For All Nails #303: Buque Nights
by Johnny Pez
Mary Smith, the pilot, was always reticent about her past. That she was Manitoban was obvious from her accent when she spoke English. That she was ex-military was clear enough from her bearing. That she was an exile from the CNA Sophia knew from an occasional comment she had let drop.
But that mattered little to Sophia. Smith had been with them for five years, through the worst of the Alliance War. After the fall of Bogotá, she had kept the Royal Family of New Granada one step ahead of the Alliance troops, flying in a succession of small, fragile aeromobiles. Now that peace was restored and the occupation of New Granada was over, Smith was chief pilot of the Royal Family's official aeromobile, the Nueva Granada.
Sophia, standing behind Smith, looked dubiously out of the windows of the Nueva Granada's flight deck at the swirling white mass beyond. "Looks awfully . . . dense . . . to me," she said in English.
"Nothing to worry about, Sophia," the Manitoban pilot assured her in the same language. "We'll have at least five hundred feet of clear air to land in. Piece of goddamn cake. Now go back and strap yourself in."
"Aye aye, captain," Sophia said, giving the pilot a snappy salute before turning and making her way back to the passenger area. She brushed aside the curtain and entered the cabin she shared with her husband, King Fernando. He, smug bastard, was already strapped in, as if he hadn't a care in the world despite the fog hovering over Buenos Aires.
"How can you be so calm?" she wondered in Spanish as she took the seat next to his.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "any landing where we're not being shot at is an easy landing."
"My standards have risen since the war," Sophia told him. "I now consider a landing easy only if there is no mortal danger at all involved."
"If we do all die in a crash," Fernando said philosophically, "at least our troubles will be over. Poor Alexander, on the other hand, will have to start all over again, with an even younger king."
Sophia sighed. The attempt to lift her spirits might have worked, had it not reminded her that her son was back in Bogotá. Alexander Elbittar had persuaded them that the heir to the throne ought not to travel by aeromobile with the rest of the royal family. Elbittar might no longer be Prime Minister of New Granada, but his power was just as great, if no longer as clearly defined. He was still the literal kingmaker, having created the Neogranandian monarchy through sheer force of will. And, damn him, he was right; it had been prudent to leave Nando at home. But that didn't mean Sophia had to like it.
However, Smith proved to be as adept behind the controls of the Nueva Granada as ever, and within half an hour the aeromobile had landed without incident. "You see," said Fernando in English, "your fears of crashing were groundless."
Shaking her head, Sophia said, "You can be deposed, you know."
"You'll have to sieze power later," said Fernando as he unbelted himself and rose from the seat. "Right now, we have a state visit to attend to."
This particular state visit, Sophia knew, represented a major triumph for Alexander Elbittar's new policy. In a time of War Without War, he had reasoned, the proper way to build an empire was through conquest without conquest. Through some thought process that Sophia didn't understand (and there was much about the man's thought processes that she didn't understand), Elbittar had chosen to call his policy el imperio del buque, the empire of the ship. Instead of using military force, he would use cultural and economic power to spread his cherished ideals of Hispanidad.
Argentina represented the first triumph of that policy. Thanks to covert assistance on the part of New Granada, with the even more covert assistance of the European Union, a popular Argentinian movement called the Coalición para la Gente had won a majority of the seats in the Argentine Assembly, ousting the pro-British Partido Liberal. The Coalición's charismatic leader, Angel Taveras, had just been named President by the Assembly, and Fernando and Sophia were the first heads of state to pay their respects to the new leader.
As always happened in these situations, the Nueva Granada had come to a halt a few hundred feet from the airpark terminal, and the Argentinians were wheeling the boarding stairs up to the door. Fernando and Sophia had been joined by the rest of their party: Fernando's secretary Ortiz and his old mentor Brother Francisco, little Leonora and her nursemaid, Elbittar's man Gomez and his security detail. Gomez had a handspeaker and he was quietly communicating with his opposite number among the Argentinians. Gomez looked up and said to Fernando, "We're all set, Sire."
"Tell me one thing," Sophia said as they prepared to leave the aeromobile. "Was it your idea to call them the People's Coalition?" Fernando had been educated in the CNA, and Sophia suspected he had found the idea of Argentina's Liberals facing a People's Coalition irresistable.
"I disclaim all responsibility," said Fernando. "As far as I know, Señor Taveras and his colleagues came up with the name all by themselves. I suppose they were hoping that history would repeat itself, and it looks like it has."
"Not that I'm complaining, mind you," Sophia added. "Seeing the Nats lose their last ally in Latin America is worth a little historical plagiarism."
Fernando chose not to comment, but that was all right. He was well aware of Sophia's loathing for the ultranationalistic National Renewal Party that had ruled her native Great Britain for the past fifteen years.
A member of Gomez's detail opened the door, and they began to file down the boarding stairs. Outside, the airpark was overcast and rather damp, though warmer than a similarly overcast day in London would have been. There was a crowd occupying a cordoned-off area by the terminal building, waving Argentinian and Neogranadian flags, as well as banners bearing the CG's clasped-hands symbol. Another, much smaller cordoned-off area held a small group of journalists and vitavision film crews. A cluster of Argentinian officials was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. The stairs were wide enough for them to descend two abreast, so Fernando and Sophia remained side by side as they went down, waving at the people.
