Days of Danger
By Craig Halloran
Days of Danger
By Craig Halloran
Copyright © Nov 2015 by Craig Halloran
TWO-TEN BOOK PRESS
P.O. Box 4215, Charleston, WV 25364
ISBN eBook: 978-1-941208-71-7
ISBN Paperback: 978-1-941208-72-4
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recorded, photocopied, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Days of Danger
“I can’t believe I’m this old,” Zeke mumbled.
“What was that?” Zeke’s friend Ned Nefty said. Ned was a pretty normal kid for a twelve-year-old, just a little extra hyper and twitchy. He always wore long sleeves, even in the summer, unless he was at the pool. At the pool, he always kept a swim shirt on. The rest of him was just skinny legs and sandals.
“Ah, nothing,” Zeke replied.
But it wasn’t really nothing. Not for Zeke, anyway. No, for the first time in his life, he was at the neighborhood bus stop and waiting for the bus to school. And not just any school, either. No, it was Clive Custer Middle School. No one even knew who Clive Custer was. He rubbed his eyes. Sleep hadn’t come easily the last two nights, and when he did sleep, there were nightmares. He dreamed of kids shoved in lockers, with arms and legs dangling out. Hot lunches—in a rusty and run-down cafeteria—that pulsated with a slimy life of their own. He’d heard the lunch lady was a cyclops, but that wasn’t the worst of all. Bullies. Eighth graders. Their reputation preceded them.
A little hand tugged on his arm. It was Penelope Peppers. She said, “Zeke, will you sit on the bus with me?”
Penelope wasn’t much smaller than Zeke, and they’d been friends since kindergarten. Still, he didn’t want to sit with her. She was dressed nice, but not middle school nice—grade school nice. She wore a pink-and-white dress and had ribbons in her air.
Zeke shifted away, saying, “Uh, no, I’m sitting with Ned.”
“No, you aren’t; Ned is sitting with Larry,” she said.
“No, he isn’t. Maybe you can sit with Larry,” he said. I am not sitting with her. If she shows up at school like that, they’re going to murder her, and they just might take me with her. “Just stay close to him.”
“But I want to sit with you,” she whined. A frown filled her face, and she started to beg. “Please.”
Zeke slapped his forehead. This wasn’t the kind of drama that he needed on the first day of middle school. No, not at all. He just wanted to show up, blend in, and hang in there until Thanksgiving break. By then, he should have the hang of things and be able to cruise until summer. Stomach in knots, he said again, “No.”
Penelope teetered up on her toes and said, “You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“No, why?” Zeke said, biting his fingernails.
“Because you look like someone just stole your Go-Gurt,” she said. “You’re nervous, aren’t you?”
“No,” he said again. Okay, that’s a lie. He’d be lying to himself it he didn’t admit to the terror lurking in his heart. All of his life, he’d been able to walk with his friends to grade school. Now, the game had changed. He was headed to middle school. A monstrous conglomerate of ten grade schools wrapped up into a student body of over fifteen hundred. A real pimple factory.
“I know why you’re scared,” Penelope said.
“No, you don’t,” he said.
“Hah!” she said. “You just admitted it!”
Grinding his teeth, he looked down at her and said, “Be quiet, Penelo-PEE!”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t say my name like that.”
“Like what, Penelo-pee?” His fingers danced on his chin. “Or like PEE-nelo-PEE?’
She stuck her lip out and stormed away.
Feeling a little bad, he adjusted his backpack on his shoulders. It’s for her own good, not to mention my own good. Zeke meandered around the bus stop a bit. It was a large gravel spot with a row of mailboxes in front of a small apartment complex. He lived down the road behind it in a place that his parents called suburbs. But it was still a little out there, when comparing to the trip to his new school with the route he took for his old one.
The roar of an approaching diesel engine caught his ear, and he turned. Up the road the bus came. To him, it looked like a great yellow dragon, black striped and with smoke coming out of its butt. Zeke’s heart pounded in his temples. His mind raced. I hope he’s not on there. I hope he’s not on there. Please, don’t be on there!
The bus doors opened like a great mouth ready to swallow Zeke up. Some other kids at the bus stop, older ones, filed on and disappeared, leaving him and his friends alone. They glanced at each other. Penelope, Ned, and Larry. All Zeke saw were body bags. Four of them, including himself.
The bus engine rumbled. It sounded like a stomach grinding up bones. Finally, Larry Luntz stepped up to the door. A tad shorter than Zeke, he was built like a fire hydrant and kind of looked like one too. He always wore hoodies, short sleeved, long sleeved, and no sleeved. His name was sewn in the front of all of them. With heavy feet, he marched up the steps.
Ned slipped right in front of Zeke and behind Larry. Feet ungluing from the gravel, Penelope squirreled in front of Zeke, and up she went. He stood there, gazing up at the bus driver, who eyed him without sympathy and said, “What are you waiting for, a photographer? Get on, kid.”
Swallowing, he inched his way onto the steps, and the doors closed like a steel trap, leaving his innocence behind him.
The bus driver then said, “We won’t get rolling until you find a seat, and you wouldn’t want to be late to school the first day, would you?”
Shaking his head, he headed up the last two steps, and with his eyes cast down, he headed down the aisle. The bus was half-full, and almost all of the kids were talking and not paying him any mind. He lifted his chin and noticed not all of the seats were full, either. Some of them were even empty. Larry and Ned were together. Penelope was by herself, and there was a lone empty seat right behind her. It was perfect.
With a small smile forming on his slender face, he slipped down toward the open seat. It seemed that bus rides might not be so bad after all. So long as I don’t have to sit toward the back, I should be fine. He’d heard the stories. That was where the bullies sat and the high schoolers sat. He didn’t even send his gaze that way. Instead, he found a seat and plopped right in. Something about the seat didn’t feel right. He was sitting on something. Not something, rather, but someone. Uh-oh?
“What do you think you are doing?” a rugged voice said.
Zeke’s blood froze. He knew that voice. It was the one that he’d tried to avoid at all costs over the last two years.
A figure, vastly bigger than he, said, “Get off of my feet.”
Eyes wide with fear, Zeke popped up.
It was Bradley Biggs, his tormentor, sitting there. Bradley was a rich, husky boy who wore expensive sports gear all the time. He played everything. Football. Basketball. Baseball. Hockey. He was a first-class, triple-A meatball.
Stammering, Zeke said, “S-Sorry!”
“You sat on my new tennis shoes, you little worm.” Bradley stood up and leered at him. His eyes filled with recognition. His thick neck cocked to one side. “Well, if it isn’t Zeke the Geek.” He rolled his eyes. “Wow, he’s got his little robot shirt on too. Ooh, and a matching robot backpack too. How cool is that? The ladies are going to love that outfit!”
Zeke and Bradley went way back. Two years Zeke’s senior, Bradley had picked on him since kindergarten. He had no idea why the kid didn’t like him. Bradley never hesitated to seek him out, either, so Zeke took great strides in avoiding him at all costs. The mall. The pool. The playground. The game of life. Somehow finding his courage and a little uncertain, he replied, “Really?”
“Not!” Bradley got in his face and added, “Of course not, Zeke the Freak! Not ever!” He started pounding his fist into his hand. “Oh man, you are going to get such an initiation wearing clothes like that. A real pounding. Hahahaha! I bet you have robot folders too. Man, wait till all of those other middle schoolers get a load of you.” He reached over and wrapped his arm over Zeke’s shoulder and squeezed him tight. “Tell you what. I’m going to do you a flavor.”
“A flavor is a cool way of saying favor, Zeke the Meek.” Bradley patty-slapped Zeke’s face with his meaty fingers. “So, how about that flavor?”
“Uh, really, you are going to do me a flavor?” Zeke said. “I hope you’re not offering to do my homework, because I’m on the A for Astonishing honor roll, and I don’t want to be on the D for Dumb honor roll.”
Chuckles erupted from the nearby seats.
Bradley put him in a headlock and said, “What did you just say?”
There it was. The possible reason that Bradley didn’t like Zeke. It was a deep-down, stubborn sassiness that often emerged and that he couldn’t control. It just seemed to come out every time he was pushed in a corner. It proved to be the most horrible defense mechanism ever used by one of mankind’s very own. Face turning red, he kept on talking. “I was just pointing out the well-known fact that your history in academics is subpar and I wouldn’t ever be searching out any tutoring services that you might be offering.”
Bradley’s face turned a deeper red as the surrounding laughter rose. Spitting through his teeth, he said, “I’m going to pound you.” He released Zeke and drew back his meaty fist that had a strange nugget ring on the finger.
You could hear a pin drop as Bradley’s fist cocked back to strike.
Zeke could already feel the pain before the ring-laden fist collided with his shoulder. Whop!
Zeke held his tongue, fighting the pain, but the pain wasn’t the worst part. What followed was he tooted. The entire bus erupted in laughter.
Clinging close to his friends, red-faced, Zeke managed to slide his way off of the bus and worm his way into the maze called middle school. Everything within was bigger. The hallways. The classrooms and almost all of the students. With Ned leading the way, and after several minutes of confusion searching the hallways, the four of them managed to find their way to homeroom.
Zeke found a desk, hunkered down, and sighed. It was a bit of a sanctuary. All of the other kids were in his grade and just about his size, and lucky for him, Ned, Penelope, and Larry were in there too. But there were a lot of new faces as well, except one. Ms. Turtle. She was far from new. She was an ancient, white-haired crone who looked really tired, almost dead, sitting behind her desk on a big, fat pillow. Her lips moved when she spoke, but nothing else.
Sitting beside him, Penelope started sniffing and whispered to Zeke, “Do you smell that?”
He nodded. He smelled it. He smelled it the moment he walked in the room, and he was pretty sure it came from Ms. Turtle. It was her perfume. The odor wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, but it was strong. Strong enough to peel the paint off wood. Zeke wiped his eyes and said to Penelope, “I think it’s worse than my cat’s litter box.”
Some of the other kids around him started to giggle.
Ms. Turtle smacked a ruler on her desk. Crack! Like a turtle, her neck stretched up out of her shirt collar, and she said, “Quiet back there!”
Keeping it down the best he could, he continued to giggle, and so did some of the others. Five minutes later, the bell rang, and off to class he went.
Zeke made it through two classes before the first break came. Now, he carried books as big and heavy as cinder blocks. He stood at a locker that, to his good fortune, he shared with Larry. The locker was a combination lock, and Larry was beating his head into it. “I can’t get it open!” He bopped his head into it a few times. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Zeke set his books down behind him and said, “Here, let me try.” He checked the combination he’d written on his hand. 25-20-23. He did the combination in his mind as he turned. Twenty-five left, twenty right, twenty-three left. Holding his breath, he eyed Larry. He pulled the mechanism up. It popped open.
Larry pumped his fist. “Yes!” Immediately, he started cramming his books inside.
Feeling his first victory of the day, Zeke turned around and reached for his books that he’d set in the hall, when he heard an all-too-familiar voice say, “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Zeke the Geek.”
Fingers inches from his books, he froze. Bradley Biggs was coming.
“How does your arm feel, little tooter?” Bradley said. He raised his arms up over his head and said, “Field goal attempt!” With a powerful swing of his foot, he booted Zeke’s books, scattering them throughout the herd of students stampeding through the hall. Moving on, Bradley said with his arms raised high, “It’s good!”
Larry wedged his foot in between Bradley’s feet, and the brattish boy tumbled to the floor. Angry, he jumped up and shoved Larry into a locker.
“Hey!” a voice full of authority screamed. It was a teacher in a tie, mostly bald, with a brown moustache. “Bradley, get off that boy unless you want detention until summer!”
Bradley patted Larry on the chest and said, “We were just fooling around, Mr. Pitts. No problems here.”
Hands on hips, Mr. Pitts eyeballed him and said, “Uh-huh.”
In a husky whisper, Bradley made a threat before he left. “You’re both dead men.”
Clive Custer Middle School took some getting used to, but after a few days, Zeke got a handle on it. If he timed it right, he could avoid Bradley. It required some savvy, though. Eyes alert, he carried all of his books for his classes before lunch in his Maxx-Botz backpack. Sure, it felt like carrying a bag of sand, and his back ached, but if American soldiers hoofed it like this, then he figured he could too.
Going from class to class, he would stay behind a herd of taller kids. It was a good strategy that helped him stay under the radar. He’d figured out how to handle that part, at least for now. There were still some other issues. He’d had a run-in with the girls’ basketball team. Some of them were big. Real big. Some of the girls looked like they could squash him up and shoot him at the basket. One in particular, Juniper, was in his gym class. Zeke was quick and a decent ball handler, but she blocked every one of his shots. And she always had to guard him, and it didn’t help at all when she said, “Keep trying, cutie.”
Throughout the week, Zeke surged on, hour after hour, day after day, class after class, making the most of his free time with his friends. At least he had them to sit with during lunch and some of the recesses. The problem was, they seemed to be making some new friends, and it left him a little bit uncomfortable. He didn’t have anything against new people—it was just that he was comfortable with his old people. They were all trying new things too. There were lots of activities, sports, band, yearbook, student council, and other things. There just seemed to be something for everybody but him. He just didn’t care about those things.
Shuffling into the last class on Friday with a bit of a heavy heart, he hung his Maxx-Botz backpack on his school chair. It had pictures of all kinds of robots. Some had bright laser-beam eyes. Some of them walked on legs, some rolled on wheels, and others had treads like tanks. They had different arms too. Big clamps, saw blades, hammers, rocket launchers. Different heads like robots, bugs, dinosaurs, or animals. Maxx-Botz. That was the name of his favorite toy robot maker, and he lived for them.
