The Misplaced Battleship

by Harry Harrison

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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.

It had been interesting at first. Particularly since up until the time I was drafted into the Special Corps I wasn’t even certain it really existed. It was too much like a con man’s nightmare to be real. A secret worry. After a few happy years of successful crime you begin to wonder how long it will last. Planetary police are all pushovers and you start to feel you can go on forever if they’re your only competition. What about the League though? Don’t they take any interest in crime? Just about that time you hear your first rumor of the Special Corps and it fits the bad dreams. A shadowy, powerful group that slip silently between the stars, ready to bring the interstellar lawbreaker low. Sounds like TV drama stuff. I had been quite surprised to find they really existed.

I was even more surprised when I joined them. Of course there was a little pressure at the time. I had the alternative choice of instant death. But I still think it was a wise move. Under the motto “Set a thief to catch one,” the Corps supposedly made good use of men like myself to get rid of the more antisocial types that infest the universe.

This was still all hearsay to me. I had been pulled into headquarters and given routine administration work for training. Six months of this had me slightly ga-ga and I wanted out. Since no one seemed to be in a hurry to give me an assignment I had found one for myself. I had no idea of what would come if it, but I also had no intention of returning until the job was done.

A quick stop at supply and record sections gave me everything I needed. The sun was barely clear of the horizon when the silver needle of my ship lifted in the gray field, then blasted into space.

The trip took only a few days, more than enough time to memorize everything I needed to know about Cittanuvo. And the more I knew the less I could understand their need for a battleship. It didn’t fit. Cittanuvo was a secondary settlement out of the Cellini system, and I had run into these settlements before. They were all united in a loose alliance and bickered a lot among themselves, but never came to blows. If anything, they shared a universal abhorrence of war.

Yet they were secretly building a battleship.

Since I was only chasing my tail with this line of thought, I put it out of my mind and worked on some tri-di chess problems. This filled the time until Cittanuvo blinked into the bow screen.

One of my most effective mottoes has always been, “Secrecy can be an obviousity.” What the magicians call misdirection. Let people very obviously see what you want them to see, then they’ll never notice what is hidden. This was why I landed at midday, on the largest field on the planet, after a very showy approach. I was already dressed for my role, and out of the ship before the landing braces stopped vibrating. Buckling the fur cape around my shoulders with the platinum clasp, I stamped down the ramp. The sturdy little M-3 robot rumbled after me with my bags. Heading directly towards the main gate, I ignored the scurry of activity around the customs building. Only when a uniformed under-official of some kind ran over to me, did I give the field any attention.

Before he could talk I did, foot in the door and stay on top.

“Beautiful planet you have here. Delightful climate! Ideal spot for a country home. Friendly people, always willing to help strangers and all that I imagine. That’s what I like. Makes me feel grateful. Very pleased to meet you. I am the Grand Duke Sant’ Angelo.” I shook his hand enthusiastically at this point and let a one hundred credit note slip into his palm.

“Now,” I added, “I wonder if you would ask the customs agents to look at my bags here. Don’t want to waste time, do we? The ship is open, they can check that whenever they please.”

My manner, clothes, jewelry, the easy way I passed money around and the luxurious sheen of my bags, could mean only one thing. There was little that was worth smuggling into or out of Cittanuvo. Certainly nothing a rich man would be interested in. The official murmured something with a smile, spoke a few words into his phone, and the job was done.

A small wave of custom men hung stickers on my luggage, peeked into one or two for conformity’s sake, and waved me through. I shook hands all around--a rustling hand-clasp of course--then was on my way. A cab was summoned, a hotel suggested. I nodded agreement and settled back while the robot loaded the bags about me.

The ship was completely clean. Everything I might need for the job was in my luggage. Some of it quite lethal and explosive, and very embarrassing if it was discovered in my bags. In the safety of my hotel suite I made a change of clothes and personality. After the robot had checked the rooms for bugs.

