“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”
“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.
“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”
“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.
“Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”
Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.
As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.
“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”
“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”
Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.
“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”
“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.
“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”
“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”
“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”
“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!
“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”
“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”
Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.
It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.
Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.
There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.
Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.
“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”
The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”
Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!
Just a little bit of gray tinged with light blues and yellows at the periphery. A small sense of swirling motions, too, like trace currents in a muddled ocean.
Cace leaned into that notion. Though he had no physical presence in the Ether he imagined his eyes closing and fists clenching as he tried to stir the ocean around him by sheer force of will.
And something changed!
It wasn’t in the ocean, though, it was in Cace himself. He suddenly became aware of a ripple thumping through the area, a cord that pulled through him at regular intervals.
He focused on that wave, tried to lean into it every time it passed through him. It wasn’t very pleasant, its friction agitated him, but as he did so he noticed that the gray nothingness began to shimmer and take form. As he let each ripple pulse deeper and longer the picture before him became clearer. Now the gray revealed itself to actually be all colors intermingled. Now they were grouped up in shapes. Now they went from flat shapes to bodies and volumes that surrounded him.
The throbbing was nearly unbearable now. It pressured him in a painful way, tugged at him so hard that he was afraid something might tear. But even that was good, for the more it discomforted him the closer it meant he was to having a proper form in that place. Leaning further into that cadence was going to hurt, but Cace knew it would only be worse to remain in limbo.
Cace gathered his nerve, the same as if he were about to dive into a cold lake. Then, gritting his will he pushed deeper and winced as a terrible shock ripped through him. But it lasted only a moment and then, at last, he had the sense of breaking free from his tether, of spiraling downward, and of fully entering the Ether.
Cace was not in any pain anymore, but he did feel very unnatural, like he didn’t know his own body. He tried to open his eyes but nothing responded to the command. He tried to lift his hand but his hand did not raise. Something else shifted, though. Some long, gray limb that he did not recognize.
Then he understood. He was still trying to move his normal body back in the conscious world. But here, he did not have that body. He had…something else…a long, gray limb it would seem.
Cace tried to settle his mind into this new form, to be aware of his new reality. It was hard, like his body was was feeling itself through a thin glove.
Translating he thought to himself. Not direct.
Cace tried to speak, but no words came out, only a strange vibration pulsating around him. Or…maybe he had spoken…but just didn’t have any ears to make sense of those vibrations?
Cace tried to open his eyes again and this time it worked…sort of. It wasn’t really vision as he was used to it, but there was a general awareness, a heightened, inexplicable knowledge of his surroundings. No forms and shapes, but an understanding of movements and shifts.
Then the eyes shut, all of their own will and not of his. Cace tried to open them again but they did not respond. So he moved his attention to the long, gray limb again.
Wait, how did I know it was a long, gray limb if I haven’t even seen it properly? he wondered to himself. He couldn’t answer that, but somehow he had just known that that’s what it was when he moved it.
In any case, the limb did move again. It had a joint in the middle that was raised up high, almost folded in two. Cace tried to extend the limb, to stretch out the joint. It slowly flexed outwards but then halted, obstructed by something else it had run into. Obstructed by something that Cace could not perceive as being part of his body.
Wait…actually yes…yes Cace could perceive it now. It was like that part of him had been asleep, but now it was awake, stirred by the brush of the limb. And it felt like that other piece of him was now available for use. And…it had eyes as well. Cace could tell somehow. So Cace tried to open his eyes once more and they opened. Though as before, it wasn’t like vision as he knew it, but also it wasn’t like the prior sort of “seeing” either.
There still wasn’t any color or shape, but now he was simply cognizant of all the different entities about them. He could sense forms even without having a visual, he could perceive beginnings and endings. He was aware of the long, gray limb, of many others just like it, of a floor that pulsated like a heartbeat, of an essence flowing beneath the surface.
Not only these, but Cace found that he could look “harder” at these forms and pick out their relationships to one another. He could tell where one began and another ended, and what conduits linked the separate pieces together. And as he turned his focus from one form to the next he observed how all of it was interconnected to each other in a most massive network.
Or rather…almost all of it was interconnected. For now that he was focusing on the great, interconnected mass as a whole he was also able to perceive breaches in it, areas where no member of the body existed. Places where something else existed instead, something that he did not have direct understanding of, something that he could only understand indirectly, by observing the gaps it made in the mass.
And one of those foreign elements was starting to agitate, to quiver violently, to disrupt the connections in the body! And that discomforted Cace. For “the body” was his body. It was his own members and connections that this shaking entity was severing apart! And that entity was thrashing more wildly now, was growing bigger and shaking harder, was coming nearer and nearer, closer and closer to his core! It would be here any moment and then…
“Hnnnnnnnngh!” Cace sat bolt upright on his cot and nearly smacked Aylme in the face ! A cold sweat covered his body and tears were splashed across his cheeks.
