Middletown Middle – Spirit Week

May 2005

The State Robot Olympics is only one day away, and the Middletown Middle School robotics team has hit a roadblock: their robot isn’t working. Adding to the chaos, it’s also the school’s Spirit Week, so the eighth-graders are distracted by silly hair, wacky socks, free snacks, and pep rallies.

The team of four students has affixed the saw, attached the spike hammer, and fueled the flamethrower, but their remote simply won’t communicate with their robot, which they’ve affectionately nicknamed W.E.N.D.Y. (We Eat Nachos Daily Yum). The four kids are now staring at their creation, feeling flustered and uncertain about what to do next.

“If a robot doesn’t move, it’s just a sculpture, and sculptures don’t win robot wars,” Mr. Swisher, the science teacher, tells the kids. “Now, I’ve got to go down to the pep rally. Figure it out.”

With that, the teacher leaves the four dejected kids alone in the science lab.

“By this time tomorrow, we’ll be in our first battle,” April Denning reminds the group.

“We know, April. We’ll just be the laughingstock of the competition,” Kyle complains as he kicks the robot, causing a piece of metal to fall off. He picks it up and tosses it across the room.

Here’s the proofread and revised version of the section:

“Stop it, Kyle!” shout the other two kids on the team, twins Edgar and Edward Timberline.

“If you had gone with my design, we would have a working bot,” Kyle exclaims. “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 announces. “I mean, more than usual.”

“You’re so funny I forgot to laugh,” Kyle retorts.

“This is your design, Kyle,” Edward argues.

“Yeah, you didn’t even let us pick the weapons,” Edgar adds.

“Because I’m the only one smart enough,” Kyle declares.

Everyone groans at the suggestion.

Feeling the pressure, the kids decide to skip the pep rally and other school events. Winning the robot battle means scholarship money and a spot on the high school robotics team.

As they argue, smoke starts to seep from under the door, filling the lab. However, they are too focused on each other to notice. Suddenly, the fire alarm sounds, and teachers rush in to lead the group and everyone else in the school out of the building. The fog machine at the pep rally has malfunctioned, filling the entire school with dense, wet smoke.

Even though the school has been evacuated, a few students are still in the halls. Among them is a girl wearing roller skates, gracefully gliding through the thick smoke.

As she passes a boy in thick glasses, he doesn’t seem to notice her. The boy is dressed in outdated clothes more suited for the 1960s, and he’s standing outside the science lab.

“Happy Spirit Week, dweeb,” the girl taunts. “You’d better hide before Benjamin finds you roaming the halls during the day.”

Without hesitation, the girl skates right through the wall and disappears without a trace. The boy ignores her and walks into the lab without opening the door. Inside the lab, he checks out the robot and sees the name WENDY. Suddenly, he hears the sound of firemen approaching from the hallway.

Not much later, the robotics team, including Mr. Swisher, returns to the school and hears the sound of a spinning saw blade. Its metallic whirring echoes down the hall. Entering the lab, they see that the robot’s power is on, but the remote is off. They still can’t get it to communicate, 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 Kyle nicks his finger on the spiked hammer.

“Ow! You piece of junk!” Kyle shouts in frustration and kicks the machine twice after turning off the power.

“Stop it, you bully,” April scolds Kyle and pulls him away.

Eventually, the saw slowly stops spinning.

“Get a Band-Aid,” Mr. Swisher tells Kyle. “We’re done for the day. Be here at nine to load it. Leave the attitude at home, or don’t come.”

As the team is exiting the lab, Kyle gets in one more kick at the machine, causing the blade to whirl momentarily.

“I said knock it off, Kyle!” April shouts, frustrated with Kyle’s behavior.

“The dumb thing is going to get us last place,” Kyle complains.

“It’s a robot,” Edgar reminds him.

“It’s only as dumb as its creator,” Edward chimes in.

“Whatever,” Kyle says, nursing his cut and grimacing at the bitter taste of blood on his tongue.

The following morning, when the eighth graders enter the lab, the robot is where they left it. However, something has changed. The label that displayed the robot’s name as WENDY has been crossed out with something sharp and metallic, perhaps a screwdriver. Beneath the sticker, the word BRAD is crudely engraved with the same tool.

The four kids and Mr. Swisher stare at it for a long time before anyone says anything.

“Our robot is a boy?” April wonders aloud.

“That’s news to me,” Mr. Swisher says. “Which one of you kids did this?”

When no one answers, the teacher decides to leave it alone. “Whatever, let’s get it loaded and hope for a miracle.”

The team loads the 200-pound robot onto Bus J with the help of their teacher and the bus driver, Portis. Portis is a tall, sad-looking man who has driven the bus longer than anyone can remember. Near his seat is a photo of a younger version of him standing with a young girl.

During the long ride to Topeka, the students work on rewiring the robot’s switchboard and remote, believing they have solved the communication issues. They arrive at the arena with at least a sliver of hope.

The competition arena is located inside the Topeka Central High School Gym. It is a large, wooden, octagon-shaped stage topped with plexiglass and steel, designed 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 dome-shaped spinner bot with six spiked claws attached to an oscillating cap, making it 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 motionless.

