The Mech Touch - Chapter 32: Gauntlet

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When the presenter finally announced the end of the design phase of the competition, a lot of young men and woman groaned. While Ves was able to finish his mech with a bit of time to spare, other designers lacked the skill to jury rig disparate components together without spending a lot of time making the connection work.

"You gave us too little time!" A young woman complained as tears fell from her stressful face. The mech she worked on only appeared half finished. "Give us more time!"

"Twelve hours is too little!"

"This is unfair!"

"Silence!" The presenter ordered with a bloody air, instantly causing the meek the designers to quail. "The terms of the qualifiers are published beforehand so you should have prepared for this round. Last year's qualifiers also took twelve hours. We're on a tight time table here, and the main round happens tomorrow. We won't postpone the event just so you can put the finishing touches on your work."

When Ves looked around to see the progress of his fellow contestants, he judged about a third of them hadn't finished their designs. Many people tripped up because they spent too much time forcing components designed for different mechs to work together. Such failures proved they didn't possess much knowledge beyond the basics in mech design. It was interesting to see that the organizers place a lot of emphasis on this when holding the qualifiers.

Some other designers lost too much time due to faulty judgement. One heavy mech featured highly advanced engines and power reactor. That was all fine and dandy, but the designer spent way too much time adding a lot of toys to make full use of that capacity. If he kept the twelve-hour limit in mind and kept his choices modest, he could have made it through with his level of skill.

In general, the contestants who left unfinished designs at the end of the period chewed more than they could handle. If they picked simpler, less mechanically complex components out of the pile of junk, then they'd at least leave a functioning mech at the end, showcasing their competence in working under pressure.

"Although I can't say I blame them for being ambitious."

Ves might have been one of these losers if his father hadn't left him the System. If he was participating in the contest and wanted to have a shot at getting past the qualifiers, then he couldn't settle for average among 150 other contestants. The mech had to perform better than almost anyone else's work, so taking risks was unavoidable.

As he looked at the dejected contestants who were forced to give up on the qualifiers due to their incomplete designs, Ves felt a little guilty he cheated his way out of this circumstance. Before the System's arrival, Ves was like any other novice mech designer who graduated from a local university. He possessed basic knowledge but never excelled at anything other than mechanics, and even that impressed no one because he learned outdated techniques that would be laughed at in more advanced states.

His father gave him the System to circumvent years of dedicated study and experience. Why did he deserve to benefit from this miracle when many other of his former classmates were left to wallow in their mediocrity? He wasn't a saint, he never donated to charity, he wasn't even nearly as good in his studies as some of the others.

"There's no point dwelling on these feelings. I'm different from the others. They all made their choices in life when they chose to go down the path of mech designing."

The mech design career path was one that led to fame, riches and prestige. However, it was also a cutthroat business that couldn't fit too many competitors. For every designer that clawed its way to the top, at least hundreds or thousands of others were resigned to lesser jobs like full-time fabrication or maintenance of other people's mechs.

After sending off the losers, the presenter gestured to those who were still in contention. "Please clear the main stage and stand to the side. Our pilot Hans will soon test the bold designs our young talents have whipped up."

A very fancy simulation pod was brought at the very rear of the stage. Hans, fitted out in a skin-tight piloting suit, waved at the audience before entering the pod. The venue darkened and the stage began to light up in a fully realistic projection of a slim but elegant light mech wielding a polearm twice as long. The rest of the environment lighted up after that, showing hints of the urban landscape ahead that represented the testing grounds for all of the mechs.

"First up is a creation by Natalie Montag. Hans will put mech the Lance Star to the test after five minutes of acclimatization. This preparation period applies to all other mechs tested today."

Carlos walked over to Ves and whistled at the polished design in the projection. "Natalie sure worked her magic. She's always been a light mech fanatic."

"She spent too much time polishing the exterior. I'm not sure the internals underneath the armor can withstand heavy duty." Ves judged with a critical eye.