That weekend Petey spent all of his spare time doing the extra chores. In addition to the ones his Dad had come up with he also cleaned the dirt of the window sills and tightened all of the faucet knobs for his mother. Noah even let Petey clean his room for $2, though they had to keep that transaction a secret from their mom. Bit by bit his wallet got fatter until at last he had $13.
“That should do it,” he said as he wiped the sweat from his brow late that evening.
The next day Noah agreed to walk Petey to the sporting goods store so that he could get the new football.
“So you think this is the best thing, huh?” Noah asked.
“I guess? Like you said, it’s bad that Brad’s football got popped, so I think it makes sense to just do something to make it better.”
“Yeah, but are you doing it to make him happy or just to make him like you again?”
“He’s not ever going to like me if he isn’t happy.”
“He won’t? Cuz that sounds like a pretty terrible friendship then.”
“I’m just saying what it sounds like,” Noah shrugged. “You go ahead and do what you think is best.”
Petey did go ahead and he did buy the football as planned…but he couldn’t get Noah’s words out of his head. It had hit on something he had already been feeling, but hadn’t been able to put words to. There just was something wrong in the idea of giving a football to Brad so that he would treat him decently.
“I don’t want to just give Brad stuff to make him be my friend,” he muttered to himself on the swing at recess. “I want him to already be my friend first.”
“Nothing Susan. Hey, have you seen Brad?”
“I think he’s trying to get the ducks to come through the fence.”
Susan was right. There was a patch in the fence around the field where the chainlink had been snagged by a lawnmower once and twisted, resulting in a small hole. And it just so happened that this hole was right beside the canal and sometimes ducks would go swimming past it. Everyone remembered that time immemorial when Diego had coaxed one of those ducks through the hole and it had gone squawking and flapping across the entire field, chasing down whoever showed the most fear! It was many students’ greatest wish to recreate that legendary moment, even though this had been expressly forbidden by the Principal, but no one had ever managed it.
Brad was crouched down at the hole right now, poking pieces of bread through it and then backing away so as to not startle his prey. As Petey approached he saw that there were two ducks enjoying a little meal of Brad’s crumbs just outside of the fence, but they were stubbornly ignoring the trail he had also laid out through to the other side. As soon as Petey got within sight the ducks quacked in offense and scuttled down back into the canal.
“Hey Brad,” Petey said.
“Oh great, you scared them off.”
“They weren’t coming through anyway.”
“Gee…thanks. What are you even doing here, Petey?”
“I want to know what it’s going to take so we can be friends again.”
“Well, you broke my football. So I guess you get me a new one of those,” Brad sneered sarcastically and Petey’s heart dropped a level. He definitely couldn’t give him the new football now.
“Friendship shouldn’t be about just giving each other things,” Petey stated flatly. “That’s just selfish.”
“No, it should be about wrecking each other’s stuff and then pretending that doesn’t matter.”
Petey was taken aback. Once again everything made so much sense in his head right up until the moment he actually tried to say the words out loud. Brad just wasn’t responding the way that he was supposed to!
“No, it matters. That’s why I’m really sorry that that happened. I really am.”
Brad squinted his eyes in an accusing stare and spoke in a heavy whisper. “Did you know, Petey, that that’s the first time you’ve actually said you’re sorry?”
“In all this time you haven’t said sorry even once until now.”
“I–no, that’s not true. I said sorry already!”
Brad shook his head. “You just told me over and over that it wasn’t your fault.”
Petey couldn’t believe what he was hearing…but at the same time he also couldn’t remember a specific moment where he had definitely said that he was sorry. Was it possible?
“I–” Petey began, but no other words came to finish the thought.
“Listen Petey, I don’t hate you,” Brad sighed. “But I just don’t think I want to be friends anymore. Forget about the football.”
“So did you give it to him?” Noah said over his shoulder as he heard the door to his bedroom click shut.
“No…” Petey said slowly. “Instead we just fought some more.”
“I’m sorry, man. Are you sure this friendship is working?”
“You think it would be better to just stop being friends with my best friend?” Petey’s voice was hurt. “Just run away like that.”
Noah sighed and put down the controller to the Super Nintendo. “No, probably not. You two have been buddies since forever. So no, I don’t think you should just throw that away. Being best friends is hard work sometimes. It takes real effort.”
“Yeah…but Brad’s all done. He told me he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.”
“Ahh,” Noah rubbed the back of his head. “That’s rough, little bro. I’m sorry.”
Those last two words made Petey wince.
“And he also pointed out that I never told him I was sorry when I broke his football. I just kept talking about how it wasn’t my fault.”
“Well I’m sure you were scared right then.”
“What kind of friend am I if I don’t even apologize?”
“You still haven’t?”
“No, I did.”
“When he told you that you hadn’t?”
“No, before that.”
“So I guess you are the kind of friend who apologizes, then. Maybe a little late, but if I’m hearing you right then you did actually apologize all on your own.”
“Well…yeah. But I still don’t blame him for being upset. Maybe he’s been too much of a jerk about it…but I don’t think I did everything right either.”
