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Despite the huge amount of arena space inside the Clive Arena, it was impossible for the Davute Star Tournament to allow hundreds of thousands of mechs to compete against each other in the qualifying rounds.
Instead, a large amount of projected screens hovered in the empty arena, providing the spectators who attended the tournament in person a good view of the battle royale-like matches where thousands of virtual mechs sought to beat each other up as soon as possible!
The Clive Arena could literally hold millions of spectators in the stands, but since no physical mechs would be coming to blows against each other during the first few days of the tournament, not all of the seats were occupied.
In fact, Ves guessed that most of the tickets for this phase were sold for dirt cheap prices. The majority of people who attended in the first day were budget-conscious tourists who couldn't afford to attend the truly good tournaments.
It didn't matter too much. Virtual or not, the high-fidelity visuals along with the huge amount of people present in the Clive Arena created a boisterous atmosphere!
Plenty of groups were shouting slogans or the names of their favorite mech pilots as the grand melee commenced!
Ves wished he could have sat in the middle of those crowds, but it was far too dangerous for him to expose himself to other people this way.
This was why he and his two children had entered a VIP booth that did everything possible to protect his privacy.
Dozens of guards surrounded him from almost every side. After the incident that took place earlier this week, his security detail took no chances. His original honor guard therefore became augmented with elite infantry soldiers taken from other units.
Their overt presence along with their constant alertness caused the atmosphere in the VIP booth to become a little tense.
Fortunately, his children were accustomed to the presence of guards and did not remain bothered by their presence.
Their attention had been stolen by the free-for-all matches!
"Wow, look at those mechs chasing after that poor rifleman mech!" Marvaine exclaimed. "Half of them got crushed after they got lured into a landslide!"
Ves directed his attention to one of the projections. A free mercenary mech pilot called Jason Ridholm had chosen to pilot a rifleman mech, which normally did not do so well during these kinds of matches. Ranged mechs were simply too vulnerable against attacks up close.
However, it looked like Jason had a plan coming into this tournament. He attracted the attention of enemy melee mechs and lured them into terrain traps. If he was lucky, he could even force his pursuers together and cause them to fight among themselves!
This granted Ridholm's mech an easy opportunity to take potshots at the distracted melee mechs.
Ves looked increasingly more impressed at how Ridholm managed to fell five mechs through this fashion. The mono-colored generic mechs of his competitors all cracked and collapsed as they succumbed to the physical rounds fired by a gauss rifle.
As an experienced mech designer, he could judge that Ridholm likely piloted a highly mobile rifleman mech. They were some of the riskiest mechs to pilot as they constantly danced at the edge of danger.
Andraste looked impressed as well. "I don't really like marksmanship, but even I can tell that he is good. His mech is not only firing its rifle while it is on the move, but the rounds often strike the holes in the armor of his target. He's so accurate!"
The hit rate was only around 30 percent, but that was already an impressive feat when both sides were on the move!
Just as Jason Ridholm's rifleman mech started to kite a sixth melee mech, an unexpected calamity struck.
The hilly alien landscape where this fight took place abruptly transformed into a soggy swamp region.
The terrain randomizer had struck again!
According to the rules, any piece of terrain in the virtual battlefield would transform into other forms of terrain on a completely random basis!
Flat plains of land could turn into snow-covered mountain tops where mechs found it difficult to find solid footing.
Active volcanoes where lava oozed on the ground could turn into dense alien jungles that were filled with trees that were powerful enough to resist mech attacks.
Jason Ridholm had taken advantage of this once when his targets got caught in an inconvenient transition, but now the appearance of a deep and festering swamp had screwed him over!
The mech pilot did not give up. His rifleman mech tried to traverse through the muddy and wet terrain as fast as possible, but it was a pity that the legs of his slender ranged mech weren't as strong as the ones of his pursuer.
The generic axeman mech relied considerably more on raw power than speed to defeat its opponents. This meant that all of its limbs possessed more mechanical power, which came in really handy as it was able to power through the swamp with much greater efficiency.
In the end, the axeman mech resisted the handful of gaus rounds that struck its left leg and chopped up the rifleman mech with a flurry of axe strikes!
"That's not fair!"
Jason Ridholm may have been downed, but he was not yet out of the fight.
In another part of the expansive virtual battlefield, an identical rifleman mech respawned after a short delay.
The mech pilot's score had dropped from 5 to 4, which didn't really sound like an awful penalty.
The true cost of defeat soon became evident as Jason Ridholm commanded his rifleman mech to move forward.
Most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference, but Ves minutely narrowed his eyes as he observed how Ridholm's mech did not perform as well as before.
All of the technical parameters of his machine had dropped by exactly 5 percent. Only a couple of parameters such as sensor range and traversal speed had remained unaffected.
