Sandcastle
by Joseph Witkowski

In 2020, the Panoptic Corporation engulfed the major media outlets of the United States, all under the well meaning handshakes of the U.S. Congress. Not since William Randolph Hearst has information flowed from one all powerful source. Rumors spread that they were developing a technology that would change the surveillance industry forever. The U.S., embroiled in a second arms race with China, was anxious to have as many edges as possible.


2:00 A.M. Outer rim apartment complex.



    Ichi Duncan looked over the balcony at the rain rivered alleys beneath him. He had helped himself to a cup of sake he found in the bunny’s icebox. Cold sake, how American. He didn’t mind so much as he took in a breath and let the frozen air of the thunderstorm wash the evening from under his eyes. It wasn’t over yet, but this is not the kind of thing you do sober. He slung back a solid amount and felt his insides warm. Or perhaps that was the knife wound between his third and forth ribs. Superficial. It ruined one of his best suits though. But most of the blood on his lapels and trousers was not his, which was something to be thankful for. He stood for a second and stared up at the skyline. He’s lived in this city for too long. He thought of the glade next to his birthing home. It formed an “S” as it interwove itself around two willows and always looked silver under moonlight.
    He walked back into the apartment which was not his, into the situation that was not his doing but which needed to get done. He’d warned her. But this is the job and this is how one pays the rent. No loose ends, no guilt, no mistakes and no regrets. He walked into the living room and sat on the lounge chair, placing the bottle of sake and the egg colored porcelain cup to his right. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the two of them sound asleep. The bunny: some faux international, wanted to be a sorcerer, got the stew. And his partner Maze, oh shit, soon to be ex-partner Maze. What a night. If wishes were horses then I just got trampled to death, he thought to himself as he readjusted his topknot. They were both lying on the floor still jacked into MindFrame by way of her soon to be ex-partner’s virused portable. Both of them were coma-case, vegetables, completely unaware of him or anything else, ever again. He thought about using a silencer but fuck it, the average response time for a hover unit was about three days out here in the Rim. Hell, if none of their shenanigans woke anyone up in the building it is case that no one cared.
    Caring’s too expensive these days. He took out his Sig Sauer, checked the chamber and walked over to their limpness. Trying not to look down, staring instead at a photo up on the mantel. A starry eyed blond on a beach, what we all live for. He’d never seen a beach. He hates sand anyway, gets everywhere. He crouched down and ran his fingers through his soon to be ex-partner’s hair, a Louis Brooks job, dyed black as soot, encasing a freckled face and stone cold blues. He careful shut her eyelids with the tips of his index fingers. Christ what are you waiting for, Amazing Grace? He pointed the gun square between her eyes and cocked the hammer.

2:59 P.M. The previous day. Panoptic Inc. Division B23.
HQ.

