Small. So small.
Danny always felt like this, sitting in a cockpit meant to fit tight around an adult at least a foot taller than him. It reminded him of how much he didn't measure up. Of the hunger gnawing in his belly, today the same as any other. Of the people missing from his life.
But only for a moment.
Then he pulled the crash harness in from either side and strapped on a strength not his own. With a flick of a switch it woke, the fury of a tiny sun igniting beneath him and pulsing each millisecond like a beating heart driving electrons instead of blood. The anchor stood, five-and-a-half meters of man-shaped warmachine, armored and armed almost as well as a tank, yet faster and far more agile in the forests covering Okend.
It did not matter that this was just a simulator. One day he would ride in the real thing, and victory today would make that a certainty.
He rubbed his father's ring where it rested around his thumb, a worn platinum band set with a sapphire cut with the insignia of Velgrin University. A professor's ring. He would have liked to follow his father into that world, but he wasn't that kind of smart, and the money for the tutors who could have helped had vanished with his father's death. A scholarship might have sufficed, but scholarship schools weren't interested in a boy who read at a crawl and whose brain swung to tactics and strategy rather than academics.
He'd tried the military academies, of course, but they also weren't interested in a boy who couldn't read well, and the militaries themselves weren't interested in a sickly twelve-year-old six-inches shorter than the rest of his age group from malnutrition.
And no one was interested in another orphan boy who could barely stand some days.
Especially not a paleskin Jedremi.
But none of that mattered in an anchor. The anchor didn't care that he couldn't read a book. It didn't care that he was a Jedremi and that the people on his ancestors' continent still lived like savages. It didn't care that he was weak and small and could barely stand.
It only cared that he was willing to fight.
And it would stand for him.
In this, I am strong. Help me win.
One priceless ring for one priceless future. A piece of his soul for a sponsorship into the BlueSky Kerchax Mercenaries from one of their own anchor pilots. Win and he got a place as a trainee. Lose and the mercenary took his father's ring.
That was the wager. He counted it a fair one.
Danny pulled the helmet down and locked it on, nerve-transmitter plates tight to the skin at the temples and around the neck. Not as good as the newer models he'd heard about, with their direct implant connections, but that didn't matter. He never could have afforded the implant. This was good enough.
Suddenly he felt the ghost of another body. The anchor. The computer checked the connection. Asked him to move the limbs to various positions. He did.
He loaded his profile, DannySapphire. Sure diamond was harder, but sapphire was what he had.
Preferences flashed past.
He had a request for a match. 1-on-1, no handicaps, opponent picked the field, and no missiles.
The Boneyard appeared around him in 360 degrees, up and down included except where his backup control panel blocked the view. A wide field filled with piles of bones left over from the devastation of the Night of Storms two centuries before. He'd heard they just piled the bodies of all those who died of starvation, dehydration and plague in the field, planning to burn them later. Then a war interrupted and they never got around to it.
Overhead he saw the thin canopy of the giant trees spread across the field. No Okendian would ever have lain a body out in the open sun without a tree to give shade. Even if no other honor was available for the dead, that one would be provided.
He looked down and saw his legs, jointed just like his real ones, but big and gray and armored, with wider feet. On either side his arms, the same as the legs, except they held an autocannon between them. A standard 24mm full-auto hyper-velocity firing 100 rounds per minute, belt fed, but set up for medium range instead of long. The Imperial A62 HyVAC.
He checked the laser on his right shoulder, then the automatic grenade launcher on the left. Everything checked out.
He was ready.
He signalled match start and saw a timer in the sky count down from three.
Somewhere out there was his future, and to get it he had to beat a professional anchor pilot. The many lesser wagers behind him already told Danny he could. The hunger in his belly told him he had to.
He set out, tight and fast, giant legs propelling him across the field at frightening speed without any effort.
First tree, tight in against the bark. Brown and scaly. Dirik. Bad cover. Any rounds striking the outside eighth of the tree might go through and hit him.
He stayed in the center while he searched for a better tree nearby. He had the choice of a modest white-barked kring and a silver-barked harex almost big enough to serve as an apartment tower.
Danny took the kring, moving low and fast as he could until his back was safe against it. Nothing went through a kring.
Now behind some real cover he stuck his autocannon around the tree and scanned the Boneyard with the scope, which piped everything it saw to a display in front of his right eye. Nothing obvious on visual. Just bone piles. He tried infrared, much better for finding an anchor. Running on a fusion plant made heat, and that heat had to go somewhere. Unless his opponent wanted to cook himself, that heat would be blowing at the ground wherever it was, making everything around hotter than the rest of the yard.
He scanned again.
There. A cloud of hot air swirling out from a black-barked murako tree.
Waiting for him to come in fast and crazy?
