The Mech Touch

Chapter 38: Tough
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What happened if a launcher spat out its entire complement of rockets at once? Something really fantastic and terrible, depending on who you asked. Miranda immediately became aware of the crisis and proved her chops as a young elite by throwing her sword forward while huddling behind her shield with both of her mech’s hands, making sure to crouch to present as small of a profile as possible.

The sword knocked a couple of rockets aside. Due to the safeties built into the warheads, they failed to detonate early due to their close proximity to the launcher. Instead, they flew or fell to the floor largely inert. As for the other rockets, the upper portion harmlessly flew past the crouching mech while the lower portion exploded harshly against the shield. Due to the decrease in lethality among all projectiles, the rockets failed to penetrate the shield, though they did cause quite a few layers to peel off. The force of the explosions also rocked Miranda’s mech backwards.

"Hah, I’ve got more where that came from!" Charlotte taunted as her heavy mech turned another 45 degrees so that her Kirby’s back faced her opponent at a straight angle.

"Shi-" Miranda got cut off as another volley of missiles came in her direction.

She tried to do a roll while keeping her shield forward. This successfully let her avoid most of the rocket barrage, though the lower corner of her shield finally fell apart from the few projectiles that managed to hit it with sufficient force.

Before Miranda could celebrate her survival, Charlotte’s final launcher disgorged its payload.

"You moth-"

The feminine mech finally escaped the last wave with the skin of its teeth. The few rockets that detonated against its armor managed to crater a portion of the chest.

"It’s checkmate for you." Charlotte gloatingly said as she kept turning slowly, allowing her to present her outstretched cannon and laser mount. The weapons at that side spat out a furious salvo that further damaged the bedraggled Miranda and her mech.

"Damnit, if it wasn’t for those stupid rockets, I’d have peeled your limbs off by now!"

Ever since Miranda dodged further away in order to escape the rockets, she lost the initiative. Her mech needed time to build up speed, and before she built up her momentum, Charlotte got a prime opportunity to sneak in a lot of damage.

The Kirby sinisterly aimed at the legs, hoping to impair Miranda’s mobility. A lucky high explosive cannon shell managed to detonate close to the legs, which stripped off the rest of the armor of the female mech’s feet. The force of the small explosion also unbalanced Miranda’s gait, causing her to lose crucial speed.

"Alright, I wanted to save this for the finals, but you leave me no choice now! Let me show you what Patricia gifted my mech!"

Uh oh. Ves bit his lip as Miranda finally took the match seriously. He knew that Miranda always kept something in reserve, as a mech designer as renowned as Patricia wouldn’t just let her partner go out in a boring stock mech.

The female mech’s back armor opened up to reveal a stubby flight system. Ves almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

"That fucking Patricia stole my design!"

Patricia not only stole his idea, she improved upon it. She expanded and sloped the back armor in a way that freed up space while not making it obvious a miniature flight system was attached in that location. The amount of engineering it took to create such a hidden surprise boggled Ves’ mind. He had to admit that Patricia possessed terrifying competence.

Miranda’s mech ceased to care for its damaged legs as the compact flight system allowed it to travel above the floor with sufficient speed. The light mech’s ability to dodge improved substantially. After building up sufficient speed, it flew towards the Kirby for a second showdown.

Charlotte gritted her teeth inside the cockpit. Her rear armor was burdened with empty rocket launchers. Though they already released their payloads, they still weighed her down a little bit. In addition, she sacrificed one of her shoulder mounts in order to fend off Miranda. With only one laser mount left, she was sorely pressed to keep off the looming threat.

The match entered another act, and this time even if Miranda had thrown aside her sword, she still possessed enough lethality once she unsheathed her backup knife.

Yet it never came to use, as Charlotte finally achieved a critical hit to the light mech’s weapon arm. Miranda managed to swap the knife to her mech’s other arm, but the damage it suffered when holding the shield caused the fingers to grip the knife unsteadily. The distraction allowed Charlotte to get in another couple of shots. When her next cannon shell impacted the light mech again, the competition’s inbuilt safeties kicked in and turned the projectile inert.

