Claudia Avena signed onto her workstation in Axiom Cybersecurity, and scoffed at the oxymoron. Her employer had been complicit in the deadliest, costliest event in human history. Some security. Sure, malware had been the trigger, but Axiom had been the gun. And the shot was heard around the world.
“Yo, Avena,” a voice said, “might want to boost your privacy filter.”
It was Jones, in the cubicle kitty-corner to hers. He’d just glommed all her derisive thoughts. “Thanks, Jones,” she said. She craned her neck around the cube-farm to see if anyone else had noticed, but it seemed Jones was the only one.
It was unlike her to be so careless, but she wasn’t the same person these days. As she dialed her privacy up to level ten, her mind wandered back to January, when the proverbial shit had hit the fan with the Cloud Trojan.
Claudia clicked the Deploy button on the latest Escort security patch, and swiveled to watch the progress on the large-screen world map at the front of the room. Red pixels — each representing a subnet of 254 devices — lit up and spread across the screen. From its epicenter in Santa Fe, the red wave flowed across the continent like a ripple on a pond, then across the sea, until all the population centers of the globe were flickering crimson embers. As the patch reached the last few Escorts, the first of the alarms bleeped, signaling a critical error. Then another. And another. Something was wrong.
She scoured the patch code for bugs, blowing off the incessant pinging from supervisors and managers clamoring for answers. The code was clean. It was a simple tweak to the routing. But then she saw it: The payload of the compiled patch was three kilobytes larger than it should have been.
Somehow, someone had added code to hers. And whatever they’d added, it was breaking Axiom’s connection to every single Escort device on the planet.
“Avena.” A voice brought her back to the present. Thompson stood in her cubicle entry. His large coffee mug advertised C++ Programmers Do It with Class. “You look like crap,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “What do you want, Thompson?”
“Nice,” he said. “Anyway, Paulie wants to see you.” He slurped his coffee. “Also, you shouldn’t block above level five here in the office. I had to walk all the way over here.”
“Wow,” said Claudia. “Fifty whole meters? How are you not winded?”
Thompson spun and walked away, muttering. As she lowered her privacy to level five, she caught the word, bitch.
Claudia locked her workstation and headed for Paulie’s office. Paulito Gomez was the senior analyst on the firmware security team, and her direct supervisor. He was also a notorious womanizer who reeked of Ursa Major cologne, and whose hair was so gummed with product that it looked like a skull cap.
“You wanted to see me?” she said, knocking on Paulie’s open door.
“Avena.” Paulie motioned for Claudia to sit. “I’ll cut to the chase. I’m transferring you to monitoring.”
“What?” Claudia bolted back to her feet. “Why?”
“Don’t act so surprised,” he said. “Your commits have slipped since January. Look, I know you had a … personal tragedy to deal with, but we still have metrics to meet, and, well ….”
“You mean the personal tragedy of when my husband and step-daughter were both killed? Is that the one you mean?” She slapped his desk. “Not to mention they died because of my own employer’s shitty cybersecurity!”
Paulie tapped his pencil against his desk, unfazed. “Are you done?”
Claudia flopped back into the chair. “This is such bullshit, Paulie.”
“Look,” he said, “try to see it from my point of view. If we don’t meet our metrics, I get shit on. And where does shit roll?” He paused. “Downhill, Avena. It rolls downhill. So one way or another you’re in the shit, but at least this way it’s not the whole team.”
Claudia scoffed. “You’re a real hero.”
Paulie sighed and turned back to his laptop. “Erica’s waiting. Shut the door behind you.”
Erica had been chirping for twenty minutes about the ins and outs of monitoring. “Just remember,” she concluded, “the number one rule of monitoring is ‘report everything.’”
Claudia nodded. “Report everything. Got it.”
She put on the sensory deprivation helmet, which cast her into black silence. Reaching out with her mind, she transitioned from Axiom’s virtual private network into the public Internet — and promptly gasped as a cacophony of thoughts flooded into her head.
