Matteo woke up clinging to a dream of a red cloud undulating across a webbed night sky. The mezcal had been good enough that he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up sleeping above the basement, next to the ice machine, where the sunlight could pummel its way through his eyelids. On the floor next to him was a yellow sticky note. It read “11 am, BIO Bldg room 42.1- sit in the back. We trust you to return to secret base. But also don’t forget we’re watching you. Destroy this note.” She had bothered to draw a little cartoon penis.
He felt his heart beat a little harder and imagined his circulatory system attempting to distribute the alcohol toxins from tissue to tissue, lowering the dose so that no single organ was overwhelmed. Kaylee and Jorge were dutifully tracking down crisper, he thought. If anything, they were serious about the biohacking thing. He climbed down the ladder for a quick shower.
Near the exit, a now-warm bowl of cereal was waiting for him. Jorge must’ve poured it, not realizing milk would be disgusting to humans at sun temperature. Kaylee was probably too tired of correcting his behaviors to bother sticking it in the fridge. What a couple of… were they a couple? No, no way. Matteo tossed the cereal then bolted outside the door to dry heave against the side of the building.
He caught the VIA on its way to Alamo University. The bus climbed and descended hill after hill in motions that tested his vomit reflex. From a distance, he spotted the AU dormitories stacked like Tetris blocks and covering most of the sloping face of a hillside. Beyond that, twelve story parking garages encircled and blocked the view of the insides of the university like the stands of a coliseum.
BIO 42.1, where Mendoza was supposedly enrolled on the books for a day, was snuggled into a basement half-room in the building. There weren’t many campus Rangers around, so he figured he had good chances of getting in and out with all the lab supplies they might need to get started.
Inside the lecture room, dust lazed upwards and downwards in the air, illuminated by slit windows at the ceiling. He barely fit into the seat, the hard plastics jutting into his body felt like a pressure point massage, soothing some of the hangover by drawing his attention elsewhere.
A deep-brown girl with platinum silver hair, shaved on one side, sat next to Matteo, an event that years of being ignored by women had conditioned him to never expect.
::Don’t fuck this one up. Es chula.
Dad AI was annoying, but right. And he was on track to be free of his jail sentence and even rich soon. He swallowed hard and managed, “So, uh… you taking this class, huh? Me too, heh.”
She did a nuanced, tremendous thing where she kept facing forward and only barely moved her eyes towards his general direction. She paused for just so long, perhaps questioning whether she would be impossibly rude to not respond at all.
“Yeah.” Her voice was attractive. Crisp and soft, like the edges of a beam of light.
“Are you a late recruit, too?” asked Matteo.
“Cool. What’s your main major, then? I’m Matteo, by the way.” He considered putting his hand out to shake but that would be very nerdy wouldn’t it, and there was a good chance his hands were sweaty, wasn’t there?
“Sonia. I’m… undecided.” She couldn’t help say her name as though it belonged in a song.
He’d captured her first name. Enough to MySpace a person. In sight of his Mist, but not her line of vision, he typed her name with his right hand on the top of the desk for a quick search. Sonia — no hits for anybody in her age range, nearby, anyway. Great, she was already trying to avoid him.
He whispered “Aren’t we all?” to her, and then possessed, he winked. He coughed. There was nothing to do but let the wave of awkwardness drown him.
::Necisitas estar en silencio, no un comediante!
After a pause, she said, “Don’t search for me when I’m sitting right next to you,” with a look of self-exhaustion.
Matteo’s mouth opened wordlessly and he sunk into the desk he barely fit into. He’d made eye contact, at least. That had to count for something. Anyway, his mission wasn’t girls, it was lab thieving. At this time, anyway.
::She’s too stuck up. Don’t give up. But, hey, you and Kaylee still aren’t official yet, right? When I was your age I was having way more fun!
Matteo clicked off the AI function.
