"Your ticket please, sir?" The cabin attendant was a woman, attractive, and wearing a company uniform. I waved my right hand over the reader; although she didn't know it, I didn't have a chiplant, but the Tzun had squirted my ticketing info to her reader from its sheath at my side. The reader winked green and she smiled. I moved past her into the narrow cabin.
The shuttle was perhaps a hundred and twenty meters in length, with a narrow delta wing that flared heavily at the trailing edge. As I found my seat, a third of the way back on the port side, I could see ground crews outside the small window ports working around the cylindrical shape that rested atop the wing out near the flared wingtip.
I don't see any evidence that we are pursued, said the Tzun on vibe. Relax. Have a drink.
The latter instantly aroused my suspicions. The Tzun was forever harping on the weakness and unreliability of organic life, and never missed a chance to remind me of all the trouble we'd gotten into when I had stopped for drinks in the past. I ignored it and buckled myself into the four-point safety belt. Although the shuttle was filling up as passengers filed into the front hatch, the seats were relatively comfortable. There were four individual seats across each row and a stowage area to the outboard side of each, leaving a half-meter or so between seat arms. I wasn't worried about the aisle seat to my right being taken; I trusted that the Tzun had left me a clear path when it forced my booking into the shuttle service's computers.
I'd been on planet for two local months. I'd come to Terzifon looking for a woman whose name had made it out into the ghostly webs of interstellar news - a woman who, local and remote commentators were speculating, was likely to become First Councilor of Terzifon in the next few years. Terzifon itself was a local power - a relatively rich world whose leaders had been among the first to accept the Uplift Option and as a result had suffered almost no damage. The days of confusion and chaos following the Option were decades in the past now, and Terzifon had acclimated well. They had rebuilt their space access using local low frame technology, nothing to upset the Uplifted, despite the casualties that had inevitably occurred. They had produced a regular surface-to-station link using nothing but chemical rockets, using hydrogen rockets for boosters. A decade or so past, the Uplifted had decided to allow them to build state taps into their next generation of shuttles and agreed to provide an Uplifted slot in each of the five craft so equipped. Uplifted AIs were allowed to work their passage down to and up from the surface by serving as resident flight software. Although it was technically possible for them to commute electronically directly to the few available logic frames on the surface, those were still in short enough supply for those AIs which enjoyed working with humans to find it amusing to play at being shuttles for a few flights. I had heard, via gossip that the Tzun had tapped into on world, that there were in fact a few AIs who worked nearly constantly as shuttle crew in exchange for having their crafts' communications arrays expanded so as to allow them full and continuous communications with their brethren. The shuttle comm systems were limited to radio technology, which meant the AIs suffered a nearly-complete isolation during the blackout period of re-entry. The Tzun had explained that that was part of the appeal - for these entities, being actually cut off from their fellows by circumstances they couldn't control was so rare that experiencing it was akin to the thrill that people garnered from jumping out of aerospace vehicles with expensive bedsheets strapped to their back.
All of this, of course, meant that Shuttle crew Uplifted were widely considered to be a little strange.
Do you know who is running this flight? I asked the Tzun silently.
Yes. The two human flight crew are regular shuttle service pilots, and the Uplifted resident on this spacecraft is called Criticality.
Explain the joke, I said in a resigned manner.
One of the first spacecraft built by humans was built and operated by a government agency. In their complex and obsessive safety culture, they designated any system which, if it failed, would cause a loss of the mission as Criticality-One.
Save me from machines with a sense of humor. A sense of history is bad enough. What's the shuttle's name? I didn't look.
Flower of Autumn, said the Tzun.
The last passengers were filing into the craft, finding seats and getting settled. The port was enormous, but most of it seemed to be dedicated to planetary freight traffic as most air travel was done by private or hired car. Around us and visible from the windows, enormous LTA craft floated near feeder and winching towers, cargo moving up and down.
