Damned if You Don't

by Randall Garrett

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: We've all heard of the wonderful invention that the Big Corporation or the Utilities suppressed...? Usually, that Wonderful Invention won't work, actually. But there's another possibility, too....

The workshop-laboratory was a mess.

Sam Bending looked it over silently; his jaw muscles were hard and tense, and his eyes were the same.

To repeat what Sam Bending thought when he saw the junk that had been made of thousands of dollars worth of equipment would not be inadmissible in a family magazine, because Bending was not particularly addicted to four-letter vulgarities. But he was a religious man--in a lax sort of way--so repeating what ran through his mind that gray Monday in February of 1981 would be unfair to the memory of Samson Francis Bending.

Sam Bending folded his hands over his chest. It was not an attitude of prayer; it was an attempt to keep those big, gorillalike hands from smashing something. The fingers intertwined, and the hands tried to crush each other, which was a good way to keep them from actually crushing anything else.

He stood there at the door for a full minute--just looking.

The lab--as has been said--was a mess. It would have looked better if someone had simply tossed a grenade in it and had done with it. At least the results would have been random and more evenly dispersed.

But whoever had gone about the wrecking of the lab had gone about it in a workmanlike way. Whoever had done the job was no amateur. The vandal had known his way about in a laboratory, that was obvious. Leads had been cut carefully; equipment had been shoved aside without care as to what happened to it, but with great care that the shover should not be damaged by the shoving; the invader had known exactly what he was after, and exactly how to get to it.

And he--whoever he was--had gotten his hands on what he wanted.

The Converter was gone.

Sam Bending took his time in regaining his temper. He had to. A man who stands six feet three, weighs three hundred pounds, and wears a forty-eight size jacket can’t afford to lose his temper very often or he’ll end up on the wrong end of a homicide charge. That three hundred pounds was composed of too much muscle and too little fat for Sam Bending to allow it to run amok.

At last, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and let his tense nerves, muscles, and tendons sag--he pretended someone had struck him with a dose of curare. He let his breath out slowly and opened his eyes again.

The lab still looked the same, but it no longer irritated him. It was something to be accepted as done. It was something to investigate, and--if possible--avenge. But it was no longer something to worry about or lose his temper over.

I should have expected it, he thought wryly. _They’d have to do something about it, wouldn’t they?_

But the funny thing was that he hadn’t expected it--not in modern, law-abiding America.

He reached over to the wall switch to turn on the lights, but before his hand touched it, he stopped the motion and grinned to himself. No point in turning on the switch when he knew perfectly well that there was no power behind it. Still--

His fingers touched the switch anyway. And nothing happened.

He shrugged and went over to the phone.

He let his eyes wander over the wreckage as his right index finger spun the dial. Actually, the room wasn’t as much of a shambles as it had looked on first sight. The--burglar?--hadn’t tried to get at anything but the Converter. He hadn’t known exactly where it was, but he’d been able to follow the leads to its hiding place. That meant that he knew his beans about power lines, anyway.

It also meant that he hadn’t been an ordinary burglar. There were plenty of other things around for a burglar to make money out of. Unless he knew what it was, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of stealing the Converter.

On the other hand, if he had--

“Police Department,” said a laconic voice from the speaker. At the same time, the blue-clad image of a police officer appeared on the screen. He looked polite, but he also looked as though he expected nothing more than a routine call.

Bending gave the cop’s sleeve a quick glance and said: “Sergeant, my name is Samson Bending. Bending Consultants, 3991 Marden--you’ll find it in the phone book. Someone broke into my place over the weekend, and I’d appreciate it if you’d send someone around.”

The sergeant’s face showed that he still thought it was routine. “Anything missing, sir?”

“I’m not sure,” said Bending carefully. “I’ll have to make a check. I haven’t touched anything. I thought I’d leave that for the detectives. But you can see for yourself what’s happened.”

He stepped back from the screen and the Leinster cameras automatically adjusted for the greater distance to the background.

