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´╗┐Title: The Variable Man
Author: Dick, Philip K.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Variable Man" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



    This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction September
    1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
    U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.



[Illustration]



THE VARIABLE MAN

BY PHILIP K. DICK

ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL

    He fixed things--clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and
    destinies. But he had no business in the future, where the
    calculators could not handle him. He was Earth's only
    hope--and its sure failure!


Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps and
entered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside and
he entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thin
face rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at the
central SRB computer, studying its reading.

"Straight gain for the last quarter," observed Kaplan, the lab
organizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. "Not bad,
Commissioner."

"We're catching up to them," Reinhart retorted. "But too damn slowly.
We must finally go over--and soon."

Kaplan was in a talkative mood. "We design new offensive weapons, they
counter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made!
Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designing
long enough to stabilize for production."

"It will end," Reinhart stated coldly, "as soon as Terra turns out a
weapon for which Centaurus can build no defense."

"Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediate
obsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to--"

"What we count on is the _lag_," Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hard
gray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. "The
time lag between our offensive design and their counter development.
The lag varies." He waved impatiently toward the massed banks of SRB
machines. "As you well know."

At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRB
machines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All facts
considered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by Proxima
Centaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on the
total information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vast
flow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol and
Centaurus systems.

21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in the
enemy's favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus,
older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra's rate of
technocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.

"If we went to war now," Reinhart said thoughtfully, "we would lose.
We're not far enough along to risk an overt attack." A harsh, ruthless
glow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into a
stern mask. "But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensive
designs are gradually gaining on their defenses."

"Let's hope the war comes soon," Kaplan agreed. "We're all on edge.
This damn waiting...."

The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air was
full of tension, the _elan_. He left the SRB rooms and hurried down
the corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Security
wing. It wouldn't be long. He could practically feel the hot breath of
destiny on his neck--for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set in
a humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against his
tanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He'd been working at it
a long time.

First contact, a hundred years earlier, had ignited instant conflict
between Proxima Centauran outposts and exploring Terran raiders. Flash
fights, sudden eruptions of fire and energy beams.

And then the long, dreary years of inaction between enemies where
contact required years of travel, even at nearly the speed of light.
The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Warship
against power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an iron
ring that couldn't be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radical
new weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out.

Through the windows of his office, Reinhart could see endless
buildings and streets, Terrans hurrying back and forth. Bright specks
that were commute ships, little eggs that carried businessmen and
white-collar workers around. The huge transport tubes that shot masses
of workmen to factories and labor camps from their housing units. All
these people, waiting to break out. Waiting for the day.

Reinhart snapped on his vidscreen, the confidential channel. "Give me
Military Designs," he ordered sharply.

       *       *       *       *       *

He sat tense, his wiry body taut, as the vidscreen warmed into life.
Abruptly he was facing the hulking image of Peter Sherikov, director
of the vast network of labs under the Ural Mountains.

Sherikov's great bearded features hardened as he recognized Reinhart.
His bushy black eyebrows pulled up in a sullen line. "What do you
want? You know I'm busy. We have too much work to do, as it is.
Without being bothered by--politicians."

"I'm dropping over your way," Reinhart answered lazily. He adjusted
the cuff of his immaculate gray cloak. "I want a full description of
your work and whatever progress you've made."

"You'll find a regular departmental report plate filed in the usual
way, around your office someplace. If you'll refer to that you'll know
exactly what we--"

"I'm not interested in that. I want to _see_ what you're doing. And I
expect you to be prepared to describe your work fully. I'll be there
shortly. Half an hour."

       *       *       *       *       *

Reinhart cut the circuit. Sherikov's heavy features dwindled and
faded. Reinhart relaxed, letting his breath out. Too bad he had to
work with Sherikov. He had never liked the man. The big Polish
scientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself with
society. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of the
individual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organic
state Weltansicht.

But Sherikov was the leading research scientist, in charge of the
Military Designs Department. And on Designs the whole future of Terra
depended. Victory over Centaurus--or more waiting, bottled up in the
Sol System, surrounded by a rotting, hostile Empire, now sinking into
ruin and decay, yet still strong.

Reinhart got quickly to his feet and left the office. He hurried down
the hall and out of the Council building.

A few minutes later he was heading across the mid-morning sky in his
highspeed cruiser, toward the Asiatic land-mass, the vast Ural
mountain range. Toward the Military Designs labs.

Sherikov met him at the entrance. "Look here, Reinhart. Don't think
you're going to order me around. I'm not going to--"

"Take it easy." Reinhart fell into step beside the bigger man. They
passed through the check and into the auxiliary labs. "No immediate
coercion will be exerted over you or your staff. You're free to
continue your work as you see fit--for the present. Let's get this
straight. My concern is to integrate your work with our total social
needs. As long as your work is sufficiently productive--"

Reinhart stopped in his tracks.

"Pretty, isn't he?" Sherikov said ironically.

"What the hell is it?

"Icarus, we call him. Remember the Greek myth? The legend of Icarus.
Icarus flew.... This Icarus is going to fly, one of these days."
Sherikov shrugged. "You can examine him, if you want. I suppose this
is what you came here to see."

Reinhart advanced slowly. "This is the weapon you've been working on?"

"How does he look?"

Rising up in the center of the chamber was a squat metal cylinder, a
great ugly cone of dark gray. Technicians circled around it, wiring up
the exposed relay banks. Reinhart caught a glimpse of endless tubes
and filaments, a maze of wires and terminals and parts criss-crossing
each other, layer on layer.

"What is it?" Reinhart perched on the edge of a workbench, leaning his
big shoulders against the wall. "An idea of Jamison Hedge--the same
man who developed our instantaneous interstellar vidcasts forty years
ago. He was trying to find a method of faster than light travel when
he was killed, destroyed along with most of his work. After that ftl
research was abandoned. It looked as if there were no future in it."

"Wasn't it shown that nothing could travel faster than light?"

"The interstellar vidcasts do! No, Hedge developed a valid ftl drive.
He managed to propel an object at fifty times the speed of light. But
as the object gained speed, its length began to diminish and its mass
increased. This was in line with familiar twentieth-century concepts
of mass-energy transformation. We conjectured that as Hedge's object
gained velocity it would continue to lose length and gain mass until
its length became nil and its mass infinite. Nobody can imagine such
an object."

"Go on."

"But what actually occurred is this. Hedge's object continued to lose
length and gain mass until it reached the theoretical limit of
velocity, the speed of light. At that point the object, still gaining
speed, simply ceased to exist. Having no length, it ceased to occupy
space. It disappeared. However, the object had not been _destroyed_.
It continued on its way, gaining momentum each moment, moving in an
arc across the galaxy, away from the Sol system. Hedge's object
entered some other realm of being, beyond our powers of conception.
The next phase of Hedge's experiment consisted in a search for some
way to slow the ftl object down, back to a sub-ftl speed, hence back
into our universe. This counterprinciple was eventually worked out."

"With what result?"

"The death of Hedge and destruction of most of his equipment. His
experimental object, in re-entering the space-time universe, came into
being in space already occupied by matter. Possessing an incredible
mass, just below infinity level, Hedge's object exploded in a titanic
cataclysm. It was obvious that no space travel was possible with such
a drive. Virtually all space contains _some_ matter. To re-enter space
would bring automatic destruction. Hedge had found his ftl drive and
his counterprinciple, but no one before this has been able to put them
to any use."

Reinhart walked over toward the great metal cylinder. Sherikov jumped
down and followed him. "I don't get it," Reinhart said. "You said the
principle is no good for space travel."

"That's right."

"What's this for, then? If the ship explodes as soon as it returns to
our universe--"

"This is not a ship." Sherikov grinned slyly. "Icarus is the first
practical application of Hedge's principles. Icarus is a bomb."

"So this is our weapon," Reinhart said. "A bomb. An immense bomb."

"A bomb, moving at a velocity greater than light. A bomb which will
not exist in our universe. The Centaurans won't be able to detect or
stop it. How could they? As soon as it passes the speed of light it
will cease to exist--beyond all detection."

"But--"

"Icarus will be launched outside the lab, on the surface. He will
align himself with Proxima Centaurus, gaining speed rapidly. By the
time he reaches his destination he will be traveling at ftl-100.
Icarus will be brought back to this universe within Centaurus itself.
The explosion should destroy the star and wash away most of its
planets--including their central hub-planet, Armun. There is no way
they can halt Icarus, once he has been launched. No defense is
possible. Nothing can stop him. It is a real fact."

"When will he be ready?"

Sherikov's eyes flickered. "Soon."

"Exactly how soon?"

The big Pole hesitated. "As a matter of fact, there's only one thing
holding us back."

Sherikov led Reinhart around to the other side of the lab. He pushed a
lab guard out of the way.

"See this?" He tapped a round globe, open at one end, the size of a
grapefruit. "This is holding us up."

"What is it?"

"The central control turret. This thing brings Icarus back to sub-ftl
flight at the correct moment. It must be absolutely accurate. Icarus
will be within the star only a matter of a microsecond. If the turret
does not function exactly, Icarus will pass out the other side and
shoot beyond the Centauran system."

"How near completed is this turret?"

Sherikov hedged uncertainly, spreading out his big hands. "Who can
say? It must be wired with infinitely minute equipment--microscope
grapples and wires invisible to the naked eye."

"Can you name any completion date?"

Sherikov reached into his coat and brought out a manila folder. "I've
drawn up the data for the SRB machines, giving a date of completion.
You can go ahead and feed it. I entered ten days as the maximum
period. The machines can work from that."

Reinhart accepted the folder cautiously. "You're sure about the date?
I'm not convinced I can trust you, Sherikov."

Sherikov's features darkened. "You'll have to take a chance,
Commissioner. I don't trust you any more than you trust me. I know how
much you'd like an excuse to get me out of here and one of your
puppets in."

Reinhart studied the huge scientist thoughtfully. Sherikov was going
to be a hard nut to crack. Designs was responsible to Security, not
the Council. Sherikov was losing ground--but he was still a potential
danger. Stubborn, individualistic, refusing to subordinate his welfare
to the general good.

"All right." Reinhart put the folder slowly away in his coat. "I'll
feed it. But you better be able to come through. There can't be any
slip-ups. Too much hangs on the next few days."

"If the odds change in our favor are you going to give the
mobilization order?"

"Yes," Reinhart stated. "I'll give the order the moment I see the odds
change."

       *       *       *       *       *

Standing in front of the machines, Reinhart waited nervously for the
results. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. The day was warm, a
pleasant May afternoon. Outside the building the daily life of the
planet went on as usual.

As usual? Not exactly. The feeling was in the air, an expanding
excitement growing every day. Terra had waited a long time. The attack
on Proxima Centaurus had to come--and the sooner the better. The
ancient Centauran Empire hemmed in Terra, bottled the human race up in
its one system. A vast, suffocating net draped across the heavens,
cutting Terra off from the bright diamonds beyond.... And it had to
end.

The SRB machines whirred, the visible combination disappearing. For a
time no ratio showed. Reinhart tensed, his body rigid. He waited.

The new ratio appeared.

Reinhart gasped. 7-6. Toward Terra!

Within five minutes the emergency mobilization alert had been flashed
to all Government departments. The Council and President Duffe had
been called to immediate session. Everything was happening fast.

But there was no doubt. 7-6. In Terra's favor. Reinhart hurried
frantically to get his papers in order, in time for the Council
session.

At histo-research the message plate was quickly pulled from the
confidential slot and rushed across the central lab to the chief
official.

"Look at this!" Fredman dropped the plate on his superior's desk.
"Look at it!"

Harper picked up the plate, scanning it rapidly. "Sounds like the real
thing. I didn't think we'd live to see it."

Fredman left the room, hurrying down the hall. He entered the time
bubble office. "Where's the bubble?" he demanded, looking around.

One of the technicians looked slowly up. "Back about two hundred
years. We're coming up with interesting data on the War of 1914.
According to material the bubble has already brought up--"

"Cut it. We're through with routine work. Get the bubble back to the
present. From now on all equipment has to be free for Military work."

"But--the bubble is regulated automatically."

"You can bring it back manually."

"It's risky." The technician hedged. "If the emergency requires it, I
suppose we could take a chance and cut the automatic."

"The emergency requires _everything_," Fredman said feelingly.

"But the odds might change back," Margaret Duffe, President of the
Council, said nervously. "Any minute they can revert."

"This is our chance!" Reinhart snapped, his temper rising. "What the
hell's the matter with you? We've waited years for this."

The Council buzzed with excitement. Margaret Duffe hesitated
uncertainly, her blue eyes clouded with worry. "I realize the
opportunity is here. At least, statistically. But the new odds have
just appeared. How do we know they'll last? They stand on the basis of
a single weapon."

"You're wrong. You don't grasp the situation." Reinhart held himself
in check with great effort. "Sherikov's weapon tipped the ratio in our
favor. But the odds have been moving in our direction for months. It
was only a question of time. The new balance was inevitable, sooner or
later. It's not just Sherikov. He's only one factor in this. It's all
nine planets of the Sol System--not a single man."

One of the Councilmen stood up. "The President must be aware the
entire planet is eager to end this waiting. All our activities for the
past eighty years have been directed toward--"

Reinhart moved close to the slender President of the Council. "If you
don't approve the war, there probably will be mass rioting. Public
reaction will be strong. Damn strong. And you know it."

Margaret Duffe shot him a cold glance. "You sent out the emergency
order to force my hand. You were fully aware of what you were doing.
You knew once the order was out there'd be no stopping things."

A murmur rushed through the Council, gaining volume. "We have to
approve the war!... We're committed!... It's too late to turn back!"

Shouts, angry voices, insistent waves of sound lapped around Margaret
Duffe. "I'm as much for the war as anybody," she said sharply. "I'm
only urging moderation. An inter-system war is a big thing. We're
going to war because a machine says we have a statistical chance of
winning."

"There's no use starting the war unless we can win it," Reinhart said.
"The SRB machines tell us whether we can win."

"They tell us our _chance_ of winning. They don't guarantee anything."

"What more can we ask, beside a good chance of winning?"

Margaret Duffe clamped her jaw together tightly. "All right. I hear
all the clamor. I won't stand in the way of Council approval. The vote
can go ahead." Her cold, alert eyes appraised Reinhart. "Especially
since the emergency order has already been sent out to all Government
departments."

"Good." Reinhart stepped away with relief. "Then it's settled. We can
finally go ahead with full mobilization."

Mobilization proceeded rapidly. The next forty-eight hours were alive
with activity.

Reinhart attended a policy-level Military briefing in the Council
rooms, conducted by Fleet Commander Carleton.

"You can see our strategy," Carleton said. He traced a diagram on the
blackboard with a wave of his hand. "Sherikov states it'll take eight
more days to complete the ftl bomb. During that time the fleet we have
near the Centauran system will take up positions. As the bomb goes off
the fleet will begin operations against the remaining Centauran ships.
Many will no doubt survive the blast, but with Armun gone we should be
able to handle them."

Reinhart took Commander Carleton's place. "I can report on the
economic situation. Every factory on Terra is converted to arms
production. With Armun out of the way we should be able to promote
mass insurrection among the Centauran colonies. An inter-system Empire
is hard to maintain, even with ships that approach light speed. Local
war-lords should pop up all over the place. We want to have weapons
available for them and ships starting _now_ to reach them in time.
Eventually we hope to provide a unifying principle around which the
colonies can all collect. Our interest is more economic than
political. They can have any kind of government they want, as long as
they act as supply areas for us. As our eight system planets act now."

Carleton resumed his report. "Once the Centauran fleet has been
scattered we can begin the crucial stage of the war. The landing of
men and supplies from the ships we have waiting in all key areas
throughout the Centauran system. In this stage--"

Reinhart moved away. It was hard to believe only two days had passed
since the mobilization order had been sent out. The whole system was
alive, functioning with feverish activity. Countless problems were
being solved--but much remained.

