Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #coming of age, #prison, #science fiction, #1984, #intelligent computers, #big brother, #juvenile delinquents
Alan Peterson left the next week, but not before
Danny asked him if he had ever tried to escape.
Alan smiled at the question. “Yes, I tried it a few
times. Then I got smart. I’ll walk out the front gate. Joe Tenny
helped to get me a job outside. You can do the same thing, Danny.
It’s the only sure-fire way to escape.”
The day Alan left, Danny asked Ralph Malzone about
Ralph said, “Sure, I tried it four—five times. No go.
SPECS is too smart. Can’t even carry a knife without SPECS knowing
Danny asked all the guys in his classes, everybody he
knew. He even asked Lacey.
Lacey grinned at him. “Why would I want to get out? I
got it good here. Better than back home. Sure, they’ll throw me out
someday. But not until I got a good job and a good place to live
waitin’ for me outside. And until then, man, I’m the champ around
Danny dropped his class in Italian. But his reading
got better quickly. He found that he could follow the words printed
on SPECS’ TV screens easily now. And he was almost the best guy in
the arithmetic class.
Joe Tenny told Danny he should take another class.
Danny picked science. It wasn’t really easy, but it was fun. They
didn’t just sit around and read, they did lab work.
One morning Danny cleared out the lab by mixing two
chemicals that gave off bright yellow smoke. It smelled horrible.
The teacher yelled for everybody to get out of the lab. All the
kids boiled out of the building completely and ran onto the
The kids all laughed and pounded Danny’s back. The
teacher glowered at him. Danny tucked away in his mind the formula
he had used to make the smoke.
Might come in handy some
, he told himself.
The weeks slipped by quickly. Laurie came every week,
sometimes twice a week. Joe gave permission for them to walk around
on the “outside” lawn, on the other side of the administration
building, where the bus pulled up. There was a fence between them
and the highway. And SPECS’ cameras watched them. Danny knew.
Danny played baseball most afternoons. Then the boys
switched to football as the air grew cooler and the trees started
to change color.
Thanksgiving weekend there were no classes at all,
and the boys set up a whole schedule of football games.
The first snow came early in December. Before he
really thought much about it, Danny found himself helping some of
the guys to decorate a big Christmas tree in the cafeteria.
His own room had changed, over the months. The
bookcase was nearly filled now. Many of the books were about
airplanes and space flight. His desk was always covered with
papers, most of them from his arithmetic class. He had “bought”
pictures and other decorations for his walls from the student-run
store in the basement of the cafeteria building.
Thumbtacked to the wall over Danny’s desk was a
Polaroid picture of Laurie. She was wearing a yellow dress, Danny’s
favorite, and standing in front of the restaurant where she worked.
She was smiling into the camera, but her eyes looked more worried
Danny worked at many different jobs. He helped the
cooks in the big, nearly all-automated kitchen behind the
cafeteria. He worked on the air-conditioning machines on the roofs
of buildings, and on the heaters in the basements. He went back to
working with the clean-up crew for a while, getting a deep tan
during the hottest months of the summer.
All the time he was looking, learning, searching for
the weak link, the soft spot in the Center’s escape-proof network
of machines and alarms.
There’s got to be something,
Danny even worked for a week in SPECS’ own quarters;
a big, quiet, chilled-down room in the basement of the
administration building. The computer was made of row after row of
huge consoles, like oversized refrigerators: big, square boxes of
gleaming metal. Some of them had windows on their fronts, and Danny
could see reels of tape spinning so fast that they became nothing
but a blur.
If I could knock SPECS out altogether.... But
The answer came when the boys turned on the lights of
the Christmas tree in the cafeteria.
It was a big tree, scraping the ceiling. Joe Tenny
had brought in a station wagon full of lights for it.
Danny and the other boys spent a whole afternoon on
ladders, stringing the lights across its broad branches. Then they
plugged in all the lines and turned on the lights.
The whole cafeteria went dark.
The boys started to groan, but the cafeteria lights
went on again in a moment. The tree stayed unlit, though.