“Looks like you had a visitor, all right,” said the police officer. “What is that? A lab of some kind you’ve got there?”

“That’s right,” Bending said. “You can check it with the Register.”

“Will do, Mr. Bending,” agreed the sergeant. “We’ll send the Technical Squad around in any case.” He paused, and Sam could see that he’d pressed an alarm button. There was more interest in his manner, too. “Any signs that it might be kids?” he asked.

Sam shrugged. “Hard to tell. Might be. Might not.” He knew good and well that it wasn’t a JD gang that had invaded his lab. He grinned ingratiatingly. “I figure you guys can tell me more about that than I could tell you.”

The sergeant nodded. “Sure. O.K., Mr. Bending; you just hold on. Don’t touch anything; we’ll have a copter out there as soon as we can. O.K.?”

“O.K.,” Sam agreed. He cut off as the cop’s image began to collapse.

Sam Bending didn’t obey the cop’s order to touch nothing. He couldn’t afford to--not at this stage of the game. He looked over everything--the smashed oscilloscopes, the overturned computer, the ripped-out meters--everything. He lifted a couple of instruments that had been toppled to the floor, raising them carefully with a big screwdriver, used as a lever. When he was through, he was convinced that he knew exactly who the culprit was.

Oh, he didn’t know the name of the man, or men, who had actually committed the crime. Those things were, for the moment, relatively unimportant. The police might find them, but that could wait. The thing that was important was that Bending was certain within his own mind who had paid to have the lab robbed.

Not that he could make any accusations to the police, of course. That wouldn’t do at all. But he knew. He was quite certain.

He left the lab itself and went into the outer rooms, the three rooms that constituted the clients’ waiting room, his own office, and the smaller office of Nita Walder, the girl who took care of his files and correspondence.

A quick look told him that nothing in the offices had been disturbed. He shrugged his huge shoulders and sat down on the long couch in the waiting room.

Much good it may do them, he thought pleasantly. _The Converter won’t be worth the stuff it’s made of if they try to open it._

He looked at the clock on the wall and frowned. It was off by five hours. Then he grinned and looked at his wrist watch. Of course the wall clock was Off. It had stopped when the power had been cut off. When the burglars had cut the leads to the Converter, everything in the lab had stopped.

It was eight seventeen. Sam Bending lit a cigarette and leaned back to wait for the cops. United States Power Utilities, Monopolated, had overstepped themselves this time.

Bending Consultants, as a title for a business, was a little misleading because of the plural ending of the last word. There was only one consultant, and that was Samson Francis Bending. His speciality was the engineering design of atomic power plants--both the old fashioned heavy-metal kind and the newer, more elegant, stellarators, which produced power by hydrogen-to-helium conversion.

Bending made good money at it. He wasn’t a millionaire by any means, but he had enough money to live comfortably on and enough extra to experiment around on his own. And, primarily, it had always been the experimentation that had been the purpose of Bending Consultants; the consulting end of the business had always been a monetary prop for the lab itself. His employees--mostly junior engineers and engineering draftsmen--worked in the two-story building next door to the lab. Their job was to make money for the company under Bending’s direction while Bending himself spent as much time as he could fussing around with things that interested him.

The word “genius” has several connotations, depending on how one defines a genius. Leaving aside the Greek, Roman and Arabic definitions, a careful observer will find that there are two general classes of genius: the “partial” genius, and the “general” genius. Actually, such a narrow definition doesn’t do either kind justice, but defining a human being is an almost impossible job, anyway, so we’ll have to do the best we can with the tools we have to work with.

The “partial” genius follows the classic definition. “A genius is a man with a one-track mind; an idiot has one track less.” He’s a real wowser at one class of knowledge, and doesn’t know spit about the others.

The “general” genius doesn’t specialize. He’s capable of original thought in any field he works in.

The trouble is that, because of the greater concentration involved, the partial genius usually gets more recognition than the general--that is, if he gets any recognition at all. Thus, the mathematical and optical work of Sir Isaac Newton show true genius; his theological and political ideas weren’t worth the paper he wrote them on. Similar accusations might be leveled against Albert Einstein--and many others.

