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by Stephen Goldin
Scavenger Hunt. Copyright 1976, 1999, 2009 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.
Cover image © Victor Habbick | Dreamstime.com
This time it’s
for whom all my Songs are sung
Chapter 1: Hunt Ball
Chapter 2: Grand Liftoff
Chapter 3: A Dream from Lethe
Chapter 4: A Rose from Eclipsiascus
Chapter 5: A Heartstone from Ootyoce
Chapter 6: An Egg from Gondra
Chapter 7: A Flotsam from the Vortex
Chapter 8: An Artifact from the Flame Pits
Chapter 9: Finish Line
About Stephen Goldin
Other Books by Stephen Goldin
Connect with Stephen Goldin
If only they were kind enough to hate us, we could use that hatred to forge a racial identity. But they refuse to give us even that much respect. We are tools, things to be used, not worthy of love or hate, pity or calumny. They define us by our functions, not our persons. And, because we have no alternatives, so do we….
It took a bloody strike to win the most basic of freedoms. It will take more, much more, to win a sense of identity…
An Android Manifesto
Such was the strength of her reputation that Tyla deVrie’s presence brought a quiet tension to Hunt Hall hours before she even entered the building. Women preened self–consciously, knowing that no matter how resplendent they looked, she would look better. Men fidgeted self–consciously—former lovers wondering what they’d done to lose her favor, and hopefuls wondering whether they were flashy enough to attract her attention.
When the android chargé d’affaires finally announced her arrival, no one was gauche enough to stop and stare. Scattered people here and there turned their heads discreetly toward the door, then returned nonchalantly to previous business. Only a few at a time, but before Mistress deVrie had reached the third of the three broad steps leading from the doorway down to the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom floor, everyone had taken full inventory of her latest outrageous array. While her face bore the approved expression of pleasant boredom, her outfit was far enough from boring to set off the next interstellar fad.
Thin phosphorescent streaks swirled electrically across her face like red and green electrons around a nucleus. Her hair was swept upward and plaited, with thick braids of green and red skillfully interwoven, giving it a candy cane appearance and adding twenty centimeters to her height. Starting from her shoulders, two wide strips of plastiglo, one red and one green, arched down the front of her body, covering her breasts and making an X right at the crotch, then twining around the smooth contours of her legs and finally wrapping themselves around her feet as sandals. From there the bands wound back up her legs, crossed once again at the buttocks, and continued up to her shoulders to complete the cycle. Around her left ankle was a narrow silken band, from which nonchalantly dangled her single piece of jewelry—a cherry–sized piece of heartstone cut from the heart of a silicon creature on the planet Ootyoce. On anyone else the outfit would have been outré; on her, it was heartstopping.
Tyla deVrie had strolled the gamut of media reporters outside the hall, all of them armed with questions about the fantastic deVrie heritage in the Scavenger Hunt. Now she stood at the balustrade, looking out across the vast domed hall. While there were close to a thousand people on the floor, it appeared less than half full. Crowding, after all, would be déclassé.
An orchestra played at the north end of the hall. This was no mere collection of synthesists and mixers, but eighty flesh–and–blood people playing actual phonic instruments, masters of their craft gathered from planets throughout the galaxy. The music they played was soft, suitable for Society’s statelier dances. Some people were, in fact, dancing, though most were content to sit at the tables around the edges of the floor or stand and talk. The orchestra had little amplification—just enough to drown out neighboring conversations, but not enough to interfere with your own.
Tyla stood like a monarch surveying her domain; then, deigning to move, she walked in long, catlike strides to the transparent gravtube. She could have been posing for a statue as the gravitic field floated her gently to the floor of the hall; her gaze remained level and her expression never altered. There was only the slightest of bumps to inform her she’d reached floor level. She stepped out of the tube and began to mingle.
She only seemed to move at random through the crowd, accepting a drink from one android servant’s tray, tasting an hors d’oeuvre from another. The Brownian movements of society might cause her destination to change a dozen times in a minute, but she always knew precisely where she was going. Like a skilled politician flipping through his Farley file, her mind was a computer index with precise information about the people she encountered.
Kontorr, Occla:Late 80s, though she pretends to 70. Three ex-husbands (including Tonas!), currently divorced. Family is Old Society, but have fallen behind the trends. Cosponsor of the Jumpdown. Casual acquaintance—treat with cordial nod, word of greeting.
alMassan, Ranso:120 or so. Loves to complain about malfunctions in his articial arm. Married to Robidia for 30 years—out of the running. Old family friend—treat with warm smile, exchange of pleasantries.
Tens, Arrira:30(???). Married up into Society (Vond, no less!), then stayed after divorce. Delusions of self-worth. On the prowl for social advancement. Made play for Billin before I was through with him. Not speaking to her this year—treat with frown of cool disdain.
Corbright, Wilfern:62, harsh, braying laughter for no good reason. Thoroughly Nouveau. C–list (definitely). Never formally introduced—treat with polite diffidence.
Danovich, Necor:68. Former lover, about two years back. Kind eyes, mediocre performance—treat with friendly smile, stop for small–talk chat.
There were a great many entries like that last. Tyla deVrie was notorious for the swath she’d cut through the ranks of Society’s eligible men, dropping them just as suddenly as she’d acquired them without ever giving a reason. Her bedhopping was a source of constant gossip among ladies of lesser reputation and glamour, a source of eternal frustration for the lovers she’d abandoned—and a continual source of hope for the men she had yet to become involved with, each of whom fancied he was the one who’d finally tame her. At the age of only thirty–three, she was one of the people in the galaxy.
When she met one of her old lovers, she always asked whether he was entered in the Hunt. It was pro forma; the answer was invariably, “Of course.” Apart from routine flirtations, though, she paid scant attention to the eligible men who hadn’t yet been her lovers. This was not a night for starting new affairs. Tyla had her own agenda.
