Saturday, May 7, 2011

Common Words: Passion Before Reason

Even though I've been reading it since the late 1990s, and even though I came out of university with a degree perfectly suited to it, I've not made many forays into actually writing alternate history. Generally speaking, I've tuned myself more toward the future; it takes effort to futz with the dial until you're pointed at a might-have-been, and there's an entirely different kind of research required to make it plausible. "Passion Before Reason" is my first attempt at writing a pure alternate history - my perpetually-in-draft novel Our Watchword Evermore may be set in one, but it's a rather different beast. Work on this, such as it is, was completed in late January of 2010.

I will not tell you the specific point of divergence here - I'm pretty sure it comes up somewhere in the story, though. It's been a while since I read it.

"Passion Before Reason"
by Andrew Barton

Montreal, Quebec

"DEATH TO CANADA," the graffiti said, blood-red and English in the center of the intersection. It was the devil's own luck, Genevieve Lalonde thought while leaning on the handlebars, that the fool who'd written it hadn't been run down. Montreal drivers didn't err cautiously, not when they heard gunshots behind every whisper.

She wouldn't mention any of it in her next letter home. Papa was already tottering on the edge of a heart attack, every day convinced today would be the day the FLQ would leap from the shadows and take his precious daughter away. If she could only see Quebec through the lenses of cameras that gleefully recorded every spilled drop of blood, she'd have been worried too. As it was, one of the nukes Chairman Chernenko had trained on the city would dig her grave before any terrorist.

It was a cool day with grey skies and the distant scent of rain, and Genevieve had hardly worked up a sweat as she guided the bicycle into the churchyard. Not even the FLQ would dare smash its sanctity. There were still ten minutes before she was to begin today's lesson, so she slipped into one of the pews and prayed for peace in Quebec, Northern Ireland, Beirut, and all the other trouble spots of the world.

She met Father Johnson in the vestibule, tall and solid and with hair like mist. His very English name concealed a fiery Quebecois heart, and with Papa and Mama so far away it was comforting to know a strong father was close by, blood or no. She suspected that if the FLQ ever did try to shatter his church's sanctity, he'd tear the fools apart and the soldiers' laws be damned.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you and that bicycle were together from the beginning," he said. He looked from side to side and lowered his voice. "Please, think about what I said. At least in a vehicle you have some protection. I don't know if the children could take it if you left one day and never came back. Those terrorists... every day they're getting more brazen. At this rate they won't care a whit about God's law, let alone man's."

"I appreciate your concern, Father," Genevieve said. "You don't have to worry. It's going to be cold soon. I just don't like the idea of coming here every day in armor. Some of them, they'd take it as a challenge."

"This church hasn't lost a member that way in three years, and I don't intend to reset that clock any time soon," Father Johnson said. He placed his hand, hard and worn and with marbled knuckles, on her shoulder. "We're all thankful to have you here. Just don't be in too much of a hurry to see heaven."

She went downstairs and waited for the children to arrive, children who should've been in schools shuttered since before they were born. All Genevieve had was a blackboard, a box of chalk, a few books and her wits. They came in ones and twos, handed into her care after mothers' kisses, and for four hours she could forget the troubles outside as she led them through mathematics, French, English, and geography. When she gathered the world maps at the end, plenty of the children had filled Quebec with pale blue.

Maybe the graffiti fool would be right, after all.

The weather hadn't improved when she mounted her bicycle and started down the road for home. Few were brave enough to raise Canada's flag in Montreal. Quebec flags flew from nearly every house she passed, loyalty badges worn by decent people who only wanted to shut their windows against the storm. Perhaps tomorrow, at least, would be pleasant and sunny.

The traffic light switched to red as she approached, and dutifully Genevieve swallowed her momentum. A long white van with grimy side panels lumbered to a stop beside her. A nod at the driver to get his attention, all the better to remind him not to run her down, and a scan left and right along the perpendicular road. Father Johnson's concerns aside, it would be a smooth ride home so long as she could beat the rain.

The thunder came first, in one swift crack.


"We left for a reason," her mother had said. "If you go there, you'll only come back dead."

Genevieve's head still ached, both from motherly advice and whatever her captors had knocked her out with, but at least it was a reminder that she still lived. If if was the FLQ that had her, if she'd managed to stumble into their sights, it wouldn't be for much longer. They'd killed six captives when Prime Minister Wagner first called down martial law, and Quebec's rivers had been bloody ever since.

Yet, she'd woken up on a cot with her clothes still on. So maybe not the worst cell of the FLQ, at least. Whoever they were, they'd left her in a windowless basement with bare concrete walls lit by a naked lightbulb with a pull string like a chain of miniature pearls. They hadn't answered after she first pounded on the single door, maybe ten minutes or maybe five hours ago.

