Top Gun heads to outer space in this throwback to the classic science fiction of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.
Strapped in to artificial wings spanning twenty-five feet across, your arms push a tenth of your body weight with each pump as you propel yourself at frightening speeds through the air. Inside a pressurized dome on the Moon, subject to one-sixth Earth’s gravity, there are swarms of chiseled, fearless, superbly trained flyers all around you, jostling for air space like peregrine falcons racing for the prize. This was the sport of piloting, and after Helium-3, piloting was one of the first things that entered anyone’s mind when Borealis was mentioned.
It was Helium-3 that powered humanity’s far-flung civilization expansion, feeding fusion reactors from the Alliances on Earth to the Terran Ring, Mars, the Jovian colonies, and all the way out to distant Titan. The supply, taken from the surface of the Moon, had once seemed endless. But that was long ago. Borealis, the glittering, fabulously rich city stretched out across the lunar North Pole, had amassed centuries of unimaginable wealth harvesting it, and as such was the first to realize that its supplies were running out.
The distant memories of the horrific planetwide devastation spawned by the petroleum wars were not enough to quell the rising energy and political crises. A new war to rival no other appeared imminent, but the solar system’s competing powers would discover something more powerful than Helium-3: the indomitable spirit of an Earth-born, war-weary mercenary and pilot extraordinaire.
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About the Author
David Nabhan was a certificated bilingual public school teacher for nineteen years in South Central Los Angeles. Nabhan is now retired from teaching, relocated to the Northeast, where he travels, writes, and tutors Spanish.
Read an Excerpt
The Pilots of Borealis
By David Nabhan
Talos PressCopyright © 2015 David Nabhan
All rights reserved.
RUMORS OF WAR
Not a word was uttered by any of the tense competitors crowded into the most exclusive locker room in the Solar System. The corps of superbly trained, titanium hard, invincible gladiators was surveyed by the grey-haired race master, an incomparable, ruthlessly aggressive flyer himself in his day, paying no attention to any timetable save an inner clock that sounded when he saw fit. With a quick nod he determined that the moment was at hand. "Good flying," he said in a solemn tone, and threw open the doors of the athletes' hypogeum, debouching the pilots onto the highest platform atop the most illustrious city ever built by human hands.
The shock was sufficient to quicken the pulse of even Clinton Rittener. He'd cruised over volcanic rings the size of Germany exploding on the Jovian moon Io, sending furious plumes of ejecta five hundred miles into space, and traversed frozen methane floes drifting in Titan's hydrocarbon seas. Nothing could prepare him or anyone else for this though. Into the dayglow reflecting off Borealis' translucent Dome he was thrust, simultaneously greeted with the throaty cheers of every citizen who could stand and shout. The low-frequency roars rumbled strongly enough to vibrate the Dome slightly and to resonate in his very thorax. It wasn't just the ears that had to struggle to maintain equilibrium. Rittener, even though his eyes were accustomed to the seven wonders of the universe, was a new arrival to Borealis and had no defense against the eighth. They promptly glazed over, focused on a vista that should have naturally been reserved for seraphim or demigods. No human being, even the most celebrated mercenary of the last five centuries, could view it for the first time without surrendering to its awesome power. The media, no stranger to such vulnerability, attacked — with gusto.
"Clinton, did you see the latest releases? The Terran Ring has put a five million credit price on your head," one reporter screamed at him. "How long do you think you'll be able to keep it attached with that kind of bounty out there?" The news anchor for Orbit, herself a first-rate headhunter, bristled at the remark, put her elbow into the offending colleague, and jostled her way to the front of the gauntlet line through which the pilots were being squeezed. She managed to put her arm on his shoulder and pulled herself closer to him, flashing the smile familiar to billions of her fans.
"Clinton Rittener, so many of my viewers are wondering: Why piloting? Why now? Does it somehow make the pain go away? Is that it?" Her smile and form were perfect, and frozen, waiting for a response in the way a mantis delays springing on its prey until it makes the killing lunge.