The effete droning of the crowd whose only credo seemed to be loquo, ergo sum, the genteel politeness and hypocritical smiles—this was the world she had conquered with calculated precision. She wrapped the conversational buzz around her like a warm, familiar coat. Her world, her Society. But she felt a faint touch of Alexander fever tonight—there had to be another world, somewhere, to conquer.
Better savor this, girl, she warned herself sternly. This may be your last party for quite some time.
While she was chatting with Doz Linn, a former lover, they inadvertently crossed the social orbit of the Barb. Barbanté Leonyn, a tall, gorgeous brunette, was Tyla’s former sister–in–law. Her gown, revealing ample cleavage front and back, parodied a spacer uniform, including gloves and boots. The right side was bright red with sapphire bells dangling from it; the left side was blue with ruby bells.
The Barb was a natural force that swept everything before her. Surrounded by a cluster of admiring men, she brushed them aside to concentrate on Tyla. “Tyla, my dear, you look positively ravishing, and I’m sure at least half the men here have that precise thought on their minds. Where do you keep coming up with those outfits? I’d turn positively green with envy, except then I’d clash with my own gown, so of course I won’t, but it’s no surprise to see you in the company of one of our handsomer men. I’d steal him from you, darling, but I can’t, can I, because you’ve already let him go, so what would be the point?”
She finished her drink and handed her glass to one of her admirers, taking a new glass from another of the men who’d been about to drink from it himself. Scarcely pausing to draw a breath, she continued, “Space, what appalling music! All this tinkle–tinkle is enough to drive me positively premenstrual. You’d think they could afford to hire an orchestra that knows the difference between real music and the sound of urination in a tin chamber pot. How is Bred, by the way? And don’t tell me he isn’t here, my love, because I saw the Honey B out on the spaceport just this afternoon. I don’t suppose he’s bothered to come to the Ball. No, of course not, you couldn’t expect any behavior that sociable from him. Why I married him is beyond me. I’ve had three husbands since then, and every one of them has been more than willing to be seen on my arm at parties. No, don’t ask me what their names were, darling, I’m not an almanac, and there’s ladies here who could recite the whole list backward and forward. Come to think of it, some of them preferred backward to forward. Ah, but no matter. Doz, would you be a dear and refill my glass, please?”
“It’s not empty,” Doz Linn had the ill-grace to observe.
The Barb looked at her glass, then at Doz Linn. Then she looked back at her glass. Then she calmly poured its contents on his shoes. “Now it is,” she said.
As Doz stood with his mouth open, the Barb handed him the glass, took Tyla by the arm and led her past the suddenly retreating circle of male followers. Tyla wasn’t sure why she tolerated this invasion of her empire, except that she knew the Barb would say things no one else dared to voice.
“I have missed you, Tyla, truly I have. I’ve missed our little sisterly talks. Even though you were Bred’s sister, not mine, I always felt there was some mystic bond between us. And truly, no matter how much I complain, I do miss Bred, too. We were as mismated as two left shoes, my little muffin and me, but he was the only man whose name I could remember the next morning without writing it on the pillowcase ahead of time. Life is never easy for we queens of Society, is it?”
Tyla didn’t bother to respond. The Barb did not ask questions to receive answers.
“What do you think of the great android scandal? Personally I think it’s all a silly wopple, making such a big thing out of so little. It isn’t as though it had a chance to win or anything, not with just a scrap metal ship and a robot crew. And even if it did have a chance, who really cares except a bunch of puffed up peacocks with IQs half their penile size? If they think they’re better than an andie, all they have to do is beat it in the Scavenger Hunt, right?
“Oh and speaking of that, Arrira tells me there’s a couple of establishments on Hellfire that none of our men can beat. It’s almost enough to make one want to visit Hellfire. She swears she doesn’t know this from personal experience, of course; leave it to her to deny the one thing that would raise her to the level of subhuman in my estimation. They genetically tailor those andies for their specific job, you know, which is more than I can say for any of the men I’ve had lately. It’s enough to make you give up all faith in Darwin, I can tell you.”
The Barb could always be counted on for a diversion, but a little of that went a very long way indeed. Tyla looked casually around for a way to extricate herself and saw Nillia Rathering chatting to a group of other women just a few meters away. Nillia was not much of a step up, but at least she played the social game by the same rules Tyla did.
Tyla called out her name. Nillia looked up and saw Tyla, then beamed with the warm radiance of a superannuated cherub and waved for Tyla to join her. Tyla immediately began regretting her action. Had she been too quick to leap from one cannibal’s pot to the next?
Her maneuver did have its desired effect, however. The Barb took one look at Gentlelady Rathering and decided her time could better be spent elsewhere. “Well, Tyla my love, it’s been positively exorbitant being your sister again for these last few hours, but I came to the Ball on a quest of my own, you know. I simply must find a man worth seducing, hard a task as that may be. Looking around, I truly fear you and I will be forced to lower our standards to achieve a truly satisfactory heterosexual life, though I suppose I may be putting a few too many adjectives in my qualifications. Happy hunting.” And just like that, the Barb was off to bedazzle another sector of the Hall.
Tyla, meanwhile, was left with Nillia Rathering. “It’s nice to see you again, Nillia.” Tyla could lie socially with the pleasantest of smiles.
“Yes, my child, it’s been far too long,” Nillia said. “Do come over here and let me see that stunning outfit.”
Tyla obliged grudgingly. Nillia Rathering was harmless, but such a dreadful bore. And, Tyla noticed with distaste as she approached, Nillia had gained yet a few more kilos since their last meeting. Some women just seemed to lose all pride in their appearance once they’d reached a hundred and fifty. I’ll never let that happen to me, Tyla decided silently.
