‘Safecracker, Safe’, J.C. Hsyu

Illustrations © 2012 Christina Cartwright

 [ Running again, © 2012 Christina Cartwright ] Running, again.

The night flashed by in a blur of blackness and pale: shadows looming, stretching and fading; street lamps bleeding sepia light sideways.

“Max!” he shouted, still somewhere back up there, but a little closer than before.

She willed her legs to move faster, down through the winding bends, past the homes lit warmly from within.

“Max!” Even closer now. He was gaining.

Jagged breaths tore through her throat, in sync with the throbs of pain in her head. Her head was about to split in two. She belonged in Schism skies, with glowing lines of vault arrays beneath her fingers. Not in this physical, painful real-time fuckery.

“Goddamnit, Max!”

Another ragged inhale and up ahead, past the sign on the median, she saw the river of asphalt that was Laurel Canyon Boulevard, snaking its way down the Santa Monica Mountains into West Hollywood.

She waded into the rushing river flow of lights and concrete. Stopped in the middle, when one foot landed on a raised, round bump: a white pavement marker, streaked nearly gray with dirt and rubber. Tri-cars and monocycles honked and swerved around her.

Her feet were the only things not moving in the flow of the asphalt river. She wanted to root her feet to the bottom and stay still. Stop running, and let everything pass over her, as long as she could stay in one place.

In Schism, though. Not here.

She could hear Levi’s voice, graveled and grim, in her head. He said that he loved her and that they couldn’t live without each other. “Dammit, Levi,” she whispered, closing her eyes.

“No no no—” A voice broke through, immediate, and urgent, above Levi’s murmur. He was nearby, somewhere at the edge of the river, and coming closer. Then the tri-car hit her and—

She opened her eyes and drew in a long, ragged breath. Light filled her vision, piercing; warmth suffused her face. Sunrise, against a steady tempo of mechanical beeps.

“What the…” The man in the chair next to the bed jolted awake, sitting up straight.

She was blinded by the sunlight; when she moved to cover her eyes, she felt the dull painful pull of the needles in her hands and arms. An IV stand squeaked closer, into focus.

“Easy, Max,” the man said, standing up and leaning over her. Gently, he put her hands back down at her sides. “It’s okay. Take it easy.” He touched her face, lifted long strands of black hair away from it. “You’re awake. Thank god, you’re awake,” he said hoarsely. “You’ve been in a coma, baby.”

That voice. She knew that voice. He had said he loved her. “Levi,” she said slowly. Her fingers unclenched against the thin sheets. She knew that long face, the blunt chin, steady brown eyes under heavy lids.

“That’s me, baby,” he said, and smiled.

She could remember most of the long-term. Her childhood, surrounded by uncles. Cracking her first safe, the green metal money box safe with the coin slot in the top, rattling with quarters. Running away to the bright lights of New Angeles. Her parents, and the accident they had died in.

And now, Levi said she had been in a terrible accident of her own which had wiped her short-term memory, about three months out from her revival. “Tri-car hit you, in broad daylight, at the bottom of Mount Olympus. I had you airlifted here. Hospitals in New City are better than any of the shitholes in New Angeles.”

She shook her head, put the uneaten pudding cup back onto the tray. Most of the needles and machines were gone, but the scars were dark and livid. “I thought it was at night.”

He glanced out the window, at the afternoon sunlight laying across sharply sloping neighborhoods. “All I know is, I couldn’t stop it. That fucker wasn’t even looking.” Then he looked back at her, shoulders and head turning in the same motion, and she froze in sudden, remembered anxiety. When he was angry, Levi’s eyes stopped moving in their sockets; the pupils and irises became still, fixed points in the middle of the corneas, and his head and body moved with them. “Just so happens it was his third strike. He might even be nearby, in San Quentin, where I can keep an eye on him.”

She twisted strands of hair between her fingers. She could not recall exactly what Levi did for a living, not yet, but she knew, through and through, that bad things tended to happen to people around him.

And that she used to help him. “Safecracker, safe,” she whispered, looking at her fingers.

