Bertram Hollis shoved onto the last car of the light rail just as the doors pinched closed. He had to get uptown and find Ernestine — assuming there still was an uptown. Winded from his dash, he met the wide eyes of the other bewildered Freeborn pressed against each other in the vestibule, trying to make sense of it all.
“Crazy shit,” a small, elderly man said. His gnarled hands clung to the rail beside Bertram.
Bertram worked to catch his breath. “Any idea what’s going on?”
“Armageddon, I reckon.”
Bertram thought that was a fair guess, based on what he’d witnessed coming from the office. Before his eyes, three people had pretzeled into the concrete — having plunged from some upper floor of the downtown skyline. Slack-jawed Confederates had wandered in a daze into the paths of buses, or jackknifed off bridges into the icy canal. Fishtailing cars had crashed into bank lobbies and storefronts, mowing over glassy-eyed pedestrians. Some had ranted political nonsense, attacking each other with feral brutality. Still others, in various stages of undress, had engaged in messy, squelching orgies on the sidewalks, right out in front of God and everybody.
It was strange, however, that only the Confederates were affected. Every other Freeborn he’d encountered had woven with him through that chaotic tapestry with the singular focus of getting the hell out of there. The commuter trains appeared to be the last municipal system surviving the mayhem, so he felt a modicum of security. No Confederate would ever stoop to ride public transportation.
As the train rumbled up to speed, his eyes wandered to the scrolling crown of holographic ads around the car’s interior. A woman in fine clothes bulleted through the features of the new Escort implant: “On our new Z6 network, you can connect like never before,” said the attractive model. “Fifty percent off for newborns — talk to your OB-GYN for details.” Bertram’s fellow riders rolled their eyes.
Moments later, everyone groaned when the train screeched to a stop just outside the industrial park. In the stillness of the vestibule, the continual crashing and screaming of the city was a muted soundtrack below the thumping of their hearts.
“Pedestrian,” said a weary voice over the PA. “Gonna be a while.”
This would never do. It could be an hour before they’d be underway again, and Bertram’s daughter was probably scared to death. He wrenched open the emergency exit, pushed out into the crisp January morning, and set off on foot.
He jogged past the smoldering ruins of a burned out factory block. Confederate bodies lined every sidewalk, some grunting nonsensically, others clearly deceased from an assortment of horrors. He narrowly avoided a man flailing about in an Armani suit jacket, naked from the waist down, foaming at the mouth. Leaving the business district, he ducked through the shopping district, and at last descended upon the suburban outskirts. His legs and lungs burned by the time he reached Public School No. 3.
“Daddy!” Ernestine jumped into Bertram’s outstretched arms. He lifted her slight six-year-old body into the air and gave her a fierce hug.
“Ernie! Thank God.” He looked her over, but found nothing wrong, other than her tear-streaked, rosy cheeks. “You OK, Cookie?”
Ernestine nodded. “But Mrs. Robins went all fruit-loops,” she said.
Bertram glanced at the shambles of the classroom. There was no sign of Mrs. Robins, but a couple of her students were clinging to each other in a corner, sniffling. His heart dropped. This was the last place he wanted to hang around, but he couldn’t live with himself if anything happened to these kids.
“I’m sure your parents will be here soon,” he said. “You’re safe now.” He wasn’t at all sure about that, but it was what they needed to hear, because they jumped up and clung to his legs.
The chaos was less intense here in the ‘burbs, but still they flinched at the occasional crunch of metal or a deranged wail outside the first-grade classroom. Bertram sighed with relief when at last the bedraggled parents of the remaining kids burst in to collect their progeny. The grateful adults forced smiles onto their faces for the kids’ sake, but as they went their separate ways, their eyes all said the same thing: Best of luck — you’re going to need it.
“What do you say we get out of here?” said Bertram.
