“Warning, warning. Information systems overloaded. Secondary power supply activated. Central control base overheating, atmospheric hydrocarbon levels climbing, evacuation protocol initiated. Translation: You are in trouble, Dexter.”
“Yes, Computer,” said Dexter as he dangled upside-down. “I can see that.”
Blinking and sputtering in the green-gray smoke, he strained for the thrust levers just barely out of reach, his harness cutting into his shoulder. He heard a crackle in his headset, and then that obnoxious sound –
“Ha-ha ha! Ha -ha ha ha ha!”
The windshield of his Dexo-Robo filled with glossy red and the enemy-bot soared up from below. “So Dexter, what do you think about my new-and-improved laser blasters? No, don’t answer that – I can see your head is spinning! Ha ha ha!”
Ugh, that was more than he could bear! Dexter lunged for the control panel, yanked down on the lever, and at last his giant robot righted itself. “Computer,” Dexter choked through the smoke, “engage back-up battery system, and cut power to all auxiliary functions! Get that smoke cleared now – are you kidding me?”
Mandark’s great red lobster claw came springing toward his bot and Dexter braced himself against the seat. The impact shook the entire cockpit. Through layers of protective plating Dexter could have sworn he felt his brain rattle in his head.
Dexter pressed his headset, mounted in the hood of his Dexoskin flight suit, against his ear. “Oh, come on, Mandark, is that all you got?”
The whole point of the radio com was for delivering snappy comebacks, and Dexter did not intend to miss such a golden opportunity. But when the smoke began to clear from the cockpit, the flight instruments revealed that the Dexo-Robo was in even worse condition than he imagined. The needles behind the glass spun crazily. He was losing altitude, fuel levels, and speed. And Mandark was aiming a bright green laser right for his left rocket launcher.
Huh, Dexter considered. I guess that’s not all he’s got.
Dexter readied the two purple blast gloves for counterattack but there wasn’t time. Mandark’s laser fired and the Dexo-Robo spun through the stratosphere, the robotic leg bursting into shrapnel. Bits of metal soared past the windshield.
One rocket meant there was no way to keep his bot in flight. Now he was really in trouble. He would have to take it to the ground.
“Whatsa matter, Dexter? Feeling out of your element? Just admit it, you’re no match for my new and improved Astro-Bot! Go ahead, say your prayers! Maybe I’ll go easy on you!”
“Easy? Ha! Let’s take this to the city. Even with one leg,” Dexter spat, “my bot’s gonna take you down!”
Or, more accurately, nope. Dexter knew his bluffs were crystal-clear. There was no way he could sustain battle against Mandark’s powerful machine. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he shook his head and fought with the joystick to keep his overbalanced bot steady. “This tech is even more advanced than those schoolboys in Japan!” Mandark’s lab was still hideously underpowered. How had he managed such elegant advancements in his giant robot?
Dexter’s bot roared toward the city, stars and blackness replaced by blue skies and clouds. Shining skyscrapers seemed to grow up on either side until he reached the street, the great boot-shaped rocket switching to terrain-mode before digging into asphalt. “Aw, Mandark, need a hand? Activate fire fists of fury!” Dexter deployed a blast glove in an effort to remove the weight from his machine’s left side. It rocketed toward the huge red cranium of the Astro-Bot, but Mandark’s cockpit shot skyward on plated cables and the weapon missed its target.
He’d already exhausted his arsenal. His PEZ rockets were off in the stratosphere. Engines failing, electricity cut, powered by a single leg…ugh! If only he were old enough to swear! But Dexter could almost taste the bar of soap.
“Computer,” Dexter grumbled, “remove power to the Dexo-Robo – AAAGH!”
“Command unclear. Please repeat.”
“Computer! Power down the bot! Go!” His headset filled with cackles. Dexter winced, two long robotic arms snaking around his robot’s head. “Aw, Dexter, leaving so soon?”
Dexter didn’t deign a response. Instead he balled his fist and in one movement brought it crashing down through glass to punch the big red button marked with the big white word – “EJECT!”
Oh, he hated ejecting. The G-force was gonna squish his spine. He would be at least an inch shorter. But he knew when to admit defeat, and this was definitely it.
