His first day back at the Larkinson Compound reminded him why family mattered. About seventy different relatives gathered around in a dining hall that could more than two hundred people. Many wives, children and elders settled into their seats.
Ves was one of few young men of working age present in the gathering. Only a couple of other nephews matches his age. They were mostly mech cadets if they were potentates and regular cadets if they were not.
The Larkinsons possessed a fairly strong aptitude for piloting mechs. A military family like theirs with several hundred years of history of piloting mechs built up a very robust foundation in their genes.
What distinguished families like theirs from the rest was that the chances of obtaining an acceptable aptitude was very high. Through the use of targeted fertilization techniques and various other methods to induce the right genes, around seventy percent of all the kids could expect to become a potentate when they reached ten years old.
It made the ones like Ves who failed their aptitude tests feel like they've let down their parents. Some could never get over the shame. Luckily, the Larkinsons were generous and they went out of their way to keep the norms feel welcome.
As a mech designer, he sat at a table with all the other norms. Their table might be a little less extravagant, but no one said a word of complaint. The mech pilots who bravely risked their lives deserved their due. And unlike many other people, the Larkinsons who tested positive always served in the Mech Corps instead of settling for the reserves.
Once everyone took their seats, one of the elders stood up. Ves easily recognized his grand-uncle Ovrin Larkinson, the brother of the patriarch. The man had a wheezy voice due to some severe scarring that he never bothered to remove for some reason or another.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm glad to see you've all arrived. We are still expecting a couple of family members, but by and large we will only be celebrating the new year with half of our usual numbers."
The mood turned somber at Ovrin's foreboding words. "The Bright Republic has been generous with us in good times. Now that ill times are upon us, it is time to reciprocate their care by dedicating our lives to the state that nurtured us from birth."
Even the rowdiest kids agreed with his words. Every Larkinson had been brought up to appreciate the Republic.
Those who disagreed for one reason or another chose to leave the Larkinsons and take up another family name. This usually occurred when the children of fallen heroes blamed the family and the Republic for driving their parents away from them too soon. This was why the Larkinsons never numbered more than two hundred people even after many years of prosperity.
"Now, we have several announcements to make. First, with the onset of war, I can imagine that some of you might wish to relocate. If you don't mind parting with your friends and neighbors, you can take up residence in our compound."
Some of the Larkinsons sighed in relief at the offer. No one expected the prelude to war to be so dangerous. A terrorist attack could happen at any place and any time outside of Rittersberg.
Ovrin continued on with his second announcement. "Next, we'd like to bring the young ones to a tour of the capital. Some of you have never stepped foot in Rittersberg before. You'll be missing out on a lot of fun if you've never seen the Eternal Lighthouse, the Republican Assembly or the Founding Flag."
Some of the four to seven year old kids cheered with delight. Lanie, who still kept hold of a hapless Lucky, cheered with her distant cousins even though she grew up in Rittersberg.
"Finally, I'd like to bring a promising young man to everyone's attention. None of us has ever thought he could make it, but Ves has established a nascent mech workshop that is completely independent."
Uh oh. It sounded like his grand-uncle was talking about Ves. He adopted a nervous smile as everyone's eyes started to scrutinize his dashing form. His recent genetic touch-ups along with his expensive antigrav wardrobe drastically improved his image.
Last year he turned up to the celebration as an average student with no accomplishments. This time he looked like a consummate professional or a successful entrepreneur who already made it big. Ves started to enjoy the appreciative stares he received from his uncles and aunts.
"He has already achieved many notable accomplishments such as entering the finals in one of the Young Tigers Exhibition's sub-tournaments. Not only that, he profoundly impressed the entire star sector when he travelled all the way to Coalition space and won and even bigger competition! Everyone, please give Ves a round of applause!"
Many Larkinsons stood up and clapped. Ves saw that most of his relatives wished him well, but some appeared to be harboring ulterior motives. Only a couple of Larkinsons looked grumpy, but Ves never got along with them anyway.
Uncle Ovrin quickly ended his little speech for the night. Everyone started to dig in including Ves. He filled his plate with steak along with some some yummy vegetable couscous. The Larkinsons employed a professional chef among other staff.
An uncle who sat close to Ves started to strike up a conversation. "So Ves. How is life as a mech designer treating you?"
"It's a lot more difficult than I expected. My father and I started up a business with our own efforts. I'm saddled with a lot of debt at the moment."
"Ah, the perils of running a business. In this day and age, it's rare to see a man like you succeed where many mech designers have failed."
"I'm a lucky man. My father did most of the work before he disappeared. I only picked up where he left off."
His answer was short on details. Ves didn't care, as he felt he already said enough in his recent interview with the Herald.
His uncle pressed on. "Surely you're receiving help from somewhere. I can't imagine your little mech business is able to stay erect without some form of backing. What kind of help did you enlist, and how much did it cost?"