   Myers has a terrible habit of talking about himself in the third person. It could be suggested that he’s spent most of his life thinking about himself in the third-person, as if watching his memories and his wishes and his actions on television, a sort of inborn sociopathology that doesn’t hinder one’s goals, but actually assists them. He was pacing the 6000 square feet of his office atop Panoptic’s largest corporate office in the Midwest. A view of the LSD’s new offramp to the offshore villages was sprinkled with buzzing lights and streaks of exhaust as hovercraft lifted c-sections of tunnel through the night. It was amazing how the world builds up around us, he thought, Myers was always a part of this place. As if the building itself had been built around his playpen as a child and lifted him up over the years out of the smolder and the piss. A buzz on the overhead intercom awakened him.
   “Sir, your 3:00 appointment is here.”
   He walked over to his scotch-guarded leather throne and sat, taking a knife and a pink lady apple out of the mini-cooler below him. He started to peel away the skin. The activity was so ritual he barely noticed the woman now standing before him.
   “Oh excuse me, welcome, have a seat.” he gestured to the seat in front of the desk, he apologetically lifted his hands to indicate his sloppiness. Apple juice dripping from his fingernails, he quickly grappled a handkerchief and wiped his hands. She had already sat.
    She noticed immediately the apple peel, one long continuos strip, nothing missed. A standard Theta dreamer, she thought to herself, probably two hours of REM a night, all work related except for the occasional erotic scatology. She could guess the photo turned away from her on the desk is most likely his father, military.
   “Marigold, is it not?” he asked, assured of the answer.
   “The one and only.”
    She was tall, slender but toned, dressed in this strange futuristic hippie ensemble, mesh and canvas webbing with probably hundreds of secret pockets and hiding places, stained with deep midnight blues and blacks that made her eyes erupt. Even her lipstick was blue. She had the kind of beauty old paintings have. Intentional and eternal. Her face was almost childlike with sweetness but her reputation had entered the room long before she did.
He pretended to clear his throat,
   “Thank you for coming on such short notice. An associate of mine passed along your contact info. I know you like to travel under the radar, so I must apologize for insisting on meeting here.”
   “It’s not a problem, certainly for the discussed fee, besides, I don’t get into the commercial sector often. Must be neat taking a shit above 22 floors of top-bracket advertising reps.” she said gesturing to his private washroom door, ajar.
    He stared blankly at her, his office seldom heard any such rye observation and he was always the most confident person in the room.
   “Yes, well, hard work pays off.”
   “Does it now?“ This guy has probably walked through the raindrops all his life, she thought, if he spontaneously got up and threw himself out the window there’d be a mattress truck waiting for him at the stoplight.
   “Let’s get down to brass tacks shall we.” he said curtly. Her attitude was starting to annoy him. She’s spent too much time with those Outer Rim clipjackers and coffee house anarchist wannabes all pissed off that their vote doesn’t count. He picked up a silver envelope from out of his drawer and slid it toward her.
    “Everything you need is in here, I’ll assume the fee is more than adequate and will expect delivery in 48 hours.”         
    “Who’s the bunny?” 
    “His name is Walter Wick, a former employee of Panoptic’s Lumiere division based in Marseilles. He was one of our best and brightest, he had quite a future ahead of him and yet for some reason he tendered his resignation two weeks ago and he has refused a severance package or negotiation. This is very embarrassing for us and we would like a satisfactory explanation. Mr. Wick’s time here could be legally considered intellectual property and we are not prone to having our property taken from us. We have attempted the courts but, you know how these things get . . . lost in the paper so we require . . . a more human touch.
    “So you called me,”
    “The irony isn’t lost on me.” he took a large bite of his apple and relished every inch. “This is a simple man, quiet, kept to himself, he was a neurobiologist at Cal Tech before taking a position with Panoptic. Tweed coat types make me very nervous, but we know he’s not a mole so, someone must have recently got to him.”
    “And you would like to know who it is.”
    “Exactly.”
    “What if it’s nobody, maybe he just woke up one day and decided he wanted to be a fireman.”
    “Because I know people, it’s part of my job.” He said as he leaned forward hungrily.
Marigold picked up the photo on the desk and turned it toward her, a two-star general, Marines.
    “Seeing is believing, Mr. Myers.” She said while grinning at the spite, “What’s my key-in?”
    “Sandcastle.”
    “Which is?”
    “Which is no one’s business but mine.” He took the photo and returned it to his rightful place, visibly annoyed. “If I understand how all this works, that’s the only trigger you will need, get in, record, return, no damage, no trace.”
   “Groovy. 48 hours from now.” She got up from her seat and started walking out. He quickly got up, startled by her abruptness.
   “Marigold, he won’t remember you will he?
   “Don’t worry,” she kept walking forward to the door without looking back. “That’s my business.”
Myers looked down for a second pensively, then chuckled to himself, sat down and placed the rest of the apple core in his mouth as he chewed as loud as possible. Smart Ass, he thought, Myers doesn’t like smart asses.

