Hans stepped into the gauntlet with a running start. The drake raised eyebrows when it first appeared. Its humanoid form moved around with raptor legs and featured stubby wings on its back for an extra boost. While its rounded shield and good quality sword told everyone that its main role was a knight, the Drake also featured two strange elongated boxes on its shoulders.
"Did you put together your own shoulder mounted lasers? What was wrong with using the readily available ones?" Carlos asked in confusion.
"The ones from the junk pile don't bite hard enough."
"Oh. The shoulder mounts look like they weigh a lot. Is your mech able to handle all of it?"
"That's why I went with the raptor legs in the first place. They are able to maintain their speed better even when carrying a bigger burden."
"Yeah, but they're made for raptor mechs in specific. The balance of your half-humanoid mech must be hell."
"I spent some time adjusting its default modes, and I'm sure Hans can handle the rest."
"That's a lot of trust you're putting in the test pilot."
Indeed he did. While Ves was able to accomplish a lot in twelve hours, he couldn't optimize the balance of the mech completely. He hoped that with Hans experience in piloting all kinds of mechs would come to good use here. And from the look of the Drake's fluent gait, he encountered no insurmountable problems.
The clipped flight system came brilliantly to life. Hans took advantage of its diminished output to put an extra spring in his steps. At certain moments, the Drake moved faster than light mechs even as it weighed as much as the heavier medium mechs. While it wasn't able to avoid detection due to the heat it generated, it was able to outrun a couple of groups.
When the Drake encountered an ambush of two heavy mechs and a smattering of other weight classes, Hans aggressively charged closer despite the disparity in firepower. The large round shield drew most of the firepower, allowing the Drake to come closer enough to make a few quick attacks with his sword that disabled most of the vulnerable weapon mounts on the heavy mechs.
Having taken care of the heavy firepower, Hans darted back and forth and dueled the more mobile mechs at their terms. With the wings acting as jump jets, the Drake was often able to close the distance abruptly with the enemy. While the laser cannons suffered from poor accuracy and tracking, if the Drake came close enough, the damage they caused always slowed down the opponent, softening them up for a lethal sword blow. The Drake progressed forward on a bloody path.
Unfortunately, the constant activation of both its flight system and laser cannons rapidly built up heat while draining the mech's energy. Ves wasn't worried about the energy, as he had packed the Drake with enough energy cells to last the entire gauntlet. Heat was a very different problem, and once the Drake neared its limit, its effectiveness would drop drastically.
Heat accumulation troubled designers ever since the first mechs came into existence. Even after 400 years of mech development, modern mechs still faced the plain old dilemma of balancing power and heat. Newer power reactors outputted higher amounts of energy, while energy cells packed more and more capacity with each new iteration. Heat absorption and heat dissipation technology only barely kept up with the times.
Air was a very poor conductor of heat. This was a good thing for some people, as it meant their coffees and soups wouldn't cool down to room temperature in seconds. For mechs, this presented a big problem, as even the most effective passive radiators could do so much in normal Terran-standard air conditions that so many worlds had terraformed into. It was worse in locations of low air and vacuum conditions like on lifeless moons.
The biggest advancement in heat dissipation happened about three hundred years ago. The first heavy mechs introduced primarily used missile and ballistic weaponry. Their ammunition took a lot of space, but they generated much less heat than pure energy-based weapons like lasers.
A heavy mech built-in with lots of lasers was seen as an unrealistic fantasy by most mech insiders at the time. As long as they kept shooting their lasers for a couple of minutes, their mechs turned so hot you could cook an egg on its surface.
Out comes a mech designer who one day thought while mechs were not so good at dissipating heat into the air, then what about the ground? Their feet always touched the ground. So the mech designer reworked the internals of a mech and basically reinvented the concept of legs not just as a way of moving and a way to support weight, but also as a tool to help mechs transfer heat into the ground. Through incorporating sophisticated heat-conducting alloys, that brilliant mech designer developed revolutionary new legs with widened feet that could actually siphon off heat pretty decently.
