All was not lost. It wasn’t like she’d spent the last of the savings on a roll of lotto tickets. Though, now that she thought of it maybe it would’ve been a better idea altogether. No, 300 tickets wouldn’t have been a good bet, not by a long shot. And she reminded herself, for the fifth time today, that the last time she dipped under the mattress, she’d replaced all the Coin by the end of the week. Abuela didn’t even notice. There was a good chance she’d forgotten about this last stash of Coin— probably didn’t even know it existed anymore, anyway.
Now, what her grandma would know is how good it would feel to be in a new house, two-stories, that smelled like fresh paint and construction. It’d be on the northside, where the nice H.E.B.s let you sample sausage and fresh guacamole and even wine— all for free on Sundays around the time everyone gets out of church. Abuela would never say no to a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon. With that thought, her backpack, full of the goods she bought and lugged halfway across town, felt less heavy on her shoulders. Even the cracks in the sidewalk appeared to blur and close seams. Todo no se perdio.
The swing door to the short chain-linked fence in the front yard was frozen in place by overgrowth and hardly open. She squeezed her small frame through, but twisted metal caught her bag and split the zipper. Two wires spilled out— their plugs bobbing like unsure pendulums.
“Que no traiga esa brujeria into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. Her shouts weren’t loud yet they lacked details, as though she was yelling into a string-and-cup telephone. Sonia caught a glimpse of her grandma’s freckled forearms, folded across her sunken torso, secure in their most comfortable position. Why was sneaking out of the house so easy but sneaking back in so impossible?
The tension in Sonia’s neck relaxed, stress she realized was not due to the weight on her back, but at that chances of getting caught. The anticipation was always worse.
“Oh my god. ‘Buela, it’s not witchcraft. They’re just a couple of old physicals,” she said over the barks of the chihuahuas next door, “for my Halloween costume. Voy hacer un robot.”
Her grandma squinted at her and ambled into darkness in the direction of the kitchen, mumbling complaints. Sonia was close to getting off easy.
She opened the wobbly screen door, her bag ringing metallic as it struck the frame. There was some watermelon she’d cut up earlier waiting to be eaten in the fridge. The foil-topped bowl was cold in her hand as she reached for a slender bottle of chamoy powder in the cupboard.
“Ya empece la cena. Quitate de aqui. Put it back, Sonia!” In a perfect world, she would be the only one in charge of feeding her granddaughter. Sonia, the girl who still had the flat, deep brown hair of her only son.
“Fine, fine!” Sonia slipped it back into the fridge and softly stamped into her bedroom. She kicked her pink sneakers off, used inertia to swing the heavy pack onto the bed, and then sat with her legs crossed next to it. The mattress springs squeaked.
To get a quick sense of how good her items might be, she pulled out the two easiest physicals to get to work on first: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing. This third generation Tamagotchi in particular was written on such a small memory chip and in such a clunky language there was hardly room for any kind of firewalls or encryption.
She put the price of the items out of her mind, donned her oversized headphones and plugged them into a bespoke console. There was something comforting about getting her hands on material objects that held data, something like how it felt to thumb through abuela’s old People en Espanol magazines.
With a rubber mallet, she delivered a swift bump to pop open the phone. She wiggled the memory stick loose and transferred it into an adapter linked up to the console. It fit snugly. After flipping a few toggles, she set her sights on a hovering glow screen, which flashed what looked like a palimpsest of random characters, erasing and reforming repeatedly, and, through the headphones, Selena sang at full volume, bringing pain (but also a kind of joy) to the inside of her ears.
“Ahh! FUCK!” She tore off her headphones, breaking the connection.
Abuela appeared in the doorway as if on cue. “Y ahorra no fuiste a iglesia, tambien!” she shrieked. She’d been waiting to let that one out for a while.
“Yah, ama! Dejame!” Sonia redirected the stress back into a whisper, “A fucking glitch warning on the first download, solo mi suerte.”
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia calmed down, hooked the headphones back up, and loaded an old script of her own design to unlock the information now transferred and saved inside the console. The glow screen flickered and centered forty-six low-res thumbnail photos of a brown Pomeranian. Jesus, it made no sense to put a lock on that. Unless.
