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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Six

Monday June 15

Andi and Cyrus ran away from the crowd, rounding the corner to the north side of the building. In the shadow of the tower, it was cool and deserted. The roar of the fountain and the protest faded. They slowed as they headed uphill to the NRI entrance. 

“Did we have to do that? Why couldn’t we tell Naveed what we’re doing?” Andi asked. “He'll be worried about us.” 

“Trust me—he'd ruin everything,” Cyrus said, visibly happier now that he was free of his siblings. “He'd insist we have to stay together, but that would mess up our whole plan because obviously we can't explain what we're doing, not here. It'll be fine. As soon as we get inside, I'll text him that we went to get coffee or something.”

When they arrived, Andi pushed the glass door open, and they entered a seating area. Low armchairs were flanked by round coffee tables strewn with NRI pamphlets. A reception desk stood in front of them; a hallway of closed office doors stretched behind it. There was no one in sight.

Cyrus looked up after he finished his text, taking in the room's emptiness. “Hmm, that's odd. Where is everyone?”

Andi stepped toward the desk, uneasy. “Maybe the receptionist left for a minute? I guess we could wait.”

Cyrus walked down the hall, peeking into the empty offices. “Hello?” he called out. Not finding anyone, he returned to the desk. But instead of waiting with Andi, he sat down at the receptionist's computer.

“What are you doing?” Andi whispered.

“Just checking... aha,” Cyrus said. “There's a sticky note. 'Mandatory NRI Staff Meeting, 4th floor conference room.' It just started.” He rubbed his hands together. “Perfect, we have almost an hour! That should give me plenty of time to dig up some dirt.”

He pulled open the desk drawer, rifling through its contents. Andi glanced around the room, but still no one appeared. “What if someone comes in? We should go—” 

“Nope, didn't write down their password anywhere,” Cyrus muttered. “Good thing I came prepared.” He pulled a flash drive from his jeans pocket and inserted it into a USB port. 

 

“What's that for?”

“Password cracking. Might take a few minutes—keep an eye on the door for me.”

“I don't think this is a good idea....” Andi started, but Cyrus was oblivious. She hadn't thought this would involve breaking into computers, and it still seemed odd that the NRI staff would leave the front door unlocked, the reception computer unguarded, if they were all on a different floor for a meeting. Especially with a protest going on outside.

 

Seconds later, the front door opened, and Andi's heart hammered wildly until she saw it was only Naveed. But he was not happy. He marched inside, Roya bumping along on a piggy-back ride, and glowered at Cyrus behind the reception desk. When he stopped next to Andi, Roya slid down and stood beside him, hands on her hips. 

 

“What the hell?” Naveed said to Cyrus. “We were supposed to stay together. What are you doing in here?”

 

Cyrus's eyes remained fixed on the computer screen. “Keep your voice down, sir. I'll be right with you. I'm busy infiltrating an evil corporation at the moment.” 

 

Naveed turned to Andi. “What's going on?” His eyes were filled with confusion and fury. She wouldn’t have guessed it was possible for him to be this angry. 

 

“Yeah, why did you run away?” Roya challenged.

 

“I... we....” Andi didn't know what to say. She wanted to tell them the truth, but this was not the place to explain.

 

“You're trying to hack in? Kourosh, don't be stupid. Let's get out of here.” Naveed walked behind the reception desk and pulled the rolling desk chair from the computer, yanking Cyrus away from the keyboard.

 

Cyrus leaped to his feet. “I told you I was busy!” He was still clutching the mouse, and brandished it for emphasis. “God. Don't you ever get tired of being so good all the time?”

 

Andi's anxiety gave way to annoyance. This was the worst possible time for Cyrus to pick a fight with his brother. “Cyrus—” she began, at the same time that Roya said, “Stop it!” 

 

But he was on a roll. “You're the one who was so fired up about Nutrexo in the first place! But do you really think walking around outside with a bunch of signs is going to change anything? You just don't like that I'm the one with the guts to actually do something."