When the doors had closed, most of the passengers around me opted to pull inducer webs over their faces and sink immediately into an artificial sleep. I had been told that the ride up was somewhat bumpy and prone to induce nausea, but I needed to be alert, so I abstained. As the shuttle jerked gently into motion, turning away from the terminal, a cabin steward came by to offer me refreshment. "We'll be ready for takeoff in a few minutes, sir, but you should have time for a drink if you'd prefer."
"No, thanks," I told him, ignoring the Tzun's sarcastic shock over vibe. He left and I settled back into my chair. We were being towed by a ground tractor out to the primary runway which ran parallel to the terminal off into the distance. The bulk of the shuttle slowly rotated around onto the runway and came to a stop. I could see the terminal and taxiway out my window, the small tractor making its way back towards shelter.
"All crew and passengers, please return to your seats," a calm artificial voice urged us. I checked my safety restraint. There was a pause of a minute or so, and then the air-breathing engines came to life at the rear. Their rising whine was insistent, and the shuttle began to tremble slightly as the brakes prevented it from rolling.
After a few moments, the brakes released and Tears of Autumn shuddered once and started to roll smoothly down the runway. Within a minute, she was light on her wheels, and a few seconds later the ride smoothed out almost entirely as she eased into the air. We flew straight as an arrow for several minutes, out over one of the planetary oceans. The Tzun relayed the various air traffic control checks to me as the airspace around us was cleared. The cabin lights and screens pulsed a deep green three times, and then a giant kicked me in the small of the back as the boosters mounted atop the wings ignited. Tears of Autumn almost immediately pitched up to nearly vertical and rolled over onto her back, and I fought nausea and watched the blue-shrouded planet fall away in my window and the view darken as we climbed above air.
A couple of minutes later, we reached the proper coordinates and velocity and the Uplifted flight AI lit the mains. The onboard engines stopped breathing air as the AI lit the state tap, and their hydrogen fuel flared into plasma at the touch of the ravening energies coming from the tap itself. Almost immediately, there was a deep double THUMP as the boosters separated, their jobs done. I lay in my seat and listened to the white-noise scream of plasma singing in my ears via the shuttle's frame.
"This is the best part," said a voice. I blinked and looked to my right. The seat next to me had been empty when I'd last looked, but there was a woman sitting there now, stowing the inducer web in its recess.
"Of the flight," she said. "Feel that." She settled into her seat and closed her eyes, smiling. "Can't you feel it?"
You're on your own, said the gun in tones of sarcastic amusement.
I didn't bother responding to the gun, but turned towards her. "I just feel heavy."
"Yes, exactly. And you'll keep on feeling that way for another five or six minutes. Think of the power it takes to maintain this kind of acceleration!"
I smiled at her somewhat weakly. "Indeed."
She suddenly opened her eyes again and turned her head towards me, careful in the three or so apparent gee. "You don't find it impressive?"
I shrugged, aware of myself reflexively crushing an old, old anger. "We used to be capable of much more."
"Oh, I know. But think of all the damage we did. Think of the wars. And the Uplifted are helping us climb back up-" she waved vaguely towards the front of the cabin, and space- "from all that."
I nodded, as noncommittally as I was able.
"I'm sorry. My name's Ehren Vialle. I make this trip every few months." She nodded, smiling.
"I'm..." The Tzun snickered wordlessly. "I'm Tyal Kunir."
The ride was quieting, as Tears of Autumn climbed above the air and her thunder was muted to what was pushing its way across the wings' structure. "I've never seen you on the Lift before, Tyal Kunir. First time?"
"First time on the shuttle, yes," I said truthfully.
"Don't worry. The dangerous part is long past. Now it's just routine until the Uplifted pilot up there puts us into the station. I have three businesses on station, on the rim." She smiled again, to defuse her fishing.
"I'm on my way outbound," I said.
Her face lit up. "Oh! Where are you going, then?"
