1. Where I Am and How I Came to Be There
Not even a sliver a light penetrates into my cell. For the past three weeks, since the mockery of what passed as my trial, I have been held at the Prison Commune de Québec by the government of La Nouvelle France Indépendante. Only those sentenced to death are jailed at the Prison Commune, a 200-year-old building in the capital’s historical Vieux-Québec district that is a dungeon in all but name; the conditions here are inhumane, even by NFI standards. There are six other state criminals being held here with me, each of us sequestered in his or her own dank cube of darkness. Do they all know, as I do, that no reprieve is ever granted those awaiting death at the Prison Commune de Québec?
Only the Russian woman and the homosexual couple speak to me. Two of the other inmates are, the Russian tells me, spies from the Eternal Chinese Empire, whose domains in the New World encompass most of the territory inland from the Pacific Ocean. To the south, the limits of its territories are the Aztec provinces of California, Northern México, and Texas; while the Mississippi River, the Grands Lacs, and the St. Lawrence River provide a natural boundary between the Eternal Chinese Empire and La Nouvelle France Indépendante. Québec, the capital of the NFI and the only land held by the New French on the north bank of the St. Lawrence, is heavily fortified. Immediately to the north of the fortifications that accentuate the steep cliff dividing the elevated city from the lowlands is a Chinese garrison. NFI cannons are perpetually aimed at the Chinese installations, ready to fire at any sign of aggression.
Although the Chinese agents probably speak French, and perhaps even English, they yell at each other, and sometimes at the Russian woman, in their inscrutable language only. The Russian, whose nation has been under the heel of China since the Sky Dragon airship fleet was first deployed in the sixteenth century, understands them but refuses to translate for the rest of us. The Russian, like the Chinese man and woman, was condemned as a spy, although she claims that she was merely trying to defect, that she had since childhood always admired French culture, always yearned to live the life of a Frenchwoman. Like many foreigners, she assumed that the NFI was the true heir to the dismantled colonial French Empire—after all, following La Révolution Utopienne of 1911, the NFI is where the Utopia of France banished its undesirables: its priests and aristocrats and Aryan supremacists. But no: the NFI suffered a quiet revolution in the 1959, when the ruling aristocrats voluntarily acquiesced to turning over the reins of power to the Union des Nouveaux Français, who put in place a fascist theocracy.
The two male lovers are New French citizens who were caught trying to defect to the Commonwealth of New England, where such unions are not illegal. Isolated in separate cells, they spend most of their days in tears, apart yet so near, unable to console each other. They each have a double death sentence upon their heads: sexual perversion and treason.
The final inmate—Arsenault Blanchard, formerly of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal—never speaks. Every day, I try to draw him out, to learn the reason behind his betrayal, to learn if he is indeed the traitor I was told he is—but to no avail.
Most days, once a day, we are fed flavourless gruel. Some days, once a day, we are, one by one, escorted to the toilet. In truth, the guards mostly neglect and ignore us, considering us dead already. The stench of piss and shit and despair is deeply etched into these walls. The best that can be said is that we are not actively abused.
Executions are held the first of every month. The New French gather in larger numbers for this public spectacle, held in the plaza on the grounds outside the prison. During the hunt for my quarry, I attended one such event, which proved to be a lapse in judgment on my part.
The NFI government does not employ executioners. The guards bring out the shackled prisoners one at a time—I use the plural because the court of the NFI every month produces a handful of condemned to assuage the bloodlust of its citizens. Once the prisoner is secured on the chopping block, a steam automaton is activated. Eerily humanlike in shape and size, the brass machine wields the axe that is welded to its metal hands and severs the head of the condemned.
I had no interest in the barbaric proceedings—an execution should not be cause for public celebration, but carried out only when absolutely necessary with cold and regrettable efficiency—however, my prey was in the crowd. It had taken me six weeks to catch up to Blanchard, as I pursued him on the railways throughout the NFI: from the Grands Lacs down to Nouvelle-Orléans and then all the way north to Vermont—finally, he had settled on the capital. Was he confident that he had shaken any potential tail from the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal?
If he was still at large, then most likely he had not made contact with NFI authorities and I had not failed in my task. At least, not yet.
Suddenly, Blanchard was surrounded by a quartet of NFI soldiers. But how could I act now? In such a heavily guarded public space...
Blanchard turned to look behind him, and his eyes locked with mine. But we did not even know each other... How could he identify me? I was so certain he had never detected me during this long chase.
