Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.




If someone had hung a sign on TCA Outpost Four, it would have read "Please Pardon Our Dust."

It was Commander Vandevere's Control Deck shift--and mine--when we fell through the final hypertunnel into a dismal little system in which the space station was virtually the only solid object.

"On course to the station," Goodwin reported, long fingers dancing across his panel. "Decelerating at five G's; ETA thirty minutes."

"Very good," Vandevere said. He turned to me. "Lieutenant, please request docking clearance."

"Aye, sir," I said, and I began to do so. Vandevere crossed to the command console and keyed the intercom.

"Captain Haliday to Control, please."

It was an unassuming--not to say "drab"--system, right on the edge of Alliance space; beyond was unexplored territory, and beyond that, the dust clouds that surround the center of the galaxy. The area between was potential TCA real estate--unless, of course, someone else already held title.

The station was in a close orbit around a small, cooling black-dwarf sun, massive enough to sustain just two hypertunnel nodes. During its red giant stage the star had absorbed whatever inner planets it might have had, leaving those orbits completely empty. Which was convenient, certainly; but it also gave the outpost a middle-of-nowhere loneliness which I found oddly depressing. Hard to believe that it would someday be the cultural and economic center of a thriving, heavily-colonized sector. Such was the plan, anyway.

Captain Haliday arrived some minutes later, and Vandevere stepped up before him to sketch a crisp salute. "Approaching TCA Outpost Four sir."

"Thank you, Commander," the captain replied. He returned the salute with equal gravity, but there was a twinkle of amusement in his eye. He turned to me. "Lieutenant?"

"The outpost had cleared us to dock at Bay Two, Captain," I reported. "And I have Admiral Conroy on visual."

"Thank you, Ehm'ayla. Main viewer, please."

I touched buttons, and the large holographic viewscreen on Control Deck's forward bulkhead rippled and cleared, with the image of a broadly-smiling, rather florid face. Human, perhaps sixty years old (I've never been a good judge of human age), the man had white hair, and large, bright blue, piercing eyes. We could see nothing more than his head; it had that peculiar squareness which usually suggests a heavy-gravity upbringing.

"Ike Haliday," he uttered, his voice cheerful and ragged-edged. "You old horse thief. How long has it been?"

Haliday smiled. "Twelve years, give or take," he said. "How are you, Admiral?"

"Getting by," Conroy said. "Out here at the edge of reality." His eyes narrowed. "So--still Captain Haliday, eh?"

The captain shook his head. "They'll never make an admiral out of me," he said with finality

Conroy grinned. "Exactly what I used to say. How the devil did you manage to Finagle another command, anyway? After the Jellies cooked Ventana at the Procyon skirmish, I thought you were headed out to pasture for sure."

Haliday shrugged. "I tried," he said simply. "But our masters insisted on keeping me in harness. I'd had enough of combat, though."

Conroy nodded soberly. "Enough said. What have you got for me, Ike?"

"Supplies," the captain told him. "Including that hull plating you've been screaming for."

"Good!" Admiral Conroy said. "Damn good. That means we can finally get D-Section sheathed and pressurized. The sooner we get this thing spinning, the better I'll like it. You wouldn't believe how much power all these damn grav-plates use."

"As a matter of fact I would," Haliday said dryly. "We'll begin transfer as soon as we've docked."

The admiral nodded. "Our outpost isn't much to look at yet, but your crew is welcome to use the facilities we have."

"Thank you, Admiral," the captain said. "They'll be grateful for the diversion. It's been a long trip."

"Don't I know it," the admiral said. "Oh--I'll be expecting you and your senior officers for dinner tonight. Nineteen hundred."

"We'll be there," the captain promised. "Zelazny out."

He waited until the connection was broken; then he collapsed behind the command console, his head in his hands. "Dear God," he said in despair. "Not another admiral's dinner!"

"As you've often observed, Skipper," Vandevere said blandly, "duty calls."

The captain sighed. "It does indeed, Justin. Far too often."

"Outpost Four coming on screen," Goodwin interrupted, and we all looked up. What we saw was of course the view from our stern camera-boom: Zelazny was backing toward the station, shedding the speed she'd picked up during our trip. In the center of the screen, amidst a bright cluster of stars, shone a brighter point. "Magnify," the captain ordered, and Goodwin did so.

