The Variable Man, p.1Philip K. Dick
Produced by Greg Weeks, Barbara Tozier and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction September 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE VARIABLE MAN
BY PHILIP K. DICK
ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL
He fixed things--clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies. But he had no business in the future, where the calculators could not handle him. He was Earth's only hope--and its sure failure!
Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps andentered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside andhe entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thinface rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at thecentral SRB computer, studying its reading.
"Straight gain for the last quarter," observed Kaplan, the laborganizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. "Not bad,Commissioner."
"We're catching up to them," Reinhart retorted. "But too damn slowly.We must finally go over--and soon."
Kaplan was in a talkative mood. "We design new offensive weapons, theycounter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made!Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designinglong enough to stabilize for production."
"It will end," Reinhart stated coldly, "as soon as Terra turns out aweapon for which Centaurus can build no defense."
"Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediateobsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to--"
"What we count on is the _lag_," Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hardgray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. "Thetime lag between our offensive design and their counter development.The lag varies." He waved impatiently toward the massed banks of SRBmachines. "As you well know."
At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRBmachines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All factsconsidered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by ProximaCentaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on thetotal information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vastflow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol andCentaurus systems.
21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in theenemy's favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus,older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra's rate oftechnocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.
"If we went to war now," Reinhart said thoughtfully, "we would lose.We're not far enough along to risk an overt attack." A harsh, ruthlessglow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into astern mask. "But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensivedesigns are gradually gaining on their defenses."
"Let's hope the war comes soon," Kaplan agreed. "We're all on edge.This damn waiting...."
The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air wasfull of tension, the _elan_. He left the SRB rooms and hurried downthe corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Securitywing. It wouldn't be long. He could practically feel the hot breath ofdestiny on his neck--for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set ina humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against histanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He'd been working at ita long time.
First contact, a hundred years earlier, had ignited instant conflictbetween Proxima Centauran outposts and exploring Terran raiders. Flashfights, sudden eruptions of fire and energy beams.
And then the long, dreary years of inaction between enemies wherecontact required years of travel, even at nearly the speed of light.The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Warshipagainst power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an ironring that couldn't be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radicalnew weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out.
Through the windows of his office, Reinhart could see endlessbuildings and streets, Terrans hurrying back and forth. Bright specksthat were commute ships, little eggs that carried businessmen andwhite-collar workers around. The huge transport tubes that shot massesof workmen to factories and labor camps from their housing units. Allthese people, waiting to break out. Waiting for the day.
Reinhart snapped on his vidscreen, the confidential channel. "Give meMilitary Designs," he ordered sharply.
* * * * *
He sat tense, his wiry body taut, as the vidscreen warmed into life.Abruptly he was facing the hulking image of Peter Sherikov, directorof the vast network of labs under the Ural Mountains.
Sherikov's great bearded features hardened as he recognized Reinhart.His bushy black eyebrows pulled up in a sullen line. "What do youwant? You know I'm busy. We have too much work to do, as it is.Without being bothered by--politicians."
"I'm dropping over your way," Reinhart answered lazily. He adjustedthe cuff of his immaculate gray cloak. "I want a full description ofyour work and whatever progress you've made."
"You'll find a regular departmental report plate filed in the usualway, around your office someplace. If you'll refer to that you'll knowexactly what we--"
"I'm not interested in that. I want to _see_ what you're doing. And Iexpect you to be prepared to describe your work fully. I'll be thereshortly. Half an hour."
* * * * *
Reinhart cut the circuit. Sherikov's heavy features dwindled andfaded. Reinhart relaxed, letting his breath out. Too bad he had towork with Sherikov. He had never liked the man. The big Polishscientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself withsociety. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of theindividual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organicstate Weltansicht.
But Sherikov was the leading research scientist, in charge of theMilitary Designs Department. And on Designs the whole future of Terradepended. Victory over Centaurus--or more waiting, bottled up in theSol System, surrounded by a rotting, hostile Empire, now sinking intoruin and decay, yet still strong.
