Ves imagined that others had it worse. He certainly didn't envy the designer of the knight his mech faced in the previous duel. Repairing a submerged mech took a lot of time, perhaps days to get it right.
"Well, at least my mech has more working parts than broken ones. A busted head and an amputated arm is nothing to speak of after the third duel."
The competitions in the past had shown that results diverged wildly in the second round. The consecutive duels tested the skill of both the designer and the pilot. If either of them were not up to standard, the damage accumulated pretty fast, to the point of making the mech a derelict.
Only a gifted designer like Carter Gauge or a talented pilot like Richard Lovell could turn around this convention.
The duel above the frozen lake lasted a long time. The extreme thermal conditions that simulated a frozen planet environment played havoc with the internals, especially since the armor lost its weather-sealing capabilities in the previous duels. The rapid transition from hot to cold strained the more sensitive components.
"I don't have time to fix up the internals. My mech is has enough redundancies so that a couple of faulty components won't break the mech."
Ves only had a limited time to fix up the arm and head. In his view, both of them had the same priority, but he decided to start with the arm.
"Fortunately, it's a clean cut. I don't have to sort out the damage components."
Forging a replacement arm did not take a lot of time. As all of the internals had to be made from scratch, Ves did not have to resort to stuffing new parts in an existing space. It only took about thirty minutes to create a new arm, and an additional ten minutes to add the accompanying compressed armor.
That left him with just enough time to sort out the head. The deformed head posed some difficulties to Ves. He did not have enough time to fabricate an entirely new head. Instead, he put his jury-rigging skill to good use. He cut off the deformed section and cleaned up as much damage as he could. After fabricating a replacement sensor module, he carefully put it inside.
He flash-forged a hastily designed mask and put it over the hollow front of the head. The Sword Dancer appeared creepy now, but what mattered the most to Ves was that the sensors were operational now. The mask might not provide a lot of protection, but it was better than keeping the entire head exposed.
Time ran out before Ves could do much more. He really did not feel comfortable releasing a substandard mech from his embrace. Having gotten used to the MTA's strict standards, it was against his conscience to deliver a piece of junk to a pilot.
When Lovejoy connected to the mech for the final time, he also felt let down by its damaged state. "The arm is alright, but the rest of the frame is still degraded."
He sighed a little as he got used to his mech's deteriorated performance. "I know it's been hard on you, pal, but you've got one fight left to go. Don't disappoint the crowd."
Through luck and skill, he already eked out three marvellous victories. According to past trends, he should have reached the top 25 so far, but only at the bottom of the list. One loss might knock him down enough to miss to incredible opportunity to participate in the final round.
"There's no way I'm going to miss this chance. Fame, riches and more awaits me." Lovejoy grinned as he daydreamed about all the amazing luxuries he could finally enjoy. "Hopefully my final opponent is a mech in a worse shape than mine."
The match started when the environment finished materializing. It turned out to be a hilly prairie. Vast green fields only interrupted by vision-obstructing hills encompassed Lovejoy's view. The beauty of the environment masked a deadly undercurrent.
Such a wide open environment with rolling hills and no other obstacles provided ranged mechs with an ideal shooting environment. Lovejoy lowered his mech's stance so that it wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb too much. As the Sword Dancer climbed its way up a nearby hill, his hastily repaired sensors pinged when it detected a very powerful heat source.
"What. The. Hell." Lovejoy uttered when he saw what made his sensors go mad. "How much energy does it take to keep that thing afloat?!"
What Cadet Lovejoy encountered was the now-infamous Pterodactyl. Outside the arena, much of the crowd's attention got drawn to the gigantic flying mech. This strange and extremely powerful beast mech stomped over its opponent through superior range and overwhelming armor ever since it came from the hand of one of the competition's most popular contestant.
"Looks like Ves Larkinson's swordman mech is matched up against Carter Gauge's Pterodactyl."
"Better call the undertaker, because this poor little sword-wielding mech stands no chance against Gauge's brilliant work."
"Ordinarily you'd think so, but the Pterodactyl suffered a lot of damage back in its third duel. I'm kind of hopeful for the mech called the Sword Dancer to be honest."
"Are you blind? That dinky little medium mech only has a laser pistol! How many times does he have to shoot until the Pterodactyl's armor get scratched?"
"Anything can happen, baby. Even Gauge can't work miracles. The Pterodactyl's bottom armor still has holes."
Ves learned that Gauge met a strong opponent for the third duel. His mech fought hard and finally overpowered the enemy cannoneer at a substantial cost. While the flying mech's armor could take a lot of damage, it also made it hard to replace if time was short.
Much of the armor on the Pterodactyl had not been treated with the fanciest techniques. This meant that the Sword Dancer's backup weapon stood a tiny chance of inflicting major damage.
As a pilot thrown into an arena, Lovejoy was not aware of those facts. Regardless, he would never despair just because he encountered an overwhelming opponent. He would have long given up if he shrugged his head at every setback.
