Those who win in combat aren’t necessarily those with the greatest strengths, but the least number of weaknesses.
Even through the reenforced walls, Wendell could hear the crowds. The Trench arena was filling to capacity. Two hundred thousand bodies lined the upper most sections of the building, protected by nothing more than a chain link fence. Spectators piled through the doors and ran to find their assigned seating eagerly anticipating the battle to come.
Wendell sat next to Nat as he quickly worked to adjust the provided computers to his personal short-key habits. A six foot wide table with four padded chairs were provided—supposedly for the four programmers, standard in every RAT team.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to handle all of this, Nat?” he asked. The gnome had been working non-stop for the past two days preparing for this first event. He looks so nervous. Wendell patted the computer genius on the shoulder.
Nat spread his hands out on the counter, stretching his fingers. “I…think so.” He stared at each of the monitors, thousands of expectant fans pouring in through the doors, concession workers shouting and waving t-shirts, hats and snacks for sale. He gave Wendell a weak grin, “Just don’t tell them I’m scared, alright?”
“Not a word.”
Nat fidgeted as the last of the corporate inspectors shuffled past the desk. Five large-bellied gnomes in white lab coats, reviewing and check-listing the crates and tools. He grumbled to himself quietly, “Come on, come on. Check your list and get out already, will you?”
Freak had the crew quickly going over the last adjustments to Banshee while he and Socket set up the emergency flash welder. Dax made himself useful by moving the crates where they were easily accessible. Everything looked in order. The pit was clean, the S.L.A.G. was on the lift, and the pilot…
“Where’s Alhannah?” Wendell asked.
Nat sighed with relief as the last inspector walked out the doors. He immediately reached into his bag and lifted out the small disc and placed it on the desk in front of the monitors. “She said she wanted to be left alone. Some before game ritual of hers. Don’t worry.” Clicking the small switch on the side of the disc, “Cryo?”
“I’m here, Nathan.” The small blue face appeared over the disc.
Connecting a small cable from the disc to the main switchboard under the computer monitors, Nat cracked his knuckles. “I need you to go stealth and connect to the arena mainframe. I want to get a jumpstart on the competition.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Wendell took a seat and watched the crowds. His heart raced with the thought of being in the arena. I’m part of the most popular sport on the planet. He couldn’t help feeling giddy about all of it and his lips split into a full teeth grin.
“Alright team,” Alhannah yelled, appearing from the hallway, “time to suit up.” She pulled her black leather gloves on and fitted them snugly over her fingers.
“Showtime?” Wendell asked.
Alhannah winked back and beamed, “Showtime!”
Cryo expression shifted from calm and unemotional to puzzled. “Nathan, it seems the Trench system has been programmed to resist any tampering until the event officially begins. A deterministic algorithm is operating on fixed-length groups of bits, but their cryptographic protocols are quite advanced. I don’t have the resources to navigate a way in.”
Wendell looked from Cryo to Nat.
The computer genius smirked at his gaping expression, “That means it’s locked.”
Wendell nodded, “Right. Locked.”
Nat chuckled. “Ok, Cryo—guess this means we’ll just have to be faster, once the starter pistol goes off.”
Without warning, the seats and desk rumbled. Vibrations emanating through the walls and ceilings as the crowd above them cheered. Wendell watched the lights dim on the monitors, fans screaming and waving their hands at swooping cameras overhead. Hundreds waved their favorite pilot flags.
“Here we go!” shouted Alhannah excitedly. Strapping herself into Banshee, she hit the ignition button. The engine rumbled and the chest plate door closed, locking in place. The gnome warriors voice crackled over the small speakers along the desk, “Banshee to Wheels.”
Nat shook his head and put on the head mic, “I wish you would stop calling me that.”
“When you get out of that thing and walk, I will,” she said with a chuckle. Banshee flexed her giant, metallic arms, then turned her head to face Nat and Wendell. “Stats?”
One of the monitors switched from displaying the crowd to showing a blueprint version of the S.L.A.G.. It displayed and highlighted the motors and generators being used, as well as hull integrity, life support and Alhannah’s personal vitals. Nat typed in a few commands and nodded, satisfied. “Looking good, Red.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped.
Nat smirked to himself, “When you change your hair color, I will.”
Music rolled to life all around them, the beat so loud it drowned out the chanting of the crowd. Drums, electric guitar riffs and industrial beats thundered as the pit doors opened.
