The Middle State Robot Olympics is one day away, and the Middletown Middle robotics team has a problem. Their robot isn’t working. It is spirit week, so the eighth graders are distracted by silly hair, wacky socks, free snacks, and pep rallies.
The four-student team had the saw affixed, the spike hammer attached, and the flame-thrower fueled, but their remote would just not communicate with their bot, which they have nicknamed WENDY. The four kids are staring at their creation, feeling flustered.
“If a robot doesn’t move it’s just a sculpture, and beautiful art doesn’t win robot wars,” Mr. Swisher, the science teacher, tells the kids. “I gotta go down to the pep rally.”
The teacher leaves the four kids in the science lab.
“This time tomorrow, we’ll be in our first battle,” April Denning reminds the group.
“Getting our butts beat. We get it April,” Kyle kicks the robot. A piece of fender falls off. Kyle picks it up and tosses it across the room. While Kyle
“Stop it, Kyle,” The other two kids on the team, twins Edgar and Edward Timber shout.
“If you went with my design, we wouldn’t have a working bot.” Kyle exclaims. “It’s a lazy son-of-a-vacuum and your fault.”
“Kyle, you’re being a jerk,” April announces. “I mean more than normal.”
“So funny I forgot to laugh,” Kyle retorts.
“This is your design,” Edward argues. “You didn’t let us even pick the weapons.”
The kids are feeling the pressure and skip the pep rally and other school events. Winning the robot battle means scholarship money and a spot on the high school robotics team.
They are too focused on each other to notice smoke filling the lab from under the door and are stunned when they heard the fire alarm sound. They, and everyone else in the school, are led out of the building. The fog machine at the pep rally has gone haywire and filled the entire school with wet smoke.
The school may have been emptied, but there were kids in the halls. One of them, a girl wearing roller skates, practically floating on a cloud, moves gracefully down the hall with smoke circling her as she goes.
She passes a boy in thick glasses. The boy is dressed in outdated clothes suited more for 1960.
“Happy spirit week dweeb,” she laughs. “Better hide before Benjamin find’s ya roaming the halls at day.”
The girl skates right through the wall disappearing without a trace. The boy standing outside the lab walks through the door without opening it. Like the girl on skates he’s a ghost. Inside the lab, he checks out the robot. He sees the name WENDY. Behind him, in the hall, he hears firemen approaching.
Shortly after, the robotics team returns to the lab to the sound of a saw blade spinning. Its metallic whirling echoes down the hall. The power is on to the robot, but the remote is off. They still can’t get it to communicate enough, not even to turn off the spinning blade. When Kyle goes over to the machine to shut it off manually, the robot moves slightly, and he nicks his finger on the spiked hammer.
“Ow, you piece of junk,” Kyle shouts again, and he kicks twice more after turning off the power.
“Stop you bully,” April shoves him.
The saw slowly stops spinning.
“Get a band-aid,” Mr. Swisher tells Kyle. “We’re done for the day. Be here at nine for the load out. Leave the attitude at home or don’t go.”
Before exiting, Kyle gets one more kick in on the machine. The blade whirls momentarily.
“Stop it, Kyle!” April shouts.
“The dumb thing is gonna get us last place,” Kyle complains.
“It’s a robot,” Edgar says.
“It’s only as dumb as its creator,” Edward continues.
“Whatever,” Kyle says, nursing his cut, the taste of blood bitter on his tongue.
The following morning, when the eighth graders go into the lab, the robot is where they left it. However, there has been a change. The label that showed the robot’s name WENDY was crossed out with what must have been a screwdriver or something sharp and metallic. Beneath the sticker, the word BRAD was crudely engraved.
The four kids and Mr. Swisher stare at it for a long time before anyone says anything.
“Our robot is a boy?” April wonders.
“That’s news to me,” Mr. Swisher says. “Which one of you kids did this?”
When no one answers, the teacher leaves it at that.
They load the two-hundred-pound robot onto bus J with the help of their teacher and the bus driver, Portis. Portis is a tall sad-looking man, who’s driven the bus longer than anyone can remember. Near his seat, there’s a photo of a young version of him with a young girl. Must be his daughter.
