The battlefield became crowded with mechs, both active and disabled ones. The majority of mech designers had pushed their works onto the field. Even if they were unwilling, they had to release their mechs in order to stand a chance to win some coins.
While the latest wave of mechs were built a lot more solidly, the quality of their pilots had deteriorated. This led to absurd situations like Alyssa Fill's rabbit mech demolishing a couple of mechs that had enjoyed twice or thrice as much design time.
A third of the crowd paid no attention to the other mechs as they rabidly followed Cadet Lovell's ingenious methods. His performance proved that while the quality of the mech mattered a lot, an ace pilot was able to work miracles with even the trashiest of mechs. While he hadn't managed to gather a lot of coins, his future was already bright.
Barakovski's light mech also entered the stage. As a supremely built machine, it acted like a crane among chickens the moment it descended onto the battlefield. Its pilot made great use of the tools at hand. While he generously made way for better armed mechs, it ruthlessly hunted the shabby light mechs that managed to eke out a meager existence. The light mech easily snatched a couple of coins with this strategy.
On the other hand, heavy mechs also entered the field. Their stupendous amounts of armor and prodigious firepower deterred many mechs from engaging them. Getting dragged into a head-on fight would always be a losing proposition. These heavy mechs simply lumbered around and whenever they found an unclaimed coin, they simply picked it up and walked to the delivery point without challenge.
As for the Unicorn, Cadet Lovejoy was forced to squirrel like a rat and avoid any encounters due to his damaged state. With a leg that was almost crippled, Lovejoy had to crawl through the most desolate terrain in order to avoid the crowded spots of the battlefield.
"I'm almost there. Only a kilometer to go." He muttered as he vigilantly paid attention to his sensors as well as his intuition. "This last stretch is going to be the hardest. The delivery point is right in the middle of an open plain."
The delivery points were decided semi-randomly. The battlefield had a couple of thousand potential spots where the systems governing the match could turn it into a delivery point. All of these spots were relatively open and accessible, meaning that some devious pilots might wait in the bushes nearby.
After inching closer, Lovejoy sensed no ambush nearby, but that didn't mean much. All of the cadets learned how to minimize their emissions by lowering their heat to a minimum in order to blend their thermal signature in the environment. Some extreme pilots liked to turn off the power reactor entirely, which meant they were completely exposed to damage if someone noticed them before they became active.
Lovejoy had to make another judgement call. He decided to rush to the delivery point without reserve.
The Unicorn burst into the open and jogged as best he could without completely allowing his leg to collapse. The stresses on the damaged leg increased, but his actions proved his worth as he managed to skim away from a small kinetic projectile.
"Haha, is that pistol shot supposed to stop me?!" Lovejoy taunted as he jerked his mech a little to the sides. "Your accuracy sucks!"
If his ambusher piloted a competent mech, he'd surely pay for his words. Yet from the scattered shots, Lovejoy already determined his ambusher's mech was nothing impressive. With grace akin to a drunken dancer, the Unicorn reached the delivery point and let go one of its coins, keeping the other stuffed in its log. The coin successfully ascended into the skies, which meant that Lovejoy gained another score.
"Haha you're too late! Keep firing if you want to, but you've already lost your chance to steal my coins!"
The ambusher stopped firing his pistol. Lovejoy guessed the enemy mech retreated even though he still failed to spot it on his sensors. He smirked at his successful gambit. The idiot thought he only had a single coin and did not know about the second one that was still sitting snugly in his log.
"Fooled you." He laughed and swaggered back into the forest.
Up at the waiting area, Ves nervously sighed in relief as his pilot successfully made it past this challenge. While he wasn't able to communicate with the sixteenth ranked pilot, he still felt a connection with the man.
Both of their futures were intertwined now. Lovejoy's success carried over to Ves, while his own accomplishments meant that Lovejoy could reach greater heights.
"Hello again Ves."
"Patricia! You're done with your mech as well?"
"It's just entered the battlefield." The woman replied and gestured down towards the spot where the mech descended. "I know it entered kind of late, but I'm confident my mech can catch up."
Ves stared down and gaped at the sight. His former classmate had designed and put together an arachnid heavy mech. Not only was it very heavy and thus very slow, it also carried a ton of missile launchers. He had no idea why she'd resort to such an extreme artillery loadout.
The massive spider mech armed its missiles while extending a powerful set of antennas. After turning on its powerful active scanners, it locked onto a series of mechs and fired off half of its missile tubes in one go. A biblical torrent of guided projectiles rose up in the skies before raining down onto their designated targets.
Seven nearby mechs instantly disintegrated. Two of them carried coins, which dropped upon the destruction of their carriers.
