Who’s On FIRST?

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Carter stood in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis and whistled. Below him was the organized chaos of the eight fields of the FIRST Robotics World Championship. “If geeks played a sport, this would be it,” he said aloud.

Juan chuckled. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

“That’s one was to say it,” said Carter.

“You don’t like it.”

“I don’t get it. I mean, what’s the point of all this?”

“Not everyone likes sports, you know,” replied Juan.

“Sure, but I hear the game changes every year. It’s confusing.”

“That’s part of the challenge. All these teams start from scratch. Except for the stuff they learn from year to year.”

Carter stared blankly at Juan.

“Principles of robots, that sort of thing,” explained Juan.

“Alright, sure,” conceded Carter. He watched the beginning of a match. “Who’s playing?”

“In this game? The blue alliance is the Cheesy Poofs, the Fighting Pi and Metallic Clouds. The red alliance have the Thunder Chickens, Flaming Monkeys and TrikzR4Kidz.”

Carter glared at Juan. “You’re messing with me.”

Juan chuckled and raised his hands in defense. “Seriously. There are some awesome team names. There’s Exploding Bacon, Children of the Swamp, and my personal favorite, Robot Dolphins from Outer Space. I’m tellin’ you, it’s a lot of fun.”

The two watched as robots flew over defenses and launched grey balls at towers. A trumpet sounded and the robots scrambled to the base of their opponent’s fortresses. One robot extended arms and pulled itself off the ground. Juan joined the crowd that cheered wildly.

“What just happened?” asked Carter.

“That ‘bot just scaled. The tower’s been taken. Isn’t that incredible?”

“How’d it do that?”

“What do you mean? The team built it that way.”

“High school kids did that?” asked Carter, scratching his head.

“Yeah.”

Carter’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Juan. “High schoolers.”

“With the help of mentors,” said Juan.

“Mentors are like coaches.”

“Exactly.”

“All this from high school students?” asked Carter, skeptically.

“Don’t take my word for it. Ask them. Any of them. They’re all great kids. I have to admit, I love cheering for them,” said Juan.

“Amazing,” mumbled Carter. “Who are you with?”

“I’m just a proud dad. My daughter’s with Celt-X robotics. FIRST tells them they’re the future,” said Juan.

Carter’s eyes widened. “They’re wrong. These kids are the present.”

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Time Will Tell- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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The couple were unusually quiet as they made their way back to their old home in Mill Valley, population 5180. Becky could barely keep herself from smiling. Clement, on the other hand, could only sigh.

“Won’t be long now,” he said.

“Are you excited?” asked Becky, even though she already knew the answer.

“I dunno,” whined Clement.

“Talk to me.”

“It’s just that, I can’t believe I blew it. I wanted to do more, be more. It all just fell apart. I don’t know what I’m saying,” confessed Clement.

“There’s still time, you know. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

Becky stroked Clement’s arm as he drove. “It means we’re still growing.”

“You make it sound like we’re little kids.”

“Adults grow, too.”

Clement chuckled. “Yeah. Some of us grow up to be monsters.”

“Monsters don’t make things right.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better. What if this is all I’m capable of doing? Messing up other people’s lives, I mean.”

Now it was Becky’s turn to sigh. Few things are as pathetic as a man feeling sorry for himself. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “If your death makes everyone happy, you probably did everything wrong.”

Clement rolled his eyes. “That’s so helpful. Thanks.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“How do I know if I’ve done things right?”

Becky thought for a second. “Well, if you die and God happily welcomes you home, you’re okay.”

“Nice. Either way I’ve gotta die before I find out,” mused Clement.

Becky smiled. “That’s life, my dear. Don’t ask me to explain it.”

The two drove in silence for a few minutes.

Clement finally spoke. “Do you think we’ll be alright?”

Becky looked out the car window at the passing farms. “Time will tell,” she said. “Time will tell.”

The End.

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Living the Dream- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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One week later, Becky and Clement were packing their apartment in silence. There was a knock at the door. Emperor Don poked his head inside. Becky smiled and said hello. Clement groaned.

“I wanted to stop by before you move,” chimed Emperor Don.

“That’s sweet of you,” replied Becky.