Nillia examined the dress closely, oohing and ahing with delight. “Oh, to be a hundred years younger. I could really show you a thing or two, my dear.”
“I’m sure you still can,” Tyla said, landing the compliment Nillia had been fishing for.
“Oh, no, no, dear, you flatter me too much. My days of glory are all behind me, I’m afraid.” Since Tyla knew Nillia didn’t believe it, the truth came out sounding like a polite social lie.
“And what about you, Tyla?” Nillia prattled on. “You’ve been something of a hermit these past few months, haven’t you? I’ve missed your lovely face at all the parties. I haven’t seen you since…since the Maze, wasn’t it, on New Crete?”
“Personal affairs became a little too pressing, I’m afraid,” Tyla answered, ignoring the obvious curiosity.
“And speaking of personal affairs, dear,” Nillia said, lowering her voice to a just–between–us–girls level, “have you heard about Randa and Mendasan?”
“I heard their marriage broke up, but I hadn’t heard why.” This conversation might be of some value, after all. Information was everything in Society.
“She caught him in bed with one of her lovers. And they hadn’t even had the grace to invite her. It was all the talk of the Blue Star Ball. Of course, that was before Fendon showed up with an alien.”
“What sort of alien?”
“Goodness knows, I can’t keep them all straight. Of course, he claimed it was part of a business meeting, but the alien was wearing Dorin’s platinum pendant and Dorin was conspicuously absent. Neither of them was at the Delder 400, and you know how regularly they used to attend.
“And there’s rumors of a duel to be fought before the Hesperion Ball. Certain unnamed parties took exception to other unnamed parties calling them ‘an ineffectual whiner and a blue–nosed hypocrite,’ so they went home to Gavilon to practice their marksmanship. Why do men have to have such fragile egos?
“But there is some good news. Cathalia Ling is getting married.”
“I hadn’t received an invitation.” It was unthinkable that anyone of any worth would get married without inviting Tyla.
“Well, of course, they haven’t announced it yet, but Walsa assures me he drew up the contract himself.”
“Who’s she marrying?”
“That hasn’t been decided yet. One of the two younger Untermann boys, almost certainly. That will make quite an alliance, don’t you think?”
Nillia’s voice dropped to even more conspiratorial tones as she continued, “And speaking of that sort of thing, dear, I know it’s none of my business, but have you gotten married yet?”
You know I haven’t, you old busybody. Nothing in the galaxy happens without your finding out about it. “Now don’t be silly. You know I wouldn’t do anything like that without inviting you to the wedding. You shouldn’t worry about it so.”
“I know, dear, but I can’t help it. I did promise your mother I’d look after you, you know.”
There it was, the old promise Nillia dragged out of mothballs at every social occasion, like some ancient soldier emerging from the attic wearing a uniform threatening to burst at the seams. Maybe it gives her some kind of thrill to think she’s responsible for me, Tyla thought. Just once I’d like to get all the way through a party without it.
“You must admit it’s not normal for someone your age not to have been married at least once,” Nillia continued, blithely unaware of the younger woman’s annoyance. “You’re completely wasting your best years. Youth is the time for experimentation, you know.”
“I thought I’d been doing quite a bit of experimentation, myself.”
Nillia dismissed that with a wave of her hand. “Those are affairs, dear, not marriages. All shallow. You need something deeper, a lasting relationship, something more than just a week or two.”
“I’ve yet to find a man I’d even want a lasting relationship with.” Tyla had used Nillia to escape from the Barb, and now she was looking around for someone to rescue her from Nillia. The orchestra had stopped playing momentarily. Over Nillia’s shoulder she caught sight of Tendric Parto. If she could manage to catch his eye….
“It wouldn’t have to be forever, you know,” Nillia persisted. “A year or two would be fine. I can think of several young men who’d make an excellent first husband for you. You just haven’t been looking hard enough, that’s all. Even your brother was married once, and goodness knows he’s….” She caught herself in the faux pas and let her voice drift off awkwardly.
“‘Odd’?” Tyla supplied, enjoying for a moment the feeling of putting her inquisitor on the defensive.
“No, of course not, dear, I was going to say ‘eccentric.’ But if even he and the Barb could survive a marriage, there’s certainly no reason why you can’t. Look around the hall tonight. Every eligible, desirable man in the galaxy is here. And in that outfit of yours, you’ll certainly have no trouble attracting the man you want.”
Tyla looked around. Tendric Parto had been pulled aside by some woman, probably his new wife—Tyla had missed the wedding and hadn’t had a chance to meet her yet. But there had to be someone she could use as a ruse for leaving Nillia. Her eyes roamed over the tables set around the perimeter of the dance floor. Every face was familiar from previous parties except….
“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing at a good–looking young man sitting alone and dejected at one table.
Nillia’s expression dropped, and her voice became a whisper. “Oh. Believe me, dear, you wouldn’t want anything to do with that. It’s the android.”
The Barb had mentioned something about a ‘great android scandal’ but, true to form, she’d been long on opinion and short on detail. “What’s it doing here?” she asked.
“You mean you hadn’t heard about the scandal? My dear, you have been out of touch, haven’t you? That creature has enrolled in the Hunt.”
Tyla was genuinely shocked. “I didn’t know they’d let one in.”
“Devon didn’t want to, I assure you. But the Rules were quite explicit—any male sentient being who can pay the entrance fee can enroll. There were social niceties, and the Committee of course didn’t want to look as though they were excluding aliens. But who would ever have believed an android could come up with enough money to enter?”
“Where did it get the money?”
“Apparently all the androids in the galaxy contributed to pay its fee and buy it a ship. It’s like a cause or something with them—some nonsense about trying to prove their equality with human beings.”
Tyla’s eyes narrowed. “Do you think it stands much of a chance?”
