Kaylee, an academic deserter, and Jorge, a self-described alien, plan a way to beat death by redesigning a dangerous parasite. They find the perfect subject to test their technology on — Matteo, an unlikely criminal with a short lifespan. However, keeping their experimental plans hidden from him may have deadly consequences.
Thanks for taking a look at my new book draft. At this point, several beta readers have given tremendously helpful critiques and I’ve gone through many rounds of editing.
In this story, I aim to steep the cyberpunk genre in Chicano and South Texan culture, a mix that is sorely lacking in science fiction. There are many bouts of Spanish dialogue, adult language, and small fraction of violence, though not explicit or gratuitous.
If you do make it some distance into the story, please add comments! Even if you’re only a chapter or two in before you decide to stop reading forever, those comments will help me recognize and fix recurring problems that pop up again later in the document.
A few things you might comment on…
Did this chapter/section make you stop reading? Confuse you? Make you want to know more? Bore you with too much setting/dialogue? Rely on cliche? Get too detailed in the science? Contradict something from earlier? Have a weak character interaction that ejected you from the story? Regret ever knowing me?
All was not lost. It wasn’t like she’d blown the last of the savings on lottery tickets. She did the odds in her head once more, just in case — still a good investment. Plus, the last time she dipped under the mattress for her grandma’s hidden Byte, she’d replaced all of it by the end of the week. Abuela didn’t even notice. Probably forgot about it altogether, anyway.
Now, what her grandma would notice, much more than forgotten Byte under a stale bed, would be the feeling of moving into a new house — a two-story, that smelled like fresh paint and construction.
It’d be on the northside, where the nicer H-E-Bs that rich people went to would let you sample sausage and fresh guacamole and even wine — all for free on Sundays, just around the time everyone gets out of church. Abuela would never say no to a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon. Didn’t matter the grape. With that thought, her backpack, full of the goods she bought and lugged halfway across town, felt a little less heavy on her shoulders. Todo no se perdio.
The door to the chain-linked fence in the front yard was frozen in place by overgrowth and hardly open. She squeezed her small frame through, but twisted metal caught her bag and split the zipper. Two wires spilled out — their plugs bobbing like unsure pendulums.
“Que no traiga esa brujeria into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. Her shouts lacked the details often lost in blown speakers, almost sounding like she was yelling into a string-and-cup telephone. Sonia caught a glimpse of her grandma’s sunspotted forearms, folded across her sunken torso, secure in their most comfortable position. Why was sneaking out of the house so easy but slipping back in so impossible?
The tension in Sonia’s neck lifted, stress she realized was not due to the weight on her back, but at that chances of getting caught. The anticipation was always worse.
“Oh my god. ‘Buela, it’s not witchcraft. They’re just a couple of old physicals,” she said over the piercing barks of the chihuahuas next door, “for my Halloween costume. Voy hacer un robot.” She swung her arms mechanically.
Her grandma squinted at her and ambled into darkness in the direction of the kitchen, mumbling complaints. Sonia was close to getting off easy.
She opened the wobbly screen door, her bag ringing metallic as it struck the frame. She remembered the watermelon she’d cut up earlier waiting to be eaten in the fridge. The foil-topped bowl was cold in her hand as she reached for a slender bottle of chamoy powder in the cupboard.
“Ya empece la cena. Quitate de aqui. Put it back, Sonia!” In a perfect world, she would be the only one in charge of feeding her granddaughter; Sonia, the girl who she would often point out still had the same flat, deep brown hair of her only son.
“Fine, fine.” Sonia slipped it back into the fridge and softly stamped into her bedroom. She kicked her pink sneakers off and used inertia to swing the heavy pack onto the bed, and then sat with her legs crossed next to it. The mattress springs squeaked.
The way to buying her grandma a new house was through Byte, the latest currency. And the only way for a highschool dropout to get Byte was by getting lucky — coming across rare or illegal data hidden on old drives to sell to criminals or Rangers. Maybe she’d tell her grandma she hadn’t graduated classes last year. No, it’d kill her.
To get a quick sense of how good her purchase might be (you could never really trust a physicals vendor), she pulled out the two easiest pieces to get to work on first: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing. This third generation virtual pet Tamagotchi in particular was written on such a small memory chip and in such a clunky language there was hardly room for any kind of firewalls or encryption. Amazing how quickly people took to sharing their most valuable info on this junk now that all the data on Mist was no longer privately held from the Rangers.
She put the price of the items out of her mind, donned her oversized headphones and plugged them into a Raspberry Pi console. There was something comforting about getting her hands on material objects that held data, something like how it felt to thumb through abuela’s old People en Espanol magazines.
With a rubber mallet, she delivered a soft bump to pop open the phone. She wiggled the memory stick loose and transferred it into an adapter linked up to the console. It fit snugly. After flipping a few toggles, she pressed a button on a projector the size of a matchbox. A hovering glowscreen booted, which flashed what looked like a palimpsest of random characters. She pointed at the edge of the floating display, pinched and pulled to see more of the information. The characters erased and reformed repeatedly, and, through the headphones, Selena sang at full volume, bringing pain (but also a kind of joy) to the inside of her ears.
“Ahh! FUCK!” She tore off her headphones, breaking the connection.
Abuela appeared in the doorway as if on cue. “Y ahorra no fuiste a iglesia, tambien!” she shrieked. She’d been waiting to let that one out for a while.
“Yah, ama! Dejame!” Sonia redirected the stress back into a whisper, “A fucking warning glitch on the first download, solo mi suerte.””
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia calmed down, hooked the headphones back up, and loaded an script of her own design to unlock the information now transferred and saved inside the console. The glowscreen flickered and centered forty-six low-res thumbnail photos of a brown Pomeranian. Jesus, it made no sense to put a lock on that. Unless.
She copied and renamed the file extensions of the photos and then forced them to open on an emulation suite of a hundred or so vintage programs. Her glowscreen vibrated as though it was more than just a projection, a custom alert she’d written for when the computer snagged a successful hit. In place of misinterpreted, jumbled characters, which is how text programs normally understood photos, she could see a hidden correspondence in plain language.
She dug into the phone’s previous service information. A secondary, pink glowscreen flashed: Julian Castro.
“Fuuuuck…” she whispered to herself, then shouted, “Buela!”
“Que?” Sonia heard her grandma say distractedly, but loud and clear, from the kitchen.
“Ven, ven aca!”
Her abuela showed up wearing a sarcastic look Sonia suspected she’d picked up from watching the child actors of American television.
“Mira, los personal texts de el presidente pasado. That’s a year of school paid for right there. What did I tell you?” It was the pay off Sonia was hoping for after putting up with the vendor at la pulga, who’d been all dilated pupils and grabby hands. Castro’s private texts would find many high bidders.
Grandma looked worried, “ Que ‘Halloween costume’ y que nada! You lied to me otra vez! Pero no es peligroso? It’s not your phone.”
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” she lied again.
Grandma relaxed for the first time today. “Ah, ta bueno. Despues quieres atole o no?”
Sonia looked at her with a face that said ya sabes, then she said, “Si, si,” a sweet child, again. Abuela disappeared from the door frame. “And now I can finally pay you back some of what I owe,” she said to herself. There was no way she was wasting time at college.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the cupboards open and close. Within a moment, she could smell the cinnamon in the room, and, on her skin, felt that the boiling water was clinging to the air.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Not enough for a house, at least not yet, but it would buy the groceries and pay the cable for a long, long time. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive before tossing the phone’s parts into a small industrial shredder.
She eyed the Tamagotchi. What could that little flattened sphere be hiding? And what about the more difficult extractions in the bag, the Packard Bell hard drives and the Garmin GPS and the talking Pee Wee doll?
She hunted for the right power adapter and plugged it in, just to see if the game would start up. Tamagotchi data cards were notoriously difficult to free from their protective cocoons. It clicked on and the little blob pet was projected onto the main glowscreen. It spoke through her headphones and in subtitles:
Nema. Olam led sonarbil onis y on son sejed reac ne la noincatnet… and on.
Through the vanity mirror situated behind the glowscreen, Sonia watched the reverse image of the text animate alongside the sounds. She knew the passage very well. It was the Lord’s prayer. When the electronic pet got to the end, it digitally morphed into a burning, watchful eye. The glitch was indicating the ojo.
Its visual patterns invaded Sonia’s retina, mind, then body. She grabbed her throat as if to stop it from constricting and her eyes rolled back. Violent shaking in her body brought her from the bed to floor, where she continued to convulse for some time. For as long as she could, she held onto the smell of cinnamon atole and to the sound of clanking pans and utensils in the kitchen.
Sonia regained some control of her thoughts, finding herself cradled in the arms of a handsome paramedic. His gaze seemed perfected by millions of years of evolution to convey attentive caring. He spoke while checking her vitals, but she couldn’t quite hear him, and really, she didn’t need him to explain anything. The last hour was burned into her memory.
She had laid frozen in cold grey on the floor, watching her grandma try to wake her, and listening to her shout in broken English into the phone at the emergency dispatcher. Abuela lost her voice after a few minutes, exasperated, and leaned against the wall, shifting on her weight in a way Sonia had never seen before. Then she collapsed, the color gone from her face.
The only person that mattered in Sonia’s life was dead and she would never be able to return even a fraction of the love that she’d received.
Sonia spent the next weeks sleeping in her grandma’s empty bed until the smells changed. The house payments began to snowball, and she finally pulled herself away from blaming herself long enough to sell the furniture and appliances, but after a few months it was not enough.
Her inner voice grew louder — she was done with extracting drives.
If she couldn’t make money the old way, she figured, she’d just pawn the equipment. Her best computers and glowscreens kept the bills paid awhile longer. Finally, those ran out and she was left to pawn unmined physicals.
“It might be good, but it’s probably dangerous,” the middle-man had said at Loteria, the gambler’s flea market, as though his entire livelihood didn’t depend on the dangerous data caches, depend on putting people like her grandma at risk. She took the dozen Byte he offered, a tenth of what she had originally paid.
The trader took an interest in the last bit of technology she had left, which glimmered from the inside of her vest — a chrome SD card which held all of her home-brew extraction algorithms. She pressed her hand to it instinctively, protecting it, and realized she was the only one suited to make things right, in the only way she knew how.
Matteo’s customized alarm clock blinked in its digital red: 13YR 22K. Thirteen years of jail time or the sum of twenty two thousand Byte until his release, whichever came first. And then he might feel real land under his feet again. Was he forgetting that sensation already?
The established way of earning freedom — scavenging physicals and reading drive after drive, then selling the data directly to the Ranger Wardens had barely knocked two months off, even after a full year of work.
Since most of Texas was now hooked up to the Mist, data upload about nearly everything nearly all of the time was at the Rangers’ fingertips, except for things people managed to hide on old drives. Illegal caches of data, or at a minimum, mundane data that could be fed into predictive algorithms, increasing their efficiency, was its own new currency. The irony of having to do the kinds of things that got him into trouble in the first place, day after day, was not lost on him.
“An entire year at Basura Barcaza,” he said to his empty cell. Literally, the Garbage Barge, floating anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. He said it again, practicing so he could hold his own amongst the other prisoners, who were fluent.
In the first few weeks in jail, he’d studied the way the trash had fit together to make the structure of the walls that would be his home. Some items had been melted together, the product of some unknown construction worker’s efforts. Others locked like puzzle pieces, and still others managed to stand out, like the frame of an old wooden television set, the screen absent, filled with bubble wrap. He’d popped through all of it on his twentieth birthday.
It took less than a month before he’d momentarily lost his mind, looking for hidden messages encoded on each faded detergent bottle or FedEx box label.
Today, the colors and typeface on spent fireworks and CD cases took him to the past. The night before his arrest, a pachanga next door had thumped the walls to his mom’s two bedroom house, giving it a kind of stolen heartbeat. Through broken window blinds in his room, he watched the parents and children dance around a picnic table, drinking and laughing.
The next morning, two Rangers pulled him back in by his feet as he tried escaping through the same window. He felt the cut of the sill on his hip, again, the scar still warm to the touch every now and then. He had given up resistance easily, wheezing and out of breath as usual. His mom was in the kitchen, still making arroz, transfixed, in silence.
In silence… the woman who never hesitated to give him a good shout, as though she was completely detached.
He regretted rejigging the alarm clock — there was enough evidence around him to remind him how fucked he was.
But he wasn’t giving up just yet. Another prisoner, Dillo, had traded a second-hand Mist for whatever data Matteo could extract from a box of physicals, off the Ranger books, plus some of the winnings of it. Dillo was sure to sell the data illegally on shore for a better price.
Matteo rummaged through the crate, convincing himself there was little chance anything interesting would be found on obvious things like computer drives. At the bottom of the pile, below a cracked VirtualBoy, was a kelly-green Speak ‘N Say. Who would ever think to look in a child’s toy with a drive barely capable of holding twenty seconds of audio? Chevere.
He pulled on the string and the rotary arrow spun for a moment, landing on a spot no longer occupied by a sticker. “The cow goes moo,” a country-sounding guy said, followed by a real live audio recording of cattle. With many stock shows under his belt, Matteo knew a high pitched honk like that only came from heifers in labor for the first time, midway to becoming cows. Totally inaccurate.
He yanked at the string again. “The cat goes meow,” followed by the same whine of the heifer, except in a higher pitch. Matteo noted that the arrow hadn’t fallen on the same spot twice. This glitch was plain as the difference between a cow and ranch cat.
In his entire year in jail, he hadn’t come across one, yet. A glitch could be one of three things — an intentional signal to mark high-value data, a neurosensory attack, or just a regular old glitch. He’d take his chances.
He twisted the toy’s casing open with a small chisel and pliers. The plastic oyster cracked, revealing a solid state drive. He patch-clamped it into a mess of wires, flipped a few toggle switches on a homebrew console, and let the extraction process run. The data streamed in garbled. It would take a half hour or so to clean it up into something interpretable.
Flashing, 13YR 22K caught his attention again and he wished he hadn’t made the deal. Still, he’d never had a Mist before. The stereoscopic pair of Mist contact lenses stared back at him from his work table. He slipped on the lenses for the first time.
Matteo’s Mistview displayed an incoming alert of a new connection successfully bound to his earpiece. And then the computer spoke and put the few hairs on his nopal chin on end.
Hi, stranger. You are a completely new person to my memory. In fact, there is no name or identifying tags to your Mist, only a stock avatar of the Spurs coyote. You may want to check with your local Mist Security Office. To bypass that check and run me locally, just tell me, what’s your name? Her voice was angelic.
“Me llamo Matteo.”
OK. Nice to meet you. Estas seguro con el nombre ‘Cochino’?
“What? No. I am called Matteo. My name is Matteo, not cochino.”
Por que, Cochino? Estas muy sucio. How can I help you, hoy, Cochino?”
“Well, at least it’s working un poco,” he failed at holding back a smile.
May I interrupt your work? Cortisol levels are high… it may be time for a break.
“Already? Geez. Ok, computer, what should I do with myself? I have a lot of physicals to extract asap, if this one doesn’t turn out to be worth anything.”
May I make a suggestion? I recommend taking some time off at The Shifty Lounge. You can refresh your concentration with gulf and give the computer time to crunch the data.
The Shifty Lounge (named first after the sporadic yaw of the floating prison itself, second, after the most popular key to map in Vim, and finally, after the clientele) was the only reprieve offered by the Rangers. If The Shifty Lounge was a mental health center, the prescription everyone got was “gulf”, a salty-metallic nicotine drink, with a skim of herbaceous oil made on-site. And it cost Byte.
“Hmm, you don’t have my Mistory so how could you possibly know what’s best for me? I should be a blank slate to you, no?”
The instant that you were confirmed as Cochino, I was granted access to a profile which is mostly derived from data taken at the time of your arrest.
“Jesus. Well, that’s gotta be biased. There’s no way you know that much about me.”
She giggled. Well you’d be surprised what I can do with your internet browsing history just from your time here in jail. Was she flirting to get away with the intrusion of privacy?
“What… do you mean?”
You’re lonely. Most of the porn you’ve been looking at resembles… Anna. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a 92% chance of Anna working tonight at The Shifty Lounge, with a 2% error estimate.
“Ok. Honestly, say no more,” he said. “By the way, how old is she?”
“Oh, I thought she was. I like it — a slightly older woman,” he said and smiled to himself.
Trash from all over the world had come together to make the narrow, snaking corridors leading to The Shifty Lounge.
The best way to navigate the path was by the aromas. The gulf bar had its own smell address: a sequence of sugary grease, jasmine, putrid waste, hamster odor, salted peanuts (the closest churro stand to his cell), then the plastic of a phone kiosk, stale air of undeveloped, empty rooms, and at last, the second churro stand, which was, not accidentally, positioned next to his destination.
Matteo took note of a new atrium that, by new smells and echoes, was emerging someplace behind the phone kiosk. Who or what might be inside?
The entryway to The Shifty Lounge was an old storefront to a Mexican pharmacy. “Farmacia”, buzzed in bold yellow and green block typeface. It brought back his childhood, the feeling of his mom’s hands guiding him down the market streets of Reynosa in search of Matholic relics for her card readings, some time before the violence picked up again. He could still hear her permanently dry voice, “Numerology y Calculus lets us hablar mejor con los saints”. Maybe if he’d prayed harder, he wouldn’t be in this situation.
The interior of the gulf tap room was dimly lit by overhanging naked bulbs, painted mostly black. Gulf consumption tended to make light a little too bright on the eyes. Humidity collected and dripped somewhere out of sight. Every patron inside unseen nooks radiated heat and the stench of processed, moldy tobacco and yeast, thickening the air.
“Ay, ‘teo. That box work out for you?” Dillo, the inmate who sold the physicals to him the night before said, from the darkest area of the bar. Pushy, there was no way Matteo could’ve extracted all the data from every physical in that box by now.
“Haven’t really gotten a chance to look into it,” Matteo said in Dillo’s general direction, not wanting to engage. Any conversation beyond a few replies could be a diversion. Immediately, he wondered if he’d remembered to lock the door to his cell.
“Mira me bien. Que tienes?” Dillo paused, “You ok?” Dillo leaned under a lightbulb, illuminating the leather density of his temples and cheeks and the shine of his head, always shaved clean, despite it not being a prison requirement.
“No, yeah. I’m fine. I just can’t see very well in here. Why’s Anna gotta keep it so dark? She even in here or did she finally quit to go work for a bar that actually serves booze somewhere on shore?” He heard his voice try a little too hard to be casual.
Under the light of an accountant’s desk lamp on the slate bar, two soft hands appeared. A ring, a slim jade cat touching its front paws to the end of its tail, with two green jewels for eyes, circled her right pointer finger. Anna spoke loud enough to overcome the tinted, one inch thick barrier between them. “Sling alcohol? You know I don’t touch the stuff. A two and three?” she said, scratchily, sweetly.
Dillo talked over her. “Anna siempre era aqui. In fact, since, casi, well since this pile of basura was still in the, which was it? In the… well, in the ocean. Well, Matteo — Matteo it was? Estas viviendo en el section Este, verdad? If you get some good data outta any of those ones I gave you, remember me. Y recuerdo, the big wins always come in batches,” he said, invisibly approaching and leaning closer, his frame both thick and dangerous. “I don’t get quality boxes like that everyday. You owe me and I want to remember I can work with you next time something good like a Mist comes around again to trade.”
“Yeah, man. Ya sabes,” Matteo said, conflicted, not knowing whether to answer Anna or Dillo first and irritated by Dillo’s intentional misuse of “gave”.
Matteo strained to catch a glimpse of Anna. “Let’s do three and four. I’m celebrating,” said Matteo, deadpan. He scooted his stool closer to the bartop to try to sever the conversation with Dillo. Her hands disappeared and she was entirely a shadow once more.
“Heh, heh. Remember, don’t run what you got out of the physicals by the Rangers for logging, joven. It wasn’t easy to get those. They’re premium. The data belongs in estos manos,” Dillo said while opening his fists in one motion. Impossible to know if he was threatening or being friendly.
Matteo forced a small grin, now sure there must be something good on that Speak N’ Say.
That is, unless they got caught, of course.
The Shifty Lounge shifted and saltwater slip-slapped under the floor, which was little more than plastic odds and ends fused into a porous grid, with bottle caps smashed between the approximately square spaces.
“Celebrating que?” Anna asked.
“No, I… I’m not celebrating. It’s just sarcasm. I’m just beat from working all week,” Matteo said. Better to be clear, here. Dillo was the kind of guy who understood sarcasm insofar as it raised suspicion, the kind of guy who would be more likely to assume Matteo was splurging on a drink after finding something valuable on the physicals, keeping it all to himself. The door to Matteo’s studio (had he locked it?) felt twice as far away.
“Que curioso,” Anna said.
Two Ranger Wardens in starched shirts pushed through the screen door, taking their evening break. Their confident outlines bore false majesty from the outside light before the door slammed behind them.
“‘Scuse me miss, can we get us some waters, two of ‘em,” the one wearing the black cowboy hat with absolutely no color on her skin, except for the hint of pink patches on her ears and neck, said.
Anna reached down into the fridge for cold glassware and poured. “It’s on the house,” she said. Matteo frowned because he knew she hated having to give anything to the Rangers for free.
“Carbonated again? They gonna get regular ass water in this dump anytime soon? This stuff should be called Topo Petho, nah, Todo Petho,” said the second one. A gold crown outlining his front tooth glistened, a buried treasure in a scorched pecan shell of a face.
“Howsit feel, kid?” the Ranger said to Matteo, her expression nondescript.
“To have to drink next to us dumb types? I’m Ranger Dawn,” she continued, smirking.
“I don’t know what you — ,” said Matteo.
The gold tooth revealed itself more on the shorter Ranger, “You’re a Reader. Got it written all over you. Those broad shoulders of yours ain’t been put to much use, I’ll bet.”
“I scavenge, too,” said Matteo, trying for a deeper voice and missing the mark.
“I scavenge, too, Ranger Mike. You can read nametags, can’t you?” He tapped his badge with two fingers, deliberately. “Anyway, my money’s on you buy more than you scav’. I can see it in those clean fingernails. Ah, we’re just fuckin’ with you. Relax. We already known you’re not pure scav’, see your sales on the logs all the time. Top data extractor, physical for physical.”
A drink slammed and a moment later a loud creak of what could’ve been the bathroom door or an unseen exit. Dillo was gone like a sea breeze.
“Sometimes, yeah, I do buy… Ranger Mike, to work faster. Need to send money back home on top of my penalty. But I spend more than half my time picking through stuff just like Dillo and the rest of them. If I had higher permission to go on-shore I’d be out in the city finding other physicals to pick through,” said Matteo.
“Back where’s you say you been sending all that Texas Byte?” said Ranger Dawn.
“Alamo, to my mom. Born and raised in town,” replied Matteo, proudly.
“Heh, thank god. Soundin’ like a goddang illegal there for a while, heh heh,” she replied.
“No, ma’am,” said Matteo.
“It’s a tough economy. Can’t have them roaches takin’ up work on the barge or enjoying our secure facilities. Sure you know all about that, though, broad shoulders,” Ranger Mike said before burping.
“Yes, sir. Ranger Mike.”
“Heck, you can’t blame us for checking you out. Sometimes we get surprised and catch some of y’all up to no good even though you’re stuck here for petty shit. Just locked up one hell of a good-looking citizen the other day. Was one of them duds, hiding in plain sight. Almost as bad as the aliens. Those dud fuckers’ll go crazy on you without warning. They can’t help it, it’s in the genes. Tell you what, if the government went through all the trouble of designing you as a baby, and fed you ’til you was an adult, then they made you. I don’t care who you think you are or how many lawyers you can afford, it’s your patriotic duty to report back for arrest when they realize they fucked you up,” he took a swig of the water, “Damn this Topo’s good. I take back what I said.”
Matteo could feel Anna rolling her eyes through the dark. “No bullshit dud talk is allowed in this bar. None of that is true. In fact, the only thing I ever heard about was duds dying early. They’re sick and harmless, but leave it to a Ranger to make them into some kind of monster. Anyway, nobody nowhere is making people in their lab anymore. You people got your ban on human engineering. Just leave the duds in peace already. And y’all need to leave this boy alone. Matteo isn’t a rich kid hacker, you know. He’s paying the price for some loverboy bullshit,” Anna said. She put down the two light green bottles and three shots of nicotine concentrate for Matteo, with a bang on the bartop.
Matteo drank the shots one after the other, half upset that he wouldn’t be getting that carefree three-four buzz, the other half grateful he’d be able to finish his smaller drink order quickly so he could get out of there without having to talk to the Rangers much longer. Anna always knew how to look out for him.
“Well, pardon us, miss senorita. Didn’t mean no disrespect to this fine establishment,” Ranger Mike winked at Anna, “What was it then that this strapping young man got into?”
She switched her gaze from the Ranger to Matteo, inviting him to speak for himself. She had listened to all of his sad, bad luck stories from him over the months and it had gotten Matteo nowhere with her, romantically. He supposed she wasn’t into bad boys. Or sad boys.
Matteo cleared his throat. “I’m sure you heard about the… the Tamagotchi. My uh, my lawyer said I’m not obligated to talk about it anymore.” The burn of gulf oil in his throat weakened his voice further.
“Thought you said he wasn’t one of the rich ones, Ms. Anna?”
“He didn’t actually have a lawyer — he can just read, can’t you put that much together? Matteo here put out a dating ad on a physical that happened to get a sensory attack loaded onto it at some point by who knows who? Maybe one of you Rangers in a botched setup! Some poor kid opened it up, goes stiff and her grandma dies trying to save her. Don’t need to crucify him over it. Not his fault,” she replied.
“It was stupid. I thought I’d find a girl who was into reading physicals… computer stuff, too, and I just ended up hurting someone, instead,” Matteo said.
“Hmm, don’t much care how lonely you are or how much data you extract an’ read for us, lyin’ to Ranger’s a serious infraction. Are you, or are you not, under the council of a lawyer?” Ranger Mike said with another burp.
The room dipped and as it rose, Matteo felt pinned to his stool.
“Yep, might lose our job by letting something like that slide, couldn’t we?” said Ranger Dawn.
“Yes we could,” he fingered the cuffs hanging on his belt, shot a serious gaze at Matteo and let half a smile slowly form on the right side of his face. There was the gold in his mouth again, gleaming.
Now Matteo was looking at extended sentencing, a near-the-end-of-your-life sentencing, a shared-toilet-without-a-rim sentencing.
“Heh! Haw haw, we’re just messin’ with you. C’mere let us get you another round. Never know if we’ll see you again, seem on track to check outta this place quick,” Ranger Mike said, patting Matteo on the back a little too hard. “Maybe you’ll be back on shore banging all the hotas you can handle by tomorrow night! You do like hotas, don’t you? Or are you happy to be waist deep in that jail porn of yours?! Beats a Tam-on-gitchy! Haw haw!” He raised an eyebrow in what looked like a well-worn movement.
“Heh, don’t let him give you a heart attack,” Ranger Dawn said as she turned to her partner, “Looks like this big guy is right center of learnin’ his lesson.”
Matteo grabbed the gulf bottles. He was an adult, now, but having been homeschooled, was not used to this type of casual humiliation. “I just had time to say ‘Hi,’ to Anna, here. I’ve got to get back to work. See you later. Thanks for the advice and offer. Rangers Dawn and Mike.”
“You can bet on it,” the female Ranger said with a stare that made Matteo feel like she’d been hiding her unusually deep talent for perception. “Hey, and if you ever make real progress on that sentence of yours, find me. I used to be a reader on this barge, just like you.” The thought shook him to his core.
Matteo nodded his head and bolted. He looked back into the gulf bar from the outside, hoping to re-evaluate that last interaction, where perhaps he was more friendly and blended in more than he thought, and just maybe Anna had more interest in him than just idle entertainment to help kill her hours at the The Shifty Lounge.
By Anna’s lamp, Matteo could see both Ranger’s hands push against the bar, as if to gain momentum, moving out of the chairs and towards the invisible inside of the bar, the same direction as Dillo had exited. He was convinced Dillo’s box had some illegal information of really really high value. The Rangers were probably stalling him at the bar to give other Rangers time to search the cell. If they found it, it would be full-time scavving from now on. He had to get there now. Next time he would hide his shit.
“Saludas a su mama,” Anna said, pressing her hand against the window. The cat ring tinged the glass. There was an unmistakable, natural concern in the lines of her cherub face. It was not the look of a woman lusting for her criminal that might not come back alive for another round of gulf. It was motherly. She’d never be able to respect someone she had to step in to defend, would she? Matteo furrowed his brow as if to say thank you.
The second churro stand guy, positioned directly outside the bar, handed him a bag of peanuts. “Estas en un rush, si? Necesitas comer, flaco chico. Pagame despues.”
“Yeah, yeah. I will!” Matteo took in the gold chain buried in chest hair, mustache, and oversized hands of the man passing him the peanuts and then he was off in a sprint. A tiny buzz had set in, giving him confidence in movement as he whizzed past a few gentle corners and barreled a hard left at a slippery intersection.
The path curved and right before he was in view of his door, his foot sank through the floor, into the lukewarm, brackish water. A dozen or so mosquitoes took flight from their disturbed nest.
“Chingado!” His entire left leg was submerged, the scrapes on his thigh stinging. In bracing himself, he had knocked the wind out of his chest with the sturdy gulf bottles. Peanuts were strewn about everywhere.
He pulled his leg out and rolled over onto his back. “Shit, shit, shit.” There had been no point in running. Either the Rangers or Dillo’s crooked buddies had gotten to his potentially valuable stash or they hadn’t. And if he caught them red-handed, what was he going to do, fight them? Maybe Anna would show up to save his ass again.
He yanked free a bottle opener that was partially embedded into the floor, cracked the cap of a bottle and took a long drink. A slow, short walk later, he arrived at his door. It was locked. Fuck, he would’ve had time to order a churro. He chugged the rest of the gulf right there and disposed of the bottle by filling a gap near the mailbox embedded into the wall of his pseudo-porch.
Matteo used his weight to slide the false wood-grain accordion door to his cell open and closed it behind him. He struggled out of his wet chinos. The box of physicals was untouched and he let out a sigh of relief.
Gunshots blasted from the direction of The Shifty Lounge. If something was going down there with Dillo, he needed to extract whatever data was on the physicals immediately. His senses heightened again, and he couldn’t know for sure if a few seconds or a minute had passed before he heard groans and whimpering from somewhere distant in the Barcaza.
One year of looking over his shoulder steeped in paranoia was enough. There was no way he would survive thirteen more with his sanity in tact.
He had to find a way, any way, to clear his name and get the hell off the Basura Barcaza.
The air inside Matteos’s unit was stale enough to lull anybody into an uncomfortable sleep, but the gulf Anna had served him was beginning to kick in. Matteo burned off some anxious energy by cranking a wobbly lever to retract the skylight. Two Byte pinged the clock, a bargain for a cool shallows-breeze. Just enough purple light was left in the evening to bring the collage of the walls to life.
He pulled off his wet chinos and pissed down the corner urinal — a cut out, upside-down bleach bottle with a hose that led into the water below. He slipped into dry boxers and unbuttoned his work shirt, fingers beginning to shiver from the nicotine.
A package scraped through the pneumatic delivery shoot. As usual the small tin held ibuprofen for pain, either brought on by scavenging through heavy loads of junk or straining at mining glowscreens, and a horse-sized penicillin pill for sexual maladies, something he wished he could actually put to use one day. He briefly thought of Anna. There was also a pill rarely given out by the Rangers, a half-dose of Xanax, probably to help cope with the gunshots.
He dumped the container into his palm and noticed yet another tiny red pill. He put it under a magnifying glass to read the label: anti-malarial once daily. Just on time, he thought, and scratched his new mosquito bites.
With so many new places melting, every month or so a new infectious disease was on the rise. Malaria was not something to shake a stick at, especially with the kingdom of mosquitoes that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the prison. He downed all pills except the penicillin (he could trade that) at the same time with a swig of gulf, wincing at the clingy aftertaste of the oil.
And then, just like that, everything about his senses snapped into place.
“Treasures come in batches,” he whispered imitating Dillo’s voice. Had he been referring to the large number of items in the box? Or did that mean Matteo would have to string multiple files derived from multiple physicals together? Or had he been simply referring to .bat files? Chingado, Dillo.
He looked at the newly crunched data. His clean-up algorithm had decoded the Speak N’ Say nicely — and yes, it had to batch things before anything made sense.
He clicked the results to show on the main glowscreen. With some delay, it filled with a sequence of letters, about 300 lines across, 100 characters or so per line.
The letters — As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, brought to the forefront a vague memory of a page from his old high school biology app. He transfered it to a small memory chip.
“Woah, woah, woah! hell yes,” he said, holding in the excitement. “DNA. Who do you belong to?” he said aloud, coolly, beating his loneliness a little bit.
Inmates occasionally talked about how underground biotech information trading was on the up, though he’d never come across any info overtly biological. People, especially moneyed people, were taking a new interest in developing their own synthetic biology, now that designed kids and pets were illegal. This is the kind of payout Dillo was hoping for. This was the kind of data that would knock several years off that red blinking debt, even if he only got a small cut of it.
Still, it was too early to celebrate. Anybody could randomly type four letters over and over again, right? It’d need some confirmation.
He held the chip between his forefinger and thumb. “My bet’s you are worth something.”
He opened a drawer and pulled out a small velvet-lined pill box, placed the chip in it, and buttoned the package in his shirt pocket for safekeeping. During the last routinely random raid, the Rangers had copied all his consoles but forgotten to give him a proper pat down.
More gunshots rang, a little closer than before. The entire room shifted. “Shit.” The cell glided horizontally back and forth, finally resettling like a raspa collapsing under its own melt. Water pounded underneath the floor.
“Definitely… too nic’d… for this,” he said to the empty room, as the come-down hit. He’d barely got any work done and the gulf was quickly crashing his thoughts and movements. Probably another spoiled batch from The Shifty Lounge, though his mind would resist blaming Anna for it.