Someday, TCA Outpost Four would be a massive open ring, a kilometer in diameter and fifty meters in thickness, six spokes radiating from a spherical command center at the hub. That was the future. At present most of the ring was a skeleton, like the "wire-frame" rendering of an incomplete CAD project, the "wires" being girders and engineered structural members. Two of the six spokes were sheathed and in use--judging from the lights that shone through their viewing-ports. So too was perhaps one-third of the main ring. The rest was open to space.

"That's the result of ten full years' work," Vandevere commented. "Conditions have been incredibly difficult--especially the transportation of supplies."

"Hello," Goodwin said. "Looks like we've got company."

Again we all turned. The station's thermal-regulating rotation--much slower than the spin it would eventually have--had brought the completed section of the ring into view. Evenly-spaced along it were the docking ports, each a pair of magnetic clamps and an extendible pressure corridor. At the moment just three were active; one was occupied by a rather battered Navy destroyer, no doubt the outpost's lifeboat. And the other…

As it swept into sight, my first disdainful thought was, what's that pile of junk doing way out here? And my second was, leaking air, most likely.

The ship was evidently very old. It appeared to be about seventy meters long, fully half of that the spherical engine-hull and enormous exhaust bell. The main hull was unusually thick, some two-thirds as wide as it was long, making the ship appear fat and unwieldy. In comparison the much longer Zelazny--her main hull just thirty-five meters in diameter--looked positively trim. The impression of ungainly corpulence was accentuated by the four smaller cylinders attached along the full length of the main hull. The ship was extensively pitted and stained, the exhaust cone blackened; and in many places the hull seemed to have been crudely patched.

"What is she, I wonder?" the captain asked idly.

"If I didn't know better," Vandevere said, his eyes narrowing, "I'd swear she's an old Osprey-class Patrol cutter. About--oh, fifty years old. I had no idea any of them were still in service."

And this one looks ready for the salvage yard, I thought. Then I shook my head angrily. Prejudice, I chided myself. You're too used to a ship that's clean and new. Even Point Cabrillo looked old and decrepit compared to Zelazny! I looked in vain for the mesh disk of a Bussard collector on the cutter's bow…and when I failed to find it, I realized suddenly that those four smaller cylinders must be fuel tanks. The ship had no ramjet; it relied entirely on the fuel it carried. I'd studied ships like that in the Officer's Academy…in courses on ancient history.

"An Osprey-class," the captain said in astonishment. "That's hard to believe. What's it doing here?"

Vandevere moved toward his console. "I'll see if I can find out," he said, but I interrupted: I'd been making myself useful again.

"Don't bother, Commander. The outpost computer lists her as Survey Vessel Raven, commanded by Captain Mark Antilles. Currently engaged in exploring this sector. They're in for repairs and resupply."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Captain Haliday said. He rubbed his chin. "Antilles, eh? I'm not familiar with him. Are you, Justin?"

Vandevere frowned, his mustache bristling thoughtfully. "Vaguely, sir," he said. "He was promoted to command about two years ago. I seem to remember that he was considered quite the Wunderkind at the Academy. They've given him an important mission..."

"…If not the means to accomplish it." Haliday finished. He shook his head sadly. "Survey vessels are in short supply right now. Too many new sectors need charting." He nodded at the screen. "But the Admirals must truly be desperate, to send a crew out on that." He sighed. "I suppose a courtesy call will be in order."

"I'd say so," Vandevere agreed.

"Eventually," the captain finished firmly. "Take us in, Max."

"Aye, sir," Goodwin said cheerfully. He loved that sort of thing. Posted to the Survey instead of the Navy, hazardous close-order maneuvers were as close as he got to combat. And in fact it was a pleasure to watch him maneuver us in. Turning Zelazny on her horizontal axis, he throttled the fusion drive down to a whisper. Slowly then, delicately, he bent our path into a parabola to match the station's stately spin. When the delta-V was zero he brought the ship up against the docking clamps with gentle puffs from the port-side thrusters, as easily as a feather floats to earth. The deep, almost subsonic boom that echoed through Zelazny's hull was nothing more or less than the clamps taking hold.