                                                                                           One day and seven hours later

   Marigold parked her bike up against a wrought-iron gate near the mills. The bunny’s apartment complex was about three blocks away. She checked her gear twice, as she always did and grabbed an extra case from her bike basket. She looked up at the dusk, storm clouds were creeping up over the cityscape like a panther and she took a moment to feel the first rain drop, as if meant for her. She decided to take the alley.
   While she strolled she hummed some Sgt. Pepper and was looking forward to a hot meal. This job was solid rent for six months and she was going to treat herself. Corporape wasn’t her usual client these days, mostly trauma cases, neurotics, ex-cops wanting to rewrite their last calls or shrinks trying to unshrink themselves. Occasionally she got something off the books, like this one. But it was usually some paranoid landlord convinced one of his tenants was a pederast. A streak of lightening silently jumped the clouds. The Bones were packing up their display cases and running into the burnt out buildings. She though about getting some recreationals for tonight but, you can’t trust most of the stuff down here. She preferred VR anyway, remote-viewers usually do. That’s how she got into all of this, and with remarkable ease. She remembered the good ol' days, first starting out. Black-ops all around, a week didn’t go by where she didn’t fry a guy for opening someone else’s e-mail. Not that it didn’t take a little teeth-grind. But, she finally felt confident that this was her calling, and it had taken three years to get there. Not bad for a Rim urchin.
   She picked the lock to his apartment in a solid 10 seconds, a little behind schedule. She walked in to find what was a cavern of solitude from the wheelings and dealings of the outside world. A sanctuary. Banzai trees and a fishtank. Christ. This guy IS the quiet type. After many years of sneaking into single men’s apartments the first thing she usually sees is a stack of porn-jack or a PVC blow up doll twisted into a pretzel. But the bunny seems to have a sense of style. Old world Japanese. A couple things where misplaced and anachronistic but a definitive ‘A’ for effort. She scanned the layout, three solid exits, the hallway to the bathroom was a bottleneck if you flank from the master bedroom. Two phones, standard roof intercom, voice activated, same as the G12 in the corner. A multi-deck cache. This guy was most likely an analyst. Panoptic deals in market shares and test pools, trying to devise the next ad campaign for toasted choco-wheats and presidential love letters to the gaunt and over-stimulated public.
   As she suspected, everything was triple encoded and no paper trail anywhere. Fucking corporape. She walked over to the kitchen and scanned his refrigerator. Christ, nothing but condiments. Take-out junkie too. She spotted a bottle of water sitting dead center on the shelf. Saliva stained rim. She took out the extra bag and pulled out a hair spray bottle. L.A . Looks. She was an east coast girl. She sprayed the contents into the water bottle. It fizzled than disappeared, she then took a whiff, to make sure there was no resin on the sides. It can give off a raw meat type of smell. Safe as houses. She placed the bottle back into fridge just as the bunny’s swipecard hit the door. She could smell him all the way down the hall. I guess it’s Szechuan tonight eh, rock star. She made herself scarce, trying not to be too ninja about it.
   The bunny had had a long day. He threw his swipe down on the table and voice activated the lights. Goddamn embassy he thought to himself. I’ve never stood on line for so long just to prove who I am. He took off his linen trench, soaked to the bone, and headed for the fridge, took the water bottle out and had a swig. He then unpiled his dinner on the kitchen table.
  “Inquiry: Messages” he said out loud. The intercom’s computer responded in the voice of some soap actress.
  “You have one unheard message. passcode please”
Before he could respond he was face down in a plate of Kung Po Chicken snoring like a newborn, Marigold standing over him.

********

   Ichi Duncan drives. Maze plays with the radio. This is how its been for way too long.
   “Would you just pick something. You’re like an ADD case you know that.” he said finally giving her a stored up glare.
   “I’m curious to see what’s out there.”
   “There is nothing out there, Panoptic owns all the radio stations and for some reason they can’t get enough classic rock on Wednesday nights. What, do they think Oasis is gonna cheer the sheeple up on their daily commute? Makes me wanna turn into oncoming traffic.”
   “Well I’m bored. And all you have to listen to is that Tai-bo shit. Don’t you have any trip-hop, the Orb or the 8 States or something?”
   “First of all, it’s not Tai-Bo, it’s Oshu, and I can’t have this conversation again and if you’re bored then read something.”
   “I don’t like to read.”
   “What do mean you don’t like to read.”
   “I mean I don’t like to read, I prefer thinking.”
   “Well that’s good, the quietest thing in the world to do and you can’t do it quietly.” 
   “Music helps me think.”
   “Oh, nice, music helps me fantasize about killing people.”
   “Boy, you’re grumpy.”
    And he was. They had been tailing the bunny for two hours, per his request. The story goes like this. Ichi and Maze hadn’t had a solid client in two months. Dry-spells. Their specialty was counterespionage and well, down in the rim, everybody knows that everybody spies on everybody, so there’s nothing to counter. Ichi was the strategist and the steel in this little George and Gracie routine. He was probably one of three Ronin in this hemisphere and his services, although useful, may be too unique to be marketable. Maze has got the same problem. Stage 2 Empath. She’s the tech guru. Also, one of the best brainbandits out there. A blackback portable London7 with a 30 second scan and jump. She’s been in and out of a guy’s subconsci before their even done shaking their dick. Well maybe not that fast. Two weeks ago some wire head from Panoptic says he’s quit his job and he feels like he’s being tailed. He needs bodyguards for two weeks before he leaves for Europe. He pays well. Which explains why Ichi and Maze are bickering over the relationship between Luke Wilson’ stomach surgery and his eventual renewal of Christ while sitting in a parked cruiser in an alley during a midnight tsunami.
    “-I’m just saying he did his best stuff before the whole Catholic thingy. You know, the least this prick could do is invite us up.”
    “Maze, we’re bodyguards. What, do you want to break out the sleeping bags, get some Smores? We can do his hair like Prince-”
   “No, it just sucks tailing corporape weasels, their lives have that whole elitist nondescript thing, grey men in grey hats. I mean. . see the way he talks to us-”
   “Yes well he’s also signing the checks so we just keep him safe for two more days and we can kick back.”
   “God he IS a quiet guy.” She was tapping her ear plug remote.
   “Can I see that for a second.”
   “Why?”
   “Maze!” She takes out the plug and hands it to him. He listens for about a couple seconds. He quickly rewinds a tapedeck and hits play randomly . . “Somethings wrong.”
   “What.”
   “He stopped for food on the way home right.”
   “Yeah it looked good too.”
   “Yeah, marvelous, I don’t hear him eating.”