“Zeke? Zeke?” a voice said. It was Mr. Koontz, the eighth-period social studies teacher. He had a pillow of black hair on the top of his head and a goatee. His lessons were boring. Dry as a bone. It was the kind of talk that could put energy drinks to sleep. And he’d write everything down on the chalkboard and tell you to take notes until your fingers were sore.
“Zeke?” Mr. Koontz said in a loud voice. “What is the capitol of Yemen?”
“Huh?” he said, snapping his head up from the bed he’d made in his arms. He was still attached to the desk by a string of saliva.
“Ew,” Penelope said, motioning to her face. “Zeke?”
Blinking, he wiped his mouth off on his arm, stared at Mr. Koontz, and said, “Uh, excuse me, sir?”
Mr. Koontz approached his desk, bouncing a yard stick off of his shoulder and talking really slowly as he asked, “What is the capitol of Yemen?”
After he wiped the drool off of his notes, his eyes searched for the answer. He glanced at Mr. Koontz, leaned over, and tried to peek at the blackboard behind him. He checked his notes again and said the first word he saw. “Tokyo?”
The other students started laughing. It stopped when Mr. Koontz cleared his throat and said, “No, not at all. It’s called Sana’a. Can you remember that?”
Zeke nodded. “Good, but don’t worry—it won’t be on the test. You see, I often ask obscure and unrelated questions to students who I have caught sleeping.”
Suddenly, a yawn started to force itself from Zeke’s mouth.
“Do my lessons bore you, Mr. Carter?” Mr. Koontz repeated.
Yawning, he replied, “No, no sir, not at all.”
“I see.” Mr. Koontz bumped up against his desk, leaned down, and said, “Well, I’m pretty sure that you were sleeping, and there is a penalty when you are caught sleeping in my class. It’s called detention.”
Zeke’s jaw dropped to his desk. I can’t believe this! He’d done everything that he could to avoid trouble all week long. Now, on the last day, in the last class, due to circumstances beyond his adolescent control, he’d dozed off. His lips fluttered the words “But, but, but…” but no sound came out.
The school bell rang. Every kid jumped out of their seats and hustled out of the door. Grabbing his pack, Zeke started out of his desk and heard Mr. Koontz say, “See you in detention, two weeks from Monday. It’s full now, so stay out of trouble in the meantime.”
Zeke stormed through the busy crowd of students who were chattering away. They all seemed excited that the weekend had started. It had lost its luster for Zeke. No, he’d gotten into trouble. And detention? It was a prison camp. Heavy hitters. Troublemakers. Miscreants. He didn’t belong in there. He might not even return from there.
He found his way to his locker, and Larry was standing there. “Hurry up, Zeke. Every second matters on my weekend.”
Zeke started twisting the combination back and forth. He jerked the handle. It didn’t open. “Crap!” He tried again. Failure.
Larry slapped his head. “Man, we’re going to miss the bus, man. Come on, man!”
“Hold on, hold on, I’ll get it.” Twenty-five left. Twenty right. Twenty-three left. “Cross your fingers,” he said to Larry. He tugged the lock. It opened. Books spilled out and piled up at his feet.
Larry shoved all of his books in his locker and said, “Come on.”
Zeke gathered everything he needed, stuffed it into his pack, slammed the locker shut, and ran after Larry.
Not looking back at the stark stone building called school that lingered like a dreaded storm front, he focused on his upcoming future in a world called freedom. Freedom and robots—hundreds and hundreds of robots.
A smile crested his face as he hopped on the bus and journeyed back to his seat, finally feeling like one with all of the rest of the jovial faces. He could put the stark world of middle school behind him now, for forty-eight hours at least, and bury himself in the sanctuary called home. Spying an empty spot by his friend Ned, he waved and tripped and fell in the aisle.
“What the heck?” he said, getting up to his feet.
Rising like the phoenix from between the green seats stood a horrible beast. Bradley Biggs. Cracking his thick neck with a bestial snarl, he pounded his fist into his hand and said, “You’re dead meat, Zeke.”
Zeke crab-walked away from Bradley and lunged for Ned’s bus seat. He locked his fingers around the chair legs and held on for his life.
Bradley caught him by the pants leg and foot and started pulling. “Come on, Dead Meat Zeke. Come on, sit with me!”
“Ned, help me! Ned, help!” Zeke cried.
Ned tugged at his arms.
Bradley growled at him. “Let him go, or I’ll pummel you too, Ned the Dead!”
Ned’s eyes popped wide, and he let go.
With a heave, Bradley the Bully jerked Zeke’s fingers free from the seat. Clawing at the floor, helpless against Bradley’s brute strength, Zeke pleaded for mercy. “Heeeeelp!”
Picking Zeke up like a stuffed animal, Bradley crammed him into the bus seat. “Be still,” he said. “Don’t move or speak unless I say so.”
Zeke nodded. As if today couldn’t have ended any worse, now he was trapped by his unwanted nemesis. He covered his nose.
Bradley looked at him, covered his nose, and said, “What did you do that for? Did you fart again?”
Zeke shook his head.
“Then what are you covering your nose for?” Bradley asked.
Bradley made a fist, stuck it in Zeke’s face, and said, “Spit it out.”
Oh no. Zeke didn’t want to say anything. It was one of those circumstances where he was cornered, and he couldn’t control his tongue. And to make matters worse, Bradley was forcing him to say it. So finally, he let loose and blurted it out. “It’s because your breath stinks, Frito Breath! I hate Fritos!”
Laughter burbled over the seats. Whispers and chuckles spread from one green vinyl seat hideout to another.
Bradley’s ears turned red as he looked around and clamped his mouth shut. Finally, he said, “We’re going to play a little game, Zeke. And we’re going to play it all the way home. It’s called Slug Bug. Ever hear of it?”
He nodded. Of course he’d heard of it. He’d played it too, every time he ever got in any car going anywhere. It was a fun game. “Sure,” Zeke said.
“Good, I’m glad you’re on board with this, Zeke.” Bradley squeezed Zeke’s shoulders until his eyes watered. “Except my version is a little different. You see, instead of slugging you every time I see a Bug, I slug you every time a car goes by that I don’t like. I call it Slug Zeke. Get it? So, Zeke, there’s a lot of cars that I don’t like, but I have my favorites. Like a Bugatti or a Ferrari. Man, I love those cars, so if I see one of those, I won’t hit you.”
“Uh, what if I see a car that I don’t like?” Zeke asked as he peered out the window.
“For safety’s sake, you better like them all.” Bradley peeked out the window and punched Zeke in the arm as soon as the first car passed by. “Slug Zeke! Slug Zeke!”
It went on like that all the way home. Bradley peppered Zeke’s arm with punches like a hammer head on nails. Pap! Pap! Pap! Whap! Pap!
Finally, they made it Zeke’s bus stop. Holding his throbbing arm, he meandered off of the bus with Bradley’s final words still ringing like the school bell in his ears. “See you Monday, Zeke the Weak.”
By the time he made it home, Zeke was exhausted. He trudged through the door, where he was greeted by his mom. She gave him a hug and kiss on the forehead.
“How was your first week?”
Rubbing his shoulder, he hung his backpack up on a hook on the wall and said, “Oh, fine.”
“Well, I’m off to work in a bit,” she said. “Is there anything I can do for you? Your dad should be home any minute,” she said with a smile, “and I’m pretty sure he said he was bringing home some pizza for dinner. He said it’s got your favorite topping on it.”
Zeke frowned and said, “Topping?”
“Sure, topping, a cheese topping.” She pinched his cheek. “You’re so gullible and adorable. I just love you to bits.”
He exhaled, headed into the kitchen, and turned the television on and sat down. He covered his mouth, yawned, and winced. Man, my shoulder hurts. Stupid dog breath bully! He glanced at his mom. She was dressed in her nursing clothes called scrubs. They were white with little Band-Aids checked all over them. Her hair was back in a ponytail that hung down just past her shoulders. She was pretty, but her eyes were a little puffy. She’d been pretty tired most of the time when he saw her because she had to start working the evening shift. He missed her.
“Now, Ezekiel, don’t be mad, but I’m going to be working this weekend. So I’m counting on you to keep your father in line.”
“Mom,” he whined, “you worked last weekend.”
“No, it was the weekend before last.” She slipped her shoes on. “And we need the extra money. Extra money is good, right?”
“Sure, if we’re using it so that I can buy robots with it.” He smiled. “Lots of robots.”
“You’re a funny guy, Ezekiel. But who knows, maybe we can put some money toward those mad bots for Christmas.”
“It’s Maxx-Botz, Mom.”
Zeke turned his attention back to the TV screen and switched channels. Teen Titans was on, and he said with a smile, “Meatball party!”
“Meatballs?” his mom said. “I didn’t think you liked meatballs.”
“No, Mom. It’s just a thing, on TV. No biggie. Uh, can I have a Coke?”
His mom produced the soft drink from the fridge, poured it over a glass of ice, and set it down in front of him. Zeke watched the little fizz bubbles pop up over the glass then took his first drink. “Ah!”
As his mom got ready over the next thirty minutes, he sat in front of the TV, enjoying his show, drinking, and rubbing his throbbing shoulder. I hope Monday never comes.
Outside of the kitchen, the garage door rumbled open. A car door slammed shut, and the garage door rattled to a close again. A man swung open the kitchen door, holding a pizza box. He wore a blue-collared button-up dress shirt with short sleeves and dress slacks. His hair was short, and he wore rectangular glasses. He said, “Guess what time it is?”
Zeke raised his hands over his head and wiggled his fingers. “Pizza time!”
“That’s right, son!” Zeke’s dad said. He set the pizza box down on the counter and gave Zeke a shoulder hug. “How was your day?”
“Oh, it was fine.” He stretched his fingers out for the pizza box, pulled it over, and opened the lid. Steam rolled off the top of the extra-cheese pizza. “But the day’s not over yet, and things are smelling even better.”
His dad rubbed his head. “Eat up. Eep!”
His mom had snuck up on his dad and tickled him. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and said, “And how was your day?”
His dad took his mom by the waist and said, “Having the both of you in the same room at the same time is the best part of my day. Why don’t you call off?”
“Now, you know I can’t do that.” His mom squirmed out of his dad’s arms, snagged a piece of pizza, and kissed Zeke on the forehead. “Time to go!”
The kitchen door closed behind her, leaving Zeke alone in the kitchen with his dad, who sat down on the stool beside him, grabbed a slice of pizza, looked at the TV, and said, “I love that part-man robot guy. Meatball party, heh. He makes me laugh.”
Zeke tried not to giggle, but he did.
“So, what plans do you have?” his dad asked. “Are your friends coming over, or are you going over there?”
“You know, we’ve got some pretty cool stuff going on down at the lab,” his dad said. “Maybe we should take a little field trip there tomorrow. I think you’re going to like it.”
Zeke sat up in his chair. He liked the lab. It wasn’t just any lab, either. It had all kinds of cool stuff, like what you saw on TV and in the movies. It looked like a headquarters for superheroes too. It was cool—very, very cool. “Okay.”
“Excellent. Well, I’m going to get changed and go mow the lawn before the rain comes. You enjoy that pizza, and if you go anywhere, be sure to let me know.”
There was a bonus room converted into a kid cave above the garage, kind of like an attic, where Zeke and his friends would play. Around six o’clock, everyone showed up. Larry, Ned, and Penelope. Everything a kid needed was up there. Toys. Video games. A refrigerator and TV. It was a fortress of solitude decorated in movie and video game posters. Orange shag carpet padded the floor underneath shelves with books, comics, action figures, DVDs, video games, and robots—of course robots.
Zeke pulled out his favorite plastic chest, peeled off the lid, reached inside, and said, “It’s Maxx-Botz time!”
“Ugh!” Larry said, flopping face first into a beanbag chair. His voice was muffled when he said, “Do we always have to play this?”
Pulling out his robot, Zeke said, “Of course we do. I need practice. Besides, you all brought yours.”
“Yeah, but I wanted to finish watching Me and My Unicorn. I love this one episode,” Larry whined. “It’s the one where they fight the Dino Cowboys.”
“I want to robot fight,” Penelope said, clapping her little hands together. She reached into her flower-peppered backpack. “I’m going to win this time.”
“Ha-ha,” Ned laughed. “You can try to beat me first, then. You always lose.”
“I do not,” she said.
“Really, Penelo-pee, who have you beaten before, then?” Ned said as he ran a comb through his perfect head of black hair.
With a stiff lip, she said, “I can’t remember. But I’ve won before. I know I have.”
Ned rolled his eyes and said, “You never win, but lucky for us, we do.” He reached underneath the sofa seat cushions and pulled out a notebook. Inside was a list of all of their battles. He held it in front of Penelope’s face. “Look familiar?”
“No!” she said. “Let’s just battle, Nerdy Ned!”
“I’m going to take you down, Penelo-pee!”
Zeke started putting his robot together, and everyone else did the same. In his hands he held his favorite Maxx-Botz, so named by him Gorgon Thunder-Bot. Gorgon was dark purple with a block body and had a bunch of attachable accessories. His robot head was on a long, retractable neck. When his pieces were snapped together, he stood around eight inches tall. Zeke loved Maxx-Botz. They came with different arms and legs, tank-like treads, and they had weapons. Swords and hammers. Guns and eyes that fired light to get a score. Each Maxx-Bot had a remote control, but the heart of the matter was the battery pack and CPU, the central processing unit. It was a tiny computer that made it all come together in total awesomeness.
“Larry,” Zeke said with glee in his voice, “drag out the Chamber of Champions, will you? It’s time for the battles to begin.”
