The Wall, a short story (copyright 2016, T. M. Doran)

T. M. Doran, The WallThe 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 choice they would 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 this orientation, as it was an obligation to soon 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 Sieger 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, and 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 deep have you gotten so far?” an Of-Ager said to the Sieger.

“Nine inches plus,” said the Pitcher, proudly.

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

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

The Sieger was elbowed aside by the Towerer, 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? The ground is softer than the Wall, and we’re going deeper and deeper with foundations and buttresses. Twenty Towers and counting, youngsters,” the Pitcher said.

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

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

“Times up,” said the Tracker, 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 and 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.

“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, so you can bet we’re close to one end or the other.”

Next, and last, was the Tunneler, who said, “Bywords aren’t getting anyone past the Wall. If you’re going to dig for iron, diamonds, foundations, why not dig for what matters, going under the Wall? Tunnelers can dig an acre pit in the time it takes these moles and skyscrapists to put a shovel in the ground, or weld an arch.”

“Question: what makes you think you can find the bottom of the Wall?”

A moment’s hesitation before the Tunneler 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 like Greekish gods.”

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, as was true of every other vantage point along the Wall.

Lyn had decided to talk to a working Towerer, Sieger, Tunneler, and Tracker before deciding on a Party, and had been given the names of people to consult.

Down the smoky block went the youngster, passing massive siege-works, observing piles of dirt and slag that surrounded and buttressed Tower columns and foundations, observing welders high and low in the Tower throwing sparks and debris down on the unfortunates below.

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

Lyn recognized Jean from the photograph and hailed the Towerer. “I was told you know a lot about Towers,” said Lyn.

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

“Do you recommend it?”

“Paying attention, or towering?” 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. Towering’s better work than Sieging, Tracking, or Tunneling, that’s for sure, and we’ll get over the Wall sooner than they get through or around or under it. Here’s something else: we’re too high up for hoodlums. Towering’s hard work, but what work isn’t, and you can go high…and I mean high.”

“Have you gone high?” Lyn asked the Towerer.

“High as the sky, chum.”

“What’s beyond the Boulevard?” said Lyn.

“Mines, slag, ash mountains.”

“Then what? What’s beyond that?”

“Can’t see any further through the smog and soot. Anyway, our business is with the Wall. You show me a Towerer looking the other way and I’ll show you someone on half rations. Up high, we see everything that needs seeing.”

“Except over the Wall,” said Lyn.

Squinting at Lyn, the Towerer 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 Towering. 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 in making 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 at 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, mental 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, about seven years ago, I woke out of a dead sleep a couple hours before my Shift, and 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 and 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 grin. “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 of 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. Cheating, maybe. Bang, I slammed it 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 for dreaming. 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.

“Nah. Too busy Towering. 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 might’nt of come back once I seen the other side, the Greekish 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 an exciting possibility for an Of-Ager, so a towering life hadn’t been ruled out yet.

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

Lyn knocked for several minutes before the Sieger 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 Sieger.

“You’re Carol?” said Lyn.

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

If this was a Sieger’s room, Lyn was inclined to select another Party. A small table, two chairs, bed, icebox, stove, and toilet 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 Sieger?”

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

“What do you like about it?” said Lyn, still wondering how Carol made do in this pitiful room.

The Sieger gave him a queer look. “I like that we don’t pussyfoot around with 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, under or over us, or de-trackification neither.”

Lyn took a deep breath and said, “Your Pitcher said you haven’t penetrated a foot into the Wall. Towerers have gone up thousands of feet, Trackers have laid thousands of miles of track, Tunnelers 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 new 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. You act like we haven’t made a dent in the Wall. Our 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”—with 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 choice. 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 the 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. Sieging’s the life for me.”

There was time for one more interview that day. By all rights, Lyn should have left the Tunnelers 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, to ensure, 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 even grayer and sootier below, even with the hydrogen lamps that were attached to every wall.

Lyn met Alex in the Tunnelers’ rock-hewn cafeteria. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex, after a coughing fit was brought under control. “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 Tunneler wearing a soot-stained apron brought them more grog. Just as Lyn was taking a sip, one of the lamps went boom, with the Of-Ager falling off the chair, though no one else seemed to notice the lamp, or Lyn

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

“And why not?” said Alex. “We Tunnelers 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. That’s no crime. How many thousand years have they been at it?”

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

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 or so the Tunnelers had excavated so far, Lyn thought.

“Think of it this way, youngster. The others are always up top, so they don’t appreciate how sweet it is compared to down there. 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 nuts.”

The next day was sootier, and therefore darker, than most. Lyn had to take a train to meet the Tracker, 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 rails that lined all the walls.

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

“You a Tracker?” said the Boss.

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

“No decision to make, youngster. Only Tracking 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 the hypnotically smooth surface.

As Lyn was weaving toward the exit, hearing the toot toots and seeing bursts of steam through the windows, a hairy person in gray and green blocked the aisle and said, “Where you going, kid?”

Having a bad feeling about this person, Lyn said, “Meeting a Tracker near the depot. What’s it to you?”

“Trackers can’t do anything for you.”

“Who can?” asked Lyn.

“Maybe I can,” said the stranger.

“What’s your name?” said Lyn.

“Don’t matter. The Parties are worthless. Sooner you learn that, the better, kid.”

“The Wall…”

“…don’t matter none. Go the other way, 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, and either 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 and exited the train, never looking back, and checked every hostel in the vicinity of the station before learning that the sought after Tracker lived in a self-made shack, actually a lean-to, against the Wall. Did this mean that tracking was an even more penurious occupation than sieging, towering, and tunneling?

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

“Come in. Make yourself comfortable,” said the Tracker.

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

“Chris?” said Lyn, skeptically.

“The same, Tracker extraordinaire.”

“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,” Chris said.

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

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

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

“Trackers are explorers. We’re too far from everything for sootification; that’s something. Do you want to be an explorer?” said Chris earnestly.

“’Explore and Conquer’.”

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

“What’s the reason for trying to go around the Wall?”

“Good question. 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 Siegers, Towerers, or Tunnelers?”

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

“And the Trackers will?”

“We won’t either.”

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

“Yes…yes. 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’m a practical person and I have a choice to make, so is there anything about tracking you care to pitch?”

“It’ll keep you busy, it’ll give you an anchor, 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?”

Lyn said, “Considering where it is, I’d say the Wall.”

“The Wall…and something else. A window.”

A nut, a crank. The sooner Lyn got out of here, the better.

“Wait. Don’t go yet,” said the Tracker. “I can open this window whenever I want, even put my head through it. The other side is amazing…no words can describe it. Effervescent, that’s the best I can do. You can see, hear, smell…well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t go there yet, but I know what’s out there, and 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. Tracking sounds like exciting work. Exploring, who wouldn’t go for that?” said Lyn, his back to Chris.

“Yes, exploring,” said Chris.

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

With springy steps and burning eyes, and expelling one more “Crazy”, Lyn made for the train station.