Acts of protest

A short story by August Cole
 
13 July 2040 PARIS - Stepping back two paces, Frederic held the red-tipped paint brush as casually as he would a cigarette after dinner. His studio in the Centquatre complex had excellent light and the vermillion paint glowed with a sunrise’s warmth. He studied the white cloth, then got distracted by the paint on the toes of his black canvas sneakers.
 
“Well?” he asked, staring down at his feet.
 
“Simple, retro. Unmistakable,” Catherine said. 
 
A white cloth banner lay spread out on the floor. Most public demonstrations were virtual events, tying together data streams, augmented- and virtual-reality displays. Thousands might gather to register anger at a change to basic income levels or to champion digital rights, but really each person experienced their own demonstration. Frederic had something else in mind for tomorrow’s protest. 
 

“It’s a beautiful red,” Catherine said. “But the text…”
 
The words. She read them aloud: “NON AUX ARMEES, NON A LA GUERRE.”  
 
“It’s very ’68,” she said, referring to the sweeping protests of that year which defined a generation of French political and social culture during the latter half of the prior century. 
 
“Exact. Retro,” he said. “Tomorrow is Bastille Day, perfect for a protest. Dozens of tanks, thousands of us.”
 
“But we’re thinking about the future, how France is stuck in the past. Yes?” she said.
 
He nodded, tapped the brush handle in frustration. The paint was not yet dry and already he knew he would have to start again. Catherine was right. She always was.
 
“Try this,” she said.
 
The words blurred together then disappeared entirely, before reforming. It was a virtual-reality representation, but genius all the same.
 
In the same red brush strokes the banner now read, “PAX MACHINA.”
“And?” she said.
 
He considered the phrase. His banner would be held aloft by two people in a sea of thousands. This was less assertive, less clear. But it posed questions, which he liked.
 
“Do you believe it?” Frederic asked Catherine.
 
“France doesn’t need an army of humans to be great. Maybe once it did. But now that we have time for other things, we can let the machines do the work as we do in so many other ways. Why might war be any different? We can go on with our lives.”
 
“Do you think there will be more war though, if our soldiers never face combat again?”
 
“I prefer to see a machine destroyed than a son or daughter of France laid in the ground. That is a special kind of peace. Besides, the rest of NATO has done this, even Germany last year. Who can pretend that France faces its own future?” 
 
Frederic lifted his glasses and stared at the cloth.
 
“OK, let’s start over.”
 

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