Portal, an online novel: Chapter 14

Larry and Kevin went to Coolidge Palace to meet President Gardner, and Larry uses the Heimlich maneuver to save the president’s life.  Now the kids are returning to Cambridge, where things are about to get really serious . . .

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Chapter 14

We returned to Cambridge the next day, and work started up again.  Everyone had rumors to spread: that the president was making plans to surrender, that General Aldridge was going to seize power from the president, that the people in the camps were going to riot, break out, and try to take over the government, that the Canadians were about to attack Cambridge . . .

It was hard to concentrate, but Lieutenant Carmody kept the pressure on.  “Work as if your lives depend on it,” he told people.  “Because they do.”

Professor Foster was scared to death of the lieutenant.  He was happy to talk about electricity and give little demonstrations for people, but he got very nervous when he actually had to accomplish anything.  I got the impression he was drinking heavily.  So Professor Palmer spent a lot of time working with him, making sure that he stayed focused on getting things done.

The balloons worked pretty well, except for one thing: they didn’t stay up long.  It turned out the hot air leaked out of the silk too quickly.  Kevin and I didn’t know anything about that.  Finally someone figured out that they should sort of coat the silk with linseed oil, and that did a good job of stopping up the leaks.  People started going up in them, and they were really excited when they came back down.  “The grandeur of God’s creation is laid out before you,” one of them said.

Lieutenant Carmody just wanted to know if they could see the Canadians with their spyglasses.

Kevin and I got to go up, and he had a lot more fun than I did.  “This is so cool!” he shouted, as we looked out over the farms and the church steeples and the houses and the distant river.  I decided maybe I was afraid of heights.

And then we got the word: the New England troops were retreating from Cambridge.  We were going to have to leave too.  “Where will we have the space to do our work in Boston?” Professor Palmer wanted to know.

“Only one place with enough room right now,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “The grounds of Coolidge Palace.”

“His Excellency doesn’t object?”

“He does not.  Which isn’t to say we won’t be capitulating to the enemy tomorrow.  Let’s get everything packed up.  We don’t have much time.”

“William, Harvest Day is in two days,” the professor pointed out.  “It would be–well, I would like to celebrate it at home.”

“A bit of a risk, Professor.”

“I know.  But it’s important to me.”

The lieutenant considered.  “Very well,” he said, “the troops are scheduled to leave the morning after Harvest Day, unless the Canadians attack first.  Be prepared to go with them; otherwise, we’ll be unable to guarantee your safety on this side of the river.”

Harvest Day.  One more thing different about this world: the holidays.  No trick-or-treating on Halloween.  No Thanksgiving at all.  They didn’t have anything like the customs we had on Christmas, and most people didn’t even celebrate it.  Harvest Day took place in late October, and it was kind of like Thanksgiving; you ate food you had grown on your farm and celebrated your good fortune in making it through another year.

Needless to say, people weren’t feeling very fortunate on this particular Harvest Day.  The guys we worked with were mostly soldiers, and they still had enough to eat, but civilians were starting to go hungry in the city, and the food situation was only going to get worse while the siege lasted.  People had started to sneak over into Cambridge and break into houses looking for anything they could eat or sell, and the military had had to seal off the bridges trying to keep everyone out.  It was getting nasty.

So Professor Palmer wanted to celebrate one last Harvest Day at his home, knowing that it might be a long time, if ever, before he got back there again.  And it was really nice that he wanted us to share the holiday with him.  Kevin and I spent the day before helping him pack up his important books and papers and loading them into the carriage.  We didn’t want any part of slaughtering one of the pigs, but he insisted.  “If you want to eat the meal, lads, you have to help prepare it.”  He pointed out that we would have to leave the pigs behind, and either Canadians or wolves would kill them eventually.  That didn’t make murdering the poor thing any less gross, though.  It was a lot more fun churning the butter and baking the apple pie and the bread.

On Harvest Day itself we could hear artillery fire in the distance, and that didn’t help the celebration.  The reality of having to leave this place had set in, and it wasn’t making any of us happy.

The professor began the big meal with a prayer of thanks, but as we ate he got off onto a topic that didn’t make us any happier.  “It occurs to me,” he said, “that if the theory you boys propose is correct, and there are an infinite number of universes, that means there are some in which war doesn’t exist, in which people have managed to find a way to live in peace and harmony with one another.”

“That’s not our universe for sure,” Kevin said.  “But I guess you’re right.”

“It’s hard to imagine, is it not?” the professor went on.  “Once I got used to the idea of a world like yours, I had only a little difficulty in imagining the wonders it might contain–airplanes and automobiles and computers and so on.  But imagining a world without war, without hatred, without these endless disputes over who owns each little plot of land . . .  My mind cannot comprehend such a place.”

“At least you can’t blow the whole planet up, like we can,” I pointed out.

“I suppose one should be grateful for that.  But I’m sure that someday even we will be able to unlock the secrets behind such weapons.  And then . . . ” the professor shrugged.  “Perhaps we will find the wisdom to refrain from using them.”

But he didn’t sound hopeful.

We ate till we were more than full, and then we sat on the professor’s front porch and watched the sun set, glowing purple and gold over the horizon.  The artillery fire had stopped, and we put aside all depressing thoughts.  I still missed my own family and my own world, of course, but I remember wishing that I could hold onto that moment forever, feeling peaceful and well-fed and at least moderately safe in the middle of the war and the hunger and the uncertainty.

But the moment didn’t last.  That was the night that Kevin got sick.

#

At first I thought it was part of a nightmare.  We went to bed early, knowing we had to leave by dawn.  I dreamt I was up in a balloon and the tether had broken.  I had no idea how to steer or how to land.  Below me, people were calling out instructions, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  I was floating higher and higher into the clouds, more scared than I’d ever been in my life, when finally I managed to make out Kevin’s voice, calling faintly to me from far below.  “Larry, Larry . . . ”

“Kevin!” I called back, and I fought my way through the clouds until I opened my eyes.

. . . and realized I was lying on my bed.  I sighed with relief, until I heard Kevin call my name again in a faint voice.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Larry, I don’t feel so good,” he said weakly.  “Could you get the professor?”

I got up and looked at Kevin in the moonlight.  He was sweating, even though it was cold in the room, and his eyes glittered.  He looked frightened.  I felt his forehead; it was burning hot.  “Be right back,” I said.  I went and roused Professor Palmer.  When we got back to the room, Kevin was on his knees, throwing up into the chamberpot.

“Get a bucket of water and a cloth, Larry,” the professor ordered.  “Quickly.”

I rushed downstairs to the kitchen, and all I could think was drikana.

No cure.  You feel like you’re vomiting your entire insides out.  You die within a couple of days.

No cure.

If there was any immunity to drikana–or any other diseases in this world–Kevin and I didn’t have it.

When I got back to the room with the cloth, Kevin was in bed again, shivering.  The professor was leaning over him.  He took the cloth from me and put it over Kevin’s forehead.

“Is he going to be all right?” I asked.

The professor looked up at me.  “I don’t know, Larry,” he said softly.  “I don’t know if any of us is going to be all right.”

“Is it–is it–?”  I couldn’t bring myself to say its name.

The professor nodded.  “I think so, yes.”

“I want to go home,” Kevin moaned.  “I want my mom.”

“It’s all right, Kevin,” I said.  “It’s all right.”

“Please let me go home.  Please.

I was scared out of my mind.  “What do we do, Professor?” I asked.  “Can we help him?”

He handed me the cloth.  “Keep him cool, Larry,” he said.  “I’ll be right back.”

Aspirin, I thought.  Tylenol.  Motrin.  There was none of that stuff in this world.  Just a wet cloth on the forehead for someone who was burning up with fever.  Kevin threw up some more, and the stench was bad, but I couldn’t leave him.  After a couple of minutes the professor returned, and he was carrying a basin and a scalpel.  “What are you going to do?” I demanded.

“I have to bleed him, Larry.  It is the only way to evacuate the noxious humors.”

“No!” I screamed.  “That’s nuts!”

He hesitated.  “It’s the standard treatment,” he said.

“I don’t care.  In my world they stopped bleeding people, like, hundreds of years ago.  It doesn’t work.  It’s just a superstition.”

“Larry,” he said, “you have to trust me.  You don’t have this disease in your world.  We’ve lived with it for five hundred years.”

“And you haven’t cured it.  You don’t know a thing about it.  You don’t know a thing about medicine.  You’re not bleeding Kevin.”

I don’t know how I got the nerve to stand up to him–the famous Harvard professor–but I did.  He wasn’t going to touch my friend with that scalpel.

We stared at each other for a minute, and then Professor Palmer put the scalpel and basin down.  And somehow I knew what he was thinking: smallpox.  Vaccinations.  Our world could have saved his wife and son.  We knew more than he did.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Let us pray that you are right, Larry,” he replied.  “In any event, we must keep him clean and cool.  If he can sleep, that would be best.  The crisis will be over, one way or the other, within forty-eight hours.”

“There’s no other medicine we can give him?”

The professor shook his head.  “None that have any efficacy.  In any case, his stomach cannot tolerate anything.  He may be able to sip water, that’s all.”

In our world, Kevin would have been in an ambulance by now, heading for a hospital.  Here, even if there were a hospital around somewhere, the trip in the professor’s carriage over the bumpy roads would have killed him.  I was going to have to take care of him, along with the professor.  I was going to have to help him live.

