“Turn the dial back to the middle,” said Annabelle. Floyd and Ninja did, and suddenly, the kitten stopped dancing.
Annabelle could almost feel the world take a collective sigh of relief.
“Well done, little fellow,” she said.
“What happened?” asked Eleanor, who was sitting up groggily and rubbing the back of her head.
“Eleanor!” said Floyd.
“Floyd!” said Eleanor.
They hugged a little bit longer than Annabelle thought secret agents were probably supposed to.
Then Eleanor turned to Annabelle. “You saved the day, didn’t you?”
“Well, all of us did.”
Ninja winced in a way that caused a dimple to appear on his left cheek.
Eleanor smiled. “Ninja says you were great. That we never could have defeated Fungo without you. That you saved us all from 100 exciting laser-hand robots. That I should cut you some slack and forgive you for making a mistake. That it’s time for us to make up.”
“Ninja is wise,” said Annabelle.
“That he is,” said Eleanor.
And the two of them hugged for even longer.
“What I can’t understand,” said Floyd, “is why that kitten stayed so calm and cute inside the box, even when the dial was turned all the way to the right.”
“I’ve been wondering that, too,” said Annabelle.
“I had a hunch,” said Eleanor, “that maybe kittens weren’t effected by The Machine. When we were in that animal shelter in Lower Barmonia, I noticed that Larf hadn’t bothered to rescue the kittens. When we were in Mustrecht, I slipped into a pet shop and confirmed it. All the adult cats were going nuts inside their cages, but the kittens were acting completely normal. And so I bought one, thinking he might come in handy.”
“He certainly did,” said Annabelle, scooping up the tiny cat that had just saved the world and giving him a loving scratch behind the ear.
“What next?” said Floyd, who still sounded a little wheezy.
“Let’s make sure this never happens again,” said Eleanor.
“Agreed,” said Annabelle. “Robots. Fungo is gone. I am now the boss of you. Your new target is The Machine.”
The 99 robots turned to face the machine. “ACQUIRING TARGET,” they said. “CHARGING IN 10, 9, 8…”
“Robots, you’ve already charged. You don’t need to do the countdown,” said Annabelle.
“WE KNOW,” said 99 robots, “BUT ISN’T IT EXCITING?”
Annabelle had to admit it kind of was. She joined the robots in the countdown. And then she watched as their hand lasers shot 198 powerful jets of unrelenting energy that incinerated the machine into satisfying heaps of smoldering rubble.
“Man, I want hand lasers,” said Annabelle.
“I’m working on it,” said Floyd.
“I think we’re done here,” said Eleanor.
“I still have one question,” said Annabelle. “Who was it that Long Arm was telling to go ‘down the gullet’ when you overheard him in the houseboat?”
“I have no idea,” said Eleanor.
“It was I,” said Larf, suddenly popping up from the hole in the middle of the floor, carrying an awful-looking rocket launcher type weapon and pointing it directly at Annabelle.
“Hey now!” said Annabelle.
“Not cool,” said Eleanor.
“Who’s this guy?” asked Floyd.
“I used to be a henchman,” said Larf. “But now that you guys have taken care of the boss, I’m next in line for the chair/throne thing.”
“You and what army?” asked Annabelle.
“Turn around,” said Larf.
They turned around. The 99 robots were pointing their laser hands menacingly.
“Seriously?” said Annabelle. “I thought we were finished with this part.”
“Evil is never finished,” said Larf. “It goes on and on.”
“Darn it,” said Eleanor.
“Why did Long Arm send you here?” asked Annabelle, sensing complicated family dynamics among the evil leadership.
“After Fungo fired me, Long Arm asked me to sneak into HQ and kidnap Franz. He and Fungo were having a custody dispute.”
“Fungo and Long Arm got Franz to keep them company while they were building The Machine. But eventually, Fungo and Long Arm grew apart. Great evil collaborations don’t last forever. There was tension. Hurt feelings. You know how it is.”
“I absolutely don’t,” said Annabelle. “But go on.”
“Long Arm wanted to take Franz and go sulk in his houseboat, but Fungo said no way and banished him to the candy shop in Lower Barmonia. The rest is history.”
“Who does Franz actually belong to?”
“He’s mine, of course,” said Larf, “But isn’t the more important question ‘Who controls the robot army?’ Long Arm designed them to obey whoever holds this evil-looking remote control.”
Larf held up a truly evil-looking remote control. Everyone gasped.
“Now, everyone please hold still so that the robots can process your locations then incinerate you so that I can take Franz and get out of here.”
“LASERS CHARGING in 10, 9, 8…”
With a flash of pent-up irritation, Ninja sprinted across the room and give Larf a series of quick punches, causing him to drop the enormous rocket launcher on his toe and then jump around pathetically.
Ninja pushed a couple of buttons on the remote control, and suddenly the 99 robots started incinerating each other with their laser hands. In less than fifteen seconds, the HQ was filled with 99 piles of smoldering robot parts.
Ninja wiggled his nose and lifted one of his eyebrows while giving the tiniest smile.
“Ninja says that sometimes all you need to solve a problem is one especially irritated ninja,” said Eleanor.
“I know,” said Annabelle. “I speak Ninja.”
“I’d really like to handcuff Larf to a railing,” said Eleanor, but I left my cuffs on Long Arm’s houseboat.”
“Here,” said Floyd. “I always carry extras.”
