The meeting resumed but in twice the allotted time. It was General Shaan who caused the delay when he drew Dexter off to the side for a moment, and the Dex Luthor mode was switched off like a light. All the people attending the meeting save Ben saw fit to get coffee at that exact time so as to eavesdrop. Ben, already fortified with a fresh cup of coffee, continued with his appointed task of doodling, stealing Dexter's engineering pencil since it had a finer tip than the one he'd been issued. He dialed through the aliens in the Omnitrix, looking for inspiration, and had just started drawing a zombie Galvin when Dexter came bounding over in a rare display of energy.
"Ben! Benjamin! Pay attention! Get ready to be jealous!"
Ben looked up from his doodling. "I already am. I always dreamed of being a short nerd in glasses but instead I grew up heroic."
"Pfft. You fail," was the perfectly serious, perfectly sarcastic reply. "You couldn't handle being me."
"Probably not," he agreed easily. "So what am I going to be drooling over?"
"General Shaan is going to let me drive one of the new Sumner Tanks the next time I go out to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds!"
"Awww!" Ben exclaimed, instantly jealous. He fell into his seat and let the notion steamroll his senses. "That is so cool!"
The younger boy was grinning in excitement. "Isn't it? I can't wait!"
Unnoticed by the enthusing teenagers, General Shaan let out a little groan and closed his eyes as Ben took the word right out of Dexter's mouth. Fortunately Dexter called the meeting to order and in twenty minutes they concluded before anyone could perish from boredom, with Dexter very grudgingly agreeing to produce five dozen Hedge Trimmers for the US Army. They had finished early so there was still time before their luncheon, and the participants in the Kewel Off were waiting like vultures to get their talons into the general. Bracing himself, Shaan turned to face the music. His peers had about as much mercy for him as he'd displayed toward them.
"Ben thinks you're cool," consoled Max, careful of his pronunciation.
His fellow Plumber cast him a look most sour. "It's not the same."
Mr. Green was keeping Sgt. Morton company in his brown study.
"So . . . technically speaking, so far we're all a bunch of losers," observed the demon. He seemed rather philosophical over the whole affair, earning him growls and dirty looks from the rest of the competitors who did not take getting pasted with such grace.
"So far," agreed Max, hoping Professor Utonium crashed and burned along with the rest of them.
"Welcome to the club, Sir," gloated Morton, delighted that the Army had followed in the Navy's wake.
Shaan's square jaw seemed to grow squarer still. "Speak for yourselves, gentlemen," he said stiffly, eyeing his ginger-haired prey across the room. "I was closer than anyone else so far. This is only a setback. I just haven't won yet."
Eyes were rolled and snickers ensued at such arrogance.
"You transcended that which is kewel, Neel. So what's Plan B?" Utonium wondered, his gray eyes bright with amusement at the collective impasse.
"I'm working on it," the general snapped, folding his arms in a huff. "So show us how it's done, O master."
"Watch and learn, gentlemen," the geneticist replied as he reached into the pocket of his lab coat. He withdrew a round plastic container used for growing cultures. "Behold."
"Looks like dog vomit," muttered Max, eyeing the nasty yellowish mass.
"No, that would be a Fuligo septica and I know he already has one of those."
"That's kew-wel?" demanded Shaan skeptically. "More like gross! What is that crap, Patrick?"
"Dexter will know." Utonium was smugness itself as he led the way back to the table. The boy genius was still looking at the blueprints for the Hedge Trimmer when the Professor slid the container across the paper. Dexter blinked, startled, and then seized upon the sample with an exclamation of delight, recognizing it instantly.
"Ah! Dad! Where did you find this?"
Utonium grinned. "One of Ben's sneakers, actually."
"What?" squawked the younger Tennyson, pale and horrified.
"On the outside, not the inside," he assured. "When you came back from that battle in New Brunswick two months ago."
"What is it?" asked Ben, afraid to know. He poked at the container with his stolen pencil.
"Dictyostelum discoideum," Dexter gushed, his eyes positively aglow with nerdish joy. "Dad, this is awesome! I've been trying to find one of these for ages!"
Unnoticed by Dexter, Utonium slumped. Awesome was not kew-wel or even kewel. Meanwhile, the redhead glanced at Ben and translated, "It's a slime mold."
Ben stared, hardly able to believe his ears even though this was Dexter and he should expect weirdness to such a degree out of anyone so geeky.
"I collect them," explained the younger boy when there was zero response. Ben kept on staring. Dexter squirmed a bit. "You collect dolls!"
Instantly Ben was indignant. "Action figures!" he defended hotly. "And that's - that's mold!"
"Slime mold!" Dexter corrected in lofty tones. "It's a completely different kingdom."
"Yeah, well, the same could be said of dolls and action figures."
The Professor let out a little squeak of disappointment as all potential kew-welness was engulfed in a pointless argument.
Dexter was astounded. "Dolls are classified?"
"Action figures! And I don't want to hear it from someone that collects mold!"
