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I sat on my bed, pencil in hand, having a staring contest with a blank sheet of notebook paper in my spiral journal. The empty paper seemed to be laughing at me. I bit my lip in frustration, tapping the pencil against the top of the journal in a rhythm. I didn’t bother to place the song I vaguely had stuck in my head; all it did was distract me. My mind was working fast and furious, but in circles, getting nowhere. I had an idea, but I had hit a block: a writer’s block, to be exact.
As an amateur writer, I usually prided myself on being able to solve creative problems. This one, though, seemed to be out of my league. I had been challenged by a friend at school to write a story. But not just any story. No, I had to connect time travel, the CIA, and the Olympics in a way that made sense to a reader. Jackson didn’t think I could do it, and I was dead-set on proving him wrong. I had a month.
I’d managed to construct a decent story in my head. A girl genius works on a top-secret government project dealing with time travel. Experiment Number One goes awry, and the result is a kid from medieval England, now stuck in the 21st century. After the culture shock starts fading, the CIA butts in. After doing some research, they discover both the girl’s intelligence and the boy’s prowess in archery. They ask both him and the girl to help them save the Olympic games from being sabotaged by…whom? And how?
Cue my dilemma. I could literally go anywhere with that, but I hadn’t a clue how to bring it about. I’d done hours of research about terrorist groups, the Olympics itself, and the setting for my fictional Olympic games: Rome. The research had helped, definitely, but it hadn’t given me inspiration for the perfect villain.
My sister’s voice broke me out of my reverie. “Austin! Mom says it’s time for dinner!” Megan shouted, poking her head in my bedroom door. “And it’s cheeseburgers, so hurry up! I’m hungry!”
I sighed, putting my journal away. “Megan, if you had to sabotage the Olympics, how would you do it?”
My seven-year-old sister thought for a moment. A huge, mischievous grin spread across her face as she said, “I’d get an evil smiley face to go on TV and put up commercials saying that the Olympics are bad, and then—“
I shook my head. “How about you write that one?”
“Maybe I will,” she replied defensively.
After dinner I still had writer’s block. It lasted into the night, to the point of insomnia. When I was still awake at two in the morning, I was absolutely certain that I was losing my mind. I was also pretty sure that I was suffering from sleep deprivation. This night was almost too still, too silent. I jumped when the wind picked up; it seemed so loud in the deafening silence. As soon as I calmed down, however, I jumped again for an entirely different reason.
The wind picked up more in a matter of seconds, almost roaring. It sounded like a freight train. Mentally, I panicked. Didn’t tornadoes make noises like that? It sounded enormous, and as if the noise was coming from right outside my bedroom window. Suddenly, there was a deafening crack of thunder and a blinding flash of light, the kind of lightning that fills a room and illuminates the sky. The light was an eerie shade of blue that led me to think it wasn’t natural. Just as suddenly, all was deathly silent again.
The display was bizarre and terrifying. The weather forecast had called for clear skies all night, and there was no way something like that could have come out of nowhere and then just disappeared. And it was a wonder Megan hadn’t come running to my bedroom already, scared as she was of storms. Could she have slept through it? I scoffed internally; could anyone have slept through that?
I got out of bed. I couldn’t have been the only one who noticed that. I stuck on a pair of fuzzy socks, opened the door, and immediately froze, gaping. Quickly, I closed the door, telling myself that I was dreaming, that what I’d just seen was impossible. Impossible!
The other half of me whispered, Look again, Austin. What if it’s real? There was no possible way that could be real. I had to be dreaming. But then a thought struck me: Once someone knows they’re dreaming, they wake up. I had been thinking this was a dream for almost three full minutes. Maybe, just maybe…I didn’t finish the thought. Against my better judgment, I warily opened the door again. Again, I gaped. It was still there.
I stood staring in awestruck wonder at a laboratory. The technology was unlike anything I’d ever seen before: supercomputers, power generators, satellite feed, one pristine video camera, and several huge pieces of machinery whose purpose was unclear just by looking at them. One in particular, a set of concentric rings, was set in the center of the room. People were bustling around, checking things on monitors, making adjustments on the equipment, and otherwise preparing for an experiment.
There was only one thing stranger than the fact that no one seemed to notice the high-schooler standing in his pajamas in the doorframe of his bedroom in their lab. This lab, down to the finest detail, looked exactly the way I had pictured the lab for that top-secret government experiment in the story I was writing. It was uncanny; maybe it was just my imagination.
Another person ran into the lab, and I blanched, pinching myself hard. It hurt; this was real. The person who’d just run in was a teenage girl in a white lab coat, dark hair in a careless braid down her back, sharp blue eyes taking in everything, all at once. Her nametag read “Riley Anderson.” I almost had a coronary. The main character in my story looked exactly how I’d imagined her.
