JUNE 10th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 20.05 local time.
Louise couldn’t help but smile while taking in the beauty surrounding her. The ocean lay before her, bright and blue with orange light glittering across it. The setting sun gave the wild bushes and trees around her a warm glow.
On her right, Louise could see the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge. Parts of it still stood tall at both sides of the bay. Its legendary red paint was barely visible under the plants and dirt that had taken over the structure.
Louise followed a large seagull that was sliding through the air and making its way to the remainders of the bridge. She somehow felt more at home standing here. The coast at the other end was no longer Fireblue territory.
Not that anyone lived there. Everyone had been relocated to places with less extreme weather conditions. It was pretty much no man’s land. Tonight, it was hard to understand why, though. The bay was calm, the heat bearable enough and everything here was so damn beautiful.
“Thomas!” Hobbs’s voice cut through the peaceful moment.
Louise sighed and turned around, reluctantly turning her back on the view. The dull throb behind her temples was getting worse. She wouldn’t be able to ignore it much longer. “Yeah, coming,” she groaned.
Hobbs was entering coordinates into a computer that was about to transmit their first report to the teams back at the army base. A portable satellite was set up next to it.
“Nothing or no one in the neighborhood. If they’re trying to block the signal, it has to happen from inside the building,” Louise said.
Hobbs stepped away from the rugged terminal. “Let’s hope they’re not that stupid. I seem to have a full signal for now. But it’ll take a while to send. It’s a lot.”
Louise peered at the screen and nodded. “Let’s get started then. The sun’s about to set. I don’t want to be out here in the dark.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Hobbs agreed. He looked around, taking his time to make sure no one was coming.
“They’re still inside,” Louise said. “I saw them on our way out.”
“There have to be other people around somewhere. It’s been too quiet,” he replied.
Louise rubbed the back of her neck. She too had noticed they had encountered very few other people in the last 24 hours. Woodward and Lucas were doing an excellent job of keeping them hidden from view.
“I’m still surprised we haven’t seen anything to do with Biden’s death,” she said. It was so much easier to have a conversation now that there was less to hide.
Hobbs nodded. “Should be a big fuss.”
“Yeah,” Louise mumbled, “Maybe they’re just making sure we don’t see it.”
“Like I said, maybe there isn’t any,” Hobbs said.
She grimaced. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
Hobbs glanced back at the small building about 500 feet away and she followed his gaze. It was a low structure with just one door and a few windows. Louise thought it was an old observatory. She had spotted remnants of antennas nearby.
Inside, there had been no sign of any equipment, though. Louise had checked. The 2 rooms she had searched had been stripped of all electronics. But the electricity still worked and there were desks they could work on.
Louise and Hobbs had split up the work of writing the first report. She had typed out the chronological timeline of their journey and first inspection. Hobbs had focused on creating schematic images of the harbor at the border.
Then they had worked on the conclusions and recommendations together. There had been so much to report, they had struggled to prioritize. It had taken them almost 3 hours to get the whole thing ready for transmission.
Luckily, Hobbs had not brought up including a code red in this report. He had been very keen to request a verification of Monique Biden’s death, though. Louise hadn’t argued. She too thought it was odd they had not seen anything indicating the Fireblue rebels were mourning.
“Let’s get started,” Hobbs said before he squatted down next to the satellite dish.
Louise walked over to the terminal. “Ready when you are.”
“Go right ahead,” Hobbs replied after a final inspection of the dish.
Louise’s finger hovered over the screen. Once she hit that button, they would connect with the global coalition’s network. It was possible that updated instructions were waiting to be delivered to their machine. Louise frowned when she realized that this bothered her.
She should be happy to connect to the teams back home. To their own world. To the place where things made sense. To Michelle. “Wow, I haven’t really thought of her since I got here,” Louise thought.
She quickly tapped the screen to connect. Hobbs joined her and they stared at the terminal together. After a few seconds, a green alert indicated they were able to reach the global network. The signal wasn’t being jammed.
