Portal, an online novel: Chapter 23

In Chapter 22: Larry and Kevin grab the clothes they were wearing in our world and run away from army headquarters.  Lieutenant Carmody spots them and chases after them, but they escape.  They make their way to the refugee camp, but it’s deserted, and the barracks have been set on fire.  The city is descending into chaos as the siege ends and the battle is about to begin.  The boys are desperate to get back to Glanbury, but the army from New Portugal stands in their way.  They are now as alone as when they first arrived in this world.

And things can only get worse.

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

Chapter 23

For a while it didn’t matter which direction we were heading.  People were going everywhere, and I suppose no direction was particularly safe.  But the further south we got, the louder the artillery sounded, and the more dangerous our journey started to feel.  People going the other way kept telling us to turn back, turn back, you’ll get caught in the battle.  And they had all sorts of rumors: the battle had started, we were losing, we had already lost . . .

But there were some people heading south along with us, and they had the same idea we did.  “Win or lose, we just want to go home,” one woman said to us.  “There’s nothing left for us in Boston, and we were lucky to get out of that camp alive.”  She had a couple of little children with her, and a half-dead donkey carrying their possessions.  The face of one of the girls was pitted with smallpox scars; she looked curiously at Kevin’s cap.  The woman offered us a couple of hard rolls they had gotten somewhere, and we accepted gratefully.  It was our first food of the day, and we didn’t know when we’d get our next.

We pressed on ahead of the family after a while, staying on the main road so we wouldn’t get lost.  I recalled details of the road from our journey into the city with the Harpers so long ago.  I knew we were getting close when we passed by the remnants of another refugee camp on marshland.  I remembered how Mr. Harper had scorned the people staying in such an unhealthy place.  I wondered if they’d ended up worse off than anyone else.  There were still some people there, with their wagons and makeshift tents.  Probably they thought we were the fools, heading towards the battle.

“Should be a big military camp up ahead,” Kevin said.  “And then the fortifications.”

“Think they’ll attack along the main road?”

“No idea.  There’s a lot of territory to defend.”

I recalled the discussion in President Gardner’s office.  The electric fence wasn’t powerful enough to replace all the fortifications, so they’d try to trick the enemy into thinking the fence was a weak spot in their defenses.  Would that work?

The road curved inland after a while, and up ahead we saw a crowd of people.  When we reached it we asked a woman what was going on.  “They won’t let us pass,” she said.  “Say it’s too dangerous.”

“Has the battle started?”

“I don’t think so.  Someone said when the artillery stops, that’s when they’ll attack.”

I looked at Kevin.  Had we gone as far as we could go?

“What would happen if we went off the road?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What good would that do?”

“I dunno.  Maybe we could sneak through the fortifications somewhere else.  Or go around them.  Maybe over by the ocean.”

“And have both armies shooting at us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “Let’s go see what’s happening,” he said finally.

We made our way through the crowd.  There were just a couple of soldiers standing guard at a barrier in the road.  It wasn’t anything like the scene at the Fens camp yesterday.  Nobody looked like they wanted to go any further; they were happy to let the army do the fighting.

One of the soldiers looked familiar.  It was Benjamin, our jailer.  He was still fat, although not as fat as when we first saw him.  I don’t think he remembered us at first, but he recognized Kevin’s cap.  “Ah, the lads with the ciphering machine,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

“Just trying to get home,” I replied.

“Where’s home?”

“Glanbury.”

He laughed.  “Good luck to you, then.”

“Has the battle started?”

“Oh, you’ll know when the battle’s started.  We’re all waiting for the battle to start.”

He seemed grateful for someone to talk to.  It occurred to me that he was scared.  He was sweating, despite the cold, and he flinched every time there was a particularly loud explosion.  No wonder they’d stuck him back here, well behind the front line.

Suddenly someone rode up on horseback.  It was Corporal Hennessy, who I’d talked to in the courtyard at headquarters the other night.  “I need one of you immediately,” he said to the two guards.

Benjamin looked like he was hoping his partner would volunteer.  The other guy was tall and skinny and kind of dopey-looking.  Neither of them said anything.

“All right, you, Benjamin, report to Sergeant Hornbeam,” the corporal ordered.  Benjamin looked like he wanted to protest, but instead he just sighed, as if he’d expected this all along.  Then the corporal noticed us.  “Hello, lads,” he said.  “You two reporting for duty?”

He was serious, I realized.  Was he asking us to fight?  Kevin and I looked at each other.  And I decided: it’s our war, too.  “What do you want us to do?” I asked.

“Go see Sergeant Dryerson, over at the ammunition depot,” he replied.  “He needs some extra hands.  Let’s hope you’ve developed some muscles since you were at the food warehouse.”  Then he galloped off.

