All was not lost. It wasn’t like she’d blown the last of the savings on lottery tickets. She did the odds in her head once more, just in case— still a good investment. Plus, the last time she dipped under the mattress for her grandma’s hidden Byte, she’d replaced all of it by the end of the week. Abuela didn’t even notice. Probably forgot about it altogether, anyway.
Now, what her grandma would notice, much more than forgotten Byte under a stale bed, would be the feeling of moving into a new house— a two-story, that smelled like fresh paint and construction.
It’d be on the northside, where the nicer H-E-Bs that rich people went to would let you sample sausage and fresh guacamole and even wine— all for free on Sundays, just around the time everyone gets out of church. Abuela would never say no to a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon. Didn’t matter the grape. With that thought, her backpack, full of the goods she bought and lugged halfway across town, felt a little less heavy on her shoulders. Todo no se perdio.
The door to the chain-linked fence in the front yard was frozen in place by overgrowth and hardly open. She squeezed her small frame through, but twisted metal caught her bag and split the zipper. Two wires spilled out— their plugs bobbing like unsure pendulums.
“Que no traiga esa brujeria into la casa! I already tol’ you ayer!” her abuela screeched from inside the house. Her shouts lacked the details often lost in blown speakers, almost sounding like she was yelling into a string-and-cup telephone. Sonia caught a glimpse of her grandma’s sunspotted forearms, folded across her sunken torso, secure in their most comfortable position. Why was sneaking out of the house so easy but slipping back in so impossible?
The tension in Sonia’s neck lifted, stress she realized was not due to the weight on her back, but at that chances of getting caught. The anticipation was always worse.
“Oh my god. ‘Buela, it’s not witchcraft. They’re just a couple of old physicals,” she said over the piercing barks of the chihuahuas next door, “for my Halloween costume. Voy hacer un robot.” She swung her arms mechanically.
Her grandma squinted at her and ambled into darkness in the direction of the kitchen, mumbling complaints. Sonia was close to getting off easy.
She opened the wobbly screen door, her bag ringing metallic as it struck the frame. She remembered the watermelon she’d cut up earlier waiting to be eaten in the fridge. The foil-topped bowl was cold in her hand as she reached for a slender bottle of chamoy powder in the cupboard.
“Ya empece la cena. Quitate de aqui. Put it back, Sonia!” In a perfect world, she would be the only one in charge of feeding her granddaughter; Sonia, the girl who she would often point out still had the same flat, deep brown hair of her only son.
“Fine, fine.” Sonia slipped it back into the fridge and softly stamped into her bedroom. She kicked her pink sneakers off and used inertia to swing the heavy pack onto the bed, and then sat with her legs crossed next to it. The mattress springs squeaked.
The way to buying her grandma a new house was through Byte, the latest currency. And the only way for a highschool dropout to get Byte was by getting lucky— coming across rare or illegal data hidden on old drives to sell to criminals or Rangers. Maybe she’d tell her grandma she hadn’t graduated classes last year. No, it’d kill her.
To get a quick sense of how good her purchase might be (you could never really trust a physicals vendor), she pulled out the two easiest pieces to get to work on first: a red Nokia phone and a Tamagotchi game, its egg-ish case cracked and yellowing. This third generation virtual pet Tamagotchi in particular was written on such a small memory chip and in such a clunky language there was hardly room for any kind of firewalls or encryption. Amazing how quickly people took to sharing their most valuable info on this junk now that all the data on Mist was no longer privately held from the Rangers.
She put the price of the items out of her mind, donned her oversized headphones and plugged them into a Raspberry Pi console. There was something comforting about getting her hands on material objects that held data, something like how it felt to thumb through abuela’s old People en Espanol magazines.
With a rubber mallet, she delivered a soft bump to pop open the phone. She wiggled the memory stick loose and transferred it into an adapter linked up to the console. It fit snugly. After flipping a few toggles, she pressed a button on a projector the size of a matchbox. A hovering glowscreen booted, which flashed what looked like a palimpsest of random characters. She pointed at the edge of the floating display, pinched and pulled to see more of the information. The characters erased and reformed repeatedly, and, through the headphones, Selena sang at full volume, bringing pain (but also a kind of joy) to the inside of her ears.
“Ahh! FUCK!” She tore off her headphones, breaking the connection.
Abuela appeared in the doorway as if on cue. “Y ahorra no fuiste a iglesia, tambien!” she shrieked. She’d been waiting to let that one out for a while.
“Yah, ama! Dejame!” Sonia redirected the stress back into a whisper, “A fucking warning glitch on the first download, solo mi suerte.””
Her grandma glared at her and disappeared back to the interior of the house.
Sonia calmed down, hooked the headphones back up, and loaded an script of her own design to unlock the information now transferred and saved inside the console. The glowscreen flickered and centered forty-six low-res thumbnail photos of a brown Pomeranian. Jesus, it made no sense to put a lock on that. Unless.