Everyone was silent for a moment, then cheered massively as they experienced an upset. The number two favorite of the Fusion Cup surprisingly lost to the 6th ranked contenders. Charlotte whooped through the microphones even as the people rooting for the other side stood silently, as if still not believing this was happening.

Both pilots exited the cockpits while technicians lifted the damaged mechs back to their workshops. Two pilots and two mech designers met in the middle of the arena to congratulate each other and shake hands.

Smugness overwhelmed Charlotte’s grin as she beheld her defeated rival. "It was a good match. I got lucky."

Miranda snorted at that. "They should penalize heavy mechs even more in these bullshit tournaments. Your mech weighs at least three to four times as much as mine."

"Well the rules don’t say you can’t bring one too. You’re welcome to join the heavy club. We got the fattest asses around!"

The defeated pilot just huffed in reply.

As the two pilots talked smack, Ves hesitantly shook hands with Patricia. Her gentle smile and soft, small hand mesmerized him for a moment. Being this close to her amplified the effect of her striking red locks and her lovely dimples.

"You did a really great job with integrating the flight system to the chassis. It’s a lot better than welding a couple of boxes to the armor like I did. If my mech partner hadn’t achieved a lucky hit at the end, then this contest might end differently."

Patricia shook her head. "Don’t belittle yourself. What you chose to augment worked out much better in the end. You chose to plug a gap while I doubled down on Miranda’s strength. I don’t think either choices are wrong, but as you said, it worked out better for you as the extra firepower was a lot more useful than flight capability in our matchup. To be honest, both Miranda and I expected to fight a medium or light mech. Yours is the only heavy mech in contention."

The two babbled a bit about the design choices they made for their respective mechs. What actually Ves had in mind was trying to facilitate the X-Factor, but that was something of a secret weapon to him. He instead diverted Patricia’s attention by pointing out he had a hard time convincing Charlotte of making any changes. She only approved the rockets due to agreeing with her affinity for more weapons.

"Miranda gave me the lead instead." Patricia explained. "As a gifted pilot, she’s proficient in piloting many variations of light mechs, so when I proposed to adapt your flying system scheme to her mech, she readily agreed. Now that I think about it, I should have involved my partner more in the shaping of her mech."

The two teams parted after the announcers called in the next contestants. Charlotte and Ves returned to the workshop where the beat-up Kirby rested. While Miranda ultimately inflicted no damage, Charlotte caused enough of it to compensate. The mech’s left shoulder was absent a laser mount, and the entire mech still suffered minor internal damage due to overheating.

An overheating mech posed serious problems in terms of repairing them. A mech that ran as hot as an oven all over meant that the damaging heat penetrated to the very deepest interior of the mech. To repair such a mech to maximum readiness, Ves was required to pull the mech apart and go over each component one by one. Thin wires and small components were especially vulnerable to damage from excessive local heat.

"It’ll last. It’s not the first time I cooked the Kirby. He’s built to take a pounding." Charlotte nonchalantly declared as she sank down in a nearby sofa and sipped her energy drink.

Ves sighed in exasperation. "We only have about an hour to two hours before we’re called up on the stage again. That’s barely enough to refill the rocket launchers and roughly slap another laser mount on the Kirby’s empty shoulder. I don’t have the time to do the repairs I’m certain this mech needs."

"Then don’t. I’ll just roll with the punches. If my Kirby’s a little slow, it’s no big deal. I’m already used to moving at a snail’s pace."

Ves really preferred not to hand his chances of winning over to fate. Their stunning upset against Patricia and Miranda attracted some attention from the crowd, but most of them attributed their win to a faulty strategy by their opponents. Winning a match by getting lucky didn’t prove his mech designing skills. If Charlotte and Ves somehow manage to scrounge up another win in the next match, they could prove that they possessed real skill.

If Ves sufficiently proved his capabilities, then he’d have a much easier time selling off his own mech. He still kept his ultimate goal in mind. Winning the Fusion Cup was not a life or death matter. It only helped fulfill his other goals.

He got on with the repairs while keeping an eye out for how his competitors were doing. Most of them involved high speed duels or tense battles where both sides clashed their swords against each other. This excited the crowd much more than the one-sided shooting fest Charlotte went through in the previous match.

