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Guest art by Angie Hoffmeister
Episode 9: Brussel’s Secret Laboratory
Hana and James found the dandruff robot behind the bush the next day. The robot was somewhat damaged, with one of its wheels missing and little bite marks perforating its body, but otherwise it was intact and functional. Hana stood it up and tried to wipe the sewer slime off it with a rag made out of her dandruff.
‘Does this mean I owe you a tea?’ she asked James.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ James told her. ‘Let’s just see what the robot found, if it found out anything.’
Hana nodded and looked at all of the different buttons she had put on the dandruff robot, trying to find the one that would play back whatever the robot might have recorded during its trek through the deep, dark tunnels of the sewer. She remembered that the button used to be where a patch of slimy green fur now was, so James obliged her look of disgust by pushing the fur off the robot with the tip of his bat.
‘And now to press it,’ she said, and apprehensively pressed the revealed button, stepping back as soon as she had lifted her finger from the slime-covered robot.
Something inside of the robot rattled, and as Hana did not recall building any dandruff components that could rattle, she had to assume that whatever was inside of the robot was a foreign object.
James noted Hana’s uncertainty and raised his bat in preparation for whatever might lunge out of the dandruff robot. Beads of sweat dripped down the sides of their faces as they gazed at the robot with shared nervousness.
‘It could be one of Brussel’s hands again,’ James thought aloud.
‘It could be a rat,’ Hana said. ‘Actually, I’m sure it’ll be a rat with a tiny little helmet and a tiny sword. We’ll just have to be careful not to step on it.’
The rattling increased to such an extent that the robot vibrated in its spot. James lifted his bat even higher, ready to bring it crashing down at a millisecond’s notice. But the robot suddenly ceased all movement and the rattling died down until it was no longer noticeable. The robot’s eyes glowed and projected a blue-hued video onto Hana’s shirt.
‘Is that what it’s supposed to do?’ James asked as he gawked at the unexpected video.
‘Yeah, I thought it would look kind of cool if it worked,’ Hana said. ‘I’m glad it worked, but I’m not sure how cool it looks. I can’t even see it.’
‘You’re not really missing out on much. All I see is a secret laboratory with Brussel patting clumps of something onto something really huge.’
Hana tried to look down at her glowing blue shirt. ‘Could you do me a favour and stand in my spot? I want to take a look at this.’
She stepped to the side and James took her place. On his shirt was a blue Brussel putting what looked to be blue patches of fur onto a big blue bear. The patches of fur were coming from a barrel labelled DANDRUFF. The solemn expression on the bear’s face was similar to that of a big red bear Hana knew quite well. Looking closely, Hana could see that the big blue bear actually was the big red bear, only coloured differently due to the quality of the projection. The bear in the video was also far more dandruffy.
‘This is kind of creepy,’ Hana said. ‘It looks like Brussel is making his own dandruff version of the giant red bear that follows Dan Druff around.’
‘Strange,’ James said. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘Lemme see,’ she said, crossing her arms as she concentrated on the video. On the laboratory floor scurried a blur of a rat. At one point the rat stopped, paused, and seemed to look straight into the camera – which, for the rat, would have been the face of the robot. Then the rat seemed to fly up towards the camera. The rest of the video was blue static.
‘That explains all the bite marks,’ Hana said. ‘I guess that’s all the video we’re going to get.’
‘Man, I couldn’t see anything,’ James complained. ‘What did I miss?’
‘A rat attack,’ Hana said, bending in front of the robot to turn it off.
Right before her finger could touch the On/Off switch, a small, pointy lump of fur burst from the robot’s head, landed on Hana’s forehead and raced up her scalp.
‘Aaaah!’ Hana screamed, and right at the very moment the rat reached the top of her head, James batted it off with his baseball bat. The rat tumbled through the air and landed on the other side of the street, where it quickly regained its bearings and disappeared into some bushes. The rat was a lot more nimble than most of the cats Hana knew.
Clutching the top of her head, she stared at James with a mixture of bewilderment and fear.
‘Trust me, I wouldn’t’ve missed,’ he assured her.
Hana continued to stare at him, neither blinking nor moving an inch.
‘Trust me,’ he repeated.
Hana slowly removed her hands from her head and lowered them. ‘That was probably the most terrifying thing to happen all year,’ she said. ‘Even more than the giant dandruff lizard and everything.’
‘Okay, okay,’ James said. ‘Let’s just dispose of the robot and get out of here.’
James was about to kick the dandruff robot but Hana grabbed his foot.
‘Wait,’ she said. ‘I actually made a button for this.’
She let go of his foot, went behind the robot, pulled a hairclip from her hair and poked it through a small hole in the robot’s back. Then she set the hairclip back in place, grabbed James’ arm and pulled him away.
‘Run!’ she shouted, and together they ran up the sidewalk, only stopping once they had reached a crosswalk.
