A Little Too Dark – The Spirit Week Rampage

The Spirit Week Rampage
May 2005

In the dimly lit robotics lab of Middletown Middle School, an air of nervous tension hung thick. The four-student team huddled around their poodle-sized creation, WENDI, her cold metallic form unresponsive despite their tireless efforts. Failure was simply not an option – not with the State Robotics Olympics rapidly approaching and their dreams of glory on the line. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, it was also Spirit Week; a distracting atmosphere filled with wacky hair, silly socks, popsicles, and pep rallies.

Kyle Kingman let out an exaggerated sigh, his spiky blond hair seeming to stand even more on end. “This stupid bot is useless. We’re going to get slaughtered out there tomorrow.” From the outset, he had been the driving force behind WENDI’s design with only two moods brash overconfidence or pessimistic partner. The twins, Edgar and Edward McCormick exchanged a skeptical glance, their lanky frames rocking nervously. As the programming experts, their relentless coding efforts had yielded little success.

It was April Batty, the team’s voice of optimism was a bright and determined 13-year-old with warm brown skin and thick curly hair that bounced with even the slightest movement. “Don’t say that,” she whispered, placing a gentle hand on WENDI’s lifeless limb trying to raise their optimism. “She just needs some more time.”

“Kyle’s right,” said Edgar siding with pessimism. “We’ll get torn to pieces by those Topeka robots. Ours can barely even move.”

April shot Edgar a piercing look. “Where’s your team spirit? WENDI deserves a chance to prove herself.”

The four had put in the hours in recent weeks, affixing the menacing saw, the spike hammer, and the flamethrower – all in pursuit of creating an unstoppable machine. Yet their remote stubbornly refused to communicate, rendering WENDI silent.

Mr. Greenwood, the science teacher, and reluctant robotics coach, appeared in the doorway. “Congratulations, kids, you built a sculpture,” he said deadpanned. “I’ve got to get to the pep rally. The clock’s ticking.” The teacher left the four anxious kids in the science lab.

As their mentor departed, the weight of looming failure sucked the air out of the young engineers. “By this time tomorrow, we could be in our first battle,” April reminded them, her voice straining to remain upbeat.

“Yeah, getting our butts beat.” Kyle kicked the robot. A piece of metal clattered to the floor. He picked it up and tossed it across the room.

The twins flinched in unison and shouted “Stop it, Kyle!”

“Make me,” he retorted. “If you’d gone with my design, we’d have a working bot right now. It’s a lazy son-of-a-vacuum, and it’s not my fault it doesn’t work.”

“Kyle, you’re being a jerk,” April muttered through gritted teeth. “More than usual.”

An uncomfortable silence lingered between them before Edward finally broke it. “This is your design, Kyle.”

Edgar quickly backed up his brother. “You didn’t even let us pick the weapons.”

Outside in the hallway, a short, stocky, boy peered through the window watching the argument in the lab. A girl on roller skates glided up behind him.

“Hey Brad, what’s all the hubbub?” She glances into the lab but doesn’t stop moving long enough to make out the action. “Is there gonna be a fight?”

“No, these aren’t the fighting types,” Brad said.

Smoke from the nearby pep rally drifted eerily down the corridor. The roller girl moved through it and the fog danced around her. She breaked mere inches behind him with a big smile. “Remember when you gave Frankie a shiner?”

Brad nodded.

As the fog thickened, her tone shifted, “You’ve been watching them a lot.. Guess I know who the crush is this year,” the roller girl whispered.

“Nobody,” Brad says.

“You know, you can help them,” she whispers invitingly as the fog rising to the ceiling. “Give them a fighting chance.”

“I don’t-” He started to protest, but the wail of the fire alarm drowned out his words.

The constant blinking of the warning lights powered through the haze and the robotics team rushed out of the lab. Kyle and the twins ignored Brad who moved against the wall, but April pause for the briefest moment shooting Brad a look of confusion but disappearing into the fog.

