"First, as to the Converter itself. We all know, with the possible exception of Mr. Luckman, what it does, but for his benefit, we'll go over that. The Converter, by means of what Dr. Larchmont has been wont to call 'a very elegant method', produces electrical power directly from the fusion of hydrogen into helium. A pilot model, with a total volume of a little more than one and one-quarter cubic feet, is capable of turning out up to five hundred horsepower, either DC or AC in a wide range of frequencies. The voltage can be regulated from zero to one thousand volts by simply setting a dial.
"The device is powered by using ordinary water as fuel. At full capacity, the Converter consumes approximately four hundred milligrams of water per hour, which can easily be drawn from the moisture of the air. The machine is thus self-fueling.
"Since the nuclear energy released is converted almost one hundred per cent into electrical current, there is no danger from radiation; since the process is, by its very nature, self-limiting, there is no danger of explosion. The worst that can happen is for the machine to burn out, and, I understand, it won't do that unless it is purposely tampered with to make it do so.
"Finally, the device is so inexpensive to produce that it could be sold for about one-quarter of the price of an ordinary automobile." He stopped, cleared his throat, and glanced at Larchmont and Vanderlin. "Am I essentially correct, gentlemen?"
Larchmont nodded, and Vanderlin said, "That's about it."
Jim Luckman looked at Sam Bending in open admiration. "Wow," he said softly. "You're quite a genius, Sam."
"Very well, gentlemen," Condley continued, "we know what this device will do on a physical level. Now we must consider what it will do on an economic level. Have you considered what would happen if you put the Converter on the market, Mr. Bending?"
"Certainly," Bending said, with an angry glance at Olcott. "The Power Utilities would lose their pants. So what? I figure that any company which tries to steal and suppress inventions deserves a licking."
Secretary Condley glanced at Olcott as though he were trying to hold back a smile, then returned his gaze to Bending. "We won't quibble over the ethics of the situation, Mr. Bending. You are correct in saying that Power Utilities would be bankrupt. They couldn't stand the competition of what amounts to almost unlimited free power. And then what would happen, with every power company in the United States suddenly put out of business?"
Sam looked puzzled. "What difference would it make? People would just be getting their power from another source, that's all."
Richard Olcott leaned forward earnestly. "May I interject something here? I know you are angry with me, Mr. Bending--perhaps with good reason. But I'd like to point out something that you might not have recognized. Public Utilities and its co-operative independent companies are not owned by individuals. Much of the stock is owned by small share-holders who have only a few shares each. The several billion dollars that these companies are worth is spread out over the nation, not just centered with a few wealthy men. In addition, a great many shares are held by insurance companies and banks. Literally millions of people would lose money--just as surely as if it had been stolen from them--if this device went on the market."
Bending frowned. He hadn't thought of it in exactly that way. "Still," he said tentatively, "didn't blacksmiths and buggy-whip manufacturers and horse-breeders lose money after World War I?"
"Not to this extent," Olcott said, shaking his head. "This is not 1918, Mr. Bending. Sixty years ago, our economy was based on gold, not, as it is today on production and manpower, centered in the vast interlocking web of American industry."
Condley said: "Mr. Olcott said a moment ago that millions of people would lose money just as surely as if it had been stolen from them. I think it would be more proper to say that the money will be destroyed, not stolen. A thief, after all, does put money back into circulation after he steals it. But when vast amounts of wealth are suddenly removed from circulation completely, the economic balance is disastrously upset."
Sam Bending was still frowning. His grandfather had been a small businessman in 1929--not fabulously wealthy, but certainly well off by the social standards of the day. Two years later, in 1931, he was broke, wiped out completely, happy and eager to accept any odd job he could get to support his family.
Sam's father had had to leave school during the Thirties and go to work in order to bring in enough money to keep the family going. Grandfather Bending, weakened by long hours of labor that he was physically unfit for, had become an invalid, and the entire support of the family had devolved upon Sam's father.
