As the center of landbound mechs in the Republic, Bentheim featured a lot of mech arenas. Ves himself had witnessed the famous Leviticus vanquishing over another opponent at a privately-run mech coliseum. That enormous venue only found enough space to operate by setting up at the outskirts of Dorum.
Their upcoming design duel took place at a massive stadium operated by Bentheim's local government. Its central arena took up the same amount of space as the domed arena he visited at Moira's Paradise.
Ves entered the chamber that held the first production model of the Blackbeak. The mech looked as pristine as ever, courtesy of the mech technicians scouring over its surface right now.
In the days since Melinda accepted to duel in his stead, a lot had changed.
The lack of major events at this time prompted many publications to blow up the rivalry between Ves and Dumont. They turned a minor scuffle between competitors into the battle of the century.
All of this raised the profile of their mechs. Interest in the Blackbeak surged, with many laymen clamoring to pilot its virtual version. Ves vetoed the release of the virtual model, as he didn't wish to let his competitors study his design.
Although its specs had already been published, that was different from getting a solid feel for the mech. Any decent mech designer could easily spot a dozen weak points in any design if they spent at least an hour with any random design.
Dumont must have gotten a good glimpse already when he issued his challenge, so Ves had already fallen behind.
On the other hand, the Havalax had already started selling. While Dumont withheld the virtual version to the public, footage of the Havalax in action already started to appear on the galactic net.
This, along with other articles published over the last month provided Ves with a wealth of information on his competitor's design.
While he tried to figure what made the Havalax tick, Melinda trained with the Blackbeak as if her life depended on it. She applied for leave at the Planetary Guard and moved full-time into his first production model. The only time she left the mech was when she had to sleep or wanted to practice her more advanced maneuvers in a simulation.
Currently, Melinda sat at a nearby table and held her head in her hands.
"Are you ready to go on stage?"
Melinda groaned at his question. "How full is the arena?"
"It's completely packed. There's more than half a million spectators out here. Win or lose, you're bound to become a celebrity."
"Yippy." She replied flatly. "You know, my comm has been flooded with messages from our fellow cousins. They're all envious as hell that I'm able to display my skills in front of so many people. I bet they'll sing a different tune if they're in my place."
"Melinda, it's going to be fine. You've been spending a lot of hours inside the cockpit. Have you gotten a good feel for the Blackbeak."
This time, she released a brief smile. "I don't know how you did it, but your creation is one of the smoothest mechs I've ever piloted! It's like I'm donning a second skin, but larger. Best of all, it doesn't have any of the pet peeves that ruin my day!"
Experiencing the full majesty of a gold label mech was a unique experience. Melinda practically broadened her perspective on how far a mech could go to deliver an immersive piloting experience. The strong X-Factor in the Blackbeak's frame resonated within her bones each time she interfaced with the mech.
In addition, Ves applied everything he learned from acquiring his initial mastery into knights. Ves noted everything that Barley had grown frustrated about and made sure those elements didn't show up in his own design. This smoothed out the piloting experience and enabled Melinda to focus more on beating her opponent and less on trying to make her machine move as she willed.
Ves glanced up at the clock. "The last duel between the Velvet Fists and the Grease Monkeys before the break should almost be ending. If you're still having second thoughts, you can still back out now. Some of my underlings brought a couple of replacement pilots, you see."
"That won't be necessary." She shook her head. "I'm used to the first production model, and it's gotten used to me as well. You can't replace me at this point, not if you want your Blackbeak to perform at its best."
He shrugged. "Very well, then. Don't forget that you are risking your life out there on the field. If the duel is heading into an awful direction, don't hesitate to concede. I don't want you to risk your life just to drive more sales for my mechs. I can always figure something out if that happens, but there's no way for me to revive you from the dead."
"I'm not Jackknife Jake, Ves. I know my limits. In the Planetary Guard, we learned how much we can push a mech."
Minutes went by until the faint commotion above faded out. The latest duel must have come to a conclusion. An arena guide appeared from a side entrance.
"Mr. Larkinson, time is up. Please come with me. Lieutenant Larkinson, please enter the cockpit. Your mech will be lifted onto the arena as soon as we rearrange its terrain."
The arena personnel guided Ves up a lifter platform which brought him out in the open. The recorders zoomed in on his face.
"Up next is one of our Republic's homegrown mech designers, a superstar who emerged out of nowhere! Give it up for the nerdy half of the Larkinson duo, Ves Larkinson!"
Ninety percent of the spectators had never heard of him before. Even if they caught a glimpse of his designs, the kind of people who attended mech duels cared more about the people piloting the mechs than the designers who made the machines.
Nevertheless, that didn't diminish the momentary enthusiasm of the crowd. With all the hype surrounding this duel, its anticipation had surpassed the outcome of the match they originally came to attend. The Velvet Fists and the Grease Monkeys had completely turned into sideshow characters at this moment.