A long pause followed, after which Petey gave himself a little shake.
“Well,” he said, “I just wanted to talk I guess.”
“Yeah, thank you for talking to me about it.”
That night Petey wasn’t able to fall asleep. His mind turned matters over and over as he lay on his pillow until his pillow started to feel too hot and he sat up. A few moments later his dad walked past his open door and happened to notice Petey sitting up.
“Hey bud, everything alright?”
Petey shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Petey’s dad moved into the room and sat at the corner of the bed.
“What’s going on?”
“Brad and I had a fight. I don’t really want to talk about the whole thing again, though. I’ve been talking about it a lot already.”
“And thinking about it a lot.”
“Yeah. And I guess that now I don’t know what to do about it anymore.”
“Yeah. I keep thinking about things I could do…but I’ve already tried to do things the right way a bunch of times and it never works out how I thought it would.”
“Sure, sure. Do you mind if I offer a piece of corny, fatherly advice?”
“Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to do things the right way. Just do what’s right. Then, after that, it doesn’t matter what happens.”
“Does that make sense?”
“Yeah…I think so. Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem. Try and get some sleep.”
The next day Petey knew exactly what he was going to do. He didn’t try to talk to Brad at school, though, he wanted to have a conversation when there wouldn’t be any distractions. Instead he took his backpack with him to the park after school, sat on the swings, and waited for Brad to show up. Sure enough, he soon saw Brad walking across the field like he did on most days. Petey rushed down the hill and onto the field, backpack swinging from his shoulder.
“Brad!” he called out as he came near.
Brad shook his head in a longsuffering way. “Petey, no,” he said. “Please stop talking to me. I’m not interested.”
“I will, alright. I’ll stop talking to you if that’s what you want. I just want to say one last thing and that’ll be it.”
Brad sighed. “Okay…well what is it?”
“I know you don’t want to be friends anymore and I’m not going to try to make you change your mind, but I do think that that’s a mistake. It’s okay to be upset, but I think it’s wrong to stop being friends just like that.”
Brad shrugged. “Still not interested.”
“Okay,” Petey said bracingly. “That’s alright. And even though you don’t want to be friends, I want you to know that I really am sorry about what happened. It really was an accident, but that doesn’t change that you lost your football. And I don’t think it’s fair for you to not have your football anymore…” Petey reached into his bag “so here’s your replacement. I bought it with my own money and everything. Now things are back to how they were.”
Petey handed the ball to Brad who stared back at him in stunned silence.
“Okay,” Petey exhaled deeply. “That was it, I’m done now.” And with that he slung his backpack over his shoulder, turned around, and walked away.
He made it nearly thirty feet before Brad called out.
“Hey you, get back here!”
Petey turned around and saw that Brad was grinning sheepishly.
“What?” Petey asked.
“Hey look, Pete,” Brad walked forward until the two boys were near again. “Look I know I’ve been being a jerk about all this. I didn’t feel good about it…but I did it anyway. I’m sorry.”
“So–uh–I’d like to be friends again if you’ll allow it. And…here, keep your ball,” he held the football out again but Petey didn’t take it.
“That’s for you,” Petey insisted.
“Oh come on, I can’t take it,” Brad protested. “You bought it with your own money you said.”
“Yeah, to give it to you.”
“But then…if I take it…that means I’m being your friend just because you gave it to me. And I really don’t mean that, Petey. I really do want to be your friend without this.”
Petey gave that one a lot of thought. The fact was he didn’t want their friendship to be repaired just because he had bought something for Brad either. But he also didn’t want to end up getting a new football out of all this, that felt wrong, too.
“Well I don’t want it,” he said flatly.
Brad looked down at the football and furrowed his brow in deep thought. Suddenly he looked back up with a big smile. “Hey wait…I’ve got an idea!”
“Ready?” Brad asked ten minutes later. He had run back to his home and retrieved two screwdrivers which the two boys were now wielding side-by-side.
“Ready!” Petey affirmed.
The two boys swung their screwdrivers down as hard as they could, puncturing the new football at each end! It did not deflate with a sad whistle like the last one had, though, it ruptured all at once with a huge BOOM! Each of the boys fell backwards laughing.
“Holy cow, that scared me!” Petey giggled.
“My heart’s racing!” Brad added.
They lay there laughing another minute longer, getting out all of their frustration and sadness together. When at last they quieted down they sat back up and looked at the flat pancake that had once been a football. Brad picked it up, flung it into the nearest trash can, and pocketed his screwdriver.
“C’mon buddy,” he said, extending a hand. “Let’s go play.”
Petey took the hand and let Brad pull him to his feet. “Sounds good,” he said, and the two friends walked off, arm-in-arm.
I also tried to maintain an even balance between the appearance of each character. Petey is the star and appears in each scene. Noah and Brad are the main supporting characte4rs, and they each get a pretty equal number of scenes. Secondary supporting scenes are Petey’s dad and mom, who also get a pretty equal number of scenes in the story. This setup allowed me to bounce back and forth between the main thread with Brad and the other main thread with Noah, but also to break up those threads with small asides to his parents so that it wouldn’t feel like Petey was just ping-ponging back and forth the whole time.
