Test tubes and other recipients in chemistry lab

I am perhaps the only professional artist to ever be hired for a job at a scientific research firm. The offer came in the form of an email from my high school friend Damaris. “I need my right brain,” she’d written as the subject line. That was our high school joke. She was the left brain to my right. She wielded science, I wielded paint.

Damaris had been working at Baltra Laboratory, located on some off the grid island in the middle of nowhere. “So remote, the scientists are becoming despondent. I need you to come here to brighten this place up,” she’d written. The job also included the first respectable wage I’d been offered as an artist.

So I said yes. She arranged for me to take a plane to the coast to hitch a ride on the regular supply ship. Damaris met me onboard.  The ship brought us within a half mile of the shore, and from there, we lowered a dinghy into the water and rowed the rest of the way. I made a crack about a tough commute. We really were in the middle of nowhere.

We tied the little boat off at the single company dock with minimal struggle and made our way up the small, rocky slope to the shore. We walked inland for fifteen minutes or so before I could see a small building up ahead, glass on all sides, the only interruption in the barren landscape. I thought it looked far too small for a sophisticated lab and said as much to Damaris. “Tip of the iceberg,” she replied.

Sure enough. The glass building jutting out of the rocks housed nothing more than an access elevator. The rest of Baltra was underground.

After Damaris swiped her ID card three times and entered as many passcodes, the elevator started moving and brought us to a long, bright hallway. Damaris chose one empty lab at the very end of the hall to show me. It was unlocked, and when we entered, it seemed abandoned. There were a few chairs, a long chrome lab table, and a large window looking into another, smaller room, also empty.

“We’ve cleared this one out because this is where you’ll start the mural,” she said.

“So, what kind of mural did you have in mind?” I asked her.

She sighed, almost longingly. “Something that brings the outside in,” she said. “Jane, we live and work underground, and sometimes it seems like we’ll die down here too before our work is even close to being finished.” She stared off for a minute, lost in thought.  “We need something beautiful to look at. We’re all depressed.”

We decided I’d wait a little while to start, live underground with the depressed scientists and see what I most wanted to see splashed across the cold, white walls.

I tinkered around a few days, walked the monotonous underground halls, and met some scientists. I didn’t learn much about what exactly went on at Baltra Labs, just that the twelve scientists employed there all seemed oddly young to me. It could have been their sullen manner.

By the fourth day underground, I was itching to leave and unsure I could really take it for the next six months. Of course these people are depressed, I thought. It’s only a wonder they haven’t all gone mad. They could take the elevator up and go outside­–that was permitted during daylight hours if you had the clearance and the passcodes. But the truth is, with the ocean sprawled out in all directions, there just wasn’t much to look at up there. I stopped wanting to go outside after those first few days. It only made me feel more trapped, and I didn’t have clearance and always needed to be escorted anyway. Thomas, another Baltra scientist, was always willing to join me outside, but after a while, I realized I was more content with the artificial sunlamp Damaris had given me for my residence room.

I started painting on the fifth day when I’d decided that what I needed to see most was this stretch of desert road we’d driven when I was a kid. The Apache Trail it was called, and it snaked through the Sonoran Desert with the sun bearing down almost violently and wild cacti growing on all sides. In this underground waterlogged world, I most needed to see the dry, hot desert.

I moved from room to room that way, painting whatever I wanted to see next. I gave Damaris four days’ notice before I finished a mural in one lab. Then she would have someone prep the next one for me. For weeks and weeks this went on. Paint and brushes got shipped in with the scheduled deliveries. Some of the scientists started popping in while I was working, complimenting my pieces and telling me it was really starting to make a difference to them to have something more to look at. Damaris seemed really pleased too, and that put me at ease. She had never been one to offer false compliments. I kept working.

I was working on a mural of an autumn country road when I met Olivia. She walked in so quietly, I almost fell off of my ladder when she said, “It looks familiar to me.”

