"I," announced the professor with great dignity as he extended his hand, "am Dr. Zoran, monsieur."
The drama of the moment was undermined, however, by the fact that the professor's pants were hanging wantonly open, his belt dangling. M. LeBlanc tried to tear his eyes away from the famous scholar's exposed wang.
"Tabernac!" he cried, taking a step back.
"Professor -- your pants!" hissed one of the girls at the desks girdling his office door.
The professor smiled sheepishly as he zipped himself up. "You'll have to forgive me," he chuckled. "I've been masturbating."
"Tabernac!" cried M. LeBlanc again.
As M. LeBlanc looked on, stunned and frozen, the tall, wiry professor handed a sheaf of papers covered in dense notes to one of his secretaries who glanced at the content and then efficiently filed it for later transcription. In his opposite hand he carried a simple cane of dark wood, which he leaned on in a practiced motion as he shuffled further into the room and again extended his hand to shake. When M. LeBlanc did not respond the professor hastily wiped his palm on his shirt and then offered it out once more.
"Monsieur LeBlanc, Professor," muttered M. LeBlanc weakly as he reluctantly shook hands.
"Call me Drago," offered Dr. Zoran brightly.
"...Dra-go," echoed M. LeBlanc, mouth still hanging open.
His suit was ill-fitting, worn at the edges and stained in creative places. His labcoat was inside-out. Sharpened pencils bristled from every pocket and fold, including one tucked away behind each ear. His eyes were brown and lively, his wide moustache black peppered with grey. "I've had a beautiful breakthrough," explained Drago. "Breakthroughs always make me very excited."
M. LeBlanc cleared his suddenly dry throat. "Um, of course."
Drago's moustache twitched. "You'll be wanting to understand our revenues, yes? I knew you'd come."
"We had an appointment, Professor."
"Drago," corrected Drago. "Did we indeed? Well, that's convenient. I've always said the best time to meet someone is when you have an appointment."
"Um," said M. LeBlanc noncommittally, his forehead wrinkled with worry.
"Now, let's get down to business!" crooned Drago, clapping his hands together and letting his cane clatter to the floor. When he spun to look after it he crashed bodily into Paramjit and both men fell down.
The professor's secretaries ran to his side and helped him back up. Paramjit rubbed his hip with a grimace. M. LeBlanc just stared, transfixed and perhaps half-expecting someone to start throwing cream pies next.
"Mon Dieu..." he whispered hoarsely.
Drago was unfazed. His expression never changed. "Won't you come this way, M. LeBlanc?" he asked, regaining his cane and nodding briefly to the girl who'd handed it to him. He began to walk across the room but hesitated when Paramjit called out, "Stairs, professor -- stairs!"
Drago looked back, blinking, then glanced down to take in the fact that he was about to blithely step out over a short set of risers leading back to the computer arrays. He winked theatrically at M. LeBlanc and then carefully used his cane to work his way down the steps. "Come on now," he said. "Don't be shy."
M. LeBlanc looked inquiringly at Paramjit. Paramjit smiled politely and gestured after the professor. Fretfully, M. LeBlanc followed while Paramjit tailed him at a respectful distance with the professor's secretaries.
Drago, oblivious to whether or not M. LeBlanc was in earshot, had already begun talking. "...And you may be quite interested as well to hear that Grain and Woo predicted the outcome of the referendum within two tenths of a percent. Isn't that beautiful? I was very proud, yes."
"Yes, Professor, but the central issue I'm here to --"
Drago turned and held up a hand. "Please: it's Drago."
"Drago," conceded M. LeBlanc.
Drago smiled and swiveled to continue walking but neglected to carry forward his cane which had become stuck in a ventilation grate where it wobbled precariously. Paramjit and the secretaries rushed forward and caught him before he fell, then dislodged the cane and handed it back to him. "I'll never get used to this bloody thing," he grumbled.
"You haven't had it for long?"
Drago shrugged. "No, not too long. As a student in Paris I was struck by a car thirteen years ago. I've used a cane ever since."
M. LeBlanc opened his mouth to comment, then changed his mind and closed it again.
"The central issue," continued Drago, "is the ownership, control and liability of our corporations, yes? In light of the new commercial regulations, you want to know where the buck stops, yes?"
"Yes," agreed M. LeBlanc with relief.
Drago paused to peer at a display mounted on the end of a row of computers. "Look at this!" he invited, waving M. LeBlanc over.
"It's some kind of graph?"
"It's a decision tree, yes? Here, this line is the present moment. Everything below is the past, everything above is the future. Notice the symmetries between decisions almost taken and the merely potential decisions up here. You see the correlation? Look how it changes."
