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Negative Feedback

Julia Ravagger watched her husband, Nelson Ravagger, pay off the deliverymen. Nelson's somewhat predatory profile, the workmen's uneasy glances at the chandelier, marble floor, sunlit conservatory, and other details of the lavishly furnished apartment, taken together with the aggressively prosaic look of the object they had just delivered, all added up to something Julia had felt too often since marrying the famous—or infamous—stock speculator.

"Ummm, Nels—" she said, as the door closed, leaving them alone, "why do I again have this feeling of total perplexity? What, precisely, is that thing?"

Ravagger grinned, creating an unfortunate effect like the surfacing of a shark that is in the process of eating a swimmer. He patted the curving metal top of the object, which was enameled a sickly shade suggestive of dog droppings.

"This, my dear, is a product of the Cartwright Corporation's Fuels Sciences Division. This is the 'business opportunity of a lifetime.' Specifically, this is a 'solid-fuel converter, designed to eliminate the dependence of our nation on foreign oil producers, and thereby return control of our fuel destiny to these shores.'"

She stared. "That's a quote?"

He nodded. "From one of the company's brochures."

"Is it true?"

"If you strain out the high-tech wordage, this is a coal stove. And if it's the kind of coal stove I think it is, it's a bomb."


"That after you install it and use it, it won't be long before you'll do almost anything to never have to use it again."

"Then, why are you putting it in our living room?"

He opened a large cardboard box near an elaborately simple white sofa, and pulled out a quivering rectangle of curving black metal—a section of stovepipe not yet locked into a cylinder. He smiled at her.

"Remember the wood-stove craze?"

She glanced covertly at her left wrist, where the burn scar had almost disappeared.

"I couldn't forget that."

Nelson delivered himself of a grisly chuckle.

"No. Me, either. But it was educational."

She glanced up at a small decorative snow scene nearly hidden behind a spray of imitation pussy willows in a tall pearl-colored vase. The snow scene was painted on a circular brass flue cover; the flue openings in the old building had been unplastered and put to use during the time of the Oil Embargo, then thankfully covered up again afterward.

"Well," she said, "but what connection—"

"I'm not sure," said Ravagger, "but we just might have a coal-stove craze next. Cartwright is convinced of it. And as it happens, I'm on their board, and the management has a tiny little flaw that we will have to live through somehow, preferably without bankrupting the company in the process."


Cyrus Cartwright II, at the head of the long table, winced as Nelson Ravagger settled into his chair near the far end. Beside Cartwright, W. W. Sanson of the Machines Division—former head of Superdee Equipment before its near-bankruptcy and merger with Cartwright—growled, "Ravagger doesn't look too cheerful."

"No," said Cartwright uneasily. "It's nicer when he's just bored."

"Damn it, he's got that blowtorch look." Sanson dropped his voice to a murmur. "Remember, you're the chairman."

Cartwright squinted at him side-wise. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Keep him in line. Use your authority."

"I'm chairman because he doesn't want to be stuck with the job. If he wanted it, he could take it any time."

"It's your name on the door. Remember, your granddad founded the company."

"Granddad isn't here. And just incidentally, which one would be worse to get along with, I don't know." He glanced at his watch. "Well, time to get started."

The meeting commenced with boring routine, and proceeded in its accustomed groove until, just as Cartwright had almost forgotten Ravagger, the speculator's voice reached across the table. This voice had a peculiar resonance, 10 percent of it made up by the construction of Ravagger's chest and voicebox, and 90 percent by the listeners' awareness of the number of shares of the company the voice represented.

Ravagger said, "We haven't heard from the head of our new Fuels Division yet."

On Cartwright's left, R. J. Schwenk of the Fuels Sciences Division said cheerfully, "Nothing to report, Mr. Ravagger. No problems. Everything proceeding according to plan."

Cartwright smiled. "Nels, Schwenkie is a source of real comfort, but demand for our solid-fuel products, as yet, is just starting to perk up."

On the other side of Cartwright, W. W. Sanson cleared his throat. "As vice-chairman, Mr. Ravagger, I have made it my job to follow the progress of our new Fuels Sciences Division with particular care. Our statistical analysis shows everything on plot."

" 'On plot'?"

"Everything proceeding according to plan."

"Meaning what?"

"Aah—meaning that the—ah—that expenses are under control, sales are about where we expected, the market for our products is developing as forecast, we have the appropriate number of dealers signing up. Everything is fine."

