JUNE 8th, 2061. Region 5 of the American desert, Arizona, North American Province, 21.45 local time.
Louise widened her eyes in an attempt to stay awake. Not falling asleep was even harder now that the sun was setting. There was only a sliver of deep orange light at the horizon left. Complete darkness would descend soon.
Louise checked the panel with the pod’s system reports. Everything looked to be functioning properly. She still felt uneasy, though. Traveling through the desert at night was never safe. The pod drove itself, of course, recalculating the route as it went to avoid dangerous conditions.
The weather radar hadn’t indicated any signs of extreme rain nearby so far. But after the recent attack, Louise wasn’t too confident the global network would keep them out of harm’s way. The network functionality had been fully restored within a few hours after shutting down, but what if it happened again?
Louise blinked at the thought. She stretched out her legs and groaned. Her muscles were unusually sore. She wanted to ask her watch to report on her body’s hydration level, but then remembered her diagnostic chip had been disabled. She sighed.
Louise got up from the chair to refill her water bottle. She glanced over at Hobbs, who was resting in the back of the vehicle. His chair was reclined all the way to make sleeping more comfortable. His chest slowly moved up and down. She was glad Hobbs had fallen asleep. Sharing a small space with him for more than 17 hours was a lot easier if she didn’t have to talk to him.
After leaving the army base, they had agreed to take turns monitoring the systems. She had insisted on taking the first 4-hour shift. Louise hadn’t wanted to admit to him she was exhausted. She had pretended to be perfectly fine. She knew she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep anyway. She had been too wound up.
Louise took a sip of the cool water as she peered through the large rear window. The rebels’ car’s headlights lit up most of the road between the pod and their vehicle. Behind it, there was nothing but darkness.
Why anyone would risk their safety and drive through the desert in an old car, without any information from the network about the conditions ahead, was beyond Louise’s comprehension.
Then again, there were plenty of things about Lucas and her people that boggled Louise’s mind. She was still on edge after her encounter with Lucas in the bathroom. Lucas’s arrogance and indignation had definitely rubbed Louise the wrong way.
To claim innocence, to demand the benefit of the doubt, when you were the leader of a group that had attacked the Global Coalition numerous times, before and after segregating, was simply ludicrous.
Sure, the Fireblue rebels had changed their ways in the last decade. They had started to focus on further isolating themselves from the rest of the world instead of attacking it. But who would be stupid enough to think that made them trustworthy all of a sudden?
Louise sat back down. Her eyelids were heavier than before. It felt like her body was about to shut down completely. She felt her eyes closing and was unable to stop it.
Hobbs’s nasal voice startled her for the second time that day.
“I’ll take over,” he said.
Louise’s eyes snapped open.
“No, I’m fine,” she responded defensively.
He gestured at the large clock on one of the monitors. “It’s time.”
Louise checked and saw that indeed 4 hours had passed. “Oh, right,” she muttered apologetically.
She hauled herself out of the chair, her legs aching even more than before. Her temples were throbbing, which made her wince.
“Nothing to report?” Hobbs asked.
“Nothing. Kept the same speed the whole time. Nothing on the radars either.”
“Alright. Try to get some sleep. You’ve been awake far too long,” Hobbs said, actually sounding sincere.
Louise looked at the chair at the back of the pod. She shrugged. “Okay, I guess I should give it a try.”
He nodded, pushing past her and looking down at the displays. “It’ll help.”
Louise plopped down and was surprised at the relief she instantly felt. She reclined the chair until she was comfortable.
“Oh,” she thought, “ I should have done this a lot sooner.” The soft leather of the chair was warm compared to the chilly air around her. She smiled at her heavy boots sticking up in the air.
The first thing Louise saw once she had closed her eyes, was Michelle’s face. It wasn’t the Michelle Louise had seen today. No, this Michelle looked much more friendly. Her smile made Louise’s breath catch.
She thought she could hear Michelle’s voice, but was still awake enough to realize she was probably imagining it. It didn’t stop the pang of longing in Louise’s chest.
Was it silly of her to believe Michelle had flirted with her for the first time in many years? And was she a fool to be happy about that? “I am,” Louise thought, right before drifting off. “But I don’t care.”
“What the fuck?!”
Louise frowned. She turned on her side and tried to get back to the blissful darkness.
“You have got to be kidding me! Thomas!”
Louise opened her eyes. It took her a few moments to remember where she was and who she was with. The chilly, stale air of the pod triggered her memory.
She pushed herself up. Her head was spinning, her mind still foggy. She blinked a few times to get her eyes to focus. Hobbs was sitting on his hands and knees, opening a panel under the control displays.
That’s when it finally hit her. It was dark and quiet. And they weren’t moving. She hurried to her feet and looked through the rear window. The car with the rebels was parked behind them. Their headlights were the only reason Louise was able to see anything at all.
“What the hell?!” she muttered and turned to look back at Hobbs.
He was pushing all sorts of buttons, but the control panels remained dark. The pod wasn’t responding.
Louise’s mind finally kicked in. “We need to establish if this is an electrical or a software failure.”
Hobbs glared back at her. “Look around. We don’t have power. It’s electrical.”
Louise shook her head. “The pod could be in safe mode. We need to reset it manually.”
He got to his feet and gestured at the panel. “Be my guest.”
Louise squatted down. “The switch should be in a separate…” She found the little panel she was looking for and opened it. “Here it is.”
She flipped the reset switch, fully confident this would kickstart the engine. She waited for the comforting hum to return and the lights to switch back on.
But nothing happened. “This doesn’t make any sense at all,” Louise thought out loud.
“I’m going outside to check if we hit something,” Hobbs said. He pulled the handle to open the door of the vehicle manually. He had to try twice before it finally slid open.
Louise followed Hobbs outside. The hot air hit her in the face as if she had stuck her head into a grill oven. “Dang, if this is what it’s like at 23.00, what the hell happens during the day?”
Louise raised her hand and squinted into the harsh light. She didn’t know whether to be embarrassed because the rebels were witnessing their misfortune, or to be grateful to have potential help nearby.
Louise looked for Hobbs. He was lying on the road with his head under the pod. She bent down, keeping her voice quiet when she said: “Anything?”
Hobbs’s head reappeared and he sat up, looking worried. “Nothing. Battery looks intact.” His eyes gazed over her shoulder. “It’s them,” he whispered angrily.
Louise met his gaze. “How?”
The sound of a door opening and closing stopped Hobbs from explaining. He jumped up with a soft groan.
Louise turned around, holding her hand up against the painful light again. She felt a drop of sweat roll down her back.
“Did your self-driving super pod take a wrong turn?”
It was Lucas, sounding genuinely amused. Louise didn’t think it was funny at all.
Hobbs stepped in front of her before she could reply. “How about you keep your distance?”
Lucas stopped dead in her tracks. It was hard to see her expression.
“Looks like you need some help.” Her hands were resting on her hips.
“Go back to your vehicle,” Hobbs said in a threatening tone.
Lucas laughed, shook her head and turned around. Hobbs snorted. “Bet she knows exactly what is going on,” he said under his breath.
Louise heard the car door close again. “Maybe,” she replied quietly. “Let’s go take another look inside.”
Hobbs squared his shoulders and nodded. They were about to step back into the pod when everything went dark.
Louise’s head snapped to the side, glaring at the car. Its lights were off. Hobbs cursed. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” He raced off in the direction of the rebels.
There was almost no moon tonight and his silhouette soon became hard to see. Louise hesitated another second, then hurried after him.
“Turn the lights back on!” Hobbs’s angry voice seemed to bounce off of the car. Louise heard a window slide open.
“I thought you didn’t want our help.”
Louise’s eyes adjusted to the darkness as she caught up. She could make out Lucas’s face and saw Woodward sitting in the passenger seat.
The hair on the back of her neck rose. They were extremely vulnerable out here, she realized. Who knew what weapons Lucas and Woodward were hiding in all that darkness?
“Turn the frikkin’ lights back on,” Hobbs growled.
“Why should I?”
Louise put her hand on Hobbs’s shoulder. His whole body tensed up. She pushed him aside as kindly as she could. She didn’t want to offend him, but a pissing contest with Lucas wasn’t going to get them to safety.
“We have to restart our pod,” she sighed. “It would be helpful to have some light.” She couldn’t bring herself to add ‘please.’
“Don’t you have flashlights?” Lucas asked skeptically.
Louise closed her mouth abruptly. Of course, they had. Wow, they were really making themselves look like idiots here.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, trying to sound confident. “But your headlights make it easier.”
Lucas snorted. But she hit a switch and the lights came back on. Louise met Lucas’s cold gaze, tilting her head in gratitude.
“Hobbs, let’s get to work,” she said. They headed for the pod.
Lucas yelled after them. “If you can’t get it to work within 5 minutes, you better get in our car.”
Hobbs responded instantly, but softly so only Louise could hear him. “No fucking way.”
Louise rubbed her cheek. She actually thought Lucas had a point. Staying out here for too long was a bad idea. They had to keep moving.
Back inside the pod, she decided to try another reset before further considering getting into the rebels’ car.
Hobbs grabbed his terminal and started to tap the screen vigorously. “Damn it. Nothing.” He looked up, his eyes filled with rage. “They’re using a scrambler. That’s what all of this is.”
Louise nodded while she was thinking. It was possible. She kneeled down to flip the reset switch again.
Hobbs continued. “We better search their car.”
Louise looked over her shoulder. “No way.”
“Why not?! They’re fucking with us!”
Louise blew out a frustrated breath. The reset hadn’t worked. “They might have weapons.”
Hobbs threw his terminal on the chair. “Of course! Why the hell are we unarmed?”
Louise pushed herself up. “Because we’re on our way to inspect hardware, not to kill people.”
Hobbs shook his head. Louise gave him a moment to gather his thoughts. She suspected he’d come around soon.
“Without a connection, we can’t request a new pod,” he stated, calmer than before.
Louise pursed her lips. “Even with a connection, it would take hours and we would be sitting ducks out here.”
He frowned, his eye twitching. “We could ask them to drive to the nearest city. Contact HQ there.”
Louise considered this. “I doubt they’ll agree to it, though. And I don’t know if we should risk exposing Lucas.”
Hobbs nodded slowly. “You’re right. She’s not supposed to be here. The Council would freak out if it leaked.”
“I say we grab our gear and,” she paused, “ask for a ride, I guess.”
Louise didn’t wait for his approval and opened one of the storage compartments. It wasn’t easy without the electricity.
“Let me help,” Hobbs sighed.
“Thanks,” Louise answered and stepped back. “How about I go talk to Lucas?”
He put one of the cases with their gear onto the floor. “Yeah. Probably best you do it.”
Louise sighed and nodded. She didn’t like what she was about to do, but she had to do it. “I guess I can be nice,” she thought. “Or at least pretend to be.”