, his appearance of calm certainty wavered. “It’s a nightmare,” he said.
“Then, we have to stay,” Lydia said. “If we can convince Callinda to accept us, perhaps she will accept the refugees. Wash, Alonzo and I brainstormed what it might take to win over the public when we voted to keep on coming.” She touched the Ambassador lightly on the sleeve of his suit coat. “Let us help you, Jason.”
The door burst open.
“I need the room.” The Prime Minister rushed in. “Horatio, stay.”
The others hustled out, Robby shutting the door firmly behind him.
“Dharma and Lillette were taken to Holyoak this morning.” Cabot threw a newspaper onto Mara’s bed. “They’re to appear before the committee investigating the attack. The committee is trying to blame the Underground for the assassination.”
“What?” General Jones picked up the paper and began to read.
“Who?” Mara asked.
“The summons came from Etienne Yee—their Congress Father.”
“Of course, the sisters had nothing to do with it,” Mara said.
“But, an investigation could expose operations and agents.” Cabot paced the room. “It could put lives at risk or even cripple the Underground.”
Mara fought to keep her thoughts clear. Damn Deborah’s pain pills! “The Underground is accountable only to the South’s sovereign and the North’s President. Dharma and Lillette don’t have to tell an investigation anything.”
“But, they will.” Horatio pushed up from his chair. “They’ll want to uncover the plot as much as the investigators.”
“So, why implicate them?” Cabot asked. “Why splash it all over the papers?”
“The Underground works best when people forget about it,” Mara said. “Maybe someone really does want to cripple it.”
“Or a big, drama-loving ego made a stupid mistake,” Horatio grumbled. “I know Etienne Yee. I’m surprised his picture isn’t front page.”
“We’ll look into it,” Cabot said firmly, “as soon as we finish with Kerner’s funeral.”
“Then, we should go,” Horatio said, checking his timepiece. “The airplane is waiting.”
“Go,” Mara echoed.
She wanted to grab up her clothes and go with them. She thought of willowy Dharma and buxom Lillette, both of them dedicated to shining light into dark places.
“Be careful,” she muttered, her words slurring together, worry following her into sleep’s dark embrace.
“Majesty, he’s calling again.” Briank held the telephone in one hand and the wall plug in the other. “He’s very insistent.”
From the bed, Mara held up her good hand to silence her aide. The vid screen on the wall demanded her full attention.
“Line Elders today visited Children’s Hospital in Mandalay,” a female newscaster reported outside the medical facility.
The scene jumped to a shot of Lydia Abercrombe, smiling and laughing with a bald toddler on her lap.
“Administrators worried about security precautions due to the sniper attack at the Palace just two weeks ago…”
Another shot showed ninety-six-year-old Isabella Mendoza playing Itsy Bitsy Spider with a tiny child in a crib. The baby’s hands reached through the slats to grasp Isabella’s gnarled fingers.
“…but children, parents, and staff welcomed these many-removed grandparents…”
One of the doctors handed Donovan Kelly a chart, who flipped through it expertly. The two stood over a pre-teen boy watching warily from his bed. Donovan stooped over the boy, his seamed, ruddy face breaking into a dazzling smile as he slipped fingers to the boy’s wrist.
“…several of whom enjoyed long careers as medical professionals.”
The view changed again to a head-and-shoulders shot of Ambassador Running Bear in shirtsleeves, his black hair loose around his shoulders.
“The Elders want to be of service to Callinda,” he said, his manner relaxed and open. “The entire world is their family. What’s more important than family?”
“Good,” Mara whispered. “Well done.”
“Majesty.” Briank held up the phone.
She waved him over as the news feed shifted to another story. Briank turned off the vid and plugged in the phone. He hurried back to the hallway where Robby had set up a cramped space for the Queen’s aide on duty.
“Here he is, Ma’am,” he said through the receiver.
Mara heard the connection click into place.
“Jakaya,” she said briskly. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
“No need to apologize, Your Majesty,” Brown replied. “I wanted to update you personally on the investigation.”
“Are you in charge of the committee now?” Mara asked. “I thought President Reneau might appoint you after the way you handled the Singh sister situation.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Luckily we were able to enlist the Underground’s help without compromising it any further. But both sisters have had to retreat from public view. The media still hounds them.”
“They’ll recover,” Mara said. “They always do. So. Tell me. What do you know?”