The doctors kept putting her back under to run scans; she balked on the second day, anxious to leave, to access Schism. Levi said it was necessary to make sure all the swelling in her brain was gone. “And come on, Max,” he laughed. “You spend all your time in Schism anyway. And I just got you back. Can’t you spare me another day, baby?”

She had relented, at that. Some things were more enjoyable the second time around. That smile, bright and even against his dark olive skin, was what had hooked her in the first place, over a year ago.

Levi had bought a multi-story loft south of New City’s financial district, near the water. He said they had just moved to the Bay Area, and that her accident happened during a return business trip to New Angeles. She took in the clean lines of modern white furniture, the bare concrete walls and exposed pipes against the ceiling; she peered at the shadow planes of high-rises and the scaffolding of the Bay Bridge restoration efforts, looming at her from outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. She did not recall any of it.

Levi’s hands covered her eyes. She walked forward with arms outstretched, taking little steps. “What is this fuckery, now? C’mon.” It was her first time in this little office, tucked away behind the kitchen. Levi had just given her the key.

“Surprise,” he laughed, taking his hands away.

Memories blurred into focus, slid into place with a ghostly click. She knew this in her bones. A Real-time User Transcription Hardware set-up. Sleek, stacked modules rose from floor to ceiling, taking up nearly the entirety of the small, windowless room: racks of drives and processors surrounding the control deck, with its split-level keyboards and vector ball. The Ruthie was brand new, custom-built; she recognized components from Sony, Toshiba, LG, Ono-Sendai models. The Aeron recliner—plush and contoured, with a small dock in the headrest for the cables and a mesh pocket on the back for storing the 2skinsuit—was modded for black hats like her, who needed to spend hours at a time in Schism.

She thought of her old Ruthie, covered in stickers and dust, and wondered what had happened to it. “Thank you,” she whispered, rooted to the floor.

“Well, you’ll need it for our new gig,” Levi said quickly.

“Oh.” She looked at him from the corner of her eyes. “So that’s why we moved up here, right?”

His eyes went still. “Did I need to make that clear?”

“No,” she said meekly.

“Your Entity’s loaded. Get to know Schism City like you know Schism Angeles. Case some vaults in the financial district.” Levi squeezed her shoulder on the way out. “You’ll be cracking safes again in no time.”

She tugged at the collar of the 2skinsuit. No time to break it in, wear it out, re-wire it for maximum output. Then she ported the cables from the suit and the Ruthie to the hub module in the headrest, and lay back in the chair. Closed her eyes, held her breath and slotted the main cable into the jack between her axis and atlas vertebrae


and opened her eyes to a sunny, brisk, wind-blasted day. Ruthie fed the Schism to her senses through the cable and the suit: she inhaled fresh air, the green scent of leaves, and brine; she saw thick, gnarled red branches with leaves the size of houses, and pure white cumulus clouds racing above blue-gray waters; the choppy micro-climate winds gave her goosebumps.

She was standing in a world tree set upon an ocean.

In the Shared Continuous Sensory Matrix—the Schism, a clever Slovenian philosopher had dubbed it, the new divide in human interface—the New City construct was an enormous suspension bridge, a living echo of the submerged Golden Gate Bridge. The north and south towers were Japanese maple trees, each the width of a mountain, rising from the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean and disappearing among the ever-moving clouds. Massive vines formed the cables, and millions of branches wove through and about them, forming terraces, canopies and trellises. Private domains, businesses and public spaces flourished beneath enormous red palmately lobed leaves. New City locals called it Schism City.

Her fingers moved across the keyboards, and brightly glowing code began to scroll in the left corner of her vision, each line disappearing as it ended. An overlay of nodal points appeared in her view, with markers and flags identifying the corresponding districts of New City in the branches and towers.

She had materialized in the SoMa node, a public clearing on one of the flatter, wider branches, located near the center of the northern tower. According to the overlay, the FiDi node was up higher, near the top of the northern trunk. She flexed her fingers, moved them across the deck, shifted the vector ball. Her Entity stepped off the branch and lifted into the air, up through the branches and leaves.

