Hello, Rob here. I hate to do this, but I really can’t say anything about this story up front without giving it away, except that it’s about someone who volunteers for a test, not knowing much about it.
Listen to the Audio (15 min):
Read the Story (2,500 words / 9-minute read):
“Hole In The Wall”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“Please proceed to the dotted line. On the floor there.”
“Um, okay.” I step awkwardly up to the line. “My toes are a little over. Is that okay? Should I back up? Like should I be on the line, or up to the line? Is this part of the test?”
I can’t tell if the disembodied voice has eyes it’s rolling right now, or if it might be sighing to itself. It just moves on. “Now look into the small opening on the left. Try not to squint.”
I notice the holes in the wall, in the otherwise completely blank, white room, for the first time. “Should I take the goggles off? I think I’d see better without the goggles.”
“No. The goggles are part of the test.”
I think I heard a little sigh in there that time. “Okay, sorry.” I squint into the hole on the left. “Oh, whoops. Sorry, I was squinting. Can we start over?”
“The test hasn’t started yet.”
“Continue looking into the small opening on the left.”
I follow the command, but as happens, now that I’m being told to look into the left hole, that right hole is absolutely begging to be looked into. Two seconds ago I didn’t give a shit about either of the holes, I didn’t even notice them, but now the right one has become super important to my caveman brain. Like there’s nothing more important. I can’t stop thinking about it. Wait. Is this the test? To confirm that I have precisely zero self control?
“Um, excuse me. I’m looking into the left hole, just like you said, but is it okay if I peek into the right one for a second? It’s just got me curious.”
“Do not look into the small opening on the right. Continue looking into the small opening on the left.”
“Okay, but you know how that works, right? Like you tell me not to, and now I kind of have to.”
“The test has started. Continue looking into the small opening on the left. Under no circumstances look into the small opening on the right.”
Okay, they pulled out the under no circumstances. They must think it’s important. But really, if they didn’t want me to look into the right hole, they didn’t have to put it there. I mean, it’s right next to the left one. I think they’re messing with me. You know what?
I shift my weight, ever so slightly, hoping they won’t notice, and turn my head a millimeter, and take the quickest glance ever into the right hole. Actually, at this angle, I’m kind of looking into both holes.
And something starts happening.
The areas behind the holes start vibrating. My stomach turns, that first flash of fear, like I know I just did something terribly wrong, and I look back directly into the left hole, pretending that fucking right hole doesn’t even exist, but it’s too late. The holes are becoming pretty fluid, like amoeba shaped, and the area between them is shimmering. Okay, now I can’t stop looking. I can’t even close my eyes. I can’t move. The shimmering area starts shooting out light, into the goggles, into my eyes, and dammit I can’t even squint anymore, it’s like my eyes are locked open.
And then everything goes white.
Some amount of time passes, it could be a second or an hour or a year, I squint against the white to see if I can make out anything, and two shapes start to form. A man and a woman.
“Alex! Oh my god, you’re breathing!”
She’s speaking Ukrainian. I don’t speak Ukrainian. How do I know Ukrainian? She’s calling me Alex.
“Um, of course I’m breathing. Is this part of the test?” but Ukrainian comes out of my mouth. “Zvychayno dykhayu. Tse chastyna testu?”
The man, who I now notice had his hands clasped together on my chest, stops his rhythmic compressions. I’m laying down on some kind of old desk, in a room that looks like it’s made of rubble. There are only three walls. The fourth has a giant hole in it, more hole than wall, revealing the gray sky and the bare trees and more rubble beyond. It’s snowing. This guy on me smells awful. And I’ve never seen such bloodshot eyes. He smiles. “Alex. Thank God. Come, let’s go.”
I’m gasping for breath. “Hey. What the fuck is going on? Who are you? Is this part of the test?”
Without answering, they get me on my feet and I stumble and almost fall. I look down at what’s left of my right foot. I scream.
“No time. We must go. Now.”
“Look, you’re in a rush, good for you, but whatever this dream or hallucination thing is, I want out. Test over. Test over!”
But they just stand there, staring at me for a second, like whoever their friend Alex is just lost his mind. They turn and rush me out the door, even though we could’ve walked out through the missing wall. Outside to the left. Sounds buzz by me, and only after something grazes my shoulder and I see blood do I realize they’re bullets.
Nick throws me down and covers me with his body. Wait, I know him now, he’s in the 11th Army Aviation Brigade with me – him and Anna and Petr. It’s coming back to me. I was dead back there, wasn’t I? I look up, out of the mud, and see why they were so desperate to save me.
It’s the Mi-44 transport helicopter. Loaded with wounded soldiers from the 27th Artillery.
And I’m the pilot.
“Nick, what the hell? What if I died back there? Where’s our backup? Where’s Petr?”
Nick turns my head in the other direction. Two feet from me, also halfway into the mud, is our backup pilot, Petr. What’s left of him. His eyes look into mine, but there’s nothing there, nothing behind the eyes. I shared a drink with him last night, and he told me about his younger brother, the football player, how he scored three goals this season and thought he was God’s gift to the universe, and all its women, and we laughed our half-drunk laugh and toasted to the simple pleasure of running and kicking a ball. And now he’s gone. And now I know why Nick was pounding on my chest so hard.
There is no backup.
If I don’t fly us out of here, we’re all going to die.
“Okay, Nick. Get off me. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They crawl on their bellies to the helicopter, literally dragging me behind them, and throw me into the open bay, on top of the pile of wounded.
