The Time Travel Situation: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“Nell, you ready?” Mavis hissed to his side. The two children were on top of the speeding train, crouched behind the skylight on the roof of the passenger car. On the opposite side of the car was an armored guard, seated with his back to the children.

“I’ve been ready,” Nell sighed in exasperation. “Are we doing this or not?”

“Okay, okay, I just want to be sure we don’t mess anything up.”

“Then don’t mess anything up!” And without further ado Nell sprang from their hiding spot and lobbed a metal plate she had pried from the top of the car through the air. It arced like a frisbee, sailing straight and true into the back of the armored guards. With a sickening thud it…

“…simply knocked him out and he fell off the train!” Ellie interrupted quickly.

“Hey, didn’t you say that the person who takes the bad guy out gets to describe how they die?” Nell accused.

“Um…yes…”

“Then if you don’t want to hear what happens plug your ears.”

Ellie did exactly that, watching deafly as Nell spoke on and on, gesticulating wildly with her hands, flailing them at her side, wrapping them around her neck, and motioning a breaking-in-two. Then Nell mimed falling over sideways, pointed down to the ground, and splayed her hands out in front of her, eyes flashing and mouth moving with feverish excitement. Finally she clapped her hands together and gave what appeared to be the final detail of the armored guard’s epic demise. Ellie pulled her finger’s out of her ears just in time to hear all the boys exclaim in disgust.

“Oookay,” Mavis said with widened eyes. “I guess we move on.”

Just then Chase’s voice came rising from their walkie talkies.

“Hey, are you guys seeing this?”

“What?”

“We got a rider approaching.”

Mavis and Nell shielded their eyes and looked across the plain. As Chase had said, a lone rider was quickly approaching the train, coming from the direction of the bridge. He was waving a red flag and gesticulating to a wooden barricade that had been laid across the tracks a quarter mile before the bridge.

“It’s a robber!” Mavis concluded. “He’s trying to stop the train!”

“One of the Time Bandits in disguise?” Chase asked.

“I don’t think so,” Patrick’s voice joined the walkie-talkie conversation. “I think this must have really happened in Abraham Lincoln’s past, just it never got written about in the history books. There’s more of those train robbers down here. They’re the ones that put the dynamite on the bridge. Probably what the rider is there to negotiate things with the engineer.”

But what exactly the rider had to say to the engineer was never found out. For right at that moment the engineer gave two blasts of the train’s horn and turned the engine’s speed up to its maximum! The locomotive lurched forward, barreling clean through the wooden barricade, jolting wildly as the splinters of it passed under its wheels. The highway robber was left back in the dust.

“We’re going to go onto the bridge!” Nell squeaked. “They’re not going to stop and the highway robbers are going to blow the bridge away! Have you got all the dynamite off that bridge yet?”

“We only cleared one side!” Ellie said in a panic. “Kind of got distracted!”

“Get the other side now!” Nell ordered. “Otherwise they’ll be picking their loot from the wreckage at the bottom of the ravine! We have to stop them!”

“No!” Mavis said forcefully. “Crazy as this looks, it already played out once before in history and we know Abraham Lincoln didn’t die here. We have to let it play out the same way here and now. Somehow–I don’t know how–but somehow it all works out. Patrick and Ellie, do not interfere with the bandits on the bridge. I repeat, do not interfere.”

“Yeah…about that…” Ellie groaned as she and Patrick watched Blackbeard deliver a spinning haymaker to yet another of the highway robbers, dropping the man off the bridge to join a half-dozen of his companions at the bottom of the ravine! As Blackbeard continued punching through the front of their forces his raptors slithered around to the back and attacked from the other side!

“Maybe it won’t matter,” Patrick suggested hopefully as he and Ellie crept along the bridge’s girders to its far side. “Maybe they messed up with wiring the dynamite or something. Maybe they would have blown themselves up instead, so Blackbeard taking them out makes everything similar enough that history won’t be changed.”

“We can’t take that chance,” Ellie sighed. “But I just don’t see how we can undo what’s already been done.”

By this point they were close enough to the far side of the bridge that they could see the two highway robbers who were crouching behind the boulders there. Running between them was the fuse that went along the underside of the bridge, connecting to every stick of dynamite.

“Those must be the guys who are going to set off the dynamite,” Patrick observed.

“I don’t think so,” Ellie shook her head. “Look, the fuse runs past them and up into that mountain pass.”

The two of them quieted down as the sound of the two robbers’ conversation became discernible.

“You think the boss is actually going to go through with this?” the one on the left asked nervously.

“I dunno,” the other returned. “He really thought the train was gonna stop. I don’t reckon he meant for it to actually come to this.”

“Well he’s going to go through with it, mark my words. I know Big Jakes and he’s never one to be made a fool of! He’ll gladly kill them all just for the spite of it!”

“Well that’s no good, we’ll all be wanted for murder! That wasn’t what I signed up for!”

“Me neither! I’m cutting the fuse!” And with that the robber bounded out from behind his boulder and grabbed the fuse with his hand, drawing his knife from its sheath.

“Oh good!” Ellie whispered excitedly. “This is why the train wasn’t destroyed in history.”

But then, all of a sudden, a rock came hurtling through the air, struck the robber in the head, and he toppled to the ground with a thud. The fuse had been left uncut!

“A-HAHAHAHA!” Blackbeard’s rolling laughter came from behind the children. “All the people in this time have gone soft!” The pirate was clearly thoroughly enjoying his little tousle.

“Not good!” Patrick exclaimed. “Get off the bridge!” The two children bolted forward, but they were too late. Whoever “Big Jakes” was, he had just set off the dynamite! All around the children was pure chaos as the bridge burst into a million splinters! A deafening, rolling explosion lifted the entire structure high into the air. Even Blackbeard’s triumphant face became etched with shock as he and his raptors felt the ground fall out beneath them. All together the children, the pirate, the raptors, and the tons and tons of broken wood fell through the air and down into the ravine!

“Reset! Reset Reset!” Chase screamed into his walkie talkie as the train hurtled for the cliff edge. The engineer slammed on the brakes, but it was going to be too late!

“Not yet!” Mavis clenched his teeth, sprinting forward along the roof of the train.

“Patrick and Ellie are dead!” Nell sprinted after him. “And we’re about to be, too! What are you waiting for?”

“We still don’t know what the time bandit’s play is!” he shot back.

Mavis had nearly made it to the front of the train where a high-security car with metal shutters sat right behind the coal car. It was the perfect place to for a time-traveling interloper to be hiding something.

“Mavis, we can’t wait any longer!” Nell cried out, and she was right. Just ahead of them the front of the train was already careening over the edge! It disappeared from view as it plunged down to its doom, followed by the coal car, the high security car, and the first of the passenger cars. Nell and Mavis held one another close as they went flying over the edge, their ears filled with the screams of all the train passengers plunging to their deaths!

“Punch it!” Chase roared into the walkie talkie.

Nell and Mavis reached for the control on his chest at the same instant. A strange, crackling filled the air while time continued forward another second, and in that second the shuttered windows of the high security car flashed with the very beginnings of a strange, bluish, ion explosion. But before those shockwaves could ripple out, everything froze. A surge of electricity coursed through the remote activator, shocking both Mavis and Nell and breaking the device, but it had already done what it needed.

All at once time slammed backwards, scooting the train back out of the ravine, pulling all of the splinters up through the air and reassembling them into a bridge, compressing the explosions back into their dynamite sticks, lifting one bandit after another back onto the bridge as Blackbeard moved backwards through their ranks, and chugging the train in reverse through the smashed wooden barrier. Chase, Nell, and Mavis changed back into their modern clothes and stepped back into the Time Capsule. The Time Capsule lifted off the back of the train, went forward and Ellie, Patrick, and Blackbeard jumped backwards into it. The Time Capsule lifted high into the air, surveying the scene in reverse, all the way until it reached the moment when it first arrived. Time reverted back to its forward motion. Everything had been returned to its prior state…except for the remote activator. That remained a burned-out wreck in its station. This time there would be no second chances.

“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell was tutting in response to his comment about ironclad ships. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”

Suddenly everyone’s eyes roved about wildly as they remembered everything they had just been through. They all looked at each other in shock.

We had a deal!” Nell rounded on Blackbeard furiously. “You were supposed to take care of the mission!”

“You got us all killed!” Ellie added, hot tears splashing down her cheeks. “All of us! Even your own, slippery self!”

For the first moment the children saw something in Blackbeard’s eyes that they had not witnessed there before: remorse. The old cutthroat looked down sheepishly, not at all unlike a child caught in the wrong.

“Yer–yer right,” he sighed. “I messed things up something considerable before, didn’ I?” He regarded his boots a moment longer, then looked back up to the children sadly. “Iffen ye could find your way to give me another chance…I won’t be false with ye again.”

He held out his hand once more, this time without any spit in it. The children looked to each other, then each of them fit their small hand into his giant one and shook it.

“Alright,” Chase said. “So what’s our play? All we’ve figured out so far is where the time bandits aren’t.”

“That’s not true,” Mavis smiled. “Just before the reset I saw where an explosion coming out of the high security car. It was definitely futuristic tech.”

“Okay…” Patrick rubbed his chin. “So we land on that car with that Time Capsule, lock on, and pull it away with us through time. No problem.”

“Yes problem,” Nell shook her head. “Remember. This time the historical figures survive, which means they can’t witness something that will change the course of their lives. Like a flying time machine taking away a train car! We can’t get rid of some time distortions by introducing new ones!”

