After explaining the rules, the executive retreated and allowed others to direct the first round. A guide brought every designer to their allocated QuickForge system.
A marvel of engineering, every QuickForge cost as much as a hundred mech workshops. Its impressive capabilities allowed for almost instant fabrication of any device as long as its complexity did not exceed a certain standard. Though insufficient to mass-produce any currentgen mechs, it had no trouble in pumping out two-hundred year old designs.
"These are the toys that the students of Leemar can polish their design skills." Ves guessed. The Carnegie Group didn't design these QuickForge units for a simple competition. "How I envy those who gained the chance to study here."
Designers who spent a lot of time with these miraculous systems could gain a lot of proficiency in working with real mechs. Though the assembly process was massively simplified and sped up, it still provided much more hands-on experience than working with simulations and projections.
Once everyone reached their assigned stations, they waited for the signal to start.
"Three, two, one, go!"
Everyone rapidly engaged the QuickForge system. The students from Leemar had a distinct advantage. They used their familiarity with its systems to immediately start fabricating a frame. Sophisticated assembly arms flash-produced the alloys in midair, kept aloft by the most precise antigrav emitters.
Impressed by the speed of which these systems produced a frame, Ves hurriedly tried to catch up.
"Right. If I want to finish a frame at the fastest speed possible, I'll have to go for a light mech."
Though he preferred to design a versatile medium mech, its larger mass and size meant it took more work to get it running. A light mech not only had a reduced material requirement, its limited loadout meant it only needed a couple of small components to make it fully functional.
As Ves wanted to make his mech count in the first half of the round, he focused on improving his mech's peak capabilities. It needed all the performance it could get in order to remain competitive with the mechs submitted a few hours later. The battlefield fortunately featured small resupply depots where mechs could supplement their ammunition and energy, so mechs with shorter running times still had a chance.
After a brief consideration, he therefore picked a sprinter mech. He rapidly scanned the list of pre-made components and picked out a laundry list of limbs and internal parts. He particularly paid attention to the legs. Drawing from his experience with the Octagon series, he focused on prioritizing agility instead of top speed, though not to such an extreme extent this time.
"In the early stages of the free-for-all, it's more important for a mech to be able to avoid damage. The less damage it incurs, the longer it will last."
Some mech designers chose to go for the opposite strategy. They built a crude heavy mech brimming with armaments. Such a heavy brick relied on its immense armor and firepower to deter others from taking it on even as it sluggishly transported a coin. The tiny light mechs like what Ves had in mind gained no advantage in taking on such monsters.
Though fairly safe, their limited speed and mobility meant that these lumbering oafs had a lot of difficulties finding coins. They could only cover a limited area. Even if they spotted a coin, any rival mech could easily snatch it before the heavy mech reached the spawning point.
"Heavy mechs are just a dead-end in this mode." Ves concluded. Only heavy mech specialists had a way to make it viable. Anyone else only risked their downfall if they played with something they didn't fully master.
Now that he developed a concept, he had to attach the proper image to his design. In a contest like this where his entire future was at stake, he had to pull out all the stops. Even as his slower rivals all began to fabricate their parts, Ves still remained unmoved. He closed his eyes and sharpened his intent.
"My mech will be a steed fit for the most talented pilot. A proud machine, it cherishes its freedom to move. Any location is within reach. None may blaspheme its integrity. Violators will be speared by its horn if they are weak. Those who are stronger can never touch its surface, for my mech is fleet of foot and can depart whenever it wishes."
Ves envisioned a unicorn in the form of a humanoid light mech. Proud, inviolable and fleet of foot. The new design he had in mind combined all three aspects into a coherent whole. He felt empowered by his vision.
He started to design and fabricate his mech. Though the interface of the QuickForge system was complex, it basically functioned as a monstrous amalgamation of a design terminal, a 3d printer and an assembly system. As Ves was quite familiar with each system, he had little trouble adjusting to the combined controls.
