Kaylee, an academic deserter, and Jorge, a self-described alien, are trying to figure out a way to achieve immortality. All they need to do is biohack a killer parasite and also catch a human to test it on. What they forget to control for in their experiments is the tricky power of friendships, especially friendships grown from the dystopia of Alamo City.
Content Warning: adult themes, violence, sexism, racism, strong language, alcohol and drug use
All was not lost.
It wasn’t like Sonia had blown their money on lottery tickets, the way grandma used to before she got too tired to walk to the Texaco on the corner. In fact, the last time she’d borrowed cash without asking, she’d paid it all back by the end of the week. Abuela didn’t even notice it had gone missing from behind the Virgin Mary statue in the living room, anyway. And you had to spend money to make money, isn’t that what everyone says? Yes, these were all good things to remember to point out, just in case she got caught.
Sonia’s walk from the bus stop was more difficult than usual. She was carrying a backpack that probably weighed as much as she did and seemed to get heavier with each step, like it wanted to push her straight into the ground. She adjusted the strap a little bit tighter, noticing the sweat gathering under her arms. Why did it always have to be so hot outside? She took her silver wig off even though she knew it wouldn’t be enough to cool down.
If abuela found out how she paid for this backpack full of junk, she’d definitely be grounded for at least twenty years. But Sonia was willing to bet that before abuela even knew what had happened, they’d be living in a new house — a two-story that smelled like fresh paint and construction. All paid for by her only granddaughter.
Sonia would buy the house on the North Side. That’s where the nicer H-E-Bs were, the ones rich people went to and they let you sample sausage on toothpicks and fresh guacamole and even craft beers — all for free on Sundays, just around the time everyone gets out of church. Abuela would never say no to a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Just so long as it was light.
Thinking of the two of them together at H-E-B made her backpack feel a little less heavy. And before she knew it, she was already home.
Their front yard was protected by a short chain-linked fence. Its small door was frozen in place by overgrown weeds, leaving a space just wide enough for Sonia to squeeze her small frame through. A twisted metal rung caught her bag and split its zipper halfway open. Two wires spilled out — their plugs bobbed like unsure pendulums.
“Qué no traiga esa brujería into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. She sounded coarse, like she was yelling through a string-and-cup telephone. That meant she was only a little bit agitated at this point.
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?
“Oh my god, ‘buela. It’s not witchcraft. They’re just a couple of old physicals— phones and computers and stuff,” she said over the piercing barks of the neighbor’s chihuahuas, “for my Halloween costume. Voy hacer un robot.” She swung her arms mechanically.
Her grandma squinted at her and said, “Y tienes muchos muerdes en sus brazos! Ten cuidado!” She ambled into darkness in the direction of the kitchen, mumbling some mixture of complaints and regrets.
“Ah, I can’t control the mosquitoes from biting me!” Sonia looked down at three big bug bites near her elbow. Geez. She opened the screen door to the house, and remembered the watermelon she’d cut up earlier waiting for her 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.
Sonia wiped her arm off with a paper towel and decided not to whine.
“Fine, fine. I’ll wait just for you,” she said and stamped softly to her bedroom without the watermelon.
She kicked her pink sneakers off and swung the heavy pack onto the bed, then sat with her legs crossed next to it. The mattress squeaked.
The way to buying her grandma a new house was possibly right there on her bed. Now that real-time data on most Texan’s Mists were automatically logged on Rangers’ servers, people had taken to storing their dirty secrets on old electronics. If her data extracting skills were good enough, she might find a fortune hidden in the zeros and ones of their memories. Even mundane data that could boost the performance of predictive algorithms could be worth a week of groceries, or at least traded for a coupon booklet.
Of course she’d need to figure out how to sell the data to Rangers or maybe even criminals. But no use worrying about that right now.
If she got a real break today maybe she’d tell her grandma about how she hadn’t graduated classes last year. No. No sum of money could save her butt in that situation.
She pulled out the two easiest pieces to work on first: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing.
She put the price of the items out of her mind, donned her oversized headphones and plugged them into a Raspberry Pi computer.
Using a rubber mallet, she delivered a soft bump to pop open the brick phone. She wiggled the memory stick loose and transferred it into an adapter linked up to the console, fitting it 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 with her fingers to see more of the information. The characters erased and reformed repeatedly, and, through the headphones, Bidi Bidi Bom Bom played at full volume.
“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, también!” she shrieked. It was obvious she’d been waiting to let that one out for a while.
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia calmed down, hooked the headphones back up, and loaded a script of her own design to unlock the information now saved inside the console. The glowscreen flickered and centered five low-res thumbnail photos of a brown Pomeranian. Jesus, it made no sense to put a lock on that. Unless.
She ran her script, which made dozens of copies of the photos and renamed their file extensions. The new copies were then forced 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. Right there, plainly on her glowscreen was a series of text conversations in Spanish and English.
She dug into the phone’s previous service information. A secondary, pink glowscreen flashed: Julián Castro.
“Fuuuuck…” she whispered to herself, then shouted, “Buela!”
“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 senator pasado. That’s a year of college paid for right there. What did I tell you?”
It was the pay off Sonia was hoping for after putting up with the dimple-cheeked vendor at la pulga, who’d been all dilated pupils and grabby hands. He’d definitely charged her an unfair premium, on account of her being underage and poor and in need. Snakes like that could smell your situation the second you entered the building. Maybe she’d invest in a more realistic wig color soon, something an adult would wear. Anyway, Castro’s private texts would find many high bidders. Joke was on dimples.
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” Sonia 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, “Sí, sí,” a sweet child, again. Abuela disappeared from the door frame.
“And now I can pay you back some of what I owe,” she said to the empty room.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Not enough for a house, but it would pay the water and light bill at least for a year. Maybe she’d get some more RAM for her computer, too. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive before tossing the phone into a small industrial shredder.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the cupboards open and close. The smell of cinnamon and a new humidity filled the room.
She eyed the Tamagotchi virtual pet. These novelty games were written on such a small memory chip and in such a clunky language that there was hardly room for any kind of firewalls or encryption. What could a little, unassuming, flattened sphere be hiding?
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 on her glowscreen:
Nema. Olam led sonarbil onis y on son sejed reac ne la noicatnet… 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 prayer ended, the text morphed into a burning, watchful eye. She’d heard of the ojo glitch, but didn’t believe it existed, even now when she was staring straight at it.
Its patterns invaded Sonia’s neurological system through her eyes. She grabbed her throat as if to stop it from constricting and her eyes rolled back. Her body trembled—enough to throw her from the bed to the floor. Finally, she lay still, holding on to the smell of her abuelita’s 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 with white and black stubble, caught in his kind gaze. 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.
Frozen, she’d watched her grandma try to wake her and then listened 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 coughed and said to the paramedic, “Don’t log me here.”
“Now, slow down there, girl. You’re waking from a sensory attack,” he said.
“Promise me you won’t log me here on your Mist,” she said and held his wrist.
“You’re a victim. It’s my job to make sure we have all the info we need to catch whoever— ” he started.
“They’ll find a way to pin it on me. I’ll get thrown onto the Barcaza, locked up, helping the Rangers with their computers. I’m too valuable,” Sonia said. She stumbled around her bed and dresser, shoving her computer equipment into a Spurs duffel bag.
“Not so fast — ”
“They won’t find who did this. I can,” she said, making eye contact with the older man.
She pushed herself out of the house and down towards the nearest bus stop, breathing in the neighborhood air, which was tainted with the smell of her tears. When the next bus arrived, she paused while boarding, checking to see whether the USB stick full of her best scripts was in her bag. She felt the edges of it with her fingertips and sat in the back.
Todo no estaba perdido.
Every few seconds the alarm clock, which Matteo had hacked the day before, alternated between blinking the time in green digits and a tally in red digits. He watched the red light of 13YR 22K spill over the room, reminding him that he owed some combination of thirteen years of his life or the sum of twenty two thousand Byte to the State of Texas. And then he might feel real land under his feet again. Was he forgetting that sensation already?
The way to cutting down his jail sentence was by scavenging and reading physical drives, then selling the data directly to the Ranger Wardens. At first, it had sounded somewhat fair, but like most things it turned out to be a total scam. After a year of work, he had barely made enough Byte to knock eleven days off of his sentence.
The irony of having to do the kinds of things that got him into trouble in the first place was not lost on him.
The alarm rang and he slammed it quiet. It was a bright green 5:06 PM.
“Officially an entire year at Basura Barcaza,” he said to his empty cell. Literally, the Garbage Barge, a prison made of refuse floating somewhere, nowhere, anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. He said, “Basura Barcaza” again, practicing his Spanish.
In his first few weeks in jail, he’d studied the way the trash fit together to make the structure of the walls of the prison. Some stuff had been melted together, hybrid inventions that may have contained spent fireworks or deflated soccer balls, created by unknown construction workers. Other stuff locked together like puzzle pieces, some things holding onto their identity, like the pristine frame of an old wooden television set, its screen absent, insides filled with bubble wrap. He’d popped through all of it on his twentieth birthday.
This evening, the jumble of items took his thoughts to the past. On 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 the living room, he watched his neighbors—happy parents and children dancing around a picnic table, drinking and laughing.
The next morning, two Rangers pulled him back in by his feet as he tried escaping through that same window. He felt the cut of the sill on his torso, again, the scar still warm to the touch every now and then.
His mom had been in the kitchen making arroz, transfixed, in silence.
In silence… the woman who never hesitated to give him a good shout.
He regretted customizing the alarm clock to tally his sentence — there was enough evidence around him to remind him how fucked he was.
But he was determined to get out early, which would take focus. And when it came time to focus, it came time to drink some gulf.
On the Barcaza, the place to get gulf was at The Shifty Lounge, a kind of mental health center. Anyone seeking help was prescribed gulf, a salty-metallic nicotine drink with a skim of herbaceous oil, made on-site. And it cost Byte.
He left his cell and started down the narrow, snaking trash corridors leading to The Shifty Lounge.
Though it was somewhat hard to find, he knew he was taking the correct pathways based on smell: a sequence of jasmine incense, putrid waste, hamster odor, salted peanuts, then the plastics of a phone kiosk, and at last, a churro stand, which was not accidentally positioned next to his destination.
It brought back memories of 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, he thought.
The entryway to The Shifty Lounge was an old storefront to a Mexican pharmacy. “Farmacia” buzzed in bold yellow and green block typeface. He looked into the darkened bar, checking for Anita, but caught a glimpse of Dillo instead, who had caught a glimpse of him first. Shit. There was no backing out, now. He’d have to talk to the one inmate every other inmate knew not to talk to.
The inside of the bar was lit by dim, sickly green light bulbs swaying on the ends of loose wires. This helped with the aggressive pupil dilation caused by drinking gulf. Humidity collected and dripped somewhere out of sight. The stench of processed, moldy tobacco and yeast thickened the air.
“Ay, ‘teo. That box work out for you?” Dillo said, his dimples plainly visible even in the dark of the bar.
Matteo kept a seat between him and Dillo.
“Uh, box?” Matteo said in Dillo’s general direction, avoiding eye contact.
“Mira me bien. Qué 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.
“Yeah, I just don’t know what you’re talking about…” said Matteo.
“I left you a good box inside your wall, cabrón. You didn’t see it? You’re the best reader around here, no? You’re gonna extract what you can, give it to me, I’ll take it on-shore, get a good price, and you get a cut, too,” said Dillo, sounding jovial and threatening.
“Oh, shit,” said Matteo.
“You better not have lost it. You know who the last guy was to lose one of my boxes and what it is that happened to him?”
“No, no. I didn’t lose it. I’ll look for it as soon as I get back. I’ll get working on it, pronto,” said Matteo. Just like that, he was roped into more crime. If the Rangers found out he was involved with selling data offshore…
“Now you look really sick. That might be good. Sick people stay quiet,” said Dillo.
“No, yeah. I’m fine. I just can’t see very well in here. Just looking for Anita. She even in here or did she finally quit to go work for a bar that serves actual booze somewhere on shore?” He heard his voice try a little too hard to be casual.
Under the light of an accountant’s lamp on the 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. Anita 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. “Anita siempre era aquí. 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 , if you get some good data from any of those ones, recuerdo, the big wins — the treasures always come in batches,” he said, leaning closer, his short frame thick and dangerous. “I don’t get quality boxes like that everyday.”
“Yeah, man. Ya sabes,” Matteo said while straining to get a better look at Anita. “I’ll take a three and four. I’m celebrating,” he said, deadpan. He scooted his stool closer to the bar 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 gave a genuine grin, believing for a moment maybe this would work out.
“My one year anniversay of being completely beat down from working in my cell and still needing to focus on getting more work done,” Matteo said.
“Hey… Anita. How about we take the next Jet Ski out of this place?” said Matteo.
“Well, primero deberias hablarme bien,” she said and her Mist earpiece flashed. It was probably linked to her parents.
“You still listen to your mom and dad?” asked Matteo, tapping his ear. “Can they hear me or is it just AI? Hola padres!”
“Just AI. I think they’d kill me if they heard the kinds of conversations I get into here, haha. I do listen to them when I’m back home, but, you know, voy a mi manera,” she said.
“Hey, no time to wait around drinking here. You need to hurry, I already got buyers in Alamo City,” said Dillo. “Just so you know I’m a good guy, I gave you a pair of Mist lenses right on your work bench. Everyone knows you don’t got any.”
“I get you, but look should we be talking about this here? I mean— ” said Matteo.
And just then, two Ranger Wardens sat on either side of Matteo. Dillo was gone in a heartbeat, on a sea breeze.
At least for the moment, the Rangers didn’t appear to have heard any of what Matteo and Dillo had been talking about.
“‘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.
Anita reached down into the fridge for cold glassware and poured. “It’s on the house,” she said.
