Portal, an online novel: Chapter 13

In the alternate universe Kevin and Larry find themselves stuck in, they are helping the United States of New England in its war against New Portugal and Canada.  The boys are working with the military on hot air balloons and electricity when they get a summons from President Gardner.  Their guardian, Professor Palmer, is not happy about it.

Previous chapters are up there on the menu.  They’re all pretty good!

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Chapter 13

“The man’s an idiot,” Professor Palmer said.  “We won’t go.”

General Aldridge scratched his chin.  “I may have my disagreements with the president, but I fear he’s no idiot.  In any case, you don’t have any choice.  This wasn’t an invitation, Alexander; it was a summons.”

“Why can’t we just bring him out here and show him what we’ve accomplished?” Kevin asked.

“One must first persuade him that it’s worth the trip,” the general replied.  “Lieutenant, see that they get to the palace.  If Professor Palmer gives you any trouble, arrest him or something.  I’ll follow along presently.”

“Yes, sir.”  Lieutenant Carmody turned to us.  “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

The lieutenant didn’t have his carriage, so we all piled into Professor Palmer’s.  He decided we needed to improve our appearance, so we stopped back at the house, cleaned up, and borrowed a couple of the professor’s dressy white shirts.  They were about the right size for me, but way too big for Kevin.  Lieutenant Carmody thought it was an improvement, though.

The professor, meanwhile, was still in a snit.  “Everything is wasted–science, planning, courage–without political wisdom,” he said.

“We elected the president,” Lieutenant Carmody pointed out.

“Not with my vote.  He promised us a stronger New England.  And now with his reckless adventurism he has all but destroyed it.”

The lieutenant wasn’t very interested in what the professor had to say about President Gardner.  He just wanted to get us to Coolidge Palace.  Once we had changed, we got back in the carriage and hurried off to Boston.

It was twilight by the time we crossed the bridge into the city.  Things were looking worse.  Many of the trees I had seen there on the trip to Cambridge had been chopped down–for firewood, I guess; the smoke from the fires in the refugee camp stung my eyes.  The smell of sewage was almost unbearable.  There were fewer people on the streets, but those who were out looked tired and hungry.  More than one of them rushed up to the carriage with his hands outstretched, begging for food.  We didn’t stop.

In our world, I’d gone into Boston a couple of times to visit the Massachusetts State House, a big brick building with a gold dome at the top of Beacon Hill.  Here, there was more than one hill in the center of the city, and the president lived in a mansion at the top of the middle hill.  This was Coolidge Palace–named, I found out, after the first president of New England, Sir Calvin Coolidge.  I remembered him as a not-so-important president in our world, so that struck me as really strange.  But I didn’t say anything about it.

We drove up to the front gate, which was guarded by stern-looking soldiers with those silly plumes in their hats.  Lieutenant Carmody got out of the carriage and talked to one of them, who came up and looked at us suspiciously.  He wrote down our names, then opened the gates and let us through.

It was like going through the portal again–this time entering a serene, lovely world where nothing was out of place.  As we drove up the gravel drive to the large granite building we saw one groundskeeper sweeping leaves off the immaculate lawn, another trimming a bush that was so perfectly shaped it looked artificial.

“No refugees allowed near Coolidge Palace,” Professor Palmer muttered.  “Wouldn’t do.”

At the front steps a groom took Professor Palmer’s carriage, and then a tall man in a bright green suit wearing a long white wig escorted us up the steps and opened the door for us.  I thought I caught him sneering at Kevin and me, in our crufty pants and shoes, but I couldn’t be sure.  This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone in a wig for real, and I almost burst out laughing.  He led us along a couple of corridors lined with portraits of people I didn’t recognize, and finally deposited us in a small room whose walls were painted with scenes of pretty shepherdesses tending flocks of sheep.  He instructed us to wait there until summoned, and then he left.

“Waste of time,” the professor said.

