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The Challenge

The clock radio went off at six-fifteen, as usual, and for a moment Elliot Burke hovered in that disoriented state between sleep and full consciousness. Then his brain cleared and he smiled at the ceiling.

This was the big day!

Leaning over, he typed N153 on his keyboard and watched as the front page of the New York Daily International appeared in the center of the one-metersquare screen. More from a vague sense of duty than any real interest he scanned the headlines. Nothing much was new. The Antarctic Core Tap was bogged down with cost overruns, the Skyhome space colony was still processing applications for the third group of one hundred colonists, North Iran was rattling its sabers at both Russia and South Iran, and the President had announced he would run for reelection.

Impatiently, Elliot flipped the pages until he reached "Sports and Games"; and in the middle of the fifth page he found it:

Fans of the Deathworld series on channel G29 will want to be tuned in tonight to watch as the immovable object meets the irresistible force. The Orion Nomad, the highest-ranked Deathworld gamer still in active competition, will take on Doomheim IV, Lon Thorndyke's most recent world. In its four-month existence, Doomheim IV has not yet been conquered, though over fifty top- ranked gamers have tried it. The Nomad will be landing at 7:30 EST this evening to try his hand. Don't miss it!

Elliot smiled. He was the Orion Nomad.

Moving with a grace that seemed incongruous in so large a craft, the Sirrachat ship flew at mountaintop-height over the lunar surface, seeking the source of the subspace emanations which had attracted his attention. Nestled in the shadows at the base of a short ridge, he found another starcraft, one even larger than the Sirrachat's but of a totally different design. It was showing no lights.

The Sirrachat settled to the surface a few hundred meters away; and as he did so a laser beam flashed out from the other ship. Not an attack, but an invitation to communicate. In a moment they had contact.

"I am called Sirrachat."

"I greet you, Sirrachat," the other replied. "I am Drymnu." "I greet you." The Sirrachat had heard of the Drymnua fairly young hive race from this region of space, in only its first millennium of star travel. "Are you in need?"

The Drymnu seemed to hesitate. "First I must ask, are you one?"

The collective intelligence that was the Sirrachat smiled tolerantly. "Certainly. All starfaring races are as you and I. Did you not know?"

"I knew that that is said, but I fear it may not be so for long. I am in great need of your counsel, Sirrachat."

"Speak on."

The Drymnu paused, as if collecting his thoughts. "It is said by all those we have encountered that fragmented races cannot attain the stars. The argument is that the self-destructive competition common to these races will destroy them before they reach the necessary technological level. But I have now been studying the fragmented race on the planet below for twenty-nine of its years, and I see no evidence of imminent destruction. Indeed, it is already taking its first steps into space. Five permanent bases exist on this satellite, an orbiting space colony has been built, and expeditions to the second and fourth planets have been carried out."

"An interesting situation," the Sirrachat agreed. "Most fragmented races never get that far. However, I doubt that there is any cause for alarm."

"But it is a violent race, each member putting his own desires above all else. If it should escape its system it would bring ruin on us all"

"Pleasebefore you become overly worried," the Sirrachat interrupted. "I don't doubt the race's violent nature, but you are overlooking several basic forces which are likely to exist here. May I have access to your stored information on this race?"

"Certainly," the Drymnu said, already sounding more at ease.

Elliot strode through the door of his apartment and tossed his coat at the hook, turning toward the kitchen before it hit and slid to the floor. Another boring and frustrating workday, topped off by his biweekly run-in with Mr. Franklin over the possibilities of Elliot's advancement to Design and Development. Franklin's argumentthat with only a B.S. in electrical engineering Elliot couldn't be promoted to D and Dmade an unfortunate kind of sense, considering the glut of Ph.D.'s on the market. On the other hand, Elliot knew he could do the job, and spending his days checking other people's schematics for errors was driving him crazy.

For tonight, though, Franklin could go jump. Elliot's troubles vanished like leaves in a hurricane in the face of his excitement. Tonight he had a chance to do something no one else had ever done: to beat Doomheim IV.

