On a large and extensive training field, two mechs stood like giant statues. For this event, Horatio took some time off his busy schedule to mediate the mech design duel in person.
Ves had already met Horatio in person, but he never presented himself to the man in person. Horatio appeared very dignified in front of the two apprentices. He cast a very long look at the both of them before turning his attention to their mechs.
"Both of you have set a very subjective winning condition to your duel." He spoke. "Ten young mech cadets from the Abelard Academy will be visiting us here today. After spending thirty minutes with each of your mechs, the cadets will deliver their verdict on which mech they prefer in terms of comfort. Do note that these pilots might have a different understanding of the term than yours."
"Will we be able to explain the meaning in greater detail?"
"That won't be necessary." Horatio said. "It's best not to predispose the mech pilots into favoring one design over the other through the use of wordplay. Let them experience the mechs with their own biases.
A shuttle arrived soon after and delivered ten random mech cadets. Some of them were elites who ranked close to the top, while others hadn't found a way to excel in the academy. The only thing they had in common was that all of them had taken advanced training in piloting knight mechs. They wouldn't be clueless when faced with the creations of Oleg and Ves.
Horatio left the two designers on a closed platform and greeted the cadets after they arrived. As he explained the rules to them, Ves took a seat on a nearby bench and watched at the test pilots. He counted seven men and three women, not that gender mattered all that much.
Oleg grinned at Ves. "Now that we've finished our parts, let's share our design schematics!"
When Ves received Oleg's design, he took a long time to parse the blueprint. Oleg decided to form a quintessential defensive knight, piling up its armor while leaving barely enough mobility to qualify as a medium mech.
The concept sounded simple, but Oleg brought his design to an unprecedented level. He possessed transcendent skill in the field of battle mechatronics and mechanics, having taken the basic preconfigured parts and tweaked them in ways that optimized their endurance and defense.
To be frank, the extreme level of optimization scared Ves a bit. Oleg managed to raise the overall performance of his parts by a third through updating their outdated design and optimizing them so that they performed at their best. In comparison, Ves would be lucky if he reached an overall improvement of twenty percent due to lack of time.
That ten percent difference sounded small, but mech pilots and mech designers could easily tell the difference.
The mech cadets began to rotate among the two mechs. Each of the pilots spent thirty minutes on each mech. They tested the machines and put them through their paces on the training ground.
The yard even featured a sophisticated semi-virtual training simulator. Advanced programming and the clever use of bots and projectors allowed the knights to spar against imaginary opponents with some physical feedback. While it couldn't replicate a true battle experience, the pilots at least experienced a taste of their mechs in combat.
As the mechs moved through obstacles or light combat simulations, their differences became more pronounced.
His Tyrant moved rather nimbly for a knight mech. Its mobility allowed it to run around the obstacle course with greater speed and control than Oleg's lumbering machine. It excelled in frontal charges when it brought its considerable weight to bear upon a single opponent. Ves paid a lot of attention on its shock-absorbing capacity so that it wouldn't suffer too much damage when it collided against another mech.
White its armor couldn't quite deliver the same performance, none of the pilots paid too much attention to it. They weren't allowed the wreck the mechs they piloted. In essense, the Tyrant displayed all of its strengths while being able to hide its only major weakness.
Ves hadn't deliberately set out to achieve this condition, but it certainly helped his case.
Oleg's mech on the other hand moved with solid deliberation. While it possessed enough speed to sprint short distances, the mech hadn't received any optimizations in this area. Instead, it presented itself as a quintessential medium knight, with all of the pros and cons that went along this archetype.
From the schematics Oleg showed off, Ves knew that his design lacked any gimmicks. The younger mech designer probably lacked the time to implement something unique that could wow the test pilots.
Instead, Oleg mainly stuck to the basics, deviating only when it came to his specialty. The engine in particular provided his knight with a lot of force and endurance. The mechanical layout of his knight incorporated many innovative design choices that enhanced the knight's ability to exert force.
"Your knight hits slow, but hard."
"A knight isn't supposed to outduel an opponent." Oleg replied with a smile. "You've made an interesting choice with your mech, but I don't know if it will help your case. Your own design isn't able to throw its weight around once its forced to a stop."
The boy had a point. The Tyrant performed at its best when it kept moving, but sometimes it needed to stay put in order to perform its defensive role.
Time went by as the testing period dragged on. At the end of the session, all ten mech cadets spent at least an hour in the cockpits. Once they finished their testing, they passed on their evaluation to Horatio who subsequently tallied the score.
Ves and Oleg left the observation room and joined Horatio and the pilots standing next to their mechs. While Oleg maintained his confident, sunny smile, Ves nervously awaited the outcome.
Had the Tyrant made a good impression? Had the X-Factor succeeded in charming the mech cadets?
Many questions swirled in his mind as he stood somewhat at attention. Everyone eagerly awaited the results of the duel.
Horatio faced the mech designers with a nod. "Both of you have accomplished much in the limited amount of time at your disposal. I'm especially impressed with Oleg. Your ability to maintain the quality of your product despite the time limit shows you haven't slacked off in your practice."
