Situated only a brief trek north from Stonewall, this hedonistic neon den of gambling and alcohol stands in stark contrast to the quaint serenity of farming life.
As I pass under the large stone archways, my visual and auditory senses are bombarded by a cacophony of bright lights and booming sounds. Giant spot lights illuminate the stadium, a soft white glow dotted by the reds, blues and yellows of the neon storefront signs and holographic billboards.
I’ve never been particularly vested in holmgang, but Hubiak has. I meet her in front of a Sunken Dog stand, where she wastes no time in trying to ensure I have the “full experience” of holmgang. This, it seems, includes trying some of the local stadium food…
“Oh, man! You have to try one of these for yourself,” Hubiak tells me, grabbing two Sunken Dogs off the counter and practically shoving one of the plump franks in my hands. “They’re so good. They have this pop when you first bite into ‘em, and the meat is so tender. They use real brontodon meat mixed with this nutrient paste from--”
“Okay!” I exclaim, cutting her off. “I don’t want to know what’s in these, thank you.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. You’re one of those ‘don’t tell me how they make it’ types. Understood. Roger. All heard.”
I give Hubiak a look through narrowed eyes, and she calms down. She has been following holmgang all her life, and knows the game inside and out. She’s become one of the foremost experts on the sport, and files reports on standings and tournament outcomes on the SIN. Her enthusiasm for the sport is refreshing, and her general positivity is an always welcome change of pace, if not occasionally… overwhelming.
From the hot dog stand we have a view of the playing field which Hubiak is quick to point out is “utter crap,” so we start to make our way towards the stadium.
“So tell me,” I begin our interview. “What drew you to holmgang?”
“Well, when I was young it was one of the few things my father and I did together. He would tell me about how he used to go to matches in Rio de Janeiro with his father – my granddad – and would see some of the all-time greats. After matches I’d stay up and listen to my grandfather tell me stories about the greats he saw growing up; Marcello Succhirelli, Svald Joergen, and Kristen Alexandria. Oh, I wanted to be like her when I grew up, but you know how life gets in the way.”
“So you were drawn into it at an early age?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” We make a quick stop at a trashcan outside of Luau Larry’s to dispose of our wrappers while she continues. “When it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to compete, I started studying the game; its history, the technology used. Did you realize that holmgang frames, for a long time, were just modified versions of the frames used by the Accord military? They swap out most of the deadly equipment for non-lethal substitutes, of course, but that’s still pretty amazing to think about!”
“That it is,” I assure her. "I assume that's a two-way street? Tech developed for holmgang finding their way to the military?"
"Uh..." She goes quiet a moment as she thinks it through. "Maybe? I know that before holmgang those battleframes were a whole lot bulkier. But I'd have to look into it more before I gave you specifics."
We stop outside the stadium entrance, and I point up at the holographic banners on the side of the building. “So who are these guys?”
Hubiak’s eyes go wide. “You don’t know Mustang?!”
“Well of course I know about Mustang. He’s a legend, for sure – I think I even have Mustang-branded seat covers on my Locust. Plus it was all over the SIN when he agreed to license his name out to the barbecue place here. But who are the other two?”
We stop, and Hubiak takes a moment to look up at the banners. “Oh, they changed ‘em.”
Apparently they’ve recently been changed.
“Well, Javiar is a local kid,” she tells me. “I’ve seen him run Biotech and Recon before, but he typically keeps with an Engineer frame. He probably has the best turret placement of anybody playing holmgang today, if not ever. I’ve seen Javiar deploy turrets in places that I didn’t think could be reached.”
“And who is the other one?”
“The other is ‘Nochance’ – one word. His name would be apt for his enemies, but in truth he’s kind of streaky. I’ve seen him go 19-0 in a match before, only to go 2-14 the next night.”
“And of course there’s Mustang.”
“The legend himself,” she mutters under her breath, a hint of resentment in her tone.
As we make our way to our seats, I ask Hubiak about the stadium itself, and its history.
“Well, before the Firefall this was all a giant industrial port – the largest one in Brazil, in fact. When the Firefall happened, meteorites struck the ocean and this whole area was washed away by the tsunamis. The Accord tried terraforming the area, but they left the coastline alone.”
