A Sure Bet
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There is an island resting at the mouth of the Pearl River, caught between the mass of the Chinese mainland and the open waters of the South China Sea. It is an urban mangrove, a forest of glass-and-chrome skyscrapers, flashy hotels and casinos rising high into the air on every block, crushing corrugated-steel slums underfoot. At night, the city comes to life, drenching the streets with neon and spreading its legs to the hordes of tourists, one crooked finger inviting them and their wallets closer. The streets are ravines, edged on all sides by resorts-towers and casino-complexes — overhead, a few flying casinos for the ultrawealthy hover like extraneous moons, tethered to nearby skyscraper masts by steel cabling and kept aloft by arrays of jets.

In our modern century, Macau is a vertical city; no matter how much land is dredged up and reclaimed from the waters, it cannot outpace the imminent desire for space. So the city builds up and across. The concrete avenues of the old city have long-since been surrendered for more foundation — now, guests use the array of sky-bridges that link all the major casinos together like the threads of a spider’s web. The less-fortunate are forced to occupy the ugly undercity: intricate tunnel networks that keep the neon-drenched monstrosity above alive. For all of its attempts to excise itself of reality, the city needs the poor to exist as much as it does the rich. And in a happy coincidence, it turns the latter into the former with frightening efficiency.

For the past few weeks, the energy in the city has gone from an excited, carefree revelry to something… different. Still thrilled and drunk off capital, of course, but with an edge of anticipation. The satcasts and audshows have been talking about it for weeks, panels of talking heads and self-proclaimed ‘titan enthusiasts’ sitting around tables and discussing advantages and disadvantages. The massive smart-paper screens that dominate the glass skins of some of the casinos advertise it on a regular basis in a variety of languages. Bookies begin tentatively discussing odds in smoke-filled back rooms.

The prodigal son of a Saudi mining trillionaire lands his private aircraft on the helipad of his standing suite. A representative from the New Venetian greets him, ready to comp his meals and provide him with whatever he wants to keep him gambling.

Deep in the maintenance warrens of the city, a seacrane operator exchanges his last few hundred pataca for a bookie slip. He will not eat tonight.

In the city’s offshore airport, a man steps off a supersonic flight, surrounding by other rushing tourists, and stares at the open ocean. He has a feeling he’s gonna be lucky tonight.

Half a world away, something shifts.

On paper, the Republic of Madagascar still exists.

In reality, almost 85% of the country’s land has been given under long-term lease to the Commercial Bioengineering Research and Innovation Group (C-BRIG), a corpocartel of almost twenty companies who all despise each other. The name was developed over 6 months by New York’s finest marketing firm to paint a highly-palatable image of lab-coated scientists handling vials containing the cures to the world’s diseases. Once again, nowhere near the truth.

On paper, Madagascar is a developing economy with diverse agricultural and extraction industries and a growing service sector.

In reality, Madagascar is home to one and only one industry: titans. The island, with its wet, humid subtropical conditions, lack of economic and infrastructural development, and relative isolation from the rest of the world, provides the single best location on the planet to develop and breed new Massive Bioengineered Lifeforms — kaiju. In the decade after the commercial production of kaiju became economically viable, all twenty of those original companies independently realized the potential Madagascar held and began turning out their coffers to provide loans to the developing country that they knew it couldn’t pay back.

Inevitably, the government defaulted on its loans, the economy collapsed, and a rush began to loot its corpse of all the land it could. When that ran out, companies began fighting over jungle and mineral rights. What little remained of the government weakly protested as their country was unceremoniously torn apart by the ravenous pack. They asked the Americans to step in, and step in they did — but not to stop the carnage, just to force the corporations to unify into a group and internally agree on the method of murder before enacting it. It was easier to negotiate with one entity than twenty, they rationalized; conveniently, once the C-BRIG came into existence, the Americans left before doing any actual negotiating.

On paper, 95% of the country’s permanent population resides in the urbanized 15% of the country.

In reality, this is what remains of the Republic of Madagascar: a few largely-symbolic government facilities and population centers that none of the companies wanted to assume the upkeep of. This is an intentional discrepancy — the tens of thousands of well-paid engineers and researchers that C-BRIG flies in from overseas to spend months at one of the dozens of laboratories and Growth Centers are considered foreign contractors, despite comprising over 70% of the country’s residents.

One can experience both Madagascars in a matter of minutes: you can walk through the streets of Antananarivo, see the wealthy districts where many executives keep vacation homes within spitting distance of shantytowns and slums. With the appropriate security clearance, you can get in a jeep and drive for a short hour, watch the buildings give way to rural landscapes, past one of dozens private security checkpoints filled with frowning men with guns, and into what is generously and sardonically called “the private sector”.