By seven o'clock he was ready. Seating himself before the TV screen, the keyboard before him on an ancient typing table, he called up the proper channel. The Deathworld logo appeared on the screen. He typed his "game name"Orion Nomadand his secret code word. Then he named his destination: Doomheim IV. Somewhere in North America, the computers that handled the gaming functions of the vast Bell Info/Comm Net pulled the Orion Nomads personal data file from storage and prepared the program that was Doomheim IV. The software that would handle the simulation of Elliot's journey was among the most sophisticated in the free world, and with good reason: the revenues from the multitude of games was the major financial base for the whole Net.

Elliot's screen began filling up with wordsthe basic information and rules for Doomheim. The planet, he was informed, had an Earth-like atmosphere and a temperate climate. Gravity was one point two gee and a wide variety of flora and fauna were present. A shuttle-bubble would land him at any point ten kilometers or more from the lifter that was his goal. None of this was newElliot had read it several times as he watched other gamers try their luck on Doomheimso he skimmed it quickly and then moved on to choose his equipment. As he did so a line of words began to appear at the bottom of his screen:

Good luck, Orion Nomad. I'll be rooting for you. The Adrian

Elliot grinned. The Adrian was one of his most loyal fans; only a so-so gamer himself, but an avid spectator of most of the SF games. Elliot had had several long conversations with him via the Net and had been astonished by the lists of players, scores, and standings he could reel off. It was apparently a family tradition; the Adrian's grandfather had done the same thing with football and baseball statistics. Or so he said.

But Elliot had no time for chitchat now. Turning his attention back to the equipment list, he began to type out his selections: medium-thickness body armor with respirator; extra heavy leatherite-steelmesh boots and gauntlets; two thermite torches; one laser armgunmore powerful than a pistol but still a one-handed weapon; three knivesone hunting, two throwing; fifteen grenadesseven blast, six concussion, two fragmentation; binoculars; compass; radio direction finder; and finally, a balloon lifter pack. The latter was a simple backpack with inflatable balloons and two small tanks of compressed helium, plus steering jets. It was lighter and less bulky than a full jet pack and, while not nearly as easy to maneuver with, it also did not attract predators as often. Its main disadvantage was that it was slow, taking up to thirty seconds to inflate completely.

Thoughtfully, Elliot scanned the list. A little light, perhaps. On the other hand, the Orion Nomad was quite fast and agile, and Elliot had often been able to outrun the creatures he would otherwise have had to fight. And several heavily armed, solidly armored adventurers had already gone to their deaths on Doomheim

IV. Elliot would try it this way.

And it was time to go. From here on it was just the Orion Nomad against Doomheimwith maybe a thousand spectators electronically watching over his shoulder. Well, they wouldn't be disappointed; Elliot would make sure of that. Taking a last deep breath, he pressed the "start" key.

The TV screen split into nine sections. Five of them were full-color views of Doomheim's lower atmosphere as the Orion Nomad, descending in the shuttle- bubble, could see it; front view, left, right, above, and beneath, arranged in a convenient plus-shaped pattern. The four corner sections held data that he would normally have on a real planet, but which the TV's sight and sound alone couldn't provide.

As he had expected, nothing he could see was doing him any good. Below his bubble, the landscape was obscured by low-lying stratus clouds, a trick that Thorndyke almost always used on the worlds he created. Elliot took just a moment to confirm there were no breaks in the clouds and then checked his compass and direction finder, displayed on one of the screen sections. The needles were nearly in line; Elliot was coming down almost due south of the lifter. He changed the bubble's course slightly

LAND BUBBLE R = 10KM, 180 DEG

so that he would be exactly south of his goal. Now, if anything happened to his direction finder, he could use the compass to find his way.

The bubble passed through the clouds, and for a brief minute Elliot could see the surface of Doomheim. Between himself and the lifter he could see bluish plains, at least one range of rocky-looking hills, and a patch of darker blue that he tentatively labeled a lake. And then he was down, a few hundred meters south of the hills, in a vast plain.