It opened with a creak that froze her through sheer novelty. A man and a woman entered, both in the plain, rumpled vests and canvas pants that were a Montrealer's best way to blend into the crowd, their eyes hidden beneath knit masks. Neither of them carried any guns that she could see, and if she understood the typical Felquiste, they always wanted their captives to see their guns.

"Do you know why you're here?" the woman asked in joual, the fast-flowing French of working-class Montreal. Genevieve had spent enough time on the island to follow it, but Papa would have taken a ruler to her backside if she ever dared speak it at home.

"Because you carried me here," Genevieve said with a shrug. Her own accent wouldn't set off any alarm bells; half the families back in Kapuskasing still had Quebec mud on their boots. "If you're going to kill me in the name of liberty, get on with it. I don't have the patience for a long stew."

"Nobody is dying today," the woman said. "We're not barbarians or murderers, we're patriots. People who care about the nation and its future, like you should. You can call me Yvette. We've got a lot to talk about."

"I don't think I have anything to say," Genevieve said.

"You must have left your tongue back in church, then," Yvette said. It shouldn't have rattled Genevieve but it did, the hissing simplicity of the other woman's words. She was no Felquiste spouting communist dogma, but at least then she'd have known what to expect. "You've been busy poisoning the well. Quebec will be free one day, you know, no matter how many traitors like you are out there putting termites in the foundation."

"Hardly patriotic of you to throw out accusations of treason like fireworks on la Fête nationale," Genevieve said.

"Accuracy is not a sin," Yvette said. "You've been busy. Busy undermining our future. Busy teaching English to Quebec's children." She spat it, as if it was worse than any curse in a chalice's or tabernacle's name. "That is your sin."

At first it was all Genevieve could do to keep from laughing in Yvette's face. The twenty-five minutes or so she helped her students practice English, sandwiched between subject matter that came straight from Quebec City, was enough to make her a traitor in their eyes? It was ridiculous... yet, so was the Catholic-Protestant split that was tearing Northern Ireland apart. There were people who would rather abandon a languge than change their religion. To the FLQ and the other "liberation" movements that had sprung up in the secular spring of the Quiet Revolution, the French language was Quebec's religion, and there she was spreading seeds of doubt.

"What are you going to do to me?" she asked. Pressing them on their language hang-up wouldn't improve her situation. If they thought of her as reasonable, maybe she'd find an opportunity to escape.

"We're still working on that," Yvette said. "Like I said, we're not going to kill you. Not even the government would be that kind. Just remember that we're patriots. We care about where loyalties should be."

Yvette and her muscle left without another word, and the thunk of the lock dropping into place echoed through Genevieve's concrete prison.


They would be looking for her soon, spreading a net across the island's alleys and laneways, Father Johnson if no one else. Maybe they'd even find her before she was nothing but a skeleton. FLQ or no, she would put more faith in the words of fallen angels than people who cloaked evil deeds in the Fleurdelisé. She'd tried shouting, screaming for help, but no one was listening. There were no windows and her captors never came to the door, except to bring her cloudy water and flavorless food.

Though the cot they'd left her was soft enough, she slept fitfully, no more than a few minutes here and there. It felt like she'd been tossing and turning for a day and a night when she opened her eyes and found her basement as dark as a moonless sky. There were no shafts of light, no electronics with unblinking red eyes, nothing but absence all around.

She pulled the thin sheet close. Things scuttled and skittered in the darkness. She'd read about bugs that could flay a person into naked bone in a matter of minutes. All of them lived far from Montreal, but that was no salve to her exhausted mind. For hours, for ages they clattered through the inky dark and clambered on her skin. Every itch was a marauding insect, a black-armored beast with piercing mandibles that crawled on her like she was a mound of dirt, insensate and inconsequential. Biting. Burrowing.

Finally she could take it no longer. She stumbled through her basement prison, dancing drunkenly across a cold and unfamiliar floor, until she found the door and slammed on it with both hands, screaming for absolution. It was some time before they answered her.

"So," Yvette said once the lightbulb had been replaced, "do you still want to know what we want from you?"

Genevieve nodded. Her throat was still raw. Yvette smirked and handed her a pen and paper.

"It's an oath," Yvette said before Genevieve had a chance to read it. "A sacred pledge that you will not and will never again teach the English language here in Quebec. Sign it, and you're free to go. Just remember that we have eyes in many places. We saw what you were doing once, remember."

