Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Template’
Conn assumed a defensive posture, turned this way and that, tilting his head at various angles to examine the room from the corners of his eyes. Looked at straight on, the light-bending suit conferred invisibility, but peripheral vision would detect a shimmer of motion. He saw nothing.
His rotation had left him facing away from the door, so it was the swish of its opening that spun him around. A young woman, slight of figure and dark of hair, stood in the doorway, her startlingly green eyes wide as they moved from Conn to the corpse in the chair.
She dropped the bag she had been carrying, spilling vegetables and packages across the threshold, and fled. Conn pursued her and caught her at the door of another room that was opening to her touch. She fought him energetically but naively until he applied pressure to a point on her throat.
He carried her into the room, giving it a quick inspection before he placed her on a rudimentary couch made of sturdy cartons and foam insulation. The space was as tiny and almost as bare as Hallis Tharp’s, but brightened by a colored print of a landscape affixed to the wall. Conn glanced at it, drew an impression of trees, rolling hills, a gabled white house, a mottled blue sky. Offworld, he thought. There was a tattered poster on another wall advertising Chabriz’s Traveling Show, an itinerant exposition that had broken up on Thrais some time before.
The young woman gave a sharp intake of breath and regained consciousness. In one blink her eyes went from dazed to panicked. She made to rise from the couch but Conn was beside her, one hand pressing her down with a grip intended to remind her of how their former struggle had ended.
He was adept at reading eyes. It was a necessary skill in his profession. He saw fear mingled with outrage, then saw both transpose into sorrow. “Why did you kill Hallis Tharp?” she said.
“I did not.”
“I saw what you did to him! Why would you do that?”
“I did not,” Conn repeated. “We were to meet today. When he did not come I grew concerned. I came and found him dead.”
Her eyes changed again. “You are Conn Labro,” she said.
“Yes.” He was surprised but did not show it. “Who are you?” he said.
“Jenore Mordene. Let me up.”
He saw that she was no longer afraid of him and that she intended neither to fight nor flee. He relinquished his grip. She rose and crossed the room to a small cupboard, opened it and withdrew a large, flat box of polished wood. Conn recognized it immediately.
She said, “He said if anything ever happened to him that you would come and I was to give you this.”
Conn took the familiar object but did not open it. He sat on the couch and rested the box on his knees. He was conscious of a powerful sense of loss, as if he had been thrashed in a contest. The emotion confused him, seemed out of place.
Her voice broke into his thoughts. “What is that thing?”
Conn looked up. “His paduay set. We played for two hours each week at Horder’s Gaming Emporium.”
She looked at him as if he had told her that the old man orchestrated moonbeams. “He played games? How could he afford the stakes? He lived on one meal a day and that no more than soup.”
The issue had never occurred to Conn, but he thought about it now. “We did not wager on outcomes. And he bought a lifetime contract for my services when I was still a child and not costly.”
“He did not play games with you?” he asked.
She gestured to the window. “In Skrey, people have more pressing business than trying to defeat each other in artificial settings. Real life is contest enough.”
“Paduay is not a contest,” he said. “The game is about cooperatively opening and closing spaces, theoretically without conclusion. It is unusual in that each player’s goal is to prevent the other from being unable to continue.”
“And he played this every week?”
“Our current match has been going on continually for almost two years. I can show you the dispositions.”
“Spare me,” she said.
Conn ignored her. He would open the set. But when he set his fingers to the catches that would unlatch the box he felt a strong urge not to see again the miniature pieces, the grids of straight and curving lines that could intersect each other in a variety of different spatial dimensions, depending on which of several modes the players invoked.
It was an unsettling burst of emotion. His analytical function recognized that it was tied somehow to Hallis Tharp, not just to the old man’s death, but to their long association: all the Firstday mornings they had sat on opposite sides of this apparatus of wood and metal, ever since Conn’s boyhood. It was not a memory he now wished to explore.
He handed the paduay set back to Jenore Mordene. “Here,” he said, “I will have no further use for this.”