“Okay, so we break into the car and deactivate their bomb from the inside.”

“That’s better,” Mavis approved, “but still risky. We’ll be in close quarters, and we’re going in blind…but I don’t think we have any other option.”

“Then that’s what we do,” Ellie nodded.

“Yeah…and to your point Nell, we do want to be discreet…but , things are going to change here, that’s unavoidable. If we’re careful about it, though, it will be such small variations that they won’t make ripples of change throughout history. A small noise here, a little jolt there, everyone will forget about them by the time they step off the train and go about their lives as previously planned. The timeline will continue the same.”

“Fair point,” Nell agreed. “I think we’re ready then. How about Chase and I drop off in the passenger cars. We’ll keep an eye on the crows in the passenger cars while the rest of you take out the bomb.”

Everyone looked at each other and nodded.

On Monday I shared about stories where the hero needs to defeat the villain, but it is important for them to not compromise their honor along the way. I spoke of stories where the hero battles with the villain, defeats the villain, but then leaves them alive out of mercy, only for the villain to perish by their own hubris. I also spoke about stories where the hero is permitted to kill the villain, so long as it is done in self defense.

I also mentioned that not every one of these conundrums has to do with the hero needing to kill the villain, though. Sometimes the villain is able to use the hero’s integrity against them, tricking them into a promise with hidden strings attached. The hero can’t just go back on their word, so they need a way to get out of the deal without compromising their honor.

This occurs in the Disney animated film Hercules. Hercules is tricked into making a deal with Hades, giving up his powers to protect Meg. Then the villain reveals that Meg has actually been working for him all along and was not in any actual danger. Even so, Hercules is required to hold to his end of the bargain, he can’t just break his bonds because he is the hero and must remain honorable.

Later, after Meg has died, Hercules makes another deal with Hades, desiring to exchange his life for hers. Hades agrees, though again he is trying to cheat Hercules. Hercules, though, is being perfectly honest. He genuinely intends to trade his life for the woman he loves. Of course this heroic act elevates him to the status of a god, turns him immortal, and thus ruins Hades’ trick. Hercules did not fool Hades, though, he was sincere with his intentions the whole way through. He can’t help it if fate happened to intervene in his favor.

Blackbeard similarly forced the children into a bargain that was sharply in his favor. They needed to get out of it, but I deliberately made Blackbeard be the one to break the bond first, not the children. Now Blackbeard has learned his lesson, though, and we’re ready to close out this story. Before we get to that, though, I need to pause and look back at all the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Come back on Monday as we reflect on those, and then on Thursday for the finale!

Good Guys Don’t Shoot in the Back

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The Impotent Domination)

The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.

But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.

So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.

But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.

And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.

Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.

Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.

Shooting in the Back)

For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.

And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.

This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.

Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.

So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.

There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.

This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.

Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.

Come back on Thursday as I will bring his betrayal to its full fruition, which will cause his own demise and allow the children’s path to prevail over his. See you then!

The Time Travel Situation: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

All was chaos once more as pirate and children chased each other all about the Time Capsule. Blackbeard was a more persistent predator than the raptors, though, far less prone to being distracted. Despite the children’s efforts best efforts he soon had Patrick by the scruff of his neck.

“Alright then!” he roared. “All of ye will be calming down now, ‘less you want any harm to come to yer crewmate here!”

Mavis, Chase, Nell, and Ellie glanced at each other, then slowly lowered the boxes and chairs they had been about to throw.

“Very good!” the pirate approved. “Now it would seem I am requiring a new vessel. This” he gestured to the time machine “will be that vessel. The lot of you will teach me to command such a craft and I…will let you live.”

“Don’t do it!” Patrick shouted. “We can’t let him get power over all of history!”

“Well perhaps not all of ye will live!” Blackbeard hissed into Patrick’s face.

“Don’t hurt him!” Nell shouted. “We’ll help you.”

“What?” Mavis looked incredulously to Nell’s worry-etched face.

“Very good,” Blackbeard approved. “Now if ye would be so kind, lass, direct me to the helm of this vessel.”

“It’s over here,” Nell stepped to the central panel and flipped a few switches, causing the Time Capsule to shudder as it hurtled along its way to the future.

“Curious…” Blackbeard took a step nearer, still holding Patrick firm. “No wheel?”

“No. Switches and dials.”

“Teach me.”

“Let the boy go first.”

“If I be letting the boy go, then you will have no reason to obey.”

“Trade then,” Nell held her arm out to Blackbeard. He paused for a moment, as if trying to detect a trap, then gripped her wrist. As soon as he had her secured he let Patrick go. “I’ll tell you everything,” she said, “and you can keep our ship. But in return we’re going to need your help. We have an important mission to fulfill and we’re down to its last stage now. You see us through to the end, drop us off at our home berth, and then our ship and the knowledge to run it will be yours.”

Blackbeard laughed, then spat in his hand and held it out to her. Nell nodded and spat in his hand, too.

“Er…” Blackbeard stared at his hand in confusion, but waved the matter away with a careless shrug. “It’s a deal then!”

“Perfect,” Nell turned back brightly to the other children, only to find them staring at her with mouths agape. “What?” she asked innocently.

“Could I have a word, Nell?” Mavis hissed as he grabbed her elbow and escorted her out of Blackbeard’s earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?! We can’t give the Time Capsule to Blackbeard!”

“Well he’s going to help us finish our mission first. We’ll come back home with history having been righted and that’s the extent of our job, Mavis.”

“History won’t be righted! Blackbeard was supposed to die in that storm.”

“We don’t actually know that. It’s only a legend that he died there. And anyway, he’s still been taken out of that timeline one way or another, hasn’t he?”

“Oh really? You’re using the same defense as Patrick with his raptors now? At least he wasn’t giving them a time machine to go mess up whatever moment in history they want! There’s no telling what that old cutthroat will get to if he has the Time Capsule!”

“Alright!” Nell conceded. “It’s an imperfect solution. We’ll just have to figure out the rest as we go. What matters is that I took care of what I had to in the moment.”

Mavis narrowed his eyes. “You mean saving Patrick.”

“Yes, saving Patrick, Mavis. What’s the matter with that? He’s a member of our crew, isn’t he?!” And with that she jerked her arm free and returned to the rest of the crew.

“We’re about to come out of timewarp,” she observed, “and I’ve got a feeling this will be the most dangerous task we’ve faced yet.”

“The time coordinates say its the mid 1800s,” Chase announced. “Coming into the United States…looks like central Missouri.”

“1800s!” Blackbeard clapped a hand to his head. “What manner of ships might one find in such a time as that?”

“Oh, some really cool ones,” Patrick grinned. “They’re about to invent invent the first ironclad warships.”

Ironclad?!” the pirate exclaimed. “I’ll be unstoppable!”

Mavis shot a furious glare at Nell.

“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell tutted. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”

As if on cue the Time Capsule began to wind down for final approach. It was now slow enough for its occupants to make out the landscape before them. The ocean of water had been replaced for one of dust. A single, flat, empty plain extended for as far as the eye could see in every direction.

Well…almost empty. Snaking through the void was a single, black snake, which as the Time Capsule descended lower and lower revealed itself to be a railway line. And upon that line a single steam train chugged from east to west.

“A train?” Chase said in surprise. “Why would the time bandits be interested in a train out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Probably there’s something important on the train,” Ellie observed.

“Yeah…hang on…” Patrick stepped over to the panel, started fiddling with the Time Capsule’s optics, and the screen overhead zoomed in to a close-up view of the passenger car. There, framed against the fifth-window-from-the-back they saw a tall, thin man. He did not yet have his famous beard or stovepipe hat, but he was already recognizable to the children.

“Abraham Lincoln?!” Mavis exclaimed.

“I guess this time they’re not trying to save monsters or tyrants,” Nell concluded. “They’re trying to assassinate someone prematurely, take him out before he can steer the course of history.”

“But how?”

“What manner of witchcraft be this?” Blackbeard approached the panel and view screen in awe. He reached a hand out to the dials but Mavis slapped it away.

“I’m working,” Mavis said, then spun the dial so that the outside optics moved forward along the train tracks. “Obviously a train is an isolated, easy target to destroy. The question is whether they’re trying to do that from within the train, or from outside of it…oh…”

A distant bridge had just come into view on the display panel. It was a strip of nearly a mile, stretched precariously over a gorge that was over a thousand feet deep. And down on the supporting beams had been strapped many massive clusters of dynamite!

“Alright,” Mavis sighed. “Looks like we know their play.”

“Well what about on the train itself?” Nell asked. “Any additional threats there?”

Mavis spun the dials and the viewing screen shifted back to the engine. It slid along the outside of the long vehicle and the children watched for any anomalies.

“There!” Chase pointed. “Two of those armored guards lurking on top of the cars.”

“Nuts…” Mavis exhaled through clenched teeth. “You guys understand, we can’t just stop the bridge from exploding, we have to handle it discreetly. We might save Abraham Lincoln, but if the people on that train see something that they weren’t supposed to, the ripples through time might still be enormous! This is going to be a much harder task.”

“Is the remote activator working now?” Ellie asked. “So we can reset the timeline if things get too screwy?”

“Yes,” Mavis checked the glowing harness. “But we can’t get sloppy because we’re depending on it. We can only reroll the dice once, then the remote activator will break forever. I’ll be the one wearing it and I won’t activate it unless we absolutely have to.”

“So what be the orders for me and my little reptile friends?” Blackbeard grinned toothily. He was stroking the heads of the two raptors he had brought aboard, which having finally regained consciousness now seemed to regard the pirate as the leader of their pack.

