A mech dedicated to destroying its opponents at range often accomplished their kills if they were willing to pay the price. Lisa Kwong flipped off all the safeties in order to let the Brandmark fire off as much lasers as possible. Beams of varying intensity flew through the air in rapid succession.
As an engine of destruction, the Brandmark revealed no flaws. Its firepower approached the magnitude of a heavy mech, and its heat dispersal was excellent even without the surrounding water. Such a well-built mech had no possibility of breaking down as long as Kwong did not push her mech any further.
Cadet Lovejoy tried to figure out a solution. His Executioner could not weather this laser storm for long. "I'm still only halfway but my mech is already approaching the limit! There's nothing in sight that I can use as cover!"
The marshy terrain was devoid of any distinguishing features to block the lasers. There were no hills, no trees and hardly any bushes. Considering the power behind the laser cannons, only the sturdiest trees had a chance of dispersing the larger beams.
Lacking any other means, Lovejoy could only resort to sacrificing his parts of his mech. He first boosted the power of his flight system before raising the legs of his mech. The lasers burned right through the soles of his mech in short order. Even as the successive beams cooked the legs into slag, it succeeded in shielding the critical parts of the mech.
Those who paid attention to this battle showed a lot of appreciation for this drastic move. To keep a mech in flight in this posture required a lot of control in order to maintain this delicate balance. If the Executioner got hit by any kinetic projectile, it would immediately lose its balance and fall.
Fortunately for Lovejoy, the Brandmark sported a dedicated laser loadout. While its laser beams looked intimidating, it essentially consisted of pure electromagnetic radiation. It was like using a flashlight to open a door. The door might melt if the beam was concentrated enough, but it required a stupendous amount of power to open the door through pure kinetic force.
Lovejoy took advantage of this basic fact by recklessly flying forward in a highly unstable posture. Even as the feet fell apart, the Executioner still possessed a substantial amount of leg armor.
"It sure is serendipitous for me to face a laser mech with a flight-capable machine. I'd be stuck in a dead end if I only had a pistol."
The uncertainty of what a mech pilot might encounter in his next sortie often broke their minds. Many potentates ultimately washed out of the mech pilot academies due to a lack of adaptability. A qualified pilot was ready for combat anywhere and anytime against any opponent imaginable. Even against a ludicrous mech such as the Pterodactyl, Lovejoy still insisted up to the very end.
Raising the legs mid-flight was an inspired solution that came at a cost. With the slow disintegration of the legs, Lovejoy had to push his piloting skills to the limit in order to maintain his balance. A flying mech could not easily maintain its balance without the ballast provided by the legs. If handled badly, the Executioner might end up spinning around like a top.
"This is ridiculous!" Kwong exclaimed as she kept pumping out laser after laser. "Why won't you fall already?!"
"Blame your designer for focusing too much on lasers!"
The gap closed within moments. At the very last second, Lovejoy spun around his mech and stretched out its sword with both hands.
The Brandmark attempted to dodge to the side, but Lovejoy had already watched out for that adjusted his sword grip. The broad and deadly tip sunk right through the right side of the Brandmark's torso. Its well-treated armor buckled instantly against the momentum of a flying mech going forth at full speed.
Like a melted knife through butter, the sword impaled the Brandmark with ease and severed many essential components. The rest of the Executioner frame collided against the Brandmark, causing both mechs to sustain heavy impact damage. Nevertheless, a lot of the force had been channeled into the sword, causing its tip to emerge from the back of the Brandmark.
"..CUT!" Lovejoy yelled as his damaged mech tried to leverage as much force as possible while still in midair.
The Executioner's flight system had performed miracles so far by keeping the mech aloft. When Lovejoy cut off all of its power, the remnants of the mech started to fall while maintaining a tight grip on its sword.
The edge of the sword ruthlessly sliced down the helpless Brandmark like a butcher's knife. The massive sword spliced open its lower torso, cutting straight through the cockpit and engines.
