A pair of light mechs matched blows against each other in a grungy underground mech arena. The skirmisher mech wielded a pair of knives while the swordsman mech wielded a single blade.
A rowdy crowd exulted in the reverberations of the high speed impacts between the dueling mechs. Only the thick but cracked and worn out transparent panels protected them from the splintering shards of plating that the mechs shaved off from each other.
One thing to note about the people was that they all wore similar color motifs. The lower ranked crowd wore shirts of red striped with diagonal black lines. The ranks above that made do with armbands of the same look, while the handful of leaders at the top wore exotic alloy rings that glistened in alternating red and black.
More interestingly, the mechs, which featured the same coating of red with diagonal black stripes, consisted of outdated models. Neither their armor nor their speed could keep up with currentgen mechs, but that also made them cheap and easy to fabricate on the fly.
From the reckless way in which they dueled, neither pilots gave a damn about conserving their machines. They danced at the edge of death in their reckless attempts to overpower their opposition.
"Come on Raella!" Dietrich hollered. "Go for Mackarel's left! He's half-blind in that direction!"
Like the others, he wore an armband bearing the colors of the Blood Claws, one of the most infamous gangs in Bentheim. Even though his main affiliation lay with Walter's Whalers, he answered to the same boss as the rest.
The skirmisher mech pulled out of the melee after leaving behind a criss cross of knife marks on the enemy mech. Raella's voice emerged from the speakers. "You're getting rather slow, aren't you?"
"I got much more in store for you than that, lassie!" The man inside the swordman mech broadcasted as he urged his mech to pursue his opponent.
The swordsman mech hadn't fared very well so far. Its pilot was older and more experienced than Raella, but he couldn't match her in terms of technical skill.
Raella deftly swerved her borrowed skirmisher mech to dodge the incoming hack. Her mech went in to leave behind another nick, only for her mech to receive a punch that pushed it back.
"Get her, Mack! You can do it!"
"Watch out for the legs as well, girlie!"
That advice proved to be telling as Mackarel's mech lashed out in a dangerous flurry of kicks. Raella's mech barely dashed out of reach, and swiped its weapons forward to slice some layers off the extended leg before it drew back.
That last attack had bit a little deep, causing the swordsman mech to suffer from unsteady footing. Raella took advantage of her opponent's preoccupation and went all-in, shoving the unsteady sword aside before surgically stabbing the weak points of the vulnerable mech before it could recover.
A huge cheer sounded out as the swordsman mech practically lost all of its connections to its limbs. The hapless mech collapsed onto its back like a puppet with its strings cut off.
The ringleader enthusiastically announced the end of the duel. "And the winner is Raella Larkinson! She's shown herself to be as capable as her famous cousin Melinda, but prettier by far!"
The battered skirmisher mech opened its cockpit, allowing Raella to jump out and float down with her anti-grav clothes. She approached the cockpit of the fallen mech and waited for its cockpit to open up as well.
A grizzled man wearing an armband and covered in tribal tattoos climbed out of his immobilized mech. He shook his head, trying to recover from the trauma of being inside a mech that fell onto its back. "If all the Larkinsons are like you, no wonder your family's so renowned."
"If you think I'm a big deal, you should see my uncle Ark."
They shook hands, showing no hard feelings for each other. The hierarchy of the Blood Claws largely revolved around strength. They respected any man or woman who had the skills to back up their talk, and Raella proved herself in spades.
The young woman quietly shook her head. Even though she trounced a cadre of the Blood Claws, she'd still be known as Melinda's relative. Her cousin in the Planetary Guard had become a planet-wide phenomenon recently after she somehow made it through a grueling duel against a captain of the Mech Corps.
Raella returned to the stands while the arena operators hauled away the mechs. Once she reached Dietrich's side, he held out her hand. "Gimme my cut."
Even as he handed over a credit chip, Dietrich swept the woman in his arms and engulfed her in a kiss.
"Get off! I'm sweaty!" Raella punched her handsome boyfriend away with her strong physique.
"I don't care, babe. The more sweat, the better."
Dietrich kept grinning at her as he attempted to keep the feisty woman in his embrace. Raella didn't appreciate being treated like a doll and forcefully punched his stomach until he finally let go.
The Blood Claw members sitting besides them laughed at the spectacle. "Can't control your woman, Dietrich?"
"Oh shot up Tumra. I don't see you with a girl anywhere."
"That's because I have a different one in my bed every night!"
Despite the crude talk and occasional roughhousing, Raella enjoyed her time with the Blood Claws. Even though she knew the Blood Claws did a lot of shady stuff out of sight, Dietrich's presence opened up a lot of doors, while her strength earned her a lot of respect.
The pair remained in the arena and watched the other fights that followed.
Not all of the pilots consisted of Blood Claw members. A fair amount used to be mercenaries or mech athletes who fell into debt. The only way they could earn back their pay was to fight in an arena without rules.
Sometimes, the pilots played rough to the point of targeting the cockpits of their opponent's mech. The underground arena operated by the Blood Claws didn't care about fatalities as long as it didn't involve their own members.
