581 Underground Arena
Huge crowds of humans from every corner of the Komodo Star Sector occupied the seats of the underground arena. Right now, over eighty percent of the seats of the boisterous fighting venue was filled. No matter where anyone bumped into, they would sit next to a Reinaldan or a tourist.
The chaotic crowd cheered their favorite athletes on as the brutal battle in the center entered a heated phase. The frames of both mechs started to show cracks. Some portions broke off entirely, exposing deadly weak points that could lead to instant defeat if struck.
The underground mech athletes pulled back some of their aggression at that point. Both mechs slowed down their pace, and the battle entered a strategic phase where both sides carefully tried to feint and fool their opponents.
Ves and the group of Vandals sat at a random stretch of empty seats. It took a bit of jostling and pushing to get others to make some room for themselves, but their air of savagery and intimidation easily frightened the tourists.
"So this is an underground arena?" Ves questioned. "Besides the aggressive fighting style, I don't see the difference yet."
"That's because both of the athletes on the stage are pussies." Trian Earls explained. Their resident mech pilot nodded contemptuously at the mechs trying to probe each other. The lack of excitement caused some of the audience members to boo. "Those mech pilots have skill, but they don't have the heart. Besides executing their moves, they have no clue what to do. They're probably thrill seekers looking to have some fun while they're visiting Harkensen."
"You mean anyone can go up on stage and compete?"
"It wouldn't be an underground arena otherwise." The Vandal mech pilot grinned. "Unlike the sanctioned mech games, there are no rules involved with the underground arena. Mech pilots don't have to go through a strict selection process and undergo special training. Neither do they need to set up an organization to manage their team. People come and go whenever they want. They might be a pirate one day, an underground duelist the next, then back to a pirate after they have their fill."
"So the underground arena is a place for mech pilots to vent?"
"Exactly. As long as your skill level and ability isn't too shabby, the arena operators will give you a chance. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that you have to bear all the damages yourself. You need to bring your own mech and be responsible for your own life."
In order to constantly attract new competitors, the underground arena also rewards them with a cut of the earnings. Every day, the arena earned a good amount of money in ticket sales, but this was not sufficient to keep up with the cost of running the arena.
The true money lay in gambling.
"Look at the people around you." Trian jerked his head towards the audience members. Occasionally, they raised their comm and entered a sum. "They're all connected to the arena's internal network. As long as you want, you can bet any sum of credits, sovvies, marks or whatever."
Ves opened up his own comm and connected to the internal network. He immediately encountered a sophisticated gambling interface that allowed him to make a bet on the five matches ahead. Betting on the current match was not allowed unless he paid for a VIP ticket, and even then it came with so many fees that even if he won the bet, he would hardly gain anything.
"I see. Any mech pilot can compete and become rich overnight as long as they draw lots of bets to themselves. Probably the only way for mech pilots to earn more is to make a name for yourself. Once you become a famous athlete, you'll have thousands betting on your name."
The ones fumbling around on stage only comprised of the lowest tier of underground duelists. Perhaps spurred on by the many boos, the mech duelists heated up their battle. One of them finally made a mistake and left their leg vulnerable. This allowed their opponent to jab at it with their weapon, causing the leg to fail completely.
The stricken mech lost its balance, and that proved fatal as its opponent hacked off the leg and caused the damaged mech to collapse. The winner slammed its leg against the body of the fallen mech and took on a winning pose, causing the crowd to regain their cheer.
"No fatality this time." Ves said.
Underground mech athletes cherished their lives as well. Ves investigated their survival rate after finding out that his cousin Raella had joined their ranks. Though killings weren't prohibited in the underground arena, he felt relieved that mech pilots didn't kill each other regularly.
The nature of killings in the underground dueling scene was complex. Some people believed that the threat of death was necessary to provide the ultimate thrill to both the fighters and the audience members. The people who felt drawn to the underground arenas explicitly rejected the tradition-heavy, rule-bound mech games that played out in the open.
The hardcore mech enthusiasts thought that the current incarnation of the mech games had gone overboard in terms of prioritizing safety. The current makeup of the rules had turned what used to be a battle with people's lives on the line to a broadcast-friendly sporting occasion.
As new mechs poured into the dueling grounds, Ves witnessed many different mechs battling it out with each other. The mechs varied from cheap light mechs to premium aerial rifleman mechs. Both sides hit each other with a lot more daring than at the mech games.
Deaths hadn't fallen yet, but the mech pilots hadn't shied away at aiming their attacks on their opponent's cockpits. This was a big taboo in legal mech duels, but here it was used as a viable tactic to put pressure on the opponent.
The underground duelists usually admitted defeat before their opponents managed to succeed in puncturing their cockpits. If they lacked the time to do so, they immediately ejected from their mechs.
Ves therefore surmised that unless an underground duelist was stupid, they wouldn't easily die on the dueling grounds.
