JUNE 8th, 2061. White Sands Army Base, New Mexico, North American Province, 1400 local time.
Louise got a first glimpse of Eleanor Lucas through the glass wall of the large conference room. Lucas was leaning back in her chair as if she owned the place. Louise had expected her to look uncomfortable – intimidated even – but if Lucas felt any of that, she certainly didn’t show it.
The man next to her did look appropriately tense, though. He was studying the room with a clenched jaw. His dark clothes made him look like a guard of some kind. The man seemed suspicious and on edge. But not Eleanor Lucas.
Lucas looked awfully relaxed and casual. She was wearing jeans and an army green shirt with a pen sticking out from the chest pocket. Her hair was lighter than on the pictures Louise had seen. Curls bounced playfully every time Lucas moved her head.
Louise stepped into the room without further delay. Lucas’s cool grey eyes immediately focused on her. The rebel leader arched an eyebrow, slowly taking in Louise from head to toe. Louise ignored the judgmental stare and walked over to the Captain.
“Thomas,” McConnell said gruffly. He gestured in the direction of their two guests, not even trying to hide his dismay. “Miss Lucas and mister Woodward.”
Louise gave them both a curt nod. If McConnell wasn’t faking hospitality, she wasn’t going to either.
“She’s the other one travelling with us?” The contempt in Lucas’s voice was unmistakable.
McConnell cleared his throat. Louise could tell he was having a hard time controlling his temper. “Yes. This is First Lieutenant Thomas. Major Becker and Second Lieutenant Hobbs will be back in a moment.” He met Louise’s eyes and gestured at a chair.
Louise got the hint and walked over to a seat as far away from Lucas and her guy as possible. She would let Michelle sit opposite from Lucas. She knew that’s where Michelle would want to be. Right in the middle of the confrontation.
Louise also needed some space to process what she had just heard. Hobbs had been in here already? Why was she the last to join them? How had she failed to notice that Lucas had arrived early?
And what else had she missed? Louise looked around the room, narrowing her eyes as she studied everyone and everything in it. Her gaze soon fell back upon Lucas.
She was writing something in a paper notebook. “You have got to be kidding me,” Louise thought. She bet Lucas had brought that notebook just to make a point. Paper had been a rare commodity for over 20 years.
Louise’s observation of Lucas was interrupted by her guard. He cleared his throat and frowned back at her. Woodward’s pitch black hair was just a quarter of an inch long. His eyes had the ferocity of an attack dog. She half expected him to start growling.
Michelle and Hobbs marched into the large room. Michelle looked surprisingly refreshed and, of course, stunning. Louise felt the lump in her throat return. Being in the same room with her ex lover twice in 12 hours was messing with her head. And hormones.
Hobbs slipped into the chair next to Louise. Captain McConnell hesitated for a moment, glancing in Michelle’s direction uncomfortably, but then sat down too. Michelle stayed upright, of course. She crossed her arms and stared down at Lucas.
“Alright, we will leave our vehicle behind at the border.”
Lucas nodded with a satisfied look on her face. “I will make sure no one touches it.”
Michelle huffed. “We’re not leaving it there. It will drive itself back.”
Lucas lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “As you wish,” she answered.
Michelle ignored Lucas’s snotty tone and calmly nodded at Hobbs. He woke up his terminal, waving his hand over the screen. The map of the Fireblue territory popped up on the wall.
Louise noticed it had a lot less details. She assumed Michelle wanted to hide the extent of the intel the global army had on the area. No need to let the enemy know.
“Our team will inspect one location per day,” Michelle said. She pointed at one of the circles. “We will start here.”
Lucas made a note with her ballpoint pen. “Alright,” she said, “Your team has to keep a low profile the whole time.” She glanced at Louise and Hobbs. “And stick to the cover I created when talking to the staff,” she added, turning back to Michelle.
Louise’s nostrils flared. She did not appreciate being talked about like she wasn’t in the room. Michelle just raised her hands in understanding. “If you want to lie to your people and pretend we’re friendly visitors, sure, we’ll play along.”
Louise’s eyebrows shot up. She quickly glanced at Lucas. It was the first time Louise saw the rebel leader lose her cool composure. Her eyes were burning with anger. This was obviously a sensitive topic for Lucas. Something to remember, Louise decided.
“Let me remind you we are innocent,” Lucas hissed. “These accusations are unsubstantiated. A political excuse to keep us on the terrorist list. So don’t you lecture me about lying to the people.”
Michelle wasn’t impressed by Lucas’s declaration. She smiled and pointed at a different spot on the map. “Our team will be allowed to send in reports through satellite connection from this area.”
Lucas folded her hands on the table. She seemed back in control and exchanged a long look with Woodward. “Fine,” she finally said. “But only one transmission per day.”
Michelle zoomed in on another circle. “When the inspections are completed, our team will be given free passage to…”
“Wait,” Lucas interrupted her dryly.
Michelle slowly turned around. “Yes?”
“I want all your technology switched off and locked away every night. I want bionic devices to be disabled before we leave today.”