She copied and renamed the file extensions of the photos to force-open them on an emulation suite of a hundred or so vintage programs. Her glow screen vibrated as though it was more than just a projection, a custom alert she’d written for when the computer snagged a successful hit. In place of misinterpreted, jumbled characters, which is how text programs normally understood photos, she could see a hidden correspondence in plain language.
She dug into the phone’s previous service information. A secondary, pink glow screen flashed: Julian Castro.
“Fuuuuck…” she whispered to herself, then shouted, “Buela!”
“Que?” Sonia heard her grandma say distractedly, but loud and clear, from the kitchen.
“Ven, ven aca!”
Her abuela showed up wearing a sarcastic look she’d picked up from watching the child actors of American television.
“Mira, los personal texts de el presidente pasado. That’s a year of school paid for right there. What did I tell you?” It was the pay off Sonia was hoping for after putting up with the vendor at La Pulga, who’d been all dilated pupils and grabby hands.
Grandma looked worried, “ Que ‘Halloween costume’ y que nada! You lied to me otra vez! Pero no es peligroso? It’s not your phone.”
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” she lied again.
Grandma relaxed for the first time today. “Ah, ta bueno. Despues quieres atole o no?”
Sonia looked at her with a face that said ya sabes, then she said, “Si, si,” a sweet child, again. Abuela disappeared from the door frame. “And now I can finally pay you back some of what I owe,” she said to herself. There was no way she was wasting time at college.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the cupboards open and close. Within a moment, she could smell the cinnamon in the room, and, on her skin, felt that the boiling water was clinging to the air.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Not enough for a house, at least not yet, but it would buy the groceries and pay the cable for a long, long time. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive before tossing the phone’s parts into a small industrial shredder.
She eyed the Tamagotchi. What could that little flattened sphere be hiding? And what about the more difficult extractions in the bag, the Packard Bell hard drives and the Garmin GPS and the talking Pee Wee doll?
She hunted for the right power adapter and plugged it in, just to see if the game would start up. Tamagotchi data cards were notoriously difficult to free from their protective cocoons. It clicked on and the little blob pet was projected onto the main glow screen. It spoke through her headphones and in subtitles:
Nema. Olam led sonarbil onis y on son sejed reac ne la noincatnet… and on.
Through the vanity mirror situated behind the glow screen, Sonia watched the reverse image of the text animate alongside the sounds. She knew the passage very well. It was the Lord’s prayer. When the electronic pet got to the end, it digitally morphed into a burning, watchful eye.
She grabbed her throat as if to stop it from constricting and her eyes rolled back. Violent shaking in her body brought her from the bed to floor, where she continued to convulse for some time. For as long as she could, she held on to the smell of cinnamon atole and to the sound of clanking pans and utensils in the kitchen.
Sonia woke with her head cradled in the arms of a handsome paramedic. His gaze seemed perfected by millions of years of evolution to convey attentive caring. He spoke while checking her vitals, but she couldn’t quite hear him, and she didn’t need him to explain anything. The last hour was burned into her memory. She had laid frozen in cold grey on the floor, watching her grandma try to wake her, and listening to her shout in broken English into the phone at the emergency dispatcher until she collapsed.
The only person that mattered in her life was dead and Sonia would never be able to return even a fraction of the love that she’d received. But there, in her heart, grew space for a new purpose.
Matteo’s customized alarm clock blinked digital red: 13YR 22K. Thirteen years of jail time or twenty two thousand Coin, whichever came first. And then he might feel real land under his feet again.
His gaze fell on the box of physicals sitting on the floor of his jail cell. Chances were this box was just as worthless as the other hundred or so he’d picked through in the last year. Scavenging and reading drive after drive hadn’t gotten him far— his original sentence of thirteen years and two month barely budged. He regretted rejigging the alarm clock.
But at least now he was sure of something. The system was rigged. The Rangers had been raising the cost of “room and board”, incrementally, likely according to whatever Coin he was earning. If two months took one year to pay off, then thirteen years might be… he didn’t want to calculate it. He regretted rejigging the alarm clock again.
He pressed his sternum to ease a tickle somewhere inside his chest. There was only one thing to do to help carry him through the next few hours of data mining— Shifty Lounge, located in the heart of this floating garbage prison, the Basura Barcaza.
