Ruby Rose could feel her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest as she twisted the helicopter around another tight corner. Beside her, David Nash looked like he might fall asleep. She was happy to see his confidence in her abilities, but she was also terrified that she was going to let him down in the worst way possible.
The hardest part about flying into the Core was the lack of light. The tunnels, while more than wide enough to accommodate the aircraft, were all made of a dark black and white metal panels, which made distinguishing between the walls, floors, and ceilings rather difficult. Flynn had taught her how to depend on infrared lights to measure distances while flying here. Of course, that meant looking down at a screen more than out of the main window, which was terrifying in its own right.
“We’re coming up on it now,” David told her, pointing up the main path. “I can see the landing lights.”
She looked at the screen and saw the distinct blinking light of the landing platform. She took a deep breath and started prepping the helicopter for its final approach. This would be her last major challenge for her first official outing as mission pilot.
“Bringing us in,” she announced. “Hold steady.”
David didn’t respond, but he did take hold of one of the grips. She wasn’t sure if he did that for safety or just to help her feel comfortable. Either way, she did feel more comfortable.
The helicopter tilted gently over the platform and she lowered the throttle until she felt the skids firmly seat on the ground. She gave it a few extra seconds and then killed the power.
“Well done,” David said, giving her a solid nod. “Now, let’s go say hi to the new arrivals.”
That was the highest praise she would ever get from David Nash. It made her overjoyed.
At the Core exit hallway, the three new arrivals were already waiting. The youngest one, just a child, had tears on her face and looked rather devastated. The two adults looked wearily at Ruby as she approached. One was a male, with thick brown hair and a goatee. The other was a woman, with bright red hair that flowed down past her shoulders. It was hard to see the finer details here without light.
“Hi there,” Ruby said, funneling some of the excitement of her successful flight. “My name is Ruby Rose. I’m here to help.” She extended her hand to the trio, having already pulled together some paper and pens. “Go ahead and take this paper. Write your names for me.”
“Excuse me?” the female adult asked. “What do you want our names for?”
“It’s standard protocol,” Ruby said. “Just jot them down really quick and—”
“We’re not writing anything,” the woman said. “My daughter is starving. We’re completely helpless here and you want us to write stuff down on some paper?”
Ruby was shocked. “I’ sorry, did… did you say daughter?”
The woman scoffed. “Of course. What, you think this is just some random kid?”
“Is he…” Ruby trailed off as she glanced at the man.
“The father?” the woman finished for her. “Yes. That’s her father. That’s my husband too, if we’re getting personal.”
“Alright,” a new voice joined the conversation. Ruby nearly jumped out of her skin to hear David Nash speak as he approached. He patted her on the shoulder and smiled at the woman arrival. “You said your young one is hungry? I have that covered.”
David pulled a ration bar from his pocket and gently handed it to the woman. “It’s not exactly the most flavorful thing, but it’ll fill an empty stomach.”
The woman looked at the bar for a long moment. Ruby was concerned she was going to outright reject it, but she offered a sheepish thanks to David and stepped to her daughter.
Ruby, having a moment of privacy with David, spun to face him. “This is unreal, right?”
David nodded, but didn’t say anything about it. As the child started munching on the ration bar, David was quick to step that way. “Now, about those names,” he said, gesturing to Ruby’s hand. “Let’s get that documented so we know how to address everyone.”
“Right,” the woman said, brushing some crumbs off her hand. “My name is Amy Everett.”
“Awesome,” David said, looking to Ruby. She looked back at him blankly for a moment, then remembered she had the paper and pen and wrote down the name.
“My daughter is named Elizabeth. My husband is William.”
“Great,” David said happily. “That’s all we had to do. Now, if you’ll come along with me, we can get you guys out of this cold dark hole and back to town.”
“Oh yeah,” Ruby said, trying to get back on track. “It’s a great place. You’ll love it there.”
“Curious question,” David added. “Do you uh… remember anything else? About your family or anything?”
“Well, you said you are husband and wife. Do you remember your wedding, or maybe the birth of your child?”
Amy looked confused, then concerned, and finally that gave way to frustration.
“No,” she said, scrunching her forehead as though trying to force the thoughts out. “I can’t remember… anything. I just… I know we’re married. I know this is my daughter.”
She looked to Ruby and David, her eyes askance. “Did you two do this to us?”