He stepped out

LEAVE BUBBLE, STOP/TURN

and looked around. The "grass" of this prairie looked much like ankle-high cattails with broad blue leaves extending horizontally. In many places the ground was completely obscured; he'd have to watch for concealed snakes and insects. There was no time to investigate the flora now, howeverfrom his left two animals were loping toward him. Elliot turned

TURN LEFT, RH = ARMGUN, AIM AT L ANIMAL

and raised his laser. He was well prepared for this moment; one or more of these small tyrannosaurs had attacked every other landing he'd watched and he had expected them. They could be killed, he knew, by a one-second head shot... but there might be an easier way. The fact that they always showed up so soon implied they had seen him coming. Maybe it was the bubble that attracted them.

BUBBLE GO SW, HORIZ, 2 KM, .1 VEL/RETURN TO SHIP

The bubble floated lazily away from himand sure enough, the tyrannosaurs veered to follow. Elliot grinned. A minor victory, to be sure, but he had just saved two seconds' worth of laser fire, and little things like that often made the difference. Waiting until the animals were too distant to notice him, Elliot checked his bearings and began to walk.

He'd taken maybe ten steps when he heard a faint whistle. He froze, searching around him for the source of the noise. Nothing was visible, so he risked a slow turn... and spotted it. Or, rather, them.

In the southern sky, a mass of black specks had appeared. They seemed to be closing, fast.

Elliot looked around him, but there wasn't a scrap of cover anywhere within reach. The hills were still too far away, and nothing higher than the cattails seemed to be growing on the plain. The birdsor whateverwere close enough now that he could estimate their numbers. There were at least two hundred of them, far too many to pick off with his laser. And he'd seen what these birds could do to light armor like this.

He'd have to move fast. Running to a bare spot of ground, he lay down

LIE DOWN ON L SIDE, TUCK LEGS CLOSE TO BODY, LH = TORCH, RH = TORCH

and drew in his legs, sheathing his laser and taking a thermite torch in each hand. Waiting until the birds were nearly on him, he

IGNITE TORCHES, LH = SWEEP HORIZ

ABOVE LEGS, RH = SWEEP HORIZ

ABOVE TORSO AND HEAD

lit the torches and made them into a fast-moving shield above him. On the TV screen, words began appearing, telling him whenever a bird got through and how much damage it did to his armor. Most of the birds seemed to be blinded or burned before they could hurt him, however. He kept at it grimly, even though the screen warned him that he himself was suffering light burns from the torches' heat.

As quickly as it had started, the attack was over, the surviving birds resuming their northward course. Elliot had sustained light damage to his armor, especially on the arms, and had first-degree burns on arms and chest. Both would be duly noted by the computer, and Elliot's defense and attack capabilities appropriately adjusted. All in all, though, it had been a very successful encounter.

Standing up, Elliot extinguished the remains of the torches and stowed them away, again taking up his laser. Looking around carefully, he set off again toward the hills.

The data flow finally ceased, and the Sirrachat paused to consider it, impressed in spite of himself. The Drymnu had amassed a truly fantastic store of information on Earth and its fragmented race, not only monitoring the various broadcast media but also managing to tap into the more private cable systems. And all this without dropping even a hint of its own existence, as far as the Sirrachat could tell. "You have done well," he told the other.

The Drymnu didn't even bother trying to hide his pleasure at the compliment. "Thank you," he said. Then, more seriously, "But now what of this race and its threat?"

"You have already mentioned the key to their behavior," the Sirrachat began slowly, part of his mind still busy searching the newly acquired information. "Namely, competition. Fragmented races do not act together for their mutual good; indeed, they often cannot do so, any more than two animals can when there is one bit of food and both want it. Now, survival is often a matter of competition, and any race not possessing the desire to challenge and win soon vanishes from the universe. Obviously, both you and I possess such a desire. Butand here is the pointour battles were with our own worlds; their creatures and environments. Once we had mastered these, our inbred competitive spirits pushed us into space and, ultimately, to the stars. I say 'pushed' very deliberately, because space was the only major goal left to us, and a race without challenge soon withers away. But fragmented races are never without challenge, for they can always fight among their own members, something that is impossible for us to do. You see this happening below us at this very moment: competition among single members for their own gains, competition among huge groups of them for resources and honor, and everything in between. Is it any wonder the cultures of fragmented races are unstable?"

