Out there in the green star system; far beyond the confining grip of the Federation, moved the feared Bitter Star, for a thousand frigid years the dark and sinister manipulator of war-weary planets.
Martie said monotonously, "There is someone at the door sir shall I answer? There is someone at the door sir shall I—"
Durham grunted. What he wanted to say was go away and let me alone. But he would only grunt, and Artie kept repeating the stupid question. Artie was a cheap off-brand make, and bought used and he lacked some cogs. Any first class servall would have seen that the master had passed out in his chair and was in no condition to receive guests. But Artie did not, and presently Durham got one eye open and then he began to hear the persistent knocking, the annunciator being naturally out of order. And he said quite clearly.
"If it's a creditor, I'm not in."
"—shall I answer?"
Durham made a series of noises. Artie took them for an affirmative and trundled off. Durham put his face in his hands and struggled with the pangs of returning consciousness, He could hear a mutter of voices in the hall. He thought suddenly that he recognized them, and he sprang, or rather stumbled up in alarm, hastily combing his hair with his fingers and trying to pull the wrinkles out of his tunic. Through a thick haze he saw the bottle on the table and he picked it up and hid it under a chair, ashamed not of its emptiness but of its label. A gentleman should not be drunk on stuff like that.
Paulsen and Burke came in.
Durham stood stiffly beside the table, hanging on. He looked at the two men. "Well," he said. "It's been quite a long time." He turned to Artie. "The gentlemen are leaving."
Burke stepped quickly behind the servall and pushed the main toggle to OFF, Artie stopped, with a sound ridiculously like a tired sigh. Paulsen went past him and locked the door. Then both of them turned in to face Durham.
Durham scowled. "What the devil do you think you're doing?"
Burke and Paulsen glanced at each other as though resolve had carried them this far but had now run out, leaving them irresolute in the face of some distasteful task. Both men wore black dominos, with the cowls thrown back.
"Were you afraid you'd be recognized coming here?" Durham said. A small pulse of fright began to beat in him, and this was idiotic. It made him angry. "What do you want?"
Paulsen said in a reluctant voice, not looking at him, "I don't want anything Durham, believe me." Durham had once been engaged to Paulsen's sister, a thing both of them preferred not to remember but couldn't quite forget. He went on, "We were sent here."
Durham tried to think who might sent them. Certainly not any of the girls; certainly not any one of the people he owed money to. Two members of the Terran World Embassy corps, even young and still obscure members in the lower echelons, were above either of those missions.