She felt the vault constructs before they came into view; her nerves lit from within, waking up to the weight and thrum of quantumware. Only banks had this presence in Schism, they were the only federal institutions granted military-grade encryption programs utilizing quantum resonance. They sculpted their security protocols into old-fashioned bank vault doors that could only be opened in Schism, and threw away the physical keys.

And she was one of the few people who could sense them, resonate with them, read them and crack them, by taking advantage of their imperfections. Like an old-fashioned safecracker, with her ear to the dial and her fingers fluttering back and forth, feeling for contact points. And once she cracked the vault combination in Schism, the microcontrollers in the electro-mechanical locks were vulnerable to real-time theft. And that was where—

Levi was waiting, dressed as a businessman, sweating beneath his body armor. “Fuck’s sake, Max,” he growled over the short-range comm. “Security’s taking notice.”

“Almost there.” Max grimaced in her warkitty as her Entity flew along the Harbor Freeway in Schism, and swerved up onto the eastern face of the US Bank Tower. In the corner of her vision, the sun raced after the clouds in time-lapse bursts of motion, casting flickering shadows across the downtown skyline of Schism Angeles.

The bank’s façade shimmered beneath a silvery encryption shield; she loaded the packets destined for the vault and punched through the shield like a pencil stabbing through paper. And came face to face with the vault door, impossibly tall, its sleek radial array humming and glowing as it cycled through quantum superpositions. The pressure and the workings of its q-ware was palpable, like a mask of heat across her face. She closed her eyes and raised her hands, palms out, to feel, to find the weakest quantum state that she could manipulate—


Her concentration broke, dislodged from recall. She became aware of her surroundings again; her Entity had floated to a stop in the midst of traffic along a large forked branch. A bank construct, slipping in and out of visible states, had been built into the join, with a large marble plaza at its base to mark its location. She had been drifting towards it while lost in memory, like a moth to a flickering flame.

“Over here.” A tall stick figure stood in front of her. It was the most basic—and anonymous—Entity available to the public; its lines were black, thick and grainy, as if it had been sketched with rough charcoal. The head was bent forward towards her; its arms were held out in front of it, in a vaguely supplicating gesture.

She tapped out a decryption algorithm; the Ruthie could not ID or trace the Entity’s signal.

But she recognized the voice. She could not recall a face, but the voice, deeper and harsher than Levi’s, was real, and true. It spoke again. “I can’t believe it. Are you alright? Tell me you’re alright, Max.”

“Who are you?” she stammered.

“Oh god. He did it,” the stick figure’s arms fell to its sides. The downward vee where its arms connected to its torso seemed to slump. “He washed you. Fuck. Fuck!” The circular head bobbed up and down; Max stared dumbly through it. “Okay, listen to me, Max. You need to get away from Levi. That wasn’t a coma, do you understand me? You’ve been washed.”

“What? What are you talking about?” She looked around in desperation. Entities moved and jumped and swarmed about her, mostly humanoid, with a smattering of real and imagined creatures. A strong gust of wind whipped through her hair; she saw that her Entity was a redhead. Remembered that her Entity wore the face paint of a Beijing opera character, the angry old man with ghostly white skin, a fierce gaping mouth, and long red hair. The hongsheng.

“You don’t remember me, Max, because Levi had your memories washed. But you will. It’s Sand, I’m Sand. You can trust me.”

“I don’t…” she stammered as a group of foxes ran through, and she dimly remembered that clan members took on animal identities. Then a clear memory surfaced, of an eagle perched on a rooftop gargoyle in Schism Angeles, reciting the model numbers of the latest microcontrollers in use among the New Angeles downtown banks.

“Fuck. This channel isn’t secure,” the stick figure called Sand said, sidestepping the foxes. “Get out of Schism, now. I’ll find you, Max. In real-time.”

Baffled, she watched the stick figure fade from sight without another word. She thought of telling Levi but nixed the idea immediately, wondering if the stick figure had even been real, or just a figment of her memory-starved imagination. Then, with a start, she realized she could not remember what Levi looked like in Schism, which clan totem he took on. It wasn’t a fox, she was sure of that.

An insect? No. But it was small, and deadly, and had killed many other animals.

A spider.

