The extracurricular activities of the middle school students in the “Backpack Club” are anything but ordinary! Fueled by their curiosity, love of science, and an extraordinary backpack, they travel through time searching for answers their science class can’t provide.
Members of the Backpack Club, K.T., Jace, and Summer take an unexpected detour when they attempt to lighten K.T.’s hectic schedule. This jump forward will put their daily struggles into perspective while providing valuable lessons about friendship and coping with stressful situations.
Near-peer audio readings are by a high school student, B. Fannin.
The story has been divided into 22 pages. Click on the Tabs below to view the pages.
Click. Click. Click.
Summer glanced over at KT, slightly irritated at the sound KT was making with her pen. Couldn’t KT stop distracting everyone?! Mr. Murphy is reviewing the chapters for our history exam next week!
Click. Click. Click.
Summer exhaled and then leaned over and whispered, “KT, please stop clicking your pen. I can’t concentrate.”
KT stopped clicking her pen. “Oh. Sorry.” she said distractedly. I just can’t believe how many things I have to do this week. I have soccer practice every day this week to prepare for the regional soccer tournament on Saturday. If we win, we will compete in the state championship! We haven’t made it to the championship in years. Her stomach began to coil into knots. She was always nervous before a soccer game.
Mr. Murphy interrupted KT’s inner monologue. “KT, focus please. The exam on Monday is 20% of your final grade, and your—the class’s—performance on the last exam was mediocre at best.”
The class began snickering, and KT’s face turned bright red. She slouched in her seat, trying to hide from her classmates’ stares. KT hadn’t done well on the last exam, and the whole class knew it because Gregory, the biggest and meanest kid in her class, told everyone. It’s not my fault I can’t remember dates well! Who cares how long the Battle of the Alamo lasted?! It all happened in the past, and I only moved to Texas a few years ago!
The bell rang, breaking into KT’s thoughts. Together, she and Summer made their way to the cafeteria, where they met up with their friends who were discussing Summer’s upcoming birthday that weekend.
Jace looked over at KT and asked, “Are you free on Friday? Summer wants to see a movie.”
KT looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to go. I’m so busy this weekend. I’m so stressed about our history exam. I just know I’m going to get a bad grade again…”
Jace frowned. “But it’s Summer’s birthday! You can’t miss it!”
“I have to pass this history exam, or I’ll get kicked off the team!” KT’s outburst drew the attention of her friends sitting nearby. Once the group had started middle school, they became close, calling themselves the Backpack Club. The club’s name came from their time traveling made possible by a microprocessor contained in a backpack. The computer allowed the kids to time travel, and just recently, they had started traveling forward in time.
“Wait! I have the perfect idea!” said Summer in a loud voice, startling students at nearby tables. She looked around and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “What if we go forward a week? If you pass the exam, will you come to the movie?”
Jace’s frown turned into a smile. “Hey, that’s a great idea, Summer. We can go today after school!”
KT’s eyebrows furrowed, causing her forehead to crinkle. She thought about the idea, and then reluctantly she said, “Sure. I’m in.”
Summer, KT, and Jace sat in a circle in the garage, carefully positioned so that their knees were touching. Jace unzipped the backpack and folded down the front of the backpack, exposing the microprocessor. Jace typed in the date they were traveling to. He carefully placed his fingers on the keys, readying himself to press the combination that would hurdle them forward. Jace paused and then looked over at KT. “Would you like to do the honors? This is your trip.”
KT nervously cleared her throat and began reciting their well-known pact that marked the start of each of their adventures: “Mission accepted…. Let’s do this.”
Jace began the countdown, “One….” He glanced around, making sure nothing else was touching them. Anything touching them would travel through time with them. “Two….” KT reached over and placed her hand in the crook of each of her friends’ arms. She had a bad feeling about this trip. The three friends each squeezed their eyes shut, readying themselves for the burst of light that would start their travels. As Jace yelled “three,” he slammed the keys, and Summer, Jace, and KT felt a tug, propelling them forward through time.
The kids crashed to the floor with a thud.
“Ouch,” muttered Summer. She moved the wheels of her wheelchair, making sure they were still intact. She turned to her friends, asking “How are y’all feel—” Her question abruptly trailed off.
Rational and level-headed, Summer wasn’t often surprised. Now, however, Summer’s eyes were wide, and she was staring at a point just over KT’s right shoulder. Confused, KT began asking, “What are—”
“What is that?!” Jace interrupted Summer’s question.