And in the blink of an eye I, too, was arrested by New French soldiers.
Yes, my trial was a sham; but the accusations against me were not: a foreign agent operating within the borders of La Nouvelle France Indépendante.
2. Who I Am and the Context of My Assignment
My name is Lambert Chandler, and I am the Chief Security Advisor for the President-Mayor of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, a fancy title that obfuscates my true role as an assassin in service to the great metropolis and its visionary leader. Historically, Montreal had long been contested territory passing hands back and forth between the colonial empires of France and Britain too often to keep track. A succession of politically savvy governors administered the city not for the good of either empire but for the prosperity of Montreal itself, all the while paying whatever taxes were demanded by the ever-temporary powers-that-be. The result of such careful caretaking is the most impressive and modern city of the New World—a multilingual and multicultural metropolis eyed with envy and greed by every nation yet belonging to none.
In the aftermath of the Global War of 1881-1911, the colonial powers, save for the Eternal Chinese Empire and the United Emirates of Allah, saw their worldwide political structures crumble. In the New World that meant that both La Nouvelle France Indépendante and the Commonwealth of New England seceded from their former colonial rulers and divvied up the eastern portion of the continent.
Amid this political turmoil emerged the neutral city-state of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, with the Chinese, the New French, the New English, and the Aztecs each having seats on the City Council. These four major powers are appeased by having select members of their ruling elite benefit, at great cost to them and great financial and political gain for the IMM, from limited access to a closely guarded medical secret: the Patchwork Procedure. Every patient is treated under the strictest privacy in the high-security underground wing of the Montreal General Hospital.
Another source of income for the IMM is the Patchwork Procedure Lottery. Every month, IMM citizens are allowed to purchase as many lottery tickets as they want. The monthly winner becomes eligible to undergo the Patchwork Procedure. Although millions vie for the option of having access to the procedure few ever elect to do so. The lure of potential immortality is strong, but ultimately it rarely trumps the profound revulsion that overcomes most people when faced with the reality of having the body parts, limbs, or organs of the dead grafted onto themselves. The grotesque appearance of these medical chimeras accentuates this feeling of disgust. The flesh of patchworks takes on a tatterdemalion appearance, as if the grafted parts never truly meshed with the host body. Following the procedure, patients require constant medical supervision and access to a secret cocktail of medications. But they can extend their lives, theoretically forever.
In exchange for universal health care, every citizen of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal agrees to donate, after death, their corpse to the Montreal General Hospital, so that their parts may be harvested for the Patchwork Procedure or used for medical research and training.
Jonathan Flagg, the last governor of the colony of Montreal before it consolidated with the surrounding archipelago into the independent Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, was appointed by the British in 1867. A skilled diplomat, he cultivated trade and cultural relations with the Chinese, the Aztecs, the French, the local indigenous populations, and even the geographically distant United Emirates and deftly parlayed Montreal’s postwar status. He became the first (and so far, more than a century later, the only) President-Mayor of the IMM. He is, of course, monstrous to look at by now. Is any part of him the original Jonathan Flagg? Composed of a hodgepodge of harvested body parts, President-Mayor Flagg remains alive thanks to the Patchwork Procedure, which was developed during the Global War by a Montreal physician of Deutsch background named Victor Thaler. Thaler himself is long dead; although he discovered the secret of medical immortality he himself notoriously disdained the prospect of eternal life. Flagg’s current state physician is a man named Morgan Stein. Or, rather, he was until six weeks ago, when his assistant, Arsenault Blanchard, murdered him and fled the island, presumably with the secret of the Patchwork Procedure.
My assignment: to kill Arsenault Blanchard before he can betray the IMM’s most vital state secret. It appears that I have failed.
Except... Blanchard and I were tried together, and he never attempted to bribe his way to freedom with his knowledge of the Patchwork Procedure. He remained silent during the entire proceedings (which lasted less than an hour). Was I mistaken about him and his guilt? Was I misinformed or misled by President-Mayor Flagg?
Blanchard is an enigma.
3. How I Spend the Night before My Execution
All seven of us condemned prisoners are stone silent tonight. Tomorrow at noon, we will one by one be marched out to be gawked at by the citizens of Québec and to get our heads chopped off by the automaton executioner to enthusiastic cheering and applause. Even the two doomed lovers have stopped sobbing. We are all, I suppose, making peace with ourselves. If any of the others are superstitious, perhaps they are making peace with the deity of their choice.
