The announcer let the anticipation build up a little before detailing the mech design competition. "As you know, many talented pilots have the opportunity to show off their skill on stage. Where there are winners, there are also losers. Mech warfare can be a cruel business, but what if some of our pilots have a second chance? Are you willing to see them compete in a separate bracket?"
Most of the crowd cheered enthusiastically. Many pilots competing today lost their chances to reach the quarter finals. Many fans hoped their underdogs could shine on the stage once again.
"We’ve come up with the Fusion Cup! Eight eliminated pilots with the best scores will receive the opportunity to work together with these eight fine ladies and gentlemen on the stage! It will be the first competition in this side of human space where both pilot and designer compete jointly for the top and win the prestigious cup!"
A two-toned tournament cup appeared on the stage. It was gold on one side, and silver on the other side. A small partition in between showed that both halves of the cup could be put together or remain separate.
The projection behind the announcer highlighted two lists of names. One set contained the names of the pilots, and on the other the names of the designers.
A lot of people looked confused, but that didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. Ves tried to maintain his easy smile to present an image that there was nothing wrong. However, inside his mind he was already churning his brain on the competition format.
"So what are they competing on? Well, for the pilot, it remains the same. Just enter the cockpit and wallop their opponent on stage! The key is what kind of mech they are piloting. We wouldn’t involve the designers if they have nothing to do! So can you guess what kind of role they can play in the short six hours that they have until the matches start?"
Six hours was way too short to create a mech from actual parts. Ves thought the competition might happen in a virtual space, which would be a shame as he’d miss out valuable experience in building up a real mech.
"The pilots won’t be changing the mechs they last piloted. Only the most critically damaged components such as the difficult to replace engines have been replaced. This allows the mech designer to repair and tune up the mech using the various tools and resources available, courtesy to the Mech Corps. You will be able to see with your own two eyes how pilots and designers can work together to reinvent their mechs like phoenixes rising from their ashes!"
Thousands of cheers and applause thundered the stadium as the crowd lapped up the new concept. However, Ves looked a little troubled. He was used to depending on himself. Now he had to work together to repair and modify another pilot’s mech. What if their opinions clashed?
"The fortunes of the designer and the pilot are tied together. Winning for both the pilot and designer will depend on which mech reaches first place in combat. If the designer does a bad job, then the pilot can do nothing even if he puts 200% in his piloting. On the other hand, if the pilot is having a bad day, then it doesn’t matter if the mech turned into a juggernaut."
A couple of boos sounded out from those remarks.
"What? You think it’s unfair? Well, so what? The real world isn’t fair! However, we’ve made efforts to match the two groups of people based on their previous performances. The top scoring pilot will be matched with the top-scoring designer from their qualifiers. The second-best pilot is partnered with the second-best designer and so on. Though their starting points are the same, what the pairs accomplish together is still up in the air."
The eight pilots participating in the Fusion Cup took their turn to take the stage. The pilots were directed to the partners who took over responsibility over their mechs.
As the sixth-scoring mech designer, Ves got paired with a native of Bentheim called Charlotte Hoffmeister. The fiery dirty blond-haired woman was built like a leopard, and seemed to regard him that way as well with the narrowed eyes scanning his skinny form. He felt as if the young woman dismissed him as a threat.
"Hi. I’m Ves Larkinson."
The woman’s phoenix eyes narrowed at his introduction. "You don’t look like a Larkinson."
"Not everyone in my family is a potentate." Ves helplessly shrugged.
"Whatever. Just fix up my Kirby and don’t mess things up. Larkinson or not, I’ll string you by the balls if you cost me my revenge."
After prying a bit more information from the taciturn woman, Ves learned that Charlotte suffered a humiliating loss against her rival Miranda del Rey, who is now the second-ranked pilot in the competition. She wanted to take advantage of her second chance on the stage to give her rival a comeuppance.
"Damnit, that’s Patricia’s partner." Ves grumbled. The second-best pilot paired with the second-best mech designer made for a very formidable pair of opponents. "I’ll have to put in all my effort and more something special if I want to make it that far."