SPECS’ voice came through the loudspeakers in the
ceiling: “YOU HAVE OVERLOADED THE ELECTRICAL LINES FOR THE
CAFETERIA. YOU CANNOT PLUG THE TREE LIGHTS INTO THE CAFETERIA’S
REGULAR ELECTRICAL LINES. PLEASE SET UP A SPECIAL LINE DIRECTLY
FROM THE POWER STATION FOR THE TREE.”
Some of the boys nodded as if they knew what SPECS
was talking about. But Danny stood off by himself, staring at the
Electric power! That’s the key to this whole place!
If I can knock out all the electric power, everything shuts down.
All the alarms, all the cameras, SPECS, everything!
The Saturday before Christmas, Joe Tenny knocked on
Danny’s door. “You doing anything special tonight?” he asked.
Danny was sitting at his desk. He looked up from the
book he was reading. It was a book about electrical power
“No, nothing special,” he answered.
Joe grinned. “Want a night outside? I’ve got a little
party cooking over at my house. Thought you might like to join the
“Outside? You mean out of the Center?”
With a nod, Joe said, “It might
spend all my time here, but I do have a home with a wife and
“Sure, I’ll come with you.”
“Good. Pick you up around four-thirty. Don’t eat too
much lunch, you’re going to get some home-cooking tonight. Greek
style. I’m part Greek, you know.”
Joe’s house was a surprise to Danny. He had expected
something like a governor’s mansion, like he’d seen on TV. But as
Joe drove his battered old Cadillac toward the city, they zipped
right through the fanciest suburbs, where the biggest and plushest
houses were. Finally, Joe pulled into a driveway in one of the
oldest sections of the suburbs, practically in the city itself.
“Here we are.”
It was already dark, and Danny couldn’t see too much
of the house. It was big, but not fancy-looking. It needed a paint
job. There were four cars already parked on the street in front of
the house. Another car was pulled off to one side of the driveway.
The hood was off and there was no motor inside it.
“My oldest son’s big project,” Joe said as they got
out of his car. “He’s going to rebuild the engine. I’ve been
waiting since last spring for him to finish the job.”
Inside, the party was already going on. In quick
order, Danny met Mrs. Tenny, Joe’s two sons, a huge dog named
Monster, and six or seven guests. He lost count and couldn’t
remember all the names. More people kept arriving every few
Joe’s older son, John, took Danny in tow. He was
Danny’s age, maybe a year older. But he was a full head taller than
Danny, with shoulders twice his size. About half the guests were
teenagers, John’s friends. John made sure that Danny met them all,
especially the girls. They were pretty and friendly. Danny found
himself wishing that Laurie was with him... and then began to feel
guilty because he was enjoying himself without her.
There were more than twenty people at dinner. The
regular dining room table couldn’t hold them all, so Joe and his
sons brought in the kitchen table while Danny helped one of the
guests set up a card table. Everybody helped push all three tables
into one long row, and then spread tablecloths over them.
They ate and laughed and talked for hours, grownups
and kids together. Then they moved into the living room. Joe turned
on some records and they danced.
Most of the adults quickly dropped out of the dancing
but Joe and a few others kept going as long and as hard as the
teenagers did. Then they switched to older, slower music, and some
of the other grownups got up again.
Then somebody put on Greek music. Everyone joined
hands in a long line that snaked through the living room, the front
hall, the dining room and kitchen, and back into the living room.
Danny couldn’t get his feet to make the right steps. But he saw
that hardly anybody else could, either. Everyone was laughing and
stumbling along, with the reedy Greek music screeching in their
ears. The man leading the line, though, was very good. He was short
and plump, with a round face and a little black mustache. He went
through the complex steps of the Greek dance without a hitch.
When they stopped dancing and collapsed into the
living room chairs, the same man started doing magic tricks. His
name was Homer, and he had Danny really puzzled. He pulled
cigarettes out of the air, picked cards out of a deck from across
the room, changed a handkerchief into a flower.
Everyone applauded him.
