Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #coming of age, #prison, #science fiction, #1984, #intelligent computers, #big brother, #juvenile delinquents
“How’d you know I was in here?” Danny asked, stopping
suddenly by the door and frowning at the screen.
“THERE IS A SENSING DEVICE IN THE DOORWAY. AND THE
ROOM LIGHTS WENT ON. I HAVE A...”
“But how’d you know it was me? Can you see me?”
“THERE ARE NO CAMERAS IN THE STUDENTS’ ROOMS. I DID
NOT KNOW FOR CERTAIN THAT IT WAS YOU. HOWEVER, THE CHANCES WERE
BETTER THAN NINETY PERCENT THAT ONLY YOU WOULD ENTER YOUR OWN ROOM
AT THIS TIME OF THE EVENING. I HAVE A MES...”
“Well then, how’d you know I’m Danny Romano? I could
of been anybody.”
SPECS’ voice did not change a bit, but somehow Danny
felt that the computer was getting sore at him. “YOUR VOICE IS THE
VOICE OF DANIEL FRANCIS ROMANO, AND NO ONE ELSE’S. I HAVE A
“You know everybody’s voice?”
“I AM PROGRAMED TO RECOGNIZE THE SPEECH PATTERNS AND
VOCAL TONES OF EVERYONE IN THE CENTER. I HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU
FROM THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT.”
SPECS waited patiently for Danny to reply. Finally,
Danny said, “Okay, what’s the message?”
“YOU WILL FIND A BOTTLE OF PILLS ON THE TABLE BY YOUR
BED. THEY ARE FOR ASTHMA. DIRECTIONS ARE WRITTEN ON THE LABEL. THEY
READ AS FOLLOWS! ‘TAKE ONE PILL BEFORE GOING TO BED AT NIGHT, AND A
PILL WHENEVER NEEDED DURING THE DAY. KEEP THIS BOTTLE WITH YOU AT
ALL TIMES. NOTIFY THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT WHEN ONLY FIVE PILLS ARE
“These pills’ll make me breathe okay?”
“I DO NOT HAVE THAT INFORMATION. I CAN PUT YOU IN
CONTACT WITH THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT. DR. MAKOWITZ IS ON DUTY AT THE
“Naw, that’s okay.”
Danny went to the bed and saw the bottle of pills on
the bed table. They were white, plain-looking. He glanced up at the
TV screen and saw that it had gone dead.
The screen glowed again, “YES, MR. ROMANO?”
“Uh... any other messages for me?” Suddenly Danny
felt foolish, talking to a TV screen.
“NO OTHER MESSAGES. I HAVE YOUR SCHEDULE FOR
TOMORROW’S CLASSES, BUT I AM PROGRAMED TO GIVE THIS INFORMATION TO
YOU TOMORROW MORNING, AFTER YOU AWAKEN.”
“Can you give it to me now?”
“IF YOU ORDER THE INFORMATION, I AM PROGRAMED TO
ANSWER YOUR REQUEST.”
“You mean if I tell you to do it, you’ll do it?”
“Suppose I tell you to turn off all the alarms in the
“I AM NOT PROGRAMED TO ANSWER THAT REQUEST.”
Danny plopped down on the bed, his mind running
“Listen SPECS. Who can give you orders about the
alarms? Who can make you turn ‘em off?”
The answer came at once. “DR. TENNY, THE CAPTAIN OF
THE GUARDS, THE HIGHEST RANKING MEMBER OF THE GUARDS WHO IS ON
DUTY, THE CHIEF OF THE MAINTENANCE DEPARTMENT, THE HIGHEST RANKING
MEMBER OF THE MAINTENANCE DEPARTMENT WHO IS ON DUTY.”
Danny thought for a moment. “Suppose the guard
captain told you right now to turn off all the alarms. Could you do
“Okay SPECS,” Danny suddenly said loud and firm,
“turn off all the alarms!”
“I AM NOT PROGRAMED TO ANSWER THAT REQUEST.”
“This is the captain of the guards. I order you to
turn off all the alarms!”
Danny could have sworn that SPECS was ready to laugh
at him. “YOU ARE NOT THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD FORCE. YOU ARE DANIEL
FRANCIS ROMANO. YOUR VOICE INDEX SHOWS IT.”
“Okay SPECS. You got me cold.”
“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THAT STATEMENT.”
“You won’t tell Tenny about this, will you?”
“THIS CONVERSATION IS RECORDED IN MY MEMORY BANK. IF
DR. TENNY OR ANOTHER STAFF MEMBER ASKS TO REVIEW IT, I AM PROGRAMED
TO ANSWER THAT REQUEST.”
