When Ves sent off the newly repaired and modified Kirby, his expression was mixed. The modification Charlotte suggested changed the Kirby in a way that hopefully would come as an unwelcome surprise to Alexander Steel. Michael Dumont must be thinking the same thing. The low-key fourth-ranked mech designer from the qualifications hadn't raised eyebrows like Patricia or Edwin, but he possessed real capabilities to make it this far. The skirmisher's smooth and practically undamaged form was a testament to his repair skills.
The Kirby's heavy, burdened form stepped forward into the arena yet again. Its steps echoed the quiet arena as it beheld its opponent. The medium mech looked as spotless as ever, though it exchanged its twin submachine guns for double kite shields.
"Damn, this is ridiculous." Ves muttered to himself as his eyes widened at the ridiculous loadout.
It wasn't unheard of for mechs to bring double shields to the battlefield. Two shields offered a great amount of protection against ranged damage. Knight type mechs holding a defensive position often made for great defenders for their more vulnerable comrades if they carried two shields for maximum cover. Some savvy manufacturers even got in on the action by selling purpose-built tower shields that weighed like a brick but could withstand incredible punishment.
That was why the notion that Alexander carried a pair of heavy shields for his swift and agile mech sounded ridiculous. Why give up his advantage in mobility to gain an average amount of durability? The shields may prove useful against the Kirby's guns, but their weight turned the skirmisher into a sitting duck, allowing Charlotte to pound Alexander into a pulp before he'd even reach his enemy.
"Could it be that Alexander is carrying another weapon?"
The timer counted down. Plenty of people in the audience took note of this match. Not only did it determine which team entered the finals, it also signified a battle between two unusually modified mechs. The crowd was beginning to come around to the idea behind the Fusion Cup. It not only tested a pilot's judgment and skill, it also involved his partner's craftiness. The mech designer's role might not be as flashy as the pilot's, but his every move affected the battlefield in a way that was no less influential.
Ves feared Michael quite a bit for this reason. The man hid his competence well, for the skirmisher that he fixed up revealed no hints of what lurked beneath its spotless facade.
"Three, two, one, START!"
The match exploded into action as Charlotte fired all her guns without waiting to engage her targeting systems. Her manual aim proved sufficient as pretty much both of its explosive shells detonated squarely against the skirmisher's shields.
Surprisingly, the shield held against the immense assaults. The lasers fired from the Kirby's shoulders merely splashed the shield's surface with ineffectual heat. The second volley of shells from the Kirby's arm cannons failed to deal any substantial damage to the sturdy shields. The skirmisher calmly stepped forward, leaning its posture square against the shields just before Charlotte fired. While the shields contributed much to the Skirmisher's unyielding pace, Alexander's impeccable piloting skill made sure his mech maintained its balance.
"How can this... I don't even..."
Ves tried to parse the sight in front of him. The shields were able to withstand incredible punishment far beyond the materials provided by the organizers should be able to withstand.
"Are they cheating?"
In front of a crowd of millions? Likely not. Such blatant rule breaking threw away all credibility for the Young Tigers Exhibition. Then considering all the state-of-the-art machinery the mech designers had at their disposal, then Michael must have treated an existing pair of shields with a highly advanced composition so far ahead that it must involve some secrets from a second-rate state.
He grimaced at the guess. "The organizers were probably overjoyed when they get to peek over Michaels' shoulders. The technique he used might not be known to the higher ups at the Bright Republic. Perhaps the Bright Republic introduced the Fusion Cup for reasons other than allowing mech designers to gain some fame alongside pilots."
This implied the Republic was desperate to steal new technologies, which was ridiculous. Though it only ranked as a minor star country, it still possessed unimaginable wealth compared to most corporations. The income they made off Bentheim and the budding mech industry there insured they possessed the resources to enhance their tech base.
"There must be something else behind the Fusion Cup. Something I can't see yet."
In any case, nothing Ves figured out could change the situation in the arena. The shielded skirmisher came quite close and only failed to reach the Kirby due to the kinetic force of the explosions pushed it back.
"HARGH! What does it take to crack open your shell?!" Charlotte shouted in frustration as she slowly stepped her mech backwards while continuing to fire her cannons. She kept her laser mounts silent. The lasers inflicted negligible damage to the shields. It hurt her more than the enemy if she kept shooting to the point of overheating.
