Portal, an online novel: Chapter 8

Kevin and Larry have put in a hard day’s work as they wait to see if anyone wants to talk to them about Kevin’s watch.  And, finally, someone does . . .

Catch up with the previous chapters by clicking on “Portal” up there on the menu, underneath the funny-looking header image.

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Chapter 8

The lieutenant gestured for us to sit.  Colonel Clarett outranked him, I guess, but the lieutenant sure looked more like an officer.  He was young and handsome, and his red jacket and black pants were spotless and unwrinkled, despite the heat.  The colonel’s office was a mess, with papers stacked everywhere and five or six long pipes lying in a jumble on his desk next to an oil lamp.  Like the rest of the barracks, the room stank of tobacco smoke.  The lieutenant stared at us for a few seconds, and he seemed to take in everything about us–what we were wearing, how we sat–everything.  Then he sat down, too.

“My name is Carmody,” he said.  “Lieutenant William Carmody.  And to whom have I the honor of speaking?”

We managed to tell him our names.

“Pleased to meet you.”  His accent was more cultured-sounding than the colonel’s or any of the other soldiers we had met.  It wasn’t quite British, but it was, well, different–sort of like those actors in old-time movies.  He pronounced “lieutenant” in the British way: “leftenant.”

He cleared a space on the desk–he didn’t look pleased to have to touch the colonel’s pipes–and then he took a blue cloth out of one of his pockets.  He unwrapped the cloth and took Kevin’s watch out of it.  He laid the watch carefully on the desk.  “And this remarkable device belongs to–?”

“It’s mine,” Kevin said.

“And you obtained it where?”

Kevin glanced at me.  “Well, that’s a long story,” he said.

Lieutenant Carmody shrugged.  “I’m in no hurry.”

Kevin and I hadn’t really talked about this.  Should we tell the truth about where we’d come from?  That was the whole point of Kevin’s plan.  But now that the time had come, it didn’t seem like that great an idea.  No one was going to believe us–least of all this guy, with his icy stare.

But what else could we do?

“We’re not from here,” I said.  “Not from . . . this world.”

“This world,” Lieutenant Carmody repeated, as if to make sure he had heard correctly.

I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  I looked back at Kevin.  This was his idea.  He didn’t look any more eager to tell the story than me, but he did.  “See, it’s like this,” he said.  “I know it’s going to sound crazy, but: There are lots of universes.  This is just one of them.  We come from a different universe–it’s kind of the same, but not exactly.  There’s a Boston in it, there’s a Canada, and so on, but there’s no United States of New England.  And our science is way more advanced than yours.  By accident we stepped into this, uh, this thing that brought us to your universe.  Like a portal, a gateway between universes.  This happened yesterday, in Glanbury–our version of Glanbury.  Anyway, now we’re stuck here because we can’t get back to Glanbury, because of the war and all.  So the watch–it was just something I was wearing when this happened.  In our world it’s no big deal, something even a kid would wear.  But here it seems pretty important, so we thought we’d, you know, show it to people.”

Kevin fell silent.  I thought he did a pretty good job, but Lieutenant Carmody hadn’t changed expression.  I couldn’t tell if he thought we were insane, or what.  He picked up what looked like a long pencil and made a few notes on an unlined, yellowish sheet of paper.  I could hear a clock ticking in the silence.  A bead of sweat fell down my face, but I didn’t wipe it away.

“What’s a ‘kid’?” he asked finally.

“It’s, you know, a child,” Kevin said.  “Someone who isn’t an adult.  That’s a word—you know, back home.”

“Your accent is rather strange.  That’s how you speak, wherever it is you come from?”

Kevin nodded.  “It’s the same language, just a little different.  Like everything else.”

He gestured at our clothes.  “And those strange garments–that’s what you wear . . . ?”

“We just happened to have these clothes on when we went through the portal,” Kevin said.  “It’s all an accident, see.  We don’t want to be here.  We just want to go home.”

There were tears in Kevin’s eyes now, but the lieutenant didn’t seem to be moved.  “Let’s try again,” he said.  “You found this thing or stole it.  The question is where, or from whom.”

“No, we didn’t,” I protested.  “What Kevin said is true.”

