There was a little difficulty on Gimli with Fleet Admiral Bargham. Commodores didn’t give orders to fleet admirals. Well, maybe regents did, but who gave Prince Bentrik authority to call himself regent? Regents were elected by the Chamber of Delegates, on nomination of the Chancellor.

“That’s Zaspar Makann and his stooges you’re talking about?” Bentrik laughed.

“Well, the Constitution.⁠ ⁠…” He thought better of that, before somebody asked him what Constitution. “Well, a Regent has to be chosen by election. Even members of the Royal Family can’t just make themselves Regent by saying they are.”

“I can. I just have. And I don’t think there are going to be many more elections, at least for the present. Not till we make sure the people of Marduk can be trusted with the control of the government.”

“Well, the pinnace from Moonbase reported that there were six Royal navy battleships and four other craft attacking them,” Bargham objected. “I only have four ships here; I sent for the ones on the other trade-planets, but I haven’t heard from any of them. We can’t go there with only four ships.”

“Sixteen ships,” Bentrik corrected. “No, fifteen and one Gilgamesher we’re using for a troopship. I think that’s enough. You’ll remain here on Gimli, in any case, admiral; as soon as the other ships come in, you’ll follow to Marduk with them. I am now holding a meeting aboard the Tanith flagship Nemesis. I want your four ship-commanders aboard immediately. I am not including you because you’re remaining here to bring up the late comers and as soon as this meeting is over we are spacing out.”

Actually, they spaced out sooner; the meeting lasted the whole three hundred and fifty hours to Abaddon. A ship’s captain, if he has a good exec, as all of them had, needs only sit at his command-desk and look important while the ship is going into and emerging from a long jump; the rest of the time he can study ancient history or whatever his shipboard hobby is. Rather than waste three hundred and fifty hours of precious time, each captain turned his ship over to his exec and remained aboard the Nemesis; even on so spacious a craft the officers’ country north of the engine rooms was crowded like a tourist hotel in mid-season. One of the four Mardukans was the Captain Garravay who had smuggled Bentrik’s wife and son off Marduk, and the other three were just as pro-Bentrik, pro-Tanith, and anti-Makann. They were, on general principles, also anti-Bargham. There must be something wrong with any fleet admiral who remained in his command after Zaspar Makann came to power.

So, as soon as they spaced out, there was a party. After that, they settled down to planning the Battle of Abaddon.

There was no Battle of Abaddon.

It was a dead planet, one side in night and the other in dim twilight from the little speck of a sun three and a half billion miles away, jagged mountains rising out of the snow that covered it from pole to pole. The snow on top would be frozen CO2; according to the thermocouples, the surface temperature was well below minus-100 Centigrade. No ships on orbit circled it; there was a little faint radiation, which could have been from naturally radioactive minerals; there was no electrical discharge detectable.

There was considerable bad language in the command room of the Nemesis. The captains of the other ships were screening in, wanting to know what to do.

“Go on in,” Trask told them. “Englobe the planet, and go down to within a mile if necessary. They could be hiding somewhere on it.”

“Well, they’re not hiding at the bottom of any ocean, that’s for sure,” somebody said. It was one of those feeble jokes at which everybody laughs because nothing else is laughable about the situation.

Finally, they found it, at the north pole, which was no colder than anywhere else on the planet. First radiation leakage, the sort that would come from a closed-down nuclear power plant. Then a modicum of electrical discharge. Finally the telescopic screens picked up the spaceport, a huge oval amphitheater excavated out of a valley between two jagged mountain ranges.

The language in the command room was just as bad, but the tone had changed. It was surprising what a wide range of emotions could be expressed by a few simple blasphemies and obscenities. Everybody who had been deriding Sharll Renner were now acclaiming him.

But it was lifeless. The ships came crowding in; air-locked landing-craft full of space-armored ground-fighters went down. Screens in the command room lit as they transmitted in views. Depressions in the carbon-dioxide snow where the hundred-foot pad-feet of ships’ landing-legs had pressed down. Ranks of cargo-lighters that had plied to and from other ships or orbit. And, all around the cliff-walled perimeter, air-locked doors to caverns and tunnels. A great many men, with a great deal of equipment, had been working here in the estimated five or six years since Andray Dunnan⁠—or somebody⁠—had constructed this base.

