LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF NO WALLS (Very dark and dramatic)
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: NO WALLS WAS MY FIRST SHORT STORY TO BE PUBLISHED. IT BROKE THROUGH THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WALLS AND LANDED IN ISSUE # 18 OF NEO-OPSIS SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE. A CAUTION, THOUGH--THE STORY IS VERY DARK. NOT FOR KIDS, OR BEDTIME.]
I almost died the first time I learned that I could walk through walls.
At least you no longer laugh at the concept. That’s progress. But then you know better. My guards do not, so they laugh. Of course they laugh. They’ve never seen me do it. If I could do it here I would have escaped long before now—that much is obvious to anyone.
You know better because you’ve seen it, used it. Used me.
I’m not bitter anymore. Without you and your Institute I’d never have had a scientific explanation for what happens to me. I might still believe that I’d permanently slipped a cog and was living in some schizophrenic hallucination. (I never tried to spend the money from that bank, you know. Part of me couldn’t believe it was real.)
I was desperate for an explanation—you can’t know what it’s like. At least Pearson’s theories about interpenetrating universes offered one possible means of rationalizing the irrational. A straw I could grasp. Your Dr. Storck simply said the model fit the observable facts in my case. But I know he was glad he didn’t have to try to convince the rest of the scientific community. Give up on their precious Einstein? I don’t expect to live to see it.
But then I don’t expect to live to see tomorrow.
And that first time it happened I didn’t know anything about the parallel universe theories. I just knew that I turned the wrong direction in a thirteenth floor office suite and instead of slamming into a triple-paned window I found myself in the open air with one foot on a ten-inch ledge and the other on…nothing. Nothing of our material universe, anyway. Maybe in that other place it was the protruding end of a two-by-four because that version of the building was still under construction. I don’t know. In the bright sunlight I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything but thirteen floors’ worth of empty space between me and the hard pavement. If I’d stopped for even a moment, I would have lost my balance or fainted. Instead, my automatic reaction was to step backward, without thinking of what my right foot could be pushing against. And then I was back inside the room. Behind the glass. The whole thing could not have taken more than a few seconds.
I knew I must have been hallucinating. The mind can’t accept something like that and just reject the construct of reality, built up over a lifetime.
It happened again a couple of weeks later. I’ve told you about that one. I desperately wanted to read my boss’s analysis of the report I’d just given him. My career hung on it. Some of the report was going to make him look bad, and I’d need to defend myself when we brought it to the Board. I even made an excuse to stay late that night, hoping against hope that he’d leave his office door unlocked. He didn’t. But as I leaned on the polished wood, trying to plan my next step, suddenly I was inside the office, and the papers were lying on his desk.
I couldn’t explain it—didn’t even try. I had what I wanted and that was all that mattered at the time. It was later, calming my nerves at a bar down the street that the first incident came back to me, and I began to try to make the pieces fit.
I felt like a God that night. I wasn’t rational, I know that. A heady mix of hubris and eight ounces of Scotch led me to a way to test my theory at the YMCA next door. The attendant was busy watching TV as I made my way to the swimming pool area. The men’s shower was unoccupied, as I’d hoped, but I could hear water running in the women’s shower next door. On the other side of one thin wall. I had no control over my ability yet. I thought it somehow responded to desire, and I had plenty right then. Maybe too much—nothing happened. But as I began to wonder why, I sensed the change. A moment out of time. An orphan instant. My heart sometimes skips a beat—it was like that.
I slid through the wall and steam surrounded me. Four naked women were soaping their slick bodies and pivoting slowly in the hot spray. Two of them were white with athletic builds, smooth skin and small breasts. The third woman was black and heavier but with ostentatious curves. I’ve only reconstructed the scene from memory (and more often lately, in this god-forsaken place) because the reality lasted only seconds. The fourth woman began to scream.
Of course she saw me. Thanks to the alcohol it never occurred to me that incorporeal didn’t mean invisible. And in my shock the walls stayed completely impenetrable, too. I was just damned lucky that the adjoining pool area had an outside door, and no pursuers were fast enough to follow my wet footprints.
Now you’re laughing.
* * *
The guards have arrived. Two of them. The first few days they mainly ignored me, except to turn the lights on for different intervals at all hours. To mess up my time sense, mess with my mind, I know. I’ve read my share of spy novels. They’re trying to ‘soften me up’. For the same reason, I never know when my next meal’s coming either. At first I tried not to eat anything—afraid of drugs, or something disgusting they might have put in it—but you can’t keep that up.
One of them comes into the room. I’m sitting on the floor, so he just stands over me, staring me down, not speaking. Five minutes. Maybe ten. Then he unzips his pants and pulls out his manhood. I think he’s going to piss on me.
At the last moment he diverts the stream and it hits the floor beside me. I can still feel the warm spray, and turn my head in shame.
