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Title: The Dueling Machine
Author: Bova, Ben, 1932-, Lewis, Myron R.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Dueling Machine" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction May 1963.
  Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
  on this publication was renewed.


                         THE DUELING MACHINE


     The trouble with great ideas is that someone is sure to
     expend enormous effort and ingenuity figuring out how to
     louse them up.


                    by BEN BOVA and MYRON R. LEWIS


                    ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN SCHOENHERR


                            [Illustration]

       *       *       *       *       *



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, aircars 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
cylinderical stat-wind in his tunic pocket. That was the weapon 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 judged. He had about three hours to find Odal. 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 stooped
shoulders. 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 hardness 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 thought smiling 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 lost and helpless 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 restricted both men to the pedestrian walks of
the commercial quarter of the city. Dulaq knew the area intimately,
and he began a methodical hunt 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 next 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 along the street for a quarter hour while the
distance between them slowly shrank from fifty feet 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 the 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 definitely a stranger.

He stared at Dulaq as the duelist backed away a few steps, then turned
and walked quickly from the place.

_A mistake_, Dulaq told himself. _You were overanxious. A good thing
this is an hallucination, or else the auto-police 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 could not have gotten far_, Dulaq reasoned. Slowly,
but very surely, Dulaq's hallucination turned into a nightmare. He
spotted Odal in the crowd, only to have him melt away. He saw him
again, lolling in a small park, but when he got closer, the man turned
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 to find his
antagonist, no one was there but 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
inch of his skin.

There he is! Definitely, positively him! Dulaq pushed through the
homeward-bound crowds toward the figure of a tall, blond man leaning
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.

Dulaq came within arm's reach ...

"TIME, GENTLEMEN. TIME IS UP, THE DUEL IS ENDED."

       *       *       *       *       *

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 Acquatainia's
largest university. Now the rows of students' seats, the lecturer's
dais and rostrum were gone. The chamber held only the machine, the
grotesque collection of consoles, control desks, power units,
association circuits, and booths where the two antagonists sat.

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

"Time limit is up," one of them said. "Dulaq didn't get him."

"Yes, but he didn't get Dulaq, either."

The first one shrugged. "The important thing is that now Dulaq has to
fight Odal on his terms. Dulaq couldn't win with his own choice of
weapons and situation, so--"

"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.

"Hm-m-m. There's a bucket of frozen ammonia for you."

"He's enjoying this."

One of the newsmen stood up. "I've got a deadline to meet. Save my
seat."

He made his way past the guarded door, down the rampway circling the
outer walls of the building, to the portable tri-di transmitting unit
that the Acquatainian government had permitted for the newsmen on the
campus grounds outside the former lecture hall.

The newsman huddled with his technicians for a few minutes, then
stepped before the transmitter.

"Emile Dulaq, Prime Minister of the Acquataine Cluster and
acknowledged leader of the coalition against Chancellor Kanus of the
Kerak Worlds, has failed in the first part of his psychonic duel
against Major Par Odal of Kerak. The two antagonists are now
undergoing the routine medical and psychological checks before
renewing their duel."

By the time the newsman returned to his gallery seat, the duel was
almost ready to begin again.

Dulaq stood in the midst of a group of advisors before the looming
impersonality of the machine.

"You need not go through with the next phase of the duel immediately,"
his Minister of Defense was saying. "Wait until tomorrow. Rest and
calm yourself."

Dulaq's round face puckered into a frown. He cocked an eye at the
chief meditech, hovering at the edge of the little group.

The meditech, one of the staff that ran the dueling machine, pointed
out, "The Prime Minister has passed the examinations. He is capable,
within the agreed-upon rules of the contest, of resuming."

"But he has the option of retiring for the day, does he not?"

"If Major Odal agrees."

Dulaq shook his head impatiently. "No. I shall go through with it.
Now."

"But--"

The prime minister's face suddenly hardened; his advisors lapsed into
a respectful silence. The chief meditech ushered Dulaq back into his
booth. On the other side of the room, Odal glanced at the
Acquatainians, grinned humorlessly, and strode to his own booth.

Dulaq sat and tried to blank out his mind while the meditechs adjusted
the neurocontacts to his head and torso. They finished at last and
withdrew. He was alone in the booth now, looking at the dead-white
walls, completely bare except for the viewscreen before his eyes. The
screen finally began to glow slightly, then brightened into a series
of shifting colors. The colors merged and changed, swirled across his
field of view. Dulaq felt himself being drawn into them gradually,
compellingly, completely immersed in them.

       *       *       *       *       *

The mists slowly vanished, and Dulaq found himself standing on an
immense and totally barren plain. Not a tree, not a blade of grass;
nothing but bare, rocky ground stretching in all directions to the
horizon and disturbingly harsh yellow sky. He looked down and at his
feet saw the weapon that Odal had chosen.

A primitive club.

With a sense of dread, Dulaq picked up the club and hefted it in his
hand. He scanned the plain. Nothing. No hills or trees or bushes to
hide in. No place to run to.

And off on the horizon he could see a tall, lithe figure holding a
similar club walking slowly and deliberately toward him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The press gallery was practically empty. The duel had more than an
hour to run, and most of the newsmen were outside, broadcasting their
hastily-drawn guesses about Dulaq's failure to win with his own choice
of weapon and environment.

Then a curious thing happened.

On the master control panel of the dueling machine, a single light
flashed red. The meditech blinked at it in surprise, then pressed a
series of buttons on his board. More red lights appeared. The chief
meditech rushed to the board and flipped a single switch.

One of the newsmen turned to his partner. "What's going on down
there?"

"I think it's all over.... Yes, look, they're opening up the booths.
Somebody must've scored a victory."

They watched intently while the other newsmen quickly filed back into
the gallery.

"There's Odal. He looks happy."

"Guess that means--"

"Good Lord! Look at Dulaq!"


II

Dr. Leoh was lecturing at the Carinae Regional University when the
news of Dulaq's duel reached him. An assistant professor perpetrated
the unthinkable breach of interrupting the lecture to whisper the news
in his ear.

Leoh nodded grimly, hurriedly finished his lecture, and them
accompanied the assistant professor to the University president's
office. They stood in silence as the slideway whisked them through the
strolling students and blossoming greenery of the quietly-busy campus.

Leoh remained wrapped in his thoughts as they entered the
administration building and rode the lift tube. Finally, as they
stepped through the president's doorway, Leoh asked the assistant
professor:

"You say he was in a state of catatonic shock when they removed him
from the machine?"

"He still is," the president answered from his desk. "Completely
withdrawn from the real world. Cannot speak, hear, or even see--a
living vegetable."

Leoh plopped down in the nearest chair and ran a hand across his
fleshy face. He was balding and jowly, but his face was creased from a
smile that was almost habitual, and his eyes were active and alert.

"I don't understand it," he admitted. "Nothing like this has ever
happened in a dueling machine before."

The university president shrugged. "I don't understand it either. But,
this is your business." He put a slight emphasis on the last word,
unconsciously perhaps.

"Well, at least this will not reflect on the university. That is why I
formed Psychonics as a separate business enterprise." Then he added,
with a grin, "The money was, of course, only a secondary
consideration."

The president managed a smile. "Of course."

"I suppose the Acquatainians want to see me?" Leoh asked academically.

"They're on the tri-di now, waiting for you."

"They're holding a transmission frequency open over eight hundred
parsecs?" Leoh looked impressed. "I must be an important man."

"You're the inventor of the dueling machine and the head of
Psychonics, Inc. You're the only man who can tell them what went
wrong."

"Well, I suppose I shouldn't keep them waiting."

"You can take the call here," the president said, starting to get up
from his chair.

"No, no, stay there at your desk," Leoh insisted. "There's no reason
for you to leave. Or you either," he said to the assistant professor.

The president touched a button on his desk communicator. The far wall
of the office glowed momentarily, then seemed to dissolve. They were
looking into another office, this one on Acquatainia. It was crowded
with nervous-looking men in business clothes and military uniforms.

"Gentlemen," Dr. Leoh said.

Several of the Acquatainians tried to answer him at once. After a few
seconds of talking together, they all looked toward one of their
members--a tall, purposeful, shrewd-faced civilian who bore a
neatly-trimmed black beard.

"I am Fernd Massan, the Acting Prime Minister of Acquatainia. You
realize, of course, the crisis that has been precipitated in my
Government because of this duel?"

Leoh blinked. "I realize that apparently there has been some
difficulty with the dueling machine installed on the governing planet
of your star cluster. Political crises are not in my field."

"But your dueling machine has incapacitated the Prime Minister," one
of the generals bellowed.

"And at this particular moment," the defense minister added, "in the
midst of our difficulties with the Kerak Worlds."

"If the Prime Minister is not--"

"Gentlemen!" Leoh objected. "I cannot make sense of your story if you
all speak at once."

Massan gestured them to silence.

"The dueling machine," Leoh said, adopting a slightly professorial
tone, "is nothing more than a psychonic device for alleviating human
aggressions and hostilities. It allows for two men to share a dream
world created by one of them. There is a nearly-complete feedback
between the two. Within certain limits, two men can do anything they
wish within their dream world. This allows men to settle grievances
with violence--in the safety of their own imaginations. If the machine
is operated properly, no physical or mental harm can be done to the
participants. They can alleviate their tensions safely--without damage
of any sort to anyone, and without hurting society.

"Your own Government tested one of the machines and approved its use
on Acquatainia more than three years ago. I see several of you who
were among those to whom I personally demonstrated the device.
Duelling machines are in use through wide portions of the galaxy, and
I am certain that many of you have used the machine. You have,
general, I'm sure."

The general blustered. "That has nothing to do with the matter at
hand!"

"Admittedly," Leoh conceded. "But I do not understand how a
therapeutic machine can possibly become entangled in a political
crisis."

[Illustration]

Massan said: "Allow me to explain. Our Government has been conducting
extremely delicate negotiations with the stellar governments of our
neighboring territories. These negotiations concern the rearmaments of
the Kerak Worlds. You have heard of Kanus of Kerak?"

"I recall the name vaguely," Leoh said. "He's a political leader of
some sort."

"Of the worst sort. He has acquired complete dictatorship of the Kerak
Worlds, and is now attempting to rearm them for war. This is in direct
countervention of the Treaty of Acquatainia, signed only thirty Terran
years ago."

"I see. The treaty was signed at the end of the Acquataine-Kerak war,
wasn't it?"

"A war that we won," the general pointed out.

"And now the Kerak Worlds want to rearm and try again," Leoh said.

"Precisely."

Leoh shrugged. "Why not call in the Star Watch? This is their type of
police activity. And what has all this to do with the dueling
machine?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Massan explained patiently, "The Acquataine Cluster has never become a
full-fledged member of the Terran Commonwealth. Our neighboring
territories are likewise unaffiliated. Therefore the Star Watch can
intervene only if all parties concerned agree to intervention. Unless,
of course, there is an actual military emergency. The Kerak Worlds, of
course, are completely isolationist--unbound by any laws except those
of force."

Leoh shook his head.

"As for the dueling machine," Massan went on, "Kanus of Kerak has
turned it into a political weapon--"

"But that's impossible. Your government passed strict laws concerning
the use of the machine; I recommended them and I was in your Council
chambers when the laws were passed. The machine may be used only for
personal grievances. It is strictly outside the realm of politics."

Massan shook his head sadly. "Sir, laws are one thing--people are
another. And politics consists of people, not words on paper."

"I don't understand," Leoh said.

Massan explained, "A little more than one Terran year ago, Kanus
picked a quarrel with a neighboring star-group--the Safad Federation.
He wanted an especially favorable trade agreement with them. Their
minister of trade objected most strenuously. One of the Kerak
negotiators--a certain Major Odal--got into a personal argument with
the minister. Before anyone knew what had happened, they had
challenged each other to a duel. Odal won the duel, and the minister
resigned his post. He said that he could no longer effectively fight
against the will of Odal and his group ... he was psychologically
incapable of it. Two weeks later he was dead--apparently a suicide,
although I have doubts."

"That's ... extremely interesting," Leoh said.

"Three days ago," Massan continued, "the same Major Odal engaged Prime
Minister Dulaq in a bitter personal argument. Odal is now a military
attaché of the Kerak Embassy here. He accused the Prime Minister of
cowardice, before a large group of an Embassy party. The Prime
Minister had no alternative but to challenge him. And now--"

"And now Dulaq is in a state of shock, and your government is
tottering."

Massan's back stiffened. "Our Government shall not fall, nor shall the
Acquataine Cluster acquiesce to the rearmament of the Kerak Worlds.
But"--his voice lowered--"without Dulaq, I fear that our neighboring
governments will give in to Kanus' demands and allow him to rearm.
Alone, we are powerless to stop him."

"Rearmament itself might not be so bad," Leoh mused, "if you can keep
the Kerak Worlds from using their weapons. Perhaps the Star Watch
might--"

"Kanus could strike a blow and conquer a star system before the Star
Watch could be summoned and arrive to stop him. Once Kerak is armed,
this entire area of the galaxy is in peril. In fact, the entire galaxy
is endangered."

"And he's using the dueling machine to further his ambitions," Leoh
said. "Well, gentlemen, it seems I have no alternative but to travel
to the Acquataine Cluster. The dueling machine is my responsibility,
and if there is something wrong with it, or the use of it, I will do
my best to correct the situation."

