The sleek transcontinental airliner settled onto one of the maze of runways that was Stevenson Airport. With its turbojets fading into a dense roar, it taxied across the field toward the central building. Inside the plane a red light went off.
Senator Vance Duran unhooked the seat belt, reached for his briefcase, and stepped into the crowded aisle. The other passengers were all strangers, which had meant that for nearly an hour he had been able to give his full attention to the several hundred pages of proposed legislation and reports presented to the Committee on Extraterrestrial Development, of which he was chairman. But now there would be reporters, local political pleaders, the dinner at the Governor’s, and the inevitable unexpected interruptions which were a part of every trip home.
As he strode through the door and onto the mobile escalator, he donned his smile of tempered confidence in the economic future of the nation. A television camera went into action at once and news-men formed a small circle at the bottom of the ramp.
“That was a great little debate you put on with Ben Wickolm last week,” one of the reporters said. “You really tied him up.”
“You can thank Senator Wickolm for arousing me,” Duran answered, observing to himself that perhaps all of his efforts on the Hill did not go unnoticed in his home state, if most of them seemed to.
“What do you think, Senator, of the FCC’s modified ruling on the integrated lunar relay station plan?” another asked.
“I haven’t had time to get fully acquainted with it,” the senator evaded, stepping onto the ground and out of the way of the ramp.
“Say, Senator, what about the Mars colony project?” a third put in. “How come it’s bogged down?”
“No comment at present,” the senator said. But he gave them an ambiguous little grimace which was meant to suggest a minor but sticky snarl behind the scenes. He hoped it would satisfy them for the moment.
Making his escape as quickly as possible, he climbed onto the shuttle car already loaded down with the other passengers. Finding an empty seat, he folded himself into it, and was immediately joined by someone else.
“Well, Senator, how does it feel to be home?” his companion asked with sympathetic irony.
Duran turned, grinned, and reached for the man’s hand.
“Great, Wayne,” he answered, recognizing an old friend who had been of no small aid during his earlier years in politics. “Say, I’d ask you over for dinner if we weren’t going to the Governor’s tonight. Molly would love to see you. Unfortunately I’m leaving for Washington again in the morning.”
“Why doesn’t Molly move to D.C. with you, Vance?” the journalist asked.
Duran hesitated. “Maybe in a year or so. After the boys are out of highschool. If I get the job again.”
The smile on the younger man’s face was heartening.
“Don’t play coy with me, Vance. You know you’ve got this state sewed up.” Then came the slight frown of doubt. “Just one thing, though. A lot of people are wondering why the hold up on the colony project. You’re bound to get a little of the criticism. What the hell’s wrong, anyway?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Yeah. I can guess. There’s only one possibility, since the government scientists assure us they’ve ironed out all the technical wrinkles. But it’s pretty hard to believe that out of the thousands of people who volunteer every week, not even a couple of hundred are acceptable.”
Duran considered his answer carefully before voicing it.
“Ever ask yourself who volunteers, Wayne?”
The journalist looked at him oddly, then nodded.
The senator took an elevator directly to the helicopter landing on the roof of the building. It was several minutes before he had located the little runabout he had bought for his wife the previous Christmas. Jack Woodvale, their caretaker, gardener, and chauffeur, was just retrieving his suitcase from the baggage lift as the senator arrived.
Waiting until Woodvale had secured the suitcase in the luggage compartment and climbed into the pilot’s seat, Duran squeezed himself into the cabin. A minute or two later the little craft was rising from the port, directed automatically into the appropriate channel and guided off toward the city.
“How’ve things been going, Jack?” the senator asked. He felt good. Wayne’s friendship and assurances had provided a needed boost. “Everything okay?”
“I’d say so, sir,” Woodvale told him. “Had a little trouble with the solar screen. The store sent a man out to fix it. It’s all right now.”
The new power unit had been another of Molly’s ideas, Duran recalled. The old crystal sulfide screen had been perfectly reliable. But Molly had thought it looked ugly up there on the roof. Molly’s main faults, he decided, derived from her concern with the neighbors’ opinions.
“Oh, there was something else came up while I was on my way out to get you,” Woodvale continued abruptly. “The state’s Attorney General called--said it was important you contact him immediately.”
Duran sensed anger surging up as he remembered the times when, as District Attorney, Sig Loeffler had openly snubbed him. That, of course, had been back in the days when Duran had been a junior partner in one of the city’s smaller law firms. He had not forgiven Loeffler, nor had Loeffler given him any reason to do so. Only the Governor’s back-slapping mediation had allowed them to reach a politically stable relationship. The relationship did not involve Duran’s compliance with the man’s whims, however.
“Get him on the phone, Jack,” Duran said at last. “But just make one call. If he’s not at his office, forget it.”
In less than a minute Woodvale was turning around to say:
“He’s in, sir. You want to talk to him?”
Duran grunted and lifted the phone from the clamp beside his seat.
“Senator Duran speaking,” he said.