The Drymnu pondered. "I understand what you say. But there is evidence of cooperation as well, at least to some extent. Those large groups of members have survived for years without collapsing back to single-member size. Their orbiting colony is fairly new, but its group seems even more cooperative, at least so far. And much of the race's technological progress is stimulated by its internal conflict, as ours was by our desire to reach outward."

"That technology is also designed for the internal competition, however," the Sirrachat pointed out. "Eventually it will reach a level sufficient to destroy the race; and at that point it is only a matter of waiting for the triggering spark."

"I do not doubt they will ultimately destroy themselves. But... is it not possible that the race may discover the stardrive before that happens and send some of its members outward? If even a handful survive, it could be a serious matter."

"It will not happen," the Sirrachat said emphatically. "I will explain in a moment..." He paused, still searching the Earth data. The idea he was about to present to the Drymnu would undoubtedly strike the latter as so bizarre that it would be best to have an example ready... and seconds later, he found one. "Please join me in observing this event, which is even now occurring," he invited the Drymnu, indicating the proper channel, "and I will explain the concept of games."


The hills were not particularly high, but they were craggy, and Elliot had been forced to settle for a slow walk in order to avoid repeated falls. He was less worried about his own safety than that of his equipment, especially since his right armwhich held the lasercould not be used to help break a dangerous fall. Still, he wished he could hurry. Several brands of unfriendly creatures lived in these hills and he was hoping to get off the treacherous terrain before he ran into one. That he hadn't already done so was merely an indication of Thorndyke's world- building skills. Inexperienced builders usually crowded their worlds with deadly animals and plants, only to discover that, all too often, they fell to attacking each other instead of the explorer. It was an effect that couldn't be postulated away; the Deathworld Game Committee required the ecology on every planet they accepted to be as sensible as the physics and chemistry. The best builders got around the problem by spacing out their predators so they wouldn't run into each other. It was small comfort to the explorers, of course.

Elliot was traversing a flat but rock-strewn section when a large creature came around a pile of boulders. At first glimpse it seemed to be a large turtle, complete with leathery head and neck, short legs, and a large, multifaceted carapace. The second glance showed the differences: the long neck and razor teeth, the scorpion tail... and the surprising speed.

Elliot backed away as the creature came toward him, surprise freezing all but reflex responses. It was one step up from deja vu: he himself had invented this creature three years ago for one of his own death worlds! It could not be coincidence; the shape of the carapace was too distinctive, too unique to Elliot's megatort. Consciously or otherwise, Thorndyke had clearly borrowed it.

The creature was still coming. Automatically, Elliot fired a burst from his laserand then immediately cursed himself for wasting power. A megatort couldn't be killed easily by laser fire; its skin and shell were too tough. As a matter of fact, it couldn't be killed easily by anything, as near as Elliot could recall. Still backing off, he racked his brain. After all, he'd created the damn beasthe ought to know how to kill it.

The answer came, almost too late. Snatching a concussion grenade with his free hand

LH = CONC GRENADE; ARM 2 SEC; THROW 5 DEG R, 0 DEG VERT, 4 MS

he bounced it to just under the megatort's left side. With a deafening thunderclap it went off, rocking the creature onto its right side, where it balanced precariously, legs and tail thrashing furiously. Elliot didn't hang around to see what would happen next, but took off as fast as he safely could. The megatort would eventually right itself, and he had no intention of being in the neighborhood when it did so. He had gone another two hundred meters when a six-legged wolverine-sized animal sprang at him from a camouflaged burrow. A single shot from the laser killed it, but not before it had chewed a hole in his left gauntlet down to the steel mesh. Elliot paid more attention to the ground after that, which probably saved his life a few minutes later when he nearly stepped onto a paper-thin sheet of rock that bridged a narrow and well-camouflaged chasm. Spotting it in time, he inflated his balloons and floated across, deflating them as soon as he was on the other side of the gorge. It was too bad, he reflected, that he couldn't simply float to his target. But trying would probably be fatal. He had seen at least two other flocks of birds since the group that had attacked him, and he didn't want to be off the ground if another group spotted him.

He emerged from the hills without further incident and found himself at the dark-blue area he had seen from the bubble. It was not, as he had supposed, a lake, but was a stretch of woods.

