The Variable Man
Margaret Duffe got up slowly from her desk. She pushed her chair automatically back. “Let me get all this straight. You mean the bomb is finished? Ready to go?”
Reinhart nodded impatiently. “That’s what I said. The Technicians are checking the turret locks to make sure it’s properly attached. The launching will take place in half an hour.”
“Thirty minutes! Then—”
“Then the attack can begin at once. I assume the fleet is ready for action.”
“Of course. It’s been ready for several days. But I can’t believe the bomb is ready so soon.” Margaret Duffe moved numbly toward the door of her office. “This is a great day, Commissioner. An old era lies behind us. This time tomorrow Centaurus will be gone. And eventually the colonies will be ours.”
“It’s been a long climb,” Reinhart murmured.
“One thing. Your charge against Sherikov. It seems incredible that a person of his caliber could ever—”
“We’ll discuss that later,” Reinhart interrupted coldly. He pulled the manila envelope from his coat. “I haven’t had an opportunity to feed the additional data to the SRB machines. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll do that now.”
For a moment Margaret Duffe stood at the door. The two of them faced each other silently, neither speaking, a faint smile on Reinhart’s thin lips, hostility in the woman’s blue eyes.
“Reinhart, sometimes I think perhaps you’ll go too far. And sometimes I think you’ve already gone too far...”
“I’ll inform you of any change in the odds showing.” Reinhart strode past her, out of the office and down the hall. He headed toward the SRB room, an intense thalamic excitement rising up inside him.
A few moments later he entered the SRB room. He made his way to the machines. The odds 7-6 showed in the view windows. Reinhart smiled a little. 7-6. False odds, based on incorrect information. Now they could be removed.
Kaplan hurried over. Reinhart handed him the envelope, and moved over to the window, gazing down at the scene below. Men and cars scurried frantically everywhere. Officials coming and going like ants, hurrying in all directions.
The war was on. The signal had been sent out to the warfleet that had waited so long near Proxima Centaurus. A feeling of triumph raced through Reinhart. He had won. He had destroyed the man from the past and broken Peter Sherikov. The war had begun as planned. Terra was breaking out. Reinhart smiled thinly. He had been completely successful.
Reinhart turned slowly. “All right.”
Kaplan was standing in front of the machines, gazing down at the reading. “Commissioner—”
Sudden alarm plucked at Reinhart. There was something in Kaplan’s voice. He hurried quickly over. “What is it?”
Kaplan looked up at him, his face white, his eyes wide with terror. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came.
“What is it?“ Reinhart demanded, chilled. He bent toward the machines, studying the reading.
And sickened with horror.
100-1. Against Terra!
He could not tear his gaze away from the figures. He was numb, shocked with disbelief. 100-1. What had happened? What had gone wrong? The turret was finished, Icarus was ready, the fleet had been notified—
There was a sudden deep buzz from outside the building. Shouts drifted up from below. Reinhart turned his head slowly toward the window, his heart frozen with fear.
Across the evening sky a trail moved, rising each moment. A thin line of white. Something climbed, gaining speed each moment. On the ground, all eyes were turned toward it, awed faces peering up.
The object gained speed. Faster and faster. Then it vanished. Icarus was on his way. The attack had begun; it was too late to stop, now.
And on the machines the odds read a hundred to one—for failure.
At eight o’clock in the evening of May 15, 2136, Icarus was launched toward the star Centaurus. A day later, while all Terra waited, Icarus entered the star, traveling at thousands of times the speed of light.
Nothing happened. Icarus disappeared into the star. There was no explosion. The bomb failed to go off.
At the same time the Terran warfleet engaged the Centauran outer fleet, sweeping down in a concentrated attack. Twenty major ships were seized. A good part of the Centauran fleet was destroyed. Many of the captive systems began to revolt, in the hope of throwing off the Imperial bonds.
Two hours later the massed Centauran warfleet from Armun abruptly appeared and joined battle. The great struggle illuminated half the Centauran system. Ship after ship flashed briefly and then faded to ash. For a whole day the two fleets fought, strung out over millions of miles of space. Innumerable fighting men died—on both sides.
At last the remains of the battered Terran fleet turned and limped toward Armun—defeated. Little of the once impressive armada remained. A few blackened hulks, making their way uncertainly toward captivity.
Icarus had not functioned. Centaurus had not exploded. The attack was a failure.
The war was over.
“We’ve lost the war,” Margaret Duffe said in a small voice, wondering and awed. “It’s over. Finished.”
The Council members sat in their places around the conference table, gray-haired elderly men, none of them speaking or moving. All gazed up mutely at the great stellar maps that covered two walls of the chamber.
