“So then I decided to use the leotard from last year’s recital, because it was pretty sparkly, and if you’re gonna be a fairy princess you gotta be sparkly, right? So I’m gonna wear that, and my special tinsel tiara, and those funny doodle-bobbers to show I’m a mythical creature instead of just a regular creature, and then I – Dexter, I don’t think you’re listening.”
Dee Dee yanked on the little pair of boots peeping from beneath the Dexo-Robo’s severed leg. With a tremendous growl Dexter slid forth on four wheels, covered in grease and filled with fury.
Dee Dee smiled. “That’s more like it!”
“Dee Dee, can’t you see I’m busy?” Dexter groped for a rag to wipe the grease off his face and used his wrench for dramatic gestures. “I have to finish the repairs on my starboard…leg, it has sustained critical damage and how do you expect me to finish up with your jabbering in my ear?”
Dexter sniffed derisively, slid his mechanic’s creeper back under the leg, and was promptly yanked out again. “I don’t expect you to finish up, silly! I expect you to take a break, let your poor brain rest, and talk to me.”
It wasn’t completely ridiculous. He had been working on his bot all morning long, and his progress rate had begun to slow. Of course, Dee Dee couldn’t recognize his fatigue. The usefulness of her suggestion was mere coincidence. Of course.
Nevertheless, Dexter sat up and allowed himself to be yapped at for a few minutes because it was better than wasting even more brainpower in trying to shut his sister up.
“So anyway, like I was saying, Dexter, I’m almost finished making my be-yoo-tiful fairy princess costume. And a good thing too, there’s not much time left!”
“Time for what?”
Dee Dee was scandalized. “Till Halloween! Don’t tell me you forgot!”
“I did not forget,” Dexter lied. “I just do not care. I am in fifth grade, much too old for costumed shenanigans. And so are you!”
“Nice try, Dexter.” Dee Dee rolled her eyes. “You never miss a chance to “suit up”, Mr. “I’m-too-cool-for-jeans-and –a-t-shirt.”
In response Dexter hiked his lab coat above his boots. “I am wearing jeans. And a sweatshirt, thank you. But…I suppose I could repurpose my Dexstar uniform, it hasn’t seen a deal of action lately.”
“Are you sure you haven’t outgrown it?” Dee Dee covered her mouth and burst into giggles. Dexter glowered.
“Hmph. That’s what I get for listening to you. Go away. There is still much to do.”
“What are you doing, exactly?” Dee Dee followed Dexter’s gaze up the sturdy, stocky robotic limb.
“This is the leg that fiend blew off the Dexo-Robo. It crashed in the ocean and I sent my sub-bots to retrieve it. My giant robot will be overbalanced without it and I assumed it would be easier to repair it than to rebuild from scratch.” Dexter grimaced and scrubbed some more grease from his face. “But now I’m not so sure.”
“So, um, if you fix the leg, and stick it back on the robot, does that mean it’s fixed?”
“Hardly. The hydraulic system was fried in the electrical fire, the hull is crushed and useless, not to mention the engines are inadequate to the high-powered maneuvers that will be necessary to compete with Mandark’s advanced tech…and it’s beat-up and it just looks ugly.”
“I see. That’s too bad.” Dee Dee fidgeted in silence. “Oh, I almost forgot something else! I have dance class in like half an hour. I can’t be a prima ballerina skipping class! So I better get out of here and, y’know, let you get back to work and stuff.” Dexter suddenly found himself squeezed in sisterly sympathy. “You’ll be able to figure it out, Dex, I just know it! But you have to get finished before Halloween so we can go trick-or-treating, okay?”
“I make no promises.” But Dee Dee had already skipped through the exit and disappeared.
It was a funny thing. Standing alone in the laboratory, it seemed like the task ahead of him was even more difficult than before. “I suppose I can work around a battered exoskeleton – and a few more hours should finish up the leg.” But that still didn’t solve the problem of the energy source – he was going to have to redesign the engine, or engineer an alternative from the ground up. And that was not going to solve the biggest problem of all – the fact that Mandark had beat him in the first place.
