Presently the stove opened, sliding out a tray of steaming dishes. The mechanism clicked off, dying into silence. Steven grabbed up the contents of the tray, filling his arms. He carried everything down the hall, out the emergency door and into the yard. The yard was dark. Steven felt his way carefully along.
He managed to reach the guide-light without dropping anything at all.
Thomas Cole got slowly to his feet as Steven came into view. "Here," Steven said. He dumped the food onto the curb, gasping for breath. "Here's the food. Is it finished?"
Cole held out the inter-system vidsender. "It's finished. It was pretty badly smashed."
Earl and Sally gazed up, wide-eyed. "Does it work?" Sally asked.
"Of course not," Earl stated. "How could it work? He couldn't--"
"Turn it on!" Sally nudged Steven eagerly. "See if it works."
Steven was holding the box under the light, examining the switches. He clicked the main switch on. The indicator light gleamed. "It lights up," Steven said.
"Say something into it."
Steven spoke into the box. "Hello! Hello! This is operator 6-Z75 calling. Can you hear me? This is operator 6-Z75. Can you hear me?"
In the darkness, away from the beam of the guide-light, Thomas Cole sat crouched over the food. He ate gratefully, silently. It was good food, well cooked and seasoned. He drank a container of orange juice and then a sweet drink he didn't recognize. Most of the food was strange to him, but he didn't care. He had walked a long way and he was plenty hungry. And he still had a long way to go, before morning. He had to be deep in the hills before the sun came up. Instinct told him that he would be safe among the trees and tangled growth--at least, as safe as he could hope for.
He ate rapidly intent on the food. He did not look up until he was finished. Then he got slowly to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The three children were standing around in a circle, operating the inter-system vidsender. He watched them for a few minutes. None of them looked up from the small box. They were intent, absorbed in what they were doing.
"Well?" Cole said, at last. "Does it work all right?"
After a moment Steven looked up at him. There was a strange expression on his face. He nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, it works. It works fine."
Cole grunted. "All right." He turned and moved away from the light. "That's fine."
The children watched silently until the figure of Thomas Cole had completely disappeared. Slowly, they turned and looked at each other. Then down at the box in Steven's hands. They gazed at the box in growing awe. Awe mixed with dawning fear.
Steven turned and edged toward his house. "I've got to show it to my Dad," he murmured, dazed. "He's got to know. Somebody's got to know!"
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."
"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?"
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."