Robert Buettner

Orphan's Triumph

The fifth book in the Jason Wander series, 2009

I stared where my godson was staring,

up at the Red Moon, which seemed smaller.

The Red Moon shrank in the sky, from basketball-size to melon-size.

The murmur spread to the Casuni and Tassini ranks, then to the more worldly Marini soldiers, and finally to my troops.

Overhead, the Red Moon, our key to victory, had become as tiny as a crimson pea.

Then it winked out altogether.

For our new boys, alphabetically,

Evan, Grant, and Jereme

Though Father of the great victory, I was laid upon the battlefield of Mantinea, bleeding from my wounds. I commanded my soldiers to lift me up, that I might see my orphans triumph, and I bade them make a lasting peace. But I died too soon to see these things, as all soldiers do.

– Epaminondas’ Lament,

attributed to Xenophon, ca. 364 BC



The assault rifle’s burst snaps me awake inside my armor, and the armor’s heater motor, ineffectual but operating, prickles me between the shoulder blades when I stir. The shots’ reverberation shivers the cave’s ceiling, and snow plops through my open faceplate, onto my upturned lips.

“Paugh!” The crystals on my lips taste of cold and old bones, and I scrub my face with my glove. “Goddamit, Howard!”

I’m Lieutenant General Jason Wander, Colonel Howard Hibble is an intelligence Spook, and both of us are too old to be hiding in caves light-years from Earth.

Fifty dark feet from me, silhouetted against the pale dawn now lighting the cave’s mouth, condensed breath balloons out of Howard’s open helmet. “There are dire wolves out here, Jason!”

“Don’t make noise. They’re just big hyenas.”

“They’re coming closer!”

“Throw rocks. That’s what I did. It works.” I roll over, aching, on the stone floor and glance at the time winking from my faceplate display. I have just been denied my first hour’s sleep after eight hours on watch. Before that, we towed the third occupant of this cave across the steel-hard tundra of this Ice Age planet through a sixteen-hour blizzard. This shelter is more a rocky wrinkle in a shallow hillside than a cave.

I squint over my shoulder, behind Howard and me, at our companion. It is the first Pseudocephalopod Planetary Ganglion any Earthling has seen, much less taken alive, in the three decades of the Slug War, since the Blitz hit Earth in 2036. Like a hippo-sized, mucous-green octopus on a platter, the Ganglion quivers atop its Slug- metal blue motility disc, which hums a yard above the cave floor. Six disconnected sensory conduits droop bare over the disc’s edges, isolating the Ganglion from this world and, we hope, from the rest of Slug-kind.

Two synlon ropes dangle, knotted to the motility disc. We used the ropes to drag our POW, not to hog-tie it. A Slug Warrior moves fast for a man-sized, armored maggot, but the Ganglion possesses neither organic motile structures nor even an interface so it can steer its own motility disc. Howard was very excited to discover that. He was a professor of extraterrestrial intelligence studies before the war.

I sigh. Everybody was somebody else before the war.

Howard would like to take our prisoner to Earth alive, so Howard’s exobiology Spooks can, uh, chat with it.

That means I have to get us three off this Ice Age rock unfrozen, unstarved, and undigested.

I groan. My original parts awaken more slowly than the replaced ones, and they throb when they do. Did I mention that I’m growing too old for this?

“Jason!” Howard’s voice quavers. He was born too old for this.

I stand, yawn, wish I could scratch myself through my armor, then shuffle to the cave mouth, juggling a baseball-sized rock from palm to palm. Last night, I perfected a fastball that terrorized many a dire wolf.

As I step alongside Howard at the cave mouth, he lobs an egg-sized stone with a motion like a girl in gym class. It lands twenty feet short of the biggest, nearest wolf. The monster saunters up, sniffs the stone, then bares its teeth at us in a red-eyed growl. The wolf pack numbers eleven total, milling around behind the big one, all gaunt enough that we must look like walking pot roast to them.

But I’m unconcerned that the wolves will eat us. A dire wolf could gnaw an Eternad forearm gauntlet for a week with no result but dull teeth.

I look up at the clear dawn sky. My concern is that the wolves are bad advertising. The storm we slogged through wiped out all traces of our passing and, I hope, kept any surviving Slugs from searching for us. But the storm has broken, for now. I plan for us to hide out in this hole until the good guys home in on our transponders.

If any good guys survived. We may starve in this hole waiting for dead people.

We don’t really know how Slugs track humans, or even if they do. We do know that the maggots incinerated Weichsel’s primitive human nomads one little band and extended family group at a time-not just by waxing the whole planet, which the Slugs are capable of. And the maggots had rude surprises for us less primitive humans when we showed up here, too.

I wind up, peg my baseball-sized stone at the big wolf, and plink him on the nose. I whoop. I couldn’t duplicate that throw if I pitched nine innings’ worth. The wolf yelps and trots back fifty yards, whining but unhurt.

Howard shrugs. “The wolf pack doesn’t necessarily give us away. We could just be a bear carcass or something in here.”

I jerk my thumb back in the direction of the green blob in the cave. “Even if the Slugs don’t know how to track us, do you think they can track the Ganglion?”

Disconnected or not, our prisoner could be screaming for help in Slugese right now, for all we know.

Howard shrugs again. “I don’t think-”

The wolf pack, collectively, freezes, noses upturned.

Howard says, “Uh-oh.”

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