Stand Against the Light — 8

“You!” he shouted.  “Halt immediately!” The objects continued their advance.  “Detachment!  I am firing a warning shot. Do not open fire!”  He drew his QSZ92-5.8 pistol.  The load was 20 rounds of 5.8x21mm armor-piercing rounds, the bottle-necked case being a triumph of Chinese military technology, at least so far as he was concerned. He pointed the pistol skyward, released the safety, and pulled the trigger.

The report echoed across the surrounding terrain.  The objects continued their advance.  The background rustle became louder and louder.  Qian told himself he was not afraid of a few balloons and the unseen drone pushing them.  He lowered his pistol to point at the lead object.

“Halt at once or I will open fire.”  For once he wished he knew Tibetan beyond what was needed to negotiate with Tibetan bartenders and changji, those few Tibetans who would voluntarily speak with a PLA soldier.  OK, he thought, time to pop your balloon.

He took a proper wide-stance with two handed grip and began shooting.  Sparks showed his armor-piercing rounds bouncing. “Detachment!” he shouted.  “Open…” He never finished his last words.  A lance of incandescent violet light struck out. His body was smashed backwards.

Not waiting for Qian to complete his order, his detachment opened fire.  Rifle fire was entirely ineffective. Tracers from the vehicle mounted machineguns zipped across the space between the EQ2050s and the objects and ricocheted.  A loud crump! was the PF98.  Its warhead slid across the smooth curves of the object, deflected into the ground, and exploded. More violet rays struck the two EQ2050s, which promptly detonated, and swept across the three infantrymen.

In a few instants Private Wu was the only survivor. He had dropped behind the rocks and was now doing the fastest low crawl he could imagine, away from the gunmetal gray horrors into the dark Tibetan night.  Which way was Post Eight? he asked himself .  He thanked the gods, who as  a good Communist he knew did not exist, that he had grabbed his heavy pack with sleeping bag, rations, and water.  Perhaps, he thought, he would do better to find a crevasse in which to hide and go to sleep.  Yes, he told himself, I am a good supporter of Communism, and someday if I work very hard may be elevated into the ranks of the Party.  After all, when we have leave in Lhasa, my comrades spend their time drinking, gambling, and whoring, but I spend my time studying the thoughts of Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao. If, he thought, he tried approaching Post Eight while it was still night, he would likely be shot by mistake.  He would be better off getting lost until dawn.  A glance at his wrist GPS and magnetic compass revealed he had a good reason for being lost.  The GPS was jammed, and the compass was meandering left and right as though there were no magnetic field here.

Headquarters watched on video as Qian died, his men opened fire, and a flash of blue light was followed by a loss of signal.

“Bring base to combat status,” Battalion Commander Miao shouted.  “We are under attack!  Sheng!  Link my phone to radio to Army Headquarters in Lhasa!  I must report immediately!”

The wail of sirens and screech of alarm horns echoed across the base. Sheng turned to his control panel, working swiftly under Miao’s lambent gaze. 

“What is wrong, Comrade Sheng?  What is taking so long?” Miao asked.

“Comrade Battalion Commander,” Sheng answered, “I am unable to raise Lhasa.  We appear to be being jammed.”

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Stand Against the Light — 7

“Laser,” Jiang said. He picked up the phone and rattled off the description. 

“They are dropping into a wash,” Dai said.  “Now they are gone.”  He reset his goggles again.  “But in the starlight scope I see glows off the rock.”  He reported another bearing. “They are following track West Nine.  If they stay, they will pass quite close to here, but behind rise 157.”

Jiang thanked his lucky stars that Dai was here.  The fellow had memorized the entire map around the base. “The ready platoon will meet them soon enough,” Jiang said.  “Back to perimeter sweep.  I will report to Headquarters.”

“Comrade Corporal Jiang,” Pan asked.

“Yes, Comrade Private?”  Jiang wondered what obvious point was about to be made.

“Do you hear a strange noise?  A high-pitched rustle?  Toward the lights.” Pan pointed.