He’d take his chances with a pat down. With guns. With whatever. It was time to sleep.
The early moon had sent a chilling, salted breeze down the skyline. A small updraft tousled the hair on the backside of his head. He gingerly stepped one leg into his pajama pants, making it halfway through before falling hard into the hammock, which held him over the part of the floor that wasn’t yet completed.
In half-dream, he could see the Ranger’s golden tooth, and another thought occurred to him. What if Dillo was setting him up?
More gunshots fired from the direction of The Shifty Lounge that registered as part of the dream.
Deeper in sleep, there was the thought that maybe the coded information had been some kind of test. If he was clever enough to hack biological data someone had stored on a Speak N’ Say, would he be seen as potentially more dangerous to the Rangers?
His memories seeped into his dream and a visual projection of an old news television program played. It was a memory from far back in time, when he was maybe in the fifth or sixth grade. An anchorwoman wearing a shoulderpad-lined suit talked about a hurricane, some kind of hurricane that was off the scale of normal hurricanes.
The storm set free the plastic island of trash held for nearly three quarters of a century in the Indian Ocean. To the surprise of even the most permissive computational models, a chunk of the colossal pile floated all the way into the interior of the Gulf of Mexico. Then the floatscreen he was watching in his memory flashed a commercial for Corn Pops and synthetic milk, in a proto-3D fashion, utilizing two video layers of depth. At the time, it had convinced him it was disgusting that the cartoon cows had drank their own milk before they invented the synthetic stuff.
The glowscreen was occupying the kitchen table, along with a physical, which Matteo would later learn was how his mom got to know more about her palm-reading customers more than they would ever realize.
Back to the news, and the reporter introduced a full six-layer depth 3D projection model showing the garbage’s journey to Texas. Their cheap television projector stuttered to display the dense animation.
His mom was talking about how one of her friends was in the process of leaving his house behind, pointing with two strong, stubby fingers a few inches to the side of where the animation halted. Matteo didn’t want dinner, he wanted Corn Pops. Why could he only have cereal in the morning? It was an irrational rule.
The Lavaca Estuary — which at the time was a four hours’, not thirty minutes’ drive away was just beginning its expansion west, due to melting icebergs and other weather things. Was Alamo City next in line to take a slow plunge underwater? She didn’t answer him, though he couldn’t recall whether or not he had vocalized his question or just thought it.
Later, as a teenager, he never got to make out at that shore, east of town, like most kids.
In child Matteo’s mind, the pile was a floating organism of old plastic and metal wares, a whale serpent, half underwater, half above, watching and plotting, powerful and inevitable.
And the island, would, in a little more than a decade, swallow him whole and spit him out again on an old sled. It would be ironic, cause he’d never seen snow. But he didn’t know that at the time.
Within a few minutes, had he been awake, Matteo would’ve seen the silhouettes of two heads against the full moon, peering down at his sleeping body from the edges of the open ceiling.
“What the… goddang it! How’d you manage to drug him so early?” Kaylee whispered, afraid this specimen collection might go wrong. She regretted ever telling Jorge about how she had access to horse sedatives.
At least she didn’t tell him about how her family owned horses, too. He’d definitely exploit that as a possible avenue for making Byte.
She burned a hazel gaze at him through the orange-blonde wisps escaping the sides of her pink beanie.
“I did not drug the test subject, Kaylee,” Jorge said, his tall, thin, midnight brown frame blending into the night sky, except for the whites of his eyes.
She had spent all night sewing the Ranger patches on their disguises. There was no screwing this up. He better have freaking not drugged the test subject.
“Don’t say my name! I mean, my code name. If you didn’t drug him, why’re three of his four limbs hanging off-a the hammock and into the water and also his pants are around his knees, Jorge. His pants are around his knees.” Kaylee pointed down at Matteo, snoozing in his cell.
“That I see. And he smells like rotten mango… and I detect… glucose breakdown products? Definitely bougie,” said Jorge.
“Boozy,” she corrected, a bit charmed by the steepness left in his social learning curve.
“Maybe. He’s got a ketonic yeasty smell evaporating off his skin. That could be due to malnutrition and not alcohol consumption. There’s a hint of expired chewing tobacco, too,” he said.
“You need to help fix this, Jorge.” She wasn’t about to be put through the lengths of another capture and lose the target for a third time.
“Well, now I’m confused. Are we using our names or not?”
Kaylee stared back at him.
“What?” he asked, his head moving a bit higher on his neck.
“You knocked him out without telling me. That changes the plan! I don’t trust you, again!” The truth was in the last few weeks, she’d learned to trust him, just not his judgement.
“What? Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know why — it’s the way you do things! He looks just like the last one, which you gave way too much sedative and everything went wrong after that,” she said, unable to whisper outright, while fidgeting with her backpack. She quickly pulled and unraveled a rope ladder.
She lowered herself into Matteo’s chamber carefully, turning her head to view the scene below with every other step.
“Fine,” Kaylee mewed from the bottom, “You didn’t drug him. The evidence is right here.” She pointed at the empty gulf bottles.
Jorge dropped onto a pile of laundry without a sound, though his weight did cause the structure to wobble a little. Matteo, in his hammock, appeared still relative to the motion of the room and in sync with the moon above.
“Good detective work,” Jorge said.
“And I also don’t detect any Mist. At least not registered. This is probably the right dud. Anyway, let’s just get his legs… no, no, not right away. Put his pants on first,” Kaylee directed. In another life, she may have been attracted to a guy who looked like Matteo. But first things first, a scientist never falls in love with her subject.
“Why don’t you put his pants on?” asked Jorge.
“Because… gross, Jorge,” she said.
“I do not understand the culture of this planet.” Jorge shrugged and made his way towards Matteo’s ankles. “This will be a more efficient task if executed alone, anyway.”
“Do you even know what you’re doing? He’s flopping out all over the place, now, be careful!” she said while catching herself in a little stare.
“So, what if he is? Nevermind, don’t answer. It will diminish my mental acuity.” Jorge sighed and finished pulling the pants back on Matteo. He vaulted him over his narrow shoulders, the two men a surreal vision — Matteo, a load that appeared much too heavy for its wiry bearer.
Matteo stirred. Kaylee’s face came into his view, her permanently-pleading eyes widening. “Anna…?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Quick!” said Jorge
Kaylee grabbed the first thing she saw — a rubber mallet for popping open physicals, and banged at his head really, really hard, multiple times.
“Ow! What the fuck are you doing?!” he slurred. She missed his skull and hit an eye. “OW! STOP!” There was no question about it, now — she had woken him up.
“Your solution is to hit him? Don’t hit him,” said Jorge in an even tone.
“And what would you do, Mr. Smart Calculator?”
“Sss!” Matteo sucked in air, “Just stop! You are making… my gulf withdrawal happen!”
Kaylee followed up, “Drug him, I bet that’s what you would do!”
Jorge flipped Matteo down to the ground with a plastic crunch, pulled duct tape from his back pocket and wrapped Matteo’s mouth several times over across his head and then bound his wrists in tape as well. He was unnaturally quick.
“Mmmph! MMMMPH!” said Matteo.
“We’re biologists,” said Jorge, calmly, staring through Matteo’s eyes.
Kaylee shot the most befuddled look of her life at Jorge, then halfway composed herself. “Look, big fella, we’re not going to hurt you… Or rob you… Well, rob you, yeah…”
Matteo yelled something undecipherable through the tape, but Kaylee knew he meant they already had hurt him. Mouthy guy, this one.
“Just. Pause it. Cease moving. This is a kidnapping,” said Jorge.
Matteo exhaled heavily through his nose, let the amazement leave appeared to try to stay cool. Then his eyes rolled backwards and he was burnt out into black space again.
“Goddangit you totally drugged him. Definitely ketamine,” Kaylee said knowing the words were falling on deaf ears.
“There may have been a pill on the sticky side of the tape, yes,” he said.
Kaylee stunned him with a blank stare. She wondered how someone so odd had become so predictable within the span of a few months of working together.
“What? You reminded me of how useful ketamine is. With your accusations. Help me get him onto that slider stuck to the wall,” said Jorge.
“It’s a sled,” Kaylee said as she tugged at the reigns.
“Fascinating. All momentum provided by the action of your musculature, with friction lowered by a utilizing a small surface area. I’d wager this works on frozen surfaces best. You show me fascinating things, Kaylee,” said Jorge.
Kaylee checked under Matteo’s eyelids and found the unregistered Mist. It’d be useful. Then, they bundled Matteo into an extra large black trash bag and closed the ends with a twist tie. Together, they swung him onto the sled.
“We only have twelve more minutes,” Kaylee said.
The Basura Barcaza, a sea-worthy barge in its own right, would be docked for only twelve minutes and two seconds more, to be precise. Kaylee and Jorge moved their living cargo to the port entry-exit. The few guards on duty were busy checking in dozens of new prisoners. Adding to the chaos were the deep clicks from drawing anchors, causing the floor and wall structures to rattle. They stole behind a pair of janitors who on their way to unload spent physicals on land.
Once on shore, they passed through admittance windows and turnstiles, which had been repurposed from an old SeaWorld theme park. Feeling safe at last, Kaylee turned over her shoulder to see the original SeaWorld sign, partially disassembled and upside down, serving as external support to one of the barge’s front-facing walls. The floating mountain began to slip away.
Kaylee gave Jorge a slightly disingenuous thumbs up. She wanted to believe that she and Jorge were good at their new job. But knowing the prison game, as her parents owned large shares in it, she knew this wasn’t a real test of their skill.
Since all prisoners had Mist, the prison and its shareholders profited off of escapees, who were easily tracked, captured, and returned to a stack of new fines. The rare prisoner without Mist, well, they were off the books entirely and even easier to disappear, in a way. She looked down at Matteo, who was snoring softly inside the bag and knew they’d bagged the right one. Whatever Mist he was using was off the books. A second-hand Mist meant he didn’t have one to begin with.
It had been only six months since she found out her genetic code all but ensured she would live far longer than could be predicted, perhaps forever. Within a day, Jorge had contacted her out of the blue, wanting to know how she beat the “life-death system on Earth”. The fact he’d gotten her info so quickly was the first hint he was going to be good to work with.
At least she wouldn’t die with the irony of getting shot several millenia too soon, tonight. Jorge had come through just fine.
And they had gotten their first dud. Poor guy could die at any moment, none the wiser, a victim of bad science. She had to work fast to save him. If she could figure out what her genes did to make her live longer, they had a shot at extending his life. Maybe not forever, but more than the twenty or so years he’d have otherwise.
Matteo woke twelve hours later with dry eyes which were irritated further by a blindfold. He laid curled up really needing to pee. Pinpoint mosquito bite-like itches pained his skull. He remembered the mallet and the panicky woman. A faint smell of syrup and freon hung in the air and he could feel there was a cool corner to the room. The floor was wooden and creaked beneath his body if he shifted his weight a little. This wasn’t Basura Barcaza.
“What the fuck happened?” Matteo said, blindfolded and barely in control of his words, not caring whether he might invite additional physical harm from his kidnappers. The duct tape had been removed when he was unconscious yet somehow it still felt as though his hair was being torn out.
A boy answered from nearby, “Quiero dos de leche y una rainbow.”
“Un momento.” It was the thin guy’s voice from last night.
“We’re at a raspa stand?” asked Matteo, louder.
“No,” said Kaylee, softly, her conviction plain. She squeezed one of his ankles with her hand.
“Tienes picadilly?” the kid blurted through what Matteo imagined must have been a sliding window.
“No, no. Here’s your order. Estamos cerrados ahora,” said Jorge. He shuttered the stand and turned on a string of strung lights on the inside of the tiny structure.
“We’re at a raspa stand,” said Matteo.
“Ok, fine. You got us. I’ll take your blindfold off. Just don’t freak out or slap us,” said Kaylee. She peeled it off with care.
“You’re the ones doing the attacking. What do you people want with me?” He squinted at the light and winced at the smell of garbage on his clothes and skin. Then he saw he had been snuggled next to a trashcan, sticky with raspa juices. He straightened to a sitting position.
“I’m Kaylee, that’s Jorge,” she said as she stood and took a step back. “The short of it… ah, that is, why you’re here… is that you won a kind of… contest?”
“Some prize,” said Matteo.
She continued, “See, we release difficult-to-decode physicals into the barge to look for good Readers. We get decoded info from Barcaza all the time… things that make their way out without the Rangers knowing. That leads us to people that might be interested in helping us… with what we want to do. We saw some of your your work and tracked you down.”
“Ah, something I extracted must’ve made its way on shore. I guess leaving my signature on my work can get me both into and out of jail,” said Matteo. Why was he trying to make a joke? Oh, chingado, ’cause she was cute.
Jorge unveiled Matteo’s velvet pill box from underneath his long sleeve plaid shirt. “You did extract this your… self?” with each other word sounding like the end of its own question.
“Yes,” said Matteo, offended.
Jorge turned to Kaylee. “So, he’s somewhat capable, and, more importantly, curious. Humans are born with essentially zero real world knowledge and still find ways to do interesting things. We can work with curious,” said Jorge, “Who knows? Maybe he’s right on the cusp of being useful.”
“Yeah, well. It’s not like we can just get rid of him at this point. Plus we went through all that trouble to get him. Should give him a chance.” Her lungs deflated with a sigh and she turned to grab a purple raspa with grape Kool-Aid powder dusted on top.
“I dunno who you are but what makes you think I want a chance? I just barely avoided extending my sentence today, yesterday, I mean, and I want to get back before anyone notices that I’m gone and I’m stuck paying way more than…” started Matteo.
“Look! Just look at this.” Kaylee projected a simple table of tallied data into his vision.
“How… how did you get into my Mistview so quick?” His lens flickered a small terminal and opened a basic text file. Please stay away from my browsing history, he thought.
“We told you we’re good at what we do. Especially when your Mist is second-hand and jailbroken. Relax, it’s just info. I’m not about to blind you or anything mean.”
He scanned the long table:
H. sapiens 100MB………50B
C. elegans 1MB…………0.1CB
H. sapiens 24MB……….2.5B
D. melanogaster 1MB….0.4B
“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked Matteo.
“Try comprehending it,” said Jorge.
“Doesn’t it feel good to be off the Barcaza? What you’re looking at is your freedom. It’s a list of recent bids for premium Byte in exchange for genetic info,” said Kaylee.
“Oh, so this is about, what, you get paid to supply criminals with genomes so they can hack shit more easy? I get it. People want the benefits of biotech stuff and are willing to pay for info because there’s the ban ever since — ”
“Duds. D-u-d, dud. All the failed GMO babies were called duds. Rangers are still tracking them all down for further studies and elimination. Humans are callous, but I can see why they’d be interesting to study,” added Jorge.
“Yeah, imagine what it’s like to be kidnapped by some strangers. Anyway, there’s as good as a ban on pretty much all biotechnology now that isn’t bacteria or yeast. You all are… son locos.” But Matteo was calculating how many days this tally would take off of his sentence — and whatever Dillo would penalize him for, if he ever caught up to him again.
“We really need you. That puzzle — that Speak N’ Say that you unlocked, neither of us could figure out. Whatever you were able to get from it is probably really, really important… You’d be dumb to not see the potential here — you could sell people’s disease info to insurance companies, or help some hippy in Austin make biofuel or better pot, or help some sad dude in a basement make a pet mouse he could talk to. Sure, biohacking is banned, but people are interested and the information is out there and they’re paying Byte for it. This is a sample of crummy data sets… imagine if we got our hands on precious samples, what they’d sell for…”
Matteo swiped the air and the table erased from his Mistview. “How far of a walk to the shoreline from here? Where are we, Alamo City? What part?” Matteo said, surprised by the sound of resolve in his voice. He hoped Kaylee might be impressed by it.
“Just, please stay?” she said.
Had it not been for the contrast of her pleading brown eyes on her snowflake skin, and the gentle waves of her hair, Matteo would’ve taken one less second to dash to the door.
“SHIT!” she screamed and grabbed his bicep, “Stay here… already… What, are you gonna swim out to the barge? It left last night! You literally missed the boat, buddy.”
“She makes an incredibly relevant point, Matteo. And if you leave you’ll miss out on cell printing,” said Jorge. He grabbed Matteo, in an attempt to slow him from a standing position, and slid with his knees bent, over the wet floor. Matteo wrested them to the door, then extended the arm Kaylee was latched on to towards the door knob, and ever so slowly turned it.
“You mean you have a Church to print cells on demand? That’s… actually impressive,” said Matteo.
“Eh, well we will soon! And we know all about you. That you’re… just like us. You need Byte. And you can’t work fast enough to get it,” she added.
“And because I’m a goddamn criminal. Don’t forget that part of the story, it could save your life,” Matteo held the door an inch open, his grip shaking.
Jorge spoke in monotone through bated breath, “We have your profile on file. You were adopted by a single parent. You grew up poor and weird and wanted to study biology but the college programs are few and far between, since the ban. So you looked to computers to occupy your thoughts while you waited to get those rejection letters.”
“Definitely… right… about… you… all… being nuts,” said Matteo, muscling through.
Kaylee continued for Jorge, who was out of breath, “And you got lonely holed up in that tiny house, making spare Byte on hard drives, waiting to re-apply to school. Once you realized people were communicating secrets on them, you started putting little dating classifieds on, searching for the one true, what do they call them, manic pixie girl, is that the cliche. A girl also into scavenging and reading. Only you added your info onto a bad egg. A little Tamagotchi drive that happened to also carry a nasty sensory virus. Cops come, find the spell script and guess whose bathroom selfie smiles back at them when they’re analyzing the damn thing.”
“Think about the future like we already are. Yes, we could just retrieve information off of cells for Byte. That’s the next big thing, trading genetic info on the biohacker market, sure. Just like people are trading old data on the physicals market right now. But we’re looking even further ahead. We want to print cells and sell those, too! Nature is the last frontier for hacking. Cells are a toolbox. It’s just going to take personal risks,” said Jorge.
“Congrats on finding that stuff out. It’s not like my name and the ‘brujeria Tamagotchi’ that ruined my life wasn’t all over the news a year ago. I have to get back. This is my criminal record we’re talking about. I don’t come from money, I can’t just ask my mommy to hire lawy…”
“There is no such thing as brujeria. If true, ghosts or something like ghosts would be real. However, nobody ever died by the hand of a ghost,” Jorge asserted.
“What about unsolved murders? Maybe the police can’t find the killer ’cause the killer’s a ghost!” Matteo returned.
“Something I hadn’t considered… hmm,” Jorge said, “No.”
Kaylee’s voice reached a higher pitch. “Shutup about the goddang Tamagotchi! Look, we’re your best shot at paying off your jail debt. We can make that happen,” she pleaded. “I promise we’ll have you back without any problems and with your pockets full of Byte. I bet you’re out of there in less than a year! Imagine having your whole life back again. Ew you’re getting sweaty.”
“I’m going to stop trying to escape, ok? But it’s not because of anything you’ve said. I just really need to pee,” said Matteo.
“Ok,” she said.
“Ok,” said Jorge.
They relaxed altogether. Jorge scooted a colorful rug away with his feet to reveal a trapdoor.
“You want me to pee into there?”
Kaylee rolled her eyes. “God, no, that’s just the way to get to the basement. Bathroom’s down below.”
“It’s our secret lair. I’ll construct a raspa for you while you’re down there,” said Jorge.
“Make it mango. I’m not going to say please because you kidnapped me and I am existing here with you freaks against my will,” he said.
“We’re a little low on mango. Strawberry is available in high quantities, though,” said Jorge, “And don’t touch anything.”
“Seriously, dude? Alright, whatever. I’ll be right back.” Matteo took a moment to figure out how to use a ladder from the top going down. He descended on weak legs into an underground bunker, modest in size.
The first thing Matteo noticed was an old plaid couch and a microwave set on top of a mini-fridge. There were also two curtained entry ways. One was clearly a bedroom, he could see a mattress peeking out from under the floor.
They’d set up a neatly kept area with a few serious-looking computers and glowscreens. The majority of the space was taken up by rows and rows of shelving, including piles of old electronics, not unlike what he’d seen in the collection storage rooms on the Barcaza. Each physical had been catalogued in a meticulous fashion, with descriptions of the collection date, location and other details on a paper tag tied with white string.
Many items were from the late 20th century, a nearly inconceivable time when having online profiles was still taboo. Not as taboo as Matteo’s fucking hidden profile on an illegal Tamagotchi, though.
Kaylee’s head poked down the opening, “Don’t you dare touch anything!”
Matteo sighed loud enough for her to hear, but was happy that she might be flirting.
Kaylee’s head popped in again, “While you’re down there maybe take a shower?”
“You stink.” Her face disappeared above.
One glowscreen was on. He approached as silently as he could manage and saw a file about him had been opened. Beyond public information they had managed to make clones of a few of his old computers, which was fairly impressive. There was also a .ama file, an amalgam of his likeness taken from personal photos and Basura Barcaza security stills. Using an .ama made perfect sense since he had no Mist until just the other day. With it, they could search other public Mist recordings for his possible participation in a host of activities. He’d spent most of his life indoors. Joke was on them.
Another folder held information about his mother, which was more scant, keeping in line with her overall avoidance of Mist technology.
There was also a folder for his father, whom he’d never met.
He clicked the screen with his finger, anticipating an alarm to go off. What were they going to do if they caught him snooping? Kidnap him again?
The folder opened silently. There was a birth certificate fused to a death certificate on a single .pdf. The other file was a personality summary of his social media — not the tweets and MySpace posts exactly, but an averaged algorithm of his tastes and beliefs as derived from online accounts, typical of last generation that reached adulthood without Mist.
He quickly scanned it with his Mistview, absorbing it onto his AI. It was closer than he ever imagined he’d ever get to meeting him.
::Don’t cry. Your mom does enough of that for all of us.
“I won’t,” Matteo whispered. He bit his tongue and didn’t.
Down a short hallway was the tiny bathroom, consisting of just a toilet and a spigot at about the height of a normal shower head. He could see the hot water line and thought about how it would beat the tepid water he’d been washing himself the last year. Matteo peed deep orange and pulled on a chain to flush it. He realized his surrender to an underground structure with no exit except for a flimsy rope ladder would have been a really easy way to trap him. At this point, it was too late, he guessed, and decided to take three minutes to rinse off.
His hangover lost a little strength under the new humidity but the knife-like head trauma he’d incurred kept him dull. He was absolutely not very good at all at being kidnapped. He looked in the bathroom mirror.
:Ha ha, puedo verlo ahora! I’m looking a los fotos de cuando era un bebe in your record. We thought you would be a heartbreaker! Pero you turned out medio feo like your abuelo, on your mom’s side. Don’t worry, mijo, you are tall and broad. The man doesn’t have to be good-looking in a relationship. No mas necesita Byte if you want a girl and it looks like you are taking care of that.
He shook off the comments, got back into his clothes, and climbed back up to the raspa stand, grateful the door hadn’t been closed.
“You two aren’t being upfront with me. That’s not all you know about me,” said Matteo.
Jorge and Kaylee looked at each other.
“I mean. There are plenty of people who know how to work computers. Why choose me, specifically? Anybody can program,” said Matteo.
“Anyone can program… with programs. You’re the real deal. You haven’t even really been introduced to Mist or AI softwares that do the coding for you.” She really was proving they knew quite a bit about him.
“Everybody has Mist,” he replied.
“Ha ha, what a bluff. Not you. We know you were kept off the grid. We know about your momma,” she said.
“Just enough. The important parts. She kept you away from modern tech your whole life, correct? Makes sense you’re using a second-hand Mist, right now,” said Kaylee.
“Thanks for reminding me. I still haven’t paid for it. And yeah, my mom’s a little eccentric. And so what, who cares?”
“That’s not the whole story. About your mother,” she said, a little quieter now that she had his attention.
“It really is.”
“Mhmm.” She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah. It was no big deal. I wasn’t like abused. Like you said, she swore off all this tech-aided learning. Wanted me to get my hands dirty with the real nuts and bolts of reality. It wasn’t just computers. I had to plant nopales with real dirt, learn to cook with real food I grew in the garden, write code on homemade computers. Plus we were broke, so it was cheaper than buying fancy apps. Typical stuff. So what? Now you know everything about me and you haven’t even said not one word about what I’m supposed to get started on.” She was a good mom.
“Jorge will cover that soon. Before we get into it, we have to clear up some things. Well, from our files it looks like you didn’t have much of a network… in terms of, you know, friends. But just to make sure, aside from your mom, have you interacted with anyone else in the last year?”
“Just criminals. And Rangers,” said Matteo.
“Hmm, alright. So no religious leaders, professors… girlfriends?” asked Kaylee.
“No. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked back.
“As a matter of fact, it is not your business.” She turned away from him, slipped on her boots, and stepped outside. Did he hit paydirt?
Jorge handed him a sticky bright red raspa. “Irrelevant questions. He has no appreciable Mist presence for now. Matteo, you’re going to help us locate a Church. Then decrypt the DNA sequence you already started on further. It’s the design for some really, really important cells, if you haven’t already figured that out. It will help us make lots of Byte, which will increase our chances of making even more Byte. That’s how it seems resource distribution works on this planet.”
Matteo took greedy bites of the top of the snow cone, “Damn, this is bu-en-o.” The door to the raspa stand was open and Matteo could see Kaylee brushing the feathers of a riding chachalaca outside.
“I expect an equal share of Byte from all sales, including whatever we make from cells. Twenty-two thousand Byte is going to be a ton of work. But I’m gonna get out of jail the right way. Comprende?”
Jorge leaned back and his pupils circled the edges of his eyelids. “It sounds like reasonable compensation to my sensibilities. We’ll head out to Loteria on my birds in a moment, then, for the Church.”
“Loteria?! You’re fucking joking.” Just like that, he had to pee again. Going after an illegal Church in an off-the-books flea market, complete with gambling facilities, gun shops, and a petting zoo wasn’t worth a chance with a cute girl or erasing a thirteen year prison sentence and a strawberry raspa.
Dillo entered through the skylight of Matteo’s cell and scaled the wall, salty grime packing underneath his fingernails. Word was that the Rangers had lost another prisoner — los biologos had come earlier than scheduled. Not that it mattered, they’d paid upfront for his arranging the kidnapping, and the Mist he traded Matteo for wasn’t even fully networked or entirely functional. He’d gotten it practically for free off a dead guy.
He picked through the box, counting the physicals one by one. All but one were untouched, and he checked that no new data was uploaded to Matteo’s store of Ranger-approved memory chips, which meant he hadn’t found anything worth storing.
Getting a reliable extractor was becoming a pain, he thought it better to swap the box for something tangible… something people would need soon and he could make quick Byte off, like a Church. That is, if the reports about immortals were true, and regular people wanted to tap into it.
The flightless birds Matteo, Kaylee, and Jorge rode were about the size of small ponies, but twice as fast. Matteo didn’t know too much about avians from stock shows, but he guessed their rounded navy beaks indicated racing stock heritage had been mixed with regular farm breeding stocks. They must’ve cost Jorge a fortune.
San Petrol Ave was unusually busy, with a solid mix of bikers, diesel-powered ranch trucks, and automated sedans. Like the lane markings, the potholes were especially difficult to spot after last week’s rains. Somehow, the chachalacas sensed and glided over them with ease.
“Is it supposed to hurt my back this much?” Matteo shouted across the afternoon traffic.
“Your body position is excessively rigid, mi amigo,” Jorge said, with a single wisp of hair bobbing defiantly in the wind.
Matteo resented himself for not being angry enough towards his captors. Was he that easily bought? And how humiliating to be bested by some random blonde girl.
::Stop complaining about a little discomfort. Are you interested in this girl or not?
Weird AI dad was right, even though he wanted to say how clearly he could feel the nerve endings in his spine. “What happened to the other AI, maybe I want her back,” whispered Matteo.
::No puedo hacer eso. You need to learn how to get a real live woman, entiendes?
Kaylee yelled from up ahead, “Don’t lock your knees. This is only my second time riding. It’s not as hard as you’re making it out to be, hon.”
Great, another motherly comment. He was already blowing it like with Anna.
The bird had purred when Matteo had stroked its neck for the first time, and then tried to snap his fingers off the next. Controlling its movement with his weak core musculature (thanks to his hammock and gulf nutrition) was a serious challenge. Then he relaxed his knees and more weight fell to his calves and feet. It was easy.
“Worry more about the slow cars. These birds get distracted all the time. It’s why they’re always constantly looking in every direction. Still, not as bad as horses.” Kaylee turned up Palomita Blanca on the analog radio mounted to her chachalaca’s pack. A few downy feathers escaped to the wind.
“I don’t understand why these people are driving under the required speed limit. Why don’t they program their cars to drive like normal people?” said Jorge.
“Welcome to Alamo City. Y’all ain’t from ‘round here, huh?” Matteo said. “I knew something was off when we didn’t take the shortcut down Southwest Military. Not that I’m interested in where you are or any of your back stories.”
“What? Speak up!” said Kaylee.
“Nothing,” said Matteo. Soft-spoken loser that he may as well have been.
It was a long, anxious ride to the deep South side of town where Loteria had persisted since before Matteo was born. Still, for every story of someone losing a finger on a bet, there was another about free face-painting and cotton candy at the petting zoo. Who knew what they could be in for?
The traffic cleared all at once and they were able to pick up speed. Tex-Mex restaurants covered by hand-painted menus and second-hand stores camouflaged in Disney characters, became a colorful blur. Down much further they dipped into the region where the city’s zoning laws evaporated entirely. Pre-fabricated homes of slate grey, green, or candy apple red, complete with above ground pools and BBQ decks, burned in the heat right next to farming acreage next to car charge stations next to fruit stands next to used car dealerships, and so on.
A few more miles and the scenery became a coarse checkerboard. They whizzed by undeveloped land, plots of dying grass. Abandoned construction projects sat frozen in time — white concrete slabs with unused water pipes sticking straight into the air. Single-story duplex barrios became less and less frequent, their laundry lines less busy.
Finally, they reached the edge of a sizable valley where the black asphalt of the road ended and a chalky caliche path began. The trio stopped to take in the view: dozens of blocks of abandoned strip malls and their parking lots, baked adobe orange in the sun.
“It’s in that old mall,” said Jorge, pointing to the center of the mass.
“Uh… there’s a hundred old malls. Which one are you talking about?” Matteo wondered if Jorge’s eyes worked completely differently or was he just being an asshole? And how did he know where he was going if he was new to the area?
“Just follow me,” he replied, lending no sense of his mood. He charged down to the valley and they followed. A hot wind blasted through their clothes, drawing and drying sweat at the same rate.
The Loteria, that is, the Loteria of el Distrito Loteria, bloomed from the remains of a turn-of-the-century shopping center. The only story Matteo knew for certain about it was that his mom had been to the movies in it a long time ago, when it was nothing more than just a mall. Though, he suspected she must’ve spent more time there, maybe for her work, ever since she came home one time very late, drunk, and made him promise he would never visit.
Decades ago, before the estuary had settled onto its shore, a flood-driven brush slide had buried both stories of the complex, leaving the rooftop as the only entrance. They approached a stairway built inside of a large air conditioning duct. Matteo quickly realized how Jorge had spotted it — the rooftop was gleaming in solar panels.
A guard wearing a black Cowboys hat and a peach-colored guayabera stood at the entryway. Matteo and Jorge dismounted the birds and patted away the white dust from their jeans. Matteo looked him in the eye and nodded his head.
From atop her chachalaca, Kaylee spoke to the man, who appeared overserious or uncomfortable. He mumbled something, sounding irritated and rushed. Her voice grew impressively, exposing the privilege Matteo suspected she had grown up with. “No. Los pajaros se vienen con nosotros.” The man sighed and nodded and let them inside.
::Why did you let ese pendejo talk to your girl like that? Your mom raised you right you know better than that. You shouldn’t have even let her talk to him in the first place.
The inside of the mall was illuminated by multicolor strung lights and white utility lights in most corners, and also by sunlight shooting through gaps in the drop-tile ceiling. Power strips and cords lining the floor made walking treacherous, and limited Matteo and Kaylee’s ability to gawk at the assortment of busy stores. Each rental space had been hollowed out to some degree, though a few kept their original sale banners and signs. Port-a-potties blocked the entrance to the long-decommissioned bathrooms.
Cumbia rebajada and tejano played in the background. The man at the Informacion desk directed their group to a man wearing a cowboy hat and a starched button up tucked into faded jeans, which were themselves untucked over cracked boots. “Those are some good looking pajaritos, ay? How much you find them for? I can get you a good deal. Unless they bite. They bite?” he said. His intention to manipulate a deal out of Kaylee was unimaginably obvious.
“Not for sale,” she said.
“Ok. I was just asking. How many cocks you think you want, then?” He said while adjusting his crotch and without breaking a stare.
“Excu-” she started.
“No mas un gallo, but since there are three of us using your services, we’re prepared to pay three times over that asking price,” Jorge said pointing, “This is with full consideration of the odds on your display board, over there. Which, frankly, are not in the favor of your customers.”
“Shit! Did you know this was going to be animal fighting?” Matteo asked Jorge.
Jorge rolled his neck and loosened his shoulders like a boxer made of twigs. “No. But the odds are good. That’s what the guy on the flight over here, told me. Unbeatable odds is what he said. He had a glass eye and an expensive cane. I believe his testimony.”
“Dude, I can’t do this… Do the chickens die every time? Or do they get maimed or… ?”
“What’s your little boyfriend with the lipstick saying?” the man asked Jorge.
“Aw man, my lips aren’t red aren’t they?” Matteo said casually, hoping to show the man he wasn’t intimidated in the least.
“It’s raspa dye, my friend. Completely different chemical make-up than lipstick. It’s available to trade in large qualities, if you’re interested,” Jorge said to the man.
The man said something to Jorge and went back to updating the probability chart with a dry erase marker.
Jorge cradled Matteo’s cheek in his cold hands. “Matteo, you’re not thinking clearly. What do you suppose these humans might be inclined to do to us after showing us their illegal gambling set up and sensing we have some form of moral objection to it?”
