Portal, an online novel: Chapter 11

Kevin and Larry have moved into Professor Palmer’s house in Cambridge.  And now they are part of the war effort against the Canadians and the New Portuguese — if only they can come up with a way to help…

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Chapter 11

Professor Palmer was pretty gruff, and he got angry with us a lot, especially in the first couple of days.  He expected us to do our share of chores, and we weren’t very good at them.  At home I’d  have to clean my room and wash the car and stuff like that, but I sure didn’t have to sweep up horse poop or empty chamber pots or feed garbage to pigs.  I mowed lawns at home, but with a power mower, not a scythe–I didn’t even know what a scythe was; Mom would have had a stroke if she’d seen me with one of them in my hands.

“Your utter incompetence is proof of something,” the professor said, shaking his head at us as Kevin and I tried to put a saddle onto Susie, his friendly old horse.

But we kind of got used to his style after a while.  He was never mean to us; he just hadn’t dealt much with kids, especially incompetent kids.  And we got better at our chores, at least some of them.

Life at the professor’s house was actually pretty pleasant, except for our homesickness, and the occasional distant sound of gunfire, which reminded us that before very long this was going to end and we’d have to move back into the crowded city for the final siege.  Some things took getting used to, though.

The smells, for one.  Not just the barnyard smells–the chickens and the pigs and Susie–and the smell of the privy behind the house.  But the people smells.  Taking a bath was a big deal in this world.  Washing clothes was also a big deal–and Kevin and I only had one set of clothes to wash.  So we all kind of stank, at least until I got used to it.

The isolation was another big difference.  We didn’t have a clue what was going on with the war, and there really wasn’t any way to find out, unless we rode into Boston.  Were the Canadians heading into Cambridge?  Was England going to save us?  Professor Palmer didn’t seem too bothered about the lack of news, but it really bugged Kevin and me.

Part of the isolation was the silence.  When the gunfire stopped, there wasn’t much sound at all–just birds twittering, the wind rustling leaves, hens clucking in the barnyard.  No traffic noise, no airplanes, not even the hum of a refrigerator.  It was kind of spooky.

And of course there wasn’t much to do.  We couldn’t talk to the professor or do chores all the time, so we had to entertain ourselves.  The professor had plenty of books, and we tried reading them.  We skipped the philosophy stuff, but some of the novels were okay, although they always had lots of words we didn’t understand and scenes that didn’t make any sense because we didn’t know enough about this world’s history or geography or whatever.  Kevin liked to play chess with the professor, who was delighted to have an opponent.

I actually ended up spending a lot of time playing the piano, which Professor Palmer also enjoyed.  His piano had a tinnier sound than I was used to, and not as many keys, but the basic instrument was the same.  The professor didn’t know any of the songs I knew, so it was cool when I came up with something that he liked.  One of his favorites was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

He had some sheet music, and I managed to learn a few of the songs from his world, too.  There was one we all liked with a sad melody and strange words:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died

 

Long did I linger

In an alien land

Till tears finally left me

As I stood on the strand . . .

 

I played that song so often that it felt like it was part of my fingers.

Anyway, our job was to try to figure out how we could help New England win the war.  So we talked a lot about weapons.  They knew about rifles and gunpowder in this world, obviously, and they used cannons.  But they didn’t have anything more sophisticated than that.  We tried to think of stuff from our world they might be able to use–something short of nuclear bombs and that sort of thing.  I came up with hand grenades, and the professor made some notes as I described them.  Kevin remembered about landmines, although neither of us was exactly sure how they worked.  The professor winced and made a lot more notes.  It was obvious that he wasn’t enjoying this.  “Demanding that young boys think about such things,” he sighed.  “It is deeply depressing.”

Kevin and I didn’t really mind.  We didn’t want to make the professor feel bad, but this was kind of interesting.  “It’s all about winning the war,” Kevin pointed out.  “Like the lieutenant said.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the professor said, shaking his head.  “At such a cost, though.”

Lieutenant Carmody showed up after a few days, on horseback instead of being driven by Peter.  “You boys are looking well,” he said when he saw us.  “And professor, how are you getting along with these lads?”

“They’re excellent company,” the professor replied.  “Our task, however, is not a pleasant one.”

“I’m not aware of anyone who thinks that war is pleasant,” the lieutenant said.  “But tell me what you’ve come up with.”

We sat by the barn as we had before, and Professor Palmer talked about landmines and such.  Lieutenant Carmody didn’t look especially impressed.  “These devices have been tried already,” he said.  “The French in particular have worked on them: fougasses, they’re called.  They’ve never been effective.  The problem is keeping the gunpowder dry–once it gets moist, the fougasse won’t explode.  How does your world deal with that problem?” he asked us.

We didn’t have a clue.  “I don’t think they’re even made from gunpowder anymore,” Kevin said.  “They probably have dynamite in them or something.”

“And what is ‘dynamite’?”

There was that question again.  Yet another word that was so familiar to us and totally strange to them.  But, as usual, the concept behind the word wasn’t quite familiar enough.  Neither of us could tell the lieutenant what exactly dynamite was.

