Authors: Robert Buettner
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #Adventure, #Science Fiction - Adventure, #Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Space warfare, #Wander; Jason (Fictitious character)
Meet the Author
A Preview of “Orphan’s Triumph”
The Firewitch bore down on me, so close now that I could see crusty lumps
in its array arms.
I stared into the big purple eye, waited for the train wreck, and said, “Crap!”
The eye flashed yellow. Then it burst like a brittle balloon. Then the Firewitch exploded silently into pieces that tumbled in all directions, not least toward me. A metal triangle bigger than a piano pounded my gut, and I began to spin in another direction, twice as fast as I had been tumbling, so I couldn’t distinguish what I saw, except alternating dark and blinding brightness. I thought a voice said, “It’s over.”
Shadowy, curved pearly wings appeared around me, then slowly enfolded me. Then there was only darkness.
Praise for the Jason Wander Series:
“Defines twenty-first [century] military science fiction . . .”
—Midwest Book Review
“Strap yourself down for a seat-of-the-pants ride; this is a fast paced read that you will want to finish in one sitting.”
For Rob and Kim
Nearby Waterloo, I saw a Sergeant of Artillery seated upon his caisson, which the rains had mired in the road ditch. His eye had been shot out, and one of his men, whose leg was off, wept beside him. The Sergeant complained that Prussian cavalry had bypassed them. He said, with some heat, “Our own allies abandoned us like orphans!” I told him straight, “In this hell, better an orphans’ alliance than no alliance at all.”
—Remarks at the annual Waterloo Dinner of 1821, attributed to the Duke of Wellington ONE
“MOUSETRAP’S VISIBLE NOW, GENERAL.”My command sergeant major taps my armored shoulder, points through the
’s forward observation blister, and my heart skips. The two of us float shoulder-to-shoulder in infantry Eternads, like unhelmeted frogs in a gravityless fish bowl. Ord has been a jump ahead of me since he was my drill sergeant in Basic. With my gauntlet’s snot pad, I mop condensed breath off the observation blister’s Synquartz, and cold stings through tdenad,he glove. Fifty thousand frigid miles away spins Mousetrap. In two hours, on my orders, a hundred thousand kids plucked from fourteen worlds will arrive down there, innocent. None will leave innocent. Too many won’t leave at all.
The gray pebble Ord points to has just orbited out from a vast orange ball’s shadow. In the red sunlight that bathes the gas giant planet and its tiny moon, Mousetrap tumbles as small and as wrinkled as a peach pit.
Ord grunts. “The real estate hardly looks worth the price, does it, sir?”
“Location, location, location, Sergeant Major.” Mousetrap is the only habitable rock near the interstellar cross-road that linchpins the Human Union’s fourteen planets.
That’s why the Union fortified Mousetrap. That’s why the Slugs took it away from us. And that’s why we arrived here today to take Mousetrap back, or die trying. “We” are history’s deadliest armada, carrying history’s best army. My army.
I’m Jason Wander, war orphan, high-school dropout, Lieutenant General, Commanding, Third Army of the Human Union. And infantryman until the day I die. That day is now thirty years closer than when I enlisted at the start of the Slug War, in 2037.
Ord and I push back from the observation blister’s forward wall, to head aft to our troop transport. I glance at the Time-to-Drop Countdown winking off my wrist ’Puter. In two hours, Ord and I will be aboard a first-wave assault transport when compressed air thumps it out of one of
’s thirty-six launch bays. Kids embarked aboard
, and aboard the fleet’s other ships, will go with us.
Ord sighs. “A hundred thousand GIs don’t buy what they used to, General.”
’s vast hull shudders, tumbling Ord and me against the observation blister’s cold curve.
A thousand feet aft from our perch here at
’s bow, thirty-six launch bay hatches reseal as one.
A tin voice from the Bridge crackles in my earpiece. “All elements away.”
I turn to Ord, wide eyed. “What the hell, Sergeant Major?”