“But you won’t tell ‘em unless they ask?”
Danny grinned. Tenny can’t ask for something unless
he knows it exists.
“Okay. G’night SPECS.”
“GOOD NIGHT, MR. ROMANO.”
As Danny undressed, he wondered to himself, Now,
where can I get a tape recorder? And maybe I ought to get a gun,
too... just in case.
When Danny got to his first class the next morning,
he thought he was in the wrong room.
It didn’t look like a classroom. There were nine
other boys already there, sitting around in chairs that were
scattered across the floor. A man of about thirty or so was sitting
among them, and they were talking back and forth.
“Come on in and take a seat,” the teacher said. “My
name is Cochran. Be with you in a minute.”
Mr. Cochran looked trim and wiry. His hair was
clipped very short, like a military crewcut. His back was
rifle-straight. He looked to Danny more like a Marine in civilian
clothes than a teacher.
Danny picked a seat toward the back of the room. On
one side of him the wall was lined with windows. On the other was a
row of bookshelves, like a library. There was a big TV screen at
the front of the room.
Turning around in his chair, Danny saw that the back
of the room was filled with a row of little booths. They looked
about the size of telephone booths. Maybe a bit bigger. They were
“Hello. You’re Daniel Romano?” Mr. Cochran pulled up
one of the empty chairs and sat next to Danny. The other boys were
reading or writing, or pulling books from the shelves.
“This is a reading class,” Cochran explained.
“Different boys are working on different books. I’d
like you to start out today on this one.”
For the first time, Danny saw that the teacher had a
book in his hands. The title was
Friends in the City
Danny took the book and thumbed through it. It was
filled with pictures of smiling people—grocers, cops, firemen,
housewives—living in a clean, bright city.
“You got to be kidding!” He handed the book back to
The teacher grinned. “I know. It’s kid stuff. If you
think it’s too easy for you we can go on to something better. But
first you’ll have to take a test to see if you’re ready for harder
He walked Danny back to one of the booths. Opening
the door, Mr. Cochran stepped inside and flicked on the lights.
Danny saw that the booth had a little desk in it, and the desk was
covered with dials and push-buttons. Just above the desk, on the
wall of the booth, was a small TV screen.
Mr. Cochran fiddled with the dials and buttons for a
few moments, then stepped outside and said to Danny, “Okay, it’s
all yours. Just sit right down and have fun. SPECS is going to give
you a reading test.”
With a shrug, Danny went into the booth and sat down.
Mr. Cochran shut the door. The window on it was made of darkened
glass, so that Danny could hardly see the classroom outside. The
booth felt soundproofed, too. It had that quiet, cushionlike
feeling to it.
The TV screen lit up. “GOOD MORNING,” said SPECS’
“Hi. You know who this is?”
“DANIEL FRANCIS ROMANO.”
he ever wrong?
Then he got a sudden idea. “Hey SPECS, where can
I get a tape recorder?”
“TAPE RECORDERS ARE USED IN THE LANGUAGE
“Can you take ‘em back to your room? Are they small
enough to carry?”
“YES TO BOTH QUESTIONS. AND NOW, ARE YOU READY TO
RECEIVE STANDARD READING TEST NUMBER ONE?”
Smiling to himself, Danny said, “Sure, go ahead.”
By the time the test was over, Danny was no longer
smiling. He was sweating. SPECS flashed words on the TV screen.
Danny had to decide if they were spelled right. He pushed one
button if he thought the spelling was right, another button if he
thought it was wrong.
After what seemed like an hour of spelling questions,
SPECS began putting whole sentences on the screen. Danny had to
tell him what was wrong, if anything, with each sentence.
Finally, SPECS put a little story on the screen. Then
it disappeared and some questions about the story came on. Danny
had to answer the questions.
When he was finished, Danny slumped back in the
padded seat. His head hurt, he felt tired. And he knew he had done
The door to the booth opened and Mr. Cochran pushed
in. Danny saw, past him, that the classroom was now empty.
“How’d it go?” The teacher leaned over and touched a
few buttons on the desk top. Numbers sprang up on the screen.
“Not good, huh?” Danny said weakly.
Mr. Cochran looked down at him. “No, not so very
good. But, frankly, you did better than I thought you would.”
Danny sat up a little straighter.
“Look,” Mr. Cochran said, “I know
Friends in the
is a kind of dumb book. But why don’t you just work your
way through it? Read it in your room. You don’t have to show up
here in class every morning. SPECS can help you when you’re stuck
on a word. Then, when you think you’ve got it licked, come in and
take the test again.”