"Pain?" He only negotiated the one word when she took over again.
"Yes, the pain." She gave a dismissive nod to her provocative associate. "More people have been killed by the armies at your command than even Tamerlane's." She had done her homework. "They tabbed you just below Zandruss II." Her smile widened. "My point is that you're retired now, but surely with such a distinguished past, there must be some lingering pain." It was her signature journalistic bravado to switch lanes without signaling and she veered recklessly here too. "You must also realize, by the way, that you don't stand a chance to win this race?" She couldn't imagine her gall could engender it, so she mistook his silence for bewilderment. "You know who Tamerlane is? You know the name, right?"
He had heard of him. Pan-Turkic insurgents once had Rittener surrounded in the Fergana Valley near Samarkand, quite near to the tomb of the 14th century conqueror and scourge of Central Asia. Their pitiless warlord, Tevfik Bey, called a cease-fire for a last-minute parley, sharing some disheartening information, namely that his forces had commandeered a Fung Shang military class satellite which he now threatened to turn loose on Rittener's positions in the valley below. He advised surrender in blunt terms. "You haven't any way out," the chieftain told him, with much the same tone as the anchorwoman's, so Clinton repeated what he'd answered to the warrior. She was no Tevfik Bey, but Rittener thought she deserved a shot across her bow too.
"Aut viam inveniam aut faciam," Rittener replied. "That's Caesar or Hannibal, it could be either. It means 'I'll find a way, or else make one.'"
And with that, he was quickly pushed along the ramp leading to the starting gates before he could see her reaction. He did just make out her parting shot though. "Are you talking about Zandruss II or the race, Mr. Rittener?" she called after him. "Which one?" From her tone he could tell she wasn't smiling any more.
The few citizens of Borealis not crowded out on every terrace looking up to the Epsilon Observation Deck were those in Sick Bay, and even a number of them had struggled to their feet to witness the event. The crowds and activity seemed to buoy up the old adage that Borealis never slept.
Most thought that was due to the case that night didn't exist here. It was a common misunderstanding since it was a select group of human beings, indeed, who'd ever seen the place with their own eyes. But the constant, lively bustle was more grounded in the fact that there had always been something to do since Settlement Times, and that industrious habit was instilled in every Borelian from childhood.
Few things could bring the city to a standstill, except maybe a good piloting match — Borelians were absolute fanatics for piloting. And this one was going to be a good one. The media thought so too. The match was being beamed out to the five billion people living on the Terran Ring and the quarter trillion people in every Alliance below on Earth. The pundits of the innumerable news services — Orbit and all the rest — had run like crazy with the lead-up to the race, dissecting for their audiences every byzantine twist to the story.
This was more than just a possible monument in human endurance and grace, they explained. Nerissa was flying for Borealis, and Borealis' cause, in front of her fellow citizens, under Borealis' Dome. Demetrius Sehene, her arch-rival from the Terran Ring, didn't come a quarter million miles to lose either. There was a dark horse too, and the commentators hadn't ignored this angle either. Quite a number of them were asking aloud what was to be made of Rittener in this contest. None of the analysts could seem to have imagined that the next time he'd surface would be in a piloting match.
It stunned everyone in the Inner Solar System that Clinton Rittener was actually showing his face in such a public way, and more shocking, so close to Earth and the Terran Ring. Neither was ever out of sight for anyone willing to exit the Dome and climb the escarpments that ringed the lunar city. The view of the Terran Ring from the Moon, hanging around Earth like a metallic halo, was the most iconic image of the day. Everyone who saw it lost their breath.
The more sage critics explained that Borealis was the only place in which a man like Clinton Rittener could show his face. Certainly, he was a hero to billions of people on Earth, but it was doubted that anyone alive had also made as many enemies, the kind who'd find no expedient too nasty for them to eschew if it meant they could get their hands on him. Some were wondering aloud why the Council even allowed him to compete, so sure were they that an assassination attempt was at least being considered.