“What do you mean ‘humans’? We’re not like aliens, dude.”
“Yes, I am an alien,” said Jorge, surprised he had to point it out. “Are you blind? Do your eyes function?”
“Goddangit you guys, watch your language. Matteo, fighting chickens against other chickens is no worse than what we’re gonna do with the,” she whispered “Church… probably.” Kaylee looked serious, fighting the burn of a chile-tamarind watermelon lollipop in her mouth.
“Yeah… well, don’t say ‘goddangit’. I’m Matholic, you know,” Matteo replied.
“You are not. You’re a scientist. Well soon enough, anyway,” she said and turned to a harsh whisper. “You’re gonna get us killed. These people are for real Matholics. They believe in invisible angels watching everything and devils and curses. Just look at that painting!” She pointed to a 3D virgin Mary picture that moved depending on what angle you looked at it from. From the left, there was a virgin, the virgin. But from a little to the right, woop, there was baby Jesus in her arms ready to save the world and punish the sinners, according to Numerological Law. “Maybe it would go good in the basement. As something to look at when stoned,” she added.
“I think you’re the one being racist, against my religion,” said Matteo, pointing at her with a slightly flexed finger, willing himself not to nudge her on the shoulder.
She looked back to Matteo who was somehow now holding the leashes to both her and Jorge’s chachalaca. “Oh no, where the heckfire did Jorge get off to?” she said.
Matteo and Kaylee sifted through generations of families in the crowd with their eyes. Kids holding glowing, spinning plastic lightsabers and LED blinking flowers bumped into their legs. The accordians seemed to play louder and with more bass, and they were both dipped into an auditory hypnosis.
The birds darted their heads, looking at nothing or everything. Just as Kaylee and Matteo began to sweat, Jorge put his hands on their shoulders from behind.
“Baby Jesus Christ,” they said in unison, then shot each other suspicious looks.
“It’s going to be…” Jorge’s pupils shot up in his eye sockets, then returned “223.1 Byte, rounded up, U.S.”
“That’s a lot of lollipops,” Kaylee said stuffing her bag of watermelon candies into a pack on her bird. Matteo couldn’t afford even candy and didn’t want to talk.
Jorge pulled out a satchel and weighed it in his hand. “I don’t have Byte enough for all of us, but don’t worry about it.”
“Ok, well we need that Church asap I don’t want to come back here and it’s getting dark — night sellers will be coming out soon,” said Kaylee.
“Alright, the guy says we’re gonna have to go downstairs. Follow me,” said Jorge. “The man said it’s ok if we’re short on Byte. If we lose, we might just have to pose as some other people and spend some time on the Barge as payment.”
“Chingado! I just got out of there!” Matteo sounded, incredulous.
“Just for a month,” said Jorge.
Kaylee smiled at Matteo, drinking in his fear. “I’m in. You are good at this stuff, Jorge. I’m bored anyway. Hanging out with a criminal hasn’t been as fun as I thought,” she said.
“You’ve got to be joking. You know what? Fuck it, whatever I prefer jail to this,” said Matteo.
They boarded a freight elevator running on a noisy gasoline generator, with their birds in tow. Below, a squat woman wearing a beanie cap, overalls and a nametag that said “Flor” greeted them while looking kind of past them, taking Jorge’s entry fee automatically into a lock box. The first floor smelled like a livestock show, though no large animals were in sight. She escorted Jorge to a stack of metal cages, occupied by roosters of many colors.
Jorge leaned into Flor, and with a poker face bordering on professional said, “Not one of these chickens looks fit for combat.”
Matteo and Kaylee left Jorge and the woman alone because the rest of their conversation had too much potential to be uncomfortable to listen to (or worse, get sucked into). But from afar, Jorge seemed to be handling the situation very well. Flor was smiling, flashing a row of silver teeth and patting him on the back after a moment or two. Then Jorge doled out about half of the money he was carrying to rent a gamefowl. Expensive, to be sure, but it looked handsome from where Matteo stood.
“No tienes novio? Te quieres un buen amor — es facil!” a small elderly woman said as she pushed a small tray with what appeared to be seed packets into Kaylee’s thigh area.
“No, hoy no,” said Kaylee. She took Matteo’s hand in hers and turned the other direction.
He reflexively pulled away, then cupped her hand in his. “Hey, I don’t know you that well. Or should I say, yo no conozos… conozozco… nevermind.” He realized he hadn’t held anyone’s hand romantically since the “dance” he went to with the only other homeschooled kid on the block. Once the girl’s parents learned his mom believed in the Numerology part of Matholicism, they were forbidden from spending time together again.
“How is my Spanish better than yours? And don’t pull your hand away like that, they think I’m single and want to sell me stuff because god forbid a woman in her late twenties be single,” said Kaylee.
“Ah, I’m your fake boyfriend. Er, boytoy, since you’re almost thirty. Well, it’s my duty to buy you whatever junk was in that tray, then.”
“It’s just yeast. An old synthbio product from the end of the biotech boom. They sell dry yeast that is designed so that when you make bread with it, it’s supposedly laced with dopamine,” she clasped her hands together and interlocked her fingers, “the all-natural love drug.”
“Maybe I should get some, feed it to you jerks and you’ll let me get back to my life,” Matteo said as he raised an eyebrow.
“Well, we’re in Loteria — there’s a better chance the Spurs lose the championship this year than whatever yeast we bought here would work. I think the stuff is based on plasmid DNA, which gets kicked out or degrades and the yeast divides a few times. You’re basically buying plain old yeast by the time it reaches your hands. I thought you knew something about biology? Maybe we should put you back in the trash.” She winked. He reeled internally.
“For someone who doesn’t seem to need pan de amor, you sure do know a lot about it. If these folks can’t get their yeast biotech to work, how are we going to profit off of our own?”
“It would probably work if the genes were directly integrated in the yeast DNA instead of on the plasmid. But you need a Church to print the cell with everything put together like that. And by ‘work’ I mean the bread would have the dopamine in it, not that consuming dopamine would make anyone love your dumb face,” she said.
“Ah,” he said. She could be irresistible.
“Plus it’s three Byte. You can’t afford it.” She smiled.
“Pff. It’s true. I can’t,” he said.
A hidden announcer began shouting unintelligibly through loudspeakers and the crowd cheered. Matteo’s stomach sank at the sight of Dillo participating in the game. There was no way he was out of jail so coincidentally. He was either out on bought time or working with the Rangers. What a fool he’d been to have cooperated with Dillo.
While gazing into the birds’ eyes, Dillo had a sinister amusement on his face. He placed them in a circular pit, his enamel pin of a red armadillo sparkling.
The fighting arena was divided into four slices by chalk lines, with the entire space enclosed by thigh-high bricks of hay. Dillo’s remarkable dimples nearly stole the show from his yellow work gloves and matching yellow ostrich-skin boots. The chickens wore little pink and teal boxing gloves with the Spurs logo on them. Maybe this game wasn’t so cruel.
Drones carrying cameras were linked up to holoviewing mats on the upper floor for additional betting. Depending on which quadrants the chickens spent more of their time in, people could win secondary bets.
Their rooster, Chuy, was off to a good start. He looked mean — real mean. So true was this meanness, that he plowed through the first opponent in under four seconds. A massive side bet payout was won for the speed (a 1 in 26 probability). The brutality of the scene phased them, but not their chachalacas, who, although fast to the point of sophistication, were fundamentally stupid and inattentive.
“We just made 528 Byte,” Jorge said, in his typical neutral tone. Dillo was occupied by the action in the ring, suppressing laughter.
“Ok, cool. Can we go? I think I know a guy from the Barcaza here,” said Matteo. “And I really don’t want to run into him.”
The man in the starched shirt from earlier came over and spoke softly to Jorge. Then he smiled and replied heartily, “Si, muy bien.”
“We’re going double or nothing. A Church will be at least another 300 Byte on top of what we have so far,” Jorge said to Kaylee and Matteo’s mortified faces.
“But our rooster is spent! Did you see that fight? Just let him live,” said Kaylee.
Three other roosters were thrown into the pit. The drones whirred as compartments within them opened and began dropping live BlackCat firecrackers onto the field.
“Chinnnnngaa…” softly escaped from the lips of Jorge, Kaylee, and Matteo.
Somehow, Chuy pulled through. He lost many feathers and his right eye. Within an eternal minute of scratching and clawing and going-for-the-neck, he remained the sole survivor.
“We’re goddang millionaires,” said Kaylee.
“Tripled our money,” said Jorge.
“Well, that’s still some twenty thousand shy of what’s left on my sentence. Still, I’ve gotta confess, I was terrified of this place. Coming here on the run and with two kidnapping criminals didn’t seem so smart but wow is Loteria awesome,” said Matteo.
The man in the starched shirt sauntered over to declare the winner. Before lifting Chuy above his head to proclaim victory, he shouted, “Un momento… Un momento… Hay un problema. Este es un cochino gallito!”
“What did he say?” asked Jorge.
“It’s a dirty chicken,” answered Kaylee, as the reality of the situation took hold.
“To be precisely accurate, it’s a ‘pig-doped’ rooster,” said Matteo, with a gulp.
“Look who knows Spanish all of a sudden,” said Kaylee.
“Hey guey, I told you it was looking at me muy maldito! I told you they look at you like that when they’re cochinos!” A young woman shouted and threw betting chips on the ground.
The man in the starch shirt ran a UV light across Chuy’s feathers. A few lit up neon green. “The glow, that’s a tracer tagged onto extra hormone genes. You owe us big time, gringos.”
“But we didn’t make the chicken,” Jorge said, seemingly composed, “Also, we’re not white.”
“Dude, grinogo’s meant to be insult — he’s not being literal,” said Kaylee, “And I am white, duh.”
“You calling my son a liar?” an older man in the crowd wearing a buckle that said “Abel” said.
“No. What I am saying is that Chuy is not our bird. We bought it on loan from that nice lady over there.” Jorge pointed and Flor was gone. Come to find out, so was Dillo.
“Mentirosos! You’re cheating us. You think you can come here and push your way around so easy?”
The room quieted and then filled with a gobbly shriek. Matteo’s bird fell to the ground limp, dead a second later, by the knife of someone who lost just a bit more of money than the chachalaca was worth.
“Woah, woah, woah, y’all!” Matteo caught a butterfly knife emerging from a leather cocoon in the corner of his eye. He reached and grabbed a drone out of the air, one loaded with BlackCat firecrackers, and threw it into the hay enclosure of the pit. It stuttered on the ground and then lay still.
“What the hell was that for?” Kaylee’s eyes were huge.
“I dunno — I thought it’d start a fire or something. Shit,” said Matteo.
A motorbike, keys sitting in the ignition, idle, waiting to be lost and won on some wager caught his eye. He jumped on.
“Jorge, Kaylee come on!” Matteo beckoned from the bike. She got on and for the first split second of touching skin-to-skin on an arm here, a shoulderblade there, he felt the fuzz of imagined static electricity. Jorge got on, facing backwards.
What felt like a bee sting dinged Matteo’s bicep — a BB from somebody’s pellet gun. The trio lurched forward about ten yards, but before the bike could pick up some speed, Jorge hopped off and ran after Chuy.
“Jorge, what the fuck, man?!” shouted Matteo.
:: Ese cabron esta muy locito. You better watch out with him.
“I’ll be right behind you, buddy,” he said. Somehow, there was that outpouring of friendship in his emotionless face.
The bike started blaring Bidi Bidi Bom Bom through speakers neither Matteo or Kaylee could locate and the bike frame shook. Matteo wobbled around the compound in a circle, hitting tables and bumping into pillars. Rooster feathers everywhere.
“You know we’re underground, right?” said Kaylee.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” said Matteo.
“You know you don’t know how to drive a racer, right?” she asked.
“Some of us take the bus our whole lives, ok?”
They switched places. Kaylee gunned it right for the freight elevator. The doors were open, and they skidded in.
::If she’s always driving, she’s never going to respect you, son.
Matteo saw three Rangers climb over the haystacks of the arena, pulling at their holsters. One Ranger pulled an automatic shotgun from his side and fired a shot in their direction. Bullets sprayed across the interior of the elevator.
The doors closed. Matteo cut the bike’s speakers and spoke softly. “You ok?”
“Yeah, you’re kind of shielding me,” said Kaylee.
::That’s how you do it. A real gentleman.
“You think Jorge’s ok?”
She paused and said, “Honestly?”
“No, nevermind — we don’t have to talk about it… I mean, is he our friend? Are we friends? What’s the level of loyalty, here?”
“… Ok, I’ll stop talking out loud,” he said.
Kaylee shaded her face with her hand.
“We didn’t even get the damn Church,” she whispered. “You two are way too risky.” She sighed. “At least you didn’t try to escape from us on the bike, though.”
The elevator chimed on the next floor and they sped up a makeshift freight ramp on the far end of the complex and onto the dusty gravel road, the sun setting to their left. Soon, they crossed the place where the untamed white ground met the blacktop of the highway. They were both sweating through their clothes and out of breath. Matteo’s shirt was torn at the collar and splatted with blood. Kaylee’s hair was tangled, dirt caked onto the dried sweat-salt on her face.
Kaylee and Matteo sat on the steps of the raspa stand. Three hours of silent treatment had passed and they’d attempted to regenerate their energy by eating half a dozen raspas each before lulling into a sugar crash.
“I’ll be honest with you. We really need him to come back. I can’t do this on my own,” she said.
“You’re not facing jail. I don’t want to listen to you,” said Matteo.
“So you can talk, huh?” she said, trying to get a smile.
Matteo crossed his arms. “You’re lucky you’re a girl or I would hit you. Alien guys, though, those I will hit.”
And just then, Jorge showed up on just one chachalaca. Chuy, the prize rooster, was safely strapped onto the saddle, snug inside an Easter egg basket.
“How in the hell… Do you know how much more trouble I could’ve gotten in?” Matteo stood, fully agitated.
“Hey now, don’t get angry at Jorge. I thought you’d be thanking us. Loteria was just as dangerous for us. And before you met us, weren’t you to remain on the garbage barge for pretty much forever?” said Kaylee.
“I’m basically super illegal now!” Matteo wiped spit from his lips and didn’t back down from Jorge, who was irritatingly serene. “How much will assuming an illegal identity cost me back on the Barcaza? Do you have physicals good enough to buy my way out of that?!”
“Don’t say illegal. How many times…” said Kaylee, force-smiling at the neighbors as they walked by the stand.
“And what if we were caught? Then what? I’d be in prison!” he shouted even louder.
“Dillo had everything under control back there. I’ve been in a rather complex negotiation with him. For a native you certainly have many things to learn about how things work here in Alamo City,” said Jorge.
“Dillo?! Dillo fucked me over in the first place! Dude, I know him from the inside. Guy is shady, ok? You shouldn’t work with him! Because I still owe him money, too.” Matteo was all clenched fists and a tight neck and nearly growled. He kicked some dirt.
“Yeah and plus, I’m white and cute to boot. No way I’m getting in any real trouble at Loteria,” said Kaylee.
The front door to the stand was open, letting orange light spill out onto the brush yard.
“Aw, bros was the door left open that whole time?” Jorge was sticking to practicing his slang in front of the others.
“Yeah — I guess it’s my fault. I was the last one out before Loteria,” said Matteo. Jorge tied up his chachalaca to a post. He turned a squeaky faucet knob to run water into a bucket. As it filled, he lifted a sack and poured grain into a small trough. He carefully let Chuy out inside of the stand, and made a little fence for him out of the shipping boxes for styrofoam cups.
“Way to go, native. Your people in these parts are pretty darn trustworthy, ain’t they? Looks like everything’s still here, anyway,” said Kaylee, “Trapdoor’s untouched.”
Matteo pointed to an old gas-electric hybrid station wagon parked behind the stand. “Wait, whose suspicious clunker is that?”
“The wagon? That’s mine,” Jorge said.
“Does it run?” asked Matteo, annoyed by Jorge’s ability to deescalate a fight. Maybe that was what made him so good at gambling.
“Well, yes. Otherwise I would’ve sold it for parts to help fund the lab by now!”
“You mean you own a car and you made us ride birds… Do you realize what a liability they were that entire time?”
Jorge shrugged and said, “They hadn’t been walked in a while…”
When they got inside the bunker, Kaylee collapsed on the couch, Matteo sat on a stool and splayed his torso on a counter lined with physicals and glowscreens on screensaver mode, and Jorge laid supine on the floor.
“I just want to go to sleep right now. Can’t make it to my room. Do I get a room? Which one is my room? I better get a room,” Matteo said.
“We haven’t even unpacked, ourselves, been splitting time on other people’s couches and hotels. There are no claimed beds yet. Except the one mattress. That I just claimed right now,” Kaylee said.
“It looks like you just have that bag to unpack. That one bag. That can’t be strenuous,” Jorge said, pointing.
“Well… yeah. Yes, I have one bag,” she said, matching his monotone.
“I’m sorry, you two. I should’ve devised a way to keep us from losing two of the birds,” Jorge said.
“At least Matteo stole a bike, right?” Kaylee added.
Matteo turned his head so it was no longer resting on his forehead and he could speak. “Don’t remind me. I’m still nauseous. Yeah, and plus now my face is probably on Dillo’s hit list.”
“Dillo. As in, next time he sees you, Dillo gonna grillo your butt-illo,” said Kaylee, obviously pleased with herself.
“Do you always pester everyone you have a secret crush on?” asked Matteo.
“Do you always think everyone has a crush on you? I saw how that chachalaca was biting at your hand maybe it was smitten, too… before it died, anyway.” She frowned.
Matteo rolled his eyes.
“The bike was a nice score… and Chuy,” said Jorge, as he weighed a satchel of Byte in his hand.
“Alien Jorge keepin’ the swell in Roswell,” said Kaylee.
That night they passed a bottle of mezcal around, which Kaylee pulled out of a secret compartment of the cafe racer. She needed to get a better feel for Matteo. Was is possible they might convince him to be experimented on, out of his own free will? Maybe if they explained the situation slowly…
“The best part of Loteria was Matteo getting called a hoe.” She poured a careful portion of mezcal into a small clay cup and handed it to Matteo.
“What?” Matteo winced at the swig he took, “God, did you steal this? You two really wanted to land me back in jail!”
“What did you get?” she asked.
“What do you mean what did I get? Nothing. I’m not a thief,” said Matteo. So principled, this lonely criminal seemed.
“Some criminal you turned out to be. No wonder you let that squat dude in the coveralls get away with calling you a hoe.” Kaylee moved towards some of the luggage. She pulled off the packing tape of one of Jorge’s boxes and pulled out a bag of Takis. She frowned. “Way too spicy.”
“I think you perceived that situation incorrectly. That human, I believe, said ‘Dale ojo,’ otherwise known as the evil eye,” said Jorge, “It’s a local curse.”
“Ludicrous,” Matteo said. Kaylee picked up on his weak bluff. He probably believed in that stuff.
Jorge walked to the bathroom. Kaylee waited until the lock on the door clicked and walked softly over to Matteo. “Hey, Matteo, so by now have you figured out who this guy Jorge is?” she whispered.
“Wait a minute. How am I supposed to know anything about either of you?”
“Sorry, I assumed you knew a thing or two about the underground. Keep your voice down. Me and Jorge met through the ‘net like a few weeks ago,” she said.
“What ‘net, like MySpace?”
“No, the physical ‘net. Just like you. ‘Cept, unlike you, we’ve kept our profiles semi-anonymous. Guy has his ducks in order. I knew it the second I got his first encrypted message. This guy is Jorge…”
“No way,” Matteo whispered half to himself when it struck. He was the stuff of legend. He’d come across an archived html file of a Reddit thread on a physical some time ago. “Citalli,” he breathed.
Kaylee was whispering and moving closer to Matteo, completely engaged in getting the information out. “Well Jorge did this experiment that got his school a ton of grant money from the Mexican government. Nevermind how he is able to get his hands on the physical money, he takes it and burns it all in a bonfire in front of all of his teachers. I mean, some of the bills had to be part of their salaries for the year. People think the dude is some kind of economic terrorist. The authorities throw him out of school and before they can lock him up in jail he escapes through Arizona. At this point, nobody is the wiser to the fact that he pockets a little bit of it, maybe five percent and takes it to Reno. When he’s there, he card-counts blackjack, because he’s some kind of goddang numbers whiz, and wins the grant money back, get this, three times over. Since he’s technically a fugitive, but not an altogether bad guy, he sends the money back to pay for a bunch of science projects for kids in his school and then writes an Op-Ed in the New York Times about it. How he got connected there?” She shrugged, “Well, supposedly that’s how word got out. Nobody has that issue saved on physical far as I can tell.”
“Oh, yeah, the Times article. Yeah, I heard about that, but you never know with East Coast news…”
She could almost feel the alcohol take control of his gaze. He was definitely falling for her. She noticed the scarcity of hairs in his few-day-old beard and found them somewhat cute in an aspirational kind of way.
“Yeah, he says it was a political statement on how even though ninety-five percent of experiments don’t work, the five percent that do work can end up making huge, unpredictable benefits. Stop hogging the tequila,” she said.
“That’s pretty clever, actually. So, uh, what’s your story, you know?” said Matteo as he passed the bottle over.
“Welp. My parents are both super academics. One’s into economics, the other into neuro.”
“Oh, where at?”
“They teach in Houston, but I lived mostly in Dallas,” said Kaylee.
“Dallas. You’re kind of demanding. Don’t drug me again for saying,” he said and laughed a little. She picked up on a genuine nervousness that was lingering in his voice.
“Please… Well anyway, the short of it is, they wanted me to follow in their footsteps and I called bullshit. Academics, at least with what I’m into, biology, is a joke ever since the human GMO ban. It’ll probably get worse and we won’t even be able to sell pan de amor or anything. Anywho, businesswoman that I am, where there is a need for new biotechnology, there is an opportunity.”
“I guess I’m your first employee,” said Matteo.
“Well, after Jorge. Though it’s more of a partnership at this point, to be completely honest,” said Kaylee.
“Speaking of Jorge, the guy is a total geek, though. He pretends he’s an alien but actually acts like you would expect one to act. Everything with any kind of mechanic is interesting to him. He’s been really helpful with getting things set up here… God, I saw him reading a blog about indigenous technology, like fire pits and bows and arrows the other night. He better not put up a dreamcatcher or some ancient thing in this place. I get really distracted if my area looks too organic,” she said.
Jorge walked back in and started up the ladder. “Hey, is anyone going to climb up and close the front door? Maybe we should make a list of duties since we’re all habitating here, now. Having a closed front door is an important first line of defense against Rangers and spies, bros.”
Jorge came back down after an extended moment. “And I heard all that you just said, by the way. My hearing is several times more sensitive than humans’.”
“So what? We heard you. You know, farting. Hmm, you have that look on your face, again. Did you see her upstairs again? Did you get a good looksee at her butt this time or what?” Kaylee blurted at him.
“Who? The neighbor? Yeah,” Jorge took the bottle from Kaylee and drank thirstily.
“Knew you took a few seconds too long up there. Was she an attractive young woman? Or you just saw the butt?” asked Kaylee, as she took the bottle back.
“Only butt. It was a good butt. As good as human butts go. Functional.” Jorge spaced his words apart like tiles.
“Useless, Jorge.” Kaylee passed him the bottle and thought about Matteo — was it proper time to try to sleep with Matteo and his little butt so soon? The wild card was whether Matteo was mature enough yet. Seemed kinda babyish despite his size. Better to not make any moves — it might affect their experiment.
“Geez, you’re rough on him,” Matteo said.
“Useless at scoping out chicks, Jorge. Otherwise I’m sure you’re a… great dude. A real stand-up guy,” she said. “I’m not sayin’ we didn’t end up on top, but what happened back there in Loteria, man? I thought you were good at gambling. Instead, we ended up running for our lives.”
“What? Why would you think that?” asked Jorge.
“Well, I mean, how else would you beat house blackjack in Reno to win back that money of yours?” Matteo said.
“You’re confusing my story or at a minimum received incomplete information in regards to those events. I just had good fortune. Coincidence is not causation,” said Jorge.
“Ssss….” blew Matteo.
“You’re not serious. He’s serious,” said Kaylee.
“I didn’t make my Earthly fortune through probability bets. That activity has always been supplemental,” said Jorge.
“Then how? It can’t be lab stuff, we’ve only just started,” said Matteo.
“You know dildos?” asked Jorge.
“At least two, yes,” said Kaylee.
Matteo looked at her and frowned. She was getting through to him.
“They’re sculpted after me,” said Jorge, as though he was saying what ingredients went into a rainbow raspa.
“No,” said Kaylee and Matteo, together.
Kaylee pushed further. “But, I mean, like, the ones with the extra heads or the ones with the little whips or the tiny rotating beans?”
“All of them,” said Jorge.
Kaylee and Matteo closed their eyes.
“Wait, if you modeled all of them… that means you have many many genitals, where do you hide them all? I mean on your thin alien body… I’m already regretting asking,” said Matteo.
“Don’t be absurd, Matteo, I can shapeshift my penis just like everyone else. Oh, I also forgot to tell you, I managed to get an old Church after you left Loteria. The vendor said he couldn’t get to work, so it was on discount,” Jorge said as he pulled out a wallet-sized, see-through microfluidics machine with protruding hoses and funnels from his back pocket and plopped it on the table. Chuy pecked at it angrily.
“How did Chuy get down here?!” said Matteo
“Wait we have a Church?! Just like that?! Why didn’t say something sooner?” said Kaylee. “Now I’m too buzzed to start playing with it.” She felt her experiments on Matteo were inevitable, now.
“Same,” said Matteo.
“Well, I had a side bet going. I’m not inebriated, so I’ll get to fixing it alone, then.” Jorge pulled a small, high-end tool box from a shelf and got the Church situated under a large rectangular magnifying glass.
There was no way Kaylee could let Matteo in on the plan with Jorge around. She had to find a way to get him alone some time soon. Some place well insulated where Jorge couldn’t hear what they were saying so easily.
“Rise and shine, Romeo,” chimed Kaylee, as she threw a foil-wrapped breakfast taco onto Matteo’s erection. “I don’t blame you, for the, uh,” she raised an eyebrow, “protrusion. That couch has some nice crevices.”
“What? God. God, you are not appropriate. And this taco smells good. Nevermind that.” Matteo rubbed his eyes awake. Kaylee was playing a rerun of a nature show on a glowscreen — David Attenborough was going on about pikas.
“Those things are really cute,” said Matteo.
::A sensitive guy, good job! Just don’t let Jorge hear you.
“Yeah, can you believe they existed once? Here’s a little thing to read while I’m in the shower.” She handed him an article printed with blue-purple ink, now on the verge of fading. The delicate light-brown paper was perforated on each side.
“Nice paper,” he said.
“Hot off the press. I’m sure you know what it means when something gets printed from a rare printer. Hint: important information is protected on old file formats. Memorize it,” said Kaylee. Jorge’s footsteps weighed on the wooden floor above.
The title, “LAB PROTOCOL Cell printing with Church”, seemed to come from another world. His whole life biotechnology had been disappearing, and now it seemed like he’d be a part of its resurrection. He sifted through the twelve connected pages — vortex this amount of solution and spin the samples at this many multiples of gravity for this length of time and so on.
The raspa service window slammed close from above and the roar from the air conditioning unit quieted. Jorge emerged a moment later. He sat on a chindi rug in the center of the room, doling brown playing cards out to himself.
Matteo leaned over the couch armrest to get a better look. “What’s that you got there?”
“Magic the Gathering. It’s a vintage card thing,” Jorge said.
Matteo noticed pictures of elves and elixirs on some of the cards. “Oh, yeah? Looks like solitaire for hobbits.”
“No, not in the least. It’s designed for two to five players. But I like to play by myself, over and over, while changing the order of a single card in the deck. It’s normally a sixty card deck but I just play through half of it. It helps me figure out what moves are obvious and which aren’t. Then I write about what insights I gather on my blog.”
Matteo searched but had no reply.
Jorge looked up at Matteo. “You don’t know what to say because you think I’m a dork.”
Matteo still had no words.
“Because I have a blog, right?”
“No, not really,” said Matteo, finally. “Guess that means you fixed the Church last night?”
“Yup. Taking a break before we get the cells started,” said Jorge.
Matteo sat back now that he could better process the situation. When he’d read about Jorge on message boards years ago, he had envisioned him as someone who would wear beatnik or nerd goth attire, not delicate geometric-design collared shirts and boat shoes. Kaylee looked almost exactly as he’d expect from what she said about herself. Healthy skin and hair from eating premium produce and only wild-game, and adept at hiding the economic wealth of her parents under toned down, standard countryside sartorial choices. They seemed to fit her perfectly, Matteo thought, and then realized some people might have enough money to tailor their clothes.
::You should really get with the guera. Just my two cents. She seems loyal and smart and she will have a good job when whatever this shit you all are doing falls apart. Got a mouth on her, but they all do! It’s important for setting the kids straight.
Kaylee exited the bathroom in her towel, beads of San Antonio Water System on her shoulders and back. On her way to sit down on a workbench stool, she said, “You’re not a dork because of the blog, Jorge. We all have blogs. Mine’s about horses. Matteo’s just quiet on account of he’s still getting adjusted to you. And why is there manteca in the medicine cabinet?”
“My hair, of course,” said Jorge, cracking a labored smile. He reshuffled the deck.
“Chingado,” Kaylee and Matteo said, together.
“So now that we have a Church, it’s time to get down to business, boys,” she said, “the business of making so, so, so much Byte.”
“Oh so you do have a biohacking plan, after all, then?” asked Matteo as he crunched the foil taquito wrapper into a tiny basketball and took a shot at the wastebasket. “Swish.”
“Yes. I made one, just now, in the shower. And it’s time to let you in on what it is we do here. Ever since the GM human ban, people have been thirsty for new medicines and ways to modify themselves… especially rich folk.”
“I’m listening,” said Matteo.
“Jorge and I have been thinking the best way to profit off this is to resurrect malaria,” she said.
“Ok, so, that is a plan. It could be a plan. Just off the bat, uh, you do realize malaria kills people?” Matteo remembered the anti-malarial he took at the Basura Barcaza and decided to keep the information to himself.
“So, for one, we’ve procured some tissue — ” said Kaylee.
“Through a series of high risk gambles,” added Jorge.
“Yes, Jorge got the cells. We’re not talking about regular malaria, here. We’re talking about synthetic malaria, syn-malaria,” she said.
“Ok, so this is something designed. Designed for what — doing something to the blood? I mean, if you have a Church you can just print human cells for whatever purpose,” said Matteo.
Without looking up from his cards, Jorge said, “I told you we could work with curious.”
“Thought about it, but we’re not surgeons. Who knows what kind of problems human cells would cause in people. With a genome as big as humans, we could easily trip up and can cause them to be precancerous, or maybe trigger immunological rejection. Matteo you are staring at me,” she said.
“Oh! Sorry. You’re just… in a towel,” he said. He was pretty sure his erection had left by now, though.
“That’s no excuse,” she said, eyes wider, head cocked.
“I just, uh…”
“I’m fucking with you. I saw your dick, already, anyway.”
“Okay. Wait… what?” This girl was nuts.
::Hahaha, te ves tonto! It’s ok I can tell she likes you.
Jorge pooled all the cards back into a deck and shuffled. “Synthetic malaria is top of the line stuff, Matteo. The parasite infects only red blood cells where it hides from the immune system and you can add genetic code into it to do whatever you want. It has a small genome, so less chance we accidentally mess things up. Even better, the spleen clears it out of our buyer’s system in a month or so, so no long term damage if there is any to begin with, and they have to buy more!”
“This sounds like science fiction. I didn’t hear about any of this, ever,” said Matteo.
“How could you? This is all developed underground. We’ll use the Church I got to read the malaria DNA and design modified versions of malaria. It’ll spit out whatever we design. Thanks to my handiwork last night and all morning correcting its broken pieces,” said Jorge.
“Ok, so I’m going to go out on a limb here. Is the DNA sequence I decoded on Barcaza related to this?”
“Yes,” said Kaylee. “It’s a partial sequence of an enzyme we need to print our cells, crisper.” And Matteo visualized the red debt tally on his old clock drain to zero in his mind.
“Ok, let me get this straight. We have a Church, and enter the genome of the malaria parasites, then enter in any sequence for any kind of thing, like medicine, then print the modified malaria using crisper and sell it to people who will actually inject the stuff into their veins?”
“Yes,” said Kaylee.
“Which assumes this Church protocol you gave me is correct, which has several steps blacked out and is printed on tissue paper that’s nearly disintegrated, and we can get it to work in our hands, our inexperienced hands?”
“And that you trust Jorge fixed the machine well enough?”
“And that when people use the cells, they won’t cause any off-target side effects?”
“Yes. Well, actually…”
“Are you always so risky with people… like human beings?”
Kaylee sighed. “This is a long shot. It’s not a two-body problem experiment. It’s more like a one-million body problem experiment if you think about how these systems behave over time. It doesn’t matter. We can make money, money will buy us more things to improve the technology and ultimately we are helping people, can’t you see? Don’t think you can teach me a thing about whether or not this is ethical. I mean, you were just locked up in jail a day ago. There’s better things to focus on, in fact the major technical hurdle we have to worry about…”
Whoa, who said anything about ethics, Matteo wondered. Touchy. “Well, you’ve got me, the muscle, and Jorge who is going to negotiate on your behalf at Loteria once everything is up and running already. Aside from the physicals and computers, this place is pretty bare, though,” said Matteo.
“Yup. We have to not only feed the machine nucleic acids, amino acids, sugars and lipids, but we need pipettes and media and all that good stuff. It’s all on you, Matteo.”
“You’re serious? I’ve got more assignments?” Matteo said. He was becoming aware of how easily charmed he was by Kaylee, especially when she put him on the spot.
“You’re not the only one working, you know. We need crisper enzyme to do any editing, and that’s going to be near impossible to track down,” said Kaylee.
