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Exultant (Destiny's Children Series #2) [NOOK Book]

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When it comes to cutting-edge science fiction, Stephen Baxter is in a league of his own. His mastery of hard science, his fearlessly speculative imagination, and his ability to combine grand philosophical questions with tales of rousing adventure make him essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of humankind. Now, in Exultant, ...
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Exultant (Destiny's Children Series #2)

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Overview

When it comes to cutting-edge science fiction, Stephen Baxter is in a league of his own. His mastery of hard science, his fearlessly speculative imagination, and his ability to combine grand philosophical questions with tales of rousing adventure make him essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of humankind. Now, in Exultant, Baxter takes us to a distant future of dazzling promise and deadly threat, in which a far-flung humanity battles for survival against an implacable alien foe.

Destiny’s Children
EXULTANT


For more than twenty thousand years, humans have been at war with the alien race of Xeelee. It is a war fought with armaments so advanced as to be godlike, a war in which time itself has become an ever-shifting battleground. At the cost of billions of lives, and with ruthless and relentless efficiency, the ruling Coalition has pushed the Xeelee back to the galactic core, where the supermassive black hole known as Chandra serves the Xeelee as both fortress and power source.

There, along a front millions of light-years long, a grisly stalemate reigns,
until a young pilot, Pirius, faced with certain death, disobeys orders and employs an innovative time-travel maneuver that, for the first time in the history of the war, results in the capture of a Xeelee fighter. But far from being hailed as a hero when he returns to base with his prize, Pirius is court-martialed, disgraced, and sentenced to penal servitude on a bleak asteroid.

It is not only Pirius who pays the price. In flying into the future and back again, Pirius returned to a time before he’d left, a time inhabited by his younger self. And that younger self, by the pitiless logic of Coalition justice, shares the older Pirius guilt and must be punished. Not everyone in the Coalition agrees. Commissary Nilis believes that the elder Pirius, whom he dubs Pirius Blue, may have found a way to defeat the Xeelee. But Nilis can do nothing for Pirius Blue. Instead, he takes charge of the younger Pirius (Pirius Red), and brings him back to Earth, the capital of a vast empire seething with intrigue.

There Pirius Red will discover truths that will shatter his preconceived notions of all that he is fighting for, even of what it means to be human. Pirius Blue, meanwhile, will learn truths harsher and more discomfiting still. Yet the most shocking revelation of all is still to come, waiting for them at a place called Chandra. . . .


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
From Stephen Baxter, author of consciousness-raising hard science fiction epics like Evolution, The Light of Other Days (co-written with Arthur C. Clarke), and the Manifold trilogy (Manifold Time, Manifold Space, and Manifold Origin), comes a disturbing look at a decidedly inhuman humankind 25,000 years in the future.

As the story begins, humankind is deadlocked in a war for control of the galaxy that has dragged on for thousands of years. The enemy, the utterly alien Xeelee, have been driven back to a massive black hole at the galaxy's core. But after countless generations of bloodshed, human ideologies have become static and unchanging. Selective breeding programs have created endless generations of child soldiers who are "hatched," indoctrinated, trained, and sent off to be killed by the millions. But when a pilot named Pirius -- disobeying orders -- captures an alien spaceship, victory may finally be at hand.

It's not surprising that since Baxter burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, he has been called the next coming of Arthur C. Clarke. As Clarke reinvigorated -- and in a sense, redefined -- hard science fiction in the 1970s with internationally bestselling works like Rendezvous with Rama, Imperial Earth, and The Fountains of Paradise, so has Baxter expanded the boundaries of the genre in the 21st century with wildly speculative epics like Coalescent and Exultant. Baxter's singular brilliance comes in his ability to make a story based on complex scientific theories -- quantum psychics, in particular -- both readable and compelling. Exultant is one of those rare and powerful books that will forever change the way readers look at the world. Simply put: mind-blowing. Paul Goat Allen

