Word of the duel spread through the entire star system the next day. There wasn't a mech enthusiast or professional in Harkensen that hadn't heard of Avid Serpent's challenge to the Flagrant Vandals.
Details of the terms of the upcoming duel proliferated among the public as well. The most noteworthy stipulation elevated the honor duel from a passing curiosity into the talk of the system.
"Fight to the death!"
"Accept no surrender!"
"Disable all escape mechanisms!"
"The winner shall only leave the arena grounds stained in blood!"
Though the public butchered the wording of the terms, they weren't necessarily wrong. In order to prove their worth and uphold their deals, both duelists needed to show their sincerity. To an honor duel, there was nothing more convincing than to put their lives at stake.
The message they were trying to say was that even if they lost, they would rather accept death than dishonor!
Harkensen did nothing to prohibit the news. Why would they? The sensational duel only brought more tourists to their system! Drama like this promoted their cosmopolitan nature. Look at our star system! Only in a place where multiple nationalities and cultures clashed can you witness something as exciting as a duel to the death!
Not everyone approved of the duel, however. A small minority in the Harkensen System and a greater majority of people elsewhere regarded it as a barbaric tradition. A proper mech duel should be a civilized affair where the better of the two gracefully won while showing magnanimity to their opponent.
Fights to the death was as barbaric as two cavemen bashing their heads with a rock in order to determine who had the right to mate with the woman with the widest hips. Though the actual mech duelists were both women this time, that didn't detract from the crude nature of the duel.
Although mech duels happened a lot, the MTA took a very dim view on them when they turned deadly. Still, most people regarded the powerful organization as a distant nanny and took no note of their rules in this area. The mech duel was sacred, and even the MTA had given up on enforcing the no-deaths rule a couple of hundred years ago.
As long as the participants agreed to the stipulation willingly, neither the government nor the MTA had any reason to step in. If the mech pilots had a deathwish, then so be it. It was no different from driving a shuttle into a star.
In a way, the apathy shown by the highest authorities reflected their helplessness against human nature. As much as the leaders attempted to shape human values, they couldn't have it both ways.
Mech pilots bore the brunt in every war. Though many civilians and servicemen serving in auxiliary units lost their lives as well, by far mech pilots risked the most.
In order to motivate them to fight, the MTA and many states in turn chose to foster a warrior culture among their mech pilots. Honor, pride, glory and adoration were nothing but tools in the hands of the states that drove their mech pilots into deadly situations. Unlike money or material rewards, nebulous concepts such as honor and glory didn't cost much to come into being.
A famous conqueror once said that a soldier would fight long and hard for a colored ribbon.
In the Age of Mechs, trillions of mech pilots fought to make a name for themselves. The MTA's initial attempts at encouraging mech pilots to become the main sacrifice in the constant struggle between states went out of control. The warrior culture had taken a life of its own, and various rituals and customs sprung into being that otherwise seemed anachronistic to a civilization that long transcended its home planet.
Right now, Ves, Captain Orfan and Chief Haine sat in front of a desk in Major Verle's temporary office on Harkensen III. The commanding officer looked sternly at Captain Orfan.
The woman calmly stared back at her superior. Her eyes reflected the strong conviction she held in the righteousness of her case.
Chief Haine sat as if this circus didn't have anything to do with her. Although she was a card-carrying member of the Flagrant Vandals, mech technicians didn't buy into the warrior culture as much. Her only job was to fix the mechs of their fighters. What happened after that was none of the grizzled chief technician's concern.
As for Ves, he refused to waste a single minute of his time. Ever since the duel had been set, he went through some channels and obtained the design specifications of the spearman mech that Captain Orfan would ride into battle. Ves needed to deepen himself in the foreign design before he could come up with the appropriate repairs.
He really hated the short time limit. Couldn't Captain Orfan be more considerate to the mech designers and mech technicians that prepared her battlegear?
"Alright." Major Verle started after giving up on the silent treatment. "Let me begin by asking you, Orfan. What gives you the right represent the honor of the Flagrant Vandals?"
"Sir!" She barked, making a good show at being a prim and proper Vandal. "When the Vesian issued her challenge, nobody spoke up. I felt compelled by my rank to stand up to her. I doubt any Vandal objected to my actions. The odds of another Vandal mech captain being present at that venue was very slim. Since I'm not only a mech captain but also one who specializes in landbound combat, there are only few among the Vandals who can do better."
Major Verle tapped his desk with his finger. "I will give you that. Nonetheless, hasn't it occurred to any of you to contact me or send an emergency signal from your comms? Mr. Larkinson! You're the smartest among the Vandals. Why did you overlook this option?"
"Uh, I have no excuse, sir!" Ves stammered. "I mentally overlooked this option because I'm too used to all the communication restrictions."
