Stand Against the Light 11

The novel is now out at readers and kibitzers. The readers who have answered gave some specific suggestions that can be carried out. The novel should appear sometime next month or so. There has been real progress in getting scientific articles out the door. And now a bit more of Stand Against the Light.

Chapter Three Persona Ethics

The distant patter of raindrop on leaf and the slow drip of water cascading from branch to branch were the only sounds.  Star and Cloud sat under an enormous fir tree, their gifts keeping their clothing dry, listening to the forest around them.  Neither wanted to speak. Only the pressure of an approaching meal drove them to conversation.

“I used to daydream about camping.  I’d dream about being out in the woods like this,” said Cloud. “Camp sounded almost as frigid as having a base.  You didn’t need to be a persona to camp, either.  Except when I became a persona, I never tried to get a base.  None of us did.  I lived at home.  I never even went camping.”

Cloud returned to listening to the tip-tap of the water. 

“Except Eclipse,” Star said. “She got herself a base and everything.  All by herself.” He sank into quiet again.

“You know,” Cloud said finally, “Changing time sounds real hard.  Putting back what the Time Pirates did sounds harder.  We’re not doing it overnight.  Are we?  Figuring we won’t get lucky, I mean.”

“All we have to do is find them,” said Star.  His voice was almost flat. “Find them, and I’ll blow them to pieces.  Teeny-tiny pieces.  Pieces so small they don’t exist.  Then we’ll fix everything.  Put it back right.”

He stared ahead.  The depths of the woods were a study in brown: ground covered with needles and bark, sepia tree-trunks, light faded to rust by passage through layer after layer of twigs and branches. 

“I’m with you, Star,” Cloud agreed quietly as he stared into the trees. “First I have to find them.  I need time.  We can’t stay here with Pickering.  He’s not a relative.  He’s not part of our League.  He puts up with us because we have gifts.  So we can’t stay.  Staying is taking something from an ungifted by using our gifts.  You can’t do that!  It’s wrong!”

“I know.  I know!  We absolutely positively must leave!  Soon. Where?  We can’t go home.  It’s not there!  We checked that ourselves.” Star combed his hair, straightening brown locks curled by spring damp, letting the activity distract him from the reality of the situation. 

“No.  We can’t go home.” Cloud told himself not to be frightened.  He was a persona, and personas chased menaces, not the other way around.  He paused before announcing his great idea. “There aren’t any personas until we fix history.  There must be lots of places ‑ desert islands, mountain ranges,  Mount Everest, Kapitan Mors being gone ‑ where no one goes.  I just choose one.  We go there and build a base.  That’s absolutely first.  We build a base.  Our base. Festung Greater Medford.  Then we save the world.”

“Now that’s frigid!” Star’s native enthusiasm finally bubbled to the surface. “Build a base.  A real base?  With armor and radium engines and robot defenses and all that great stuff?”

“Sure!” agreed Cloud.  The slightest hint of doubt nagged at him.  If this world had no personas, they probably didn’t have chandlers supplying persona bases. Robot defenses sounded a bit tricky to install by yourself.  Mayhaps he could ask Aurora.  After all, base construction was all detail work, so a girl should be able to do it, once a boy told her what to do. “Keep it simple?  We won’t need it long, just until I catch the time pirates.”

Star nodded assent. “Hey. Cloud?  We’re the ones putting the world back, right?  Can we put it back so we keep the base?” Possibly, thought Star, possibly in the end everything would turn out utterly frigid. 

“Why not? All we need is a place and some plans and a pile of cash to pay for it,” said Cloud. “We for sure have a pile of cash. We should ask Comet about a place; she sees all sorts of things.  And have her and Aurora write down everything we should put in the plans, like automatic minefields and tesdri-controlled thirty-seven-inch-guns.  After all, ‘everything’ is a whole bunch of details, and girls are real good at details.

“Just so we do the final plans.  And count all the money.  That’s outlines and numbers, so that’s for us boys to do.” Star told himself that his older sister and her math books didn’t count.  Girls didn’t do math, he knew, even if when you paid close attention there seemed to be a terrible lot of girls who were real good at math, better than lots of the boys he knew.

“So where do we find all this money?  Is what we salvaged on that island enough?  Ask Eclipse?” The air seemed swiftly colder.

“Eclipse?  Why not?” Cloud felt uncertain. “She built a base.  If you ask her a straight question, not about the Namestone or where she hides out, she gives good answers.  Or tells you she doesn’t know.  She won’t pretend to know what she doesn’t, when she could brag herself up.”

“She’s a girl.  She misses obvious ways to brag herself up.” Star shook his head. “I just wish I could help Eclipse look for the other Doom.  But how?  I can’t read minds or fly.  They have model builders here, wood and plastic, but there are only so many different woodworking tools.  These people seem to know all the ones that I do, so there are no clues there.”

“History’s completely different,” Cloud added. “I found out what happened to the IncoAztecans.  They got conquered by Spain.  No personas.  Spain had gunpowder and steel.  Aztecs had swords with obsidian edges.  Incans hadn’t invented edged weapons.  They could have won, but they lost.”

Star tapped his left wrist. “That’s my watch,” he announced. “Time to go back and get taken to Comet’s island to eat.”

“It’s a nice island,” Cloud said, “just way too small and low to build a base.”

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Stand Against the Light 10

Dai finally remembered to plug his headphones into one of the ubiquitous data ports.  “Post Eight Forward, reporting,” he said.  He had silence for a response. He could hear but not see the explosions as the battalion’s 120mm mortars engaged the praying mantises. The creatures swept to the south around his position.  After a while, their fire was joined by direct fire weapons from the base.  He heard rifles, machine guns, antitank weapons,… all very noisy.  In not too long, the fire slackened and stopped. “Post Eight Forward, reporting,” he spoke into his headphones, to be greeted with silence.