"That is all we ask," Massan said. "Thank you."

The Acquatainian scene faded away, and the three men in the university
president's office found themselves looking at a solid wall once
again.

"Well," Dr. Leoh said, turning to the president, "it seems that I must
request an indefinite leave of absence."

The president frowned. "And it seems that I must grant your
request--even though the year is only half-finished."

"I regret the necessity," Leoh said; then, with a broad grin, he
added, "My assistant professor, here, can handle my courses for the
remainder of the year very easily. Perhaps he will even be able to
deliver his lectures without being interrupted."

The assistant professor turned red.

"Now then," Leoh muttered, mostly to himself, "who is this Kanus, and
why is he trying to turn the Kerak Worlds into an arsenal?"


III

Chancellor Kanus, the supreme leader of the Kerak Worlds, stood at the
edge of the balcony and looked across the wild, tumbling gorge to the
rugged mountains beyond.

"These are the forces that mold men's actions," he said to his small
audience of officials and advisors, "the howling winds, the mighty
mountains, the open sky and the dark powers of the clouds."

The men nodded and made murmurs of agreement.

"Just as the mountains thrust up from the pettiness of the lands
below, so shall we rise above the common walk of men," Kanus said.
"Just as a thunderstorm terrifies them, we will make them bend to our
will!"

"We will destroy the past," said one of the ministers.

"And avenge the memory of defeat," Kanus added. He turned and looked
at the little group of men. Kanus was the smallest man on the balcony:
short, spare, sallow-faced; but he possessed piercing dark eyes and a
strong voice that commanded attention.

He walked through the knot of men and stopped before a tall, lean,
blond youth in light-blue military uniform. "And you, Major Odal, will
be a primary instrument in the first steps of conquest."

Odal bowed stiffly. "I only hope to serve my leader and my worlds."

"You shall. And you already have," Kanus said, beaming. "Already the
Acquatainians are thrashing about like a snake whose head has been cut
off. Without Dulaq, they have no head, no brain to direct them. For
your part in this triumph"--Kanus snapped his fingers, and one of his
advisors quickly stepped to his side and handed him a small ebony
box--"I present you with this token of the esteem of the Kerak Worlds,
and of my personal high regard."

He handed the box to Odal, who opened it and took out a small jeweled
pin.

"The Star of Kerak," Kanus announced. "This is the first time it has
been awarded to anyone except a warrior on the battlefield. But then,
we have turned their so-called civilized machine into our own
battlefield, eh?"

Odal grinned. "Yes, sir, we have. Thank you very much sir. This is the
supreme moment of my life."

"To date, major. Only to date. There will be other moments, even
higher ones. Come, let's go inside. We have many plans to discuss ...
more duels ... more triumphs."

They all filed in to Kanus' huge, elaborate office. The leader walked
across the plushly ornate room and sat at the elevated desk, while his
followers arranged themselves in the chairs and couches placed about
the floor. Odal remained standing, near the doorway.

Kanus let his fingers flick across a small control board set into his
desktop, and a tri-dimensional star map glowed into existence on the
far wall. As its center were the eleven stars that harbored the Kerak
Worlds. Around them stood neighboring stars, color-coded to show their
political groupings. Off to one side of the map was the Acquataine
Cluster, a rich mass of stars--wealthy, powerful, the most important
political and economic power in the section of the galaxy. Until
yesterday's duel.

Kanus began one of his inevitable harangues. Objectives, political and
military. Already the Kerak Worlds were unified under his dominant
will. The people would follow wherever he led. Already the political
alliances built up by the Acquatainian diplomacy since the last war
were tottering, now that Dulaq was out of the picture. Now was the
time to strike. A political blow _here_, at the Szarno Confederacy, to
bring them and their armaments industries into line with Kerak. Then
more political strikes to isolate the Acquataine Cluster from its
allies, and to build up the subservient states for Kerak. Then,
finally, the military blow--against the Acquatainians.

"A sudden strike, a quick, decisive series of blows, and the
Acquatainians will collapse like a house of paper. Before the Star
Watch can interfere, we will be masters of the Cluster. Then, with the
resources of Acquatainia to draw on, we can challenge any force in the
galaxy--even the Terran Commonwealth itself!"

The men in the room nodded their assent.

_They've heard this story many, many times_, Odal thought to himself.
This was the first time he had been privileged to listen to it. If you
closed your eyes, or looked only at the star map, the plan sounded
bizarre, extreme, even impossible. But, if you watched Kanus, and let
those piercing, almost hypnotic eyes fasten on yours, then the
leader's wildest dreams sounded not only exciting, but inevitable.

Odal leaned a shoulder against the paneled wall and scanned the other
men in the room.

There was fat Greber, the vice chancellor, fighting desperately to
stay awake after drinking too much wine during the luncheon and
afterward. And Modal, sitting on the couch next to him, was
bright-eyed and alert, thinking only of how much money and power would
come to him as Chief of Industries once the rearmament program began
in earnest.

Sitting alone on another couch was Kor, the quiet one, the head of
Intelligence, and--technically--Odal's superior. Silent Kor, whose few
words were usually charged with terror for those whom he spoke
against.

Marshal Lugal looked bored when Kanus spoke of politics, but his face
changed when military matters came up. The marshal lived for only one
purpose: to avenge his army's humiliating defeat in the war against
the Acquatainians, thirty Terran years ago. What he didn't realize,
Odal thought, smiling to himself, was that as soon as he had
reorganized the army and re-equipped it, Kanus planned to retire him
and place younger men in charge. Men whose only loyalty was not to the
army, not even to the Kerak Worlds and their people, but to the
chancellor himself.

Eagerly following every syllable, every gesture of the leader was
little Tinth. Born to the nobility, trained in the arts, a student of
philosophy, Tinth had deserted his heritage and joined the forces of
Kanus. His reward had been the Ministry of Education; many teachers
had suffered under him.

And finally there was Romis, the Minister of Intergovernmental
Affairs. A professional diplomat, and one of the few men in government
before Kanus' sweep to power to survive this long. It was clear that
Romis hated the chancellor. But he served the Kerak Worlds well. The
diplomatic corps was flawless in their handling of intergovernmental
affairs. It was only a matter of time, Odal knew, before one of
them--Romis or Kanus--killed the other.

       *       *       *       *       *

The rest of Kanus' audience consisted of political hacks,
roughnecks-turned-bodyguards, and a few other hangers-on who had been
with Kanus since the days when he held his political monologues in
cellars, and haunted the alleys to avoid the police. Kanus had come a
long way: from the blackness of oblivion to the dazzling heights of
the chancellor's rural estate.

Money, power, glory, revenge, patriotism: each man in the room,
listening to Kanus, had his reasons for following the chancellor.

_And my reasons?_ Odal asked himself. _Why do I follow him? Can I see
into my own mind as easily as I see into theirs?_

There was duty, of course. Odal was a soldier, and Kanus was the
duly-elected leader of the government. Once elected, though, he had
dissolved the government and solidified his powers as absolute
dictator of the Kerak Worlds.

There was gain to be had by performing well under Kanus. Regardless of
his political ambitions and personal tyrannies, Kanus rewarded well
when he was pleased. The medal--the Star of Kerak--carried with it an
annual pension that would nicely accommodate a family. _If I had one_,
Odal thought, sardonically.

There was power, of sorts, also. Working the dueling machine in his
special way, hammering a man into nothingness, finding the weaknesses
in his personality and exploiting them, pitting his mind against
others, turning sneering towers of pride like Dulaq into helpless
whipped dogs--that was power. And it was a power that did not go
unnoticed in the cities of the Kerak Worlds. Already Odal was easily
recognized on the streets; women especially seemed to be attracted to
him now.

"The most important factor," Kanus was saying, "and I cannot stress it
overmuch, is to build up an aura of invincibility. This is why your
work is so important, Major Odal. You must be invincible! Because
today you represent the collective will of the Kerak Worlds. To-day
you are the instrument of my own will--and you must triumph at every
turn. The fate of your people, of your government, of your chancellor
rests squarely on your shoulders each time you step into a dueling
machine. You have borne that responsibility well, major. Can you carry
it even further?"

"I can, sir," Odal answered crisply, "and I will."

Kanus beamed at him. "Good! Because your next duel--and those that
follow it--will be to the death."


IV

It took the starship two weeks to make the journey from Carinae to the
Acquataine Cluster. Dr. Leoh spent the time checking over the
Acquatainian dueling machine, by direct tri-di beam; the Acquatainian
government gave him all the technicians, time and money he needed for
the task.

Leoh spent as much of his spare time as possible with the other
passengers of the ship. He was gregarious, a fine conversationalist,
and had a nicely-balanced sense of humor. Particularly, he was a
favorite of the younger women, since he had reached the age where he
could flatter them with his attention without making them feel
endangered.

But still, there were long hours when he was alone in his stateroom
with nothing but his memories. At times like these, it was impossible
not to think back over the road he had been following.

       *       *       *       *       *

Albert Robertus Leoh, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Professor of
Electronics, master of computer technology, inventor of the
interstellar tri-di communications system; and more recently, student
of psychology, Professor of Psychophysiology, founder of Psychonics,
Inc., inventor of the dueling machine.

During his earlier years, when the supreme confidence of youth was
still with him, Leoh had envisioned himself as helping mankind to
spread his colonies and civilizations throughout the galaxy. The
bitter years of galactic war had ended in his childhood, and now human
societies throughout the Milky Way were linked together--in greater or
lesser degree of union--into a more-or-less peaceful coalition of star
groups.

There were two great motivating forces at work on those human
societies spread across the stars, and these forces worked toward
opposite goals. On the one hand was the urge to explore, to reach new
stars, new planets, to expand the frontiers of man's civilizations and
found new colonies, new nations. Pitted against this drive to expand
was an equally-powerful force: the realization that technology had
finally put an end to physical labor and almost to poverty itself on
all the civilized worlds of man. The urge to move off to the frontier
was penned in and buried alive under the enervating comforts of
civilization.

The result was inescapable. The civilized worlds became constantly
more crowded as time wore on. They became jampacked islands of
humanity sprinkled thinly across the sea of space that was still full
of unpopulated islands.

The expense and difficulty of interstellar travel was often cited as
an excuse. The starships _were_ expensive: their power demands were
frightful. Only the most determined--and the best financed--groups of
colonists could afford them. The rest of mankind accepted the ease and
safety of civilization, lived in the bulging cities of the teeming
planets. Their lives were circumscribed by their neighbors, and by
their governments. Constantly more people crowding into a fixed living
space meant constantly less freedom. The freedom to dream, to run
free, to procreate, all became state-owned, state-controlled
monopolies.

And Leoh had contributed to this situation.

He had contributed his thoughts and his work. He had contributed often
and regularly--the interstellar communications systems was only the
one outstanding achievement in a long career of achievements.

Leoh had been nearly at the voluntary retirement age for scientists
when he realized what he, and his fellow scientists, had done. Their
efforts to make life richer and more rewarding for mankind had made
life only less strenuous and more rigid.

And with every increase in comfort, Leoh discovered, came a
corresponding increase in neuroses, in crimes of violence, in mental
aberrations. Senseless wars of pride broke out between star-groups for
the first time in generations. Outwardly, the peace of the galaxy was
assured; but beneath the glossy surface of the Terran Commonwealth
there smoldered the beginnings of a volcano. Police actions fought by
the Star Watch were increasing ominously. Petty wars between
once-stable peoples were flaring up steadily.

Once Leoh realized the part he had played in this increasingly tragic
drama, he was confronted with two emotions--a deep sense of guilt,
both personal and professional; and, countering this, a determination
to do something, anything, to restore at least some balance to man's
collective mentality.

Leoh stepped out of physics and electronics, and entered the field of
psychology. Instead of retiring, he applied for a beginner's status in
his new profession. It had taken considerable bending and straining of
the Commonwealth's rules--but for a man of Leoh's stature, the rules
could be flexed somewhat. Leoh became a student once again, then a
researcher, and finally a Professor of Psychophysiology.

Out of this came the dueling machine. A combination of
electroencephalograph and autocomputer. A dream machine, that
amplified a man's imagination until he could engulf himself into a
world of his own making.

Leoh envisioned it as a device to enable men to rid themselves of
hostility and tension safely. Through his efforts, and those of his
colleagues, dueling machines were quickly becoming accepted devices
for settling disputes.

When two men had a severe difference of opinion--deep enough to
warrant legal action--they could go to the dueling machine instead of
the courts. Instead of sitting helplessly and watching the
machinations of the law grind impersonally through their differences,
the two antagonists could allow their imaginations free rein in the
dueling machine. They could settle their differences personally, as
violently as they wished, without hurting themselves or anyone else.
On most civilized worlds, the results of properly-monitored duels were
accepted as legally binding.

The tensions of civilized life could be escaped--albeit
temporarily--in the dueling machine. This was a powerful tool, much
too powerful to allow it to be used indiscriminately. Therefore Leoh
safeguarded his invention by forming a private company--Psychonics,
Inc.--and securing an exclusive license from the Terran Commonwealth
to manufacture, sell, install and maintain the machines. His customers
were government health and legal agencies; his responsibilities were:
legally, to the Commonwealth; morally, to all mankind; and finally, to
his own restless conscience.

