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Chapter Seven

The first time A Li entered the vast, dark underground tunnel complex, she was frightened even though Tanay was with her. “It’s perfectly safe,” he had told her. “There’s no one down here but faculty and students.”

A Li had not felt safe. The tunnels were dark, damp, ran off in all directions like a labyrinth and she wondered if she would ever learn her way around. The passages reminded her of one of the fables she and A Mei heard when they were children. According to Tibetan legend, there was an underground city of gold in a vast cavern in the Himalayas, guarded by wayward spirits and connected to the cellars of the monasteries by an ancient tunnel system. People who ventured in to search for the gold never returned.

Months after her first underground venture with Tanay, A Li had made the round trip between the Nano Research Center and the Colony enough times to know the route and feel secure, although she would still not venture through the maze to any of the other science buildings or to more distant destinations on the campus. Tonight after her humiliation by Dr. Murray, she walked to the Colony alone through the tunnel and had the strange sensation someone was following her. She moved faster and tried to distract herself with thoughts about her parents and her home.

In her religion, the family bond was sacred. Even if they were 8,000 miles and 15 hours away, her connection to A Ma and Pa Lags was unaffected. In Zhongdian, it would now be dinnertime. In the early fall evening, the sun would be setting on the green hillsides and pasture lands. The wind would blow, bamboo would rustle and birds would take flight. Her father would enter their modest tile-roofed home, drop his battered leather satchel filled with his student’s papers and walk into the kitchen. Her mother would have set the table with steamed dumplings, yak cheese and ginger tea. After dinner, they might sit quietly and sip Chang, the Tibetan wine made from highland wheat. If they walked to the square to watch the singing and dancing, they would see the candle-lit windows of the Ganden Sumsteling monastery on the hillside. A Li imagined every detail with perfect clarity, but no image of her family would be complete without including A Mei. If her sister were still alive, she would be at the dinner table with a husband and two beautiful little twin girls of her own. If A Mei were alive, A Li would be at home at her sister’s side, not walking through a subterranean web of damp tunnels half way around the world.

A Li was hungry and thought how nice it would have been to have dinner with Tanay. Six hours ago, she had washed down her meal of raw vegetables and a bowl of noodles with a bottle of cold green tea before hurrying off to listen to the presentations in Dr. Murray’s lab. Now it was after midnight and she still had to retrieve one of her mice and do a dissection. There was always so much work.

She turned to look behind her, still certain someone was following her through the tunnel. She wasn’t imagining it; she sensed another person in the darkness behind her. A Li quickly climbed the flight of stairs to the security door of the Colony. She swiped her ID card and when she opened the door, a current of cool dry air blew around her from the air filtration system.

As soon as she was inside under the bright light, she felt safe. The breeze followed her as she walked through the gleaming white hallway to the change room where she donned sterile clothing before she went “behind the barrier” to retrieve one of her mice. All the breeding of CU’s genetically altered mice occurred inside the Colony, which housed thousands of the little creatures. Many of them were “knock out mice,” which meant they had been bred with certain genes eliminated or knocked out. The medical research depended on a mouse population free of outside contamination and every precaution was taken to keep them healthy and untainted.

A Li was excited and for the moment forgot about her anxiety in the tunnel as well as her problems with Dr. Murray. The previous week she had completed the mouse anatomy and surgery course. She had learned how to inject stem cells into the live animals through the veins in their tails and had learned to dissect mice under the supervision of her instructor. This would be her first solo dissection. After harvesting samples from the various mouse organs tonight, she would search for the altered stem cells in the tissue later in the week. At the next lab meeting, she hoped to report to Dr. Murray and the others that she had found the stem cells thriving in the organs. It would go a long way toward establishing her as a respected member of the research group.

A Li left the change room and went down the hall to the room that held the mice used in Dr. Murray’s experiments. Tonight she planned to harvest the organs from PGL0101, a two-inch gray mouse. The room contained a solid wall of cages supported on shelves. She turned on the dim night light. Most of the cages contained two or three of the creatures. A Li bent down and disconnected a cage on a lower shelf. She placed it on the stainless steel bench and checked the numbers under the bar code against the information in her notebook. Satisfied that she had the correct mouse, she turned off the light and made sure the electronic lock sealed the door behind her.

Back in the change room, she discarded her sterile clothes and went into the hallway, taking the cage with her. On the way to the tunnel, she passed two researchers from another department. She thought she recognized the one with the full white beard. They were busy talking about their experiments and barely acknowledged her as she walked past.

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