I guess that was the worst night of my life–worse, even, than that first night in this world, back in the brig with Chester.  To see Kevin suffer, and not be able to do anything about it . . .  The vomiting continued, and then the diarrhea started, and a little while later convulsions . . .  Before long Kevin wasn’t begging to go home, he was begging to die.  “Please, Larry, please!  Stop the pain!  Stop the pain!”

I held his hand.  “You’re going to make it, Kevin!  You will!”  And I was thinking: Don’t leave me alone here, Kevin.  I need you!

After that he must have been delirious, because what he was saying didn’t make any sense at all.  And then he was to weak to say anything.

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because when I opened my eyes it was gray outside.  I was kneeling next to Kevin, and his hand was lying on my arm.  His eyes were closed.  At first I thought he might be dead, but then I could see his chest go up and down, just a little bit, and I relaxed.  He was sleeping, and that was good.

I heard a banging sound coming from outside, so I went downstairs to investigate.

The professor was on the front porch, nailing something onto one of the white columns.  “Is Kevin still asleep?” he asked.

“Uh-huh.  What are you doing?” I asked.

He motioned to me to take a look.  It was a big red “C” painted on a board.  “A notice of claustration,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“It tells the world there is a drikana patient inside.  By law and custom, no one can leave this place for seven days.”

So, claustration was their word for “quarantine.”  Seven days, I thought.  “But the Canadians are coming!” I said.  “We were supposed to leave this morning.”

“We can’t go anywhere now, I’m afraid.”

“We’ll be trapped,” I said.  “They’ll take us prisoner.”

“Larry, we can only hope that is the worst that happens to us.”

I shuddered.  The professor finished putting up the sign, and we went inside.  He had already made some tea, so we had a cup by the fireplace.  “So what happens next?” I asked him.

“When Kevin awakens, the vomiting will likely start all over again,” he replied.  “If it’s worse, it’ll continue to get worse, and he will probably die by nightfall.  If it’s better, not so intense, that’s a good sign, and he may survive.  If he’s still alive tomorrow, that’s a very good sign.”

“What are his odds?”

“Half the people who come down with the disease die of it.  The odds are a little better if you are young and healthy.”

So, fifty-fifty.  Some hope for Kevin.  But then there was the question that had been lurking in my mind, too scary to ask.  Now it was time to ask it.  “What about–what about us?  Are we going to come down with the disease?”

“I don’t know, Larry.  I’ve been around the disease many times but never contracted it.  Perhaps for some reason I have that immunity you talk about.  As for you–who knows?  I wish I could give you a better answer, but I can’t.”

“But we’ve already been exposed, right?  If we’re going to get it, we’re going to get it.”

“That’s right.  There’s nothing we can do about it at this point.”

“What does it feel like, when it starts?”

“They say it starts with dizziness, like the world won’t stop spinning around you.  And then you become nauseated and feverish.  And finally the vomiting begins.”

I closed my eyes.  Did I feel dizzy?  I didn’t think so.  Were there germs already inside me, getting ready to kill me?  There was no way of telling.  I opened my eyes.  The professor was looking at me.  He reached over and put a hand on my shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Larry,” he said.  And then I buried my face in his chest and started to cry.

#

Later in the morning Lieutenant Carmody showed up.  He called to us from the path leading up to the house.  When the professor and I went out on the porch, he said, “It’s Kevin, then?”  He stayed on his horse and didn’t come any closer.  He had seen the sign.

“It is Kevin,” the professor replied.  “Last night.”

“Does he still live?”

“Yes, thank God.”

“I am sorry indeed to hear of this, Professor,” the lieutenant said.  “We can’t protect you, you understand.  The last troops retreat over the bridge by noon.  We were getting worried when you didn’t come.  But we can’t delay.  The Canadians are no more than a mile away.”

“I understand the situation,” Professor Palmer replied.

“If you can, use your fireplace only at night,” the lieutenant advised.  “They’ll see the smoke during the day.”

“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“If you hear the enemy approach, get out as quickly as you can, before they see you.  They’ll probably fire the house when they notice the sign, and not bother looking inside.  They’ll want nothing to do with drikana.”

“Of course,” the professor said.  “That makes sense.”

“Why don’t we just take down the sign?” I asked the professor.

He shook his head.  “It’s not done, lad.  It’s just not done.”

“One more thing,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “Perhaps I needn’t say this, but I fear it’s my duty.  Do not try to reach Boston before the end of the claustration.  Important as you are, and as much as I respect and admire you, the law cannot be broken, especially not now.  Orders will be issued to shoot you on sight until the week has passed.”

“I would do the same myself, William,” the professor replied.

The lieutenant nodded.  “It’s an ill time for us all.  Fare you well, then.  And may God have mercy on the three of you.”

Then he rode off, leaving us utterly alone.

Upstairs, Kevin started to moan.

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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.

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.

“Huh?”

“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.

Home.

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.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 10

Well, we’re about a quarter of the way through.  The story so far: Larry and his friend Kevin, who live in a suburb south of Boston, have stumbled through some kind of portal into a parallel universe.  Here, there is no “America”; instead they have landed in a  “United States of New England” that’s fighting a war with Canada and New Portugal.  They make their way to Boston, which is preparing for a siege, and no one is optimistic about winning the war.  Kevin shows his multi-function watch to some soldiers, and this eventually brings the boys to the attention of New England’s military commander, General Gardner and his aide, Lieutenant Carmody.  They are (somewhat) convinced that the Kevin and Larry are from another world, but they can’t figure out how the boys can help the war effort.  So they send the boys off to live with Professor Palmer in Cambridge, hoping that he can come up with some ideas.  And that brings us to . . .

Chapter 10

“My housekeeper left to join her daughter’s family in Boston,” Professor Palmer explained, “but I’m used to fending for myself.  Kindly have a seat.”

The kitchen was large and sunny, with a big open fireplace along the inside wall.  We sat in a couple of straight-backed wooden chairs in a corner and watched him putter for a while in silence.  When he was done, we helped him bring the food into the dining room, which was small and dark and kind of stuffy.  We ate cold roast chicken, and it was just about the best chicken I’d ever tasted.  I was beginning to get the idea that food here was either terrible or delicious.  Like the soldiers in the mess hall, he ate with his knife.  His fork only had two prongs, and he used it just to hold down the meat while he cut it.  Weird.

“Before long, meals like this will be but a memory,” the professor said.  “We must enjoy them while we can.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.  “It’s very good.”

“Yes.  Well.”  He paused, then fell silent and looked down at his plate.  He seemed to be having difficulty starting up a conversation with us.

“Do you believe us?” Kevin asked.

He looked up and blinked rapidly.  “You know, I want very much to believe you,” he replied.  “Knowledge is so hard to come by.  In many ways we have learned little–and forgotten much–since the ancient Greeks.  The idea that somewhere, somehow, another turn was taken, and so much more has been discovered and accomplished–it is deeply exciting.  But then, there is still Occam’s razor.”

“We’re telling the truth,” I said.  “We’re not smart enough to make up all this stuff.”

The professor nodded.  “That is actually the most powerful argument in your favor.  Your theory, though–that we live our lives countless times, in countless different worlds–simply doesn’t feel real.  It is the stuff of fantastical late-night conversations in college common rooms, after too many glasses of port.  Lieutenant Carmody wants weapons.  I want to understand what is real.”

“We don’t drink port,” I pointed out.  I had no idea what port was.

That got him to laugh.  “Let us begin, then,” he said.  “Remove these plates, and I’ll find some paper.”

We cleared the table while the professor got some of that odd-looking yellowish paper that the lieutenant had used, and one of those strange, long pencils.  And we started telling our story once again.

It didn’t go all that well.  Professor Palmer took a lot of notes and asked a lot of questions, but we had the same problem we had before.  Like the lieutenant said, we knew things, but we didn’t understand them.  And the professor was mostly interested in the portal and how that worked and what it meant to philosophy and religion and stuff, and there we couldn’t help him at all.  After a while he began to look unhappy and distracted, like he was getting tired of listening to us.

Finally we took a break, and he showed us his house and where we’d be sleeping.  For a famous professor, his house wasn’t all that big–I think people in this world were used to a lot less space than in ours.  Across from the dining room was a small room he called the “parlor,” which was mostly filled up with a piano.  That reminded me again of the piano lesson I had missed, which wasn’t good.  Next to the parlor was a tiny study crammed with books.  There was a narrow staircase leading to the second floor, which had one good-sized bedroom and one small one.  We were bringing up sheets and blankets to the small bedroom when we noticed a couple of paintings in the hall–one was of a little boy in short pants, the other of a black-haired woman with a sad smile sitting in a chair and holding a fan.  Kevin asked the professor who they were.  He looked like he didn’t want to answer, and then he said softly, “My wife and son.”

“Where are they?” Kevin asked.  “Are they–?”

He shrugged.  “They died many years ago.”

“How did they die?”

I thought that was kind of a pushy question.  The professor again didn’t seem to want to talk about it, but he said, “In an outbreak of the smallpox.”  He gazed at the painting of the child.  “It occurred shortly after Seth’s portrait was completed.”

“Smallpox?” Kevin said.  “I’m pretty sure that’s totally cured in our world.”

The professor turned and glared at Kevin.  “Do not trifle with me, boy!” he shot back angrily.

Kevin retreated a step.  I think he was afraid the professor was going to hit him.  “I didn’t mean to–” he said.  “I mean, I’m sorry, if you don’t want to talk about it . . . ”

“How was it cured?” he demanded.  “Or is that something else you don’t understand?”

“I’m pretty sure they came up with, you know, a vaccine.”

“No, I don’t know.  What is a ‘vaccine’?” he demanded.