As they panted from the sudden sprint, the pair turned back to watch the explosion. Except the explosion was more of an implosion: the robot’s body collapsed in on itself like a soufflé at the end of a bad sitcom.
‘It’s a good thing we ran,’ James said.
Hana rolled her eyes. ‘Let’s just go,’ she said.
Hana, James and Henri sat in the living room of Henri’s apartment reading comic books. Hana was reading a comic book about a ghost from the future that had travelled back in time to stop the events that had killed it; James was reading a comic called The Runners, which was about a group of treasure hunters that specialised in acquiring rare fruit from a post-apocalyptic desert; and Henri was reading a comic book adaptation of a legendary baseball game. They read in silence like this for some time.
‘Oh, by the way,’ Hana said to Henri, suddenly remembering, ‘we found out that Brussel is making a dandruff copy of the giant red bear in his secret sewer laboratory.’
Henri put down his comic book. ‘That sounds kind of important,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you mention it half an hour ago when you got here?’
‘The first thing you said to me was “I have comics”,’ she explained. ‘Everything else became a blur after that.’
Henri resisted the urge to sigh. ‘Is there anything else you might’ve forgotten about?’
‘James played tee-ball with my head,’ she said.
‘If I may make a correction,’ James put in, his comic still raised in front of his face, ‘it was actually a sewer rat that I played tee-ball with. On top of Hana’s head.’
‘I see,’ Henri said. ‘I wonder if Brussel’s bear had anything to do with the bear Hana saw on tv.’
‘The bear on tv was red, though,’ Hana said. ‘It had to’ve been the real one.’
Henri sat in thought for a moment while holding his chin. Then he let go of his chin and stood up, heading into the adjoining kitchen for a can of cold tea. He came back into the living room as he cracked the can open, its contents splashing onto his fingers. He sighed.
‘So how did you find out all of this, anyway?’ he asked Hana.
Hana looked up at the ceiling as if reading her memories off it. Then she looked back to Henri. ‘James and I saw Brussel by the art museum and followed him to an open sewer,’ she said. ‘I figured the most logical thing to do was to make a dandruff robot and send it into the sewer to spy on him. We found the robot today and watched a video that it had recorded of Brussel putting together the giant bear. He was just putting on the finishing touches, I think, because he was patting some dandruff fur onto it. The video was cut short by a rat that tried to attack me. I don’t think the rat had much to do with anything, though.’
‘Do you still have the video?’
‘No, it was installed inside of the robot, which we destroyed. I guess destroying the evidence worked both ways.’
Henri took a gulp of tea to lubricate his thoughts. ‘I’m thinking it might be time we checked these sewers out,’ he said.
James lowered his comic to look at him. ‘That’s the most dangerous idea you’ve ever had,’ he said. ‘Think of all the alligators, slime and mutants that are down there. Haven’t you ever watched a single horror movie?’
‘Movies are a bit different from real life, James,’ Henri said.
‘We’d be sloshing off to our doom,’ James continued worriedly.
‘I think I have to side with James,’ Hana said. ‘Heading down into the sewers without really knowing what we’re up against – or where we’re going – seems like a very dangerous idea. I think we should see what our options are before jumping into an open manhole.’
‘Forgive me,’ Henri apologised. ‘I should have been more clear. By “checking the sewers out” I didn’t mean actually marching in. What I had in mind was looking up the sewer’s plans on the city’s website. If we can find a map then it should help us locate Brussel’s secret laboratory.’
‘Now that is a good idea,’ James said.
‘A less slimy idea for sure,’ added Hana.
Together the trio headed into the apartment’s office and took over the computer. Henri sat in the swivel chair and guided the computer mouse to the web browser as Hana and James stood on either side of him, telling him what to click on. As they kept telling him to click on the wrong things, he ignored them and headed to the city’s website on his own. There he found a map of the sewer, the file tucked between links to the city’s yearly squirrel festival and an incomplete list of monuments.
The map was as complex as a circuit board, with every line leading to one hundred others. The trio froze at the sight of it, as if they had come into a hungry bear’s line of vision. Hana and James slowly backed away and left the room, and from there they quickly retreated to the living room, which was thankfully devoid of complex maps.
Back in the office, Henri took a deep breath and began deciphering the map of the sewer, comparing it to a map of the city that he had found on the same website. He was looking for a part of the sewer map that did not correspond to the map of the city, something like a large underground area where a large underground area should not be. Basically, he was looking for a spot with a great big BRUSSEL’S SECRET LABORATORY sign flashing on it.
In the living room, Hana and James continued reading comic books, not seeming to notice or care which ones they were actually reading. This could be evidenced by the fact that they were holding their comics upside-down.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t have left him in there with that . . . that thing,’ James said, somewhat nervously.
