The 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 has affixed the saw, attached the spike hammer, and fueled the flame-thrower, but their remote will simply 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. “Now, I’ve got to go down to the pep rally.”
The teacher leaves the four kids in the science lab.
“By 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.
The other two kids on the team, twins Edgar and Edward Timber shout, “Stop it, Kyle!”
“If you went with my design, we would have a working bot.” Kyle exclaims. “It’s a lazy son-of-a-vacuum, and it’s your fault.”
“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,” Edward argues. “You didn’t even let us pick the weapons.”
The kids are feeling the pressure, so they 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 hear the fire alarm sound. Teachers lead their group and everyone else in the school 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 some kids are still in the halls. One of them, a girl wearing roller skates, floats gracefully down the hall, encircled by smoke.
She passes a boy in thick glasses. The boy is dressed in outdated clothes suited more for 1960. He’s standing outside the science lab.
“Happy Spirit Week, dweeb,” the girl laughs. “You’d better hide before Benjamin finds you roaming the halls in the day.”
The girl skates right through the wall and disappears without a trace. The boy ignores her and walks through the lab door without opening it. Inside the lab, he checks out the robot and sees the name WENDY. Behind him, in the hall, he hears firemen approaching.
Not much later, the robotics team returns to the lab and hears the sound of a spinning saw blade. Its metallic whirring echoes down the hall. 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 again, and he kicks the machine twice after turning off the power.
“Stop it, 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 to load it. Leave the attitude at home or don’t come.”
Before exiting, Kyle gets in one more kick at the machine. The blade whirls momentarily.
“I said knock it off, 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 finishes.
“Whatever,” Kyle says, nursing his cut and grimacing at the taste of bitter blood on his tongue.
The following morning, when the eighth graders go into the lab, the robot is where they left it. However, one thing has changed. The label that showed the robot’s name as WENDY has been crossed out with something sharp and metallic — maybe a screwdriver. Beneath the sticker, the word BRAD is 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 decides to leaves it alone.
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 has driven the bus longer than anyone can remember. Near his seat is taped a photo of a younger version of him, standing with a young girl. Everyone thinks she must be his daughter.
On the long ride to Topeka, the students rewire the switchboard and the remote; they believe they have solved the communication issues. They arrive at the arena with at least a sliver of hope.
The competition arena is inside the Topeka Central High School Gym. It is a large, wooden octagon-shaped stage 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 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. The crowd is silenced; they don’t believe what they have witnessed. Then they erupt into cheers.
The Middletown team looks at each other in disbelief.
“That was awesome,” Kyle tells April.
“I didn’t touch anything,” April says. “It just went on and 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 pitched 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 that idea down.
“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 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 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 as a super unit.
“Oh, heck, no!” Edgar shouts.
Edward yells, “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, which curl 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 runs off, 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 so he can 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 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 a 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 moving wheels.
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 and bricks at the approaching machine. Pieces of BRAD fly off when the objects make impact, but the bot is too big and 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 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. Two bladed arms and a drill aim directly at the team.
Just when they 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. 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 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,” Portis says.
“Anime is weird. This was crazy.” Edward 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 their supernatural school was a superpower.