"How about quality?"

Sanson chuckled. "Well, you know our slogan: 'Quality First, Quality Last—Our Name Is Quality.'"

"OK, you've made a special study of the Fuels Division's products, then?"

"Yes, precisely. Ah, no, wait a minute."

"Of course, you haven't had time to do everything."

A soothing purr was suddenly present in Ravagger's voice, and Sanson broke out in a sweat. "What I'm saying is, I've studied the results. That's what counts. I haven't examined each individual product. We have quality control experts, inspectors—I wouldn't intrude that far down the ladder. Our people do their jobs."

Cartwright spoke up hastily. "Nels, if you're thinking of checking up on our workers, the union wouldn't like that."

Ravagger glanced at Sanson. "Which products have you studied, then?"

"Well, as I said, it's the overall results that count."

"You haven't examined any of the products?"

Sanson said, "What difference—"

"None at all? Even though you're making it your job to follow the division's progress 'with particular care'?"

Cartwright stared down the table at Ravagger, then glanced to his left at R. J. Schwenck.

Schwenck said at once, "That's my job, Mr. Ravagger. I'd be offended if Mr. Sanson felt it necessary to check me up on that."

"Oh, I see." Ravagger looked back at Sanson. "You were scared to check any products for fear Schwenck might get mad at you?"

Sanson blew out his breath. "No, I just trust him to do his job."

"All right. Now, Mr. Schwenck—"

"Yes, Mr. Ravagger."

"You've just heard our vice-chairman say he's not afraid of your taking offense. Naturally, I'm not afraid either. As a matter of fact, I don't think there's anyone here who would hesitate to check on anything because someone might take offense."

"Well, all I meant—" Schwenck hesitated. Before he could find some way around his own comment, Ravagger's words trod on his heels:

"You meant what?"

"Oh, we don't want to interfere further down in the hierarchy, or in each other's territory. It's bad manners. It assumes the other man doesn't do his job. An organization is built on mutual trust."

Ravagger purred, "An excellent defense of your comment, Mr. Schwenck."

Schwenck looked relieved. Sanson looked alarmed.

Ravagger said, "So you have checked the products in your own division, then?"

"No, that's what I just—"

Ravagger glanced around. "Then who does check on them? Are we selling stuff we don't know anything about?"

Schwenck said, "As we've said, Mr. Ravagger, we have quality-control inspectors to see to that. Really, you shouldn't criticize what you don't understand."

Ravagger slowly turned his head to look directly at Schwenck. The effect on Schwenck was like having a machine gun take aim at him. Schwenck began to perspire, but kept his mouth shut.

Ravagger said quietly, "In the final analysis, Mr. Schwenck, who is the ultimate authority in this company?"

Schwenck said carefully, "I guess you are, Mr. Ravagger. But that doesn't mean you necessarily understand it."

Cartwright said nervously, "Gentlemen—"

Ravagger shook his head. "I'm not the final authority. What I have to do is make you aware who is. And if I have to smash heads or look like a jackass to do it, I will do it anyway. Now, just consider—Who is not in the company, but controls the destiny of the company—any company? Who, because he can make the company succeed or fail, influences the destiny of everyone in it? Who is below the bottom of the organization and above the chief executive at the top? Whose opinion is often ignored or unknown, and whose favor is almost universally courted?"

Schwenck stared. "You can only mean the customer."

"Right. Now, anyone that important is going to have his interests looked after. And since this is your division, you will look after those interests! What do you mean, the quality-control inspector will do it? The quality-control inspector may check the thickness of metal or the finish on the enamel, but there's more to satisfying a customer than that! You can't delegate that job! That job is the most important job you've got! It is your personal responsibility to check that those products are right! The only way you can do that is to become a customer yourself! Mr. Chairman, I move that a special allowance be made to Mr. R. J. Schwenck, head of our Fuels Sciences Division, to enable him to immediately purchase, as a customer, one of our Superheat Solid-Fuel Converters—colloquially known as a 'stove,' preferably Model J616 or J617—and report to us at the next meeting on his personal installation and use of this device."


Madeleine Schwenck looked on in bafflement as her husband paid the deliverymen and eyed the massive bright-red object they had left. "Richie, what, pray tell, is that?"

Schwenck exhaled carefully.

"It's a—it's a stove, Hon."

"Where are you planning to put it?"

"Right here. Where I had them leave it."


