Seshat, Obidicut, Lugaluru, Audhumla.

The young man elevated by his father’s death in the Dunnan raid to the post of hereditary President of the democratic Republic of Tetragrammaton had been sure that the Marduk ships which came to his planet traded also on those. There had been some difficulty about making contact, and the first face-to-face meeting had begun in an atmosphere of bitter distrust on his part. They had met out of doors; around them, spread wrecked and burned buildings, and hastily constructed huts and shelters, and wide spaces of charred and slagged rubble.

“They blew up the steel mill here, and the oil-refinery at Jannsboro. They bombed and strafed the little farm-towns and villages. They scattered radioactives that killed as many as the bombing. And after they had gone away, this other ship came.”

“The Damnthing? She bore the head of a beast with three very big horns?”

“That’s the one. They did a little damage, at first. When the captain found out what had happened to us, he left some food and medicines for us.” Roger-fan-Morvill Esthersan hadn’t mentioned that.

“Well, we’d like to help you, if we can. Do you have nuclear power? We can give you a little equipment. Just remember it of us, when you’re back on your feet; we’ll be back to trade later. But don’t think you owe us anything. The man who did this to you is my enemy. Now, I want to talk to every one of your people who can tell me anything at all.⁠ ⁠…”

Seshat was the closest; they went there first. They were too late. Seshat had had it already, and on the evidence of the radioactivity counters, not too long ago. Four hundred hours at most. There had been two hellburners; the cities on which they had fallen were still-smoking pits literally burned into the ground and the bedrock below, at the center of five hundred mile radii of slag and lava and scorched earth and burned forests. There had been a planetbuster; it had started a major earthquake. And half a dozen thermonuclears. There were probably quite a few survivors⁠—a human planetary population is extremely hard to exterminate completely⁠—but within a century they’d be back to the loincloth and the stone hatchet.

“We don’t even know Dunnan did it, personally,” Paytrik Morland said. “For all we know, he’s down in an airtight cave city on some planet nobody ever heard of, sitting on a golden throne, surrounded by a harem.”

He had begun to suspect that Dunnan was doing something of just the sort. The Greatest Space Viking of History would naturally found a Space Viking empire.

“An emperor goes out to look his empire over, now and then; I don’t spend all my time on Tanith. Say we try Audhumla next. It’s the farthest away. We might get there while he’s still shooting up Obidicut and Lugaluru. Guatt, figure us a jump for it.”

When the colored turbulence washed away and the screen cleared, Audhumla looked like Tanith or Khepera or Amaterasu or any other Terra-type planet, a big disk brilliant with reflected sunlight and glowing with starlit and moonlit atmosphere on the other. There was a single rather large moon, and, in the telescopic screen, the usual markings of seas and continents and rivers and mountain-ranges. But there was nothing to show.⁠ ⁠…

Oh, yes; lights on the darkened side, and from the size they must be vast cities. All the available data for Audhumla was long out of date; a considerable civilization must have developed in the last half dozen centuries.

Another light appeared, a hard blue-white spark that spread into a larger, less brilliant yellow light. At the same time, all the alarm-devices in the command-room went into a pandemonium of jangling and flashing and squawking and howling and shouting. Radiation. Energy-release. Contragravity distortion effects. Infrared output. A welter of indecipherable radio and communication-screen signals. Radar and scanner-ray beams from the planet.

Trask’s fist began hurting; he found that he had been pounding the desk in front of him with it. He stopped it.

“We caught him, we caught him!” he was yelling hoarsely. “Full speed in, continuous acceleration, as much as we can stand. We’ll worry about decelerating when we’re in shooting distance.”

The planet grew steadily larger; Karffard was taking him at his word about continuous acceleration. There’d be a Gehenna of a bill to pay when they started decelerating. On the planet, more bombs were going off just outside atmosphere beyond the sunset line.

“Ship observed. Altitude about a hundred to five hundred miles⁠—hundreds, not thousands⁠—35° North Latitude, 15° west of the sunset line. Ship is under fire, bomb explosions near her,” a voice whooped.

