June 13th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 07.20 local time
Woodward shut the bunker door. His expression was grim.
”Rick, what are you talking about?” El demanded.
Louise stepped back and bumped into the wall. She leaned heavily against it. Woodward glanced at her briefly, narrowing his eyes.
He wagged his finger at El. “Women have always been your weak spot,” he said.
El folded her arms, bristling. “You are way out of line. What are you doing here?”
“Viv was bad but this one?” he continued, pointing at Louise. “This one really is the icing on the cake.” He shook his head in disgust. “Pathetic.”
“Enough!” El yelled.
Woodward stepped forward and grabbed El’s wrist. She tried to pull back her hand but he held on to it. Her lips parted in shock.
“You no longer get to tell me what to do,” he growled. “I should have stopped you much sooner.”
He let go of her wrist with an impatient sigh. El stumbled back. Louise tasted bile in the back of her throat.
“This Republic was founded by rebels,” Woodward continued. “Rebels fight for what they believe in.” He pointed at Louise again. “They don’t fucking sleep with the enemy!”
El found one of the chairs to lean on for support. Louise lowered her gaze. She wondered when Woodward had figured it out. How did they get caught?
“You’re weak.” Woodward started pacing around the bunker. “And you made us weak.”
Louise’s head jerked up. What the hell was he talking about?
“Really? That’s what this is about?” El asked.
Woodward grabbed El’s notebook and leafed through it. He snorted and threw it back onto the conference table.
“Damn right! I told you we should be fighting the Global Coalition! Try to bring it down!”
“That’s not what the people want,” El immediately replied.
Louise’s eyes darted back and forth between her and Woodward. They clearly had had this discussion before. What was Louise missing here?
“Oh, they will once they see our network infrastructure go up in flames! I bet they’ll want to fight back then!” Woodward said triumphantly.
If El was shocked by his statement, she didn’t show it. Louise, on the other hand, felt her jaw fall to the floor.
Woodward stood before El again. “They will realize that living side by side with the Global Coalition was always an illusion.”
El thought for a long moment. Then, she let go of the chair and straightened her shoulders. “What did you do, Rick?”
He huffed. “You mean what did wedo.”
El stepped closer. “What does that mean?”
Woodward crossed his arms. “I didn’t come up with this. Your aunt Monique did.”
El blinked a few times. Red splotches popped up all over her neck and cheeks. “You’re lying,” she finally blurted out.
“Nope,” Woodward said. “Monique never stopped fighting. Did you know she still had a network of spies in the Global Army?”
Louise felt her heartbeat pick up. What had he just said? El pursed her lips. She didn’t seem as surprised as Louise was.
He pulled up a chair. “Wanna sit down for this?”
“Fuck you,” El said.
He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Fine. About 4 months back, Monique found out that a cell within the Global Army was putting together a plan to wipe us off the map. They wanted to trick their politicians into approving an offensive.”
Woodward snorted in disgust. “The plan was to stage an attack on their own network. Then blame us. They knew the Global Council would have no choice but to retaliate. Especially just weeks before an election!”
“I already know all of that,” El said in a mocking tone. Louise guessed she was only pretending to be confident. The redness in El’s cheeks told a different story.
“Sure, but your aunt told me this months ago. Before she fell ill.”
El breathed in sharply. It took her a few seconds to reply. “Bullshit. She would have told me.”
He glanced at the wall with the Fireblue Republic emblem. “No, she knew you would want to take the diplomatic route. She wanted to do something different. Said some fireworks were long overdue.”
“What?!” El immediately replied. There was some doubt in her voice now.
“Monique decided it was an opportunity to make the Global Army look like fools,” he said, sounding almost giddy. He folded his arms and smiled. “That old bird had a lot of fight left in her.”
El’s nostrils flared but she stayed quiet.
“She asked me to send the Global Army fake information about you and our infrastructure. Pretend to be a mole,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
Louise saw the color drain from El’s face.
“It was a good idea,” he continued, “She wanted to make the Global Army bomb some empty warehouses.”
He looked up at the ceiling as if he needed a moment to stop himself from bursting into laughter.
Louise’s eyebrows shot up. The plan was simple yet effective, she had to admit. There would have been hell to pay if the Global Army had bombed rebel territory but didn’t inflict any damage weeks before the election. Heads would have rolled. Except…
“Except they got their hands on the real locations of our network hubs,” El said before Louise could finish her thought.
Woodward tucked his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, I tweaked the plan a little. Your aunt had gotten a bit soft with old age.”