"Those restrictions are there to prevent our servicemen from broadcasting our movements and plans to the enemy." Verle spoke. "Right now, everyone and their mother knows our task force has stopped over in the Harkensen System. It makes little sense to maintain a total blackout when we aren't on a mission right now. Use the options that are the most appropriate at hand. What is appropriate or not changes in each different situation. Don't make this kind of oversight again. That goes for the two of you as well!"
"I wasn't present at the underground arena, sir." Chief Haine replied with a touch of complaint.
As for Captain Orfan, she remained recalcitrant. "Sir, asking for instructions from above would paint the wrong picture. Avid Serpent asked for a Vandal who could stand up to her, and I bit the bullet and stood up. If I diverted my attention to my comm while everyone was looking at me, I'd be made into a laughing stock!"
"Your personal reputation doesn't concern me! Not when you hijacked this mech duel to blow your own horn!" His lips curled into a frown. "My intention was to lay low and let everyone's interest in us die down. Obviously, that's shot to hell now. We've become the talk of the town and no amount of hiding will stop everyone from paying attention to us. What a great vacation. This wasn't what I expected when I wanted everyone to take their mind off any battles."
"It's not all bad, sir. Proving our mech regiment's worth before the Reinaldans and the tourists will burnish our reputation! The Mech Corps and the Tally Divisions won't be able to ignore us any longer!"
"I don't care about that, captain!" Major Verle roared again. "Don't presume to know our strategic priorities. You are only a battlefield mech captain. Other Vandal officers are responsible for any greater concerns. We do not need a mech officer who lets her fighting instincts do the thinking for her to take a leading position in our mech regiment."
The major tried to rein in his temper while the other three patiently waited for instructions. No matter what Major Verle thought about the duel, they could only go through with it now that it was set in stone.
"Alright, let's move on to our approach. First, are you fully recovered from battle?"
"Hell, I'm raring to go at that Vesian wench, sir!" Captain Orfan enthusiastically declared.
"Are you even cleared for battle?"
"Hey, the mind doctors only repeated the usual stuff, major. I'm not depressed or hung up over our fallen brothers, if that was what you were worried about. There's nothing wrong with my body, either."
With Orfan's sheer force of personality, it was no wonder why she said so. Ves inwardly scoffed at the captain. In his eyes, she thought so much of herself that she hardly had any empathy left for others.
"Very well, I'll take your word over it for now, but I'll look up your medical reports right after this meeting. If you lied about anything, I'll boot you from this duel and replace you with another captain. The Vesian challenged our entire mech regiment, so I doubt she would object to a shuffle."
Captain Orfan narrowed her eyes at her superior. It was as if she was wary of his intentions. The man ignored her stares and turned to Ves and Chief Haine.
"As for you two, you're going to be responsible for fixing the spearman mech the arena operators dug out of their junk pile. Lay it down on me. How bad is the condition of the mech?"
"The spearman mech is a copy of a fairly popular Reinaldan mech model." Ves replied. It was his turn to answer Verle's questions. "It's condition isn't as bad as it appears. It's a little old and worn out and has a big hole in its torso, but it won't take too much effort to get it up and running. All of its essential components are still in place, and what damage it suffered to its internals can be fixed up easily enough, sir."
"What's the catch, then?"
"Well, I'm not entirely used to the Reinaldan mech standards. There are a few oddities our mech technicians and I have to get used to. The mech had been getting on in years and shows lots of signs of jury-rigged repairs. It's basically a mass production model that has slowly degraded over the years before meeting its final end in the dueling grounds."
"Will you be able to fix it up in time for the duel?"
Ves grinned. "No question about it, sir. I'm not unaccustomed to working under pressure. I've prepared for several duels like this, and in my eyes, three days is enough for me to transform the mech into something new. Give me Chief Haine and a bunch of mech technicians and I can give you a prize-winning mech."
He held the utmost confidence in his mech design skills. Avid Serpent, perhaps wary of the strong support the Flagrant Vandals could provide to Captain Orfan, proposed detailed terms that limited the amount of work that could be done to their mechs.
While this limited what people and what kind of materials the Flagrant Vandals could employ to upgrade their assigned mech, the same limitations applied to Avid Serpent as well.
There was no way she would be on her own after issuing her challenge. Their mech duel had transcended their personal honor. While Captain Orfan fought for the Flagrant Vandals, Avid Serpent represented the entirety of the Mech Legion.
Any patriotic Vesian present in Harkensen would likely flock to Avid Serpent and lend a hand. If neither side limited the amount of help each side could receive, both duelists may soon be piloting extravagant mechs worth billions of credits. A mech duel that was supposed to revolve around honor would devolve into a contest between who could waste more resources than their counterparts.
The reason why Ves felt smug was because one of the terms that Avid Serpent had insisted upon played to his advantage. The term insisted that only a single mech designer on each side was allowed to assist in the preparation of their mechs, and they had to be Apprentices at most.
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