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Evil Ascending

Michael A. Stackpole

  Evil Ascending

  Fiddleback Trilogy

  Book II

  Michael A. Stackpole


  The scream of utter frustration ripping through her brain shocked her out of stasis. She felt a jolt run through her body, then it and the scream dwindled to a tingle at her spine. That sensation proved unsettling enough that, for a moment or two, she succeeded in fighting off her body's desire to slip back into somnolent bliss.



  Her mind slowly clawed its way to consciousness. In an instant she knew exactly where she was. Snippets of memories, all involving shadowy figures bearing her downward through dark tunnels, strobed through her brain. Deeper and deeper they had taken her, just as her mind had retreated deep into itself, to keep her safe. Safe, and so I could prepare.

  As she recalled the need for preparation and the reason behind it, she felt the tingling in her spine shift to a cold chill clutching her with sharp talons. At first she imagined it a reaction to the memory, but then she heard faint echoes of sinister laughter. The laughter built slowly and she knew, instinctively, that had the creature causing it not been multiple dimensions from her, she would have been forced to return to stasis to preserve her sanity.

  It is him. He endures, even after this much time. The scream, she realized, had come from far closer than the laughter. That was the reason it had been able to cut through all the mental shields she had created to protect herself. He was here, in this dimension, but he was turned away. He was defeated. How is that possible?

  She forced her eyes open and waited impatiently for them to focus so she could read the chronometric display above the life-signs monitor in her stasis capsule. Glowing green numerals reported time as both objective and subjective, with the latter number causing her more concern than the former. I have been in stasis for the equivalent of 3.27144 life-measurement units. My mission, my preparation, was projected to take 4.978831 LMUs. I am not yet ready.

  She looked at the first number again. She frowned, forcing her brain through the rigors of mathematics. Twenty-six terrestrial LMUs have passed since I was placed in stasis. Have they progressed so much that they can hold him at bay? Has the danger passed? Is it safe?

  The laughter drifted in and out of her mind like snatches of music borne by the wind. At times she heard it with a deafening clarity, then it faded until she wondered if it had ever been there at all. The anger in it slowly drained until she sensed an almost paternal pride or a begrudged respect in it. Whoever had driven him off had earned his attention and, with that, she knew, came fearful, crushing retribution.

  I was put into stasis to fight him—and them—to prevent his exacting revenge. I was to forge myself into a tool that would end his campaign of terror and domination. She pressed her fingertips against the soft cloth lining the stasis capsule and sought in it the peace she had known before the scream. I am not ready.

  From the heart of the laughter came a new emotion. It shocked and hurt her, but she automatically shunted the pain away as the defenses she had prepared dealt with the assault. Once she broke through the wall of physical discomfort, she saw and smelled and felt and heard and tasted and sensed him and his thoughts. She had trouble following his mental processes, for though he had one purpose and one goal, it seemed as if billions of minds spoke in unison with his. Like listening for one lone flute in a concert of all the worlds' orchestras, she caught tantalizing fragments of his musings, then slowly puzzled them together.

  She consciously overrode the physical lethargy imposed by the stasis capsule and let herself smile. Here he is called Fiddleback, a name in which he revels for its irony and infamy. He has agents here—many agents. But there are those who oppose him. Someone turned one of his agents, his favorite, against him. That pet has joined forces with the opposition against him, but Fiddleback has no fear. There is a trap. He will consume his enemies in this trap, and take away a greater prize in doing so.

  The monstrous confidence in Fiddleback's thoughts threatened to swamp her like a tidal wave. Another .00001 LMUs racked themselves up on her chronometric display along with an increase in Fiddleback's certainty that he would succeed. That sent another jolt through her, and the metallic taste of fear flooded her mouth.

  I am not ready! Part of her brain screamed as her right index finger flexed and moved upward. Lifting it felt like moving the mountain beneath which she had been buried. Had she waited until 4.978831 LMUs had passed, the stasis capsule would have opened by itself and prepared her for a return to a world where time flowed unabated. Part of her very much wanted to wait for that eventuality, but something in Fiddleback's palpable egotism told her that to wait was to awaken in a world he had made his own.