So lost in thought am I—pondering the many unintentional wrongs I’ve committed toward my biological father, wondering if perhaps my behaviour was never as unintentional as I like to believe—that it takes me several minutes to fully grasp that there is a great commotion afoot: shouting, screaming, explosions, and other sounds of battle.
Before long, a phosphorescent green mist seeps into my cell. Its effects are gradual but unmistakeable. I try to hold on to consciousness, but...
The cabin is decorated with the gaudy regalia of the Eternal Chinese Empire. From my vantage point, I can see the sky through a porthole. I am aboard an airship, strapped to a bunk and wearing fresh clothes. If the Chinese stormed the Prison Commune de Québec, if they initiated a military operation within the capital city of La Nouvelle France Indépendante, if they deployed one of their Sky Dragons past the fortifications that symbolize the uneasy truce that has held for more than a century now in the New World, then war has de facto been declared.
I fear that such an aggression will not only draw into conflict all the powers sharing this continent but once again all the major nations of the world. With the Patchwork Procedure potentially no longer a Montreal state secret, what leverage will the IMM have to remain isolated from the hostilities?
As I ponder these questions, a muscular Chinese woman I estimate to be in her mid-forties enters my cabin. “I am sorry for this inconvenience, Mr. Chandler. May I now remove these restraints so that we can converse as civilized people?”
I have no idea what is going on or what the Eternal Chinese Empire wants from me, but at this point, trapped within a hostile foreign airship, there is no better strategy for me than to behave with utmost diplomacy. “Thank you. I would be most honoured to enjoy such a conversation.”
My captor unfastens the restraints and then introduces herself: “My name is Ying Berresford.”
I am startled by the English surname; yes, there are many Asians living in England and thousands of Anglo-Chinese families spread across the globe, but no-one in a position of sufficient trust within the ECE as to be posted on a Sky Dragon would retain a European name.
I stretch to rid my body of numbness, and we settle on two facing armchairs within what I now take in is a surprisingly spacious and luxurious berth.
She continues, “Mr. Chandler, contrary to what the appearance of this ship may suggest, you are not aboard a vessel of the Chinese fleet.”
“This is not a Sky Dragon?”
“Oh yes, it is. We acquired the schematics centuries ago, and we possess several such ships. In fact, we have airships in the image of each of the world powers’ fleets.”
“We...? Who are you?”
“We are a group interested in the course of history, interested in people who can help us shape history. And we believe that you are such a person, Mr. Chandler. We believe that your talents are wasted being utilized for such narrow stakes as the interests of one city-state when they could be deployed on the world stage.”
Appealing to my vanity is certainly a serviceable way to get my attention. Unimaginative and transparent. Unlikely to be honest or truthful. But it indicates that I hold something of value to whomever this Ying Berresford represents.
I say, “I’m listening.”
She claps her hands and a white servant walks in with a rolling tray and then rapidly leaves without a word or glance to either of us.
Berresford says, “Please, eat and drink. And then we shall talk.”
The sight and smell of the cucumber sandwiches, rice crackers, dried figs, stuffed olives, tapioca pudding, chai tea, and water make me realize that I am indeed very hungry and thirsty.
She allows me to eat in awkward silence, her gaze pointedly avoiding mine.
5. Ying Berresford Speaks
[As I sip the last of my tea, Ying Berresford turns to me and says:]
I will anticipate your questions and endeavour to satisfy your curiosity in all matters.
First, the Russian woman is—or, rather, was—a statistician of great importance for the Eternal Chinese Empire; her profound knowledge of the inner workings of the ECE, coupled with her keen skills at analysing and forecasting societal trends, make her a powerful asset. We are immensely pleased to have her with us, but that is not the principal reason why we initiated the prison break. The Chinese duo are agents of the ECE on her trail. We will attempt to turn all three of them, but that might prove impossible in the case of the Chinese agents; the Russian should pose no problem, given her disappointments with both the Eternal Empire and the NFI. For now, the Chinese agents believe themselves to be aboard one of their own Sky Dragons. The civilian couple has already been recruited; they needed a haven, which we can easily supply in return for loyal service.
Our ultimate goal in storming the Prison Commune was to provoke the Second Global War. As a direct result of our incursion, La Nouvelle France Indépendante has already declared war on the Eternal Chinese Empire. Within the next month, the whole world will be drawn into the conflict.
China has neither denied nor admitted culpability in the prison break. In truth, it was already marshalling its forces. War was inevitable and imminent. But it is not in our interest to have the ECE, or any nation, dictate either the terms of engagement or the timetable of the Second Global War.