He entered the lift and ascended to the SRB room, curious to see if
there had been any change in the machines' reading. He found it the
same. So far so good. Did the Centaurans know about Icarus? No doubt;
but there wasn't anything they could do about it. At least, not in
eight days.

Kaplan came over to Reinhart, sorting a new batch of data that had
come in. The lab organizer searched through his data. "An amusing item
came in. It might interest you." He handed a message plate to
Reinhart.

It was from histo-research:

                            May 9, 2136

    This is to report that in bringing the research time bubble up
    to the present the manual return was used for the first time.
    Therefore a clean break was not made, and a quantity of
    material from the past was brought forward. This material
    included an individual from the early twentieth century who
    escaped from the lab immediately. He has not yet been taken
    into protective custody. Histo-research regrets this incident,
    but attributes it to the emergency.

                                                        E. Fredman

Reinhart handed the plate back to Kaplan. "Interesting. A man from the
past--hauled into the middle of the biggest war the universe has
seen."

"Strange things happen. I wonder what the machines will think."

"Hard to say. Probably nothing." Reinhart left the room and hurried
along the corridor to his own office.

As soon as he was inside he called Sherikov on the vidscreen, using
the confidential line.

The Pole's heavy features appeared. "Good day, Commissioner. How's the
war effort?"

"Fine. How's the turret wiring proceeding?"

A faint frown flickered across Sherikov's face. "As a matter of fact,
Commissioner--"

"What's the matter?" Reinhart said sharply.

Sherikov floundered. "You know how these things are. I've taken my
crew off it and tried robot workers. They have greater dexterity, but
they can't make decisions. This calls for more than mere dexterity.
This calls for--" He searched for the word. "--for an _artist_."

Reinhart's face hardened. "Listen, Sherikov. You have eight days left
to complete the bomb. The data given to the SRB machines contained
that information. The 7-6 ratio is based on that estimate. If you
don't come through--"

Sherikov twisted in embarrassment. "Don't get excited, Commissioner.
We'll complete it."

"I hope so. Call me as soon as it's done." Reinhart snapped off the
connection. If Sherikov let them down he'd have him taken out and
shot. The whole war depended on the ftl bomb.

The vidscreen glowed again. Reinhart snapped it on. Kaplan's face
formed on it. The lab organizer's face was pale and frozen.
"Commissioner, you better come up to the SRB office. Something's
happened."

"What is it?"

"I'll show you."

Alarmed, Reinhart hurried out of his office and down the corridor. He
found Kaplan standing in front of the SRB machines. "What's the
story?" Reinhart demanded. He glanced down at the reading. It was
unchanged.

Kaplan held up a message plate nervously. "A moment ago I fed this
into the machines. After I saw the results I quickly removed it. It's
that item I showed you. From histo-research. About the man from the
past."

"What happened when you fed it?"

Kaplan swallowed unhappily. "I'll show you. I'll do it again. Exactly
as before." He fed the plate into a moving intake belt. "Watch the
visible figures," Kaplan muttered.

Reinhart watched, tense and rigid. For a moment nothing happened. 7-6
continued to show. Then--

The figures disappeared. The machines faltered. New figures showed
briefly. 4-24 for Centaurus. Reinhart gasped, suddenly sick with
apprehension. But the figures vanished. New figures appeared. 16-38
for Centaurus. Then 48-86. 79-15 in Terra's favor. Then nothing. The
machines whirred, but nothing happened.

Nothing at all. No figures. Only a blank.

"What's it mean?" Reinhart muttered, dazed.

"It's fantastic. We didn't think this could--"

"_What's happened?_"

"The machines aren't able to handle the item. No reading can come.
It's data they can't integrate. They can't use it for prediction
material, and it throws off all their other figures."

"Why?"

"It's--it's a variable." Kaplan was shaking, white-lipped and pale.
"Something from which no inference can be made. The man from the past.
The machines can't deal with him. The variable man!"



II


Thomas Cole was sharpening a knife with his whetstone when the tornado
hit.

The knife belonged to the lady in the big green house. Every time Cole
came by with his Fixit cart the lady had something to be sharpened.
Once in awhile she gave him a cup of coffee, hot black coffee from an
old bent pot. He liked that fine; he enjoyed good coffee.

The day was drizzly and overcast. Business had been bad. An automobile
had scared his two horses. On bad days less people were outside and he
had to get down from the cart and go to ring doorbells.

But the man in the yellow house had given him a dollar for fixing his
electric refrigerator. Nobody else had been able to fix it, not even
the factory man. The dollar would go a long way. A dollar was a lot.

He knew it was a tornado even before it hit him. Everything was
silent. He was bent over his whetstone, the reins between his knees,
absorbed in his work.

He had done a good job on the knife; he was almost finished. He spat
on the blade and was holding it up to see--and then the tornado came.

All at once it was there, completely around him. Nothing but grayness.
He and the cart and horses seemed to be in a calm spot in the center
of the tornado. They were moving in a great silence, gray mist
everywhere.

And while he was wondering what to do, and how to get the lady's knife
back to her, all at once there was a bump and the tornado tipped him
over, sprawled out on the ground. The horses screamed in fear,
struggling to pick themselves up. Cole got quickly to his feet.

_Where was he?_

The grayness was gone. White walls stuck up on all sides. A deep light
gleamed down, not daylight but something like it. The team was pulling
the cart on its side, dragging it along, tools and equipment falling
out. Cole righted the cart, leaping up onto the seat.

And for the first time saw the people.

Men, with astonished white faces, in some sort of uniforms. Shouts,
noise and confusion. And a feeling of danger!

Cole headed the team toward the door. Hoofs thundered steel against
steel as they pounded through the doorway, scattering the astonished
men in all directions. He was out in a wide hall. A building, like a
hospital.

The hall divided. More men were coming, spilling from all sides.

Shouting and milling in excitement, like white ants. Something cut
past him, a beam of dark violet. It seared off a corner of the cart,
leaving the wood smoking.

Cole felt fear. He kicked at the terrified horses. They reached a big
door, crashing wildly against it. The door gave--and they were
outside, bright sunlight blinking down on them. For a sickening second
the cart tilted, almost turning over. Then the horses gained speed,
racing across an open field, toward a distant line of green, Cole
holding tightly to the reins.

Behind him the little white-faced men had come out and were standing
in a group, gesturing frantically. He could hear their faint shrill
shouts.

But he had got away. He was safe. He slowed the horses down and began
to breathe again.

The woods were artificial. Some kind of park. But the park was wild
and overgrown. A dense jungle of twisted plants. Everything growing in
confusion.

The park was empty. No one was there. By the position of the sun he
could tell it was either early morning or late afternoon. The smell of
the flowers and grass, the dampness of the leaves, indicated morning.
It had been late afternoon when the tornado had picked him up. And the
sky had been overcast and cloudy.

Cole considered. Clearly, he had been carried a long way. The
hospital, the men with white faces, the odd lighting, the accented
words he had caught--everything indicated he was no longer in
Nebraska--maybe not even in the United States.

Some of his tools had fallen out and gotten lost along the way. Cole
collected everything that remained, sorting them, running his fingers
over each tool with affection. Some of the little chisels and wood
gouges were gone. The bit box had opened, and most of the smaller bits
had been lost. He gathered up those that remained and replaced them
tenderly in the box. He took a key-hole saw down, and with an oil rag
wiped it carefully and replaced it.

Above the cart the sun rose slowly in the sky. Cole peered up, his
horny hand over his eyes. A big man, stoop-shouldered, his chin gray
and stubbled. His clothes wrinkled and dirty. But his eyes were clear,
a pale blue, and his hands were finely made.

He could not stay in the park. They had seen him ride that way; they
would be looking for him.

Far above something shot rapidly across the sky. A tiny black dot
moving with incredible haste. A second dot followed. The two dots were
gone almost before he saw them. They were utterly silent.

Cole frowned, perturbed. The dots made him uneasy. He would have to
keep moving--and looking for food. His stomach was already beginning
to rumble and groan.

Work. There was plenty he could do: gardening, sharpening, grinding,
repair work on machines and clocks, fixing all kinds of household
things. Even painting and odd jobs and carpentry and chores.

He could do anything. Anything people wanted done. For a meal and
pocket money.

Thomas Cole urged the team into life, moving forward. He sat hunched
over in the seat, watching intently, as the Fixit cart rolled slowly
across the tangled grass, through the jungle of trees and flowers.

       *       *       *       *       *

Reinhart hurried, racing his cruiser at top speed, followed by a
second ship, a military escort. The ground sped by below him, a blur
of gray and green.

The remains of New York lay spread out, a twisted, blunted ruin
overgrown with weeds and grass. The great atomic wars of the twentieth
century had turned virtually the whole seaboard area into an endless
waste of slag.

Slag and weeds below him. And then the sudden tangle that had been
Central Park.

Histo-research came into sight. Reinhart swooped down, bringing his
cruiser to rest at the small supply field behind the main buildings.

Harper, the chief official of the department, came quickly over as
soon as Reinhart's ship landed.

"Frankly, we don't understand why you consider this matter important,"
Harper said uneasily.

Reinhart shot him a cold glance. "I'll be the judge of what's
important. Are you the one who gave the order to bring the bubble back
manually?"

"Fredman gave the actual order. In line with your directive to have
all facilities ready for--"

Reinhart headed toward the entrance of the research building. "Where
is Fredman?"

"Inside."

"I want to see him. Let's go."

Fredman met them inside. He greeted Reinhart calmly, showing no
emotion. "Sorry to cause you trouble, Commissioner. We were trying to
get the station in order for the war. We wanted the bubble back as
quickly as possible." He eyed Reinhart curiously. "No doubt the man
and his cart will soon be picked up by your police."

"I want to know everything that happened, in exact detail."

Fredman shifted uncomfortably. "There's not much to tell. I gave the
order to have the automatic setting canceled and the bubble brought
back manually. At the moment the signal reached it, the bubble was
passing through the spring of 1913. As it broke loose, it tore off a
piece of ground on which this person and his cart were located. The
person naturally was brought up to the present, inside the bubble."

"Didn't any of your instruments tell you the bubble was loaded?"

"We were too excited to take any readings. Half an hour after the
manual control was thrown, the bubble materialized in the observation
room. It was de-energized before anyone noticed what was inside. We
tried to stop him but he drove the cart out into the hall, bowling us
out of the way. The horses were in a panic."

"What kind of cart was it?"

"There was some kind of sign on it. Painted in black letters on both
sides. No one saw what it was."

"Go ahead. What happened then?"

"Somebody fired a Slem-ray after him, but it missed. The horses
carried him out of the building and onto the grounds. By the time we
reached the exit the cart was half way to the park."

Reinhart reflected. "If he's still in the park we should have him
shortly. But we must be careful." He was already starting back toward
his ship, leaving Fredman behind. Harper fell in beside him.

Reinhart halted by his ship. He beckoned some Government guards over.
"Put the executive staff of this department under arrest. I'll have
them tried on a treason count, later on." He smiled ironically as
Harper's face blanched sickly pale. "There's a war going on. You'll be
lucky if you get off alive."

Reinhart entered his ship and left the surface, rising rapidly into
the sky. A second ship followed after him, a military escort. Reinhart
flew high above the sea of gray slag, the unrecovered waste area. He
passed over a sudden square of green set in the ocean of gray.
Reinhart gazed back at it until it was gone.

Central Park. He could see police ships racing through the sky, ships
and transports loaded with troops, heading toward the square of green.
On the ground some heavy guns and surface cars rumbled along, lines of
black approaching the park from all sides.

They would have the man soon. But meanwhile, the SRB machines were
blank. And on the SRB machines' readings the whole war depended.

About noon the cart reached the edge of the park. Cole rested for a
moment, allowing the horses time to crop at the thick grass. The
silent expanse of slag amazed him. What had happened? Nothing stirred.
No buildings, no sign of life. Grass and weeds poked up occasionally
through it, breaking the flat surface here and there, but even so, the
sight gave him an uneasy chill.

Cole drove the cart slowly out onto the slag, studying the sky above
him. There was nothing to hide him, now that he was out of the park.
The slag was bare and uniform, like the ocean. If he were spotted--

A horde of tiny black dots raced across the sky, coming rapidly
closer. Presently they veered to the right and disappeared. More
planes, wingless metal planes. He watched them go, driving slowly on.

Half an hour later something appeared ahead. Cole slowed the cart
down, peering to see. The slag came to an end. He had reached its
limits. Ground appeared, dark soil and grass. Weeds grew everywhere.
Ahead of him, beyond the end of the slag, was a line of buildings,
houses of some sort. Or sheds.

Houses, probably. But not like any he had ever seen.

The houses were uniform, all exactly the same. Like little green
shells, rows of them, several hundred. There was a little lawn in
front of each. Lawn, a path, a front porch, bushes in a meager row
around each house. But the houses were all alike and very small.

Little green shells in precise, even rows. He urged the cart
cautiously forward, toward the houses.

No one seemed to be around. He entered a street between two rows of
houses, the hoofs of his two horses sounding loudly in the silence. He
was in some kind of town. But there were no dogs or children.
Everything was neat and silent. Like a model. An exhibit. It made him
uncomfortable.

A young man walking along the pavement gaped at him in wonder. An
oddly-dressed youth, in a toga-like cloak that hung down to his knees.
A single piece of fabric. And sandals.

Or what looked like sandals. Both the cloak and the sandals were of
some strange half-luminous material. It glowed faintly in the
sunlight. Metallic, rather than cloth.

A woman was watering flowers at the edge of a lawn. She straightened
up as his team of horses came near. Her eyes widened in
astonishment--and then fear. Her mouth fell open in a soundless _O_
and her sprinkling can slipped from her fingers and rolled silently
onto the lawn.

Cole blushed and turned his head quickly away. The woman was scarcely
dressed! He flicked the reins and urged the horses to hurry.

Behind him, the woman still stood. He stole a brief, hasty look
back--and then shouted hoarsely to his team, ears scarlet. He had seen
right. She wore only a pair of translucent shorts. Nothing else. A
mere fragment of the same half-luminous material that glowed and
sparkled. The rest of her small body was utterly naked.

He slowed the team down. She had been pretty. Brown hair and eyes,
deep red lips. Quite a good figure. Slender waist, downy legs, bare
and supple, full breasts--. He clamped the thought furiously off. He
had to get to work. Business.

Cole halted the Fixit cart and leaped down onto the pavement. He
selected a house at random and approached it cautiously. The house was
attractive. It had a certain simple beauty. But it looked frail--and
exactly like the others.

He stepped up on the porch. There was no bell. He searched for it,
running his hand uneasily over the surface of the door. All at once
there was a click, a sharp snap on a level with his eyes. Cole glanced
up, startled. A lens was vanishing as the door section slid over it.
He had been photographed.

While he was wondering what it meant, the door swung suddenly open. A
man filled up the entrance, a big man in a tan uniform, blocking the
way ominously.

"What do you want?" the man demanded.

"I'm looking for work," Cole murmured. "Any kind of work. I can do
anything, fix any kind of thing. I repair broken objects. Things that
need mending." His voice trailed off uncertainly. "Anything at all."

"Apply to the Placement Department of the Federal Activities Control
Board," the man said crisply. "You know all occupational therapy is
handled through them." He eyed Cole curiously. "Why have you got on
those ancient clothes?"

"Ancient? Why, I--"

The man gazed past him at the Fixit cart and the two dozing horses.
"What's that? What are those two animals? _Horses?_" The man rubbed
his jaw, studying Cole intently. "That's strange," he said.

"Strange?" Cole murmured uneasily. "Why?"