Dexter’s seat slid black from the dashboard. Glass and metal panels sprang up on every side to form the body of the patented Dexscape pod. Dexter braced himself, but as the escape hatch opened up in the ceiling above him, one of the robotic arms whipped away from the cockpit, revealing stripes of daylight in the windshield. “Inconceivable!” Dexter roared, and the escape pod blasted skyward, immediately caught and crunched in a massive claw.
“Ugh, Mandark!” Dexter roared through thick nausea from the sudden whiplash. “You buffoon! You dumb stupid thing! Let me loose or I will – “
“Get real, Dexter. You’re not gonna do anything.” The propulsion cables retracted into the torso and brought the escape pod toward the visor-shaped windshield of Mandark’s bot. “You’re not gonna do anything, because you can’t do anything, and that’s the whole point!”
Dexter tilted his nose and shut his eyes, partially to signal defiance, mainly so he didn’t have to see his enemy’s stupid face and ugly flight suit.
“Think what you like, Mandark! But quit wasting my time. I have to get back to my laboratory.”
“Well, in that case, comrade,” Mandark replied, “dos vidanya!”
He brought the claw forward like a major league pitcher and Dexter ‘s tiny pod barreled out of his clutches, hurtling over the city streets until Dexter was crushed into his seat with streaming eyes.
“There’s no hope! I’m going to crash!” Sparks flew across the glass – he heard the aluminum panels tearing off his pod from the incredible speed. He was sailing over the suburbs, he could spot his own house in the distance. “Computer, deploy chute!” Dexter gasped. The street was magnifying before his eyes. “Computer, now! Deploy chute!”
The chute exploded behind his pod, and if not for his harness he would have been fired through the windshield. But the parachute alone was no match for such speed, and Dexter desperately threw his arm across his face. The escape pod angled toward the street, chunks of asphalt flying through the air as he went digging through the pavement, sliding to a stop just outside his house.
He wasn’t moving. He was still. Was he dead?
Dexter reached with his foot and kicked out the random shards of glass that composed his broken windshield. He staggered through the opening, fell forward, and lay on the street with a pebble in his cheek.
When he heard a steady slurping sound through the hood of his flight suit, he knew he was either alive or in hell. Or maybe both.
Dexter rolled over to find Dee Dee sitting on the curb outside their house, slobbering over a giant rainbow lollipop. “Hiiii Dexter! Want some of my sucker?”
Dexter waved his arm and made an incoherent groan that resulted in the lollipop cementing itself to his glove.
“Wow, Dexter!” Dee Dee was already swarming over the rubble that was once the escape pod. “Mandark really beat you good, huh? Dexter? Hey Dexter, where’d you go?”
Dexter waited for the cement slab of the family patio to slide out of place in the backyard, then stalked down the staircase leading to Sector IV of his laboratory. This section of the lab was buried ten stories deep, terminating at a level of solid bedrock. It was the one region large enough to house the great hangar for his custom robotics and aircraft, not to mention the swimming pool was an excellent disguise for the hatch in his SkyPort launch complex.
Dexter shuffled across the lab’s tiled floor toward Computer’s nearest control station, divesting himself of his shredded flight suit and sticky gloves while Dee Dee’s footsteps squished along behind him. “So, did you guys fight in space? Did you use your fire fist of fury? Did you break your robot? Did you win? Did you lose? Come on, Dexter! Say something!”
Dexter glared at Computer’s screen, his crisp lab coat hanging unbuttoned and forgotten on his shoulders. The monitor towered over both their heads, and Dexter could practically feel Dee Dee’s blank stare behind him. He punched a command into the keyboard and Computer zeroed in on the sickening image. “Yikes, Dexter,” Dee Dee hissed in dismay. “Is that your robot?”
“No, Dee Dee, it’s an animatronic that escaped by cloak of night from Chubby Cheese. Of course it is my robot!” Dexter roared with frustration, buttoning his lab coat crookedly over his black sweatshirt. Then he gave up and plunked his head onto the desktop.