I recovered myself enough to reply, “It’s Route 2, heading into the Berkshires. You know it?”

“I’ve been down here so long, I’m not sure what I’ve seen in person and what I’ve only dreamt about,” she replied.

We let that hang in the air for a few minutes as I wiped my brushes off and climbed down from my perch. “How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Four years I guess, but this year is my last. I’m heading home to Oregon. I’ve had as much as I can take.”

I told her I couldn’t blame her for wanting to leave. I’d already lost track of how long I’d been at Baltra, and even as I painted murals of familiar, beloved places, I couldn’t tell if I’d gotten them quite right. I couldn’t remember.

“It’s not the setting,” she said, “at least, that’s not the whole problem. Has anyone told you what we do here?”

“Something about… trying to understand evolution?” I asked. The truth is, the only information I’d gleaned about the activities at Baltra had come to me by way of Damaris, and I knew her well enough to know that I shouldn’t ask too many questions.

“Let’s take a walk,” Olivia said suddenly. “Follow me.”

I walked beside her in the hallway, slightly nervous and more or less bewildered. She was a strangely intense woman. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-three or thirty-four, but she carried herself like she’d lived decades of hardship and suffering. I chalked it up to the depression that had been going around. The Baltra Blues.

She stopped at an unassuming door at the end of the hall, swiped her ID card, and punched in her code. She swung the door open, and it was empty. But the lights were on, and there was a window opening into a smaller room, like all of the other labs.

“You see, Jane, we already understand evolution. That’s not the point now; it’s not enough for anyone. No, we’re trying to spontaneously create evolution to see what could happen in the next one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand years.”

She led me over to the window, and I peered through. Inside it looked like some sort of a marshland habitat with a manmade pond of mucky water and herbaceous plants growing along the sides.

I don’t believe it, I thought. Here I was painting nature scenes for these people to look at, and all along, they’ve been growing their own in a giant petri dish.

“So what am I looking at?” I asked Olivia.

“A fully functioning, true-to-life marshland.”

“The marshlands are in trouble,” she explained, though I knew that much already. They were being drained, developed, and destroyed. Man’s legacy on earth. She went on to explain that there are a lot of species of animals, especially birds, native to the marshlands that will have to adapt as their habitats are wiped off of the face of the earth.

“The point is, we don’t want to wait to find out what these birds can do to ensure their survival,” she explained. “In this particular experiment, we’ve spliced together a blackbird”…

“You’ve spliced together a blackbird?” I exclaimed. “What do you mean by that?”

“We created a blackbird which has certain genetic enhancements,” she said calmly. “There’s a bird nesting in this room that can analyze its environment, and, we’re hoping, alter itself or its behavior immediately in the same way it would gradually over time if its environmental conditions persisted for thousands of years.”

“You’re hoping?” I asked.

“It doesn’t always work.”

“So you’re saying you can make one little change to its environment, and it’s like that change has persisted for thousands of years, and the bird is supposed to instantly evolve?”

“Yes,” she said. “That is what I’m saying. Tomorrow, we’re going to start draining this marshland to see what happens with our little blackbird.”

By that point, my head was spinning, and I badly needed to lie down. I politely thanked her for the quick tour and asked her if she’d swipe her card so I could get back out of the room. She smiled at me sympathetically as she opened the door.

“Don’t feel bad, Artist Jane,” she said. “I had the same reaction at first, and I understand the science.”

For the next few weeks, I kept my head down and continued painting in silence. I went out of my way not to talk to anyone, Damaris included. I worried that she might be angry that Olivia had told me about the blackbird experiment, and I also worried that she would tell me more about what went on at Baltra Labs. Something inside me knew that it didn’t stop at draining marshlands.

A few weeks after she’d shown me the experiment, Olivia came to my room after I’d quit for the day. “May I come in?” she asked. “I won’t stay long, but I thought you might be curious about our blackbird.”

I opened the door and let her come in, offering her a seat at the small desk in the corner.