“Looks good,” Hobbs said softly.
Louise nodded, her eyes squinting at the progress bar that had now popped up. It moved in the right direction slowly, but surely. If there was information waiting for them, a new progress bar would appear immediately after their own file had been sent.
A silver crack suddenly split her vision into two. “Shit,” she thought. “Not now.” Louise started massaging her temples to take some of the pressure off. She knew that if she ignored it, the migraine aura would go away soon enough.
2 tense minutes later, the screen finally confirmed the successful transmission of their report. Louise leaned forward, holding her breath, wanting to see what would happen now. Would a new progress bar pop up? Hobbs got closer to the screen too.
“Nothing to receive,” he muttered after several long seconds.
“Seems like it,” Louise replied, trying not to sound too relieved. But she was. They would proceed as planned for the next 24 hours. She would have at least one more day here. She was surprised at how much she wanted that.
“I’ll pack up,” Hobbs said.
Louise nodded. “I’ll let Lucas know we’re almost ready to leave.”
Louise’s head was pounding like never before by the time they walked into the presidential residence. Hot, red flashes shot from behind her eyes up to her skull with every step she took.
The ride back had been uneventful. No one had said a word. The streets had been dark and abandoned. But her headache had seemed to get worse with every mile they traveled.
“Are you alright?” Eleanor Lucas asked, walking into the large lobby. Louise looked up with a scowl.
“Yes, of course,” she answered.
“You don’t look alright,” Eleanor said.
Louise shook her head, then immediately regretted it. Pain shot down from her head to the base of her spine.
“Just a headache,” she croaked.
Eleanor turned to Hobbs. “She could have a concussion from bumping her head in the car. She needs to get that checked out.”
Louise raised her hand with effort. “Hey, I’m right here,” she groaned, annoyed. “And I’m fine.”
“Have you eaten?” Eleanor asked. Louise avoided her worried gaze.
Hobbs replied before she could. “Of course she has. We brought bars for the whole trip.”
Louise’s stomach lurched just thinking of the dry nutrition bars she had been living on for the last 48 hours.
“I mean real food,” Eleanor said dryly.
Hobbs huffed. “She has everything she needs.”
Eleanor took a step towards Louise, leaning to the side to meet her gaze. “Eat something fresh. I’ll get my doctor to take a look at you.”
Hobbs intervened again. “She doesn’t need a doctor. She needs her diagnostic chip.”
Louise closed her eyes. Hobbs’s nasal voice was getting even more on her nerves than usual. Her head was spinning now, making her wonder if indeed something more was happening than just a migraine.
“Wow,” Eleanor said, grabbing Louise’s arm. “Careful.”
Louise’s eyes snapped open, all of her senses on high alert because of Eleanor’s sudden proximity. She expected a new wave of nausea to wash over her, but luckily none came.
“Enough of this,” Eleanor snapped at Hobbs. “I’m putting her in a chair until she has some food and sees my doctor.”
Louise frowned but felt too weak to argue. The familiar peppermint scent had found its way up her nostrils. It was soothing somehow.
She didn’t want to see a doctor. She also didn’t think she could stand any food. She could use some fresh air, though. Maybe more peppermint. It took all her energy to say:
“No doctor. I need air.”
Hobbs started to say something, but Eleanor was already tugging at Louise’s arm, her hand on Louise’s bare skin. Everything around Louise changed into one big blur as they made their way out of the lobby.
The only two things Louise was fully aware of were the pounding in her head and the arm linked with hers. A few moments later, she was suddenly sitting in a soft, comfortable chair on the patio at the back of the mansion.
It was dark and quiet here. A soft breeze played with Louise’s hair and brushed her cheeks. She felt like she could breathe for the first time in hours. She closed her eyes again and focused on inhaling deeply. The scent of flowers, dry grass and peppermint mingled into a slightly overwhelming but soothing mix.
“She’s fine. Just bring her up to her room,” Hobbs was nagging somewhere in the background. Louise wished he would just shut up. She wanted everyone to shut up.