The second Ranger took a sip and twisted his face. “Carbonated again? They gonna get regular ass water in this dump anytime soon? This stuff should be called Topo Petho, nah, Todo Petho.” A golden 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.
“Sorry?” said Matteo.
“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 again on the shorter Ranger, “You’re a reader. Got it written all over you. Them 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. “Anyway, my money’s on you buy more than you scav’. I can see it in them clean fingernails. Ah, we’re just fuckin’ with you. Relax. We already known who you are—see your sales on the logs all the time. Top data extractor, physical for physical.”
“Sometimes, yeah, I do buy physicals with my earnings, to get ahead… 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 the rest of the prisoners,” said Matteo.
“Better be sending all that Texas Byte back to Texas and not some shit ass country,” said Ranger Dawn.
“Alamo, to my mom. Born and raised in town,” replied Matteo with pride.
“Thank god. Soundin’ like a goddang illegal there for a while,” she replied.
“Heck, you can’t blame us for checking your story out. Just locked up one hell of a good-looking citizen the other day. Was one of them duds, hiding in plain sight. Those 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, 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 Anita 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 lots of the time duds die young. They’re sick and harmless, but leave it to a Ranger to make them into some kind of monster. Anyway, nobody anywhere is making people in their lab anymore. You people got your ban. 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 nonsense,” Anita said. She put down the three light green bottles and four shots of nicotine concentrate for Matteo, with a bang on the bar.
Matteo drank the shots one after the other quickly, feeling he might be right in the middle of a diversion. Two things seemed possible. Dillo could be picking through his cell to steal data or Byte and it was possible the Rangers were keeping him preoccupied while other Wardens were planting contraband somewhere in his unit’s walls.
“Well, pardon us, miss señorita. Didn’t mean no disrespect to this fine establishment,” Ranger Mike winked at Anita, “What was it then that this strapping youth got into?”
She switched her gaze from the Ranger to Matteo, inviting him to speak for himself.
Matteo thought about how she had listened to all of his sad, bad luck stories and how it had gotten him nowhere with her, romantically.
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, though.” The burn of gulf oil in his throat weakened his voice further.
“Thought you said he wasn’t one of the rich ones, Ms. Anita? Lawyers working for free now?”
“He didn’t actually have a lawyer — he just knows better than to talk about his case. Can’t you put that much together?” she replied.
“It was all pretty stupid…” Matteo said.
“Hmm, don’t much care how much data you extract and read for us, lyin’ to Ranger’s a serious infraction. Are you, or are you not, under the counsel of a lawyer?” Ranger Mike said with another burp.
The floating room dipped and as it rose, Matteo felt pinned to his stool.
“Yep, might lose our job by letting something like an on-the-record lie slide, couldn’t we?” said Ranger Dawn.
“Yes we could,” he said and fingered the cuffs hanging on his belt. Ranger Mike 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.
Matteo inhaled deeply.
“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 real 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? Beats fuckin’ a Tam-on-gitchy! Haw haw! Or an old grandma!” He raised an eyebrow in what looked like a well-worn movement.
“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. “I just had time to say ‘Hi,’ to Anita, here. I’ve got to get back to work. See you later. Thanks for the advice, Rangers Dawn and Mike.”
“You can bet on it,” Ranger Dawn said with a stare that made Matteo feel like she’d been hiding an unusually deep talent for perception.
Matteo nodded his head and bolted. He looked back into the gulf bar from the outside, hoping to get another look at Anita. By Anita’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 that 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. Or maybe Dillo was stealing the box of physicals back to claim Matteo stole it. Then he could be in dangerous debt to Dillo. Maybe there never was a box to begin with. He had to get there now.
“Saludas a su mama,” Anita 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.
A tiny buzz had set in, giving him confidence in movement as he whizzed past a few gentle corners and took a hard left at a slippery intersection.
The path curved and right before he was in view of his cell, his foot sank through the floor, into the lukewarm, brackish water. A dozen or so mosquitoes took flight from their disturbed nest. Another danger Matteo couldn’t afford. With so many new places melting across the globe, mosquitoes were carrying new strains of everything from dengue to malaria, and some things completely unknown to science.
“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.
He pulled his leg out and rolled over onto his back. “Shit, shit, shit.” There had been no point in running. Either the Rangers 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?
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 and used his weight to slide the false wood panel accordion door to his cell open. The room appeared empty and completely undisturbed. He took another long drink from his bottle of gulf.
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. He felt lucid once more and couldn’t know for sure if a few seconds or a minute had passed before he heard groans and whimpering from somewhere nearby. Shit was always going down on the Barcaza.
After a year of keeping his head down, he was bound to fall into trouble soon. There was no way he would survive thirteen more years 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 Anita had served him was beginning to kick in full force and he needed to work fast. He burned off some anxious energy by cranking a wobbly lever to retract the skylight. 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. Then he slipped into dry boxers and unbuttoned his work shirt, fingers beginning to shiver from the nicotine.
The stereoscopic pair of Mist contact lenses Dillo had promised him were right on his work bench as promised, staring up at him. How had he missed them, earlier? How had Dillo gotten into his cell without him knowing? He slipped them on for the first time.
Matteo’s Mistview displayed an incoming alert of a new connection successfully bound to his earpiece. The AI spoke in a beautiful sweet and smoky voice, almost like Selena.
: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 trusted Mist Security Office. To bypass that check and run my services locally, just tell me, what’s your name?
“Me llamo Matteo.”
:OK. Nice to meet you. Please confirm your name, ‘Cochino’.
“What? No. I am called Matteo. My name is Matteo, not cochino.”
:Why don’t you recognize your own name, Cochino? Do you need medical attention? If not, how else can I help you, today, Cochino?
“Well, at least it’s working a little bit,” he said and smiled.
:May I interrupt your work? Your 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, you know.”
:May I make a suggestion? I recommend taking some time off to rest.
A package scraped through the pneumatic delivery shoot. As usual the small tin held a generic painkiller and a big penicillin pill for sexual maladies, something he wished he could actually put to use one day. He briefly thought to save it for Anita but decided that impossible and held on to it to trade later. He downed the painkiller 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 Dillo been referring to the large number of items in the box? Or did that mean he would have to string multiple files together to find an underlying data structure? Or had he been simply referring to .bat files? Chingado, Dillo.
The lenses highlighted the hiding place of the box. It was right behind an old cabinet door. He removed it and put it on the floor.
Matteo leaned over the top of the cardboard box to examine the grey hard drives, silver phones, and other electronics. At the bottom, a tiny bit of kelly-green plastic caught his eye, hiding beneath a talking Pee Wee doll, which wore a clean slate suit but was missing the trademark red bow tie. He dove his arms in and pulled out a Speak ‘N Say. Who would ever think to look for illegal data in a child’s toy that had a drive barely capable of holding forty seconds of audio?
He pulled on the string and the rotary arrow spun for a moment and then stopped, landing on a spot no longer occupied by a sticker. “The cow goes moo,” the recording said in an old-timey cowboy accent, followed by a real live audio recording of cattle. Matteo knew from his 4-H club days that a high pitched honk like that only came from heifers in labor for the first time, midway to becoming cows. You couldn’t trust everything a computer told you.
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.
In his entire year in jail, he hadn’t come across a glitch, yet. A glitch could be one of three things — an intentional flag to mark high-value data, a neurosensory attack like ojos, or just a regular old software bug. 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 but was immediately piped through a clean-up algorithm.
The data from the Speak N’ Say had decoded nicely — and yes, like Dillo had suggested the program 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 100 lines down, 300 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 transferred it to a small memory chip.
“Woah, woah, woah! Hell yes, asi me gusta,” he said, holding onto 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 stumbled upon any biological data himself. People, especially moneyed people, were taking a new interest in developing their own synthetic biology, now that designed kids and pets were illegal. This would attract the kind of payout Dillo was hoping for. This was the kind of data that would knock several months 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 is you are worth something,” he said.
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.
More gunshots rang, a little closer than before. The entire room shifted. “Shit,” he said. 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. Why did he always insist he was tough enough to mix gulf and pain medication?
He’d barely got any work done and his thoughts and movements were crashing. Probably another spoiled batch from The Shifty Lounge, though his mind would resist blaming Anita 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? He could totally be working with the Rangers to extend other prisoners’ sentences. Especially ones that pumped out a lot of data…
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 second grade. An anchorwoman wearing a shoulderpad-lined suit talked about a hurricane that was way bigger than 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 all the scientists, a chunk of the colossal pile floated all the way into the interior of the Gulf of Mexico.
Then the program he was watching in his memory flashed a commercial for Corn Pops and synthetic milk utilizing two video layers of depth perception. In his opinion, it was disgusting that cartoon cows had once 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.
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 struggled to display the animation without stuttering.
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 was a four hours’ drive away, was just beginning its expansion west, due to melting icebergs. 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, unlike most other kids, he never got to make out with anyone at that shore, which reached a thirty minute drive east of town.
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, evolve into a jail, swallow him whole and then spit him out exactly one year later. But he didn’t know that at the time.
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 skylight.
“What the… goddang it! How’d you manage to drug him behind my back?” Kaylee whispered, afraid tonight’s specimen collection might go wrong. She regretted ever telling Jorge about how she had access to horse sedatives.
She burned an ice blue gaze at him through the orange-blonde wisps escaping the sides of her pink beanie.
At least she didn’t tell him about how the reason she had horse sedatives was because her family owned horses, too. He’d definitely exploit that as a possible avenue for gambling Byte.
“I did not drug the test subject, Kaylee,” Jorge said, his tall, thin, deep brown frame blending into the night sky, except for the whites of his eyes.
There was no screwing this up. She had spent all night sewing the Ranger patches on their disguises. 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 of 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 box-like cell.
“That I see. And he smells like rotten mango… and I detect… glucose breakdown products? Definitely bougie,” said Jorge.
“Boozy,” she corrected, reluctantly 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!”
“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 fed way too much sedative and everything went wrong after that,” she said, unable to whisper outright.
Kaylee fidgeted with her backpack, pulling a rope ladder out. She unraveled it into the jail cell and lowered herself carefully, turning her head to check 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 pick up any Mist in here on my scan. 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. She was a little bit relieved the large young man was knocked out cold. He definitely looked like a killer. She realized the barge might have a few real killers on it and the cell felt even smaller.
“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 — Matteo, a load that appeared much too heavy for its wiry bearer.
Matteo stirred. “Anita…?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Quick!” said Jorge
Kaylee grabbed the first thing she saw — Matteo’s pliers, and banged at his skull.
“Ow! What the fuck are you doing?!” he slurred. She missed his skull and hit an eye.
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 hangover 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 to say that they had already hurt him. Mouthy guy, this one.
“Cease movement, person. This is a kidnapping,” said Jorge.
Matteo exhaled heavily through his nose, trying to stay cool. Then his eyes rolled backwards and he was back to his nap.
“Goddangit, you totally drugged him,” Kaylee said, knowing her disappointment wouldn’t be appreciated by Jorge, which made her even more annoyed.
“There may have been a pill on the sticky side of the tape, yes,” Jorge said.
Kaylee tried stunning him with a blank stare. She wondered how someone so odd had become so predictable within the span of a few weeks of working together.
“What? You reminded me of how useful drugs are. 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,” Jorge said and touched the blade of the sled with one extended index finger, “All momentum provided by the action of your musculature, with friction lowered by utilizing a small surface area of contact with the ground. I’d wager this works on frozen surfaces best. You show me fascinating things, Kaylee.”
Kaylee carefully pinched and checked underneath Matteo’s eyelids and found his Mist, which was unregistered as she suspected. It’d be useful. All the benefits of Mist diagnostics without being hooked up to Texas-at-large.
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 at the Alamo City dock and I’m not gonna sit and wait to reach New Galveston for the next opportunity to get off this thing,” Kaylee said.
The pair moved their living cargo to the port entry-exit. A 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 were 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 stole a long look at Jorge’s profile as he pulled Matteo on the sled. It had been only a month 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.
“I can feel you staring at me,” Jorge said.
She gave Jorge a slightly disingenuous thumbs up. She wanted to believe they 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 pretty much 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 live, Ranger-connected 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 that they’d bagged the right one. Whatever Mist he was using was not linked up properly and must be second-hand.
At least she didn’t die on this mission with the irony of getting shot several millenia too soon, by some Ranger funded by her parent’s investments. Tonight, anyway, Jorge had come through just fine.
Now they just had to work fast to save Matteo. 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 year or so he had left.
Matteo woke with dry eyes beneath a scratchy blindfold. He laid curled up in the fetal position with a headache and an urgent bladder. The duct tape over his mouth and head had been removed when he was unconscious and yet somehow it still felt as though his hair was being torn out.
A faint smell of 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 hell happened?” he said, not caring whether he might invite additional physical harm from his kidnappers.
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 the woman from the night before, her conviction plain. She squeezed one of his ankles with her hand.
“Tienes picadilly?” the kid blurted.
“No, no. Here’s your order. Estamos cerrados ahora,” said the guy. A window shuttered and a squeaky hinge lock was set. It became darker and now he noticed soft colored light—probably Christmas lights poking through the blindfold.
“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 punch us,” said the woman. She peeled it off.
“You’re the ones doing the attacking. What do you people want with me?” He cringed at the smell of garbage on himself. 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 from him. “The short of it… ah, that is, why you’re here… is that you won a kind of… contest?”
“Some prize,” said Matteo, rubbing his temples. Jorge’s psychedelic button down shirt wasn’t helping him gain focus.
She continued, “See, we release difficult-to-decode physicals onto 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 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 he never got any attention from girls and somehow this felt like she was flirting.
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.” Kaylee’s lungs deflated with a sigh and she turned to grab a purple raspa with grape Kool-Aid powder dusted on top for herself.
