A sharp and menacing mech gained shape. The Executioner and its two copies emanated subtles halo promising the harvesting of lives. As the person standing closest to his newly designed mechs, he even had the impression that the Executioners amplified each other's presences. Due to this mutual enhancement, Ves gained a new cognition to what he thought was the X-Factor.
"Is this the true expression of the X-Factor?" Ves wondered silently. He did not dare utter his words loudly. He suspected he inadvertently lifted up a veil to one of the secrets of the X-Factor. "If I haven't been watching out for it, I would have brushed this feeling off as being overwhelmed by emotions."
The uncertainty still gnawed at him. Without having any opportunity to open the System and read its evaluation, he had no way of determining how far he had progressed. Ves had grown used to the System's reliable and precise feedback.
"What will happen if I fabricate an entire squad of identical mechs? How strong will their united presence become?"
Such a unit brought with them an unprecedented amount of unity. Ves had no idea how banding together affected the minds of the pilots, but he suspected that their level of cooperation reached new heights.
He had to experiment with this later. Right now, Ves had a couple of mechs to deliver. With just a few minutes before the generous ten hour time limit expired, he made a final check before letting the mechs go. His role in the third round was over. Now he passed the baton to his pilot.
After finishing his mechs, he entered the much emptier waiting room where he sought a familiar face. Patricia stood at the side, listening to the commentary gushing about the new mechs.
"How's your design? Are you confident?"
Her eye swiveled at him as if he was asking if the galaxy was large. "Out of fifty-thousand mech designers, only twenty-four of us had made it to the final round. Do you think any of us has any reason to lack any confidence?"
"You make a good point." Ves said belatedly. "I'm surprised to see you in the finals. I've gone to the same school as you and I've never seen you study something that could propel your skills to this level."
"I could say the same for you. There's hardly anything in your background that suggests you are capable of matching the graduates from the Leemar Institute of Technology. This place is one of the holy grails of mech design in this Star Sector. It truly baffles everyone who witnesses your rise."
The two reached an unspoken agreement not to pry more into the reasons of their sudden improvements. Ves had no doubt Patricia hid some secrets. Perhaps none so drastic as a System, but still something that could not be spoken aloud.
"Ah, I see the plebs have gathered together to talk about how much they enjoy rolling in the mud." An incisive voice cut from the side.
Ves recognized the approaching man. "How nice of you to meet us Mister Kurbanov. I was just about to tell my friend how your mech will collapse at the first blow."
"A fine boast. A pity you can never back it up." Lachlan huffed contemptuously at him. "I don't know why the LIT allows third-rate rabble like you to participate in the competition. Designers like you still treat lastgen mechs as modern designs!"
"It is a mistake to consider us backward just because we don't have as much access to resources as the Friday Coalition. You might find we are not any worse in terms of spirit and drive."
Before Lachlan spat out a retort, Barakovski approached him from behind and put a hand on his shoulder. "There's no need to disgrace yourself, Lachlan. Let your mech prove your strength."
"You're right as always, dear Cynthia." Lachlan huffed and turned around. "My Brandmark will easily pound his toy into scrap."
Barakovski shrugged apologetically at Ves before guiding Lachlan to the other side of the waiting room. While Ves did not need any rescuing, he appreciated her concern.
"Is there anything going on between you and Barakovski?"
"Nah, nothing at all. We only grouped up together in the third round of the qualifiers."
Once the commentators stopped slobbering over the mechs, the duels commenced. Twelve simultaneous one-on-one duels began in the prepared arenas.
The match between his Executioner and Lachlan's Brandmark took place in a randomized marsh environment. Shallow pools of stale water surrounded modestly-sized mudhills.
Mechs that had to traverse over this complex terrain had to worry about unstable footing. Faster mechs were at a disadvantage due to the limits placed on their top speed.
In contrast, the abundance of water gave heat-dependent mechs an ideal environment. Water was a great conductor of heat. Mechs that relied on energy intensive weapons such as laser cannons could fire off their weapons in rapid succession without worrying about melting off their barrels.
It just so happened that Lachlan's mech utilized a lot of lasers. Perhaps aware of Cadet Lovejoy's penchant for swords, Lachlan designed a mech based around ranged superiority. His efforts resulted in a fairly robust medium mech adorned with lots of firepower.
"That's quite a top-heavy cannoneer." Ves commented as he rubbed his eyes. He did not expect such a model to come from Lachlan's hands. "Replacing the arms with cannons is a very risky choice."
Patricia hummed with interest as she analyzed the design. "His mech obviously isn't meant to resist an opponent with a melee weapon. It makes sense to save weight and optimize systems in favor of a fully dedicated ranged build. That's how frontline models are designed. I can tell Lachlan is preparing for a career in the Mech Corps."
Lachlan's cannoneer mech had done away with humanoid arms. Instead, he replaced them with two large and heavy laser cannons. The straight and ominous-looking barrels were able to rotate and aim at a wide range of angles.
If that wasn't enough, his Brandmark also sported two smaller laser barrels on its shoulders. Their slim and lightweight design allows them to track moving targets with greater ease than the large and sluggish cannons.
