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 geaduates 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 for the day 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. @oinehow 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 devoid
 himself to the Federation, just like the Admiral there.  He glanced towards the assembled sq
 brass sitting facing the growing audience as more and more visitors and graduates filed in.
 wondered how often they had attended similar ceremonies, and whether they ever bee
 bored of the displays.  He could not envisage such a thing.  His blood sang and his E
 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
 the music as they had done for centuries.  The air of solemnity imposed by the
 surroundings contrasted with the whimsy of the bright clothes and muted chatter amongs@
 anxious and proud parents.  Lester looked over into the crowd and caught the eye of
 mother, still a strikingly handsome woman after all these years.  She shook her head and
 dark hair flew about her shoulders in wild abandon, no doubt helped by some expensive
 exotic electrostatic device purchased for just such an effect.

         It was odd to think of his mother as 'handsome'.  His own taste in girlfriends ran to
 entirely different lines, but he was sure that many would be attracted to her charms, quite apart
 form 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-
 friends and male companions, but never become 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
 in her direction and gave him a broad wink, smiled and turned back to her companion.
 seemed perfectly content to enjoy the carnival atmosphere which was present amongst
 part of the crowd.  Lester had no doubts that as soon as the graduation ceremony really
 underway, they would all become attentive immediately.  Meanwhile, why shouldn't they 1
 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 thee
 academy just as graduation was due.  He had to admire the cunning of the woman.  He could
 hardly rum 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 tings 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 voyade. 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 by 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-brimnied hat as they relaxed from their
  duties, fishing in the oceans of New California in Liaququ.  They were fishing for thee local
  stinger, imported form 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 'right', 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.  Fiziggherty always enjoyed returning
  to the home of humanity.

           He hadn't been so happy the very 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 hirn
   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 with thf
   Empire spy had been minimal at best.

           It had been sheer good luck when he had noticed the girl he had known as Sop@
   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 hea#,
   of the Federation command structure caused a tremendous stir.  He was lucky that she
   been going in a different direction and had not seen him.  He had been able to alert the se
   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 out
   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 camera's blinking 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 citizeth
   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 off in his chair.  That would never do!  He looked over the colourful array of
   happy parents, and saw in one corner 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 for the strangest of places.  He had
  taken the skin from the control room of Hanson's own 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 f-ield promotion, and re-confirmed his commitment to the navy.

          The faint hitting of' a floating vid sphere interrupted his recollection.  It hovered
  about six metres ot'f't))c 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. ]'lie ()l)er.,t(ors were clustered at the banks of monitor screens, draped with
  wires and cords of'optic link,, tiid microwave transmitters.  The petal like segments of satellite
  transmitters unf'oide(i iii (he blck of' the vid crew.  Obviously this was not just a local
  transmission.  By sqtiiiiiiiig 1)ci-ek was able to make out the logo on one of the crew.  She was a
  technician from Ayttiiiiy. ()1 course, they were covering the graduation of the system's richest
  heir, the Maribroii boy.

          He thought hit(.k 1() his own early interviews.  He had been petrified by the camera
  presence and filtered his ",icy through the gruelling interviews in a stuttering and disorganised
  fashion.  As his ttci)icvt.iiiciits mounted and his rank increased, he came to hate the vid
  reporters as sensalit)tbitli,.,1 hunters, more avaricious than itorilleta.  His first experience with a
  good interviewer lbit(l 1)ceii with Walter M'banwe, just as the man was coming to prominence
  as a freelance.joisrvi;ilist and reporter.

          M'bitiiwc ti;t(t come along on a raid on a drug synthesis plant based on an asteroid in
  the Daurila system I'lic reporter had been able to put him at his ease and his skilful control of
  the vid cameras Ib@i(f been completely unobtrusive.  The two men had swapped stories and
  anecdotes over it k.tbtii)lc of days, as they approached the pirate base, then M'banwe 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 returned 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 lolanthe 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 'blue 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 detern-iined to fight against.

          His heart swelled with pride at the realisation that he would be receiving his
  commission form the hero of lohoay.  As a young man he had read of the Admiral's exp oits
  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 had filed in to the amphitheatre
  and the vid 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
  firtnly 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 Adn-iiral 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.