Nerissa, like everyone else on the Moon, was known only by her given name. Borelians had long since dispensed with the use of last names, a source of but one of many differences between themselves and the Terrans living in the stupendous, planet-girdling megalopolis orbiting Earth. Borelians considered their amazingly few — yet obviously elite — numbers small enough that surnames were superfluous. There weren't more than a quarter of a million people living on the Moon and any new arrival or newborn simply added or chose another name not already listed on the Citizen Roll.
Borelians didn't need to say out loud what that said about their opinions about themselves, nor was it required. Their arrogant pride and outrageous stubbornness were among the few things upon which the people of Earth and the Terran Ring could both agree. The Borelians got under everyone's skin. Yet tens of billions of pairs of eyes were nonetheless glued to the event, internally torn between having to betray their addiction to something so totally Borelian, and yet hoping that they might witness Nerissa and her haughty supporters going down in flames.
This might be the last great piloting event for a while, many exclaimed, leaving unsaid what that meant, and allowing the words to sink in as a plainly spoken threat to the overbearing Borelians. The pessimists had reason lately to mutter such bellicose warnings, as unnerving incidents had been taking place with worrisome regularity. Squadrons of ships from both sides had been brushing wingtips in the space between the Ring and the Moon, feint met with counter-feint.
Only weeks before, the entire population of Borealis had rushed into the safety of the Core, and done so with astounding quickness, sealing the locks with everyone inside but a few stragglers in amazing time. The authorities never explained the reason behind the lock down, and no one outside of Borealis even knew that such a drastic defensive move had taken place. Nor was the Council on Borealis willing to allow the news off the Moon; anyone who even spoke of it could be accused of sedition and risk extremely grave consequences. But there were nervous whispers exchanged in private between apprehensive citizens who quite naturally had to wonder if the system of impenetrable shields protecting the city was everything it was touted to be. Privately, even the mad scramble that had emptied their city within the cone of lunar regolith upon which the colony was built, even this astounding evacuation had many on the Council worried. Borealis might not have any time at all in the worst-case scenarios they were examining, but that was of a nature so classified that no level high enough existed as the proper repository for such secrets.
In any event, to the amazement of almost every soul in the Solar System, it had been decided that the piloting match would nonetheless be held. The pretense that normalcy prevailed fooled no one, when everyone knew that "normal" was the last thing one might say about where relations between the Terran Ring, Earth, and Borealis stood.
The recent scare had laid bare to the Borelians just how serious the State was to protect itself, and how far it would go. Even the staunchest Terran could appreciate how deeply and gravely the Borelians had moved to the idea that war was sooner or later inevitable. The only questions for the Council were how to delay the conflict until the opportune moment, and how to handle the "Earth Tories" in their midst when push came to shove. Earth, that unintelligible, incoherent, confused patchwork of ephemeral Alliances that came and went with the seasons, could be counted on to do just the opposite of acting in its own interests, never mind Borealis' benefit. And yet love of the mother planet was alive here still after so many centuries, albeit the kind of logic-defying affection that binds parent with child, even as one of them descends into the insane self-destruction in which Earth had dwelt for generations now. Every single word, every smile and frown, every unrestrained grimace or cheer during the coming contest was to be monitored and recorded, according to the rumors, and hopefully a complete catalogue of the citizens rooting for Rittener, Earth's antihero, would emerge. This, said those supposedly in the know, was the real motive for the Council's decision not to cancel the piloting match.
Everyone in the Inner Solar System, from as far out as the lawless mining outposts in the Asteroid Belt and the dusty Martian colonies, and back to Earth again, would be watching — and wondering about an impending war. The Borelian Council appeared willing to challenge the immense power of the Terran Ring, seemed determined to free itself from its influence, and inaugurate a truly independent Borealis. After years of debate it had come to that. When the Terrans made their next heavy-handed move, which the Council could certainly count on, Borealis might finally be ready to meet force with force. It seemed interested only in steering the final feints and thrusts in such a way that history should mark the Terrans as the aggressors. The events of the last week showed that the Terrans were much of the same mind. If millions or billions were to die in an impending struggle, each side wished the onus to be upon the other.
