The Duel

The dome shook. The ground quaked; the battered alley walls cracked; the air pressed down upon Corban Priest. He widened his stance and waited for the blow to pass. Concrete dust billowed into the air, shrouding him from his foe’s eyes, and veiling his foe from his.

He was close. Once again, he was very, very close.

“Where are you, villain?” Corban wiped his face with the back of his hand, then re-checked his ammo. It would be enough. “Show yourself! Let’s have done with this.”

Robert McKinley did not answer. He never did. He was a sly, silent snake. Two months without hearing another man’s voice. Fifty-nine nights of cat-and-mouse, cold trails, red herrings, tasteless food, restless sleep, and sudden bursts of gunfire and adrenaline.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Corban fired across the courtyard of shattered cobblestone just beyond the alley, at an amputated statue that still stood, somehow.

Nothing moved.

Then–BOOM! Again, the dome above shook, and the world shuddered, his world, this maze of broken buildings and haunted streets, this long-abandoned city of no importance, this battlefield that would destroy a nation and save another. But Corban no longer cared about treaties and terms of peace. They two lived, Corban and Robert, and life was hell until one or the other died.

“My enemy!” cried Corban. “I will find you. Do you think they will save you? Your people are outside and they cannot enter. It is forbidden and it is impossible! We are sealed. This is our world. I am God to you and you are the Archenemy, the Rebel from the beginning! What can be shaken will be shaken, but you cannot and will not escape. Will you run? I will follow on your heels. Will you climb? My arms are stronger than yours. Will you hide away in a corner? I will sniff you out. Will you starve and so escape? That would be a blow, a deep blow, but still I win. I will win, and all your people will be ours, and you will be reviled and hated and mocked and finally forgotten.”

He walked as he spoke, silently, leaving the shelter of the alley and circling the courtyard, giving it the appearance of attention, his ears and eyes like satellites orbiting the planet, searching everywhere, alert. A rock skittered nearby. He did not fall for that trick. He had learned to feel the earth, to sense the vibrations in the broken pavement and glass. He had overcome the boogeyman and the midnight stalker and the whispers on the wind. He could divine that solitary, crawling creature he hated from the deadness of all that was beneath the dome.

He turned and let loose a barrage of bullets. They sprayed through the open window of a building-less wall. He waited, felt nothing, continued his slow, steady pace, entering now a wide avenue.

The dome shook a third time, a tremendous blow that rattled the bones. Corban stopped and peered at the opaque surface far above. “Wait your turn,” he muttered. “You sent us. You cannot crack the shell until only one remains. Wait till we–”

He moved out of instinct, raising his gun as bullets lanced toward him. They cut through his arm, his hand, but he got off his own–a grunt of pain!

He stumbled back, kept his feet beneath him. He breathed heavily and heard its echo nearby. “Gotcha, didn’t I?” Corban panted.

The blighted foe said nothing.

“Got you fair and square. That’s war. Congratulate me and die.”

The world buzzed. Corban lowered himself to the ground. “Oh, but you bruised my heel. You bruised it good.” His shirt soaked up the blood, dripped it. “Didn’t feel that one go in.”

Two men breathing, in, out, slowly, in silence, alive and fully aware of everything, of every second, of the grains dropping one by one.

“They’ll do autopsies,” Corban continued. “See which one died first. That’d be you. And the war’ll be over, and we’ll write the history books. You understand? You’ll be pitiful forever, in print, not even a villain, just the man who lost. And I’ll be the hero, the savior.”

Trembling, Corban pulled himself to his feet. Across the street, behind a totaled car, his foe lay dying. He had to see him, had to make sure. He checked his weapon. Empty. His knife, then.

He listened and felt and soaked in the world. Something muttered beneath the surface, but his foe remained motionless. Corban stumbled forward, toppling, and landed heavily on the car hood before working his way around.

Robert, bearded, soaked in his own life, stared up at the dome. Corban knelt. Robert’s eyes flickered toward him.

“This is the end,” Corban whispered, seizing Robert’s hand and squeezing it. How he hated the man! “The end!” The dome rumbled. Crack! Deep fissures appeared in its surface, spider frost upon a window. “The end of everything!”

And then, unexpectedly, against the rules, an electronic hiss, a tripping of sound, and a voice–a new voice, as from heaven:

“Combatants! Lay down your weapons! A treaty has been signed. We are at peace. We came as soon as we could. I repeat, we are at peace. Cease hostilities immediately!”

Corban trembled. “Peace?” He was light headed. “But I won! I won!”

“Peace,” whispered Robert, and he died.

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