Portal, an online novel: Chapter 19

In the refugee camp, Larry has finally met his family.  They are much the same as in his own world, but their circumstances in this world are utterly different.

In particular, in this world Larry died as an infant.  And his mother senses something about him . . . he seems to fill a gap in her heart.

Larry returns to Coolidge Palace with some decisions to make, as artillery booms in the distance and the final battle for Boston is about to begin.


Chapter 19

The carriage raced through the deserted streets towards Coolidge Palace.  “What do you mean?” I asked Peter.  “Chat about what?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Peter replied.  “The president doesn’t tell me what’s on his mind.”

“Are people mad at me?”

Peter chuckled.  “I imagine they’ve more important things to be worrying about, lad.”

We reached the palace in no time.  The guards let our carriage through the gates, and we raced up the long drive to the front steps.  There was still a lot of activity on the palace grounds, I noticed.

“Hurry, lad,” Peter said when the carriage stopped.  I got down from the bench and ran up the steps.  A green-coated butler wearing a wig opened the door for me.

Lieutenant Carmody was standing in the entrance hall, looking seriously annoyed.  “Where did you get to?” he demanded.

“Well, uh, I–”

“Never mind.  Let’s go.”  He headed off down a long hallway to the president’s office.  Another butler bowed and let us in.

President Gardner was seated by the fire, along with General Aldridge, Professor Palmer, Vice President Boatner, and the foreign minister, Lord Percival.  The president wasn’t wearing his wig; he looked tired.  “Ah, you’ve brought Master Barnes,” he said when we entered.  “Excellent.  Have a seat.  General Aldridge was just finishing one of his gloomy reports.”

We bowed and sat down.  The warmth of the fire felt great after being outside all day.

“The Canadian artillery pieces on the Cambridge side of the Charles are firing almost continuously,” General Aldridge said.  “Damage is light so far except in the refugee camp by the river.  The goal, presumably, is to create confusion and panic prior to the main assault.”

“And the Portuguese?”

“A similar strategy south of the city, except the firing is more intermittent.  They may be conserving their ammunition.”

“And the balloons?” the president asked.  “The electricity?  All this work taking place on my back lawn–where are we with it?”

General Aldridge turned to Professor Palmer.  “Professor?”

“Four balloons are in use at strategic points around the city, Your Excellency,” he said.  “Two more are being completed tonight.  The balloons are tethered, with ropes sufficiently long that soldiers in the balloons will be able to easily view the enemy’s troop dispositions by telescope.  We have developed a semaphore signaling system that allows them to send the information back to the soldiers on the ground, so that they can adjust our own deployments of artillery and troops.”

“Can’t the enemy just train their fire on the balloons and shoot them down?” Vice President Boatner asked.  He looked as glum as he had the first time I saw him.

“The balloons are out of range of enemy artillery.  They’ll be safe.”

“What about wind, snow, ice?” the president asked.

Professor Palmer nodded.  “Weather is a concern, Excellency, particularly wind.  But on calm days, the balloons will be effective.”

“One might say that the balloons have already served their purpose,” Lord Percival pointed out.  “The enemy negotiators have seen the balloons floating over the palace.  And that has provoked a change in their attitude.”

The president raised a hand.  “We will get to that,” he said.  “First I want to hear about the electrified fences.”

Professor Palmer spoke up again.  “We have had some difficulty getting the batteries to hold sufficient charge,” he said.  “We’ve tried generating the electricity directly, but–”

“Yes, yes,” the president interrupted.  “These details are fascinating, I’m sure, but we need to know the consequences.  What can we do now?

“We have fences that can be deployed across a limited area,” the professor replied.  “The shorter the fence, the more significant the shock it will impart.”

“The plan is to expose gaps in the fortifications that will be filled by the fences,” General Aldridge explained.  “We hope the enemy will choose to attack in these gaps and be thrown into confusion by the shocks they receive.  We may also be able to inflict some injuries.”

“That’s all very well,” the vice president responded, “but neither these fences nor the balloons give us a decisive military advantage.  We are still besieged by enemy forces that far outnumber our own.  Our citizens are dying of disease and starvation, and looting and riots are widespread.  The refugee camps are about to explode.  The chaos and suffering will only increase if the siege continues.