Elliot scowled, not liking it a bit. Forests were dangerous areaslots of handy places for predators to lurk, and you could be attacked from any direction. But there was little he could do about it. The band of blue-leaved trees extended to the east and west as far as he could see, and it was too wide to risk flying over. Taking a deep breath, he typed in the proper commands, and the Orion Nomad went forward.

He wasn't a hundred meters into the woods when the first attack came, and it caught him flatflooted. Concentrating on the bushes and undergrowth around him, he didn't even notice the wide-meshed net hidden among the tree branches until it had fallen on him. The net, he noted in passing, seemed to be made of thick, dark- hued vines crudely fastened together. He had no time for further observation, though, for the woods around him had suddenly come alive with screaming creatures.

Elliot acted instinctively

RH = ARMGUN; AIM THROUGHNET AT CLOSE ANIMAL: FIRE/ SAME/ SAME/ SAME/ SAME

firing through the mesh. The creatures were no larger than chimpanzees, but they were armed with what looked like flint knives and knew how to use them. Several got within range before he could shoot them, and without his armor he would have been thoroughly skewered.

They lost eight of their number to his laser before they seemed to realize they were losing and drew back from him. He killed three more and the rest fled, leaving him alone. Elliot let out his breath in a sigh of relief, feeling a slight shock as he noticed the living room around him. It was sometimes easy to forget that he wasn't really on an alien world. There was no time to waste, thoughthe arboreal creatures could regroup and come back at any time, and there were bound to be other nasties nearby. With his left hand he pulled out the remaining stub of a thermite torch... and hesitated. Something about the net seemed disturbingly familiar. Shifting his gaze to the part of the TV screen that listed sensory data, he skimmed through itand there it was:

The net is coated with a very sticky substance.

Thorndyke had done it again: Elliot had used this same trick years ago. The sticky coating, ideal for trapping the creatures' victims, also happened to be highly flammable. Elliot had just come within an ace of incinerating himself.

Replacing the torch, he drew his hunting knife. One cut later, though, he realized this wasn't going to work. The knife sliced the vine, all right, but the tarry coating slowed it down drastically. It might take him an hour to cut himself free, and until then he was a sitting duck. Starting on the second vine, he kept a sharp eye on the surrounding woods and tried to think.

What kind of escape mechanism had he set up when he invented this net? He hadn't consciously made one, of course; he'd been the world-builder on that game, and getting out of the net had been everyone else's problem. But he must have had some ideas.

"Aha!" he yelled out loud, slapping the table that held his keyboard.

RH = HUNTING KNIFE, LH = HELIUM TANK; OPEN VALVE .2, SPRAY FOR 2 SECON KNIFE AND FRONT OF NET

It did the trick. The expanding jet of helium froze the targeted vines into brittle, nonsticky rods and protected the knife from any of the other vines it happened to touch. A little experimentation showed him that he could get away with just cooling the knife, and within five minutes he was free of the net. He'd emptied one helium tank in the process, but the other still held enough to inflate his balloons at least once more. A very fair trade, he decided. Laser again in his right hand, and with one eye on the overhead branches, he continued on into the woods.

"I don't understand this at all," the Drymnu said, clearly bewildered. "Where is the world Doomheim that this simulation refers to? Is this journey part of the racial history, or is it a plan for the future?"

"It is neither," the Sirrachat answered, still watching Elliot's progress on the Drymnu's monitoring equipment. "This is what fragmented races call a game. It's a stylized form of competition engaged in between two or more members of the race. There is nothing corresponding to games in our own cultures, just as other forms of intraracial competition are absent. Each game has an object or a goal and a set of rules which mimic, after a fashion, the laws of nature. In fact, the game is a sort of simplified universe, limited in both space and time, where the members engage in combat of a specified mode."

"To what end? Why create a new universe when a real one already exists?" "There are three reasons that I know of. First, it allows the members to engage in a safe conflict, one which threatens the life and health of neither member. Recall that the race is caught between two conflicting goals: the goal of each member to gain for himself, even at the expense of others; and the goal of the race as a whole to survive. Games help to channel the members' competitive drives."

"But that leaves less of this drive for the race to use for useful purposes," the Drymnu objected.