The dueling machines succeeded. They worked as well, and often better,
than Leoh had anticipated. But he knew that they were only a stopgap,
only a temporarily shoring of a constantly-eroding dam. What was
needed, really needed, was some method of exploding the status quo,
some means of convincing people to reach out for those unoccupied,
unexplored stars that filled the galaxy, some way of convincing men
that they should leave the comforts of civilization for the excitement
of colonization.

Leoh had been searching for that method when the news of Dulaq's duel
against Odal reached him.

Now he was speeding across parsecs of space, praying to himself that
the dueling machine had not failed.

The two-week flight ended. The starship took up a parking orbit around
the capital planet of Acquataine Cluster. The passengers transhipped
to the surface.

Dr. Leoh was met at the landing disk by an official delegation, headed
by Massan, the acting prime minister. They exchanged formal greetings
there at the base of the ship, while the other passengers hurried by.

As Leoh and Massan, surrounded by the other members of the delegation,
rode the slideway to the port's administration building, Leoh
commented:

"As you probably know, I have checked through your dueling machine
quite thoroughly via tri-di for the past two weeks. I can find nothing
wrong with it."

Massan shrugged. "Perhaps you should have checked then, the machine on
Szarno."

"The Szarno Confederation? Their dueling machine?"

"Yes. This morning Kanus' hired assassin killed a man in it."

"He won another duel," Leoh said.

"You do not understand," Massan said grimly, "Major Odal's
opponent--an industrialist who had spoken out against Kanus--was
actually killed in the dueling machine. The man is dead!"


V

One of the advantages of being Commander-in-Chief of the Star Watch,
the old man thought to himself, is that you can visit any planet is
the Commonwealth.

He stood at the top of the hill and looked out over the green table
land of Kenya. This was the land of his birth, Earth was his
homeworld. The Star Watch's official headquarters may be in the heart
of a globular cluster of stars near the center of the galaxy, but
Earth was the place the commander wanted most to see as he grew older
and wearier.

An aide, who had been following the commander at a respectful
distance, suddenly intruded himself in the old man's reverie.

"Sir, a message for you."

The commander scowled at the young officer. "I gave orders that I was
not to be disturbed."

The officer, slim and stiff in his black-and-silver uniform, replied.
"Your chief of staff has passed the message on to you, sir. It's from
Dr. Leoh, of Carinae University. Personal and urgent, sir."

The old man grumbled to himself, but nodded. The aide placed a small
crystalline sphere on the grass before him. The air above the sphere
started to vibrate and glow.

"Sir Harold Spencer here," the commander said.

The bubbling air seemed to draw in on itself and take solid form. Dr.
Leoh sat at a desk chair and looked up at the standing commander.

"Harold, it's a pleasure to see you once again."

Spencer's stern eyes softened, and his beefy face broke into a
well-creased smile. "Albert, you ancient scoundrel. What do you mean
by interrupting my first visit home in fifteen years?"

"It won't be a long interruption," Leoh said.

"You told my chief of staff that it was urgent," Sir Harold groused.

"It is. But it's not the sort of problem that requires much action on
your part. Yet. You are familiar with recent political developments on
the Kerak Worlds?"

Spencer snorted. "I know that a barbarian named Kanus has established
himself as a dictator. He's a troublemaker. I've been talking to the
Commonwealth Council about the advisability of quashing him before he
causes grief, but you know the Council ... first wait until the flames
have sprung up, then thrash about and demand that the Star Watch do
something!"

Leoh grinned. "You're as irascible as ever."

"My personality is not the subject of this rather expensive
discussion. What about Kanus? And what are you doing, getting yourself
involved in politics? About to change your profession again?"

"No, not at all," Leoh answered, laughing. Then, more seriously. "It
seems as though Kanus has discovered some method of using the dueling
machines to achieve political advantages over his neighbors."

"What?"

Leoh explained the circumstances of Odal's duels with the Acquatainian
prime minister and Szarno Industrialist.

"Dulaq is completely incapacitated and the other poor fellow is dead?"
Spencer's face darkened into a thundercloud. "You were right to call
me. This is a situation that could easily become intolerable."

"I agree," Leoh said. "But evidently Kanus has not broken any laws or
interstellar agreements. All that meets the eye is a disturbing pair
of accidents, both of them accruing to Kanus' benefit."

"Do you believe that they were accidents?"

"Certainly not. The dueling machine cannot cause physical or mental
harm ... unless someone has tampered with it in some way."

"That is my thought, too." Spencer was silent for a moment, weighing
the matter in his mind. "Very well. The Star Watch cannot act
officially, but there is nothing to prevent me from dispatching an
officer to the Acquataine Cluster, on detached duty, to serve as
liaison between us."

"Good. I think that will be the most effective method of handling the
situation, at present."

"It will be done." Sir Harold pronounced. His aide made a mental note
of it.

"Thank you very much," Leoh said. "Now, go back to enjoying your
vacation."

"Vacation? This is no vacation," Spencer rumbled. "I happen to be
celebrating my birthday."

"So? Well, congratulations. I try not to remember mine," Leoh said.

"Then you must be older than I," Spencer replied, allowing only the
faintest hint of a smile to appear.

"I suppose it's possible."

"But not very likely, eh?"

They laughed together and said good-by. The Star Watch commander
tramped through the hills until sunset, enjoying the sight of the
grasslands and distant purple mountains he had known in his childhood.
As dusk closed in, he told his aide he was ready to leave.

The aide pressed a stud on his belt and a two-place aircar skimmed
silently from the far side of the hills and hovered beside them.
Spencer climbed in laboriously while the aide remained discreetly at
his side. While the commander settled his bulk into his seat the aide
hurried around the car and hopped into his place. The car glided off
toward Spencer's personal planetship, waiting for him at a nearby
field.

"Don't forget to assign an officer to Dr. Leoh," the commander
muttered to his aide. Then he turned and watched the unmatchable
beauty of an Earthly sunset.

       *       *       *       *       *

The aide did not forget the assignment. That night, as Sir Harold's
ship spiraled out to a rendezvous with a starship, the aide dictated
the necessary order into a autodispatcher that immediately beamed it
to the Star Watch's nearest communications center, on Mars.

The order was scanned and routed automatically and finally beamed to
the Star Watch unit commandant in charge of the area closest to the
Acquataine Cluster, on the sixth planet circling the star Perseus
Alpha. Here again, the order was processed automatically and routed
through the local headquarters to the personnel files. The automated
files selected three microcard dossiers that matched the requirements
of the order.

The three microcards and the order itself appeared simultaneously on
the desktop viewer of the Star Watch personnel officer. He looked at
the order, then read the dossiers. He flicked a button that gave him
an updated status report on each of the three men in question. One was
due for leave after an extensive period of duty. The second was the
son of a personal friend of the local commandant. The third had just
arrived a few weeks ago, fresh from the Star Watch Academy on Mars.

The personnel officer selected the third man, routed his dossier and
Sir Harold's order back into the automatic processing system, and
returned to the film of primitive dancing girls he had been watching
before this matter of decision had arrived at his desk.


VI

The space station orbiting around Acquatainia--the capital planet of
the Acquataine Cluster--served simultaneously as a transfer point from
starships to planetships, a tourist resort, meteorological station,
communications center, scientific laboratory, astronomical
observatory, medical haven for allergy and cardiac patients, and
military base. It was, in reality, a good-sized city with its own
markets, its own local government, and its own way of life.

Dr. Leoh had just stepped off the debarking ramp of the starship from
Szarno. The trip there had been pointless and fruitless. But he had
gone anyway, in the slim hope that he might find something wrong with
the dueling machine that had been used to murder a man.

[Illustration]

A shudder went through him as he edged along the automated customs
scanners and paper-checkers. What kind of people could these men of
Kerak be? To actually kill a human being in cold blood; to plot and
plan the death of a fellow man. Worse than barbaric. Savage.

He felt tired as he left customs and took the slideway to the
planetary shuttle ships. Halfway there, he decided to check at the
communications desk for messages. That Star Watch officer that Sir
Harold had promised him a week ago should have arrived by now.

The communications desk consisted of a small booth that contained the
output printer of a communications computer and an attractive young
dark-haired girl. Automation or not, Leoh thought smilingly, there
were certain human values that transcended mere efficiency.

A lanky, thin-faced youth was half-leaning on the booth's counter,
trying to talk to the girl. He had curly blond hair and crystal blue
eyes; his clothes consisted of an ill-fitting pair of slacks and
tunic. A small traveler's kit rested on the floor at his feet.

"So, I was sort of, well, thinking ... maybe somebody might, uh, show
me around ... a little," he was stammering to the girl. "I've never
been, uh, here ..."

"It's the most beautiful planet in the galaxy," the girl was saying.
"Its cities are the finest."

"Yes ... well, I was sort of thinking ... that is, I know we just, uh,
met a few minutes ago ... but, well, maybe ... if you have a free day
or so coming up ... maybe we could, uh, sort of--".

She smiled coolly. "I have two days off at the end of the week, but
I'll be staying here at the station. There's so much to see and do
here, I very seldom leave."

"Oh--"

"You're making a mistake," Leoh interjected dogmatically, "If you have
such a beautiful planet for your homeworld, why in the name of the
gods of intellect don't you go down there and enjoy it? I'll wager you
haven't been out in the natural beauty and fine cities you spoke of
since you started working here on the station."

"Why, you're right," she said, surprised.

"You see? You youngsters are all alike. You never think further than
the ends of your noses. You should return to the planet, young lady,
and see the sunshine again. Why don't you visit the University at the
capital city? Plenty of open space and greenery, lots of sunshine and
available young men!"

Leoh was grinning broadly, and the girl smiled back at him. "Perhaps I
will," she said.

"Ask for me when you get to the University. I'm Dr. Leoh. I'll see to
it that you're introduced to some of the girls and gentlemen of your
own age."

"Why ... thank you, doctor. I'll do it this week end."

"Good. Now then, any messages for me? Anyone aboard the station
looking for me?"

The girl turned and tapped a few keys on the computer's console. A row
of lights flicked briefly across the console's face. She turned back
to Leoh:

"No, sir, I'm sorry. No message and no one has asked for you."

"Hm-m-m. That's strange. Well, thank you ... and I'll expect to see
you at the end of this week."

The girl smiled a farewell. Leoh started to walk away from the booth,
back toward the slideway. The young man took a step toward him,
stumbled on his own traveling kit, and staggered across the floor for
a half-dozen steps before regaining his balance. Leoh turned and saw
that the youth's face bore a somewhat ridiculous expression of mixed
indecision and curiosity.

"Can I help you?" Leoh asked, stopping at the edge of the moving
slideway.

"How ... how did you do that, sir?"

"Do what?"

"Get that girl to agree to visit the university. I've been talking to
her for half an hour, and, well, she wouldn't even look straight at
me."

Leoh broke into a chuckle. "Well, young man, to begin with, you were
much too flustered. It made you appear overanxious. On the other hand,
I am at an age where I can be strictly platonic. She was on guard
against you, but she knows she has very little to fear from me."

"I see ... I think."

"Well," Leoh said, gesturing toward the slideway, "I suppose this is
where we go our separate ways."

"Oh, no, sir. I'm going with you. That is, I mean, you _are_ Dr. Leoh,
aren't you?"

"Yes, I am. And you must be--" Leoh hesitated. _Can this be a Star
Watch officer?_ he wondered.

The youth stiffened to attention and for an absurd flash of a second,
Leoh thought he was going to salute. "I am Junior Lieutenant Hector,
sir; on special detached duty from the cruiser SW4-J188, home base
Perseus Alpha VI."

"I see," Leoh replied. "Um-m-m ... is Hector your first name or your
last?"

"Both, sir."

_I should have guessed_, Leoh told himself. Aloud, he said, "Well,
lieutenant, we'd better get to the shuttle before it leaves without
us."

       *       *       *       *       *

They took to the slideway. Half a second later, Hector jumped off and
dashed back to the communications desk for his traveling kit. He
hurried back to Leoh bumping into seven bewildered citizens of various
descriptions and nearly breaking both his legs when he tripped as he
ran back onto the moving slideway. He went down on his face, sprawled
across two lanes moving at different speeds, and needed the assistance
of several persons before he was again on his feet and standing beside
Leoh.

"I ... I'm sorry to cause all that, uh, commotion, sir."

"That's all right. You weren't hurt, were you?"

"Uh, no ... I don't think so. Just embarrassed."

Leoh said nothing. They rode the slideway in silence through the busy
station and out to the enclosed berths where the planetary shuttles
were docked. They boarded one of the ships and found a pair of seats.

"Just how long have you been with Star Watch, lieutenant?"

"Six weeks, sir. Three weeks aboard a starship bringing me out to
Perseus Alpha VI, a week at the planetary base there, and two weeks
aboard the cruiser SW4-J188. That is, it's been six weeks since I
received my commission. I've been at the Academy ... the Star Watch
Academy on Mars ... for four years."

"You got through the Academy in four years?"

"That's the regulation time, sir."

"Yes, I know."

The ship eased out of its berth. There was a moment of free-fall, then
the drive engine came on and the grav-field equilibrated.