“So, what happened then?”
“As the port rotted, kids would sneak out here and start hosting their own matches in the wreckage. The mayor (his title was “Commissioner”, not “Mayor” – ED) at the time, a crusty old fella by the name of Daakernot, saw an opportunity to bring in some revenue and founded the Sunken Harbor holmgang Tournament. Over the years it morphed from a tournament into a proper league, and it’s still easily the most popular attraction anywhere in New Eden.
We make it to our seats – not the best in the world, but not terrible, either. The bright spotlights shine on the playing arena, and the announcer’s booming voice resonates all around us as he welcomes us to Sunken Harbor stadium.
“Don’t you think that with war all but inevitable, and with Sunken Harbor’s relative proximity to the Melding, it may not be the best idea to keep these tournaments going here?”
“What would you have them do,” Hubiak asks. “Run up north to the Dump? Build something near Copa? People want holmgang for the exact reason you just pointed out – war is coming. This is an escape; a fun distraction that keeps our minds off the fact that we could be overrun at any moment with almost nothing to be done to stop it.”
Hubiak stands up on her seat, arms stretched out to the sides as she takes in the view.
“Look around you, Manny! You have hundreds – thousands – of people who are out to have a good time and take their minds off of life. This is what holmgang is. It’s an escape, a--”
“Sit down!” shouts the middle-aged man sitting behind us. Hubiak looks around briefly to find several sets of eyes glaring up at her, and promptly plops herself back in her seat.
“My point is that holmgang is a small sliver of normalcy in this world. Are we scared? Sure, most of us are. But we keep it buried – after all, what’s fear and freaking out going to do to help except make us tired and weary whenever the shoe does drop?”
“You make a good point,” I concede. “I just wonder why, if worried about the Chosen, people turn to a gladiatorial bloodsport for entert--”
“It’s not a bloodsport,” Hubiak interrupts, quite impassioned. “There are rules and regulations, safety precautions to keep the combatants out of harm’s way. holmgang isn’t about brutality; it’s about competition, about the elegance of piloting a battleframe, and the cunning to get the drop on your enemy. It is brute force and flowing grace.”
"And the head stomp!" A drunken voice behind us shouts. Hubiak snaps her head around to him and stares the drunken patron down until he returns his attention to his Wiki Whacker.
“And what about these underground leagues I’ve heard rumblings about?”
“Pathetic,” Hubiak scoffs. “It should be illegal. A bunch of self-serving machismo types who want to prove their superiority. The problem, besides the obvious loss of human life, is that it serves no practical purpose. The person that winds up winning has nobody to brag to because the poor sod that loses is dead, and because lethal holmgang is generally frowned on by the public the winner has nobody to brag to about his prowess. That’s why most lethal matches wind up being grudges between feuding gangs, or kids who don’t know anything about anything thinking they’re hot shi--”
“I seem to have hit a nerve,” I interject. She stops to shoot me a grimace.
We pause to listen to the announcer introduce the teams. Most of the names I don’t recognize: “Machado”, “Danny the Pale”, and the like. Then they introduce Mustang, and the crowd goes wild as he jets to the very center of the map, to the very top of a ship mast. He blows kisses to the crowd, as the other holmgangers look on – obviously unimpressed by his antics.
“Okay, Elissa,” I say to her. “I think I understand where you’re coming from. I do have one more question, though.”
“…where did they find a pirate ship?”
The match itself is a lopsided beatdown, ending in a score of 25-9. Of course Mustang’s team won, and afterward we were treated to a display of showboating that was both eclectic and intricate. It’s obvious that Mustang has this routine planned out. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of finer examples of entertaining showmanship that I have ever seen.
This is a very small portrait of Sunken Harbor, of course. Beneath the glitz and glam of the stadium’s neon lights is a darker undercurrent of gambling, narcotics, and crime. Thanks to an anonymous tip from a local con artist and informant, I’ve learned where many of them are hiding out. Against my own better judgment, I think I’ll pay the place a visit…