The next day, before the preshow began, an executive from the Carnegie Group took to the stage. He adopted a solemn face as he addressed the crowd that just arrived.
"We have an announcement to make. Cadet Freeman who pilots the mechs on behalf of Carter Gauge has been found dead in his dorm. Our investigators have ruled the cause of his death to be self-hanging. There are no signs that others are involved."
Everyone who listened to his words was stunned. Ves more so than others due to his indirect involvement to this incident. He didn't know his name, but Freeman was the pilot of the Pterodactyl that crashed and burned at the moment of its victory. Cadet Lovejoy achieved a miracle when he triumphed over a hopeless situation.
Had Gauge quietly eliminated Freeman? Ves did not believe a cadet could commit suicide through a method as slow as hanging. These cadets should all be strictly monitored. Security bots should also be patrolling around their dorms, ready to respond in seconds if a disturbance occurred.
Ves felt a chill when he considered that Gauge might not limit his rage to his idiotic pilot. After all, the mech that handed out his very public humiliation was designed by Ves and piloted by Lovejoy.
"We at Leemar are aware that our pilots and designers are put under an immense amount of pressure. Some believe that we should coddle them more. I disagree. Our young men might not have experienced much of what life has to offer, but they must learn to deal with adversity. Risk and reward goes hand in hand. Those who aim to win must always prepare to lose. Those who cannot endure these kinds of setbacks have no place to compete with the best."
Ves did not expect such harsh words after the death of a fellow contestant. He turned his head and noted that the graduates from Leemar showed no discontent. They fully agreed with this executive's views. His heart chilled a little further.
"Due to the unfortunate loss of his mech pilot, Carter Gauge has lost his qualifications to continue competing. He has agreed to withdraw from the Leemar Open Competition. We express our apologies for the irregularities. The finals will proceed with twenty-four pairs of pilots and designers."
It took some time, but the crowd quickly forgot about Freeman's apparent suicide. The festive music and impressive performances by the artists hired by Leemar did much to dispel the inauspicious cloud. Only Ves remained unmoved. He could add another name to his list of enemies.
Having successfully wiped away the stain, the event progressed to its third and final round.
"In the first round, we've tested our mech designers on their speed and timing. In the second round, we've pushed them on their endurance and their ability to set priorities. Now, in this final round, twenty-four of our best designers will now compete against each other with nothing more than pure design skill."
A projection of three QuickForge systems in a row appeared in front. A generic designer approached one of the machines and started to design a mech. Each of his actions on one machine was duplicated on the other machines. In essence, the designer was building three mechs at a time.
"With our ingenious QuickForge system, a mech designer is able to mirror their actions over as much machines as we choose. Each of our mech designers will produce three copies out of a single design, which provides their pilots enough identical mechs to reach the finals."
The projection of the QuickForge systems disappeared. A tournament bracket appeared into place. From twenty-four to twelve, from twelve to six, from six to three.
"Through a single elimination tournament, our twenty-four contestants will be whittled down to three. Their assigned pilots will be piloting a fresh identical match for every duel in order to keep things equal. Those who win their duels have more chances to display their mechs, and thus gain more opportunities to attract the attention of the masters. Naturally, the final three will also win a special prize."
In practice, the masters always apprenticed the mech designers who made it to the final three. They possessed enough skill, maturity and luck to make good seeds.
The others also stood a chance. It wasn't uncommon for a master to apprentice someone who lost the first duel due to the qualities they showed in the previous rounds.
As for the special prize, it different from year to year, but it was always a pleasant surprise. The prizes generally ranged from goodies such as production licenses, lots of cols, or even some highly prized shares for one of the Carnegie Group's primary enterprises.
"Our contestants have ten hours to design their mechs. This is more than enough time for them to unleash their strengths. Those who have made it this far have already proven their skills among the riff raff. Now we shall see whether they have what it takes to reach the top."
Ves looked at the tournament bracket but failed to recognize his first opponent. The mech designer was a graduate from Leemar called Lachlan Kurbanov, and his paired pilot was a woman named Lisa Kwong. Due to his high ranking in the second round, his first opponent should be someone weaker on paper.
"Who am I kidding." Ves shook his head, well aware of the circumstances that allowed him to earn such a high ranking. "I only scraped by the previous round due to luck."
He did not underestimate his opponents. Lachlan and Lisa painstakingly fought their way to the final round, beating many highly skilled rivals in their way. Lachlan must be a great mech designer on the same level as Barakovski.
There were no tricks this time. Ves approached his assigned QuickForge systems and picked the middle one to work with. He looked around, only to see his view blocked by privacy screens. He could not spy on his opponents and adjust his design according to circumstance.
He shook away irrelevant thoughts and focused on the issue at hand. "Now what kind of mech shall I design?"
Should he reprise the Sword Dancer design and improve on it? The idea had merit. He already spent quite a few hours refining the design in the previous round, and though he made it in haste, the design had proven itself on the battlefield. His head already swirled with a few adjustments to address the Sword Dancer's shortcomings.