The general genius isn’t so well known because he spreads his abilities over a broad area. Some--like Leonardo da Vinci--have made a name for themselves, but, in general, they have remained in the background.

Someone once defined a specialist as “a man who learns more and more about less and less until he finally knows everything about nothing.” And there is the converse, the general practitioner, who knows “less and less about more and more until he finally knows nothing about everything.”

Both types can produce geniuses, and there is, of course, a broad spectrum in between. Da Vinci, for instance, became famous for his paintings; he concentrated on that field because he knew perfectly well that his designs for such things as airplanes were impracticable at the time, whereas the Church would pay for art.

Samson Bending was a genius, granted; but he was more toward the “special” than the “general” side of the spectrum. His grasp of nuclear physics was far and away beyond that of any other scientist of his day; his ability to handle political and economic relationships was rather feeble.

As he sat in his waiting room on that chill day of February, 1981, his mind was centered on nuclear physics, not general economics. Not that Bending was oblivious to the power of the Great God Ammon; Bending was very fond of money and appreciated the things it could achieve. He simply didn’t appreciate the over-all power of Ammon. At the moment, he was brooding darkly over the very fact of existence of Power Utilities, and trying to figure out a suitable rejoinder to their coup de démon.

And then he heard the whir of helicopter blades over the building. The police had come.

He opened the door of the lab building as they came up the steps. There were two plainclothes men--the Technical Squad, Bending knew--and four uniformed officers.

The plainclothesman in the lead, a tall, rather thin man, with dark straight hair and a small mustache, said: “Mr. Bending? I’m Sergeant Ketzel. Mind if the boys take a look at the scene? And I’d like to ask a few questions?”

“Fine,” said Sam Bending. “Come on in.”

He showed the officers to the lab, and telling them nothing, left them to their work. Then he went into his office, followed by Sergeant Ketzel. The detective took down all the pertinent data that Bending chose to give him, and then asked Bending to go with him to the lab.

The other plainclothesman came up to Sergeant Ketzel and Bending as they entered. “Pretty easy to see what happened,” he said. “Come on over and take a look.” He led them over to the wall where the Converter had been hidden.

“See,” he said, “here’s your main power line coming in here. It’s been burned off. They shut off the power to cut off the burglar alarm to that safe over there.”

Ketzel shook his head slowly, but said nothing for the moment. He looked at Bending. “Has the safe been robbed?”

“I don’t know,” Bending admitted. “I didn’t touch it after I saw all this wreckage.”

Ketzel told a couple of the uniformed men to go over the safe for evidence. While they waited, Bending looked again at the hole in the wall where the Converter had been. And it suddenly struck him that, even if he had reported the loss of the Converter to the police, it would be hard to prove. The thief had taken care to burn off the ends of the old leads that had originally come into the building. Bending himself had cut them a week before to install the Converter. Had they been left as they were, Bending could have proved by the oxidation of the surface that they had been cut a long time before the leads on this side of the Converter. But both had been carefully fused by a torch.

“Nothing on the safe,” said one of the officers. “No prints, at any rate. Micros might show glove or cloth traces, but--” He shrugged.

“Would you mind opening the safe, Mr. Bending?” Sergeant Ketzel asked.

“Certainly,” Bending said. He wondered if the safe had been robbed. In the certainty that it was only the Converter that the burglars had been after, he hadn’t even thought about the safe.

Bending touched the handle, turned it a trifle, and the door swung open easily in his hand. “It wasn’t even locked,” Bending said, almost to himself.

He looked inside. The safe had been thoroughly gone through, but as far as Bending could see, there were no papers missing.

“Don’t touch anything in there, Mr. Bending,” said Ketzel, “Just tell us as much as you can by looking at it.”

“The papers have been disturbed,” Bending said carefully, “but I don’t think anything is missing, except the petty cash box.”