The Shifty Lounge (a triple entendre: first after the sporadic yaw of the floating prison itself, second, after the most popular key to map in Vim, and finally, after the clientele) was the only reprieve offered by the Rangers. If The Shifty Lounge was a mental health center, the prescription everyone got was “gulf”, a salty-metallic nicotine drink, with a skim of herbaceous oil made on-site. And it cost Coin.
“Basura Barcaza,” he practiced the Spanish pronunciation. Most of the prisoners were just immigrants, and despite being a native Texan, his Spanish sucked.
The way to the bar was a twenty minute walk from Matteo’s cell. Trash from all over the world melded together to make narrow, snaking corridors. The endless collages averaged out all of their colors in his mind.
The best way to navigate was by the aromas. The bar had its own smell address: a sequence of sugar, grease, melted plastic, jasmine, putrid waste, hamster odor, salted peanuts (coinciding with churro stand number one), then the plastic of a phone kiosk, stale air of undeveloped, empty rooms, and at last, the second churro stand, which was, not accidentally, positioned next to the bar. Matteo took note of a new atrium that, by new smells and echoes, was emerging someplace behind the kiosk. Who or what might be inside?
The entryway to The Shifty Lounge was an old storefront to a Mexican pharmacy. “Farmacia”, buzzed in bold yellow and green block typeface. It brought back his childhood, the feeling of his moms hand’s guiding him down the market streets of Reynosa in search of Matholic relics, 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. On second thought, unlikely.
The interior of the gulf tap room was dark, except for a few stools made visible by overhanging naked bulbs, painted mostly black. Matteo had the impression that patterned wallpaper lined the structure, but couldn’t be sure. Humidity collected and dripped somewhere out of sight. Every patron inside unseen nooks radiated heat and the stench of processed, moldy tobacco and yeast, thickened the air.
“Ay, ‘teo. That box work out for you?” Dillo, the vendor from the night before, gurgled, from the dimmest area of the bar.
“Haven’t really gotten a chance to look into it,” Matteo said in Dillo’s general direction, blindly. In his mind, an ancient fear of speaking to someone out of sight triggered a latent paranoia— had he remembered to lock the door to his cell?
“Mira me bien. Que tienes?” Dillo paused, “You ok?”
“No, yeah. I’m fine. I just can’t see very well in here. Why’s Anna gotta keep it so dark? She even in here, or did she finally quit?” He heard his voice try a little too hard to be casual. Simultaneously, he hated himself for feeling as though he owed the man a greeting at all. This was prison. Nobody was nice.
Under the light of an accountant’s desk lamp on the slate bar, two soft hands appeared. 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. She spoke loud enough to overcome the tinted, one inch thick barrier between them. “A two and three?” she said, scratchily, sweetly.
Dillo talked over her. “Anna siempre era aqui. In fact, since, casi, well since this pile of basura was still in the, which was it? In the… well, in the ocean. Well, Matteo— Matteo it was? Estas viviendo en el section Este, verdad? If you get some good Coin outta any of those ones I gave you, remember me. Y recuerdo, the big wins always come in batches,” he said, invisibly approaching and finally leaning into the light, three seats down, his frame both frail and dangerous. “I don’t get quality boxes like that everyday. Dame un good tip and I won’t forget you next time something like those ones come around again.”
“Yeah, man. Ya sabes. You get at least a five percent cut, on top of what I already paid,” Matteo said, conflicted, not knowing whether to answer Anna or Dillo first and irritated by Dillo’s intentional misuse of “gave”. Especially when he’d had spent the last of his college money for the box, and needed to recover that loss, plus five percent, plus the bogus “room and board” fee on the barge, and, hopefully, some significant part of whatever debt was left on his sentence.
“Let’s do three and four. I’m celebrating,” said Matteo, deadpan, as though anyone else knew he was substantially behind on rent and would get the joke. He scooted his stool closer to the bartop, both to try to steal a better look at Anna and to sever the conversation with Dillo. Her hands disappeared and she was entirely a shadow once more.
“Heh, heh. I’ll be watching the payout logs closely for my cut of Coin, joven,” Dillo said in way that could be interpreted as a warning or as friendliness.