“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 opened a simple table of tallied data onto his Mist with a few hand motions.
“How… how did you get into my Mistview so quick?”
“We’re good at what we do. Especially when your Mist is unregistered and mostly unlocked. Relax, it’s just info. I’m not about to blind you or anything mean.”
Matteo scanned the first few lines of the long table:
H. sapiens 100MB………50B
C. elegans 1MB…………0.1B
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.
“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 biohack things 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 elimination. Humans are callous. Still, I can see why they’d be interesting to study,” said Jorge. Kaylee elbowed him.
“You all are… son locos.” But Matteo was calculating how many days this tally would take off of his sentence in his head.
“We really need you. You’d be dumb to not see the potential here — you could sell people’s disease info to insurance companies, or help some hippie 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, verified 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 ocean 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 do— swim out to the barge? It left last night! You literally missed the boat, buddy.”
“She makes an incredibly relevant point, Matteo,” said Jorge. He grabbed Matteo from a standing position in an attempt to slow him, sliding with bent knees over the wet floor.
Matteo wrestled them to the door, then extended the arm Kaylee was latched on to towards the door knob, and ever so slowly turned it.
“Don’t forget I’m a criminal. I could bite you. Or worse,” Matteo said, holding the door an inch open, his grip shaking.
Jorge spoke in monotone through bated breath, “We have your profile on file. 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 time.”
“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 sending 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 cliché? 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 attack. Cops come, find the spell script and guess whose bathroom selfie smiles back at them when they’re analyzing the dang thing?”
“Congrats on finding that stuff out. It’s not like my name and the ‘brujería 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 a lawy…”
“There is no such thing as brujería. 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 goddang ghosts! 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 wallet 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. “Gosh, 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 down there.”
“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 a musty underground bunker.
The first thing Matteo noticed in the basement was an old plaid couch and a microwave set on top of a mini-fridge. There were also two curtained rooms, each with a mattress on the floor.
Kaylee and Jorge had 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, holding many 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 1990s and early 2000s, a wild time when having online profiles was still taboo. Not as taboo as Matteo’s fucking hidden profile on an illegal Tamagotchi, though.
Kaylee poked her head down the opening for a second and said, “Don’t you dare touch anything!”
Matteo sighed loud enough for her to hear.
Kaylee’s head popped in again, “While you’re down there maybe take a shower?”
“You stink,” she said and her face disappeared above.
At least she’s being annoying instead of drugging me, he thought.
One orange glowscreen was on and unlocked. He approached as silently as he could and saw that a folder with his name on it had been opened. Beyond public information like his address and height, it looked like they’d managed to make virtual copies of his computers, which was fairly impressive.
There was also an .ama file for his appearance, an amalgam of his likeness taken from personal photos and Basura Barcaza security stills. Using an .ama to help recognize and track him down made perfect sense since he had no Mist until just the other day. With it, they could search for him in other public Mist recordings, too. 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. A second file was a personality phantom of his dad’s social media — an interactive identity estimated from his tastes and beliefs as derived from online accounts.
It was a grey area for Matholics to seek comfort in these kinds of technological avatars of the deceased, but he decided to download it into his Mistview and decide whether to open it later.
He grabbed a mouse on the table to click the folders closed and knocked over a small, clear rhombic prism, about the size of a deck of cards. It fell flat on the cement ground with a hard slap.
The trapdoor to the bunker shut, followed by a loud thud upstairs.
Through the ceiling, he heard Kaylee say, “It’s just a bag of ice! It’s not like I dropped it on your head.”
A muffled response.
“Well maybe I will drop it on your head next time! You know, I’d be more careful if you’d stop slamming the goddang door every time a potential customer drove by!”
Matteo exhaled. He bent over slowly to pick the item up, only then realizing what he held in his hand: a church. An actual church.
Such tools had been eradicated by the Rangers since the ban. He had vague memories of seeing them for sale behind locked glass displays in the mall long ago, but was beginning to think they were just something he’d imagined as a kid.
Matteo held it up to the orange light of the glowscreen. Small channels and atriums twinkled gold in the light it refracted. There were inputs for electronics and hoses.
It was right there in front of his face. A way to create cells. He used the inside of his shirt to wipe away his fingerprints and put it back into place.
Down a short hallway was a bathroom the size of a closet, consisting of just a toilet and a spigot at about the height of a normal shower head. He looked at the hot water knob and thought about how it would beat the tepid water he’d been washing himself with the last year.
Matteo peed deep orange and pulled on a chain to flush it. He realized the only way out was through the flimsy rope ladder and wondered if they meant to capture him. At this point, it was too late, he guessed, and decided to take five minutes to rinse off.
His gulf crash 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. It was like he’d aged a decade. He got back into his clothes and climbed up to the raspa stand, grateful the door hadn’t been locked.
“You two aren’t being upfront with me. What you said before, 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 haven’t even really been introduced to Mist or AI softwares that do the coding for you. We saw your scores on the Barcaza logs,” she said.
“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. Like you said, she swore off all this tech-aided learning. Wanted me to get my hands dirty. 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 you expect me to get started on.”
“Jorge will cover that soon. Before we get into it, we have to clear some things up. 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? What about Anita?” 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. Had he hit paydirt?
Jorge handed him a sticky bright red raspa. “Irrelevant questions. He has no appreciable Mist presence for now, may as well be dead to the world. Listen, Matteo, program for us and we’ll give you a fifth of the profits.”
Matteo took greedy bites off the top of the snow cone, “Damn, this is bu-en-o. But your deal is shit-o. I saw the church. You two have bigger plans.”
“Do we tell him?” said Kaylee.
“We don’t need to he already knows,” said Jorge.
“Not about the church, I mean about the plan,” she said.
“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 my sentence the right way. Comprende?”
Jorge leaned back and his pupils circled the edges of his eyelids. “It sounds like reasonable compensation to my sensibilities.”
Kaylee just sighed.
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 biólogos had come earlier than scheduled. Not that it mattered, they’d paid upfront for his arranging the kidnapping. Plus, the Mist he had given Matteo wasn’t even fully networked or entirely functional. He’d gotten it practically for free off a dead guy.
He picked through the box of physicals, counting them aloud one by one. Only the Speak N’ Say had been tampered with. He checked Matteo’s store of post-extraction memory chips, which held nothing new, meaning the kid hadn’t found anything worth storing.
Setting up trades with a reliable reader was more of a pain than he first thought. It might be better to swap the box for something more tangibly useful… something people would need soon, something he could make quick Byte off, like crisper enzymes. That is, if the reports about immortals were true, and regular people wanted to tap into the action.
That night Kaylee knew she needed to get a better feel for Matteo, especially after what he had revealed so far. He seemed game for printing cells, something lots of people still found ethically problematic. Was it also possible she might convince him to be experimented on, out of his own free will? Maybe if she explained the situation slowly, through hints…
She pulled a bottle of mezcal and three clay cups from a backpack resting against stack of beta tapes. “It’s time to cheers to you, kid.”
Matteo coughed and asked, “Kid?”
“For joining. But before we become best buddies, you probably want to know more about us,” she said before taking a swig and passing the bottle to Matteo.
“Only fair ‘cause we know everything about you,” she said with a delayed smile.
Matteo took a swig much too big for what Kaylee estimated his level of experience was with alcohol. He handed it back while wiping his chin.
“I’ll be back,” said Jorge as he started towards the hallway.
“OK, as you can see Jorge is not the warmest person,” she said.
“Not person . Alien,” said Jorge. “I will be spending time in the restroom. Do excuse.”
“Right. He’s an alien,” said Kaylee. She waited until the bathroom door closed to continue. “Anyway, me and Jorge met through the ‘net like a few weeks ago,” she said.
“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.”
“Well… let’s see. Aside from being a freak, Jorge is best known for — hmm, he did this science experiment that got his school a ton of grant money from the Mexican government, when he was a student in Mexico. 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 it had to be part of their salaries for the year. People think the dude is some kind of economic terrorist. Before the police come to lock him up in jail he escapes to Arizona. Right over the fence. At this point, nobody is the wiser to the fact that he had pocketed a little bit of the money, 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 entire amount of the grant money back, get this—three times over. Says it was a political statement on how even though ninety-five percent of experiments don’t work, the five percent that do work, like the five percent of the money he used for gambling, can end up making huge, unpredictable benefits,” she said.
“Whoa,” Matteo said, calling for more mezcal with his hands.
“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 at 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 or digital far as I can tell.”
“That’s pretty clever, actually. So, uh, what’s your story, you know?” said Matteo as he passed the bottle back. “We don’t have to keep drinking back and forth like this, it’s kind of a lot…”
She drank a sip, feeling her cheeks fill with blood. “Welp. My parents are both super academics. One’s into economics, the other into neuro.”
She could almost feel the alcohol take control of Matteo’s gaze and realized he was probably attracted to her. Maybe she could use that somehow. She noticed the scarcity of hairs in his few-day-old beard and found them somewhat cute. She was surprised at the level of empathy she was feeling for her guinea pig. It had to be the mezcal.
“Oh, where at?”
“They teach in Houston, but I lived mostly in Dallas,” said Kaylee.
“Dallas. You’re kind of snobby and entitled. I mean, you think it’s OK to just scoop up random programmers from prison. Don’t drug me again for saying,” he said and laughed a little. There was 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 thought it was a load of bullcrap. Academics, at least with what I’m into, biology, is a joke ever since the GMO ban. 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.
Jorge walked back in and started up the ladder. “I heard all that you just said about me, by the way. My hearing is several times more sensitive than humans.”
From the next floor, he said, “Hey, is anyone going to come 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. Stay put. I’ll just do it this time.”
Jorge climbed back down and 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 competitive card game,” Jorge said.
Matteo looked at the 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 see the order of draws for 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 had no reply.
Jorge looked up at Matteo. “You don’t know what to say because you think I’m a dork. Because I have a blog, right?”
“No, I just. It makes sense— with your obsession with probabilities and gambling…” Matteo trailed off with some difficulty.
“I didn’t make my Earthly fortune through probability bets. That activity has always been supplemental,” said Jorge.
“Then how? Computer stuff?” said Matteo.
“No. 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 revealing 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 dicks. 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.”
“Alright, I need to immerse myself in fantasy to forget yet another goddang thing Jorge said,” said Kaylee, and she donned a clunky old VR helmet and a retooled Nintendo Power Glove. She played silently for an entire minute.
“Y’all just normally tune out when you have company? 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.
This was her chance to show Jorge she was right about wanting to ask Matteo for permission to experiment on him.
“Bombs away,” said Jorge, while flipping cards.
“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 turned her head 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.
“Kokiri Forest in the game? 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, irritated Jorge wasn’t picking up on why she was asking what she was asking.
“Hmm, probably. Depends on what my elf boners are like,” said Matteo.
“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.
“Some species appreciate the quiet,” said Jorge.
Jorge looked puzzled at a card draw and shook his head. He stopped playing, turned on the holoprojector and loaded a bootleg fan-made 3D version of Jurassic Park from a souped-up USB stick.
“Speaking of village elf clans, I think we should start a club. For this partnership. I mean, we are like… ” said Matteo.
“What?” asked Kaylee, quickly turning her head again.
“A club. We’re the only three biohackers in Alamo City. Maybe even Texas,” said Matteo.
“Oof! H-bomb! We are not going to label ourselves 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.
“We’re more like miners, anyway. Shh… it’s the best part, turn it up,” said Kaylee, turning towards the holo-movie.
Jeff Goldblum leaned forward and said that maybe even if Jurassic Park consisted only of female dinosaurs, unable to reproduce…
“We technically are, though, a hacking club,” said Jorge.
“Just a club of hacks. Wait guys. Shh… I agree we’re a club and 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 the insulated lair.
“Yesss. We should use that as our club name, ‘Life, uh, finds a way’,” she said.
“But! It’s a password! And if you forget to say the ‘uh’, you get killed!” said Matteo.
“Violent… We should make an acronym out of it, like contemporary biologists often do. LUFAW for short,” said Jorge
Sounds like “Love? Aww…” said Matteo.
“Who knows, if everything works out, maybe we can genetically modify Matteo so he can actually speak Spanish,” she said.
“Cállate el bocas, cabrón,” said Matteo.
“I think Kaylee should continue to speak. Her insights are of great value to this group,” said Jorge.
“Jorge, you will never understand humans,” Kaylee said.
Jorge rolled his eyes as if for the first time in his life and finished the last half of the mezcal bottle.
“Geez, it’s mezcal, not water,” said Kaylee and she disappeared into a curtained room. She reemerged holding a new bottle of mezcal and said, “Hey, Matteo, look at this!”
“Where the hell are you hiding those, for real?” said Matteo.
She smiled and patted his head. “We’re almost there, Matteo. Your Byte debt is basically as good as gone. In fact, I’m gonna order some Whataburger delivery right now, on me, just as a show of good faith.”
Her second-to-the-last clear thought of the night was that she could definitely win Matteo to their side. If only he knew how short his life would be otherwise… Her last thought was something to do with Jurassic Park and how the dinosaurs had gotten completely out of control. That wouldn’t happen in real life, with a person, could it? Of course not, they knew what they were doing. Science fiction was fiction.
Late that night, Kaylee stirred in her bed, thirsting for a cool glass of water. She opened her eyes just a crack, only to see Jorge’s bright eyes staring back at her.
“Do not think of telling the experimental subject what we are up to. You will introduce placebo. We don’t know how the subject will react if he finds out he will die,” he said with some newfound affect of calm intensity.
“I mean, he expects to die… just on a different time scale, Jorge,” Kaylee said.
“Whatever the timescale, too long or too short, it could affect his biology and ruin the experiment.”
Kaylee squinted at Jorge and said, “Fine.”