When he’s finished, he bends down near my ear and whispers, “Say your prayers. Soon you will die.” They are gone before I can bring myself to look up.
* * *
I never read any physics until this happened to me, and afterward I could still only stomach the popular treatments: Hawking and Feynman digested in small pieces while riding the commuter train to work. They couldn’t provide the answers I needed, though. I thought about Everett’s ideas of duplicate universes being created every time a moving particle has to make up its mind which way to go. Does anybody really buy that?
Unthinkably complicated! And anyway, it didn’t explain how my body could suddenly be able to ignore solid matter. At the Institute, the scenario Dr. Storck painted for me was elegant in its simplicity, and as plausible as I was likely to find. Even high school dropouts know that atomic structure is mostly empty space, so the idea of other universes of matter coexisting in the same space as ours, but at an incompatible frequency of energy (or wavelength—whichever is the case doesn’t make any difference to me) didn’t seem impossible. It was either that or believe that I was already a ghost without realizing it, like the guy in “The Sixth Sense”. That thought crossed my mind a lot in the early days. It didn’t appeal to me at all.
Besides, Storck’s explanation fit what I experienced. He said the other universes ‘interpenetrating’ ours were like the frequencies of the radio band, but our bodies were set to ‘tune in’ only one frequency and ignore all others. The atoms of my body had somehow forgotten that lesson. Sometimes they could tune out the home frequency, and no longer recognize a solid wall or other object as being a barrier. Picture conga lines crossing at a party: our atoms mutually agreed to allow each other passage through the gaps between.
It feels like that. It feels like I’m mentally ‘tuning’ across a range of options, until I hit on one that works. And I’m convinced that it involves more than just one overlapping Earth. I have no idea how many. As I’m tuning out the frequency of our universe I must be tuning in the frequency of another. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Otherwise I’d drift out of position, or sink into the floor, but I don’t. I’m still walking on something that’s recognized as solid by the atoms of my feet. The only reason I can go through walls is that I tune in a world where those walls don’t exist. Where the building has a slightly different layout, or doors that are often left open. Or where there is no building at all.
You didn’t know that, did you? I don’t think Storck did, either. I figured it out for myself.
My captors don’t know it. They just got lucky.
After the fiasco at the ‘Y’, I was scared to try my ability anywhere but around my own home. The house was only five years old, so maybe that’s why it was easy to tune in an otherworld version of it with no walls. A few times I even miscalculated and ran into two-by-fours of the building frame, but I soon learned to predict where they were and avoid them. Plumbing hurt more.
Yes, that was a joke, but also true. Think of the pitfalls of an ability like mine. At a certain stage buildings don’t have walls, but before that they don’t have floors either. I learned to be very cautious.
I never told my wife or daughter. My wife and I were always on the verge of divorce anyway (did you feed her some kind of story about my disappearance, or does she think I’m dead?) And my daughter? Well once I had a beautiful little girl. Then one day I woke up to find there was a stranger living in my house: a stranger with dyed black hair, Alice Cooper makeup, and pieces of metal hanging from every body part that wasn’t already stained by ink. She once caught me coming out of her room. Somehow the fact that the door had never moved didn’t register on her brain. What registered was that I’d invaded her privacy, and the screaming exchange that followed was the last conversation we ever had, if you can call it that.
You know what’s funny? I think my bizarre behaviour those last few days at home actually brought mother and daughter closer together. They’d always been like oil and water before, but despising me gave them something to share. I’m a man who can walk through walls. But only the physical kind.
* * *
The guards are back. This time I think they mean business. I don’t know how many days it’s been. I’m sure they’re only leaving the lights off for two hours at a stretch—no more than that. I’m in a daze most of the time. The horrible food leaves me feeling sick, too.
There are shackles anchored in the wall. Two sets: high and low—I’m sitting right between the low ones. My captors have never used them on me, until now. I feel like vomiting as the metal bands lock around my wrists.
The guard that almost pissed on me bends over me and smiles. The other has stepped out of the cell.
“Why did they send you?” the first guard asks. The second one returns with something in his hand. It looks like a piece of shielded electrical cable.
Oh, God, no.
“Why did they send you?”
What can I answer? Do I try to pretend I’m innocent? Do I say I’m a spy?
Do I tell them I was sent because I can walk through walls?
I try to clear my throat, but I’m too late. The cable slices through the air.
Oh Christ! Oh Christ Jesus! I never knew anything could hurt like that! My battered feet instantly go into spasms.
“I’m not anybody!” I scream. “I’m not a spy! I’m a civilian. A civilian for Christ’s….”
A whip crack.
My back arches off the dirt. I’ve bit my tongue—I can taste the blood.
“I can’t…I don’t know what to say! What do you want me to say?” Red spittle sprays my chest.
The air hisses in protest.
My head snaps against the rock hard wall, and my eyes dim, flooded with tears.