Jorge chimed in, “Yes, crisper is very hard to come by. We gave up on obtaining purified enzyme, already. The best strategy is getting the crisper amino acid sequence and making it from scratch… maybe with dry peptide synthesis.”
“While we’re doing that, we need you to focus on your task, Matteo. You’re the one we enrolled in school. We need you to eavesdrop and learn what Alamo U’s biology program is about… We’ll take care of the crisper,” said Kaylee.
“You’ve got to be joking. I’m from Alamo City. I know people that go to school there. What am I supposed to say when they say they thought I was supposed to be in jail. That I should be in jail.”
Jorge interrupted, “Hey, I heard about this really good taco place. We should go there tomorrow morning — before Matteo’s starts his mission. You know, as a tradition.”
“See, it’ll fit your story, then, if they catch you thieving, that is, when you steal us some pipettes… and gloves,” said Kaylee, “Which tacos, Jorge? Also, that’s not what tradition means, exactly.”
“I don’t even have a licensed Mist profile!” protested Matteo. He felt almost like a child. There was no way he could turn this around somehow and have Kaylee respect him enough to want to sleep with him.
“Rolly’s Tacos. No, you won’t come up anywhere as yourself on your Mist. We already loaded a fake student profile back onto it. It’s temporary, one day only, and it cost quite a bit of Byte. We should call you by your new name, Mendoza, so you get used to that identification. And, you, Mr. Mendoza, are an incoming freshman.”
“Oh, where was Rolly’s again? I heard about them. And no one’s gonna look at your dumb face for very long in person, Matteo,” said Kaylee. To Matteo, it didn’t even feel like she was joking.
“Rolly’s. It’s located inside of Loteria.”
“Chingado, Jorge,” Kaylee and Matteo said, nearly in unison.
“Wait, wait, wait. Shutup about the tacos. Why can’t you or Jorge go and do this school robbery?”
“I’m female. I know you’ve noticed, perv. Nerds will be trying to ‘help’ me all day. Jorge is recognizable in science circles, even out here. Too much of a risk if anyone even remotely connected to bioindustry realizes he’s here.”
“But — ”
Alright, look I’m burnt out, prisoner Mendoza. That’s enough science class for the morning.” With her hair now dry, she donned a clunky old VR helmet and a Nintendo Power Glove.
“Whoa, is that haptic?” asked Matteo. He was irritated at the thought of the next day, but paying off his prison debt never felt closer..
“Yessiree. No direct neural stimulation to mimic VR sensations, here. I like the sounds of the little motors.”
“I thought that neural wouldn’t happen for another ten years. Did you get your hands on prototypes? Do you have any around here?”
“I lied. Don’t exist yet,” she said and giggled.
Jorge looked puzzled at a card draw and shook his head. For a quick break, he turned on the holoprojector and loaded a bootleg fan-made 3D version of Jurassic Park from an old, souped-up USB stick.
“Hey, Matteo. Why don’t you go buy yourself some Alamo U and Spurs clothes and snacks for us at H-E-B? And definitely a toothbrush and deodorant. Here’s some Byte.” Kaylee pulled a roll of the Loteria winnings from a fold in the couch without removing the VR visor.
They were beginning to trust him, weren’t they?
Kaylee waited a few minutes after she was sure Matteo was gone to bring up a pressing issue. She felt, strongly, that if Matteo knew of his impending doom, he might volunteer to try a chance at beating his imminent death with their immortality experiment. She brought up the idea to Jorge, who said he had not gotten that sense from Matteo in the slightest. Perhaps this was unsurprising, given his newness to people. Or purported newness to people.
The safer bet, for Matteo and the other people Kaylee intended to save, was a properly controlled blind experiment, countered Jorge. Matteo couldn’t know whether he was being saved, if they were to properly account for any placebo effect. She reluctantly agreed.
Kaylee hadn’t moved from her spot the entire time Matteo had been shopping at H-E-B.
“Just what are you playing, anyway?” Matteo asked, startling her and making her realize she’d lost track of time.
“I’m playing Ocarina of Time for N64 with a mod. It makes all the fairies naked with square boners and triangular tits. Hey, I have a question for you two,” she spoke to an empty corner with her Power Glove grasping the air. She was going to prove a point to Jorge.
“Bombs away,” said Jorge, still somewhat consumed by the hobbit solitaire, of course.
“I think you mean shoot,” said Matteo.
“It’s serious, though,” said Kaylee. “Ok. If you could download yourself into a computer…” her mouth opened and she looked to the right quickly.
“Yes?” said Matteo.
“Sorry, got distracted. If you could live forever, like by being downloaded into a computer, but, but technology limited your virtual world to Kokiri Forest, would you do it?” she asked.
“Uh… tits or no?” asked Jorge.
“Tits,” she said, with a sigh. “Of course.”
“Hmm. Still no deal, no. Immortality is a plague on my home planet. I don’t trust it,” said Jorge.
“Matteo, what about you?” she said, a bit irritated it was very possible that Jorge didn’t even pick up on why she was asking what she was asking.
“Hmm, probably. Depends on what my elf boners are like,” said Matteo. Was he trying to flirt with her instead of answer the question?
“There’re no elves in Kokiri Forest. They are fairies,” said Jorge.
“When the alien’s right, he’s right,” she confirmed.
“Wait no, I take it back. The fairies, they don’t really talk, do they? You’d be stuck reading the same conversations over and over,” Matteo said.
“That would work for Jorge. He’s totally incapable of conversation,” said Kaylee. Matteo hadn’t answered strongly in the affirmative, so she decided to go along with Jorge’s evaluation and keep everything a secret. Even though Matteo’s stupid flirting had some weird appeal to it.
“Some species appreciate the quiet,” said Jorge.
“Speaking of village elf clans, I think we should start a club. I mean, we are like… ” said Matteo.
“What?” asked Kaylee, quickly turning her head away from him.
“A club. We’re the only three biohackers in Alamo City. Maybe even Texas,” said Matteo. He started to unpack some of his new clothes.
“Oof! H-bomb! We are not going to self-identify as hackers,” Kaylee started laughing a little and pulled off her VR helmet, her golden hair static-clinging to it for a moment. Blood rushed back to the white places on her cheeks and nose.
“Shh… it’s the best part, turn it up,” said Kaylee, turning towards the holo-movie.
Jeff Goldblum leaned forward and told the incredulous minority-race scientist, that maybe even if Jurassic Park consisted only of female dinosaurs, unable to reproduce…
“We kind of are, though, a hacking club,” said Jorge.
“Just a club of hacks. Wait guys. Shh… I know what we should call us… Wait for it…” Kaylee turned the surround sound volume up from her Mist.
“Life, uh, finds a way,” said Goldblum, with the faintest, inspired smile. The bass in his voice sounded incredible in their insulated lair.
“Yesss. We should use that as our club name, ‘Life, uh, finds a way’. And! And if you forget the ‘uh’ in the password, you get killed!” she said.
“Haha, sure, why not?” said Matteo.
Jorge offered an improvement, “We should make an acronym out of it, like contemporary biologists often do. LUFAW for short.”
Sounds like “Love? Aww…” said Matteo.
“Aww…” they said in unison.
“Who knows, if everything works out, maybe we can genetically modify Matteo so he can actually speak Spanish,” she said.
“Callate el bocas, cabron,” said Matteo.
“I think Kaylee should continue to speak. Her insights are of great value to this group,” said Jorge.
“Maybe you should give up, Jorge. You will never understand humans. Matteo here is just immature and teasing me in an immature way.”
“Show me how to scoff, again,” said Jorge.
Kaylee scrunched her eyebrows and exhaled with a slight flare of her nostrils. “Hah!”
Jorge said, “HA! My species is capable of understanding the geological flow of planets made up of a hundred times the number of elements humans are. I think i’ll get the hang of human culture. HA!”
“Settle down. It’s so weird watching a movie with so many physical special effects. Who has the joint?” Kaylee appeared pleased.
“Joint? There’s a ton of CGI in this. It was one of the first movies, I think, to use Photoshop like that,” said Matteo.
“Yeah, but that velociraptor is a puppet. Clearly. Everything is mechanical in that obvious way humans make machines. Look at that Jeep — it is tangible,” said Jorge, skipping himself after lighting a marijuana cigarette.
“None for you, eh?” said Kaylee. She exhaled. “This Alamo City shit is weak.”
“It doesn’t affect my brain the same way as it affects humans. Keep it away from my cards. They are magnets for smoke damage,” said Jorge.
“Right. Buddy, can you just wait a little longer to say more crazy things so I can be stoned when I hear it,” she replied.
Matteo started stocking an empty shelf with some instant noodles he bought at H-E-B.
“Hey, Matteo, look at this!” She was holding a new bottle of mezcal and three clay cups.
“Where the hell are you hiding those, for real?” said Matteo.
“You weigh like a hundred pounds, too,” said Jorge.
“Maybe on your goddang planet. I’m like one fifty-shut-your-mouth. We’re almost there, Matteo.” She patted his head. “Your Byte debt is nearly good as gone. Why don’t you go and get the malaria cells ready for culture then you can join in on the pot and booze. Do a slow thaw, a quick spin to get rid of decayed cells, take the top healthy layer, then add some cell food. The all-media is in the fridge, cells are in the freezer. We only have the disposable plastic pipettors for now, so be careful not to waste any.”
“How’d you get all-media? It locally releases the right buffers and salts depending on the specific cell surface it encounters, right?” said Matteo.
“Yeah, but even that’s not enough. You’ll have to add some of my own red blood cells to the mix. They like that. The parasites will grow in the cells you revive, then burst and infect mine. That way we have a bunch to work with. I have like ten milliliters pure Kaylee red blood cells ready to go.”
Matteo walked over to the mini-fridge. He opened the single door and pried open a sandwich tupperware with a piece of red tape on it, labeled “IMMO SAMP1 07/22 Ch. Grove”, which had been stored in a tiny upper frozen shelf. “Nice minus 20, y’all.”
“Yep. Laziest way to get a mixed culture going this side of the galaxy! State-of-the-art cryostorage brought to you by Jorge’s winnings!”
“It’s true — ” Jorge said.
“Yaaah!!!” Matteo sounded like he was confronting death incarnate.
“Jesus what?” she said.
“Ahhh, ahhhhh.” And then Matteo made a weird gurgling sound.
“I was expecting, expecting cells, frozen cells in a fucking tube. Not a fucking FINGER!” Matteo spat.
“Well where do you think cells come from? Sheesh.” Kaylee put her helmet back on and took a swig of mezcal from the her cup somewhat blindly. “Take another shot and get some rest after you stick that in media. Gonna be a long day tomorrow. For you.”
“But whose… finger… ? Nevermind,” said Matteo, a look of horror still on his face.
“If you get those cells into culture in less than twenty minutes, I’ll treat you and Jorge — I mean I’ll treat LUFAW, to delivery Whataburger. Then, when you get us some supplies tomorrow, we can FINALLY get those suckers sequenced,” she said. “The we’ll be filthy rich.”
Matteo woke up clinging to a dream of a red cloud undulating across a webbed night sky. The mezcal had been good enough that he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up sleeping above the basement, next to the ice machine, where the sunlight could pummel its way through his eyelids. On the floor next to him was a yellow sticky note. It read “11 am, BIO Bldg room 42.1- sit in the back. We trust you to return to secret base. But also don’t forget we’re watching you. Destroy this note.” She had bothered to draw a little cartoon penis.
He felt his heart beat a little harder and imagined his circulatory system attempting to distribute the alcohol toxins from tissue to tissue, lowering the dose so that no single organ was overwhelmed. Kaylee and Jorge were dutifully tracking down crisper, he thought. If anything, they were serious about the biohacking thing. He climbed down the ladder for a quick shower.
Near the exit, a now-warm bowl of cereal was waiting for him. Jorge must’ve poured it, not realizing milk would be disgusting to humans at sun temperature. Kaylee was probably too tired of correcting his behaviors to bother sticking it in the fridge. What a couple of… were they a couple? No, no way. Matteo tossed the cereal then bolted outside the door to dry heave against the side of the building.
He caught the VIA on its way to Alamo University. The bus climbed and descended hill after hill in motions that tested his vomit reflex. From a distance, he spotted the AU dormitories stacked like Tetris blocks and covering most of the sloping face of a hillside. Beyond that, twelve story parking garages encircled and blocked the view of the insides of the university like the stands of a coliseum.
BIO 42.1, where Mendoza was supposedly enrolled on the books for a day, was snuggled into a basement half-room in the building. There weren’t many campus Rangers around, so he figured he had good chances of getting in and out with all the lab supplies they might need to get started.
Inside the lecture room, dust lazed upwards and downwards in the air, illuminated by slit windows at the ceiling. He barely fit into the seat, the hard plastics jutting into his body felt like a pressure point massage, soothing some of the hangover by drawing his attention elsewhere.
A deep-brown girl with platinum silver hair, shaved on one side, sat next to Matteo, an event that years of being ignored by women had conditioned him to never expect.
::Don’t fuck this one up. Es chula.
Dad AI was annoying, but right. And he was on track to be free of his jail sentence and even rich soon. He swallowed hard and managed, “So, uh… you taking this class, huh? Me too, heh.”
She did a nuanced, tremendous thing where she kept facing forward and only barely moved her eyes towards his general direction. She paused for just so long, perhaps questioning whether she would be impossibly rude to not respond at all.
“Yeah.” Her voice was attractive. Crisp and soft, like the edges of a beam of light.
“Are you a late recruit, too?” asked Matteo.
“Cool. What’s your main major, then? I’m Matteo, by the way.” He considered putting his hand out to shake but that would be very nerdy wouldn’t it, and there was a good chance his hands were sweaty, wasn’t there?
“Sonia. I’m… undecided.” She couldn’t help say her name as though it belonged in a song.
He’d captured her first name. Enough to MySpace a person. In sight of his Mist, but not her line of vision, he typed her name with his right hand on the top of the desk for a quick search. Sonia — no hits for anybody in her age range, nearby, anyway. Great, she was already trying to avoid him.
He whispered “Aren’t we all?” to her, and then possessed, he winked. He coughed. There was nothing to do but let the wave of awkwardness drown him.
::Necisitas estar en silencio, no un comediante!
After a pause, she said, “Don’t search for me when I’m sitting right next to you,” with a look of self-exhaustion.
Matteo’s mouth opened wordlessly and he sunk into the desk he barely fit into. He’d made eye contact, at least. That had to count for something. Anyway, his mission wasn’t girls, it was lab thieving. At this time, anyway.
::She’s too stuck up. Don’t give up. But, hey, you and Kaylee still aren’t official yet, right? When I was your age I was having way more fun!
Matteo clicked off the AI function.
Professor Negrete saved Matteo’s freefall by showing up to class. She stood quietly for a moment, just taking in each face, with an expression a bit too concerned for her casual posture. Then she spoke, “Congratulations. You’ve made it into a highly competitive program. The selection process was rigorous. Our admissions algorithms show each of you is statistically unlikely to get married or to be needed by your family and friends or lack thereof.”
The students seemed to actually be a little relieved.
She continued, “But before we begin, you have to ask yourself a few questions only you can answer. Can you deal with the long nights in lab, foregoing whatever side hobbies and sanity you may have gained at this point in your life? Can you not only come up with new questions about the nature of living reality, but answer them through cleverly designed experimentation, all on rations of instant noodles and maybe, on the nights you decide to really let loose and splurge, eggs, too?” She forced a smile.
Yes, said Jorge, into Matteo’s Mistpiece.
“What the fuck?” said Matteo.
Kaylee: Quiet down! Jorge and I patched into your earpiece, Romeo. How’s the boner? Don’t answer that I don’t mean to get you excited.
Dr. Negrete looked at Matteo, puzzled for a moment. “Well, you’re in luck if that sounds like a bad deal. What I just described were the good old days. Back when being a biologist meant asking what stuff was made up of and what it was doing and even what you could do with it.” A look of regret formed on her face.
Jorge: We can hear everything.
“That’s uncalled for,” whispered Matteo.
“Mr… Matteo? Is it? You disagree?” said the professor.
“Uh… no, doctor…”
“Well good, then, because people paid good Byte to take this class and I am the one talking and the one teaching it. As I was saying, instead, here you’ll learn everything you need to know to be a modern scientist. What’s that entail? Well, it’s mostly administrative things like how to buy custom modified bacteria, since most every gene of any useful function, real or predicted, is on permapatent.”
Kaylee: You can thank me. Jorge wanted to tap into your Mist contacts, too, so we could see what, I mean, who you were up to. But I rather like imagining her from voice alone. Big tits? Zelda-style torpedos?
Jorge: I still think having his eyes is an obvious precautionary measure.
Kaylee: Yeah, but we already saw his dick so there’s nothin’ new for me to see.
“The bright side is, it’s really not too hard. I’ll hold your hand through learning the quirks of the software. Pick an organism, it’ll tell you what genes work in it, drag and drop your enzymatic cycle of interest and boom, in two or three days you can have that animal mailed to you. Of course we can only work with the single-celled ones now… or plants.” She seemed turned off at her mention of plants.
“We might cover some theory, too, for those of you who learn to hate yourself and want to adjunct for life. As far as lab is concerned, this is almost a historical degree. We’ll go through the motions of what people fifty, eighty years ago used to do, but not to any real end,” she said.
Kaylee: I don’t mean to interrupt but this doesn’t sound anything like science. The university labs are finished. Just wanna say I was right and my parents were wrong — they’re toast. I didn’t want to believe it. We’re on our own.
“It’s not so bad as I’m making it sound. There’s more to life. In any case, speaking of life, we’re gonna cut the lecture portion in half today and move on to the laboratory.”
Their trot up the stairwell was quiet and uncomfortably tight. Matteo let himself get lost towards the end of the line so he could talk with Jorge and Kaylee.
Kaylee: Good riddance. Soon LUFAW will have our own labs in a rad warehouse loft space overlooking the Alamo. And we’ll have breakfast tacos every single day. Delivered.
Jorge: I don’t think that will happen. The warehouse spaces are already overvalued downtown.
“Is that so?” said Matteo, impressed.
Jorge: Yes. Also based on your footsteps there are thirty-five stairs between the basement level and the first floor of the old building. This is at odds with the architectural records for Alamo U we have on a physical. Hmm.
“Good to know.” Matteo couldn’t help but grin, right at the moment Sonia turned, holding the lab door open for him. God, what a creep he is, was exactly what it appeared she was thinking.
They walked a gentle slope down into a dark laboratory. There was just one decoration, a chemical-splatted poster of a cat dressed up in a lab coat and goggles. In yellow lettering beneath: AUs Chem department is GOLD! The cat was orange, too. Matteo recognized the Comic Sans font from vintage computers he’d read.
At each lab bench was pair of purple gloves and lightly-stained coats draped over stools. Matteo picked a bench in the middle of the lab and grabbed a pipette. It felt light and tiny in his large, gentle hand.
“Today we’re going to pipette and weigh one of the most precious, important ingredients of life,” said Dr. Negrete. She rolled out a few beakers of a clear liquid on a push cart and distributed them to each student. “You’ll go ahead and pipette out different amounts on each pi — wup wup wup, do not invert the pipette,” she asserted to a student, “pipette out different amounts of water for each pipettor you have onto the scale. One milliliter of water should equal one gram.”
Matteo got his first solid look at the other scientists-to-be, finally resting his gaze on Sonia. She was leaning against a back table, not participating, somehow camouflaged even in the confined laboratory.
Kaylee: So, wait, what is the point of this? Aren’t all their students superstars? Why waste time on measuring water?
Jorge: Pipette calibration is the point. Is your audio not working? The professor stated very clearly —
Kaylee: Stop clowning around, Jorge. It’s a waste of time.
Jorge: Calibration is a job skill.
Kaylee: But I thought there weren’t many pipetting jobs left… as it is…
Jorge: Physical labor takes many definitions. On my home planet —
Kaylee: Goddangit, Jorge. Stop.
The pressure of having to ransack the place weighed over Matteo. He felt the heat of his body trap underneath his lab coat and manifest as sweat inside of his gloves.
To stay as anonymous as possible, he dodged small talk, all beneath a suffocating canopy of Jorge and Kaylee instructing him. Which items can he absolutely not afford not to steal: pipettes, a small table top centrifuge, conicals — sterile conicals, gloves — small, medium and x-large (and don’t forget the smalls), agarose, microscope slides, cell media, Bovine Serum Albumin, phosphate buffer…
Where was Sonia? She’d slipped out.
When class was over, he hung around the outside hallway, hoping the Dr. Negrete would forget to lock up the lab. But he only succeeded in walking straight into chit chat.
“Can I help you, mister… Matteo, was it?” the professor asked over the noise of the lock and her set of keys.
“No, nothing,” he said and retreated outside of the building. He sat on a bench in the shade. After Dr. Negrete had exited and crossed the far end of the quad, he slipped back down the stairway and into the hallway leading to the lab. Sonia was jiggling the door handle to the lab.
Loudly, he said, “It’s locked.” She turned to look at him and half smiled, then focused her eyes on something behind him. He turned to check if anyone else was in the hallway, and in that instant, she was gone again. A door slammed somewhere out of sight, nearby.
He approached the lab, his footsteps at first slapped the tiles and echoed. He corrected weight to the ground to cushion the sounds. It dawned on him that a backpack would’ve been inconspicuous in the classroom setting and useful for thieving.
Kaylee: You forgot to bring a bag, didn’t you?
Jorge: Just store everything into a biohazard waste bag. They’re kept in every laboratory and are indicated by the color red.
“Roger that,” Matteo spoke under his collar.
“Nothing. I’m going to break the door.”
Kaylee: I can’t hear you. Is your mouth covered or something?
He let his shirt relax. “No. Okay, I’m just gonna break the glass.”
Jorge: Do not sever your hands. We can’t afford you spilling your DNA all over our supplies.
“Gee, thanks. I’ll make sure to keep my life fluids inside my body where they belong.” Matteo removed his socks and wrapped them around his massive fist. He sucked in air and popped through a panel of glass closest to the door. The quick release of adrenaline seemed to trip up his heart beat. He panted erratically. “Ok, I can feel the door handle… I’m in.”
His eyes widened and the phrase “kid in a candy shop” popped into his head — a very old saying he’d realized he never really understood until now. There were no candy shops in Alamo City, only panaderias, and eating sweets from one never felt like a special treat, just like what breakfast was supposed to be like.
He located a biohazard bag and started chucking boxes of tips and reagents and glassware in. Within the amount of time it took to calibrate a pipette with water, he had amassed the cost equivalent of several months scavenge-and-read labor on the Barcaza in lab supplies.
Something about the room felt amiss. He could hear it even over Kaylee double-checking the list of items he needed to get. The air pressure had changed and then there was a grating, confident step filling the hallway. He ducked behind a stool, and noticed his left hand began to shake.
Someone approached the door. Thick fingers probed the edges of the hole Matteo had punched. Blood thumped in Matteo’s temples. He could feel his chest pound against his clothing. And then, without warning, the person left.
He hid for a few more minutes and then creeped out of the lab and up the steps, a syringe and dull needle in hand (used for priming the chromatography machine). Could it have been Dillo? Maybe he was playing both sides, working as a bounty hunter for the Rangers. Or worse, interested in whatever Jorge and Kaylee were now up to. In any case, he was nowhere to be seen, and Matteo caught himself looking at the branches of the oak trees irrationally, as though Dillo might be able to climb in boots.
Jorge: You shouldn’t take the bus back. Too risky when you’re carrying that kind of bright orange payload. We’ve dropped the racer off in the main parking garage.
“And if I use it to run away?”
Jorge: Well, we thought you made it this far without trying to escape, so we could trust you with it.
Kaylee: Plus you owe us your freedom. Also we strapped a bomb onto the bike in a secret place just FYI no big deal. But it will detonate if you stray too far.
“Shutup.” Matteo poked his head through university trashcans until he found an empty one. He dropped the red bag into the clean black bag and pulled it out. Now he looked like an incoming freshmen moving junk across campus to the dorms. He realized he could’ve been one, too. Would his mom have been ashamed to see him walk the campus under these very different circumstances? He was making it on his own, just like she had. She had no right to criticize.
The racer was parked at the top of the enormous parking garage, affixed with a new gleaming metal rack for hauling the bag. He tried running to it but ran out of breath quickly. Soon he was precipitating down 10W and then Broadway Ave on the racer, weaving through joggers in the bike lane and bikers in the auto lane. A welcomed chore for the clunky speeder.
When he got back to the shuttered Raspa stand, Kaylee and Jorge were hunched over a slurpee machine, modifying its mechanical innards. It was customized with additional inlets and hooked up to a console and glowscreen. He plopped the bag down the secret floor opening.
“Careful! My Magic cards are laid out on the floor. You could’ve disrupted their order,” said Jorge.
“Didn’t want to risk contaminating it with my DNA on the climb down.”
“Heh,” Kaylee laughed to herself, otherwise totally immersed in a snow cone getting struck by alternating jets of syrup water, cold air and lasers.
“Wait, is that some kind of a 3D printer?” asked Matteo
“Yes, it’s the only way to get the right syrup-to-ice ratio. At least on a planet with this kind of gravity. And it lets us design a precise lattice that doesn’t melt as quickly,” Jorge said. Kaylee grabbed her cone and started to eat it with an overpowering look of self-satisfaction.
“Well hers is melting rather quickly,” said Matteo.
“That’s because I programmed it that way because I like it that way.” She shoveled a small mound of ice from the ice machine on top of the slush.
“Alright well since apparently I’m the only one who actually worked today, I’m taking the night off at a bar or something while you unpack all the goodies I brought.”
“Fair is fair,” said Jorge.
“Peace,” said Kaylee.
“Yeah, we trust you. We need more time to get crisper and the cells need another day or so to grow before we can get to work on them. I am surprised you want to drink after last night,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Matteo asked.
“Oh, you don’t remember?” she mewed.
“Oh, nothing,” she said.
“God, whatever.” He probably said something after the third cup of mezcal last night. She knew he had a crush on her, didn’t she? At least getting teased by Kaylee was less painful than outright dismissal by Sonia. Not that he’d ever see her again.
Right before Matteo had closed the door behind himself, Jorge said, “Hey, I might join up with you later — after a couple more rounds of hobbit solitaire.”
Matteo grinned and thought that might be a swell idea, after all.
Riding through the streets of Alamo City made him realize how confined he’d been for the last year, first on Basura Barcaza, and then in that small raspa stand. The bike was a nice bonus to the way in which his luck was turning. It was even starting to bend to the form of his body, and Matteo felt soon it would feel like another appendage. He whistled. “Mist, you around?” The AI clicked on.
::Como estas, Cochino?
“I’m alright. And it’s Matteo. Haven’t you heard everyone calling me by my real name, yet?”
::Estas muy sucio. How can I help you, hoy, Cochinito?
“Ok, help me decide what I should do to celebrate not being in jail, I guess, and also not getting killed by my kidnappers. God, last time I was out… was I can’t even remember.”
::Well, what do you normally do for fun, hijo? Times have changed since I was put together.
“What’s going on at White Rabbit? Or better, I could go to Lo-Tones for cumbia. Jorge said he might pop in later, and who knows maybe Kaylee, too. So, keep their tastes in mind.” He pivoted the bike to avoid a bag of Whataburger littered on the ground.
::Ay Cochino, no estoy seguro acerca de este plan tuyo. My prediction algorithm can predict your level of happiness based on your choices, and this is not recommended.
“Well, are there tickets for whatever show is at Rabbit? It won’t sell out, not on a Thursday. Plus everyone’s started school already.”
::Tickets aren’t the problem, tonight. It’s what my calculations say about your average long-term happiness, based on the two options you suggested.
“Doesn’t matter. Look, it’s been a long, weird week for me. I doubt any kind of break won’t lift my mood. And, like I said before, Jorge said he’d stop playing cards to come revel amongst the humans. That’s got to have entertainment potential.”
::Well it’s to do with your recent internet browsing history.
“What… do you mean?” Matteo hallucinated the reds and blues of Ranger lights behind him.
::You’re lonely. Most of the porn you’ve been looking at resembles…
“How did you get access to — chingado, nevermind.” His feet broke into a sweat. “Are you sure? Of course you’re sure. You’re a well-trained AI. Well, so what? It’s only natural. I see her every day, and there’s that whole Stockholm syndrome thing. It’s a real thing,” he said, surprised at the calm in his own voice.
::You’re longing for Kaylee, not some quick concert fling. Still, personal opinion, you should’ve taken that school girl to her room and banged her.
“They’re not all flings, you know. I even bet Jackie is going to be there, from high school. Maybe I stalked her Myspace earlier today. Did you see her name there on the list? What’re her chances of going if she already RSVP’d publicly?”
::61% chance of showing up with 20.6% standard error for this venue. Yes, Jackie is an attractive woman. But she’s not right for you. Probabilistically, you’ll hook up with her and spiral into a clinical depression when the desires you project onto her aren’t realized as you think they would with Kaylee. My predictions are predictive given the amount of information about you that I have available to me, 72% of the time, give or take a percent.
He swerved to avoid a twenty-something year old carrying an antique chair across the road. “Ok. Quemado. There’s more than one hot girl there tonight, though, right?”
::Well, yes. There are two other girls that fit your physicality preference. But they’re not Matholic. If you share any intimacy with either of them, your happiness will dip tomorrow. And based on your diet and brain chemistry, this might last a long time. Overall, assuming your current lifespan trajectory, you’ll accumulate a negative average of overall contentment. Look, Rabbit’s just not a good option. You’re at about 68% level of happiness right now.
“Well, what about Lo-Tones? That’s cheap and I’ve never had a bad time there.”
::No, no, no. That would be worse. I can scan what’s getting ordered at the bar right now. Lots of Milagros and a highly unique pattern, in order and timing, of Lone Star and Chamoy shots. Strong indication that a certain girl you know is there… and that she’s with someone you are better off not seeing her with.
“Wha-? Look everybody gets rejected, okay? It’s not a big deal what happened between us.” His eyes darted to several vague places on the dashboard, as though the electronic voice was located in the bike and they could see each other.
::Si, lo siento. I can’t tell you anything more or it’ll whittle your current happiness state even more, below the 50 percents.
“Can you tell me something encouraging, instead? I mean, you have access to the Mist in real-time, right? There must be a good match for me somewhere? That isn’t the girl who is holding me hostage. I am pretty healthy, and funny, and smart… I mean, I am a criminal, though. Ooh, do a search for women who love bad boys.”
Matteo flexed his biceps, subconsciously, a little bit. The first towers of downtown offered their relief from the brutal Sun.
::Well I do know who your soulmate, if you want to call her that, who she is and where she is. Lives in New New Braunfels and she is grabbing a cup of tea at the moment. You’d like the cafe, too. Student at…
“So, alright, why don’t you put me in contact with her?”
Matteo idled the engine and crab-walked the bike through a short corner of a one-way street filled with chicken-on-a-stick and booze vendors. This was the only way to get past the clogged artery between Commerce and Houston.
::Here’s the thing… it’s not a good idea. She doesn’t like to meet strangers. Her aversion to new people would kill your chances.
“Hmm, no online dating? Sounds like a luddite, my type.” Matteo blinked for an extended period to lubricate his eyes and then a pothole reminded him he was driving. “Ok, and if she’s as good as you say she is, if we’d both reach 99% or 100% happiness together, I can figure something out. I’ll just meet some of her friends. They can introduce us and I won’t have to ask you for advice every decision of every day. I’ll be happy. You’ll be fully charged.”
::Hate to break it to you, but her friends are very, very likely to hate you. It’s just how their preferences are working out, whichever parameters I try using for my statistics. And since they won’t be impressed by you, it’s highly unlikely they’d ever introduce you. It’s a waste of your energy. Lo siento.
He stopped at a red light and leaned on one foot, behind a truck that had tires as tall as his shoulders. The exhaust breathed black-gold clouds into his face. “Fine, alright. Well, it’s probably, technically my only night off for who knows how long. I don’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon arguing with you. What do you want me to do? Go back to my prisoner cage?”
The AI had distracted him from the pressing fact that he’d left the gentrified safety of Broadway, passed through downtown, and was now on Roosevelt Ave.
::Sorry, I don’t think that’s a good idea.
“Come on. I think I’m just going to get some fideo from somewhere and eat it on the couch.” And he wondered if Kaylee might flirt with him again. “At least my new prison has television and raspas.”
::You’re right on the cusp of falling into a dark, sad emotional pit, here, Matteo. 46% of Alamo City residents who stay at home and give up on having fun end up in really bad relationships or develop health problems o hay peores problemas, tambien. That percentage es mucho mayor for those with your genetic profile.
“Well, que quieres que haga!?”
The light turned green.
Matteo was silent for a moment. Then he turned up the radio. A sermon poured out through the speakers.
::You’re just making yourself more upset, Cochino. I’m sorry. That’s why I didn’t bring up plans for tonight, on my own.
“You’re sure about this, then? Aren’t you supposed to be my dad? Like look out for me and stuff?”
::No. I am preferences of your dad mapped onto the average personality traits of others in his demographic categories. Trust me when I say manning up now and dying is really is the best outcome. You’ll have led a life with the highest possible fraction of happy moments.
“Alright, alright,” his lungs deflated cool air, “I’ll do it… What’s the quickest and least painful way, you know, to put an end to… myself?”
::Ok, I can tell you that. But are you sure you want to know the easiest way for you, or the way that is least likely to cause your friends and family emotional scarring?
“Oh, this has to be a fucking joke!”
The bike bounced and jerked forward, then made a low screeching noise. “Fucking thing fucking eighteen percent chance it’s wrong, fuck. Seventy two percent accurate meh meh fucker fuck percent the fuck. I have the rest of the day off!”
The cycle and his heart stuttered like worn wind-up toys, and then the engine stalled. Roosevelt Ave, a wide, hot street frequented by prostitutes and drunken, shored scavengers had just hooked its next meal.