Eventually the brightening dawn sky swallowed the dimmer stars. Private Dai surveyed his surroundings.  Post Eight was reduced to a pile of wreckage.  If his telephone had a line signal, it was that he was tied into the line well below the former location of the post.  However, when he called he received no answer.  He looked over the side of his bunker.  Posts Seven and Nine had also been smashed to flinders.  The sky was well brighter than first light.  His relief should have arrived several hours ago.

What was he to do?  He was supposed to remain on watch until relieved, which he had done.  He was also supposed to report enemy activity, but was unable to contact base to make his report.  Sitting here was useless.  He would go to the base, make his report, and return unless relieved.

“Hello?” The voice came from behind him. “Hello, Post Eight?”

Dai turned around, his rifle carefully pointed skyward. “Who goes there?” he called.

“It is I, Comrade Private Wu.  Is that you, Longwei?” Wu asked.

“I am indeed Dai Longwei. Please come out so I can see you,” Dai answered.

Wu emerged from his cover. “It was terrible,” he said. “My patrol was wiped out.  My compass and GPS stopped working, so I was lost.  I had to wait for daylight.”

“Your patrol was wiped out?” Dai answered. “So was this watchpost.  And I have no contact with base headquarters.  They don’t pick up their phone.”

“I tried my cell phone.  There are no bars.” Wu was downcast. “At least my compass and GPS are working now.”

“We must report this,” Dai said. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No,” Wu said. “My ration packs fell out in our EQ2050, which was destroyed.  A beam of blue light hit them, and they exploded.”

“I have extras,” Dai said. “Let us eat, quickly. This post is not manned in daylight.  Once the sun is up I can leave here without getting into trouble.”

An hour later, the two men were back to Force Base 137’s main fortifications.  The perimeter wire was torn open.  Roofs had been blown off bunkers.  Communications antennae were cut down. Vehicles looked as though they had been stomped by a giant.

“Hello!” Dai shouted. “Who is here?”

He was answered by silence.

“There is something strange here,” Wu said. “There was a big battle. Where is everyone? Where are the bodies?  There aren’t any.”

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Stand Against the Light 9

“That is a dispersed frequency radio,” Miao grumbled.  “It cannot be jammed!”

”It must be the Americans!” Sheng said.  “Their CIA is the world leader on electronic interference.  However, I think we can raise Air Base T19.  One moment.”

Miao waited impatiently, finally hearing “Air Base T19, Flight Leader Yi speaking.  This is irregular?  What is your issue, Base 137?”

“This is Battalion Leader Miao, Base 137, Commanding.  We are under attack by unknown low-altitude flying devices armed with unknown laser weapons.  Our communications with Lhasa are being jammed.  Please forward our report to Army Command, Lhasa.”

“Flight Leader Yi here. I am unable to comply with your request. Lhasa is under attack. We cannot reach them.  Their last report said they were being overrun by unknown forces.

“Wait,” Miao said, “how can Lhasa be overrun?  With the Indian lies about us, it has two mechanized regiments as a garrison.”  And why didn’t Beijing tell me about this? he wondered.

“Unknown, Comrade Battalion Commander.  However, I’m needed here,” Yi responded.

“Please send us air support! Miao out.”

“Yi out.”

“Comrade Battalion Commander!” Corporal Yao exclaimed.  “Post Seven reports many blue lights crossing Ridge 137, bearings 274 to 293.”

“Corporal Yao,” Miao said, “Please ask Post Seven to give us an accurate count for many.” So much, he thought for our training in accurate reconnaissance reporting.  Yao began shouting into his telephone.  “Corporal Tan, please get me Senior Company Leader Xi on the phone.”

“Xi here!” The voice on Miao’s phone was sharply clipped.

“Miao here.  Illuminating rounds this side of Ridge 137.  Fire immediately. Prepare for observed fire same location.  Ready plot for east – near — end of track West Seven.”  Miao looked across the room.  “Sheng?  Is there any activity on the perimeter radars?”

“No, Comrade Battalion Commander,” Sheng answered.  “However, they are range-gated, to short of Ridge 137. That range is fixed in the core programming and cannot be altered.”

“Excellent report, Sheng! Ma, make a note of that.” Miao leaned back in his chair. What was going on?  His thoughts were punctuated by the sharp reports of the base’s Type 64 120mm mortars being fired.  Not a modern weapon, he thought, not self propelled, but works just fine for base defense, not to mention targets out to 9 kilometers.  Another minute, he thought, and we will see the enemy.

“Giant insects!” Corporal Jiang screamed into his telephone.  “Post Eight.  They are praying mantises! Ten feet tall! What do I do?”

Not waiting for orders, Pang opened fire on the enemy,  his QBZ03 battle rifle on full automatic. Jiang noticed a dismaying lack of effect in the targets.  Of course, he thought, that assumed that Pang had recently learned how to hit the broad side of a barn, which seemed improbable.

A line of incandescent blue fire passed just above Jiang’s watch post.  “Cease fire, you idiot!” Jiang shouted at Pang.  “We’re here to observe! You’re drawing their fire!”  Jiang tried to pull the rifle from Pang’s hands.  Pang, however, had spent much of his admittedly not long life as a peasant farmer, finally realizing that the People’s Liberation Army looked to be a better career choice. The muscles that never dropped hoe or axe did not release his rifle.

“Taking forward observation position, as per plan,” Private Dai announced as he slipped off the edge of the watch tower and skittered down  the stairs to the ground.  The forward position had heavy cover from above, enough that Dai was alive and uninjured when the last fragments of two bodies and Post Eight’s wreckage finished dropping on the ground behind him.

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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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