Here, national law no longer applies; it is a corporate nation, where borders are as fluid as they are invisible. C-BRIG’s different companies own different amounts of equity in the dozens of laboratories, all researching different projects, safely isolated from each other by miles of intentionally-untamed jungle. Foreign professionals can be seen taking walks around the grounds of the large concrete-and-glass buildings. Trucks carrying classified cargo trundle along the paved roads, and helicopters fly overhead ferrying executives between the different buildings. Welcome to the real Madagascar.

Except, no, this still isn’t the real Madagascar. Even with the increasing amount of C-BRIG facilities, Madagascar is a big place. C-BRIG owns 85% of the country, but has only developed 20% of it. The rest is the Preserve.

When one of the Growth Centers has nearly ‘hatched’ a Titan (a colloquialism; modern Titans are grown in gargantuan amniotic vats that they are craned out from), the shivering, pathetic, blind, helpless hatchling — still the size of a house — is loaded onto a semi-truck and brought from the Vat to the edge of the Preserve. A vast, large-untouched natural park, offering Kaiju the chance to grow in semi-natural surroundings and researchers the chance to observe them while they do it.

At any given time, the Preserve has between 5 and 20 Titans roaming the grounds, finding food, growing massively in size, coming into conflict with their brethren, learning how to fight and how to survive. Electronic control units embedded within them can be used to direct their behaviour, but only in broad strokes; for the most part, researchers watch them as they are. And, if needed, have them sedated by a dart the size of a Cessna to be brought back to the Active Development Center, cut into, and modified with technology or retroviruses. Over the development cycle of a titan, they can go under the knife as many as twenty times, growing bigger, deadlier, a better performer every time. Nearly every titan that has ever competed in the TitanClash circuit began life like this in the Preserve, and much of their animosity in the prizefights comes from this deep-seated, primal hatred of competition.

This is not Jurassic Park; tourists are strictly disallowed, and fighter jets regularly patrol the area, precleared to drop a nuclear warhead if any of the subjects attempt to escape. The perimeter of the island is lined with sonic deterrents and additional warheads to deter both the subjects and any potential trespassers.

On paper, Madagascar has never had a successful security breach, nor a titan tampered with while it was in development.

Back in Macau. The day is close now. The casinos and resorts have turned their coffers inside-out marketing the TitanClash event of the century across the entire world. To anyone looking, it’s obvious that in the weeks leading up to it, tourism to the island has exploded. Even in the tens of thousands of hotel rooms in Macau, finding a free suite during the fight has grown difficult.

Somewhat uniquely, the casinos themselves are also the owners of the different titans. They sponsor its creation, development, and maintenance, and make their investment back by merchandising each one to hell. In the mammoth gift shop of the Sultanate, you can find t-shirts, lunchboxes, dataplates, plushies, and everything in between of Caravan, a hulking sky-scraper sized scaled thing that looks like an white-and-gold armadillo with the proportions of a polar bear. Some places take it even further; the Luna Grande’s champion, an aquatic titan resembling an oarfish and measuring almost a quarter of a kilometer long, has proprietary ‘smart tattoos’ embedded subdermally that the casino leases out as advertising space during fights. The New Venetian’s titan had a children’s satcast show until his head was torn off during a bout; the debut of their new fighter after five years is part of why this event is being so aggressively promoted.

A man takes the express elevator down to the ground floor of the New Venetian. The elevator is filled with chattering couples, exhausted families, and desperate gamblers. The hundred floors of the casino shoot by as it descends and lets out. He takes another drag, then carves a focused path out of the labyrinthine lobby and outside. From there, it’s a brisk walk to the bridgeside.

The bridges that connect the islands of Macau span across the vast harbor, feeding out into the Pearl River Estuary. It is traditional that, in the weeks before a fight (which itself takes place out in the waters of the estuary), the titans be exhibited in the harbor. Like everything else, it has been turned into a marketing event. The railings that allow a view into the harbor are crowded with the audience; the man gently weaves through the throng and finds a good spot.

Not a moment too soon. The specially-built barges that carry the sedated titans cross under the first bridge and come into view, to roars from the audience.

The first, lead barge is exactly as expected: on its deck lies a coiled-up sea-serpent caked in thick, reflective black scales with a weblike pattern. This is Naga, owned by the Himalayan Resort and Casino. Since her debut nineteen years ago, she has grown into a veritable cultural icon as one of the last almost-wholly organic titans: merchandising, media rights, even a line of tiny garden-snake pets bio-engineered to resemble her. But her popularity has been waning; this is widely promoted as her comeback match.