“Uh-huh,” Ketzel grunted significantly. “Petty cash box. About how much was in it, Mr. Bending?”

“Three or four thousand, I imagine: you’ll have to ask Jim Luckman, my business manager. He keeps track of things like that.”

“Three or four thousand in petty cash?” Ketzel asked, as though he’d prefer Bending to correct the figure to “two or three hundred.”

“About that. Sometimes we have to order equipment of one kind or another in a hurry, and we can usually expedite matters if we can promise cash. You know how it is.”

Sergeant Ketzel nodded sourly. He evidently knew only too well how it was. Even the most respectable businessmen were doing occasional business with the black market in technological devices. But he didn’t say anything to Bending.

“What did the cash box look like?” he asked.

Bending held out his hands to measure off a distance. “About so long--ten inches, I guess; maybe six inches wide and four deep. Thin sheet steel, with a gray crackle finish. There was a lock on it, but it wasn’t much of one; since it was kept in the safe, there was no need for a strong lock.”

Sergeant Ketzel nodded. “In other words, an ordinary office cash box. No distinguishing marks at all?”

“It had ‘Bending Consultants’ on the top. And underneath that, the word ‘Lab’. In black paint. That ‘Lab’ was to distinguish it from the petty cash box in the main office.”

“I see. Do you know anything about the denominations of the bills? Were they marked in any way?”

Bending frowned. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask Luckman about that, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“Home, I imagine. He isn’t due to report for work until ten.”

“O.K. Will you leave word that we want to talk to him when he comes in? It’ll take us a while to get all the information we can from the lab, here.” He looked back at the hole in the wall. “It still doesn’t make sense. Why should they go to all that trouble just to shut off a burglar alarm?” He shook his head and went over to where the others were working.

It was hours before the police left, and long before they were gone Sam Bending had begun to wish fervently that he had never called them. He felt that he should have kept his mouth shut and fought Power Utilities on the ground they had chosen. They had known about the Converter only two weeks, and they had already struck. He tried to remember exactly how the Utilities representative had worded what he’d said, and couldn’t.

Well, there was an easy way to find out. He went over to his files and took out the recording for Friday, 30 January 1981. He threaded it through the sound player--he had no particular desire to look at the man’s face again--and turned on the machine. The first sentence brought the whole scene back to mind.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Bending,” the man whose card had announced him as Richard Olcott. He was a rather average-sized man, with a fiftyish face, graying hair that was beginning to thin, and an expression like that of a friendly poker player--pleasant, but inscrutable.

“I always have time to see a representative of Power Utilities, Mr. Olcott,” Bending said. “Though I must admit that I’m more used to dealing with various engineers who work for your subsidiaries.”

“Not subsidiaries, please,” Olcott admonished in a friendly tone. “Like the Bell Telephone Company, Power Utilities is actually a group of independent but mutually co-operative companies organized under a parent company.”

Bending grinned. “I stand corrected. What did you have on your mind, Mr. Olcott?”

Olcott’s hesitation was of half-second duration, but it was perceptible.

“Mr. Bending,” he began, “I understand that you have been ... ah ... working on a new and ... ah ... radically different method of power generation. Er ... is that substantially correct?”

Bending looked at the man, his blocky, big-jawed face expressionless. “I’ve been doing experimenting with power generators, yes,” he said after a moment. “That’s my business.”

“Oh, quite, quite. I understand that,” Olcott said hurriedly. “I ... ah ... took the trouble to look up your record before I came. I’m well aware of the invaluable work you’ve done in the power field.”

“Thank you,” Bending said agreeably. He waited to see what the other would say next. It was his move.

“However,” Olcott said, “that’s not the sort of thing I was referring to.” He leaned forward in his chair, and his bright gray eyes seemed to take on a new life; his manner seemed to alter subtly.

“Let me put my... our cards on the table, Mr. Bending. We understand that you have designed, and are experimenting with, an amazingly compact power source. We understand that little remains but to get the bugs out of your pilot model.