“All right,” he said after we’d talked about weapons for a while longer.  “I need more, I’m afraid.  Professor, perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the obvious.  Let’s try again.  But time runs short.  The Portuguese have reached the fortifications south of the city, and for all intents and purposes the siege has begun.”

“How much longer do we have, William?” the professor asked.

“I don’t know.  I’ll return in a few days, and we’ll discuss the situation then.  Keep working.”

Professor Palmer didn’t look happy after the lieutenant had left.  “William’s right, of course,” he muttered.  “Perhaps we must simplify.  Get back to first principles.”

“You mean like gravity?” Kevin asked.

I half-expected the professor to say, And what is gravity?  But it turned out Sir Isaac Newton had lived in this world, and they knew about gravity and the laws of motion and all that stuff.  “Perhaps gravity,” he replied.  “Or something equally basic.  I don’t know.  Perhaps we should just talk.”

He seemed kind of discouraged.  I think his heart really wasn’t in it.  But then that night Kevin came up with something, just

sitting in front of the big kitchen fireplace and watching the smoke go up the chimney.

“Hot-air balloons!” he exclaimed.

Professor Palmer looked at him, and then asked the usual question.  “And what is a hot-air balloon?”

“My parents gave me a ride in one once as a birthday present,” Kevin said.  Not the kind of present my mother would ever have given me.  “Hot air rises–you know that, right?  Because heating the air makes it expand and become lighter.  As it expands, it can push things up.”  He crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it onto the fire.  A few of the ashes rose up the chimney along with the smoke.  “So with hot-air balloons,” he went on, “you have this huge, like, spherical cloth, and there’s a flame underneath it so you can heat the air inside the sphere.  And there’s this big wicker basket attached where people can stand, and it rises with the balloon.  If you want the make the balloon go higher or lower, you adjust the flame.  It’s really cool.”

The professor looked puzzled.  “Cool?  How can the flame be cool?”

Kevin shook his head and explained what cool meant.

“Well then, yes,” the professor said, “I agree that it is really ‘cool.'”  He stroked his beard, then started peppering Kevin with questions.  “Can you steer a balloon?”

“A little bit.  You have to catch air currents going one way or another.  Someone went around the world in a balloon, I think.”

“What is the balloon made out of?”

“I’m not sure.  Nylon or something–you probably don’t have any of that.”

“Silk!” I put in, happy to be able to contribute.  “In the old days they used silk.  I remember seeing a show about balloons on the History Channel.  The North used them in the Civil War to check out enemy positions.  They were attached to the ground with a long rope so they wouldn’t float away.”

Professor Palmer took a pencil and started sketching what a balloon looked like.  “There are clearly some practical issues here,” he said, “but yes, this is interesting.  We’ll see what William has to say.”

So that was pretty good.  And another idea came the next afternoon, as we sat on the front porch during a thunderstorm.  We started talking about electricity.  There hadn’t been a Benjamin Franklin in this world, but they did understand lightning; they just hadn’t made much use of what they knew about electricity.  We had already talked about electrical power and electric lights, but we hadn’t talked about the basicsNow we started describing some of the experiments we did in science class, and that got Professor Palmer scribbling furiously.  “Yes, of course,” he said.  “Storing and controlling it.  What were the words again?”

“Batteries?” Kevin said.  “Generators?”

“Yes, yes.  And the electricity runs along wires . . . ”

“I don’t know how they work,” I said, “but I think there are electric fences–to keep animals in.  The cow or whatever touches the fence and gets a shock, and that teaches him to stay away from the fence.”

“Electric fences,” the professor said.  “Remarkable.  If they keep animals in, would they keep soldiers out?”

“I don’t see why not.  But you need to generate the power.”

“Yes, of course.”

More writing, as the rain came pouring down.  I thought of the people in the camp, with only the shelter of their wagons.  We’ve been very lucky, I thought.  I wondered if our luck would hold.  Maybe Lieutenant Carmody would send us back to the camp when he’d gotten whatever he could out of us.  Or maybe the Portuguese and Canadians would attack tomorrow, and then what?  Even if New England somehow won the war, what would happen to us next month, next year, if we couldn’t find the portal, and we ended up stuck here forever?

A couple of days later Lieutenant Carmody returned, looking preoccupied and worried.  This time we sat around the dining room table, and Professor Palmer brought out his notes and drawings.  As usual, the lieutenant listened carefully, then asked a lot of tough questions.  I couldn’t tell if he was happy with what we had come up with or disgusted with the time he had wasted on us.  After a while he simply nodded and said, “Right.  Let’s go back to Boston.”

“Why the devil do we have to go to Boston?” the professor asked.

“To talk to General Aldridge.  He’s at the fortifications in Brighton.  Along the River Road past the new refugee camp.”

“Does that mean you like our ideas?” I asked.

“That means General Aldridge won’t chew my head off for wasting his time on them.  Now let’s go, if you please.  There’s a war on, as one of our more discerning senior officers likes to point out.”