In fact, Raella already witnessed three fatalities so far. Compared to her initial revulsion at the sight of death when she accompanied Ves to Moira's Paradise, this time she had grown hardened enough to shrug off any sympathies.
As the night went on into the wee hours, Raella started getting sleepy. She stood up and wanted to drag Dietrich back to their accommodation, but a sudden broadcast stopped her in her tracks.
The ongoing duel between a pair of fist fighting light mechs halted abruptly. Everyone dropped their conversations and no one moved a muscle as they recognized the voice.
The gruff, hoary voice of Monty the Beheader himself broadcasted in the arena and everywhere else the Blood Claws reigned over. "Are you having a good time? Are you enjoying yourselves? Then cut your vacation short, because we have a job to do. There's word out on the streets that there's a fabled rogue planet is coasting along near the border of the Republic. They call it the Glowing Planet, and it's named that way because it's filled with so much riches that we can dine like kings until the heat death of the universe if we harvest it all."
The sudden news landed like a bomb. Like any gang, the Blood Claws loved nothing more than to acquire more wealth, by any means possible.
"The only downside is that every power in the Komodo Star Sector got their hands on the coordinates of the Glowing Planet. The Bright Republic, The Vesia Kingdom, hell, even the uptight Coalition and Hegemony are aware of its location!"
Could they even compete if that had been the case?
"You might be thinking what the Glowing Planet has to do with us. Well, even if it's glowing like a bulb in space, it's hardly a pinprick compared to brown dwarfs. The lack of a star also makes it hard to zero in an FTL drive to the planet unless you get within a dozen light-years or so. Do you know what that means?"
Most of the Blood Claws scratched their heads. Stellar navigation had never been their strengths.
"It means we're closest, and therefore get to be there first! Sure, the Mech Corps and the other gangs will be sending out their fleets as well, but the Glowing Planet is big enough to let everyone grab a piece of the pie!"
Now they understood what an opportunity this represented. Raella felt excited as well, even though she hadn't formally joined the Blood Claws. She looked to Dietrich, hoping to join in on the action, only to receive a stern gaze.
"This is far above our league, Raella." He whispered. "Something like this... there's going to be a lot of fighting."
"I've never shied away from a fight!"
"This is different from a duel! The entire planet will be engulfed with greedy mech pilots who won't be playing fair."
The voice of Monty resumed speaking. "Since everyone that matters already know about the Glowing Planet, the big boys upstairs have hashed out an agreement. The Coalition and the Hegemony will both be preparing fleets of mech carriers to fight over the Glowing Planet. Since they're far away and need some time to mobilize their forces, they've given everyone else a carte blanche to mine away for seventy days."
A lot could be done in seventy days. Depending on the value of the exotic ores and how easy they could be extracted, a substantial mining expedition could easily harvest billions of credits worth of materials out of the ground.
The people in the arena grew stoked at the idea of picking up a fortune off the ground.
"Sharpen your claws and ready your mechs, because the Blood Claws will be grabbing a piece of the action! We set off in three days!"
As the broadcast ended, everyone went wild at the prospect of taking part in this enormous venture.
In the meantime, a lot had to be arranged. Monty's organization had to decide who to send and who to hold back to defend their territories. They had to prepare their carriers and acquire other ones to accomodate all of the mechs and mining equipment they intended to bring along.
The leaders already buzzed about as they received their own instructions. As for Raella, her eyes turned into swirls as she imagined the adventure of it all. She wanted to be part of the expedition. She stood up and climbed up the stands, heading straight towards the circle of leaders.
Dietrich hastily followed after his girlfriend. "Raella? Don't go up there! It's dangerous!"
The guards who stood in the way noticed her approach, but instead of halting her in her tracks, they wordlessly moved aside. Raella walked straight past their heavily-armored forms and drew attention from the older generation of Blood Claws.
A bald man wearing the biggest ring of red and black looked over her pilot-suited form. "Ah, we have a distinguished guest. Miss Raella Larkinson, what can we do for you?"
"I want in."
Dietrich finally reached her side and gripped her arm, but he didn't dare pull her back. He failed to stop her in time.
The bald man looked wordlessly at Raella while the other leaders waited for his decision. He only considered the matter for a couple of seconds before he nodded. "Why not? You're in."
The brief exchange of words had sealed her fate. Dietrich minutely shook his head as he drew her out of the circle. Once they gained some distance, he scolded her for a fair bit.
"That was dangerous as hell! Do you know who he is? He's the left hand of Monty the Beheader! He could have decided to cut your head off on a whim!"
"He wouldn't dare." Raella smirked. Being a Larkinson had its perks. "Besides, I just showed everyone that I can pull my own weight. The Blood Claws will thank me for saving their hides."
For the rest of the night, Dietrich remained concerned about Raella. He regretted taking her with him on a tour to Bentheim.
While Raella jumped into her bed and fell asleep, Dietrich hunched over the other side of the bed and held up his comm. His finger hovered over the name of Ves.