“And do not find him cute. I can smell it on you.”
Kaylee blew half of a breath out of her nose in a spurt.
“Dang it, Jorge. Personal space. You’re looming,” she said.
Jorge revealed a glass of water from behind his back.
“Gee, thanks. Now get the heck outta my room!” she whispered and threatened to pinch him with her fingers.
“Rise and shine, Romeo,” chimed Kaylee, as she tossed a foil-wrapped breakfast taco onto the front of Matteo’s pajama pants, which Jorge had loaned him. “I don’t blame you, for the, uh,” she raised an eyebrow, “protrusion. That couch has some nice crevices.”
“What? God. God, estas necia. And this taco smells good. Who could stay mad?”
Matteo rubbed his eyes awake and got started on the taco. The egg and potato were warm but the salsa on top still cold and fresh—perfect. Kaylee switched on a rerun of a nature show on a glowscreen — David Attenborough was going on about pikas.
“Those things are really cute,” said Matteo.
“Yeah, can you believe they existed once?” Kaylee said.
On a work table beside the glowscreen, a fax machine beeped and a ream of text started to grow from a beige dot matrix printer.
“You know, maybe it’s time to upgrade your printing situation,” said Matteo.
Kaylee perked up and bounced to the pages, scanning the title of the document with excited eyes. “Actually, this is some good stuff I wasn’t expecting to receive for another day. FYI, rookie, important information is often protected on old file formats that require rare printers like this to view. This setup cost a small fortune, you know. Here’s a little thing to read while I’m in the shower.”
She handed him an article printed in ink on the verge of fading from purple to pink. The delicate light-brown paper was perforated on each side.
“Nice papyrus,” he said.
“Hot off the press. I’ll be back after I clean up. All I can smell is rotten mezcal in my nose,” said Kaylee.
Jorge’s footsteps weighed on the wooden floor above.
The title, “LAB PROTOCOL Cell Printing by Church”, seemed to come from another world. For Matteo’s entire life, biotechnology had been disappearing and now it seemed like he’d be helping to bring it back. He sifted through the twelve connected pages — pulse vortex this amount of solution on the high setting and spin the samples at this many multiples of gravity for this many minutes and so on.
Kaylee exited the bathroom in her towel a few minutes later, beads of Alamo City Water System on her shoulders and back. On her way to sit down on a workbench stool, she said, “Why is there manteca in the medicine cabinet?”
“My hair, of course,” said Jorge, from the raspa stand above.
“Chingado,” Kaylee and Matteo said, together.
“So, since we have a church,” she said, “I’ll tell you about the business of making so, so, so much Byte.”
“Oh so you do have a 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 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? And it’s kind of having a resurgence with all the melts,” said Matteo.
“So, for one, we’ve procured some tissue — ” said Kaylee.
“Through a series of high risk gambles,” added Jorge, now halfway down the rope ladder.
“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 synthetic, something designed. Designed for what — doing something to the blood? I mean, if you have a church you can just print human cells that can do whatever you want them to do,” said Matteo.
Jorge pulled out his cards and said, “I told you we could work with curious.”
“Thought about it, but we’re not experts. Who knows what kind of problems hacked human cells would cause in people. With a genome as big as ours, we could easily mess up and cause them to be cancerous, or something like that. Maybe later, after we have more practice. 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.
“I just, uh…”
“I’m messing with you. I saw your weenie, anyway, the other day, cowboy. That’s worth some shoulder.”
“Wait… what?” This girl was nuts.
“Synthetic malaria is top of the line contraband, Matteo. The parasite infects only red blood cells where it is able to hide from the immune system. Plus, it’s optimized to handle most genetic code you add into it to do whatever you want. It has a small genome, so there’s less possibility of off-target effects. Even better, the human spleen eliminates it from our buyer’s system in a month or so, so no long term damage if we make a mistake, and they have to buy more! Hah!” said Jorge.
“Was that a laugh? This malaria thing sounds like it’s made up. I didn’t hear about any of this, ever,” said Matteo.
“How could you? This was private technology that was in use probably around the time you… came into existence. Proprietary information like that always gets revealed in underground human society after some time. We’ll use the church to read the syn-malaria DNA and design new, modified versions of it. The church will generate whatever design we input,” said Jorge.
“So I’m going to go out on a limb here. Is the DNA sequence I decoded on Barcaza related to this?”
“Actually, yes,” said Kaylee. “It’s a partial sequence of an enzyme we need for printing cells, crisper.”
Matteo saw the red debt tally on his Barcaza alarm clock drain to zero in his mind.
“Let me get this straight. We have a church, which reads the syn-malaria’s sequence and gives it to us. Then we enter the genome of the parasite, and enter in any sequence to add in, for the syn-malaria to make any kind of thing, like medicine, then print the newly designed 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 falling apart, and also that we can get it to work in our hands, our inexperienced hands?”
“And that when people use the cells, they won’t like just die?”
“Are you always so risky with people… like living, breathing people?”
Kaylee sighed. “This is a complex product. 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. Besides, we have more immediate problems. We need crisper, which is hard to come by. We are working on getting the crisper sequence so that we can work on its dry synthesis. But also, we still need all the wet lab stuff, pipettes and media and all that good equipment. That’s where you come in, Matteo, muscle Matteo. We need you to break into Alamo U to get some supplies…” she said.
“Where I come in?” Matteo said. He was becoming aware of how easily charmed he was by Kaylee, especially when she put him on the spot. “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. Half of them think I’m some kind of predator!”
“See, it’ll fit your story, then, if they catch you thieving, that is, when you steal us some pipettors… and gloves, like a real criminal,” said Kaylee.
“I don’t even have a licensed Mist profile!” protested Matteo, feeling almost like a child.
“We’ll patch a temporary Mist profile onto your Mist. It will let you appear as a student for a day before expiring, Matteo. Or should I say, Mendoza,” said Jorge, nearly shouting the last word.
“Wait, wait, wait. Why can’t you or Jorge go and do this school robbery?”
“Jorge could be recognizable in science circles, even out here. Too much of a risk. Besides, we will need two people working on verifying the crisper sequence and looking for a way to get around dry synthesis if it comes to that.”
“But — ”
“And here’s keys to a cool bike,” said Jorge as he handed him old-fashioned metal keys.
“A… a bike?” He’d always wanted one. Maybe they figured that out from his .ama file somehow. He climbed up the basement ladder and peered outside the window of the raspa stand. There stood a black cafe racer with a single broad maroon stripe. He smiled.
“Hey, you better get moving, class starts in fifteen minutes,” said Kaylee.
Jorge whispered, “Filthy rich… We will be filthy rich! Oink, oink.”
And there was no arguing with that.
There didn’t seem to be many Campus Rangers patrolling the university grounds, but it was very possible that one or more of the many students— as innocent as they might look in shorts and flip flops, could be working undercover. Still, given the option, Matteo would rather run into a Ranger than one of his old friends— people looking for juicy chisme, all about how he was off the Barcaza, and about the Tamagotchi, and all the embarrassing stuff inbetween.
BIO 42.1, where Matteo was enrolled as “Mendoza” for a day — if Jorge had loaded the Mist correctly, was snuggled into a basement half-room in the “old science building”.
Inside the teaching laboratory, Matteo’s frame perched like a lechusa on the lab stool, the hard plastics jutting into his body felt like a pressure point massage, soothing some of his mezcal hangover.
He looked around the space, trying to avoid eye contact with the students. Light coming in through slit windows at the ceiling shone on the trajectories of particles lazing upwards and downwards in the air. Some would finally rest, adding to a thin layer of dust on pipettors and flasks and tube racks.
There was just one decoration, a chemical-splattered 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 word processors he’d come across.
The floor needed a good sweeping and weird metallic threads were strewn about the ground. Matteo followed their trail with his eyes. They led to a backpack underneath an empty stool next to him. There seemed to be some kind of Halloween wig spilling out of it.
A dark girl with closely cropped white hair sat on the stool next to the bag. She was a little bit sweaty.
Matteo swallowed hard and managed, “So, uh… you taking this class, huh? So am I, 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, as if she was weighing how much she might regret replying.
“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.
“Sonia. I’m… undecided,” she said. The way she said her own name sounded like a song to Matteo.
“Aren’t we all?” he whispered, and then possessed, he winked. He coughed and leaned back, letting the wave of awkwardness drown him.
He’d captured her first name. Enough to query 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 lab bench for a quick search. Sonia — no hits for anybody in her age range, nearby, anyway. Great, she was already trying to avoid him.
After a moment, she said, “Don’t search for me while I’m sitting right next to you,” with a look of exhaustion.
Matteo’s mouth opened wordlessly. He’d made eye contact, at least. That had to count for something. Anyway, his mission here wasn’t girls, it was thieving for LUFAW.
Professor Negrete saved Matteo’s freefall by showing up to class. She stood quietly for a moment, just taking in each student’s 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 has a fair chance of staying in the program, since it is statistically unlikely for you 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 up to this point in your life? Can you not only come up with new questions about the nature of living matter, 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 Mist earpiece.
“What the—?” said Matteo.
Kaylee: Quiet down! Jorge and I patched into your audio, Romeo. How’s the boner? Don’t answer that I don’t mean to get you excited in public.
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.
Kaylee: You can thank me we’re only in your ears, Matteo. Jorge wanted to tap into your Mist contact lenses, too, so we could see what, I mean, who you were up to. But I rather like imagining her from voice alone. Big Zelda-style torpedos?
Jorge: I still think having his eyes is an obvious precautionary measure.
Kaylee: Yeah, but we already saw his weenie so there’s nothin’ new for me to see.
“Oh, come on,” whispered Matteo.
“Mr. Mendoza? 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 paid to teach 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 extraction. That’s right, you heard me correctly. All those biology lab supplies around you, well, they’re just for show, since the ban. We’ll be covering how to identify and report biological data that is illegally trafficked on physicals.”
Kaylee: I was right! My parents were wrong! The university labs are finished. I didn’t want to believe it. We’re on our own if we want to be biologists. 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, grinning, right at the moment Sonia turned to pass along a console for the assignment. God, what a creep he is, was exactly what it appeared she was thinking.
As the lesson continued into hands-on exercises, the pressure of having to ransack the place weighed over Matteo. Plus he had to keep his mind straight beneath a suffocating canopy of Jorge and Kaylee instructing him on which items he absolutely must steal: pipettors, 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 that Dr. Negrete would forget to lock up the lab. But he only succeeded in walking straight into her.
“Can I help you, Mr. Mendoza?” the professor asked over the chime of the lock and her set of a dozen 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, an irrational picture of Dillo’s hands in the forefront of his mind, and in that instant, she was gone again. A door slammed somewhere on the next floor.
He approached the lab, his sneakers echoing as they snapped the tiles. He corrected his weight on the ground to cushion the sounds. It dawned on him that a backpack would’ve been inconspicuous in the classroom setting and useful for stealing stuff.
Kaylee: You forgot to bring a bag, didn’t you?
Jorge: Just store everything in 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. OK, 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,” said Matteo.
He 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. “Alright, 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 panaderías, 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 a few minutes, he had amassed the cost equivalent of several months’ worth of 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 crept out of the lab and up the steps, holding a chromatography syringe fitted with a dull needle. Could it have been Dillo? Maybe he was playing both sides, working as a bounty hunter for the Rangers. Or worse, interested in whatever he was up to with Jorge and Kaylee. In any case, Dillo was nowhere to be seen inside or outside of the lab.
Jorge: Be careful on the racer. Don’t drop anything.
“And what if I use the bike to run away? What about that, huh?”
Jorge: Well, we thought you made it this far without trying to escape, so we could trust you with it.
Kaylee: 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 from Alamo City.
“Shutup,” said Matteo.
Matteo inspected a few 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.
Riding a vintage bike through the streets of Alamo City felt liberating. In the last year, Matteo had been suffocating in the humidity burning off the gulf on Basura Barcaza or in the basement of the small raspa stand. The racer was already starting to bend to the form of his body, and Matteo felt soon it would feel like an extension of himself.
In a few days, he’d start wiping his sentence away forever. He whistled. Then his earpiece beeped.
Kaylee: Hey… ah… so don’t come back yet. I have some good news and some bad news.
“Of course, right when things are getting better. Well, what’s the bad news?” asked Matteo.
Kaylee: So, the good news, and really, I think it’s great news, if you really want to know, is that Jorge and I think we found crisper.
“Oh! OK, so we have all the pieces we need, right? To make the custom malaria, I mean,” said Matteo, speaking above the sound of the wind rushing past his face.
Kaylee: Yes. I mean, the digital sequence was bogus, but we can get the actual stuff already made by someone else. We just need you to pick it up.
“Might as well. I mean, I’m out in the street already. And y’all are probably busy with raspas,” said Matteo.
Jorge: Indeed, we are working out the proper ice to syrup ratios to use with our new 3D printer.
“So what’s the bad news?”
Kaylee: So… the bad news. Is. I already told you.
Kaylee: You have to pick the crisper up… from a possibly murderous gang in Loteria.
Jorge: Possibly! Hah! Not possibly. Certain.
Kaylee: Not now, Jorge.
“Loteria?! You’re joking. Going after crisper in the flea market—the casinos and gun shops and even the regular shops aren’t exactly safe, even friendly. That’s not worth erasing my prison sentence, not by a long shot. I don’t care how many free raspas you offer me,” said Matteo
Matteo calmed himself down. He remembered that for every story of someone losing a finger on a bet in the Loteria cockfighting arena, there was another about free face-painting and cotton candy at the petting zoo. Maybe he’d get out in one piece. He had escaped jail, after all.
Jorge: You’ll have to find your way inside the market after heading south. After the mudslides last year, the strip mall your pickup is located in was mostly buried. My intelligence says people use roof access to get down into the structure. You can tell which areas are active by solar panels displayed on the tops of the sunken buildings.
