“Your time has been reallocated,” said the integrator. “A customer has engaged you for a full-flesh contest of epiniards.”

“Who is it?”

“He gave his name as Hasbrick Gleffen.”

“He is not local.” Conn knew all the Thraisians who might seek a full-flesh encounter.

“No, an offworlder. He has pre-paid from a bank draft from Old Earth.”

The integrator’s remark recalled a disremembered fact to the front of Conn’s mind. “Hallis Tharp paid in advance, years ago,” he said. “Is his permanent contract for my services still in force?”

The integrator made no reply.

“Is not our paduay session already paid for?” Conn insisted.

There was a pause then the integrator said, “Yes.”

“Then I am on the old man’s time. Summon the aircar.”

“I cannot. You must speak with Ovam Horder.”

“Connect me.”

A moment later his employer’s overfleshed face appeared in the air before him. Conn made no ceremony but stated his intentions in a cool way.

Subtle marks of vexation disturbed the smooth hummocks of flesh that were Horder’s features. “It would be better if you stayed to deal with the offworld contestant.”

Conn was surprised to discover that his first reaction was to consider open defiance. He had leverage, if he chose to use it, but had never yet found himself in circumstances that warranted an all-out clash. As one of the most capable house players on Thrais, ranked grand master in a variety of competitive arts, he was regularly approached by other sporting houses. Any other indentor could purchase his contract by paying Horder the total of his accrued debt plus a percentage. But the transaction required Conn’s concurrence.

The situation made for an interesting relationship between Conn and Horder. Within a certain range, the valuable player could extract concessions from his proprietor. The limits of Conn’s leeway had never been fully tested, and the present disagreement over the fate of an old man ought not to constitute grounds for serious head butting. Yet he was strongly motivated to find out about his missing paduay partner, though he could not account for the source or strength of the impulse.

In less time than it took him to blink he sorted through optional strategies in response to Horder’s statement of preference and chose to slip the confrontation rather than respond to it.

“I am concerned about Hallis Tharp,” he said. “If I can allay my disquiet I will be better able to acquit myself against this offworlder in a live contest.”

“Hmm,” said Horder.

“To what degree is the bout with this Gleffen?”

“Blood or breakage.”

“Do we know his form?”

“No,” said Horder. “He claims to have trained at a private school. There is a whiff of aristocratic amateur about him.”

“Then he may be good. I will need to be at my peak, without distractions,” said Conn.

“That is so.”

Having moved his opponent to weaker footing, Conn increased the pressure. “And besides, our paduay sessions are always lengthy, whereas a live contest is usually brief, once the formalities are over.”

“True.”

“So I could take an aircar to the old man’s house, ease my mind about him, and return in ample time for the contest.”

Horder moved his porcine features in a way that signaled the matter was of no concern. Conn recognized that his employer was conceding defeat without acknowledging that there had ever been a contest.

“Why do you care about that old man?” Horder said.

“I do not know. It puzzles me.”

The proprietor affected a look that said the issue was beneath his notice. “Return soon. I will entertain Gleffen with accounts of your victories.”

“That will either unsettle him or impel him to greater efforts,” Conn said.

“The latter, I hope,” said Horder. “He may feel an urge to increase his wager.”

The aircar collected Conn on the third floor landing stage of the gaming house, which reared up fifteen stories from the ground level arcade, through several tiers of private gaming rooms of various dimensions to the employees’ living quarters on the upper levels and Horder’s luxurious penthouse. The roof, artfully landscaped and covered by a retractable transparent dome, was for private contests such as the scheduled bout with Hasbrick Gleffen, where the contestants met, not through remote sensor telemetry, but in their own vulnerable flesh.

Though he had known Hallis Tharp for as long as he could remember, Conn did not know his address. The time that he had spent outside the sporting house since he was delivered to it as an infant would not amass to a single day. But when he gave his paduay partner’s name to the aircar it consulted its records and lifted off. Conn clung to a stanchion and shifted his feet on the impermeable floor as the vehicle banked and accelerated. If Ovam Horder had ever deigned to hire a public conveyance he would have summoned a spotlessly clean phaeton with plush seats and deep pile carpeting. But even a renowned house player rated no more than a utilitarian flying platform.