"Still, will I be able to impress the masters if I recycle an existing design?"
The System gave him a mission. His ultimate objective was to become an apprentice to a Master Mech Designer. He had already shown off the Sword Dancer. In order to provide the masters with a better idea of his work, he should create something more unique.
"The masters don't want to take on a lazy apprentice. I have to show some effort on my end if I wish to make myself attractive." Ves considered after a moment of thought.
A mech designer who always cut corners had limited potential compared to one that always worked hard to improve himself. Though he could not read the minds of the five masters watching from afar, he believed they wanted to pick someone with promise.
"Alright, then let's make a new mech."
First, Ves considered the performance of the Sword Dancer in the previous round. It turned out that Cadet Lovejoy could not show off its strengths due to the nature of its opponents. The last duel against the Pterodactyl showed that Ves had to come up with a means to diminish the advantage of range.
"Should I design an aerial mech or give my mech a better ranged weapon?"
He did not specialize in flight systems. Though he knew enough to implement the standard flight systems provided by the QuickForge's catalog, he could not make any meaningful improvements to them. Gauge's Pterodactyl already showed how extreme a proficient designer could push a flight system.
On the other hand, adding a ranged weapon did not conform to the requirements of a swordsman mech. Some people expressed very extreme opinions about how swordsmen mechs should never carry a firearm, not even a dinky backup pistol. In addition, it wasn't like he specialized in weapons tech either.
Ves was torn between the two. He considered what his pilot preferred.
"Adding a flight system will add to the bulk of the mech, but it will also give it more options. Cadet Lovejoy only needs a tool to close the gap. The flight system is not the most important part of the mech."
He decided to add a slim flight system to a medium mech frame. It would not increase the top speed of the mech nor turn it into an aerial acrobat. It should give his mech enough tools to respond to aerial threats even without a pistol.
Now that he determined the basic features of his mech, Ves filled in the gaps by letting his imagination free reign. He sunk into his mind and sought to match a fitting purpose to his mech in order to unleash its X-Factor.
Again, while his rivals already started to work on their designs, Ves still worked on generating a mental picture. The strange disparity caught the attention of the crowd. What in the galaxy was he doing?
Ves ignored such considerations and started to think back on the Sword Dancer's final moments. Rage, humiliation and helplessness. Cadet Lovejoy lacked a means to fight back against his opponent's scorn. His mind also flickered to the final fate of the pilot who ruined Gauge's mech.
"My next mech will be an Executioner. It is not a demon or an angel. It cuts anything in its way no matter how unreachable the target. Its sword is both its tool and its badge of office. It executes only mechs, not people. Its sword shall never cut what is not meant to be cut."
With a strong intent in mind, Ves opened his eyes and engaged the QuickForge system. He opened the extensive catalog and picked a slew of parts without caring too much about the details. He let his intent and intuition decide which parts to choose.
He started with a heavy, two-handed sword ideal for chopping off heads as well as other limbs. To accommodate the sword, he selected a firmer torso, strengthened arms and somewhat solid legs to provide a powerful platform.
To power his Executioner, he picked a high-performance power reactor and a medium-intensity engine model. A more powerful engine added a little bit too much weight, so Ves skipped the most robust models.
His choices so far meant that his mech enjoyed sufficient mobility despite having heavier limbs. While it lost much of the agility that defined the Sword Dancer, it made up for it in raw power.
As for the flight system, it should first and foremost avoid hindering Lovejoy's swordplay as best as possible. Due to his lack of proficiency in flight systems, Ves could only pick a default compact model from the catalog.
It consisted of two thick tubes with an unfolding wingspan on each. While it like a pair of deformed trees, it nonetheless provided a decent amount of thrust for the amount of space it took. The only major downside to this system was that it wasted a lot of energy.
"Since my mech isn't using any energy weapons, I can spare the energy expenditure." Ves considered and went ahead with his choice.
After confirming his selection of components, he started putting it all together. He started with integrating the flight system to the back of the torso. Fortunately, the torso model he chose possessed a standardized attachment system that allowed for easier attachment of flight systems.
While he could complete the merging of the two components fairly quickly, Ves was not content with the basic layout. He modified the attachment point by strengthening the connection and adding a couple more redundant power lines to the flight system. He did not wish to encounter the same situation the Pterodactyl suffered when it failed to find any means to transfer power to its flight systems.
After spending two hours on integrating the flight systems properly, Ves turned to the rest. Installing the power reactor and engines provided no problems. He took a little more care with the limbs due to his mech's reliance on momentum and mechanical power to deliver damage. He specifically selected thicker limbs in order to accomodate a more powerful artificial muscle layout.
Ves spent an extravagant amount of time on making sure the internals were sound. That left him with three more hours. He painstakingly spent an entire hour on optimizing his Executioner's armor scheme. He made it more robust and added in a lot of harder edges. It made his mech look more menacing.
He filled the rest of his time with producing compressed armor. While he wished he had access to better methods and more sophisticated formulas, beggars couldn't be choosers.