JUNE 9th, 2061. Coast of the San Francisco Bay, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 15.15 local time.
“What’s with the other car?” Hobbs whispered.
Louise pretended to look around until she could get a good look at the other vehicle. “I don’t know,” she replied, quietly.
They were standing in a gravel parking lot on the shore of the bay. There were trees and bushes around the lot and she saw a road that must lead to the city.
The red-haired rebel had driven the car with their gear off the ramp 2 minutes ago. He had then walked off to another vehicle that was already parked there. He was sitting behind the wheel, ignoring them.
Louise looked back at the boat. “I haven’t seen Lucas around,” she said, as evenly as she could. She knew bringing up Lucas was risky, now that she was holding things back from Hobbs, but not talking about her at all would definitely raise suspicion.
“Me neither. We need to find out what she’s up to,” Hobbs replied.
Louise leaned against their car to hide her increasing nervousness. It had been over an hour since she had last seen Lucas in the bathroom. She had told Hobbs she hadn’t seen anyone while wandering around on the ferry.
It hadn’t been that far from the truth. All the rebels had stayed on the bridge and out of sight until they had made it to the shore. Louise really needed Lucas to come out now and take the lead again, though.
It was the only thing that would stop Hobbs from asking more questions. She was surprised he hadn’t asked more already. That in itself was strange. Did he know she was lying? Or maybe she was just getting paranoid.
“I don’t like this,” Hobbs muttered, pacing back and forth.
“Me neither!” Louise replied.
“What are they waiting for?” Hobbs asked as he took a step towards the ferry, raising his hand above his eyes so he could get a better look at it.
“Maybe there’s more of them on the way?” Louise suggested. It seemed plausible enough and it was a good way to steer the conversation away from Lucas.
“We’re already outnumbered,” Hobbs whispered tensely.
Louise tucked her hands in her pockets. “We were always going to be outnumbered. We’re in rebel territory.”
Hobbs looked at her over his shoulder. “Yeah, but I don’t like the games Lucas is playing.”
Louise met his gaze, keeping her expression neutral, she hoped. “Yeah, me neither.”
He glanced around, then walked over to her. He lowered his voice. “Sabotaging our pod? Then the surprise trip with the ferry? The little drama act Lucas put on. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?”
Louise swallowed before she spoke. “You think that was an act?”
He narrowed his eyes as he nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it for the last 2 hours. She’s trying to confuse us every chance she gets. Keep us guessing, you know.”
Louise nodded reluctantly. She figured pretending to agree with him was her best option. Hell, he might even be right. This might all be one big game. Had Lucas been putting on an act? Was Louise being duped? Sweat prickled the back of her neck.
Sudden steps on the ferry’s ramp surprised them both. Hobbs spun around. Woodward was making his way towards them with a grim expression. Louise was relieved to see him. Lucas would follow soon, she guessed.
“About time,” she said, pushing herself off of the car.
Woodward raised his hand. “Don’t worry, we’re on schedule,” he said gruffly.
“Really? What schedule Is that?” Hobbs asked.
Woodward pointed at the car, completely ignoring Hobbs’s question. “Come on. Time to get on the road.”
Hobbs frowned and tilted his head. “Where to?”
Woodward sighed. “San Francisco, of course.” He stepped around Louise and opened the door of the car.
“When is Lucas joining us? Where is she?” Hobbs asked, his hands resting on his sides now.
Woodward took his place behind the wheel. “Eleanor’s not coming. She has to take care of some things first. Get in the car.”
The pang of disappointment in Louise’s chest seemed to come out of nowhere. She let out a small gasp of surprise and shook her head in confusion. “You’re just fed up of lying to Hobbs,” she told herself. “Stay calm. It will get easier soon.”
Hobbs hurried to Woodward’s side. “That is not what we agreed on.”
Woodward started the engine and stretched out his hand to close the door. Hobbs was in the way, though. “Like I said, she has to take care of some stuff first,” he said, motioning for Hobbs to move aside.
“We’ll wait for her then,” Hobbs said, remarkably calm.
“Just get in the car,” Woodward repeated, getting annoyed.
Hobbs looked over his shoulder at Louise. But Louise didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t know if she was angry, annoyed or worried. Probably all of it.
Maybe having a break from Lucas was a good thing. She needed time to get a grip on herself. Louise took a step towards Woodward. “Will Lucas join us in the city?”
Woodward nodded. “Yes, of course.”
Louise thought for a moment. She knew she was making the wrong decision. She knew Hobbs would question her judgment. He would think she was letting the rebels get away with too much.
“Okay, I guess we better get on the road then,” she said.
An hour later, Louise was staring out of the window with wide eyes. She knew everything in Fireblue Territory would be different, but she hadn’t expected it to be this different. Or maybe not in this way.
They had just reached the outskirts of the city. The road moved up and down from one hill to the next. Next to it, colorful two-story houses were lined up. Some of them were still made of wood, most were built with bricks.