“Somehow I don’t see you as being the sort to handle things discreetly,” Mavis’s eyes went wide. “So you’re going to be as far from the train as possible, handling the dynamite on the bridge. Ellie, Patrick, you go with him. Chase, Nell, and I will take care of things on the train. Everyone ready?”

They all nodded and Mavis punched the thruster, whisking the Time Capsule through the air and over to the bridge. Mavis very briefly tethered to that timeline, just long enough for Patrick, Ellie, Blackbeard, and the raptors to jump out onto the tracks. Then he untethered the Time Capsule and raced to the back of the train for a soft landing.

“Looks like that’s the storage car right in front of us,” Chase observed as the machine tethered once more to that moment of time. “We can probably find some more time-appropriate clothes in there.” Chase was correct, and very quickly they were all dressed accordingly. Then they split up, Nell and Mavis going up top to take out the armored guards, while Chase moved into the passenger car to make sure that no one was noticing the soft thuds coming from above the ceiling.

*

“You say there is a great bomb inside of this little stick?” Blackbeard peeled one of the pieces of dynamite off the bridge with glee. “What will the British Navy think when they see me hurling this at their decks?!”

“Blackbeard, remember, you can’t go back to your olden days!” Ellie reminded him as she pulled another stick of dynamite off the bridge and handed it to Patrick, who was carefully removing their fuses. “You can’t do anything to change history. That might erase all of us so that we don’t exist!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard shook his head. “If I understand you correctly, then I only must only go no further back than the day you found me in the storm.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I were to go to my history then it would undo the makings of me,” Blackbeard explained. “But so long as I only tamper with my present and my future, then I shall come to no harm.”

“But…we might!” Patrick said in exasperation. “You’re forgetting that your future is our past!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard said again as he removed the last stick of dynamite from the bundle they had been working on. “What is forgotten is that I now have the only fused explosive, and ye are at my mercy!”

“What are you doing?” Ellie exclaimed in shock. “We had a deal!”

“And now we have a new one,” Blackbeard sneered. “Ye will forget this ‘quest’ ye are on, ye will return me to the ship, and I will maroon you all in this savage time, taking your vessel for meself! Raptors!” he snapped to his newfound pets. “Surround them!” The lizards obediently flanked the children on either side.

“You won’t get away with this,” Patrick said, and before another word could be uttered by any of them the sound of a shot rang out! The children and pirate ducked as a bullet pinged off the side of the bridge only three feet away!

“We’re being shot at!” Blackbeard roared, pocketing the dynamite and reaching for his flintlock pistol.

“But by whom?” Ellie wondered aloud as she and Patrick used the distraction to move under the girders of the bridge and away from Blackbeard and his raptors.

“Think about it, Ellie,” Patrick replied. “Wasn’t there something strange about that dynamite?”

“No…it just looked like the regular stuff to me.”

“Exactly! But everything we’ve seen so far from the time bandits stood out like a sore thumb. A high-tech cannon in the age of dinosaurs, jet thrusters on a pirate ship…but this dynamite has been totally period correct.”

“So you don’t think it was the time bandits who put it there?”

“I don’t.”

“But then, who?”

Part Five

On Monday I shared about chaotic stories, ones that make use of a huge cast of characters, or noisome settings, or quickly-shifting themes and objectives. I spoke about how these tales can still remain coherent by remaining true to some central idea, and in the case of The Time Travel Situation the central idea is trying to stop all of these changes to history.

It’s not a particularly strong through-line, though. It’s not as if the time bandits have a central villain to serve as the story’s primary antagonist. Each jump to another place in time essentially resets all of the tension, with little carrying from one stage to the next. The through-line is only providing a reason for these time-hops to occur, and that is enough for my needs.

The other thing I mentioned about chaotic stories is that some tales embrace the chaos, simply wanting to take you for an entertaining ride without concerning themselves with telling a meaningful narrative. The Time Travel Situation falls far more firmly under that category. It’s central purpose is to present children playing pretend, no more and no less. I might briefly incorporate relationship drama between Mavis and Nell and Patrick, but that’s only an entertaining aside, not an indicator of deeper character development to come. Nor does Blackbeard’s betrayal have any more nuance than it initially appears to. It is a straightforward piece of cheating, used as a convenience to get the the children out of their promise to him.

This is something that happens in stories all the time, by the way. The hero will be held back from utterly destroying the villain because of some promise or sense of duty. Of course they could renege on those promises or duties, but then they would be immoral. This conundrum is then resolved by the villain doing something deceitful, something that either removes the hero from the obligation of their promise, or allows them to destroy the villain in an act of self defense.

It’s a bit contrived, to be sure, and can certainly be overused, but let’s take a look at a few examples of this in other stories with my next post. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then see the next chapter of The Time Travel Situation on Thursday.

Update on My Novel: Month 22

black pen near white printer paper
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MARCH STATS

Days Writing: 22
New Words: 1525
New Chapters: 0.25

Total Word-count: 71,186
Total Chapters: 19

My goal for March was to work on the novel every single day. Even if I accomplished very little, I just wanted to learn how to be consistent in having some daily effort. And so far as that’s concerned, this month was a fair success. In all I worked on my novel for 22 days. Not my best ever, but certainly better than any months of late.

Obviously the 1,525 words written isn’t anything special, though. I only finished writing chapter 19, did an edit on all of it, and wrote a small piece of chapter 20. This continues a depressing trend in my performance. During the second year of working on this novel I have accomplished far, far less than I did during the first. Much of the time I feel like I am only scratching out the story a single grain at a time, and this feeling leads to a negative cycle. I feel dissatisfied from accomplishing so little, which makes me less motivated to put more time into it, which obviously makes me accomplish even less.

One of my major problems is that there are so many other things I want to fill my free time with. I want to have relaxation and recreation, just like everyone else, and I also struggle with more hobbies than I know what to do with. With these two forces combined it is a very hard thing to just say “no, write your book instead.”

I’ve been thinking about this, though, and there’s an experiment I’d like to try. While I might find it impossible to close the door on all my other ventures until this novel is finished, I don’t mind temporarily scaling them back. During the month of April I want to work on my novel every day, and I want to write or edit 500 words at least on each of those days. And so long I haven’t met that quota, I won’t do any of my other side activities during that same day.

I’ll still go to work just as much, I’ll still spend quality just as much time with my family, I’ll still take care of all my errands…there just won’t be any of my other personal treats until the novel has been cared for. And it might be that this excessive, and it might not even be sustainable…but that’s alright, because I can always recalibrate at the start of May.

I’ll let you know how this experiment goes next month, and in the meantime here’s one of the new pieces I wrote this month. Enjoy!

“Unless you want to take your chances, you should give the woodworker a drawing of exactly what sort of mirror to make,” John explains.

“Like how it should be shaped and all that?”

“Yes, exactly. Here, stand on this stool and look at what I’ve got laid out on my table: schematics.”

“Drawings!”

“No. Schematics. Drawings are fanciful and imaginative, but schematics are technical, shown to scale, giving the exact dimensions so that anyone can create the thing you want to perfect detail.”

“So for my mirror…”

“The woodworker wouldn’t only know how it should generally look, but the exact size and shape of it as well.”

“Alright, how do I make one?”

“I will help you with that. Let me get a fresh sheet ready. Alright then, how tall should it be?”

Clara lays two hands on the paper and John makes a mark at top and bottom.

“And where should the handle come to? Very good. And how wide at the widest part? Excellent. Mind you, we can alter this as we go along if it doesn’t come out quite how you wanted, this is just to get us started. Now tell me exactly you wanted this to look, and let me know any time I start to go wrong with it…”

An hour later and the schematic is complete.

“Do you like it?” John asks Clara.

“It’s wonderful! I just wish I could hold it!”

“Not a bad idea. Better to look at a physical model than just a drawing–“

“A schematic.”

“Yes, a schematic. Go look for something that’s the same size as this handle and see if it feels right in your hand.”

Throw Me Another Ball!

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A Mass of Faces)

It was once a selling point for movies to show a huge mass of people on camera at the same time. Epics like The Ten Commandments or Gone With the Wind would proudly boast of having “a cast of thousands.” And to be sure, it must have been quite a feat getting so many extras costumed, placed, and rehearsed.

Sometimes it wasn’t just extras, though. Some films would go to great lengths to pack one cameo into their film after another. Films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West Was Won sold themselves on having a “star studded cast.” We still see shades of this today, where the latest Avengers films work every major star of the franchise into a single, epic package. Of course most of these stars are only side-characters. Once you start writing primary motivations and arcs for more than four characters, things become exponentially more difficult.

This was one of the core pillars of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, though. The series was known for not only having a wide cast, but a cast that all had very specific, very mutually exclusive objectives. Each of them crosses the others in a multitude of ways, and it becomes a daring feat just to keep track of it all.

In the first film the intricacy was limited to the competing motivations of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, and Admiral Norrington. By the end of the third, though, you can add to that list Davy Jones, Tia Dalma, and Lord Beckett, as well as several secondary characters with individual objectives, such as Governor Swann, Bootstrap Bill, and Captain Sao Feng. It’s very impressive that the writers were able to keep track of them all, but also it becomes overwhelming in some cases. A common complaint of the later films was that it was impossible to keep track of everyone’s motivations, and why exactly they were doing the thing that they were doing at any particular moment.

