When the Kirby entered the workshop, Ves looked grim at the amount of damage it sustained. The fragile shoulder laser mounts were total losses while the knife wound that disabled one of the arm cannons was very hard to fix. In addition, the overheating damage from the first match still plagued the mech's internals in addition to the abrupt fall that certainly knocked a few things loose.
All in all, the Kirby could be fixed in a week. As it was, Ves only had an hour or two at most before the Kirby was scheduled to enter the stage for the last time tonight. He glanced at the arena, where the top favorite of the newly instated Fusion Cup trounced his opponent handedly.
The top pilot of the cup, Christopher Yang, happened to be the number three seed of the Young Tigers Exhibition. Unfortunately for him, he got knocked out in the main tournament by getting matched against the predicted number one mech pilot. Thus, everyone inferred that the YTE offered somewhat of a second chance for him to win an actual prize.
His medium mech sported thick armor and a vicious loadout hated by arena goers everywhere. His wrist-mounted flamethrowers and stubby shotgun-like heat projector turned his mech into the penultimate close-ranged striker. The damage his weapon caused might not be as overpowering as solid projectiles, but they had the nasty property of cooking the enemy inside his cockpit.
In optimal circumstances, the striker tanked everything its opponent threw at them and simply blasted them with constant heat, leading to an inevitable victory when the enemy's machine practically looked like it took a dive inside a volcano.
Such a mech was terrifying already in an arena environment, but Ves cared more about Edwin McKinney. The prodigal son who returned from one of the biggest human superstates, Ves really dreaded what he cooked up. From what he saw so far, the striker moved more fluently than he'd expected of such a well-armored mech, and he spotted no gaps at all in its defenses. Christopher's current opponent managed to test his mech a little bit, but not to the point of actually threatening Christopher's lead due to the damage he sustained in the previous match.
Charlotte grunted at Christopher's indomitable performance. "Christopher's an arrogant son of a bitch, but he has the accomplishments to back it up. He rose up to become one of this year's top graduates due to his own hard work. He overcame poverty and lack of training resources to beat a lot of other mech pilots who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths."
Ves could imagine how tough that was, being from the Larkinson family as well. Pilots in well-off families and organisations enjoyed specialised diets, personal mech simulators in your home and sometimes even private tutors instructing you from the ground up.
"The longer the match goes on, the more advantages Christopher accrues. We'll need to configure the Kirby in a way that will help end the match quickly."
"Tell it to me straight then. How's the arm? Can you fix the knife wound?"
After consulting a high-powered scanner, Ves grimaced at the results. "The knife dug in too deep. That heated knife cut through several essential cables and feeds. I can't fix it without dismantling the entire arm. It's better to dislodge the arm from the shoulder socket and stick another arm in its place."
Obviously, Charlotte disliked the idea very much. The Turbofire sported a very specific set of arm cannons. The spare parts provided by the organizers didn't include a weapon arm of the same model. She'd have to get used to a different weapon or switch over to a fully-fingered humanoid arm.
"What about the shoulder launchers?"
"I can replace them with generic launchers. They don't have to be lasers either. When Alexander wrecked your laser mounts, his knives only penetrated the casing and inner components. They stopped piercing through after that, leaving the modular sockets intact. If you don't care about fast and accurate targeting, I can whip up a new pair of shoulder mounts for you in a rush, but don't expect a good performance."
Charlotte considered her options for a moment. "Do the shoulder mounts first. If you can, mount rockets or something else that packs a heavy punch. As you said, my only chance to win is if I punch Christopher first."
Nodding, Ves immediately went to work, selecting the same pair of rocket launcher mounts that he already mounted on the Kirby's shoulder. Due to the lack of time he hadn't bothered replacing or refilling the back mount that turned into an improvised booster. This should still leave the Kirby with five rocket pods in total, which would wreck any mech at close range if fired upon successively.
Ves worked hard in accomplishing the job in time. Even as the main tournament caused plenty of mechs to get wrecked while crowds of fans shouted the names of their favorite pilots, Ves fully concerned himself with bringing the Kirby back to a semblance of life. He poured as much of his emotions into the work as possible, hoping it could knock the presumptive champions off their thrones.
What resulted from his hour-long frenzied tinkering was a heavy mech with two crude shoulder-mounted rocket launchers affixed to its shoulders. Unlike the stream-lined laser mounts, the boxy, oversized rocket pods weighed the Kirby down significantly more. Together with the pods affixed to its back, the Kirby was dangerously top-heavy in its weight distribution.
"I can't do anything about the balance." Ves warned Charlotte as he moved on to working on replacing the arm. "You'll have to move carefully and never let yourself get tipped over."
"Right. I'll keep that in mind."