                                                                                                          ******

   Marigold popped open her back pack and pulled out her portable. A S-Black with three interwoven hard disks and 12 I/O ports. A decal with some helvetica on the cover “WHEN I GROW UP I WANNA BE JUST LIKE ME.” She pops the cover. “Welcome to Mindframe” in a nice James Earl Jones. She puts the VR goggles on him and wires him up, runs a quick feedback loop, nothing fancy, last two weeks of neural netting, no point in going oedipal here. Just need some recent. She wired herself up, goggles and a pillow, and lays down next to him. She always hated the vulnerability of the body when jacking but, comes with the biz. She leans over and whispers in his ear. “Sandcastle.” Then the black liquid jump.

11:00 am. Somewhere.

   Let’s talk a little about MindFrame. Developed in 2005 by some limp wrist MIT monkey for the FBI psych profilers and originally a recorder until the VR people stuck their nose in it. It’s Marigold’s joie de vive and the whole reason we’re here, where ever that is. There are a few programs on the market for entering into a human’s brain, but only telepaths and empaths and such can do it successfully and still walk by themselves afterwards. MindFrame is the cream of the litter. It’s an interactive based neural feedback loop. An initial scan of two brains allows the CPU to render an enhanced VR representation of the occupants and the environment that serves as a facade of ones’ subconscious memories, thoughts, theories and desires. The brain is essentially a network of physical memory rigged to multi-index events and action, the meta-index is the subconscious where it’s all at, and where one is free to roam about since higher brain function is on a different index. . . Add in some presets, entry and exit points, rules of behavior etc. . . maybe a little Freud and you can walk into a human’s mind like a grocery store. It has its dangers of course. Inside you experience a reality much like a dream world, but it doesn’t interrupt until you exit. If your injured, trapped, or killed, you’re stuck there. MindFrame is kept pretty secret by the brass but it has proliferated through the world market of neuro-traffickers. The theory goes: the program is like any other, no matter how bound by the rules of symbolic logic, it has developed a subconsci all its own. It’s been even known to log itself onto the wireless ethernet and go looking. . for what is anyone’s guess.

   Marigold felt that familiar cold, almost frozen. It was a womb-like feeling, placenta in between her teeth like a newborn kitten, then the consistency goes down, less smooth. Like water. She always chose an element as an entry point. They tend to be universal in dreaming. Some people go with fire, but, that’s too showy for her taste. She stepped out of the water onto the crystals of a beach, everything was bright orange and brown, even the sky a thick lava red that would occasional ripple with streaks of blue paint. Something was different about this guy’s applecore. Less lucidity, poor resolution. She probably should have done a meatscan before she entered. Oh well, better just find him.


    Which is not always possible. People often have the starring role in their dreams, but sometimes they watch others, and often replace themselves as other people. Finding somebody in the middle of a memory can take hours. A couple cc's of dopamine before a jump usually helps. Boosts the ego and the reward center. Too much of course and you walk into the middle of a porno, but lets not talk about that.

   This is a dream and in dreams, people do weird shit, which is why she spots the bunny, sitting on the beach a couple yards from the water with a pail on his head blowing spit bubbles. Beats her Friday nights. In front of him was a sandcastle, which kinda killed the mystery. She was expecting a metaphor, a project title or the name of some fabdangled jigamadoo. But no, sandcastle means sandcastle. She placed her coin in her left hand and gripped. Entry is maintained by the coin. It appears in your hand when you enter and when you drop it, it signals an exit command to your portable. Her coin was blue with a donut hole so she often twirled it on her pinky. Recording is the default, but MindFrame allows you to introduce new environs, keywords for booby traps and freeze frame. Fancy stuff but you could fuck up a guy's brain by doing too much magic on the inside. Best to keep it low key, and the worst will be he momentarily recognizes you on the subway. Too much, and he’ll think you're his mother. She never tipped a guy into psychosis. Well, a guy who wasn’t asking for it.
She walked over to bucket head and looked at him. No acknowledgment. He still doesn’t sense her. Probably too enamored at his own dream. Best to explore.
   “Walk me” MindFrame started pumping new environs around her. A parking garage, Szechuan Spring, the French Embassy, Lunch at Trader Vic's, beddy-bye, an airport lounge. Boring as petrified shit.