"There haven't been any horses for over a century. All the horses were
wiped out during the Fifth Atomic War. That's why it's strange."

Cole tensed, suddenly alert. There was something in the man's eyes, a
hardness, a piercing look. Cole moved back off the porch, onto the
path. He had to be careful. Something was wrong.

"I'll be going," he murmured.

"There haven't been any horses for over a hundred years." The man came
toward Cole. "Who are you? Why are you dressed up like that? Where did
you get that vehicle and pair of horses?"

"I'll be going," Cole repeated, moving away.

The man whipped something from his belt, a thin metal tube. He stuck
it toward Cole.

It was a rolled-up paper, a thin sheet of metal in the form of a tube.
Words, some kind of script. He could not make any of them out. The
man's picture, rows of numbers, figures--

"I'm Director Winslow," the man said. "Federal Stockpile Conservation.
You better talk fast, or there'll be a Security car here in five
minutes."

Cole moved--fast. He raced, head down, back along the path to the
cart, toward the street.

Something hit him. A wall of force, throwing him down on his face. He
sprawled in a heap, numb and dazed. His body ached, vibrating wildly,
out of control. Waves of shock rolled over him, gradually diminishing.

He got shakily to his feet. His head spun. He was weak, shattered,
trembling violently. The man was coming down the walk after him. Cole
pulled himself onto the cart, gasping and retching. The horses jumped
into life. Cole rolled over against the seat, sick with the motion of
the swaying cart.

He caught hold of the reins and managed to drag himself up in a
sitting position. The cart gained speed, turning a corner. Houses flew
past. Cole urged the team weakly, drawing great shuddering breaths.
Houses and streets, a blur of motion, as the cart flew faster and
faster along.

Then he was leaving the town, leaving the neat little houses behind.
He was on some sort of highway. Big buildings, factories, on both
sides of the highway. Figures, men watching in astonishment.

After awhile the factories fell behind. Cole slowed the team down.
What had the man meant? Fifth Atomic War. Horses destroyed. It didn't
make sense. And they had things he knew nothing about. Force fields.
Planes without wings--soundless.

Cole reached around in his pockets. He found the identification tube
the man had handed him. In the excitement he had carried it off. He
unrolled the tube slowly and began to study it. The writing was
strange to him.

For a long time he studied the tube. Then, gradually, he became aware
of something. Something in the top right-hand corner.

A date. October 6, 2128.

Cole's vision blurred. Everything spun and wavered around him.
October, 2128. Could it be?

But he held the paper in his hand. Thin, metal paper. Like foil. And
it had to be. It said so, right in the corner, printed on the paper
itself.

Cole rolled the tube up slowly, numbed with shock. Two hundred years.
It didn't seem possible. But things were beginning to make sense. He
was in the future, two hundred years in the future.

While he was mulling this over, the swift black Security ship appeared
overhead, diving rapidly toward the horse-drawn cart, as it moved
slowly along the road.

Reinhart's vidscreen buzzed. He snapped it quickly on. "Yes?"

"Report from Security."

"Put it through." Reinhart waited tensely as the lines locked in
place. The screen re-lit.

"This is Dixon. Western Regional Command." The officer cleared his
throat, shuffling his message plates. "The man from the past has been
reported, moving away from the New York area."

"Which side of your net?"

"Outside. He evaded the net around Central Park by entering one of the
small towns at the rim of the slag area."

"_Evaded?_"

"We assumed he would avoid the towns. Naturally the net failed to
encompass any of the towns."

Reinhart's jaw stiffened. "Go on."

"He entered the town of Petersville a few minutes before the net
closed around the park. We burned the park level, but naturally found
nothing. He had already gone. An hour later we received a report from
a resident in Petersville, an official of the Stockpile Conservation
Department. The man from the past had come to his door, looking for
work. Winslow, the official, engaged him in conversation, trying to
hold onto him, but he escaped, driving his cart off. Winslow called
Security right away, but by then it was too late."

"Report to me as soon as anything more comes in. We must have him--and
damn soon." Reinhart snapped the screen off. It died quickly.

He sat back in his chair, waiting.

Cole saw the shadow of the Security ship. He reacted at once. A second
after the shadow passed over him, Cole was out of the cart, running
and falling. He rolled, twisting and turning, pulling his body as far
away from the cart as possible.

There was a blinding roar and flash of white light. A hot wind rolled
over Cole, picking him up and tossing him like a leaf. He shut his
eyes, letting his body relax. He bounced, falling and striking the
ground. Gravel and stones tore into his face, his knees, the palms of
his hands.

Cole cried out, shrieking in pain. His body was on fire. He was being
consumed, incinerated by the blinding white orb of fire. The orb
expanded, growing in size, swelling like some monstrous sun, twisted
and bloated. The end had come. There was no hope. He gritted his
teeth--

The greedy orb faded, dying down. It sputtered and winked out,
blackening into ash. The air reeked, a bitter acrid smell. His clothes
were burning and smoking. The ground under him was hot, baked dry,
seared by the blast. But he was alive. At least, for awhile.

Cole opened his eyes slowly. The cart was gone. A great hole gaped
where it had been, a shattered sore in the center of the highway. An
ugly cloud hung above the hole, black and ominous. Far above, the
wingless plane circled, watching for any signs of life.

Cole lay, breathing shallowly, slowly. Time passed. The sun moved
across the sky with agonizing slowness. It was perhaps four in the
afternoon. Cole calculated mentally. In three hours it would be dark.
If he could stay alive until then--

Had the plane seen him leap from the cart?

He lay without moving. The late afternoon sun beat down on him. He
felt sick, nauseated and feverish. His mouth was dry.

Some ants ran over his outstretched hand. Gradually, the immense black
cloud was beginning to drift away, dispersing into a formless blob.

The cart was gone. The thought lashed against him, pounding at his
brain, mixing with his labored pulse-beat. _Gone._ Destroyed. Nothing
but ashes and debris remained. The realization dazed him.

Finally the plane finished its circling, winging its way toward the
horizon. At last it vanished. The sky was clear.

Cole got unsteadily to his feet. He wiped his face shakily. His body
ached and trembled. He spat a couple times, trying to clear his mouth.
The plane would probably send in a report. People would be coming to
look for him. Where could he go?

To his right a line of hills rose up, a distant green mass. Maybe he
could reach them. He began to walk slowly. He had to be very careful.
They were looking for him--and they had weapons. Incredible weapons.

He would be lucky to still be alive when the sun set. His team and
Fixit cart were gone--and all his tools. Cole reached into his
pockets, searching through them hopefully. He brought out some small
screwdrivers, a little pair of cutting pliers, some wire, some solder,
the whetstone, and finally the lady's knife.

Only a few small tools remained. He had lost everything else. But
without the cart he was safer, harder to spot. They would have more
trouble finding him, on foot.

Cole hurried along, crossing the level fields toward the distant range
of hills.

The call came through to Reinhart almost at once. Dixon's features
formed on the vidscreen. "I have a further report, Commissioner."
Dixon scanned the plate. "Good news. The man from the past was sighted
moving away from Petersville, along highway 13, at about ten miles an
hour, on his horse-drawn cart. Our ship bombed him immediately."

"Did--did you get him?"

"The pilot reports no sign of life after the blast."

Reinhart's pulse almost stopped. He sank back in his chair. "Then he's
dead!"

"Actually, we won't know for certain until we can examine the debris.
A surface car is speeding toward the spot. We should have the complete
report in a short time. We'll notify you as soon as the information
comes in."

Reinhart reached out and cut the screen. It faded into darkness. Had
they got the man from the past? Or had he escaped again? Weren't they
ever going to get him? Couldn't he be captured? And meanwhile, the SRB
machines were silent, showing nothing at all.

Reinhart sat brooding, waiting impatiently for the report of the
surface car to come in.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was evening.

"Come on!" Steven shouted, running frantically after his brother.
"Come on back!"

"Catch me." Earl ran and ran, down the side of the hill, over behind a
military storage depot, along a neotex fence, jumping finally down
into Mrs. Norris' back yard.

Steven hurried after his brother, sobbing for breath, shouting and
gasping as he ran. "Come back! You come back with that!"

"What's he got?" Sally Tate demanded, stepping out suddenly to block
Steven's way.

[Illustration]

Steven halted, his chest rising and falling. "He's got my intersystem
vidsender." His small face twisted with rage and misery. "He better
give it back!"

Earl came circling around from the right. In the warm gloom of evening
he was almost invisible. "Here I am," he announced. "What you going to
do?"

Steven glared at him hotly. His eyes made out the square box in Earl's
hands. "You give that back! Or--or I'll tell Dad."

Earl laughed. "Make me."

"Dad'll make you."

"You better give it to him," Sally said.

"Catch me." Earl started off. Steven pushed Sally out of the way,
lashing wildly at his brother. He collided with him, throwing him
sprawling. The box fell from Earl's hands. It skidded to the pavement,
crashing into the side of a guide-light post.

Earl and Steven picked themselves up slowly. They gazed down at the
broken box.

"See?" Steven shrilled, tears filling his eyes. "See what you did?"

"You did it. You pushed into me."

"You did it!"' Steven bent down and picked up the box. He carried it
over to the guide-light, sitting down on the curb to examine it.

Earl came slowly over. "If you hadn't pushed me it wouldn't have got
broken."

Night was descending rapidly. The line of hills rising above the town
were already lost in darkness. A few lights had come on here and
there. The evening was warm. A surface car slammed its doors, some
place off in the distance. In the sky ships droned back and forth,
weary commuters coming home from work in the big underground factory
units.

Thomas Cole came slowly toward the three children grouped around the
guide-light. He moved with difficulty, his body sore and bent with
fatigue. Night had come, but he was not safe yet.

He was tired, exhausted and hungry. He had walked a long way. And he
had to have something to eat--soon.

A few feet from the children Cole stopped. They were all intent and
absorbed by the box on Steven's knees. Suddenly a hush fell over the
children. Earl looked up slowly.

In the dim light the big stooped figure of Thomas Cole seemed extra
menacing. His long arms hung down loosely at his sides. His face was
lost in shadow. His body was shapeless, indistinct. A big unformed
statue, standing silently a few feet away, unmoving in the
half-darkness.

"Who are you?" Earl demanded, his voice low.

"What do you want?" Sally said. The children edged away nervously.
"Get away."

Cole came toward them. He bent down a little. The beam from the
guide-light crossed his features. Lean, prominent nose, beak-like,
faded blue eyes--

Steven scrambled to his feet, clutching the vidsender box. "You get
out of here!"

"Wait." Cole smiled crookedly at them. His voice was dry and raspy.
"What do you have there?" He pointed with his long, slender fingers.
"The box you're holding."

The children were silent. Finally Steven stirred. "It's my
inter-system vidsender."

"Only it doesn't work," Sally said.

"Earl broke it." Steven glared at his brother bitterly. "Earl threw it
down and broke it."

Cole smiled a little. He sank down wearily on the edge of the curb,
sighing with relief. He had been walking too long. His body ached with
fatigue. He was hungry, and tired. For a long time he sat, wiping
perspiration from his neck and face, too exhausted to speak.

"Who are you?" Sally demanded, at last. "Why do you have on those
funny clothes? Where did you come from?"

"Where?" Cole looked around at the children. "From a long way off. A
long way." He shook his head slowly from side to side, trying to clear
it.

"What's your therapy?" Earl said.

"My therapy?"

"What do you do? Where do you work?"

Cole took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. "I fix things.
All kinds of things. Any kind."

Earl sneered. "Nobody fixes things. When they break you throw them
away."

Cole didn't hear him. Sudden need had roused him, getting him suddenly
to his feet. "You know any work I can find?" he demanded. "Things I
could do? I can fix anything. Clocks, type-writers, refrigerators,
pots and pans. Leaks in the roof. I can fix anything there is."

Steven held out his inter-system vidsender. "Fix this."

There was silence. Slowly, Cole's eyes focussed on the box. "That?"

"My sender. Earl broke it."

Cole took the box slowly. He turned it over, holding it up to the
light. He frowned, concentrating on it. His long, slender fingers
moved carefully over the surface, exploring it.

"He'll steal it!" Earl said suddenly.

"No." Cole shook his head vaguely. "I'm reliable." His sensitive
fingers found the studs that held the box together. He depressed the
studs, pushing them expertly in. The box opened, revealing its complex
interior.

"He got it open," Sally whispered.

"Give it back!" Steven demanded, a little frightened. He held out his
hand. "I want it back."

The three children watched Cole apprehensively. Cole fumbled in his
pocket. Slowly he brought out his tiny screwdrivers and pliers. He
laid them in a row beside him. He made no move to return the box.

"I want it back," Steven said feebly.

Cole looked up. His faded blue eyes took in the sight of the three
children standing before him in the gloom. "I'll fix it for you. You
said you wanted it fixed."

"I want it back." Steven stood on one foot, then the other, torn by
doubt and indecision. "Can you really fix it? Can you make it work
again?"

"Yes."

"All right. Fix it for me, then."

A sly smile flickered across Cole's tired face. "Now, wait a minute.
If I fix it, will you bring me something to eat? I'm not fixing it for
nothing."

"Something to eat?"

"Food. I need hot food. Maybe some coffee."

Steven nodded. "Yes. I'll get it for you."

Cole relaxed. "Fine. That's fine." He turned his attention back to the
box resting between his knees. "Then I'll fix it for you. I'll fix it
for you good."

His fingers flew, working and twisting, tracing down wires and relays,
exploring and examining. Finding out about the inter-system vidsender.
Discovering how it worked.

Steven slipped into the house through the emergency door. He made his
way to the kitchen with great care, walking on tip-toe. He punched the
kitchen controls at random, his heart beating excitedly. The stove
began to whirr, purring into life. Meter readings came on, crossing
toward the completion marks.

Presently the stove opened, sliding out a tray of steaming dishes. The
mechanism clicked off, dying into silence. Steven grabbed up the
contents of the tray, filling his arms. He carried everything down the
hall, out the emergency door and into the yard. The yard was dark.
Steven felt his way carefully along.

He managed to reach the guide-light without dropping anything at all.

Thomas Cole got slowly to his feet as Steven came into view. "Here,"
Steven said. He dumped the food onto the curb, gasping for breath.
"Here's the food. Is it finished?"

Cole held out the inter-system vidsender. "It's finished. It was
pretty badly smashed."

Earl and Sally gazed up, wide-eyed. "Does it work?" Sally asked.

"Of course not," Earl stated. "How could it work? He couldn't--"

"Turn it on!" Sally nudged Steven eagerly. "See if it works."

Steven was holding the box under the light, examining the switches. He
clicked the main switch on. The indicator light gleamed. "It lights
up," Steven said.

"Say something into it."

Steven spoke into the box. "Hello! Hello! This is operator 6-Z75
calling. Can you hear me? This is operator 6-Z75. Can you hear me?"

In the darkness, away from the beam of the guide-light, Thomas Cole
sat crouched over the food. He ate gratefully, silently. It was good
food, well cooked and seasoned. He drank a container of orange juice
and then a sweet drink he didn't recognize. Most of the food was
strange to him, but he didn't care. He had walked a long way and he
was plenty hungry. And he still had a long way to go, before morning.
He had to be deep in the hills before the sun came up. Instinct told
him that he would be safe among the trees and tangled growth--at
least, as safe as he could hope for.

He ate rapidly, intent on the food. He did not look up until he was
finished. Then he got slowly to his feet, wiping his mouth with the
back of his hand.

The three children were standing around in a circle, operating the
inter-system vidsender. He watched them for a few minutes. None of
them looked up from the small box. They were intent, absorbed in what
they were doing.

"Well?" Cole said, at last. "Does it work all right?"

After a moment Steven looked up at him. There was a strange expression
on his face. He nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, it works. It works fine."

