JUNE 8th, 2061. White Sands Army Base, New Mexico, North American Province, 02.20 local time.
The first thing Louise noticed when she walked into the briefing room was that she had been wrong earlier. For once, Michelle did look tired. Louise recognized the pale skin and drawn expression as signs of a chronic lack of sleep.
Any hint of vulnerability disappeared as soon as Michelle looked up, though. Steely, blue eyes scanned Louise’s face. She cringed inwardly.
“Ma’am, good morning,” she said as firmly as she could.
Michelle arched a blonde eyebrow. “Morning, Thomas. Sit.” She looked back down at her screen lying on the table, continuing whatever she had been doing.
It was eerily quiet in the room. With the air conditioning out of order, even the usual hum was missing. Louise tried not to make a sound while she slipped onto the chair.
She stared at her own, shaking, hands. She folded them neatly on the table. All she could do was wait until she was asked a question or given an order.
When Michelle sighed deeply, annoyed about something she was reading, Louise didn’t look up. She knew Michelle wanted her to take the bait. Her ego thrived off of attention.
So Louise didn’t budge. Instead, she softly bit the inside of her cheek and focused on her breathing. 2 more minutes passed. Louise was starting to feel proud of herself. She had not looked up once.
She was handling this quietly and professionally. Even the memories of sun-kissed hair scattered over her pillow or full lips brushing over her skin had not shaken her resolve.
“How are you?” Michelle suddenly asked in a sweet tone, startling Louise.
Louise’s eyes snapped up to meet Michelle’s. A subtle, but satisfied smile formed on Michelle’s lips. Louise shifted in her seat uncomfortably.
Luckily, Captain McConnell walked in, ending the moment. He closed the door behind him calmly. His demeanor was a lot less boasty around his superior, Louise noticed.
“Ma’am,” McConnell said politely and sealed off the room with a quick command. “Briefing room C, seal. Code 4576.” The system responded instantly. “Room sealed.”
Not a single unauthorized sound or signal could get in or out of the room now. “Ugh, it’s going to get even hotter in here,” Louise thought in despair.
The Captain sat down opposite her. She caught a whiff of sweat and struggled not to wrinkle her nose. Michelle leaned back in her chair at the head of the table.
“Let’s get started,” she said and touched the screen in front of her. A large map popped up on the wall behind her. “Thomas, this is a top-secret mission. You will only get the information you need to complete that mission.”
Louise nodded dutifully. “Yes, ma’am.”
God, she still hated saying ma’am to Michelle. If she didn’t love her job so much, she would have requested a transfer to another department a long time ago.
“Your team will not join you. They will verify your reports from here.”
Louise tilted her head. “I will be sent in alone, ma’am?” she asked, trying to hide her surprise.
“No, another officer from a different squad will also be assigned to your mission.”
Captain McConnell cleared his throat. “You will leave today at 1800. Go home to pack after this briefing. There’s another briefing scheduled for 0900.”
Louise gave a curt nod to acknowledge she understood. “Sir.”
“We need this to happen quickly and quietly. We need evidence before we can start the retaliation operation,” Michelle said.
Louise tried to process the information she had been given so far. It wasn’t much, to be honest.
Michelle pointed at the map. “Our source has marked 6 locations in the Fireblue territory. All of these have hardware with a connection to the global network.”
Louise studied the 6 circles on the map. This new information didn’t make sense to her. The Fireblue rebels were obsessed with making sure their infrastructure was completely disconnected from the rest of the world.
“The attack most likely originated from this structure,” Michelle continued.
The map changed to a satellite view of what looked like a server park. The many solar panels and windmills around it indicated it needed a lot of power.
“The global council wants it destroyed,” Michelle said matter of factly. “We’re going for a direct hit. No cyber stuff. The outcome is too uncertain.”
Louise almost gasped. Targeting infrastructure with weapons was almost unheard of these days. Most battles had been fought online for over a decade now.
She squinted at the map to give herself some time to think. She could feel Captain McConnell and Michelle were watching her every move.
“Is this a covert operation?” she finally asked without blinking. She wasn’t going to let them see how uneasy she felt about all of this.
Michelle nodded, seemingly satisfied with the question. “No. We all know you are not trained for covert operations.”
“Yeah, thanks for rubbing it in,” Louise thought but kept her expression perfectly blank.
Captain McConnell took over. “Eleanor Lucas will be your guide in the field,” he said gruffly.
Louise couldn’t believe he was being serious. “Lucas? The rebel leader?”
Michelle huffed. “Yes, she claims she has nothing to do with the attack.”
“Which is total bullshit,” the Captain added in a rare display of emotion.
Michelle kept her cool, though. “We all know she is a terrorist and we will bring her to justice.”
Oh my God, they were serious, Louise realized. “Yes, ma’am!” she quickly said and clenched her hands into fists.