Juggling Ideas)

Of course a large cast is not the only way to add complexity to a story. The Lego Movie has a more standard-sized cast of characters. Emmett, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and Lord Business are your main crew, with support from Batman, Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Finn. But what sets this movie apart is how it is bursting with style and ideas.

The animation is frequently chaotic, with so many pieces moving across screen that it is impossible to track them all. Settings change at a blistering pace, too, from a modern city to the old west to a cloud paradise to an evil businessman’s lair to a live action basement in modern suburbia. The dialogue and the jokes come rapid-fire as well, hardly ever allowing a moment for the audience to settle before being whisked off to the next piece of humor.

Yet for all this complexity the film is not incomprehensible. For while the periphery is in constant motion, the underlying story is relatively straightforward. Emmett is believed to be a prophesied chosen one, come to save the world from the oppression of a tyrant. To do so he must learn a special set of powers, as well as overcome his own insecurities. In other words, it’s a classic hero’s tale, one that the audience is abundantly familiar with. It does add a unique wrinkle or two to that formula, such as Emmett not being the chosen one and him befriending the villain rather than destroying him, but its ideas are still so grounded that we are able to follow along in spite of all the visual pandemonium.

Chaos for It’s Own Sake)

But would it work for a story to change its settings as constantly as The Lego Movie, with a cast as wide as Pirates of the Caribbean, and refusing any sort of grounding narrative to carry the audience through?

As horrible of an experience as that might sound, Monty Python and the Holy Grail fits the tumultuous bill and remains a very satisfactory piece even so.

To begin with this film is nothing more than a series of comedic skits, one after another after another. They are tangentially related to a central quest for the holy grail, but are all still very disjointed from one another. Every scene goes to a completely different setting, with absolutely no attempt to place it in the broader landscape. They all introduce new characters that are absolutely central to that one skit, but then dropped afterwards. Whole plot threads are begun without ever being concluded…including the film’s central quest of finding the holy grail!

At the very end of the film the band of knights may or may not have found out where the grail is being held, and either way they decide to have an epic battle on the matter. Thousands of soldiers appear on either side of a wide field, with a shout they surge towards one another with weapons raised…and then get stopped before they can clash together by the police and are all arrested. The End.

It is the film’s final joke, a way to make clear that this whole thing is not about the quest, nor about the narrative thread, nor about the character development. It’s about the skits. And that’s it. And if you liked them then that’s great, but if you wanted a more traditional narrative experience you’ll have to go look elsewhere.

I would say that my current story has fallen under that same category of being about its individual moments instead of an overarching narrative. The reason to read about these children playing pretend is because you like to read about children playing pretend. There really hasn’t been a greater plot or character development or greater message to it.

I have thought about adding one. I toyed with the idea that Mavis could be moving away and this is his last hurrah with his friends. But honestly I think that would distract from the central idea of having fun for it’s own sake.

What Monty Python does well, though, is not overstay its welcome. Playful indulgence remains a delight for only so long. It is best when consumed as a nice, little bite. The Time Travel Situation used to be a great deal more longwinded, it was on track to be as much as eight posts long. But thanks to writing these a couple weeks in advance I had the opportunity to go back and trim it down a great deal. Hopefully it will be fun and rambunctious, but then leave before it becomes too much. Come back on Thursday as we follow it into its final setting.

The Time Travel Situation: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

All at once the Time Capsule’s engines groaned to a halt and the time travelers became tethered to this current moment of history. Now the spray of ocean water came peppering through the holes in the Time Capsule and the wind howled through every crack. The children and the raptors froze where they were, startled by the sudden change in their surroundings.

“Where are we?” Chase glanced to the main panel. “Hmm…Pacific Ocean…1700s…looks like we’re on an old sailing ship!”

“Not just any old sailing ship,” Ellie pointed her finger to the mast where a jolly roger blew fitfully in the breeze. “A pirate ship!”

Before the children could say anything more the raptors had snapped out of their initial shock, and returned to the matter of terrorizing the children.

“Ahhh!” Chase flung himself backwards just in time to avoid having his face bit off. As he fell he threw his hand out to catch himself, accidentally pressing the cabin decompression button along the way.

FOOOOM!

The doors of the Time Capsule slammed open and all of the children, raptors, and broken pieces of the machine were expelled instantaneously. They burst across the upper deck like little cannonballs, spraying splinters and splashing puddles of water onto the crew of pirates assembled below.

“Lookee there!” the Captain of the cutthroats shouted. “Sirens! No doubt the same ones what conjured up this blasted storm! They be here to sink us to the very depths! Bring me their hearts if ye want ter live!”

All five time travelers gasped at the face of the man. It was the most grizzled, scarred, and burned visage they had ever seen. Over his head he wore a crimson three-cornered hat, and extending from his face was a beard so scraggly and sprawling that it appeared like an explosion on his chin. It was also as dark as night.

“This is Blackbeard’s crew!” Ellie whispered in shock.

“Yes, and they’re coming to murder us!” Chase panicked, for at their Captain’s behest the entire crew was now surging for the upper deck, belaying pins and cutlasses waving in every hand!

But they never made it to the children. For no sooner did the raptors see the rushing tide than they concluded these larger humans were much more of a threat than the small children. The lizards rose to their feet and dashed into the fray, clashing into the pirates on the stairs, slashing at them with murderous intent!

“Let’s go!” Mavis ordered, bounding for the nearest rigging and climbing away from the commotion. The others quickly followed, discussing their situation as they went.

“Why would the time crooks have come here?” Patrick wondered aloud.

Mavis pointed to the massive storm drawing ever nearer. “Legends state that Captain Blackbeard terrorized the seas until he and his crew were drowned in a terrible typhoon. This must be the moment where the greatest menace to ever sail the ocean died!”

“Unless he didn’t,” Ellie caught on. “Unless someone went back to save him, just like they were about to with the dinosaurs.”

“And who knows what sort of devastation that old cutthroat might get up to if he doesn’t die here,” Nell agreed. “Our whole society might be changed because of it.”

“Alright,” Mavis concluded. “We’ve got a moment while the raptors have the pirates distracted, but it won’t last for long. All of you look for the time crooks and stop whatever they’re up to. I’ll try and get the Time Capsule back to a workable state again. Everyone clear!”

“Clear!” came the chorus of responses. All of the children flung themselves from the rigging, grabbed the nearby ropes, swung to different parts of the deck, and dashed off in search of the time invaders.

“I’ll sweeping the cargo hold,” Nell said into her walkie talkie, ducking under some crates to avoid the gaze of nearby pirates.

“I’ve got the sleeping quarters,” Ellie finished her rope swing by kicking a raptor clean over the railing.

“I’ll check the exterior,” Patrick swung hand-over-hand along the outside of the ship, moving as effortlessly as if he were crossing monkey bars on a playset.

“I’ll look in the Captain’s quarters,” Chase offered, and so saying he pushed open the great door and sidled into the dimly lit room. There was a great desk in the back, a heavily marked map upon it, and a chest down by its side.

“Blackbeard’s treasure!” Chase gasped, then reached a trembling hand to open its lid. All manner of gold and jewels twinkled up at him, an incredible wealth untold. “Patrick was dumb to bring a living raptor with him,” he said. “But who would miss a few gold coins destined to be lost at the bottom of the ocean?”

“I would,” a dark voice breathed out from behind. Chase spun around in the dark and found himself face-to-face with the silhouette of Blackbeard himself! Before Chase could dodge out of the way, the burly man flung out a massive arm and seized him around the neck, lifting him high into the air.

“Guys, help!” Chase choked into the walkie talkie. His legs kicked wildly and his eyes roved his surroundings for anything help him out of the situation.

“Ye know that they say: there be no honor among thieves!” Blackbeard snarled. “Now ye’ll feel the full measure of an honorless death!”

A slight movement caught Chase’s attention and his eyes shifted to a nearby porthole just in time to see the baby raptor slink into the room. “Hey ugly,” he grinned down to Blackbeard, “you ever been bit in the butt by history?”

With a crash the baby raptor’s mother burst through the porthole, took one look at the giant of a man standing near to her baby, and snapped her teeth into his great posterior.

“Yeeeooowch!” Blackbeard dropped Chase and twisted round, trying to clobber the raptor.

“Alright!” Chase crowed into his walkie talkie. “Never mind on that rescue!”

“Would you be quiet!” Nell snapped back. “I think I just heard something!” She put the walkie-talkie down and pressed her ear to the wall at the back of the ship. There, on the other side of the hull, she could just barely make out a faint, machine-like whirring. “I found them!” she hissed. “They’re hanging onto the outside of the ship!”

Ellie swung around the outside corner of the ship and did a double-take. “I can confirm,” she said. “I’ve got eyes on them and…uh…you guys better grab onto something!”

“Wait, why?” Chase asked as he lifted a handful of gold coins and rubies from Blackbeard’s treasure chest and deposited them in his pocket.

Before Ellie could give an answer the futuristic thrusters that had been attached to the back of the ship activated. Two jets of fire streaked out above the ocean as twin beams of light, propelling the entire ship forward at turbo speed!

With a shout Blackbeard and the raptor flew through the room and smashed into the wall at the back of the sleeping quarters. The raptor was knocked out cold.

“Uh oh,” Patrick gulped.

“Now it’s yer turn!” Blackbeard approached Patrick with a toothy grin.

“What’s going on?” Mavis’s voice came over the communicators. Up above, he scrambled out of the Time Capsule and rushed to look over the rear of the ship.