He could remember his dad talking about the breadlines and the free-soup kitchens. He could remember his grandmother, her hands crippled by arthritis, aggravated by long hours at a commercial sewing machine in a clothing center sweat-shop, just so she could bring in that little extra money that meant so much to her children and her invalid husband.
Could one invention bring all that back again? Could his own harmless-looking Converter plunge millions back into that kind of misery? It seemed hardly possible, but Sam couldn't banish the specter of the Great Depression from his mind.
"Just how far-reaching would this economic upset be?" he asked Condley.
Condley had taken out his gold fountain pen again and was rolling it between his palms. "Well, that's a question with a long answer, Mr. Bending. Let's begin small and watch it spread.
"Banks are pretty safe today, aren't they? The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures all depositors for deposits up to twenty thousand dollars now. A bank is hedged in by so many legal fences that it is almost impossible for one to fail in the same way that they failed all over the country in the early Thirties. Even if one does fail, through the gross mismanagement or illegal activities of its governing board, the depositors don't get excited; they know they're covered. There hasn't been a really disastrous run on a bank for more than thirty years.
"But banks don't just keep their money in vaults; they invest it. And a significantly large percentage of that money is invested in power companies all over the nation. In an attempt to keep their heads above water, those banks would be forced to make up tremendous losses if Power Utilities failed overnight. It would force them to draw in outstanding loans for ready cash. It would mean turning in United States Savings Bonds, which would put a tremendous strain on the Government.
"In spite of that, most banks won't be able to stay solvent because their other capital investments will be dropping rapidly in value. As Mr. Olcott said, our monetary system isn't based on gold, but on production and goods. If Power Utilities and its members fail, you and your machine will have destroyed--made worthless--several billion dollars worth of machinery and equipment. You will have thrown tens of thousands of people out of work. You will have cut the underpinnings from beneath the American dollar.
"And it won't stop there. What will happen to the companies that build the dynamos and the boilers and the atomic plants for the power companies? What will happen to the copper industry when the need for millions of miles of copper wire vanishes? They will all suffer tremendous setbacks, throwing tens of thousands more out of work and lowering the value of their stock drastically.
"The banks, then, will find their investments suddenly worth only a fraction of their former value. They'll fail wholesale. And you can see what that will do to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and other insurance companies."
Sam Bending nodded slowly. He could see that. Insurance companies base their business on the prediction that a certain event--death, accident, or the failure of a bank--will happen to a certain percentage of their covered clients, and they adjust their rates accordingly. But something that would change a five-percent-failure rate to a fifty-percent-failure rate would break the company.
And the unemployment rate would go up even higher. And Sam thought of something the Secretary hadn't even mentioned. State and Federal Unemployment Insurance. What would that drain do to the treasuries of the various governments involved?
Sam Bending felt as if the thing were snowballing on him. Where would the State and Federal Governments get that money? Taxes? Don't be silly. How can you collect sales taxes when sales are dropping off because of unemployment? How can you get income taxes from depleted incomes? How can you charge luxury taxes when no one is buying luxuries?
Certainly essentials like food, rent, and clothing couldn't be taxed. People would buy as cheaply as possible, which would force down prices. Which would-- * * * * *
"Where would it go from there?" Sam asked Condley in a shaken voice.
Condley glanced over at the Russian. "I believe Dr. Artomonov can answer that one for you."
Artomonov was a red-faced, fleshy man with almost no hair and a huge, bristling, gray mustache. His eyes were a startling blue. "Mr. Bending," he said in excellent English, "you may recall that your depression of the Thirties was not confined to America. All of Europe became involved. The same will happen again, to a greater degree, if your machine is released to the world at this time." He brushed at his mustache with a fingertip.