On the long ride to Topeka, the students rewire the switchboard and the remote, believing they have the communication issues solved. They arrive at the arena with at least a sliver of hope.
The competition arena is inside the Topeka Central Highschool Gym. It is a large, wooden octagon, topped with plexiglass and steel. It is strong enough to withstand whatever the robots throw at it while keeping the spectators and teams safe.
BRAD is placed in the arena for its first matchup against a much faster spinner bot shaped like a dome. It has six spiked claws attached to an oscillating cap and is the quickest bot in the competition.
The announcer shouts out the names of the combatants and counts down from five. At “Go!” the spinning bot approaches BRAD, but Middletown’s robot remains still.
“Oh, come on,” Kyle shouts, punching the robot’s remote in frustration. He controls the navigation, while April controls its weapons. The robot isn’t responding to either of their commands.
The audience cheers when the dome robot attacks BRAD. Sparks fly as the smaller robot’s blade pounds repeatedly on the torso of their machine. Seeing how Middletown’s robot is unresponsive, the officials are set to call a forfeit; however, BRAD’s saw arm suddenly comes to life and rips the dome in half like a piece of cheese. The crowd is silenced, not believing what they have witnessed, before erupting in cheers.
The Middletown team looks at each other in disbelief
“That was awesome,” Kyle tells April the weapon’s operator.
“I didn’t touch anything,” April says. “It just went on and did it itself.”
“Well, hey,” Edgar starts.
“A win is a win.” Edward finishes.
There’s an uncomfortable silence when Mr. Swishers tells them to go into the area to retrieve their robot.
In the next round, BRAD is pitched against a similar robot with a saw and a flame thrower. BRAD looks to be the underdog, but seemingly like magic BRAD dispatches the stronger robot, maneuvering with ease around the other machine’s weapons. Everyone watches April, who is controlling the weapons remotely, but her fingers don’t match the robot’s movements. Similarly, Kyle is pushing for it to turn right, and the machine goes left. When he pauses, it attacks. They watch fearfully as the machine tosses the robot against the wall with grease sputtering everywhere.
“How does it do that?” Mr. Swisher asks. “Did you guys add a lifting mechanism?”
“Ah, well,” Kyle stalls.
“Turns out the saw arm can lift as well as slice,” Edward answers.
“Happy accidents, am I right?” Mr. Swisher asks.
As they clean up the arena so other matches can take place, April contemplates forfeiting and removing the battery, but the rest of the team shut that idea down.
“It’s gotta be someone in the audience controlling it,” Kyle says.
April argues, “Who?”
“The person who added the BRAD,” Kyle replies. “Someone snuck into the lab, rewired it, and owns it now. I’m fine with that. The dumb thing is winning.”
Just as Kyle’s insult comes out of his mouth, BRAD’s flame thrower hiccups and a burst of flames escapes.
A judge notices the fire and admonishes the group. “One more time and you’re done. Got it?”
The team is silent.
The final match pits Middletown against the home team, Topeka Central, and their undefeated robot design. Their machine, the Dominator, with its magnetic spikes to hold the opposite in place and destroy it with fire, drills, and saws all in parallel, has won five years in a row. But this match is closer than anyone expects, especially the Middletown crew. April and Kyle pretend to control their remotes, but let BRAD do its own thing. The two robots get close. Sparks fly.
April notices the opposing team yelling. They’ve lost control of their robot, and now, rather than fighting each other, the Dominator is affixed on top of BRAD as a super unit.
“Oh, heck, no!” Edgar shouts.
Edward follows. “Power off.”
“I can’t,” Kyle says.
Edgar runs over to the other team to tell them to power down, but they can’t contact the Dominator. The Topeka team can’t control their unit anymore. The super bot shoots flames much farther than the four-foot limit, and they curl over the plexiglass; the audience screams and runs from the area.
“Teams. The match is over,” The announcer yells over the loudspeaker. A saw blade flies from the BRAD/Dominator combo and lands in the ceiling above the announcer’s head. He runs off, screaming. “Game over, man. Game over!”
