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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“But then, who?”
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.