“Please. Silence,” she muttered without opening her eyes.
There was some soft rustling of clothes, some whispers and finally the click of a door closing. Louise blew out a slow breath. Then, she inhaled through her nose. “Slow and steady,” she told herself.
After a few minutes, the pounding in her head had calmed down remarkably. It was still there and Louise knew it would be back in full force if she did as little as wiggle her toes the wrong way, but she was finally able to relax a little bit.
A cold, wet thing pushing against her hand out of nowhere startled her. Louise, gasping, pulled back her hand and opened her eyes. It took her a full second to process what she was seeing.
Two large, brown eyes stared back at her in the dim light of the patio. A thick, unruly tail moving left and right caught her attention next. The dog pushed his head against her thigh now.
When Louise finally got over her first shock, she smiled widely.
“Hey,” she whispered.
The dog’s tail wagged even faster.
“Who are you?” Louise asked softly.
He rubbed his head against her a bit more.
Louise couldn’t help but perk up when greeted with so much enthusiasm.
“You want cuddles?” she cooed. She hesitated for a moment, but then decided he looked utterly harmless. He groaned softly when she stroked his soft, furry head.
Louise looked up to see Eleanor walking onto the patio hastily, carrying a tray with a jar of water, a glass and a plate filled with what looked like grilled vegetables.
“Sorry,” she said. “I let him outside to get used to the garden. I forgot he was out here, to be honest.” She put down the water and food on the table nearby.
Stucky sat down and rested his snout on Louise’s leg.
“Wow,” Eleanor said. “He likes you.”
Louise chuckled. “I like him too. Is he yours?”
Eleanor walked over, squatting down and stroking Stucky’s back. “No, he was my aunt’s.”
Louise looked at Stucky, whose eyes were now falling shut while he enjoyed all the petting.
“Oh no,” she whispered. “He must be so sad.”
Eleanor nodded. “Yeah. But you seem to cheer him up!”
Heat flushed Louise’s cheeks. She was awkwardly touched by Stucky’s trust in her. She scratched behind his ear, soliciting more happy groaning.
“Are you going to keep him?” she asked, unable to keep the hopeful tone out of her voice.
Eleanor smiled sadly. “Of course. We just need some time to get used to each other.”
Louise nodded. She glanced at the jar. Eleanor followed her gaze. “Oh! I brought you something to drink and some vegetables.”
“Where’s Hobbs?” Louise asked.
Eleanor waved her hand in the direction of the door and sighed. “I convinced him to lock away the gear and give you a minute. Rick’s with him.”
Louise leaned forward so she could reach the dog’s other ear. “Thank you,” she said softly.
She wished she could stay here with Stucky and Eleanor. But she knew Hobbs would come out to ruin the moment soon. She wanted to avoid him at all cost, to be honest. That meant it was time to go.
“Is it okay if I take that to my room with me?” she asked.
Eleanor shrugged. “Of course, yeah, sure.” She seemed a little disappointed.
“I gotta go, boy,” Louise told Stucky. He opened his eyes and gave her a heart-melting look that almost made her consider staying. “Sorry,” she whispered to him as she pushed herself up.
“Are you going to be okay?” Eleanor asked.
Louise nodded slowly. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Can I help you carry that upstairs?”
Louise’s eyes widened. Oh no, no. That was a bad idea. She couldn’t have Hobbs see her and Eleanor strolling to the bedrooms together. She tried to smile. “No, I ‘ll be fine.”
“Okay,” Eleanor said. “Stucky, come on, let’s go play.”
The dog whined softly in response and walked over to the corner of the patio. He lay down, looking sad now. Louise’s heart seemed to crack a little. But the pounding behind her eyes was getting worse again.
She picked up the tray with the water, glass and plate with trembling hands. “See you tomorrow,” she whispered as she walked away on shaky legs.
“I’ll check in on you in the morning,” Eleanor called after her. Louise didn’t really process what Eleanor had said until she was inside and it was too late to protest.