Jiang slipped off his earmuffs and listened intently.  Was it there?  Yes, there was.  Amazing.  Pan had done something useful.   “Excellent, Pan.”  Jiang picked up the telephone again.

~~~~~

Two Dongfeng EQ2050s rolled along track West Nine.  Squad Leader Qian wondered what he had done to deserve being out at this hour.  Radio contact with base remained good, with occasional bursts of static.  That was odd, he thought.  The radio used rapid frequency shifting to hinder jamming.

“Please confirm objects are above ground,” he said in his throat mike.

“Headquarters confir…, that is the re..rt.” Headquarters answered.

In the distance, the blue lights were visible.  It was hard to hear over the tires on the ill-leveled track. but he thought he heard a strange noise, high pitched, sounding like nothing he recognized.

“Patrol!” Qian said.  “Pull up at those rocks fifty meters ahead..  All lights out.  Duan. Guo.  Man the QJC88s. Be ready to sweep the road.  When I give the order, trigger the flare launcher.  Let’s see what is coming. Wu, Yan, Chen, spread well out to the sides, looking between rocks.  Yan, have your PF98 ready.” Qian plugged his long-extension optical fiber into its UBS port, then tapped his shoulder minicam.  A dim image appeared on the dashboard.

“Headquarters confirms your camera is good, asks your plan,” Wu reported.

“I am letting them come to me, which they are about to do,” Qian said into his throat mike.  “They should be visible in my camera.”

“Headquarters confirms,” Wu reported.  “Cameras on the QJC88s are also good.”

Qian got out of his EQ2050 and strode to the center of the road. The lights were now quite close, not more than 100 meters.  “Guo. Two flares,” he ordered, “100 and 200 meters.” He heard the soft whump! of two compressed air launches, counted to ten, and was greeted with bright magnesium light.

What are those things? Qian wondered.  They actually are in midair.  Balloons. No matter, this is the territory of China, I represent the Party and the Army, so they will stop when ordered.  He held up his left hand in the universal halt gesture.  If his right hand had strayed to his pistol, that was only common sense.

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Stand Against the Light 6

“Yes, Comrade Corporal Jiang!  As you command, Comrade Corporal Jiang,” Pan responded.

An hour went by.  Star after star settled gradually into the western horizon.

“Comrade Corporal Jiang,” Pan said,  “I think I saw a light.”

“Where?” Jiang asked.

“Out there,” Pan answered.

Jiang peered in the direction Pan was pointing.  Nothing was apparent.  “Do you see the light now, Comrade Private?”

“No, Comrade Corporal,” Pan answered.  “It was just there for a moment, to the left of the big hill.”

“What color was it?  How bright was it?  Brighter than a star?”

“Blue, Comrade Corporal.  It was blue.  Like a bright star. But down on the ground,”  Pan mumbled.  “Look.  There it is again.  But brighter.”

“Yes,” Jiang said.  The light blinked out.  Jiang took an approximate bearing, picked up the telephone, and waited for Headquarters to answer.

“Base Headquarters, Comrade Corporal Yao here.”

“Post Eight, Jiang here.  There is an intermittent light, bearing two eight zero, below the horizon. We have seen it twice.  Oh, there it is again.  It went out before I got an accurate bearing. Light is blue, brighter than most stars.” Jiang took a careful bearing.  “Make that bearing two eight two, between me and the hill in that direction. And remaining on.” 

“Headquarters acknowledges,” Yao said.  He repeated the information he had just been given.

Jiang took out his binoculars.  The light was bright enough to mask its  surroundings with glare.  He could see where it illuminated nearby rocks and sent shadows across the ground.

“Headquarters,” Jiang said, “the light is too bright to see a source behind it.  It is clearly moving toward the base.  Bearing is now two eight four.”

Inside headquarters, Jiang had the full attention of the staff.

“Junior Company Leader Ma, I relieve you,” Miao said.  “Compose a short message.  Report this light to District headquarters.  Corporal Tan.  Phone Ready platoon.  Two EQ2050s, a half dozen men, full combat load of ammunition.  Take track West Nine and observe.”

“Two Dongfengs, six men, full combat load, track West Nine,” Tan repeated.

“Corporal Yao, phone Posts seven and nine, see if they can spot this light.  If so, find bearings,” Miao ordered.

At Post Eight, three soldiers watched as the light crept across the rugged terrain outside the base. 

“It is not coming straight at us,” Private Pan observed.  Jiang wondered if Pan would ever say anything that was not obvious.

“Completed another perimeter sweep,” Private Dai said. “Nothing in starlight.  Light saturates the starlight scope.”  He hesitated.  “Oh, wait. I am a fool, not checking the light in the infrared.”  He waited for his scope software to reboot.  “Yes, I see clearly.  Three objects like eggs.  They appear to be floating above the ground.  That light – it vanishes in the infrared.”

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Stand Against the Light Part Five

An interesting choice of order for your commands, Comrade Junior Company Leader,” Miao said.  “Why?”

“Sir, alert means possible attack.  This way I learn as soon as possible if we have visitors and need to sound the Combat Alert.”

“Very well said,” Miao remarked. “Also bring up the air defense radar.”

“Yes, Sir!”  Ma said.  “Comrade Staff Sergeant!  Activate the air and artillery defense radars!”

“Already on it,” Staff Sergeant Sheng answered.

“Comrade Chief Sergeant Tang? Is the alert checklist ready?”  Ma asked.

“Yes, Comrade Chief of Quarters!” Tang answered.

“We work down the list!  The rest of you interrupt at once if anything is found!” Ma ordered.  He glanced at his Battalion Leader, who nodded approvingly, then pointed at Tang.

Tang began reading from the list.  “Perimeter motion radar.”

“Up in under one minute,” Sheng said.

“Air Defense Radar…” Tang continued down the check list.

