The long match reached its end stage. Most of the fliers were already shot down, while many other mechs were down to their last reserves. The canyon's ruins were mostly blown apart. The frequent close-quarters combat and the occasional artillery barrage flattened so many ancient structures that the city was unrecognizable.
While many other mechs started to run slower, the Mist Prowler came alive. Though the scorch marks and many holes caused the mech to lose its shine, the mech navigated the rubble-strewn streets with remarkable alacrity. Its movement at the start of the match might as well be as slow as a slug compared to its current form.
"This modular armor sure is something." Joshua commented as he moved his mech with his functionality mostly intact.
The more square plates he shed, the faster his mech moved. Shedding so much weight in one single match was a new experience for him. It felt as if the Mist Prowler turned from a medium mech into a light mech. If the internal damage wasn't so bad, he'd actually be able to keep up with fast mechs in a race.
"Too bad the damage is just too extensive."
The many holes in his mech's armor exposed the internal sections to the elements. Though Joshua's dodging improved, he could not prevent flying rocks and other types of wide-area damage from degrading the more delicate electronics. The erosion already turned his mech's left arm into an inert limb.
A heavy knight approached the Mist Prowler's side. Compared to the half-wrecked medium mech, the knight looked fairly pristine with its intact sword and shield. The mech survived the grueling match so far by being too sluggish to reach most skirmishes in time.
"TheSeventhSnake, how's your reserves?"
"I'm down to about 25%."
"I still have 40% left in the tank." The knight boasted. "We've reached the final ten minutes of the match. We have to dislodge whoever's left alive from the central temple."
Joshua looked up his team display and only counted five mechs still alive on his side. Of these five, two never showed up anywhere. Only the Mist Prowler, the heavy knight and a light sniper mech stuck together within the ruins.
"How many enemies are in the temple?"
"I last counted five of them, but that might have changed."
That meant they were effectively outnumbered. Joshua did not like his chances. He worked hard to take down four enemy mechs and drive away many more. Each of his opponents provided him with a hefty challenge. He now fully appreciated the proficiency of Silver League players. While not all of them possessed balanced skills, they almost always had a trick up their sleeve.
"How much of that smoke do you have left?"
"I'm down to my last canister. It won't last long enough to kill off all five of them. They also know my tricks now so I doubt it will be effective in separating them from each other."
"We won't need to separate them in order to win. In fact, I want you to force them to stick closer together." The heavy knight's pilot surprisingly stated. "If they're clumped up together, then our sniper can easily bracket the area with laser fire. Sure, most of them will miss, but if even 20% of his shots hits something, we're on the right track."
That was a fairly ingenious plan, if not for one thing.
"If I go in, I might be liable to get hit by my own side." Joshua said. "But if I don't go in, the enemy has no reason to cling together. They'll just spread out and try to escape the sensor blocking range."
"You need to go in. If we want to win, we have to take some risks."
"And what will you be doing?"
"I'll be standing next to our sniper, making sure he won't get ambushed. Look, you don't need to kill all five of them yourself. Just try to occupy two or three of them. You can leave the remainder to us."
The plan was wracked with holes, but Joshua couldn't figure out another way to win. The longer they stayed near the temple, the more their capture score accumulated. Once it reached the limit, they'd win the match.
Joshua parted from the pair with a heavy heart. He was essentially tasked with acting as distraction and bait. Victory and defeat rode upon his shoulders. He didn't want his first match with the Mist Prowler to end so ignominiously.
"C'mon fellow, I know you have it in you. Please stay together for a couple more minutes."
His back cage holding the cloud generator and projector lost a lot of weight as the match went on. Almost all of the canisters were missing as Joshua already used them up. Only the last canister remained unused. Joshua programmed the particle ejector, and then initiated a delay. He controlled his mech to quickly detach the back module and throw it in the direction of the central temple.
The particles instantly engulfed the surrounding area. A great fog of shiny particles and rainbow colors blocked everyone's view. If the sniper had not prepared a position and zeroed in on the temple, he would be as blind as the rest.
"I'm going in. Hey sniper, I'll be alternating from the left to the right side of the temple area each minute starting from now."
With that out of the way, Joshua entered the mist yet again, rendering himself blind. By now, Joshua got used to the sheer amount of visual noise around him. Having prepared his entry with a rudimentary map, he eased his mech forward. Its steps landed softly in the soil, much gentler now that it only wore a fraction of its armor.
Joshua felt more in tune in this blind environment. The Mist Prowler was made for hunting in the heavy fog. Like an extradimensional specter, the sorry-looking and creaky mech approached the temple. As a minute passed, he switched a little to the right. He decided to increase his pace and probe the enemy's disposition.
Once the main temple came into view, a laser shot out at him from a corner.
"Contact!" Joshua yelled as he dodged further to the right. Then he realized the particles in the air blocked all communication signals as well. "Shit."
His mech spurred ahead with a scavenged sword in hand. The spear and heated knives weren't able to survive Joshua's rough handling. More shots to ping in his direction, but luckily they were just exploratory in nature.
