Well, we’re about a quarter of the way through. The story so far: Larry and his friend Kevin, who live in a suburb south of Boston, have stumbled through some kind of portal into a parallel universe. Here, there is no “America”; instead they have landed in a “United States of New England” that’s fighting a war with Canada and New Portugal. They make their way to Boston, which is preparing for a siege, and no one is optimistic about winning the war. Kevin shows his multi-function watch to some soldiers, and this eventually brings the boys to the attention of New England’s military commander, General Gardner and his aide, Lieutenant Carmody. They are (somewhat) convinced that the Kevin and Larry are from another world, but they can’t figure out how the boys can help the war effort. So they send the boys off to live with Professor Palmer in Cambridge, hoping that he can come up with some ideas. And that brings us to . . .
“My housekeeper left to join her daughter’s family in Boston,” Professor Palmer explained, “but I’m used to fending for myself. Kindly have a seat.”
The kitchen was large and sunny, with a big open fireplace along the inside wall. We sat in a couple of straight-backed wooden chairs in a corner and watched him putter for a while in silence. When he was done, we helped him bring the food into the dining room, which was small and dark and kind of stuffy. We ate cold roast chicken, and it was just about the best chicken I’d ever tasted. I was beginning to get the idea that food here was either terrible or delicious. Like the soldiers in the mess hall, he ate with his knife. His fork only had two prongs, and he used it just to hold down the meat while he cut it. Weird.
“Before long, meals like this will be but a memory,” the professor said. “We must enjoy them while we can.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “It’s very good.”
“Yes. Well.” He paused, then fell silent and looked down at his plate. He seemed to be having difficulty starting up a conversation with us.
“Do you believe us?” Kevin asked.
He looked up and blinked rapidly. “You know, I want very much to believe you,” he replied. “Knowledge is so hard to come by. In many ways we have learned little–and forgotten much–since the ancient Greeks. The idea that somewhere, somehow, another turn was taken, and so much more has been discovered and accomplished–it is deeply exciting. But then, there is still Occam’s razor.”
“We’re telling the truth,” I said. “We’re not smart enough to make up all this stuff.”
The professor nodded. “That is actually the most powerful argument in your favor. Your theory, though–that we live our lives countless times, in countless different worlds–simply doesn’t feel real. It is the stuff of fantastical late-night conversations in college common rooms, after too many glasses of port. Lieutenant Carmody wants weapons. I want to understand what is real.”
“We don’t drink port,” I pointed out. I had no idea what port was.
That got him to laugh. “Let us begin, then,” he said. “Remove these plates, and I’ll find some paper.”
We cleared the table while the professor got some of that odd-looking yellowish paper that the lieutenant had used, and one of those strange, long pencils. And we started telling our story once again.
It didn’t go all that well. Professor Palmer took a lot of notes and asked a lot of questions, but we had the same problem we had before. Like the lieutenant said, we knew things, but we didn’t understand them. And the professor was mostly interested in the portal and how that worked and what it meant to philosophy and religion and stuff, and there we couldn’t help him at all. After a while he began to look unhappy and distracted, like he was getting tired of listening to us.
Finally we took a break, and he showed us his house and where we’d be sleeping. For a famous professor, his house wasn’t all that big–I think people in this world were used to a lot less space than in ours. Across from the dining room was a small room he called the “parlor,” which was mostly filled up with a piano. That reminded me again of the piano lesson I had missed, which wasn’t good. Next to the parlor was a tiny study crammed with books. There was a narrow staircase leading to the second floor, which had one good-sized bedroom and one small one. We were bringing up sheets and blankets to the small bedroom when we noticed a couple of paintings in the hall–one was of a little boy in short pants, the other of a black-haired woman with a sad smile sitting in a chair and holding a fan. Kevin asked the professor who they were. He looked like he didn’t want to answer, and then he said softly, “My wife and son.”
“Where are they?” Kevin asked. “Are they–?”
He shrugged. “They died many years ago.”
“How did they die?”
I thought that was kind of a pushy question. The professor again didn’t seem to want to talk about it, but he said, “In an outbreak of the smallpox.” He gazed at the painting of the child. “It occurred shortly after Seth’s portrait was completed.”
“Smallpox?” Kevin said. “I’m pretty sure that’s totally cured in our world.”
The professor turned and glared at Kevin. “Do not trifle with me, boy!” he shot back angrily.
Kevin retreated a step. I think he was afraid the professor was going to hit him. “I didn’t mean to–” he said. “I mean, I’m sorry, if you don’t want to talk about it . . . ”
“How was it cured?” he demanded. “Or is that something else you don’t understand?”
“I’m pretty sure they came up with, you know, a vaccine.”
“No, I don’t know. What is a ‘vaccine’?” he demanded.