~~~~~~

Well out from the perimeter, watch posts responded to telephone calls.

“Post eight. Corporal Jiang here.”  Jiang told himself they had rolled his dice to determine the time he was on duty, so he could not complain that he had the graveyard watch.  It was still bitterly cold.  The Tibetan air was dry and thin. Distant hills were pitch-black under a starry sky.

“Corporal Yao, Headquarters.  We are on Alert Status One! Is all well?”  Yao snapped.

“Post Eight.  All is quiet.  I will wake the rest of the detachment,” Jiang answered.  Three men, he thought, but normally only two awake at a time.

“Carry on,” Yao said.

“What is this?” Private Dai Longwei asked.

“We are on alert!  Look sharp!” Jiang answered.  “Pan!  Wake up!  Get off your lazy ass!”

“What?”  The still-groggy Private Pan managed to stand.  “Cold tonight.  Why?”

“Do you think, Private, that the fact we are in Tibet, four thousand meters above sea level, it is night, and the sky is brilliantly clear, might have something to do with it being cold?”  Jiang was always astonished by how simpleminded Pan could be. This was at least the fourth time Pan had been reduced in rank from Private, First Class, always for obeying orders in a disastrous way.  He was reminded of a novel he had read as a student, a fine way to learn a foreign language for when China conquered the western imperialists.  Why the fascist monarchists had not simply shot Schweik had never been quite clear to him.  “No matter!  We are on alert, so wake up and take your section of the perimeter.”

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Stand Against the Light Snippet 4

It sounded astonishingly difficult to replace the modern world.  She couldn’t have done it, she suspected, not even wielding the Namestone’s full power, not even calling the Well of Infinity, even assuming that the Lords of Eternity or Morgan Le Fay didn’t interfere violently.  There weren’t many personae with that sort of power.  A good list of them might suggest something.  Of course, if you hid the real world away, without  destroying it, you could put a mutant copy in its place, the copy seen here.  All you’d need is the power to create the illusion of a whole world.  If this world were some sort of illusion, some complex trap, the cost of producing it would fall dramatically.  An illusion world only have had to fool the five of them, not everyone in the world.  Why, though, did someone want to fool the Medford gang? 

The Why was a separate bafflement.  Any number of rogue personae had plans to reform the world in their image, down to the Shakespeare cultists she’d envisioned herself.  This world was almost like the old one; it still differed in so many ways you could hardly choose which changes signified, and which were accidents.   