“No one I’ve talked to thinks so. But just the thought of its being in our Hunt is disgraceful. I can assure you the Rules will be changed by the next time.”
Tyla nodded. The android’s entry into the Hunt could tarnish the contest slightly, but the Hunt’s tradition was so glorious that the damage would be minimal. A year after it was over, all anyone would remember was the winner. She wasn’t worried about the android as competition, either—not if, as the Barb had said, it only had a battered old ship and robots as a crew.
Most of the regular entrants competed solely because a failure to do so would have meant loss of status. They’d pursue the Hunt lackadaisically, perhaps gather a few of the objects on their list and lose gracefully, later telling exciting anecdotes about how they might have won if it had not been for thus–and–such unfortunate accident. There was only one person she was really worried about. One person who took the Hunt as more than just a game.
“Hello, Tyla,” said a voice from behind her, and she recognized the sound of the enemy.
“Hello, Master Jusser,” she said, turning around. “I was just thinking about you.”
Ambic Jusser looked the part he played—a broad–shouldered, sophisticated ladykiller. He stood a full two meters tall and had a handsome, craggy face with a deeply space–tanned complexion. His mustache and goatee were sprinkled with silver–colored dust; the shaved strip front to back down the center of his skull was three centimeters wide and lavishly tattooed by the famous Corinarr himself.
Jusser’s shirt was smooth, semitransparent plastisilk, swirling in blues and reds and yellows. The design at first glance seemed haphazard, but it was planned to direct the eye around his magnificent frame and then downward toward the waist. His knee–britches were rainbow velvet, shining in all colors at once, and so tight they might have been painted on. His codpiece was grossly padded, and he wore soft leather boots that glided noiselessly along the smooth ballroom floor. His hands were neatly gloved, the right in red and the left in yellow.
Jewelry flashed excitingly all about him. A string of diamonds circled his head, tied at the back of the neck with two tassels. A ruby earring dangled from each ear, and tight bracelets of canary diamonds circled his wrists. His belt was a row of emeralds, while his garters were mosaics of rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds. There was a platinum spur on his right boot with a large star sapphire instead of a rowel. And around his neck was a clear plastic tube filled with hundreds of small, living firebeetles that glowed and sparkled—alive and warm, yet ever–changing in hue and pattern. The firebeetles were hideously expensive, even by Society’s standards, and could live for only a few hours inside that tube.
Tyla hated Jusser with a passion so intense it was a fire in her gut.
Jusser’s smile was the one he always wore: the sportsman, the magnanimous winner, the charitable superior. God on the seventh day. “I hope they were nice thoughts,” he said.
“They were about you,” Tyla reiterated.
“You look exquisite this evening, my dear,” Jusser continued. “But then, you always do.”
“And you’re the same as ever,” Tyla said sweetly.
Nillia Rathering could sense the upswelling of unpleasantness and decided that her attentions were wanted elsewhere. With a graceful apology she glided casually to a less intense corner of the hall. Other people around Tyla and Jusser also drifted toward safer areas.
“It’s certainly wonderful to see you again,” Jusser said. He took her arm so smoothly that she had no alternative but to let him. “I’ve missed you, you know.”
“You seem to have managed well enough while I was away.”
“Of course I managed. I’m a winner, aren’t I?”
“That depends,” Tyla said carefully, “on the games you play.”
Jusser shrugged. “The only thing I’ve wanted that I’ve never had is you, my dear, and now that I’ve made up my mind on that, it’s only a matter of time. Why waste your energy fighting me?”
As they talked, he had been leading her towards the center of the hall. Just as they reached it, the orchestra began playing again. “Would you care to join me in the Zolthen?” Jusser asked before Tyla could frame a reply to his previous question.
Tyla hesitated for just a fraction of a second, and that was her undoing. Jusser took her silence as consent and swept her up into his arms in time to the music. It had been a smooth ambush, and timed perfectly.
“I suppose you’re here to watch the start of the Scavenger Hunt,” Jusser said as he whirled her gently around him.
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” She took her cue from the music, backed one step away from him while holding his left hand in her right and ducked under his arm to come up behind him.
“I’ll expect you to be down at the Hermes to see me off.” He let go of her hand with his left, took her other hand with his right and spun once more to face her.
“I’m afraid that will be somewhat difficult,” she said, stepping up close to him and slipping her free arm loosely around his waist. Together they moved three steps to Jusser’s right. “I’ll be aboard the Honey B at the time.”
“Bred’s ship? Is he in the Hunt?” Jusser pushed her gently away from him and she did a slow pirouette.
“Yes, he was a last minute entry.” She waited the required beat, then leaped into the air and came down on one foot. Her partner took her free leg, knelt, and slipped it over his shoulder. Then, grabbing an outstretched hand, he lifted her into the air.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to be with a winner?”
“I intend to be.”
He spun her around once, then set her down again. “You don’t really expect that flying bawdyhouse of his to be a serious contender, do you?” He turned halfway around, so that the two of them now stood back to back.
“I certainly do,” she said, taking five steps backward as he took an equal number forward so their backs stayed together. “Because I am going to run the Hunt for him.”
“Oho, now it becomes clear. I was wondering why Bred would come down from his cloud and join the rest of us.” They took three steps to his right, two to his left, then turned so they were once more face to face. “It’s his sister pulling the strings.”
“Since women can’t enter by themselves, I asked Bred to enroll in the Hunt as a favor to me. He agreed, as long as I do the actual work.” They grabbed each other’s wrists and did two long, shuffling sidesteps. “He’s given me temporary command of his ship.”
“And why are you so interested, all of a sudden? You’ve always preferred the parties to the games.”
“There’s always been a—” At this point, the dance called for a momentary exchange of partners. They confronted a nearby couple and did a few light whirls with others before coming together again. “—deVrie in the Scavenger Hunt,” Tyla continued easily. “And we’ve usually won, too.”
