She knew it was a bad idea. Yet her obligation to her family and her friendship with Ves urged her to step up and make the Republic remember the glory of the Larkinsons.
The amount of people flocking to the arena made her falter a bit. Melinda had never been shy, but that didn't mean she felt eager to embarrass herself in front of a crowd of half-a-million spectators. If that wasn't bad enough, the entire match would be broadcasted to billions of viewers watching at home.
One misstep and she would never live it down for the rest of her life.
"Is this what mech athletes have to go through?"
She found poor comfort in her cousin, who kept blabbing on about the strengths and weaknesses of the Havalax. As if she cared about those details.
The only thing she needed to know was that the Havalax possessed a lot of strength but couldn't keep it up. She merely had to outlast it with her Blackkbeak, which unfortunately struggled to match up to the Havalax's power.
Strangely enough, every time she interfaced with the Blackbeak, her doubts and worries faded away like they never existed. It was as if she was a little girl who returned to the embrace of her father.
The mech enveloped her mind and elevated it into an invisible network at the heart of the mech she controlled. Melinda had never had the pleasure of piloting a mech that treated her like a queen. Most other mechs she came in touch with treated her intrusion like an unwanted house guest.
"It's as if these mechs aren't made to be controlled by someone else."
It sounded crazy to hold such an outlandish opinion. Yet the difference became stark when she began to grow accustomed to the Blackbeak's welcoming embrace. Her cousin's mech simply possessed some kind of charm that revolutionized her piloting experience.
"Are all mechs that are worth 300 million credits like this, or is it just me?"
She felt regretful that she had to bid the Blackbeak farewell after the duel. She had warmed up to the first production model, and wished she was as loaded as her cousin. "I should have asked for this mech instead of a penthouse."
The floor suddenly started to lift the Blackbeak onto the arena. Melinda cut short her musings and shifted her focus back to her mech. She tested out the movements of her mech, finding the Blackbeak to be as responsive as a second skin. Nothing appeared to be broken. Ves made sure that her mech was in its best state possible.
Once her mech arrived at the center of the arena, Melinda didn't even flinch at all of the yelling and name-calling. The crowd meant nothing to the Blackbeak, so Melinda followed suit and tuned them out.
Her console chirped as her mech received a private communications request from the mech opposite to hers. Melinda shook out of her mantra and opened the channel.
"Miss Larkinson. It's a pleasure to meet you." Captain Vicar greeted her with his annoyingly attractive voice. "It's a shame to meet as opponents instead of colleagues. I have a lot of respect for the Bentheim Planetary Guard. It must have been hard to keep our planet in line."
"Not as hard as taking the fight to the BLM." Melinda coolly replied. She tried not to let her fangirl instincts get the better of her. "Did you participate in one of the assaults?"
"I did. The rebels put up a poor fight in one of their asteroid bases. For a movement that pretends to be strong enough to fight off the Republic, they sure didn't last very long when pressed into a corner. But anyway, I didn't open this channel to talk about old times. I just wanted to apologize to you."
"For beating your mech into a pulp!"
The countdown to the duel reached zero. The Havalax stormed forward at a rapid pace, catching Melinda off-guard. Her short flight backwards didn't prevent Captain Vicar from reaching her mech before she could get away.
The channel between their mechs remained open. "No offense to you, Miss Larkinson, but you don't stand a chance!"
Melinda gritted her teeth as she desperately fended off another chop of the Havalax's axe. "That's Lieutenant Larkinson to you!"
The axe was a supremely offensive weapon that transferred a lot of force with every swing. Melinda tried to redirect the force at an angle to prevent her sword and shield from chipping away, but Captain Vicar moved too quickly for her to adjust.
The damage quickly piled up. The axe bit into the Blackbeak's moon-shaped phoenix shield, parting the laser-resistant upper layer like a knife through butter. It encountered much more resistance from the middle layer, but each subsequent hack degraded the integrity of the armor, especially when the Havalax kept focusing on the same narrow area.
"Have to disengage!" She reminded herself, and tried to work together with her mech to push the Havalax back.
Melinda utilized her excellent control over the Blackbeak to shift the mech to the side. Her mech raised its shield to absorb the next attack square against the shield. A deep trench had been carved into the shield, but the Blackbeak successfully managed to bounce away from the murderous Havalax.
"You're not getting away so easily!"
The Havalax raised its power back to full and thundered after the fleeing Blackbeak. This time, Melinda paid attention to her environment. She guided her mech towards a large pile of rocks. While a mech could brush one or two aside, the sheer number of obstacles posed a significant threat if it wanted to straight through.
Her connection with the Blackbeak heightened as she took in all of the sensor input of her mech and processed them in a way that allowed her to keep track of the Blackbeak's footing. The black mech possessed enough responsiveness and flexibility to navigate the field of rocks without losing too much speed.
The Havalax turned out to be less proficient in navigating this kind of terrain. Michael Dumont designed it with a completely different paradigm in mind. Captain Vicar had to cease his opportunistic attacks in order to struggle his mech past this treacherous terrain.
The fundamental differences between their frames became evident. The Havalax was very much a momentum-based mech. It derived its superiority from its high powered engine and power reactor, allowing it to move faster and strike harder despite being clad in thick layers of armor.