Publishers Weekly
Military SF fans will relish the second entry in Baxter's Destiny's Children trilogy, set long after the events recounted in 2003's Coalescent. When navy pilot Pirius and his crew violate protocol during a skirmish with the alien Xeelee and end up capturing a ship from "mankind's most ancient and most powerful foe," instead of accolades, two versions of Pirius-Pirius Red and Pirius Blue, from different time lanes-receive punishment. Pirius Red accompanies the eccentric Nilis (we know he's odd because he never wears shoes) to the Earth system to research the captured ship and concoct a way to end the war, while Pirius Blue is sent in disgrace to the Xeelee front for army combat training. As Pirius Red explores the solar system, picking up clues to create a strategy to defeat the Xeelee by striking at their home system, Pirius Blue narrowly escapes death in combat and grows into a leader. Both come to question the doctrines that guide their lives as they realize the extent of their military conditioning. Weak characterization mars an otherwise well-told story as fast-paced action sequences flip to long, dry discussions about physics. Not content with one drop-dead hard-science idea, Baxter concatenates them, one building on the other; even his aliens represent ideas. Female readers may wish the author would take some lessons on portraying romance from Sharon Shinn. Agent, Ralph Vicinanza. (Dec.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In humankind's Third Expansion, the species has spread throughout the galaxy and assimilated all challengers but the mysterious Xeelee; in a 20,000-year stalemate, humans have kept them at bay in the galaxy's center. Time travel (used by both sides to gather intelligence) creates numerous "drafts" of time lines, but apart from this uncertainty the endless war has brought about a strangely static human society. Soldiers and pilots are bred in vats near the Front and taught only war; few survive past their teens. When Prius, a young pilot, captures a Xeelee ship and takes it to the recent past for study, an innovative program is begun to develop new weapons technology. While Prius Blue (the pilot from the future time line, now stuck in this one) is sent to the Front, the younger Prius Red (from this time line) must travel throughout the solar system with an eccentric but brilliant scientist in a quest for knowledge needed for the anti-Xeelee weapon. Working with widely differing elements of society, Red learns many secrets he'd rather not know, adjusts to new knowledge, and grows into a leadership role: he heads up Exultant, the elite squadron tasked with deploying the new weapon. Even in a genre characterized by unfettered imagination, Baxter's future universe is extraordinary in its depth, breadth, and richness of invention. Cutting-edge physics, subtle humor, time-travel paradoxes, and loopy twists combine to give readers a wonderfully original sci-fi experience. It can be read independently of Coalescent (Ballantine, 2004), which is set in the same universe but mostly in the present age.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The good news is that somebody figured out how to stop a millennia-long human-alien conflict. The bad news is they might destroy the universe doing it. In each installment in his Destiny's Children series, Baxter (Coalescent, 2003, etc.) assigns a different possible future for the human race, and this time the outlook is bleak. Thousands of years in the future, mankind has spread far into the galaxy, overrunning and exterminating the occasional alien race along the way, only to run up against the fearsome Xeelee. In a sort of never-ending intergalactic trench warfare, mankind has been shoveling an endless stream of manpower and materiel against the Xeelee, holding them to their fortified part of the galaxy but unable to achieve victory. Pirius is a 19-year-old pilot born on a remote base who gets tossed in destiny's way when, after barely surviving a horrendous battle, he does the unthinkable by capturing a Xeelee nightfighter. The technology contained by the alien vessel-which appears to be made out of the fabric of a collapsing star-provides the impetus for a far-out strategy that, with Pirius's help, could take the war to the Xeelee's home base, the massive black hole of Chandra. Complications ensue in the form of bureaucratic pushback from military and government types who've been fighting this war for so long they can't conceive of doing something to end it, and from the fact that destroying Chandra could decimate all of known reality as well. Baxter has an uncanny gift for mixing a punchy, cyberpunk cynicism with his resolutely hard SF story base-loopy paradoxes of faster-than-light travel, for example, result in two versions of Pirius meeting each other-in a manner that places himamong the greats of the field. And his trim prose keeps the drama on a human scale even as he bounds across the galaxy from one perspective-walloping set piece to another. Rivals Asimov in its boundless vision for the future evolution of humanity. Agent: Ralph Vicinanza/Ralph Vicinanza Ltd.
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR STEPHEN BAXTER

Coalescent
“BAXTER IS AT THE TOP OF HIS FORM HERE: formally audacious, constantly surprising, clinically subversive of genre norms, cosmic irony always at hand to awe and undercut the reader.”
Locus

Evolution
“GRIPPING . . . The perfect scientific romance of our time . . . The miracle of Evolution is that it makes the triumph of life, which is its story, sound like the real story.”
The Washington Post Book World

EVOLUTION IS A WORK OF OUTRAGEOUS AMBITION. . . . What is astonishing is how successfully he brings to life a wide range of facts and conjectures, and how entertaining as well as informative this book–an episodic novel with evolution as its protagonist–manages to be.”
The New York Times Book Review

Manifold: Time
“A STAGGERING NOVEL! If you ever thought you understood time, you’ll be quickly disillusioned when you read Manifold: Time.”
SIR ARTHUR C. CLARKE

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345457905
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2004
  • Series: Destiny's Children Series , #2
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 219,807
  • File size: 557 KB

Meet the Author

Stephen Baxter is a trained engineer with degrees from Cambridge (mathematics) and Southampton (doctorate in aeroengineering research) universities. Baxter is the winner of both The British Science Fiction Award and the Locus Award, and has been a nominee for an Arthur C. Clarke Award, most recently for Manifold: Time. He also won the John W. Campbell Award and the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel The Time Ships. He is the co-author (with Arthur C. Clarke) of Time’s Eye.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Far ahead, bathed in the light of the Galaxy’s center, the nightfighters were rising.

