|Throwing Down the Gauntlet by Hallan Mirayas
by Hallan Mirayas
© Hallan Mirayas -- all rights reserved
"One of these days, I'm going to thrash the living snot out of Eric Neumann," I muttered to myself. "It's the middle of March, and it's freezing out, and I'm walking to the Blind Pig because he made me miss the bus again! Creep." I pulled my stocking cap a bit further down over my lion ears and kicked at a piece of ice on the sidewalk, watching it skitter away with a satisfying clatter. Rounding the corner, I paused to look at the light pole I'd used last time to make the turn. Yup, I'd left claw marks, but they weren't too bad. Kind of nostalgic, actually, even though it hadn't been more than a month or two. I smiled and glanced down the street toward the Pig, remembering the last time I'd made that turn, and the wolf that I'd run into, and the fun I'd had afterward. I'd promised I'd come back, and now seemed as good a time as any.
I was just about to open the door when the biggest vehicle I'd ever seen pulled up at the curb. This normally wouldn't have stopped me, but I had to take a moment to stop and gawk at this one, because it was so big it took up two full parking spaces. The driver's side door opened, then slammed, and a cheetah morph rounded the front. I'd only seen him once, but he had the typically distinctive cheetah build: extremely lean, deep chest, solid spots and 'tear stripes'. It was Jubatus, the growly "Professor Higgins" of the bar.
"Ah -- just the lion I wanted to see!" he said as he opened the side door to his... whatever it was. Truck? "Get'cher gluteus maximus in here." I looked at him, startled, and grasped for the first thing that came to mind as a reply. "That is one monstrous truck." A moment of thought-collecting later, I asked, "Um, something I can help you with, sir?" I wasn't moving until I got a better explanation of what he wanted.
He smiled at that, like I'd told some sort of joke. "First off, it's an SUV, not a truck." Whatever an 'ess you vee' was... "Second, those assholes at school haven't given up, am I right?"
I scowled. I didn't like swearing, but the word fit. "Yeah, they made me miss the bus again, or I'd be home by now."
"Figured as much. I had an idea about that -- step inside." He gestured again. I shrugged and climbed in.
It was smaller inside than I'd expected it to be, and rather plain. "Not as roomy as it looks," I said as I shucked my jacket. Jubatus just reached for one of many handles on the foot-thick 'walls' of the truck. A panel folded down, revealing a massive projection screen. Several handles later, the interior was looking much less plain, and I was feeling much more impressed. Table, computer, tools, DVD, this truck had everything! "Wow," I said, with as much understatement as I could muster. "Now that's decked out..."
He smiled slightly. "All the comforts of home."
Then he opened a long cabinet along the floor and produced what looked like a hollow cylinder of metal rods, welded to circular rims. "What is that thing?" I asked as he set it end-up on the table.
"Ultrasonic scanner. I want a 3D map of your arms." He added a circular ring over the top, and attached two rectangular panels to that, both trailing wires that he connected to his computer. He then added another connection from his computer to the projection TV. After a bit more prodding from me, he explained further as it ran through a test, whirring as the ring moved up and down the cylinder, rotating an eighth of a turn or so around with each sweep. "It uses high-frequency sound waves to make a hyper-accurate mathematical model of your arm. They use it in hospitals to fit people for prosthetics." The machine stopped whirring and his computer screen flashed 'Ready', mirrored in larger text on the projector. "Stick your arm in there, extend your claws, and hold still." Fighting down a nervous qualm, I did so. He hit the 'Enter' key, and the scanner started up again. Whrrr-click. Whrrrr-click. With each pass, a wire-frame image came up on the computer (and the TV) of my arm from the elbow down. Jubatus directed the computer through several passes, and then nodded. "Switch arms." Whrrr-click. Whrrr-click. "Okay. We're done with that," he said with a few quick keystrokes that shut down the scanner, then the computer. He then reached for another drawer and produced a spray can, a brush, and a bottle of rubbery-looking goop. "Hold out your arm." I started to, then paused. "What is that stuff?"
He rotated the can to show the label: 'DeadGlove'. "I'm going to make a cast of your hands. This is so the fur doesn't come off with the cast." He reached for my hand, and started spraying the 'DeadGlove' stuff on. "Big hands," he remarked as he started slathering the goop on over the 'Deadglove'. "Gonna be a monster when you grow into them."