“Naturally, we are interested. Our business is supplying the nation with power. Anything from a new type solar battery on up is of interest to us.” He stopped, waiting for Bending to speak.

Bending obliged. “I see Petternek let the cat out of the bag prematurely,” he said with a smile. “I hadn’t intended to spring it until it was a polished work of engineering art. It’s been more of a hobby than anything else, you see.”

Olcott smiled disarmingly. “I’m not acquainted with Mr. Petternek; to be quite honest, I have no idea where our engineers picked up the information.”

“He’s an engineer,” Bending said. “Friends of mine. He probably got a little enthusiastic in a conversation with one of your boys. He seemed quite impressed by my Converter.”

“Possibly that is the explanation.” Olcott paused. “Converter, you say? That’s what you call it?”

“That’s right. I couldn’t think up any fancier name for it. Oh, I suppose I could have, but I didn’t want anything too descriptive.”

“And the word ‘converter’ isn’t descriptive?”

“Hardly,” said Bending with a short laugh. “Every power supply is a converter of some kind. A nickel-cadmium battery converts chemical energy into electrical energy. A solar battery converts radiation into electrical current. The old-fashioned, oil- or coal-burning power plants converted chemical energy into heat energy, converted that into kinetic energy, and that, in turn was converted into electrical energy. The heavy-metal atomic plant does almost the same thing, except that it uses nuclear reactions instead of chemical reactions to produce the heat. The stellarator is a converter, too.

“About the only exception I can think of is the electrostatic condenser, and you could say that it converts static electricity into a current flow if you wanted to stretch a point. On the other hand, a condenser isn’t usually considered as a power supply.”

Olcott chuckled. “I see your point. Could you give me a rough idea of the principle on which your Converter operates?”

Bending allowed himself a thoughtful frown. “I’d rather not, just now, Mr. Olcott. As I said, I want to sort of spring this full-blown on the world.” He grinned. He looked like a small boy who had just discovered that people liked him; but it was a calculated expression, not an automatic one.

Olcott looked into Bending’s eyes without seeing them. He ran his tongue carefully over the inside of his teeth before he spoke. “Mr. Bending.” Pause. “Mr. Bending, we--and by ‘we’, I mean, of course, Power Utilities, --have heard a great deal about this ... this Converter.” His chocolate-brown eyes bored deep into the gray eyes of Samson Bending. “Frankly,” he continued, “we are inclined to discount ninety per cent of the rumors that come to us. Most of them are based on purely crackpot ideas. None the less, we investigate them. If someone does discover a new process of producing power, we can’t afford to be blind to new ideas just because they happen to come from ... ah ... unorthodox sources.

“You, Mr. Bending, are an unusual case. Any rumor concerning your work, no matter how fantastic, is worth looking into on your reputation alone, even though the claims may be utterly absurd.”

“I have made no claims,” Bending interposed.

Olcott raised a lean hand. “I understand that, Mr. Bending. None the less, others--who may or may not know what they are talking about--have made this claim for you.” Olcott settled back in his chair and folded his hands across his slight paunch. “You’ve worked with us before, Mr. Bending; you know that we can--and do--pay well for advances in the power field which are contributed by our engineers. As you know, our contract is the standard one--any discovery made by an engineer while in our employ is automatically ours. None the less, we give such men a handsome royalty.” He paused, opened his brief case, and pulled out a notebook. After referring to it, he looked up at Bending and said:

“You, yourself have benefitted by this policy. According to our records, you are drawing royalties from three patented improvements in the stellarator which were discovered at times when you were employed by us--or, rather, by one of our associative corporations--in an advisory capacity. Those discoveries were, by contract, ours. By law, we could use them as we saw fit without recompense to you, other than our regular fee. None the less, we chose to pay you a royalty because that is our normal policy with all our engineers and scientific research men. We find it more expedient to operate thus.”

Bending was getting a little tired of Olcott’s “none the less,” but he didn’t show it. “Are you trying to say that my Converter was invented during my employ with your company, Mr. Olcott?”