While I was thinking about what to tell her, the Tzun vibrated against my leg. At the same time, infopanes flickered to life in front of each seat, displaying a logo which looked somewhat official. There was a pleasant bong from the annunciator, and then the screens changed. In the place of the logo was a rotating head-and-shoulders; after a moment, I realized that it was me. Fortunately, it was an image of what I had looked like when I first arrived on Terzifon. My hair was different, shorter than it was at present; my skin was lighter, and the pads that had been in my cheeks changed my face. I looked away from the woman, ostensibly to study my own screen. A text crawl was moving across the image, detailing several crimes both real and imaginary, and asking all to keep an eye out for me. Will we need to start the contingency plan? asked the Tzun.
Yes, I sent back. She's already looking curious.
Working. the vibe went silent. I turned my head back to Ehren and smiled. "What's that all about?" I asked.
She was still reading the text crawl. "Haven't you been following the news?" she asked.
"No. I don't read your script well enough to keep current," I said. She startled, and looked back at me.
"Oh! Oh, of course, so you're not local..."
"No. I'm originally from Alison Xymal, but I'm an archeologue. I was here doing research for a brief time."
"Oh, I see," she said, finally turning away from the infopane. "A few days ago, someone attempted to kill a Councilor, but they were stopped by her security. They escaped, though. It seems that Security has finally gotten hold of imagery of...of someone involved, and are asking everyone to be on the lookout." Halfway through her reply, I saw it happen; her eyes narrowed slightly, and then her pupils dilated. She moved back in her seat slightly, but managed a smile, weaker than her last.
Ah well. "Thanks," I said, and reached forward and tapped off my infopane. "I'm not staying on station for long, so doesn't mean much to me."
I could see her wondering what to do, and then saw her decide to just stay quiet until we were off the shuttle. I tried to smile at her again, but I think it came out a bit lopsided. She sat back in her seat and deliberately flipped away from the announcement on her 'pane, moving to a shopping interface.
Two minutes, sent the Tzun. Be ready.
I acknowledged. "How long does the trip to station usually take?" I asked Ehren.
"Several hours to match orbits," she said, turning to look at me. I saw her gaze flick over my face. "But it will be smooth. Listen, we're almost to shutdown." A few moments later, the last whispering roar of the engines suddenly went silent, and the cabin lights slowly came up. The cabin crew made a brief announcement, stating that we would be in free fall for several hours and requesting that passengers only move out of their seats if absolutely necessary. Around us, I could hear the rustling noise of travelers settling in to wait - bringing up their panes, digging in their bags for snacks, or turning the seats the few degrees they would rotate towards each other in order to facilitate conversation. Ehren was still looking at me. I could see her hunting for certainty, unsure of whether she was correct and torn about what to do.
I leaned over towards her, smiling. She didn't recoil, but blinked at me. "You're right," I said softly. She still looked confused, so I nodded. "I'm him. You're not wrong."
Her face paled at that, and then she did recoil. "Why...why would you tell me that?"
"So that you don't wonder, later. It would really annoy me, never being sure."
"You...you're not going to..."
I cut her off. "What? Kill you? Why would I want to do that? What did they say I was?"
"It...they say you're some kind of assassin."
I laughed. "Don't worry, Ehren," I said. "I'm not an assassin. I didn't try to kill your Councilor. I'm not going to hurt you."
Her voice was low, almost a whisper. "How can I know that?"
"Oh, that's easy," I said. I unsnapped my harness and stood up. She pushed herself further back into her seat as I moved past her, carefully, into the aisle. "Really, Ehren. It's going to be fine. Don't worry." I made it halfway to the front of the cabin before the Tzun warned me that I had approximately thirty seconds. A cabin attendant popped up in front of me, his eyes annoyed over his professional smile, and started to speak; but before he could, I shook my head and took his hand. He stopped talking and tried to draw back, but I had a tight grip on his wrist. Both of us were hanging on to rails set in the cabin ceiling for free fall use with our other hands. "Don't," I said. I could feel Ehren's gaze on me from several rows back. "Really. Don't. They're going to need you, very soon."
