Each time Ves fabricated a mech, he imagined bringing a new life into existence. At his best, he even had the illusion that he became a god.
His Unicorn mech paled in comparison to his older designs. Made in haste, the mech only possessed the bare essentials. As a scout skirmisher, it was very light on firepower. Besides a piddling laser pistol, it mainly had to rely on a spear to threaten other mechs. Its armor was paperthin and it possessed merely adequate speed among light mechs.
Its faults were also numerous.
As a rushed product, not all of the parts aligned perfectly with each other. Though Ves managed to avoid major faults, the mech still possessed numerous inconsistencies that might prove vulnerable later on. At least all of its limbs worked as designed, more or less.
The endurance of the mech also fell short. The Unicorn could reluctantly support fifteen minutes of peak combat before it entered power saving mode. If the mech failed to recharge its energy cells, it only grew more sluggish and feeble.
All-in-all, the Unicorn was one of the worst mechs he ever designed. Yet it was also his best work to date. Ves incorporated many nuances in its design, some of which he spontaneously generated on the spot. In just two-and-a-half hours, Ves was confident that few could match his efforts.
What Ves particularly cared about was the X-Factor. In the scoring system used by the System, he only achieved a score of C- for his inspired Marc Antony design. He remembered the drive and passion he experienced when he completed his first real mech design. The feeling he had when he completed the Unicorn faintly surmounted his previous experience by a small but noticeable margin.
"It's unlikely I pushed my score up to a B. The best I can hope for is a C or C+."
That still represented a long-awaited breakthrough. Ves harvested many clues about how to progress his implementation of the X-Factor. If he firmly grasped this step, he could surmount his current limits and be one step closer in achieving his dream of designing a completely original mech.
"Now, it's all up to the pilot."
When Ves handed over the Unicorn, he exited the stage and entered a waiting room for designers. He quickly counted the number of people present.
"Fifteen designers. That means I've snatched the sixteenth ranked pilot. I'm still a bit too slow!" Ves shook his head. He missed an opportunity to snatch someone better. There was a big difference between the top 10 and the top 20. "At least my mech is decently built. It shouldn't fall apart like the other rushed machines."
The commentators also noted his submission and pulled up the specs of his design.
"That's interesting! Mr Larkinson's design is the first one so far that's holding up rather decently. Its limbs aren't locked out and its internals are working somewhat according to their factory specs. What fearful speed!"
"What fearful precision! Larkinson managed to complete his mech successfully even when he was playing with fire. The amount of control that's required to keep this mech together is quite fearsome!"
"I think whoever is assigned to pilot this machine will cry tears of joy. He surely lucked out by piloting something other than a walking scrapheap."
"Cadet Reddy Lovejoy here sure has a colorful history. Besides his obsessive love for pickles, he's also a trained swordsman!"
"Oh, that's a bummer for him. His mech is equipped with a spear!"
"Well it's not like swords are rare. If he can scavenge a sword from another mech, he'll be good to go!"
"Good luck out there Lovejoy!"
A few hundred meters below ground, another simulation pod turned active. The pilot inside woke up from his lethargy. The time had come for him to go into action. He patiently waited for his simulation pod to go through its checks. Once it finished testing the connection, the pilot opened his mind and let his psyche expand in the cavernous emptiness that represented his new mech's mindspace.
As the fifteenth ranked pilot from the Abelard Academy, Cadet Lovejoy had piloted numerous training mechs. Many of them were used to being piloted by many people, so they all gave him a worn and familiar feeling.
This time was different.
He encountered something different this time during his submersion into the Unicorn. A faint radiant energy brushed his mental thoughts. Lovejoy instantly raised his vigilance. During his training, he learned to recognize the numerous anomalies pilots might encounter if the neural interface had any issues.
Fortunately, aside from that initial brush, he sensed no further strangeness. His mind successfully made a connection with the Unicorn, causing the mech to blaze to life. Its systems came online and aside from a few bumps, his mech was ready to go.
"Let's hunt." Lovejoy smirked as he guided his mech forward. He tested each of the Unicorn's limbs and made a few contortions. "Haha! This mech is good enough for me to display eighty percent of my strength! It was worth lowering my rank!"
Mech designers weren't the only group of people who benefited from the Open Competition. The cadets from the Abelard Academy all sought to win a chance to demonstrate their skills and build a name for themselves. Plenty of pilots who performed magnificently in the past received life-changing offers from major powers. Lovejoy was no exception.
Still, he wasn't the only one who intentionally depressed his ranking. Though the benefits of holding the top position was great, no one wanted to end up in a rickety bucket of a mech that collapsed at the first blow. The shrewder and more strategic pilots held back some of their strength in order to maintain a decent but not too exceptional rank.
"This time I won the grand prize. There's nothing I can't do with this mech!"
As Lovejoy acclimated to his mech, he engaged his sensors and searched the forest with confidence. Even if he encountered a rival mech, he bet his mech outmatched the majority submitted during this time. For some reason, he felt as if his mech echoed his confidence. The subtle loop that formed between the two caused him to feel as if he could take on the entire galaxy. He held his spear with pride.
With sparkling eyes, Lovejoy enthusiastically dove forward. Just as his mech neared the coin, a ballistic shell shot him from the flank.
