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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Twenty-One

Saturday June 20

Andi was hanging Naveed’s clothes on a branch to dry when Roya skipped back to the riverside, holding the hem of her shirt to make a large pouch brimming with mushrooms. Cyrus followed close behind, arms full of gathered wood.


Cyrus looked at Naveed, who was curled up napping on a sunny wedge of moss, still wearing only his boxers. He raised his eyebrows. “So this is what happens when I leave you kids alone for five minutes?”


“Shut up,” Andi said, blushing. She turned her head, hoping Cyrus hadn’t noticed. “Anyway, you’re the one who told him to clean up.”


“Well, I wasn’t expecting him to take a bath and do his laundry in a freezing cold river.” He set the wood down. “Here, help me clear a spot for a campfire. The mushrooms need to be cooked.”


As they worked, Andi asked, “So, these mushrooms aren’t going to kill us, right?”


“Of course not. We go foraging every summer—morels are really easy to tell apart from the poisonous varieties. And the psychedelic ones,” Cyrus said.  


Roya helped them build a ring of stones, then Cyrus held his glasses over a tinder nest of dry pine needles and moss, angling them to focus the sun. When the moss began to smolder, he added bark for kindling.


While Cyrus tended the fire, Andi and Roya scanned the river for any fish big enough to eat, but found none. Not that they had anything to catch them with, anyway.


Once the coals were hot, they roasted the morels on sharpened sticks. It was admittedly a step above imaginary marshmallows, but Andi was not as eager about breakfast as the others. Roya woke Naveed after they'd cooked their first batch. 


“Put your clothes on before you come to the table,” Cyrus called. Naveed grumbled something in reply, disappearing for what seemed like a long time to get dressed. Finally, he worked his way into the clearing, gripping nearby plants for support. Andi had tried to get his clothes as dry as she could by holding them near the fire while he slept, but it hadn't helped much. He held his still-damp jeans by the belt loops as he sat down in the fire’s warmth.


Cyrus handed him a mushroom kebab. “So Roya, you have to tell them how you escaped. It’s a fabulous story.”


Once Roya had told her version, Andi filled in the gaps. She mentioned spending time with Dr. Snyder, but left out specifics of what they'd talked about. It wasn't the right time to discuss the personal details Dr. Snyder had revealed.


No one had dropped dead by the time she finished talking, so Andi began to eat as Cyrus described the video game he'd played at SILO. The mushrooms weren’t terrible, though their flavor was overwhelmingly earthy, their texture spongy. She ate a few to satisfy her hunger, but decided she was done when she bit down on a pocket of gritty dirt. 


Naveed had devoured his quickly, despite being given the largest share, and still looked ravenous. Andi passed her remaining seven to him. He protested, but only halfheartedly, and was visibly grateful when Andi insisted. Roya noticed the exchange and gave Andi a small smile.


Meanwhile, Cyrus was recounting his adventures beyond the FireWall. When he mentioned the email from Dr. Snyder, Naveed stopped him. “Did you open the attachment?”


“Yep. I didn’t get to see all the slides, but it pretty much laid out everything they’re up to at SILO.”


“Like what?”


“Let’s see. It started with an overview of how Nutrexo produces food—they’ve figured out how to profit from every step. First, of course, you have to grow the crops. They sell these special seeds that can grow even when they’re sprayed with a weedkiller—which they also make.”


“But the old weedkiller doesn’t work too well anymore,” Andi added, avoiding Naveed’s eyes. “Some of the weeds evolved, and it doesn't destroy them now. That’s why they developed Compadre, because they needed something stronger.”


Cyrus plowed on. “So, the plants live their happy little weed-free lives. After they’re harvested, they’re transformed into other things. Corn becomes high-fructose corn syrup, or ethanol for fuel. Soybeans become oil for us, or feed for livestock, like the EcoCows. The cow’s milk is taken apart into other ingredients. Then it all gets reassembled—and voila! You have processed foods, like Blazin Bitz.