The roller girl skated unseen by anyone but her melodic laugh cut through the siren’s wail. “Brad and April sitting in a tree…”

Brad walked right through the closed door like it was made of mist and found himself alone in the vacated lab, staring a the small, ugly robot. Tilting his head, he reached out to touch the robot’s cold metal surface. He admired the engineering but no idea how it functioned. On the front WENDI was etched and as well as the acronym – Wired, Efficient, Nimble, Defensive, Intelligent

After the firefighters gave the okay, the robotics team, including Mr. Greenwood, returned to find the robot powered on, and its saw blade spinning fiercely. It remained unresponsive—even when they tried to remotely turn off the spinning saw blade.

Kyle moved forward to manually turn it off but was stopped when the spike hammer moved, grazing his hand. “Ow! The stupid thing hit me.” He saw a trickle of blood running across his knuckles, triggering his rage again.

With a savage kick, he knocked the whirling robot to its side. Kyle kicked the machine twice. April jumps between Kyle from any further damage. and the robot and the twins physically restrain Kyle away from it. Finally, the tortured whirl faded to an eerie end.

“Go get a Band-Aid, Kyle,” Mr. Greenwood orders, the adult voice in the room cuts the tension. “Everyone be here at 9 tomorrow to load the robot. And drop the attitude, or don’t come at all.”

Kyle couldn’t resist taking one last kick against the defiant machine. The robot responded with a quick and loud whirl from its blade.

“Knock it off!” April shouted.

“This stupid thing is going to get us last place,” Kyle grumbled cupping his injured hand.

“It’s a robot,” Edgar pointed out disgustedly.

Edward then concluded sarcastically, “It’s only as dumb as its creator.”

Kyle let out a groan as he cupped his wound while tasting the bitter flavor of his own blood on his tongue.

The next morning, April arrived early at the lab to prep the robot before the competition. With painstaking care she polished his joints and refitted its menacing saw blade attachment, she spoke softly to the robot, as if confiding in a friend.

“Don’t listen to Kyle. I know you can win today. Let’s show them what you can really do out there.”

As she tended to it April noticed a crude new engraving etched over the WENDI label, and in its place, B.R.A.D was crudely carved into its metal surface. Added was a new acronym.

“Battle, Robotic…” she murmured aloud trying to make out the last two. When she put together the letters her heart turned cold. “Assault. Destruction.”

It felt disturbing. Who could have done this? And why? She couldn’t wait until everyone would arrive and she’d reveal the finding.

“Our robot is a boy?” The twins said when arrived, they surprised but they weren’t filled with the same area. Simarially Kyle and Mr. Greenwood didn’t seem to have the time or bandwidth to pay it any mind.

“Let’s go,” Mr. Greenwood’s curt announcement was all business. Together along with the help of the bus driver Portis, they carefully loaded the heavy unwieldily robot onto Bus J.

Along the way to Topeka, they worked feverishly to fix the switchboard and remote connection issues to give them some glimmer of hope when they arrived at the arena. Failure to establish a reliable remote link means they would get disqualified and receive no credit for the class.

They walked into the competition arena, inside the Topeka Central High School Gymnasium, with some optimism.

When at last they disembarked and loaded Brad inside the cavernous interior of Topeka Central High’s competition arena, April’s nerves were frayed An octagonal stage dominated the space, its tempered steel surface laminated to withstand the inevitable barrage of white-hot sparks and shrapnel to come. Already she could envision the post-apocalyptic wreckage that would surely ensue once metal collided with their hunk of junk.

B.R.A.D.’s first opponent materialized with a menacing whir of gyroscopic forces – a low-slung, six-clawed contraption mounted upon a rapidly oscillating turntable, one of the most agile and feared competitors. The mere sight of its sleek, purposeful design was enough to set Kyle off.

When the announcer said “Go!”, BRAD remained motionless despite Kyle and April’s attempts at controlling the navigation and weapons, respectively.

“Move, you stupid bucket of bolts!” he snarled through clenched teeth, frantically manipulating the unresponsive controls.

“Don’t listen to him, BRAD.” April followed soft and reassuring. “I believe in you.”

For what felt like the long one minute where the teams heartbeats pounded against their chest like a drum, the metallic titan remained eerily frozen amid the frenzied chaos unfolding all around it. Just when it appeared Middletown would be forced to forfeit in humiliation, B.R.A.D. sprang into terrifying life.

