Portal, an online novel: Chapter 16

Kevin appears to have survived drikana.  Once the quarantine was over, he and Larry, along with Professor Palmer, escaped the invading Canadians in Cambridge and rowed back across the river to Boston, nearly getting killed in the process.  Now more adventures await them . . .

**********************

Chapter 16

That nighttime journey from Cambridge back to Boston was the second time we had been shot at in this world.  It wouldn’t be the last.

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Except for blue-uniformed policemen carrying nightsticks, the streets of Boston were deserted as we headed for the hospital.  The policemen eyed our wagon as we raced past them, but no one tried to stop us.  I think the sergeant would’ve shot anyone who tried.

Within a few minutes he pulled up in front of a large brick building with a sign in front that said Massachusetts General Hospital.  “Wait here,” the sergeant ordered us.  He got down from the wagon and went inside.  A few minutes later he returned with a couple of people carrying a stretcher.  They lifted Kevin out of the wagon and onto the stretcher.  The professor and I followed along as they brought him inside.  We never saw the sergeant again.

The building didn’t smell like hospitals in our world.  It stank, really.  And it was dark, with just an occasional oil lamp lighting the corridors, and not all that clean.  Somewhere a woman was screaming in pain.  As we walked, a bearded guy who was apparently a doctor started questioning us about Kevin’s drikana.  When had the symptoms appeared?  Who had been present at the onset?  How had we treated the illness?  He wasn’t happy to learn that we hadn’t bled Kevin.  “The height of folly,” he said.

“Except that the patient still lives,” Professor Palmer growled.

We passed through a door with a red “C” on it, and then into a small room with no furniture except for a bed, a chair, a little table with a candle on it, and a chamber pot.  There was one small, barred window.  Kevin was put into the bed, and the doctor examined the three of us.  It turned out that the professor had been nicked in the shoulder by a bullet back on the river and hadn’t said anything about it.  The doctor bandaged him up, but other than the bullet wound he couldn’t find anything wrong with us.

“You will be examined further in the morning,” he said.  “In the meantime, none of you is to leave this room.”

“In the meantime,” the professor said, “we demand that you send a message to Lieutenant William Carmody, chief of staff to General Solomon Aldridge, informing him of our presence here.  Also, send word immediately to my old friend Doctor George Dreier, who is the president of this august institution.  Tell him that Professor Alexander Palmer has taken up residence in his hospital and would like to chat about the accommodations.  And bring us some food; we’ve had a taxing night.”

The doctor didn’t look too happy about getting those orders.  He simply nodded and left without a word.  We were by ourselves finally.  And safe.  The professor sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.  “A little too much excitement for someone my age, lads,” he said.

“Are we going to be stuck here?” I asked.

“I’m afraid Kevin may be in hospital for a while,” he replied.  “Even though the claustration is officially over, they’ll want to be especially careful that he doesn’t suffer a relapse.  A drikana outbreak in the city would be just too devastating to contemplate.  As for us–I expect we’ll be able to leave once they’ve poked at us enough to be assured we don’t have the disease.”

I noticed that Kevin had already fallen asleep.  “Will we be able to visit him?” I asked.  “He’s going to get awfully lonely in here.  This place is creepy.”

“That should be possible, Larry.  I’ll talk to Doctor Dreier.”

I decided I was getting pretty tired, too.  I closed my eyes.  “You were really brave on the river, Professor,” I said.

“One becomes brave when one has no other choice,” he replied.  “Now we can all relax a little.”  And that’s the last thing I remembered until I opened my eyes and saw Lieutenant Carmody standing in the room.

“Very glad to find you have all survived,” he said.  “I’m informed you’re all in reasonably good health as well, thank God.”  Gray light shone through the small window.  I figured it was about dawn.  As usual, the lieutenant was freshly shaved, and his uniform was gleaming.

“You might have asked your sentries on the shore to refrain from shooting at us,” the professor replied.  “I received a welcoming present in the shoulder from one of them.”

“We did send out an order, actually, but unfortunately orders from headquarters do not always reach the men in the field.  And if they do, all too often they’re ignored or forgotten.”

“No wonder we’re losing this war,” the professor muttered.  “Anyway, what have we been missing in the past week?”