Michelle quirked an eyebrow. “Those devices are crucial to my people’s health.”
Lucas looked at Hobbs and Louise disapprovingly. “Not my problem,” she shrugged. “If they can’t survive without bionic chips, send someone who can. Our scramblers will mess up unknown devices anyway.” The corners of her mouth curled up.
Louise’s eyes widened. Scramblers? These people truly were lunatics. Why would they want to mess with life-saving technology?
Michelle exchanged another look with Hobbs. “Fine,” Michelle agreed, both surprising and shocking Louise. She glanced over at Hobbs. He sat perfectly still, undeterred.
Louise inhaled deeply as she made a mental note to switch off her diagnostic chip. She was in good shape and would be fine without it.
“Please confirm you will give our team free passage to this pick-up point once the inspections are completed,” Michelle continued, sounding impatient for the first time.
“Of course,” Lucas replied theatrically. “You have my word.”
Michelle didn’t even try to hide how much she thought Lucas’s word was worth. She took a step closer and narrowed her eyes at her. The rebel leader didn’t budge, though. She leaned back as she held Michelle’s gaze.
Louise suddenly noticed the leather bracelet on one of Lucas’s wrists. It looked ancient, almost like it had been passed on from a previous generation. It made Louise wonder if there was something Lucas did value and respect.
“Hobbs, Thomas, go back to your stations. Prepare to leave in 3.5 hours,” Michelle said coolly, interrupting Louise’s thoughts.
Louise quickly got to her feet. She made a point out of not looking at Lucas while leaving the room. There was no reason to be polite to this cold and calculated woman. Lucas clearly had no respect for any them after all. The feeling was mutual, Louise thought.
3 hours later, Louise closed the storage compartment of the military vehicle that would take them to the Fireblue territory. She had spent the last hours briefing her team and packing equipment. Now, she was all set and ready to leave.
Louise stepped out of the pod. She frowned at the vehicle parked next to it in the underground parking lot. It was an honest to God car. It still had a round steering wheel and everything. Louise shook her head and glanced at her watch.
If she hurried, she still had some time to freshen up in one of the bathrooms. She would use the old changing room in the back of the building. It was usually deserted and she really needed a moment alone.
When she walked into the room a few minutes later, she realized luck was not on her side, though. One of the showers was running. Louise hesitated for a second. Maybe she could try the bathroom in the basement and have some alone time after all.
What she saw in the mirror convinced her to stay right where she was, though. Her hair was a total mess. She should have come here to tidy up much earlier. Her T-shirt stuck to her back from the relentless heat. She wished she had brought a spare to change into.
Louise listened intently for signs the other woman might come out of the shower stall. She thought she heard the bleep of the shampoo dispenser being used. That meant she had some time left. She quickly unbuttoned her uniform top.
Her eyes fell on the water tap above the large metal sink. “Please be cold,” she thought as she waved her hand in front of the sensor. “Oh yes,” she groaned. She held her hands under the tap for a while, enjoying the feeling.
A quick sniff under her arm told her her deodorant was holding up for now. She tapped the screen of the towel dispenser and got a rough cloth in return. She held it under the running water and then washed her face and neck. Once she was ready, she gave the towel back to the dispenser.
It was time to rein in her frizzy hair. She tugged at the elastic band and let it fall onto her shoulders. She would have to manage it without a comb for now. She winced as she tried to smoothen it back into submission.
“You can use my brush,” a cool voice said, startlingly loud.
Louise nearly jumped. A look into the mirror made her heart sink. Standing just a few feet behind her was Eleanor Lucas, with damp hair and a fluffy towel tucked under her arm.
She was waving a brush in the air. “It’s very old fashioned, though.” Lucas added with a phoney smile on her lips. “Nothing fancy.”
“No, thanks,” Louise said evenly. Why the hell had they let Lucas walk around without a guard, she wondered. She quickly pulled her hair back into a tight bun.
Lucas put down her stuff on the metal sink. Her eyes met Louise’s in the mirror.
“Your Major said I could use this old room. She didn’t warn me about the company. The shower was pretty nice, though,” she added.
Louise grabbed her jacket and started buttoning it up. “I wouldn’t get used to the VIP treatment,” she said as calmly as she could.
Lucas snickered. “Oh, really? Why is that?”
Louise fumbled with the last button of her uniform top. “We both know you were behind this attack.”
Lucas turned to face her directly, pointing a finger at Louise. “Well, good luck proving that. And what happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
Louise took a step forward, now towering over Lucas, who was at least 3 inches shorter than she was. Bold eyes burning with conviction stared back into hers. Lucas even leaned in, her finger almost touching Louise’s nose.
Louise gritted her teeth. “Time to go,” she said and stepped back. “Unless you want to enjoy our fancy facilities a bit longer before you go back to your old fashioned ways?”
Louise didn’t wait for Lucas to reply and walked out of the door. “Innocent until proven guilty,” she murmured under her breath. “Are you kidding me?” It seemed Lucas was intent on keeping up this charade as long as possible. Because that’s what all of this proclaimed innocence was: a charade. Right?