Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Islands of Miranda, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a short story draft. I, II, III.

The several days after someone tries to kill you are always extremely busy. Diego had to talk several more times with the Costa Rican police and give a formal report for Mirandan Security. He had to do the insurance paperwork for furniture damaged by the struggle with his would-be assassin. It was unclear how the assassin had entered the house, so he had to get his locks changed. As the word spread, there were endless calls from family and friends and acquaintances, either of the worried or the gossip-curious kind. And, of course, he had to get on with his life, which at this point meant planning a trip to Italy as soon as could be arranged, a trip in which every arrangement had to be run past Mirandan Security before it could be finalized, for safety's sake, and past the Mirandan Organization bureaucracy, since they were paying for it. None of this was made easier by the fact that he was not sleeping very well. He kept waking up in the middle of the night with a sharp and sudden start, breathing heavily.

Two days into this juggling act, Carlota Pacelli sat down across from him at breakfast, ordered coffee, and said, "Teddy Chavez has gone missing. As near as anyone can tell, you were the last person to see him."

Diego stared at her. "Do you have any idea why he's missing?"

"None. No trace of him at all. After he left Nuevo Roque, he had a day free, then never showed up to any of his scheduled meetings afterward."

"Do you think it might have been the Venezuelans?"

Pacelli's coffee came and she took a drink, looking at him thoughtfully. "I think I see where you're going," she said finally. "You think it might be a political action of some sort for these computer problems they've been blaming on us. Did Chavez mention anything to suggest that he was worried about that?"

"No," said Diego with a shake of his head. "We just talked about my appointment to the Board. Nothing but timing suggests it. And I wonder, now that I've said it out loud, whether it makes any sense. Teddy was an American as well as a Mirandan. Why pick the one Speaker whose death would give the Americans even more of an excuse to back Miranda?"

"The current Venezuelan government is not exactly renowned for its rational decisions, but we don't even know yet what happened; we literally have no evidence. Since his meeting with you was the last appointment he made, you'll have to give a formal statement to Security sometime today."

Diego sighed and sat back. "Does the man who attacked me have any ties to Venezuela?"

"None that we've found so far."

"What really gets me is why anyone would go after me.I haven't done anything to anyone."

"While I've never dealt with a murder attempt, with other crimes I've found that people spend very little time reasoning about what other people actually deserve."

A few days later, Diego flew out to Italy with Pacelli assigned as security escort. Looking at the tickets he had, she said, "You do realize that since the Organization is ultimately paying, you could have bought first class rather than economy."

"Yes," he said, "but I've been spending more money than usual and have just filed insurance claims with Mirandan Insurance; I'd rather not make this month even more eventful by risking a red flag from Financial Audit."

The trip to Italy was uneventful. They flew into Fiumcino, and after the various preliminaries, took a train for the half-hour trip to Castel Gandolfo. Despite his hesitancy to spend, Diego had arranged for rooms at a hotel that, while not expensive, had an excellent location, a little to the south of Castel Gandolfo City State and overlooking Lake Albano.

The official address of the Pontifical Commission for the Insular State of Miranda is in the Villa Barberini in Castel Gandolfo City State, but this is in practice little more than a mailroom shared by three other commissions. The real offices were in a considerably more recent office building a few miles away in the town of Castel Gandolfo, Italy. It was a nice building in early twenty-second-century New Art Deco style, with clean lines on the outside and, inside, a lush lobby that, if not quite gaudy, tended a little toward the giddy.

They were met in the lobby by a young man wearing the neat and severe garb of one of the mercantile religious orders -- Antoninite, Diego guessed, correctly, as it later turned out. He introduced himself as Brother Andrew, his voice carrying just a hint of East Asian accent -- Japanese, Diego guessed, although he never learned whether this guess was right. Pacelli was shown to the Mezzanine waiting room and Brother Andrew and Diego took the elevator up to the fifth floor.

The small fifth floor hallway was decorated with Mirandan memorabilia. Here was an early twenty-first-century map of the Territorio Insular Francisco de Miranda. There was a display case of original Mirandan coins and visitor medals, all in mint condition and probably worth thousands of dollars on the collector's market. But the thing that mostly caught one's attention was the big square flag, slightly frayed, above the door at the end of the room. It was the Mirandan flag: half of it was the vertical tricolor, yellow, blue, and red from left to right, and half of it was plain white with the Keys of St. Peter, silver key above the golden key. There was a small plaque beside it, but Diego did not need to read the plaque to know that the flag was one of the first made for the island-state when it was newly born.

Brother Andrew paused with his hand on the doorknob. "You should address the Cardinal as 'Your Eminence'," he said, "and he likes to shake hands, but beyond that His Eminence is not one for formalities." Then they went in.

