Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #coming of age, #prison, #science fiction, #1984, #intelligent computers, #big brother, #juvenile delinquents
Danny shook his head. “What are you talking
Ralph whispered, “I ain’t told nobody about this. But
I’m showing it to you. If you’re a fink for Tenny... you ain’t just
going to see this, you’re going to
Keeping his eyes on the closest teacher, who was
several benches away, Ralph bent down slightly and reached
underneath his bench. He pulled and then brought his hand out far
enough for Danny to see what was in it.
“Hey!” Danny whispered.
It looked crude but deadly. The pistol grip was a
sawed-off piece of pipe. The trigger was wired to a heavy spring.
The barrel was another length of pipe.
“Shoots darts,” Ralph whispered proudly. He took a
pair of darts from his shirt pocket. They looked to Danny like big
lumber nails that had been filed down to needle points.
“You made it all yourself?” asked Danny.
Ralph nodded. He put the darts back in his pocket and
tucked the gun inside his shirt. It made a heavy bulge in his
“Now I got to test it. There’s a spot out in the
woods I know. No TV eyes to watch you there. If it works, then
tonight I go sailing out of here. Right through the front
Danny gave a low whistle. “That takes guts.”
“With this,” Ralph said, tapping the gun, “I can do
it. Now, you start walking out. I’ll be right behind you. Don’t go
too fast. Take it easy, look like everything’s cool. And remember,
if you peep one word, I’ll test this piece out on you.”
“Hey, I’m with you,” Danny insisted.
They walked together toward the door, with Ralph
slightly behind Danny so that no one could see the bulge in his
They threaded their way past the work benches, where
the other boys were busy on their projects. The two teachers paid
no attention to them at all. They got past the last bench and were
crossing the final five feet of open floor space to the door.
The door swung shut.
All by itself. It shut with a slam. All the power
machinery stopped. The room went dead silent. Danny stopped in his
tracks, only two steps from the door. He could hear Ralph breathing
just behind him.
“ONE OF THE BOYS AT THE DOOR IS CARRYING SEVERAL
POUNDS OF METAL,” said SPECS from a loudspeaker in the ceiling, “I
HAVE NO RECORD OF PERMISSION BEING GIVEN TO CARRY THIS METAL AWAY
FROM THE SHOP.”
Danny turned and saw all the guys in the shop staring
at him and Ralph. The two teachers were hurrying toward them. With
a shrug of defeat, Ralph pulled the gun from his shirt and held it
out at arm’s length, by the barrel.
One of the teachers, his chunky face frowning, took
the gun. “You ought to know better, Malzone.”
Ralph made a face that was half smile, half
“And what’s your name?” the teacher asked Danny. “How
do you fit into this? I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“He don’t fit in,” Ralph said, before Danny could
answer. “He didn’t know anything about it. I built it all myself.
He didn’t even know I had it on me.”
The teacher shook his head. “I still want your name,
“Romano. Danny Romano.”
The second teacher took the gun from the first one,
looked it over, hefted it in his hand. “Not a bad job, Malzone.
Heavier than it needs to be. Who were you going to shoot?”
“Whoever got between me and the outside.”
The teacher said, “If you’d put this much effort into
something useful, you could walk out the front gate, and do it
without anyone trying to stop you.”
“And, by the way, SPECS won’t let anybody through the
door if he’s heavier than he was when he walked in. We’re all
standing on a scale, right now. It’s built into the floor.”
“Thanks for telling me,” said Ralph.
“Okay, get out of here,” the teacher said. “And don’t
either one of you come back until you’ve squared it with Dr.
Ralph started for the door. It clicked open.
Danny followed him.
Out in the hall, Danny said, “Thanks for keeping me
off the hook.”
Ralph shrugged. “And I was afraid you was working for
Tenny. With that lousy SPECS, he don’t need no finks.”
“What happens to you now?” Danny asked as they headed
for the elevator.
“I’ll get a lecture from Tenny, and for a couple
months I’ll have to take special classes instead of shop work.”
“Is that all?”
