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 Jannzi Larkinson still couldn't believe how a single sortie changed her entire life.

The moment when she piloted the first production copy during the product reveal of the Aurora Titan, she never came back the same.

Jannzi pressed her hand against the Shield of Samar. A few years ago, she never dreamt she'd be able to become a notable mech pilot of the vaunted 7th Apocalypse Heralds.

Not only did the Heralds welcome her with open arms, they also invested lots of time and resources into nurturing her growth!

Ever since she became a Herald, the higher-ups showered her with genetic treatments, specialized training courses and exclusive tutoring from fellow expert pilots.

The brass thought that all of the focused nurturing succeeded in accelerating her growth.

While her skills and battle instincts indeed improved at a rapid pace, Jannzi knew the real reason for her progress came from a very different source.

She looked up at the immense bulk of the Shield of Samar with its savage lizard head at the very top.

"You've been my companion for all this time. Accompanying me to the Apocalypse Heralds has been a life saver for me, Shield."

She often spoke to her mech. As someone who spent some time with Ves Larkinson and his company, she knew their values inside-out. The LMC's motto spoke to her in a way that no other advice ever could.

Living Mechs. Partners for Life.

Her relationship with the Shield of Samar embodied those words. Whenever the Apocalypse Heralds compelled her to pilot another mech with the hopes that she would move away from the sluggish super-medium space knight, she never felt the same connection.

They weren't her partners. Her performance noticeably dropped and her drive to excel became noticeably absent.

After a lot of arguing and pushback, she finally convinced them to let her continue using the Shield of Samar as her main mech.

She knew the Heralds still weren't quite convinced of the Aurora Titan model. While it functioned well as a source of courage and inspiration, its lackluster mobility still posed a lot of tactical constraints.

The regimental commander probably hoped that Jannzi would grow out of her mech. Once she advanced to expert, it would be far too much to ask for a young and inexperienced Journeyman like Ves to design an expert mech.

Was the Shield of Samar destined to become obsolete?

"No. Partners don't abandon each other. Especially when we are bound for life." She whispered softly as she continued to caress the surface of her personal mech.

An unspoken accord developed between her and the brass. As long as Jannzi kept making brisk progress, the Heralds would let her keep using the Shield of Samar.

The moment she started to stall, her superiors would renew their push to replace her mech.

What they didn't realize was that Jannzi only worked harder in order to stave off this threat. Her love and devotion for the Shield of Samar was so much greater than a temporary fancy. She considered her mech to be the first and only partner of her life!

After some time alone with the Shield of Samar, someone else entered the mech stable, breaking her quiet contemplation.

"Jannzi. You are looking good."

"Venerable Larkinson."

The still young-looking Ghanso let out a rueful smile. "Cut it out. We're alone here and this isn't an official visit. The Starhawks just happened to stop by this space station, that's all. Since I happen to be here, I might as well visit the latest relative that has joined our ranks."

"I'm not an expert pilot."

"Not yet, but it's only a matter of time." Ghanso grinned. "I've read the reports. Your progress is remarkably fast. Though you have a lot of catching up to do with regards to your skills, your previous display of forced resonance hasn't lied. Anyone who can do that much upon their elevation to expert candidate will assuredly become an expert pilot in due time."

Jannzi knew in her heart that her older cousin stated a fact, but she did not allow his encouragement to blind her into complacency. If she thought she could sail her way into becoming an expert pilot in her sleep, she might instead begin to regress!

Expert candidates who demonstrated forced resonance had failed before. Jannzi studied their cases carefully and all of them taught her that expert pilots were exceptional for a reason.

When an expert candidate ceased to be exceptional and merely performed as a normal mech pilot, then they failed their candidacy! With such a low commitment to improving their ability to fight, they had no right to enter the ranks of experts!

Jannzi knew in her heart that the Shield of Samar demanded a worthy partner. Ever since she first interfaced with her mech, she resolved to do her best to meet her partner's expectations!

"Whether I'm an expert candidate or expert pilot, I will always be the same." She declared. "I am Jannzi Larkinson, and I am the only partner of the Shield of Samar."

Her forceful words made quite an impact on Ghanso, but not in a good way. The man crossed his arms. "Ah, that. I've heard about your undue attachment to your personal mech. Jannzi.. the mech our cousin designed may be great in some ways, but it falls short in many other areas. It's a commercial mech designed aimed at private sector mech pilots. While it's a bit more powerful and expensive than other machines, it's still a mech designed to make a profit."

"I've heard those words many times, Ghanso. Don't bother trying to convince me to pilot another mech. Moving on to another mech is like abandoning my spouse for a better-looking man. It's unthinkable!"

Ghanso sighed. He tried. "Alright. I said my piece. As an expert, I know our kind can get very stubborn in some ways. Sometimes, that can get us killed."

"I will have died a worthy death if I go down with my partner."