At the foot of the stairs they were met by a stout, formally dressed, middle-aged man, with his head shaved Mexican-style. He gave the royal couple a slight bow and said, "Welcome to Argentina, Your Majesties. I am Esteban Martucci, FN1 Secretary of the Interior, and I bear the greetings of President Taveras. The President has asked me to escort you and your party to the Presidential Palace."
"Thank you, Secretary Martucci," Fernando replied, "and my thanks as well to President Taveras."
Sophia found herself wondering why President Taveras hadn't come out to the airpark to greet them personally. No politician, she knew, could resist the lure of those vitavision cameras. She knew that the recent election had been close, and in some cases literally hard-fought. However, if Taveras' victory was so fragile that he dared not emerge from the Presidential Palace, then the first triumph of el imperio del buque might be a short one.
Two liveries with motowheel escort pulled up to the Neogranadians, and Fernando and Sophia joined Secretary Martucci in the first. The motorcade slowly pulled away from the Nueva Granada, circled the terminal building, and exited through a double gate.
The airpark was ten miles downstream from the center of Buenos Aires, in a suburb called Quilmes. As the motorcade made its way along a locopista toward the city, the fog closed in around them, giving the landscape an insubstantial look. Sophia was reminded once again of London; were it not for the fact that they were driving on the right side of the road, and the road signs looming out of the fog were in Spanish, she could imagine they were passing along the Thames estuary.
Fernando and Martucci were discussing the recent elections, which had seen the CG jump from 39 Assembly seats to 157. Martucci told stories of street fights in Buenos Aires between Liberal and Coalición partisans, and Sophia got the distinct impression that the newly-minted cabinet secretary had been personally "busting heads," as he colourfully put it.
They passed through a flyover interchange with another locopista, and a sign bearing the name AVENIDA RICHARD MASON flashed by in the fog. Puzzled by the Anglo name, it took a moment for Sophia to place it: Richard Mason had been Governor-General of the CNA twenty-five years before.
"You have a road named after a North American?" she asked Martucci.
"What?" Martucci said, then his puzzled expression cleared and he said, "Oh, the Avenue. Yes, Señor Mason is greatly honoured here. It was very bad here during the war, very bad." Sophia recalled that Argentina had gone through a nasty civil war in the 1940s as factions backed by the British and the Mexicans fought for control of the country. "There was much hunger, our cities in ruins. But you of New Granada, you know how that goes."
"We do," said Fernando, and Sophia nodded. Three years of war had left New Granada in dire straits . . . and once again, the North Americans had jumped into the breach, helping to rebuild a war-torn nation. Though, probably the last thing Carter Monaghan had in mind when he found himself back in the Square Room was becoming the new Richard Mason.
The locopista came to an end, and the motorcade began passing through city streets that had been cleared of traffic. At first there were only occasional small groups who would appear out of the fog to wave their hands (or shake their fists) as they passed. As they drew closer to the center of the city, though, tbe groups became larger, until at last they merged into two continuous crowds of people lining the street. By the time they reached the Plaza de Septiembre, it was like the crowd at the airpark had been transported bodily through space. The motorcade circled once slowly around the plaza while the people cheered, then stopped at the foot of the broad steps leading up to the main entrance of the Presidential Palace.
The Presidential Palace, Sophia knew, was the latest in a series of buildings that went back to the sixteenth century. The current structure dated back to 1877, and was rather typical of the neomannerist style that was popular at the time. Sophia found the building a trifle bland for her taste, but there was no denying its beauty, especially with the fog softening its lines. She found herself giving thanks to the God she still didn't quite believe in that the Argentinians hadn't put off building their latest Presidential Palace for another ten years; by then, Benito Hermión's grandiose imperialist style was all the rage in Latin American public architecture.
Secretary Martucci led the royal couple up the steps and to a temporary platform built to one side that was hung with Neogranadian and Argentinian flags and decorations. Among the people occupying it was a tall, bespectacled man whom Sophia recognized as President Taveras. The short, plump woman standing beside him was Señora Taveras.
The protocol for the initial meeting between president and monarchs had, of course, been worked out beforehand. As a fellow head of state, Taveras would shake hands with Fernando, and give Sophia's hand a gallant kiss, followed by a similar exchange of greetings with Señora Taveras. Then the president would yield the microphone to Fernando, who would give a short address to the gathered multitude. Sophia would not be speaking, to her great relief; even after seven years as Queen of New Granada, she still came down with stage fright at the thought of making public addresses in Spanish.
Fernando's speech sounded rather generic to Sophia, though she knew her husband had worked on it for days. He thanked Taveras, congratulated the Argentinians on their recently-concluded election, and expressed hope for closer relations between the two nations. Then Taveras resumed his place behind the microphone and gave an equally generic speech.