Olcott cleared his throat and shook his head. “No. Not necessarily. It is true that we might have a case on those grounds, but, under the circumstances, we feel it inexpedient to pursue such a course.”

Which means, Bending thought, that you don’t have a case at all. “Then just what are you driving at, Mr. Olcott?” he asked aloud.

“I’ll put my cards on the table, Mr. Bending,” Olcott said.

You’ve already said that, Bending thought, _and I’ve seen no evidence of it_. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Thank you.” He cleared his throat again. “If your invention is ... ah ... worth while, we are prepared to negotiate with you for use and/or purchase of it.”

Bending had always disliked people who said or wrote “and/or,” but he had no desire to antagonize the Power Utilities representative by showing personal pique. “Let me understand you clearly,” he said. “Power Utilities wants to buy my rights to the Converter. Right?”

Olcott cleared his throat a third time. “In a word, yes. Provided, of course, that it is actually worth our while. Remember, we know almost nothing about it; the claims made for it by our ... ah ... anonymous informer are ... well, ah ... rather fantastic. But your reputation--” He let the sentence hang.

Bending was not at all immune to flattery. He grinned. “Do you mean that you came to me to talk about buying an invention you weren’t even sure existed--just because of my reputation?”

“Frankly, yes,” said Olcott. “Your reputation is ... ah ... shall we say, a good one in power engineering circles.”

“Are you an engineer?” Bending asked suddenly.

Olcott blinked. “Why, no. No, I am not. I’m a lawyer. I thought you understood that.”

“Sorry,” Bending said. “I didn’t. Most of the financial work around here is done through my Mr. Luckman. I’m not acquainted with the monetary end of the business.”

Olcott smiled. “Quite all right. Evidently I am not as well known to you as you are to me. Not that it matters. Why did you ask?”

Bending stood up. “I’m going to show you something, Mr. Olcott,” he said. “Would you care to come with me to the lab?”

Olcott was on his feet in a second. “I’d be glad to, Mr. Bending.”

Bending led the man into the lab. “Over here,” he said. At the far end of the laboratory was a thick-legged table cluttered with lengths of wire, vacuum tubes, transistors, a soldering gun, a couple of meters, and the other various paraphernalia of an electronics workshop. In the center of the table, surrounded by the clutter, sat an oblong box. It didn’t look like much; it was just an eighteen by twelve by ten box, made of black plastic, featureless, except for a couple of dials and knobs on the top of it, and a pair of copper studs sticking out of the end.

Still, Olcott didn’t look skeptical. Nor surprised. Evidently, his informant had had plenty of information. Or else his poker face was better than Bending had thought.

“This is your pilot model?” Olcott asked.

“One of them, yes. Want to watch it go through its paces?”

“Very much.”

“O.K. First, though, just how good is your technical education? I mean, how basic do I have to get?” Sam Bending was not exactly a diplomat.

Olcott, however, didn’t look offended. “Let’s say that if you keep it on the level of college freshman physics I’ll get the general drift. All right?”

“Sure. I don’t intend to get any more technical than that, anyway. I’m going to tell you what the Converter does--not how.”

“Fair enough--for the moment. Go ahead.”

“Right.” Sam flipped a switch on the top of the box. “Takes a minute or so to warm up,” he said.

When the “minute or so” had passed, Bending, who had been watching the meters on the top of the machine, said: “See this?” He pointed at a dial face. “That’s the voltage. It’s controlled by this vernier knob here.” He turned the knob, and the needle on the voltmeter moved obligingly upwards. “Anything from ten to a thousand volts,” he said. “Easily adjusted to suit your taste.”

“I don’t think I’d like the taste of a thousand volts,” Olcott said solemnly. “Might affect the tongue adversely.” Olcott didn’t look particularly impressed. Why should he? Anyone can build a machine that can generate high voltage.

“Is that AC or DC?” he asked.

“DC,” said Bending. “But it can easily be converted to AC. Depends on what you want to use it for.”