She might have signed a loyalty pledge to the Free Republic of Quebec if it had got her out of the basement. No matter how much of a cream puff her brothers might call her once they learned the facts, at least she'd be alive and free to set them straight. The document was as Yvette had said, and Genevieve signed with three careful words, masked by cursive but perfectly legible. She was careful to accentuate the "G" at the beginning and an "L" toward the end, and though it was only eight letters, Genevieve had no trouble stretching them out. The patriot woman looked at the finished flourishes like it was a four-year-old's art project.

"It's enough," she said, ignorant or uncaring. Most likely the former. "We'll remember your face."

She was blindfolded and led to a vehicle that bounced and rumbled and made senseless turns again and again, no doubt to keep her from retracing the route. After a while the motor stopped and she was shoved out and down onto hard, wet ground.

"There's one thing you must remember," Yvette said. "Don't try the patience of patriots."

Genevieve waited until the vehicle's engine had faded into nothing until she slipped off the blindfold. It was a night almost as dark as her cell had been, with only a handful of streetlights and a few scattered constellations shining down on a city under siege. Of course they wouldn't have waited until daytime. Maybe some street straggler would do the job they'd been been unwilling to do, and they wouldn't have to worry about whether she'd keep her word. She shivered and walked and missed her bicycle.

"Canadian Army! Down on the ground and freeze!"

Four patrolling soldiers, their flag patches flashing like rubies in the dimness, drowned her in harsh, white light. She fell spreadeagled to the ground, cold enough to freeze her if they took their time, and waited for them to haul her away. There was no question that it was well past curfew. At least the room they'd take her to would have a window on the world.


"The children will understand," Father Johnson said. "No one will blame you for leaving."

Genevieve looked out the window and watched the city stream by, endless cowering tenements where there was no hope of a better future, just one long, shambling instant that stretched into eternity. Iron clouds hung low over the island and made every raindrop taste of rust and blood.

"I can't betray them any more than I did myself," Genevieve said, in English. It tasted sweet after her captivity, like an oasis after a spell in the desert. "They didn't have to do anything. That must've been what they were counting on. They just left me there until I started torturing myself."

"There's no need for that in this world," Father Johnson said. "It'll be a shame to see you go, that's God's own truth. Considering what those terrorist bastards told you about keeping an eye out, I don't even know if I could replace you."

Genevieve thought of the children again. Without them Montreal would never escape the long and choking now that the FLQ and Yvette's patriots had locked it in. It would be the twenty-first century by the time they were her age, but if the terrorists had their way it would be a century of pain and strife and broken promises of tomorrow. She could run, yes, go home to peaceful Ontario and a life far from the struggles of Quebec, and maybe some bright young leader would solve the problems that had chewed up so many others. Even then she would still see it happen, would still watch every drop of blood spilled and every hope dashed, and like tormenting ghosts they would be with her until the end.

A radio chanteuse sang of the Titanic. Survivors had lived with their guilt then, too, but absolution on its deck was hardly a substitute for life. Women and children went first into the lifeboats, but there were times when the women as well had to stay behind.

"Then don't," Genevieve said. "Don't replace me. I'll stay."

Father Johnson jerked the car to the side of the road and stared deep into the wells of her eyes, as if deciding whether he would be performing an exorcism today.

"You've seen it yourself, this is no place of peace and amity," Father Johnson said. "You still have a life ahead of you. You still have a _chance_ of peace. We've made more than enough martyrs here. Be reasonable, Genevieve, and go home. We'd all rather miss you than mourn for you."

"Reasonable people don't kidnap other people off the street in broad daylight," she said. "Reasonable people don't try to hold back an avalanche. Reasonable people don't let themselves get tortured by bugs that aren't there. Maybe I'm not a reasonable person, Father. Maybe you don't need reasonable people."

"Reasonable people," Father Johnson said. He shifted in his seat and looked straight ahead for a few moments. The traffic was so light he could have stopped the car in the middle of the street without inconveniencing a soul. After a while he wordlessly started the engine and turned back into the lane. "If not for reasonable people, we'd never have got where we are."

"If it was up to reasonable people, we'd have never started," Genevieve said. "I think I've been reasonable enough. I can't betray the kids. First they want me to stop teaching English. What if they think history's being painted in an unfavorable light? What if they decide your sermons are too federal? What if they say, to hell with God and Caesar?"

"There's no call for that kind of language, miss," Father Johnson said. He ran a hand across his head and sighed, the sort of sigh Atlas would make when he thought about the weight and inescapability of his responsibility. "Genevieve, please, think carefully. This is a dangerous situation you're stepping in."

"It's the right thing to do."

