Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #coming of age, #prison, #science fiction, #1984, #intelligent computers, #big brother, #juvenile delinquents
They all looked at each other, nodding and
“How?” Ralph asked. He had taken the chair by the
Danny, standing by the window, answered, “That’s my
business. I got the plan right here in my head, and I ain’t tellin’
. You don’t like it that way, then you can get up and
leave. Right now.”
“Okay. Now... it’s goin’ to take hard work, and some
time. But we’ll bust this place wide open.”
“What d’you want us to do?”
Danny said, “I got jobs for all of you. They might
look stupid right now, but they’re goin’ to help us break out.”
“What kind of jobs?” Ralph asked.
“I want you and Hambone to get on the cleanup crew,”
“Hey, that’s work!” Hambone said.
Nodding, Danny went on, “I told you it’s going to be
work. Hard work, too. But it’s the only way to get out of
“What’re we supposed to be doin’?” Ralph asked.
“Besides talking to th’ birds and flowers, that is.”
“Just hang loose and don’t act suspicious.” Danny
turned to Noisy. “Think you can get yourself into the photography
class? We’re going to need a camera and some film.”
“Good,” said Danny. “Midget, I want you to get an
afternoon job in the administration building. Any kind of job, as
long as it’s in that building.”
“Can do,” Midget answered.
Turning to Vic and Coop, Danny said, “You two guys
got to get yourselves into the maintenance crew. Try to get jobs
that involve big machinery, like the heaters. Okay?”
Vic shrugged. “I don’t know nothing about
“Then learn!” Danny snapped.
Ralph gave Danny a hard look. “And what’re you goin’
to be doing?”
“Me?” Danny smiled. “I’m gettin’ myself a job with
SPECS. He’s got all the brains around here. He’s got to tell me a
few more things before we can blow this dump.”
They all met again in the cafeteria two days later.
Each boy reported that he had gotten the job Danny wanted him to
“Good,” Danny said as he hunched over the dinner
dishes. He kept his voice low enough so that the others could just
about hear it over the racket made by the rest of the crowd.
“Now listen. This is the last time we meet all
together like this. From now on, I’ll see each one of you alone, or
maybe two of you together, at the most. Stay cool, work your jobs
like you really mean it. In a month or so, we’ll be out of
When he got back to his room, there was an envelope
on the floor just inside his door. Danny leaned down and picked it
up, then shut the door as he looked it over. It was from outside.
His name and the Center’s address were neatly typed on the
The return address, in the upper left corner of the
envelope, was from some insurance company. Then he spotted the
hand-typed initials, LM, alongside the printing. It was from
Danny ripped the envelope open as he went to his desk
and flicked on the lamp. He had trouble pulling the letter out of
I’m sorry about the blow-up on Christmas Day. I still
have your present. I will give it to you when I visit you again. I
won’t be visiting again for a month or so. I think it might be
better if we both sort of think things over before we see each
I still love you, Danny. And I miss you a lot. I know
it is very hard for you inside the Center. But we both have a lot
of growing up to do before we can be happy together.
Danny read the letter twice, then crumpled it in his
fist and threw it in the wastebasket. For the first time in weeks,
he had to take an asthma pill before he could get to sleep that
The weeks crawled by slowly.
Danny got his job at the computer center, down in the
basement of the administration building. He often saw Midget there.
Midget was working somewhere upstairs. SPECS’ home was a relaxing
place to work in. It was quiet. For some reason, everybody tended
to talk softly. SPECS himself made the most noise—a steady hum of
electrical power. When he was working at some special problem,
SPECS made a singsong noise while he flashed hundreds of little
lights on the front control panel of his main unit.
Danny’s job was to help the adults who programed
SPECS and feed him new information. He carried heavy reels of
magnetic tape down the corridors between SPECS’ big, boxlike
consoles. There was a store room for the tapes that weren’t being
used, back behind the main computer room.
“These tapes carry SPECS’ memory on them,” said one
of the computer programmers to Danny. “They’re like a library...
except that SPECS is the only one who can read them.”
After a few weeks, Danny got to know most of the
people who ran the computer. More important, they got to know him.
They told him what to do when they needed him. The rest of the time
they ignored him.
Which suited Danny fine. He found a few little
corners of the big computer room where he could talk to SPECS, ask
questions. If anyone saw him sitting at one of the tiny desks,
talking to the TV screen on it, they would smile and say:
“Good kid, learning how to work with the
One of the first things Danny learned from SPECS was
that every conversation he had with the machine was stored on
“Has anybody checked these tapes?”
“I HAVE NO RECORD OF THAT.”
Danny spent a week quietly gathering the right tapes
and erasing all his talks with SPECS. Now no one could ever find
out what he had said to the computer. Then he got to work on his
escape plan. He had a pocket-sized camera now, which Noisy had
taken from the photography class.
“What’s the layout of the power station?” Danny asked
quietly. And when SPECS showed the right diagram on the TV screen,
Danny got it on film.
“How does the power generator work?”
“When the generator breaks down, what goes wrong with
it most often?”
“How’s the emergency generator hooked into the
Center’s main power lines?”
Danny would keep the photographs and study them in
his room for hours each night. And, of course, he erased all traces
of his questions and their answers from SPECS’ memory tapes.
The winter snows came and buried the Center in white.