Jusser’s smile broadened. “But not the last time.”
Her anger at him doubled. “You needn’t be so ghoulish. If my parents hadn’t died, they would have won. You were lucky.” She was so mad she almost missed a step, but recovered in time and maintained her dignity by making her lapse appear to be an embellishment on the basic step.
“Luck had nothing to do with it, my dear.” They held each other’s hands loosely and walked around in a small circle. “I simply played that like I play everything else—to win. And I did.”
The rigid requirements of the Zolthen now called for an embrace. Tyla put her arms reservedly around her partner, but there was nothing reserved about Jusser’s clinch. “My agents have recently found some exotic new aphrodisiacs for me,” he whispered in her ear, “and I’d be delighted to share my first sampling of them with you.”
They broke from the clinch. The dance here called for each to make one spin on their right foot, then come together again. Jusser spun perfectly. Tyla simply walked away from him, deliberately leaving Jusser standing partnerless in the middle of the floor.
One did not leave one’s partner in the middle of a Zolthen. Such an act was a calculated insult, and Jusser was speechless. What was worse, though no sound had been made, the insult was instantly noticed by everyone in the hall, and the room was instantly abuzz. No one else, however, deviated from the dance.
Tyla’s temper was boiling, but even so a cool part of her mind weighed the alternatives. Deserting Jusser in the middle of the Zolthen was a major insult, but there had to be something more she could do. Walking out of the hall altogether would deprive her of the rest of the party, and wouldn’t be nearly demeaning enough. Tyla deVrie was a noted expert at slipping in the quiet dagger, and no ordinary insult would do.
She walked resolutely over to the lonely figure of the android sitting at a table by itself. It was so busy being dejected that it didn’t even notice her approach. “Would you care to finish this Zolthen with me?” she asked.
The android looked up, startled out of its reverie. “Huh, who, me?”
She repeated the question.
“But we…we haven’t even been introduced. Maybe you don’t know who I am.”
“Is that necessary?”
“Uh, no, no, I guess not. All right, fine, I’d love to.” It grinned boyishly and stood up.
The android looked surprisingly young. Androids came out of their processing plants fully grown and aged very slowly, so they were normally made to appear of a more ripened age—say, sixty or so. This one looked barely twenty years old, more a boy than a man. To fit in with Society it had bought some obviously expensive and well–tailored clothes—but the fashion was last year’s, and the android’s ignorance showed even worse. It had the fashionable shaved part in its hair, but it was barely a centimeter wide. The android was tall and thin, with an overexaggeration of the limbs—gawky, as though built to bring out motherly sympathies in women without alienating men. It looked hopelessly innocent and bewildered, but not without some redeeming boyish charm.
It’s an artificial entity, Tyla reminded herself, created in a test tube and grown in a vat to serve some specific function.
She took its hand and led it back to the dance floor, watching Ambic Jusser’s reaction out of the corner of her eye. It was as good as she’d anticipated. He was not very pleased. Nor were any of the other people at the Ball, who’d worked hard all evening to ignore the android. Now its presence had been acknowledged by one of Society’s most important people and its status had been raised by her invitation to dance.
Tyla could sense the anger and outrage radiating through the hall, disguised though it was by polite smiles and vacuous expressions. And she didn’t care. Her position was stable enough to weather any storm; the important thing was that her revenge on Jusser be as thorough as she could make it. He would not recover quickly from this blow.
As they started to dance it became painfully obvious that the android was as clumsy as it looked. Tyla pretended not to notice, and even did her best to cover up some of the creature’s more glaring missteps. She kept herself aloof and concentrated on the dancing, eyes focused blankly ahead.
“Well, I might as well introduce myself, at least,” the android said hesitantly. “My name is Johnathan R.”
“How very nice for you,” Tyla replied. Circumstances might compel her to dance with this creature, but she needn’t go so far as being polite to it.
The android flushed and missed two steps. “I know you’re Tyla deVrie, because I heard the android announce you at the door.”
It missed some more steps, and Tyla winced. Did it have to be such a buffoon?
“Mistress deVrie, you are very beautiful and I’m sure you could have danced with any man at the Ball tonight. You obviously don’t like me. Why did you ask me to dance?”
“I’ve never danced with an andie before.”
It stopped completely. “Oh. Well, I’m sure you found it a novel and exciting experience. Now, if you will excuse me, Mistress deVrie, I have some important business to transact back at my table. Thank you very much for the dance.” And it left, turning its back on her and walking crisply to the table it had occupied all evening.
The orchestra stopped playing. Everyone stopped dancing. Conversations ceased. And all eyes focused rigidly on a single spot within the enormous hall.
Tyla could feel, in a remote way, the attention she was receiving, but it took even that much concentrated power to register anything in her brain. Her mind had gone numb. This couldn’t be happening to her, not to Tyla deVrie. How could an android dare to walk out on her—especially after she had condescended to dance with it? Its only repayment for her graciousness had been to belittle her in the eyes of everyone who mattered.
The smile was back on Ambic Jusser’s lips. He had avenged Tyla’s insult without even trying. He started to approach her again. From the far side of the hall, the Barb also started moving toward her, a strangely alien look of sympathy on her face.
But Tyla would not let that happen. At the worst—and as far as she was concerned, this was the worst—she would preserve her honor. With self–control born of years of social training, she lifted her head proudly and marched to the gravtube. The field congealed about her feet as she entered, lifting her gently upward until she reached the mezzanine. She stepped out of the tube and, with dignity, left the hall.
The reporters were still there, unaware of the social cataclysm that had just struck. Tyla deVrie walked regally past them to the call post and raised her left thumb gracefully to its scanner. Moments later her limo pulled up to the curb, its door sliding open to admit her. She stepped inside and the door slid shut again, concealing her from human eyes.
