Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #coming of age, #prison, #science fiction, #1984, #intelligent computers, #big brother, #juvenile delinquents
Turning, Danny headed for the food. Around a corner
of the hallway was a big, open, double doorway. Inside it was the
cafeteria, noisy and busy with at least a hundred boys. They were
standing in line, waving across the big room to friends, rushing
toward tables with trays of steaming food, talking, laughing,
eating. They moved as freely as they wanted and they all seemed to
be talking as loudly as their lungs would let them.
The tables were small, four or six places each. In a
few spots, boys had pushed together a couple of tables to make room
for a bigger group.
Danny remembered the dining room in the State Prison.
You marched in single file and ate at long, wooden tables that were
so old the paint was gone. The wood itself was cracked and carved
with the initials of fifty years’ worth of boys.
This cafeteria was sparkling new. The walls, the
tables, the floors all gleamed with fresh paint and plastic and
metal. One whole wall was glass. Outside you could see a stretch of
grass and a few young trees.
He took a place at the end of the food line. The boys
moved along quickly, even though some of them were talking and
kidding back and forth. Soon Danny was taking a tray and a wrapped
package of spoon, knife, and fork. All plastic.
It surprised him to see that there were no people
behind the food counter. Everything was automatic. Boys took a bowl
of soup, or a sandwich, or a metal-foil dish that held an entire
hot dinner in it. As soon as one piece was taken, another popped
through a little door in the wall to replace it.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?”
Danny turned to see, in line behind him, a tall boy
with sandy hair and a scattering of freckles across his snub
“My name’s Alan Peterson. No, don’t tell me yours.
Let me see if I can remember it. SPECS flashed pictures of all the
new guys on the news this morning. You’re... emm... Danny
Alan grinned. “See, I got it. Almost.”
“Yeah.” Danny reached for a sandwich and an apple.
The only drinks he could see were milk, either white or chocolate.
He took a chocolate.
Stepping away, Danny looked around for a table.
“Come on with me,” Alan said cheerfully. “I’ll sit
you down with some of the guys. You ought to make friends.”
Alan steered him toward a six-place table. Three of
the seats were already filled. Danny stopped suddenly.
“I ain’t sittin’ there.”
Danny jerked his head toward one of the boys at the
table. “‘Cause I don’t eat with niggers, that’s why not.”
Alan looked at Danny in a funny way. Not sore, but
“Okay,” he said softly. “Find your own friends.”
He left Danny standing there with the tray in his
hands and went to the table. Another Negro came up at the same time
and sat beside Alan.
Danny found a small table that was empty and sat
there alone, with his back to the doors and the food line. He was
facing the glass wall and the outside.
He ate quickly, thinking, Don’t waste any time. Walk
around, see how big the place is, how hard it’ll be to get out.
He got up from the table and started to walk away.
But SPECS’ voice came from an overhead loudspeaker:
“PLEASE TAKE YOUR TRAY TO THE DISPOSAL SLOT IF YOU
ARE FINISHED EATING. THANK YOU.”
Danny looked up at the ceiling, then turned and saw
other boys bringing their trays to a slot in the wall, not far from
the table where he was. With a small shrug, he took his tray to the
He watches everything
, Danny thought as he
glanced up at one of the TV cameras in the ceiling.
It was still chilly outside after lunch, even though
the sun was shining. Danny thought he had seen a jacket—a
windbreaker—among the clothes on his bed. But he didn’t bother
going back to his room. Instead, he jammed his fists in his slacks
pockets, hunched his shoulders, and headed toward the trees that
were out at the edge of the campus.
He didn’t get far.
From behind him, a soft voice said, “Here you don’t
like eatin’ with black men, skinny.”
Danny turned around. Two Negroes were standing there,
grinning at him. But there was no friendship in their smiles. Danny
thought they might be the two boys who had been at the table Alan
tried to steer him to.
For a moment they just stood there, looking each
other over. There were a couple of other boys around, white and
black, but they stayed a little distance away. Out of it. Danny
could feel himself tensing, his fists clenching hard inside his
One of the blacks was Danny’s own height, and not
much heavier. The other was tall and thin, built for basketball. He
had sleepy-looking eyes, and a bored, cool look on his face.