“Wish me luck,” crackled Alhannah…and Banshee strutted out the opening.
The crowd went insane. Wendell watched gnomes jumping from their seats, gripping the chain link and rattling it like animals trying to escape. The music lowered just enough to hear the announcer through the speaker overhead.
“LADIES AND GENNNNNTLEGNOMES…YOU’VE WANNNNTED, YOU’VE WAITED….NOW IT’S TIMMMMMME! ARE YOU READY FOR THE CONNNNNFLICT?” The crowd screamed and chanted in answer to the question. “ARE YOU READY FOR THE MAYHEM!?!” Screams continued as the lights went out. High above the arena a gigantic spotlight popped on. The bright circle spun along the floor without rhyme or reason, until it rested on Banshee. “IN PIT NUMBER ONE, YOU KNOW HERE AS THE FIERCEST PILOT OF SEASON ONE AND TWO….THE FIRST GRAND CHAMPION OF THE GAMES….BANNNNNNSHEEEEE!”
At first Wendell thought gnomes were being thrown from the stands, the screaming was so loud…and terrifying. These people are insane!
Another spotlight popped on and weaved across the ground until it rested on a giant pink S.L.A.G. with a jagged steel crown on its head. Gripped in one hand was a long mace with spray painted nubs around the tip. The effect made it look more like a scepter.
“IN PIT NUMBER TWO IS A ROYAL PAIN IN THE KISSER…PRINNNNCESSS!”
The third light lit up a S.L.A.G. so big, Wendell thought it had to be a joke. The titan was almost twice as wide as Banshee, but not as tall. The reflective black paint job had faded spots, dents and a series of red splotches over its shoulder and chest that looked an awful lot like blood. The S.L.A.G. carried a mace and a shield, with a giant secondary weapon strapped to its back.
“IN PIT NUMBER THREE YOU KNOW HIM AS THE ONE, THE ONLY….IRONNNNHOUNNNND!”
Again the fans came unglued.
“That things immense,” Wendell said, worried.
Nat nodded, “That’s Burton Trench, one of the owners.”
“And they seriously play in the competition?”
Nodding again, “Yeah—but never to win. Both Burton and Ernie play to shake up the fights. They try to inflict as much damage and chaos as possible before being taken out themselves.”
That’s…nuts. But then again, it didn’t sound bad when you had all the money and control. Guess it’s better than being bored. Why not play as well?
The fourth light popped on directly over the S.L.A.G.. Lights flashed back out over the crowd and for a moment, the camera couldn’t focus. “IN PIT NUMBER FOUR IS THE FASTEST PILOT IN THE GAMES…GIVE IT UP FOR BETTY 4.0!” The monitor adjusted and Wendell could see a squat looking machine with long arms a dense chest and broad shoulders. The metal surface of the S.L.A.G. shined bright. With a single motion, it took a step forward, stabbing a giant spear into the ground. The weapon sank into the concrete, where it stood as Betty flexed its wings. Gigantic strips of steel, imitating bird wings.
The speakers rumbled as the music dropped off, “AND IN PIT NUMBER FIVE, WE HAVE OUR LAST PILOT. THE PILLAR OF POWER,VANQUISHER OF DARKNESS AND DEFENDER OF THE FAITH…ARMORED ENSEMMMMMBLE!!”
Wendell gasped as the last light struck the polished blue and grey steel S.L.A.G.. “It looks like a knight!” he pointed, shocked. The heavy helmet and armor resembled a human knight carrying a longsword, much like Alhannah’s. Dents and scratches adorned the combat ready machine, while other wounds were patched and welded over.
“I know,” grinned Nat, “isn’t he awesome?”
Wendell jabbed him in the shoulder playfully, “Whose side are you on?”
“GET YOUR BETS IN PLACE, BECAUSE WE START IN 10…9…8…
“We have access to the mainframe database,” Cryo reported.
“Grab control of it, buddy,” Nat commanded.
“Keep the coffee hot, boys,” Alhannah growled, “This is going down fast.”
A deafening horn sounded and all the lights flooded the stadium and Wendell jumped from his stool as the pit doors slammed shut and locked. Freak and the TNT crew dropped their tools on the floor and ran to the monitors. The displays were instantly split into five views—each angle covered the movements of one of the competing S.L.A.G.s.
