Chapter 36 of Connection Concealed: Hummingbird

June 14th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 09.35 local time

“Excuse me,” Louise grumbled.

The woman standing in her path looked up from under her brightly colored hat. Her expression changed from annoyance to admiration in the blink of an eye.

She stepped aside. “Oh, I’m sorry, officer.”

Louise nodded and stepped past her.

“At least I look like a Fireblue official,” she thought. Without the bandana, she felt exposed. Recognizing her was easy.

So much so, she had considered changing her outfit entirely. She had kept listing the pros and cons in the car for hours. That’s how long it had taken her to find the B2 power plant.

She had heard on the radio what time El would arrive. The excited host had also mentioned a large audience was expected at the opening of the new power facility.

That’s when Louise had started to doubt if it was wise to keep posing as a Fireblue presidential guard. Maybe it was better to blend into the audience as a citizen?

She would have needed another outfit, though. The biggest issue, however, was that she wouldn’t have been able to bring the gun.

And so, here she was, trying to make her way through the crowd, still wearing the Fireblue cap and coat and firmly holding on to the gun. There were more people than she had expected.

They were gathered on a large square in the middle of the new site. The plant itself was on the right. A smaller building stood at the front of the square, behind the temporary stage.

On any other day, Louise would have marveled at her surroundings. The plant was clearly state of the art. Its location, on the top of a hill, provided a stunning view of the ocean.

She squinted. The harsh morning light was brutal on her tired eyes. She spotted police and presidential guards pretty much everywhere around the square.

She wouldn’t be able to keep avoiding them. At some point, she would have to bring on her A game and bluff her way past them. For now, she would keep her distance.

She studied the stage. There was a lectern in the middle of it with a small seating area for guests behind it. A canine unit was inspecting the chairs.

Louise thought of Stucky and smiled sadly. She pulled down the zipper of her coat. She needed some room to breathe. The crisp, early morning air was long gone.

The smaller, brick building behind the podium looked like some sort of office. Louise guessed that’s where El would wait before giving her speech. She rubbed the back of her neck.

Looking back up, Louise caught a young woman glancing over at her. A kid holding a teddy bear was clinging on to her hand and staring at Louise too. Louise cleared her throat.

She had hoped being in the audience would give her some extra cover, but it was doing the exact opposite. She was drawing too much attention to herself. There were about twenty minutes left before El’s speech would start. Louise couldn’t just stand here.

She bumped into someone’s backpack as she began to walk away.

“Oh sorry,” the teenager said.

His dark, brown eyes flicked in the direction of the stage and then the exit. If Louise were a real guard, he’d be on her to watch list for sure. An idea popped into her mind. She frowned and pointed at his bag.

“Hey, you, open that bag,” she commanded, sounding pretty convincing.

The guy immediately obeyed, his cheeks blushing. Louise took a peek into the backpack, seeing nothing but a rolled up sweater and a can of beer. She gave him a stern nod and moved on.

People stepped aside now. She kept her eyes on their bags and coats. “I have to behave like a soldier,” Louise thought, “I am one, after all. Just from the wrong army.”

She asked a few more people to open their bags. She kept her expression stony, her voice low. It was good to have a task, even if it was a fake one. It kept her from freaking out.

She had come here without knowing if El had gotten her message. And even if El had found the scribblings on the bandana, would she believe her?

Had Louise’s message been convincing enough? Would El even consider what Louise had suggested she should do? Or was Woodward’s power over her too strong?

Louise would not find out until El took that stage. Just thinking about it made her hands sweaty. Not exactly a good thing when you’re holding a gun and are planning to use it.

Because she would use it if El made the choice to let Woodward get away with this. That’s why Louise had brought the gun. That’s why she was here.

With about 5 minutes left before the speech, Louise decided she needed to get closer to the stage. She started pushing her way through the crowd.

She stopped when she was about 15 feet away from the podium. An elderly woman smiled a her, then focused back on the stage.

Louise scanned the area around the podium. More presidential guards had arrived now, taking up their spots by the office building and the stairs at the side of the stage.

El had to be close now. Probably just yards away. Louise briefly closed her eyes and tried to feel her presence. All she felt was a smothering weight on her chest.

Would El look for her once she was up there? Would she recognize Louise? Would their eyes lock and would El then find the courage to do what she needed to do? That’s what Louise had been imagining would happen.

There was another option. There was the chance that Woodward had found the message, or worse, El telling him about it. Louise didn’t think she would have gotten this far if that was the case, though.

There were people looking for her here. Of that she was sure. But maybe there weren’t that many of them. Maybe Woodward had overplayed his hand. Maybe. No one seemed to be paying attention to her, for now.

The guards on the left suddenly nodded at each other and Louise knew something was about to happen. She lowered the cap to cover her face as much as possible.

Four more guards came out of the office building behind the stage and headed for the stairs. The next person walking out was Woodward. Louise narrowed her eyes. Anger bubbled up in her chest.

His eyes darted around nervously. His jacket barely covered the gun on his hip. Woodward motioned at someone inside to follow him. He directed the guards by the door to form a circle.

Louise spotted El’s curls first. She was surrounded by three men, all making an effort to keep her out of everyone’s line of sight for as long as possible.

Louise gasped when El finally did come into full view. She was wearing a tailored, royal blue suit that fit her perfectly. Oozing elegance, El climbed the stairs, waving.

The audience erupted in applause. Louise barely noticed the excited voices around her, though. Her eyes were fixed on the woman she loved.

She had never seen El like this. This was President Lucas in full action. This was the Eleanor Lucas who had won over the hearts of the Fireblue rebels.

Louise could see why. El looked distinguished and yet approachable. She radiated energy that was both powerful and warm. It was an almost magical mix.

El was walking back and forth on the stage now, still smiling and waving. Louise pulled her eyes away from her. The seating area on the podium had filled up with guests.

The person she was looking for was not among them. Woodward stood on the side, one hand resting on his hip holster.

He was scanning the audience, looking for potential threats. Or more likely: for Louise. Louise flexed her fingers, tightening her grip on the gun.

El walked up to the lectern. Louise didn’t see a teleprompter. Not even one of those small see-through ones.

El’s voice rung through the air, startling Louise.

“Thank you,” El gushed, beaming and locking eyes with some of the people in the first rows.

She placed her hands on the lectern while she waited for the audience to calm down. Louise thought she saw El’s hands shaking but she couldn’t be sure.

“Good morning everyone. What a beautiful day to be here with all of you!”

The crowd started cheering with renewed vigor and El chuckled, visibly flattered by the enthusiasm. She clasped her hands over her heart while she waited.

“Today is an important day for our republic, my friends,” El continued.

Louise had to make herself breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. Her arms and legs were tingling.

“Today marks the first day of a new, fiercely independent country,” El stated, gazing up at the sky.

“You see, independence is not something you gain overnight. It is not won by a single battle. It is a way of living. It is something we earn by making brave choices every day.”

Louise felt goosebumps rise on her arms. There was electricity in the air. A quick glance around her confirmed people were hanging on El’s every word.

“I am honored to be here with you today to take one of the many courageous steps needed to build and to protect the future we want for our country.”

A drop of sweat rolled down Louise’s back. The sun was high in the sky now, giving many faces in the audience a glossy shine. It was hot on the stage too, apparently. El unbuttoned her suit jacket.

“This new power plant is a bold attempt at reshaping the way we generate power. I purposefully say attempt because we still have so much to learn.”

El pointed at the large building on her left. “This plant is only the beginning. From now on, we will stop copying technology from the global coalition and instead start inventing our own.”

The crowd burst into cheers. El took a step back and applauded in the direction of someone sitting in one of the seats on the stage.

“Who is that? One of the scientists?” Louise wondered.

She thought the woman looked familiar but couldn’t quite place her. A sudden movement by El made Louise shift her focus back to her. El was taking something out of her pocket.

“Good thing we’re using all this sunlight to charge those new batteries in there, right?” she joked and wiped her forehead with a light blue handkerchief.

Everything seemed to come to a halt for Louise. Her breath caught. She pulled the gun tighter against her chest. El was holding the bandana.

She waved it in the air, let out a relieved sigh and laughed along with the audience. “Better,” she chuckled.

“She’s going to do it,” Louise thought. “She’s going to tell everyone.”

El tucked the bandana away and Louise snapped out of her stupor. There would be little time once Woodward realized what was happening. Louise had to get to El fast.

“My friends,” El announced, “This day will indeed be a historic day. But for more than one reason.”

Louise thought of her message on the bandana while she pushed aside person after person to get to the stage as quickly as she could.

“Woodward blew up the ferry,” she had written.

Through the speakers, El’s voice boomed. “As your leader, I feel a responsibility to be honest with you today.”

“You truly are the most inspiring leader I know,” had been Louise’s second sentence.

“I told you this plant is an attempt at making things even better for our country,” El continued.

“Share the truth and let the people decide,” Louise mumbled, elbowing her way to the side of the podium with increased urgency.

On the podium, El confessed: “This is my attempt at being a better leader.”

Louise finally reached the row of cops guarding the entrance to the stage area. The crowd behind her had grown quiet.

Louise pulled out the badge and held it in the air, whispering “Let me through, I need to speak with Woodward. It’s urgent!”

She got several surprised looks but no one stopped her as she slipped between two of the policemen. Louise grabbed the metal railing of the stairs, just as El started speaking again.

“I am saddened to inform you that I placed my trust in someone who chose to abuse that trust.”

The audience gasped, apparently sensing something big was about to happen.

“I made an error of judgement, my friends, and one of my closest advisers is trying to blackmail me because of it,” El admitted.

More gasps and anxious voices rose up from the audience. Louise didn’t pay attention to any of it. All she cared about was Woodward’s response.

His face was bright red, every vain in his neck was bulging. He exchanged an angry look with the man next to him.

“You see, I fell in love with someone many of you would consider an enemy,” El continued. “And Rick Woodward thought that was a reason to unlawfully remove me from power and install a government of violent radicals.”

Louise was already moving before she fully registered what she was seeing. She took the four steps and jumped onto the stage just as Woodward pulled his gun from the holster.

Louise dove towards El. Every moment Louise had spent with El flashed through her mind while she flew through the air, her arms stretched out.

She felt the force of the blow before she heard the shot. Thousands of screeching voices filled the air. She fell on the floor with a loud thud.

From under heavy eyelids, she looked up. She saw bouncy curls and a flash of blue. Then, lots of guards surrounding El. “Hummingbird secure, hummingbird secure,” a man screamed in the distance.

Louise let her head fall back and smiled. El was safe. The pain in her chest was exploding in slow motion, the pressure becoming unbearable. Louise shut her eyes and let the darkness take her.

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