“Fuck it, I’m fine. I can do this. I’m already on San Petrol, in the right direction,” said Matteo.
San Petrol Ave was overrun with bikers, biodiesel-powered ranch trucks, and automated sedans, all switching lanes without blinkers and barging over potholes. He pivoted the bike to avoid an extra large orange bag of Whataburger littered on the ground.
Soon, the shadows of the first towers of downtown offered their relief from the brutal Sun. He 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 Ave. 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.
Jorge: Once you’re in Loteria, you will have to make contact with Magda. She’s a diminutive older lady who sells “pan de amor”, which is bread derived from the biological activity of common baker’s yeast that’s been genetically customized to make endorphins…
The light turned green for three seconds, just long enough to get going.
“Magda sounds more like a lover than a killer to me, Jorge. I’m already on my way down Roosevelt,” said Matteo.
Jorge: What? I am losing your communication signal. Speak at a louder volume.
Matteo’s earpiece caught static and then silence.
“Pinche crisper,” he said to himself. “I’ll wing it without them. Magda here I come.”
The bike bounced and jerked forward, then made a high-pitched screeching noise. 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 as someone who was in need of help, here on Roosevelt Ave. He kept his head level and confident and walked it across the street and through a sloping field of grass. 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.
The single-story building was definitely a bar, the kind people warned you about on Roosevelt. A white cardboard sign on the front door read: NO gang colors OR sports cloth OR gun OR knive.
Footsteps sounded from somewhere and he stepped back instinctively, not quite ready to admit his ignorance of motorcycles to any badass type of dude that might walk out of the bar. The Sun was burning through his hair into his scalp and the first beads of sweat started to form on several places on his body. Then, there was shade, and a clean voice from above, “Life, uh, finds a way, escuchame?”
Matteo looked to the rooftop at the moment the shadow disappeared, stinging rays of sunlight in its place. He sighed, then panted a bit in the heat, listening for someone approaching from inside the bar. After a moment, he attempted to knock on the door, but it swung open and Sonia was standing with her arms crossed, leaning on one hip, a chameleon in a neon blue wig. A cold front of freon air whooshed over his body. She was like an intergalactic ice angel.
“You gonna come in?” she said and wasn’t looking past him this time, like she had in class. “Or you could wait outside in the heat and keep looking at the bike until the engine rewrites the second law of thermodynamics and unbreaks itself.” Another second 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. Don’t worry, they’re the big ones that live outside, not the ones that infest. 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 in front of her.
The door opened into a short hallway with walls made of faux wood paneling, which was peeling at some edges. The path led to a bar with just two small windows, covered in blue-carpet on the floor and halfway up the walls. 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 bar, 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 an infinite number of times before, even though he felt like he’d made it up on the spot. “What should I get?”
“Lone Star beer for the loneliest star at the bar,” she said, putting her hand to her chest with false sincerity.
“Alright… I’ll take it. Am I that obvious? I mean, about the loneliness,” Matteo said as he turned a barstool over to sit on. “Just don’t get me too too drunk or I might cry right here. Plus, I need to fix that bike… or call someone to. Haven’t tested its self-drive mode,” Matteo said.
“Don’t worry about that bike. Here is your order, sir. And welcome to Franky Espada’s.”
She could unpack convincing hospitality when she wanted, he thought.
“What do you mean don’t worry about that? I have things to do, homework to read.” He was making sure to keep his cover story of being a student straight and also thinking about how surreal it was to be looking at this pretty girl and simultaneously avoiding getting murdered for crisper. At least for the moment.
“Interesting story. Just so there’s no lies between us, I wasn’t auditing. I’m not even a student. I was just sitting in,” she said and poured a shot of Fernet for herself. “Let’s drink.”
He sipped the Lone Star. “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?”
“Sure, just like that,” she replied.
“Sonia, Concha, white head of hair earlier and now a bright blue head of hair. I’m pretty confused, here. You could be any girl,” said Matteo.
“I am surprisingly capable of putting on different clothing and wigs, aren’t I?”
“I’m not worried about anything. Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude. On three…” she said.
They lifted their shots, gently banged them on the bar top 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 seating 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 from the roof?” 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 Michael Salgado,” she said.
“You got Salgado on there! How? You can only get him on CDs, right? Damn, you’re distracting me again. How did you know about LUFAW, Son… 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.”
“In what to what?”
“Science. Anybody can make a biohacker club. Doesn’t mean they’ll do anything interesting,” she said.
“Damn, you did it again. How did you find out about LUFAW?” He wanted to show her he didn’t like being ignored but also really wanted her to like him.
“LUFAW, that’s your buddies at the raspa stand? What’s their deal anyway? You sound like you hate each other. It’s always an odd shouting match coming out of there. 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 seeing her family, he thought. Another Alamo City native.
“OK. Well, about Jorge and Kaylee’s weird fighting… how can I put this? First time we got 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 fists, leaning across the bar. “One sec. Pero keep talking.” She turned away and started filling a beer tub with ice cubes.
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 Mist search 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? Also, are they still able to sell that lab meat after the biotech ban? Nevermind, I can see how this gets annoying fast.”
“Exactly, and it drives Kaylee nuts but they’re mostly love arguments, I think. She just doesn’t have any patience for his stories sometimes. They don’t really bother me,” Matteo said, wondering if Concha might judge him for giving up the chisme on his friends so easily.
“I see, so you’re a little family. So, next question, how do you really plan to get your criminal record wiped? Are you guilty or not guilty and going to pay everything off anyway?” 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 being a student.”
Matteo exhaled and looked at his beer.
“Well, it’s embarrassing,” he said.
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 to me,” she said.
“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 dating profiles 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.
“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? At knowing stuff. So. Why… would you use your hacking skills to stop me, then?” He would never have a chance with a girl like this, he thought.
“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 shouldn’t even be detectable 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 serious about biohacking so maybe I could score some pipettors. Naturally, I led you here, where I have control of the setting.”
“Trapped me here,” he said.
“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.”
“So, you think I’m in danger because of the bike,” he said. Matteo grabbed the Lone Star can and absently tipped it a little too far, dribbling beer over his chin.
“That and since you’re skipping jail, assuming an alternative Mist identity, in possession of an off-network Mist, and also because of some pretty interesting scientific results floating around the pre-print biology 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. Life and death will be pushed to a new equilibrium.”
“Alright, Ms. Cryptic.”
“Let’s just say, now is a good time to have access to a church and syn-malaria, 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 since Rangers keep an eye out for engineering human cells more than anything else.”
Concha took her wig off for a second to slip out of her hoodie, an odd choice for a sunny day, to be sure. A slice of her belly showed before she pulled down her shirt. It was enough to make Matteo dig his fingertips— just a bit, into the soft wood of bar top.
“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 another beer, Matteo barreled through the kitschy swinging saloon door of the men’s room, which left the area far less than private. Inside, his heavy hands knocked over the loose paper towels into the sink. He came back to his seat after fishing the soggy wads of paper out, just a little bit refreshed.
They plowed through another round of Fernet 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.
Concha’s good fortune multiplied before her eyes. Not only did she have the prime suspect in abulea’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.
“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 scanning the bar with skeptical eyes.
“Shit, I’m supposed to be on the job, aren’t I?” said Matteo, smiling meekly at Kaylee.
“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 watering hole,” said Jorge.
“Had my last location? Oh… right, of course you put a tracker in the bike,” said Matteo.
“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,” said Kaylee.
“We are all of us in space, Kaylee,” said Jorge, while inspecting graffiti carved into the bar top with a small pen light.
“Don’t worry about the crisper job,” she said, trying not to be overheard, “It fell through. Which is bad news for us, but good news for you, but also good news for us because we get a night off! After your lab grab today, you earned a night of fun, anyway.” She pinched Matteo’s cheek.
Concha noticed how well Kaylee held her facial expressions under control. Breaking Matteo out of Barcaza was impressive for two new biohackers on the local scene. Maybe they wanted him to write neurosensory scripts like ojo for them.
“However, I wouldn’t have put y’all two together, ever,” she said 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 used her wristwatch to project her Mist ID on a pink glowscreen 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 this blonde woman.
“No lens. I wrote a script to change both image processing in the device and how the data is filtered by the projector,” said Kaylee.
“Cool. What’re you drinking this evening?” asked Concha, in her regular bartending tone, admiring the shape of Kaylee’s face and her ingenuity in secret.
“Three Bud Lights for us and whatever you like for you. Unless you want to ask Jorge for his ID, too,” said Kaylee.
“Oh, no. I know him. He’s eighty-seven,” said Concha. It was the truth—they’d met once or twice when she was a teenager . Online, anyway.
“Eighty-eight on Earth,” said Jorge.
“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 identities. It’s pretty obvious when his Mist avatar is a stock Spurs coyote. I have a record of him, already,” said Concha.
Kaylee said, “OK,” with a raise of one eyebrow.
Jorge aimed his light pen at Concha’s face and said, “We required an unauthorized Mist address to set up our commercial snow cone business. If you don’t alert the authorities, we can certainly put together some form of economic compensation. May I suggest free raspas for one year?”
“Sounds good?” she replied, her hand held up to shadow her face. Jorge drew the pen light away from her and slid it into his front shirt pocket, not bothering to turn it off.
Before long, Concha was inundated with happy hour revelers and left LUFAW to drink each other into oblivion. It was obvious that Matteo, Jorge, and Kaylee were getting along well, after just 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.
“For one, you are from — I mean, you lived in Mexico so you should know what it means. Second, you’ve been around humans for even longer. 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 over her shoulder. All teasing and jokes between the group. Behavior she’d seen a million times between other twenty-something year old bar flies. She couldn’t yet 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 he slipped off his stool.
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, and because of their long lives, they 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 are 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 looked up from his beer label to his audience, which now included a few stragglers, huddled in a half circle of devastated expressions.
His eyes perked, “Did I tell you I perfected the most card-efficient goblin sacrificial attack yesterday?”
“Magic cards? No, you didn’t. Tell me how it goes,” said Matteo.
Jorge explained something about mana curves and card advantage for ten full minutes.
Concha plopped four tomato-juice looking shots in front of them.
“Chamoys on the house. For being such good customers and all.” She could tell they’d totally missed the two fights she had broken up and the magnetic gun she’d confiscated.
“Chamoy outside of its application on raspas? And whatever extracts are drawn from it by the alcohol? What an adventure in chemistry and texture,” Jorge said 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 man.
The night became blurrier and blurrier for the crew, enough that Kaylee got 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. The extractions will be ready and waiting for us to get to work on 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 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?” said Kaylee.
“Ah, not this little one,” Concha nodded towards Matteo, who was now leaning far into the bar top 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. “And all the drinks,” he thumped his chest with a fist, “on me.”
“Sure thing, moneybags,” Concha said while winking at Kaylee. She distracted him from paying by handing him a Topo Chico with bitters splashed in to settle his stomach. If she had a Byte for every time a broke guy tried to pull that showy “tabs on me” at the end of the night, she’d have enough for more premium physicals than time to hack.
Kaylee said, “Just have him back before we’re ready to get back to work again in eighteen hours.”
“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, though his rambling about being forced into their lair (the raspa stand?) and hit over his head… 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 and Kaylee exited into the humid night, arms on each other’s shoulders, 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 a generic, black-on-white sign sticker, sped them to Whataburger.
Matteo watched as the remaining drunks, with heads bowed far too low or flung too far back, shuffled out of Franky Espada’s. The place was theirs alone, again, and he was on the verge of throwing up.
Concha shut the lights down 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 to somewhere across Roosevelt Ave.
“Room for what?” he asked. Whatever lay beyond the grass and road was a blur for a second and then the words Motel Cielo came into crisp view in neon blue cursive, for a split second. “Oh, a room room,” he said while also realizing Concha was trusting him enough to let herself be drunk.
Matteo picked her up and onto the bike seat. He pushed the bike while she steadied 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,” 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 more valuable 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 partially hidden from view behind a rusty, unplugged Coke machine.
Concha fumbled her keys and spent a minute at the lock, which may as well have been an impenetrable firewall. Matteo plowed his shoulder into the door with a stiff yank of the doorknob, pushing the lock to its limits against the worn frame. The door opened, somehow without breaking. 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 server was connected to a turn-of-the-century low-res computer monitor. It beamed 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 were hung, matched by as many strewn about the chair, on the bed and floor, though his brain refused to process or get confused by the mess.
Matteo went straight to the coffee machine and poured two cups of hot water. He unwrapped two motel tea bags and began to steep them. “Do you like, live here, live here?”
Concha giggled. “Oh, I have snacks. Haven’t you ever had a de la Rosa? Try it. It’s good… for hangovers.”
Matteo said, “It’s OK, gonna stick to tea.” He thumbed through some books on her dresser. He started to giggle a little too. “Ah, ‘The Persistence of Personality’, I like this one. It’s about archetypes and ways of being that repeat through history and families and so on. A break from hardcore programming?”
“Oh, sure, personality persistence. The p.p.! P.p. is cool,” she said.
“Real funny — you are way drunk,” he replied and found a binder full of polaroids to tease her about. “What are these? You’re a selfie maniac. And they’re all panoramic!”
“I’m tracking my aging. It’s an art project. And a science one. I want people to see how I age and I’m also recording gene expression changes on my skin. The beauty within withers, too, something something art. And, as a matter of fact— ”
“Yeah, ‘oh’,” she imitated his voice, “And, 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 them?”
“Nope,” she said.
“Maybe you’re just a mortal version of a vampire, then,” said Matteo. “Come to think of it, I’ve only seen you hang out in dark labs and dark bars and dark motels.”
Concha turned to face Matteo, with empanadas in her mouth.
“Are those apple or pumpkin?” he said.
