Portal, an online novel: Chapter 12

Kevin and Larry have come up with a couple of ideas — hot-air balloons and electric fences — that may help the war effort against New Portugal and Canada.  And now things start to change even further for them . . .

Earlier chapters are up there on the menu under “Portal.”


Chapter 12

Things changed once the meeting with General Aldridge was over.  We all went back to army headquarters, and Lieutenant Carmody and Professor Palmer had a long meeting to figure out what they needed to do.  Kevin and I just hung around in the courtyard, wondering what was going to happen next.

“They wouldn’t just get rid of us now, would they?” Kevin asked.

“No way.  We’re too valuable.”

“Why?  They’ve got what they need from us.”

“But they’ll want more, won’t they?” I pointed out.  “I think we’ll be okay.”

Kevin didn’t look reassured.  Luckily, Peter came along and made us forget about our problems for a while.  “How are your zippers, mates?” he asked us, grinning.

“Don’t have ’em anymore,” I replied.  “It’s hard getting used to these buttons.”

“I bet it is.  The lieutenant is very interested in you lads, you know.”

Peter pronounced the word “loo-tenant.”

“What do you think of Lieutenant Carmody?” Kevin asked.

“Oh, he’s a good enough sort,” Peter replied.  “Plenty ambitious.  I expect he’ll be president one of these days, assuming we still have a president, so you want to stay downwind of him.”

I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I think I got the idea.  The lieutenant and Professor Palmer came out a little while later, looking serious.  “Lots to be done, lads,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “You’ll stay the night here and return to Cambridge in the morning.  Be sure to remain quiet about where you come from.  No tales of portals and alternate universes and such.  If it comes up, say you were cabin boys on a pirate ship that visited China.  People will believe anything about China.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Will we be doing anything to help?” Kevin asked.

“Of course you will,” Professor Palmer replied.  “We just have to get organized first.”  He seemed to understand that we were worried.  “If we actually manage to win this dreadful war, lads,” he pointed out, “you’ll be heroes.”

That was a good thought, although it wasn’t clear how we’d be heroes if we were supposed to keep everything secret.  Anyway, we went back to the hot attic room where we had spent the night before meeting Professor Palmer for the first time, and we waited for the professor and the lieutenant to do their business in the city.  Early the next morning we returned to Cambridge with the professor.  In the barn, the chickens and the pigs were hungry and the cow needed milking, and it almost (but not really) felt like we were coming home.

We took over the cricket fields at Harvard for our work.  Lieutenant Carmody was worried about the Canadians pushing into Cambridge unexpectedly, but here we had the space and the privacy we needed, so he decided to take the risk.  Equipment and people started arriving almost immediately, and the professor spent a lot of time talking with the experts he’d brought in to help.  Most of them started out pretty dubious about the whole thing, but his reputation kept them at it.

The balloons turned out to be the most straightforward thing we attempted.  It was easy enough to start with toy models and then get bigger as people started to understand the idea.  One tricky part was figuring out the right way to control heating the air to make the balloons rise.  That was pretty much a matter of trial and error.  Another problem was creating the big wicker baskets, which involved finding willow trees and reeds in the city.  To obtain the silk for the full-size balloons they held a drive to get all the upper-class ladies in the city to hand over their old dresses, telling them they were for bandages.  The results looked kind of strange, but they worked.

The electricity business was harder.  It was a good thing Kevin had been paying attention when Mrs. DiGenova did the electricity unit in the fifth grade–of course, that was the sort of thing Kevin liked.  I remembered about copper being a good conductor, but I had sure forgotten about zinc in batteries, and I had also forgotten how you could transform the energy in, like, waterfalls or even pedaling bikes into electricity.

Luckily, they found Professor Foster–the guy Professor Palmer thought would be drunk in a ditch somewhere.  I don’t know if he was an alcoholic, but he was really strange.  He was very tall, with frizzy brown hair and the palest skin I’d ever seen.  Someone called him a walking mushroom, and that seemed like a pretty good description.  But the big thing was, he loved electricity.  It seemed to him to be the most wonderful, mysterious thing in creation.  Lieutenant Carmody didn’t want us talking to most of the people who were involved in the projects, but he agreed to let Professor Foster meet with us.