One of the benefits of this approach was how it provides credence to Brad’s character development, which primarily occurs offstage. In the case of Petey, we see him grappling with his problem firsthand. We hear all the conversations he has about it and the process that leads him to his final solution. But Brad has been going through his own process as well, and we don’t actually see that firsthand. I imply it at a couple times, such as when they met at the school. Before then Brad had only been insulting and hostile, but here he had softened up enough to admit that he didn’t hate Petey. Then there is that moment at the end where he says:
Look I know I've been being a jerk about all this. I didn't feel good about it...but I did it anyway. I'm sorry.
So yes, Brad has developed as a character, and we’re able to believe in it because of the gaps between each of the boys’ encounters. Those gaps suggest that enough time has passed for him to have changed his mind. If those same changes had been shown in back-to-back scenes it would have felt too abrupt and unbelievable.
So now I have written three stories in my latest batch, and there is a common theme in them that I want to shine a light on. That theme is three simple words: Children, conflict, and play. I have explored the intersection of those three ideas in various ways, and will explore one more interpretation of them before I conclude this series. Come back on Monday as I explain this further.
“Do you think Curtis and Jordan would play if we asked them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to ask them.”
“Because they’re not careful and it’s my only football.”
“I don’t think they’re not careful.”
“You weren’t playing at the park after the parade.”
“No. What happened?”
“Well, so they had those airplanes, y’know? Those ones that you hook on a rubber band and it goes flying through the air.”
“Like the ones you can get from the arcade at Seventeen Alleys.”
“I know what you’re talking about.”
“So Curtis and Jordan each got those from the fair games and they were launching them right over there by that building. What do you call that building?”
“I don’t know. But they do all the city stuff in there, don’t they?”
“Yeah, like the mayor and everybody.”
“So they were shooting their planes alongside of that building and talking about how they thought they were shooting them high and long enough to go all the way over the building.”
“But Curtis’s dad, he heard them and he told them ‘don’t you do it.’ He told them they’d never get their planes over it and once they got lost on the roof he wouldn’t climb up there to get them back down again.”
“And, well, they didn’t try it right then. Because right then the hot dogs and hamburgers were ready and everybody started to eat. But then after that they went and tried it and guess what?”
“Curtis’s dad was right! They got stuck right on top of the roof and they never got them down!”
“Oh wow. Are they still up there?”
“What? No. Curtis and Jordan went back for them the next day when Curtis’s dad wouldn’t know anything about it. But the point is that they’re not careful and I don’t want my football up on the roof.”
Petey caught the ball once again and paused for a moment before chucking it back to Brad.
“Yeah okay,” Petey said, “it’s just we can’t really play a game with only the two of us.”
“Well we’re playing right now, aren’t we?”
“It’s not a game. It’s just catch.”
“Well…let’s make it a game.”
A game of two cannot have offense, defense, and passing, though. Thus the two boys decided beforehand whether the next play was a run or a pass. If it was a run then one of them would hike the ball back and then try to tackle the other. If it was a pass, then the hiker would tear down the field to get open for a catch. The boy playing quarterback would imagine defenders breaking through the front line and would have to throw it before they got to him.
“Go left! Go left!” Petey called. “I can’t throw so far to the right.”
“You just turn your body!”
Petey lobbed the ball high into the air, it hung high against the sky, then came down to the earth with a squelching splash!
“Oh, you’ve thrown it into the marsh!”
The marsh was the name for the low part of the field where all the water drained to and was a perpetual pond of filth.
“Whoops! I didn’t mean to.”
“Well don’t ruin my ball, okay. Don’t throw it into the marsh anymore.”
“I won’t, Brad. Anyway try to catch it next time.”
The incompletion had been their fourth down and now the other side got their turn to charge it up the field. They were held at the forty, but the boys didn’t make much more headway with their next set of downs.
“It’s fourth down again,” Petey wiped some sweat off his face. “It’s too far to make it.”
“If you hadn’t tackled me so quickly on that last run…”
“What? I’m supposed to tackle you when I’m playing defense.”
“Well you’re in charge of the play this time. What do you want to do?”
“Yeah, I’ll try for the field goal. If I get the ball into the tree there–“
“You’re not kicking my ball into a tree!”
“I mean if I kick it…” Petey rotated slowly, looking for a suitable target, “over the soccer goal. That’s a field goal!”
Brad couldn’t find anything wrong with that, so they lined up for the play. A few random numbers shouted, a hike, a step back, a kick! The ball sailed quickly and decisively. It was in-line with the edge of the goal post, but angled too high. It quickly reached its zenith, plummeted back to the earth like a diving hawk…and impacted onto the corner of the goal post!
