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QUEEN MAUD LAND, ANTARCTICA
Chip, chip, thunk.
His axes biting into clean ice, Ryan Laing tried to recall the events that had led him here--clinging to a granite fang under Antarctica's cold sun. Surely there were better ways to start the day. So why was this the only place he felt comfortable? Climbing ice and rock in a barren land. Alone.
The past lapped over Ryan, his own mixing with that of Antarctica's extreme topography. Tension and release played out here in the slow thrust and ebb of granite and ice. And it played on a grand scale.
Chip, chip, thunk.
His axes cut into the vertical.
Antarctica was dreamed in myth long before its actual discovery. Aristotle and Ptolemy predicted a great unknown Southland as a counterweight to the landmasses of the North. To Ryan, that felt about right. To be here was to cling to the world's keel.
Queen Maud Land lay between the trailing tip of the Stancomb-Wills Glacier and the encroaching thrust of the Shinnan Glacier. Its twenty-five million square kilometers were claimed by Norway, but this was a place beyond claiming. There were no permanent residents here--no indigenous populations. Here, man was a tourist. That suited Ryan just fine.
Most of Queen Maud Land lay encrusted in thick ice. Thousands of kilometers of frozen desert. And then, like something out of a fairy tale, granite spires sprouted from the white and vaulted into the sky. Once these spires had stood bare but, with the climate change, there was now enough moisture and heat shift to generate ice sheets on their lower flanks. The ice rose like a wolf's gum, locking each massive tooth into the snow.
It was here that Ryan climbed: It was here that he tried to escape his past. And the world he had created.
Chip, chip, thunk.
Shards sparked down on him with each swing. He lost himself to the smooth beat of his axes crunching ice, finding purchase, taking his weight. Churning thoughts stilled with the slow burn of exertion. His arms ached with the strain, fingers curled tight around the handles, wrists chafed by the axes' leashes.
Heat suffused him, wiping away the last of his morning sludge. A glance through his legs at the gaping space below offered the familiar adrenaline rush that beat the shit out of any cup of coffee. Ice descended below him, then flattened into an unending white plane. Each exhalation puffed a soft cloud into the air, forcing life into the landscape. Everything else stood angled sharp and dead still.
An unyielding rage had driven Ryan to this farthest end of the earth. Every morning, he woke consumed by it. This morning, like the one before, and the one before that, he had pushed it away, refusing to acknowledge that rotten space within him. Instead he closed it off, boxed it down and let it settle into a sour, acid rumble deep in his gut.
It hadn't always been like this. For a time, there was hope. There was a future. There was a woman. Sarah Peters had filled that black space within him.
Chip, chip, thunk.
Like the ice shearing under each swing of his axes, Sarah had helped him discard the shell that a lifetime within Echelon had generated.
Two pillars had supported Ryan Laing's existence: Echelon, and the woman who helped him destroy it. They had done it for the right reasons. But that didn't matter anymore.
Even now, years later, Ryan found it hard to fathom the scope of his decision. The hubris of it. He had altered the course of history. He had destroyed the quiet conspiracy that ordered the world. Chaos followed hard and fast. With it came regret.
Ryan tried to forget the world he had ended--the century of peace that Echelon had generated. But the longing wouldn't release him. He craved the security of that time with an addict's frantic need.
For a century, all information had flowed through Echelon's spigot. Through subtle manipulation of that data yield, Echelon had quieted those ideas that were deemed too dangerous or unsettling, thus maintaining a peaceful, if numb, status quo. Echelon was the benevolent and unseen dictator, smoothing out the fits and starts of humanity's progress. Echelon made life easy.
And Ryan had been a believer. He'd been the goddamned poster child. As an operative within its clandestine ranks, he had thought Echelon infallible. His faith had been pure. For the cause he had done things, questionable things; there was blood on his hands that would never wash away. But always there had been the pure faith that he did right. That Christopher Turing, Echelon's director and the closest thing Laing had to a father, would never lead him astray.
Losing that faith had cracked Ryan clean through. He had been dragged, kicking and screaming, to recognize Echelon's fatal flaw--that, sooner or later, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
A conspiracy had risen within Echelon. Sniffing it out, and knowing the ramifications of such an organization's turning from the greater good, he had no choice. Ryan couldn't allow Echelon to fall into the wrong hands. So he dragged it all down. In the process, he had been forced to kill Christopher Turing and, with him, a century of peace.
