If cheating was not actively encouraged at the Phoenix Casino, it was certainly expected. The house, after all, did it with engaging openness. You were welcome to see if your sleight-of-hand was better than that of the dealers, though usually it wouldn't be. As for ingenious electronic devices, it was rumoured that the owner positively welcomed the chance to test his security on them. If caught cheating, you would of course be relieved of your money and thrown out, unless you'd been really clever, in which case you might be hired.
What you would not be was beaten up. There were some awesome doormen at the Phoenix, but they were strictly for breaking up fights, not joining in. There was no violence there, ever, which was one reason for its popularity. Even honest punters, well aware they were being rooked, tended to reason that all clubs did that, so they might as well be rooked in the friendliest, most relaxing place in town. Besides, the girls were lovely.
The fair-haired man sipping a drink at the bar was not immune to them - he liked beauty in all its forms - but he was more interested in the general ambience of the place. He listened to the way the girls adapted their spiel to different customers, making each one feel special; he noted how the nude contortionist on stage managed to wrap herself into increasingly impossible positions, to a crescendo of cymbals, and what the dealers were doing while heads turned toward her. He smiled; he was a people-watcher.
"Not playing, sir?" a voice at his elbow murmured. He glanced up; the waiter was young and strikingly pale-skinned; obviously didn't go out much in the daytime.
"I prefer games of skill," he said, flashing him a smile.
"You should play our Chess Master, sir." The waiter indicated a slightly raised platform off to one side, where a figure sat alone at a chessboard.
"Is it a robot? I don't find computerised opponents much of a challenge." It looked like one, sitting perfectly still, a little island of silence in the music and conversation.
"No, sir, quite human. Allow me..."
He followed the waiter over to the board.
"Chess Master, a new opponent for you. Mr... ?"
"Carnell," he said, and felt a small shock as he heard himself give his right name; this place was too relaxing.
"Mr Carnell. This is our Chess Master; he will play you for a hundred credits a game. One minute per move."
"That is tempting, I must admit." He sat down.
The figure looked up, and the smile froze on Carnell's face. He was looking into very dark, very empty eyes with no expression at all. The face was paler even than the waiter's and did not move a muscle. His first thought was that the man had been mindwiped, and his skin crawled; it was his own worst nightmare. But no, that couldn't be, not if he could still play...
"The Chess Master offers you the white pieces and the advantage of the first move. Also of the draw." The waiter coughed delicately and looked at the hundred-credit chip lying by the board; Carnell matched it with his own.
Carnell was a good player, better than most. But his opponent was good too. He played automatically, hardly taking any time to consider his moves, but not predictably, like a machine. There was a human intellect in there, but it didn't seem to have to think what it was doing. It was more as if he remembered this skill of old, could have done it in his sleep.
Carnell began to wonder if it was possible to almost-mindwipe someone and leave them with just one memory, a living automaton. But no, why would anyone bother, for a hundred credits a game? Besides, the owner was rumoured to be a decent sort, as such men go; he surely couldn't have done such a thing?
The Chess Master sprang a trap so elegant that Carnell gasped in admiration. "That's beautiful," he said sincerely. He smiled into the impassive face, but there was not a flicker of pleasure or triumph in the eyes. Carnell played on for a while, then bowed to the inevitable and laid down his king. He offered a hand, which the Chess Master stared at for a moment then took, hesitantly. Carnell tried another smile, and got no response.
Moving away from the board, he caught the waiter's eye and asked in an undertone, "Is he all right? He hasn't been... altered in any way, has he?"
The waiter hesitated. "No, sir, not if you mean altered by anyone else. As I understand it, he had some terrible trauma in his past that made him go back into himself, as you see. He doesn't talk, or react much to anyone except the proprietor. But he doesn't seem unhappy."
"Has he had medical help?" Carnell couldn't entirely understand his own concern, except that he had sensed a formidable intellect opposite him and hated to think of it trapped and mute.
"I really don't know, sir. I could ask the proprietor?"
"Please. I'd be grateful." Carnell held the young eyes and was relieved to see them return his smile; at least he wasn't losing his touch.
He lounged in an armchair, sipping his interrupted drink, while awaiting the young man's return. But it was the owner himself who showed up.
Carnell knew him by sight; he was often out mingling with the clientele and, probably, making sure the dealers were only cheating the customers, not the house. He dropped into the next chair.
"Hear you've been playing chess."
"And losing. He's good; does he always win?"
"Not always, but mostly."
"Enough to pay his way?"
The owner glanced up sharply. He was a quick, lithe man; Carnell had always found it hard to put an age to him. He hadn't let his success at the Phoenix put flesh on him, but the thinning hair and slightly careworn face told a different story.
"That isn't what it's about. He's here because he's got nowhere else to go." He let his bright brown eyes survey Carnell, who took the hint.
"As are so many of us, indeed. What happened to him? If it's something you can talk about?" He felt his way delicately; a lot of people on neutral planets were there, like himself, for reasons that made it inadvisable to discuss their past.
The owner sighed. "No, not really. He - something happened to him, he did something he can't live with. I think his mind didn't want to know about it, so it just shut down. I saw him playing the chess pieces one day by chance, and realised he still knew how to do that. It made me recall something; I'd seen it played in a casino once before, only with different rules. Anyway it keeps him occupied."
"Have you consulted anyone? Traumatic memories can be susceptible to therapy, you know."
His companion looked across for a long moment at the Chess Master, still and impassive at his board. When he turned back, there was a hungry, nostalgic look in his eyes. "Don't think I haven't thought about it. But some of those memories, even on a neutral planet, could be dangerous if he shared them with the wrong doctor. And even if we found a safe one, I'm not sure he'd be any happier to have them back." His eyes strayed across the room again, and his voice softened. "He was really something, once. Not safe to be around, mind, but a hell of a brain. And he could be a lot of fun."
Carnell followed his gaze and wondered what the dark, dead eyes had been like when they flashed with intelligence or wit. Beside him, the owner swallowed and shook his head. "I'd love to see him back as he was. But I have to think what's best for him, don't I?"
Carnell finished his drink, and the owner beckoned a girl over to refill it. "On the house. It was nice of you to be bothered about him. You can have your stake back too, if you want." He held out the hundred credits.
Carnell shook his head. "I enjoyed the game too much. But thanks for the drink." He fished for a card. "If ever you do decide to get help, contact me here. I could find someone safe, or... well, I used to be in something like that line of business."
He sipped his drink and watched the owner set off on his rounds again, weaving between the tables with a word to this customer and that. When he passed the man at the chessboard, he did not speak but rested a hand on his shoulder. The Chess Master looked up, but Carnell could not see, with the owner between them, if there was any expression in his eyes.