by David Massey
GENTLE GOLDEN SUNLIGHT streamed out of a clear blue Mediterranean sky, glinting off the polished buttons of the academy band as they played background music while the new graduates filed solemnly to their seats. The green and blue dress uniforms were pressed and spotless, every button burnished and bright. Each instrument shone with hours of cleaning and every note seemed to have a new minted quality in the pure clean air.
Lester drew the pure air deep into his lungs. He wanted to remember every bit of this day for the rest of his life. The amphitheatre, more than three thousand years old and still in use, was filling up with academy students, their relatives and guests. A bright and festive air hung over the non-naval personnel. They laughed and talked, the multi-coloured garments giving the place a holiday atmosphere. They contrasted in a pleasing manner with the naval personnel gathered on the ancient stage in formal uniforms, each with a row of service and combat medals adding distinctive colour to the muted uniforms.
Lester and his fellow graduates formed the central block to the audience, every face scrubbed, depilated and attentive. The final preparations the day before had kept them busy to the early hours last night, fetching gear from the laundry, stripping and cleaning, rubbing and polishing brightware and making sure that every last item was spotless. Checking each others gear and parading before one another to make sure that they presented the very best image for the grand day.
Overhead a lone seagull screamed, wheeling in the beautiful sky of Earth, before turning out to sea, to fish in the clear waters of the bay. As a youth Lester had been used to money and the things riches could buy. But the years in the academy had taught him a humility and now he found greatest joy in the abundance of nature and the beauty of living things than in any amount of material goods.
He wondered if it would break his mother's heart to know that he really did intend to take up his commission in the navy. Ever since his father had brought him to Earth five years ago, he had wondered at his mother's motives. He had no doubt that she had pulled numerous strings and used her enormous commercial influence to get him a place here, at the heart of the Federation. She had even managed to get an escort from the Admiral himself to attend today's ceremony. But there remained a small doubt about her real intentions. Somehow he doubted that Alista intended her son to be a naval officer, he always suspected her of harbouring political ambitions on his behalf. But he had grown up in the years on Earth and he had a mind of his own now.
He had made up his mind. He was going to take a renewable commission and devote himself to the Federation, just like the Admiral there. He glanced towards the assembled top brass sitting facing the growing audience as more and more visitors and graduates filed in. He wondered how often they had attended similar ceremonies, and whether they ever became bored of the displays. He could not envisage such a thing. His blood sang and his heart swelled as he swept his gaze around the open air stadium.
The ancient rocks, carved by civilisation almost as old as man soaked up the sun and the music as they had done for centuries. The air of solemnity imposed by the ancient surroundings contrasted with the whimsy of the bright clothes and muted chatter amongst the anxious and proud parents. Lester looked over into the crowd and caught the eye of his mother, still a strikingly handsome woman after all these years. She shook her head and her dark hair flew about her shoulders in wild abandon, no doubt helped by some expensive and exotic electrostatic device purchased for just such an effect.
It was odd to think of his mother as his own taste in girlfriends ran to entirely different lines, but he was sure that many would be attracted to her charms, quite apart from the enormous wealth at her disposal. He wondered why she had never re-married after his father left, preferring instead the company of his uncle Kharon. She had plenty of boy's and male companions, but never became serious with any of them. It looked like she had her eye on the ambassador to Veliaze who was sitting next to her. They were flirting shamelessly in the morning sun.
His mother laughed at some joke made by the ambassador. She caught Lester looking in her direction and gave him a broad wink, smiled and turned back to her companion. She seemed perfectly content to enjoy the carnival atmosphere which was present amongst that part of the crowd. Lester had no doubts that as soon as the graduation ceremony really got underway, they would all become attentive immediately. Meanwhile, why shouldn't they have a chat and a joke when it was such a truly glorious day?
Admiral Flaggherty sweated in the stifling heat. His collar itched and no matter how he shifted in his chair the damned sword just would not fit correctly. He hated these formal occasions he always had and he always would. Damn that Marlbron woman for getting him to Earth. She must have called in a host of favours to ensure that his schedule got him to the academy just as graduation was due. He had to admire the cunning of the woman. He could hardly turn down the honour of the occasion since he was there on Earth at the time. Especially when he had the privilege of handing out the class honours himself.