  Millimeter by millimeter her finger rose until it finally met resistance. For a half-second, she felt she could not depress the switch enough to free herself. She let the energy that her claustrophobic panic freed flow into her finger. It stiffened, and she heard a faint click.

  The hiss of musty air flowing into the capsule buried that sound. Dim light encircled her as the top half of the tubular capsule rose four centimeters. She blinked her eyes twice, not against the light, but because of the swirls of dust curling in beneath the edge of the capsule. As the latches on the right side snapped open, the whole lid rotated up and to the left. In its wake, a drifting blanket of dust blew free of the lid's trailing edge and settled over her.

  She sneezed.

  The sound surprised her, especially the way it echoed within the small stone chamber, then she laughed. That happy sound likewise rebounded back to her, and she smiled, remembering that the denizens of this world still communicated through sounds instead of through telepathy. Although born here, she shared her parents' preference for thought transfer to the imprecision of speech.

  The incessant chittering of Fiddleback's myriad thoughts nibbled through the pleasant feelings her memories had engendered. She frowned and tried to snap shut the link to him, but found it impossible. Gritting her teeth, she redoubled her effort. Success came, along with a return of the pain wall, leaving her exhausted and numb.

  Golden highlights glinted from her fingernails as she outstretched her arms. Reaching down, she grasped the edge of the capsule and levered herself into a sitting position, then swung her legs over the edge. Scooting forward, she hopped down to the floor and landed in a three-point crouch. She looked left and right, her eyesight piercing the darkness without trouble, but heard and saw nothing else in the small room.

  Settling back down on her haunches, she brushed her thumb over her fingertips, savoring the gritty sensation of the dust from the floor. No one has been here for a long time. LMUs, perhaps. She straightened up and glanced over at the wooden bin stacked with metallic debris and the four padlocked file cabinets next to it. Dr. Chandra said no one would ever be allowed to see the Corona crash evidence. Hiding me here was a good choice.

  Padding over to the gray metal door, she remembered something about when she had been sealed in the room. Dr. Chandra had given her a key and hung it around her neck on a chain. For the first time, she became aware of it hanging down between her small breasts. She pulled it free and looked for a lock in which to insert it—she remembered having practiced with a key so she would not be trapped.

  The door had no lock.

  Reaching up as high as she could, she ran her hands down each edge of the metallic door-jamb. She felt no weld scars and, at the bottom of the door, she was able to insert her fingernails beneath it. Straightening up again, she took a step back to survey the door in its entirety and noticed the numeric keypad beside it.

  She smiled because the doors on the ship had used similar sorts of locking mechanisms. She covered it with her
hand and gave the mental command to open.

  Nothing happened.

  A second attempt achieved the same result. She concentrated, thinking perhaps her skills had atrophied during stasis. She rejected the thought—the whole purpose of her time in stasis had been to hone her skills, but part of her preferred that impossibility to the reality of being trapped.

  Her third command failed as had the other two, but her concentration brought another result. She realized that of the nine keys on the pad, several of them resonated differently to her senses. She ran her fingertips over them very lightly and felt a spark as she touched some of them.

  She shook her head. Of course, the humans put this in. That which we use for manual override is what they have no choice but to use because the vast majority of them cannot project their thoughts. Four keys feel special, but what is the sequence? How many numbers?

  With four keys feeling special, she knew the logical assumption was that the coded sequence involved only four numbers. Even so, the first key felt so much more powerful than the others, she suspected it had to be hit twice during the sequence. That first number centered the top row of three: She recalled it being called an 8.

  The other special keys were arrayed on the keypad in a roughly geometric pattern. The 6 lay one below and one to the right of the 8. The 2 sat in the bottom row, located squarely in the middle. The 4 sat on the other end of the row with the 6.