The first shot fired was from Princess. Rushing from its pit door, it raised its scepter in one hand and a small gun popped out from its opposite wrist. A small burst of bullets rattled off at Betty 4.0, but it was already airborne. With wings already outstretched, jetpacks flooded the arena with smoke and flame, launching the S.L.A.G. upwards, high over the crowds.
“Man, those things are fast!” Wendell choked, completely taken back.
Dax plopped down in the last chair next to him, “And even more deadly.” Pulling a meager cigar butt from his waistband, the elf threw his feet up on the desk and struck a match across his chin.
Wendell stared at Banshee’s monitor as she sprinted for the middle of the arena. The camera swooped in behind her, revealing a center structure rising from floor. Wendell squinted at the screen. Is that a…pergola? Four giant pillars of concrete supported metal slats across the top. Banshee crouched under the framework as Betty 4.0 darted overhead.
Ahhh, Wendell grinned, it’s for cover.
Banshee took its longsword and twisted the handle, separating the blade into two weapons. “Time for a little hunting.”
Cryo beeped and turned a shade of green, “We have accessed the mainframe and now control the Trench.”
“Well THAT was fast,” chuckled Alhannah.
Nat beamed at the RAT crew, then said cooly into the mic, “We aim to please, Red.”
Wendell and Dax both laughed.
Princess continued to shoot uselessly at the flying target while Armed Ensemble and Ironhound marched towards one another. The giant knight wielded its blade with such force, the impact against Ironhound’s shield caused the S.L.A.G. to stumble backwards. The ring of metal could be heard through the walls.
Fans cheered overhead.
Nat typed furiously on the keyboard, “I can’t do anything about Betty, but Ironhound’s near a torch, ‘Hannah.”
The speaker crackled, “Blow it.”
Another swing of the longsword sent Ironhound reeling back. Trying to get its feet under it, Armored Ensemble stepped forward…just as the hatch popped open. Liquid flame shot from a spout, covering the knight from mid chest to feet.
“Ooooo,” winced Dax, “that’s gonna melt his shell if he doesn’t put it out.” Yet the S.L.A.G. ignored the flame. The hydraulics whined and squealed under the heat, but Armored Ensemble continued undaunted—pursuing its original target.
Just as Princess ran out of ammo, Banshee bolted from cover in a flash of movement. The echoing click-click of the pink S.L.A.G.s forearm was a sure sign of the pilots inexperience.
Alhannah lunged. Banshee and Princes collided.
“We’ve lost control of the arena,” chirped Cryo.
“Already!?” squeaked Alhannah, followed by a grunt as her machine jolted on impact. Dropping her arm, Banshee stabbed one of her swords downward. The metal bit into her opponents steel foot. Dropping all of the machine’s weight forward, the shaft penetrated the floor, pinning Princess’s boot in place.
“Well get control back!” snapped Nat.
“Attacking the counter algorithms now.”
Spinning to avoid Princesses mace, Banshee grabbed the end of the weapon in motion and forced the weighted end to continue its path. The force was too great. Before the pilot could stop the momentum, the S.L.A.G.s hand snapped clean off, still holding the mace.
“Wow!” gasped Wendell and the TNT crew cheered.
“AWWWWW,” Alhannah mocked, “If you don’t have reenforced joints, you’re liable to break them.” Shaking the hand free, Banshee equipped the mace to use it as a hammer. With devastating force, she pounded the sword deeper into the floor until the hilt crushed the outer shell of Princesses boot. With a last swipe of her good sword, Banshee severed the fingers of her opponents good hand.
Dax laughed, “Game over.”
As Banshee sprinted away, leaving Princess pinned to the floor, Wendell frowned. “What is she doing?”
Nibbles leaned forward, pointing at the different views of the camera. “She’s working the room, Wendell. This isn’t a final match, so destruction isn’t want you want—the key is to survive.” She looked at him curiously, “Don’t you know the game?”
He frowned, looked nervously at Nat, then, “Uhhh, no. I’m…kind of embarrassed to say I never got into Trench Wars until now.”
Dax smirked and put a hand over his mouth.
Nibbles didn’t seem to pick up on it and just shrugged. “Well, only three pilots will graduate to the next tier, so you have to pick your battles carefully.”
Banshee slid back under the pergola just in time to avoid a barrage of spikes. There was little sound as the mini-javelins fell from the sky, sinking through steel and stone. “Alhannah’s giving Betty some target practice while she dispatches the bigger foes.”
