“Rise and shine, Romeo,” chimed Kaylee, as she threw a foil-wrapped breakfast taco onto Matteo’s erection. “I don’t blame you, for the, uh,” she raised an eyebrow, “protrusion. That couch has some nice crevices.”
“What? God. God, you are not appropriate. And this taco smells good. Nevermind that.” Matteo rubbed his eyes awake. Kaylee was playing a rerun of a nature show on a glowscreen — David Attenborough was going on about pikas.
“Those things are really cute,” said Matteo.
::A sensitive guy, good job! Just don’t let Jorge hear you.
“Yeah, can you believe they existed once? Here’s a little thing to read while I’m in the shower.” She handed him an article printed with blue-purple ink, now on the verge of fading. The delicate light-brown paper was perforated on each side.
“Nice paper,” he said.
“Hot off the press. I’m sure you know what it means when something gets printed from a rare printer. Hint: important information is protected on old file formats. Memorize it,” said Kaylee. Jorge’s footsteps weighed on the wooden floor above.
The title, “LAB PROTOCOL Cell printing with Church”, seemed to come from another world. His whole life biotechnology had been disappearing, and now it seemed like he’d be a part of its resurrection. He sifted through the twelve connected pages — vortex this amount of solution and spin the samples at this many multiples of gravity for this length of time and so on.
The raspa service window slammed close from above and the roar from the air conditioning unit quieted. Jorge emerged a moment later. He sat on a chindi rug in the center of the room, doling brown playing cards out to himself.
Matteo leaned over the couch armrest to get a better look. “What’s that you got there?”
“Magic the Gathering. It’s a vintage card thing,” Jorge said.
Matteo noticed pictures of elves and elixirs on some of the cards. “Oh, yeah? Looks like solitaire for hobbits.”
“No, not in the least. It’s designed for two to five players. But I like to play by myself, over and over, while changing the order of a single card in the deck. It’s normally a sixty card deck but I just play through half of it. It helps me figure out what moves are obvious and which aren’t. Then I write about what insights I gather on my blog.”
Matteo searched but had no reply.
Jorge looked up at Matteo. “You don’t know what to say because you think I’m a dork.”
Matteo still had no words.
“Because I have a blog, right?”
“No, not really,” said Matteo, finally. “Guess that means you fixed the Church last night?”
“Yup. Taking a break before we get the cells started,” said Jorge.
Matteo sat back now that he could better process the situation. When he’d read about Jorge on message boards years ago, he had envisioned him as someone who would wear beatnik or nerd goth attire, not delicate geometric-design collared shirts and boat shoes. Kaylee looked almost exactly as he’d expect from what she said about herself. Healthy skin and hair from eating premium produce and only wild-game, and adept at hiding the economic wealth of her parents under toned down, standard countryside sartorial choices. They seemed to fit her perfectly, Matteo thought, and then realized some people might have enough money to tailor their clothes.
::You should really get with the guera. Just my two cents. She seems loyal and smart and she will have a good job when whatever this shit you all are doing falls apart. Got a mouth on her, but they all do! It’s important for setting the kids straight.
Kaylee exited the bathroom in her towel, beads of San Antonio Water System on her shoulders and back. On her way to sit down on a workbench stool, she said, “You’re not a dork because of the blog, Jorge. We all have blogs. Mine’s about horses. Matteo’s just quiet on account of he’s still getting adjusted to you. And why is there manteca in the medicine cabinet?”
“My hair, of course,” said Jorge, cracking a labored smile. He reshuffled the deck.
“Chingado,” Kaylee and Matteo said, together.
“So now that we have a Church, it’s time to get down to business, boys,” she said, “the business of making so, so, so much Byte.”
“Oh so you do have a biohacking plan, after all, then?” asked Matteo as he crunched the foil taquito wrapper into a tiny basketball and took a shot at the wastebasket. “Swish.”
“Yes. I made one, just now, in the shower. And it’s time to let you in on what it is we do here. Ever since the GM human ban, people have been thirsty for new medicines and ways to modify themselves… especially rich folk.”