"Tell me, lieutenant, how did you get picked for this assignment?"

"I wish I knew, sir," Hector said, his lean face twisting into a puzzled
frown. "I was working out a program for the navigation officer ... aboard
the cruiser. I'm pretty good at that ... I can work out computer programs
in my head, mostly. Mathematics was my best subject at the Academy--"

"Interesting."

"Yes, well, anyway, I was working out this program when the captain
himself came on deck and started shaking my hand telling me that I was
being sent on special duty on Acquatainia by direct orders of the
Commander-in-Chief. He seemed very happy ... the captain, that is."

"He was no doubt pleased to see you get such an unusual assignment,"
Leoh said tactfully.

"I'm not sure," Hector said truthfully. "I think he regarded me as
some sort of a problem, sir. He had me on a different duty-berth
practically every day I was on board the ship."

"Well now," Leoh changed the subject, "what do you know about
psychonics?"

"About what, sir?"

"Eh ... electroencephalography?"

Hector looked blank.

"Psychology, perhaps?" Leoh suggested, hopefully, "Physiology?
Computer molectronics?"

"I'm pretty good at mathematics!"

"Yes, I know. Did you, by any chance, receive any training in
diplomatic affairs?"

"At the Star Watch Academy? No, sir."

Leah ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Then why did the Star
Watch select you for this job? I must confess, lieutenant, that I
can't understand the workings of a military organization."

Hector shook his head ruefully, "Neither do I, sir."


VII

The next week was an enervatingly slow one for Leoh, evenly divided
between tedious checking of each component of the dueling machine, and
shameless rouses to keep Hector as far away from the machine as
possible.

The Star Watchman certainly wanted to help, and he actually was little
short of brilliant in doing intricate mathematics completely in his
head. But he was, Leoh found, a clumsy, chattering, whistling,
scatterbrained, inexperienced bundle of noise and nerves. It was
impossible to do constructive work with him nearby.

_Perhaps you're judging him too harshly_, Leoh warned himself. _You
just might be letting your frustrations with the dueling machine get
the better of your sense of balance._

The professor was sitting in the office that the Acquatainians had
given him in one end of the former lecture hall that held the dueling
machine. Leoh could see its impassive metal hulk through the open
office door.

The room he was sitting in had been one of a suite of offices used by
the permanent staff of the machine. But they had moved out of the
building completely, in deference to Leoh, and the Acquatainian
government had turned the other cubbyhole offices into sleeping rooms
for the professor and the Star Watchman, and an auto-kitchen. A
combination cook-valet-handyman appeared twice each day--morning and
evening--to handle any special chores that the cleaning machines and
auto-kitchen might miss.

Leoh slouched back in his desk chair and cast a weary eye on the stack
of papers that recorded the latest performances of the machine.
Earlier that day he had taken the electroencephalographic records of
clinical cases of catatonia and run them through the machine's input
unit. The machine immediately rejected them, refused to process them
through the amplification units and association circuits.

In other words, the machine had recognized the EEG traces as something
harmful to a human being.

_Then how did it happen to Dulaq?_ Leoh asked himself for the
thousandth time. It couldn't have been the machine's fault; it must
have been something in Odal's mind that simply overpowered Dulaq's.

_"Overpowered?" That's a terribly unscientific term_, Leoh argued
against himself.

Before he could carry the debate any further, he heard the main door
of the big chamber slide open and then bang shut, and Hector's off-key
whistle shrilled and echoed through the high-vaulted room.

Leoh sighed and put his self-contained argument off to the back of his
mind. Trying to think logically near Hector was a hopeless prospect.

"Are you in, doctor?" Hector's voice rang out.

"In here."

Hector ducked in through the doorway and plopped his rangy frame on
the office's couch.

"Everything going well, sir?"

Leoh shrugged. "Not very well, I'm afraid. I can't find anything wrong
with the dueling machine. I can't even _force_ it to malfunction."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Hector chirped happily.

"In a sense," Leoh admitted, feeling slightly nettled at the youth's
boundless, pointless optimism. "But, you see, it means that Kanus'
people can do things with the machine that I can't."

Hector frowned, considering the problem. "Hm-m-m ... yes, I guess
that's right, too, isn't it?"

"Did you see the girl back to her ship safely?" Leoh asked.

"Yes, sir," Hector replied, bobbing his head vigorously. "She's on her
way back to the communications booth at the space station. She said to
tell you she enjoyed her visit very much."

"Good. It was, eh, very good of you to escort her about the campus. It
kept her out of my hair ... what's left of it, that is."

Hector grinned. "Oh, I liked showing her around, and all that--And,
well, it sort of kept me out of your hair, too, didn't it?"

Leoh's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Hector laughed. "Doctor, I may be clumsy, and I'm certainly no
scientist ... but I'm not completely brainless."

"I'm sorry if I gave you that impression--"

"Oh no ... don't be sorry. I didn't mean that to sound so ... well,
the way it sounded ... that is. I know I'm just in your way--" He
started to get up.

       *       *       *       *       *

Leoh waved him back to the couch. "Relax, my boy, relax. You know,
I've been sitting here all afternoon wondering what to do next.
Somehow, just now, I came to a conclusion."

"Yes?"

"I'm going to leave the Acquataine Cluster and return to Carinae."

"What? But you can't! I mean--"

"Why not? I'm not accomplishing anything here. Whatever it is that
this Odal and Kanus have been doing, it's basically a political
problem, and not a scientific one. The professional staff of the
machine here will catch up to their tricks sooner or later."

"But, sir, if you can't find the answer, how can they?"

"Frankly, I don't know. But, as I said, this is a political problem
more than a scientific one. I'm tired and frustrated and I'm feeling
my years. I want to return to Carinae and spend the next few months
considering beautifully abstract problems about instantaneous
transportation devices. Let Massan and the Star Watch worry about
Kanus."

"Oh! That's what I came to tell you. Massan has been challenged to a
duel by Odal!"

"What?"

"This afternoon, Odal went to the Council building. Picked an argument
with Massan right in the main corridor and challenged him."

"Massan accepted?" Leoh asked.

Hector nodded.

Leoh leaned across his desk and reached for the phone unit. It took a
few minutes and a few levels of secretaries and assistants, but
finally Massan's dark, bearded face appeared on the screen above the
desk.

"You have accepted Odal's challenge?" Leoh asked, without
preliminaries.

"We meet next week," Massan replied gravely.

"You should have refused."

"On what pretext?"

"No pretext. A flat refusal, based on the certainty that Odal or
someone else from Kerak is tampering with the dueling machine."

Massan shook his head sadly. "My dear learned sir, you still do not
comprehend the political situation. The Government of the Acquataine
Cluster is much closer to dissolution than I dare to admit openly. The
coalition of star groups that Dulaq had constructed to keep the Kerak
Worlds neutralized has broken apart completely. This morning, Kanus
announced that he would annex Szarno. This afternoon, Odal challenges
me."

"I think I see--"

"Of course. The Acquatainian Government is paralyzed now, until the
outcome of the duel is known. We cannot effectively intervene in the
Szarno crisis until we know who will be heading the Government next
week. And, frankly, more than a few members of our Council are now
openly favouring Kanus and urging that we establish friendly relations
with him before it is too late."

"But, that's all the more reason for refusing the duel," Leoh
insisted.

"And be accused of cowardice in my own Council meetings?" Massan
smiled grimly. "In politics, my dear sir, the _appearance_ of a man
means much more than his substance. As a coward, I would soon be out
of office. But perhaps, as the winner of a duel against the invincible
Odal ... or even as a martyr ... I may accomplish something useful."

Leoh said nothing.

Massan continued, "I put off the duel for a week, hoping that in that
time you might discover Odal's secret. I dare not postpone the duel
any longer; as it is, the political situation may collapse about our
heads at any moment."

"I'll take this machine apart and rebuild it again, molecule by
molecule," Leoh promised.

As Massan's image faded from the screen, Leoh turned to Hector. "We
have one week to save his life."

"And avert a war, maybe," Hector added.

"Yes." Leoh leaned back in his chair and stared off into infinity.

Hector shuffled his feet, rubbed his nose, whistled a few bars of
off-key tunes, and finally blurted, "How can you take apart the
dueling machine?"

"Hm-m-m?" Leoh snapped out of his reverie.

"How can you take apart the dueling machine?" Hector repeated. "Looks
like a big job to do in a week."

"Yes, it is. But, my boy, perhaps we ... the two of us ... can do it."

Hector scratched his head. "Well, uh, sir ... I'm not very ... that
is, my mechanical aptitude scores at the Academy--"

Leoh smiled at him. "No need for mechanical aptitude, my boy. You were
trained to fight, weren't you? We can do the job mentally."


VIII

It was the strangest week of their lives.

Leoh's plan was straightforward: to test the dueling machine, push it
to the limits of its performance, by actually operating it--by
fighting duels.

They started off easily enough, tentatively probing and flexing their
mental muscles. Leoh had used the dueling machine himself many times
in the past, but only in tests of the machines' routine performance.
Never in actual combat against another human being. To Hector, of
course, the machine was a totally new and different experience.

The Acquatainian staff plunged into the project without question,
providing Leoh with invaluable help in monitoring and analyzing the
duels.

At first, Leoh and Hector did nothing more than play hide-and-seek,
with one of them picking an environment and the other trying to find
his opponent in it. They wandered through jungles and cities, over
glaciers and interplanetary voids, seeking each other--without ever
leaving the booths of the dueling machine.

Then, when Leoh was satisfied that the machine could reproduce and
amplify thought patterns with strict fidelity, they began to fight
light duels. The fenced with blunted foils--Hector won, of course,
because of his much faster reflexes. Then they tried other
weapons--pistols, sonic beams, grenades--but always wearing protective
equipment. Strangely, even though Hector was trained in the use of
these weapons, Leoh won almost all the bouts. He was neither faster
nor more accurate, when they were target-shooting. But when the two of
them faced each other, somehow Leoh almost always won.

_The machine project more than thoughts_, Leoh told himself. _It
projects personality._

They worked in the dueling machine day and night now, enclosed in the
booths for twelve or more hours a day, driving themselves and the
machine's regular staff to near-exhaustion. When they gulped their
meals, between duels, they were physically ragged and sharp-tempered.
They usually fell asleep in Leoh's office, while discussing the
results of the day's work.

The duels grew slowly more serious. Leoh was pushing the machine to
its limits now, carefully extending the rigors of each bout. And yet,
even though he knew exactly what and how much he intended to do in
each fight, it often took a conscious effort of will to remind
himself that the battles he was fighting were actually imaginary.

As the duels became more dangerous, and the artificially-amplified
hallucinations began to end in blood and death, Leoh found himself
winning more and more frequently. With one part of his mind he was
driving to analyze the cause of his consistent success. But another
part of him was beginning to really enjoy his prowess.

The strain was telling on Hector. The physical exertion of constant
work and practically no relief was considerable in itself. But the
emotional effects of being "hurt" and "killed" repeatedly were
infinitely worse.

"Perhaps we should stop for a while," Leoh suggested after the fourth
day of tests.

"No, I'm all right."

Leoh looked at him. Hector's face was haggard, his eyes bleary.

"You've had enough," Leoh said quietly.

"Please don't make me stop," Hector begged. "I ... I can't stop now.
Please give me a chance to do better. I'm improving ... I lasted twice
as long in this afternoon's two duels as I did in the ones this
morning. Please, don't end it now ... not while I'm completely lost--"

Leoh stared at him, "You want to go on?"

"Yes, sir."

"And if I say no?"

Hector hesitated. Leoh sensed he was struggling with himself. "If you
say no," he answered dully, "then it will be no. I can't argue against
you any more."

Leoh was silent for a long moment. Finally he opened a desk drawer and
took a small bottle from it. "Here, take a sleep capsule. When you
wake up we'll try again."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was dawn when they began again. Leoh entered the dueling machine
determined to allow Hector to win. He gave the youthful Star Watchman
his choice of weapon and environment. Hector picked one-man
scoutships, in planetary orbits. Their weapons were conventional force
beams.

But despite his own conscious desire, Leoh found himself winning! The
ships spiraled about an unnamed planet, their paths intersecting at
least once in every orbit. The problem was to estimate your opponent's
orbital position, and then program your own ship so that you arrived
at that position either behind or to one side of him. Then you could
train your guns on him before he could turn on you.

The problem should have been an easy one for Hector, with his knack
for intuitive mental calculation. But Leoh scored the first
hit--Hector had piloted his ship into an excellent firing position,
but his shot went wide; Leoh maneuvered around clumsily, but managed
to register an inconsequential hit on the side of Hector's ship.

In the next three passes, Leoh scored two more hits. Hector's ship
was badly damaged now. In return, the Star Watchman had landed one
glancing shot on Leoh's ship.

They came around again, and once more Leoh had outguessed his younger
opponent. He trained his guns on Hector's ship, then hesitated with
his hand poised above the firing button.

_Don't kill him again_, he warned himself. _His mind can't accept
another defeat._

But Leoh's hand, almost of its own will, reached the button and
touched it lightly. Another gram of pressure and the guns would fire.