That night, in her dreams, she remembered pain. The head-splitting, throat-tearing pain from a mad flight down Mount Olympus. New details emerged: that sharp turn, the dogs barking, the moon’s crescent smile in a starless night. She woke with a start, sweating. Sat up and clutched at unfamiliar white sheets in her lap, peering over the railing at the open, echoing space around her. At night the loft was blue-lit, the curtains glowing from the skies and the City; outside, engines and exhausts purred and growled and echoed into the night.

Levi got up with her, put his arm around her shoulders. “Hey, ssshhh. It’s okay, Max.” The other hand on her hair, petting, soothing. “Just a bad dream, baby.”

She lunged at him, covering his mouth with hers. Rose up and straddled him, scrabbling at his shoulders and back. With every touch and point of contact, she drew him closer, reclaimed what she knew of him. He licked sweat from her collarbone and she closed her eyes—

as she reached down, shifted her hips, pulled him inside of her and they began to move, rising and falling, together. When she opened her eyes again, digging her fingers into his arms, she looked out of their window, towards the Pacific Ocean. A trail of dotted lights moved along the water line: the coastal highway curving through the roadside homes of Malibu. The dots floated in darkness, close enough to touch if she reached for them. She closed her eyes again and rode every breath.

Levi made a noise in the back of his throat, lifted her and laid her on her back—

and she smiled into the darkness when he licked her stomach. She had always loved that move.

She twisted long strands of red hair between her fingers. “I don’t remember liking this the first time.”

“You sat in the salon chair for four hours back then, and you liked it.”

“I just sat in the salon chair for four hours again, and I didn’t like it this time either.”

Levi smiled. The limousine hit a pothole; he swayed slightly. Bars of light and shadow from the window passed over his best suit. “I thought it’d be a good idea. Help with recall. It’s your trademark. Your handle.”

“I know that. It’s why you brought me, right?”

“Yes.” He did not stop smiling, but she broke into a sweat nonetheless. The limo slowed to a stop, and he straightened his lapels. “One last thing. You still have some influence here. Use it.” He put his hand on her knee, and his grip was painful. “We need this, Max. I’m counting on you.”

She nodded. Her fingers were leaden; she pressed them together in her lap. A knuckle cracked with a sharp report.

There were two Chinese men in dark suits waiting at the curb. One of them opened the door; she followed Levi onto the sidewalk. The chill wind of the winter morning blew leaves from one side of the street to the other. They stood in front of a two-story, crumbling brick façade; there was a single door with a dirty red awning, no signage and no visible street number. Next door was a dingy hair salon with a frazzled-looking matron putting curlers into an elderly lady’s white hair. Across the street a tall, thin man in a hooded sweatshirt lit up a cigarette, in the doorway of a liquor store. A pretty young woman in a trench coat walked a scrawny dog.

The plaintive, high-pitched strains of a jinghu rose against canned instrumentation blaring from an old amplifier, somewhere on the next street over. The squawks of seagulls and the dings of passing cable cars filled the crackling gaps between songs.

She knew this narrow tree-lined street, embedded in the steep, cluttered slopes of New City Chinatown. Where the Chinese gangs ruled, and where she had grown up. Waverly Place.

“Mister Solvyev,” the first Tong member said. “It is an honor. We were most sorry to hear of the spider clan’s, ah, misfortune in New Angeles.”

She had never seen Levi bow before; he looked as stiff and uncomfortable as she felt.

Xiao Hóng,” the second Tong member said to her directly, enveloping her hand in his large square ones. Little Red. “The Hop Sing Tong welcomes its sister back with open arms.”

They needed capital to start a new venture. Their last one, an insider trading scheme, was on its last legs. The Hop Sing Tong wanted millions in cash to launder into a private gambling hall, and Levi was offering to help.

“Your fee is 15% of the take, and a bonus upon completion. We can also provide weapons, equipment and back-up as needed, Mister Solvyev,” said The Liaison Officer, hands neatly folded on top of the desk. The Administrator sat in a small folding chair nearby, smoking; behind them stood The Enforcer. The three of them represented a tier one level removed from the top, the Dragon Head. Straw Sandal, White Paper Fan, Red Pole: Liaison, Administrator, Enforcer. The Enforcer took up most of the room in the tiny, dingy office upstairs from the Hop Sing Benevolent Association’s assembly hall.

