You are among the first to check out the first two chapters of my upcoming book, Trapped in a Video Game 4! Enjoy, and look out for the full book in a few weeks.
Chapter 1: The Zipper
“You want to see me throw up, don’t you?”
“What? No! Come on, this is a fun ride!” I said as I pushed my friend, Eric, closer to the Zipper.
“It’s definitely not fun, and it’s barely a ride!” Eric said as he fought me. “It’s a throw-up machine! A machine literally invented to make people throw up!”
Eric was right. The Zipper, if you’re not familiar, is a carnival ride that tries to answer the question, “How many times will the human body handle being flipped upside-down in a single minute?” Its two-person spinning coffins are rickety and unpredictable and full of hard metal to slam your face into on your flipping journey. It is not a fun ride.
I smiled as I handed two tickets to the disinterested teenager in charge of the whirling death machine.
“Jesse! Are you listening to me?! Roger, talk some sense into him!”
beep beep bwyooooooop
Roger is a drone from the video game Super Bot World 3. After he got sucked into the real world through a computer glitch, he helped me rescue my friend Eric from the clutches of an enormous robot called Goliatron. If this is the first you’re hearing of Roger, that sentence was probably the most confusing thing you’ve ever read, but I promise that it made sense at the time. Anyways, Roger got smashed to bits during the rescue, but our friend’s dad, Mr. Gregory, rebuilt him from spare parts. Over the last few weeks, he’s become our constant companion — always buzzing back and forth between my house and Eric’s, never letting either of us out of his sight for long. We’ve become famous around the neighborhood for having a drone as a pet, and kids come from streets away now to watch us do tricks with him. Roger was doing one of those tricks now: wobbling back and forth while making a scary sound.
“See, Roger thinks it’s a bad idea too,” Eric said as he tried to turn around.
“Roger, you hang out here. We’ll be right back!” I said as I grabbed the back of Eric’s shirt and dragged him onto the Zipper. Eric tried to go limp, but it was too late. I’d wrangled him onto the ride.
“Good luck,” the carnival worker said as he clicked our coffin door closed. Not “enjoy the ride,” “have fun,” or even “be safe.” Good luck. I took a deep breath. We were going to need it.
The teenager returned to the control station and pushed the button to advance us upward and load the next coffin. Once we were in the air, I turned to Eric. “The reason I brought you on this ride is because I have something important to tell you, and I needed to do it in private.”
“And you couldn’t have done it in my room or your room or literally anywhere else besides the puke machine?”
“Listen, do you remember anything being off about Mr. Gregory after the whole robot thing?”
Eric wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know, that was like two months ago. He’s kind of a weird guy anyways, right? Isn’t he always off?”
“Remember the first thing he said after the police rescued us? He didn’t ask us if we were OK or what had happened or anything. He asked if we’d told anybody about ‘The Agency.’”
“We didn’t even know what The Agency was. Doesn’t that seem weird when you think about it?”
“He was probably just trying to protect us from something.”
“But what if he wasn’t?”
Eric gave me a weird look. We creaked upward again as the teenager loaded another pod. I took a deep breath and told Eric about Charlie Gregory’s theory that his dad wasn’t really his dad, but instead a human-looking robot made to look like his dad. I’d expected to spend most of the ride convincing Eric to believe this crazy idea, but he was on-board after just three sentences. Eric loves conspiracy theories.
“This is crazy!” Eric said. “Crazy!” I could see his eyes widen as his mind worked overtime. The last pod finished loading, and the Zipper started spinning for real. “But, but why?”
“I’m guessing the suit people kidnapped the real Mr. Gregory and sent the robot lookalike to make sure we didn’t say anything.”
Eric tried to nod, but at this point, the Zipper had really kicked into gear, so his chin kind of just smooshed into his chest. Then he gasped. “Wait, so if Charlie’s dad is actually a spybot…” Eric paused while we flipped four times in a row. “Then when he fixed Roger…” We flipped twice more. I waited for him to put it together. “Do you think he turned Roger into a spybot too?”
“That’s what I think,” I said.
Eric looked green. I couldn’t tell if it was from the news he was hearing or the flipping. “Why?” he croaked. “Why… did…”
Eric was really struggling, so I finished his sentence for him. “I don’t know why they’re spying on us. I think they just want to make sure we don’t ruin whatever they have planned.”
Eric grabbed my arm with one hand while clutching the bar with the other. “NO!” He looked at me with crazy eyes. “Why did you let me eat that elephant ear if you knew we were going on the Zipper?”
“Oh. I didn’t think about that. Sorry.”
The Zipper finally, mercifully, slowed to a stop. “I assume you have some sort of a plan?” Eric mumbled with all the color drawn from his face.
Oh yeah, I had a plan. I’d been working on it for weeks. I grinned. “I call it ‘Operation: RMG’ for Rescue Mr. Gregory. We’re gonna get these guys. I’ll tell you the whole plan, but…”
I looked out the door of our pod. Roger was staring back at us. He waved with one of his little claws. “But we’ve gotta ride this again.”
“I’m going to kill you.”