Larry crawled over to the corner of the room and dragged over a flat gray case that had the Maxx-Botz logo on each side. He unfolded it in the middle of the group, and it half filled the floor. It was an arena with a big yellow circle in the middle. He flipped a switch, and a pattern of lights started flashing on the huge board and lit up a countdown tower too.
“Hmmm… I’m thinking Battle Royale,” Zeke said.
Larry dug his robot and controller out of the front pocket in his black hoodie. His Maxx-Botz was lime green, with a robot bear head and clawed arms and heavy treads. He spoke to his robot. “Let’s do it, Grizzlee,” he said.
Penelope’s robot was yellow and pink, had a girly robot face, rolled on three wheels, and could spin really fast. Its weapon, aside from the standard laser-light shot, was two arms holding a shovel-like flipper. “You’re all going down like the Titanic today. Jess-8 is gonna be great!”
“Ha,” Ned said. “More like Jess-8 is going to be the bait. You’re going to get pounded again.” He had a fire-engine-red robot with a gorilla head loaded and bright-green eyes. It had robot arms with a fist like an anvil on one and a big clamper on the other. It had legs shorter than its arms. Ned started sniffing the air, made a horrible face, and said, “Holy cat farts!”
Penelope pinched her nose and said, “Ew! Who did that? Larry, was that you?”
“Not me,” Larry said with his nostrils flaring. “You would have heard mine.”
“A sleeping bear could hear yours,” Ned added. “Geez, that stinks. Zeke?” He fanned his face. “Ah, I see it. I knew it was a cat fart! It’s Blinky! Blinky the Stinky!”
A huge, puffy, pillow-like feline with long gray hair brushed underneath Zeke’s legs and sprawled out on the Maxx-Botz Chamber of Champions board.
With his nose in his shirt, Ned said, “Get that farting feline out of here!”
“Okay, okay,” Zeke said, reaching for his cat. “It’s not that bad. You make it sound like it was mustard gas or something.”
“What’s mustard gas?” Penelope asked.
“Just get Blinky out of here.” Coughing, Ned crawled over to the window, shoved it open, and gulped fresh air. “I’m allergic to cat farts.”
Zeke cradled the fluffy form of his cat in his arms, took the feline downstairs, and closed the door behind him. Coming back up the steps, he said, “Sheesh, guys! You’d think I’d let off a bug bomb or something. It’s just a cat tooting.”
Gagging, Ned kept up the drama. “It lingers! It lingers! Like a cloud from a litter box graveyard, it lingers!”
“Oh, shut up. Get over here and play,” Zeke said. He picked up his robot, Gorgon. “And close the window. You’re gonna get rain in here.”
Ned finally scooted back to the board but was holding a pillow over his nose.
Penelope shook her head and said, “He’s automatic when it comes to the dramatic.”
“All right, everyone,” Zeke said with a voice filled with excitement, “Maxx-Botz in their stations. It’s time for the greatest, most epic, unbelievable, incredible Battle Royale ever to begin!”
The Maxx-Botz arena was all set. Little lights twinkled in the toy stands with rows of people made from stickers. Zeke loaded Gorgon onto the board. His robot was on the purple square, Ned’s on the red, Penelope’s on yellow, and Larry’s on green. “Okay, it’s time for introductions, everyone. Penelope, you start first.”
“Ah, do we always have to do this?” Larry said. “I hate this part.”
“Yes, it’s tradition,” Zeke insisted.
Groaning, Larry grumbled, “Fine.”
Penelope cleared her throat, and in a peppy voice said, “In this corner, hailing from the land of lost robots, is the prettiest, cutest, and most dangerous robot ever… Jenn-8!” Powered by Penelope’s controller, her robot wheeled into the center, spun around a few times, and saluted with its shovel.
Next, Larry spoke up in his ever-so-dull voice. “In the green box, or square thingy, comes the grisliest grizzled robot you ever saw, that runs on football plays, beef jerky, and Twinkies—Grizzlee.” The robot wheeled out real slow, fidgeted, turned around, and wobbled back to its spot.
Ned slowly clapped and said, “Good one for you, Larry. Really, quite impressive. Now, for the showstopper. He’s called the Terminator of Robots. The King of Steel. The Data Force. He is the one and only, one of a kind Red Ryder!” Ned’s fire-engine-red robot zipped out with its huge arms smashing the ground. It cruised through the arena and returned back to its slot.
Zeke smiled. His fingertips tingled. He loved playing this game. It was his Super Bowl. It was his everything. Above, the rain started to pound on the roof. His voice lowered, and he spoke just like a boxing announcer that he’d seen while watching a fight with his father. “And now entering the ring, with a record of fifty-five wins and no losses, is the Knockout King. The Metal Defiler. The Bot that eats lasers and craps lightning bolts. The undefeated, undisputed Maxx-Botz champion, the one… the only… Gorgon Thunder-Bot! The Incinerator of Worlds!” Thunder struck. Lighting flashed. Kacow!
Penelope jumped and squeaked.
On wheels, Gorgon Thunder-Bot cruised into the center of the arena. His robot arms rose up. They were claw-like hands with cannon lasers built in them. His ruby-red laser eyes flashed, and he had monster truck treads for tires. His arms came back down. Quietly, he backed into the corner.
“All right everyone, it’s time to play.” Zeke pressed the countdown button on the arena. The digital numbers in the tower started to count down from ten. Everyone counted down with it together. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… battle!”
All four robots zoomed out and collided in the middle. Ned’s robot, Red Ryder, clamped down on Penelope’s robot’s arm. Larry’s robot clamped Jenn-8’s head, and together they pulled the pink-and-yellow robot’s head and arm off.
Larry and Ned pumped their fists and gave each other high fives.
“Hey, that’s no fair!” Penelope cried. “You guys always team up on me. Zeke, why don’t you help me?”
“Use your lasers,” Zeke said. His fingers were busy on his controller. Ned and Larry always used the same tactic. They’d attack Penelope, hence a small victory, and then team up against Zeke. “You need to stall one of them and quit trying to fight them head on.”
“Or get a real weapon,” Ned said, using his remote like a fishing reel. He fought like he had a bass on the line. “That pooper scooper you use is the world’s weakest weapon.”
“It’s not a pooper scooper,” Penelope whined. “It’s the super flipper.”
Ned was laughing. He said, “Super pooper scooper. Where’d you get that, anyway? At Pet Farts?”
“Quit calling it that!” she said. “It’s PetSmart!”
“Yeah, but you have to admit it smells like pet farts!”
Ned and Larry’s robots teamed up and started pushing Penelope’s robot out of the circle. She let out an earsplitting screech. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
“Geez! Will you stop doing that?” Ned said, fingers in his ears. He and Larry had shoved her robot and parts out of the circle. He pointed at her and said, “You’re out!” His and Larry’s robots faced off against Zeke’s robot, Gorgon. “This time we’re going to beat you!”
Arms crossed over her chest, Penelope scooted closer to Zeke, stuck her tongue out at Ned, and said, “I hope he beats you both again!”
“He’s not going to beat us this time! I’m feeling it today!” Ned replied. “Right, Larry?”
“Uh-huh,” the stocky boy said. Tongue hanging out of his mouth, he was eyeing his controller and shaking it. Their robots flanked Gorgon and closed in.
Zeke fired the little light beams from the clawed hands of Gorgon. It was a move, sort of like laser tag, that if you got a hit on the radiant shield on the opposing robot’s chest, it would freeze the other robot’s lasers and movements for a few seconds. Getting a clean shot was never easy, and most people weren’t very good at it, but Zeke was. Gorgon squared up on Grizzlee. Thumbing the fire button, he locked the beefy green robot up, zoomed in, and started pushing it out of the circle.
“Come on, Grizzlee, come on!” Larry said. His robot pushed back. It had a heavy tread and was hard to push around. Its hammer hand went up and came down and clonked Gorgon in the head. “Yes!”
The two robots were chest to chest, and Zeke started firing the laser-light button. Every time he got a hit, a little alarm went off on Grizzlee. Tweep! Tweep! Tweep!
“Ned,” Larry said in a panic, “get in here and help me!”
Tweep! Tweep! Tweep! Tweep! Tweep! Tweep!
“I’m coming,” Ned said.
“It won’t do you any good,” Zeke said with confidence. “One more hit is the death shot!” He fired Gorgon’s lasers again. Direct hit. Tweep!
Grizzlee’s head, arms, and legs popped off.
“Noooo!” Larry said, slapping his face. “How did you do that?”
“It’s got all the moves and all of the skill!” Zeke said.
“Yeah, but now you’re out of lasers! You only get twenty shots!” Ned said. His robot, Red Ryder, collided into Zeke’s. The small pair of machines tussled near the little speed bump of a wall that led out of the ring. The Red Ryder’s clamper arm snapped at Gorgon.
The purple robot’s body went into a 360-degree spin. “Reap the whirlwind!” Zeke said. As he spun at the waist, Gorgon’s arms started slapping into Red Ryder’s face. Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
Back and forth the robots battled. They punched. Walloped. Whacked. Red Ryder’s clamp tried to pull Gorgon’s arm off. Gorgon’s cannon arm busted Red Ryder under the chin and popped his head off.
“Ah, crap!” Ned said. Red Ryder’s arms kept on fighting. Gorgon pulled the arms off one at a time. “Not again!”
It was decimation. Arm by arm and head by head, tread and leg, Gorgon pushed all of the loose robot parts out of the arena.
Penelope was clapping. “Yay, Gorgon!”
Picking up his robots parts, Ned said to her, “You lost too, you know! Man, I hate losing.”
“Me too,” Ned said.
“Yeah, you two are like the Charlie Brown of robot fights,” said Zeke.
Smiling really big, Zeke held Gorgon up high over his head, saying, “And still undefeated, robot champion Gorgon Thunder-Bot, the Incinerator of Worlds!”
Zeke and his friends battled a few more times, hung out, and played late into the night. Bleary-eyed and with bellies full of caramels, microwave Spaghetti-Os, licorice twists, Coke, and other sugary drinks, they all zoned out. On the flat-screen TV, they were watching reruns of The Boy Who Lived on His Bed. Zeke loved the idea. They all did. They laughed and giggled, watching the boy do just about everything they did, just from his king-size bed. Of course it wasn’t any normal kind of bed either. He could drive it. He could fly it. He could save an entire city from it. It had everything a boy needed but a bathroom on it.
Yawning, Zeke toyed with his robot parts. It had all kinds of accessories that he could use. He just wished he had more parts. Better parts. The Maxx-Botz could be pretty expensive. Some of them that he’d seen in catalogs cost thousands of dollars. He was lucky to have what he had, an entry-level version, but he made the most of it by being the best.
Holding the robot in his hands, he stuck it back in the box and charging station and said, “See you tomorrow, Gorgon. That was some good fighting today.”
Larry, Ned, and Penelope went home. Zeke hung out in the attic for a while, playing the Maxx-Botz online video game. That was his secret. That was where he learned most of his moves. He battled until his eyes became heavy. The steady rhythm of the rain splattering on the roof finally put him to sleep.
“Zeke. Zeke.” Someone spoke and jostled him. It was his dad. “Get up. Breakfast is ready.”
Rubbing his eyes, he followed his dad down the steps and into the kitchen. As he smelled the breakfast aroma in the air, his tummy rumbled. Hot pancakes were steaming on the plate, loaded with butter, syrup, and whipped cream. He climbed onto the stool and took a drink of ice-cold milk. “Thanks.”
“Eat up,” his dad said. “We’ve got a big adventure ahead of us.”
Zeke ate faster. His dad’s office was always an adventure. There was always something new to see. Gobbling up his food, he finished, put on some clean clothes, brushed his teeth, stuffed a few small robot toys in his pockets, and met his dad in the garage.
“Want to drive?” his dad said with a chuckle.
“Eh, I think I’ll let you handle it today,” Zeke replied.
“Okay, then.” His dad opened up the garage, and before long they were speeding along the highway. “Maybe in a few more years, then.”
The drive wasn’t long, maybe twenty minutes. Zeke liked the classic rock music his dad played, and sometimes he’d sing along with it. Before long the city’s landscape crept into his sight, looming with dark clouds overhead. It wasn’t a big city, not like where they vacationed, but big enough to host a handful of skyscrapers. They looked dull grey against the cloudy and overcast sky. Not a wink of sunshine to be seen, which was a little depressing.
His dad drove the car into the parking garage beneath the office building. It was the tallest building of them all. For some reason, the subterranean garage reminded Zeke of the Bat Cave. They made their way to the elevator. It was a fast elevator that made his stomach drop as it zoomed to the top floor. After they came to a stop, the doors opened. Ding!
The lobby was really fancy, smooth, and clean. The receptionist desk was empty. Behind it was a huge glass wall with huge frosted-glass doors in the middle of the glass-pane wall. The name of his dad’s company was the only thing on it. Hazard Labs.
“Now listen,” his dad said, “you know the rules. Don’t touch. If you want to see something, just ask.”
His dad pressed his thumb on the security pad. His face popped up on the security screen, and a green light flashed. The doors swung wide open, and inside they went.
“Awesome! Wow!” Zeke said.
There were robots everywhere. Some of them made funny beep sounds in a language of their own. There were computers, and tiny lights like twinkling stars and multiple computer screens filled with activity everywhere. A little round one scooted over the floor. Others filed things in cabinets and drawers using mechanical arms. Some flew like drones through the air. They all moved with function and purpose. Carry an object. Sweep the floor. Move cabinets. Some welded. Others screwed on and off parts. They all had a pearl-white shell mixed with dark-grey trimmings. Their sensor lights had an orange-green glow to them.