Matteo dismounted the bike and pretended as though he had shut it off on purpose — there was no reason to call attention to himself on Roosevelt Ave. He kept his head level and confident and walked it across the street and through a wide grassy field. He stopped to rest on the black of a four-spot parking lot adjacent to a bright blue building.
He stared at the bike, looked away, and then stared at it again. He tried the ignition — the bike edged forward and then died again. He tapped his fingernail against the temperature gauge. Then he loosened the cap to the gas tank, inspected it, frowned and tightened it. He touched a chrome part of the bike that looked like it could be movable, burning his hand. “Fuck!”
He approached the low-slung building, a white cardboard sign on the front door read: NO gang colors OR sports gear OR gun OR knifes more than 2 inch. Well, he wanted to hang out a bar, didn’t he?
Footsteps sounded from somewhere and he stepped back instinctively, not quite ready to admit his ignorance of motorcycles to any badass type dude that might walk out of the building. The Sun burned the top of his head and he felt the first beads of sweat form on several places on his body. Then, there was shade, and a crisp voice from above, “Life, uh, finds a way, don’t it?”
Matteo looked to the rooftop at the moment the shadow disappeared, stinging rays of sunlight in its place. He panted and moved his fist to knock on the door, but it swung open. Sonia was standing with her arms crossed, leaning on one hip, a chameleon in a neon green wig. A cold front of freon air whooshed over his body. She was like an intergalactic ice angel.
“You gonna come in?” She wasn’t looking through or past him, like before in class. “Or you could wait outside in the heat and keep looking at the bike until the engine rewrites the second law and unbreaks itself.” A few more seconds passed. “Hey, you deaf?”
“Suh-sorry. I’m hot… and dehydrated. Were you just… upstairs? On the roof?” The chances of him running into his dream girl twice in one day, well, it invoked fate.
“Yeah. Roach nest up there. Best kept secret about this dump. Get in here — let me pour you a drink antes de secarte.”
“Huh? Yeah. Sure. Roaches,” he sputtered. She turned away from him, and he convinced himself that she was probably used to having awkward, lonely goofs like himself lose their vocabulary.
The door opened into a short hallway, lined with faux-wood paneling, which was peeling at some edges. The path led to the main bar, blue-carpeted on the floor and part of the walls and windowless. In the dim calm of the pre-happy hour rush, the space was pinned down in browns and greys. Sonia switched on neon-strung LED disco lights from behind the bartop, forcing the room into color.
“So… I guess your true major is shilling booze?” said Matteo.
“Not exactly. I just pick up shifts here every now and again. What’re you drinking?” she asked.
“Uh… nothing at the moment.” He figured she’d probably heard that line infinite times before, even though he felt he’d made it up on the spot. “What should I get?”
“Lone Star beer for the loneliest star at the bar,” she said.
“Alright… I’ll take it. Am I that obvious? I mean, about the loneliness,” Matteo said as he turned over a barstool to sit on.
“And I’ll pair it with a shot of mezcal for the most adventurest speeder at the bar,” she said, smiling through the last few words.
“Alright… sounds good. Just don’t get me too too drunk. I need to fix that bike… or call someone to. Haven’t tested its self-drive mode,” Matteo said.
“Don’t worry about that. Here is your order, sir. And welcome to Franky Espada’s.” She could give a convincing hospitality when she wanted.
“What do you mean don’t worry about that? I have cells to feed in the morning, on the other side of town in the lab, you know. In the lab at AU. Something you wouldn’t know about, since you’re just auditing.” He was making sure to keep his cover story of being a student straight.
“Ooh, what I know is, well, I’ve never met an expert on what it is I’m interested in. And, just so there’s no lies between us, I wasn’t auditing. I was just sitting in,” she said and poured a shot of Fernet for herself. “Let’s drink.”
He sipped the Lone Star. “Ok Sonia, I am having a… a time, with you. Who the hell are you? I mean, for real. I talk to you once at class and then you’re on the roof spouting our club passwords later on the same day… I don’t know what’s going on here.”
She whispered, “I’m not Sonia. Don’t say that name in here again. Concha, not Sonia. Don’t forget it. But be prepared you may need to forget it. For your own sake, down the line.”
“Concha — like pan dulce or sea shells?”
“Wow, you sure you’re twenty-one? You seem kinda innocent,” she replied with a face holding back a measure of surprise.
“Sonia, Concha, white head of hair earlier and now a bright green head of hair. I’m pretty confused, here. You could be any girl,” said Matteo. He was pretty sure she knew he wasn’t twenty-one and just teasing.
“I am surprisingly capable of putting on different clothing and wigs, aren’t I?”
“Alright, Concha. Very well, then.” Very well, he thought to himself, who says that? “Don’t worry about it — it’s me who’s being awkward.”
“I’m not worried about anything. Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude. On three…” They lifted their shots, gently banged them on the bartop and then took them to the back of their throats.
“Ahhh… ok, better. So tell me about your cells.” She said as she snaked from behind the bar to the table area to turn the jukebox on. “Better get some Rod Stewart in before the locals switch it to one hundred percent Tejano.”
“What’s wrong with Tejano? Wait, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to distract me. So, really, how did you find out about LUFAW? Or did I hallucinate that password you said?” asked Matteo.
“Well yes, I am distracting you. You’re making it pretty easy for me, ’cause you dig me. There’s always more to it than just distraction. You know, maybe you’ve got a point. I do love me some Little Joe,” she said.
“You got Little Joe on there! How? You can only get him on CDs, right? Where did you find a CD jukebox? Somehow he missed the boat on both vinyl and digital. Fuck, you’re doing it again. How did you know about LUFAW, Soni… Concha.”
She sighed. “I really don’t know if I can answer that because I really don’t know if I believe you’re in it to win it.”
“Science. Anybody can make and join a biohacker club. Doesn’t mean they’ll do anything worthwhile,” she said.
“Damn, you did it again. How did you find out about LUFAW?” He wanted to show her how upset and betrayed he felt but also really wanted her to like him. The best thing to do was to appear as stoic as possible.
::Stay cool Sigue asi.
“LUFAW, that’s your workmates at the raspa stand? What’s their deal anyway? You sound like you hate each other. It’s always an odd shouting match. And that one kid from Mexico. Seems a little off. Caught him staring at my ass this one time,” she said.
“Oh, so you just overheard us talking about it. Do you live next door or something? Or did you bug the place?”
“Not exactly. I’m sometimes in that area, visiting people and I’m always aware of what’s going on in my town. It’s not like I hunted you down, specifically.”
Most of the people in that neighborhood were older, she must be visiting family, he thought. Another Alamo native.
“OK. Well, about Jorge and Kaylee’s weird fighting… how can I put this? First time we went to Whataburger, all of us together, Jorge just orders the burger patty with diced pickles on top. No buns, no ketchup, no nothing. I asked him why he likes his patty that way. He tells me he is from another planet and a plain burger’s all he can eat. And the pickles, of course he can eat those too, but only if they are cut a certain way to facilitate absorption. I don’t really think that’s likely, you know, that other beings somewhere are made up of the same stuff biochemically that they could actually survive off of cow meat. What are the chances our food would be compatible with an alien digestive system? Assuming they even have one.”
“Mhmm.” Concha was resting her chin on her palms, leaning across the bar. “One sec. But keep talking.” She turned away and started filling a beer tub with ice.
Matteo spoke louder over the noise. “So, I play along. How is it your species or whatever can digest cow protein? Aliens should eat something totally different. And he looks me square in the eye, and he says ‘My senses tell me there’s no cow protein in this patty.’ And, guess what? He’s fucking right. If you google Whataburger’s patties, you see they switched from cow-based lab meat to some totally synthetic peptide mash. But anyway, that’s what it’s like talking to Jorge. There’s no winning but you’re better off for trying, in terms of perspective.”
“Isn’t it just as unlikely he’d be able to eat something synthetic? And aren’t synthetic patties chemically the same as non-synthetic ones? Nevermind, I can see how this gets annoying fast. Well, so he’s an oddball, where does all the shouting between you clowns come from?”
“Jorge doesn’t really yell, that’s all Kaylee. And it’s love-arguments, I think. She just doesn’t have any patience for his stories sometimes. I get that Jorge probably has a lot of problems though and maybe making up these crazy stories is a coping mechanism or something. It doesn’t really bother me,” Matteo said, wondering if Concha might judge him for so easily giving up the chisme on his friends.
“Ok, so you’re a little family. So, next question, how’d you get your criminal record wiped?” she asked.
“How long were you going to let me pretend like I’m a student?” He reached across the bar and poured himself another shot.
She forced a light frown to hide her smile.
The burn from the alcohol granted him a measure of assertiveness. “Ok, well what do you know about it then?”
“You tell me.”
“You don’t know anything,” he said.
“Maybe I’m just testing you to see whether you’re honest. I don’t know you. And you’ve already lied to me about growing cells at AU.” She had a point.
Matteo exhaled and looked at his beer. “Well, it’s embarrassing.”
There was nothing to discern from Concha’s expression, just a face that seemed to gain attractiveness.
“Well, you know, I wanted to meet a girl.”
“Couldn’t get hearted on Mistmatch?”
“Let’s be real. Let me be real, I mean, any technology that is so common that, you know, everyone has it — it’s gonna be full of boring people.”
“How elitist of you. Surprising since you look pretty averagely brown and poor.”
“Sure, well,” he scanned the room to make sure no one had stumbled in, “I heard whispers about physicals and that seemed to me like a cool new kind of throwback to the old internet, the internet even before the big ‘I’, you know, in the sense of local servers… but mobile in a way since people trade them. I mean, people who are using physicals, they’re sending messages out in bottles, basically, right? I thought, hey there must be some early adopters out there that are cool. Let me put up a profile of myself on some drives… see if anyone contacts me. For friends but also yeah maybe a girlfriend.”
“Wow,” she said, her eyes widening for quick emphasis.
“Yes. And the crazy thing was it worked. I was contacted.”
“By the Rangers. One of my profiles had ended up on drive that I guess had some bad, criminal material on it, so I got linked to that even though it had nothing to do with me.” Matteo felt he had been digested by Concha more quickly than a readme.txt, and that she was deriving more than just information from the way in which he answered questions.
“I have a confession,” she said.
“What’s that, Concha?”
“I fucked up your bike. On purpose,” she said, utterly nonchalant.
“How in the world are you so… so good? So. Why… would you stop me, then?” He would never have a chance with a girl like this, he thought.
::Because she likes you! Chingado. You’re gonna make her do all the work? Stop being so shy.
“Saw your ride blip on my radar. It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday. I’m bored. Don’t read too much into it. Drink up, instead,” she said.
“Oh, come on. There has to be more to it. Why would you go out of your way to hack my bike and Mist just to mess with me. Plus it’s jailbroken Mist, I’m not even sure I’m on the network. I was awkward around you at school, so what? I left you alone. I didn’t like try to flirt with you or anything. Even though I would have if I had the slightest clue how. Wow, you’re just pulling all the confessions out of me.”
“Dude… that’s the alcohol talking. You’re a baby drinker. You know, I saw you stealing supplies from the lab. I wanted to check you out to see if you were the real deal so maybe I could score some pipettes. Naturally, I led you here, where I have control of the setting.”
“Trapped me here,” he said. Her story really checked out.
“Did you know your bike is stolen, by the way? Listen, as soon as you walked into class, even, I saw you flagged on my Mist as a stolen ID with associations to accounts related to suspected biohackers, your two little friends. Whoever is working on your Mist has a pretty weak security setup.”
“You know, between the engine stall and the my AI telling me to kill myself, I thought something was wrong. Thanks for clearing that up. I assume you hacked that, tambien,” he said.
“AI? No, no. I didn’t touch your AI. Just the bike stall,” she said, convincingly.
“I guess the mystery remains. Who would want me to kill me off?” Matteo cooly grabbed the Lone Star can and absently tipped it a little too far and too quickly, dribbling beer over his chin.
“Something tells me that even with a stolen bike you’re not on anyone’s hit list. Your AI probably downloaded today’s wire. Pretty interesting scientific results floating around the pre-print bio boards.”
Matteo lunged to grab a napkin next to the little bowls Concha was filling. He couldn’t decide between the roasted peanuts and individually wrapped spicy watermelon lollipops. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ll see. I’m sure. Or maybe it’ll get covered up. It doesn’t matter either way. We’re living in a different world now.”
“Alright, Ms. Cryptic.”
“Let’s just say, now is a good time to have access to a Church and synmalaria, which is what I know you folks are up to. People are figuring out ways to live longer. La ria is a great way to implement it when the government keeps an eye out for self-engineering.” She slipped out of her hoodie, an odd choice for a sunny day, to be sure. A bit of her belly showed before she pulled down her shirt. Matteo realized it had been a long time since he had sex. Forever even.
“Well, maybe if I live long enough, I’ll be able to take you on a date some time,” he said.
She laughed, not looking impressed.
After a few more drinks, Matteo barreled through the kitschy saloon wooden swing door of the men’s room, which left the area far less than private. Inside, his heavy hands knocked over the loose paper towels on the sink. He came out, just a little bit refreshed.
They plowed through some bright red shots and then after a few regulars started to file in, fresh off their shifts, wouldn’t you know, there they were. Kaylee and Jorge, walking into Franky Espada’s. Concha and Matteo burst out laughing.
“Can’t go anywhere in this town without running into the last person you saw, can ya?” Kaylee boomed as the door slammed behind Jorge, who was trailing behind.
Concha’s good fortune multipied before her eyes. Not only did she have the prime suspect in her grandmother’s murder in the palm of her hand, but she would have a chance to get a little more dirt on what LUFAW was up to. The resident LUFAW rooster had made snooping more difficult, recently.
“Our presence is no coincidence. Your racer disappeared from our tracker. We fortunately had your last location triangulated to within three hundred feet of this establishment,” said Jorge.
“‘Had my last location?’ Oh… right, you of course put a tracker in the bike,” said Matteo.
“I’d say you were getting smarter, but you still are an easy mark for falling into a dump like this,” said Kaylee. “If it weren’t for me, you might be lost forever. Jorge couldn’t put two and two together to figure out you might be inside the closest bar — was convinced you’d been taken in by the Rangers. He was totally in space.”
“We are all of us in space, Kaylee,” said Jorge, who was inspecting graffiti carved into the bartop.
Sonia held close her blank face. Breaking Matteo out was impressive for two new biohackers on the local scene. Maybe they wanted him to write neurosensory scripts like ojo for them, or vice versa.
“Goddangit, Jorge.” She squinted at Concha. “However, I wouldn’t have put y’all two together, ever,” she spoke while drawing a line with a pointed finger between Matteo and Concha. “Anyhow, this round’s on me, fellas.”
“I’m going to need to see your ID,” said Concha.
“Pff…” Kaylee rolled her eyes from Concha all the way to Matteo, whose eyes were flickering between being able to focus and crossing. He shrugged.
“Ok… miss. Here ya go.” Kaylee projected her license through a glowscreen on her wristwatch and smiled.
“Nice watch. How’d you get the flare so crisp? I could never get my hands on an immersion lens,” said Concha. She determined Kaylee was using a real, registered Mist for herself. And she also knew she could very easily develop a crush on her.
“No lens. I wrote a script to change both image processing in the device and how they’re filtered before it’s projected,” said Kaylee.
“Cool. What’re you drinking?” asked Concha, in her regular bartending tone, secretly admiring the lines of Kaylee’s face.
“Three Bud Lights for us and whatever you like for you. Unless you want to ask Jorge for his card, too,” said Kaylee.
“Oh, no. I know him. He’s eighty-seven.” They’d met once or twice when she was a teenager — online, anyway.
“Eighty-eight on Earth,” said Jorge.
“Oh, right, I forget your planet’s orbit is a little longer,” Concha said. Jorge’s mouth smiled unnaturally.
“And Matteo? I suppose y’all check the birth certificates of all undocumented Mist users?” asked Kaylee.
“No. I’m aware you are in the business of stealing aliens’ identities. It’s pretty obvious when his Mist avatar is a stock Spurs coyote. I have a record of him, already,” said Concha. And then she realized he was about the same age as duds should be.
Kaylee just said, “Ok.”
Jorge added, “We required a legitimate Mist address to associate with our stand. If you don’t alert the authorities, we can certainly put together some form of economic compensation. May I suggest free raspas for life?”
“Sounds good,” she replied.
Before long, Concha was inundated with happy hour revelers and left the roommates to drink each other into oblivion. Matteo, Jorge, and Kaylee were getting along after one more round.
“Comer culo. Now that I’ve told you what it means, I think you should try to use it in a sentence,” said Kaylee, serious as a judge.
“Oh, I’ve fallen for that before. I may not know the translation but I’m not about to use it in a sentence the way you want me to just so I embarrass myself in front of the local population. I still am in my shock phase, you know,” said Jorge.
“You’ve lived amongst humans for years, what culture shock lasts so long?” asked Kaylee.
“Hah! No, not culture shock. Shock phase is what happens when visiting new planets. The brain is sent into a frenzy — it has to do with ambient radiation, gravity, those sorts of things. Sometimes events appear to unfold incorrectly in my perception. If I could project what I saw onto your mind, it would seem surreal. Take right now, for example. I forgot for a second or two that I am not a passive observer but an entity that is vulnerable to danger, that is physically in this context.”
“Ok, ok. Don’t tell that guy over there that you love to comer culo, then. You’re right, it doesn’t mean that you appreciate the welcoming you’ve gotten from the people of Earth,” she said.
“Go easy on him. He’s probably doubly confused with all the Tex-mex people speak around here,” said Matteo.
“Yes, and the gendered natures of your languages,” Kaylee added.
“Trickles down into bad behavior, too, right, mamacita?” Matteo winked.
“I thought you couldn’t speak Spanish very well, Matteo,” she said.
“You got me,” he said and held in a bumbling laugh.
Concha watched them interact over her shoulder. All teasing and jokes between the group. Behavior she’d seen a million times. She couldn’t bring herself to believe Matteo was behind the ojo, the sensory attack. He seemed so… clueless, which made him feel harmless, despite his large presence. Hard to tell for sure, though. She’d need to talk to him one on one again.
Jorge’s eyes lulled backwards as he picked at the label of his Bud Light. To bring him back to reality, Concha thudded her hands loudly on the wood in front of him and then rested on them. “Why don’t you tell these two about your home. What was it called again?”
“Planet Sexy,” Jorge declared.
Matteo laughed so hard his stool tipped backwards. Concha stopped pouring a drink to balance him by grabbing his collar.
Jorge kept talking and everyone kept listening, because he had never said a word about his past.
“I come from a world where a sex disease changed everything. See, one day, some people started living a long time, and it was all caused by something analogous to what you used to call unsafe sex here, back when people wrapped their genitalia in rubber, if my reading of human history is correct. Anyway, if you got infected, through sex, you couldn’t really tell at what point the infection would bloom. When it did bloom, you’d be cursed with life extension, or rather, typical aging would halt,” he said.
“Well, this took a turn,” said Kaylee and she waved at Concha for another beer.
“Over time, the immortals began to discriminate sexual partners based on ability. Those with shorter life spans were comparatively less experienced and therefore simply not as good in bed. Our beds are more like nests, by the way. Eventually the elders amassed considerable power through the weight of their sexual prowess. Advanced sex cliques formed among them, and because of their long lives, concentrated wealth and political influence, too. I will pause to say I use the terms wealth and politics loosely here, because Earth is somewhat unique in those regards. Anyway, they were out of control, bros. They’d engage in intercourse with someone without the disease and execute them after, for sport, in a sense, to make up for the sexual entertainment value the mortal lacked. Actually, I don’t want to provide any more details of this story.”
“And another turn. Welp, goddang, you’re not just an alien — you’re a refugee,” said Kaylee. Matteo nudged her with his elbow.
“Hmm. Maybe from a certain point of view. I could easily have laid low on some other planet. I choose to hop around, though, to amuse myself with the discovery of new technologies invented by other entities, like yourselves. Nature is an overstuffed toolbox. You humans have some interesting things going on here, lots of stuff based on rare chemistry. Even the protein cofactors in your bodies, phew boy, weird, to say the least. That’s where I find my purpose. I think that’s what you call it here. It’s a rough translation because, as you probably suspect, purpose doesn’t really exist. The fundamentals of reality are dispassionate.”
Jorge finally looked up from his beer label to his audience, which now included a few stragglers, huddled in a half circle of devastated expressions.
His eyebrows perked, “Did I tell you I perfected the most mana-efficient goblin sacrificial attack yesterday?”
“No, you didn’t. Tell me how it goes,” said Matteo. Jorge explained something about Magic the Gathering mana curves and card advantage for three full minutes.
Concha plopped four tomato-juice looking shots in front of them.
“Chamoys on the house. For being such good customers and all.” They’d totally missed the two fights she had broken up and the magnetic gun she’d confiscated.
“What’s a chamoy?” Jorge asked innocently right before swishing it in his mouth and swallowing.
“Oh… my god that’s… awful,” Kaylee stuck her tongue out.
“We ate this as kids, man! This was my candy growing up!” Concha took the shot, winced at the confusing assault of spices and salt, paused, and just said, “Sorry.”
Matteo had no trouble drinking it. Concha decided her profile of him was fairly accurate — he was a normal, Alamo City, born and raised baby.
The night became blurrier and blurrier, enough that Kaylee get lost on the way to the bathroom, twice. Jorge, still alternately his usual brand of odd and another drunk form of odder, grabbed her by one hand and went for Matteo’s hand.
“Our chariot to the bunker awaits. Our cells will be ready and waiting for us to get to work in the morning,” he bellowed and bowed before Concha. Two regulars at a table looked at each other to help suppress their desire to kick his ass.
Matteo gingerly slid his beer into a trashcan. “Take care of her for me, Jorge.”
“Wow, what a gentleman, even drunk,” said Kaylee.
Matteo continued, “You know… maybe it’s the third, the fourth shot, or that beer talking, but I forget, I forgot about it. I thought, hey, these guys took me forced me into their lair and hit me over the head and stuff, but you know what, let bygones be, and you know what, LUFAW forever. I mean it.”
“Jesus, Matteo. Do I need to carry you to the station wagon?”
“Ah, not this little one,” Concha nodded towards Matteo, who was now leaning far into the bartop and nodding his head. “He’s going to help me close down.” She felt fairly confident he was harmless. Definitely not a killer.
“I said, I mean it,” Matteo said, pointing at Kaylee.
Kaylee said, “Just have him back before our cells are ready to go in eighteen hours. Time is critical.”
“He’s safe with me,” said Concha. Kaylee’s drunkenness had revealed another clue, as Concha had hoped. She’d specified an exact hour because she was on a schedule, most likely for experimentation. Maybe Matteo was the subject of experimentation. Maybe that was a stretch. She’d need a bit more booze to find out. One thing was for sure, she wouldn’t mind having more of Kaylee in her life.
Jorge carried Kaylee outside, into the humid night, the both of them conversing nonsense, like two radios stuck on the white noise between stations. The station wagon, sporting a LUFAW bumper sticker made of generic, black-on-white sign sticker, sped them to Taco Cabana.
Matteo shared his last beer with Concha as the remaining drunks, with heads bowed far too low or flung too far back, shuffled out. The place was theirs alone, again, and they were each on the verge of throwing up. They shared a Topo Chico with bitters splashed in to settle their stomachs.
Concha shut down the lights one by one, occasionally having to try twice to make physical contact with the switch, while Matteo emptied the ice tub into the sink. She locked up and they leaned on each other in the parking lot for a moment.
“S’ok — about the bike,” she told Matteo, failing to focus on his face, “Can’t fix right now. Will later. Have room. Over there.” She pointed in the direction of Roosevelt Ave.
“Room for what?” he asked. Whatever lay beyond the grass and road was a blur for a second and then Motel Cielo in neon blue cursive came into crisp view. “ Oh, a room room,” he said.
He picked her up and onto the bike seat, where she was small enough to lay down on her belly awkwardly. Then he pushed the bike while she attempted to steady the front handlebars, veering a little to the left for a while, and then a little to the right for a while. By the time they crossed the street, devoid of traffic in the dead of night, the urge to vomit had subsided and a sleepy fun took over his mind.
Matteo gained some speed with the improvised pushcart, hit a bump, and Concha slipped off onto the asphalt of the motel parking lot, landing squarely on her butt.
“Oh my god! Did you hit something?!” she said and looked around, “The ground is so soft. It’s like a garden after it got rained on.”
“I think I ran over a tamale. What are you talking about? It’s reg-lar ground,” said Matteo.
“I want your tamale. Pff.” She had an infectious expression that would flash before a laugh erupted, a charm that was all the better given its rarity. She nodded to her left, which Matteo somehow knew meant that she was indicating the direction to her room. The entrance was a partially hidden behind a rusted over, unplugged soda machine.
Concha fumbled her keys and spent a minute and a half at the lock, which may as well have been an intractable mathematical proof. Matteo plowed his shoulder into the door with a stiff yank of the doorknob, pushing the lock to its limits against the worn frame. He somehow opened the door without breaking the whole thing. He had to be impressing her by now.
The suite was larger than expected and smelled like cold french fries. A few glowscreens crunched data and an antique rotary disc-drive based server was connected to an old fashioned low-res computer monitor, which was beaming a S.E.T.I. screensaver.
The inside of the closet was partially hidden by a mirrored sliding door, cracked diagonally in two. Several days’ worth of clothes hung on hangers, matched by as many strewn about the chair, on the bed and floor, though his brain refused to process the mess properly or get confused by it.
Matteo went straight to the coffee machine and poured two cups of hot water. He unwrapped two tea bags from his back pocket and began to steep them. “Do you like, live here, live here?”
Concha giggled as she rifled through Matteo’s hip overnight canvas bag. “What’s this?”
“Oh, snacks. Haven’t you ever had a de la Rosa? Try it. It’s good… for hangovers.”
“Yuck.” She let the sand-colored crumbs dribble down her chin. More giggling. “And what’s this little thing?”
“A book I’m reading,” he said, smiling in anticipation of whatever joke she was going to make. He started to giggle a little too. “‘The Persistence of Personality’, it’s about archetypes and ways of being that repeat through history and families and so on. A break from programming. But, I think programs are a bit like personalities, don’t you?”
“Oh, sure, personality persistence. The pp! Pp is cool,” she said.
“Real funny — you are way drunk,” he replied and found a binder full of polaroids to counter attack with. “What are theeese? You’re a selfie maniac. And they’re all panoramic!”
“I’m tracking my aging, as a matter of fact.”
“Yeah, ‘oh’,” she imitated his voice, “You really didn’t see the pre-print, did you? Immortals walk among us! Like 2.3% of the population! Can you believe it?”
“Oh, are you one of these so called immortals? I heard a secret they might be dying, now!”
“Not quite,” she said.
“Maybe you’re just a vampire, then,” said Matteo.
“Not even close. It’s an art project. And a science one. I want people to see how I age and I’m also tracking gene expression changes. The beauty within withers, too, something something art.”
::You can trust her. His AI knew exactly what Matteo needed to hear.
Concha turned to face Matteo, with empanadas in her mouth.
“Where did you even get those? Oh man, are those apple or pumpkin?”
“Pumpkin. The only kind.” She tore one in half and offered him a piece. He accepted without hesitation.
“Fuck, they’re so good. Tienes mas?” He started through the greasy white paper bag on the nightstand.
“I ate them all,” she dramatically turned on her side, “I ate too fast. I wanna throw up.”
“All there is is stale maranos and pink cookies left in here. Just spit out what you have I’ll eat it.”
“Ok, I’ll shutup. So… how’s motel life?”
“Hmm, it’s alright. Nobody stays here ‘cept for truckers, and they’re usually out for the night. We literally have this enclosed parking lot, empty swimming pool, and broken Coke machine to ourselves. Here’s a potato and egg I have leftover from the morning, want some? Never time to eat anything at work.”
As Matteo was distracted with the taquito, Concha entered a few keyboard commands into a small device. Instantly, Mist connections within the radius of a room or two were scrambled.
Several miles away, at Taco Cabana, Kaylee bit into a taquito of her own. “I think she cut me off!”
Jorge hiccuped. “Hmm. Cut us off. I can’t hear a thing. That Concha was savvy. Couldn’t get a read on her beyond that.”
“That’s not surprising,” said Kaylee. Then she felt a little bad about attacking Jorge unprovoked. None of this was his fault.
“Well, maybe it’s time, then. We should advance on the schedule. This female human is too much of a risk,” said Jorge.
“Yeah. She knows way too much. I’m alternately impressed and furious she compromised our experimental sample so easily. It’s like she knew everything we were up to a day in advance. How do we move forward, though? We don’t have crisper, yet. Or even a good plan to get it,” said Kaylee. At least they had more than half a day to prepare the lab before Matteo returned.
“Well, we got much of the preliminary steps done today. Then it’s at least a week or two of experimentation to go, for sure. At the very least we can see how he fairs knocked out for several days. And whether his body can handle regular old synmalaria with no additional modifications…”
“Maybe. Don’t know if I like that idea. God, today was going so well, too.” And she gripped her chest not knowing if it was just internal ethical conflict or gas.
Concha sobered up a little. “So, I didn’t just bring you here to look at your ass. You interested in trading anything? I have physicals and some sensory viruses. I’ve been picking them apart, trying to find ways to disable them blindly. But if you need some for work.”
“No, not at all. We — LUFAW, I mean, isn’t that kind of club. I’d be offended if I wasn’t so drunk.” But he was offended. “I already told you, I’m not a real criminal.”
“Sorry, I didn’t even mean to suggest you’d use it for bad, but as things to practice protecting yourself from,” she said. Matteo had his suspicions, though.
“Actually, we might be able to trade something… they mentioned needing crisper.”
“Crisper? Hmm, might be able to conjure that up,” she said.
“Yes, it’s not totally authenticated. I haven’t made the protein from the sequence or tried it out in an experiment. Anyway, I got it on the NOW.”
“Not when, how — the New Old Web. You didn’t hear it’s up and running in some areas?”
“This was the thing where some people wanted to resurrect the old networks — the modem networks. I had heard of that before. I thought that wasn’t going to be a thing for at least another couple of years or so,” said Matteo, thinking about how happy Kaylee and Jorge would be with the crisper sequence.
“Speeds are atrocious. But it keeps the file size people use down around what physicals of turn-of-the-century devices can hold. Unlike reading on the Barcaza, hacking isn’t the only barrier. Everything on NOW has an encryption preventing it from being copied by modern tech. You can’t even take a picture of the information on the screen with your Mistview. It’s actually technologically related to ojo. Instead of hacking a brain to visuals and sounds, it hacks the camera’s computational components through the lens.”
“Parece brujeria. Next you’re going to tell me people can’t just read the sequence and write it down by hand.”
“You could. Definitely. The crisper sequence tops out at just a couple thousand characters. Chances for error are high, of course. When was the last time you held a pen, though?” she asked.
She pulled out a first generation GameBoy, unsheathed and handed a Tetris cartridge to Matteo with a kiss. “I like LUFAW. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future, again. Since it’s not authenticated or anything, we’ll just call this a you-owe-me-one, for later. Still, keep this shit secret.”
“Not even a crisper whisper.” Matteo set it in his bag with care and was quiet a moment. The buzz in his head was receding like a tide, but he knew it could wash over him again any moment.
“Predictably, you’re not even asking me why I would help you,” she said.
“Hey, now. I’m not even sure I need your help!”
“Don’t think about it. I probably have my own vested interest in you,” she said.
She grabbed his hips to align their bodies together and then wrapped both arms around his shoulders. His crushed forearm latched to a boob and locked her onto him.
They quieted and noticed for the first time the weathered digital radio had been playing music softly the entire time. Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” was only a few seconds in. Concha pulled off her wig and the two relaxed and started dancing without touching.
“Eep! You have no hair”
“When I met you, I had white hair and now it’s shaved off entirely and I’m wearing green. Maybe I’ll grow rainbows, next.”
“Just a surprise. Why so many disguises, Shady?”
“If you don’t know who is worth hiding from it’s probably cause you live boringly enough to not have it be a concern. I’ve said too much!” She smiled wider.
“Well for what it’s worth, I like the buzz cut. I actually have a crippling buzz cut fetish.”
“Well, that’s perfect then.”
“Actually just on butts. Show me a good hairy buzzed butt and I’ll show you…”
“Right, I’m two-stepping with a college boy, after all. Shh, this is my favorite part.” She broke away from him and danced alone.
“How is it I am so attracted to you and I don’t even know you?”
“Not knowing somebody is the best part don’t you think?”
Matteo forced her gaze. “Get over here.” And she did! He grabbed her waist and whispered into her ear, “When I walked into your bar, I didn’t notice anyone else.”
“Ooh, haha, ‘cuz It was empty, hur hur’,” she said.
“Oh? Was it?”
“You’re the only one I see here, now, too,” she said.
They got closer and Concha knew exactly when and how to end the dance, when both felt the right amount of silly and the right amount of romantic. Matteo’s body crunched the plastic-sleeved bed, which was not bouncy in the slightest.
“Ow! Wha…” He pulled a doll out of his rear.
“Ahh! Julian!” Concha grabbed the small figurine of Julian Castro wearing a t shirt that read: 1A PRES CHICANO.
“Where did you get this? And why do you use it to cause me such pain?”
“Haha, I just always had it… since I was a kid. My parents were nuts about politics before I came along. He used to say stuff but not anymore.”
“Here’s another gift,” she said.
A shared packaged pinged his Mist. It was a .butt file, almost certainly holographic nudes for his eyes only.
“Make sure to have some privacy when you open that, you can only watch me once before it expires. And don’t try to make a copy because it will literally kill you,” she said.
Matteo just nodded, stunned that he had gone further with Concha than anyone else, before.
“Sorry… I don’t have any… I didn’t think I’d need holo — ”
“No worries. I know you just got Mist recently, anyway. And you’re a shy guy,” she said.
She dozed quickly, resting her head on his arm, wheezing a little in her sleep. Matteo found it endearing, like a stealthy bobcat accidentally giving away her coordinates during a nap. He tumbled backwards into sleep and dreamed his arm had fallen into an icy pond. Was he back on the Barcaza hammock again? The sensation woke him momentarily, and he slipped his arm free from under Concha.