He tried to stifle a yawn as the green and blue clad band struck up another martial air. He didn't even like military music, it was just one of the things you had to put up with. It went with the rank, like endless discussion, meetings and senate inquiries into fleet expenses. If only they would learn a few jazz numbers, or some operatic pieces, it would make the day pass more quickly for him. Looking around the old ruins, collapsing in the heat but still with astonishing acoustics, Derek thought back to his own graduating days. He wondered if the young men in the audience today felt the same gut wrenching nerves that he had. He doubted that things had changed very much. He could certainly remember the excitement of receiving his first orders and realising in an instant that he was to fly on a brand new cruiser's maiden voyage. Jolius must have been intensely jealous, but had his own scouting mission to perform.
He had met Jolius just two years ago, still flying scouts but now in charge of exploration of the whole third quadrant. His friend had looked fit and healthy, his red and blue Bermuda shorts tastefully set off by a lime green wide-brimmed hat as they relaxed from their duties, fishing in the oceans of New California in Liaququ. They were fishing for the local stinger, imported from the Empire world of Facece and thoroughly delicious. Somehow anything caught by your own hand always seemed to have more taste than commercial crops.
Jolius' high gravity background showed in the dense muscles which could not be hidden by the slight layer of fat accumulating around his midriff. There had been a great deal of fun poked at the growing expanse of flesh, but Jolius had mellowed over the years and the playful teasing was met with only playful cuffs in return. The brilliant white sun of Liaququ had baked the deck of the ship and the two men on it, but years of deep space work had turned their skins a deep brown and they had nothing to fear from its harsh rays. Navy men routinely kept up anti-cancer treatments along with a host of allergen-suppresants to be able to keep active on a wide variety of worlds.
It had been great to see the man again. Neither of them were getting any younger and both had positions of high responsibility. It was always a good idea to seize any opportunity to relax. They had caught three good fish that day; Jolius got two, but his own catch was the largest. The bright red and amber colours had shimmered in the sun. The succulent flesh had put a fitting seal on a glorious day when they had camped out the night with an impromptu barbecue on the beach.
Jolius' wife had driven out to greet them, with a few friends, and they had broken open a few bottles of Old Nova and sang ancient songs into the night. The holiday had been pretty good, though there was only that one day of fishing; the native life broke through the farm perimeter the next day, so all tourist activity had to be curtailed. The Admiral and the Fleet commander had had to return to normal duty almost immediately, but it was nice to know that the old friendship still lasted.
Admiral Flaggherty looked into the warm sky, feeling a faint breeze on his cheek. The light of the sun seemed sallow in comparison to the actinic glare of a hot F white like Liaququ, but it felt somehow as if the ancient sun of Earth was a memory buried deep in the conciousness of every human no matter what planet they were brought up on. In the same way, the deep green of the olive trees dotted around the rim of the amphitheatre seemed to exude a natural health which was somehow missing from Earth plants on many other worlds. There was no doubt that Earth was a comfortable planet. Haggherty always enjoyed returning to the home of humanity.
He hadn't been so happy the first time he returned to Earth. It was after his first space voyage immediately following his commission. The trip to the Empire had gone smoothly and the ambassador had been safely delivered with all due pomp and a suitable show of military strength. The shipboard gossip had been that the appearance of a brand new Federation cruiser had played a valuable part in some Federation-Empire land negotiations.
That had been little comfort to the young Derek Flaggherty who had almost faced a Court Martial as soon as his feet touched Federation soil. The Secret sevice had whisked him away from the Spirit of Amenitris and subjected him to an intense interrogation. He had been let off without charges after a couple of days. when it was clear that his contact wthe Empire spy had been minimal at best.
It had been sheer good luck whe had noticed the girl he had known as Sophie Redbridge in a naval base on Democracy in the Zeaex system. The area had been and probably still was one of many hotly disputed systems. The presence of an Empire spy deep in the heart of the Federation command structure caused a tremendous stir. He was lucky that she had been going in a different direction and had not seen him. He had been able to alert the secret service and identify her, then left the Feds to deal with the problem as they saw fit.
If he was honest, that was probably the first real break for his career, since it not only removed the earlier blemish from his record, but also brought him some favourable press. When he had risen further in the ranks and his security clearance had improved, he looked up the Redbridge dossier. He had not been allowed to move from the room where the high security screen was kept. A closed circuit monitor kept him under constant surveillance, carefully positioned so that he had to remain in view of the camerab's linking red glare, but the security screen remained invisible to the guards watching him.
