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"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.

He wondered how the Power Utilities boys had managed to find where the Converter was. Checking the power that had been used by Bending Consultants? Possibly. It would show that less had been used in the past two weeks than was normally the case. Only the big building next door was still using current from the power lines. Still, that would have meant that they had read the meter in the last two weeks, which, in turn, meant that they had been suspicious in the first place or they wouldn't have ordered an extra reading.

On the other hand, if-- The visiphone rang.

It was the phone with the unregistered number, a direct line that didn't go through his secretary's switchboard.

He flipped it on. "Yes?" He never bothered to identify himself on that phone; anyone who had the number knew who they were calling. The mild-looking, plumpish, blond-haired man whose face came onto the screen was immediately recognizable.

"How's everything, Mr. Bending?" he asked with cordial geniality.

"Fine, Mr. Trask," Bending answered automatically. "And you?"

"Reasonable, reasonable. I hear you had the police out your way this morning." There was a questioning look in his round blue eyes. "No trouble, I hope."

Sam understood the question behind the statement. Vernon Trask was the go-between for some of the biggest black market operators in the country. Bending didn't like to have to deal with him, but one had very little choice these days.

"No. No trouble. Burglary in the night. Someone opened my safe and picked up a few thousand dollars, is all."

"I see." Trask was obviously wondering whether some black market operator would be approached by a couple of burglars in the next few days--a couple of burglars trying to peddle apparatus and equipment that had been stolen from Bending. There still were crooks who thought that the black market dealt in stolen goods of that sort.

"Some of my instruments were smashed," Bending said, "but none of them are missing."

"I'm glad to hear that," Trask said. And Bending knew he meant it. The black market boys didn't like to have their customers robbed of scientific equipment; it might reflect back on them. "I just thought I'd explain about missing our appointment this morning," Trask went on. "It was unavoidable; something unexpected came up."

Trask was being cagey, as always. He didn't talk directly, even over a phone that wasn't supposed to be tapped. Bending understood, though. Some of the robotics equipment he'd contracted to get from Trask was supposed to have been delivered that morning, but when the delivery agent had seen the police car out front, he'd kept right on going naturally enough.

"That's all right, Mr. Trask," Bending said. "What with all this trouble this morning, it actually slipped my mind. Another time, perhaps."

Trask nodded. "I'll try to make arrangements for a later date. Thanks a lot, Mr. Bending. Good-by."

Bending said good-by and cut the connection.

Samson Bending didn't like being forced to buy from the black market operators, but there was nothing else to do if one wanted certain pieces of equipment. During the "Tense War" of the late Sixties, the Federal and State governments had gone into a state of near-panic. The war that had begun in the Near East had flashed northwards to ignite the eternal Powder Keg of Europe. But there were no alliances, no general war; there were only periodic armed outbreaks, each one in turn threatening to turn into World War III. Each country found itself agreeing to an armistice with one country while trying to form an alliance with a second and defending itself from or attacking a third.

And yet, during it all, no one quite dared to use the Ultimate Weapons. There was plenty of strafing by fighter planes and sorties by small bomber squadrons, but there was none of the "massive retaliation" of World War II. There could be heard the rattle of small-arms fire and the rumble of tanks and the roar of field cannon, but not once was there the terrifying, all-enveloping blast of nuclear bombs.

But, at the time, no one knew that it wouldn't happen. The United States and the Soviet Union hovered on the edges of the war, two colossi who hesitated to interfere directly for fear they would have to come to grips with each other.

The situation made the "Brinksmanship" of former Secretary Dulles look as safe as loafing in an easy-chair.

And the bureaucratic and legislative forces of the United States Government had reacted in a fairly predictable manner. The "security" guards around scientific research, which had been gradually diminishing towards the vanishing point, had suddenly been re-imposed--this time, even more stringently and rigidly than ever before.

Coupled with this was another force--apparently unrelated--which acted to tie in with the Federal security regulations. The juvenile delinquent gangs had begun to realize the value of science. Teen-age hoodlums armed with homemade pistols were dangerous enough in the Fifties; add aimed rockets and remote-control bombs to their armories, and you have an almost uncontrollable situation. Something had to be done, and various laws controlling the sale of scientific apparatus had been passed by the fifty states. And--as with their liquor and divorce laws--no two of the states had the same set of laws, and no one of them was without gaping flaws.