Everyone went to the improvised workshops that the organizers put up in the unused side arenas. The wrecked mechs the pilots used already rested on a lifting platform.
When Ves saw Charlotte’s Kirby, his heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach.
"Your Kirby is.. a heavy mech."
"Yup." The woman smiled with obvious affection. "It’s the best damn partner a girl could ask for. He’s been my buddy since my final year in the academy."
The Kirby was in actual fact a Raisling Inc. Turbofire RTF-581. The Turbofire was built around the concept of overwhelming mid-range firepower. At the time, it was an excellent fire support mech that provided a powerful amount of suppressive firepower in the battlefield. It was not a mech suitable for arena duels.
The organizers knew this, and came up with a long list of demands ever since the first few YTEs resulted in severe injuries. The firepower of all projectile weapons were reduced substantially. In return, melee attacks also got reduced in power by lowering the mech’s arm power. Naturally, the latter could be circumvented by putting the weight of the entire mech in the blow.
This also resulted in melee dominating over ranged weapons in the tournament, which Ves supposed was the intention of the organizers. Too much firepower strained the protective screen that kept the spectators safe from the explosions.
In any case, Ves had to get this lumbering, bipedal gun platform in working condition in just six hours. This might not sound like a problem, but when he saw what Miranda del Ray did to it, he practically despaired. The Turbofire’s legs both suffered amputations, which led to the scrapping of both whole legs. In addition, the rest of the mech’s surface sported nefariously thin sword marks, which made it easy to exploit the damaged sections.
"This is going to take a lot of work to fix up." Ves said grimly.
Luckily enough, he shored up just enough of his skills to conduct the repairs within a decent amount of time. The only problem was that he could only work on the most critical parts, and leave the cracks in the armor alone due to lack of time. Heavy mechs demanded a lot more resources and time with regards to maintenance and repair. This was one of the reasons why light and medium mechs significantly outnumbered the heavy mechs in service.
Ves tried to discuss making some modifications to the mech to make it more viable to the limited range arena format.
"No. Absolutely not."
"A sword or a mace really helps out if the enemy gets close."
"Zip it, nerd boy. I don’t want to tarnish my Kirby by using him as a caveman."
Helplessly, Ves dropped the topic for now. Charlotte adamantly insisted on maintaining her tactic of pouring overwhelming firepower at the enemy before they could get into range. This worked great against inexperienced opponents, but as her thrashing against Miranda revealed, skilled pilots had answers to this one-pony trick.
"Very well, I’ll go work on your mech and get it up to working condition."
He had more ideas, but thought it prudent to keep his mouth shut. He got the measure of Charlotte now and knew he couldn’t get a word through her stubborn mouth. It frustrated him a little that the organizers forced him to work with an uncooperative client.
Everything they did in the competition was broadcasted live to the rest of the Republic. If Ves and Charlotte lost at the first round, they’d end up as laughing stocks. Never mind finding a customer for his Marc Antony, all the pilots would simply laugh at him for failing so drastically on stage.
The Kirby took a long of wrangling to get into an optimal position to replace the legs. In his own workshop, such a job took days, of which most of the time was spent on fabricating the huge legs. Fortunately, in the interest of speeding things along, the organizers provided a number of parts along with nearly state-of-the-art fabrication tools. The cost of the 3D printer and assembler was worth at least five times more than the second-hand goods back home in Cloudy Curtain.
"This is the power the government has at hand." Ves thought ruefully as he started to inspect the damaged underside of the Kirby. "Any small mech designer will just get crushed if it tries to compete against the wealth of an entire state."
He shook his head and even slapped both of his cheeks. He needed to get his head in the game and avoid any distraction. "I wonder if I can impart some X-Factor magic with my repairs."
Theory made it possible, but frankly Ves was dubious it could work this time. The organizers already fabricated and supplied most of the parts, which meant he had no opportunity to build up a mech using parts he designed and fabricated on his own in a significant amount. Still, he spent his time refocusing his thoughts in order to keep a narrow intention in mind.
"I want to make the Kirby a worthy partner for Charlotte."
This was the angle he went for. Charlotte obviously already developed affection for her mech and piloted it for an extended time. If he could reinforce that connection in a minute way, it might mean the difference between victory and defeat.
