PLEASE NOTE: This story contains mild profanity. Reader discretion is advised.
The day dawned lush. The night's rains rose into a mist over the glittering St. Laurent, roiling and thinning as the sun climbed. The sky turned from yellow to pewter to blue until the first gush of industry's morning fires obscured it. These were the first hours of spring in a new country.
A pall hung over the megalopolis downriver, black fumes eased away by the wind to carry the stink of burning cars tinged by hints of teargas. The protests had been wild, and they were not yet done. Helicopters buzzed over the smog-faded skyline, like insects over carrion.
Here, in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, the spirit was calmer. Though it was Monday many chose not to work. Even before breakfast Lac Saint-Francois was dotted with sailboats and seadoos. The water was cold but nothing could stop the people from taking a draft of the careless independence they had craved for so long.
Today, each did as he or she pleased.
There were musicians in the streets, and a giddy generosity moved contagiously through the cafes as the proprietors served free drinks tinted blue. No one was quite sure who started it. "Vive la republique!" crooned the patrons, grinning with stained lips.
Monsieur LeBlanc eased his car through the crowd, honking gently when necessary. The people were obliging, and stepped out of the way quickly. They slapped the sides of his freshly blue vehicle and hooted. It was the first time, as a tax collector, his reception had ever been so warm.
He pulled into the drive-through at Tim Horton's and frowned when he was presented with a cheerfully azure cup of coffee. "I think the cream's gone off," he said to the skinny Tamil girl through the window.
"No no, it's for the flag, Monsieur. Vive la republique!"
M. LeBlanc nodded vaguely. "Right, okay, fine. I'd also like a bagel."
Near the shore, beneath the beating shadows of a line of tall white wind turbines, wound an uneven road to a chain-link perimeter manned by a pink-haired student fixated on her telephone. A bilingual sign across the gate read McGILL UNIVERSITY WEST RESEARCH CAMPUS. The student looked up only briefly from her slouch in the bunker, thumbs dancing over the face of her telephone. "Yeah?" she mumbled by way of salutation.
"I'm Monsieur LeBlanc," said M. LeBlanc. "I've come for the assessment."
"Eat shit, you bastard!" cried the student.
She looked up again, sheepish. "I'm sorry -- I'm fighting with my boyfriend." She returned her attention to the telephone for another moment, thumbing the screen madly. "So, what was that? Some kind of assessment?"
"Yes, of course -- a tax assessment. I'm here from Revenue Quebec. I'm expected."
"Are you expected?"
"You lying sack of crap!"
M. LeBlanc cleared his throat.
"Sorry," she muttered again, glancing up from the screen. "Who are you supposed to be seeing?"
"Professor Drago Zoran."
"Building B," she said, hitting the control that released the gate. It whined and wobbled as it pulled back on worn tracks. Then she widened her eyes at her telephone, scowled in a ghastly way and screamed, "Pig!"
"Thanks," said M. LeBlanc, putting the blue car in gear and drawing away, tires catching briefly in a rut along the cracked asphalt.
The satellite campus was old, with rows of fat, leafy trees lining the terrible road. Clusters of students sat in the pools of shade, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, poring over books with wires trailing from their ears or pressing thumbs at their telephones as they shaded the tiny screens with the shadows of their heads. They laughed. They hadn't a care in the world.
M. LeBlanc rolled up his window.
He parked in front of Building B and hefted his briefcase out of the trunk. He stepped over and around kids lounging on the front steps, chattering in any number of languages about subjects entirely over M. LeBlanc's head. "No, you're confused again -- I'm saying the register's waveform collapses before the interference pattern is recorded. Did you even read my paper? Jesus!"
He pushed through the glass doors. The lobby smelled like disinfectant, like a hospital. A directory on the wall directed him to the second floor where he found a door labeled cryptically: DR. ZORAN'S ORPHANAGE FOR WAYWARD SENTIENTS. Beneath this was a hand-lettered sign reading THE DOCTOR IS... with three choices below: IN, OUT, and CRAZY.
The word CRAZY had been circled in magic marker.
"Right, okay," murmured M. LeBlanc to himself. "Fine."
Beyond the door was a cramped office with stacks of file-folders piled along the walls. Behind a lopsided desk with a stack of optical discs propping up one leg sat a handsome, brown-faced boy in a white labcoat, frowning at a computer display. He looked up and smiled brightly. "Monsieur LeBlanc?"
"Yes. I'm here about the assessment."
The brown boy stood up with surprising height and shook M. LeBlanc's pale, doughy hand. "Excellent. My name is Paramjit Pakaresh. I'm one of the professor's grad student slaves -- ha, ha -- and I'm at your disposal for as long as you need me. Where do you want to start?"
"I was under the impression I'd be meeting with the professor personally."
"Ah, well -- the professor is a very busy man, monsieur."
M. LeBlanc shifted his briefcase from one hand to the other. "Right, okay, fine. I have a number of questions, specifically with regard to the corporations you have based here in the lab. As I'm sure you can appreciate, Monsieur Pakaresh, the transition of taxation jurisdiction from Canada to the new republic requires a very thorough analysis, and we're having some difficulty ascertaining the nature of business these corporations operate."
Paramjit nodded. "Sure, sure. Would you like to meet them?"
"The corporations. We keep them in the cold lab."
M. LeBlanc blinked. "What's a cold lab?"
"It's a temperature and dust controlled environment where we house our computer arrays. It's just through here. You'll have to go through the de-static box and we'll lend you a labcoat and paper shoes. Tell me, monsieur, do you have a heart condition?"
"Excellent. This way, please."