“But he wanted you to have it.”
“It does not matter what he wanted. He no longer exists.”
She took the box and held it to her breast. “I don’t understand you people,” she said. He could see that she was resisting tears. For some reason, her emotion made him uncomfortable. He stood up and said, “Well,” then turned to the door.
“What are we going to do about him?” the woman asked, her moist eyes indicating the wall beyond which the old man’s corpse sat in the chair.
“What was your relationship to Hallis Tharp?”
“We were friends.”
The term had several meanings on Thrais. When applied to the connection between a solitary old man and a young woman, it was usually a euphemism for intimate transactions that the participants preferred not to discuss in bald language.
Conn nodded then saw the expression on her face change again to anger. He had somehow offended her.
“Not like that!” she said. She folded her arms across her chest and gripped her elbows. “What is the matter with you people? Do none of you know what friends are?” She flung her arms wide and said, “Does it always have to be about this?” She touched the first two fingers of one hand to its thumb and rubbed them quickly together.
Conn was not sure what the gesture signified. He was moved to inquire but at that moment his communicator called for his attention. It was Ovam Horder.
“Where are you? Hasbrick Gleffen inquires if you are ready to engage him.”
“Has he arrived?”
“Not yet. But he wishes to arrive at the contest venue before you do.”
“That is contrary to etiquette,” Conn said. “He has challenged me and should enter after I have agreed to receive him.”
“He is an offworlder. Perhaps this is how things are done where he hails from.”
“It might be intended as a subtle insult.”
He heard Horder sigh. “I will levy a surcharge and credit it to your account.”
It was a reasonable response. Conn said, “Very well. I am on my way.” He put away the communicator.
“Wait,” said Jenore Mordene. “What are we to do about…” Something impeded her speech and she gestured toward the hallway.
“Was he a member of a funeral society?”
She shook her head. She seemed to be resisting tears.
“Then the building will summon a recycler. They will take care of things.”
“They will want to be paid,” she said, and he detected an uncalled-for bitterness in her tone.
“Sell the paduay set, if you wish.”
He saw her hands tighten on the box. “No.”
“There will be enough value in his… attributes to cover the recycler’s cost.”
It was not a subject usually discussed in blunt terms.
“His materials,” Conn said. “What he is made of.”
She made a gesture that again he found hard to interpret but he had neither the time nor the inclination to seek a clarification. “I must go,” he said and made for the door.
“Wait,” she said.
He stopped and turned, puzzled. She indicated the paduay set in her hand. “How can you not want this?”
“I cannot imagine playing paduay again,” he said. “My time is too expensive and the demand for the game is scant.”
She appeared to be about to say something else, but instead she turned to the window and gazed out at the harshness of Skrey.
The aircar was no longer at the curb. It had elevated itself to a height several stories above the street, out of range of a half dozen bubblers congregated around the building’s entrance. The young men looked Conn over as he stepped through the portal, their faces and body language equally obscured by their semitransparent armor of synthetic material which covered their entire forms like suits of overlapping bronze bubbles.
Conn looked back at them impassively. He had fought in the armor and against it many times. Well-bred gamesters enjoyed taking on street toughs, at least in virtual encounters. He knew the bubbler’s strengths and weaknesses and had no doubts that he could deal with a group of young amateurs. They rarely fought amongst themselves, or even against other gangs, reserving their violence for those in the neighborhood who did not pay for their “protection.”
For their part, the bubblers noted the insignia and rank beads on the collar of Conn’s tunic and formed the collective opinion that something much more interesting was probably happening down the street and around the corner. They moved off, though at a deliberately leisurely pace. Conn summoned the aircar and boarded it.
As the vehicle took him back to the center of the city his communicator chirped. It was Horder again. “The offworlder is finicky,” Conn’s employer said. “He wishes to know how exactly long before you arrive at the arena. Meanwhile he insists that I be here in the third garden to dance attendance upon him.”