Benjamin looked at us glumly.  “Should’ve stayed out of it, lads,” he said.

“Which way to the ammunition depot?” I asked.

He gestured to his left.  “Not a good place to be, I think.  Fare you well.”

And then he sighed again and trudged off.  The other guard let us pass, and we headed into the camp.

“Why?” Kevin demanded.

I looked up at the balloon–the balloon we had helped invent–hovering in the air.  I thought of Professor Palmer taking a bullet for us on the river.  I thought of my family, somewhere in the city, trying to survive–my father over by the Charles, getting ready to fight the Canadians.  I thought of all the soldiers who had treated us well.  “Because it’s the right thing to do,” I said.

He shrugged.  “I suppose so.”

The ammunition depot was about half a mile away, well back from the fortifications, which had been built out a lot since we first came into the city.  In some places there were now long, high walls of earth; in others there was a wooden fence supported by sandbags.  The pathway we walked along was crowded with soldiers on horseback and wagons hauling stuff.  Everyone looked tense.  Cannonballs kept coming in, but they landed short of where we were.

The depot was another one of those makeshift buildings that looked like it had been put up overnight.  It was filled with cases of ammunition, which soldiers were loading onto small wagons they called caissons.  Sergeant Dryerson was a big, burly guy with a droopy mustache.  “Always happy to have more assistance,” he said when we introduced ourselves.  “You,” he said, pointing to me, “help old Augustus over there.  “And you,”–pointing to Kevin–“go with Quentin.”

Kevin and I exchanged a glance.  “We–we’d like to stay together,” Kevin said to the sergeant.

“Then go off somewhere and play with your toys,” he replied angrily.  “I’ve no time for such nonsense.  Keeping you separate doubles the odds one of you’ll survive.  Consider that.”

We weren’t going to argue, so we did as we were told.  “Stay safe,” Kevin said to me before we split up.  “I don’t want to spend another day like yesterday.”

“Me too.  Meet me back here after we win.”

“Okay.”

Augustus was a short old soldier with a white beard and a messy uniform.  He talked nonstop while we were loading his caisson, mostly about the “idiot generals” who were losing the war for us.  When we it was full, we hopped up on the bench and drove off.  We were headed toward an area called Sector 7, which was somewhere to the west along the fortifications.  Meanwhile the bombs kept falling.  I wondered what would happen if one fell on our cases of ammunition.  I wouldn’t live to tell about it, I knew that.

“Idiot generals spent all their time designing floating airships and then don’t use ’em,” Augustus said, pointing up at the balloon.

“I think they’re being used for reconnaissance,” I said.  “Spotting the enemy’s position and stuff.”

Augustus shook his head.  “What’s to find out?  The enemy’s on t’other side of the wall, and he’s coming.  Soon.  And look over there–idiot generals left a gap in the fortifications, and all they could find to fill it with is that wire contraption.”

Sure enough, there was the electric fence.  And sure enough, it looked like a weak spot where the enemy could just march through.  I spotted Professor Foster, standing by some equipment connected to the fence and gesturing wildly at a group of men.  I sure hope this works, I thought.

And this was Sector 7.  We were bringing extra ammunition to soldiers in place behind the fence.  They were quiet, staring at the fence.  Waiting.  “Hurry, lad,” Augustus said, as we unloaded our boxes.  “Don’t want to be caught here when it starts.  The Portuguese are just going to come pouring through that hole.”

It was dangerous to be anywhere near the fortifications.  A cannonball landed about twenty feet from us, kicking up a huge cloud of dirt and gravel and causing our horse to rear back in fear.  “Idiot generals,” Augustus muttered, as if they were responsible for the cannonball.

Back at the ammunition depot, there was no sign of Kevin.  Augustus and I set to work filling up the caisson again, when suddenly something changed.  Strangely, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what had happened.  There was silence.  No more artillery.  Augustus paused and shook his head.

“It’s starting,” Sergeant Dryerson said.  “Let’s go, men.  This is it.  This is the war–right here, right now.”

I thought Augustus might complain about going back to Sector 7, but he didn’t.  We worked faster to fill the caisson–I had gotten stronger since that day in the food warehouse—and then we headed out again.  We were silent now as he steered through the waiting soldiers.  We were still on the way when we heard a huge, prolonged shout.  It wasn’t a cheer, it was more like the roaring of animals.  Animals getting ready to attack each other.

We made it to Sector 7, not far back from the fence.  Just where Augustus didn’t want to be.  I caught a glimpse of Professor Foster standing by his generator, looking terrified.  How many Portuguese were out there? I wondered.  How many soldiers were charging towards the fortifications right now, determined to kill us all?