“You still think someone’s running it? It’s a ghost in the machine!” April shouts to Kyle, who looks around at the empty bleachers. “You need to go in and turn it off.”
Kyle takes a deep breath before opening the door to the area so he can hit the power switch manually, but he is swatted at with a hammer, and he retreats. The robot chases, and even though Kyle closes the door behind him, the machine uses the drill and flames to make quick work of the obstacle. There is just enough time for the team to exit the building.
Outside, a crowd has gathered in the street, believing they are safe. They give the Middletown crew nasty looks for ruining their good time. While it may be mostly quiet outside, inside, they can hear the sounds of saws, metal hitting metal, and moving wheels.
Suddenly one of the doors to the gym is dented from the inside. The machine is trying to get out. Again and again, the door is hit with weapons until it is unhinged and falls, revealing that BRAD is now united with parts from all 12 robots and is an uncontrollable super robot. One look at the incredible machine and people scatter to their cars. BRAD seeks out the Middletown team who have assembled against a wall by the basketball court.
Cornered, the students, and even Mr. Swisher, throw rocks and bricks at the approaching machine. Pieces fly off on impact, but it’s too big and too weaponized to make much difference. It throws fire into the air. April desperately tries to get the remote working, but it’s no use, and eventually, she just tosses it at the approaching battle bot. With their backs against the wall, it seems nothing can save the robotics team from the machine Kyle called dumb too many times to count.
Two bladed arms and a drill are aimed at the team, and just as they are about to meet, bus J slams into BRAD. The robot parts fly off its body; saw blades roll like quarters, grease and fuel sputter out. All that’s left is parts from the original BRAD bot. The bus’s diesel engine was too loud to be heard over the robot’s mechanics.
The doors of the school bus open and out steps Portis.
“You killed it, Portis!” April shouts.
Portis says. “Hope you don’t mind; I busted your contraption.”
The team surrounds Portis, and they share a huge group hug. As they celebrate, they don’t notice the Brad bot slowly rolling its injured form towards them. It’s low to the ground, having lost its saw arm and flame thrower, but its spike hammer reels back as it nears them.
April is the first to see the approaching robot, and she screams. The hug breaks up, and the kids scatter all over the court. The injured robot is interested in one student only – Kyle.
“What the heck?” Kyle shouts as the machine chases him around the basketball court. “Why is the dumb thing after me?”
Kyle begins climbing up the pole to the basketball net. BRAD is beneath him, repeatedly hitting the pole with its spike hammer and creating a loud metallic clang each time.
Edgar moves closer to yell, “You need to apologize to it.”
“To the machine?” Kyle asks incredulously. “It doesn’t have ears, you-”
Kyle is about to call his friend an idiot but is interrupted.
“It doesn’t like being kicked and called names,” Edward tells him.
“No one does,” April follows.
The team has surrounded the robot, waiting to power it down when they can safely do so. Right now, though, the hammer swings wildly against the metal power. Sparks fly upon each impact.
“Okay, fine, whatever,” Kyle backs down. “BRAD, I’m sorry I called you a dumb son-of-a-vacuum and kicked you every day since we started this project. Whoever’s in there, I’m just sorry, okay?”
As Kyle talks, the hammer slows until it eventually halts. With a dejected final move, it retracts the weapon, and its lights flicker off.
April bravely moves closer, switches off the machine, and pulls its battery. Even with its power source removed, the robot moves. It drops the spiked hammer from its one remaining arm, backs away from the pole, and heads for the bus. Kyle climbs down from the pole.
“That was weird,” Portis says.
The students agree.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mr. Swisher says. “Help Brad onto the bus.”
The four students grab a corner of their robot and carry it onto the bus.
“We won, right?” Kyle says. “I mean, technically?”
“Well, technically,” Mr. Swisher begins, “It was Brad.”
It took much more than an apology for Middletown to be invited to the next Robot Olympics. Once they were, things went smoothly, and every year Brad helped its new teammates learn more than just the basics of robotics. Once Middletown Middle students embraced its quirks, they discovered their supernatural school was a superpower.