This time Kevin had an explanation. “It’s like when you give someone a tiny bit of a disease, with a shot or something. Not enough to make them sick, but it gives them immunity when they come in contact with the disease for real.”
“What do you mean, ‘immunity’?”
“You know, when you don’t get a disease, because your body has built up a resistance to the germs.”
The professor shook his head, still not getting it. “And what are ‘germs’?” he asked.
Kevin looked at me like, Can you believe this? “They’re tiny, um, organisms that can make you sick,” he said. “Different kinds of germs give you different illnesses. They’re really small–you can only see them with a powerful microscope. Do you have microscopes in this world?”
Professor Palmer continued to stare at Kevin. Then I noticed that his dark eyes were filled with tears. “So many people have died of smallpox,” he said. “And you tell me they could have been saved?”
“We’ve cured a lot of diseases,” Kevin said.
“What about . . . drikana?”
Kevin looked at me. I shook my head. The name was kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Never heard of it,” I said.
“No matter, I suppose,” the professor said softly. “No matter.”
But that conversation did matter. It seemed to change the way Professor Palmer acted toward us. He never really said that he believed us instead of Occam’s razor or whatever, but it was just more or less assumed. It was more than that, though–before, it had been like what we were telling him was just a puzzle he was trying to figure out. Now, it was different. Now, it was sort of personal. We weren’t going to bring his wife and son back, but maybe we really could help.
After supper we all sat in the parlor and talked more about his world. Professor Palmer was eager to give us his opinions about it. He seemed a little lonely, with the college closed and the town deserted and nobody to lecture to, and we were the best audience he was going to get.
“This war need never have happened,” he said, “except that those purblind fools in Boston were certain it wouldn’t happen. They assumed the Canadians and Portuguese hated each other more than they hated us, and would never be able to unite against us no matter how much we provoked them. Perhaps fifty years ago that was true. But times have changed. They realized that they needn’t be friends to be allies, and we were in no position to defend ourselves on two fronts. So they attacked, and we have been fighting for our lives ever since.”
I remembered the newspaper we’d read and the soldiers’ talk. “Why hasn’t England helped?” I asked.
“Because we asked too late. And because England has more than enough problems of its own fighting the Franco-Prussian alliance. And there continue to be those who never wanted us to become independent of England, and would be happy to see us fail.”
“Sir,” Kevin said, “would you mind–we still don’t understand what’s going on here. We know about Canada, but what happened to America–you know, what we call this place? And in our world, the Spanish came here first from Europe. Portugal didn’t have a whole lot to do with the New World, that I remember. We think something must have changed way back in your history, to make things end up so different.”
The professor nodded. “All right. The theory makes sense. Let’s see if we can find out.”
It didn’t take that long. You wouldn’t have to have paid much attention in history class to figure out what the difference was, once you started looking for it.
In this world, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Professor Palmer had never heard of the guy.
What we learned in school was that the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator, wanted to find a trade route to India, so they explored south along the coast of Africa, until they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed north through the Indian Ocean. They weren’t interested in sailing west across the Atlantic, maybe because they knew more about geography than Columbus and realized they’d have to travel a whole lot further than he thought to reach India.
So in our world Columbus went off and sold Spain on his idea, and that’s why Spain reached the New World first, why it became a huge empire, at least for a while, why Balboa discovered the Pacific and Cortez conquered Mexico and all that stuff. And America got named almost by accident when a mapmaker decided a guy named Amerigo Vespucci deserved some credit for his explorations.
That was us.
In Professor Palmer’s world, the Portuguese did sail west and discover the New World. It wasn’t even Columbus’s idea; he never entered the picture. It was Portugal, not Spain, that got all the silver and gold. It was Portugal that became the big empire, with Spain just another loser country in Europe.
France still explored and settled what would become Canada, and England colonized the eastern part of “America.” But the British colonies never expanded the way they did in our world. They stayed along the Atlantic coast, hemmed in by the Portuguese, the Canadians, and the Indians. And that’s the way it stayed.
Professor Palmer showed us a map that night. New England was a lot bigger than it was in our world–it looked like it included New York and Pennsylvania–but New Portugal was huge; it extended all the way from, like, Virginia, west to what’s Texas in our world, then south through Mexico and into South America. Canada was big, too, stretching down into the Midwest. On the map New England looked like this little stone stuck between two huge boulders.
How could it avoid getting crushed?
Well, things weren’t always quite as bad as they looked on the map. New Portugal was too big, too spread out to be much of a nation. It was more like a bunch of half-independent states, usually at war with each other. And Canada had mostly been friendly with New England and an enemy of New Portugal.
But right now England was busy fighting a war against France and Prussia (which was sort of like our Germany), so it couldn’t do much to help with the defense of its former colony. Canada and New Portugal saw this as an opportunity to carve up the little nation between them. New England had been trying to extend its borders by skirmishing with both countries, and that gave them the reason they needed to invade.
