June 13th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 05.25 local time
Hobbs was waiting for Louise in the lobby. Louise scanned the room from the top of the stairs and was relieved to see he was alone. El should be outside by now. She hoped Hobbs hadn’t seen her.
“Finally!” he said, clearly annoyed at her. He winced and lowered his arms, taking in a deep breath.
Louise took her time with the last few steps, arching an eyebrow at him. “Those ribs are still acting up, huh?”
He grimaced. She nodded her head in the direction of the storage room, expecting that’s where they would go to talk. “Let’s go.”
“Storage room is locked,” he muttered.
Louise crossed her arms, her brow creased. “Then how did you get in to read the instructions?”
He shrugged, holding his side. “Talked one of the guards into letting me in for a few minutes.”
“You threatened him?” Louise asked, lowering her voice.
Hobbs rolled his eyes. “No, I gave him an incentive to help me,” he said sarcastically.
The muscles between Louise’s shoulders tightened. It seemed like she wouldn’t be able to see the instructions herself until they left for the fourth inspection today. The gear was locked away every night as dictated in the rules of the inspections.
Louise would have to warn El someone in her staff was swayed too easily. That was a problem she’d deal with later, though.
She shook her head. “Where do we go to talk then?”
His expression was incredulous. “One of our bedrooms. If you would have just listened upstairs, I would have…”
She gave him a long, cold stare. He stopped.
“Or outside, I guess,” Hobbs added reluctantly.
Louise exhaled slowly while she made a quick calculation. She didn’t want to go back upstairs with this guy. However, outside they could run into El. She guessed they would see her approaching so the chances of her overhearing them were slim.
“Outside it is. Let’s get this over with,” she said and headed for the patio. He followed her, breathing heavily.
Louise knew she had made the right decision the moment she stepped into the soft, morning air. Her hair was still wet from showering and the morning felt more crisp than it really was. It was a nice change from the heat.
She took in a deep breath and looked around. There was no sign of El in the garden, nor in the forest behind it. She enjoyed the peace and quiet for a few more seconds before she turned around.
Hobbs was staring at a chair. Her lips quirked up into a mocking smile. “Want me to help you?”
Hobbs glared at her. “I’m fine.”
Louise shrugged, plopping down on one of the other chairs. “Tell me what we need to do,” she said.
He moved closer, his eyes glancing around nervously. “They picked up on some broadcasts about Monique Biden’s death. Could be planted, tho. So still no certainty she actually died.”
Louise nodded slowly. She wasn’t surprised the teams were still suspicious. She would have been too before she met El. Now, El’s sad eyes were enough to convince her it was true. But it’s not like she could tell Hobbs that.
“And?” she asked. She was getting antsy to find out what had been so damned urgent.
Hobbs’ eyes darted around again. He took a step closer and leaned in, wincing audibly. “They want us to focus on the network monitoring rooms. The renovations,” he said quietly, holding his side.
Louise looked up at him, frowning. “The renovations?”
He inhaled through his nose slowly before answering. “We need to find proof they renovated all the rooms as a distraction. Just like you suggested.”
“But I didn’t see anything yesterday. I’m not even sure about the first location. I only noticed it at the second one,” Louise said hastily.
He raised both of his eyebrows in response. Louise’s mind raced.
“What?” she stammered.
He widened his eyes.
A chill ran up Louise’s back. “You mean,” she stuttered, her throat tightening. “Fake it if we have to?”
His eyes scanned the garden while he nodded.
Louise huffed in disgust. “That’s ridiculous,” she blurted out and immediately regretted it.
Hobbs’ demeanor changed entirely in the blink of an eye. He straightened up, towering over her.
“Are you questioning our orders?” he growled.
Louise stood. “No,” she said. She knew she would have to do some damage control here. “I just think some new flooring and paint won’t be enough to justify retaliation.”
He snorted. “That’s not your problem.”
“The council is never going to approve an attack based on that evidence.”
“Keep your voice down,” Hobbs hissed.
She clenched her jaw. She had already crossed a red line here, she knew. Get the order and execute with no questions asked. That was her job. No one had ever told her coming up with fake evidence to attack people was part of the job description, though.
“How do we do this?” she finally asked.
She hoped that if she focused on the specifics, Hobbs would think she was on board with this. She wasn’t, of course. But she had no idea what she would or could do. She needed more information first.
Hobbs was hunching over a little, apparently struggling to stay up. His face was getting pale too. If Louise had ever felt any sort of sympathy for him, it was gone now. She ignored his obvious suffering and tilted her head impatiently.
