Criminal Negligence

by J. Francis McComas

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Somebody was going to have to be left behind. and who it would be was perfectly obvious....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Warden Halloran smiled slightly. “You expect to have criminals on Mars, then?” he asked. “Is that why you want me?”

“Of course we don’t, sir!” snapped the lieutenant general. His name was Knox. “We need men of your administrative ability--”

“Pardon me, general,” Lansing interposed smoothly, “I rather think we’d better give the warden a ... a more detailed picture, shall we say? We have been rather abrupt, you know.”

“I’d be grateful if you would,” Halloran said.

He watched the lanky civilian as Lansing puffed jerkily on his cigar. A long man, with a shock of black hair tumbling over a high, narrow forehead, Lansing had introduced himself as chairman of the project’s coördinating committee ... whatever that was.

“Go ahead,” grunted Knox. “But make it fast, doctor.”

Lansing smiled at the warden, carefully placed his cigar in the ash tray before him and said, “We’ve been working on the ships night and day. Both the dust itself and its secondary effects are getter closer to us all the time. We’ve been so intent on the job--it’s really been a race against time!--that only yesterday one of my young men remembered the Mountain State Penitentiary was well within our sphere of control.”

“The country--what’s left of it--has been split up into regions,” the general said. “So many ships to each region.”

“So,” Lansing went on, “learning about you meant there was another batch of passengers to round up. And when I was told the warden was yourself--I know something of your career, Mr. Halloran--I was delighted. Frankly,” he grinned at Knox, “we’re long on military and scientific brass and short on people who can manage other people.”

“I see.” Halloran pressed a buzzer on his desk. “I think some of my associates ought to be in on this discussion.”

“Discussion?” barked Knox. “Is there anything to discuss? We simply want you out of here in an hour--”

“Please, general!” the warden said quietly.

If the gray-clad man who entered the office at that moment heard the general’s outburst, he gave no sign. He stood stiffly in front of the warden’s big desk, a little to one side of the two visitors, and said, “Yes sir, Mr. Halloran?”

“Hello, Joe. Know where the captain is?”

“First afternoon inspection, sir.” He cocked an eye at the clock on the wall behind Halloran. “Ought to be in the laundry about now.”

The warden scribbled a few words on a small square of paper. “Ask him to come here at once, please. On your way, please stop in at the hospital and ask Dr. Slade to come along, too.” He pushed the paper across the desk to the inmate. “There’s your pass.”

“Yes sir. Anything else, warden?” He stood, a small, square figure in neat gray shirt and pants, seemingly oblivious to the ill-concealed stares of the two visitors.

Halloran thought a moment, then said, “Yes ... I’d like to see Father Nelson and Rabbi Goldsmid, too.”

“Uh, Father Nelson’s up on the Row, sir. With Bert Doyle.”

“Then we’ll not bother him, of course. Just the others.”

“Yes, sir. On the double.”

Lansing slouched around in his chair and openly watched Joe Mario walk out. Then he turned back to Halloran and said, “That chap a ... a trusty, warden?”

“To a degree. Although we no longer use the term. We classify the inmates according to the amount of responsibility they can handle.”

“I see. Ah--” he laughed embarrassedly, “this is the first time I’ve been in a prison. Mind telling me what his crime was?”

Halloran smiled gently. “We try to remember the man, Dr. Lansing, and not his crime.” Then he relented. “Joe Mario was just a small-time crook who got mixed up in a bad murder.”

Lansing whistled.

“Aren’t we wasting time?” growled the general. “Seems to me, warden, you could be ordering your people to pack up without any conference. You’re in charge here, aren’t you?”

Halloran raised his eyebrows. “In charge? Why, yes ... in the sense that I shape the final decisions. But all of my assistants contribute to such decisions. Further, we have an inmate’s council that voices its opinion on certain of our problems here. And we--my associates and I--listen to them. Always.”

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.”

“With what?”

“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.”

“Right, captain.”

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--”

“Who does go, then?” Halloran did not raise his voice but Knox looked suddenly uneasy.

“Why ... uh, your operating personnel,” he replied gruffly. “Your guards, clerks ... hell, man, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid that is out,” Goldsmid said. “For me, that is.” He stood up, a heavy-shouldered middleweight running a little to fat. “Excuse me, warden, my counseling period’s coming up.”

“Sit down, Pete,” Halloran said quietly. “We haven’t finished this conference.”

“I admire your sentiments, Rabbi,” Lansing said hurriedly, “but surely you realize that we can’t take any criminal elements to ... ah, what will be our new world. And we do have a special need for you. We’ve plenty of your co-religionists among our various personnel, but we don’t have an ordained minister for them. They’re your responsibility.”

“Afraid my first responsibility is here.” Goldsmid’s voice was quite matter-of-fact.

“So’s mine,” grunted Slade. “Warden, even if the world ends tomorrow, I’ve got to get Squeaker Hanley’s gall bladder out today. No point in my hanging around any longer is there?”

“Of course there is,” Halloran answered. He took a package of cigarettes from his pocket, selected one, and lit it. He exhaled smoke and looked speculatively at Lansing. The scientist felt himself blushing and looked away.

Halloran turned to Court.

“Quite a problem, isn’t it, Alfred,” he said. “I suppose these gentlemen are right in keeping the inmates off their ships. At any rate, we can’t argue the matter--so let’s do what we’re asked. I think you’d better plan to get the guards out of here tonight, at shift change. Might pass the word to their wives now, so they can start packing a few essentials. Doc,” he turned to Slade, “before you get your greedy hands on Squeaker’s gall bladder, you’d better round up your staff and have them make the proper arrangements.”

“O.K., I’ll put it up to them.”

“You’ll not put it up to them,” the warden said sharply. “You’ll order them to be ready when the general, here, wants them.”

“I’ll give no orders,” Slade said grimly.

“Just a minute,” interposed Court. “Sir, aren’t you going?”

“Of course not. But that’s neither here nor there--”

The loud clangor of a bell pealed through the room. The two visitors jumped.

“What’s that?” cried Knox.

“Yard time,” Halloran smiled. “The men are allowed two hours out in the yard, now. They exercise, play games, or just sit around and talk.”


“Did I understand you correctly, Warden Halloran?” Lansing’s bony face was pale now. “Do you refuse to come with us?”

When the bell rang, Joe Mario had been standing near the door to the warden’s office, ostensibly filing reports. Now, he closed the drawer with a bang, stretched, and started toward the outside door.

“Where are you going?” the guard asked suspiciously.

“The yard. Where else?”

“Not a word,” Mario added virtuously. “I was too busy doin’ my work. Anyway, you gotta let me out. My team’s got a ball game set for this afternoon.”

“Oh ... all right.” He looked at the typists. “How about you two? Want out?”

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