They boarded a freight elevator running on a noisy gasoline generator, with their birds in tow. Below, a squat woman wearing a beanie cap, overalls and a nametag that said “Flor” greeted them while looking kind of past them, taking Jorge’s entry fee automatically into a lock box. The first floor smelled like a livestock show, though no large animals were in sight. She escorted Jorge to a stack of metal cages, occupied by roosters of many colors.
Jorge leaned into Flor, and with a poker face bordering on professional said, “Not one of these chickens looks fit for combat.”
Matteo and Kaylee left Jorge and the woman alone because the rest of their conversation had too much potential to be uncomfortable to listen to (or worse, get sucked into). But from afar, Jorge seemed to be handling the situation very well. Flor was smiling, flashing a row of silver teeth and patting him on the back after a moment or two. Then Jorge doled out about half of the money he was carrying to rent a gamefowl. Expensive, to be sure, but it looked handsome from where Matteo stood.
“No tienes novio? Te quieres un buen amor — es facil!” a small elderly woman said as she pushed a small tray with what appeared to be seed packets into Kaylee’s thigh area.
“No, hoy no,” said Kaylee. She took Matteo’s hand in hers and turned the other direction.
He reflexively pulled away, then cupped her hand in his. “Hey, I don’t know you that well. Or should I say, yo no conozos… conozozco… nevermind.” He realized he hadn’t held anyone’s hand romantically since the “dance” he went to with the only other homeschooled kid on the block. Once the girl’s parents learned his mom believed in the Numerology part of Matholicism, they were forbidden from spending time together again.
“How is my Spanish better than yours? And don’t pull your hand away like that, they think I’m single and want to sell me stuff because god forbid a woman in her late twenties be single,” said Kaylee.
“Ah, I’m your fake boyfriend. Er, boytoy, since you’re almost thirty. Well, it’s my duty to buy you whatever junk was in that tray, then.”
“It’s just yeast. An old synthbio product from the end of the biotech boom. They sell dry yeast that is designed so that when you make bread with it, it’s supposedly laced with dopamine,” she clasped her hands together and interlocked her fingers, “the all-natural love drug.”
“Maybe I should get some, feed it to you jerks and you’ll let me get back to my life,” Matteo said as he raised an eyebrow.
“Well, we’re in Loteria — there’s a better chance the Spurs lose the championship this year than whatever yeast we bought here would work. I think the stuff is based on plasmid DNA, which gets kicked out or degrades and the yeast divides a few times. You’re basically buying plain old yeast by the time it reaches your hands. I thought you knew something about biology? Maybe we should put you back in the trash.” She winked. He reeled internally.
“For someone who doesn’t seem to need pan de amor, you sure do know a lot about it. If these folks can’t get their yeast biotech to work, how are we going to profit off of our own?”
“It would probably work if the genes were directly integrated in the yeast DNA instead of on the plasmid. But you need a Church to print the cell with everything put together like that. And by ‘work’ I mean the bread would have the dopamine in it, not that consuming dopamine would make anyone love your dumb face,” she said.
“Ah,” he said. She could be irresistible.
“Plus it’s three Byte. You can’t afford it.” She smiled.
“Pff. It’s true. I can’t,” he said.
A hidden announcer began shouting unintelligibly through loudspeakers and the crowd cheered. Matteo’s stomach sank at the sight of Dillo participating in the game. There was no way he was out of jail so coincidentally. He was either out on bought time or working with the Rangers. What a fool he’d been to have cooperated with Dillo.
While gazing into the birds’ eyes, Dillo had a sinister amusement on his face. He placed them in a circular pit, his enamel pin of a red armadillo sparkling.
The fighting arena was divided into four slices by chalk lines, with the entire space enclosed by thigh-high bricks of hay. Dillo’s remarkable dimples nearly stole the show from his yellow work gloves and matching yellow ostrich-skin boots. The chickens wore little pink and teal boxing gloves with the Spurs logo on them. Maybe this game wasn’t so cruel.
Drones carrying cameras were linked up to holoviewing mats on the upper floor for additional betting. Depending on which quadrants the chickens spent more of their time in, people could win secondary bets.
Their rooster, Chuy, was off to a good start. He looked mean — real mean. So true was this meanness, that he plowed through the first opponent in under four seconds. A massive side bet payout was won for the speed (a 1 in 26 probability). The brutality of the scene phased them, but not their chachalacas, who, although fast to the point of sophistication, were fundamentally stupid and inattentive.
“We just made 528 Byte,” Jorge said, in his typical neutral tone. Dillo was occupied by the action in the ring, suppressing laughter.
“Ok, cool. Can we go? I think I know a guy from the Barcaza here,” said Matteo. “And I really don’t want to run into him.”
The man in the starched shirt from earlier came over and spoke softly to Jorge. Then he smiled and replied heartily, “Si, muy bien.”
“We’re going double or nothing. A Church will be at least another 300 Byte on top of what we have so far,” Jorge said to Kaylee and Matteo’s mortified faces.
“But our rooster is spent! Did you see that fight? Just let him live,” said Kaylee.