“No no,” David said, his voice the very definition of cool and collected. “I promise you everything will make more sense soon. We just need to get you guys on the helicopter and out of here. It’s not the worst ride and we’ll have food waiting for you in town.”
“Why can’t we remember anything?” Amy asked, clearly panicking.
“It’s normal,” David assured her before turning to her husband. “Hey, your name is William, right?”
“You think you can go ahead and take the little one to the helicopter? The sooner we get moving the sooner everyone gets answers.”
Of course,” William answered.
“No!” Amy said, sounding frantic now. “No, no. Stop. We can’t go with them!”
Ruby was on edge. She’d heard about a few citizens that had a hard time after waking up, but this one was completely unique. There had never been a family bond in any of the citizens before, and now the mother was freaking out.
She knew the protocol. Just to make sure, her eyes went to David. He gave a small nod.
“M’am,” Ruby tried. “If you could please stay calm—”
“I will not calm down. I will fight you all right here if I must!”
Ruby stepped forward and Amy darted straight at her. David intercepted her, locking his arms around Amy’s so that she couldn’t harm either of them.
“It’s time,” David said.
Ruby nodded and pulled a small syringe from her side pack. She had never once used this sedation drug before, but protocol demanded it here. When Amy saw the needle she began to throw her weight against David. It was little use. David had her locked down.
That was then the husband, William, came back to them. “Wait!”
Ruby spun around and saw him approaching. The young daughter was still by the helicopter. William had his arms lifted, as if showing them he was unarmed.
“Sir,” Ruby warned. “I need you to take a step back.”
William stopped, heeding her warning, but his arms gestured toward his wife. “Please,” he said. “Don’t hurt her. She’s just scared!”
“We’re not going to hurt her,” David said as he took another elbow to his gut. “She’s trying pretty hard to hurt me though.”
Ruby turned back to the task at hand and injected the drug into Amy’s arm. She continued to squirm and yell for longer than Ruby had expected, but after a few minutes she became sluggish, and after a few more she was out.
David lifted her over his shoulder and carried her back to the helicopter while a very anxious William followed.
With one crisis resolved, Ruby now had to fire up the helicopter and fly them back out of the Core. Whatever calm and triumphant feelings she had when she landed here had now fled. She was as nervous, no, more nervous than she had been on the way in.
“You’re going to be fine,” David said, apparently sensing her emotions. “You did great getting us in here. No reason you won’t do it again.”
“We’re overloaded,” Ruby said, stating facts. “I don’t even—”
“We’ll be fine,” David said, his eyes darting back to the new arrivals for a moment.
“Right,” Ruby said, understanding his signal. “I don’t mean overloaded in a bad way. I just mean it’ll use more fuel. We’re going to be fine.”
She knew his smiles. This wasn’t a real one. He was putting on a show for the scared people in the back of the helicopter. Who knew how many times he gave her that same smile when she had started going on missions with him.
Now she was in the pilot’s seat. She was the one that had to smile for the others. It was her turn to swallow her fear and anxiety and remind everyone that they were going to be okay, even if she wasn’t so sure.
“Okay everyone,” she said firmly. “Here we go!”
The helicopter lurched as she forced more throttle to combat the increased payload. It heaved from the forces and they dipped over the platform’s edge before the blades gave her enough lift to recover.
“Minor turbulence,” she said through clenched teeth. “Hold on.”
Helicopters were built to be light and nimble. This one, in particular, had not been built around the idea of holding five passengers. It was built for three people. It was fighting her with every turn and she was certain she could actually see the gas gauge dropping as she weaved them through the darkness of the Core. The whole way, her eyes scanning the infrared readings every few seconds.
Her knuckles had gone white from the force she had to apply to keep the copter going in the direction she wanted, but soon they made their way out of the Core tunnels and into the open air of the lower levels. Flying was always easier out here, as there was no backdraft to deal with. The helicopter stabilized once they got there, and Ruby was able to relax ever so slightly.
She looked to David and offered a smile. A real smile.
He offered one back.
They were going to be fine.
“Okay folks, the hard part is over,” Ruby said, looking briefly back at William, Elizabeth, and the unconscious Amy. “Now it’s time to take you home. You guys are going to love meeting Samantha. I’m sure she’ll love meeting you too.”