And then I saw them: a huge blue wave approaching, ready to break over us.  Someone must have given a signal, because our soldiers all fired at the same time.  Some of the Portuguese fell, but more kept coming.  They were firing too as they ran, and I heard the screams of agony as New England soldiers were hit.

We had finished unloading the caisson.  I turned to Augustus.  “Should we go?” I shouted.

But his eyes were glazed, and he was holding onto his stomach.  A dark stain appeared around his hands, and he pitched backward onto the ground.  I knelt next to him.  He motioned to me to lean closer.

“Idiots,” he muttered in my ear, and then his head fell to one side, and he didn’t move.

I looked around, but no one was going to help.  We were in the middle of a battle.  I got to my feet and stood behind the caisson.  The sounds of the rifle fire and the shouting and the screams were overpowering.  The earth was shaking.  I was surrounded by dust and smoke.  It was a few seconds before I could make sense of anything.

Then I saw that the first Portuguese soldiers had reached the fence.  They grabbed it, ready to push through.  And then they were knocked backwards.  Every single one of them.  I heard a roar of triumph from our side.  The Portuguese scrambled to their feet, bewildered, but then most of them were shot down.  A second wave reached the fence.  Same result.

I spotted Professor Foster through the smoke.  He was jumping up and down and clapping his hands.  It had worked.  Electricity had worked.

And then his smile disappeared, and he too pitched over, clutching his chest.

The attack slowed down.  Over the gunfire I heard the sound of a trumpet from beyond the fence.  “They’re retreating!” someone shouted.

I expected us to go after them, and maybe some of the soldiers did, too.  But officers on horseback shouted out orders, and we stayed put, instead pouring fire on the enemy as they fell back.

I sort of figured that was it, the battle was over, but the officers didn’t act as if it was over.  One of them yelled at me to get more ammunition.  I pointed at Augustus’s body.  “The driver’s dead,” I said.

“Then go yourself, blast you,” he shouted.  “Come on, no time to waste.”

Reluctantly I climbed onto the bench and picked up the reins.  I had done this with Susie a couple of times at the professor’s house, just for fun.  Now it was anything but fun.  I gave the reins a shake, and amazingly the horse obeyed me, and we made our way through the bodies back to the ammunition depot.  Meanwhile, covered ambulance wagons were being loaded with the injured, and soldiers raced every which way on horseback.  It all looked utterly chaotic, but people seemed to know what they were doing.

Sergeant Dryerson just shook his head when he spotted me alone in the wagon.  I told him what had happened at Sector 7.

“Old Gus saw it coming, poor fellow,” he said.  “Well, he’ll have plenty of company before the day is done.”

“What do you think’ll happen next?”

“The enemy’ll regroup and attack again, I expect.  But from what you say we gave ’em a nasty surprise, so it’ll only get harder for ’em next time.  No sense speculating, though.  Let’s just fill that caisson.”

I loaded it up with the sergeant’s help, then headed back to Sector 7.  There was only scattered fire now, and I started to wonder if he might be wrong.  What if the Portuguese had given up?

No one seemed to believe it, though.  The fortifications were quiet, except for an occasional shot and the groans of soldiers the ambulances hadn’t yet reached.  I didn’t see Augustus’s body.  As I unloaded the ammunition I looked up at the balloon, still hovering over us.  The soldier inside was signaling down to someone, using the semaphore system Professor Palmer had devised.

We’ll know where the next attack is coming, I thought.

The officers started shouting out orders to the men, and a lot of them moved off, away from the electric fence to another part of the fortifications.  I recalled how the professor had scoffed at the fortifications the army had been building out by Brighton.  These were bigger than the ones there–they’d had a lot of time to work on them.  But, except for the electric fence, the whole thing was really nothing more than some fences and long piles of packed earth, never more than about six feet high.  In a lot of places there were long wooden poles sticking out like huge pencils to slow down attackers, but in other places cannon balls had blown pretty big holes in the earth.  The fortifications would slow the enemy down but wouldn’t stop them, not if there were enough of them, and they were determined to break through.

A lieutenant rode over to me as I unloaded the cases of ammunition.  “Who told you to bring those here?” he demanded.

“Sir, the sergeant at the–”

“Never mind, never mind,” he interrupted.  “Load ’em all back up and take ’em to Sector 10.”  He waved in the direction where most of the soldiers were heading–west, further inland.  “And hurry, boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

My arms were getting really tired, but I managed to load the ammunition back onto the caisson and started off.

I never found out where Sector 10 was, exactly.  Before I got there another lieutenant stopped me.  “Where are you going with that?”

“Sector 10, sir.”

“Never mind about Sector 10.  We need ammunition here.”

So I stopped and did as I was told.  And I started wondering how much control the “idiot generals” really had over the battle.