The sky stretched out behind them, an endless blue where Louise was used to a wall of grey. The calm and colorful landscape was the exact opposite of what cities looked like back home.
There weren’t any of the usual distractions either. There were no pods anywhere and even cars seemed scarce. She didn’t see any billboards, large screens or drones. It was disconcertingly quiet all around her.
Louise spotted a park on the corner. The grass was dry and brittle, but the playground looked perfect. Too perfect. Everything here was too damn idyllic. It almost felt like they were driving around in a nostalgic dream!
She knew a lot about the Fireblue territory from the intel, but it hadn’t prepared her for the feel of the place. She tried to swallow away the tightness in her throat. Being here sure made her feel uncomfortable.
“Are we almost there?” Hobbs asked, breaking the silence and pulling Louise’s attention back to the car. He was sitting next to her on the back seat again.
“Yeah, 10 minutes,” Woodward replied.
Louise glanced at the empty passenger seat in the front. She wished Lucas was here with them. “No, Not wished,” she thought. That sounded too emotional. “I would have much preferred it if Lucas had joined us,” she corrected herself.
She wondered what Lucas was doing and who she was with. Was she still inconsolable? Who had she lost anyway? And how? Louise was surprised she hadn’t thought about this sooner.
“The most important person in my life,” Lucas had said. That left quite a few options open. Her mother? A sibling maybe? “Or a lover,” Louise considered. But what about Woodward? Louise agreed with Hobbs: he and Lucas were probably romantically involved.
Louise leaned to the side so she could get a better look at Woodward. Black stubble was starting to show on his cheeks. His dark shirt was tight around the muscles of his arms and chest. “Show off,” she thought.
Before she had a chance to stop it, an image of Lucas in Woodward’s arms flashed through her mind. Not the one she had seen on the dock, though. No, she pictured Lucas running her hands over that short hair. She frowned, her jaw tightening.
They took a sudden turn to the right, entering a different neighborhood. The houses were bigger with more space between them here. Large lawns stretched out in front of the stately homes.
“No one touches our gear when we arrive,” Hobbs said, somewhat out of the blue.
“You can take it out of the car and lock it away yourself,” Woodward replied.
“Who says you won’t destroy it at night?” Hobbs muttered.
Woodward shrugged. “Plenty of guards at the presidential residence to keep an eye on your stuff.”
“That’s exactly what I mean! Who says the guards won’t touch it?”
Woodward sighed. “I’m telling you. Eleanor guarantees it.”
Hobbs huffed but didn’t say anything else. Louise didn’t know what to say or ask either, to be honest. Maybe they could hide some of the gear in their rooms. If they had rooms, of course. She had no idea what sort of accommodation was in store for them.
Louise thought the words ‘presidential residence’ sure sounded odd. She knew Eleanor Lucas was, technically, the president of the Fireblue republic, but she had never really thought of her that way. She was just a rebel leader after all.
Woodward took another sharp turn and stopped in front of a gate. Two guards with electric guns stood in front of it. This surprised Louise. She had not expected to see weapons in the open at all. Time seemed to slow down.
A third guard walked out of his booth on the left, waving at Woodward. Woodward lowered the window.
“Mister Woodward,” the guard said, his hand resting on his hip holster.
“Afternoon, Thomson. These are the two guests we’ve been expecting.”
Thomson narrowed his eyes as he looked through the back window at Louise and Hobbs.
“I want to see what’s in the trunk,” he told Woodward after a moment. Hobbs shifted in his seat.
Luckily, Woodward shook his head. “No. Orders from the president.”
The guard sighed, clearly displeased, but straightened up anyway and waved at the others. “Open up!”
Louise let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. The gate started to open slowly and, behind it, a large driveway came into view. It was surrounded by trees and more dry grass.
At the end of the road, she saw a huge house, painted in a dark blue. She recognized it from the satellite images in the intelligence, but like everything else in the territory, it looked surprisingly different now that she was here. It was beautiful, Louise had to admit.
Woodward parked at the side of the house, where a metal construction protected the cars. There were 3 more vehicles parked under it. They all looked the same as theirs. There was no way to tell if Lucas had somehow arrived before them.
Once Woodward had switched off the engine, Louise noticed how quiet it was. The wind in the desert had been brutally loud. But here, she could hear birds singing in the distance. It sure was a relief. She felt her shoulders relax a little.
Woodward turned in his seat to address them. “Time to get you settled for the night. You can lock away your gear, and the staff will show you to your rooms. We’ll pick you up at 7 AM tomorrow morning for the first inspection.”
“What about Lucas?” Louise blurted out.
She had expected to see Lucas again sometime tonight once they had arrived in the city. Woodward had told them she would join them here after all. This was not what they had agreed on!
Woodward smiled apologetically. “I don’t know when she’ll be back.”