“Vance, this is Loeffler,” boomed a voice in considerable contrast to the senator’s own mild tone. “Something pretty fantastic has happened. We’re trying to keep it quiet, at least until we decide on what action to take. But if you can make it over here some time this evening, I’ll tell you the story. You’re going to be in on it eventually, and I thought you’d prefer getting in on it early.”
Duran had intended quite bluntly to explain that he had more important business. But there was something compelling about the man’s apparently ingenuous urgency that caused the senator to change his mind.
“Okay, Loeffler. I’ll be right over.”
He broke the contact and told Woodvale to dial his home number.
“Ernie, this is Dad,” he said at the sound of his younger son’s voice. “Tell Mother I’m going to stop off at the Attorney General’s office--that’s right--but that I’ll be home in plenty of time to get ready for the dinner. Got that? That’s right. How’s school? Something wrong? Okay, son, I’ll see you later.”
Ernie had said that everything was all right, but with an uneasiness in the way he spoke. Grades, maybe, Duran thought. The boy had been doing pretty well, almost as well as Roger, but was showing the inevitable adolescent ramifications of interest. Duran found himself musing briefly upon his own youthful extra-curricular forays up the tree of knowledge and sighed.
“Go to the capitol building, Jack,” he said.
“Which port should I use, sir?” the younger man asked.
“The official one,” Duran told him. This was Loeffler’s idea.
The senator was surprised to find one of the Attorney General’s harried-looking secretaries working late. She glanced up from her typewriter and gave him an equivocal smile of recognition.
“He’s expecting you, Mr. Senator,” she said, nodding toward the inner office. “Go right in.”
Sigmund Loeffler was not alone. But the two other visitors were paled by the aura of importance which emanated from the large black-haired man behind the desk. He rose grandly at Duran’s entrance, and without bothering to shake hands proceeded with introductions.
“Fritz Ambly, Senator Vance Duran. Fritz,” he explained, “is chairman of the state Youth Welfare Board.”
Duran took the thin hand which the other extended to him and noted the concern on the man’s slim freckled face. His features were appropriately almost those of a child, but of a worried child.
“And Bob Duff, Senator Duran,” Loeffler went on. “Bob is head of our Civil Defense now.”
The second man was, in contrast, short and homely, but not without a touch of the other’s anxiety.
“Well, gentlemen, you’re welcome to stay if you wish,” the Attorney General told them. “I’ll have to repeat all the facts to Senator Duran, of course.”
“I’d better be off,” Ambly said. “Perhaps I’ll see you at the Governor’s tonight?”
“Not me, I’m afraid,” Loeffler told him. “The DA and I have a little problem to work out together. I’ll call you both tomorrow about the press release.”
“We can’t wait too long,” said Duff. “Rumors can be a lot worse than the truth. Especially about something like this. In fact, I don’t see the point in waiting at all.”
“Tomorrow, Bob. Tomorrow,” Loeffler promised. “Noon at the latest.”
His heavy smile faded as the two visitors closed the door behind them. With an unthrottled groan, he lowered himself into the chair and turned his dark gaze upon the senator.
“They think they have troubles,” he said.
“And you think I have,” Duran returned, seating himself.
“I know you do. Unfortunately I happen to share them to some extent.”
He paused to relight the stub of a cigar, then went on.
“It’s a crazy world we live in, Vance. Things change. Sometimes it’s hard for us adults to keep up with it. The kids seem to, though.”
Duran tried to appear suavely bored with the other’s musings. But in spite of himself he could sense his gaze becoming intently expectant. Whatever connection there might be between himself, Ambly, and Duff completely eluded him. And that elusive connection had aroused his curiosity.
“Yeah, they keep up with things, all right,” Loeffler went on. “And sometimes they get some pretty big ideas.”
He halted, puffed thoughtfully, then barked:
“Remember Mel Skinner’s lodge out on that island in Wakataoga Lake? Big Spanish-style place. Built it for that wife of his he brought back from Chile or somewhere.”
“Yes, I remember it. Molly and I spent a weekend there a couple of years ago. Why?” the senator asked, realizing more than ever how much he disliked Sigmund Loeffler. “What are you getting at?”
“Well, the next time you go you’d better take along some sleeping bags,” said Loeffler. “Because the house isn’t there anymore.”
“Okay,” Duran said, strangely anxious. “Let’s forget the riddles and get down to business. What happened to Mel Skinner’s hacienda?”
The Attorney General stared at his guest for a moment, before remarking harshly:
“It got blown up.”
“A bomb, you mean?” Duran asked.
“Oh, no, no--nothing so crude as that. This was a guided missile. With a warhead.”
The senator was thinking fast now, but still the pattern eluded him.
“Not an act of war, surely?” he remarked.
“More like an act of revolution,” Loeffler told him. “Because the agents behind it were kids. Kids from our state, our city. Kids from decent homes, educated families. Bright kids. Happy kids. Kids with every opportunity. Kids who ought to know better--“
“Hold it, Loeffler!” Duran interrupted, rising from the chair to place both hands on the edge of the desk. “Just one question--was anyone killed or injured?”