Professor Negrete saved Matteo’s freefall by showing up to class. She stood quietly for a moment, just taking in each face, with an expression a bit too concerned for her casual posture. Then she spoke, “Congratulations. You’ve made it into a highly competitive program. The selection process was rigorous. Our admissions algorithms show each of you is statistically unlikely to get married or to be needed by your family and friends or lack thereof.”
The students seemed to actually be a little relieved.
She continued, “But before we begin, you have to ask yourself a few questions only you can answer. Can you deal with the long nights in lab, foregoing whatever side hobbies and sanity you may have gained at this point in your life? Can you not only come up with new questions about the nature of living reality, but answer them through cleverly designed experimentation, all on rations of instant noodles and maybe, on the nights you decide to really let loose and splurge, eggs, too?” She forced a smile.
Yes, said Jorge, into Matteo’s Mistpiece.
“What the fuck?” said Matteo.
Kaylee: Quiet down! Jorge and I patched into your earpiece, Romeo. How’s the boner? Don’t answer that I don’t mean to get you excited.
Dr. Negrete looked at Matteo, puzzled for a moment. “Well, you’re in luck if that sounds like a bad deal. What I just described were the good old days. Back when being a biologist meant asking what stuff was made up of and what it was doing and even what you could do with it.” A look of regret formed on her face.
Jorge: We can hear everything.
“That’s uncalled for,” whispered Matteo.
“Mr… Matteo? Is it? You disagree?” said the professor.
“Uh… no, doctor…”
“Well good, then, because people paid good Byte to take this class and I am the one talking and the one teaching it. As I was saying, instead, here you’ll learn everything you need to know to be a modern scientist. What’s that entail? Well, it’s mostly administrative things like how to buy custom modified bacteria, since most every gene of any useful function, real or predicted, is on permapatent.”
Kaylee: You can thank me. Jorge wanted to tap into your Mist contacts, too, so we could see what, I mean, who you were up to. But I rather like imagining her from voice alone. Big tits? Zelda-style torpedos?
Jorge: I still think having his eyes is an obvious precautionary measure.
Kaylee: Yeah, but we already saw his dick so there’s nothin’ new for me to see.
“The bright side is, it’s really not too hard. I’ll hold your hand through learning the quirks of the software. Pick an organism, it’ll tell you what genes work in it, drag and drop your enzymatic cycle of interest and boom, in two or three days you can have that animal mailed to you. Of course we can only work with the single-celled ones now… or plants.” She seemed turned off at her mention of plants.
“We might cover some theory, too, for those of you who learn to hate yourself and want to adjunct for life. As far as lab is concerned, this is almost a historical degree. We’ll go through the motions of what people fifty, eighty years ago used to do, but not to any real end,” she said.
Kaylee: I don’t mean to interrupt but this doesn’t sound anything like science. The university labs are finished. Just wanna say I was right and my parents were wrong — they’re toast. I didn’t want to believe it. We’re on our own.
“It’s not so bad as I’m making it sound. There’s more to life. In any case, speaking of life, we’re gonna cut the lecture portion in half today and move on to the laboratory.”
Their trot up the stairwell was quiet and uncomfortably tight. Matteo let himself get lost towards the end of the line so he could talk with Jorge and Kaylee.
Kaylee: Good riddance. Soon LUFAW will have our own labs in a rad warehouse loft space overlooking the Alamo. And we’ll have breakfast tacos every single day. Delivered.
Jorge: I don’t think that will happen. The warehouse spaces are already overvalued downtown.
“Is that so?” said Matteo, impressed.
Jorge: Yes. Also based on your footsteps there are thirty-five stairs between the basement level and the first floor of the old building. This is at odds with the architectural records for Alamo U we have on a physical. Hmm.
“Good to know.” Matteo couldn’t help but grin, right at the moment Sonia turned, holding the lab door open for him. God, what a creep he is, was exactly what it appeared she was thinking.
They walked a gentle slope down into a dark laboratory. There was just one decoration, a chemical-splatted poster of a cat dressed up in a lab coat and goggles. In yellow lettering beneath: AUs Chem department is GOLD! The cat was orange, too. Matteo recognized the Comic Sans font from vintage computers he’d read.