Cole grunted. "All right." He turned and moved away from the light.
"That's fine."

The children watched silently until the figure of Thomas Cole had
completely disappeared. Slowly, they turned and looked at each other.
Then down at the box in Steven's hands. They gazed at the box in
growing awe. Awe mixed with dawning fear.

Steven turned and edged toward his house. "I've got to show it to my
Dad," he murmured, dazed. "He's got to know. _Somebody's_ got to
know!"



III


Eric Reinhart examined the vidsender box carefully, turning it around
and around.

"Then he did escape from the blast," Dixon admitted reluctantly. "He
must have leaped from the cart just before the concussion."

Reinhart nodded. "He escaped. He got away from you--twice." He pushed
the vidsender box away and leaned abruptly toward the man standing
uneasily in front of his desk. "What's your name again?"

"Elliot. Richard Elliot."

"And your son's name?"

"Steven."

"It was last night this happened?"

"About eight o'clock."

"Go on."

"Steven came into the house. He acted queerly. He was carrying his
inter-system vidsender." Elliot pointed at the box on Reinhart's desk.
"That. He was nervous and excited. I asked what was wrong. For awhile
he couldn't tell me. He was quite upset. Then he showed me the
vidsender." Elliot took a deep, shaky breath. "I could see right away
it was different. You see I'm an electrical engineer. I had opened it
once before, to put in a new battery. I had a fairly good idea how it
should look." Elliot hesitated. "Commissioner, it had been _changed_.
A lot of the wiring was different. Moved around. Relays connected
differently. Some parts were missing. New parts had been jury rigged
out of old. Then I discovered the thing that made me call Security.
The vidsender--it really _worked_."

"Worked?"

"You see, it never was anything more than a toy. With a range of a few
city blocks. So the kids could call back and forth from their rooms.
Like a sort of portable vidscreen. Commissioner, I tried out the
vidsender, pushing the call button and speaking into the microphone.
I--I got a ship of the line. A battleship, operating beyond Proxima
Centaurus--over eight light years away. As far out as the actual
vidsenders operate. Then I called Security. Right away."

For a time Reinhart was silent. Finally he tapped the box lying on the
desk. "You got a ship of the line--with _this_?"

"That's right."

"How big are the regular vidsenders?"

Dixon supplied the information. "As big as a twenty-ton safe."

"That's what I thought." Reinhart waved his hand impatiently. "All
right, Elliot. Thanks for turning the information over to us. That's
all."

Security police led Elliot outside the office.

Reinhart and Dixon looked at each other. "This is bad," Reinhart said
harshly. "He has some ability, some kind of mechanical ability.
Genius, perhaps, to do a thing like this. Look at the period he came
from, Dixon. The early part of the twentieth century. Before the wars
began. That was a unique period. There was a certain vitality, a
certain ability. It was a period of incredible growth and discovery.
Edison. Pasteur. Burbank. The Wright brothers. Inventions and
machines. People had an uncanny ability with machines. A kind of
intuition about machines--which we don't have."

"You mean--"

"I mean a person like this coming into our own time is bad in itself,
war or no war. He's too different. He's oriented along different
lines. He has abilities we lack. This fixing skill of his. It throws
us off, out of kilter. And with the war....

"Now I'm beginning to understand why the SRB machines couldn't factor
him. It's impossible for us to understand this kind of person. Winslow
says he asked for work, any kind of work. The man said he could do
anything, fix anything. Do you understand what that means?"

"No," Dixon said. "What does it mean?"

"Can any of us fix anything? No. None of us can do that. We're
specialized. Each of us has his own line, his own work. I understand
my work, you understand yours. The tendency in evolution is toward
greater and greater specialization. Man's society is an ecology that
forces adaptation to it. Continual complexity makes it impossible for
any of us to know anything outside our own personal field--I can't
follow the work of the man sitting at the next desk over from me. Too
much knowledge has piled up in each field. And there's too many
fields.

"This man is different. He can fix anything, do anything. He doesn't
work with knowledge, with science--the classified accumulation of
facts. He _knows_ nothing. It's not in his head, a form of learning.
He works by intuition--his power is in his hands, not his head.
Jack-of-all-trades. His hands! Like a painter, an artist. In his
hands--and he cuts across our lives like a knife-blade."

"And the other problem?"

"The other problem is that this man, this variable man, has escaped
into the Albertine Mountain range. Now we'll have one hell of a time
finding him. He's clever--in a strange kind of way. Like some sort of
animal. He's going to be hard to catch."

Reinhart sent Dixon out. After a moment he gathered up the handful of
reports on his desk and carried them up to the SRB room. The SRB room
was closed up, sealed off by a ring of armed Security police. Standing
angrily before the ring of police was Peter Sherikov, his beard
waggling angrily, his immense hands on his hips.

"What's going on?" Sherikov demanded. "Why can't I go in and peep at
the odds?"

"Sorry." Reinhart cleared the police aside. "Come inside with me. I'll
explain." The doors opened for them and they entered. Behind them the
doors shut and the ring of police formed outside. "What brings you
away from your lab?" Reinhart asked.

Sherikov shrugged. "Several things. I wanted to see you. I called you
on the vidphone and they said you weren't available. I thought maybe
something had happened. What's up?"

"I'll tell you in a few minutes." Reinhart called Kaplan over. "Here
are some new items. Feed them in right away. I want to see if the
machines can total them."

"Certainly, Commissioner." Kaplan took the message plates and placed
them on an intake belt. The machines hummed into life.

"We'll know soon," Reinhart said, half aloud.

Sherikov shot him a keen glance. "We'll know what? Let me in on it.
What's taking place?"

"We're in trouble. For twenty-four hours the machines haven't given
any reading at all. Nothing but a blank. A total blank."

Sherikov's features registered disbelief. "But that isn't possible.
_Some_ odds exist at all times."

"The odds exist, but the machines aren't able to calculate them."

"Why not?"

"Because a variable factor has been introduced. A factor which the
machines can't handle. They can't make any predictions from it."

"Can't they reject it?" Sherikov said slyly. "Can't they just--just
_ignore_ it?"

"No. It exists, as real data. Therefore it affects the balance of the
material, the sum total of all other available data. To reject it
would be to give a false reading. The machines can't reject any data
that's known to be true."

Sherikov pulled moodily at his black beard. "I would be interested in
knowing what sort of factor the machines can't handle. I thought they
could take in all data pertaining to contemporary reality."

"They can. This factor has nothing to do with contemporary reality.
That's the trouble. Histo-research in bringing its time bubble back
from the past got overzealous and cut the circuit too quickly. The
bubble came back loaded--with a man from the twentieth century. A man
from the past."

"I see. A man from two centuries ago." The big Pole frowned. "And with
a radically different Weltanschauung. No connection with our present
society. Not integrated along our lines at all. Therefore the SRB
machines are perplexed."

Reinhart grinned. "Perplexed? I suppose so. In any case, they can't do
anything with the data about this man. The variable man. No statistics
at all have been thrown up--no predictions have been made. And it
knocks everything else out of phase. We're dependent on the constant
showing of these odds. The whole war effort is geared around them."

"The horse-shoe nail. Remember the old poem? 'For want of a nail the
shoe was lost. For want of the shoe the horse was lost. For want of
the horse the rider was lost. For want--'"

"Exactly. A single factor coming along like this, one single
individual, can throw everything off. It doesn't seem possible that
one person could knock an entire society out of balance--but
apparently it is."

"What are you doing about this man?"

"The Security police are organized in a mass search for him."

"Results?"

"He escaped into the Albertine Mountain Range last night. It'll be
hard to find him. We must expect him to be loose for another
forty-eight hours. It'll take that long for us to arrange the
annihilation of the range area. Perhaps a trifle longer. And
meanwhile--"

"Ready, Commissioner," Kaplan interrupted. "The new totals."

The SRB machines had finished factoring the new data. Reinhart and
Sherikov hurried to take their places before the view windows.

For a moment nothing happened. Then odds were put up, locking in
place.

Sherikov gasped. 99-2. In favor of Terra. "That's wonderful! Now we--"

The odds vanished. New odds took their places. 97-4. In favor of
Centaurus. Sherikov groaned in astonished dismay. "Wait," Reinhart
said to him. "I don't think they'll last."

The odds vanished. A rapid series of odds shot across the screen, a
violent stream of numbers, changing almost instantly. At last the
machines became silent.

Nothing showed. No odds. No totals at all. The view windows were
blank.

"You see?" Reinhart murmured. "The same damn thing!"

Sherikov pondered. "Reinhart, you're too Anglo-Saxon, too impulsive.
Be more Slavic. This man will be captured and destroyed within two
days. You said so yourself. Meanwhile, we're all working night and day
on the war effort. The warfleet is waiting near Proxima, taking up
positions for the attack on the Centaurans. All our war plants are
going full blast. By the time the attack date comes we'll have a
full-sized invasion army ready to take off for the long trip to the
Centauran colonies. The whole Terran population has been mobilized.
The eight supply planets are pouring in material. All this is going on
day and night, even without odds showing. Long before the attack comes
this man will certainly be dead, and the machines will be able to show
odds again."

Reinhart considered. "But it worries me, a man like that out in the
open. Loose. A man who can't be predicted. It goes against science.
We've been making statistical reports on society for two centuries. We
have immense files of data. The machines are able to predict what each
person and group will do at a given time, in a given situation. But
this man is beyond all prediction. He's a variable. It's contrary to
science."

"The indeterminate particle."

"What's that?"

"The particle that moves in such a way that we can't predict what
position it will occupy at a given second. Random. The random
particle."

"Exactly. It's--it's _unnatural_."

Sherikov laughed sarcastically. "Don't worry about it, Commissioner.
The man will be captured and things will return to their natural
state. You'll be able to predict people again, like laboratory rats in
a maze. By the way--why is this room guarded?"

"I don't want anyone to know the machines show no totals. It's
dangerous to the war effort."

"Margaret Duffe, for example?"

Reinhart nodded reluctantly. "They're too timid, these
parliamentarians. If they discover we have no SRB odds they'll want to
shut down the war planning and go back to waiting."

"Too slow for you, Commissioner? Laws, debates, council meetings,
discussions.... Saves a lot of time if one man has all the power. One
man to tell people what to do, think for them, lead them around."

Reinhart eyed the big Pole critically. "That reminds me. How is Icarus
coming? Have you continued to make progress on the control turret?"

A scowl crossed Sherikov's broad features. "The control turret?" He
waved his big hand vaguely. "I would say it's coming along all right.
We'll catch up in time."

Instantly Reinhart became alert. "Catch up? You mean you're still
behind?"

"Somewhat. A little. But we'll catch up." Sherikov retreated toward
the door. "Let's go down to the cafeteria and have a cup of coffee.
You worry too much, Commissioner. Take things more in your stride."

"I suppose you're right." The two men walked out into the hall. "I'm
on edge. This variable man. I can't get him out of my mind."

"Has he done anything yet?"

"Nothing important. Rewired a child's toy. A toy vidsender."

"Oh?" Sherikov showed interest. "What do you mean? What did he do?"

"I'll show you." Reinhart led Sherikov down the hall to his office.
They entered and Reinhart locked the door. He handed Sherikov the toy
and roughed in what Cole had done. A strange look crossed Sherikov's
face. He found the studs on the box and depressed them. The box
opened. The big Pole sat down at the desk and began to study the
interior of the box. "You're sure it was the man from the past who
rewired this?"

"Of course. On the spot. The boy damaged it playing. The variable man
came along and the boy asked him to fix it. He fixed it, all right."

"Incredible." Sherikov's eyes were only an inch from the wiring. "Such
tiny relays. How could he--"

"What?"

"Nothing." Sherikov got abruptly to his feet, closing the box
carefully. "Can I take this along? To my lab? I'd like to analyze it
more fully."

"Of course. But why?"

"No special reason. Let's go get our coffee." Sherikov headed toward
the door. "You say you expect to capture this man in a day or so?"

"_Kill_ him, not capture him. We've got to eliminate him as a piece of
data. We're assembling the attack formations right now. No slip-ups,
this time. We're in the process of setting up a cross-bombing pattern
to level the entire Albertine range. He must be destroyed, within the
next forty-eight hours."

Sherikov nodded absently. "Of course," he murmured. A preoccupied
expression still remained on his broad features. "I understand
perfectly."

       *       *       *       *       *

Thomas Cole crouched over the fire he had built, warming his hands. It
was almost morning. The sky was turning violet gray. The mountain air
was crisp and chill. Cole shivered and pulled himself closer to the
fire.

The heat felt good against his hands. _His hands._ He gazed down at
them, glowing yellow-red in the firelight. The nails were black and
chipped. Warts and endless calluses on each finger, and the palms. But
they were good hands; the fingers were long and tapered. He respected
them, although in some ways he didn't understand them.

Cole was deep in thought, meditating over his situation. He had been
in the mountains two nights and a day. The first night had been the
worst. Stumbling and falling, making his way uncertainly up the steep
slopes, through the tangled brush and undergrowth--

But when the sun came up he was safe, deep in the mountains, between
two great peaks. And by the time the sun had set again he had fixed
himself up a shelter and a means of making a fire. Now he had a neat
little box trap, operated by a plaited grass rope and pit, a notched
stake. One rabbit already hung by his hind legs and the trap was
waiting for another.

The sky turned from violet gray to a deep cold gray, a metallic color.
The mountains were silent and empty. Far off some place a bird sang,
its voice echoing across the vast slopes and ravines. Other birds
began to sing. Off to his right something crashed through the brush,
an animal pushing its way along.

Day was coming. His second day. Cole got to his feet and began to
unfasten the rabbit. Time to eat. And then? After that he had no
plans. He knew instinctively that he could keep himself alive
indefinitely with the tools he had retained, and the genius of his
hands. He could kill game and skin it. Eventually he could build
himself a permanent shelter, even make clothes out of hides. In
winter--

But he was not thinking that far ahead. Cole stood by the fire,
staring up at the sky, his hands on his hips. He squinted, suddenly
tense. Something was moving. Something in the sky, drifting slowly
through the grayness. A black dot.

He stamped out the fire quickly. What was it? He strained, trying to
see. A bird?

A second dot joined the first. Two dots. Then three. Four. Five. A
fleet of them, moving rapidly across the early morning sky. Toward the
mountains.

Toward him.

Cole hurried away from the fire. He snatched up the rabbit and carried
it along with him, into the tangled shelter he had built. He was
invisible, inside the shelter. No one could find him. But if they had
seen the fire--

He crouched in the shelter, watching the dots grow larger. They were
planes, all right. Black wingless planes, coming closer each moment.
Now he could hear them, a faint dull buzz, increasing until the ground
shook under him.

The first plane dived. It dropped like a stone, swelling into a great
black shape. Cole gasped, sinking down. The plane roared in an arc,
swooping low over the ground. Suddenly bundles tumbled out, white
bundles falling and scattering like seeds.

The bundles drifted rapidly to the ground. They landed. They were men.
Men in uniform.

Now the second plane was diving. It roared overhead, releasing its
load. More bundles tumbled out, filling the sky. The third plane
dived, then the fourth. The air was thick with drifting bundles of
white, a blanket of descending weed spores, settling to earth.

On the ground the soldiers were forming into groups. Their shouts
carried to Cole, crouched in his shelter. Fear leaped through him.
They were landing on all sides of him. He was cut off. The last two
planes had dropped men behind him.

He got to his feet, pushing out of the shelter. Some of the soldiers
had found the fire, the ashes and coals. One dropped down, feeling the
coals with his hand. He waved to the others. They were circling all
around, shouting and gesturing. One of them began to set up some kind
of gun. Others were unrolling coils of tubing, locking a collection of
strange pipes and machinery in place.

