One day in Holland a new animal was invented. It was a miniature racehorse with a jet-black coat and, supposedly, a docile nature—the perfect horse for children to ride. Watching it gambol about the laboratory for the first time, Van Roost, the junior of the two scientists who had produced the creature, felt his face relax into a grin. The horse was his first breakthrough as a professional scientist. Soon the Dutch premier was on the phone, offering congratulations, and in bed that night Van Roost’s girlfriend, a public-interest lawyer from Luxembourg, acted five or ten percent fonder of Van Roost than she ever had before. Van Roost hoped that she might now leave her other boyfriend and devote herself exclusively to him.
It was a good time to be alive, Van Roost thought.
Which, if true, did not apply for long to the miniature horse’s very first rider, a seven-year-old named Greta who, when the horse threw her, sailed twisting through the air and landed in the worst way and broke her neck.
All of Holland went into an uproar. Protesters encircled the laboratory and demanded that the horse be euthanized. This demand was soon met—by a sobbing Van Roost—but the horse’s demise sparked the ire of a different brand of protester. By day three of the turmoil, the premier had tightened child-safety regulations, the Dutch legislature had proclaimed that humans ought not to play god with animals, and the European Parliament had reprimanded Holland, saying its legislature lacked the authority to weigh in on so lofty a matter. Then came the girl’s memorial service, attended by neither Van Roost nor the senior scientist. Both men ought to have been there—public-opinion polls were clear on that point—but the opinion of the police had been that their safety could not be guaranteed. Van Roost stayed at home the day of the service with the blinds drawn and a recording of tropical surf playing on an endless loop.
Just when it seemed as though the furor over the girl’s death would never die down, it did. A few days after the memorial service, some new scandal, something to do with finance or a crashed plane, diverted the public, leaving Van Roost to confront, for starters, the unprecedented difficulty he was having making love to his girlfriend. They tried all kinds of positions, some from Luxembourg, some from Holland, some from other E.U. countries. Nothing worked, not even the position his girlfriend called the raptor. Finally one day she told him that she had decided to devote herself completely to her other boyfriend.
“What about me?” Van Roost said, and then he thought how pretty she was when she smiled sadly and apologetically and a little bit impatiently.
The next day, an E.U. regulatory commission scolded Van Roost and the senior scientist for their “negligence if not outright recklessness” and suspended for one year their scientific licenses. Muttering that the girl’s death hadn’t been their fault, the senior scientist packed his bags and emigrated to America to work for a pharmaceutical company. But it was our fault, Van Roost said to himself. The bureaucrats indicated that he could spend his year away from science either doing community service or studying philosophy at the university in the town where he lived. Van Roost, who didn’t know any better, chose the latter course.
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