"Let's not go any further into this topic." Ghanso quickly said in an alarmed tone of voice. "One of the reasons I wanted to meet with you was to ask you about something important. What do you think about Ves Larkinson?"

"Hm? He's a fantastic mech designer. I cannot fathom how he conceived of the Aurora Titan design and built the Shield of Samar, but I am forever grateful to him. Like every other Larkinson, I've been skeptical about the first and only mech designer of our family, but he is a great man."

"I see."

"You disagree?"

Ghanso grimaced. "He's a Larkinson. And not. To be honest, I don't know what to think of Ves. He is so wealthy he can outspend us a hundred times over, but the only money the rest of the family receives are the dividends issued by his company. From what I heard about him from the other Larkinsons, he's not enthusiastic about bringing in more Larkinsons to help him run his business or his private mech troop."

"He earned his success through his own efforts."

"He's a Larkinson! He ought to be more grateful to the family! Even if he didn't have what it took to become a mech pilot, he still spent a lot of time among numerous veteran mech pilots, each of whom imparted valuable stories and lessons to him. The mechs he designed are partially made possible due to the heritage he has enjoyed as a Larkinson. Sometimes I wonder if he truly shares our blood. He's a mech designer, an oddball!"

"Your arguments are contradictory, Ghanso. First, you complain about how he's been ungrateful despite being raised as a Larkinson. Next you question how little he has in common with a Larkinson."

"Ugh! Sorry. Debating is not my strong suit. I'm sure the so-called 'Devil Tongue' can beat me flat with his words!"

Jannzi turned her full attention to her famous cousin. "Are you trying to grow a wedge between Ves and I? What is your problem with him? Despite what you think, he is still a Larkinson!"

"Just because he shares our family name doesn't mean he shares our values. Wake up. See what has happened with the Larkinsons. For centuries, we cultivated an image of an honorable, neutral and upstanding family. Whenever someone hears of us, they associate us with our long-standing tradition of military service."

"We are still that family."

"Not if we let Ves poison our family further!" Ghanso retorted. "Don't you see how we have changed in the last five years? Old ideals such as dedicating as many Larkinsons as possible to public service has made way for the pursuit of wealth and power! No longer did we maintain our neutral stance. Now, we have apparently joined Ves in throwing in our lot with the Tovar Family! All the while, some of our younger cousins no longer aspire to enlist in the Mech Corps. Instead, they have set their sights on piloting mechs for the Avatars of Myth!"

Such arguments sounded very familiar to Jannzi. The discussion within the Larkinson Family continued to turn more and more towards their recent changes in direction. Many military purists such as Ghanso wanted to retain their old and dust-laden customs.

"Families change. People change." She replied. "The Larkinsons of yesterday are not the Larkinsons of today. The Larkinsons of the future will doubtfully be different as well. Change is not inherently something to be feared."

A scowl appeared on Ghanso's face. "You and the rest of you money-loving Larkinsons can go ahead and abandon everything our family stands for. As long as you Ves worshippers continue down this corrupt road, the true Larkinsons will not be a part of this travesty any further."

His words caused Jannzi to sense that something great was at play.

"You are talking about a schism."

"I prefer to see it as a divorce. You see, Jannzi, the Larkinson Family has grown too big and too scattered. Our values are being eroded by the toxic dividends the LMC constantly dumps into the coffers of the Larkinson Estate. A number of concerned Larkinson elders have expressed an increasing amount of concern about this unwelcome development. For now, we are trying to do everything we can to keep the Larkinsons together, but our patience will run out at some point. In a future steering committee, we plan to issue our ultimatum."

"Your ultimation has no chance in passing." She smirked. "The amount of Larkinsons who are mech pilots are in the minority, and many of our cousins in the Mech Corps have made good use of their expanded budgets. In my eyes, the Larkinsons have never been better. All the money at our disposal has let us participate in expensive training programs or make use of gene therapies that used to be reserved for our wealthier rivals in the service."

"The Larkinsons have been doing fine for centuries without those luxuries! Too many Larkinsons are being spoiled by this bounty! I am starting to see too many Larkinsons climb up to positions that they didn't deserve! Instead of prizing diligence and hard work, they are starting to realize that they can achieve the same results by spending lots of money on their problems!"

"That's easy for you to say, Venerable Ghanso. Not everyone is fortunate and talented enough to break through to your height in a matter of years."

The air between them soured by the second. Ghanso did not hide his contempt at Jannzi's lackadaisical attitude towards the changes in the family. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to make any inroads on his younger cousin, he decisively turned around and walked away.

"A proposal will be put to the vote in the steering committee one day. If it is defeated, we will still part from your company. We have no intentions of sullying ourselves with your corrupt ilk."

Jannzi frowned. "We are still family. Is this the way a Larkinson ought to act?"

"If our proposal is shot down, then we are no longer family. You can have the Larkinson name if you want. We shall start a new family which will inherit the values that you have abandoned."

Ghanso's footsteps echoed against the deck as he slowly walked away.

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