From his station, Pirius could see their black forms peeling off the walls of their Sugar Lump carriers. They spread graceful wings, so black they looked as if they had been cut out of the glowing background of the Core. Some of them were kilometers across. They were Xeelee nightfighters, but nobody in Strike Arm called them anything but flies.

They converged on the lead human ships, and Pirius saw cherry-red light flaring.

His fragile greenship hovered over the textured ground of a Rock. The Rock was an asteroid, a dozen kilometers across, charcoal gray. Trenches had been dug all over its surface, interconnecting and intersecting, so that the Rock looked like an exposed brain. Sparks of light crawled through those complex lines: soldiers, infantry, endlessly digging, digging, digging, preparing for their own collisions with destiny. It was a good hour yet before this Rock and Pirius’s own greenship would reach the battlefield, but already men and women were fighting and dying.

There was nothing to do but watch, and brood. There wasn’t even a sense of motion. Under the Assimilator’s Claw’s pulsing sublight drive it was as if he were floating, here in the crowded heart of the Galaxy. Pirius worried about the effect of the wait on his crew.

Pirius was nineteen years old.

He was deep in the Mass, as pilots called it—the Central Star Mass, officially, a jungle of millions of stars crammed into a ball just thirty light-years across, a core within the Core. Before him a veil of stars hung before a background of turbulent, glowing gas; he could see filaments and wisps light-years long, drawn out by the Galaxy’s magnetic field. This stellar turmoil bubbled and boiled on scales of space and time beyond the human, as if he had been caught at the center of a frozen explosion. The sky was bright, crowded with stars and clouds, not a trace of darkness anywhere.

And through the stars he made out the Cavity, a central bubble blown clear of gas by astrophysical violence, and within that the Baby Spiral, a swirl of stars and molecular clouds, like a toy version of the Galaxy itself embedded fractally in the greater disc. That was the center of the Galaxy, a place of layered astrophysical machinery. And it was all driven by Chandra, the brooding black hole at the Galaxy’s very heart.

This crowded immensity would have stunned a native of Earth—but Earth, with its patient, long-lived sun, out in the orderly stellar factory of the spiral arms, was twenty-eight thousand light-years from here. But Pirius had grown up with such visions. He was the product of a hundred generations grown in the birthing tanks of Arches Base, formally known as Base 2594, just a few light-years outside the Mass. He was human, though, with human instincts. And as he peered out at the stretching three-dimensional complexity around him he gripped the scuffed material of his seat, as if he might fall.

Everywhere Pirius looked, across this astrophysical diorama, he saw signs of war.

Pirius’s ship was one of a hundred green sparks, ten whole squadrons, assigned to escort this single Rock alone. When Pirius looked up he could see more Rocks, a whole stream of them hurled in from the giant human bases that had been established around the Mass. Each of them was accompanied by its own swarm of greenships. Upstream and down, the chain of Rocks receded until kilometers-wide worldlets were reduced to pebbles lost in the glare. Hundreds of Rocks, thousands perhaps, had been committed to this one assault. It was a titanic sight, a mighty projection of human power.

But all this was dwarfed by the enemy. The Rock stream was directed at a fleet of Sugar Lumps, as those Xeelee craft were called, immense cubical ships that were themselves hundreds of kilometers across—some even bigger, some like boxes that could wrap up a whole world.

The tactic was crude. The Rocks were simply hosed in toward the Sugar Lumps, their defenders striving to protect them long enough for them to get close to the Lumps, whereupon their mighty monopole cannons would be deployed. If all went well, damage would be inflicted on the Xeelee, and the Rocks would slingshot around a suitable stellar mass and be hurled back out to the periphery, to be reequipped, remanned, and prepared for another onslaught. If all did not go well—in that case, duty would have been done.

As the Claw relentlessly approached the zone of flaring action, one ship dipped out of formation, swooping down over the Rock in a series of barrel rolls. That must be Dans, one of Pirius’s cadre siblings. Pirius had flown with her twice before, and each time she had shown off, demonstrating to the toiling ground troops the effortless superiority of Strike Arm, and of the Arches squadrons in particular—and in the process lifting everybody’s spirits.

But it was a tiny human gesture lost in a monumental panorama.

Pirius could see his crew, in their own blisters: his navigator Cohl, a slim woman of eighteen, and his engineer, Enduring Hope, a calm, bulky young man who looked older than his years, just seventeen. While Cohl and Hope were both rookies, nineteen-year-old Pirius was a comparative veteran. Among greenship crews, the mean survival rate was one point seven missions. This was Pirius’s fifth mission. He was growing a reputation as a lucky pilot, a man whose crew you wanted to be on.

“Hey,” he called now. “I know how you’re feeling. They always say this is the worst part of combat, the ninety-nine percent of it that’s just waiting around, the sheer bloody boredom. I should know.”

