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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Eighteen

Friday June 19

Cyrus stared at the papers in front of him. He had spent the entire afternoon dreading Erika's return after she caught him writing that email beyond the FireWall, trying, and ultimately failing, to come up with an ingenious escape plan. But when she brought his reheated frozen dinner around eight—much later than usual—she didn’t say a word, just set the stack of questionnaires on the table as always. Maybe she hadn’t seen after all. Maybe he’d been lucky, for once.

 

He finished the last questionnaire, but another sheet of paper was underneath: a map. Several locations were indicated with an asterisk. An ID badge marked “Visitor” was paper-clipped to the left edge.

 

A handwritten note was also attached:

 

Midnight is shift change for security. You’ll have maybe 15 minutes. Get Andi and leave through the south gate—you’ll need the ID badge to get out. I'll be waiting for you on the access road, and will explain everything then.

 

It will be just the two of you. Roya escaped through a window and I don’t know where she is. (Dr. S doesn’t know she’s gone yet.) There won't be time to get N tonight. I think he might be in the lab, but she's the only one who knows the combo to get in. I'm working on it but will have to go back for him later. 

 

Memorize this map. I’ll collect it with the questionnaires at 9pm. 

 

Cyrus pocketed the badge, hardly able to contain his delight. A prison break! They were busting out of SILO!

 

When Erika came to collect the papers, he thanked her the only way he could. “Dinner tonight was fantastic. Heated to perfection.” 

 

She thumbed through the stack, checking that everything was in order. “Glad you liked it,” she said, with the tiniest hint of a smile. When she left, he heard the usual click as she locked the deadbolt—and then one more, as she unlocked it again. Cyrus imagined the guard outside seeing her lock up like usual, oblivious that she was actually leaving the door open. 

 

Time seemed to elongate as he waited, going over the plan again and again in his mind. He had no idea what the weather was like here—they could be in Siberia, for all he knew—but they hadn’t been given any warm clothes, not even a sweater. Well, there was a bathrobe, but he wasn’t about to wander down the road looking like he’d escaped from an asylum. Short-sleeved white shirt and jeans it was. They wouldn't be outside for long, anyway; according to the map, the south gate wasn't far from this building.

 

He wished he could take the bowl of Blazin Bitz along, but that wasn't practical, and if he stuffed the chips into his pockets, they'd get all broken up. So he ate as many as he could while wondering what to do about Roya and Naveed. It felt wrong leaving without them, but this chance wouldn't come again. 

 

Finally, it was time to go. He stepped into his shoes and was turning the door handle as midnight struck. He peered cautiously down the hallway: empty, as promised. He hurried out, mentally following the map to Andi’s room, which was also unlocked. 

 

Her room was dim, and it took a second for his eyes to adjust from the bright hall. Andi sat in the recliner, her face lit by the flickering TV screen. When she saw him, her eyes widened. 

 

He raised a finger to his lips, then whispered, “Get your shoes on.”

 

She didn't move. “You're here?”

 

“Yeah, I'm here. Nice to see you, too.” Cyrus couldn't figure out why she looked so horrified.

 

“I didn't know!” Andi still seemed stunned, so he scanned the ground until he saw her flats, and handed them to her. 

 

“Come on. We're escaping. There isn't much time.”

 

That did the trick: Andi pulled on her shoes and followed him into the hall. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Cyrus turned toward the exit.

 

“No, Roya's room is the other way,” Andi said.

 

“She already escaped,” Cyrus told her.

 

“She did? How do you know?”

 

“Erika told me—I guess Roya got out through a window.”

 

“Erika said that? Are you sure we can trust her?”

 

“She's helping us get out of here. Let's—” 

 

“Wait, what about Naveed? Is he here, too?”

 

“Yeah, but we don’t have time to find him. Unless you happen to know how to get into Dr. Snyder’s lab.”

 

He didn’t expect her to understand what he was talking about, but she stopped in the middle of the hall. “He’s in the lab? Are you sure?” 

 

“That's what Erika thought. Wait, you know where it is?”

 

Andi turned the opposite direction, and they rushed through the corridors, getting farther and farther from the planned exit. Cyrus wondered if he’d be able to find the way back, but Andi seemed to know exactly where she was going.

 

She led him to a door labeled with Dr. Snyder’s name. The handle was locked, but Cyrus swiped the ID badge on the adjacent card reader and it clicked open. A loud beep echoed through the hallway, and he expected Security to come running, but there was only silence.