“After we drained the marsh, the insects died off about a week later,” she told me. “You see, blackbirds eat the insects; that’s why they are marsh birds. Anyway, once he realized that the insects were all gone, he began to eat the vegetation. I let him continue for a few days, and then I tranquilized him so I could take some scans. His beak had become rounded. The entire lining of his stomach had changed. So that settles it. When the marshlands dry up, blackbirds will become plant eaters.”

I considered her words in a moment of silence and tried to understand what they meant. I couldn’t see the point of going through all of the trouble, of building an underground lab thousands of miles from any kind of civilization, just to know that someday, thousands of years in the future, some marsh-dwelling blackbird may or may not begin to eat plants.

“So what does the research accomplish?” I finally asked. “Does it serve to excuse environmental degradation? We can drain the marshes without guilt because the natural world will adapt?”

“I think everyone has a different reason for being here,” Olivia said. “For me, this particular variety of blackbird may be able to survive for a long time. But there are millions of species out there, and some of them will not fare as well as the blackbird. That’s what I’m here to find. I want to be able to prove to the world that we’re destroying things that matter.”

“Then why are you leaving? It sounds like you have a lot of important work left to do.”

She initially seemed shocked by my question, but she quickly regained her composure. She shrugged. “I’m ready to go,” she said. “I can continue the research somewhere else, somewhere closer to home.”

Weeks went by, and I didn’t see much of Olivia. Damaris was almost nowhere to be found. I didn’t see much of anybody, really. Looking back, I think I already knew something was wrong. I could see it in their faces. I would pass by Baltra employees now and then, and they’d divert their eyes and keep on walking. Everything seemed suddenly too heavy for polite, social interactions, but I wasn’t sure why. I ran into Olivia once when I was walking to the utility closet to clean my brushes. She was running down the hall though, and she didn’t stop to say hi. Her face looked sullen.

It was later that same night when I woke to heavy pounding on my door. I nearly fell out of bed and scrambled for the door, thinking there must be some sort of fire in one of the labs. I fumbled for the light switch as I fumbled for the lock on the door, my motor skills still asleep. When I finally got the door open, Olivia burst in, her eyes wild with fear.

“Damaris has done it,” she was yelling. “You have to come with me right now! Thomas is going ahead to get the boat ready. You have to come now!”

Her fear snapped me awake, and I pulled my shoes on and followed her, running down the hall to the elevator. Damaris was there waiting for us. She made eye contact with me as I got to her, and her eyes looked empty, like she was in a waking coma. She calmly swiped her ID card and punched in her passcode for the elevator. I put my hand on her arm and tried to reach her, carefully avoiding the blood that also covered her arms.

“What is it, Damaris? Tell me what happened. Why are we leaving?”

Olivia interrupted before Damaris could speak. “I’ll explain it all on the way.”

We got outside, and the cold ocean wind instantly pummeled us. We ran all the way to the dock with nothing but the moonlight to guide us. We hadn’t stopped for a flashlight or any other provisions. We got there and Thomas had undocked the boat and was holding it steady in the rocky island shallows for us. We scaled down the slope to the churning water and climbed into the boat. Olivia grabbed the oars from Thomas, and we started moving out into the open, empty dark. I was relieved to feel some supplies tucked in by my feet. Thomas must have thought of that.

It was late that first night when I found out why we were running. Damaris and Thomas had both fallen asleep, and I’d just taken over the oars for Olivia.

“I’m not sure what we’re running from, so I’m not sure how far we have to go,” I said.

She didn’t say anything for a few minutes, and we both sat listening to the oars slapping at the water and the water slapping at the boat.

“Damaris spliced together some humans,” Olivia finally whispered. “Bioengineered, not really alive, but alive. It was her life’s work, her obsession, and she finally did it. Three of them.”

I continued rowing, trying to hold the boat steady, trying to keep some sort of course without an instrument to guide me.