“I have already empowered negotiators to arrange a truce,” Margaret Duffe murmured. “Orders have been sent out to Vice-Commander Jessup to give up the battle. There’s no hope. Fleet Commander Carleton destroyed himself and his flagship a few minutes ago. The Centauran High Council has agreed to end the fighting. Their whole Empire is rotten to the core. Ready to topple of its own weight.”
Reinhart was slumped over at the table, his head in his hands. “I don’t understand... Why? Why didn’t the bomb explode?” He mopped his forehead shakily. All his poise was gone. He was trembling and broken. “What went wrong?“
Gray-faced, Dixon mumbled an answer. “The variable man must have sabotaged the turret. The SRB machines knew ... They analyzed the data. They knew! But it was too late.”
Reinhart’s eyes were bleak with despair as he raised his head a little. “I knew he’d destroy us. We’re finished. A century of work and planning.” His body knotted in a spasm of furious agony. “All because of Sherikov!”
Margaret Duffe eyed Reinhart coldly. “Why because of Sherikov?”
“He kept Cole alive! I wanted him killed from the start.” Suddenly Reinhart jumped from his chair. His hand clutched convulsively at his gun. “And he’s still alive! Even if we’ve lost I’m going to have the pleasure of putting a blast beam through Cole’s chest!”
“Sit down!” Margaret Duffe ordered.
Reinhart was half way to the door. “He’s still at the Euthanasia Ministry, waiting for the official—”
“No, he’s not,” Margaret Duffe said.
Reinhart froze. He turned slowly, as if unable to believe his senses. “What?“
“Cole isn’t at the Ministry. I ordered him transferred and your instructions cancelled.”
“Where—where is he?”
There was unusual hardness in Margaret Duffe’s voice as she answered. “With Peter Sherikov. In the Urals. I had Sherikov’s full authority restored. I then had Cole transferred there, put in Sherikov’s safe keeping. I want to make sure Cole recovers, so we can keep our promise to him—our promise to return him to his own time.”
Reinhart’s mouth opened and closed. All the color had drained from his face. His cheek muscles twitched spasmodically. At last he managed to speak. “You’ve gone insane! The traitor responsible for Earth’s greatest defeat—”
“We have lost the war,” Margaret Duffe stated quietly. “But this is not a day of defeat. It is a day of victory. The most incredible victory Terra has ever had.”
Reinhart and Dixon were dumbfounded. “What—” Reinhart gasped. “What do you—” The whole room was in an uproar. All the Council members were on their feet. Reinhart’s words were drowned out.
“Sherikov will explain when he gets here,” Margaret Duffe’s calm voice came. “He’s the one who discovered it.” She looked around the chamber at the incredulous Council members. “Everyone stay in his seat. You are all to remain here until Sherikov arrives. It’s vital you hear what he has to say. His news transforms this whole situation.”
Peter Sherikov accepted the briefcase of papers from his armed technician. “Thanks.” He pushed his chair back and glanced thoughtfully around the Council chamber. “Is everybody ready to hear what I have to say?”
“We’re ready,” Margaret Duffe answered. The Council members sat alertly around the table. At the far end, Reinhart and Dixon watched uneasily as the big Pole removed papers from his briefcase and carefully examined them.
“To begin, I recall to you the original work behind the ftl bomb. Jamison Hedge was the first human to propel an object at a speed greater than light. As you know, that object diminished in length and gained in mass as it moved toward light speed. When it reached that speed it vanished. It ceased to exist in our terms. Having no length it could not occupy space. It rose to a different order of existence.
“When Hedge tried to bring the object back, an explosion occurred. Hedge was killed, and all his equipment was destroyed. The force of the blast was beyond calculation. Hedge had placed his observation ship many millions of miles away. It was not far enough, however. Originally, he had hoped his drive might be used for space travel. But after his death the principle was abandoned.
“That is—until Icarus. I saw the possibilities of a bomb, an incredibly powerful bomb to destroy Centaurus and all the Empire’s forces. The reappearance of Icarus would mean the annihilation of their System. As Hedge had shown, the object would re-enter space already occupied by matter, and the cataclysm would be beyond belief.”
“But Icarus never came back,” Reinhart cried. “Cole altered the wiring so the bomb kept on going. It’s probably still going.”
“Wrong,” Sherikov boomed. “The bomb did reappear. But it didn’t explode.”
Reinhart reacted violently. “You mean—”
“The bomb came back, dropping below the ftl speed as soon as it entered the star Proxima. But it did not explode. There was no cataclysm. It reappeared and was absorbed by the sun, turned into gas at once.”