And very nice gadgets too, these Corps robots. It looked and acted like a moron M-3 all the time. It was anything but. The brain was as good as any other robot brain I have known, plus the fact that the chunky body was crammed with devices and machines of varying use. It chugged slowly around the room, moving my bags and laying out my kit. And all the time following a careful route that covered every inch of the suite. When it had finished it stopped and called the all-clear.

“All rooms checked. Results negative except for one optic bug in that wall.”

“Should you be pointing like that?” I asked the robot. “Might make people suspicious, you know.”

“Impossible,” the robot said with mechanical surety. “I brushed against it and it is now unserviceable.”

With this assurance I pulled off my flashy clothes and slipped into the midnight black dress uniform of an admiral in the League Grand Fleet. It came complete with decorations, gold bullion, and all the necessary documents. I thought it a little showy myself, but it was just the thing to make the right impression on Cittanuvo. Like many other planets, this one was uniform-conscious. Delivery boys, street cleaners, clerks--all had to have characteristic uniforms. Much prestige attached to them, and my black dress outfit should rate as high as any uniform in the galaxy.

A long cloak would conceal the uniform while I left the hotel, but the gold-encrusted helmet and a brief case of papers were a problem. I had never explored all the possibilities of the pseudo M-3 robot, perhaps it could be of help.

“You there, short and chunky,” I called. “Do you have any concealed compartments or drawers built into your steel hide? If so, let’s see.”

For a second I thought the robot had exploded. The thing had more drawers in it than a battery of cash registers. Big, small, flat, thin, they shot out on all sides. One held a gun and two more were stuffed with grenades; the rest were empty. I put the hat in one, the brief case in another and snapped my fingers. The drawers slid shut and its metal hide was as smooth as ever.

I pulled on a fancy sports cap, buckled the cape up tight, and was ready to go. The luggage was all booby-trapped and could defend itself. Guns, gas, poison needles, the usual sort of thing. In the last resort it would blow itself up. The M-3 went down by a freight elevator. I used a back stairs and we met in the street.

Since it was still daylight I didn’t take a heli, but rented a groundcar instead. We had a leisurely drive out into the country and reached President Ferraro’s house after dark.

As befitted the top official of a rich planet, the place was a mansion. But the security precautions were ludicrous to say the least. I took myself and a three hundred fifty kilo robot through the guards and alarms without causing the slightest stir. President Ferraro, a bachelor, was eating his dinner. This gave me enough undisturbed time to search his study.

There was absolutely nothing. Nothing to do with wars or battleships that is. If I had been interested in blackmail I had enough evidence in my hand to support me for life. I was looking for something bigger than political corruption, however.

When Ferraro rolled into his study after dinner the room was dark. I heard him murmur something about the servants and fumble for the switch. Before he found it, the robot closed the door and turned on the lights. I sat behind his desk, all his personal papers before me--weighted down with a pistol--and as fierce a scowl as I could raise smeared across my face. Before he got over the shock I snapped an order at him.

“Come over here and sit down, quick!”

The robot hustled him across the room at the same time, so he had no choice except to obey. When he saw the papers on the desk his eyes bulged and he just gurgled a little. Before he could recover I threw a thick folder in front of him.

“I am Admiral Thar, League Grand Fleet. These are my credentials. You had better check them.” Since they were as good as any real admiral’s I didn’t worry in the slightest. Ferraro went through them as carefully as he could in his rattled state, even checking the seals under UV. It gave him time to regain a bit of control and he used it to bluster.

“What do you mean by entering my private quarters and burglaring--”

“You’re in very bad trouble,” I said in as gloomy a voice as I could muster.

Ferraro’s tanned face went a dirty gray at my words. I pressed the advantage.

“I am arresting you for conspiracy, extortion, theft, and whatever other charges develop after a careful review of these documents. Seize him.” This last order was directed at the robot who was well briefed in its role. It rumbled forward and locked its hand around Ferraro’s wrist, handcuff style. He barely noticed.

