Chapter 1: Hunt Ball-1
Chapter 1: Hunt Ball
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.