“You’re stowaways or cabin-boys on a ship that managed to run the blockade,” he said.  “Where is that ship now?  Where did it sail from?  China?”

“No, sir,” I repeated.  “I’ve never been on a ship in my life.”

“This so-called portal–it’s in Glanbury, you say?  Did anyone see you come out of it?”

“No–well, there were some Portuguese soldiers who started shooting at us.  A family picked us up on the road afterwards.”

“Their name?”

I tried to remember–they had given it to the guard at the city gate.  “Harper, I think.  Samuel and Martha Harper.”

He made another note.  “And are they in the Fens camp?”

I shook my head.  “They’re staying with his brother somewhere in the city.”

“And have you told this story to the Harpers or any of the soldiers here?”

“No.  We figured no one would believe us.”

“A reasonable assumption.  And a prudent course of action.  There are those willing to see the hand of the devil in everything, especially in these dark days.”  He fell silent again and stared at us some more.  Then he said, “Tell me more about this world you claim to live in.”

That perked Kevin up.  He started talking about cars and computers and airplanes and telephones, all the stuff we took for granted back home.  And he mentioned bombs and missiles and grenades, too.

The lieutenant didn’t interrupt, and his expression never changed.  He jotted down a few notes, especially when Kevin talked about weapons.  When Kevin ran out of steam, he spoke again.  “Do you know how to manufacture one of these?” he asked, pointing to the watch.

“Well, no, of course not,” Kevin said.  “We just buy them.  Big companies make them.”

“You’re only a kid,” the lieutenant said.

“Right.”

“What about the theory behind it?  Do you understand how it works?”

“Not exactly.  Maybe a little bit.”

“What about ‘telephones’ or those flying machines–what did you call them?”

“Airplanes.”

“Airplanes.  Can you explain how they work?”

“Not really,” Kevin admitted.

The lieutenant looked at me, and I shook my head.

“If we managed to return you to this ‘portal,'” he went on, “could you obtain more of these ciphering machines?  Or could you bring us back ‘rocket-propelled grenades’ or ‘submachine guns’ or the like?”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, I don’t think so.  I mean, we’re not even sure we can get back home through the portal.  If we do get back, I don’t know if we can return here.  The portal isn’t really part of our world–it’s not like airplanes and stuff.  We don’t know have any idea what it is or how it works–maybe it’s from some other universe.”

Lieutenant Carmody sat back in his chair suddenly and put his pencil down, as if we had tired him out.  He pressed his palms together and held them in front of his chin.  “What is it that you want me to do with you?” he asked quietly.

“Well, we figured we might be able to help,” Kevin said.  “You know, with the war.”

“How, exactly?”

“Maybe we know stuff you can use.”

“Enlighten me.  What ‘stuff’ do you know that can help us win the war?”

Kevin looked at me for help.  I didn’t know what to say.  “Stuff about science,” he said, kind of desperately.  “Stuff about the way the world works that you don’t understand yet.  I don’t know exactly what, but if we think about it, maybe we can come up with something, okay?  I mean, what have you got to lose?”

Lieutenant Carmody stared at him.  “What do you mean, ‘okay’?” he asked finally.

For some reason that was too much for Kevin.  He started to cry.

“‘All right,'” I whispered.  “It means, ‘all right.'”  I put my hand on Kevin’s shoulder.

The lieutenant lowered his hands to the desk and waited for Kevin to calm down.  Then he said, “Let’s go for a ride, shall we?”

We left Colonel Clarett’s office.  Outside the barracks was a fancy-looking carriage, the closed-in kind, with actual windows.  A soldier standing next to it saluted Lieutenant Carmody and opened the door for him.  “Back to headquarters, Peter,” the lieutenant said.

The three of us climbed inside, and Peter got up front to drive.  I wanted to ask what was going to happen next, but the lieutenant didn’t look like he wanted to talk.  Kevin still seemed pretty depressed.  He just stared out the window as we made our way through Cheapside, then back downtown, where we saw more traffic and beggars and men wearing round hats and capes.  We went along the waterfront, where I could make out the masts of ships in the harbor and along the docks.  Finally we stopped at a large gate, and the soldiers guarding it quickly opened it for us.  We went through it into a broad courtyard with big brick buildings on all sides.  We came to a stop in front of the building at the far end of the courtyard.