“I can explain,” he said desperately. “Everything can be explained. There is no need to make such charges. I don’t know what papers you have there, so I wouldn’t attempt to say they are all forgeries. I have many enemies you know. If the League knew the difficulties faced on a backward planet like this...”

“That will be entirely enough,” I snapped, cutting him off with a wave of my hand. “All those questions will be answered by a court at the proper time. There is only one question I want an answer to now. Why are you building that battleship?”

The man was a great actor. His eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped, he sank back into the chair as if he had been tapped lightly with a hammer. When he managed to speak the words were completely unnecessary; he had already registered every evidence of injured innocence.

“What battleship!” he gasped.

“The Warlord class battleship that is being built at the Cenerentola Spaceyards. Disguised behind these blueprints.” I threw them across the desk to him, and pointed to one corner. “Those are your initials there, authorizing construction.”

Ferraro still had the baffled act going as he fumbled with the papers, examined the initials and such. I gave him plenty of time. He finally put them down, shaking his head.

“I know nothing about any battleship. These are the plans for a new cargo liner. Those are my initials, I recall putting them there.”

I phrased my question carefully, as I had him right where I wanted him now. “You deny any knowledge of the Warlord battleship that is being built from these modified plans.”

“These are the plans for an ordinary passenger-freighter, that is all I know.”

His words had the simple innocence of a young child’s. Was he ever caught. I sat back with a relaxed sigh and lit a cigar.

“Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing something about that robot who is holding you,” I said. He looked down, as if aware for the first time that the robot had been holding him by the wrist during the interview. “That is no ordinary robot. It has a number of interesting devices built into its fingertips. Thermocouples, galvanometers, things like that. While you talked it registered your skin temperature, blood pressure, amount of perspiration and such. In other words it is an efficient and fast working lie detector. We will now hear all about your lies.”

Ferraro pulled away from the robot’s hand as if it had been a poisonous snake. I blew a relaxed smoke ring. “Report,” I said to the robot. “Has this man told any lies?”

“Many,” the robot said. “Exactly seventy-four per cent of all statements he made were fake.”

“Very good,” I nodded, throwing the last lock on my trap. “That means he knows all about this battleship.”

“The subject has no knowledge of the battleship,” the robot said coldly. “All of his statements concerning the construction of this ship were true.”

Now it was my turn for the gaping and eye-popping act while Ferraro pulled himself together. He had no idea I wasn’t interested in his other hanky-panky, but could tell I had had a low blow. It took an effort, but I managed to get my mind back into gear and consider the evidence.


If President Ferraro didn’t know about the battleship, he must have been taken in by the cover-up job. But if he wasn’t responsible--who was? Some militaristic clique that meant to overthrow him and take power? I didn’t know enough about the planet, so I enlisted Ferraro on my side.

This was easy--even without the threat of exposure of the documents I had found in his files. Using their disclosure as a prod I could have made him jump through hoops. It wasn’t necessary. As soon as I showed him the different blueprints and explained the possibilities he understood. If anything, he was more eager than I was to find out who was using his administration as a cat’s-paw. By silent agreement the documents were forgotten.

We agreed that the next logical step would be the Cenerentola Spaceyards. He had some idea of sniffing around quietly first, trying to get a line to his political opponents. I gave him to understand that the League, and the League Navy in particular, wanted to stop the construction of the battleship. After that he could play his politics. With this point understood he called his car and squadron of guards and we made a parade to the shipyards. It was a four-hour drive and we made plans on the way down.

The spaceyard manager was named Rocca, and he was happily asleep when we arrived. But not for long. The parade of uniforms and guns in the middle of the night had him frightened into a state where he could hardly walk. I imagine he was as full of petty larceny as Ferraro. No innocent man could have looked so terror stricken. Taking advantage of the situation, I latched my motorized lie detector onto him and began snapping the questions.