Propelled by forces unseen it whirled to life. The wicked saw blade lashed out with blinding speed, slicing six clawed ‘bot in half with a single, fluid movement. A hush of stunned confusion fell over the arena until a smattering of hesitant applause acknowledged the brutally decisive outcome.

Kyle and April looked at each other, shocked.

“Did you do that?” April asked bewildered.

“I must’ve right?” Kyle shrugs “But it wasn’t what I was trying to do.”

“Edgar said, “A win…”

“…is a win.” Edward finished his brother’s thought.

Mr. Greenwood gestured for the team to assemble for the second round. There would be no time to waste, B.R.A.D.’s next adversary, an imposing juggernaut, a with a sadistic array of slashing saw blades and white-hot flamethrowers.

It was April’s turn at the main controls, a knot formed in her stomach, fear that the robot was acting as a rogue power scared her and briefly considered forfeiting. She knew she’d be alone in that consideration so she kept it to herself.

Though she grasped the control sticks with intent, it was painfully evident her inputs were being overridden. B.R.A.D appeared to utilize some kind of mysterious force, maneuvering around attacks with remarkable ease. Everyone turned to April, thought to be controlling the weapon remotely, yet her fingers didn’t match the movements.

B.R.A.D. executed a bizarre yet brutally effective upward sweep, ramming its saw blade squarely into its foe’s torso with enough momentum to hoist the dense juggernaut clean off the ground. The titanium monstrosity hung suspended for a period of several seconds as it frantically tried to free itself before it crashed back to the ground in a shower of sparks.

“How…” Mr. Greenwood gasped, “How did you…?”

Edward half-smiled, “Turns out saw blades can lift as well as cut I guess.”

In response to commands from Edgar for the robot to turn right, it instead moved left and lashed out when she paused.

Before Mr. Greenwood could respond, the stadium announcement system pierced the air. “Victory for Middletown Middle School!”

The team couldn’t help but get excited. Kyle and April hugged enthusiastically savoring the victory. It went unnoticed by all that at that same moment that all the attached weapons on B.R.A.D simultaneously spun and slammed at the same moment.

“Teams, the final match will begin in ten minutes! Clear the arena floor for Middletown versus Topeka Central!”

Even as the match has ended B.R.A.D slammed the other machine against the wall, grease spraying over the arena walls, April motioned to turn off BRAD before they were disqualified from the competition, while Kyle suggested someone had snuck into the lab and rewired their robot.

Anticipation spread through the capacity crowd.. The defending champions, the dreaded Topeka squad, were set to square off against the upstart underdogs from Middletown. Topeka Central’s contestant, the Dominator, with its vicious array of saws, drills, and flames that could roast anything in its path, was the undefeated king of every match they had participated in for the past five years.

In contrast, B.R.A.D.’s compact size and inferior weaponry invited David versus Goliath comparisons.

As the opening horn blared, April and Kyle pretended to stay in control of B.R.A.D machine. In truth, they had already given to the stark reality – B.R.A.D. could not be controlled.

Even so, the start of the match B.R.A.D seemed uninterested, barely moving except for taking a defensive position and looking to run out the clock.

“Get him, you stupid robot,” Kyle growled, more for appearance’s sake than any kind of motivation but that set off Brad.

Angrily, B.R.A.D snapped to life reminded of hug. The two robots clashed with all weapons moving at the same time. They locked into what looked like a metallic wrestling match however was really a hellish fusion of powers

Suddenly, rather than fighting each other — the magnetic spikes affixed them together into a terrifying double-decker monster!

The Topeka team shouted to the Middletown kids to stop the match, Kyle and April threw down the controls and stopped their opponents from going out into the arena to power off the robot.

The Dominator’s imposing bulk, with its layers of reinforced battle plating, became the nightmarish foundation for a grotesque machine as B.R.A.D.’s armored torso affixed itself atop the Dominator, the brains and eyes of a tank.

