I chose J. C. Hemphill’s line, which made Chuck’s fave list.
Ideas, We Breathe
I met a man made of smoke today. We talked for an hour, he and his friend and I, at Catteré, a cafe in the Third. The smoke from my cigarettes kept him aloft above his seat. Passers-by said hello to our little group; the residents of the Third know my companions well but were only being polite to me. A few might remember my face for a nauseous moment when I’m in front of them, but I’m as nameless in myself as the man of the smoke and the forge, Ogun Petr, is bodiless.
My nameless existence is why our mutual acquaintance first came to me. It was that morning in the early daylight as I walked past the Park Tombs of Road Monroe. The woman of discipline and prosperity, Watah Mater, slipped out of the low hedge and pulled herself together from the rising dew.
“I’m sure you’re the one. You know me?” she asked.
“Of course, but I won’t name you.”
“Polite as ever.” Watah smiled. “I’m sorry I cannot return the favor and refrain from seeking you out.”
“You sought me out and succeeded. That surprises me more than any point of manners.”
She smiled again, more of a smirk. “No one remembers your face, but I never forget the way a face makes me feel.
“Oh? How do I make you feel then? Like snakes in the belly or the sight of someone laughing at you? The stories keep changing.”
The dark mist of her face wrinkled. “Both together, the face that never rests and laughs with pity.”
I forget sometimes that ideas are lapsing back into superstition just like everyone else. “I am not that image,” I said, “You are known to me, like all the named, but no one can find me to use the power. I don’t mean to be a horror.”
“Please,” she said. Her touch was cold and damp as she clasped my hand. “I know that keeps us safe. There is no power in it. If you did not wish me to see you, you could make it so.”
It was true. I could disappear to her and continue my amble, forgotten by all and unseen. It was shaping into a beautiful spring day in the Third, and a solitary day in the gated ex-public gardens would suit me fine, as usual.
“It’s something to think about. For now, what will you have of me, if not a name of power?”
“I must see if I can enlist you to our task, but the soul of industry says it better than I. Will you meet with us?”
“You are the soul of duty, how could I refuse?”
Watah and Ogun had subtle reasons to seek me out. It wasn’t the names I could give them but the places I could go, the people I could spy on and the cause I could serve.
“Mister Petr,” I said, using the least intrusive form of his name; he gave his name to mortals as Pete. “You are proposing subversion and a revolt by the community of ideas on behalf of humanity in the Third.”
“I propose justice!” His hands spread motes of ash as he gesticulated. “They divide up rights and law like highwaymen dividing up chickens and cash. They call it liberty! While the rest starve and commit acts of desperation!”
The food riots had been ugly, I had to admit. Humanity had improved their bodies to an extent, then turned away from changing themselves. Their inventions of the mind had evolved, but they still lived and aged and had to eat.
I didn’t respond right away. “Suppose for the sake of argument you are right, and the Long Prosperity is unjust. We both have longer memories.”
I gestured between the three of us. “We are sustained with or without human justice, but if chaos comes from revolt we might fall back into the shadows.” I indicated the street and the air above, the green and pink of blooming trees against a rich, dark sky with rising sunlit puffs of cloud. “Do you want to leave this world to curl up again in the dark corners of their terrified skulls? Do you want to ride them and watch from behind their eyes as they kill each other like they did in former millennia?”
Ogun remembered. His fire is older than silicon or paper memory. He is the forge, for sure, and the incinerator as well.
“If we do nothing, it happens anyway. Not that you would notice.”
I had to protest. “That is not fair. I know I grow weary of company. I know the name and address and weakness of every face I see, but I have no existence for them and little power. I’m happy to live in the world rather than the dark forest of their minds.”
The face of Watah formed in the rising vapor above the teapot. “Peter said you would have doubts.”
“I do.” I said. “Or I did.”
I explained. “Old ideas are struggling to come out into the world. Power, inheritance, order, ownership of people and even their ideas. Some would own us. These old ideas haven’t committed to new names but I can feel them coming.”
Peter said, “So war is inevitable.”
Watah Mater would need a warmup soon, and had avoided my gaze until now. “You still sound unsure. Peter said you wouldn’t bend easily to duty.”
“What can I say? I don’t fight. I hold the names, the power of life and death for us, so I can betray us all.”
Watah smiled and looked at Ogun. Ogun’s face was opaque, and he rumbled quietly, “There is an alternative for you as a tool with the power of death.” I could feel prickles of something I did not like.
“I name you,” said Watah. “Miasma. And you will know the bodiless infections of the age, and banish them.”
And I could feel the perfection of it, even as a falling part of me cursed.