11:20 p.m. Panoptic Inc. Division B23. HQ.

  “Call on the secure line Mr. Myers.”
  “Patch it through.”
  “Mr. Myers”
  “Johnny, how’s the night treating you?”
  “Can’t complain. Oh hell, yeah, I can complain, I’m wet as hell out here, my underwear is riding up my crotch something fierce.”
   What is that, some fake southern accent? This guy was born in Minnesota, Myers thought to himself.
  “Well you shouldn’t complain considering the money involved here. You can buy yourself a new crotch. Now what’s the status?”
  “Those two tails are on their way inside, something must have tipped them off.”
Myers saw complications, an endless freight train of complications.
  “Can you take them out?”
  “Well I’m three blocks away on a rooftop right now.”
  “You’re orders are a clean sweep, make it look like a robbery.”
  “Can do Mr. M.” Dialtone.
  “Moron.”

******  

   “Still no answer.” Maze was redialing the bunny for the fifth time.  Ichi and Maze entered the lobby, stone and marble with a fireplace that hasn’t been used in 80 years.
   “Forget it.” Ichi placed a motion camera on the fireplace mantel in front of the elevator. He pulled out his Sig Sauer and checked the chamber. 24 hollow point with a cluster base.
   “You ready?” Ichi pressed the button for the fifth floor, the steel grate of the old elevator door sounded like prison bars.
   “Maybe he’s just asleep, we should of let him put cameras up there.” Maze retorted while shaking the rain from her coat.
   “Are you carrying ?”
   “No, I don’t like guns.”
  “Oh, good, you don’t like books and you don’t like guns.”
   “They’re loud and they kill people.”
   “That is the point yes, who are you, McGyver now?”
    “Who’s that?”
   “Nevermind.”

   The hallway was barely lit, a couple work lights substituting for burnt out security hallogens. They walked up to the bunny’s door, Ichi immediately went to kick it in, Maze grabbed him.
   “Hey, a little rude don’t ya think?” She knocks. He quickly steps to the side to avoid any possible 12 gauge blasts that could be ripping his partner in two. Alas, nothing, except that bunny forgot to lock the door so it just swings open.
   “Moron.”
   They quickly enter, Ichi first checking corners and itching the hammer. He’s been in this before, 3 years of CQB in Somalia, 01-04, and then there’s Bucktown. They make it to the living room alive as Maze was already sure they would. They looked down to see the bunny and some strange cyber-hippie chick laid out on the floor in parallel.
   “Oh, shitballs.” Ichi said lowering his weapon. The worst part was they had no idea Myers was looking at the computer screen above his desk. And on that screen a black haired chick and a guy with a topknot and a gun were staring back at him.
   Maze went to work.
  “So who is this broad?”
  “Marigold.” he recognized the gear.
  “This is Marigold. I imagined her taller.”
  “What the hell are you doing?” He noticed her pulling the heart meter out of her case.
  “What’s it look like, I’m gonna patch in.”
  “The hell you are,” he grabbed her arm, it was a protective gesture but probably came off patriarchal. “That’s MindFrame. She could have booby traps everywhere, besides you haven’t even done a meatscan.”
  “You can do it while I’m in, I’ll find the nearest cloak and just watch till I figure out what she’s doing.”
  “No no no.”
  “Yes, yes yes. This is my job, my responsibility, he could be frying my rent right now and I’d like this guy to remember that he owes us 3k.”
  “Promise me no contact.”
  “I promise.”
  She was wired in under a minute, jack and jump, bright lights and a shit load of sand.

*******

   Marigold sat down beside the bunny.
  “Hello.” she seemed to get a flicker of attention.
  “I don’t . .I don’t know you.”
  “You’ll remember just give it some time. What are you doing here?”
He returns to sculpting the sandcastle.
  “I’m waiting, I’m always waiting. This is supposed to mean something?” He references his architectural project.
Childhood memory? Maybe “Close Encounters” is his favorite film, she thought to herself watching the delicacy of his fingers.
   “It, it’s like play, like when you’re a child and not afraid of breaking things so you build with out fear, and chase.” His voice has a treble, almost echo, reverb from MindFrame’s audio deck perhaps. Something was different. She felt as if she was recording a big pile of not getting paid. Probe some more.
   “What are you working on?”
   “I hate work.”
   “Me too, we have something in common.”
   “I want to run away.”
   “From whom?”
   “AIl of it, the owls.”
   “The owls, is that Panoptic?” Does the word Panoptic mean anything to you?”
   “I’m tired.” So was she. Headache too. This guy’s brain feels like a hot colander.