“Boy, he’s great,” Danny said to John, who was
sitting next to him on the sofa. “Is he on TV?”
John laughed. “He’s my high school principal. Magic’s
just his hobby.”
Danny felt staggered.
A principal? Homer couldn’t
be. He was... well, he was too happy!
After a while, Danny went over to where Homer was
sitting and they started talking. He even showed Danny a couple of
“How’s Joe treating you at the Center?” Homer
“Huh? Oh... pretty good.”
Homer smiled. “I don’t see where he gets all his
energy. He’s at that Center almost twenty-four hours a day. You
should have seen him when he was trying to get the Center started!
He gave up his job at the State University and battled with the
Governor and the State Legislature until I thought they were going
to throw him out on his ear. He even went to Washington to get
Congress to put up extra money to help with the Center.”
Squirming unhappily, Danny said, “I didn’t know
“It’s true,” Homer said. “The Center is Joe’s baby.
You boys are all his kids.”
“Yeah. He’s... he’s okay,” said Danny.
The party went on well past midnight. As people began
to leave, Joe came over to Danny and said quietly, “Think you can
sleep with John without any problems?”
Danny blinked. “You mean sleep here tonight? Not go
back to the Center?”
Nodding, Joe said, “Don’t get any ideas. Monster’s a
watch dog, you know, and he sleeps right outside John’s door every
night. And I’m part Apache Indian. So you won’t be able to sneak
In spite of himself, Danny smiled. “Okay, I’ll behave
myself. I won’t even snore.”
“Good. Maybe tomorrow we can drive over to your old
neighborhood and see your girlfriend.”
“Yes. I tried to get her to come here tonight, but I
couldn’t reach her on the phone.”
Danny hardly slept at all. John’s snoring and tossing
in the bed helped to keep him awake, but mainly he was excited
about going back to his turf, going back to see Laurie. Would she
But Joe couldn’t get her on the phone. Why not? Where
was she? Had she moved out of her sister’s apartment? Wasn’t she
working at the restaurant anymore? Danny thought back to Laurie’s
last visit to the Center. It had been about a week ago. She hadn’t
said anything about moving. Had she looked worried? Was something
bothering her? Or
They got up late the next morning. By the time Joe
put Danny and Monster into his car and started for the city, it was
a little past noon. They drove in silence through the quiet
streets. Monster huddled on the back seat, his wet nose snuffling
gently behind Danny’s ear.
They got to the heart of the city and drove down
narrow streets where the buildings cut off any hope of sunshine.
Danny gave Joe directions for getting to his old neighborhood.
“Pull up over there,” he said, pointing. “By the
Nothing had changed much. As he got out of the car,
Danny suddenly realized that it had been almost a year since he’d
been around here.
Only a couple of young kids were in sight, sitting on
the front steps of one of the houses halfway up the block. The
street was just as dirty as ever, with old newspaper pages and
other bits of trash laying crumpled against the buildings and in
There were a few cars parked along the street. Danny
remembered the first time he had driven a car. He had stolen it
right here, from in front of the cigar store.
The store was closed. The windows were too dirty to
Danny thought to himself,
never thought about how crummy everything is.
“Where is everybody?” Joe asked. He was still inside
the car, one elbow resting on the door where the window had been
rolled down. Monster’s heavy gray head was sticking out the back
window, tongue out, big teeth showing.
“Some of the guys might be up at the schoolyard. It’s
about two blocks from here, around the corner.”
Joe said, “Okay. Hop in.”
Danny slammed the door shut and Joe gunned the
“What’s the matter?” Joe asked.
Danny shrugged. “I don’t know... it looks kind of,
“The neighborhood hasn’t changed, Danny. You
“What d’you mean?”
Joe swung the car around the corner and headed up the
street. “A writer once said, ‘You can’t go home again.’ After
you’ve been away, when you come back home everything seems changed.
But what’s changed is
. You’re different than you were
when you left. You’ll never be able to come back to this
neighborhood, Danny. In time, I don’t think you’ll want to.”