QSFer Z Jeffries has a new queer sci fi book out (bi, lesbian, non-binary): “Chase: The Boy Who Hid.”
Don’t hide from your feelings. Hide from the giant robot trying to kill you.
I always knew I inherited my grandad’s mind for science, but when he’s missing so long he’s declared dead, I get his spot in a top-secret government game of hide and seek. The military camouflage challenge, DARPA’s game where shapeshifters, mechs, and telepaths hide from a robot seeker, is where Grandad vanished.
To find out what happened to him, I’ll have to play along – stop going to ninth grade, gain Grandad’s team’s trust, master the tech, and absolutely not fall in love with the team navigator. If I can do all that, then maybe I can survive. But if it comes down to winning or finding Grandad, I’ll ditch the game and betray my team in a millisecond, even if that means I vanish, too.
There was one place in the garage I was totally safe from everyone. If I pushed out Dad’s big rolling tool chest, he couldn’t see me seated behind it, and I could work in peace. Or in this case, avoid a funeral in peace.
“Chase, you can’t hide from this!”
Dad could yell all day, I wasn’t budging. We all knew that casket was empty, even if I was the only one with enough brains to realize Grandad was still alive. Besides, Mom said I didn’t have to go. I just had to wait for her to tell him that.
So by the light of my smartphone, I adjusted the magnets on the old floatboard for the millionth time, trying to get it running again before Grandad showed back up. He’d be impressed, it was just his style– a flashy improvement on an overhyped vehicle like the Hoverboard. I just had to get these magnetic panels to align perfectly, and then there it was– silence from the living room. Never a good sign. That meant they were talking quietly, which meant Mom was talking. I tightened the bolts holding the magnets on the salvaged skateboard deck.
As I gently placed the board to float above the base, magnets repelling in perfect balance, Dad bellowed again, “We’ll be home late, and that homework better be done. And we’re signing you up for indoor soccer this week, young man. No excuses.”
“We love you, and we’re here if you want to talk.” Mom added before of course saying, “Lock the doors behind us, please.”
“And don’t spend all night fiddling with your electronic crap! Do something productive.” The door slammed, the magnet slipped again, and I kicked the deck across my room.
“Fudgeknuckles,” I automatically muttered. The swear-word substitute suddenly felt hollow. It was a Grandad-ism, one of lots of alternatives to cussing, often shouted at prototypes failing their test runs. And my room was full of those prototypes, heck the whole house was. Everywhere I looked was something that reminded me of him, everything was some memory staring at me like it was making fun. Everything but that dang shipping container abandoned in the driveway.
Someone had to find him.
This house, this tiny, nothing-town where I was stuck were the only places I knew he wasn’t. I just felt so helpless. Nobody would listen to me. Of course he wasn’t killed in a testpiloting accident, he wasn’t a pilot. Why would the engineer be inside the jet he engineered? It made no sense. And didn’t they always have test footage? Why wasn’t there any test footage? And why couldn’t they find a body? And even if he was in the jet and it had crashed– no, I wouldn’t think about that.
Throwing rocks at a shipping container didn’t fix anything , but it sure felt good.
My pocket vibrated. Another text to see if I was okay. I considered throwing my phone, but the prospect of asking Dad for a new one changed my mind.
I chucked another rock instead.
All the adults who pretended to care so much, the counselors, the teachers (pretty much anybody who didn’t cost my parents any money), were constantly checking in, telling me it was okay to be angry or sad. But I didn’t want to talk about feelings, or cry, or go to some stupid funeral with an empty casket.
I wanted Grandad back. To help him repair sprinklers, rebuild computers, and work on his car.
Or just talk, ask him about countries he’s been to, or about new technologies. Or literally anything.
And if I couldn’t have that, I wanted to throw rocks at the big red crate blocking our gravel driveway.
With a grunt, I heaved another.
The high-pitched noise, different from a clang, about made me jump. I’d hit the corrugated metal alright, but instead of ricocheting off the broad side of the shipping container, the rock “pinged” off a corrugated metal rectangle of a door.
A door that wasn’t there before.
I froze. My eyes darted to the neighbor’s houses before remembering they were all at the service, too.
We didn’t know where the shipping container had come from, didn’t know who owned it. Mom and Dad had been arguing about the danged thing ever since it showed up a couple months back. Heck, I could be in trouble just for activating whatever doohickee made the door appear. Maybe I broke it. Fudgeknuckles. I imagined Dad in his recliner getting a bill and calling me to stand in front of him and explain. He’d have to pay for it. I’d have to work it off.
Just then I jumped at the sound resonating from within the shipping container—an impact echoed by a deep, low rumble. I couldn’t suppress my curiosity. Driveway gravel crunched under my old Sketchers as I approached slowly.
The outline of the door was lit from behind like there was an orange light on inside. Taking a deep breath, I reached out to touch the red metal. The door opened by itself to release a flood of warmth and light and the source of the rumble. A cube the size of a smart car was suspended in the air within the crate, with plugs, wires, and cables coming off it like hair on its head.
The cube had fine gridlines on it like it was covered in tiles or made up of smaller cubes. Each tile was about four inches by four inches, matte black and shimmering with a rainbow spectrum. Black, white, and clear hoses, and multi-colored wires were all hooked to the cube, which was impossibly hovering in the middle of the shipping container.
Along the walls were built-in desk terminals with screens, gauges, and panels of lights, everything powered down. Brand names boasting computing power were stenciled onto computer towers; there were microprocessors not available for public purchase, custom technology from Powers, Limited I’d only read about on wired.com. Everything looked like it cost a million bucks.
The equipment seemed so important, I felt in trouble just being there. But, I’d probably never get a chance to see tech like this again, so I figured if I was going to get in trouble just for being there, why not have a look around? In for a nickel, in for a dime.
I whispered, “Sweet Molasses,” to myself. I’d learned long ago not to cuss; Grandad said not to give anyone a reason to think I was stupid.
The box’s interior came to life. Lights flickered on, the computers booted up, and the floating cube quieted, now bobbing in the air, held up, I guessed, by the hoses and wires. Then I heard a voice that stopped me in my tracks and caught my breath in my throat.
“Hey there, kiddo.”
That voice. He was alive! My heart about leapt up my throat.
I spun around, calling out, “Grandad?”
But he wasn’t there, not really. His familiar wrinkled, pale face filled each of the monitors, his smile topped by his silvery push-broom of a mustache. Even though he wasn’t there next to me, I smiled and blinked back hot tears.
“From one inventor to another, Chase, I’d like to show you something. This is the Throne.”
At that word, the cube’s wires, cables, and tubes cast off, spitting hisses of steam and showers of sparks. The device, floating in the air, rotated as Grandad continued talking from the monitors.
“Cutting edge technology. This device runs on science still hypothetical. It’s built on theories of theories. My theories. This is my legacy for you, Chase. The Throne is your inheritance.”
Z Jeffries has written, directed, and produced theatre along the american East Coast and Chicago under various names for over a decade. He thinks a lot about cheese, space travel, and whether cheese will be allowed during space travel. Chase: The Boy Who Hid is his debut novel.