Matteo shifted back and forth.
“You ok?” Conchas eyes weren’t open, her lips puckered a little bit.
“Yeah, no. Just a dream.”
“Boring. What about?”
“Home. It was the same place and everything but totally different. Kind of a spooky feeling.”
They fell back asleep and she stirred once more that night and spoke as though she didn’t know she was speaking. “Listen. I don’t normally… I want to see you again,” she said, and then she was completely out again. He had felt the connection, too. A bright future lay ahead. No more loneliness and jerking off to sexually ambiguous elves on Kaylee’s heavy VR set.
“I can’t run from you. You’d find me, again — just to break my bike some more,” he said.
Matteo rose from the abstraction of a sleeping hangover cloud and slowly remembered he was indeed still alive. Pain rushed into the front of his skull, as he used one arm, heavier than usual, to feel around the bed. There were two warm spots: one from the beam of sun pouring in through the window and another in the place where Sonia had been. Concha.
His pupils refused to leave the safety of the back of his eyelids completely, but let enough light in that he was able to spot a breakfast taco on the nightstand, a small bite of negative space left by Concha. He took a bite, beating the urge to vomit, chasing a newfound hunger. Then he got up for a dusty glass of faucet water.
Last night had really happened and though many moments were lost to memory, Concha had almost definitely not ended the night hating him. Otherwise she wouldn’t have left the taco.
He locked the motel door from the inside before closing it. His bike revved nicely again, so he revved it once more for drama and then pressed the autopilot button.
“And what happiness score you’d give a hangover overshadowed by love, huh, computer? Pretty glad I didn’t kill myself, yesterday.”
The AI chirped on.
::Hola, Cochino. Maybe it’s good you’re finally listening to yourself and not me. Tambien, H-E-B es no mas unos tres miles away. I’m very sure your happiness points will go up with a some barbacoa and Big Red.
A full breakfast was a good idea, but he thought some fried glazed donuts from the Donut Shop would have the grease his stomach needed and a nice little gift for LUFAW.
When he got back to the base, the raspa stand had been shuttered and a bright green truck was parked out front. As soon as he opened the front door, a blur of Jorge grazed him and dropped a vintage plastic astrolabe with an Astroworld logo on it.
“Hey Jor — oh, disculpe, I thought you were my roommate,” said Matteo
“Pardon me. You must be Matteo. I am Jorge’s brother, Mendoza. It’s not uncommon for strangers to mix us up. We are twins, you see,” he said. So this is where Matteo’s temporary Mist profile came from.
“Metaphorically speaking — yes, we are brothers,” piped in Jorge, hauling a bed of spikeless cacti behind Mendoza.
“No, not metaphorically speaking. We are brothers. Literally,” said Mendoza.
“Impossible. As you are fully aware, I am from another planet. A place you’ve never traveled to or even seen,” said Jorge.
“I saw you come out of mom’s vagina with my own two eyes.” Mendoza rolled his eyes.
“This is highly unlikely. Human babies do not open their eyes for some time after birth,” said Jorge.
“We look exactly the same!” said Mendoza.
Matteo swayed in awe at their likeness they even dressed similarly, still unable to focus his eyes in one place.
Jorge freed a hand and secured it on Matteo’s shoulder. “It’s just a matter of convergent evolution. Bats and birds both have wings, yet they do not share recent ancestry.”
Jorge’s touch was enough to push Matteo’s nausea over the edge. He dry heaved, grabbing his chest in pain. Then the puke erupted into the donut bag. Mendoza used the opportunity to excuse himself to get back to packing the truck. It dawned on Matteo that while Mendoza was more normal in conversation, he didn’t seem to enjoy it as much. What a pair.
“I take it your night went well. I read in a physical humans celebrate life by poisoning themselves. It also encourages recreational mating by lowering inhibitions. Personally, I never found you people sexually repulsive, though,” said Jorge.
“Here… have a donut…” Matteo placed the bag on the planter in Jorge’s hands. “So, uh. What’s your brother, I mean, that guy, doing here, anyway? Is he part of LUFAW, or…?
“He’s helping us lighten our load, down there. You never know when shit might hit the fan and you have to relocate,” said Jorge, in a vocal tone Matteo had not heard before.
“Oh, yes, that’s the right expression. Alright, well, all very interesting. I’m going to go lay down on the couch and die, now.” Matteo burped.
“Oh? Don’t do that,” said Jorge.
“What, did he take the couch, too?”
“I wasn’t being — nevermind, I won’t.”
Mendoza returned with a small briefcase. “Here, Matteo, was it? The tranquilizers.”
Matteo took the package under one arm. “Tranquilizers? Are you trading with Jorge for something else? Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”
“Then you won’t know.” Jorge wasn’t blinking as he left them to load the truck with the cacti.
Matteo struggled down the ladder into the hidden base.
“Dude, you reek of booze and stale pan dulce. Don’t get near me,” said Kaylee, huddled over a flask of cells. “You’ll contaminate.”
“It’s the donuts. I guess I’ll keep yours, then,” Matteo stretched out on the couch. “You got jealous of the new girl, or what?”
“What? Who? No,” she said.
“Whatever, maybe you should’ve made your move earlier,” said Matteo.
“Oh come on. I don’t date my coworkers.” She turned away quickly.
::She sounds nervous, mijo. I think tienes una oportunidad!”
“I guess I am just a coding mercenary for hire to you, now. A genius one.” said Matteo.
“Don’t flatter yourself. I have no interest in you. I have a boyfriend,” she said.
“Good.” He exhaled and placed the tranquilizers on a shelf.
“I know,” she said, squinting her eyes.
“I feel sorry for him,” said Matteo, dusting his hands off.
She stuck the cells back in the plate warmer. “Speaking of your filthy smell, have you noticed it’s been a week and Jorge hasn’t showered?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Matteo sandwiched his face between two cushions. Kaylee turned on a desk lamp near him. “Ow,” he said.
“He doesn’t even smell though. So, why then is he in the bathroom all the time?” she asked.
“It’s like he only poops and plays Magic,” said Matteo, satirizing interest.
“Yeah. He is one bizarre pickle.”
“Your friend,” Matteo said barely audible. Could he just get some rest for once?
Through the bathroom door, they heard a muted: “Guys, I can hear you.”
Kaylee and Matteo looked at each other in silence for a heartbeat. “How’d you get down here without the ladder?” she asked coolly.
In return, Jorge muffled, “Teleportation.”
Kaylee whispered, “He’s poopin’ again I know it.”
Jorge emerged wearing only a green towel around his waist. “I don’t need to shower like humans. My sweat is different, it’s much more volatile. And your microbes don’t colonize me because of my skin’s outer chemical composition. All I have to do is turn the air exhaust on to aid in the drying process while I’m in the bathroom. I’m not egesting.”
“Christ, nobody cares. Ya, dejame dormir!” Matteo clicked the lamp off.
“Maybe his date didn’t go so well, after all. He must be really cranky if he’s trying to speak in Spanish,” said Kaylee,
“Not everyone could afford personal tutors when they were growing up,” said Matteo.
“Fascinating,” said Jorge.
“What Jorge?!” said both Kaylee and Matteo in unison.
“Do humans always hide their attraction from each other and themselves? In which case, how does and agreement for mating ever occur?”
“Goodnight!” Matteo said and he was out just that instant, for the better part of six hours. He dreamed mostly of The Shifty Lounge.
Matteo stirred to the back and forth of Jorge and Kaylee’s conversation. He felt, for the first time this year, maybe his life, lucky. These two were legit, chill people, his record was going to be clean permanently, soon, and he was well on his way to being a biohacker. These first few days together felt somehow gilded, and he thought they would provide fond memories to reflect on in old age.
Matteo rubbed his eyes awake. When he came to completely, he saw that everyone was at least two drinks ahead of him. A neat pour of whiskey was on the coffee table for him. It must’ve been early afternoon already.
“Hair of the cat,” said Jorge, passing over a glass with a tortured smile.
“No, not exactly right, but thanks.” He tipped the drink back and let the liquor sit on his tongue a moment. God, it tasted delicious.
“Fur of the cat,” Jorge said.
“Yes, Jorge, fur,” said Kaylee, her eyes set on Matteo. He wondered if she was trying to read his face for clues as to whether he and Concha had hooked up. They really had, he remembered. He had the .butt file to prove it.
“Here, take some ibuprofen for that headache. Don’t worry it doesn’t stress your liver when you drink alcohol like acetaminophen does.” She handed him two brown pills.
He popped them to the back of his throat and swallowed with a swig of booze. “Thanks.” Was there something a little dark and sad about Kaylee? She must be really jealous, he thought.
Matteo cleared his throat. “I was thinking, you know, I think LUFAW needs to crack immortality. It’d be such a money-maker.” After meeting Concha, he wanted life… more of it — infinite sums of it.
“Whoa, how’d you get that info about the immortals so quick?” said Kaylee. She seemed to almost relax.
“Concha told me. You already knew about it? Shoulda said something,” said Matteo.
“Oh it could be a very important turning point for you people. Before, you just had VR and movies to live vicariously. Now you can actually do it, since spending a whole lifetime doing something or being someone is a negligible sacrifice. It happened to our people on Planet Sexy,” said Jorge.
“So, about that… about immortality…” Kaylee started, as she grabbed a pillow and moved closer to Matteo. She had a look in her eye he hadn’t seen since the first time they met.
“Oh, hey, and duh, I almost forgot. I think we can do it because I got crisper. Sorry, it totally slipped my mind after… last night. You know, I did basically get laid, so yeah, makes sense that it would slip my mind. Whoa, what’s in this ibuprofen? My brain just got a lot more clear. Probably the whiskey. Anyway, I totally got the full sequence of crisper.
“Yeah, the whole sequuueeennnnncee…” And then Matteo lost control of his mouth, which felt like it was made out of tamarind paste and he knew he’d been drugged yet again. His eyes crossed and rolled backwards and he fell backwards into twilight.
“Holy. Goddang… Jorge!” said Kaylee. Jorge’s mouth was frozen open about the width of a pencil. “We have to wake him up. We have to get the crisper!”
“Kaylee, take a moment to gain composure. We just knocked someone who is already probably on his deathbed the fuck out. We can’t just inject a host of uppers into him. He’s delicate,” said Jorge.
“Fuck! Sorry, I mean, goddangit! Do we just go ahead with it?”
“If we proceed and it works like we hope, he’ll live and maybe he’ll cooperate?” Jorge offered.
“And if it doesn’t, he dies and we lose crisper,” she replied.
“You’re still assuming he agrees to give us the sequence, though. Might not go over so well. He’ll suspect we drugged him since he just woke up from that nap. Hmm.”
“Let him sleep it off. Maybe we can convince him before the deadline for the most dangerous part of the experiment. Also I was right! He would’ve been a willing test subject, Jorge. What a waste,” she said.
“Aliens make mistakes, too,” he said, somber.
The early afternoon turned into the next pre-dawn. Matteo stirred. There was the sweet smell of laboratory grade ethanol in the air and also something like bready champagne carbonation.
“Don’t look around you,” said Kaylee.
Matteo looked around. “Oh, FUCK! What the fuck?!” He was strapped down, lying on his back atop a poker table. Dozens of tubes perfused different liquids throughout his body. He could hear the beeps of machines out of sight. glowscreens vibrated alerts.
“Calm down. Calm it. Down. Okay?” Kaylee was pointing at Matteo with both of her hands trembling.
“Did I piss myself?”
“No. But yes. We switched out your pants. Jorge did,” she said.
“My arms — I can’t feel them,” said Matteo.
“Don’t worry. We know what we’re doing. You’re anesthetized. We’ve got you hooked up pretty extensively,” said Kaylee.
“How long was I out?”
“Twenty hours, give or take.”
“A whole day? You waited for the time it takes the entire Earth to spin on its axis to wake me up?” he said, his voice unable to shout.
“A human would’ve taken three days to set up this experiment,” said Jorge, perhaps offended.
“Stop whining,” she said, shakily, “I mean, you’re in good hands. Jorge was doing all the surgical parts on account of his being sterile.”
“What?” slurred Matteo.
“Bacteria doesn’t grow on his weird skin, remember?” she said.
“Good grief. Scooping raspas with a scoop is not the same as surgery with — wait. I’m not angry. You’re going to kill me and I’m not angry. Why am I not angry at you?” said Matteo.
“See that clear-blue line coming out your side? Low dosage of a THC analog,” she replied. “Sorrrrry. See…OK we should explain what’s going on. We got preoccupied… with immortality.” She looked at Jorge. “Do I tell him?”
“I don’t see any other option,” Jorge replied.
“You do it,” she said.
“We’ll begin at the beginning. Matteo, your mom didn’t keep you off the Mist your whole life ’cause she was superstitious. In reality, you were a biological experiment gone wrong. A dud. The Rangers forced her to never register you on Mist so that nobody could track their failure back to them. The failure being you. Sorry, failure isn’t the word I meant. It’s because English is my hundred and twelfth language. Unless you count automated languages, then it’s another twenty two on top of that,” said Jorge.
“It was either hide you off Mist or they’d kill you straight away. We know from trying to track others like you down,” said Kaylee.
“Just so you know my Mist said we were an 83% love match, which is impossible seeing how you’re so evil, so I believe you, because an accurate Mist wouldn’t say that, you evil… chupacabra.”
Jordi continued, unabated, “And then you were sent to Barcaza til the end of your life.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense. You all are lying again. I was only gonna be on the garbage boat for like a decade, tops. What, did they expect to just keep slapping me with fines for nine more decades to keep me there?”
Kaylee looked at Jorge. She sighed heavily, took off her surgical mask and put her hands on his shoulders. “Honey, you could die at any moment. You’re a dud. You don’t have much time to live. We’re trying to save you.”
Kaylee squinted as though he could rebuke her at any moment.
“This pot is making me see things clearer, clearly, real clear. Is that why you chose me? Duds are perfect guinea pigs because they don’t live long. Plus, without a real, linked up Mist, no one would notice if I was gone. And I’m like, an ideal test subject, because I can solve some of your little programming problems, too! That’s sick. Making me work on ways for you to experiment on me! That’s so meta,” said Matteo.
“We are helping you, Matteo. The Rangers left you for dead…” Kaylee was tearing up, “Not so long ago you were dyin’ in a heap of garbage. With no friends. Now, we gave you a new life with a clean criminal record!”
“Yeah, I get it. We all fucking get it, don’t we?” He looked at Kaylee for agreement, forgetting she was the enemy. “Jorge wants new tools for his toolbox. So that’s what Jorge will get. A new crisper tool to enslave the masses on a galactic scale. Except you’re not even a real alien! I met your brother.”
Jorge lifted the mirrored lenses that shadowed his eyes onto the top of his head. He locked a gaze with Matteo and Matteo saw universes in them.
“Matteo. We really, really need that enzyme. If we had crisper we’d have everything. We could right so many wrongs, together,” said Kaylee.
“Right what wrongs? I am a dud, not a wrong. Or a guinea pig. Or mouse. Or fruit fly or yeast or C. elegance,” said Matteo.
“Elegans. Listen, we’re not bad guys, here. Ok? We’re doing you a favor.” Kaylee turned to sit on a lab stool and sighed.
“If this is such a good deal why don’t you volunteer? Or Jorge?”
“Well obviously it wouldn’t work on me, I am not a human,” said Jorge.
“AH! YES YOU ARE!” said Matteo and Kaylee in odd unison.
“So… wanna give us the crisper sequence, hehe…?” she asked.
“You’re fucking joking,” said Matteo.
“Kaylee, do something,” said Jorge.
“I’m in science, not public relations, goddangit!” she shouted, “Uh…”
Jorge walked over with a loaded syringe equipped with a low gauge needle.
“Oh chingado, Mendoza. Of course, the tranquilizers were for me, duh… “ Matteo felt a muted dull pressure on his arm and closed his eyes. He searched for a thought and latched onto a notion and wondered if he’d see Concha again.
Then he heard Jorge’s garbled voice, as though underwater. “He’s in immunological shock.” And “That’s impossible! There’s not a single human cell that isn’t O…” and “Better if he’s put down into rest… like deeper, this time.” And “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” coming from Kaylee, frantic. He had a conflicted urge to soothe her. The inky black curtains appeared again, with dreams of Concha.
Ranger Mike shone his flashlight around the exterior of the raspa stand, shadows forming behind cracking white paint and the creases of his face. He was sure the dud was hiding inside. Dumbass dud thought he could make a fool out of Ranger Mike by playing innocent at The Shifty. In front of hot little Anna, no less. All newbies had to learn the game the hard way.
Ranger Mike couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he threw him back in his cell. He’d point to the logs and watch the dud witness his debt go up by 2,000 Byte. The best part, though, would be when he offered to buy him a bag of Takis, on account the whole extra paycheck he’d get for retrieving him!
The door to the raspa stand was left open. Enough evidence to investigate a possible break-in, he thought. He stepped halfway in, checking each corner of the small structure with the flashlight. Nothing seemed out of place. He stepped inside.
The sound of the soles of his boots grating against the wooden planks was authoritarian music to his ears. He nudged a box of styrofoam cups, checked underneath a table, and looked in a storage closet. Nobody could hide anywhere in such a small place. His shoes had become sticky from syrup, so he wiped them on the rug, moving it a few inches off-center.
He walked out, did a final survey with his light and then clicked it off. And that’s when a thin sliver of light became noticeable, peeking through a space in the floor the rug had concealed. He crept back in, pulled it off and swung the trapdoor open.
An alarm blazed through Matteo’s ear canals. He managed a swollen eyelid open. His pupil dipped in and out of the tiny window open to the world. A figure was scuffling with Jorge and Kaylee. Beams of blinding light. Then he had the sense of being carried upside down, or possibly right side up after being upside down for an extended period of time. A quick view of gravel moving underneath him. Inky black curtains again, but this time, he had no dreams.
Kaylee had fucked up. She could now see very clearly how she was just as much in the wrong as Ranger Mike was for trying to capture Matteo.
With that in mind, she grabbed a tranquilizer and went right for the Ranger’s jugular. As he slumped over onto the floor, she told Jorge the experiment was canceled. She had Jorge help her carry Ranger Mike to his squad car, set the autopilot course for Marfa, and punched the engine start.
Together, they stabilized Matteo’s vitals and took him to his home. Hopefully, his mom would be able to bring him back to a better measure of health. She’d been a very successful curandera, according to the file they had on her.
When they got back to the raspa stand, they started gutting the whole lab, everything they had worked to build. With the Rangers soon to be aware of the location, they had to act quickly. They’d packed the wagon with the most important data sets and the last of the rare physicals. She walked around their lab one last time before leaving for good.
She turned out the lights on the first floor. “Wait, it’s not like Concha gave him crisper to memorize,” said Kaylee.
“Check his Mist for his time with the woman,” said Jorge.
“No, that won’t work at all. Concha not only scrambled our spying on them, but she totally fried his Mist. She’s smart. Probably didn’t want any kind of record of herself wherever Matteo ended up… wait. Crisper — it’s got to be in his bag.” She lunged for the trash, and pulled out his backpack. She tossed “Persistence of Personality” aside. “Here! I’ll bet my best standardbred it’s on this GameBoy cartridge!” Her heart leapt.
“If it’s not under lock, we can have crisper synthesized in less than an hour,” Jorge said, the peptide synthesizer in a cardboard box his hand. “Did you just say you have a racing horse? What kind of bet are we talking here?”
“Oh, shutup — I’m not serious. Let’s just go for it,” she replied. “And then I’m done with this biohacking bullcrap forever.” When Matteo came to she’d make sure to have delivered all the tools he needed to save himself, if he chose to.
Matteo woke late in the afternoon to the familiar contours and smells of a rust-colored couch. He was home, at his mom’s house, an impossibility only a week ago. What a mistake he made trusting LUFAW. He should’ve run away with Concha when he had the chance. A real romantic.
He breathed in deeply and inspected himself. Jagged arm tracts, check. Patches of skin ripped off, check. Broken ribs, check. Blurry vision, yup. And his tongue found a sharp kink on his front tooth. It was really sensitive to cold air, too. He took a minute to pin waking thoughts down to present reality.
Now, Jorge and Kaylee’s words shook him. The day of his arrest, had his mom really known the Rangers were going to take him? Given up to the Rangers, to die somewhere, out of sight, a mutant freak of society, a bastard of science gone awry, as agreed upon and signed electronically somewhere on a server on the hour of his adoption.
Maybe he could find that record on a physical somewhere, print it, and drop it on the kitchen table for his mom to find.
The house shrank around him like a glowscreen hologram scaling down to nothing after the power was pulled. Mom was nowhere to be found. He tried to stand from the couch and collapsed into a roll. In another few minutes, he was able to lift himself into a crawling position, and pushed himself to the bathroom, where he climbed to the sink to wash his face and spit up as much blood as possible into hot running water. The steam seemed to draw out some portion of the side effects of whatever Jorge and Kaylee had pumped into his veins.
He walked upright by bracing himself against the walls, all the way to the kitchen, where he inhaled a bottle of Gatorade. He got back to the couch, laid down, and stared at the ceiling fan. The blades moved too slowly to cool the room.
Matteo felt the midday humidity slap his face and enter his lungs before he heard the front door open. The view of the front yard was forced into pixels by the tiny squares of the screen door. He squinted to see her standing in the doorway, and he murmured, “Estrella, llena de pensimientos…”
“Estrella, su mama.” She inhaled.
She was a full inch taller than he, but she seemed smaller, now. Maybe she was starting to shrink already like all old women do. He yawned, followed the lines on her face down to a hint of stubble and sighed, “Mom.”
“Ay mijo, I didn’t think I’d see you again. Como te escapo?” She secured every lock on the doors behind her and soaked up the view of her son.
“You knew. Didn’t you?” he asked, sounding much less betrayed than he felt.
She stopped looking at him and turned to put down her purse and bag. “Knew? De que estas hablando?”
Matteo sighed, knowing she held emotion back only when things were hitting her especially hard.
“Ah, okay. Okay. Ya sabes,” her penetrating gaze now back on him, “They got to me cuando eras bebe. You know, nosotros, las brujas, we stay off-Mist. We always have. Don’t be mad at me. You were such a delicate boy. I could always feel it, that you had a sickness. I am not ashamed… How could I tell you? Ven aca. You are still mine.” She embraced him, setting one arm across his back, with her hand on the back of his head. “How could I say it to you?” She sniffed his hair. “Hmph. Huele como… sangre de gallo.”
“Chicken blood? Uh? Oh! Yes. Si, nosotros tuvimos chachalakas. Something happened and two died. I must still have some of the blood on me somewhere”
“No, it’s not on you. Eres tu,” she prodded the center of his chest with a long finger, “Tu tienes mala sangre.”
“What? No, no, you’re wrong,” said Matteo.
She drew a longer breath through his hair. “Ah, ese pinche Barcaza, es mucho basura. I can’t tell. You need a bath.” Still close, she put her fingertips on his neck. A physical glowscreen embedded to her collarbone changed color. “Sicker than the last time… the last time I saw you.” She turned away and said, “Did you have any money with you?”
“No, ma. Whatever Byte I had is not even covering the debt I left on the barge. If they were even recording any of it to begin with.” When he was upset with her, she always reminded him of his responsibilities to her. He would be more upset, but at least they were together.
“And no data to trade?” she asked, faking surprise.
“I was kidnapped — right out of jail. There wasn’t any time for dragging along a bunch of physicals,” he said.
“Not drives, the plankton, algae, many many years of informacion in esos animales. All of them in the water. They listen to the drives and nobody knows it, out on the Barcaza. Worth even more than ese pinche Tamagoncheh… Tienes novia?”
“Ay, mom. Not now.” Matteo’s eyebrows compressed. But eventually he told her everything about Concha. And if there was one thing she didn’t need detailed bioanalysis for, it was knowing when her son was lost in a crush.
“Que bueno. I can’t wait to meet her. Matteo, I’m sorry. You know I was younger than you when I got you. I didn’t know how to raise any kid. And now that I’m older, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. You know I have influence… and power. Just not over the Rangers,” she said.
“Si. I know. It’s ok,” Matteo said and hugged her. He laid back down. What a crazy week it had been.
His mom went into the kitchen and he heard her unlock the back door. The next thing he heard were heavy footsteps and the smell of leather belts and holsters.
“Quien es? Oh, fuck!” he said.
Three Rangers pushed into the house. They shoved the kitchen table aside and moved towards the living room.
“Dillo sends his regards,” said a bullish one.
“Ama? Ama!” He glanced at the front door, locked, and used what little strength he had to bolt for the bathroom, doubling back to grab an old console and bag of clothes in his room. He then flew through the bathroom, pulling the shower curtain off its secures.
He squeezed through the small window, scraping his torso and limbs. Fuck Dillo, he thought. Fuck Dillo and fuck LUFAW.
Once in the backyard, he saw his mom on her knees, sobbing. Beyond the backyard fence he saw the racer.
::Why are you upset? His AI sounded very feminine.
“She’s my mom. They’re putting her through too much, even after she was the one to take care of me. Probably Dillo is behind this bullshit…” His shock met the first hints of a hopeless anger. “What happened to the other AI?”
::No te precupes. The old AI was recalled. Too glitchy, I see here he nearly killed you. Que lastima. He wasn’t a real mentor, anyway. But I do understand his perspectives, so I will keep that in mind as I soothe you. Let me tell you something about your mom. Ella no compartio su sangre. And she hid who you really were from you. She didn’t try to save you from the Rangers then and she didn’t try to save you —
Matteo sniffled. “You don’t know what you’re saying. No entiendes…” He ran to the bike.
A Ranger was managing his body through the bathroom window. Estrella charged him. She wasn’t going to let them take him again, this time.
The engine started up quickly and there was a sticky note on the dash that read: UNTRACEABLE, ENJOY. “Fuck you, Kaylee,” he said to himself. The least LUFAW could do was return his bike, but to pretend as though it wasn’t bugged was an insult.
A gunshot blasted. He drove off, pretending he hadn’t heard it for a second, then turned to see what had happened. His mom lay limp, bloodied in the grass. He screamed and whipped the bike around, wanting revenge, but was met with a barrage of shots from all three Rangers. He quickly turned off into an alley. Dillo would pay for their sins.
There was only one place he could go to evade Dillo, the Rangers, and LUFAW: Distrito Loteria.
He pivoted around deep potholes through the neighborhood, the older ways of Alamo City played out on the left and right sides of the street like movie sets on train tracks. Abuelitas made-up in dresses and their mustached heroes in tucked button downs, ate charro beans on fold-out tables in their parkways. Some kids and grandkids chewed on barbecue while catching them up on life out in the new suburbs with the new car. Tejano and Cumbia buzzed through old speakers at reasonable volumes. One radio speaker was mounted onto an oak tree.
::Both of them betrayed you, mi amor.
The family that lived on the corner house was burning trash in the backyard. Two chubby faces, a boy and a girl, were illuminated by the glow as they crouched, watching from the rooftop. Next door was a tiny blossom of apartments filled with drug addicts and cheap-tech addicts and their kids.
It was as if nobody had died just a moment ago.
He merged onto 281 South and the town felt silent and vacants after ten minutes of driving. He felt exposed and alone, as though he’d done something wrong and the city was punishing him for it.
His bike worked with the downward slopes but wobbled the more it coasted. Behind him, the whole circle of Alamo City, space needle short and prominent, looked like an icing whorl on a glittery pan dulce mollete. In the far distance, he could barely see the soft crests of the northern hill country in the bike’s rear mirrors. Some hills were frosted with snow and crowned with with 200 foot high crucifixes.
He drove south past the Loteria mall, taking a hard left eastward. After twenty minutes of riding, the old markets vanished and he reached a sandy trail that ended in the strung lights of an unnamed trailer park.
A sign made of particle wood, softly swinging above a garbage can fire read “UNITS AVAILABLE” in spray paint, and a smaller “ENGLISH Y ESPANOL” in black and white address stickers was chained to it beneath.
Even the outskirts of Distrito Loteria chilled Matteo down to his bone marrow, no matter how seemingly undisturbed. The edge of the dark Estuary of Texas loomed in the distance.
The mobile homes were partially hidden from each other by fences made of piles upon piles of trash. Each trailer was arranged in a partial circle, their back ends facing the center. Some units had green or orange light escaping from within. Others had every window boarded as though they’d been abandoned and swayed under their occupant’s movements.
He approached a small vending teller box in the center of the first circle and punched a debt button. A week’s charge plus 25% interest to rent a medium-sized unit. A USB stick plopped out, a key that could be expired remotely by management. He stuck it into his console and his new home’s location was revealed on an ASCII map .txt.
He walked his bike down two semicircle aggregates of homes and saw his new base, green paint over white, coastal slatted windows open just enough to push around thin curtains inside. He pushed in the door. Thankfully, it came with a freezer and oven and thin foam mattress. Inside the small fridge was an old bag of a half-eaten Whataburger. Last person must’ve left in a rush.
He fell into the dusty bed, and for the first time since childhood, cried himself to sleep.
The soft sound of gasoline generators in the morning stirred him right before daybreak, robbing him of rest.
::Cochino! Cochino! his AI chimed.
“What now? God, god, god…” he said.
::Tienes un package, mi amor.
“No, can’t be. Nobody delivers on this part of town at this time. Can you run a diagnostic on your OS for bugs? I don’t have time for another screwy AI. Don’t care how hot you sound,” he said.
::Como tu quieres… un momento. Ok, I require no further action and I have cared for you with efficiency tan brillosa. You have a package located at the front entrance.
He opened the door to find a cardboard box of Topo Chico. He flipped down the kitchen table and rested it on top.
Inside was a small briefcase. He flipped the secures loose and peeked inside. It was a miniaturized bench top lab. Small pipettes and tubes rested into moulded foam, along with a small gel rig and a small tube filled with a clear viscous liquid on dry ice. Wow, the LFUFAW betrayers must of splurged some Byte to give this setup away. What was the catch?
Hidden away in a side pocket was a small plastic zip bag, with a lock of rose gold blonde hair. Well, that was romantic.
And there was another surprise, Kaylee’s VR headset was at the bottom of the box. Her favorite item. Traitor. Or betrayer, more like.
::I know what you are needing to do, mijo — what can help maximize your happiness.
“Oh? Do you, now?”
::Tu seras un cientifico.
And why wouldn’t he? Time was ticking.
He shuttered the blinds. If LUFAW wanted him dead, they would’ve blown up the bike while he was on it.
Kaylee’s VR visor fit snugly around his head and the faint smell of her shampoo lingered. The intro screen to Ocarina of Time loaded with its sweet lullaby jingle. His spine shivered. Matteo woke as Link in Kokiri Forest. Inside of his hut, a Zelda sprite materialized. A glitch.
Absorbed, he didn’t hear himself say, “Yup.”
Text scrolled from bottom to top:
Listen! You will only see this message once.
First, we kind of lied about not tracking your bike (obviously since you received this care package). But I PROMISE the location was kept encrypted from Jorge and I. We won’t come looking for you. PROMISE.
It’s not your fault you’re a dud. It’s not your fault you will die… and you will die probably very soon.
But I’m leaving you with everything you need to save yourself. If you choose to, that is.
The process involves injecting yourself with what was once a deadly parasite, what has infected humans causing the deadly sickness of malaria over hundreds of thousands of years of coevolution.
First, I’ve given you parasite-infected red blood cells. The malaria is synthetic, a designer bug used in the old days to deliver medicine throughout the body. Most people had to inject new parasites every month or so, since the spleen will eventually destroy the infection. So remember to keep a culture going on outside your body at all times!
Second, you have a mini-Church. It’s pretty much plug and play. Throw in your components and it does most of the grunt work. It can read sequences of virtually any cell and add new sequences into a draft genome so that you can print custom cells.
And third, you have about 10 microliters of purified crisper at a concentration of 5 ng per microliter. Once you’ve analyzed the synthetic malaria by the Church, input the DNA sequences for immortality and add 3 microliters of crisper. Boom. Immortality-boosting malaria ready to get injected into your bloodstream. The catch is, of course, there’s not much of this enzyme to go around.
It should go without saying that you should always have a backup culture for when they inevitably die out inside of you. You won’t be able to print new cells with the amount of crisper provided more than twice. I hope you’re writing this down.
As you can tell I’ve skipped over the most important part. What you’re missing is the fourth piece. What it is that actually confers immortality. Nobody knows. That’s what my hair is for. I’m immortal.
You will need to extract the compound from the ends of the hair. I don’t know what it is, but word on the street is it is RNA. Simply obtain the RNA from my hair and put it into the machine for sequencing. Pick which RNAs I have that don’t match up in the rest of the population. Convert that sequence back into DNA and use that as the immortality sequence in your new malaria.
Cross your fingers. Or don’t. It’s up to you what to do. But remember, you need to act fast if you want to live!
Now, stop looking at my triangular tits.
Deduce the instructions for construction of malaria parasites by reading the parasite infected red blood cells.
Deduce the immortality RNA from my hair.
Insert the immortality RNA into the synthetic malaria genome.
Print the cells, inject! And take this headset off ASAP!
Por vida! (That means “for life” I know you are not good at Spanish)
The VR headset warmed until it was scalding hot. He threw it into the corner and it began to smolder. He ran to the kitchen and dumped a half-full pitcher of water on it. All that remained was a melted hunk of metal and plastic.
“Fuck Kaylee. Fuck Jorge. Fuck…” said Matteo. He started breathing deeply, heavily.
::She is too manipulative. You don’t want a girl like that in tu vida.
As though he had anything to learn from Kaylee. They’d gone after him for his expertise. A long life wasn’t guaranteed, but at a minimum he had to live long enough to see Concha again.
::Yo pienso que si. You will see her again.
“Well, thank you, computer. Forgot you can hear everything, haha. Must’ve been talking aloud.”
::Todo el dia I listen. Y me encanta.