“Lord Percival is correct, however: our bargaining position has improved somewhat.  At our negotiating session today, the enemy made what they termed their final offer: to let us maintain a civilian administration in New England as long as we disband our army and acknowledge the co-sovereignty of Canada and New Portugal.  This seems to me to be a far better outcome than we could have hoped for a month ago.  We would be foolish not to take it, and instead risk the future of our nation on a battle we have no hope of winning.”

“Solomon, when do you expect the battle?” the president asked.

“Not likely to be tomorrow,” General Aldridge replied.  “But no more than a day or two after that.  We assume the attacks will be coordinated.  The Portuguese are still moving troops up towards the fortifications.  Once they’re in place, they won’t delay further.”

That shut everyone up for a minute.  Then President Gardner looked at me.  “Master Barnes, what do you hear?” he asked.  “Do the people in the city want us to surrender, or fight?”

I thought.  How could I summarize what I had heard in the camp?  Sarah Lally was all for surrender.  Matthew was all for fighting.  Mom longed to go back to the farm and have Dad be safe.  “I think people just want it to be over, Your Excellency,” I said.  “Whatever you do, do it soon.”

That brought nods from everyone.

“Might I add one more thing?” Professor Palmer said.  “Obviously we have not achieved everything we would have liked with electricity.  But we have a new understanding of its power.  If we can continue to work on it, I believe its potential is limitless.”

President Gardner’s eyes rested on me for a moment before he replied.  “We would need our independence in order to reap the rewards of such work,” he remarked.

“That is correct.”

Vice President Boatner looked like he was going to say something, but instead he folded his arms and stared into the fire.  A clock in the corner of the room struck the hour.  We waited.

The president turned to the vice president and Lord Percival.  “Reject the enemy’s final offer,” he instructed them.  “Break off negotiations, and escort the diplomats back to the front lines.  We have nothing left to say to those who would destroy us.  Solomon,” he said, turning to General Aldridge, “do what you have to do, and quickly.  We will show them what New Englanders are made of.”

General Aldridge stood up and bowed.  “Thank you, Excellency.”

I expected the vice president to say something, but he simply shrugged.  He seemed to know there was no point in arguing.  We all got up, bowed, and left the room.  The meeting was over; the decision had been made.

“Never thought I’d see the day,” Professor Palmer said as we walked down the corridor away from the office.  “His Excellency showing some gumption.”

The Vice President stopped us at the front door of the palace.  “If we can help in any way,” he said to General Aldridge, “let us know.  All our lives are in your hands.”  He didn’t seem happy about it.

The general nodded.  “Thank you, Randolph.  The first thing you can do is pray for us.”

We hurried out into the night and heard the sounds of the artillery once again.  “William, Alexander, come with me,” General Aldridge said to the lieutenant and the professor.  “There is much to be done.  Larry, you can return to headquarters.”

“And stay there,” Lieutenant Carmody ordered.  “I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but you’re too important to be wandering around the city.”  He signaled to Peter to take me.

Instead of getting into the carriage, I climbed up next to Peter once again.  “Any news?” he asked as we headed out of the palace grounds.

“We’re going to fight,” I replied.

He didn’t seem surprised.  “There’ll be many of us dead before the week is out, then,” he said.  He didn’t look awfully upset about it.  It was just a statement of fact.

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “I try not to think about it,” he said.  “This battle’s been coming for such a long time.  So we’ll all just do our duty when it finally arrives.”

We weren’t stopped on the way to headquarters.  “Thanks, Peter,” I said when he dropped me off in the courtyard.

“Don’t be wandering around the city, lad,” he advised me.  “The lieutenant’s right.  The situation is dangerous enough–don’t go looking for trouble.”

I went directly to the mess–I was starving.  All they could give me was the usual: salt pork, stale bread, and tea.  It would have to do.  Then I went up to my room, too tired to think, but knowing I had a huge decision to make.  Was I going to disobey Lieutenant Carmody and return to the camp?

I put out the lamp and dropped down onto my lumpy mattress,

When I closed my eyes, I saw my mother–tired and worried, just trying keep her family alive in that awful camp.  Dad wasn’t around, Cassie was about to go off the deep end.  It was so familiar, but so much worse than anything in our safe world.

I had to go back, I decided.  No matter what.  I had to help her.

But how?

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