In that instant's hesitation. Hector pulled his crippled ship around
and aimed at Leoh. The Watchman fired a searing blast that jarred
Leoh's ship from end to end. Leoh's hand slammed down on the firing
button, whether he intended to do it or not, he did not know.

Leoh's shot raked Hector's ship but did not stop it. The two vehicles
were hurtling directly at each other. Leoh tried desperately to avert
a collision, but Hector bored in grimly, matching Leoh's maneuvers
with his own.

The two ships smashed together and exploded.

Abruptly, Leoh found himself in the cramped booth of the dueling
machine, his body cold and damp with perspiration, his hands
trembling.

He squeezed out of the booth and took a deep breath. Warm sunlight was
streaming into the high-vaulted room. The white walls glared
brilliantly. Through the tall windows he could see trees and people
and clouds in the sky.

Hector walked up to him. For the first time in several days, the
Watchman was smiling. Not much, but smiling. "Well, we broke even on
that one."

Leoh smiled back, somewhat shakily. "Yes. It was ... quite an
experience. I've never died before."

Hector fidgeted, "It's uh, not so bad, I guess--It does sort of, well,
shatter you, you know."

"Yes I can see that now."

"Another duel?" Hector asked, nodding his head toward the machine.

"Let's get out of this place for a few hours. Are you hungry?"

"Starved."

They fought seven more duels over the next day and a half. Hector
won three of them. It was late afternoon when Leoh called a halt to
the tests.

"We can still get in another one or two," the Watchman pointed out.

"No need," Leoh said. "I have all the data I require. Tomorrow Massan
meets Odal, unless we can put a stop to it. We have much to do before
tomorrow morning."

Hector sagged into the couch. "Just as well. I think I've aged seven
years in the past seven days."

"No, my boy," Leoh said gently. "You haven't aged. You've matured."


IX

It was deep twilight when the groundcar slid to a halt on its cushions
of compressed air before the Kerak Embassy.

"I still think it's a mistake to go in there." Hector said. "I mean,
you could've called him on the tri-di just as well, couldn't you?"

Leoh shook his head. "Never give an agency of any government the
opportunity to say 'hold the line a moment' and then huddle together
to consider what to do with you. Nineteen times out of twenty, they'll
end by passing your request up to the next higher echelon, and you'll
be left waiting for weeks."

"Still," Hector insisted, "you're simply stepping into enemy
territory. It's a chance you shouldn't take."

"They wouldn't dare touch us."

Hector did not reply, but he looked unconvinced.

"Look," Leoh said, "there are only two men alive who can shed light on
this matter. One of them is Dulaq, and his mind is closed to us for an
indefinite time, Odal is the only other one who knows what happened."

Hector shook his head skeptically. Leoh shrugged, and opened the door
of the groundcar. Hector had no choice but to get out and follow him
as he walked up the pathway to the main entrance of the Embassy. The
building stood gaunt and gray in the dusk, surrounded by a
precisely-clipped hedge. The entrance was flanked by a pair of tall
evergreen trees.

Leoh and Hector were met just inside the entrance by a female
receptionist. She looked just a trifle disheveled--as though she had
been rushed to the desk at a moment's notice. They asked for Odal,
were ushered into a sitting room, and within a few minutes--to
Hector's surprise--were informed by the girl that Major Odal would be
with them shortly.

"You see," Leoh pointed out jovially, "when you come in person they
haven't as much of a chance to consider how to get rid of you."

Hector glanced around the windowless room and contemplated the thick,
solidly closed door. "There's a lot of scurrying going on on the other
side of that door, I'll bet. I mean ... they may be considering how
to, uh, get rid of us ... permanently."

Leoh shook his head, smiling wryly. "Undoubtedly the approach closest
to their hearts--but highly improbable in the present situation. They
have been making most efficient and effective use of the dueling
machine to gain their ends."

Odal picked this moment to open the door.

"Dr. Leoh ... Lt. Hector ... you asked to see me?"

"Thank you, Major Odal; I hope you will be able to help me," Leoh
said. "You are the only man living who may be able to give us some
clues to the failure of the Dueling Machine."

Odal's answering smile reminded Leoh of the best efforts of the
robot-puppet designers to make a machine that smiled like a man. "I
am afraid I can be of no assistance, Dr. Leoh. My experiences in the
machine are ... private."

"Perhaps you don't fully understand the situation," Leoh said. "In the
past week, we have tested the dueling machine here on Acquatainia
exhaustively. We have learned that its performance can be greatly
influenced by a man's personality, and by training. You have fought
many duels in the machines. Your background of experience, both as a
professional soldier and in the machines, gives you a decided
advantage over your opponents.

"However, even with all this considered, I am convinced that you
cannot kill a man in the machine--under normal circumstances. We have
demonstrated that fact in our tests. An unsabotaged machine cannot
cause actual physical harm.

"Yet you have already killed one man and incapacitated another. Where
will it stop?"

Odal's face remained calm, except for the faintest glitter of fire
deep in his eyes. His voice was quiet, but had the edge of a
well-honed blade to it: "I cannot be blamed for my background and
experience. And I have not tampered with your machines."

The door to the room opened, and a short, thick-set, bullet-headed man
entered. He was dressed in a dark street suit, so that it was
impossible to guess his station at the Embassy.

"Would the gentlemen care for refreshments?" he asked in a low-pitched
voice.

"No, thank you," Leoh said.

"Some Kerak wine, perhaps?"

"Well--"

"I don't, uh, think we'd better, sir," Hector said. "Thanks all the
same."

The man shrugged and sat at a chair next to the door.

Odal turned back to Leoh. "Sir, I have my duty. Massan and I duel
tomorrow. There is no possibility of postponing it."

"Very well," Leoh said. "Will you at least allow us to place some
special instrumentation into the booth with you, so that we can
monitor the duel more fully? We can do the same with Massan. I know
the duels are normally private and you would be within your legal
rights to refuse the request. But, morally--"

The smile returned to Odal's face. "You wish to monitor my thoughts.
To record them and see how I perform during the duel. Interesting.
Very interesting--"

The man at the door rose and said, "If you have no desire for
refreshments, gentlemen--"

Odal turned to him. "Thank you for your attention."

Their eyes met and locked for an instant. The man give a barely
perceptible shake of his head, then left.

Odal returned his attention to Leoh, "I am sorry, professor, but I
cannot allow you to monitor my thoughts during the duel."

"But--"

"I regret having to refuse you. But, as you yourself pointed out,
there is no legal requirement for such a course of action. I must
refuse. I hope you understand."

Leoh rose from the couch, and Hector popped up beside him. "I'm afraid
I do understand. And I, too, regret your decision."

Odal escorted them out to their car. They drove away, and the Kerak
major walked slowly back into the Embassy building. He was met in the
hallway by the dark-suited man who had sat in on the conversation.

"I could have let them monitor my thoughts and still crush Massan,"
Odal said. "It would have been a good joke on them."

The man grunted. "I have just spoken to the Chancellor on the tri-di,
and obtained permission to make a slight adjustment in our plans."

"An adjustment, Minister Kor?"

"After your duel tomorrow, your next opponent will be the eminent Dr.
Leoh," Kor said.


X

The mists swirled deep and impenetrable about Fernd Massan. He stared
blindly through the useless viewplate in his helmet, then reached up
slowly and carefully to place the infrared detector before his eyes.

_I never realized an hallucination could seem so real_, Massan
thought.

Since the challenge by Odal, he realized, the actual world had seemed
quite unreal. For a week, he had gone through the motions of life, but
felt as though he were standing aside, a spectator mind watching its
own body from a distance. The gathering of his friends and associates
last night, the night before the duel--that silent, funereal group of
people--it had seemed completely unreal to him.

[Illustration]

But now, in this manufactured dream, he seemed vibrantly alive. Every
sensation was solid, stimulating. He could feel his pulse throbbing
through him. Somewhere out in those mists, he knew, was Odal. And the
thought of coming to grips with the assassin filled him with a strange
satisfaction.

Massan had spent a good many years serving his government on the rich
but inhospitable high-gravity planets of the Acquataine Cluster. This
was the environment he had chosen: crushing gravity; killing
pressures; atmosphere of ammonia and hydrogen, laced with free
radicals of sulphur and other valuable but deadly chemicals; oceans of
liquid methane and ammonia; "solid ground" consisting of quickly
crumbling, eroding ice; howling superpowerful winds that could pick up
a mountain of ice and hurl it halfway around the planet; darkness;
danger; death.

He was encased in a one-man protective outfit that was half armored
suit, half vehicle. There was an internal grav field to keep him
comfortable in 3.7 gees, but still the suit was cumbersome, and a man
could move only very slowly in it, even with the aid of servomotors.

The weapon he had chosen was simplicity itself--a hand-sized capsule
of oxygen. But in a hydrogen/ammonia atmosphere, oxygen could be a
deadly explosive. Massan carried several of these "bombs"; so did
Odal. _But the trick_, Massan thought to himself, _is to know how to
throw them under these conditions; the proper range, the proper
trajectory. Not an easy thing to learn, without years of experience._

The terms of the duel were simple: Massan and Odal were situated on a
rough-topped iceberg that was being swirled along one of the
methane/ammonia ocean's vicious currents. The ice was rapidly
crumbling; the duel would end when the iceberg was completely broken
up.

Massan edged along the ragged terrain. His suit's grippers and rollers
automatically adjusted to the roughness of the topography. He
concentrated his attention on the infrared detector that hung before
his viewplate.

A chunk of ice the size of a man's head sailed through the murky
atmosphere in a steep glide peculiar to heavy gravity and banged into
the shoulder of Massan's suit. The force was enough to rock him
slightly off-balance before the servos readjusted. Massan withdrew his
arm from the sleeve and felt the inside of the shoulder seam. _Dented,
but not penetrated._ A leak would have been disastrous, possibly
fatal. Then he remembered: _Of course--I cannot be killed except by
direct action of my antagonist. That is one of the rules of the game._

Still, he carefully fingered the dented shoulder to make certain it
was not leaking. The dueling machine and its rules seemed so very
remote and unsubstantial, compared to this freezing, howling inferno.

He diligently set about combing the iceberg, determined to find Odal
and kill him before their floating island disintegrated. He thoroughly
explored every projection, every crevice, every slope, working his way
slowly from one end of the 'berg toward the other. Back and forth,
cross and re-cross, with the infrared sensors scanning three hundreds
sixty-degrees around him.

It was time-consuming. Even with the suit's servomotors and propulsion
units, motion across the ice, against the buffeting wind, was a
cumbersome business. But Massan continued to work his way across the
iceberg, fighting down a gnawing, growing fear that Odal was not there
at all.

And then he caught just the barest flicker of a shadow on his
detector. Something, or someone, had darted behind a jutting rise of
the ice, off by the edge of the iceberg.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly and carefully, Massan made his way toward the base of the rise.
He picked one of the oxy-bombs from his belt and held it in his
right-hand claw.

Massan edged around the base of the ice cliff, and stood on a narrow
ledge between the cliff and the churning sea. He saw no one. He
extended the detector's range to maximum, and worked the scanners up
the sheer face of the cliff toward the top.

There he was! The shadowy outline of a man etched itself on the
detector screen. And at the same time, Massan heard a muffled roar,
then a rumbling, crashing noise, growing quickly louder and more
menacing.

He looked up the face of the ice cliff and saw a small avalanche of
ice tumbling, sliding, growling toward him. _That devil set off a bomb
at the top of the cliff!_

Massan tried to back out of the way, but it was too late. The first
chunk of ice bounced harmlessly off his helmet, but the others knocked
him off-balance so repeatedly that the servos had no chance to
recover. He staggered blindly for a few moments, as more and more ice
cascaded down on him, and then toppled off the ledge into the boiling
sea.

Relax! he ordered himself. _Do not panic! The suit will float you. The
servos will keep you right-side-up. You cannot be killed accidentally;
Odal must perform the coup-de-grace himself._

Then he remembered the emergency rocket units in the back of his suit.
If he could orient himself properly, a touch of a control stud on his
belt would set them off, and he would be boosted back onto the
iceberg. He turned slightly inside the suit and tried to judge the
iceberg's distance through the infrared detector. It was difficult,
especially since he was bobbing madly in the churning currents.

Finally he decided to fire the rocket and make final adjustments of
distance and landing site after he was safely out of the sea.

But he could not move his hand.

He tried, but his entire right arm was locked fast. He could not budge
it an inch. And the same for the left. Something, or someone, was
clamping his arms tight. He could not even pull them out of their
sleeves.

Massan thrashed about, trying to shake off whatever it was. No use.

Then his detector screen was lifted slowly from the viewplate. He
felt something vibrating on his helmet. The oxygen tubes! They were
being disconnected.

He screamed and tried to fight free. No use. With a hiss, the oxygen
tubes pulled free of his helmet. Massan could feel the blood pounding
through his veins as he fought desperately to free himself.

Now he was being pushed down into the sea. He screamed again and tried
to wrench his body away. The frothing sea filled his viewplate. He was
under. He was being held under. And now ... now the viewplate itself
was being loosened.

_No! Don't!_ The scalding cold methane ammonia sea seeped in through
the opening viewplate.

"It's only a dream!" Massan shouted to himself. "Only a dream. A
dream. A--"


XI

Dr. Leoh stared at the dinner table without really seeing it. Coming
to the restaurant had been Hector's idea. Three hours earlier, Massan
had been removed from the dueling machine--dead.

