“More coffee?” Sherikov asked. He pushed the plastic container toward Cole. “Have some.”
Cole accepted another cupful. “Thank you.”
“You can see that our real problem is another thing entirely. The machines only do figuring for us in a few minutes that eventually we could do for our own selves. They’re our servants, tools. Not some sort of gods in a temple which we go and pray to. Not oracles who can see into the future for us. They don’t see into the future. They only make statistical predictions — not prophecies. There’s a big difference there, but Reinhart and his kind have made such things as the SRB machines into gods. But I have no gods. At least, not any I can see.”
Cole nodded, sipping his coffee.
“I’m telling you all these things because you must understand what we’re up against. Terra is hemmed in on all sides by the ancient Centauran Empire. It’s been out there for centuries, thousands of years. No one knows how long. It’s old — crumbling and rotting. Corrupt and venal. But it holds most of the galaxy around us, and we can’t break out of the Sol system. I told you about Icarus, and Hedge’s work in ftl flight. We must win the war against Centaurus. We’ve waited and worked a long time for this, the moment when we can break out and get room among the stars for ourselves. Icarus is the deciding weapon. The data on Icarus tipped the SRB odds in our favor — for the first time in history. Success in the war against Centaurus will depend on Icarus, not on the SRB machines. You see?”
“However, there is a problem. The data on Icarus which I turned over to the machines specified that Icarus would be completed in ten days. More than half that time has already passed. Yet, we are no closer to wiring up the control turret than we were then. The turret baffles us.” Sherikov grinned ironically. “Even I have tried my hand on the wiring, but with no success. It’s intricate — and small. Too many technical bugs not worked out. We are building only once, you understand. If we had many experimental models worked out before –”
‘”But this is the experimental model,” Cole said.
“And built from the designs of a man dead four years — who isn’t here to correct us. We’ve made Icarus with our own hands down here in the labs. And he’s giving us plenty of trouble.” All at once Sherikov got to his feet. “Let’s go down to the lab and look at him.”
They descended to the floor below, Sherikov leading the way. Cole stopped short at the lab door.
“Quite a sight,” Sherikov agreed. “We keep him down here at the bottom for safety’s sake. He’s well protected. Come on in. We have work to do.”
In the center of the lab Icarus rose up, the gray squat cylinder that someday would flash through space at a speed of thousands of times that of light, toward the heart of Proxima Centaurus, over four light years away. Around the cylinder groups of men in uniform were laboring feverishly to finish the remaining work.
“Over here. The turret.” Sherikov led Cole over to one side of the room. “It’s guarded. Centauran spies are swarming everywhere on Terra. They see into everything. But so do we. That’s how we get information for the SRB machines. Spies in both systems.”
The translucent globe that was the control turret reposed in the center of a metal stand, an armed guard standing at each side. They lowered their guns as Sherikov approached.
“We don’t want anything to happen to this,” Sherikov said. “Everything depends on it.” He put out his hand for the globe. Halfway to it his hand stopped, striking against an invisible presence in the air.
Sherikov laughed. “The wall. Shut it off. It’s still on.”
One of the guards pressed a stud at his wrist. Around the globe the air shimmered and faded.
“Now.” Sherikov’s hand closed over the globe. He lifted it carefully from its mount and brought it out for Cole to see. “This is the control turret for our enormous friend here. This is what will slow him down when he’s inside Centaurus. He slows down and re-enters this universe. Right in the heart of the star. Then — no more Centaurus.” Sherikov beamed. “And no more Armun.”
But Cole was not listening. He had taken the globe from Sherikov and was turning it over and over, running his hands over it, his face close to its surface. He peered down into its interior, his face rapt and intent.
“You can’t see the wiring. Not without lenses.” Sherikov signalled for a pair of micro-lenses to be brought. He fitted them on Cole’s nose, hooking them behind his ears. “Now try it. You can control the magnification. It’s set for 1000X right now. You can increase or decrease it.”
Cole gasped, swaying back and forth. Sherikov caught hold of him. Cole gazed down into the globe, moving his head slightly, focussing the glasses.
“It takes practice. But you can do a lot with them. Permits you to do microscopic wiring. There are tools to go along, you understand.” Sherikov paused, licking his lip. “We can’t get it done correctly. Only a few men can wire circuits using the micro-lenses and the little tools. We’ve tried robots, but there are too many decisions to be made. Robots can’t make decisions. They just react.”
Cole said nothing. He continued to gaze into the interior of the globe, his lips tight, his body taut and rigid. It made Sherikov feel strangely uneasy.
“You look like one of those old fortunetellers,” Sherikov said jokingly, but a cold shiver crawled up his spine. “Better hand it back to me.” He held out his hand.
Slowly, Cole returned the globe. After a time he removed the micro-lenses, still deep in thought.
“Well?” Sherikov demanded. “You know what I want. I want you to wire this damn thing up.” Sherikov came close to Cole, his big face hard. “You can do it, I think. I could tell by the way you held it — and the job you did on the children’s toy, of course. You could wire it up right, and in five days. Nobody else can. And if it’s not wired up Centaurus will keep on running the galaxy and Terra will have to sweat it out here in the Sol system. One tiny mediocre sun, one dust mote out of a whole galaxy.”
Cole did not answer.
Sherikov became impatient. “Well? What do you say?”
“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 replay 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.”
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