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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Twelve

Thursday June 18

Andi woke from nightmares every morning. She kept dreaming of earthquakes, of rippling ground rupturing into deep chasms. Just before she fell into the widening gaps of darkness, she would awaken in her new bed, here at SILO. 

The first few days, she tried to stay hopeful: Today someone will find us and bring us home. But as time passed, it became clearer that no one was coming. 

So, each morning, she forced herself to get out of bed, to eat the breakfast Erika brought. It never filled her up, but there were plenty of Blazin Bitz to snack on. Once she'd had a few chips, she always calmed down enough to remind herself that it wasn't so bad here. A little boring, but at least nothing terrible had happened.

Andi might have allowed herself to become overtaken by apathy, if it hadn't been for Roya. Every time Andi visited her, she was confronted with the consequences of dragging her feet. Holding Roya down during the blood draw had been an unquestionable betrayal. Even worse, every meal they ate was potentially causing them harm. 

But Andi couldn't focus yet on escape. First, she had to find out where her father was, and what this research was really about.

Erika was no help. She hardly talked and left quickly if Andi tried to ask any questions about SILO. That left one undesirable option. Engaging with the person holding her captive was the last thing Andi wanted to do, but Dr. Snyder was her only hope of getting any answers. 

Erika insisted Dr. Snyder was too busy to meet with Andi, but she did send over a few college textbooks on biochemistry and genetics. The material was over Andi's head—science had never been her strongest subject—but she studied them carefully, as if clues about her father might be hidden amid the diagrams of molecules and DNA sequences.

Then, the morning after Roya's blood draw—Thursday, according to the date on Andi's questionnaires—someone knocked on her door.


“Come in,” Andi said, figuring that Erika had brought Roya for a visit, but instead Dr. Snyder stood in the doorway, arms folded.


“Erika said you have some questions for me?” 


“Oh! Yes, I do.” Andi wiped her Bitz-dusted hands on a napkin and shuffled the notes she'd been taking. She resisted the urge to ask the questions she wanted answered, knowing they would make Dr. Snyder angry. What happened on the day of the protest? Why can't I call my mom? When can we leave?


Instead, she said, “I guess I'm just curious about your research. I've been looking at the textbooks, but I don't get what they have to do with a study about food.”


Dr. Snyder looked relieved. Asking about research had apparently been the right strategy. “Excellent question. The study you're in isn't directly related to genetics, but it's a small part of my overall work.”


“Oh? So what are you studying?”


“It's a long story.” 


Andi took another handful of Blazin Bitz. It had become reflexive, the way she reached for more whenever she was overwhelmed. “That's okay. I'd like to hear about everything you're working on. I mean, if you have time. I know you're busy.”


“I suppose I could give you an overview. You've been very compliant with the study, and I do appreciate that.” She stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. 


“That would be great,” Andi said. “I want to know how it all fits together.” 


Dr. Snyder smiled. “It’s nice to have someone around who’s interested in learning about this. I don't get to talk about it often, since it’s just Erika and me in this building right now. She came over from the clinical division when you arrived. I think she preferred it there. She seems to get crankier by the day.”


Andi noticed her opening to find out more about SILO. As she attempted to wipe the Bitz-dust from her fingers—it was harder now that her hands were so sweaty—she asked, “There are other buildings? How big is this place?”


“Oh, there's one other research building, where we house the clinical trial. And a couple barns out in the fields where we grow the test crops.”


“I'd love to see those sometime. I bet Roya would, too. She misses being outside.” Andi imagined breathing fresh air, running through the fields, running away....


Dr. Snyder's face hardened. “I'm afraid that won't be possible. There isn't much to see anyway. But, I'm sure you're feeling cooped up. I could try to find a place in this building for her to get some energy out, move around a bit more. I'm not sure where... my apartment's not an option, of course, or the lab... maybe the freezer farm would work, though.”


Freezer farm? Andi wondered what Dr. Snyder did there, but was even more curious about her apartment. “Wait, you live here?” 


“Right upstairs. It's perfect—I hardly ever go to my office downtown anymore. Everything I need is right here at SILO. And I can check on my experiments anytime, even in the middle of the night, if I need to. Some of the assays I do require precise timing.”


“That sounds, um, convenient.” Andi found these remarks unsettling; Dr. Snyder was so isolated out here, so obsessed with her work. She tried to steer the conversation back to what she needed to know. “So... are you the head of this whole place?”


“I suppose you could say that. There's one other scientist here now, Torsten, a chemist. But I'm the one who has the vision for our projects, and I oversee the clinical trial—though I have some staff to help coordinate that.”


Carefully, Andi asked, “Is it a pretty big study, then? With lots of subjects?”