"You may wonder what I am doing here, Mr. Bending. You might think that the traditional rivalry which has existed between our countries for so many decades would preclude my being admitted to such a secret session as this one. I might have thought so, too, fifteen years ago. But when something threatens both our countries, the picture changes. We fought together during the Motherland War--what you call World War II--because of the common threat of German Nazi terrorism. We co-operated to suppress the brush-fires that threatened us in Europe and the Middle East during the so-called Tense War. In big things we must co-operate.
"Again we are both threatened by a common source, Mr. Bending, and again we must co-operate."
Sam Bending felt a chill. The thought that he and his machine were a threat as great as that, a threat to the two greatest nations of Earth, was appalling.
"I am not a scientist, Mr. Bending," the Russian went on. "My title comes from a degree in economics and political science, not in physical science. As soon as this machine was demonstrated to me, however, I could appreciate its power--not only physically, but economically. I immediately contacted my superiors in Moscow to discuss the problem.
"Naturally, we would like to know the ... ah ... 'elegant' principle behind its operation. Equally naturally"--he smiled politely at Secretary Condley--"you will not tell us. However, my superiors in Moscow assure me that we need not worry on that score; a machine identically similar to yours was invented by one of our brilliant young scientists at the University of Moscow over four years ago. As a patriot, of course, he was willing to have the machine suppressed, and no news of it has leaked out."
Sam Bending found it difficult to keep from smiling. Sure, he thought, and a man named Popov invented radio, and Yablochkov invented the electric light.
"You see, Mr. Bending," Dr Artomonov continued, "while we do not have the unstable setup of money-based capitalism, and while we do not need to worry about such antiquated and dangerous things as fluctuating stock markets, we would still find your machine a threat. Communism is based on the work of the people; our economy is based on the labor of the working man. It is thus stable, because every man must work.
"But we, too, have a vast, power network, the destruction of which would cause the unemployment of millions of our citizens. The unemployment alone would cause repercussions all over the Soviet Republics which would be difficult to deal with. We would eventually recover, of course, because of the inherent stability of our system, but the shock would not be good for us.
"The same thing would happen in every industrialized nation on Earth," Artomonov went on. "In my work with the United Nations, I have studied just such problems. European governments would fall overnight. In Germany, in the 1920s, it was cheaper to burn bundles of one-mark notes than it was to buy firewood with them. Such things will be repeated, not only in the Germanies, but all over Europe.
"Some countries, of course, will not be so drastically effected. China, and other parts of Asia which have not built up a vast industrial system, will be affected only slightly. The South American countries still have a more or less agricultural economy and will not be bothered greatly.
"But the great industrial civilizations of East and West will collapse."
With one breath, Artomonov was saying that the Soviet Union could weather the storm, and with another he was hinting that it probably wouldn't. But Sam Bending could see the point in spite of the Russian's tortuous logic.
"I think that is all I have to say for the moment," Artomonov said, "except to emphasize one point. The Great Depression hit the world some fifty years ago. It was a terrible thing for everyone concerned. But it was as nothing at all--a mere zephyr of ill wind--compared to what the Depression of the Eighties will be if your machine goes on the market."
There was silence for a minute. Sam Bending was thinking hard, and the others could see it--and they knew there was no point in interrupting at that moment.
"Just a second," Sam said. "There's one thing that I don't really quite see. I can see that the situation you outline would develop if every power plant in America--or in the Soviet Union or Europe--were to be suddenly replaced by Converters. I can see that chaos would result." He paused, marshaling his thoughts, then went on, with a tinge of anger in his voice.
"But that's not the way it will work! You can't do a thing like that overnight. To mass produce the Converter will take time--factories will have to be tooled up for it, and all that. And distribution will take time. It seems to me that there would be plenty of time to adjust."
Condley started to say something, but Dr. Artomonov burst in explosively.
"Don't you see, Mr. Bending? The threat of the machine is enough! Even here in your own country, just the knowledge that such machines were to be made at some time in the immediate future would have a disastrous effect! Who would invest in Power Utilities if they knew that within a short time it would be bankrupt? No one would want to buy such stock, and those who had it would be frantically trying to sell what they had. The effect on the banking system would be the same as if the machine were already being used. Your Mr. Roosevelt pointed out that fear was the problem."