Lieutenant Carmody gave us instructions about how to act in front of the president.  Give a small bow when you’re introduced, speak only when spoken to, throw in lots of “Your Excellency”‘s.  He looked like he was right at home in the palace.

Eventually the guy in the green suit led in General Aldridge.  He had shaved and put on a clean uniform, although the way he wore it, it still managed to look rumpled.  At least he wasn’t chewing on a cigar.  He sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs and folded his arms.  “His Excellency is dining this evening with the British ambassador and friends,” he said.  “I expect that we are the entertainment.”

“What’s the game?” Lieutenant Carmody asked.  “Is he trying to embarrass you?”

“Perhaps.  Show that he’s still in charge.”

“He could simply discharge you.”

“At the risk of having half his cabinet resign,” General Aldridge pointed out.  “Lord Percival would certainly object, as would some of the others.  At any rate, the president can’t afford a political crisis now.  And he can’t afford to make me too angry.”

Professor Palmer seemed to pick up on this.  “Your soldiers respect you, Solomon,” he said, “and they don’t respect Gardner.  They’ll follow you, if you decide to–”

The general raised a hand.  “Rebellion is not an option,” he replied in a stern voice.

“But surrender is?”

“None of us can guarantee victory,” the general replied.  “Even with electricity on our side.”

“How do you think the president found out about us?” Kevin asked.

“The president has spies everywhere, and there are many people working on our projects.  Apparently Cambridge wasn’t far enough away to keep them secret from him.  I didn’t really think it would be.  As for you boys–it isn’t clear what he knows about you, other than your existence.  So I think we should just find out.”

So we fell silent and waited some more.  Night fell, and I got hungry.  I started to wonder if this was some kind of punishment, and we weren’t really going to see anybody after all.  Then at last the guy in the green suit returned, and we walked down another fancy corridor.  He opened a set of big double doors, and we were ushered into the presence of the president of New England.

General Aldridge went in first, and the rest of us followed.  We were in a large dining room with high ceilings and walls covered with more portraits of men wearing wigs.  A bunch of people were seated at a long table, eating dinner.  My stomach growled as I caught the aroma of roast beef.  A fat, red-faced man sat at the head of the table, digging into his food like he was afraid any minute the Portuguese would swoop down and grab it away from him.  He was wearing a black coat, a white ruffled shirt, and a short wig.  Sweat poured down his face.  When he noticed us he waved a fork at General Aldridge.  “Solomon,” he said, “I hear these boys are your new military advisers.”  He had a strange, high-pitched voice.

The remark didn’t seem very funny to me, but the men and women at the table gave it a big laugh.  Most of the men wore black suits, like the president.  The women wore fancy gowns and lots of jewelry; their hair was piled up so high on top of their heads I thought they might lose their balance.

General Aldridge smiled and bowed.  “Your Excellency,” he said, “nowadays I take advice wherever I can get it.”

“Odd you can’t get good advice from your highly trained staff.  You’ve met the Earl of Chatham, Solomon?”

The general bowed to the guy on the president’s right, a short man with huge ears that stuck out from his wig.  “Mr. Ambassador, good to see you again.”

The earl nodded back with a little smile.  He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.

“You,” the president said, pointing his fork at Kevin, “where are you from, boy?”

Kevin remembered to bow; I’m not sure I would have.  “From Glanbury, Your Excellency,” he said.

The president chuckled.  “Glanbury?  When has anything useful come out of that godforsaken village?”  More laughter from the table.  The president speared a hunk of roast beef and stuck it into his mouth, looking satisfied with himself.  “And you are full of advice for General Aldridge?”

“Not really, Your Excellency.  We’re just staying with Professor Palmer.”

“I hear differently,” the president replied.  “I am told there are very strange doings over in Cambridge.”

“We are attempting to develop–” General Aldridge began.

“I know exactly what you’re attempting to do,” the president interrupted.  “We’re besieged by our enemies, winter is setting in, and you’re devoting precious time and manpower to projects suggested to you by ten-year-olds?”