“We are established on the grounds of the palace, and progress continues, although Professor Foster’s behavior has left something to be desired.  He has not taken your absence well.”

“I’ll take care of Benjamin.  How are negotiations with the enemy progressing?”

“Vice President Boatner and Lord Percival ably represent our interests,” the lieutenant replied.  “Unfortunately, the enemy seems to think there is little to negotiate.  ‘Unconditional surrender or death’ would be a reasonable summary of their position.”

“Not especially conducive to a diplomatic solution.  And the situation in the city?”

“Not pleasant, I’m afraid,” the lieutenant replied.  “There is a strict curfew in force, dusk to dawn, and we’ve had to divert soldiers to help the police maintain order.  So far things are relatively calm, but I wouldn’t want to guess how much longer they will remain so.  People are cold and hungry and frightened, and there is little hope that their situation will improve.”

The curfew helped explain why the streets had been so deserted last night, I figured.

“At any rate,” the lieutenant went on, “I’m delighted you made it to Boston safely, and we’d like to get you back to work as soon as possible.”

“Yes,” the professor said.  “We may need a dispensation from Doctor Dreier to get Larry and me out of here, however.”

“I’m sure he’ll listen to reason.”

They went off to find the doctor, and I stayed behind with Kevin.  There was a loaf of bread and a pot of tea on a table next to Kevin’s bed.  The bread was stale, though, and the tea was cold.  Kevin woke up while I was trying to swallow a few bites.  I gave him some bread and explained what was going on.

“You mean I’m gonna be stuck in this place by myself?” he asked.

“Looks like it.  But I’ll come and visit you as often as they’ll let me.”

“Thanks,” Kevin said.  “They really don’t mess around with this disease, do they?”

I shook my head.  “Look at the bars on that window over there.  I bet they’re to keep drikana patients from escaping.”

“I can see why they’re scared,” Kevin said.  “I wouldn’t wish this disease on my worst enemy.  Still, it’s gonna be really boring in here.”

“Yeah, but it’s better than most of the alternatives.”

“No kidding.”

Lieutenant Carmody and Professor Palmer returned then with sort of good news.  The doctor had no objection to the professor and me leaving, but Kevin had to stay in the hospital for at least a couple more weeks.  “He is also very interested in some of the medical theories I have picked up from you boys,” the professor said.  “An extraordinarily open-minded man, for a doctor.  Larry, let’s go.  Kevin, we’ll be back to visit.  I’ll see if I can find a chess set and some books to keep you entertained.”

It felt awful leaving Kevin behind, but there was nothing we could do about it.  We went outside, and Peter was waiting there with the lieutenant’s carriage.  It was good to see him again.  He brought us straight to Coolidge Palace, and we got out to inspect the work going on.  I just kind of tagged along, actually; there wasn’t a lot I could help with at this point.

The balloons looked pretty much ready to use, now that they had figured out how to stop the leaks.  They were still experimenting with the best way of heating the air, but that seemed like a detail.  People had seen the balloons flying over the palace grounds and had gotten very excited.  “Airships,” they called them.

Professor Foster was very proud of his electric fence, but there was concern about how much power his batteries could generate, and what distance the fence would be able to cover.  Professor Palmer questioned him sharply, and as usual he got confused and defensive.  “It will work,” he insisted.  “You can count on me.  You can count on electricity.”

No one looked convinced.

Lieutenant Carmody left Professor Palmer in charge after a while and returned to headquarters.  I hung around all day, doing whatever people asked me to, and in the evening the professor and I went to headquarters too.  He was pretty tired.  I figured his shoulder was bothering him, but he wouldn’t admit it.  “There is much still to be done, and precious little time,” he said.  “I fear I won’t be able to visit Kevin as often as I’d like.”

“I can go by myself,” I pointed out.

“Traveling through the city alone will be quite dangerous,” he responded.

“I survived drikana and the Canadians,” I said.  “Not much is going to scare me anymore.”

That brought a smile to his face.  “Good point,” he admitted.  “But courage doesn’t keep you safe.  We should talk to Lieutenant Carmody.  Perhaps Peter can drive you.”

We found the lieutenant in his room.  He was okay with having Peter drive me once in a while, but not every day.  “I’m sorry that Kevin is in hospital,” he said, “but winning the war must take precedence.”