The crowd seemed to enjoy both speeches. Perhaps Sophia had become too critical of oratory; she had heard so many speeches, both as Queen of New Granada and as a royal daughter back in Great Britain, that listening to one made her feel like a jaded theatre critic attending yet another performance of The Maid of the Oaks.
After the speech-making (Fernando liked to copy the late Governor-General of the CNA and call it "speechifying"), the assorted dignitaries entered the Presidential Palace. "It's a lovely building," she remarked to Martucci, "but it could use a little more colour. Have you ever thought of painting it?"
"Painting the Presidential Palace?" He seemed faintly scandalised by the thought.
"Yes. A pastel, say. Mint green, or lavender, or pink perhaps."
Martucci burst into laughter. "A pink Presidential Palace? Not in Argentina, Your Majesty!"
Within the palace, the decor bore a strong resemblance to the interior of a history museum. Sophia was not surprised. The public areas of the Royal Palace in Bogotá, and for that matter in Buckingham Palace, looked much the same: a showplace to impress tourists.
The party of dignitaries ascended a broad staircase and made their way down a corridor whose decor was more in keeping with the palace's neomannerist exterior. This was the private part of the palace, where the government offices and living quarters were located. The visitors from New Granada had been allotted guest quarters on the second storey, facing the Rio de la Plata.
President Taveras and his wife escorted them into their rooms, and they said their farewells. Then Fernando and Sophia were alone, and the Queen of New Granada let herself fall backwards into an upholstered chair. She had been in constant motion, from palace to airpark to airpark to palace, for eight hours, and she intended to luxuriate in her current state of motionlessness.
Fernando was too considerate to remind her that they still had a full itinerary of tours and receptions and meals to deal with later on. Besides, he seemed as grateful for the break (he usually called it a "breather", another North Americanism acquired during his days at the University of New Orleans) as she was.
She must have been more exhausted than she thought, because her drifting thoughts had taken her back to the Royal Palace, and she was watching Don Fernando romp across the floor with his Congo terrier Nefertiti when she started awake. There was a discreet knocking at the door to their suite, and Fernando was crossing the room in shirtsleeves and stocking feet to answer it.
It was Gomez, a handspeaker in one hand, a clipboard in the other. "Just a reminder, Your Majesty, in thirty minutes we're due to join the president and his party for a tour of the city."
"Thank you, Serjeant. We'll be ready," said Fernando. Gomez was no longer a serjeant, of course, but he had been one that day eight years before when he and Alexander had come to New Orleans to offer Fernando the newly-created throne of New Granada. He nodded to the king and retreated from the suite.
"Up and at 'em," he said in English, yet another North Americanism, a catch-phrase derived from some animated vita show. If only he had gone to Oxford instead of New Orleans.
A quick change of clothes, and Sophia was ready to be introduced to Buenos Aires. The rest of the day passed in a blur of motorcades, speeches, official visits, museums, monuments, schools, hospitals, and public works, with a formal dinner and reception back at the Presidential Palace to top it all off. It was all moving along like a well-oiled machine, so Sophia should have known there was trouble lurking at the end of it.
She and Señora Cicilline, the wife of the Secretary of Labour, were having a fairly interesting conversation concerning the relative merits of Mozart and Beethoven, when Señor Gomez appeared at her side. "Your Majesty," he said quietly, "I fear I must interrupt your conversation. May I speak with you in private?"
A mood of foreboding came upon her. She made her apologies to Señora Cicilline, then followed Gomez out of the salon where the reception was being held.
"Your Majesty," he told her, "it appears that a . . . situation has developed on board the Nueva Granada." "What sort of situation?"
He was silent for several seconds, before saying, "I think it best that I not say." All this reticence was quite unlike Gomez, who was generally as straightforward as they came. "I think it would be best if you accompanied me to the Nueva Granada. The King has already been informed, and will meet us there."
Gomez had a vehicle waiting for them at a side entrance to the Presidential Palace. The fog had become even thicker with nightfall, and the ride back to the airpark had an unreal quality to it. Gomez remained silent throughout.
There was another locomobile parked at the foot of the boarding stairs when they arrived, and Fernando was just emerging from it as they pulled up. He was accompanied by his secretary Ortiz, and Sophia saw a look pass between Gomez and the secretary. The two were clearly operating in tandem.
As she joined Fernando, he asked, "Do you know what this is about?"
"No. Gomez wouldn't explain."
"Neither would Ortiz. Well, we'll soon find out."
Once on board the aeromobile, Gomez led them to the crew quarters. They entered Mary Smith's cabin, and Sophia was astonished to see a man bound and gagged on Smith's bunk. Smith herself was standing beside him, holding a gun pointed at his head. Without a word, she passed the gun to Gomez, who took up the task of pointing it at the bound man.
"Well, Captain Smith?" said Fernando in English.
Smith radiated confidence. "Your Majesties," she answered in the same language, "that fellow there is named Martin Falcone. He works for Vincent Mercator." A smile touched her lips as she added, "And I bet if we ask him just right, he'll tell us where we can find his boss."
(Forward to FAN #304: Look Both Ways Before Crossing.)
(Forward to 9 February 1981 (New Granada): The King's Justice.)
(Return to For All Nails.)