The crowd already built up a sense of anticipation for Patricia's grand performance. The young woman in question stood proudly in front of the contestants, certain that her Rosaria could wipe the floor with any other mech tested so far. She attracted attention more than just her prodigal performance. As the unattainable princess of the campus, she attracted admirers wherever she went, able to mesmerize her fellow students with her striking red locks and her enviable figure. Like a crane among chickens, her appearance made everyone else look plain.
The Rosario she crafted out of the pile of junk also looked too good to be true. Despite its undersized legs and arms, Patricia somehow managed to keep the mech's weight under control. The medium mech's main feature was its modified shield. Patricia took a regular kite shield, made it a little thicker and added a lot of spikes and sharp edges to it. She turned the shield into a melee weapon no weaker than a sword.
Its other arm held a flamethrower, which fed off the fuel cells installed on the mech's back. They were cellular, which meant that each fuel cell was detached once it ran out of fuel. It was a good way to keep the mech's weight under control, though it suffered from it at the start. The Rosario offered no other offensive options besides a backup knife and pistol strapped to its back. The mech weighed lighter than most other medium mechs on display so far, especially once its fuel cells ran out.
In contrast, everyone else including Ves just wanted to cram as much in their mechs, so if they chose to go with a mediumweight, it always weighed close to the maximum allowance.
"I bet the Rosario is going to make it to the end."
Carlos laughed at that. "I'd be a fool if I take you on that bet."
"Why not? The Rosario's only armed with a flamethrower and a spiked shield. It's
"Patricia isn't stupid. I think her mech is going to surprise all of us."
When Hans directed the Rosario out of the gates, he immediately came under fire. A small ambush had been set at the start of the gauntlet. A lot of mechs would suffer severe damage with all the incoming laser and cannon fire. Hans utilized the Rosario's remarkable mobility to dodge the initial volleys and moved his shield in front to block what he couldn't avoid. As Hans successfully reached cover, he managed to preserve his undersized and under-armored legs.
"That was close!" Carlos said as he was already sucked into the race. "Do you think Hans is going to turn the tables on them?"
Ves shook his head even before Hans sneaked away. The mech possessed enough mobility to do so without attracting too much attention. Also, so long as the Rosario kept its flamethrower in reserve, the mech kept its heat profile under control, making it difficult to detect out of line of sight.
Hans actually progressed three entire kilometers into the gauntlet without getting caught. It showcased Patricia's unwavering faith in her mech and the pilot in designing a lighter than usual mediumweight mech. The Rosario also possessed unusually long-ranged sensors, whose functioning had been tweaked to detect enemies further at the cost of longevity. Nevertheless, it lasted long enough for the gauntlet.
Only an unusually high concentration of enemy mechs stopped the Rosario from sneaking its way throughout the entire gauntlet. With no other choice, Hans dove into the group of enemies and activated the flamethrower.
A liquid white-hot stream escaped the nozzle of the fiery weapon, spraying the unprepared mechs with a shower of heat. The gaggle of mechs all spread out in terror as their armor melted while their softer components burned. Hans left the lighter mechs behind but gave the medium mechs an extra smack. As for the heavy mechs, unless they were armed with missiles and artillery, he left them behind to waddle in his wake.
"The Rosario's mobility is overwhelming. I'm surprised it holds up under heavy use. How did she do it in only twelve hours?" Carlos wondered.
"She's got a strong grasp of the basics." Ves answered based on his own experience. "As long as you know your stuff, you don't have to spend a lot time wrangling two different components together even if they are slightly incompatible. Don't look at the flashy flamethrower and shield, its the seamless arms and legs that really make it stand out."
Compared to the clunky patch jobs many of the previous mechs showcased, the Rosario looked as if the mech had been worked on for weeks instead of half a day. Hans brilliantly pushed his mech to the limits. As his fuel kept expending, he dropped more and more fuel cells, lightening the load which in turn raised the Rosario's speed. Any mech in its way got burned, and those that held out a little longer got bashed by the Rosario's deadly shield.
"It's starting to accumulate damage." Ves noted. He already expected something like this to happen. The gauntlet had a grueling reputation for a reason.
