The Wall (T.M. Doran, Copyright 2019)

The Recruitment Center was a dingy little room with one glassless window looking out at the Wall. No chairs in the room because the presentations were brief. Once a week, Of-Agers assembled in the soot-laden room to hear the Parties pitched in anticipation of the decision they would soon be compelled to make.

Lyn had already heard most of what the Party Pitchers would say, but it was an obligation of Of-Agers to attend orientation, as it was an obligation to make a choice of Parties.

The Pitchers came into the room, all looking much the same, all four glancing at the Wall before facing their audience.

The Siege Serf stepped forward first, saying, “Our byword is Attack and Conquer. Why try to go over the Wall, or around it, or under it when you can go through it? We operate three-dozen drills. We’re constantly developing harder drill heads. Just discovered a new diamond mine in the Wilderness. Once we have a hard enough drill and a powerful enough engine we’ll be through the Wall like a hot knife through a slab of butter.”

“How much penetration have you achieved?” an Of-Ager inquired.

“Nine inches plus,” said the Siege Serf, proudly.

“How thick is the Wall?” was the next question.

“We’re not sure. How thick can a wall be?”

The Siege Serf was elbowed aside by the Tower Serf, who said, “Our byword is Construct and Conquer. The Wall may be a hundred feet thick, a million miles long, and who knows how deep the foundations are, so why try to go through it, or around it, or under it when we have the know-how to go over it? Twenty Towers and counting, youngsters.”

“How high is the Wall?” an Of-Ager asked.

“Not so high we can’t get over it,” said the Tower Serf.

“Times up,” said the Track Serf, pushing through the other Party Pitchers. “Tracking is the only sensible way to breach the Wall. Our byword is Explore and Conquer. Diamond mines, deeper and deeper foundations, mining, don’t make any sense when you can lay track in a jiffy and go around the Wall.”

“How long is the Wall?” came the question from a youngster who didn’t know better.

“Not so long that we can’t get around it with enough track, and building track is easy compared to drilling, towering, and digging. We’ve laid thousands of miles of track so far. You can bet we’re close to one end or the other.”

Next, and last, was the Tunnel Serf, who said, “Slogans aren’t getting anyone past the Wall. If you’re going to dig for iron, diamonds, foundations, why not dig for what matters, go under the Wall? Tunnel Serfs can dig deep in the time it takes these drillers, track layers, and skyscrapers to gain a foot on the wall.”

“A question,” hollered a pale young thing in the back of the room. “What makes you think you can find the bottom of the Wall?”

A moment’s hesitation before the Tunnel Serf said, “Ever heard of footings with no bottom? Didn’t think so, youngster. They’re down there all right, and when we find ‘em…zip, we’ll be on the other side and living high.”

A bell went off and the Party Pitchers trotted out of the room. At the door, the Of-Agers dispersed, with Lyn looking up and down the Boulevard that paralleled the Wall at a distance of exactly one thousand feet.  From where Lyn stood, neither the top of the Wall nor either end could be seen, the same as every other vantage point along the Wall.

Not your typical dull-witted Of-Ager, Lyn had decided to talk to working Tower, Siege, Tunnel, and Track Serfs before deciding on a Party.

Down the smoky block went the youngster, passing massive siege-works, observing piles of dirt and slag that surrounded and buttressed tower foundations, tracks extending in both directions, a deep deep pit for tunneling.

The Tower Serfs hostel-tavern was in the shadow of the gargantuan Wall. Lyn waited there for Jean to finish work, drinking one of two grogs allocated each day to those who lived on the Serf side of the Boulevard.

Lyn recognized Jean from the photograph that had been provided and hailed the Tower Serf. “I was told you know a lot about Towers,” said Lyn.

“Twenty years can teach you a lot when you’re paying attention,” Jean said. “And I pay attention.”

“Do you recommend it?”

“Paying attention, or Tower Serfing?” said Jean, guffawing and rapping an empty mug on the tabletop.

Lyn said, “I’m Of-Age, choosing a Party.”

“Then listen to me, youngster. Tower Serfing’s better work than Siege, Track, or Tunnel Serfing, and we’ll get over the Wall sooner than they get through or around or under it. We’re too high up for hoodlums to bother us. Hard work, but what work isn’t, and you can go high…and I mean high.”