Twelve hours left designers with too little time to create a good mech. Give them a week, and most of the contestants here could roll out designs that performed at least 50-100% better than what they rushed out. Eliminating errors and weak points in the design offered the biggest bump in performance and could be done in two to four days, while constant optimizations allowed the mech to perform a little better over the remainder of the time.

When Hans finished familiarizing himself with the Lance Star, he entered the testing stage.

The presenter offered spectators an overview of the gauntlet. "As everyone knows, testing a mech as fair as possible can be difficult. Many smart people have wracked their overstuffed brains to find a solution before coming up with the gauntlet. They come in different lengths, duration and difficulties, and randomize in configuration with each separate run. That means that Hans will face similar challenges with each mech he pilots without being able to use his last run's experience to help him overcome his current challenges."

Technically, since no run was the same, their difficulties actually diverged in many different ways. If Hans faced smooth sailing up to the end where he get whacked by an overwhelming ambush, he'd be able to score higher than in many other situations.

For example, if he faced constant harassment right at the start, leading to his mech's destruction midway due to his inability to find time to recover. In both gauntlet runs, the amount of mechs and their strength remained the same, but the way they exerted pressure different drastically, leading to different results.

There was no point complaining about it though. Ves knew that the gauntlet was a long-held custom in the mech world, and that its inventors had plenty of time to curb much of its faults.

The Lance Star moved. Its thin and lightweight design spoke of a great retention in motive power. Natalie Montag evidently possessed real skill for getting a mech traverse so smoothly. The machine flitted through the debris-filled streets of the gauntlet like a dancer.

When the Lance Star encountered enemies, Hans piloted the mech as a high speed scout. It dodged aside the attacks sent in its way and avoided traps and entanglement whenever possible. If a mech was able to come up to its front and present an obstacle, the Lance Star only dealt enough damage with its lance and auxiliary pistol to squeeze its way through.

Natalie's mech started stumbling when Hans couldn't avoid a couple of laser beams. The gauntet's computer controlled opponents might not be very smart or skilled, but they possessed overwhelming numbers so it was impossible to keep out of reach no matter how many times Hans dodged.

"Ouch." Carlos winced. "The mech is getting bogged down and surrounded. It doesn't have enough firepower to break through."

The Lance Star only used its polearm as its main weapon. It possessed no ranged weapons at all. Hans had no way to pressure his opponents at a distance. When more and more opponents gathered at range, the Lance Star finally suffered a critical hit in its thinly armored ankle. This practically halved the light mech's mobility, leading to the mech getting hit much more often. It lasted a respectable amount of time and took out a few more mechs in its death throes but the simulation finally ended at its destruction.

The presenter came back in focus as the simulation projected a lot of statistics, such as the distance traversed and how many opponents the mech took out of action. "The Lance Star has reached a distance of seven kilometers, during which it killed five mechs and damaged twenty more. I don't know about you guys, but I think this is a great performance for a mech put together in just twelve hours."

The crowd offered a polite applause. Natalie was too conservative in her design, which led to the Lance Star's one-dimensional performance. Other than its speed and lack of major design flaws, the mech boasted no other advantages.

A heavy mech called the Thunderstorm came up next. It possessed a quadrupedal design, its four heavy legs supporting an incredibly tough and stable firing platform. The mech looked a little strange as the upper body of the mech sported two thick cannons as its arms. The presenter introduced the mech and its designer briefly as everyone waited for the five minutes of preparation to pass.

When Hans stepped out into the streets, the Thunderstorm rolled over the mechs in the vicinity. Its prodigious firepower with its main weapon being two ballistic cannons destroyed every mech if they got hit a couple of times. Though slow and inaccurate against light mechs, the Thunderstorm also incorporated half a dozen laser mounts on its shoulders and back to fend them off.

A substantial volley of missiles fired from a kilometer away. They arced upwards into the sky, following a parabolic trajectory as they rocketed downwards towards the Thunderstorm. Hans hastily turned around and fired his lasers in rapid-fire mode in order to shoot down the missiles, but this left him vulnerable to the other light mechs again who all took advantage of the opening to slip in some damage.