M. LeBlanc frowned. "What does it mean?"
"It's Hector guessing what he'll guess next. Beautiful!"
M. LeBlanc squinted at the display again and then looked up to see that Drago had already moved on. He jogged after him. "Professor, with all due respect I've already taken this baffling tour. I've chatted with one of your computers. But you must let me do my job. We need to get to the bottom of all this. I do have other appointments, you must appreciate that. This is a very busy time for the republic."
"Oh? Yes, of course. How's all that going?"
"It's very complicated," replied M. LeBlanc. "Some are trying to exploit the situation to hide income, to launder it, to operate in a shadow economy. They have no national spirit. They don't understand the resources it takes to manage this kind of transition. We're performing hundreds of audits each day to uncover the funds the nation needs to press ahead, and even so we're woefully behind schedule."
"And the currency?"
M. LeBlanc spoke more quickly now that he felt in his element. "Candidly, Prof -- er, Drago -- the negotiations with the Americans have hit an impasse. The World Bank has downgraded our credit. We're struggling to keep everything running...to keep police on the street, to keep the electricity flowing."
Drago nodded knowingly, then turned to walk smack into a bank of computers but was saved at the last moment by one of his secretaries. "This way, Professor," she whispered, taking his arm.
"Ah, yes," mumbled Drago. "Where were we? Oh yes, the money. As I understand it, LeBlanc, our corporations owe your agency in excess of seven million dollars, yes?"
"Yes," agreed M. LeBlanc quickly.
"You are anxious to take receipt, of course."
"Very much so."
Drago came to a halt abruptly and M. LeBlanc stopped short to avoid piling into him. He glanced over his shoulder at Paramjit and the secretaries hovering nearby. Drago said, "What is stopping us from proceeding, then? Shall I show you to the administration office?"
"What's stopping us, um Drago, is that it has been explained to me that there is no natural person involved to give me an authorized signature on behalf of the corporations. Someone -- somebody -- has to take ultimate responsibility, to stand subject to the law. I'm assuming that's you."
"Me? Oh no, monsieur, it's not I."
"But you founded the corporations, did you not?"
"I did, but I have since sold my interest."
"To the corporations themselves."
M. LeBlanc sighed and looked at his shoes for a moment. He looked up again, his mouth tight. "If this is an attempt to craft some sort of circular maze to avoid paying the nation what is rightfully owed..."
Drago shook his head. "Not at all, M. LeBlanc. Hasn't Paramjit explained it? We're ready to send you on your way with the money without delay, yes? That is why I ask: what stops us?"
"I need a signature."
"From whom, exactly?"
The professor's moustache twitched again. He cupped his hands over the top of his cane and spoke in a new, serious tone: "The personhood assumed by corporations has a long history in law, LeBlanc."
"Juristic personhood," M. LeBlanc retorted hotly. "It's a legal fiction, monsieur! You're playing games with me, and I'm rapidly losing patience."
Drago nodded sympathetically. "Would you care for a cup of tea?"
"My people tell me I often neglect social niceties. It's only occurred to me now that I haven't offered you tea, yes?"
"Can somebody get M. LeBlanc a cup of tea?"
The secretaries looked puzzled. One of the girls said, "But you hate tea, Professor. We don't keep any in the cupboard."
"I have a can of iced tea in my lunch box," offered Paramjit.
"What a disgrace," said Drago sadly, turning back to M. LeBlanc. "I'm afraid my reputation as a poor host is entirely justified, yes."
M. LeBlanc shot his cuff abruptly, glanced at his watch, then shifted his briefcase to his other hand. "That's it. I've had enough. I'm leaving. I'm going to recommend the government freeze your assets until you co-operate. Good day, Professor."
Paramjit caught M. LeBlanc's elbow gently. "Let's not be hasty, monsieur."
"Unhand me!" cried M. LeBlanc, batting Paramjit away. "This is a madhouse!"
Drago chuckled, rocking back and forth against his cane. "My dear LeBlanc," he said, moustache twitching, "you are of course free to return to your superiors empty-handed. My preference, however, would be for you to leave with a cheque for the full amount owing -- including taxes in arrears owed to the former federal agency, yes."
M. LeBlanc hesitated. "There are arrears?"
"Paramjit, how much did Revenue Canada say we owed them before succession?"
"Nine point two million, Professor."
"Nine point two million..." echoed M. LeBlanc, his mouth loose with equal parts surprise and sudden avarice. He squeezed the sweaty handle of his briefcase.
"That would make for a total of over sixteen million dollars, yes?" said Drago quietly, a keen eye on the bureaucrat.