She copied and renamed the file extensions of the photos and then forced them to open on an emulation suite of a hundred or so vintage programs. Her glowscreen vibrated as though it was more than just a projection, a custom alert she’d written for when the computer snagged a successful hit. In place of misinterpreted, jumbled characters, which is how text programs normally understood photos, she could see a hidden correspondence in plain language.
She dug into the phone’s previous service information. A secondary, pink glowscreen flashed: Julian Castro.
“Fuuuuck…” she whispered to herself, then shouted, “Buela!”
“Que?” Sonia heard her grandma say distractedly, but loud and clear, from the kitchen.
“Ven, ven aca!”
Her abuela showed up wearing a sarcastic look Sonia suspected she’d picked up from watching the child actors of American television.
“Mira, los personal texts de el presidente pasado. That’s a year of school paid for right there. What did I tell you?” It was the pay off Sonia was hoping for after putting up with the vendor at la pulga, who’d been all dilated pupils and grabby hands. Castro’s private texts would find many high bidders.
Grandma looked worried, “ Que ‘Halloween costume’ y que nada! You lied to me otra vez! Pero no es peligroso? It’s not your phone.”
“No, no. Anyone who finds it, it belongs to. It’s a law,” she lied again.
Grandma relaxed for the first time today. “Ah, ta bueno. Despues quieres atole o no?”
Sonia looked at her with a face that said ya sabes, then she said, “Si, si,” a sweet child, again. Abuela disappeared from the door frame. “And now I can finally pay you back some of what I owe,” she said to herself. There was no way she was wasting time at college.
Sonia heard the kitchen stove click on and the cupboards open and close. Within a moment, she could smell the cinnamon in the room, and, on her skin, felt that the boiling water was clinging to the air.
What a score this’d been. And easy to crack. Not enough for a house, at least not yet, but it would buy the groceries and pay the cable for a long, long time. She transferred the information onto a thumb drive before tossing the phone’s parts into a small industrial shredder.
She eyed the Tamagotchi. What could that little flattened sphere be hiding? And what about the more difficult extractions in the bag, the Packard Bell hard drives and the Garmin GPS and the talking Pee Wee doll?
She hunted for the right power adapter and plugged it in, just to see if the game would start up. Tamagotchi data cards were notoriously difficult to free from their protective cocoons. It clicked on and the little blob pet was projected onto the main glowscreen. It spoke through her headphones and in subtitles:
Nema. Olam led sonarbil onis y on son sejed reac ne la noincatnet… and on.
Through the vanity mirror situated behind the glowscreen, Sonia watched the reverse image of the text animate alongside the sounds. She knew the passage very well. It was the Lord’s prayer. When the electronic pet got to the end, it digitally morphed into a burning, watchful eye. The glitch was indicating the ojo.
Its visual patterns invaded Sonia’s retina, mind, then body. She grabbed her throat as if to stop it from constricting and her eyes rolled back. Violent shaking in her body brought her from the bed to floor, where she continued to convulse for some time. For as long as she could, she held onto the smell of cinnamon atole and to the sound of clanking pans and utensils in the kitchen.
Sonia regained some control of her thoughts, finding herself cradled in the arms of a handsome paramedic. His gaze seemed perfected by millions of years of evolution to convey attentive caring. He spoke while checking her vitals, but she couldn’t quite hear him, and really, she didn’t need him to explain anything. The last hour was burned into her memory.
She had laid frozen in cold grey on the floor, watching her grandma try to wake her, and listening to her shout in broken English into the phone at the emergency dispatcher. Abuela lost her voice after a few minutes, exasperated, and leaned against the wall, shifting on her weight in a way Sonia had never seen before. Then she collapsed, the color gone from her face.
The only person that mattered in Sonia’s life was dead and she would never be able to return even a fraction of the love that she’d received.
Sonia spent the next weeks sleeping in her grandma’s empty bed until the smells changed. The house payments began to snowball, and she finally pulled herself away from blaming herself long enough to sell the furniture and appliances, but after a few months it was not enough.
Her inner voice grew louder— she was done with extracting drives.
If she couldn’t make money the old way, she figured, she’d just pawn the equipment. Her best computers and glowscreens kept the bills paid awhile longer. Finally, those ran out and she was left to pawn unmined physicals.
“It might be good, but it’s probably dangerous,” the middle-man had said at Loteria, the gambler’s flea market, as though his entire livelihood didn’t depend on the dangerous data caches, depend on putting people like her grandma at risk. She took the dozen Byte he offered, a tenth of what she had originally paid.
The trader took an interest in the last bit of technology she had left, which glimmered from the inside of her vest— a chrome SD card which held all of her home-brew extraction algorithms. She pressed her hand to it instinctively, protecting it, and realized she was the only one suited to make things right, in the only way she knew how.