The light mechs was the Rosario's Achilles heel. These mechs took advantage of the Rosario's lack of long-ranged weaponry and kept out of its range. Their superior speed allowed them to dog the Rosario and keep pelting it with lasers, rockets and ballistics. Though their threat was minimal, the numbers added up to a significant amount over time. Hans couldn't avoid taking more damage.
The gauntlet ended before the light mechs finished the job.
"Give it up to Patricia Schneider! Her Rosario is the first mech to successfully pass the gauntlet!"
The entire crowd including Carlos and Ves gave Patricia a hearty applause. It truly impressed them all for accomplishing this much in only twelve hours of time. The woman basked in the cheers with a modest smile, as if the victory took little effort.
A couple of other contestants followed next. None stood out too much except those made by the elites among the developers. Like Patricia, the designs of their work were sober, featuring not too much toys but using the few they had to their fullest potential. Their designs also focused on maintaining integrity, allowing Hans to push their mechs harder without letting it fall apart around him. Most of the other competitors couldn't even accomplish that much, leading to some embarrassing moments when a leg or an arm fell off. One mech even lost its head after it got hit by a single shell.
After about half the contestant's work had gone up the stage, the presenter announced the end of the testing. "Due to a shortage in time, we will pause the testing and resume it later tomorrow morning. Don't worry, Hans will continue familiarizing with the rest of the mechs tomorrow in order to allow him to run the gauntlet without interruption."
The day had stretched on rather late. Many of the contestants hadn't eaten a proper dinner even. Ves dreaded the interruption as his mech hadn't gone up yet. Carlos came up to him and slapped his back, relishing the chance of comforting Ves instead of the other way around.
"Haha, don't stay up all night. It's going to be okay. I looked at your mech and its a badass design. Nothing will go wrong tomorrow."
Ves exited the venue with all the other contestants. Half of them already shook their heads with resigned expressions, while the other half dealt with the anxiety in a variety of ways. Unlike most of them, Ves possessed a decent amount of confidence in his design, so he didn't stew too long over the wait.
He went back to the hotel and embraced a grouchy Lucky when he entered his room. "Hey there buddy. I hoped you haven't missed me long."
The cat bit his hand a little to let his dissatisfaction known. It quickly perked back up when Ves fed it a mineral he picked up along the way back. Lucky's company distracted Ves from his worries, letting him fall asleep even as Dorum's nightlife grew vibrant at the end of the first half of the Young Tigers Exhibition. Many new young talents had shown off their chops, and the most shining stars among them would compete in the second half of the competition tomorrow.
The next day came with an alarm. Like the previous day, Ves had to wake up early, though he didn't really need to be present during most of the gauntlet runs. Win or lose, Captain Gillian would inform him anyway. Still, Ves left his bed and prepared to leave early as he didn't want to miss anyone's gauntlet run. Just looking at how each contestant used the same circumstances to build wildly different mechs taught him a lot on how to build a design that was out of his comfort zone.
The crowd that came to watch the testing had been reduced by a third. Many contestants who failed had dejectedly bowed out of the competition and left the stage for the real contenders. Ves thought it was a shame, but everyone was different.
Like yesterday, the presenter came back up to the stage while Hans entered the simulation pod at the back. "Thank you for your patience. I hope you had a good night's sleep, because we are starting the show again. First up, give the stage to Edwin McKinney's Sky Ripper!"
While Patricia's Rosario awed the crowd in showcasing the Bright Republic's best, it didn't beat the prestige of graduating from an institution of the New Rubarth Empire. The gigantic super state possessed the best mechs, the best education and the most cutting edge research. Edwin merely stood at the side looking completely unaffected by the glances thrown in his way. It was as if he was beneath such shallow pageantry.
The Sky Ripper used a light and nimble avian design scheme, which different from humanoid mechs in many different ways. Its main divergence is its large, armored wings that integrated flight systems in a deeper level. Overlapping 'feathers' shielded the vulnerable portions of the flight systems without excessively blocking thrust and allowing them to maintain flexibility. The mech could move the wings like arms, allowing the pilot to adjust its course in swift and delicate ways. It turned Avian mechs into the fastest and most maneuverable mechs around.