This time Kevin had an explanation.  “It’s like when you give someone a tiny bit of a disease, with a shot or something.  Not enough to make them sick, but it gives them immunity when they come in contact with the disease for real.”

“What do you mean, ‘immunity’?”

“You know, when you don’t get a disease, because your body has built up a resistance to the germs.”

The professor shook his head, still not getting it.  “And what are ‘germs’?” he asked.

Kevin looked at me like, Can you believe this?  “They’re tiny, um, organisms that can make you sick,” he said.  “Different kinds of germs give you different illnesses.  They’re really small–you can only see them with a powerful microscope.  Do you have microscopes in this world?”

Professor Palmer continued to stare at Kevin.  Then I noticed that his dark eyes were filled with tears.  “So many people have died of smallpox,” he said.  “And you tell me they could have been saved?”

“We’ve cured a lot of diseases,” Kevin said.

“What about . . . drikana?”

Kevin looked at me.  I shook my head.  The name was kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  “Never heard of it,” I said.

“Me neither.”

“No matter, I suppose,” the professor said softly.  “No matter.”

But that conversation did matter.  It seemed to change the way Professor Palmer acted toward us.  He never really said that he believed us instead of Occam’s razor or whatever, but it was just more or less assumed.  It was more than that, though–before, it had been like what we were telling him was just a puzzle he was trying to figure out.  Now, it was different.  Now, it was sort of personal.  We weren’t going to bring his wife and son back, but maybe we really could help.

#

After supper we all sat in the parlor and talked more about his world.  Professor Palmer was eager to give us his opinions about it.  He seemed a little lonely, with the college closed and the town deserted and nobody to lecture to, and we were the best audience he was going to get.

“This war need never have happened,” he said, “except that those purblind fools in Boston were certain it wouldn’t happen.  They assumed the Canadians and Portuguese hated each other more than they hated us, and would never be able to unite against us no matter how much we provoked them.  Perhaps fifty years ago that was true.  But times have changed.  They realized that they needn’t be friends to be allies, and we were in no position to defend ourselves on two fronts.  So they attacked, and we have been fighting for our lives ever since.”

I remembered the newspaper we’d read and the soldiers’ talk.  “Why hasn’t England helped?” I asked.

“Because we asked too late.  And because England has more than enough problems of its own fighting the Franco-Prussian alliance.  And there continue to be those who never wanted us to become independent of England, and would be happy to see us fail.”

“Sir,” Kevin said, “would you mind–we still don’t understand what’s going on here.  We know about Canada, but what happened to America–you know, what we call this place?  And in our world, the Spanish came here first from Europe.  Portugal didn’t have a whole lot to do with the New World, that I remember.  We think something must have changed way back in your history, to make things end up so different.”

The professor nodded.  “All right.  The theory makes sense.  Let’s see if we can find out.”

It didn’t take that long.  You wouldn’t have to have paid much attention in history class to figure out what the difference was, once you started looking for it.

In this world, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America.  Professor Palmer had never heard of the guy.

What we learned in school was that the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator, wanted to find a trade route to India, so they explored south along the coast of Africa, until they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed north through the Indian Ocean.  They weren’t interested in sailing west across the Atlantic, maybe because they knew more about geography than Columbus and realized they’d have to travel a whole lot further than he thought to reach India.

So in our world Columbus went off and sold Spain on his idea, and that’s why Spain reached the New World first, why it became a huge empire, at least for a while, why Balboa discovered the Pacific and Cortez conquered Mexico and all that stuff.  And America got named almost by accident when a mapmaker decided a guy named Amerigo Vespucci deserved some credit for his explorations.

That was us.

In Professor Palmer’s world, the Portuguese did sail west and discover the New World.  It wasn’t even Columbus’s idea; he never entered the picture.  It was Portugal, not Spain, that got all the silver and gold.  It was Portugal that became the big empire, with Spain just another loser country in Europe.

France still explored and settled what would become Canada, and England colonized the eastern part of “America.”  But the British colonies never expanded the way they did in our world.  They stayed along the Atlantic coast, hemmed in by the Portuguese, the Canadians, and the Indians.  And that’s the way it stayed.

Professor Palmer showed us a map that night.  New England was a lot bigger than it was in our world–it looked like it included New York and Pennsylvania–but New Portugal was huge; it extended all the way from, like, Virginia, west to what’s Texas in our world, then south through Mexico and into South America.  Canada was big, too, stretching down into the Midwest.  On the map New England looked like this little stone stuck between two huge boulders.

How could it avoid getting crushed?

Well, things weren’t always quite as bad as they looked on the map.  New Portugal was too big, too spread out to be much of a nation.  It was more like a bunch of half-independent states, usually at war with each other.  And Canada had mostly been friendly with New England and an enemy of New Portugal.

But right now England was busy fighting a war against France and Prussia (which was sort of like our Germany), so it couldn’t do much to help with the defense of its former colony.  Canada and New Portugal saw this as an opportunity to carve up the little nation between them.  New England had been trying to extend its borders by skirmishing with both countries, and that gave them the reason they needed to invade.

It all seemed so strange, so different, as we talked about it.  There had been no American Revolution, no Civil War.  New England had stayed part of the British Empire until 1925.  Slavery ended there when it ended in the rest of the Empire, in the 1830’s, although it still existed on a small scale in some areas of New Portugal.  The whole western part of the continent remained largely unexplored and was inhabited mostly by Indians (who were called by their tribal names, because no one ever thought they came from India).

Some people were just as famous in this world as they were in ours–Beethoven, for example.  But many either hadn’t existed or, if they did, never became well-known.  Shakespeare had died young and was remembered for just a couple of poems.  Mozart, Van Gogh, Mark Twain–who were they?  Professor Palmer had never heard of them, and lots of others we mentioned.

And where were all the inventions, the medicines, the discoveries?  Why was this world, like, two hundred years behind ours?

The answer became obvious to Professor Palmer as we talked.  “You told me this afternoon that you had never heard of drikana,” he said.  “That may explain a great deal.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A horrible disease–worse even than smallpox or consumption.  A person afflicted with drikana has uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea.  It is as if everything in his body is trying to escape as quickly as possible.  Most people die within two days of the disease’s onset.  It is also highly contagious.  If it shows up in a city, it will kill a third of the inhabitants in a month.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  I remembered where I’d heard the word before.  “A soldier asked us about drikana when we were coming into Boston,” I recalled.

Professor Palmer nodded.  “They need to be vigilant to keep the disease from entering.  An outbreak would be devastating, with the city so crowded with refugees.”

“Drikana sounds kind of like Ebola,” Kevin said.  “That’s a deadly virus from Africa.”

“And what is a ‘virus’?” the professor asked.

Kevin tried his best to explain.  “Kind of like germs, I think, only it’s harder to come up with medicines for a virus.  I think.”

“There is no cure for drikana,” the professor noted.  “Early settlers in the New World were the first to come down with it.  ‘Drikana’ was the name of a native tribe near the site of the first outbreak.  Unfortunately the survivors returned to Portugal and brought the disease with them.  It devastated Europe, and five hundred years later it still devastates us.  For a few years it seems to lie dormant, until people begin to hope that it is finally gone–but always there is a new outbreak, just as devastating as the last.

“Surely that accounts for the difference between our worlds,” he went on.  “How many geniuses has the disease claimed before they could make their discoveries?   How much time and effort have we spent in dealing with it that we could have spent in the search for knowledge?”  He looked pained again, as he had when talking about the death of his wife and son.  “And how many lives have we wasted fighting useless wars like this one?” he murmured.

“Well, it’s not like there are no wars in our world,” Kevin pointed out.  And we talked about the Civil War and the World Wars and Iraq, the concentration camps and the A-bomb and chemical weapons.  I don’t think it made the professor feel much better.

“Knowledge doesn’t bring wisdom, certainly,” he said.  “No reason to assume otherwise.  More advanced weapons just allow you to kill each other more efficiently.  Still, a world without drikana, with smallpox cured . . .  I daresay most people would make the exchange.”

I know I would have.

“Well,” he said, “this is the world we have, and we must make the best of it.  Time for bed.  Tomorrow we will set to work again.”

We went up to our room, and for the first time in this world we had clean sheets and soft pillows.  The mattresses were lumpy and, of course, we still had to pee in a pot or go outside to what the professor called the “privy.”  But we weren’t complaining.

“Drikana,” Kevin whispered in the darkness, as if trying out the disease’s name.

“Drikana,” I repeated, lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling.

“Some little germ somewhere, can’t even see it, and it wipes out half the world, sets progress back centuries.”

“Do you think we’ll get it?” I asked.

“Maybe the worst danger in this world isn’t the Portuguese or the Canadians,” he replied, not quite answering my question.

“Have you ever been in the hospital?”

“Just to the emergency room once,” he said, “when I broke my thumb.”

“I don’t even know if they have hospitals here.”

“If they do, doesn’t sound like they’d be much use.”

I fell silent, thinking about how safe I’d always felt at home.  My mom was crazy about safety, but even if she weren’t, there were doctors and ambulances and firemen and policemen around . . .  Bad things happened, sure, but they had never happened to me.   And it had never really occurred to me that they could happen to me, maybe just because Mom was always so worried.  With her protecting me, what could go wrong?

Drikana.