The goal post corner was two metal poles cut at an angle and welded together, making for a sharp point. The corner punctured straight through the ball and held it fast like a head on a spike. The two boys watched in horror as the ball noisily deflated, shriveling from bottom to top up until it rolled off to the side and down to the ground. Limp. Empty. Not a ball anymore.
“You broke it!” Brad shrieked, fists clenched into little balls.
“I didn’t mean to!” Petey wringed his hands anxiously.
“Why would you kick it there? It’s the only ball I had!”
“I didn’t know! It was an accident. You know I didn’t do that on purpose!”
“I told you so much that I didn’t want to ruin it! I told you to be careful so much!”
“Let’s go to me home and talk to my mom. Maybe she can fix it. Maybe she could buy another.”
Brad stomped over to the lumpy, brown sack that had once been a ball and cradled it in his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Petey!” he shot back. “You’re a terrible friend…and a jerk!” And with that he stormed away.
“Back already?” Petey’s mother asked as the screen door bounced shut behind him. “I thought you’d be at the park until dinner.”
“I’m back,” he said simply. “Brad is done playing for today.”
“Oh…” she raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Nothing!” he replied in anticipation of the question she hadn’t asked. She raised the other eyebrow but he wasn’t in the mood. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I’ve got to go do homework, okay?”
“Whatever you need.”
“I need to do my homework.”
She just stared at him as he bit his lip and looked elsewhere.
“So, okay, bye,” he concluded, then turned and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms.
But before getting to his own room Petey passed by the room of his big brother, Noah. Noah was inside, laying on his bed on his stomach, playing the Super Nintendo.
“Noah?” Petey cautiously advanced into the doorway.
“Hey, bud,” Noah didn’t turn. “Plug in the second controller.”
“No, I have to do homework…Mom’s making me.”
Petey stood another moment in the doorway, silently chewing his lip. “Hey Noah?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“So Brad is really mad at me right now.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Well we were playing with his football together and I kicked it and it fell onto a sort of spike in the park and it popped.”
“Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it.”
“That’s no good.”
“And so now Brad is being really mad at me about it.”
“Well how do you feel? Guilty about it or no?”
“Yeah, I guess guilty. But I don’t get why, because I really didn’t do it on purpose!”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t. But you know, it’s not a bad thing that you feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, you’re not supposed to feel good when that happens.”
“But I don’t feel bad like I would have if Brad had been the one to kick it. Then I would have felt sad for him. But just because it was me I feel like I did something really wrong.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I’ve felt like that and I don’t know why. You really feel dirty even though it was all an accident, huh?”
“And Brad’s pretty mad about it?”
“He hates me now.”
“So it’s kind of like how you feel. Both of you are blaming you for it even though that’s not fair.”
“So what do I do?”
Noah shrugged. “I don’t know, man, that’s a hard one. To tell you the truth I was hoping it would make you feel better just by talking about it.”
“Well…it does a little. Thanks, I guess.”
Petey turned to go but suddenly Noah whipped his head around to look over his shoulder.
“I guess if there’s something you feel like oughta do to make things right then do it, just don’t do it because of blame. Either from you or Brad.”
Petey nodded and closed the door.
“Hey Brad, how’s it going?” Petey said cautiously as he approached the edge of the curb.
“Don’t talk to me,” Brad said flatly.
“Hey it’s okay if you need some space, but you have to know that it’s not my fault what happened to your football.”
“It’s not your fault?” Brad raised an eyebrow. “You kicked it into the corner and it punctured. Who else made that happen if not you?”
“I–well–I guess, yeah, it was my fault. But that doesn’t mean that you or I should blame me for it.”
Brad turned to full-on stare at Petey with incredulity. “Are you even hearing yourself right now?”
Petey did, and he had to admit that he sounded pretty ridiculous. He squirmed uncomfortably and wondered why everything had seemed so clear and simple in Noah’s room, but out here it just all got turned around. He wasn’t even sure himself what he meant anymore.
Either way Petey was spared trying to explain himself any further by the arrival of the school bus. The two boys stepped on board. By force of habit Petey followed Brad to their usual row and almost tried to sit next to him, but a single withering glare from his friend sent him to the row right behind.
“If you’re curious, though,” Brad turned in his seat for one last jab, “my dad yelled at me for ten minutes’ straight yesterday because I’d already ruined my birthday gift. Says I’d better not expect anything for Christmas. So thanks for that!”
Then he spun around, leaving Petey to stare out the window, hurt and confused.
“Hey Dad, any extra chores I could do this weekend?” Petey asked that evening.
“Um, yeah, always. How come? You saving up your allowance for something?”
“Yeah, it was Brad’s birthday last week and I want to get him a late birthday gift.”
“Oh you don’t have to use your allowance for something like tha–hang on, didn’t we get him something for on his birthday already? A couple of CDs, wasn’t it?”
“No, it was CD-ROMs, not CDs. They go in a computer and play games.”
“Okay, well we got him covered either way.”
“Yeah, so I know this is extra and that’s why I thought it should come from my allowance.”