"Slime molds are not mold!" He closed his hands around the container as if to protect his prize from being falsely accused, scandalized that anyone could mistake a slime mold for mold. "The name is misleading!"
"Precisely." Ben crossed his arms, defending his hobby. "Action figures aren't dolls."
They glared at one another. Finally Dexter seemed to gather neither of them was gaining ground. Grudgingly he said,
"I won't pick on your collections if you won't pick on mine."
"Action figures and slime molds," confirmed the green-eyed teen. "Deal." He looked at the unsavory blob. He'd seen similar messes in the aftermath of Upchuck and horror films. "So how many you got?"
"This makes thirty-seven. They're very exciting. I'll show you my collection after the meeting. Ooooh! This one is about to enter the migration phase." He beamed at Utonium. "Thank you, Dad. I love it."
Defeated, the Professor forced a smile and beat a sullen retreat, facing his peers sourly.
"You sure showed us, Pat," Neelandu Shaan gloated.
Max raised his finger in an authoritative manner. "Awesome is not the new kewel."
"Now what the heck will I give him for his birthday?" griped the president of DexCorp.
Mr. Green, still shaking his head in embarrassment over Him's appalling performance, looked to his fellows on this losing end of the bet. Neel was annoyed. Pat was depressed. Chip was still moping in his corner. Max was wallowing in disbelief. "What if he doesn't say it? What if none of us are kew-wel?"
Shaan's dark eyes narrowed and he refused to surrender. "There's always the advertising meeting in September."
"You're uninvited," grumbled Utonium.
"I don't know if I can handle more disappointment," Kilroy admitted.
Over at the table, Dexter set the slime mold aside for future gloating and returned to the blueprints. Ben had abandoned his bad renditions of various alien zombies upon discovery of the felsphere. Almost unconsciously he began to toy with it, rolling the silvery ball back and forth between his hands much the way Einstein would have batted it about. He chucked as the thing's internal system made it dodge this way and that, never taking the same course twice.
"Hey Dex, what is this thing?"
Dexter looked up from his paperwork. "A cat toy."
He caught the ball, closing his hand around it tightly. "Seriously?"
"Yes. Your grandfather gave it to me for Einstein. He called it a felsphere. It's a toy of some sort from a planet called Arcturillia. It's supposed to have multiple settings, but in this form it's safe for a cat . . . or easily amused children."
"Don't let Kevin see it," advised Ben, looking it over. "He'll want one."
"Like you do?"
"Einstein likes me," was the confident reply. "He'll share."
A snort arose from the boy genius. "Don't bet on it, Mr. Tennyson."
A little shudder moved through the sphere and as Ben watched in fascination the metallic ball reconfigured itself right there in his palm. The surface seemed to shift and flow as tiny panels on it opened and closed, moving with clockwork precision. When it settled down again, it was slightly larger than before, electric blue, shaped like a won-ton, and there was a small button at the very top.
Ben stared, astonished. "Hey Dex, what does this button do?"
Dexter, absorbed in mental recalculations for the Hedge Trimmer, barely registered the question for a few moments. He looked up abruptly. "Button? What button?"
"This one," said Ben, and pressed it before Dexter could scream (his first choice), lunge across the space between them (second choice), dive under the table (tied for second choice), or even fully realize what was happening.
Several things happened in that same instant. The felsphere shot out of Ben's hand to hover over his head, flattening out to form a silvery disk. The boys looked up in slack-jawed amazement. A sound like a bug zapper working overtime filled the air. With a loud cry Dexter threw himself over the slime mold. Ben let out a yelp of pain and surprise as a crackling yellow flash enveloped him for a split second.
"Ben, don't loo – crud," breathed Dexter, emerging from behind his gloves.
Ben Tennyson blinked, turning to his friend. His face was blackened as if soot had been blasted right at his nose and his hair was blown stiff and straight back from his face. A wisp of smoke rose up and dissipated, leaving behind a smell of singed hair and ozone.
Silence. Dexter gaped at Ben in wordless delight that only a teenage boy would appreciate as he saw his best friend get microwaved by an alien cat toy. The adults stared, too far away and too shocked to do anything about the situation and now torn between hilarity and hysteria. If looks could have killed Max Tennyson would have been meeting his maker. Able to feel the eyes boring into his back, he cast Utonium and his posse of Dexter fanboys an uncomfortable glance.
Max took one look at the smoking ruins of his grandson and grimaced. "I, uh, thought that setting was disabled," muttered Max. "Sorry. It's, uh, supposed to sanitize the play area once the kids are done playing. The Arcturillians are really conscious of dirt . . . and germs . . . and dander. I . . . I can turn it off."
The Professor frowned, quashing any further comments.
Suddenly the felsphere dropped out of the air, bouncing off of Ben's wind-tunnel hair and landing on the table as a small ball once again. Dexter's eyes grew wider still, and a slow grin spread across his face. He slapped a hand down.
"Ahhh!" he gushed in happy admiration, rising to his feet for a better view of the fallout. "Ben! That was kew-wel!"
Across the table and the room, five adult men groaned as the agony of defeat made itself known to them all.