Time to rattle the professional, instead.
Danny studied the tree. Murakos were spreaders, most branching out into multiple trunks about two-thirds of the way up. This one was no different. He quickly spotted what he was looking for: a branching trunk that hung right over where his opponent was standing.
He fed the target to the computer and let it chew on the properties.
Yes, his laser would cut through that.
Danny set a line across the trunk, probably not all the way through, but it didn't need to be. Then he readied his autocannon and AGL.
You underestimated me. Your mistake.
Green light flashed out and slashed through the wood so fast it didn't have time to burn. Though it still took a good two seconds to complete the cut.
With a groan several tons of tree sagged, cracked, and started down.
Also, Danny's laser went into temporary lockdown from overheating.
Danny's opponent sprinted for another tree, jets flaring to drive him forward even faster. There were several nearby, but he was still out in the open for over five seconds.
Danny targeted his opponent's laser cannon and blew it off with an extended burst of autocannon fire.
The shots also made a mess of the armor on his opponent's left arm, but the arm still looked like it worked.
First blood, DannySapphire. But no time to rest.
Danny abandoned his cover, dashing to a curly barked pawkko tree. Softer on the outside, but the core was hard enough. Once behind cover he scanned the yard again, quickly finding his opponent in his new hiding place.
He fired a grenade, not in the hope of damaging him, but just to keep him from recovering his composure.
Then he began to circle around, making sure to keep his dashes as short as possible, and use smoke on the longer runs. A few shots ripped the air around him. One panged off his chest armor, but did no damage.
He fired a few more grenades in return, then took up a shooting position and waited for his opponent to come out for another shot.
The man retreated instead, heading toward the center of the boneyard, where the piles rose high. High enough to conceal an anchor.
No. He got the distinct impression the man was trying to lead him.
Danny followed carefully so as not to lose him, but also made sure he moved from cover to cover, never exposing himself.
His opponent ran behind another large murako.
A moment later smoke exploded out from behind the tree, filling the area, and grenades whuffed up into the air. Danny tried to watch carefully, but he had to avoid the grenades that fell around his position, and when the smoke blew away, his opponent was gone.
Danny checked heat. Quickly dissipating to normal. Sound. Anchors had inverse sound generators to dampen their own noise, but at this range he should be able to hear something when he knew where to listen.
He moved around carefully, getting an angle that would let him see behind the tree.
Still no movement. No footsteps on seismics either. Though they might not show on soft ground with slow movement.
He went back to a heat scan and looked everywhere.
He ran a finger over the ring again, spinning it around his thumb. Twitched his long pointed ears and turned them as if he could somehow catch a sound his anchor couldn't.
A minute passed.
Not ahead. Look behi…
He spotted the heat cloud directly behind him just as the shots rang out. He was already moving as autocannon rounds slammed into the lighter armor on his back.
Some penetrated. Systems took damage.
One round knocked his fusion core offline.
He brought his anchor around so the rest impacted on his chest armor and fired back, stepping backward to circle to the other side of his cover tree. Grenades came down and shattered the air around him, buffeting his anchor.
He made it behind cover.
A quick damage assessment was grim. He had no generator, which meant about forty seconds of power in the auxiliary buffer. This was a Danag Mk1, and they had even less backup storage than the pittance found on more modern anchors. No generator also meant no laser and no jets. Not on a Danag.
He poked his rifle around the tree. His opponent was hiding.
Did he know he'd hit something important?
He might. He was probably waiting.
Without time, defense was no longer an option. Danny had to move now.
He loaded smoke in his AGL and programmed a fire path that would cover him all the way to his opponent's tree.
Danny spun out and sprinted, firing in short bursts to keep his opponent in hiding. Grenades whuffed out, exploding into hot black clouds that would confuse all visual sensors. He charged through, letting the computer in the anchor tell him where things were supposed to be, even though he remembered well enough on his own.
Fire came back at him, slashing through the smoke around, but nothing hit a critical location.
Suppressive fire wasn't working.
Danny stopped firing and sidestepped, still closing at a sprint. The next round of incoming fire missed.
And told him exactly where his opponent was.
Danny reached the tree, his opponent on the other side.
Danny swung around the tree, coming from what should be behind, though he didn't count on that. A barrel appeared in the smoke, pointed at the lighter armor on his midsection. He slammed the gun to the side, grabbed its top, and yanked up. Shots glanced off his armor at an angle, then fired harmlessly into the air.
He jammed his own autocannon into the armpit of his opponent's anchor. A burst of fire blew the arm off.
His opponent dropped, then lunged, catching him in the midsection with a shoulder and throwing him onto his back. The gyro underneath him whined. This was more than it was made for.