As I watched, one eye on the viewscreen and the other on my Compcomm panel, I fought to suppress an ugly pang of jealousy. Like all Control Deck officers, I was qualified to man the helm, and once in a while I even got the chance to try. I was also a certified small-craft pilot, and a darn good one too, if I do say so myself. But I would never attempt such a maneuver: I would have knocked the station out of its orbit. On the other hand, Max Goodwin would probably have been no good at all at field-stripping a commpak.

"Reading all stop," Goodwin reported. "Fusion drive on warm idle, Bussard collector powered down. Welcome to TCA Outpost Four."

Welcome to the end of the universe, I corrected silently.

"Nicely piloted as usual, Mr. Goodwin," Captain Haliday said. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived. Until our departure the Control Deck will maintain dockside watches. Justin, will you please draw up a rotation plan for shore-leave parties? Best make them small, so we won't overtax the admiral's limited facilities. Commander Goodwin, you will join us for the admiral's dinner this evening?"

"Aye, sir," Goodwin said, with a hint of dejection.

The captain smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Cheer up, Max. Consider it part of a potential captain's training. Lieutenant Ehm'ayla, will you please inform Commander Hullumm that he may begin transferring our cargo at his convenience?"

"Aye, sir."

"And please also communicate the admiral's invitation to him, and to Commander Singh and Doctor Zeeleeayykk as well, along with my strong hope that they'll be able to attend."

…Or face his wrath; I knew our captain very well. "Aye, sir."

He turned away, then glanced back over his shoulder. "Oh, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir?"

"You'll be attending as well."

That took a few seconds to sink in; when it did I wheeled around, gaping in astonishment. "Me, sir?"

He smiled broadly. "You, Ehm'ayla. You are our most senior lieutenant, and we do have to start making you more visible. Call it the first step toward that promotion."

"Uh--yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Out of the corner of my eye I caught the sardonic smile on Max's narrow face. He shook his head, a gesture which I could easily translate: You'll be sorry!

Why was it I believed that?


I don't know why, but it's a fact of life in the Combined Forces, if not indeed nature as a whole: when attending a formal dinner, men are expected to wear their best uniforms--but women are expected not to.

I stood before the mirror in my quarters, and I slowly turned a full circle, craning my neck as I to checked for wrinkles. I smiled wryly. If Captain Haliday wanted "more visible," well, that's exactly what he was going to get.

It was a recent acquisition, from my last trip home: a Sah'aaran evening-robe, ankle-length, loose, flowing, open-necked, made of shimmering metallic fabric with bold triangles of gold, silver and bronze. The belt and matching collar were of linked gold discs, embossed like a fish's scales. Was it a little much, for a half-built outpost in the middle of nowhere? Probably. Call it practice, for similar occasions closer to the center of things.

Actually, the matter of my promotion had not been uppermost in my mind the last two weeks of our transit. I could do nothing about it, not this far from Terra or Centaurus, and so I had somehow managed to shelve the matter and concentrate on my duties. I made my foray into the depths of a circuitry conduit, spending an hour flat on my stomach installing and testing the navigation coprocessors. Not quite so terrible a job as I'd expected: Zelazny's conduits had more than adequate ventilation, and if anything, were kept a little too cool. Apart from a long crawl on my hands and knees, the only discomfort I'd suffered was having to wear one of those damn clean-suits again. The job was entirely successful, and Max reported a gratifying improvement in his nav computer's responsiveness. Another glowing report for my service record--for all the good it did.

Other than that, those two weeks were entirely routine: duty shifts that passed uneventfully, with neither computer problems nor comm traffic to occupy me; standard maintenance duties; a few good games of tennis with Max; two musical performances and a Shakespeare revival; a few books I'd been meaning to catch up on; adding a few dabs to a watercolor I'd been trying to finish; conversations and meals; and losing a few more games of chess to Dr. Zeeleeayykk. Whoever said that military life involves long periods of boredom interspersed with brief minutes of sheer terror must have had long multi-node transits in mind.

I'd never been to an admiral's dinner; only command-level officers are commonly invited to such affairs. Captain Haliday was taking a big chance--or presuming on his friendship with Conroy--by including me, and I wondered uncomfortably if I was going to be snubbed all evening. My colleagues would look out for me, most especially Singh; she'd drag me into the conversation by my tail if necessary. But still…

I was startled out of my reverie by a strident buzz from the intercom. "Lieutenant Ehm'ayla to the starboard airlock please." It was the captain, he sounded peeved, and I was late. I gave the mirror one more quick, anxious glance; then I left my quarters. An ensign stopped in his tracks to stare, and I felt his eyes on me until the up-shaft whisked me away. Never seen a Sah'aaran evening robe, I guess.


