by David Massey
DEREK FLAGGHERTY RAN, cursing, down the main corridor. Harsh white light from the overheads cast fierce gold reflections from the buttons and braid of his uniform as he struggled to do up the few remaining fastenings while running pell mell towards the hall. His gait was forced and crabbing, as his ceremonial dress sword did its best to trip him headlong onto the floor.
"I hate swords, I hate buttons," he mumbled while his belt harness made a final effort to send him head over heels to the ground. "We've had zipupps for centuries, but still these beggared uniforms insist on beggared buttons."
As he got control of his uniform, the targets for his vehemence changed to his room-mates who had left him in this fix. It was all very well to cover for a person when they're hung over and need an extra few minutes sleep, but to leave them sleeping on this day of days, that was cruel. Derek executed a skidding turn as his left boot threatened to slip off, and hopping on one foot while securing his boot, he emerged into the open sky of the courtyard.
The sky glowed rosy and bright above, the product of weather control on a terraformed world. Naturally, the day would be blissful, as it always was on ceremonial and special occasions. Up ahead he could see other students heading for the main hall. Gathering his wits, and jamming his reluctant sword into its proper place against his hip, Derek assumed a more nonchalant pace towards the main entrance.
"Calm, calm, breathe deep, it's only the entire rest of your life that you're coming to," he muttered to himself. His heart began to beat faster and all the lessons in self control and bio-regulation seemed to have very little effect at all as he passed through the imposing doorways. He merged with the other latecomers, exchanged sheepish glances. With a studied casualness, as if it was not the most important thing in the universe, he glanced towards the giant display boards at the far end of the vast room.
As he glanced down the rows of names, he felt his pulse begin to beat faster and a tightening in his chest and throat. He realised that he might have done poorly in some of the tasks, but surely he was in the top quarter of the class? Secret assessment had been the watchword throughout the five year training, but none of his instructors had ever hinted that his performance was ever less than good. But where was his beggared name?
As his eyes travelled to the bottom of the fourth column, his spirits sank further. There were three hundred students in this year's graduation, this sector's contribution to the Federation Navy. A student's final grade determined his or her initial posting and options for future specialising. As his eyes frantically scanned the columns of positions, a dawning fear that he would begin (and probably remain) a skunk-run deck-loader between Enethze and Andwafa. He couldn't take it any more. Enough of this torture! He was down to the last column and still no sign of Flaggherty in the lists. At this rate it wouldn't be worth accepting his commission.
Reluctantly he turned away from the boards and made his way towards the cafeteria, his feet dragging and scuffing his shiny black boots in a way which would have a drill sergeant wincing and bellowing in seconds. Nobody noticed. The throng of bodies in the hall made a hubbub which drowned out his thoughts and the jostling bodies only accentuated his loneliness. In numb shock he sank into a vacant seat in the cafeteria.
With automatic motions he punched in for a coffee, the harsh navy brew, reputedly grown from Carborundum rich plants on far off Gretiwa. Three cups of navy coffee and your intestines were scoured raw, or so went the standard joke. Derek thought that now would be a good time to try for five. As he sat, his spirits began their usual bounce back to normality. Maybe his father had always been right. There was still a place for Derek on the farm back on Topaz in Ackandso. Somehow the very thought of such a thing brought the panic back full force. Where had he gone wrong?
With suicidal thoughts racing through his mind, Derek punched up his third cup of coffee. The noise from the hall was decreasing now, as everyone adjusted to the fact that at last they had graduated. Surprised, elated or dejected, they each went their ways towards refreshment. Drinking contests began here and there as small clumps of graduates began celebrations. Derek sank further into his chair and laid his head in his arms.
"Derek, where the hell have you been?" A sudden crushing weight on his shoulder informed Derek that he'd been spotted by Jungle-boy, and the full bass roar of the huge man's voice only confirmed the matter.
"Leave me alone can't you", moaned Derek, beginning to suffer from three cups of navy coffee in quick succession as well as from his disappointment.
"Hey, cummon chum, you'll miss the celebrations — you're the star of the show."