Professor Palmer didn’t act pleased, though.  “I don’t see why Aldridge can’t come here,” he grumbled.  Secretly, though, I think he was kind of relieved.  He went and changed into a white shirt and a long gray coat, and then we went outside, hitched up Susie to his carriage, and headed off to Boston, with Lieutenant Carmody leading the way on his horse.  The professor’s carriage wasn’t as fancy as the one Peter drove; it was open and smaller, and a whole lot bouncier as we went over the bumps and ruts of the Massachusetts Road.  But it was kind of fun to be going somewhere for a change.

Like the lieutenant said, there was another camp now along the Charles, just past the bridge.  We saw hundreds of people there as we passed by.  “Poor wretches,” the professor muttered.  “Things get worse by the day.”

Eventually the river bent away from us to the right, and that’s where the fortifications started.  Looking at them got the professor muttering some more.  “How do they expect to keep the enemy out with earthworks and palisades?”

They really didn’t appear all that impressive.  Maybe I’d seen too many movies, but it seemed like any good-sized army should have been able to overrun those pointed stakes and piles of dirt.  After a while we reached an area where the fortifications were still being constructed, and I spotted General Aldridge talking to a bunch of other officers.  He looked even sloppier than he had the other time I’d seen him.  He hadn’t shaved in a while, and a small unlit cigar was clenched between his teeth, just like it had been the first time we met him.

We pulled up next to him and got out of the carriage.  “What a colossal waste of time, Solomon,” Professor Palmer said to him.  “Why don’t we invite the Canadians over, hand them the keys to the city, and be done with it?”

“Good afternoon to you too, Alexander,” General Aldridge replied.  He looked at us.  “Runs, er, struck in,” he said to Kevin.

“Runs batted in,” Kevin corrected him.

The general nodded.  “Of course.  Certainly.  How could I forget?”  Then he turned to Lieutenant Carmody.  “Well, Lieutenant, I suppose you have your reasons for subjecting me to this paragon of courtesy?” he asked, gesturing at the professor.

“Sir, can you spare a few moments?” the lieutenant replied.

The general waved the other officers away and had an orderly produce a few chairs for us.  When we had sat down, the lieutenant continued.  “They have a couple of ideas, sir, that it would be well for us to consider.”  And he started talking about some of the things we had come up with–mostly the balloons and the electric fences.  Professor Palmer and Kevin and I jumped in with comments and corrections while the general listened in silence.

“Balloons,” he murmured when we were done.  He made it sound like a word in a foreign language–which, I guess, it sort of was.  “Electricity.  And we have no idea if any of this will work?”

“The ideas have a sound theoretical basis,” the professor replied.  “As for their practical application, that is a question of time and resources.”

“We have precious little of either,” the general pointed out.

“Then we should start preparing for the surrender ceremony instead,” Professor Palmer said.  “President Gardner is very good at ceremonies.  I’m sure it will be memorable.”

That got a laugh out of General Aldridge.  “What is it that you need?” he asked.

“Silk, and lots of it,” the professor replied.  “Copper wire–even more of that.  Experienced carpenters, machinists, seamstresses, and blacksmiths.  Munitions experts.  Sir Henry Bolles.  James Carlton–I believe he’s staying at the Somerset Club.  Professor Harold Foster–he’s probably drunk in a ditch somewhere, but no one knows more about electricity.  We will need open land.  And we will need to be left alone.”

The general lifted an eyebrow.  “Are you sure that’s all?” he asked.  “How about some gold ingots?  Perhaps a shipload of molasses?  A deserted island in the West Indies?”

“Most amusing,” the professor replied.  “It may in fact not be all.  But it is a start.”

The general took the cigar out of his mouth and looked at Lieutenant Carmody.  “Well?”

“The landmines and grenades and the like–I’m dubious that we can accomplish much with them,” he replied.  “I’m intrigued by the reconnaissance potential of these balloons.  As for the electric fences, they would of course have some tactical value, depending on how powerful they can be made.  But there’s more, sir.”

“What’s that?”

“Surprise.  Terror.  Dismay.  Some of the soldiers who saw that lad’s watch thought it was the work of the devil.  What will our enemies think if they see flying devices used against them?  They may think: If we can do these things, what other wonders do we have in store?  What will that do to their morale, their will to defeat us?”

The general nodded slowly.  “Yes, it’s always good to have the devil on your side,” he said.  “It will be difficult to keep this secret from the president, I fear.”

“Undoubtedly.  He need not make the connection with the boys, though, if that’s your concern.”

“I suppose.”  General Aldridge sat there for a moment, staring into space.  Then suddenly he flung his cigar onto the ground and stood up.  “Lieutenant, get them what they need,” he ordered.  “Let’s make this happen, and the president be damned.”

Lieutenant Carmody leaped to his feet.  “Yes, sir.”

The general looked at the professor and the two of us and shook his head.  “An odd crew to entrust with the future of our nation.  But beggars can’t be choosers.  Fare you well.”

He turned and walked back to the fortifications.

“Well, then,” the lieutenant said to us.  “I believe we have some work to do.”

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