Summer, Jace, and KT were staring at a huge advertisement taking up the side of a gleaming silver skyscraper. The advertisement was of a person—if you could call it that—unwinding a cord from some point on their arm. The person walked to the wall and plugged the end of the cord into the wall. A red circle illuminated in the middle of the person’s forehead. Then, the words “Homeostasis 2.0″ followed by “Coming to Texas” appeared on the screen.
“What in the world? We definitely traveled further than a week!” KT exclaimed, the pitch of her voice rising as she spoke. KT’s eyes darted around, looking for clues. They were surrounded by skyscrapers that seemed to be covered in windows. Each of the skyscrapers seemed identical: cold, tall, stark, and shiny. The only difference between the buildings was the advertisements plastered over rings that seemed to float around the middle of the skyscrapers. The rings were
flat and covered in big screens similar to those in football stadiums. Her head began to feel fuzzy, like she had just spun in circles too many times.
KT’s eyes travelled higher, where she saw cars in the sky. The cars seemed to be darting everywhere. But, their movement was oddly organized. They each obviously knew where they were going. She stared at the cars, overwhelmed by everything she was seeing. Ever so slowly, she felt her fingers tingling; the sensation crawled up her arms. Her chest tightened, and her breaths became deeper and deeper. Her heart started beating, faster and faster until it was the only thing she could hear. Then, she collapsed, her legs giving out.
Summer sat staring up, mesmerized by the organized chaos. Suddenly, she heard gasps of air. She looked over her shoulder and saw KT struggling to breathe. KT’s chest was heaving: she was trying desperately to draw air into her lungs.
Shocked, Jace asked, “What’s wrong, KT? Are you ok?”
“She’s having an anxiety attack,” Summer said. She wheeled over to KT, leaned over, and began gently rubbing KT’s back in circular motions. In a low, gentle voice, she said, “It’s ok, KT. We’re here. Let’s breathe together.” Summer began breathing in and out slowly, counting while she did so.
“One… two… three… four… five.”
Slowly, Summer increased the length of her breaths, and KT began to slow her breath to match Summer’s. “What. Was. That.” KT managed to choke out.
Summer leaned back in her chair and replied, “You had an anxiety attack. It happens when someone is overwhelmed or really stressed. Our bodies’ natural fight or flight mechanism goes haywire.”
KT smiled grimly, “Oh… Well, what are we going to do?”
The normally jovial Jace whispered tensely, “I’m not sure, but people are starting to stare… We need to find somewhere to hide so we can go back home.” Jace quickly looked around at the surrounding stores. They all looked foreign: there were stores that had signs promoting TVs in brains, eyes that could project images, and software “chips” that could be eaten. There were even robocats perched in a window. Towards the end of the row of stores, Jace noticed a seemingly normal bookstore. He said, “Look. There’s a store that doesn’t seem busy. Let’s go there!”
A bell sounded their arrival. They froze and waited to see if someone would greet them. They glanced around and saw electronic posters promoting books, but there were only gummy-like candies in glass jars. When no one approached them, they made their way to the back of the store, away from the prying eyes on the street.
Jace pointed to a door labeled “Storage. Employees Only.” Even though Jace hadn’t spoken a word, Summer and KT knew that he was looking for somewhere private where they could get the microprocessor out. They slipped into the storage room, and Jace slid the backpack off his back, gently setting it on the ground. He unzipped the backpack and placed his fingers on the special key sequence, this time adding RETURN, which would take them back home, back to safety.
The kids huddled close together, and Jace intoned the phrase that would mark their journey’s end: “Mission completed… Let’s go home.” The kids squeezed their eyes shut and locked arms. Jace counted down, and as he said “three,” he simultaneously pressed the keys, anticipating the tug from time travel.
But nothing happened!
Jace looked over at Summer and then at KT. “Uh, I think something’s wrong.”
Suddenly, the door swung open, and a cyborg—a human-machine hybrid—was standing in the doorway! Its skin was the color of skin but had a shiny glow to it, making it look like it wasn’t skin at all but rather a hard, impenetrable metal. The cyborg had round, shiny buttons where its knuckles should be, and one of its metal arms had a gaping hole. The kids could see thick cords of wire inside its arm instead of muscle.
KT screamed, and this weird cyborg gasped and took a step back. Its eyelids seemed to flutter as if it was just now registering the kids’ presence. “What are…? How did you get…? Who are…?” Flustered, the cyborg couldn’t get out a full question. Suddenly, a bright, red circle illuminated in the center of the cyborg’s forehead before gradually fading away. The cyborg took a deep, calming breath and then shrugged, not seeming to care that the kids were there. Suddenly much calmer, it quietly asked, “What are you doing here?”
The kids were at loss. They each began speaking at once as they tried to come up with a story to explain their obviously misplaced presence.