A further eleven mechs suffered substantial damage. The sudden strike instantly crushed the fighting spirits of their pilots. All they had in mind was to put as much distance from the launch site as possible. None of the mechs dared to approach the spider mech and confront it even though it was far from invincible at a closer range.
"What a strike! That's the most deadly move I've seen so far in this match." The commentator praised as he put the replay of the attack on display. "Look at those mechs who survived. They completely turned into scaredy cats! One of them even threw away its precious coin!"
With its powerful sensors, the spider mech slowly crawled over to the fallen coins. Though it took some time to nab all three of them, no one ever thought to steal its bountiful prizes.
Only a single flight mech tried to inch close, only to receive a swarm of anti-air missiles to its face. The mech quickly fell from the sky like a bird who lost its feathers. All of the other pilots who lurked nearby shuddered and slinked away.
"That's an incredibly domineering mech you've built."
"I know." Patricia modestly smiled, as if she was a mother watching her son performing on a stage. "I've spent over half a year on its design. Though it will have some trouble trying to resupply its spent magazines, as long as it still has missiles it should deter any challengers."
Many designers came prepared with a well-developed design for the free-for-all. Perhaps they spent months calculating every single detail in order to maximize its efficiency. However, many of these overprepared designers grew nervous or made mistakes once they got on stage. Many of them ultimately released a bunch of mechs that fell short of their theoretical capabilities.
Patricia evidently stuck to her design and succeeded in releasing a formidable mech. Ves admired her ability to maintain composure and deliver a consistent product.
He also had another reason to rejoice the introduction of her overbearing mech. The more opponents it killed, the more the pressure on Ves and Lovejoy eased up. With fewer mechs on the field, the easier they reached the top 100.
"Luckily your mech is on the other side of the battlefield. I'd hate to see my light mech get bombarded by your spider mech's missiles."
Perhaps it was luck, but the Unicorn never drew attention from any of the formidable mechs currently dominating the field. Mechs like the ones designed by Barakovski and Patricia were obviously a cut above the average mid-game mechs.
Many of their designers had only lucked past the qualifiers. Now that they had to compete on their own merits, their shaky foundation proved to be their downfall. No matter how many hours they spent on their design, they could never catch up to the true talents.
That was also why when Lovejoy occasionally encountered another mech, he got away without getting crippled. Most of the badly-built mechs weren't able to hit anything with their firearms as their limbs were too uncoordinated and skewed. The abysmal hit rates of most of the mechs in play proved why quality control and certification was essential.
Still, some mechs came equipped with rapid-fire weapons. These guns might not pack much of a punch, but their sheer volume of fire meant they'd always hit something if pointed at the right direction.
The Unicorn accrued significant damage over its entire frame. Most of its armor had turned into the mech equivalent of swiss cheese by now. Its responsiveness took a disastrous dive.
The Unicorn reached the final stretch just as it was about to collapse. A small distance remained until it could deliver its final coin, upping its score to six. Whether it was enough to reach the top 100 was still in question.
He only had to go past one final obstacle. Three mechs were battling it out over a fallen flight mech carrying a coin. They must have shot it down when it flew past the area.
Unlike the previous situation, all three mechs held back their aggression. They faced off against each other in a vigilant manner, but failed to make any move. Lovejoy found the situation to be fishy.
"What are they waiting for? Are they guarding against third parties like me? Or is it just too awkward for them to start fighting when there's three of them?"
Whatever the reason, the Unicorn was at the end of its lifespan. The longer it had to wait, the more likely it would forcibly shut down. He couldn't allow such a thing to happen.
After a moment's consideration, he decided to ignite the conflict. He calmly raised his beaten-up laser pistol and fired a couple of ineffective shots. The focusing lens had cracked, so the beams weren't very concentrated or straight.
The sudden attack spooked the three mechs into enacting their plans. They already stood on a hair-trigger. The stray laser beams caused them to attack each other before their brains caught up to the fact that a bystander shot at them first.
Like a mouse scurrying between a couple of angry cats, the Unicorn hobbled closer even as they became aware of its presence. The log managed to hide the fact that it hid a coin, but after a second or two the combatants recognized the old trick.
"He's delivering a coin!"
Just as two of the mechs turned their weapons at the Unicorn, the third mech went for the fallen coin. This drew back the attention of the two who were about to attack the Unicorn, which ultimately split everyone's focus. The serendipitous circumstance bought the Unicorn enough time to get close to the delivery point.
Just as a solid kinetic slug hit its torso, it managed to toss the coin just enough to land on the delivery point. As the mech finally deactivated due to incurring catastrophic damage to its exposed power reactor, the coin started to glow and fly in the air.
"I did it."