M. LeBlanc swallowed awkwardly. "We...we don't have the authority to claim moneys owed to Canada," he said.
"We volunteer," said Drago. "Consider it a gesture of patriotism, yes? A demonstration of our love for Quebec, and our willingness to contribute to her prosperous future."
M. LeBlanc's eyed narrowed. "A bribe?"
Drago banged his cane against the floor loudly, his knuckles suddenly white against the mahogany tip. "Certainly not," he declared in a low growl. "I will not tolerate such accusations in my own laboratory. I must ask you to leave, monsieur. Immediately."
M. LeBlanc didn't move. He licked his lips quickly. "Professor Zoran, I'm quite sure there's some way we can reach an understanding in this matter."
Drago held his eye for a long moment in silence, then turned on heel and continued to stump and shuffle with dignity deeper into the lab. M. LeBlanc looked to Paramjit and the secretaries, their expressions unreadable. M. LeBlanc sighed and then scampered after the professor.
"The question of the moment, then," Drago was saying, "is what criteria need be satisfied in order for an entity to serve as a natural person."
"The principal criterion is being a human being."
"Which is defined how?"
M. LeBlanc shrugged, his face stricken blank. "I'm sure it comes down to a matter of general recognition, having features the community recognizes as human," he stammered. "Being born of woman is a start, I suppose."
"We have many female researchers," reasoned Drago.
"I'm not sure that counts."
Drago looked over his shoulder and gave M. LeBlanc a wry look. "And I'm not sure it doesn't. Shall we debate the matter in court? What else have you got?"
"Right, okay, fine -- but a human being with signing authority must have the age of majority. Your corporations were founded only six years ago."
"Time within a machine is not equal to our time, LeBlanc. These entities have been run through millions of hours of computation."
"I'm not sure that counts..."
"And again: I'm not sure it doesn't."
M. LeBlanc held up his index finger eagerly as his face lit up. "But they must be of sound mind! Not a quarter hour ago your computer engaged me in a very silly interview about eggs. It sounded positively infantile."
"That is an opinion, LeBlanc, not an evaluation. How many infants do you know who manage stock portfolios? How many infants do you know who study and predict weather patterns? How many infants do you know who can calculate pi to a quadrillion places?"
M. LeBlanc said nothing.
Drago stopped walking again and looked him up and down slowly. "To me, you seem to be a human being. Let's take that as read, yes? So let me ask you this: how would you go about proving your own soundness of mind?"
"I suppose there are tests -- psychiatric standards."
Drago flicked his eyes over to one of his secretaries and nodded. She stepped forward smartly and presented M. LeBlanc with a thick manila envelope. M. LeBlanc accepted it, but did not open it. He stared at it as if it might contain something awful: compromising photographs, perhaps.
"That," explained Drago, "contains sworn affidavits from three dozen leading mental health practitioners who have conversed remotely with our corporations and never suspected they were anything but eccentric human beings."
M. LeBlanc coughed. "The testing could have been rigged."
Drago shook his head. "Our methodology is fully documented and verifiable, our results reproducible in accordance with the standards of science." He winked and leaned forward against his cane. "What else have you got?" he challenged.
"A person has a body."
Drago nodded thoughtfully, then turned around and resumed his stroll toward the back end of the lab. M. LeBlanc glanced back and noticed that a crowd of students was gathering behind them, following at a discrete distance. Phat-so Kim was at the forefront, fighting to conceal a wide grin. M. LeBlanc frowned.
"Can I assume," continued Drago, "that our new republic does not discriminate against the physically handicapped?"
"Of course. The charter is both modern and well considered."
"I'm sure. So you would not question the legitimacy of a man with an artificial leg?"
"Of course not."
"Nor artificial arms?"
"What about artificial vision, or implants for hearing?"
"No, no. Quebec respects human rights."
Drago nodded. "So would it be fair to say you would recognize a body, regardless of its constituent materials, as a physical apparatus in service of a sound mind?"
"Well," admitted M. LeBlanc carefully, "I don't imagine many would recognize a computer case as a body, no matter what it was in service of."
Again the professor and his growing retinue paused, this time outside of an unmarked white door at the end of the furthest quadrant of the cold lab. "Indeed," agreed Drago seriously, and the gathered students could not suppress a twitter of laughter.
"So we are at an impasse, are we not?" prompted M. LeBlanc.
Drago's moustache twitched.
M. LeBlanc narrowed his eyes as he looked around. "I know what's going on here," he claimed. Drago raised his brow. M. LeBlanc frowned more deeply and went on, "You...you've been planning this all along. You're not at all surprised at my objections. You've been withholding money from Canada for years -- you've said it yourself that your computers foresaw the referendum's outcome..."
Drago's eyes gleamed. He did not reply.
