"WELCOME, LADIES AND GENTLEMAN TO TONIGHT'S STEAM. BOT. R-R-R-RUMBLE!" Huge horn-shaped loudspeakers make sure that everyone in the stadium can hear the voice of the commentator, even over the noise of the cheering crowd and the impending clash of steam-powered robots. "We have a tremendous match for you tonight folks, a true David versus Goliath fight. In the west corner, we have the heaviest bot to participate in the current competition. Two-time runner-up of the championship, and arguably crowd favourite this year..." The commentator pauses to let the crowd confirm this speculation with loud cheers. "Standing an incredible 15 feet tall. IIIIT'S COLOSSUS."
My front row seat allows me to see everything that happens in the fighting arena with ease. As well it should: it cost me a pretty penny to be this close to the fight. Money well spent, as far as I'm concerned. It is vital that I am seated close to the commentator, should everything go according to plan.
Two concrete slabs of the arena floor slide apart, and third moving platform slowly heaves a huge bipedal robot into the fighting pit. The crowd goes wild as Colossus rises out of the ground dramatically. It resembles a knight in plate armour, but with a spherical cockpit in the place where the knight's neck and head should be. It is enormous: arms and legs so big they each have a separate dust engine powering them. It is covered in steel plates that would weigh down smaller bots to the point of immobility.
Colossus' pilot is a real showman: inciting cheers with hand gestures and then making the robot imitate those gestures.
"AAAAND in the east corner, we have a newcomer to this competition, but the return of a familiar robot design. Decades ago was the last time that a bot with more than four legs managed to win the wheel-less division, but perhaps this bot can change that? Give it up for THE OCTOPEDE!"
A second bot is lifted into the arena but it is accompanied by far less applause. Compared to Colossus, it looks tiny, though it's still easily 6 feet tall. Despite its eight spindly legs, the steam bot looks more like an ant than a spider, with the cockpit as its head. Below the cockpit, two chainsaw blades represent the ant's fangs and appear to be the robot's only weapon. The pilot of the Octopede is still young, no older than twenty, and his inexperience shows. He attempts to spur on the crowd like his rival did, but the look of awe on his face and insecure movements make him fail miserably.
"The rules, as always, are simple," The announcer continues. "We fight until a robot is unable to move or until a pilot yields. No projectile weapons. No blows aimed at pilots. And, of course, absolutely no magic. Anything else goes. Are you ready, pilots?"
Both pilots nod, the man in Colossus with a confident smile, the boy in the Octopede with a nervous grimace.
"Then the match will begin in three. Two. One. GO!"
Colossus wastes no time and moves forward surprisingly quickly for a machine of its size. Its intention is clear enough: crushing the Octopede beneath its feet like the bug it looks like.
The Octopede is not about to let that happen. The robot skitters aside, easily avoiding Colossus' charge.
The announcer is giving moment-to-moment commentary for the people in worse seats than mine, but I tune it out and focus on the fight instead.
With the same speed it dodged Colossus, the Octopede then circles the huge robot. Almost flying by Colossus, it jabs one of its legs forward like a spear, making first contact. The strike bounces of Colossus' armour, only scratching the paint.
Colossus tries to take advantage of his opponent's boldness by stamping down on the leg that scratched it, but once again the Octopede is too fast for it.
The next few minutes, the fight is at a stalemate: Colossus is to slow to touch the spider bot, but the Octopede is to light to pierce the giant's armour plates. The pilot of the Colossus seems to relax as the fight goes on. He knows his opponent will run out of steam before him, with the amount of moving the Octopede does. A steam bot with empty water tank might as well be an eccentrically shaped furnace for all the good it'll do in a battle.
The Octopede's pilot seems unconcerned: he keeps jabbing away at arms and legs of his opponent's bot, seemingly hoping for a miracle that'll let him do some damage. All is going according to our plan. Lure the opposing pilot into a false sense of security, and then strike quickly and decisively.
"What? Can't even dent my armour?" The pilot of the Colossus yells tauntingly over the cacophony of the arena. "Maybe you shouldn't have brought your little toy to the big leagues then, boy!"