Bending frowned puzzledly. "I don't see--"
He was interrupted by Dr. Larchmont. "Let me see if I can't give you an analogy, Mr. Bending. Do you know anything about the so-called 'nerve gases'?"
"Some," admitted Sam. "Most of them aren't gases; they're finely dispersed aerosols."
Larchmont nodded. "Have you any idea how much it takes to kill a man?"
"A drop or so of the aerosol on the skin is enough, I understand."
"That's right. Now, how can such a minute amount of poison damage a human being?"
Bending began to get a glimmer of what the man was driving at. "Well, I know that some of them suppress the enzymic action with acetylcholine, which means that the nerves simply act as though their synapses had been shorted through. It only takes a small percentage of that kind of damage to the nerve fibers to ruin the whole nervous system. The signals get jammed up and confused, and the whole mechanism ceases to function. The victim dies."
Larchmont nodded. "Now, as I understand it, our banking system is the vital nerve network of our economy. And our system is built on credit--faith, if you will. Destroy that faith--even a small percentage of it--and you destroy the system.
"If your machine were to go on the market, there would be no more faith in the present utilities system. Their stocks would be worthless long before your machine actually put them out of business. And that would hit our banking system the same way a nerve gas hits the nervous system. And the victim--the American economy--would die. And the nation, as a nation, would die with it."
"I see," said Bending slowly. He didn't like the picture at all; it was more frightening than he cared to admit, even to himself. He looked at his business manager. "What do you think, Jim?" he asked softly. He knew he could depend on Luckman.
Jim Luckman looked worried. "They're right, Sam. Clean, dead right. I know the investment pattern in this country, and I have an idea of what it must be abroad. This country would be in the middle of the worst depression in its history. At least we had Federal help during the Thirties--but there won't even be a United States Government if this hits. Nor, I think, will there be a Soviet government, in spite of what Dr. Artomonov's personal beliefs may be."
Significantly, the Russian economist said nothing.
Sam Bending closed his eyes. "I've worked on this thing for years," he said tensely. "It was ... it means something to me. I invented it. I perfected it." His voice began to quaver just a little. "But if it's going to do ... to do all that--" He paused and took a deep breath. "All right. I'll smash my apparatus and destroy my plans and forget about it."
Jim Luckman looked at Secretary Condley. "I don't think that would be fair. Sam's worked hard on this thing. He deserves recognition. And the people of Earth deserve to get this machine somehow. Can't something be worked out?"
"Certainly," said Condley. "In some countries, and in some eras, dangerous inventions were suppressed by the simplest method. If it was discovered in time, the inventor was executed summarily, along with anyone else who knew the secret, and the invention was destroyed. The United States isn't that kind of country." He looked down at his hands and the gold pen again before he went on.
"Please don't misunderstand, Mr. Bending; we are not trying to keep the Converter under wraps forever. In the first place, I don't think it would be possible. What do you think, Dr. Vanderlin?"
The Bureau of Standards man said: "I doubt it. Granted, the Converter is not something one would accidentally stumble across, nor automatically deduce from the 'previous state of the art'. I'll admit frankly that I doubt if I would ever have thought of it. But I doubt gravely that it is so unique that it will never be rediscovered independently."
"So," said Condley, "we have no intent to hold it back on that score. And, in the second place, such an invention is too valuable to allow it to be lost.
"So here is our proposition. You will sell your rights to the Converter to Power Utilities. It won't even be patented in the usual sense; we can't allow the Converter to become public property at this time. We can't make it possible for just anyone to send in a quarter to the Patent Office to find out how it works. That's why we stopped the patent application.
"But the Government will see that a contract is written up which admits that you are the inventor of the Converter, and which will give you royalties on every unit built. High royalties.