“Wow.” Dee Dee leaned against the keyboard and Dexter pulled himself out of despair long enough to push her hand off the keys. “Wow, Dexter. Mandark really kicked your butt, this time. What the heck happened?”
“I don’t know…”
“Y-you don’t know?” Coming from Dexter, that was a scary answer. Apparently Dexter thought so too, because he bolted upright in his chair with a mighty frown.
“Don’t put words into my mouth, Dee Dee.”
“I didn’t put anything in your mouth – “
“There’s a very reasonable explanation, of course.”
“So let’s hear – “
“Clearly Mandark his invested in advanced technological upgrades for his giant robot, technologies he has not, heretofore, been able to employ.”
“Yeah.” Dee Dee glanced at the mess on the screen. “Clearly.”
“The question is,” Dexter pursued, “how?”
“I know why, you stupid Dee Dee. Mandark still labors under the ridiculous delusion he can somehow best me and assert himself as sole boy genius in the neighborhood – and possibly in the world. But I know – heck, even you know – that that is completely and utterly impossible. Even after a year, Mandark’s lab retains but a fraction of its previous functionality. There is no way he could generate the resources for such high-powered modifications. So the question remains – how did he do it?”
“I dunno.” Dee Dee shrugged. “But he sure did it.”
Dexter studied the screen, lips pressed into a frown. There was no way to deny it. His bot was definitely trashed.
After his ejection the Dexo-Robo had toppled into the street, but giant robots and monsters were such a common occurrence that the cityfolk carefully steered their cars around the hull and passed it on the sidewalk without a second glance. One young ne'er-do-well was already spray painting his name in big green letters on the bot’s remaining boot.
“Hey you, get away from there!” Dexter shook his tiny fist at the screen. “That does it! Computer, initiate auto-pilot mode! Time to bring this baby back to the lab.” The image of the crippled bot staggered to a stand then pitched awkwardly into open air, its weak rocket flaring to life amidst dirty smoke.
Thirty seconds passed in uneasy silence - which was exactly thirty seconds too long for Dee Dee. His sister draped herself over the back of his chair and propped her chin in her hands. “So, tell me, Dexter. When are you guys gonna stop fighting and be friends?”
Dexter wheeled his chair to face her and pitched her off her balance. “Friends? FRIENDS?”
“Yeah, friends! You guys have so much in common!”
“You must be out of your mind.”
“Come on, Dexter. You said it yourself – it’s been a whole year since this dumb battle got started. Aren’t you even a little bit bored with this whole duel of the minds thing?”
“Don’t talk about what you don’t understand, Dee Dee. You don’t understand at all.”
“Oh yeah?” Dee Dee tilted her chin in the air. “Try me.”
Dexter pulled up his legs, rested his chin on his knees, and studied his sister behind the blue lenses of his glasses. This was a waste of time. But he could already tell she wouldn’t let him off that easy.
“Okay. Fine. I don’t expect you to remember the details. But when Mandark first moved to town, it was his goal to replace me.”
“Replace you? Dexter, he could never – “
“Shut up, woman, and let me talk. He tried to blot my achievements out of existence. Tried to outshine my intellectual capabilities. Tried to estrange me from my friends – which is to say, the faculty – at Huber Elementary. He almost succeeded at all these things – until he came after my laboratory. Even you know, Dee Dee, that my laboratory is my most prized possession, more dear to me than my – than my own…”
Dexter furrowed his brow. “Yes. And no man can survive without something that important. When Mandark tried to take that away from me, he made himself my nemesis. And I will not allow my nemesis to prosper, to get the chance to do me wrong again. That’s why there can be just one boy genius, and so we will battle until that day has come.”
“Yeah, but I still think it’s dumb. If you guys keep fighting like this, one of you is gonna end up really hurt.”
Dexter waved his hand. “What do you take us for, Dee Dee? Schoolyard bullies? This is a battle of the wits, a duel of the minds. A scientist – even such a fraud as Mandark – does not resort to anything physical.”
“You don’t have to hit someone to hurt them, Dex.”
He didn’t like her looks. Not those big blue eyes. Not at all.
Dexter pulled up the collar of his lab coat and focused on steering his robot’s course for the lab. It was in such wretched shape its engines gave their last gasp just a few yards from the Computer before collapsing in a metallic heap on the laboratory floor.