At each lab bench was pair of purple gloves and lightly-stained coats draped over stools. Matteo picked a bench in the middle of the lab and grabbed a pipette. It felt light and tiny in his large, gentle hand.
“Today we’re going to pipette and weigh one of the most precious, important ingredients of life,” said Dr. Negrete. She rolled out a few beakers of a clear liquid on a push cart and distributed them to each student. “You’ll go ahead and pipette out different amounts on each pi — wup wup wup, do not invert the pipette,” she asserted to a student, “pipette out different amounts of water for each pipettor you have onto the scale. One milliliter of water should equal one gram.”
Matteo got his first solid look at the other scientists-to-be, finally resting his gaze on Sonia. She was leaning against a back table, not participating, somehow camouflaged even in the confined laboratory.
Kaylee: So, wait, what is the point of this? Aren’t all their students superstars? Why waste time on measuring water?
Jorge: Pipette calibration is the point. Is your audio not working? The professor stated very clearly —
Kaylee: Stop clowning around, Jorge. It’s a waste of time.
Jorge: Calibration is a job skill.
Kaylee: But I thought there weren’t many pipetting jobs left… as it is…
Jorge: Physical labor takes many definitions. On my home planet —
Kaylee: Goddangit, Jorge. Stop.
The pressure of having to ransack the place weighed over Matteo. He felt the heat of his body trap underneath his lab coat and manifest as sweat inside of his gloves.
To stay as anonymous as possible, he dodged small talk, all beneath a suffocating canopy of Jorge and Kaylee instructing him. Which items can he absolutely not afford not to steal: pipettes, a small table top centrifuge, conicals — sterile conicals, gloves — small, medium and x-large (and don’t forget the smalls), agarose, microscope slides, cell media, Bovine Serum Albumin, phosphate buffer…
Where was Sonia? She’d slipped out.
When class was over, he hung around the outside hallway, hoping the Dr. Negrete would forget to lock up the lab. But he only succeeded in walking straight into chit chat.
“Can I help you, mister… Matteo, was it?” the professor asked over the noise of the lock and her set of keys.
“No, nothing,” he said and retreated outside of the building. He sat on a bench in the shade. After Dr. Negrete had exited and crossed the far end of the quad, he slipped back down the stairway and into the hallway leading to the lab. Sonia was jiggling the door handle to the lab.
Loudly, he said, “It’s locked.” She turned to look at him and half smiled, then focused her eyes on something behind him. He turned to check if anyone else was in the hallway, and in that instant, she was gone again. A door slammed somewhere out of sight, nearby.
He approached the lab, his footsteps at first slapped the tiles and echoed. He corrected weight to the ground to cushion the sounds. It dawned on him that a backpack would’ve been inconspicuous in the classroom setting and useful for thieving.
Kaylee: You forgot to bring a bag, didn’t you?
Jorge: Just store everything into a biohazard waste bag. They’re kept in every laboratory and are indicated by the color red.
“Roger that,” Matteo spoke under his collar.
“Nothing. I’m going to break the door.”
Kaylee: I can’t hear you. Is your mouth covered or something?
He let his shirt relax. “No. Okay, I’m just gonna break the glass.”
Jorge: Do not sever your hands. We can’t afford you spilling your DNA all over our supplies.
“Gee, thanks. I’ll make sure to keep my life fluids inside my body where they belong.” Matteo removed his socks and wrapped them around his massive fist. He sucked in air and popped through a panel of glass closest to the door. The quick release of adrenaline seemed to trip up his heart beat. He panted erratically. “Ok, I can feel the door handle… I’m in.”
His eyes widened and the phrase “kid in a candy shop” popped into his head — a very old saying he’d realized he never really understood until now. There were no candy shops in Alamo City, only panaderias, and eating sweets from one never felt like a special treat, just like what breakfast was supposed to be like.