Compared to the Blackbeak, the Havalax possessed a higher top speed, but this came at the expense of flexibility. Even a mech pilot as amazing as Captain Vicar struggled to make an elephant dance.
The majority of the crowd cheered for the more charismatic Vicar. Even the announcers sounded like they rooted for the Mech Corps Captain.
"Look at the Havalax navigate around those boulders! Even with these hindrances, it's hardly losing a sweat! It's a testament of his skill that he hasn't widened Miss Larkinson's lead! He's even closing in!"
They soon reached the end of the rock field, and Melinda desperately tried to reach the narrow miniature canyons up ahead. However, her mech first needed to cross a small stretch of open ground, and that was when the Havalax began to make its move.
A handful of boosters embedded into the back of the Havalax started to burn. Though they chugged a lot of the white mech's limited fuel, the extra thrust gave the mech a powerful hop that allowed it to close the distance within seconds. It raised its axe again, prompting Melinda to turn around her mech and raise its shield.
Captain Vicar put the Havalax's considerable forward momentum into the heavy blow. The axe managed to cut through the damaged upper portion of the moon shield and split that portion apart.
Melinda hastily ducked her mech to dodge the remaining swing of the axe. She tried to drag the Blackbeak away from the deadly axe, but Captain Vicar would have none of that.
His relentless aggression matched the Havalax's own as they collaborated to deliver his promise to dismantle the Blackbeak. The powerful knight stuck to Melinda's mech and began to rain down a hail of blows.
"Lay off a girl, will you!"
"Man or woman, it's all the same to me!" Vicar yelled over the channel. "The moment you enter a mech, you've turned into my prey!"
The Havalax had completely taken over the initiative in the fight. Vicar left no opening for Melinda to attack. His oppressive offensive started to achieve solid results when his axe began to bypass the Blackbeak's shortened shield and dig into its armor.
The audience showed little sympathy for Melinda. Instead, they egged Captain Vicar on. The man seemed to feed off the attention and upped the tempo of his offensive.
Even as the Blackbeak's armor started to suffer rents and tears, Melinda tried to keep her cool. She knew that the Havalax's hyperactive performance came at a cost. It wouldn't be able to sustain such a level of performance for more than fifteen minutes at most.
The only problem was that her mech wouldn't last more than five minutes at this rate. For all of its prowess as a knight, the Blackbeak hadn't been designed to duel against an elite knight like the Havalax.
The main problem was the compromises Ves had made in consideration with its armor coverage. Its Veltrex armor system could absorb a lot of punishment, but Ves hadn't been generous enough to apply very thick layer.
This was supposed to provide the Blackbeak with additional mobility, and against most other mechs it might be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This time though, the Havalax possessed enough superiority in this front to neutralize Melinda's options.
Melinda knew she had to flip the table somehow. One of the principles behind the Blackbeak was it shouldn't be playing fair. So she frantically tried to figure out a way to break the current entanglement.
Her eyes darted back and forth before focusing straight ahead. "It's a long-shot, but I've got nothing else!"
She made her decision. The Blackbeak currently suffered from quite a number of armor breaches. Internal damage had been kept at a minimum so far due to deft piloting, but a few minutes more might exacerbate the situation. Melinda made her move before her mech reached that point.
The Havalax struck down with yet another chop while holding its shield close to fend off the Blackbeak's sword. It expected its prey to backpedal in order to minimize the damage. It became surprised when the Blackbeak headed straight into the blow.
An awful tearing sound echoed into the arena as the axe bit through the shoulder pauldron. Melinda ignored the damage reports and urged her mech to continue forward.
Captain Vicar instinctively pushed out with the Havalax's shield. It impacted the Blackbeak's phoenix shield and successfully negated the black mech's momentum, but not before its head darted forward like a woodpecker about to drill into a tree.
An awful crunching sound emerged from the Havalax as its frontal head component caved in from Melinda's pointy strike.
Ves had added in the beak to the head of his design as an afterthought. Despite the lack of attention put into the beak, it was sharp and heavy enough to crunch any opposing mech's head.
The attack didn't really cripple the Havalax, but it gave Melinda enough of an opening to disengage. Her Blackbeak suffered moderate damage to one of its shoulders, but it had been worth it as she bought enough time to slip into the nearby canyons.
The entire crowd didn't know what to think of Captain Vicar's mishap. After a few seconds of silence, they all erupted into laughter.
"Captain Vicar's mech got face-checked! Look at the Havalax now! Who would ever want to kiss this poor mech with such an ugly face?"
Most mechs relied on their heads to provide a human-like perspective to their pilots. The sudden loss of those sensors disoriented Captain Vicar, who despite his plentiful battle experience still had to get used to the changed perspective.
He silently cursed to himself for letting the Blackbeak get away. His Havalax could still navigate through complex terrain, but it was doubtful if it could ever catch up again. As he gloweringly guided his mech into the narrow cliffs and valleys, the duel transitioned into another phase.
"This is more like it!" Melinda grinned as her mech slipped into the gaps. The time had come to turn this match around. "I'm done being your punching bag."