We remained on the sidelines of the previous conflict, but the stakes are too high to once again trust in the whims of fate. We will manipulate this conflict so as to redraw the map of global power and influence in an effort to maintain lasting peace. So that the whole may benefit from a new golden age, free at last from the threat of looming war or political and economic instability.
Our organization—the Invisible Fingers—was founded by a coalition of financiers, industrialists, merchants, politicians, and thinkers with a bold vision for the world. An entire planet secretly governed by a benevolent oligarchy. To placate regional and nationalistic interests, we need to keep alive the fiction of disparate nations, states, and empires, but behind closed doors there will be no adversaries, no conflicting interests. Only a cadre of rulers and managers working in unison to bring about a worldwide capitalist utopia. The time is ripe: in every nation, we have positioned agents within the ruling elites. War will create the chaos necessary for the Invisible Fingers to take over all of the world’s governments.
We imagine that, as an agent of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, you desire the IMM to remain as isolated from the conflict as possible? And then remain independent in the new world order to follow? Yes? We thought so.
In that case our goals are the same—or at least similar.
In the new world order that will emerge after the Second Global War, we see Montreal as the seat of a new front for the Invisible Fingers, a place for us to hide in plain sight: the League of the United Nations. The IMM will thus remain aloof from the rest of the world and also be the new global metropolis, the ultimate neutral territory, where, under the guise of diplomacy, the Invisible Fingers will henceforth direct the course of history.
For that to happen there must be a regime change at the IMM. Our man in Montreal, Vice-Mayor Jerome Trembles, is ready to put our plan into motion once Jonathan Flagg no longer stands in his way. Flagg has proven both incorruptible and out of reach. But you are his most trusted agent.
We need you to assassinate the President-Mayor of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal and destroy the entire apparatus of the Patchwork Procedure.
6. How I Came to Be Who and What I Am
My mother and my baby brother died in childbirth the summer I turned three years old. I was ostensibly raised by my father, an unambitious middle-management functionary in the halls the IMM government who served the President-Mayor with zealous loyalty, a sentiment he instilled in me so early that it is an indelible part of my identity.
I barely remember my mother—only a vague blur of curly brown hair. I don’t recall a single interaction or any detail of her voice or her face. I have seen daguerreotypes of her, but the images refuse to imprint on my mind. I have fond if unexceptional memories of my father, who died of a heart attack at age fifty and whose own parents perished in a fire at the 1967 Montreal World Expo, along with his two younger sisters. He was ten years old, and no-one in his extended and selfish family accepted custody of him. The World Expo had been Jonathan Flagg’s dream project—a celebration of his hundredth year as President-Mayor and a consolidation of the IMM’s status as the cosmopolitan jewel of the New World. The accident enraged him, and his anger only deepened when he learned of my father’s plight.
Amid much fanfare—I have seen the newspaper clippings—the President-Mayor adopted my father as a ward of the state, while jailing the entire Chandler family under the charge of child abuse for their neglect of the young Paul Chandler. Popular opinion was entirely on side. The unmarried and notoriously celibate Flagg had no children of his own; I realized early in my own acquaintance with Flagg that my dull and unimaginative father disappointed Flagg’s expectations that he would become a worthy adopted son.
Jonathan Flagg’s true affections skipped a generation. The President-Mayor looms much larger in my imagination than my biological father. Especially after the death of my mother, President-Mayor Flagg became my true parent.
I grew up in the halls of government, at Flagg’s side, observing and absorbing the rules and rituals of political life while my biological father toiled in his unimportant office. Besides the two languages of my infancy—English and French—I also learned to speak Spanish, Nahuatl, Arabic, and Russian, but the language of the Chinese remained beyond my grasp.
When we were alone, I quizzed the President-Mayor relentlessly. Instead of answering directly, he always pointed me in directions that would allow me to come to my own understanding of the world. Nevertheless, more than anyone, he shaped me—shaped me into his personal instrument of covert action, manipulation, and retribution.
7. I Ask Questions
In silence, I digest Ying Berresford’s revelations. And her improbable request. My familial ties to the President-Mayor are a matter of public record. Berresford and her so-called “Invisible Fingers” (if I’m to believe her monologue) cannot possibly expect me to betray that bond.
Finally, I ask, “What of Arsenault Blanchard? I can now glean that he must be one of yours.”
She replies, “Ask him yourself.”
