Portal, an online novel: Chapter 9

Thanks to Kevin’s multi-function watch, he and Larry get to meet with General Aldridge, the head of the New England forces in Boston.  He and Lieutenant Carmody decide to send them off to Professor Palmer in Cambridge to see what he can learn from them.  They’re making progress!  But they’re no closer to making their way home . . .

The fabulous first eight chapters of the novel are up there under “Portal” in the menu.  What could be more convenient?


Chapter 9

Peter, Lieutenant Carmody’s driver, came for us the next morning, just as we were waking up.  He was a big man with long, bushy sideburns and a large mustache.  “The Lieutenant would like for you to come to his quarters,” he explained.  He talked slowly, as if he wasn’t sure we could understand him.

We followed him down a couple of floors and along a short corridor, until we reached a door with Lieutenant Carmody’s name on it.  Peter rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an answer.  We all went in.

The lieutenant’s room was large, with a bed, a desk, and a comfortable-looking chair, in which he was sitting.  There was a rug on the floor and curtains on the window.  On the desk was a vase with a single flower in it.  The place looked pretty homey after where we’d slept the last two nights.

The lieutenant got up from the chair and greeted us.  Like yesterday, his uniform was crisp and clean.  He wrinkled his nose when he got a whiff of us.  “Peter, I believe we’ll have to get these lads washed,” he said.  “Then let’s have them put on their new clothes.”  He pointed to the bed, where a couple of outfits were laid out–dark pants, shapeless shirts, and clunky shoes.  They weren’t much to look at, but that was okay by me; it would be good not to have people staring at us anymore.  “Bring their clothes back here, Peter,” he went on.  “I’ll hold on to them.  Lads, I’ll meet you in the mess.”

“Yes, sir,” Peter said.  “Grab the clothes, lads, and follow me.”

We went downstairs and out a back door, into an enclosed area next to the stables.  Laundry hung on lines, and there were buckets filled with water sitting on wood stoves that were tended by an enormous woman with sweat pouring off her.  Next to the stoves were tables with towels and big blocks of yellow soap on them.  A few soldiers were standing at the tables and pouring water over themselves.

“Grab a bucket, lads, and go to it,” Peter said.  And to the woman he said,  “Bessy, we need to get these lads cleaned up.”  I was a little embarrassed about taking my clothes off in front of the woman, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Anyway, it felt good to wash.  “Hand those clothes over when you’re ready,” he ordered us.

We did as we were told.  Peter was intrigued by our boxers–it turned out that only rich people wore underwear here–but he was totally fascinated by the zippers on our pants.  We showed him how they worked, and he couldn’t stop zipping and unzipping.  “How the devil does it do that?” he asked.

It was something else we couldn’t exactly explain.

My new shirt didn’t fit very well.  The pants were itchy, especially with nothing on underneath them.  The shoes were incredibly heavy compared to my sneakers.  “You look terrible,” Kevin said.

“So do you.”

But at least we were reasonably clean.

Peter brought us to the mess, where Lieutenant Carmody had breakfast waiting for us–porridge and tea again, but also scrambled eggs, which tasted great.  The lieutenant nodded his approval at our outfits.  “You look like you’re just off the farm.  And you smell much better.  Now finish up.  We have to get you over to Cambridge.”

After we were done, he hurried us out to the courtyard, where Peter was waiting with the carriage.  The three of us got in, and we rattled off over the cobblestones.  The streets were filled with horses and carriages and big wagons and those strange-looking bicycles, not to mention a hog or two and some nasty dogs.  Lieutenant Carmody tapped his fingers impatiently as we made our way through the noise and the traffic.  “You’d think it was life as usual in the city,” he said.  “More refugees adding to the confusion, I suppose.  It’ll be midday before we get to Harvard.”

“We have Harvard in our world,” I said.  “My father went there.”

Lieutenant Carmody gave me a look, as if he still wasn’t ready to believe this stuff about parallel universes. “What does your father do?” he asked.

“He’s a computer programmer.”

“And what is that?”

“Well, he writes software programs that, um, make computers work.”

The lieutenant shook his head.  “Software?” he asked.  “Programs?”

I tried, but I couldn’t make sense of it for him; finally he waved me silent in frustration and turned away to stare out the window at the traffic.

Finally we reached a river.  I guessed it was the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge, but it didn’t look anything like the Charles in our world, which always seemed pretty peaceful and calm when we drove by, with joggers and rollerbladers whizzing around its banks, and lots of little sailboats out on the water.  This version of the Charles didn’t have much in the way of banks, with trees and bushes up to its edge, and only a couple of rowboats making their way towards the other shore.  The bridge we crossed was small and rickety, and I got a little scared that if the horse became excited he could crash through the railing and send us all down into the water.  But we made it across okay, and then we were in Cambridge and traveling along the Massachusetts Road, the lieutenant informed us.