Another set of laser shots started to fire from the outskirts. The sniper in Joshua's team finally went into action and focused most of his shorts to the left.
The grand temple came into view. Unlike the other stone ruins in the map, the main structure of the alien city was carved out of an exotic stone that shone bright black in the sun. Its appearance was incongruent with the local architecture.
Joshua cared little for these fictional curiosities and instead focused on getting into sword range with what looked like a banged-up heavy centaur. It lost most of its weapon emplacements from previous attacks. Most notably, one of its legs appeared to be lame.
"It's a sitting duck." He grinned at the sight. The heavy mech did not use any weapon other than what looked like a salvaged laser rifle. The mech's fixed weapon emplacements were either destroyed or expended all of their ammunition.
The heavy mech released a trumpet-like sound in the air as it called for help. Knowing that he didn't have much time, Joshua squeezed out all of the Mist Prowler's potential and dodged the heavy mech's plentiful shots with clumsy grace.
Knowing that its end was near, the heavy mech dropped its rifle and instead lifted off a ridiculous-looking maul from the ground. Even before the Mist Prowler came into range, the centaur already started to swing the hefty weapon.
"Just because my mech looks like scrap doesn't mean it can't dance!"
With contemptuous ease, Joshua bent his mech backwards and allowed the head of the maul to pass right before his mech's nose. After he pulled his mech upright, the sword in its hand made a few quick stabs towards the damaged and wrecked weapon emplacements on the centaur's body. He might as well be stabbing a stationary target, because the centaur's reaction speed was far too slow compared to his Mist Prowler.
The centaur smoked and its reactions slowed down once more. Joshua was disappointed his attacks hadn't wrecked the mech, but he shouldn't be surprised. Heavy mechs often survived heavier punishments. He made do with merely crippling his opponent because a pair of enemy light mechs finally came to the centaur's aid.
"Two more for the chopping block." Joshua said as his grin grew stronger.
Instead of confronting them directly, Joshua abruptly shifted his mech to the left. He acted as if he wanted to lure the two into a fruitless chase. As planned, the wary light mechs didn't follow him deeper into the mist. Instead, they opted to approach their crippled teammate and assess his condition.
Unfortunately for them, the sniper fire abruptly started pelt them down. One shot even thrust past a damaged shoulder section, cleanly severing the entire arm from the poor mech's frame. None of the mechs present on the battlefield looked pristine. Many mechs missed entire sections of their armor. A single attack at an unprotected opening could prove devastating.
Joshua decisively shed the three mechs and instead dove in deeper and came up on the entrance of the temple. He had to move carefully now that he came so close. Destroying the temple was an automatic loss condition.
A mech suddenly came into his view. The mediumweight looked terrible. Fractured armor was all that was left of its armor, and it had lost its entire right shoulder and arm. Despite the extensive damage, the mech still held on to an intact flamethrower in its other hand.
One of the ways striker-type mechs distinguished themselves from others was their capability to damage a wide area. Accuracy was less of a concern for them as they'd always hit something in their attacks if they came into range. The particle mist unintentionally provided the striker with the perfect hunting environment.
Joshua chose to push his mech down into a forward roll. The limber mech performed the desperate action with a lot of worrying creaking. Despite the Mist Prowler's limberness, mechs simply weren't designed to roll. Tons of pressure fell onto several vulnerable spots, causing the mech to run on its final legs.
"I still have enough juice to take you down with me!"
As the striker adjusted his flamethrower downwards, Joshua swiped his sword at the weapon. The strike sliced the weapon apart, causing its hot and unstable internals to explode in a splash of flame that engulfed the both of them. The striker was clearly worse off from the attack, having lost its remaining arm to fire.
Unfortunately, Joshua wasn't feeling all that good. Plenty of flames had gone right past his non-existent armor and savaged his beaten-up internals. He instantly lost 80% of his engine power.
"Come on. Get up!"
With his mech's final strength, Joshua poured all of his will into pushing the Mist Prowler to get on its knees, hold up the sword, and push its battered feet just enough to slash at the opposing mech for one last time.
The attack landed solidly in the enemy's waist. It tore apart the striker's engines, immobilizing it on the ground right next to the Mist Prowler which just breathed its last.
Within the simulation pod, Joshua breathed out as he pulled himself out the intensity of combat. He paid little attention to the remainder of the match. He recalled his previous encounters and relished the stunts he pulled off with the Mist Prowler. His mouth never lost its grin.
"The Mist Prowler is a worthy mech. I wasn't wrong in trusting that designer."
Joshua eventually found out that his team lost the match. In the end, they stayed back too long and let the enemy team run out the clock. It left a bad taste in his mouth, but he quickly regained his composure.
"There's plenty of other opportunities to make up for my loss."
Meanwhile, somewhere else on the planet, Ves looked down at Lucky in concern.
"What's the matter, buddy?"