“Pumpkin. The only kind.” She tore one in half and offered him a piece. He accepted without hesitation.
“They’re so good stale. Tienes mas?” He started through the greasy white paper bag on the nightstand.
“I ate them all,” she said and dramatically sat on her bed, then turned to lay on her side while holding her stomach, “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,” he said.
“OK, I’ll shutup. So… tell me about your 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,” she said, the and then she pulled a wrap from a drawer on the bedside table. “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 a mile radius of the motel were scrambled.
Several miles away, at Whataburger, 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. “I was really hoping we’d get to listen in through Matteo’s earpiece.”
“Well, maybe it’s time, then. We should advance on the schedule. This female human is introducing unanticipated variability and may be a competitive risk,” said Jorge.
“Yeah. She knows way too much. I’m alternately impressed and furious that she was able to compromise our experimental sample so easily. It’s like she knew everything we were up to a day in advance. How do we move forward? 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. If they could shake the hangover off.
“Well, we got much of the preliminary steps done today. Then a week or two of experimentation remain. We can see how he fairs knocked out for several days. And whether his body can handle regular old syn-malaria 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 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 attack scripts. 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 pissed off at you for saying that if I wasn’t so drunk.” But he was offended that she was making assumptions about him. “I already told you, I’m not a real criminal,” he said, as though he’d been physically wounded.
“Sorry, I didn’t even mean to suggest you’d use it for bad, but as things to practice protecting yourself from,” she said.
“Actually, we might be able to trade something. Crisper’s been hard to find…”
“Crisper? Hmm, might be able to conjure that up,” she said.
“Yes, the one I have is not totalmente autenticado. I haven’t made the protein from the sequence or tried it out in an experiment, myself. I mostly stick to computers, as you can probably tell. Anyway, I got it on the NOW.”
“Not when, how — the New Old Web. You didn’t hear it’s up and running? At least in some areas.”
“This was the thing where some people wanted to reboot the old networks — the modem networks. I had heard of that before. I thought that wasn’t going to be finished for at least another couple of years or so,” said Matteo, thinking about how happy Kaylee and Jorge would be with the crisper sequence.
“Oh, trust me, it’s here. NOW is super slow. But it keeps the file size people use low, right around what vintage physicals can hold. It’s better than getting data from physicals in some ways. NOW adds lightweight encryption that prevents 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 triggering a brain to misfire neurons with visuals and sounds, it hacks the camera’s computational components through the lens.”
“Parece brujería. 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. When was the last time you held a pen, though? Chances are you’d make a few mistakes,” she said.
Concha pulled out a first generation GameBoy and unsheathed a Tetris cartridge from it. She put it in Matteo’s hand and kissed him on the cheek.
“I like LUFAW. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future, again. Since it’s not tested or anything, we’ll just call this a you-owe-me-one, for later. Still, keep the fact that you got it from me a secret,” she said.
“Not even a crisper whisper.” Matteo set it in his front pocket 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 really 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 her arms around his shoulders. His crushed palm accidentally latched onto a boob and locked her onto him.
They quieted and for the first time music coming from the weathered digital radio became noticeable. 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,” he said.
“When I met you, I had white hair and now it’s shaved off entirely. 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,” he said.
“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, not awkward in the least.
“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 first this time and whispered into her ear, “When I walked into your bar, I didn’t notice anyone else.”
“Ooh, haha, ‘cause It was empty, hur hur’,” she said.
“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 firm plastic-sleeved bed.
“Ow! Wha…” He pulled a doll out of his rear.
“Ahh! Julián!” Concha grabbed the small figurine of Julián Castro wearing a t-shirt that read: 1A PRES CHICANO.
“Where did you get this?”
“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 something for you,” 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. She was 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 too early from the abstraction of a sleeping hangover cloud. 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 sunlight 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, which was missing a small bite.
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 most of the taco behind for him.
He decided it was too soon to try to eat solids, grabbed a clear plastic cup and poured some faucet water for a drink.
He left the room, locking the motel door from the inside before closing it. His bike revved nicely again, so he revved it once more to look cool and then pressed the autopilot button.
A full breakfast was a good idea and he thought some fried glazed donuts from the Donut Shop would have the grease his stomach needed and would be a nice little gift for LUFAW. The icing on the crisper concha, so to speak.
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 had come 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 said and 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 alike in odd color, ill-fitting prep school clothing.
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 bag of donuts.
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 as Jorge.
“I take it your night went well. I read in a physical that 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.
“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. As inventive criminals, 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, I’m going to go lay down on the couch and die, now.” Matteo burped.
“Don’t do that,” said Jorge.
“What, did he take the couch, too?”
“I wasn’t being — nevermind, I won’t die.”
Mendoza returned with a small briefcase. “Here, Matteo—the tranquilizers. Please, carry them down with you.”
Matteo took the package under one arm. “Tranquilizers? Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”
“Then you won’t know,” Jorge said. He wasn’t blinking as he left them to load the truck with the cacti.
Matteo struggled using the ladder to get 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 said and tossed the bag in the trash. He stretched out on the couch and then quickly retracted to the fetal position. “You got jealous of the new girl, or what?”
“What? Who? No,” she said, without moving her head from the microscope.
“Whatever, maybe you should’ve made your move earlier,” said Matteo.
“Oh come on. I don’t date my coworkers,” she said, turning from the scope for a moment to show him her disinterested face.
“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 when I am this hungover?” 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 with Magic cards,” 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: “You all, 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.
“Teleportation,” Jorge replied.
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, déjame 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 an agreement for mating ever reach finalization?”
“Goodnight!” Matteo said and he was out just that instant, for the better part of six hours. He dreamed mostly of Anita and 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 for the first time in his life, lucky. These two were legit, chill people, his record was going to be clean soon, and he was well on his way to being a biohacker, and already had two girlfriend possibilities. These first few days together in LUFAW 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 this painkiller for that headache. Don’t worry. It doesn’t stress your liver when you drink alcohol like acetaminophen does,” she said and 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? Her jealousy must’ve multiplied while he slept, 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.
“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 pill? My head just got a lot more clear. Probably the whiskey. Anyway, I totally got the full sequence of crisper,” said Matteo.
“Wait, WHAT?!” Kaylee said and dropped the pillow.
“Yeah, the whole DNA 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.
“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 work, 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 will suspect we drugged him since he just woke up from that nap. Hmm.” Jorge stroked his forehead the way most people would stroke their chin in thought.
“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. Kaylee’s expression was hidden by a face mask and Jorge was wearing rounded sunglasses.
“Calm down. Calm it. Down. OK?” 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. It’s just for monitoring,” said Kaylee.
“How long was I out?”
“Twelve hours, give or take.”
“Half of a day? You waited for the time it takes half of the 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 injection parts of the experiment on account of his being sterile.”
“What?” slurred Matteo.
“Bacteria doesn’t grow on his weird skin, remember?” she said.
“He’s not a surgeon! Scooping raspas with a scoop is not the same as using a needle — 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. 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 of Mist or they’d kill you. We know from trying to track others like you down,” said Kaylee.
Jorge continued, unabated, “And then you were sent to Barcaza til the end of your life.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense. Y’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 hitting 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.” She squinted as though he could rebuke her at any moment.
“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 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 chance at 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. We’re not bad guys, here. OK? We’re doing you a favor,” Kaylee said and turned to sit on a lab stool.
“A favor! 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 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 red blood 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. Inky black curtains appeared, with dreams of Concha projected onto their darkness.
Ranger Mike shone his flashlight onto the raspa stand, causing shadows to form behind the cracked white exterior paint and the creases of his face. He was sure that 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 Anita, no less. All newbies had to learn the game the hard way.
Ranger Mike couldn’t wait to see the look on Matteo’s 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 Matteo a bag of Takis, on account the whole extra paycheck he would 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 his 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 flashlight 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 before. He crept back in with his gold tooth gleaming inside his smile, pulled the rug 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. This time when the darkness fell, he had no dreams.
Kaylee had fucked up. She could now see very clearly how she was just as much in the wrong as the Ranger 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, then set the autopilot course for Marfa, and punched the engine start.
Together, they stabilized Matteo’s vitals and took him to his home — his real 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. Jorge was quiet, and Kaylee appreciated that he was not bragging about how he had had some foresight about lightening their load earlier for just this possibility.
In less than an hour, 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 the lights out on the first floor, closed the door and then stopped in her tracks.
“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 scrambled our spying on them. She’s smart. Probably didn’t want any kind of record of herself wherever Matteo ended up. Crisper — it had to be somewhere on him.” She lunged for the trash, and pulled out his soiled pants. “Here! I’ll bet my best standardbred it’s on this Tetris cartridge!” Her heart leapt.
“If it’s not under lock, we can have crisper synthesized in less than twenty minutes,” Jorge said, the peptide synthesizer in a cardboard box under his arm. “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 dud 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’d dreamed about for over a year. He was back at his mom’s house, what seemed an impossibility only a week ago. What a mistake he’d made trusting LUFAW. He should’ve run away with Concha when he had the chance, like 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.
Now, Jorge and Kaylee’s words shook him. The day of his arrest, had his mom possibly have known the Rangers were going to take him? Given up to the Rangers, to die somewhere out of sight, a mutant freak of society, 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 leave it on the kitchen table for his mom to find.
Matteo began to stand up off the couch and the house shrank around him like an unplugged glowscreen hologram scaling down to nothing. He collapsed onto the floor. 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 was able to walk upright by bracing himself against the walls, all the way to the kitchen, where he drank a bottle of Gatorade in weak sips. He got back to the couch, laid down, and stared outside the window he had tried to escape through on the day of his arrest. It had been repaired, with a new bug screen, the neighbor’s yard forced into pixels by the tiny squares.
Matteo felt the midday humidity slap his face and enter his lungs before he heard the front door open. He murmured, “Estrella, llena de pensamientos…”
She was a full inch taller than he but 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 escapó?” She secured the three locks on the door behind her and soaked up the view of her son.
“You knew. Didn’t you?” he asked, sounding much less betrayed than he felt.
Matteo sighed, knowing she held emotion back only when things were hitting her especially hard.
“Ah, OK. Ya sabes,” her penetrating gaze now back on him, “They got to me cuando eras bebé. You know, nosotros, las brujas, we stay off the 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 acá. 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.”
“It’s been a rough night,” he said.
“No, it’s not on you. Eres tú,” she prodded the center of his chest with a long finger, “Tú 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 small glowscreen embedded into her forearm 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, amá. 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 responded by reminding him of some shortcoming she imagined for him, like sending money back to her. He wanted to be more upset, but at least they were together.
“And no data to trade?” she asked, faking disappointment.
“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 información 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 Matteo knew she didn’t need detailed bioanalysis for, it was knowing when he was obsessed with a girl.
“Qué 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.
His mom went into the kitchen and then returned after a minute. There was a heavy look of concern on her face.
“What’s wrong?” Matteo asked.
“I wasn’t thinking. When I scanned you right now… they must know you’re here.”
“Who? The Rangers? Already?”
“They gave me Mist.”
“And you forgot? Just like that?”
“You need to get out of here.”
“I can’t believe you!”
“Go to the DL. Go see Chueco, apurarse!”
He took a deep breath and glanced at the front door, which was locked, and used what little strength he had to bolt to the other end of the house to grab an old console and bag of clothes from his room. He then shot through the back door. Once outside, he could hear a car roll up over the chalky caliche driveway in front of the house.
Beyond the fence, in the alley, he saw the black and maroon striped cafe racer.
A Ranger was pushing himself through the rear door of the house. Estrella was grabbing his shoulder from behind. She was fighting for him this time.
The bike engine started up quickly and there was a sticky note on the dash that read: SORRY AGAIN! UNTRACEABLE, ENJOY. “Kaylee,” he growled. The least LUFAW could do was return his bike, but to pretend as though it wasn’t bugged was an insult.
He quickly turned off into an alley. There was only one place he could go to evade Dillo’s reach, the Rangers, and LUFAW: Distrito Loteria.
He pivoted around deep potholes, flying through the neighborhood, the older ways of Alamo City playing 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, eating charro beans on fold-out tables in their parkways. Their kids and grandkids chewed on barbecue. Tejano and Cumbia buzzed through old speakers at reasonable volumes, one mounted directly onto an oak tree.
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 and cheap-tech addicts.
It was as if nobody had noticed he had just escaped prison again just a moment ago.
Matteo merged onto 281 South feeling exposed and alone, as though he’d done something wrong and the city was punishing him for past sin.
His bike worked with the downward slopes but wobbled the more it coasted. Behind him, the whole circle of Alamo City looked like an icing whorl on a glittery pan dulce concha, with the Tower as a toothpick. Through the rear mirrors, he could just make out the white crucifixes in the distance miles away, crowning the peaks of the northern hill country.
Further south, the concentration of Tex-Mex restaurants and second-hand stores decorated in Disney characters increased. Down further, he dipped into the region where the city’s zoning laws evaporated entirely. Pre-fabricated homes of sky blue, kelly green, or candy apple red, complete with above ground pools and wooden decks, burned in the heat right next to farming acreage right next to car charge stations right next to fruit stands right next to used car dealerships, and so on.
A few more miles and the scenery became a coarse checkerboard. He whizzed unnoticed by undeveloped land, plots of dying grass. Abandoned construction projects sat frozen in time — grey 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.
He drove past the Loteria mall, saying a quick prayer of thanks for not having to approach any closer, before taking a hard left eastward. After twenty minutes of riding, the old markets vanished and he reached a sandy trail that ended in an unnamed trailer park. As he pulled up to the driveway entrance, the Sun dipped below the horizon and strung lights hanging on the entrance flickered on.
A sign made of particle wood was slowly swinging above a garbage can fire and it read “UNITS AVAILABLE” in spray paint.