The discovery of the Empire techniques for foiling DNA fingerprinting had been a revelation to Federation scientists and he did not know how the security had been tightened up since then. There had been no obvious changes to procedures, but he suspected that there must have been a lot of frantic activity in some unseen laboratories throughout the Federation to come up with additional security measures. Derek despised the secrecy and cloak and dagger aspects which he had to deal with occasionally. He was much happier with open actions and always felt unclean after his brushes with the security boys and girls.
Apparently, Sophie had not been arrested, but used as a way of channeling false information through to the Empire. Derek had been relieved to read that last piece of information. He respected her in some ways, even now. She had chosen a dangerous career and he could not regard her as a traitor. After all, she was not really a Federation citizen, whatever her computer record might show. He was very relieved that she had been found though and neutralised so effectively.
The warmth of the Mediteranean sun was putting him to sleep, he realised. He had almost nodded oftin his chair. That would never do! He looked over the colourful array of happy parents, and saw in one comer the arrival of a vid team, settling to the ground in their outside broadcast skimmer. Apparently his appearance was enough to warrant a thirty-second slot on a local news channel, or maybe they did this every year for the graduating class.
Seeing that there was still a large number of people to come into the amphitheatre, Derek allowed himself to sink back into reverie.
If the discovery of Sophie had cleared his record and restored him to good favour with the navy, his first real break must have been the capture of Darling Hanson. The pirate had been operating near Anyeth at the same time as he had been passing through with the Spirit of Amenitris. They would not have encountered the pirate and his flotilla, if it hadn't been for the tip off from Topaz.
As it was, they had quietly followed up a lead about some goldskin furs and easily followed a trail backwards to the pirates temporary base. Flaggherty had been on fighter duty when the pirates were encountered so he was amongst the officers who got to engage the pirates man to man and ship to ship. The fight had been sharp and fierce, but the individual pirate vessels were no match for the navy modified Falcons and Eagles. Flagghety's ship had brought down one of the pirates on its own and had assisted in the final confrontation with Hanson himself.
Flaggherty still had a much worn goldskin rug decorating the wall of his stateroom in the Poseidon. Odd how you pick up personal treasures from the strangest of places. He had taken the skin from the control room of Hansonown ship, when he accepted the man's surrender after he had retreated to his escape pod. The action against the pirates had earned Flaggherty his first field promotion, and re-confirmed his commitment to the navy.
The faint humming of a floating vid sphere interrupted his recollection. It hovered about six metres off the ground, spinning slowly in its own turbulence. He noticed that there were five of the recorders scanning the ceremony. floating unobtrusively over and around the gathering crowd. The operators were clustered at the banks of monitor screens, draped with wires and cords of optic links and microwave transmitters. The petal like segments of satellite transmitters unfolded at the back of the vid crew. Obviously this was not just a local transmission. By squinting Derek was able to make out the logo on one of the crew. She was a technician from Aymiay. Of course, they were covering the graduation of the system's richest heir, the Marlbron boy.
He thought back to his own early interviews. He had been petrified by the camera presence and faltered his way through the gruelling interviews in a stuttering and disorganised fashion. As his achievements mounted and his rank increased, he came to hate the vid reporters as sensationalist hunters, more avaricious than itorilleta. His first experience with a good interviewer had been with Walter M’banwe, just as the man was coming to prominence as a freelance journalist and reporter.
M’banwe had come along on a raid on a drug synthesis plant based on an asteroid in the Daurila system. The reporter had been able to put him at his ease and his skilful control of the vid cameras had been completely unobtrusive. The two men had swapped stories and anecdotes over a couple of days, as they approached the pirate base, then seemed to fade out of sight during the actual confrontation. Derek had reached the rank of flotilla commander by then and had been dreading having non-navy personnel under foot, but none of his fears had been realised.
When they had had to land on the asteroid to finish off the clearing out operation, M’banwe had been along, toting a rifle as well as his monitor devices. Later he had related some of his hunting exploits to Flaggherty, and a firm friendship had developed. No one was more delighted than Derek when M’banwe won the coveted Altair medal for the documentary on the raid. Derek still had a signed copy of the original vid somewhere amongst his belongings.