Naveed flinched, but kept his voice low. “I'm serious. We need to leave right now. It's getting kind of crazy out there—someone just smashed a window. The car's right outside, I've got the keys, let's go before—”

“Is there a problem in here?” a woman said from the hallway, and they all turned to face her. She wore a white lab coat and slim skirt, with tall heels. Her ice-blue eyes peered out from beneath thin, white-blonde eyebrows, and her hair was pulled back in a neat bun. Andi knew exactly who she was.

Dr. Tara Snyder.

Cyrus dropped the mouse. “Oh, hi, I was just... um....”

Dr. Snyder eyed the flash drive jutting from the computer's side. “Well. Why don't we all have a seat, and you can explain yourselves.” She gestured to the hallway of offices, and only then did Andi notice the two burly security guards in beige uniforms standing behind her. She recognized one: the tall guard with the buzz-cut that she'd seen talking into his radio. The other guard was similarly muscular, and his neck was partially covered by a tattoo of a brown-feathered turkey.

Naveed headed the opposite direction, toward where Roya stood frozen and wide-eyed. The turkey-necked guard, seeming to think he was making a break for the front door, rushed over and grabbed his wrist. 

“I wasn't going anywhere,” Naveed protested, trying to shake him off, but the guard shoved him forward. 

“All of you, down the hall, now,” the guard barked.

They had no choice. Roya clung to Naveed's hand, Andi and Cyrus trailing behind. Andi tried not to panic, but her mind was a jumble of anxious thoughts. Did Dr. Snyder know why she was here? Had Mark told her to watch out for Andi? Or maybe they traced her phone number; she shouldn't have called that SILO line from her own phone, should have covered her tracks better, warned Cyrus about Dr. Snyder, told her mother last night; but what was Dr. Snyder doing here anyway, if she worked at SILO—   

Calm down, she told herself. You don't know what's going on yet. Just keep quiet, and don't let on that you know anything.

They filed into a small, windowless room. A round table ringed with chairs dominated the space, and one wall was lined with cabinets, a sink, and a mini-fridge. Andi had been in a similar room for the focus group during her field trip. 

Once they were seated, Naveed surreptitiously pulled out his phone beneath the table. Buzz-Cut noticed. “Good luck,” he said. “No reception down here in the basement.”

“Now,” Dr. Snyder said, once Naveed had shoved his phone back into his pocket. “Explain.”

Cyrus squirmed in his seat. “Look, the others didn't have anything to do with it. Andi got a ride downtown with us. She only wanted to... well, maybe she should explain.”

Andi had hoped to remain invisible as long as she could, but saw that this might be her best chance to stay out of trouble, assuming that Dr. Snyder didn't know who she was. So she gave her speech, just as she'd rehearsed. “My chemistry class came here on a field trip last month, and I was interested in your research. I wanted to find out if you have any internship positions open this summer. I'll be applying to Stanford next year, and thought that working here would give me some great experience.” 

“Oh? Did you bring a resume?” 

Andi was surprised—they couldn't possibly want her to work here after what had happened—but then she understood. She was being tested: Dr. Snyder wanted to know if she was lying. 

But Andi wasn't lying, not exactly, and she pulled the folded envelope from the pocket of her slacks. The creased paper wasn't very professional, she realized now, but she hadn't wanted to bring a bag to the protest. Dr. Snyder opened it, glancing at the cover letter Andi's mother had helped her write, at her sparse resume, at her mediocre transcripts. 

The room was silent. Andi could feel Naveed's eyes on her, but she couldn't face him. 

 

Dr. Snyder's expression was inscrutable, though it seemed to soften as she read the letter. Her eyes narrowed when she turned back to Cyrus. “And?”

Cyrus pushed up his glasses. “So we came in, and nobody was here. I was looking at the desk to see if there was a note or something about where everyone was, and then I saw there was a meeting and I just... wanted to show off a little, I guess. But to be honest, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was following some random instructions I read online.” He sounded so miserable that Andi didn't doubt he was telling the truth. “I'm sorry. It was really, really stupid.”

“What's on the flash drive?”

“Password-cracking software. That's all. No malware, viruses, anything like that. You can look.”