There was no refusing the insistent pull of Jungle-boy when he wanted someone's attention, reflected Flaggherty. His shoulder threatened to come out of its socket as the man from Cooperworld in Aymiay pulled him from his seat. For a moment his sword refused to budge, caught against a chair leg, but with a frustrated jerk he wrenched it free.
"What's this all about? Why can't you leave me alone? My name's not even on thr boards," wailed Flaggherty. He struggled futilely to release Jungle-boy's vice like grip. The sudden release of the grip on his shoulder sent Derek sprawling away in surprise.
Angrily he looked round to see a quizzical expression growing on Jungle-boy's face.
"You mean you don't know? Oh man, that's great, that's really great." A peculiar jerking began in Jungle-boy's shoulders, travelling down to his belly and back up to his head. He threw back his head and began to laugh. Nothing about Jungle-boy was small scale, and his bellowing cries caused heads to turn from all parts of the hall. Derek felt his face flush and a quiet anger filled him.
"What's up? What do you mean? You'd better tell me, man —" Knowing it was another suicidal instinct at work, Derek drew his hand back in a fist to strike Jungle-boy, but as he did so, his friend recovered some composure and lifted one arm to point at a small display board erected to the left of the main screens.
"Look," he said, before another spate of laughter took control.
Derek turned and read the board. There were only fifteen names on the list and his came sixth from the top. A numb sensation began to spread through his body as his brain read the rest of the board. Fifteen top scorers were being awarded the position of 'top gun'. Fifteen top scorers were going to Earth for graduation. Fifteen top scorers were being taken from each of the four main Federation training camps to an anniversary graduation ceremony on Old Earth and he was one of them!
In an instant his depression had vanished and he felt a surge of elation. He felt that he could jump straight to Earth without a ship! His friend was still guffawing and as the tension lifted he felt laughter welling in his own throat. The two young men collapsed against each other, tears seeping into Flaggherty's eyes. He wouldn't have to return to that wretched farm after all! Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, Derek looked Jungle-boy up and down.
"Okaaay then," he drawled, "Where's this party?" Derek paused to gasp in a breath, then he couldn't resist adding, "By the way, your sword's on wrong.'
Four weeks later, Derek was fretting inside his dress uniform once again. Sitting in an auditorium surrounded by the other fifty-nine top gun students he shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. His collar chaffed as he turned his head to look down the rows at his fellow gunners'. He wondered if any of them felt as out of place as he did amongst the pomp and ceremony of the occasion.
"Stupid collar," he muttered, wishing he could run a finger around his neck and loosen it. Everyone seemed to be sitting rigidly in place and Flaggherty felt an almost irresistible desire to cough. The speeches had been going on for what seemed like hours now, and there seemed to be a growing agitation amongst the young men and women in the hall.
Derek looked along the line of ranking officers sitting on the raised podium where each student would receive his or her commission towards the end of the ceremony. Each one was dared and seemingly indifferent to the endless stream of words coming from the current Speaker. Derek wondered if tolerance to hot air grew with age, or whether you were born with it.
He hoped it was an ability which developed, otherwise he would never come to terms with the rituals of high rank.
Flaggherty turned a furtive glance down the row of seats and met the eyes of Jungle-boy. Jungle-boy rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in a theatrical gesture and Derek barely managed to suppress a laugh. He nodded briefly and turned back towards the front. The Admiral at the left of centre seemed to have fallen asleep. His eyes were open but they were focussed somewhere far beyond the room. Flaggherty was vaguely offended by this. It was all very well to be bored by ceremonies when you were young, but didn't the Admiral know he had a responsibility here?
Derek turned his attention to the events planned for after the show. He should be meeting Sophie again tonight and they would probably leave the others after a couple of drinks in a favourite bar, then on to a restaurant and possibly a show. He felt a glow of pride that he had managed to find a girl like Sophie just a week into planetfall.
The first week of their stay on Earth had been spent like any other tourists, soaking up the atmosphere and visiting all the normal tourist traps. London City seemed to be made up entirely of hotels, bars and souvenir shops, with a few looming office buildings breaking up the skyline but having nothing to do with the tides of humanity swirling through the streets Jungle-boy and Derek had been inseparable those first few days, strangers in a strange land and totally bemused by the antiquity visible everywhere. They had quickly adopted the traditional navy custom of finding as many bars as possible, and sampling the wares.