Many people are enthralled by her, shouting her name, cheering every time she raised her head or bared her fangs when the electrodes installed in her brain delivered a light jolt. Many others, including the man, are waiting for the second act. Then it slides under the bridge, ever so slowly. Speakers on the barge announce it in a variety of languages: “The New Venetian presents… ARACHNID!”

In a moment, dozens of the rumours swirling around this thing are confirmed or dismissed. It is a gargantuan, ugly thing: insectoid in appearance, with eight huge chitinous legs folded up under it. The body was more chelicerate, resembling a greenish lobster, exacerbated by the presence of two huge crushing claws on its front limbs. In clear inspiration from the loss of their last fighter, it had no clear neck or head, the glassy black eyes instead buried in the thing’s torso. Those eyes darted left and right as the pincers snapped at the air aimlessly. Much of the torso was plated titanium — he had no doubt there was some truly advanced circuitry under the shell.

The assembled people cheered, but the man just smiled at it like an old friend.

Kaijus are big business.

There’s the professional fighting circuit, of course, but that only makes up about a third of the economy surrounding the things. The rest is a smorgasbord of industries: heavy manufacturing, construction, agribusiness, and of course, “defense”.

Once, it was thought that titans would supplant nukes as the new frontier of warfare. Needless to say, that was wrong; the frontier of warfare ended up being economic. Kaijus ended up as a novelty that simply did not have practical use — you can’t order a kaiju to attack a specific city, you can’t teach it tactics, you can’t even provide effective support to it because they are, fundamentally and despite all efforts to make them otherwise, unpredictable animals.

But that wasn’t always obvious, and if there’s one thing the defense industry likes to be, it’s prepared. When the hysteria was that we would all have to fear titan attacks on American soil, the boys at the Pentagon asked for a small slice of the pie that is the defense budget to investigate “anti-MBL weaponry”. For all their uses, nuclear weapons are not the most elegant solution — certainly no one cares about the ethical considerations of planting a MOAB into the chest cavity of a Komodo-hawk-turtle rampaging through the streets, but there is the issue of fallout and whether it will even kill the thing, and now that we already had the money, it seemed a waste not to use it.

So they portioned away the money in the form of grants and got to work. The United States military in the modern era is little more than a project manager — the actual work is largely done by private security corporations, who were happily handed cratefuls of money to find something that could ensure the President did not need to worry about Washington being attacked by flying toxic octopi.

The biggest and most successful of these was Tannenbay Shear, a company originally heavily invested in aerospace before it branched out to chemical and biological warfare (and not coincidentally, one of the few such companies that was not a C-BRIG member). Tannenbay’s in-house research program almost immediately ran into a wall: kaiju are not standardized.

In almost every other countermeasure-development process, one can at least rely on the uniformity of the target: broadly, soldiers of an army wear the same gear, carry the same guns, serve on the same ships with the same cannons, and use the same planes carrying the same bombs. Not true for titans, who are all unique from the moment of conceptualization to creation — some are biological, some are artificial, most are a mix of the two. The challenge lay in creating a single countermeasure that was equally effective against all MBLs, regardless of design or origin.

It took fifteen years and approximately $1.6 billion dollars of taxpayer money, but they did it. In tune with the Pentagon’s acronym fetish, Tannenbay Shear presented S.M.I.T.E. (Standardized Massive Internal Trauma Engine) to a committee of four-star generals. They targeted the one thing that was universal amongst titans: the brainstem.

All the computer engineering in the world couldn’t get around the fact that evolution had millions of years to optimize the brainstem, and simulating it with computers was exponentially more expensive and inefficient than simply growing one. Even fully-artificial kaiju’s brainstems were functionally just wetware computers. S.M.I.T.E exploited this by releasing nanobots into the cooling fluid of the titan (whether blood, coolant, or oil — everything needs some kind of liquid) that would swim upstream to the brainstem and work together to filter the inherent elements of life — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen — from the brainstem; conveniently, also all the elements necessary to synthesize plastic explosives.

In all tests, S.M.I.T.E was a success. The weapon could be detonated remotely from a satellite signal, the detonation was entirely contained, and best of all, it didn’t even technically kill the titan, just left them braindead enough to be collected, studied, and repurposed. Unfortunately, there was one issue: delivery. It was immensely difficult to break through a titan’s shell, whether scale or skin or metal, into the cooling fluid — and if the weapon couldn’t reach that, it was useless.