“Not as many as I'd like, but our numbers are decent. We can only house a few at a time anyway. Luckily I have James and Erika to handle all that—I just work with the data.”


Andi was relieved. If Dr. Snyder didn't interact with the subjects, it was unlikely she had any clue about Andi's dad. 


“Recruitment's been difficult,” Dr. Snyder continued. “There aren't many people willing to put their lives on hold to come here, but we're very appreciative of those who do. It's a groundbreaking project.”


Andi's stomach twisted, thinking about the flyer her father had gotten at the unemployment agency, about all the other desperate people who had been recruited into the study. She combed her hair with her fingers, fighting to keep her composure.

“How so?” she asked.


Dr. Snyder paused, weighing something in her mind, then finally said, “I think it would be easiest for me to explain in my office. I just gave a presentation on it, and could show you some slides.”


Andi forced a smile. “Thank you, I'd love that.” 


Dr. Snyder poked her head out the door and asked Chase, the security guard with the buzz cut, to accompany them. Until now, Andi had only been between her own room and Roya's, but this time they headed in the opposite direction, around the corner and down several windowless corridors. 


As they approached the office, Andi saw a large white bottle on the tiled floor. A bright orange skull-and-crossbones sticker and the word “Compadre” were emblazoned across its front.


“Oh, good, Torsten must have stopped by.” Dr. Snyder pulled a yellow sticky note off the top of the bottle. She frowned, crumpling it up before Andi could read the message written on the paper.


Chase picked up the bottle. “You want me to bring this into the lab?” 


“No, that's not necessary. Put it down inside the office. We won't be long; wait for us outside.” 


Chase swiped his ID badge on a black panel outside the door and set the bottle inside. Andi entered the office behind Dr. Snyder. Scientific journals were stacked in neat piles on her desk, and a small green notepad covered in tidy handwriting sat next to the computer. There were two doors on the opposite wall; one appeared to be a closet. Through a narrow window in the other, stickered with biohazard warnings and a sign stating “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY,” Andi could see the laboratory beyond. 


“Is that your lab?” Andi asked.


“Yes. I would give you a tour, but I have some sensitive work going on at the moment and can’t risk contamination.” Indicating the bottle, she added, “Actually, I'd better get this inside—it's hazardous.”


Dr. Snyder typed a combination into the keypad by the lab door. She shielded her hand, but Andi noticed that each key played a unique tone. The differences were subtle, but her ear picked up on them. She replayed the dissonant melody in her mind, committing it to memory. 


While Dr. Snyder set the bottle inside the lab, Andi scanned the office for a phone, but there wasn't one. Not that she would have had time to call anybody; Dr. Snyder shut the lab door quickly, as if the air inside was toxic. 


Andi wheeled an extra chair over to the desk, still repeating the melody in her head, as Dr. Snyder took a seat and pulled up the presentation on her computer.


“My main focus for the last decade has been the EcoCows. Have you heard of them?” Dr. Snyder asked. “Oh, that’s right, you were at the protest.”


Andi chose her words. “Yeah, but I thought they were supposed to be good for the environment, so to be honest I wasn’t sure what to believe.”


“Well. I’ll tell you the facts and you can decide for yourself.” Dr. Snyder clicked through the slides as she spoke, her voice smooth and practiced as she eased into the lecture. “The lactation period for dairy cattle is fairly short, so cows constantly have to be removed from production so they can give birth and start making milk again. It's very inefficient. Artificial hormones can be given to boost production, but those have their disadvantages. The EcoCows fix the lactation problem: you get twice as much milk from a single cow, for twice as long, without hormones. So farmers won't have to keep as many cows, which of course is better for the environment, since cows produce a lot of methane. Everyone benefits.”


“Oh,” said Andi, thinking this over. “So how were you able to do that?”


“That's where genetics come in. We've known for years how to transfer genes between species. You take a gene from, say, a soil bacterium that's harmful to aphids, and transfer it into a broccoli plant. Then your broccoli is safe from infestation by aphids.” She pulled up a diagram on her computer to illustrate. 


“Many of Nutrexo's products are based on this technology. We have several crops on the market—corn, soybeans, wheat—that are genetically engineered to be resistant to a certain weedkiller. That way, farmers can spray a small dose of weedkiller on the crop and they don’t have to spend all their time hand-weeding. At least, that’s the way it worked until recently.”


“Why’s that? What happened?”


“Oh, new weeds have emerged that are resistant to the old weedkiller.” She waved a hand airily. “But it’s not a problem. We’re developing a companion product—Compadre—that will kill the new weeds.”


