The Variable Man
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!”