"Eh. Cool," echoed Ben, looking shell-shocked.
Dexter reached out and swiped the tip of Ben's nose, beaming at the soot.
"Fuh-reek-ing kew-wel, Mr. Tennyson!"
"Yeah. Freakin' cool. Not," wheezed the teen.
Louder groans erupted as Ben 10 trounced the lot of them without even trying, and those who didn't indulge in a facepalm just shook their heads and turned away in shame. To add insult to injury, Ben hadn't actually done anything to earn the vaunted achievement while their kewel indexes plummeted and a whole new standard of kew-welness was set. Getting flash-fried was a cheap price to pay for the rapid-fire kew-wels even if Dexter was in his Red Square mode. Ben wasn't just kew-wel, he was fuh-reek-ing kew-wel, the miserable, title-snatching cretin.
"Do it again!" begged Dexter.
Ben stared in disbelief. The little creep was serious.
He pointed a purple-gloved finger with absolute authority. "Didn't I warn you that channeling DeeDee is dangerous?"
Ben slid the toy over in front of Dexter. "Einstein can have it."
"Pfft. He's not getting this. I like my cat with hair, thank you." He reached for the felsphere, but a large hand closed over his wrist before he could touch it. Dexter looked up to protest, then shut his mouth as Professor Utonium scooped up the little device instead. Both boys wisely said nothing as the President of DexCorp confiscated the alien technology and stalked off again, muttering under his breath. Ben watched him go and then faced his friend.
"Do I still have eyebrows?"
"Um . . ." Dexter pursed his lips uncomfortably. "By that do you mean ones that haven't been carbonized?"
His grandfather tried to salvage the situation. "Technically speaking, though, it was my gift that-"
"Don't even think about it, Max," warned Kilroy dangerously, glaring hard at the Plumber. Smoke was rising up around the fire demon and Max backed down. He'd heard what Mr. Green was capable of doing when he had his Irish up; he didn't want to find out firsthand.
"I can't believe we lost to a kid that collects dolls," railed Shaan.
"Action figures," four humorless voices corrected.
Utonium glared, ready, willing, and able to pounce on anyone that commented on his kid collecting slime molds, but they wisely kept their mouths shut.
"So now what happens?" asked Morton.
Suggested Max, "Lunch?"
"We admit that I should have won," the general answered.
"Pffft," Morton snorted with a hearty glare.
"We need to brush up on our Dexpertise," Kilroy sighed.
The other four men paused.
"Our what?" asked Utonium, intrigued.
"Dexpertise," said Green, lapsing into lecture mode. "We all thought we knew enough about him to get him to say kew-wel. We were wrong. Therefore, we're lacking the knowledge that would make us Dexperts."
Sly looks were exchanged, ending with a glare fest between Utonium and Shaan.
"I'm the Dexpert here," declared the Professor.
Shaan rolled his eyes. "Please. Father of a teenage boy? He tells you nothing, Patrick. I knew him years before you did."
"I'll just ask Ben," Max announced, content with this solution.
Morton shouldered his rifle. "I've been babysitting that kid for years."
"I've been his teacher for years!" Kilroy insisted, refusing to be left out.
"So what, is there a quiz next?" asked Max.
Neelandu Shaan sighed and rolled his eyes. "Tennyson, get your terminology right. It's a Dexam."
"Dexamination," corrected Kilroy loftily.
They all turned for a look at the object of their obsession. Dexter was assuring Ben that his eyebrows were not entirely gone and would grow back faster than a new set could be cloned.
"You have no idea how lucky you were that was Ben and not Dexter, Max," said Utonium. "And it's not just because he's my son."
"Oh? Why?" asked Max, guilt over his grandson's charred condition coming on strong.
"If you were a Dexpert, you'd know," the Professor replied, his smile smug as he walked over to the boys to have a look at Ben.
"Tiebreaker?" suggested Morton.
Shaan dark eyes narrowed. "Next meeting. One question and you'd better have the right answer. Dexpert takes all. Agreed?"
The others nodded, already plotting.
Professor Utonium, meanwhile, crouched before Ben's chair and gave the toasted teen a once-over. He smiled to see Dexter looking a little anxious after the initial thrill and quietly reassured them.
"You're fine, Ben. You just got a bit of a sunburn. I'll have Computress monitor you for any side-effects. Why don't you go take a shower in my lab and meet us for lunch? Dexter can show you where it is." Turning to his son, he added, "And since you haven't seen Ben in so long, why don't we just cancel your afternoon aerodynamics class and you two go play video games or something?"
Dexter visibly sparked at the idea, looking to Ben. The older boy, still ridiculously blackened, nodded in agreement. A gleam lit Dexter's eyes as he watched his father rejoin the other adults.
"See?" he said in a voice just above a whisper. "I told you he was the kewelest!"
Professor Utonium paused, but only he and Ben had heard. Glancing behind, he was met by bright, knowing eyes and an impish, adoring smile from the one person whose opinion mattered most today. Slowly he returned the smile, needing nothing more to know he'd won not just for now, but always.
- Fin -