Chapter 1: The Meeting
Over the centuries since the development of Stardrive, Mankind has spread throughout the stars. As the new colonies have been seeded and grown in star systems across the galaxies, some things have changed — and some things have not. One thing that has not changed is the need for diplomatic relations between territories.
The administrative assistant ushered Michael Miller into the ornate office of the President of the Solaris Federation and left, closing the door behind him. President Lucy Yamashita arose from her desk and greeted him effusively, as did the only other occupant in the room, her Minister of Foreign Relations, Thomas Kinkade, popularly known as TK. Mike was dressed casually, as until five minutes previously he'd been enjoying a well-earned leave, having just returned from a successful conclusion to a nasty situation. The President and her Minister were dressed much more formally.
"So, how is the family getting used to Luna City?" enquired the President, as TK poured him a good stiff drink. TK knew what this meeting was about, and that Mike would need this good stiff drink in oh, about 30 seconds. It's strictly for medicinal purposes, he assured himself.
"They're doing well. The new digs are nice. The kids are registered for school come the fall, and my wife's all excited about this new gym nearby." He took a sip of the whiskey, realizing it to be a single-malt scotch, probably from Scotland itself. Impressive. Dangerously impressive — the red flag was up. What was the President up to?
"You've had such an impressive career so far, becoming an ambassador at 38, negotiating trade agreements with Alpha Centauri, settling the immigration regulation dispute with Arcturus, and so on."
"Thank you, Mr. President. But you didn't invite me here to review my CV, did you." It was not a question. "You sound like you have an assignment for me."
"Direct and to the point as always. Somehow that does not seem fitting with your diplomatic skills." Lucy grinned. "Yes we do." She gestured for him to sit on one of the couches, the one with the best view of the lunar surface out the window.
"We received this message from the embassy on Spica II this morning," TK advised him, passing a computer tablet to him. "It's not been declassified yet, but we'll have to make an announcement by noon tomorrow."
Mike read the announcement with sadness: Ambassador to Spica II Glen Hardaway had passed away, apparently of heart failure. He was elderly and not in the best of health, Mike knew, and this was to be his last assignment before a well-earned retirement.
"I knew Glen, he was my mentor in my early years. The Diplomatic Corps is going to miss his talents immensely. It's quite a loss for the nation — to say nothing of his wife and family." Mike considered a few minutes longer. "Have they been told yet?"
"His wife knows — she and his youngest daughter were with him planetside," TK reassured him.
"Is that your only reaction?" Lucy asked. "A sad day for the nation, and for his family?"
"Well, yes..." Mike responded dubiously.
"Well," sniffed the President with amusement. "I was unaware that such personal disinterest was possible. Aren't you in the least bit curious as to who we'll send out as his replacement?"
Mike's mind had been filled with thoughts of the kindly, friendly mentor who was now lying in repose on a planet light-years from home, and on his close-knit family, who would now be devastated. The question came as a shock to him.
That was why they'd served the high-grade whiskey. That was why both of them were meeting him.
"Actually, I didn't figure it could be me — it's just been a few days since we returned from the last posting, and they usually give us five years before the next assignment."
"Well, this time it's five days." Lucy looked at her hands. "I want to send out a good replacement, one who isn't phased by anything." She looked up at him sharply. "I want to send you."
Mike took another swig of his whiskey as he considered his response. "I'll have to talk to my wife and kids. This is another abrupt change, and I don't know how they'll like it." Alarm bells were going off in his head. There was something hiding in his subconscious. Something about the society of Spica II. Something ... different...
But weren't all star systems culturally different from each other somehow?
"I wish you'd take it. While I need someone, that particular posting isn't considered very tough. It's practically a retirement posting — and you'll be able to get some much-needed rest after your last posting. Consider it a reward for negotiating the end of the War between the Galactic Federation and the Triumvirate."
"Do you think Maggie and the kids will join you?" TK inquired. "It is considered a 'family friendly' posting."
"If it comes with family-level quarters, I'm sure they will." They'd missed him on his last assignment. It had lasted only a year, but it was one of the most hazardous years of his life. "It'll be a wrench again, but being together will be an improvement over the many planets I've been assigned solo to."
"They don't have much time to decide. The ship leaves early tomorrow with you on it — providing you agree. It's already waiting for you at Lagrange One Spaceport."
"I'll talk to them right away. I'll let you know in two hours." (Now what the heck was I trying to remember about Spica II?)
"There is one thing you probably don't remember about Spica II, which you probably should know." TK took the bull by the horns. "It's the reason why we usually screen our ambassadors very carefully, but we're in a bind and we need one quickly."
"Oh?" The red flag was now at the very top of the flagpole, and had grown in size to that of a bed-sheet.
"It's a naturist planet."
Mike was unfamiliar with the word. "'Naturist'? As in naturalist?"
"As in ... ah ... nudist."
Mike blinked, mouth agape. THAT was what he was trying to remember...
"So," TK said, patting him on the shoulder in a friendly fashion, "talk it over with your family. Let me know if everything's a 'Go'".
Mike downed the remaining whiskey in one gulp and took a second to recover his breath. Well, he reasoned, that explained Glen's heart attack. Maggie was going to have a similar one when he talked to her this afternoon.
"How long is the posting?"
"Pour him another Scotch, TK. The poor man looks like he needs it." Lucy was trying desperately to keep a straight face.
"No," he declined, "I think I want to be sober when I talk to my wife. She's going to be convinced enough that I thought this up while in my cups."