Somebody else was yelling that the city lights were really burning cities, or burning forests. The first voice, having stopped, broke in again:

“Ship is visible in telescopic screen, just at the sunset line. And there’s another ship detected but not visible, somewhere around the equator, and a third one somewhere out of sight, we can just get the fringe of her contragravity field around the planet.”

That meant there were two sides, and a fight. Unless Dunnan had picked up a third ship, somewhere. The telescopic view shifted; for a moment the planet was completely off-screen, and then its curvature came into the screen against a star-scattered background. They were almost in to two thousand miles now; Karffard was yelling to stop acceleration and trying to put the ship into a spiral orbit. Suddenly they caught a glimpse of one of the ships.

“She’s in trouble.” That was Paul Koreff’s voice. “She’s leaking air and water vapor like crazy.”

“Well, is she a good guy or a bad guy?” Morland was yelling back, as though Koreff’s spectroscopes could distinguish. Koreff ignored that.

“Another ship making signal,” he said. “She’s the one coming up over the equator. Sword-World impulse code; her communication-screen combination, and an identify-yourself.”

Karffard punched out the combination as Koreff furnished it. While Trask was desperately willing his face into immobility, the screen lighted. It wasn’t Andray Dunnan; that was a disappointment. It was almost as good, though. His henchman, Sir Nevil Ormm.

“Well, Sir Nevil! A pleasant surprise,” he heard himself saying. “We last met on the terrace at Karvall House, did we not?”

For once, the paper-white face of Andray Dunnan’s âme damnée showed expression, but whether it was fear, surprise, shock, hatred, anger, or what combination of them, Trask could no more than guess.

“Trask! Satan curse you⁠ ⁠… !”

Then the screen went blank. In the telescopic screen, the other ship came on unfalteringly. Paul Koreff, who had gotten more data on mass, engine energy-output and dimensions, was identifying her as the Enterprise.

“Well, go for her! Give her everything!”

They didn’t need the order; Vann Larch was speaking rapidly into his hand-phone, and Alvyn Karffard was hurling his voice all over the Nemesis, warning of sudden deceleration and direction change, and while he was speaking, things in the command room began sliding. In the telescopic screen, the other ship was plainly visible; he could see the oval patch of black with the blue crescent, and in his screen Dunnan would be seeing the sword-impaled skull of the Nemesis.

If only he could be sure Dunnan was there to see it. If it had only been Dunnan’s face, instead of Ormm’s, that he had seen in the screen. As it was, he couldn’t be sure, and if one of the missiles that were already going out made a lucky hit, he might never be sure. He didn’t care who killed Dunnan, or how. All he wanted was to know that Dunnan’s death had set him free from a self-assumed obligation that was now meaningless to him.

The Enterprise launched counter-missiles; so did the Nemesis. There were momentarily unbearable flashes of pure energy and from them globes of incandescence spread and vanished. Something must have gotten through; red lights flashed on the damage board. It had been something heavy enough even to jolt the huge mass of the Nemesis. At the same time, the other ship took a hit from something that would have vaporized her had she not been armored in collapsium. Then, as they passed close together, guns hammered back and forth along with missiles, and then the Enterprise was out of sight around the horizon.

Another ship, the size of Otto Harkaman’s Corisande II, was approaching; she bore a tapering, red-nailed feminine hand dangling a planet by a string. They rushed toward each other, planting a garden of evanescent fire-flowers between them; they pounded one another with guns, and then they sped apart. At the same time, Paul Koreff was picking up an impulse-code signal from the third, crippled, ship; a screen combination. Trask punched it out as he received it.

A man in space armor was looking out of the screen. That was bad, if they had to suit up in the command room. They still had air; his helmet was off, but it was attached and hinged back. On his breastplate was a device of a dragonlike beast perched with its tail around a planet, and a crown above. He had a thin, high-cheeked face, with a vertical wrinkle between his eyes, and a clipped blond mustache.

“Who are you, stranger. You’re fighting my enemies; does that make you a friend.”