Clement buried himself in his bedroom closet.

“Actually,” said Don, looking for Clement, “I wanted to thank you for helping me out of a bad situation.”

Clement rolled his eyes. “Thank Special Ed and Alabama Hanna.”

“From what I’m told, you were the one that brought the video forward and secured my release,” said Don.

“It was more like extortion,” grumbled Clement.

Becky joined the others in the bedroom. “I’m curious, what’s gonna happen to George and Durable Mike?” she asked.

A smile spread across Emperor Don’s face. “Not much. I got my share of the family inheritance back, but I refused to press charges. No sense adding insult to injury.”

Clement grumbled. “So I’m the only one who gets punished. Marvelous.”

“Nobody’s punishing you, Clement. I came by to also let you know I’m picking up the cost of your move.”

“That’s amazing. Thank you so much. Clement, isn’t that amazing?” gushed Becky. She gave Emperor Don a big hug.

Clement stared at Don. “All I see is someone in a hurry to get rid of us.”

The vitriol spewed at Don made him cringe. “I have no desire to get rid of you.”

“Special Ed sure acts like he does.”

“He’s overprotective. He’ll settle down eventually. If you really want to stay, it’s your choice. You’re more than welcome here,” said Emperor Don.

Clement held his hands up in surrender. “No, no. I’ve had enough of this city. It’s time to go home.”

Emperor Don smiled. “Isn’t it funny how often we have to leave home before we learn to appreciate it?”
The next day was Clement’s last day at work. Ivan was visibly agitated.

“You okay?” asked Clement.

“No!” shouted Ivan.

Clement hesitated to ask, but it didn’t matter. Ivan was more than willing to expound on his anger.

“I”m sick and tired of being unappreciated,” he explained.

“Who doesn’t appreciate you?”

Ivan glared at Clement. “You, for one. The butterfly freak for another. Don’t even get me started about Linda.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Clement, defensively.

“You all go off, living your dreams. Well, that’s just great. For you to run off means somebody’s gotta stay behind and do the ordinary, everyday stuff.”

“Huh?”

“Do you think it’s anybody’s hope to collect garbage, work in some greasy spoon, or be a middle manager at a bank? We do what we do so you can live your selfish dreams,” complained Ivan.

“Are you crazy? My life’s been a nightmare,” Clement shot back.

“Nightmares are dreams, too. Think about it. You came to the city so you can eventually earn enough to move back to the country. Aren’t you lucky. You do everything wrong and still get what you want,” said Ivan.

“What do you want from me?” demanded Clement.

“Understanding. And thanks.”

Clement grumbled. “Thanks for explaining things to me.”

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Special Ed Buys a Cell Phone- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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On his way to work two days later, Clement was still overwhelmed with gloom. Nothing about his world was good. He was so lost within himself, he didn’t even notice Special Ed walk up.

Ed has a wide smile on his face. “Wanna see my new phone?”

“Huh? Nice,” mumbled Clement. He didn’t even lift his eyes.

Ed was insistent. “You have to see what it can do. It’s amazing.”

“Yes, Ed. They’re amazing. We’ve all got one. We know. Welcome to the modern world,” said Clement with particular venom.

Ed recoiled. “I don’t know what he ever saw in you,” he said.

“Who saw what in me?”

“Emperor Don doesn’t help just anyone, you know. He must’ve seen something in you, but I can’t see it.”

Clement glared at Special Ed. “Are you trying to make me feel worse than I already do?”

“I’m trying to help you,” exclaimed Special Ed.

“What’re you talking about?”

“Look at my stupid phone, you idiot!”

Ed shoved his phone in Clement’s face. On it was a video of Alabama Hanna tickling Durable Mike. He was laughing hysterically, yelling ‘Stop! You’re gonna make me pee!’ Clement could barely process what he was seeing.

“Where did you get this?” Clement demanded.

Instead of answering him, Special Ed stuffed the phone in his pocket.

“Do you know what that video means?” asked Clement.

“According to my calculations, it means a couple of things,” replied Ed.

Clement looked into the eyes of Special Ed. There was a steely determination that Clement hadn’t seen before.

“This is the video that’ll save Emperor Don,” stated Ed, coldly. “I’ll give it to you on one condition.”

