the scream of an eagle
A Chinese man dressed in modern business attire sits behind a desk in a large starkly furnished office in Zhongnanhai in Beijing. There is a knock on the door, and then, before the man even answers the knock, another man dressed in a Chinese military uniform steps briskly through the door. He stops, standing at attention in front of the desk. He speaks just a few words in Mandarin, salutes, pivots and walks back out the door, closing it quietly behind him.
The man sitting at the desk reaches down and plucks an antique telephone receiver off of its cradle. Holding the antique to his ear with one hand, he pushes a series of numbers on the phone’s keypad with the other. After a few moments of silence, someone obviously picks up on the other end of the antiquated landline. The Chinese man speaks one sentence into the phone. Incongruously, it is spoken in perfect Farsi. Just one short sentence; “It is done.” Without saying another word, the man slowly lowers the phone back into its cradle.
Snow was falling outside the window of his room on the fourth floor of the dorm. It was early January, James was a high school sophomore at Colorado One on the north side of Boulder. This was his second year at the new Colorado boarding school which specialized in a highly tailored STEM curriculum. “Unequalled Excellence In Education” was the school’s motto. The unequal part was certainly accurate. The school only admitted the most economically elite students. It was said, in a new take on an old saying, that if you had to ask what the cost of tuition was, you couldn’t afford it. Classes would resume tomorrow, James was just settling in after being dropped off by Don. Robert hadn’t been able to accompany James to Boulder because of a “crucial” meeting he had to attend at his office, and his mother had come down with the flu or something over the holidays.
Just as well, he thought. Sometimes it seemed like he enjoyed Don’s company more than the company of his parents, anyway. Don was a friendly companion, as much as he was a bodyguard. Next month James would be fifteen, then he could get an Autonomous Vehicle operator’s license and “drive” himself wherever he wanted to go. Where he’d wanted to go for Christmas was out to the Blue River Ranch. Once again, that had not been allowed. James had not been allowed to go visit his Grandpa for over two years now. Grandpa Chuck and the Blue River Ranch were hardly ever even mentioned in the presence of his father. James knew that his mother still kept in touch with Grandpa Chuck, but that part of her life was a taboo subject around Robert Mendez. Likewise, James always kept in touch with Anna, but the less his mom and dad knew about it, the better.
Feeling the comphone in his pocket vibrate, James pulled it out and folded it open. Anna was on screen, looking as great as always. James had to wonder if she made herself up before calling, or just looked that good all the time. He touched the screen to allow his image to be seen and smiled brightly into the camera.
“Hi Anna, I was just thinking about you.” Truth be known, James thought about Anna most of the time.
“Hi James, are you back at school yet?” She knew he was; otherwise, he would’ve answered with a text instead of voice video.
By way of answer, James, who was standing with his back to the window, raised the com up above his head letting Anna see the view. “How are you?” he asked, bringing the com back down to face level. “Did you have a good Christmas?”
“I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas,” she pouted. “I thought you were going to come see me.”
The smile in her eyes belied her pouting lips and James had to laugh. “You know I wanted to,” he teased.
Anna’s pout turned into a radiant smile. “When is your Dad going to let you come back? I might get another boyfriend if you make me wait too long.”
“Maybe this summer; I’ll be fifteen. Maybe I’ll just come out there whether my Dad wants me to or not.” James tried to sound more confident than he was.
Anna started to reply and then vanished. The screen simply went blank. James looked at the status bar; no signal. That’s odd, he thought. “Hey Assie, what’s wrong with my com?” He’d considered naming his digital assistant simply Ass but had decided to lengthen it to Assie after his Mom protested him walking around the house saying Hey Ass all the time. There was no reply from his digital assistant. He walked over to the desk and looked down at the DA speaker. The green power light was glowing steady, meaning it definitely had power. What the heck is going on, he thought, as he reached down and pushed the power button. When in doubt, reboot. It was something he’d learned at a very early age. The power light flashed red, then yellow, and finally achieved a steady green glow, as the DA speaker powered up. The green light came on, but there was no familiar greeting from Assie, only silence.
Knowing that the artificial intelligence used by Assie wasn’t in the little round speaker on the desk, but rather in massive servers located who knew where, James didn’t bother asking Assie to turn on the comscreen on the wall above his desk. Instead, he reached up and manually pushed the comscreen’s power button. Like the DA, the comscreen powered up just fine, but instead of his usual home screen, there were just two words in bold red caps in the middle of the screen; NO CONNECTION.