“Do you have a target in mind?” Levi said. She sat next to him, fidgeting in a wicker chair, drinking lukewarm jasmine tea.

“No, Mister Solvyev. We thought it best if we left the details up to you,” The Administrator said, blowing smoke in twin plumes from his nostrils.

“Are you sure?” Levi chuckled. She covered her mouth with her hand as she grimaced at his tactlessness. She had assumed Levi had enough experience with the Tong to observe the delicate protocols of accountability, but perhaps it was a trick of her diminished memories.

“Please accept it as a token of our trust in your abilities, Mister Solvyev,” The Administrator replied smoothly, crumpling his cigarette in a cracked white plastic ashtray on the edge of the desk.

Levi straightened. “Anything else?”

The Liaison Officer’s black eyes, magnified by the cheap plastic glasses, turned to her with a deliberate slowness that made her skin crawl. She wanted to scream. She did not know any of this. Her parents had always made her stay away from this office, under threat of punishment. “We cannot forget anything your black hat may need. Though we like to call her the red hat.” He smiled, and she squirmed.

Levi scrawled something on a piece of paper. “Right. And Max will need—” he stopped abruptly, as The Enforcer held out a large, hairy, scarred hand.

Xiao Hóng? What will you require?” The Administrator asked, waving The Enforcer’s hand aside.

Levi’s eyes, dark and motionless, lay in her periphery. She felt blood rushing into her cheeks, thudding in her ears.

But he had, after all, told her to use her influence. “False ident with biometrics, uniforms. Utility companies are best. And a cargo van with the corresponding logo on the exterior, with a mini-Ruthie and a back-up generator. A warkitty.” Her voice came out steadier than she expected. “Programs, like detectors and sniffers, to access the quantum signatures. Crackers and injectors, to punch through encryption. Rootkits, to hide my trail. I can provide details as needed.”

Levi gave the paper to The Administrator. “We will also need a contingency plan. I’ll need C4, remote detonators. Any old mobile phones will do.”

She dropped her teacup—

as she pulled the cable from the jack between her atlas and axis vertebrae; lines of code against the Schism Angeles skyline faded from her vision over several blinks. Just five more minutes, and the rootkit would finish uploading. Five more goddamn minutes would wipe the rest of their tracks from the process tables of the US Bank’s countermeasure programs.

But Levi had told her to abandon her position. She left the mini-Ruthie running, pulled the transponder technician coveralls back on, threw open the double doors in the back and climbed down to the street just as Levi passed by on the sidewalk. She turned to close the doors; he didn’t look her way at all as he pulled something from his pocket. She headed in the opposite direction, adjusting her cap. “Safecracker, safe,” she mumbled into the mic in her collar. Her heart raced; her fingers were freezing despite the heat of the Southern California summer.

“Hey!” someone shouted from behind her. “You, with the van!” It was a man’s voice, above the rhythm of heavy boots hitting pavement.

She made it five steps before the bank security guard grabbed the back of her coveralls. She struggled, and looked for Levi, and saw him running, down the street, holding up an antique cel phone. She cried out—

and Levi’s hand was on her arm. “Are you all right, Max?”

She got on her knees and retrieved the teacup, gathered sodden black tea leaves from the dirty linoleum with her fingers. “I’m so sorry.”

“Please, it is all right,” The Liaison Officer chuckled, waving his hands. The Enforcer helped her to her feet, took the cup from her and handed her a tissue. Levi remained in his chair, with a frigid half-smile on his face.

“Sorry,” she repeated.

“Ai-yah, Xiao Hóng.” The Liaison Officer took his glasses off and rubbed the lenses with a cloth. His eyes were actually quite small, bordered with crow’s feet. “This is your home. You do not apologize for such things when you are at home.”

Her heartbeat slowed. “Thank you,” she said.

“I still have a bad feeling about this,” she said, twisting her hands in front of her. “The last job didn’t go so well.”