The door to my cabin slides back, and Blanchard walks in.
Although I trailed him for weeks, this is the closest I’ve ever stood to him. Blanchard is a tall man with light brown hair that falls in waves on his shoulders. His thick, animalistic features and easy smile ooze with brash sensuality and jovial gregariousness. In Montreal, he has a reputation as a pansexual seducer and is known to have a wide circle of influential friends. His brash physicality provokes my antipathy, which I do my best to suppress. Diplomacy, I remind myself, could be my only way out of this unexpected situation.
He grabs my hand with both of his, giving me little choice in sharing a handshake. “Sorry for the cat-and-mouse game. If I could have confided in you, I would have; but you weren’t ready to hear the plan, and much less the truth.”
I disengage from his clasp. “The truth?”
Berresford stays seated, observing us detachedly, while Blanchard and I face each other standing.
“Yes, my friend. About the Patchwork Procedure. About Flagg. About how a regime change is the only way forward for Montreal.”
Blanchard and Berresford have plenty more to say, to reveal. None of it contradicts what I already know, yet I’m not sure how much to believe, nor how much to trust their professed intentions.
8. I Contemplate Treason
Berresford and Blanchard leave me alone with my thoughts. I have decided that the best course is to say that I am withholding judgment. I suspect that were I to embrace too fully the agenda laid out by my... rescuers?... captors?... they would be suspicious that my words were duplicitous and that I would turn on them at the first opportunity. There’s no question that they saved me from being executed by La Nouvelle France Indépendante. Perhaps they deserve some consideration. On the other hand, by Berresford’s own admission, the Invisible Fingers have plunged the world into a new Global War. How many millions will die as a result?
Then again, she claimed that war was coming regardless. Perhaps their behind-the-scenes manipulation of the war will ultimately save lives and prevent atrocities. I cannot untangle the ethics of all of this.
Whether all this is truth or deception—can I really assassinate the man who was more of a father to me than my own well-meaning but ineffectual sire?
As I ponder, I am thrown to the floor of my cabin by a violent rocking of the Sky Dragon, which is immediately followed by the sounds of a siren and of an explosion.
A dishevelled Blanchard rushes into my cabin. “We’re under attack. Follow me.”
I do as he says, and ask, “Is it the New French?”
“I don’t know. We’re deep in Chinese territory, flying over the Laurentians. I’d be surprised if the NFI had followed us this far and this quickly. But it could be. It could also be the Chinese. They may have noticed that this is not really one of theirs. Either way, we need to escape.”
Blanchard leads me to an open hatch. The wind is terrible, and the ship is rocking dangerously, losing altitude. He says, “Have you ever jumped?”
Before I can respond, Blanchard outfits himself in an intricate harness and gathers me to him.
“Hold tight and don’t let go.”
He propels us out of the ship, and I fight the panic that screams to overwhelm me. Blanchard laughs. He shouts in my ear, the savage wind nearly but not quite ripping the words from his mouth before they can reach me: “And I thought you were a tough guy, mister assassin man.” I see others jumping from other hatches, parachutes opening. Some of them are shot down immediately. Blanchard releases our parachute, and still I can’t stop trembling. I could say it’s from the cold winds at such a high altitude, but I’d be lying.
Our parachute is pierced by a bullet, but we’re now less than thirty metres from the lakeshore below. We have a rough landing in shallow water, but we’re lucky and make it out with nothing worse than sore bruises and minor gashes.
From his backpack, Blanchard pulls out a knife and hands it to me. “We don’t know who or what we’ll run into. You’ll need this.”
9. At the New World Wall of China
After two days of trudging without incident through the woods of the Eternal Chinese Empire, we approach the shore of the St. Lawrence River, or to be more precise the New World Wall of China, which fortifies the riverbank from the mouth of the Grands Lacs at Cataraqui and stretches east to a few hundred kilometres beyond Québec.
There’s a border crossing to the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal within sight, the Laval Bridge. Blanchard and I are well hidden by trees and shrubs.
I would have no problem crossing into the IMM—I know the codes and protocols that designate me as someone whose instructions must be obeyed without question by Montreal security forces, including the border guards. Besides, all the highest ranking officers at IMM border crossings know me by sight in my official capacity as the Chief Security Advisor to the President-Mayor. But first I must negotiate the Chinese exit border station. The military presence here does not seem larger than usual. In the fledgling conflict, Montreal must still be considered neutral in Chinese eyes. Perhaps there’s hope.
