Wearing perfectly pressed trousers and shiny boots, Captain Maddox of Star Watch Intelligence flexed his bare chest. Muscles like strings of steel writhed upon his lean frame. He gripped a viper stick, swishing it back and forth, so the spectators murmured uneasily.
A mansion rose in the distance, a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. It belonged to Octavian Nerva of Nerva Incorporated, a conglomerate specializing in warship construction. Through an extraordinarily long life, Octavian had clawed his way into becoming the richest man on Earth.
Caius Nerva—the founder’s youngest son—stood on the opposite end of the meadow as Maddox. The thickly muscled man had glassy eyes, moving in a half stagger as he circled an area he’d already stomped flat. He, too, swished a viper stick.
“He’s intoxicated, sir,” one-eyed Sergeant Riker whispered. “But he’s playacting the stumbling part. I believe he suspects your real intentions and wishes to kill you in order to cover his tracks. I doubt I’ll leave this place alive, either, if that means anything to you, sir.”
Captain Maddox glanced at his one-eyed aide. The Old Guard had thought to saddle him with a seasoned veteran, someone to hold his hand during the investigation.
“You’ve gathered enough evidence tonight, sir,” Riker told him with pleading in his eye. “You were right about Caius’ involvement in the fraud. You’ve solved another case. Isn’t that enough?”
“Go away,” Maddox said.
Sergeant Riker showed his well-known stubborn streak. “Sir, I’ve been thinking about the card games—the last ones in particular. I believe…well, sir, it seems obvious you did cheat. You deliberately pricked Nerva’s infamous pride.”
Captain Maddox raised a single finger. He’d spread his jacket on the dewy grass with his tunic on top. Beside the garment was an open bottle of wine with a goblet keeping it company. Maddox bent low, scooped up the glass and swirled the liquid. He inhaled the aroma, sipped, swallowed, nodded in satisfaction and set the goblet back beside the bottle.
Sergeant Riker scowled. “Sir, Caius has taken the Methuselah Treatment. He looks as if he’s twenty, but he’s really sixty-three.” When Maddox didn’t reply, the sergeant added, “Must I remind you, sir? The cure makes a man stronger, quicker and tougher than a regular person.”
Maddox glanced at the sergeant. “Yes. I suppose that’s true.”
“Then, may I ask why you’re doing this, sir?” the sergeant whispered. “The brigadier will be upset if you duel. And the others…they’ll see this as deliberate provocation.”
As Captain Maddox regarded Caius, he decided to concede a point to his aide. “Let us call this a test, Sergeant.”
Riker blanched. “Sir, I’m not sure you’re hearing me. Do you realize how dangerous viper sticks are?”
“Hmm,” Maddox said.
“A touch against the spine can paralyze a man,” the sergeant said. “A brush across the forehead can take away the ability to speak. Prolonged exposure to the face kills.”
“I shall keep that mind, Sergeant. Thank you.”
“Sir…what could you possibly be testing by provoking a duel with one of the Methuselah People?”
A truth about me, Maddox thought, the words like a gleam of steel in his soul.
Caius Nerva shoved his chief security officer, who had been whispering in his ear. The push caused the other to stumble away. That was no mean feat. The officer was a seven-foot clone, specialized for size and strength.
Turning, Caius Nerva pointed his viper stick at Maddox. “The only way you can back out with a shred of dignity is to declare yourself a cheater. Make your decision, sir. What will it be?”
“Step back, Sergeant,” Maddox said.
“I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” Riker whispered. “Both our lives are in jeopardy.”
Maddox didn’t plan on telling anyone his reason for doing this. He had a secret, something he had come to suspect about himself. Not even the chiefs of Star Watch Intelligence knew about it. If he were correct, his shame would be intense. This morning, he would test himself against one of the Methuselah People. It would be difficult to find a more dangerous opponent for viper stick dueling.
“You deliberately provoked him by cheating at cards,” Riker whispered. “You let him catch you, didn’t you?”
Maddox said nothing.
“This is your last opportunity,” Caius Nerva shouted. His eyes were just as bloodshot as before, but he didn’t look drunk anymore.
Nerva acted like a pompous ass, which proved to be an excellent cover. In reality, the man was a ruthless killer.
