The Embassy

Kuiper belt Object, Planetoid 2003 UB313 & Moon ("Xena" and "Gabrielle", respectively) shown for January 1, 2006 Painting by A.Schaller for STScI

“We are now entering orbit. If you look left you will see sunrise over Bhagra.”

Jess glanced up from her reading and out of the shuttle window. A pale crescent of gold was cresting over the ash grey planet below. As the weak and distant sun crept up over the horizon, it spread a red glow which seemed to ignite a wildfire on Bhagra’s surface. The land was swept up in the crimson tide.

It should have warmed Jess’ heart. The sight was magnificent, far more inspiring than her last sight of Earth had been. But there were too many worries weighing down her spirits. What would life be like down there on the planet’s surface?

This was her first overseas posting with the Ministry of Diplomacy. She had excelled as a trainee and junior advisor on inter-planetary policy, which was why she had drawn Bhagra. It was a dream posting. A civil servant could make their career in a place like this.

The shuttle’s navigation system spoke again, delivering a roundup of yesterday’s world news in its soothing automated tones.

“Tensions have flared up again between rival tribes in the mineral-rich southern hemisphere. It is claimed by sources on the ground that as many as two hundred were killed yesterday by Shearer attacks around the mining colony of Mozlin.”

Jess racked her mind trying to recall what a Shearer was. It was the sort of thing she would be expected to know when she arrived at the United Coalition embassy. The chief policy officer for Middle-Six Galaxy at the ministry had briefed her on a hundred different aspects of Bhagra life before she left.

Days locked in a musty office with an old, droning minister and Jess still could not remember one simple fact. Or was that it? The memories of his dull monotone flooded back. Shearers were unmanned sub-orbit combat vehicles. Their purpose was to carry out lightning, precision attacks in urban areas.

“Did you hear the latest? What they aren’t saying on the news…”

The couple in the row of seats in front of hers had dropped their voices to a whisper. Jess leaned forward, pretending to stow her antique novel away in her bag, and cocked her head to listen. Nobody would question how long it was taking her to put the book away. It was real paper, extremely rare and all too easily damaged. She had spent half a month’s salary on it.

“What are they saying?” the man asked.

“My mother says the planetary government is losing its grip. She says the isurgents aren’t just hitting the southern hemisphere mineral colonies, they’re pushing the peacekeepers back over the equator.”

“You’re kidding!”

Jess stopped listening to the couple and settled back in her seat, shifting into a more comfortable position for landing.

It was nonsense. Bhagra was a small planet, with only a quarter of Earth’s circumference and about the same size as the moon. Even so, for the insurgents to have crossed the equator without the Defence Assembly hearing about it was lunacy. Less than that, it was nothing more than idle gossip.

Her stomach rumbled, matching the hum of the shuttle as it tore into the upper atmosphere. Jess hoped the food was good on Bhagra. Shuttle meals were too dry for her palate and they tasted like cardboard.

Hundreds of kilometres below, a white shape flitted through the sheer valleys which wrinkled the planet’s surface in a thick band around the equatorial line. A warning flashed through its control matrix as it detected the shuttle diving into the stratosphere. The Shearer tracked the shuttle’s flight path and dismissed the threat.

Chrome microlattice flaps dropped on its wings, leaving two thin trails of vapour as it banked north. The Shearer dropped out through the narrow mouth of a valley, into the northern hemisphere.

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