"You are beginning to understand," the Sirrachat said. "Its progress is thus much slower than it otherwise would be. The second reason is related to the first: Games allow the members to achieve a goal of success in a very short time."

"Are fragmented races so impatient, then? The stars hold the promise of great successes to all who reach them. Even in this planetary system there are goals to be achieved."

"You are not thinking like a fragmented race," the Sirrachat reminded him gently. "Many of the goals you have in mind would take longer than a given member's lifetime to accomplish. Bear in mind that each member feels the same desire for victory that we as complete races feel. You, I am sure, could feel only limited satisfaction in one of my victories, one which you yourself did not directly contribute to; in the same way, a fragmented race's victories do not wholly satisfy the needs of its members. Games help to fill this gap. And note an important side effect: Not only do games blunt the race's drive, but they absorb a great deal of its scientific and technological growth. Consider the work that has gone into the game we are watching, the time and resources that would otherwise have been used for other purposes. The members who designed the equipment and those who are the actual players all have skills of imagination and intelligence which would be vital to the development of the stardrive."

"I see." The Drymnu paused again. "You mentioned a third reason for games."

"Yes, I did."

Slightly surprised he was still alive, Elliot stepped out from under the last tree and stood once more on a vast plain. The forest had been grueling. No fewer than eight attacks had been launched at him, some of them back to back. He'd won all of them, but at high cost. His weaponry had been reduced to ten seconds' worth of laser fire and two concussion grenades, plus his hunting knife. His armor was damaged in several places, his left arm was injured and could only be moved at half speed, and he was limping from a piece of one of his own fragmentation grenades in his ankle. The Orion Nomad was in bad shape, and there was still at least a kilometer to go.

Ahead of him, dotting the plain, were thirty or so large humpbacked creatures, apparently grazing. With his binoculars, Elliot took a moment to study their small heads, flat vegetarian teeth, and defense-oriented porcupinelike quills. Clearly, they were not predators, and chances were they wouldn't attack unless he spooked them. Taking a deep breath, and one more look into the woods behind him, he limped carefully forward.

Several of the creatures paused in their meal to glare as he passed slowly among them, but none of them made any move against him. He was about twenty meters past the last one, and beginning to breathe again, when a group of six tigers broke from the woods toward him.

They were not exactly Earth-type tigers, of course; Elliot had given them that name after a run-in with three of the species in the forest, a battle he'd barely survived. With his injuries and shrinking power supply, he knew he'd never win another fight. And to make matters worse, the quilled animals were also apparently afraid of the tigers, for they had abandoned their grazing and were running from the predators... running straight at Elliot. It was a toss-up whether they would trample him to death before the tigers could get to him.

There was no time for conscious thought. Elliot's next move was one of pure reflex. Snatching a concussion grenade, he armed it and tossed it to land directly in front of the lead quillback. The creature went down, stunned or killed by the blast, and its startled companions stopped abruptly, some even turning to run in the opposite direction. Seconds later, the tigers reached them.

And there was instant pandemonium. Elliot, completely forgotten in the clash, kept moving, making for the edge of the plain as fast as he could. The sounds of the battle were fading behind him as he topped a riseand barely managed to stop in time. Just past the rise was a three-meter drop into a twenty-meter-wide gully running across his line of travel. A gully filled with literally millions of moving black spots.

Army ants, or their equivalent.

Elliot wiped a sudden layer of sweat off his forehead. For some reason forever lost in his past, masses of insects horrified him as even tigers couldn't do, and even seeing them on a TV screen was enough to make him feel shaky. But he couldn't stop now. Across a gray mud flat directly ahead of him, nestled among some stubby bushes and the ubiquitous cattail plants, was the squat egg-shape that was his lifter. Opening the stopcock of his remaining helium tank, he filled the balloons and floated to a height of a few centimeters. Taking a deep breath, he fired a short burst from his jets and drifted over the ants.

His progress was slow, due mainly to a mild headwind, andlargely to avoid looking at the antshe found himself studying the gray ground ahead. The closer he got, the less it looked like a mud flat, and the more like quicksand. It was, at least, an easy theory to test. Taking his compass, he tossed it ahead of him into the middle of the flat area. It hit with a muffled splat and slowly sank from sight.

