Ves spent the next two days in a leisurely fashion. He played with the kids and awed them with his mechanical skill by cobbling together a few toys. It truly warmed his heart to make his cousins giggle and laugh.
Besides amusing himself, he also caught up with the news when he talked to the more informed elders. Now that he joined the Larkinson Family's steering committee, he received access to their modest database and intelligence network. He already skimmed through the most recent files, but they only painted a scattered picture of current events.
Even the Larkinsons suspected that there were other influences at work. The amount of pirates and rebels rampaging through the entire star sector appeared to be too numerous and well-funded to be a homegrown phenomenon.
Despite these indications, the Bright Republic focused most of its efforts on the upcoming conflict with its irreconcilable neighbor. No matter what outsiders were up to, the Republic had to beat back the Vesia Kingdom first before worrying about the bigger picture.
The Kingdom happened to be a little bit larger and wealthier than the Republic. They owed most of their superiority due to possessing two port systems, which greatly extended their reach and shrunk their supply lines. Unfortunately for the Vesians, their port systems were poorly located and had little strategic value other than a convenient relay to ships looking to transit elsewhere.
"The Vesians have always been jealous at how much trade is diverted to the Bentheim System." Ves concluded. The upcoming war would likely revolve around trying to conquer the Bentheim System. "Cloudy Curtain shouldn't attract too much attention, but it will definitely be in the line of fire at some point."
In fact, throughout the wars, when the Vesians succeeded in punching through the border, they often occupied the surrounding territories. An underdeveloped system like Cloudy Curtain only merited a tiny occupation force. They usually swept away the gangs and ensured none of the locals tried anything funny while their main forces proceeded to siege the Bentheim System.
Sadly, it appeared the Vesians made ample preparations this time.
"The Kingdom is actually grappling with fewer unrest than us." Elder Ovrin explained. "Their control over their society is much stricter than ours. More importantly, the so-called nobles and the royals actually came to a rare agreement to put down most of their disputes and focus their animosity onto us."
Ves frowned at the news. "The dysfunctional rivalry between the nobles and the royal family is the only reason why the Vesians have never fought at their best in the past few wars."
"Oh don't worry about that Ves. They can draft up a fancy paper all they want. Whether the Vesians will actually stick to it is another question."
"Still, it's rather uncharacteristic for the Vesians to shake hands and get along with each other. The nobles always wanted to depose the royal family and rule their state as a council. The monarchs always wanted to strip the nobles of their private armies. Their interests simply don't align."
"We have reason to believe the secret agreement is imposed by the same outside force that's been stirring the star sector. Their influence is substantial, but I don't think they fully realize how quickly the Vesian nobles are willing to stab each other in the back."
Both of them shared a knowing look. The Vesians were capable of fielding a terrible army, but they always screwed up in terms of leadership. In comparison, the Bright Republic usually exerted competent leadership even if its soldiers weren't as hardened.
"Whatever the case, we expect the different factions to abide by the agreement for a year at the very least. Your home system is at risk if their offensive breaks through our lines. Are you sure you don't want to relocate your assets?"
He seriously weighed the choice, but eventually shook his head. "I think my father made his home on Cloudy Curtain for a reason. I don't want to let go of what he left behind."
"Fair enough. You're a Larkinson like the rest of us. I'm glad you're brave, but I'm not certain whether you are expressing it in the right moment."
The conversation went nowhere, so Ves changed the topic. "When will the steering committee convene?"
"The patriarch will return tomorrow. We'll hold a special session in order to induct you in our ranks. We'll also discuss next year's budget among other administrative decisions."
"Not a lot of Larkinsons have come this year. Will it be okay to hold a meeting with more than half of the committee in active duty?"
"Oh, it's mostly a matter of routine." Ovrin waved away the question. "Anything that requires a discussion has already been addressed. Besides some technicalities, we've already settled on the major points."
It sounded like the latest session before the new year celebration was just a last-minute check. Now that Ves joined their circle, he got to know that the Larkinsons owned a modest business empire on Rittersberg that earned the family about fifty million credits a year.
That might not sound like much compared to his own activities, but they were stable businesses. Ves knew more than anyone else how volatile and innovative the mech market could be. In contrast, the Larkinson Trust Fund invested in a number of hotels, apartments and other real estate that always maintained a stable stream of profits.
"We're starting to bolster our pension fund in preparation for the worst. It's always better to get on top of them instead of catching up to it afterwards."
Both of them grimaced a bit. The pension fund kept the widows and orphans clothed and fed. If the steering committee proactively put more money in its pot, then that meant they expected that not every Larkinson might survive the war.
Ves spent a moment to worry about the lives of those he cared about. Most of the Larkinsons were acquaintances to him, but certain relatives such as Uncle Ark or his cousin Melinda earned a special place in his heart.
After another day of fun and relaxation, the entire planet took on a festive cheer. A large amount of construction bots transformed the city of Varleton into a festive paradise full of blinking blue lights and streamers in order to complement the Republic's national color.
The smarter Larkinsons noted that the Republic spent a little more effort in this year's party. The government wanted to reassure its citizens by projecting strength and instilling pride.
The patriarch finally returned in the morning. His reinforced aircar actually arrived at the compound with a modest escort of mechs and infantry fighting vehicles.