I wanted to yell at him that Kevin and I were both teenagers, practically, but I managed to restrain myself.

“Come and see for yourself, Your Excellency,” the general offered calmly.

President Gardner waved away the suggestion and speared another hunk of roast beef with his knife.  “Mr. Ambassador,” he said, turning to the earl next to him.  “What is the message you delivered to me today, smuggled in from your superiors in London at great risk?”

The earl shifted in his seat and looked uncomfortable.  “Excellency,” he said, “I think it more suitable for–”

“Come, Cecil, we are all friends here,” the president insisted.

People around the table grew quiet.

“Sir,” the earl began, “His Majesty’s government regret that they will be unable to provide assistance to your nation in its current difficulty.  Unfortunately, the demands of the war in Europe preclude–”

“Thank you, Cecil, we all understand about the demands of war,” the president said.  He motioned to a servant to refill his glass with wine.  The earl looked down at his plate.

“Sir,” General Aldridge said to the president, “this is unhappy news.  But it simply means that we have all the more reason to press ahead with our efforts.”

“It means what I say it means,” the president retorted.  And he stuffed a large chunk of beef into his mouth.  I looked at General Aldridge.  He had turned red.  I imagined it was all he could do to keep his temper.  I had no idea how Professor Palmer was keeping his.

I looked back at the president, and his face was red, too.  Then he stood up.  One hand reached for his throat, the other reached for his wine, but knocked it over.  He tried to say something, but nothing came out.

He was choking on his meat.

The people at the table started shouting out instructions.  One of the servants came over and pounded the president on the back.  Didn’t help.  His eyes were bulging now, and his face was the color of a rotten tomato.  He gestured wildly, hitting one of the servants who was trying to loosen his collar.

That’s when I figured I should do something.

Mom made me take a first aid course in fifth grade.  It had never come in handy till that instant.

I went up behind the president–no one seemed to notice me.  He was doubled over now, still clutching at his throat.  I shoved a lady out of the way, then wrapped my arms around him, put my hands together, and pushed up on his chest.

The first push didn’t work.  I could feel people grabbing at me now, trying to pull me away, but I managed to try again.  And this time the piece of meat popped out of the president’s mouth.

People dragged me away from him then, and I didn’t see what happened next.  I was afraid some security guy was going to shoot me, but eventually they let me go and got out of the way, and President Gardner stood facing me.  His face was still red and splotchy, but at least he didn’t look like he was going to keel over.  At least he was breathing.

“You were the one?” he demanded.  “You saved me?”

I nodded.

“How did you learn how that–that thing you just did?”

“We know how to do a few things in Glanbury,” I said.  “Your Excellency.”

Kind of a wisecrack, I know, but he had made a wisecrack about my home town.  He stared at me, and I wondered if he was going to have me beheaded or something.  And then he threw his head back and laughed.  “Very well, then,” he said.  “Your village is apparently not as benighted as I had imagined.”  He picked up a glass of wine.  “A toast–to Glanbury!”

That kind of broke the tension.  The president ordered places to be set for all of us, so we got to eat some of that roast beef.  Which was good, because I was just about starving at that point.  The servants offered to pour us wine, but Kevin and I asked for milk instead.  General Aldridge ate, but he still didn’t look happy.  Professor Palmer asked me about what I’d done.  “Is that something from your world?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.  “It’s called the Heimlich maneuver.  I guess you haven’t figured it out here.”

“Indeed.  I wonder if it will change his attitude towards us.”

“Can’t hurt,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “You know, General Aldridge is right: he’s not as incompetent as you think, Professor.  He took some gambles during his presidency and lost.  But some would say the gambles had to be made, if New England were to survive.”

This was more of an opinion than we usually heard the lieutenant offer.  But Professor Palmer wasn’t buying it.  “A real leader would not be locked up behind palace gates,” he said, “swilling wine while his countrymen starve.”

The lieutenant shrugged.  “He has just seen his last gamble fail–reason enough to seek solace.  And in any case, little would change if the wine were not drunk.”