Ord turns his palms up, shakes his head.
Through ebony space, thirty-six sparks flash past us, from the bays that ring
’s midriff. In a blink, they disperse toward Mousetrap, leaving behind thirty-six silent, red streaks of drifting chemical flame.
For one heartbeat,
forms the hub that anchors those thirty-six fading, translucent wheel spokes. It is as though we spin at the center of a mute, exploding firework. To our port, starboard, dorsal and ventral, identical fireworks blossom, gold, green, blue, purple, as the Fleet’s other cruisers launch their own craft, each ship trailing its mothership’s tracer color. I blink at the vanished silhouettes. The Army I command wasn’t scheduled to launch for Mousetrap for twsizsetrap o hours. We expect that we will take lumps by landing with no aerial prep. And more lumps when we start digging the Slugs out of Mousetrap, one hole at a time. But landing without prep is the only way we can avoid killing the human POWs that the Slugs hold on Mousetrap. But what I just saw fly by weren’t chunky troop transports. They were sleek Scorpions, their bomb racks packed with liquid fire. The ships that made that fireworks display weren’t just an aerial prep force. The formations I just saw were powerful enough to incinerate every living thing on Mousetrap, Slug and human alike, three times over.
Before Ord and I paddled up to this observation blister for a final, weightless look at our objective, I inspected every launch bay myself. One of our troop transports filled every bay. But one order from the Bridge could rotate troop transports out of the bays in fifteen minutes, like cartridges in old-fashioned revolvers, and replace them with bombers.
I’m already torpedoing my weightless body hand-over-hand down the rungs that line the cruiser’s center tube, back toward the Cruiser’s Bridge. “If those bombers fry Mousetrap, our POWs die.” Mousetrap’s POWs are simple grunts, mostly, and that swells my throat even more. But Army commanders are supposed to consider the Big Picture, as well as their kids. I shake my head at Ord. “The Outworlds already oppose this war. If this fleet kills Outworld POWs, the Union’s dead. If the Union dies, the Slugs will wipe mankind out. Did Mimi lose her mind?”
Ord paddles up alongside me, so fast that the slipstream seems to flatten the gray GI brush he calls hair. He shakes his head. “Admiral Ozawa wouldn’t launch bombers, sir. She wouldn’t even consider it without consulting you, first. But there is a ranking civilian authority aboard this ship. If he ordered her to do it, she couldn’t—”
The two of us tuck our legs, then swing into the first side tube like trapeze artists. Then we ’frog along toward the Bridge, gaining weight as we move away from the rotating Cruiser’s centerline.
“I know. But I warned them, Sergeant Major. That Alliance was a deal with the devil.” Lieutenant Generals don’t have tempers, especially while commanding invasions. But Ord and I are alone in the passage tube, and I’m angry enough that I could punch my fist against the tube’s wall until my knuckles bleed.
Not because our allies are cruel and stupid. Thirty years of war have taught me how to beat cruelty and stupidity. I pound out my frustration because my godson has become one of them. Worse, I know my godson is the only officer in this fleet who could be leading those bombers. Ord closes two hands over my clenched fist. “Sir, Churchill said if Hitler invaded hell, Churchill would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
I know the quote. I talked myself into believing Churchill had the right attitude, so I could smile while diplomats pattered their white-gloved hands together, applauding a deal that I should have known would bring us to this. An infantryman’s life is talking himself into things that may kill him, or kill others.
A side-tube pressure valve releases, like a rifle shot, and="0fle sho my heart skips. Just like it skipped four years ago, when this mess started.
I flinched, though my head was already a foot below the trench lip as the rifle round screamed yards above us. My mouth went dry. The bullet didn’t care that I was a non-combatant observing someone else’s war. It didn’t care that my Pentagon desk was light-years away from Tressel. It most certainly didn’t care that I had already paid my dues as an infantry grunt. But if the bullet knew what its side was in for tomorrow at dawn, it would’ve kept right on going, out of this theater of operations. I tripped on a trench floor board, and splashed muddy water over my boots and Plasteel-armored knees.