Reinhart got quickly to his feet and left the office. He hurried downthe hall and out of the Council building.
A few minutes later he was heading across the mid-morning sky in hishighspeed cruiser, toward the Asiatic land-mass, the vast Uralmountain range. Toward the Military Designs labs.
Sherikov met him at the entrance. "Look here, Reinhart. Don't thinkyou're going to order me around. I'm not going to--"
"Take it easy." Reinhart fell into step beside the bigger man. Theypassed through the check and into the auxiliary labs. "No immediatecoercion will be exerted over you or your staff. You're free tocontinue your work as you see fit--for the present. Let's get thisstraight. My concern is to integrate your work with our total socialneeds. As long as your work is sufficiently productive--"
Reinhart stopped in his tracks.
"Pretty, isn't he?" Sherikov said ironically.
"What the hell is it?
"Icarus, we call him. Remember the Greek myth? The legend of Icarus.Icarus flew.... This Icarus is going to fly, one of these days."Sherikov shrugged. "You can examine him, if you want. I suppose thisis what you came here to see."
Reinhart advanced slowly. "This is the weapon you've been working on?"
"How does he look?"
Rising up in the center of the chamber was a squat metal cylinder, agreat ugly cone of dark gray. Technicians circled around it, wiring upthe exposed relay banks. Reinhart caught a glimpse of endless tubesand filaments, a maze of wires and terminals and parts criss-crossingeach other, layer on layer.
"What is it?" Reinhart perched on the edge of a workbench, leaning hisbig shoulders against the wall. "An idea of Jamison Hedge-
"Wasn't it shown that nothing could travel faster than light?"
"The interstellar vidcasts do! No, Hedge developed a valid ftl drive.He managed to propel an object at fifty times the speed of light. Butas the object gained speed, its length began to diminish and its massincreased. This was in line with familiar twentieth-century conceptsof mass-energy transformation. We conjectured that as Hedge's objectgained velocity it would continue to lose length and gain mass untilits length became nil and its mass infinite. Nobody can imagine suchan object."
"But what actually occurred is this. Hedge's object continued to loselength and gain mass until it reached the theoretical limit ofvelocity, the speed of light. At that point the object, still gainingspeed, simply ceased to exist. Having no length, it ceased to occupyspace. It disappeared. However, the object had not been _destroyed_.It continued on its way, gaining momentum each moment, moving in anarc across the galaxy, away from the Sol system. Hedge's objectentered some other realm of being, beyond our powers of conception.The next phase of Hedge's experiment consisted in a search for someway to slow the ftl object down, back to a sub-ftl speed, hence backinto our universe. This counterprinciple was eventually worked out."
"With what result?"
"The death of Hedge and destruction of most of his equipment. Hisexperimental object, in re-entering the space-time universe, came intobeing in space already occupied by matter. Possessing an incrediblemass, just below infinity level, Hedge's object exploded in a titaniccataclysm. It was obvious that no space travel was possible with sucha drive. Virtually all space contains _some_ matter. To re-enter spacewould bring automatic destruction. Hedge had found his ftl drive andhis counterprinciple, but no one before this has been able to put themto any use."
Reinhart walked over toward the great metal cylinder. Sherikov jumpeddown and followed him. "I don't get it," Reinhart said. "You said theprinciple is no good for space travel."
"What's this for, then? If the ship explodes as soon as it returns toour universe--"
"This is not a ship." Sherikov grinned slyly. "Icarus is the firstpractical application of Hedge's principles. Icarus is a bomb."
"So this is our weapon," Reinhart said. "A bomb. An immense bomb."
"A bomb, moving at a velocity greater than light. A bomb which willnot exist in our universe. The Centaurans won't be able to detect orstop it. How could they? As soon as it passes the speed of light itwill cease to exist--beyond all detection."