Only then did her emotional shield break down. “Spaceport,” she said in a barely audible voice, and her hands were shaking so badly she had to try three times before she could place her thumb chip over the scanner to verify her ID.
The limo glided off down the darkened street.
In the early days of human interstellar travel, there was no established pattern. But since Nature tosses anarchy into that same abhorrent class as vacuum, power relations began to build—trade empires, manufacturing conglomerates, banking fortunes. These and more grew rapidly, some within the space of a single lifetime.
Very soon, there were some people of greater intrinsic value than others. And as power clings to power, these valuable people gravitated toward one another.
At first these people saw one another as threats, and the in–fighting was fierce. But gradually a truce developed. The original source of their wealth—the common people—remained constant. They drew social circles to distinguish themselves from the vulgar masses that huddled in the shadows outside. They formed Society.
Nature normally institutes checks and balances on social systems. But in this case, she goofed—she made the distances too big. While ships could ply between star systems in a matter of days or weeks, no method of communication was any faster. The force that should have kept this Society in check—a strong, centralized government—could not be organized on an interstellar scale.
Several attempts were made to set up interstellar governments; they failed miserably and unanimously. With few common laws between the hundreds of planets man inhabited, with no laws in interstellar space whatsoever, and with no suitable extradition agreements between stellar systems, anyone capable of traveling freely from one star to another could, in effect, place himself above the rule of common men.
The members of Society were the only ones who could afford to travel freely among the stars. With their enormous personal fortunes, in fact, they had little else to do but travel…
Although the human mind constantly strives for infinite leisure, it cannot accept it when it happens. Members of Society had to find something to do with their time, before they rotted like month–old fruit. It could not be “work” or anything else that remotely resembled the pastimes of the lesser people, so they turned to play for physical relief.
An intricate system of protocol arose in Society’s ranks. To make sure it was used, numerous excuses were devised to get people together—balls, parties, and other forms of social entertainment. These provided a constant rationale for planet–hopping, as well as a needed change in companionship and atmosphere.
But even more important than the parties were the games. Elaborate and often devious sports were devised to provide excitement, conversational material, and an outlet for competitive urges. Some of the games were tests of physical stamina, others were tests of mental agility, and still others were a combination of the two.
The culmination of everything was the Scavenger Hunt. It was held every twenty years because people’s nerves could not stand holding it either more often or less. It was so big that interest in it was not limited to Society circles. Stories of past Scavenger Hunts sold like wildfire in the common press, and tales were told and retold to the point of making them legendary. There were no great prizes given for winning the Hunt, of course—unless demideification could be called a prize.
The Need for Decadence
Huntworld had been settled to serve one purpose only: the administration of the Scavenger Hunt. There was but one town, human population of fifteen thousand, on a planet the same size as Earth. It was an enormous computer complex, staffed by seven thousand people and twenty thousand robots. Another eight thousand people and fifty thousand robots inhabited Huntworld, performing services not directly related to the Scavenger Hunt.
On a typical day there might be only one or two spaceships dotting the enormous expanse of the Huntworld Spaceport—some of the scout ships constantly being sent throughout the galaxy to provide data for the Huntworld computers, or perhaps giant trader ships, arriving with food or materials and leaving with that much empty space in their holds, for Huntworld had no exports.
But this was not a typical day. This was the eve of the Scavenger Hunt, raison d’etre for all of Huntworld. And so the spaceport, normally an artificial desert, was now a jungle of starships, noses pointing skyward, waiting eagerly for the order tomorrow that would send them on their way. There was the Égalité, for example, the android’s ship—scarred and battered and standing a mere ten meters tall, looking terribly outclassed by its bigger brothers. And there was Ambic Jusser’s ship, the Hermes, a sleek needle impatient to be starbound, built for speed, all twenty–two meters of its height screaming style and elegance. And there were others, too, nearly two hundred of them shoved together indiscriminately in hopeless confusion.
But even in this forest of space vessels, Tyla had no problem spotting her brother’s ship. The Honey B towered far above the rest; with its thirty–seven meter height and its thirteen meter diameter at the base, it was far and away the largest private space yacht ever constructed. Three massive fins reached downward from the sides of this monstrous bullet like roots sucking nourishment from the ground. A temporary gantry stood beside the ship, reaching up twenty–five meters to the main airlock.
Tyla’s tears had dried by the time she reached the gantry, leaving her with a feeling of empty frustration. She stepped inside the gravtube and only became more annoyed at its slowness in lifting her upward. She sniffled and daubed at her face with a handkerchief, removing all traces of her recent humiliation.
When she finally did reach the lock, she found the hatch shut. She looked around for some way to open it, but lost patience. Ringing the buzzer provided no immediate answer; she punched the touchplate more and more fervently, her anger increasing with each push. Finally a voice came over the intercom. “Who is it?”
“This is Tyla deVrie. Let me in!”
The hatch slid slowly open. Standing in the doorway was little Dru Awa–om–anoth, the ship’s computech. She was a mere hundred and fifty–five centimeters tall, and her sixty kilo mass gave her a dumpy appearance. She had a round, pale moonface, with sad eyes and a dismal expression that never seemed to change. She was clad in the drab brown spacer uniform that was the only thing Tyla had ever seen her wear. The normally smooth material looked wrinkled, and hung on her like a sack. “I shall sing my Song of Apology, Mistress,” she said. “It was dark outside, and your face did not show up well on the screen.”
“What took you so long to even answer?” Tyla snapped.
“I was in my cabin, singing my Song of Hope for the new venture. It is not good to stop in the middle of a Song.”
“I stood out here waiting for five minutes.” Tyla made a conscious effort to remain angry, but whatever anger was left in her was rapidly being absorbed by Dru’s sponge of nonemotion.
