The Absence of Intellect – Seventeen

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The coffee was too hot, so Emily blew on it absently while she scrolled through pages of data. It was all arranged neatly on spreadsheets, color coded the way she liked it, and she reflected on how nice it was to not have to play politics or answer questions about her methods. She tried a sip of her coffee and found it was still ridiculously hot. Setting it aside for the moment, she stopped to enter a few new numbers into the spreadsheet, then switched to a three-dimensional model of the new protein she was hoping would become the foundation for her next attempt at developing the neural bridge. The image looked a little fuzzy and Emily leaned closer to the screen, wondering if she needed glasses.

“Dr. Ashton,” a voice behind her said, and she turned around to see Haynes standing just inside the door. He was looking around her lab with his arms folded over his chest and she frowned as she stood up. “This is quite the little place you’ve carved out for yourself.”

“What can I do for you, Dr. Haynes?”

“What is it exactly that you’re working on that you need all this equipment?” He went to the chemistry analyzer that Emily hadn’t even gotten to use yet.

“I’m trying to develop—”

“Actually, I don’t really care. I’m not just the head of this department anymore, I’m the director of the company and I don’t think this research is needed any longer. There are better uses of your time and energy,” he said, his voice smug. “We can use this equipment out in the lab, replace some of the older stuff. You’ll be moved back to the general research area, of course.”

“This was set up under Dr. Chambers’ supervision,” Emily said, looking over her shoulder at the model. “I can’t do my research if I don’t have this lab and this equipment.”

“You can make do with the equipment in the general lab area,” Haynes said. “After all, you’ll be going back to sanctioned projects.”

“Dr. Haynes, please don’t take me off this,” Emily said, not even caring that she was pleading with the man. “My research is extremely important. If I can complete this neural bridge, it’ll help a lot of people, maybe even save lives.”

“Let me tell you a little secret, doctor. We’re not actually in this business to save lives, we’re in it to make money.” His words froze Emily’s blood and she looked up at him as if she was finally seeing him clearly. “Get this wrapped up by the end of the day. I’ll be dismantling this lab first thing tomorrow morning.” He turned, a look of satisfaction on his face, and opened the door. “I’ll see myself out.”

As soon as he was gone, Emily dropped heavily back into her chair and leaned her elbows on the desk. She put her hands over her face and let out a scream of frustration that was muffled by her palms. Being sent back to the main research area was the worst thing that could possibly happen. Not only would she not be working on the neural bridge, she would be stuck in the same lab with people whose dislike for her was evident in every word they spoke, if they even spoke to her.

I shouldn’t have to put up with this, Emily thought angrily. Then something occurred to her and she sat up straight. I don’t have to put up with this. She grabbed her cell phone and scrolled through her contacts until she found the one she wanted, tapped the screen, then put the phone to her ear and waited. She was expecting for it to go to voicemail when someone picked up on the other end.

“Emily?”

“Karen, hi,” she said, relaxing slightly. “Do you have a minute?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?

“You still talk to Mitchell Berry over at UIC?” Emily picked up her coffee and took a test sip. It was considerably cooler and she took a second drink.

“Pretty regularly,” Karen said. “He’s been flying out to Minneapolis to help me with the clinical trials. What do you need from Mitch?”

“Just his phone number,” she said, lifting her coffee cup to her lips again. “I’ve got a couple of things to ask him about the neural bridge I told you I’m trying to develop. Would he be okay with my calling him personally?”

“Sure,” Karen said, a smile in her voice. “If you’re talking about neurological research, he’ll probably talk your ear off telling you about his before going completely crazy over yours. It’d be right up his alley. I’ll text you his number so you’ll have it in your phone.”

“Thanks, Karen. I really appreciate this.” Emily leaned back in her chair and hung up. Less than a minute later she had a text message from Karen on her phone with a phone number and the word ‘Mitch’ with a smiley face next to it. “Still the same old Karen,” she said, saving his number before calling it. His phone didn’t ring nearly as long as Karen’s had, and Emily was still drinking her coffee when he picked up.

“This is Mitch Berry, who’s this?”

“Dr. Berry,” Emily said, swallowing her mouthful of coffee. “It’s Emily Ashton, from Apogee Pharmaceuticals, formerly of the neurology department at St. Cecilia’s. We met at the AMA conference a year or two ago.”

“Dr. Ashton, right,” he said cheerfully. “If I remember correctly, you were asking questions about reversing brain damage. How’s your sister?”

“She passed away recently,” Emily said, not wanting to talk about it but not wanting to waste what might be her only chance to make her research happen. “I’ve been doing research to that effect here at Apogee, and I’m afraid they no longer see the value of it. Would there be any openings at UIC?” She held her breath, waiting for him to answer.

“There is an opening for a researcher in my department but it would require teaching a class. Nothing strenuous, just a twice weekly lecture and grading tests. It could turn into a tenure-track position, though, if you’re willing to put in some work,” Mitchell said. “What sort of research are we talking about?”

“I’m working on developing a compound that can act as a bridge between damaged neurons, smoothing over and taking the place of the damaged areas, and acting as a catalyst to stimulate regrowth of cells,” Emily said, putting her hand on her mouse to stop it from shaking. “I already have some data, which I can bring over.”

“Great! That’s fantastic,” Mitch said, and Emily’s heart soared. “Forget having to teach a class, they’ll probably just give you a position. I can already think of at least ten applications for the sort of compound you’re describing. Can you come in tomorrow around ten and show me what you have? I’ll walk it up the food chain and get you in front of the big guys within the week.”

“Of course,” Emily said quickly. “Whatever time you need me, I’ll be there. Thank you so much, Dr. Berry, you have no idea how much this project means to me.”

“I’m excited to see your data. If I can get you in here soon, I’ll lend you my TA to write some grant proposals. It’s proposal season and if we can get you in on it, I have every confidence that your research is going to be funded for at least five years, possibly longer.” He laughed. “Apogee has no idea what they’re losing. See you tomorrow. And call me Mitch.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.” Emily hung up and stared at her phone, considering her options. She could walk out the door and never come back, hoping that she really did have a lock on the position at UIC, or she could wait and see what happened at the university before she quit.

It seemed like all her life she’d played it safe, kept her plans to herself while smiling and nodding and not rocking the boat. Melissa had always been the adventurous one, the one who spoke her mind and went out on a limb. She’d pulled Emily onto roller coasters and into R-rated movies, talked her into a chorus part in their college musical when she was in a leading role, and got her to drink shots of pickle juice. Emily toyed with her phone, pushing it back and forth between her palms, hoping that something would happen to let her know which way she should go.

What would your sister do? Hunter’s voice popped into her head and she bit her lip. Do whatever you think would make Melissa proud. While she was considering this, the door to her lab opened and one of the women from IT came in with a clipboard. She checked something off a list, then looked over at Emily.

“You don’t mind if I take this do you?” She was motioning to the chemistry analyzer and Emily frowned at her.

“I thought everything was going to be taken tomorrow.”

“Dr. Haynes’ orders,” the IT woman said. “He said you’d be expecting me.” She shrugged and Emily closed her eyes for a long moment as she exhaled slowly. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Take the analyzer. Take whatever you want.” Emily stood up and picked up her backpack. “I’m going home early.” The other woman nodded and began unhooking wires while Emily found the number she needed, then packed her things into her bag, holding her phone between her shoulder and ear.

“HR,” a cheerful voice said, and Emily zipped her bag.

“Patty, it’s Emily Ashton. Can you tell me how much vacation time I have left?” She picked up her computer case and opened it, rummaging around in the bottom of the bag until she found a USB stick in one of the pockets.

“Sure,” Patty said, her voice still cheerful. “Give me one second.” Emily could hear her typing on the other end of the line while the woman from IT picked up the chemistry analyzer and took it to the door. Emily, impressed by her strength, held the door for her and closed it once she was gone. “Looks like you’ve got eighty-two hours,” she said. “You really need to take a vacation sometime.”

“I’m taking it now,” Emily said, plugging the USB stick into her work computer and opening the file explorer. “I’m sure Dr. Haynes won’t mind, but give him a call if you want.” She was only halfway listening to Patty, more interested in moving files from the hard drive to the USB stick that had an admirable full terabyte of storage on it.

“You’re all good, Dr. Ashton. See you in two weeks.” She hung up just as the files finished transferring and once she checked to make sure they were safely on the stick, she tucked it into the inside pocket of the computer bag. Then she moved the files that were left into trash bin and deleted them with a smile.

If it wasn’t an officially sanctioned project, Apogee didn’t own the data, and the research she’d done before she started working there was similarly her own. Even if they kicked up a fuss about the work she’d done while she was employed there, it didn’t matter since that attempt had failed. She could conceivably start over from the data she brought from her private research. Even so, she wasn’t going to make it easy for them. Emily zipped up the bag, then picked up her coffee cup and dumped the entire thing into the computer tower.

The result was instantaneous. The tower started to smoke, the monitor flickered, and the whole thing finally gave up with an enormous popping sound and a shower of sparks. Emily tossed the empty coffee cup on the desk and put her bags on her shoulders and walked out of Apogee Pharmaceuticals for the last time. As she was stepping onto the elevator, she put her phone to her ear again and smiled when the line connected.

“Hi,” she said to Hunter with a smile. “I’m coming home.”

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