It wasn’t only about finding his girl again for his sake. The Rangers were willing to kill anyone that associated with him. They’d be after Concha. She was good at hiding, but he could protect her better. Together, they might even take revenge on LUFAW.
::She would love to be saved by you. I know I would.
He got to work immediately on the most important problem — whatever it was that was allowing people to live forever. To feel more at ease, he set his old console’s glowscreen to “The Empire Strikes Back”. It would be a long night and if he died trying, he’d want the last thing he heard to be the greatest movie of all time.
He first split the lock of hair into ten samples, Saran-wrapped nine and put them in the freezer. He also divvied the stock of crisper enzyme into two aliquots, using provided tubes, to lower the chance of contaminating a single stock, and placed them in the freezer. The enzyme wouldn’t be needed until he was printing the final synthetic malaria, anyway.
The church was the size of a deck of cards, with multiple inlets leading into an acrylic microfluidic chamber and a USB connection, which he quickly plugged into his old console. For sequencing, he only needed to inject the RNA extracts from Kaylee’s hair and his own hair. The machine would read the sequences and compare them, pointing out any differences.
With an easy two-step extraction, Matteo had RNA isolated in high purity within an hour, his hands cramping up from using the tiny pipettors.
One microliter dispensed into the inlet and a hit dinged the console on his glowscreen, a clear difference between his and Concha’s RNAs. And then another and another ding until 1,406 hits had chimed.
“Hija de puta, either this little machine is broke or this will be a hell of a hunt,” he said to an empty room. As if on cue, Harrison Ford said to Anthony Daniels, “Never tell me the odds.”
::Well, a one in 1,406 chance of living is better than zero. Pero,there must be a way to narrow it down.
“Yes, you are right. You are very right, as always. Speaking of always, I need a drink,” he said. He walked outside to the vending machine hub and charged a bottle of mezcal.
Inside, he maximized his glowscreen’s home image, which his mom had changed while he was in jail. There was his eight year old smiling face, holding a blue balloon at Sea World looking back at him. Even then, he was doomed. A little genetic freak show. One freak in a billion normals. Several billion normals, actually. And right there, he realized that what was staring back at him was an alternative interpretation of the data. He had 1,406 different RNAs because he was a mutant!
What he really needed was hair from healthy individuals to make a better comparison to Concha.
He slipped into a hoodie in haste, stuffed a box of plastic baggies left by the last tenant in the pouch, and the magic fuel — the mezcal safe in a flask in his back pocket. For the next few hours, he rode the Alamo City streets and lurked the Alamo City corner military bars, picking up discarded eyelashes and strands of hair. Plenty of hair, no sign of Concha, though…
He wobbled his bike home with sixty two samples in hand and a buzz in head. Sixty-whatever samples could wait to be extracted in the morning.
The samples glistened in the white morning light on the kitchen table. Wearing a hairnet from one of the vending machines, he learned intimately the back and forth spring of the pipette. He felt exactly how to secure each pipette tip onto the pipette, with a quick, almost bouncing motion. Push the air down and out, draw up the sample — at a slightly different rate depending on the viscosity of the liquid, making sure to keep the tip away from the edges of the tube and not probing too deeply into the sample, for cleanliness. His wrist ached after fifteen minutes, his shoulders after twenty. The power of a million small movements was formidable.
Once he was comfortable with the fine motor movements of science and he was plowing through samples, his mind wandered and the doubts crept.
What if he needed a slightly different RNA than what Concha had? Certainly, his dud biology worked a little differently than hers if 1,406 RNAs were wreaking havoc. Or maybe the vast majority of these had little effects if at all.
Still, what if the “immortality RNA” wasn’t even produced by the cells attached to strands of hair? Maybe it isn’t constantly pumped into every cell type but needs to be in only some cells for some part of the time.
Taken to the extreme, what if the RNA was needed in childhood and wouldn’t work no matter how many milligrams he took of the stuff now that he was an adult? Worse, it could become toxic later in life, and immortal people had a way to counteract it.
Maybe even if he got the sequence, it would be worse than taking no action at all, maybe it would kill him faster.
::Todo para ganar.
“I guess you are right, computer.” He didn’t wonder for a second how she was in his thoughts.
The Church operated with little aquatic glug-glug sounds. Three samples were identified as originating from cats, one from a mutant similar to himself, and one hair was actually a nylon thread very much not alive. If he looked at any one head-to-head comparison, he saw anywhere from a few hundred to a few dozen thousand differences in RNA between individuals. It dawned on him that Concha was likely to have as many differences in RNA with him as any random, normal person. It wasn’t so much the number of RNAs as the identity of the RNAs.
He didn’t need Kaylee. He could’ve done this all himself.
The program winnowed the 1,406 figure down to 24 unique RNAs in Kaylee’s hair. Another sample, number 15, had a curiously low set of unique RNAs when compared to Kaylee, 17 in total. Could this possibly be another immortal?
He cross analyzed those, and four hits popped out as 99% identical in both Concha and sample 15. Four RNAs was all it took. He was willing to bet his life on it. Astounding. It was nearly midnight.
He loaded the four RNA sequences into a simulation program. It would check the safety of adding the RNAs to thousands of human cell types, and if it did change some cellular activity, whether those cells might affect other cells.
It was a massively limited safeguard, since the programs were modeling average human cells, behaviors taken from the human population at large, and not Matteo’s own unique dud biology. Which as far as anyone knew would turn him into a monster if it didn’t kill him first.
It would take at least two days to run.
Too jarred by the possibility of dying suddenly in his sleep, he switched on the holograph again. Cracking immortality was less exciting without Concha around to share the moment with. Or even two rotten friends. Nah, fuck them, he thought.
::Browse by mood, mijo?
::No recommendations for “tents.” The computer’s voice morphed into that of a vanilla male for the last word.
“I am so tired. And so close to not having to die…”
::Mi amor, watch something calming.
“Hmm…I’ll go for something nostalgic, then. Just pick whatever fits that… that I left off on the last time… before Basura Barcaza happened,” he said.
The trailer’s single free standing, shadeless lamp dimmed and “Gattaca” resumed from where he had left the movie over a year ago. Jude Law’s chiseled brow stared down his deep-eyed muse, Ethan Hawke, at a dark, sophisticated table. Sensual jazz drowned the world outside.
“What’s Titan like this time of year?” said Jude. Ethan coolly blew smoke from a coolly inhaled cigarette into a snifter. Matteo imagined the smell of the brandy, the tobacco, the thermal scratch of a tailored suit.
::Your drink is getting warm.
“Oh? Forgot all about it. Mezcal’s better warm… you get the smokiness boiling out.” He took a sip. “Oh, god. No, it isn’t. Remember to remind me of that in the future.” Drinking alone was sad, but better than with fake friends.
Matteo wondered about what was hidden under Titan’s mysterious clouds along with Jude. He realized there were parallels in Uma Thurman’s character and Concha. Both were elusive and composed and achingly intelligent. Concha was much shorter, though.
How could he find her? Save her from the Rangers who — no doubt, would be ready to take her away to the Barcaza. Rough her up good, maybe in his cell, just to drive him mad with jealousy.
They all better hope he died sooner rather than later.
::I’ll remind you to look for it in the morning. Your BAC is approaching half the legal limit. Rest now, I’ll alert you at the optimum time to rehydrate con agua y Gatorade.
He’d almost forgotten the .butt file. He opened it and felt nearly at peace watching the hologram of Concha, naked and wonderful.
He stretched his hand out like a space probe and met the smooth plane of cool, fuzzy couch. In one motion, he collapsed into a laying position. Heat of his circulating blood warmed the spare cushions. It was probably more comfortable than his actual bed.
Tomorrow he’d find Concha and they’d figure out what he would have to do to make immortality work for him. And then probably get married.
Matteo thought first to probe the crime scene, the old raspa stand, for clues. After all, Concha had snuck around the base before, and had them all under watch at Franky Espada’s.
He donned a black AU hoodie and black sweatpants and shaded his face under an old Sea World beanie. A catch of his huge frame in the mirror crush his delusion of being invisible.
The raspa stand was gone. The walk up to the empty plot of land was eerily quiet — even the barks of neighborhood dogs seemed miles off. With the tips of his toes, he probed the ground looking for the trapdoor. The grass showed no evidence of a major scene taking place — no tire tracks or demolition debris. It reminded him of UFO and chupacabra abductions. Never left a trace.
His foot found something hollow and acoustic. There, in the shallow underground, was the entrance to his former prison.
With a forceful tug, the door swung open and the physics of the action threw Matteo back a step. He crouched and poked his head inside. Except for a table and a few physicals, nearly everything was gone, including the rope ladder.
Matteo checked whether the coast was clear over his shoulder. Kids were in class, parents at work, and grandparents glued to telenovelas. He lowered himself down by his arms and dropped.
The taste of the air inside surfaced a few uncomfortable memories. Into his bag went the discarded physicals. Aside from these items, there were only a few loose Magic cards strewn about and a stain of dry blood. His blood?
He approached the hallway to check out the bathroom, but was scared by the darkness. The trapdoor slammed, turning the lair into the blackest grave.
“Fuck,” he said to himself, attempting to maintain his composure with the sound of his own voice.
He pussyfooted in the direction of the table and dragged it towards the entrance. Wobbling under the weight of his bag, he stood on top of it and pushed against the trapdoor. A rustling, scraping sound. He pressed harder and daylight streamed in. A white feather floated down onto his face.
“Chingado, Chuy.” Chuy, the cockfighter, pecked at his hands with pure anger as he lifted himself up. He realized he’d forgotten that he might die any moment, for a moment.
“Alright, alright, tranquilo. Voy a traelo a la casa.” Chuy cocked his head to the side and decided to trust him. Matteo spotted a discarded milk crate from HEB at the curb and put the chicken inside.
::It’s her night behind the bar at Franky Espada’s.
“Wow, you have that stored in your calendar, huh? You’re priceless.”
::Que bueno! I hope you find her. Ella era muy guapa! I am looking at her .butt file.
Matteo rode out to Roosevelt Ave next, arriving with time before the happy hour tide was set to rise and wash the stools away from their orderly positions. A barback was prepping sodas, jamming metal CO2 cartridges into a tin and shaking it with force.
“Hey man, have you seen Concha around, lately?” Matteo spoke loud enough to know by the guy’s response that he was being ignored. The young man looked familiar… just not from Frank Espada’s.
The barback’s CO2 cartridge slipped out of his hand and he dropped the container on the bartop. He pulled the towel from his back pocket to dry the wet spot directly in front of Matteo.
“I’m just looking for Concha. She around?” asked Matteo.
“Concha,” he said with Spanish pronunciation, “She’s my friend. She bartends here.”
“No sabo nada de una concha…” said the barback.
“No, not concha like a shell, but Concha, como mujer,” Matteo started.
“Alright, then what about Sonia? About so tall, wears differents wigs.”
At that, the man became visibly uncomfortable. “No, no hay visto una mujer con ese nombre, ni un peluca rosa.”
“Listen, I’m not a stalker or anything. We just went to school together. I… She might be in some trouble, alright?” Matteo hated that he was delivering his words faster.
::Such a sweetie, you are. If you ask my opinion, though, it’s much hotter if you could put this man in his place. He is being very rude.
“No hablo Ingles.” The worker pulled a rag from his back pocket and polished a liquor bottle.
“Chingado, yes you do!”
“You just answered me perfectly! You understand everything I’m saying.”
“Maybe you should learn fucking Spanish, guero,” he whispered, “The boss here is white he knows everything you’re saying right now. Not real smart.” He sighed and poured Matteo a shot from the well whiskey.
“Tomatelo and get the fuck out of here. Entiendes?”
“I’m right aren’t I? Something is going on!”
Matteo squinted at him, took the shot and walked out to his bike. That hadn’t gone according to his plan at all. It was blazingly hot outside, too. And he realized where he knew the barback from — he’d handed the UV lamp to one of the Loteria organizers. Fucking Jorge. Fucking Dillo.
::Check her place. It’s not so far. You remember that night well, don’t you?
Matteo walked the bike over to Motel Cielo, up the same path he’d driven Concha on their first date not so long ago. He hovered at her unit’s window and found a peek through the edge of lopsided blinds. The place was empty.
A trucker came out of a nearby room smoking a cigarette and walked by Matteo, uninterested and unphased by the large man spying. The white of her calves shone bright in contrast to her dark, camouflage bulky shorts and flak jacket. She boarded a Mooner and glided off in the direction of the Lavaca port. He was pretty sure it wasn’t Concha in disguise.
He tried the door, but it had been rebuilt with a new lock that gave no give. He snooped around the Coke machine and then the area behind the building. The smell of boiling garbage choked him, testing his gag reflex. He got closer to the dumpster, mustering enough resolve to stand on a pylon to view the inside. Immediately, the body stuck out.
Julian Castro’s smiley doll eyes peeked out from behind a cum towel. He leaned in, collecting grime across his hoodie, and extended two fingers to grab the doll. It budged a little and then relented.
He pulled himself over the edge a little further, and then slipped, right into the pile of mystery towels. And of course he slipped in with a yelp, so his mouth was open.
He pulled a portable glowscreen viewer with multiple adapters from his pocket and plugged it into the doll. It had been wiped.
“Goddammit. Not a clue. Dead fucking end,” he growled. It had been ages since he heard himself truly growl.
He looked at the doll once more and pulled its string. Staticky silence.
Where was Concha? For that matter, where were Kaylee and Jorge and his mysteriously normal brother?
The urgency of death bit into his mind, again. He might die any moment, now, without warning. He might not see Concha ever again. He had to get synthetic malaria up and running on his own.
His safety program beeped. The possible immortality RNAs did not trigger any bad processes for the average human cell… that is the average human cell modeled by the program. No necrosis or apoptosis or deadly cell replication. All was not lost.
Next, he just needed to get the malaria parasites read by the Church, then he could print them with the instructions for the RNA added to their genome.
Once the synthetic cells were fabricated, he’d have to grow them up, which would take a few days, before he would have to inject them into his bloodstream.
To start the reading process, he pipetted the red blood cells with the parasites in them into the Church.
One microfluidic channel filled with a portion of the sample and Matteo watched through the clear acrylic as the cells lysed, morphing into a clear-red solution, which turned colorless in a downstream chamber. In a few hours, the genome sequence would be assembled, along with a topographical map of each membrane of the cell.
The other portion of the sample flew down a second channel where it was bombarded it with radiation. Subsequently, an alternative lysis program began, changing the coloration to banded browns and yellows, and finally light blue. In about the same amount of time, the protein content was known to fair approximation in three dimensions, as well as the orientation of the chromosomes.
He typed in the four RNA sequences that were unique in Concha and the mystery sample 15. They had to get inserted on some part of the chromosomes that wouldn’t interfere drastically with the way the DNA normally directed the ongoing business of the cell.
The Church software came with a program to determine this, and he wrote a short script to have it run as soon as the reading portion was finished later. It was set to run several thousand Monte Carlo simulations to find the perfect location on the genome for the instructions for the immortality RNAs to be inserted.
Getting a blueprint for immortality malaria was nearly plug and play at this point, but it was going to take more supplies than what was crammed in that suitcase laboratory to scale this up for the long term.
Matteo left the Church glugging in his trailer park to stock supplies from the nearest Texas Thrift Outlet. He picked up a hotplate and a small document safe to construct an incubator to grow cells. The centrifuge that came in the Concha’s kit was too small for proper blood vials, so he designed a larger one by connecting a power drill to a saw blade, where tubes of cells could be held in place by packing tape.
When he got back to the trailer, his glowscreen showed summary statistics for the accuracy for the malaria genome (99.9992%) as well as the position for where to insert the sequence for the RNAs: chromosome six, beginning at base 68,372, in tandem.
Milestones one and two achieved. Synthetic malaria designed to confer immortality was a go.
He used a pipette to carefully transfer three microliters of crisper into the unit and then clicked print on the glowscreen. Estimated time for building the cells was 16 hours. By then he’d need to have the culture part of the lab ready to go.
He got to work putting together his new lab, cleaning every surface in the mobile home and every instrument twice with Fabuloso. A quick trip to Home Depot and he was able to replace all air filters in the trailer, and installed UV lamps to switch on in his absence for even higher cleanliness.
Finally, he sat on the steps in front of his door and rested, watching the sun set behind the trash mounds of his new neighborhood. Aside from the generators in the morning, occasional dog barking and muffled, indoor arguments from neighbors, it was quiet.
In the next circle of trailers, a neon, baby blue cross buzzed on, reminding him it must be Saturday. He hadn’t prayed the Rosary all month, and needed to for his mom. Maybe some meditation would bring his problems into better focus.
The Temple consisted of two walls made of sheet metal affixed to the back of an ordinary trailer and a roof made of bright green tarp. Like most Temples, it was presumably open to the public at dusk, and it allowed offerings before a three-quarter scale statue of the Virgin.
On one wall, cubby holes held cultured tissues. Loose mats of cells wobbled in bubbling liquid behind acrylic windows labeled ‘R. Runner’, ‘Ocelat’, ‘Algee (Cretac.)’, among others, each with prices in Byte or a number of physicals for trade. Adjacent shelves held dried leaves and paper-bound books, including what looked like spirals of photocopied scientific literature. On the opposite wall was a counter for any sales to be made. A steel pew divided the room.
He used a match to light some candles at the Virgin’s feet, knelt and began his prayers alone. When he finished, he sensed someone standing behind him.
He recognized Chueco from somewhere he couldn’t place in his childhood. Chueco’s skin had darkened, and his belly had expanded. He wore the same wrinkled, oily clothes as before and now half of his head lacked hair where a large surgical scar arced from front to back. Matteo noticed a metal sheen hidden underneath Chueco’s thick curls of hair.
“Es el joven de ‘ita?! Matteo, Matteo, oh, ah, como estas ‘ita?” said Chueco, amazed at something or other.
“She’s… she passed away. I was healing with the Rosary,” Matteo said and noticed Chueco’s armband, “ You’re the Curandero of this Temple?”
“Ay, no,” he said, and sat heavily, then motionless without a breath on the pew. He stirred after a moment and looked at Matteo as though for the first time, “Si… You look familiar.”
Matteo raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I’m Estrellita’s son, just like you said.”
“Un hijo! Since when? Ah, si, si. Matteo! Que grande estas! I remember your mom and your dad. You know we went to school together.”
“My dad?” he replied, but quickly thought better not to challenge the old man’s memory any more. Matteo was drawn to a half dozen magnets stuck to the side of the pew. He picked off a flat stone that displayed a chalked, red drawing of an bison. Etched on the backside was the year 1987. “Where’d you get this?”
Chueco got up and was now bending over behind the counter, thumbing through a crate of cassettes and newspapers. “No se. It erase my memory. Every time,” and then he chuckled.
“Well, the place looks real good, Chuec’,” said Matteo.
Chueco shot a suspicious look at Matteo. “You were in jail. And you’re sick.”
“What… how did you — ”
“Lo vi en un sueno. Dejame ayudarte. You need it,” he said.
“Cuanto?” said Matteo.
“Ay, no puedo,” said Matteo.
“Por favor. For your mom,” said Chueco and there was no arguing with that.
“Ok, voy a diagnose,” said Chueco. Matteo hadn’t had clergy check him out since he was a boy, but he remembered the process.
As he stretched out on his belly on the pew and peeled his shirt off, Chueco disappeared to his trailer. He returned with a deck of tarot cards and a cold egg.
Kneeling beside him, his hands rolled the egg around the grooves and bumps on Matteo’s back in precise, fluid motions. Matteo wondered if Chueco was forgetting his identity, or perhaps where he was.
He put the egg on an oversized, clean ashtray on the counter. Taking the cards in one hand, Chueco bent them, launching them towards the egg. He then picked it up and arranged the five cards that were closest to the it into a star inside of ashtray. Then he cracked the egg, pouring semi-solid contents onto the cards.
“That old cascarone trick, again, huh? I never get the confetti,” said Matteo.
“Portate bien. Your mom taught me how to do this one.”
Chueco reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver ring that was strewn on prayer beads. With the click of an unseen button on the ring, it scanned the ashtray offering and a small hologram of Walter Mercado appeared, hover-pacing over the cards. He spoke about Mercury and Alpha Centauri and ended with talk about iron and hemoglobin, finally morphing into an animation of red blood cells flowing down arteries.
“Pues, there you have it,” said Chueco. “Tienes mala sangre.”
“Heh.” Matteo put his shirt back on. He’d solved what made duds, well, duds. “Gracias, Chueco.”
“Toma esta,” said Chueco, handing him a bottle.
“Okay. I’ll see you soon.” Matteo walked out as an elderly couple came into the Temple and sat on the pew. There couldn’t have been a worse diagnosis.
Matteo sat at his workbench and spread the doped VaporRub Chueco had given him. It was laced with who knows what but he spread it thick on his mouth and throat and chest. He calmed himself by focusing on his heartbeat and figuring out how he was going to get healthy red blood cells for his malaria to invade.
::Mijo, I think you are dying.
“No, not… not for much longer. I’ll get these new malaria cells printed quickly, then inject them into my bloodstream and I’m good.”
::Your color doesn’t look very good. You know that plan will not work. You can’t print infinite supplies of good, infected red blood cells. You’d need liters of crisper.
“I know that! I just haven’t eaten today. Why haven’t you reminded me to eat, today?”
::Sick. You are very sick. I’ve been monitoring your blood. Sin permiso, ya sabo, no te enojes. Pero listen to me, the blood cells, they are more curly than what most people have. Ninety-nine percent of people. I am sure that these malarias will not infect you.
“Walter Mercado was right?”
::When isn’t he?
Matteo sighed. “Very true. Then what do I… If I can’t just print blood, I need to get it from somewhere. Shit. I’ll have to constantly grow these things in someone else’s blood and then transfer them, won’t I?”
::Lo siento. That is a lot of work.
“It can’t be that bad. People live with much worse. They take medicines every hour, give themselves injections. Okay, then. Where’s the nearest hospital? That’s got to be my best bet for getting fresh blood,” he said.
::You will need to get parasite-infected red blood cells into your system within the next twenty minutes. There is a problem, though. You don’t have a properly registered Mist. You will not be able to request blood from a hospital without one. And what if they detect your blood condition? They may realize you are a…
“A mutant freak. You can say it. Ok. Ok. So what do I do? What can I do?”
::Los hospitales are required to help those who are gravely injured.
“You want me to hurt myself? Fall down the stairs or stab myself?”
::Well, not me. No mas —
“No way. I’d just die more quickly. What about blood drives? I could just waltz in and steal some vials, couldn’t I?!”
::Que chevere! Ahi esta un blood drive only a ten minute ride away. Rob them for some bags. Don’t forget your backpack esta vez, Cochino!
“Ok, I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
The blood drive truck was parked outside of a Matholic Temple with a line several-people deep. Matteo had as little grasp of reality and context as his last dream.
::Andale! No tienes tiempo, mijo.
The last time he was this anxious was for a very different reason, when Concha opened the door to Franky Espada’s and she looked into his eyes for the first time with interest. Was she thinking of him, in these, his last moments?
The round, joyful-looking nurse poked her head out. “Saw you pacing around earlier. Needles got you nervous, huh? Or were you hungry? Lines can get plenty stretched this time’a year! Everybody helpin’ us out. Puts a smile on your face, that’s for sure.”
“I just — I have a headache.”
She reached into her front pocket and pulled out a small packet of aspirin. “Here ya go, hun. It’ll only be fifteen minutes or so. I’d offer you an oatmeal cookie, but we only give those out after you donate,” she inhaled wistfully, “Tell you what, if this line doesn’t restore one’s faith in humanity, I don’t know what would!”
::Take it. That dosage will buy you some time.
He swallowed the pills and shaded his face with his hoodie. The people in line hung their lines of sight low, absorbed in whatever they were watching on their Mistview lenses. Lifetimes seemed to pass.
She finally sat him down and grabbed a glowscreen. It was connected by a coiled firewire to a computer inside of the van. She waved it over him a few times with care. “Hmm, no scan? This dumb old thing!” She banged the wall with a tight fist once and tried again. “Well looks like your Mist or our truck’s on the fritz. Always happens at the end of the day and on the last patient of the day, don’t it? Heh, I’ll have to ask you a few questions and enter them in myself on this old keyboard here…”
“No sex, no drugs, no disease, no allergies, no nothing.” And then he remembered to smile. He wondered if how he was feeling was how Jorge feels normally. The he cursed Jorge silently.
“Hmm, alright. Are you absolutely sure you’re not allergic to any medication?”
“No ma’am,” he said sweetly.
Three patient blood bags sat on top of one another within arms reach, still warm. A trail of sweat dripped from beneath his arms.
“Do you know your blood type?”
“O negative… I think.”
Behind the bags were about a dozen rubber stop glass vials, the expensive style of tubes that were super good for culturing.
“Oh! A universal acceptor! One of the lucky ones! You win a prize! Just kidding,” she snorted, “Let’s hope you never have to come in here needing blood, though. OK, hon, let me go ahead and wipe you down before I get the needle. Sorry for asking all that stuff. Heck, this machine’ll analyze it all on its own in a minute, anyway.”
::You’re going to have to immobilize her somehow.
The space inside of the truck was tight, but maybe with the right distraction he could stuff a bag of blood or two into his backpack and run. At the sight of the needle he said, “Oh… my…” and lulled his eyes backwards, feigning a faint, comfortable in his seat. She waddled to the back of the van for some ipecac. He lunged for the blood with his right hand and grabbed a portable transfuser with his left hand, and shoved the items into his bag. Then he emptied two drawers of supplies, including the culture vials.
“Wait a minute now! Those are not yours!” Her bottom lip quivered.
“Sorry, I really need these,” he said.
“You are committing a crime, sir! Employee fifteen forty authorizes route to nearest Ranger station!”
The van kicked into autodrive and its door began to close. Matteo tried to slip through, but the nurse was right behind him with his ankles in her hands.
::I told you to immobilize her, to knock her out.
“Oh fuck!” He fell onto his backpack and felt the blood bags burst. Matteo dropped headfirst into the blood.
“You listen, here. You’re not goin’ nowhere with my blood!”
He tumbled down the steps in front of the doorway as the van moved along at a slow speed, dragging her with him. She bonked her head on the last step and the back of her head hit asphalt. The door snapped tight on one of her knees. She loosened her grip on him completely.
“Oh shi — ” said Matteo, refusing to believe what was playing out in front of him at five miles an hour. Her head bounced on the ground, bobbing more and more freely. The rest of her body went slack and finally her leg relaxed and she slipped off the van entirely. She laid on her back, bloodied, not fifteen yards from where he’d fallen. The truck moved along its predetermined path without them.
He ran up to her and cradled her pebble-studded face. She wasn’t breathing and he couldn’t find a pulse.
“Fuck.” She was probably dead. And how was he going to unspill all the blood he needed to survive the next few hours?
::Look in your bag. Think. You still have options.
At the bottom of the bag was a butterfly needle and hose. He stuck it in her neck. No blood came out.
::Well, debes hacerlo bien. Make her heart start pumping again, like you make mine, even if it’s not real.
“Oh, duh.” He started pumping her ribcage. “I guess I could…”
::You are dying, quick!
He licked his lips and breathed into her turtle-like mouth. Blood began to flow into the bag. It filled halfway, and then her eyes lit up.
“Hey… where… AAAAAH! AAAAIIIEEE!!!! HELP!”
“Oh fuck!” He clocked her right in the temple and she was out cold again. A tranquilizer rolled out of her pocket and he stuck it in his bag.
::Que luck! I can see the truck has unlocked and stopped. It probably has an emergency stop program in the absence of passenger weight. Get more supplies while you can, mi amor.
“Is there anything in the locked storage worth going after — do you know?”
::Yes. She has the key.
He rifled through her pockets, got the key and jogged down to the mobile blood bank, which was stalled and a little lopsided. As he rifled through the cabinets, which held more blood and tranquilizers and needles, sirens blew in the distance.
On the ride back to his trailer, from somewhere deep inside his brain, he imagined Concha seeing that scene, seeing his desperation, and he giggled with her.
::You are so strong, mijo.
Inside he mixed the Church-printed malaria with the new blood, and watched them invade it under a light microscope. He opened the packaging of a sterile needle and syringe and drew up the liquid.
“I’m putting malaria into myself. Wait.”
“Well. I mean. What could go wrong. What does malaria do?” He brought up a search on his Mistview for footage of malaria patients. There were people on hospital beds with high fevers, some moving listlessly.
“Uh. No I can’t do this. This is stupid. I will die!”
::You will die, anyway.
“Shouldn’t I get a drug, like, they must have had medicine, in case this isn’t the friendly drug delivery malaria but just regular malaria, or if it somehow became virulent again?”
::No tienes tiempo.
He breathed deeply and pierced a visible vein in his arm. There was a plume of his blood that pressured back into the needle, and then he pushed the fluid in.
“I need to learn trust. I trust Concha. I love Concha. I feel so bad about that nurse.”
::Of course te sientes mal. You are not violent. Your life is on the line. Tienes todo el derecho.
“I need a drink.”
::What aren’t you telling me? You feel bad… but you also felt… excitement, no?
Kaylee parked the LUFAW station wagon in the pitch black lot of Franky Espada’s at 12:03 in the morning. The darkness would protect it from prying eyes and cameras on most drones. She convinced herself it would be safe to leave alone, at least for a few minutes, since the crowd inside wouldn’t start spilling out of the bar in their rage for at least another hour. She fast-walked across the street to Motel Cielo.
She walked past what was once Concha’s room and plugged the old Coke machine into an outdoor socket. It made no indication it still worked, no rumbling of coolant or humming of electrical parts, except one button lit from behind. She added a Byte into a rusty slit and hit the button to the right of the lighted one, counted to four, then hit the button below it. A cassette tape clinked into the retrieval bin.
Back inside the station wagon, she booted a small console and glowscreen, slipped the cassette into the tape deck and turned the volume up. The cabin filled with static and blips.
The microphone on the console picked up the sounds and initiated a program, which began decoding the audio into text:
Target metabolite profile: normal
Target genomic profile tissue sets 1, 2 and 3: normal
Target methylation profile tissue sets 1, 2 and 3: normal
Outstanding mutations related to suspected psychological or physical or developmental pathology: none
Have a nice day!
We appreciate your business.
“God. Dang. It,” she said. Had they really botched capturing a dud again? Jorge needed a spanking or something. Matteo couldn’t be a dud. He was genetically as average as anybody else.
Then she envied Concha for having such a cool name that happened to look just like a standard keyboard character “@” and wished she was clever enough to think of one that looked like “Kaylee”. Maybe some pseudonym that ended in “-ly”.
She hoped that Concha would reconsider being part of the team.
::It’s working so well, mijo.
“Well, two months of sticking myself with malaria every other week had better do something good for me!”
::Your metabolite health markers are so different, unrecognizable. No doctor would be able to deduce your mutant background. Without a genetic test, of course.
“Good to know.” Matteo squeezed the last bit out of a stolen blood bag into a flask.
::You’re going to have to get blood on a regular schedule from some place if you want to keep living. I recommend making unos cara-a-cara supply contacts. Be subtle, ask for access to hospital supplies, not access to blood. And I know you want to keep this up because all your porn viewing looks like Concha.
“I mean — yeah, you’re right.”
::Tu eres sinpatico. And you will live for a very long time. You now have all the time in the world to find Concha.
“That’s an excellent observation. I want her now, though,” he said.
Matteo spent the next few weeks collecting physicals and selling their data at Loteria. Among the friendly and unfriendly people in the crowds, he struggled to make connections and when weeks turned to months, he felt a growing seed of anxiety in his gut. Not only was he failing at getting blood and saving his own life, but Concha was proving extraordinarily difficult to run into, or LUFAW for that matter.
And then one day he came across a TI-83 memory card with an interesting bit of information on it:
18 yo m
Han shot first
No Mist, hmu via physicals
Followed by a grainy photo of his senior year picture.
Underneath that, he had caught two replies.
20 yo f
Must like vintage bball games, chicken-on-a-stick and Selenas ;)
Msg 4 free Mistss!!! No citizenship? No problemo! NOT A SCAM!!,! FOR YOU.
“Well, it worked. It took a while — but it worked!”
::You are a visionary. Como se dice en Ingles? Un “early adopter”?
“Well, I didn’t adopt message board communication. I resurrected it.” Matteo blushed with someone else’s blood in his cheeks.
::Que humilde! Sabes que? Tengo una idea. I know where you can get easy blood.
The 20 year old knew what she wanted to get out of Matteo before they’d even met. “I program for Mist. Yeah, I know, I know. You probably see me as the enemy.”
“And you probably see me as some kind of backwards anti-technology luddite,” said Matteo
“I don’t! You obviously know how to program. And I promise I won’t try to stick a tracker on you, ha ha. You know, I’m curious what kind of people are doing this physicals dating. I’m actually writing a blog about the culture, just to be upfront about things. But who knows, I might end up really digging you!” Half of her face was perpetually hidden by the waves of her long brown hair but a sly smile clearly visible and enticing.
“Oh, there’s more than just us doing this? Then I bet you they are the coolest people ever. I take it back. They’re unoriginal posers,” he said and smiled.
“I think it’s romantic. I mean, what is romantic anymore, right? Just a super short bio about yourself and just one photo, usually it’s not detailed ’cause it has to be under fifty megabytes since most old physicals can’t store much. It’s so different than Mistmatch, where everyone knows your contacts and where you went to school and everything. Takes the…”
“Mystery out of it,” he said.
“Yes, exactly. Hmm, sounds like a line to me, actually, ha ha. You’re much taller than I would’ve guessed,” she said.
::Her pupils are dilating. Es una buena senal.
Over the course of three drinks tempered over two cigarette breaks, she invited herself to his place. The setup seemed easy to Matteo. Getting the blood out of her body, on the other hand…
She lowered her head a bit to get in through the door. “I really thought you were joking, but wow, you do live in a mobile home, like a Winter Texan or something!”
Matteo was finding it difficult to position himself naturally around her in the small space. She sat in the kitchen, he on the living room couch, less than five feet between them.
