Jess climbed down the shuttle’s exit chute and followed the hermetically sealed corridor which snaked across the flat dirt plain. It led to Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s containment centre.
There she was escorted into a claustraphobic frosted glass capsule by shuttleport security officers in radiation suits. A sound like rushing water and grinding gears assaulted her on all sides, a hiss of escaping air and five suffocating seconds without sound or breath. Then clean air rushed back inside, accompanied by a damp spray of evaporated chemical mist.
“Welcome to Bagra, we hope you enjoy your stay.” a cheerful woman in a baby blue uniform said as Jess left the chamber.
It was not Jess’ first time flying, so she had known what to expect. Her family was comfortably middle-class, taking vacations to all the better known space station resorts in West-One Galaxy.
She still carried vivid memories of the year of her father’s big promotion. He had taken them all to West-Seven for walks along the unending coastlines of Tarin and skiing through the frozen continents of Arctia. The sight of West-Seven’s two suns throwing out a kaleidoscope of red and purple light over the vast, curving expanse of ice was what inspired her to join the ministry.
There were darker memories from those trips as well. Radiation was the greatest risk in all inter-planetary travel, requiring extensive de-contamination on arrival. Jess could also picture in her mind the burning poverty in the overflow colonies on Mars. It was a part of her childhood she struggled not to revisit.
Her luggage was waiting for her outside the containment centre. Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s terminal looked like a massive greenhouse. A glass wall faced the runway, the other three sides were open to the elements and a sloping roof of corrugated chrome rested high overhead.
A stream of taxi aircraft made their sluggish way out from loading bay, carrying passengers from earlier flights. They waited until a kilometre stood between them and the terminal before cracking away at supersonic speed towards the distant haze of Bhagra’s capital, Danask.
“Are you Jess Matison?” a local man asked.
He was wearing the grubby grey overalls of a ricker-jet pilot, dark sweat stains visible under his arms. Jess stared at the sign he was holding. It was a crude attempt to spell her name in Romanised script, Jez Metson.
“I am. Are you from the embassy?” she asked.
Without waiting for her, he set off across the terminal and started up the ricker-jet. No take-off checks or last-minute inspections, she saw. The pilot just climbed right in and began hitting buttons.
It was an old machine, out-dated by a few decades. The gaudy red and yellow paint used to decorate it in swirling patterns had been cracked and flaked by supersonic travel. It produced a ripple effect across the vehicle’s body, as if it had buckled in a head-on collision.
If the embassy expected her to travel in that thing, she might as well get back on the shuttle now and go home. Jess’ life still had some value over her career.
“I’m sorry.” she called up to the pilot. “I think I’ll take my own transportation.”
“No, you must come with me.” he shouted, jumping down from the ricker-jet and narrowing his dark eyes.
Jess took a step back. Was that how embassy staff were treated on Bhagra? It was beginning to look like she had made a mistake in applying for this posting. She thought about offering the pilot money to leave without her.
His eyes suddenly became glazed, staring out across the terminal. Turning to see what was distracting him, Jess saw a glimmering light hovering just above the skyline. It was like sunlight reflecting on a mirror, almost blinding.
A rough hand grabbed her arm and she stumbled as the pilot dragged her towards the ricker-jet. Was he mad? Jess screamed for help and people turned to gawp at them. Three security officers jogged across the terminal.
It was an abduction. She should have known. The CPO at the ministry had briefed her on embassy staff being targeted in other galaxies.
An ear-splitting eruption of sound tore through the terminal. Jess turned from fighting her abductor and saw a thousand footlong shards of razor-sharp glass shower down at the far end of the terminal. Automatic rifle fire chattered through the air.
“We must go.” the pilot said, pulling her towards the vehicle.
Jess was dead weight. Her mind turned in dizzying circles as it tried to comprehend what was happening around them.
People were dying. They were tripping over each other, falling down and being thrown off their feet by an invisible force. What was going on? There was no sign of attackers, even the security officers had vanished from sight.
A few hundred feet from where she stood, a taxi tried to take off. Its jets roared into action and the vehicle lifted up from the ground. It kicked forwards, the power of its engines sending passengers flying into the air behind it as the pilot rammed the throttle to full blast.
Jess saw a blur of shining chrome whip past the taxi and, for a second, the image of two long wings and a pair of black rifle muzzles spouting fire flashed in her eyes. Then the taxi was tearing away, a ball of flames ripping into the grey landscape in a plume of black smoke.