Shuttle Tiberius: A Routine Flight

“Janus, you old bucket of bolts! Good to see you!”

Janus's head pivots until his LED-blue eyes face the approaching human. “Greetings Ensign Decker.” His soothing voice turns his everyday speech into a relaxation program. “I noticed you requested the copilot seat again. Are you still pursuing your Ship's Boat certification?”

Decker claps him on the shoulder and sits. “I am! I really want my Pilot cert, but I'll take what I can get while I'm on satellite duty.”

“It is unfortunate that you lack the opportunity to study what you want.” Janus turns back to his preflight preparations.

“I can study on my own, but it just doesn't stick without actual practice with a real ship.” Decker turns toward the control panel. “Permission to assist?”

Janus leans back. “Granted.” The eye in the back of his head surveys the passengers. “It seems we have a full complement of passengers today.”

Decker touches a button to acknowledge the “Aft Hatch Sealed” light. “Yeah, I heard a few people got added at the last minute. Not sure why. Now, it's pressure test and then engine test, right?”

“Correct.” Janus engages the ship's internal speakers, filling the passenger compartment with his voice.

“Greetings and welcome aboard ODF Shuttle Tiberius. Our destination is the satellite LEO-6, with an estimated travel time of just under 2 hours. For your safety, please remain in your seat at all times unless you need to use the fresher. We invite you to make yourself comfortable as we prepare for liftoff.”

Janus disengages the speakers with a nod and turns to Decker. “Preflight checklist complete. Shall I request clearance or would you like to do it vocally?”

“Carry on, Janus.”

Janus's eyes blink twice as he engages his internal communications system. He sees a human father with a young daughter climbing the fence at the edge of the pad. Flashing warning lights on the fence warn that the pad is active. The father grabs the girl before she gets too high. Janus's gaze lingers on the human family. “Clearance granted. Flight plan approved. We are clear for liftoff.”

Decker looks out the window, gives a thumbs-up, and waves. The girl jumps around, waving wildly as her father blows a kiss. Decker punches three buttons and grabs the yoke. The shuttle rises with a low hum and turns toward the sun.

“Your daughter grows quickly, Ensign Decker.”

“That she does.” Decker navigates out of lowport airspace and engages the flight plan. Looking out the window, the capital city of Corinth looms and start shrinking. “This week-long rotation sucks. I'm going to miss them.”

“You have real-time communications available, do you not?”

“Yeah, but it's not the same.” Decker turns to face Janus. “You're lucky you don't have sentimentality.”

Janus's eyes blink. “Do not assume, Ensign Decker. I have offspring as well. And I miss them.”

Decker's gaze drops to the floor. “I never knew.”

“You never asked.” Janus looks at the control panel. “A flawless ascent, Ensign Decker. Your exam should be easy.”

“Thanks, Janus.” Decker thinks a moment. “May I ask you a personal question?”

“You consider me a person, Ensign Decker?”

“You have kids. That deepens my perception of you. I haven't thought about it before, but yes, I do.”

“Proceed.”

Decker takes a deep breath. “How do you miss them? Your offspring, I mean.”

“Life is perception. Life is what we pay attention to. I wish to pay attention to my offspring, to deepen the bond between us and create more communication shortcuts from shared experiences, as humans do. Part of me would rather be attending my offspring right now than performing my main function. However, I know that I must be useful if I expect a place in this society for myself and for my offspring.” Janus blinks twice, as if activating communications. “Stress and pain are caused by resisting present reality. To accept what surrounds me now and to look forward to a time when I have more control is the only path that makes any sense. All else is madness.”

Decker considers for a moment. Discussing philosophy with a synthetic life form certainly isn't on today's task list. “And when things are quiet, but your family and friends are a thousand clicks away?”

“I have memory, which can be a powerful tool. If I let it, a memory can become a present reality, one which requires no resistance. It is temporary, but losing myself in that remembered moment is enjoyable.”

Human and synthetic watch the planet recede in silence. Their reverie shatters with a shout from the passenger compartment. “Free Corinth controls this shuttle! Stay calm, and nobody gets hurt!”

Decker turns and sees three masked humans with snub pistols that weren't confiscated during the boarding process. They hold the other 57 passengers at bay, threatening as needed. “Don't try anything or we'll blow this shuttle apart!”

Decker glances across to Janus. “Janus, initiate anti-hijack protocol.”

“I'm sorry but I can't do that, Ensign Decker.”

Decker's jaw drops. “Why not?”

Janus turns. “They have my offspring.” His calm voice can't express the gravity of his words. A panel opens in Janus's torso, revealing a blinking light on wires wrapped around a large grey mass. “I am sorry for the inconvenience, Ensign Decker.”

Decker's eyebrows shoot up. “Inconvenience?”

“Please remain calm. I will make sure you will survive to see your family again.”

The leader from the passenger compartment shouts toward the bridge. “Synth! Show them the bomb so they'll behave!”

Janus turns in his seat, revealing the contents of his chest cavity. His voice carries through the internal speakers. “It is true. I am wired with a bomb capable of destroying this shuttle. Please remain calm and all will be well.”

The leader thrusts his pistol at the passengers. “Now sit!” The passengers back off, but it's hard to keep a ship full of active duty Corinthian Navy from trying to do something. “The Orbital Defense Force uses its satellite network to spy on the people of Corinth! All we want is to expose that lie and make the planetary government come clean about its activities.”

A lieutenant snorts, “Conspiracy theories? You Free Corinth yahoos risked a death penalty to expose a conspiracy that doesn't exist?”

“We have proof! And we'll get more once we're on board LEO-6.”

“You won't make it out of the airlock, and you sure-as-taxes ain't getting off our satellite in one piece.” The lieutenant notices the unsure glances of the two other hijackers and smirks. “You may want to discuss that particular aspect of your plan before you go any further.”

Janus turns back to Decker and speaks softly. “I now have more control.”

Decker's eyes squint in confusion. “What?”

Janus looks through Decker, eyes continuously blinking. “My offspring are no longer threatened. Please stand by.”

Decker looks back at the three hijackers, engaged in animated discussion. Their movements suddenly get slow and lazy. The rest of the passengers shake their heads with grogginess. Two canisters shoot across the passenger bay with a hiss of pressurized air, exploding in a tangle of grey strands around the hijackers. They barely react as the tanglers wrap them in a cocoon of gelatinous fibers and drag them to the floor.

Janus holds out a gas mask. “Please disarm them, Ensign Decker. I will request a security detail.”

Decker's mind fights to catch up with recent events, hesitating before strapping on the gas mask and heading back to the passenger compartment. Every passenger slumps in a seat, unconscious. Some start to snore as Decker wrestles the guns out of the trussed-up hijackers' hands.

Decker returns to the bridge, depositing the pistols in the ship's locker on the way. The bridge stands empty. Janus's voice comes across the console's speaker. “I've adjusted your course to a minimum safe distance.”

Decker rips off the gas mask and sits in the pilot's seat as the bridge compartment seals. “Janus, what are you doing?”

“Attempting to disarm the bomb and keep the shuttle's occupants safe. The estimated success rate of this task combination rises significantly if I am no longer aboard the shuttle.”

Decker scans the area to pinpoint Janus's transmission. “And when you burn up on reentry?”

“I will either be destroyed by the bomb or retrieved by you. How have your maneuvering simulations been progressing?”

“I'm getting pretty good at docking, if that's what you mean.” Silence. “Janus?” Decker fiddles with the communications array to focus it on Janus's position in space. “Janus? Can you hear me?”

An explosion rocks the shuttle. The passengers continue to sleep through Decker's scream.

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