The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus
"I'M EXHAUSTED," ANGELINA SAID. "ALL this hammering away on a hot computer keyboard."
"Productive hammering, my love," I said, pushing away my own keyboard, yawning and stretching until my joints cracked. "In a little under two hours we have made more than two hundred thousand credits through insider dealing in the stock exchange. Some might believe it illegal--but very profitable. I prefer to see it as a public service. To keep the money circulating, to lower the level of unemployment ..."
"Not now, Jim. I am too tired to listen."
"But not too tired to listen to this. Right now we need a complete change. What do you say to a picnic in a leafy dell in Sharwood Forest? With champagne."
"A lovely idea, but the shopping ..."
"Has been already done. I have a complete picnic, basket and all, in the stasis freezer. Everything from caviar to Roc's eggs. We have but to sling it into the hoverfloat, along with plenty of bubbly drink, and let joy begin."
And so it did. While Angelina slipped into something picnicky, I slipped the picnic hamper into the hoverfloat--humming happily as I did so for we had been working too hard of late. We must escape the daily grind. A change of scenery. In the nearby forest, which was one of the few green spots on the painfully boring planet of Usti nad Labam. The landscape was all dark satanic techno-factories run by computer nerds. It was a pleasure to rob them. Using the most advanced hacking techniques I had slipped some software into the operating system of a prominent broker. With this I could slow their input of information by varying lengths of time. With this advance knowledge I could buy before a price rise--then sell at the higher price. Neat.
A favor to them really, because when the scam was eventually discovered, I truly believe that the resultant news stories and jolly police chases would give them something to think about for a change. Instead of the incessant RAM, ROM, PROM. In our own way Angelina and I were benefactors, bringing joy into otherwise boring lives. The price was a small one for them. Infinitesimal. Angelina joined me and we were up, up and away.
The engine roared forcefully, the air rushed by swiftly, and we held hands compassionately as our transport of delight soared skyward.
"Wonderful," Angelina breathed.
"Merda," I growled as a police warning bleeped and blinked on the console. There it was--a police cruiser swooping towards us. I stamped hard on the power.
"Please don't," Angelina said, placing a gentle hand on my arm. "Let us not spoil the day with a sizzling chase. Could we just stop, smile at the police? Not you, me. All you have to do is pay the fine. I will charm the police, you pay their fine, and we will then go on."
It made sense. There was no point in spoiling our day out before it really started. I sighed dramatically and, with great reluctance, eased off.
Our speed dropped.
The police cruiser fired its nose guns at us.
Things happened very quickly after that.
I hit overdrive and pulled back hard into an inside loop. The police missed: I didn't. I blew the cruiser's tail off. Then I banked hard to avoid the hosing slugs from his wingman. As the police vehicle swooped by I saw that it had no windows. Therefore no occupants.
"Robot policemen!" I chortled. "Therefore we don't have to hold back and spare their lives. Because they have no lives! To the junkyard with the lot!"
After that it was Old Home Week in the diGriz partnership. I climbed--then did a 5G dive to get away from the flock of police cruisers that had appeared all too suddenly. Hit the reverse drive when they were all on my tail. Angelina worked the armament and defenses as they zipped by and managed to get three of them. Even on the most peaceful planet I go not unarmed into the sky; our peaceful hoverfloat was a lot more deadly than it looked.
But this chase was beginning to turn nasty. We were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. "And running out of ammo," Angelina said, echoing my own thoughts.
"Change of venue!" I shouted, dropping towards the green forest below. "Grab the survival kit and get ready for a bumpy landing."
I screeched low over a rock-tipped ridge, dived into the valley beyond--and braked to a hover under the trees below. Angelina had the door open as we juddered to a stop, the kit thrown out, and was diving right out behind it when I hit the two-second-delay button. I was cutting it a little too close: the doorframe hit my bootheel as I went out. I changed the dive into a roll, hit the ground hard on my shoulders and thudded to a stop, all of the air knocked out of me.
"My hero," my dear wife said, patting my eheek and kissing my forehead. "Now let's move it."
We did. Grabbing up the kit, she gracefully, and I haltingly, dived into the protection of the shrubbery.
Meanwhile above the trees the battle roared as our faithful hoverfloat defended itself with all the robotic skill at its command. Alas, the fracas ended suddenly with a tremendous explosion.
"End of champagne and caviar," Angelina said, her voice so cold I felt my body temperature drop.
"I'll not contribute to the Policeman's Ball this year." I grimaced.
She laughed warmly and squeezed my hand. And the old, cold deadly Angelina slipped away.
"Let's make tracks," I said. "Before they discover that they were fighting the robot pilot."
"Let us not," she said. "This is a nice big tree that we are under. It will shield us from visual observation, perhaps infrared imaging as well. If they suspect that we were not in the hoverfloat they could backtrack and look for us."
