He glanced quickly at the showback over the screen, to assure himself that his face was not betraying him. Beside him, Otto Harkaman was laughing.

“Why, Captain Valkanhayn; this is an unexpected pleasure. That’s the Space Scourge you’re in, I take it? What are you doing here on Tanith?”

A voice from one of the speakers shouted that a second ship had been detected coming over the north pole. The dark-faced man in the screen smirked quite complacently.

“That’s Garvan Spasso, in the Lamia,” he said. “And what we’re doing here, we’ve taken this planet over. We intend keeping it, too.”

“Well! So you and Garvan have teamed up. You two were just made for one another. And you have a little planet, all your very own. I’m so happy for both of you. What are you getting out of it⁠—beside poultry?”

The other’s self-assurance started to slip. He slapped it back into place.

“Don’t kid me; we know why you’re here. Well, we got here first. Tanith is our planet. You think you can take it away from us?”

“I know we could, and so do you,” Harkaman told him. “We outgun you and Spasso together; why, a couple of our pinnaces could knock the Lamia apart. The only question is, do we want to bother?”

By now, he had recovered from his surprise, but not from his disappointment. If this fellow thought the Nemesis was the Enterprise⁠—Before he could check himself, he had finished the thought aloud.

“Then the Enterprise didn’t come here at all!”

The man in the screen started. “Isn’t that the Enterprise you’re in?”

“Oh, no. Pardon my remissness, Captain Valkanhayn,” Harkaman apologized. “This is the Nemesis. The gentleman with me, Lord Lucas Trask, is owner-aboard, for whom I am commanding. Lord Trask, Captain Boake Valkanhayn, of the Space Scourge. Captain Valkanhayn is a Space Viking.” He said that as though expecting it to be disputed. “So, I am told, is his associate, Captain Spasso, whose ship is approaching. You mean to tell me that the Enterprise hasn’t been here?”

Valkanhayn was puzzled, slightly apprehensive.

“You mean the Duke of Wardshaven has two ships?”

“As far as I know, the Duke of Wardshaven hasn’t any ships,” Harkaman replied. “This ship is the property and private adventure of Lord Trask. The Enterprise, for which we are looking, is owned and commanded by one Andray Dunnan.”

The man with the scarred face and hairy chest had picked up his cigar and was puffing on it mechanically. Now he took it out of his mouth as though he wondered how it had gotten there in the first place.

“But isn’t the Duke of Wardshaven sending a ship here to establish a base? That was what we’d heard. We heard you’d gone from Flamberge to Gram to command for him.”

“Where did you hear this? And when?”

“On Hoth. That’d be about two thousand hours ago; a Gilgamesher brought the news from Xochitl.”

“Well, considering it was fifth or sixth hand, your information was good enough, when it was fresh. It was a year and a half old when you got it, though. How long have you been here on Tanith?”

“About a thousand hours.” Harkaman clucked sadly at that.

“Pity you wasted all that time. Well, it was nice talking to you, Boake. Say hello to Garvan for me when he comes up.”

“You mean you’re not staying?” Valkanhayn was horrified, an odd reaction for a man who had just been expecting a bitter battle to drive them away. “You’re just spacing right out again?”

Harkaman shrugged. “Do we want to waste time here, Lord Trask? The Enterprise has obviously gone somewhere else. She was still in hyperspace when Captain Valkanhayn and his accomplice arrived here.”

“Is there anything worth staying for?” That seemed to be the reply Harkaman was expecting. “Beside poultry, that is?”

Harkaman shook his head. “This is Captain Valkanhayn’s planet; his and Captain Spasso’s. Let them be stuck with it.”

“But, look; this is a good planet. There’s a big local city, maybe ten or twenty thousand people; temples and palaces and everything. Then, there are a couple of old Federation cities. The one we’re at is in good shape, and there’s a big spaceport. We’ve been doing a lot of work on it. And the locals won’t give you any trouble. All they have is spears and a few crossbows and matchlocks⁠—”

“I know. I’ve been here.”

“Well, couldn’t we make some kind of a deal?” Valkanhayn asked. A mendicant whine was beginning to creep into his voice. “I can get Garvan on screen and switch him over to your ship⁠—”

“Well, we have a lot of Sword-World merchandise aboard,” Harkaman said. “We could make you good prices on some of it. How are you fixed for robotic equipment?”