“I worry about Larry on the city streets by himself,” the professor said.

The lieutenant considered.  “We could give him a military pass,” he said.  “That might keep him out of trouble if the police pick him up after curfew.”

“That’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

So I got a pass, and they found me a beat-up winter coat that looked like it would be even more useful.  It was definitely getting colder now.  I couldn’t imagine how people in the camps would survive, once winter really set in.  On the other hand, everyone expected the war to be over before that happened.

The next morning Peter drove me to the hospital.  It turned out to be near the river, down the hill from Coolidge Palace.  I brought along a couple of books, a deck of cards, and a chess set that the professor had borrowed from a colonel who was too busy to use it.  The streets were still crowded during the day, but it was hard to go a block without people running up to the carriage begging for food.  The restaurants were all closed, I noticed, and there were armed guards outside the few grocery stores that were still open.

Kevin was overjoyed to see me.  “This place is horrible,” he said.  “There’s nothing to do, no one to talk to.  They just bring you a lousy meal every once in a while and empty your chamber pot and then disappear.  And that doctor with the beard is still mad that you guys didn’t bleed me.”

“And no TV,” I pointed out.

Kevin sighed.  “No TV.  No nothing.”

So we played chess (I lost every game), and we played cards, and we talked–about this world and our world, sort of all mixed in together.  I had to go after a couple of hours, but I came back the next day, and the next, and every day after that.

A couple of times I had to walk, but that was okay.  I was familiar with the route, and I always got back to headquarters well before the dusk curfew.  Nobody bothered me, although I saw a fight or two and some people trying to break into a store.  Professor Palmer started to worry less about me–not that he had much time to worry, with all the stuff he was supervising at Coolidge Palace.  At the officer’s mess, the food got skimpier and skimpier.  Standing in line to wash up in the morning, I overheard the officers worrying that the situation couldn’t last much longer.  Even Bessy, the huge woman who brought out the hot water, was starting to look thin.

As for Kevin–physically he kept getting better, although he too looked thin.  His mental state was another story.  He had too much time to think, and the more he thought, the unhappier he got.  It was the same old stuff: we wouldn’t find the portal, we’d never get home, we’d be stuck here forever.  But now it all seemed more real to him.  “We’re going to die here,” he said one day.  “Next week or in, like, sixty years, it’s gonna happen.”

“If we can just get back to Glanbury–”

“But we might not even be able to do that,” he pointed out, “if New England loses the war.”

“We won’t lose.”

But Kevin was too depressed to be convinced.  “Larry,” he said, “remember that first day, sitting in the brig?  Remember how we wondered if our families were in the camp?”

“Yeah, I guess so.  You were the one who was wondering.”

“Well, I still am.  I was thinking: If we can’t get back home, maybe at least we can find another version of our families here.”

“That’d be creepy,” I said.  “What if you met yourself?”

“That wouldn’t be creepy.  It’d be cool.”

I thought about it.  Hadn’t I wondered if I existed in the Burger Queen world?  But still . . .  “I know Stinky Glover was in the Burger Queen world, and Nora Lally,” I said.  “But this world split off from ours hundreds of years ago.  What are the odds they’d be here?”

“Beethoven lived in this world,” Kevin pointed out.  “And look at Calvin Coolidge, for crying out loud.  If there was a Calvin Coolidge here, why can’t there be an Albright family and a Barnes family?”

“Well, Glanbury’s just a small farming town.  There can’t be anywhere near as many people living there in this world as in ours.  I mean, think about it.  The right people have to fall in love and get married, generation after generation, every since the two universes split off.  Even if it’s possible that our families are here, what are the odds?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “But I think you should go look for them.”

“You want me to go to the Fens camp?  That’s nuts!”

“Why?”

“Things are getting scary out there, Kevin.  Professor Palmer is worried about me even coming to the hospital.  And the camps are a whole lot worse.  They won’t let anyone out anymore, and people inside are getting desperate.  I was talking to a couple of soldiers at headquarters, and they said they wouldn’t go into the camp with anything less than a platoon.”

Kevin considered.  “I can’t make you go,” he said.  “But what if they’re in the camp?  What if Cassie and Matthew and your Mom and Dad are just a couple of miles away from here?”