Levi poured red wine into balloon glasses. The night sky behind him, outside the windows, hung dark grey, obscured by heavy fog. “Don’t be stupid. We have the Tong at our disposal. And escape routes in the City are better.” He held out her glass.

She refused to take it. Crossed her arms. “You didn’t get caught.”

Levi put the glass down on the windowsill. “It comes with the fucking territory, Max. I got you back, didn’t I? This is our chance to do it over, and do it right.”

She exhaled, and trusted what she did not know. “You’re not telling me everything.” She shook her head slowly. “I’m not… I don’t think we should do it.” Realized all too late that these things had never been her decision as Levi closed in, fast, and hit her—

and her head rocked to the side. She stumbled, and caught herself on the edge of the bed. Her cheekbone went numb first; then the stinging began, and the dull throbbing. She sat down, holding her face. Stared at the dots of light moving along the Pacific Coast Highway, small and distant.

“Look what you made me do,” Levi said, wringing his hand. “Why’d you have tear me down like that, in front of the clan.”

She rubbed her cheek, and wondered how long it would take her to reach the ocean from here. “It was just a joke, Levi.”

“Baby, you can’t do that. Not if we want them to trust us with the US Bank job. They gotta know you’re with me.” He stepped forward, out of darkness—

and touched her shoulder gently.

Max flinched away from him.

He grabbed her arm, grabbed the back of her neck with the other hand. “Don’t you even try.” His eyes looked half-closed, but the pupils were dead steady beneath the eyelids.

Max didn’t know this place, another clean and temporary place in a string of clean and temporary places she had lived in for most of her life; but she recognized what had passed between herself and this man who had said he loved her, then and now. Even if it had been a coma dream, she had been running from something.

And whoever she was—and had been, and would be—did not wake up from the coma for this.

If it had even been a coma.

“Fuck you,” she said past clenched teeth. She twisted and struck out at him. One hit landed true, against his chin, enough to make him stagger.

“The fuck… do you want?” he rasped, swiping at her.

She grabbed her wineglass from the windowsill and slammed it against his ear.

Levi fell over, bellowing, in a spray of broken glass and red wine. Blood ran down his face and neck as he reached for her legs. Max hit the back of his head with the wine bottle, twice, and three times; he dropped to the ground and lay still.

The parking garage on the ground floor was dark and hushed. Max crept along the wall slowly, to avoid setting off the motion sensor activated lights. She backed into the push bar, and stepped out into the busy street. Icy wind tunneled down the street from the Bay, chilling her to the bone. Tri-cars rushed by the sidewalk; police sirens wailed in the distance.

The tall, thin man was waiting for her. The one watching her from the liquor store, on Waverly Place. He flicked his cigarette and started towards her. “Max.” His face hidden in the shadow of the hood.

She managed to bolt ten steps before he was on her, hands on her shoulders, twisting her to face him. “Hey, hey. Max. Calm down, it’s okay.”

It was the stick figure man’s voice. She stopped struggling. His eyes were purple. She knew this face, how did she know this face, the planes and curves of it—

as he stepped forward from the shadows. He was tall and thin, mostly unremarkable but for the solid kind of presence you noticed out of the corner of your eye.

“This is Sand,” Levi said. “One of our best tails. He’s going to follow you for a few days, watch out for you. Your rootkit did the job, in the end, but we have to lay low. Until the DA stops looking in our direction. Spider’s orders.”

Sand put his hand out, looking down at her over the cigarette hanging from his lips.

Max didn’t take it. Instead she—

slammed her palms against his chest, pushed him back a step. “What is this fuckery,” she said. Levi was lying in his own blood upstairs. She exhaled raggedly, with her hands on her face. There was too much to process, without enough memory.

Then Sand took hold of her hand, and she let him because of the scrape, the callus beneath his fourth finger, across her palm. She had felt it before. When he had tried to help her leave Levi Solvyev the first time.

It was another marker from the past, and she had to take it without question for now, or she would lose her tenuous roots on the present completely.

“You’re safe now,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything.”

They began to run.