“But aren’t you going to stay here?” Valkanhayn was almost in a panic. “Listen, suppose I talk to Garvan, and we all get together on this. Just excuse me for a minute⁠—”

As soon as he had blanked out, Harkaman threw back his head and guffawed as though he had just heard the funniest and bawdiest joke in the galaxy. Trask, himself, didn’t feel like laughing.

“The humor escapes me,” he admitted. “We came here on a fools’ errand.”

“I’m sorry, Lucas.” Harkaman was still shaking with mirth. “I know it’s a letdown, but that pair of chiseling chicken thieves! I could almost pity them, if it weren’t so funny.” He laughed again. “You know what their idea was?”

Trask shook his head. “Who are they?”

“What I called them, a couple of chicken thieves. They raid planets like Set and Hertha and Melkarth, where the locals haven’t anything to fight with⁠—or anything worth fighting for. I didn’t know they’d teamed up, but that figures. Nobody else would team up with either of them. What must have happened, this story of Duke Angus’ Tanith adventure must have filtered out to them, and they thought that if they got here first, I’d think it was cheaper to take them in than run them out. I probably would have, too. They do have ships, of a sort, and they do raid, after a fashion. But now, there isn’t going to be any Tanith base, and they have a no-good planet and they’re stuck with it.”

“Can’t they make anything out of it themselves?”

“Like what?” Harkaman hooted. “They have no equipment, and they have no men. Not for a job like that. The only thing they can do is space out and forget it.”

“We could sell them equipment.”

“We could if they had anything to use for money. They haven’t. One thing, we do want to let down and give the men a chance to walk on ground and look at a sky for a while. The girls here aren’t too bad, either,” Harkaman said. “As I remember, some of them even take a bath, now and then.”

“That’s the kind of news of Dunnan we’re going to get. By the time we’d get to where he’s been reported, he’d be a couple of thousand light-years away,” he said disgustedly. “I agree; we ought to give the men a chance to get off the ship, here. We can stall this pair along for a while and we won’t have any trouble with them.”

The three ships were slowly converging toward a point fifteen thousand miles off-planet and over the sunset line. The Space Scourge bore the device of a mailed fist clutching a comet by the head; it looked more like a whisk broom than a scourge. The Lamia bore a coiled snake with the head, arms and bust of a woman. Valkanhayn and Spasso were taking their time about screening back, and he began to wonder if they weren’t maneuvering the Nemesis into a crossfire position. He mentioned this to Harkaman and Alvyn Karffard; they both laughed.

“Just holding ship’s meetings,” Karffard said. “They’ll be yakking back and forth for a couple of hours, yet.”

“Yes; Valkanhayn and Spasso don’t own their ships,” Harkaman explained. “They’ve gone in debt to their crews for supplies and maintenance till everybody owns everything in common. The ships look like it, too. They don’t even command, really; they just preside over elected command-councils.”

Finally, they had both of the more or less commanders on screen. Valkanhayn had zipped up his shirt and put on a jacket. Garvan Spasso was a small man, partly bald. His eyes were a shade too close together, and his thin mouth had a bitterly crafty twist. He began speaking at once:

“Captain, Boake tells me you say you’re not here in the service of the Duke of Wardshaven at all.” He said it aggrievedly.

“That’s correct,” Harkaman said. “We came here because Lord Trask thought another Gram ship, the Enterprise, would be here. Since she isn’t, there’s no point in our being here. We do hope, though, that you won’t make any difficulty about our letting down and giving our men a couple of hundred hours’ liberty. They’ve been in hyperspace for three thousand hours.”

“See!” Spasso clamored. “He wants to trick us into letting him land⁠—”

“Captain Spasso,” Trask cut in. “Will you please stop insulting everybody’s intelligence, your own included.” Spasso glared at him, belligerently but hopefully. “I understand what you thought you were going to do here. You expected Captain Harkaman here to establish a base for the Duke of Wardshaven, and you thought, if you were here ahead of him and in a posture of defense, that he’d take you into the Duke’s service rather than waste ammunition and risk damage and casualties wiping you out. Well, I’m very sorry, gentlemen. Captain Harkaman is in my service, and I’m not in the least interested in establishing a base on Tanith.”

Valkanhayn and Spasso looked at each other. At least, in the two side-by-side screens, their eyes shifted, each to the other’s screen on his own ship.

