Chapter 39 of Connection Concealed: Masks

June 14th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 14.55 local time

The wind had quieted down. The heat was even worse now. It hurt to look at the ocean. The water reflected and amplified the sunlight. Even the seagulls were in hiding now.

For a brief moment Louise thought of Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Was she foolhardy too? She put one foot in front of the other. Every step was a victory. Her shirt, soaked with sweat, stuck to her lower back.

The notification sound of an incoming call had always been just one of many buzzes and bleeps in a digital world. Now, to Louise, it sounded like a blaring alarm. Danger, danger.

“Fuck, it’s a video call,” she stammered after peering at the screen.

El rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. “That’s okay. You look great.” She winked.

Louise just gaped at El.

“You can do this,” El added. She placed a quick kiss on Louise’s lips. “We can do this.”

She stepped away to get out of the camera’s sight. “I’m right here.”

Louise straightened up. It wasn’t easy with the pain in her chest and shoulder. The rough cotton of her pants clung to her thighs. “Ugh, I wish I could have showered first,” she thought.

Finally, she tapped the button to accept the call. She clenched her jaw and squinted at the screen. Her hair fell in front of her eyes.

After another second, an image of Michelle popped up. She was in full uniform, looking pristine and composed. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight bun.

“First Lieutenant,” she said, her tone icy.

A shudder ran down Louise’s back. She wished she was immune to Michelle’s disapproving gaze, but she wasn’t. Her chest ached, her pulse picked up.

“Major,” she replied as calmly as she could.

Louise recognized the space Michelle was in. She was sitting at the table in the large meeting room where Louise had first met El. Had that only been last week?

“Are you alone?” Michelle asked, tilting her head slightly.

“Yes,” Louise lied. It wouldn’t be her only lie today.

Michelle leaned forward, folding her hands on the table. “Where is Hobbs?”

Louise resisted the urge to scratch her cheek.

“Dead,” she said bluntly, her eyes pinned on the screen.

Anyone else would have missed the surprise in Michelle’s expression. Not Louise. She saw Michelle’s nose twitch just a little.

“Code 11?” Michelle inquired.

Code 11 was the panic button. By mentioning it, the teams back home knew you were being held hostage.

Louise shook her head. “No.”

Michelle squinted at the screen, apparently taking in Louise’s appearance. She didn’t seem concerned. Displeased was a better description.

“Are you sure?” Michelle insisted.

“I’m fine,” Louise sighed impatiently. Her cheeks were burning.

Michelle swiped at something on the screen. “Your message was suspicious,” she stated as her eyes flicked from left to right.

Louise decided to get to the point. “I needed to talk to you alone.”

Michelle didn’t bother hiding her surprise this time. “You’re not doing yourself any favors, Lou,” she cautioned.

Louise tucked her hands in her pockets.

“I’m going to have a hard time explaining your unprofessional message away,” Michelle continued. “Especially if Hobbs is dead. What happened to him?”

“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Louise said, following the script in her head.

Michelle quirked an eyebrow. “Obviously,” she drawled.

Louise launched the first missile before Michelle could ask another question.

“Look,” she said, “I know the attack on the global network didn’t come from the Fireblue Rebels.”

“Oh?” Michelle replied, leaning back in her chair. “You think you…”

Louise interrupted her. “I know the attack came from within our own army. It was a set-up.”

Michelle narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay, Lou? Maybe you weren’t ready to…”

Louise laughed bitterly. “Stop it, Michelle.”

She looked up, shaking her head. El was standing only a few yards away. She had crossed her arms and spread her feet wide. She looked like a woman holding her ground.

“I know about your scheme, okay?” Louise continued, mimicking El’s posture. “I know you wanted to trick the Global Council into attacking the rebels.”

Michelle visibly clenched her jaw. She raised a finger, but Louise kept going.

“You know what, I am going to give you a chance to get away with it,” she said with a smirk.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Michelle spat.

Michelle rarely lost her temper. Louise was happy to see she was getting under her skin.

“I have two conditions,” she explained, holding two fingers up.

“I think you are forgetting who you are talking to here,” Michelle barked.

For a brief moment, Louise remembered what it had been like to sit at that kitchen table all those years ago. She had allowed Michelle to patronize her for far too long. Not anymore.

“Like I said, I have two conditions,” she repeated. Every single hair on her arms rose, the tips of her ears tingled.

“You are going to bury all plans for an attack on the Fireblue Republic,” Louise stated.

Michelle laughed. “You really have lost your mind.” She tapped her forehead. “You want to protect a bunch of terrorists?!”

Louise arched an eyebrow. “We both know you’re the only terrorist here. If the Council finds out what you’ve been up to, you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison.”

“You can’t prove any of this,” Michelle replied, dismissing Louise with a wave.

She didn’t deny the accusation, Louise noticed. She took in a deep breath. This was the moment she had dreaded the most. Because Michelle was right.

She didn’t have a shred of evidence to prove what Michelle had done. She only knew about it because of Woodward’s confession in the bunker. And so Louise would have to bluff.

“I can,” she said coolly. “I can testify you ordered me to fabricate evidence to implicate the Fireblue Rebels.”

Michelle snorted. “As if someone will believe your word over mine.”

Louise pursed her lips. “Not a soul. But I still have the latest instructions telling us to create fake evidence. Plus, I found the mole you used to beef up your case.”