By the time the off-again-on-again wars in Europe had been stilled by the combined pressure of the United Nations--in which the United States and the Soviet Union co-operated wholeheartedly, working together in a way they had not done for over twenty years--the "scientific control laws" in the United States had combined to make scientific research almost impossible for the layman, and a matter of endless red tape, forms-in-octuplicate, licenses, permits, investigations, delays, and confusion for the professional.

The answer, of course, was the black market. What bootlegging had done for the average citizen in the Twenties, the black market was doing for scientists fifty years later.

The trouble was that, unlike the Volstead Act, the scientific prohibitions aroused no opposition from the man in the street. Indeed, he rather approved of them. He needed and wanted the products of scientific research, but he had a vague fear of the scientist--the "egghead." To his way of thinking, the laws were cleverly-designed restrictions promulgated by that marvelous epitome of humanity, the common man, to keep the mysterious scientists from meddling with things they oughtn't to.

The result was that the Latin American countries went into full swing, producing just those items which North American scientists couldn't get their hands on, because the laws stayed on the books. During the next ten years, they were modified slightly, but only very slightly; but the efforts to enforce them became more and more lax. By the time the late Seventies and early Eighties rolled around, the black marketeers were doing very nicely, thank you, and any suggestion from scientists that the laws should be modified was met with an intensive counterpropaganda effort by the operators of the black market.

Actually, the word "operators" is a misnomer. It was known by the authorities at the time that there was only one ring operating; the market was too limited to allow for the big-time operations carried on by the liquor smugglers and distillers of half a century before.

Sam Bending naturally was forced to deal with the black market, just as everyone else engaged in research was; it was, for instance, the only source for a good many technical publications which had been put on the Restricted List. Sam wasn't as dependent on them as college and university research men were, simply because he was engaged in industrial work, which carried much higher priorities than educational work did.

Sam, however, was fed up with the whole mess, and would have given his eyeteeth to clear up the whole stupid farce.

Irritated by every petty distraction at his office, Sam Bending finally gave up trying to cope with anything for the rest of the day. At three in the afternoon, he told his secretary that he was going home, jammed his hat on his head, and went out to his car.

He got in, turned the switch, and listened to the deep hum of the electric motors inside. Somehow, it made him feel so good that the irritations of the day lessened a great deal. He grinned.

Power Utilities hadn't even thought of this hiding place. The Converter in the rear of the car gave the vehicle far more power than it needed, but the extra juice came in handy sometimes. The driving motors wouldn't take the full output of the generators, of course; the Converter hardly had to strain itself to drive the automobile at top speed, and, as long as there was traction, no grade could stall the car. Theoretically, it could climb straight up a wall.

Not that Sam Bending had any intention of climbing a wall with it.

He even had power left over for the sound-effects gadget and the air-heater that made the thing appear to be powered by an ordinary turbo-electric engine. He listened and smiled as the motors made satisfying sounds while he pulled out of the parking lot and into the street. He kept that pleased, self-satisfied grin on his face for six blocks.

And then he began to notice that someone was following him.

At first, he hadn't paid much attention to it. The car was just a common Ford Cruiser of the nondescript steel blue color that was so popular. But Bending had been conscious of its presence for several blocks. He looked carefully in the mirror.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it had been several cars of that same color that had moved in and out of the traffic behind him. Well, he'd soon see.

He kept on going toward the North-South Expressway, and kept watching the steel-blue Ford, glancing at his rear view mirror every time he could afford to take his eyes off the traffic.

It moved back and forth, but it was never more than three cars behind him, and usually only one. Coincidence? Possibly.

At Humber Avenue, he turned left and drove southwards. The steel-blue Ford turned, too. Coincidence? Still possible.

He kept on going down Humber Avenue for ten blocks, until he came to the next cross street that would take him to a lower entrance to the North-South Expressway. He turned right, and the Ford followed.

At the ramp leading to the northbound side of the Expressway, the Ford was two cars behind.