The trip here, out to the edge of the universe and back, might mean something.  But what?  The Wizard of Mars had given Comet a StarCompass, and told her how to use it.  The Wizard charged a stiff price for his answers, no doubt, but they were honest answers, clear enough that people always knew what they meant.  Fly here, fly there, had been his directions.  They’d flown, Comet doing ten billion light years in under ten hours flight time each way.   The Wizard’s promise didn’t seem to have been kept.  They were back where they started, except they weren’t. That was very strange in itself, even ignoring that the Wizard had disappeared in the middle.  The Wizard had a reputation for scrupulous integrity.  That led to a question: Who had paid for the Wizard’s answer, the shield against the Two Dooms, and what had been the Wizard’s price?

Maybe, though, she thought, this was completely the wrong question to be thinking about.  A  right question was surely ‘What are the Two Dooms, and how do we stop them?’  She would not complain if the Andesians had been one of those Dooms. The Starcompass seemed to agree. To stop the Andesians, she’d called the power in her gifts down deeper and deeper toward their ultimate limits.  She had something else she needed to try, after she finished supper, and a few more cookies.  Pickering’s world’s commercial bakers offered a narrower range of choices than she would have had at home, but the chocolate chip angel cookies were still excellent.

Chapter Two  Remote Tibet

People’s Liberation Army

Command Headquarters

Force Base 137

Western Tibet

“Good evening, Comrade Battalion Leader. ”  Junior Company Leader Ma Yong rose and snapped a salute.

“Comrade Junior Company Leader,”  Battalion Leader Miao Wan-Li returned the salute.  “Battalion Political Officer Gong. Good evening.”  

“Good evening, Comrade Battalion Leader,” Gong Wei answered, “I hope nothing has disturbed your sleep.”

“The same message has disturbed both our sleeps,” Miao answered.  “The Special Message from Beijing?”

“Yes.” Gong waved a sheaf of papers. 

Ma looked nervously between the two men, not quite ready to ask if he had orders. After all, they were his superiors, but he was on duty in command of HQ  until they relieved him.

“Junior Company Leader,” Miao said. “Bring the Headquarters to Alert Status One.”

“Yes, Senior Officer!” Ma said.  “Men!  Alert Status One!  Comrade Staff Sergeant Sheng, bring up the perimeter warning radar!  Comrade Corporals Yao and Tan, immediate cyclic call of all watchposts.  Comrade Sergeant Song, wake up the alternate watch platoon!”

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Stand Against the Light Snippet 3

Eclipse told herself that the Medford group were people she could visit. The question she needed to face was more important.  Someone had seemingly murdered one billion people, replaced them with another seven billion people, and hidden every clue of their misdeeds so thoroughly that seven billion elsewise sensible people never suspected that something was wrong.  Wiping out all record of past civilizations, not to mention changing the spin of the Moon on its axis, looked to require huge amounts of power.  How had it been done?  Why?  She’d spent a week doing what the Medford group had wanted, trying to solve things their way, without success. On the other hand, they’d eliminated a Doom.  Perhaps when both Dooms were eliminated everything would go back to normal. Now she would try solving things her way. 

The How was perhaps easier.  You could make all the changes with a real time machine, going back into the distant past and changing things until you got the present you wanted.  Star was convinced that was how it had been done.  He wanted Eclipse to teleport the four of them back in time — never mind that she’d never ever done even a tiny timeward teleport, the power requirements looked fatal, and Star couldn’t tell her where in history to go — so they could catch the time bandits in the act. 

She needed serious thinking.  She carefully wrote “Put Things Back” at the top of the paper, following her words with a question mark.  The real questions were who?, how?, why?, and how to fix?   Bringing people to justice was in there someplace, too. 

She’d spent a week looking for the footprints of a time machine, not finding a sign of them.  She’d gone too fast in deciding what to do, she thought.  Star had convinced her it was a time machine, but there was no proof.  How else could it have been done?   Surely Solara or Corinne could have used the Ambihelicon for the same purpose.  The amount of power required to reshape the world in a new image remained huge beyond belief.  A time machine gave you leverage.  Go back six thousand years, kill the right person, and all else would be rearranged to meet your desire — so long as the correct choice of victim had been made. 