Danny struggled to get back up, still firing, but his opponent was gone.
His screen went black.
Victory to Skysnake57.
Danny rubbed the place on his thumb where his father's ring used to be. He barely felt it, his fingers numb from the cold. Snow fell all around, coating the sidewalks wherever the tree canopy didn't stop it. Which was most places. Velgrin proper was not as a full of trees as most cities in Okend.
Danny's own spot, in the shallow alcove of a sidedoor, avoided some but not all of the snow. The door went to a heated warehouse, so he got a little bleedthrough from that, but from the numbness in his fingers it obviously wasn't enough to stave off winter. He had tried for a place in one of the shelters, but there weren't enough beds, again. Also, not enough food.
His stomach twisted.
He had spent the last of his money renting the simulator for the match, and he had no way to get more. The kind of jobs that people would give to a twelve year old were also in short supply in winter.
How had he lost? He had been so certain he could win. He almost had!
He'd thrown everything he had into that fight. But it hadn't been enough.
His stomach twisted again, the ache jabbing at him. About the only thing he could feel. He looked down and saw that his thumb was raw and red where the ring had been, the rest too pale. He had been rubbing it far too much, and the numbness had hid that.
Nat. He had to eat. Even if he had to steal it.
He tried to get up, but felt dizzy and sat back down. Maybe he should take a nap first.
Just a little nap.
Boots crunched in snow.
Danny looked to the sound and saw a man approaching. A man in a padded green military jacket, with white and blue striping on the shoulders and the two gold swords of a tegar, a commander of 10,000, on his collar.
Danny recognized that uniform. Was it Akin PirDegis, his opponent?
Akin was a gar, not a tegar. And this man was older, not young. Olive skin, like most Okendans, but lined and rough, like a granite cliff face. Gray eyes, like chips of stone, and a mouth like a fissure in a mountain, set over a craggy chin. He looked like he couldn't smile, even though his face had the lines for it.
He knew this man. From recruitment posters at the Mercenary Union.
The man walked up the steps to the doorway and squatted down in front of him.
"I believe this is yours," he said, and pulled out a familiar platinum and sapphire ring.
Danny looked at the ring, then at those stonechip eyes.
"You're Tegar HarRukora, commander of the BlueSky Kerchaxes."
"I am. And you're the boy who schooled one of my best anchor pilots."
Those eyes studied him. Danny pulled himself up straighter.
"It's not mine anymore."
"I bought it back for you."
Danny looked at the eyes again. Then back to the ring.
He wanted it. Wanted it back on his thumb where it belonged.
But he'd lost.
He shook his head and looked down.
"That you did. And it looks like it was a loss you couldn't afford, too."
Danny looked back up to HarRukora's face. Could stone be sad? It looked it.
Would he survive?
Of course he… would…
"I'll give you a choice, boy. First choice, I keep the ring and I leave you here with your pride. Second choice, you take the ring, leave your pride here, and come follow me. I'll give you a place in my army as a trainee."
Danny clenched his fingers around his raw thumb. Option one… he had to admit it. Option one was certain death. But option two…
"You did. And, frankly, I'll agree with what you seem to be thinking. Right now you don't look like you'd make a good soldier, ever. Or even a decent trainee. But I'm the one making the offer, not you. It's my choice who I offer a slot to, not yours. It's what you wanted, wasn't it? To be a soldier? Maybe pilot an anchor someday?"
More than anything.
"What's the price?" Danny asked.
"Not used to anyone giving you anything, are you?" Those stone chip eyes bored into him. "No price. You agree to follow me, and the place is yours. But I'll warn you. I demand everything of my soldiers. I will run you ragged, every day. When you aren't running errands you'll be training, and when you aren't training you'll be studying, and when you aren't studying you'll be sleeping and wishing you had more time for that."
"Military history and law. Tactics. Strategy. Repair. Medicine. And of course your Teachings. No trainee in the Kerchaxes skimps on the Teachings."
"I can't read."
"No. It's just… very hard. The words won't stay still."
"Ah. I've heard of that. Well, that's what computers are for. They can read for you. We have enough of those for you to use one."
Was this possible?
"You'll really let me be a trainee?"
HarRukora went down on one knee so his eyes were perfectly level with Danny's.
"Boy, if you'll agree to follow me with everything you have, I will do everything in my power to see that you grow up to be a man and a soldier. I will teach you everything I know about war, and honor, and righteousness. How to fight, and protect those who can't. Even more, I'll teach you how to rely on a strength greater than your own: the strength of the other men around you, and before them, the strength of Kai."
Danny only thought about it for a moment. Then he extended his hand and closed it over the ring HarRukora was still holding out.
"If you'll do that, I'll follow you anywhere. Sir."
The mountain smiled.