“I’m going to have to transfer this to the repair station,” Dexter decided. “Forty percent of the body has sustained critical damage, the protective coating is fried, not to mention required upgrades for the rocket mechanisms – ugh. It’s going to be a busy week.”
“Aw, poor guy!” Dee Dee sighed. “Don’t worry, Dexo-Robo!” She patted the shiny coating. “Pretty soon Dexter will fix you up, good as new! He’s a lot better with robots than he is with people. Isn’t that lucky for you?”
Sing a song of Mandark, the greatest genius the world has ever known! It was good. Really catchy, awesome alliteration, it would sound great in the history books, but could he bear to use it twice? He’d already shouted it to the heavens after his defeat of the kaiju Badaxtra, prancing about the streets of Tokyo beneath a layer of slimy green guts. Mandark frowned into the darkness. Nope, nothing could compete with a new and shiny soundbyte for his victory speech, but he’d settle that later. It wouldn’t do to get too far ahead. He wanted to savor every triumph of his master plan.
And oh, what a triumph today’s battle had been! Phase One, already completed! Mandark hugged himself beneath the sheets, visions of Dexter’s failing bot drifting through his mind. He would swear he was dreaming – except these days, he always dreamed the same horrible dream, of his broken laboratory overrun by black thorns.
Mandark glanced at his digital clock for the millionth time. 11:30. Eh, it was no use trying to sleep. He was way too excited by the day’s adventures to catch a single wink, much less forty. “Time to hit the lab.”
Mandark climbed out of bed and searched his foot across the floor for his slippers. It was a huge temptation to put on the spiffy new wingtips he’d gotten for back-to-school shopping, but he knew their hard soles would easily wake his sister Olga who lay grumbling in the next room. That was the last thing he needed, she was a monster without her beauty sleep. He grabbed for his bathrobe, on the back of the bedroom door, but he’d forgotten his Halloween costume now hung in its place. His favorite holiday was just a week away, and then he could finally debut his Count Dracula costume, complete with a dashing, mysterious cape. He couldn’t wait for Dee Dee to see him. He knew she’d be impressed.
He found his robe on the back of a chair and knotted the belt around his waist, then padded softly down the hallway and out the kitchen door. He had never repaired the underground chute to the laboratory. Now he used his flashlight to guide the way, picking around lawn flamingoes and crunching through dead leaves.
The automatic doors swished open in the entryway. A chorus of electronic voices greeted him. “Welcome to the laboratory, Mandark! How may we assist you?”
“Oh Mandroids, you are too kind!” Mandark stood tall and clapped his hands in command. “But I don’t need any help tonight. I know exactly what to do – time to begin PHASE TWO of my top-secret master plan, ha ha ha!”
The team of Mandroids burst into canned applause as Mandark’s jet-powered desk chair came swooping down from the heights of the laboratory. It scooped Mandark up from behind and soon he was whizzing across the upper levels of the laboratory, on course for the observatory in the east wing.
Mandark studied the lab beneath him with a sullen frown. His heart beat quickly in spite of himself. It had been nearly a year since that awful, awful day – the day explosions rocked his laboratory, years of work destroyed in an instant, hundreds of inventions and prototypes and fond memories swept away. It was a welcome whim of fate that Dee Dee had damaged just the center portion of his laboratory, which lay broken and unrepaired below, lifeless as a crater on the moon. The facilities on the fringe of the space still functioned, but they left his capabilities severely limited. Gone were the days where his lab accommodated every aspect of science known to man. But that was kind of the point, wasn’t it?
His chair came to a halt at the viewing deck of his observatory tower. Flipping the skirts of his robe aside Mandark seated himself at the enormous professional-grade telescope which, at the moment, was focused on Dee Dee’s bedroom window four houses down. Despite its incredible strength all he’d been able to see was a dollhouse and a pile of naked Darbies which, he supposed, was better than nothing. Mandark shook his head. “I will return to this viewpoint at a later date. Now, to search the heavens.”
Mandark wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or to the Mandroids hovering nearby. Either way, he decided he might as well monologue to fill the time while he keyed in the commands increasing the telescope’s magnification.
