June 12th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 23.30 local time
“This day feels like it’s been going on forever,” Louise said, staring out of the car window. Outside, the lights of the houses of San Francisco’s outskirts finally came into view.
El chuckled tiredly. “It’s been a long day alright.”
They had been on the road for about 30 minutes. They’d been silent most of the time. It was as if being in a car together had that effect on them.
“I feel like I’ve been here for a year,” Louise admitted, eager to break the silence.
El didn’t reply. She took a right turn onto a dark street. There were some lights on inside the houses but the street was only visible because of the bright moon. Louise was surprised to see the bluish light of a terminal screen behind one of the windows.
“Hey, is that a terminal? I thought people didn’t have terminals at home here?” she asked, her eyes darting from one window to the next.
“They do,” El replied, pointing at the houses. “But only one per household and they’re built into a wall or a desk.”
“Nothing mobile or portable?”
“Only for work. Like the scanners you saw the first responders use.”
“But why?! Why limit access to the network so much?” Louise asked, shaking her head.
“So people only use it when they need to.”
“Because you don’t want them to get addicted?” Louise asked, trying her best to understand.
El shook her head. “Not just that. It’s much more fundamental than that. The people who started this republic believed technology was used to enslave us. It destroyed democracies. It took away our freedom.”
Louise knew these points of view from the many files she had read about the Fireblue rebels. In her opinion, these had been the ramblings of crazy people to justify their attacks on the rest of the world.
Not anymore, though. It was harder now that she was sitting next to El, driving through a peaceful street, the moon bright and the stars actually visible in the sky. No screens, no drones, no pods buzzing by.
El took one hand off the wheel and put it on the armrest between them. Louise looked down at it, tempted to entwine her fingers with El’s.
“I take it you disagree?” El said.
Louise was surprised by how eager El seemed to have this conversation. It certainly burst her happy bubble of denial. It was hard not to think about her own life back home now.
“I just don’t know what to think,” she admitted honestly. “I have never considered technology to be a bad thing.”
“It’s not,” El immediately answered. “It’s the way you’re using it. Or the way your leaders use it, to be more precise.”
Louise tried to take in a deep breath. Her chest was tight with anxiety.
“You stopped thinking for yourselves,” El continued. “You let that screen decide about what you’re thinking and what you think about it. But that screen is controlled by these global leaders who just want to…” She stopped.
“Sorry, I’m ranting,” she said.
Louise nodded. The muscles in her neck twitched with tension, a sure sign a migraine attack would follow soon.
She put her hand over El’s. “I’m getting another headache,” she said quietly.
“Okay, sorry,” El replied, entwining her fingers with Louise’s.
“No, no,” Louise hurried to say. “No need to be. It just has been a really long day and I can’t do this right now.”
El squeezed her hand.
Louise stared at the faux leather of her seat, thinking. She pursed her lips.
“Maybe one more question, though…” she said.
El ran her thumb over Louise’s hand. It felt wonderful. “Yeah?”
“How do people read books?” Louise asked.
El slowed down the car, taking a turn without using her signal.
“So you do have some wireless devices,” Louise said, sticking her finger in the air.
“I guess we do,” El giggled. “Does that make you feel better?”
Louise grinned, leaning back. “It does.”
They sat in silence again after that, their fingers interwoven. Louise recognized some of the streets and knew they were getting closer to the presidential residence. For the second time this long day, she wished their drive would never end.
She closed her eyes, willing time to slow down. It seemed to work for a while. There was nothing but the sound of the tires on the road and the feeling of El’s warm skin on hers.
Then, all of a sudden, all of that went away.
“Hey, wake up. We’re almost home,” El whispered.
Louise’s eyes snapped open. El was wearing her cap again. She had parked the car on the corner of the street of the presidential residence. Louise could see the guard station in the distance.
“Shit, I fell asleep?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
“Yeah. No worries, you didn’t snore,” El joked.
Louise blushed anyway. She stretched her arms out in front of her.
“I’m guessing you need to go see Hobbs now?” El asked.
Louise rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah,” she answered reluctantly. She wished she didn’t have to. She wanted to stay with El. Was there a way to stay with El tonight? Maybe she could sneak up to her room?
El put both of her hands on the wheel. “Alright, it’s about time this crazy day came to an end.”
Louise nodded. “Hobbs and my own bed it is then,” she thought.
Louise’s heart ached after locking away her gear and saying goodnight to El. She shook her head as she replayed the conversation in her mind.
“Hope you get some rest,” she had said. “See you in the morning.”
“You too. Hope Hobbs feels better.”
Then they had stood staring at each other like two teenagers, both scared to take the next step and lean in for a kiss. They had done a lot more than kissing already, of course. After a few moments, El had turned around and walked away.
Louise stopped and tried to shake off the uneasy feeling. She was standing by the door of the hospital. It was past midnight by now and she wasn’t sure she would still be allowed in.
The door to the room was wide open. The lights were off but the screens in the room lit it up with a blue and red haze. She could easily make out the human form in one of the beds.
Hobbs was still here, Louise saw, relieved. With a bit of luck, he’d be vast asleep and she wouldn’t have to talk to him. As she got closer, though, Hobbs rolled onto his side to face her.
“Hey,” he croaked.
Louise kept her distance, stopping two steps away from the bed. “Hey, how are you feeling?”
“Like a truck ran into me,” he groaned.
“It was just a dog,” Louise replied, already getting impatient.
“That monster should be put down,” Hobbs hissed.
Louise’s nostrils flared. “For running around?”
“It attacked me.”
“No, he didn’t.”
Hobbs pushed himself up a little on his elbow, grumbling. “Where have you been?”
Louise was certain someone had told him she had left for the inspection. He was just being an ass. “Doing what we are here for,” she said as calmly as she could. “I went to the third inspection site.”
“What did you find?” Louise couldn’t see his eyes in the dark but felt his gaze on her nevertheless.
“Nothing,” Louise replied truthfully. “Location was out of use. No recent renovations.”
He was quiet for a while. “Was Lucas with you?”
The skin on the back of Louise’s neck started tingling. “Yes, of course.”
“Did she make a move on you?” he asked, much too eagerly.
Louise froze, terrified. Did he know something already? Had someone seen them? But then Hobbs laughed and lay back down.
“That would have been too easy, I guess,” he sighed.
Louise was desperate to change the subject. “I mentioned you got hurt in the report. I said it was a random accident.”
“I didn’t add you are apparently scared of dogs,” she added, her temper getting the better of her.
He took in a quick breath through his nose. “I’m not.”
Louise chuckled with disdain. “Yeah, you are. Enough of this nonsense, I’m going to bed.”
“Don’t leave without me. I’m coming on the fourth inspection,” Hobbs instantly replied.
Louise crossed her arms. “We’ll see.” She turned around to leave the room.
“What did the new instructions say?” Hobbs asked before she could make it to the door.
She stopped walking, turning around slowly. “I couldn’t open the file without Lucas seeing it. She was right next to me most of the time.” Louise regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.
She could see Hobbs’s white teeth as he grinned widely. “Good,” he said. “She has a thing for you. Keep using it.”
Louise felt bile rise in the back of her throat. She should push back on what he was saying. Or at least tell him to shut up. But doing so would raise suspicion.
“I’m going upstairs. We’ll read the instructions together in the morning,” she said. He lay back down without another word.
Once she was in the hallway, Louise closed her eyes and held her hand in front of her mouth. She had let Hobbs think she was playing a game with El. That she was using her. The exact thing she had thought El was doing to her.
Louise no longer recognized herself. She had done things here she would have never thought possible. She felt like a traitor and a coward. There was nothing left of who she thought she was before she left on this mission.
The worst part was that there was only one person she wanted to run to right now. One person she wanted to tell everything to. One person she hoped wouldn’t think she was this bad. One woman she wanted to be forgiven by. El.
Louise hurried to her room and locked the door behind her. It was going to be a long, dark and lonely night.