Cole ran. He rolled down a slope, sliding and falling. At the bottom
he leaped to his feet and plunged into the brush. Vines and leaves
tore at his face, slashing and cutting him. He fell again, tangled in
a mass of twisted shrubbery. He fought desperately, trying to free
himself. If he could reach the knife in his pocket--

Voices. Footsteps. Men were behind him, running down the slope. Cole
struggled frantically, gasping and twisting, trying to pull loose. He
strained, breaking the vines, clawing at them with his hands.

A soldier dropped to his knee, leveling his gun. More soldiers
arrived, bringing up their rifles and aiming.

Cole cried out. He closed his eyes, his body suddenly limp. He waited,
his teeth locked together, sweat dripping down his neck, into his
shirt, sagging against the mesh of vines and branches coiled around
him.

Silence.

Cole opened his eyes slowly. The soldiers had regrouped. A huge man
was striding down the slope toward them, barking orders as he came.

Two soldiers stepped into the brush. One of them grabbed Cole by the
shoulder.

"Don't let go of him." The huge man came over, his black beard jutting
out. "Hold on."

Cole gasped for breath. He was caught. There was nothing he could do.
More soldiers were pouring down into the gulley, surrounding him on
all sides. They studied him curiously, murmuring together. Cole shook
his head wearily and said nothing.

The huge man with the beard stood directly in front of him, his hands
on his hips, looking him up and down. "Don't try to get away," the man
said. "You can't get away. Do you understand?"

Cole nodded.

"All right. Good." The man waved. Soldiers clamped metal bands around
Cole's arms and wrists. The metal dug into his flesh, making him gasp
with pain. More clamps locked around his legs. "Those stay there until
we're out of here. A long way out."

"Where--where are you taking me?"

Peter Sherikov studied the variable man for a moment before he
answered. "Where? I'm taking you to my labs. Under the Urals." He
glanced suddenly up at the sky. "We better hurry. The Security police
will be starting their demolition attack in a few hours. We want to be
a long way from here when that begins."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sherikov settled down in his comfortable reinforced chair with a sigh.
"It's good to be back." He signalled to one of his guards. "All right.
You can unfasten him."

The metal clamps were removed from Cole's arms and legs. He sagged,
sinking down in a heap. Sherikov watched him silently.

Cole sat on the floor, rubbing his wrists and legs, saying nothing.

"What do you want?" Sherikov demanded. "Food? Are you hungry?"

"No."

"Medicine? Are you sick? Injured?"

"No."

Sherikov wrinkled his nose. "A bath wouldn't hurt you any. We'll
arrange that later." He lit a cigar, blowing a cloud of gray smoke
around him. At the door of the room two lab guards stood with guns
ready. No one else was in the room beside Sherikov and Cole.

Thomas Cole sat huddled in a heap on the floor, his head sunk down
against his chest. He did not stir. His bent body seemed more
elongated and stooped than ever, his hair tousled and unkempt, his
chin and jowls a rough stubbled gray. His clothes were dirty and torn
from crawling through the brush. His skin was cut and scratched; open
sores dotted his neck and cheeks and forehead. He said nothing. His
chest rose and fell. His faded blue eyes were almost closed. He looked
quite old, a withered, dried-up old man.

Sherikov waved one of the guards over. "Have a doctor brought up here.
I want this man checked over. He may need intravenous injections. He
may not have had anything to eat for awhile."

The guard departed.

"I don't want anything to happen to you," Sherikov said. "Before we go
on I'll have you checked over. And deloused at the same time."

Cole said nothing.

Sherikov laughed. "Buck up! You have no reason to feel bad." He leaned
toward Cole, jabbing an immense finger at him. "Another two hours and
you'd have been dead, out there in the mountains. You know that?"

Cole nodded.

"You don't believe me. Look." Sherikov leaned over and snapped on the
vidscreen mounted in the wall. "Watch, this. The operation should
still be going on."

The screen lit up. A scene gained form.

"This is a confidential Security channel. I had it tapped several
years ago--for my own protection. What we're seeing now is being piped
in to Eric Reinhart." Sherikov grinned. "Reinhart arranged what you're
seeing on the screen. Pay close attention. You were there, two hours
ago."

Cole turned toward the screen. At first he could not make out what was
happening. The screen showed a vast foaming cloud, a vortex of motion.
From the speaker came a low rumble, a deep-throated roar. After a time
the screen shifted, showing a slightly different view. Suddenly Cole
stiffened.

He was seeing the destruction of a whole mountain range.

The picture was coming from a ship, flying above what had once been
the Albertine Mountain Range. Now there was nothing but swirling
clouds of gray and columns of particles and debris, a surging tide of
restless material gradually sweeping off and dissipating in all
directions.

The Albertine Mountains had been disintegrated. Nothing remained but
these vast clouds of debris. Below, on the ground, a ragged plain
stretched out, swept by fire and ruin. Gaping wounds yawned, immense
holes without bottom, craters side by side as far as the eye could
see. Craters and debris. Like the blasted, pitted surface of the moon.
Two hours ago it had been rolling peaks and gulleys, brush and green
bushes and trees.

Cole turned away.

"You see?" Sherikov snapped the screen off. "You were down there, not
so long ago. All that noise and smoke--all for you. All for you, Mr.
Variable Man from the past. Reinhart arranged that, to finish you off.
I want you to understand that. It's very important that you realize
that."

Cole said nothing.

Sherikov reached into a drawer of the table before him. He carefully
brought out a small square box and held it out to Cole. "You wired
this, didn't you?"

Cole took the box in his hands and held it. For a time his tired mind
failed to focus. What did he have? He concentrated on it. The box was
the children's toy. The inter-system vidsender, they had called it.

"Yes. I fixed this." He passed it back to Sherikov. "I repaired that.
It was broken."

Sherikov gazed down at him intently, his large eyes bright. He nodded,
his black beard and cigar rising and falling. "Good. That's all I
wanted to know." He got suddenly to his feet, pushing his chair back.
"I see the doctor's here. He'll fix you up. Everything you need. Later
on I'll talk to you again."

Unprotesting, Cole got to his feet, allowing the doctor to take hold
of his arm and help him up.

After Cole had been released by the medical department, Sherikov
joined him in his private dining room, a floor above the actual
laboratory.

The Pole gulped down a hasty meal, talking as he ate. Cole sat
silently across from him, not eating or speaking. His old clothing had
been taken away and new clothing given him. He was shaved and rubbed
down. His sores and cuts were healed, his body and hair washed. He
looked much healthier and younger, now. But he was still stooped and
tired, his blue eyes worn and faded. He listened to Sherikov's account
of the world of 2136 AD without comment.

"You can see," Sherikov said finally, waving a chicken leg, "that your
appearance here has been very upsetting to our program. Now that you
know more about us you can see why Commissioner Reinhart was so
interested in destroying you."

Cole nodded.

"Reinhart, you realize, believes that the failure of the SRB machines
is the chief danger to the war effort. But that is nothing!" Sherikov
pushed his plate away noisily, draining his coffee mug. "After all,
wars _can_ be fought without statistical forecasts. The SRB machines
only describe. They're nothing more than mechanical onlookers. In
themselves, they don't affect the course of the war. _We_ make the
war. They only analyze."

Cole nodded.

"More coffee?" Sherikov asked. He pushed the plastic container toward
Cole. "Have some."

Cole accepted another cupful. "Thank you."

"You can see that our real problem is another thing entirely. The
machines only do figuring for us in a few minutes that eventually we
could do for our own selves. They're our servants, tools. Not some
sort of gods in a temple which we go and pray to. Not oracles who can
see into the future for us. They don't see into the future. They only
make statistical predictions--not prophecies. There's a big difference
there, but Reinhart doesn't understand it. Reinhart and his kind have
made such things as the SRB machines into gods. But I have no gods. At
least, not any I can see."

Cole nodded, sipping his coffee.

"I'm telling you all these things because you must understand what
we're up against. Terra is hemmed in on all sides by the ancient
Centauran Empire. It's been out there for centuries, thousands of
years. No one knows how long. It's old--crumbling and rotting. Corrupt
and venal. But it holds most of the galaxy around us, and we can't
break out of the Sol system. I told you about Icarus, and Hedge's work
in ftl flight. We must win the war against Centaurus. We've waited and
worked a long time for this, the moment when we can break out and get
room among the stars for ourselves. Icarus is the deciding weapon. The
data on Icarus tipped the SRB odds in our favor--for the first time in
history. Success in the war against Centaurus will depend on Icarus,
not on the SRB machines. You see?"

Cole nodded.

"However, there is a problem. The data on Icarus which I turned over
to the machines specified that Icarus would be completed in ten days.
More than half that time has already passed. Yet, we are no closer to
wiring up the control turret than we were then. The turret baffles
us." Sherikov grinned ironically. "Even _I_ have tried my hand at the
wiring, but with no success. It's intricate--and small. Too many
technical bugs not worked out. We are building only one, you
understand. If we had many experimental models worked out before--"

"But this is the experimental model," Cole said.

"And built from the designs of a man dead four years--who isn't here
to correct us. We've made Icarus with our own hands, down here in the
labs. And he's giving us plenty of trouble." All at once Sherikov got
to his feet. "Let's go down to the lab and look at him."

They descended to the floor below, Sherikov leading the way. Cole
stopped short at the lab door.

"Quite a sight," Sherikov agreed. "We keep him down here at the bottom
for safety's sake. He's well protected. Come on in. We have work to
do."

In the center of the lab Icarus rose up, the gray squat cylinder that
someday would flash through space at a speed of thousands of times
that of light, toward the heart of Proxima Centaurus, over four light
years away. Around the cylinder groups of men in uniform were laboring
feverishly to finish the remaining work.

"Over here. The turret." Sherikov led Cole over to one side of the
room. "It's guarded. Centauran spies are swarming everywhere on Terra.
They see into everything. But so do we. That's how we get information
for the SRB machines. Spies in both systems."

The translucent globe that was the control turret reposed in the
center of a metal stand, an armed guard standing at each side. They
lowered their guns as Sherikov approached.

"We don't want anything to happen to this," Sherikov said. "Everything
depends on it." He put out his hand for the globe. Half way to it his
hand stopped, striking against an invisible presence in the air.

Sherikov laughed. "The wall. Shut it off. It's still on."

One of the guards pressed a stud at his wrist. Around the globe the
air shimmered and faded.

"Now." Sherikov's hand closed over the globe. He lifted it carefully
from its mount and brought it out for Cole to see. "This is the
control turret for our enormous friend here. This is what will slow
him down when he's inside Centaurus. He slows down and re-enters this
universe. Right in the heart of the star. Then--no more Centaurus."
Sherikov beamed. "And no more Armun."

But Cole was not listening. He had taken the globe from Sherikov and
was turning it over and over, running his hands over it, his face
close to its surface. He peered down into its interior, his face rapt
and intent.

"You can't see the wiring. Not without lenses." Sherikov signalled for
a pair of micro-lenses to be brought. He fitted them on Cole's nose,
hooking them behind his ears. "Now try it. You can control the
magnification. It's set for 1000X right now. You can increase or
decrease it."

Cole gasped, swaying back and forth. Sherikov caught hold of him. Cole
gazed down into the globe, moving his head slightly, focussing the
glasses.

"It takes practice. But you can do a lot with them. Permits you to do
microscopic wiring. There are tools to go along, you understand."
Sherikov paused, licking his lip. "We can't get it done correctly.
Only a few men can wire circuits using the micro-lenses and the little
tools. We've tried robots, but there are too many decisions to be
made. Robots can't make decisions. They just react."

Cole said nothing. He continued to gaze into the interior of the
globe, his lips tight, his body taut and rigid. It made Sherikov feel
strangely uneasy.

"You look like one of those old fortune tellers," Sherikov said
jokingly, but a cold shiver crawled up his spine. "Better hand it back
to me." He held out his hand.

Slowly, Cole returned the globe. After a time he removed the
micro-lenses, still deep in thought.

"Well?" Sherikov demanded. "You know what I want. I want you to wire
this damn thing up." Sherikov came close to Cole, his big face hard.
"You can do it, I think. I could tell by the way you held it--and the
job you did on the children's toy, of course. You could wire it up
right, and in five days. Nobody else can. And if it's not wired up
Centaurus will keep on running the galaxy and Terra will have to sweat
it out here in the Sol system. One tiny mediocre sun, one dust mote
out of a whole galaxy."

Cole did not answer.

Sherikov became impatient. "Well? What do you say?"

"What happens if I don't wire this control for you? I mean, what
happens to _me_?"

"Then I turn you over to Reinhart. Reinhart will kill you instantly.
He thinks you're dead, killed when the Albertine Range was
annihilated. If he had any idea I had saved you--"

"I see."

"I brought you down here for one thing. If you wire it up I'll have
you sent back to your own time continuum. If you don't--"

Cole considered, his face dark and brooding.

"What do you have to lose? You'd already be dead, if we hadn't pulled
you out of those hills."

"Can you really return me to my own time?"

"Of course!"

"Reinhart won't interfere?"

Sherikov laughed. "What can he do? How can he stop me? I have my own
men. You saw them. They landed all around you. You'll be returned."

"Yes. I saw your men."

"Then you agree?"

"I agree," Thomas Cole said. "I'll wire it for you. I'll complete the
control turret--within the next five days."



IV


Three days later Joseph Dixon slid a closed-circuit message plate
across the desk to his boss.

"Here. You might be interested in this."

Reinhart picked the plate up slowly. "What is it? You came all the way
here to show me this?"

"That's right."

"Why didn't you vidscreen it?"

Dixon smiled grimly. "You'll understand when you decode it. It's from
Proxima Centaurus."

"Centaurus!"

"Our counter-intelligence service. They sent it direct to me. Here,
I'll decode it for you. Save you the trouble."

Dixon came around behind Reinhart's desk. He leaned over the
Commissioner's shoulder, taking hold of the plate and breaking the
seal with his thumb nail.

"Hang on," Dixon said. "This is going to hit you hard. According to
our agents on Armun, the Centauran High Council has called an
emergency session to deal with the problem of Terra's impending
attack. Centauran relay couriers have reported to the High Council
that the Terran bomb Icarus is virtually complete. Work on the bomb
has been rushed through final stages in the underground laboratories
under the Ural Range, directed by the Terran physicist Peter
Sherikov."

"So I understand from Sherikov himself. Are you surprised the
Centaurans know about the bomb? They have spies swarming over Terra.
That's no news."

"There's more." Dixon traced the message plate grimly, with an
unsteady finger. "The Centauran relay couriers reported that Peter
Sherikov brought an expert mechanic out of a previous time continuum
to complete the wiring of the turret!"

Reinhart staggered, holding on tight to the desk. He closed his eyes,
gasping.

"The variable man is still alive," Dixon murmured. "I don't know how.
Or why. There's nothing left of the Albertines. And how the hell did
the man get half way around the world?"

Reinhart opened his eyes slowly, his face twisting. "Sherikov! He must
have removed him before the attack. I told Sherikov the attack was
forthcoming. I gave him the exact hour. He had to get help--from the
variable man. He couldn't meet his promise otherwise."

Reinhart leaped up and began to pace back and forth. "I've already
informed the SRB machines that the variable man has been destroyed.
The machines now show the original 7-6 ratio in our favor. But the
ratio is based on false information."

"Then you'll have to withdraw the false data and restore the original
situation."

"No." Reinhart shook his head. "I can't do that. The machines must be
kept functioning. We can't allow them to jam again. It's too
dangerous. If Duffe should become aware that--"

"What are you going to do, then?" Dixon picked up the message plate.
"You can't leave the machines with false data. That's treason."

"The data can't be withdrawn! Not unless equivalent data exists to
take its place." Reinhart paced angrily back and forth. "Damn it, I
was _certain_ the man was dead. This is an incredible situation. He
must be eliminated--at any cost."

