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 harder—gulps 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 illusory—the 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 still—as it had during mission debrief. Despite the interrogators’ relentless questioning, he’d talked around memories of the old man dying at his feet—and 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 grace—Ryan climbed. To set the ledger straight, to rebalance, to avoid a system crash—he 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 him—the 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 aside—his 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 pocket—finding 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 smooth and well—cranking 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 white—life 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 pulsed—searing heat warping the dry air. Ryan’s illusion of control evaporated.
Crack. Fear blossomed. Handholds crumbled. Ryan couldn’t believe the input—refused 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 passed—an 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 weeks—hell, the past years—been 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.
Excerpted from Echelon by Josh Conviser. Copyright © 2006 by Josh Conviser. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.