The Shifty shifted and saltwater lapped up through the floor, which was little more than plastic odds and ends melted into a porous grid, with bottle caps smashed between the approximately square spaces
“Celebrating que?” she asked.
“No, I misspoke. I’m not celebrating. It’s just sarcasm. I’m just beat from working all week,” Matteo said, not believing any of the grit he was trying to portray. Misspoke. What dangerous criminal says misspoke? Worse, Dillo was the kind of guy who understood sarcasm insofar as it raised suspicion, the kind of guy who would be more likely to assume Matteo was splurging on a drink after finding something valuable on the physicals. The door to Matteo’s studio (had he locked it?) felt twice as far away.
“Que curioso,” Anna said.
Two starched-shirt Rangers pushed through the screen door. Their confident outlines bore false majesty from the outside light before the door slammed behind them.
“‘Scuse me miss, can we get us some waters, two of ‘em,” the one wearing the black cowboy hat with absolutely no color on her skin, except for the hint of pink patches on her ears and neck, said.
Anna reached down into the fridge for cold glassware and poured. “It’s on the house,” she said.
“Carbonated again? They gonna get regular ass water in this dump anytime soon? This stuff should be called Topo Petho, nah, Todo Petho,” said the second one. A gold crown outlining his front tooth glistened, a buried treasure in a scorched pecan shell of a face.
“Howsit feel, kid?” the Ranger said to Matteo, her expression nondescript.
“To have to drink next to us dumb types?” she continued, smirking.
“I don’t know what you—,” said Matteo.
The gold tooth revealed itself more on the shorter Ranger, “You’re a Reader. Got it written all over you. Those broad shoulders of yours ain’t been put to much use, I’ll bet.”
“I scavenge, too,” said Matteo, trying for a deeper voice and missing the mark.
“Maybe. But my money’s on you buy more than you scav’. I can see it in those clean fingernails. Ah, we’re just fuckin’ with you. Relax. It’s obvious you’re not pure scav’, ‘cause why else would old Dillo be hounding you?” A drink slammed a few seats down and then there was a loud creak of what could’ve been the bathroom door or an unseen exit.
“Sometimes, yeah, I do buy. Need to send money back home on top of my penalty. But I spend more than half my time picking through acquisitions like Dillo and the rest of them. If I had higher permission to go on-shore I’d be out in the city finding other stuff to pick through.”
“Back where’s you say you been sending all that Texas Coin?” she asked.
“Alamo, born and raised,” replied Matteo, proudly.
“Heh, thank god. Soundin’ like a goddang illegal there for a while, heh heh.”
“It’s a tough economy. Can’t have them roaches takin’ up work on the barge or enjoying our secure facilities. Sure you know all about that, though, broad shoulders,” the squat Ranger said before burping.
“Heck, you can’t blame us for checking you out. Sometimes we get surprised and catch some of y’all up to no good even though you’re stuck here. Just locked up one hell of a good-looking citizen the other day. But she was a real bad guy, deep down inside. Damn this Topo’s good. I take back what I said,” he followed up.
Anna rolled her eyes in the dark. “Y’all need to leave this boy alone. Matteo isn’t one of the white collar thieves, you know. He’s paying the price for some loverboy bullshit.” She put down the two light green bottles and three shots of nicotine concentrate, making enough of a bang on the bartop to communicate her irritation with the Rangers.
Matteo drank the shots one after the other, half upset that he wouldn’t be getting that carefree three-four buzz, the other half grateful he’d be able to finish his smaller drink order quickly so he could get out of there without having to talk to the Rangers much longer. Anna always knew how to look out for him.
“Well, pardon us, miss senorita. Didn’t mean no disrespect,” he turned to Matteo, “What was it that you got into, son?”
“My uh, my lawyer said I’m not obligated to talk about it anymore.” Matteo was beaten to soft replies by the oil burn in his throat.
“Thought you said he wasn’t one-a the rich ones, Ms. Anna?”
“He didn’t actually have a lawyer— he can just read, can’t you put that much together?” she replied.