Conn had to juggle the communication device in order to retain his grasp on the car’s stanchion while the vehicle wove through traffic in three dimensions. “He is rude,” he said, “even for an offworlder. I have heard no good reports of Old Earth and this man’s conduct confirms my view.”
“You are right,” said Horder. “I will double the surcharge.”
“No,” said Conn. “Say to him that I am in transit now. I will be in the third garden shortly. We will omit the formalities and I will teach this one a lesson.”
“I would prefer you to be of tranquil mind. He may be good. If you are injured, several upcoming engagements would have to be canceled or postponed.”
“I am calm,” Conn said, reflexively applying the Lho-tso technique. “This man will not leave Thrais as ‘one of the few.'” He referred to the scant handful of combatants who had bested or tied Conn in full-flesh combat. It had been a long time since there had been a new addition to the select group. “I am, however, more motivated than usual today.”
“I see. Did you find the old man?”
“I found him dead.”
“Ah,” said Horder, “that will free you up for two hours a week.”
“I will contact Gleffen immediately and tell him I am in the third garden and that you are expected soon.” He broke the connection.
The aircar swooped and sashayed through traffic that grew denser as they neared the city center. Conn could see the Emporium. The day was warm and moderately humid, as were most days in Bay City — the metropolis sprawled around the littoral of a sheltered bight of the Serpentine Sea close to Thrais’s equator. Horder would have ordered the roof dome retracted as soon as the two suns cleared the surrounding towers.
The third garden was an elongated oval floored with short grass and shaded by mature heaven trees. It would be cool and fragrant at this time of the day, perfect for the lightning quick exchanges that characterized a duel by epiniards. Conn decided he would absorb the first few passages passively, to take the measure of this Hasbrick Gleffen. Then, if he found that the man’s fighting skills did not excuse his personality, he would teach the offworlder a grim lesson.
He recognized that he was allowing himself to become irritated and reflexively performed the mental exercise that expunged the emotion. When his clarity of mind was restored, he sorted through is thought processes and was mildly surprised to discover that the irritant had come from more than just the Old Earther’s arrogance; it also had something to do with what had happened to Hallis Tharp. There was irony in that, Conn knew: strong emotion had often been one of the old man’s topics of conversation while they traded moves in the gentle game of paduay. Conn could replay Tharp’s voice in his head: He who loses his temper loses the contest, was one of his frequent observations, usually followed by, You must never give in to anger. In Tharp’s view, for Conn to accede to any overwhelming passion was an error, but anger was the worst of all.
The aircar dropped lower, slid around the Hi-Flite Tower and angled down toward Horder’s Emporium. Its brakes deployed to slow its descent and Conn had to grasp the stanchion tighter as the vehicle juddered and bounced. He saw the canopy of trees above the third garden and, through a gap in the foliage, the foreshortened figure of Ovam Horder pacing in apparent agitation, his hand to his ear as he spoke into his communicator.
The car decelerated further, aiming for a landing stage near the roof’s center. As it positioned itself for a vertical descent to the hard surface, Conn caught a flash of intense light from the corner of his eye. In less time than he could have formed words to express it, his mind told him that a line of incandescent air had arrowed down from the sky to strike the third garden.
His head turned instinctively toward the movement but instantly the smeared window of the aircar was rendered opaque by a glaring explosion. Even as it faded, leaving spots of red and black in his vision, he saw the heaven trees in flame and bursting outwards. Then the shockwave of the blast struck the aircar and flung it out and away from the Emporium.
Conn was thrown against the unpadded walls, battered and tossed like a pea in a rattle as the vehicle tumbled through the air for long seconds before its stabilizers could restore equilibrium. When it finally settled, he was sprawled on the hard floor. He checked himself, found no broken bones, but the shoulder of the arm that had been curled around the stanchion had been wrenched almost out of its socket and a cut on his scalp was pouring blood down his face.
Then he looked toward the Emporium. The third garden was surrounded by charred and blasted trees, stripped of their leaves and blossoms, many of them tilted outwards and leaning against each other. And where the grass had been, where Ovam Horder had been, was a roil of flame and black smoke.
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