Leoh sat stolidly, hands in lap, his mind racing in many different
directions at once. Hector was off at the phone, getting the latest
information from the meditechs. Odal had expressed his regrets
perfunctorily, and then left for the Kerak Embassy, under a heavy
escort of his own plainclothes guards. The government of the
Acquataine Cluster was quite literally falling apart, with no man
willing to assume responsibility ... and thereby expose himself. One
hour after the duel, Kanus' troops had landed on all the major planets
of the Szarno Confederacy; the annexation was a _fait accompli_.

_And what have I done since I arrived on Acquatainia?_ Leoh demanded
of himself. _Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I have sat back like a
doddering old professor and played academic games with the machine,
while younger, more vigorous men have USED the machine to suit their
purposes._

Used the machine. There was a fragment of an idea in that phrase.
Something nebulous, that must be approached carefully or it will fade
away. Used the machine, ... used it ... Leoh toyed with the phrase for
a few moments then gave it up with a sigh of resignation. _Lord, I'm
too tired even to think._

Leoh focused his attention on his surroundings and scanned the busy
dining room. It was a beautiful place, really; decorated with crystal
and genuine woods and fabric draperies. Not a synthetic in sight. The
waiters and cooks and busboys were humans, not the autocookers and
servers that most restaurants employed. Leoh suddenly felt touched at
Hector's attempt to restore his spirits--even if it was being done at
Star Watch expense.

He saw the young Watchman approaching the table, coming back from the
phone. Hector bumped two waiters and stumbled over a chair before
reaching the relative safety of his own seat.

"What's the verdict?" Leoh asked.

Hector's lean face was bleak. "Couldn't revive him. Cerebral
hemorrhage, the meditechs said--induced by shock."

"Shock?"

"That's what they said. Something must've, uh, overloaded his nervous
system ... I guess."

Leoh shook his head. "I just don't understand any of this. I might as
well admit it. I'm no closer to an answer now than I was when I
arrived here. Perhaps I should have retired years ago, before the
dueling machine was invented."

"Nonsense."

"No, I mean it." Leoh said. "This is the first real intellectual
puzzle I've had to contend with in years. Tinkering with machinery ...
that's easy. You know what you want, all you need is to make the
machinery perform properly. But this ... I'm afraid I'm too old to
handle a real problem like this."

Hector scratched his nose thoughtfully, then answered, "If you can't
handle the problem, sir, then we're going to have a war on our hands
in a matter of weeks. I mean, Kanus won't be satisfied with swallowing
the Szarno group ... the Acquataine Cluster is next ... and he'll have
to fight to get it."

"Then the Star Watch can step in," Leoh said, resignedly.

"Maybe ... but it'll take time to mobilize the Star Watch ... Kanus
can move a lot faster than we can. Sure, we could throw in a task
force ... a token group, that is. But Kanus' gang will chew them up
pretty quick. I ... I'm no politician, sir, but I think I can see what
will happen. Kerak will gobble up the Acquataine Cluster ... a Star
Watch task force will be wiped out in the battle ... and we'll end up
with Kerak at war with the Terran Commonwealth. And it'll be a real
war ... a big one."

Leoh began to answer, then stopped. His eyes were fixed on the far
entrance of the dining room. Suddenly every murmur in the busy room
stopped dead. Waiters stood still between tables. Eating, drinking,
conversation hung suspended.

Hector turned in his chair and saw at the far entrance the slim,
stiff, blue-uniformed figure of Odal.

The moment of silence passed. Everyone turned to his own business and
avoided looking at the Kerak major. Odal, with a faint smile on his
thin face, made his way slowly to the table where Hector and Leoh were
sitting.

They rose to greet him and exchanged perfunctory salutations. Odal
pulled up a chair and sat with them.

"I assume that you've been looking for me," Leoh said. "What do you
wish to say?"

Before Odal could answer, the waiter assigned to the table walked up,
took a position where his back would be to the Kerak major, and asked
firmly, "Your dinner is ready gentlemen. Shall I serve it now?"

Leoh hesitated a moment, then asked Odal, "Will you join us?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Serve it now," Hector said. "The major will be leaving shortly."

Again the tight grin broke across Odal's face. The waiter bowed and
left.

"I have been thinking about our conversation of last night," Odal said
to Leoh.

"Yes?"

"You accused me of cheating in my duels."

Leoh's eyebrows arched. "I said someone was cheating, yes--"

"An accusation is an accusation."

Leoh said nothing.

"Do you withdraw your words, or do you still accuse me of deliberate
murder? I am willing to allow you to apologize and leave Acquatainia
in peace."

Hector cleared his throat noisily. "This is no place to have an
argument ... besides, here comes our dinner."

Odal ignored the Watchman. "You heard me, professor. Will you leave?
Or do you accuse me of murdering Massan this afternoon?"

"I--"

Hector banged his fist on the table and jerked up out of his
chair--just as the waiter arrived with a large tray of food. There was
a loud crash. A tureen of soup, two bowls of salad, glasses, assorted
rolls, vegetables, cheeses and other delicacies cascaded over Odal.

The Kerak major leaped to his feet, swearing violently in his native
tongue. He sputtered back into basic Terran: "You clumsy, stupid oaf!
You maggot-brained misbegotten peasant-faced--"

Hector calmly picked a salad leaf from the sleeve of his tunic. Odal
abruptly stopped his tirade.

"I am clumsy," Hector said, grinning. "As for being stupid, and the
rest of it, I resent that. I am highly insulted."

A flash of recognition lighted Odal's eyes. "I see. Of course. My
quarrel here is not with you. I apologize." He turned back to Leoh,
who was also standing now.

"Not good enough," Hector said. "I don't, uh, like the ... tone of
your apology."

Leoh raised a hand, as if to silence the younger man.

"I apologized; that is sufficient." Odal warned.

Hector took a step toward Odal. "I guess I could insult your glorious
leader, or something like that ... but this seems more direct." He
took the water pitcher from the table and poured it calmly and
carefully over Odal's head.

A wave of laughter swept the room. Odal went white. "You are
determined to die." He wiped the dripping water from his eyes. "I will
meet you before the week is out. And you have saved no one." He turned
on his heel and stalked out.

"Do you realize what you've done?" Leoh asked, aghast.

Hector shrugged. "He was going to challenge you--"

"He will still challenge me, after you're dead."

"Uu-m-m, yes, well, maybe so. I guess you're right--Well, anyway,
we've gained a little more time."

"Four days." Leoh shook his head. "Four days to the end of the week.
All right, come on, we have work to do."

Hector was grinning broadly as they left the restaurant. He began to
whistle.

"What are you so happy about?" Leoh grumbled.

"About you, sir. When we came in here, you were, uh, well ... almost
beaten. Now you're right back in the game again."

Leoh glanced at the Star Watchman. "In your own odd way, Hector,
you're quite a boy ... I think."


XII

Their groundcar glided from the parking building to the restaurant's
entrance ramp, at the radio call of the doorman. Within minutes,
Hector and Leoh were cruising through the city, in the deepening
shadows of night.

"There's only one man," Leoh said, "who has faced Odal and lived
through it."

"Dulaq," Hector agreed. "But ... for all the information the medical
people have been able to get from him, he might as well be, uh, dead."

"He's still completely withdrawn?"

Hector nodded. "The medicos think that ... well, maybe in a few
months, with drugs and psychotherapy and all that ... they might be
able to bring him back."

"It won't be soon enough. We've only got four days."

"I know."

Leoh was silent for several minutes. Then: "Who is Dulaq's closest
living relative? Does he have a wife?"

"I think his wife is, uh, dead. Has a daughter though. Pretty girl.
Bumped into her in the hospital once or twice--"

Leoh smiled in the darkness. Hector's term, "bumped into" was probably
completely literal.

"Why are you asking about Dulaq's next-of-kin?"

"Because," Leoh replied, "I think there might be a way to make Dulaq
tell us what happened during his duel. But it is a very dangerous way.
Perhaps a fatal way."

"Oh."

They lapsed into silence again. Finally he blurted, "Come on, my boy,
let's find the daughter and talk to her."

"Tonight?"

"Now."

       *       *       *       *       *

_She certainly is a pretty girl_, Leoh thought as he explained very
carefully to Geri Dulaq what he proposed to do. She sat quietly and
politely in the spacious living room of the Dulaq residence. The
glittering chandelier cast touches of fire on her chestnut hair. Her
slim body was slightly rigid with tension, her hands were clasped in
her lap. Her face--which looked as though it could be very
expressive--was completely serious now.

[Illustration]

"And that is the sum of it," Leoh concluded. "I believe that it will
be possible to use the dueling machine itself to examine your father's
thoughts and determine exactly what took place during his duel against
Major Odal!"

She asked softly, "But you are afraid that the shock might be
repeated, and this could be fatal to my father?"

Leoh nodded wordlessly.

"Then I am very sorry, sir, but I must say no." Firmly.

"I understand your feelings," Leoh replied, "but I hope you realize
that unless we can stop Odal and Kanus immediately, we may very well
be faced with war."

She nodded. "I know. But you must remember that we are speaking of my
father, of his very life. Kanus will have his war in any event, no
matter what I do."

"Perhaps," Leoh admitted. "Perhaps."

Hector and Leoh drove back to the University campus and their quarters
in the dueling machine chamber. Neither of them slept well that night.

The next morning, after an unenthusiastic breakfast, they found
themselves standing in the antiseptic-white chamber, before the
looming, impersonal intricacy of the machine.

"Would you like to practice with it?" Leoh asked.

Hector shook his head. "Maybe later."

The phone chimed in Leoh's office. They both went in. Geri Dulaq's
face showed on the tri-di screen.

"I have just heard the news. I did not know that Lieutenant Hector has
challenged Odal." Her face was a mixture of concern and reluctance.

"He challenged Odal," Leoh answered, "to prevent the assassin from
challenging me."

"Oh--You are a very brave man, lieutenant."

Hector's face went through various contortions and slowly turned a
definite red, but no words issued from his mouth.

"Have you reconsidered your decision?" Leoh asked.

The girl closed her eyes briefly, then said flatly, "I am afraid I
cannot change my decision. My father's safety is my first
responsibility. I am sorry."

They exchanged a few meaningless trivialities--with Hector still
thoroughly tongue-tied and ended the conversation on a polite but
strained note.

Leoh rubbed his thumb across the phone switch for a moment, then
turned to Hector. "My boy, I think it would be a good idea for you to
go straight to the hospital and check on Dulaq's condition."

"But ... why--"

"Don't argue, son. This could be vitally important."

Hector shrugged and left the office. Leoh sat down at his desk and
drummed his fingers on the top of it. Then he burst out of the office
and began pacing the big chamber. Finally, even that was too
confining. He left the building and started stalking through the
campus. He walked past a dozen buildings, turned and strode as far as
the decorative fence that marked the end of the main campus, ignoring
students and faculty alike.

_Campuses are all alike_, he muttered to himself, _on every human
planet, for all the centuries there have been universities. There must
be some fundamental reason for it._

Leoh was halfway back to the dueling machine facility when he spotted
Hector walking dazedly toward the same building. For once, the
Watchman was not whistling. Leoh cut across some lawn and pulled up
beside the youth.

"Well?" he asked.

Hector shook his head, as if to clear away an inner fog. "How did you
know she'd be at the hospital?"

"The wisdom of age. What happened?"

"She kissed me. Right there in the hallway of the--"

"Spare me the geography," Leoh cut in. "What did she say?"

"I bumped into her in the hallway. We, uh, started talking ... sort
of. She seemed, well ... worried about me. She got upset. Emotional.
You know? I guess I looked pretty forlorn and frightened. I am ... I
guess. When you get right down to it, I mean."

"You aroused her maternal instinct."

"I ... I don't think it was that ... exactly. Well, anyway, she said
that if I was willing to risk my life to save yours, she couldn't
protect her father any more. Said she was doing it out of selfishness,
really, since he's her only living relative. I don't believe she meant
that, but she said it anyway."

They had reached the building by now. Leoh grabbed Hector's arm and
steered him clear of a collision with the half-open door.

"She's agreed to let us put Dulaq in the dueling machine?"

"Sort of."

"Eh?"

"The medical staff doesn't want him to be moved from the hospital ...
especially not back to here. She agrees with them."

Leoh snorted. "All right. In fact, so much the better. I'd rather not
have the Kerak people see us bring Dulaq to the dueling machine. So
instead, we shall smuggle the dueling machine to Dulaq!"


XIII

They plunged to work immediately. Leoh preferred not to inform the
regular staff of the dueling machine about their plan, so he and
Hector had to work through the night and most of the next morning.
Hector barely understood what he was doing, but with Leoh's
supervision, he managed to dismantle part of the dueling machine's
central network, insert a few additional black boxes that the
professor had conjured up from the spare parts bins in the basement,
and then reconstruct the machine so that it looked exactly the same as
before they had started.

In between his frequent trips to oversee Hector's work, Leoh had
jury-rigged a rather bulky headset and a hand-sized override control
circuit.

The late morning sun was streaming through the tall windows when Leoh
finally explained it all to Hector.