  A five-number sequence with four possible candidates is not an insurmountable number of combinations to try. She stared at the keypad again. Entering a wrong number could set off an alarm, and with the changes here, I do not want to do that. There must be another clue.

  She frowned and tried to sort through anything she could remember about her hosts that would give her an indication of what she should do. She smiled as she remembered Dr. Chandra and the other humans who had worked with her, studying her, as she had grown up within the protected environment of a Federal Liaison Center. It shocked and surprised her that, as much as she had loved Chandra and his co-workers, her mother's thoughts about humans detonated in her brain: Humans are undisciplined, vain and sloppy.

  Sloppy. Instead of forcing themselves to remember things, they take shortcuts. She looked at the keypad and smiled. Mnemonics, patterns, tools. Yes, it makes sense. Reaching out, she hit 8-6-2-4-8, starting with the 8 and describing a diamond-shape that ended with the 8 again. A pair of eights and a skip-straight. Not a betting hand.

  She wondered where that thought had come from as the door slid silently into the ceiling. She glanced out and saw nothing but pale yellow light. Thinking herself safe, she stepped out of the room, then discovered, in a small alcove, a desk with a lamp producing the yellow light. Behind the desk, staring at her wide-eyed over the edge of a tabloid newspaper, sat a very surprised soldier.

  "Jesus H. Christ!" The man pulled his feet from the top of the desk and sat forward, letting the tabloid spray across the desk in a blizzard of paper. He looked her up from her toes to the top of her head and back down again. "Oh my God!"

  His thoughts raced unbridled and bursting with raw energy. The first thought she picked up from him was one of happy surprise, because the first thing he noticed was her nakedness. He then noticed her gold hair, which heightened his excitement and keyed his active fantasy life, despite the apparent drawbacks of her being, in his eyes, petite.

  Then reality darkened his fantasy. He realized that no matter how much he thought he deserved a carnal adventure, there was no way anyone, naked or not, should be at his hell-hole post. His job was technically to keep people away from getting into whatever the Air Force stored down here, but all those interlopers should have been coming down from above, not out from below. With that realization she caught the first tendrils of horror in his thoughts.

  The soldier looked at her again and saw beyond her nudity and golden hair. She saw herself reflected in his terror. Her jet-black flesh and metallic gold fingernails struck him as odd, but not out of the ordinary from things he had seen at the Palomino in Vegas. Even the golden stripes running from her fingers along her arms, and up her legs from her toes were not so radically out of line. He could have accepted them, but then he saw her eyes.

  Large and slightly almond-shaped, he saw them as sensual—for a heartbeat. Then he saw the vertical lozenge pupil and that triggered in him an ancient race-fear of reptiles. In less time than it took for the last page from his tabloid to flutter to the ground, she had gone from an object of carnal desire to a monster from the bowels of hell.

  She felt his panic and knew there was no way she could calm him. He is all but gone now! She threw her arms open, looked him in the eyes and projected an image into his mind. She forced him to visualize her legs blending together into 20 feet of gold-bellied snake and her tongue flickering in his direction.

  The soldier's eyes rolled back up into his head as he fainted dead away. He flopped back into his chair, then dropped to the floor and lay there quietly. His arms and legs twitched a couple of time, then he rolled onto his back and began breathing normally.

  She crossed to him and pressed her right hand against his forehead. Projecting her mind into his, she found his short-term memory and began to warp it. Plucking a page from the tabloid, she studied the picture of a dark-haired actress in a gown that looked barely able to restrain all of her. I am sorry this Janine Fonda is not a blonde, as you seem to prefer, but she should do nicely for you.

  Rooting around inside his head, she tracked the beginning of his fantasy about her through the cognitive links that opened his fantasy world to her. In no time at all she found one of many fantasies he'd had involving a clandestine encounter at this, the base's most forgotten and despised duty post. She quickly raced through it, substituting Janine Fonda for Andrea Beatty-Bening, then retreated from his mind.