“I’m listening,” said Matteo.
“Jorge and I have been thinking the best way to profit off this is to resurrect malaria,” she said.
“Ok, so, that is a plan. It could be a plan. Just off the bat, uh, you do realize malaria kills people?” Matteo remembered the anti-malarial he took at the Basura Barcaza and decided to keep the information to himself.
“So, for one, we’ve procured some tissue — ” said Kaylee.
“Through a series of high risk gambles,” added Jorge.
“Yes, Jorge got the cells. We’re not talking about regular malaria, here. We’re talking about synthetic malaria, syn-malaria,” she said.
“Ok, so this is something designed. Designed for what — doing something to the blood? I mean, if you have a Church you can just print human cells for whatever purpose,” said Matteo.
Without looking up from his cards, Jorge said, “I told you we could work with curious.”
“Thought about it, but we’re not surgeons. Who knows what kind of problems human cells would cause in people. With a genome as big as humans, we could easily trip up and can cause them to be precancerous, or maybe trigger immunological rejection. Matteo you are staring at me,” she said.
“Oh! Sorry. You’re just… in a towel,” he said. He was pretty sure his erection had left by now, though.
“That’s no excuse,” she said, eyes wider, head cocked.
“I just, uh…”
“I’m fucking with you. I saw your dick, already, anyway.”
“Okay. Wait… what?” This girl was nuts.
::Hahaha, te ves tonto! It’s ok I can tell she likes you.
Jorge pooled all the cards back into a deck and shuffled. “Synthetic malaria is top of the line stuff, Matteo. The parasite infects only red blood cells where it hides from the immune system and you can add genetic code into it to do whatever you want. It has a small genome, so less chance we accidentally mess things up. Even better, the spleen clears it out of our buyer’s system in a month or so, so no long term damage if there is any to begin with, and they have to buy more!”
“This sounds like science fiction. I didn’t hear about any of this, ever,” said Matteo.
“How could you? This is all developed underground. We’ll use the Church I got to read the malaria DNA and design modified versions of malaria. It’ll spit out whatever we design. Thanks to my handiwork last night and all morning correcting its broken pieces,” said Jorge.
“Ok, so I’m going to go out on a limb here. Is the DNA sequence I decoded on Barcaza related to this?”
“Yes,” said Kaylee. “It’s a partial sequence of an enzyme we need to print our cells, crisper.” And Matteo visualized the red debt tally on his old clock drain to zero in his mind.
“Ok, let me get this straight. We have a Church, and enter the genome of the malaria parasites, then enter in any sequence for any kind of thing, like medicine, then print the modified malaria using crisper and sell it to people who will actually inject the stuff into their veins?”
“Yes,” said Kaylee.
“Which assumes this Church protocol you gave me is correct, which has several steps blacked out and is printed on tissue paper that’s nearly disintegrated, and we can get it to work in our hands, our inexperienced hands?”
“And that you trust Jorge fixed the machine well enough?”
“And that when people use the cells, they won’t cause any off-target side effects?”
“Yes. Well, actually…”
“Are you always so risky with people… like human beings?”
Kaylee sighed. “This is a long shot. It’s not a two-body problem experiment. It’s more like a one-million body problem experiment if you think about how these systems behave over time. It doesn’t matter. We can make money, money will buy us more things to improve the technology and ultimately we are helping people, can’t you see? Don’t think you can teach me a thing about whether or not this is ethical. I mean, you were just locked up in jail a day ago. There’s better things to focus on, in fact the major technical hurdle we have to worry about…”
Whoa, who said anything about ethics, Matteo wondered. Touchy. “Well, you’ve got me, the muscle, and Jorge who is going to negotiate on your behalf at Loteria once everything is up and running already. Aside from the physicals and computers, this place is pretty bare, though,” said Matteo.
“Yup. We have to not only feed the machine nucleic acids, amino acids, sugars and lipids, but we need pipettes and media and all that good stuff. It’s all on you, Matteo.”