"My answer hasn't changed." Ves reiterated while he took a bite out of his juicy steak. "My father funded our initial investments by taking a boring loan from a small-time planetary bank. He also spent a lot of effort getting in touch with a grant institution from the New Rubarth Empire. The production licences I received from them are old and nearly outdated."
Frankly, he started to grow annoyed at his uncle's persistent questioning. Was he working for an intelligence agency or something? Regardless of the truth, Ves considered his uncle to be a pest and stopped responding to his asinine inquiries.
"I was just asking." He moaned. Who was he anyway? Ves never learned his name even as he spotted his face from time to time. "You should loosen up some more and share some of your bounty. Us norms should stick together and give each other a hand. I've got two mouths to feed back at home."
"Three if you count your wife."
The man harrumphed. "She can take care of herself."
The conversation slowly shifted away from Ves. The people around the table discussed their own ventures and how the recent unrest disrupted their lives.
"I can't imagine what is going on in the heads of those who joined the BLM. There's no way that Bentheim can stand alone. Even if our Republic is beaten back, the Vesians aren't going to miss the opportunity to snap them up. Everyone who lives in Bentheim needs to stop polluting their minds with credits and develop some common sense."
Half of the Larkinsons at this table had never moved away from Rittersberg. They all grew up on this opulent planet. Like many locals, they developed a superiority complex to the point where they considered the rest of the Bright Republic to be a backwards territory. For example, they still considered Bentheim to be a second-class system filled with greedy merchants.
A mature looking aunt added an important fact. "If I recall, Ves here lives right next to the Bentheim System. If anyone knows what the rebels are up to, it's someone like him."
Most of the norms turned to Ves. Forced on the spot again, he hesitated for a bit before trying to explain the many grievances Bentheimers held. Sadly, none of them fully understood how much the citizens of the port system disliked the policies imposed by Rittersberg.
"It's par for the course for Bentheim to share their massive wealth." His annoying uncle interjected. "We've invested a lot of manpower and resources to build up the Bentheim System into one of the star sector's premiere launching points into alien space. We've facilitated most of their contracts with the Common Fleet Alliance."
Many Larkinsons nodded in agreement. Ves did not even try to convince them otherwise. Without visiting Bentheim in the flesh, these idiots would continue to cling on to their prejudices.
Once the waiters served dessert, Ves quickly finished his ice cream and left the table as soon as possible. He couldn't stand their presence any longer.
Before he departed, he briefly approached the kids table. "How are you doing Lucky?"
The cat turned to Ves with a glare and actually hissed at him. The nerve of the cat!
"I gave Mr. Lucky here a bath earlier. He smells really good now!" Lanie chirped with a grin. The other little girls started to giggle as well. "Can I keep him?"
"Ah, I think it's best if I take him back for a time." He said while scooping a rose-scented gem cat from their table. "Don't worry, we're not going anywhere. You'll have plenty of opportunities to play with him for the rest of the week."
The kids took it well enough, which was good since Lucky clearly needed some time alone. Ves brought his pet away and walked outside. As Rittersberg's sun started to fade over the horizon, Ves took a seat at a nearby games table. A half-finished game of neo-chess laid abandoned and forgotten.
He worried about his father. Was he still alive? Where did he go? What kind of crowd did he hang out with? Ves hoped his father didn't have to suffer too much on his behalf when he passed the Mech Designer System onto Ves.
"Good evening Ves." Ovrin greeted him and took a seat at the other end of the chess table. "Do you want to play?"
"No thanks. I've never spent much time with the classics."
"It's a shame you missed out. We often teach the game to our young potentates in order to develop their sense of strategy."
As a norm, Ves missed out on a lot of things. He used to be jealous of his fellow cousins, but now that he stood on his own, he let go of his resentments. It all seemed petty now that he looked back.
"Why are you here, Ovrin?"
The old man took a deep breath. "The elders recently came together to discuss your rise, as it were. Your rapid career advancement took us all by surprise. It made us reconsider our treatment of you. While you are still young, you already capable of wielding a substantial amount of influence."
Ovrin had a point. His niece Melinda might be a capable mech pilot, but she only earned a modest salary. Ves on the other hand earned millions of profits with each single sale. While he still had to worry about the rising cost of raw materials and invest in newer assets, it was undeniably true that mech designers simply earned more.
He even suspected that his income soon dwarfed the family's top earners.
"So what are you suggesting, grand-uncle?"
"Ah, young ones. So impatient." The old man sighed. "Alright, let me get to the point. We'd like to invite you to our steering committee. As a budding mover and shaker, you deserve a place among us."
Every Larkinson who mattered joined the steering committee. The influential committee decided many things, such as the rules and the budget. They were also in charge of rendering judgement when a Larkinson had gone astray. Furthermore, they also approved marriages when they haven't arranged them already.
The offer genuinely surprised Ves. He always expected to join the steering committee eventually, just not this soon. Perhaps something else was behind this premature offer. Ves considered his options.