"Remember, we had the wood stove here."

"Richie, look, we agreed to get rid of the wood stove. And the chainsaw. And the pick-up truck. If you had to get another wood stove—"

"This is not a wood stove."

"That's true, you only said it's a stove. Well, then, what kind of stove is it?"

"It's a—ah—a solid-fuels converter. Of—h'm—fossil fuels."

"It's a what?"

"It's a coal stove."

She took a fresh look at him, then at the stove. Then she looked at him again.

He stood frowning at the curving bulk, and asked himself, exactly why did this thing look like a cross between an old-style fire truck and a juke box when the sketches and presentations had shown it as modern and cheerful. A 1930s aura radiated from it, along with a sense of stubborn intractability.

She said carefully, "Richie—"

He said, "Look, Madeleine, this is not necessarily permanent. I—uh—you might look on it as a sort of, well, company homework."

"Rich, please, I don't know what you have in mind, but please remember that I'm a lawyer, and we don't want another of those arguments where we both forget ourselves. And I can feel it starting to build up already. I do pay part of the costs—a good part of the costs—of this house, and I don't mind it, it's fair, but I like to be consulted about what we do and what we don't do. Now—"

He groaned, and told her about the directors' meeting.

"Well," she said, frowning, "I hear it, but I don't understand it. This was the idea of this stock swindler?"

"Hon," said Schwenck, "I may have put it too strong. This guy cuts things pretty close to the line, but it's not that line he cuts close to. He's opinionated, overbearing, and damned tricky; but he's not a swindler."

"Then you're saying he's a stock operator?"

"He sure is. The problem is, for some reason, he's down on this stove; but my whole division is set up to take advantage of an inevitable disruption in the oil industry—this business of upheavals in the Middle East gives us a chance to see what is bound to happen eventually. Now, we are presenting a whole line of these—these solid-fossil-fuel converters, based on products a branch of Superdee Equipment used to make—"

She said, "So what it boils down to is that the biggest shareholder in the company is on the board of directors, and everybody is afraid of him, and he is making you personally try out one of the products you're planning to sell?"

He said, "Yeah. I guess that is it."

She grinned.

He said aggrievedly, "Damn it, it all makes perfectly good sense! As a country, we're well supplied with coal. Oil, comparatively speaking, is scarce. If there should be a break in the oil supply, the demand for some other source of energy would be fierce. Natural gas can take up part of the slack, but not all. There's going to be a hole there, and something has to fill it. Now, wood stoves produce a lot of smoke; they don't generally burn very long before you have to reload them; there are complicated pollution-control requirements; wood is not a predictable fuel unless you make it into pellets, which costs money; there are environmental objections to the burning of wood on a really large scale; meantime, you have problems storing wood.

"The obvious answer is coal! There are only a comparatively few companies set up to produce coal stoves on anywhere near the basis that we are. And the others, as far as I know, are all asleep at the switch. And we've got our Combuster, a really effective pollution control device, which is a step ahead of everyone else in this business. If something unexpected happened to oil, we could make a mint! And don't tell me nothing could happen! We import a lot of our oil from a place that's a powder keg!"

His wife nodded. "OK, you go ahead and get it ready. Are the stovepipes black, like for our wood stove?"

"They're enameled red. A red stove with black pipes—our market research indicated people wouldn't go for that."

"Richie, that is quite a vivid shade of red."

"Yeah, I know. I just noticed that. The color in the sketches looked darker. And the first stoves we made didn't look like this to me. This has an electric effect."

"It jumps back and forth when you look at it."

He swallowed, and said nothing. He had just noticed that the stove was not properly centered in front of the flue opening. It would have to be moved, or the stovepipe would be crooked. And the thing weighed, at a conservative estimate, around four hundred pounds, since the dealer had conned him into getting the big model while he was at it.

His wife sighed.

"I'll put the frozen glop in the microwave. You set up the fossil-fuel converter. That doesn't have an oven in it?"

"No, it's got a HydraFlame Combuster to, among other things, fully burn the gases given off in initial combustion of the solid hydrocarbons."

She said irreverently, "You can't eat that," and went out to the kitchen. He stood, eyes squinted against the electric effect of the red outer metal jacket seen against the pale-green walls of the room. Damn it, how was he going to move this thing?

W. W. Sanson eyed the trio of blocky-looking objects, and silently asked himself, "These slabs are what we saw the sketches of? What the hell happened?" Aloud, he said, "These are the Cartwright stoves I phoned about?"

