June 13th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 06.20 local time
“I need you to handle something for me, Rick,” El said.
Woodward closed the door behind him, then glanced in Louise’s direction. His neck was bulging out of his shirt, his eyes were filled with suspicion.
“Of course,” he said.
Louise was still standing behind El’s desk. She realized it had to look odd to him. She hurried away, towards the bookcases, and avoided further eye contact.
El walked across the room, her fists clenched. Her face was pale, the dark circles under her eyes suddenly much more pronounced. Louise had no idea what she was about to do. El sat down on her chair and blew out a breath.
Louise reached for the terminal under her shirt. If Woodward was about to escort her out of here, he might find it on her, she realized. Her heart started pounding in her chest.
She took another step back and leaned against the bookcase. Being caught with the terminal under her shirt would make things even worse. Woodward would think she had brought it in here to spy on El, she feared.
“This stays between us. Top secret,” El sighed, interrupting Louise’s frantic thoughts.
Louise moved her arm very slowly and reached further behind her back. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
“Understood,” Woodward replied, shifting position so his feet were wide apart.
El cleared her throat and glanced over. Louise froze, stuck in an awkward position with the terminal already in her hand. El narrowed her eyes at her, then looked back at Woodward. Louise had to force herself to breathe slowly.
“Are there any indications we need to raise the threat level this morning?” El asked.
Woodward seemed surprised by the question and scratched the back of his head. He nodded in Louise’s direction. “I can’t…”
“Just answer the question. It’s fine,” El said.
He stepped closer to the desk. “We’re still at level 4,” he said quietly. “Because of our visitors.”
Louise used the moment to slide the terminal onto the bookshelf and out of sight. She then quickly folded her arms in front of her and focused back on the conversation. A drop of sweat slowly rolled down her back.
“So, no new threats to me personally?” El asked.
Louise blinked. Was El trying to find a reason for a lockdown after all?
“What? No,” Woodward replied.
“Are you sure?” El insisted.
He leaned over the desk a bit. “El, what is this?”
El placed both of her hands on the wooden top. “We need to go into lockdown,” she stated.
Louise closed her eyes in relief.
“What? Why?!” Woodward asked.
Louise arched an eyebrow. She would never address a superior like that. But she knew Woodward and El were good friends.
El still seemed a bit annoyed by him at the moment, though. She sighed impatiently. “Can we say we’re in lockdown because there has been a credible threat towards me?”
Woodward raised his shoulders. “There is no threat!”
El pushed herself up, hands still on the desk. “Doesn’t matter right now. Can we do it?”
He shook his head in frustration. “We can come up with something but it would cause a panic!”
“Not if we say we’re going into lockdown as a precaution.”
He threw his hands in the air. “That doesn’t make any sense at all! You’re the president. You can’t look scared!”
“Rick,” El said sharply, “I need this to happen. We’ll manage whatever backlash there is.”
“But why?!” His voice was really loud now. Too loud.
Louise saw the muscles in El’s neck tense up while she barked back. “I don’t need to explain myself to you, Rick. Just make it happen.”
A long silence fell. Louise’s hands were shaking. Woodward lifted a hand and pointed at Louise.
Before he could say anything, El added, “No. Don’t even start.”
He bristled, his chest going up and down rapidly.
“I need you to come up with a credible threat. Domestic. Now.”
Woodward pointed at Louise again. “She’s the only threat here,” he stated, his tone ice cold.
El picked up a notebook and slammed it back down. “Rick, enough.”
Louise’s eyes widened.
His shoulders slumped. After a few moments, he asked, “What is the statement you want me to put out?”
El took in a deep, slow breath. She folded her arms as she thought. “Say we went into lockdown after a suspicious package was intercepted on its way to the residence,” she said slowly.
El continued. “We can leak it was a false alarm soon after.”
“How long do you want this lockdown to last?” he asked.
Louise watched El consider this question. She didn’t look at Louise but stared out of the window instead. “Not long,” she muttered. “Until tonight. Try to calm things down by noon with the leak. Secret service always needs a few more extra hours to clear everything.”
He sighed and nodded. Then, he spun around and marched out of the room. Louise expected the door to close with a loud bang, but it seemed like he had regained his control just in time. A soft click and they were alone again.
Louise didn’t dare move. El was staring down at the desk, biting her lower lip. After several long, uncomfortable seconds, their eyes finally met. Louise swallowed hard.
El looked miserable. “We’ve had nothing but fights about this,” she said quietly.
Louise tucked her hands in her pockets. “About what?” she asked, although she had a sinking feeling she wouldn’t like the answer.
“About you being here.”
El waved dismissively. “You and Hobbs. This whole theater. The inspections.”
Louise chewed on the inside of her cheek, unsure what to say. She finally settled on “I’m sorry.”
El traced an invisible line on the desk with the tip of her finger. “I have no idea why I just did that,” she whispered. “For you, I guess.”
Louise lowered her head. The panic in her chest had subsided but a feeling of regret was taking its place. What was she doing to El? She was trying to help her but it sure came at a cost. El had just trusted her blindly, hurting a friend in the process.
“I’m sorry,” Louise repeated. “I…” She ran out of her words.
Their gazes met again. There was so much raw emotion in El’s eyes, it took Louise’s breath away. Instinctively, she understood why El had taken the risk. It was the same reason Louise was taking so many herself.
She couldn’t allow herself to bask in the warm feeling that was spreading throughout her body, though. There was no room for this silliness. No time for emotions. No time for what she wanted to say. Not now. Probably not ever. She looked away.
“We should go in lockdown in a minute,” El said, sitting down with a sigh.
Louise straightened up. “So he’ll actually do it?”
El huffed. “Of course he will.”
“What will happen next?”
El played with the leather bracelet on her wrist. “The gates around the property get barricaded,” she said. “Every door is locked and guarded.”
“So we’re stuck?” Louise asked, feeling a bit dizzy from relief.
El smiled sadly. “Yeah, we’re stuck. You can’t leave the building.”
Louise hurried over to the desk. “Thank you,” she croaked.
El’s eyes studied her face for a long moment. “Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “You are coming to the bunker with me.”
Louise tilted her head. “Bunker?” she asked slowly.
El’s eyebrows shot up. “You think I just get to sit around in my office when in lockdown?”
A few moments passed while Louise thought things through. Shit. That made perfect sense. El would have to be protected.
El pushed herself back up. “They’ll be here to take us down in less than a minute. Don’t say a word. Once we’re alone again, you’re going to tell me everything you know.”
Louise cleared her throat. Where were they going? Who would be with them? What questions would El ask? And fuck, her terminal was still lying on the bookcase.
Before she could even consider trying to grab it without El noticing, a knock on the door startled her.
“Yes,” El yelled.
Four guards burst through the door, electronic guns in their hands.
“Madam President, we are in lockdown.”
El nodded at them. “Let’s go.”
3 guards hurried to surround her as she walked to the door. The fourth focused on Louise.
“Bring her,” El said sternly.
“Ma’am, we can’t. Protocol,” said one of the guards but El interrupted him.
“Search her. Scan her if you have to. But I want her inside that bunker with me as soon as possible. Just her. No one else,” El barked while she disappeared from view.