Judges' commendation - Grades 4-8

December 2021


Judges’ comments: This was an incredibly close contender for a prize, so we had to award a special commendation to Katie. Such a confidently written story with an engaging sci-fi vibe. 

Mission 57 years Back

by Katie Ngo

Despite being the most important person in the expedition, which is a position that took a lot of convincing for a 16-year-old to acquire, this is only my fifth time in the secret lab. I take it all in through the glass of the machine – all the tables, machines, posters and most importantly, the focused faces. I place my ChronoScreen, a device for one-way communication from the lab, safely and securely into my pocket. The scientists put me in a dress with a red polka-dot pattern on it, which is the centre of the thought I force into my head to combat the jitters and dark ‘what-if’ scenarios: I’m almost certain my mum will steal this dress from me when, or if, I get back. Gosh, Mallory, I mentally scold myself, stop being so pessimistic!

“Alright,” Bruce, the head scientist, suddenly calls out, interrupting my consistent flow of negative thoughts, “we are ready!” I give my parents a final smile before I am blinded by iridescent streaks of light. And it all turns white… 

The ChronoScreen buzzes in my pocket – a notification from Bruce. Carefully, I take out the device, that is no bigger than my smartphone, and flip the protective case. A new message is on the right side of the screen: ‘You’re in the waiting room. The machine is loading you into 1964. I’ll update you every 15 minutes.’ As I remove my eyes from the ChronoScreen, the white void of the waiting room confronts me once more. It’s all I see for another minute or so until an alleyway suddenly materialises around me. 

Ding! ‘September 19, 1964. Remember, you have 3 hours until you have to come back to 2021. Press the ‘T’ on your ChronoScreen to do so.’ I roll my eyes: he says ‘remember’ as if it isn’t already drilled in my head after thousands of lectures. I shove the device back into my pocket – ‘nobody is allowed to see it’. Enthusiastically, I skip towards the main road. I might as well use this opportunity to get an ‘A’ in History.

The road is incredibly familiar, considering that this is forty years before I was even born. Then, I realise it is one of the first roads I have ever known: Goodwood Road. The corroding road sign a few metres to my left confirms it. Bright cars, that are flatter than any in my time, zoom past me. Cheerful families chat around me. Wow, I think, Goodwood has not changed. I stroll further down the road and notice a fawn building with curvaceous lines and a bold sign. They read ‘New Cinema Curzon’ although it’s unmistakably the Capri Theatre; the theatre where my primary school’s annual concerts were always held. 

Abruptly, someone shoves me. I turn around to see a girl around my age sheepishly smiling at me. “Sorry,” she apologises, “it’s a new bike – still getting used to it.” She glances at the teal bicycle next to her. It is bizarre to hear her calling this bike new when it’s the exact ‘vintage’ model my mum always wanted. The girl almost walks off before doing a double-take. “Are you new here? Never seen you before.” 

Panicking, I quickly fabricate a lie. “Uh, yeah, I’m new in town.”

“Oh! I’m Lisa Bell!” Lisa has voluptuous, sandy hair styled with a bright blue headband and a matching floral playsuit. She is a bit taller than me with freckly, porcelain skin. “Would you like a tour of the city, then?” My overly-prudent, Vietnamese mother would never agree to this but... oh, jeez, what’s the worst that could happen?

Lisa moves towards the edge of the walkway, on the side of a small street, and hops onto the bike. I take the smaller seat behind her. At first, the bike was wobbling around, however, she soon gets the hang of it and we drift down the street. Lisa pedals confidently, swerving and turning like a professional, while I remain idle. All the noise around me becomes incoherent to my ears as I absent-mindedly watch a once-in-a-lifetime view of my hometown. 

Half an hour later, we finally stop in the centre of Adelaide. I suddenly tune back in on Lisa’s blabbering - news about the city that I should have listened to earlier – and we dismount from her bike. She strides towards a bustling street, lined with rows of colourful shops on either side, with her bike to her side; this street was Rundle Street, where my friends and I also enjoyed shopping on weekends. 

I am so engaged in Lisa’s explanation of 1964 Adelaide and recount of her life here, I had no idea 2 hours passed until she points at a beautifully-decorated clock on display. That is when I realise the last message I received from Bruce was the one I got in the alleyway. That was almost three hours ago. Hold up, why haven’t I gotten an update?

While Lisa is distracted by rambling on about school, I quickly pull out the ChronoScreen to see the timer. 0:04 remaining. I plop it back in my pocket, praying nobody saw the modern piece of technology, and luckily, Lisa is preoccupied with helping a squat, elderly lady. My heartbeat accelerates, my body frozen. I have no time to waste. I can feel the ChronoScreen buzzing in my pocket, indicating my final three minutes here. Spontaneously, I bolt through the crowd, shoving many people, and sprint towards the closest deserted alleyway.

I hastily grab my ChronoScreen. Mallory, your life depends on how long it takes for you to press a simple button. My sweaty fingers manage to press the ‘T’ on the screen before the timer hits zero and I am in the waiting room again. All white. Soon, I arrive in the lab where I was three hours earlier although something isn’t right. All the tables, poster-boards, chairs are clear. The lab seems deserted. It’s as if not a single soul has been here for the past decade…