“Have you gone high?” Lyn asked the Tower Serf.

“High as the sky, chum.”

“When you’re high, you can see what’s beyond the Boulevard,” said Lyn.

“Sure…mines, slag, ash mountains.”

“Then what? What’s beyond that?”

“Can’t see no further through the smog and soot. Anyway, our business is the Wall. You show me a Tower Serf looking the other way and I’ll show you a goon on half rations. Up high, we see everything that needs seeing.”

“Except over the Wall,” said Lyn.

Squinting at the youngster, Jean said, “You won’t be so smart in six months. Too tired at the end of a Shift to think or talk. Not too tired for grog though. Take up Tower Serfing. That’s my advice. You’ll go high…hey, give me the rest of your grog and I’ll tell you a secret.”

Lyn pushed the half-filled mug in Jean’s direction, hoping this secret would help make a decision. Several gulps later, when the grog was gone, Jean said, “Ever hear of windows, chum?” When Lyn said no, Jean stepped to the bar, brought back another mug of grog, and said, “Everyone that’s worked ten, twenty years on the Wall has heard of windows. Well, I seen one for myself. At least, I thought so.”

Lyn said, “There aren’t any windows in the Wall, just stories about windows, grog dreams, breakdowns, delusions. That’s what they told us.”

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Well, who’s to say you ain’t right? Still, years ago, I woke out of a dead sleep a couple hours before my Shift, couldn’t get back to sleep neither. Set out to walk along the Wall, and what do you think I found…a window, maybe four foot square, dark on my side, glowing on the other.”

“How much grog that day?”

“No more than usual, thank you.”

Nor less, I bet, the Of-Ager thought. Lyn fought down the urge to laugh. “You must have seen how thick the Wall was.”

“That’s just it. Only a foot or so thick, at least at this window, and on the other side, green hills, a river, music—I heard it…not a speck a’ soot neither. I was opening the window before I caught myself quick and said, “Wait, old thing, you’ll be late to your Shift if you don’t get a move on. This ain’t approved, you can be sure of that. Bang, I slammed the window shut and ran back to my room. Now, this was strange—still had two hours before my Shift, so I went back to bed, and slept too.”

“How do you know you weren’t dreaming?” said Lyn.

“Too real. That’s what I told myself then. Now, I’m not so sure,” said Jean, babying the dregs of grog in the mug.

“Did you try to find the window again?” asked Lyn.

“Too busy Tower Serfing. And told myself taking a shortcut was cheating. Stiffing my Party like that isn’t my style. We’re going over that Wall, like I told you.”

“Why didn’t you go through, then come back and report what you saw?”

“Maybe I mightn’t of come back once I seen the other side.”

The youngster concluded that a bad bargain had been made when the grog was traded for Jean’s loony secret. Walking out of the tavern, Lyn had already dismissed Jean’s window as nonsense or madness. On the other hand, the ability to Go High was exciting to an Of-Ager.

Though rooms in the hostel had been reserved for Of-Agers like Lyn, some rooms were permanent habitations, and the Siege Serf Lyn was seeking was among the permanent residents.

Lyn knocked for several minutes before the Siege Serf said, “Hold your god-damned horses. I’m putting my pants on.”

The door opened, with Lyn quickly explaining the purpose for being there.

“I suppose I can spare a few minutes,” said the Siege Serf.

“You’re Carol?” said Lyn.

“Been ever since I can remember,” Carol said.

If this was a Siege Serf’s room, Lyn was inclined to select another Party. A small table, two chairs, bed, icebox, stove, and privy in the corner.

“Not much, eh?” said Carol, “I doubt you’ll do any better. Only good rooms are on the other side of the Boulevard. What do you want to know?”

“How long have you been a Siege Serf?”

“Well…I won’t say too long, and I won’t say long enough. Let’s say enough time to learn Siege Serfing inside and out, inside the mines and outside the drilling machine.”

“What do you like about it?” said Lyn.

The Siege Serf gave him a queer look. “I like that we don’t pussyfoot by going over or around or under things. We’re attackers, and we’re going through that Wall. You can bet on it. And we don’t have to worry about collapsement, or de-trackification neither.”