"Icarus will be launched outside the lab, on the surface. He willalign himself with Proxima Centaurus, gaining speed rapidly. By thetime he reaches his destination he will be traveling at ftl-100.Icarus will be brought back to this universe within Centaurus itself.The explosion should destroy the star and wash away most of itsplanets--including their central hub-planet, Armun. There is no waythey can halt Icarus, once he has been launched. No defense ispossible. Nothing can stop him. It is a real fact."
"When will he be ready?"
Sherikov's eyes flickered. "Soon."
"Exactly how soon?"
The big Pole hesitated. "As a matter of fact, there's only one thingholding us back."
Sherikov led Reinhart around to the other side of the lab. He pushed alab guard out of the way.
"See this?" He tapped a round globe, open at one end, the size of agrapefruit. "This is holding us up."
"What is it?"
"The central control turret. This thing brings Icarus back to sub-ftlflight at the correct moment. It must be absolutely accurate. Icaruswill be within the star only a matter of a microsecond. If the turretdoes not function exactly, Icarus will pass out the other side andshoot beyond the Centauran system."
"How near completed is this turret?"
Sherikov hedged uncertainly, spreading out his big hands. "Who cansay? It must be wired with infinitely minute equipment--microscopegrapples and wires invisible to the naked eye."
"Can you name any completion date?"
Sherikov reached into his coat and brought out a manila folder. "I'vedrawn up the data for the SRB machines, giving a date of completion.You can go ahead and feed it. I entered ten days as the maximumperiod. The machines can work from that."
Reinhart accepted the folder cautiously. "You're sure about the date?I'm not convinced I can trust you, Sherikov."
Sherikov's features darkened. "You'll have to take a chance,Commissioner. I don't trust you any more than you trust me. I know howmuch you'd like an excuse to get me out of here and one of yourpuppets in."
Reinhart studied the huge scientist thoughtfully. Sherikov was goingto be a hard nut to crack. Designs was responsible to Security, notthe Council. Sherikov was losing ground--but he was still a potentialdanger. Stubborn, individualistic, refusing to subordinate his welfareto the general good.
"All right." Reinhart put the folder slowly away in his coat. "I'llfeed it. But you better be able to come through. There can't be anyslip-ups. Too much hangs on the next few days."
"If the odds change in our favor are you going to give themobilization order?"
"Yes," Reinhart stated. "I'll give the order the moment I see the oddschange."
* * * * *
Standing in front of the machines, Reinhart waited nervously for theresults. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. The day was warm, apleasant May afternoon. Outside the building the daily life of theplanet went on as usual.
As usual? Not exactly. The feeling was in the air, an expandingexcitement growing every day. Terra had waited a long time. The attackon Proxima Centaurus had to come--and the sooner the better. Theancient Centauran Empire hemmed in Terra, bottled the human race up inits one system. A vast, suffocating net draped across the heavens,cutting Terra off from the bright diamonds beyond.... And it had toend.
The SRB machines whirred, the visible combination disappearing. For atime no ratio showed. Reinhart tensed, his body rigid. He waited.
The new ratio appeared.
Reinhart gasped. 7-6. Toward Terra!
Within five minutes the emergency mobilization alert had been flashedto all Government departments. The Council and President Duffe hadbeen called to immediate session. Everything was happening fast.
But there was no doubt. 7-6. In Terra's favor. Reinhart hurriedfrantically to get his papers in order, in time for the Councilsession.
At histo-research the message plate was quickly pulled from theconfidential slot and rushed across the central lab to the chiefofficial.
"Look at this!" Fredman dropped the plate on his superior's desk."Look at it!"
Harper picked up the plate, scanning it rapidly. "Sounds like the realthing. I didn't think we'd live to see it."
Fredman left the room, hurrying down the hall. He entered the timebubble office. "Where's the bubble?" he demanded, looking around.
One of the technicians looked slowly up. "Back about two hundredyears. We're coming up with interesting data on the War of 1914.According to material the bubble has already brought up--"
"Cut it. We're through with routine work. Get the bubble back to thepresent. From now on all equipment has to be free for Military work."