“Hmm, don’t much care who you are or how much data you extract an’ read for us, lyin’ to Ranger’s a serious infraction. Are you, or are you not, under the council of a lawyer?” Ranger number one said with another burp.
“Yep, might lose our job by letting something like that slide, couldn’t we?” said number two.
“Yes we could,” he fingered the cuffs hanging on his belt, shot a serious gaze at Matteo and let half a smile slowly form on the right side of his face. There was the gold in his mouth again, gleaming.
Matteo had just started adjusting to the prospect of being locked up for his entire healthy adulthood. He had just come to terms with living his best days on a floating palace of trash, with only a few, expensive days off to have a gulf or two. Now, with an ill-conceived attempt at a diversion, he was looking at extended sentencing, a near-the-end-of-your-life sentencing, a shared-toilet-without-a-rim sentencing.
“Heh haw haw, we’re just messin’ with you. C’mere let us get you another round. Never know if we’ll see you again, seem on track to check outta this place quick,” number two throated, 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?”
“Heh, don’t let him give you a heart attack,” 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 Anna, here. I’ve got to get back to work. See you later. Thanks for the advice and offer.”
“You can bet on it,” the female Ranger said with a stare that made Matteo feel like she’d been hiding her unusually deep talent for perception.
Matteo looked back into the bar from the outside, hoping to re-evaluate that last interaction, where perhaps he was more friendly and blended in more than he thought, and just maybe Anna had more interest in him than just idle entertainment to help kill her hours at the Shifty Lounge.
By Anna’s lamp, Matteo could see both Ranger’s hands push against the bar, as if to gain momentum, moving out of the chairs and towards the invisible inside of the bar. Had they been after Dillo the whole time? If Dillo had been up to something, was it possible they were stalling him at the bar to give other Rangers time to search his studio for the box he’d bought? And if anyone stole of confiscated it, he was completely out of money to buy new physicals. It would be full-time scavving from now on. He had to get there now. Next time he would hide his shit.
“Saludas a su mama,” Anna said, pressing her hand against the window. The cat ring tinged the glass. There was an unmistakable, natural concern in the lines of her cherub face. Matteo furrowed his brow as if to say thank you.
The second churro stand guy, positioned directly outside the bar, handed him a bag of peanuts. “Estas en un rush, si? Necesitas comer, flaco chico. Pagame despues.”
“Yeah, yeah. I will!” Matteo took in the gold chain buried in chest hair, mustache, and oversized hands of the man passing him the peanuts and then he was off in a sprint. A tiny buzz had set in, giving him confidence in movement as he whizzed past a few gentle corners and barreled a hard left at slippery intersection. The path curved and right before he was in view of his door, his foot sank through the floor, into the lukewarm, brackish water.
“Chingado!” His entire left leg was in the delta, his scraped thigh stinging. In bracing himself, he had knocked the wind out of his chest with the sturdy bottles. Peanuts were strewn about everywhere.
He pulled his leg out and rolled over onto his back. “Shit, shit, shit.” There had been no point in running. Either the Rangers or Dillo’s crooked buddies had gotten to his potentially valuable stash or they hadn’t. And if he caught them red-handed, what was he going to do, fight them?
He yanked free a bottle opener that was partially embedded into the floor and cracked the cap of a bottle and took a long drink. A slow, short walk later, he arrived at his door. It was locked. Fuck, he could’ve stayed at the bar or ordered another churro. He chugged the rest of the gulf right there and disposed of the bottle by filling a gap near the mailbox embedded into the wall of his pseudo-porch.
One year of looking over his shoulder steeped in paranoia was enough. There was no way he would survive thirteen more— more than that, even, with his sanity in tact.
He was no accessory to murder— he had to find a way to clear his name and get the hell off the Basura Barcaza.
Matteo used his weight to slide the false wood-grain accordion door to his cell open and closed it behind him. He struggled out of his wet chinos. The box of physicals was untouched and let out a sigh of relief.
Gunshots blasted from the direction of the Shifty Lounge. His senses heightened again, and he couldn’t know for sure if a few seconds or a minute had passed before he heard groans and whimpering, though he could not tell the direction from which they traveled. If something went down at the bar with Dillo, he needed to extract whatever data was on the physicals immediately.