With the help of the loaders, Ves was able to get the mech into a position to remove the useless remains of the upper legs. He turned the assembler machine into disassemble mode, which allowed him to gently pry off the legs and clear the sockets underneath the torso of any remaining debris.
The installation of the new legs went smoothly. He selected a pair of legs identical to the old ones from the limited selection available. He had no reason to change the model of the legs. Attaching them to the Kirby was similar to assembling the legs of a new mech, though there were a couple of differences, the most important was that the internal frame needed to be attached perfectly to the legs. While Ves had done such things many times in Iron Spirit, doing it for real on stage brought about immense pressure.
Still, the legs attached perfectly to the mech in the end. It helped that Ves avoided thinking negative thoughts by adamantly adhering to his intentions. He wanted to seriously repair and tweak the Kirby until it became a great tool of destruction in the hands of Charlotte. Maintaining mental discipline allowed him to work on his mech in a calm fashion, which slightly impressed the spectating crowd.
As the mech designers quietly worked on restoring the functionality of the mechs, the quarter finals of the YTE continued. Only one match took place at a time, which had the effect of drawing most of the spectators away to the main arena. The people who watched the matches only turned around and looked at the mech designers busy in their work as the matches ended and the new one had yet to start.
Hours passed by as Ves diligently used his knowledge in mechanics and what he learned from the System to make repairs. He replaced faulty bolts and other minor parts and tested to see if any of the components needed replacing, as the main sensor did as it sported a hairline crack.
After that, he tackled the fractured heavy armor of the mech. This was a tricky problem. The right thing to do was to replace the damaged armor plates with newly fabricated ones, but that took days. He could either crudely bolt over the cracks with additional plates, which unnecessarily thickened the armor and burdened the mech, or he could fabricate a special armor solution that he could use to fill up the cracks. Both solutions weren’t ideal, so he asked for Charlotte’s opinion.
"Hah, just fill up the cracks. Don’t you dare put more weight on my Kirby. I need my mobility for something special I have planned to get back at that bitch Miranda."
Ves could only follow Charlotte’s decision. Personally, he thought that if Charlotte insisted on sticking to her ranged weapon focus, it was better to turn her mech into an armored firing platform. Too bad her obsessive hatred of Miranda gave Charlotte a phobia of turning into a sitting duck again. She wanted Ves to install a couple of knife holsters onto her Kirby, as if she could actually wield them with her heavy mech’s sluggish arms. It’d be like a bear trying to play table tennis.
He worked quietly to fulfill the basic needs of the Kirby. After filling in most of the holes and finishing a quick weld to affix the holsters onto the mech’s hips, Ves noted he had less than two hours of time to make a single substantial change to the mech. He considered making adjustments to the mech’s formidable laser and ballistic weapon loadout, but he hadn’t received permission from Charlotte to tweak such a fundamental aspect of her mech.
"I can overload the lasers and intensify the programming on the shells of the Kirby’s weapon mounts. It’ll wear down the weapons drastically, but it can give the guns a good boost in power even if the competition technicians already neutered their power once."
Naturally, the rules of the competition explicitly forbid reversing the safety measures, but there were many ways of increasing the prowess of a weapon. The problem was if he asked Charlotte for permission, she’d just shoot him down again. Ves felt tempted to just bypass the smoldering woman and let her deal with his work in the arena.
"It’s better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission."
Most of his instincts called for going through, to do what was nagging on his mind and therefore increasing the odds of success. But...
"There are billions of people watching this competition. Can I do something this despicable in broad daylight?"
Also, what would Charlotte think of him? He’d be betraying her trust. He constantly focused on his purpose to make the Kirby a good mech for Charlotte. If he wanted to follow this creed in good faith, then he had to keep in mind that what he thought was a good mech might not be what Charlotte preferred. Also, if he dared pull this trick when billions of people were watching the YTE, he might never enjoy a good reputation in the Bright Republic ever again. He had to perform scrupulously proper on stage if he wanted to attract future customers.
Ves eventually firmed up as he stuck to principles. "I’ll ask for permission first."
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