Maddox turned sideways, facing the heir. Putting his left hand on his hip, the captain lifted the viper stick. As a fencer, right foot forward, he approached the other.
Several watching women screamed. The sound was full of anticipation.
Nerva gave an ugly laugh. “You’ve sealed your fate, sir. Whatever happens is now on your head.”
Maddox felt heat rise in him. He stuffed it down with icy calm. Viper stick dueling was no place for wild charges. It called for speed, daring and perfect timing.
The sergeant was right. The brigadier had given him an assignment, which he’d gladly accepted. The price for this little change in operational plans might give his enemies in the service a way to bring him down.
Maddox gave another of his apparently uninterested shrugs. He would worry about the consequences later. Now, he narrowed his focus to the present battle.
Maybe Nerva took the shrug for a nervous tic. The man grinned with malice and his dark eyes held a predator’s delight. The heir to the company fortune had killed before, always during a duel. The government frowned on the practice, and it forbade service personnel to take part. Still, duels had come back into fashion with the Laumer Drive that allowed humanity to settle distant worlds. On many colony planets, law and order was hard to come by. Duels became a substitute. Perhaps as important, honor meant something again. Unfortunately, a person like Nerva exploited the concept to indulge a murderous passion.
Maddox studied his opponent. In truth, he’d been gauging the man all night during the billiards games, the brandy sipping, cigar smoking and the intense contests of five-card stud, blackjack and Altair shuffle.
The two warily approached each other. According to custom, Nerva thrust his viper stick high and forward. Maddox did the same. The tips clacked together, causing a sizzling proton discharge.
Maddox felt the vibration buzz in his handle.
Both men crouched slightly and began to circle each other.
The viper sticks were long, a little over six feet and highly flexible. Some duelists used the whip-about. A defender might parry a slash, but the tip would whip across the opposing stick to thrash against a dueler’s shoulder, numbing it, leaving him or her defenseless. Often, such a tactic ended a duel, leaving the victim with a slowly deteriorating deltoid muscle.
Many considered viper stick dueling to be the height of folly, preferring to stick to swords or force blades. Some viper stick conventions allowed the practitioners to wear helmets and padded armor. This time, at Nerva’s insistence, they had stripped to the waist.
As Caius Nerva circled, he showed his teeth and slashed with a speed that shocked all who witnessed it.
Maddox had seen Nerva show the same grin all night, always signaling that the man was about to display something he considered spectacular. It barely gave the captain enough warning. He dropped his right arm so his viper stick avoided the other and shifted to the left. Nerva’s tip swished past, missing by a bare inch.
The spectators oohed with delight.
Nerva had already glided away and his eyes narrowed, perhaps with surprise.
Maddox gave him a cool smile.
Did that goad Nerva? Possibly. Caius launched an assault. The viper stick swished with feral sound. Each of Maddox’s parries brought a sizzling proton discharge and a vibration to the handle. After the seventh shock, his hand tingled with semi-numbness. He wanted to set the stick aside and shake his fingers, flexing them, before resuming the duel. Viper stickers often allowed each other such intermissions. Nerva had insisted on a constant fight, he said, to test their mettle. Maddox hadn’t had any reason to disagree. Now he wondered. Caius Nerva kept a tight grip of his stick, a feat of some accomplishment.
How does he do that?
Even as Maddox wondered, he shifted his fingers before re-gripping. His sweaty hold had become slippery. With speed, he parried, and the viper sticks sizzled once again. Nerva’s nose twitched. Maddox smelled it too. The air between them stank from the proton discharges.
Both men stepped back. Maddox switched hands, flexing his right as he held the viper stick with his left. Quickly, he rubbed his sweaty palm against his trousers.
“I am better than you,” Nerva declared.
Although Maddox’s face remained the same, a silent determination filled his breast. He couldn’t believe the man was doing so well. He had thought…
“You are a dog,” Nerva said. “If you will admit that, I will permit you to crouch like a beast. Then, at my command, you will pull down your trousers, and I will swat you a single time on the bum. In such a way, you will survive this meeting.”
“If you played cards half as well as you boast,” Maddox said in a causal tone, “you wouldn’t have lost quite so often.”