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Chapter Nine

On Tuesday morning at 1:00 a.m., the silence in the Nano Research Center was deafening. While Colt lay in his bed thinking about his parents, A Li climbed five flights of stairs from the subbasement tunnel to Dr. Murray’s lab on the third floor. All she heard were the faint squeaks from the soles of her shoes and the even softer squeaks from the tiny creature in the cage.

When she unlocked the door to the lab, the lights were on. This was not unusual; students entered and left the labs at all hours. She walked past the counters with microscopes, centrifuges, racks of bottles and the belly dancers—the moving platforms used to mix antibodies.

A Li had to eat something. Food wasn’t allowed in the laboratories, but she kept a few granola bars in one of the drawers on her bench. She found one that was stale and rock hard, bit off a piece and washed it down half-chewed. It tasted like cardboard but would give her energy and kill her appetite for a couple of hours. The water from the bottle she carried in her backpack was warm, but pure. She never drank bottled water in China; most of it came from the tap and was polluted.

A Li placed the cage on her lab bench and sat down on the stool. The tiny mouse stood up on two legs, its front paws on the mesh of the cage and looked out with its little black eyes. A Li gazed back at the creature for a few seconds and wondered if it had any inkling of its impending fate. Like all researchers in America running experiments using mice, rats or any other animal, she was bound by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee protocol. It governed the handling and killing of all research animals and the university insisted that she follow the specific procedures to ensure her mice did not suffer in the few seconds before she put them to death. A Li followed the guidelines, but thought that the lab animals in America lived better lives than some humans in Yunnan. She had seen so much human suffering on the gritty streets in China, where hungry people lived in cardboard boxes and subsisted each day on a single bowl of rice and a steamed fish head.

She turned to organize the stainless steel dissection instruments—she was now proficient with the tiny tweezers, forceps and scissors suitable for cutting apart a two-inch mouse. She spilled several small plastic tubes out of a box and arranged them upright in a tray, each numbered to correspond to a piece of a particular organ or lymph node. She spread a white paper pad and tore off strips of white masking tape to hold the mouse in place once she cut it open.

A Li needed saline to wash each bit of mouse tissue. She took an unopened bottle from Tetsu’s bench and poured some into a Petri dish. Tetsu was an unfriendly Japanese post doc who would have been furious if he had known A Li had touched anything on his lab bench, even a common bottle of saline solution. He worked in one of Dr. Murray’s other research groups investigating B-cells, which produce antibodies in the blood. In the rack above his bench, he kept several pipetting syringes with sharp tips, which he used to dispense precise amounts of an acid needed to preserve cell samples. Tetsu had only spoken to A Li once, on the day she watched him mix the liquid and fill his pipettes. Wearing his white lab coat, gloves and mask, he warned her that the acid, sodium azide, was highly toxic and a quick acting poison if ingested. He told her never to touch anything on his bench. Tetsu sometimes ignored some of the safety protocols for the lab, including keeping syringes filled with sodium azide. He somehow got away with it, even though the rules were strictly enforced. A Li detested him. He was a brilliant researcher but arrogant and mean spirited. Fortunately, he was never in the lab at night when she did most of her work.

She went to one of the drug cabinets, unlocked it and removed an ampoule of Ketamine. An injection of the drug, an anesthetic, would render her mouse unconscious before she broke its neck. A Li pulled on her latex gloves and drew the Ketamine into a small syringe. Her mouse surgery instructor said that the drug was called Special K and was a favorite with the kids in the nightclubs and raves around LA. Inhaling it in powder form gave a hallucinatory feeling. A Li had never been to a nightclub and wasn’t sure what a rave was. All she had ever done was study, study, study. The Americans had so many other things to do besides study. In fact, it seemed they did everything except their homework, which was why none of the people in the advanced research classes were from the United States. Even though the Asians were smarter, the Americans made them feel vaguely ashamed and ill at ease. She didn’t understand it. Didn’t they know Asia was about to bury them?