“How long will it take?”
Cochran waved a hand. “Depends on you. Three, four
days, at most. You’re smart enough to get the hang of it pretty
fast, if you really want to.”
Danny said nothing.
Mr. Cochran stepped out of the booth and Danny got up
and went outside, too.
“Look,” the teacher said, “reading is important. No
matter what you want to do when you get out of the Center, you’ll
need to be able to read well. Unless you can read okay, Dr. Tenny
won’t let you leave here. So it’s up to you.”
“Okay,” said Danny. “Give me the book. I’ll learn
But as he walked down the hall to his next class,
Danny told himself, Let ‘em think I’m trying to learn. Then they
won’t know I’m working on a break-out.
Danny went to two more classes that morning: history
and arithmetic. He fell asleep in the history class. No one
bothered him until the teacher poked him on the shoulder, after the
rest of the boys had left.
“I don’t think you’re ready for this class,” the old
man said. His thin face was white with the struggle to keep himself
from getting angry.
The arithmetic class was taught by Joe Tenny. To his
surprise, Danny found that he could do most of the problems that
Tenny flashed on the TV screen.
“You’ve got a good head for numbers,” Joe told him as
the class ended and the boys were filing out for lunch.
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll be a bookie when I get out.”
Joe gave him that who-are-you-trying-to-kid look.
“Well, you’ve got to plan on being
We’re not just
going to let you go, with no plans and no job.”
They left the classroom together and started down the
hall for the outside doors.
“Uh... the history teacher told me not to come back
to his class. I... uh, I fell asleep.”
“That was smart,” said Joe.
“Well, uh, look... can I take something else instead
of history? Maybe learn Italian.... I already talk it a
Danny felt his face go red. “Well, what I mean is,
maybe I could learn to talk it right.”
Joe looked slightly puzzled. “I don’t understand why
you’d want to study a foreign language. But if that’s what you want
to do, okay, we’ll try it. Just don’t fall asleep on the job.”
Grinning, Danny promised, “I won’t!”
After lunch, Danny went up to the gym. One of the
older boys showed him where the lockers were. Danny changed into a
sweat suit and went back onto the gym floor. He lifted weights for
a while, then tried to jog around the track up on the catwalk. He
had to stop halfway; it got too hard to breathe.
Got to get one of those pills.
He went back to his locker and took a pill. After a
few minutes he was able to breathe easily again. He went back to
the gym and found a row of punching bags lined up behind the ring.
No one was using them. Lacey was nowhere in sight. Danny felt glad
of that. Ralph Malzone came from around the corner of the ring,
“Hiya, Danny. Starting training for the fight? You
only got two weeks.”
Jabbing at a punching bag, Danny answered, “Yeah, I
Ralph looked bigger than ever in his gym suit. He
towered over Danny. “C’mon back here, behind the bags. I’ll show
you a few things.”
For the next half-hour, Ralph showed Danny how to use
his elbows, his knees, and his head to batter and trip up his
“All strictly illegal,” Ralph said, grinning broadly.
“But you can get away with ‘em if you’re smart. Main thing, with
Lacey, is keepin’ him off balance. Trip him, step on his feet. Butt
him with your head. Grab him and give him the elbow.”
Danny nodded. Then suddenly he asked, “Hey Ralph...
where can I get a gun?”
“A gun. A zip’ll do. Or at least a blade...”
Ralph’s smile vanished. His round, puffy face with
its tiny eyes suddenly looked grim, suspicious.
“What do you want a piece for?”
“For getting out of here, what else?” Danny said.
Ralph thought it over in silence for a minute. Then
he said, “Go take a shower, get dressed, and meet me in the metal
shop. Two floors down from here.”
Danny took his time. He wanted to be sure Ralph was
in the shop when he got there.
The metal shop smelled of oil and hummed with the
electrical throb of machines that cut or drilled or shaped pieces
of steel and aluminum. Boys were making bookshelves, repairing desk
chairs, building other things that Danny didn’t recognize.
There was a pair of men in long, shapeless shop coats
wandering slowly through the aisles between the benches, stopping
here and there to talk with certain boys, showing them how to use a
machine, what to do next. Back in the farthest corner, Ralph was
tinkering with some long pieces of pipe.
Danny made his way back toward Ralph’s bench. No one
stopped him or bothered him.
Ralph looked coldly at him. “I just been wondering
about you. Asking about a gun. Somebody tell you to ask me?”