Max did not say anything as Sand drove into the night; she did not voice an opinion on where they were going. She was too busy watching the stars that had appeared south of the fog-blanketed City. Wondering if they twinkled because they were resonating in and out of quantum states.

They checked into a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Santa Barbara County, as the sun began to rise. Max followed Sand upstairs, along the peeling paint of the railed walkway overlooking the rectangular pool below. Muffled voices, and the smell of bacon frying in the dank morning air; half of the hotel was residential. Sand stopped in front of a door with a noticeably large boot print on it, and inserted the card into the reader. Max followed him inside, closed the door behind her and breathed in. The curtains were closed, the room nearly pitch black, still and stale.

He lunged at her, covering her mouth with his, pushing her back against the door with a dull thud. His hands rucked her shirt up, his palms sliding across her skin. Max did not remember these lines of contact on her body, before or ever. There was nothing to reclaim.

It was awkward, and frenzied. He fumbled and grabbed at her until she touched his face with her hands. Then he let his arms drop to his sides, and stood still, and let her take his clothes off. Only the sounds of their breathing in the darkness. She pulled him down, on top of her first, into her. He pumped into her slowly, and built up speed until he was pounding her against the floor, solid, relentless; she hit her head against something at one point, the door or the sofa chair.

It was real, and it was all her own. There was no layer of memories on it, above or beneath it. No ghost images or fragments of memories floating to the surface, or disappearing beyond reach.

When she wrenched him to the side with her knees, rolled him onto his back and climbed on top of him, she pulled his hands onto her waist. Made him hold onto her, rooted her to the floor, as she came.

“The security guard grabbed me and I looked for Levi, and saw him running away. He was holding a phone in his hand. And that’s all I remember from that day.” Max lay on her stomach, feet hanging over the edge of the bed. The sheets lay in a tangle on the floor.

“A remote detonator. He panicked. Blew the van before you were out of the blast range.” Sand ran his fingers along the scars on her back, tracing ghostly pale ridges in the fading gloom. The curtains were barely holding on against the specter of the rising sun; brilliant ambient light spilled from the edges of the tattered fabric. “The security guard bought it. You made it, but you were in bad shape. Levi dropped you off in surgery at the House of Love—do you remember that place? Black market clinic, the best one outside of Chiba. Anyways, he came back to the compound and laid low for weeks. But even after you recovered, and the DA pulled the case without sufficient evidence, he was still worried.”

“Worried that I would talk. So he brought you in.”

His hand stopped moving across her back. “One night you found out I was reporting to him, and you ran.”

“And got hit by a tri-car.” She yawned into her fist.

Sand lay down next to her, pulled her against him. “Then he disappeared with you after the spider clan went to shit. Took me weeks to trace his steps back to the House of Love. He had them wash your memories. There’s targeted damage in your hippocampus. Nanomachines. Chinese military grade, I’ll never know how they got their hands on it. And then he had the nerve to show up with you at the doorstep of the Hop Sing Tong. Ready to put you back to work. I couldn’t stay away.”

Her eyes drooped. Her mind drifted, to red trees sprouting from the ocean, disappearing into the clouds.

His voice continued, deep and sonorous. “We’ll get you fixed. I promise…”

Max opened her eyes and breathed in the dirty motel air, savored it more than the pristine cold air of the New City loft. The room was dark; they had slept the day away, and the curtains were now open. The stars were coming out. Sand paced the walkway outside the window, talking on the phone. He waved his arm in the air, the one with the cigarette. Thin wisps of smoke trailed in his wake—

as he said, “Target will be ready for extraction within the week. She’s agreed to leave Solvyev. I let her know I was reporting to him, so she’s having a cigarette and a cry outside. Yes, the Mount Olympus safehouse. I need more time with her, though, before I can bring up testifying.” He was standing with his back to her, looking out the window. One hand pressed to the remote phone jacked into his atlas/axis, the other waving smoke patterns in the air with the cigarette.

Max backed away slowly, silently, away from the door that had been barely cracked open. Then her heel connected loudly with the opposite wall.

“Max?” Sand said loudly.

She turned and ran down the hallway, out the front door.