Lyn said, “Your Pitcher said you haven’t penetrated a foot into the Wall. Tower Serfs have gone up thousands of feet, Track Serfs have laid thousands of miles of track, Tunnel Serfs have gone hundreds of feet deep…”

“So what?” countered Carol, “If they’re never getting over it or around it or under it.”

Lyn pressed with, “How do you know you’re going to get through the Wall?”

“Have you heard about the super-diamonds we’ve discovered? Have you heard about Leslie’s super-power plant? When we combine them, getting through that Wall will be a piece of cake. Bosses say if we can drill an inch, we can drill a mile…just a matter of time.”

“Think you’ll have to drill a mile?”

“Just a figure of speech, kid-o. Walls ain’t that thick. Now, here’s a secret”—Lyn cringing at hearing this word again—“Those scaffolders, putt-putters, and moles are nervous, I’m telling you. Pretty soon, there’ll be one Party—ours, so don’t make a stupid decision. You may be the last Of-Agers to have a choice.”

This was something Lyn hadn’t considered, though the discoveries and inventions involving diamonds and power plants were widely known. So were reports that train speeds would soon double and super-strong materials would double tower heights and depths of tunneling shafts.

“Why do you want to get through the Wall, Jean…I mean, Carol?” Lyn said.

Carol squinted and said, “They say the good life’s on the other side. Whatever’s there must be better than this hell. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Siege Serfing’s the life for me.”

There was time for one more interview that day. By all rights, Lyn should have left the Tunnel Serf for last, as they were the smallest and newest Party, but as their one-and-only mine was right next to the hostel, why not let the moles make their pitch?

Alex lived in a honeycomb hostel three hundred feet below the Boulevard, ensuring, as Lyn had been told, that Shifts weren’t affected by getting to and from the bowels of the mine. If it was gray and sooty on top, it was far grayer below, even with the hydrogen lamps that were attached to every wall.

Lyn met Alex in the Tunnel Serfs’ rock-hewn cafeteria. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex, after a lengthy coughing fit. “We get three grogs a day down here. If that doesn’t convince you to take up tunneling, nothing will. And we’re too deep for varmints.”

A Tunnel Serf wearing a soot-stained apron brought them more grog. Just as Lyn was taking a sip, one of the lamps went boom, the Of-Ager falling off his chair, though no one else seemed to notice.

“Just one mine?” said the youngster, back in the chair.

“And why not?” said Alex. “We Tunnel Serfs are thinkers. That’s what sets us apart. What’s the point of all those towers and drills and miles of track when the Wall is the same everywhere? Why not put all our resources and ingenuity to work at one location? Maybe we’re young compared to the others. How many thousand years have they been at it?”

“But the darkness, the…” Another lamp blew up.

Alex waved dismissively, coughed, and said, “Gets so you don’t even notice, and the extra mug of grog helps. The important thing is the work—undermining the Wall, knowing the rest have no hope of getting over, through, or around it. How deep can the Wall foundations be anyway?”

More than the six hundred feet the Tunnel Serfs had excavated so far, Lyn reflected.

“Think of it this way, youngster. The others are always up top, so they don’t appreciate how sweet and glimmerin’ it is compared to down here. When we go up, we think were in paradise…so to speak. Specially with three grogs in our bellies.”

It was hard for Lyn to imagine the Boulevard as paradise, but not so hard to imagine this lamp-laden hole as inferno. Lyn said, “At least you don’t have stories about windows down here.”

“Wanna’ bet? Even us thinkers have a few knuckleheads.”

The next day was sootier and darker than most. Lyn had to take a train to meet the Track Serf, the Explore and Conquer Party member. Frequent lurches and bumps as the train rattled down the track made it imperative for Lyn to hold onto the steady-bars that lined the walls.

The passenger opposite Lyn was smoking a red cigar, identifying this person as a Boss.

“You a Track Serf?” said the Boss.

“Not yet,” said Lyn. “I’m Of-Age, making a decision.”

“No decision to make, youngster. Only Track Serfing makes sense in this day and age. Explore and Conquer. We have it all over those stay-putters. Take my word for it.”