Three other roosters were thrown into the pit. The drones whirred as compartments within them opened and began dropping live BlackCat firecrackers onto the field.
“Chinnnnngaa…” softly escaped from the lips of Jorge, Kaylee, and Matteo.
Somehow, Chuy pulled through. He lost many feathers and his right eye. Within an eternal minute of scratching and clawing and going-for-the-neck, he remained the sole survivor.
“We’re goddang millionaires,” said Kaylee.
“Tripled our money,” said Jorge.
“Well, that’s still some twenty thousand shy of what’s left on my sentence. Still, I’ve gotta confess, I was terrified of this place. Coming here on the run and with two kidnapping criminals didn’t seem so smart but wow is Loteria awesome,” said Matteo.
The man in the starched shirt sauntered over to declare the winner. Before lifting Chuy above his head to proclaim victory, he shouted, “Un momento… Un momento… Hay un problema. Este es un cochino gallito!”
“What did he say?” asked Jorge.
“It’s a dirty chicken,” answered Kaylee, as the reality of the situation took hold.
“To be precisely accurate, it’s a ‘pig-doped’ rooster,” said Matteo, with a gulp.
“Look who knows Spanish all of a sudden,” said Kaylee.
“Hey guey, I told you it was looking at me muy maldito! I told you they look at you like that when they’re cochinos!” A young woman shouted and threw betting chips on the ground.
The man in the starch shirt ran a UV light across Chuy’s feathers. A few lit up neon green. “The glow, that’s a tracer tagged onto extra hormone genes. You owe us big time, gringos.”
“But we didn’t make the chicken,” Jorge said, seemingly composed, “Also, we’re not white.”
“Dude, grinogo’s meant to be insult — he’s not being literal,” said Kaylee, “And I am white, duh.”
“You calling my son a liar?” an older man in the crowd wearing a buckle that said “Abel” said.
“No. What I am saying is that Chuy is not our bird. We bought it on loan from that nice lady over there.” Jorge pointed and Flor was gone. Come to find out, so was Dillo.
“Mentirosos! You’re cheating us. You think you can come here and push your way around so easy?”
The room quieted and then filled with a gobbly shriek. Matteo’s bird fell to the ground limp, dead a second later, by the knife of someone who lost just a bit more of money than the chachalaca was worth.
“Woah, woah, woah, y’all!” Matteo caught a butterfly knife emerging from a leather cocoon in the corner of his eye. He reached and grabbed a drone out of the air, one loaded with BlackCat firecrackers, and threw it into the hay enclosure of the pit. It stuttered on the ground and then lay still.
“What the hell was that for?” Kaylee’s eyes were huge.
“I dunno — I thought it’d start a fire or something. Shit,” said Matteo.
A motorbike, keys sitting in the ignition, idle, waiting to be lost and won on some wager caught his eye. He jumped on.
“Jorge, Kaylee come on!” Matteo beckoned from the bike. She got on and for the first split second of touching skin-to-skin on an arm here, a shoulderblade there, he felt the fuzz of imagined static electricity. Jorge got on, facing backwards.
What felt like a bee sting dinged Matteo’s bicep — a BB from somebody’s pellet gun. The trio lurched forward about ten yards, but before the bike could pick up some speed, Jorge hopped off and ran after Chuy.
“Jorge, what the fuck, man?!” shouted Matteo.
:: Ese cabron esta muy locito. You better watch out with him.
“I’ll be right behind you, buddy,” he said. Somehow, there was that outpouring of friendship in his emotionless face.
The bike started blaring Bidi Bidi Bom Bom through speakers neither Matteo or Kaylee could locate and the bike frame shook. Matteo wobbled around the compound in a circle, hitting tables and bumping into pillars. Rooster feathers everywhere.
“You know we’re underground, right?” said Kaylee.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” said Matteo.
“You know you don’t know how to drive a racer, right?” she asked.
“Some of us take the bus our whole lives, ok?”
They switched places. Kaylee gunned it right for the freight elevator. The doors were open, and they skidded in.
::If she’s always driving, she’s never going to respect you, son.
Matteo saw three Rangers climb over the haystacks of the arena, pulling at their holsters. One Ranger pulled an automatic shotgun from his side and fired a shot in their direction. Bullets sprayed across the interior of the elevator.
The doors closed. Matteo cut the bike’s speakers and spoke softly. “You ok?”
“Yeah, you’re kind of shielding me,” said Kaylee.
::That’s how you do it. A real gentleman.
“You think Jorge’s ok?”
She paused and said, “Honestly?”
“No, nevermind — we don’t have to talk about it… I mean, is he our friend? Are we friends? What’s the level of loyalty, here?”
“… Ok, I’ll stop talking out loud,” he said.
Kaylee shaded her face with her hand.
“We didn’t even get the damn Church,” she whispered. “You two are way too risky.” She sighed. “At least you didn’t try to escape from us on the bike, though.”