The night flashed by in a blur of blackness and pale: shadows looming, stretching and fading; street lamps bleeding sepia light sideways. A dog barked as she ran down the street, along sharp turns on a precarious slope, around parked tri-cars and hanging tree branches. Gravity pushed and pulled her down the switchbacks. She had not felt that strange pressure at the ends of her limbs in a long time. It was less obvious in Schism.

“Max!” Sand shouted, still somewhere back up there, but a little closer than before.

She willed her legs to move faster, down through the winding bends, past the homes lit warmly from within. No one else outside on the street except her and him and that damn dog and the ancient asphalt showing her the way down the mountain along its cracked, sun-baked skin.

“Max!” Even closer now. He was gaining.

To the left, a window lit up, a silhouette parted a curtain. A second dog joined in the twilight bark.

Jagged breaths tore through her throat, in sync with the throbs of pain in her head. Her head was about to split in two. The wind whistled past her ears and her legs pumped higher, faster. Her fists clenched so tight she couldn’t feel her fingers. She belonged in Schism skies, with glowing lines of vault arrays beneath her fingers. Not in this physical, painful real-time fuckery.

“Goddamnit, Max!”

Another ragged inhale and up ahead, past the sign on the median, she saw the river of asphalt that was Laurel Canyon Boulevard, snaking its way down the Santa Monica Mountains into West Hollywood.

Max waded into the rushing river flow of lights and concrete. Stopped in the middle, when one foot landed on a raised, round bump: a white pavement marker, streaked nearly gray with dirt and rubber. Tri-cars and monocycles honked and swerved around her. The acrid smell of burning brakes filled the air. Pale gaping faces, glossy helmeted heads passed by within inches; an m-cycle’s rear-view mirror nicked her forearm. Numbness gave way to stinging and then pain.

Her feet were the only things not moving in the flow of the asphalt river. She wanted to root her feet to the bottom and stay still. Stop running, and let everything pass over her, as long as she could stay in one place.

Botts’ dots. That’s what they were called. A design meant to be felt, instead of seen or heard. She was paid to know these kinds of things, to apply them. To feel, to resonate, to find the weakest quantum state. To manipulate. To crack.

In Schism, though. Not here.

Her breaths slowed, and her senses began to fade—the vehicles, the faces, the smell of burning, the fractured arm, they all dimmed—but she could hear Levi’s voice, graveled and grim, in her head. He said that he loved her and that they couldn’t live without each other. “Dammit, Levi,” she whispered, closing her eyes.

“No no no—” A voice broke through, immediate, and urgent, above Levi’s murmur. Sand was nearby, somewhere at the edge of the river, and coming closer. Then the tri-car hit her and—

Max sat upright in the bed. She turned on the lamp, pulled on her clothes and searched through his until she found the keys, the badge and the gun in its ankle holster, buried deep in his pants leg. She held the gun in her hands, and sat on the bed.

“Hey,” he said when he came back in. “You’re awake.” He stopped when he saw the gun, and his smile faded.

“No, it’s alright, leave the door open,” Max said.

“I wasn’t going to take you in. I told them the damage was too extensive, that you wouldn’t be able to testify. But you and I—”

Max stood up. “Doesn’t matter.” The stars shone bright, past the doorway. “I’m okay with this. Really.”


“Goodbye,” she looked down at the badge. “Agent Sandoval.”

 [ Safecracker, © 2012 Christina Cartwright ] They made her wait under the red awning for a few minutes. Sweat chilled her neck. The gun was warm against the small of her back. She rubbed her arms, looked up and down Waverly Place, at the good-looking young woman walking two small dogs. Weak sunlight filtered through a dissolving ceiling of fog.

Xiao Hóng,” said The Liaison Officer at last, blinking at her from the doorway. “This is a most pleasant surprise. You are always welcome, of course, but we were uncertain, after the terrible news of Mister Solvyev’s sudden passing, whether we would hear from you again.”

Max stopped twisting her black hair between her fingers. “We won’t need him to finish the job. And I thought, afterwards… I thought you might want a safecracker on staff.”

The Liaison Officer smiled and motioned her inside. “Welcome home.”

© 2012 J.C. Hsyu

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