"Hah! As if I'd fall for an ambush! Your marks are all over the place! " Lovejoy taunted over the speakers as he used his mech's superior agility to dance around the projectile. "Now that you've exposed your position, get ready to pay!"
The opposite mech turned out to be a medium cannoneer. As it was piloted by someone with a higher rank than Lovejoy, the mech did not panic or retreat. Instead, it committed to battle and fired off a volley of shells from his ballistic cannon. Each time it fired off a heavy shell, its entire frame rattled loudly.
"With the kind of racket your armor is making, I'm surprised it's still on its feet!"
Lovejoy made a judgement call after he saw the state of his opponent. Instead of trying to rush into his opponent's face, he stopped going forward once he got close and started strafing sideways. Though the cannoneer was still able to keep up, its accuracy was horrible due to the faults integrated in its arms.
"You bastard! I know it's you, Lovejoy! Face me like a man!"
The cannoneer already missed its best shot when it failed to take out the Unicorn during its initial ambush. Its designer had panicked and rushed the mech to the battlefield under the pressure of hearing others getting a step ahead.
There was no suspense once the Unicorn got close. Lovejoy easily utilized his mech's agility to jump to the side and cut the cannoneer from the flank. Though the initial thrust dealt only glancing damage, the opening it afforded allowed the Unicorn take the initiative and relentlessly push the medium mech into a dead end.
After a final spark, the medium mech dropped onto its back.
"Too bad there's no rewards for a kill."
The objective of the match remained gathering coins. As there were too many mechs and too little coins, conflict was inevitable, though not always desirable. The more fragile mechs had to choose their battles carefully, lest they incur crippling damage that took them out of contention.
After grabbing the shiny cartoonish coin, Lovejoy quickly departed from the site. The noise might have attracted scoundrels, and he didn't want to be the mantis who stalked the cicada, only to be preyed by the oriole behind.
He quickly relaxed once he sensed no other mechs nearby. "It's still rather early. The battlefield should be sparse. It's prime time for me to hunt for coins."
Once he reached the random delivery point, he let loose the coin and allowed it to float to the skies. His systems beeped, acknowledging the completion of the delivery. He gained a score.
"This is far from enough. If I want to reach the top hundred, I have to gather at least half-a-dozen more coins."
The average cut-off varied over the years. In some past contests, the pilots frenziedly sought to destroy each other. In such fraught circumstances, a team could easily qualify by successfully delivering about four or five coins.
Normally pilots behaved tamer. They had to rationally choose their battles. Unless provoked by the possession of coins, they'd normally choose to brush aside when meeting a match. Naturally, there were always a couple of people who proactively sought to destroy the opposition in order to show off their skills and lower the average cut-off margin. As long as these battle maniacs survived long enough, they'd easily swagger past this round.
After fifteen minutes of fruitless searching, Lovejoy stumbled upon a flier racing to deliver his coin. "A chance!"
The Unicorn set aside its spear and retrieved its laser pistol. It fired a barrage of shots in the direction of the flying mech. As an elite pilot, his marksmanship was decent though he didn't specialize in ranged weapons.
With the aerial machine's speed, Lovejoy had little chance to hit the target with a couple of aimed shots. He might as well substitute accuracy for volume as he crazily overheated his pistol. With the sheer amount of lasers beams in the sky, a couple of them succeeding in hitting the flying mech.
"Go away! This coin is mine!"
"Fat chance! Your wings are already smoking! I'm eating chicken tonight!"
The Unicorn pressed through the trees and reached the flying mech's crash site. The mech only suffered a malfunction in its power supply so it hadn't straight up turned into a pancake. Its pilot ruthlessly cut off its malfunctioning wings with a sword.
"Whoever designed this piece of dung should stay away from flight systems." The pilot muttered before turning his burning gaze at the Unicorn.
"Hand over your sword and coin, and you can keep your miserable life."
"You can pry them from my dead hands!"
Without another word, the two mechs closed the distance. Lovejoy fended off the initial thrust with decent spearwork. As a pilot who specialized in swordsmanship, he hadn't neglected his training in other weapons in case he encountered situations like this. Sadly for him, the opposite pilot was a competent swordsman himself, and despite his mech's many handicaps, he still managed to press Lovejoy back.
As the pressure increased, Lovejoy crazily split his focus. One portion analyzed his opponent's moves while the other kept an eye on the environment. He slowly guided his opponent forward.
After making a few more steps backward, the Unicorn hastily jumped aside as a volley of high-powered laser beams strafed his former position. Even as they failed to hit their primary target, they still extended forward and glanced the former flight mech.
The mech stuttered in its movements as several critical systems malfunctioned. Lovejoy took advantage of the gigantic opening and thrust his spear straight through the mech's cockpit area. Though the mechs on the battlefield were remotely controlled, any damage to the cockpit that normally killed the pilot inside still counted as a weak point.
The flight mech lost control and fell into a heap. Lovejoy threw away his spear and quickly picked up his opponent's sword. He turned around vigilantly, expecting another volley of lasers. When nothing happened, he carefully inched closer to the flying mech's coin and picked it up.
"Too bad that laser gunner didn't come forward. His mech must be a shambling wreck."
Those who piloted substandard mechs often chose to stay in the shadows. They loved to be the bystanders in a duel between two mechs. They lost their opening when one side vanquished the other in a dominant fashion.