Billy Gauntlet wasn’t faring well in deathray sciences. His first ray had barely toasted some bread, and his pocket ray had melted in his hands. Jago Jones, on the other hand, was tops in the class so it came as something of a surprise when Billy challenged her to a duel in the arena.
Jago and Whisper were in the middle of lunch when Billy marched up to their table and slammed his metal fist into the table. Everyone in the cafeteria looked up.
“Jago Jones, I challenge you!” bellowed Billy.
Most everyone turned back to their food. Blustering challenges were an everyday occurrence at the Academy. You couldn’t fill a school with megalomaniacal geniuses without egos clashing. In a regular college, these might be settled with a volley of insults or a drinking contest. Never having been to a regular college, Jago didn’t know.
Jago looked up from her nutrient paste. The cafeteria staff was always experimenting with new recipes. This stuff tasted like cherry pie, provided that pie was dunked in axle grease before serving.
He snarled. “It’s William. Lord William Gauntlet.”
“What do you want Billy?”
“Did you not hear me? I challenge you to a duel of honor.”
Jago stirred her paste. “Pass.”
Billy gasped. “You can’t choose to pass.”
“Sure, I can.”
Billy, his cybernetic eye flashing, grunted. “Are you afraid then?”
Jago laughed. “You don’t want to fight me, kid.”
“Yes, I do. I need the extra credit.”
“Then pick someone else. Someone you have a chance against.”
“I’ve chosen you, Jones, and you must accept.”
Jago looked into Billy’s eye. His real one. He was a cute kid, the half of his face that wasn’t hideously scarred. “Fine, Billy. But you asked for it.”
Grinning, he walked away.
“He likes you,” said Whisper.
“What? I’ve got ten years on him.”
“He likes you,” said Whisper. “Some guys have a thing for older women.”
“Then why challenge me to a fight?”
Whisper said, “When I was a little girl, there was this boy I liked. I’d slip into his room at night and think about breaking his legs at night just so I’d have an excuse to visit him in the hospital, maybe sign his cast. I practiced writing my name with a heart dotting the I.”
“That’s sweet, but I’m not here to sow my wild oats.”
She caught Billy glancing at her from across the cafeteria. He looked away, pulling his hood lower.
Official weaponsmith challenges involved leading the parties involved to their own separate workshop where they had an hour to cobble together whatever their imaginations and available parts could assemble. Jago only took half-an-hour and spent the rest of the time playing Candy Crush.
She stepped into the arena. Shadowy judges sat behind giant podiums. The stands were half-filled with students who’d come to watch Billy get killed. He’d never been very popular. It wasn’t his ego or his bluster. These things were a given among the student body, but only appreciated when they were backed up by ability.
Billy pushed a contraption covered in blades and spines forward. He pointed at Jago. “Now you die, Jones!”
The audience chuckled, and Billy clenched his metal fist. He wasn’t a bad evil genius. He was just in over his head. Somebody had to be at the bottom of the class, and that someone was Billy. Jago almost felt sorry for him.
The buzzer sounded. Billy pushed a button, and his awkward blade robot hopped to its legs. Its many saws whirred to life as it swung its scythes wildly. It took a step forward, and its spider-like leg slipped on the tile. It fell over, impaling itself on one if its own spikes. Struggling to right itself, it flailed, slicing into itself and bursting into flame. The smoking, broken machine popped once before going still.
Jago removed a cube from her pocket and pointed it at Billy. Gravity increased around him, and he fell prostrate to the ground, unable to move. She stood over him.
“Better luck next time, kid.”
But there would be no next time. He was on the edge of expulsion as it was. This would be the final nail in his coffin. It was a shame, but no one had made him challenge her.
“Do you yield?” she asked.
“Never!” He struggled and failed to stand. “I am Lord Gauntlet. I cannot be beaten. I cannot be . . . ” He rose to one knee. “I will not be . . . defeated.”
Jago’s gravity amplifier burnt out with a small shower of sparks.
The buzzer sounded. The judges’ decision was a tie, which ultimately decided it ever-so-slightly in Billy’s favor by virtue of being able to hold his own against an obviously superior opponent. The disappointed audience filed out. Jago met Whisper outside the arena.
“You should’ve killed him,” said Whisper.
“Maybe next time,” said Jago.
“So why did you let him win?”
“He didn’t win. He tied. And I didn’t let him.”
Whisper, beneath the folds of the wrappings around her face, smiled. “Oh, you like him, too.”
“I don’t like him,” said Jago. “I’m not a five year old. I’m not going to let a boy win just because I’m sweet on him. My amplifier still has some bugs to work out. That’s all.”
Across the hall, she spotted Billy Gauntlet. He was handsome in a way. Not many people could pull off a cape. Maybe he wasn’t great at building deathrays, but he was always trying. She respected that.
Billy smiled at her. She smiled back. Then he snarled and whirled away with a regal flourish of his cape.
“Anyway, he’s just a kid,” said Jago.
Whisper said, “If you want, I can break his legs for you.”
“Don’t make me kill you.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to make puppy dog eyes at you so that you won’t, Jones.”
Whisper batted her eyes, and Jago, sighing, put her perfectly functional gravity amplifier into her pocket.