The work on the arm proceeded even faster and shoddier than Ves thought. He practically ripped the damaged cannon arm from the Kirby's shoulder socket, rendering it even more damaged, but Ves hardly cared at the moment. He inspected the socket and hastily removed whatever debris remained. Then, he picked up a generic heavy mech arm from the pile of parts and hastily installed it in the empty shoulder cavity.
Even as the semi-finals of the main tournament started to wrap up, Ves hastily connected all the necessary cables without testing them to make sure they properly exchanged information and power to the empty arm. He skipped the fine-tuning and calibration of the arm entirely, which was a big taboo in his profession. An arm that wasn't tuned right felt like a crude prosthetic to a mech pilot. The responsiveness of the arm suffered greatly, but it couldn't be helped. The competition pushed Ves into cutting pretty much every corner he could find.
The announcer already got ready to warm the crowd up as Ves asked Charlotte what weapon she wanted to wield for her new arm.
"And now, get ready for the final round of the Fusion Cup. Who will win the grand prize? Will it be the twin stars of the Bright Republic, the mighty Christopher Yang and the genius Edwin McKinney? Or will the underdogs Charlotte Hoffmeister and Ves Larkinson triumph once again with Lady Luck by their side?"
Granted, Ves could give the announcer a prize for adeptly making the finals sound dead even. Whether the match resulted in a favorable outcome, nobody knew. Ves didn't dare analyze his chances. Instead, he quickly gave the Kirby a heavy tower shield and sent it off to Charlotte.
Both pilots entered their cockpits and entered the arena. After they stood on their designated positions, the security screens came to life, protecting the audience from the violence that was about to ensue.
Christopher's striker sported the same loadout as the last match, which was an excellent decision on his team's part. Heavy mechs could be tough to peel apart, and a pilot as good as Charlotte wouldn't let an enemy come in close without paying for it, as she had proven in her first two matches.
The first seconds of the match happened to everyone's expectations. Charlotte fired off her sole arm cannon while keeping her tower shield to the side for the moment. The cannon detonated squarely against Christopher's thick chest armor, but only managed to leave a lot of soot and a shallow crater behind. Charlotte waited for her cannon to reload and shot again at the same spot, managing to dig a little deeper.
"Oh, what's this? Christopher is nakedly provoking his opponent! He's not bothering to dodge at all!"
The naked arrogance in Christopher's heart came out in full display. The striker kept striding forward in a slow but constant pace. Each shell that exploded against its chest only managed to deal surface damage to the armor. The internals remained entirely unaffected.
"I've got more in store for you!" Charlotte frustratingly yelled as she launched the rockets from her shoulders.
She actually fired them a bit further than optimal, but perhaps she figured it was better to make her move before Christopher changed his pattern. The inaccurate but powerful rockets flew straight ahead, most hitting nothing but empty air or the arena's security screen. What rockets did hit Christopher's mech spread out their damage, leaving the machine a bit disheveled but still fully intact.
Ves gaped at the sight. It was one thing to treat a shield's armor, but to adjust the entire armor scheme of a mech in just half a day's time boggled the mind. "This goes beyond the competence of a novice mech designer. Edwin's at least a journeyman in the standards of the Bright Republic. Perhaps he's even a master."
This was the first time he truly felt he was a frog in a well. The galaxy possessed limitless wonder and countless treasures. Though it irked him to admit his current capabilities could not even touch Edwin's shadow, he was confident the Mech Designer System could pull him up to the standards of the bigger and wider galaxy in time.
"I wonder how the System is doing. It must be feeling a little cramped and lonely in my comm unit."
Though Bentheim welcomed every visitor with a smile, Ves was under no illusion that much of his actions were monitored. Perhaps he might not warrant personal attention from an actual human, but he was sure there were dozens or hundreds of automated programs tracking him from cameras, microphones and countless other sensors. Only in the safety of his workshop where he meticulously controlled his own workspace did he truly feel safe in activating the System.
"Keeping my System locked in my comm unit is tempting fate. I should try and find a better solution to house the System once this ordeal is over."
In any case, Christopher reached his optimal range. With one arm, he activated his flamethrower, and with the other he fired his stubby heat projector. Waves of visible and invisible heat combined with each other to crash against Charlotte's practically immobile frame. Much of the heat was absorbed by the shield, but due to its shoddy materials its forward facing layers already started to melt.
Christopher fired his weapons constantly from the same position, essentially battering the shield with heat. Charlotte kept up firing her sole cannon, only to slowly peel off the chest armor layer by layer at a snail's pace. It truly impressed the entire crowd how well Christopher's mech withstood the barrage.
