“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.
“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.
“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!
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.