“Now, don’t touch them,” his dad said. “They’re all working.”
“On what?” Zeke asked.
“Oh, parts for cars, airplanes, video games.” His dad nudged him. “We’re a manufacturing company. We design parts. 3-D printers make them, and the robots, which we also designed and created, make it all happen.”
Zeke started walking through the lab. It was huge, and everywhere a robot was working on something. Some were mounted in place, and others rolled on wheels. There was a creeping one that climbed the walls like a spider. There was a handful that carried trays and walked on legs like people. Little guys that looked like astronauts.
“Do you want a drink?” his dad asked.
“Sure,” Zeke said.
Standing behind one of the walking robots that stood waist high, his dad said, “This is STEEVE-11. Just ask him, and he’ll fetch it for you.”
Zeke squatted down and said, “Okay. STEEVE-11, will you get me a Coke?”
In a robotic voice, it said, “Diet, caffeine free, sugar free, or regular.”
STEEVE-11 saluted and marched away.
“Cool,” Zeke said.
“Come on, I want to show you something they are working on,” his dad said. He led them to another room. “In here is the latest project they are working on. It’s a new power source for the robots called Enormium.”
They were little batteries shaped like a pill that glowed with colorful life of their own. Each battery sat up in an egg-like carton. They were different colors—bright blues, greens, reds, oranges, purples, and yellows—that throbbed with warm life.
“Whoa, that is cool. Are you working on it too?”
“No, son, I’m still just handling security.” His dad rubbed his shoulder. “But maybe one day you’ll get to work on these robots too. I think you have the kind of smarts that they’ll be looking for one day.”
It bothered Zeke that his dad wasn’t an engineer like the others. He understood that security was important, but if his dad just worked on robots, that would be so cool. “So, where does Enormium come from?”
“Ah, so that’s the million-dollar question, eh.” His dad cleaned his glasses with a tissue and said, “As I understand it, it comes from space. An asteroid hit the earth, and that’s what Enormium is made of. They’re trying to replicate it.”
“Really, from space?” Zeke said. “Come on, Dad, you don’t believe that, do you?”
Dad shrugged. “You never know. But they say that it’s possible that one of those batteries could one day power this entire building. Maybe even a whole city.”
Pressing his face against the security glass, Zeke said, “Whoa, it would be a battery that never went dead. I’d never have to recharge my robots.”
“That’s the idea,” his dad said. He put his glasses back on. “And a pretty good one.”
“Indeed,” another voice said. A tall man, taller than Zeke’s dad, entered the room.
Zeke’s dad’s face turned pale.
Facing the man in the dark suit, Zeke’s dad cleared his throat and said, “Dr. Hazard, I’m sorry, I didn’t think anyone else was here.”
Oh no, it’s Dr. Scrooge, Zeke thought.
“Of course you didn’t,” Dr. Hazard said. The man had a cold expression on his face that seemed amplified by his sideburns. He was a lot older than his dad too. “That’s probably why you are here, Jim?”
“It’s been a while since I brought my son, Zeke. He was dying to have another look. He loves robots.” His dad showed a worried smile. “I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“Oh, you didn’t think, did you, Jim?” Dr. Hazard smoothed his gray-and-black hair back with his hand and looked Zeke in the eyes. “You know, I don’t have any children. But if I did, I don’t think I would waltz them into this lab for any reason. It is a top-secret facility, Jim. And last I checked, you were in charge of security. Weren’t you?”
Zeke’s heart pounded in his chest. Bradley Biggs scared him, but it was nothing like Dr. Hazard. The old, vulture-like man gave him the shivers the first time he met him years ago at a company dinner. He thought he’d forgotten those cold, hard eyes under those bushy brows. Now he was going to have nightmares again. His grabbed his dad’s warm hand.
“I’m sorry Dr. Hazard. Uh, we’ll be on our way,” his dad said. “I just wanted to do a little something different with my son.”
“I see,” Dr. Hazard said. He scratched his hooked nose. “Well, don’t be so hasty. So, Zeke, is it? Huh, it doesn’t look like you’ve grown too much since I last saw you. Of course, I don’t pay much attention to the children. They all look the same to me. Small and messy. So, you like robots, do you?”
Zeke tried to nod, but his chin was frozen in place.
“Not much of a talker, I see,” Dr. Hazard said. “Often with children that is a preferred thing.” He looked inside the glass chamber where the glowing batteries were nestled in their spots. “I bet you’d like to take one of those Enormium batteries home with you, wouldn’t you? And perhaps some of my robots too? Hmmm?”
He wanted everything in the lab. The robots, the batteries, the computers. The truth was, he wanted it all to himself. Unable to control his desires, he nodded.
Dr. Hazard said to his dad, “You know, children have very sticky fingers. Make sure that he doesn’t leave with anything.”
His dad gave Dr. Hazard an irritated look and said, “Certainly not. I trust my boy.”
The STEEVE-11 robot approached with a Coke in its hand, held it out in front of Zeke, and said in its digital voice, “Here is your Coke, sir.”
Hands glued to his sides, Zeke looked up at Dr. Hazard.
The old man plucked the can from STEEVE-11’s hand, kneeled down, and handed it to Zeke. “This will be fine. It’s not worth thousands of dollars.” His heavy eyes gave Zeke a once-over, froze on his pockets, and said, “What do you have in there?”
“Now, Dr. Hazard,” his dad objected, “my son hasn’t taken anything, if that is what you are implying.”
“Of course not, Jim, of course not.” Dr. Hazard’s gaze remained steady on Zeke. “Take no offense. I was a boy once, and I often had my pockets full of junk. Toy soldiers, odd bits of metal, and marbles, as I recall. Juvenile things. No, I am just curious. Zeke, what do you have in there?”
Compelled by the older man’s hypnotic gaze, Zeke started digging into his pockets. He pulled out one tiny robot after the other and handed them to Dr. Hazard.
“Interesting. Clearly not my work and very uninspiring. Maybe one day you will find yourself among real robots.” Dr. Hazard shoved the robots back inside his pockets, patted Zeke on the head, and said, “Be a good boy, now. One never knows what he is capable of until he tries it.”
His dad said, “We better get going now. See you Monday, Dr. Hazard. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
Walking away, Dr. Hazard said, “Yes, you do that. Next time, just take your son out for pizza and ice cream. You wouldn’t risk your job for doing that.”
It was a long ride down on the elevator. Zeke’s dad looked a little peaked. Finally, Zeke asked, “You aren’t going to get fired, are you?”
“Oh, gosh no, Zeke. Dr. Hazard might have a few dozen personality faults, but I think he’s a practical man. It wouldn’t make any sense to fire a fellow as charming as me, now would it?”
He shook his head and said, “No. I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Why? You didn’t do anything. It was my decision and my responsibility, and you know what? I’d probably do it again if it made you happy.” His dad hugged him. “You’re worth it, son.”
Zeke let loose a big grin.
His dad then said, “And you had fun, didn’t you?”
“And you know what?” his dad continued. “I think pizza and ice cream sounds like a great idea.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon in Smitty’s Pizza Parlor and ate until they couldn’t eat anymore. His dad asked if he wanted to see a movie, but Zeke was tired and ready to go home. The drive seemed pretty long and quiet, and Zeke had a hard time staying awake. He was all too happy when they pulled in the garage. He slogged out of the car and headed for the kitchen door.
His dad said, “I’ve got a few things to sort out in the garage. If you head out anywhere, let me know, okay, Zeke?”
Yawning, he said, “Okay. Thanks again, Dad.”
Zeke headed up into the kid cave above the garage. He plopped down on the couch beside Blinky the cat and turned the TV on. His full pockets made him a little uncomfortable. He started pulling his little robots out of his pockets and tossed them on the floor one by one. Suddenly, inside his pocket he felt something strange and smooth in his hand. He pulled it out and gasped. A glowing red Enormium battery lay inside the palm of his hand.
“Holy cat farts!”
Panic set in quickly. Zeke hopped off of the couch and dropped the Enormium battery from his hands. “Oh man, oh man, oh man!”
What was he going to do? He didn’t take it! How did it get inside his pocket?
Blinky jumped off the couch. The big fluffy ball of grey fur pounced right on top of the red battery.
“Get off of there, Blinky!” He shooed the fat cat away. It hissed and scurried down the steps.
“Zeke!” his dad said. He was coming up the stairs. “What’s all the jumping around up here? I told you about that!”
His dad approached, and the battery lay right in plain sight. Zeke looked in all directions, and just as the top of his dad’s short hair appeared from the stairwell, he found a pillow on the couch and dropped it on the battery. He plopped on top of it and said, “Sorry, Dad. I was just goofing around. You know, pretending to be a superhero like the ones on TV.”
“I thought you were tired,” his dad said.
“Well, I was, but I’m kinda wound up again for some reason.” He shrugged. “It happens.”
“Huh. Probably a sugar buzz kicking in. I remember I used to get those. Listen, I’m going over to the Downeys’ for a bit. I need to see if Chuck has a saw that I need. So if you need me, you know where to find me.” His dad started back down the steps.
“Uh, Dad?” Zeke shifted on the pillow. “Uh, Dad?”
He wanted to tell his dad everything but figured that not only would he get in trouble, but so would his dad. His thoughts raced. He needed more time to think about things.
“Uh, I just wanted to say thanks for everything. Thanks!”
“No problem. See you in a bit.”
Zeke sighed. Perfect! His dad would be gone an hour at least. Every time he went to Chuck’s, he stayed longer than he said. That would be plenty of time to get all of this sorted out. He calculated his options. Should I tell Dad? Answer “No,” he might get fired. Answer “Yes,” you will get grounded forever. He slapped his head. “Oh man, this is bad.”
He got up and started pacing. How did the battery get inside his pocket? He didn’t put it there, and if he didn’t put it there, Dr. Hazard must have put it there. But why? Why would Dr. Hazard do that? Was it a mistake? An accident? Dr. Hazard was a brilliant robot engineer, maybe the best in the world. He wouldn’t do something if he didn’t mean to do it, would he?
Talking to himself, he picked up the battery from under his pillow and said, “He must have wanted me to have it. But why?”
He stared at the little orb of light that was smaller than the tip of his pinky. It was a fascinating thing. Warm. Enchanting. “What the heck am I supposed to do with you? Even if Dr. Hazard did mean to give me this, Dad will probably get mad that I have it.”
A wonderful idea popped into his mind. With the battery clutched in his fingers, he raced downstairs, headed into the fenced-in backyard, grabbed a little garden shovel, and started digging a hole in the yard where no one would notice it. He took the Enormium battery, dropped it in the hole, packed the dirt over the top of it, and said, “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
He didn’t sleep very well Saturday but rested a little easier on Sunday. Monday he was back in school, and he was in the zone, avoiding Bradley and other problems. As the week went on, the incidents were less frequent. Still, thoughts of the battery ate at him, and at night at the dinner table, he’d ask his dad how his day went.
In a reassuring voice, his father would say, “Everything is just fine, Zeke. Just A-OK.”
Life went on for another week. School was abysmal, but Zeke adapted. Finally, one day, Penelope grabbed him in the hall and said, “Zeke, come look, come look.”
She dragged him over to one of the bulletin boards in the hallway. It had all kinds of useless information on it that Zack didn’t care about. Team and club sign-ups like soccer, drama, yearbook, and the dreaded show choir. I’ll make every effort I can to miss that. Finally, his eyes locked on something interesting. Not a little interesting, but a lot interesting. Clive Custer Middle School was going to host a Maxx-Botz Contest of Champions. “Wow!”
“You can win that, Zeke,” Penelope said. “I know you can, because you are the best.”
He left school that day feeling as though he were walking on a cloud. Finally, the school was doing something that he liked. Robots. Fighting robots. It filled his mind with mechanical wonder. It was the one thing that he was good at.
“I can’t wait,” he said, over and over again.
The next two weeks were torture because the tournament wasn’t until then. It was going to be on a Saturday too, which wasn’t a problem. They would host one tournament a week for one month and determine a champion during the final battle at the end.
“I can win this thing.”
He practiced strategy every day after school until bedtime. By the time the day of the tournament came around, he was ready. He arrived with his friends at the middle school gym, which was packed with people. There weren’t just kids from Clive Custer, but kids from everywhere. Many of them were just as excited as he was and dressed in T-shirts with robots on them too. He got signed up, and so did Penelope, Larry, and Ned. They all rode over together with Zeke’s mom and dad. He was excited that they were there but a little nervous too.
There was a bracket on a big board that showed the name of the robot and who it would be fighting. Zeke’s robot, Gorgon, was matched up against a robot named Monzilla. He patted his robot’s head and said, “I’m sure we can handle him.”
Finally, Gorgon’s name was called. As Zeke left the stands, his parents said, “Good luck, Ezekiel.”
He made his way to one of the many tables where the Maxx-Botz arenas were set up. Everyone around him seemed to be taking the competition seriously, and he’d been watching the others too. They were all pretty good, but he figured he could handle them. Zeke set down Gorgon on the arena and turned it on. Its red-light eyes flared to life. He practiced some robot moves with the remote. He used the clawed hands with the light lasers and treaded feet. He figured the robot named Monzilla would be big and slow. He could shoot him with his lasers, lock him up, and push him out.
Finally, a boy showed up on the other side of the arena with a black juggernaut of a robot in his hands and set it down.
Zeke’s jaw dropped.
His opponent wasn’t just anybody. It was Bradley Biggs.
Zeke finally pulled his jaw up off of the table and said, “I thought you hated robots.”