To make matters worse, by the time it was presented, the world had come to realize that these things were largely useless for practical warfare. Of the prototypes produced, a handful were kept by the military as a just-in-case, and the remainder were repossessed by Tannenbay Shear and sent to one of their orbital arms lock-ups where they sat, untouched, for the better part of a century. The company wrote it off as a failed venture and moved on.

Nobody noticed when one went missing.

Fight night.

Those were the words in everyone’s heads, from the highest penthouse suites to the lowest hostels of the undercity. Every millionaire and billionaire in town and every night-laborer and pharma-tester were struck with the same frenetic anticipation. All the buildup for months, all the hype, all the marketing, it all led up to this.

For once, the casino floors were largely quiet — a sea of abandoned slot machines and green card tables with no one manning or playing them. There were still gamblers who couldn’t quit and people too drunk to get to their feet, of course, but today, the main attraction was outside. The crowds had their three-martini lunches in the restaurants and made their way to the beaches to set themselves up.

The rich would be watching from chartered quadcopters flying just outside the safety circle — it was a risk, but money can’t buy sense. Everyone else was relegated to the beaches, laying down towels or just planting themselves in the crowded sand, chattering amongst themselves as the sun slowly drew down the horizon. Hours prior, the titans had been extracted to the floating lab-ships in the estuary to run final pre-fight checks, and there was nothing to look at in the bay until the fight.

The man was also there, wearing the same rumpled old unassuming suit, even in the damning heat. He wasn’t the first one to see it, but he was close. As soon as someone started shouting in a language he didn’t understand, he looked up from his tablet.

Naga. Out there, breaching out of the water. A whale behaviour that she didn’t actually need, thanks to her gills, but was programmed in anyway for showmanship. She was following a small tugboat into the arena, marked by buoys. Once she was in, the tugboat turned around and jetted out of the arena.

The four powerful helicopters that glided out from behind one of the islands brought another cheer, particularly once it became clear that they were working together to lift Arachnid’s gargantuan form. Steel cables bound it up and attached it to the bottoms of the heavy-lift choppers, who dragged it low to the water and into the arena over the course of about ten minutes. One of the consequences of being simply too large, the man mused. Once they were in the buoyed arena and Arachnid’s legs were touching the water, the cables suddenly released, and the monster went crashing into the water, displacing huge waves. No doubt Naga had noticed, and was only being restrained by her ECU.

He looked down at the tablet. His feed was alive with commentary — some from people watching live like him, some from talking heads on all the big kaiju networks, most from ordinary people watching on their screens from home. People were shifting their bets last minute, struck by cold feet and intimidated by Arachnid. The consensus seemed to be that it represented a new frontier in melding technology and organic titans; the bleeding edge of high-tech titans. People were scared, and losing faith in the fan favorite. He held his bet steady.

The speakers lining the beach had been blaring commentary for the past hour or so, but the chatter was finally interrupted by one noise he immediately recognized: the ring bell. Another cheer from across the entire island at the same time; he could’ve sworn he saw Arachnid turn towards the noise for a second before turning back.

It was on.

For a moment, it was suspiciously silent. Arachnid turned its entire torso side to side, trying to get a pin on where Naga was under the waves. The lack of weak point around the neck was also it’s greatest disadvantage — significantly hobbled its vision. It swung around in a circle, snapping at dark spots in the water.

Then, like a lightning bolt, Naga rocketed out of the water, gigantic fangs outstretched. She moved incredibly quickly for her vast size, wrapping around one of Arachnid’s pincers and slamming her teeth against the shell. The force didn’t do much — the chitin was just too thick, and Arachnid waved the pincers wildly until she slipped off, falling back into the water.

But now it had a bead on her. Arachnid was also shockingly quick, owing to its eight legs that it danced in and out of the water. At any given time, it was using two of them like harpoons, spearfishing its huge quarry. Streams from helicopters overhead were displayed on giant screens on the beachside: Naga whipped left and right, curving and wrapping around the legs before biting into them, trying to break through the armor.

It wasn’t working. And while it was distracted, it didn’t realize that Arachnid was bringing one huge pincer down, opened wide. At the last possible second, one of her eyes rolled back and she saw it, coiling up rapidly. The pincer didn’t manage to lock her in its grip, which probably would’ve spelled the end of the match and her — instead, it just batted heavily against her flank. Still, the pincer alone probably weighed a few hundred pounds — it clearly hurt her, and the part of her tail it smashed into laid twitching for a few seconds.

Then she bit.

The crowd roared. She hadn’t been aimlessly wrapping around Arachnid’s legs. The slime secreting from between her scales had been rubbing against it, eating away at the chitin enough for her to sink her teeth into it. The shell shattered around her teeth. Arachnid didn’t seem to have a mouth, but if it did, it would’ve screamed.