Shortly after this bombshell invention got out, other mech developers got into the action. If two legs conducted this amount of heat, what about four legs? The first quadrupedal mechs were born. These so-called animal and centaur mechs looked highly unusual, but having more legs offered many advantages besides increased heat transfer. The introduction of spider mechs followed quickly after, but that was when the whole leg craze peaked. The one man who tried to design a centipede mech failed miserably, and his abomination was quickly forgotten.
Methods to deal with heat had come a long way since then. From the use of evaporating coolants, to the incorporation of replaceable heat sinks, mech designers had more choice in how to handle this problem.
Ves hadn't included any of that in his mech. Worse, as Hans often hopped and glided around, the Drake's feet wasn't touching the ground, thus further limiting its heat dissipation. Hans kept avoiding the heavy mechs with his mobility while cutting down the medium mechs by jumping close and taking them out with his sword and shield. Only the light mechs posed a problem as the laser cannons couldn't be fired too fast in order to avoid overheating the Drake. Worse, the laser fire the Drake received only increased its heat levels.
About 7 kilometers through the gauntlet, Hans decided it was enough and detached the laser mounts and stubby flight system from the Drake. The mech lost a lot of its mobility and ranged options, but at least its heat generation was cut. Through a mix of clever positioning and a lot of running, Hans was able to pilot his lightened Drake through several blockades.
The entire crowd adopted strange expressions when they saw Hans kept surviving ambush after ambush. The Drake often slipped past by the skin of its teeth, its exterior armor and its shield accumulating more and more holes and burn marks. Yet despite the extensive damage, none of them hit anything critical. Hans was somehow able to keep going with the Drake even when the mechs of other contestants would have malfunctioned at this point.
"Damn son, did you really spend just twelve hours on your mech? It's still going strong!"
"I haven't done a thing." Ves helplessly shrugged his shoulders. "I was on the stage just as you. It's not even possible for me to cheat."
"Maybe you got word of the competition format beforehand. This must be why Patricia aced the qualifiers. Did the two of you do some unspeakable actions in order to get an advantage?"
Ves really hadn't cheated. He behaved so scrupulously ever since he arrived at Bentheim that he never once opened the System on his comm. The city was really too crowded, so there were many people of all sorts of affiliations spying on each other. He didn't trust the hotel, the wireless net signals or even the open air to be clear of spying eyes.
Meanwhile, the gauntlet reached the endgame as the finish line was in sight. Hans valiantly squeezed the Drake through many tight spots, though his enemies accumulated at his heels. The light mechs posed a great problem to him as they were impossible to shake off for long. Only through taking creative routes such as crashing through thin structures could Hans stay ahead of the baying wolves.
Its shield blocked so many shots and sword attacks that it collapsed at a critical moment when the Drake defended against a pair of knights. While Hans crippled the left knight, the right mech was able to hack off the undefended shield arm. The Drake explosively retreated in order to buy time for Hans to adjust his mech's posture. He was barely able to escape getting enveloped by hopping inside a large parking complex.
Ves' heart dropped at the crippling blow. While the Drake already made it far into the gauntlet, he wasn't certain it would be enough to pass the qualifier. Besides prodigies like Patricia and Edwin, there were at least 5 other geniuses who graduated from renowned institutions of second-rate states competing.
"Come on, Hans. You can do it." He gripped his fist, hoping that his efforts in incorporating the X-Factor in the Drake could make a difference, even if he hadn't noticed anything so far.
The Drake remained immobile as Hans tried to vent as much heat as possible during the pause. The mech stopped glowing in the dark, and the reduced heat slightly increased all of the mech's parameters. As Hans mentally prepared for the end sprint, a group of light mechs abruptly sniffed him out of the parking lot.
The powerful raptor legs exploded into action. The Drake took the light mechs by surprise by hopping into range, letting the mech ruthlessly cut them down with a couple of quick sword strikes. The Drake bashed aside the falling mechs and ran out into the streets.
Dozens of mechs converged around the Drake. No matter where Hans turned, he always confronted at least four or five mechs. As his maneuvering space got smaller, the enemies achieved more hits. His armor flaked off and his power reactor started to sputter. However, the engines were well protected so they kept running at full tilt while the Drake's powerful raptor legs maintained a steady gait even with half of its armor in tatters.
