“But that’s what the guy was talkin’ about,” continued Dan. “Russia’s over there layin’ waste to them bastards.”
Ray had been trying to catch the eye of the redhead next door for the last few seconds. He’d caught it twice so far, and gave it another moment before he turned to his uncle’s friend. “Absolutely,” he began. “And locking down the territory in the process. With their air defense system they’ve effectively created a no-fly zone. If Russia doesn’t want you in Syria, you ain’t gettin’ in. Straight up.”
“And that’s what he was gettin’ at,” replied Dan. “How come they’re able to do so much damage when we couldn’t?
“We’re exhausted, for one thing,” Ray’s Uncle Max interjected. He flicked the spent cigarette he’d been smoking into the brush pile near where they were sitting in the yard. “We’ve got bullets flyin’ in nearly every damn country in the Middle East. Terrorists swarming around in that whole god forsaken region.”
Ray chuckled. “Funny how that works out, huh?”
“What’s that?” asked Dan, a somewhat confused expression on his face.
Ray started to answer then abruptly stopped. He’d learned from past experiences how badly things could go when introducing new concepts—particularly those that challenged ingrained ideas—with people, even when they claim to be interested.
He looked up into the sky for a moment while he chose his words. It was a gorgeous day, one they’d been due for a while. So far, autumn had been cold and wet and little else. But today the world shined, and Ray had taken the opportunity to hop onto his mountain bike and shoot all over town. This stop at his uncle’s place was both for rest and rapport. His uncle was nuts, yeah, but Ray had always had a soft spot for him. Now the three men sat in lawn chairs in the back yard, drinking in the sun’s warm light.
“Terrorism,” he finally said, turning back to Dan. “Our excuse to go wherever we want. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria…Wherever ISIS, or whatever terrorist group the corporate media’s pimping that week pops up, we’re there. Doesn’t even have to be terrorism, in fact. Look at Yemen. The people rise up, send their leaders running for the hills—quite literally—and how does the US respond? We sick our buddy Saudi Arabia on ‘em. Can’t have people running their own countries. What’s the matter with you?”
“When you say corporate media you’re talkin’ about CNN, FOX News and all them whores, right?” asked Dan.
Absentmindedly, Ray glanced over to where the redhead was sitting with her mother in the next yard over. To his satisfaction, he found the young woman looking at him. She turned away quickly, but Ray smiled nonetheless. He turned back to Dan. “Correct. Bought and paid for to spin the government’s line.”
“But you’re sayin’ that’s the old model,” said his Uncle Max.
“Yeah. A lot of folks call it the dinosaur media. I like that.”
His uncle nodded. “It fits.”
“But yeah, that model is obsolete,” Ray continued. “Back in the day people had no choice. All they knew was whatever the major networks told them. Make no mistake, the American Empire was possible because those in authority were able to craft the only narrative. But the system has crashed. It couldn’t compete in the Digital Age. Now people all over the world have access to information our predecessors didn’t. The Internet changed the game at a fundamental level. It gave us the means to investigate the government’s claims. And more often than not we’ve found them to be liars. We make that information available through news articles, radio shows, podcasts, documentaries…Even art, though not as much as I’d like. We’re working on that, though.”
“Interesting,” said Max, with an expression that told Ray his uncle was discovering things about his nephew he’d never known.
“But people are beginning to see the truth,” Ray went on. “I was telling a buddy of mine the other day, Joker really nailed it in The Dark Knight. He tells the crooks that Batman has shown Gotham their true colors. Unfortunately…” Ray smiled, shook his head. “Oh, Heath. You are missed.”
Dan nodded in agreement. “Oh yeah. He’ll always be the Joker, no matter who else plays him.”
Ray looked at him. “Anyone who says otherwise oughta be locked up in Arkham.”
The three of them shared a laugh, and Ray took a moment to eye his quarry. To his surprise, the girl was looking at him once more. But this time, she held his gaze for a couple of seconds before turning back to her mother.