“Double-check the numbers,” she told a technician who was working furiously at a monitor. “If this is wrong, there’s no telling what’ll happen, but I can guarantee that it won’t be good.”
“I’ve checked the numbers four times, Dr. Anderson,” the man replied, tense and evidently frustrated. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was, verbatim, exactly as I had written it down, but I was. “They’ve been put in accurately, assuming the calculations are right.”
“They are,” Riley assured him. “I went over them eight times before having Dr. Henry check behind me. Check again, just in case.”
The man sighed in frustration, but checked again. I watched, bug-eyed, as Riley moved around the room, making sure everything was correct and in place for their first run of the experiment. Every word was exactly what I had imagined, every gesture spot-on, and every detail perfect. Riley Anderson was the lead physicist on this project, even though she was only seventeen. She answered to Dr. Carson Henry, head of operations at this top-secret government location. Their goal for the first experiment: to send a video camera back to this exact spot, 500,000 years into the past, for one minute. The results of the first run would determine future runs.
It was incredible. I got to watch as the technicians put the camera in the concentric rings, shouting that all was ready. Before I knew it, the experiment was underway. The instant they pushed the red button, there was a flash of light from the machine. The camera disappeared, replaced by a terrified-looking teenage boy in medieval garb wielding a bow and arrows. Again, he looked and behaved exactly as I had imagined: thin, with dark blonde hair, clear green eyes, and quick but wary movements. He shouted in Old English, “Hwá sy gelimplic? Bæcern béo ic?” What’s happening? Where am I?
The technicians and scientists weren’t helping. They were running everywhere, checking things and shouting and otherwise making the scene more chaotic. Riley, however, kept her head. She shouted, at the top of her voice, “Silence!” As I knew it would, the room went silent. Everyone froze. “Settle down! Let’s handle this in an organized fashion, shall we?” She turned toward the boy in the time machine, who slowly stood from his crouched position, staring at Riley. She asked him, “Bist ðu feohstrang?” Are you all right? Yes, this physicist spoke Old English.
Hesitantly, the boy replied, “Ic ræswe swá, Síþwíf.” I think so, my Lady.
“Hwá sy þín ágennama?” What is your name?
“John, Síþwíf.” John, my Lady.
Suddenly, the room went black. The scene changed. It was now at a gym, where John and Riley stood talking about their pasts. Both spoke modern English; it had been a few months since the oddball experiment. John was carrying a modern recurve bow, and firing arrow after arrow into a target at the far end of the gym. Every shot was near perfect.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” Riley asked him.
He drew back and fired, exhaling before he answered. “My father taught me. He was a good hunter.” John’s accent was almost British, but slightly different: exactly what I’d imagined. “Can you shoot?”
“I learned at camp, but I’m not very good. Archery’s almost obsolete nowadays.”
“Few do it anymore.”
“Oh. Aye, I noticed that.” He fired another arrow.
They kept talking, and on a hunch, I glanced up. Sure enough, two men stood in the balcony above the gym, whispering to each other, assessing John and Riley. My writer’s instinct kicked in; they were Agent Conner and Agent Sanders of the CIA. John saw them after a moment.
“Riley,” he said, “who are those men up there?” He nodded toward the balcony.
She glanced up. “I don’t know,” she replied. Both of them fell silent, not looking up, but trying to hear what the men were saying. I knew what they were talking about, but the only word I caught was “Olympics.”
The scene shifted again. Whatever was happening seemed to be happening even faster. It was amazing. I watched, spellbound, as Riley and John found out what the CIA wanted them to investigate. I saw them accept the challenge of going undercover and finding out who was trying to sabotage the summer Olympics in Rome. I watched John’s Olympic trial; every single arrow landed in the bull’s eye. Needless to say, his perfect score earned him a spot on the team. I saw them fly out to Rome. I saw them start poking around and investigating. I saw Riley talking casually with a foreign man, asking seemingly innocent questions.
The man showed up again and again once they were in Rome. He was at the preliminaries for all the swimming, and track and field events. I noticed that at every event he attended, someone unexpected won. It wasn’t random; whoever was expected to come in fourth for the individual events came in first. In addition, the winners all talked to this man about an hour before their respective events. That was weird. Riley and John noticed and looked into it.
I knew, instinctively, that this man was behind the trouble at the Olympics. It was an epiphany moment; in a split second, I knew everything there was to know about him. He was the perfect villain. His name was Hugo Ivanov, and he worked for an organization whose purpose was to make money through making and selling top-of-the-line performance-enhancing drugs.
These drugs were like steroids, but much stronger and more comprehensive. They not only made the body stronger and faster, but also sharpened eyesight, hearing, and reflexes, and increased flexibility and hyperactivity. A single shot, and it would last an athlete a full year before it wore off. The side effects, however, started kicking in when the drug wore off. Irritability, depression, tripled risk of cancer and heart disease, memory loss, early dementia, and the degeneration of the brain were just a few of them. The name: tetrahydrozacolate. All this flew in my head in a split second.