“Anything. Name it. Whatever you want,” blurted Clement. He leaped at the chance to get out of his impossible situation.

“Good. I’ll give it to you as long as you promise to leave the city,” said Special Ed.

Clement laughed. “You got me. Good one.”

The dour expression on Special Ed’s face told Clement this was no joke.

“Why?” asked Clement.

“Because betrayal has a high cost,” explained Special Ed.

The judgment caught Clement off guard. “Don’t treat me like I’m evil.”

Special Ed tapped on his phone. “I’m not calling you evil. I’m calling you selfish.”

The blood drained from Clement’s face. “I was just trying to protect people. I was wrong, but my intentions were good.”

“You can do all the wrongs for the right reasons and you’re still wrong,” said Special Ed.

Suddenly Clement’s eyes brightened. “You’re doing the same thing. Let me ask you. if I refuse to leave, does that mean you’re going to bury that video and keep Emperor Don locked away? Who’s selfish then?”

Special Ed shook his head in disappointment. “You don’t get it. Either way Emperor Don’s going free. The only choice left is whether you go down with George or not.”

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A Brick Wall- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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“What’s your plan?”

Becky sat across from Clement at the Bagel Fortress Bakery. She was waiting for an answer.

“Technically, I don’t have to do anything,” concluded Clement.

“What would the Mayor say to that?”

Clement tilted his head. “What could he actually do to me?”

“Make our lives a living hell,” said Becky.

Clement leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Emperor Don mentioned something about Durable Mike.”

“What did he say?” Becky leaned forward.

“I think he believes Durable Mike can still speak. He thinks the mute thing is just an act.”

Becky’s eyes lit up. “Prove that and their case goes out the window.”

“How does that help me? I gave testimony, too.”

“No, you provided corroboration. If you can prove they’re working a scam you can also claim to be one of the victims. You can say you were fooled by them like everybody else,” exclaimed Becky. Clement could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “This could work.”

“If Emperor Don is right, all we need to do is make Durable Mike talk.”

“He’s right. He’s always been right. You haven’t believed it, but it’s true,” said Becky.

Clement grimaced. He was loathed to admit it, but Becky was probably right.

“What’s your plan?” asked Becky.

“I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. I’m a complete blank,” mumbled Clement. His frustration built until he pounded the table with his fist.

“We’re in trouble,” sighed Becky.

Sitting discretely at another table, Special Ed eavesdropped on their conversation. His lips turned upwards into a sly grin. Clement may not know what to do, but he did.

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Repentance- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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Clement fidgeted nervously sitting at the table as he waited for Emperor Don. He shivered as a bead of sweat rolled down his spine. He was now seriously questioning the decision to follow Becky’s advice.

A voice from behind him made him jump. “Good morning Clement.”

Clement stood up. He was surprised to be greeted by a smiling face. The two sat down.

“You look well,” said Clement, hopefully.

“Thank you,” replied Don. He examined his visitor with a critical eye.

“Are they treating you well?”

Emperor Don shrugged. “They have no reason not to. I do my best to be helpful.”

“So you’re happy here,” said Clement.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“But you said you were doing well.”

“Clement, in life, most things are beyond our control. It’s true. There is one thing, however, we can control: how we respond. I don’t want to be here, but that decision was not given to me. All I can do adapt to my new circumstances. I don’t wish to make life difficult for those around me. Hopefully that will encourage them to make life better for me.”

Clement stared at Emperor Don with suspicion. “I don’t know anyone who could do that. If it were me I’d be crazy.”

“And you’d justify the reason for your incarceration. There’s a reason why discipline is important,” explained Emperor Don.

Clement shook his head. “You’re not a criminal.”

“You misunderstand the purpose of discipline. It isn’t about punishing our wrongs. It’s about training us to do what’s right.”

Clement dropped his eyes in shame. “Speaking of wrong, I’m the reason you’re here. I feel, well, awful. I’m really sorry.”

Emperor Don sat motionless.

“Aren’t you gonna say something?” asked Clement.

“What would you have me say?” replied Emperor Don.

“How about, ‘I forgive you’. I’d like that,” said Clement.

“Forgiveness involves more than words. So does repentance,” said Emperor Don.