Kevin was silent.  I listened to my heart beating in the quiet room.  I have to rely on myself now, I thought.  I had to grow up.  There just wasn’t any choice.  No use feeling sorry for myself; no use thinking about the past and my home and family and what I could have done to not get into this mess.  No use hoping they’d find the portal and find this world and magically save me.  A germ or a virus or whatever could kill me tomorrow, but I couldn’t worry about that.  I could only do my best, and try to stay alive.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 9

Thanks to Kevin’s multi-function watch, he and Larry get to meet with General Aldridge, the head of the New England forces in Boston.  He and Lieutenant Carmody decide to send them off to Professor Palmer in Cambridge to see what he can learn from them.  They’re making progress!  But they’re no closer to making their way home . . .

The fabulous first eight chapters of the novel are up there under “Portal” in the menu.  What could be more convenient?

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Chapter 9

Peter, Lieutenant Carmody’s driver, came for us the next morning, just as we were waking up.  He was a big man with long, bushy sideburns and a large mustache.  “The Lieutenant would like for you to come to his quarters,” he explained.  He talked slowly, as if he wasn’t sure we could understand him.

We followed him down a couple of floors and along a short corridor, until we reached a door with Lieutenant Carmody’s name on it.  Peter rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an answer.  We all went in.

The lieutenant’s room was large, with a bed, a desk, and a comfortable-looking chair, in which he was sitting.  There was a rug on the floor and curtains on the window.  On the desk was a vase with a single flower in it.  The place looked pretty homey after where we’d slept the last two nights.

The lieutenant got up from the chair and greeted us.  Like yesterday, his uniform was crisp and clean.  He wrinkled his nose when he got a whiff of us.  “Peter, I believe we’ll have to get these lads washed,” he said.  “Then let’s have them put on their new clothes.”  He pointed to the bed, where a couple of outfits were laid out–dark pants, shapeless shirts, and clunky shoes.  They weren’t much to look at, but that was okay by me; it would be good not to have people staring at us anymore.  “Bring their clothes back here, Peter,” he went on.  “I’ll hold on to them.  Lads, I’ll meet you in the mess.”

“Yes, sir,” Peter said.  “Grab the clothes, lads, and follow me.”

We went downstairs and out a back door, into an enclosed area next to the stables.  Laundry hung on lines, and there were buckets filled with water sitting on wood stoves that were tended by an enormous woman with sweat pouring off her.  Next to the stoves were tables with towels and big blocks of yellow soap on them.  A few soldiers were standing at the tables and pouring water over themselves.

“Grab a bucket, lads, and go to it,” Peter said.  And to the woman he said,  “Bessy, we need to get these lads cleaned up.”  I was a little embarrassed about taking my clothes off in front of the woman, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Anyway, it felt good to wash.  “Hand those clothes over when you’re ready,” he ordered us.

We did as we were told.  Peter was intrigued by our boxers–it turned out that only rich people wore underwear here–but he was totally fascinated by the zippers on our pants.  We showed him how they worked, and he couldn’t stop zipping and unzipping.  “How the devil does it do that?” he asked.

It was something else we couldn’t exactly explain.

My new shirt didn’t fit very well.  The pants were itchy, especially with nothing on underneath them.  The shoes were incredibly heavy compared to my sneakers.  “You look terrible,” Kevin said.

“So do you.”

But at least we were reasonably clean.

Peter brought us to the mess, where Lieutenant Carmody had breakfast waiting for us–porridge and tea again, but also scrambled eggs, which tasted great.  The lieutenant nodded his approval at our outfits.  “You look like you’re just off the farm.  And you smell much better.  Now finish up.  We have to get you over to Cambridge.”

After we were done, he hurried us out to the courtyard, where Peter was waiting with the carriage.  The three of us got in, and we rattled off over the cobblestones.  The streets were filled with horses and carriages and big wagons and those strange-looking bicycles, not to mention a hog or two and some nasty dogs.  Lieutenant Carmody tapped his fingers impatiently as we made our way through the noise and the traffic.  “You’d think it was life as usual in the city,” he said.  “More refugees adding to the confusion, I suppose.  It’ll be midday before we get to Harvard.”

“We have Harvard in our world,” I said.  “My father went there.”

Lieutenant Carmody gave me a look, as if he still wasn’t ready to believe this stuff about parallel universes. “What does your father do?” he asked.

“He’s a computer programmer.”

“And what is that?”

“Well, he writes software programs that, um, make computers work.”

The lieutenant shook his head.  “Software?” he asked.  “Programs?”

I tried, but I couldn’t make sense of it for him; finally he waved me silent in frustration and turned away to stare out the window at the traffic.

Finally we reached a river.  I guessed it was the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge, but it didn’t look anything like the Charles in our world, which always seemed pretty peaceful and calm when we drove by, with joggers and rollerbladers whizzing around its banks, and lots of little sailboats out on the water.  This version of the Charles didn’t have much in the way of banks, with trees and bushes up to its edge, and only a couple of rowboats making their way towards the other shore.  The bridge we crossed was small and rickety, and I got a little scared that if the horse became excited he could crash through the railing and send us all down into the water.  But we made it across okay, and then we were in Cambridge and traveling along the Massachusetts Road, the lieutenant informed us.

Cambridge wasn’t anything like our version either, of course.  We passed by the usual farms and small shops; when we reached the part where the college was, the houses got nicer, and some of the buildings were pretty impressive, but there was nothing like the craziness of Harvard Square, which my dad brought us to a couple of times.  In fact, the place looked pretty deserted, especially compared to Boston.

“That’s where I lived when I attended Harvard,” Lieutenant Carmody said, pointing to a large brick building.  It was exactly the sort of thing my dad said when he brought us to Harvard Square.  Big whoop, Cassie would reply, and she wouldn’t even look at his dorm.

“Where is everyone?” Kevin asked.

“The students are all in the army,” the lieutenant replied.  “And most of the townspeople have retreated across the river into Boston.  Cambridge will not be defensible if the Canadians choose to advance on it.  And they will advance before long.”

“Why is Professor Palmer still here?”

“Because he’s a contrary old sod,” the lieutenant muttered.  I didn’t exactly understand the words, but I got the idea.

We kept going, and eventually Peter pulled up in front of a big white house down a dirt lane.  We got out, and the lieutenant went over and knocked on the door, but there was no answer.  He shook his head and walked around back.  We followed him.

In front of a red barn a gray-haired man with a small beard was tossing apples into what I figured was a cider press.  My family went apple-picking every fall, and they’d had gizmos like it in the orchards.  We approached.  “Good morning, Professor,” the lieutenant called out.

The professor looked up.  “Ah, William,” he replied.  “Nice to see you.”  He didn’t seem at all surprised.  “Don’t you have a war to fight?”

“Ninety percent of war is preparation.”

“So you’re preparing?”

“You might say so.”

Professor Palmer glanced at us with little interest.  “And who are these fellows?” he asked.

Lieutenant Carmody introduced us.  The professor gave us a brief nod and offered us a cup of cider.  It was delicious.

“Don’t you have friends to stay with in Boston?” the lieutenant asked him.  “I can’t imagine you’d enjoy having the Canadians show up at your doorstep one morning to take you prisoner.”

“I have every confidence that President Gardner will find a way to make this entire unpleasant episode go away,” Professor Palmer replied, and I was pretty sure he was being sarcastic.  “He’s still talking to the British, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but there’s that little matter of the naval blockade to deal with.  The British ambassador can agree to whatever we want, but he still has to find a way to inform Parliament of the agreement.  And as to whether they would accept his recommendations . . . ”  The lieutenant shrugged.  “We don’t have as many friends in London as we used to.”

“William, I was having a very pleasant morning here, and now you’ve gone and ruined it,” the professor said.  “Are you telling me His Excellency doesn’t have a plan to extricate us from this disastrous situation he has allowed to develop?”

The lieutenant smiled.  “Like you, I have every confidence in His Excellency.”

“Pah.”  The professor spat on the ground.  “Now, there must be a reason for visiting me with these young men in tow.”

“Indeed.  We have something to show you, professor, and a story to tell.”

Lieutenant Carmody took out the watch and handed it to the professor, who studied it while we waited.  He didn’t touch any of the buttons at first, just turning the thing over in his hands.  Then Kevin showed him how to use it.  After that the professor sat down on a tree stump and started playing with it.  “Square roots,” he muttered.  “To eight decimal places.  Remarkable.”  He stood up finally.  “And what is the story you have to tell, William?” he asked.

“It’s a very strange one–if you choose to believe it.”  We all sat down, and he repeated what we had told him, the way he had to General Aldridge.

The professor scratched his head and stared at us as he listened.  “Do you remember your philosophy courses, William?” he asked when Carmody was finished.

The lieutenant smiled.  “How could I forget them?”

“Do you recall the discussion of Occam’s Razor?”

“The principle of parsimony,” he replied.  “The simplest explanation is generally the best.”

The professor nodded.  “Such a pity you chose soldiering instead of the groves of Academe, William.  You were one of our brightest students.  So, can we not apply Occam’s Razor here?  Why postulate an infinitude of universes and the like?  Can’t we explain the current situation by suggesting that two boys with active imaginations have somehow come upon a device from China–amazing though it is–and concocted a silly story to go with it?”

“We could,” the lieutenant agreed.  “Except that, if you’re right, they have concocted a better story than any I’ve ever heard.”

“And there’s zippers, begging your pardon, sir,” Peter said.  I had forgotten about Peter.  He was tending his horses by a water pump, close enough to overhear the conversation.  “On their trousers, sir.”  And he described that other miraculous invention, which apparently he couldn’t get out of his head.  “You don’t need buttons on your fly,” he explained.  “The thing just goes up and down, smooth as you like.”