“She did the first experiment this week. We were all there for most of it, all twelve of us. Overpopulation, that’s what she was testing. So she put the first specimen in a room and gave him plenty of food and water and let him stay there alone for a few days. Then she introduced another specimen but scaled back the food and water. That went on for a few days. They got competitive; they tried to manipulate the other into taking less food. It was interesting, actually. But then she introduced a third specimen yesterday, and she took almost all of the food and water away.”

Here Olivia started crying silently. I didn’t push her to finish; I just waited for her to tell the rest.

“It took only a few hours,” she said, her voice wavering in the dark. “Jane, they started tearing each other apart, limb from limb. They were cannibalizing each other right in front of us. You could never imagine anything so gruesome. “You see the way they understood it, there would only be enough food for one specimen at a time to live on for the next ten thousand years. It was too competitive. They snapped.” She paused, still in disbelief it seemed.

“I don’t know who moved in first,” she continued, “but we all rushed in there, just trying to stop them, just trying to make it stop. But we couldn’t stop them. I think we are the only ones left, now…”

I continued rowing, trying to understand how blackbirds eating herbaceous plants had led to this, trying to understand the implications.

“So you’re telling me that ten thousand years from now humans will become cannibals to curb overpopulation?”

“I’m telling you that it’s already happening, back at Baltra,” she said. “I’m telling you to keep rowing because we have to get as far away from this place as possible.”

The sun started to come up. Damaris woke maybe an hour later, and she took over the oars. I went and sat by Thomas, who was also coming out of an uncomfortable sleep. Olivia stared off into the distance, her eyes bloodshot, her face drained. Nobody said anything for hours.

Near what I guessed to be late morning, Damaris stopped rowing. “I think this is far enough,” she said. “We should wait here. The supply ship will come, they’ll find us.”

“They’re not due for five more weeks,” Thomas said. He moved to take the oars from Damaris and began to row.

“You know, it’s all suddenly so clear to me,” he said as he heaved the oars across the water. “One of the specimens probably survived. Spliced or not, it’s genetic code, you know, survival of the fittest. One of them survived and is feeding on all of the others. And when that supply of food runs out, he’ll find something else, he’ll adapt. Trouble is, he’s caught on that godforsaken rock. There’s not enough there to support anything. There aren’t even any seasonal birds passing through for him to trap. Nothing grows there, it’s just dead rock.”

“So what does that mean?” I asked. “Besides, isn’t he trapped in the lab? I mean, it’s not like you gave ID cards and passcodes to your experiments. So he’ll starve to death soon. Not that I’d wish that on anyone, or anything, but, in this case, isn’t it a good thing?”

“No…,” he said. “No, the specimen won’t starve. And he’s not trapped. I suddenly see it so clearly. He’s capable of evolving instantly. He’ll find a way out of the lab, and when he does, he’ll find a way to eat. And if the rock itself doesn’t sustain him, which, let’s face it, it probably won’t, he’ll evolve to be able to swim great distances or great depths. He could develop gills in a matter of hours.”

“So you’re saying he could, at any moment, develop the capacity to come out here and find us and cannibalize us?” My question seemed too small to me even as I was asking it.

Thomas kept rowing. We said nothing else for a long time.

For days we rowed and nothing happened. We strictly rationed our food and water, but it was becoming clear we would run out. It was also becoming clear that Thomas and I were the only two left with the desire to speak. Damaris and Olivia were physically there, but they were silent, gone. I talked about rowing back to the island, trying to signal for help, or at least getting some more supplies. In the end, we agreed it was too dangerous.

So we floated.

Weeks went by. I was not sure how many. We all came in and out. I dreamed, but I was never really sure if I was awake or asleep. Every few days, Thomas talked about the supply ship. It never came.

The food and water ran out. Thomas used a kitchen knife to carve some wood from the hull of the boat. We used it to fashion four straws; one is shorter than the rest.

We’ll wait as long as we can, and then we’ll pull our straws. Three of us will have to eat.