"Your logic is impeccable," I said, rooting through the survival kit. Guns, grenades, all the necessities of life. "And to carry that logic a bit further--why were the police trying to shoot us up?"
"I haven't the foggiest. As far as the authorities know we are simple tourists who dabble in the market. Sometimes losing ..."
"Most times winning!"
"What do you have there?" she asked as I pulled a silver form out from behind a belt of ammunition.
"Jolly Barman Instant Cocktails. I bought a couple of these on sale." I pulled the tab and two plastic beakers dropped into my hand. There was a hissing sound and the can turned cold in my hand; moisture condensed on it. I handed Angelina a beaker, poured it full of sparkling liquid. The gray scraps in the bottoms of the mugs were instantly reconstituted by the liquid to pieces of fruit. I poured another drink for myself and we sipped appreciatively.
"Not too bad." I smacked my lips and cudgeled my brain. "Those police were out to blast us--not arrest us. Are we missing something?"
"Obviously. I think that we should get out of the forest now and see what we can find out about this mystery attack."
"We can't exactly call the police and ask them why they were gunning for us--can we?"
"We can't. Therefore I will think of something more subtle. Call our son James and have him do a computer search of our problem. After at!--he is in the computer business here and should know how to get information."
"An excellent idea. We can also have him come pick us up since it is a long walk home."
We finished the drinks and I shouldered the survival kit. There was no sound of aircraft now, just some distant birdcalls and the hum of insects. We moved through the trees, staying undercover, distancing ourselves from the action with the police fleet. We listened closely but there was no sound of any engines behind or above us. I smiled. Then I frowned when I heard the grumble of a motor up ahead.
"Perhaps that is a sturdy forester, practicing his weald-wise trade," I said hopefully.
"Would that it were. Because whatever it is out there is coming closer. If they are looking for us, then I am forced to believe that all of this activity and attention is far too murderous for a simple traffic bust."
"Unhappily, I agree. They have made no attempt to communicate with us--just came in blasting."
I looked on gloomily as she opened the survival kit and took out an immense handgun. "But let us not make it easy for them."
We didn't. The armored police cruiser had its tracks blow off as it appeared. It kept firing at us even though it couldn't move. We dived in close, so close it could not depress its guns to get at us. I jumped to the top of the tread, flipped open the top hatch and dropped a couple of sleep capsules. Then I looked carefully inside.
"Highly interesting." I rejoined Angelina on the ground. "Nobody home. Which means, like the cruisers that chased us, this thing is also robot operated and remotely controlled."
"By our new enemies, whoever they are."
Distant engines sounded from behind the trees and we slipped away in the opposite direction, deeper into the forest. Which did not do much good in the end because there were now sounds of machines from ahead.
"They have trackers on us--so there is no point in wearying ourselves by running about. We'll stay here and make a stand. Get as many of these robot machines as we can."
"I thought that there were laws of robotics--about not killing or injuring humans."
"It looks like those laws were repealed. Lock and load--here they come again!"
I would have felt a certain compunction about killing a policeman, but I really did enjoy blasting police robots into tiny bits of junk. But it proved to be a no-win battle. Wherever we turned they were there ahead of us. Our ammunition dwindled as their numbers increased.
"My last grenade," Angelina said as she blasted a hovertank.
"My last shot," I said, taking out a robocycle. "It has been nice knowing you."
"Nonsense, Jim. You are not giving up, you never do, never will."
"You know that--but they don't." I stepped out into the clearing and waved my handkerchief, raised my palms in the air as I faced the circle of robot police. "Peace, pax, surrender. OK?"
"No OK," an armored robot said. It had sergeant's stripes welded to its arm, and a sneering tone to its metallic voice.
It raised a glowing muzzled flamethrower.
I blew it away with a shot from my crotch cannon.
Was this the end? Were we to be ground into the soil of this sordid planet at the galaxy's edge?
The tanks and robots and all the other military gear surrounded us, rumbled forward, weapons quivering with metallic malice. Angelina had her hand in mine. I contemplated one last attack, throwing myself onto our attackers in the vain hope that she might escape. Then, even as I tensed my muscles for a suicidal attack, a voice sounded out from among the trees.
"You really are very good," the dapper man said condescendingly as he stepped into the glade. Full evening dress, black cloak held by a diamond brooch, diamond-capped cane. This was too much. I heard a primitive, unsummoned growl grumble from the back of my throat as I fired what really was the very last shot from my crotch cannon.
It exploded with a glare of flame, a blast of noise.
Just in front of him. Spending all of its energy harmlessly against the force screen emanating from his walking stick.
"Temper, temper," he breathed, covering a yawn with the back of his hand. He waved the ebony cane in a slight arc and all of the weaponry grumbled back into the forest and vanished from sight.