He put his full attention into getting his light mech assembled properly. Though the QuickForge system accelerated the fabrication and assembly process to a ludicrous speed, it also risked the amplification of any unaddressed faults. A tiny misalignment between components could snowball into a massive cascade of structural instability. Ves had to keep his eyes peeled and work with utmost precision in order to maintain control.
The only snag he faced was that he had to tune out the commentators.
"...Look at the beauty Cris Adrian has in mind!" A male announcer pointed out. "From how many components he has in mind, he's definitely going to make his splash in the mid-game!"
At least the mech designers had some measure of privacy this time. Opaque screens blocked their view of their rivals. In addition, each designer had access to a function where they could obscure all of their actions to the entire audience. This allowed designers to hide their proprietary techniques, though they were only allotted an hour of privacy in total.
A female announcer complemented her colleague. "Cris Adrian is one of Leemar's top graduates of this year. He has graduated cum laude in mech design, so his foundation is top notch! He recently accepted an invitation to work for the Carnegie Group directly, so he's certainly the man of the hour at this moment!"
"While Cris is a talented lad, look at his self-declared eternal rival! Mortimer Presutti is on fire! Having climbed from a life from the slums in a dusty planet at the edge of the Carnegie Group's sphere of influence, he quickly gained appreciation from everyone due to his remarkable intelligence. Now that he's reached this stage, I'm certain this one-in-a-century talent will dazzle us all with his nimble design!"
That caused Ves to stutter a bit, which almost screwed up his work on fusing a leg to a torso. If not for his quick reaction, he might have wasted a lot of time.
"This Mortimer sounds like trouble. If he's going for a light mech, then he'll be releasing his mech in the same time frame as mine. I can't let him get the better pilot."
With this new information in mind, Ves began to work more recklessly. Though he started to slip up now and then, most of the errors were too inconsequential to bother addressing. He pushed his assembly skills to the limit by speeding up as fast as possible while maintaining control. He felt as if he was balancing on a knife edge. Instead of slowing down to catch his balance, he instead moved faster, causing him to wobble harder.
"We've tallied all five hundred in-progress designs and put our brightest minds to work. The preliminary results are in! About 93 are light mechs, 320 are medium mechs, and the remaining 87 are heavy mechs."
"That sounds about right. There's always an even proportion of light and heavy mechs every year."
"How many of them are aerial mechs?"
"A staggering 78 designs show openings for flight systems. It seems like a significant amount of them are built to hunt for coins."
"The cowards! Don't these designers have any confidence in their work! I want to see some action!"
Ves slowed down when he reached the arms and legs. In order to preserve his design's offensive power, he had to pay particular attention to the musculature in the limbs. The default scheme of the limbs were sorely outdated. With the advantage of two hundred years of progress, he radically tore out the old layout and began to swiftly implement a crude but modern musculature. Though not as good as a proper scheme, his improvised work still raised the specs of all four limbs by a significant amount.
He optimized his mech for wielding spears, though he also added in a laser pistol to deter any fliers. While the pistol did not amount to much of a threat, it was sufficient in holding off opportunists who wanted to pick off an easy target.
Though the rules did not reward a kill, one of the viable strategies in this mode was to eliminate as much competition as possible before they accumulated a lot of coins. The best targets were those who were in the middle of transporting their own coins.
"Enough about the boys. Let's check out how the girls are doing! Just look at Cynthia Barakovski's fearsome light mech. It's only partially but it already looks like a maneater. It certainly possesses the most bite out of all the light mechs."
"Oh I don't dispute that, but she could certainly speed up a little. By the time she finishes this monster, the battle will already progress to the middle stages."
Ves idly noted Barakovski's mention. Despite her average skill in mechanics, her mech should still be a formidable machine in terms of armor and weapons. If she intended to take her time, then she was certainly designing a light mech killer. That was bad news for him.
"Looks like our mechs might clash." He muttered. If he allocated more time on his mech, he could close the gap, but that meant he'd miss out on the best pilots in the pool. In order to reach the finals, he had to give up a lot of toys and settle for something fast and cheap.