An unusually concerned expression came over Petey’s dad and he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Say–uh–is there something you wanted to tell me about the Morris’s?” he asked.
“Are they having trouble making ends meet? Something like that?”
“What? No. I mean–not that I know of anyway.”
“Well this seems like some weird behavior from you, Petey.”
“No, I just–Brad and I were playing with his birthday football the other day and we broke it. I don’t think he’s going to be able to get a replacement for it so I wanted to get it for him. Just to be nice!”
Petey’s dad nodded as he thought it over. “Well alright, whatever you want to do son. I need someone to rake the leaves, clean out the gutters, and tidy up the shed. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”
On Monday I shared my history with writing stories, and how I have oscillated between a problem of writing too few words and writing too many. In my very first stories my issue was that I would just say what happened without dressing it up at all. They read like a list of events more than a narrative. Here is an excerpt from the very first story I wrote:
We all agreed and headed off toward some islands in the distance. The next morning we landed on the first one. There wasn’t anything we could profit from, except for some branches that we made into harpoons with our swords. There were three other islands to visit, the next one was like the first. By then we were quite thirsty, but didn’t have any fresh water, so we went on. The next one appeared to be perfect, but as we neared the island three alligators swam towards us, we tried to sail away but they cut us off. Then one swam forward towards us I hacked at his head with my sword, I only managed to get a few cuts when he raised a six-foot tail, and dropped it in the middle of the boat.
This is a play-by-play of events. Even in its moment of action, the fight with the alligator, everything is “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” It took me some time to understand the importance of giving moments space to breathe, to evoke them rather than tell them, to let the reader experience them directly.
This can be taken too far, though. It would not do for a story to dwell on every moment. One has to filter from all of the things that could be shared in a story to just the things that should be. In writing this current piece I had to fight the temptation to throw in some side-plots to pad out the central narrative. That would be necessary to round things out if this were a larger coming-of-age novel, but it isn’t. It is a short piece about how a young boy deals with one problem and every scene that I’m including needs to be related to that single narrative.
There is still an element of rounding things out, though. I don’t want back-to-back scenes between the same two characters because that would feel weird. Characters need to have an interaction and then move on to somewhere else before they come back together. That might seem like an arbitrary requirement, but if you pay attention it is a commonly followed guideline in most stories. Come back on Monday as we take a closer look at this rule and the reason it exists. I’ll see you there.
“Alright, let’s get to it!” Mavis said, steering the Time Capsule down towards the train once more. “This is going to be tricky,” he grit his teeth as he phased the Time Capsule through the walls of the high security car.
“You can’t tether here!” Ellie exclaimed. “The Time Capsule is wider than the car. If we become physical we’ll smash it to pieces!”
“Trust me,” he said, calibrating the Time Capsule’s speed so that it maintained pace with the car. “Okay, Chase and Nell, be ready to take the wheel. I’m setting up a localized tether,” he explained, glancing up at the monitor before him. “Just a single burst that will connect a small section of the Time Capsule with the current moment. I’ll center it right…there” he pointed to a space of empty air right in front of the main control panel. “All of our air in that spot–and anything inside of it–will fall into the high security car. Starting the countdown now.”
“This is so Star Trek,” Chase grinned.
“No it isn’t, Chase. They don’t time travel in Star Trek.”
“They totally do!”
“Quiet! You’ve got to take the wheel now.”
Chase stepped up to the steering panel and Patrick, Mavis, Ellie, and Blackbeard moved over to the patch of space Mavis had indicated.
“Better hold on to me,” Blackbeard cooed to his raptors.
“The localized patch ends a foot off the ground,” Mavis warned the others. “So you’d better jump if you want to keep your feet.”
“What?!” Ellie shrieked.
“Jump!” Mavis ordered and they all leaped into the air. A surge of power coursed through the entire vessel, focusing itself on the area where the children and Blackbeard were now springing into the air. There was a dull popping noise as that patch of air was sucked out as if by a vacuum. Meanwhile, inside of the high security car there was a whoomph! as the extra air and the time travelers forced their way into that space.
“Yeah!” Chase cheered from the console as he and Nell watched their friends successfully enter the timeline.
“Nice,” Nell smiled. “Now get us to the back of the train and we’ll get into costume.”
And off they went while the rest of the crew began poking around the high security car. It was very dark, given that all the windows were shuttered and no lamps were lit inside. They could make out a massive, metal box in the center, though, which divided the car into four perimeter hallways.
“Ahh,” Patrick whispered. “It’s a safe. This is where they keep all the valuables that they have to transport.”
“But where be the time offenders?” Blackbeard asked the children in a low growl.
“Probably not here yet,” Mavis stated. “We’ve arrived before they showed up in this timeline.”
As if on cue there came a series of rapid popping sounds all around the room. Six of the time bandits burst onto the scene, each wearing the same armor as the ones from the other periods of history.
“Let’s get them!” Patrick surged forward.
“For history!” Ellie joined the charge.
“Quietly, please!” Mavis added as he dove into the fray.