So Elliot would simply continue flying over it, instead of landing as he had originally planned. But even as he made that decision, a memory tugged at his mind. Normally, he would have ignored it... but this had already happened twice on Doomheim. He had best be ready.

He was past the ants now and at the edge of the quicksand. Pointing his laser downwards, he took his last concussion grenade in his left hand, set it for a five- second fuse, and waited.

A slight motion of the mire was his only warning, but he was ready; and even as the dripping tentacle snaked toward him he fired into it, simultaneously dropping the grenade. The tentacle writhed away, and he fired at three more that rose to meet him. And then the ground exploded, showering him with muck. Dropping limply as suddenly as they had emerged, the tentacles lay briefly on the quicksand before disappearing beneath its surface.

He reached solid ground moments later, deflating his balloons with a sigh of relief. Now all that remained was for him to walk the remaining fifty meters to the lifter, step into the open door, and press the "return" lever.

The open door? Elliot stopped, suddenly suspicious. There was no reason for it to be open... unless it held a final present from Doomheim.

There were no stones nearby that Elliot could throw that distance, but his direction finder was the right size and weight. He arched it squarely through the doorand a cloud of angry insects exploded from inside the lifter, buzzing to within ten meters of him in search of their attacker. Resisting the urge to run or shoot, Elliot stood stock-still and waited for them to return to their appropriated metal nest. He didn't know whether or not they were dangerous, but he rather expected they were and certainly didn't want to find out the hard way. The problem now was to find a way, with what was left of his equipment, to get rid of them.

By the time the last of the insects had gone back into the lifter he had a plan. Moving as quietly as possible, he picked an armload of the cattail plants and carried them as close as he dared to the lifter door. The TV screen informed him that the breeze had shifted and was now at his back, a stroke of luck. Removing his balloons, he emptied the remainder of the steering-jet fuel onto the pile of plants. Another armload of cattails went on top, followed by a layer of wet plants from the edge of the quicksand. Then he backed off, and, crossing his fingers, ignited the mass with his laser.

It was all he could have hoped for. The pile burst into flame, sending a thick column of dense white smoke directly into the lifter. The insects never had a chance. Minutes later, respirator firmly in place, Elliot stepped through the door, crunching dazed insects underfoot, and pressed the proper lever.

The game was over. Elliot Burkethe Orion Nomadhad defeated Doomheim IV.

"The third reason for games," the Sirrachat said, "is one which I fear I may never truly understand. Virtually all fragmented races that have been studied obtain a particular emotional satisfaction from games, a satisfaction not only far out of proportion to the actual victory involved, but possibly even unconnected to it. They generally refer to this quality as 'fun.' It is this fact, I believe, which is the most important factor in keeping fragmented races from the stars until they finally destroy themselves. Creating a stardrive is work, and as long as the race allows its members an alternative source of activity which provides both competition and fun, it will forever remain within its system."

"How wasteful," the Drymnu murmured. "How very wasteful."

Elliot slumped in his chair, ignoring the congratulatory messages appearing on his screen. He had won; he had defeated Doomheim IV. He should be ecstatically happy. But he wasn't... and he knew why.

No less than three times tonight he'd run into ideas lifted directly from his own worlds. In a very real sense, he'd actually wound up fighting himself.

It was a possibility that had never once occurred to him. He'd begun playing Deathworld six years ago, confident that he would always have the excitement of conquering new worlds, as well as the joy of creating them. With the ideas and resources of a million gamers to draw on, how could it be otherwise? But the rapid and widespread communication which the Net permitted had thrown him a curve. His own ideas had been picked up, bounced around by others, and then tossed back at him. There was no real way to stop it from happeningthe more good ideas he came up with, the more he would find them staring back at him on someone else's world. Conceited though it sounded, he was apparently too good at this. Either he would have to quit building worlds or he would have to drop out of Deathworld completely. There was no joy in battling his own reflection.

Only... what would he do then?