The crowd cheered at the brief but intense clash. The commentators briefly showered Lovejoy with praise for his expert piloting before turning back to the other duels.
Ves let out a deep breath. He won his first duel. Though the terrain heavily favored his opponent's mech, Lovejoy somehow managed to overturn the odds. If not for his flight system and if not for the Brandmark's complete reliance on lasers, this match might have ended differently.
"This.. this isn't possible! There's so much water! How could my Brandmark fail to shoot down that primitive mech?!"
And so fell another darling from Leemar. Lachlan Kurbanov's journey to the top had ended abruptly. The two other copies of the Brandmark were destined to be recycled.
His loss of composure disgraced his school. Many spectators who stood close to the waiting room pointed out his delirious descent into disbelief. Those who also studied at Leemar simply shook their heads. Though they favored the alumni from their school, it was his fault for being too weak.
"Sometimes, I wonder whether the single duel format is flawed." Ves remarked to Patricia as he turned away from Lachlan's display. "It's a complete roll of the dice whether the terrain favors your mech, or whether it is facing its natural counter."
Patricia smiled as she kept her eyes glued to her heavy mech. Many of the duels were still starting out.
The instance where Lovejoy and Kwong tried to force a quick resolution did not happen elsewhere. The pilots played conservatively whenever they could get away with it. They only started to take risks when their opponents backed them into a corner.
"The duels are never meant to be fair. They are meant to be decisive." Patricia finally pointed out. "The pilot only has to worry about how to use the tools at hand. Tools which you have generously provided them. After all, what are we here for if not designing mechs?"
A mech designer did not fight the enemy on the battlefield. Instead, they worked behind the scenes. They were not omniscient and could not predict the future. All they could do is gather as much information as possible and prepare their designs according to the parameters set by their clients.
The first set of duels ended after a few moments of time. Most of the mechs faced their equals in terms of design and piloting skill. Every pilot wanted to attain glory, so even the losers fought as if their lives were on the line.
Only twelve designs remained. Surprisingly, Patricia's heavy mech also eked out a victory. Together with Ves, they were all that was left of the so-called walkers. Like Barakovski, the rest of the survivors came from privileged backgrounds.
"This is interesting! Both of our exotic guests are from the Bright Republic!" The female commentator noted with bright eyes. "They even shared the same classes in the same school! Might there be something special brewing between the two? Is that the secret to their success?"
Both Ves and Patricia turned away in embarrassment. They were just acquaintances. Before encountering her at Leemar, he could not even claim to be her friend.
After that brief moment of levity, the second duels commenced. According to the bracket, Ves had to face a familiar name. One he did not wish to face at all due to their shared experiences.
"Looks like fate wants to determine who is better." Barakovski said with a grin. "I'm looking forward to our duel."
"Your Cineron might be quick, but my Executioner is not a slowpoke."
Unlike some of the other designers, Barakovski stuck to a single design whenever she could get away with it. She highly favored light mechs and always tried to design a skirmisher or a harasser. With ten hours of time, she refined her final iteration to an insane degree. Ves had a lot of respect for Barakovski, so even he refused to guess whether his mech could prevail.
When the Cineron emerged onto the generic urban battlefield, it instantly started to gallop away. The light mech sported a decent amount of speed but carried a luxurious weapon loadout. First of all, its arms sported a pair of wrist-mounted laser cannons, scaled to light mechs. Instead of carrying shoulder mounts, the Cineron instead wielded a pair of heated knives.
"Why did you forgo the shoulder mounts?"
Barakovski nonchalantly shrugged. "My mech makes for a great ambusher with a pair of knives. Why would I ruin my mech's balance with a pair of shoulder mounts? I might as well hang some rocks on its frame."
Her words suggested that the Cineron was capable of moving faster. His Executioner might be capable of flight, but the flight system could not propel the swordsman mech as fast as a dedicated sprinter mech.