“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 and remains parked in the center of the octagon.

The audience cheers as the dome robot attacks BRAD. Sparks fly as the smaller robot’s blade pounds repeatedly on BRAD’s torso. Seeing how Middletown’s robot is unresponsive, the officials are ready to call a forfeit. However, BRAD’s saw arm suddenly comes to life and rips the dome in half like a piece of cheese, instantly rendering the machine powerless. The crowd is silenced, stunned by what they have just witnessed. They give light applause when Middletown is declared the winner.

The Middletown team looks at each other in disbelief.

“Okay, that was awesome,” Kyle tells April.

“I didn’t touch anything,” April says. “It just did it by itself.”

“Well, hey,” Edgar starts.

“A win is a win,” Edward finishes.

There’s an uncomfortable silence until Mr. Swisher tells them to go into the arena to retrieve their robot.

In the next round, BRAD is pitted against a similar robot with a saw and a flame thrower. BRAD looks to be the underdog, but seemingly like magic, it dispatches the stronger robot, maneuvering with ease around the other machine’s weapons. Everyone watches April, who is supposed to be controlling the weapons remotely, but her fingers don’t match the robot’s movements. Similarly, when Kyle pushes for BRAD to turn right, the machine goes left. When he pauses, it attacks. The whole team watches fearfully as their machine tosses the other robot against the wall, and grease splatters everywhere.

“How did it do that?” Mr. Swisher asks. “Did you guys add a lifting mechanism?”

“Uh, 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 shuts down that idea.

“It’s gotta be someone in the audience controlling it,” Kyle says.

April argues, “Who? How?”

“The person who changed the name to BRAD,” Kyle replies. “Someone snuck into the lab, rewired it, and owns it now. I’m fine with that. The dumb thing is winning.”

Right as Kyle’s insult leaves his mouth, BRAD’s flame thrower hiccups, and a burst of flames escapes.

A judge notices the fire and scolds 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 that hold its opponent in place while it destroys it with fire, drills, and saws, 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 to the top of BRAD, forming a double-decker super robot.

“Oh, heck, no!” Edgar shouts.

“Edward yells, “Power off!”

“I can’t,” Kyle says. “The dumb bot isn’t listening.”

Edgar runs over to the other team to tell them to power down, but the Topeka team can’t control their unit anymore either. The super bot shoots flames much farther than the four-foot limit, which curls over the Plexiglass; the audience screams and runs.

“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 throws his headphones to the ground and runs out, screaming, “Game over, man! Game over!”

“You still think someone’s running it? That machine is possessed!” 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 arena to hit the power switch manually, but the bot swats at him with a hammer, and he retreats. The robot gives chase, and even though Kyle closes the door behind him, the machine uses its drill and flames to make quick work of the obstacle. The team doesn’t stop running and has just enough time to exit the building.

Outside, a crowd has gathered in the street, believing they are safe. They give the Middletown crew nasty looks that say, “Thanks for ruining a good time.” 

While it is mostly quiet outside, inside they can all hear the sounds of saws, metal hitting metal, and wheels grinding. .

Suddenly, they hear a tremendous crash, and one of the gym doors is dented from the inside. The machine is trying to get out. Again and again, something hits the door until it becomes unhinged and falls, revealing that BRAD has 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, which has assembled against a wall by the basketball court.

Cornered, the students and even Mr. Swisher throw rocks at the approaching machine. Pieces of BRAD fly off when the objects make an impact, but the bot is too big and weaponized to make much slow it down. It throws fire into the air in what looks like a celebration. April desperately tries to get the remote working, but it’s no use, and she just hurls 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. The sound of twelve united robots is almost deafening; it’s two-bladed arms and a drill aimed directly at the team. 

No one hears another approaching vehicle over the whirling blades.  Just when the team think they are goners, Bus J slams into BRAD. Robot parts fly off its body; saw blades roll like quarters; grease and fuel sputter out. Suddenly, all that’s left are parts from the original BRAD bot. The bus’s diesel engine was too loud to be heard over the robot’s moving parts.

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 scrambles up the pole to the basketball net. BRAD is beneath him, repeatedly hitting the pole with its spiked hammer. The pole reverberates with 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 Edward interrupts him.

“It doesn’t like being kicked and called names,” Edward tells him.

“No one does,” April adds. 

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 pole. Sparks fly upon each impact.

“Okay, fine, whatever,” Kyle backs down. He turns his focus to the angry bot. “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 air, 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,” Edward says. 

“Weirder than a soup sandwich,” Portis adds

“Let’s get out of here,” Mr. Swisher says. “Help BRAD onto the bus.”

The four students each grab a corner of their robot and carry it onto the bus. 

“We won, right?” Kyle says. “I mean, technically?”

“Well, technically, BRAD won,” Mr. Swisher smiles.

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 the basics of robotics. 

Once Middletown Middle students embraced its quirks, they discovered being kind, even to the supernatural students paid off.

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