Beowulf was bad.

Valkanhayn and Spasso had both been opposed to the raid. Nobody raided Beowulf; Beowulf was too tough. Beowulf had nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and contragravity and normal-space craft, they even had colonies on a couple of other planets of their system. They had everything but hyperdrive. Beowulf was a civilized planet, and you didn’t raid civilized planets, not and get away with it.

And beside, hadn’t they gotten enough loot on Amaterasu?

“No, we did not,” Trask told them. “If we’re going to make anything out of Tanith, we’re going to need power, and I don’t mean windmills and waterwheels. As you’ve remarked, Beowulf has nuclear energy. That’s where we get our plutonium and our power units.”

So they went to Beowulf. They came out of hyperspace eight light-hours from the F-7 star of which Beowulf was the fourth planet, and twenty light-minutes apart. Guatt Kirbey made a microjump that brought the ships within practical communicating distance, and they began making plans in an intership screen conference.

“There are, or were, three chief sources of fissionable ores,” Harkaman said. “The last ship to raid here and get away was Stefan Kintour’s Princess of Lyonesse, sixty years ago. He hit one on the Antarctic continent; according to his account, everything there was fairly new. He didn’t mess things up too badly, and it ought to be still operating. We’ll go in from the south pole, and we’ll have to go in fast.”

They shifted personnel and equipment. They would go in bunched, the pinnaces ahead; they and the Space Scourge would go down to the ground, while the better-armed Nemesis would hover above to fight off local contragravity, shoot down missiles, and generally provide overhead cover. Trask transferred to the Space Scourge, taking with him Morland and two hundred of the Nemesis ground-fighters. Most of the single-mounts, landing craft and manipulators and heavy-duty lifters went with him, jamming the decks around the vehicle ports of Valkanhayn’s ship.

They jumped in to six light-minutes, and while Valkanhayn’s astrogator was still fiddling with his controls they began sensing radar and microray detection. When they came out again, they were two light-seconds off the south pole, and half a dozen ships were either in orbit or coming up from the planet. All normal-space craft, of course, but some were almost as big as the Nemesis.

From there on, it was a nightmare.

Ships pounded at them with guns, and they pounded back. Missiles went out, and counter-missiles stopped them in rapidly expanding and quickly vanishing globes of light. Red lights flashed on the damage board, and sirens howled and klaxons squawked. In the outside-view screens, they saw the Nemesis vanish in a blaze of radiance, and then, while their hearts were still in their throats, come out of it again. Red lights went off on the board as damage-control crews and their robots sealed the breaches in the hull and pumped air back into evacuated areas, and then more red lights came on.

Occasionally, he would glance toward Boake Valkanhayn, who sat motionless in his chair, chewing a cigar that had gone out long ago. He wasn’t enjoying it, but he wasn’t showing fear. Once a Beowulfer vanished in a supernova flash, and when the ball of incandescence widened to nothing the ship was gone. All Valkanhayn said was: “Hope one of our boys did that.”

They fought their way in and down, toward the atmosphere. Another Beowulf ship blew up, a craft about the size of Spasso’s Lamia. A moment later, another; Valkanhayn was pounding the desk in front of him with his fist and yelling: “That was one of ours! Find out who launched it; get his name!”

Missiles were coming up from the planet, now. Valkanhayn’s detection officer was trying to locate the source. While he was trying, a big melon-shaped thing fell away from the Nemesis, and in the jiggling, radiation-distorted intership screen Harkaman’s image was laughing.

“Hellburner just went off; target about 50° south, 25° east of the sunrise line. That’s where those missiles are coming from.”

Counter-missiles sped toward the big metal melon; defense missiles, robot-launched, met them. The hellburner’s track was marked first by expanding red and orange globes in airless space and then by fire-puffs after it entered atmosphere. It vanished into the darkness beyond the sunset, and then made sunlight of its own. It was sunlight; a Bethe solar-phoenix reaction, and it would sustain itself for hours. He hoped it hadn’t landed within a thousand miles of their objective.

The ground operation was a nightmare of a different sort. He went down in a command car, with Paytrik Morland and a couple of others. There were missiles and gun batteries. There were darting patterns of flights of combat vehicles, blazing gunfire, and single vehicles that shot past or blew up in front of them. Robots on contragravity⁠—military robots, with missiles to launch, and working robots with only their own mass to hurl, flung themselves mindlessly at them. Screens that went crazy from radiation; speakers that jabbered contradictory orders. Finally, the battle, which had raged in the air over two thousand square miles of mines and refineries and reaction plants, became two distinct and concentrated battles, one at the packing plant and storage vaults and one at the power-unit cartridge factory.

Three pinnaces came down to form a triangle over each; the Space Scourge hung midway between, poured out a swarm of vehicles and big claw-armed manipulators; armored lighters and landing craft shuttled back and forth. The command car looped and dodged from one target to the other; at one, keg-like canisters of plutonium, collapsium-plated and weighing tons apiece, were coming out of the vaults, and at the other lifters were bringing out loads of nuclear-electric power-unit cartridges, some as big as a ten liter jar, to power a spaceship engine, and some small as a round of pistol ammunition, for things like flashlights.

Every hour or so, he looked at his watch, and it would be three or four minutes later.

At last, when he was completely convinced that he had really been killed, and was damned and would spend all eternity in this fire-riven chaos, the Nemesis began firing red flares and the speakers in all the vehicles were signaling recall. He got aboard the Space Scourge somehow, after assuring himself that nobody who was alive was left behind.

There were twenty-odd who weren’t, and the sick bay was full of wounded who had gone up with cargo, and more were being helped off the vehicles as they were berthed. The car in which he had been riding had been hit several times, and one of the gunners was bleeding under his helmet and didn’t seem aware of it. When he got to the command room, he found Boake Valkanhayn, his face drawn and weary, getting coffee from a robot and lacing it with brandy.

“That’s it,” he said, blowing on the steaming cup. It was the battered silver one that had been in front of him when he had first appeared in the Nemesis’ screen. He nodded toward the damage screen; everything had been patched up, or the outer decks around breached portions of the hull sealed. “Ship secure.” He set down the silver mug and lit a cigar. “To quote Garvan Spasso, ‘Nobody can call that chicken-stealing.’ ”

“No. Not even if you count Tizona giraffe-birds as chickens. That Gram gum-pear brandy you’re putting in that coffee? I’ll have the same. Just leave out the coffee.”