As I was unloading the ammunition again the battle resumed.  The roar of gunfire started out further along the fortifications–in Sector 10, maybe.  Our soldiers were crowded up at the earthen wall, their rifles aimed over it.  I saw the lieutenant on his horse with his sword in the air.  Then he lowered the sword, and the men began firing.

This time I was too busy to watch what was going on.  I hauled the ammunition up to the soldiers, who were firing as fast as they could.  I scurried along the wall, bent over to keep from being hit, and passed the bullets to whoever needed them.

“Steady, men, steady!” I heard the lieutenant shout after a while.  “Fix bayonets!  No retreat!  It’s here or nowhere!”

And then I saw why.  With a roar, a long line of enemy soldiers clambered up over the wall, pushing against us, and suddenly the sound of rifle fire died down a little, and I was in the middle of a hand-to-hand battle.

I had waited too long to get away.  Now I tried to get back to the caisson, but there were soldiers all around me, and I couldn’t even see it.  All I could see were blue- and red-jacketed men stabbing and bludgeoning each other.  All I could hear were their grunts and screams and moans.  And I was the one without a weapon.

It was awful.  I’ve played lots of violent video games, but they’re just stupid and pointless.  These were real people, killing and bleeding and dying right next to me.

I managed to stay out of the way for a while.  I was worried that, without a uniform, the soldiers wouldn’t know which side I was on.  Then one short, bearded enemy soldier spotted me and lunged at me with his bayonet, too fast for me to duck out of the way.  But before the blade reached me I heard a pistol shot from close range, and the man dropped to his knees and keeled over at my feet.  I turned around and saw Chester standing behind me.  “Boys,” he muttered, shaking his head in disgust.  He picked up the soldier’s rifle and tossed it to me, then turned to fight someone else.

I had never held a rifle before, if you don’t count BB guns.  My father won’t have any of that stuff in the house.  The rifle felt heavy with the bayonet attached, but I kept it raised in front of me as the fighting raged.

You kind of lose your mind in a battle.  You’re not thinking, you’re just reacting.  The adrenaline is rushing through you, and everything is kind of a blur.  And you do what you have to do, because otherwise you’re going to die.

So there was another blue-jacketed soldier.  He was young and scrawny, with no beard, just a wispy mustache.  Somehow I remember that mustache.  And I noticed him coming towards me out of the corner of my eye.  Looking back on it, I think he was heading for me because I looked young and scared.  Like him.  An easy target, maybe.  He had a sword in his hand, and it was aimed at me.

I whirled, and at the same instant I pressed the trigger.  The rifle recoiled with a force that almost knocked me over.  And he screamed.  Over all the shouting and shooting I heard that scream.  I will never forget it.  Then he toppled over backwards, still holding onto his sword.

And that was the last I saw of him.

I can’t remember anything much that happened after that.  I don’t think I killed anyone else–but it’s possible.  I have no idea how long the fighting lasted.  There just came a point when my brain seemed to start working again, and I realized that there weren’t that many blue jackets still standing.  Some had dropped their weapons and raised their hands.  There weren’t any more enemy soldiers climbing over the wall, either.

Finally my brain put it all together: We had won.

“After them, mates!” someone shouted, and everyone gave out a roar and raced to the fortifications.  I looked around for the lieutenant in charge.  All I saw was his horse, wandering by itself among the corpses and the wounded men.  Somewhere behind us a trumpet sounded.  I couldn’t tell what was going on, but the men hesitated, and then stopped.

I looked out through a part of the fortifications that had been destroyed.  The ground was covered with the bodies of enemy soldiers who had been shot before they’d made it inside.  How many Portuguese were left?  Would there be another attack?  Or was the rest of their army retreating, defeated?

A captain rode up.  I had seen him in the mess at headquarters, and had stood in line behind him once to wash up.  He looked around, gave some orders that I couldn’t hear, and then rode off.  I asked a soldier what was going on.  “We stay here and let ’em attack again if they’re so inclined,” he said.  His face was grimy and spattered with blood; one arm of his jacket was ripped.

“Why don’t we go after them?”

He shrugged.  “Getting late.  And we still have a city to defend, I expect.  Might have to go fight the Canadians next.”

“Do you think the Portuguese’ll come back?”

He shook his head.  “We cut the heart out of ’em, lad.  They won’t be back.”

I suppose I should have felt happier than I did.  But all I felt was relief and sudden, complete exhaustion.

The ambulances had returned to the battlefield and were being loaded with the wounded.  I found my way to the caisson and threw the Portuguese rifle into it.  It was all I could do to get up onto the driver’s seat and pick up the reins.  The horse had survived the battle.  He seemed tired too, but he perked up and slowly headed back to the depot.

And now all I could think about was Kevin.  Had he survived the battle?  And if New England had truly won, could we make our way back to Glanbury at long last?

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