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Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Del Rey, 2004
Series: Xeelee: Destiny's Children: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Military SF
Space Opera
Time Travel
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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....


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.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Baxter



- Triseult


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