“The next step is getting people to eat them. That’s where advertising comes in—but not just commercials, all sorts of other stuff, like the 'advergame' I played. They focus on kids, for brand loyalty. The younger they hook you, the longer you buy their products.”


“I watched TV in my room, a little.” Roya drew circles in the dirt with her stick. “People in the shows were always eating Blazin Bitz. And they kept playing that commercial. These are the best times, Blazin Bitz and you.” 


“Did you find anything else?” Naveed asked Cyrus, before she’d finished singing the line.


“Not really. The last slide I saw mentioned a pharmaceutical company they acquired, Genbiotix, but I don’t know how that fits in.”

“Maybe they make drugs for the cows,” Andi suggested. “Dr. Snyder told me they’re always getting infections, so they get antibiotics in their feed.”

“I don’t know,” Naveed said. “Something’s missing. This all sounds like business as usual, so why the top-secret research facility?”

“I bet it started as a place to hide the EcoCows,” Andi said. “That pool of manure smelled horrible. If anyone else saw the way they were living, stuck inside all the time, standing in their own waste….” 

“They might not care,” Naveed finished. “It’s not just like that at SILO.” 

He probably had a point, Andi had to admit. In general, she avoided thinking about where her milk and meat came from, preferring to imagine cows grazing in pristine meadows by day and sleeping in spacious barns by night. But this mental image had been based on the idyllic farms depicted on milk cartons and cheese commercials. Definitely not the most objective source. 


“You’ve been watching too many of Brooke’s PETA videos,” Cyrus was saying to Naveed. “I think you’re right, though. There has to be some reason they brought us to SILO, other than to eat Blazin Bitz and play video games. And we weren’t the only human subjects there,” he added, with a meaningful look at Andi. 


“Actually, there was something else—” Andi began, but Cyrus interrupted. 


“Oh, hold up—HiFi!” A fleck of the mushroom Cyrus had been eating flew out of his mouth, punctuating his excitement. He finished chewing before he continued, “From the game. The Lord of Nutrexington… he was into music; he had a collection of lutes. I found out later that he was one of the research subjects. Maybe it was your dad! He’s always logged on. Everyone in NutrexoWorld respects him—he’s the largest producer of Blazin Bitz in the realm.”


Andi gathered her hair and ran her fingers through it. Somehow, this was not reassuring. 


“Sorry, you were saying?” Cyrus said to Andi.


“Well... so, you know how the EcoCows were supposedly designed to produce twice as much milk? Dr. Snyder told me she slipped in this other gene too, that reacts in the brain to make you feel calm. They’re using the EcoCow milk in the new product we were testing—Blazin Bitz Crave. That’s why they’re so addictive.”


“I didn’t like those little chips,” said Roya. “They made me feel strange.”


“Huh,” Cyrus said. “That explains a lot. I mean, I hate to admit it but... I would seriously kill for some Bitz right now.”


Andi felt the same way, but she didn't want to say so out loud. “Anyway, she’s already gotten approval from the government to put them into production.”


“I bet that’s what the board meeting on Monday is about,” Cyrus said. “Convincing them to go ahead and get them on the market.”


“What day is today?” Naveed asked.


“Saturday,” said Andi.


“Saturday?” he repeated, incredulous. “Well. That gives us two days to get back and stop her. I mean, them.” 


“Yeah. SILO's going down,” Cyrus said. “I emailed the slideshow to myself, so we’ll have some good evidence to show the police.” 


“You did? Kourosh, you are amazing,” Naveed said, and Cyrus straightened up, grinning. “Guess we should head out, then.”


“Are you sure you don’t need to rest longer?” Roya asked.


“Nah, I’m ready. Breakfast was perfect.” Naveed smiled at them gratefully, and Andi found herself relaxing. He did seem a little better; maybe he just needed some food, maybe everything really would be okay.   


Then Naveed's smile vanished. He turned his face skyward, listening, and Andi heard it too: the rumble of a distant helicopter.


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