Matteo’s customized alarm clock blinked in its digital red: 13YR 22K. Thirteen years of jail time or the sum of twenty two thousand Byte until his release, whichever came first. And then he might feel real land under his feet again. Was he forgetting that sensation already?
The established way of earning freedom — scavenging physicals and reading drive after drive, then selling the data directly to the Ranger Wardens had barely knocked two months off, even after a full year of work.
Since most of Texas was now hooked up to the Mist, data upload about nearly everything nearly all of the time was at the Rangers’ fingertips, except for things people managed to hide on old drives. Illegal caches of data, or at a minimum, mundane data that could be fed into predictive algorithms, increasing their efficiency, was its own new currency. The irony of having to do the kinds of things that got him into trouble in the first place, day after day, was not lost on him.
“An entire year at Basura Barcaza,” he said to his empty cell. Literally, the Garbage Barge, floating anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. He said it again, practicing so he could hold his own amongst the other prisoners, who were fluent.
In the first few weeks in jail, he’d studied the way the trash had fit together to make the structure of the walls that would be his home. Some items had been melted together, the product of some unknown construction worker’s efforts. Others locked like puzzle pieces, and still others managed to stand out, like the frame of an old wooden television set, the screen absent, filled with bubble wrap. He’d popped through all of it on his twentieth birthday.
It took less than a month before he’d momentarily lost his mind, looking for hidden messages encoded on each faded detergent bottle or FedEx box label.
Today, the colors and typeface on spent fireworks and CD cases took him to the past. The night before his arrest, a pachanga next door had thumped the walls to his mom’s two bedroom house, giving it a kind of stolen heartbeat. Through broken window blinds in his room, he watched the parents and children dance around a picnic table, drinking and laughing.
The next morning, two Rangers pulled him back in by his feet as he tried escaping through the same window. He felt the cut of the sill on his hip, again, the scar still warm to the touch every now and then. He had given up resistance easily, wheezing and out of breath as usual. His mom was in the kitchen, still making arroz, transfixed, in silence.
In silence… the woman who never hesitated to give him a good shout, as though she was completely detached.
He regretted rejigging the alarm clock — there was enough evidence around him to remind him how fucked he was.
But he wasn’t giving up just yet. Another prisoner, Dillo, had traded a second-hand Mist for whatever data Matteo could extract from a box of physicals, off the Ranger books, plus some of the winnings of it. Dillo was sure to sell the data illegally on shore for a better price.
Matteo rummaged through the crate, convincing himself there was little chance anything interesting would be found on obvious things like computer drives. At the bottom of the pile, below a cracked VirtualBoy, was a kelly-green Speak ‘N Say. Who would ever think to look in a child’s toy with a drive barely capable of holding twenty seconds of audio? Chevere.
He pulled on the string and the rotary arrow spun for a moment, landing on a spot no longer occupied by a sticker. “The cow goes moo,” a country-sounding guy said, followed by a real live audio recording of cattle. With many stock shows under his belt, Matteo knew a high pitched honk like that only came from heifers in labor for the first time, midway to becoming cows. Totally inaccurate.
He yanked at the string again. “The cat goes meow,” followed by the same whine of the heifer, except in a higher pitch. Matteo noted that the arrow hadn’t fallen on the same spot twice. This glitch was plain as the difference between a cow and ranch cat.
In his entire year in jail, he hadn’t come across one, yet. A glitch could be one of three things — an intentional signal to mark high-value data, a neurosensory attack, or just a regular old glitch. He’d take his chances.
He twisted the toy’s casing open with a small chisel and pliers. The plastic oyster cracked, revealing a solid state drive. He patch-clamped it into a mess of wires, flipped a few toggle switches on a homebrew console, and let the extraction process run. The data streamed in garbled. It would take a half hour or so to clean it up into something interpretable.
Flashing, 13YR 22K caught his attention again and he wished he hadn’t made the deal. Still, he’d never had a Mist before. The stereoscopic pair of Mist contact lenses stared back at him from his work table. He slipped on the lenses for the first time.
Matteo’s Mistview displayed an incoming alert of a new connection successfully bound to his earpiece. And then the computer spoke and put the few hairs on his nopal chin on end.
Hi, stranger. You are a completely new person to my memory. In fact, there is no name or identifying tags to your Mist, only a stock avatar of the Spurs coyote. You may want to check with your local Mist Security Office. To bypass that check and run me locally, just tell me, what’s your name? Her voice was angelic.
“Me llamo Matteo.”
OK. Nice to meet you. Estas seguro con el nombre ‘Cochino’?
“What? No. I am called Matteo. My name is Matteo, not cochino.”
Por que, Cochino? Estas muy sucio. How can I help you, hoy, Cochino?”
“Well, at least it’s working un poco,” he failed at holding back a smile.
May I interrupt your work? Cortisol levels are high… it may be time for a break.
“Already? Geez. Ok, computer, what should I do with myself? I have a lot of physicals to extract asap, if this one doesn’t turn out to be worth anything.”
May I make a suggestion? I recommend taking some time off at The Shifty Lounge. You can refresh your concentration with gulf and give the computer time to crunch the data.
The Shifty Lounge (named first after the sporadic yaw of the floating prison itself, second, after the most popular key to map in Vim, and finally, after the clientele) was the only reprieve offered by the Rangers. If The Shifty Lounge was a mental health center, the prescription everyone got was “gulf”, a salty-metallic nicotine drink, with a skim of herbaceous oil made on-site. And it cost Byte.
“Hmm, you don’t have my Mistory so how could you possibly know what’s best for me? I should be a blank slate to you, no?”
The instant that you were confirmed as Cochino, I was granted access to a profile which is mostly derived from data taken at the time of your arrest.
“Jesus. Well, that’s gotta be biased. There’s no way you know that much about me.”
She giggled. Well you’d be surprised what I can do with your internet browsing history just from your time here in jail. Was she flirting to get away with the intrusion of privacy?
“What… do you mean?”
You’re lonely. Most of the porn you’ve been looking at resembles… Anna. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a 92% chance of Anna working tonight at The Shifty Lounge, with a 2% error estimate.
“Ok. Honestly, say no more,” he said. “By the way, how old is she?”
“Oh, I thought she was. I like it — a slightly older woman,” he said and smiled to himself.