When the Skirmisher finally came close enough to engage in melee, Alexander patiently waited for another pair of shells to impact his dented but still intact shield. The moment the cannons fired off their payload and loaded another round, the shields dropped and a twin pair of heated knives entered the mech's hands.
"So that's what you were hiding!" Charlotte yelled as she finally reengaged her lasers. At this range, a barrage of shots created a couple of awful burn holes in her opponent's armor. Yet the lasers lacked the punching power to stop or hinder the skirmisher in any way. Mechs often used rapid-fire lasers to deal a great amount of constant damage in an efficient way, but such a narrow focus made them vulnerable to sudden strikes like the one Alexander performed.
The skirmisher jumped in the air and landed both ends of its knives into the Kirby's shoulder mounts, instantly piercing them and rendering the lasers scrap.
Too impatient to wait for her next shells to reload, Charlotte simply based her cannon tubes against the hanging Skirmisher, successfully lodging it off her mech's frame. Unfortunately, the shock dealt some damage to the internal modules of the cannons, causing their reloading process to stop.
Instead, Charlotte engaged her surprise. "See you, sucker!"
One of the three boxy rocket launchers started to flare as the boosters hidden within came to life. This was what Charlotte requested Ves to incorporate. In her opinion, three rocket launchers mounted to her back was a little excessive. She'd rather replace one of them with some boosters angled in such a way that it could help her turn her mech around rapidly.
Most heavy mechs turned like whales on land. Charlotte loved her new rocket launchers, but she was aware her opponents wouldn't obediently stand behind her and let the rockets launch at them with a smile. So she conceived of the creative idea of hollowing out one of the launchers and stuff some acceleration boosters in its place.
As a pilot, she lacked the background to appreciate the challenges involved in such an operation, especially since they were short on time. Nevertheless, his budding jury rigging skill worked full tilt in order to produce a solution that turned the impossible into something that might work.
The operation had to finish swiftly in order to make it in time for this match. In record time, Ves managed to hollow out the launcher, crudely using an advanced cutting and scraping tool to crudely scrape away the internal space. Then, he went to the pile of parts and dug up a pile of small, emergency boosters. Mech designers often mounted these one-use booster units on light or medium mechs to provide a one-time emergency boost or to launch a module outwards. Such boosters weren't designed to support a heavy mech's entire bulk. But if the Kirby borrowed the additional force produced by the boosters to turn faster, then they possessed just enough power to make the trouble worthwhile.
Alexander responded quickly at the sudden turn of events. Before the Kirby could turn around and present its rockets at him, he used his superior speed to keep up with the rotation. The response came a little late. Charlotte already fired her middle launcher as soon as she caught him in her firing arc.
Most of the rockets that launched failed to hit anything and miserably flew away to explode on the ground or against a security screen. A couple of rockets managed to catch the Skirmisher in glancing blows. Their proximity detonations crumpled and damaged the mech's right arm, causing the poorly armed mech to drop a knife. The explosions also caused the skirmisher to lose its balance, an almost fatal consequence for a mech that relied on speed.
"Take another round!" Charlotte yelled with vicious glee as she activated her second and final rocket pod. The rockets flew out uncontrollably in multiple directions, a sign of poor and shoddy installation. Nevertheless, the inherent spread of the rockets helped Charlotte cast her net wider, causing the skirmisher to get hit near its waist, buckling a few armor plates and disturbing the engines that rested nearby.
Right now, both mechs were at an impasse. Charlotte emptied her rockets and lost her lasers. She re-engaged her cannon arms and prayed her mech could reload them as fast as possible. Alexander on the other hand lost an arm and got some damage onto its armor. While he hadn't suffered a fatal hit, his mech was dangerously off-balance and out of position to attempt another attack. He had to get close.
It took a bit of time, but Alexander's mech passed by Charlotte's still-loading weapon tubes. With a lunging stab, he struck the Kirby's head, successfully damaging and disabling its main sensors. The sudden strike caused Charlotte to flinch, but she retained enough sense to kick out with one of the Kirby's heavy leg.
The medium mech's legs took a glancing blow, crunching aside armor and damaging a couple of sensitive knee components. Alexander tried to command his mech to pull out its knife and stab the Kirby again, but his mech lost its balance for just a tiny moment due to the damage.