                                                                                                     *******

   Ichi put his ear mic in and started perusing the apartment waiting for the progress bar on the bunny’s complete body scan and bloodwork to render.
   “Can you hear me Maze?”
   “Yes, I hear you.” Her portable allowed for a two way out into the meatworld. She also hated the vulnerability of brainjumping. She hoped he wasn’t fucking around with her while she was stuck in the middle of Dune. “Find anything?”
   “Well, I like his Feng Shui, a little anachronistic though. What do you see?”
   “Sand, lots of sand, a beach . .more sand.”
   “You feeling okay?”
   “Yeah, it’s milky in here, plus I’m starving.” She actually isn’t starving. Ichi’s version of a joke was pressing his finger on her belly while she’s roaming in the subconsci. Physical sensations do interpret just like when we dream during sleep, the incorporation of an alarm clock etc. . .
   “Ichi, knock it off.” He lifted his finger off her.
   “Just checking for paralysis. Any sign of the bunny?”
   “I see footprints.”
   “Go scooby, remember, if things get dicey, drop a dime.”
    In the MindFrame, Maze flicked her entry coin in the air and caught it. Smooth for a amateur.

*******

   Marigold went down to the water. If the download was finished than this whole set up should have gone periwinkle by now, her portable is rigged up to send impulses to the cerebral cortex once a time log hits its end, or the hard drive fills. It would break his dreamstate with some new stimuli, force a relocation and new story line. So far Zippo. Maybe the keyword wasn’t enough; there must be something missing. He’s barely coherent; how the hell did Panoptic get the word Sandcastle? Suddenly, the water wasn’t there anymore, and she was in a forest of purple trees, very Dr. Suess.
   Oh Christ, I’m been kicked back to a lower level. Pure image bank. Fuck. She looked around, noticing the storm clouds gathering. MindFrame must be crashing from an overload. But that’s impossible, too many back-ups. She resisted the urge to jack out and gripped the coin even harder. She started walking when she heard the crows. Always follow the crows.

*******

   “Meat report Maze.”
   “Hit me.”
   “He’s got seepage. A black dot in his amygdala.”
   “That’s erasure, it’s not MindFrame though, MindFrame has playback during an erasure for last minute cancels. It must be something he’s doing.”
   “What, like he’s forgetting all of this?”
   “If she drugged him, sodium pentythal and some word play and he could lose this memory forever.”
   “No, he’s got some chloral hydrate in him, but only enough for a light nap. I don’t like this Maze. This dot is growing exponentially, he’s lost at least a year.”
   “Maybe I can stop it, Marigold must be the trigger. Wait I see someone. A woman”
   “Is it her?”
   “No. It’s someone else”
   “Blond, blue eyes, cropped hair.”
   “Yeah, how did you know?”
   “Her picture’s on the mantel. I’m guessing girlfriend or fuck buddy or the mole, or all three- oh shit.”
   “What’s up?”
   “A busybody.” He checked his wristband, an LCD with the feed from the lobby’s motion camera. A tall guy, tats, wifebeater and a pretty big fuckin shotgun. “Oh great,” he whispers to himself, “Johnny. Not tonight.“
   “Maze, I’ve got a visitor too.”
   “Who is it?”
   “Johnny Sacred.”
   “That greaser fuck? I thought you killed him.”
   “We’ll I did, sort a . . . it never seems to work. Don’t worry about it. He’ll never get within a foot of you.”
    Then the lights went out, Johnny Sacred has cut the power.

Midnight in the Garden of Earthly Delights

   Marigold feels like she’s been walking for hours. The crows are her program glyphs but if MindFrame is really crashing then they might be haywire. She has to rely on brain-chem 101. All neural networks are timecoded. Meat and Code. Different substrates but the same architecture. If these trees are a memory map then the ones at the edge must be the most recent and the ones at the edge will be thinner. She keeps walking, trying to catch her breath. Not that she’s breathing, but it’s almost impossible to tell the difference in here. She pitches forward and takes a breath. Notices the footprints and turns left. She hopes they’re not hers.