Cardinal Binaisa was a mountain of a man behind a very large wooden desk, and stood when they entered. "Come in, Mr. Páez! Have a seat!" They shook hands, and then both sat; Brother Andrew also sat, a bit off to the side, and began taking notes. After the usual introductory material -- 'How was your flight, Mr. Páez?' 'It was very good, Your Eminence,' and so forth -- the Cardinal leaned back in his chair and fixed a shrewd eye on Diego.

"There are a number of reasons for this interview, Mr. Páez. The Board of the Miranda Organization has been, for the most part, pushing your name very heavily, but appointment to the Board is the joint prerogative of the Council of Self-Governance and the Pontifical Commission, which are still, whatever the Board may think, the governing bodies of Miranda."

"I'm sure the Board fully recognizes that, Your Eminence."

Cardinal Binaisa laughed. "If that is what you honestly think, Mr. Páez, you are in for many surprises. In name, the Board recognizes the authority of Council and Commission, but in practice, what does that mean? We give the workings of the Board a diplomatic and legal color, and they talk sweetly to us in exchange for that, but beyond that, the Miranda Organization does as it wills. In principle, for instance, I have authority to audit all finances of the Organization, but what that means is that I have the authority to ask them to provide accounts. They say, 'Yes, Your Eminence, of course, Your Eminence', and send me a large pile of information through which I must sort; perhaps it has what I asked them to provide and perhaps it does not. If it does not, I give my authoritative request again, and they say, 'Oh, we apologize, Your Eminence, we will send it immediately.' Then I wait three months, and, not having received anything, call them up angrily. 'Oh, Your Eminence,' they say, 'we do not know how this has happened; according to our records, it was sent. We will send it without delay.' Then they will send the right kind of information, but for the wrong year, or the wrong division, and so it will go. Perhaps they think I do not see what they are doing, or perhaps they do not care, but it is transparent to me, for this is also how ecclesiastical bureaucracy works."

"Surely a Cardinal is capable of exerting a great deal of pressure," Diego said, amused. "After all, President of the Commission for Miranda is an extremely prestigious title; you are one of the major Cardinals in the Curia."

The Cardinal's face screwed up merrily. "A very prestigious title, yes. I am in this prestigious position because I have been wholly outmaneuvered in ecclesiastical politics. I have sufficient connections that they could not make me papal nuncio to Timbuktu, or whatever, so they settled for the second best -- a position too prestigious in title to be refused if the Holy Father asks you to do it, that looks very important because it is the conduit by which the Holy See receives the Mirandan Support, a considerable portion of its current income; and yet I do not collect that money, nor do I decide how it is spent, so I am a sort of accountant, moving it from point A to point B. An accountant with an amazingly prestigious title. I was put here to make sure that I would have nothing more than vestigial authority, so that I would be effectively neutralized. But one thing nobody dares yet to deny me is this interview, because it is one of the things that maintains the illusion that this is an important position, and therefore here we are.

"There are, in fact, a few things I need to know before approving your appointment. When you took the oath of full citizenship at sixteen, you were required to affirm that you were Catholic and would uphold the Catholic faith. The position to which you will be appointed requires a reaffirmation of your citizenship oath. Are you still Catholic and are you still able to affirm that you will uphold the Catholic faith?"

"Yes, Your Eminence," Diego said promptly.

"When was the last time you went to Mass?"

Caught off guard and embarrassed, Diego awkwardly said, "Last Easter, I think," and then, just as awkwardly, "Will that be a problem?"

"For your immortal soul, yes. But I thank you for your honesty; most people lie when I ask that question. Do you recognize the authority of the Holy See as the sovereign governing authority of Miranda?"

"Yes, Your Eminence."

"Since the islands no longer are in Mirandan possession, the Pontifical Commission has very little left to do but advise and audit; and the Holy See has very little to be sovereign over beyond some residual powers and privileges. The Board of the Miranda Organization is not accountable to anyone."

"They are accountable to Mirandan citizens, Your Eminence, through the Council of Self-Governance. That has always been our way."

The Cardinal looked at him a long moment. "Mirandans often say that, and, yes, the theory is that Mirandan citizens will be self-governing within the general framework provided by the Holy See. But there is no territory for the Council to rule. They can pass laws, but in practice the laws of the nations in which its citizens reside take precedence. All the effective organs of action are in the hands of the Board, and the Council can do little more than audit and advise -- and they can be just as easily stonewalled or deflected off into purely ceremonial matters as can I. No one can really believe that the Council matters anymore."

"With respect, Your Eminence," Diego said, trying not to speak heatedly, "I do not think you understand how we Mirandans think. The Board is an instrument; it exists to serve the citizens of Miranda. That is the way that was set out by Pope Leo Theodore, and that it is the Mirandan way."