I ducked my head, embarrassed, and tried to direct the conversation elsewhere. "This is one huge truck."
He rolled his eyes. "Like I said, not a truck. SUV, sport utility vehicle." Ah, yes, now I remembered. They'd gone out of production a few years after the first Martian Flu outbreak, during the gas crunch that got people seriously considering the hybrid cars that were increasingly popular now... "Anyway, be careful what you touch, okay?" He finished with the one hand, then started on the other while the first dried.
"Um, okay." I still had no clue what a 'sport utility vehicle' was, so I again tried to steer the conversation somewhere else. "Why are you making a cast, if you've already got the scan on your computer?"
Without even looking up, he replied, "Better to have and not need, than need and not have."
That made sense... "True, but what do the casts give you that the scan doesn't?" I tried to wriggle my fingers a bit in the first cast and found them quite immovable.
He looked up and smiled cynically. "Ever had a really important file evaporate on you?" I winced, nodded, and quit talking. I remembered enough times. I swear that the school has data-erasing magnets stashed everywhere around the building...
After a long silence, I asked, "So why are you doing this?" I hadn't exactly done anything to merit whatever he had in mind. After all, I'd only met him once.
He did a last few strokes of the brush over the second cast, then set it down and looked me in the eyes. "I don't like bullies."
Removing both casts once they'd dried, he reached into the drawer he'd gotten the 'DeadGlove' from, and, beating me to my question, rotated it so I could see the label. 'Nair Hair Dissolver.' My eyes widened. "I don't think so..."
"I want another set of casts, minus your fur. For accuracy."
"No. Way." I folded my arms across my chest and arched an eyebrow. "Do you realize what my mom would do to me if I came home with shaved arms?"
He shrugged and put it away. "Suit yourself."
"Neumann!!" Mr. Jones thundered. "You will leave Myers alone NOW, or I'll ship you off to the custodians!!" Mr. Jones was a good teacher. Tall, black as night, built like a grizzly bear, with a voice that could rattle glass, it was rumored that he used to be a boxer before he started teaching. Of course, there were also rumors that he was a cop, bar brawler, or mass murderer, depending on who you talked to and how much they hated exercise. One thing I really liked about him was that he played no favorites and made sure that nobody else did, either. Nobody got picked last more than twice in a row. If you treated others fairly, he treated you fairly. If you didn't, he could make your life a living hell. He was always inventive, too. If Eric didn't shut up, he'd be scrubbing toilets after school. Mr. Jones would see to it, personally.
Eric scowled, shot me an 'I'll see you after school' look, and moved off. Translation: I could expect another walk to the Pig tonight. I flashed him a cheesy yet toothy grin and moved off as well. It wasn't as cold out this week, so I didn't mind so much. That, and Raven had promised to teach me how to play pool next time I came in. And I'd just gotten an e-mail in study hall the period before from Jubatus, saying he had something for me.
Jubatus beat me to the punch. Right after school, he pulled up in his megatruck and hopped out. "Here you go." He tossed me a plain, grey-enameled metal case, about 8 inches on a side, that looked like it had seen a lot of use. I thumbed the latches loose, opened the case, and was flatly amazed at what was inside.
It was a pair of oversized gloves, if gloves were made from some kind of shiny, white, rigid material. The gloves extended a good six inches beyond the wrist, which made them gauntlets if I remembered my definitions right, and the fingers looked odd. "Three-millimeter Lexan plate with opaquing pigments in the monomers, supported by a fifth-generation Nitinol memory alloy framework. They'll self-adjust when you put 'em on, or at least they should do that. What's important is the gel-filled extensions on the fingertips, to peace-bond your claws if and when they extend."
I just stared at the gleaming things. "I... I can't accept a gift like this," I stammered. I'd only understood about half the words he'd said, too.
Jubatus put one of his quirky smiles on. "It's not a gift. You've never beta-tested a prototype, have you? Believe me, there will be some bugs in the damn thing. I guarantee you won't be praising my generosity when one of those bugs whaps you upside the head!"
"Hey, Hairy!" I could always tell how Eric misspelled my name, just from how he said it. I'd told Wanderer there was a reason I preferred 'Hallan'. A glance out of the corner of my eye showed Eric and his favorite pair of thugs approaching, matching sneers on their faces.