******

   The door smashes open throwing wood shards and hinge all over the hallway floor. Ichi was kind enough to lock it behind him when they had entered, having been raised well. Sacred, having not, struts in on poromeric snakeskin cowboy boots straight into the living room and pumps the shotgun.
   “Looks like a Goddamn slumber party!” He yells and points the shotgun down at the three sleepers on the floor. Finesse sucks.
   “Hi ya, Johnny.” The shotgun goes flying as Ichi smacks it to the ceiling and roundhouses him in the muttonchops. Johnny Sacred immediately stumbles as if one leg was filled with PBR. He gets a few more to the gut. He finally blocks and grabs Ichi by the topknot.
   “Duncan, I thought I killed you.”
   “You been thinking, hoss. You surprise me.”
   “Yeah well-” Ichi head butts him, ducks under and spins jamming his elbow right up through the diaphragm. The hair pull was uncomfortable but worth it. His grip loosened and in a few seconds the center of gravity is in charge and he’s in a tailspin. Ichi does a sidestep then throws all his weight into sending Sacred through the living room window. Five fucking stories. Ichi brushes off his hand clapping style and gives a hesitant sigh of relief. He places the ear mic back in, then picks up the shotgun and places it under the couch for safe keeping. He checks his Sig.
   “I’ll be right back.” He says as he strolls out the door.
Maze’s voice is a little on the sultry side. “Fine Honey, we have all the time in the world.”

******

   “I promise, we have all the time in the world.” whispers the blond into the bunny’s ear. He giggles like a twist.
   “What are we doing here?” She asks, running her fingers through his hair. “We could be anywhere?”
   “I like this place, it reminds me of you.”
   “That’s sweet. where would you like to be, if you could go anywhere.” They’re both really kinda cute in a throw up kinda way.
   “You’re thinking of leaving me.”
   “No, of course not, baby.”
   “It’s all ending so quickly.”
The blonde furrows her brow, she thinks to herself, I need this info before he starts calling me mommy.
   “What?”
    Or perhaps she just said that out loud. It’s hot in here, out here, just “the here” in general.

******

   Marigold squinted her eyes through the trees which were melting, except the one. the one with the three crows on it, the one still in the SDRAM. the one with the cliched heart and arrow carved into it. Walter and Zoe 4ever. She hates that name. She reaches forward and touches the tree and keeps touching it. Fuck, MindFrame is haywire and the usual key-ins aren’t working. She better jump. She drops the coin . . . and is still sitting under a giant weeping willow in the middle of Hurricane Wick.
   “Now I’m getting a little worried.” She picks up the coin. It’s only gonna work in the water at the sandcastle, the initial entry point. It’s the only dreamscape still in her portable’s memory cache. She kicks a stone, paces, then breaks a branch off the willow.

   Okay, so who’s this bitch?

   The beach has painted in around her, the sky is now darker than oil and Marigold’s in a hurry. She drops the weeping willow branch onto the sand. The blond is looking into the bunny's eyes, her bunny.
   “We can fuck forever, right here, that’s what you want isn’t it?”
Well he’s a bit forward isn’t he, he wouldn’t of gone porn on me, Marigold thought. This is the key isn’t it. He’s practically Id and she’s still here.
    She sits down in front of them.
   “We . . .we know each other.” motioning to the blonde.
   “I can see that, bunny.”
   “Why did you call me that?”
   “Did you meet here?”
   “Yeah.”
   “On the beach”
   “Yeah.”
   “Two weeks ago.”
   “Has it been that long, I . . I . . can’t remember.”
   “Listen to me.” Marigold using the matriarch tone, “something chemical is happening to you. It must have been triggered while I jumped. All of this is being erased and I’m gonna walk out of here with an empty disk. Panoptic doesn’t want you to remember your lady friend here.”
   “What are you?” asks the bunny. He looks as if he’s about to seize.
   “I’ve been implanted into your brain to find out about you. Panoptic, remember them, they want you to come back to work and they’re using me to erase the last two weeks of your life. You need to listen to me, we need to get out of here, pick a different memory Wick, we can’t leave until I’ve recorded two weeks.” She looks over at the blonde.           
   "Sweet cheeks, what’s your name?”
The blond looks back at her and then him, a little worried.
   “You got a name little girl.” Then she notices. One of her hands is on his chest, the other is tightly fisted around something.
   “You sure it’s not Zoe?”
   “Zoe” the bunny screams in delight. The winds are picking up. Lighting frames them all in silhouette.
   “This is a beautiful sandcastle guys.” says Marigold.
   “Thanks, we made it together.” The tard is clapping.
   “Yeah let’s go inside.” Marigold grabs the blonde’s hand, suddenly the beach vanishes the blonde hair vanishes and Maze is starring back at her. Maze, uncloaked, looks up to see she’s inside caverns made of sand as if the two of them had shrunk down to the size of mice. Marigold had a fist over Maze’s coin hand with her free one, Maze, instinctively was doing the same to hers. An old trick for keeping people jacked in when you’re itchin for some conversation.

“. . . end of the line, Hoss.”

   Ichi rode the elevator down to the lobby. The shadows from the old style grate door where slicing his neck with every foot. He was remarkably good at not sweating during this kind of thing. Breathing exercises, tantric meditation for two hours every morning and a shitload of lemongrass shakes. Lobby level. Dancin' time. The doors slowly opened to reveal Mr. Sacred had reentered the lobby, a little scratched up but also a little not dead.
  “You tryin a razoo my bunny, hoss?”
  “Would you knock off that accent you Lake Woebegone piece of shit.” Ichi empties a whole clip into his chest. Sacred stumbles a bit, looks down and sneers.
  “Now yoo's pissin me off.”

  You see, the trouble with the twenty-first century is all the immortality. You got your rich white puppet masters all chugging nanotechs and having a constant regenerative. You’ve got hackers downloading their consciousness onto the ethernet and living out the rest of their lives as a virus laden pop -up. (You wondered where those things came from didn’t ya? Fucking Nerds.) Then you got your cyborgs. These are mostly Rim types who went to bad surgeons, got a shit load of VA (viscous aluminum) injected into their skin that hardens when exposed to oxygen. It was a plastic surgery fad at first, started up when the population grew an immunity to Viagra. Next thing you know, that guy who just gipped you on a speedball is waiting for YOU to walk because his arm is actually a rocket launcher.


   Ichi went into a sprint through the lobby, Goes into a roll and lands an army blade into Sacred’s ribs. Sacred grunts a bit, grabs the knife hilt, pulls it out and gives Ichi a slash across the chest. Ichi backs up and braces. You have no idea how much that stings. Sacred reaches down and pulls a pocket comb out of his boot, looks at it, than he throws it away. He then reaches down and pulls a switchblade out of his other boot.
   “Damn that was quite a fall.” Says Sacred, a little woozy.
   “You feeling okay.”
   “I will in a minute.” And he goes into some kind of a knife kata, dancing and swinging like’s he’s on stage. It looks pretty ridiculous. Ichi backs up slowly as his opponent approaches. The knives come at him but he blocks both and gets off an uppercut to the chin. Sacred falls to his feet, even more pissed. This may take a while.

*******

   Maze and Marigold are sitting inside the sandcastle squaring off like two professional rivals often do.
   “You’re on my pissing grounds little girl.” Marigold’s eyes seem to be on fire.
   “You’re wrong about the memory drain. He’s already lost at least five years, he’s vegetating.”
   “That’s because you had to come in here. The second jump must have restarted the memory wipe. I almost got stuck in here because of you. I thought MindFrame was getting uppity about such a big download, instead I find out you were cutting me off.”
   “Let go.”
   “Gladly.” Marigold blinks twice, with the look of an automaton. Maze falls backwards and tries to release the coin from her hand, only to find both of them encased in a red skin, circling and growing up her arms. She starts flailing them about but she can’t get the coin out of her hand.
   “Ichi . . ICHI.” The red goo travels everywhere eventually encasing her like a cocoon. The last thing Maze sees is Marigold on the beach tossing her coin in the air and diving into the water, the last thing she says is something like ughhh when the cocoon finally envelops her head.

*******

   Ichi stumbles into the bunny’s apartment covered in blood. Not the apartment mind you but him. The apartment is relatively clean for such a busy night. He makes a B-line for the bathroom and towels off. Checking himself for any wounds that need an immediate. Relatively intact. He was never sure if he could rip out a guy’s spinal cord. Now he wishes he could forget it. Probably shouldn’t of just left it in the hallway like that. He stumbled out into the living room and than realizes the worst. Two sleepers. Not three. Marigold’s probably in Australia by now and he lost the ear mic in the fight. No wait, there’s a back-up in Maze’s portable. He rushes over, his cool exterior betrayed. Static, a slight muffled sound, but no response. He pulls the VR goggles from Maze’s eyes. Bloodshot, no irises, only pupils. He than notices the computer screen. Two EKG’s flatlined, a blinking half-empty progress bar and some factory font: Contact Lost. plus some familiar looking Helvetica:

LET’S NOT MEET AGAIN.

liquid system archive