“I’m here to give indigestion to the first one of them that tries,” said the Leewit. “Why do they want to eat people, anyway?”

The other tall skinny man cackled again. “They have to. The plants of Megair 4 can’t provide all the micro-nutrients they require. They need meat, and there’s not much in the way of animal life in these miserable swamps except small animals and slugs and bugs.”

“Yeah?” said the Leewit. “We have news for them. We’re not dinner.”

Pausert had to agree with her about that. As soon as Goth got here, it would be time to go. With or without these captives — but he couldn’t really leave them to be eaten. The question was, where was Goth? He was starting to get worried.


Goth, having now applied logic, had finally arrived at the surface, and was making her way to the walled compound. Only, whereas below surface the collar of bones and wire had caused the other Cannibals to avoid her, here it was attracting unwanted attention. Obviously she was in the wrong place at the wrong time — or the wrong place, unescorted. The problem was that changing that her appearance was a bit more difficult. She needed someplace where she was not observed, and the gray-skins seemed to be all over the place.

Several of them had started towards her, and had then sheered off, as if their courage deserted them. Goth wished that she had a slightly better idea of what was going on! Still, the low-walled compound on the edge of the spacefield was about the only place she hadn’t been, yet. Her sister and the captain had to be there.

She had barely a hundred yards to go when a big gray-skinned Megair Cannibal lurched out of the rain at her. He was going to attack her! But she’d walked all over the inside of their mound and they’d just gotten out of her way. What was wrong now?

Whatever it was, she had to deal with it. She decided to do a light-shift split, the trick she’d learned from the vatchlet. There were suddenly four of the nasty looking Cannibals with a collar of bones at their throats — none of which was actually her.

The attacker paused mid-stride and almost fell over. They he retreated, whimpering. Goth noticed that as well as the teeth being filed, the nails on the Megair Cannibal’s hands had been cut into points. He hadn’t been about to attack her with his weapons, but with his hands and teeth.!

It started to rain even harder, really sousing down in thick sheets. The sooner they got off this horrible world, the better, Goth decided, as the four images walked toward the stockade. So far, all she could say about the place was that the Megair Cannibals deserved it. They were a problem that Karres needed to turn its attention to. Moander, the Nuri globes, and Manaret had pre-occupied her world’s attention for some time now. But those threats had been dealt with, and it was Megair’s turn soon, if not maybe right next.

She wondered just how the Cannibals had dealt with the Phantom ships, and how they’d survived the Nuri globes. They weren’t that far from the dead suns of the Tark Nembi cluster, here. She knew that their ships had prowled the edges of the Empire for a long time, even outside the Chaladoor.

Nearly at the gates now, Goth was wondering how she’d get in. Then she spotted some more dim figures approaching through the rain. Figuring that no one could see her disappear in this rain, good luck to them, Goth slipped away into no shape.

The party of Megair Cannibals approached. It was one of their high ones, by the collar — and what Goth had plainly been missing, which was an escort of lesser gray-faces. If the rain was bothering them they were certainly not letting on. A lone gate-guard, whom Goth had not even seen in his gate-house, hissed a challenge at them.

A quick nasty fight ensued. The gate guard was overwhelmed and the collared one left his followers outside. As Goth slipped in behind him, she realized they that were tearing the corpse apart.


“It’s one of their lords,” said the tattooed Ta’zara in a hushed whisper. “They never come out here,”

“How do you know?” said Pausert, keeping calm. Could this be Goth? Where was she?

“The collar. They hang a finger-bone from each kill on it. The more bones, the more rank.”

“Rank all right. They smell,” said the Leewit, smiling suddenly. The littlest witch had been putting a brave face on it all, but Pausert could tell that this place made her uneasy. That was hardly surprising, really. She’d also plainly found the dispirited prisoners depressing.

A moment later the captain felt ghostly fingers squeeze his. Goth! His relief was of such an order that he smiled at the oncoming Megair Cannibal lord.