Capturing Darling Hanson and breaking up the vicious drug operation had been high points of Derek's career, but not all of his operations had been so glamorous or as successful. His ears still burned with shame when he remembered the total waste of effort spent at the request of the Guardians of the Free Spirit. He had received the emergency broadcast while he was just cruising around, showing the flag for the Federation.
The distress channel had wailed out its message, reporting terrible crimes and disaster. The entire flotilla had been recalled from the edges of the system and launched off in pursuit of the offender. The Guardians kept a continual stream of accusations and curses, demanding retribution for the troubles caused by a fleeing ship. Derek wondered what in space the pilot had imagined was happening when he noticed the five Federation navy ships fast on his trail.
The lolanthe had jumped early from the system, but the Captain must have been unaware of the tracking devices of the navy ships. They soon overhauled the freighter and Derek had been ready to engage his full fighting force when the ship surrendered without a squeak. When he had a chance to look over the desperado's vessel, he was not surprised at the rapid capitulation. He was amazed that the tub had been able to take off at all, let alone make a hyperspace jump.
In fact, he had his engineers patch up Captain Jupiter's ship before they retumed to the religious colony. When Flaggherty heard the charges read against Jupiter, he stormed out of the courtroom. It was not often he lost his temper, but something about the self righteous air of piety exuded by the church officials set his teeth on edge. He had ended up threatening to destroy the colony dome himself unless they let the Iolanthe free!
He had wasted days of effort and countless Federation credits employing five ships to chase down a two-bit trader who simply wanted a coffee machine repaired! In the end he had even managed to find a spare coffee machine on one of his ships, which he donated to the much relieved Captain Jupiter. As he had reflected at the time, any man who can stomach navy coffee couldn't be all bad.
The big break in his career had been the destruction of the pirate slave trading operation on Fortress Cousens, orbiting New California in Epsilon Eridani. The prince Phildop IV had been bribing Corporation officials to let him establish a slave trading empire based at the orbital station. The operation was not illegal in itself, since the station did not fall under Federation law, but when the operation began to spread to nearby Federation worlds, the navy had been able to act.
Derek Flaggherty had strong feelings about the subject of slavery and had pursued Phildop back into the Empire. The pirate had tried to make several stands, calling on help from other groups who had formed into a cartel at one point and threatened to form a pirate navy. Derek had been responsible for breaking up the fleet before it could become a real threat. His final confrontation with the pirate chiefs in their captured cruiser had caught the public imagination. It had even spawned a mini-series on the Federation vid circuit.
It was that operation, combined with a consistent record of achievement, which brought him promotion to Admiral at such a young age. He hoped that he had fitted the role adequately. It was a long time since he first received his stripes and now he was at the very top of the service. He only wished that he could spend more time out in the depths of space instead of having to attend these wretched ceremonies. Damn these collars, why did they always itch so? He had decided long ago that he must have an allergy against diplomatic meetings. If only he could have a cup of coffee to steady his nerves.
Lester Malbron gazed in open admiration at the man on the podium at the front of the stage. What a privilege to meet the man responsible for deposing the blue prince. He could still remember how his uncle Kharon had danced round the main room in glee when the pirate operation was smashed. His uncle did not talk much about his days as a slave, but the humiliation of the time had ingrained itself upon his uncle's character and it was one thing Lester was determined to fight against.
His heart swelled with pride at the realisation that he would be receiving his commission from the hero of Iohoay. As a young man he had read of the Admiral's exploits and escapades. He had early picked on Admiral Flaggherty as a role model for an ideal navy officer. He sat back in the stone seat, keeping his back straight and trying not to be distracted. The ceremony was about to begin. The last of the audience bad filed in to the amphitheatre and the cameras had all taken unobtrusive locations to cover the front tiers and stage. He felt a warm glow of satisfaction flow through him. Two hours from now and he would be firmly in the grip of the navy. The prospect filled him with pride.
He peered more closely at the men sitting on the stage. The two rear-admirals and the Lunar ambassador looked fresh and alert, eager to begin the formalities with short speeches, but something was happening there. One of the minor diplomats invited to attend the function and sitting next to Admiral Flaggherty was poking the Admiral in the ribs. Surely the man couldn't have fallen asleep? The sudden blare of trumpets from the band signalled the start of the ceremony. With a guilty start Admiral Flaggherty jerked to attention and rose with the rest of the officials as the first of the new graduates walked forward to receive his honours.