Dr. Snyder clicked forward in the presentation, landing on a photograph of a mother cow and her calf grazing side by side. “I did my PhD research on plants, but technology was advancing and I saw that animals were the next great frontier of genetic engineering. So I stayed to get my DVM—doctorate of veterinary medicine—and after graduation started working at the Nutrexo Research Institute. The EcoCows took years, and lots of setbacks, because I had to manipulate gene regulation, which is much more complicated than the transfer of a single gene. We have newer methods now that make gene editing much easier, though, and we’re nearly ready to put their milk on the market.”


“So people will be able to buy EcoCow milk at the grocery store?” 


“Oh, no, it won’t be sold as fluid milk—it will be used in food processing, in products like Blazin Bitz. That’s what we’ve been testing here—our new flavor, Blazin Bitz Crave. Eventually, we'll add it to other products too. Snack cakes are next on the list.”


Andi felt nauseated. They were feeding her milk from experimental cows, invented behind doors covered with biohazard stickers! She vowed not to touch any more Bitz, and tried to sound neutral as she said, “But I don't remember reading anything about EcoCow milk in the study description.”


“Oh, it's there,” Dr. Snyder said. “Just not the details. The form mentions that we're testing 'new ingredients.' We have to keep the information around a sixth grade reading level, so it's too hard to explain the complexities of the research, and we wouldn't want anyone to get unnecessarily alarmed by something they don't understand. The milk has been thoroughly tested for safety—after seeing the data we submitted, the Food and Drug Administration agreed that it's no different from regular cow's milk. They already approved EcoCow milk for use in food products.”


Andi wondered why Dr. Snyder was still doing tests in humans if the milk had already been approved. But she couldn't ask; she'd already pushed far enough. Remembering Dr. Snyder's mention of a barn, she asked, “The cows are here, then? Do you, um, oversee them too?”


“Yes, but I'm too busy with other work to interact with them much. I don't need to anyway, thanks to Scott's remote monitoring system.” She closed the presentation, then pulled up a webpage containing complicated-looking tables dense with numbers. “See, I can monitor their milk output here”—she pointed to a column—“and if any look too low, I can do some investigating. Sometimes they'll get an infection of the udders, which decreases production. But we give them antibiotics in their feed, and I can program them to receive injections if necessary.” Something in the data caught her eye, and she peered at it closer. Under her breath she said, “Hmm, that’s odd. I’ll have to check on that one.”


She closed the webpage. “I have other projects going on, too. While I wait for the clinical trial results, I've been conducting Compadre's toxicity assays in rats.”


Andi must have looked alarmed, because Dr. Snyder continued, “I know how it sounds, but it's all very routine. It has to be done, so that we can make sure it's safe for humans. Here, come take a look through the window.” She led Andi to the lab door, pointing out the wall lined with rat cages. Even from here, Andi heard them spinning in their squeaky metal wheels. But Andi soon turned her attention to something else: a heavy door, large and silver, at the end of the long laboratory. Its square window was taped over with a piece of cardboard, and a set of metal shelves stood nearby, out of place in the middle of the lab floor, piled high with Petri dishes and bottles of clear amber liquid.


Dr. Snyder noticed her looking, and said quickly, “That’s my incubator room. I have some light-sensitive tissue cultures growing in there, so I had to tape the window over.” She pointed to a large cage writhing with at least a dozen rats. “Yesterday I administered a high dose of Compadre to those rats, much higher than humans would ever get. The experiment went smoothly—well, one rat died, but it had some other abnormalities, so that wasn't surprising. All the others are doing fine.”


Andi turned away. She couldn't stand looking at the rats, all those furry bodies scrabbling against each other, not knowing they were doomed.


“I know. It seems cruel, but in a way they're lucky. They're not going to die meaningless deaths, ripped apart by a hawk in a field somewhere—instead, their sacrifices benefit humanity. It's important to remember that. You can't get attached.” Dr. Snyder stared into the lab, gazing far away. “You have to be able to distance yourself,” she added quietly, and when she faced Andi, the tiniest glint of emotion showed in her blue eyes. 


But it only lasted an instant. When she next spoke, she sounded stern and businesslike again. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get to work. Chase will bring you back to your room.”


Though Andi was partly relieved—the conversation had been exhausting—she was worried that Dr. Snyder might not meet with her again, and there was still so much she needed to know. So Andi thanked her, adding, “I really enjoyed learning about your research. Is there anything you need help with? Like, entering data in spreadsheets or something?”


Dr. Snyder paused with her hand on the office doorknob. “Possibly. I'll think about it.”


Andi smiled, hoping she looked grateful. She was trying to piece together what she'd learned, but couldn't get the image of those rats out of her head, and she couldn't stop feeling like she was falling into a dark abyss, one so deep there was no hope of escape.


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