“The hatch can be opened from the outside, if you take the time to learn the procedure. Or you could have used the Engineer’s Exit in the tail. But I will sing my Song of Apology for you twice.”
Tyla squirmed slightly. She simply could not retain her anger against such an unresisting lump as Dru. “That won’t be necessary. Where’s Bred?”
“In the High Room with Captain Kirre.”
Tyla stepped through the hatchway and into the Drawing Room. A mild annoyance was building again, but it was undirected. “All right, you can return to your cabin now. I can manage from here.”
Tyla watched as Dru walked across the Drawing Room to the Core. Like nearly all the chambers aboard the Honey B, the Drawing Room was shaped like a sector of a cylinder not quite ten meters in diameter with a four–meter high ceiling. The walls were covered with velvet wallpaper in shades of green; “family portraits” and imitation gaslights hung at intervals. Several large oriental rugs were placed over the inlaid marble floor. The furniture was simulated antique—not because the deVries couldn’t afford genuine Victorian, but because this furniture would have to withstand several gees of acceleration. There was a long sofa against one wall and six overpadded chairs spaced around the room, all upholstered in heavy green plush. A small spinet stood in one corner and a real–wood grandfather clock in another.
Tyla stood alone in this opulence for a long minute, trying to decide what to do. If her tension built any higher, she felt she’d explode. She wanted to go somewhere and do something, but there was nowhere for her to go and nothing for her to do. She clenched and unclenched her fists in frustration.
Finally she made a decision. With determined strides, she crossed the Drawing Room and entered the Core, a two–meter diameter tube running practically the entire length down the center of the ship.
Instead of going foreward to Sector II, where the sleeping cabins were, Tyla used the handholds to climb rearward—“down” since the ship was under the tug of gravity. It took just a couple of steps to reach Sector V, the Specialized Area. She stood on the ledge that ran around the wall of the Core at this level. To her left was the door marked “High Room,” the only one closed on this level. Tyla frowned. That room sported a large, opulent bed and the atmosphere within was laced with euphorics, giving the occupants a giddy feeling of well–being to enhance their lovemaking. Even though it was soundproofed like all the rooms aboard this ship, she imagined she could hear the sounds of passion between her brother and the captain of his all–female crew.
Tyla walked around the ledge to the Womb. She pulled off her red and green wig with one hand, unwrapped her outfit from her body with the other, and hung them both on one of the handholds beside the door. Naked, now, she took the Womb’s airmask off its peg and cupped it over her face, then slid her body into the tubular opening.
The machinery in the Womb sensed the warmth of her body and responded accordingly. The soft, smooth walls collapsed gently around her, enclosing her entire form in a sleek embrace. Beadlets of aromatic oil sweated through the Womb’s skin and coalesced on her own. Millions of tiny mechanical fingers came to life and began their work, rubbing, caressing, stroking, and massaging every centimeter of her body in a gentle, relaxing motion. Tyla whimpered and moaned with pleasure as the Womb carried out its ministrations. All the cares of the evening were put aside. Her mind concentrated solely on her body as wave after wave of sensuality rolled over her.
There was a loud, insistent buzzing at the intercom. Tyla fought her way out of a maze of sleep to reach above her head and press the touchplate. “Ummnh?” she mumbled.
Bred’s voice bounced cheerily out of the speaker. “Good morning, little sister. You’ve got a visitor.”
Her hand fell back to the bed with a heavy thud. “Whoisit?” she asked, too tired to separate the syllables.
“Come down and see for yourself. I’m in the Drawing Room.” Bred shut off the intercom.
Tyla sat up slowly, still not fully awake. She was nude, back in her own sleeping cabin. Her memories after the Womb started its work were blurry at best. She knew the Womb would only operate for an hour at a time, so she assumed she’d gotten out after it finished and climbed up the Core to her quarters. Her wig and plastiglo dress were draped carelessly over one of the hammock hooks, substantiating that hypothesis.
She stood up and stretched as best she could in the confined cabin. Being in Sector II, near the nose of the ship, the cubicles were not very large. There were three meters fore to rear of “height,” and the “floor” and “ceiling” were both in the trapezoidal pattern that predominated aboard the ship. Within this volume was a toilet and washbasin, a bed for use under gravity conditions that folded up into the wall, hooks for zero–gee hammocks, a private holie viewer, a book screen, and a small built–in set of drawers for clothes and personal effects. Not much space was left for living, but these cabins were intended solely for sleeping and personal privacy; the living was done in the other, more exotic, rooms.
Tyla went to the washbasin and slapped some water on her face to wake herself up, muttering curses under her breath against her brother and anyone else who could play guessing games at such an early hour of the morning. Then she looked at the wall clock—it was five minutes to ten, local time. The Scavenger Hunt would start in just over two hours, and here she was still sleeping.
Quickly, she reached into a drawer and pulled out one of her spacer uniforms. All spacer uniforms were essentially one–piece jumpsuits covering the body from the neck down, with boots and gloves built in. The uniform was loose enough to let the body move freely in zero gee, but was tightened by elastic at wrists, waist, and ankles to prevent unmanageable ballooning. It sealed down the front with a single seam, and transformed easily into a spacesuit with the simple addition of air tanks and a helmet.
Though the design of spacer uniforms was standard throughout human space, individuals color–coded their own. Tyla’s signature pattern, for instance, was a Bracht original—royal purple with thin silver curlicues all over the body and silver bands to simulate jewelry. She slipped into it, then ran a comb through her hair which, divested of the red and green wig, was a short–cropped brown. She left her cabin and climbed down the Core to the Drawing Room two levels below.
