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 a while 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.”
“You mean –”
“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 are 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 –“
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