Ironhound had fallen back to the center of the arena, attempting to avoid any potential traps of the Trench. Armored Ensemble was still on fire, though most flames had gone out. It was moving considerably slower now—the once buffed surface now charred and black. With two hands it swung the broadsword, severing the top of Ironhound’s shield. The scrap of metal flipped through the air and embedded itself into one of the cement pillars of the pergola.
“Choices, choices,” Alhannah giggled over the com-link.
Diving forward, Banshee rolled under the swing of Armored Ensemble’s broadsword. The weapon vibrated off Ironhounds tilted shield, but before the knight could raise the blade for another strike, Banshee’s newly acquired mace knocked the S.L.A.G.s leg out from under it. With a monstrous clang, the giant came crashing to the ground.
“Watch your back, Red!” yelled Nat. “Betty’s circling around…”
But the warning came too late. Spikes rained from the sky. In moments a trail of javelins pierced the ground between the three warring S.L.A.G.s.
Armored Ensemble received two spiked through a rotator cuff. The arm spasmed, malfunctioning and its broadsword dropped to the ground. Three more spikes pierced the hip joint and left leg of Banshee. Sparks burst from the wounds as the fans screamed a mixture of cheers and curses at the flying S.L.A.G..
With a last ditch effort, Alhannah swung her sword upward. The unusual angle and motion completely caught the Trench owner off guard, severing the bar pinning Ironhound’s shield to its arm. The sheet of metal clattered to the ground as she fell backwards.
“Alhannah!” Dax cried out loud.
“It’s not over yet,” she said boldly and they all watched Banshee do a barrel roll on the computer screen. Ironhound dropped the small mace and drew a two handed club from its back.
“Cryo!” Nat snapped.
“I’m sorry Nathan, the sophistication of the hacking techniques I’m encountering are nothing I have seen before.”
“Wait! Look!!” laughed Wendell, banging his fist on the desk.
Just as Ironhound raised its weapon to finish off Banshee—who had rolled into a corner—there was an explosion. Sparks arched off the stout S.L.A.G., high into the air. Arms seized…and the machine fell backwards, frozen.
“Well I’ll be a vallen-hugger,” mumbled Tumbler. He spat his chewed cigar onto the floor. “That was a flash-weld if I ever saw one!”
Freak adjusted his goggles, “I think the stakes just went up.”
“What’s a flash weld?” Wendell asked.
The old gnome scratched his head as he stared at the monitor, “It a special technique to fuse two surfaces without using filler. Gotta generate a lot ‘o heat though. If they have devices that can do that, well…”
“WooHOO!” cried Dax as Betty’s giant spear penetrated Princesses headpiece. He snatched Nat’s mic and yelled, “Hannah, can you finish Ironhound? Princess is out of the games!”
“I…think so,” she crackled over the speaker. But Banshee didn’t move. She gasped over the com-link, “The controls won’t respond!”
Armored Ensemble rose to its feet, smoke still rolling out from a shoulder cannon in its dead arm.
Oh no, Wendell froze, watching the monitor, she’s not going to make it. He stared on as the knight lifted the giant sword and walked patiently over to the two prone S.L.A.G.s.
Betty 4.0 had already landed and was kicking Princesses head around like a soccer ball on the far side of the Trench.
Get up, Alhannah…get up!
The crowd started chanting “BANSHEE! BANSHEE! BANSHEE!”
What does that mean? “Do they want her finished?”
Nat shook his head, “I don’t know, but look!”
For a long moment, Armored Ensemble paused, his sword raised high. The massive weapon shifted between Banshees body and Ironhound, unsure.
The sword dropped.
Ironhound’s head split open, exploding into sparks and billowing smoke.
The speakers thundered across the stadium, “AND THE FINAL BLOW FALLS TO SEAL THE DEAL FOR ROUND ONE! MERCY SHOWN MAY COME BACK TO HAUNT YOU ARMORED ENSEMBLE,” the voice teased, “…BUT THAT’S FOR ANOTHER DAY! OUR VICTORS TONIGHT ARE ARMORED ENSEMBLE, BETTY 4.0 AND BANSHEE!”
The crowd went nuts, the chanting shifting to, “ARMOR E! ARMOR E! ARMOR E!”
Dax tossed the head mic onto the desk and exhaled heavily. “Now that…was close.”
Nat frowned down at Cryo64. “Too close.”