The penalty of getting killed would become more severe after every subsequent death.
In the beginning, the differences between the thousands of mechs stranded in the giant virtual battlefield would remain small and unnoticeable.
The differences only truly kicked in after lots of weaker and less skilled mech pilots suffered several defeats in a row.
When the performance of their mechs dropped by over 20 percent, their odds of winning against an undefeated mech had dropped by a drastic degree!
"Look at that unlucky swordsman mech pilot. He got beaten 9 times in a row!" Marvaine pointed at one of the projections.
A pilot by the name of Dick Rainier clearly had no business signing up to the Davute Star Tournament. He lost virtually every encounter while his chances of making a comeback faded away.
His points remained stuck at 0 while the outward appearance of his mech looked more worn and aged in order to reflect its heavily decayed performance.
The more worn his mech looked, the more other competitors hunted it down due to how easy it would be to earn another point!
Ves winced as a rifleman mech armed with a laser rifle managed to punch through the rear armor of Dick Rainier's swordsman mech with just a single well-aimed shot!
"Oh? It looks like he has finally wised up. Do you see what he is doing? He is grouping up with other weaker mech pilots. While they certainly don't trust each other, they all recognize that their only chances of making it through the next qualification round is to seek strength in numbers. Even if their chances of earning points is miniscule, they only have to collect enough of them to make it through the next qualification round."
The rules were set up in a way to encourage weaker mech pilots to group up with each other.
People like Dick Rainier whose mechs performed so poorly that it looked as if they were 200 years out of date had no other choice!
After over 30 penalized ranged mechs formed a hunting group, they set out and began to assault any other mech that were by themselves!
The mob of worn mechs did not even have to close the distance. They only had to point their guns in the right direction and open fire, causing their target mech in question to be peppered by so many attacks that its armor buckled due to the quantity of attacks hitting its exposed frame!
After this initial success, the ranged mech pilots gained more confidence and started to hunt down other lone mechs.
Even though this formation encountered other formidable groups of worn mechs, their pilots tacitly avoided each other so that they could hunt easier marks.
"That's not fair!" Andraste repeated again as she saw that more and more loser mechs started to use dishonorable tactics to defeat their betters.
"Nothing is fair on the battlefield, honey." Ves said as he held her against his body. "This qualification round doesn't merely test the mech pilots on their piloting skills. They are also being challenged on their ability to show humility and their ability to group up with other like-minded mech pilots."
Just as predicted, the lone wolves who previously got by on their own due to their superior skills experienced the limitations of tackling mobs of weaker mechs.
The generic mechs they piloted did not grant them the possibility of overpowering their adversaries anymore! Their designs were just too bland to give them the leeway they needed.
The only other option to preserve their points as well as the remaining performance of their machines was to group up themselves!
More and more survivor mechs whose exteriors barely looked affected by age started to band together.
Once this change took place, the weaker mechs started to suffer again!
Dick Rainier and his compatriots were no expection. While his growing group of worn ranged mechs managed to annihilate smaller groups of opponents with ease, it quickly became disarrayed when two squads of melee mechs charged the rifleman mech formation from opposite directions!
"They're attacking our left flanks and our right flanks!"
"Split up and lead these melee mechs away!"
"We should have added melee mechs to our group in order to guard against this very possibility!"
"We already tried, remember? None of the melee mech pilots agreed because they wouldn't be able to earn any points."
"We're getting hacked apart!"
Even though a number of the charging melee mechs succumbed to the withering fire, enough of them managed to close the gap before they started their feast!
All of the surviving melee mechs started collecting points in rapid succession as their swords, axes, spears and other melee armaments cleaved through the weakened armor of their opponents with contemptuous ease!
The morale of the ranged mech pilots dropped. They had no way of getting away, so instead of trying to defeat the tough and resilient melee mechs, they instead turned their guns against each other!
"Arrgh! You traitor! I saved you just a few minutes ago, remember?!"
"Hah, you're saying that while the gun of your mech was already turning in my direction. You're just upset that I killed you first!"
This entire section of the battlefield turned into absolute chaos as every sense of teamwork had melted away.
It wasn't just the ranged mechs that turned against each other. The melee mechs that were beginning to run out of easy prey spontaneously targeted their former teammates as their mech pilots had become too hot-blooded to restrain themselves!
"Stupid." Ves shook his head. "Many of them will lose their points because their mechs either got defeated or because they have lost the protection of their group."
What happened next to the survivors of this confused melee matched his predictions. Each of them got picked off by the mech pilots who were still smart enough to stick to their own groups.
The mayhem continued and the crowd regularly went wild as one drama took place after another.
By the time the first round had ended, virtually no mech pilots had managed to avoid getting killed!
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