“No, I just hate you, Zeke the Geek. I like robots. They can destroy things,” Bradley said to his robot. It had a robotic T-Rex head, mechanical arms, and heavy treads. It opened its mouth, and fiery laser light shot out. “This is Monzilla. And he’s going to kill that little bot that you got.”
Zeke shrank inside his clothing. He was confident that he could handle anything that he saw until he saw what was stamped on the front of Monzilla’s chest. CP-1000. It was the top-of-the-line battery pack. Man, those things cost one thousand dollars! Don’t panic, just use your lasers! He took a breath. His hands became clammy on the control. Oh man, I’m freaking out.
“You can do it, Zeke. Bigger doesn’t mean better.” Penelope was there at the table. So were Larry and Ned. His mom and dad. They all had his back.
He nodded and took another deep breath. It was time to stick it to Bradley. He might be bigger, stronger, and faster, but in the robot world, size didn’t matter. It was skill. Zeke knew every trick in the book. Besides, he’d never lost.
“Robots ready!” the referee said. It was just a guy with a moustache, wearing a hat.
Glaring at Zeke, Bradley nodded.
Zeke nodded too.
The ref pressed a button, and the digital clock tower started counting down. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five—
“I’m going to crush you like a bug,” Bradley said. “Besides, I’m the defending champ. Didn’t know that, did you?”
Zeke’s eyes filled with doubt.
Three, two, one… a tiny horn went off. Blaaaat!
Gorgon zoomed in. Zeke concentrated on shooting Monzilla with his light lasers. Pew. Pew. Pew. Pew.
Monzilla turned its back on Gorgon, shielding its chest, and backed right into Gorgon with a loud crack. Monzilla’s upper body started to spin like a tornado, and its fists flashed out. Spinning like a top, it punched Gorgon repeatedly. Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack!
“Oh no!” Zeke cried. He tried to back Gorgon out of the onslaught. Shaking his remote, he said, “Move, Gorgon, move!”
Monzilla was powerful and fast. Unrelenting. It stopped spinning. Quickly, its robot arms locked up Gorgon. One clawed hand pulled off Gorgon’s arm. Monzilla’s free arm kept punching Gorgon until its head fell off. Gorgon warbled and fell down. Fighting to get up, it made strange tooting sounds. People started laughing.
“Hey, that robot toots,” they said.
Piece by piece, Monzilla dismantled Gorgon, to the thrill of the cheering crowd. Finally, Monzilla shoved the last piece of Gorgon out of the circular ring.
“Ha-ha, looks like you stink at everything Zeke—I mean Geek.” Bradley proudly hoisted up his robot over his head. “Monzilla wins again!”
Humiliated, Zeke gathered up the parts of Gorgon and went and sat in the stands. His mom and dad were right beside him when he said with tears in his eyes, “I want to go home.”
“We will as soon as your friends are done,” his dad said, rubbing his shoulder. “We still need to cheer them on. Besides, you can still fight again next week.”
“I don’t want to fight in the losers’ bracket.”
His mom wiped the tears from his eyes with a Kleenex and said, “You know, honey, sometimes you can learn a lot from losing. Just hang in there.”
It made for a long day. Penelope, Ned, and Larry each won their first fights. Zeke wasn’t happy for them either. He was mad. How could they win when he always beat them? The ride home was long too. They were excited, and they tried to cheer him up, but all that he wanted to do was go home. When he got there, he took Gorgon to the kid cave and tossed him into the box and went to sleep.
Sunday was a rainy day. They went to church. Old women pinched his cheeks. He sang a little. Took communion. It was hard to listen to the sermon. He still couldn’t stop thinking about Saturday. Worst of all, he’d have to face Bradley, who would certainly rub it in. On the bus. In the school halls. It was as if his favorite thing, Maxx-Botz, was ruined forever.
There’s got to be some way to beat that guy!
Sunday afternoon was a long day. He sat in the kid cave and sulked. His friends wanted to come over, but he told them no. The rain and thunder seemed to only dampen his dour mood and seep into his bones. He was obsessing now. It was kind of like getting a new video game and wanting to win at it. He’d pour countless hours into it until he won. But this seemed different. Personal.
He tried to look out of the rain-splattered window. He could barely make out the trees in the backyard. There were flashes and cracks of thunder. His dad came upstairs and said, “Time for bed, Zeke.”
There was a bright flash and a clap of thunder. KRRACK-BOOM!
The house shook, and the power flickered. Zeke rushed into his dad’s arms.
“Geez!” his dad said with eyes as big as moons. “I swear that bolt almost hit the house. Come on, let’s get you to bed. I think this is the worst of the storm and it should soon be passing.”
Tucked in bed and exhausted, Zeke fell asleep looking at a Maxx-Botz poster on the wall. He woke up in the middle of the night to a strange and eerie silence. There was an odd glow creeping through the shutters on his window. He opened them up and looked into the backyard outside. The rain had stopped, but everything was foggy. A red illumination rose from the ground. He tilted his head to the side. Oh no! That’s exactly where I buried that battery!
On cat feet he crept out of his room and outside. There was a black hole, big, like an empty grave. The grass and dirt were charred from what Zeke figured was a lightning strike. Inside the hole lay the Enormium battery, pulsating with new life in its glow. At that exact moment, something profound entered his imagination. He snatched up the battery, closed it in his hand, snuck up into the kid cave, and hid the battery inside Gorgon Thunder-Bot’s CPU. Yawning with his mouth as wide as a bass, he went back to bed.
Monday morning, Zeke was back at the bus stop with his friends.
“You’re going to fight again,” Ned, who was sitting beside him, said. “Right?”
Zeke shrugged and said, “Maybe.” It all depended on whether or not he could power his robot with the Enormium battery unit. He wanted to. He wanted victory so bad.
“Look, we all won,” Penelope said, “and we didn’t have to fight the champion like you did. We all won because you taught us the moves. I’m sure you’ll do a lot better in the loser bracket.”
Loser. Zeke hated that word. Bradley Biggs told him that all the time. Stuffing his hands inside his pockets, he said, “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Hey, Zeke, why are the Simpsons cowards?” Larry asked. Telling jokes was Larry’s strange way to cheer people up.
“Because they’re yellow!” Larry huffed a laugh. “Get it, yellow?”
Zeke turned and walked away. When the bus pulled up, he slipped on first and quickly grabbed a seat in the front. He was the first one off when the bus pulled up to the school. Quickly, he grabbed his books and headed to homeroom. Ms. Turtle was hunkered over her desk. She stopped him and said, “Zeke.”
“Huh,” he said, trying not to stare at her white, cotton-candy-like hair and withering lips.
She handed him a note and in a cracked voice said, “It seems you have detention all week. Don’t be late.”
He slapped his forehead and said, “Aw, crap!” He’d forgotten all about detention from his first week at school.
“Watch the language,” she said. “Take your seat.”
Zeke flopped down at the desk. The dungeon, they called it. The desecration, they said. There were two kids that went to detention last year and were still missing. He buried his face in his desk. Ah man, I’m too young to go to prison.
Lunch came too soon when the clock hands hit 11:15 a.m. Zeke slogged his way through the abandoned halls where the detention room was held in one of the back classrooms. The closer he got, the dimmer the light above became, and they started to flicker with eerie light. The glass pane on the door read Detention Room G-111.
Head down and with a sigh, Zeke pushed the door open. The more he pushed, the more the door groaned. Ah, great! He slipped inside. There were some rough-looking kids in the back of the room, boys and girls. Older. Tough. Mean. He averted his eyes and took a seat in the front row.
Sitting at the teacher’s desk was Mr. Koontz. He was scribbling on some paper. Other than that, it was quiet. It was a break from the chaos that he was used to running into everywhere else in school. This isn’t so bad.
The door creaked open, and Juniper, the girl basketball player, in uniform, walked in. Her eyes lit up when she saw him. She came and sat right down beside him. Chewing her gum like it was the last piece on earth, she said, “Hey cutie, whatcha in for?”
She punched in him the shoulder. “Ah, you’re funny, cutie.”
His eyes teared up. It was the same shoulder Bradley had whaled on over a week ago. There was still a bruise on it.
“I’m sorry, cutie. I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.” She tried to rub it.
Zeke scooted away and said, “Thanks, but uh, I need to study.”
She popped her gum and said, “Okay, cutie.”
“Cutie?” Bradley Biggs had entered the room. “Who are you calling cutie, Juniper?” He eyed Zeke and said, “Are you talking about little Sponge Bob Fudge Pants?”
The room erupted in laughter.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Mr. Koontz said. “Bradley, have a seat and do be quiet. I have a mild headache today, and if it gets any worse, you will all get another week.”
Please no, please no, please no. Zeke took out some paper and began to doodle robots. He didn’t want any part of anybody. But at least it was quiet. After Zeke had spent about fifteen minutes of avoiding Bradley’s red-hot glare on his neck, Mr. Koontz got up and said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Stay in your seats, and everybody behave yourselves.” He cracked a ruler on the desk. “I mean it.”
What? No, no, no, he can’t just leave. He can’t do that, can he? I’m a dead man.
The door slammed shut. Zeke felt all of his blood drain into his toes.
Juniper scooted closer, grabbed his arm, and said, “Perfect, cutie. Now we can get to know each other better.”
There were about fifteen kids in the room, and Zeke swore they were all staring at him. Some of them were laughing, and others giggled. Bradley got up out of his seat and moved into the one right behind him and said, “Juniper, why are you fooling with this loser?”
“Unlike you, he’s cute and sweet.”
Ah geez, will you please shut up, Juniper. How did you tell a girl who was bigger and stronger than you to shut up? “Please, I’m fine, Juniper. I really am. Would you please go away?”
Her eyes narrowed into smoldering slits. She popped her gum bubble and said, “Don’t make me mad, cutie. The last boy who made me mad got locked in a dumpster out back.” She popped another bubble and moved away.
Bradley leaned forward and said in his ear, “Looks like your Amazon bodyguard is mad at you. Now it’s just me and you, Sludge Pants.” Bradley layered on one insult after the other. He abused both ears. “Little Tooter. Turtle Butt. Pig Tail. Gorilla Booger. Slobber Snots. Goose Dropping. Robot Grease. Diaper Smear. Ear Wax. Toe Fungus.”
Zeke was astounded. He had no idea that Bradley knew that many words. So many insults. He stacked them up like a brick wall and pushed them on top of Zeke’s fragile ego. Sitting still as a stone, Zeke finally felt the inner forces of his smart-alecky nature turn loose. He jumped out of his chair, pointed at Bradley, and blurted out every insult he could think of.
“Bradley, you’re a freckled failure! Camel snot! A guppy fart! Grasshopper spit! Brain dead! Zombie booger! Monkey wart! Ogre hair! Toilet water! Urinal cake!” Zeke’s critical words surged from his mouth in an avalanche of insults. “Slug slime! Parrot poop! Smelly, stupid, backwater turd collector!”
The entire room was bursting with laughter, but his jubilation fell as fast as it rose.
Mr. Koontz was standing in the doorway. “Ahem. Mr. Carter, what did you say?”
Out of breath and sweating, Zeke climbed back into his seat and said, “Uh, sometimes I say stupid things.”
“You got that right, Mr. Carter,” Mr. Koontz said. “Looks like you just blabbered your way into another week of detention.”
It was a bad week. A miserable week. Zeke slogged his way into school one day after the other. It was tiring. Agonizing. He avoided Bradley at all costs except for detention. When he got there, he sat as close to Mr. Koontz as he could. It didn’t stop Bradley’s burning stares, though. Plus, Juniper was gone.
Zeke felt like his destiny was being stuck with in detention with Bradley forever. Head down at his desk, every day at detention, he said, “I’m never going to make it through middle school.”
Finally, Friday came, and the agonizing bus trip home finally came to an end. Getting off of the bus with his friends, he quickly made his way to the house. They all caught up with him and said, “You’re still going to fight Gorgon tomorrow, aren’t you?”
Ugh! It had been such a bad week that Zeke had forgotten all about it. It was the last thing that he wanted to think about. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“But you have to fight,” Penelope said. “You can’t just quit.”
“I’m not quitting. I’m retiring.” Zeke hustled home after that without another word. The last thing he wanted to think about right now was robots. Or Bradley. It had been a horrible week, and he’d forgotten all about the Enormium battery and Gorgon. He made his way to the house, grabbed a bag of Doritos and a Coke, and headed up to the kid cave.
Man, I’ve still got another week of detention!
All he could do was hope that Bradley wasn’t still in there too. Crunching on some chips, he started to watch a rerun episode of The Boy Who Lived on His Bed. It wasn’t long before he drifted off to sleep.
A bumping sound woke him. He rubbed his eyes and wiped his mouth.
The case he kept Gorgon Thunder-Bot in was rumbling. He slid off of the couch and crawled over to the case and opened it up. Gorgon was reassembled. Zeke swore he was still in parts when he put him in. All of a sudden, with a new silvery glow in his eyes, Gorgon stood up and hopped out of the box.
Gorgon had the same head attachment on top and bottom now, and he oddly hopped around and talked on his own. Beep-Beep-Tweet-Beep. He was quick too. The lasers in his hands glowed with a new fire. His lights were bright, and more of them were blinking. The little robot puttered around the room and started knocking things over. It shot a light laser at Blinky, making the cat jump out of its pillow and dash away. The robot started studying everything, from the toys on the shelves to the cords behind the TV set, and making a racket.
His mom yelled upstairs. “Zeke, what are you doing up there?”
Oh no. That was a bad thing. He couldn’t let his parents find out about Gorgon or the special battery he had in him. He yelled back, “Blinky saw a mouse, I think!”
“Eek!” his mom yelled. “Well, get that thing out of here! I’m leaving early for work now. Have your dad take care of that thing as soon as he gets here!”