The audience gasped in horror as flames shot beyond the four-foot limit, curling over the Plexiglass and causing a panic. The announcer yelled out above the noise: “Teams! The match is over!” But before he could finish his sentence, a saw blade flew from the BRAD/Dominator combo and landed just above his head — sending him running for cover. The audience’s collective gasp quickly became shrieks of terror. Super B.R.A.D. intent on living up to the Assault and Destruction of his name, sought out the other robots.

“That machine is possessed!” April shouts to Kyle her voice cracked with hysteria She looked around at the empty bleachers, then back at her — desperation clear on his face. She insists. “You need to go in and turn it off.”

“Me,” Kyle scoffed with the screeching sounds of twisting metal and crackling flames surrounded them. “That thing totally hates me. Why don’t you get the twins or Mr. Greenwood?”

Before April could respond, an earthshaking boom rumbled through the arena black smoke blossomed into the air. The screech of ripping metal sounding like a jet engine. Whipping around frantically, April saw their teammates and teacher had already fled to safety, abandoning them to the rapidly escalating disaster.

Her face drained of color as the reality set in – they were on their own. “Okay, I’ll do it…” she said with a look of dread. “But you have to get out of here.”

Drawing a long shake breath, April forced herself to open the gate leading to the disaster zone. A blast of heat struck her face, her lunges filled with smoke and she coughed. B.R.A.D was on the opposite side cutting through the cage with fire and saws to gather more robots.

B.R.A.D. heard the cough and quickly moved towards April. The machine towered before her like an awakened metal giant. Flames poured on its damaged armor, momentarily exposing a tangle of pistons and gears before being welded shut.

Embers swirled in the superheated air around April, stinging her tearing eyes. She raised an arm to shield her face feeling her singed eyebrows.

“Brad…” She fought to keep her voice calm, though she could barely conceal her terror. “The match is over, okay?”

One of B.R.A.D.’s scorpion-like limbs twitched and moved towards her head but stopped . The machine had no eyes. A shudder ran down her spine.

“You’re the boy I saw in the hall yesterday. Right? I’m shutting you down now,” April said bracing herself. “Got it? We’re going to to back to school.”

“Just do it!” Kyle’s piercing shout carried from beyond the smoke.

B.R.A.D. shifted slightly and responded with a bone-rattling mechanical groan, the metal screaming in protest.

This was a mistake. For a moment, she could almost see those powerful limbs and weapons encircling her, crushing her like a soda can without feeling.

Snapping back to alertness, she cried out in desperation. “Kyle, get out of here!”

April saw Kyle’s finally retreating towards the distance. But he had paused, hoping that she would emerge unscathed.

Super B.R.A.D remained motionless. April took advantage moving the back of the machine looking for ways to turn off both robots. She was unable to reach the B.R.A.D.’s master control switch.

When went to pull the plug. A violent teeth-rattling shock knocked her to the ground. She watched as B.R.A.D. headed back to the robot storage. In mere seconds it had knocked down the wall and had its pick of two dozen weaponized robots to use.

“C’mon!” Kyles voice echoed. She turned to see him by arena’s entrance.

“You’ve gotta move, April! Hurry!” Kyle’s panicked voice cut through the chaos in the robot storage room.

Not waiting for a response, he charged into the smoldering arena toward her.”On your feet, c’mon!” With strength of desperation, he hauled April upright from where she’d crumpled to the ground getting shocked by her charged energy.

April coughed still dazed from the electricity moving through her. Her muscles tingled and she was dizzy, giving herself over to his lead, she ran alongside him toward the exit.

Jagged chunks of shrapnel and sparks zipped past them, April risked one last glance over her shoulder at the nightmarish robot in control of the arena’s machinery

“Don’t look back! Just run!” Kyle shouted hoarsely.

Outside, a restless crowed crowd had gathered in the street. They gave the Middletown crew nasty looks that said, “Thanks for ruining a good time.”

While it was mostly quiet outside other than distant police sirens, inside they could all hear the increasingly violent noises from saws tearing into metal, wheels grinding and chairs being tossed about.

That familiar sense of dread April’s spine returned as the symphony of destruction grew louder until suddenly, a tremendous crash like a gunshot exploded from the gym, making everyone flinch. Something slammed against the thick exit doors violently, a deep dent forming from some immense impact.