The air inside was stale enough to put anybody to an uncomfortable sleep, but the gulf was working. He burned off some anxious energy by cranking a wobbly lever to retract the skylight. Two Coin pinged the clock, a bargain for a cool shallows-breeze. Just enough purple light was left in the evening to bring the walls, made of sun-scorched bottles, broken bicycle frames and appliance husks, to life.
In the first few weeks of incarceration, when he was too stunned to accept his situation, he’d stand before different sections of the cell, transfixed by the combination of each component of the structure. Time would pass, and he’d catch himself looking for hidden messages encoded on each faded bottle or box label. Today, the colors and typeface on spent fireworks and cleaning detergents had a similar effect, but focused his mind somewhere useful, down to his hands and his work.
He sat down to get started. Then he got up to piss down the corner urinal— a cut out, upside-down bleach bottle with a hose that led into the water below. He slipped into dry boxers and unbuttoned his work shirt, fingers still shivering from the nicotine.
Matteo popped open his last gulf, took a swig, and set it back into a depressed cup holder moulded into his desk, wincing at the clingy aftertaste of the oil.
And then, just like that, everything about his senses and presence snapped into place. One hand picked out a physical from the milk crate blindly, as the other got together his working tools from the drawer. He peered through a lighted magnifying glass at his first drive of the night— a silver disc.
A thin line of rust divided the clean mirror of the Packard Bell into halves. No wonder such a straightforward pick would end up sold in bulk, it was definitely going to be resistant to standard booting. It was a fix within his skillset, though, and he relaxed, now clear on why Dillo had sold the electronics at a fair discount. Not many were willing to do the work on damaged goods when so many other intact drives were available. Was that the source of Dillo’s fuss at Shift? Was he just trying to cover his ass for selling sub-par product?
He switched the positions of two cleaning tools in his left hand, rotating them over the part of his hand where the fingers meet knuckle, surprising himself with buzzed dexterity.
More gunshots, perhaps closer than before.
Still very possible that Dillo had dumped something illegal on him. Since he’d stressed in the bar that he should get his cut, it was unclear whether he’d wanted whatever was in that crate to be sold publicly. Matteo would be bound to the kickback once the sale of the extracts posted to the Ranger logs. But if he found higher-value, exotic data, maybe he was counting on Matteo to sell on the dark market, in which case the sale would be so private as to be illegal and Dillo would not know the going price. Of course he would know that Matteo had sold it underground, just by the absence of a legal transaction on the logs. So had he given Matteo a warning? A cut was owed, public or not.
The entire room shifted. He braced against impact by putting his hands on the drive. “Shit.” The cell slipped horizontally back and forth, finally resettling like a raspa collapsing under its own melt. Water slip-slapped underneath the floor.
The disc had irreparably shattered under his weight, a shard stuck in the dead skin layer of his palm. “Forgot we’re docking tonight. Ok, maybe I’m too nic’d for this,” he said to no one.
Blood dripped into his eye from a cut on his temple, having been struck on the edge of the magnifying glass. With a soft “Fuck,” he tore off a bit of electrical tape from a roll on the desk, and stuck it over the cut.
Matteo rummaged through the crate, convincing himself there was little chance anything interesting would be found on obvious things like computer drives. At the bottom of the pile, below a cracked VirtualBoy, was a kelly-green Speak ‘N Say. Chevere.
“Treasures come in batches,” he whispered imitating Dillo’s voice. Had he been referring to the large number of items in the box? Or did that mean Matteo would have to string multiple files derived from multiple physicals together? Or had he been simply referring to .bat files? Chingado, Dillo.
He pulled on the string and the rotary arrow spun for a moment, landing on a spot no longer occupied by a sticker. “The cow goes moo,” a country-sounding guy said, followed by a real live audio recording of cattle. With many stock shows under his belt, Matteo knew a high pitched honk like that only came from heifers in labor for the first time, midway to becoming cows. Totally inaccurate biology.
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. A glitch as plain as the difference between a cow and ranch cat. Glitches were exciting. They could be signals for important data, or glitches.
He broke the toy’s casing with a small chisel and mallet. The plastic oyster opened, revealing a solid state drive. He patch-clamped it into a mess of wires, flipped a few toggle switches on a homebrew console, and with some delay his main glow screen filled with a sequence of letters, about 300 lines across, 100 characters or so per line.