Cambridge wasn’t anything like our version either, of course.  We passed by the usual farms and small shops; when we reached the part where the college was, the houses got nicer, and some of the buildings were pretty impressive, but there was nothing like the craziness of Harvard Square, which my dad brought us to a couple of times.  In fact, the place looked pretty deserted, especially compared to Boston.

“That’s where I lived when I attended Harvard,” Lieutenant Carmody said, pointing to a large brick building.  It was exactly the sort of thing my dad said when he brought us to Harvard Square.  Big whoop, Cassie would reply, and she wouldn’t even look at his dorm.

“Where is everyone?” Kevin asked.

“The students are all in the army,” the lieutenant replied.  “And most of the townspeople have retreated across the river into Boston.  Cambridge will not be defensible if the Canadians choose to advance on it.  And they will advance before long.”

“Why is Professor Palmer still here?”

“Because he’s a contrary old sod,” the lieutenant muttered.  I didn’t exactly understand the words, but I got the idea.

We kept going, and eventually Peter pulled up in front of a big white house down a dirt lane.  We got out, and the lieutenant went over and knocked on the door, but there was no answer.  He shook his head and walked around back.  We followed him.

In front of a red barn a gray-haired man with a small beard was tossing apples into what I figured was a cider press.  My family went apple-picking every fall, and they’d had gizmos like it in the orchards.  We approached.  “Good morning, Professor,” the lieutenant called out.

The professor looked up.  “Ah, William,” he replied.  “Nice to see you.”  He didn’t seem at all surprised.  “Don’t you have a war to fight?”

“Ninety percent of war is preparation.”

“So you’re preparing?”

“You might say so.”

Professor Palmer glanced at us with little interest.  “And who are these fellows?” he asked.

Lieutenant Carmody introduced us.  The professor gave us a brief nod and offered us a cup of cider.  It was delicious.

“Don’t you have friends to stay with in Boston?” the lieutenant asked him.  “I can’t imagine you’d enjoy having the Canadians show up at your doorstep one morning to take you prisoner.”

“I have every confidence that President Gardner will find a way to make this entire unpleasant episode go away,” Professor Palmer replied, and I was pretty sure he was being sarcastic.  “He’s still talking to the British, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but there’s that little matter of the naval blockade to deal with.  The British ambassador can agree to whatever we want, but he still has to find a way to inform Parliament of the agreement.  And as to whether they would accept his recommendations . . . ”  The lieutenant shrugged.  “We don’t have as many friends in London as we used to.”

“William, I was having a very pleasant morning here, and now you’ve gone and ruined it,” the professor said.  “Are you telling me His Excellency doesn’t have a plan to extricate us from this disastrous situation he has allowed to develop?”

The lieutenant smiled.  “Like you, I have every confidence in His Excellency.”

“Pah.”  The professor spat on the ground.  “Now, there must be a reason for visiting me with these young men in tow.”

“Indeed.  We have something to show you, professor, and a story to tell.”

Lieutenant Carmody took out the watch and handed it to the professor, who studied it while we waited.  He didn’t touch any of the buttons at first, just turning the thing over in his hands.  Then Kevin showed him how to use it.  After that the professor sat down on a tree stump and started playing with it.  “Square roots,” he muttered.  “To eight decimal places.  Remarkable.”  He stood up finally.  “And what is the story you have to tell, William?” he asked.

“It’s a very strange one–if you choose to believe it.”  We all sat down, and he repeated what we had told him, the way he had to General Aldridge.

The professor scratched his head and stared at us as he listened.  “Do you remember your philosophy courses, William?” he asked when Carmody was finished.

The lieutenant smiled.  “How could I forget them?”

“Do you recall the discussion of Occam’s Razor?”

“The principle of parsimony,” he replied.  “The simplest explanation is generally the best.”

The professor nodded.  “Such a pity you chose soldiering instead of the groves of Academe, William.  You were one of our brightest students.  So, can we not apply Occam’s Razor here?  Why postulate an infinitude of universes and the like?  Can’t we explain the current situation by suggesting that two boys with active imaginations have somehow come upon a device from China–amazing though it is–and concocted a silly story to go with it?”

“We could,” the lieutenant agreed.  “Except that, if you’re right, they have concocted a better story than any I’ve ever heard.”

“And there’s zippers, begging your pardon, sir,” Peter said.  I had forgotten about Peter.  He was tending his horses by a water pump, close enough to overhear the conversation.  “On their trousers, sir.”  And he described that other miraculous invention, which apparently he couldn’t get out of his head.  “You don’t need buttons on your fly,” he explained.  “The thing just goes up and down, smooth as you like.”

