A large and boisterous crowd waited before the biggest mech arena in the mech district. As a fully developed aquatic planet, Moira's Paradise hosted a robust mech scene that revolved completely around aquatic mechs.
Fans of the aquatic variant of mech duels favored their brutality. The estimated mortality rate in an aquatic duel was five times higher than normal due to several factors.
First, the water pressure often killed off the pilots if the cockpit incurred minor damage. If the cockpit's automated self-repair systems couldn't fix the crack in time, that tiny crack could quickly grow into a massive breach.
Aquatic mech duels therefore came in two flavors. Low pressure aquatic mech duels occurred in conditions that simulated a depth of up to a hundred meters, while high pressure mech duels adopted a depth of at least ten kilometers. People often considered the former to be a stepping stone for the latter.
"Low pressure duels are fast and rely a lot on reflexes. While you need to master a lot of specialized skills to do well in these duels, there's not a lot of money to be made in this circuit." Raella explained as they entered the arena's VIP gate.
"So it's kind of like the kiddie version of the real duels?"
"Yup. The high pressure duels is where the real action can be found. The mechs there are larger and slower, so the mech pilots have to move deliberately and with forethought. Every action matters and one mistake can spell a fatal end. It's a high pressure environment in more than one way, you could say."
"That sounds stupid. Why won't the organizers make things safer for the mech athletes?"
Ves didn't understand why anyone would be willing to compete in a high pressure aquatic duel. The high risks associated with these duels ensured that you might never come home after a match.
Even veteran mech athletes with a decade of experience occasionally died. Fatal accidents could happen to anyone at any moment.
"Fans pay a lot more to attend these kinds of events. Aquatic mech teams earn a ton of money if they're halfway decent, though they have to spend even more to repair their mechs."
Aquatic mechs outmassed their landborn forms by a significant amount, so it cost a lot of resources to produce and maintain these beasts. While these mechs featured a high degree of compartmentalization, any breached sections had to be written off, which added to the costs.
Once the gate personnel processed their tickets, a uniform attendant guided them to a private room that hovered above the arena. Around two thousand floating rooms surrounded the massive arena. Aquatic mechs required a lot of space to bring out their full strengths so the amount of space dedicated to this sole arena exceeded his imaginations.
Lucky made himself comfortable on a nearby sofa while Ves tinkered with the control terminal. Its various settings allowed him to project multiple angles at the same time. It also allowed him to relocate his floating room.
Ves lowered his room so that it almost went up to the transparent dome that enveloped the pressurized dueling ring.
"When will the action start?"
"The first duel starts in half an hour. Would you like some refreshments?"
They ordered some drinks and waited for the arena to fill up. The VIPs entered the floating rooms and started moving them to their preferred positions. As for the regular folk, they had to make do with the bleachers.
A lot of people already arrived early, and in the time that remained, the seats became filled to the brim. Over half-a-million people came to watch the upcoming series of duels.
"What's happening today?"
"Don't you know?" Raella looked at Ves as if he was an idiot. "It's the finals of the Sea Crown Tournament! Two of the best aquatic mech teams are going to duke it out in a series of five 1-on-1 mech duels!"
The Cava City Sea Dragons enjoyed a long and illustrious track record ever since they became the city's hometown team. They won the Sea Crown for three years in a row already.
As the challengers, the Velton Myrmidons faced an uphill battle in the coming finals, but a lot of people rooted for the underdogs. With their young team of highly talented athletes, it remained to be seen whether they could beat the odds.
"Who will you support?"
"The Myrmidons, of course! The Sea Dragons are good, but their previous team captain retired recently. This is the best opportunity for the Myrmidons to take the Crown from the Dragons!"
The spectacle finally began when a pair of announcers came into view.
"Welcome ladies and gentleman to the crowning event of Cava City! Today, the Cava City Sea Dragons will be defending their title against the ambitious Velton Myrmidons!"
Two-thirds of the crowd stood up. "Sea Dragons!"
The supporters of the challengers also rooted for their team. "Myrmidons!"
The sheer amount of energy in the air fueled a frenetic atmosphere that called for blood. Even Ves got caught up in the excitement. Just like Raella, he looked forward to the upcoming clash.
"The team leaders have submitted their final lineups! First up, the Red Kraken will get the chance to avenge his miserable defeat at the hands of the Unstoppable Juggernaut!"
People often referred to the top athletes by their nicknames. The names also helped outsiders like Ves get a sense on the piloting style of the individual duelists.
After a lot of pomp and ceremony, the pressurized arena ring started to churn.
A hatch opened up to let in the Red Kraken of the Myrmidons. Like its namesake, it had been designed to mimic the mythical kraken. With its eight articulating limbs and a host of hooks and other nasty surprises, the monstrous mech possessed plenty of tools to dismantle an opponent within its grasp.
The Sea Dragons sent out a more traditional aquatic mech. The Unstoppable Juggernaut piloted a hammerhead shark-shaped mech. Different from its organic counterpart, the Sea Dragon mech featured a thicker and more robust head that had been designed for collision.
"That hammerhead mech must be expensive to maintain." Ves astutely noted. "The mech technicians in charge of maintaining that mech must be hating it with a vengeance."
Raella browsed the records of the Juggernaut. "You aren't wrong, but the Juggernaut and his mech is one of the best aquatic mech duelists in Cava City. Every opponent he meets on the ring has to respect his devastating rush."
