Matteo woke twelve hours later with dry eyes which were irritated further by a blindfold. He laid curled up really needing 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.
“What the fuck happened?” Matteo said, blindfolded and barely in control of his words, not caring whether he might invite additional physical harm from his kidnappers. The duct tape had been removed when he was unconscious yet somehow it still felt as though his hair was being torn out.
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 Kaylee, softly, her conviction plain. She squeezed one of his ankles with her hand.
“Tienes picadilly?” the kid blurted through what Matteo imagined must have been a sliding window.
“No, no. Here’s your order. Estamos cerrados ahora,” said Jorge. He shuttered the stand and turned on a string of strung lights on the inside of the tiny structure.
“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 slap us,” said Kaylee. She peeled it off with care.
“You’re the ones doing the attacking. What do you people want with me?” He squinted at the light and winced at the smell of garbage on his clothes and skin. 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. “The short of it… ah, that is, why you’re here… is that you won a kind of… contest?”
“Some prize,” said Matteo.
She continued, “See, we release difficult-to-decode physicals into 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 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 she was cute.
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.” Her lungs deflated with a sigh and she turned to grab a purple raspa with grape Kool-Aid powder dusted on top.
“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 projected a simple table of tallied data into his vision.
“How… how did you get into my Mistview so quick?” His lens flickered a small terminal and opened a basic text file. Please stay away from my browsing history, he thought.
“We told you we’re good at what we do. Especially when your Mist is second-hand and jailbroken. Relax, it’s just info. I’m not about to blind you or anything mean.”
He scanned the long table:
H. sapiens 100MB………50B
C. elegans 1MB…………0.1CB
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.
“Doesn’t it feel good to be off the Barcaza? 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 hack shit 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 further studies and elimination. Humans are callous, but I can see why they’d be interesting to study,” added Jorge.
“Yeah, imagine what it’s like to be kidnapped by some strangers. Anyway, there’s as good as a ban on pretty much all biotechnology now that isn’t bacteria or yeast. You all are… son locos.” But Matteo was calculating how many days this tally would take off of his sentence — and whatever Dillo would penalize him for, if he ever caught up to him again.
“We really need you. That puzzle — that Speak N’ Say that you unlocked, neither of us could figure out. Whatever you were able to get from it is probably really, really important… You’d be dumb to not see the potential here — you could sell people’s disease info to insurance companies, or help some hippy 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 Bytefor it. This is a sample of crummy data sets… imagine if we got our hands on precious 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 pleading brown 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 swim out to the barge? It left last night! You literally missed the boat, buddy.”
“She makes an incredibly relevant point, Matteo. And if you leave you’ll miss out on cell printing,” said Jorge. He grabbed Matteo, in an attempt to slow him from a standing position, and slid with his knees bent, over the wet floor. Matteo wrested them to the door, then extended the arm Kaylee was latched on to towards the door knob, and ever so slowly turned it.
“You mean you have a Church to print cells on demand? That’s… actually impressive,” said Matteo.
“Eh, well we will soon! And we know all about you. That you’re… just like us. You need Byte. And you can’t work fast enough to get it,” she added.
“And because I’m a goddamn criminal. Don’t forget that part of the story, it could save your life,” Matteo held the door an inch open, his grip shaking.
Jorge spoke in monotone through bated breath, “We have your profile on file. You were adopted by a single parent. 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 thoughts while you waited to get those rejection letters.”
“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 communicating 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 cliche. 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 virus. Cops come, find the spell script and guess whose bathroom selfie smiles back at them when they’re analyzing the damn thing.”
“Think about the future like we already are. Yes, we could just retrieve information off of cells for Byte. That’s the next big thing, trading genetic info on the biohacker market, sure. Just like people are trading old data on the physicals market right now. But we’re looking even further ahead. We want to print cells and sell those, too! Nature is the last frontier for hacking. Cells are a toolbox. It’s just going to take personal risks,” said Jorge.
“Congrats on finding that stuff out. It’s not like my name and the ‘brujeria 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 lawy…”
“There is no such thing as brujeria. 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 the goddang Tamagotchi! 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 pockets 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. “God, 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.”
“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 an underground bunker, modest in size.