After switching over to the Kirby's chest-mounted backup sensors, Charlotte aimed again with her freshly reloaded cannon arms. She shot her left cannon as soon as the barrel tracked her opponent. The weapon fired just as the skirmisher's knife sliced into one of the Kirby's armor gaps.
The explosive shell failed to detonate due to impacting within its minimum safety range. If the shell detonated its explosive payload at full strength, both the target and the Kirby would get hit by the blast radius. The Kirby's ammunition was significantly tuned down for this tournament so the Kirby might have stayed safe, but the safety range remained unimpacted, which led to Charlotte's curse as she realized her mistake.
The knife impacted the gap near the Kirby's left arm joint, which disabled the arm cannon. But before Alexander could pull out the weapon and retreat, Charlotte went berserk and knocked the Kirby's upper torso forward, causing it to fall in Alexander's direction. Still recovering from its previous attack, the skirmisher failed to disengage in time, causing it to get caught into the Kirby's falling momentum.
No one spoke. Even Ves stood with his mouth wide open. Everyone just watched as the skirmisher comically tried to wriggle its remaining limbs underneath the Kirby's prodigious weight. It was like watching a tiny mouse scurry from underneath the paw of a cat. Nothing worked. Charlotte could just keep rocking the Kirby's weight against her opponent to crush it into a pancake.
"The winners are Charlotte Hoffmeister and Ves Larkinson! Their team has successfully advanced into the finals!"
An alarm went up as the referees activated several safeties. Thick robotic arms emerged from underneath the arena floor and lifted up the Kirby with difficulty. The people in charge obviously feared the Kirby might actually crush the thin medium mech's cockpit with its bulk. Ves couldn't blame them. The skirmisher looked as if it sacrificed even the armor around the cockpit to get it to move so fast.
As the pilots exited their cockpits, they all met at the center of the arena to shake each other's hands.
"Congratulations on your win." Alexander haplessly said as he shook Charlotte's hand. "You caught me good with that fall. It would be reckless suicide to pull off such a stunt in a real battlefield, but in a duel situation I guess it worked out very well for you."
Charlotte huffed at the excuse. "If it were up to me, those shells would have shredded your mech. Those safeties are bullshit. My Kirby can take the punishment."
While the two pilots kept exchanging excuses, Ves and Michael Dumont met each other a short distance away.
"Great engineering. I don't know how you made those shields so durable in such a short time."
Michael gave out a sullen smile. "It's just a trick. It can't compare to reaching the final round when you're ranked near the end."
Ves didn't like the mech designer's tone. He maintained his composure though.
"I admit I'm lucky enough to be paired with a good pilot with an uncommon mech. Her heavy mech poses a lot of problems just by carrying so much stuff around. I know it put you in a tough position."
The modesty only soured Michael's expression even further. "If this year's mech design competition hadn't switched to this bullshit Fusion Cup, then you'd be congratulating me. You're right in that you got lucky, punk. Your team beat mine fair and square, but if it came down to a showdown between just you and me, then I'd wipe the floor with you ninety-nine times out of a hundred."
If Ves wasn't aware that quite a number of recorders were pointed in his direction, then he'd give the prick a piece of his mind. Instead, he kept up his smile and straight-up turned his back at Michael, signaling that the conversation was over as far as he was concerned.
"You should gracefully resign now while you can." Michael gave his parting shot. "Don't think you can overcome Edwin McKinney. He gained the qualifications to study in the New Rubarth Empire for a reason. You can't imagine the depth of his knowledge!"
Fair enough. The Kirby looked awfully wrecked, having lots both of its shoulder mounted lasers while getting one of its arm cannons disabled as well. More troubling, the Kirby's abrupt fall at the end of the match left repercussions in the mech's internals. Mechs simply weren't built to fall like that with all their weight shifted into another direction.
The organizers fortunately took their situation into account and gave Ves a generous amount of time to fix up the Kirby as best he could. Shortly after they cleared the arena, the main tournament went back into swing. The quarter-finals and semi-finals took quite a bit of time to complete. Ves and Charlotte were scheduled to battle against Edwin and his partner's team just before the finals of the main event took place.
"I don't know how strong Edwin will be, but even if it's inevitable that we lose, I'm not going down without a fight!"