The other man hesitated melodramatically, then looked down at his cigar.
“No. There was no one on the island. The place had been closed down for the winter. That’s the only pleasant thing about it.”
Duran found it such unexpectedly good news that he was actually able to smile when he dropped back into the chair.
“In other words, Loeffler, it was a prank.”
But the Attorney General seemed not to see it in precisely that light.
“A prank, yes!” he exploded. “A hundred thousand dollar prank! My God, Vance, don’t you see what those boys did? They demonstrated the grossest lack of respect for private property. And what if they’d miscalculated? That rocket was fired from a distance of some fifty or sixty miles. It could have killed any number of people along its course had it fallen short.”
“Well, I’ll admit it’s not the sort of thing I’d like to see encouraged,” said Duran. “Now give me the details. Who were they? Where did they get the rocket? What was the point of it, anyway?”
Sigmund Loeffler opened a folder which lay on his desk and started sifting through its contents. He pulled out several memoranda and a list of names, closing the folder again.
“There was a gang of eight, all in the eleventh or twelfth grades at Eisenhower High. Five of them were members of the school rocket club. Three of them had juvenile delinquency records--minor stuff, mostly, like copter stunting and public disturbance. The youngest had won a couple of science awards for demonstrations in--” he glanced significantly at the senator, “the chemistry of explosives.”
Duran said nothing, but his sense of concern was growing.
“Let’s see,” Loeffler went on. “Two of the boys were taking vocational courses. One had his own machine shop, in fact. Then there was the electronics expert--Ceasar Grasso’s son--know him?”
The senator nodded.
“He runs the highschool T-V station. Knows a lot about radio, I understand. Oh, yes. There was also the lad who drew up the plans for the gadget. Pretty sharp at engineering design, they say--”
Duran peered numbly across the desk at the grim faced official. This was what he had been fearing all along. But despite his apprehension, he was not entirely ready for it.
“That, I suppose,” he said quietly, “was my son Roger.”
Loeffler nodded slowly. “That was your boy, Vance. Sorry I had to be the one to break it to you.”
“But where is he?” Duran asked. “And does Molly know about it?”
“She knows he’s been detained, but not how serious the charges are.”
“Just how serious are the charges?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Loeffler. “That’s not really my province, of course,” said Loeffler. “But the problem is complicated by the fact that Lake Wakataoga is state property, with the island merely leased to Skinner.”
Duran fumbled through his pockets for his cigarettes. He found them and lit one.
“When did this happen?” he asked, aware that the painfully tangled knot in his stomach was beginning to untie itself.
“This afternoon around one-thirty. A couple of guys fishing on the lake saw the explosion and called the local civil defense head-quarters. They claim they heard the rocket fall. Damned near had a war scare till the pieces were found. They were easy enough to trace, and the kids gave themselves away by all eight of them being awol from their one o’clock classes. Especially since five of them were absent from a physics class--that was one class they never cut.”
“I don’t see how they managed to go all the way through with it without someone finding out,” Duran said, bewilderedly.
“I know,” agreed Loeffler, nodding. “That’s the way we all felt. But they admit doing it--hell, they’re proud of it!--and we found the shed where the thing was assembled.”
“I don’t suppose they offered any motive,” Duran said.
“Oh, sure. They claim they’d been planning it ever since Skinner wouldn’t let them land copters on the island. Pretty weak, huh?”
The senator made no response.
“Well, Vance, I guess you’ll want to talk to the boy,” Loeffler concluded. “I had him brought up here. Figured it would be best all around that way. I knew you had to get back to Washington tomorrow and probably wouldn’t have time to see him then. Shall I have him come in?”
When Duran hesitated, he added, “Oh, I’ve got to duck out for a few minutes. Get some supper. Got a long evening ahead of me.”
“Okay, Loeffler, send him in. And--” This was the hardest part. “And I appreciate this.”
“No trouble, Vance,” the man said, rising and stepping around the desk. “No more than we’ve got already.”
He removed a suit coat from a hanger and left the office with it under his arm. A moment later the door opened again and the senator saw the shaggy head of his older son peer into the room. The boy was the one who finally broke the silence which followed.
“Hi, Dad,” he said, sauntering casually into the office. “Guess you’re pretty sore at me. Can’t blame you.”
Duran remained seated, indicating a chair against one wall. He waited till his son had sat down.
“I’m a little dumbfounded, Rog, that’s all. I suppose you had a good reason for it.”
“Sure. Old skinflint Skinner wouldn’t let us--”
“Roger!“ the senator growled threateningly. He was not going to allow the interview to start off with a half-truth.
“Yeah, but that’s state land,” the boy persisted. “He hadn’t any right--”
“Roger, I said a good reason.”
“Okay, Dad,” he sighed. “No, we didn’t have that kind of a reason.”
“What it amounted to,” Duran said, “was that you wanted to do something spectacular like building a rocket and firing it at something. Only to be fun it had to be illegal, if not immoral. And Melvin Skinner’s place seemed like the least objectionable target. Isn’t that about it?”