Chapter 15—Changing of the Guard
Jonathan Archer sat at his desk fiddling with snippets of optic string. His light brown hair had been close-cropped, making his long face even longer.
“I remember General Chan,” he said, “from that brunch we went to. I didn’t like him. And didn’t you say he spoke against President Kelly back when this all started?”
He swiped the string bits into his palm and reached under his desk. “I think you’re right not to trust him—he could be derailing your whole investigation. It’s a smart move to send General Jones to end-run him and examine the evidence for himself.”
He glanced up at the screen, his eyes crinkling under heavy brows. “If my opinion counts for anything. You did name Rosie’s puppies after my senior staff even though I asked you not to. Though, I have to admit, calling for T’Pol and having her come running does appeal.
“You asked about the crew.” He picked up the splicer and partially assembled relay from his desk and started threading more optic string. Over the course of the letter the round component had grown porcupine spikes of transparent micro-cable.
“Leaving space dock and finally getting our orders was a big relief for everyone,” he said. “But, after three weeks, that’s worn off. Phlox is worried about the stress… all this waiting.”
Archer turned the relay this way and that, studying his handiwork. “So, we’re playing combat simulations with the MACO, the marines onboard, and stepping up everyone’s fitness requirements. Phlox thinks if we work the crew hard enough, they’ll at least sleep at night.”
He paused, studied a connection on the relay, and then set it aside. “Admiral Forest told me the same thing you did—the colonists’ relatives seem to be turning public opinion in favor of Earth. I know Command wants to send a ship of Starfleet dependents to Callinda. I’m trying not to take it personally.” He scowled and smiled at the same time. “I guess it’s good to have a back-up plan in case Enterprise fails. But, we won’t.
“Mom wants to be on that ship. She thinks it’s her best chance of getting to you, and she’ll play every card she has to make it happen.” His lips curled. “Rumor has it Ambassador Running Bear gave the okay today, so you’d better count on her taking over when she gets there.”
He gazed into the screen, his eyes searching as if he could find her. “You looked beautiful in your last letter—even with that damn sling.” His gray eyes searched. “I want to talk to Francisco. When we’re done here today, I want you to pause the playback and give it to him to hear the rest.” His heavy eyebrows arched. “And I want privacy. This is man-to-man, so keep your nose out.
“But, first…” He leaned back. “… a poem. You’re always on my mind, Mara, but lately… well… here it is.”
When trees are turning
Chimney smoke is curling
Falling leaves are swirling
I’ll be coming home.
When geese are wending
Apple branches bending
When the summer’s ending
I’ll be coming home.
When Autumn’s first frost
Glistens on the corn stalks
The bales of hay and sweet squash
I’ll be coming home.
And hill and meadow
Are crimson, rust and yellow
When the fruits of August mellow
I’ll be coming home.
And rest will greet me
Love will receive me
And joy, like a deep, red wine
Fills my heart
I have been trodding
The furrowed fields of summer
Footsteps heavy under
The seeds I’ve come to sow.
When some have sprouted
And I have hoped and doubted
And every bushel’s counted
I’ll be coming home.
Nights will be cold then
Foxes in their holes then
Skies awaiting snow when
I’ll be coming home.
When hearths are burning
Tables set with sterling
I will be returning…
Francisco stepped into the Queen’s sitting room from her private office and shut the door silently behind him. His face flamed red.
Oh, dear, Mara thought. What did Jonathan say to him? I can always replay the transmission later…
Francisco never glanced her way, just took a formal stance by the door, his full mouth a tight, thin line.
…Or leave it private, like Jon asked.
“Francisco, join us,” she said. “You’re part of this discussion, too.”
“I will, Ma’am,” he replied, his voice razor sharp, “when Naveen relieves me.”
“All right,” she said meekly, glancing around at the others in her sitting room.
Washington Brown and Alonzo Juarez, the two Elders, eyed each other knowingly, but Jasper and Marissa murmured together and sipped tea, unaware of the Security First’s discomfort. Mara shifted on the settee, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Go ahead, Marissa,” she said.
The aide took a breath. “Our investigation shows that either the assassins got help from inside the Palace or they found a way to break into our computer system. Or both. They had personal information about members of the Royal Guard, schedules, posting assignments—things only Ra knew.”