Bertram and Ernestine stopped at the Fastrac on Eight Mile Road for supplies. The shelves were mostly picked clean, except for some bags of pork rinds and bottles of strawberry milk — but they’d need anything they could get. While the clerk rang them up, a couple of talking heads bantered on the Freeborn News Network overhead, with footage of the carnage looping in the background:
“Axiom has declined comment, but we’ve learned that the radical activist group known as ‘The Cloud’ has claimed responsibility for the Trojan behind today’s events. Joining me is Doctor Orson Ulrich, a researcher at upstate’s Edgewood Institute. Doctor Ulrich, welcome. What can you tell us about this Trojan?”
“Thanks Jane. It looks like the installer for the payload was hidden in an encrypted Axiom script that went out to all Escort customers this morning at 9:05 AM. It installed a firewall in the implant’s firmware. The infection blocks the device from connecting to any Axiom server — including those used to push out patches.”
“What about the erratic behavior we’re seeing in the Confederates? Is this also caused by the Trojan?”
“So far my staff haven’t found anything in the code that could account for it. The behavior seems to be more of a side-effect of the domain blocking.”
“That’ll be thirty-three fifty,” said the store clerk, breaking Bertram’s focus on the TV.
Bertram swiped his payment dongle, scooped up Ernestine, and pushed back outside. The blue skies, puffy white clouds, and gentle breeze belied the horrors of the day. But an explosion down the block shattered the placid moment — as well as the windows of the convenience store. Then he noticed a lurching swath of Confederates approaching, swinging baseball bats and garden implements like a deranged lynch mob.
“Time to go,” Bertram said, shielding Ernestine’s eyes. They hurried on their trek. Home was only two blocks away. “We’re going on a mission, OK? What’s our team?”
“Team Bert and Ernie!” said Ernestine with a smile as they high-fived.
Bertram laid out his plan, and when they got home, the two dashed about, gathering their essentials. Among them was Bertram’s Mossberg. Loading shells, he thought back to the homicidal Confederates he’d seen in the village and shuddered. He hoped he wouldn’t need to use it. Ernestine had absorbed quite enough nightmare fuel.
In the kitchen, he stuffed a duffel bag full of canned food and other non-perishables, then met his daughter back in the living room. His heart swelled with pride, seeing her standing there in her full backpack and hiking boots. “Ready, Ernie?”
“Ready, Bert!” She grinned with missing incisors.
They marched hand-in-hand to Bertram’s Wrangler and headed down the road.
Ernestine turned away from the flaming wreckage of a multi-car pileup on the interstate. “Why’s everyone acting so weird?”
Bertram considered his reply. “You know how some people have the Escort, to help them think better?”
Ernestine nodded. “The Confederates.”
“Right. Well, something went wrong with everyone’s Escort today, and it makes them really confused.”
“I’m glad we’re not Confederates,” said his daughter with relief.
This wasn’t the exact scenario that the Freeborn cited when they refused the implant for themselves and their loved ones. For most of them, it had always been about privacy. Bertram had been alive for the later stages of old-school social media, and his folks had always been against it. Today’s events provided an even stronger argument. The Escort was social media on steroids. In the last twenty years, the Axiom Corporation’s very successful marketing had convinced the vast majority of the world’s citizenry that the Escort was an essential component of modern life. It was the first and only wetware interface to bridge the human brain and the Internet — all via the massive worldwide Axiom server farms. Axiom was quite literally inside the heads of billions of people, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Bertram got a chill just thinking about it.
“Me too, Cookie,” he said. “Me too.”
Ernestine pulled at the elastic of her jacket cinch. “Do you think Mommy would have gotten an Escort?”
A lump rose in Bertram’s throat. The camera roll of his life with Stacie flipped behind his eyes. Preeclampsia had threatened to claim both Stacie and Ernestine. It had spared his daughter, though, and left him to navigate being a widower and first time father simultaneously. He tamped down his emotions and forced on a smile. “No, Ernie, I’m sure she never would.”
