Lovejoy waited in his pod. His initial high at the news of his successful advancement made way for apprehension. He knew that he'd face formidable opponents from now on. Even those ranked near the bottom of the top 100 posed a threat to him with the right mech.
"Hopefully my designer has got a brain this time and provides me with a sword."
In order to ensure fairness, the pilots did not have any contact with the outside world. Cadet Lovejoy had no impression of his mech designer, other than his work was solid. If he could produce a mech like the Unicorn under three hours, it meant he was a viable contender.
He licked his lips. "If I manage to reach the finals and stand out, I might get an offer from the Carnegie Group's Mech Corps."
Every cadet from the Abelard Academy dreamed of joining the Mech Corps. Those employed directly in the Group's most prestigious branch enjoyed the most riches and authority. In return, they'd have to participate in the most pitched battles under their flag and had to live a regimented life.
"Even with the obligations, such an impressive job will set me up for life."
His pod lit up. His mech stood ready to receive his consciousness. Cadet Lovejoy opened up his mind and fell into the usual routine of letting his mind engulf his new mech.
"What the, it's there again?!" He muttered as he felt a tingling brush past his mind. "There's definitely something wrong with my neural interface. Why didn't I report this anomaly to the technicians yesterday?"
He swore to himself. He was about to enter a match. This was no time to fix his technical issues.
"Urgh. Next time then."
Once the connection process finished, Lovejoy cautiously extended his senses. He found nothing out of place, so he let down his guard and beheld his new mech.
The sensations overwhelmed him for a bit. The mech moved so smooth that he was confused whether it was his own body. Though he eventually calmed down when he experienced the usual sluggishness customary to mechs, he still enjoyed this new mech.
"This machine is a lot better than the training mechs of the academy!" He exclaimed once he got used to its movements. "Too bad the designer chose to accompany my mech with a longsword."
Mech longswords were characterized by their versatility. They could be wielded with one hand or two hands and they could both slash and pierce through well-protected sections if accompanied by sufficient force.
This versatility also turned them into the jack-of-all-trades of mech swords. Lovejoy preferred wielding larger two-handed swords. His fighting style revolved around generating rotational momentum in order to unleash a flurry of devastating slashes. Such a style put great importance on the durability of the weapon.
The match started before he could consider anything else. The darkness around him disappeared, revealing a desert arena environment.
Lovejoy was ambivalent about the environment. His mech did not rely too much on heat-generating weapons so he should have an advantage. On the other hand, the lack of obstacles meant he could be shot down from a distance. It all depended on the opponent.
When Lovejoy turned on his sensors, he spotted a very powerful signal. "That's got to be a heavy mech."
His brows furrowed at the discovery. Heavy mechs sacrificed mobility for armor and firepower. Each mech that wanted to take down a heavy boulder like that had to make a lot of sacrifices.
His Sword Dancer stepped closer. He took his time due to the limited size of the arena. The moderate pace also allowed him to adjust his footing on the sandy soil. Each environment posed different challenges to mechs, and sandy deserts played hell with footing. Fortunately, while his mech's legs were not too big, the soles were sufficiently wide enough to avoid sinking too deep.
The heavy mech came into view. Considering its size and bulk, it did not move from its place, lest it mess up its own footing.
"Damn, it's a heavy skirmisher. Still, this happens to be one of its worst environments."
The second round's successive duels took place in random arena environments. This was standard in many mech duels. It just so happened that this heavy skirmisher that was built around heat-generating weapons like its wrist-mounted flamethrowers and shoulder-mounted laser cannons radiated an immense amount of heat.
In a hot environment like this simulated desert, that was a deathknell.
"Haha, this is my lucky day!" Lovejoy cheered and approached his opponent in a zigzag pattern.
The heavy skirmisher readied its flamethrowers but started with firing its laser cannons first. The high-powered, long-ranged weapons possessed decent accuracy. Their lightspeed beams could not be dodged when they fired, so Lovejoy could only dodge while relying on his intuition and the angle of their barrels.
"Goddammit, whoever designed that mech is an expert on laser weapons!"
The targeting systems of the heavy mech seemed to excel in locking onto his twirling Sword Dancer. Without a shield, Lovejoy had no choice but allow his mech to get hit a couple of times. His Sword Dancer tried to mitigate as much damage as possible by spreading out the hits. Still, he suffered a devastating strike when his mech's left arm melted into uselessness.
"You'll pay for that!"
With the longsword held in a single arm, he closed the distance with vengeful wrath. The mech he piloted complimented his every thoughts, allowing him to metaphorically dance along his mech. It was a sublime experience that brought his piloting skill to a greater height. He even improved his dodging skill.
Now that he reached a close range, he started to circle around the heavy mech. His speed overcame the slow rotation of the powerful but sluggish laser cannons. The skirmisher gave up on the overheated lasers and raised its arms.
