The Variable Man

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Space Science Fiction Sep 1953

A failed experiment with faster-than-light travel shows promise as a potential bomb that could instantly destroy the Centaurans, but the problem of the central control unit has so far been unsolvable. This all changes when Thomas Cole, an itinerant handyman with the uncanny ability to fix anything, is accidentally brought forward to the present from the year 1913.

The statistical computer can no longer reliably compute odds of victory at all once this ‘variable man’ is around. Security commissioner Reinhart wants Cole killed before the Council realizes the odds of winning the war are no longer in their favor, while the Military Design director Sherikov wants Cole to help him fix the control unit of the so-called Icarus bomb. Cole does eventually ‘fix’ the bomb by figuring out why it wasn’t working as a ftl drive in the first place. Reinhart still tries to kill Cole, Earth loses the war with Centarus when the bomb doesn’t explode (which doesn’t really matter since now Earth possesses the knowledge of faster-than-light travel), the scheming Reinhart is removed from power and Sherikov promises to send Cole back to his own time.

Cast of characters

  • Eric Reinhart – the security commissioner
  • Kaplan – lab organizer
  • Peter Sherikov – director of Military Designs
  • Thomas Cole – handyman from 1913 with the intuitive ability to fix anything
  • Margaret Duffe – President of the Council
  • Joseph Dixon – Reinhart’s second in command