The voice says, “Why did they send you?”
“I can walk through walls! I can walk through walls!” I babble.
There is the sound of their laughter. And then the whip scrapes across the floor, coiling to strike again.
* * *
Think about this: What would the average person do with a ‘gift’ like mine? Is it good for anything but larceny?
After a while I tried breaking into other homes on the street, just to see if I could do it. I was still a chickenshit—I wouldn’t risk it unless I was certain no-one was home. Even then all I did was look around. I rifled through drawers and found valuables in absurdly obvious hiding places—one time even a stack of hundred dollar bills in a fake stereo speaker. But I couldn’t take them. Couldn’t steal them. Not just because it felt wrong, but because it felt…petty. I had an ability that no-one else in the world could claim. Was I going to use it to become one of the bottom-feeding scavengers I despised so much? A contemptible sneak thief? The truth is, my only real thrill was when I mistakenly thought my lawyer neighbour’s wife had gone out, and instead found her entertaining a young delivery man with his special package in her living room. I watched for about twenty minutes, then quietly made my way to the front door, slammed it, and yelled, “Jessica, I came home early.”
I hid in the bushes long enough to see the man run naked from the back deck, then scrambled away myself.
Strange, how I could reject the vocation of burglar but embrace the role of voyeur. Freud might have been able to explain it. I didn’t bother.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t physically steal things, either. Objects touching me travel with me. One of those small mercies. You’ve read or seen some version of the “Invisible Man” story—we all have. The poor bugger always had to leave a trail of clothes behind! A modern DNA lab would have a field day with that. At least I didn’t have to put up with the inconvenience of nudity. Maybe that’s why I finally decided I could get away with robbing a bank.
Anyone can tell you that a man who wouldn’t dream of snatching an old lady’s purse doesn’t have the same scruples when it comes to knocking over a bank. They deserve it. I told myself if I could make one big score I could immediately retire from both bank robbery and my usual form of thievery: brokering stock.
The thing about robbing a bank vault is, you have to defeat all of the security systems, get into the locked vault, and then get away clean. If you can’t disable the security cameras you have to make sure you can’t be identified. And if you can’t be absolutely certain you won’t trigger an alarm of some kind, you have to be able to beat it before the security guards or cops show up.
I picked a bank that was built a couple of years ago. It was planted on an outcrop of rock, so they weren’t worried about tunnels, and it stood on its own about a hundred feet from the other buildings in the strip mall, and seventy or eighty feet from a Greek restaurant and a row of connected townhouses that shared the same back alley. Driving by at night I never saw any signs of life: no guards and thankfully no dogs. So that left the video cameras I could spot and a few hidden ones, plus I assumed an array of various motion detectors, probably sensitive to body heat too. I couldn’t avoid any of those things and I didn’t have a clue about hacking them by computer, or even hacking away at a box of wires somewhere. I only had one advantage. But it was one they couldn’t have foreseen.
I walked six blocks to the bank that night, after parking on a residential street with lots of other cars. It was a little after midnight, so the streets still had some traffic. The alley behind the building included a couple of large garbage bins for the Greek restaurant. I hid behind one of those for a while, working up my nerve and pulling the balaclava over my face, then walked up to the wall of the bank and through it without stopping. I’d been practicing.
No doubt I triggered the alarms right away, but I went straight into the vault, reached into the special cabinets for the cash, filled a black canvas bag with it, and exited the same way I’d come in, clutching the bag tightly to my chest. Then I went around the corner of the first townhouse, out of sight of the bank cameras, and ghosted my way through walls and hallways to the far end of the row a block away. I was dressed in nondescript dark work clothes, padded with newspaper to make me look fifty pounds heavier for the sake of the video, so at the last house I disposed of the newspaper and put the money in its place around my body. The balaclava too. By then a couple of cop cars had gone by. I wasn’t too worried. I’m sure by the time they figured out that nobody was going to come out of the bank vault, and looked at the security videos, I was safely in my bed. Thanks to her usual four vodkas, my wife never knew I’d left the house.
Do you remember Storck’s assistant’s name? It’s Amber. You probably only remember her 36-inch C-cups. I do too, don’t get me wrong. But she genuinely wanted to help me, so I think of her often. You only asked, “What can you do? How do you do it?” Amber thought to ask, “How do you feel about what’s happened to you?”
When drunk, I felt like a god. When sober, like a freak. I was rarely sober. I drank because it was better than crying.
The worst part was the nightmares: I dreamed that the change grew steadily worse until one day I simply dissolved into a shadow and never came back.
Amber was in the room one time when I woke up with a scream. She told me the ‘overlapping’ worlds theory might explain some of our dreams. Maybe a lot of psychic phenomena, too. It might be that mediums tap into the parallel worlds with their minds, believing them to be ‘higher planes of reality’ that we go to when we die.