The elevator chimed on the next floor and they sped up a makeshift freight ramp on the far end of the complex and onto the dusty gravel road, the sun setting to their left. Soon, they crossed the place where the untamed white ground met the blacktop of the highway. They were both sweating through their clothes and out of breath. Matteo’s shirt was torn at the collar and splatted with blood. Kaylee’s hair was tangled, dirt caked onto the dried sweat-salt on her face.
Kaylee and Matteo sat on the steps of the raspa stand. Three hours of silent treatment had passed and they’d attempted to regenerate their energy by eating half a dozen raspas each before lulling into a sugar crash.
“I’ll be honest with you. We really need him to come back. I can’t do this on my own,” she said.
“You’re not facing jail. I don’t want to listen to you,” said Matteo.
“So you can talk, huh?” she said, trying to get a smile.
Matteo crossed his arms. “You’re lucky you’re a girl or I would hit you. Alien guys, though, those I will hit.”
And just then, Jorge showed up on just one chachalaca. Chuy, the prize rooster, was safely strapped onto the saddle, snug inside an Easter egg basket.
“How in the hell… Do you know how much more trouble I could’ve gotten in?” Matteo stood, fully agitated.
“Hey now, don’t get angry at Jorge. I thought you’d be thanking us. Loteria was just as dangerous for us. And before you met us, weren’t you to remain on the garbage barge for pretty much forever?” said Kaylee.
“I’m basically super illegal now!” Matteo wiped spit from his lips and didn’t back down from Jorge, who was irritatingly serene. “How much will assuming an illegal identity cost me back on the Barcaza? Do you have physicals good enough to buy my way out of that?!”
“Don’t say illegal. How many times…” said Kaylee, force-smiling at the neighbors as they walked by the stand.
“And what if we were caught? Then what? I’d be in prison!” he shouted even louder.
“Dillo had everything under control back there. I’ve been in a rather complex negotiation with him. For a native you certainly have many things to learn about how things work here in Alamo City,” said Jorge.
“Dillo?! Dillo fucked me over in the first place! Dude, I know him from the inside. Guy is shady, ok? You shouldn’t work with him! Because I still owe him money, too.” Matteo was all clenched fists and a tight neck and nearly growled. He kicked some dirt.
“Yeah and plus, I’m white and cute to boot. No way I’m getting in any realtrouble at Loteria,” said Kaylee.
The front door to the stand was open, letting orange light spill out onto the brush yard.
“Aw, bros was the door left open that whole time?” Jorge was sticking to practicing his slang in front of the others.
“Yeah — I guess it’s my fault. I was the last one out before Loteria,” said Matteo. Jorge tied up his chachalaca to a post. He turned a squeaky faucet knob to run water into a bucket. As it filled, he lifted a sack and poured grain into a small trough. He carefully let Chuy out inside of the stand, and made a little fence for him out of the shipping boxes for styrofoam cups.
“Way to go, native. Your people in these parts are pretty darn trustworthy, ain’t they? Looks like everything’s still here, anyway,” said Kaylee, “Trapdoor’s untouched.”
Matteo pointed to an old gas-electric hybrid station wagon parked behind the stand. “Wait, whose suspicious clunker is that?”
“The wagon? That’s mine,” Jorge said.
“Does it run?” asked Matteo, annoyed by Jorge’s ability to deescalate a fight. Maybe that was what made him so good at gambling.
“Well, yes. Otherwise I would’ve sold it for parts to help fund the lab by now!”
“You mean you own a car and you made us ride birds… Do you realize what a liability they were that entire time?”
Jorge shrugged and said, “They hadn’t been walked in a while…”
When they got inside the bunker, Kaylee collapsed on the couch, Matteo sat on a stool and splayed his torso on a counter lined with physicals and glowscreens on screensaver mode, and Jorge laid supine on the floor.
“I just want to go to sleep right now. Can’t make it to my room. Do I get a room? Which one is my room? I better get a room,” Matteo said.
“We haven’t even unpacked, ourselves, been splitting time on other people’s couches and hotels. There are no claimed beds yet. Except the one mattress. That I just claimed right now,” Kaylee said.
“It looks like you just have that bag to unpack. That one bag. That can’t be strenuous,” Jorge said, pointing.
“Well… yeah. Yes, I have one bag,” she said, matching his monotone.
“I’m sorry, you two. I should’ve devised a way to keep us from losing two of the birds,” Jorge said.
“At least Matteo stole a bike, right?” Kaylee added.
Matteo turned his head so it was no longer resting on his forehead and he could speak. “Don’t remind me. I’m still nauseous. Yeah, and plus now my face is probably on Dillo’s hit list.”
“Dillo. As in, next time he sees you, Dillo gonna grillo your butt-illo,” said Kaylee, obviously pleased with herself.
“Do you always pester everyone you have a secret crush on?” asked Matteo.
“Do you always think everyone has a crush on you? I saw how that chachalaca was biting at your hand maybe it was smitten, too… before it died, anyway.” She frowned.
Matteo rolled his eyes.
“The bike was a nice score… and Chuy,” said Jorge, as he weighed a satchel of Byte in his hand.
“Alien Jorge keepin’ the swell in Roswell,” said Kaylee.