The salesman said, "Yes, sir. As a matter of fact, these are a lot like the standard old Superdee coal stoves we used to carry. Only this model has a tricky gimmick in it that's supposed to turn the coal into gas, and burn it up atomically, with nuclear destruction of the pollution."

Sanson got a feeling of chills and fever. With that description, the customer could get nervous and look around for another make.

"H'm, yes," he said, peering into the dark interior.

The salesman said, "Run you about three thousand for the biggest model. You could heat a church with that one."

"I wasn't thinking I needed anything that big." Sanson reminded himself he was, after all, paying for the thing, out of a totally natural irritation with Ravagger. Damn it, he asked himself, why should we go out and buy these things when the market research people had handed in their assessment, and everything was going according to plan? On the other hand, he had already discovered that the design, in reality, had all the appeal of a claw-foot bathtub turned inside-out and stood on end. The price, met in reality, not in a report on paper, gave him a fiercely possessive grip on his checkbook. If it did that to him, it was going to hit other customers the same way. And the pale-blue enamel on this batch of stoves was way too light, as if he were looking at several monster chunks of blue cheese.

The salesman was saying, "The middle-sized one is $2,200. The little one is $1,600. You can knock half-a-buck or so off all these prices."

Sanson moodily considered that there went all the crafty calculation of laying out a price line-up of $2998.49, $2198.59, and $1598.69.

"I'll take the small one," he said.

The salesman shook his head. "I wouldn't. That spare buoy they stuck in the center to eat the pollution takes too much space. Even in the old Superdees, that little model wouldn't hold a fire overnight unless you damped it way down. Then the fire stays warm, but you freeze. What's the point?"

Sanson stared at him. If the damned thing wouldn't hold a fire overnight, what was the point? Why sell it? He said, "The little Superdee wouldn't hold a fire? Since when?"

"Not if you wanted heat out of it on a cold night, it wouldn't. What you had to do was get up in the middle of the night and load her up again."

Sanson grunted. "You ever tell the company about that?"

"Why waste breath? They were happy. It sold because it was cheap. They were well made, those old Superdees."

"How about this job? What is it for quality?"

"Same as the old Superdees. I'll give them that. They didn't skimp on the metal.—As you'll find when you come to move it."

Sanson squinted at the salesman. "I'll take the midsize one."

"Good choice. You just give me your address, and we'll send her around. You pick out where you want it put, and get it right the first time. You don't want to have to move it. Now, you're going to want some other stuff to go with it, and we have to work out the details. Where's the flue opening? How much pipe you want? How far from the wall? What—"

Sanson gave a grunt of disgust. He had come in here out of a sense of defiance. After all, what could be wrong? And before the stove had even been delivered, he was already fed up with it. Who approved this guy to be a dealer, anyway?


Cyrus Cartwright II looked thoughtfully at the display. Well, there they were. Of course, there was no sense of urgency, no crowd around, no background of an oil crisis. What stood out now was the dowdy style and the price. But why had the style seemed attractive and the price reasonable in the plans?

A salesman materialized at Cartwright's elbow. "Interested in a stove, sir?"


The board of directors settled grumpily into their seats, and under the wary guidance of Cyrus Cartwright II, who held one hand in his lap while he kept a cautious eye on Ravagger, the meeting proceeded in routine boredom until Cartwright glanced coolly at Schwenck.

"Mr. Schwenck, I believe you have a report on one of our—ah—solid-fuels converters?"

Schwenck, a strip of woven cotton protruding from under the cuff of his left sleeve, growled, "Yes, I do, Mr. Cartwright."

"Perhaps," said Cartwright, his own bandaged right hand, clenched into a fist, coming briefly into view, "you will be kind enough to briefly summarize for us your personal impressions regarding this solid-fuels converter?"

Schwenck clamped his jaw. "Yes, I will."

"Please do," said Cartwright.

Down the table, Ravagger, glancing at Schwenck's wrist and Cartwright's hand, for the first time showed a perceptible facial expression—a quickly suppressed grin.

Schwenck took a deep breath.

"The stove stinks. That's as brief as I can summarize it."

A murmur went around the table. Schwenck said angrily, "If we have another oil shortage, we'll be able to sell these damned things to a lot of people, because it will be either that or freeze to death. But as it stands right now, nobody in his right mind will ever buy a second one."

