"Congratulations for your victory, Ves. You deserve it." Barakovski finally said as she silently regained her composure. "What a resilient mech. Your Executioner really awes the crowd."
Everyone who attended the duel applauded his work. The Executioner shrugged off the effects of the lightning bolt in record time. It was doubtful whether mechs designed by others could do the same. Only the most remarkable designers like Carter Gauge could reach this level.
While Ves lacked the overflowing talent of someone of Gauge's caliber, he finally proved his own worth. Nobody badmouthed him anymore in his presence. The other designers, all of whom enjoyed billions of cols worth of investment, regarded him as if he was a hidden tiger.
Since Barakovski lost, a pair of attendants guided her off the stage. She'd return to the podium at the end, but for now the spotlight only shone on the winners. After waving her goodbye, he walked over to Patricia and looked down on the arena where her mech put up a fierce fight.
When he looked at Patricia's dauntless heavy mech launching missile after missile, he couldn't help but feel sorry for the enemy hybrid knight. Its fragile kinetic shoulder mounts had already been obliterated under a rain of high explosive missiles. Right now, it barely hung on to its tattered shield as salvo after salvo of kinetic missiles struck its surface.
"That's a very interesting direction you've chosen. Aren't you afraid your mech becomes harmless once it expends all of its missiles?"
"Just as your design commits to a sword, I'm confident I my mech can sweep away any opponent with its missiles alone. At a certain point you just have to put your trust in your ability."
Ves nodded at her words. A mech designed solely around a single weapon system did not have to make unpalatable compromises. For example, the hybrid knight that was currently taking a pounding tried to combine ranged and melee capabilities in a single package. It wasted a lot of capacity that could have been used to strengthen its armor or its speed.
Flexibility had its uses, but strength overcame all.
Predictably, the hybrid knight succumbed once its shield fell apart. Its armor lasted quite a bit, but Patricia's heavy mech still carried plenty of reserves. It ultimately finished off the knight with about twenty percent left.
Ves had to admit that Patricia chose a bold design. Her mech only used a single strategy: vomit out as much missiles as possible before the enemy closed in. Most of the other mechs designed by the finalists completely disregarded artillery mechs due to their scarcity in one-on-one duels.
A regular artillery mech might pose little threat in a duel environment, but one designed by Patricia was different. She obviously tweaked the missile payloads, causing the high explosive missiles to be twice as powerful and the kinetic missiles delivering three times the force.
Patricia only paid for it by reducing their maximum range, which was not that big of a deal in the small arena. The missiles also lost much of their maneuverability and tracking capabilities. The pilot had to target his missiles carefully in order to ensure they'd hit the target. Faster mechs stood a better chance of prevailing against the missile barrage.
After the end of the second duels, only six designers remained. Ves looked at those who survived thus far. Besides Patricia, he recognized none of the other four, but they all represented the best of what the Friday Coalition had to offer.
It was no coincidence that the top three graduates from the Leemar Institute of Technology had made it this far. They were all eminent geniuses who could almost be placed on par with some of the lower-class graduates from an average first-rate institution. Any casual graduate from a first-rate institution could raise a storm in the industry of a second-rate state, so that was high praise.
"There's still a distance between me and Edwin McKinney." Ves sighed ruefully as he remembered how utterly dominant the genius displayed his skill.
Edwin had truly leaped the dragon gate and shrugged off the shackles of his humble origin, if it was ever humble in the first place.
Before the start of the third and final duel, Professor Marshall took to the stage once more. Her eyes swept the gazes of each of the surviving designers with pride. "The six of you can be proud. No matter who wins or loses, you have all reached the pinnacle of mech design at your age group."
She raised a hand, causing a projection to emerge. "Nevertheless, our Open Competition only allows for three finalists. I have spoken with the masters and they have all affirmed that the winners will be guaranteed an offer of apprenticeship."
The news struck the crowd like a bombshell. Such a statement meant that all of the six possessed enough qualifications to study under a renowned master.
"Outside of that, you must look at your luck."
This meant that the losers of this final round might not be chosen, even if they possessed the right qualifications. No one knew why the masters made this decision. Perhaps they simply didn't want to pick up a designer who lost to someone else's apprentice.
"Same as last time, the final three winners will receive a special prize. Behold our latest innovation!"
The projection finally resolved into a model of a small inter-system spaceship. A couple of specs overlaid the most important parts of the hundred-meter long vessel. The impressive specs quickly roused the interests of those in the shipcraft industry.
"Our institute has developed a new spaceship ideal for personal travel. The Arkon Mark I is the most advanced ship in the series. She features the latest advancements in FTL precision, so she is able to jump across vast stretches of space. Despite her compact size, her cargo bay can hold up to four standard-sized containers or two packaged mechs."
In practice, this meant that the ship could only keep one mech on standby. The Arkon had evidently been designed around this feature. Many smaller ships and yachts lacked the space to keep a mech on standby.
Ves knew a little about ships. A ship like the Arkon incorporated enough exotics to build a dozen mechs. The price of this ship could definitely bankrupt most billionaires back in the Bright Republic.
"Even if I don't have a use for this ship, I can sell her for a fortune."
Just imagining the rain of credits he could obtain turned his eyes red with hunger. Losing was not an option. He had to make it to the final three.
