Chapter no 13 – Idiots

Lesson, in Chemistry

Hastings Research Institute management had a big problem. With their star scientist dead, and a newspaper article implying that his lousy personality had kept him from accomplishing anything worthwhile, Hastings’s benefactors—the army, the navy, several pharmaceutical companies, a few private investors, and a handful of foundations—were already making noises about “reexamining Hastings’s existing projects” and “rethinking future grants.” That’s how it is with research—it’s at the mercy of those who pay for it.

Which is why Hastings management was determined to lay this ridiculous story to rest. Evans had been making good progress, hadn’t he? His office was overflowing with notebooks and strange little equations written in an indecipherable script and punctuated by exclamation marks and thick underlines like the kind one makes when one is on the brink of something. In fact, he was scheduled to present a paper on his progress in Geneva in just another month. Or would have if he hadn’t been backed over by a police car because he insisted on running outdoors in the rain instead of indoors in ballet slippers like everybody else.

Scientists. They just had to be different.

That was also part of the problem. Most of the Hastings scientists weren’t different—or at least not different enough. They were normal, average, at best slightly above average. Not stupid, but not genius either. They were the kind of people who make up the majority of every company

—normal people who do normal work, and who occasionally get promoted

into management with uninspiring results. People who weren’t going to change the world, but neither were they accidentally going to blow it up.

No, management had to rely on its innovators, and with Evans gone, that left a very small pool of true talent. Not all of them were in lofty positions like Calvin’s; in fact, a few of them probably didn’t realize they were regarded as true innovators. But Hastings management knew it was from them that nearly every big idea and breakthrough came.

The only real issue with these people, besides the occasional hygiene challenge, was that they always seemed to embrace failure as a positive outcome. “I have not failed,” they’d endlessly quote Edison, “I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” Which may be an acceptable thing to say in science but is absolutely the wrong thing to say to a roomful of investors looking for an immediate, high-ticket, chronic treatment for cancer. God save them from actual cures. Much harder to make money off someone who doesn’t have a problem anymore. For that reason, Hastings did whatever it could to keep these people away from the press, unless it was the scientific press, which was fine because no one read that. But now? Dead Evans was on page eleven of the LA Times, and there next to his coffin? Zott and the damn dog.

That was management’s third problem. Zott.

She was one of their innovators. Unrecognized, of course, but she acted as if she knew. Not a week went by when they didn’t get some complaint about her—the way she voiced her opinion, insisted her name appear on her own papers, refused to make coffee; the list was endless. And yet her progress—or was it Calvin’s?—was undeniable.

Her project, abiogenesis, had only been approved because a fat-cat investor had dropped from the heavens and insisted on funding, of all things, abiogenesis. What were the odds? Although this was exactly the sort of weird thing multimillionaires did: fund useless pie-in-the-sky projects. The rich man had said he’d read a paper by an E. Zott—something old out of UCLA—and had been fascinated by its expansion possibilities. He’d been trying to track down Zott ever since.

“Zott? But Mr. Zott works here!” they’d told him before they could stop themselves.

The rich man had seemed genuinely surprised. “I’m only in town for a day, but I’d very much like to meet with Mr. Zott,” he’d said.

And they hemmed and hawed. Meet with Zott, they thought. And find out he was a she? His check was as good as gone.

“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible,” they’d said. “Mr. Zott is in Europe. At a conference.”

“What a pity,” the rich man said. “Perhaps next time.” And then he went on to say that he’d only be checking in on the project’s progress about once every few years. Because he understood science was slow. Because he knew it required time and distance and patience.

Time. Distance. Patience. Was this man for real? “Very wise,” they’d told him as they fought the urge to do backflips across the office. “Thanks for your trust.” And before he was settled into his limo, they’d already carved up the bulk of his largesse to fund more promising research areas. They’d even given a bit of it to Evans.