Coincidence? No. That's pushing coincidence too far. If the men in the car had actually intended to go north on the Expressway, they would have gone on in the direction they had been taking when Bending first noticed them; they wouldn't have gone ten blocks south out of their way.

Bending's smile became grim. He had never liked the idea of being followed around, and, since the loss of one of his Converters, he was even touchier about the notion. Trouble was, his fancy, souped-up Lincoln was of no use to him at all. He could outrun them on a clear highway--but not on the crowded Expressway. Or, conversely, he could just keep on driving until they were forced to stop for fuel--but that could be a long and tedious trip if they had a full tank. And besides, they might make other arrangements before they went dry.

Well, there was another way.

He stayed on the Expressway for the next twenty miles, going far north of where he had intended to turn off. At the Marysville Exit, he went down the ramp. He had been waiting for a moment when the Ford would be a little farther behind than normal, but it hadn't come; at each exit, the driver of the trailing car would edge up, although he allowed himself to drop behind between exits. Whoever was driving the car knew what he was doing.

At the bottom of the ramp, Bending made a left turn and took the road into Marysville. It was a small town, not more than five or six thousand population, but it was big enough.

There weren't many cars on the streets that led off the main highway. Bending made a right turn and went down one of the quiet boulevards in the residential section. The steel-blue Ford dropped behind as they turned; they didn't want to make Bending suspicious, evidently.

He came to a quiet street parallel to the highway and made a left turn. As soon as he was out of sight of his pursuers, he shoved down on the accelerator. The car jumped ahead, slamming Bending back in his seat. At the next corner, he turned left again. A glance in the mirror showed him that the Ford was just turning the previous corner.

Bending's heavy Lincoln swung around the corner at high speed and shot back toward the highway. At the next corner, he cut left once more, and the mirror showed that the Ford hadn't made it in time to see him turn.

They'd probably guess he'd gone left, so he made a right turn as soon as he hit the next street, and then made another left, then another right. Then he kept on going until he got to the highway.

A left turn put him back on the highway, headed toward the Expressway. The steel-blue car was nowhere in sight.

Bending sighed and headed back south towards home.

Sam Bending knew there was something wrong when he pulled up in front of his garage and pressed the button on the dashboard that was supposed to open the garage door. Nothing happened.

He climbed out of the car, went over to the door of the garage, and pushed the emergency button. The door remained obstinately shut.

Without stopping to wonder what had happened, he sprinted around to the front door of the house, unlocked it, and pressed the wall switch. The lights didn't come on, and he knew what had happened.

Trailing a stream of blue invective, he ran to the rear of the house and went down the basement stairs. Sure enough. Somebody had taken his house Converter, too.

And they hadn't even had the courtesy to shunt him back onto the power lines.

At his home, he had built more carefully than he had at the lab. He had rigged in a switch which would allow him to use either the Converter or the regular power sources, so that he could work on the Converter if he wanted to. His basement was almost a duplicate of his lab in the city, except that at home he built gadgets just for the fun of watching them work, while at the lab he was doing more serious research.

He went over to the cabinet where the switch was, opened it, and punched the relay button. The lights came on.

He stalked back up the stairs and headed for the visiphone. First, he dialed his patent attorney's office; he needed some advice. If Power Utilities had their hands on two out of three of his Converters, there might be some trouble over getting the patents through.

The attorney's secretary said he wasn't in, and she didn't know if he expected to be back that day. It was, she informed Bending rather archly, nearly five in the afternoon. Bending thanked her and hung up.

He dialed the man's home, but he wasn't there, either.

Sam Bending stuck a cigarette in his mouth, fired it up, walked over to his easy-chair and sat down to think.

According to the police, the first Converter had been stolen on Friday night. The second one had obviously been taken sometime this morning, while he was in the lab with the police.

That made sense. The first one they'd tried to open had fused, so they decided to try to get a second one. Only how had they known he had had more than one? He hadn't told anyone that he had three--or even two.

Well, no matter. They had found out. The question was, what did he do next? Inform the police of the two thefts or-- There was a car pulling up outside the house.

Sam stood up and glanced out the window. It was a steel-blue Ford.

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