Robert Buettner

For Senior Drill Sergeant DeArthur Burgess, wherever the winds of war carried him, and for all the other special ones.


For opportunity, wisdom and enthusiasm, thanks to my Editor, Devi Pillai and Editorial Director Jaime Levine. Kudos: for perfection, to Anna Maria Piluso; for stellar Art Direction, to Don Puckey; for telling the world, to Joy Saveriano; for copyediting, to Sara Schwager, and to all the others at Warner who contributed so much.

Thanks to the best agent between the orbits of Mercury and Jupiter, Winifred Golden, for all that and more, and to the most brilliant, visionary cover artist inhabiting this planet, Fred Gambino.

To the shy military and aerospace folks who kept me on the technologic straight-and-narrow, cheers. You know who you are.

To the Capitol Hill Gang and the Boulder Bunch, past and present, whose flinty critiques made this book, thanks. Your turns are coming.

To Robert A. Heinlein for inspiration and to Joe Haldeman for that and for his generous humanity, my gratitude forever.

Most important, to Mary Beth, more than thanks for all of the above and for everything that matters.

We crabbed shoulder to shoulder down cargo nets to our landing craft bucking in the Channel, each GI’s bilge-and-sea-soaked boots drenching his buddy below. In that moment I realized that we fight not for flags or against tyrants but for each other. For whatever remains of my life, those barely met strangers who dangled around me will be my only family. Strip away politics, and, wherever or whenever, war is an orphanage.

—Anonymous letter fragment, Recovered on Omaha Beach, Normandy, June

Chapter One

“The sun will come out… tomorrow…” Our pilot hums through her open mike into zero-Fahrenheit cabin air fogged with four hundred GIs’ breath. And fat with smells of gun oil, vomit, and fear. The sun never comes out here. In Jupiter’s orbit, Sol is a pale dot. It’s joke enough that I smile even as my hands shake the rifle propped between my knees. I’m Specialist Fourth Class Jason Wander, one of the lucky orphans who in one hour will save the human race or die trying.

We sit helmeted in paired, facing rows, so red cabin light paints us like eggs cartoned in the devil’s incubator. Eternad-battery-heated fatigues warm us against a cabin cooled to the surface temperature our enemy manufactures a hundred miles below.

Our backs mold against the ship’s “pressure hull” that seals out space’s vacuum. “Ship” my ass. It’s a 767 fuselage looted from some airplane graveyard in the Arizona desert, tacked to a streamlined parachute and reinforced to drop us from the mother ship to the surface. Like most of the 1900s antiques we have to fight this 2040 war with, it was built when Annie was a live-acted musical, back before the Millennium turned.

That red cabin light preserves night vision. A hundred miles below our parking orbit, it’s always night on Ganymede. Or so the astronomers say.

We’ll be the first humans to see it. If our groaning hull doesn’t pop when we fall through vacuum or melt as we thunder through the artificial atmosphere the Slugs have slathered around the rock below. If we don’t slam into Ganymede like crash-test dummies. If our demothballed weapons can kill the Slugs waiting down there.

And who knows, since I’m the only human who’s ever seen Slugs alive?

My gunner shivers warm against my shoulder clicking her Muslim beads, praying like her hair was on fire. Yeah. My boss is a four-foot-eleven Egyptian girl. But Munchkin can shoot.

My teeth grind, I close my hand over her beads, and she stops clicking. Divine help’s improbable for agnostic me. As improbable, I suppose, as Pseudocephalopod Slugs from beyond the Solar System camping on Jupiter’s largest moon and killing millions by bombing Earth from out here.

They say that an infantryman’s life is boredom punctuated by intervals of sheer terror. After six hundred days traveling in the mother ship’s mile-long steel tube, finally being in the dropship liquefies my guts even though I asked to be here.

We all asked. So many volunteered for the Ganymede Expeditionary Force that they only accepted ten thousand soldiers who’d lost entire families. Munchkin lost parents and six sisters to the Cairo Projectile. I’m an only child, and the Indianapolis Projectile took my living parent. Such things now pass for luck.

So the media calls us the Orphans’ Crusade.

Munchkin hates “Crusade” because she’s Muslim. So she calls us Humanity’s Last Hope.

Our platoon sergeant’s seen combat. So he calls us meat. He says “Orphanage” is true because in combat your only family is these government-issued strangers.

Intercoms crackle. “Begin drop sequence on my mark… now!”

Somebody sobs.

The mother ship releases all twenty dropships like dandelion seed. Red light flicks black for a skipped heartbeat as electricity switches to internal. Our cut umbilical scrapes our hull like a handcuff unlocked.

Which is how this started for me three years ago, a week after my eighteenth birthday.

Chapter Two

“Judge don’ like ’cuffs in his chambers.” The bailiff of the juvenile court in and for the City and County of Denver bent and snapped metal bracelets off my wrists. He stared me down, dried blood still measling his lip where I’d coldcocked him.

“I’m okay now.” I wasn’t in the mood to hit anybody anymore, but “okay” was a he.

They’d backed me off sedatives this morning, except for Prozac n, of course, to polish me up for my hearing. It was two weeks since my mom, on a visit to Indianapolis, died when the city blew up. Also two weeks since I’d pounded the crap out of my homeroom teacher. Social Services, sharp as tacks, thought my loss and the pounding might be related.

The bailiff knocked, then opened the door, waved me through, and I made the acquaintance of the Honorable Dickie Rosewood March. It was just me and the judge in his office. He wore a gray suit that matched his hair, stretched across wrestler’s shoulders. No robes. His furniture was antique, even down to a computer with one of those television-screen boxes and a keyboard. That must’ve been the zoo for him because his right sleeve was pinned up at the elbow. In his remaining hand he balanced a paper file. Mine?

His chair creaked when he looked up. “Mr. Wander.”


“Are you mocking me?”


“Your generation doesn’t call veterans ‘sir.’”

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