Admiral Conroy met us at the airlock; and like the station he commanded, he was at once exactly what I'd expected him to be--and exactly not.

Six of us crossed the pressure tube from Zelazny to Outpost Four that evening: Captain Haliday, Commander Vandevere, Max Goodwin, Aparna Singh, Dr. Zeeleeayykk…and myself. Commander Hullumm, predictably, had begged off, which was probably a good thing. I doubt the admiral's dining room would have been big enough.

The three males wore dress uniforms--a garment which clearly demonstrated the Combined Forces' dislike of ostentation. Almost identical to the standard duty model, though cut from a richer material, it added only a short, waist-length jacket, on which one's medals were displayed. As always, both Captain Haliday and Commander Vandevere wore Navy colors; the captain's jacket was so loaded with decorations as to entirely hide the fabric. Vandevere's held only very slightly less. The half-dozen medals that graced Max's dark-grey coat seemed to be shrinking in embarrassment.

Aparna Singh wore a silk sari, its colors muted but its pattern hypnotic; a pair of dangling gold earrings; and a strand of wooden beads which clicked faintly as she walked. Her hair was piled up high on her head. I had not asked her for fashion advice; but as she looked me over I was pleased to see her nod and smile her approval.

And as for the third female member of our party…well, Centaurii standards of fashion are very different from either Terran or Sah'aaran. And with good reason, I suppose.

As a human scientist once observed, the Centaurii represented what might have happened if the descendants of Archaeopteryx had continued to straddle the fence between reptile and bird. The ancestors of the Centaurii were never able to fly; their forelimbs evolved into arms rather than wings, and their bones were solid, making them far too heavy. In that, they were a perfect demonstration of an old theory: Terran birds evolved feathers first, for reasons of regulating body temperature, and achieved flight later.

They are an immensely long-lived species, up to three centuries; and at 75, Dr. Zeeleeayykk was virtually a kid, as yet unmated. A little over two meters tall, her head, shoulders, breast, and upper arms were covered with thick iridescent green feathers, as were her waist, hips and upper legs. Her long tail-feathers brushed the floor; and a tall bright-red crest extended from her brow over her head and down her spine. Elsewhere her skin was avocado, with large octagonal scales. Her eyes were tiny black beads, close-set, overlooking a long, black, conical beak.

Off-duty she commonly wore nothing at all, except for the translator disk implanted just above her collar-bone and a little pocket-pouch fastened around her thigh. But this was a formal occasion, and so she had donned a kind of kilt, yellow and shiny, and an elaborate black-and-gold scapular which matched the belt. On the way through the pressure tunnel I fell in next to her. Her legs were long, and her knobby ankles pointed backwards; her splayed toes curled into a ball each time she lifted a foot. Her gait was graceful, though, and made an interesting counterpoint to my own. "Have you ever been to an admiral's dinner?" I asked her.

She glanced down at me and hissed quietly; a second later her translator said flatly, "More than I care to remember." Which was not exactly what I'd wanted to hear…

We found our host pacing back and forth just outside the airlock, his hands clasped behind his back and a scowl on his face. Behind him, stock-still and faintly amused, stood a younger human male, dark-haired, supercilious and nondescript, the stars of a lieutenant commander on his grey uniform.

Admiral Conroy himself was shorter than he'd appeared on the viewscreen, and possibly a bit younger. As I'd suspected, he was a heavy-gravity man: his compact body was almost rectangular, his legs and torso compressed and massive. Captain Haliday towered over him by a good half-meter. Like our captain, Conroy wore Navy green; and--incredibly enough--his jacket was even more thickly encrusted with precious metal than Haliday's. As our group stepped from the lock his expression changed instantly to a broad smile, and he stepped forward, extending his hand. "Ike," he said, pumping Haliday's arm briskly. "Good to see you again."

"You too, Stephen," Haliday replied. "It's been a long time." He cleared his throat. "These are my senior officers."