It whipped the offending leg outward, knocking Naga loose and flying backward into the water. She was gone again. The tone of the crowd shifted. This wasn’t going to be a massacre anymore, she had a fighting— then a pause.

Everyone watched in rapt attention on the screen as the shell pulsed and knitted itself back together, the fragments fusing with one another until, only a minute later, the leg was good as new. Arachnid lowered it, putting weight on it. It held.

Naga was in trouble.

She had a hard enough time getting through the shell. And now it could heal itself? The talking heads on TitanClash were going insane. The man could hear the words “the future” and “cutting edge” through the cheers and boos of the crowd, but kept his eyes focused on the two beasts.

Arachnid was spinning around again, trying to find its quarry. This was Naga’s element, dashing out into the water where she was ultramobile, coming in for a quick attack, and departing. But it wasn’t working on this thing. When she dashed in, slamming against one of its joints and sending Arachnid listing, the other seven legs took up double duty and brought it up while the damage healed.

And every time she came in, she suffered an injury. A leg stabbed into the cartilage of her tail. A pincer butting against her, no doubt causing internal bleeding. At one point, Arachnid actually caught her in his claws, raising her into the air and above its ‘head’ in a display of dominance — something almost arrogantly human about the monstrosity. But that moment of arrogance cost it its victory: Naga rapidly coiled herself, slipping out of the lobsterlike claws and onto the thing’s back. Arachnid whirled around, snipping its claws aimlessly.

Once again, the titan’s vulnerabilities were clear: the heavy shell and no neck meant its movement was crippled. It couldn’t roll its pincers back far enough to throw Naga off, and it couldn’t see what was happening. It wiggled desperately and furiously, the seasnake holding on for dear life.

The man’s brow furrowed. What the hell was she doing? Everyone else was equally confused: Naga had never employed a tactic like this, staying out of the water for extended periods of time, let alone on another kaiju’s back. With one eye, he watched his odds widget go insane. Her odds went from 3/1, to 5/1, to 8/1, to 11/1 as people shifted their bets. People had no confidence in the old girl.

Then Arachnid’s thrashing slowed. At the end of the day, it still had lungs, and needed to breathe. The shell heaved as it presumably caught its breath.

Naga made her move.

She extended herself deftly, wrapping herself like a belt around the thinnest part of Arachnid’s torso. She began to slip down, until her tail came near her mouth and she sunk her fangs into her own tail. Ouroboros.

The feed went even more insane, if it was possible. She had been out of the water too long, she had lost her senses, she was trying to kill herself. 11/1 went to 14/1 to 17/1, an absurd record high for a bout like this. Her muscles strained as she pulled on herself, cinching around the insectoid’s waist. The shell began to show signs of stress, turning white, the pattern of veins becoming visible through it. Through the tail in her mouth, she let out a shrill screech, and somehow Arachnid returned it, a deep, bone-shaking guttural booming. The crowd was in a frenzy. This was it. This was it.

The man tapped a button on his tablet. Somewhere, a satellite pinged.

Arachnid stilled for a second. Then its fucking head exploded.

The boom was loud enough to set off the car alarms from the street along the beach. As they watched, the indentation in the torso where Arachnid’s eyes were exploded outward in a burst of flame and smoke, collapsing the shell around it. Its limbs went limp, and it began to fall forward, into the water. In shock, Naga released her tailtip and fell back into the water — a good instinct that probably saved her from being turned into paste by the corpse of the titan.

The beach was dead still for a moment. People stared at what remained of Arachnid, back peeking out of the water like an island. The talking heads on TitanClash recovered first, shouting in animated rage and passion, asking the questions on everyone’s mind: what the fuck just happened? A few seconds after, shouting lit up the beach, people shouting and screaming at one another in a cornucopia of languages, furious at their bets, enraged at their dataplating, calling their bookies. It was pure chaos.

Somewhere, a Saudi heir put his head in his hands. It was barely a drop in the family coffers, but in a single day, he had lost more money than the GDP of most countries. His family would take notice. His future at the company was practically dead.

Somewhere, a soot-stained laborer watching the match on a 10-inch screen in a dingy underground bar looked at his betting slip in disbelief. He contemplated letting out an animalistic cheer, then looked around at his fellows angrily bemoaning the money they’d lost, and placed it back into the inside pocket of his jacket.

Across Macau, in the blink of an eye, fortunes were made and lost and made again, over and over, endlessly.

The man picked up his tablet, brushed the sand off his suit, and walked away a billionaire.

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