Olcott nodded. “How much power does that thing deliver?”

Sam Bending had been waiting for that question. He delivered his answer with all the nonchalance of a man dropping a burnt match in an ash tray.

“Five hundred horsepower.”

Olcott’s face simply couldn’t hold its expressionless expression against something like that. His lips twitched, and his eyes blinked. “Five hundred what?”

“I will not make the obvious pun,” said Bending. “I said ‘five hundred horsepower’--unquote. About three hundred and seventy-five kilowatts, maximum.”

Olcott appeared to be unable to say anything. He simply stared at the small, innocuous-looking Converter. Bending was unable to decide whether Olcott was overawed by the truth or simply stricken dumb by what must sound like a monstrous lie.

Olcott licked his lips with the tip of his small, pink tongue. “Five hundred horsepower. Hm-m-m.” He took a deep breath. “No wonder those copper studs are so thick.”

“Yeah,” said Bending. “If I short ‘em across at low voltage, they get hot.”

Short them across?“ Olcott’s voice sounded harsh.

Bending was in his seventh heaven, and he showed it. His grin was running as high an energy output as that he claimed for the Converter. “Sure. The amperage is self-limiting. You can only draw about four hundred amps off the thing, no matter how low you put the voltage. When I said five hundred HP, I meant at a thousand volts. As a matter of fact, the available power in horsepower is roughly half the voltage. But that only applies to this small model. A bigger one could supply more, of course.”

“What does it weigh?” asked Olcott, in a hushed voice.

“Little over a hundred pounds,” Bending said.

Olcott tore his eyes away from the fantastic little box and looked into Sam Bending’s eyes. “May I ask where you’re getting power like that?”

“Sure. Hydrogen fusion, same as the stellarator.”

“It’s powered by deuterium?”

Bending delivered his bombshell. “Nope. Water. Plain, ordinary aitch-two-oh. See those little vents at the side? They exhaust oxygen and helium. It burns about four hundred milligrams of water per hour at maximum capacity.”

Olcott had either regained control of himself or had passed the saturation point; Sam couldn’t tell which. Olcott said: “Where do you put the water?”

“Why put water in it?” Sam asked coolly. “That small whirring sound you hear isn’t the hydrogen-helium conversion; it’s a fan blowing air through a cooling coil. Even in the Sahara Desert there’s enough moisture in the air to run this baby.”

“And the fan is powered--”

“ ... By the machine itself, naturally,” said Bending. “It’s a self-contained unit. Of course, with a really big unit, you might have to hire someone to hang out their laundry somewhere in the neighborhood, but only in case of emergencies.”

“May I sit down?” asked Olcott. And, without waiting for Sam Bending’s permission, he grabbed a nearby chair and sat. “Mr. Bending,” he said, “what is the cost of one of those units?”

“Well, that one cost several hundred thousand dollars. But the thing could be mass produced for ... oh, around fifteen hundred dollars. Maybe less.”

Olcott absorbed that, blinked, and said: “Is it dangerous? I mean, could it explode, or does it give out radiation?”

“Well, you have to treat it with respect, of course,” Bending said. He rubbed his big hands together in an unconscious gesture of triumph. “Just like any power source. But it won’t explode; that I can guarantee. And there’s no danger from radiation. All the power comes out as electric current.”

Sam Bending remained silent while Olcott stared at the little black box. Finally, Olcott put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, as though he’d been too long without sleep. When he removed his hands, his eyes were focused on Bending.

“You realize,” he said, “that we can’t give you any sort of contract until this has been thoroughly checked by our own engineers and research men?”

“Obviously,” said Sam Bending. “But--”

“Do you have a patent?” Olcott interrupted.

“It’s pending,” said Bending. “My lawyer thinks it will go through pretty quickly.”

Olcott stood up abruptly. “Mr. Bending, if this machine is actually what you claim it to be--which, of course, we will have to determine for ourselves--I think that we can make you a handsome--a very handsome settlement.”

“How much?” Bending asked flatly.