I've never encountered a human who could beat Admiral Conroy for charm. He shook Vandevere's prosthetic hand, briskly and without hesitation; nodded respectfully to Dr. Zee; clapped Max Goodwin on the shoulder like a long-lost brother; and bowed deeply before Aparna Singh, while gallantly kissing her hand. "Enchanted, my dear," he murmured.

"…And finally," Haliday said, "our most senior lieutenant and assistant Compcomm, Ehm'ayla."

The admiral hesitated visibly, and I wondered what was going through his mind. Did he pause because I was Sah'aaran--or because I was a mere lieutenant? I'll never know. His natural élan eventually triumphed: he bowed again, and lifted my hand, claws, fur and all, to his lips. "Charmed to meet you, Lieutenant."

My Terran went missing for a few seconds. When it came back I murmured something like "It's a pleasure, sir."

"My Techspec crew chief, Commander Hullumm, sends his apologies," Captain Haliday said with amused resignation. "He wished to supervise the transfer of your supplies personally."

"Quite understandable," the admiral said affably. "And this is my aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Commander Merton."

The little cipher clicked his heels together and bowed crisply. His jacket, I noticed, was entirely bare of decorations. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said.

"And now, if you'll all follow me," the admiral said. "Our crew quarters, offices and such are on the third level of the main ring. This way, please."

We followed. The airlock opened onto what would one day be the Pedestrian Walk, a high, wide corridor that entirely encircled the station. The deck--which had a noticeable upward curve--was situated on the inner side of the ring's outer wall, so that our heads pointed toward the station's hub. Obviously, though, there was a great deal of work yet to be done: the Walk still ended abruptly in a blank hullmetal pressure wall. The side walls were divided into spaces of various sizes, dark now and secured with barred gates. Eventually they would become the shops and restaurants of independent entrepreneurs. The TCA was, after all, primarily an economic confederacy, and the bill for the outpost's construction had to be paid somehow. Right now, though, the ghost-town emptiness of those dark storefronts was rather dismal. The Walk was almost empty except for us, and our footsteps echoed hollowly.

The up-shaft was freight-sized, big enough for all of us, and it was only a short jump to the third level. Here the surroundings were considerably more familiar, at least to my CF-trained eye. The narrow, grey-painted corridors were lined with massive blast-doors, the ceilings low and softly glowing, and the floors covered with a mesh of temporary grav-plates. A few more crewmembers were in evidence, hurrying by on obviously urgent errands, greeting the admiral in passing. Most of them wore grey: the Engineering Corps, the CF branch that was building this place, was officially a part of the Survey. For some reason that thought comforted me.

Finally we halted before a double-sized door, blocked open; the sign beside it read "Officer's Dining Room." The admiral ushered us in with a grand gesture. "Welcome," he said.

Impressive, was my first thought as I entered. Especially for the middle of nowhere.

Not the room itself--though it was fairly large, about twenty meters square. But its contents, most certainly. The floor was deeply carpeted; the walls a restful beige, and hung with paintings and holos. Against the rear wall, under a wide bank of star-filled windows, stood a long dark-wood table with twenty place-settings. The plates were real china, the water goblets and wine glasses cut crystal. Scattered around the room were a number of smaller tables loaded with canapés, punch bowls, and so on: the typical paraphernalia of a party. Several crewmembers stood by, one behind the bar, the others, with towels over their arms, still as statues behind the dining table. Indeed, a much better spread than I'd expected.

"Make yourselves at home," the admiral said. "I'll return shortly. I must go greet our other guests." And with that he exited, taking his shadow with him.

Well, here you are, I told myself. Now what?

My fellow officers had already helped themselves to canapés, and now all of them, even Dr. Zee, were crowding around the bar. I shrugged. Make myself at home, I guess.

Eschewing the bar, I helped myself to a glass of fruit juice from the buffet. I was gazing speculatively at the canapés when a soft, familiar voice spoke behind me--and in my native tongue. "It is good to see you again, my child."

I turned quickly. The woman who stood smiling at me was Sah'aaran, of course; no one else can speak our language. She was a little taller than me, and quite a bit older, fifty-nine to be exact. Her mane was mostly grey, and she wore it much longer than mine, fastened behind her head. There was a little grey on her face, too, around her muzzle and her large, kindly eyes. Her whiskers were pure white. She wore an evening robe similar in cut to mine, but of a shimmering blue, the color of Terra's sky, or Sah'aar's. Her collar and belt were silver, linked affairs.

