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.
It was evening.
"Come on!" Steven shouted, running frantically after his brother. "Come on back!"
"Catch me." Earl ran and ran, down the side of the hill, over behind a military storage depot, along a neotex fence, jumping finally down into Mrs. Norris' back yard.
Steven hurried after his brother, sobbing for breath, shouting and gasping as he ran. "Come back! You come back with that!"
"What's he got?" Sally Tate demanded, stepping out suddenly to block Steven's way.
Steven halted, his chest rising and falling. "He's got my intersystem vidsender." His small face twisted with rage and misery. "He better give it back!"
Earl came circling around from the right. In the warm gloom of evening he was almost invisible. "Here I am," he announced. "What you going to do?"
Steven glared at him hotly. His eyes made out the square box in Earl's hands. "You give that back! Or--or I'll tell Dad."
Earl laughed. "Make me."
"Dad'll make you."
"You better give it to him," Sally said.
"Catch me." Earl started off. Steven pushed Sally out of the way, lashing wildly at his brother. He collided with him, throwing him sprawling. The box fell from Earl's hands. It skidded to the pavement, crashing into the side of a guide-light post.
Earl and Steven picked themselves up slowly. They gazed down at the broken box.
"See?" Steven shrilled, tears filling his eyes. "See what you did?"
"You did it. You pushed into me."
"You did it!"' Steven bent down and picked up the box. He carried it over to the guide-light, sitting down on the curb to examine it.
Earl came slowly over. "If you hadn't pushed me it wouldn't have got broken."
Night was descending rapidly. The line of hills rising above the town were already lost in darkness. A few lights had come on here and there. The evening was warm. A surface car slammed its doors, some place off in the distance. In the sky ships droned back and forth, weary commuters coming home from work in the big underground factory units.
Thomas Cole came slowly toward the three children grouped around the guide-light. He moved with difficulty, his body sore and bent with fatigue. Night had come, but he was not safe yet.
He was tired, exhausted and hungry. He had walked a long way. And he had to have something to eat--soon.
A few feet from the children Cole stopped. They were all intent and absorbed by the box on Steven's knees. Suddenly a hush fell over the children. Earl looked up slowly.
In the dim light the big stooped figure of Thomas Cole seemed extra menacing. His long arms hung down loosely at his sides. His face was lost in shadow. His body was shapeless, indistinct. A big unformed statue, standing silently a few feet away, unmoving in the half-darkness.
"Who are you?" Earl demanded, his voice low.
"What do you want?" Sally said. The children edged away nervously. "Get away."
Cole came toward them. He bent down a little. The beam from the guide-light crossed his features. Lean, prominent nose, beak-like, faded blue eyes-- Steven scrambled to his feet, clutching the vidsender box. "You get out of here!"
"Wait." Cole smiled crookedly at them. His voice was dry and raspy. "What do you have there?" He pointed with his long, slender fingers. "The box you're holding."
The children were silent. Finally Steven stirred. "It's my inter-system vidsender."
"Only it doesn't work," Sally said.
"Earl broke it." Steven glared at his brother bitterly. "Earl threw it down and broke it."
Cole smiled a little. He sank down wearily on the edge of the curb, sighing with relief. He had been walking too long. His body ached with fatigue. He was hungry, and tired. For a long time he sat, wiping perspiration from his neck and face, too exhausted to speak.
"Who are you?" Sally demanded, at last. "Why do you have on those funny clothes? Where did you come from?"
"Where?" Cole looked around at the children. "From a long way off. A long way." He shook his head slowly from side to side, trying to clear it.
"What's your therapy?" Earl said.
"What do you do? Where do you work?"
Cole took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. "I fix things. All kinds of things. Any kind."
Earl sneered. "Nobody fixes things. When they break you throw them away."
Cole didn't hear him. Sudden need had roused him, getting him suddenly to his feet. "You know any work I can find?" he demanded. "Things I could do? I can fix anything. Clocks, type-writers, refrigerators, pots and pans. Leaks in the roof. I can fix anything there is."
Steven held out his inter-system vidsender. "Fix this."
There was silence. Slowly, Cole's eyes focussed on the box. "That?"
"My sender. Earl broke it."
Cole took the box slowly. He turned it over, holding it up to the light. He frowned, concentrating on it. His long, slender fingers moved carefully over the surface, exploring it.
"He'll steal it!" Earl said suddenly.
"No." Cole shook his head vaguely. "I'm reliable." His sensitive fingers found the studs that held the box together. He depressed the studs, pushing them expertly in. The box opened, revealing its complex interior.
"He got it open," Sally whispered.
"Give it back!" Steven demanded, a little frightened. He held out his hand. "I want it back."
The three children watched Cole apprehensively. Cole fumbled in his pocket. Slowly he brought out his tiny screwdrivers and pliers. He laid them in a row beside him. He made no move to return the box.
"I want it back," Steven said feebly.
Cole looked up. His faded blue eyes took in the sight of the three children standing before him in the gloom. "I'll fix it for you. You said you wanted it fixed."
"I want it back." Steven stood on one foot, then the other, torn by doubt and indecision. "Can you really fix it? Can you make it work again?"
"All right. Fix it for me, then."
A sly smile flickered across Cole's tired face. "Now, wait a minute. If I fix it, will you bring me something to eat? I'm not fixing it for nothing."
"Something to eat?"
"Food. I need hot food. Maybe some coffee."
Steven nodded. "Yes. I'll get it for you."
Cole relaxed. "Fine. That's fine." He turned his attention back to the box resting between his knees. "Then I'll fix it for you. I'll fix it for you good."
His fingers flew, working and twisting, tracing down wires and relays, exploring and examining. Finding out about the inter-system vidsender. Discovering how it worked.
Steven slipped into the house through the emergency door. He made his way to the kitchen with great care, walking on tip-toe. He punched the kitchen controls at random, his heart beating excitedly. The stove began to whirr, purring into life. Meter readings came on, crossing toward the completion marks.