In the moments after impact, cold fury consumed Ryan Laing. Adrenaline blasted through him. Rage fired hot. Electric pain racked limbs, joints, and bone. His blood flowed, staining the desert earth. Muscles locked in spasm, drawn taut.
Then the shock wave receded. Sensation slipped from his hands and feet. One by one, each point of input faded to static. He felt desiccated, a husk left to California's Santa Ana winds. Only the jagged rocks digging into Ryan's back cracked his isolation.
As death neared, breath came hardergulps of air drawn through frothed lips. Desert sun lanced him. The granite spire vaulting over his head offered little protection. Seconds earlier he'd clung to that rock, climbing smooth and well. It had taken half an hour to climb the spire. He'd caught the express train down.
Darkness crept in even as memories circled, vague and illusorythe parting explosions of a billion synapses. The flickering images refused to coalesce into a life Ryan could recognize; he felt as if he were watching someone else's childhood vids.
Only the past weeks stood clear. What he'd seen. What he'd done. That memory refused to follow Ryan's pain into oblivion. It bore into him stillas it had during mission debrief. Despite the interrogators' relentless questioning, he'd talked around memories of the old man dying at his feetand by his hand.
Work defined Ryan Laing, Echelon agent. If Echelon was the puppet master controlling humanity, Ryan was a string linking the manipulator to the puppet. Work outlined the shape and texture of his life. But there were days when it cored him, the brutality of the means he utilized not quite justifying the ends. On those days, self-respect came hard.
During the debriefing, the interrogators had caught onto that weakness and exploited it, blasting him with questions. Ryan had done the right thing; he'd done his job. But guilt ate at him as the debriefing dragged on. The old man's eyes haunted him.
Finally, Ryan cut out. The interrogators had his feed; they could see what he'd seen and didn't need a narrator. He removed his goggles and flow-space blinked out, leaving him alone in the prefab perfection of his Los Angeles apartment. He leaned back in his chair, letting his senses adjust to reality. Hours in the flow affected perception. Ryan tried to shake the old man's death from his mind. It wouldn't budge.
Rarely did Ryan take notice of the cramped space he called home. Most of his domestic life was spent in the flow, or asleep. His flow deck bulged from an alcove next to his bed. As he rose, it recessed into the wall. He slipped past the molded plastic dining nook, which he'd never used, and out onto the terrace. LA's high-rises ghosted up through the smog-strangled air. He took a deep breath, coughed it out, and knew he had to leave.
Rock climbing was part of the cycle. Some people shot chems, some fucked toward a state of graceRyan climbed. To set the ledger straight, to rebalance, to avoid a system crashhe climbed. No rope, just hands on rock.
The promise of release pulled him from the balcony, and he was out the door in seconds. Ryan hopped the maglev to Palm Springs, which was difficult to differentiate from Riverside, from Los Angeles itself. For a thousand kilometers in any direction 'scrapers cut up the sky, negating topography. The monoliths blurred as Ryan slid east on the maglev's smooth track. He lost himself in their unbroken consistency.
Ryan imagined the 'scrapers' residents scurrying through a daily grind as constant as the scenery itself. They lived easy, worked their jobs, slurped through bioengineered meals and returned each night to cookie-cutter apartments. Energy contained, harnessed and regulated. As an Echelon agent, Ryan had a lot to do with that consistency. In spite of his own culpability, Ryan shuddered.
In Palm Springs, Ryan caught a scenic shuttle into the desert. Joshua Tree had been maintained as a nature preserve, a pockmark in the urban monotony. Corpulent, tech-junked families filled the shuttle, gaping at the moonscape through rad-filtering plexi. Compressed by sprawl and the relentless drive to build, Joshua Tree remained a living museum of something reckless and carnal long abandoned. The shuttle glided through the park, a canned voice defining each piece of the landscape.
Ryan rose and forced the door, setting off the alarm. Hot air flooded the compartment as the shuttle slid to a halt. Ryan jumped out and scrambled away from the tracks. The shuttle's emergency system warned him to return to his compartment. Scorched earth crunched underfoot as Ryan jogged through crooked Joshua trees. Their rough bark and spindling limbs offered up a dry organic scent that cut through the smog. The shuttle finally gave up on Ryan and moved off, claxon shrieking.
Ryan kept his eyes trained on the valley before him. He could forget the encroaching 'scrapers if he looked in exactly the right direction and kept his eyes down. Massive boulders pocked the landscape, detritus belched from the Earth's core.
From the glinting desert, sheer cliffs vaulted into the sky, slabs of granite forced up by eons of pressure. Laing clambered up the narrow valley, a fissure slicing between two cliff faces.