Binaisa and Brother Andrew exchanged significant glances. Then the Cardinal said, "As you have been a member of the Mirandan Navy, I have been asked by the Holy Father himself to ask what you see as the function of the Navy."

"It is to protect Mirandan seasteads and shipping, and to further study and exploration of the oceans."

"That is what the brochures say," Binaisa replied drily. "Is that what you believe?"

"Yes," Diego said firmly.

"I will be quite frank with you, Mr. Páez, and say that the Holy See is concerned that some of the current policies and practices of the Miranda Organization are threatening to drag it into a diplomatic catastrophe it cannot afford."

Diego said nothing in response to this, and the Cardinal watched him closely. "We do not know everything that is going on, because they tell us nothing that they do not want to tell us. But we do know enough to suspect that the Organization is actively harassing the Venezuelan government. This is a course of action detrimental to the Church in Venezuela, and one that threatens the Holy See's ability to maintain even a nominal political neutrality. The Holy See cannot easily disentangle itself from Miranda; it is increasingly worried that it will be held hostage to a version of Miranda it did not intend. We no longer trust that the Miranda of Leo Theodore still exists."

"It still exists," said Diego.

Cardinal Binaisa steepled his fingers and looked into the distance, lost in thought. After a few moments, he fixed his eyes on Diego again and said, "Have you been to San Tommaso da Villanova to see his tomb?" When Diego shook his head. "You have seen pictures, I imagine? But it does not beat seeing it in person. The locals call them Leo and Teodoro, and they are quite striking. You should see it."

"I will certainly do so, Your Eminence. He was a truly great man; the greatest pope of modern times."

Cardinal Binaisa smiled broadly. "So the Council keeps telling us every time they press for his beatification. But it is not really enough."

"You don't think he will be beatified?" Diego asked, surprised.

Binaisa shrugged. "So much of the process is based on popular remembrance and the decision of God. But I do not think so. Leo Theodore was far from being a corrupt pope, but he was a very worldly one. He massively expanded both the revenue and the scope of action of the Holy See, giving it a temporal power that it has not had since the Renaissance, and without most of the problems it had then, but it is not the primary purpose of a pope. Everything temporal decays. And much of what he did has dried up and vanished away. Miranda was invaded and is a ghost of itself. He cleaned up the finances of the Holy See, and yet here we are again in scandal after scandal, bad financial decision after bad financial decision. We still have Castel Gandolfo City State, but who knows how long the Italian government will tolerate it; there are still secular politicians who resent how he wrested that treaty out of the Italian government. The only thing that makes them hesitate, I think, is that it is good for tourism. Caesar is always jealous, and will seize any power he thinks will be beneficial to himself; and one of the constants of Church history is that every good thing will be stripped away at some point by some Caesar who thinks he has a right to it. As a Mirandan, you should know that better than anyone." He spread his hands. "I do not deny that he was a great man, but a saint he was not. And, besides, to beatify and canonize is often to propose as a model, and I suspect the Congregation would hesitate to propose such an effective pope as a model."

"What do you mean?"

"Come now, Mr. Páez," the Cardinal said, laughing again. "Nobody wants an effective pope. They want a pope who will not be a hindrance, and they will complain about all of his failures, but there is nothing more terrifying than an effective pope. In terms of ecclesiastical politics, Leo Theodore himself was a horrible accident. Tired of endless financial and administrative scandals, the Cardinals risked picking someone who had a reputation for being a good administrator, in the hopes that a few bits and pieces of it would be cleaned up, so it would be easier for them to do whatever they wanted to do. He cleaned it up quite efficiently, and then the Curia learned, with a sort of growing desperation, that he wasn't going to stop with a few minor improvements and symbolic gestures. By sheer mistake, they had saddled themselves with someone who was too ruthless to be resisted and too cunning to be outmaneuvered, and all they could do was hold on for their dear lives as he kept succeeding at doing what he wanted to do. It is why the College of Cardinals has chosen the most mediocre and incompetent people they could-- with," he added drily, as if as an afterthought, "the exception of the current Holy Father, of course."

He was silent a moment. "You said before that you believe that the Miranda of Leo Theodore still exists. Do you really think that is true?"

"I do," said Diego.

The Cardinal turned his head to Brother Andrew and gave one clear, decisive nod, at which the Antoninite pulled an envelope out of a briefcase near his chair and stood. Then the Cardinal himself stood and held out his hand. "It is good to have met you, Mr. Páez. I hope we will get to talk again some time. Brother Andrew will show you out. At this time of day, the main elevator is likely to be busy. Please use my private one."

to be continued

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