“I get it!” Spasso cried suddenly. “There’s two ships, the Enterprise and this one. The Duke of Wardshaven fitted out the Enterprise, and somebody else fitted out this one. They both want to put in a base here!”

That opened a glorious vista. Instead of merely capitalizing on their nuisance-value, they might find themselves holding the balance of power in a struggle for the planet. All sorts of profitable perfidies were possible.

“Why, sure you can land, Otto,” Valkanhayn said. “I know what it’s like to be three thousand hours in hyper, myself.”

“You’re at this old city with the two tall tower-buildings, aren’t you?” Harkaman asked. He looked up at the viewscreen. “Ought to be about midnight there now. How’s the spaceport? When I was here, it was pretty bad.”

“Oh, we’ve been fixing it up. We got a big gang of locals working for us⁠—”

The city was familiar, from Otto Harkaman’s descriptions and from the pictures Vann Larch had painted during the long jump from Gram. As they came in, it looked impressive, spreading for miles around the twin buildings that spired almost three thousand feet above it, with a great spaceport like an eight-pointed star at one side. Whoever had built it, in the sunset splendor of the old Terran Federation, must have done so confident that it would become the metropolis of a populous and prospering world. Then the sun of the Federation had gone down. Nobody knew what had happened on Tanith after that, but evidently none of it had been good.

At first, the two towers seemed as sound as when they had been built; gradually it became apparent that one was broken at the top. For the most part, the smaller buildings scattered widely around them were standing, though here and there mounds of brush-grown rubble showed where some had fallen in. The spaceport looked good⁠—a central octagon mass of buildings, the landing-berths, and, beyond, the triangular areas of airship docks and warehouses. The central building was outwardly intact, and the ship-berths seemed clear of wreckage and rubble.

By the time the Nemesis was following the Space Scourge and the Lamia down, towed by her own pinnaces, the illusion that they were approaching a living city had vanished. The interspaces between the buildings were choked with forest-growth, broken by a few small fields and garden-plots. At one time, there had been three of the high buildings, literally vertical cities in themselves. Where the third had stood was a glazed crater, with a ridge of fallen rubble lying away from it. Somebody must have landed a medium missile, about twenty kilotons, against its base. Something of the same sort had scored on the far edge of the spaceport, and one of the eight arrowheads of docks and warehouses was an indistinguishable slag-pile.

The rest of the city seemed to have died of neglect rather than violence. It certainly hadn’t been bombed out. Harkaman thought most of the fighting had been done with subneutron bombs or Omega-ray bombs, that killed the people without damaging the real estate. Or bio-weapons; a man-made plague that had gotten out of control and all but depopulated the planet.

“It takes an awful lot of people, working together at an awful lot of jobs, to keep a civilization running. Smash the installations and kill the top technicians and scientists, and the masses don’t know how to rebuild and go back to stone hatchets. Kill off enough of the masses and even if the planet and the know-how is left, there’s nobody to do the work. I’ve seen planets that decivilized both ways. Tanith, I think, is one of the latter.”

That had been during one of the long after-dinner bull sessions on the way out from Gram. Somebody, one of the noble gentlemen-adventurers who had joined the company after the piracy of the Enterprise and the murder, had asked:

“But some of them survived. Don’t they know what happened?”

“ ‘In the old times, there were sorcerers. They built the old buildings by wizard arts. Then the sorcerers fought among themselves and went away,’ ” Harkaman said. “That’s all they know about it.”

You could make any kind of an explanation out of that.

As the pinnaces pulled and nudged the Nemesis down to her berth, he could see people, far down on the spaceport floor, at work. Either Valkanhayn and Spasso had more men than the size of their ships indicated, or they had gotten a lot of locals to work for them. More than the population of the moribund city, at least as Harkaman remembered it.

There had been about five hundred in all; they lived by mining the old buildings for metal, and trading metalwork for food and textiles and powder and other things made elsewhere. It was accessible only by oxcarts traveling a hundred miles across the plains; it had been built by a contragravity-using people with utter disregard for natural travel and transportation routes.

“I don’t envy the poor buggers,” Harkaman said, looking down at the antlike figures on the spaceport floor. “Boake Valkanhayn and Garvan Spasso have probably made slaves of the lot of them. If I was really going to put in a base here, I wouldn’t thank that pair for the kind of public-relations work they’ve been doing among the locals.”