Twin gouts of chemically enhanced flames departed from the wrists. The desert turned even more stiflingly hot from the immense heat. Even Lovejoy got the illusion that he entered an oven. His mech frantically jumped back in order to avoid the initial flames.
As the burning liquids caught nothing, they fell onto the desert and kept burning. Lovejoy's eyes sparked as he tried to circle around the fallen flames and approach the skirmisher from behind. The heavy mech was not complacent, and fired another gout of flames, only for the swordsman mech to jump back unscathed.
After repeating this pattern several times, the heavy skirmisher eventually got surrounded by its own flames. The temperature in the center of the conflagration kept rising.
"Hahaha, need a light?" Lovejoy laughed as he wondered which pilot allowed himself to get boxed in by his own flames.
The enemy pilot must have been a pampered specialist who only knew how to pilot a single mech type. Someone like Lovejoy who patiently mastered the basics of every kind of mech and weapon before settling for swords disdained those who took shortcuts. He had to work twice as hard in the academy in order to climb his way to the top of the rankings.
"I don't know which lazy bastard you are, but you're finished!"
The rest of the match held very little suspense. Lovejoy holstered his sword and retrieved his dinky little laser pistol. He kept a healthy distance from the flames and circled around while firing his pistol through the flames. The sheer bulk of the skirmisher made it easy to hit the mech, even if most of the shots got flaked off by its imposing armor.
Outside the arena, the commentators noted the strange circumstance of this duel.
"Look at that duel. I have not seen such a farce in three years. Those are extremely persistent flames. Normally, I'd complement the designer for formulating such a strong accelerant, but with such a clueless pilot he might as well shoot himself in the foot!"
"The pilot is Michael Forneau. He's a renowned laser marksman. Such a mech should allow him to play to his full strengths, if not for the addition of the flamethrower. Has he ever attended a single class on skirmishers? Keeping track of your flames is the first lesson pounded into your head!"
"I don't know about you, but in my opinion Cadet Forneau is unworthy of appearing on this stage. What a disgraceful performance for someone lauded to be a future expert!"
Not everyone in the audience agreed. Pilots only had a limited amount of time to get proficient with mechs. It took years to gain a basic amount of proficiency in every variety of mechs and weapons. If the time spent on broadening a pilot's range of skills was instead focused on deepening them, they could have more expert and ace pilots.
Advanced pilots like Ves' cousin Melinda were a dime in a dozen. Any decent academy churned out boatloads of advanced pilots every year. However, even a great second-rate state like the Friday Coalition could not produce a large amount of expert pilots. Demand still vastly exceeded supply.
As the commentators chattered, the constant damage wore down on the heavy skirmisher. After five straight minutes of shooting, the flames started to subside but the heavy mech was dangerously overheated. Its pilot prudently forfeited the match in order to avoid damaging his mech any further when the chance of salvaging a victory was nonexistent.
"That was easy." Cadet Lovejoy thought as his damaged mech left the arena and returned to the embrace of the mech designer. His consciousness disconnected from the machine. His next duel commenced in less than two hours so he had plenty of time to take a break.
Ves on the other hand shook his head at the silliness of his opponent. He had no complaints about getting an easy victory, though he lamented the plentiful times his baby got hit by the shoulder-mounted laser cannons. Once his mech moved close enough to see the damage in detail, he hissed.
"Even compressed armor can't stop a high-powered laser beam."
Laser cannons possessed a destructive amount of energy. While the compressed armor did their job of preventing the damage from reaching the internals, much of the armor needed replacement. Lovejoy tried to spread out the damage over the mech's entire frame, and while it was the right call, it also gave Ves a headache.
The difference between laser cannons and laser rifles did not merely extend to scale. Weapon designers often built laser rifles for the purpose of dealing long-term sustainable damage. Efficiency and durability mattered more than power and penetration.
Laser cannons turned those priorities around. They were built to instantly melt through thick layers of armor and deliver a devastating amount of thermal energy in an instant. Pilots on the battlefield loved using laser cannons due to their combination of high penetration and ease of resupply.
In short, the damage the laser cannons inflicted had hurt his mech a lot. The only thing Ves could do is fabricate as much replacements as possible before the next duel started.
He whizzed up a new set of compressed armor plating, focusing on the most essential parts first. Fortunately, the short duration of the duel worked in his favor. Not all of the plates needed replacements so he fabricated enough and managed to replace all of the damaged plating just before two hours had passed.
"I can't do much about the residual heat damage that managed to get past the armor." Ves muttered regretfully. Those lasers packed a really huge punch, and even if the armor dispersed most of the heat, a small amount still wrecked havoc deeper inside his mech. "It won't matter too much for the next duel, but if the internal damage accumulates, there's nothing I can do."
Replacing internal components always entailed more difficulties. It took a lot more time to replace the internals due to the interconnection of the parts.