"That's him?" Jubatus whispered, quietly enough to be inaudible to anyone with human-normal ears. I nodded, and he whispered, "I'm on it." Shifting to a loud voice, even more grating than usual, the cheetah looked at Eric and said, "So you're the ape-descended fucknose who thinks that just because this campus has some candy-ass rule about claws, the SCAB here is a suitable target. Well, you just keep on moving, monkey-boy. You're not welcome here."
"What's the problem, Hallan? The three of 'em to -- guhh!"
Eric had just knocked him to the ground. "Outta my way. Me and the other furball got business."
"You touched me." Jubatus' words were toneless.
Eric turned to him. "Yeah. I touched you. Wanna make something of it, kitty-cat?"
"You." And in an eyeblink, the cheetah was standing to Eric's right. "Touched." Another eyeblink put him to Eric's left. "Me." And with one last blink, he was right in front of Eric, who was no longer quite so self-assured. Jubatus' smile was very toothy, the kind of expression you'd see on a carnivore who was just about to have dinner. "That, my simian friend, is a crime technically known as 'battery'. Committed by a belligerent human, against an unarmed SCAB of less than half his weight. Can't you just imagine how that's going to play out in a court of law? I sure can! And you know what else, monkey-boy? From this point on, I cannot be blamed for anything that happens to you. I, you little punk, am an innocent victim who is merely defending myself against your vicious, unprovoked attack."
Eric and his friends stood frozen throughout Jubatus' monologue. Suddenly the cheetah blinked to about 3 inches in front of Eric's face, and let loose this incredibly loud noise, roar and yowl and scream and fifty other sounds all at the same time -- and that broke the spell. The bullies ran like the devil himself was after them. An altogether fitting analogy. I looked at the cheetah morph in shock.
Jubatus watched their retreating backs, a contemptuous expression on his face. "Wusses. Never even touched 'em," he said. Then the contempt went away with a sigh. "Come on. We don't want to be here when they return."
I was beginning to realize how wide a range of smiles the cheetah had. This one was humorless and cynical. "Eric was just humiliated by a spindly little freak. How d'you think he's gonna react?" I wouldn't exactly call Jubatus 'spindly', but he had a point. I outmassed him.
"Not very well, but -- what did you do just now?"
"You mean this?" he asked. Then he did the noise again, about 50 decibels quieter this time, and shrugged. "Just a sound effect. Anyway, there's more you oughtta know about the gloves. Hmmm... There's a new all-you-can-eat place that still lets me in; I could tell you over an early dinner. Interested?"
"Well, Raven promised to teach me pool next time she saw me at the Pig, but I guess that can wait for another day..."
Mr. Jones' office door was, as usual, open, and I could hear a TV playing inside. Slipping through the doorway, I found him next to his desk watching the news, a look of disgust on his dark face. "Stupid anti-tech idiots," he said, indicating the people yelling on the TV. "Just because NASA screwed up doesn't mean that technology is evil. At least the media's penchant for exaggerating things hasn't changed. They make these fools look like they're everywhere, when that's just plain not true." He turned it off and swung his chair around to look at me. "Ah, Mr. Myers," he said, leaning forward curiously. "You said you had something to show me. Well, don't keep me in suspense any longer; show me what you've got." I took out one of the gauntlets and handed it to him. "Hmmm... Interesting." Carefully taking it, he turned it this way and that, working the joints and linkages. "Very interesting indeed. I assume this is a punching glove?" he said, eyeing my hands. At my 'yes, sir,' he smiled and rose from his chair. "Alright, then, let's go beat on some bags."
He led me downstairs to the weight room. "Y'know, son, I've seen a lot of body builds before, and I think you have the potential to be a contender." At my less than comprehending look, he smiled. "I've seen the signs before, although never wearing a permanent fur coat over them." The twinkle in his eye made that last a joke rather than a dig. "You're going to be a big fella once you put on a few more years, and I think you'd do well in weight training." While I digested that remark, he unlocked the weight room door and pointed toward a punching bag chained to the ceiling and floor. "Well, Myers, let's see what you can do with those gloves of yours."
"Hmmm, not bad, not bad," he said after a few minutes of watching me whack the bag around. "Could be better, though. You favor your right arm, you always aim for the face, and your guard drops each time you punch." He looked over at my loudly panting self and smiled. "And you're noisy." He winked, then gestured me back from the bag. I watched him, wondering what he was going to do.