The professor stared at us some more.

“Ask them about baseball,” the lieutenant urged.  “General Aldridge was much impressed with the little one’s discussion of a sport on his world.”

Professor Palmer raised an eyebrow.  “Solomon is not a fool like our president,” he said, “but he is also not a philosopher.  Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to catechize them.”

So he began asking us questions–not about baseball, thank goodness, but about everything else on our world–politics and history and science and religion and lots more.  For the first time we got to explain about America.  We talked about how it became the most powerful country in the world.  We talked about watching TV and playing video games and surfing the net.  We talked about men landing on the moon, which got the professor to raise his eyebrow again.  I described how I had touched a moon rock when my family visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington.  That seemed to astound him more than anything else we said.

Like the lieutenant, the professor pressed us for explanations that we just couldn’t give.  I mean, I have some vague idea of how a car works.  You put gas in the tank, you turn the key, you move the thing so it points to “D”, you step on the accelerator . . .  But to explain it so that it made sense to someone who has never heard of a car–I couldn’t do it.  Kevin was a little better, because he read so much and liked to do science experiments and stuff, but even he didn’t make a lot of sense when the professor really pushed him.

After a while I figured we were screwing up pretty badly, and I started to get depressed.  We’d been better off with Kevin explaining earned run averages to General Aldridge.  Finally the professor stopped his questions and poured everyone more cider.  Then he looked at Lieutenant Carmody.  “What do you want from me, William?” he asked softly.

“We’re at war, Professor,” the lieutenant replied.  “Our nation’s survival is in jeopardy.”

“You expect these boys to conjure weapons for you?”

“I want whatever they can give us.”

Professor Palmer looked away.  “Another world,” he murmured.  “A thousand wonders to explore.  And what do we seek?  Better ways of killing.”

The lieutenant gestured towards the professor’s house.  “Everything you have,” he said, “–your life itself–is being protected by a few thousand soldiers, with dwindling supplies and little hope of reinforcement.  We don’t have time to explore wonders; we need to survive.”

“They’re just boys,” the professor pointed out.  “Obviously they don’t understand–”

“And that’s why I’ve come to you,” the lieutenant interrupted.  “They know things but don’t understand them.  You don’t know, but you can understand.  Together, perhaps you can come up with something.”

“You’re asking for a miracle.”

“Well, why not?  If these boys are to be believed, their very presence here is a miracle.”

“How long do we have?” the professor asked.

The lieutenant shrugged.  “We assume the enemy will lay siege to the city before the final attack.  If so, we can hold out a couple of months.  By winter it will be hopeless.  But the president will likely surrender long before that.  And the terms will not be favorable.”

The professor shook his head sadly.  “How did it come to this?”

“That’s for others to work out,” the lieutenant replied.  “Soldiers simply fight the war they are given.”

“That’s why you should be more than a soldier, William.  But in the meantime, what is your plan?”

“The boys will stay here with you,” he said.  “We need to keep this secret, not least because of how the president might react if he found out.  While they’re here, you learn what you can from them.  Whatever might help us.  I’ll return to check on your progress.”

“And if there’s nothing?”

“Then there’s nothing.  You will have listened to some entertaining stories while you wait for the Canadians to arrive, and the rest of us will march resolutely towards our fate.”

The professor looked at Kevin and me, and I could tell he didn’t like the idea of having us move in with him.  “I’m an old man,” he started to say, “and–”

“Nonsense,” Lieutenant Carmody interrupted.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and you know it.  You are the best person in New England for the task, and you know that as well.  Don’t lose the opportunity just because you’re set in your ways.”

“I suppose,” the professor said finally, as if he was agreeing to have his foot amputated or something.  “Very well.”

Lieutenant Carmody nodded in satisfaction and immediately stood up.  “Excellent.”  He turned to us.  “I trust you lads will do your best.  There is much at stake here.”

“Yes, sir,” we both replied.

“Good.”  He shook hands with Professor Palmer, then motioned to Peter to get the carriage ready.  In a couple of minutes they were clattering off down the lane, and we were alone with the professor.

It was very quiet.  Kevin and I stood by the cider press, waiting.

“Well, then,” the professor said.  “I suppose–I suppose you’re hungry.”

I wasn’t, actually, but we both nodded.

“So perhaps we should dine?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Pardon me?”

That word again.  “I mean sure.  Fine.”

“Well, then,” he murmured again, and he started off towards the house.

Kevin and I looked at each other.  “Weird,” Kevin whispered.  And we followed him inside.

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