“I’m here, aren’t I? That’s an action. I could’ve stayed away,” complained Clement.

Emperor Don shifted in his seat. He looked unimpressed. “Perhaps you could see to my release,” he said.

Clement sighed. “I can’t do that. That would get me in a lot of trouble. Maybe even arrested.”

Emperor Don leaned on the table and folded his hands. “Let me see if I understand. You came here to feel better about yourself without doing anything to help me. Is that correct?”

Clement blushed. “Actually, it was Becky’s idea. She thought you’d have some great idea or something.”

“I might if I was clear on a few points. How exactly did you secure my imprisonment in this psychiatric facility?”

“It was your brother George with Durable Mike the mute.”

Emperor Don flinched. “Mute?” he asked.

“George said you caused the accident that took his ability to speak. I added testimony that corroborated the claim that you were mentally unfit. If I recant my testimony, I’d perjure myself,” explained Clement.

“Mute,” said Emperor Don. There was a twinkle in his eye.

“I can’t see a way to make this right without one of us being in trouble. I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am.”

“Like I said, repentance requires more that just words,” said Emperor Don.

Clement threw up his arms in despair. “What do you want me to do?”

Emperor Don smiled. “Give speech to the mute.”

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The Dilemma- The Man Who Declared Himself Emperor

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The door to the apartment creaked open at one o’clock in the morning. Clement tried to slip in unnoticed, but was thwarted by a pair of boots. He tripped into the closet door, knocking it off it’s hinges. An avalanche of winter coats fell on his head. Clement pulled the last coat off his head, only to see the blade of a hockey stick crack the side of his head.

When he regained consciousness, his eyes slowly adjusted to Becky looming over him, hockey stick in hand.

“What’re you trying to do, kill me?” he demanded.

“Don’t tempt me,” replied Becky. She followed behind as he crawled to the couch.

“I’m such a fool,” lamented Clement as he remembered his conversation with the mayor.

Becky admired the blade of her hockey stick. “I shoulda tried this earlier.”

Clement groaned.

“If it’ll help, we can make this a routine thing,” added Becky.

“I’m serious. I’ve really messed things up.”

“Admitting it is the first step to recovery,” sniped Becky.

“Are you trying to pick a fight?”

“I gotta admit, it’s better than the silence between us the past few days.”

“Add it to the list of my mistakes,” said Clement. He rubbed the side of his aching head.

Becky’s expression morphed from frustration to curiosity. She sat next to her husband. “What happened?”

“I was kidnapped,” said Clement dramatically.

“What?”

“All you did was add insult to injury,” grumbled Clement, pointing at her weapon.

Becky saw he was serious and put her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. Is that where you were? I thought you were staying away to punish me.” She put her hands around Clement.

The two sat in silence for a minute. Without warning, Becky sat up straight and looked at Clement with wild eyes.
“Wait,” she said, “I have, like, a thousand questions. What did they want with you? How did you get away? Are we in danger? Why haven’t you called the police?”

Clement shook his head slowly. “We can’t call the police. I was taken by the mayor.”

Becky stared blankly back at Clement. “Is this a joke? This better not be a joke because it’s not funny.”

After a long breath, Clement sat on the edge of the couch and held Becky’s hands. “A week ago I helped George Twill put Emperor Don away. I testified that he was mentally unfit.”

Becky’s eyes flared. “You did what?” She pulled her hands away and stood up.

“I know. I shouldn’t have gotten involved. George scammed me.”

“Ya think?!?” shouted Becky.

“George used me to bump Don out of the family inheritance.”

“Not to mention ruin the life of a good man,” seethed Becky.

“Tonight I discovered the mayor is Don’s cousin and they’re close. He told me to fix this or else. He said he’d ruin me,” explained Clement.

“He’s right,” agreed Becky. She paced the floor of the living room.

“It’s not that simple. If I recant my testimony I’d perjure myself. Becky, that’s a serious crime. I’d get fired for sure. I might even do jail time.”

Becky stopped pacing. She glared at her pathetic looking husband. “You have to talk to Emperor Don.”

“Why? He probably hates me.”

Becky sat down beside Clement. “It’s about time you found out who he really is.”

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