"But--the bubble is regulated automatically."
"You can bring it back manually."
"It's risky." The technician hedged. "If the emergency requires it, Isuppose we could take a chance and cut the automatic."
"The emergency requires _everything_," Fredman said feelingly.
"But the odds might change back," Margaret Duffe, President of theCouncil, said nervously. "Any minute they can revert."
"This is our chance!" Reinhart snapped, his temper rising. "What thehell's the matter with you?
The Council buzzed with excitement. Margaret Duffe hesitateduncertainly, her blue eyes clouded with worry. "I realize theopportunity is here. At least, statistically. But the new odds havejust appeared. How do we know they'll last? They stand on the basis ofa single weapon."
"You're wrong. You don't grasp the situation." Reinhart held himselfin check with great effort. "Sherikov's weapon tipped the ratio in ourfavor. But the odds have been moving in our direction for months. Itwas only a question of time. The new balance was inevitable, sooner orlater. It's not just Sherikov. He's only one factor in this. It's allnine planets of the Sol System--not a single man."
One of the Councilmen stood up. "The President must be aware theentire planet is eager to end this waiting. All our activities for thepast eighty years have been directed toward--"
Reinhart moved close to the slender President of the Council. "If youdon't approve the war, there probably will be mass rioting. Publicreaction will be strong. Damn strong. And you know it."
Margaret Duffe shot him a cold glance. "You sent out the emergencyorder to force my hand. You were fully aware of what you were doing.You knew once the order was out there'd be no stopping things."
A murmur rushed through the Council, gaining volume. "We have toapprove the war!... We're committed!... It's too late to turn back!"
Shouts, angry voices, insistent waves of sound lapped around MargaretDuffe. "I'm as much for the war as anybody," she said sharply. "I'monly urging moderation. An inter-system war is a big thing. We'regoing to war because a machine says we have a statistical chance ofwinning."
"There's no use starting the war unless we can win it," Reinhart said."The SRB machines tell us whether we can win."
"They tell us our _chance_ of winning. They don't guarantee anything."
"What more can we ask, beside a good chance of winning?"
Margaret Duffe clamped her jaw together tightly. "All right. I hearall the clamor. I won't stand in the way of Council approval. The votecan go ahead." Her cold, alert eyes appraised Reinhart. "Especiallysince the emergency order has already been sent out to all Governmentdepartments."
"Good." Reinhart stepped away with relief. "Then it's settled. We canfinally go ahead with full mobilization."
Mobilization proceeded rapidly. The next forty-eight hours were alivewith activity.
Reinhart attended a policy-level Military briefing in the Councilrooms, conducted by Fleet Commander Carleton.
"You can see our strategy," Carleton said. He traced a diagram on theblackboard with a wave of his hand. "Sherikov states it'll take eightmore days to complete the ftl bomb. During that time the fleet we havenear the Centauran system will take up positions. As the bomb goes offthe fleet will begin operations against the remaining Centauran ships.Many will no doubt survive the blast, but with Armun gone we should beable to handle them."
Reinhart took Commander Carleton's place. "I can report on theeconomic situation. Every factory on Terra is converted to armsproduction. With Armun out of the way we should be able to promotemass insurrection among the Centauran colonies. An inter-system Empireis hard to maintain, even with ships that approach light speed. Localwar-lords should pop up all over the place. We want to have weaponsavailable for them and ships starting _now_ to reach them in time.Eventually we hope to provide a unifying principle around which thecolonies can all collect. Our interest is more economic thanpolitical. They can have any kind of government they want, as long asthey act as supply areas for us. As our eight system planets act now."
Carleton resumed his report. "Once the Centauran fleet has beenscattered we can begin the crucial stage of the war. The landing ofmen and supplies from the ships we have waiting in all key areasthroughout the Centauran system. In this stage--"
Reinhart moved away. It was hard to believe only two days had passedsince the mobilization order had been sent out. The whole system wasalive, functioning with feverish activity. Countless problems werebeing solved--but much remained.