Andray Dunnan. They found his badge, the crescent, blue on black, on things. They found equipment that Harkaman recognized as having been part of the original cargo stolen with the Enterprise. They even found, in his living quarters, a blown-up photoprint picture of Nevil Ormm, draped in black. But what they did not find was a single vehicle small enough to be taken aboard a ship, or a single scrap of combat equipment, not even a pistol or a hand grenade.

Dunnan had gone, but they knew whither, and where to find him. The conquest of Marduk had moved into its final phase.

Marduk was on the other side of the sun from Abaddon with ninety-five million miles⁠—close, but not inconveniently so, Trask thought⁠—to spare. Guatt Kirbey and the Mardukan astrogator who was helping him made it within a light-minute. The Mardukan thought that was fine; Kirbey didn’t. The last microjump was aimed at the Moon of Marduk, which was plainly visible in the telescopic screen. They came out within a light-second and a half, which Kirbey admitted was reasonably close. As soon as the screens cleared, they saw that they weren’t too late. The Moon of Marduk was under fire and firing back.

They’d have detection, and he knew what they were detecting⁠—a clump of sixteen rending distortions of the fabric of space-time, as sixteen ships came into sudden existence in the normal continuum. Beside him, Bentrik had a screen on; it was still milky-white, and he was speaking into a radio hand-phone.

“Simon Bentrik, Prince-Protector of Marduk, calling Moonbase.” Then, slowly, he repeated his screen combination twice. “Come in, Moonbase; this is Simon Bentrik, Prince-Protector, speaking.”

He waited ten seconds, and was about to start again, when the screen flickered. The man who appeared in it wore the insignia of a Mardukan navy commodore. He needed a shave, but he was grinning happily. Bentrik greeted him by name.

“Hello, Simon; glad to see you. Your Highness, I mean; what is this Prince-Protector thing?”

“Somebody had to do it. Is the King still alive?”

The grin slid off the commodore’s face, starting with his eyes.

“We don’t know. At first, Makann had him speaking by screen⁠—you know what it was like⁠—urging everybody to obey and cooperate with ‘our trusted Chancellor.’ Makann always appeared on the screen with him.”

Bentrik nodded. “I remember.”

“Before you left, Makann kept quiet, and let the King make the speech. After a while, the King wasn’t able to speak coherently; he’d stammer, and repeat. So then Makann did all the talking; they couldn’t even depend on him to parrot what they were giving him with an earplug phone. Then he stopped appearing entirely. I suppose there were physical symptoms they couldn’t allow to be seen.” Bentrik was cursing horribly under his breath; the officer at Moonbase nodded. “I hope for his sake that he is dead.”

Poor Goodman Mikhyl. Bentrik was saying, “So do I.” Trask agreed, mentally. The commodore at Moonbase was still talking:

“We got two more renegade R.M.N. ships, within a hundred hours after you left.” He named them. “And we got one of the Dunnan ships, the Fortuna. We blew out the Malverton Navy Yard. They’re still using the Antarctic Naval Base, but we’ve knocked out a good deal of that. We got the Honest Horris. They made two attempts to land on us and lost a couple of ships. Eight hundred hours ago, they were joined by the rest of Dunnan’s fleet, five ships. They made a landing on Malverton while it was turned away from us. Makann announced that they were R.M.N. units from the trade-planets that had joined him. I suppose the planet-side public swallowed that. He also announced that their commander, Admiral Dunnan, was in command of the People’s Armed Forces.”

Dunnan’s ground-fighters would be in control of Malverton. By now, the odds were that Makann was as much his prisoner as King Mikhyl VIII had been Makann’s.

“So Dunnan has conquered Marduk. All he has to do, now, is make it stick,” he said. “I see four ships off Moonbase; how many more have they?”

“These are Bolide and Eclipse, Dunnan’s ships, and former Royal Mardukan Navy ships Champion and Guardian. There are five orbiting off the planet: Ex-R.M.N.S. Paladin, and Dunnan ships Starhopper, Banshee, Reliable and Exporter. The last two are listed as merchantmen, but they’re performing like regulation battlecraft.”