‘I think that, of all the monsters we’ve faced so far, the map is the only one Henri would be capable of handling alone,’ Hana said. ‘By letting him take care of it, we’re showing him how much confidence we have in his map-figuring-out abilities.’
James gazed at the hallway which led to the apartment’s office.
‘Let’s just say you’ve persuaded me and leave it at that,’ he said, and then went back to reading his upside-down comic book.
Hana went back to reading hers as well, trying hard to believe her own words. The only sounds in the apartment were those of pages being turned and the clicking of a far-off computer mouse.
Then the clicking stopped and Henri emerged from the office. Hana and James peered at him guiltily from the tops of their comics. They looked for battle scars and bloodshot eyes, or at the very least the haunting look of having been betrayed. The only visible difference they could find, however, was that he was now holding a printed copy of the sewer map with a small red circle drawn on it.
‘I think I found it,’ he said.
‘Are you serious?’ James asked in disbelief. ‘That quickly?’
‘It wasn’t that hard once I actually started looking at the map closely,’ Henri said. ‘Each area is labelled carefully.’
‘I don’t think I get it,’ Hana said. ‘What does that mean?’
‘I’ll show you,’ Henri said, and he brought the map over to them as they set their comics down on the living room table. He sat between them and placed the copy of the map on top of the comics. Hana and James leaned in close to look at it.
‘Ah,’ Hana said, looking at the area that Henri had circled.
Each section of the map had indeed been labelled, even the mysterious section that, unlike the rest of the map, was printed in green and seemed to be disconnected from every other line. This section was labelled BRUSSEL’S SECRET LABORATORY and made Henri’s red circle seem completely superfluous.
‘Now we know where he is if we ever need to stop by,’ James said.
‘Or if another dandruff lizard appears,’ Hana said. ‘I don’t think we should just go charging in without any reason, though. We don’t know for sure if Brussel is actually doing anything on his own or if he’s just doing stuff for Kohlrabi, for one thing. Actually, I don’t think either of them have enough brains to be the brains of the operation, but then again everything they’ve done so far has been pretty brainless.’
‘That might be the wisest course of action,’ Henri agreed. ‘We’ll wait until we have a better reason for trespassing.’
‘It does bother me that Brussel seems to have the same power as Hana and Daniel Druff, though,’ James said with a thoughtful look on his face. ‘Daniel Druff got his power from Scorlax, that evil green alien cat thing, and Hana inherited her power from Daniel Druff. So where did Brussel get his power from? He is green, so maybe he somehow inherited it from Scorlax.’
‘That would almost make sense if it wasn’t for the fact that Brussel isn’t a cat,’ Hana said. ‘I think you may be onto something, though.’
‘Yeah?’ James asked, surprised that Hana would agree with him twice in one day. ‘If it is anything, I just hope it’s not something that’ll lead us into the sewer.’
Henri nodded. ‘We should be happy that we don’t have any crazy situations to deal with at the moment,’ he said. ‘I say we head out for karaoke.’
At karaoke, Hana sang ‘Magic Dance’, performing the call-and-response on her own while James and Henri watched on and ate sandwiches. James tapped his foot and took bites out of his sandwich in time with the beat. He looked at all of the different ways the coloured lights hit Hana, highlighting her dandruff-coated shoulders with purple and striping her dandruff-covered hair with green. Her face was blue when she looked at him and smiled between verses. James did not need any coloured lights for his face to turn red.
After her round of singing and dancing, Hana handed the microphone to Henri. Henri took to the miniature stage with a ballad about baseball that seemed to have never existed until the moment he began singing it. Hana and James had never heard it before, anyway.
Hana sat beside James and took a sip from his pop.
‘Hey, that’s mine!’ James called out as he swiped the can back from Hana.
Hana looked at him in surprise.
‘I’m trying to sing up here,’ Henri sang to the tune of his baseball ballad.
‘What’s wrong with drinking your pop?’ Hana asked James. ‘You drink mine all the time.’
James’ blood was rushing to his ears, turning them crimson, and he could barely hear her through the throbbing of his own heartbeat. ‘I’ll get you your own,’ he said.
Hana wanted to ask him how he would, as he had spent all of his allowance money on a guitar pick that may or may not have been signed by Guildenstern Tropic, but thought better of it.
‘Look, over there,’ he said, pointing to the wall to the right of them. It was a remarkably plain wall, with even the coloured lights rarely falling upon it.
When Hana looked back at James, he was holding the can of pop towards her. ‘Here,’ he said, smiling. ‘I got this for you.’
The music came to a stop, a bit too abrupt for James’ liking, and Henri passed the microphone to him. James accepted it reluctantly.
‘Thanks,’ Hana said in a small voice, holding the can of pop as James went up to sing. She took a sip and realised too late that it had already gone flat.
‘Thanks,’ she said again, this time making a face.
James sang ‘I’m in Love with My Car’ and then they were done with karaoke.
To Be Continued In Episode Ten: Magical Crab