Peter opened the door for us again, while a kid our age came up and took the reins of the horses.  Lieutenant Carmody got out, and we followed him inside the building.  Soldiers standing guard at the entrance saluted as he walked past them.

Inside the building was a large hall with paintings of soldiers hung on the walls and a big flag in the center–blue, white, and red vertical stripes.  The flag of New England, I guessed.  We went quickly through the hall and along a corridor.  Finally the lieutenant stopped and knocked on a door.  “Carmody,” he called out in a loud voice.

“Come,” replied a voice from inside.

He opened the door, and we saw a large, dark room, with a high ceiling and big draperies covering the windows.  Like every room in this world, it stank of smoke.  A gray-haired soldier sat behind a big desk, chewing on an unlit cigar and looking at a map.  The lieutenant saluted, and the man gave a half-wave in return.  His uniform was unbuttoned, rumpled, and stained, but when he raised his eyes and stared at us I knew this guy wasn’t another Colonel Clarett; he was a general, and an important one.  I figured he was the head of the whole army, and it turned out I was right.

I thought Lieutenant Carmody had a cold stare, but the general’s gaze was even harder and colder; it seemed to suck the breath right out of me.  It made me want to run and hide.  Kevin and I stood on the other side of the desk from him and waited.

“These are the ones?” he asked Lieutenant Carmody.

“Yes, sir.”

“Strange clothing too, eh?  Let me see the thing again.”  The lieutenant went over, took out the watch, unwrapped it, and handed it to him.  The general squinted at it and punched in a few numbers.  “Fascinating.  But not much use to us, is it?”

“Might speed up artillery calculations.”

“That won’t win the war,” the general muttered.  “And what’s their story?  Where did they get the thing?”

The lieutenant took a long look at us.  “Sir, they claim to have, er, arrived here accidentally from another world, similar to ours but much more advanced.  On their world, this is simply an inexpensive timepiece that one of them happened to be wearing.”

He paused, and everyone was silent.  “Of course.  Yes,” the general said finally.  “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Lieutenant Carmody gave a few more details from Kevin’s story.  At the end the general rolled his eyes.  “And do you believe this tale, lieutenant?” he asked.

“Sir, I don’t know.  But as we discussed, this object is far beyond our ability to manufacture.  Or the ability of anyone else, for that matter, including the Chinese.”

“We knew that already, Lieutenant.  I sent you to form an opinion.  Are they telling the truth?”

For the first time Lieutenant Carmody looked uncomfortable.  “It seems absurd, but . . . I can come up with no other satisfactory explanation.  The accents, the clothes, the device . . .  And the story itself.  It’s a tale beyond the ability of mere boys to concoct.  In my opinion.”

“Hmmph,” the general muttered.  He returned his gaze to us.  “What does the ‘B’ on that strange hat of yours stand for?” he asked Kevin suddenly.

“For–for Boston,” Kevin replied.  He sounded as scared of the general as I felt.  “It’s a baseball cap.”

“And what is ‘baseball’?  Some sort of game?”

“Yes, sir.  It’s a sport.  Teams from different cities play it–Boston, New York . . .  It’s like cricket, I think.  Maybe you play cricket here?”

The general ignored Kevin’s question.  “Sit, both of you,” he ordered.  “Now, explain the rules of baseball.  Tell me everything you know about it.”

I was grateful to be able to sit down.  And Kevin looked really happy to be able to talk about baseball.  “Well,” he said.  “there are nine men on a side, and the field is set up with three bases and what you call home plate . . .”  He went over the rules, then he started in on how the major leagues were set up and the history of the game.  He explained how you figured out an earned run average and slugging percentage and stuff like that.  It was really boring if you ask me, but the general paid close attention.

“Enough,” he ordered finally.  “A strange game, indeed.  I think it’s time for a drink, Lieutenant,” he said.

The lieutenant went to a cabinet and got a bottle out of it.  He poured some dark brown liquid into a glass and handed it to the general, who gulped.  “Feel free, Lieutenant,” he said, gesturing at the bottle, but Carmody shook his head.

The general poured more liquor into the glass.  “Earned run average,” he muttered.

The rest of us waited.

