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so much more than just a healthy meal. To Vance the smell meant he was among his people. In a way, the mess hall was the boiler room of the army, the engine that drove EarthForce, and one of the reasons they were the best in the galaxy. Vance felt proud to be a part of it.

He picked up a tray and joined the end of the dinner line, noting that several faces looked up from their meals, nodding to him in congratulations. Good news travelled fast. You couldn't keep a secret in this kind of environment, and despite occasional rivalries, the success of one soldier was the success of the entire company.

Vance picked a meal of rubbery chicken, corn and boiled potatoes, then sat down at a vacant table. Within seconds Chavez and Weekes, fellow corporals who had been with him since the beginning of his basic training, slid into the plastic seats opposite him.

'So Vance moves into the big time,' said Chavez, his sarcasm barely masking his envy.

'Yeah, I'm surprised you're eating here,' added Week-es. 'Shouldn't you be getting some practice at eating your corn covertly?' Vance stuffed his mouth with a huge pile of potatoes, smiling as he chewed. Gracing them with an answer was not even a consideration. Besides, he knew they were both jealous as hell.

'Make the most of those portions, Jimmy boy. In the Razvedchiks you'll have to survive on half a canteen and a tube of toothpaste,' Weekes continued. Vance tried to increase the size of his smile, chewing all the while.

'And poor old Randell. What's he gonna do without you to look after him? Guy struggles to dress himself without his buddy Vance. How's he gonna cope?' mewled Chavez.

Vance swallowed hard and looked straight into Chavez's eyes. 'Why don't you ask him?' he said, glancing over the man's shoulder. Chavez
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