He located a biohazard bag and started chucking boxes of tips and reagents and glassware in. Within the amount of time it took to calibrate a pipette with water, he had amassed the cost equivalent of several months scavenge-and-read labor on the Barcaza in lab supplies.
Something about the room felt amiss. He could hear it even over Kaylee double-checking the list of items he needed to get. The air pressure had changed and then there was a grating, confident step filling the hallway. He ducked behind a stool, and noticed his left hand began to shake.
Someone approached the door. Thick fingers probed the edges of the hole Matteo had punched. Blood thumped in Matteo’s temples. He could feel his chest pound against his clothing. And then, without warning, the person left.
He hid for a few more minutes and then creeped out of the lab and up the steps, a syringe and dull needle in hand (used for priming the chromatography machine). Could it have been Dillo? Maybe he was playing both sides, working as a bounty hunter for the Rangers. Or worse, interested in whatever Jorge and Kaylee were now up to. In any case, he was nowhere to be seen, and Matteo caught himself looking at the branches of the oak trees irrationally, as though Dillo might be able to climb in boots.
Jorge: You shouldn’t take the bus back. Too risky when you’re carrying that kind of bright orange payload. We’ve dropped the racer off in the main parking garage.
“And if I use it to run away?”
Jorge: Well, we thought you made it this far without trying to escape, so we could trust you with it.
Kaylee: Plus you owe us your freedom. Also we strapped a bomb onto the bike in a secret place just FYI no big deal. But it will detonate if you stray too far.
“Shutup.” Matteo poked his head through university trashcans until he found an empty one. He dropped the red bag into the clean black bag and pulled it out. Now he looked like an incoming freshmen moving junk across campus to the dorms. He realized he could’ve been one, too. Would his mom have been ashamed to see him walk the campus under these very different circumstances? He was making it on his own, just like she had. She had no right to criticize.
The racer was parked at the top of the enormous parking garage, affixed with a new gleaming metal rack for hauling the bag. He tried running to it but ran out of breath quickly. Soon he was precipitating down 10W and then Broadway Ave on the racer, weaving through joggers in the bike lane and bikers in the auto lane. A welcomed chore for the clunky speeder.
When he got back to the shuttered Raspa stand, Kaylee and Jorge were hunched over a slurpee machine, modifying its mechanical innards. It was customized with additional inlets and hooked up to a console and glowscreen. He plopped the bag down the secret floor opening.
“Careful! My Magic cards are laid out on the floor. You could’ve disrupted their order,” said Jorge.
“Didn’t want to risk contaminating it with my DNA on the climb down.”
“Heh,” Kaylee laughed to herself, otherwise totally immersed in a snow cone getting struck by alternating jets of syrup water, cold air and lasers.
“Wait, is that some kind of a 3D printer?” asked Matteo
“Yes, it’s the only way to get the right syrup-to-ice ratio. At least on a planet with this kind of gravity. And it lets us design a precise lattice that doesn’t melt as quickly,” Jorge said. Kaylee grabbed her cone and started to eat it with an overpowering look of self-satisfaction.
“Well hers is melting rather quickly,” said Matteo.
“That’s because I programmed it that way because I like it that way.” She shoveled a small mound of ice from the ice machine on top of the slush.
“Alright well since apparently I’m the only one who actually worked today, I’m taking the night off at a bar or something while you unpack all the goodies I brought.”
“Fair is fair,” said Jorge.
“Peace,” said Kaylee.
“Yeah, we trust you. We need more time to get crisper and the cells need another day or so to grow before we can get to work on them. I am surprised you want to drink after last night,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Matteo asked.
“Oh, you don’t remember?” she mewed.
“Oh, nothing,” she said.
“God, whatever.” He probably said something after the third cup of mezcal last night. She knew he had a crush on her, didn’t she? At least getting teased by Kaylee was less painful than outright dismissal by Sonia. Not that he’d ever see her again.
Right before Matteo had closed the door behind himself, Jorge said, “Hey, I might join up with you later — after a couple more rounds of hobbit solitaire.”
Matteo grinned and thought that might be a swell idea, after all.