He was confused enough to just look at me, and then there was a flash of light from the ports down the left side of the Tears of Autumn which caused exclamations of surprise from many of the passengers, and screams from more than a few of them. The attendant looked at the windows, around which the left-side passengers were gathering, and then looked back at me. I saw a bit of fear grow in his eyes, and I just added it to the list of things I'd have to pay for later. I released his wrist and moved past him towards the front of the cabin and the hatch. Criticality is not happy about this, said the Tzun. It is broadcasting for assistance, and running simulations on evasive or defensive courses of action. This shuttle does not have the capability to do either, however, and this is quite clear. I am attempting to determine if there are any Uplifted currently in dock at the Station. No replies so far, but I cannot tell if Criticality is reaching any Uplifted in the near stellar area via relayed statecom.
I reached the hatch. Don't worry about it, I said. I took the annunciator off its hook and thumbed the button. "Ladies and Gentlemen," I said into the muffled conversation of the cabin before remembering that that address wasn't used on Terzifon. Perhaps that was why the conversations quieted and eyes turned towards me. I could see the cabin attendant moving back up the aisle towards me, so to prevent anyone from interfering I reached into the sheath and pulled out the Tzun. The sentient gun had shifted itself into a fairly intimidating form, matte black with multiple barrels and a scanning laser beneath their apertures that fanned out to slide down across the cabin, ceiling to deck. The attendant paled and stopped himself in midair. "Ladies and Gentlemen, please don't be alarmed. I have no intention of harming any of you, and so long as everyone remains seated and calm, the worst that you'll suffer is a minor inconvenience."
There was a huge muffled WHAM as something struck the outside of the shuttle near the hatch, and the whole ship shuddered. It didn't rebound, though, indicating that it was grappled fast. I reached to the side and began disarming the hatch mechanisms. "You can't open that!" shouted the attendant. "It won't open against a pressure differential!"
"I know that," I replied, spinning the locking wheel and feeling the dogs retract. "Don't worry." Several passengers started shouting. I looked back and saw Ehren, still and quiet, looking at me with fear on her face. I winked once, then pulled. The hatch swung inward to several screams before people realized that the atmosphere wasn't rushing out, and the noise settled into confusion. "Don't worry, folks. You-" I pointed at the attendant- "Come up here." He did, meekly. I patted his shoulder. "When I'm gone, you'll have two minutes to get the hatch sealed again, all right? Two minutes. Do you understand?" He nodded, dumbly.
I waved at the passengers, still frozen in their seats, laughed at their expressions, and swung out the lock into the freezing noise of a boarding tube. I swung the hatch shut behind me, waiting for a few seconds until the indicators blinked and showed that the hatch was re-arming, then nodded and pushed off down the tube towards the welcoming light at the far end. "Hi again."
"Hello there, you two," said the booming voice. "Welcome back, finally."
The Tzun vibrated sharply, and I felt it shiver as it reconfigured itself hastily. That's not the Override! It snarled over vibe. What-
"Hi there to you too," I said to the air as I started slowing, using the tube walls to brake as I sailed gently into the open lock. It boomed shut behind me. "Is the shuttle-"
"They're fine," said the voice. "Hatch is sealed. I'm disengaging the tube now." There was a sharp hiss and rattle from the other side of the lock. "And we're off."
The Tzun was ominously silent, but I ignored it for the moment as it didn't appear to be reconfiguring itself. The inner lock door opened, and I moved over the line, settling to the deck as I entered gravity, and by force of old habit moved off down the passageway towards the lounge of the Aetheric Flyer.
"It's good to see you boys again," said the Uplifted starship cheerfully over the annunciator.
"Yes," I said as I walked. "It's good to see you as well."