The lifter platform reached at an elaborate open tribune. Despite its size, only two seats had been placed at the center. Michael Dumont already sat at the seat to the left, leaving Ves to take the one on the right.
They didn't exchange any other words. At this point, no amount of talk would change anything. Both of them let the minutes tick by in silence until arena finished its reorganization of the dueling grounds.
It was a wonder to witness how effortlessly the battleground morphed from a plain tiled surface to a decent imitation of a rocky canyon. Large amounts of rocks, cliffs and other debris carted in from below and cluttered up the field until it became impossible to see the other end of the arena from ground level.
Once the arena finished its rearrangement, the mechs started to appear.
"First to enter the stage is Michael Dumont's Havalax! Coated in resplendent white, this offensive knight can run as hard as it can hit! While it possesses a decent set of armor, the Havalax excels in hacking down its opposition through unrelenting aggression! Armed with both a sword and a handaxe, the Havalax has a plethora of offensive options to dismantle anything in its way!"
A projection of the mech pilot appeared over the sky. Ves took one look at the man's uniform before his face began to fall.
"Piloting the Havalax on behalf of Dumont is Captain Jaimie Vicar! Captain Vicar is one of the greatest talents to emerge from the Republic in recent times, and he has won a number of prestigious awards before the Mech Corps snapped him up! Nowadays, he leads his own unit as the youngest captain in our homegrown 3rd Infernal Hellhounds Regiment!"
Captain Vicar's handsome face and curvy blond hair made him a hit among the ladies, who all started to shriek like they lost all of their intelligence. Ves didn't care about that, but he did grow worried about Vicar's capabilities.
The Mech Corps held themselves to a higher standard than the Planetary Guard. They recruited the best of the best and anyone who reached the rank of captain at such a young age must be someone with a lot of promise. At the very least, the Mech Corps must be feeling hopeful that Captain Vicar had a decent chance of advancing to expert pilot someday.
The Blackbeak appeared next. Unlike the Havalax, the Blackbeak's strong X-Factor and dark appearance caused the crowd to grow a little muted. Even though they saw a couple of projections of the models in ads and promotions, it was different now that they encountered it in person.
"Emerging from beneath is the inventively-named Blackbeak! It's an offensive knight that's made for war! Featuring top-notch endurance and a running time that lasts for days, it's the perfect mech to deploy if you wish to drive the Vesians mad! Mr. Larkinson has promised that the Blackbeak is a mech that will grow with its pilot and is able to last an entire war. Hyperbole or not, the Blackbeak makes for a striking sight!"
Compared to Vicar's enthusiastic reception, the crowd reacted with considerable less attention when Melinda began to be profiled. The announcers briefly went over the highlights of her career, which wasn't much considering she spent much of her time in training or walking the beat in a rather boring law enforcement mech. Still, no matter how plain her biography looked, it didn't detract from the sheer amount of time and effort Melinda put into her training.
The two mechs approached the center of the complex battlefield until they were ten seconds apart. Formal duels of this nature mandated that the mechs had to be within line of sight from the start.
A number of inspection bots bearing the logo of the MTA started to scour the battlefield and the mechs. The delegation from the MTA occupied a different platform just above the heads of Ves and Dumont. Even though the projections didn't introduce them in any way, their presence was very much felt due to their reputation alone.
The bots cleared the arena once they failed to detect any signs of foul play.
"Let the duel commence in ten seconds!"
A timer counted down from ten.
Ves gripped the handholds of his seat. It felt frustrating to sit so far away while parading out his favorite niece to fight in his stead. He knew how dangerous a dual could turn out. Even though a duel between knights rarely led to fatalities due to their considerable defensive prowess, a single stab of a sword could puncture right through a cockpit if the chest armor had been weakened.
"Please don't go too far, Melinda. Just endure the opening moves. Don't try anything fancy."
The countdown ticked down to zero, and the duel officially commenced!
"FOR THE HELLHOUNDS!" The Havalax's speakers broadcasted in the air. The white mech immediately sprinted forward with its kite shield up in front. It aimed to close the gap to the Blackbeak with its superior speed.
Melinda kept her cool. She knew the Blackbeak couldn't run as fast as the Havalax, but she ran anyway in order to force her opponent to burn through its energy cells. The more the Havalax expended its power, the sooner its reserves ran out.
n response, the Havalax started to overload its systems, putting a lot of strain on them in exchange for a momentary surge. Captain Vicar decided to start the engagement with an axe, having sheathed the sword behind the Havalax's back.
Once his mech reached the lagging Blackbeak, it began to bash with its shield while simultaneously chopping its target from above.
The Blackbeak turned at the last moment and absorbed the shield bash with its own moon-shaped shield. As for the axe strike, it only managed to put up a hasty guard with its sword, which clearly didn't fare well against the power behind the offensive weapon.
The Blackbeak's sword arm strained to absorb the impact, allowing the Havalax to slip in a low kick that destabilized the black mech's footing. This opened up the Blackbeak to another attack!
Melinda immediately faced a crisis!