Knox scowled and angrily shifted his big body. Lansing picked up his cigar, relit it, using the action to unobtrusively study the warden. Hardly a presence to cow hardened criminals, Lansing thought. Halloran was just below middle height, with gray hair getting a bit thin, eyes that twinkled warmly behind rimless glasses. Yet Lansing had read somewhere that a critic of Halloran's policies had said the penologist's thinking was far ahead of his time--too far, the critic had added.
As Joe Mario closed the warden's door behind him, two inmates slowed their typing but did not look up as he neared their desks. A guard left his post at the outer door and walked toward Mario. The two of them stopped beside the desks.
"What's the word, Joe?" the guard asked.
Mario held out his pass.
"Gotta round up the captain, Doc Slade and the Jew preacher," he said.
"All right. Get going."
"What do those guys want?" asked a typist as he pulled the paper from his machine.
Mario looked quickly at the guard and as quickly away from him.
"Dunno," he shrugged.
"Somethin' about the war, I bet," grunted the typist.
"War's over, dope," said the other. "Nothin' behind the curtain now but a nice assortment of bomb craters. All sizes."
"Go on, Joe," ordered the guard. "You heard something. Give."
"Well ... I heard that fat general say something about wanting the warden outa here in a hour."
The typewriters stopped their clacking for a bare instant, then started up again, more slowly. The guard frowned, then said, "On your way, Joe." He hesitated, then, "No use to tell you to button your lip, I guess."
"I'm not causing any trouble," Mario said, as the guard opened the door and stood aside for him to pass into the corridor.
O.K.'d for entrance into the hospital wing, Joe Mario stood outside the railing that cut Dr. Slade's reception area off from the corridor that led to the wards. An inmate orderly sat behind the railing, writing a prescription for a slight, intelligent-looking man.
Mario heard the orderly say, "All right, Vukich, get that filled at the dispensary. Take one after each meal and come back to see us when the bottle's empty. Unless the pain gets worse, of course. But I don't think it will."
"Thanks, doc," the patient drawled.
Both men looked up then and saw Mario.
"Hi, Joe," the orderly smiled. "What's wrong with you? You don't look sick!"
"Nothin' wrong with me that a day outside couldn't cure."
"Or a night," laughed Vukich.
Mario ran a hand over his sleek, black hair. "Better a night, sure," he grinned back. Then he sobered and said to the orderly, "Warden wants to see the doc. Right away."
"Mr. Halloran sick?"
"Naw ... it's business. Urgent business."
"Real urgent, Joe? The doc's doing a pretty serious exam right now."
Mario paused, then said, "You guys might as well know about it. There's a general and a civilian in the warden's office. They're talkin' about something outside. Warden wants the doc in on it."
Sudden tension flowed out between the three men. Down the hall, a patient screamed suddenly in the psycho ward. The three of them jerked, then grinned feebly at each other.
Vukich said slowly, "Well, you don't start playing catch with atom bombs without dropping a few. Wonder what it's like ... out there?"
"We haven't heard that it's any different," the orderly's voice lacked conviction.
"Don't be silly," Vukich said flatly. "Ever since they moved the dames from Tehama into C block we've known something happened."
"Get the doc," Mario said. "I've got to be on my way."
"Me, too." Vukich's thin, clever face looked thoughtful.
The others stared blankly at him and said nothing.
As Alfred Court, captain of the prison, strode down the flower-bordered path that led from the shops unit past A block to the administration building, a side door in A block clanged open and a sergeant came out. The sergeant turned without seeing his superior and walked hurriedly toward the administration wing.
"Hey, sarge!" Court called. "What's the hurry?"
The sergeant whirled, recognized the captain and quickly saluted.
"Glad to see you, sir," he said. "Just the man I was looking for!"
"Good enough. What's on your mind? Better tell me as we go for the warden's in a hurry to see me."
The two men walked abreast, both big, although Court lacked any trace of the sergeant's paunch. As they walked and talked, their eyes darted continually about, unconsciously checking the appearance of the buildings, the position of the guard in the gun tower, the attitude of a very old inmate who was meticulously weeding a flower bed.
"Captain, you going to let the men out for their yard time?"
Court's pace slowed. "Why not?"
"No real reason ... now. But there's trouble in the air, sir. I can smell it. The whole place is buzzing ... with something."
"I can't put my finger on it. But all the men know there's some pretty big shots--at least one general, they say--in the warden's office, right now. There's a hot rumor that there's trouble outside--some sort of disaster."
Court laughed shortly. "That Mario! He's going to lose a nice job if he doesn't keep his mouth shut!"
"None of them keep their mouths shut, captain."
"Yes ... well, I don't know what's up, myself. I'm heading for that conference right now. I'll ask the warden about letting the men out of their cells. What's their attitude?"
The sergeant's broad, red face grew more troubled.
"Uh ... the men aren't hostile, captain. They seem worried, nervous ... kind of scared. If somebody at the top--the warden or yourself--could convince them things were as usual outside ... they'd quiet down, I'm sure."
They were now thirty feet from the door to the administration building a door that opened for but one man at a time. The officers stopped.
