Calvin lay on his stomach in the grass, looking at his Color Atlas. Inside the house Father was constructing a typhoon.
He’d watched over Father’s shoulder many times during the process, tried to follow the black gloved fingers as they fluttered across the control board, adjusting unlabeled sliders and knobs with microscopic precision. Sometimes he thought he began to see a pattern, but his eyes were too slow, and sooner or later he would have to give up. Especially on the difficult ones like hurricanes. The Government had been ordering a lot more of those lately.
Hurricanes were Father’s favorite. He liked trying to explain all the factors that went into the construction; the rotation, momentum, wind direction, steering flow, beta drift, all the little things that had to be mastered to make the thing hit exactly where it needed to go. Calvin tried hard to understand, but Father always got blustery and his mustache would start to quiver, and when that happened there was nothing much for Calvin to do but retreat to the yard with his Atlas and try to work out what he’d got wrong, usually with a list of mathematical exercises Father would write out in crisp black ink on yellow notebook paper.
Usually, he enjoyed doing the exercises. Even the hard ones. He liked the challenge of scribbling through the muddle of calculations, making sense of them one step at a time, then the rush of victory when it all snapped together in his brain, and he had the solution pinned down on the page, exposed and defeated.
Today, though, was Maintenance Day. Which meant that the moment he’d been waiting for and planning for and thinking about for weeks was almost here. Which meant that right now, his brain was too skittish to focus on numbers and equations, on the things he was supposed to be thinking about.
Instead, he was tracing southern Asia with his finger and wondering what a jungle looked like.
He suspected there were a lot of trees in a jungle, because he remembered when the Government had ordered a wildfire in an African jungle, and Father had kept talking about the trees as he noodled away at the control board.
He also suspected that there were people in a jungle, although he wasn’t sure where. Maybe in the trees.
The noonday sun was making his back uncomfortably hot, so he pulled his knees under him and pushed himself into a sit, crossing his legs and spreading the Atlas out on them. He wiped sweat from his hands onto his trousers, his mind turning impatiently to the house. When was Father going to call him in?
Across the yard, in front of the high black mesh of the fence, a lithe mechanical figure slunk with four-footed smoothness. Its feline-shaped head shifted side to side, scanning the yard. Big was regular as the clockwork that drove him–two circuits around the inner fence in the morning, five circuits around the house in the afternoon. When he had been younger, Calvin had been frightened of Big. Now he wasn’t.
Little, on the other hand…
Sometimes, he was still frightened of Little. On impulse, he looked up, scanning the fruit trees for a tell-tale glimpse of dark metal. He saw nothing but a few unripe apples, but that didn’t mean diddly. He’d learned that from the few times he’d tried to climb the fence, only to find Little clinging to the mesh above him, staring down with his angular, eyeless face.
Playmate. That’s what Father said Little was, a playmate for Calvin. Father never lied, Calvin knew that–he just sometimes said things when he meant something else. Calvin knew what Little was really for. Keeping him from climbing the fence, going Out.
He’d wanted to do it ever since he could remember–climb the fence. He didn’t even want to go all the way over. Just poke his head over the top, take a good look, see what it was like. Then climb back down. It wouldn’t be hard to climb. The layers of wire mesh were too thick to see through, but you could dig your fingers and toes into it and go up, if you were a good climber.
Father had told him it was dangerous. There were storms, and he might get in the way of one. There were other things beyond the fence, too, bad things–Father never talked about them outright, just dropped dark hints with deep furrows in his forehead.
Father probably didn’t know that it only made Calvin want to see even more, made his chest thump and stomach churn with a strange, nervous excitement that pulled his thoughts more and more toward the fence.
It was happening right now–the thumping, the churning stomach. Today was the day that only came once a year; Maintenance Day. The only day that Little wasn’t hanging over him like an invisible spying beetle, because he’d be on Father’s workbench, getting prodded with a screwdriver.
And maybe, if all went like he had planned, today was the day Calvin got to see Out.
A dark shade of guilt needled through his excitement. He’d never tricked Father like this before. But it wouldn’t really hurt anything, would it? It wasn’t as if he was really going Out. Just popping up for a quick look.
And really, Father had never told him not to climb the fence, not out loud, anyway. It was Little who had always kept him from it. And Little would never know. Neither of them would.
Besides. He was ten now, almost eleven. Last time he’d looked in his bedroom mirror, there had been a distinct dark tint to the fuzz on his upper lip. He was getting old enough that Father would probably have no disinclination to his taking a peek over the fence anyhow.
The klaxon sounded from inside the house, a shrill brassy bark, the Calvin-come-here call triggered by one of the many buttons on Father’s control board. Calvin slapped the Atlas closed and pushed to his feet. As he took off at a run for the front door of the house, his stomach fluttered like a wounded insect was trapped inside it.
His face burned. He couldn’t help but feel as if a detailed outline of his plan was spread out on it in large print, just waiting for Father to read. He couldn’t let himself be nervous. He went up the steps to the front porch, then stopped with one hand on the front door, the peeling white paint flaky under his fingertips.
One, two, three, four, five, he counted under his breath, drawing in deep through his nose. Father had taught him to do that, to calm his mind before he made decisions. He’d never had to do it much before, but it seemed to work now. The fluttering in his stomach calmed, and his hand shook only a little as he flipped back the latch. This would be easy, he told himself as he swung the door open. Quick and easy.