He heard the kid cave door shut and his mom pulling out of the garage.
Gorgon hopped onto the TV tray and spilled his Coke. “Gorgon, stop!” Zeke said.
The little robot moved with its own purpose. Thinking quickly, Zeke grabbed Gorgon’s controller and started executing commands. Finally, Gorgon came to a stop. “Whew!” Zeke said, picking Gorgon up. “Man, you have a mind of your own. Don’t you? It must be that battery.”
He started testing Gorgon’s functions. The robot was strong and fast. Easy to control. His laser shots were super accurate too. He made more sounds. Beep-Beep-Tweep-Beep. Gorgon was better than ever, times ten maybe. No one would be able to beat him. Even better, if Zeke won out on the loser bracket, he could get a shot at the champion again. There was a one-loss rule. He could still win it all with one loss.
He took Gorgon over to the home computer, sat down, and set Gorgon on the desk. He plugged the USB cord into the computer and into Gorgon. He logged into the Maxx-Botz user website. “I’m not taking any chances on losing. Gorgon, I want you to download all of these upgrades.”
The Maxx-Botz site was really cool. You could load in your robot’s personality, and it showed you a profile of it on the screen. There were different colors you could do and see new robot looks with other weapons and accessories. Lots of cool parts to shop for. All kinds of awesome things like that. One of the most fun parts was programming the robot’s personality. You could put in its likes and dislikes. Zeke had a long list of both. But every robot did have one strict prime directive. Never hurt people. Zeke always thought that was kind of silly because these robots couldn’t hurt people. At least not that he knew of.
He toyed around with the computer for a bit, when he heard some footsteps coming up the stairs. Penelope emerged from the stairwell.
“Hey,” she said. “I brought my Hello Kitty collection over to show you.”
With a dumbfounded look on his face, Zeke said, “Why?”
“Because I thought it would cheer you up,” Penelope said. She held out one of the pink-and-white kittens. “Hello Kitty always makes me happy.” She set down a pink-and-white suitcase with Hello Kitty on it and opened it. It folded out into a city with small houses and cars and more Hello Kitty figurines. “See, we have fun playing in Hello Kitty City.”
He slapped his forehead and said, “Seriously, Penelope. Put that stuff up. I’m working on Gorgon. You know I can’t stand Hello Kitty.”
Her voice got excited, and she said, “You’re going to fight Gorgon again?”
“You bet. I wish you would have brought Jenn-8 over. I wanted to battle.”
“Well, why don’t you let Gorgon practice with Hello Kitty?” she asked, nuzzling a stuffed kitten to her face. “They can be friends.”
“Look, I’m going downstairs to make a sandwich. When I get back, you better have Kitty Litter City put up.”
Downstairs, he made a peanut butter sandwich and filled up a tall glass with chocolate milk. Hello Kitty or not, Zeke was excited again. He had a robot. The ultimate fighting robot, and on Saturday, Gorgon Thunder-Bot was going to incinerate the Maxx-Botz tournament world. While he was drinking his milk, a nagging feeling seeped into his chest. The Enormuim battery was transforming Gorgon into something special, but it wasn’t his. He’d have to tell his dad. He’d have to return it.
After the tournament, he thought. I’ll tell Dad all about it after the tournament. I’ll just pretend like I found it by accident.
He took a bite out of his sandwich and started to chew. Without warning, coming from the kid cave, Penelope let out an ear-shattering shriek.
Dropping his sandwich, Zeke rushed up the steps and into the kid cave.
Penelope was up on the couch, pointing and screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”
Zeke looked down at the floor. A horrible scene was taking place in the Hello Kitty City. Gorgon was in full attack mode. Buildings were knocked over. Colorful cars were crushed. The kittens were scattered everywhere. Their bodies were torn into separate plastic parts. Heads twisted off. Gorgon was in the middle of ripping the stuffing out of one of them. The robot turned away, hopped to another kitten, and shot light lasers at one kitty that left black char marks.
“Cool!” Zeke said.
“No, not cool! Make him stop. He’s destroying my Hello Kitty collection,” she said.
“Well, now you’re just going to have to call it your Goodbye Kitty collection.” Zeke grabbed the remote and brought Gorgon to a halt using a simple command that he spoke into the controller. “Gorgon, halt!”
The robot froze. Little lights flashed, and it still talked. Beep-Beep-Tweep-Beep!
He picked up Gorgon and said, “Geez, Penelope. What did you do?”
“I just unplugged him so that they could all play.” With an angry face, she started stuffing the kitty parts into the play city case. “He’s a bad robot. A bad, bad robot!” She stormed over and yelled right at Gorgon. “Stupid robot! You killed my kitties!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, plugging Gorgon back into the computer, “but you should have left him alone. He was in the middle of updating. He must have gotten confused or something. Just head on home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
With her bottom lip stuck out, Penelope packed up all the kitties in her case and stomped away.
Zeke felt a little bad, but he couldn’t help but giggle. Man, I wish I got that on video! He let Gorgon upload more data, and several minutes later he heard his dad pull into the garage. Not wanting his dad to see Gorgon, he rushed down the steps to greet him. He met his dad at the garage door. “Hey, Dad.”
“Oh, don’t you hey, Dad me. I just saw your little friend Penelope. She said something about you tearing up her kitty cats,” his dad said with a frown on his face. “What did I tell you about picking on her?”
“What did she say?” Zeke said. He hoped she didn’t say anything about what Gorgon did. It would ruin everything for the tournament.
His dad walked inside and set his keys on the kitchen counter and said, “She said you were mean. And I think I’ve already warned you a few times already. So tonight, you’re sticking close to me. No time with Larry and Ned, and no more time in the kid cave.”
“But Dad, tomorrow is the tournament. I have to get Gorgon ready.”
His dad walked over to the kid cave door and closed it. “Forget about it. It’s going to be me and you working-in-the-garage time. You need some Dad time. Oh, and we are going to fill in the lightning hole out back too.” He scratched his head. “Man, that sure was close. Then we’re going to watch my favorite movie together.”
“Ah, Dad, please, not Raiders of the Lost Ark again.”
Dad smiled and said, “No, even better. Tonight you get to see The Temple of Doom.”
“The one with the bugs and monkey brains?”
“Ha-ha, you betcha!” His dad looked around and said, “Say, your mom texted me about a mouse in the house. Where was it?”
“It’s gone. Blinky got it, I think.” He started for his bedroom. Man, it’s going to be one long night until tomorrow.
Above the attic in the kid cave, Gorgon Thunder-Bot was all alone and staring at the computer screen. Computer images of all kinds of things were popping up on the monitor. They were images from the things Zeke liked and didn’t like as well as several other things. Top secret things from beyond the suburbs and beyond the city. Hour after hour, megabyte after megabyte, Gorgon Thunder-Bot grew in knowledge and power.
Saturday morning came quickly, and before Zeke knew what happened, he and his friends were back at Clive Custer Middle School for the Maxx-Botz tournament. There were ten contest rings set up on tables inside the school’s gymnasium, and the stands were packed with people. Kids from all over were tuning their robots.
His dad squeezed Zeke’s shoulder and said, “Good luck, son.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Zeke was a little sad because his mom had to work, but a little glad too in case he lost. He felt pretty confident about Gorgon, but his hands were clammy. His fingers practically stuck to the controller, and they left sweat smears on everything. He got registered at eight o’clock. By nine o’clock, all of the brackets were out, and the first round of matches started at nine thirty. His fight was in the first round.
“What do you think, man?” Ned said to him. They were looking at the brackets on the wall. He was holding Red Ryder in his hands. “Looks like all of last week’s losers are matched up against last week’s winners first. Tough outlook. But you’re going to be all right, Zeke. I know you and Gorgon can do it.”
“Yeah,” he said. He stuck his hand out. Penelope, Ned, and Larry all huddled in and put their hands on his. “Let’s all do good today. One, two, three…”
“What are we doing?” Larry asked.
“Uh, I think it’s a huddle thing. A pride thing. I saw them do it on Robot Wars, and they all said something,” Zeke said.
Cocking her head, Penelope said, “Something like what? How about one, two, three, meow!”
“No, that’s stupid. It needs to be something cool,” Ned said. He scratched his head. “How about one, two, three, pizza party?”
“No,” Larry piped in. “How about one, two, three, uh, four!”
“It has to be something tough,” Zeke said. His face became a mask of concentration. He thought of a show that he saw his dad watch about a bunch of Viking warriors. “I got it! Put your hands in!”
They all complied, and Penelope said, “Your hand’s all sweaty again.”
“Never mind that,” Zeke said. “After three, we say robot Vikings.”
“But mine’s a bear,” Larry said.
“Just say it,” Zeke ordered. “One, two, three—robot Vikings!”
Zeke made his way to the arena table. He set up Gorgon in his spot on the contest arena.
On the other side of the table was an older boy, a high schooler, wearing a T-shirt that read “The Darkslayer” in big, bold letters. His robot, Dark-Bot, was gunmetal gray and had a spiked helmet head. One arm was a powerful clamp, and the other had a double-bladed battle-axe. It had heavy tank treads for feet. The robot was bulky and intimidating. The blond-haired boy that controlled it had a merciless look in his blue eyes.
He whispered in Gorgon’s ear, “Beat this robot, Gorgon. You can do it.”
“All right, boys,” the referee said. He was a bald, skinny man with too much hair under his nose. He wore the official Maxx-Botz tournament shirt colored in black, red, and brilliant yellow. “First robot knocked out of the ring or incapacitated for thirty seconds loses. Got it?”
The blond-haired boy nodded.
Zeke said, “Yes.”
“Good luck to you both.” The ref pushed the button, and the countdown began from the tower.
There were people gathered around the table, and the murmuring began. Voices from the crowd said, “That robot’s going to get pummeled.”
“Didn’t Dark-Bot win the tournament a couple of years ago?”
“It’s one of the worst going against one of the best.”
“A clear mismatch.”
“They shouldn’t even have a loser bracket.”
“Fights like this are just practice.”
As the color-filled tower counted down, Zeke felt himself shrink inside his clothes. Heart beating like a hammer inside his chest, he watched the dreadful tower countdown.
… five… four… three… two… one.
“Battle!” the ref said.
He pushed the thumb toggles on his controller forward. Gorgon hopped toward the center.
Dark-Bot met him halfway. Its robot eyes had a blue fire in them. It swung its axe up high.
Someone said, “This will be over quick.”
The axe came down hard and fast.
Zeke tried to get Gorgon out of the way, but his thumbs were too late. Gorgon was going to be decapitated. “Oh no!”
Quick as a wink, Gorgon’s arms snapped up. Its clawed hands stopped the deadly blade.
“Oooooooh!” the crowd said.
With its own will, Gorgon took over. The deep-purple robot turned into a dangerous thing with a fiery flicker in its shiny steel eyes. In a totally unexpected move, Gorgon ripped the axe from Dark-Bot’s grip and started beating Dark-Bot with it. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
Dark-Bot’s owner fought with his controller and yelled above the roar of the crowd, “What in Bish is happening?”
Gorgon whacked off Dark-Bot’s head with its own axe. It cut the other arm off of Dark-Bot. It tore out the treads. Piece by piece, Gorgon Thunder-Bot shoved Dark-Bot out of the arena, held the axe up high and, with a whack, stuck it in the arena.
The ref held up Zeke’s arm and said, “Gorgon Thunder-Bot wins!”
The blond-haired boy was red-faced, and there was anger in his voice. Staring at his remote and gathering Dark-Bot’s pieces, he just kept saying, “Bish! Bish! Bish!”
Getting patted on the back and congratulated from all over, Zeke didn’t know what do think. But the rumors of the huge upset had begun. His dad walked up, hugged him, and then said with a hint of concern in his voice, “Wow, son, that was amazing. Almost too amazing.”
Zeke wanted to tell his dad what was going on. He was about to, when his dad said, “Look son, I just got a message from work, and I have to go. I’ve already checked with Mrs. Nefty, and she’ll take your little gang home if I’m not back in time.” His dad gave him and Gorgon a funny look and said, “Do your best, but keep it straight. Got it?”
He nodded. His dad squeezed his shoulders and left.
He sighed and shrugged. I’ll straighten it all out when this tournament is over with.
Without warning, Zeke became the most popular and talked about robot warrior in the tournament. It was an exhilarating feeling. His next match was set up at ten thirty against a robot called Octo-Bot. It was an octopus-like machine with eight weird robotic arms and tiny wheels that it spun on. Gorgon made quick work out of the odd robot and tossed it out of the ring.
Filled with exhilaration, Zeke readied at a new battle station. He looked up and eyed his opponent.
“Hi, cutie. I heard you are doing pretty well,” the tall girl with a number 43 on her basketball jersey said. “A young woman scorned is one thing. A young woman scorned with a vicious robot is another.” Raptor Flex’s jaws opened and closed with devastating effect. Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! “Let’s make this interesting, cutie. I win, you’re my boyfriend. You win, I’m your girlfriend. Sound fair?”
With his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, all Zeke did was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The referee went over the rules and started the countdown, saying before he hit the button, “Robots ready?”
“Yeah,” Juniper said.
Zeke made a feeble nod.
The countdown started.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four…
Juniper winked at him.
Three, two, one.
Hands frozen to his controller, Zeke watched in horror as Raptor Flex stomped straight for Gorgon. Its jaws snapped with terrifying effect. Its powerful tail swished back and forth like a tree limb. Closing in on Gorgon—which stood like a statue—the tail lashed out. The tail popped Gorgon in the head, knocking him over and almost knocking him out of the ring.