"Things are not normal outside," Court growled, "and you know it. I've been wondering how long this prison could go on--as if there were still a state's capital, with its Adult Authority, its governor, its Supreme Court. D'you think every man jack here doesn't know a visit from the Authority's long overdue!"
"Well, I'll go in, sarge, and see what's what. If you don't hear from me, stick to routine."
He remained where he was while Captain Court walked slowly toward the door, both hands well in sight. A pace from the door he stopped and exchanged a few words with someone watching him through a barred peephole. After a moment, the door slid open and he walked into the building.
He was the last to arrive at the warden's office. Lansing gazed at him in fascination. Goldsmid had been a Golden Gloves champion middleweight before he had heeded the call of the Law, and he looked it. Dr. Slade was the prototype of all overworked doctors. But Court was a type by himself. Lansing thought he'd never seen a colder eye. Yet, the captain's lean face--so unlike the warden's mild, scholarly one--was quiet, composed, unmarked by any weakness of feature or line of self-indulgence. A big, tough man, Lansing mused, a very tough man. But a just one.
"I've a problem, warden," Court said when the introductions were over. "Something we should decide right away."
"Can't it wait?" Knox said irritably.
Lansing almost choked with stifled laughter when Court just glanced briefly at Knox, then said quietly to the warden, "Sergeant Haines has just advised me that the inmates know about these gentlemen and they're--restless. I wonder if we shouldn't keep the men in their cells this afternoon."'
"Blast it!" roared Knox. "Can't you people keep a secret?"
"There are no secrets in prison, general," Halloran said mildly. "I learned that my first week as a guard, twenty years ago." To Court he said, "Sit down, Alfred. Unless you disagree strongly, I think we'll let the men out as usual. It's a risk, yes, but right now, the closer we stick to normal routine, the better."
"You're probably right, sir."
Court sat down and Halloran turned to his two visitors.
"Now, gentlemen," he smiled, "we're at your disposal. As I told you, my two associate wardens aren't here. Mr. Briggs is in town and Mr. Tate is home ill. Dr. McCall, our Protestant clergyman, is also home, recovering from a siege with one of those pesky viruses. But we here represent various phases of our administration and can certainly answer all of your questions."
"Questions!" Knox snorted. "We're here to tell you the facts--not ask."
"General," soothed Lansing. He looked across the desk at Halloran and shrugged slightly. The warden twinkled. "General Knox is a trifle ... ah, overblunt, but he's telling you the essential truth of the situation. We've come to take you away from here. Just as soon as you can leave."
"Hey?" cried Slade. "Leave here? The devil, man, I've got to take out a gall bladder this afternoon!"
"I'm afraid I don't understand," murmured Goldsmid. "I thought the war was over--"
"This is all nonsense!" There was an ominous note in Knox's hoarse voice. "Do you people realize you're now under the authority of the Fifth Defense Command?"
Lansing cried: "Let's be sensible about all this!" He pointed his cigar at the fuming soldier. "General, these gentlemen have every right to know the situation and we'll save time if you'll permit me to give them a quick briefing."
"All right! All right!"
"Well, then." Lansing crossed his long legs, glanced nervously about the room, and said, "The world as we know it is done with. Finished. In another week it will be completely uninhabitable."
"Hey," grunted Slade. "You Lansing, the physicist?"
"That's right, doctor."
"Didn't place you at first. Well, what's going to end this lousy old world of ours?"
"Well," Lansing answered, "we wiped out our late antagonists with skill and dispatch. But, in the end, they outsmarted us. Left behind some sort of radioactive dust which ... spreads. It's rolling down on us from Chicago and up from Texas. God knows what other parts of the country are like--we haven't had time to discuss it with them on the radio."
Goldsmid muttered something in Hebrew.
"Isn't that lack of communication rather odd?" asked the warden.
"Not so very. We've been too busy building rocket ships."
"Rocket ships!" Court was jarred out of his icy calm.
"You mean spaceships?" cried the doctor.
"Yes, Slade, they do," murmured the warden.
"Precisely," Lansing said. "When it looked as if the cold war would get rather warm, the allied governments faced up to the fact that our venerable planet might become a ... ah, a battle casualty. So, in carefully selected regions, rather extensive preparations were made for a hurried departure from this sector of the universe."
"Oh, come to the point!" Knox exploded. "All you people need to know is that one of those regions is this area of the Rocky Mountains, that the ships are built and ready to go, and that you're to get aboard. Fast!"
"That," nodded Lansing, "is it."
The four prison officials looked at each other. Halloran and Court sat quiet; Goldsmid slowly dropped his eyes to the ground and his lips moved. Slade scratched his chin.
"Going to Mars, hey?" he asked abruptly.
"That's our destination."
The doctor chuckled. "Comic-book stuff," he chortled.
"No, it isn't," Halloran said. "We've been expecting something like this for a long time. Haven't we?"
"Indeed we have," Goldsmid said. "Expecting, but not quite believing."
Halloran looked thoughtfully at the physicist. "Dr. Lansing, these ships of yours ... they're pretty big, I take it?"
"Not as big as we like. They never are. But they'll do. Why?"
"I should remind you that we have well over two thousand inmates here."
"Inmates!" barked the general. "Who the devil said anything about your inmates? Think we'll take a lot of convicts to Mars! Populate it with killers, thieves--"