Variable Man, The


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?”


“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.”


“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.”


“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—”


“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 but 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.


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?”


“Medicine? Are you sick? Injured?”


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.”

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