It was in one such establishment that they had met Sophie, and introduced themselves Normally the sheer bulk of Jungle-boy was intimidating and more often than not the girls would leave after the barest possible pause, but Sophie stayed. In fact Sophie had been there the next night as well, when Derek casually suggested that they try the bar again, rather than venture on to pastures new. Jungle-boy had stayed for a bit, but sometime during the evening he had wandered out. Flaggherty could not say for sure when Jungle-boy left, but his bit friend had already passed out when he returned to their room.
After that, most of his evenings had been spent in Sophie's company, sometimes with Jungle-boy but more often not. She was an interesting girl, with a job in one of the main government buildings over in the oldest part of the City. She seemed immune to boredom and would listen for hours to his stories of the Navy and his training, his hopes and his dreams. She had clapped with glee when he related how he was one of the 'gunners', and somehow this childish display only made her more endearing. Even after a single week, she was coming to figure more and more as a part of his dreams of the future.
Derek's attention was dragged back to the hall by a sudden blaring of trumpets. With a start he focussed his eyes straight ahead and noticed with glee that the Admiral also looked a little ruffled by the sudden noise. The fanfare signalled the end of the initial speeches and now the presentation ceremony could begin. Derek wiped his hands along the sides of his trousers glad for the first time that they were woollen fabric, rather than waterproof combat fatigues since they absorbed his sweat with ease. One by one the 'gunners' were summoned from their seats to receive a commission from the Admiral, officially graduated from the naval academy and now junior officers in the Federation Navy.
Derek's heart swelled with pride as his name was called out and he rose from his seat to stride forward. Visions of future greatness swam before him as he stepped out to shake the Admiral's hand.
The next morning Derek was nursing another cup of navy coffee in the main cafeteria when he was literally shaken out of his reverie by a huge hand clamping onto his shoulder.
"Oh, hi, Jungle-boy," he muttered, without glancing up. A severe creaking of heavy plastic under strain announced that his friend had taken the next seat.
"Why the long face? What's gone wrong now?"
"Why do you think anything is wrong? Nothing's wrong, it's a wonderful day, go away."
"Ah, come on, when anyone tries to drink three cups of navy coffee —" Jungle-boy gestured at the plastic cups lined up at Derek's elbow "- it means there's got to be something seriously wrong. Didn't they cut you any orders?" Jungle-boy flapped a thin white envelope under Flaggherty's nose. This was met with a disgusted grunt and Derek sipped another mouthful of the corrosive brew.
"I got scout duty," floated Jungle-boy, trying to goad his friend out of an obvious depression. "Brand new Cobra III re-fitted with navy power plant, up-rated weapons and navigation system, and a whole bunch of long range and planetary sensors. Look's like they've recognised my true merits after all this time. Lieutenant Jolius of the Federation Navy, that's me!"
Despite himself, Derek managed a smile. "So where are they packing you off to then? Someplace remote I hope, I don't want you digging me out of my bad moods forever you know."
"I've never heard of it before, had to look it up in the ship's directory myself. I'm heading out to the Frontier, starting from Zelada and heading outwards. No fixed orders, just don't come home without interesting news." Jungle-boy's grin looked like his face would split open. He practically glowed with pride and enthusiasm at the prospect of a chance to use his new commission to show off to his superiors.
"Isn't that part of the disputed zone?" Derek had a tendency to look on the dark side of everything. It had earned him a reputation as a spoiler in some students' eyes, but had kept him out of some nasty traps laid by the academy evaluators.
"Heck, everything more than 25 light years from Earth is disputed, that' s half the fun. I've heard it's close to a pirate run as well! Now there's a chance to really make a name for myself. I can find a new planet, or I can break up some fiendish Empire plot to steal our space or I can smash a band of pirates." Jungle-boy leaned back in his chair, accompanied by more ominous creaking. With a theatrical gesture he waved an arm around his head. "I can't fail to do something useful." He leaned close to Flaggherty and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "How about you?"
Derek drew a folded envelope from a pocket and slapped it to the table. "Here, take a look."