“The more we learn about The Alliance for Callinda, the less it looks like a political party. The party leader is no one—a drop-out from the University of Notre Dam with no political connections and no meaningful employment history. Background checks showed none of the party ‘officials’ to be significant in any way. Most of them are students.”
Mara sat up in the bed, her shoulder aching. “So, The Alliance for Callinda is a front for something else.”
“That’s what I believed at first. But, even as a front it’s not very convincing. The trail from the assassin to The Alliance was too apparent, and uncovering the party as a sham too easy.”
“What do you think it means?”
“It’s a diversion, all of it,” Brown said, “but a diversion away from what I have no idea. Someone created The Alliance, or ordered it to be created. If we can learn who that is, we may solve this mystery.”
“And, until then?”
“Until then, Majesty, be very careful.”
A chill shivered through Mara. “You think I was a target, not just ‘collateral damage‘ like the papers say.”
“Yes, Ma’am, but I have no evidence to prove it. All I have is correspondence between Alliance members that refers to your unborn child as ‘an abomination.’”
“Dearest All,” she whispered.
“I’ll speak with you again soon.”
He broke the connection, but Mara held the phone for a long time.
She would check with Horatio, but she had a feeling his independent investigation would verify Brown’s conclusions.
She shook her head, trying to clear away the horrible taste of the word from her mind.
“One pebble at a time, she muttered to herself, lifting the phone again. “Briank, would you and Francisco come in, please?”
The young men entered at once. Mara shifted in the bed, the sling around her left arm hot and itchy, the pain beneath it coming back to life after a few hours of quiet.
“We go home in the morning,” she said to them. “Are we ready?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Francisco nodded sharply.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Briank grinned, his relief clear.
Mara chuckled. “I never thanked you properly for taking on this duty, Briank. I know it wasn’t easy, sitting at a folding table in the middle of a hospital hallway.”
Briank shook his head. “It’s my privilege to serve you, as always.”
She believed him. If he still thought badly of Jonathan or judged her in any way, he never showed it. After the shooting, he took over as First Aide so Marissa could help with the investigation. He fiercely screened her visitors and her calls—not even Horatio in his most dangerous mood intimidated him. And since Robinson had his hands full taking care of the Elders and managing their schedules, Briank had worked with Francisco to vet a new aide for the Queen. Mara pitied the candidates.
She looked at the two men before her, proud of both of them for assuming new roles at the worst of times. Then, she checked the clock.
“Tamarla should be here by now, Briank. Have a lovely evening.”
“I… what?” The smile faded from his face. “Majesty, I’m here with you until midnight.”
“Not tonight.” She glanced at Francisco, who stifled a smile. “I understand you have a special visitor from out of town.”
“How…?” he started, then snapped his mouth shut, his face reddening. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“And that I’ve actually met this mysterious young woman.”
The young man sighed, resigned. “Yes, Ma’am. She was Jakaya Brown’s assistant. You saw her at his campaign headquarters.”
“And you’ve been corresponding ever since,” Mara concluded.
Briank shot Francisco a treacherous look. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Sometimes, it’s good to be Queen,” Mara grinned. “I can ask the most inappropriate questions.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Briank agreed.
Francisco barked a laugh.
“So, go. We’ll see you tomorrow. Early.”
“Thank you, Majesty.” Briank dipped his head in a bow, his smile returning. “Good-night.”
As he opened the door to leave, Naveen moved aside to let him pass. He held the door open from the hall.
“Reporting for shift change, boss,” he said to Francisco. “Can you brief me?”
Mara had turned the vid back on. The picture showed Jakaya Brown addressing an anti-Earth rally.
“Francisco, wait,” she said.
He motioned at Naveen and returned to the Queen’s bedside. The door snicked shut.
Brown’s voice drifted from the vid speaker. “… must remember our commitment to peace and compassion. This lack of civility does not become us. Where is our Callindan hospitality? Where are the open hearts and open minds I know so well…”
Mara watched Francisco. “You were at his headquarters with us last spring.”
Hands caught on his hips, Francisco nodded, squinting at the screen.
“I know you and Ra vetted him before we left Mandalay.”
A scowl flicked across his face, a trace of the sorrow he carried for his former commander. Again, he nodded.
“What do you think of him?”
