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and frustration, were ultimately predictable. As Randell came in with his final swipe, Vance caught his wrist. With his other hand, he plucked the shockstick from Randell's grip and, using his left leg as a solid brace, kicked out with his right. Randell sailed backwards and, even before he hit the ground, Vance shut off the shockstick and the annoying sound it emitted. Randell hit the crash mat with a sickening thud, his padded armour accentuating the noise. He bounced almost a foot into the air, then finally came to rest. 'Kesa geri,' Vance thought. Now, karate he loved!

Randell lay still for several seconds. Vance knew he wasn't hurt physically, but the humiliation was probably worse than ever. He approached gingerly, holding out a hand of friendship to his sparring partner. Randell was staring at the ceiling of the gym, not blinking, his face expressionless. 'I'm glad we do this when the training hall's empty,' he said.

'Let's eat, big guy,' replied Vance as he heaved his hulking friend to his feet. 'We've just got time to hit the showers.'

'Good idea. Only you haven't even broken a sweat. Again.'

Vance didn't answer, not wanting to add any further damage to the pride of his already wounded buddy. They stepped off the raised combat area and headed for the shower room, Randell struggling to extricate himself from the bulky body armour. As Vance started to help him, the main entrance to the gym crashed open. A stern figure entered, wearing the severe green of EarthForce military. The swooping eagle on his arm, along with the crisp envelope in his hand, alerted Vance that the man was part of the courier corps. Despite his lack of military rank, the man's serious demeanour brought a certain tension to the relaxed atmos phere of the gym.

Vance and Randell stiffened
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