“They’re using thrusters to push the ship away from the storm!” Ellie replied, flipping through the air and landing on one of the metal platforms that the time bandits had erected to hold those thrusters in place. There were two more of those armored guards standing upon it and the nearest of them rushed forward to attack Ellie. “We got to get these out of commission,” she concluded before ducking under the guard’s first punch!

“I’m here!” Patrick sprang out a rear-facing window and fell onto the platform beneath the other thruster. He turned up his arm just in time to block a punch from the other armored guard, then swung his own fist into the menace’s side with a loud clang. “Owwwww!” he moaned.

On the other side of the hull Chase threw the chest of gold and jewels at Blackbeard. The heavy trove slammed into the pirate’s face, then slid to the ground without so much as fazing him.

“Yer a fool!” Blackbeard snarled, then gripped the back of Chase’s shirt and flung him clean through the wall. Chase slammed into the guard attacking Patrick, knocking the enemy over the edge and down to the water below.

“That’s one down!” Patrick crowed.

“But a new one still to go!” Chase pointed to Blackbeard forcing his way through the hole he had thrown the boy through.

Ellie ducked and weaved around her own assailant, trying to avoid the foe’s crushing blows.

“You don’t have a chance!” the guard snarled. “No armor? No augmented strength? No weapon? How do you expect to defeat me?”

“I don’t!” Ellie shot back, standing to her feet and raising her fists.

The guard gave a wild cry and charged forward at full speed. Right before impact Ellie gave a quick sidestep, causing the guard to pummel full speed into the thruster stream that Ellie had been standing in front of a moment before.

“I expect you to defeat yourself,” Ellie concluded as the guard’s armor and skin melted off and its bones turned to dust…

“No!” Ellie interrupted Nell’s narration. “I beat the guard, so I get to describe it! Shee just gets caught in the thruster stream and carried out to sea. No blood or melting or anything.”

“Hey you guys, we’re still moving away from the storm!” Mavis pointed out as he tried to screw a panel back into place.

“Yeah, we know!” Chase strained as he ducked one of Blackbeard’s giant fists. “This situation is a mess! We still have that remote activator thingy charged? Let’s reset and try again.”

“No we don’t,” Mavis sighed, looking up at the broken module. “I better get that back online, but now we’ve only got one shot at this. We have to get it right!”

“Don’t worry!” Nell called into her walkie talkie, sprinting as quickly as she could through the hull of the ship. “I’m bringing backup!”

“What?”

Nell clipped the walkie talkie to her pocket and sprinted even faster. She flew into the Captain’s quarters, off the desk, and through the hole that had been broken through its back wall. She vaulted over Blackbeard’s head, then came to a skidding halt on the edge of the thruster platform.

“Arrgh! Another one!” the buccaneer snarled, stepping into line with Nell. Then, all of a sudden, the two other adult raptors slammed into his back! They had been chasing Nell all through the hold of the ship and he had stepped into their way. A moment later and the pirate and lizards were flailing in their fight, the children left entirely forgotten.

“Good work, Nell!” Patrick approved. “Any luck on your side, Ellie?”

“Almost…got it…” Ellie had spent the last minute straining at the bolts on the thruster on her side. She had managed to remove its outer panel and was trying to pry the largest cable out of its socket. “There!” she exclaimed as the cable came loose and the power to the thruster cut off instantaneously. Everyone shouted as the entire ship now careened to one side, driven through a tight curve by the other thruster that was still online.

“Hold on!” Ellie panted. “Hold on!” She watched as the ship raced through an arc of 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees… “NOW!” she shrieked as it turned a full 180, then thrust the cable back into its socket, bringing the second thruster back to life. Now the ship was facing back towards the storm and blistering forward to meet it!

“Time to go!” Ellie called to Patrick, Chase, and Nell…but none of them would be leaving anytime soon. Of course all of their commotion had drawn the attention of the pirate crew, who were now billowing out of the holes in the back of the ship and vaulting over the railing, filling up every open space of the platforms that the children stood upon. Ellie flicked her eyes left and right, but the only escape was into the swirling ocean water.

“Arr, Captain was right!” one of the pirates snarled. “They be sirens, come to sink us in the depths!”

“Well now we have them on the end of a plank,” another laughed. “Let’s make ’em walk it!”

“Mavis, are you hearing this?” Ellie asked fearfully.

“Yeah, yeah…let me think…” Mavis closed the last of the panels he had been repairing and rapidly flipped some switches. “Things are even shakier than before,” he wiped his brow, “but I think the Time Capsule might hold out for another jump.”

“You’re going to leave us?!” Nell screeched as the pirates slowly advanced, cutlasses out, forcing the children to back up to the edge of the platforms.

“Trust me,” Mavis returned, scrutinizing the three-dimensional time-space hologram in the center of the Time Capsule. “And…activate!” He flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position. The Time Capsule hummed to life, detaching itself from that moment and floating weightlessly forward through time and space.

“He is leaving us!” Patrick pointed frantically at the outline of the Time Capsule as it flickered out of their reality.

“Shut yer mouth!” Captain Blackbeard snarled, each of his fists was closed around the tail of an unconscious raptor. ” And jump to yer doom!”

Up in the Time Capsule, Mavis had each hand on a separate dial, turning them in tandem to maneuver himself through space with careful precision. Now that he was detached from any moment of time the machine’s matter would not interact with the pirate ship. He was able to steer his vessel clean through the wooden walls, coming out the back of the ship, just underneath the platforms his friends were about to fall from.

“Okay,” he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I’ve got to time this just right.”

“I said off!” Blackbeard shouted up above, then swung the limp raptors at the children. Ellie, Chase, Patrick, and Nell took another step backwards, lost their balance, and plunged off the edge!

“Whoops!” Mavis said as the children fell clean through his vessel and down to the water below! He spun another dial and time slowed around him, paused, and finally reversed, scooting the children back up into the air. He spun the dial the other way round, returning time back to its forward motion. At the exact same moment he punched a button, retethering himself to that instance of spacetime, causing the Time Capsule to become physical once more. Chase, Evie, Patrick, and Nell fell through the Time Capsule’s open hatches and landed with a thump in their seats.

“Gotcha!” Mavis crowed.

“How many tries did it take?” Nell demanded.

“Just one, of course.”

“Come back here!” Blackbeard shouted from above, then leaped off the platforms, raptors still dangling from his hands.

“Get us out of here!” Chase shouted.

Mavis punched the controls again, sending the Time Capsule hurtling into the future. As the flow of time accelerated outside, the children watched the pirate ship streak past them at superspeed, jets propelling it straight into the storm! They had done it. They had restored time to its proper outcome. A little messy perhaps, but fate had been restored. Now there was only–

“What manner of witchcraft be this?!” a gruff voice interrupted from the corner of the Time Capsule. For Blackbeard had fallen into the vessel before Mavis had finished making the jump forward in time. He was hurtling towards the future with the children!

Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke about stories wrapped around stories and ones that have intersecting realities. The Time Travel situation features the story of real-world children bookending the inner fantasies that they live out on the playground. It also has multiple, different settings bleeding into each other, such as when the raptors came onto the pirate ship and now Blackbeard into the future.

This free-flowing approach to settings and reality was exactly the reason why I wanted to write this story. Usually when writing a fantasy it still has to be grounded in some way, but the backdrop of children playing pretend made just about anything possible for me.

That isn’t to say that chaos can’t be taken too far, though, of course it can. Even with this story I’m anxious that I will throw in too many components, until things fail to even register anymore. When a story is weighed down by too many ideas then eventually the reader becomes saturated and all the other ideas have to roll off, even more useless than if they hadn’t been there at all.

And this is not all. A story must also be able to give its chaos greater meaning. If it has many intriguing ideas, but no compelling narrative behind them, then it will still remain dissatisfying. With my next post I want to consider some other examples of successfully chaotic stories, ones that are bursting with thousands of ideas, yet also grounded enough for those ideas to bear weight. Come back on Monday as we consider these examples, and then again on Thursday as I try to implement their lessons into the next entry of The Time Travel Situation.

Intersecting Worlds

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Story Within a Story)

The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.

In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.

This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.

There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?

The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.

This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.

In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.

Intersecting Worlds)

There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.

This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.

It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.

This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.

I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.

Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.

Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!

The Time Travel Situation: Part Two

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Part One

“You distract the dinosaur!” Mavis shouted to Patrick as they tore through the undergrowth. “I’ll circle back and fix the Time Capsule!”

“Got it!”

Mavis peeled to the side and ducked behind a rocky outcropping, waiting for the T-Rex and Patrick to pass him by before racing back to the Time Capsule.

“It looked like it bit through the Stabilizer Array,” he muttered to himself as he came upon the scene. “Probably blew all the gaskets! I can replace those from the Fabricator, but I’ll have to come up with something custom to replace the Levelling Detection….I just don’t know if I have enough time!”

*

Ellie stumbled through the bushes and right into the path of the enemy patrol.

“Oh no!” she shouted, then turned and bolted back the way she came.

“After her!” the leader of the patrol shouted and they all rushed over the same bush she had disappeared behind. No sooner did they do so than they fell down a massive ravine to their deaths!

“Nicely done,” Chase’s head popped out from one of the bushes on the edge of the cliff.

“Thanks,” Ellie smiled as she popped out from a bush on the other side.

“What are you two happy about?” Nell huffed next to Chase. “We’ve only taken care of half your mess. I’m sure they already radioed to their base that we’re here, so now they’ll be on high alert at their base. They’re just waiting for us to invade!”

“Well then maybe we use that to our advantage,” Chase looked thoughtfully to a nearby mountain top.