“It doesn’t make sense.” Dexter shoved his trusty wrench into his pocket, stomping in Computer’s direction. “Mandark’s barely made any progress on his laboratory’s construction. Where did he develop the capabilities to power up his bot?” Because that would mean he was using his brain. Being methodical. And Mandark certainly wasn’t intelligent enough for that…right?
“Computer, signal Dexellite-343. Let’s return to the scene of the crime and see if that provides any clues.” Dexter waited for Computer to call up the cameras on his satellites when he was greeted by a sight he certainly did not expect to see. “Hello, what’s this? Meteoroids?! Computer, calculate the trajectory! I did not see these in my previous surveillance check. At the rate they are traveling, they should be – “
“Reaching Earth in approximately 160 minutes.”
Dexter pushed himself away from the desk and sprang to his feet. “I will not let earth be dinged around by no meteoroids! My giant robot will have to wait. My planet needs me!” Dexter jabbed his finger to the sky. “Time to suit – hey, wait a minute, I always take my giant robot when it’s time to save the day.” Dexter stamped his foot. “Stupid Mandark! Oh well, I suppose my Super-Robot 5000 will have to do the job. Ahem. As I was saying – “
“Suit up?” Computer provided.
“Yes. Exactly. Hmm…” Dexter stroked his chin. “Maybe Dee Dee’s right. I might be getting too predictable.”
Mandark stood impatiently on the step, cold October winds biting at the bit of skin between his shorts and socks. He shouldered his heavy knapsack and leaned on the doorbell again. “I know these people – except for Dee Dee – are dumb, but are they deaf too?” He hauled back his fist to pound the door when he suddenly came face to face with Dexter’s mother. He turned his fist into an awkward wave and cranked out an equally awkward smile.
“Oh, hi there, hon!” the red-haired woman smiled and motioned to the vacuum cleaner in her hand. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you at first, I had some tidying up to do. Come on in, it’s getting pretty nippy out here!”
Mandark stepped into the house and received a toxic blast of bleach fumes right in his face. What was this woman cleaning up, a crime scene? He was going to have to rescue his love from this family of lunatics, that much was for sure. “Thank you, ma’am. Dexter and I are sharing a homework assignment this week, we need plenty of time to work on it. Is he home?”
Dexter’s mother nudged the door shut with an ample hip. “Yes, sweetie, he’s been in his bedroom all morning. You can head right on up! If you boys get hungry, there’s ants-on-a-log in the fridge.”
Yuck. He got enough health food at home. Mandark began up the stairs, and when the roar of the vacuum assured him the woman was busy, he dashed up the steps two at a time and raced toward Dexter’s room.
“Of course the bookcase is the secret entrance, that midget intellect could never be bothered with anything creative. I just need to program the algorithms into my handy dandy laser blaster – excellent!”
The laboratory’s bolted doors opened before him. Mandark could barely contain a dance of glee. “Excellent indeed. Time to get down to business.”
From their previous skirmishes in the lab, Mandark knew the huge space was divided into five sectors. He needed to get to Sector IV, far away and deep in the depths of Dexter’s laboratory. And he needed to move, now.
Unlike Mandark’s own facilities, Dexter’s lab never blared an alarm signaling an intruding presence. Mandark guessed it must go off every five minutes in tribute to the visits of his golden-haired angel.
In fact, he could spy the signs of Dee Dee’s presence all over the laboratory. Here and there were scribbles of pink crayon on blank areas of metal between the control panels on the wall. One particularly large button was circled with question marks and doodles. Once he spied an inert robot covered in stickers, and twice he had to dodge a lagoon of glitter to avoid the fate of a human disco ball. “Such feminine touches.” Mandark sighed. “In the future, perhaps, I will be able to offer them a hallowed place in my own lab.”
Despite the traces of her presence, there was no Dee Dee, and certainly no Dexter, in the midst of the laboratory now. Pausing in the middle of Sector III, Mandark realized he was all alone in Dexter’s lab. All alone, for the first time. It felt surprisingly strange, like being woken up from a dream. Like he’d just made some great discovery unknown to mankind – “I’m in Dexter’s lab, and I’m all by myself.”