M. LeBlanc shook his head. "It won't work. You can't use me to establish your creations as natural persons. A tax form won't win your battle for you."
Drago spread his hands. "Some things are best built piece by piece. When the question is a complex one, bottom-up growth trumps top-down architecture, yes."
"I don't follow you," said M. LeBlanc irritably.
It was Phat-so Kim who stepped forward to explain. He ran a hand through his bright green hair and said, "All and all, it's just another brick in the wall."
M. LeBlanc cast a sidelong glance at the white door. "...What's in there?" he whispered.
Drago drew a dramatic breath. "Somebody," he said.
A shiver trickled across across M. LeBlanc's broad shoulders.
After a nod from the professor Phat-so Kim took out his keys and unlocked the door. The students crowded closer. Drago leaned forward and almost lost his grip on his cane as he twisted the knob, but Paramjit was there to steady him. The door swung inward noiselessly.
At first all M. LeBlanc saw was a pile of junk. But then it shifted and clanked. The bureaucrat gasped.
Tethered by a host of cables descending from the ceiling, something in the vaguest shape of a man gathered itself and began to crawl across the floor on all fours, emitting chuffs of air from pneumatic ducts and whining with the work of hydraulics. It looked up with a face that was startlingly primitive -- little more than two camera lenses jutting from a mish-mash of electronic gear.
Instinctively M. LeBlanc cringed away, his eyes wide. "What is it?" he croaked.
"This," said Drago softly, "is Felix."
"Why does it crawl? Is it...broken?"
"No," continued Drago in the same tender voice. "Rudimentary as they are, his limbs are perfectly functional. He's had a tough time getting his head around bipedal balance, however, and so for the time being he opts to crawl. It's his body -- it's his choice how to use it, yes."
The crawling thing had arrived at their feet and looked up at them, its rudely mechanical head swiveling back and forth to points its lenses at every face. "Hello," said Felix.
M. LeBlanc jumped.
Drago touched his arm. "Do you have the form to be signed, LeBlanc? Can you think of any good reason why Felix should be disallowed from signing it?"
"I'm not a lawyer," breathed M. LeBlanc, eyes rooted on the creature.
"No," agreed Drago. "You are an official of the republic. Do you wish to accept payment, or don't you?"
The question hung in the air. Felix's gears hummed and whirred.
Mutely, M. LeBlanc fumbled open his briefcase. With a shaking hand he withdrew a paper, then gingerly proffered it. Paramjit took the form, stuck it into a clipboard, and then knelt on the floor before Felix.
"Felix, this is the form we told you about," cooed Drago. "You remember, yes?"
"Will you sign this form for us, to authorize the release of the tax money?"
"Yes, Father," said the apparatus again. And then after a pause: "Can anyone loan me a pen?"
Paramjit handed him a pen. Felix clutched it between rubber-tipped digits. "Now," encouraged Drago, "just as we've practiced, yes? Make your mark, Felix."
Felix extended the metal armature holding the pen and brought it in contact with the paper. Then, in a series of rough movements, he inscribed the letter F.
"He's still learning fine motor control," said Drago, looking over at the stunned bureaucrat. "But I'm sure you'll find his mark, simple as it is, to be legally binding."
M. LeBlanc accepted the form from Paramjit, then folded it neatly and re-inserted it into his dossier. He snapped closed his briefcase and straightened, clutching it protectively to his chest.
He looked to the professor, and saw that there were tears running down his pock-marked cheeks. "Congratulations, my boy," Drago said to Felix, voice cracking with emotion. "You are now a taxpayer."
The room burst into thunderous applause, startling M. LeBlanc anew. The students clapped one another on the back or drew each other into tight hugs. The secretaries were openly weeping. Paramjit's grin threatened to warp his cheeks, white teeth glowing in his brown face. Phat-so Kim pumped his arm in air and hooted, "Hell yeah!"
"You've done a very great thing here today, yes," Drago said to M. LeBlanc.
M. LeBlanc's face was grim and tight. He nodded curtly, his arms still wrapped around his briefcase. "What have I done?" he asked hoarsely.
"You've unlocked the future."
The bureaucrat blinked, flinching against the sounds of celebration. Why did the future always come with such noise? Was it always so frightening? Would some impassioned mass burn cars over it? Why him?
He looked down when Felix tugged on his pants. The camera lens housings turned as they sought focus. The thing said simply, "Thank you."
M. LeBlanc gulped. He tried to smile. "Vive la nouvelle republique," he managed to say.
"Sir," agreed Felix.
Three Face Flip | The Secret Mathematic | Free Felix | Felix and the Frontier | The Reaper's Coleslaw
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