"What happens if I don't wire this control for you? I mean, what happens to me?"
"Then I turn you over to Reinhart. Reinhart will kill you instantly. He thinks you're dead, killed when the Albertine Range was annihilated. If he had any idea I had saved you--"
"I brought you down here for one thing. If you wire it up I'll have you sent back to your own time continuum. If you don't--"
Cole considered, his face dark and brooding.
"What do you have to lose? You'd already be dead, if we hadn't pulled you out of those hills."
"Can you really return me to my own time?"
"Reinhart won't interfere?"
Sherikov laughed. "What can he do? How can he stop me? I have my own men. You saw them. They landed all around you. You'll be returned."
"Yes. I saw your men."
"Then you agree?"
"I agree," Thomas Cole said. "I'll wire it for you. I'll complete the control turret--within the next five days."
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?"
"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.