This job was going to suck.
With a little practice, she figured out how to tune into specific threads and listen to the Confederates’ thought conversations — thiscussions, they called them. What the Escort customers assumed to be private, Axiom system admins could access at will. It was one of the corporation’s best kept secrets. Somehow letting an algorithm into your head was fine, but if the public ever found out actual people were listening, she bet there would be a lot more Freeborn in the world.
After consuming three hours of inane Confederate thiscussions, she started to think the Freeborn had the right idea. Some thoughts are best kept in one’s head.
One that she tapped into caught her attention. It was garbled, but this was no language issue — Axiom’s real-time translation services would have seen to that. No, it was clear the participants had implemented some sort of crude end-to-end encryption. From whom were they hiding? Had someone learned Axiom’s secret after all?
Claudia lifted the visor on her helmet and pulled in front of a workstation. She plugged the thiscussion ID number into an analysis program, and then opened a code window to begin working on a decryption algorithm.
She toiled well into the night. Lights had gone out all around the office, until only a handful of night shift monitors remained, withering at their desks. Close to midnight, she made a breakthrough and cracked the one-way encryption with a simple, un-hashed key: paradox.
“Amateurs,” she said.
The garbled thiscussion suddenly became intelligible.
‘Where are you now?’ said one voice.
Another replied, ‘I’m on Interstate 25, just past Pecos. Have you made contact with any others yet?’
‘Oh yeah. There are close to a hundred of us now. Were you able to find any weapons?’
‘I hit the jackpot at an REI in Pueblo. A dozen shotguns, and a bunch of boxes of shells.’
‘Excellent! You should be here in plenty of time. We’ll attack Axiom at dawn.’
Claudia threw off her helmet. Her heart was racing. Someone was planning to attack Axiom in less than six hours. A hundred people with guns. Did they not realize they had no chance against Axiom’s defenses? Even if they could somehow get past the gate, there were impenetrable security protocols at every point of ingress. They’d be sitting ducks for the armed guards and attack drones.
She had to ward them off somehow. She pulled her helmet back on and inserted her mind into the encrypted thiscussion. ‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘Who is this?’ someone said. ‘Kimmy, did you share the key with someone else?’
‘Not me,’ said the other.
Claudia jumped in. ‘Look — Kimmy is it? — and whoever else is on here, you’re making a big mistake. I work for Axiom, and I can tell you that your plan is doomed to fail. Please, don’t sacrifice yourselves. Hasn’t there been enough bloodshed?’
‘Shit,’ said the first voice. ‘Axiom’s onto us. Disconnect! Disconnect!’
The conversation died. The murmur of a million thiscussions sounded like white noise. Someone tapped Claudia’s shoulder, making her jump.
“Sorry,” said a young woman, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“What can I do for you?” said Claudia, dialing her privacy back to level ten.
“Do you have anything to report? I mean you’ve been here for over twelve hours, so I figured there must be something interesting? Gotta hit those numbers, you know.”
Something broke inside Claudia. She’d just stumbled upon a band of Confederates so opposed to Axiom that they would risk their lives for their cause, while she was being paid to sit in a climate-controlled office and dig up dirt on customers by eavesdropping on their private thoughts. Her face burned with shame.
“No,” she said. “Nothing interesting here. Just thought I’d take some time to get the hang of the process — this being my first day and all.” If she revealed what she’d discovered, the insurgents would be incarcerated within the hour — or worse.
Her teammate forced a weak smile and moved on to the next cubicle. Claudia let out the breath she’d been holding.
So much for ‘reporting everything.’
She deliberated on how to stop the imminent attack. These people must be desperate. They had to realize a frontal attack with guns was likely to get them killed. How could she stop desperate people from taking desperate action?
Claudia reviewed the data from the analysis program, and was able to decrypt the handle of the person called Kimmy. Helmet back in place, she tunneled out with her mind to KimmyCleveland77. She was taking a huge risk having an unencrypted thiscussion, but she had to get through to them, and Kimmy was her only contact. ‘Kimmy, please listen to me. You have to stop the attack.’