He reached the base of the climb, letting his breath slow as he gazed up at the familiar route. Ryan saw the cliff as a progression of moves. Left hand high and lunge for the pocket. Balance out, extend, and crimp the flake. The action string coalesced into a single perception. It would be a good climb.
Ryan sat, replacing his blocky street treads with climbing slippers. He laced into them, savoring their bite, the constriction of his toes, then he stood and put his hand to the rock.
It was old granite, knobby and sharp. The decision to begin always surprised himthe shift from passive to active made by some subterranean piece of his 'ware. He reached for the first hold, high and left, and his feet found the vertical.
He coiled his legs into his chest, the tips of his toes plastered to the rock, building energy. Thoughts shoved asidehis concentration filled by the pocket one meter above. Ryan centered on it, dialing life down to a single action. An explosive release, legs pushing, left arm pulling hard. He vaulted into the air. Right hand shot up, driving for that pocketfinding it with the very tips of his fingers. He slapped his left hand up to match his right. The granite's knobbed grit dug into his palms as his full weight bore down. His feet gained purchase, relieving some of the tension. Ryan sucked in huge lungfuls of air, gazing up at the moves ahead.
He climbed with an easy gracecranking one move into the next.
Space sprawled below, and his world ratcheted down. The climb swelled to become his whole existence. The past weeks dissipated. Shades of gray contrasted out. On the rock, there was only black and whitelife and death. The power of this vertical world enveloped him. Freedom.
The scrape of metal on rock pulled Ryan from the zone. Tension pulsed through him. Fingers clenching, Ryan scanned, hunting for the sound's source. He felt eyes on him. Fractured impressions pushed his field training to redline. Then, the granite before him pulsedsearing heat warping the dry air. Ryan's illusion of control evaporated.
Crack. Fear blossomed. Handholds crumbled. Ryan couldn't believe the inputrefused to accept it. Adrenaline surged. He raked his fingers over the rock, desperate to regain purchase. Too late. His feet lost their grip. A splash of acceleration and the snap knowledge of doom.
Now, the grinding crackle of broken ribs pulled Ryan from memory, initiating him into death's final act. Fear swirled through the pain. The gulping urgency to live stung hard. Seconds passedan eternity. Then, the pain faded, replaced by a core-deep resignation. Ryan felt his body yield; he was beyond salvage.
The shock-blue sky forced Ryan to squint. A lead-heavy banality settled in. Ryan couldn't believe this was his life, his death. No rhyme or reason, just stupidity and chaos.
Ryan released his final breath. The sun bit into him. Had the past weekshell, the past yearsbeen worth it? Worth anything? He closed his eyes against the glare, then made a final choice. He opened wide and stared into the sun.
He died disappointed.
"Neil Buist had to die." Sarah Peters let the statement slip and immediately regretted it. She shifted uneasily.
Echelon did not permit its officers to download personal identifiers within its confines. Each virtual desk, each slice of flow-space, maintained a blank, unerring sterility. There was no hominess to the Echelon construct.
Even so, Jason Sachs' workspace felt particularly cold, as if he had skewed the angles of the room to set his visitors off balance. The office glowed white on white, almost blinding. Sarah tweaked the contrast in her goggles, but the room amped with her adjustment. She had to remind herself that none of it was real. She could pull off her goggles at any time and be back in her cozy apartment. The office shifted infinitesimally, triggering a shot of vertigo.
"Is that your opinion, or was it Agent Laing's?" Even in flow-space, where facial features were magnified to counteract signal degradation, Jason Sachs betrayed nothing. Sarah wasn't sure he had emotions to betray.
"It was my finding," she responded. "Laing didn't bother debating the subject."
"Well, something got to him."
Sarah started to realize why Echelon's inspector general was taking an interest in the operation. "You think Laing was so racked with guilt that he killed himself?" Sarah couldn't hold back the sarcasm.
"This being your first experience with my office, I'll cut you some slack. But let me be very clear as to the gravity of this conversation. I am tasked with understanding the events that led to Ryan Laing's death. Any culpability you had in upsetting his stability will have . . . ramifications." Sachs let the last word hang in the air.
At times, Sarah hated Echelon with every atom of her being, but for someone with her skills there was no place else. Growing up, she had craved action and adventure, finding in the flow what her real life as a shy, gangly adolescent couldn't offer. In the flow, she could be strong and bold. And she was goodreally good. She felt an affinity for coding and complex mathematics that made the flow her personal playground. Echelon's recruiters had tracked her early romps through this man-made universe. They liked what they saw.