Enduring Hope looked across and waved. “And if I want to throw up, lift the visor first. That’s the drill, isn’t it?”

Pirius forced a laugh. Not a good joke, but a joke.

Enduring Hope: defying all sorts of rules, the engineer called himself not by his properly assigned name, a random sequence of letters and syllables, but an ideological slogan. He was a Friend, as he styled it, a member of a thoroughly illegal sect that flourished in the darker corners of Arches Base, and, it was said, right across the Front, the great sphere of conflict that surrounded the Galaxy’s heart. Illegal or not, right now, as the flies rose up and people started visibly to die, Hope’s faith seemed to be comforting him.

But navigator Cohl, staring ahead at the combat zone, was closed in on herself.

The Claw was a greenship, a simple design that was the workhorse of Strike Arm; millions like it were in action all around the war zone. Its main body was a bulbous pod containing most of the ship’s systems: the weapons banks, the FTL drive and two sublight drive systems. From the front of the hull projected three spars, giving the ship the look of a three-pronged claw, and at the tip of each prong was a blister, a clear bubble, containing one of the Claw’s three crew. For greenship crews, nobody else mattered but each other; it was just three of them lost in a dangerous sky—Three Against the Foe, as Strike Arm’s motto went.

Pirius knew there were good reasons for the trifurcated design of the greenship. It was all to do with redundancy: the ship could lose two of its three blisters and still, in theory anyhow, fulfill its goals. But right now Pirius longed to be able to reach through these transparent walls, to touch his crewmates.

He said, “Navigator? You still with us?”

He saw Cohl glance across at him. “Trajectory’s nominal, Pilot.”

“I wasn’t asking about the trajectory.”

Cohl shrugged, as if resentfully. “What do you want me to say?”

“You saw all this in the briefing. You knew it was coming.”

It was true. The whole operation had been previewed for them by the Commissaries, in full Virtual detail, down to the timetabled second. It wasn’t a prediction, not just a guess, but foreknowledge: a forecast based on data that had actually leaked from the future. The officers hoped to deaden fear by making the events of the engagement familiar before it happened. But not everybody took comfort from the notion of a predetermined destiny.

Cohl was staring out through her blister wall, her lips drawn back in a cold, humorless smile. “I feel like I’m in a dream,” she murmured. “A waking dream.”

“It isn’t set in stone,” Pirius said. “The future.”

“But the Commissaries—”

“No Commissary ever set foot in a greenship—none of them is skinny enough. It isn’t real until it happens. And now is when it happens. It’s in our hands, Cohl. It’s in yours. I know you’ll do your duty.”

“And kick ass,” Enduring Hope shouted.

He saw Cohl grin at last. “Yes, sir!”

A green flash distracted Pirius. A ship was hurtling out of formation. One of its three struts was a stump, the blister missing. As it sailed by, Pirius recognized the gaudy, spruced-up tetrahedral sigil on its side. It was Dans’s ship.

He called, “Dans? What—”

“Predestination my ass,” Dans yelled on the ship-to-ship line. “Nobody saw that coming.”

“Saw what?”

“See for yourself.”

Pirius swept the crowded sky, letting Virtual feeds pour three-dimensional battlefield data into his head.

In the seconds he’d spent on his crew, everything had changed. The Xeelee hadn’t stayed restricted to their source Sugar Lumps. A swarm of them speared down from above his head, from out of nowhere, heading straight for Pirius’s Rock.

Pirius hadn’t seen it. Sloppy, Pirius. One mistake is enough to kill you.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Cohl said.

“Forget the projections,” Pirius snapped.

There were seconds left before the flies hit the Rock. He saw swarming activity in its runs and trenches. The poor souls down there knew what was coming, too. Pirius gripped his controls, and tried to ignore the beating of his heart.

Four, three, two.

The Xeelee—pronounced Zee-lee—were mankind’s most ancient and most powerful foe.

According to the scuttlebutt on Arches Base, in the training compounds and the vast open barracks, there were only three things you needed to know about the Xeelee.

First, their ships were better than ours. You only had to see a fly in action to realize that. Some said the Xeelee were their ships, which probably made them even tougher.

Second, they were smarter than us, and had a lot more resources. Xeelee operations were believed to be resourced and controlled from Chandra itself, the fat black hole at the Galaxy’s very center. In fact, military planners called Chandra, a supermassive black hole, the Prime Radiant of the Xeelee. How could anything we had compete with that?

And third, the Xeelee knew what we would do even before we decided ourselves.

This interstellar war was fought with faster-than-light technology, on both sides. But if you flew FTL you broke the bounds of causality: an FTL ship was a time machine. And so this was a time-travel war, in which information about the future constantly leaked into the past.

But the information was never perfect. And every now and again, one side or the other was able to spring a surprise. This new maneuver of the Xeelee had not been in the Commissaries’ careful projections.