"A simple matter of technological improvisation," he told the
bewildered Watchman. "You have installed a short-range transceiver
into the machine, and this headset is a portable transceiver for
Dulaq. Now he can sit in his hospital bed and still be 'in' the
dueling machine."

Only the three most trusted members of the hospital staff were taken
into Leoh's confidence, and they were hardly enthusiastic about Leoh's
plan.

"It is a waste of time," said the chief psychophysician, shaking his
white-maned head vigorously. "You cannot expect a patient who has
shown no positive response to drugs and therapy to respond to your
machine."

Leoh argued, Geri Dulaq coaxed. Finally the doctors agreed. With only
two days remaining before Hector's duel with Odal, they began to probe
Dulaq's mind. Geri remained by her father's bedside while the three
doctors fitted the cumbersome transceiver to Dulaq's head and attached
the electrodes for the automatic hospital equipment that monitored his
physical condition. Hector and Leoh remained at the dueling machine,
communicating with the hospital by phone.

Leoh made a final check of the controls and circuitry, then put in the
last call to the tense little group in Dulaq's room. All was ready.

He walked out to the machine, with Hector beside him. Their footsteps
echoed hollowly in the sepulchral chamber. Leoh stopped at the nearer
booth.

"Now remember," he said, carefully, "I will be holding the emergency
control unit in my hand. It will stop the duel the instant I set it
off. However, if something should go wrong, you must be prepared to
act quickly. Keep a close watch on my physical condition; I've shown
you which instruments to check on the control board--"

"Yes sir."

Leoh nodded and took a deep breath. "Very well then."

He stepped into the booth and sat down. The emergency control unit
rested on a shelf at his side; he took it in his hands. He leaned back
and waited for the semi-hypnotic effect to take hold. Dulaq's choice
of this very city and the stat-wand were known. But beyond that,
everything was locked and sealed in Dulaq's subconscious mind. Could
the machine reach into that subconscious, probe past the lock and seal
of catatonia, and stimulate Dulaq's mind into repeating the duel?

Slowly, lullingly, the dueling machine's imaginary yet very real mists
enveloped Leoh. When the mists cleared, he was standing on the upper
pedestrian level of the main commercial street of the city. For a long
moment, everything was still.

_Have I made contact? Whose eyes am I seeing with, my own or Dulaq's?_

And then he sensed it--an amused, somewhat astonished marveling at the
reality of the illusion. Dulaq's thoughts!

_Make your mind a blank_, Leoh told himself. _Watch. Listen. Be
passive._

He became a spectator, seeing and hearing the world through Dulaq's
eyes and ears as the Acquatainian Prime Minister advanced through his
nightmarish ordeal. He felt the confusion, frustration, apprehension
and growing terror as, time and again, Odal appeared in the
crowd--only to melt into someone else and escape.

The first part of the duel ended, and Leoh was suddenly buffeted by a
jumble of thoughts and impressions. Then the thoughts slowly cleared
and steadied.

Leoh saw an immense and totally barren plain. Not a tree, not a blade
of grass; nothing but bare, rocky ground stretching in all directions
to the horizon and a disturbingly harsh yellow sky. At his feet was
the weapon Odal had chosen. A primitive club.

He shared Dulaq's sense of dread as he picked up the club and hefted
it. Off on the horizon he could see a tall, lithe figure holding a
similar club walking toward him.

Despite himself, Leoh could feel his own excitement. He had broken
through the shock-created armor that Dulaq's mind had erected! Dulaq
was reliving the part of the duel that had caused the shock.

Reluctantly, he advanced to meet Odal. But as they drew closer
together, the one figure of his opponent seemed to split apart. Now
there were two, four, six of them. Six Odals, six mirror images, all
armed with massive, evil clubs, advancing steadily on him.

Six tall, lean, blond assassins, with six cold smiles on their intent
faces.

Horrified, completely panicked, he scrambled away, trying to evade the
six opponents with the half-dozen clubs raised and poised to strike.

Their young legs and lungs easily outdistanced him. A smash on his
back sent him sprawling. One of them kicked his weapon away.

They stood over him for a malevolent, gloating second. Then six strong
arms flashed down, again and again, mercilessly. Pain and blood,
screaming agony, punctuated by the awful thudding of solid clubs
hitting fragile flesh and bone, over and over again, endlessly.

Everything went blank.

       *       *       *       *       *

Leoh opened his eyes and saw Hector bending over him.

"Are you all right, sir?"

"I ... I think so."

"The controls all hit the danger mark at once. You were ... well, sir,
you were screaming."

"I don't doubt it," Leoh said.

They walked, with Leoh leaning on Hector's arm, from the dueling
machine booth to the office.

"That was ... an experience." Leoh said, easing himself onto the
couch.

"What happened? What did Odal do? What made Dulaq go into shock? How
does--"

The old man silenced Hector with a wave of his hand, "One question at
a time, please."

Leoh leaned back on the deep couch and told Hector every detail of
both parts of the duel.

"Six Odals," Hector muttered soberly, leaning back against the
doorframe. "Six against one."

"That's what he did. It's easy to see how a man expecting a polite,
formal duel can be completely shattered by the viciousness of such an
attack. And the machine amplifies every impulse, every sensation."

"But how does he do it?" Hector asked, his voice suddenly loud and
demanding.

"I've been asking myself the same question. We've checked over the
dueling machine time and again. There is no possible way for Odal to
plug in five helpers ... unless--"

"Unless?"

Leoh hesitated, seemingly debating with himself. Finally he nodded his
head sharply, and answered. "Unless Odal is a telepath."

"Telepath? But--"

"I know it sounds farfetched. But there have been well-documented
cases of telepathy for centuries throughout the Commonwealth."

Hector frowned. "Sure, everybody's heard about it ... natural
telepaths ... but they're so unpredictable ... I don't see how--"

Leoh leaned forward on the couch and clasped his hands in front of his
chin. "The Terran races have never developed telepathy, or any of the
extrasensory talents. They never had to, not with tri-di
communications and superlight starships. But perhaps the Kerak people
are different--"

Hector shook his head. "If they had uh, telepathic abilities, they
would be using them everywhere. Don't you think?"

"Probably so. But only Odal has shown such an ability, and only ...
_of course!_"

"What?"

"Odal has shown telepathic ability only in the dueling machine."

"As far as we know."

"Certainly. But look, supposed he's a natural telepath ... the same as
a Terran. He has an erratic, difficult-to-control talent. Then he gets
into a dueling machine. The machine amplifies his thoughts. And it
also amplifies his talent!"

"Ohhh."

"You see ... outside the machine, he's no better than any wandering
fortuneteller. But the dueling machine gives his natural abilities the
amplification and reproducibility that they could never have unaided."

Hector nodded.

"So it's fairly straightforward matter for him to have five associates
in the Kerak Embassy sit in on the duel, so to speak. Possibly they
are natural telepaths also, but they needn't be."

"They just, uh, pool their minds with his, hm-m-m? Six men show in the
duel ... pretty nasty." Hector dropped into the desk chair.

"So what do we do now?"

"Now?" Leoh blinked at his young friend. "Why ... I suppose the first
thing we should do is call the hospital and see how Dulaq came
through."

Leoh put the call through. Geri Dulaq's face appeared on the screen.

"How's your father?" Hector blurted.

"The duel was too much for him," she said blankly. "He is dead."

"No," Leoh groaned.

"I ... I'm sorry," Hector said. "I'll be right down there. Stay where
you are."

The young Star Watchman dashed out of the office as Geri broke the
phone connection. Leoh stared at the blank screen for a few moments,
then leaned far back in the couch and closed his eyes. He was suddenly
exhausted, physically and emotionally. He fell asleep, and dreamed of
men dead and dying.

Hector's nerve-shattering whistling woke him up. It was full night
outside.

"What are you so happy about?" Leoh groused as Hector popped into the
office.

"Happy? Me?"

"You were whistling."

Hector shrugged. "I always whistle, sir. Doesn't mean I'm happy."

"All right," Leoh said, rubbing his eyes. "How did the girl take her
father's death?"

"Pretty hard. Cried a lot."

Leoh looked at the younger man. "Does she blame ... me?"

"You? Why, no sir. Why should she? Odal ... Kanus ... the Kerak
Worlds. But not you."

The old professor sighed, relieved. "Very well. Now then, we have much
work to do, and little more than a day in which to finish it."

"What do you want me to do?" Hector asked.

"Phone the Star Watch Commander--"

"My commanding officer, all the way back at Alpha Perseus VI? That's a
hundred light-years from here."

"No, no, no." Leoh shook his head. "The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Harold
Spencer. At Star Watch Central Headquarters. That's several hundred
parsecs from here. But get through to him as quickly as possible."

With a low whistle of astonishment, Hector began punching buttons on
the phone switch.


XIV

The morning of the duel arrived, and precisely at the agreed-upon
hour, Odal and a small retinue of Kerak representatives stepped though
the double doors of the dueling machine chamber.

Hector and Leoh were already there, waiting. With them stood another
man dressed in the black-and-silver of the Star Watch. He was a
blocky, broad-faced veteran with iron-gray hair and hard, unsmiling
eyes.

The two little groups of men knotted together in the center of the
room, before the machine's control board. The white-uniformed staff
meditechs emerged from a far doorway and stood off to one side.

Odal went through the formality of shaking hands with Hector. The
Kerak major nodded toward the other Watchman. "Your replacement?" he
asked mischievously.

The chief meditech stepped between them. "Since you are the challenged
party, Major Odal, you have the first choice of weapon and
environment. Are there any instructions or comments necessary before
the duel begins?"

"I think not," Odal replied. "The situation will be self-explanatory.
I assume, of course, that Star Watchmen are trained to be warriors and
not merely technicians. The situation I have chosen is one in which
many warriors have won glory."

Hector said nothing.

"I intend," Leoh said firmly, "to assist the staff in monitoring this
duel. Your aides may, of course, sit at the control board with me."

Odal nodded.

"If you are ready to begin, gentleman," the chief meditech said.

Hector and Odal went to their booths. Leoh sat at the control console,
and one of the Kerak men sat down next to him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hector felt every nerve and muscle tensed as he sat in the booth,
despite his efforts to relax. Slowly the tension eased, and he began
to feel slightly drowsy. The booth seemed to melt away....

He was standing on a grassy meadow. Off in the distance were wooded
hills. A cool breeze was hustling puffy clouds across the calm blue
sky.

Hector heard a snuffling noise behind him, and wheeled around. He
blinked, then stared.

It had four legs, and was evidently a beast of burden. At least, it
carried a saddle on its back. Piled atop the saddle was a
conglomeration of which looked to Hector--at first glance--like a pile
of junk. He went over to the animal and examined it carefully. The
"junk" turned out to be a long spear, various pieces of armor, a
helmet, sword, shield, battle-ax and dagger.

_The situation I have chosen is one in which many warriors have won
glory._ Hector puzzled over the assortment of weapons. They came
straight out of Kerak's Dark Ages. No doubt Odal had been practicing
with them for months, even years. He may not need five helpers.

Warily, Hector put on the armor. The breastplate seemed too big, and
he was somehow unable to tighten the greaves on his shins properly.
The helmet fit over his head like an ancient oil can, flattening his
ears and nose and forcing him to squint to see through the narrow
eye-slit.

Finally, he buckled on the sword and found attachments on the saddle
for the other weapons. The shield was almost too heavy to lift, and he
barely struggled into the saddle with all the weight he was carrying.

And then he just sat. He began to feel a little ridiculous. _Suppose
it rains?_ he wondered. But of course it wouldn't.

After an interminable wait, Odal appeared, on a powerful trotting
charger. His armor was black as space, and so was his animal.
_Naturally_, Hector thought.

Odal saluted gravely with his great spear from across the meadow.
Hector returned the salute, nearly dropping his spear in the process.

Then, Odal lowered the spear and aimed it--so it seemed to
Hector--directly at the Watchman's ribs. He pricked his mount into a
canter. Hector did the same, and his steed jogged into a bumping,
jolting gallop. The two warriors hurtled toward each other from
opposite ends of the meadow.

And suddenly there were six black figured roaring down on Hector!

The Watchman's stomach wrenched within him. Automatically he tried to
turn his mount aside. But the beast had no intention of going anywhere
except straight ahead. The Kerak warriors bore in, six abreast, with
six spears aimed menacingly.

Abruptly, Hector heard the pounding of other hoof-beats right beside
him. Through a corner of his helmet-slit he glimpsed at least two
other warriors charging with him into Odal's crew.

Leoh's gamble had worked. The transceiver that had allowed Dulaq to
make contact with the dueling machine from his hospital bed was now
allowing five Star Watch officers to join Hector, even though they
were physically sitting in a starship orbiting high above the planet.

The odds were even now. The five additional Watchmen were the
roughest, hardiest, most aggressive man-to-man fighters that the Star
Watch could provide on a one-day notice.

Twelve powerful chargers met head on, and twelve strong men smashed
together with an ear-splitting CLANG! Shattered spears showered
splinters everywhere. Men and animals went down.

Hector was rocked back in his saddle, but somehow managed to avoid
falling off.

On the other hand, he could not really regain his balance, either.
Dust and weapons filled the air. A sword hissed near his head and
rattled off his shield.