Even the outskirts of Distrito Loteria chilled Matteo down to his bone marrow, no matter how seemingly quiet. The edge of the dark Estuary of Texas loomed nearby.
The mobile homes in the park were partially hidden from each other by fences made of stones for jetties. The trailers were 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 up as though they’d been abandoned but bounced from unknown activities inside.
Matteo walked up to a converted Redbox vending machine in the center of the first trailer 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 file.
He walked his bike down two semicircle aggregates of homes and saw his new base— green and white striped paint with coastal slatted windows open just enough to let the breeze push the thin curtains inside.
Thankfully, his mobile home came with an electric hot plate and a thin foam mattress. Inside the small fridge-freezer was a bag of a half-eaten Whataburger, not older than a day or so. 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.
In the morning, the alien whine of solar panel generators stirred him right before daybreak. Then there was the softest knock on his door.
:Cochino! Cochino! his Mistview AI chimed.
“Now you show up? Where were you to warn me about.. everything? God, god, god…” he said.
:Well, your friends were good at muting me. 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 a screwy AI. Don’t care how hot you sound,” he said.
:Como tú quieres. Un momento… I require no further action and I have cared for you with efficiency tan brilloso. You have a package located at the front entrance.
LUFAW had definitely tracked him, then. What could they possibly have sent? He opened the door to find a cardboard box of Topo Chico. He flipped the kitchen table down from the wall and rested the box on top.
Inside was a small briefcase. He opened it, revealing a miniaturized bench top lab. Small pipettes and tubes rested secure in moulded foam, along with a small agarose gel rig and a small tube filled with a clear viscous liquid on dry ice. This must’ve cost significant Byte.
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 improve your emotional state.
“Oh? Do you, now?”
:Tú seras un cientifico.
And why wouldn’t he? Time was ticking and Concha was probably waiting for him.
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, that’s where they live. Gross, right? Anyway, 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.
Second, you have a church. It’s pretty much plug and play. Throw in your components and it does most of the grunt work. It can read DNA sequences of virtually any cell and add new DNA sequences into a draft genome, which can be used to print custom cells.
And third, you have about 10 microliters of purified crisper at a concentration of 5 nanograms 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 the parasites 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 exactly, or I’d tell you, but people on the NOW message boards say 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 staring at my torpedoes.
Get syn-malaria sequenced from the cells so you can print custom syn-malaria.
Use my hair to find the sequence of immortality RNA.
Insert the immortality RNA into the syn-malaria genome (as DNA, don’t forget the promoter sequence).
Print the cells, inject!
Por vida! (That means “for life” I know you are not good at Spanish.)
And take this headset off ASAP!
The VR headset warmed until it grew scalding hot. He threw it into the sink and it began to smolder. He opened the faucet and ran water over it for a few minutes. All that remained was a melted hunk of metal and plastic.
He started breathing deeply, heavily. So she still wanted to use him as a guinea pig. Only instead of doing it herself, she wanted to control him into saving himself.
:You don’t want a girl like that en tu vida.
And Kaylee sent this stuff as though he had anything to learn from her after they’d gone after him for his expertise. On the other hand, he wanted badly to live long enough to see Concha again. “I hope I see her again,” he said.
“Well, thank you, computer. Forgot you can hear everything, haha. Must’ve been talking aloud.”
:Todo los días I listen. Y me encanta.
It wasn’t only about finding his girl again for his sake. The Rangers were likely after Concha, too. She was good at hiding, but he could protect her better. Together, they might even make a great biohacking pair.
:She would love to be saved by you. I know I would.
“Hey, can you locate Chueco for me?”
:No puedo. There’s too many nicknamed Chuecos in Alamo City! I will start cross-referencing background information and what is available about your mom’s connection to him, but I think there is not very much to go on so it will take time. I suggest you think about getting started on your research. If you ever want to see your girlfriend again.
“You’re right as usual.”
Matteo got to work on the most important problem — identifying whatever RNA it was that was allowing people to live forever. To ease his tension, he set his console’s glowscreen to “The Empire Strikes Back”.
He first split the lock of Kaylee’s hair into ten samples, Saran-wrapped nine and put them in the freezer to have backups in case he mishandled the first sample. He also divvied the stock of crisper enzyme into two aliquots, using provided tubes and placed them in the freezer. The enzyme wouldn’t be needed until he was printing the final synthetic malaria, anyway.
The church was a small clear monolith in his large palm, with multiple inlets leading into an acrylic microfluidic chamber and a USB connection, which he plugged into his old console. To figure out what RNAs Kaylee had that he didn’t, he just had to sequence the RNA from her hair and his hair. The machine would read the sequences and compare them, pointing out any differences.
Matteo said a quick prayer before carrying out an easy two-step chemical RNA extraction, wearing a hairnet he’d bought in the trailer park’s vending machine. He had RNA isolated in high purity within ten minutes, 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 until 1,406 hits 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. And I think I need a drink,” he said.
He walked outside to the vending machine hub and charged a half gallon of mezcal. It came in a plastic bottle. Inside, he poured himself a drink to help think. The booze tasted less like mezcal than watered-down tequila.
He breathed deeply and maximized his glowscreen’s desktop image, which his mom must’ve changed while he was in jail. There was his eight year old smiling face —he was holding a red balloon with a cartoon otter on it at Sea World. 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 Kaylee.
He put on his black AU hoodie, stuffed a box of plastic baggies left by the last tenant in the pouch, and slipped 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 military bars, picking up stray strands of hair found on bar tops and in sinks. Plenty of hair, no sign of Concha, though…
He wobbled his bike home with the help of Mist AI self-driving 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 pull-down kitchen table. With practice, he got into the swing of the back and forth spring of the pipettor. He began to snugly secure each pipette tip onto the pipettor with a quick, almost bouncing motion. Push the air down and out, draw up the sample — at a slightly different rate depending on how thick the liquid was, making sure to keep the tip away from the edges of the tube and not probing too deeply into the sample, for cleanliness.
The power of a million small movements was formidable. After fifteen minutes, he stopped to pop his fingers, lower back, and neck to relax the burning. Then he got back to it.
In this fury of mechanical motion his mind wandered.
What if he needed a slightly different RNA than what Kaylee 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 differences had little effects if any.
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 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.
It could be worse than taking no action at all. Maybe it would kill him faster.
:Todo para ganar.
“I guess you are right, computer,” he said aloud, not wondering how she was in his thoughts.
After he finished pipetting the final solutions into the church, he tucked his fingers into his palms tight and cracked his knuckles.
The church belched soft aquatic glug-glug sounds. Three samples were identified as originating from cats 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. Some samples looked very much like his own RNA profile. Maybe duds were more common than people thought.
The program winnowed the 1,406 figure down to 24 unique RNAs in Kaylee’s hair. An interesting sample, number 15, had a curiously low set of unique RNAs when compared to Kaylee, 17 in total. Could this 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. Maybe. He had no choice but to bet his life on it.
He checked the time. It was nearly midnight. His trailer was a dump, but he had a priceless view of the full moon on the gulf.
He loaded the four RNA sequences into a cellular RNA expression simulation program. It would check the safety of adding the RNAs to human cell types by determining whether it would change well-known cellular activities. 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. And all of this assumed the RNAs or the proteins that might be made from them would successfully make their way out of the parasite and into his cells.
It would take at least two days to run.
Too jarred by the possibility of dying suddenly in his sleep, he switched on the menu to the hologram, since Empire had been shown thrice already. Cracking immortality was less exciting without Concha around to share the moment with. Or even two rotten friends. Nah, screw them, he thought.
:Browse by mood, mijo?
:No recommendations for “tents.” The computer’s voice morphed into that of a generic 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 cigarette smoke into a snifter. Matteo imagined the smell of the brandy, the tobacco, and the thermal scratch of a tailored suit, which he’d never worn.
: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, and blonde only sometimes.
How could he find her? Save her from the Rangers who — no doubt, would be ready to take her away to the Barcaza.
:I’ll remind you in the morning. Your BAC is approaching twice 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 his foam mattress. In one motion, he collapsed into a laying position. Remind me that mezcal makes this shitty bed feel soft, he thought.
In the two days it took to run the RNA program, he’d have enough time to find Concha and together they’d figure out what he would have to do to make immortality work for him. And then probably get married.
While the cellular safeguard program ran, and the AI continued to look for Chueco, Matteo thought first to search the crime scene—the old raspa stand, for clues about where Concha might be. After all, she’d snuck around the secret base before and had already known about LUFAW by the time they met at Franky Espada’s.
He donned his 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 crushed his delusion of being invisible.
But 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 abductions and chupacabra victims. 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 tug, the door swung open, pushing 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. Especially hints of things he may have experienced while knocked out.
He put the discarded physicals into his bag. 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.
“Geez,” 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 stray chihuahua licked at his hands as he lifted himself up. He realized he’d forgotten that he might die any moment, for a moment.
“Alright, alright, tranquilo,” he said while petting the little dog.
:It’s her night behind the bar at Franky Espada’s.
“Wow, you have that stored in your calendar, huh? You’re priceless.”
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 silence that he was being ignored. The young man looked familiar… just not from Franky Espada’s.
The barback’s CO2 cartridge slipped out of his hand and he dropped the container on the bar top. He pulled the dish towel from his back pocket to dry the spilled soda 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.”
“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.
“No hablo inglés,” the man said, turning away to polish a liquor bottle.
“Chingado, yes you do!”
“You just answered me perfectly! You understand everything I’m saying.”
“Maybe you should learn fucking Spanish, güero,” 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.
“Tómatelo 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. And he realized he might’ve known the guy from jail. One of Dillo’s friends, maybe. 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 pushed Concha on their first date not so long ago. He hovered around 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 his 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.
Julián 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 dirty linens, his mouth open from the surprise.
He climbed out with the doll and pulled a portable glowscreen viewer with multiple adapters from his pocket. He scanned it for any information. It had been completely wiped.
“Goddammit. Not a clue. Dead fucking end,” he growled.
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 syn-malaria up and running on his own.
Back at Matteos’s trailer, the cellular safeguard program beeped. The four hypothetical 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. At least it made sense considering where the RNAs came from. Kaylee was as healthy-looking as they came. He stood a chance.
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 enough for injection 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.
The other portion of the sample flew down a second channel where it was bombarded 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.
Knowing the RNAs played nice with human cells was only half of the story. They also had to be compatible with the parasite’s normal function. They had to get inserted on some part of the parasite chromosomes that wouldn’t interfere drastically with the way their DNA normally directed its ongoing business.
He entered the DNA version of the four RNA sequences that were unique in Concha and the mystery sample 15, remembering to put the promoter— what signals the parasite cell to convert the DNA into RNA, into place. He thought about how Jorge would probably assume he’d forget. Asshole. Weirdo.
The church software came with a program to determine where to add chunks of DNA, and he wrote a short script to have it run as soon as the reading portion was finished later. It would need to run several thousand simulations to find the perfect location.
Getting a blueprint for syn-malaria was plug and play at this point, but it was going to take more supplies than what was crammed in that suitcase laboratory to scale cell culture up for the long term.
Matteo left the church glugging in his trailer to collect 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 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. After a quick shopping spree at Home Depot, he was able to replace all of the air filters in the trailer and he 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 head towards the horizon behind the trash mounds of his new neighborhood. Aside from the solar generators, occasional dog barking and muffled arguments coming from neighboring trailers, it was serene. He opened his dad’s phantom file and talked to it for an hour over his Mistview.
In the next group of trailers, as soon as the afternoon light had died, a neon, baby blue cross buzzed on, reminding Matteo that it must be Saturday. He hadn’t prayed the Rosary all month, and needed to after escaping jail. Maybe some meditation would bring his problems into better focus, too.
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 immediately and the story that followed him. Chueco had been humbled as a young man, not yet drinking age, when he and his wife were robbed at knife point. Chueco hadn’t stood up for himself and had to find Christ after. It goes to show you. But Matteo’s mom had always shown him respect.
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 ok, but the cops had her a few days ago. I was trying to help our situation with the Rosary,” Matteo said and noticed Chueco’s armband, “You’re the Curandero of this Temple?”
“Ay, no…” he said, “perdóname, yes, I am.” The man 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, “Sí… you look familiar.”
Matteo raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I’m Estrellita’s son, just like you said.”
“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 a bison. Etched on the backside was the year 1987. “Where’d you get this?”
Chueco had gotten 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,” he said and then he chuckled.
“Well, the place looks real good, Chuec’,” said Matteo.
Chueco shot a suspicious look at Matteo and then coughed. “You were in jail. And you’re sick.”
“What… how did you — ”
“Lo vi en un sueño. 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 into his trailer. He returned with a deck of tarot cards and a cold egg.
Kneeling beside Matteo, Chueco’s dry 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.
Chueco put the egg on an oversized, clean ashtray on the end of the pew. He assumed a wide stance, pulling on each of his own arms to pop the joints, then his fingers. He twisted his back slowly, setting off a series of loud, deep pops, then jerked his head side to side.
Now loose, he splayed his hands on Matteo’s shoulderblades. Chueco seemed to harness invisible energy from Matteo with his hands, using it to pick up the cards and bend them, launching them towards the egg. He arranged the five cards that were closest to the ashtray into a star on the dirt ground. 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 offering and a small hologram of Walter Mercado appeared, hover-pacing over the cards and egg. 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.”
“Tóma esta,” said Chueco, handing him a bottle.
“OK. I’ll start using it right away.” Matteo walked out as an elderly couple shuffled into the Temple and sat on the pew.
For someone who needed healthy red blood cells for syn-malaria to invade, there couldn’t have been a worse diagnosis.
Matteo sat on his bed and applied the doped VaporRub Chueco had given him. It was laced with who knows what but he spread it thick on his nose, chin, and chest.