For Rittener, a newcomer to Borealis, politics and statecraft at the moment were as distant as the heliopause at the far edge of Sol's reign. Indeed, he was displaying the endemic condition of all neophytes to the city. He was "drifting." Even moments away from being thrust into a do or die crucible, no matter that every ounce of his determination should have been spent on preparing himself for the looming trial — he was drifting. The pilot next to him snapped a warning.
"You'd better get the stars out of your eyes, Clinton. This may look like Heaven, but these angels around us here, they're more like the kind that flew with Lucifer."
Adem Sulcus had crossed Rittener's path a few times and in a number of far-ranging places. They weren't friends but neither were they enemies, and that was the best to be hoped for in Rittener's profession.
"Not gentle like you, Adem?" Rittener replied.
It had been noted that people exhibited a tendency to wind up dying around Sulcus' footsteps. Clinton looked around the Field and wondered who might be the next casualty. Something akin to a smile streaked across Sulcus' face but was gone an instant later. It left him with a look Rittener judged almost pitiable; the same thought, about the same look, had crossed his mind before. He knew just enough about Adem Sulcus, probably more than most, since those who could be considered better informed quite often were also less alive. Sulcus was handsome to a fault, irresistibly head-turning, tall, dashing, and young — far too young to be such an accomplished assassin, but nonetheless his calling card was certainly genuine. He was a Terran, according to his birth certificate, but that carried little weight. His allegiances were transitory, ephemeral, liquid, and lethal.
Adem swept a hand across the impossibly beautiful vista and surprised Clinton by waxing poetic. "These five levels they say were crafted by God himself. He severed his own fingers to create it mindful that he wouldn't need his hand again, realizing he'd never outdo this." He gave a more mundane nod at their competitors. "Still, they're from the seventh level of a different locale."
Rittener was impressed. "I hadn't realized you enjoyed reading the classics."
Sulcus answered back quickly. "There's a lot you don't know about me.
Rittener shook his head in agreement. "And that's probably healthier for both of us."
Now a real smile appeared on the young torpedo's face, one so conspicuous due to its rarity, so incongruous with the warning that came with it. "Get the stars out of your eyes, and stay out of my way out there. That's a prescription you can trust."
Sulcus was counting Borealis' levels the careless way. The city stood at the middle of the Traskett Crater, a depression resembling an Assyrian shield — flat, round, and with a long, thick spike protruding from the center. It's strategic position so close to the lunar North Pole made for the most efficient and secure ingress and egress, and kept it just out of clear sight of the Sun, or Terra. The fields around Borealis had been suffused with the richest deposits of helium-3 on the Moon, or anywhere else. Billions of tons of the purest ice — pristine, untouched, lying frozen at the bottom of craters which hadn't seen the Sun since the Solar System was young — were at hand nearby. With all this, it was foreordained that a great city should rise here.
The "Core" was the hollowed out "spike" on the shield. It was the Old City, the original habitation from Settlement Times — a rock-hewn labyrinth now used for other purposes and stocked with food, oxygen, fuel, and every other vital necessity. It was enough to last Borealis, well, no one knew how long, save the Council itself. In the worst of circumstances, should Borealis' Dome be ruptured, the city could certainly hold out long enough to affect repairs. That had never happened but people naturally never seemed to tire talking about what would occur if it did.
Excerpted from The Pilots of Borealis by David Nabhan. Copyright © 2015 David Nabhan. Excerpted by permission of Talos Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Really appreciated the rich and varied cultural background that multiplies the tragedy of the novel. Humanity does not realize the breadth and grandeur of its history until it slips from its hands in a massive act of hubris. One wonders whether prior civilizations might have risen from oblivion, made slow but illustrious progress, mighty words and |deeds only to fall back into oblivion, leaving no trace, and scant memory of their deeds. "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity".