Rowan stayed the night with Cameron, sure she’d be up once again, but her body thankfully took pity on her, and she was out like a light once her head hit the pillow. She woke rested and alert, albeit slightly achey from sleeping on his couch, buzzing with a sickening mixture of nervousness and excitement the moment her consciousness caught up to her opened eyes. She opted to skip breakfast, fearing her stomach wouldn’t hold any food in its twisting state, so instead, she fueled with some instant coffee from Cameron’s cabinet and set off for ECBS.
Phelps met her at the entrance, a flat palm on her shoulder blade and a wide smile she could never quite muster so early in the morning. The type of warm welcome Rowan was used to receiving from him.
“I’m quite excited, Rowan. I’ll admit, it was a particular pleasure watching Miller dance around the news of my ‘assistant,’ trying to be polite about the sudden addition while likely having a mild panic attack.”
Rowan tried to chuckle despite being mildly horrified by the prospect of Miller not liking her before even meeting because of Phelps desire to yank on some chains.
Her honest reaction must have been written across her face though, because Phelps waved away her concern quickly with another comforting pat on her shoulder and a laugh. “Don’t you worry. Miller will warm up to you once you two meet. Just a little bit of a control complex is all.”
“I hope so. I’m not trying to step on any toes. Just getting to observe is already more than enough. Thank you for doing this for me, Phelps. It’s an amazing opportunity.” She wanted to make sure it was well known how grateful she was.
Phelps wasn’t having her gratitude, though. He waved it away as he had her earlier worry, directing her to follow him as they headed for the elevators. “My pleasure. To be honest, I’m glad you forced me into the situation. It will be nice to have someone there I’m used to working with. Comforting even, since I was finding myself a little apprehensive about the whole thing. It’s… Well, it’s complicated. Better left explained after you know all the details.”
Rowan tried her best to not let her thoughts run away with the hint of Phelps’ concern. Hers were still only just below the surface and waiting for the opportunity to rear their heads again, so she stifled them as best as she could. It tightened her throat to know something had Phelps uncomfortable as well, but she assured herself. If he could be so cheerful, then so could she.
Luckily, a distraction presented itself just in time, as they entered the elevators. Phelps used his security card as usual, necessary to access the other levels of the facility, but unlike usual, instead of choosing one of the upper floors as he did every single day since Rowan’s first one working there, he entered a six-digit code onto the elevators touch display. The speaker chimed in confirmation, and the elevator started moving.
Rowan’s breath caught in her throat. It was real. The underground. It existed, and she was going there. She would get to see it with her own eyes. A myth, a legend, that just a second ago she was certain was just a dumb story, turned out to be real. In that case, what else had she previously written off that could prove itself to be real in a matter of moments?
With a grin, she thought about how she’d tell Cameron this later, then remembered from this point forward, everything was completely confidential, and felt her heart sink with disappointment.
They were greeted by an armed security guard when leaving the elevator, and Rowan recognized him as the same man who stopped her and Cameron the night all this began. He was tall and built, the bullet proof vest around his chest accentuating his stature, and the assault rifle in his grip caused Rowan to take a subtle step away from him in unease.
“Good morning,” Phelps replied, nodding and smiling politely at the man. The guard missed the friendly cue though, his eyes darting over to Rowan with suspicion on his face. Rowan fidgeted under his scrutinizing gaze, feeling out of place.
Phelps intervened. “Miss Platts here will be accompanying me as my assistant. It won’t be a problem.” He spoke confidently, words holding his authority. The man looked apprehensive, but nodded curtly and directed them down the hall.
Rowan tried to shake off the encounter, following briskly after Phelps, but the lump stayed stuck in her throat. She’d been working at the ECBS for a while now and had grown comfortable with Phelps and her colleagues, despite most of them being twice her age. A mutual respect radiated among the regulars at ECBS; she hadn’t even thought about how she would have to earn her place all over again among Miller’s chosen, who were no doubt an even more elite group of intellectuals and would likely pass judgement on her swiftly.
She tried to keep this in mind, to hold onto her previous confidence and let her abilities speak for themselves, but she could feel her will beginning to crumble under the already immense pressure she put on herself to succeed.
The uncharted territory of this new lab was not helping Rowan feel any less uncomfortable. Everything was much more high-tech than she was used to above-ground. The dry, recycled oxygen, and smell of sterilizing agents that she had become too familiar with over the years were absent. Instead the halls were fresh and cool, the barely-blue tone of the walls only intersected by the metallic shine of each new doorway they passed. Electronic beeps and chimes of security codes and scanners echoed through the halls, and the gentle swishing sound of the sliding glass partitions connecting the corridor to each room, automatically opening and closing as people moved in and out.
They turned down another corridor and stopped at a frosted glass door which Phelps used his security card to open. He entered, and Rowan followed, but she ended up lagging behind him as she absorbed the surroundings, awed.
The room was modest in size, but the air was clean and cool despite the multiple, high-end computers lining the back wall. Powered on and whirring quietly, they added a familiar ambiance behind the chatter. If this room was anything to go by, this underground laboratory had to be where most of the ECBS profits were going.
In the middle of the space sat a number of long tables, curved into a semicircle facing the left, towards the only blank wall, which, along with the number of bodies, didn’t do any favors for the room’s size. A couple computers were occupied, but most of the white-coated doctors stood, idly chatting with each other to occupy their time. She recognized a few faces, but most were strangers, likely members of Dr. Miller’s research team.
Someone called Phelps by his first name, and Rowan’s attention redirected. She hurried to catch up, only to falter again as she realized who Phelps was shaking hands with.
“Margot, it’s been a long time.”