"I suppose it is." Father Johnson sighed, long and low. He could see the truth as well as she could. Folding to demands only encouraged more demands. Not bombs, not bullets, not martial law, nothing but outright defiance could defeat terrorists who cloaked themselves in patriotism. "I'll line up a bed for you. If you're going to do this, I'm not going to make it easy for them to snatch you off the street again."

"Thank you, Father," Genevieve said. She recognized her surroundings now; the church wasn't very far away. "I suppose we've got work to do. If I'm going to betray anyone, better it's someone who doesn't deserve loyalty."


They came the next night, when Montreal was as dark as a blackguard's heart. Genevieve had let the children out at the regular time, after lessons that included a study of false friends between French and English, words that sounded like they'd be related but weren't at all, like magazine and magasin. That would be sort of store that terrorists went to when they needed more ammunition. Perhaps it was where Yvette and her boys had stopped off before they made their presence known.

"I thought we had an arrangement," Yvette said, descending the stairs with two big men as bodyguards and carrying a polished pistol in one hand. Firearms were easier to find in Montreal than confessionals, no matter how tightly the military and police tried to cork the island up, and they'd have just as much luck reassembling the bottle that had made Pierre Trudeau the shortest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history. "Is this all that your word means to you?"

"Yvette. I thought you and your boys weren't barbarians or murderers," Genevieve said.

"It's only a prop until it goes off," Yvette said, stroking the barrel with her leather-gloved hand. "Please, don't make it go off. You've already made things complicated enough. I suppose it can't be helped when traitors betray their nation."

Yvette gave a sharp nod, and her guards each took firm grip of Genevieve's arms before she could run. The struggles she offered weren't worth much; the men were big enough to touch thumb and forefinger around her elbow.

"You're betraying the future," Genevieve said. "This isn't going to end with you on top! The Brits have been in Northern Ireland for six hundred years and they're not leaving any time soon, Beirut's going to burn to the ground before anyone raises the white flag. I'm trying to build bridges, and you keep burning them down! You'd be better off just locking all the children in your basement! Tabarnak! Why don't you lock the whole province in your basement?"

"We are the future!" Yvette shouted. "I know who you really are, Genevieve Lalonde of Ontario! You must think it's some kind of fun, coming back here to gawk at us like animals! To make sure we know how stupid we were to stay, to try and fight for ourselves! We are the future!"

"You're wrong," Genevieve said. The men had started to squeeze, but the pain only made her feel strong and free. "You're so wrong, now."

There was a crash as the storage room door flew open and Father Johnson charged out with a plank of wood in his hands. He'd been crouching there for hours, waiting for the terrorists to make their move, and had no doubt made a quick call to the military authorities as soon as Genevieve had identified them. He swung the wood like a baseball bat and sent Yvette's gun clattering across the floor. They both dove after it, but Father Johnson scooped it up first.

"This is God's house," he spat. "Be humble, or in the name of the Lord your blood will paint my walls."

"It's still two against one," rumbled the man who held Genevieve's left arm. "Seems to me men like you take vows against gambling. So how's about we take what we came for and leave you be, all nice and properly?"

They had her arms but not her legs, and months of bicycling across Montreal had made her muscles taut as the cables that held up the Frontenac Bridge. While they were both distracted trying to stare down Father Johnson and the barrel of Yvette's gun, she struck the right-arm goon in the crotch with a quick, steel kick. While he recoiled and grunted in pain, she gave the same gift to his friend, and dashed to Father Johnson's side. He hollered for help, and in moments half a dozen burly parishoners stormed down the stairs to surround the terrorists.

"Do you want to hear my sacred pledge now, Yvette?" Genevieve asked. "I pledge that I will never let you do to anyone else what you did to me, that I won't stand by while you try to poison our well. Do you think they'd thank you for this? Did you expect a child today to grow up and say 'thank you for making me live in terror and loneliness?' Do you expect them to be thankful that you and your kind want Quebec to be a self-absorbed backwater? Why don't you lock the whole province in the basement and throw away the key?"

"At least I'm fighting for what Quebec was meant to be!" Yvette shouted. "Strong and independent, proud and free. If it was up to people like you, they'd have all been speaking English at the funeral for the last Quebecois."

"Maybe it would've turned out better for you," Genevieve said. "When you get the chance, you should dig out that 'loyalty oath' you put in front of me and let an Anglo take a look. I believe you'll find it's signed, 'Go to Hell.' People have always been terrified of what they don't understand. I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunity to learn before your trial."

The police arrived a few minutes later, and Father Johnson was more than relieved to hand them Yvette's still-cold gun. The terrorists spat curses as they were hustled out and away, but she'd heard worse. Never from children, though. Every day she saw in their eyes the hope of a new generation.

"Vive le Quebec," Genevieve whispered. She climbed the stairs and left the light on behind her.


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