Hans hacked and slashed at his opposition with unprecedented ferocity. He even started kicking and shoulder bashing the mechs in his way, all to create openings to escape. The amount of mechs that crowded around him grew so large that they started to block each other's efforts.
The Drake, desperate to break through the mob of mechs, sprinted forwards and used its powerful legs to jump. The sudden action practically broke the remainder of the mech's leg armor. The Drake landed awkwardly atop a puzzled mech, crunching it with the weight of a mech's fall. It opened up sufficient space for Hans to slip past and reach the last 100 meters of the gauntlet.
A sniper round cut the unarmored ankle of the Drake, finally felling the mech at the last moment. Everyone let out gasps of appreciation and disappointment. The Drake managed to come so far, outshining almost every other contestant. However, its scores took a big hit if it failed to reach the end of the gauntlet, which was a giant pity.
"Not yet. It's not done yet!" Ves thought as he gripped his fists so tight he squeezed all of the blood out. He kept mentally praying for Hans to pull a miracle. "There's still more you can do with a single leg."
It turned out that the Drake wasn't out of the picture yet. Amazingly, the mech threw away its sword and bent forward. It used its single remaining arm to support the mech's upper body. Hans awkwardly piloted the two-limbed mech forward. Its intact leg hopped forward with powerful force, while the arm kept the mech's forward portion from crashing on the ground. With each misaligned hop, the mech awkwardly neared the finish line even though the arm took more damage from the stresses of carrying so much weight.
The sniper shot again, this time taking off half the Drake's arm. Hans couldn't avoid falling forward, yet he kept fighting defeat by practically crawling his mech forward. Only several meters separated victory from defeat, and even as other mechs fired potshots at the Drake, the crippled mech wriggled its remaining leg in a way that allowed the Drake to slide past the line.
The entire crowd was speechless. Even the presenter looked dumbfounded at the Drake's incredible integrity and Hans' brilliant performance.
"I... contestant Ves Larkinson has designed a magnificent piece of work. The Drake has officially conquered the gauntlet! Congratulations!"
The applause Ves received reached the level of Patricia's. Many contestants and spectators looked at him with a renewed eye. This gratified Ves, though he didn't let the praising contestants coming up to congratulate him get to his head. He participated in this contest in order to make himself known to potential customers. Already Ves started to eye the couple of servicemen and mercenaries in the crowd.
"Hmm, it's not time yet. Let's wait until I officially passed the qualifiers."
Most of the other mechs that went through the gauntlet after that failed to excite the crowd. It trudged on, and besides the contestants whose mechs were on display, Ves was growing bored. He had seen most of the varieties of mechs by now, and many designers failed to think out of the box, resulting in many similar mechs coming out one after another. Well, if Ves hadn't benefited from the System, he'd probably design a similarly crappy mech as well with his once-horrible 0.3 Creativity score.
After a couple of excitements involving the mechs designed by the geniuses, the end results were clear. The presenter enthusiastically announced the 8 lucky designers that could go on to the main stage of the YTE this afternoon.
"-and the sixth place goes to Ves Larkinson!"
"Congrats pal! I already knew you'd win!" Carlos hugged Ves tightly.
Ves kept a small smile on his face as he basked in his first victory. If he couldn't make it this far with the help of the System, he had no reason to be here in the first place. It was a sure thing to pass the qualifiers.
As for the main event, he was not so sure. Both Edwin and Patricia were strong, while the rest of the contestants who studied abroad couldn't be underestimated either. Still, two of them slipped up during the qualifications, causing Hans to fail before he reached the end of the gauntlet with their mechs.
The next phase of the design contest happened in the afternoon while the mech pilot competition ended its semifinals. The start of the design competition would be put on the front stage in front of a live audience of thousands. His face and image would also be projected to the rest of the Bright Republic, which was an unprecedented glory for him as he never really excelled in anything before.
He sighed at the happenings. "No wonder so many of my colleagues chase after fame and fortune. It not only feels great, it's also good for business."
While the crowd started to disperse, Ves already turned on his meager business charm as he walked over a group of idle mercenaries. Hopefully he could generate some interest for his product to these battle-hardened men and women.