"This thing's big and heavy, so it takes a lot of power to keep it in the air. If I can drag out the match and put my mech into power saving mode, I can drag it from the air." Lovejoy calmly analyzed once he got over his fear.
"It's slow to fly so I can outrun its range if necessary, but I doubt this aerial mech is helpless in this regard. The designer must be someone really incredible for designing such a marvel."
The Sword Dancer retrieved its trusty laser pistol and started to fire at the flying fortress. The low-powered laser beams hit a wide area around the Pterodactyl. At this distance, many shots flew wide despite the target's huge size and slow speed. The Sword Dancer wasn't optimized for marksmanship and the weapon came with too many limitations.
The shots that did hit the Pterodactyl achieved nothing but alert the enemy pilot. The lumbering flight mech turned its avian head towards the Sword Dancer and fired off a massive ballistic shell from its beak.
"This isn't fair!" Lovejoy yelped as he flung his mech over a hill.
The top of the hill exploded into chunks of soil as the shell detonated with a lot more power than usual. The Sword Dancer had to keep dancing away as a torrent of rapid laser fire erupted from the Pterodactyl's sides.
Lovejoy frantically kept dodging amid the aerial bombardment dedicated to turning his mech into scrap. Even as he tried to keep his mech operational, he slowly realized something strange.
"This mech's marksmanship is garbage. The mech might look shiny, but the pilot is no good."
If someone who specialized in ranged weapons was at the cockpit, his Sword Dancer might already be destroyed. Lovejoy saw an opportunity once he realized his situation.
First, he tried the safest option. He shot back at the mech with his laser pistol but only occasionally. He also deactivated most of his sensors and put his mech into a less intensive mode. The state only ensured the engines received ample amounts of power. The rest had to make do with less.
As Lovejoy put his full attention on dodging the shells and lasers, his mech only received minor damage in return. Without any distractions, he became more proficient in predicting his opponent's aim and move just a fraction of a second before a salvo of laser beams arrived at the spot his mech previously stood.
Sometimes, skill trumped over gear. Lovejoy started to grin. While the enemy mech was a grand feat of engineering, it nevertheless did not suit the enemy pilot.
In truth, the battle damage the Pterodactyl suffered in the last duel still haunted the flying mech. Its head had also been hit, which destroyed its excellent targeting sensors. Other systems also suffered significant damage when its bottom armor got hit. Even with Gauge's excellent skill, he only restored the Pterodactyl up to eighty percent of its best state.
About five minutes later, the Pterodactyl's pilot caught onto Lovejoy's strategy. The flier stopped firing most of its weapons like its finger got stuck to the trigger. The mech slowed down while unleashing its laser beams at a much more measured pace. The pilot also concentrated more on aiming properly, which gave the Sword Dancer a lot more grief.
"This is stupid! How can I get hit more often if that flight mech isn't firing its laser beams so rapidly?"
Cadet Lovejoy knew he had to change the situation. He injected more power to the Sword Dancer's engines. As the mech sped up, it tried to increase the range and therefore make it harder to hit.
As a flying heavy mech, the Pterodactyl nevertheless flew faster than most medium mechs. With its flight systems at full capacity, it slowly caught up to the running Sword Dancer and even managed to hit its rear armor with its low-intensity laser barrage.
"Hah, how much power are you burning? Can you keep this up forever?!" Lovejoy taunted at the flying brick that sought to overtake his mech.
There was a good reason why flying mechs never exceeded the medium weight class. The antigrav systems had to expend a lot of energy to keep all of that armor afloat. Getting it to move wasted even more precious energy. This energy consumption rapidly built up the moment the flying mech increased its velocity.
The pilot realized this fact belatedly and stopped accelerating like crazy. Instead, it used its superior lasers to bombard the Sword Dancer from a comfortable range.
"Oh well, it was worth a try." Lovejoy shrugged. While the enemy pilot was not as good as him, he was still a cadet who attended the prestigious Abelard Academy. Cheap tricks didn't work on him. He had to figure something else than simply running away.
In the standard rulebook of mech duels, the side that played too passively lost by default. The mech that weighed the lightest was burdened with the obligation to seek the initiative. This age-old rule prevented light mechs from running away from their heavier counterparts for the duration of the entire match.
Obviously, mech pilots who favored heavy mechs lobbied hard to get this rule accepted.
"There should be an exception when it comes to flying mechs! This heavy pig with wings is just ridiculous!"
While the heavy mech was in the open, it enjoyed a commanding view of the entire battlefield. No matter where the Sword Dancer tried to hide, it could not avoid getting peppered by lasers. Whenever it tried to hide behind a low hill, the Pterodactyl destroyed it with an explosive shell. The sheer volume of fire caused the mech to get hit a couple of times. Fortunately, the shots were spread out, so no single part received critical damage.
For now at least.
Lovejoy estimated he could keep up his dodging routine for about ten minutes. After that, most of his rear armor would be melted away, leaving his mech vulnerable to a crippling shot.
The few times he shot back with his pistol, he might as well be spitting against a wall. How could he turn his awful situation around and bring down that overweight bird?