Whatever I'd been expecting, this wasn't it. He made that bag dance, not only with a fast barrage of punches to face and gut that made me wince in sympathy, but also a mix of kicks that made the chains ring. All of this in a matter of ten seconds. "Ouch," was all I managed to say when he stopped, the bag swaying back and forth like a flag of surrender. "What on earth was that?" I added when my jaw stopped lazing about on the floor.
"Kickboxing," he replied, rubbing his back. "I used to be quite good at it. I'm a little rusty, though." My jaw found its way back to the floor again. That was 'a little rusty'?? He turned his attention from the bag to me. "I've heard about how Eric and his friends like to torment you, and I figure it's only a matter of time before they up the ante to a more dangerous level. I've seen it happen before." He gestured to the bag. "Care for some pointers?"
I took some time in study hall the next day to fire off an e-mail to Jubatus, telling him about a few problems I'd come across with the gauntlets. The fingertips made fine dexterity a bit difficult, the "self-adjusting framework" pulled my fur sometimes and could use a quick release in case I needed to get them off quickly, before the memory metal had a chance to loosen, but otherwise I wasn't having any major difficulties.
It had been a week since I'd shown Mr. Jones the gauntlets, and each evening after school, he had worked with me on self-defense. 'Don't punch, combo,' was a phrase I had had drilled into my head the very first day. "Anybody can punch, but a single punch isn't going to win you a fight. But if you can get in two, or even three for every one he gets in, you've got him. Even better if you can block his shots so you don't take anything."
When I asked him why he was teaching me how to fight, he showed me a scar running from his right ribs to his hip. "Someone upped the ante, and I wasn't ready for it." He wouldn't talk any more about that. All he would say was, "I don't want you taking this and going after somebody with it. I catch you doing that, I'll bust you myself. This is only for defense, of yourself or somebody else. Understood, Myers?" I nodded. I didn't plan on hunting people down anyway, but I know better than to say 'no' when Mr. Jones asks that question.
Brrr... Got cold quick outside. Thank heaven for big winter jackets, because lion fur doesn't provide much insulation in the wintertime. I decided to leave the gauntlets on, since they were still holding the warmth from today's workout pretty nicely, and just pulled my gloves on overtop. Double-layer jacket? Check. Stocking cap? Check. Boots? Check. Mr. Jones had let me go early today, saying he'd made plans with his wife and didn't want to be late. On the plus side, this meant I wasn't quite as worn out as I usually am after one of his workouts, but it also meant I had to wait at the bus stop for the late bus to come. This meant I was freezing my tail off.
"There he is. I was wondering where he'd been hiding out."
Crap. That also meant I was open season for Eric Neumann and his pair of goons again, who had apparently stayed after, too. And I had so missed the pleasure of their company. Not.
"Yeah. And the fast freak's not there to protect him!"
I immediately turned and started heading for the Pig at an even walk. Don't follow me, Eric, I thought to myself. Just keep walking your own way.
"Let's get him."
No such luck. Although I almost had to laugh, because, by the tone of their voices, they were trying to sneak up on me, and were doing a really lousy job. Even with my ears covered by the stocking cap, I could hear -- OW!
I stumbled forward as something hit me, hard, in the back of the head.
"Got him!" I heard Eric crow over the ringing in my ears, and my eyes focused reluctantly on the large rock fallen in the snow next to me. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! The crunch of snow under boots heralded their advance. Ow, ow, ow. Focus, Hallan. Wait for them to get in range. They expect an easy mark, one who can't hit back. The gloves are off, and it's time they see the surprise beneath them. Wait for it... wait for it... NOW!
Jubatus met me when I walked into the bar; he had some aspirin and water to wash it down with. "You look like the cat who dragged himself in. Let's get you a padded bench to lie on."
Oh, man, I hurt. Head, side, back, everything hurt. Meandering alongside the cheetah, I got stopped by several concerned patrons on the way, asking if I was okay, to which I only nodded and continued on. Jubatus eyed me as I sat down across from him, and waited until I'd downed a double dose of pain medication. Wonderful cheetah. Must remember to repay him somehow. Finally, he asked, "How'd the beta test go?"
I waited for a few moments, then pulled off my gloves, revealing the gauntlets beneath. "Only had one problem with them. The right one broke about the same time Eric's nose did." I wiggled my middle finger a bit, and the knuckle joint rattled.