After the meal was over we got another summons from the green-suited butler.  The president wanted to see us all privately.  The butler brought us to a big office with lots of bookcases and a fire blazing in a marble fireplace.  “Now we’ll get down to business,” General Aldridge murmured.  Lieutenant Carmody, Kevin, and I stayed in the back of the room, while the general and the professor sat in a couple of chairs next to the fire.  Eventually the president showed up, followed by a couple of the guys who had been at the dinner.  One was tall, dark-haired, and a little stoop-shouldered, as if he had gone through too many doorways that were too small for him.  The other one was shorter, with a narrow face and bright eyes; he had taken his wig off, so you could see there were just a few wisps of gray hair on the top of his head.  “Vice President Boatner and the Foreign Minister, Lord Percival,” Lieutenant Carmody whispered to us.

General Aldridge and Professor Palmer stood as the others entered.  “Oh, sit down, sit down,” the president said, and he himself sank into one of the chairs by the fire.  He looked really tired.  The vice president and the foreign minister sat on either side of him.  “Anyone care for a brandy?” he asked.

No one did.  He sighed and waved the butler out of the room.

“So, would you care to explain about these boys, General?” the president said.  “I have heard that they are the spawn of Satan.  Seems rather unlikely, from the look of ’em, but what do I know?”

“Nothing as interesting as that, I fear,” General Aldridge replied.  “They were impressed onto a pirate ship a couple of years ago and spent a good deal of time in China.  On the return voyage they escaped and made their way back home to Glanbury, but the Portuguese had overrun the place, so they had to flee to Boston.  They are bright lads and picked up a good deal of useful knowledge in the Orient.  We are merely trying to take advantage of it amid our current difficulties.”

I was impressed by how smoothly the general could lie; he was very convincing.  The president shifted in his chair and stared at Kevin and me.  “They look no more like pirates than they do the spawn of Satan,” he remarked.  “But your story is somewhat more plausible, I suppose.  Now please tell us what is going on over there in Cambridge.”

So General Aldridge went through it all, with some help from Professor Palmer.  The president folded his hands over his big belly and closed his eyes.  I thought he might be falling asleep, but he opened his eyes every once in a while to ask a good question.  The foreign minister asked questions, too, but the vice president stayed silent.  The president especially liked the idea of balloons.  “Imagine being able to simply float away from this siege,” he murmured.  “How delightful.”

“Nevertheless,” the vice president said suddenly, “you should end all this nonsense immediately.”

“May I ask why, Randolph?” the general said.

“Because our only hope is in negotiating with the enemy, and if they find out what you are doing, it will simply make the negotiations more difficult.”

“Why so?  If they find out, I suggest it will incline them to negotiate more seriously, realizing how difficult we are going to make it for them to defeat us.”

“It will more likely incline them to end negotiations altogether and attack immediately, before you have a chance to complete your little science experiments.”

“They are far more than science experiments,” Professor Palmer replied hotly.  “They have the capacity to revolutionize the way we conduct warfare.”

“We have neither the men nor the munitions to defeat this enemy, now that the British have abandoned us,” the vice president insisted.  “To believe anything else is arrant nonsense.”

The president looked over at the foreign minister.  “Benjamin, what say you?  Might as well get everyone into the fray.”

“Well of course you know I disagree with Randolph,” Lord Percival began.  He had the most British accent of anyone I’d met so far, except the Earl of Chatham.  “We’re in a dire situation, I won’t deny it.  But if the Canadians and Portuguese believe they have such a decisive advantage as Randolph describes, why haven’t they attacked already, instead of sitting outside our gates and waiting for us to crumble?  They have as much to fear from a long siege as we do.  Their supply lines are hopelessly extended, so they have to live off the land–but what supplies will be left for them, by January?  And of course the Portuguese soldiers aren’t used to the cold, and neither Portuguese nor Canadians are eager to be here in the first place.  Their armies may simply melt away if they don’t make a decisive move soon.