“Oh.” The cyborg looked at them blandly and then turned around and walked away.
The friends looked at each other. “Well, that was weird,” said KT. “What are we going to do now?”
“We need to fix the machine!” Summer declared.
The kids found their way back to the street and began walking, looking for a computer store. Up ahead, they saw a huge crowd of cyborgs surrounding a store seemingly made entirely of windows. The kids crept closer and peered inside.
KT saw cyborgs being opened and examined. Some were obviously broken: their arms were missing panels just like the cyborg they had encountered in the bookstore. Others seemed to shine extra brightly, as if they had just been built.
On a table directly in front of the kids, a cyborg was lying face-down, its legs twitching uncontrollably. The cyborg looked old: its body was dented and rusted. Two panels on the cyborg’s back were splayed wide open, and a worker was looking at a long hard plastic tube that ran from the cyborg’s neck to its hips. The worker gently pried open the tube, pulled out a mass of tangled wires, and clipped them with a tool that resembled scissors. The cyborg’s legs stopped moving. Next, the worker pulled a new bundle of wires out of a nearby tray and gently connected them to the old wires in the cyborg’s body. Slowly, the cyborg’s legs started moving again. At first, its movements were erratic, but gradually they became more fluid. The worker nodded its head in approval and then began to close the plastic casing before closing the panels.
Summer watched the repair, fascinated at the intricate wiring that reminded her of her own nervous system: the cyborg’s plastic casing protects their wires just as her spinal cord protects her body’s delicate nerves.
“Hey, look back there in the corner,” Summer whispered. A store worker was just coming out of a back room that was filled to the brim with different electrical components. They saw cords everywhere. And there in the very, very back was a glinting green color: the color of motherboards! “Guys, I think they have parts we can use back there… We need to figure out how to get into that room!”
Jace confidently walked up to the workers. “We have a broken microprocessor. Can you take a look at it?”
The workers looked up at him and said, “The damages are beyond repair. Instead, you should upgrade to Homeostasis 2.0.”
It didn’t even look at our microprocessor. How can she possibly know it can’t be fixed? Summer thought. Summer pushed her way forward and said, “Ma’am, we really need this microprocessor, so we can get home.”
The worker repeated the same statements: “The damages are beyond repair. Instead, you should upgrade to Homeostasis 2.0.”
KT felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to look behind her. She saw a girl in dark green robes and a hood over her head. KT thought, Who is this girl? Why is she wearing that green hood? Wait… she’s HUMAN! Realizing that someone was talking to KT, Jace and Summer moved over to KT’s side, abandoning their conversation with the repetitive worker.
The girl whispered to KT, “I can help you guys. You’re not going to find the help you need here with these… people.” Her eyes slid over to the worker as she said the last word.
KT, Summer, and Jace all looked at each other and nodded in unison. This girl is our last chance, thought KT. “Lead the way,” KT said to the girl. As they were beginning to leave, one of the workers lifted their hand to their mouth, activating a call that directed them straight to the authorities. “Hello, I need to report some humans, and there’s a Ned here who’s making a scene. She’s leaving now; good riddance.”
The girl in the hood turned to the worker and said, “You think that’s an insult? I would much rather be a Ned than a mindless robot!” With that, she spun on her heels and, not meeting eyes with anyone, proudly strode out of the store. The crowd of cyborgs quickly cleared a path for her, their metal arms clunking loudly as they backed into one another. KT, Summer, and Jace followed the strange girl to an alley. When the noise from the street faded, the girl faced the three friends and removed her hood. KT blurted out before the girl could speak, “What’s a Ned?”
The girl smiled warmly. “My name is Selye. I’m part of the Negative Feedback Federation. ‘Ned’ comes from my tribe’s shortened name: the Neg Fed.””
Selye took a small bag out of the folds of her robes. “Here,” she said as she placed a squishy square in each of the kids’ hands. “Chew these books. They’ll tell you all you need to know. Follow me as you chew.”
Summer and Jace glanced at each other, surprised. Books?! What is she talking about? thought Summer.
Selye starting walking, and the kids followed her, popping the chews in their mouths. The chews were sweet, like bubble gum. As she chewed, KT noticed her vision becoming hazy. The silver of the skyscrapers seemed to run together with the green of the trees, like paint. She turned to look at her friends who were walking beside her. They appeared as fuzzy outlines. Then, like a daydream, a story began to unfold in each of their minds. A clear mental image formed of a modern city with people—regular people—walking hurriedly with their eyes glued to their devices. Looking at their faces, the people looked tired, worried, and stressed.