He entered the lift and ascended to the SRB room, curious to see ifthere had been any change in the machines' reading. He found it thesame. So far so good. Did the Centaurans know about Icarus? No doubt;but there wasn't anything they could do about it. At least, not ineight days.
Kaplan came over to Reinhart, sorting a new batch of data that hadcome in. The lab organizer searched through his data. "An amusing itemcame in. It might interest you." He handed a message plate toReinhart.
It was from histo-research:
May 9, 2136
This is to report that in bringing the research time bubble up to the present the manual return was used for the first time. Therefore a clean break was not made, and a quantity of material from the past was brought forward. This material included an individual from the early twentieth century who escaped from the lab immediately. He has not yet been taken into protective custody. Histo-research regrets this incident, but attributes it to the emergency.
Reinhart handed the plate back to Kaplan. "Interesting. A man from thepast--hauled into the middle of the biggest war the universe hasseen."
"Strange things happen. I wonder what the machines will think."
"Hard to say. Probably nothing." Reinhart left the room and hurriedalong the corridor to his own office.
As soon as he was inside he called Sherikov on the vidscreen, usingthe confidential line.
The Pole's heavy features appeared. "Good day, Commissioner. How's thewar effort?"
"Fine. How's the turret wiring proceeding?"
A faint frown flickered across Sherikov's face. "As a matter of fact,Commissioner--"
"What's the matter?" Reinhart said sharply.
Sherikov floundered. "You know how these things are. I've taken mycrew off it and tried robot workers. They have greater dexterity, butthey can't make decisions. This calls for more than mere dexterity.This calls for--" He searched for the word. "--for an _artist_."
Reinhart's face hardened. "Listen, Sherikov. You have eight days leftto complete the bomb. The data given to the SRB machines containedthat information. The 7-6 ratio is based on that estimate. If youdon't come through--"
Sherikov twisted in embarrassment. "Don't get excited, Commissioner.We'll complete it."
"I hope so. Call me as soon as it's done." Reinhart snapped off theconnection. If Sherikov let them down he'd have him taken out andshot. The whole war depended on the ftl bomb.
The vidscreen glowed again. Reinhart snapped it on. Kaplan's faceformed on it. The lab organizer's face was pale and frozen."Commissioner, you better come up to the SRB office. Something'shappened."
"What is it?"
"I'll show you."
Alarmed, Reinhart hurried out of his office and down the corridor. Hefound Kaplan standing in front of the SRB machines. "What's thestory?" Reinhart demanded. He glanced down at the reading. It wasunchanged.
Kaplan held up a message plate nervously. "A moment ago I fed thisinto the machines. After I saw the results I quickly removed it. It'sthat item I showed you. From histo-research. About the man from thepast."
"What happened when you fed it?"
Kaplan swallowed unhappily. "I'll show you. I'll do it again. Exactlyas before." He fed the plate into a moving intake belt. "Watch thevisible figures," Kaplan muttered.
Reinhart watched, tense and rigid. For a moment nothing happened. 7-6continued to show. Then--
The figures disappeared. The machines faltered. New figures showedbriefly. 4-24 for Centaurus. Reinhart gasped, suddenly sick withapprehension. But the figures vanished. New figures appeared. 16-38for Centaurus. Then 48-86. 79-15 in Terra's favor. Then nothing. Themachines whirred, but nothing happened.
Nothing at all. No figures. Only a blank.
"What's it mean?" Reinhart muttered, dazed.
"It's fantastic. We didn't think this could--"
"The machines aren't able to handle the item. No reading can come.It's data they can't integrate. They can't use it for predictionmaterial, and it throws off all their other figures."
"It's--it's a variable." Kaplan was shaking, white-lipped and pale."Something from which no inference can be made. The man from the past.The machines can't deal with him. The variable man!"
The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick / Science Fiction have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on19 votes