“Today was a productive day, more gratifying than I could have ever imagined. I, Mandark, am not exactly used to such brilliant successes, not since that pitiful excuse for a scientist….DEXTER...arrived on the scene to thwart my every aim. There was a time when I stood alone at the pinnacle of scientific achievement, inspiring awe and jealousy everywhere I went. But then, ah, that fated day, he sent his deadly agent to destroy my life’s work. Since then, I have struggled even to match wits with that freaky little gnome. I would die before betraying such a humbling secret, and yet it is certainly true. With my poor laboratory ravaged, my energy sources drained, and my confidence badly shaken, a lesser man than I would have given up. But no, I have concocted a plan to regain my dominance in the field, as well as my dominance in the neighborhood, and secure my rightful place as sole boy gen – oh, yikes, it’s gotten closer.”
Mandark adjusted his glasses and peered more closely at the telescope eyepiece. Five high-powered lenses clicked into place over the opposite end and he gulped, his view filling with the rocky surface of Meteor-131. “I’ve been tracking that thing for a week, it’s a good thing I couldn’t sleep tonight or its trajectory would have taken it out of reach. Man, I really am getting soft – that was a simple calculation.”
Mandark grit his teeth and reached for the laser attachment mounted to the optical tube. “Firing laser,” he announced, “3…2…1.”
The beam was invisible, but the effects were almost immediate. He glared through the eyepiece to see the mass of yellow rock blown apart into a cloud of meteorites. Mandark sat back in his chair with a satisfied smirk that grew into a grin and a giggle. “Hehe. PHASE ONE of my plan is complete. I knew Dexter would not be able to resist an old-fashioned dog fight, mecha-style. He’s so used to cheating he surely though he’d win. But that little twerp failed to consider that I spent the last three months loading every single piece of advanced tech into my giant robot. I might have abandoned my laboratory repair schedule but oh, it was worth it to see him so utterly defeated. HA! His bot was a piece of junk! Let’s see you stroke your little ego with a trip into outer space, Dexter.” Again Mandark peeked into the eyepiece. The meteroids, blown out of orbit, would enter earth’s atmosphere by lunchtime tomorrow. Perfect. “And while you leave your laboratory unattended, I will….”Mandark yawned. “I….” He yawned again. He might be about to enter PHASE TWO, but it was nearly midnight. Maybe it was too late for monologuing after all.
Mandark summoned his desk chair with another clap, this time bound for Ducky’s enclosure on the opposite end of the lab. His eyelids grew heavier and heavier until he practically toppled out of his chair when it jerked to a stop, rolling over to the large windows that looked out above the grid of neat houses surrounding his suburban home.
He loved being up this high. It was so much better than his first-floor bedroom. Mandark looked out at the moonless sky, pricked with sharp white stars. Maybe, when his lab was repaired, he could add in a proper sleeping loft. It would be like sleeping in a castle.
Mandark unrolled the sleeping bag he’d propped up next to Ducky’s pen. His pet hunched snugly in its nest, his pale yellow feathers fluffed up to keep him warm. Mandark reached in to stroke his back, careful not to wake him up. Then he crawled into his bag, zipped it up, and prodded his pillow into submission. Directly in his line of vision stood the great digital clock tower he’d built in third grade. Mandark drew in a little gasp – 12:12. He screwed his eyes shut. His mother, superstitious fool that she was had always told him he got a free wish at 11:11. Of course that was patently ridiculous. 12:12 was a much more reasonable number, befitting a scientist who was not at all silly, but didn’t mind putting the word out there, just in case.
He wanted lots of things – to be taller, better-looking, and for Dee Dee to fall madly in love with him. But his special wish was always the same – “to be the greatest genius the world has ever known.”
Yes, he would make a sleeping loft. He’d build up all the pieces that had been destroyed. He’d make them bigger, better, and brighter. And he would add a hot tub.
It might take a while. He’d have to deal with a broken laboratory, and all the bitter jealousy that went with it. But he could do it. Just a little longer, and he’d never have to worry about Dexter again. He could start feeling good for a change.
He couldn’t wait.