It all seemed so strange, so different, as we talked about it. There had been no American Revolution, no Civil War. New England had stayed part of the British Empire until 1925. Slavery ended there when it ended in the rest of the Empire, in the 1830’s, although it still existed on a small scale in some areas of New Portugal. The whole western part of the continent remained largely unexplored and was inhabited mostly by Indians (who were called by their tribal names, because no one ever thought they came from India).
Some people were just as famous in this world as they were in ours–Beethoven, for example. But many either hadn’t existed or, if they did, never became well-known. Shakespeare had died young and was remembered for just a couple of poems. Mozart, Van Gogh, Mark Twain–who were they? Professor Palmer had never heard of them, and lots of others we mentioned.
And where were all the inventions, the medicines, the discoveries? Why was this world, like, two hundred years behind ours?
The answer became obvious to Professor Palmer as we talked. “You told me this afternoon that you had never heard of drikana,” he said. “That may explain a great deal.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A horrible disease–worse even than smallpox or consumption. A person afflicted with drikana has uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. It is as if everything in his body is trying to escape as quickly as possible. Most people die within two days of the disease’s onset. It is also highly contagious. If it shows up in a city, it will kill a third of the inhabitants in a month.”
Kevin and I looked at each other. I remembered where I’d heard the word before. “A soldier asked us about drikana when we were coming into Boston,” I recalled.
Professor Palmer nodded. “They need to be vigilant to keep the disease from entering. An outbreak would be devastating, with the city so crowded with refugees.”
“Drikana sounds kind of like Ebola,” Kevin said. “That’s a deadly virus from Africa.”
“And what is a ‘virus’?” the professor asked.
Kevin tried his best to explain. “Kind of like germs, I think, only it’s harder to come up with medicines for a virus. I think.”
“There is no cure for drikana,” the professor noted. “Early settlers in the New World were the first to come down with it. ‘Drikana’ was the name of a native tribe near the site of the first outbreak. Unfortunately the survivors returned to Portugal and brought the disease with them. It devastated Europe, and five hundred years later it still devastates us. For a few years it seems to lie dormant, until people begin to hope that it is finally gone–but always there is a new outbreak, just as devastating as the last.
“Surely that accounts for the difference between our worlds,” he went on. “How many geniuses has the disease claimed before they could make their discoveries? How much time and effort have we spent in dealing with it that we could have spent in the search for knowledge?” He looked pained again, as he had when talking about the death of his wife and son. “And how many lives have we wasted fighting useless wars like this one?” he murmured.
“Well, it’s not like there are no wars in our world,” Kevin pointed out. And we talked about the Civil War and the World Wars and Iraq, the concentration camps and the A-bomb and chemical weapons. I don’t think it made the professor feel much better.
“Knowledge doesn’t bring wisdom, certainly,” he said. “No reason to assume otherwise. More advanced weapons just allow you to kill each other more efficiently. Still, a world without drikana, with smallpox cured . . . I daresay most people would make the exchange.”
I know I would have.
“Well,” he said, “this is the world we have, and we must make the best of it. Time for bed. Tomorrow we will set to work again.”
We went up to our room, and for the first time in this world we had clean sheets and soft pillows. The mattresses were lumpy and, of course, we still had to pee in a pot or go outside to what the professor called the “privy.” But we weren’t complaining.
“Drikana,” Kevin whispered in the darkness, as if trying out the disease’s name.
“Drikana,” I repeated, lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling.
“Some little germ somewhere, can’t even see it, and it wipes out half the world, sets progress back centuries.”
“Do you think we’ll get it?” I asked.
“Maybe the worst danger in this world isn’t the Portuguese or the Canadians,” he replied, not quite answering my question.
“Have you ever been in the hospital?”
“Just to the emergency room once,” he said, “when I broke my thumb.”
“I don’t even know if they have hospitals here.”
“If they do, doesn’t sound like they’d be much use.”
I fell silent, thinking about how safe I’d always felt at home. My mom was crazy about safety, but even if she weren’t, there were doctors and ambulances and firemen and policemen around . . . Bad things happened, sure, but they had never happened to me. And it had never really occurred to me that they could happen to me, maybe just because Mom was always so worried. With her protecting me, what could go wrong?
Kevin was silent. I listened to my heart beating in the quiet room. I have to rely on myself now, I thought. I had to grow up. There just wasn’t any choice. No use feeling sorry for myself; no use thinking about the past and my home and family and what I could have done to not get into this mess. No use hoping they’d find the portal and find this world and magically save me. A germ or a virus or whatever could kill me tomorrow, but I couldn’t worry about that. I could only do my best, and try to stay alive.