As the Brandmark sported four incredibly hungry laser weapons, the machine also carried a couple of attachments meant to mitigate their scary energy consumption. The mech wore a strange backpack module that Lachlan must have built from scratch.
Ves guessed that it contained a combination of energy cells and heat sinks in order to extend the Brandmark's endurance. The wet, marshy environment only provided the cannoneer with another advantage. The pilot, Lisa Kwong, already started to grin as she familiarized herself with the mech and the abundant water in the vicinity.
As for Lovejoy, he spent some time on his own with his new mech. Ves designed the Executioner as an explicitly different machine from his Sword Dancer. Lovejoy had to memorize his new mech's characteristics and formulate a new game plan that took advantage of its strengths.
"Now this is more like it. I've always found the Sword Dancer to be too dainty for my tastes." Lovejoy remarked as he practiced a couple of mighty heaves with the Executioner's hefty sword. "It's a bit on the slow side, but I can manage."
What the Executioner lost in agility, it more than made up for it with power. A lesser pilot might consider the extra weight to be baggage. A proper swordsman had ways to take advantage of these properties.
After finishing his brief practice, Lovejoy gained enough confidence to set out. His Executioner slowly trudged through the muddy terrain. The feet of his mech sunk into the dirty soil like a fatty jumping into a swimming pool. The mud splashed everywhere and the metal dug in deep. Every time the mech raised its foot, a sucking sound emerged as if the mud did not wish to part with a lover.
"This is disgusting." Lovejoy spat as his mech awkwardly navigated the swampy terrain. "Hopefully I don't have to crawl everywhere in order to find my opponent."
Anyone who reached the top 24 was a force to be reckoned with. He briefly studied the bracket along with the other pilots and knew he faced Lisa Kwong right now. As a top pilot, Cadet Kwong made her name as a marksman. Whether in or out of the cockpit, her ability to shoot on target impressed everyone at the academy. She even went on to represent the school in various competitions.
"I'm not going to be able to dodge my way out of this match if I still piloted the Sword Dancer. This Executioner's extra armor is a lot more useful against an expert marksman like Kwong."
His strategy was simple. Once he spotted Kwong's mech, he'd simply redirect as much power to his flight systems as possible and close the range without bothering with any fanciful dodging patterns. He had to finish this battle as fast as possible in order to prevent Kwong from exploiting her long-range skills.
His sensors pinged at discovering a contact. Kwong's mech had found a deep pool which allowed her cannoneer to submerge up to its knees. The generous contact with the surrounding water aided the mech in transferring any built-up heat.
The Brandmark detected the Executioner a little bit earlier. As a mech built for medium and long-ranged combat, its sensors and targeting systems received a lot of attention. Lachlan personally adjusted the targeting system's programming in order to take full advantage of all of its hardware improvements.
The first shots landed on the Executioner with the speed of light. Both of the laser cannons zeroed in on the Executioner with hardly any need for calibration or test firing. The twin impacts struck the medium mech with a gigantic flash of heat and light. Its chest already bore the melted scars from the impact. If the armor hadn't been compressed, the blasts would have certainly turned the armor plates into slag.
The second salvo came merely two seconds later. Such a rate of fire was highly dangerous, but Kwong had no qualms in pushing a mech to its limits, especially if it was only meant to last a single match.
Thus, for various reasons, both pilots sought a quick end to the match. Cadet Lovejoy obliged by making his mech lift off from the forbidding swamp and rocket straight towards the Brandmark.
"You're dead meat Lovejoy!" Kwong's voice boomed from her speakers as her mech landed another accurate salvo. "This is my ideal environment! Just admit that you've lost!"
"I'll chop up your mech before you empty your energy cells!"
The Executioner's flight system worked as hard as its limited size could sustain. The mech was rather heavy, and it could only do so much. Lovejoy found he had to endure a lot more hits than he first imagined.
Even the Brandmark's smaller shoulder mounted lasers fired at him in unison. The simulated temperature in Lovejoy's pod started to heat up.
In the meantime, the Brandmark turned its legs around a hundred-and-eighty degrees and ran backwards, all the while continuing to lay down accurate fire. Cannoneers often sported such modifications, though only at later generations. Lachlan must have spent a lot of time on it in order to make sure his mech remained accurate.
Two pairs of laser beams intermittently impacted his mech with a disturbing amount of accuracy. No matter how Lovejoy juked his mech, the best he could accomplish was to spread out the impact areas so they wouldn't burn through a concentrated area. It worked for now, but his frontal armor still had limits, compressed or not.
The Executioner crossed its arms and tried to shield its vulnerable chest from further damage. As the armor on the arms were thinner, it only lasted a dozen seconds before Lovejoy had to give that up. He still needed the arms to wield the sword.
"There's too much distance. I can't last long enough to get close." Lovejoy determined with a struggling expression. "Too many lasers. Too much distance. Kwong's not even letting up."
The water around the fleeing Brandmark started to boil as the cannoneer tried to shunt as much heat as possible. The surface of the Brandmark was hot enough to fry an egg, but somehow the overheating mech never grew hot to the point its systems started failing. It could barely handle the amount of heat it currently generated, but that was more than enough to shoot down the Executioner.
Frustration welled up in Lovejoy's heart. "Is my path to the finals going to end this quickly?"