The Executioner carefully navigated the deserted downtown streets. Abandoned air cars and fallen structures made it difficult for Lovejoy to find his opponent quickly. Luckily, despite the clutter, the terrain heavily favored mechs like the Executioner. With an abundant amount of cover, he could hop from pile to pile if he had to face the Brandmark again. He'd never have to sacrifice parts of his mech again.
As both mechs weren't hiding, they eventually found each other after a few minutes of combing the area. After realizing that the Executioner only relied on its sword, the Cineron engaged aggressively, firing its laser cannons from a medium range.
"I'm not a sitting duck!" Lovejoy yelled as he pumped full power into his mech's flight system.
The Cineron was caught off-guard, but quickly adjusted by sprinting away. After building up its speed, the mech easily maintained its distance to the furiously pursuing Executioner. The pilot deftly navigated past the obstacles in its way, all the while maintaining its harassing fire.
Lovejoy gritted his teeth at being bombarded with lasers again. "Is that all? Compared to what I endured in my previous duel, your shots are barely scraping my paint!"
A light mech had no way of matching the firepower of a medium mech. While the wrist mounts maintained a steady rate of fire, its accuracy was not as good. Barakovski made too many compromises when she went for wrist-mounted lasers. They excelled at carving up a mech over time.
The Executioner did not intend to become the Cineron's punching bag. The mech strained its flight system past its conservative settings. The heavier mech started to catch up to the light mech.
Still, unlike the Brandmark, the Cineron had a surprise in store. A module opened up from its back and released a fine mist of particles in the air.
Ves rose up from his seat. "Particle ejector!"
His iconic Seraphim variant utilized this specific form of active ECM, so he was no stranger to its effects. The Executioner lost its sight of the Cineron. After a few seconds of flight, in exited the cloud of sensor-blocking cloud.
"Where are you?" Lovejoy wondered as he shut down his flight system before it melted down. As his mech started to cool down from the exertion, he kept a close eye on his sensor readings and his surroundings.
After finding no trace of the Cineron, he concluded the mech still hid inside the cloud. The Cineron purely used the particle cloud as an escape mechanism.
"If you think blinding me will help, then think again."
His Executioner resolutely entered the cloud. The particles had already spread out to the entire street, which meant that it was difficult to bump into the Cineron. Nevertheless, Lovejoy closed his eyes and tried to sense the whereabouts of his opponent with his other sensors.
After a few seconds went by, the swordsman mech suddenly raised its sword and struck to the left. The blade struck nothing but empty air.
In the meantime, a pair of laser beams just skimmed off its head. The Cineron deliberately aimed at the sensors.
This game of cat and mouse continued for over two minutes. The Cineron was equally as blind as the Executioner, so it was only able to fire at its target accurately if it came close. This gave Lovejoy a chance to turn the tables. A few times, his sword even scratched the surface of the light mech's paperthin armor.
"This cloud won't last forever!" Lovejoy remarked. He wanted to urge his opponent on. "I'm faster than you. The longer you lurk around, the more my flight system cools off. Can you afford to wait all day?"
The Cineron came from behind. Just as the Executioner swirled around to cut the mech in half, the Cineron's wrists sparked with lightning.
A massive bolt of lightning landed on the Executioner, causing it to halt in its steps. The Cineron also paid a price for the attack, but it recovered a lot quicker. The Cineron expertly retrieved its pair of heated knives and dove towards the paralyzed mech, ready to gut it like a pig.
Seeing his doom approaching, Lovejoy frantically tried to budge his mech. "MOVE ALREADY! CUT!"
Just as the first knife slipped inside the chest, the Executioner burst into life. While the mech lost power to a lot of its systems, they were quite robust. Ves always put a lot of importance in his mech's integrity. His diligence paid off as the Executioner regained its strength just as the Cineron was about to deliver its fatal blows.
The sword swung once.
Barakovski closed her eyes.