“You got him, Juniper!” someone cheered. “Now swipe him out of the ring.”
Raptor Flex went in for the kill.
Zeke’s mind quickly thawed. Fight, dummy. You’re about to be betrothed. I’m too young for courtship! He pressed the auto command on his controller and said into the mic, “Fight, Gorgon, fight!”
With Raptor Flex’s jaws closing in for the fatal blow, Gorgon rolled away, popped up on its foot, and blasted light lasers into the exposed light shield of Raptor Flex.
Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap!
Jaws wide open, Raptor Flex froze.
“Hey!” Juniper said, fighting with her controller.
Gorgon’s robotic claws locked onto Raptor Flex’s tail. With its big leg planted in the arena, Gorgon’s upper torso started to spin, dragging Raptor Flex over the arena. Going faster and faster, Raptor Flex lifted off of the battlefield. It looked like a super-fast merry-go-round, gaining more speed and turning into a blur of blinking lights.
“Stop that!” Juniper shouted. “That’s not a legal move! Let my robot go!”
With elation in his eyes, Zeke said into the controller, “Gorgon, let go.”
Unclamping its hands, Gorgon released Raptor Flex’s tail. The robot soared high and whacked Juniper right in the forehead.
“Oooooooh!” the crowd said.
The ref held up Zeke’s hand and said, “The winner!”
Juniper glowered at him and said, with a face so red you couldn’t see her freckles, “You’re the worst boyfriend ever! I’m breaking up with you!”
The fights went on every half an hour. Gorgon fought better and better.
Gorgon battled Weeble Sting and rolled the rotund robot out of the ring. He tore Clamper Saw’s arms off and beat him with them. Lightning Data Clump’s legs were stripped down into a speed bump. Frog-Bot hopped up high, only to have laser blasts freeze its parts before it hit the ground and bit its tongue off. Saw Blade Jack tried to slice Gorgon in half. Gorgon stole its saw blades and mounted them inside its head. It was carnage. Parts popped off, and battery acid oozed. Digital eyes were busted or plucked out. Gorgon Thunder-Bot, the Incinerator of Worlds, was a terror. A triumphant terror.
Zeke was so caught up in the excitement he’d forgotten about his friends, when they finally caught up with him.
“Man, you’re doing great!” Ned said. “Gorgon’s killing everybody! It’s awesome.”
“How are you guys doing?” Zeke asked.
“We’re all out,” Larry said, holding Grizzlee. “But that’s a good thing. I don’t want to fight Gorgon. I’d end up having to buy a new robot.”
“So are you excited about the next fight?” Penelope said. “You’re fighting for the championship!”
“I am?” Zeke said. He was surprised. He’d gotten so caught up in the excitement he’d lost track of everything except the next fight. “Against who?”
“You get a rematch with Monzilla, your favorite bully’s robot.”
“What’s the matter, Zeke?” Ned said, shaking him by the shoulder. “You look like you swallowed a booger.”
The moment had come. Zeke faced off with Bradley. Bradley faced off with Zeke. Bradley lorded over his side of the Contest of Champions arena. His Maxx-Botz, Monzilla, was just as big a juggernaut as ever. It had even heavier tank treads, a spinning drill arm that gored its opponents to death, an anvil-hammer arm, and a laser cannon on its shoulder.
Zeke swallowed and wiped the sweat from his hands. Up until this point, Gorgon had beaten everybody and made it look easy. But could he take out his archnemesis, Bradley?
“I don’t know how you made it this far, you little geek,” Bradley said with a sneer, “but I promise you this: it’s as far as you go.”
Feeling a little cocky, Zeke replied, “We’ll see what your big mouth has to say when you’re picking up pieces of your robot.”
Bradley’s brows lifted. His lips curled up over his teeth. “I’m going to make you eat those words. I’m going to make you eat your stupid-looking robot too.”
“That’s enough, boys,” the ref said. It was the bald one with the big moustache. “You two can settle it in the ring. Are you ready?”
“Born ready,” Bradley growled.
The crowed was thick and lathered up with excitement. Everyone was talking about the battle. A bunch of people were for Gorgon, but no one had ever seen anyone beat Monzilla. It looked like a mismatch. A tank versus a motorcycle.
Zeke gave a quick nod and spoke an order into Gorgon’s remote. “Destroy Monzilla.”
“All right.” The ref spoke into a microphone and said in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys are girls, are you ready?”
“In the blue corner, the undefeated, undisputed Maxx-Botz champion, Monzilla!”
“Woooo-weeeeee!” the crowd cried.
“And his challenger,” the ref started, “rising from the ashes, the underdog, the uber-dangerous, unrelenting Incinerator of Worlds, Gorgon Thunder-Bot!”
There were cheers and jeers, claps and boos, but Zeke’s friends were cheering the loudest.
“The winner of this fight will also win a Segway,” the ref said, holding a shiny brass object up, “and this trophy.”
“Really?” Zeke said. He’d forgotten all about a prize. A Segway. He’d always wanted one of those, and the one on display even had the off-road package.
“Now,” the ref said, holding his finger over the button, “let’s get ready to battle!” He pressed the countdown button.
All together, the crowd erupted into furious count.
“Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Battle!”
Monzilla, looking like a death machine, thundered like a tank into the center of the arena.
Gorgon lowered his robot arms and pointed his laser-cannon hands at Monzilla. The ray-beam hands charged with scintillating light. A sound like a plane engine whined from its robot hands. All of a sudden, the impossible happened. Rays of lightning erupted from Gorgon’s hands and blasted Mozilla full in the chest. In a bizarre explosion, Monzilla’s head and arms popped off. Its body crackled, fizzed, and smoked. Gorgon blasted all of Monzilla’s parts until they were nothing but a smoldering pile of robot toast.
The entire room fell silent.
Goosebumps rose on Zeke’s arms. Fighting with his controller, he tried to slow Gorgon down. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
“Er, what is going on here?” the ref said. He looked as if he just swallowed his moustache. He eyed Zeke. “I don’t think that’s legal.”
With a face as red as a beet, Bradley screamed, “You killed my robot!” He jumped up on the table, grabbed Gorgon, and smashed him into the arena.
“Nooooo!” Zeke cried.
Bradley snatched the remote from Zeke’s hands, put it under his foot, and stomped it into bits and pieces.
“That’s enough of that!” the ref said, pulling Bradley off of the table.
Kicking and screaming, Bradley said, “You’re dead meat, Zeke! Dead meat! And you better let go of me, Mr. Moustache. My dad and mom are big-shot attorneys!”
The ref released Bradley, but his eyes turned the size of saucers. His stare was fixed on the arena. The crowd oohed and aahed, and their gazes lifted up.
Picking up his pieces of the remote and tears filling his eyes, Zeke cast a glance where everyone else’s stare was. His heart skipped a beat. Gorgon Thunder-Bot was floating up off the table.
“It’s flying! Hey, that robot’s flying!” an onlooker said.
The people gasped.
Gorgon Thunder-Bot flickered with an artificial life of its own. His silvery eyes were aglow. The laser cannons in his hands gleamed with a bright fire.
“Beep. Tweep. Beep,” it said.
Bradley Biggs took his shoe off and threw it at Gorgon, saying, “Kill that thing!”
Gorgon glided out of the way, whirled in the air, and blasted the shoe with its lasers, turning the shoe into a ball of flame. Then, without warning, hovering through the room, Gorgon struck again.
Zap! Zap! Zap!
Gorgon started shooting the other robots and blasting them into pieces.
The crowd went into a savage panic and started running for the exits.
Zeke yelled up at the robot, “Gorgon, stop!”
It was to no avail. With the controller smashed, he had no control of his robot. Gorgon was no longer the Gorgon that he knew. The robot had become a dreadnought. A cold and calculating terror. He was shooting tiny lasers everywhere. He blew up the basketball rims. The dodgeballs. He turned part of the stands into charred wood and broken pieces.
Hiding behind Larry, Ned said, “Man, what is your crazy robot doing?”
“I don’t know,” Zeke replied, “but we need to catch him.”
“I’ll do it,” Larry said. He picked up a trash can over his head and rushed after Gorgon.
The robot was blasting a vending machine filled with healthy snacks that Zeke hated. The apples inside were laser puréed into apple sauce.
With a heave, Larry threw the heavy metal can over Gorgon, pinning it to the ground, and climbed on top. “I got him! I got him!”
Gorgon blew a big hole out of the side of the trash can and zoomed up into the air in front of Larry’s eyes. The stocky boy clutched at it with his heavy hands, missed, and fell off the trash can.
Up, up, up Gorgon went into the air. He started to spin slowly around. A clatter and shaking started up all over the gym. As if he were a magnet, pieces of metal and parts of the abandoned robots flew up toward Gorgon and started to merge with him.
Standing behind Zeke, Penelope asked, “What is he doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said, watching the robot with dread.
High in the air, the metal started to twist, contort, and merge with Gorgon. Within seconds, Gorgon was still Gorgon, just a bigger and deadlier Gorgon. Not even a foot tall before, now he must have been three feet high and filled with power.
“Whoa,” Ned said, gazing in wonder. “That’s one bad robot.”
With a spark in his glowing eyes, out of the blue, Gorgon zoomed out of the gym and into the nearest hallway. A few seconds later, loud explosions and booming sounds followed.
Zeke felt all of his friends’ wide eyes on him. Nerves jangled, all he could do was shrug. What are they looking at me for? I don’t know what to do!
Boom! Clack-clack! Boom!
On impulse, he ran after Gorgon. He wasn’t sure why, but he did. He was scared, but he had to try and do something. Rushing into the hallway, he discovered a bunch of smoldering lockers. Books were everywhere. He picked up a math book with a laser hole clean through it.
His friends caught up with him, and Larry said, “Man, Gorgon must hate math as much as me.”
Zeke’s mind scrambled to make sense of it all. He hated math too, not because it was hard, but because it was boring and time consuming. The wheels in his head started to turn. There had to be something to this madness.
Boom! Ka-boom! Ka-boom!
Somewhere deep in the building, Gorgon was wreaking havoc. Zeke and his friends chased after it. They followed the path of destruction that Gorgon had left. It led them to the detention room. The door was blasted off the hinges, and all of the desks were mangled. They heard Gorgon in the cafeteria and made a run for it.
In the cafeteria kitchen, all of the canned vegetables were blown to bits and pieces, but the freezers that held the frozen pizza and ice cream were safe.
“Ah,” Penelope whined, “Gorgon destroyed all of the carrot sticks.”
Zeke felt an odd sense of delight from within. He didn’t have any sympathy for detention or veggies. Following the next round of explosions from beyond, he cut a path through the carnage of destroyed books and lockers. It led them outside into the parking lot just in time to see Gorgon stopped in front of a bright-green Volkswagen Beetle.
Gorgon’s laser cannons drilled into the Beetle and shredded it into pieces.
“Whoa!” Ned said. “Now that’s what you call a Slug Bug!”
Larry pointed out that Gorgon was zooming toward another Beetle. Its lasers pulsed and shot right out of it. Pew! Pew! Pew! Boom!
“Man, what a Slug-Bug-fest!” Larry said.
“Why does Gorgon hate those Beetles?” Penelope asked. She tugged on Zeke’s arm. “Zeke, why does it hate Beetles—and not to mention my Hello Kitties?”
All of a sudden, everything fell into place. Zeke clutched his skull and squeezed. Gorgon didn’t hate those things. He did.
Zeke said in a mumble, “He doesn’t hate Beetles; he hates the Slug Bug game.”
“What?” she asked. “What are you talking about?”
Gazing up in the sky, he watched Gorgon absorb more metal parts and get bigger and stronger. Zeke knew what was going on now. Gorgon had a list of Zeke’s likes and dislikes uploaded into his profile, and now its mission was pretty clear. The Thunder-Bot was going to rampage through everything that Zeke didn’t like. With helpless fascination, he watched Gorgon zoom toward the city.
Watching Gorgon drift away toward the city, Ned said, “Man, what are we going to do?”
Zeke didn’t have any idea, but there were plenty of things that he didn’t like in the city. It would be a disaster once Gorgon got there. It would blow up a lot of everything.
“Wait here. I have an idea,” he said. He took off running back inside the gym. No one was inside, but there was one thing that he needed. There, on a small podium all by itself, was the off-road Segway. Zeke hopped on it. Why not? After all, I did win the contest.
He turned on the ignition and saw the Segway was at full power, and with a squeeze of the throttle, he zoomed out of the gym. It took a few seconds to get a handle on controlling it, but that didn’t deter the broad smile on his face. “Weeeeeeeeeee!”
The Segway was amazing. Within seconds, he pulled up alongside his friends and said, “I’m going after Gorgon. If you know what’s good for you, stay away from the city.”
“No, Zeke, wait!” Penelope yelled.
Her voice faded, and the only thing he heard was the wind whipping by his ears. Before long, he was a mile down the road, following Gorgon’s path of destruction. Every stoplight was destroyed, and traffic was jammed up everywhere. Horns were honking, and people were screaming.
“Oh no,” Zeke thought. He complained about stoplights all of the time, and now Gorgon had wiped them out on a clear path to the city. People were mad, stomping and yelling. Others were standing around scratching their heads. Luckily for Zeke, he had the Segway and could navigate through the mess. Before long, he was clear on the main highway again.
He passed an abandoned VW Beetle that was a smoking heap of metal. There was a convenience store that he liked that ran out of the ice cream he liked that he’d put on the list. That twenty-four, seven station was now a wasteland. Filled with dread, Zeke cruised on. Above, the sky started to darken with rain clouds. He checked the Segway battery charge, and it was almost out. “Come on, Segway, come on!”