“Now we have these new developments from Solomon.  I say, let them continue.  They may be enough to alter the balance.  I don’t know.  If the enemy do find out about them, that’s all to the good, in my judgment.  Let the enemy worry that they’ve got in deeper than they’d prepared for.  Let them realize that the price for this adventure may be far greater than they are willing to pay.”

“Bosh,” the vice president retorted.  “We all know this will be finished well before January.  They are waiting for the moment of maximum preparedness on their side, maximum vulnerability on ours.  Then they will strike.  And nothing that General Aldridge is doing or can do will change the outcome.  We need to negotiate now, and hope we escape with our lives.”

President Gardner raised a hand, and everyone fell silent.  “You see how clear my advisers make things for me,” he said.  “Ah, well.”  He turned to the vice president.  “Randolph, make contact with the enemy tomorrow.  We begin negotiations for surrender.”

The vice president bowed, looking satisfied.  “Very well, Your Excellency.”

“But Your Excellency–” Professor Palmer began.

The president glared at him, and he fell silent.  “Solomon,” he said to General Aldridge, “in the meantime, please continue your ‘science experiments,’ as Randolph calls them.  I see no good reason not to continue preparing for the final battle, even if it may not occur.”

The general bowed slightly in turn.  “Thank you, sir.”

The president waved his hand at us.  “All right then, you may all go.”  Everyone got up to leave.  As I was headed for the door the president pointed at me.  “You, stay a moment, if you please.”

I looked at Lieutenant Carmody, who grinned and gave me a little shove back towards the president.

“Sit,” the president ordered when everyone was gone.

I sat down next to him.

“Your name?”

“Larry Barnes, Your Excellency.”

“Master Barnes, would you like a cigar or a glass of brandy?”

“Uh, no thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Odd.  I’d think a pirate boy would have developed a taste for tobacco and spirits.”

“I’m still a little young, Your Excellency.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”  He leaned back in his chair.  “Tell me about China, Master Barnes.  I’ve always had an interest in the place, but I’ve met so few who have actually travelled there.”

Great, I thought.  I’m supposed to lie to the president.  “Well, it’s really . . . different.  Lots of people.  In some ways they’re, uh, pretty advanced.”

“Yes, the electricity, and the–what was it?–the balloons.  What else?”

What else?  I tried to think what else.  “Like, toilets,” I said.  I explained about flush toilets.  That was pretty good.  Then I brought up bicycles, because I’d seen a TV show about how everyone in China rides a bicycle.  I’d seen a few here, but they were really primitive-looking.  Then the president asked me what they ate in China, and I had a good answer for that, too, because we ate Chinese food at home a lot.

President Gardner looked kind of puzzled after a while.  “Well, you do seem to know something about China,” he said.  “It must feel strange to be back here in New England.”

“Pretty strange,” I agreed.  “But I’m getting used to it.”

“Yes.  Good.  Well, I want to thank you for saving my life, Master Barnes.  Very fortuitous that you were here tonight.”

“My pleasure, Your Excellency.”

The president stood, and we shook hands.  “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cigar?” he asked.

I was sure.

Outside, General Aldridge had already left, but Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, and Kevin were waiting for me, eager to know what happened.  “We talked about China,” I said.

“He doesn’t believe our story,” the lieutenant remarked.

“Maybe he’s not so sure now.  I was pretty convincing.”

“Good lad,” the professor said.

“Too late to return to Cambridge, I’m afraid,” the lieutenant said.  “Let’s go to the barracks.  Then back to work in the morning.  The stakes are only getting higher.”

Kevin and I returned to our old room in the attic.  “More interesting than The Gross, huh?” I said, feeling pretty good about my meeting with the president.

“Yeah, but I’d still rather be home.”

I lay down on the thin mattress.  Kevin was right, of course.  But still . . . it wasn’t everyday you save the president’s life, and he offers you brandy and a cigar.  And that sure beat having to deal with Stinky Glover and my stupid sister.

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