As soon as she had entered college, Echelon approached her and revealed a secret that changed her life. In the flow, meshed into the tangled web of coding that connected humanity, there was a watcher.
Each and every bit of information flitting across the globe ran through Echelon. Encryption and security measures had no effect on its clean retrieve. Even more shocking, Echelon could manipulate the data poolaltering exchanges in real time, with no one being the wiser. Unbeknownst to the countries, corporations and consumers of the world, Echelon controlled the flow of information with a benevolent, if iron, hand. Sarah readily became an analyst for the clandestine kingmaker. How could she not? Within Echelon, she could change the world.
But now, after several years in Echelon's sterile flow-space reading reports, calculating probabilities, and plotting data shifts, she often forgot the on-ground effect Echelon had on the world. Then, she would overhear a conversation at her local coffee shopcustomers discussing the Korean unification or Middle East Peace Accords with lackadaisical assurance. In those conversations, she heard a naive faith that conflicts invariably resolved themselves. Madness, terror, greed, and vengeance shaped much of the human conditionbut their ramifications only cut so deep. Something always happened to allay crises. Sarah was part of that something. With Echelon at her back, Sarah corralled the horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Often it was as easy as making sure one side understood the other. But Echelon's manipulation could grow intricate, requiring tangled decision trees and RAM-pounding statistical analysis. Sarah's specialty.
Now and then, data manipulation failed. Then reality work became the only option and Echelon's Special Operations unit entered the calculation. When that happened, Sarah got the excitement she had so craved as a kid. It invariably turned her stomach. Hard manipulation meant bloodshed, and it wasn't always the bad guys who had to die. Sometimes, her calculations led to a man like Neil Buist.
Sarah realized Sachs had been speaking. She pulled herself back to the white glare of his workspace. He repeated himself. "The flow funnels through Echelon, Peters. We don't miss a thing. So explain how we didn't pick Buist up months ago. How did he slip our web and necessitate destruction?" Terms like murder weren't condoned in Echelon. "Carrier destruction" sounded so much cleaner.
"The man did it all in his head," Sarah responded.
"He was deeply paranoid, and beyond brilliant. Neil Buist communicated his discoveries on completion," she said. "In that case, how did you pull signal intercept?" "Luck. Pure, dumb luck." Every now and then, Sarah kicked into the raw data flow funneling
through Echelon. Initially, her superiors had discouraged the practice. No one could ingest such a torrent of information. But she had an uncanny instinct for finding those nodal points that shifted the whole. Twice, Sarah had spotted shifts before Echelon's software picked them up. She had uncovered a high-level Japanese plot to pull Antarctica into its natural resource protectorate, a move that would have led to war. And she had unwrapped Neil Buist.
Sarah had been trying to ascertain what his company, Calsoft, had in its pipeline. Buist's ability to work through groundbreaking developments in his head and then present them full-blown made Calsoft a threat to stability. A company of that size, shifting direction with little warning, created huge mop-up problems for Echelon. So, Sarah sniffed around the code emanating from Calsoft.
"I found a voice message," she told Sachs, "sent to the old man from one of his executives, Michael Welton, which struck me as odd. It was a recommendation for a nature vid. Something about a deep-sea animal called a siphonophore."
"Basically, it's a massive jellyfish. Like fifty meters long."
"And this caught your attention?" Sachs asked.
"Odd thing to call your boss about, don't you think?"
"I give. What's the connection?"
"The siphonophores themselves. Each individual is, in fact, a colony of smaller beings working in perfect unison."
"Okay . . ."
"I started digging." Sarah said. "Buist's hits in the flow, linked conversations, travel schedule, people he metthey all led to one conclusion. He'd found a means by which millions of independent processors could work in perfect unison, adapting to any given input as a single organism."
"And this is important?"
"It would change the nature of data processing, robotics, and a thousand other disciplines," Sarah replied with a tinge of annoyance.
"Not really cause for destruction."
"Not in itself. But I did a probability run on the most likely buyer of Buist's software. It came up ugly. Pakistan has a substantial force of combat robots. Currently, the Pakistani bots offset India's massive army. With Buist's software, the bots would tip the balance. I found an actionable probability that Pakistan would take offensive action."
"And that gets us to Ryan Laing."
Sarah cringed. Even dead, Laing gave her the creeps. "I tasked Laing with recovering Buist's software," she said.
"And destroying the carrier before dissemination."
Admitting her hand in murder stung, but guilt was part of the job. She bore it grudgingly. Sarah couldn't remember the last time she'd gotten a good night's sleep.