 

The light automatically came on when they entered the office, but Cyrus quickly flicked it off. Andi crossed the room and began pressing a keypad beside another door, each number in sequence.

 

“You’ve been here before? She gave you the code?” Cyrus asked.

 

“Be quiet, I’m trying to concentrate,” Andi said, and started humming, which seemed odd given the circumstances. Even though he was dying to ask more, and was impressed by her apparent code-cracking abilities, he managed to keep his mouth shut. 

 

“Da, da, da, da…” she sang, punching keys with each note. She tried the door. It didn’t open. “No. Da, da, da, da….”

 

“Um, could you hurry up? I don’t know if I mentioned this, but we only have fifteen minutes,” he said.

 

She ignored him, intent on her task. After two more failed attempts, the door finally clicked open. 

 

A single light above a wall of rat cages illuminated the animals, leaving the rest of the lab in shadow. Even though it was the middle of the night, the rats turned in their wheels, and eerie squeaking filled the otherwise silent room.  

 

Andi stared straight ahead, and Cyrus followed her gaze to a large white bottle with a spray nozzle attached, next to an interior metal door. She leaned against the wall as she sank down into a crouch. 

 

“The incubator room. The Compadre,” she said, twisting her hair into a tight coil. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.”

 

“Andi? Are you okay?” he asked, concerned by her rapid breathing. 

 

“No,” she gasped. “This is my fault, I should have known….”

 

Cyrus kneeled beside her. “Look at me. Take deep breaths, like this.” But his were fast and shallow too. Her panic was contagious. 

 

Andi finally managed a deep, ragged breath. It became a choked sob when she exhaled. “I’m afraid to look.”

 

“Then we’ll go together. Come on.” Cyrus didn’t stop to consider why she was so hesitant; he just wanted to find Naveed and get out quickly. 

 

“Together. Okay.” Andi breathed in one more time, and when she stood up, something had changed. Her expression was now one of resolve. She handed him a pair of purple gloves from an open box on a shelf. “Put these on. We don’t want to touch anything in here. She works with toxic chemicals and stuff.” 

 

As he put on the gloves, he followed Andi across the lab to the metal door. She ripped off the piece of cardboard taped to its square window. 

 

At first, Cyrus couldn’t comprehend what he saw inside. There was blood on the ground. There was a wooden chair, toppled on its side, and a person was tied to the chair, a person who wore a black shirt, and faded jeans, and green sneakers. The same clothes Naveed had worn to the protest.

 

Because it was Naveed.

 

It felt like the floor was swaying beneath him. Cyrus gripped the black edge of a lab counter. Andi, meanwhile, pulled on the large horizontal handle that latched the door, but it didn't budge.   

 

“I’ll look in the office. Maybe the key’s in there.” Andi ran away through the lab. Cyrus admired her ability to move. His feet were rooted in place, and he could only stare.

 

Then a movement caught his eye: Naveed’s hands opened. Relief swooped through him, and he managed to move his feet, to walk to the metal door and study the lock. Right now, it was best not to think about what had happened to his brother, or to dwell on the fact that his own idiotic behavior had landed them here in the first place. All that mattered was that Naveed was alive, and they had a chance to save him. 

 

The lock did not seem very secure; the room was obviously never meant to hold prisoners. In fact, Cyrus thought that simply breaking the handle might work, so he looked around for a tool. He settled on a small, boxy centrifuge, and began hammering at the latch.

 

As it fell to the floor, leaving the interior mechanism still attached, Andi returned, holding a plastic baggie. “I couldn’t find the key, but I did find our stuff in the supply closet.” 

 

“Awesome,” he said. “Is Naveed’s pocketknife in there? I need a screwdriver.”

 

It was, and the locking apparatus unscrewed easily. There was now a hole where it had been, and Cyrus used it to pull open the door.

 

A foul smell hit them first. It was the smell of death and rot and waste and… an oddly sweet cloying chemical scent. Just being in there for a few seconds made Cyrus want to throw up. He propped the door wide open with the white bottle.  

 

“I need the knife!” Andi said, taking it from Cyrus’s hand. She knelt beside his brother and said, “Naveed, are you awake? It’s Andi. And Cyrus. Stay still, I’ll free your hands.” 

 

Cyrus watched as Andi sawed at the rope, but averted his eyes when she began peeling it away from Naveed’s raw red wrists. And that was when he noticed the cow head in the corner, empty-skulled and open-eyed.

 

He jumped back. “What the fuck is that!”

 

“Shh!” Andi hissed. She had freed Naveed’s ankles and was helping him sit up. Half of his face was covered in blood, and his hair was soaked with it. 

 

“Cyrus? Little help?” Andi asked, but he just stood there, anchored by a paralyzing bolt of terror, his gaze shifting back and forth from the monstrous skull to his blood-drenched brother. Naveed slumped against the wall, limp as an unwatered plant. 

 

“Answer me!” Cyrus said wildly. “What did she do to you? What’s that… that thing doing in here? What’s with all the blood?” 

 

Naveed looked in Cyrus's direction but said nothing. His eyes, sunken into hollows, were distant.  

 

“You’re hurt,” Andi said, gently lifting Naveed’s curls to search for wounds. He recoiled from her gloved hand, shaking his head no. 

 

The softness of her voice gave Cyrus a strange jolt, and an unexpected emotion arrived among the others swirling inside him: envy. Not that he was jealous of his brother’s condition; that would be pretty messed up. But no one outside his family had ever spoken to him so tenderly, and he'd never realized how much he wanted that.

 

Focus, he told himself. Forget about the bloody floor, and the cow head, and your weird desires—it’s time to leave. NOW. Out loud, he said, “We have to go. Can you walk?” 

 

Naveed nodded, but Andi briefly left the room, returning with a beaker of water. She held it to his cracked lips, and at first dribbles trickled from the sides of his mouth, like he’d forgotten how to drink, but soon he began gulping greedily. He took the beaker from Andi, but it slipped through his hands, shattering on the concrete floor. Cyrus's eyes shot to the lab door, worried that a guard would come running to investigate the noise. Naveed looked bewildered. He studied his hands, opening and closing them.

 

Andi jumped to her feet. “We need to go. Dr. Snyder's apartment is right above us; she might have heard.” 

 

At the mention of her name, Naveed went rigid, then attempted to get up. Cyrus and Andi helped him stand, and he rocked from foot to foot, as if testing his balance. They rushed back through the lab, past the office, and, after checking that the hall was empty, into a stairwell and up a flight of stairs—but not the one Cyrus had planned to take. 

 

He swiped the ID badge to open the exterior door, and they fled into the cool night. The fresh air seemed to give Naveed a boost of strength, and he pulled away to jog on his own. A half-moon shone through cherry tree branches overhead; rotten fruit squished underfoot as they ran. Cyrus tried to remember where the orchard was on the map, but he hadn’t paid much attention to the outlying areas, only to his planned route. He had no idea how to get to the south gate from here. 

 

The orchard ended at a row of tall green grass—a wheat field. Andi turned around.  

 

“What about my dad?” she asked Cyrus as they waited for Naveed to catch up. “He’s here, in another building. And Roya… she’s got to be nearby.”

“There's no time. The best we can do is get out of here and find help. We have to keep going.”

 

“I can’t leave him,” Andi protested.

 

“We don’t have a choice,” Cyrus said. He was right: a woman’s voice cut through the quiet night seconds later. They couldn't hear what she was saying, but they all knew who it was.

 

They plunged into the unripe wheat, zigzagging along the rows. Cyrus ran faster than he ever had, though it still wasn’t fast enough to keep up with Andi. Her feet pounded the dirt between rows, little clouds of dust billowing up around them. Even Naveed sped up, though he was panting wheezily, and Cyrus knew he couldn’t sustain the pace for long. 

 

As they ran further, the air became less fresh. At first, Cyrus sniffed brief wafts of barnyard, but with each step the odor became more pervasive, and soon it was all they could smell: a nose-burning stench of urine and manure, as if the waste of a million farm animals had been collected and allowed to fester under the summer sun.

 

Which it had, as they discovered when they emerged from the wheat. A gigantic pool stretched before them, and it was filled not with water, but with a murky liquid. Its surface was broken up with dark floating chunks and shiny green buzzing flies. A long, windowless building stood beside the lagoon. Cattle lowed softly within.

 

“The EcoCows,” Andi whispered.

 

The beam of a flashlight swept across the ground as Zane stepped out of a distant corner of the wheat field. There was nowhere to hide, except the barn.

 

“Come on.” Andi steered them to the building. Cyrus swiped his badge on the card reader and pulled open the door.

 

They stood on a narrow central walkway flanked by pens full of cows. The stench in here was unbearable. Cyrus breathed through his mouth, but it didn’t help much; he could practically taste the stinging odor. 