"Under strict Government supervision, Power Utilities will proceed to liquidate their holdings--slowly, so that there will be no repercussions on an economic level. The danger lies, not in the Converter's replacing existing power equipment, but in the danger of its replacing them too quickly. But with care and control, the adjustment can be made slowly. The process will take about ten years, but you will receive a lump sum, plus a monthly payment, as an advance against future royalties."
"I see," said Bending slowly. "That sounds all right to me. What about you, Jim? What do you think?"
Jim Luckman was smiling again. "Sounds fine to me, Sam. We'll have to work out the terms of the contract, of course, but I think Mr. Olcott and I can see eye to eye."
Olcott seemed to wince a little. He knew he was over a barrel.
"I suppose I'll have to be sworn to secrecy, eh?" Bending asked. He was beginning to recover his poise.
Condley nodded. "You will." He made his characteristic pause, looking down at the gold pen and back up. "Mr. Bending, don't think that this is the first time this has happened. Yours is not the first dangerous invention that has come up. It just so happens that it's the most dangerous so far. We don't like to have to work this way, but we must. There was simply nothing else to do."
Sam Bending leaned back in his chair. "That's all right. To be perfectly honest, there are a lot of details that I still don't understand. But I recognize the fact that I'm simply not an economist; I can see the broad outlines plainly enough."
Dr. Artomonov smiled widely. "I do not understand the details of your machine, either, Mr. Bending, but I understand the broad outlines of its operations well enough to be frightened when I think of what it could do to world economy if it were to be dumped on the market at this time. I am happy to see that America, as well as Mother Russia, can produce patriots of a high order."
Sam gave him a smile. "Thanks." He didn't know quite what else to say to a statement like that. "But Jim, here, is going to spend the next several days trotting out facts and figures for me. I want to see just what would take place, if I can wrestle with that kind of data."
"Oh, brother!" said Jim Luckman softly. "Well, I'll try."
"I'll have the reports from the computers sent to you," Condley offered. "They show the whole collapse, step by step."
Artomonov cast a speculative glance in Condley's direction, but he said nothing.
"There's one other thing," Sam said flatly. "The Converter is my baby, and I want to go on working on it. I think Power Utilities might put me on as a permanent consultant, so that I could earn some of the money that's coming in over the next ten years. That way, my royalties won't suffer so much from the advance payments."
Jim Luckman grinned, and Richard Olcott said: "I thought you said you were no businessman, Mr. Bending."
"I may be ignorant," said Sam, "but I'm not stupid. What about it?"
Olcott glanced at Dr. Larchmont. The little scientist was beaming.
"Definitely," he said. "I want Mr. Bending to show me how he managed to dope that thing out. And, to be perfectly frank, there are a couple of things in there that I don't get at all."
"That's understandable," said Dr. Vanderlin. "We only had a few hours to look at the thing. Still, I must admit it's a lulu."
"That's not what I meant," Larchmont said. "There are some things in there that would take a long time to figure out without an explanation. I'll admit that--"
"Wait a minute," Bending interrupted. "You said 'a few hours', Dr. Vanderlin. You mean only since this morning?" He grinned. "What happened to the one you got Friday night? Did my fusing device work the first time?"
Vanderlin looked puzzledly at Larchmont. Larchmont said wonderingly: "Friday? You mean you had two pilot models?"
Olcott said: "Where was the other? We checked your power drain and saw you weren't using any at your house, so--"
"I had three models," Bending said. "I've got one left in my car; you took one from my house, and the third was taken from my lab sometime Friday night. Somebody has it ..."
Condley said: "Dr. Artomonov, do you know anything about this?"
The Russian shook his head. "Nothing." He looked plainly frightened. "I assure you, my government knew nothing of this."
Condley leaped to his feet, said: "Where are those FBI men?" and ran out the door.
"The black market," said Bending softly. "They found out somehow."
"And they've had three days to study it," Larchmont said. "It's too late now. That thing is probably somewhere in South America by this time."