She wrinkled her nose. “He’s not very credible, to be honest. Fed you lots of false information.”

Michelle’s nostrils flared. “Bullshit.”

“Oh no,” Louise continued. “Woodward’s on his way to prison as we speak. Turns out he was playing you for his own agenda. Very embarrassing for you if that gets out.”

Hot anger flashed in Michelle’s blue eyes. She shot up and placed her hands on the table, her face threateningly close to the camera.

“You don’t have shit,” she hissed. “I’ll have you tried and convicted for sabotage and the murder of Hobbs. You picked the wrong fight, girl.”

Louise took a moment to study the profile of the woman she had once loved. It was painful to admit she had refused to see Michelle’s real face for so long.

The mask had fallen off. The look of disgust in Michelle’s eyes wasn’t new. Louise knew it all too well. There had never been real love between them.

She cleared her throat and raised her arms, managing not to wince. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m sort of out of your reach,” she said with a playful smile.

El chuckled softly. Louise hoped the microphone hadn’t picked it up. It was too early to declare victory. El’s delight boosted her confidence, though.

Michelle leaned even closer to the screen. “You’ll have to come home soon. There will be hell to pay the minute you cross that border,” she jabbed.

Louise smiled. “That’s actually my second condition.” She stepped closer to the terminal and looked straight into the camera. “I want you to make everyone think I’m dead.”

Michelle’s eyes widened in shock. Her voice was suspicious when she finally replied. “Why?”

Louise wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “I’m staying here.”

Michelle lowered herself back onto the chair. Louise used the moment to spell it all out.

“You find a way to have me declared dead and you leave me alone. I won’t send the evidence I gathered to the Global Council.”

Michelle shook her head. “I thought you and I had something special. I hoped after this mission…” She didn’t finish her sentence, sucking her lips into a thin smile.

Louise narrowed her eyes. She had known Michelle might try this. She had always used their past and the promise of a future to keep Louise under her thumb.

“Oh, and not just the Council,” Louise said with an unsteady voice. “If you refuse my offer, I’ll also post the evidence on every news channel around the globe.”

She shrugged. Her throat was tight. “I know you think I’m useless, but I sure know how to hack my way into a system.”

Michelle blinked, looking at Louise as if she was a stranger.

Louise nodded. “Would be quite the scandal for the Council members just a few weeks before an election,” she mumbled.

It was quiet for a long time. Louise had been so focused on Michelle, she had almost forgotten where she was. She shuffled her feet, enjoying the sound of the dry grass.

She breathed in the heavy, salty air. The wind was starting to pick up again. She could feel it tickle her damp skin. A seagull soared high in the sky.

“Fine,” Michelle barked through the speakers.

Louise’s eyes snapped back to the terminal.

Michelle’s gaze bore into her. “Consider yourself deceased as of tomorrow.”

A triumphant smile tugged at the corners of Louise’s lips. She didn’t stop it.

“I have one question,” Michelle added.

Louise quirked an eyebrow. “What?”

“Why on earth would you want to live there?”

“I like it here,” Louise replied. Her eyes automatically drifted to El. El winked at her again.

“What? You think you can pretend to be one of them?” Michelle snorted.

Louise had no idea if she would ever be allowed to live here freely. But she knew in her heart she could get used to life in the Fireblue Republic. She was about to reply when El surprised her by stepping in front of the camera.

She waved at Michelle as if she had run into an old friend. Louise was too dumbfounded to stop it.

“Hi Michelle,” El chirped. “No worries. I’m sure we can accommodate an extra rebel. We’ve actually welcomed quite a few new people recently.”

She wrapped her arm around Louise’s shoulder. “I will personally make sure Louise has everything she needs.” She smiled at Louise. “A terminal to hack stuff, right?”

Louise glanced at the screen nervously. She had rarely seen her ex-girlfriend blush. Now, Michelle’s whole face was red as a lobster. Louise knew she had to end the call before El messed everything up.

“Don’t forget our deal,” she told Michelle. “I’ll be ready to post the evidence as soon as you break it.”

Michelle’s eyes were still focused on El. The disgust in them was unmissable.

“Michelle!” Louise yelled.

The furious, blue eyes shifted back to her.

“Deal?” Louise repeated.

“Deal,” Michelle replied between gritted teeth.

Louise quickly ended the connection. She blew out a long breath before she turned around to face El.

El scratched her hair, giving her an apologetic look. “I guess I shouldn’t have done that.”

Louise crossed her arms and shook her head.

“I know, I know,” El sighed. “She just got on my nerves. She really is a pain in the ass, isn’t she?”

Louise couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing. “Yeah, I know,” she said in between gasps for air.

El started giggling too. She wrapped her arms around Louise. They laughed together, holding each other. After a while, they grew quiet.

“Let’s forget about her and go home,” El whispered, pressing her cheek against Louise’s.

“Yeah,” Louise croaked, “I really need a painkiller.”

El leaned back, an amused smile on her lips. “Oh, that’s why you want to come home with me?”

“No, not just that,” Louise replied innocently. “I also owe Stucky a cookie. Probably some playtime too.”

El’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “I’ll allow the cookie. No playtime, though.”

Louise disconnected the terminal and picked it up. “Why is that?

“You need to rest,” El said sternly. She grabbed Louise’s hand. “I need you fit and well-rested, remember?”

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