In response, my friend Jake, the pilot of the Octopede, jabs a leg forward once again, aiming at Colossus' right knee. He strikes true but gets the leg stuck in the joint.
Colossus grabs the leg and tugs it with enough strength to send the Octopede flying, intending to do just that. Luckily, the Octopede was designed with this situation in mind. Jake manages to detach the leg that is stuck before his vehicle is jerked skywards. Suddenly only holding one leg instead of an entire vehicle, the Colossus loses its balance for a moment. Jake moves forward to take advantage of his opponent's staggering. The Colossus' experienced pilot recovers quickly, however, and Jake is forced to retreat again.
"That's it. I've had enough of this little game. I'll finish you. Now!" The pilot yells.
Colossus rushes forwards and tries to impale the Octopede on its own leg with a two-handed, overhead lunge. Colossus' pilot seems certain he'll be able to hit the opposing steam bot this time since it's one leg down.
He is mistaken. Jake has dropped another leg to regain his bot's stability and moves back in the nick of time. Then, he makes the Octopede balance on its four hind legs and jabs both of his front legs forward, like a praying mantis striking its prey. He finds his marks, and both of the legs are stuck in the Colossus' arms. Jake detaches the legs before pulls back its arms again.
"Four legs down, four to go!" Colossus' pilot yells, yet his confident grin is gone. This steam bot, piloted by a nobody and without corporate sponsors, proves more troublesome than he anticipated.
I cannot suppress a grin. The Colossus' pilot doesn't know his battle is already lost.
Colossus tries to take another swing at the Octopede, which, balancing on four legs, is no longer as quick as it was before. However, its arms don't seem to want to cooperate. Instead of crushing his opponent, Colossus' arm remains at its side, spewing out steam in all the wrong places.
Jake has hit his targets perfectly: the exhaust pipes on Colossus' arms. The legs clog up the pipes, overheating and overstressing the engines. And with both arms disabled at once, one arm cannot grab the leg that's stuck in the other.
Not realising the severity of his situation, the pilot of Colossus kicks at the Octopede. Jake, however, for the first time this match goes on the offensive as well. With all the strength left in its four remaining legs, the Octopede launches itself into Colossus. The kick grazes the Octopede, but the damage to the giant robot is far bigger.
With no arms to stabilise it and one leg outstretched for a kick, the impact knocks it over. The two robots crash into the ground. The tremendous crash followed by a moment of silence as the entire crowd – including the commentator – holds its breath.
The Octopede sits on top of Colossus's torso, its chainsaw fangs pressed against one of its legs. With no way for Colossus to get up, Jake will have enough time to shred through the armour with those blades. I can no longer contain my excitement, and begin cheering and clapping loudly. Jake actually did it! Months of tinkering and even longer training had paid off in a big way.
Colossus' pilot is experienced enough to know when he's been beat. "I surrender. Well fought kid. You're a damn good pilot."
The commentator begins a monologue about this unexpected result: the downfall of one of the favourites for this year's championship. Some people in the crowd express their disbelief and disappointment more aggressively. Among them is a man just a few seats over from mine: "That is outrageous! That boy was cheating! He had to be! No one can control that many legs that quickly all at once. He must've had help. Trickery! Magic!"
I recognise the raging man as Pierre Farand, director of Farand steel, Colossus' biggest sponsor.
"Are you implying that the tournament organisation didn't do their job correctly? That they conspired against you?" I ask Farand.
"Keep out of this, girl. I don't know who has brought you your seat, but it's clear to me you don't belong here," the man responds, only glancing me before looking be at the arena. "You wouldn't know the limits of steam bots. This was beyond that."
He thinks that I'm just another spoiled rich man's daughter come to seek some amusement. So at least these extremely uncomfortable clothes had done their job. I'll never understand why any woman would wear a corset willingly.
"But what if he did control the bot by himself?" I say. "What if he used a control mechanism not seen since the last successful steam bot with more than four legs?"