Pirius felt his lips draw back in a fierce grin. The script had been abandoned. Today, everything really was up for grabs.

But now cherry-red light flared all around the Rock’s ragged horizon.

On the loops, orders chattered from the squadron leaders. “Hold your positions. This is a new tactic and we’re still trying to analyze it.” “Number eight, hold your place. Hold your place.”

Pirius gripped his controls so tight his fingers ached.

That red glare was spreading all around the Rock’s lumpy profile, a malevolent dawn. Most of the action was taking place on the far side of the Rock from his position—which was itself most unlike the Xeelee, who were usually apt to come swarming all over any Rock they attacked.

The Claw would be sheltered from the assault, for the first moments, anyhow. That meant Pirius was in the wrong place. He wasn’t here to hide, but to fight. But he had to hold his station, until ordered otherwise.

Pirius glimpsed a fly standing off from the target. It spread night-dark wings—said to be not material but flaws in the structure of space itself—and extended a cherry-red starbreaker beam. The clean geometry of these lethal lines had a certain cold beauty, Pirius thought, even though he knew what hell was being unleashed for those unlucky enough to be caught on the exposed surface of the Rock.

Now, though, the rectilinear perfection of the starbreaker beam was blurred, as a turbulent fog rose over the Rock’s horizon.

Cohl said, “What’s that mist? Air? Maybe the starbreakers are cutting through to the sealed caverns.”

“I don’t think so,” said Enduring Hope levelly. “That’s rock. A mist of molten rock. They are smashing the asteroid to gas.”

Molten rock, Pirius thought grimly, no doubt laced with traces of what had recently been complex organic compounds, thoroughly burned.

But still, for all the devastation they were wreaking, the Xeelee weren’t coming around the horizon. They were focusing all their firepower on one side of the Rock.

Still Pirius waited for orders, but the tactical analysis took too long. Suddenly, human ships came fleeing around the curve of the Rock, sparks of Earth green bright against the dull gray of the asteroid ground. The formation had collapsed, then, despite the squadron leaders’ continuing bellowed commands. And down on the Rock those little flecks of light, each a human being trapped in lethal fire, swarmed and scattered, fanning out of the trench system and over the open ground. Even from here, it looked like panic, a rout.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Far ahead, bathed in the light of the Galaxy's center, the nightfighters were rising.

From his station, Pirius could see their black forms peeling off the walls of their Sugar Lump carriers. They spread graceful wings, so black they looked as if they had been cut out of the glowing background of the Core. Some of them were kilometers across. They were Xeelee nightfighters, but nobody in Strike Arm called them anything but flies.

They converged on the lead human ships, and Pirius saw cherry-red light flaring.

His fragile greenship hovered over the textured ground of a Rock. The Rock was an asteroid, a dozen kilometers across, charcoal gray. Trenches had been dug all over its surface, interconnecting and intersecting, so that the Rock looked like an exposed brain. Sparks of light crawled through those complex lines: soldiers, infantry, endlessly digging, digging, digging, preparing for their own collisions with destiny. It was a good hour yet before this Rock and Pirius's own greenship would reach the battlefield, but already men and women were fighting and dying.

There was nothing to do but watch, and brood. There wasn't even a sense of motion. Under the Assimilator's Claw's pulsing sublight drive it was as if he were floating, here in the crowded heart of the Galaxy. Pirius worried about the effect of the wait on his crew.

Pirius was nineteen years old.

He was deep in the Mass, as pilots called it—the Central Star Mass, officially, a jungle of millions of stars crammed into a ball just thirty light-years across, a core within the Core. Before him a veil of stars hung before a background of turbulent, glowing gas; he couldsee filaments and wisps light-years long, drawn out by the Galaxy's magnetic field. This stellar turmoil bubbled and boiled on scales of space and time beyond the human, as if he had been caught at the center of a frozen explosion. The sky was bright, crowded with stars and clouds, not a trace of darkness anywhere.

And through the stars he made out the Cavity, a central bubble blown clear of gas by astrophysical violence, and within that the Baby Spiral, a swirl of stars and molecular clouds, like a toy version of the Galaxy itself embedded fractally in the greater disc. That was the center of the Galaxy, a place of layered astrophysical machinery. And it was all driven by Chandra, the brooding black hole at the Galaxy's very heart.

This crowded immensity would have stunned a native of Earth—but Earth, with its patient, long-lived sun, out in the orderly stellar factory of the spiral arms, was twenty-eight thousand light-years from here. But Pirius had grown up with such visions. He was the product of a hundred generations grown in the birthing tanks of Arches Base, formally known as Base 2594, just a few light-years outside the Mass. He was human, though, with human instincts. And as he peered out at the stretching three-dimensional complexity around him he gripped the scuffed material of his seat, as if he might fall.

Everywhere Pirius looked, across this astrophysical diorama, he saw signs of war.