“That true, skinny?” the tall one asked. “You don’t
want to eat with us?”
Danny swore at him.
“My, my, such language,” said the smaller of them.
“Real rough one, this guy. Hard as nails.”
They both laughed. Danny said nothing.
The tall Negro said slowly, “Listen baby. You got a
problem. You’re bein’ put down in the schedule to fight Lacey here,
first of the month.”
Lacey nodded and grinned brightly. “So start workin’
out in the gym, Whitey, or you won’t last even half a round.”
“Yeah.” The tall one added, “And in case you don’t
know it, Lacey here’s the lightweight champ o’ this whole Center.
And he ain’t gonna be playing games with you in that ring.
And they both walked away, as quickly and softly as
they had come. Danny stood there alone, trembling with rage. He was
so angry that his chest was starting to hurt.
The other boys who had been hanging around, started
to drift back toward the buildings. But one of the white boys came
up to Danny.
“My name’s Ralph Malzone. I seen what them black
bastards done to ya.”
Ralph was a big redhead, huge and solid, like a
pro-football player. His face was round and puffy, with tiny eyes
squinting out, and little round ears plastered flat against his
skull. He looked as if his skin was stretched as tight as it could
go, another ounce would split it apart. But Ralph didn’t look fat;
Danny looked up at him. “I couldn’t even understand
what they were saying, half the time.”
“I heard ‘em,” Ralph answered. “You’re new, huh?
Well, there’s a boxing match here every month. You been put down to
fight Lacey. He’s the lightweight champ. If you don’t fight him,
everybody’ll think you’re chicken.”
Danny didn’t answer. He just stood there, feeling
cold whenever the wind gusted by.
“Lacey’s fast. Hits hard for a little guy.”
“I’m shaking,” Danny said.
Ralph laughed. “Hey, you’re okay. Listen, I’ll help
you out. In the gym. I know a lot about fighting.”
“Why should you help me?”
Ralph’s face started to look mean. “I don’t like to
see white guys gettin’ picked on. And I want that Lacey creamed. He
needs his head busted. Only, they won’t let me fight him. I’m a
Grinning, Danny asked, “Why wait for the first of the
month? Get him outside.”
“Boy, wouldn’t I like to!” Ralph said. “But it ain’t
as easy as it sounds. Too many TV cameras around. Step out of line
and they catch you right away.... But you got the right idea. Boy,
to mash that little crumb.”
Nodding, Danny said, “Okay... uh, I’ll see you in the
“Good,” said Ralph. “I’ll look for you.”
Ralph headed back for one of the classroom buildings.
Danny started out again for the trees.
It was colder in the woods. The bare branches of the
trees seemed to filter out almost all of the sun’s warmth. They sky
had turned a sort of milky-gray. The ground under Danny’s sneakers
was damp and slippery from melted snow and the remains of last
year’s fallen leaves.
Danny hated the cold, hated the woods, hated
everything and everybody except the few blocks of city street where
he had lived and the guys who had grown up on those streets with
him. They were the only guys in the world you could trust. Can’t
trust grown-ups. Can’t trust teachers or cops or lawyers or judges
or jail guards. Can’t trust Tenny. Can’t even trust this new guy,
Ralph. Just your own guys, the guys you really know. And Laurie. He
had to get back to Laurie.
His feet were cold and wet and he could feel his
chest getting tight, making it hard to breathe. Soon his chest
would be too heavy to lift, and he’d have to stop walking and wait
for his breathing to become normal again. But Danny kept going,
puffing little breaths of steam from his mouth as he trudged
through the woods.
And there it was!
The fence. A ten-foot-high wire fence. And on the
other side of it, the highway. The outside world, with cars zipping
by and big trailer trucks shifting gears with a grinding noise as
they climbed the hill.
Danny stood at the edge of the trees, a dozen feet
from the fence. Two hours down that highway was home. And
He leaned his back against a tree, breathing hard,
feeling the rough wood through his thin shirt. He listened to
Like an old man
, he told himself angrily.