The mechs quickly flew away once Benjamin stepped out, but the infantry remained and started to collaborate with the compound's existing security force.
"Alright everyone, I'm back!" He announced and sent out a command through his comm that alerted every committee member. "We convene in an hour. Don't be late!"
As a newcomer, Ves had to go through a process before he formally became a member of the committee. First, the Larkinsons confirmed his identity and sampled his hair, blood and other biological material in order to facilitate future checks.
Then, he had to sign a pile of documents. They mostly formalized his rights and obligations to the Larkinsons. He also had to sign some NDA's that forced him to keep quiet about the family's more sensitive matters. All of the paperwork was fairly standard so Ves didn't object.
Once they finished the formalities, the committee entered a lengthy square stairway that went deep underground. Ves initially expected to descend a couple of floors, but everyone kept walking down the steps in a monotonous fashion. Only after an estimated two hundred meters of walking did they reach an underground hall.
The hall resembled a temple in its stateliness and atmosphere. Many banners hung from the arches that extended from the walls and ceilings. Most of them depicted the Bright Republic's iconic torch and the Larkinson's iceberg crest.
When Ves walked past the golden double doors, he suddenly realized he entered an elevated section of the hall. Everyone adopted solemn faces as they started to take their seats on the cold, stone benches.
"Grandfather?" He turned to Benjamin. "What's in the middle?"
"Our history." The old man replied, and gently guided him forward. "
He recognized the Valiant. The first ancestor of the Larkinsons personally piloted the iconic heavy knight and earned the recognition of the young Republic. The mech was a piece of living history. Its scarred and broken appearance hinted at a story filled with bitter struggle.
Ves choked on his breath once he scrutinized his ancestor's steed in the perspective of a mech designer. Somehow, the ancient mech radiated an aura that tingled his X-Factor senses. The mech not only appeared to be a custom job, its rich experiences somehow enhanced its X-Factor beyond anything else he had ever designed before.
Could the Valiant actually possess an X-Factor of B or higher? His brain started to churn as he tried to recall his ancestor's story. Who designed the Valiant, and what was his relationship to his ancestor?
His grandfather suddenly bumped his back. "Ves. I'm sure the Valiant is interesting, but we have business to discuss."
"I'm sorry. I forgot myself for a moment. It's a magnificent mech. I'm lucky to see it up close."
While his grandfather approached the podium at the front, Ves took a seat at the bench closest to the mech. Despite the importance of this gathering, Ves forgot all about the steering committee and focused his entire attention on the incredible mech in front of him. He tried to turn on his comm, only to find out it fizzled out.
"Damn. The family is sure being dramatic." He muttered under his breath.
The austere underground hall was surrounded by many layers of insulating material that hindered virtually every kind of handheld broadcast equipment. Various other security measures prevented any electronic device from activating and recording the proceedings.
Once everyone took their seats, the patriarch banged his fist against a special plate that cut through the chatter. "I hereby announce the start of our annual end-of-year session!"
His grandfather started to follow through the usual rituals. Every Larkinson including Ves offered some tribute to the Larkinson ancestor. They then memorialized the Larkinsons who died in the line of duty. Ves noted that the ritual explicitly excluded those who didn't die on the battlefield.
Next, the patriarch addressed their last year's agenda and summarized the results. It turned out the family recently invested a lot of effort into advancing the careers of their younger mech pilots. The committee wanted them to be in the best position to fight the Vesians and come back alive.
As Ves listened to the various means in which they befriended and even bribed certain officers, he realized how much of an old boys' club the Mech Corps turned out to be. Every commanding officer in charge of a division, regiment or battalion wielded a wide range of autonomy. Getting onto their good sides insured they never mistreated the Larkinsons serving in their ranks.
After half an hour of dry reports, his grandfather finally raised a subject directly related to Ves.
"Many of you are already familiar with our very own mech designer." Benjamin said while everyone turned their gazes to Ves. This time he bore the scrutiny like a pro. "Some of us have considered a couple of proposals in light of his future potential. Ves, tell me your thoughts on the following."
His grandfather started off with a bang. "We'd like to purchase some stock in your business activities. If you're not opposed to the measure, we are willing to divert a portion of our trust fund to build up a stake in your venture once you incorporate your business."
The proposal completely caught Ves by surprise. "How much?"
"I think it's fair for the both of us if you give us a twenty-five percent stake for 500 million credits."
His heart almost skipped a beat when he heard the sum. Almost every other committee member looked shocked. No one imagined that his grandfather or whoever audited his business valued his small and risky startup at around two billion credits.
The Larkinsons relied on its massive trust fund built up over centuries to provide for everyone's pensions. Five-hundred million credits represented a substantial chunk of its liquid assets.
While many of the Larkinsons thought the price was too high, Ves instead thought the opposite. Considering his accelerated career advancement, his future business might become a lot more valuable than a couple of billion credits. As long as he had the System, his future was bright.
"I accept." Ves quickly decided. Despite the gross undervaluation, he didn't wish to act like a greedy toad like that obnoxious uncle he met a few days ago. He valued his family and wished for them to prosper alongside him. "I haven't set up a corporation yet. It's about time I did. I'll be glad to sell the family a twenty-five percent share. You won't regret it."