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.
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October 25, 2004
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Excerpt from Exultant by Stephen Baxter
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.