“What?” Nell scrunched her nose.

He sighed and pointed out the cliff directly above the enemy base and the massive boulder that was lingering at the edge of that very cliff.

“If they’re looking for us down below, they won’t be watching up above. They won’t see us dropping that big, old rock right on top of them!”

“That seems…too convenient…” Nell shook her head.

“I like it!” Ellie said, and she traipsed off with Chase to start climbing the mountain. Outvoted on the matter of plot contrivance Nell followed with a sigh.

*

Mavis moved his hands like a concert pianist. He grabbed and placed and bolted and snapped and fused and sheathed and twisted with the speed of an expert in a panic. Every now and then he glanced up to the sky, watching the fiery streak that illuminated the cloudless sky. Every minute the meteor seemed a little bigger, a little lower towards Earth. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it!

If Chase, Ellie, and Nell took care of their part of the mission then that meteor would wipe out everything still tied to this timeline in a matter of minutes. Mavis’s hands started moving even faster!

“Come on, Patrick, get back here! I need your help!”

*

Up above Chase and Ellie and Nell clung to the side of the cliff, climbing as quickly as they could to the summit.

“That meteor is getting closer!” Ellie said, a slight tinge of panic in her voice.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it up there in time,” Nell concurred.

As if matters weren’t bad enough, Chase’s next step dislodged a loose stone, which frightened a flock of pterodactyls roosting down below. With ear-splitting screeches the massive creatures swooped up towards the children, threatening to dash them off the mountainside.

“Hang on!” Chase called. “I’ve got an idea!”

“Ohhhh no,” Ellie shook her head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”

“Hyah!” Chase shouted, flinging himself off the rock wall and onto the back of the nearest pterodactyl! The creature squawked in surprise and flapped wildly, trying to knock its hijacker off.

“Oh no you don’t!” Chase snarled, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck and hauling upwards, slowly steering it towards the top of the cliff and away from the other attacking pterodactyls. “Ha! Look at that!” he called to the girls down below. “Two birds with one stone.”

“Two pterodactyls, don’t you mean?” Ellie grinned, then swallowed her fears and leaped onto the next flying reptile to pass by!

“Hey, wait for me!” Nell followed suit.

*

Mavis leaped into the air and grabbed hold of a support beam in the roof of the Time Capsule. He swung his other arm to swap a fresh power cell in place of the damaged one while his legs pumped wildly, keeping himself aloft.

“Patrick, where are you?!” he roared yet again.

As if on cue Patrick’s head came bobbing into view just above the tree-line. Mavis stared in amazement as the same T-Rex from before came charging into the clearing, Patrick perched triumphantly on its head, steering it from a harness made of vines and–

Nope, nope, nope!” Nell shook her head, hopped down from her swing, and folded her arms.

“What?” Patrick asked innocently, still holding his heroic pose on top of the slide.

“There is no way you captured and tamed a T-Rex in the last fifteen minutes.”

“Oh you’re one to talk! You’re riding a pterodactyl up a mountain!”

“That wasn’t my choice. These two–” she gestured to Ellie and Chase, “have absolutely no sense of reality.”

“C’mon Nell, we’re traveling through time,” Mavis sighed. “This doesn’t have anything to do with reality.”

Nell threw her hands up in exasperation, but clambered back into her swing and started pumping into the air. “Well I say ‘Are you two ready to jump off?!'”

“You don’t have to say that you say it,” Ellie reminded. “Just say it! And yeah! Get ready, it’s going to be a rough landing!”

The three flyers launched off their steeds and skidded onto the top of the cliff.

“Alright!” Chase crowed. “Let’s shove the boulder over!”

The three of them sprinted to the behemoth and pressed against it with all their might. Looking up they could see the meteor looming as large as the sun in the sky. It was near enough to make out the mile-high flames scorching its surface. Near enough to feel the weight of it bearing down on them.

“PUUUUSH!” Nell strained.

*

“Patrick, watch where you’re stomping!” Mavis ordered. “I barely have the Time Capsule put back together!”

“I’m trying…but…this guy isn’t following orders,” Patrick called down from his perch. “I said, go right!” Patrick gave the reins a sharp tug, eliciting a deep snarl from the beast. “Easy boy, easy!” Patrick tried to soothe, but the T-Rex wasn’t having it any more. With a particularly mighty roar it shook itself vigorously until Patrick was dislodged and fell to the creature’s feet.

“I thought we had an understanding!” Patrick said indignantly, but the T-Rex just bared his teeth and snarled.

“Uh-oh!” Mavis squeaked.

*

“We’re too late!” Ellie pointed to the enemy base down below. A hatch had opened in its ceiling and a massive cannon emerged, pointed directly for the approaching meteor. The coils at the back of the cannon hummed and glowed as a fire started to glow at the bottom of its barrel.

“Just focus!” Chase ordered. “Rock it back…and PUSH!” All three of them shoved in unison. The rock resisted their force for a moment, but finally gave way! With a great crumbling sound it went careening down the side of the cliff, bounced off the rocky wall once, twice, then spun through the air on a direct collision course for the base below. Already the gun had charged, though, and it fired its molten blast into the air…and into the falling boulder! The rock had intercepted the blast just in time, and now the rock burst into a million pieces of shrapnel!

Some of those shards pounded back down into the enemy base, tearing it to shreds, and some of them flew out sideways, pelting over the treetops and punching through the T-Rex that was menacing Patrick and Mavis. It fell to the ground, mere inches from crushing the Time Capsule again.

“You guys better get here!” Mavis shouted as he started punching numbers into the command panel.

“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Ellie shouted back, looking over her shoulder as the meteor broke through the atmosphere and scorched the clouds. Their three pterodactyl-steeds came wheeling back to them from that direction, frantic to outstrip the specter of doom! Ellie, Chase, and Nell leaped onto the lizards’ backs, steered them straight for the nearby clearing, and tumbled off at the entrance to the Time Capsule.

“This isn’t going to work!” Nell looked incredulously at the extensive damage still strewn throughout the Time Capsule.

“She’ll hold together,” Mavis snapped back as the last of the children entered the machine.

“We’d have a better chance surviving the meteor than a time jump in this heap of junk!”

“Never tell me the odds!” Mavis punched the button.

“Hey!” Nell cried as she the Time Capsule lurched to life, knocking her to her feet. “I wasn’t ready, you scoundrel!”

“Scoundrel?” Mavis smiled slyly as he helped lift her back to her feet. “I like the sound of that…”

Nell scoffed and turned away. “You’re a moron.”

“I know,” he sighed.

“Quiet, you guys,” Patrick said in awe. “Look!”

The rest of them followed his gaze through the nearest porthole. All of them watched as the meteor impacted on the ground, kicking up a tremendous wave of dirt and fire, and flinging dinosaurs violently through the air! The ripple of destruction broke right on top of them, but they weren’t smashed to bits. All the rock, and dirt, and dinosaur washed over them without making a single dent, for the Time Capsule had already untethered from the time of that place and was picking up pace to leave it behind as a distant memory.

Patrick hung his head sadly.

“I can’t believe we just let that happen,” he sighed. “We were there, man. We saw them: dinosaurs! They were going to be spared and we just let them die.”

“You know it was the right thing to do,” Ellie patted his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s our mission to keep time on its predefined course, not to–ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! PATRICK, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?!”

She leaped back quickly from the boy, startled by whatever she had just seen. As soon as she was out of the way the other children could see what had set her off. The head of a baby raptor had just popped out from Patrick’s shirt pocket, and now the lizard was trying to wriggle all the way out as the boy vainly tried to shield it from view.

“N-n-nothing to see here,” Patrick stammered, poking at the baby again, only to get a nasty bite on his finger in return. “Ouch!”

“Patrick!” Mavis said accusingly. “What did Ellie just get done saying? We can’t change time!”

“I haven’t!” Patrick insisted. “Look, this baby was there when the meteor hit, right? So what do you think happened to it? It died! It was taken out of the picture. Well now it’s still out of the picture, I’ve just taken it out another way, that’s all.”

“You can’t just bring a foreign element into your home like that!” Nell exclaimed. “You have no idea what it’s bringing along with it!”

“Oh come on. It’s just this one, little guy. I didn’t bring anything else with us.”

As if on cue a slow, trilling sound came from the storage bay. Next the sound of claws tapping on the tile floor as three adult raptors sauntered into view.

“Oh…” Patrick said. “Unless it’s pack saw me take it and followed us here…”

PATRICK!!” all the other children said in exasperation.

But there was no more time for discussion. Just then the raptors caught sight of the baby and leaped furiously after it! All the other children dove to intercept them before they tore Patrick to shreds! What followed was pure chaos. Chairs were thrown, panels were smashed, and wires were stripped out of the walls! Jaws snapped at ankles and make-shift lassos tossed in every direction. Everyone was both pursuer and pursued at the same time, no one stayed still for even a second.

And during it all the Time Capsule churned faithfully on. Millennia after millennia passed, century after century, decade after decade. Now the blur of rising and setting suns slowed and the moon rose over a stormy night, its light reflected on the world’s largest mirror: the Pacific Ocean! A massive thunder cloud in the east rushed onto the scene like smoke in a jar until it filled the entire horizon.

Time slowed down still further. The waves settled into a tumultuous rolling and the storm became a single, solid gale. Details that were imperceptible before became clear, such as daggers of lightning that stabbed in the heart of the storm and rain that streaked sideways over the sea.