History did have episodes like this.  Any number of ancient civilizations had vanished in a single night.  The Grand Parade of All Marik had done a flank left into the Pacific Ocean, fifteen million people marching to watery graves in the space of half an hour.  But after the sweeping, those civilizations were dead and gone, not replaced with a warped version of themselves. Here the American Republic had been replaced with a United States of America, to some unclear purpose.

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Stand Against the Light Snippet Two

Her four companions weren’t so bad.  Star complained politely to her, demanding to know why she hadn’t already found the Two Dooms and the people who stole history.  After all, she’d solved the Lesser Maze, hadn’t she?  Surely there was no reason she’d need more than a half-week to solve the mystery here?  She accepted his criticisms in silence. He was, at least, honest about what he could not do.  His gifts were great for breaking things, for cutting holes in armor plate while the other side was shooting back at him, but his gifts did not lend themselves to solving mysteries. 

Star’s twin sister Aurora was harder to read, for all that she had linked to Aurora mind to mind.  Aurora was deeply annoyed by the change, but the annoyance was less that one billion people — everyone in the world including her parents — were missing, and more that her study of games — chess and stones and Territories and City of Steel — had been interrupted.  Worse, from Aurora’s point of view, people no longer honored Players like her, not the way they had before the change.  That was a change in the rules, and Aurora did not like changes in the rules.

To Eclipse, Aurora’ focus on games made some sense.  Aurora wasn’t the first twelve-year-old to be Highly Esteemed by the Lords of the Hexagon, but every historical Player from two dozen civilizations who had had Aurora’s rank at Aurora’s age could be fit comfortably in Eclipse’s admittedly somewhat large tent.  The most peculiar part of it was that neither Aurora nor the people around her seemed to notice how extraordinarily good a Player she was, how hard she  strove to cultivate her skills, or how thoroughly that work defined her personality. 

Aurora’s older sister Comet, part of a year older than Eclipse herself, was the nicest person of the four.  It wasn’t that Aurora wasn’t nice; it was that Aurora was deeply focused someplace else. Comet would say that all she did was to fly, neglecting to emphasize that she was the fastest persona in the world, had reflexes that let her snatch bullets from the air, and an acuity of vision that matched her speed.  Comet was the one who took care of her baby brother and sister.  She insisted that they all behave like grownups.  If you tried to tell her how good she was, she’d just shake her head, sending copper-blonde locks of hair flying.  All that distracted her from Comet’s other reality.  Not an hour before they left Earth, she’d invoked the Heinlein Divorce Act, cutting her ties with her parents and family. That had to be an earth-shattering event, as Eclipse knew from personal experience, but Comet seemed to be coping with it.  Blackmailing Speaker Ming, Morgan Le Fay, and the Wizard of Mars himself into giving her what she wanted had demanded a backbone of steel, but when you got down to it Comet had set a very low price for her services. Of course, Eclipse allowed, divorce from her family was what Comet had wanted, with overwhelming justification, but it was still a huge change in a great hurry.

Cloud was an enigma.  He’d actually been given his powers by a Lord of Eternity, the Screaming Skull himself, which spoke very highly of Cloud’s ethical standards.  He had to have done something extremely gifttrue, but apparently he didn’t know what he had done to earn the reward.  Why was he here?  He didn’t know that, either.

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Stand Against the Light Snippet One

As Stand Against the Light is moving toward presale, I will start posting appetizers, a few times a week.

Author’s forward:  Stand Against the Light is Book 3 of the This Shining Sea series.  If you are curious how Eclipse evaded certain doom, you must wait for Book 4, Of Breaking Waves.

Some tween readers may find later chapters a bit frightening, but there is a reward at the very end. If you ever don’t feel like reading any more, skip to the very end, read the last few paragraphs, and you may be ready to return.

Chapter One Eclipse in Solitude

Eclipse peered contentedly over an edge of her pillow.  The sky was the darker blue of early evening.  Long shadows on the higher hills said that the sun was almost across the horizon.   A dozen yards from her tent, a pair of squirrels rooted for pine cones, occasionally glancing toward the intruder in their New Mexico wilderness. 