Pirius's ship was one of a hundred green sparks, ten whole squadrons, assigned to escort this single Rock alone. When Pirius looked up he could see more Rocks, a whole stream of them hurled in from the giant human bases that had been established around the Mass. Each of them was accompanied by its own swarm of greenships. Upstream and down, the chain of Rocks receded until kilometers-wide worldlets were reduced to pebbles lost in the glare. Hundreds of Rocks, thousands perhaps, had been committed to this one assault. It was a titanic sight, a mighty projection of human power.

But all this was dwarfed by the enemy. The Rock stream was directed at a fleet of Sugar Lumps, as those Xeelee craft were called, immense cubical ships that were themselves hundreds of kilometers across—some even bigger, some like boxes that could wrap up a whole world.

The tactic was crude. The Rocks were simply hosed in toward the Sugar Lumps, their defenders striving to protect them long enough for them to get close to the Lumps, whereupon their mighty monopole cannons would be deployed. If all went well, damage would be inflicted on the Xeelee, and the Rocks would slingshot around a suitable stellar mass and be hurled back out to the periphery, to be reequipped, remanned, and prepared for another onslaught. If all did not go well—in that case, duty would have been done.

As the Claw relentlessly approached the zone of flaring action, one ship dipped out of formation, swooping down over the Rock in a series of barrel rolls. That must be Dans, one of Pirius's cadre siblings. Pirius had flown with her twice before, and each time she had shown off, demonstrating to the toiling ground troops the effortless superiority of Strike Arm, and of the Arches squadrons in particular—and in the process lifting everybody's spirits.

But it was a tiny human gesture lost in a monumental panorama.

Pirius could see his crew, in their own blisters: his navigator Cohl, a slim woman of eighteen, and his engineer, Enduring Hope, a calm, bulky young man who looked older than his years, just seventeen. While Cohl and Hope were both rookies, nineteen-year-old Pirius was a comparative veteran. Among greenship crews, the mean survival rate was one point seven missions. This was Pirius's fifth mission. He was growing a reputation as a lucky pilot, a man whose crew you wanted to be on.

"Hey," he called now. "I know how you're feeling. They always say this is the worst part of combat, the ninety-nine percent of it that's just waiting around, the sheer bloody boredom. I should know."

Enduring Hope looked across and waved. "And if I want to throw up, lift the visor first. That's the drill, isn't it?"

Pirius forced a laugh. Not a good joke, but a joke.

Enduring Hope: defying all sorts of rules, the engineer called himself not by his properly assigned name, a random sequence of letters and syllables, but an ideological slogan. He was a Friend, as he styled it, a member of a thoroughly illegal sect that flourished in the darker corners of Arches Base, and, it was said, right across the Front, the great sphere of conflict that surrounded the Galaxy's heart. Illegal or not, right now, as the flies rose up and people started visibly to die, Hope's faith seemed to be comforting him.

But navigator Cohl, staring ahead at the combat zone, was closed in on herself.

The Claw was a greenship, a simple design that was the workhorse of Strike Arm; millions like it were in action all around the war zone. Its main body was a bulbous pod containing most of the ship's systems: the weapons banks, the FTL drive and two sublight drive systems. From the front of the hull projected three spars, giving the ship the look of a three-pronged claw, and at the tip of each prong was a blister, a clear bubble, containing one of the Claw's three crew. For greenship crews, nobody else mattered but each other; it was just three of them lost in a dangerous sky—Three Against the Foe, as Strike Arm's motto went.

Pirius knew there were good reasons for the trifurcated design of the greenship. It was all to do with redundancy: the ship could lose two of its three blisters and still, in theory anyhow, fulfill its goals. But right now Pirius longed to be able to reach through these transparent walls, to touch his crewmates.

He said, "Navigator? You still with us?"

He saw Cohl glance across at him. "Trajectory's nominal, Pilot."

"I wasn't asking about the trajectory."

Cohl shrugged, as if resentfully. "What do you want me to say?"

"You saw all this in the briefing. You knew it was coming."

It was true. The whole operation had been previewed for them by the Commissaries, in full Virtual detail, down to the timetabled second. It wasn't a prediction, not just a guess, but foreknowledge: a forecast based on data that had actually leaked from the future. The officers hoped to deaden fear by making the events of the engagement familiar before it happened. But not everybody took comfort from the notion of a predetermined destiny.

Cohl was staring out through her blister wall, her lips drawn back in a cold, humorless smile. "I feel like I'm in a dream," she murmured. "A waking dream."

"It isn't set in stone," Pirius said. "The future."

"But the Commissaries—"

"No Commissary ever set foot in a greenship—none of them is skinny enough. It isn't real until it happens. And now is when it happens. It's in our hands, Cohl. It's in yours. I know you'll do your duty."

"And kick ass," Enduring Hope shouted.

He saw Cohl grin at last. "Yes, sir!"