“I'm sure you're aware that attempting to break into our computers is a serious crime,” Dr. Snyder said. “I'll need to get the authorities involved.” 

Naveed finally spoke. “I'm sure we can work this out. Just let me use your phone, so I can call my parents.”

Dr. Snyder nodded. “All right. Zane, will you escort him to my office?” 

Turkey-Neck opened the door, but Roya had grabbed Naveed's hand. “Is Kourosh going to jail? Am I in trouble, too?”

“Don't worry. We'll figure it out. And of course you're not in trouble,” Naveed reassured her, before leaving the room. Dr. Snyder followed, but before the door closed, she said quietly to the other guard, “Chase, get them some refreshments. We could be here a while.”

Buzz-Cut set a handful of Blazin Bitz bags on the table, along with several bottles of Coolixir from a mini-fridge in one corner. He removed an extra soda for himself—a different flavor, lemon-lime—and began drinking. 

Andi found it strange to be given snacks under the circumstances. Maybe it was a concession to her and Roya and Naveed, a hint that they weren't in trouble, but considering who was offering, she didn't want to take her chances with the food. She tried to catch Cyrus's eye to communicate this to him, but he was already opening the bottle, and looking to the door. “There goes our valiant hero, off to save us all,” he muttered.

“Cyrus...” Andi trailed off, unsure of what to say, keenly aware of the presence of the guard. “It'll all work out.”

“Yeah. Whatever.” He sipped his soda, lost in thought.

Roya, whose eyes had lit up when the guard set the bottle of sweet soda in front of her, was gulping the beverage down. She took a short break to say, “How could you do such a dumb thing? Maman and Baba are going to be so mad.”

“Shut up. Let me think.” Cyrus closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Andi felt bad for him, but she also kind of agreed with Roya.  

Moments later, the door opened, and Naveed was shoved back into the room, hands behind his back. Zane entered behind him, blood running in twin streams from his nostrils. Chase stepped in to detain the struggling Naveed while Zane pulled a wad of napkins from a box on the counter and held them to his nose, glaring.

“Great, now we're in trouble,” Cyrus said. His words were slow, slurred. “Did you seriously beat up a security guard?”  

“I was trying to get outside—the SWAT team's out there now—so many sirens—and they wouldn't let me call—” Naveed sounded on the verge of panic, and did a double take when he looked at the table. Andi, who had been distracted by his entrance, noticed with a start that Roya had fallen asleep; she rested her head on folded arms. Cyrus, too, was nodding off, leaning his head into his open palm, his glasses askew.

 

Andi hadn't touched her soda, but now she twisted the cap off. There was no resistance: the bottle had already been opened.

Naveed met her eyes, and an understanding passed between them. 

They had been trapped here. And Cyrus and Roya had been drugged.

Neither understood why, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was getting out. Andi could hear what Naveed was thinking, as surely as if he'd said it aloud: I'll distract them. You run, and get help.

“I told you, Naveed. You can't leave,” Dr. Snyder was saying. “Anyway, you're safer in here.” 

“What did you do to them?” Naveed asked Dr. Snyder, his voice rising. “Wait, how do you know my name?” 

“Calm down,” Dr. Snyder was saying, but Naveed, clearly the opposite of calm, turned his head to bite the guard's arm, at the same time aiming a forceful kick at Dr. Snyder's shin. She howled when it connected, and Andi didn't wait; the guards were busy trying to restrain Naveed, who kept yelling let me go let me go as they wrestled him down, and Dr. Snyder kneeled next to him, and Andi was running, running toward the door— 

But then the walls shook, the floor too, with such force that Andi lost her balance and stumbled to the ground. She wondered if it was an earthquake, but no, not an earthquake because there had been a noise, a distant boom, an impact that she felt more than heard. 

The lights had gone out, and it was so dark she lost sight of everything. It was quiet, too, which was odd, because hadn't Naveed been yelling? She reached in front of her, where the door should be, and just as her palm touched the cool wood, sliding across it in search of the knob, there was a hand on her arm, and the sting of a needle in her shoulder.

And then there was nothing at all.

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