“Your computer system is old and vulnerable,” Alonzo Juarez stated, “and easy to hack—at least by Earth standards. Wash, here, asked me to take a look.”
He shook his head, his crown of iron gray hair catching glints of light. “It took me about three minutes to access the information your girl’s talking about.”
“And he didn’t have any of the access codes,” Jasper added.
Juarez quirked a smile, his heavy-lidded eyes bright in a leathery face. “But, we’re on it, Reina. Jasper’s a good student. The new firewalls are in place now. Give us a few more days and we’ll have the programs rewritten.
“But, it worries me.” Juarez sat forward, bony elbows on bony knees. “Muy preocupados. Jasper says your system is state-of-the-art. If that’s true, your whole network, maybe your whole government, is at risk.”
Mara swallowed. “I’ll brief the Prime Minister.”
Juarez raised his eyebrows and leveled his dark eyes at her. “Pronto.”
When she nodded, he sat back and nodded to Washington Brown. The old man cleared his throat and rocked from the chair to his feet. Tall, stooped and wire-thin, he waved one ebony hand at Francisco.
“Get on over here, son. I don’t know what the Queen’s feller razed you ‘bout, but he ain’t here, is he? He don’t know you sleep like a nervous cat in that office of your’n every night. He don’t know you drill your boys ‘til they like to drop. Dressin’ you down make him feel easier ‘bout not bein’ here hisself, that’s all.”
Face burning, Francisco crossed to the old man, who slapped him hard on the shoulder.
“Your boss, he set good protocol, that’s for sure,” Brown told him. “And he trained y’all best he could, but there weren’t no way he coulda’ seen this comin’. Peaceful people got no want for what we need do now. This here’s outside yer kin, but you stepped up. Yessir, you stepped up fine.”
Francisco gazed at the old man, who winked and dropped back into his seat. “Go on now and tell the Queen what we been up to.”
“Elder Washington was a member of something called Special Forces on Earth,” Francisco started. He turned toward Mara, all signs of his recent embarrassment gone. “Based on his experience and advice, we’ve mounted surveillance cameras around the Palace grounds and in the Palace itself. We’ve added more hand-to-hand combat training to our drill schedule. Until the computers are secure, scheduling of all Palace staff will be random. Everyone will need to be on call and able to report to work in an hour’s notice.”
He looked at Marissa. “All members of the staff, the Guard, their families and associates are being investigated.”
“I’m sorry, Majesty,” Marissa said. “These reports will keep me from my duties with you for quite some time.”
“Don’t worry about that, dear,” Mara told her. “Briank and Francisco transferred Ohio Kelly to the aide staff. They thought it would be safer to hire a new housekeeper than a new aide.”
Marissa smiled. “Ohio’s sweet. Don’t’ let Briank bully her too much.”
Mara smiled back, but she felt like she was drowning.
“One other thing,” Jasper said. “From the data Señor Juarez and I found, it looks like Ra might have suspected his computer was compromised. He started to add another layer of security to his files.” Jasper’s face pinched. “But, he didn’t have time to finish.”
“He didn’t ask you to help him?” Mara asked.
Jasper shook his head, his mouth working. “He must have suspected me.”
Mara started to speak, to offer her First of Communications some degree of comfort, but she glanced at Francisco and the words froze in her throat. Then, she looked at Marissa and her mouth dried up completely. On both their faces, she saw nothing—a carefully constructed blank that could only cover suspicion. Already drowning, Mara felt the current drag her deep.
Later that night, the meetings and phone calls and worry drove Marapura into a restless sleep. She twisted in the sweaty sheets, jerking awake only to fall back into dreams of being chased or chasing after someone else.
Mara treaded ice-cold water in the dark. A gleam of moonlight flickered on the rippling surface.
“Mommy?” The tiny voice whispered close.
“I’m here.” Mara’s teeth clattered in her head.
“You have to remember, Mommy. Remember what the fat man said.”
“The fat man?” Mara turned in the freezing water, her numb legs pumping.
“He told you, but you didn’t listen. You usually listen, but he surprised you.”