During the hundred-mile trip, Lyn’s eyes were often drawn to a Wall that was exactly the same mile after mile. Needless to say, there weren’t any windows, or anything else that would mar its hypnotically smooth surface.

Weaving toward the train exit, hearing the toot toots and seeing bursts of steam through the windows, a hairy passenger in gray and green blocked the aisle and said, “Where you going, kid?”

Lyn said, “Meeting a Track Serf near the depot. What’s it to you?”

“Track Serfs can’t do anything for you. Maybe can,” said the stranger. The Parties are worthless. Sooner you learn that, the better.”

“The Wall…”

“…don’t matter none. Get as far from it as you can.”

Was this a Scoffer, Lyn wondered, those outliers who didn’t care about the Wall, had their allocations suspended, preyed on Party members or subsisted in the Wilderness? Lyn said, “There’s nothing in the other direction except Wilderness. Who wants to live there?”

“Some does.”

“I’ll be late. Let me pass,” said Lyn.

“We don’t trust the Parties, none of them. We depends on ourselves. That’s the life, kid.”

“You have a house, a bed, a heurto?”

“We make do.”

“How do you make do in the Wilderness?” said Lyn.

“Follow me…you’ll see. This Wall’ll eat you alive, and there ain’t no windows neither. Take my word on it, kid.”

Lyn pushed past the green and gray stranger, exiting the train, never looking back, checking every hostel in the vicinity of the station before learning the sought after Track Serf lived in a lean-to against the Wall. Did this mean Track Serfing was an even more penurious occupation than Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfing?

The shack door swung open as soon as Lyn began knocking.

“Come in. Make yourself comfortable,” said the Track Serf.

Surely, the Track Serf wasn’t serious, as there were no chairs in the shack, just a mattress and a chamber pot.

“Cris?” said Lyn, skeptically.

“The same.”

“Why do you live here?” asked Lyn, rocking from foot to foot, as if still on the train.

“I prefer being close to the Wall,” Cris said.

Lyn surveyed the tiny space. “You built this…house against the Wall, so why can’t we see the Wall?”

Looking over a shoulder, Cris said, “If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

The Serf and this hovel were making Lyn nervous. “I guess not, but tell me why I should be a Track Serf.”

“We are explorers. We’re far from sootification. Do you want to be an explorer?” said Chris.

Explore and Conquer.”

“That’s our slogan. Myself, I prefer exploring to conquering.”

“Why go around the Wall?”

“Not many bother to ask. New lands, new opportunities, new discoveries; that’s the answer I’ve often heard, though it’s not based on anything substantial, anything we know. Just blind hope.”

“Then, why shouldn’t I go with the Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfs?”

“They won’t get past the Wall,” said the Track Serf.

“And Track Serfs will?”

“We won’t either.”

“Don’t you care about getting past the Wall?” Lyn said.

“More than anything. What have you heard about windows?”

Oh, oh, thought Lyn, another crackpot. What were the odds of running into two of them? “Enough to know they’re children’s stories, grog dreams. I have a decision to make. Is there anything about Track Serfing you care to pitch?”

“It’ll keep you busy, it’ll make you so tired you’ll sleep at night.”

“That’s all?” said Lyn.

“Want to see what’s behind that wood panel? The Wall…and something else. A window.”

Another knucklehead. The sooner Lyn got out of here, the better.

“Wait. Don’t go yet,” said the Track Serf. “I can open the window whenever I desire, put my head through it. The other side is amazing…no words can describe it. You can see, hear, smell…well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t go there yet, but I hope to go some day.”

“That’s swell,” said Lyn, making for the door, and whispering, “Crazy!”

“Do you want to open it? See for yourself? What can it hurt?”

“Some other time. Exploring and Conquering, who wouldn’t go for that?” said Lyn, his back to Cris.

“Yes, exploring,” said Cris.

The inquisitive Of-Ager was already through the door when the Track Serf spoke these words. A burst of soot went up Lyn’s nostrils. The decision that had to be made, and soon, wasn’t easy: Tower, Siege, Tunnel, or Track Serfing, but the choice—Party-wise—if not the air, had gotten clearer with each interview.

With springy steps and burning eyes, Lyn made for the train station.

Photo/art by Chris Van Allsburg