"Yes. The situation mandated such action, and I have the authority to so implement," she said.
Jason stared at her. Sarah shrugged off her guilt and continued. "Unlike most paranoids, Buist wasn't reclusive. He was larger than life, hitting every party and spending lavishly. Laing caught up with him in Miami, Florida, attending a benefit dinner."
"Let's review Laing's sense dump."
A wall in Sachs' flow-space office disintegrated. It was replaced with a recording of the sensory input Laing had ingested during the mission, captured by a disc placed over the agent's temple. The devices were mandatory during such operations.
The wall unfolded. Watching the past as present skeeved Sarah. Entering Laing's feed threw her off-kilter. She breathed deep and let Laing's vision inundate her.
The slick glare of Florida's New South Beach rezzed in. A flotilla of tremendous barges anchored fast, it looked like a chemical hallucination flash-frozen. The sparkling retro-deco behemoths bobbed in the ocean just off the original South Beach, now crumbling into an ocean that continued to rise. Capitalizing on South Beach's historical allure, developers had fashioned the barges to re-create what had been lost to the rising water. The barges sprouted high-gloss 'scrapers, forming a playground of lavish excess.
Sarah clawed up through Laing's input. She spoke over the recall. "Buist liked being the center of attention, publicly and privately."
Jason's voice filtered over the scene. "Clarify."
"He scooped up women, wrung them dry and flung them aside with the rising sun. The man relished consumption."
"Sounds like a real gentleman."
"Never claimed he was a saint," Sarah responded.
Jason flashed forward, sense points tumbling over.
Sarah narrated the fast forward. "The setup didn't take much. Ryan locked Buist's pattern, found the hideout you see here and waited. The gala wound down. At midnight Buist took his latest conquest back to his suite."
Sachs slowed the recording to real time, drawing Sarah back into Laing's past. From a decaying hotel room in old South Beach, Ryan scoped in, his heat-sensitive scope cutting through the one-way plexi of Buist's suite on the barge. In the jittering, tunneled image, Laing watched the two slide close. The woman's head rolled back in laughter, then forward into a kiss. Her lips met Buist's. It was time.
Laing grabbed the stub-short barrel of his rifle, locking the scope onto the gun and loading a mag of swivel-shot. His hands moved fast and steady. He touched the phone in his ear, placing the call. Sighting in, Laing watched the woman pick up the phone and hand it to Buist.
"Hello?" Buist said into the phone.
Laing settled into a firing stance. Three deep breaths, then another held halfway. He pulled the trigger between heartbeats. A soft, metallic ping fractured the room's moist silence.
Designed for silent penetration, the projectile spun on impacting the plexi of Buist's suite, boring through it. Most of the bullet dissipated in the energy transfer. The remaining needle point punctured
Buist's neck. He slapped at the irritation.
"Who is this?" Buist asked.
"Hello, Neil. You have just been poisoned."
Through the scope, Laing watched Buist's annoyance shift to fear. He bolted for the bathroom.
Laing sighed and resighted on the woman. He pulled the trigger again, the needle imbedding into the woman's midsection, making her jump. Shock and pain torqued her features. Death came in a series of bone-crushing convulsions. Neil emerged from the bathroom and watched her die, stunned.
The phone hung limp in Buist's hand. He raised it to his ear. "I'm proofed against bioware. Daily updates," he said.
Laing waited until the woman stopped twitching. "Your protection won't hold. You'll be dead in an hour."
"Not possible," the old man sputtered. Hesitantly, he knelt over the woman and put his fingers to her throat. His head dropped and he stumbled back.
Watching, Laing's breath caught. He repositioned the gun on his shoulder, shaking it off. "The great Neil Buist and his whore dead of some designer drug. Tragic." He let that sink in. "I'm in the old Delano Hotel."
Buist wrenched his gaze from the woman and looked out across the water to Laing's general position.
"That's right," Laing said. "Sooner you get here, the longer you'll live."
The scene shook, then blurred out. Sachs sped through Laing's visionsof Buist exiting the suite, approaching Old South Beach in a water taxi, disembarking, and making his way toward the Delano.
Sachs slowed back to real time as Laing negotiated his way down the hotel's collapsing stairwell and entered the lobby. Two bedraggled bums lay sprawled in a corner. Ryan walked through the high-ceilinged lobby, grown over with lush foliage, and onto the sloping marsh that led to the pool.
The pool's edges blurred with the waves washing up and into the lobby itself. Just offshore, the glittering white barges of New South Beach loomed. Cemented into the pool's shallow end, a wrought-iron table and two chairs were the only pieces of furniture remaining.