“We’ll use the images of the second site. Try to make more of those today. Otherwise, we’ll have to get creative,” he whispered.
“What about my report yesterday? I specifically said I found no evidence of recent renovations. There’s a record.”
He lifted his shoulders in a shrug, grabbing his side immediately after, groaning. He inhaled and exhaled several times. “I’m fine,” he grunted.
“Really?” Louise asked. “You can’t even stand up straight.”
“It’s a stupid rib,” he said, his voice anything but steady. “I’ll be okay. Let’s discuss how we can get this done today.”
Louise scratched her cheek while she thought. The promising blue of the morning sky and the cheerful song of the birds were in stark contrast with the dark clouds that occupied her mind.
Hobbs wouldn’t last long, she knew. She wouldn’t be surprised if he collapsed unless he took one of those heavy pain killers. She might only have moments left to get more information out of him.
“When will they attack?” she whispered.
Hobbs’ eyes instantly became dark with suspicion.
“I’m just trying to understand why we’re not aborting this mission right now. If we’re going to fake the evidence anyway, why not get the hell out of this place as soon as possible?” Louise added, hoping she sounded convincing.
He gave her a long, hard stare. She met his gaze and didn’t flinch. Her hands were getting clammy, though.
“We might leave a bit early,” he finally admitted.
Louise cocked her head. “Did the instructions say that?”
He huffed. “Of course not.”
She was about to ask how he knew all of this when cheerful barking in the distance stopped her. Hobbs froze. Louise spun around. Stucky ran out of the forest. El followed him, running too.
Even from this distance, Louise could see she had a big grin on her face. Until she spotted Louise and Hobbs on the patio. El slowed down. “Stucky, stay,” she called out. Much to Louise’s surprise, Stucky listened and came to a halt.
“It’s him,” Hobbs hissed.
Louise glanced over her shoulder and saw that he had taken several steps back towards the door.
“He’s harmless,” she said, not trying to hide her contempt over Hobbs’ fear of Stucky.
“I’m going back inside,” Hobbs replied.
El shouted at them before he could make a move, though. “Mister Hobbs!”
Louise’s brow furrowed. El was not addressing him with his military title. Louise assumed she had done it on purpose. If so, it had the intended effect. She could hear Hobbs sucking in air angrily.
“How are you feeling this morning?” El asked with one of her stunning smiles as she joined them. Louise now knew the smile was fake. She had seen El’s real smile and it was even more beautiful than this one.
“Stucky, sit. Stay away from mister Hobbs,” El said. The dog obeyed, panting happily.
“I’m fine,” Hobbs grumbled.
Louise stifled a grin.
“Good to hear it! Will you be joining us on the trip today?” El continued.
She really was trying to push every single button Hobbs had, Louise noticed. She could see his red face from the corner of her eye. She turned towards him.
Hobbs raised his arm, sticking a finger in the air angrily. He never got to saying whatever was on his mind, though. Instead, he doubled over and cursed between ragged breaths. “Fuck!”
“Alright, that’s it,” Louise said. “Back to the hospital with you.” She gestured for El and Stucky to stay back. “I’ll take him.”
El just shrugged. Stucky lay down on the tiles, giving her a brilliant doggy grin.
“Come on,” Louise told Hobbs.
“I don’t think I can get back up,” he croaked.
“Want me to call the medics?”
He blew out a long, shaky breath. “No, I’ll walk.”
It took him 10 minutes to straighten up and walk to the hospital. Hobbs had to stop every few steps to catch his breath. Louise never said a word. The paramedic was waiting for them when they finally arrived.
“Told you,” she said to Hobbs, then gave Louise an eye roll.
“You rest,” Louise told Hobbs as the medic helped him get back into the bed. “I know what I need to do.”
A frustrated groan was his only response.
Louise stepped out of the hospital and took a moment to sort through her thoughts. This shit storm of a mission just had gotten a whole lot shittier. She was running out of time.
Her orders were to go to that fourth inspection site today and look for evidence of renovations. If there wasn’t any, she had to make something up. It was clear to Louise now that this whole mission had always been a sham.
She guessed Michelle had told her as much. “The evidence is there. I just need you to go get it,” she had said in the briefing. Why had Louise never questioned that degree of certainty?
She hid her face in her hands. What the hell was Michelle up to? Had her ambition finally made her cross the line? It was hard to believe Louise had ever loved this woman.
She straightened. “Loved?” she thought in shock. “Past tense? How did that happen?” she wondered. An image of El’s grey eyes twinkling with pleasure flashed through her mind.
Louise blinked a few times. She sure was an expert at falling for the wrong women.