The cat tugged at his pants and yowled at him to follow him outside. The mechanical cat usually longed about on his sofa. Something must have stirred him up really good for him to act so panicked.
Ves ran after the cat when it bolted out the doors. He stopped when his feet encountered a metal box.
After soothing his stubbed foot, he looked down to see Lucky frantically scratching the exterior of the metal box.
"Hey now, be careful with that." He said as he picked up the head-sized box. "Let's head inside."
After sinking back down the couch, Ves studied the strange box that appeared at his doorstep. He hadn't expected any deliveries to arrive today, and certainly not something that warranted a small but heavy metal box. After knocking his hands over the matte surface, Ves realized the box was not as simple as it looked. His knowledge in metallurgy suggested that the box was a piece of reformed mech armor plating.
He turned it around and touched all over its cold surface, only to come up with no way of opening the box. He knew there was something inside because he could feel something clank when he gently shook the container.
"This isn't meant to be opened with a simple cutter." Ves realized with fascination. Who would go through the trouble of refashioning mech armor into a box that could only be opened with specialized tools?
Fortunately, his workshop's tool shed possessed a few tools meant to help with repairs. One of them was a high-intensity thermal cutter that could slowly melt through most mech armor. The only problem was that handling such a tool inexpertly might damage the contents of the box.
"Maybe I should use a saw instead?"
But when Ves studied the box further, he realized that using saws came with its own risks. The armor plates weren't simply stacked on top of each other, but were placed in a particular pattern that could cause the entire box to implode and funnel excess kinetic energy to the middle. It was an ingenious security feature that spoke of a great amount of effort in keeping the contents of the box secure.
"I can't use a saw or a thermal cutter alone. I have to use both."
Though there were more advanced tools that could open the box without risk, they were all in the hands of large or rich manufacturers. A nobody like Ves wouldn't be able to afford such extravagance.
Therefore, Ves simply prepared his tools and carefully worked on the box with Lucky watching on with hungry eyes.
First, he melted the outer portion of the box in a careful pattern. He did not cut a straight line nor did he follow a random route. No, he meticulously followed the optimal routes suggested by the armor pattern and slowly peeled off the top armor layer by layer. He continued his work for two whole hours before he came upon the final layer. It consisted of a different material that was significantly tougher. If Ves recklessly tried to burn through the last layer, he'd risk scorching the contents.
Instead, he left the box in place and let it cool down for a couple of hours. Ves took the time to analyze the samples of the armor plating and scoured the galactic net for any matches.
"Nothing. This alloy is not publically available."
While the armor was nothing special in terms of its damage resistance, Ves was intrigued by the strange patterns the box used. The maker of the box was either a mech designer or a professional armorer.
While Ves made plenty of scans and other observations, he had no starting point in understanding its features. The tech was too advanced or exotic. It might even have alien roots, seeing that the patterns incorporated many strange patterns that resembled alien scripts.
After the box had sufficiently cooled down, Ves took up the powered saw and carefully guided it to cut a tiny groove at the edge of the box. He then followed up with a couple of other minor cuts that caused the final layer of the box to suffer a crisscross of narrow indentations. Once Ves applied the final cut, he turned off the saw and put it on the table. With his free hand, he held his hand over the top, and firmly pushed against the surface.
A series of clicks sounded as the top disintegrated into a mish-mash of weird non-Euclidian shapes. It strained his mind when he looked at the many shapes. Somehow, the remnants of the last layer didn't fall down, but instead fell into a series of grooves that turned out to be a sophisticated lock.
When the metal pieces all fell into place, the strange lock turned transparent and changed into a fluid!
Ves suddenly got knocked aside when Lucky climbed on top of the box. The cat quickly craned down his neck and lapped at the transparent liquid.
"What are you doing, Lucky!? It might be dangerous!"
It took a lot of effort for Ves to use his meager strength to pull his deranged cat from the box. The cat yowled excruciatingly and used all of the power packed in its slim body to slip out of his owner's grip and dive right back into the box.
When Ves tried to pry off his disobedient cat from the box, he failed to make any progress. The cat practically dug in its claws.
"Lucky, don't make me upgrade my strength."
Apparently, the gem cat didn't care. By the time Ves managed to pull his cat off, it already closed its eyes in lazy contentment. Ves looked speechlessly at the empty interior of the box before turning his gaze at his selfish cat. Lucky looked so full of himself right now. He even had the audacity to nap in his irate owner's grasp!
Ves sighed. With the strange liquid alloy slurped away, he could find no other clue to the providence of the box. While he still had the rest of the opened box to play with, it paled in comparison to the strange and magical alloy. It almost seemed as if the alloy moved by itself.
"I hope you're happy with your latest meal, because I'm not going to feed you anything until you completely emptied your bowels."
Lucky graced the admonishment with a lazy meow before finally falling asleep. Ves sighed, not having the heart to scold his cat any longer. Instead, he put the cat down onto the couch and turned his attention back to the opened box.
"Does it have any other secrets?"