Michelle got up and started pacing back and forth in front of the map. “Lucas says she will give you full access to these 6 structures.” Michelle turned and smiled at them both. “She wants to keep it a secret, though. Publicly letting us walk into the territory wouldn’t go over well with her people, apparently.”
The Captain folded his arms smugly. “Suits us fine. We’re not exactly keen on telling the world we haven’t been able to prove she’s behind the attack.”
Michelle placed both of her hands on the table, leaning forward and giving Louise an intense stare. Louise’s mouth went dry. She remembered that stare all too well.
“You have one week to bring us the evidence the Council needs. I think you know failure is not an option.”
Louise didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, ma’am!”
Michelle narrowed her eyes. “Alright. Lucas will be here at 1400.”
It took a moment for Louise to process yet another surprise announcement. Lucas was coming here?
“Lucas has left Fireblue territory? ” She asked, sounding as stunned as she was.
“Yes. Officially, this mission is about a mutually agreed upon inspection of infrastructure. The Council even allowed negotiations about the scope of the mission. They guaranteed her she will not be arrested here,” Captain McConnell said, his disgust evident.
Michelle propped her hip against the table in a move that was entirely too casual for a Major.
“Eleanor Lucas will be behind bars soon, McConnell,” she said confidently. “Those negotiations are just a PR play.”
McConnell nodded enthusiastically. Then, he threw Louise a look that she could only interpret as a blatant second-guessing of her ability to complete this mission.
Her nostrils flared. She might have been caught off guard at first, she was fully on board now. And she was going to do whatever was needed to bring these terrorists to justice.
Michelle spoke before Louise could say anything to convince the Captain.
“McConnell, I need a moment with Thomas.”
“She wants to break me into a thousand pieces all over again,” was Louise’s first thought. She instantly reprimanded herself, though. Thoughts like these only illustrated her lack of discipline.
And extreme discipline was one of Michelle’s best qualities. That, and an endless ambition to climb the ranks all the way to the top. Louise had never seen Michelle do anything without a plan. The woman was always 2 steps ahead of everyone else.
“Louise,” Michelle said.
“Ma’am?” Louise replied as she forced herself to look her ex-girlfriend in the eyes.
“Drop the ma’am for a second. Let’s talk.”
Louise hesitated. In the many years since their breakup, they only had had a few conversations.
“Sure,” she finally shrugged.
Michelle smiled and slowly walked around the table. Louise’s heart started thumping in her chest. A second later, Michelle’s sensual perfume found its way to her nostrils. It was hard to believe she was still using the same fragrance after all these years.
Michelle sat down on the table, just inches away from Louise. She placed her hands behind her, leaning back casually. Louise tried to swallow down the hard lump in her throat.
“You look good, Lou.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I’ll do whatever I want.”
Louise narrowed her eyes at Michelle. She wasn’t going to let herself be humiliated. Not again.
“What do you want from me?” she spat out.
“That depends,” Michelle replied smoothly. “I was keeping an eye on you, you know.”
Louise shook her head. Michelle was playing games. She wouldn’t let herself fall for it this time.
“I was so happy to see you finally excel and get that promotion. I want to give you another chance to prove you’re worth it.”
“Evil. This woman is pure evil,” flashed through Louise’s mind. But that didn’t stop the hairs on her forearms from rising in excitement. So Michelle really had kept an eye on her.
“You know your career is over unless you get us what we need to deal with those rebels once and for all, don’t you?” Michelle said, a lot less sweet now.
Anger bubbled up in Louise’s chest. It was a mix of frustration about working non-stop these last 24 hours with nothing to show for it and the humiliation of Michelle calling her out on it.
“Don’t worry. This mission isn’t exactly rocket science,” Louise bluffed. “If there’s evidence of the attack in those locations, I will find it.”
Michelle got up but didn’t step back. Louise had to turn her head to the side to avoid bumping into Michelle’s stomach with her nose. She clenched her jaw.
“Not if, Lou,” Michelle replied, towering over her. “The evidence is there. I just need you to go get it.”
Louise met her gaze defiantly, ignoring the excruciating proximity.
“I’m putting my career on the line, you know,” Michelle said. “For you. Because of our past.”
Louise quirked a skeptical eyebrow. She got a thin, almost mocking smile back.
“So can you handle this? For both of our sakes?” Michelle asked.
Louise huffed. “Of course I can handle it. It’s what I do.”
Michelle pursed her lips. “Okay then. You weren’t this confident in the past, you know.“ She winked. “I think I like the new you.”
Louise felt a blush creeping up her neck. She stopped breathing when she realized Michelle’s hand was inches from touching her cheek. Louise’s eyes almost fluttered shut in anticipation.
At the very last moment, Michelle dropped her hand and finally did take a step back.
“Be back here at 0900. I want you to meet your partner,” she said coolly.
Louise let out a frustrated breath.
“That will be all, Thomas.”