The Cannibal lord seemed to find that cause for wariness. He stopped short of them and spoke. He did not speak in croaks and whistles, but in heavily accented Imperial Universum. “We find no special things on ship. Ship do not go.”

“That’s what we told you,” said Pausert.

“Ship not same as enemy.” He made the statement as if calling for an explanation of that.

“I could have told you that too. We tried to tell you, in fact.”

“The enemy still is there. We find nothing — three hunterships try to leave. If you get here, we can go. We can go to hunt. We need meat.”

“We are busy dealing with them. We are going to get rid of them.” Pausert certainly wasn’t telling the Cannibal anything useful. The one advantage to having the Phantom ships patrolling the Chaladoor was keeping creatures like these from raiding ships in the civilized parts outside it.

A thought crossed the captain’s mind. They had loot, generations worth of loot, probably including various electronics. Maybe even a multiplier link. The Megair Cannibals were no soft target. But compared to the Nuri globes, or the Phantom ships, easy to deal with. The Daal of Uldune could probably do it, let alone the mighty Empire. The cluster would be hard to capture, and a bad place to fight, but it could be effectively blockaded.

On the other hand, the Phantom ships could not be blockaded or easily fought..

“We need a part to fix our ship,” he said, “and we’ll get away and have our people deal with them. We just came to establish what the problem was.”

“The enemy cannot be escaped,” stated the Cannibal.

“We got here, didn’t we?” said Pausert reasonably. “Let us go. What do you lose if we don’t succeed?”

The gray-faced Cannibal lord stood wrinkling his nose, obviously searching for words. Eventually he resorted to grunts, croaks and whistles of his own strange language.

The Leewit translated. “He says he’s for losing nothing. But the high lord Gwarrr gave the orders about you. He’d have to be for being eaten, first.” The Leewit paused, frowned. “If I’m understanding it right, Captain, these guys are not very good at ever admitting they’re wrong. If a leader gets challenged, well, the challenger has to beat him. And the loser gets eaten.”

“Literally dog-eat-dog politics!” said Pausert. He smiled thinly. “I wish I could get some of the councilors from Nikkeldepain to visit here for a bit. Ask him what he wants to do. I think it’ll be clearer in his own language.”

The Leewit did, and then translated the reply. “He says nothing is for the doing, then. The Phantoms ships have got them trapped. Maybe they will find a way to defend against the Phantom ships, just like they did against the Nuris. If not, they’re for eating each other on this terrible planet they’ve been trapped on.”

Pausert was surprised to find himself agreeing with the Cannibal about anything. And surprised to hear one of them described their home as a terrible planet.

The Leewit was plainly taken aback herself. She asked something and the gray-faced man with red eyes and sharpened teeth replied. At length.

“What was that?” asked Pausert.

“I asked him why they live here, if it’s so miserable. He said when heaven broke — that’s sort of what he said, I think — their fleet was trapped here. At first, they thought this place was like home, just colder. But the prey was slow and stupid and they hunted them all out. What’s left isn’t worth hunting. So now they have to hunt off-world, but they cannot get off because of the enemy.”

I have to ask,” he said, thinking that once they got out of here they’d have to deal with these… From close up, if you ignored the color of their skins and the red eyes and the sharpened teeth and nails and the receding chins, they looked almost human. “Why do you hunt and eat people? Why don’t you just farm. Or if you have to hunt, hunt animals.”

The Megair Cannibal drew himself back, obviously offended. He rattled off some words that the Leewit translated as: “Hunting is high honor. Cannot look for prey that is lesser.”

That was a rather different way of looking at it, the captain had to acknowledge. It still didn’t clear things up too well, as far as what to do with them in the long term, or even how to get out of here in the short term. There was always the Egger route, but not for the dear old Venture.

Pausert faced the Cannibal lord, with the one question that was still on his mind. “So why did you come and see us then?”

The red eyed being stared back at him. “To know.” And it turned and walked away, back to the gate.