A Li was almost ready. She needed a container with N2—liquid nitrogen—to flash-freeze the organ samples. Later they would be thawed and prepared for microscopic analysis and DNA sequencing to determine where the stem cells had migrated. She went to the back of the lab past the bank of refrigerators, each a different size, each with a different warning: CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS; NOT FOR FOOD STORAGE; UNSAFE FOR FLAMMABLE SOLVENTS. Next to the refrigerators, the liquid nitrogen tank that Dr. Murray referred to as Humpty Dumpty, sat on the floor like a giant gray egg. A Li had no idea what Humpty Dumpty was until she checked the Internet. She had expected something scientific and was surprised to find a reference to a nursery rhyme, much like one that Pa Lags had read to her and A Mei when they were very young. A Li couldn’t imagine Dr. Murray reading a nursery rhyme to anyone. The digital readout on the tank showed -270 degrees Celsius. The lab manager had filled several metal thermos containers with the coolant and A Li took one back to her bench.

She opened PGL010’s cage and grasped the tiny gray creature. It made tiny sounds while she held it by the back of the neck as her instructor had demonstrated. She stuck the needle into its abdomen and injected the Ketamine. She watched the creature’s whiskers twitch for a few seconds before it went limp. A Li followed the Bon religion, founded some 1,300 years ago by Shenrab Miboche. In the early years of Bon, sheep, dogs, yaks and even horses were sacrificed to please the gods. She wondered if the death of this tiny mouse would please the ancient God of Medicine, Yeje Tutob Gyalpo.

She laid the mouse on its stomach, pressed a glass rod against its neck, pulled its tail and severed the spinal chord. She turned the creature over on its back and taped its legs to the white pad. The fur on its underside was snow white. A Li opened her notebook to the page that outlined the order of organ removal. She used the scissors to cut open the skin on the mouse’s stomach and pulled it aside. A sour odor drifted into her nostrils as she used a cotton pad to absorb the blood accumulating in the tiny body cavity. She started with the most accessible organs—the pancreas, spleen, kidney and liver. She cut away a sample of each and washed it in the saline, leaving small clouds of blood in the liquid. She deposited each specimen in a marked plastic tube. Moving on to the stomach, she cut it open and cleaned it before taking a sample. She cut through the ribs with a stronger pair of scissors and removed the lungs and thymus from the chest cavity. A Li failed to squeeze the heart before she cut into it and a tiny explosion of blood covered the scissors, the tips of her gloves and ran out onto the absorbent pad. She dabbed it away and took her last sample.

When she finished, she sealed each of the tubes and opened the liquid nitrogen container. A cloud of vapor escaped as she inserted the tissue samples, which would freeze within seconds. She rolled the mouse carcass up in the absorbent pad and deposited it in a Stericycle medical waste container designated for dissected carcasses with viruses or foreign DNA. Early in the morning, the biohazard crew would come through each laboratory, collect the toxic waste, needles and animal remains and cart it all off to a disposal center.

After washing her instruments and leaving them in the sterilizer, A Li was finished. It was 2:10 a.m. For a moment, she paused and allowed herself to daydream. She imagined a campus-wide assembly in Jarrow Hall, where an announcement was about to be made confirming that Dr. Murray and his research team were the first to successfully reprogram the DNA in stem cells. The Chancellor of CU, the Dean of the Medical School, the Governor of California and many other important people were on hand. The possibility of a Nobel Prize for Dr. Murray was rumored. He stepped to the podium. After thanking everyone and making a short speech, he invited the members of his research team to join him. A Li imagined Hisao, Tetsu, Tanay and the others crowding around Dr. Murray, basking in the glory of the announcement. In her mind’s eye, A Li searched for herself. Was she part of the group?

She sighed and stood up. She picked up her backpack, went to the front of the lab and turned off the lights. Out in the hall, she started toward the elevator. It was already Tuesday, A Mei’s birthday—and her own.

Dear sister, I wish you peace and love. Today is your birthday. I won’t be at home to honor you, but I have a ceremony planned for you here in the lab. You are always with me. I know you are happy about what I have learned in America. I have gained knowledge of the most sophisticated methods of genetic programming. I have learned the secrets of using stem cells. I will learn to create Bombay Blood. I am doing this for you.

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