Seeing that her shells got dispersed without effort, Charlotte grunted in frustration and tried to charge forward. Unfortunately, the tower shield weighed down the Kirby too much, but even without the burden Christopher widened the distance with ease. It was perverse how Christopher's mech boasted armor almost as good as Charlotte's but with only a fraction of the weight.
The match wound down as the Kirby suffered a slow death. Charlotte's ballistic cannon finally malfunctioned due to the internal damage it accrued by all the heat cooking the mech from the inside. It signalled the end of her chances of ever killing her opponent's mech.
"And we have a winner! The crowning champions of the Fusion Cup are Christopher Yang and Edwin McKinney! Congratulations to Larkinson and Hoffmeister for putting up a valiant struggle. Please give it up for our hometown boy and girl."
Perhaps admitting that this competition's balance was grossly out of whack, the audience clapped appreciatively at Ves and Charlotte's efforts to fight to the very end.
Somehow, Ves felt most of his frustrations fade away. He got over the unfairness of competing against a prodigy who studied at an elite institution and using his advanced knowledge to his advantage.
"Second place is good enough, especially since I never intended to compete to the very top in the first place."
From all the attention placed on him, Ves felt optimistic he could find a customer in the crowd. While Edwin proved his overwhelming dominance in the local mech scene, he was too unapproachable. Everyone could guess he was meant for greater things. As someone who never left the Republic in his entire lifetime, Ves put up a respectable fight, overcoming two opponents with luck and skill. Well, mostly skill. You didn't get to reach the finals if you lacked the qualifications to work as a proper mech designer.
As the two teams met in the middle to shake each other's hands, the organizers set up an impromptu podium nearby. They waited for the announcer to finish his spiel so that they could accept their awards.
"So, can you give me a hint on how you made Christopher's mech so durable?"
The elite mech designer peered his eyes at Ves as if he was an unworthy bug.
"Okay, so you don't want to talk, hehe." Ves awkwardly remarked, and discretely pulled back.
In contrast to his frosty conversation, his partner had an amiable conversation with Christopher. The young man wore a friendly smile as he explained the decisions he took in the battle, not that it required much effort on his part due to the overwhelming superiority of his mech.
The announcer first awarded the third place to the team that lost to Ves and Charlotte in the second round. Though Alexander and Michael's mech had been crushed by the Kirby's incredible weight, the operational capability of the mech remained intact, if a bit battered.
Their opponents for the third place had lost against Christopher's devastating heat armament, which meant pretty much the entire mech was half-fried from the incredible heat. Repairing such damage when it spread out to the entire mech was a nightmare, and Ves didn't begrudge the mech designer for losing. Michael Dumont did a decent job fixing up Alexander's skirmisher to the point where it could wield a rifle.
"And now for the winners of the silver medallion. Please welcome our young talents Ves Larkinson and Charlotte Hoffmeister!"
A much louder applause met the two young graduates as they ascended the podium and accepted the silver medallion from the floating cases in front of them. With smiles plastered to their faces, they both waved cheerfully at the crowd. Ves found it wasn't bad being appreciated for once. The celebration truly affected his mood for the better.
"In addition to receiving a commemorative medal to the first ever Fusion Cup held in the Republic, our two winners will also receive a cash prize of 200,000 credits each, along with preferable treatment akin to veteran status by the Bright Republic."
The cash prize was a nice surprise, but it was a drop in the bucket considering the immense cost of business Ves had to deal with. It also clearly dwarfed the prize money of last year's mech design competition. What surprised him was that the Republic actually handed out preferable treatment to the two of them. Even Charlotte perked up significantly when she heard the words. Normally, only the champions of Young Tigers Exhibition enjoyed preferable treatment.
"Damn, so I can strut around like a veteran now?" She dreamingly asked. Veterans and other notables enjoyed many small benefits as payment for their many years of service. "Hah, everyone of my classmates will have to give me the right of way. I can be among the first passengers to board a transit ship. I even get to pimp my mech if I enter the Mech Corps this year."
Ves cared little for such social courtesies. What he cared about more was that preferable treatment entitled him to looser regulations and more favorable treatment by the government in matters such as applying for permits or the right to manufacture live ammunition. Though Ves wasn't about to run up to Cloudy Curtain's planetary government right now, he kept the details in mind for when he might need to expand his operations in the future.
Naturally, Ves wasn't actually a veteran, having contributed nothing to the Republic's defense. While the special treatment might impress the hicks, the more distinguished people in the audience were hardly impressed.
"Any little bit helps." Ves muttered to himself as he already scanned the audience for a potential customer. "I don't believe no one's impressed by my work."
His real struggle started now. With only half a month left before the bank demanded their 5 million credit interest payment, Ves had to find a market for his mech. The Marc Antony wasn't going to sell by itself.