There was no fighting, no explosions, no witty repartee. Just space and silence, save for the tiny mechanical beeping of the machines nearby.
Mandark paced across the floor, feeling odd. He stared at his reflection in the polished tiles. He took in the tidy workspaces, the curly chemistry-setups, the soaring walls. He tilted his head back and gazed into the laboratory’s heights. In the distance stretched bridges, stairways, a great model of the household fly, buffed to a mirror-like shine. Standing stock still, he became aware of his heart beating loudly in his narrow chest.
Dexter loved his lab. It wasn’t just the hideaway of his sworn enemy, as he’d always imagined it to be. It was where he felt safe, free to create, to be himself. Mandark looked around again, at all the inventions and innovations surrounding him on every side, and suddenly he felt sick, and miserable, and furious.
Dexter knew what it was like. He knew what a laboratory was, everything it represented, and it was his fault Mandark slept in the ruins of his own safehaven, why his heart still ached from the loss.
Dexter didn’t deserve his lab. He didn’t deserve any of it.
He reached Sector IV in fifteen minutes and dropped to his knees in the middle of Dexter’s aircraft hangar. Beads of sweat rose up beneath his collar and he grit his teeth as he pulled the heavy explosive device carefully out of his knapsack. One of Computer’s monitors was situated nearby. He could hear her reciting the progress report of the meteorites’ trajectory to the empty room. He’d lost time, mooning about. A lot of time.
He shook the dark fringe out of his eyes and focused on the device, splicing the last two wires into place to activate the 24-hour timer. It was a weak explosive, it could barely take out a few-hundred square feet, but after pouring so many resources into the upgrade of his bot it was all he could afford. He drummed his fingers impatiently and waited for his pocket-laser to slice through the tiles in the floor. Then he prized them up, dropped the bomb into the gap, and rose to his feet.
“Done, perfect timing. By this time tomorrow, Sector IV will be no more and – oh no. No, no, no!”
Mandark gulped and spun around the hangar, eyes frantic. “Where’s the Dexo-Robo? Where’s his stupid bot?”
The walls were lined with all manner of crazy craft but the powerful mecha, his greatest threat, was nowhere to be seen.
Mandark shoved a hand over his mouth. “He must have moved it for repairs. Yes, it was heavily damaged, a great blow. For all I know he dismantled it – “ he slid his hand down his face. This wasn’t part of the plan. This was a problem.
But there was no time to waste. By this point his precious meteoroids must all be vaporized and Dexter would be returning at any second. He had to bail.
“No need to worry. No. Phase Two is almost complete. Dexter will never know what hit him.”
At least that was what he told himself as he punched the “transport” button on his wristwatch and felt that creepy tingle. The next second his atoms were split apart, and he and all his plans went streaming back to the transport center in the heart of his own laboratory.
“Get out! Get out right now, do you understand? Do I need to say it in Russian, French, or Japanese? Exit! There! Go!”
“That sounded like English to me.” Dee Dee reached across the desk and again Dexter lifted the battery out of reach. Of course this had little effect and his gangly sister plucked the gizmo straight from his purple gloves.
“Gosh, it’s heavy! This isn’t a battery, Dexter. Batteries are teeny-tiny and go in remote controls. You could never fit this in the clicker. You wouldn’t be able to lift your arm – “
“IT IS NOT FOR THE CLICKER! It is a specially-designed radioisotope generator specifically created for use in my giant robot! And if you break it, I will lock you in the engine bay and make you pedal me to the stratosphere yourself! Give it back!”
“Okay, okay, fine. Here.” Dee Dee plunked it onto the desktop. “Is that better?”
Dexter hadn’t expected to be obeyed, so to fill the awkward silence he smoothed his hair and straightened the collar of his lab coat.
“Yes. Much better.”
“Are you even going to tell me what it does?” Dee Dee moped. “Or is that top secret too?”