B.R.A.D., was trying to break free. Again and again, thunderous blows slammed against the buckling door. Folks started running in all directions. Jumping in their cars to get away but trapped by a jam up.

Kyle swallowed hard, his heart felt like it was going to burst. The fear was B.R.A.D. wanted him dead. The hinges finally gave and the door crashed helplessly inwards in a plume of dust and debris.

What emerged from the roiling clouds was of a technological beast- a fusion of all the competition robots. BRAD had assimilated them all into its chassis, Escape routes vanished in an instant as the terrified crowd scattered desperate to escape.

BRAD swiveled its armored, sensor-studded head slowly, almost tauntingly, before fixing its impassive gaze on the Middletown team huddled against the wall by the basketball court. Mrs. Oni’s face drained of color, rendered ashen with wide-eyed horror. There would be no reasoning with this mechanized beast – only the primitive language of brute force.

B.R.A.D rose fifteen feet high as it crawled the door. It swiveled its armored, head slowly, before fixing its evil gaze on the Middletown team huddled against the wall by the basketball court their faces drained of color. There would be no reasoning with this mechanized beast.

Sweeping one of its massive pincer arms in a wide, scything arc, BRAD advanced with the slow, inexorable menace of an executioner’s march. Screaming desperately, the students scrambled behind the meager shelter of an overturned table, hurling anything within reach – rocks, basketballs, tools scattered amid the rubble. Shards of metal shrieked through the air, pinging futilely off BRAD’s armored hide as it shrugged off the feeble barrage.

Cornered, the students and even Mrs. Greenwood threw rocks at the menacing machine slowly marching towards them. . Pieces of BRAD flew off when the objects made an impact, but the bot was too big and weaponized to be slowed down much. It threw fire into the air in what looked like a celebration. April desperately tried to get the spare remote working, but it was no use, and she just hurled it at the approaching robot.

“It wants to kill me,” Kyles shows backing up against the wall. the robotics team could only watch in numb horror as their creation – the one Kyle had dubbed “dumb” – took on a new role as executioner. Its dozen limbs whirred with a deafening roar, bladed pointed towards them like guided missiles locked on their targets.

With their backs tight against the wall, it seemed that the robotics team had no chance of salvation. Just when all hope was gone, a thunderous rumbling drowned out even BRAD’s mechanics. Tires squealed as the unmistakable form of Bus J hurtled toward BRAD at breakneck speed. The bus slammed into B.R.A.D. causing explosions of sparks and shrapnel filled the air as the robot erupted, saw-blades and hundreds of other objects flew into the air. When explosion of debris settled, only a pile smoking parts remained.

The emergency door of the school bus swung open, and out stepped Middletown Middle’s bus driver Portis. His face was as calm as ever said only, “Hope you don’t mind; I just destroyed your contraption.”

The team ran to Portis and swarmed him with grateful hugs and pats on the back.

“That was…weird,” Edward murmured. Nobody could quite process the significance of what had just occurred.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mr. Greenwood urged, still concerned about an angry mob. “Help me get what’s left of B.R.A.D. onto the bus.”

Still dazed, the students collected the damaged pieces of their creation and carried its remains aboard the bus. Once all the pieces were stacked in the back, the vehicle’s doors shut, and Portis turned on the engine.

Kyle slumped in his seat exhausted. “We won, right?” he questioned, “I mean…technically?”

“Well,” Mr. Greenwood grinned knowingly, “technically B.R.A.D. won, but doubt we’re getting a trophy.”

Exiting the parking lot, April looked at the other teams collecting their pieces of robot overwhelmed by shame embarrassed she couldn’t wait to go home. She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling they were not yet out of danger. Edward seated across from her gently kicks her attention. He motions her to look at the back of the bus.

She turned to see a lone figure hunched in the back row – a ghostly boy she recognized as the boy in the hallway – Brad. Brad’s eyes met hers, and he held her gaze for an impossibly long moment. He looked away. April continued to watch him and remember the feelings she had then turned away and never looked at him again.

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