“Take Obama a little while back,” Ray said, then turned back to the other men. “Him claiming there are no “boots on the ground” in Syria. The fact that he thinks he can get away with such an outright lie is because he and the rest of the psychopaths running the military-industrial complex are so deluded that they actually think tactics that worked in the Cold War are still effective in a world of global interconnectivity. The simple truth is that they failed to adapt their methods. Now they’re stuck playing catch-up”
“Yeah,” agreed Dan. “When Obama said that, it hit me the wrong way. No boots on the ground? How can he say that?”
“When you say they’re stuck playing catch up, what do you mean?” Max asked his nephew. “Catch up to what?"
Ray had grabbed his water bottle and was guzzling. He’d been riding hard all day, and all this talking had him feeling dehydrated. He finished, wiped his mouth, and stared at his uncle. “Dissention.”
He allowed the notion to settle into the men’s minds, and their silent eyes on him suggested that it had. “There’s a growing movement that’s risen out of cyberspace,” he began, leaning in closer to the other two. “Journalists, activists, hacktivists, all around truth seekers…Call it whatever you want. But the cat’s outa the bag, gentlemen. We see the whole board now. And the empire is crumbling due very much in part to an awakening populace at home. We have a voice now, and we can say to them…No.”
“So it’s gonna be Russia, then,” said Dan as he pulled a pack of smokes out of his shirt pocket. “The new number one superpower.”
“With China right by their side,” added Max.
Ray shrugged. “Probably. Looks that way at the moment. But honestly, who the hell knows? These people are maniacs. That’s not really what concerns me, anyway.”
“What then?” asked Max while watching his friend light a cigarette.
“It goes back to the Net,” said Ray. “The American Empire is failing because it couldn’t adapt to the new reality. Meanwhile, you know who’s been adapting just fine all this while?”
“Who?” asked Dan, a look of genuine intrigue on his face.
Ray looked at Max. “You just said it, uncle. China.”
Max returned his nephew’s gaze. “No foolin’…”
Ray nodded. “No foolin’. They’ve got their people caged. It’s straight totalitarianism. Body and mind. And that’s what concerns me. I know a guy who’s written on it before. China has an actual cyber police force. There are insane restrictions on speech, political speech in particular. There’s even this super creepy credit system that tracks how loyal you are to the government. China saw early on what it would take to keep their people in check in the Digital Age, and they’re doing it. Well.”
“Oh, man…,” Max said suddenly, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. There was something distant in his eyes. It was a look Max had seldom seen in his uncle.
“You see it,” Ray said with a grin.
Max seemed to be looking out at nowhere, nothing. He pulled the smoke from his lips. “I mean…Russia’s over there flexin’ its muscles while we cower back,” he said, finally turning to Ray. “They’re makin’ partnerships all over. They got other countries helpin’ in Syria now.
“Even some of our own allies,” Ray confirmed.
“And with China…well, like I said. Right by their side in this new…what do I call it? Eurasian Bloc?”
Ray nodded. “That’s how that writer put it.”
“So how long’s it gonna be before Russia starts learnin’ from its Asian comrades?” Max continued. “How long before they start puttin’ crazy restrictions on what their people can and can’t say on the Net? I mean…that’s how it works, right? It’s not like Russia would convince China to ease back on that front.”
“Of course not,” Ray scoffed. “With the State the march is always forward.”
“Exactly,” said Max, leaning forward, elbows on knees. “So what we’re lookin’ at is…pretty soon…we could have a monster military power on the other side of the world with the ability to absolutely keep its citizens in check. In every way.”
Ray had turned to check on the redhead, only to find that she and her mother had vanished. He turned back to his uncle. “That’s about the size of it. And that doesn’t even get into the economic side of things. What’s happening with BRICS is every bit as telling of the coming power shift.”
“BRICS?” asked Dan, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“Oh, man,” said Ray, looking at him. “I really don’t have the time to go into that one. I’ll swing by tomorrow if you’re truly interested.”
“I am,” Dan returned. “But I’m hearin’ that China is hurtin’ bad right now economically. What about that?”