“We are not mystics, Lieutenant,” he said.  “We are not philosophers.  We are soldiers.  We do not always need to understand; but we do need to act.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If we don’t win this war,” he went on, “President Gardner may survive as a puppet of the Canadians and the New Portuguese, at least until they can figure out how to carve the nation up.  You and I, Lieutenant, will most assuredly not survive.  Can these boys help us win this war?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

The general eyed him.  “Not the right answer,” he said.

“Sir, if we believe them, they’re too young to understand what they know about–airplanes, telephones, that sort of thing.  But such things wouldn’t help us in any case.  We don’t have the time or anything like the capability to reproduce them.  But I have a suggestion.”

“Yes?”

“Send them to Alexander Palmer.  Have him find out what they do understand, and whether we can take advantage of it.”

“Palmer?  He thinks we’re all idiots.”

“Just the president, sir.”

“Well, he thinks the war is a disaster.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he wants to lose it.  Imagine if Harvard College were to be turned into the University of Southern Canada.”

The general poured himself another drink.  “Airplanes,” he muttered.  “Telephones.  Wouldn’t it be nice?  What do you imagine His Excellency would think of all this?”

“President Gardner would think it’s insane.  It would give him an excuse to fire you if he found out you were wasting time on it.”

The general nodded.  “Precisely.  Palmer’s still over in Cambridge?”

“I believe so.  Holding out till the last minute, I suppose.  Rather stubborn.”

“Bring them to him.  See if he’ll help.  But for God’s sake keep it secret.”

“Yes, sir.”

The general pointed his cigar at us.  “On-base percentage,” he said, as if he were accusing us of something.  Then he picked up the watch and handed it back to Lieutenant Carmody.

The lieutenant led us out of the room–which was a good thing, because I was about to hurl from the stench and the tension.  We walked quickly back out into the courtyard.  The night had gotten cooler, thank goodness.  “I’ll wager you lads are hungry,” he said.  “Let’s see what we can find to eat.”

He was sure right about us being hungry.  We followed him into another building across the courtyard, then through a door labeled “Officers’ Mess.”  He roused a private who was dozing in a chair in the corner of the room, and in a few minutes we were served roast beef, bread, and milk by candlelight.  The milk was pretty warm, but other than that the meal was fabulous.

“I believe General Aldridge likes you boys,” Lieutenant Carmody said as we ate.  You could’ve fooled me.  “I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react to your story.”

“Who’s Alexander Palmer?” Kevin asked.

“An old professor of mine from college.  Often rather ill-tempered, but the smartest man I know.  I think he’ll enjoy this challenge.”

“Are you going to take us to him now?” I asked.

“Rather late for that, I’m afraid.  Let’s find you some accommodations here for the night and pay him a visit tomorrow.”

The building we were in also turned out to be the officers’ quarters.  When we were finished eating, the lieutenant brought us to a tiny, hot room in the attic.  There was nothing in it but a couple of thin mattresses on the floor, an oil lamp on a rickety table, and a chamber pot in the corner.  “This is where our servants usually sleep,” he explained.  “Except now they’re now on active service in the army, and we have to fend for ourselves.  I’ll fetch you in the morning.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

He gave us a wave and left.

Kevin and I sat down on the mattresses.  “A good meal and a better place to sleep,” he said.  “Progress, huh?”

“Kevin, how are we going to help them win the war?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t know, Larry.  But we should be able to think of something.”

“What if we can’t?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated.  And then he said, “I’m sorry, Larry.  This is all my fault.”

That’s what I thought yesterday when we first ended up in this mess, but I remembered the way Kevin broke down earlier as Lieutenant Carmody gave him a hard time, and I changed my mind.  “No, it’s not,” I said.  “We both screwed up.  Anyway, we’ll be okay.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Funny how they don’t know that word.  Anyway, I sure hope you’re right.”  He stretched out on his mattress.  “Good night, Larry.”

“Good night, Kevin.”  I lay down on my mattress and closed my eyes.  My muscles ached from all the lifting I’d done.  It had been a long day.  At home, they were probably still searching for us.  Maybe they’d found the portal by now and were trying to figure it out.  How many worlds would they have to visit before they discovered this one?  How long would they keep looking?

Meanwhile, what was tomorrow going to bring for Kevin and me?

I fell asleep with my mind full of questions.

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