After the attack on the clandestine Sky Dragon, Blanchard offered to help me get to the border, after which we would part ways. I would return to Montreal to execute Flagg; he would disappear into the ECE wilderness and rejoin the Invisible Fingers.
Blanchard says, “This is where I leave you. I know you’re still unsure as to what to do, but I believe you’ll come to the right decision. Montreal is key to our plans for world peace, and for it to be a symbol of the new world order it can no longer be allowed to prosper at the cost of such unspeakable suffering. Investigate. You’ll see that everything I have said about the Patchwork Procedure is true. You’ll know to do the right thing.”
“I’ve been pondering everything you and Berresford told me,” I tell him.
“I have three gas grenades in my backpack. They’re yours. They should be enough to knock out most of the Chinese guards and give you a chance to cross the border.”
“That stuff your allies used to knock us out at the Prison Commune?”
“No,” I say. “I have a better idea.”
I’m on top of him before he can react. I punch him hard in the head seven times, enough to make him dizzy. The knife he gave me earlier is at his throat before he can recover.
I whisper, “Remove your backpack and get on your stomach.” He stretches out on the ground. I sit on his back and use the knife to tear his clothes off. I accidentally nick the skin near his ribs; he yells out. I hit the side of his head with the handle of the knife. “Quiet.” After that, I’m less careful and leave more streaks of blood on him. He doesn’t make a sound.
Finally, he’s naked. With strips of his clothes I bind his wrists, his arms, and his ankles; I muffle his mouth. I say, “Get up, Blanchard. You’re coming back as my prisoner.”
He glares at me but does as I command. Being tied up hinders his mobility, so it takes him a few tries, but he finally accomplishes it.
There’s burning hatred in Blanchard’s eyes. Good. I was beginning to think that nothing could get to him. Regardless of whatever grudging respect he’s earned from me, that cloying charm of his still grates on me. I take a moment to bask in having pierced Blanchard’s armour. Involuntarily I let out a chuckle, and Blanchard’s face contorts with rage. Excellent. To make sure he seethes even more, I say, “I already knew about the donor dungeon. About Hochelaga. I already knew everything. My loyalty will always be to Jonathan Flagg.”
I push Blanchard until we get to the edge of the road leading to the Laval Bridge. Then I shove him out into the open. His naked body falls on the gravel path. Chinese soldiers train their guns on him.
Before walking out into the open with my hands in the air, I dispose of the blade Blanchard gave me. It would suicidal to approach the Chinese border station with any weapons. Half of the guns turn toward me. I kick Blanchard and hiss, “Get up.”
It takes him a minute or two, but feels much longer, what with the Chinese border guards aiming their rifles at us.
I nudge Blanchard up the path toward the border.
When I get near enough, I ask, first in English, then in French, if any of them speak either language. I don’t make any concessions to Chinese propriety. I speak as belligerently as possible. Only complete confidence can get me out of this, and even then there’s a risk they’ll simply shoot both of us. Although I notice in the distance IMM border guards paying attention to what’s happening. That might be enough to prevent the Chinese from being too trigger-happy.
One of the men, from his uniform I recognize that he is the commander of this border station, shouts, “Français!”
In French, I tell him, “My name is Lambert Chandler. I am a security officer for the office of President-Mayor Jonathan Flagg of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal. This prisoner, Arsenault Blanchard, is a spy for La Nouvelle France Indépendante. I am returning him to the IMM so that he may face justice. There was no time to alert the Chinese authorities that I had to enter your territory to apprehend him. Had I hesitated, this New French agent would be loose in the Eternal Chinese Empire. I judged that your government, like mine, would want this enemy arrested at all costs. If we can speak with the commander of the Montreal border station, she will confirm my identity.”
The Chinese commander shouts something in his own language to his men. One of them lowers his gun and approaches me. He pats me down thoroughly and finds nothing. The guard positions himself behind me; I feel the end of his gun against my back. The commander picks up the telephone that hangs on a pole near the gate. It’s a closed-circuit line that connects the two border stations; I’m hoping that he is right now speaking to his opposite number, Commander Charlotte Boulanger. I scan for activity on the IMM side of the border.
The Chinese border chief hangs up the phone and addresses me in French. “Walk up to the gate. Leave your prisoner where he is.”
I do as he says. The guard stays behind too and now aims his rifle at the naked Blanchard. As I approach, Commander Boulanger and her aide come up to the other side of the gate. I nod at her to indicate that she can speak freely.