“It is not top secret. I told you, it is a battery for the giant Dexo-Robo. I have decided to replace my previous triple-engine configuration as an atomic battery will have much greater longevity with fewer risks of complications. Or, at least,” he added, wrenching a screw 30 degrees into place, “it will once I develop an energy source.”
“Like that pink bunny with the sunglasses?”
“Oh, forget it.”
Dee Dee in a bad mood was almost worse than Dee Dee in a good mood. Dexter cleared his throat and eyed her sideways. “I will have to create a new kind of atom,” he informed her. “Dexterium-112 is not powerful enough to keep the battery running under such a trying workload.”
Dee Dee perked up slightly. “Really? Will you get to use the atom smasher?”
“The particle collider. Yes. But first I have to finish my battery, so if you will stay quiet, and stop that ticking, then you can stay and watch me – “
“Ticking? I’m not ticking!”
Dexter scowled. “Well if you are not ticking then what’s that sound?”
Both of them looked at each other, then both of them stopped and listened.
Tick tick tick. Tick tick tick tick tick.
“What the heck is ticking?” Dexter demanded. His wristwatch was digital. Dee Dee could never be bothered to wear one.
“Hmm, that’s a toughie. Maybe it’s an old alarm clock.” Dexter rolled his eyes. “Or, y’know. A bomb.”
“A bomb! As if anyone would have the time to plant a bomb in the laboratory! I haven’t even left the place at all since – “
Tick tick tick.
“Computer! Computer, access log of yesterday’s activities immediately!”
The monitor was several yards away but Dexter’s sudden command echoed through the lab. “What time did the Super-Robot 5000 depart lab premises?”
“Super-Robot 5000 exits Sector IV SkyPort launch facility at 11:00 hours.”
“Currently 11:58 – standard issue 24-hr delay – that means….MOVE! GO!”
“Dexter, what – hey, watch it!”
Dexter seized his sister’s wrist in one hand and his battery in the other and with great strength and speed towed both to the far side of the desk. “Get down!”
Dee Dee shrieked. Dexter upended the desk, sending tools and machinery scattering across the floor to create a barrier to protect them. Dee Dee raised herself on her knees but was yanked to the floor. “Get down, sister – NOW!”
Dee Dee screamed. A cloud of flame burst forth from the hangar doors. Dexter crouched low and wrapped his arms around his battery. Shrapnel cut across the laboratory, and their desktop barricade went sliding across the floor. Jagged scraps of metal sliced past as he and Dee Dee rolled and tumbled from the impact. When he raised his eyes the lab was dark.
“Power cut, I should have known, the Sector IV mainframe cannot support – “
Dexter risked a glance above the desktop edge to see his Bird-Plane drop from its cables and crash to the floor amidst the horrified screaming of his sister. His bi-pedal ambulator, robbed of its own leg, creaked and groaned and broke into pieces against the tile. The force of the fall jarred the floor so the siblings bounced into the air, Dee Dee landing all angles on top of Dexter’s chest. The lay tangled together for a few moments, in a strange silence, both of them straining their ears for signs of further attack. But the explosions had run their course, the damage was done, and Dexter picked himself away from his sister’s clutches, breathing hard.
Dee Dee, of course, was thinking only of herself,. “Oh my gosh, Dexter, that was not my fault, I swear!” she bleated hysterically. Dexter hunched silently over his atomic battery, eyebrows drawn beneath his glasses’ rims. “Really, Dexter, don’t be mad! I didn’t do anything, honest! Don’t be mad, Dexter, I’m sorry, but not because I did it, because it’s not my fault – “
“I know it was not your fault.”
Dee Dee would have said more but instead she doubled over, seized with a fit of coughing. What fuel had not burned up in the blast spread flaming across the floor, sending clouds of colored smoke rolling through the air. All power was gone. Darkness reigned, with only Dee Dee’s coughing and protests breaking the solemn silence.
“I know it is not your fault, Dee Dee.” Dexter surveyed the damage with a grim eye. “This was planned. This was purposeful. And that – that’s a problem."