A voice, seemingly from nowhere, narrated the story in each of their minds: Humans needed a solution to their stress, and the government sold them one: An implant that turned humans into cyborgs. The word from the billboard, Homeostasis 2.0, appeared in their minds. This technology, planted in the brain, is designed to make humans more competent by controlling the release of stress hormones. The mental image in their minds shifted to small molecules traveling inside a human blood vessel. Hormones are chemical messengers that send signals to almost every tissue, initiating a stress response. The mental image showed blood vessels dilating, the heart pumping harder, eyes widening, and nostrils flaring.
With the implant, the brain still recognizes the stressor. The footage panned up to the head, showing a small metal oval latched onto the brain’s underside—latched onto the anterior pituitary, one of the centers for hormone production and secretion. A small green light glowed in the brain just above the anterior pituitary, roughly at the hypothalamus, the vital link between the nervous and endocrine—or hormonal—systems.
The Homeostasis implant was integrated into almost every human brain, starting a revolution in reducing stress, but also making humans less human and more robotic. However, a few humans refused to become cyborgs. They pose a threat to Homeostasis ideal society. Another mental image appeared. This time, they saw normal-looking humans, including Selye. These humans call themselves the Negative Feedback Federation. Their numbers are dwindling as the government forces them to integrate with the Homeostasis implant. The upgrade coined Homeostasis 2.0, comes with a direct hotline for reporting Ned sightings.
The mental visuals ended, and the alleyway came back into focus. KT spoke first, eyes still heavy from the dream-like story, “Books in the future are so COOL!”
Summer and Jace nodded in agreement, just coming out of their trance.
“A life without stress,” purred KT. “It sounds wonderful!”
“It’s not!” Selye growled, giving KT a stern look. “Stress is important because it makes us more alert.” She continued walking. “Let’s say one of the Homeostasis goons appeared in this alley. As soon as you saw its ugly metal face, stress hormones would prepare your body for what’s about to happen, either a fight with it or a flight in the other direction.”
She started a list with her fingers, “First, you need to pay attention. The stress hormone, adrenaline, will make you alert and improve your ability to form memories. Next, the muscles in your arms and legs need oxygen. Adrenaline will open your airways, increasing your blood pressure. Cortisol will stimulate the release of blood sugar, which supplies energy to your muscles and brain. It also activates your immune system and reduces any inflammation that might occur from a fight. Now, you’re ready to smash that robot into a hunk of junk!” Selye punched the air, acting out the fight. She winked at KT. “Plus, if you get the implant, you can’t be part of the Neg Fed.”
KT thought about her own stress and her panic attack. My stress wasn’t very helpful then. “Too much stress isn’t good, right?” “No, it’s not, but your brain can sense when the body has had enough stress hormone. It does this through a process called homeostasis. The Homeostasis implants are named after our bodies’ natural system that receives signals that control hormone production.”
Selye went on; “Your brain interprets the signal as either a ‘go’ signal called positive feedback or a ‘stop’ signal called negative feedback.” Selye flashed a playful smile at the allusion to her tribe’s name and their mission to stop Homeostasis.
They came to a run-down building with a door hanging precariously on its hinges. Peering through the emptiness inside, Jace thought, This can’t be it.
Selye held her wrist up to the door, and Jace saw a metal wristband glint in the sunlight. The empty doorway slowly began to be filled with light from inside the building. Selye stepped through the open doorway that now revealed a room that was not there before. She turned and looked at the kids, and said, “Welcome to the Negative Feedback Federation!” “Whoa…” K.T. said with amazement. “Was that some kind of magic?!” “No,” Selye chuckled. “It’s science! We design all of our own technology here.
KT was amazed. “How are y’all so productive even with stress? How do y’all manage it?”
“We do small things every day,” Selye explained. “We mediate in the mornings, get plenty of exercise and sleep, and strengthen our social connections by practicing gratitude, laughing, or simply having fun,” Selye said as she smiled at the crowd of people walking toward them. “Hear! Hear!” the Neg Fed cheered as they started to make their introductions to the kids. Everyone seemed genuinely excited to meet their three young guests. While the kids shared stories with the Neg Fed, Selye took the backpack from Jace. She was joined by a young man named Hans who was hailed as the Federation’s expert in old technology.
After examining the microprocessor, Hans approached the crew. “This technology is far too old for any of our tools. Selye will help you retrieve the necessary tools, and then I’ll send her our new coordinates. We have to keep moving to avoid detection. If Homeostasis gets their hands on any of us, we will be forced to integrate.” Hans handed Selye the backpack, saying “Stay hidden! Good luck, adventurers!”