Francisco’s mouth popped open. “Majesty, I don’t understand politics… or politicians. Ask Briank.”
“I’m asking you.”
He watched the speech a little longer, clearly uncomfortable. Mara waited.
“My grandpop had a saying,” he finally said. “From what the Elders tell me, it came to him down the Line all the way from Earth. I think it fits.”
He shrugged. “The man talks out both sides of his head.”
Mara grunted softly in surprise. “Thank you, Francisco.”
When he left to brief Naveen, Mara leaned back into the pillows and dialed General Jone’s number.
Demonstrators blocked the Palace gate. Painted signs above the chanting heads read “Earthers Go Home!” and “Free Callinda.” Across the street pro-Earth supporters stood three-deep on the sidewalk. They heckled the protestors and waved signs of their own. “Embrace History,” they said, and “Listen to Your Elders.”
Several blocks away, the Queen’s limousine slowed. Francisco spoke furiously into his headset.
“Don’t stop,” he told Crystalline. “Take the Boulevard.”
The Queen’s chauffeur eased the big car down King’s Boulevard toward the Congress House. “That demonstration wasn’t scheduled,” she said, “so Home Guard can clear them out.”
“Already in progress,” he hissed. Turning around, he said to the back seat. “The delay won’t be long, Majesty.”
“Very good, Francisco. Thank you.”
Dr. Jones signaled Briank to slide the partition closed.
“He’s too nervous,” she said to the Queen.
“It’s the first time he’s been responsible for moving me through the city—of course, he’s nervous.”
“Ra was never this flustered.”
“Times have changed, Deborah. Francisco knows it. He can’t copy Ra’s style even if he wanted to. He has to find his own way to be First.”
“Hmph,” Deborah muttered. “I hope he hurries up about it.”
They passed the Prime Minister’s office, a simple brick house covered in flowering ivy. Mara smiled, remembering how she and Willa laughed while planting all that ivy. Willa had been ridiculously pregnant, unable to bend or reach or even sit. Mara remembered she finally lay giggling on the lawn, her huge moon of a belly rising up from the grass. Mara’s hand stole over the beginning swell of her own belly. In time, with luck and care, she would become as ridiculous.
The car eased along the boulevard and back toward the Palace gates. Stragglers from the demonstration watched the Queen’s car pass, but a squad of Home Guard kept them moving. Trash littered the walk and street. Mara realized she was holding her breath, and let it out slowly as the car passed through the gates. The familiar crunch of the tires on the drive’s white gravel sounded unexpectedly comforting.
“Remember,” Deborah said as they rounded the circle, “if you don’t confine yourself to bed, with your blood pressure as high as it is now, you risk, losing the baby.”
This conversation was an old one, something Deborah had brought up every time she looked in on Mara in the hospital.
“I understand perfectly,” Mara said shortly.
Deborah pointed at Briank.
“Mr. Dinh has everything ready,” he told her.
As the entrance came into view, Mara gasped. The entire Palace staff crowded the white steps. Mara saw Elspeth wiping her eyes with her apron. In unnaturally clean work pants, Gravis stood with Rosie on a leash. Fatima, the housekeeper, clung to Jasper. Mendelsohn and Marissa bracketed Lydia. Several other Elders waited with the staff—Donovan Kelly, Washington Brown and Alonzo Juarez. All the Seconds were there, and all the night staff.
Applause started before the car stopped. Francisco jumped out and opened the back door. Robby came forward, his face shining. He bent into the car and offered his hands to the Queen.
“Welcome home, Your Majesty,” he smiled.
He eased her out and, when she straightened up, cheers and whistles punctuated the applause. Mara touched the comb in her hair, smoothed the front of her tunic, and then covered her mouth as tears trickled down her cheeks. Lydia broke from the others and pulled Mara into a careful embrace. The others surrounded her, offering words of welcome and relief. They reached for her tentatively. Only Rosie jumped up on her legs without reservation.
“Thank you,” she said, wiping at her eyes with one hand. “Thank you for carrying on and welcoming our guests with your usual care and attention. Thank you for supporting Francisco during this difficult transition, and for consoling Ra’s family. Thank you for cooperating with all the investigators who have tramped over the grounds and through the buildings, and who will continue to disrupt your work. Thank you for your bravery and dedication.” She stopped and smiled. “It’s good to be home.”
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Click here to read Chapter 15.