  She noted the happy smile on his face, then started to unbutton his shirt. In no time she managed to appropriate his outer clothing. She had to roll the pants up and punch a new hole in his belt, but she found the clothes comfortable and welcomed their warmth against the chill in the air.

  She realized she would need footwear, so she took his boots. Because they were far too large for her, she started to wad up pages from the tabloid to stuff into the toes. As she did so, she picked up the centerspread and froze. It's true: He was here.

  A grainy photograph, clearly taken at night, showed a monstrously huge creature towering over a skyscraper. Though she had never actually seen Fiddleback, he had been described to her in enough detail for her to know this blurred photograph had to be him.

  She stared at the symbols on the page and forced herself to remember how to decipher them. Translating quickly, she rendered the headline as "Genetically defective arachnid assaults a mythical bird that is reborn of its own ashes." Knowing that had to be incorrect, and seeing the bird reference repeated in captions and the body of the text, she decided the word Phoenix probably referred to a place.

  "Pah-he-o-e-nicks," she sounded out. It sounded decidedly alien to her, but then everything about the world of her birth was alien to her, as she was to it. Phoenix. This is where Fiddleback was defeated. This is where his enemies dwell, dwell in danger. She balled the paper up and jammed it into the boot. Then this Phoenix is where I shall go to warn them.

  Coyote straightened his tie in the way he thought Michael Loring would, and stood behind his desk as Lilith ushered Sinclair MacNeal into his office. He came around to greet Sinclair, his long legs eating up the distance easily. "How good of you to come on such short notice, Mr. MacNeal."

  The shorter, dark-haired man eyed him cautiously, but accepted his proffered hand in a strong grip. "The call I received indicated that haste was important." Sinclair's blue eyes narrowed. "We have met before, Mr. Loring." He glanced at the third man in the room. "At that time you were in a company of another."

  Coyote nodded, then looked up at the stunning blonde woman still waiting in the doorway. "That should be all for now, Lilith. Let me
know when the aircraft is preflighted and ready to go."

  "Yes, Mr. Loring."

  As she closed the door to his office, Coyote pointed to the man seated in one of two wing chairs in front of the desk. "Sinclair MacNeal, this is Damon Crowley."

  Sinclair looked at Crowley but did not offer him his hand. "I met a Damon Crowley before. He 'entertained' at a party a year ago, over in Goddard Tower One. He was much older than you. Your father?"

  Crowley's gray-gloved left hand stroked his goatee reflectively. He ignored the question. "The Deitrich party, yes. The good doctor always throws such lavish affairs."

  Sinclair's gaze turned to Coyote. "The paper background you constructed for Michael Loring is flawless. I commend you on it. I also assume, therefore, that you are Coyote and that this is not some sort of bizarre job interview."

  Coyote smiled. "Sit." Seating himself on the edge of his desk, he reached back and picked up a thick sheaf of newsprint. "I am aware of your falling out with your father and your discharge from Build-more. As you recall, I was there. And, while Lorica Industries would very much like to employ a man of your talents, I have a personal job I need you to perform."

  He tossed the tabloid to Sinclair. "Have you read the story about Phoenix in here?"

  Sinclair glanced at the front page and shook his head. "Midnight Weekly Inquirer is not my kind of reading material, sorry."

  "I know that, Mr. MacNeal. I know you take the Tokyo Shimbun and Japan Weekly News as well as two Japanese-language newsletters that are printed by the Yamaguchi-gumi. I know you subscribe to 14 other magazines, but the only two you seem to read voraciously are Methods of Industrial Security and Counter-Terrorism Bulletin. In fact, I found your CTB article on the effects of minor extortion on executives abroad fascinating."

  Coyote felt that Sinclair covered his look of surprise quite well. "As you have checked on me, Mr. MacNeal, so I have checked on you. This is why you are here. Now, back to my original question: Have you read about what happened in Phoenix two weeks ago?"