At first, the only person she saw in the room was Bred. Her twin brother was also dressed in a spacer uniform, but that was where he and convention parted company. Bred’s uniform was glossy black with highlights of gray, rather than the bright colors that were fashionable for men. Bred let his hair grow naturally, without the shaved center part; it was brown, medium length, and had a tendency to curl unexpectedly down over his forehead. Goatees were in fashion, but Bred’s beard was a full one. He wore no jewelry. In an age when optical microsurgery easily corrected defective vision, Bred’s eyes peered owlishly from behind brown horn–rimmed glasses. He had seen a pair in a historical holie and was attracted by their decadence; they were his most distinctive affectation. His body and features were rounded enough to make him cuddly without being fat. The corners of his mouth dimpled when he smiled, which was often.
He was smiling now as he watched his sister enter the Drawing Room. His sharp eye noticed she was doing her I–am–a–coldblooded– bitch walk, but even that and the loose spacer outfit could not disguise her extraordinary beauty. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” he said pleasantly.
“You know damn well you did.” Tyla was in a foul mood this morning, not at all the way she’d gone out the night before, full of joy at the prospect of conquering the social world once more. Bred wondered what had happened to sour her this much.
“You’d have to get up in a little while anyway,” he said with a shrug.
“That doesn’t make it any more pleasant. Who is this visitor you said I had?”
Bred jerked a thumb to indicate a robot standing next to the long sofa. It was a polished durasteel ovoid no more than a meter high, with a grill that served as a mouth and numerous retractable limbs. The ovoid was cradled atop three short wheeled legs that let it move freely in any direction.
“What’s that?” Tyla asked suspiciously.
“I, Gentlelady,” said the robot, “am the Umpire assigned to Scavenger Hunt Entrant Bred deVrie as per Article VII, Section 4 of the Hunt Rules. My serial number is J17–H12C5. I possess the list of items said Entrant must acquire during the Scavenger Hunt as stipulated in Articles VIII and IX, and I am the sole judge of whether each item has been successfully obtained, per Article X, Sections 20 through 25. I am also the official arbiter of the Rules of the Hunt, and the final authority on any matters pertaining to it, as per Article XII, Sections 1 through 3.”
“In other words,” Bred interrupted, “it’s the Official Spoilsport of the party.”
“As part of my duties,” the robot went on, “Article VII, Section 23 requires me to summarize, before liftoff, the Rules of the Hunt to the entire party assisting the official Entrant. Is the entire party now assembled?”
“Not yet,” Bred answered.
Tyla looked around, startled. “We take off in two hours. Where is everyone?”
“That,” came a stern voice from the Core, “is something I would like to know as well.”
Captain Luuj Kirre entered the Drawing Room. Captain Kirre was a tall, well–proportioned black woman with a short–cut natural and a broomstick for a backbone. Her posture was frighteningly erect and her metallic gold uniform—with its black badge of captaincy and the black and silver deVrie coat of arms prominently displayed above the left breast—was pressed so thoroughly it sometimes crackled when she walked. Her face was round and sensuously beautiful, but the effect was currently marred by fiery eyes and a mask of righteous anger.
“Take it easy, Luuj,” Bred told her with a smile. “They’ll show up on time. They always do.”
“Sure,” the captain said, snorting. “And no doubt with the same weak excuses they always have. Master deVrie, you took the trouble to hire extremely competent women. I know I could mold them into an efficient flight crew if you would only let me establish proper discipline.”
Bred watched her with interest. It never ceased to fascinate him how a woman as passionate, tender, and unsure of herself in private as Luuj Kirre could be so tough–as–durasteel when there was an audience. In bed, she was a creature of emotions—once, he had even seen her cry. But in her uniform, there was no trace of that human female. I suppose, he thought, we all have our public faces, to hide the weaknesses we think we have within. If only we’d learn that those “weaknesses” are often our strengths.
“Space forbid,” he said aloud. “You’re already efficient enough for the whole gang of them. One efficient person aboard the ship is all I can take, I’m afraid.”
“Dru is aboard,” Tyla volunteered. “She let me in last night.”
“Yes, and I saw her just a little while ago,” Bred added, trying to soothe his captain’s anger. “She was sitting in the Rec Room as usual, composing her Songs.”
“I didn’t expect any trouble out of her,” Captain Kirre said. “She’s the most dependable of the lot. I only wish the other three were as conscientious as she is.”
“They do their jobs well enough,” Bred said. “But it is getting late. I wonder what’s happened to them.”
The airlock buzzer rang before he’d finished speaking. Bred, standing closest to the wall, looked at the screen but didn’t recognize the visitor’s face. He pressed the intercom touchplate. “Who is it?”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have wondered,” he muttered to himself. He hit another touchplate and the outer hatch opened to admit the visitors.
A small parade entered the Honey B. It began with a human police officer, looking quite important in his tight–fitting blue uniform with silver buttons. It ended with two robot patrolmen, burly machines two meters tall and at least a hundred and fifty kilos apiece. In the middle, looking bedraggled but unrepentent, were two of the missing crewwomen.
Sora Benning, the astrogator of the Honey B, was a tall, willowy redhead with green, casual eyes and a look of such self–assuredness it would be called arrogant if it weren’t so relaxed. Beneath her face, her body was almost boyish, a conglomeration of straight lines where there should have been curves. But what could have been gawkiness was belied by the natural grace of her movements. She never walked—she flowed.
Nezla Lustik, the engineer, was the opposite extreme, a miniature explosion in female disguise. She was a head shorter than Sora and built on a chunky scale. Her hair was brown, her face round, and her body, well endowed with mammalian attributes, was lush but not soft. She was as rugged as a construction robot, and her movements were energetic; she grabbed at life with both hands and kept coming back for more.
“Do these two women belong to your crew?” the human policeman asked Bred.
“I don’t know anyone else who’d have them,” Bred admitted. “What’s the charge? Or, knowing them, should I say ‘charges’?”