A green flash distracted Pirius. A ship was hurtling out of formation. One of its three struts was a stump, the blister missing. As it sailed by, Pirius recognized the gaudy, spruced-up tetrahedral sigil on its side. It was Dans's ship.

He called, "Dans? What—"

"Predestination my ass," Dans yelled on the ship-to-ship line. "Nobody saw that coming."

"Saw what?"

"See for yourself."

Pirius swept the crowded sky, letting Virtual feeds pour three-dimensional battlefield data into his head.

In the seconds he'd spent on his crew, everything had changed. The Xeelee hadn't stayed restricted to their source Sugar Lumps. A swarm of them speared down from above his head, from out of nowhere, heading straight for Pirius's Rock.

Pirius hadn't seen it. Sloppy, Pirius. One mistake is enough to kill you.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Cohl said.

"Forget the projections," Pirius snapped.

There were seconds left before the flies hit the Rock. He saw swarming activity in its runs and trenches. The poor souls down there knew what was coming, too. Pirius gripped his controls, and tried to ignore the beating of his heart.

Four, three, two.

The Xeelee—pronounced Zee-lee—were mankind's most ancient and most powerful foe.

According to the scuttlebutt on Arches Base, in the training compounds and the vast open barracks, there were only three things you needed to know about the Xeelee.

First, their ships were better than ours. You only had to see a fly in action to realize that. Some said the Xeelee were their ships, which probably made them even tougher.

Second, they were smarter than us, and had a lot more resources. Xeelee operations were believed to be resourced and controlled from Chandra itself, the fat black hole at the Galaxy's very center. In fact, military planners called Chandra, a supermassive black hole, the Prime Radiant of the Xeelee. How could anything we had compete with that?

And third, the Xeelee knew what we would do even before we decided ourselves.

This interstellar war was fought with faster-than-light technology, on both sides. But if you flew FTL you broke the bounds of causality: an FTL ship was a time machine. And so this was a time-travel war, in which information about the future constantly leaked into the past.

But the information was never perfect. And every now and again, one side or the other was able to spring a surprise. This new maneuver of the Xeelee had not been in the Commissaries' careful projections.

Pirius felt his lips draw back in a fierce grin. The script had been abandoned. Today, everything really was up for grabs.

But now cherry-red light flared all around the Rock's ragged horizon.

On the loops, orders chattered from the squadron leaders. "Hold your positions. This is a new tactic and we're still trying to analyze it." "Number eight, hold your place. Hold your place."

Pirius gripped his controls so tight his fingers ached.

That red glare was spreading all around the Rock's lumpy profile, a malevolent dawn. Most of the action was taking place on the far side of the Rock from his position—which was itself most unlike the Xeelee, who were usually apt to come swarming all over any Rock they attacked.

The Claw would be sheltered from the assault, for the first moments, anyhow. That meant Pirius was in the wrong place. He wasn't here to hide, but to fight. But he had to hold his station, until ordered otherwise.

Pirius glimpsed a fly standing off from the target. It spread night-dark wings—said to be not material but flaws in the structure of space itself—and extended a cherry-red starbreaker beam. The clean geometry of these lethal lines had a certain cold beauty, Pirius thought, even though he knew what hell was being unleashed for those unlucky enough to be caught on the exposed surface of the Rock.

Now, though, the rectilinear perfection of the starbreaker beam was blurred, as a turbulent fog rose over the Rock's horizon.

Cohl said, "What's that mist? Air? Maybe the starbreakers are cutting through to the sealed caverns."

"I don't think so," said Enduring Hope levelly. "That's rock. A mist of molten rock. They are smashing the asteroid to gas."

Molten rock, Pirius thought grimly, no doubt laced with traces of what had recently been complex organic compounds, thoroughly burned.

But still, for all the devastation they were wreaking, the Xeelee weren't coming around the horizon. They were focusing all their firepower on one side of the Rock.

Still Pirius waited for orders, but the tactical analysis took too long. Suddenly, human ships came fleeing around the curve of the Rock, sparks of Earth green bright against the dull gray of the asteroid ground. The formation had collapsed, then, despite the squadron leaders' continuing bellowed commands. And down on the Rock those little flecks of light, each a human being trapped in lethal fire, swarmed and scattered, fanning out of the trench system and over the open ground. Even from here, it looked like panic, a rout.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2005

    Baxter's 'Exultant' continues fascinating story of mankind's struggle against the Xeelee