Suddenly Reinhart stopped pacing. "The turret. It's probably finished
by this time. Correct?"

Dixon nodded slowly in agreement. "With the variable man helping,
Sherikov has undoubtedly completed work well ahead of schedule."

Reinhart's gray eyes flickered. "Then he's no longer of any use--even
to Sherikov. We could take a chance.... Even if there were active
opposition...."

"What's this?" Dixon demanded. "What are you thinking about?"

"How many units are ready for immediate action? How large a force can
we raise without notice?"

"Because of the war we're mobilized on a twenty-four hour basis. There
are seventy air units and about two hundred surface units. The balance
of the Security forces have been transferred to the line, under
military control."

"Men?"

"We have about five thousand men ready to go, still on Terra. Most of
them in the process of being transferred to military transports. I can
hold it up at any time."

"Missiles?"

"Fortunately, the launching tubes have not yet been disassembled.
They're still here on Terra. In another few days they'll be moving out
for the Colonial fracas."

"Then they're available for immediate use?"

"Yes."

"Good." Reinhart locked his hands, knotting his fingers harshly
together in sudden decision. "That will do exactly. Unless I am
completely wrong, Sherikov has only a half-dozen air units and no
surface cars. And only about two hundred men. Some defense shields, of
course--"

"What are you planning?"

Reinhart's face was gray and hard, like stone. "Send out orders for
all available Security units to be unified under your immediate
command. Have them ready to move by four o'clock this afternoon. We're
going to pay a visit," Reinhart stated grimly. "A surprise visit. On
Peter Sherikov."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Stop here," Reinhart ordered.

The surface car slowed to a halt. Reinhart peered cautiously out,
studying the horizon ahead.

On all sides a desert of scrub grass and sand stretched out. Nothing
moved or stirred. To the right the grass and sand rose up to form
immense peaks, a range of mountains without end, disappearing finally
into the distance. The Urals.

"Over there," Reinhart said to Dixon, pointing. "See?"

"No."

"Look hard. It's difficult to spot unless you know what to look for.
Vertical pipes. Some kind of vent. Or periscopes."

Dixon saw them finally. "I would have driven past without noticing."

"It's well concealed. The main labs are a mile down. Under the range
itself. It's virtually impregnable. Sherikov had it built years ago,
to withstand any attack. From the air, by surface cars, bombs,
missiles--"

"He must feel safe down there."

"No doubt." Reinhart gazed up at the sky. A few faint black dots could
be seen, moving lazily about, in broad circles. "Those aren't ours,
are they? I gave orders--"

"No. They're not ours. All our units are out of sight. Those belong to
Sherikov. His patrol."

Reinhart relaxed. "Good." He reached over and flicked on the vidscreen
over the board of the car. "This screen is shielded? It can't be
traced?"

"There's no way they can spot it back to us. It's non-directional."

The screen glowed into life. Reinhart punched the combination keys and
sat back to wait.

After a time an image formed on the screen. A heavy face, bushy black
beard and large eyes.

Peter Sherikov gazed at Reinhart with surprised curiosity.
"Commissioner! Where are you calling from? What--"

"How's the work progressing?" Reinhart broke in coldly. "Is Icarus
almost complete?"

Sherikov beamed with expansive pride. "He's done, Commissioner. Two
days ahead of time. Icarus is ready to be launched into space. I tried
to call your office, but they told me--"

"I'm not at my office." Reinhart leaned toward the screen. "Open your
entrance tunnel at the surface. You're about to receive visitors."

Sherikov blinked. "Visitors?"

"I'm coming down to see you. About Icarus. Have the tunnel opened for
me at once."

"Exactly where are you, Commissioner?"

"On the surface."

Sherikov's eyes flickered. "Oh? But--"

"Open up!" Reinhart snapped. He glanced at his wristwatch. "I'll be at
the entrance in five minutes. I expect to find it ready for me."

"Of course." Sherikov nodded in bewilderment. "I'm always glad to see
you, Commissioner. But I--"

"Five minutes, then." Reinhart cut the circuit. The screen died. He
turned quickly to Dixon. "You stay up here, as we arranged. I'll go
down with one company of police. You understand the necessity of exact
timing on this?"

"We won't slip up. Everything's ready. All units are in their places."

"Good." Reinhart pushed the door open for him. "You join your
directional staff. I'll proceed toward the tunnel entrance."

"Good luck." Dixon leaped out of the car, onto the sandy ground. A
gust of dry air swirled into the car around Reinhart. "I'll see you
later."

Reinhart slammed the door. He turned to the group of police crouched
in the rear of the car, their guns held tightly. "Here we go,"
Reinhart murmured. "Hold on."

The car raced across the sandy ground, toward the tunnel entrance to
Sherikov's underground fortress.

Sherikov met Reinhart at the bottom end of the tunnel, where the
tunnel opened up onto the main floor of the lab.

The big Pole approached, his hand out, beaming with pride and
satisfaction. "It's a pleasure to see you, Commissioner. This is an
historic moment."

Reinhart got out of the car, with his group of armed Security police.
"Calls for a celebration, doesn't it?" he said.

"That's a good idea! We're two days ahead, Commissioner. The SRB
machines will be interested. The odds should change abruptly at the
news."

"Let's go down to the lab. I want to see the control turret myself."

A shadow crossed Sherikov's face. "I'd rather not bother the workmen
right now, Commissioner. They've been under a great load, trying to
complete the turret in time. I believe they're putting a few last
finishes on it at this moment."

"We can view them by vidscreen. I'm curious to see them at work. It
must be difficult to wire such minute relays."

Sherikov shook his head. "Sorry, Commissioner. No vidscreen on them. I
won't allow it. This is too important. Our whole future depends on
it."

Reinhart snapped a signal to his company of police. "Put this man
under arrest."

Sherikov blanched. His mouth fell open. The police moved quickly
around him, their gun tubes up, jabbing into him. He was searched
rapidly, efficiently. His gun belt and concealed energy screen were
yanked off.

"What's going on?" Sherikov demanded, some color returning to his
face. "What are you doing?"

"You're under arrest for the duration of the war. You're relieved of
all authority. From now on one of my men will operate Designs. When
the war is over you'll be tried before the Council and President
Duffe."

Sherikov shook his head, dazed. "I don't understand. What's this all
about? Explain it to me, Commissioner. What's happened?"

Reinhart signalled to his police. "Get ready. We're going into the
lab. We may have to shoot our way in. The variable man should be in
the area of the bomb, working on the control turret."

Instantly Sherikov's face hardened. His black eyes glittered, alert
and hostile.

Reinhart laughed harshly. "We received a counter-intelligence report
from Centaurus. I'm surprised at you, Sherikov. You know the
Centaurans are everywhere with their relay couriers. You should have
known--"

Sherikov moved. Fast. All at once he broke away from the police,
throwing his massive body against them. They fell, scattering.
Sherikov ran--directly at the wall. The police fired wildly. Reinhart
fumbled frantically for his gun tube, pulling it up.

Sherikov reached the wall, running head down, energy beams flashing
around him. He struck against the wall--and vanished.

"Down!" Reinhart shouted. He dropped to his hands and knees. All
around him his police dived for the floor. Reinhart cursed wildly,
dragging himself quickly toward the door. They had to get out, and
right away. Sherikov had escaped. A false wall, an energy barrier set
to respond to his pressure. He had dashed through it to safety. He--

From all sides an inferno burst, a flaming roar of death surging over
them, around them, on every side. The room was alive with blazing
masses of destruction, bouncing from wall to wall. They were caught
between four banks of power, all of them open to full discharge. A
trap--a death trap.

       *       *       *       *       *

Reinhart reached the hall gasping for breath. He leaped to his feet. A
few Security police followed him. Behind them, in the flaming room,
the rest of the company screamed and struggled, blasted out of
existence by the leaping bursts of power.

Reinhart assembled his remaining men. Already, Sherikov's guards were
forming. At one end of the corridor a snub-barreled robot gun was
maneuvering into position. A siren wailed. Guards were running on all
sides, hurrying to battle stations.

The robot gun opened fire. Part of the corridor exploded, bursting
into fragments. Clouds of choking debris and particles swept around
them. Reinhart and his police retreated, moving back along the
corridor.

They reached a junction. A second robot gun was rumbling toward them,
hurrying to get within range. Reinhart fired carefully, aiming at its
delicate control. Abruptly the gun spun convulsively. It lashed
against the wall, smashing itself into the unyielding metal. Then it
collapsed in a heap, gears still whining and spinning.

"Come on." Reinhart moved away, crouching and running. He glanced at
his watch. _Almost time._ A few more minutes. A group of lab guards
appeared ahead of them. Reinhart fired. Behind him his police fired
past him, violet shafts of energy catching the group of guards as they
entered the corridor. The guards spilled apart, falling and twisting.
Part of them settled into dust, drifting down the corridor. Reinhart
made his way toward the lab, crouching and leaping, pushing past heaps
of debris and remains, followed by his men. "Come on! Don't stop!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Suddenly from around them the booming, enlarged voice of Sherikov
thundered, magnified by rows of wall speakers along the corridor.
Reinhart halted, glancing around.

"Reinhart! You haven't got a chance. You'll never get back to the
surface. Throw down your guns and give up. You're surrounded on all
sides. You're a mile, under the surface."

Reinhart threw himself into motion, pushing into billowing clouds of
particles drifting along the corridor. "Are you sure, Sherikov?" he
grunted.

Sherikov laughed, his harsh, metallic peals rolling in waves against
Reinhart's eardrums. "I don't want to have to kill you, Commissioner.
You're vital to the war: I'm sorry you found out about the variable
man. I admit we overlooked the Centauran espionage as a factor in
this. But now that you know about him--"

Suddenly Sherikov's voice broke off. A deep rumble had shaken the
floor, a lapping vibration that shuddered through the corridor.

Reinhart sagged with relief. He peered through the clouds of debris,
making out the figures on his watch. Right on time. Not a second late.

The first of the hydrogen missiles, launched from the Council
buildings on the other side of the world, were beginning to arrive.
The attack had begun.

At exactly six o'clock Joseph Dixon, standing on the surface four
miles from the entrance tunnel, gave the sign to the waiting units.

The first job was to break down Sherikov's defense screens. The
missiles had to penetrate without interference. At Dixon's signal a
fleet of thirty Security ships dived from a height of ten miles,
swooping above the mountains, directly over the underground
laboratories. Within five minutes the defense screens had been
smashed, and all the tower projectors leveled flat. Now the mountains
were virtually unprotected.

"So far so good," Dixon murmured, as he watched from his secure
position. The fleet of Security ships roared back, their work done.
Across the face of the desert the police surface cars were crawling
rapidly toward the entrance tunnel, snaking from side to side.

Meanwhile, Sherikov's counter-attack had begun to go into operation.

Guns mounted among the hills opened fire. Vast columns of flame burst
up in the path of the advancing cars. The cars hesitated and
retreated, as the plain was churned up by a howling vortex, a
thundering chaos of explosions. Here and there a car vanished in a
cloud of particles. A group of cars moving away suddenly scattered,
caught up by a giant wind that lashed across them and swept them up
into the air.

Dixon gave orders to have the cannon silenced. The police air arm
again swept overhead, a sullen roar of jets that shook the ground
below. The police ships divided expertly and hurtled down on the
cannon protecting the hills.

The cannon forgot the surface cars and lifted their snouts to meet the
attack. Again and again the airships came, rocking the mountains with
titanic blasts.

The guns became silent. Their echoing boom diminished, died away
reluctantly, as bombs took critical toll of them.

Dixon watched with satisfaction as the bombing came to an end. The
airships rose in a thick swarm, black gnats shooting up in triumph
from a dead carcass. They hurried back as emergency anti-aircraft
robot guns swung into position and saturated the sky with blazing
puffs of energy.

Dixon checked his wristwatch. The missiles were already on the way
from North America. Only a few minutes remained.

The surface cars, freed by the successful bombing, began to regroup
for a new frontal attack. Again they crawled forward, across the
burning plain, bearing down cautiously on the battered wall of
mountains, heading toward the twisted wrecks that had been the ring of
defense guns. Toward the entrance tunnel.

An occasional cannon fired feebly at them. The cars came grimly on.
Now, in the hollows of the hills, Sherikov's troops were hurrying to
the surface to meet the attack. The first car reached the shadow of
the mountains....

A deafening hail of fire burst loose. Small robot guns appeared
everywhere, needle barrels emerging from behind hidden screens, trees
and shrubs, rocks, stones. The police cars were caught in a withering
cross-fire, trapped at the base of the hills.

Down the slopes Sherikov's guards raced, toward the stalled cars.
Clouds of heat rose up and boiled across the plain as the cars fired
up at the running men. A robot gun dropped like a slug onto the plain
and screamed toward the cars, firing as it came.

Dixon twisted nervously. Only a few minutes. Any time, now. He shaded
his eyes and peered up at the sky. No sign of them yet. He wondered
about Reinhart. No signal had come up from below. Clearly, Reinhart
had run into trouble. No doubt there was desperate fighting going on
in the maze of underground tunnels, the intricate web of passages that
honeycombed the earth below the mountains.

In the air, Sherikov's few defense ships were taking on the police
raiders. Outnumbered, the defense ships darted rapidly, wildly,
putting up a futile fight.

Sherikov's guards streamed out onto the plain. Crouching and running,
they advanced toward the stalled cars. The police airships screeched
down at them, guns thundering.

Dixon held his breath. When the missiles arrived--

The first missile struck. A section of the mountain vanished, turned
to smoke and foaming gasses. The wave of heat slapped Dixon across the
face, spinning him around. Quickly he re-entered his ship and took
off, shooting rapidly away from the scene. He glanced back. A second
and third missile had arrived. Great gaping pits yawned among the
mountains, vast sections missing like broken teeth. Now the missiles
could penetrate to the underground laboratories below.

On the ground, the surface cars halted beyond the danger area, waiting
for the missile attack to finish. When the eighth missile had struck,
the cars again moved forward. No more missiles fell.

Dixon swung his ship around, heading back toward the scene. The
laboratory was exposed. The top sections of it had been ripped open.
The laboratory lay like a tin can, torn apart by mighty explosions,
its first floors visible from the air. Men and cars were pouring down
into it, fighting with the guards swarming to the surface.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dixon watched intently. Sherikov's men were bringing up heavy guns,
big robot artillery. But the police ships were diving again.
Sherikov's defensive patrols had been cleaned from the sky. The police
ships whined down, arcing over the exposed laboratory. Small bombs
fell, whistling down, pin-pointing the artillery rising to the surface
on the remaining lift stages.

Abruptly Dixon's vidscreen clicked. Dixon turned toward it.

Reinhart's features formed. "Call off the attack." His uniform was
torn. A deep bloody gash crossed his cheek. He grinned sourly at
Dixon, pushing his tangled hair back out of his face. "Quite a fight."

"Sherikov--"

"He's called off his guards. We've agreed to a truce. It's all over.
No more needed." Reinhart gasped for breath, wiping grime and sweat
from his neck. "Land your ship and come down here at once."

"The variable man?"

"That comes next," Reinhart said grimly. He adjusted his gun tube. "I
want you down here, for that part. I want you to be in on the kill."

Reinhart turned away from the vidscreen. In the corner of the room
Sherikov stood silently, saying nothing. "Well?" Reinhart barked.
"Where is he? Where will I find him?"

Sherikov licked his lips nervously, glancing up at Reinhart.
"Commissioner, are you sure--"

"The attack has been called off. Your labs are safe. So is your life.
Now it's your turn to come through." Reinhart gripped his gun, moving
toward Sherikov. "_Where is he?_"

For a moment Sherikov hesitated. Then slowly his huge body sagged,
defeated. He shook his head wearily. "All right. I'll show you where
he is." His voice was hardly audible, a dry whisper. "Down this way.
Come on."

