The Misplaced Battleship Lure, page 1
The Misplaced Battleship Lure
by Harley Harrison
Copyright 2010 Harley Harrison
A Staynless Steel Rat story
A Gender Switch Adventure
When it comes to picking locks and cracking safes I admit to no mistress. 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 she was sitting up in bed pointing a .75 caliber recoilless at my sternum.
'You should have more brains than that, de Gryz,' she snarled. 'Creeping into my room at night! You could have been shot.'
'No I couldn't,' I told her, as she stowed the cannon back under her pillow. 'A woman 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 herself 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,' she said moistly while she drained the glass. 'I have to sleep sometime. My screen is open only for emergency calls, not for every agent who needs her 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,' she grumbled as she slumped down in the bed. 'And also put yourself out into the hall and see me tomorrow during working hours.'
She was at my mercy, really. She wanted sleep so much. And she was going to be wide awake so very soon.
'Do you know what this is?' I asked her, poking a large glossy pic under her long broken nose. One eye opened slowly.
'Big warship of some kind, looks like Empire lines. Now for the last time--go away!' she said.
'A very good guess for this late at night,' I told her 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,' she mumbled.
I leaned over and put my lips close to her 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 she left the horizontal and recumbent and stood tensely vertical against the wall. Examining the pic of the battleship under the light. She 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 de Gryz--talk!' she 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 her getting purple about the face--but she kept quiet. I savored my small moment of power.
'Put de Gryz in charge of the record room for a while, you said, that way she can learn the ropes. Burrowing around in century-old, dusty files will be just the thing for a free spirit like Slyppery Jem de Gryz. Teach her discipline. Show her 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 her mouth, made a choking noise, then closed it. She undoubtedly realized that any interruption would only lengthen my explanation, not shorten it. I smiled and nodded at her 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 her 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.' She had it out of my fingers before it cleared my wallet.
'What are you getting at?' she mumbled as she ran her 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 he 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 her 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 she pulled on her clothes she 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 her 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, she pressed the scramble button on her desk. Very quickly sleepy-eyed clerks and assistants were bringing files and records. We we
Modesty prevented me from speaking first, but I had a very short wait before Inskipp reached the same conclusion I had. She hurled a folder the length of the room and scowled out at the harsh dawn light.
'The more I look at this thing,' she 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 her. 'Ordered a fast courier ship. I'll leave within the hour.'
'Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself, de Gryz,' she 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 her 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,' she 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 she said it, I knew she 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 woman's nightstallion 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 women 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 she 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 her hand enthusiastically at this point and let a one hundred credit note slip into her 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 woman would be interested in. The official murmured something with a smile, spoke a few words into her phone, and the job was done.
A small wave of custom women 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 nephew 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 girls, 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 comp
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 her dinner. This gave me enough undisturbed time to search her 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 her study after dinner the room was dark. I heard her murmur something about the servants and fumble for the switch. Before she found it, the robot closed the door and turned on the lights. I sat behind her desk, all her personal papers before me--weighted down with a pistol--and as fierce a scowl as I could raise smeared across my face. Before she got over the shock I snapped an order at her.
'Come over here and sit down, quick!'
The robot hustled her across the room at the same time, so she had no choice except to obey. When she saw the papers on the desk her eyes bulged and she just gurgled a little. Before she could recover I threw a thick folder in front of her.