The Chinese border chief says to her, “Identify this man.”
She repeats what I’ve already told him.
The Chinese commander shouts a command to the guard next to Blanchard; he shoots my prisoner dead.
The commander turns to me, his eyes betraying that he did not entirely believe my story, and says, “I am satisfied as to your identity, Mr. Chandler. Thank you for having helped us remove a New French threat to our national security. The Eternal Chinese Empire welcomes the friendship of the IMM.”
He opens the gate, and it takes three steps for me to be safely home.
10. Back in the IMM
I had hoped to save both of us; but I knew I could not reach my goal without putting Blanchard at risk. I could think of no other scenario that would have had the slightest chance of success, and anyway I was not ready to let go of Blanchard. I was still undecided whether to make him an ally or to deliver him to IMM justice. I could have told him my treatment of him was a ploy—it was, in part—but he had to be a convincing prisoner, and I could not betray the slightest empathy toward his plight, nor could we be observed to share even a hint of complicity. Otherwise, the Chinese would not have believed me. The border chief nevertheless suspected that I was not telling the entire truth. He had Blanchard killed to let me know without jeopardizing diplomatic relations between the ECE and the IMM.
I ask to be brought to the President-Mayor immediately. I’m put aboard the next train to downtown Montreal and given my own cabin. Fresh clothes are laid out for me, as is a basin of clean water; I do what I can to once more make myself presentable. Two hours later, in the heart of the metropolis’s port district, I walk up the stairs to City Hall to meet with Flagg.
First, I stop by my office for some supplies. Then I visit the office of the Vice-Mayor. My position within the administration means that no-one below the President-Mayor himself can refuse me an audience. Trembles is in. Without preamble, I say, “I have been sent by the Invisible Fingers.” His face betrays him. I subdue and handcuff him.
I walk him through the corridors and stairwells of government. People point and whisper. It’s not every day that the Vice-Mayor is paraded in chains by the Chief Security Advisor to the President-Mayor.
Normally, I am one of the few who can be admitted to the President-Mayor’s office without the presence of the Flagg’s security detail. But today, given that I am requesting an audience with the handcuffed Vice-Mayor in tow, I am not afforded that privilege. Three of the President-Mayor’s bodyguards precede us inside.
11. Whatever Happened to Hochelaga?
The Island of Montreal did not escape the Global War of 1881-1911 unscathed, despite the reported best efforts of its celebrated defender, then-Governor Jonathan Flagg. The greatest casualty was the devastating bombing of the village of Hochelaga, a centuries-old indigenous settlement at the foot of Mount Royal, which had maintained independence from European rule throughout the colonial era.
Some reports say the Eternal Chinese Empire was responsible. Others point the finger at the United Emirates of Allah. Some even claim that it was an Eagle of Quetzalcoatl that dropped the bombs. The war was chaotic. The world does not know for sure.
But the truth has not been entirely suppressed. And that is the secret Blanchard escaped with. For all I know, the secret died with him and with the attack on the counterfeit Sky Dragon. Perhaps not. Perhaps at this very moment Chinese interrogators are wresting the truth from Ying Berresford.
Despite what I’d boasted to Blanchard before his death, I had not known any of it.
But I was not surprised. I did not want to believe, yet I knew I was being revealed the truth by the agents of the Invisible Fingers. Throughout my life in the inner circles of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, I had heard and seen things I had chosen to ignore. Now that the veil has been unequivocally parted, I can no longer ignore reality.
My devotion to Jonathan Flagg and my love of the Montreal he created made me turn a blind eye to the secrets of the Patchwork Procedure. Had I ever wanted to investigate the truth, all doors would have been open to me. I was, after all, the Chief Security Advisor to the President-Mayor himself. If I had been deceived, I had been willingly deceived. I had always suspected something was profoundly wrong about the administration of the Patchwork Procedure; I had chosen to remain ignorant.
No foreign power bombed Hochelaga. The indigenous village, which occupied some of the most desirable real estate on the Island of Montreal, a patch of land between the colonial city centre and the mountain, was covertly burned to the ground by a squadron of Jonathan Flagg’s police force. The Hochelagan survivors were imprisoned in a secret dungeon at southwest foot of Mont Royal, where the Montreal General Hospital was being built. The Hochelagans have survived all this time, in captivity, kept breeding to provide fodder for the Patchwork Procedure. Every officer who participated in the massacre and its aftermath was executed—for “treason”—lest any of them ever reveal the truth.