El’s mouth opened in surprise.
“You see, I know you. If the Global Army’s bombs didn’t hit a vital target, you’d hesitate to fight back. So I decided to follow the Global Army’s playbook. I made sure the attack would hurt us. It had to force you to retaliate. To have your moment of glory!”
Louise’s mouth was as dry as cotton. El’s eyes bore into Woodward. He stared back at her without blinking, apparently convinced he had done the right thing.
“The Global Council didn’t approve an attack on our territory yet, though,” El finally countered.
He wrinkled his nose. “No, but they will. They’ve seen our infrastructure now. They’ll want to destroy it. It’s just a matter of time.”
El scoffed. “So you’re counting on the enemy to help you. Very patriotic.”
Woodward walked up to Louise with a few quick steps. He grabbed her upper arm, squeezing hard. “I don’t think you get to lecture me after sleeping with this one!”
“Rick, let her go,” El said urgently.
“Did you know she’s Major Michelle Becker’s girlfriend?” he asked El. “I was able to reach one of Monique’s sources when we got back here. He told me this one is the Major’s favorite pet!”
Louise’s stomach flipped. She turned her head, not wanting to see El’s expression right now.
“Did she send you here to seduce El?!” Woodward asked Louise angrily. He started shaking her up when she didn’t reply.
Louise winced. “No!”
Woodward huffed and tightened his grip even more. He turned back to El. “Can’t you see she played you?”
El’s face was flushed. Tears were brimming in her eyes. “Rick! Put her down, please.”
Woodward’s strong fingers were cutting off the circulation in Louise’s arm. Her hand was starting to tingle.
“Why do you keep choosing these stupid women over me?” he yelled at El.
Woodward pulled Louise up, nearly popping her shoulder out of its socket. The only reason Louise didn’t scream was because she was already compressing her lips. Hard.
“Rick,” El pleaded. “Please, I’m sorry.”
He was breathing hard. Louise could smell coffee on his breath. She wanted to puke. She might have to, actually. He finally released some of the pressure on her arm. Louise gasped for air.
El met her gaze. “Is this true? Is Michelle your girlfriend?”
Louise shook her head vehemently. “No! I mean, she was, but it’s over. It’s been over for years, I swear!”
El shut her eyes, her expression was tormented.
“You’re right, Rick,” she then croaked. “I should have listened to you years ago.” She wiped her cheek with her sleeve.
Woodward shook his head slowly. “You’re just saying that to get out of this.”
El sighed sadly. “No, Rick. I don’t want out of this. You’re right. I failed you. I failed everyone.” She gestured in Louise’s direction. “I let her play me.”
Louise swore she could feel her heart break. The pain in her arm and shoulder barely registered anymore.
“I was so naive,” El added, putting her face in her hands. “Again.”
Woodward sniffed. His grip loosened a little more. Louise thought she could surprise him and give him a good kick if she wanted to but she didn’t see the point. There was no place to escape to. No one to fight for.
“I will step down,” El sighed, looking back up. “That’s why you’re here, aren’t you? To force me to step down?”
Woodward sniffed again.
“Let me step aside,” El repeated.
Woodward let go of Louise. Louise hurried away from him to the corner of the room.
“I don’t need your help. I already have the support to get rid of you,” Woodward said. He sounded less cocky than before, though.
El smiled submissively. “Yes, but if I step aside voluntarily, the people will be behind you or whoever else will take over.”
Woodward scratched his cheek. He pointed at a chair. “Sit.”
El complied. He too sat down. “You think I should be the new president?” he asked, his tone hopeful.
El tucked a curl back behind her ear. “Yes, my aunt clearly trusted your leadership skills more than she did mine.”
“What about her?” He signaled at Louise with his thumb.
Louise tried to lock eyes with El, but El didn’t even so much as glance at her. Time seemed to slow down while Louise waited for what she would say.
“Lock her up,” El said.
The words were like a dagger in Louise’s heart. The disappointment in El’s expression was enough to make her lose all hope.
Woodward leaned back in his chair. “I wish I could but they’ll come for her.”
El cleared her throat. “Then lock them both up until tonight. Then have a team drop them off at the border.”
Woodward rested his elbows on the table. “Now you’re making a hell of a lot more sense.”
He pulled a device from his pocket. He clicked a button and spoke.
“Come and get the prisoner.”
The reply came almost instantaneously.
“Just one, sir?”
Woodward inhaled deeply before he replied as if he was considering his decision one last time. “Just one. Lock her up with the other spy.”
Louise fell to her knees.