Chapter 2: Hide and Sneak
Two days later, Eric and I showed up at Charlie Gregory’s house to start Operation: RMG with Phase One — Hide and Sneak. I’d barely slept all night and was already sweating. Eric, on the other hand, was grinning like he’d just won a trip to Disney World. I also noticed that he had on the dumb spy watch I’d told him not to bring.
When we got to the door, Roger reached out his telescoping arm to ring the doorbell. A few seconds later, Mr. Gregory appeared. His face lit up when he saw us. “Jesse! Eric! It’s good to see you again! And you too, Roger!” Roger beeped and did a little flip.
“Hey, Mr. Gregory!” Eric said. “Charlie invited us over to play hide-and-go-seek. Is he home?”
“He sure is! I’ll grab him.” Mr. Gregory took a few steps into the house, then turned around. “Can I get you two any ice cream?”
“Yes! Please!” Eric said.
Mr. Gregory gave a thumbs up and a cheesy eyebrow wiggle, then disappeared into the house.
Eric glanced over with a “You sure this guy’s a robot?” look. I stepped on his toe. Although this was Eric’s first time at the Gregory house after learning the news, it was my fourth. The first time I came, I had the same reaction as Eric. After my chat with Charlie in the school bathroom, all I could picture was a Disney World Hall of Presidents animatronic robot with herky-jerky movements and cold, rubbery skin. But that’s not what I got at all. On the surface, this new Mr. Gregory seemed just as normal as my own dad. He was warm and funny. He remembered things. One time, he even made a face like he got a brain freeze when he ate ice cream too fast.
But the more time I spent over Charlie’s, the more weird things I noticed. For instance, Mr. Gregory’s blinks seemed “off” somehow. He seemed to be blinking harder than normal — as if he were trying to squeeze his eyes shut, if that makes sense. And then there was the timing. When I started paying closer attention to the blinks, I found that I could time each one to five seconds exactly. Five-four-three-two-one-BLINK, five-four-three-two-one-BLINK. There were other things too. Like, he said “presumably” kind of a lot. And he licked his finger before turning the page in whatever he was reading — every single page! And he would always spend an extra long time in the bathroom.
OK, OK, now that I write all those things down, they don’t seem like the robot giveaways I thought they were at first. I guess they could all be weird adult things. But that’s why we were here. Hide-and-go-seek is the best way to snoop through anyone’s house. If Charlie’s house held any evidence of robot activity, we’d find it and immediately bring it to the police.
To work together under the noses of Mr. Gregory and Roger, we established a few codewords. “Pickles” was, “I’m fine.” “Tuna” was “I’m in trouble.” And “mousetrap” was, “Get the robots out now because I found something big.”
Charlie had a big, fake smile on his face when he came to the door. He seemed to be sweating just as hard as I was. “Hey, guys! Uh, pickles, huh?” (In retrospect, we probably should have come up with codewords that’d be easier to use in normal conversation.) Charlie tried to do a complicated handshake with me, which failed miserably. I gave him the “play it cool” signal with my hands.
“Hey, do you want to play hide-and-go-seek?” I asked in a reading-from-the-cue-cards voice.
“Sure!” Charlie replied in an equally unnatural way.
“You guys had better watch out,” Eric said. “I’m pretty much the hide-and-seek champion of the world.”
Over the next half hour, Eric proved that statement to be maybe the least true thing he’s ever said. Not only was he bad at snooping for robot stuff, he was bad at pretending to do anything but snoop for robot stuff. The first time I was it, I “found” Eric in the kitchen — not hiding in a cabinet or anything, but fumbling through the junk drawer. We eventually decided to make Eric the all-time seeker before he could blow it for the rest of us. Eric and Roger would look for me and Charlie, while we would inspect every corner of the house.
Even with Eric out of the way, the investigation went poorly. It seemed like every time I got close to a possible clue, one of Charlie’s little brothers or sisters would ruin it.
“HEY, WHATCHADOIN!” little Cheyenne said when she saw me picking through the wires behind the entertainment center.
“Shar warsh?” Christian asked, trying to hand me a light saber under the bed. “Shar warsh, shar warsh, shar warsh!”
“Ahhhhh ah ah ah AHHHHH!” the toddler screamed, blowing my cover inside the nursery.
So it came as no surprise when I found myself with a companion in the bathroom. I was “hiding” in the bathtub, trying to peek down the drain (I was really running out of ideas), when the door shut. I rolled my eyes and sat still. As embarrassing as it’d be to reveal myself now, it’d be ten times worse if the other person in the bathroom turned out to be a little kid who’d announce my presence to the whole house. I waited quietly for the sound of the toilet lid, but it never came. Instead, I heard someone picking through the medicine cabinet. That couldn’t be a kid — the cabinet was too high. I silently peeked around the curtain.
It was Mr. Gregory. My heart raced as I slinked back until only the tiniest sliver of my face was peeking out. It was just enough to see him take something out of the cabinet. This could be it! I strained to get a better look. It was… it was…
An electric shaver.
I rolled my eyes. Here I was, feeling like this important spy, and my big break was watching my friend’s dad shave. I felt dumb.
Wait. What was he doing?
Mr. Gregory plugged in the razor, but instead of turning it on, he detached it from the power cord. Then he did something I’ll never be able to erase from my mind.
He plugged the power cord into his skin.