:Mijo, I think you are dying.
“No, not… not for much longer. It doesn’t even matter that I can get these new syn-malaria cells printed.”
:Your color doesn’t look healthy.
“I know that! I just haven’t eaten today. Why haven’t you reminded me to eat, today?”
:You could be very sick.
“Walter Mercado was right?”
:When isn’t he?
Matteo sighed. He had most of the puzzle pieces to help himself, but he may need Kaylee and Jorge afterall.
:Why don’t you reach out to your friends?
“I’m not ready.”
:I think you should. It’s okay if they mute me otra vez.
Kaylee parked the LUFAW station wagon in the pitch black parking lot of Franky Espada’s at 12:03 in the morning. The darkness would protect the car from prying eyes and from the cameras on most drones. She convinced herself it would be safe to leave the car 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 the empty swimming pool and past what was once Concha’s room, stopping in front of the old Coke machine. She plugged its cord into an outdoor socket. It made no indication it still worked, no rumbling of coolant or humming of electrical parts, except for one button that lit from behind. She added a QR token of Byte into a rusty slit and hit the button to the right of the lighted one, counted to six, then hit the button below it. A cassette tape clinked into the retrieval bin. She grabbed it and then unplugged the machine.
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 blood, breath and urine: normal
Target genomic profile tissue sets 1, 2 and 3: normal
Target methylation profile tissue sets 1, 2 and 3: normal
Dud detection: Unlikely but results should be taken with caution. While most duds have detectable mutations, it is also known that a few duds were used as control subjects, whereby normal genetic profiles were reintroduced into a natural background. Additionally, if only a few mutations were introduced in the germline, there is a nonzero probability that the mutations may have reverted, though this is highly unlikely.
Your business is appreciated.
“God. Dang. It,” she said. Had they really botched capturing a dud again? And if they hadn’t, they’d got the unlucky one that was just normal. Jorge needed a spanking or something.
Concha’s bioprofiles were well-known for their accuracy. And that was even more impressive considering her expertise was in computers, not biology.
So, Matteo 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 “@”. She wished she was clever enough to think of one that looked like “Kaylee”. Maybe some pseudonym that ended in “-ly”.
She realized that she’d been hiding a small ray of hope from herself—that Concha might have replied not only with the results, but questions. That she might take an interest in whoever they were analyzing. How would she ever be able to get Concha to join the team?
Matteo spent the next few weeks collecting physicals and selling their data at Loteria, partly out of habit and partly to keep his mind off of dying. He was possibly holding onto the secret to immortality, but it would never work on his own blood. He couldn’t ignore the growing seed of anxiety in his gut. Not only was he running out of time to live, but Concha was proving extraordinarily difficult to run into, or LUFAW for that matter.
And then one day he came across a memory card for a TI-83 calculator that held an interesting bit of information on it:
18 yo m
Han shot first
MIST-FREE, hmu via physicals
Followed by his grainy mirror selfie.
Underneath that, he had caught two replies.
20 yo f
Geek culture, bar queen
Must like vintage bball games, chicken-on-a-stick and Selenas 😉
And a cyberpunk-filtered photo of a young woman dressed up like Leeloo from The Fifth Element, along with a PGP key for encrypted chat.
Msg 4 free Mistss!!! No citizenship? No problemo! NOT A SCAM!!,! FOR YOU.
And an animated USA flag .gif.
Matteo looked back at the girl’s photo. It could be Concha. It definitely could be Concha.
“Well, it worked. It took more than a year — but it worked!” he said to himself. And then he contacted Concha via encrypted chat, hoping to heaven she still used it, saying he had worked out immortality.
Two days later, she sent him back coordinates and a time.
The humidity was dropping with the Alamo City sunset, the cicadas now dry enough to chatter. As Matteo approached Concha from the entrance to the cemetery behind the ancient Yerberia on South Flores, he admired her posture, beaming through a dark mustard suit and her silver gray hair, buzzed, of course.
Concha knelt and placed a bouquet of wildflowers on her grandmother’s grave. The flowers tripped a grey glowscreen projection of home movies onto the tombstone. Matteo waited for the scene to end before clearing his throat.
Concha didn’t turn but began to speak, “A new house… that’s all I wanted for her, for us. Now, after not even two years on my own, I could probably buy three new houses. I guess I wouldn’t be able to sleep safe in any of them, so maybe it doesn’t count. Still, I think she would be happy for the way things turned out.” She took a deep breath.
“I’m sure she’d be proud of you. So… is this a date?
“Oh my god!” Concha turned to face him looking deeply offended, then defeated and calm, “Haha… oh god… you’re such an idiot.”
“I’m sorry about your grandma. It’s not your fault,” said Matteo.
“Of course it’s not my fault. It’s yours.”
“Yeah, she’s the one your Tamagotchi killed. Sorry for lashing out like that. It’s not entirely your fault. And at least it wasn’t on purpose.”
“Lo siento,” he said, hanging his head low.
“I get it.” She paused, then said, “Tell me about this immortality you have.”
“Well, the short story is Kaylee is immortal and she gave me her hair to analyze… to find the immortal RNA she probably has. She thinks it can help save me because I’m a dud and don’t have very long to live. I compared her RNAs against mine. I thought she would have a couple different but it was like thousands. So then I just kept comparing to other people who are normal, and just chose the ones that were different from everyone to her.”
“Ha, that’s kinda smart,” Concha said.
“Well, I may have solved immortality but it won’t help me. I’m a dud. And with my bad blood the syn-malaria won’t work. I was hoping to see you at least one more time before, you know, I die early.”
“No, you’re not a dud.”
“No, I know it’s a shock, but I am.”
“I sequenced your DNA, focusing on a gene panel that specifically detects duds. You’re totally normal,” she said. A few people walked past them to observe a nearby grave. “Walk with me,” she said and put her elbow out so he could lock his on and lead her.
“You’re wrong. Even Walter Mercado said my blood is sick, and all the different RNAs I had…”
“You can’t seriously believe that—about a Walter bioanalysis horoscope. On second thought, I forgot, you’re a Matholic. And anyway, when you ran your sequencing, you know any two people are likely to have thousands of different RNAs…”
“I guess there’s nothing special about me,” said Matteo, defeated.
“And nothing special about what killed my abuelita. It’s all just so stupid,” she said and sighed.
They sat on a city bench that had been dragged to the side of the Yerberia, right under a mural of Aztec culture, made up in strong in browns, reds, and yellows. There were cigarette butts strewn about. It looked like a makeshift employee breakroom. Concha grabbed a vaping pen out of her pocket and began to smoke mist. They sat in the quiet for an extended moment.
Matteo opened his mouth, to begin to say how much he had missed her, but she spoke to fill his hesitation.
“Anyway, let’s go look at what you discovered,” she said.
“Is this a date now?”
She punched him on the shoulder hard.
Matteo brought Concha back to the trailer park. Inside his place, Concha made herself at home almost like a stray cat would, with a lot of confidence and curiosity. He pulled two Lone Stars from the mini-fridge and cracked them open.
“So yeah, here are the sequences I found,” he said as he pulled the four RNA sequences up onto a large glowscreen.
Concha took a sip of beer, squinted at the sequences and said, “Oh, that’ll never work.”
“No—how would I know? We need a real experimenter and better facilities. We need LUFAW,” she said as she downloaded the sequences into her Mistview.
She grabbed his hand and led him outside.
“What is this?” Matteo said to Concha. He grabbed their beers in his one free hand.
“Life, finding a way,” said Concha.
She was following something on her Mistview, but he couldn’t tell what. They approached what looked like an abandoned, old watercraft on a small trailer, hidden under an olive green tarp, right next to a silver bullet Airstream.
She yanked the tarp off in one motion and began to pull at the hitch.
“You going to help or just stand there lookin’ pretty? Jesucristo, este hombre!”
He put the beers down and quickly checked inside the Airstream it was next to—no signs of life. Just a dark interior and many discarded physicals. Then he helped Concha pull the Jet Ski to the shore and into the water.
She hopped on, started the engine with a loud pop, turned and said “Get on, loser.”
“How did you manage to hack an old thing like that? More importantly, where are we going?”
“Barcaza Nueva. I’ll tell you all about it.”
Concha shouted over the zip roar of the Jet Ski. Kaylee and Jorge had acquired a portion of the Basura Barcaza that had fallen off the main jail in some kind of wager. It was a huge win for them, they could experiment freely in international waters.
Matteo had a sinking feeling in his stomach that was not just nervousness from being around Concha. Was he getting returned to LUFAW to be some kind of guinea pig again?
Before he could even process that possibility fully, Barcaza Nueva was on the horizon of the Gulf, looking like a shredded diaper afloat in a bathtub. It was about the size of six or seven trailer homes tied together.
They hit choppy water, at time their butts were well off the Jet Ski, feeling like they were momentarily weightless in space, but Concha had little trouble docking next to other rafts and paddle boats tied to the edge of the barge.
There was no grand entryway so they began to climb the base of structure. When the incline became difficult towards the top, they made use of steps made out of beer boxes which led to a ladder. At the top was a round opening with a fire station pole positioned in the center. Matteo slid down first and then Concha.
Jorge watched Concha and Matteo enter at the perimeter of a circular room. A stained-glass window depicting adult Jesus praying beside a lamb was fixed into the trash-walls near the dome ceiling. In the late evening, it filled the interior with warm, vibrant colors. It was a magnificent room, especially to house their collection of churches. Not quite a fancy loft overlooking the Alamo, but still wondrous.
Kaylee entered the atrium, an unsure smile on her face. Jorge noticed a hesitation in her stride that was probably imperceptible to humans. He was impressed by her budding professionalism as a team leader.
He watched Matteo’s reaction to seeing Kaylee again for the first time. There was something in Matteo’s face that Jorge couldn’t quite interpret. Maybe he would spend time working on that facial analysis program he abandoned years ago.
“So, you finally came ‘round,” Kaylee said to Matteo. “Are we going to do this, or what?”
“I do need your help with figuring out this immortality thing. I think. I mean, I don’t know,” Matteo said.
“Of course I can help with that. And I want you to know I have a new idea,” Kaylee said. “Hey look, Matteo, Concha, we could use your help. We have churches, we have plenty of computers, we’re not kidnapping people anymore, and I have an idea you could help with…” started Kaylee.
“I’m going to take this moment to tell you this, to help you feel like I am relatable. I do very much like when you have ideas, Kaylee,” Jorge said.
She smirked. “Thanks, Jorge. Just so y’all know, I’m thinking of something next-gen. Churches and physicals are pretty good and I think they’ll help us pull in money in the next few years. But the next thing is, I think we can rewrite the Tamagotchi neurosensory attack. It’s a window into your nervous system, and what if we used that as way to instruct cells to make different things, kinda like syn-malaria but not. It’s a lot of programming and we’re going to need your help and we’re going to need Concha’s help, too.”
“Damn, that does sounds cool but you freaking kidnapped me. And hit me a bunch. And experimented on me!” said Matteo.
“We were tryin’ to help you! And you know, I don’t exactly know about you, either—you’re technically a criminal. And pretty creepy around women,” she replied.
“I mean you could at least say sorry,” said Matteo.
“Didn’t you get the VR headset letter… and the motorcycle…” said Jorge. “I think she apologized in those communications. Also if you’re not using the bike anymore I’d like it back to use it on leverage on a business deal of mine.”
There was a short silence. Matteo and Kaylee looked to Concha.
“Whatever, Matteo. You’re not the only one taking risks here. I mean you freaking killed my grandma,” said Concha, “And Kaylee still tries to spy on me on shore.”
Kaylee’s eyes got wide and she blushed.
“None of us even know your real name!” said Matteo.
“Yeah, okay… fair,” Concha said and smiled.
Dillo walked into the atrium and said, “What’s all the noise? Is the food here already? You better have left me some fries this time.”
“Chingado! You expect me to work with this jerk?” cried Matteo.
“Hey Matteo! Good to see you but watch your mouth, jovencito. I’m different, now,” he said and trotted up to Matteo, slapping him on the back. “What—are you joining up? We can make some money here, help people.”
“Yeah, Dillo’s legit,” said Anita, trailing behind Dillo and taking his hand. “Qué bueno verlo—you thinking of helping us out, my favorite prisoner nerd? LUFAW has been a good thing for me, Matteo. Almost like being on a pirate cruise, hanging out here.”
“Yeah, Dillo and Anita are key parts of LUFAW, now,” said Kaylee. “Indispensable. And we’re lucky to have Concha work with us, occasionally.” She turned to Concha and said, “I’d love it if you spent more time with us, girl.”
Concha just stood in silence.
Jorge thought about the weird mental calculations they were making consciously and subconsciously at this exact moment, mostly centered on trust. They could all benefit immensely from one another but had reasons not to. It was classic game theory, somewhat related to the prisoner’s dilemma. Kind of ironic in the Nueva Barcaza, wasn’t it? He wondered if the process of neuronal reorganization going on in their skulls could find application on a planetary scale. Hmm.
Then Jorge coughed loudly and said, “Every one of you here is wanting to work on immortality, which essentially eradicated my home planet and all my people. However, here on Earth, there is some probability of it not being a total disaster. I think it’s fine. We can try to give it another shot. I’m in, bros.”
There was a palpable shift of social energy in the room, though he couldn’t make total sense of it. Maybe he had said something offensive, radical, or excellent. Jorge didn’t know everything about humans yet, but he suspected that after all this, LUFAW would become a real team. A 99% probability, he’d wager.
The lives of these entities were fascinating to watch unfold. Especially since they were the first generation of their species to grow old—truly old. Maybe they would get it right. He made a mental note to mention something about this on his Magic: The Gathering blog. Maybe it was too off-topic, though. Time would tell.
conch~$ aur.sh miners.epub