Ralph stopped walking and looked at Danny. His eyes
seemed filled with tears. “No it ain’t all. I thought I’d be out of
here tonight. Now I’m further behind the eight ball than ever. I
don’t know when I’ll get out. Maybe never!”
Danny worked hard for the next two weeks. He paid
attention in classes. He passed his first reading test with SPECS,
and Mr. Cochran let him pick out his own books. Danny started
reading books about airplanes and rockets.
The arithmetic class with Joe Tenny was almost
“You keep going this well,” Tenny told him, “and I’ll
start showing you how to work with SPECS on really tough
Danny smiled and nodded, and tried not to show how
much he wanted to get SPECS to work for him.
Danny worked especially hard in the language class,
so that the teacher would let him take one of the class’s pocket
tape recorders back to his room. For extra homework.
The teacher—a careful, balding old man—said he’d let
Danny have the tape recorder “in a little while.”
Afternoons, Danny spent mostly in the gym. He took an
asthma pill before every workout, but found that he needed another
one after a few minutes of heavy work.
Ralph was still showing him dirty tricks, still
telling him to “break Lacey’s head open.” Ralph even got into the
ring and sparred with Danny.
And Danny took on a job. He joined the Campus
Clean-up Crew. It was a pleasant outdoor job now that the weather
had turned warm and the trees were in full leaf. Danny spent two
hours each afternoon raking lawns, cutting grass, picking up any
litter that the boys left around the campus. And he was also
learning to spot the little black boxes lying nearly buried in the
ground, the boxes that held the cameras and lasers and alarms for
The day before his fight with Lacey, Danny’s language
teacher finally let him have a pocket tape recorder. But it was too
late to try a breakout before the fight. Danny figured he would
need at least a week to get the right words from Joe Tenny onto a
tape. Then he’d have to juggle the words onto another tape until he
had exactly the right order to give SPECS.
Danny wasn’t looking forward to fighting Lacey. It
would have been fine with him if he could have escaped the Center
before the fight. But he wasn’t going to back out of it.
Maybe Lacey’ll help get me out of here, Danny
thought, with a grim smile. On a stretcher.
The gym had been changed into an arena. All the
regular equipment had been put away, the ring dragged out to the
center of the gym, and surrounded by folding chairs. All the chairs
were filled with teachers and boys who cheered and hollered for
their favorite boxers. And they booed the poor ones without
Danny could hear the noise of the crowd from inside
the locker room. Ralph had helped him find a pair of trunks that
fit him. They were bright red, with a black stripe.
The color of
Danny thought. One of the gym teachers wrapped tape
around Danny’s hands and helped him into the boxing gloves. Then
they fit him with a head protector and mouthpiece.
There were no other boxers in the locker room.
Danny’s fight was the last one of the evening. Lacey was getting
ready in another locker room, on the other side of the
“Now remember,” Ralph whispered to Danny when the
teacher left them alone, “get in close, grab him, trip him up, push
him off-balance. Then hit him with everything you got! Elbows,
head, everything. You got a good punch, so use it.”
The crowd roared and broke into applause. He could
hear the bell at ringside ringing.
“Okay Romano,” the teacher called from the doorway.
“It’s your turn.”
The head protector felt heavy, and clumsy. The
mouthpiece tastes funny, like a new automobile tire might taste,
As he entered the gym a big cheer went up. Danny
started to smile, but then saw that the cheering was for Lacey, who
was coming toward the ring from the other side of the gym.
As he walked toward the ring, boys hollered at
“You’re goin’ to get mashed, Romano!”
“Sock it to him, Danny!”
“Hey, skinny, you won’t last one round!”
Dr. Tenny was standing at the ringside steps. His
jacket was off. He was wearing a shortsleeved shirt with no
“All set, Danny?”
“I’ve checked with the medics. They’re not too happy
about you fighting.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Did you take a pill?” Joe asked.
Nodding, Danny said, “Two of ‘em. Before I left my
“Good. If you need more, I’ve got some right here in
“Thanks. I’ll be okay.”
Joe stepped aside and Danny climbed up into the ring,
with Ralph right behind him. The crowd was cheering and booing at
the same time.