He could take up a new game; start from scratch at Fantasy or Star Empire. But sooner or later he'd run into the same problem. So what was the use? There were other types of games, of course, but the solitaire video ones that his parents had grown up with would probably drive him stir-crazy, and the old spectator sports like football were definitely out. And that was pretty much it, unless he wanted something like chess or Monopoly.

The result was clear. His gaming days were over.

Congratulations were still appearing on the screen. With a sudden flash of anger Elliot cut them off, and for a minute he stared at and through the screen. He'd never realized before just how much the games meant to him, how much they made the rest of his life tolerable. It was as bad as losing a girlfriend. Maybe worse.

Slowly his fingers moved, typing for the list of public lectures/conversations currently on the Net. Perhaps talking with someone would help take his mind off his loss, he decided, scanning the list. One of the lectures caught his eye: Theory of Interstellar Travel: Lecture 1. Not what he'd had in mind, really, but... Shrugging, he punched in the proper code.

"The theory was established in the nineties," a voice boomed out at him. Grabbing for the volume control, Elliot hastily turned it down from its usual game position. As he did so, words began to appear on the screen: someone in the audience making a comment. "But it's never been completely verified," he wrote. "And it contradicts Einstein in several places."

"Granted," the speaker returned. "But it agrees on all the points that have been tested experimentally."

"Excuse me," Elliot typed in, "but I've just joined in. Could you tell me what theory you're referring to? Reply to CET-4335T."

Another question for the speaker flowed across the center of the screen; at the same time, words began to crawl along the bottom. Someone was responding privately to Elliot's question. "Hi," the message said. "We're discussing Bobdonovitch's theory about the possible extension of tunnel diode effects to interstellar travel. Have you heard of Bobdonovitch?"

"No, but I'm familiar with tunnel diodes."

"OK. Well, Dr. Stanley Raymond here thinks there are ways to confirm the theory on a microscopic, electronic level, where it diverges slightly from quantum mechanics and relativity."

"I seeI think," Elliot typed. "Thanks."

"Sure," the other replied and disconnected from Elliot's line.

Turning his attention back to the main discussion, Elliot listened to the last half of the speakers answer to someone's question on actual hyperspace travel. "...basic hardware is still at least a decade or two away. Probably more like a century, given the disinterest of the scientific community."

He paused, and a new voice spoke up. "That's as good a lead-in, I think, as any for our next speaker. Proving that Bobdonovitch was right is, of course, the key to getting other scientists interested in the whole idea of star travel. Dr. Hans Kruse, at Syracuse, will now discuss some possible ways to test the theory."

Elliot settled back comfortably in his chair as Dr. Kruse cleared his throat and began to speak.

"I see my fears were groundless. I have apparently wasted some time," said the Drymnu. "Not wasted," the Sirrachat disagreed. "All knowledge is valuable. And it was an easy mistake to make. Fragmented races look so powerful, sometimes."

"Yes," the Drymnu agreed ruefully. "A shame that they waste their energy on the idle pursuit of fun."

"Their loss. But, ultimately, our protection."

"True."

Elliot worked late into the night, an electronics textbook propped up on his keyboard, a notepad balanced on his knees, and Bobdonovitch's paper displayed on his TV screen. Many of the concepts were new to him, but that was all rightit simply added to the challenge. He had the time it would take to learn the basics; the time and, thanks to the Net, the information. In its own way, this was a more exciting puzzle than any he'd met in Deathworldand the possible rewards were infinitely greater. Elliot Burke might someday be hailed as the man who took humanity to the stars. Glancing out the window at the starlike lights of the city, he smiled.

This was going to be fun.

Afterword


"The Challenge" was one of the first stories I wrote after going pro in 1980, and I'm reasonably sure it predates most of the crush of game-oriented stories that have appeared since then. If a leader is defined as one who sees which direction the crowd is going and gets in front of them, then I suppose I could claim to have started a trend. But I wouldn't claim it very loudly.

For any of you sharp-eyed, perfect-memoried people who may have recognized the Drymnu as also having made an appearance in the 1982 Analog story "Final Solution": yes, they (it?) are (is) the same. Like "The Shadows of Evening," "The Challenge" was originally to be the first of a series which somehow got sidetracked. I've really got to stop doing that.


Not Always To The Strong | Cascade Point | The Cassandra