The four that had been circling Moonbase broke orbit and started toward the relieving fleet; one took a hit from a Moonbase missile, which staggered her but did no evident damage. Two ships which had been orbiting the planet also changed course and started out. The command room was silent except for a subdued chuckling from a computer which was estimating enemy intentions by observed data and Games Theory. Three more came hurrying out from the planet, and the two in the lead slowed to let them catch up. He wanted to be able to engage the four from off the satellite before the five from the planet joined them, but Karffard’s computers said it couldn’t be done.

“All right, we have to take all our bad eggs in one basket,” he said. “Try to hit them as soon after they join as possible.”

The computers began chuckling again. The serving-robots were doing a rush business in hot coffee. Prince Bentrik’s son, sitting beside his father, had stopped being Ruthless Ravary the Demon of the Spaceways and was a very young officer going into his first space battle, more scared and at the same time happier than he had ever been in his short life. Captain Garravay of the Vindex was making signal to the other ships from Gimli: “Royal Navy; smash the traitors first!” He could understand and sympathize, even if he couldn’t approve of putting personal ahead of tactical considerations, and made a quick sealed-beam call to Harkaman to be prepared to plug any holes they left in formation if they broke away in search of vengeance. He also ordered the Black Star and the Sun Goddess to shepherd the lightly armed and troop-crammed Gilgamesh freighter out of danger. The two clumps of Dunnan-Makann ships were converging rapidly, and Alvyn Karffard was screaming into a phone to somebody to get more speed.

At a thousand miles, the missiles started going out, and the two groups of ships, four and five, were equidistant from each other and from the allied fleet, at the points of a triangle that was growing smaller by the second. The first fire-globes of intercepted missiles spread from their seeds of brief white light. A red light flashed on the damage-board. An enemy ship took a hit. The captain of the Queen Flavia was on a screen, saying that his ship was heavily damaged. Three ships bearing the Mardukan dragon-and-planet circled madly around each other at what looked, in the screen, like just over pistol-range, two of them firing into the third, which was replying desperately. The third one blew up, and somebody was yelling out of a screenspeaker, “Scratch one traitor!”

Another ship blew up somewhere, and then another. He heard somebody say, “There went one of ours,” and wondered which one it was. Not the Corisande, he hoped; no, it wasn’t, he could see her rushing after two other ships which were, in turn, speeding toward the Black Star, the Sun Goddess and the Gilgamesh freighter. Then the Nemesis and the Starhopper were within gun-range, pounding each other savagely.

The battle had tied itself into a ball of gyrating, fire-spitting ships that went rolling toward the planet, which was swinging in and out of the main viewscreen and growing rapidly larger. By the time they were down to the inner edge of the exosphere, the ball had started to unwind, ship after ship dropping out of it and going into orbit, some badly damaged and some going to attack damaged enemies. Some of them were completely around the planet, hidden by it. He saw three ships approaching Corisande, Sun Goddess, and the Gilgamesher. He got Harkaman on the screen.

“Where’s the Black Star?” he asked.

“Gone to Em-See-Square,” Harkaman replied. “We got the two Dunnan-Makanns. Bolide and Reliable.”

Then young Steven of Ravary, who had been monitoring one of the intership screens, had a call from Captain Gompertz of the Grendelsbane, and at the same moment somebody else was yelling, “Here comes the Starhopper again!”

“Tell him to wait a moment; we have troubles,” he said.

Nemesis and Starhopper sledgehammered each other and parried with counter-missiles, and then, quite unexpectedly, the Starhopper went to Em-See-Square.

There was an awful lot of Em being converted to Ee off Marduk, today. Including Manfred Ravallo; that grieved him. Manfred was a good man, and a good friend. He had a girl in Rivington.⁠ ⁠… Nifflheim, there were eight hundred good men aboard the Black Star, and most of them had girls who’d wait in vain for them on Tanith. Well, what had Otto Harkaman said, so long ago, on Gram? Something about old age not being a usual cause of death among Space Vikings, wasn’t it?

Then he remembered that Gompertz of the Grendelsbane was trying to get him. He told young Count Steven to switch him over.

“We just lost one of our Mardukans,” Gompertz told him, in his staccato Beowulf accent. “I think she was the Challenger. The ship that got her looks like the Banshee; I’m turning to engage her.”

“Which way; west around the planet? Be right with you, captain.”