Sitting in one of these chairs, Neil Buist looked worse than his surroundings. The toxin ate at him.
Laing sat. "For your sake, I'll get to it. I want your work on processor colonies."
Buist's jaw dropped, revealing bloody gums. "You can't do this."
"Mr. Buist, you're dying. You don't have long." Laing placed a syringe on the table. "The antidote."
A gurgling hack escaped Buist's lips. He coughed blood into the milky water sloshing beneath them, oil black in the moonlight.
"Just talk. I'm rigged to record," Laing said.
"Who are you?"
No response from Laing.
"Jesus, okay. I'll tell you. Processor colonies . . ."
Scene shake and speed blur. Jason punched forward. Sarah spoke over the feed. "Tell me the software's good."
"Madda has it now. He says it's groundbreaking"
Sarah sighed in relief. She watched Neil Buist talk his life away in double time. Intermittently, the man wretched, spewing bile into the water.
Jason locked the scene back into real time.
Sarah watched Buist make a desperate grab for the syringe. Laing was way too fast.
"You're going to let me die," Buist realized.
Ryan said nothing.
"How? How did you know?"
"Siphonophores," Ryan said.
Sarah watched the realization shoot across the old man's features. "Michael's call. Good God."
Pain folded Buist double. Sarah gulped down her nausea as Laing stood, shifting perspective. Through Laing, she watched Buist keel over and splash into the pool. Laing turned to leave, but Buist grabbed his trouser cuff.
"You've got to . . . get Welton . . . ," Buist gargled out. Then he sank below the waterline, a final pulse of bile escaping his lips.
Scene stopa frozen image of the murdered man. Sarah pulled free, recalibrating her own perception, trying not to let emotion get the better of her. The wall in Sachs' office regained opacity.
"Two days later, Ryan Laing fell off a cliff," Sachs said with cold finality.
"Destroying Buist was a" Sarah hunted for the right word. "difficult decision. But his death, and the woman's, saved thousands, maybe millions, of lives. Laing knew that. The op and Laing's accident were unrelated."
"Probably," Sachs responded. "Your destruction order probably cut off an event chain leading to war, but you can't be sure. They might have died for nothing."
Sarah faltered, if only for an instant. She had to remain strong in front of this man. "That is correct, sir."
Sachs bored into her. "You are free to go," he said.
Sarah rose to leavea formality in flow-space. She could simply cut transmission, but she needed the finality of the physical act. Reaching the door, a nagging tickle in the back of her mind forced her to turn.
"Sir . . ."
He cut her off. "For you, Peters, this case is closed."
Sarah opened her mouth to respond, then thought better of it. She nodded and touched the door.
As her fingers closed on the knob, space shifted. She'd been pulled.
Sarah found herself in a dark room, utterly blank, uncoded. A man emerged from the void. Christopher Turing looked broken. The image made Sarah recoil. Echelon's leader, its heart and soul, looked down at her with bloodshot eyes.
"There's nothing else?" he asked.
"The report you just gave Sachs. Nothing more you want to add?"
Sarah's skin crawled. Instinct screamed at her to say yes, to reveal the tingle down her spine that Michael Welton's name had brought on. But there was nothing to back up her suspicion.
Turing nodded. "Very well."
The room blinked out, depositing Sarah back into Sachs' office. The pull had taken a fraction of a second in real time. Sachs had no idea she'd been gone. She triggered the knob and exited hurriedly.
Christopher Turing goggled out. He felt old for the first time in his life. No, he felt ancient. He left the cubicle and walked down the hall to a steel door. Cracking it open, he let his eyes adjust to the dim light.
Beyond the corpse draped in a white sheet, the room stood bare. Turing approached and forced himself to lift the sheet. A smile rose up through Turing's sorrow. Even in death, Ryan Laing sported the slightly annoyed grimace that had caught Turing's notice so many years ago.
Turing placed his hand on Ryan's cheek. Dead cold. Turing forced himself to keep it therebetter to ponder the decision before him.
Another man entered the room. Turing didn't look up. He didn't need to. He and Dave Madda were the only two people in the complex.
"Will it work?" Turing asked.
"I think so," Madda responded. "Buist's colony software was the final piece of the puzzle. The drones are operational. Untested, dangerous, but operational."
Turing cycled through the ramifications of what he was about to do, possibilities floating into eternity. He let it all go.
Turing walked to the door without looking at Madda. "Do it," he said. Fuck the ramifications. He wanted Ryan back.
© Josh Conviser