After a good friend on Twitter mentioned this idea, I felt I had to have a go. We had been discussing the anime Kaiji and Armoured Trooper VOTOMS and the possible interest in a story that combines the grim, dramatic world of cheating and vice that runs through a number of sports and gambling stories with the mecha trope of the gladiatorial robot-fighting arena. VOTOMS has Battling, Heavy Gear has its arena, Battletech has Solaris VII, Infinity has Aristeia.
It seemed a natural fit, and so I tried to write my own arena-fighting story.
“We’ll be looking to you for some tips.”
“Nobody’s going to be able to read a fight better than an expert, are they? Betting tips.”
The blue-black car was one among many intentionally indistinguishable vehicles that was searching for a place to park in the shadow of the cliffs. This gathering was unashamedly public, a sea of cars in neatly ordered spaces like any other grand event – but yet it was at the same time hidden from polite society, secreted underground in an old bunker complex miles out from the capital as if going were not in itself shameful, but being known to be there was.
These events were not illegal, although this was more a result of nobody wanting to pass a law against them. Like so many things on the edge of legitimacy, attendance was ostensibly a shameful vice, but realistically the quickest way to get on the right side of the right people.
Someone young, newly given responsibility and looking for allies in a difficult world needed to get on the right side of the right people very quickly, and so the blue-black car had an uneasy passenger.
“Are you scared?”
“People might be hurt, or die, tonight. Does that scare you?”
“Not exactly. It is part of my job, isn’t it? To be accountable for people getting hurt and dying. I’m just- I just don’t think I will be the sure-fire source of betting tips you think I will be. I mean, I’ve fought, for sure, but- well, I’ve never assumed anything other than I will survive. I’ve never thought about who would win. I’ve never bet on war.”
“Isn’t strategy just betting on war? Isn’t the very act of command just laying down a wager? The ultimate gamble. Others’ lives, your reputation, your life, the stakes. The military gamble with this nation every time they make a decision.”
“When you think about it, every decision made with authority is a gamble. You weigh up the odds of success, you consider the risk, you try and cheat and gull and tilt the odds to make sure your way works. And before you start saying you’d never cheat, every little advantage you secure yourself, every ambush, every bit of analysis in business, every press conference for a politician is cheating, it’s looking to get yourself the edge in what would otherwise be a fair fight. Cheating isn’t just breaking the rules.”
“I don’t fight to get an advantage in some game of life. I do it because someone has to do it and I want to make sure it is done as well as possible, and as few people die as possible.”
The Combat Arenas. Places where soldiers, mercenaries and those who simply lived to hurt others would fight, and those who would never fight would bet. Not illegal, and not dishonourable in the eyes of those with real power.
High above a pit hollowed from former rocket launch silos there were rows of armoured viewing-platforms. The topmost had wide bombproof glass windows and screens projecting magnified views of the action below to the most honoured audience members as they sat in a premium suite. The lower ranks were cramped concrete pens with smaller viewing-screens and narrower slits in their front wall for observation. This was the reputable side of Arena duelling. Of course, the risk-takers and the desperate could leave these heavily-built bunkers behind and fight unauthorised duels in waste ground, ready at a moment’s notice to run should anything go wrong. There were rumours even some of the elite would go in disguise, in unmarked trucks, to these underground duels. Those whose lust for action could not be sated by the carefully codified “sport” of official duelling. But that really was taboo.
This nation had a harsh past, memories of an age of overspending on vast fortress complexes for homeland security, weapons-ranges and launch sites from an era of paranoia and obsession with being able to destroy the world as many times as possible. These attitudes had been toned down as a form of peace had emerged, and all that remained were concrete memorials to war and a dangerous core of people unable to accept their warlust had been wrong. For them, the ability to fight on, to prove their mastery of the battlefield in the very facilities that they had taken such pride in, was perfect.