Jungle-boy slipped the flimsy out of its package and scanned through it. His brow furrowed as he read the brief instructions. "Looks like an easy job," he muttered, with a slightly puzzled tone. "Ferry a body to Achenar then carry on with the ship, the Spirit or Amenitris."
"Nursemaid an Ambassador to Capitol, make sure he reaches the Empire safely and then come on home! Some assignment that. Why use me? I thought we were meant to be getting plum postings, since we're the 'gunners'." Flaggherty's voice betrayed his emotions he sounded petulant and frustrated. "You've got a scout ship to the ends of human space — I end up on a beggared commercial liner on one of the most secure corridors in space. I mean where's the fun in that?"
In a fit of misery, Derek took another gulp of his coffee. Jungle-boy signalled a passing waitress to bring him a drink, anything except his friend's evil brew.
"Any idea when your tour starts then? What's the ship like? What did Sophie have to say?" Jungle-boy was trying for any kind of channel to break his friends mood.
"No, I haven't looked at the schedules yet." The fierceness of Derek's response caught Jungle-boy by surprise, his friend's next comment caused a wry smile, since it did a lot to explain Derek's sullen mood.
"She stood me up last night! We had a date and she didn't turn up at all. I waited for hours."
"Ha! So that's the real reason for the long face." Jungle-boy heaved himself out of his seat and nudged Derek up after him. It wasn't hard for Jungle-boy to persuade Derek to get up; his sulk had been running out of steam anyway. It just seemed so unfair, just when he was getting on so well with the girl. Maybe he'd see her tonight instead. "Let's take a trip to the spaceport then, let's look for this tramp liner Spirit."
Renting a cycle for the ride to the spaceport was no problem. The City streets were glistening from the scheduled morning rain and the air was fresh with the scent of leaves (Municipal services catered for many things, and keeping a pleasant atmosphere in the City was just one of them.) Traffic was sparse and there were no crowds even as they approached the busy shuttle port. The two young officers tried to remain unimpressed by the size of the buildings, but they couldn't help but be awed by the age of the monuments to space-flight arrayed around the site for all to see.
By the time they entered the main concourse they were as wide-eyed as any novice spacer, even though they had passed through hundreds of Navy bases in their courses.
"You go find the departure date and time from the booking desks. I'm going to look over the field to see if I can find your ship." Jungle-boy pointed Derek at the lines of waiting passengers at one end of the hall and headed off towards the large view port at the other. He turned round as he was walking away and called to his friend, "And don't forget to look at all the notices!"
Derek grunted and made his way to a clear space between the aisles of space-bound people and began to scan the boards above their heads.
Twenty minutes later he marched across to the window and sought out his friend. It wasn't very hard, his large bulk was an obvious island of immobility in the shifting crowd at the view port. He was leaning against the blast-proof glass seemingly glued to the view outside.
"I can't find it anywhere. There doesn't seem to be any scheduled flight to Achenar for any ship called Spirit. I can't believe they've managed to foul up my first mission!" Derek's voice had a familiar edge of frustration to it. Jungle-boy appeared not to have heard, so Flaggherty repeated himself. "I said, it's not there. There is no Spirit of Amenitris."
"Oh yes there is," breathed Jungle-boy, not looking round from the window. "Just you look out there, the far end of the field. The fresh looking one."
Derek leaned towards the window and looked over at what his friend had been staring at for so long. As his brain took in the vision, his forehand thumped against the plastic with a dull thud.
"What is that?" he whispered, looking at the gleaming hull with the name proudly blazoned on its prow.
"That, you lucky beggar, is a brand new Navy cruiser. It's making its maiden flight in two days time. It's off to Capitol, a show of strength to the Empire, I'm told. Your ambassador isn't taking any liner to Achenar, he's going on the shake down cruise of our newest ship. And you are going with it."
Derek was silent for a few moments, soaking in the news. Instead of sixteen weeks of boredom as some beggared commercial liner made the normal short jump sequence to the heart of the Empire, the cruiser could probably make it in just one or two. And then on a tour of who knew where? Commanders of new ships on first missions were traditionally allowed a free hand in picking flights, and most managed to get into some interesting situations. Life was looking up. It really was a wonderful day.