“Good old Floyd,” said Annabelle. “Do you have two sets?”
Working together, Annabelle and Eleanor handcuffed Larf’s hands and legs to a railing.
There was a low rumbling sound as the skull’s enormous jaws started opening again.
“What now?” asked Annabelle.
“This can’t be good,” said Eleanor, as everyone braced for the worst.
But, as it turns out, it was all right. As sunlight streamed in through the open mouth, they saw a figure striding confidently toward them, surrounded by thousands of…
“Miniature porcupines!” said Annabelle.
“Where have they been all this time?” asked Eleanor.
“No one knows,” said the person walking toward them. “But here they are.”
“Rhonda!” said Annabelle. “But I didn’t even press the beacon!”
“It’s not actually a beacon,” said Rhonda. “It’s a tiny listening device that I’ve been using to follow your every move.”
“I work for Em,” said Rhonda. “She thought that maybe you could use a little help.”
For about half a second, Annabelle was irritated that no one seemed to think her capable of running her own mission. But then she remembered that she had her friends had just saved the world and that it had taken every last one of them to do it.
“She was absolutely right.”
The miniature porcupines were milling cheerful about, gnawing on bits of incinerated robot.
“Should they be doing that?” asked Eleanor.
“Miniature porcupines are capable of digesting scrap metal,” said Floyd.
“Really?” said Annabelle.
“Really,” said Floyd. “They are an extremely strange species, not at all related to regular porcupines.”
“Weird,” said Annabelle.
“I know, right?”
“Shall we leave them to reclaim their island,” suggested Eleanor.
“And get ourselves back to the new HQ?” said Floyd.
“I thought it had been destroyed!” said Annabelle, suddenly feeling guilty all over again.
“We have an even newer one,” said Floyd, smiling. “Would you like to see it?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” said Annabelle.
When they walked outside, they were greeted with the clearest, bluest, blue sky morning any of them had ever seen.
“What a beautiful day,” said Annabelle.
“What a beautiful world,” said Rhonda.
“It really is,” said Annabelle.
“Thanks to us,” said Floyd.
“Look,” said Eleanor. It was hard to believe, but eager plants were already pushing their way up through the rocky soil.
“Amazing,” said Annabelle.
Floyd woofed. The kitten meowed.
Everyone was in a really good mood.
When they got to Rhonda’s boat, Long Arm was sitting in the back seat, handcuffed to a railing and looking put out.
“I found him drifting in his houseboat, not far from where Susie and her friends were planning on having lunch,” said Rhonda. “And he still hasn’t thanked me.”
“Franz!” said Long Arm.
Franz jumped up and licked Long Arm’s face. “Franzie boy!”
“He’ll be coming with us,” said Eleanor.
“And you’ll be coming with me,” said Rhonda, giving Long Arm a disapproving look. And then she yelled, “Hold on,” without really waiting for everyone to sit down. The boat lurched forward.
“But what about the reef with razor sharp—” said Annabelle as Rhonda pushed a button that turned the speedboat into a hovercraft.
“Whoah!” said Annabelle, as they skated gracefully across the surface of the water and across the jagged reef.
“But why didn’t you do that on our way to Fungo’s HQ?”
“The story wouldn’t have been as interesting,” said Rhonda. Annabelle was thinking about that, but not for long. They were approaching the place where the sharks had been, but Rhonda showed no sign of slowing down.
“But don’t you have to—?” said Eleanor.
“I’m fresh out of Mentos,” said Rhonda. “So today, we’re going to outrun them.”
After a good long while, Rhonda stopped the boat, and a submarine surfaced right next to them. The hatch opened, and a man stepped out.
“I’m a sailor.”
“Let me guess. Your name is Sailor?” said Annabelle.
“You’re good,” said the man.
Annabelle climbed onto the submarine, followed by Floyd, Eleanor, and an extremely unhappy Franz.
“Aren’t you coming?” Annabelle asked Rhonda.
“Nope. Someone has to take Larf Long Arm to Wonderland.”
“But why? That sounds so fun.”
“Not at all. It’s the most heavily guarded prison in the world.”
“It’s so top secret, I don’t even know where it is,” said Rhonda.
“Then how do you find it?” asked Annabelle.
“Exactly,” said Rhonda.
It seemed to Annabelle that the logic of things wasn’t quite working out, but Rhonda didn’t seem to think it was a problem, so Annabelle decided not to make it one.
“Well, goodbye then,” she said to Rhonda, “And thanks. For everything.”
“You did good, Kid. Glad to have you on board.”
“Technically, she just got off,” said Long Arm.
Rhonda scoffed at Long Arm. Then smiled at Annabelle. But just for a second.
“Hold on!” she said, gunning the throttle and knocking Larf and Long Arm back into their seats. “Whoops!” she said. And then she was gone.
The submarine took them to an underwater base where they were directed to a tunnel, through which they rode bicycles for a very long time. At the other end of the tunnel, a helicopter was waiting.
“Where are we headed?” asked Annabelle.
“Back to HQ,” said Eleanor.
“Where’s that?” said Annabelle.
Eleanor gave her a long look that wandered through several emotions before melting eventually into a warm smile. “A secluded canyon in the jagged mountains of West Humbacher.”
“Thanks,” said Annabelle, feeling like her heart was back to the right size again.
“Don’t mention it,” said Eleanor. “To anyone.”
“I definitely won’t.”