by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 33: Handler’s Studio, Mater
Carla was taking a well-earned rest, and Lucia was maintaining her tight watch on their conscripts’ plane, when the Captain and her senior officers entered the studio largely unannounced.
‘My friends, I expect this to be our final joint planning session before we leave. And Number Two, perhaps you should go first, for once. I believe you have some broad closing thoughts to share with us, before we move on to discuss our remaining obligations to those down below.’
‘Thank you, ma’am.
‘Yes, I am wondering how the government will explain away our latest little desert manoeuvre to any other powers that observed its effects. If they even bother to try, that is!
‘And I can see none of us is convinced that Deep Fraught has really had much of a change of heart. Nor Steven Shenner. Oh well ...
‘Raymond shared aloud one of his biggest concerns about the state of their modern world. I saw much more anger deep inside, but he disguises it carefully, of course. Maybe his future vocations will allow him, with the added boost of our empowerment, to make some small changes for the better.
‘Brave Maelene has been paying a high price for her honesty for a very long time, with the lyrics of a song she sang as a teenage girl engendering that fear inside her ever since. And I am well aware, from Toni’s knowledge of the subject, that she is certainly not the only artist to have suffered in that way, through the years. I wonder how long the intolerance will continue?’
‘I suspect, Number Two, for as long as the people here have private thoughts and the power to say what they choose ...’
‘I fear you are right, ma’am.
‘On a more positive note, it is good to see the huge importance of family for both Maelene and Toni — a concept which of course goes far deeper than anything we have these days on Dome. I am sure it holds problems as well as benefits, but it gives us much food for future thought.
‘How gratifying to see that Mr Ranovitz has apparently brought his insecurity under control at last. But everyone’s memories of recent events in New York and elsewhere are clearly going to last for ever. So perhaps his rather abrupt initial reaction, when Toni first arrived there, was somewhat understandable ...
‘I think our little helpers themselves passed comment enough on what they observed from that Dublin tour bus — especially with Maelene’s true word in jest about men and women!
‘And of course I must ask you, Chief, if you have any final words about what you have just learnt in Venice ...’
‘Only that they are all going to have to work very fast and hard, even with Salvatore’s extra help.’
‘Indeed. And last but not least, we must cross our Doman fingers in the hope of some sort of eventual redemption for Giuseppe Marco Terleone. I wish I could understand a life shot through with both deep family love and shameless criminality. It is not just politicians and journalists whose worlds are permeated by untruth.
‘There, ma’am — I have finished in double time!’
‘Bravo! So, my friend, do you feel you have garnered a sufficient harvest of social insights?’
‘I certainly have plenty to consider. But since we definitively intend not to offer or implement any further helpful solutions to the Earth’s current problems, the question of sufficiency is immaterial.’
‘But of course it is! I obviously must have forgotten that decision. How very careless of me ...’
‘Blinkers off, Number Two! You are forgiven — but just this once!
‘Now, we need to decide the final disposition of our faithful young assistants. Let us deal with Toni first.
‘The unexpected alerts at the start of his first tour of duty with us in Europe, which forced him to flee from the police and security services and undergo a complete identity change, made it essential to erase from his memory everything that happened there, from the first moments of our engagement at his parents’ home to his arrival back at Bilbao railway station.
‘We provided him instead with an immaculate cover story which became, and will always remain for him, the secure new truth of those three momentous weeks. The small local challenges which have since arisen because of that new reality have proved manageable, and we have also been able to rescue him from the many situations brought about by the invalid “record” which he unfortunately acquired in our service.
‘It is sad that he has had to forget all the wonderful sights and sounds he experienced, largely as Rafael Barola, across the continent of Europe. But he is still young, and he can see them all “again” one day, and with Terleone’s money to boot!
‘More significantly, he encountered several important people over there with whom we did not get directly involved. He will never recall them, but he remains in their memories. In most cases, the chance of their meeting up again is slim and anyway inconsequential, but in one case it is greater and far more significant. Crucially, however, he did look very different back then, with the sharp new “Rafael image” given to him over nine weeks ago! He already appears much like the original, scruffier Toni once again! So no-one, important or otherwise, is anyway likely to recognise or remember him, if they do bump into him again some day. I am satisfied that we need do no more for him on that score.
‘But as far as his second grand tour is concerned ... well, I think he should be allowed to remember it all — including ourselves. He can give his family and friends whatever explanation we suggest for his second sudden departure from Spain. They will surely accept what he says, given their knowledge of his confused and unhappy state of mind at the time. But I feel certain he may safely recall the good and bad times he has had in Ireland and the Americas, without any real exposure. Even his occasional forays into the Brighter Vale world have been “catered for” in the promises we have secured from Harvey and DF, and we also feel as confident as we can that his “previous record” with the world’s intelligence agencies has now been completely annulled.
‘So I propose, Number Two, that in your next engagement with Toni you simply give him some strong hints on what to say to various individuals when he returns home, and ensure — of course — that he will never, ever reveal his knowledge of us, and leave it at that.’
‘Ma’am, I have been trying hard to find a flaw in your argument — as I know you would expect me to — and I can find none. It will be done exactly as you suggest.’