Pushing me up and over them toward the cockpit, Anna is hit with a round large enough it makes her abdomen disappear. I reach out to her, as blood drains her life, and she looks up and grabs my hand, and I remember more, yes, I was at her wedding five days ago, in that makeshift chapel in the makeshift barracks, I’ve never seen anyone so happy in the middle of something so awful. I remember her hand was trembling, that hand that had carried mines, and dug trenches, and shot a Z-15 as well as any man I knew. Her hand trembles now, not with love and anticipation and a new ring, but with the rattle of death overcoming her, and she whispers her last words to me:
“Look after Nick.”
And I remember now, everything: I remember that Nick was the man she married, the man sitting next to me, my friend, sobbing, wiping his eyes with mud-caked hands, screaming now, at the top of his lungs, at our enemy, but even more, at the universe, for stealing his love, for extinguishing his hope, and I understand in this moment more than I’ve ever understood anything: that this will never make sense, the killing of wives and husbands, and fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, who live less than a short car ride away from each other, killing over land, or oil reserves, or some ideology that’s as clear as the mud in Nick’s eyes. Killing themselves. For nothing.
One of the soldiers at my feet groans, and I realize that staying here would be even more insane. So I wrestle my broken body into the pilot’s seat and start the engine.
There’s something wrong with the props, of course there is with all the fire we’re taking on, but this is it, isn’t it? This is the moment I was born to face. Whatever has happened in my life, the laughs and the loves and the scrapes and the tragedies, all have led to this. I can feel all my years converge onto this point, so concentrated it takes my breath away and I begin, finally, to cry. No. No time for tears, Alex. I gun the throttle and lift off, fighting with the gyroscopes, fighting fate itself, undoing something that was supposed to happen, cheating that certainty, stealing it back from the jaws of death, and somehow, somehow, we stay airborne and immediately turn west, away, away from the battle, away from death and toward life.
I turn my head left at a sound, right outside the cockpit, and something races past us, a missile, and as I turn to follow it, my field of vision blurs, and vibrates, and I feel my heart starting to give out one more time, and I can’t tell if it’s an explosion enveloping us, or if I’m looking into heaven, but everything goes white.
“What the fuck was that?”
I rip off the goggles and throw them at the two holes in the wall. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. My t-shirt is soaked with sweat, and my legs are shaking. And I’m pissed. “Hey! What the fuck was that? That wasn’t what you told me!”
“The test is complete. You may leave through the open door on your right and collect your fifty dollars.”
“No. I demand to know what the fuck just happened.”
“You signed an agreement to participate in an experiment on dreams, sensory manipulation, and/or spacial-temporal anomalies. The agreement also states that the nature, technology, and results of the test would remain confidential, even from you. Thank you for your participation. You may leave through the open door on your right and collect your fifty dollars.”
“You knew I was going to look into both holes.”
“Was that real? Did I do that? Or was it a dream?”
“Whatever. Well, either way, you could’ve warned me.” I step to the right to get the hell out of there, and nearly fall. Fear grips me as I look down at my feet.
Whew. They’re still there. No, I’m fine. It was a dream. Only a twisted dream.
I grab my fifty bucks from the uninterested intern at the front desk, literally the only person I’ve seen this whole time. “Hey. Do you know what’s really going on in there?”
He looks back up, like I interrupted the most important text of his life. “Huh?”
“I said do you know what’s really going on in there?”
He shrugs. “Nope. But they all come out sweaty like you. It’s gross.”
I take the subway back to my apartment, jump in the shower, trying to wash off the ick of that crazy dream, and change into some fresh clothes. God, I’m famished.
I could really go for some nalesniki.
Wait. How the hell do I know what nalesniki is? Weird. I guess this is gonna take a day or so, shaking the leftovers of that test out of my brain. But you know what? I might as well have some nalesniki, I mean there’s probably a hundred nalesniki places in New York. Yup. Right here. Shit, I could walk there, I’ve never even noticed that place.
So I bound downstairs and out onto the street, and before you know it, I’m at the place. A little hole in the wall. Wow. There’s a line? For nalesniki?
I’m sitting there, at a seat up against the window, still so uneasy about the whole test thing, waiting for them to bring over my order, and just to kill the time I glance at my phone, and I don’t know, maybe it was that dream, but I’m compelled to dig into Yahoo! News and see what’s going on in the war, and my fingers start trembling as I see a photo of a helicopter. I scroll down. Another photo.
My head jerks up. “Wha? Oh, yeah, number four, yes. That’s me.”
She sets down my dish and points at my phone. “You know, that guy, that some heroic stuff there, yes?”
“What, the, um, helicopter thing? I guess… I don’t know.”
“Yeah. Read the whole thing. Guy was basically dead, somehow they got him alive just long enough to fly them all out. Dead man, like angel, flying them to heaven or something, right? Like dream or something.”
I look up, and of course, her little name tag says “Anna,” and I have to choke back a sob, and I reach into my pocket and pull out the fifty and hand it to her.
She laughs. “You already pay. At the counter.”
“No. Take it. Please.” My hand is trembling.
“Hey, you okay, mister?”
“I have no idea.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. I think it’s obvious that my subconscious is working overtime, processing all the images and stories I’m seeing about the war. I don’t have anything political to say about it all, if you’ve listened to any of my stories you know I try to stay pretty far away from that, as I certainly don’t have any answers. Maybe someday I will.
Okay, now the book-hawking — thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling You’re Going to Mars! You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, and find my other books there too, and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2022 Rob Dircks