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sat up straight, almost to attention. 'I've taken the liberty of ordering for you. I hope you don't mind.' Vance remained silent, trying to look anywhere but directly at his father. The journey from the Zocalo had done some good in clearing his head a little. Being in the presence of the Colonel was sobering enough on its own.

'Your promotion was well deserved, I hear. Congratulations. You must be proud of yourself.'

'Did we really come hear to discuss my promotion, Colonel? Or is there something specific? I hardly believe you summoned me halfway across the galaxy so you could congratulate me in person.'

The Colonel looked awkward, as though he were a schoolboy caught stealing. Vance had never seen his father look that way before. Something was definitely wrong. 'You're right. This was never intended as a social meeting. I have a very important request. Consider it: an assignment.'

'I'm not under your command, Colonel. You hold ranking seniority, but I answer to my superiors on Earth, not to you.'

'I'm well aware of that.' The Colonel's jaw was locked. Although Vance had him at an advantage, he felt no satisfaction. 'The mission I need you to carry out is of the utmost importance. However, it will be outside the remit of EarthForce.'

'Whatever it is, Colonel, I can't. In addition to the fact that I don't take my orders from you, I'm due to enlist in the Razvedchiks in two weeks. I can't plan and execute a mission in that time.'

'I understand,' said the Colonel. 'That's why I need you to turn down your promotion.'

Vance felt like he'd been slapped in the face. This must be some kind of joke. He laughed, a forced chuckle accentuated by his light-headedness. When the Colonel's face didn't crack, Vance knew he was in trouble. 'You can't be serious. After
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