‘Excellent! All in favour?’ ... ‘Good. Now, let us move on to Maelene — and with her it is much simpler, is it not? She has nothing to fear from any U.S. authorities, if we are to trust in those fine promises of “State” — as of course we must. She too can be allowed to remember all about us, and the rough and the smooth of her “extended Forretan business trip” over the past few weeks. But like Toni, she must never reveal our existence to anybody.
‘And as for her continued “confusions” about us ... well, they scarcely matter now, do they? But you and she have had some frank discussions, Number Two, and you both see each other’s point of view, which can only be good for us all. She will survive. But I trust you will “adjust only as necessary” in your final engagements, with appropriate delicacy and decorum ...’
‘Of course, ma’am.’
‘And as for their rewards ... well, Carla, you can remind Toni that you taught him to draw, back in Europe, and he will be eternally grateful for that. And he should be very pleased to hear from you, Number Two, of the magnificent birthday present he can expect from his great-uncle!
‘Maelene already knows of her substantial thank-you from Forretan, of course, and I feel she needs no further gift from us ... she has gifts aplenty of her own! And now she has Toni too, and we can be fairly sure that he is just what she wants! Does anyone disagree?’
‘So, are there any final thoughts on the rehabilitation of our trusty conscripts?’
‘You know,’ mused Quo, ‘I was especially pleased to hear Maelene firmly encouraging Toni to take up his studies again at the Bilbao Conservatorio. As I understand it, he is an extremely talented pianist, and he could have a glittering career ahead of him, if good fortune adds its essential weight to his own solid efforts. And with Terleone’s birthday gift, he will be more than financially secure for the duration of his course and in the difficult years that are sure to follow. It is typically generous of Maelene to have promised to support him throughout that time, but I feel he needs the guaranteed independence that will come with his great-uncle’s contribution. We all have high hopes for the happy couple, of course, but you never know ...’
‘Well, we thank you for that, Number Two, and we cannot disagree.
‘And now for something completely different.’
The Captain took a few steps back towards the door, picked up a colourful box which she had secreted just inside the corridor, and extracted a large bottle and five shining goblets.
‘I am delighted,’ she reflected, as she filled the glasses, ‘to announce an exceptional achievement award for Lucia, in recognition of her fine and usually tolerant handling of both Salvatore Pirone and the Chief Surveyor, and her enforced, extended observation of Toni and Maelene in even their most intimate moments!’
The laughter was as loud as the applause, and Lucia blushed deeply with huge but modest pride.
‘And with no less delight I have approved a second such honour for Carla, in addition to the award she earned for her handling of Toni in Europe. Her unfailing support to Raymond, Toni and Number Two throughout their work in the USA has been exemplary, as always, and she now also receives, by right, the formal Doman accolade of Outstanding Achiever.’
The team’s jubilant toast to their surprised and broadly smiling senior Handler was sustained and totally heartfelt.
The Captain waited until the jollity had fully subsided before continuing her train of thought.
‘My friends, as soon as Toni is safely back in Spain with Maelene, and we are confident that they can once again fend fully for themselves, we shall depart from this remarkable world. Please begin the necessary operational preparations at the end of this meeting.
‘But first, I know we all have many personal (though not private!) views on the subject of Earth and the possible futures awaiting it ... and a few lessons we may wish to take back to Dome. I should be fascinated to hear what you consider the most significant of those, for each of you. Completely off the record and within these walls, of course. And no, please wait, Number Two — on this occasion, you may once again have the privilege of speaking last ...’
‘Well,’ pondered Lucia, since everyone else was now politely holding back, ‘I think they’re all being very careless with their planet. In fact, I think they almost deserve everything they may have coming. I can live without them.’
‘Oh, the simple idealism and judgements of the young! But your firm convictions will often stand you in good stead, my dear. Never lose them. Maybe smooth them. Now, your thoughts, Carla ...?’
‘I honestly feel I’m almost as confused, in my different way, as poor Maelene has been all along!’
‘Yes, I am well aware of that. Can we perhaps help a little, right now?’
‘I don’t think so, ma’am. I just know there’s a lot I need to get out of my system on the journey home. Not least, Toni ...’
‘Indeed. Well, we are always here to listen. And you will endure.
‘Chief, you too have mixed views, I see ...’
‘Hmm. The Earth is a jewel, is it not? Much prettier than Dome, from several perspectives. I could have happily returned here, to work or even to live. It is still a temperate place, on the whole, as Dome used to be — but of course it is changing in the opposite direction. We can do nothing about our dying Sun. I see much that the Earth could do about its own potential death. Whether it will wake up in time ...’
‘Thank you, Chief. Further food for thought indeed.
‘As for myself ... well, I am rarely outspoken, to coin an inappropriate human phrase. But I do feel particularly sad when I consider carefully the results of our various Truth Delta Analyses.
‘It seems to me that if the leaders of this world could all be far braver with their instinctive feelings for what is right, rather than disguise that honest humanity behind a thousand veils of selfish motivations, then they could put their combined, stupendous intellect into giving Earth the hope of a viable future — on every front. But unlike my old friend here, I truly cannot pretend any great optimism.
‘And so at last to you, Number Two. In a word, perhaps?’
‘In a word, ma’am? Very well, then. Veni, vidi, redivi. And despite the youthful whimsy of our marvellous Handlers, I think we should all be very grateful that, back at Dome, we definitely do not need any more men!’
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd