Day 152 of the 186th Generation

 I had an unusual challenge from George upon getting in my shuttle. I had hoped the tiny hand grasping mine would make him satisfied that I had accomplished it.

The hand holding mine was not a mother’s hand. It was a child’s.

I had seen his worried face not wanting to go into the school. I got to see his reaction when I told him who I was. We got to run and talk and play in the woods without worrying about anything. George had been right. It was different. And it helped.

Emily opened the shuttle door.

I paused.

For months, I had handed off babies. I hadn’t come back in the shuttle.

I was freezing up.

My Unnecessary looked up at me, scared by my rigidity.

“What? Is something wrong?”

Eric came out beside Emily.

I dropped to my knee, knowing I’d have to overcompensate for my hesitancy. He was afraid of being judged.

“No, Henry. Not at all. It’s just…sometimes it feels…long. It feels good to be seeing a shuttle from home for a change. It feels too good to be true, right?”

“I know how that feels.” He bit his lip and said, “Does this mean…can I take them out?”

I reached up my hand, over his one eye. The wind was blowing over my hands as they reached out, each hand with one finger grazing the contacts in his eyes. It stuck to my finger. Then the other came off. And I saw his eyes for the first time.

One green. One yellowish brown.

“See? Nothing to worry about.”

Emily came up behind him, but was looking at me. “Now, you can get in the shuttle. Once you get in, you’ll be fine.” She looked back at him, putting an arm around his shoulder.

Eric was talking to Henry a few moments later. I moved to the front of the shuttle to talk to Emily, sitting in the passenger seat looking out into the evening. She was driving moderately fast.

“That wasn’t very hard, was it?”

“Yes,” I said quickly. There was no point in lying.

“Yeah, I thought so.”

“I just…I didn’t get in the shuttle so many times. I haven’t been home in months, and now I’m going back only after a few weeks. It’s going to feel strange coming back so soon.”

“It’s been two weeks. You realize that’s a normal mission time, right?”

“Yeah. Just…” I decided it would easier to change the subject. “Who’s with Eric? Doing the exam? Is that a med tech intern?”

“His name’s Collin. He’s an apprentice trainer. He’s supposed to be learning how to interact with an Unnecessary.”

“Well, I think he’s got it down,” I said as Henry laughed at something Collin said.

“Yeah. He may be shadowing someone by next year. It usually takes two years to pass tests. This is the last one. He only has another week.”

“So who’d he have to beat in combat?” I asked with a smirk.

“He didn’t beat Avery, if that’s what your implying. No one can. He did get Avery down on the mat once. Avery was either livid or impressed. I couldn’t tell.”

“Wait…if he got to fight Avery, then did he−?”

“We’re not talking about it.”

I smiled at her reaction, which was so tense that it was almost humorous. If Collin had gotten a chance to spar with Avery, then he must have beaten her and George.

“It’s so annoying, too. He’s really strong for someone who meditates and prays so much, and for someone who doesn’t believe in physical combat training.”

“What do you mean−”

An alarm interrupted me.

I turned back to Henry.

“What’s that?” he was asking. Collin was already saying something to him. Eric was coming up to the front.

“What is it?”

“Drone,” Emily answered quickly, and without emotion. She was already pulling a few switches to activate the camouflage features on the roof, even though no one knew how much they really worked.

“There’s a station. Q. Just ahead. We can just go there.”

“No,” Collin yelled from the back. “They’ll know where we stopped. If they’re too close−”

“He’s right. If it’s this close, they’ll be monitoring us,” Emily added with much more authority.

The cabin was silent as Emily drove faster. She was still heading to the station as she said, “Well, I’m open to any ideas?”

I couldn’t think of anything. I couldn’t get back to Henry who looked terrified as he held Collin’s hand.

Collin’s eyes, however, were not on Henry. They were darting, as if filtering through thoughts. His mouth opened and then shut.

He had just left the Academy. He was feeling overwhelmed. He was hesitating.

“Spit it out, Collin,” I ordered, making Eric jump slightly at hearing me shout.

“Does this shuttle have autopilot? Can we slave circuit the board?”

“Auto is just meant to avoid trees, Collin.” Eric seemed annoyed by the suggestion from the dumb intern.

But Emily wasn’t. She looked intrigued. “Are you thinking−?”

Collin interrupted. “Drop us. We all get out. Then send the shuttle on. They may blow it up, but it’d just be a decoy. If they don’t−”

Eric answered now. “We can get it back. Just put in a quick slave circuit. Simple. Make it head back to our location. You can do that. Hopefully autopilot will avoid trees. But we probably only have a minute and if it has thermal−”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t. Eric, drive!”

Emily and Eric switched quickly. I grabbed the panel switch from the shuttle and began to find the board I needed.

“What frequency?” I yelled back.

Emily was on her MCU.

“I don’t know…I don’t…”

“423.91,” Collin yelled. “Check the panel to the left.”

I found it. These were the circuits that directly controlled the engine and the essential functions. And instead of these features following the directions of the buttons, they would follow the MCU that Collin was working on.

“This really usually takes longer than a minute. I don’t know if we’re going to have time−”

“I think he has it.”

“Well we’re nearly there! How do we know it’s working?”

The shuttle slowed down suddenly. I saw Eric react. He pulled off the wheel and released his hands as if surrendering.

The shuttle continued to slow down, with an invisible force pushing the break down.

“Got it,” Emily said, giving Collin a slap on his back. “Everyone out.”

I was already moving. I had grabbed Henry’s hand.

Collin was on the MCU, watching the empty shuttle leave.

“Henry, we’re going to go down some stairs. Trust me, it’s safe−”

The clang of the door closing behind me interrupted me. That meant that the bomb doors were probably closing. The twenty inch steel doors began to slowly close. Henry, instead of looking scared, looked genuinely impressed.

“What happens now?” I whispered to Emily, who was still looking over Collin’s shoulder.

“They shouldn’t fire. Our guess is that they’re tracking it. It’s been in going in small circles in an attempt for them to know that tracking it is useless. They’ll either get mad that we’re playing with them, and blow it up. Or they’ll just return the drone to it’s base and leave it alone.”

I nodded. Eric asked for something from Collin’s pack. Collin let go of the MCU with both hands for only an instant. It was enough to see his hand shake.

He quickly put the other hand back on it, squeezing tightly.

Emily whispered, “Don’t lose it now.  You’re doing great.”

He nodded, within a second, he was almost completely calm.

He looked at Henry, “Hey, you want to see this?”

I was almost shocked, not wanting to expose Henry to anything that could potentially scare him.

“Look. The drone is following the shuttle, that’s this dot,” Collin described as he pointed to the screen. “We’re here. It’s almost ten miles away right now. And this…”

Collin continued. It had worked. I breathed out.

But still not deeply. I hadn’t breathed deeply since Heather was shot.

I continued to take more shallow breaths. I told myself not to hyperventilate.

“And see, Henry? It’s retreating. No more drone.”

Emily smiled. “Good job. Call the shuttle back.”

We were packing up. The danger had passed, flying over us at a mile up back to the Republic. Emily took her MCU back. Collin handed me my bag as I was trying to concentrate on breathing again.

I gave him a rare smile. From the impression on his face, he might have even known how rare it was.

“My name is Collin, by the way.”

“Brie. And it’s been a pleasure almost dying with you.”

He smiled. “We’ll have to almost die together again some other time.”

I shook my head, giving him a skewed smile as Emily spoke in the background.

“Don’t worry. You’ll probably get another chance.”