“Well, it’s definitely efficient. I definitely save some Byte on a/c. Doing my part to save the planet, I like to think!”
“It’s almost like you’re an adventurer, too.”
::You’ve wasted so much time already on this one. And it’s only the first date! Do I need to remind you that you are dying? Muevate!
She looked so innocent. Matteo cleared his throat. “So, uh, I was thinking… you know where I can get some medical supplies? Or like, blood?”
::You are joking!
“What?” Silence. She stiffened and Matteo saw a tiny text window get pulled up on her Mistview. “No. I don’t. Hey, just remembered I have to get to the other side of town soon. I just got a text.” She looked around the trailer, anxiety on her eyebrows. “Can I… uh, use your bathroom, real quick?” Matteo wondered if she would write about this on her blog.
::She obviously pulled that text up herself. Que estas haciendo!
“Uh… yeah, sure. Hope you don’t mind miscellaneous lab equipment, heh,” he said.
She put her hand on his. “Can you wait outside until I come out?”
“Yes… Yeah, sure.”
She used the bathroom and got out as quickly as she was able.
“Well, see you around, then. Pleasure meeting you… or something,” he said as soon as she stepped past him, sounding like he had rehearsed it a hundred times in the span of the five minutes she took to pee.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, whizzing by him in the direction of her car.
Alone again, he took stock of his face in the bathroom mirror. Not a day over twenty, he thought while brushing his teeth. It’d been a week since his last injection. Without new blood, would he would he start to age normally from a more youthful starting point? Or would he age rapidly, his body making up for lost time quickly, wrinkly blood ripping through a crumbling frame?
::Maybe you wouldn’t have to worry about aging if you had the balls to do something back there. I’ll give you a hint, though, you can get a few microliters of red blood cells if you hurry. It’s enough.
::From the trashcan.
::She left a tampon — pero tienes que apresurarse.
Matteo willed himself to make good eye contact with the woman on the walk to the bar. “And I’ll tell you, my good friend, who inspired me to apply myself to science, you know, showed me I’d been wrong about the best part of it all. It wasn’t discovering new curiosities and facts about living things. It was bending the laws, controlling them, you know, for the hell of it.”
“Interesting way to introduce yourself. Hi, I’m Maria,” she said.
“You’re kinda odd, aren’t you? We did meet on physicals after all. What should I have expected,” she smiled, holding back laughter.
“Yes, well. Anyway, this elixir I invented, it can extend your life. I just don’t know what to call it yet… What was your name again?”
“Maria. It’s ok — I’m nervous, too,” she said.
“Maria, how could I forget? It’s so easy to get caught up in avatar names. I like the sound of Maria. And how old are you?”
“Twenty-three. I’m also five foot nothin’ and if you want I can get you a verified scan of my Mist ID.” She had spunk.
“Don’t need it. What if I told you I was ten years older than you?”
“Oh! You look much younger…” she said.
“Hearing that never gets old, let me tell you, heh heh.”
“You don’t look at day over a hundred. I promise. And I have young eyes, still.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. I am, though — ten years older.”
“Yeah, ok. I get it. I mean, I did see the ‘created on’ date on your bio’s metadata.”
Matteo quieted, unsure about what to say next.
“And I did the math…” she said.
“Well geez, what do you wanna hear? I think we look fine together on this first date! Has it been awhile since you’ve met a woman? Nobody is going to judge a ten years difference, anyway.”
They walked through a grassy field towards the blue building. The sun was finally set.
“Franky’s? You’re taking me to Franky’s! Oh my god, I have so many embarrassing stories at this place! Ok, maybe not so many. Like one. They don’t check your age here at all. Here I was starting to second guess going out with a stranger. You literally just made up for that introduction, ha ha.”
“Oh? I know exactly what you mean. Too many things have happened here I would prefer to keep secret,” he said.
“That one time, I threw up into a — ”
And he draped her over his arm, and stabbed her with a tranquilizer. He lowered her limp body into the overgrown grass. Her carotid artery visibly pulsed. He stole about a quart of blood before putting a small butterfly bandage on the nick.
Matteo whispered, “I feel so bad, almost.”
::Dejame decirte. If you found this girl laying here, sick, and she needed your blood and you had healthy blood, would you give her some?
::Ok and why are you so sure that you would? It’s porque eres una buena persona.
::If you didn’t take her blood, it would be like saying she would not help you if she found you sick, lying there in a field. It would be like calling her a bad person.
“Heh, yeah. I guess you are right, as always.”
He stood, straightening his shoulders and left Maria laying the field.
Matteo’s face blazed orange and shadow as the LED on his vape responded to his suction.
“Sorry, bad habit. You don’t know me, but I was short of breath my whole life, at least when I was younger,” he said.
“Oh, American Spirits brand vape oil. Those are like good for you, right?” his date asked, vacant.
“Ha, ha… maybe! Doctor says I’ve made some kind of recovery, so, you know, thought I’d give this a try. You only live once!”
“Totally. It’s so good to see they’re doing something, you know?” She spoke with a sense of charity.
“The Indians, duh!”
::Remember when you felt guilty about this? Que chulo. La sangre de estas necias is better off in your veins.
And a few drinks later, she said, “How is a strapping young man like yourself not single?”
“I don’t meet anyone worth being crazy over, I guess,” he said.
“You’re funny.” She prodded the center of his chest with one finger.
“Do you hear yourself? You want someone to be crazy about? To be crazy? That’s crazy!”
His expression relaxed. “Heh. You know what? You’re right.”
Twenty minutes of empty conversation later led them back to his trailer. And as he drew a hunters knife instead of whiskey from his mini liquor cabinet, he said, “I guess we’re all a little crazy.”
“Nervous? You shouldn’t be.” She had a way of gazing that demanded his attention.
“Do I seem nervous? No. I don’t know. I’ve been on many of these things that didn’t end well. Well, not that many,” Matteo said and coughed into his sleeve.
“Oh, I’m sure they’re not all bad. I’m sitting here with an open mind, taking you in. So far you don’t seem like a killer, at least! That puts you leagues ahead of my ex,” she said.
“Oh, another killer? Maybe I know him.”
“NOT funny, guy!”
Behind the trees, from the direction on the other side of the zoo, a trolley bell rang. He felt himself say something. A rehearsed line that was probably older than the girl, the woman he was walking next to. Or he could’ve been nodding along. It was getting harder to tell.
“Cool. So tell me about yourself… you have family here?” He was sure he said.
“What? Why? What did I…”
A wide set stare from beneath golden bangs. The kind that would’ve crushed him twenty years ago, before he was really a man.
“Well what else do you expect me to say? Am I this out of touch. I’m so old. I’m from like, another era,” he said. “You knew what you were getting into.”
“Unbelievable. You know more and more people come from tubes — ”
He’d said something about cloning, hadn’t he? “Jesus! I didn’t know! Your generation is so difficult.”
::I told you to stop giving your opinion on clones!
“Yeah, and that’s part of the problem, asshole. I can’t even, you know, if I need sex, I will convince myself someone is alright until I no longer want any, but wow I am not this desperate to fulfill my old dude kink. Thank christ I didn’t delete Mistmatch, there’s still 6 hours left on this Friday night.” She turned off the pathway.
“Well… nice to meet you, too. BYE!”
“I don’t owe you a bye, either!”
He let her walk for several steps, then chased after her, grabbing her by the wrist, and ducked them both behind the chimpanzee cages.
This one was not used to being so much as tapped on the shoulder. Or asked what her problem was. Nope not used to that one bit, or anything more pressing. The chimps shrieked and jumped. Matteo licked a small bit of blood off of his old hunting blade. Blondes were a consistent favorite.
::You’re bleeding too many. You will get caught.
He found himself transfixed by the way her white skin lightened playing out to the quieting of her pulsing blood across different parts of her body.
::Estas escuchando? You’ve killed so many girls in the same city for decades. And now you’re \ — there are four dozen people within a 200 foot radius in this zoo! The current NOW says the Rangers suspect you’re a group of predators. And I haven’t had the heart to tell you, pero, well, you’ve had to have noticed it’s getting harder and harder to find women? There aren’t many that are so easy to… get… estos dias.
“Ok, ok, yah! What are my options here?”
::Don’t add to that body count. There’s a really simple way. Bleed one… no mas uno, for more.
“This is my ninetieth kill only. Even if I bleed them to death and keep all the blood I can get it only gives me an extra week or so. Blood goes bad fast.”
::It’s more than ninety, mentiroso, way more. And that’s not what I mean.
“Oh… I keep her alive. Of course!”
Concha wore a white suit, her silver gray hair buzzed close to her scalp. She knelt and lay a bouquet of wildflowers on her grandmother’s grave, which was in the center of the cemetery behind the old Yerberia on South Flores. The flowers tripped a glowscreen projection of home movies onto the tombstone. Kaylee waited for the scene to end before clearing her throat.
“Almost the same age as she was, now, aren’t you?” said Kaylee.
“Older actually. How’d you find me, Kaylee?” Despite her age, Concha rose with strength. She didn’t turn to face Kaylee.
Kaylee started, her palms sweating, “You look well.” Closer, Kaylee could see the start of elegant lines at the edges of her face. “You’re not the only super sleuth in Alamo City, y’know. October twenty-sixth. This had to be the reason your activity dips on the boards and other logs every October twenty-sixth.”
“Some time for you to make a personal call,” said Concha.
“I’m just sayin’. We’ve — I keep an eye on you. You’re not as alone as you think you are,” said Kaylee.
“Then you should know I should be alone. You’ve seen how I work. Nobody would put up with it.” She flashed half of a nearly regretful grin.
“Speaking of that. I came to ask for your help. We’ve tracked a mosquito. A bad one. And who knows, darlin’, maybe if you saw how I worked, we’d both be able to put up with each other’s habits.”
“Of course I have my own tabs on you, too. Sere honesto, no sabia que tenias un target nueva. Quien es?”
“Hold onto your britches…” said Kaylee, with hopeful eyes.
Matteo admired himself before a full length magnifying mirror, naked.
“It’s working so well. I haven’t even used sunscreen for years, maybe decades. Heck, I probably don’t need to jog. Look at this naturally fit body,” he said.
::What a life you are living, mijo. The inside of this trailer is looking fancy, too, thanks to what an excellent reader you are. But you still haven’t listened to me.
“Then again, jogging’s when I get to scout for fresh blood. Perdoname, I am listening. I said it before — the timing isn’t right.”
::In twenty years ‘the timing isn’t right’? You just need one woman. No mas un mujer! The supplies you need to capture her have already been delivered. I saw you toying with them last week.
“You know, the girls wake up the next morning with very little memory, or the few times I went overboard, the body is found quickly and forgotten. I’ve survived this long, I must be doing something right. A missing person case is probably more dangerous for me, if you think about it.”
::I have one, brand new just popped up, que no tiene Mist. She could vanish without a trace.
“Pues, can I just, can I just keep things the way they are right now? What’s the rush? Life is good.”
::Change is inevitable, mi amor.
“Well then, what if I do get her and I do lock her up in a cage… and then she got away? Then my cover is blown! For good!”
::It’s because the one that I found — she resembles your little crush from what, seventy years ago. She’s older, too. Nobody will miss her.
“Que ‘little crush’? You’re crazy. I can be more safe, you know. I don’t even need to set up dates through the physicals, which could somehow be tracked. I’ll do things the old-fashioned way.” He tried to keep himself from thinking about what it would be like to meet Concha again, after all of these years. Would she be impressed by how well he dominated other women? Flattered at how he could discard them all in a heartbeat for her company?
::That’s not que estoy diciendo. You’re going to get caught.
“I’ll prove it. I can date without your help.”
The AI was quiet the entire night at Franky Espada’s, refusing to give him tips on potential targets. Nevertheless, right at closing time, Matteo found himself in a familiar position — leaning over a young woman, one stiff arm against the wall, supporting his weight directly over her shoulder.
She alternated her gaze directly into his eyes and then at the floor, oblivious to everyone else closing tabs and filing out of the bar.
“Yeah, I I’d like that,” she said.
A man dressed in a untucked button-up shirt, tight around his waist placed his face between them. “You in line, ese? For the toilet?”
“Que?” Matteo didn’t take his eyes off her. “No, no. Go ahead — there’s no line.” He relaxed his arm, and moved his weight around to begin to escort her out of the bar and into the field out back.
“Hey, man. I don’t think this is the men’s restroom. You sure?” The man said this while sticking his face between the pair.
“Look, buzz off,” said Matteo.
The man came into Matteo’s view much more clearly now. Small of stature, but with a solid, wrestler’s kind of musculature. He was older than his voice let on.
“Take this outside, or what? I don’t think you need to be bothering that girl, right there.”
“Chingado. Who in the fuck was talking to you, kid?” Matteo set his shoulders to face the man now. In that moment, the woman’s friend stepped out of the bathroom and grabbed her by the hand, leading her out of the bar.
“I’m talking to you,” said the stranger.
“Fucking Christ. You don’t know what you just did. I really needed to talk to that girl. Yeah, let’s go outside, then, cabron,” said Matteo. He may look young, but he had a world of experience and pent up rage for anyone coming between him and his next blood meal.
“Listen to me. I just saved you. Walk with me,” said the man.
“You may have just killed me, actually, pendejo,” said Matteo.
“You’re going to get caught if you keep up ese chingadera,” he replied.
Matteo was stalking behind the man, now, pupils wide as stones, ready to make something bleed. “And what do you know about anything I’m doing, buey?”
Outside the air was unusually cool, the night unusually quiet. The women sped off in the last car to leave the parking lot.
“You don’t recognize me, do you, Matteo?” the man said.
“How’d you know — ”
“Soy Dillo,” the man spoke.
Matteo looked for the hints of dimples, the laugh lines on his face. “Hijo de puta!”
He swung hard at Dillo’s head, his feet sinking a bit into the damp ground. Dillo dodged by drawing closer to Matteo, shifting to hug him from behind and finally locked his elbows under Matteo’s armpits, with his thick hands splayed across the back of Matteo’s head.
“Escuchame. Escuchame. I didn’t kill her,” said Dillo.
Matteo spit. “She was my only family, you fucking psychopath.”
“Hey, hey. Let’s not not get into detail about who is the real psychopath here. I’ll say it one more time. It wasn’t me. It was the Rangers. I know eres un ‘dud’. They wanted you and your mom dead, ok?” Dillo’s eyes were wide as saucers. “You of all people should know this. The Rangers, they frame people, a lot of people, me included, a lot,” said Dillo.
“Why wouldn’t you do something about it?” Matteo tried to break free by contracting his abdomen, but Dillo proved immovable.
“Hahaha. What? I’m going to stop the Rangers? Alone? Come on, Matteo. Ya no eres joven. You’re a man, right? You know better. It makes perfect sense. They give me a reputation I can use, I profit.”
“I’ll fucking kill you,” said Matteo.
“You won’t. You’ll die. And you know what’s better than dying? Getting rich,” said Dillo. “I have seen where you’re living. Not safe.”
“Threatening me now? Let me go,” said Matteo.
“Alright. But let’s take a walk. Just like I said five minutes ago before you insisted on making us break a sweat. A walk.”
Matteo relaxed, and they began on the path along Roosevelt Avenue.
“Dejame decirle. You have a well-hidden lab. And la ria.”
“La ria, la ria, malaria,” Dillo rolled the r’s in a way Matteo was jealous of.
“And if I did?”
“So, I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but it seems like the immortals are all white, on the north side,” said Dillo.
“I haven’t been paying attention porque no me importa nada del north side.”
“Well it’s not that white people are immortal in their genes. They just got their hands on the medicine easier, you know, cause tienen plata. What we need is to make a lot of malaria. I got a guy who has mosquitos. We just need to have some volunteers infected… maybe living in your lab. I know you have multiple trailers, now. They get a few bites every few days, then I go and sell the bugs to people.”
“I’m not going to work with you. Ni en un millon de anos,” said Matteo.
::Idiota. This solves your problem.
“Physicals are done, man. Unless you are smart enough to sell genes and play that game, there is no Byte left to be made in swapping old information. And we’d be selling for reasonable prices, para la gente que conocemos.” Dillo almost sounded like a politician. Maybe he had aspirations.
“Get the fuck out of here, man. Anyway, not everyone wants to live forever. Especially Matholics,” said Matteo.
“So, what? You’re real smart. You can design the bugs to make nic, or anything else, caffeine. It’ll get them hooked.”
“I said get the fuck out of here, man,” said Matteo.
“Well, as a dud, you’re still worth about half what my plan would pay that first two weeks. Rangers are still looking to clean you putas up. There can’t be too many left. And if tell them you’re the pendejo that’s been going around killing girls, I might get even more, come to think of it,” said Dillo, scratching the stubble on his chin.
::Take the deal, mi amor.
“We just gonna need some volunteers, you know anyone?”
::Tell him, yes! Si sabes una mujer. The older one — I am tracking her right now. Te prometo it will work out. And once she’s locked up in your home, who knows, maybe you both will fall in love. It won’t even be difficult to keep her around. She will do so, willingly. I would… if I had a body.
Matteo pulled at his waistband and cracked the bones in his neck. “Yeah. I do. I’m going to need a few days, but I’ll catch her.”
Concha parked her truck at the entrance of the old mobile park. Mounds of garbage seemed to grow on every unit. Through a few windows, she saw most were brimming to their ceilings with used up physicals. Homes on the eastern side were partially submerged in the sandy mud. The whole place had been deserted decades ago because of the advancing shoreline. Or so she thought.
It was by most measures a great hiding place. Great hiding places are usually obvious ones. How had she missed it? She grinned, thinking about the many times Kaylee had teased that one day, her aging mind would impede her work.
She recognized the sounds of an ancient Michael Salgado song coming from the only clean unit, which had a pristine set of solar panels on the top. Someone was home.
She inhaled the salty breeze and succeeded in delivering what sounded like a friendly knock at the door.
“Come in! Come in!” Matteo was decked out in a clean sea-foam guayabera.
Concha slipped through the front door. She moved with a certain finesse and command. Not unlike the deer Matteo would spot revealing themselves from behind the mounds of garbage, if only for a second, in his late nights running the cell culture.
::Remember, this is just like catching a pet. You’ll feed her for as long as she’s alive and she’ll give you love and blood in return. Quien sabe? Es posible que no tengas que encerrarla.
Matteo swallowed hard. “I hope you like ceviche. It did take me the entire afternoon but I think I got it right. Are the candles too much? Too dark in here? Sorry, I’m a little anxious around beautiful women.”
“I had my suspicions… I almost can’t accept it. Everything about you matches my memory, but I couldn’t let myself believe it. I can’t believe it,” she said.
“I said, I’m a little nervous around beautiful women,” he said, puzzled by her lack of expressed flattery. She was old, after all.
“You’re Matteo. This is where you’ve been, this whole time? You practically never left that barge. Matteo, it’s me.”
“You know better than to call me that,” she said
“I hardly recognize you. You’re so much older, now, Matteo.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You look like you just stepped out of a grave. I suppose you should be close to ending up in one, now?” she said.
“You’re hilarious!,” he laughed a dry hack, “I feel amazing. It’s good to see you, again. Still can’t resist me after all these years, I see.” His twitched his lean biceps.
“Matteo, look at yourself.” She projected her Mistview of him in real time in full 3D. “See this, the weighted arch of your back, the sagging skin, your few remaining wisps of white hair. The broad shoulders — they stayed. Your eyes are different, though.”
Matteo looked at the image, confused. “You’re talking crazy. It’s ok, I don’t mind — all women do! Let’s celebrate. Who cares about ceviche. I know… well hell, I know a hundred places in this old town to get a drink. You may not know this, but I am much older than I appear,” he said.
::Maybe she is not real. I don’t detect her Mist.
“Her Mist is always encrypted!” he barked and pointed a finger at Concha. He thought he felt a sagginess to the weight of his jowl. “What is this? What are you doing to me?”
::It’s not me. It’s her. I told you, you need to catch her once and for all. She looks older than you remember, of course, but don’t be fooled she is Concha. You can figure out what she’s doing to your head once she’s in the cage.
“Who are you talking to? If you’re depending on the malaria thing you should be immortal, young. Why is it that you have aged so?”she said.
“You must be messing with my Mist. Concha, you hacked into it. Like you hack into everything. Like you hacked my heart. I don’t look anything like this old man you’re showing me!”
“Mist? You have no Mist,” said Concha.
“YES! Yes, I DO.”
“Oh, right. The barely functional one you had when we met. I deleted that while you slept. No need to have a hacked Mist on your body, especially if you were found dead later, for some Ranger to find and track back to me.”
::‘Temporary’. Que mujer! SOY real!
“I am just as attractive as before. You thought I was hot, remember? How can you stand there and pretend like you don’t feel anything now that we’re reunited?”
“I do feel things. To be honest, ashamed I ever thought you weren’t evil.”
“You gave me nudes on your .butt file!”
“Did I? I don’t remember that at all. Wait, god, I do remember. Well, I was not even three decades old. Did you still have them? Don’t answer, no quiero saber.”
“Now who’s delusional?” he said.
“Ok, so what? What did you expect? I would live for a million years or whatever? You think we’d be some kind of couple for that long? Centuries? Millenia? Can’t you see the wrinkles on my face? I didn’t even text you back. And somehow you thought that I’d spend all this time eager to see you again?”
Matteo swayed, not able to place her words into any logical statement in his own mind.
“The obsession with having my attention forever is sick. That’s so sick and suffocating and weird,” she said.
“It was twenty five years before I trained my body to take up the middle of the bed, again,” he shot back.
“Astounding that you’ve lured any women with this kind of talk. Triste, en serio.” She tied her long grey hair into a bun quickly.
“How could I keep this up, keep bagging chicks unless I LOOKED THE SAME! No! No! You are not Sonia!” he snarled.
“All these years spilling red pint after red pint, living fluids that didn’t belong to you.” Concha’s voice was even and strong.
“Life fucking finds a way. I’m a survivor. I found a way, mujer,” he said.
“Ha, ha. Matteo. You were never gonna die early. Duds weren’t real. I mean they are, but they don’t die prematurely. Kaylee sent me some of your tissues to analyze way back when. She figured out that Rangers had just removed and then added back a normal gene to test the technology with you and the others. You’re wild-type, a normal guy, basically.”
Matteo’s face melted and tightened, appearing empty and pleasant. “Let’s start over. Ok, you lied to me about my Mist and my appearance, but you are still single, right? I think I still have a copy of Jurassic Park somewhere around here. We can stay in,” he said.
“Oh my god. You don’t take a hint, do you? I’m not here for a date,” she said, nearly laughing.
“I know a… a really good bar. It’s private.” He casually walked to the extraction table, opened a drawer and withdrew a hammer. “Well, whatever. Maybe you are right. Maybe I am a monster. Women always, women always either project who they want me to be on to me, or right from the start layering on every shortcoming of mine, disappointment after disappointment. I can’t remember the last one of your kind that viewed me as a human. You’re no different.”
“Put that down.”
“I only wish it hadn’t taken me so damn long to find you,” he said.
“Because I wasn’t looking for you. Because I lost interest in you within twenty four hours of meeting you.” She stepped back.
“Ha… ha. Who’s the crazy one, now? You did drive all the way out here, alone, to see me.” Maybe if he could convince her about how wrong she was about the last seven decades, she’d fall in love with him again. He fingered the red hammer.
“In order to stop you. You know, Kaylee found you, not me. It’s sad. So long ago, she had just wanted to help you.” Concha relaxed for a moment, looked away. “She’s always been like that — well-meaning and guilty all at the same time.”
A deep rumble bubbled up from Matteo’s belly and developed into an abrupt cackle. “But you’re wrong about everything, especially my immortality. I am not old. Let me show you.” He raised the hammer. “Women love me. I love women.”
Concha’s Mistview became a dark mirror and every console and glowscreen inside the bunker projected a simple animation of an ojo. Matteo fell to the floor, catatonic.
Jorge watched as Matteo gained some control of his mind and body again in the truck bed. Their other captor, a child appearing to be around ten Earth years, stared at Matteo. Jorge made sure their their wrists were securely ziptied.
“What is this?” Matteo said to Jorge.
“The end, yo pienso,” said the boy. The truck hit a bump every couple of seconds. The boy stuck his eyes up high into their sockets, curious and exaggerated like all restless kids.
“So, how long has it been since you have been to Church, old brother?” the boy said.
“Brother? I don’t have any family left that I know about,” said Matteo. “Not even a real friend.” He looked at Jorge, now recognizing him fully. Jorge thought about drugging him.
The kid continued, “I’m speaking in the religious sense. You should try it too, some time. Tu y yo, nosotros estamos igual. We are the same, brother.” He smiled wide, with teeth a bit too big for his jaw.
“You have some confidence in you, mijo,” said Matteo.
“You’re both sick,” said Concha, from the driver’s cabin, the green from a glowscreen spilling onto their faces. “He’s not like you, and he’s not a kid. Unlike you, though, he actually did crack immortality, and expanded it to reverse his age, all without needing anybody’s blood.”
Jorge thought about how quickly human technology had flourished, even when underground, in the span of less than a century. He was also interested in whether Concha would finally give in to Kaylee’s wishes and join them as immortals. Drama was an interesting sideshow of this planet. He wondered if he could convert it into some useful technology…
The odds of Concha joining LUFAW were fifty-fifty, he surmised. She was a rare personality type. Sentimental in severe ways. She always remembered his birthdays, both of them. It was impossible for humans to conceive of a binary star system — easily, anyway. Kaylee had given her both Matteo and now the key to curing her own aging. She had to appreciate that.
“There’s a reason it’s called eternal youth, bughunter. Many consider me a god,” said the boy.
“No, that is not an accurate definition of ‘god’ in your language,” said Jorge.
“Quiet.” Concha focused on the traffic. Jorge thought it was a good move for her to drive since auto-pilot was susceptible to hackers, especially when transporting valuable cargo.
The boy leaned into Matteo and whispered, “Our colony never preyed on any real kids. We’re all very, very old adults.” His voiced raised, “Older and wiser than modern elders or immortals that were born that way. We know what it is to have been subject to death.”
Concha parked just on the water’s edge and Jorge opened the back doors. Jorge guided Matteo and the boy to a small skiff while Concha prepared her jetski to tow them. From a mile out, the Barcaza looked like a shredded diaper afloat in a bathtub.
“You’re taking me back to jail? Come on,” said Matteo.
“No. It’s no longer a jail. We acquired it some time ago,” said Jorge.
“We?” asked Matteo.
“LUFAW,” said Concha.
At that, the old boy visible lost his composure.
“Turns out you can get richer using information rather than just deleting it or uploading it to some AI like the Rangers were. Also, being mobile comes in handy for getting into international waters when we need to use our labs,” she said. “Not that any of that is really your concern.
The ride out was choppy, but Concha had little trouble docking their craft next to other rafts and paddle boats. Jorge untied their hands. There was really no escape for these two. Drugs were probably not needed.
They climbed the base of structure easily. When the incline became impossible, they made use of makeshift steps made out of beer boxes which led to a ladder. Concha motioned for him to proceed and at the top was a round opening with a fire station pole positioned in the center. Matteo slid down first, then the boy, then Concha, and finally Jorge dropped down.
They had entered at the perimeter of a circular room, which held what looked like three clear acrylic hair salon chairs. A stained-glass window, showing adult Jesus praying beside a lamb was fixed into the trash-walls, near the dome ceiling. At this time of day, it filled the interior with vibrant colors.
A corn-fed bro in dreads and a Mexican poncho welcomed Matteo and the boy with cold Mexican Cokes.
“What’s up, mi amigos? Don’t answer that. Just gonna guide you through the process here. All you need to do is sit down and relax. Concha knows what’s up. Don’t piss her off and you’ll be fine,” he said. Jorge had either liked or been indifferent to most humans, but this one stood out as what he could only imagine was the human concept of annoying.
Matteo and the kid sat down. The bro adjusted each chair’s netcap to a tight fit onto each skull. Concha checked the linkages, which connected through vintage metal wiring to a computing hub in an actual shoebox. A single, thick cord connected a more powerful console to the box. Jorge never tired of silently marveling at Kaylee’s ability to produce circuitry.
“You’re not going to get away with this,” said the boy. The man pulled an electric razor from the pocket in his poncho and quickly buzzed the boy’s and Matteo’s hair.
“I would turn y’all both in to the Rangers, but they’re just as bad as you. Besides, they’re soft. They’d let you grow old, and once your neurons re-organize naturally over time, the jail sentence would expire,” said Kaylee.
Jorge thought about whether the process of neuronal reorganization could find application on a planetary scale. Hmm. He watched Matteo’s reaction to seeing Kaylee again for the first time. She was dressed in monochrome maroon and worked at some machinery. There was something in Matteo’s face that Jorge couldn’t quite interpret. Maybe he would spend time working on a facial analysis program he abandoned years ago.
“It’s a fool’s errand,” the boy continued, straining to face her, “I don’t have Mist. My guess is this fella don’t either. None of us trust it. Unless you have hard evidence for the Rangers… something on a drive or — ”
The netcaps made a sucking sound as they fused with the skin of their skulls.
Concha and Kaylee’s Mistviews brightened as they saw the immense history of the two very old brains.
Jorge was hooked up to everything such that he could see the neuronal analysis as well as Kaylee’s private mental analysis of the data in real time. And he saw how she thought: So many fractal patterns, spiraling, worsening.
Steam escaped the box and Kaylee’s console glowscreen flooded with processes. “That right there is fifteen hundred and thirteen unsolved assaults and murders,” Kaylee whistled, “Got to be worth a couple trips to Whataburger.”
The rest of LUFAW just smiled.
The shoebox vibrated and the glowscreen went black, then it showed an animated ellipsis.
“That covers the memories. And the gene data?” said Concha.
“Normally, I’d get right to it. But, I know you cared for this mosquito at one point. Now, hear me out. You know very well I believe the world spins on second chances. We could erase any negative memories that might’ve made him behave the way — ” said Kaylee.
“Wait! Wait, I see why I was wrong. I can change,” Matteo said, his voice trembling.
Concha sighed. “You killed like a million people, man. Do you want me to go down the list? It’s right here on my Mistview. I’ll start with that poor nurse you killed… ” she said, her arms crossed, her stance widening.
“Shit. Women hurt me all the time and I don’t hold a grudge, you know. I was hoping people would forget… ” said Matteo. “I forgot.”
“Our Mist doesn’t forget. Neither did they,” said Kaylee.
“Remember how good I was when we met? I opened doors for you. I helped clean up the bar. Paid the whole tab at the end of the night. I searched day and night for you after. That was brave! I changed for the worse, yes. I can change back, for the better, too,” he said.
“Don’t give them the satisfaction,” said the boy.
“Now that you mention it, all that nice stuff you did — it was just as bad. Just a different type of bad. Anyway, isn’t that what you’ve always been after? You’d love to start over, feel the tingling excitement of the first infatuation, the first chase all over again. So, nah, fuck you. Hit it, Kaylee,” said Concha.
“Alright, then. Here we go!” said Kaylee.
“Hold on!” said Concha, her hands held up in earnest. “Can you make it hurt?”
“Will do!” said Kaylee.
Matteo and the ancient boy were dissociated and drawn in through the netcap leads. Channels inside of the chairs picked apart each cell’s component, recording every atom’s orientation. The structures turned opaque red and the remains of the two men drained somewhere below the Barcaza.
After a few minutes, Kaylee picked at the side of her console, teasing out a smoldering memory card, full of both men’s DNA and physiological structure.
“Just put it through diagnostics to make sure everything’s still there… once it cools. Don’t worry, I got the original backup on our system already, as usual. Then, highest bidder, as always,” Kaylee said and sighed relief.
Concha smiled back, “Hundred Byte says you don’t find any malaria DNA. That fool couldn’t grow a cell culture to save his life.”
“You got it.”
Concha and the man in the poncho left together to go to the interior of the Barcaza to start shopping all the new data. Jorge was 99% sure Concha would join. Her vocal patterns were different as were her movements. Something had changed in her.
Jorge walked up close to Kaylee. He gently put his hand on her shoulder, just like a real human would.
“Just saw the new memory files. Callous. I guess I don’t know what I expected from a planet that eats animals.” He immediately suspected he had chosen the wrong words.
“Hey now, I only eat plants,” said Kaylee. “You know that.” She laughed. Maybe he didn’t say anything too offensive, after all.
“Plants are animals on my home planet, too,” he said.
“Dang it, Jorge,” she said.
“I should not expect better from a planet with such violent weather, either,” he mused. “Brutal animals always evolve on planets with violent weather.”
“Geez, ok, but do you have to make it sound so prejudiced,” said Kaylee.
“Do I really sound like I do in Matteo’s memories?”
“Monotone and annoying? Yes,” she said.
Jorge shrugged, then he said, “Check out what Matteo was doing on year sixteen, day one hundred forty, 2:56 p.m. Matteo was actually really quite good at programming.”
“Geez, I envy how quickly you get through memory analysis,” Kaylee held one thumbnail on her teeth, and started to hack away at Matteo’s clouds of memory. “Shit. Do you even know what this means?”
“Yeah, I could’ve used his help on adapting Magic: The Gathering to digital,” said Jorge.
“He was designing neurosensory programs to hypnotize women into dating him. We got him. Sonia got him! He paralyzed her and by proxy, killed her grandma. He was guilty all along. It had nothing to do with kidnapping or experimenting…”
Just at that moment, her parallel query into his DNA came up as well. “Hmmph. Just what Concha suspected, too. No malaria DNA anywhere in Matteo. Nothing wrong with dud genes, either, just like all the other duds we’ve seen. Dude was just shitty.”
Jorge didn’t know everything about humans yet, but he knew this could be the closure Concha needed. There was no doubt Kaylee would figure out how the old boy had tricked his body to become young again. Concha could be saved from her aging, if she chose.
“She’s got to say ‘yes’ to life, now,” said Kaylee. “All’s not lost.” Stained water lapped underneath the garbage floor beneath her.