The letters, Rs and Ws and Ts, brought to the forefront a vague memory of a page from his old high school biology app. “Que interesante— amino acids. If only I hadn’t flunked this in high school I would know what they mean,” he said aloud, coolly, beating his loneliness a little bit. He held the chip between his forefinger and thumb. “My bet’s you are worth something.”
He opened a drawer and pulled out a small velvet-lined pill box, placed the chip in it, and buttoned the package in his breastpocket for safekeeping. Dillo once told him they always search consoles, but sometimes forget to pat people down the old-fashioned way.
“Definitely… too nic’d… for this,” he said to the empty room. He’d barely got any work done and the gulf was crashing his mind. Probably another spoiled batch. 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 the pants, before falling hard into the hammock.
In half-dream, he could see the Ranger’s golden tooth, and another thought occurred to him. He was hardly worth the measly pay he’d earn working off his fine for the Rangers here on the barge. Did Rangers get bonuses for locking up innocents— especially ones capable of recovering rare data?
More gunshots his mind wouldn’t register as real.
Deeper in sleep, and something he would not ever put together while fully conscious, was the thought that maybe the coded information had been some kind of test. If he was clever enough to hack biological data from a Speak N’ Say, would he be seen as potentially more dangerous to the Rangers?
Within a few minutes, had he been awake, Matteo would’ve seen the silhouettes of two heads against the full moon, peering down at his sleeping body from the edges of the open ceiling.
“What the… goddang it! How’d you manage to drug him so early?” whispered the young woman, orange-blonde wisps escaping the sides of her black beanie.
“I did not drug the subject, Kaylee,” replied a tall, thin, midnight brown man, steadfast.
“Don’t say my name! I mean, my code name. If you didn’t drug him, why’re three of his four limbs hanging off-a the hammock and into the water and also his pants are around his knees, Jorge. His pants are around his knees.”
“That I see. And he smells like rotten mango… and I detect… glucose breakdown products? Definitely bougie.”
“Maybe. He’s got a ketonic yeasty smell evaporating off his skin. There’s a hint of expired chewing tobacco.”
“What in the heck did you do to him, Jorge?”
“Well, now I’m confused. Are we using our names or not?”
She stared back at him.
“You knocked him out without telling me. That changes the plan! I don’t trust you, again!”
“I don’t know why you do things! He looks just like the last one, which you gave way too much sedative and everything went wrong after that,” she said, unable to whisper outright, while fidgeting with her backpack. Her pale skin and the movements she made while quickly pulling out and unraveling a rope ladder made her appear like an albino squirrel working into the night. She lowered herself into Matteo’s chamber carefully, turning her head to view the scene below with every other step. “Fine,” she 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 he 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.
“Dude, whatever, let’s just get his legs… no, no, not right away. Put his pants on first,” Kaylee directed.
“Why don’t you put his pants on?”
“Because… gross, Jorge.
“I do not understand the culture of this planet.” He shrugged and made his way towards Matteo’s ankles. “This will be a more efficient task if executed alone, anyway.”
“Do you even know what you’re doing? He’s flopping out all over the place, now, be careful!” she said while catching herself in a little stare.
“So, what if he is? Nevermind, don’t answer. It will diminish my mental acuity.” Jorge sighed and finished pulling the pants back on Matteo. He vaulted him over his narrow shoulders, the two men a surreal painting— Matteo, a load that appeared too heavy for its bearer.
Matteo stirred. Kaylee’s face came into his view, her permanently-pleading eyes widening. “Anna…?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Quick!” said Jorge
Kaylee grabbed the first thing she saw— Matteo’s rubber mallet, and banged at his head really, really hard, multiple times.
“Ow! What the fuck are you doing?!” he slurred. She missed his skull and hit an eye. “OW! STOP!” There was no question about it, now— he was awake.
“Your solution is to hit him? Don’t hit him!” shouted Jorge.
“And what would you do, Mr. Smart Calculator?”
“Sss!” Matteo sucked in air, “Just stop! You are making… my 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.