"Commodore!" I said in pleasure and surprise, and also in Sah'aaran. Then I remembered my manners. I set my glass aside and stepped forward, raising my hands, palms-out, to the level of my face. She did the same. We clasped hands, our fingers twining; then we expressed our claws until the tips just barely pricked each others' knuckles. A few seconds…then we lowered our hands and stepped back.

By then the others were staring at us in frank fascination; I guess they'd never before seen the traditional Sah'aaran greeting. Captain Haliday sauntered up, drink in hand. "It appears you two know each other," he said with a smile.

"Indeed we do, sir," I said. "Captain Haliday, this is Commodore Ehm'rael of the Engineering Corps. She sponsored me for the Officer's Academy. Commodore, this is my commanding officer, Captain Isaac Haliday."

Haliday bowed low. "A pleasure, Commodore," he said. "You'll be pleased to know that Lieutenant Ehm'ayla is one of my most trusted officers. I have nothing but praise for her."

"Indeed," Commodore Ehm'rael said, glancing at me and smiling. "This I knew; I have monitored her career very closely."

Embarrassed, I hurriedly changed the subject. "What brings you so far from your home and mate, Commodore?"

"This outpost's difficulties," she replied with a sigh. "Many years ago I designed and constructed Sah'aar's orbital transfer facility. Perhaps you are familiar with it, Captain?"

"I am, Commodore," Captain Haliday said. "I had the pleasure of touring it several years ago, when I was between commands. An impressive piece of engineering."

The commodore acknowledged his praise with a nod. "The Admiralty believed my experience would benefit this outpost. Because of the isolation the work has been quite difficult, and has fallen badly behind schedule."

Captain Haliday smiled. "Good luck," he said. He clapped me fondly on the shoulder. "I can see you two have some catching up to do," he observed. "Excuse me, ladies." He bowed gracefully and stepped away.

Immediately the commodore and I switched back to Sah'aaran. I'm not quite sure why, when we were both so fluent in Terran; perhaps because we so seldom got the opportunity. "I must admit I was surprised to see you, Commodore," I said. "I had no idea you were here."

"I arrived a little more than a month ago," she said. "I did know that you were on your way, and I have been looking forward to seeing you. You look well."

"As are you."

"As well as I might, at my age," she replied with a needle-toothed smile. "Captain Haliday was quite correct: I am most gratified by the progress of your career. You have brought much honor to your family, and to me also, as your sponsor. Of course I expected no less."

I bowed my head. "I am glad to have lived up to your expectations." I hesitated for an instant, and then forged ahead: "Commodore, may I ask you a question?"

"Always, child."

"You say you are pleased with my progress. Can you tell me then why my promotion was denied?"

She hesitated for a full ten seconds, looking troubled. She began to reply--but was interrupted by a commotion at the door: Admiral Conroy was returning with his other guests. She said quickly, "Your question deserves an answer--but obviously this is not the proper time or place. My office is on this level. Come see me tomorrow morning. I will secure your captain's permission if necessary. We will speak then, at length."

I bowed my head, repressing a sigh. "As you wish, Commodore."

She reached out and brushed my cheek gently with the back of her hand; and with that gesture I was suddenly six years old again, a small, fuzzy, naked child sitting at her knee, listening raptly to her stories of life in the Combined Forces. But then she switched to Terran, and the spell was broken. It was a signal: back to business. "Please excuse me, Lieutenant; I must see to your meal. The auto-kitchen machinery in this station is not overly-imaginative, but I always travel with a number of good programs from our homeworld."

"I'd be very grateful, Commodore," I said, and she bowed and departed. In fact I'd been worrying about just that for hours. I'd expected to be confronted with an unpleasant choice: either consume something unappetizing, or make a scene by requesting something different. She would save me from that.

But then, so suddenly as to be literally breathtaking, all thoughts of dinner and everything else were driven out of my head. I glanced across the room at the newcomers who had entered with the admiral; and as I saw them, or rather one of them, my heart skipped a beat. As if I'd seen a ghost? Not quite--unless a shadow from my own long-dead past counts.