I can’t testify to any of that. Not yet. But sometimes I can see the other places, in dim light, and I suppose people there might also be able to see me. So maybe I am a ghost after all.
* * *
The guards left me alone for…it feels like several days, though I still can’t stand for long on my mangled feet. Now they’ve come back. This time the whip man carries two cables: electrical cables, stretching from somewhere beyond the door. There’s a motor sound: a generator?
Live electrical cables.
The talker shows his bad teeth, but doesn’t waste any time.
“Why did they send you?” he hisses.
I try to shake my head, speechless with horror. The second man doesn’t even wait for an answer…touches the bare wires to my torso.
I scream until my lungs are empty.
They’re saying something, but I can’t make it out. It doesn’t matter. I can’t work my mouth to talk. The wires touch my abdomen.
I’m hearing noises. Animal noises. They couldn’t be from a human being. Couldn’t be from me.
The guard touches the wires to my genitals.
When the blackness fades and I become aware again, the first guard is gone. The second sees that I’m awake and raises his arm. The electrical wires are gone. The flog of shielded cable comes slashing down across my ribs.
I want to die. Please just let me die. My life hasn’t been worth living anyway.
I didn’t even feel the third blow. Heard the crack against the floor but felt nothing.
Wait! I really did feel nothing. No contact at all.
I force my eyes open to watch. The cable slices toward my body…and through it! It strikes the floor with a snap.
The guard hasn’t seen. He’s not really paying attention—so inured to brutalizing his fellow man that he’s bored by it. I have enough sense to mimic my earlier cries of pain, but he’ll have to notice something soon. Notice that his victim’s skin hasn’t peeled like it should. That there’s no blood.
They’ll kill me. Once they understand what I am, they’ll have to. They’ll want to. It’s what I thought I wanted too, only seconds ago. But now?
God, it’s such a blessed relief to escape the agony.
But there might be a way to stay alive. And to do that there is a price to pay.
A whimper escapes from my throat as my body understands what’s coming next. I will myself to become solid, and scream as the flail comes lashing down.
* * *
The superhero comics write about Kryptonite, but they never mention the truly fatal flaw of the powerful: terminal cockiness. I was more than human, therefore I was untouchable. I knew it was true because the alcohol told me so.
So I concocted the scheme to break into your headquarters.
Of course, my newspaper padding didn’t fool your mass analyzers. My mask was no protection from your thermal imaging software. And it was child’s play to track my car by satellite. Then I was a mouse in a trap.
You had both the carrot and the stick: I could be a patriot or go to jail. And the first few times I actually felt like a hero when you had me ransack the homes of those congressmen and senators in the interest of ‘safeguarding democracy’. Then I read a few of those stolen files, and realized I was being played for a sucker.
You were even ready for that. I’d thought only gangsters would threaten a man’s family.
That was a line you shouldn’t have crossed. Remember that. You’re going to regret it.
But for now the only thing that’s burning your ass is knowing that you’ve squandered a priceless resource, a one-of-a-kind commodity. Me.
We both know it was madness to send me to the Middle East. The jihadists can sniff out an outsider. Or maybe you thought that wouldn’t matter, because I had a talent for escape that Houdini would have given his right arm for?
Then it was just bad luck that you sent me against a terror cell whose headquarters was in a mountain cave.
Did you know that caves and mountains exist unchanged for thousands of years in this world…and the next? And in every world I’ve tried.
I’ve had no way to escape, and no answers the guards will accept as truth, to bargain my way to freedom. So there’s not much doubt they’ll carry out their threat to execute me tonight.
Will you lose sleep over that? Probably not. So how about this:
I convinced you that electronic equipment didn’t function through the transition to and from the other universes. That was a lie. A miniature camera I bought worked perfectly. I just wanted a record of my ‘assignments’ to use as an insurance policy. Now I see it as a cleansing flame to sterilize a plague.
For the first time in a long time I want to live, if only long enough to make one phone call. One call, and a series of packages will find their way to several powerful (and uncompromised) congressmen. The top echelon of Mossad, and even the wealthy backers of my captors will all find the contents very enlightening. Your administration’s time will be at an end, and a rift might even begin to heal. A carefully constructed wall might begin to crumble.
You can call me naïve. We’ll see. If I fail, it means I don’t escape a trap and you do. Either way, I have a feeling you’ll get this message.
Don’t even think about a reprisal against my family. It’s far too late for that.
I can hear scraping noises at the door. The guards have come for me.
I’ve never tested it, but I have hopes that my transitional body can be convinced to deny the solidity of bullets and swords as well as walls and whips. The trick will be to maintain that state long enough to shake off any pursuit. The odds are against it, but I’ve had some time to practice. Maybe I’ll even see Amber again.
If it doesn’t work, well, I’m not all that afraid of Death anymore.
I’ve already been there.