The truth about the Patchwork Procedure is that it does not work with the remains of the dead, even the freshly dead. Two living bodies, donor and recipient, must by linked by transfusion while the surgeon grafts the flesh of the donor onto the body of the recipient. Once the operation is successful, then the donor is disposed of.
What the public thinks it knows about the Patchwork Procedure is all public-relations theatre. The truth is that the splendour that is Metropolitan Montreal is built upon an ongoing atrocity.
Jonathan Flagg, the most frequent beneficiary of the Patchwork Procedure, has in my lifetime always looked like a monster. But it is only now that I can admit to myself that the monster runs much deeper than the surface of his borrowed flesh.
And yet the truest thing that may be said of me is that beyond all else I am loyal to Jonathan Flagg.
12. An Audience with Jonathan Flagg; and the Future of Montreal
The President-Mayor’s office is sparsely lit. Flagg’s eyes are photosensitive in the extreme, and he is prone to debilitating migraines if he does not shield them adequately. Even in this near dark, he wears shaded lenses that cover half his face.
It is not easy to see his outline, but my imagination, augmented by intimate familiarity, paints a full picture of the President-Mayor. His oversize head is held up by a neck brace made of silver alloy. His bulbous skull is entirely bald, with three stitched protuberances encasing foreign brain matter. He wears only a loose robe so that he may connect the tubes that feed the Patchwork Solution into his body, so as to ease the constant pain and discomfort of his condition. He can survive without quite that much medication, but he has become addicted to the euphoria it affords him. The drugs do not addle his judgment; they restore balance to his mind, which would otherwise be beset and distracted by his physical ailments. Hidden by the robe and the drug-giving apparatus is the President-Mayor’s misshapen body, of which I doubt much, if any, is the original flesh of Jonathan Flagg. These days, he keeps his public appearances to a strict minimum. Not for the first time I wonder why he persists in staying alive at such a great cost. Are death and oblivion truly more horrific than this parody of life?
The overriding emotion that fills me as I enter the presence of my mentor is one of deep tenderness. Above all, I want to do his will; without him, I would be nothing.
“President-Mayor,” I address him, “the Vice-Mayor is a traitor. You have my assurance that he is well secured and carries no weapons. There are matters I must discuss with you that require both his presence and the utmost discretion. I recommend that the guards be stationed outside this office during our conversation.”
“My son, these men follow me everywhere. They are loyal. You can speak before them.”
His voice is low, with a hint of rumble to it, but also soothingly melodious. That voice is one of the tools that helped him hold on to power all this time. That, and his merciless intelligence.
I nod. And I launch into my story: my pursuit of Blanchard; my capture and detainment in Québec; my rescue by the Invisible Fingers; the war plot of that secret organization; its attempts at recruiting me to help fulfill its designs on Montreal; the revelations about the true fate of the Hochelagans and the dark secret of the Patchwork Procedure; and finally my escape from the Eternal Chinese Empire and return to the metropolis.
President-Mayor Jonathan Flagg responds, “My son, how do you propose to proceed?”
I hesitate. Did I bring the Vice-Mayor here so Flagg and I could interrogate him? There is much that we can learn from this agent of the Invisible Fingers. I told Flagg that Trembles is weaponless; indeed he is, but I am not.
I have killed many times in the interest of the Islands of Metropolitan Montreal, obeying the will of the President-Mayor, always in the belief that I was fighting against the myriad forces that would bring injustice and inequity to the city-state that I love. But I can no longer pretend that injustice and inequity are not intimately part of the fabric of Montreal. Is it time for me to slay the father so that a new world, a new Montreal, may be born? Can I continue to serve the President-Mayor in light of the truth I avoided for so long? Do I still have faith that Jonathan Flagg will continue to lead Montreal to an ever-brighter future? For all that I do not trust the Invisible Fingers and their naïve or willfully deceptive notions of a utopia built on the greed of capitalism, they are perhaps right that the world needs to change, though perhaps not according to their script.
The guards fidget tensely while I remain silent. I know these men: Michel Anderson, Richard Howard Philips, and Christopher Jacques. I am their superior officer and I chose them for this detail, to be the personal guards of the President-Mayor. Who or what commands their deepest loyalty? Myself? The President-Mayor? The Islands of Metropolitan Montreal? Their personal ethics? Would that knowledge affect my decision?
My left hand brushes against the handle of my pistol while my mind speculates on all the possible futures that derive from what I will do next.