Dr. Rebecca Gorin was used to being smartest person in any given room and, she thought with no small degree of pride, the scariest. She'd been awarded tenure in what was quite possibly the easiest call the department chair had ever made. It was widely rumored that the chair had simply been too afraid not to approve Dr. Gorin's application, and she never made any effort to correct this assumption beyond a token reminder, every now and then, that it wasn't out of the ordinary for her to receive phone calls from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, begging her to bring her expertise to various projects of a highly sensitive nature. She always said no, of course, because such positions rarely allowed for the consumption of salty parabolas at work.
No, Dr. Gorin's place was at the university, where she was not so much the biggest fish in a small pond as the one and only shark, but still she preferred research to teaching, and she generally only took on the bare minimum of teaching assignments she couldn't possibly avoid. She had no interest in training an army of graduate students to follow in her footsteps and even looked down some professors who did, seemingly more concerned with propagating every publication with regurgitated tripe churned out by an endless stream of Mini-Mes than constructing a worthwhile legacy. Also, taking students meant she might actually have to share her salty parabolas.
Upon receiving an email from one Jillian Holtzmann inquiring about becoming her student, Dr. Gorin had answered with the same politely dismissive form letter she always used, then turned back to her highly unstable equipment, thinking no more of it. Just a day later, however, Jillian was in the doorframe.
Exactly how Jillian had gotten past security remained a mystery to Dr. Gorin, but she had been given to understand that Jillian's terrifyingly thorough knowledge of her work had sent the guards running away with their metaphorical tails between their legs, convinced that there was a 99 percent chance that Dr. Gorin's experiments would cause a radioactive explosion, causing them to develop actual tails between their legs. Dudes. It was only 45 percent. Of course, in Dr. Gorin's shock that someone had managed to breach the sanctuary of her laboratory, her momentary lapse in concentration did briefly have it hovering closer to 87.5 percent.
“Who are you?” she demanded, holding her particle accelerator in a way that probably wouldn't bring down the building.
“Holtzmann,” Jillian said, leaning into the doorframe in something between a slouch and a squat that Dr. Gorin surmised was meant to be somehow seductive, and somehow was, indeed, not entirely not. “Jillian Holtzmann. Your new grad student.”
“Jillian,” Dr. Gorin said primly, “I believe my response to your inquiry was very clear on this topic. Obviously I was mistaken.” Casually, she leaned towards the lab phone. “Perhaps a restraining order would get the point across more efficiently.”
“Don't think so,” Jillian replied, cool as you please. “The pitch of a standard-issue university phone's dial tone could blow up that machine right now. So unless you're telepathic”—she paused, swaying her hips in a manner in that same very odd manner—“it looks like you're stuck with me.” After a moment, she added, “Telepathy would be cool. What do you think of the paranormal?”
And Dr. Gorin stared, with no small amount of awe, at the only person ever to halfway comprehend the danger they faced in approaching her. “The paranormal is criminally understudied,” she replied, choosing her words carefully, “a situation which, as a practical scientist, I have little interest in remedying.” Dr. Gorin indulged in a brief pause to resign herself to her fate, then beckoned Jillian inside, using, of course, the same hand that clutched the now-more-unstable particle accelerator. “Have a salty parabola, Jillian.”
To Dr. Gorin's horror, her new student's face had broken into a genuine smile, not her default expression that walked the line between seductive and anything but, but a smile she simply couldn't help. The only thing more frightening than a student with genuine potential was such a student showing honest-to-goodness emotion.
“Never do that again,” said Dr. Gorin sternly. “This is a serious institution, Jillian. We have no room for food-related emotional vulnerability.”
“Right,” said Jillian, her face quickly reverting to its usual half-crazed state. “It could get us blown up.”
“No,” said Dr. Gorin, “it's just tacky.”
But she would never work at either, because the one area in which Jillian was a hopelessly terrible pupil was human interaction. Dr. Gorin was lucky if she could get Jillian to order food without frightening someone, let alone interview for a research position. And any and all teaching positions were automatically out.
She'd managed to get Jillian a meeting with a contact at CERN, and while she mostly believed Jillian's insistence that the ensuing accident had been just that, she couldn't help feeling more than a little aggrieved that things had gone wrong in the lab itself, rather than through some ridiculous social faux pas that Jillian and only Jillian could manage to commit. That sort of thing she could blackmail her colleagues into forgetting about, but a lab accident so far beneath her student's capabilities was not something even she had the power to erase.
But while Dr. Gorin would have preferred death over admitting it out loud, the worst part of the whole ordeal was how heartbroken Jillian had appeared. Seeing her fierce student cry was not something even Dr. Gorin could brush off with a snide remark. Overcome with remorse for her initial anger, Dr. Gorin had permitted Jillian to hug her for the first and hopefully the last time, and the two had indulged in destroying several millions of dollars' worth of equipment. No one would dare question one of her expenses claims, after all.
In the end, while Rebecca hated to see Jillian trapped at the Kenneth P. Higgins Institute of Scyence (sic), at least it was preferable to see her lone, incomparable academic progeny waste away in a menial job outside her field or worse, co-opted by malicious but heavily moneyed types. When Jillian announced that she'd been hired somewhere, Rebecca breathed a sigh of relief, and if she privately thought that most community colleges could boast more respectable engineering departments, Jillian didn't need to know that.
Upon receiving an email from Jillian to the effect that she had actually made a friend, Dr. Gorin sent no direct reply, and she certainly wouldn't know anything about an anonymous one-million-dollar donation the Institute received the next day.
But that said, even knowing that it was all to uphold the masquerade, she had a very strong urge to punch in the mayor's press secretary in the teeth, not least because she knew that the only thing Jillian would do with Eat, Pray, Love was use it to charge a ghost trap. Which, even off the top of her head, she could think of seven different and highly satisfying ways to do.
And now that her ex-pupil and company had gone and saved all of New York City, Dr. Gorin knew that she would have to take a closer look at their research facility. Not least because she had just discovered a ghost in her pantry that might have been the only thing, besides an emotionally vulnerable Jillian, that she had ever feared. It had, after all, had the nerve to help itself to her salty parabolas, and that meant war.