The older man turned to Ves. "As for you, don't take your advantages to heart. Your master has invested a large amount of time and resources in his upbringing. We've been grooming him to compete at the most prestigious competitions this side of the galaxy such as the Rimward Games."
Ves remembered that Miss Barakovski once competed at the Junior Rimward Games. The Junior Games offered an appropriate stage for young but talented mech designers to display their strengths in front of the entire galactic rim.
That Horatio alluded to Oleg's future entry in the adult version of the Rimward Games meant that the boy held a lot of promise. Master Olson must be very eager to build up her organization's prestige by planning to show him off at such a major event.
"I understand." Ves nodded simply.
He didn't really wish to think too much about Oleg's current superiority. In a few years, his skills might have developed to the point where he'd be qualified to compete in the Rimward Games on his own merits.
Horatio proceeded to turn the conversation back to the duel. "At a glance, the two of you employed different strategies in order to win over the mech pilots. I've noticed that Ves has kept to the spirit of the due. You've focused more on harmony and compatibility when designing your mech, haven't you?"
"I want my pilots to bond with my mech. While achieving higher performance is important, if the pilot can't mesh well with his machine, he won't be able to bring out its full strength."
"That's a bold statement." Horatio responded neutrally. He carefully refrained from expressing his opinion on the matter. "Oleg doesn't seem to agree. I see you didn't even pay much attention to ergonomics when designing your mech. You focused purely on maximizing your mech's performance parameters."
"Who cares about comfy seats! A mech pilot ought to know what's best for him. Battles are usually won by the side with better performing mechs. That's an absolute truth."
"As you've alluded to, a mech is mainly built for war. When our mech cadets here graduate from Abelard, they'll be sent to fight at various parts of Coalition space. They're expected to endure extremely challenging circumstances while they pilot their mechs. If their mechs are not up to the task, they are piloting the wrong mechs."
Ves took those words as an oblique warning to his approach to mech design. Sometimes, his obsession with the X-Factor led to decisions that missed out on increasing the performance of his machines. What his images sometimes urged him to stray away from the most optimal design choices.
"I'm sure you're impatient to hear who has won." Horatio finally said as he finished his brief lecture. "Without further ado, here are the scores!"
A small projector sprung into existence that showed a short tally for each of the duelists. The final results astounded them both.
Ves: 5 votes
Oleg: 5 votes
"It's a.. Tie?"
When the mech designers swept passed the tally and studied the breakdown of the votes, the division became more evident. The higher ranking mech cadets leaned on the side of Oleg's knight while the lower ranking cadets preferred the Tyrant.
Oleg didn't understand the result. "Why hasn't my mech won over the rest?"
"Can you make a guess?"
The younger mech designer paused to think through a reason. "Perhaps those who are more skilled don't require as much accomodation as those who need more practice. The best mech pilots can adapt to any machine in an instant."
"What do you think, Ves?"
"I think the higher ranking pilots know they're destined to pilot the best machines." He replied with his own understanding of the voting pattern. "Every mech pilot wishes to pilot the most elite mechs, but not everyone gets their wish. I think the more average mech pilots have a better affinity with lower performing machines that do their best at accommodating their level of skill."
Again, Horatio declined to express an opinion on both of their judgements. He simply acknowledged their answers and let them think about it by themselves.
"There are many reasons why this pattern has emerged. The best mechs are not always the most appropriate mechs for the situation. You must never forget that your role as a mech designer is to accommodate the mech pilots who you are serving. Understand your market and tailor your products to their wishes. Don't expect to succeed if you attempt to force feed your products to your clients."
That sounded great and all, but both of the duellists stood awkwardly as none of them were able to determine a winner for the duel.
"A tie doesn't reflect the truth! I should win the duel!" Oleg suddenly said.
Ves became alarmed at his insistence. While normally he'd be willing to concede to Oleg's admittedly justified excuse, Lucky's ownership was at stake this time.
Ves couldn't afford to lose!
"We agreed to the conditions of the bet beforehand. While we haven't anticipated a tie, that doesn't change the fact that you willingly agreed to all of them! The design duel wouldn't be fair otherwise!"
"That just proves I'm the better mech designer!"
The two couldn't come to an agreement, so they turned to Horatio, who looked on with some amusement.
"Do you really wish to move away from a tie and force a winner out of this duel?"
"I do! I should be the winner!"
While Oleg expressed his confidence, Ves stayed silent. The situation didn't look too favorable to him, but if he expressed his dissatisfaction, he'd reveal his lack of assurance. In a situation like this where a mech designer had to stand by their products, Ves had to maintain some level of confidence in his work.
"Very well. Then, I declare the winner to be Ves!"
"What?!" Oleg screamed. "That's not possible!"
Even Ves didn't expect Horatio's answer. Privately, he already started scheming of a way to get Lucky back from Oleg's clutches. He never thought that Horatio thought higher of the Tyrant than Oleg's excellent design.
"Why did he win!?"