When Hans brought the Sky Ripper into the gauntlet, he transformed the light mech mech into a king of the sky. The mech flew rapidly in the air, avoiding plenty of ordnance thrown in its way by maneuvering through the fire with its graceful way of manipulating its massive wings.
"There comes the first obstacle."
The gauntlet's reputation for nail-biting arduousness did not exempt flyers. If anyone thought a flying mech would get a free pass by flying really high in the air in order to reach ten kilometers in a minute or two, they were wrong. The gauntlet adjusted to flying mechs with a little cheating by changing most of the light and medium mechs with flight-capable versions. The heavy mechs that remained received no change, as they were quite capable of throwing an incredible amount of ordnance at any flier that was foolish enough to fly around in the open air.
Hans encountered a couple of formation of fliers. He reacted to their appearance by diving low and using the structures as a way to cut their line of sight and interrupt their firing lines. Through a mix of hit-and-run tactics and luring the enemy out of position, the Sky Ripper masterfully decomposed a large group of flyers into a bunch of wrecks and disoriented machines. The Sky Ripper's dominance relied on its impressive flight system, its unparalleled flexibility and its aerial speed dominance over the clunkier light mechs.
When the Sky Ripper went all out, it utilized two devastating ways to tear its opponents apart. First, the beak of the avian mech opened up to reveal a compact cannon. It didn't fire a lot due to the limited ammunition the light mech carried, but every shot made at close range felled a light mech. Its second option to kill were its incredibly sharp talons. Edwin modified them with sharpened armored spikes that allowed each swoop and diving attack to tear straight through the thin armor of flying mechs.
The only mechs that presented a threat to Edwin's masterful implementation of a flyer were the heavy mechs on the ground. While the urban environment posed many problems in firing at the low-flying Hans, they still utilized their indirect fire weapons to great effect, especially missiles. Benefiting from the sensors locks the light mechs maintained on the Sky Ripper, the many missiles honed in on Hans as if a hive of bees got enraged by a bear that stole their honey.
The Sky Ripper responded by spreading its wings and firing rapid-firing lasers at the missiles. Edwin somehow managed to strip most of the housing of laser weapons and mount them on the wings with minimal weight impact. He furthermore linked them to a set of high quality targeting sensors embedded in the thin mech's chest. Hans was able to rely on the auto targeting to shoot down most of the missiles while keeping his attention focused on evading or killing the flyers.
Hans easily reached the end of the gauntlet after suffering only superficial damage.
"The Sky Ripper absolutely smashed the gauntlet!" The presenter went up the stage again and highlighted the eye-popping statistics. "Edwin has produced a virtual masterpiece, easily transforming a couple of parts into a coherent mech that dazzles the mind. Let's give it up for Edwin McKinney everyone!"
Everyone present applauded Edwin, who still looked as if the event meant nothing to him. He easily beat Patricia's records and took absolute first place in the gauntlet runs. Everyone either admired him or wished they could take his place. Sadly Edwin kept his socialization to his circle of sycophants, making it difficult for other admirers to even come close.
Hans took a couple of mediocre mechs out on a spin, this time showing that reaching Edwin and Patricia's level was difficult. Ves thought back on the performance of the two mechs and had to admit they had a much better grasp on the fundamentals than him. It really showed in how well the two integrated the components seamlessly into a whole, while Ves forced his jury rigging skills to forcefully fuse different components.
Ves could claim superiority in only one aspect. He designed his mech with a focus on the X-Factor.
Edwin's avian flier was a technical marvel that astounded the crowd with its high capabilities. However, outside of its great build, Ves felt the mech was a lifeless brick. Edwin invested virtually no emotions in its construction, as if the mech was nothing but dirt underneath his feet. Even Patricia did better than him, as she put a tiny bit of care in her own creation.
He shook his head. The X-Factor might be fine and dandy, but the bottom line was that strength trumped over everything. Who cared if the X-Factor allowed pilots to make the most out of their mech if it was built out of paper.
"On to our next contestant, this bad boy here is the Drake, designed by Ves Larkinson. I love the mix. I'm looking forward to see what Hans can magic up with this beast!"
This was the moment Ves had been waiting for. It was do or die. All Ves could do now was to pray for Hans and hope his mech held together long enough to make it to the end.