“For full rights--millions,” said Olcott without hesitation. “That would be a ... shall we say, an advance ... an advance on the royalties.”

“What, no bargaining?” Bending said, in a rather startled tone.

Olcott shook his head. “Mr. Bending, you know the value of such a device as well as I do. You’re an intelligent man, and so am I. Haggling will get us nothing but wasted time. We want that machine--we must have that machine. And you know it. And I know you know it. Why should we quibble?

“I can’t say: ‘Name your price’; this thing is obviously worth a great deal more than even Power Utilities would be able to pay. Not even a corporation like ours can whip up a billion dollars without going bankrupt. What we pay you will have to be amortized over a period of years. But we--”

“Just a minute, Mr. Olcott,” Bending interrupted. “Exactly what do you intend to do with the Converter if I sell it to you?”

Olcott hesitated. “Why ... ah--” He paused. “Actually, I couldn’t say,” he said at last. “A decision like that would have to be made by the Board. Why?”

“How long do you think it would take you to get into production?”

“I ... ah ... frankly couldn’t say,” Olcott said cautiously. “Several years, I imagine...”

“Longer than that, I dare say,” Bending said, with more than a touch of sarcasm. “As a matter of fact, you’d pretty much have to suppress the Converter, wouldn’t you?”

Olcott looked at Bending, his face expressionless. “Of course. For a while. You know very well that this could ruin us.”

“The automobile ruined the buggy-whip makers and threw thousands of blacksmiths out of work,” Bending pointed out. “Such things are inevitable. Every new invention is likely to have an effect like that if it replaces something older. What do you think atomic energy would have done to coal mining if it weren’t for the fact that coal is needed in the manufacture of steel? You can’t let considerations like that stand in the way of technological progress, Mr. Olcott.”

“Is it a question of money?” Olcott asked quietly.

Bending shook his head. “Not at all. We’ve already agreed that I could make as much as I want by selling it to you. No; it’s just that I’m an idealist of sorts. I intend to manufacture the Converter myself, in order to make sure it gets into the hands of the people.”

“I assure you, Mr. Bending, that Power Utilities would do just that--as soon as it became economically feasible for us to do so.”

“I doubt it,” Sam Bending said flatly. “If any group has control over the very thing that’s going to put them out of business, they don’t release it; they sit on it. Dictators, for instance, have throughout history, promised freedom to their people ‘as soon as it was feasible’. Cincinnatus may have done it, but no one else has in the last twenty-five centuries.

“What do you suppose would have happened in the 1940s if the movie moguls of Hollywood had had the patent rights for television? How many other inventions actually have been held down simply because the interested parties did happen to get their hands on them first?

“No, Mr. Olcott; I don’t think I can allow Power Utilities to have a finger in this pie or the public would never get a slice of it.”

Olcott stood up slowly from the chair. “I see, Mr. Bending; you’re quite frank about your views, anyway.” He paused. “I shall have to talk this over with the Board. There must be some way of averting total disaster. If we find one, we’ll let you know, Mr. Bending.”

And that was it. That was the line that had stuck in the back of Bending’s mind for two weeks. _If we find a way of averting total disaster, we’ll let you know, Mr. Bending._

And they evidently thought they’d found a way. For two weeks, there had been phone calls from officers of greater or lesser importance in Power Utilities, but they all seemed to think that if they could offer enough money, Sam Bending would capitulate. Finally, they had taken the decisive step of stealing the Converter. Bending wondered how they had known where it was; he had taken the precaution of concealing it, just in case there might be an attempt at robbery, and using it as power supply for the lab had seemed the best hiding place. But evidently someone at Power Utilities had read Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” too.

He smiled grimly. Even if the police didn’t find any clues leading them to the thieves who’d broken into his lab, the boys at Power Utilities would find themselves in trouble. The second they started to open the Converter, it would begin to fuse. If they were quick, whoever opened it should be able to get away from it before it melted down into an unrecognizable mass.

Sam Bending took the tape from the playback and returned it to his files.

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