The professor stared at us some more.

“Ask them about baseball,” the lieutenant urged.  “General Aldridge was much impressed with the little one’s discussion of a sport on his world.”

Professor Palmer raised an eyebrow.  “Solomon is not a fool like our president,” he said, “but he is also not a philosopher.  Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to catechize them.”

So he began asking us questions–not about baseball, thank goodness, but about everything else on our world–politics and history and science and religion and lots more.  For the first time we got to explain about America.  We talked about how it became the most powerful country in the world.  We talked about watching TV and playing video games and surfing the net.  We talked about men landing on the moon, which got the professor to raise his eyebrow again.  I described how I had touched a moon rock when my family visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington.  That seemed to astound him more than anything else we said.

Like the lieutenant, the professor pressed us for explanations that we just couldn’t give.  I mean, I have some vague idea of how a car works.  You put gas in the tank, you turn the key, you move the thing so it points to “D”, you step on the accelerator . . .  But to explain it so that it made sense to someone who has never heard of a car–I couldn’t do it.  Kevin was a little better, because he read so much and liked to do science experiments and stuff, but even he didn’t make a lot of sense when the professor really pushed him.

After a while I figured we were screwing up pretty badly, and I started to get depressed.  We’d been better off with Kevin explaining earned run averages to General Aldridge.  Finally the professor stopped his questions and poured everyone more cider.  Then he looked at Lieutenant Carmody.  “What do you want from me, William?” he asked softly.

“We’re at war, Professor,” the lieutenant replied.  “Our nation’s survival is in jeopardy.”

“You expect these boys to conjure weapons for you?”

“I want whatever they can give us.”

Professor Palmer looked away.  “Another world,” he murmured.  “A thousand wonders to explore.  And what do we seek?  Better ways of killing.”

The lieutenant gestured towards the professor’s house.  “Everything you have,” he said, “–your life itself–is being protected by a few thousand soldiers, with dwindling supplies and little hope of reinforcement.  We don’t have time to explore wonders; we need to survive.”

“They’re just boys,” the professor pointed out.  “Obviously they don’t understand–”

“And that’s why I’ve come to you,” the lieutenant interrupted.  “They know things but don’t understand them.  You don’t know, but you can understand.  Together, perhaps you can come up with something.”

“You’re asking for a miracle.”

“Well, why not?  If these boys are to be believed, their very presence here is a miracle.”

“How long do we have?” the professor asked.

The lieutenant shrugged.  “We assume the enemy will lay siege to the city before the final attack.  If so, we can hold out a couple of months.  By winter it will be hopeless.  But the president will likely surrender long before that.  And the terms will not be favorable.”

The professor shook his head sadly.  “How did it come to this?”

“That’s for others to work out,” the lieutenant replied.  “Soldiers simply fight the war they are given.”

“That’s why you should be more than a soldier, William.  But in the meantime, what is your plan?”

“The boys will stay here with you,” he said.  “We need to keep this secret, not least because of how the president might react if he found out.  While they’re here, you learn what you can from them.  Whatever might help us.  I’ll return to check on your progress.”

“And if there’s nothing?”

“Then there’s nothing.  You will have listened to some entertaining stories while you wait for the Canadians to arrive, and the rest of us will march resolutely towards our fate.”

The professor looked at Kevin and me, and I could tell he didn’t like the idea of having us move in with him.  “I’m an old man,” he started to say, “and–”

“Nonsense,” Lieutenant Carmody interrupted.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and you know it.  You are the best person in New England for the task, and you know that as well.  Don’t lose the opportunity just because you’re set in your ways.”

“I suppose,” the professor said finally, as if he was agreeing to have his foot amputated or something.  “Very well.”

Lieutenant Carmody nodded in satisfaction and immediately stood up.  “Excellent.”  He turned to us.  “I trust you lads will do your best.  There is much at stake here.”

“Yes, sir,” we both replied.

“Good.”  He shook hands with Professor Palmer, then motioned to Peter to get the carriage ready.  In a couple of minutes they were clattering off down the lane, and we were alone with the professor.

It was very quiet.  Kevin and I stood by the cider press, waiting.

“Well, then,” the professor said.  “I suppose–I suppose you’re hungry.”

I wasn’t, actually, but we both nodded.

“So perhaps we should dine?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Pardon me?”

That word again.  “I mean sure.  Fine.”

“Well, then,” he murmured again, and he started off towards the house.

Kevin and I looked at each other.  “Weird,” Kevin whispered.  And we followed him inside.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 7

Stuck in some kind of alternate universe with Boston under siege by the Portuguese and Canadians, Kevin and Larry found their way to the refugee camp in the Fenway. Then Kevin had the bright idea of showing his calculator/watch to the soldiers.  That got them out of the crowded, dangerous camp, but instead they ended up in the brig — not much better! What will the new day bring them?

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

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Chapter 7

When I woke up it was light out, and at first I had no clue where I was.  Why wasn’t I looking at the Final Fantasy poster in my bedroom?  How come I was so uncomfortable?  What was that weird dream I’d had?  Who was that huge man glaring at me from across the room?

Chester.  All the memories of yesterday came flooding back.  This wasn’t a dream.

I looked over at Kevin.  He was still asleep.

“Boys,” Chester rumbled.  “I don’t like boys.”

“Uh, hi,” I said.

Chester just shook his head and glared at me some more.

Benjamin must have heard us, because he unlocked the door and stuck his head in.  “‘Morning, gents,” he said.  “Chester, you may be excused.  Go thou and sin no more.”

“I’m hungry,” Chester said.

Benjamin shook his head.  “Not my problem, Chester.  Now be off to the mess, before we become angry.”

Amazingly, Chester got to his feet, dusted off his dirty red jacket, glared at me one final time, and then obediently walked out of the brig.

Benjamin then turned his attention to Kevin and me.  “Sleep well, lads?”

I nodded.  Kevin had awakened and was rubbing his eyes sleepily.

“Did Sergeant Hornbeam say anything about what’s going to happen to us?” I asked.

“Sergeant Hornbeam is not with us at the moment.  You’ll need to stay here until he sends instruction.”

“Any chance we could go to the mess?” I asked.  “I’m pretty hungry.”

“Let me see what I can do,” Benjamin said, and he left, locking the door behind him.

Kevin sat up.  “I dreamed that this was all a dream,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll wake up again, and you’ll be right.”

“Wouldn’t that be good.”  He sighed.  “I’ve gotta use that thing over there,” he said, pointing to the pot in the corner of the cell.  I closed my eyes while Kevin did his business.

Were there any flush toilets in this world, I wondered.  Did they have toothpaste?  Hot showers?

Eventually Benjamin came back with a tray of food: cups of tea and bowls of, well, mush.  It could have been oatmeal, but it didn’t have any milk or sugar, and it was all I could do to get a few spoonfuls down.  I’d never drunk tea before, and that didn’t taste much better.  When I had finished trying to eat, I was as hungry as when I started.  Kevin had barely touched his food either.  He was looking pretty glum.

After a while Benjamin came for the trays.  “Porridge not to your liking?” he asked.

“Can we go outside?” Kevin asked back.  “We won’t leave, I promise.”

Benjamin considered.  “All right.  It’s going to be hot–not a good day to spend in the brig.  But stay right by the barracks.”

We followed him out of the cell.  There were only a few soldiers in the barracks, plus an old man mopping the floor.  We went outside.  It did feel like it was going to be a hot day.  No air conditioning, I thought.  No fans.  I looked around.  None of the buildings had been painted, and there was lumber lying around on the ground.  They had been put up in a hurry, I realized.

We sat down on some boards by the entrance to the barracks and watched the wagons go by, heading for the camp.

“Maybe now’s the time to leave,” Kevin said.

“You mean: go back to Glanbury?”

“Yeah.  We could stay off the main road and hide from the Portuguese army.  If we started now, we could probably make it by dark.”

“You think the New England soldiers’d let us out that gate we went through?”

Kevin thought for a second.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, there’s got to be a way around,” he decided.  “They can’t fence in the whole city.”

“And you think the Portuguese army wouldn’t shoot us if they caught us?” I said.  “Or at least treat us worse than this?  You think we’re smart enough to find the portal without getting caught?  It was your idea to do this thing with the watch, Kevin.  Why don’t we just see what happens?”

He didn’t answer.  “I wish I was in school,” he said.

“I wish I had a bowl of Frosted Flakes and a big glass of orange juice.”

We fell silent, and just sat there in the hot sun.

Eventually Caleb came by.  “Morning, mates,” he said.  “Anything happen yet with your ciphering machine?”

We shook our heads.  “I hope Sergeant Hornbeam hasn’t forgotten about us,” Kevin said.

“No, no, he wouldn’t do that.  He’s a busy man, though.  We’re all busy, more’s the pity.  Looks like the camp’ll fill up today.  Have to open up another one somewhere.  Never knew there was this many people in all of New England.”

“Is there some way we could talk to him?” Kevin asked.

“Oh, he’ll be around.  Never worry, mates.  Just enjoy the day.”

Then he went off, and we were left to ourselves again.  Soldiers came and went.  Most of them knew seemed to know about us and asked about the “ciphering machine.”  A couple of them looked at us like we were going to put a curse on them.  The sun got hotter.  There was no sign of Sergeant Hornbeam.

Then a carriage pulled up in front of the barracks, and a fat officer got out.  The soldiers guarding the entrance stood at attention and saluted.  The officer was bald, with red cheeks and bushy gray eyebrows, and his uniform was soaked with sweat.  When he saw us, he stopped.  “Who the devil are you?” he demanded.