The missiles hadn't delivered too much damage, as the Thunderstorm still had plenty of armor to spare. But as Hans piloted the heavy mech forwards while trying to destroy as many enemies as possible, the missiles continued to pour in from above, each wave leaving behind more explosions and more damage.

The sad thing about the Thunderstorm was that it performed well enough against enemies in reach, but offered no solution to the constant long-ranged missile bombardment. The mech possessed almost no mobility, allowing the missileer to stay out of reach. With no line of sight nor a set of targeting data, Hans couldn't even switch his cannons to artillery mode and fire back lobbing shells. He tried a few times when the combat reached a lull, but it obviously represented nothing more than a gamble with very long odds.

When the Thunderstorm finally got wrecked by all the missiles, the presenter came back on stage and analyzed the statistics. "I am mightily impressed with the Thunderstorm. Hans achieved a whopping thirty kills and damaged twice as many other mechs. While he hasn't moved far from his starting point, his damage scores are more than ample enough to vindicate this mech."

The main goal of the gauntlet was to get the mech to pass through ten kilometers. Regardless of success, a run was scored on damage inflicted and distance reached. This gave both light and heavy mechs an equal chance in reaching a high evaluation.

Yet for every mildly successful run, at least three more failed spectacularly.

One medium mech sported a highly visible gap in its arm connections. The mech's armor couldn't cover up the musculature of the arms, leaving them prone to damage. Even with Hans' best efforts, a couple of missile strikes fouled the connectors pretty quickly, leaving the mech with only barely functioning arms. Suffice to say, the handicapped mech hadn't lasted long at all.

Another mech was designed as a solid, sturdy knight with an excellent sword and shield. However, when Hans put its endurance to the test, a solid cannon shell to the chest disrupted the mech's internals. The knight's sturdy exterior covered up a bevy of flaws, most of them related to sloppy work into putting the internals together. The big hit practically disrupted the engine's connections, leading to a heavy slowdown in the knight's operation. In addition, due to the loss in strength, its sword was unable to strike down opponents.

Someone next to Ves shook his head. "Again, it's a shame we weren't given a lot of time. It's so bullshit."

When Carlos' mech came up to the stage, the young man in question hugged Ves in a show of nervousness.

"Damn it, I hope my baby will do well. This is the first time my creation is tested in public. I hope I won't disappoint my parents."

The mech Carlos spent twelve hours on looked like an ill-fitting mess. With its over sized legs, the humanoid mech seemed confused whether it wanted to be a medium or heavy mech. Carlos evidently faced the same problem as Ves, but solved the problem by going into a different direction.

Though people often disparaged medium-heavy hybrids, the Huntsman Carlos cobbled up performed fairly better than anyone expected. The legs caused the mech to move slower than normal, but it also became incredibly resistant to damage. With a shield in one arm and an awkward sawed off heavy rifle in the other, the mech gunned down plenty of mechs in its way.

However, the lack of melee options dragged the Huntsman down. It was only able to deal with mechs that came close by dropping the rifle and unsheathe its backup knife. This turned the mech into a competent defender, but allowed the rifle mechs in the distance to shoot at the Huntsman with impunity. This envelopment eventually resulted in the Huntsman's death.

The presenter gave the Huntsman an average evaluation. It did not do very well, but at least it hadn't failed outright in the gauntlet. Ves wrapped his arm around Carlos and tried to cheer him up from his dispirited mood.

"You did quite well there. You've proven yourself at the stage that you have the chops to be a mech designer."

"Yeah, but my score is way behind. Nevermind the top 8, I can't even reach the top 32."

"All of the people who score that high are talents." Ves sighed even as he figured he was also one of them. "Don't aim too high. You've got opportunities many of your other colleagues wish they have."

His job working on quality control at a large manufacturer was facilitated through connections from his parents. Carlos already had already stepped one foot in the mech designer industry. After a couple of decades of working up the ladder, Carlos could have the opportunity to join a mech design team and contribute his rich knowledge to the formation of a new design.

"Up next is our lovely Patricia Schneider's Rosaria!"

The announcement attracted everyone's attention. The top graduate of this year's cohort was about to show her fangs.

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