The aircar inserted itself into the east-west flow of aerial traffic and hummed toward a row of vast but anonymous residential blocks that indented the skyline in the Skrey district. The most charitable characterization of the area was that it was Bay City’s least fashionable suburb; it would be more accurate to say that it was simply not fashionable to any degree. Its inhabitants pursued lives of desperation, never farther away from indenture than one missed rent payment.

The vehicle let Conn off at a ground floor entrance of a massive edifice built of synthetic stone whose designer had conceived of it solely as a box in which to keep people. Every line was straight, every angle at ninety degrees and every surface unadorned. The building’s entry was heavily fortified by metal bars over transparent shatterproof doors whose surfaces had been occluded by daubed initials and symbols. Conn knew that parts of Skrey were afflicted by criminal organizations, the residents being able to afford only the most rudimentary police services.

“Remain until I return,” he told the aircar.

“If it is in my interest,” the vehicle replied.

“I will pay a ten per cent premium.”

“Agreed, but the contract is void if unsavory elements interfere.”

There was a who’s-there set into the wall beside the building’s entrance. Conn identified himself and told it he wished to see Hallis Tharp. Time stretched through several long moments while he waited, then the who’s-there said, “He does not answer.”

Conn said, “You did not say he was not at home, only that he did not answer.”

The device made no reply.

“Is he there or not? He may be ill.”

“I am empowered to violate residents’ privacy only in an emergency.”

“Then consider this an emergency. Examine Hallis Tharp’s residence and tell me what you see.”

There was a briefer delay, then the who’s-there said, “Hallis Tharp sits in a chair facing the window.”

“Compare him to the last image you have of him. How does he now seem?”

“Parts of him are missing,” said the device. “Also, he does not appear to breathe.”

A pang passed through Conn. He could not account for it. “Let me in.”

“I should summon the incumbent,” said the who’s-there, referring to the neighborhood’s resident agent for police services.

“Who will pay his fee?” said Conn. “Hallis Tharp is in no condition to meet the obligation.”

“His estate must pay.”

“Do you see any valuable possessions in his room?”

“No. His circumstances are sparse.”

“And death tends to diminish his worth as an indentee.”

“That is so.”

“So your proprietor, the building’s owner, will be liable for the incumbent’s charges,” said Conn. “Is he likely to welcome them?”

“No. He prefers not to incur obligations.”

“Then let me in. Perhaps this matter can be resolved without complications.”

The door buzzed and swung open.

“Which unit?” Conn said.

“West fourteen-eleven.”

“Is it locked?”

“Yes.”

“Then unlock it and show me the way.”

The tiny lobby had a sour and musty smell. There was an ascender but when Conn placed his hand in it he felt no uplift. He climbed the stairs to the fourteenth floor then followed the building’s baseboard lighting directions through a labyrinth of corridors and passages that brought him to a cul de sac and a bare metal door in a wall whose paint was peeling. He pressed the control stud and the door slid sideways into the wall. He stepped through the opening and it closed behind.

Hallis Tharp was bound to an unpretentious chair under the light from the room’s single window. There was blood in his disordered white hair and bruising on his face. His age-spotted hands lay upturned in his lap like two small dead animals. Some of the fingernails were missing.

Conn examined him. None of the injuries were life threatening nor did they seem to be extensive. But the old man’s mouth drooped on one side, as if he had suffered a massive stroke. Conn suspected that he had died suddenly in the midst of the torture. It must have been a disappointment to whoever had subjected him to such mistreatment.

“Integrator,” he said to the air, “who has visited Hallis Tharp today?” There was no response. He realized that the building’s system had to be manually activated and looked about for the control. He found it on a wall. It required the insertion of a coin before it would respond. When the connection was made he repeated the question.

“He has had no visitor today,” said the integrator.

“Nonsense.” Conn put his hand on the old man’s neck. The flesh was still slightly warm. “His assailants left here not long since.”

“I saw nothing.”

Conn examined the percept set in the room’s low ceiling. “Does this detect only visual light?”

“And high-temperature heat sources, in which case the fire suppression system activates.”

Elision suits, Conn thought. Their fabric bent light around itself, letting the wearer move about unseen. He had used their virtual equivalents in contests. He corrected himself: he had been automatically assuming it would require at least two attackers to catch and immobilize the old man without drawing attention; but an elision suit would allow a single capable man to do the work.

He might even still be in the room.