The air inside Matteos’s unit was stale enough to lull anybody into an uncomfortable sleep, but the gulf Anna had served him was beginning to kick in. Matteo burned off some anxious energy by cranking a wobbly lever to retract the skylight. Two Byte pinged the clock, a bargain for a cool shallows-breeze. Just enough purple light was left in the evening to bring the collage of the walls to life.
He pulled off his wet chinos and pissed down the corner urinal — a cut out, upside-down bleach bottle with a hose that led into the water below. He slipped into dry boxers and unbuttoned his work shirt, fingers beginning to shiver from the nicotine.
A package scraped through the pneumatic delivery shoot. As usual the small tin held ibuprofen for pain, either brought on by scavenging through heavy loads of junk or straining at mining glowscreens, and a horse-sized penicillin pill for sexual maladies, something he wished he could actually put to use one day. He briefly thought of Anna. There was also a pill rarely given out by the Rangers, a half-dose of Xanax, probably to help cope with the gunshots.
He dumped the container into his palm and noticed yet another tiny red pill. He put it under a magnifying glass to read the label: anti-malarial once daily. Just on time, he thought, and scratched his new mosquito bites.
With so many new places melting, every month or so a new infectious disease was on the rise. Malaria was not something to shake a stick at, especially with the kingdom of mosquitoes that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the prison. He downed all pills except the penicillin (he could trade that) at the same time with a swig of gulf, wincing at the clingy aftertaste of the oil.
And then, just like that, everything about his senses snapped into place.
“Treasures come in batches,” he whispered imitating Dillo’s voice. Had he been referring to the large number of items in the box? Or did that mean Matteo would have to string multiple files derived from multiple physicals together? Or had he been simply referring to .bat files? Chingado, Dillo.
He looked at the newly crunched data. His clean-up algorithm had decoded the Speak N’ Say nicely — and yes, it had to batch things before anything made sense.
He clicked the results to show on the main glowscreen. With some delay, it filled with a sequence of letters, about 300 lines across, 100 characters or so per line.
The letters — As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, brought to the forefront a vague memory of a page from his old high school biology app. He transfered it to a small memory chip.
“Woah, woah, woah! hell yes,” he said, holding in the excitement. “DNA. Who do you belong to?” he said aloud, coolly, beating his loneliness a little bit.
Inmates occasionally talked about how underground biotech information trading was on the up, though he’d never come across any info overtly biological. People, especially moneyed people, were taking a new interest in developing their own synthetic biology, now that designed kids and pets were illegal. This is the kind of payout Dillo was hoping for. This was the kind of data that would knock several years off that red blinking debt, even if he only got a small cut of it.
Still, it was too early to celebrate. Anybody could randomly type four letters over and over again, right? It’d need some confirmation.
He held the chip between his forefinger and thumb. “My bet’s you are worth something.”
He opened a drawer and pulled out a small velvet-lined pill box, placed the chip in it, and buttoned the package in his shirt pocket for safekeeping. During the last routinely random raid, the Rangers had copied all his consoles but forgotten to give him a proper pat down.
More gunshots rang, a little closer than before. The entire room shifted. “Shit.” The cell glided horizontally back and forth, finally resettling like a raspa collapsing under its own melt. Water pounded underneath the floor.
“Definitely… too nic’d… for this,” he said to the empty room, as the come-down hit. He’d barely got any work done and the gulf was quickly crashing his thoughts and movements. Probably another spoiled batch from The Shifty Lounge, though his mind would resist blaming Anna for it.
He’d take his chances with a pat down. With guns. With whatever. It was time to sleep.
The early moon had sent a chilling, salted breeze down the skyline. A small updraft tousled the hair on the backside of his head. He gingerly stepped one leg into his pajama pants, making it halfway through before falling hard into the hammock, which held him over the part of the floor that wasn’t yet completed.
In half-dream, he could see the Ranger’s golden tooth, and another thought occurred to him. What if Dillo was setting him up?
More gunshots fired from the direction of The Shifty Lounge that registered as part of the dream.
Deeper in sleep, there was the thought that maybe the coded information had been some kind of test. If he was clever enough to hack biological data someone had stored on a Speak N’ Say, would he be seen as potentially more dangerous to the Rangers?
His memories seeped into his dream and a visual projection of an old news television program played. It was a memory from far back in time, when he was maybe in the fifth or sixth grade. An anchorwoman wearing a shoulderpad-lined suit talked about a hurricane, some kind of hurricane that was off the scale of normal hurricanes.
The storm set free the plastic island of trash held for nearly three quarters of a century in the Indian Ocean. To the surprise of even the most permissive computational models, a chunk of the colossal pile floated all the way into the interior of the Gulf of Mexico. Then the floatscreen he was watching in his memory flashed a commercial for Corn Pops and synthetic milk, in a proto-3D fashion, utilizing two video layers of depth. At the time, it had convinced him it was disgusting that the cartoon cows had drank their own milk before they invented the synthetic stuff.
The glowscreen was occupying the kitchen table, along with a physical, which Matteo would later learn was how his mom got to know more about her palm-reading customers more than they would ever realize.
Back to the news, and the reporter introduced a full six-layer depth 3D projection model showing the garbage’s journey to Texas. Their cheap television projector stuttered to display the dense animation.
His mom was talking about how one of her friends was in the process of leaving his house behind, pointing with two strong, stubby fingers a few inches to the side of where the animation halted. Matteo didn’t want dinner, he wanted Corn Pops. Why could he only have cereal in the morning? It was an irrational rule.
The Lavaca Estuary — which at the time was a four hours’, not thirty minutes’ drive away was just beginning its expansion west, due to melting icebergs and other weather things. Was Alamo City next in line to take a slow plunge underwater? She didn’t answer him, though he couldn’t recall whether or not he had vocalized his question or just thought it.
Later, as a teenager, he never got to make out at that shore, east of town, like most kids.
In child Matteo’s mind, the pile was a floating organism of old plastic and metal wares, a whale serpent, half underwater, half above, watching and plotting, powerful and inevitable.
And the island, would, in a little more than a decade, swallow him whole and spit him out again on an old sled. It would be ironic, cause he’d never seen snow. But he didn’t know that at the time.
Within a few minutes, had he been awake, Matteo would’ve seen the silhouettes of two heads against the full moon, peering down at his sleeping body from the edges of the open ceiling.