“Come on, Kevin, they’re not the same people.  Even if they have the same DNA or whatever, all their experiences are different.  So they’d be different.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t be that different–how do you know?”

“What do we have in common?  Farming?  Smallpox?  Drikana?”

Kevin seemed to lose his energy all of a sudden.  Maybe it was my mentioning his disease.  “Suit yourself,” he said, lying back on his pillow.  “I’ll go myself when I get sprung from here.”

“Look, I’ll think about it, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied.  “Thanks, Larry.”  He didn’t sound like he meant it.

But I did think about it.  I had to admit I was curious, but was I curious enough to walk through Cheapside and talk my way into the camp?  If I got in, could I get back out?  I had my pass, but how much good was that going to do?  I guess I was braver than I used to be, but going to the camp really seemed stupid.

When I visited Kevin the next day, he didn’t bring it up, but I could tell he was still thinking about it too.  And he was still depressed about being in the hospital, and in this world.

Walking back to headquarters afterwards, I saw a woman begging outside a tavern, with a child Matthew’s age by her side.  They were both wearing rags, basically.  The mother looked desperate, and the child looked like he was too tired and hungry to care what happened to him.  There were lots of beggars now, and most people just walked past them.

I didn’t have anything to give her, but she started me thinking about my own mother.  If she was in the camp, how could she stand it?  At home she was worried about perverts from Rhode Island getting hold of us.  What would she do if there was real danger all around her?

And then I thought: What if I could help her?  Bring her food, maybe even get her out of the camp.

I got excited thinking about this, and it took me a while to realize that something weird was happening.  I had slipped from imagining my real mother being in the camp to thinking about my “other” mother–the one from this world.

And it didn’t seem to make any difference.  I had been arguing with Kevin that the Emma Barnes in this world would be a different person from my Emma Barnes.  Now I had fallen into thinking the opposite: She was my mom, no matter where she was.

Did I believe that?

I guess I sort of did.  And if so, why didn’t I agree with Kevin?  Why wasn’t I itching to go find my family?

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do just that.

I imagine this was the process Kevin had gone through, lying there in his hospital bed with nothing to do but think.  Practically everything about this world was different and strange.  But if we could find our families . . . well, they might be different, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be strange.  There would be some way in which my mom was still my mom, my dad was still my dad.

If they were here.

I lay awake that night in my cold attic room thinking about it some more.  In the morning I was still thinking about it as I washed up outside, then ate a hard biscuit and some thin porridge in the mess.  I went over to Coolidge Palace with Professor Palmer, but I didn’t say anything about going to the Fens camp; he would’ve gone nuts.  It turned out he didn’t even want me to visit Kevin anymore.

“But I haven’t had any problems at all going to the hospital,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but it keeps getting worse in the city,” he responded.  “I hear there was a riot at Dock Square yesterday.”

“I don’t go anywhere near Dock Square.  And Kevin is expecting me.”

He just shook his head.  “I can’t allow it, Larry,” he said.  “Things are just too dangerous, and you are too valuable to us.  If Peter could take you, then wait and bring you back, that would be acceptable.  But Lieutenant Carmody can’t spare him any longer.”

This wasn’t good.  Especially since I didn’t feel very valuable.  On the palace grounds, mostly I just hung around and got in the way.  Professor Palmer was usually in meetings or supervising something.  Once I saw President Gardner, along with Vice President Boatner and Lord Percival, but he barely nodded to me.  The three of them looked pretty tired.  I heard that the Portuguese and Canadian diplomats were meeting with them off and on inside the palace, but no one had any idea how the negotiations were coming.  For all any of us knew, the war could be over at any minute, with New England surrendering and all our efforts wasted.

After lunch I decided that I couldn’t stand it, so I just wandered away.  The soldiers with the big plumed hats at the gate knew me, and they let me out without a problem.

I was fine as I walked through the heart of the city, but I began to get nervous as I came to Cheapside.  When Kevin and I had walked through it before, it had been nighttime, and we hadn’t really seen just how run-down the place was, with its narrow dirt lanes and wretched shacks.  No more hogs snuffling around in the alleys, though–they’d all been eaten long ago, I supposed.  And no more music and laughter from inside the saloons.  The only people I saw were hunched in doorways, and they stared at me suspiciously.  I began to be conscious of my warm coat, which had looked pretty shabby when the lieutenant had first handed it to me.  But I thought: these people don’t have enough energy to attack me.