Refilling the empty rocket launchers took very little effort. It only took a little time because the machines available to Ves could only put in one rocket in its tube at a time. After that Ves dug into the pile of spare parts the competition offered and picked the closest looking equivalent of the Turbofire’s standard laser mount.

Removing the damaged remains from Charlotte’s emergency dismounting of the shoulder mount was a delicate operation. If Ves screwed up here, the new laser mount wouldn’t fit in the standardized socket, which enabled the laser mount to link into the mech’s targeting systems and draw power for its rotation. Luckily, the mech appeared to have been built for these kinds of actions, as Ves encountered no bumps into making the socket clean.

After carefully attaching the laser mount, Ves spent some time making sure the mech’s processors correctly adjusted its targeting system to the new mount. Different models required different parameters in order to fire accurately. It didn’t perform as well as the original model, but for a quick fix it did the job.

Ves swept the moisture from his forehead as he finished the essential repairs. Barring the damage the mech previously suffered before its entry in the Fusion Cup, the Kirby recovered its highest combat state.

In the meantime, a couple of other matches took place in the arena. Mechs sporting different amounts of damage and variation entered the stage and duked it out with their counterparts. What Ves paid the most attention to was the match that decided his next opponent.

The match progressed in a one-sided fashion. A hapless knight who ranked eighth in the previous tournament was forced to use his backup pistol against a skirmisher-type mech. The skirmisher wielded two submachine guns and ran circles around the mech with ruthless patience.

"Looks like that SMG fellow will be my next opponent." Charlotte remarked as she already sized up her next likely opponent. "I hope my armor will be up to the task."

The skirmisher fell under the medium weight class but moved almost like a light mech. Ves checked the names of the participants and learned the skirmisher’s pilot was called Alexander Steel. His mech designer was a fellow named Michael Dumont, who studied at a private institution based in a second-rate state.

"This guy looks tricky. Unlike Patricia who merely mastered the basics to the utmost level, Michael is more familiar with new advancements and better techniques. I think Alexander is holding back the full potential of his mech. His current opponent isn’t worth exposing his trump card."

Charlotte’s easy smile turned into a serious frown. She had reason to worry if Alexander’s skirmisher possessed a hidden card. Normally, heavy gunners easily shredded skirmishers solely due to the difference in firepower and armor, but what if the skirmisher changed his weapon loadout?

"The submachine guns work great against knights because they can’t catch up to you and don’t possess enough firepower to compete at range. But that’s obviously not going to work for you, Charlotte."

She nodded at that realization. Unlike her own mech whose weapons were pretty much fixed, Alexander could just put down the SMGs and take a more appropriate weapon into battle, such as a heavy shield or an armor-piercing rifle. This flexibility was an intrinsic advantage all humanoid mechs with functional arms enjoyed.

Ves paid attention to Alexander’s mech. With his previous experience in optimizing the armor for the Caesar Augustus and Marc Antony, he recognized the mech battling it out in the arena followed a completely different design philosophy. It looked lean, sleek and aerodynamic, as if it wanted to pursue speed much harder than a light mech. And in a major sense it mostly achieved such a result at the cost of limiting its onboard loadout of weapons. The mech lacked any indications of possessing wrist, shoulder or back-mounted weapon platforms.

By the time Alexander achieved victory over his humiliated opponent, Ves knew he had very little time left to make some last minute changes. Should he improve the Kirby’s targeting system? Perhaps add a couple more armor plates to increase its bulk?

He disliked falling into this guessing game. Every decision was plagued with an indeterminate fog. Did a choice lead to riches or ruin?

"Stop procrastinating, Ves. You’re not even going on stage, yet you’re sweating bullets."

After taking a deep breath, Ves regained much of his composure. "You’re right. With the time we have left, I doubt I can make any substantial changes to your loadout. I’m going to work on refining the Kirby."

"I didn’t say anything about keeping my Kirby barebones. You’ve done right by Kirby, and I appreciate it. You mech designer types aren’t as stuffy and close-minded as everyone says you guys are. You’re cool."

"Uh, thanks. So what’s your idea?"

Charlotte recovered her cheer and grinned deviously at him. "Seeing as I’m going to face another speedy type, I’d like you to make the following tweaks..."

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