Even before I had all the answers I began to get the drift of things. They were a little frightening, too. The manager of the spaceyard that was building the ship had no idea of its true nature.

Anyone with less self-esteem than myself--or who had led a more honest early life--might have doubted his own reasoning at that moment. I didn’t. The ship on the ways still resembled a warship to six places. And knowing human nature the way I do, that was too much of a coincidence to expect. Occam’s razor always points the way. If there are two choices to take, take the simpler. In this case I chose the natural acquisitive instinct of man as opposed to blind chance and accident. Nevertheless I put the theory to the test.

Looking over the original blueprints again, the big superstructure hit my eye. In order to turn the ship into a warship that would have to be one of the first things to go.

“Rocca!” I barked, in what I hoped was authentic old space-dog manner. “Look at these plans, at this space-going front porch here. Is it still being built onto the ship?”

He shook his head at once and said, “No, the plans were changed. We had to fit in some kind of new meteor-repelling gear for operating in the planetary debris belt.”

I flipped through my case and drew out a plan. “Does your new gear look anything like this?” I asked, throwing it across the table to him.

He rubbed his jaw while he looked at it. “Well,” he said hesitatingly, “I don’t want to say for certain. After all these details aren’t in my department, I’m just responsible for final assembly, not unit work. But this surely looks like the thing they installed. Big thing. Lots of power leads--”

It was a battleship all right, no doubt of that now. I was mentally reaching around to pat myself on the back when the meaning of his words sank in.

“Installed!” I shouted. “Did you say installed?”

Rocca collapsed away from my roar and gnawed his nails. “Yes--” he said, “not too long ago. I remember there was some trouble...”

“And what else!” I interrupted him. Cold moisture was beginning to collect along my spine now. “The drives, controls--are they in, too?”

“Why, yes,” he said. “How did you know? The normal scheduling was changed around, causing a great deal of unnecessary trouble.”

The cold sweat was now a running river of fear. I was beginning to have the feeling that I had been missing the boat all along the line. The original estimated date of completion was nearly a year away. But there was no real reason why that couldn’t be changed, too.

“Cars! Guns!” I bellowed. “To the spaceyard. If that ship is anywhere near completion, we are in big, big trouble!”

All the bored guards had a great time with the sirens, lights, accelerators on the floor and that sort of thing. We blasted a screaming hole through the night right to the spaceyard and through the gate.

It didn’t make any difference, we were still too late. A uniformed watchman frantically waved to us and the whole convoy jerked to a stop.

The ship was gone.

Rocca couldn’t believe it, neither could the president. They wandered up and down the empty ways where it had been built. I just crunched down in the back of the car, chewing my cigar to pieces and cursing myself for being a fool.

I had missed the obvious fact, being carried away by the thought of a planetary government building a warship. The government was involved for sure--but only as a pawn. No little planet-bound political mind could have dreamed up as big a scheme as this. I smelled a rat--a stainless steel one. Someone who operated the way I had done before my conversion.

Now that the rodent was well out of the bag I knew just where to look, and had a pretty good idea of what I would find. Rocca, the spaceyard manager, had staggered back and was pulling at his hair, cursing and crying at the same time. President Ferraro had his gun out and was staring at it grimly. It was hard to tell if he was thinking of murder or suicide. I didn’t care which. All he had to worry about was the next election, when the voters and the political competition would carve him up for losing the ship. My troubles were a little bigger.

I had to find the battleship before it blasted its way across the galaxy.

“Rocca!” I shouted. “Get into the car. I want to see your records--all of your records--and I want to see them right now.”

He climbed wearily in and had directed the driver before he fully realized what was happening. Blinking at the sickly light of dawn brought him slowly back to reality.

“But ... admiral ... the hour! Everyone will be asleep...”

I just growled, but it was enough. Rocca caught the idea from my expression and grabbed the car phone. The office doors were open when we got there.

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.