“It’s true,” Ray acknowledged. “They’re having some major issues with their currency. So bad that they’re going to need to let the yuan depreciate considerably, in fact. But those issues are due more to miscalculation and false expectations than anything else. It’s concerning, no doubt. Particularly because of how interwoven global markets have become. Ripple effect and all that. But these things happen. Similar situation happened in China back in August. So yeah, they’ve got problems, man. But a correction will come. Then again, maybe it won’t. Maybe this is the big one.”
“The big one?” asked Dan.
Ray glanced at him, smiled. “That one’s gonna have wait ‘til tomorrow, also. Too much to tell.”
“So back to this power shift…,” said Max.
Ray had turned and was looking into the empty yard where the young woman had been. He faced his uncle once more, brought his mind back to the discussion. “What I was gonna say was…On a strictly analytical level all this is actually quite interesting. A case study, if you will. The West flourished through propaganda, during a time when brute force was all that was required to keep those who would step out of line in check. The dissenters, as it were. But now that model is disintegrating, along with the iron grip of the State that depended upon it.”
Ray watched his uncle, who was only just then getting around to lighting that cigarette. Ray couldn’t count the number of times he’d seen the man quit smoking in the past, only to pick the habit back up some time later. He considered commenting on the observation, but immediately thought better of it.
“On one side there’s the West,” he continued, “whose structure is shattering because it couldn’t adapt. And on the other side there’s Eurasia, whose structure is strengthening because it could and did adapt. China absorbed the Digital Age’s mandates into its system of control.” He shook his head. “It’s the evolution of the State, right before our eyes.”
Ray then noticed his Uncle Max looking at something behind him. He turned around to find the redhead standing at the fence.
“Hey, babe,” Max said, exhaling smoke. “Whatcha need?”
“Hey, Max,” the girl said, her voice smooth and velvety to Ray’s ears. “My mom was wondering if you were gonna be around later. She was hoping you could help her move some furniture upstairs.”
She looked only at his uncle, though Ray could see that it was all she could do not to look at him. Ray kept his eyes on her, waiting for the inevitable.
“Sure thing,” Max replied. “Tell her I’ll be over in a bit.”
“Okay, thanks,” the girl said, then turned to leave. But before she did—and precisely as Ray had expected—she shot him a playful look.
Ray watched her walk away for a few moments, then tuned back to the men. “Cute,” he said, grinning. “Very cute.”
Max laughed. “Indeed. If I was about a thousand years younger—“
“—You still wouldn’t have a prayer,” said Dan.
The three of them laughed, after which Ray drained what was left of his water. “I need to shag ass, uncle,” he said, rising to his feet. “Things to do. This was just supposed to rest stop, ya know.”
“I apologize for nothing,” Max responded.
“Good man,” said Ray, grabbing his backpack off the grass. “Dan, always a pleasure.”
“Alright, bud. See ya later.”
“I’m gonna grab some agua before I roll,” said Ray as he was heading for the back door of the house.
“Whatever you need, brother,” said Max.
Ray reached for the doorknob thinking that yes, he would be back at his uncle’s place tomorrow. He had more to say, and a girl to meet.
Max waited until the back door closed, then he looked at Dan. “You know,” he said, then took a drag and let out a spray of smoke. “When that boy was a baby my sister dropped him on his head. In the kitchen. Smacked it on the tile.”
Dan stared at him in disbelief. “For real?”
Max stared back, went deadpan. “Nope.”
Dan was silent a moment, then both men broke out into laughter. When silence had reclaimed the scene, Dan turned to his old friend. “I wanted to ask him, though. Where’s it at? Why can’t I see it? Him talkin’ about boots on the ground got me thinkin’ of Vietnam. I mean, there were millions in the streets protesting that war. Where’s it at today? Where’s the dissent?”
Max looked at him, something resembling pride in his eyes. He grinned, shot a thumb back toward the house. “It just hopped on a mountain bike and hauled ass home.”