Reinhart followed Sherikov out of the room, into the corridor. Police
and guards were working rapidly, clearing the debris and ruins away,
putting out the hydrogen fires that burned everywhere. "No tricks,
Sherikov."

"No tricks." Sherikov nodded resignedly. "Thomas Cole is by himself.
In a wing lab off the main rooms."

"Cole?"

"The variable man. That's his name." The Pole turned his massive head
a little. "He has a name."

Reinhart waved his gun. "Hurry up. I don't want anything to go wrong.
This is the part I came for."

"You must remember something, Commissioner."

"What is it?"

Sherikov stopped walking. "Commissioner, nothing must happen to the
globe. The control turret. Everything depends on it, the war, our
whole--"

"I know. Nothing will happen to the damn thing. Let's go."

"If it should get damaged--"

"I'm not after the globe. I'm interested only in--in Thomas Cole."

They came to the end of the corridor and stopped before a metal door.
Sherikov nodded at the door. "In there."

Reinhart moved back. "Open the door."

"Open it yourself. I don't want to have anything to do with it."

Reinhart shrugged. He stepped up to the door. Holding his gun level he
raised his hand, passing it in front of the eye circuit. Nothing
happened.

Reinhart frowned. He pushed the door with his hand. The door slid
open. Reinhart was looking into a small laboratory. He glimpsed a
workbench, tools, heaps of equipment, measuring devices, and in the
center of the bench the transparent globe, the control turret.

"Cole?" Reinhart advanced quickly into the room. He glanced around
him, suddenly alarmed. "Where--"

The room was empty. Thomas Cole was gone.

When the first missile struck, Cole stopped work and sat listening.

Far off, a distant rumble rolled through the earth, shaking the floor
under him. On the bench, tools and equipment danced up and down. A
pair of pliers fell crashing to the floor. A box of screws tipped
over, spilling its minute contents out.

Cole listened for a time. Presently he lifted the transparent globe
from the bench. With carefully controlled hands he held the globe up,
running his fingers gently over the surface, his faded blue eyes
thoughtful. Then, after a time, he placed the globe back on the bench,
in its mount.

The globe was finished. A faint glow of pride moved through the
variable man. The globe was the finest job he had ever done.

The deep rumblings ceased. Cole became instantly alert. He jumped down
from his stool, hurrying across the room to the door. For a moment he
stood by the door listening intently. He could hear noise on the other
side, shouts, guards rushing past, dragging heavy equipment, working
frantically.

A rolling crash echoed down the corridor and lapped against his door.
The concussion spun him around. Again a tide of energy shook the walls
and floor and sent him down on his knees.

The lights flickered and winked out.

Cole fumbled in the dark until he found a flashlight. Power failure.
He could hear crackling flames. Abruptly the lights came on again, an
ugly yellow, then faded back out. Cole bent down and examined the door
with his flashlight. A magnetic lock. Dependent on an externally
induced electric flux. He grabbed a screwdriver and pried at the door.
For a moment it held. Then it fell open.

Cole stepped warily out into the corridor. Everything was in shambles.
Guards wandered everywhere, burned and half-blinded. Two lay groaning
under a pile of wrecked equipment. Fused guns, reeking metal. The air
was heavy with the smell of burning wiring and plastic. A thick cloud
that choked him and made him bend double as he advanced.

"Halt," a guard gasped feebly, struggling to rise. Cole pushed past
him and down the corridor. Two small robot guns, still functioning,
glided past him hurriedly toward the drumming chaos of battle. He
followed.

At a major intersection the fight was in full swing. Sherikov's guards
fought Security police, crouched behind pillars and barricades, firing
wildly, desperately. Again the whole structure shuddered as a great
booming blast ignited some place above. Bombs? Shells?

Cole threw himself down as a violet beam cut past his ear and
disintegrated the wall behind him. A Security policeman, wild-eyed,
firing erratically. One of Sherikov's guards winged him and his gun
skidded to the floor.

A robot cannon turned toward him as he made his way past the
intersection. He began to run. The cannon rolled along behind him,
aiming itself uncertainly. Cole hunched over as he shambled rapidly
along, gasping for breath. In the flickering yellow light he saw a
handful of Security police advancing, firing expertly, intent on a
line of defense Sherikov's guards had hastily set up.

The robot cannon altered its course to take them on, and Cole escaped
around a corner.

He was in the main lab, the big chamber where Icarus himself rose, the
vast squat column.

Icarus! A solid wall of guards surrounded him, grim-faced, hugging
guns and protection shields. But the Security police were leaving
Icarus alone. Nobody wanted to damage him. Cole evaded a lone guard
tracking him and reached the far side of the lab.

It took him only a few seconds to find the force field generator.
There was no switch. For a moment that puzzled him--and then he
remembered. The guard had controlled it from his wrist.

Too late to worry about that. With his screwdriver he unfastened the
plate over the generator and ripped out the wiring in handfuls. The
generator came loose and he dragged it away from the wall. The screen
was off, thank God. He managed to carry the generator into a side
corridor.

Crouched in a heap, Cole bent over the generator, deft fingers flying.
He pulled the wiring to him and laid it out on the floor, tracing the
circuits with feverish haste.

The adaptation was easier than he had expected. The screen flowed at
right angles to the wiring, for a distance of six feet. Each lead was
shielded on one side; the field radiated outward, leaving a hollow
cone in the center. He ran the wiring through his belt, down his
trouser legs, under his shirt, all the way to his wrists and ankles.

He was just snatching up the heavy generator when two Security police
appeared. They raised their blasters and fired point-blank.

Cole clicked on the screen. A vibration leaped through him that
snapped his jaw and danced up his body. He staggered away,
half-stupefied by the surging force that radiated out from him. The
violet rays struck the field and deflected harmlessly.

He was safe.

He hurried on down the corridor, past a ruined gun and sprawled bodies
still clutching blasters. Great drifting clouds of radioactive
particles billowed around him. He edged by one cloud nervously. Guards
lay everywhere, dying and dead, partly destroyed, eaten and corroded
by the hot metallic salts in the air. He had to get out--and fast.

At the end of the corridor a whole section of the fortress was in
ruins. Towering flames leaped on all sides. One of the missiles had
penetrated below ground level.

Cole found a lift that still functioned. A load of wounded guards was
being raised to the surface. None of them paid any attention to him.
Flames surged around the lift, licking at the wounded. Workmen were
desperately trying to get the lift into action. Cole leaped onto the
lift. A moment later it began to rise, leaving the shouts and the
flames behind.

The lift emerged on the surface and Cole jumped off. A guard spotted
him and gave chase. Crouching, Cole dodged into a tangled mass of
twisted metal, still white-hot and smoking. He ran for a distance,
leaping from the side of a ruined defense-screen tower, onto the fused
ground and down the side of a hill. The ground was hot underfoot. He
hurried as fast as he could, gasping for breath. He came to a long
slope and scrambled up the side.

The guard who had followed was gone, lost behind in the rolling clouds
of ash that drifted from the ruins of Sherikov's underground fortress.

Cole reached the top of the hill. For a brief moment he halted to get
his breath and figure where he was. It was almost evening. The sun was
beginning to set. In the darkening sky a few dots still twisted and
rolled, black specks that abruptly burst into flame and fused out
again.

Cole stood up cautiously, peering around him. Ruins stretched out
below, on all sides, the furnace from which he had escaped. A chaos of
incandescent metal and debris, gutted and wrecked beyond repair. Miles
of tangled rubbish and half-vaporized equipment.

He considered. Everyone was busy putting out the fires and pulling the
wounded to safety. It would be awhile before he was missed. But as
soon as they realized he was gone they'd be after him. Most of the
laboratory had been destroyed. Nothing lay back that way.

Beyond the ruins lay the great Ural peaks, the endless mountains,
stretching out as far as the eye could see.

Mountains and green forests. A wilderness. They'd never find him
there.

Cole started along the side of the hill, walking slowly and carefully,
his screen generator under his arm. Probably in the confusion he could
find enough food and equipment to last him indefinitely. He could wait
until early morning, then circle back toward the ruins and load up.
With a few tools and his own innate skill he would get along fine. A
screwdriver, hammer, nails, odds and ends--

A great hum sounded in his ears. It swelled to a deafening roar.
Startled, Cole whirled around. A vast shape filled the sky behind him,
growing each moment. Cole stood frozen, utterly transfixed. The shape
thundered over him, above his head, as he stood stupidly, rooted to
the spot.

Then, awkwardly, uncertainly, he began to run. He stumbled and fell
and rolled a short distance down the side of the hill. Desperately, he
struggled to hold onto the ground. His hands dug wildly, futilely,
into the soft soil, trying to keep the generator under his arm at the
same time.

A flash, and a blinding spark of light around him.

The spark picked him up and tossed him like a dry leaf. He grunted in
agony as searing fire crackled about him, a blazing inferno that
gnawed and ate hungrily through his screen. He spun dizzily and fell
through the cloud of fire, down into a pit of darkness, a vast gulf
between two hills. His wiring ripped off. The generator tore out of
his grip and was lost behind. Abruptly, his force field ceased.

Cole lay in the darkness at the bottom of the hill. His whole body
shrieked in agony as the unholy fire played over him. He was a blazing
cinder, a half-consumed ash flaming in a universe of darkness. The
pain made him twist and crawl like an insect, trying to burrow into
the ground. He screamed and shrieked and struggled to escape, to get
away from the hideous fire. To reach the curtain of darkness beyond,
where it was cool and silent, where the flames couldn't crackle and
eat at him.

He reached imploringly out, into the darkness, groping feebly toward
it, trying to pull himself into it. Gradually, the glowing orb that
was his own body faded. The impenetrable chaos of night descended. He
allowed the tide to sweep over him, to extinguish the searing fire.

Dixon landed his ship expertly, bringing it to a halt in front of an
overturned defense tower. He leaped out and hurried across the smoking
ground.

From a lift Reinhart appeared, surrounded by his Security police. "He
got away from us! He escaped!"

"He didn't escape," Dixon answered. "I got him myself."

Reinhart quivered violently. "What do you mean?"

"Come along with me. Over in this direction." He and Reinhart climbed
the side of a demolished hill, both of them panting for breath. "I was
landing. I saw a figure emerge from a lift and run toward the
mountains, like some sort of animal. When he came out in the open I
dived on him and released a phosphorus bomb."

"Then he's--_dead_?"

"I don't see how anyone could have lived through a phosphorus bomb."
They reached the top of the hill. Dixon halted, then pointed excitedly
down into the pit beyond the hill. "There!"

They descended cautiously. The ground was singed and burned clean.
Clouds of smoke hung heavily in the air. Occasional fires still
flickered here and there. Reinhart coughed and bent over to see. Dixon
flashed on a pocket flare and set it beside the body.

The body was charred, half destroyed by the burning phosphorus. It lay
motionless, one arm over its face, mouth open, legs sprawled
grotesquely. Like some abandoned rag doll, tossed in an incinerator
and consumed almost beyond recognition.

"He's alive!" Dixon muttered. He felt around curiously. "Must have had
some kind of protection screen. Amazing that a man could--"

"It's him? It's really him?"

"Fits the description." Dixon tore away a handful of burned clothing.
"This is the variable man. What's left of him, at least."

Reinhart sagged with relief. "Then we've finally got him. The data is
accurate. He's no longer a factor."

Dixon got out his blaster and released the safety catch thoughtfully.
"If you want, I can finish the job right now."

At that moment Sherikov appeared, accompanied by two armed Security
police. He strode grimly down the hillside, black eyes snapping. "Did
Cole--" He broke off. "Good God."

"Dixon got him with a phosphorus bomb," Reinhart said noncommittally.
"He had reached the surface and was trying to get into the mountains."

Sherikov turned wearily away. "He was an amazing person. During the
attack he managed to force the lock on his door and escape. The guards
fired at him, but nothing happened. He had rigged up some kind of
force field around him. Something he adapted."

"Anyhow, it's over with," Reinhart answered. "Did you have SRB plates
made up on him?"

Sherikov reached slowly into his coat. He drew out a manila envelope.
"Here's all the information I collected about him, while he was with
me."

"Is it complete? Everything previous has been merely fragmentary."

"As near complete as I could make it. It includes photographs and
diagrams of the interior of the globe. The turret wiring he did for
me. I haven't had a chance even to look at them." Sherikov fingered
the envelope. "What are you going to do with Cole?"

"Have him loaded up, taken back to the city--and officially put to
sleep by the Euthanasia Ministry."

"Legal murder?" Sherikov's lips twisted. "Why don't you simply do it
right here and get it over with?"

Reinhart grabbed the envelope and stuck it in his pocket. "I'll turn
this right over to the machines." He motioned to Dixon. "Let's go. Now
we can notify the fleet to prepare for the attack on Centaurus." He
turned briefly back to Sherikov. "When can Icarus be launched?"

"In an hour or so, I suppose. They're locking the control turret in
place. Assuming it functions correctly, that's all that's needed."

"Good. I'll notify Duffe to send out the signal to the warfleet."
Reinhart nodded to the police to take Sherikov to the waiting Security
ship. Sherikov moved off dully, his face gray and haggard. Cole's
inert body was picked up and tossed onto a freight cart. The cart
rumbled into the hold of the Security ship and the lock slid shut
after it.

"It'll be interesting to see how the machines respond to the
additional data," Dixon said.

"It should make quite an improvement in the odds," Reinhart agreed. He
patted the envelope, bulging in his inside pocket. "We're two days
ahead of time."

       *       *       *       *       *

Margaret Duffe got up slowly from her desk. She pushed her chair
automatically back. "Let me get all this straight. You mean the bomb
is finished? Ready to go?"

Reinhart nodded impatiently. "That's what I said. The Technicians are
checking the turret locks to make sure it's properly attached. The
launching will take place in half an hour."

"Thirty minutes! Then--"

"Then the attack can begin at once. I assume the fleet is ready for
action."

"Of course. It's been ready for several days. But I can't believe the
bomb is ready so soon." Margaret Duffe moved numbly toward the door of
her office. "This is a great day, Commissioner. An old era lies behind
us. This time tomorrow Centaurus will be gone. And eventually the
colonies will be ours."

"It's been a long climb," Reinhart murmured.

"One thing. Your charge against Sherikov. It seems incredible that a
person of his caliber could ever--"

"We'll discuss that later," Reinhart interrupted coldly. He pulled the
manila envelope from his coat. "I haven't had an opportunity to feed
the additional data to the SRB machines. If you'll excuse me, I'll do
that now."

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment Margaret Duffe stood at the door. The two of them faced
each other silently, neither speaking, a faint smile on Reinhart's
thin lips, hostility in the woman's blue eyes.

"Reinhart, sometimes I think perhaps you'll go too far. And sometimes
I think you've _already_ gone too far...."

"I'll inform you of any change in the odds showing." Reinhart strode
past her, out of the office and down the hall. He headed toward the
SRB room, an intense thalamic excitement rising up inside him.

A few moments later he entered the SRB room. He made his way to the
machines. The odds 7-6 showed in the view windows. Reinhart smiled a
little. 7-6. False odds, based on incorrect information. Now they
could be removed.

Kaplan hurried over. Reinhart handed him the envelope, and moved over
to the window, gazing down at the scene below. Men and cars scurried
frantically everywhere. Officials coming and going like ants, hurrying
in all directions.

The war was on. The signal had been sent out to the warfleet that had
waited so long near Proxima Centaurus. A feeling of triumph raced
through Reinhart. He had won. He had destroyed the man from the past
and broken Peter Sherikov. The war had begun as planned. Terra was
breaking out. Reinhart smiled thinly. He had been completely
successful.

"Commissioner."

Reinhart turned slowly. "All right."