“At them, my beauties!” Blackbeard ordered his raptors and leaped to the battle.
All became utter chaos as arms and legs and heads and bodies flung about in a tumbling brawl!
“Excuse me, ma’am. Excuse me, sir.” Chase was walking down the aisle of the passenger car, dressed once more in period-correct clothing. He now came to the row that young Abraham Lincoln sat on and he couldn’t help but turn his head sideways to stare the man’s profile. Lincoln had his eyes fixed on the back of the person that sat in front of him, but his eyes were unfocused, as if he was lost in deep thought.
Chase had not been paying attention to where he was walking and had just collided with a server coming the other way. Chase spun around just in time to see the man drop a tall stack of glass plates. He threw his hands out instinctively, barely managing to grab the stack out of the air before they shattered on the floor.
“Sorry!” he handed the plates back, then quickly moved away. He lowered to the nearest open seat, the one that Nell was already seated next to. “Whew, that was close, wasn’t it? You don’t think just that bump will have much of a ramification on the timeline, will it? Definitely would have been worse if the plates had broken though!”
But Nell wasn’t listening, she rotated backwards in her seat, attention locked on the conversation that Abraham Lincoln was now having with the man beside him.
“On your way back to Illinois, Lincoln?” the short, stocky man with vibrant, dark hair said to the future president.
“That’s right, Douglas.”
“To take up your law practice again?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Good for you, old boy! I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but the courts do suit you far better than the Senate ever did. Best favor I ever did was beating you in the elections!”
Abraham Lincoln sighed and looked away. “Well aren’t you gracious?” he asked sarcastically.
“Oh come now, Lincoln, there’s no shame in that! It’s just that some of us are born to interpret the law and others are born to write it. You’re the first and I’m the latter. There really wasn’t anything more for you to do in politics, anyway, you just have to play the role you’ve been given and be glad with it.”
Lincoln looked like he was about to retort, but then shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right, Stephen.”
“Blackbeard, over here!” Patrick called. He was hanging with all his strength to the back of one of the guards. Mavis had the same guard’s right arm pinned down, Ellie was restraining the left. Blackbeard dropped the guard he had been slapping silly and administered a massive haymaker to the one the children were grappling with, knocking him out cold. With that there was only two of the time bandits left, each of whom were entangled with Blackbeard’s raptors.
“Well this is going to be easy!” Patrick crowed.
“Reset!” one of the armored guards said to the other. “And bring in reinforcements!” The two remaining guards them trembled for a moment, then suddenly started moving in reverse. They’re bodies remained moving forward in time, but everything about them was happening backwards. Their armor became undented, their fallen comrades rose back to their feet, and they all returned to the starting positions where they had first arrived. Not only this, but there came another series of popping noises and six more of the guards arrived in the car.
“You just had to jinx us, didn’t you?” Ellie accused Patrick.
All of the guards surged forward. The children, Blackbeard, and the raptors tried to hold them off, but they couldn’t withstand the greater numbers. One of them pinned Mavis’s arms behind his back, another lifted Patrick high into the air, another held Ellie against the wall. Four of the guards restrained the raptors and another four…well…those four tried to restrain Blackbeard, but he continued thrashing around with them in a never-ending struggle.
Meanwhile the last guard pulled out a metallic briefcase and opened it. He began fiddling with its controls, configuring the bomb that rested inside!
“That’s their idea of being quiet?!” Nell hissed as she and Chase heard the ruckus coming from the high security car. “We’ve got to start a distraction!”
But as it turned out, there wasn’t any need.
“Oho there!” Douglas stood up next to Abraham Lincoln and pointed out the window to the highway robber that was riding out to stop the train. A moment later and the engineer turned up the speed, slamming everyone back into their seats. Several of the passengers screamed, and everyone was much too distracted to pay attention to the continuing thuds that sounded from the high security car.
“The engineer’s going to crash us!” Douglas exclaimed, gesturing to the wooden barricade.
“Everyone hold on to something!” Abraham Lincoln ordered, and a moment later the entire vehicle lurched through the wooden beams with a deafening crunch. Everything inside went bump! bump! bump! as some of those beams passed under the wheels of their car. Then came an even stronger bump, one that tipped the whole car sideways and was followed by a terrible grinding sound of metal on wood.
“What’s happening?!” a passenger shouted.
“Look there!” another passenger leaned out the window and pointed to the back of the car. “One of those blocks of wood is lodged under the wheel, we’re dragging it along.”
“If the wheels don’t have contact with the track then they won’t be able to make the turn!” another passenger pointed up towards a bend in the tracks just before the rails turned onto the bridge. “We’re going to derail!”
Blackbeard grabbed one of the guards and slammed him into the wall, knocking him out cold. But then came a trio of punches to his gut and even he couldn’t withstand all the abuse. He fell to his knees with a thud.
