JUNE 9th, 2061. Border of the Fireblue territory, North American Province, 12.30 local time.
Hobbs nudged Louise’s leg with his own. Louise followed his gaze and immediately understood what he was trying to say. In the distance, light glittered on water as far the eye could see.
“We’re here,” Woodward said. He was behind the wheel, steering with one hand, sunglasses on his nose. Eleanor Lucas was resting in the passenger seat, her head against the window.
“El,” Woodward repeated, “We’re here.”
Lucas sat up with a quick intake of breath, startled. “Sorry!” After a moment, she lazily pulled down the visor, peering into the small mirror and tucking her curly locks behind her ears. Louise noticed her gaze was still sleepy.
When their eyes met, Louise quickly looked away, leaned back and stared out of the window. She too was feeling somewhat groggy but in a pleasant sort of way. She had finally managed to get some sleep these last hours.
Once the storm had passed, their journey had been surprisingly smooth. They had been able to keep driving through the desert without further delays. Everyone had kept quiet most of the time.
After a few hours of rest and silence, Louise no longer felt like she was constantly on edge. No, her head was clear. The cut in her eyebrow only hurt when she frowned, so she just tried not to.
Feeling the soft, fresh cotton of her t-shirt against her skin made a big difference too. Lucas had suggested they change into civilian clothes an hour after they had gotten back on the road. Louise had agreed, happy to get out of her bloodstained top.
Hobbs had been soaked from the rain and had had no problems with changing either. He was now wearing jeans and a black polo shirt. He had switched from boots to sneakers, as had Louise. They both had been a hell of a lot more comfortable since.
The time of relative quiet was over now, though. They had literally reached the end of the road. According to Lucas, that is. She had surprised Hobbs and Louise by announcing they were going to take a boat.
Or ferry. Technically, it was a ferry. And it had not been part of the plan for this mission. But Lucas had merely stated they would load the car onto a ferry and continue the last hours of their journey over the water.
Both Louise and Hobbs had been angry and suspicious at first, of course. Lucas had not revealed any of this during the negotiations back at the army base. But Lucas had reminded them Major Becker had agreed to switch vehicles at the border.
It was also the only option, according to Lucas. An earthquake had destroyed most of the roads in the south of their territory last month, she had explained. Louise was sure Hobbs didn’t believe any of it and she had her doubts too.
But with their own pod stranded in the desert, she and Hobbs had quickly come to a silent agreement to let it go for now. Louise would include it in the first report, though. She would also request satellite images for that area to check if Lucas was telling the truth.
If she ever got the chance to send in a report. Louise had just gotten her first good look at the ferry through the windshield, and her eyes widened. It looked old and rusty, even from a distance. She exchanged a nervous glance with Hobbs.
They both straightened up to study the boat and everything around it. Louise’s attention was quickly drawn to several silhouettes that were standing on what was a surprisingly big, sturdy looking dock. In stark contrast with the boat, it seemed brand new.
Louise made a mental note to include a description of this place in the report. It looked like this new infrastructure would allow the rebels to ship all sorts of things into the territory. Another location they would have to re-examine with the satellites.
A glance in Hobbs’s direction confirmed she wasn’t the only one paying attention. His eyebrows almost touched his hairline. She would bet money he was thinking the same thing she was: how the hell had they missed all of this? Louise wished they could take some pictures, but doubted they could do so unnoticed.
As the car approached a dusty path leading up to the dock, Louise could see there were three men standing on it. One of them waved in the direction of the car. He then dropped his arm quite suddenly.
“Okay,” Lucas told Woodward. He nodded and steered the car onto the path.
“Ah, it was a signal,” Louise thought.
Lucas held her hand above her eyes, leaning forward, and peered through the windshield. “Is that Tom?” She sounded surprised.
Woodward didn’t reply and brought the car to a halt near the dock. The tallest man turned towards the ferry, a red-haired guy hopped off the dock and started walking in their direction, while the third rebel kept standing on the metal structure.
Louise’s whole body immediately tensed up. Hobbs squared his shoulders too. They had no idea what was about to happen. Here they were again, once more, way too vulnerable.
“Why is he here?” Lucas asked, sounding worried and opening the door.
Louise saw her demeanor had changed entirely in a matter of seconds: from sleepy and relaxed to tense and impatient. Lucas ignored the man who was walking towards the car and jogged to the one still standing on the dock instead.
Woodward looked over his shoulder, his expression worried. “Sit and wait,” he told Hobbs. He then glanced at Louise but refrained from repeating his instructions. Finally, he got out of the car too.
Louise’s eyes drifted from one rebel to the next, not sure who to keep an eye on first. A loud clank briefly pulled her attention to the ferry.
“They’re lowering the ramp,” Hobbs observed.
Louise tilted her head. “Yeah.”
She looked for Lucas and found her with the other rebel on the dock. The air around her had changed completely yet again. Lucas looked like she had just gotten a kick in the gut. She had her hands on her knees as if she was about to throw up.
The man next to her yelled something in the direction of Woodward, urgently waving at him. Woodward immediately sprung into action and ran over. Lucas, in the meantime, slumped over even more. Woodward jumped onto the dock and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back up.
“What the hell,” Hobbs muttered.
Louise scratched her cheek. She had no idea what was happening, but the tight feeling in her chest told her it wasn’t good.
“Is she sick?” Hobbs asked, sounding slightly amused.
His tone made Louise want to slap him. “No,” she said instead, throwing him an annoyed glare, “It looks like she is…”
She closed her mouth abruptly. Woodward was holding Lucas in his arms, rocking back and forth. Lucas’s whole body was shaking, her head pressed against his chest. Woodward was kissing the top of her head tenderly over and over again.
“Huh,” Hobbs said, moving to the edge of his seat. “Guess we should have seen that one coming.”
Louise sat back, embarrassed to be witnessing what was obviously a very private moment.
“What?” she stammered.
He snorted “They’re sleeping together.”
An hour later, Louise looked down and grimaced. Something black and greasy stuck to the palm of her hand. She glanced around to find something to rub it off on. She only saw more rusty metal, flaking paint and greasy bolts.
Holding up her dirty hand, Louise moved around the front deck of the ferry. The wind was tugging at her hair, causing several strands to escape from the elastic band. Louise sighed because she couldn’t tie it back up with her hand all greasy.
She considered going back to the car to clean up there. But that would force her to face Hobbs again and she had been so relieved to get rid of him for a while. He had refused to leave their gear unsupervised and had insisted on staying in the car.
Louise hadn’t argued. 10 minutes after leaving the makeshift harbor, if you could call it that, Louise had gotten out of the car to take a look around the ferry by herself. Something was off here and she wanted to know what it was.
She had found the front deck easily. The ferry wasn’t that big. She guessed about five cars would fit the cargo area. No one else was traveling with them and every where she went the ship felt abandoned.
Where was everyone? She had no idea what was happening here and it made her nervous. Lucas had clearly gotten some unexpected news. Louise thought of the way she had collapsed. And of Woodward kissing the top of her head.
“It looked like it was something personal,” Louise thought. But she had to be sure. She couldn’t just assume. There was too much on the line here. This could very well be important to the mission, she told herself.
Yes, she needed to find out what was going on. She squinted at the window of the bridge, trying to get a glimpse of whoever was up there, but the reflection of the sun made it impossible for her to see anything or anyone.
“Fuck this,” she muttered. It was time to take action. She quickly made her way to the deck door at the side of the boat, forced to hold on to yet another greasy railing to keep her balance.
Once back inside, she headed for the stairs that would lead her to the bridge. She was done with being in the unknown. She wanted to know exactly what was happening and where they were going. Lucas would just have to accept that.
The thought of confronting Lucas made her pause for a moment at the top of the stairs. She furrowed her brow as the images of Lucas in Woodward’s arms flashed by. It had unsettled Louise to see Lucas shaking like that.
“Focus on the job,” she told herself. She swung the door open and stumbled into a hallway instead of into the bridge. She looked around in surprise. There were two more doors.
One looked like it would finally lead her to the bridge. The other one had an old sticker on it. It had faded over time, but Louise recognized the symbol anyway. It was a bathroom! The perfect place to finally get her hands cleaned.
She didn’t hesitate, entering the bathroom without knocking first. The small L-shaped space had a basin on her left and, she guessed, a toilet on her right just out of view. She closed the door behind her.
Louise took a step towards the basin, hoping the water would still work. That’s when she finally sensed she wasn’t alone. She slowly turned around to find Eleanor Lucas sitting on the closed toilet lid.
Her cheeks were glistening with tears. The white of her eyes was streaked with red. And Lucas’s gaze was so furious it made Louise’s breath catch.