The Arkon Mark I possessed both speed, armor, range and comfort. The only downside was that her FTL and regular engines both ran on high-grade fuel. This fuel was extremely powerful, but also expensive. Governments kept a tight group on the supply of such fuels.
Those who wished to use the top-of-the-line model as a courier or a cargo transport shook their heads. Even in a wealthy state like the Friday Coalition, the operating costs was hard to bear, especially in a low-margin business like interstellar cargo transport.
Even Ves had to bleed a lot of credits if he wanted to take the ship out for a spin. Considering his future trajectory, obtaining a fast and well-armored ship was no misdemeanor, especially if he could get it for free.
After finishing her speech, Professor Marshall receded and made way for the final battles.
According to the bracket, Ves faced an elite who originated from another institution under the Carnegie Group. Felix Tremor clawed his way through numerous rivals, including many geniuses from Leemar.
His mech, the Handshake, excelled in sniping, but could put up a mean fight in close range as well. His pilot, Xandra Ribeiro, was an all-rounder who could play his mechs to its strengths.
Lovejoy waited patiently in the simulated cockpit of his now-familiar Executioner. After undergoing two brief but intense struggles, he had developed an intimacy with this model. Even after wrecking two identical mechs, the third still welcomed his presence like a warhorse reuniting with its knight.
While the rewards for mech pilots were not as generous as those received by mech designers, they still received a fair amount of wealth and prestige. If Lovejoy won the next battle, he could leave his mark in history and be celebrated for many years on end. His employment prospects would definitely soar to an unimaginable height.
After a moment of adjustment, the final battlefield unfolded into a lifeless moon environment. The low gravity caused his mech to bounce up with each step. Fortunately, it also reduced the load to the flight system, causing the mech to fly around effortlessly.
Still, Lovejoy did not dare divert too much power. In this near-vacuum environment, mechs suffered a reduction in their ability to disperse heat.
Overall, the terrain highly favored the Executioner. If his opponent's mech turned out to be a laser rifleman, he'd have a really hard time.
"Where is he?" Lovejoy wondered as he scoured the silent landscape. "This guy sure is patient."
He scoured half the battlefield, only to come up with nothing. Just as he considered changing his search pattern, his instincts screamed at him. He flared up his flight system, but his response came too late.
A high-powered kinetic projectile tore into the leg of the Executioner. Large chunks of armor sprayed into the distance as the slug hammered the affected area. The leg instantly lost all functionality.
"Xandra!" Lovejoy yelled as he honed in on her position. Disregarding the damage, he urged his mech onwards.
"Sorry Reddy, but I'll be taking the finals!" The woman responded as she fired another slug from the Handshake's railgun. Her weapon generated a fair amount of heat, but not as much as a laser.
The second slug penetrated glanced off Executioner as it kept dodging sideways. A huge furrow emerged from its side armor, exposing the internals to vacuum.
The Handshake calmly continued to fire off slugs. Its heavy railgun packed a very huge punch, but it required quite a bit of time to charge up the capacitors. By the time the Executioner came close, Xandra only managed to unleash half-a-dozen slugs.
All of the slugs made their mark on the swordsman mech. Despite his best efforts, his dodging only succeeded in preventing a fatal hit. Two slugs impacted the chest, causing the Executioner's power reactor to sputter. If not for the generous amount of armor, the second slug could have killed the mech.
Once Lovejoy's mech closed the distance, Xandra decisively threw away the railgun and retrieved a spear. Her medium mech stood ready to receive his charge.
Their weapons clashed. The Handshake successfully fended off the Executioner's charge. Its prepared stance absorbed a fair portion of the force behind the collision.
As for the Executioner, the failed strike caused it to fly to the side. Lovejoy fought to stabilize his mech. The crippled leg and reduced gravity made it twice as hard for him to regain his mech's balance.
"Having reactor trouble?" Xandra taunted as she noticed the Executioner's fluctuating power output. "Your mech might shut down at any moment!"
The intermittent power output was a sign of further trouble. Lovejoy quickly read the damage report and knew his mech was on a time limit. The railgun practically ripped through half the Executioner's chest. Only its well-designed internals and abundant redundancies allowed the mech to maintain a modicum of functionality.
Even if his mech remained floating on borrowed time, Lovejoy didn't show it. "Even if my mech is half as good as yours, I can still tidy you up. Don't forget who tutored you in swordplay!"
"That happened ages ago! I've grown enormously since then!"
While Lovejoy only briefly branched out before fully immersing himself in swords, Xandra sought to master everything under the sun. She attained a comprehensive proficiency in every category imaginable to a further degree than anyone else in the academy. In truth, her spearplay was not much worse than Lovejoy's swordplay.
Yet this tiny gap might as well be as wide as a canyon. As Lovejoy corralled his unstable mech and decisively engaged his opponent, his heavy sword strikes pushed Xandra's mech backwards. He heavily relied on his flight system to push his mech forward and put some weight into his attacks.
If not for the sparking power reactor, he could have pushed the Xandra to her limits. Now though, Lovejoy had to keep his distance in case his mech lost control. Xandra even regained the initiative once she noticed his hesitation. She aggressively increased the tempo of the clashes.