The incursion had nearly killed him. Maybe it should have. Crashing the Echelon system had also crashed the technology that kept Ryan alive. What had begun as nanotechnology in the twentieth century found its zenith in Ryan Laing. Within him, another intelligence had been implanted. A collective, artificial intelligence that healed him, jacked his perception and strength and linked him to the world's data flow. Ryan had a drone army coursing through his body. Or was it their body? At this point, the line between man and machine had blurred.
When Echelon fell, the code that ran Laing's drones crumbled with it. Their collective consciousness fractured to a billion microscopic intruders chewing through him. Ryan should have let them complete their meal.
But Sarah had pleaded with him to fight. And he had loved her enough to try. Ryan had offered the dictionary of his own being for the drones to adopt. Symbioses evaporated. No longer did he need to interface with them. He became the swarm and they him. Man and machine were one.
Just one more reason to live beyond the hand of man. He couldn't rightfully call himself human anymore.
Chip, chip, THUNK.
Lost in the past, Ryan's concentration faltered. He missed hard ice, the axe sinking into flake. It exploded into shards, one of which lanced Ryan's cheek. The pain threw him off balance. Laing scrambled, the talons of his crampons losing purchase. At the same moment, the ice gripping his left axe exploded under the added weight. Ryan fell.
Adrenaline flooded him. Time petrified. His world ratcheted down to a single flailing swing with his right axe. It slammed into the hard ice, scraped down its surface, then bit, jolting Ryan to a stop. The axe's eagle beak had caught on a slight imperfection. He hung, his continued existence pinioned on that ripple in the ice sheet.
Every muscle in his body demanded action, but he fought off the gulping need to scramble for purchase. Deep breaths forced patience. The slightest jerk would kick his axe off the knob. In an excruciatingly slow dance, Ryan moved his left axe up to match the right. He rested the axe's point on another imperfection. He softly kicked his crampons into the ice, reassured by the resounding thunk of their purchase. He stood up and swung his axes into the ice.
Chip, chip, thunk.
Safe--or safer--Ryan's vision opened out, released from the fall's ratcheting perspective. Blood ran down his cheek, pooling in the hollow of his collarbone. The flow didn't last long. Within his blood, gray drones swarmed. Ryan sensed their coordinated tug. The gash on his cheek knitted down to a sliver of cold pink flesh.
Not even a blemish. With drone augmentation, his body healed so quickly that he found it difficult to keep his past in solid state. He had no scars to ground his experiences.
Christopher Turing had once grounded him. But he was dead. Then, it was Sarah who had linked him to his past, and offered him a future. He'd fucked that up too, or maybe she had. It didn't matter. With her gone, it all faded to a dull wash. Past, present, and future meshed into a blur that left him numb. So he climbed, trying each day to lose himself in the vertical.
He shook away the last of his high and looked up to the pitch ahead. Ice for another twenty meters, then smooth granite. Larger than the walls of Yosemite, this fang and its brothers offered a new mecca for the world's climbers. Three colors dominated: white snow and ice, blue sky, and black granite. The simplified palette settled Ryan.
Maybe that's why he had come to this end of the earth, because it was so different from Tasmania's saturated green. Ryan wished he could wipe his memories of that place and the time he had spent there with Sarah.
After Echelon fell, she had found them an isolated prefab deep within Tasmania's rain forest. Suspended over gnarled Huon pines, the house floated on a sea of green. A single stanchion rising from the forest floor was all that connected the structure to the ground. When the wind blew, the house swayed to the tempo of the ancient trees below.
"You need time to recalibrate," she had said, her words cold and analytical even as her hand, brushing his forearm, offered warm heat.
Chip, chip, THUNK.
Ice. Rock. The shock of blue sky. Laing slammed his axe home with more force than necessary, the hard act only amping the recall of her skin on his. Even Antarctica couldn't wipe the memory of her.
He had tried to recover. Really. For her. For a future that should have been bright. Echelon was gone. Humanity had its freedom. He had Sarah. He was a hero, right? He deserved a happily ever after.