Cartwright let his breath out in a hiss, and nodded agreeably. "All right. Now perhaps you could give the board, and Mr. Ravagger in particular, since checking on this was his idea, a few of the more specific details."

"The stove," said Schwenck, "to start with, is too heavy; if you need to move it, you're up the creek without a seven-foot crowbar. Even then, it's damned near impossible to insinuate the end of the bar between the floor and the lower extension of the sheet-metal outer jacket. Worse yet, there isn't enough room between the inner stove itself, and this enameled metal jacket. If the fire overheats, the jacket can give you a nasty burn. A child could get seared on the part of the jacket near the firepot. Just incidentally, you can see what that means in terms of liability.

"Then, the feed door doesn't open wide enough; when you try to load the stove, the door swings shut on you. The feed door, by the way, is hot. You can get burned on it, too.

"The ash pit is too small, so you are everlastingly carrying out the ash pan, which is likely to be overfull and ready to dump. The ash shaker gets stuck when coal or clinkers jam in the grate, so to get it free you have to push hard on the handle; the handle then gives way all of a sudden and your knuckles slam into the knife-edged frame of the ash door.

"All this is bad enough, but for irritation, the worst is the so-called Combuster. This chunk of metal takes up space, and gets in the way every time you try to put a shovel of coal in.

"Finally, for good measure, the mount for the optional fan vibrates inside the sheet-metal lining of the stove so that the fan itself rattles and clanks against the cast-iron inner body of the stove. It doesn't always do this. It does it now and then, in certain unpredictable, non-reproducible-at-will conditions of heat and related stress possibly determined by the phases of the Moon.

"In the small model, which I tried out after using the big one, this list of defects makes the stove frankly worthless. As a matter of fact, we ought to pay the customers to take it off our hands."

Schwenck's recital, delivered with venomous conviction, left a stunned silence. Finally, Grissom, the treasurer, sat up, and said, "Frankness is a virtue, Mr. Schwenck, but hasn't our solid-fuel converter got any good features at all?"

Schwenck looked as if he were thinking earnestly. "If it has one, I can't think of it."

"But wasn't this device your responsibility?"

"It was, Mr. Grissom, and if you are suggesting I ought to be fired for that reason—"

Grissom looked startled. "No. But either you're overstating the criticisms—"

"—You may just be right, at that," said Schwenck.

"—Or we've got a real mess on our hands," said Grissom.

There was a little silence as Grissom, Schwenck, and everybody else in the room, put the pieces of sentences together, to work out who had just said what. Then Schwenck cleared his throat.

"I'm not overstating the objections. I haven't even finished with them. The shape—the style—of this trap is straight out of the Great Depression. The colors—in the catalog, the one that's called 'Cherryapple'—in reality it's an off-shade of red that clashes with more backgrounds than anything I ever saw before. We have succeeded in getting dozens of these stoves into the hands of the dealers, and the one thing I'm grateful for is that it's dozens and not hundreds."

The silence following Schwenck's last remark was broken by a faint rustling and creaking of chairs as people shifted position uneasily, then Schwenck shook his head.

"Last night I dreamt some fanatical gang blew up half the oil industry in the Middle East, and everyone was buying our stoves. They were selling like hotcakes. The president himself bought one. I woke up in a cold sweat. All I could think of was the shock in store for all these customers."

Halfway down the long table, a pretty woman with dark-blonde hair said, "Do our stoves work, Mr. Schwenck?"

Schwenck reminded himself that the name and seeming mildness of this director—descended from a manager of the company named John J. Phyllis—could both be deceptive.

"They work," he said finally, "but to keep warm on a really cold night you pay a small fortune for one of the larger versions, or get up twice to reload the little one."

"Does what you've mentioned conclude the list of defects? Or are there more?"

Schwenck opened his mouth, but didn't get a chance to speak. Sanson, apparently out of an impulse to protect his subordinate, put in, "You have to remember, Miss Leslie, it's the small model Mr. Schwenck is really unhappy with."

The pretty blonde looked at Sanson coolly.

Sanson looked briefly puzzled, then winced. "Excuse me. I mean, Miss Phyllis."

She glanced back at Schwenck, who said, "It doesn't conclude the list of defects, though it's all I can think of at the moment. It's all but impossible to remember all the things that are wrong with this stove."

"But does it work?"

"It does give heat."

"And that is what it is supposed to do, isn't it?"

"Yes, but the problem is the way it does it. It's a very wearing way to try to stay warm."