“Come now,” the guard who had finished assembling the bomb tutted. “There is no point in fighting against the inevitable. You’ll only bloody your lip and things will still come out the same. We are The Mass and The Mass is irrefutable!” And with that the guard pressed one last button on the bomb, starting a timer that began counting down from thirty seconds!
“You’re crazy!” Ellie strained against her captor. “You’re going to blow yourselves up along with the train?!”
“Actually, that won’t be necessary at all.” The guard nodded to the four who were restraining the raptors. Each of them touched a time-recall unit on their chests and disappeared with a pop, taking the reptiles out of the timeline with them. “All of us will leave, and you will remain with a bomb that you cannot deactivate. For you see, this bomb has already exploded, and that detonation is only traveling through time to meet the device where it currently resides.” He gave another nod and the guards holding Patrick, Mavis, and Ellie released the youth, then touched their time-recall units and disappeared with a pop. “So go ahead and look for a wire to cut, or a button to press. The deed has already been done, the detonation is irrefutable!”
“All of us are dead!” Stephen Douglas wailed in the passenger car.
“Out of the way!” Lincoln commanded as he pushed the man aside and leaned out the window in the back of the car. “We’ve got to get that block out of there.”
“Oh come off it, Lincoln!” Douglas scolded. “There’s nothing for you to do. You’re not a backwoodsman anymore, you’re a lawyer!”
“I’m not a backwoodsman or a lawyer!” Lincoln cried as he gripped the frame of the window, swung his legs out, and kicked the block of his wood with all his strength. The entire car shook and the piece nearly dislodged itself, but not quite. He gave another kick, and with a tremendous crash the car fell back onto the rail, just in time to make its turn. A flurry of hands reached out and grabbed the hero around the shoulders and hauled him back into the train, just as it turned from the cliffs and onto the bridge. “I’m Abraham Lincoln!” he declared as the car erupted into cheers. “And you couldn’t be more wrong about me Douglas. There is much I have left to do, even in your precious halls of government!”
The armored guard looked back to the quickly-dwindling time: 5 seconds left. He nodded to the other guards who were holding Blackbeard and they, too, disappeared into thin air. Only the one guard remained.
“As I said before,” he said as he touched his chest, “we are the Mass, and the Mass is irrefutable!”
“Only Blackbeard is irrefutable!” the old pirate snarled. Then he sprang to his feet and charged forward.
But Blackbeard wasn’t leaping for the bomb, he was aiming for the guard. He slammed the foe straight in the chest, just as the guard’s time-recall unit powered on. Blackbeard grit his teeth as he angled the two of them through the air, redirecting their fall so that they landed on the bomb just as the time recall fully energized. A slight ripple of blue light began to emanate from the bomb, but then it and Blackbeard and the guard disappeared with a pop, carrying the explosion to another moment in time!
Just like that…it was over. All of the children looked at each other with mouths agape.
“Did that–” Patrick spluttered in disbelief. “Did they–did we just pull that off?!”
“Blackbeard pulled it off,” Ellie corrected. “I guess his honest streak won out in the end.”
“Yeah…I guess was wrong about him,” Mavis admitted. He shook his head with a smile. “Hey guys, let’s get out of here.”
Mavis activated his walkie talkie to report their success to the others. Nell and Chase quietly slid out of the passenger car and back to the Time Capsule. They picked up Ellie, Patrick and Mavis, untethered from that moment of time, and sent the machine flying back to the present.
“Well I call that mission a success!” Mavis grinned.
“Yep,” Nell approved. “Impossible as it seemed, we’ve tied off every last, little thing.”
“Well…not everything,” Patrick interjected. “We still don’t know where those time bandits even came from. How did they have better tech than us? Are they from the future? But then why would they be trying to mess up history? Seems liked they’d be destroying their own lives as much as ours!”
Right on cue a massive alien spaceship materialized right in their own bubble of time warp!
“Humans!” a voice spoke through the Time Capsule’s speakers. “You have crossed us for the last time. The Mass is irrefutable!“
Mavis looked to the other children in awe. He was about to bark out orders…but just then the school bell started ringing. Recess was over.
“We’ll have to pick it up next time,” Ellie sighed, and with that the adventurers scampered off for their backpacks.
Well there it is, the end of The Time Travel Situation! There really were many things that I enjoyed about writing it, but honestly I spent a great deal of my time trying to beat it back down from ballooning into something much larger than I’d originally intended. And this is not the only story that I’ve had seen get bloated of late. Pretty much all of my recent stories have run away with me for far longer than I’d intended for them to.
But this hasn’t always been a problem for me. In fact I’ve had plenty of stories that were far shorter than what I’d intended as well. In fact one of the most difficult things for me when writing a story seems to be keeping things to the length that fits them best. I’d like to share a bit more of my experience with that in my next post, and perhaps I’ll learn a few things that I can bring into my next story on Thursday.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
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!
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?”
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.
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.
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!”
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!
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.
“You distract the dinosaur!” Mavis shouted to Patrick as they tore through the undergrowth. “I’ll circle back and fix the Time Capsule!”
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.
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.
“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.