Whatever damage the Juggernaut incurred, his opponent's mech likely fared worse. Such a mutually destructive game of chicken led to expensive repair bills for both sides. The Juggernaut only remained viable because he enjoyed the support of a well-funded team and the crowd loved his antics.
"A lot of viewers from the Republic tune in when he enters the stage."
"What about his life expectancy?"
Raella shrugged. No one really cared about the danger when a spectacle was involved.
In any base, the round began. The churning waters made it difficult for both mechs to hold their course, but as their jets powered up, they started to gain more control.
Both mechs circled around each other. Despite the Juggernaut's focus on collisions, his mech incorporated a small miniature torpedo launcher that he used to send out some harassing fire.
The Red Kraken intercepted most of the torpedoes by firing out short-ranged spikes from the main torso of his octopus mech.
The hammerhead mech took the opportunity to close in for its first charge. It revved up its engines and its short-range aquatic boosters to propel itself forward like a missile in flight.
"Too early!" Raella shouted.
Even if the Red Kraken focused on taking out the torpedoes, he didn't forget to keep an eye on his opponent. The Kraken smoothly dashed his mech aside, dodging the first attempt with ease.
The Juggernaut didn't take the failure to heart and steered his mech into a lazy circle to maintain some momentum.
Both mechs incurred no damage at all so far. Since the Red Kraken piloted a relatively immobile mech, he didn't bother to chase after the hammerhead mech. Instead, he positioned his mech at the side of the dome where he'd be able to limit the angles of approach of his opponent.
The tension ratcheted up. Everyone waited for the Juggernaut to make a move. As the duelist with the faster mech, he had to take action within the next couple of minutes.
"Why is he holding back?" Ves asked.
"His mech is very one-dimensional. Besides his mini-torpedoes, he doesn't have any other ranged options. The only way he can avoid a loss is if he keeps moving. He has to find the right angle and moment to charge in order to maximize his success for a collision."
The match turned into a standoff as the Juggernaut refrained from going in. Ves couldn't imagine how much pressure the duelists faced.
The Juggernaut finally chose to move, turning his circling trajectory into a straight path towards the octopus mech. As the hammerhead bore down on its target, it initiated its short-range boosters at full strength, closing the gap at such a speed that the Red Kraken only had seconds to respond.
He juked his octopus mech upwards at just the right time to dodge the charge!
Just as Ves thought the hammerhead mech would miss its target and collide against the edge of the dome, the Juggernaut made a split-second move. The hammerhead mech cut off most of its forward jets and activated the auxiliary boosters attached to the bottom side of its frame. In addition, a large fin-shaped spike slid out from its upper frame!
The Juggernaut turned his mech's forward charge into an uppercut strike that savaged the octopus mech from below, slicing away two of its tentacles in that single pass!
The crowd went wild! Even Raella whooped at the move. "Kudos to the mech designer of that Sea Dragon mech!"
Even Ves admired the modifications put into the mech. Mech designers in the employ of a competitive dueling team often changed the designs of their mechs to keep them fresh.
A lazy team risked an awful loss if they used the exact same mechs for all of its matches. Their opponents could easily analyze the weak points of their designs and practice fighting against them in countless simulations.
Still, the Juggernaut lost his momentum after making such a drastic change of course. Before he could move his mech away, the Red Kraken pounced at the stalling hammerhead mech.
His octopus mech engaged his own short-ranged boosters and moved to envelop the hammerhead mech with its six remaining tentacles.
"Ohh! What a misplay by the Juggernaut! He failed to move away in time. Now his mech has become entangled!
Even as the hammerhead mech cranked up its engines, the octopus mech solidified its grip on its raging prey. Its six tentacles managed to clasp the hammerhead mech tightly before it could force its way out of the trap.
Saws, spikes and other cutting implements emerged from the tentacles and started to rail against the armor of the Juggernaut's mech. Even with its thick, shock-absorbing armor, the ceaseless grind from the Kraken started weakening its weak points.
After a solid minute of thrashing, the Kraken cut its way through the side armor! The water pressure enlarged the breach and crushed the internals in that compartment. The hammerhead mech lost ten percent of its power!
Even as the Kraken continued to exploit more weak points, the Juggernaut gave up on disentangling the tentacles. Instead, his hammerhead mech engaged its short-ranged boosters for the last time, propelling both entangled mechs against the surface of the dome!
The main torso of the octopus mech collided against the dome head-first! Even after such a shock, the Red Kraken still continued to cut apart his prey, managing to cut open another compartment!
Both of the duellists raced against time. Would the Red Kraken disable the Juggernaut fast enough before his opponent bashed his octopus mech into pieces?
The duel turned violent as both mechs suffered continuous damage.
In the end, the octopus mech succumbed to its wounds. Its tentacles started to lose their strength and the vital central torso suffered critical damage to its power reactor. The Red Kraken quickly conceded before the damage reached his cockpit.
"The Red Kraken transmitted his surrender! The first round goes to the Sea Dragons!"
As the spectators stood up to cheer for their teams, Ves sank back in his seat and shook his head. The hammerhead mech had been built like a tank so it could take a lot more abuse. The Red Kraken should have let go instead of holding on so stubbornly.
"It's a bad matchup for the Red Kraken." Raella noted a little glumly. Her adopted team lost the first round, after all. "Of all the opponents he could duel, he faced off against the heaviest aquatic mech."
In a best-of-five, the Myrmidons already fell behind! They couldn't afford another loss if they hoped to obtain the prestigious Sea Crown!