‘You again. Look, you people have gone too far this time. Mobilizing the Confederates to wipe out the Freeborn? We’re not your soldiers. You’ll get your war though. It’s why we organized the Paradox.’
‘What if there’s another way?’ said Claudia. ‘I’m sure I can find a way to take down Axiom's defenses so nobody gets hurt. I just need a little time.’
Kimmy paused, then said, ‘I’m listening.’
‘October first is this Friday. Give me until then to come up with something.’
‘And why should we trust you?’
Claudia swallowed the emotions that rose in her throat. ‘When the Cloud Trojan shut down my husband’s implant, he lost his mind and drove off an overpass. My step-daughter was in the car with him. I accepted the company’s version of events — that it was terrorists, attacking our way of life. So I spent the last nine months helping Axiom rebuild, but I’ve had this nagging feeling that I was on the wrong side of history. I just didn’t see any way out.’
When Kimmy next spoke, Claudia could feel the heartache. ‘I lost everyone close to me to the Cloud Trojan. I was one of the lucky ones that only became a drooling zombie. A Freeborn man and his daughter spent the last nine months scraping my mind up off the floor because of Axiom’s carelessness — out of the goodness of their hearts. If it weren’t for them, I would already be dead.’
Claudia flashed back to pressing the Deploy button. ‘I’m so sorry, Kimmy,’ she said. ‘If you can hold the Paradox off until Friday, I know I can help.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Kimmy, ‘but I can’t make any promises.’
Claudia’s heel drummed on the marble floor of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. She tapped her wrist and LEDs implanted in her skin illuminated the time. Kimmy was supposed to be here already. A bead of sweat ran down her spine.
A voice came from behind her. “Nice to see you, Totto.” A young woman sat next to her on the bench in front of a vaguely anatomic painting of a lily. She’d used the secret phrase as agreed.
Claudia delivered the agreed response. “It has been too long.” Claudia unfolded her tablet and unlocked it with her thumb print. “OK, we don’t have much time — I’m on a fifteen minute break.”
She showed Kimmy some schematics of what she’d devised. “It’s another Trojan like the one in January, but it targets only Axiom staff.” She took a thumb drive from her pocket. “When I insert this into any Axiom workstation, the building will be defenseless within sixty seconds. When the exterior lights flash three times, you can enter.”
“But if the Trojan targets Axiom staff, doesn’t that include you?”
“Maybe I deserve it.” Claudia looked away. “Back in January ... the patch file was the wrong size. I’d forgotten the checksum. Complacent I guess.” A tear dripped off her cheek. “I was the one who deployed it. I caused all of this. I … I killed my own family.” She broke down into sobs.
“I’m sure that’s hard to live with.” Kimmy took Claudia’s hand. “But you’re doing the right thing now. And we’ll never forget it.”
Claudia smiled through her tears, then hurried from the museum, leaving Kimmy in the echoing gallery.
Claudia sat at her desk, rolling the thumb drive between her shaking fingers. She’d left her privacy at level ten, which was sure to draw attention before long, but she couldn’t risk anyone snagging onto her subversive thoughts.
“Claudia Avena, please come with me.”
Claudia’s nerves electrified. She turned to see three Axiom security guards with folded arms glowering at her. One clamped onto her wrist and pulled her to her feet. He pried the thumb drive from her clenched fist, and her heart sank into her feet.
They dragged her into a holding room overlooking the Axiom parking lot. The Sangre de Cristo range rose in the east, including Atalaya Mountain, where the Paradox had amassed. Paulito Gomez stood in the corner with one eyebrow raised. A guard placed the thumb drive in Paulie’s hand, and left Claudia alone with him.
“Did you know that a paradox is the opposite of an axiom?” he said. “I thought that was pretty clever of them, actually.”
“Look, Paulie, I ….”