"Oh please. Nobody's been able to replicate the mechanism you mean since..." Now he looks at me. I can see him beginning to put it all together in his head. My green eyes and granite-coloured hair. My knowledge of decades-old steam bot control mechanisms. My defending of the pilot of the Octopede...
I don't wait for him to come to a conclusion. Jake had done his part, so now it was my turn to do mine. I make my way towards the commentator's booth, excusing myself to all people whose seats I pass. At the booth, I take a sheet of paper from my purse and hand it to the man standing guard at the door.
"I think the commentator might want to read this," I tell him. I give him a Florin for good measure, but he will probably want to give it to the commentator after he reads it anyway. It is the kind of information that'll help the commentator calm the crowd and make the rest of the tournament more interesting.
I don't stand around to see if the document actually reaches the announcer. Instead, I move back towards my seat. Jake has not yet left his pilot's seat but is making victory laps through the arena inside of the Octopede instead. He is just coming this way. His brown eyes find mine, and I nod. On that sign, he stops his lap, lays down the body of his bot on the ground and extends one leg to the edge of the arena.
At my seat, I grab the two metal contraptions tucked away beneath my seat. They are about two feet in length and are the shape of lower legs. I swing my legs over the railing around the arena.
"Hey, hold up! You are not allowed to go into the arena, miss," a security officer shouts at me, making his way through the crowd.
"Hold on, folks, I've received some interesting information," the voice of the announcer sounds through the loudspeakers. Just in time.
"You'll want to make an exception for me!" I shout at the security officer. "Trust me! Just listen to the announcer."
Without waiting for the reaction of the officer, and still holding a metal leg in each hand, I drop down onto the Octopede's extended leg. I manage to keep my balance as Jake gently lowers me to the ground. I sigh of relief. We practised this manoeuvre a lot, but I was still afraid it would go wrong.
"The mystery creator of today's victorious steam bot has seen fit to reveal himself. Or I should say herself..." The announcer continues. "Because the Octopede was built by no one else than Nora Foucault, daughter of former champion Theodore Foucault!"
In response to hearing my name, I throw off my hat to reveal the pair of goggles beneath it. Goggles are the universal sign of tinkers and mechanics, of course.
I walk toward the Octopede's cockpit, where Jake is already disconnecting himself from the steam bot.
"She's used the same extraordinary control mechanism that her father invented two dozen years ago. And the Octopede's pilot, Jake Griffon, already has more than a decade of experience using this mechanism."
Jake opens the cockpit and lifts himself to its edge, letting his legs stick out from the cabin. His legs end below the thighs, but instead of stumps, they end in a coupling piece, with copper wires coming out of them. These neuronic couplings are well known to everyone familiar with my father's work. It's one of his inventions that blurs the line between magic and technology. One of the ones that make people call him a mad scientist, though the politically correct term is arcane scientist.
The couplings allow someone to control a piece of machinery with electrical signals from their brain. My father used his invention to makes prostheses. Plenty of market for those: arms and legs get stuck easily in steam engines and the machines they power. Most prostheses were simple: one or two joints. Most people simply couldn't control more than that. Controlling the artificial limbs is supposedly very taxing.
Then, ten years ago, my father brought a boy my age with jet-black hair into his workshop. The boy had lost both of his legs in a traffic accident. His parents were too poor to support a cripple and had cast him out on the street, where my father had found him. He built the boy a pair of legs like none he had ever made before. My father had claimed to be inspired and had built legs with knee, heel and five toes each. The boy learned to use the legs very quickly. Soon, he walked as easily on them as on the flesh-and-blood ones he had once had. And today, that boy had defeated Colossus by controlling a steam bot using the same neuronic coupling that connected him to his new legs.
I first toss Jake one of his legs, then the other. He attaches each one with a single swift motion and jumps down from the edge of the cockpit.
"Nora Foucault has clearly inherited her father's engineering skills," the commentator tells the crowd. "Together with a pilot who appears as good a pilot as Theodore Foucault was, we have a steam bot team that could have a decent shot at the championship this year. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the winners of today's steam bot rumble: Jake Griffon and Nora Foucault!"
Jake grabs my hand, and we raise our hands together to the cheering crowd.