And in this world of sea and storm there loomed a single witness: an old ship. Its sails were straining away from the storm, but still the water spilled over its deck and threated to sink the entire thing at any moment. And it was upon this doomed vessel that the Time Capsule came to rest, silently perching itself at the very back where none of the sailors would notice it amidst the chaos.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke about the use of real-world references in a fictional story. I shared a few examples of how they can be utilized in a way that fits the flow of the tale and doesn’t break the fourth wall. One of the situations I illustrated was when referencing a piece of media that the audience is already familiar with, and how that can be used as a shorthand for understanding between reader and character.

In today’s post I wanted to briefly touch on Mavis’s crush for Nell, and I realized I could have him quoting Han Solo’s lines to Leia. The audience would hopefully recognize the words, realize he is viewing the two of them in the same context, and thus trying to hit on her. It all comes to a head where the “I love you,” “I know” line is flipped to her insulting him and his accepting the defeat. Clearly this joke wouldn’t have worked if I had not used a reference that the audience was already familiar with.

Another thing that I tried in this story was to intersperse multiple scenes into one. In the first case I was doing this by having the real world impinge on the fantasy one, such as when we see the kids on the swings and slide. That is not all, though, I also had that moment where the exploding rock reached from one scene with Chase, Nell, and Ellie over to the scene with Patrick and Mavis.

I want to take a little more time to consider separate scenes that overlap with one another, how they have been used in other stories, and how they can be used to add complexity to a story. Come back on Monday as we discuss that, and then again on Thursday for the next chapter in The Time Travel Situation.

Different Fits

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An Old, Familiar Tune)

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film opens with a shot of alien worlds. We descend upon one of these to a rocky wasteland, upon which a single spaceship lands. A lone spaceman emerges wearing a high-tech suit and a mask with glowing, red eyes. He pulls out a fancy scanner, which reveals that the rocky ruins around him were actually once a great city, and he follows a signal to an old, decrepit building, now more nature than artificial construct. With a push of a button his helmet disassembles itself, he puts on a pair of headphones, and presses play on a walkman. Come and Get Your Love by Redbone blares as he dances his way through the ruins.

It is a surreal moment. The starkly foreign setting has been pervaded by a song from our real-life recent history. Obviously the song doesn’t belong in that place. The movie knows this, yet it puts it there even so.

And this is a common reoccurrence in the film, too. We see all manner of strange worlds, species, and technology, and none of it has anything to do with real life as we know it. Yet all throughout we continue hearing the real-world music that Peter Quill keeps on his mixtape. Not only that, but he continually makes references to real pop culture, such as the film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon.

But as strangely out-of-place as all these references are…they actually work. They don’t break the suspension of disbelief, they don’t shatter the fourth wall, they don’t turn the drama into a parody, and they don’t make the fantastic world feel mundane. Rather the two flavors combine in a way that complement one another.

This works for two reasons. On the one hand, those of us that were born too late to experience the real-world media firsthand find the tunes to be familiar, yet also otherworldly. The past can be like a fiction to us, a story we hear of, but which is distinctly different from all of our first-hand experiences.

And for those of us who were born early enough to experience the release of that media directly, nostalgia is an experience not unlike visiting another world. A favorite song transcends its true-life story. To us it isn’t a temporary collaboration of individuals fulfilling a contractual obligation for a record deal, it is an otherworldly piece of magic that dropped from the heavens to make a spark inside of us. Indeed it seems to come from a place not unlike the magical world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It belongs there more than it does in reality.

It was this same reasoning that led me to include real-world media references in my latest story: The Time Travel Situation. My characters are in a real-life setting but they are also playing a game of pretend. I describe them as they see themselves: special government agents racing through time to stop temporal bandits! Yet as they go through this world of fantasy I have them call out real-life media that my readers might be personally familiar with. I don’t think these real-world references will feel disjointed to the reader, though, because I specifically chose media that was fantastic: the Journeyman Project games and Star Trek. Those works fit very well with my fiction, they seem as if they could easily be a part of it, and so it doesn’t break the story’s immersion to make mention of them.

Dramatic References)

So it is possible for fantasy stories to make reference of otherworldly media in a way that feels integrated and coherent. But what about a more dramatic or grounded piece?

Tom Hanks’s directorial debut That Thing You Do! cleverly recreates 1960s music culture without ever using any actual artists, labels, or songs. Everything in it is a complete fabrication, yet it all feels very real and authentic. Given that this film was trying to capture the spirit of the era without being a biopic of any actual musical group this was an excellent line to walk. If this film had interspersed its portrayal of a fictional band with scenes of real-life performers, such as The Beatles, then it would have felt disjointed. Contrast this with Forrest Gump, which is able to tell fictional stories about real-life characters like President Lyndon B Johnson and John Lenin because it is a less grounded piece, full of hyperbole and fantasy in its pseudo-real setting.

However there does still remain a way for a grounded piece of fiction to make reference to real world material. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel of a teenage boy caught in the awkward phase between youth and adulthood. He is not a fictional character, but his experiences are extremely relatable and true-to-life. The title of the film comes from when he hears the real-world song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye and misunderstands its lyrics. In reality this is a bawdy folk song, but the lyrics cause him to imagine children playing in a field, being saved from falling off the cliff by a Catcher who protects them.

It is a wonderful expression of a young man who is confused, and misinterpreting his world in fanciful, imaginative ways. But it wouldn’t work very well if this was an unknown song that the reader didn’t know the real meaning of. The author, J. D. Salinger, was using the real-world song as a shorthand to quickly communicate a complex idea to his readers.

This was my logic when I wrote Phisherman, in which I made reference to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris from the film The Way of the Dragon. That story of mine was also heavily grounded in reality while still being a fictional tale. Towards the end of it I wanted to show a memory of the main character with his father. The two of them would discuss the nature of heroes and villains in stories, and they would relate those archetypes to themselves. Now if I had made up a fictional film with fictional actors for them to reference, then the audience wouldn’t have properly understood what they were talking about. And if I had tried to explain the fictional film and characters in great detail it would have broken the flow of the story. Thus I elected to make a singular reference to real-world media. Something that would immediately get my main character, his father, and the audience all on the same page. It was a meant to be a tasteful intersection of fact and fiction that provided just enough context for a shared understanding.

As I already said, I have given fantasy-media references in my new story, The Time Travel Situation, and with my next chapter I would like to try for the more grounded kind. I will try to give a reference that utilizes a shared understanding between my characters and the audience. Come back on Thursday to see how I incorporate it.

The Time Travel Situation: Part One

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“Mavis, you have to come now,” Ellie pleaded, “or else we won’t have time before next period.”

Mavis sighed in a longsuffering way, but raised himself from the lawn and brushed the crumbs of his lunch off his lap. He gave one last draw on his juice box before lobbing it into the trash bin.

“You don’t need me to start y’know. I can always join in.”

“But your ideas are the best,” Ellie explained as the two of them ran across the field. “And just so you know, Nell’s playing today, too,” Ellie winked slyly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The two of them reached the edge of the field, next to the swing sets, where the other children were busy arguing.

“We’re not doing dinosaurs, Patrick,” Chase said. “We’re not five anymore!”

“Oh, because secret agents is so original?” Patrick fired back. “It’s time for something different.”

“Pirates!” Nell offered.

“We’ve done that, too.”

“Not for a while.”

Patrick groaned at everyone else’s obstinance. “You guys just do what you want then. I’ll do my own thing.”

“We’re all doing our own thing,” Mavis declared as he arrived on the scene.

“Huh?”

“Dinosaurs, secret agents, pirates…all of it!”

“That doesn’t work,” Chase folded his arms in protest.

“It does when there’s time travel involved!”

All of the other kids went quiet and cocked their heads curiously. Mavis immediately launched into the hushed tone of one distributing top-secret information.

“We’re not just any secret agents, though, we’re members of the Temporal Security Agency. Time travel has already been invented but the government decided they have to regulate it, so they set our team up to monitor the ripples of time and watch for any temporal disturbances.” He was reciting the background for the latest adventure game he and his brother had been playing at home. Any hesitation the other kids held was swept away at the sound of such a fleshed out premise! Mavis had learned before that being able to launch straight into a compelling introduction was the best way to end an argument and get everyone else to fall in line.

“What’s a temporal disturbance?” Nell asked, and with that sign of curiosity the matter of what they were going to play was officially settled.

“It means that someone else has traveled back in time, messed something up, and now the future is about to be rewritten! But our sensors in the past tell us those changes are coming before they reach us, and that gives us a chance to jump back in time and undo whatever changed.”

“I don’t understand,” Patrick shook his head.

“Bad guys in the past changed things, we gotta go back and stop them,” Ellie surmised.

“Oh, okay.”

“EHH! EHH! EHH!” Mavis tried to imitate the sound of a klaxon sounding. “Oh no, everyone, that’s the alarm! We gotta get to the Time Capsule quick! Nell and Chase, prime it for launch. Patrick and Ellie, grab weapons and supplies. I’ll get the report from the computer!”

Everyone scrambled to their duties. Patrick and Ellie sprinted to the trees and came back with their arms full of sticks and pinecones, the guns and bombs which were surely standard issue for sensitive time distortions. Ellie and Chase dashed to the jungle gym and started unplugging invisible hoses and tightening massive bolts.

“Make sure you stabilize both reserves before fueling them,” Nell ordered, then did a double-take and threw her hands up in disgust. “No, you klutz, you’ve done it backwards again! I’ll do it myself.”

“Oh come on, Nell,” Chase protested. “Don’t be mean in this one, too.”

