The Stainless Steel Rat in The Missing Battleship
Click on image to enlarge.
by Harry Harrison
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Slippery Jim diGriz--a.k.a. The Stainless Steel Rat--is back in this classic adventure, originally published in the April, 1960 issue of Astounding Science Fiction! It might seem a little careless to lose track of something as big as a battleship ... but interstellar space is on a different scale of magnitude. But a misplaced battleship--in the wrong hands!--can be most dangerous.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1960 Astounding Stories
eBookwise Release Date: October 2008
72 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [57 KB]
Reading time: 31-44 min.
WHEN it comes to picking locks and cracking safes, I admit to no master. The door to Inskipp's private quarters had an old-fashioned tumbler drum that was easier to pick than my teeth. I must have gone through that door without breaking step. Quiet as I was, though, Inskipp still heard me. The light came on, and there he was sitting up in bed pointing a .75 caliber recoilless at my sternum.
"You should have more brains than that, diGriz," he snarled. "Creeping into my room at night! You could have been shot."
"No I couldn't," I told him, as he stowed the cannon back under his pillow. "A man with a curiosity bump as big as yours will always talk first and shoot later. And besides--none of this pussyfooting around in the dark would be necessary if your screen was open and I could have got a call through."
Inskipp yawned and poured himself a glass of water from the dispenser unit above the bed. "Just because I head the Special Corps, doesn't mean that I am the Special Corps," he said moistly while he drained the glass. "I have to sleep sometime. My screen is open only for emergency calls, not for every agent who needs his hand held."
"Meaning I am in the hand-holding category?" I asked with as much sweetness as I could.
"Put yourself in any category you please," he grumbled as he slumped down in the bed. "And also put yourself out into the hall and see me tomorrow during working hours."
He was at my mercy, really. He wanted sleep so much. And he was going to be wide awake so very soon.
"Do you know what this is?" I asked him, poking a large glossy pic under his long broken nose. One eye opened slowly.
"Big warship of some kind, looks like Empire lines. Now for the last time--go away!" he said.
"A very good guess for this late at night," I told him cheerily. "It is a late Empire battleship of the Warlord class. Undoubtedly one of the most truly efficient engines of destruction ever manufactured. Over a half mile of defensive screens and armament, that could probably turn any fleet existent today into fine radioactive ash--"
"Except for the fact that the last one was broken up for scrap over a thousand years ago," he mumbled.
I leaned over and put my lips close to his ear. So there would be no chance of misunderstanding. Speaking softly, but clearly.
"True, true," I said. "But wouldn't you be just a little bit interested if I was to tell you that one is being built today?"
Oh, it was beautiful to watch. The covers went one way and Inskipp went the other. In a single unfolding, in concerted motion he left the horizontal and recumbent and stood tensely vertical against the wall. Examining the pic of the battleship under the light. He apparently did not believe in pajama bottoms and it hurt me to see the goose-bumps rising on those thin shanks. But if the legs were thin, the voice was more than full enough to make up for the difference.
"Talk, blast you diGriz--talk!" he roared. "What is this nonsense about a battleship? Who's building it?"
I had my nail file out and was touching up a cuticle, holding it out for inspection before I said anything. From the corner of my eye I could see him getting purple about the face--but he kept quiet. I savored my small moment of power.
"Put diGriz in charge of the record room for a while, you said, that way he can learn the ropes. Burrowing around in century-old, dusty files will be just the thing for a free spirit like Slippery Jim diGriz. Teach him discipline. Show him what the Corps stands for. At the same time it will get the records in shape. They have been needing reorganization for quite a while."
Inskipp opened his mouth, made a choking noise, then closed it. He undoubtedly realized that any interruption would only lengthen my explanation, not shorten it. I smiled and nodded at his decision, then continued.
"So you thought you had me safely out of the way. Breaking my spirit under the guise of 'giving me a little background in the Corps' activities.' In this sense your plan failed. Something else happened instead. I nosed through the files and found them most interesting. Particularly the C & M setup--the Categorizer and Memory. That building full of machinery that takes in and digests news and reports from all the planets in the galaxy, indexes it to every category it can possibly relate, then files it. Great machine to work with. I had it digging out spaceship info for me, something I have always been interested in--"
"You should be," Inskipp interrupted rudely. "You've stolen enough of them in your time."