The ever-collected Paulie boiled over. “Shut your mouth, traitor! I know you’re all torn up about your family, but I can’t believe you would stoop to this. After how hard we’ve worked to get back online.”
“Don’t you ever wonder if it’s wrong, Paulie — what we’re doing?”
“There is no objective right or wrong, Avena. It’s naive to think otherwise. There are only goals, and what is necessary to achieve them. Look at the world before the Escort. We were on the brink of societal and environmental collapse. Axiom knew the only way to arrest and reverse the incipient destruction was if the world unified behind the cause. And it worked, didn’t it? Look at what we’ve achieved since the Escort was invented. Those damned Freeborn, always whining about their ‘privacy and individuality.’ That narrow mindset is what trashed the planet in the first place. We’d have been extinct by now without Axiom. But saving our species wasn’t good enough for the Freeborn. No, the Cloud had to go and fuck everything up with that Trojan of theirs. And now the Paradox is trying again to bring us down. Well, it’s not going to happen. Not this time.”
He tapped on his tablet and Claudia watched the exterior lights of Axiom headquarters flash three times.
“Your pathetic friends are in for a bit of a surprise, now, aren’t they?” he said.
Claudia’s heart wrenched in her chest. She closed her eyes, and put her hands over her ears. In her mind she stepped over the threshold of the Axiom VPN and called out to Kimmy. She knew she’d only have seconds to deliver her message.
‘Kimmy — look above the beyond!’ She projected an image. A simple rectangle — with black on the bottom, and blue on the top, with layers of white and cyan sandwiched between.
Fifty-thousand volts from a guard’s taser sent her tumbling to the floor, and she passed out.
Kimmy nodded to the park ranger as she started up the trail to Golden Peak. The silence in her head allowed her to absorb the crisp sounds of the autumn forest — the crunching leaves, the whoosh of northern gusts through the pines. The Axiom servers were offline, permanently. The now-inert Escort would idle in her head forever, a benign tumor. She was finally free. Everyone was. And it was all thanks to Claudia Avena. Totto. She recalled the fateful day.
The lights had blinked three times, but Axiom’s defenses were in full force when the Paradox attacked their headquarters at sundown. Paradox was getting slaughtered. Totto's scheme had clearly failed.
Her final, brief thiscussion hadn’t made sense at first, but then Kimmy remembered. At the O’Keeffe museum, she’d seen that image before. She retreated to the museum and burst through the doors just before closing. There it was — The Beyond. Oil on canvas. 1972. Look above the beyond. She ran her hands across the top of its frame, and her fingers landed on a thumb drive. She whispered, “Totto, you’re a genius.”
Only a handful of the Paradox survived when they finally breached Axiom’s defenses. Kimmy herself delivered the final blow when she plugged the thumb drive into the workstation at the reception desk. Totto’s digital venom wasted no time. It snaked through the internal fiber optic and wireless Axiom networks, and further wormed into the minds of every employee. Kimmy was cowering before the barrel of a guard's revolver when his brain melted, and his scowl fell into cross-eyed stupefaction.
At last, the Paradox had free reign over Axiom. A worldwide broadcast of Axiom’s secrets made everyone on Earth a Freeborn. A thousand pounds of C-4 made it permanent.
Up ahead, Ernestine and Bertram knelt in their garden. As Bertram sawed the stem of a bright orange pumpkin, Kimmy called, “Can I help you carve it?”
Ernestine jumped up with wide eyes and an open mouth. “Kimmy!” she shouted, sprinting across the leaf-covered clearing. She leapt into Kimmy’s arms for her traditional bear hug.
“I missed you so much, Ernie,” Kimmy said, planting a sloppy kiss on Ernestine’s cheek.
Ernestine wiped happy tears. “Are you back forever?”
Kimmy looked to Bertram, now at her side. “Am I?”
“It would make my wish come true,” said Bertram. He wrapped his arms around both of them and kissed Kimmy’s smiling mouth.