With a supreme effort. Hector pulled out his own sword and thrashed at
the nearest rider. It turned out to be a fellow Watchman, but the
stroke bounced harmlessly off his helmet.

It was so confusing. The wheeling, snorting animals. Clouds of dust.
Screaming, raging men. A black-armored rider charged into Hector,
waving a battle-ax over his head. He chopped savagely, and the
Watchmans's shield split apart. Another frightening swing--Hector
tried to duck and slid completely out of the saddle, thumping
painfully on the ground, while the ax cleaved the air where his head
had been a split-second earlier.

Somehow his helmet had been turned around. Hector tried to decide
whether to thrash around blindly or lay down his sword and straighten
out the helmet. The problem was solved for him by the _crang!_ of a
sword against the back of his helmet. The blow flipped him into a
somersault, but also knocked the helmet completely off his head.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hector climbed painfully to his feet, his head spinning. It took him
several moments to realize that the battle had stopped. The dust
drifted away, and he saw that all the Kerak fighters were down--except
one. The black-armored warrior took off his helmet and tossed it
aside. It was Odal. Or was it? They all looked alike. _What difference
does it make?_ Hector wondered. _Odal's mind is the dominant one._

Odal stood, legs braced apart, sword in hand, and looked uncertainly
at the other Star Watchman. Three of them were afoot and two still
mounted. The Kerak assassin seemed as confused as Hector felt. The
shock of facing equal numbers had sapped much of his confidence.

Cautiously he advanced toward Hector, holding his sword out before
him. The other Watchmen stood aside while Hector slowly backpedaled,
stumbling slightly on the uneven ground.

Odal feinted and cut at Hector's arm. The Watchman barely parried in
time. Another feint, at the head, and a slash into the chest; Hector
missed the parry but his armor saved him. Grimly, Odal kept advancing.
Feint, feint, crack! and Hector's sword went flying from his hand.

For the barest instant everyone froze. Then Hector leaped desperately
straight at Odal, caught him completely by surprise, and wrestled him
to the ground. The Watchman pulled the sword from his opponent's hand
and tossed it away. But with his free hand, Odal clouted Hector on the
side of the head and knocked him on his back. Both men scrambled up
and ran for the nearest weapons.

Odal picked up a wicked-looking double-bladed ax. One of the mounted
Star Watchmen handed Hector a huge broadsword. He gripped it with both
hands, but still staggered off-balance as he swung it up over his
shoulder.

Holding the broadsword aloft, Hector charged toward Odal, who stood
dogged, short-breathed, sweat-streaked, waiting for him. The
broadsword was quite heavy, even for a two handed grip. And Hector did
not notice his own battered helmet laying on the ground between them.

Odal, for his part, had Hector's charge and swing timed perfectly in
his own mind. He would duck under the swing and bury his ax in the
Watchman's chest. Then he would face the others. Probably with their
leader gone, the duel would automatically end. But, of course, Hector
would not really be dead; the best Odal could hope for now was to win
the duel.

Hector charged directly into Odal's plan, but the Watchman's timing
was much poorer than anticipated. Just as he began the downswing of a
mighty broadsword stroke, he stumbled on the helmet. Odal started to
duck, then saw that the Watchman was diving face-first into the
ground, legs flailing, and that heavy broadsword was cleaving through
the air with a will of its own.

Odal pulled back in confusion, only to have the wild-swinging
broadsword strike him just above the wrist. The ax dropped out of his
hand, and Odal involuntarily grasped the wounded forearm with his left
hand. Blood seeped through his fingers.

He shook his head in bitter resignation, turned his back on the
prostrate Hector, and began walking away.

Slowly, the scene faded, and Hector found himself sitting in the booth
of the dueling machine.


XV

The door opened and Leoh squeezed into the booth.

"You're all right?"

Hector blinked and refocused his eyes on reality. "Think so--"

"Everything went well? The Watchmen got through to you?"

"Good thing they did. I was nearly killed anyway."

"But you survived."

"So far."

Across the room, Odal stood massaging his forehead while Kor demanded:
"How could they possibly have discovered the secret? Where was the
leak?"

"That is not important now," Odal said quietly. "The primary fact is
that they have not only discovered our secret, but they have found a
way of duplicating it."

"The sanctimonious hypocrites," Kor snarled, "accusing us of cheating,
and then they do the same thing."

"Regardless of the moral values of our mutual behavior," Odal said
dryly, "it is evident that there is no longer any use in calling on
telepathically-guided assistants, I shall face the Watchman alone
during the second half of the duel."

"Can you trust them to do the same?"

"Yes. They easily defeated my aides a few minutes ago, then stood
aside and allowed the two of us to fight by ourselves."

"And you failed to defeat him?"

Odal frowned, "I was wounded by a fluke. He is a very ... unusual
opponent. I cannot decide whether he is actually as clumsy as he
appears to be, or whether he is shamming and trying to make me
overconfident. Either way, it is impossible to predict his behavior.
Perhaps he is also telepathic."

Kor's gray eyes became flat and emotionless. "You know, of course, how
the Chancellor will react if you fail to kill this Watchman. Not
merely defeat him. He must be killed. The aura of invincibility must
be maintained."

"I will do my best," Odal said.

"He must be killed."

The chime that marked the end of the rest period sounded. Odal and
Hector returned to the their booths. Now it was Hector's choice of
environment and weapons.

Odal found himself enveloped in darkness. Only gradually did his eyes
adjust. He saw that he was in a spacesuit. For several minutes he
stood motionless, peering into the darkness, every sense alert, every
muscle coiled for immediate action.

[Illustration]

Dimly he could see the outlines of jagged rock against a background of
innumerable stars. Experimentally, he lifted one foot. It stuck
tackily, to the surface. _Magnetized boots_, Odal thought. _This must
be a planetoid._

As his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, he saw that he was right.
It was a small planetoid, perhaps a mile or so in diameter. Almost
zero gravity. Airless.

Odal swiveled his head inside the fishbowl helmet of his spacesuit and
saw, over his right shoulder, the figure of Hector--lank and ungainly
even with the bulky suit. For a moment, Odal puzzled over the weapon
to be used. Then Hector bent down, picked up a loose stone,
straightened, and tossed it softly past Odal's head. The Kerak major
watched it sail by and off into the darkness of space, never to return
to the tiny planetoid.

_A warning shot_, Odal thought to himself. He wondered how much damage
one could do with a nearly weightless stone, then remembered that
inertial mass was unaffected by gravitational fields, or the lack of
them. A fifty-pound rock might be easier to lift, but it would be just
as hard to throw--and it would do just as much damage when it hit,
regardless of its gravitational "weight."

Odal crouched down and selected a stone the size of his fist. He rose
carefully, sighted Hector standing a hundred yards or so away, and
threw as hard as he could.

The effort of his throw sent him tumbling off-balance, and the stone
was far off-target. He fell to his hands and knees, bounced lightly
and skidded to a stop. Immediately he drew his feet up under his body
and planted the magnetized soles of his boots firmly on the iron-rich
surface.

But before he could stand again, a small stone _pinged_ lightly off
his oxygen tank. The Star Watchman had his range already!

Odal scrambled to the nearest upjutting rocks and crouched behind
them. _Lucky I didn't rip open the spacesuit_, he told himself. Three
stones, evidently hurled in salvo, ticked off the top of the top of
the rocks he was hunched behind. One of the stones bounced into his
fishbowl helmet.

Odal scooped up a handful of pebbles and tossed them in Hector's
general direction. That should make him duck. Perhaps he'll stumble
and crack his helmet open.

Then he grinned to himself. That's it. Kor wants him dead, and that is
the way to do it. Pin him under a big rock, then bury him alive under
more rocks. A few at a time, stretched out nicely. While his oxygen
supply gives out. That should put enough stress on his nervous system
to hospitalize him, at least. Then he can assassinated by more
conventional means. Perhaps he will even be as obliging as Massan, and
have a fatal stroke.

A large rock. One that is light enough to lift and throw, yet also big
enough to pin him for a few moments. Once he is down, it will be easy
enough to bury him under more rocks.

The Kerak major spotted a boulder of the proper size, a few yards
away. He backed toward it, throwing small stones in Hector's direction
to keep the Watchman busy. In return, a barrage of stones began
striking all around him. Several hit him, one hard enough to knock him
slightly off-balance.

[Illustration]

Slowly, patiently, Odal reached his chosen weapon--an oblong boulder,
about the size of a small chair. He crouched behind it and tugged at
it experimentally. It moved slightly. Another stone zinged off his
arm, hard enough to hurt. Odal could see Hector clearly now, standing
atop a small rise, calmly firing pellets at him. He smiled as he
coiled, catlike, and tensed himself. He gripped the boulder with his
arms and hands.

Then in one vicious uncoiling motion he snatched it up, whirled
around, and hurled it at Hector. The violence of his action sent him
tottering awkwardly as he released the boulder. He fell to the ground,
but kept his eyes fixed on the boulder as it tumbled end over end,
directly at the Watchman.

For an eternally-long instant Hector stood motionless, seemingly
entranced. Then he leaped sideways, floating dreamlike in the low
gravity, as the stone hurtled inexorably past him.

Odal pounded his fist on the ground in fury. He started up, only to
have a good-sized stone slam against his shoulder, and knock him flat
again. He looked up in time to see Hector fire another. The stone
puffed into the ground inches from Odal's helmet. The Kerak major
flattened himself. Several more stones clattered on his helmet and
oxygen tank. Then silence.

Odal looked up and saw Hector squatting down, reaching for more
ammunition. The Kerak warrior stood up quickly, his own fists filled
with throwing stones. He cocked his arm to throw--

But something made him turn to look behind him. The boulder loomed
before his eyes, still tumbling slowly, as it had when he had thrown
it. It was too close and too big to avoid. It smashed into Odal,
picked him off his feet and slammed against the upjutting rocks a few
yards away.

Even before he started to feel the pain in his midsection, Odal began
trying to push the boulder off. But he could not get enough leverage.
Then he saw the Star Watchman's form standing over him.

"I didn't really think you'd fall for it," Odal heard Hector's voice
in his earphones. "I mean ... didn't you realize that the boulder was
too massive to escape completely after it had missed me? You could've
calculated its orbit ... you just threw it into a, uh, six-minute
orbit around the planetoid. It _had_ to come back to perigee ... right
where you were standing when you threw it, you know."

Odal said nothing, but strained every cell in his pain-wracked body to
get free of the boulder. Hector reached over his shoulder and began
fumbling with the valves that were pressed against the rocks.

"Sorry to do this ... but I'm not, uh, killing you, at least ... just
defeating you. Let's see ... one of these is the oxygen valve, and the
other, I think, is the emergency rocket pack ... now, which is which?"
Odal felt the Watchman's hands searching for the proper valve. "I
should've dreamed up suits without the rocket pack ... confuses things ...
there, that's it."

Hector's hand tightened on a valve and turned it sharply. The rocket
roared to life and Odal was hurtled free of the boulder, shot
uncontrolled completely off the planetoid. Hector was bowled over by
the blast and rolled halfway around the tiny chink of rock and metal.

Odal tried to reach around to throttle down the rocket, but the pain
in his body was too great. He was slipping into unconsciousness. He
fought against it. He knew he must return to the planetoid and somehow
kill the opponent. But gradually the pain overpowered him. His eyes
were closing, closing--

And, quite abruptly, he found himself sitting in the booth of the
dueling machine. It took a moment for him to realize that he was back
in the real world. Then his thoughts cleared. He had failed to kill
Hector.

And at the door of the booth stood Kor, his face a grim mask of anger.


XVI

The office was that of the new prime minister of the Acquataine
Cluster. It had been loaned to Leoh for his conversation with Sir
Harold Spencer. For the moment, it seemed like a great double room:
half of it was dark, warm woods, rich draperies, floor-to-ceiling
bookcases. The other half, from the tri-di screen onward, was the
austere, metallic utility of a starship compartment.

Spencer was saying, "So this hired assassin, after killing four men
and nearly wrecking a government, has returned to his native worlds."

Leoh nodded. "He returned under guard. I suppose he is in disgrace, or
perhaps even under arrest."

"Servants of a dictator never know when they will be the ones who are
served--on a platter." Spencer chuckled. "And the Watchman who
assisted you, this Junior Lieutenant Hector, what of him?"

"He's not here just now. The Dulaq girl has him in tow, somewhere.
Evidently it's the first time he's been a hero--"

Spencer shifted his weight in his chair. "I have long prided myself on
the conviction that any Star Watch officer can handle almost any kind
of emergency anywhere in the galaxy. From your description of the past
few weeks, I was beginning to have my doubts. However, Junior
Lieutenant Hector seems to have won the day ... almost in spite of
himself."

"Don't underestimate him," Leoh said, smiling. "He turned out to be an
extremely valuable man. I think he will make a fine officer."

Spencer grunted an affirmative.

"Well," Leoh said, "that's the complete story, to date. I believe that
Odal is finished. But the Kerak Worlds have made good their annexation
of the Szarno Confederacy, and the Acquataine Cluster is still very
wobbly, politically. We haven't heard the last of Kanus--not by a long
shot."

Spencer lifted a shaggy eyebrow. "Neither," he rumbled, "has he heard
the last from us."

       *       *       *       *       *





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