Margot Miller had aged a few years since the most common photo of her circulating the internet were taken, but it was undoubtedly her standing in front of Phelps, their hands clasped over each others in a warm, friendly shake between old friends. Rowan was left in disbelief, breathless and staring with starstruck eyes.
Even though signs of seniority crept in, with the crow's feet at her eyes and peppering of silver strands in her dark hair, she wore her age much better than Phelps. While he had grown fluffy around the waistline and let his beard go less tended to, Miller was a vision in a crisp, white coat: tall, dark, and thin, with deep set eyes hiding behind a pair of rimless glasses.
Miller smiled wide and friendly just as Phelps did, but her body stayed straight postured and precise, noticeably less fluid than Phelps flamboyance as she answered. “It has. Talking is one thing, but finally seeing each other after all these years… How have you been?”
“Well, while you’ve been stirring the pot with controversial topics, I’ve been settling my career and working towards retirement. Perhaps if you did the same, you’d have your own laboratory and wouldn’t have to get me involved in your affairs.” Phelps spoke in his usual chipper tone, but the sarcasm was hard to miss. It would normally have concerned Rowan that her mentor was being so open about his apprehensiveness, but she was too caught up in her awe to be worried.
“You know I’ve always been insatiable, Robert. Settling down is out of the question.” Miller laughed at the double meaning of her own words, patting Phelps’ arm with a slender-fingered hand. “And besides, why would I have my own labs when I know you’ll let me use yours whenever I need it?” she added with a sly grin, discreetly poking fun at Phelps for his well-known weakness of never being able to turn down someone.
When the conversation lulled between them, Miller’s eyes moved from Phelps to Rowan, and she froze all over again under the older woman’s gaze.
“And you must be the wonderful Miss Rowan Platts.” She side-eyed Phelps with a curl of her lip. “Robert’s told me a lot about you, albeit only just yesterday.”
Rowan swallowed hard, somehow forcing herself out of her stunned silence as she reached out for a handshake. When Miller took her hand, the nerves bubbled out of Rowan’s mouth in embarrassed blubbering.
“I’m such a big fan, Dr. Miller. I own all your scientific journals. If there were more photographs of you, I probably would have posted them all over my walls as a kid. Being a woman in the field and being so successful just… It was a huge influence for me. I’m really excited and grateful for this opportunity to work under you and Phelps.”
Rowan could feel her face going red with her over-talk and tried to pull back her outburst into something a little more professional. Miller seemed entertained though, chuckling a little after Rowan managed to reel in her rambling.
“And with how highly Robert speaks of you, I thought I’d be the one sucking up. After all, any assistant of Robert’s must be pretty special.” Miller smiled warmly, glancing around the room for a moment before adding, “I’d really like to talk with you more later, Miss Platts, but for now, we have to get started. If you’ll excuse me.”
Rowan’s heart fluttered at the exchange, the embarrassment on her face going red-hot from the praise and the prospect of speaking even further. She never thought she’d be standing in front of Margot Miller, let alone getting to shake her hand and exchange compliments. She had to fold her fingers together to keep them from shaking, wanting to hold onto her professional aura, but barely keeping a grasp on it.
Miller crossed the room to the blank wall behind them, and as some of the other doctors noticed, they turned from their conversations so the quiet murmur of the room gradually died off. Many took the opportunity to sit at the desks provided, but a few stayed standing, so Rowan opted to keep her spot next to Phelps.
Although she refused to show it, she was terrified to stray from him. She was walking into a lion's den, and while she had been warmly welcomed by the leader, the other doctors were as good as predators, yet to notice her. She feared once they did, they would tear her apart with her own insecurities, so she pushed it away into the deep corners of her skull in hopes they wouldn’t smell it on her.
“Good morning, friends.”
The moment Miller spoke, claps from her team members interrupted her. She soaked up the praise with a humble smile, however, letting the applause go for perhaps a little too long before putting up a hand to stop them. As she started talking again, Rowan noticed Miller’s change in demeanor. She was relatively soft spoken and warm when exchanging pleasantries with her and Phelps, but as she addressed the room, a certain hardness found her tone.
The steady and confident voice of a leader.
“It’s wonderful to see you all here today. I understand the sacrifices many of you are making to join me on this study, but I want to promise, and prove to you today, that your time and effort is not in vain.”
It was a bold statement, a buzz of curiosity circling the crowd, but Miller had spoken in front of others before, and she was good at it, that much was obvious. Rowan felt her stomach twist, but instead of her previous nerves, it was a tight anticipation, excited for what Miller would present them with.
“Most of you know each other, but you’ll notice we have some new faces, courtesy of Dr. Phelps, the owner of this fine facility. Normally, I would start with introductions, since I like my team to work together as one big, happy family, but I think we’ll have the opportunity to get to know each other personally at another time. I can see most of you are eager for me to dive into the juicy details, so I won’t keep you waiting.” When she finished, Miller gave a gentle head tilt to the technician waiting at a computer in the corner.
Rowan’s heart picked up an extra beat. The technician returned a curt nod and swung around in his chair, typing in a line of code and pressing enter. Her eyes jumped around the room when the lights dimmed. Miller stepped aside, presenting the wall behind her as it began to move.
Starting at the center, the wall glided apart in sections, folding under each other in panels. Rowan attempted to conceal her shock, to little avail.
No one else in the room seemed impressed. Miller’s team must have been used to such advanced technology, and to Rowan's side, Phelps’ face turned to cold disconnect, suggesting something grave. The concern didn’t quite manage to pierce Rowan’s amazement, though.
The eight panels tucked snugly away into the adjacent corners, and left in their place was a wall of glass, floor to ceiling, and almost invisible in clarity. Beyond the glass, another room, stark white and lit by fluorescents, housing a bed, sink, toilet…
And a body.