"But if there were a fuel shortage, it would help solve the problem, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, it would. But if we ever want to sell two of these stoves to the same customer, or to sell one by word of mouth to anyone, we have a lot of improvements to make."

"What are you doing to correct the problem?"

"I've got everyone I can working on it. It looks to me as if we need a complete redesign."

"And how long will that take?"

"If things don't go just right, it could take a year-and-a-half. I never knew things to go just right yet."

"When this 'solid-fuel converter' was first suggested as a fit source of investment for us," said Leslie Phyllis sweetly, "it seems to me we were told it already had a long successful history behind it."

Schwenck opened his mouth, and shut it again without saying anything. Involuntarily, he glanced at Sanson.

Sanson cleared his throat. "That was my responsibility, Miss Phyllis."

She turned to look at Sanson.

Sanson said, "At Superdee, we sold a lot of these stoves, including the small model. So far as I know, no one ever complained."

"Then you disagree with Mr. Schwenck?"

"I wish I did. No, he's right. This stove is a real bomb, and that's leaning over backwards to be polite."

"But it's the same stove you sold before, isn't it?"

"In most ways, yes, it is."

"Well, how can that be?"

"Two things have changed. We've added the Combuster. That takes up space, and gets in the way, particularly in the small model. Then, too, we're planning to sell these stoves in great numbers, to new customers—customers used to oil heat. At Superdee, we sold them to rural families who had been using wood or coal stoves for a long time. These present models are still solid, well built, long-lasting stoves that will do a good heating job for people who need a reliable coal stove, and are used to them—or for people who are upgrading from wood stoves. For someone used to an oil burner, it's a different matter entirely."


"For someone who learned to drive in a car with a stick shift, changing gears is no problem. It's a different matter if you've always driven an automatic, and suddenly you've got to drive a stick shift. The market we are aiming these stoves at now will respond to them the same way. These are people used to automatic heat—to thermostats."

"Yes . . . but if there's an actual fuel emergency?"

"People will buy them if they have to. But everyone will make stoves once it's clear there's a need. What we can naturally expect is a big demand, which we can't possibly keep up with. Then, after we increase production, demand for our models will drop like a rock—because word will get around about the defects in this stove. Then our competitors will skim the cream."

Cartwright said, "I have to agree with Mr. Sanson and Mr. Schwenck. The fact remains, we at least have a stove—which is more than most of our potential competitors can say. And now we see what the problems are. If we can clean up the problems, we'll have the advantage we've been aiming at since the beginning."

"Does the combuster work?"

Cartwright nodded, and glanced at Schwenck.

Schwenck said, "It works, but the fifteenth time you bang into that brace when you put in a shovel of coal—"

"But, look here, Mr. Schwenck, didn't you know where the combuster was going to be when you authorized production? How is it that it ended up in the wrong place?"

"I've asked myself the same question. In the original computer design, we allowed room for the shovel to enter the feed-door opening and deposit the coal in the combustion zone. We even checked out the measurements on a full-scale hand-assembled model to be sure. And it is possible, if you have someone open the door and hold it open, to carefully put a normal-sized fire shovel into the firebox and not bang into anything."

"Then what's the problem?"

"There's a difference between loading the stove in a laboratory-type setting, and actually using it. This Combuster is held in place by braces—three of them reach down into the firebox. It's perfectly possible to miss all three. But the feed door tends to swing shut; to avoid the door, you move the shovel a little, and then you hit the left-hand brace. That never happened when we checked it out, because we were crowded around the stove, and someone held the door open."

Leslie Phyllis looked at him thoughtfully. "But now that you're actually using it, you run into these difficulties?"

Schwenck nodded.

"Are there any further defects?"

Sanson shook his head. "Mr. Schwenck hasn't yet mentioned one of the worst. For years, at Superdee, we routinely put a black protective coating on the body of the stove inside the enameled outer shell, to protect the metal from rust, and improve its looks." He gave a little laugh.

Schwenck looked at Sanson. "I never heard a complaint."

"No," said Sanson aggrievedly. "Me either."

"Now what?" said Leslie Phyllis.

Cartwright said sparely, "Fumes. Every time the fire gets hot, some of this protective coating boils off."

Grissom, the treasurer, glanced from Sanson to Schwenck. "Well, you weren't the only people to use that coating. I bought a wood stove during the fuel shortage, and the first good fire I lit the stuff boiled off in clouds. It stank up the house, and a fine oily dust settled over everything."