But then—Evans. After they’d so graciously reinvested in his no-real-idea-what-the-guy-was-actually-doing research, he’d stormed into their offices saying if they didn’t find a way to fund his pretty girlfriend, he’d leave and take all his toys and ideas and Nobel Prize nominations with him. They’d begged him to be reasonable; make them actually fund abiogenesis? Come on. But he refused to budge, went as far as to assert that her ideas might even be better than his own. At the time, they wrote it off to the ramblings of a man who’d hit the jackpot, sexwise. But now?

Her theories, unlike the theories of all the Edison “I’m not really a failure” quoters, appeared—at least according to Evans—to be dead-on. Darwin had long ago proposed that life sprang from a single-celled bacterium, which then went on to diversify into a complex planet of people, plants, and animals. Zott? She was like a bloodhound on the trail of where that first cell had come from. In other words, she was out to solve one of the greatest chemical mysteries of all time, and if her findings continued apace, there was no question that she would do just that. According to Evans, at

least. The only issue was, it would probably take ninety years. Ninety completely unaffordable years. The fat-cat investor would surely be dead in far less. More to the point, so would they.

And there was one other minor detail. Management had just learned Zott was pregnant. As in unwed and pregnant.

Could their day get any worse?

Obviously, she had to go; no question about it. Hastings Research Institute had standards.

But if she were to go, where did that leave them on the innovation front? With a handful of people making poky-pony progress, that’s where. And poky ponies didn’t inspire much in the way of big-ticket grants.

Fortunately, Zott did work with three others. Hastings management had sent for them straightaway; they needed assurance that Zott’s so-called critical research could limp along without Zott—whatever it would take to make it seem as if the money it never actually got was being put to good use. But as soon as the three PhDs were in the room, Hastings management knew they were in trouble. Two reluctantly conceded that Zott was the main driver, essential to any forward progress. The third— a man named Boryweitz—went the other route. Claimed he’d actually done it all. But when he couldn’t back up any of his assertions with meaningful scientific explanation, they realized they were in the presence of a scientific idiot. Hastings was rife with them. No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.

The chemist sitting in front of them now? He couldn’t even spell abiogenesis.

And then Miss Frask from Personnel—the one who’d first sounded the alarm regarding Zott’s condition? She’d used her limited talents to spread the Zott’s-knocked-up rumor, ensuring that all of Hastings knew of Zott’s plight by noon. Which scared the hell out of them. The rumor’s wildfire effect meant it was only a matter of time before the institute’s big investors knew, and investors—as anyone knew—hated scandals. Plus, there was the problem of Zott’s rich man-fan. The multimillionaire who’d written them a virtual blank check on behalf of abiogenesis—who’d claimed to have read

Mr. Zott’s old paper. How would he feel when he learned that Zott was not only a woman, but a knocked-up, unwed woman at that? God. They could picture that big limo swinging back round the drive, the chauffeur keeping the motor running as the man strode in and demanded his check back. “I was funding a professional slut?” he’d probably shout. Trouble. They had to do something about Zott immediately.

“I’m afraid you’ve put us in a terrible, terrible position, Miss Zott,” scolded Dr. Donatti a week later as he pushed a termination notice across the table in her direction.

“You’re firing me?” Elizabeth said, confused.

“I’d like to get through this as civilly as possible.” “Why am I being fired? On what grounds?”

“I think you know.”

“Enlighten me,” she said, leaning forward, her hands clasped together in a tight mass, her number-two pencil behind her left ear glinting in the light. She wasn’t sure from where her composure came, but she knew she must keep it.

He glanced at Miss Frask, who was busy taking notes.

“You’re with child,” Donatti said. “Don’t try and deny it.” “Yes, I’m pregnant. That is correct.”

“That is correct?” he choked. “That is correct?”

“Again. Correct. I am pregnant. What does that have to do with my work?”


“I’m not contagious,” she said, unfolding her hands. “I do not have cholera. No one will catch having a baby from me.”

“You have a lot of nerve,” Donatti said. “You know very well women do not continue to work when pregnant. But you—you’re not only with child, you’re unwed. It’s disgraceful.”