You sound like a stupid old man
When his breathing became normal again, Danny started
walking along the fence. But he stayed in among the trees, so that
he couldn’t be seen too easily.
No guards. The fence was just a regular wire fence,
the kind he’d been able to climb since he was in grade school.
There wasn’t even any barbed wire at the top. And nobody around to
He could scramble over the fence and hitch a ride
back to the city. He wasn’t even wearing a prison uniform!
Danny laughed to himself. Why wait? He stepped out
toward the fence.
“Hold it Danny! Hold it right there!”
Danny spun around. Standing there among the trees was
Joe Tenny, grinning broadly at him.
“Did you ever stop to think that the fence might be
carrying ten thousand volts of electricity?” Joe asked.
Danny’s mouth dropped open. Without thinking about
it, he took a step back from the fence.
Joe walked past him and reached a hand out to the
wire fence. “Relax. It’s not ‘hot.’ We wouldn’t want anybody to get
Danny felt his chest tighten up again. Suddenly it
was so hard to breathe that he could hardly talk. “How... how’d
“I told you the Center was escape-proof. SPECS has
been watching you every step of the way. You crossed at least eight
different alarm lines.... No, you can’t see them. But they’re
there. SPECS called me as soon as you started out through the
woods. I hustled down here to stop you.”
He’s big but he’s old, Danny thought. Getting fat. If
I can knock him down and get across the fence...
“Okay, come on back now,” Joe was saying.
Danny aimed a savage kick below Joe’s belt. But it
never landed. Instead he felt himself swept up, saw the highway and
then the cloudy sky flash past his eyes, and then landed face-down
on the damp grass. Hard.
“Forget it, kid,” Joe said from somewhere above him.
“You’re too small and I’m too good a wrestler. I’m part Turk, you
Danny tried to get up. He tried to get his knees
under his body and push himself off the ground. But he couldn’t
breathe, couldn’t move. Everything was black, smelled of wet
leaves. He was choking....
He opened his eyes and saw a green curtain in front
of him. Blinking, Danny slowly realized that he was in a hospital
bed. It was cranked up to a sitting position.
Joe Tenny was sitting beside the bed, his face very
“You okay?” Joe asked.
Danny nodded. “Yeah... I think so....”
“You scared me! I thought I had really hurt you. The
doctors say it’s asthma. How long have you had it?”
Joe pulled his chair up closer. “Asthma. How long
have you had trouble breathing?”
Danny took a deep breath. His chest felt okay again.
Better than okay. It had never felt this good.
“It comes and goes,” he said. “Hits when I’m working
hard... running... things like that.”
“And not a sign of it showed up in your physical
exams,” Joe muttered. “How old were you when it first hit you?”
“I don’t know. What difference does it make?”
“How old?” Joe repeated. His voice wasn’t any louder,
but it somehow seemed ten times stronger than before.
Danny turned his head away from Joe’s intense stare.
“Five, maybe six.” Then he remembered.
“It was the year my father died. I was five.”
Joe grunted. “Okay. The doctors need to know.”
“I thought you was a doctor,” Danny said, turning
back to him.
Tenny smiled. “I am, but not a medical doctor. I’m a
doctor of engineering. Been a teacher a good part of my life.”
“You don’t think much of teachers? Well, I don’t
blame you much.”
Joe got up from his chair.
Danny looked around. The bed was screened off on
three sides by the green curtain. The fourth side, the head of the
bed, was against a wall.
“Where am I? How long I been here?” he asked.
“In the Center’s hospital. You’ve been here about six
hours. It’s past dinnertime.”
“I figured I’d be back home by now,” Danny
Joe looked down at him. “You’ve had a rough first
day. But you’ve made it rough on yourself. Listen... there’s a lot
I could tell you about the Center. But I think it’s better for you
to find out things for yourself. All I want you to understand right
now is one thing: around here, you’ll get what you earn. Understand
that? For the first time in your life, you’re going to get
what you earn.”