“What? Linny, I don’t understand.”
“We’re okay, Mommy, don’t be scared.”
“Don’t be scared to go.”
“Go where, Linny?”
Mara peered into the dark. And then, something grabbed her ankle.
The Queen rocketed out of sleep with a gargled scream. Dawn tinted the windows gray as she gasped for air.
“Linny,” she said aloud.
She untangled from the bed, went to the closet, and pulled on the first clothes she could grab.
“Who’s this?” she said into the phone. “Naveen?”
“Yes, Majesty.” Surprised, concerned, alert.
“I need a car,” she said, binding her hair in a messy ponytail. “Right away.”
“Is there a problem, Ma’am? Can I—“
“Now, Naveen. I’ll drive myself if I have to.” She banged the phone down, pulled on the nearest shoes and hurried through her dark suite.
A month, she thought, moving faster than she had in all that time. Stuck here a month. What else have I missed?
She ran down the dim stairs and around the corner to the Security office. A single goose-necked lamp burned over the desk. Naveen stood over the phone.
“Car’s coming,” he said. “I have to call Francisco. Where are we going?”
“To wake up the Prime Minister.”
“The All and Back!” Collier Cabot yanked on an old bathrobe as he hurried down the carpeted stairs. Wiry hair in screws, he blinked away the last of sleep and glared at the Queen and her First of Security. Willa stood at the top of the stairs, gripping her hands together.
“I have to talk to you now, Colli,” Mara said, grabbing his arm and pulling him into the sitting room.
“I remembered something—something Kerner said that day when he came to Mandalay in secret.”
Cabot turned on a lamp in the parlor, the light cast harsh shadows across his stubbled face.
Mara pushed on. “He said the anti-South movement wanted to get around regulations of some kind.” She rubbed her head in frustration. “What does the Independence Act target again?”
“Commerce,” Cabot said. “Lobbying.”
“No.” Mara paced across the pale area rug. “Something else.”
“Borders. It tightened the borders in The Pass and Lydia Sea.”
Mara rushed back to him. “What regulations affect those areas? We need to find out.”
Cabot wrapped a calming hand around her arm. “Mara, what is this all about?”
“It’s all been a diversion, just like Jakaya Brown said. The rhetoric, the protests, the assassination… Kerner knew about it, was maybe even a part of it in the beginning, but he changed his mind.”
“And was murdered.” Cabot dropped into a chair. “Delilah says there’s a new push in Congress to support the Independence Act. She invited Jakaya to speak at the House tomorrow.”
“Today,” she corrected, thinking quickly. “We must meet with him, find out what he knows. Has Horatio found anything?”
“No. I haven’t heard from him in over a week.” Worried eyes looked up at the Queen. “No one’s seen him.”
Mara sat on the footstool in front of Cabot’s chair. “People keep going missing.”
“Javier called me from Aqualegia yesterday. He said the City offices had been broken into, but nothing was taken. He didn’t think much of it until I said I was worried about Horatio.”
“Horatio showed up in Maya a couple of weeks ago, asking about the hurricane relief funds we sent Azteca last spring. Javier said he copied down all the account numbers before he left.”
“What?” Mara felt so frustrated, worried and exhausted she wanted to scream. “What was Horatio doing all the way over in Azteca? He was supposed to be in Holyoak. If he’s gone missing, how do we find him? Where do we even start looking?”
Cabot got up from his chair, cinching his plaid bathrobe tighter. “Horatio’s no fool. If he was chasing a lead, he probably told Lillette about it.”
He looked down at her. “There’s more we need to discuss, but not now. I’ve got to get dressed.”
“So early?” Mara followed him back into the foyer. She could hear Willa rattling pans in the kitchen. Her coffee perfumed the house.
“I’m flying to Cork to meet Covenant and New Dublin’s governor—problems with construction on the refugee camps. We’ll probably have to throw more money at the project.” He raked a hand through his wild hair. “We can’t afford many more disasters.”
“As much as I hate the idea of those camps,” Mara said, “the wheat country needed the work.”
Cabot put his hands on her shoulders. “Stay for breakfast. You owe Willa an explanation for waking her out of a sound sleep.”
