The Variable Man is featured in our collection of Dystopian Stories and Science Fiction.
An illustration for the story The Variable Man by the author Philip K. Dick
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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—”
“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.”
“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!”
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?”
“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.”
“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.