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HE SAT ALONE at his table, alone and lonely, and his thoughts and memories drifted, drifted, long ago and far away. His lips twisted in a wry grin as he lifted his goblet of wine. The touch of the vessel was cold to the skin of his fingers—and yet, he noted almost unconsciously, there were no beads of condensation upon the smooth surface of the glass. It offended his sense of the fitness of things. This minor irritation sewed to drag his mind away from the irrevocable past, back to the things in the here and now.

He looked around him, trying to find something of glamor in his surroundings, something of interest, something to shake him out of the black mood into which he had fallen. But this was, he thought, the drabbest world to which he had ever come in all his long career as an interstellar navigator. The drabbest world, and the drabbest people. Outside—the mud, and the low, unlovely buildings, and the eternal mists that forever drenched this small, unimportant planet and forever hid from view its dim, ruddy sun. And inside—a reaction from the all-pervading humidity.

The Martian Room they called it. this place in which he was spending this evening of his shore leave. The Martian Room—and in all probability he, alone of all those present, was the only one who had ever visited that planet. But the name Mars was a part of the language of Man no matter where he might be, no matter upon which of the Man-colonized worlds in even the remotest sectors of the Galaxy he might be living. For Mars had been the first world other than his own to hear the thunder of his rockets, had been the first world outside of Earth on which he had lived, and died—and been born. Tenacious is the memory of the race, and long the memory of those early struggles before ever the interstellar drive had been conceived. And so it is that in the language of Man, anywhere, the word Mars has become synonymous with dryness.

Save for the fact that he would have required neither furs nor respirator, a Martian colonist could have found no fault with this Martian Room. The air was dry, dry, with an aridity that tickled the skin and rasped the throat. The walls were cunning three dimensional murals of desert, and flimsy, attenuated cacti, and low red sandstone cliffs. Overhead a white, shrunken Sun, together with a few of the brighter stars, blazed in an almost indigo sky.

And the music was dry, arid, a dead rustle of strings and a brittle rattling of drums. The dancer on the little stage had consummate skill, had grace of a sort. But she was—or so thought Pierre Leclerc—no more than a sere, withered leaf drifting aimlessly before the wind, before the Autumn wind, down-whirling into drab and dusty oblivion.

Leclerc shuddered, looked away from the stage. He thought almost longingly of his cosy cabin aboard Pegasus, of the warm wardroom, of the pleasant company of his shipmates who had been too lazy, or too wise, to brave the damp misery of the night for the sake of such dubious, overpriced pleasures as this unimportant city of an unimportant planet had to offer. Leclerc sipped his wine, shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly. He knew that the mood which was robbing his evening of enjoyment would have done so anywhere, in almost any company.

And there was no company here that would, or could, interest "him. His uniform—that of an offices of one of the rare interstellar ships—had attracted attention, would have served as sufficient introduction at any of the other tables. But he had already rejected overtures of friendship, had refused invitations to join parties. The men in the place were a pallid, bloodless lot, withered almost, deadly drab. They must, thought Leclerc, smiling faintly at the conceit, breathe through silica gel filters....

The women would have been—possible. But there was something blatant about them, some hint of a desperate hunger, that repelled him. He was very much of the cat this night-Kipling's cat that walked by its wild lone through the wild, wet woods. He sat by himself, small, dark and self-sufficient, cloaked with an arrogance, a prickly inviolability, that hid a nameless, indefinable need.

LECLERC looked away from the stage, looked towards the door. Something, not quite presentiment, not quite hope, had told him that, just possibly, somebody of importance might he coming in. He distrusted the extrasensory warning, sneered at himself for heeding it, yet looked. And the attendant at the door, uniformed in a flimsy imitation of Martian furs and breathing mask, flung it open.

The woman entered first, and, a pace or so behind her, the two men. She was tall, this woman, and silver-blonde, and she carried herself like a queen. The face was too strong for conventional prettiness, and the mouth too wide, the cheekbones too prominent. The skin of her shoulders was in dazzling, creamy contrast to the black gown that did little to hide the well rounded, graceful strength of her figure.

The two men, also, were in black, but their clothing, although absolutely plain, had all the severity of a uniform. And they were armed; from belted holsters protruded the butts of some kind of hand weapon. They walked warily, but with something of the arrogance of the professional bully. Their pale eyes shifted continually in their pale, hard faces and their hands never strayed far from the pistol grips of their weapons.

An obsequious waiter fluttered before the woman, led her to a vacant table not far from Leclere's. She said. "Yes, this will do," and sank into the chair that had been pulled out for her. Her voice was cold, and clear, and gave the impression of perfect control. The two men—bodyguards?—took stations behind her chair. One of them glared at Leclerc, who realized that he must have been taking an unmannerly interest.

But he wasn't the only one. The music was still playing, the dancer was still jerkily posturing on the little stage, but all the little hack-ground noises of the place, the tinkle of glasses, the low murmur of conversation, the occas...

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