“I’m a friend of anybody who owns Andray Dunnan his enemy. Sword-World ship Nemesis; I’m Prince Lucas Trask of Tanith, commanding.”

“Royal Mardukan ship Victrix.” The thin-faced man gave a wry laugh. “Not been living up to her name so well. I’m Prince Simon Bentrik, commanding.”

“Are you still battle-worthy?”

“We can fire about half our guns; we still have a few missiles left. Seventy percent of the ship’s sealed off, and we’ve been holed in a dozen places. We have power enough for lift and some steering-way. We can’t make lateral way except at the expense of lift.”

Which made the Victrix practically a stationary target. He yelled over his shoulder at Karffard to cut speed all he could without tearing things apart.

“When that cripple comes into view, start circling around her. Get into a tight circle above her.” He turned back to the man in the screen. “If we can get ourselves slowed down enough, we’ll do all we can to cover you.”

“All you can is all you can; thank you, Prince Trask.”

“Here comes the Enterprise!” Karffard shouted, with obscenely blasphemous embellishments. “She hairpinned on us.”

“Well, do something about her!”

Vann Larch was already doing it. The Enterprise had taken damage in the last exchange; Koreff’s spectroscopes showed her haloed with air and water vapor. Her instruments would be getting the same story from the Nemesis; wedge-shaped segments extending six to eight decks in were sealed off in several places. Then the only thing that could be seen with certainty was the blaze of mutually destroying missiles between. The short-range gun duel began and ended as they passed.

In the screen, he had seen a fat round-nosed thing come up from the Victrix, curving far out ahead of the passing Enterprise. She was almost out of sight around the planet when she ran head-on into it, and vanished in an awesome blaze. For a moment, he thought she had been destroyed, then she lurched into sight and went around the curvature of Audhumla.

Trask and the Mardukan were shaking hands with themselves at each other in their screens; everybody in the Nemesis command room was screaming: “Well shot, Victrix! Well shot!”

Then the Yo-Yo was coming around again, and Vann Larch was saying, “Gehenna with this fooling around! I’ll fix the expurgated unprintability!”

He yelled orders⁠—a jumble of code letters and numbers⁠—and things began going out. Most of them blew up in space. Then the Yo-Yo blew up, very quietly, as things do where there is no air to carry shock- and sound-waves, but very brilliantly. There was brief daylight all over the night side of the planet.

“That was our planetbuster,” Larch said. “I don’t know what we’ll use on Dunnan.”

“I didn’t know we had one,” Trask admitted.

“Otto had a couple built on Beowulf. The Beowulfers are good nuclear weaponeers.”

The Enterprise came back, hastily, to see what had blown up. Larch put off another entertainment of small stuff, with a fifty megaton thermonuclear, viewscreen-piloted, among them. It had its own arsenal of small missiles, and it got through. In the telescopic screen, a jagged hole was visible just below the equator of the Enterprise, the edges curling outward. Something, possibly a heavy missile in an open tube, ready for launching, had gone off inside her. What the inside of the ship was like, or how many of her company were still alive, was hard to guess.

There were some, and her launchers were still spewing out missiles. They were intercepted and blew up. The hull of the Enterprise bulked huge in the guidance-screen of the missile and filled it; the jagged crater that had obliterated the bottom of Dunnan’s blue crescent blazon spread to fill the whole screen. The screen went milky white as the pickup went off.

All the other screens blazed briefly, until their filters went on. Even afterward, they glared like the cloud-veiled sun of Gram at high noon. Finally, when the light-intensity had dropped and the filters went off, there was nothing left of the Enterprise but an orange haze.

Somebody⁠—Paytrik, Baron Morland, he saw⁠—was pounding him on the back and screaming inarticulately in his ear. A dozen space-armored officers with planet-perched dragons on their breasts were crowding beside Prince Bentrik in the screen from the Victrix, whooping like drunken bisonoid-herders on payday night.

“I wonder,” he said, almost inaudibly, “if I’ll ever know if Andray Dunnan was on that ship.”