"I can see the appeal now, in a way." He nodded. "Competing here is the ultimate way to polish your ability to pilot mechs. The real threat of death is an incredible stimulant to the underground mech athletes. It's realer than simulation battles and you don't have to go through the trouble of finding a worthy fight in the wild."
Life and death was in the mech athlete's hands. They bore all the responsibility to themselves. To some, this was an incredibly scary burden. To others, they craved nothing more than to reach new heights by putting their own lives at stake.
Ves figured that mech pilots deep in debt might resort to competing in the underground arenas to climb out of their hopeless situation. As long as they succeeded in winning a couple of matches, they could easily pay back old debts and start anew.
His spiritual sense tasted the desperation in some of the mech pilots that competed on the stage. The flavors came mostly from the shabbier-looking mechs. Ves figured they must be former members of disbanded outfits or survivors of a losing battle.
One battle happened to pit two of them in a single match.
The announcer gleefully introduced the competitors as they entered the killing field. "We've got some special duelists here for you tonight! On the west side is Broken Claw! He's a Reinaldan veteran that fought for several mercenary corps for over twenty years! Though he's encountered numerous disasters in his life, his ability to sustain his life is second-to-none!"
A worn-out medium bestial mech in the shape of a giant tiger stepped forth from the west gate. The mech was coated in blue marked with black tiger stripes. Besides its fearsome looking claws and jaws, the mech also featured weapons mounts to its side. Two kinetic weapon barrels extended out from the flanks, though one of them was broken.
"On the east side is Avid Serpent! An intrepid Vesian mech pilot, she deserted the Vesian Mech Legion and made a name for herself in Reinaldan space! Her medium axeman mech is the ultimate shield breaker, but will she be able to cope with Broken Claw's mobility?"
Speculation ran rife among the crowd. Even the group of Vandals that Ves was with started to discuss the merits of each mech pilot. They even opened their comms and prepared to bid on one of the two duelists on the field.
It was a custom in the underground arenas to use pseudonyms to refer to the participants. The real identities of many duelists was rather sensitive, so it was better for everyone if nobody knew their actual names. Both the mech pilots and underground arena operators abided by this custom.
This also made it harder to determine which mech pilot would be a good choice to bet upon. Unless they became a professional underground mech athlete like Raella, the crowd practically bet their money away at random.
"Broken Claw is a battle-tested veteran." Trian spoke. He obviously favored the pilot of the tiger mech over the axeman mech. "Even if he's a mercenary like the announcer has claimed, a twenty-year mercenary veteran that has mixed up in Reinaldan space has surely experienced a lot of chaos. I wouldn't be surprised if he joined an outfit that pretended to be pirates and raided Vesian space a few times."
"Who do you favor, Tiss?" Ves asked.
"Hmm, I think I'll put my money on Avid Serpent. She's a woman, and girls like us need to stick together."
Nolsen Feray chose to bet a thousand marks on Broken Claw, which was the biggest bet in their group so far. "Avid Serpent is absolutely not a simple mech pilot. You can tell from the marks of her mech that she's gone through hell and survived."
"Then why did you bet on Broken Claw?"
"Avid Serpent is restrained by her mech type. Between an axeman mech and a tiger mech, I would put my money on the latter anytime. Besides, Broken Claw's mech still has an intact ranged weapon. That will give him an immediate advantage."
Ves did not think the matchup would be so simple. He felt as if the underground arena organizers deliberately presented what appeared to be a lopsided matchup. The words they used painted a rosier picture for Broken Claw. As for Avid Serpent, they not only painted her with a dishonorable label of deserter, they also reminded the crowd that axeman mechs specialised in tearing down low-mobility knights.
He witnessed enough mech battles to know that mech types didn't dictate which mech would win. The quality of the mechs and the skill and disposition of the mech pilots also mattered a lot.
Thus, he used his own judgement to analyze the odds of winning.
He couldn't tell much about the mech pilots. At this distance and in the middle of a crowd of thousands, he could hardly distinguish the nuances of the man-machine connections in the middle. Probing their strength via spirituality wouldn't work.
He could only rely on his judgement as a mech designer.
"Broken Claw's tiger mech is a formidable machine, but it bears the sign of sloppy, jury-rigged repairs. You can see some discoloration on some of the portions of the frame. That's a strong sign that the mech is patchworked with inferior armor. Don't look at the bestial mech as if it's a strong machine. In truth, it is riddled with holes."
"What about Avid Serpent's mech?"
"Her axeman mech is in better shape, but her mech model is of an inferior grade. Its overall build is cheaper and the amount of strength it can exert is lower. However, the axeman mech is taller. Everyone knows that bestial mechs aren't very good at defending from attacks from above. I think her mech is nimble enough to dodge most attacks from Broken Claw."
Weighing the properties of the two mechs against each other, he chose to bet 500 marks on Avid Serpent. Of course, this amount of money hardly mattered to him, but he didn't have access to his main accounts right now. Besides, he was only placing a bet for fun.
"Let's see if my judgement is accurate."