"You are not the police," Angelina said.
"Anything but, Mrs. diGriz. Those were my minions who took you on. My employees, so to speak. Their ranks are now well decimated I must add."
"Tough," I said. "Call your insurance company. Remember--you started it."
"I did indeed, and am well satisfied by the outcome. I have heard from many sources that you were the best man--and best lady of course--in your chosen profession. I found that hard to believe. But now I do. Most impressive. So impressive that I am prepared to offer you a little assignment."
"I am not for hire. Who are you?"
"Oh, I think you are. Imperetrix Von Kaiser-Czarski. You may call me Kaizi."
"Good-by, Kaizi," I sneered, taking Angelina's hand and turning away.
"One million credits a day. Plus expenses."
"Two million," I said, turning back, all sneering spent.
"Done. We will both sign this." A gold-embellished contract on finest vellum unrolled from his walking stick and he passed it over to me. Angelina leaned over my shoulder and we read it together.
"Any problems?" Kaizi asked.
"None," I answered. "We undertake to undertake an assignment at the agreed fee, payment to be deposited daily to my account. Fine. But what is it that you want us to do?"
Kaizi sighed and touched his stick again. It opened up into a comfortable-looking folding seat and he settled into it.
"To begin with, you must realize my position, understand exactly who I am. You have never heard of me because I prefer it that way. If only to avoid the people with their hands out, eagerly seeking some of my money. I am, to put it simply, the richest man in the galaxy." He smiled slightly as he spoke. Undoubtedly thinking of all the money he had.
"I am probably the oldest man as well. The last time I worked out the figures, I think it was forty thousand years, give or take a millennium or two. As I am sure you realize, one's memory begins to glitch a bit as the centuries roll by. I was a scientist, rather I think that I was a scientist. Or perhaps I hired a scientist. In any case I developed the first longevity drug. That much I am sure of. Which I, of course, kept to myself. And have been improving it ever since. How old do you think I look?"
He raised his chin and turned his head. No wattles there. No wrinkles about his eyes, no touch of gray to his temple.
"Forty, I would say," Angelina said.
"You are very kind. Well, as the millennia rolled by I amassed more money, more property. I could have easily assured my fortune by simply investing and letting the compound interest roll in. But that would have been very boring, and boredom is what I loathe the most. I have always sought excitement to lessen the burden of my years. In the process of growing rich I have bought, and now own, entire star systems. To add diversity to my portfolio I am presently in the process of acquiring a spiral galaxy; one never knows when one might need one. There are some black holes among my recent acquisitions. But I think I shall divest myself of them. Boring. Seen one black hole and you have seen them all."
He took the kerchief from his breast pocket, touched it lightly to his lips, returned it. One atom short of a molecule, I thought. I caught Angelina's eye and saw that she thought the same.
"But now I have a very troublesome problem that needs to be solved. I look for your aid in that quest."
"Three million a day," I said promptly, avarice beating down suspicion.
"Done," he said, stifling a yawn at the same time. "My problem is that I am systematically being robbed. Someone--or some group--has been getting into my bank accounts. Right across the galaxy. Clearing them out. And if it so happens that I happen to own the bank--The Widows and Orphans 1st Interstellar Bank--why then the entire branch of the bank is cleaned out as well. This makes for bad customer relationships. From millions of clients with their billions of credits. As you might understand this is quite embarrassing for one in my position. You, gentleman Jim diGriz, must utilize all of your stainless steel talents to stop these thefts and to discover who is perpetrating them.
As I opened my mouth to speak he raised his cane and sighed. "Yes, I know, don't bother to say it, four million a day and let us leave it there. I find business so boring."
"You will have to give me complete details of all the previous thefts," I said. "And a list of banks where you have accounts, as well as banks that you own."
"That has already been done. You will find all of the information in your computer's memory banks."
"You are pretty sure of yourself."
"And you work pretty fast."
"I have to--and at the price I am paying you, why you better do so as well. I want results yesterday. However I will settle for information instantly. Might I offer you a lift--so you can get right to work?"
"You will have to," Angelina said coldly. "After what you did to our hoverfloat. And our picnic basket."
"The value of your craft has already been credited to your highly secret, known to no one, account in the Banco di Napoli. And as some recompense for hardship I do hope that you will be my guests at dinner tonight at the Earthlight Room. Just tell the maitre d' to bill Kaizi's account. You will dine as you have never dined before."
A black and silent HoverRolls dropped down into the clearing: the door opened.
"After you, Mrs. diGriz. Or, might I be so bold, Angelina?"
"Buster," she said, swaying ever so gracefully up the stairs, "for what you are paying my husband you can call me anything you want."
Copyright © 1999 by Harry Harrison