“Mmmph! MMMMPH!” Matteo took notice of their nicely starched shirts and logoed patches. They were Rangers, alright, goofy Rangers. More importantly, this meant something significant was in Dillo’s box.
“We’re biologists,” said Jorge, calmly, staring through Matteo’s eyes.
“Mmph-olo-mmphs!?” Biologist Rangers?
Kaylee shot the most befuddled look of her life at Jorge, then halfway composed herself. “Look, fella, we’re not going to hurt you…”
“But yah! You already have!” he replied, but was undecipherable through the tape.
“Just. Pause it. Heavens, stop it already. Cease moving. This is a kidnapping,” said Jorge. And Matteo thought about how much a jailbreak would cost him in Coin debt. Matteo exhaled heavily through his nose, let the amazement leave his eyes and tried his best to stay cool. Then his eyes rolled backwards and he was burnt out into black space again.
“Goddangit you totally drugged him. Definitely ketamine,” Kaylee said knowing the words were falling on deaf ears.
“There may have been a pill on the sticky side of the tape, yes.”
“What? You reminded me of how useful ketamine is. With your accusations.”
They bundled Matteo into an extra large black trash bag and closed the ends with a twist tie. Together, they swing-dumped him onto a sled procured from the wall structure of the barge.
Somewhere in Matteo’s inhibited grey matter, a visual projection of an old news television program played. It was far back in time, when he was maybe in the fifth or sixth grade. An anchorwoman wearing a shoulderpad-lined suit talked about a hurricane, some kind of hurricane that was off the scale of hurricane categorizations. The storm set free the plastic island of trash held for nearly three quarters of a century in the Indian Ocean. To the surprise of even the most permissive computational models, a chunk of the colossal pile floated all the way into the interior of the Gulf of Mexico. Then the float screen he was watching in his memory flashed a commercial for Corn Pops and synthetic milk, in a proto-3D fashion, utilizing two video layers of depth. At the time, he thought it disgusting cows had ever drank their own milk. 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 stuttered to display the dense animation.
Matteo next dreamed that he was in a plastic bag getting carried away by strangers on a sled, which he was.
Then he was once again a boy sitting next to his mom in the old apartment, and the memory expanded to show they’d been at the dinner table, the swirl of trash projecting into a holographic centerpiece. His mom was talking about how one of her friends was in the process of leaving his house behind, pointing with two strong, stubby fingers a few inches to the side of where the animation halted. Matteo didn’t want dinner, he wanted Corn Pops. Why could he only have cereal in the morning? It was an irrational rule. The Lavaca Estuary— which at the present shored up a thirty minute drive east of Alamo City, was just beginning its expansion west, due to melting icebergs and other weather things. Was Alamo City next in line to take a slow plunge underwater? She didn’t answer him, though he couldn’t recall whether or not he had vocalized his question or just thought it.
Later, as a teenager, he never got to make out at that shore, east of town.
In kid Matteo’s mind, the pile was a floating organism of old plastic and metal wares, a whale serpent, half underwater, half above, watching and plotting, powerful and inevitable.
And the island, would, in a little more than a decade, swallow him whole and then spit him out again on an old sled. But he didn’t know that at the time.
In his twilight, Matteo heard Kaylee whisper, “We only have twelve more minutes,” and the grating of the sled rails on the plastic ground, but the sounds meant nothing to him.
The Basura Barcaza, a sea-worthy barge in its own right, would be docked for only twelve minutes and two seconds more, to be precise. Kaylee and Jorge moved their living cargo to the port entry-exit. The few guards on duty were busy checking in dozens of new prisoners. Adding to the chaos were the deep clicks from drawing anchors, causing the floor and wall structures to rattle. They stole behind a pair of janitors on their way to unload spent physicals on land.
Once on shore, they passed through admittance windows and turnstiles that 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.
Matteo woke twelve hours later with dry eyes which were irritated further by a blindfold. He laid curled up like a Sunday afternoon porch cat and really needed to pee. Pinpoint mosquito bite-like itches pained his skull. He remembered the mallet and the panicky woman. A faint smell of syrup and freon hung in the air and he could feel there was a cool corner to the room. The floor was wooden and creaked beneath his body if he shifted his weight a little. This wasn’t Basura Barcaza.