“Fredman gave the actual order. In line with your directive to have all facilities ready for –”
Reinhart headed toward the entrance of the research building. “Where is Fredman?”
“I want to see him. Let’s go.”
Fredman met them inside. He greeted Reinhart calmly, showing no emotion. “Sorry to cause you trouble, Commissioner. We were trying to get the station in order for the war. We wanted the bubble back as quickly as possible.” He eyed Reinhart curiously. “No doubt the man and his cart will soon be picked up by your police.”
“I want to know everything that happened, in exact detail.”
Fredman shifted uncomfortably. “There’s not much to tell. I gave the order to have the automatic setting canceled and the bubble brought back manually. At the moment the signal reached it, the bubble was passing through the spring of 1913. As it broke loose, it tore off a piece of ground on which this person and his cart were located. The person naturally was brought up to the present, inside the bubble.”
“Didn’t any of your instruments tell you the bubble was loaded?”
“We were too excited to take any readings. Half an hour after the manual control was thrown, the bubble materialized in the observation room. It was de-energized before anyone noticed what was inside. We tried to stop him but he drove the cart out into the hall, bowling us out of the way. The horses were in a panic.”
“What kind of cart was it?”
“There was some kind of sign on it. Painted in black letters on both sides. No one saw what it was.”
“Go ahead. What happened then?”
“Somebody fired a Slem-ray after him, but it missed. The horses carried him out of the building and onto the grounds. By the time we reached the exit the cart was halfway to the park.”
Reinhart reflected. “If he’s still in the park we should have him shortly. But we must be careful.” He was already starting back toward his ship, leaving Fredman behind. Harper fell in beside him.
Reinhart halted by his ship. He beckoned some Government guards over.
“Put the executive staff of this department under arrest. I’ll have them tried on a treason count, later on.” He smiled ironically as Harper’s face blanched sickly pale. “There’s a war going on. You’ll be lucky if you get off alive.”
Reinhart entered his ship and left the surface, rising rapidly into the sky. A second ship followed after him, a military escort. Reinhart flew high above the sea of gray slag, the unrecovered waste area. He passed over a sudden square of green set in the ocean of gray. Reinhart gazed back at it until it was gone.
Central Park. He could see police ships racing through the sky, ships and transports loaded with troops, heading toward the square of green. On the ground some heavy guns and surface cars rumbled along, lines of black approaching the park from all sides.
They would have the man soon. But meanwhile, the SRB machines were blank. And on the SRB machines’ readings the whole war depended.
About noon the cart reached the edge of the park. Cole rested for a moment, allowing the horses time to crop at the thick grass. The silent expanse of slag amazed him. What had happened? Nothing stirred. No buildings, no sign of life. Grass and weeds poked up occasionally through it, breaking the flat surface here and there, but even so, the sight gave him an uneasy chill.
Cole drove the cart slowly out onto the slag, studying the sky above him. There was nothing to hide him, now that he was out of the park. The slag was bare and uniform, like the ocean. If he were spotted —
A horde of tiny black dots raced across the sky, coming rapidly closer. Presently they veered to the right and disappeared. More planes, wingless metal planes. He watched them go, driving slowly on.
Half an hour later something appeared ahead. Cole slowed the cart down, peering to see. The slag came to an end. He had reached its limits. Ground appeared, dark soil and grass. Weeds grew everywhere. Ahead of him, beyond the end of the slag, was a line of buildings, houses of some sort. Or sheds.
Houses, probably. But not like any he had ever seen.
The houses were uniform, all exactly the same. Like little green shells, rows of them, several hundred. There was a little lawn in front of each. Lawn, a path, a front porch, bushes in a meager row around each house. But the houses were all alike and very small.
Little green shells in precise, even rows. He urged the cart cautiously forward, toward the houses.
No one seemed to be around. He entered a street between two rows of houses, the hoofs of his two horses sounding loudly in the silence. He was in some kind of town. But there were no dogs or children. Everything was neat and silent. Like a model. An exhibit. It made him uncomfortable.
A young man walking along the pavement gaped at him in wonder. An oddly-dressed youth, in a toga-like cloak that hung down to his knees. A single piece of fabric. And sandals.
Or what looked like sandals. Both the cloak and the sandals were of some strange half-luminous material. It glowed faintly in the sunlight. Metallic, rather than cloth.
A woman was watering flowers at the edge of a lawn. She straightened up as his team of horses came near. Her eyes widened in astonishment — and then fear. Her mouth fell open in a soundless O and her sprinkling can slipped from her fingers and rolled silently onto the lawn.
Cole blushed and turned his head quickly away. The woman was scarcely dressed! He flicked the reins and urged the horses to hurry.
Behind him, the woman still stood. He stole a brief, hasty look back — and then shouted hoarsely to his team, ears scarlet. He had seen right. She wore only a pair of translucent shorts. Nothing else. A mere fragment of the same half-luminous material that glowed and sparkled. The rest of her small body was utterly naked.
He slowed the team down. She had been pretty. Brown hair and eyes, deep red lips. Quite a good figure. Slender waist, downy legs, bare and supple, full breasts — He clamped the thought furiously off. He had to get to work. Business.
Cole halted the Fixit cart and leaped down onto the pavement. He selected a house at random and approached it cautiously. The house was attractive. It had a certain simple beauty. But it looked frail — and exactly like the others.
He stepped up on the porch. There was no bell. He searched for it, running his hand uneasily over the surface of the door. All at once there was a click, a sharp snap on a level with his eyes. Cole glanced up, startled. A lens was vanishing as the door section slid over it. He had been photographed.
While he was wondering what it meant, the door swung suddenly open. A man filled up the entrance, a big man in a tan uniform, blocking the way ominously.
“What do you want?” the man demanded.
“I’m looking for work,” Cole murmured. “Any kind of work. I can do anything, fix any kind of thing. I repair broken objects. Things that need mending.” His voice trailed off uncertainly. “Anything at all.”
“Apply to the Placement Department of the Federal Activities Control Board,” the man said crisply. “You know all occupational therapy is handled through them.” He eyed Cole curiously. “Why have you got on those ancient clothes?”
“Ancient? Why, I –”
The man gazed past him at the Fixit cart and the two dozing horses. “What’s that? What are those two animals? Horses?” The man rubbed his jaw, studying Cole intently. “That’s strange,” he said.
“Strange?” Cole murmured uneasily. “Why?”
“There haven’t been any horses for over a century. All the horses were wiped out during the Fifth Atomic War. That’s why it’s strange.”
Cole tensed, suddenly alert. There was something in the man’s eyes, a hardness, a piercing look. Cole moved back off the porch, onto the path. He had to be careful. Something was wrong.
“I’ll be going,” he murmured.
“There haven’t been any horses for over a hundred years.” The man came toward Cole. “Who are you? Why are you dressed up like that? Where did you get that vehicle and pair of horses?”
“I’ll be going,” Cole repeated, moving away.
The man whipped something from his belt, a thin metal tube. He stuck it toward Cole.
It was a rolled-up paper, a thin sheet of metal in the form of a tube. Words, some kind of script. He could not make any of them out. The man’s picture, rows of numbers, figures —
“I’m Director Winslow,” the man said. “Federal Stockpile Conservation. You better talk fast, or there’ll be a Security car here in five minutes.”
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