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By Robert Buettner
Warner FaithCopyright © 2004 Robert Buettner
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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!"
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.
Excerpted from Orphanage by Robert Buettner Copyright © 2004 by Robert Buettner. Excerpted by permission.
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