“We’re waiting for Sergeant Hornbeam, sir,” Kevin said.  “He has a watch of mine that–”

“Oh, that nonsense.  Just a gewgaw, if you ask me.  Well, you can’t just sit around idly all day.  There’s a war on, in case you haven’t noticed.”  He turned to one of the soldiers.  “Corporal–er?”

“Hennessy, sir.”

“Corporal Hennessy,” he repeated.  “Find ’em something to do.”  Then he went inside the barracks and started yelling at the soldiers there about shaping up and looking sharp, there was a war on.

Corporal Hennessy looked at us.  “Colonel Clarett worries that we’ll forget we’re at war,” he said.  “I think his concern is misplaced, don’t you?  Anyway, let’s find you a chore.”

We got up and went with him.  “Is Colonel Clarett in charge of the camp?” Kevin asked.

The corporal nodded.  “And a nasty job it is, too.  No matter what you do, someone’ll criticize you.  Treat folks too well, you’re wasting food.  Treat ’em too poorly, you’re starving good New England citizens.  Let’s just hope this doesn’t last long.”

“He said our watch was nonsense,” Kevin went on.  “Does that mean–”

“Means nothing, mate.  I heard about that watch.  Lucky for you Sergeant Hornbeam was on duty last night.  He’ll know what to do with it.”

The corporal led us into another long, unpainted building behind the barracks.  It had an awful stench coming out of it.  “What’s that smell?” Kevin asked.

The corporal gave him an odd look.  “Luncheon,” he said.  “Have you never smelled salt pork before?”

We went inside.  There was one long room, with tables and benches along the wall.  There were no screens on the open windows, and flies were buzzing everywhere.  A few soldiers were sitting at one of the tables and eating off tin plates.  They were stabbing their meat with their knives and sticking it straight into their mouths, I noticed.  Didn’t they have forks here?  My mother went nuts if she caught any of us putting a knife in our mouths.

We went through the room.  Beyond it was a kitchen, where a shirtless, sweating man was standing over steaming pots set on woodstoves.  Corporal Hennessy greeted him cheerily.  “Coolest place in Boston, eh, Jonathan?”

Jonathan responded with a string of words my mother would have shot me for saying.  This didn’t seem to bother the corporal.  “Need any help here?” he asked.  “I have a couple of lads willing to pitch in.”

Jonathan glanced at us and shook his head.  “Try the warehouse,” he said.

“Very well, then.  Your loss.”  We went out through the kitchen and saw a much larger building surrounded by guards.  Soldiers were lugging sacks out of it and loading them onto a bunch of wagons.  The corporal went up to a big, bearded soldier who was supervising the loading and said, “Need a couple of extra hands, Tom?”

Tom gave us the look we were used to by now.  “What are those outfits?” he asked.  “Costumes for harvest festival?”

“We’re, uh, not from around here,” Kevin said.

“No, and you haven’t done much laboring, from the look of you.  Well, we can remedy that.  Head on inside and grab some sacks.  The camp awaits its midday meal.”

“Keep ’em alive, Tom,” Corporal Hennessy said.  “They’re guests of Colonel Clarett.”

Tom just grunted.

“Fare you well, lads,” the corporal said to us, and headed back to the barracks.  Tom waved us inside the building.

It was filled with shelves, and on the shelves were the sacks the soldiers were loading onto the wagons.  “What’s in them?” Kevin asked one of the soldiers.

“Corn,” he replied as he slung a sack over his shoulder.  “Folks’ll be mighty tired of corn before long.”

I tried lifting a sack; I couldn’t.  Kevin was a shrimp, and he obviously wasn’t going to be able to pick one up.  “We’ll have to do it together,” I said.

“This is embarrassing,” Kevin muttered.

“Just shut up and help.”

So the two of us picked up a sack and staggered outside with it.  Tom laughed when he saw us.  “Nicely done, lads,” he said as we managed to push it onto a wagon.  “Heft twenty or thirty more, and you’ll have it mastered.”

We managed to load about half a dozen sacks before our arms turned to rubber and we had to take a break.  There was a barrel of warm water in a corner, and we splashed some over us and drank what we could, but it tasted awful.  “This is going to kill us,” Kevin said.

“Let’s just slow down.  They don’t seem to care what we do, as long as we don’t look like we’re goofing off.”

We tried that, but it was still too hard.  I always thought of myself as being in pretty good shape.  I play soccer, and I have some ten-pound dumbbells that I work out with sometimes at home.  But this was just way beyond me.

Luckily, after we’d loaded a few more sacks Tom decided there was enough food for the camp, and it was time for us all to take a break and have our own lunch.  The wagons went off to the camp, and we went into the mess hall for some salt pork, boiled corn, and tea.  I was hungry enough now that the food actually didn’t taste too bad.  I think I needed the salt after all the sweating I’d done.

While we ate we listened to the men complain.  “We’re soldiers, not laborers,” a thin, wiry man said.  “They should get the farmfolk to do this.”

“They’d just stuff their pockets full of grain,” the soldier sitting next to him pointed out.

“Shoot ’em if they steal.  That’s what’d happen to us.”

“We should make ’em all soldiers,” a third soldier said.  “You think we can defeat the Portuguese and the Canadians with the army we’ve got now?”

“I hear they’re signing up all the able-bodied men,” the thin soldier said.  “We’d be worse off if we had to take the rest of them.”

“Doesn’t matter who we get,” yet another soldier muttered.  “We’ve no hope of winning in any case.”

That caused everyone to fall silent until Tom ordered us back to work in the warehouse.  Now we had to clean up the spilled grain.  This was a whole lot easier than lugging the sacks, but the heat inside the building was almost unbearable.  “Wish I had a Pepsi,” Kevin said.

“A Sprite.”

“Dr. Pepper.”

“Diet Fresca.”

We came up with all the soft drink names we could think of.  But we weren’t going to get any.  All we had was a barrel of warm water that was probably crawling with germs.

“What happens when the food runs out?” Kevin asked the thin soldier.

He shook his head.  “That’s when we surrender, mate.  Let’s hope we don’t have too many die before that happens.”

“How long till it’s gone?”

“Don’t know.  Depends on how many people show up and how much they bring with ’em.  Couple of months, I reckon.”

That didn’t sound good.  Kevin was about to ask another question when we noticed Sergeant Hornbeam standing in the doorway.  His red hair looked like it was on fire.  “What are you boys doing?” he demanded.

“Colonel Clarett told us we had to work,” I explained.  “So Corporal Hennessy brought us over here.”

Sergeant Hornbeam rolled his eyes.  “Naturally,” he muttered.  “Have to put you two back in the brig,” he said to us.  “Come along.”

I dropped my broom without a complaint.  Hard to believe I’d be happy to go to jail, but I was.

“What happened with the watch, sir?” Kevin asked the sergeant as we headed back to the barracks.  “Did you show it to anyone?”

Sergeant Hornbeam didn’t bother to answer.  He was walking so fast, it was hard to keep up.

“Please don’t just hold onto it,” Kevin persisted.  “It’s more than a toy.”

“Still don’t understand how you boys got hold of that thing,” the sergeant said.

“Well, it’s complicated, sir,” Kevin began.  But Sergeant Hornbeam waved him silent.  We had reached the barracks, and he started shouting for Benjamin, who came waddling in, stuffing his shirt into his pants.

“Sorry, Sergeant,” he said.  “Making a visit to the outhouse.”

“Kindly lock these two up once again,” Sergeant Hornbeam ordered him.  “And this time don’t let ’em out on anyone’s word except mine.”

“What about the colonel, Sergeant?”

The sergeant muttered something under his breath, then turned and strode out of the barracks without answering.

Benjamin turned to us.  “Sorry, lads.  What was it you did, anyway?”

“Nothing, really,” I said.

He shrugged and ushered us back into the cell, locking the door behind us.  It was still empty.  I slumped back down on the floor, and Kevin slumped next to me.

“This is good,” he said.

“Good not to be hauling sacks of grain,” I agreed.

“Yeah, but good because Hornbeam thinks we’re so important he has to keep us locked up.”

“If you say so.  I just wish something would happen.”

“Yeah, I know.  I was thinking,” he went on.  “Remember how Stinky Glover and Nora Lally showed up in that other world you visited?  I wonder if people from our world are here, too.”

“This place is a whole lot different than our world,” I pointed out.

“I know, but it’s not totally different.  There’s still a Glanbury, still a Boston.  So it’s a possibility, right?  What if our families were living in Glanbury?  What if they’re in that camp over there right now?”

I closed my eyes and felt a lump rising in my throat.  “You know what, Kevin?  I don’t really want to think about that.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, “I guess you’re right.”

We must have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I knew,  a loud voice was shouting, “Wake up, dammit, don’t you know there’s a war on?”

I opened my eyes and saw Colonel Clarett standing over us.  Behind him was Benjamin, holding a lantern and yawning.

“Come on, come on,” the colonel said.  “We don’t have all night.”

I struggled to my feet, then helped Kevin up.

“That’s it, then,” the colonel said.  “Let’s go.”

We followed him out of the cell.

“It’s all nonsense,” he told us, “but there you have it.  The enemy’s at our gates, and they’re interested in gewgaws.”  He led us to a room in a corner of the barracks.  “My own office,” he muttered.  “And where do I go meanwhile?”

He opened the door, and we went inside.  A tall, black-haired man in a uniform was standing behind a desk.

“Here they are, Lieutenant,” Colonel Clarett said.  “And much luck may you have of ’em.  If you want my opinion, they’re a pair of thieves, and that’s that.  Look at the hat on the little one,” he said, gesturing at Kevin’s Red Sox cap as if its existence proved he was a criminal.

“Thank you, Colonel,” the lieutenant said.

Colonel Clarett looked like he wanted to stay, but the lieutenant was obviously waiting for him to leave, so he turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

The lieutenant smiled at us.  “Now,” he said, “I think it’s time for a little chat.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 6

Yikes!  Larry and Kevin are stuck in a parallel universe and have been abandoned in Boston by the family who saved them from the Portuguese soldiers.  (Portuguese?!) They have little food, no place to stay–and they’re wearing funny-looking clothes.  This can’t be good.

The first five chapters are up there on the right side of the menu.

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

Chapter 6

We walked away from the house, eating the food in silence.  I was so hungry, I forgot for a while how scared I was.  But it didn’t take long for the fear to come back.  Where would we get our next meal?  Where would we sleep?  Would we ever get back to the portal?  Would I ever see my family again?

We didn’t know where we were going.  The streets were dark, and I kept tripping on the cobblestones.  A dog barked at us out of an alley.  There was a lump in my throat, and it kept getting bigger. From one house we passed I heard someone playing a piano, and at least that sounded familiar.  But then I remembered my piano lesson, and I felt even worse.

Pretty soon Kevin and I started arguing.  “This is so stupid, Kevin,” I said. “Why did I let you talk me into it?”

“It’s not like I twisted your arm or anything,” he shot back.  “I said you could stay behind, if you wanted to be prudent.”

“I don’t know why I even told you about it.  I should’ve figured you get me into trouble, with all your theories.  And why did you tell that soldier our family had been murdered by the Portuguese?  He almost arrested us.”

“Maybe we’d be better off if we were arrested,” he pointed out.  “Jail would be better than this.”

We kept walking.

“You know what worries me?” Kevin asked softly after a while.

I shook my head.

“Even if we found the portal, what if we can’t get back?  What if it takes us to some totally different universe?”

“It took me home yesterday,” I reminded him.

“Maybe you were just lucky.  Maybe you go somewhere different every time you step into it.”

“We’ll get back,” I insisted.

He didn’t argue.  I think he wanted to believe me.  I wanted to believe myself.

It was getting cold.  Neither of us had a jacket.  At least neither of was wearing shorts.  I was grateful when we finally made it back to the main street.  With all the people around, it just seemed to feel warmer.

Now that we were out of the wagon, people were staring at us, but we were too tired and scared to care.  We looked in the store windows as we walked.  There was a dressmaker’s shop, and a place that sold something called sundries, and a chandler, which had candles and oil lamps for sale.  “No electricity, I guess,” Kevin muttered.  “Those streetlights are gas or something.  This place is, like, two hundred years behind us.”  We stopped in front of a tavern called the Twin Ponies and listened to the laughter and smelled the cigar smoke and the stale beer.  Someone was playing an instrument that sounded like an accordion.

“Look at this,” Kevin said.  He picked up a sheet of newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the tavern. It was called the Boston Intelligencer.  It had smaller type and wider pages than in regular newspapers, and no photographs–only a couple of drawings.  We read the headlines:

PORTUGUESE, CANADIANS ADVANCE ON BOSTON

Thousands of Refugees Arrive ahead of Siege

Pres. Gardner Calls for Calm as Naval Blockade Tightens

Talks with British Continue

“It has today’s date,” Kevin pointed out.

“Look at the British spellings,” I said.  President Gardner was at pains to dispel the rumour that he was negotiating terms of surrender with the Canadians and Portuguese.

We couldn’t make sense of a lot of what we read, but two things were clear: This place was in a whole lot of trouble, and there was plenty of disagreement about what to do about it.  The paper quoted one guy as saying they should cut off all the refugees from entering the city, because there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone to survive the siege.  Someone else said there was no way the city could survive the siege anyway, and the president (who apparently was in Boston) should “surrender forthwith.”  And the president insisted everything was going to be fine and not to worry.

“What a mess,” Kevin said.

“No kidding.”

A tall man wearing some a round black hat and a green cape came staggering out of the tavern.  He stared at us for a second and shook his head.  “Strange days,” he muttered, and he headed off down the street.

“So, what do you think we should do?” I asked finally.  One of us had to ask the question.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “Maybe we should, you know, turn ourselves in.”

“For what?  We haven’t done anything.”

“Well, we could, like, tell the truth.”

“You think they’d believe us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “I guess not.”

“But even if they did believe us, why would they care?  They’ve got way more important things to think about.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.  What have we got to lose?”

We were lost on a strange world with no one to help us.  There really was nothing to lose.

“I think that’s a cop over there,” Kevin said.  “Go ask him.”

The blue-jacketed policeman was across the street, standing in front of a building with his arms folded.

“Why me?” I said.  “It’s your idea.”

“Because you’re taller,” Kevin answered. “He’ll pay more attention to you.”

Seemed like a stupid reason to me, but I was tired of arguing.  We crossed the street, picking our way through the disgusting horse manure.  We walked up to the cop, who stared at us suspiciously.

“Excuse me, officer,” I began.  My voice sounded thin and trembly in my ears.  “We’re not from around here, and–”

He scowled at me.  “I can see that, mate.”

“No, really.  We’re not just, you know, from another town or something.  We come from a different world altogether.  We’d like to, uh, speak to someone in authority.”

“Of course you would,” the policeman said, nodding.  “And, you’d like a meal.  And a nice bed to sleep on, as well.  Is that it?”

I glanced at Kevin, but he didn’t have anything to say.

“We’re in the middle of a war, in case you didn’t notice,” the cop went on.  “We don’t feed strays.  If we don’t get help soon, we won’t be able to feed ourselves.  Now run along.”

“But where?” I asked.  “We don’t have anyplace to stay.”

He gestured off to his left.  “The Fens camp is where you strays belong.  Don’t let us catch you stealing on the way, or you’ll wish the Portuguese had caught you first.  And don’t be wandering the streets after curfew, either.  You farmfolk–or whatever you are–aren’t going to overrun this city.  Understand?”

I nodded.  “How far away is the camp?” I managed to ask.

He laughed.  “Not far.  Just follow your nose.  And you might watch your step going through Cheapside–they don’t take kindly to strays.”  Then he turned and walked away.

“Nice job,” Kevin said to me.  “You didn’t explain anything.”

“You try, if you think you can do it better.”

We were silent then.  We headed off in the direction the cop had pointed.

“I wonder if the Fens has anything to do with Fenway Park,” Kevin said after a while.

“Who gives,” I muttered.

“They probably don’t even have baseball in this world,” he went on.

I just looked at him.  We kept walking.  I was getting really tired.  And I was hungry again.  Would there be food in the camp?  Everyone seemed worried about food.

After a while we entered what I figured was Cheapside–a nasty-looking section of town where the rickety houses were stuck close together, the street had turned into a rutted dirt path, and piles of garbage were heaped up everywhere.  Follow your nose, the cop had said.  There were lots of taverns, and people lounging in the doorways shouted insults at us as we passed.  We just kept going.

Cheapside seemed to peter out after a while, and we came to a bunch of buildings with soldiers guarding them.  Beyond the buildings was what I guessed was the Fens camp.

It was much bigger than the one we’d seen from the wagon on the way into the city.  It seemed to go on forever; we could see wagons and tents, smoky campfires and snorting horses.  There was a rough fence around it, and at the end of the path was a gate with lamps hung on either side.  A few wagons were lined up in front of the gate, waiting to enter.

“What do you think?” I asked Kevin.  “Should we go inside?”

“Do we have a choice?” he replied.

Not that I could see.  We got in line behind the wagons.  It took a few minutes for them to enter.  When we reached the gate the soldier guarding it laughed.  He was short and stout and missing a couple of teeth.  “Farmfolk get stranger-looking every day,” he said, shaking his head.  “Twenty minutes to curfew, lads.”

“Can we just, like, go in?” I asked.

“You can go in, but you can’t come back out–at least not till morning, and then you’ll need a pass.  But you’ll find plenty to do inside, I daresay.”

“Is there any food?”

“Not till morning, unless you want to steal some inside the camp–which I wouldn’t recommend, since it’ll likely get you killed.  Now run along with you.”

We walked through the gate into the camp.  There were muddy paths of a sort, along which people had parked their wagons and set up makeshift shelters.  People sat in their wagons or on chairs outside their tents, the men smoking long pipes and the women chatting with each other by the light of the campfires.  One man we passed was playing a guitar while his family sang what sounded like a hymn.  There were a lot of babies crying.  Older kids ran around, playing tag.  It didn’t seem all that bad, actually, if you could get used to the smell and the mud.

We kept walking, without any idea of where to go or what to do. Kevin pointed to the guards patrolling outside the fence, rifles on their shoulders.  “They’re serious,” he said.  “Nobody’s getting out of here.”

Great.  We were stuck inside a refugee camp.  My stomach started growling and my legs started hurting.  “I don’t think I can walk much further,” I said.  “I’m so tired I could sleep in the mud.”

“We need to get blankets or something,” Kevin said.

“How are we going to do that–steal them?  We’d get killed.”

He didn’t answer.

“Hey there!”  A thin man with long stringy hair and a beard was standing in front of us.  “Did I hear you say you needed a blanket?”  He smiled at us.  His face was pock-marked, and he was missing a lot of teeth.  His left eye wandered when he spoke.