At last I made it through Cheapside and reached the military buildings outside the camp.  It felt strange to see them again, after so much had happened.

Near the barracks I spotted Chester, the guy who was in the brig with us.  He was digging a big hole in the ground with some other soldiers.  “Graves,” he said when he saw me.  “Need lots of graves.”

I shuddered and hurried on.

There seemed to be a lot more soldiers guarding the camp, and the fence looked higher and sturdier.  I searched for a familiar face, and finally spotted one.  “Caleb!” I called out.

He was standing in front of the barracks, talking to some other soldiers.  His beard was scruffier than I remember and, like everyone, he looked thinner.  He glanced over when I called his name and smiled.  “Hello, mate!” he said.  “What brings you back here?  I hear you was involved in that secret business back at the Palace.”

“I got the day off.  I was wondering–can I get into the camp?”

“Now why would you want to do that, mate?” he asked.  “It’s nasty in there.  Everyone who’s inside just wants to get out.”

“I’m looking for a friend.”

He shook his head.  “Know where he’s camped?”

“Not really.”

“Then you’ll not have much luck, I fear.”

“But I need to try,” I said, starting to feel desperate.

Caleb shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  Let’s go find Sergeant Hornbeam.  Easy enough to get in, I suppose.  The trick is getting back out.  Used to be folks could wander outside, as long as they came back before curfew.  Those days are gone now.  Too many people, not enough of anything else.”

He brought me inside the barracks to a little office next to Colonel Clarett’s–the one where I had first met Lieutenant Carmody.  Sergeant Hornbeam was sitting there writing on a sheet of paper.

“Sergeant, look who’s come back to visit!” Caleb said.

The sergeant looked up at me.  If I was expected him to be happy to see me, I was mistaken.  He just seemed puzzled and maybe a little annoyed.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“He wants to go visiting in the camp,” Caleb said.

“By yourself?  Is Lieutenant Carmody with you?”

“No, uh, just me.  But I’ve got a pass from him.”

I dug it out and gave it to him.  He studied it.  “Odd,” he muttered, then handed the pass back to me.  “Hold onto it,” he said.  “But take my advice and don’t go into the camp.”

“I’ll be careful,” I promised.

He shook his head.  “We only go in there to cart out the dead now.  But suit yourself.  Show the pass to get back out.  If there’s a problem, tell the guards to find me.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”

He waved me away, and Caleb escorted me out of the barracks.

“So,” Caleb said as we walked over to the camp gates, “what does headquarters have up its sleeve?  Flying airships, that’s what Fred heard.  Hundreds of feet above Coolidge Palace.”

“I can’t really talk about it, Caleb.”

“Could you just tell me if there’s something, mate?  Folks is getting mighty nervous, I don’t mind telling you.  There’s also rumors that the president’s going to surrender by week’s end.  So are we fighting, or are we giving up?  It’d be good to know what’s what.”

“I don’t know about surrendering,” I said.  “But I know they’re working on some things at Coolidge Palace, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to help.”

“As long as they’re still trying, that’s a good sign.  Here you go, mate.”

We had reached the main gates.  There were several soldiers standing guard.  A crowd of people on the other side of the fence was yelling at one of them, demanding to be let out.  The guards just ignored them.

“This here is Larry from headquarters, Sergeant,” Caleb said to the soldier in charge.  “He’s to be let in and out of the camp, though why he wants to go in there is beyond me.”

“He’ll learn soon enough,” the sergeant replied with a shrug.  “Take a couple of men and go to the side gate.  Fix bayonets, in case you have to clear a path.”

“Right.”  Caleb found a couple of his friends, and we went along the fence till we reached another gate, also heavily guarded, but with only a few people on the other side. Caleb and the guards put their bayonets on, then unlocked the gate and pretty much shoved me inside, while pushing back the people who lunged forward, trying to get out.

“Thanks, Caleb!” I shouted as I made my way through the people.

“Fare you well, mate!” he said.  “And be careful!”

And there I was, back inside the camp.

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