Kaplan was standing in front of the machines, gazing down at the
reading. "Commissioner--"

Sudden alarm plucked at Reinhart. There was something in Kaplan's
voice. He hurried quickly over. "What is it?"

Kaplan looked up at him, his face white, his eyes wide with terror.
His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came.

"_What is it?_" Reinhart demanded, chilled. He bent toward the
machines, studying the reading.

And sickened with horror.

100-1. _Against_ Terra!

He could not tear his gaze away from the figures. He was numb, shocked
with disbelief. 100-1. _What had happened?_ What had gone wrong? The
turret was finished, Icarus was ready, the fleet had been notified--

There was a sudden deep buzz from outside the building. Shouts drifted
up from below. Reinhart turned his head slowly toward the window, his
heart frozen with fear.

Across the evening sky a trail moved, rising each moment. A thin line
of white. Something climbed, gaining speed each moment. On the ground,
all eyes were turned toward it, awed faces peering up.

The object gained speed. Faster and faster. Then it vanished. Icarus
was on his way. The attack had begun; it was too late to stop, now.

And on the machines the odds read a hundred to one--for failure.

At eight o'clock in the evening of May 15, 2136, Icarus was launched
toward the star Centaurus. A day later, while all Terra waited, Icarus
entered the star, traveling at thousands of times the speed of light.

Nothing happened. Icarus disappeared into the star. There was no
explosion. The bomb failed to go off.

At the same time the Terran warfleet engaged the Centauran outer
fleet, sweeping down in a concentrated attack. Twenty major ships were
seized. A good part of the Centauran fleet was destroyed. Many of the
captive systems began to revolt, in the hope of throwing off the
Imperial bonds.

Two hours later the massed Centauran warfleet from Armun abruptly
appeared and joined battle. The great struggle illuminated half the
Centauran system. Ship after ship flashed briefly and then faded to
ash. For a whole day the two fleets fought, strung out over millions
of miles of space. Innumerable fighting men died--on both sides.

At last the remains of the battered Terran fleet turned and limped
toward Armun--defeated. Little of the once impressive armada remained.
A few blackened hulks, making their way uncertainly toward captivity.

Icarus had not functioned. Centaurus had not exploded. The attack was
a failure.

The war was over.

"We've lost the war," Margaret Duffe said in a small voice, wondering
and awed. "It's over. Finished."

The Council members sat in their places around the conference table,
gray-haired elderly men, none of them speaking or moving. All gazed up
mutely at the great stellar maps that covered two walls of the
chamber.

"I have already empowered negotiators to arrange a truce," Margaret
Duffe murmured. "Orders have been sent out to Vice-Commander Jessup to
give up the battle. There's no hope. Fleet Commander Carleton
destroyed himself and his flagship a few minutes ago. The Centauran
High Council has agreed to end the fighting. Their whole Empire is
rotten to the core. Ready to topple of its own weight."

Reinhart was slumped over at the table, his head in his hands. "I
don't understand.... _Why?_ Why didn't the bomb explode?" He mopped
his forehead shakily. All his poise was gone. He was trembling and
broken. "_What went wrong?_"

Gray-faced, Dixon mumbled an answer. "The variable man must have
sabotaged the turret. The SRB machines knew.... They analyzed the
data. _They knew!_ But it was too late."

Reinhart's eyes were bleak with despair as he raised his head a
little. "I knew he'd destroy us. We're finished. A century of work and
planning." His body knotted in a spasm of furious agony. "All because
of Sherikov!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Margaret Duffe eyed Reinhart coldly. "Why because of Sherikov?"

"He kept Cole alive! I wanted him killed from the start." Suddenly
Reinhart jumped from his chair. His hand clutched convulsively at his
gun. "And he's _still_ alive! Even if we've lost I'm going to have the
pleasure of putting a blast beam through Cole's chest!"

"Sit down!" Margaret Duffe ordered.

Reinhart was half way to the door. "He's still at the Euthanasia
Ministry, waiting for the official--"

"No, he's not," Margaret Duffe said.

Reinhart froze. He turned slowly, as if unable to believe his senses.
"_What?_"

"Cole isn't at the Ministry. I ordered him transferred and your
instructions cancelled."

"Where--where is he?"

There was unusual hardness in Margaret Duffe's voice as she answered.
"With Peter Sherikov. In the Urals. I had Sherikov's full authority
restored. I then had Cole transferred there, put in Sherikov's safe
keeping. I want to make sure Cole recovers, so we can keep our promise
to him--our promise to return him to his own time."

Reinhart's mouth opened and closed. All the color had drained from his
face. His cheek muscles twitched spasmodically. At last he managed to
speak. "You've gone insane! The traitor responsible for Earth's
greatest defeat--"

"We have lost the war," Margaret Duffe stated quietly. "But this is
not a day of defeat. It is a day of victory. The most incredible
victory Terra has ever had."

Reinhart and Dixon were dumbfounded. "What--" Reinhart gasped. "What
do you--" The whole room was in an uproar. All the Council members
were on their feet. Reinhart's words were drowned out.

"Sherikov will explain when he gets here," Margaret Duffe's calm voice
came. "He's the one who discovered it." She looked around the chamber
at the incredulous Council members. "Everyone stay in his seat. You
are all to remain here until Sherikov arrives. It's vital you hear
what he has to say. His news transforms this whole situation."

       *       *       *       *       *

Peter Sherikov accepted the briefcase of papers from his armed
technician. "Thanks." He pushed his chair back and glanced
thoughtfully around the Council chamber. "Is everybody ready to hear
what I have to say?"

"We're ready," Margaret Duffe answered. The Council members sat
alertly around the table. At the far end, Reinhart and Dixon watched
uneasily as the big Pole removed papers from his briefcase and
carefully examined them.

"To begin, I recall to you the original work behind the ftl bomb.
Jamison Hedge was the first human to propel an object at a speed
greater than light. As you know, that object diminished in length and
gained in mass as it moved toward light speed. When it reached that
speed it vanished. It ceased to exist in our terms. Having no length
it could not occupy space. It rose to a different order of existence.

"When Hedge tried to bring the object back, an explosion occurred.
Hedge was killed, and all his equipment was destroyed. The force of
the blast was beyond calculation. Hedge had placed his observation
ship many millions of miles away. It was not far enough, however.
Originally, he had hoped his drive might be used for space travel. But
after his death the principle was abandoned.

"That is--until Icarus. I saw the possibilities of a bomb, an
incredibly powerful bomb to destroy Centaurus and all the Empire's
forces. The reappearance of Icarus would mean the annihilation of
their System. As Hedge had shown, the object would re-enter space
already occupied by matter, and the cataclysm would be beyond belief."

"But Icarus never came back," Reinhart cried. "Cole altered the wiring
so the bomb kept on going. It's probably still going."

"Wrong," Sherikov boomed. "The bomb _did_ reappear. But it didn't
explode."

Reinhart reacted violently. "You mean--"

"The bomb came back, dropping below the ftl speed as soon as it
entered the star Proxima. But it did not explode. There was no
cataclysm. It reappeared and was absorbed by the sun, turned into gas
at once."

"Why didn't it explode?" Dixon demanded.

"Because Thomas Cole solved Hedge's problem. He found a way to bring
the ftl object back into this universe without collision. Without an
explosion. The variable man found what Hedge was after...."

The whole Council was on its feet. A growing murmur filled the
chamber, a rising pandemonium breaking out on all sides.

"I don't believe it!" Reinhart gasped. "It isn't possible. If Cole
solved Hedge's problem that would mean--" He broke off, staggered.

"Faster than light drive can now be used for space travel," Sherikov
continued, waving the noise down. "As Hedge intended. My men have
studied the photographs of the control turret. They don't know _how_
or _why_, yet. But we have complete records of the turret. We can
duplicate the wiring, as soon as the laboratories have been repaired."

Comprehension was gradually beginning to settle over the room. "Then
it'll be possible to build ftl ships," Margaret Duffe murmured, dazed.
"And if we can do that--"

"When I showed him the control turret, Cole understood its purpose.
Not _my_ purpose, but the original purpose Hedge had been working
toward. Cole realized Icarus was actually an incomplete spaceship, not
a bomb at all. He saw what Hedge had seen, an ftl space drive. He set
out to make Icarus work."

"We can go _beyond_ Centaurus," Dixon muttered. His lips twisted.
"Then the war was trivial. We can leave the Empire completely behind.
We can go beyond the galaxy."

"The whole universe is open to us," Sherikov agreed. "Instead of
taking over an antiquated Empire, we have the entire cosmos to map and
explore, God's total creation."

Margaret Duffe got to her feet and moved slowly toward the great
stellar maps that towered above them at the far end of the chamber.
She stood for a long time, gazing up at the myriad suns, the legions
of systems, awed by what she saw.

"Do you suppose he realized all this?" she asked suddenly. "What we
can see, here on these maps?"

"Thomas Cole is a strange person," Sherikov said, half to himself.
"Apparently he has a kind of intuition about machines, the way things
are supposed to work. An intuition more in his hands than in his head.
A kind of genius, such as a painter or a pianist has. Not a scientist.
He has no verbal knowledge about things, no semantic references. He
deals with the things themselves. Directly.

"I doubt very much if Thomas Cole understood what would come about. He
looked into the globe, the control turret. He saw unfinished wiring
and relays. He saw a job half done. An incomplete machine."

"Something to be fixed," Margaret Duffe put in.

"Something to be fixed. Like an artist, he saw his work ahead of him.
He was interested in only one thing: turning out the best job he
could, with the skill he possessed. For us, that skill has opened up a
whole universe, endless galaxies and systems to explore. Worlds
without end. Unlimited, _untouched_ worlds."

Reinhart got unsteadily to his feet. "We better get to work. Start
organizing construction teams. Exploration crews. We'll have to
reconvert from war production to ship designing. Begin the manufacture
of mining and scientific instruments for survey work."

"That's right," Margaret Duffe said. She looked reflectively up at
him. "But you're not going to have anything to do with it."

Reinhart saw the expression on her face. His hand flew to his gun and
he backed quickly toward the door. Dixon leaped up and joined him.
"Get back!" Reinhart shouted.

Margaret Duffe signalled and a phalanx of Government troops closed in
around the two men. Grim-faced, efficient soldiers with magnetic
grapples ready.

Reinhart's blaster wavered--toward the Council members sitting shocked
in their seats, and toward Margaret Duffe, straight at her blue eyes.
Reinhart's features were distorted with insane fear. "Get back! Don't
anybody come near me or she'll be the first to get it!"

Peter Sherikov slid from the table and with one great stride swept his
immense bulk in front of Reinhart. His huge black-furred fist rose in
a smashing arc. Reinhart sailed against the wall, struck with ringing
force and then slid slowly to the floor.

The Government troops threw their grapples quickly around him and
jerked him to his feet. His body was frozen rigid. Blood dripped from
his mouth. He spat bits of tooth, his eyes glazed over. Dixon stood
dazed, mouth open, uncomprehending, as the grapples closed around his
arms and legs.

Reinhart's gun skidded to the floor as he was yanked toward the door.
One of the elderly Council members picked the gun up and examined it
curiously. He laid it carefully on the table. "Fully loaded," he
murmured. "Ready to fire."

Reinhart's battered face was dark with hate. "I should have killed all
of you. _All_ of you!" An ugly sneer twisted across his shredded lips.
"If I could get my hands loose--"

"You won't," Margaret Duffe said. "You might as well not even bother
to think about it." She signalled to the troops and they pulled
Reinhart and Dixon roughly out of the room, two dazed figures,
snarling and resentful.

For a moment the room was silent. Then the Council members shuffled
nervously in their seats, beginning to breathe again.

Sherikov came over and put his big paw on Margaret Duffe's shoulder.
"Are you all right, Margaret?"

She smiled faintly. "I'm fine. Thanks...."

Sherikov touched her soft hair briefly. Then he broke away and began
to pack up his briefcase busily. "I have to go. I'll get in touch with
you later."

"Where are you going?" she asked hesitantly. "Can't you stay and--"

"I have to get back to the Urals." Sherikov grinned at her over his
bushy black beard as he headed out of the room. "Some very important
business to attend to."

       *       *       *       *       *

Thomas Cole was sitting up in bed when Sherikov came to the door. Most
of his awkward, hunched-over body was sealed in a thin envelope of
transparent airproof plastic. Two robot attendants whirred ceaselessly
at his side, their leads contacting his pulse, blood-pressure,
respiration, body temperature.

Cole turned a little as the huge Pole tossed down his briefcase and
seated himself on the window ledge.

"How are you feeling?" Sherikov asked him.

"Better."

"You see we've quite advanced therapy. Your burns should be healed in
a few months."

"How is the war coming?"

"The war is over."

Cole's lips moved. "Icarus--"

"Icarus went as expected. As _you_ expected." Sherikov leaned toward
the bed. "Cole, I promised you something. I mean to keep my
promise--as soon as you're well enough."

"To return me to my own time?"

"That's right. It's a relatively simple matter, now that Reinhart has
been removed from power. You'll be back home again, back in your own
time, your own world. We can supply you with some discs of platinum or
something of the kind to finance your business. You'll need a new
Fixit truck. Tools. And clothes. A few thousand dollars ought to do
it."

Cole was silent.

"I've already contacted histo-research," Sherikov continued. "The time
bubble is ready as soon as you are. We're somewhat beholden to you, as
you probably realize. You've made it possible for us to actualize our
greatest dream. The whole planet is seething with excitement. We're
changing our economy over from war to--"

"They don't resent what happened? The dud must have made an awful lot
of people feel downright bad."

"At first. But they got over it--as soon as they understood what was
ahead. Too bad you won't be here to see it, Cole. A whole world
breaking loose. Bursting out into the universe. They want me to have
an ftl ship ready by the end of the week! Thousands of applications
are already on file, men and women wanting to get in on the initial
flight."

Cole smiled a little, "There won't be any band, there. No parade or
welcoming committee waiting for them."

"Maybe not. Maybe the first ship will wind up on some dead world,
nothing but sand and dried salt. But everybody wants to go. It's
almost like a holiday. People running around and shouting and throwing
things in the streets.

"Afraid I must get back to the labs. Lots of reconstruction work being
started." Sherikov dug into his bulging briefcase. "By the way.... One
little thing. While you're recovering here, you might like to look at
these." He tossed a handful of schematics on the bed.

Cole picked them up slowly. "What's this?"

"Just a little thing I designed." Sherikov arose and lumbered toward
the door. "We're realigning our political structure to eliminate any
recurrence of the Reinhart affair. This will block any more one-man
power grabs." He jabbed a thick finger at the schematics. "It'll turn
power over to all of us, not to just a limited number one person could
dominate--the way Reinhart dominated the Council.

"This gimmick makes it possible for citizens to raise and decide
issues directly. They won't have to wait for the Council to verbalize
a measure. Any citizen can transmit his will with one of these, make
his needs register on a central control that automatically responds.
When a large enough segment of the population wants a certain thing
done, these little gadgets set up an active field that touches all the
others. An issue won't have to go through a formal Council. The
citizens can express their will long before any bunch of gray-haired
old men could get around to it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sherikov broke off, frowning.

"Of course," he continued slowly, "there's one little detail...."

"What's that?"

"I haven't been able to get a model to function. A few bugs.... Such
intricate work never was in my line." He paused at the door. "Well, I
hope I'll see you again before you go. Maybe if you feel well enough
later on we could get together for one last talk. Maybe have dinner
together sometime. Eh?"

But Thomas Cole wasn't listening. He was bent over the schematics, an
intense frown on his weathered face. His long fingers moved restlessly
over the schematics, tracing wiring and terminals. His lips moved as
he calculated.

Sherikov waited a moment. Then he stepped out into the hall and softly
closed the door after him.

He whistled merrily as he strode off down the corridor.





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