She had shielded him from the truth for as long as she could. Looking back, he thanked her for that time--that moment of hope. But it didn't last. Even as she pleaded with him to stay present, his curiosity boiled.
"Ryan, please." Standing on the prefab's balcony, watching night consume the forest below, she had begged him. "Leave it be. You've done enough. You've seen enough."
He remembered the way her hair floated on the gentle breeze. The soft smell of her rising over the forest's rich funk.
"Sarah, it's fine. I'm fine," he had said with unaccustomed optimism.
Sarah looked at him as if mourning something not quite lost. Ryan didn't see it at the time--the regret in that look.
Above him, stars had pierced the dusk. In the space between, Ryan felt the flow's tug. He eased his mind into a neutral state--the place between man and machine. Sarah's pleading fell away.
Drone input blossomed. The rain forest faded to background. The flow rezzed in from its cardinal points, wrapping him in virtual. It ran over him, a cascade of data. He plunged in.
Data jacks and node points rose before him, a virtual representation of the flickering weave of connections that linked humanity together. He sank deep.
And here his hope faded. In a blink, his future went gray. He saw what he had wrought.
He had expected a time of panic and fear as Echelon's invisible hand released its grip. Freedom after so many years of tyranny was not easy to digest. Russia's confused rush to capitalism in the twentieth had showed the world what a difficult pill freedom could be.
Ryan had expected chaos. What he saw, writ large, was his fuckup. A mistake that changed everything.
His incursion had succeeded in destroying Echelon, but failed to erase it completely. Ryan had killed the beast, but left its corpse for the world to see. Echelon's existence had come to light. Every man, woman, child, corporation, and country saw that they had been played.
Rage gripped the world. Fear. Distrust. Suddenly, nothing of the last century could be relied on. Within the flow, Ryan watched the disintegration of the European Union, old grudges rising from Echelon's ashes. Nations, conglomerates, and demagogues rose and fell in tumultuous succession. No control, no shape, just a brutal hunt for equilibrium. The strong held fast. The weak bent under the onslaught.
Standing on that balcony in Tasmania, Ryan had shivered in spite of the heat. A creak in the flooring as Sarah shifted to him. She touched his arm, soft, like the wind's rush. So full of regret.
The air smelled different with her presence. She charged the atmosphere. Her breasts, soft and demanding, ground into the small of his back. She wrapped her arms around him.
"It will be okay," she whispered in his ear.
Ryan closed his eyes, refusing the comfort of her presence. She tugged at him but he didn't budge. Couldn't. So she melted into him, pouring honey soft over his rigid frame.
"Please. You need sleep, Ryan."
"What have I done?" The words echoed through him, unrelenting.
"Only what was necessary," she replied.
He stepped away from her.
She forced him to turn, hard eyes locking his. He sensed her determination to connect. But he couldn't. Not now. Not with guilt draping over him like a cloak.
"Don't do it," she said. "Not after all we've been through." The cool analysis in Sarah's voice lowered to fragile fear. "Don't push me away."
Ryan did not move.
Abandoning words, she pulled him close, her lips finding his. Drones swarmed into her, active in her while she remained physically connected to Ryan. Through them, Ryan and Sarah shared each other's sensations. Her need forced his. Ryan felt Sarah's longing as if it were his own. She needed to know him--demanded complete connection. He buckled under that will. Their kiss became an exploration. He submitted, his emotions, fears and desire spilling into her. She pushed further. Too much. Too close.
He thought the word and it rose in her mind through their drone link. She relented, grudgingly, breaking their kiss.
--I will share this with you, Ryan.
Ryan shook his head.
"I will," she said aloud.
He watched her for a long moment. The dark curve of her eyebrow, the tight-lipped determination. Sarah's skin glowed in the starlight. He reached for her, then stopped himself. She took his hand before he could pull back, drawing it to her cheek. The softness of her skin felt distant--barely registered through the wind tunnel he had become.
She pushed closer, backing him up against the balcony's railing. Sensations mingled. The cold metal digging into his back. The slick heat of her mouth. She pulled away from their kiss and buried her head in his chest.
From the Trade Paperback edition.