Sanson and Schwenck studied the tabletop. Cartwright looked mad, but kept his mouth shut. Down the table, Nelson Ravagger was elaborately expressionless.

Cartwright sucked in a deep breath. "Well, we now know first-hand exactly what our customers are going to run into. We have to clean up these things." He glanced at Schwenck.

"We're counting on you, Schwenckie."

Schwenck settled visibly under the burden, then nodded.

"There's got to be some way around all these problems. If we just have time enough, we'll find it."


Nelson Ravagger was wearing a blue bathrobe with an elaborately patterned red-clawed dragon on it as he opened his front door some twenty-two months later, picked up the Sunday paper, and padded back to the bedroom with it.

Julia Ravagger yawned as her husband settled into his side of the bed, noisily unfolded the first section of the paper, then gave a sharp grunt, as if he had been hit.

She sat up. "What's wrong?"

He passed over the front page, where big black headlines screamed:




Julia Ravagger stared at the paper, then handed it back without a word to her husband.

He read aloud, ". . . It is believed that the powerful weapons used were originally smuggled out of the Soviet Union at the time of its political collapse . . . nightmare of the U. S. Administration come true . . . terrorists reportedly demanded five hundred billion dollars not to use atomic bombs against the refineries and pumping stations . . . authorities are now convinced that atomic weapons have not in fact yet been used although . . . at 2:00 A.M. the first heavy rocket attacks were made, cutting oil shipments, and creating fires which rival in intensity the conflagration in Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War. More explosions soon followed . . . A quick-reaction strike-force is already on the scene, and troops are in motion halfway around the world. But nothing can now be done to prevent serious energy shortages. It is not known at the present time if. . . ."

Ravagger took a second careful look at the papers, then reached around and plugged in the phone that sat on the night table. He dialed a number.

Madeleine Schwenck's voice replied sleepily. "Hello?"

"Nelson Ravagger, Mrs. Schwenck. May I speak to your husband?"

R. J. Schwenck sounded even sleepier than his wife. "No, no, Mr. Ravagger, I haven't seen the paper yet. What's up?"

Ravagger methodically read the headlines, and as Schwenck exclaimed in horror, Ravagger read aloud the first part of the article, which reduced Schwenck to silence. Ravagger said, "How close to ready is our improved coal heater?"

"We tested it last week at the lab. I've been using one in my office for several weeks. Mr. Sanson has had an early version at home since around New Year's. The small model can't cut it till we find some way to shrink the Combuster, but the other two are not bad at all. Compared to the first version, they're straight from heaven."

"You see what we're going to have to do."

"We've already got a moderate production going. There's no reason we can't step it up. By next fall we can flood the market with this improved version. I'll call Mr. Sanson right away."

"Good. I'll get hold of Cartwright."

Julia Ravagger had turned on the bedside clock-radio, where an announcer was saying ". . . Inevitable that gasoline supplies will be affected. Heating oil prices will skyrocket. By next winter, a severe worldwide fuel shortage will be in place. There is already no way to prevent the most severe hardships in the depths of the coming winter. . ."

She glanced at Nelson Ravagger, who was hunting through the phone book. She said, "You actually have an improved version of that monstrosity in the living room?"

"Yes. That monstrosity's just a prototype. The problem was, they didn't know it."

Ravagger dialed a number.

Julia Ravagger said, "Was that the 'tiny little flaw' you said the management had?"

"The flaw was the company actually didn't have any negative feedback worth mentioning on some of its products, including that stove."

" 'Negative—' Oh, yes, negative feedback is the signal that tells which way a robot arm is off-course as it reaches out to take hold of something? A correction factor that puts things back on course."

"Right. And one way to get useful negative feedback is to have the exact people who can end a problem be the ones to get kicked in the face by it."

There was a click in the receiver, and Cartwright's voice said, "That you, Nels?"

"Right here."

"Thought it was you. I've heard, and I'm on the way in."

"Good work." Ravagger hung up the phone, and warily unfolded the paper. As he settled back, Julia Ravagger was favored with a fresh view of his combative profile. As one of her old friends had said on hearing of her marriage, "Well, Jule, now you've really done it. How are you going to domesticate that throwback to the Age of the Robber Barons?"

Julia glanced at the screaming headlines, and exhaled carefully.

Considering what the world was like, possibly the country could use a robber baron or two.


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