Ralph and Hambone, faces red from the wind, noses sniffling, wailed
loudly to Danny about all the snow-shoveling that the clean-up crew
“I told you it’d be hard work,” Danny said, trying
hard not to laugh. If he got them angry, they could crack him like
Danny started Vic and Coop, on the maintenance crew,
checking into the electrical power lines in each building. He had
to make sure he understood all about the Center’s electrical
Vic said, “I ain’t seen no other emergency generators
any place. There’s just the one at the main power station. None of
the other buildings even has a flashlight battery laying around,
far as I can tell.”
Danny stopped Midget one afternoon in the hallway of
the administration building.
“How’s it going?”
“Okay. Got the phone line figured out. Any time you
want to pull the cable, I’m all set.”
“Good. Now, think you can find out when the
maintenance man leaves the power station alone?”
Midget said, “He don’t. There’s always a kid in
“I know. That’s what I mean. Try and find out when
the kid’s in there by himself. And who the kid is. Maybe we can get
him on our side.”
Nodding, Midget said, “Groovy. I’ll get the word to
The snow melted a little, then more fell. Late in
February, during a slushy cold rainstorm, Laurie visited the
Danny ran through the driving rain toward the
administration building, hunched over, hands in pockets, feet
getting soaked in puddles.
She picked some day to come
, he said to
She’s gettin’ to be nothing but trouble. Why’d she come
And then he heard himself saying,
Maybe she’s come to
say goodbye... that she don’t want me any more.
By the time he got to the visitor’s room, Danny felt
cold, wet, angry, and—even though he didn’t want to admit it—more
than a little scared. He stopped at the water fountain outside the
door and took an asthma pill. Then he went in.
Laurie was standing by the window, looking out at the
rain. Danny saw that she was prettier than ever. Not so
worried-looking any more. Dressed better, too.
She turned as he softly shut the door.
“Oh, Danny... you’re soaking wet. I’m sorry, it’s my
He grinned at her. “It’s okay. It’ll dry.”
They stood at opposite ends of the little room, about
five paces apart. Then suddenly Danny crossed over toward her, and
she was in his arms again.
“Hey,” he said, smiling at her, “you even smell
“You look fine,” Laurie said. “Wet... but fine.”
They sat on the sofa and talked for a long time.
Finally Laurie said, “Dr. Tenny told me you’re doing
very well. You’re working hard and doing good in class. He thinks
you’re on the right road.”
Danny laughed. “Good, let him think that.”
For the first time, the old worried look crept back
into Laurie’s face. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll see. Maybe you better start lookin’ at travel
ads. See where you want to go in Canada. Or maybe Mexico.”
“Danny, you’re not...”
He silenced her with an upraised hand. “Don’t worry
about it. This time it’ll work.”
Laurie shook her head. “Danny, forget about it. You
“I can and I will!” he snapped.
“Well, then, forget about me,” Laurie snapped
“Danny, I’m just getting to the point where I can
live without looking over my shoulder to see who’s following me.
I’ve spent all my life with you and the other kids, dodging the
cops, fighting in gangs. For the first time in my life, I’m out of
that! I’m living like a free human being. I like it! Can’t you
understand? I don’t want to go back to living scared every
“You mean if I....”
She grasped his hands and looked straight into his
eyes. “I mean I want you to walk out of this place a free man. Not
only free, but a
Not a kid who doesn’t care what he
does. Not a convict who has to run every day and hide every night.
I’ll wait for you for a hundred years, Danny, if I have to. But
only if you’ll promise me that we can both be free when you get
Danny pulled his hands away. “I’m not waiting any
hundred years! Not even one year. I’m busting out of here, and then
I’m coming to get you. And you’d better be there when I come for
She shook her head. “I won’t go back to living that
“Oh no? We’ll find out. And soon, too.”
“I’d better go now,” Laurie got up from the sofa.
“If you blab any of this to Tenny....”
She glared at him. “I won’t. Not because I’m afraid
of you. I won’t say a word to anybody because I want
decide. You’ve got to figure it out straight in your own mind.
You’ve got a chance to make something good out of your life. If you
try to break out of the Center, you’ll just be running away from
that chance. You’ll be telling me that you’re afraid of trying to
stand on your own feet. That you want to be caught again and kept
“Afraid?” Danny felt his temper boil.
“That’s right,” Laurie said. “If you try to break out
of here, you and me are finished.”
She walked to the door and left. Danny stood in the
middle of the room, fists clenched at his sides, trembling with
anger, chest hurting.
That night, after dinner, Danny and the other boys
met in the gym. They took a basketball and shot baskets for a
while, then sat together on one of the benches. The gym was only
half full, and not as noisy as usual.
“Okay,” Danny said. “I got enough scoop on how the
generator works and how to blow it. We’re going to turn off all the
electricity in the Center and walk out of here while everybody else
is runnin’ around in the dark.”
Their faces showed what he wanted to see: They liked
“I thought it was something like that.”
“It’ll be a blast.”
Noisy asked, “What about the emergency
“Got it all worked out,” Danny said. “Been getting
all the info I need from SPECS.”
“When do we go?”
“Tomorrow night,” said Danny.
Hambone whistled softly. “You sure ain’t fooling
“Six o’clock. Almost everybody’ll be in the cafeteria
for dinner. All the lights go, all the phones go, everybody goes
crazy, and we split.”
“Great!” said Midget. “The maintenance man at the
power station goes to the cafeteria at six. That’s when he leaves a
kid in there alone for about fifteen minutes.”
“I know, you told me,” Danny said. “That’s why I
picked that time. Who’s the kid tomorrow? Can we talk him into
going with us or do we have to lump him?”
Midget answered, “It’s Lacey. I don’t think he’ll go
along with us.”