Guess who the cheers are for!
The referee was one of the gym teachers. He called
the boys to the center of the ring and gave them a little talk:
“No hitting low, no holding and hitting, no dirty
stuff. If I tell you to break it up, you stop fighting and step
back. Just do what I tell you, and don’t lose your tempers. Let’s
have a good, clean fight.”
They went back to their corners. Danny stood there,
alone now, and stared at Lacey. He seemed to be all muscle, all
hard and strong.
The bell rang.
Danny couldn’t do anything right. He charged out to
the middle of the ring and got his head snapped back by Lacey’s
jab. He swung, missed. Lacey moved too fast! Danny tried to follow
him, tried to get in close. But Lacey danced rings around him,
flicking out jabs like a snake flicks out his tongue. Most of them
hit. And hurt.
The crowd was yelling hard. The noise roared in
Danny’s ears, like the time he was at the seashore and a wave
knocked him down and held him under the water.
Lacey slammed a hard right into Danny’s middle. The
air gasped out of Danny’s lungs. He doubled over, tried to grab the
Negro. His gloves reached Lacey’s body, but then slipped away.
Danny straightened up, turned to find Lacey, and got another
stinging left in his face.
It was getting hard to breathe.
Danny told himself.
Don’t get sick!
But his chest was
starting to feel heavy. Another flurry of punches to his body made
it feel even worse.
Danny finally grabbed Lacey and pulled himself so
close that their heads rubbed together.
“You want to dance, baby?” Lacey laughed.
Then, suddenly, he blasted half a dozen punches into
Danny’s guts, broke away, and cracked a solid right to Danny’s
cheek. Danny felt his knees wobble.
The bell rang.
Ralph was angry. “You didn’t do nothing I told you
to! You got to get in close, hold him, butt him!”
Danny gasped, “You try it.”
He sat on the stool, chest heaving. His face felt
funny, like it was starting to swell. It stung.
The bell sounded for the second round, and it was
more of the same. Lacey was all over the ring, grinning, laughing,
popping Danny with lefts and rights. Danny felt as if he was
wearing iron boots. He just couldn’t keep up with Lacey. The crowd
was roaring so loudly that it hurt his ears. He tasted blood in his
mouth. And Lacey kept gliding in on him, peppering him with a
flurry of punches, then slipping away before he could return a
Danny’s chest was getting bad now. He was puffing,
gasping, unable to get air into his lungs.
It seemed as if an hour had gone by. Finally, Lacey
backed into the ropes and Danny made a desperate grab for him. He
locked his arms around Lacey, wheezing hard.
“Hey, you sick?” Lacey’s voice, muffled behind the
mouth protector, sounded in Danny’s right ear. “You sound like a
He pushed Danny away, but instead of hitting him,
just tapped his face with a light jab and danced off toward the
center of the ring. The crowd booed.
“Knock him out, Lacey!”
The bell ended round two.
Joe Tenny was at his corner when Danny sagged tiredly
on the stool.
“You’d better take another pill,” he said.
Shaking his head, Danny gasped out, “Naw... I’ll
be... okay.... Only one... more round.”
Tenny started to say something, then thought better
of it. He went back down the stairs to his seat.
“You got to get him this round!” Ralph hollered in
Danny’s ear, over the noise of the crowd. “It’s now or never! When
th’ bell rings, go out slow. He thinks he’s got you beat. Soon’s
he’s in reach, sock him with everything you’ve got!”
The bell rang. Danny pushed himself off the stool. He
went slowly out to the middle of the ring, his hands held low. The
referee was looking at him in a funny way. Lacey danced out, on his
toes, still full of bounce and smiling.
Lacey got close enough and Danny fired his best
punch, an uppercutting right, a pistol shot from the hip, hard as
he could make it.
It caught Lacey somewhere on the jaw. He went down on
the seat of his pants, looking very surprised.
The crowd leaped to its feet, screaming and
The referee was bending over Lacey, counting. But he
got up quickly. His face looked grim, the smile was gone. The
referee took a good look into Lacey’s eyes, then turned toward
Danny and motioned for him to start fighting again.