We described batteries to him and he seemed to catch on immediately.  “Yes, yes, an array of capacitors!” he shouted.  “Leyden jars connected in parallel!”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  He brought Professor Palmer, Lieutenant Carmody, Kevin, and me to his laboratory, which was located in a shed behind his house in Cambridge.  It was a dusty place filled with pieces of metal, wires, and bottles of chemicals.  He showed us a jar lined with foil.  At the top of the jar was a ball connected to a shaft.  “Do you see?” he said.  “You use the ball of sulphur to rotate the shaft like so–”

“–and the electrical charge builds up in the foil,” Kevin said.

“Exactly!” Professor Foster exclaimed.  “What a brilliant boy!”  He turned to the lieutenant.  “Would you like to touch the foil?”

Lieutenant Carmody didn’t appear eager to do it, but he reached his hand into the jar and, sure enough, got a shock.

“You see, the current moved from the foil to your hand,” the professor explained.

“I built one of these in my basement,” Kevin said while the lieutenant rubbed his hand.

“Remarkable!  Stupendous!”

“Can we kill people with this?” the lieutenant asked.

That shut everyone up for a minute.

“Lightning kills,” Professor Foster said finally, in a much lower tone.  “We cannot capture the power of lightning.”

“But these boys–”

“All I know about is the electric fence,” I said.  “The electricity runs along the wires and just gives you a shock if you touch it.”  But I really wasn’t so sure about that.  I thought about the electric fence in Jurassic Park and how powerful it was.  Could they do something like that here?

“An electric fence would be a sight better than Aldridge’s foolish mounds of earth and pointed sticks,” Professor Palmer pointed out to the lieutenant.

“It all depends on the charge we can build up, store in the battery–what an evocative name!–then transmit along the wire,” Professor Foster said.  He absently turned the shaft in the jar.  “Copper and zinc,” he muttered, “copper and zinc . . . There are practical difficulties, I suppose.”

“We have six weeks,” the lieutenant said.  “Eight at the outside.  Any longer than that, and your work will be useless.”

This seemed to fluster him completely.  “Oh, my.  I don’t see how . . . well, perhaps . . . ”

The lieutenant looked at Professor Palmer.

“I will work with Bartholomew,” the professor said.  “If it can be done, we will do it.”

Lieutenant Carmody nodded, satisfied.  “Let’s get started, then.”

Professor Palmer explained to us about his friend later, when we were back home for the night.  “Electricity has never been taken seriously, I fear.  I have seen those jars used as an entertainment at parties–young ladies think it quite daring to put their hands inside and receive a shock.  So Bartholomew’s interest in electricity has always seemed bizarre, almost amusing, to most people.  To have it become part of the effort to win the war–well, it’s a bit much for him to take in.”

He set up the chess board to play Kevin.  I sat down at the piano and started playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.

“Do you think we we’ll be able to win the war?” Kevin asked.

“I’m not a soldier, thank God,” the professor replied.  “I have no idea what it will take to win militarily.  But I do know that we cannot win if we lack the will–if we believe the cause is hopeless and victory impossible.  That is the current situation, thanks to our president’s ineptitude.  Right now it is just a matter of counting out the days to our defeat and hoping it will be as painless as possible.  But defeat is never entirely painless.  Speaking of defeat, I would be paying particular attention to your rook, if I were you.”

“But that could be changing, right?” Kevin asked.  “I mean, the attitude.”

“Let us hope so.  Let us hope.”


“Larry, do you notice how we’re saying ‘we’ now?” Kevin asked me that night in our room.


“When we talk about this place–about New England.  Used to be we’d say, ‘Are you going to win?’  Now it’s, ‘Are we going to win?'”

I thought about that.  “You’re right,” I said.  “We’re part of it now.”

“Not that I’m not thinking about home, you know?” he went on.  “It’s just–we’re here.  This is it.”