Mara looked into his tired eyes, eyes that tried to tease her worry away, eyes that knew better. “It’s too big,” she told him. “Too convoluted, too wide-spread. Jakaya’s committee in Holyoak, Horatio and Marissa here—they can’t untangle it.”
“They will,” he said. “Have faith.”
Loud voices sounded on the other side of the front door. Mara heard Francisco and Naveen arguing in a rage with other men. Cabot muttered curses as he stomped to the door.
“What now?” he growled, swinging it wide.
A trio of men in Home Guard black blocked the entrance. Uri Mendoza, Horatio’s Second, turned hard eyes on the Prime Minister. They flicked in the Queen’s direction and back.
“Collier Cabot,” he said, his voice rusty gravel, “you are under arrest for the murder of Kerner Kelly.”
Cabot stared agape at Mendoza, then he straightened, closed his mouth and said to Mara, “Get Willa.”
Mara flew to the kitchen. When the two women rushed back to the foyer, Mendoza was handcuffing Cabot’s hands behind him. Willa cried out and reached for him, but a Guard held her back.
“Collier, what’s happening?”
“Listen to me,” he said quietly while another Guard recited the prisoner’s rights. “Call Jed. Get my clothes and follow us to the Guard Post.”
“You don’t have shoes,” Willa fussed, staring at his bare feet. “For the sake of All, Uri, let him put on some shoes!”
“Call Jed,” Cabot repeated as the Guards hustled him past Francisco and Naveen.
Willa ran down the steps after them. “Collier!”
Mara hurried to the curb with her, caught a glimpse of Cabot’s angry face as the dark car pulled into the street. Willa clutched Mara’s arm.
“What’s happening?” she sobbed.
“Come on.” Mara pulled her toward the house “Call your son. Get Colli’s clothes together. I’ll go with you.”
“No,” Willa said, shock giving way to her usual clear head. “You can do more good for us at your office.” She paused on the porch. “You know the Post will be in chaos. This may take hours.”
“I can’t let you go there alone,” Mara protested.
“Then… “Willa’s eyes darted over the porch, the street, and lit on the two stunned Royal Guardsmen. “… then let Naveen come with me.”
“Majesty!” both men protested.
“Help her get to the Prime Minister,” she told Naveen, starting back down the steps. “Francisco, come on!”
Her mind whirled as they drove back to the Palace. She had to contact Jakaya. The warrant for Colli’s arrest had to have come from from the committee. She had to find Marissa. And Washington Brown. Getting that crafty old man’s advice felt right. And Covenant, she had to call Covenant.
Mara opened her door before Francisco came to a stop. She ran across the walk and started up the front steps of the Palace. Suddenly, she was flying, backward over the walk and into the white gravel of the drive. A warm hand shoved her, pressed against her ears. Glass and plaster rained down, smoking and aflame. She struggled up to see the East wing on fire, the second floor half missing and ragged like rotten teeth.
Another belch shoved her to the ground as the West wing exploded. Then, Francisco was over her, sheltering her from the spraying debris. He grabbed her up and ran. They flew down the drive, and out the gate, then sprinted along the fence to the Western Wood.
“Are you hurt?” he demanded as they dove through the trees.
“No… no…” Mara’s ears rang. Her shoulder burned. A hot pulse pounded there, but she ignored it.
They came to a shed, so new the raw wood still smelled of pine. Francisco released her long enough to work the lock.
“I can’t raise the Palace,” he said, throwing up a wide door. “Communications are out.”
The shakes started. Mara nearly fell, her legs quivered so, but Francisco scooped her up and shoved her into the cab of an old pick-up truck. She realized she was crying and babbling incoherently. She grabbed a fistful of Francisco’s torn suit coat as the truck bounced over rough ground.
An old, white pick-up eased from the entrance of Western Wood Park. It crept onto Aquacinco Highway, winding slowly through the traffic jam. Idling cars jutted at odd angles where they had come to abrupt stops. Their drivers stood beside them or huddled together in shocked groups, shielding their eyes against the sunrise, staring at the billowing smoke staining the blue sky—and what remained of the Palace.
◊ ◊ ◊
Click here to read Chapter 16.