What was it about being called into your boss's office that made your heart race and your hands clammy even though you knew exactly that you did nothing wrong?
Doctor Eleanor Taylor had asked herself variants of that exact question for most of her life, starting in school where she inarguably had been dangerously close to what some would have called a teacher's pet and also later at university even though she never even as much as overslept.
Now she was standing in front of James Lester's office in the Anomaly Research Centre, wiping her sweaty palms on her trousers while gathering the courage to knock before he looked up from his paperwork to find her pacing around outside through one of the floor length windows.
Ellie had spent the past fifteen minutes since she'd gotten the call raking her brain, but she hadn't been able to come up with one solid reason why her boss wanted to see her.
Scientists were hardly ever summoned into the ARC's inner sanctum. They mostly stayed hidden away in their labs, miles away from the action, only talking to the other lab coats, always the last in line on the newest gossip.
That Dracorex mishap the other day? They probably wouldn't even have known about it without the alarm going off.
The fact that yesterday the famous Connor Temple and Abby Maitland had stepped through that last anomaly after being MIA for over a year? Ellie had heard about that one hour ago in the tea kitchen.
Speaking of which…
Ellie looked around the control room. Where was everyone?
Usually the place was occupied by Lester's "A Team" – their Head of Security, Captain Becker; tall, dark and handsome (not that she'd noticed, thank you very much) with his graciously tight shirts and army of quasi clones that seemed to just materialize out of thin air whenever he needed them and Matt Anderson; ex-military with a background in zoology, who was actually really nice, but had somehow managed for his thick Irish accent to be his only memorable trait. Right now there was no sign of either of them. Maybe they were showing their old team mates around the new facility.
Still, even when they were in the field or otherwise engaged, Jess Parker would usually be in her designated spot and coordinating both the field teams and the ARC's security system. But the field operator's desk was empty as well.
Ellie felt a small pang when she looked at the impressive arrangement of monitors and keyboards – the exciting light show of maps and graphs and code – and she imagined, not for the first time, what it would feel like to be a part of this. To be where the action was, instead of spending her days locked away in the back office.
She quickly snapped out of it with a brisk shake of her head. For ages scientists had been frowned upon behind closed doors for trying to prove something like time travel existed. Working on the anomalies, no matter how abstract and theoretical, would have been a dream come true for every single one of these great minds and Ellie didn't take this privilege lightly. Even if it wasn't her dream…
"You may come in, Doctor Taylor."
Ellie almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of Lester's voice through the closed door and turned to find the man staring at her from behind his desk, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"I'm sorry," she spluttered and quickly entered the office, shutting the door behind her. "This place is just so impressive, no matter how many times I've seen it by now."
"Take a seat," Lester ordered unimpressed and pointed to the chair on the other side of his desk.
When Ellie sat down, she noticed her name on the file she had seen him read earlier. What in the hell did James Lester want with her personnel file? Immediately she felt the old dread set in.
What if she had done something that warranted sacking her right on the spot and she didn't know about it? The fact that this was highly improbable - and more than just a little rubbish - didn't make it impossible.
"You are probably wondering why I called you here," Lester asked promptly and Ellie briefly wondered if she really was that easy to read.
"I am, actually," she replied and felt a slight relief when her voice didn't give away her nerves.
Get a grip!, she told herself.
She was a grown woman with a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge and she would not - not! - allow herself to fidget in her seat like a fourteen year old school girl in the principal's office.
She realised she was twirling one of her brown curls around her finger - a nervous tick she hadn't been able to shake since kindergarten - and quickly dropped her hand in her lap, before she turned it into a frizzy mess sticking out of her hair like an antenna for the rest of the day.
"You work in the science department," Lester stated and opened her file.
Obviously, Ellie thought, but just nodded and waited for him to get to the point.
"Philip Burton speaks very highly of you."
He better. He's the one who put me there.
"Thank you," she replied, even though it hadn't sounded much like a compliment.
It was no secret that behind closed doors there was a silent tuck-of-war between the bureaucrat and the charismatic private investor. Ellie reckoned it probably wasn't easy to suddenly have to run every major decision by someone else, when so far you had been used to Downing Street giving you pretty much free reign.
"You initially applied for the position of field operator, is that correct?"
Of course it is, it's right there in the file you just read, Ellie thought. She was getting more and more irritated by the second. Why couldn't the guy just get to the point?
"That is correct," she stated the obvious, when Lester made no move to go on.
"I interviewed with you and Philip Burton and I also completed the simulations and the psychological evaluation."
It still hurt pretty badly revisiting that time - probably because Ellie had been fresh out of university and naive and not used to not getting something she had set her mind to. But like they say, there was a first time for everything.
"You decided that I was better suited for a position in the science division."
And that an actual hacker was better suited to your own personal needs, she added silently.
"I was actually very much in favour of hiring you to the position you had applied for," came Lester's unexpected answer.
"Burton found it was a waste of your potential. He thought you would be more use working in your field, so I was overruled. Happens a lot lately."
Ellie had trouble processing what she'd just heard. All this time she had thought that Burton was the hero in her story. That the philanthropic genius had somehow found this lab job for her after she had messed up with the job she had really wanted. Ellie had looked up to him with a gratitude that had bordered on reverence. Now it turned out he had been the reason she hadn't landed her dream job in the first place.
"With all due respect, Sir," she tried her best to keep her expression neutral, even though she felt very much like locking herself in the loo for a good, long cry after this was over. Whatever this was to begin with. "Why am I here?"
"Well, in a shocking turn of events, I have become the one with the laissez-faire management style around here and unlike me, Philip Burton doesn't believe in second chances."
Lester got up from behind the desk and walked over to the window overseeing the control room.
"Jess Parker has been laid off effective immediately following the Dracorex incident. I'm short a field operator and I have neither the time nor the desire to spend weeks recruiting someone new."
He turned around and looked at her just as the pieces fell together in her head.
Parker's empty desk, the absence of Lester's jocks and her file right there on the desk in front of her. Could it be…? And just as she was about to tell herself that she shouldn't get ahead of herself - lesson learned and all that - he said the words:
"Job's yours if you want it."
Ellie stared at it him with wide eyes, trying to comprehend what was happening. She had entered this office wondering if maybe she was going to be sacked and now she had been offered her dream job instead? This was madness.
She blinked. Once. Twice. She opened her mouth to say something, but her mind just went blank, so she closed it again.
"You don't have to give an answer right now," Lester added, probably mistaking her silence for apprehension. "But as you know we are operating on a bit of an incalculable time table around here, so I would appreciate it if I heard back from you by the end of the day."
Ellie reckoned that she should probably take some time with her answer. Go back to work and put Lester on the rack for a bit and call him back in the afternoon. Plus, all pettiness aside, this really was a big decision that probably warranted a little bit of thought.
Did she really want to trade the opportunity to one day be amongst the scientists who uncovered the mechanics of time travel to become a pawn in Lester's and Burton's little power game? She was clever enough to realise that Lester's job offer was about more than just practicability. Burton had claimed Ellie for himself and had put her in that lab. He had probably let Lester do the dirty work of firing Jess Parker. This - taking her back and putting her where he had originally wanted her - this was Lester putting his foot down and showing Burton he was still the boss. Did Ellie really want to put herself between two battling alpha egos like that?
Lester was still looking at her. Behind him the control room was luring her with flashing lights and the promise of adventure.
"When do I start?", she asked.