 

Naveed turned around like he was going to leave, but Cyrus blocked him. “There’s nowhere else to go. Come on!” 

 

Naveed looked at Cyrus with terrified eyes and shook his head no, but Cyrus grabbed his arm and pulled him along behind Andi, who ducked under the metal bars to hide in one of the pens. The cows mooed, but didn’t otherwise protest. Cyrus made a conscious effort not to touch anything in this filthy place, but Naveed stumbled and fell into the wet muck covering the floor. As Cyrus helped him up, he realized that the ground was buzzing with flies; they were standing in a disgusting soup of urine and manure, a shallower version of the pool outside. 

 

“Great hiding place, Andi,” whispered Cyrus when they caught up with her. The three of them crouched together, listening for footsteps. Cyrus stared at the cows; all of them had a milking apparatus attached to their huge udders, connected by long plastic tubes to a massive tank. Some of the cows were lying on the ground in their own waste, but the cow in front of them was standing. Her bones jutted out through dirt-matted skin, and her udders were swollen and red, snaked with bulging veins.  

 

Zane opened the door and walked down the long central row. The click of his boots and the jingle of his keys were loud against the muted whooshing of milking machines and the periodic mooing of cows. Miraculously, he didn’t seem to see the three of them crouched in the corner. He had just turned back toward the exit when Naveed started half-coughing, half-gagging.

 

“Shh!” Andi and Cyrus both mimed with fingers to lips. Naveed tried hard to stifle it, but it was beyond his control. Zane's footsteps grew closer.          

 

Cyrus scooped a handful of manure into his still-gloved hands, and Andi did the same. When Zane walked up to their hiding place, they threw the muck in his face. 

 

He stepped back, letting out a disgusted cry. He slipped on the fallen cow patties and lost his footing, landing on the ground with a satisfying thud. Cyrus pulled Naveed up and ran for the back door, glancing back to make sure Andi had followed.

 

But she hadn't. She was approaching Zane.

 

Cyrus was about to call to her, but stopped when he realized what she was doing: Zane's gun had fallen onto the ground beside him, and he was distracted, still wiping cow muck from his eyes.

 

Swiftly—and gracefully, Cyrus thought—she retrieved the gun without Zane noticing, and followed Cyrus and Naveed through the door.  

 

Outside, a fence topped with razor wire stretched beside the building; they ran alongside, because there was nowhere else to go. Naveed hobbled along between Cyrus and Andi. They were moving too slowly, and Zane was catching up, and he had probably radioed for reinforcements. Sure, they had a gun now, but Cyrus doubted Andi had ever used one before, and he certainly hadn't. Right when Cyrus thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, Andi fell to the ground with a soft yelp.

 

Cyrus reached for her hand, noticing that she had fallen into some sort of pothole. Only… it wasn’t a pothole, it was a shallow tunnel under the fence. Andi, who had made the same discovery, successfully wiggled through. Naveed went next; Andi pulled him out on the other side as Cyrus dove into the hole.

 

He’d only made it halfway through when Zane grabbed his ankles. Cyrus kicked frantically, while Andi and Naveed tugged at his hands. He felt like he was in a medieval torture device, being stretched in both directions, in danger of coming apart entirely. 

 

Then Cyrus’s foot made contact with Zane's face, and his grip loosened enough for Cyrus to break free. The fence scraped his back as he was pulled to the other side. 

 

He scrambled up a steep hill behind Andi and Naveed, grasping bushes and roots. At the top, he glanced back to make sure they hadn’t been followed. Zane watched them from inside the fence, not even attempting to fit through the small tunnel. He grabbed at his holster, only to find it empty.

 

Andi raised the gun, right on cue. She held it with both hands, aiming it straight at Zane.

 

He stumbled backwards, stunned, just as Dr. Snyder ran up behind him. She wore a bathrobe, and her hair, silvery in the moonlight, flew unsecured in the slight breeze. 

 

“Andi!” The fence rattled when she clutched it. “Andi, don't leave, it's not safe out there! Stay, just stay, I won't hurt you, I promise. Don't you see? There’s nowhere to go.” 

 

Andi took a deep breath, and for a fleeting moment Cyrus thought she was going to pull the trigger. But she lowered the gun and turned her back on Dr. Snyder. Cyrus pulled Naveed up from where he lay gasping on the ground, and they plunged into the thick woods behind them.  

 

“There's nowhere to go!” Dr. Snyder yelled again, frantic. “You can’t hide! Wherever you go, I will find you.”

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