He looked startled, then said, "School gonna give you any static?" I shook my head. "No. Mr. Jones was getting into his car when Eric and his two friends jumped me. He saw everything, and will vouch that it was self-defense. My money's on Eric getting suspended or expelled for assault and battery."
The cheetah put on a satisfied, predatory grin. "I love it when a plan comes together."
I chuckled; he and I were probably the only two people in the bar who would get that joke. "Yeah, so do... wait a minute. You didn't really plan this, did you?"
He nodded. "Yep. I figured they'd get around to proving their manhood on you sooner or later."
"But if you knew --" My mouth didn't want to work for a few seconds. "And you didn't step in--" I couldn't figure out a proper finish for any sentence that came to mind, and wound up looking like a fish with my mouth opening and closing soundlessly.
"Suppose I had intervened? Sure, I could drive 'em off, but they'd still think you were a viable target. This way, you put the fear of Hallan Myers into those putzes, and they'll go looking for easier prey. Problem solved."
"Well... yeah, but..."
He sighed, and somehow managed to look very, very old. "Look, kid. Hostility is something I've got a lot of experience with. I know Eric's kind, okay? I didn't put you in any danger; I just took the danger you were already in, rearranged the schedule a little, and gave you a better shot at defending yourself when it happened."
He set me up. He set me up! For a split second, I wanted to put those shiny white gauntlets right across his face with the same right hook that had broken Eric's nose. I actually started to wind up for it, but the protests of my bruised and aching sides stopped that quickly. Besides, Jubatus was already gone.
How could he do that to me? 'I didn't put you in danger' -- hah! Okay, Eric had been picking on me long before I met Jubatus... but he deliberately went out of his way to make Eric mad... but now the school would finally punish the bully... but what he did was wrong... the ends do not justify the means... but I'd have been toast without the gauntlets...
My thoughts circled each other, never reaching any conclusion. Slowly, my unholy rage dribbled away, replaced by a rising level of puzzlement. Eventually I stood up, favoring my left side, and strolled stiffly around the place, hunting my quarry. I found him in a corner booth, sitting by himself with an open laptop and a glass of something whose odor made my nose tingle.
He didn't look up, or if he did, it was too fast for me to notice.
"Hallan. Let's have the gloves," he said.
I didn't want to part with them, but I hadn't paid for them, and he'd said they weren't a gift. In my book, that meant they weren't mine to keep. I just wished... "Yes, sir," I said, taking them off and setting them on the table.
He put on the left gauntlet, wiggling his fingers. "Hmm. See what you mean about dexterity and pulling the fur. I'll see what I can do about a quick-release latch." Then the left gauntlet was back on the table and he'd picked up the right gauntlet, the one I'd broken. He examined it, poking and prodding at it with a tool like a screwdriver. "Interesting. Shouldn't have done that --"
He paused, finally looked at me. "Yes?"
"Why did you do it, sir?"
"You had a problem. You don't have it any more. That's why. And if you don't like the way I solved your problem... I can live with that. Anything else?"
"Was there no other way?"
He looked very old for a second, then set down the tool and gauntlet. "Kid, peaceful solutions only work when the other guy cooperates. Show me someone whose opening statement is a right cross, I'll show you someone who won't fucking listen to anything you have to say. Anyway, I just don't have the patience to play diplomat." I disagreed with him, but he looked away before I could reply.
He resumed poking at the gauntlet. "I'll get 'em back to you Thursday. School delivery okay, or you got somewhere else in mind?"
"Sir?" I asked, not quite understanding. "But... I broke it!"
"So what? That just means the bloody thing wasn't strong enough to stand up to its intended usage. Not your fault, unless you're the moron that underestimated how much stress the gloves would have to absorb. Did you?"
A wicked reply crossed my mind. I shouldn't. I really shouldn't.
Shouldn't. Shouldn't. Shouldn't. Shouldn't. Shouldn't.
But I would. It was even his type of humor.
I crafted the most innocent smile I could possibly manage, and replied. "No, sir, I didn't." I paused for effect, unable to keep the impish grin at bay any longer. And I said to him, "You did it."
Jubatus glared at me, but his eyes twinkled too much for it to be serious. I knew there was an honest non-cynic in there somewhere! "Kids these days. No respect for their elders."
I smiled gleefully back. "Thank you, sir! It's nice to be appreciated. See you Thursday!" Then I darted off for the phone and a call home as fast as my sore self would let me, leaving him to his tinkering and his interesting-smelling drink.
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