She came more sharply awake.  Last night she’d fallen into deepest sleep, waking only for a drink of water.  Now she’d slept the day almost all the way around.  Those were her gifts, she told herself, making their protest at overuse without adequate recovery time.  She unzipped her sleeping bag, rolled from her cot, and pulled on her down-filled bathrobe.   Her feet slid into fur-lined camping slippers as she snapped to her feet. Platinum blonde hair atop her five and a shade feet of height cleared the roof of her pavilion tent.  Startled squirrels dashed helter-skelter into the trees.  The evening air was frigid. Her bathrobe would need minutes to warm up.

A stretch brought twinges of resistance.  Twinges succumbed to stretching exercises.  You’re twelve, she told herself, not seventy or seven hundred, to have joints complain about a little use.    Of course, she noted, she could call on her gifts to stay warm. Instead, she’d trusted her -40 sleeping bag. Powers that protected her from the airless dark of intergalactic space were perfectly adequate against the worst that the earth’s climate could supply.  That was not the point, she told herself.  You are not going to become a slave to your gifts, using the power within to do things that you could perfectly well do with your own hands. 

She would have been more comfortable sleeping in Pickering’s home, but several bouts of high-power combat had left her seriously drained.  If she were attacked while she was asleep, her gifts might not protect her.  All too many people connected her with Pickering. It was too dangerous to him if she did more than visited.

A search of her pantry found a simple meal.  Milk that stayed fresh at room temperature, at least in unopened containers, had been unknown before the change. A row of pint containers awaited her attention.   She’d have to find out how Pickering’s people managed to do that. Rye bread, butter, sausage, fresh plum tomatoes, and an orange for dessert were a fine simple meal.  So long as she had natural light, she told herself, she ought to take advantage of things to collect her thoughts.  A fresh pad of paper lay open onto her camp table, the pencil sharpener weighting it in place.  She’d collect her thoughts, and then eat. 

Where to begin?  The chronology was easy, if overfamiliar.  She’d joined the Medford trio –Star, Comet, and Aurora – and their friend Cloud for a flight across the universe, a flight undertaken on the advice of the Wizard of Mars. Find and defeat the Two Dooms, he’d said, or all mankind will perish. After some unpleasantness–nearly fatal for you, Eclipse noted– they’d returned to Earth.  This Earth.  A new Earth in which there was still an America, but in which there were no personae, no one who flew or teleported or called the fires of the sun from their fingertips.  All of history was different.  In fact, most of history was simply gone.  Of the two dozen ancient civilizations that had blended to form modern America, perhaps two remained in the history books.  No one had every heard of Sarnath or Tsolrin or the Goetica Knights; inquiries about Atlantis — Gaia Atlanticea — brought giggles. 

Losing history was not entirely without its benefits.  There was no more League of Nations, so she was no longer the world’s most wanted war criminal, with a hundred tons of gold as the reward for her twelve-year-old head.  Nor was there a crucifixioner sharpening his spikes while he waited for her to be brought to justice.  She yawned and stretched again. She’d spent her first week in this new world living with the Medford four in the peculiar house of Alexander von Pickering.  They’d rescued a spaceship from orbit, brought various criminals to justice, stopped a group of reivers from destroying a shopping mall, and carried out a full action against a man corrupt on this earth. The locals were more upset that the corrupt man had smuggled medicine than that he had bribed a judge, showing how little the locals knew about proper morals.  Then they’d shut down an alien invasion of the Americas.  That had been a team effort, meaning that thanks to the team she’s only needed to blow up part of a mountain range. 

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Stand Against the Light Out to Alpha Readers

Stand Against the Light, now at 116,000+ words, has gone out to alpha readers.

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Stand Against the Light enters second draft stage.

Eclipse must win! Or die!

But against Eclipse, even Death may die.

I start rewriting Sunday or Monday. There is not a schedule yet.

In other writing news, work on my two polymer dynamics books has resumed, and I am going to start polishing some old scientific manuscripts and submitting them.



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