“Pregnancy is a normal condition. It is not disgraceful. It is how every human being starts.”

“How dare you,” he said, his voice rising. “A woman telling me what pregnancy is. Who do you think you are?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “A woman,” she said.

“Miss Zott,” Miss Frask stated, “our code of conduct does not allow for this sort of thing and you know it. You need to sign this paper, and then you need to clean out your desk. We have standards.”

But Elizabeth didn’t flinch. “I’m confused,” she said. “You’re firing me on the basis of being pregnant and unwed. What about the man?”

“What man? You mean Evans?” Donatti asked.

“Any man. When a woman gets pregnant outside of marriage, does the man who made her pregnant get fired, too?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Would you have fired Calvin, for instance?” “Of course not!”

“If not, then, technically, you have no grounds to fire me.”

Donatti looked confused. What? “Of course, I do,” he stumbled. “Of course, I do! You’re the woman! You’re the one who got knocked up!”

“That’s generally how it works. But you do realize that a pregnancy requires a man’s sperm.”

“Miss Zott, I’m warning you. Watch your language.

“You’re saying that if an unmarried man makes an unmarried woman pregnant, there is no consequence for him. His life goes on. Business as usual.”

“This is not our fault,” Frask interrupted. “You were trying to trap Evans into marriage. It’s obvious.”

“What I know,” she said, pushing a stray hair away from her forehead, “is that Calvin and I did not want to have children. I also know that we took every precaution to ensure that outcome. This pregnancy is a failure of contraception, not morality. It’s also none of your business.”

“You’ve made it our business!” Donatti suddenly shouted. “And in case you weren’t aware, there is a surefire way not to get pregnant and it starts

with an ‘A’! We have rules, Miss Zott! Rules!”

“Not on this you don’t,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I’ve read the employee manual front to back.”

“It’s an unwritten rule!”

“And thus not legally binding.”

Donatti glowered at her. “Evans would be very, very ashamed of you.” “No,” Elizabeth said simply, her voice empty but calm. “He would not.”

The room fell silent. It was the way she kept disagreeing—without embarrassment, without melodrama—as if she would have the last say, as if she knew she’d win in the end. This is exactly the kind of attitude her coworkers had complained of. And the way she implied that hers and Calvin’s relationship was at some higher level—as if it had been crafted from nondissolvable material that survived everything, even his death. Annoying.

As Elizabeth waited for them to come to their senses, she laid her hands flat on the table. Losing a loved one has a way of revealing a too-simple truth: that time, as people often claimed but never heeded, really was precious. She had work to do; it was all she had left. And yet here she sat with self-appointed guardians of moral conduct, smug judges who lacked judgment, one of whom seemed unclear on the process of conception and one who went along because she, like so many other women, assumed that downgrading someone of her own sex would somehow lift her in the estimation of her male superiors. Worse, these illogical conversations were all taking place in a building devoted to science.

“Are we done here?” she said, rising.

Donatti blanched. That was it. Zott needed to go right now and take her bastard baby, cutting-edge research, and death-defying romantic relationship with her. As for her rich investor, they’d deal with him later.

“Sign it,” he demanded, as Frask tossed Elizabeth a pen. “We want you out of the building no later than noon. Salary ends Friday. You’re not allowed to speak to anyone regarding the reasons for your dismissal.”

“Health benefits also end Friday,” Frask chirped, tapping her nail against her ever-present clipboard. “Tick tock.”

“I hope this might teach you to start being accountable for your outrageous behavior,” Donatti added as he held out his hand for the signed termination notice. “And stop blaming others. Like Evans,” he continued, “after he forced us to fund you. After he stood in front of Hastings management and threatened to leave if we didn’t.”

Elizabeth looked as if she’d been slapped. “Calvin did what?” “You know very well,” Donatti said, opening the door.

“Out by noon,” Frask repeated as she tucked her clipboard under her arm.

“References could be a problem,” he added, stepping out into the hall. “Coattails,” Frask whispered.

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