There were limits to the tawdriness of attending a Duel, even for the richest. Cynics assumed the unreachably expensive upper tiers to be dens of depravity, of barely-clothed hostesses bringing all the vices imaginable to baying, corpulent businessmen and politicians. The truth was it was as dull as any corporate entertainment event. There was a well-stocked bar, food of above average quality for sale and comfortable seating. A hum of polite conversation rather than lurid screeching for blood. As if there was an unspoken compact that the very act of attending was proof of your bloodlust. That being able to sit on a sofa and watch two real combat suits throw punches and shots at each other with the ease of watching the video-game leagues on television tainted your soul enough.
The young military officer invited to his first Duelling night was more scared by how formal and well-behaved everyone here was than he would have been had it been some grotesque display of vice. Someone could – as he had just seen – lay more money than someone piloting for the sake of their nation would earn in a year on the inconsequential result of a fight for sport through a single signature and number on a slip of paper. It was so normal and formal it had become unsettling.
“Will you bet, Captain?” One of his hosts extended an envelope towards him. “I know your terms of employment with this nation’s military prevent you from taking bribes, which is why this envelope contains prefilled betting slips that require you only to sign and indicate which bout you wish to redeem them for.”
The topmost slip was made out for a sum of money twice what the captain had in his savings account.
“I will watch the first bout, I think. Then maybe.” Something was going on by a service-door in the room. Something involving men in suits and men in greasy overalls. “What is going on there?”
“Mechanics don’t earn a lot.”
The first bout began and one of the pilots was immediately set on the back foot as one of their weapons misfired, tearing their suit’s arm off at the shoulder and forcing them to fight one-handed. Mechanics don’t earn a lot. At the sight of the explosion the men who had been talking to the mechanic smiled.
The captain forced himself to watch the foregone conclusion of a fight to its end, and felt mounting nausea wash away as the losing pilot escaped alive. The kill-shot had been a rifle burst from one end of the arena to the other shattering the target’s leg and sending it spinning out, almost crumpling against a barricade as it hit awkwardly. The pilot that crawled from the wreck clearly had broken limbs and left a trail of blood behind, but the captain knew from the way he moved that he would live.
Even at the intimation of what would come next the room held its breath, and the captain let the sentence hang unfinished. One of the members of his party was loitering near the service-door, and in the next fight both pilots ran out of ammunition far sooner than either clearly expected. The cat-and-mouse of combat suits skating between barricades changed to a tense hit-and-run, neither willing to commit to a punch unless they could be certain they would strafe out of the way of the return blow. The crowd’s attention was captured immediately.
The captain couldn’t watch the fight’s conclusion. He knew that the force the piston-arms of a combat suit put out would crush the canopy in a single hit and the pilot’s head was only a few inches below. He had seen this sort of duel play out on the battlefield. He had done it himself.
The crowd let out polite applause and began collecting wagers. The winner had dislocated his target’s suit’s arm and then uppercut the “head” from the unit with impressive precision. The captain felt blood rush to his head.
“We are feeling generous, Captain. We have another opportunity to discuss the nature of the matches later, and we feel it only fair we let you decide.”
“The nature of the matches?”
“The crowd are here to be entertained. To see people playing at war. Tell me, captain, do you ever engage your enemies on an even footing? Or do you strike when they are unready?”
“Do as you will.”
“I said do as you will. You asked me here to watch this, to meet the right people, and I am doing that. Nothing more.” He had become aware in the hour or so he had been in this room that there were no other military uniforms.
The next fight began. He allowed himself, for the purposes of being introduced to someone, to stake a few thousand on its result.
He won. It had been self-evident that he would win, he was told. He had seen, thanks to his expertise, that the pilot he had chosen was the more tactically able.
He was holding money in sums he usually only saw as his savings, to be accumulated for when he needed to repair his apartment. He had earned it in perhaps fifteen minutes’ doing nothing.
His eyes wandered over the arena, seeing fire-lanes and ambush-points. He knew the specifications of combat-suits, and how they would be slowed by the rough ground. The whole affair became like a training exercise.
In the next fight the suit he presumed would win suffered a fuel leak, and was sent crashing into a barricade with a shoulder-charge that left the pilot coughing up teeth.
Mechanics don’t earn a lot.