Alongside me, Brigadier Audace Planck didn’t even blink at the tall shot, just rolled his iron-colored eyes beneath prematurely gray brows. “That’s one Iridian round that won’t hurt anyone.”
His shoulders filled the simplified cloth uniform of an army too long at war, while mine hid under Plasteel plates that his planet’s armorers wouldn’t dream of for a century. “Stay on your feet, Jason. Snipers can’t touch us. But that water might kill you.”
The Tressel Barrens’ water contained plenty to kill a man, even before three years of trench warfare. Tetras, a mixed bag of flat-headed, blubbery reptiles and amphibians bigger than swamp rats and dumber than frogs, populated the Barrens. The tetras’ intestinal bacteria, introduced into the brown soup of the great swamp by the usual means, spawned virulent dysentery in humans. However, tetra crap didn’t bother the crocodile-sized, aquatic scorpions that patrolled the mangroves, feasting on tetras as they sunned themselves on rotted logs.
The Barrens were a hundred thousand square miles of brackish coastal swamp that had mired the Tressen army when its General Staff tried to maneuver fifty divisions through the Barrens, to outflank the fortification the Iridians called the West Wall. Tressen and Iridian motorized vehicles could barely negotiate the Barrens, bogging down worse than 1900s French caissons and German trucks bogged in the mud of Flanders, a century earlier and light years away.
Now a million stalemated human infantry faced one another, in trenches separated by a hundred yards of shrapnel-scoured mud. The trenches zig-zagged from the north end of the West Wall to the sea, wherever the spongy ground was solid enough for GIs to dig.
Tetras didn’t sun often in the Barrens. The dug-in GIs couldn’t bail their holes fast enough to keep the daily rains from washing dysenteric slime, their own feces, and the occasional monster scorpion, back into the trenches that sheltered the troops from shrapnel and bullets. Planck and I pressed ourselves back against the trench wall as a pasty-faced squad, heads down and rifles slung muzzles-down against the rain, limped toward us in sodden boots. My armor probably puzzled them, but when they glanced up and saw Planck, every kid straightened, bug-eyed, and saluted.
One kid smiled, another waved Planck a weary thumbs up. hey„Planck smiled back, patted each kid on the shoulder as they passed.
I chinned up my audio gain so I could hear them whisper to one another once they got a few yards down the trench.
“Did you see? That was Quicksilver, himself!”
In the war’s early days, Audace Planck’s Raiders had slipped around and through larger forces like mercury rolling on glass. The silver-haired young officer, whose given name meant “the daring one,” was every Field Marshal’s darling because he leapt where they wouldn’t dare. He was every mudfoot’s hero because he stepped alongside them, where they had to. Even to his enemies, “Quicksilver” was as legendary for his grace in victory as for his mercurial brilliance.
“No. Quicksilver in the mud at the front?”
“My brother was a Raider. He said, ‘Where you find Planck, there you find the front.’ ”
Another kid asked, “What was that with Quicksilver, in the crab shell armor?”
“They’re real, then?”
Their voices died as the trench zagged them out of sight.
In the seconds while I eavesdropped, Planck had hopped up on the firing step carved into the trench’s forward wall, rested his elbows on the lip sandbags, and raised brass field glasses to his eyes. “Let’s see whether the Iridians will be as surprised to see us as those boys were.”
I mounted the firing step alongside Planck, and wide angled my optics to view the shell-pocked, mined, and concertina-wired mud strip between the trench lines.
Nothing stirred but dirty orange tape, twisting in the wind atop aiming stakes driven crooked into the mud.
Gunners didn’t really need the stakes. When either side sent kids over the top, targets were too numerous to miss. And afterward, when the survivors on both sides crept out to retrieve the dead, the gunners held fire. Not from altruism. Bloating corpses attracted scavengers, polluted the water worse, and stank.