“When the war is over,” I said, “all we have to do is go back to Glanbury and find the portal.”

“Yeah.  If we survive.  If we’re not, like, sold into slavery or something.”

“We’ll survive.  We’ll win.  We’ll get back there.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Home.  I realized I hadn’t been thinking about it as much lately.  My fights with Cassie, my annoyance with Matthew and Mom and Stinky Glover . . . all that stuff was starting to seem kind of far away now.  We had a war to win.  And in the meantime, I was getting used to going to the privy, to lighting candles and oil lamps, to living without TV, even to eating watery porridge and salt pork.


I fell asleep on my lumpy mattress, and my dreams were strange and confused.


After a few weeks General Aldridge came to Cambridge to check on our progress.  The hot-air balloons were going well.  We had a small prototype that was tethered to the cricket field by a fifty-foot rope.  It looked kind of goofy, stitched together out of all those different-colored dresses, but it worked.  The general peered up at it as it floated above him.  “People can fly in that contraption?” he asked.

“After a fashion,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.

The general laughed.  “If that doesn’t scare the Portuguese, nothing will.”

As Lieutenant Carmody had expected, we had been less successful with the stuff we were trying to do with gunpowder.  Nobody had a solution for the moisture problem, least of all Kevin and me.  General Aldridge talked with the munitions guys, and then said, “No sense wasting time.  Pack up and return to your units.”

Then there was electricity.  Professor Foster had moved his equipment from his shed to a larger building near the cricket fields.  He was so excited to be explaining his work that he was practically bouncing off the walls.  “The electrical fluid moves along the wire,” he said, showing the apparatus he had set up.  “The side that gains fluid acquires a vitreous charge.  The side that loses fluid acquires a resinous charge.  According to my calculations, the force between the charge varies inversely as the square of the distance.  So it follows that–”

“Touch the wire,” Lieutenant Carmody said.

General Aldridge looked at him.  “What?”

“Touch the wire, sir,” the lieutenant repeated.

The general hesitated, then reached out and grabbed the wire.  “Drat, that smarts!” he shouted, jumping back and glaring at the lieutenant.

Professor Foster clapped his hands in glee.  “You see?” he said.  “You see?  A fundamental force of the universe, under our control.  Isn’t it marvelous?”

That started a barrage of questions from the general.  How much electricity could you store?  How far would it travel along the wire?  What happened if the wire broke?  Professor Foster answered as well as he could.

“That’s good,” General Aldridge said finally.  “That’s very good.  Lieutenant, we need to talk about deployment.”

“Yes, sir.”

We all walked out of the building.  I was pretty happy.  Professor Foster looked like he was about to levitate with joy.

Outside, a soldier in a fancy red-and-gold uniform was waiting on a large black horse.  He was wearing a big hat with an even bigger white plume on top.  When he saw us he dismounted, stuck the hat under his left arm, and saluted the general.  “Message, sir,” he said.  “The honor of a reply is requested.”

General Aldridge didn’t look happy.  Neither did the lieutenant.  The soldier took a letter out of his pocket and handed it to the general.  He broke the seal, opened it, and studied it for a moment before handing it back.  “All right,” he muttered.

The soldier hesitated.  “Is that your answer, sir?”

“Of course it is, you dimwit,” the general exploded.  “Now begone!”

The soldier hastily got back onto his horse and rode off.

“Er, bad news?” Professor Foster asked.

General Aldridge glared at him for a moment, and then shrugged.  “Depends on one’s point of view, I suppose,” he said.  “My presence is required at Coolidge Palace.”

“Well, uh, that doesn’t sound–”

“Gardner knows,” Professor Palmer said.

General Aldridge nodded.  “Yes, apparently he knows.”

“But surely he can’t complain about–”

“You’re invited as well,” the general said.  “And the boys.  He knows about the boys.  He wants all work stopped until he’s met them.”  He looked at us.  “You’re in luck, lads,” he said.  “You’re about to meet His Excellency, the President of the United States of New England.”

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