Finally, he ventured into the city. People were running and driving in all directions. Zeke passed a bunch of women that were running screaming out of a department store. Oh man, this is going to be bad. Zeke had listed all kinds of places on Gorgon’s profile that he didn’t like. Clothing and makeup stores were on that list. Almost every restaurant that didn’t serve pizza. Shoe stores. Any place Zeke ever found boring.
Gorgon popped out of a building, covered in women’s clothing, and soared across the street and smashed through another. He was even bigger now at ten feet tall. His robot frame seemed to stretch even higher.
Weaving through the chaos in the streets, Zeke tracked after the robot. Before long, he was rolling the Segway through streets filling with water. It wasn’t from rain, either. No, it was from fire hydrant that Gorgon was zapping or knocking over. “No way!” Zeke had a fear of fire hydrants when he was little. They reminded him of weird, short, and stubby little people. He used to have nightmares where they’d chase and squirt him. “Gorgon, will you stop it?”
Oddly enough, he found himself rolling up on the sidewalk of the Hazard building. There stood his dad with Dr. Hazard, looking up in the sky. Gorgon hovered above and started to absorb more parts from street lamps, wires, and abandoned vehicles. Each piece conformed to the shape of Gorgon’s body.
“Zeke! Zeke!” his dad yelled at him. “Get off that thing and get over here! We need to get you to safety.”
“But Dad,” Zeke said, hopping off of the Segway, “I want to help.”
“Help? Why?” His dad kneeled down, put his hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, “Zeke, tell me what happened. Looking at that robot, I know this isn’t some coincidence. It looks just like yours. What happened?”
Dr. Hazard appeared, standing just behind his dad. He had a dangerous and curious glimmer in his eye. “Yes, boy, tell us. What happened?”
Filled with dread, Zeke said, “I put the battery in him.”
“Battery?” his dad asked. “What battery?”
“One of those Enormium batteries from the lab,” Zeke said. His voice started to quiver. “I didn’t steal, though, Dad. I swear I didn’t. I found it in my pocket, and I was going to tell you about it, but—”
With a face filled with frustration and a voice just as bad, his dad said, “You stole it!”
“I promise I didn’t, but… but… I did borrow it.”
“Borrowing and stealing are often the same things, Zeke.”
“I know, but I didn’t want to say anything. I was afraid if I did, you might get fired, and I didn’t want that to happen. So I just buried it in the backyard and tried to forget about it.”
“Ahem,” Dr. Hazard said. His tone had softened. “Jim, it is possible that I may have a tad bit of responsibility in all of this.”
His dad gave him a serious look and said, “Go on.”
“I slipped the Enormium in your son’s pocket,” Dr. Hazard said.
Standing up and looking Dr. Hazard in the eye, he said, “And why would you do that?”
Sounding a little guilty, Dr. Hazard said, “Well, I was testing his character.”
“Says the man that doesn’t have any children. What were you thinking? Sure, Zeke is a boy and he should know better, but you don’t give a child matches and tell him not to make fire.”
“It should have been harmless,” Dr. Hazard argued. “That battery is not capable of something like that. Something must have happened. Please, Zeke, tell me, did anything strange happen?”
“Well, I buried it in a hole, and a few nights ago I think it was struck by lightning,” Zeke said.
“Lightning, you say?” Dr. Hazard rubbed his index finger underneath his lip. “I’ll be.”
A fleet of five military helicopters appeared in the sky.
“Oh dear,” Dr. Hazard continued. “It seems the cavalry has come here to destroy your robot.”
“But Gorgon won’t hurt anybody,” Zeke whined. “It’s in his prime directive not to hurt people. I programmed him. Don’t let the Air Force destroy him!”
“Then why is he destroying everything?” his dad asked.
“It’s because of my likes and dislikes that were uploaded into his profile. Those are the things that he attacks.”
Gorgon, now the size of a small building, started to drift away from the city.
“I wonder where he’s going now?” Dr. Hazard said.
His dad eyed the robot’s path and said to Zeke, “So he destroys everything that you don’t like?”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“And would that list also include the Tanger shopping outlet?”
Zeke shrugged and said, “I’m afraid so.”
“Well, I sure hope those shoppers have enough sense to evacuate that building in time,” Dr. Hazard said.
“Yeah,” Zeke thought, “but he’s probably going to eradicate all of the farmers’ markets between here and there too. And anything with the word frozen in it.”
“Come on, you two,” Dr. Hazard said. “We need to catch that robot before it’s too late.”
Zeke and his dad followed Dr. Hazard to the top of the Hazard building. There was a small helicopter-type machine up there. “Get in,” he said.
Zeke and his dad buckled in. “What are we doing, Dr. Hazard?”
“We’ve got to find a way to stop the robot, and to do that, we need a closer look. Besides, I own those Tanger Outlets.”
The little chopper’s propellers roared to life, and up, up, up they went.
“Whoa!” Zeke had never flown before. High above the ground, he marveled at how small the people were below. “Man, they look small. Like little walking peanuts.”
Within a few minutes, they soared over to the outlet’s parking lot. Gorgon, now standing three stories tall, was laser-zapping every VW Bug in the lot.
“Gee, son,” his dad said, “I didn’t realize that you hated those cars so much.”
“I don’t. It’s the stupid Slug Bug game I hate.” His dad cocked a brow at him, and Zeke, rubbing his sore shoulder, said, “It’s a long story.”
“You know, the people would be safe if they stayed in the building, wouldn’t they?” Dr. Hazard said.
“I’m pretty sure,” Zeke replied.
Arms filled with shopping bags, people were running for their lives and tripping over themselves. It wouldn’t be long before the entire shopping outlet was abandoned. Gorgon was scanning the building with light beams from his eyes.
“Oh man, I think he’s looking for an empty building,” Zeke said. “We don’t have much time before the entire complex is toast.”
“I’d say your mother will be pretty mad if those stores go down,” his dad said.
“I think we need to get down there and tell those people to stay in the buildings,” Dr. Hazard suggested. “I’m going to land. Hang on.”
The mini-helicopter landed. Zeke and his dad got out and started yelling at the terrified people. “Get back inside! Get back inside! You’re safer in the building!”
No one was listening. Before long, it seemed like everyone was jammed up in the parking lot.
“It’s not working, Dad!” Zeke said. He turned and faced Gorgon. The robot was huge, towering at least fifty feet tall, if Zeke had to guess. How much bigger could Gorgon get? I have to do something. This is my fault. He spied a portal inside Gorgon’s chest that looked big enough for him to crawl into. An idea sparked in his mind. “Dad, I’ll be right back!”
“No, son. Wait!”
Zeke was off and running. Before his dad could catch up with him, he was climbing up Gorgon’s leg. Hand over hand, he scurried up the metal. He looked down, and his stomach became queasy. He was pretty high up. He swallowed. You can do this, Zeke. You have to do this. He wasn’t the most athletic boy in the world, but he was a surefooted climber. He inched his way up toward the portal that he hoped led inside Gorgon’s body. He stretched his fingers toward the rail. Ugh, I can’t reach it.
Dangling off the giant robot, he summoned his courage. I have to do this. Swinging like a trapeze artist, he built up his momentum and took a harrowing leap. He soared through the air, fingers clutching for metal, and snatched the rail outside of the portal. Hanging on for his life, he summoned all of his strength and pulled himself inside. Out of breath, he crawled in and said, “Whew!”
Standing up, he found himself in an odd place. A tight place. He crawled and walked through twisting corridors. It was lit up by streetlights and headlights that Gorgon absorbed. The robotic catacomb was made up of all kinds of materials. Car bumpers. Motorcycles. Gas pumps. Strands of power lines. Zeke fought through it all. His eyes were searching. His legs striving. His hands clutching. He had to get to the heart of the matter. He had to find the Enormium battery.
He heard the laser cannons charge up with a whirring sound and fire.
Puh-tew! Boom! Puh-tew! Boom! Puh-tew! Ka-boom!
Zeke squeezed through some wires and peeped through a tiny window in Gorgon’s armor. One of the stores was a pile of rubble. “Holy bat crap!”
With desperate energy, he fought his way through the robot’s wiry guts. He looked everywhere. High and low. In nooks and crannies. “Where is that battery?” he yelled.
Doubt grew in his mind. Maybe Gorgon had absorbed it. Maybe it couldn’t be found. Losing hope, he threw back his head and yelled, “Gorgon, you have to help me or they will destroy you.”
Nothing was said. Only the hum of the circuits could be heard within and the muffled explosions on the outside. Zeke’s chin lowered to his chest. “Oh man, I have made one heckuva mess.”
Zeke slumped down into a sitting position. His chest tightened. His jaw clenched. What was he going to do? How could he stop Gorgon?
Gorgon was on the move again.
Losing hope, Zeke thought of something he hadn’t thought of before. What if Gorgon started flying again? What if he was trapped inside and couldn’t get out? What if he never saw his mom and dad ever again? His friends. He jumped to his feet. “Come on, Zeke! You’ve got to find that battery!”
In a mad scramble, he searched high and low. Through cords of wire. Narrow corridors. Out of the blue, a pulsating light caught his eye. A red beacon like a beating heart. He crawled toward it, pushed some debris away, and there it was, right before his eyes. The Enormium battery. It was just as small as it ever was. A tiny beating heart melded in with a bunch of wires and circuits. He reached for it and got it in his grasp.
With a heave, he pulled the battery free. Everything went black.
With some help, Zeke made his way out of Gorgon and was reunited with his dad. He stood in the parking lot, marveling at the towering robot that loomed above him. Gorgon Thunder-Bot was a giant statue now. Stiff. Lifeless. A small flock of birds hand landed on him.
He pulled the battery out of his pocket and handed it over to Dr. Hazard. “Here’s your battery. I’m sorry, sir. Uh, I don’t know how I’m going to clean up all of this mess.”
Dr. Hazard patted him on the head and said, “Lucky for you, I have an excellent public relations team. After all, I do share part of the responsibility. “ He looked at Zeke’s dad. “I have no comment on what your boy’s punishment should or should not be. I just pray you exercise wisdom.” With an excited look in his eye, he got back in his helicopter and left.
Zeke stood in the parking lot with his dad, feeling exhausted and empty. “Dad, I’m really sorry.”
“I’m sure that you are, son, but what I want to know is what brought all of this on.”
“I was just so tired of being picked on by Bradley. I wanted to beat him. I thought of all the things I could beat him at, it would be Maxx-Botz fighting, but he beat me.” He frowned. “I figured if I beat him at this, he’d leave me alone. I’m tired of being bullied.”
“You know, Zeke, if a bully hits you, you hit him back. Sometimes you just have to give a bully as much as he gives you.”
“But what if I get hurt?”
“In life, sometimes doing the right thing can get you hurt. Standing up for yourself is never easy. If it was easy, it wouldn’t build character.” His dad gazed at the destruction that was all around. “But doesn’t that seem like a small price to pay compared to all of this?”
Zeke nodded and said, “Am I grounded?”
“You bet, to say the least.”
“Any idea how long?”
His dad put his arm around his shoulder and said, “When I say it’s over, it’s over. Probably before your eighteenth birthday, though. But I have a feeling telling your mother what happened will be the worst punishment of all.”
Zeke slapped his head. “Ah man, she’s never going to make cupcakes for me again.”
From the author
I wrote this story on inspiration from my son, Nate. He built a little Lego robot that I thought was really cool—so cool I had my artist render an exciting picture inspired by it. Then I thought, man, that would make a nice book cover. Putting it all together, I decided to turn it into a story that hopefully would be something Nate would like to read. He hates reading, but I did my best by him anyway. I just wanted the story to be fun and silly, nothing too serious, and maybe have a little bit of a lesson built into it, but FUN was the main emphasis here. I hope you liked it. Below you will see a picture of the original Gorgon. Well, sort of. He fell off my desk and came apart, and I had to rebuild him again, but I think I got most of it right.
Thanks for reading,
GORGON THUNDER-BOT: THE INCINERATOR OF WORLDS
About the Author
Craig Halloran resides with his family outside his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. When he isn’t entertaining mankind, he is seeking adventure, working out, or watching sports. To learn more about him, go to:
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Blades in the Night (Book 2)
Underling Revenge (Book 3)
Danger and the Druid (Book 4)
Outrage in the Outlands (Book 5)
Chaos at the Castle (Book 6)
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Black Blood (Book 2)
Red Death (Book 3)
Lethal Liaisons (Book 4)
Torment and Terror (Book 5)
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I Smell Smoke (2015)
Where There’s Smoke (2015)
Smoke on the Water (2015)
Smoke and Mirrors (2015)
Up in Smoke
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Zombie Rehab: Book 2
Zombie Warfare: Book 3
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Zeke Carter is dreading starting middle school. He has good friends—Ned, Larry and Penelope. He has a nemesis too—a bully named Bradley. Learning the ropes at Clive Cluster Middle School he dodges the bully the best he can only to have his smart mouth get him thrown into detention. It is one bad thing after another for the boy who loves robots too much. Struggling for peace of mind, Zeke, finds his sanctuary at home in the solitude is robots. Especially Gorgon Thunder-Bot from the Maxx-Botz collection. Preparing for the local robot battle tournament, something goes awry with Gorgon Thunder-Bot. The little robot starts getting powers and is soon out of Zeke’s control. With the help of his friends and family, Zeke fights to get control of Gorgon before everything in its path comes to a devastating end. Will Zeke have the wits and courage to stop his robot? Or will he suffer another fate far worse than detention? *** This story is appropriate for all ages and intended with younger readers in mind. *** 4 Super Cool Illustrations Included