That was true enough, but she had wanted to get the implant for Ernestine. Implantation was far smoother for infants than adults, and she’d wanted their daughter to enjoy the many advantages it promised. Without it, Ernestine would forever be an underclass, relegated to servile careers undesirable to the privileged Confederates. But Bertram was vehemently opposed. How could they erase her individuality, before she’d even had a chance to develop it? They’d been fighting about it, in fact, just before Stacie had begun to hyperventilate and vomit in what would be her final hours. Her last words echoed in his mind, even now: “Promise me.”
Ernestine leaned against the window to watch the mile markers slide past. As the mountains rose before them, she hummed a happy cartoon theme.
For the first time, he was pleased to have broken that promise.
A park ranger flagged down Bertram’s Jeep as they pulled into the dirt lot of the Fairview Mountains State Park.
“Evenin’ folks,” said the ranger. Her long silver hair was pulled into a bun so tight it fought with the wrinkles on her leathery brow. “Where ya headed?”
“Cabin up on Golden Peak,” said Bertram. “Need someplace to wait out that craziness back in town.”
The ranger leaned into Bertram's open window as if telling a secret. “You know what it is, don’t ya? It’s withdrawal. That Escort’s like a drug, but worse — and they just threw everyone on the wagon cold turkey. No wonder them people’s losing their minds. Especially the ones they got young. Imagine growing up never wanting or needing to have an independent thought, and then all of a sudden being in a spot where ya have to. Take Axiom outta their brains and they’re hollowed-out shells. Now they got the whole underbelly of the World Wide Web streaming unfiltered through their heads. It’s enough to drive anyone batshit — ‘scuse my French.”
Bertram raised his eyebrows at the ranger’s astute hypothesis. It would probably be some time before anyone could prove that’s what happened, but it made perfect sense. The Escort would naturally have evolved alongside people’s intellects, guiding their every decision, making suggestions — and something even more insidious: influencing their choices. It stood to reason that someone whose very identity depended on that ultimate Big Brother would become addicted to it. Who could possibly predict what the symptoms might be for someone deprived of that cognitive drug?
“Well you folks take care now,” said the ranger. “Seen a couple of them nutjobs wandering down in the village this morning, so don’t be surprised if you end up havin’ to introduce one of them to your Mossberg there.” She winked.
Bertram thanked the ranger and rolled ahead into the parking lot. He ruffled Ernestine’s hair. “Better get crackin’ if we want to get there before dark,” he said. “What’s our team?”
“Team Bert and Ernie!” shouted his daughter.
A week later, Bertram was chopping firewood when Ernestine’s shrill scream echoed through the hills. He took off in her direction, axe in hand. “Ernie!” he called. “Where are you?”
“Over here, Daddy,” said a small voice. Bertram ducked under the trunk of a toppled fir and found Ernestine. A woman in filthy, torn clothing lay on the snow, head in Ernestine’s lap, sucking her thumb like a toddler.
Bertram’s veins iced over. “I need you to come over here by Daddy, OK, Cookie?”
“She looks like Mommy,” said Ernestine with a dreamy look. “Like in the pictures.”
The innocence of youth vexed his adult cynicism. “Ernie, she could be dangerous,” he said. “There might be others with her. It’s not safe.”
“Daddy, she’s hurt.” Ernestine smoothed the woman’s hair. “We need to help her.”
He scanned the surrounding forest, but the only sound was the soughing of the midwinter breeze through the evergreens. The woman’s eyes were closed and wet with tears. She looked to be in her early twenties — probably had the Escort her whole life, or most of it. The poor soul had probably regressed to the age she’d been before implantation. That she’d survived long enough to reach Golden Peak was a small miracle.
“Can we keep her?” Ernestine asked, as if she’d found a stray puppy. “Please?”
“Ernie, we can’t. She may be docile right now, but she could get violent.” Images of the downtown fracas flashed in his head. “Leave her be. Come on now, Cookie.”
Tears collected in Ernestine’s eyes. “What’s going to happen to her?”