John and Riley didn’t know any of this, but slowly, they started to suspect Ivanov. At the same time, Ivanov started suspecting Riley. He was naturally suspicious of anyone intelligent, but Riley stood out because she kept showing up, in his view, the same way he kept showing up in her view. He knew it wasn’t a coincidence. John was an Olympic athlete and had a reason to keep popping up. Riley, who was pretending to be his adoptive sister, wasn’t quite as excusable.
I could have gone back to bed at that point. I had the answer I needed; I had probably had it in the back of my head all along, and it had just needed help coming into light. But how many writers get to watch their stories unfold exactly the way they imagine it? I stayed in the doorframe, kept awake by an adrenaline high. This was incredible.
I saw Riley taken captive by Ivanov and his men, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time asking seemingly innocent questions. He took her to the hotel they were staying in, and sat her down for an interrogation. His first question was, “Who are you, girl? Who sent you here?”
“I’m a physicist,” she replied. “Team USA asked me to look into the events and make a few calculations.” That was true; the American Olympic team had asked her to do that.
Ivanov was skeptical. “You, a physicist? You’re just a girl! How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” she said. “And I have my Ph.D. in physics and mathematics. Why do you care, anyway? I thought you were too busy betting on the Olympic events to have noticed a seventeen-year-old physicist taking data.” She was baiting him. I smirked; she was turning this interrogation into a reverse-psychology monologue session.
Ivanov took the bait, scoffing. “You’re naïve for a scientist, girl. I wasn’t betting on the games. I was doing something much more important: ensuring the success of our operation. The placement of those athletes is irrelevant, so long as we designate the winners.”
“You designate the winners?” Riley asked in mock surprise. “But that’s so difficult! There are so many variables to take into consideration; how do you manage?”
He smiled smugly. “It’s impossible for the chosen winners to lose, girl. They’re all on tetrahydrozacolate.”
“Tetra-hydro-whata-what?” She shook her head. “Sounds like something out of AP chemistry.”
Ivanov rolled his eyes. “It’s a top-of-the-line, first-of-its-kind performance-enhancing drug. Within a year, it can turn a ninety-eight-pound bench-warmer into a specimen that an NFL linebacker would envy.”
“So all the winners are on steroids? How fair is that?”
He scoffed again. “Fair can only get you so far in the real world, girl. Money is the driving force here. Five grams of tetrahydrozacolate sell for 1.2 million US dollars.”
“I take it this isn’t public knowledge,” Riley guessed.
“Correct. In fact, only our organization and our clients know of it.”
“And me,” she pointed out.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we? I hope you didn’t expect us to let you go after this. I don’t know who you’re working for, but you’re definitely working for someone.” He nodded at a goon standing in the corner who looked like he was on tetrahydrozacolate. “Take her.”
The man he’d indicated dragged her out of the room, but he was none too smart. I pumped my fist when Riley escaped under his nose. She did a search on tetrahydrozacolate, finding out most of the details about its aftereffects, and immediately after, held a conference with John and Agent Sanders. They were both astounded as she laid out every detail of the conspiracy. Agent Sanders requested a drug test for all the athletes; fourteen former medalists were disqualified, their events rescheduled. Ivanov was arrested, and the press recorded every detail.
At last, I got to witness what I had imagined as the ending scene. The day was perfect; it was sunny and warm, with a slight breeze. The stadium was packed, and the mood excited. At one end of the field was a row of targets. At the other, seventy meters down, was a line of people of several nationalities, all armed with a heavy-duty recurve bow and several arrows. John stood among them. Riley sat in the stands, watching eagerly. I had the best seat in the stadium; I was on level with the field, halfway between the archers and the targets.
When it was John’s turn to fire, he took a deep breath, stepped up to the line, and drew back, carefully aiming. Focusing in, John let it go and quickly followed it with two more, getting three bull’s eyes. Every set, he shot three bull’s eyes. It was more than gratifying; John’s character had been based partly on Robin Hood. Before long, the moment of truth came. I was grinning like crazy, having written the outcome.
The announcer called out John’s name, and despite his flawless performance, he was disbelieving as he mounted the podium, clutching the gold medal. Once he got over the shock, he beamed at everyone in sight. After the national anthem, I watched as John hugged Riley. I couldn’t hear from where I stood, but I knew that she said, grinning, “I told you.”
Best. Ending. Ever. And it was better in reality. I turned around to go back to my room as the scene went dark again, stumbling into the room and falling into bed. When I woke the next morning—a Saturday—I immediately pulled out my notebook. The blank paper that had been laughing at me yesterday was no longer laughing; now it seemed almost eager for words.
Just as eager, I started writing.
Source for the Old English:
Barthram, Phil. Old English to Modern English Translator. 9 December 2014 http://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk/index.htm.