“No, it’s alright,” she flipped off the scolding tone like a lightswitch. “I’m going to learn how to be nice during this one. It’ll be good.”

Mavis came hurrying back to the jungle gym, flipping through imaginary sheets of data. “Well it looks like this was a coordinated attack,” he declared. “Three teams made a coordinated attack at three different places in time. We’ve got to go to the days of the dinosaurs, the pirates, and the old west. We’ll visit each one in turn, keep things from being changed, and catch whoever is behind this all.”

“We’re ready to go!” Nell announced as she closed the electrical panel on the side of the time capsule.

“Here,” Ellie handed out high-powered rifles to them all. Patrick distributed utility belts and stuffed their pockets with bombs.

The door to the Time Capsule slid open behind them, a thick, white cloud flowing out with a hiss. It was now or never!

“Two hundred million B.C.” Mavis read out as he walked into the machine and entered the coordinates onto the center panel. “There’s going to be raptors and T-Rexes. Don’t use your guns if you don’t have to, they’ll probably just make them angry.”

Patrick was the last one into the time capsule and he sealed the door behind them. “Ready to make the jump!” he declared.

Ellie and Nell went to the central power conduit to monitor its levels while Chase concerned himself with the data screens all along the walls.

“And here we go!” Mavis roared as he hurriedly flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position!

There was a sound like the crack of thunder and bright lights flashed from all the monitors and displays. The ground rumbled beneath them and a steady hum shook all the walls: the resonance of change. All about them the world whisked back through time. Through portholes they could see life reversing at rapid speed. The building they were in unbuilt itself, the city skyline went from steel skyscrapers to log cabins to a wild forest, the sun and the moon chased each other through the sky faster and faster until they blurred into one. They were racing past entire millennia in a single moment now, and all the outside world blurred into incomprehensibility.

“MAINTAINING APPROVED LEVELS!” Chase reported over the roaring din. “WE’VE REACHED SLIPSPEED!”

“OKAY…” Mavis nodded, his eye on the date indicator ticking down in the center. “WE SHOULD START TO SLOW OUR VELOCITY NOW!”

Streaks started to show in the pure white of the outside world. The streaks slowed into changing patterns, slowed into recognizable forms of mountains and stars and trees.

“PREPARE FOR TIMESTOP!” Chase announced before Mavis could.

Outside they could make out individual pterodactyls flying backwards, water flowing up the mountainside, leaves rising from the ground to perch on the branches of trees. Suddenly a bright light appeared in the sky, coalescing rapidly to the center of a tremendous explosion! As time continued to march backwards the unmistakable streak of a meteor traced backwards from that explosion, settling into the position it held one hour before. Then, all at once, time paused for a split-second, then began moving forward at regular speed. They had arrived.

“Whew!” Patrick said in relief.

“But what was that explosion we passed along the way?” Mavis demanded.

“My character says, ‘well it’s got to be the meteor that kills the dinosaurs,'” Nell rolled her eyes. “‘Obviously.'”

“Nell, we’ve talked about this,” Ellie sighed. “You don’t have to narrate what you’re saying. You just say it.”

“I think you’re right, though,” Mavis approved Nell’s observation. “But that meteor was supposed to hit the earth, right? Why’s it exploding up in space?”

“Captain, I’m getting readings of a nearby heat signature,” Chase approached with his tricorder. “It could be a rocket facility.”

“Time travelers, Chase,” Ellie shook her head. “Not Star Trek!”

“But excellent observation,” Mavis nodded. “I’ll bet that’s where our time-troublemakers are at. In about an hour they’re going to shoot a missile to take out that meteor before it hits earth.”

“Well…that sounds pretty good to me,” Patrick shrugged. “Then the dinosaurs will still be alive.”

“That sounds good?!” Chase demanded. “How will humans be able to evolve, then? They’ll all get eaten and we’ll never exist.”

“But we’re here now. We could just stay here and live with the dinosaurs.”

“We’re not going to give up all of human civilization for some old animals!” Nell scolded.

“What then? Make sure that all the dinosaurs die?! That’s not right!”

“Listen Patrick,” Ellie said more gently, “you’re a Temporal Security Agent, aren’t you? Well it’s not your job to get lost in time, it’s to keep it the same, whether for better or worse. It’s the burden we all bear. We’re all in this job because we’re the one’s willing to make the tough choices.”

Patrick wiped a small tear from the corner of his eye. “Alright,” he said, “let’s smoke ’em.”

“Good man,” Mavis clapped him on the shoulder, then walked over to the wall of the time capsule and opened a hatch. Inside was a harness fitted with all manner of wires and buttons. It was pulsating with yellow energy. “Looks like the remote activator is charged,” he observed. “Remember, its tethered to the last point of time that the Time Capsule came to, and can return us to it in an emergency. But it will break after a single use. Who wants to be in charge of it?”

“I will,” Ellie accepted the responsibility and put the harness around her shoulders. “We’re ready to go!”

But just then they were interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek coming from somewhere just outside the Time Capsule. Each of them shivered as a long-forgotten instinct woke up in their hearts. The instinct to be terrified of an apex predator!

“What is it?” Chase looked to Patrick fearfully.

“T-Rex, of course.”

“We have to run!” Nell panicked.

“He’s already got our scent,” Patrick shook his head in defeat.

“Alright,” Mavis said. “Looks like we’ve got to split up. You’ve still got the coordinates of that enemy base, Chase? You and Nell and Ellie go check that out. Patrick, you and I are on dino-distraction-duty!”

Everyone nodded, Patrick particularly enthusiastically, then bolted for the door and out of the Time Capsule.

“Keep your walkie-talkie on channel 6!” Mavis called after the others as he switched on his own.

“He’s already here,” Patrick grabbed Mavis and pointed in equal parts terror and giddy excitement at the treeline. The branches and leaves burst apart as a massive lizard charged into the clearing, eyes locked on them, and giving off another ear-splitting roar!

“RUN!” Mavis shouted, then the two turned and bolted in the opposite direction of their comrades, leading the Tyrannosaur away from the mission. They hadn’t gone more than ten paces when they heard a sickening crunch from behind. Wheeling around they saw that the dinosaur had paused to give their Time Capsule a taste, puncturing through its walls with its teeth. Panels were strewn on the ground and sparks of electricity flashed from exposed wires. The machine…was broken.

“Well this just got worse,” Patrick understated.

*

Meanwhile the other group dove through the underbrush, anxious to not waste a moment in their task.

“There’s no telling what we’re going to find when we get there,” Nell observed. “Everyone have your rifles ready, but I don’t want any sloppy shots giving away our position! We take out any guards stealthily, you understand?”

“Wait, whoever said that you outrank us?” Chase asked.

“Oh. I definitely outrank you.”

“Quiet, you guys!” Ellie hissed, dropping to a crouch and pointing through the low-hanging branches. The others halted and followed her gaze to a patrol walking by.

There were three guards, all of them in strange, metallic armor suits that covered every inch of their body.

“Are they robots?” Chase wondered aloud.

“Only one way to find out,” Nell said determinedly.

“Yeah…wait…what do you mean by that?”

But rather than answer Nell lifted up a large rock and hurled it full speed at the head of the nearest guard. It cleaved the helmet clean off, sending a bright ribbon of blood shining through the air.

“Guess that’s not a robot.”

“Ewww! No!” Ellie shook her head. “Don’t make it gross, Nell.”

“Well that’s what I see, you can see whatever else you prefer.”

I like it!” Chase approved.

Ellie shook her head, then looked back up at the guard crumpled on the ground, still dead, but with head fully attached and totally bloodless. Meanwhile the other guards ducked for cover and drew out their weapons.

“We got infiltrators at the West Perimeter!” one of them called into his communicator as the other drew a bead on the children.

“I said to take them out quietly,” Ellie hissed.

“What? I got mine,” Nell protested. “You two were supposed to nab the others.”

“Never mind that!” Chase roared “We’re blown now!”

And the three of them dashed back through the trees, ducking and weaving to dodge the incoming gunfire!

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke of children playing pretend and the raw creativity that comes from that. I also mentioned how children grow, and as they do they gain a firmer understanding of the world, more of the unknown becomes known, and pure creativity comes less naturally.

It was for that reason I set this story to be about children who are in their preteens, just reaching the point where games and shows are cropping into their plays and redefining their view of imagination. Mavis uses a video game that he has seen for the foundation of their story, Chase finds himself slipping into the role of a Star Trek explorer, while Patrick just wants to live out his dinosaur obsession.

But they are still resisting the urge to play out already-existing narratives and still create their own way forward. Being creative might come less naturally as we grow older, but that doesn’t mean it ever goes away. We can train ourselves to draw connections being known quantities to invent unknown ones. This idea is present in Mavis concocting a premise that allows for dinosaurs, pirates, and secret agents all in the same story. He is blending enough things together that there doesn’t remain any script to follow. The glue that will bind all these separate elements together must be their own imagination.

It’s been fun for me to write a story from this perspective. It is both kids set in real life doing realistic things, and also it is a complete fantasy.

I want to call attention to something else that I did in this story which I hardly ever do: call out real world media. In this first section I have already made reference to both the real-life Journeyman Project games and the Star Trek television series.

I don’t do this very often, because it usually weirds me out when a fictional story, even a realistic fictional story, tries to pretend that it is actually tied to our real world. I have only felt comfortable doing it in specific instances and for very specific reasons. Come back on Monday as we consider the inherent awkwardness of real-world references in fiction, but also the potential benefits of it when done in the right way.