Bertram struggled with how to explain the savagery of nature to a six-year-old. How could he confess to her that she’d likely be dead within a fortnight? How could he make her see that she was a threat to the bubble of safety he’d inflated for them?
“Cookie,” said the woman.
Her voice scratched the silence, and nicked Bertram’s tenuous resolve. Maybe she wouldn’t be violent. Maybe she was just lost — alone and afraid like those kids in Ernestine’s classroom. How could he turn her away? How could he sentence her to death?
Bertram sighed and melted in his daughter’s pleading eyes. “Maybe just for a little while.”
“Yay!” squealed Ernestine, clapping her mittens.
The woman sat up and mirrored the girl’s enthusiasm. “Yay!” she said.
Outside, September hinted at the coming of autumn, preparing its long goodbye to summer. Bertram came into the main room of the cabin holding a cake, singing Happy Birthday. Ernestine’s smile grew brighter than the seven candles burning on its top. At her side was Kimmy — the Confederate woman they’d taken in.
Kimmy was progressing well in her rehabilitation. She was a capricious mix of intelligence and ignorance. Sometimes she’d surprise Bertram with random nuggets of wisdom or philosophy that she’d plucked from some far-flung corner of her shattered mind. At other times she’d frustrate him beyond belief with stubborn childishness or a crude lack of inhibitions. But Ernestine loved her dearly, and they’d become an untraditional but close knit family, alone but together in the wilderness.
“Make a wish, Ernie,” said Kimmy.
Ernestine gave Kimmy a bear hug, then clamped her eyes closed and balled her fists. She blew out the candles with a single breath, to the grown-ups’ raucous applause.
“Now remember, if you tell your wish, it won’t come true,” said Bertram. Ernestine mimed zipping her mouth.
The trio sat by the fire until Ernestine’s bedtime, eating cake, telling stories, playing cards. When Ernestine had gone to bed, Bertram began to clean up from their modest birthday party.
“She sure had fun,” said Kimmy.
Bertram thought back to his daughter’s previous birthday, at a local pizza shop with ten rowdy kindergarten graduates. She’d christened that the best day ever. “I hope so,” he said, scraping off a plate.
“You’re a good dad,” Kimmy said as she approached. Then she swallowed and said, “I could try to be a good mom?”
He felt her warm, soft hand on his arm, and he froze. It was the first tenderness he’d felt from a woman since the hugs he’d received at Stacie’s memorial. He pulled away, confused and torn. Kimmy was a lovely woman, but the hole in his heart left by Stacie’s absence was as profound as the hole the impaired implant had left in Kimmy’s mind.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Kimmy sighed and smiled. “I understand.” She headed towards the curtained section of the room where they’d set up a makeshift bed for her. “If you change your mind ….” He felt it was no accident that she left a gap in the curtain as she began to undress.
In the pre-dawn twilight, Bertram found Kimmy wrapped in a blanket on the porch. He handed her a cup of coffee and sat next to her.
“It’s back online,” she said.
Kimmy nodded. “Happened around two. Been up ever since.” After a pregnant pause she said, “Axiom is calling the surviving Confederates to New Mexico. Oh, Bertram, they want us to kill all the Freeborn. They want a war.” She clutched his arm and laid her head on his shoulder.
Bertram’s pulse drummed. He thought of the Mossberg up on the mantel, and whether he was about to need it.
“But I don’t think they realize,” she said, “they don’t control me any more. These last nine months, learning to live without the Escort — it changed me. I can hear the call, but I don’t have to obey. I can hear the others, you know. We’re all thinking the same thing. I’m not the only one.”
“So, what now?” he said.
“The other Confederates are banding together with The Cloud to take a stand in Santa Fe.” She looked into Bertram’s eyes. “I have to join them. Axiom needs to be stopped. For good.”
Bertram nodded even while his heart sank. “What will I tell Ernie?”
“Tell her I made a wish, too.” Kimmy wiped her eyes. “And I think it’s the same as hers.” Then she kissed Bertram’s cheek, threw off the blanket, and marched into the woods.