“You’re serious? I’ve got more assignments?” Matteo said. He was becoming aware of how easily charmed he was by Kaylee, especially when she put him on the spot.
“You’re not the only one working, you know. We need crisper enzyme to do any editing, and that’s going to be near impossible to track down,” said Kaylee.
Jorge chimed in, “Yes, crisper is very hard to come by. We gave up on obtaining purified enzyme, already. The best strategy is getting the crisper amino acid sequence and making it from scratch… maybe with dry peptide synthesis.”
“While we’re doing that, we need you to focus on your task, Matteo. You’re the one we enrolled in school. We need you to eavesdrop and learn what Alamo U’s biology program is about… We’ll take care of the crisper,” said Kaylee.
“You’ve got to be joking. I’m from Alamo City. I know people that go to school there. What am I supposed to say when they say they thought I was supposed to be in jail. That I should be in jail.”
Jorge interrupted, “Hey, I heard about this really good taco place. We should go there tomorrow morning — before Matteo’s starts his mission. You know, as a tradition.”
“See, it’ll fit your story, then, if they catch you thieving, that is, when you steal us some pipettes… and gloves,” said Kaylee, “Which tacos, Jorge? Also, that’s not what tradition means, exactly.”
“I don’t even have a licensed Mist profile!” protested Matteo. He felt almost like a child. There was no way he could turn this around somehow and have Kaylee respect him enough to want to sleep with him.
“Rolly’s Tacos. No, you won’t come up anywhere as yourself on your Mist. We already loaded a fake student profile back onto it. It’s temporary, one day only, and it cost quite a bit of Byte. We should call you by your new name, Mendoza, so you get used to that identification. And, you, Mr. Mendoza, are an incoming freshman.”
“Oh, where was Rolly’s again? I heard about them. And no one’s gonna look at your dumb face for very long in person, Matteo,” said Kaylee. To Matteo, it didn’t even feel like she was joking.
“Rolly’s. It’s located inside of Loteria.”
“Chingado, Jorge,” Kaylee and Matteo said, nearly in unison.
“Wait, wait, wait. Shutup about the tacos. Why can’t you or Jorge go and do this school robbery?”
“I’m female. I know you’ve noticed, perv. Nerds will be trying to ‘help’ me all day. Jorge is recognizable in science circles, even out here. Too much of a risk if anyone even remotely connected to bioindustry realizes he’s here.”
“But — ”
Alright, look I’m burnt out, prisoner Mendoza. That’s enough science class for the morning.” With her hair now dry, she donned a clunky old VR helmet and a Nintendo Power Glove.
“Whoa, is that haptic?” asked Matteo. He was irritated at the thought of the next day, but paying off his prison debt never felt closer..
“Yessiree. No direct neural stimulation to mimic VR sensations, here. I like the sounds of the little motors.”
“I thought that neural wouldn’t happen for another ten years. Did you get your hands on prototypes? Do you have any around here?”
“I lied. Don’t exist yet,” she said and giggled.
Jorge looked puzzled at a card draw and shook his head. For a quick break, he turned on the holoprojector and loaded a bootleg fan-made 3D version of Jurassic Park from an old, souped-up USB stick.
“Hey, Matteo. Why don’t you go buy yourself some Alamo U and Spurs clothes and snacks for us at H-E-B? And definitely a toothbrush and deodorant. Here’s some Byte.” Kaylee pulled a roll of the Loteria winnings from a fold in the couch without removing the VR visor.
They were beginning to trust him, weren’t they?
Kaylee waited a few minutes after she was sure Matteo was gone to bring up a pressing issue. She felt, strongly, that if Matteo knew of his impending doom, he might volunteer to try a chance at beating his imminent death with their immortality experiment. She brought up the idea to Jorge, who said he had not gotten that sense from Matteo in the slightest. Perhaps this was unsurprising, given his newness to people. Or purported newness to people.
The safer bet, for Matteo and the other people Kaylee intended to save, was a properly controlled blind experiment, countered Jorge. Matteo couldn’t know whether he was being saved, if they were to properly account for any placebo effect. She reluctantly agreed.