    Like me, I hope you have discovered a long time ago that when it comes to hard sci-fi and speculative fiction, Stephen Baxter ranks among the best. His previous novels dealing with the omnipresent, utterly alien Xeelee were fantastic glimpses into a far future where mankind battles for it's very survival. Baxter's writing style and characters, as well as his imaginative scientific concepts and ideas, make for thoroughly enjoyable reading and 'Exultant' is no exception. As the 2nd book in the 'Destiny's Children' series, Exultant tells the story of a distant future where humanity's war with the dreaded Xeelee, lasting thousands of years, has resulted in a stalemate at the center of the galaxy. The book also tells the story of a pilot named Pirius, who, by disobeying orders and initiating time travel during a battle, not only captures a Xeelee 'nightfighter' space craft but also creates another Pirius by arriving in a not too disatnt past shared by his younger self. With the help of a kind and visionary bureaucrat from Earth, Commissary Nilis, a bold plan is hatched with Pirius Red (younger version) and Pirius Blue (older version)to finally defeat the Xeelee with new technological advances and a handpicked group of brave pilots known as Exultant Squadron. Exultant is a fast paced, exciting novel about space warfare on a grand scale. As with Baxter's related novella ' Riding the Rock', the action sequences in Exultant describe a futuristic battlefront that is literally mind-blowing in it's vastness and scope along with the energies involved and the unbelieveable cost in human lives and resources. Yet again mankind is locked in a death struggle with the Xeelee, alien masters of time and space that utilize technologies barely understood by the finest minds in a military effort that encompasses the entire human race. Baxter lets the readers' imagination run wild regarding the enigmatic Xeelee as he has yet to describe their physical appearance in any of his works. 'Exultant' lets the reader share in the astonishment of Nilis and Pirius Red as they explore and test the capabilities of the Xeelee nightfighter and the realization that perhaps this piece of captured technology may be used against the Xeelee themselves. Indeed, throughout all his 'Xeelee Sequence' novels Baxter has painted a picture of a race so mysterious that the reader is left wondering...Are the Xeelee actually their machines? Another concept that is touched upon in Exultant and was the basis for 'Coalescent', the first novel in the Destiny's Children series, was the idea of a human hive. Baxter chillingly describes the process by which dense populations of humans, living undergound and in close promimity to one another will eventually evolve into a hive society not unlike that of insects. In Exultant, two separate incursions by normal humans into 'coalescents' or human hives make for fascinating and possibly disturbing reading. All in all, as with his other books, Stephen Baxter's 'Exultant' is science fiction at it's very best. The fun part of reading Baxter's novels and immersing yourself in his universe it that there are common threads that he deftly weaves throughout his stories that one recognizes. These inter-relationships allow the reader to share in his unique vision and finally come to a sobering conclusion...In the Xeelee universe, there is another force at work that even the Xeelee are powerless against.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2004

    History of the Cosmos..well, it could be

    Set in the distant future when all of mankind is geared towards fighting a galactic war with the incomprehensibly advanced Xelee. This war has lasted for over 3000 years and mankind, following the strictures of Hama Druz, has become a military machine, with children occupying the frontline in a war of attrition that is slowly being lost. Pirius is a young pilot whose career appears blighted with the appearance of his future self from a discontinued timeline. His future self has escaped from a future battle by disobeying the rules and the present Pirius must share his punishment. Using a neat pun on the Doppler Effect, the future Pirius becomes Pirius Blue and the present Pirius, a resentful Pirius Red. Pirius Blue brings with him knowledge that could allow mankind to defeat the Xelee. The story follows three threads, one from the birth of the universe describes the background of the Xelee and their predecessors. The other two follow the fortunes of Pirius Red going back to Earth and delving into the past and Pirius Blue fighting with a punishment battalion on an asteroid. The three threads combine to form a rousing conclusion in a climactic battle. This book combines the best of 'hard' science with sympathetic characters and a touch of Space Opera to present what I expect from Stephen Baxter; an excellent piece of Science Fiction!

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Fascinating

    Humanity has been at war with the Xeelee for three thousand years. Thanks to FTL spaceships that enables movement through time the aliens know what humans are going to do before they do it. Although the future is always in a state of flux and mankind has one great advantage over the Xeelees in that the human population is so much greater than the Xeelees, which enables them to confine the enemy to the center of the galaxy.................... Humanity has not been able to penetrate the alien base operations at Chandra the black hole although millions have died trying. While trying to evade a Xeelee ship, pilot Pirius ignores his orders by fighting the enemy; he manages to catch the alien spaceship, something never done before. He brings it back into human space two years in the past where he meets his seventeen-year old self. Both are put on trial for disobeying orders. The older Pirius is transferred to a penal asteroid while the younger version is taken under the wing of Commissary Nilis who believes the young man will be a great help to finally resolving the Xeelee problem...................... Although there are two Pirius in this story about, the future history of mankind depends on the younger version who has not been battle scarred and believes in the mission the Commissary is pursuing. Stephen Baxter¿s; second installment of ¿Destiny¿s Children¿ is nothing short of brilliant as it shows a future in which mankind is brought up to fight a war and die young, not leaving a trace of their passing. EXULTANT is an exciting look at a seemingly bleak future that one hopes never happens............................ Harriet Klausner

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