The three kids and Selye exited the warehouse and followed Selye to the side of the building where she started to climb a ladder. When kids reached the rooftop, their eyes widened as they saw their next mode of travel: green single-person jets. The kids jumped in. They took off with a rocky start, but the pods smoothed out as they leveled out among the clouds.
KT felt her stomach twist as her pod sliced the oncoming wind. She nervously looked outside her pod window to see how her friends were doing.
“WOOHOO!” Jace shouted as he weaved around the skyscrapers. Summer snuck a glance at him through her pod window. His smile was wider than she had ever seen.
Looking around, Summer noticed that Selye’s pod was no longer in front of her. She twisted around as much as she could in the small space to look behind her. Suddenly, a bright red pod appeared in front of each of the kid’s pods. Summer’s heart sank as she read the logo on the side, Homeostasis. She heard a booming voice from the red pod say, “These pods are not registered with Homeostasis. You are being detained for interrogation about the location of the Negative Feedback Federation.” She tried to fly her pod backward, but the wheel went stiff. Her pod slumped forward as the Homeostasis pod sucked in each of her friends’ pods.
KT, Jace, and Summer were taken to a small cell with cold metal floors surrounded by thick metal bars.
Beyond the bars, a robot was stirring, its eyes glowing red. In a monotone voice, it said, “You will be integrated. It is the only way.” As the robot spoke, a holograph hovering in the center of the room projected a human body.
The friends watched as a green light appeared in the brain and traveled through the bloodstream to a location above the kidneys, the adrenals glands. “A continual, long-term release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands causes damage,” said the robot. The kids watched as the hormone cortisol was released as a blue light that traveled back to the brain through the bloodstream. Instantly, the brain glowed brightly, bathed in cortisol’s blue light. The projection zoomed in to show brain cells, or neurons. The ends of one neuron almost touching the “head” of another neuron. There were little particles traveling between the end of one neuron and the head of another. “Frequent release of cortisol shrivels the nerve endings.” The ends of the neuron wilted like old flowers in a vase. “The neuron can’t communicate with other cells.” The kids watched as one of the neurons started to unravel, and the particles moving between the neurons halted. Darkness filled the room again.
Now the only light in the room came from the robot’s red eyes. It spoke again, “Homeostasis 2.0 is the adaptation that ensures humanity’s survival. Similar to the evolution leading to the first amphibian-like fish exploring the nutrients of the land or the first bird-like reptile gliding to safety, Homeostasis 2.0 is human evolution. Your integration will begin shortly.”
Summer muttered to herself, “What does a robot know about evolution?”
“Summer….” KT said, her voice shaky. She looked up at Summer with wide eyes as she struggled to speak. “Panic. Attack.”
Summer squeezed KT’s hand as KT tried to slow her breathing, counting out loud. KT could feel her head spinning and her heart pounding hard in her chest.
Suddenly, a bright light filled the entire room, causing the kids to shield their eyes. When they opened them again, Selye and Hans were standing before them with the backpack; their smiles as bright as the light that got them there. “Adventurers,” said Hans. “Let’s get you home.”
Relief flooded KT as she steadied herself and started to breathe normally again.
Jace was overcome with gratitude as Hans handed him the backpack. “Thank you, friends!” Jace said with a huge sigh of relief. They all huddled together for a tight group hug. “The BEST way to manage stress,” said Selye, squeezing them tighter, “is to have a friend and be a friend.”
The kids said their goodbyes. They huddled together closely as Jace punched in the appropriate date. He closed his eyes, savoring the familiar sound of the buttons clicking. “Mission completed. Let’s go home.” He looked around making sure their knees were touching. Jace began counting down and pressed the keys on the count of three.
When KT opened her eyes, they were safely back in Jace’s garage—no creepy cyborgs or silver skyscrapers around them, just regular human stuff. The kids cheered and danced around the garage, celebrating their narrow escape.
KT stopped suddenly, feeling something underneath her feet: It was her planner. She picked it up and held it close to her chest. Joy flooded over her as she thought about her normal life of tests, time with friends, soccer games, and movies. She thumbed through the planner’s pages like she was looking at them for the first time. It was really just a generic planner filled with quotes from famous scientists, political leaders, and inspirational authors.
She opened her planner to her upcoming week and smiled at its simplicity: Summer’s birthday on Friday, soccer game on Saturday, and history test on Monday. She was struck by how much free time she had each day. She could definitely meditate before her test and see an early movie on Friday with her friends. Her life wasn’t so overwhelming after all. Her gaze drifted to the bottom of the page where she saw a quote from now familiar names. Adopting the right attitude about stress can turn a negative stress into a positive one — Hans Selye (1907-1982)