Stranger danger, I thought.  My mother was always talking about stranger danger.  But what do you do when everyone’s a stranger?

Neither of us answered, so the man kept on talking.  “You boys here on your own?”  We still didn’t answer, so the guy just kept talking.  “These are parlous times to be on your own.  But I have a beautiful blanket I can let you have for a mere five shillings.  Made from the finest Vermont wool.  Just step over to my wagon here.”

I looked at his wagon.  A sad-looking donkey stood next to it, staring at us.  How much was a shilling, I wondered.  Didn’t matter.  “We don’t have any money,” I said.

The man’s smile faded a little.  “Parlous times, indeed,” he said.  “What about barter, then?  Have you anything to trade?”  He looked us over, then pointed at Kevin.  “Odd-looking hat,” he said.  Then, “This object on your wrist–what might that be?”

“It’s a watch,” Kevin said.

“A watch?  Strange place to have a watch.  Why not keep it in your pocket?  Let me take a look.”  He grabbed Kevin’s arm.  “Odd-looking watch, as well.  No case, no hands on the dial.  But I tell you what–I have a charitable heart, seeing you here by yourselves.  I’ll give you a blanket for it, and I’ll throw in a pound of salted pork.”

Seemed like a good deal to me, although salted pork sounded awful.  But all of a sudden Kevin got a funny look on his face and pulled his arm back.  “No thanks,” he said.

The man’s smile faded a bit more.  “You lads won’t get a better deal in this wretched camp,” he pointed out.  “Nights are growing colder, and who knows how long we’ll be imprisoned here?  The price of necessities will only go up.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said.  He turned to me.  “Let’s go, Larry.”

I was really annoyed at him.  What did he want the stupid watch for?  Who cared what time it was, when we were going to have to sleep in the mud?

Kevin started walking quickly back the way we’d come.  “Are you nuts?” I said to him.

He shook his head.  “It’s not just a watch,” he said.  “It’s a calculator.  It’s a timer.  It’s really cool.”

“So what?”

“So–maybe it’s worth more than a blanket in this world.  Maybe we’re worth something in this world.”

“Kevin, they know how to add.  They know how to tell time.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but they’ve never seen a calculator before.”

“Big deal.  Anyway, where are we going?”

Kevin pointed.  “Back to the gate.”

The gate was closing.  We ran up to it and slithered through.

The soldier we had talked to before didn’t look happy to see us again.  “Curfew, lads,” he said.  “Back inside with you.”

“Sir, I have a strange and wonderful invention that I’d like to share with the military leadership,” Kevin said.

The soldier looked at him like he was crazy.  Farmfolk.  “Let’s go,” he demanded. “There’s a war on, and no time for foolishness.”

“How much is 375 times 13?” Kevin asked.

The soldier was starting to get angry.

“Come here and see what I do,” Kevin went on before he could yell at us.  “This’ll be interesting, I guarantee.”  The soldier hesitated, then leaned forward.  Kevin put his watch in calculator mode, held it up so the soldier could see, then did the multiplication.  “3875,” he said.  “See how easy that was?”

The soldier thought about it for a moment, then said, “Can I try?”

Kevin held his arm out and showed him what to do.  “I never was very good at ciphering,” the soldier muttered as he hit the numbers.  He grinned with delight when the answer was displayed.  “Hey Caleb,” he called out to a tall soldier with a scruffy beard who was guarding the gate.  “Come look at this!”

Caleb took a look and had the same reaction–surprise and excitement.  The next soldier who came by, though, was terrified by the watch.  “This is some devilry,” he muttered, glaring at Kevin like he was the devil.

“Now, Oliver,” Caleb said to him, “it’s just a toy.”

Oliver shook his head.  “The Devil makes toys, too,” he muttered, and he walked away.

“The thing is,” Kevin said to Caleb, “I’d like to show this to your commanding officer.  I think it might be helpful in the war.  We know other stuff that might help, too.”

Caleb considered, then said, “Go find Sergeant Hornbeam, Fred.  He’ll be interested.”

Fred–that was the first soldier’s name–went off, and returned in a few minutes, accompanied by a large soldier with bright red hair.  He gave us the strange look we were used to by now, and then said: “Let me see the thing.”

Kevin held out his arm.

Sergeant Hornbeam shook his head.  “Take it off,” he said.

Reluctantly Kevin took the watch off and handed it to the sergeant, who took it and studied it.  Finally he let Fred show him how to use it.  Then he looked at us again.  “Are you Chinese?” he demanded.

“No, we’re–we’re farmfolk,” Kevin said.

“The inscription on this object says it was made in China.”  He made it sound like an accusation.

“Well, uh, this is complicated,” Kevin said.  “It was made in China, but we didn’t get it there.”

“Do we look Chinese?” I asked.

Sergeant Hornbeam glared at me.  “How would I know what the Chinese look like?”  Then he put the watch into his pocket.  “An interesting toy,” he said.

“Hey,” Kevin cried.  “That’s mine.”

“I thought you wanted to contribute it to the army,” the sergeant said.

“But we have to talk to somebody in charge.  They’ll need to know more about it.”

He shrugged.  “I don’t see why.  If Fred can use it, anyone can use it.”  Caleb laughed; even Fred smiled.  Then the sergeant seemed to think about the situation some more.  “Where are your families?” he asked.

“We’re here on our own,” Kevin said.  “We just arrived.”

The sergeant thought a bit longer, then gestured to Fred and Caleb.  “Put them in the brig for the night,” he said.  “We’ll see what the morrow brings.”  Then he turned to us.  “Fare you well, lads,” he said.  And he walked away.

I looked at Kevin.  The brig?

“Come on, lads,” Fred said.  “The brig isn’t much, but it’s better than the camp, I daresay.”

He and Caleb led us to a long low wooden building near the camp.  “Where’d you get that thing?” Fred asked.  “Off a trading ship?”

“Something like that,” Kevin said.

“I hear they’ve got all sorts of amazing inventions over in China,” he went on.

“Maybe if we had the Chinese for an ally we could win this damfool war,” Caleb added.

“Maybe if we had any ally at all we’d have a chance.”

“What do you think Sergeant Hornbeam will do with my watch?” Kevin asked.  “We really need to get it to a general or somebody like that.”

“Oh, Sarge’ll do the right thing,” Fred said.  “Don’t know if the generals will pay attention, though.  They’re too busy arguing with the president.”

The first part of the building was the soldiers’ barracks.  Beds were lined up against one of the walls.  A few soldiers were playing cards at a table, others were sitting on their beds cleaning their equipment.  The air was so thick with tobacco smoke that I wanted to gag.  Fred and Caleb led us through the barracks to a room at the back.  A fat, sleepy soldier sat slumped in a chair by the door.  He peered at us as we approached.  “What’d they do?” he asked.  “Sneak out of the camp and pinch some eggs in Cheapside?”

“If they did that, the folks in Cheapside would be happy to take care of them,” Caleb said.  “No, Sergeant Hornbeam wants to hold onto them.  See that they have every comfort, Benjamin.  They’re our guests.”

“No comforts to be had, I’m afraid.  Odd-looking little fellows, ain’t they?  I like that one’s hat, though.”  Benjamin struggled to his feet and took a key out of his pocket, which he used to unlock the door to an inner room.  “Chamber pot’s in the far corner,” he said to us.  “Try not to rouse Chester.  He’s only peaceable when he’s sleeping.”

Caleb and Fred said farewell, Benjamin locked the door behind us, and there we were in jail on our first night in the new world.

It was dark–the only light was from the small opening in the door.  We heard a loud noise that we finally recognized was snoring. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a big red-jacketed man lying with his head against the wall.  Like everything in this world, it seemed, he stank.

“This is just great,” I said to Kevin as we sat on the floor against the opposite wall, as far away from Chester as we could get.

“Come on, Larry, it could be worse,” he replied.  “This is what we were trying to do, right?  Turn ourselves in.  Get them to pay attention to us.”

“But what happens next?  What’s your watch going to do for us?”

“Anyone with any brains will know there’s nothing like that watch in this world,” he explained.  “So they’ll want to talk to us, find out where we got it.”

“And then what?  You think they’ll believe our story?  You sure they won’t think we’re the Devil, like that other soldier?”

“I dunno.  But in the meantime they’ll probably feed us.  I’ve already gotten us out of the mud for tonight.  It’s worth a shot, Larry.”

I supposed he was right.  And it wasn’t like I had any better ideas.  Suddenly I could barely keep my eyes open.  We seemed to be moderately safe for the night, except for Chester, who continued to snore loudly across the room.  And there wasn’t anything else we could accomplish right now except hope that Sergeant Hornbeam would do more than pocket Kevin’s watch as a silly little toy.  The floor wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it was better than sleeping outdoors in the mud.

I thought of the couple of weeks I had spent at sleepaway camp during the summer, how homesick I’d gotten, how brave I thought I was being when I stuck it out–with a counselor sleeping in the same cabin, with my parents just a two-hour drive away and sending me letters every day.  “We’ll get out of this, right, Kevin?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Of course we will.  It’s just a matter of time.”

“Right.”  He didn’t sound too sure of himself, but that was okay.  I slid down to lie on the floor.  “Good night, Kevin.”

“Good night, Larry.”

When I closed my eyes I thought of Matthew–was it really just last night?–telling me how life was really okay.  Yeah, yeah, I’d thought.  Would you please shut up so I can get some sleep?  Now what wouldn’t I give to be back in my own bed, listening to Matthew babble?

I was too tired to cry.  I miss you, I whispered into the darkness.  But there was no one there to hear me.