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Ben Bova

The Dueling Machine

PART I

The Perfect Warrior

1

Dulaq rode the slide to the upper pedestrian level, stepped off, and walked over to the railing. The city stretched out all around him—broad avenues thronged with busy people, pedestrian walks, vehicle thoroughfares, air cars gliding between the gleaming, towering buildings.

And somewhere in this vast city was the man he must kill. The man who would kill him, perhaps. It all seemed so real! The noise of the streets, the odors of the perfumed trees lining the walks, even the warmth of the reddish sun on his back as he scanned the scene before him.

It is an illusion, Dulaq reminded himself. A clever, man-made hallucination. A figment of my own imagination amplified by a machine.

But it seemed so very real.

Real or not, he had to find Odal before the sun set. Find him and kill him. Those were the terms of the duel. He fingered the stubby, cylindrical stat-wand in his tunic pocket. That was the weapon that he had chosen, his weapon, his own invention. And this was the environment he had picked: his city, busy, noisy, crowded. The metropolis Dulaq had known and loved since childhood.

Dulaq turned, and glanced at the sun. It was halfway down toward the horizon. He had about three hours to find Odal. And when he did—kill or be killed.

Of course no one is actually hurt. That is the beauty of the machine. It allows one to settle a score, to work out aggressive feelings, without either mental or physical harm.

Dulaq shrugged. He was a roundish figure, moon-faced, slightly stoop-shouldered. He had work to do. Unpleasant work for a civilized man, but the future of the Acquataine Cluster and the entire alliance of neighboring star systems could well depend on the outcome of this electronically synthesized dream.

He turned and walked down the elevated avenue, marveling at the sharp sensation of solidity that met each footstep on the paving. Children dashed by and rushed up to a toyshop window. Men of commerce strode along purposefully, but without missing a chance to eye the girls sauntering by.

I must have a marvelous imagination. Dulaq smiled to himself.

Then he thought of Odal, the blond, icy professional he was pitted against. Odal was an expert at all the weapons, a man of strength and cool precision, an emotionless tool in the hands of a ruthless politician. But how expert could he be with a stat-wand, when the first time he saw one was the moment before the duel began? And how well acquainted could he be with the metropolis, when he had spent most of his life in the military camps on the dreary planets of Kerak, sixty light-years from Acquatainia?

No, Odal would be helpless and lost in this situation. He would attempt to hide among the throngs of people. All Dulaq had to do was to find him.

The terms of the duel limited both men to the pedestrian walks of the commercial quarter of the city. Dulaq knew this area intimately, and he began a methodical search through the crowds for the tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed Odal.

And he saw him! After only a few minutes of walking down the major thoroughfare, he spotted his opponent, strolling calmly along a crosswalk, at the level below. Dulaq hurried down the ramp, worked his way through the crowd, and saw the man again, tall and blond, unmistakable. Dulaq edged along behind him quietly, easily. No disturbance. No pushing. Plenty of time. They walked down the street for a quarter-hour while the distance between them slowly shrank from fifty meters to five.

Finally Dulaq was directly behind him, within arm’s reach. He grasped the stat-wand and pulled it from his tunic. With one quick motion he touched it to the base of the man’s skull and started to thumb the button that would release a killing bolt of energy.

The man turned suddenly. It wasn’t Odal!

Dulaq jerked back in surprise. It couldn’t be. He had seen his face. It was Odal… and yet this man was a stranger. Dulaq felt the man’s eyes on him as he turned and walked away quickly.

A mistake, he told himself. You were overanxious. A good thing this is a hallucination, or the autopolice would be taking you in by now.

And yet… he had been so certain that it was Odal. A chill shuddered through him. He looked up, and there was his antagonist, on the thoroughfare above, at the precise spot where he himself had been a few minutes earlier.

Their eyes met, and Odal’s lips parted in a cold smile.

Dulaq hurried up the ramp. Odal was gone by the time he reached the upper level. He couldn’t have gotten far.

Slowly, but very surely, Dulaq’s hallucination crumbled into a nightmare. He’d spot Odal in the crowd, only to have him melt away. He’d find him again, but when he’d get closer, it would turn out to be another stranger. He felt the chill of the duelist’s ice-blue eyes on him again and again, but when he turned there was no one there except the impersonal crowd.

Odal’s face appeared again and again. Dulaq struggled through the throngs to find his opponent, only to have him vanish. The crowd seemed to be filled with tall blond men crisscrossing before Dulaq’s dismayed eyes:

The shadows lengthened. The sun was setting. Dulaq could feel his heart pounding within him, and perspiration pouring from every square centimeter of his skin.

There he is! Yes, that is him. Definitely, positively him! Dulaq pushed through the homeward-bound crowds toward the figure of a tall blond man leaning casually against the safety railing of the city’s main thoroughfare. It was Odal, the damned smiling confident Odal.

Dulaq pulled the wand from his tunic and battled across the surging crowd to the spot where Odal stood motionless, hands in pockets, watching him dispassionately. Dulaq came within arm’s reach…

“TIME, GENTLEMEN. TIME IS UP. THE DUEL IS ENDED.”

The Acquataine Cluster was a rich jewel box of some three hundred stars, just outside the borders of the Terran Commonwealth. More than a thousand inhabited planets circled those stars. The capital planet— Acquatainia—held the Cluster’s largest city. In this city was the Cluster’s oldest university. And in the university stood the dueling machine.

High above the floor of the antiseptic-white chamber that housed the dueling machine was a narrow gallery. Before the machine had been installed, the chamber had been a lecture hall in the university. Now the rows of students’ seats, the lecturer’s dais and rostrum were gone. The room held only the machine, a grotesque collection of consoles, control desks, power units, association circuits, and the two booths where the duelists sat.

In the gallery—empty during ordinary duels—sat a privileged handful of newsmen.

“Time limit’s up,” one of them said. “Dulaq didn’t get him.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t get Dulaq either.”

The first one shrugged. “Now he’ll have to fight Odal on his terms.”

“Wait, they’re coming out.”

Down on the floor below, Dulaq and his opponent emerged from their enclosed booths.

One of the newsmen whistled softly. “Look at Dulaq’s face… it’s positively gray.”

“I’ve never seen the Prime Minister so shaken.”

“And take a look at Kanus’ hired assassin.” The newsmen turned toward Odal, who stood before his booth, quietly chatting with his seconds.

“Hmp. There’s a bucket of frozen ammonia for you.”

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