James stared at the screen for a few moments. It seemed almost incomprehensible. How could there be no connection? The internet linked everything. It had been totally secure since the government made it that way in the wake of foreign interference in the elections of 2016 and 2018, and especially after all of the social media problems of 2020. He turned away from the screen and looked out his window again. The view from his fourth-floor window was to the east. Across the grounds of Colorado One, he could see the tall security fence that ran completely around the school’s grounds. Just on the other side of the fence, Highway 36 ran its north-south route between Boulder and Lyons. Highway 36, which usually had quite a bit of traffic moving in both directions now looked more like a parking lot than a highway. There were a few vehicles still moving, mostly along the shoulders and even down in the borrow ditches, but the main traffic lanes were entirely jammed by cars and trucks that were all stopped haphazardly; looking for all the world like everyone had simultaneously shut down their vehicles in the middle of the highway.
As he looked at the chaos on Highway 36, James realized that the only vehicles that were still moving were older cars and trucks that were actually driven by a human driver and not dependent on artificial intelligence and GPS guidance. He could see more and more of the older vehicles trying to work their way out of the stalled traffic and onto the shoulders and down into the borrow ditches, but none of the newer autonomous vehicles were moving at all.
It was getting to be late afternoon, and most of the Colorado One students were settling into their dorms for the new trimester, just as James was doing. There were a few who were just arriving, and a few more were in some of the vehicles that were stalled all over the highway. As James headed to the stairs, he wasn’t about to try the elevators, he passed by a window at the end of the hallway with a view of the main entry gates to the school. The gates were made of wrought iron and were opened and closed by the security guards that manned the four guard stations; two guard stations on each side of the ten-foot security fence that surrounded the school. Both the entrance and exit gates were standing open. There was a Mercedes EV blocking the entrance gate and one of the new Jaguars blocking the exit. All eight members of the security guard regiment were milling about the two stalled vehicles with their assault rifles slung over their shoulders. It was obviously not an attack on the school, and there was nothing threatening in sight; other than the eight armed guards at the security gates, that is.
James wasn’t the only student who had ventured down to the lobby common area to try to find out what was going on. The dorm building was actually like two separate four-story apartment buildings with a common area between them on the ground floor that housed the lobby, cafeteria, and a large student lounge. The north wing housed the boy’s dorms and the south wing housed the girl’s. The lobby, cafeteria, and student lounge were shared in the large single-story common area. Boys were not allowed in the girl’s wing, and girls were not allowed in the boy’s, which made life a little bit tricky for the LGBT students. They were generally placed according to their self-identified gender. James thought they probably should have built a third wing so they could have male, female, and other or undecided.
As James stepped out of the stairwell into the lobby, there were a lot more people than the few dating couples who were usually milling around. There were almost as many students in the common area lounge as there were in the cafeteria on pizza days. Most, if not all, were wearing questioning expressions and talking among themselves. It was obvious that they had no more idea of what was going on than James did. As he looked around, he saw a girl that he hadn’t seen before standing by herself off to the side of the main entrance doors. She was standing a little behind the schefflera plant in its large pot, which partially shielded her from his view and provided her some separation from the rest of the students. She was holding something to her ear with one hand. James couldn’t tell what it was. He worked his way through the gathering crowd to get closer. As he approached her, he could see that whatever it was she was holding to her ear looked like nothing more than a small black plastic box.
“Hi,” James said as he approached the girl. As she looked up at him, he was somewhat taken aback at the extremely concerned look on her face. He also couldn’t help but notice in that first instant of eye contact how attractive she was. Her hair was that strawberry blonde color that isn’t quite blonde and not quite red. She had a very fair, almost pale, complexion, and her eyes were the clearest blue.
“Oh, hello,” she said, never lowering the plastic box from her ear. A smile never even flashed across her face, the ultra-concerned look seeming as permanent as the black plastic box that was stuck to her ear.
“I’m James,” he said, trying to get more of a conversation started than just hello. “What are you listening to?”
The girl slowly lowered her hand holding what James could now tell was some kind of antique radio thing. As she pulled it away from her ear, he could hear a voice coming out of it. He couldn’t make out all of the words, which was obviously why the girl had been holding it up to her ear. He thought he made out the words, emergency alert, but he couldn’t be sure.
“It’s the emergency alert system.” The way she said it, she might as well have added, you idiot, but she didn’t. She also didn’t smile, and James was about to just walk away when she added, “I’m Madison Miller,” and stuck out her free right hand.
James took her hand lightly to shake but was surprised by her grip. She squeezed his hand firmly and shook much more like a guy than a girl. “So, what’s up,” he asked, as she released his hand.
“War, I guess; though no one seems to be sure.”
That definitely shook James. War was not a thought that had even entered his mind. A thousand questions seemed to come to him all at once.
“War? With who?” he asked. It didn’t really seem at all possible. Oh sure, the U.S. military still maintained bases all over the world, but the war in Afghanistan had ended years ago. War with North Korea had seemed imminent at one time until it became obvious that it was a war no one could ever win.
“Not sure,” she said, returning the radio to her ear. “The only thing that’s certain right now is that someone has taken out the internet and most, if not all, of our satellite communications.”