The Variable Man
Chapter 4

Public Domain

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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?”


“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?”


“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.

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