I gave him a hurt look and went on--slowly. "I won't bore you with all the details, since you seem impatient, but eventually I turned up this plan." He had it out of my fingers before it cleared my wallet.
"What are you getting at?" he mumbled as he ran his eyes over the blueprints. "This is an ordinary heavy-cargo and passenger job. It's no more a Warlord battleship than I am."
It is hard to curl your lips with contempt and talk at the same time, but I succeeded. "Of course. You don't expect them to file warship plans with the League Registry, do you? But, as I said, I know more than a little bit about ships. It seemed to me this thing was just too big for the use intended. Enough old ships are fuel-wasters, you don't have to build new ones to do that. This started me thinking and I punched for a complete list of ships that size that had been constructed in the past. You can imagine my surprise when, after three minutes of groaning, the C & M only produced six. One was built for self-sustaining colony attempt at the second galaxy. For all we know she is still on the way. The other five were all D-class colonizers, built during the Expansion when large populations were moved. Too big to be practical now.
"I was still teased, as I had no idea what a ship this large could be used for. So I removed the time interlock on the C & M and let it pick around through the entire history of space to see if it could find a comparison. It sure did. Right at the Golden Age of Empire expansion, the giant Warlord battleships. The machine even found a blueprint for me."
Inskipp grabbed again and began comparing the two prints. I leaned over his shoulder and pointed out the interesting parts.
"Notice--if the engine room specs are changed slightly to include this cargo hold, there is plenty of room for the brutes needed. This superstructure--obviously just tacked onto the plans--gets thrown away, and turrets take its place. The hulls are identical. A change here, a shift there, and the stodgy freighter becomes the fast battlewagon. These changes could be made during construction, then plans filed. By the time anyone in the League found out what was being built the ship would be finished and launched. Of course, this could all be coincidence--the plans of a newly built ship agreeing to six places with those of a ship built a thousand years ago. But if you think so, I will give you hundred-to-one odds you are wrong, any size bet you name."
I wasn't winning any sucker bets that night. Inskipp had led just as crooked a youth as I had, and needed no help in smelling a fishy deal. While he pulled on his clothes he shot questions at me.
"And the name of the peace-loving planet that is building this bad memory from the past?"
"Cittanuvo. Second planet of a B star in Corona Borealis. No other colonized planets in the system."
"Never heard of it," Inskipp said as we took the private drop chute to his office. "Which may be a good or a bad sign. Wouldn't be the first time trouble came from some out-of-the-way spot I never even knew existed."
With the automatic disregard for others of the truly dedicated, he pressed the scramble button on his desk. Very quickly sleepy-eyed clerks and assistants were bringing files and records. We went through them together.
Modesty prevented me from speaking first, but I had a very short wait before Inskipp reached the same conclusion I had. He hurled a folder the length of the room and scowled out at the harsh dawn light.
"The more I look at this thing," he said, "the fishier it gets. This planet seems to have no possible motive or use for a battleship. But they are building one--that I will swear on a stack of one thousand credit notes as high as this building. Yet what will they do with it when they have it built? They have an expanding culture, no unemployment, a surplus of heavy metals and ready markets for all they produce. No hereditary enemies, feuds or the like. If it wasn't for this battleship thing, I would call them an ideal League planet. I have to know more about them."
"I've already called the spaceport--in your name of course," I told him. "Ordered a fast courier ship. I'll leave within the hour."
"Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself, diGriz," he said. Voice chill as the icecap. "I still give the orders and I'll tell you when you're ready for an independent command."
I was sweetness and light because a lot depended on his decision. "Just trying to help, chief, get things ready in case you wanted more info. And this isn't really an operation, just a reconnaissance. I can do that as well as any of the experienced operators. And it may give me the experience I need, so that some day, I, too, will be qualified to join the ranks...."
"All right," he said. "Stop shoveling it on while I can still breathe. Get out there. Find out what is going on. Then get back. Nothing else--and that's an order."
By the way he said it, I knew he thought there was little chance of its happening that way. Since my forced induction into the Corps six months earlier I had been stuck on this super-secret planetoid that was its headquarters and main base. I had very little sitting-down patience anyway, and it had been long since exhausted.